The world needed washing of that special stain of filth known as other people. As Mister Garcia’s cleaner, I was good at my job. Just gimmie a target and a gun, man. If the gun featured reverse-engineered alien technology, then that was gravy. If my target was a psychic mage, then that was gravy on rice.
So normally, I felt fine when some asshat got his. But not when he was a teenaged, hundred-pound Korean boy dolled-up in girl’s clothes and makeup. Not when his dominatrix girlfriend cranked him up on junk earlier that night.
Suzi Darkstone–the stupidest damn alias I’d ever heard–was the girlfriend in question. Her skin-tight dress accentuated the rolls of fat on her hips. She laughed out cigarette smoke at the spectacle of her underaged lover. “That’s good, Finn. Now make him do jumping jacks.”
Suzi D’s goon, Finn, ran an index finger down one cheek as he focused his mental powers. He compelled the teen to stop jerking off the doll-sized copy of Michelangelo’s David in Suzi D’s office and start jumping. The kid’s face stretched in terror.
I frowned and looked away.
Finn’s cheek massage was a weird affectation, but most psychic mages had quirks. I once knew a pool shark who wore a woman’s bra under his shirt, otherwise he couldn’t summon his telekinetic powers. Then there was that psychic vampire who worked in a massage parlor. To make her invisible telepathic fangs pop out, she cracked her knuckles while singing the opening lines of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Mister Garcia paid me ten grand each for capping them.
So underworld creatures didn’t scare me, but this Finn guy was the rare exception. He didn’t look like much in his Dockers and ill-fitting sports jacket, which he probably wore at Suzi D’s request. Rednecks with gangster pretensions needed some kind of dress code, after all. But Finn was a thirty-something thug like me who wasn’t what he appeared to be. Finn was a puppeteer. Whenever he ran his finger down his cheek, he could compel other people to do anything he wanted, in a physical sense. Puppeteers made great bodyguards.
Suzi D sucked her cancer stick and laughed at her boyfriend. We’d gotten along fine until now. This despite her saying, “I don’t usually do business with African-Americans,” when she first met me that afternoon. She’d made air quotes around “African-Americans.”
Got along fine enough for her to give me this tour of her drug lab, where I’d met Finn the puppeteer and the boyfriend. She called the kid Boyfriend, like that was his name. The drug lab hid in the upper floors of an abandoned flour mill in some Virginia Bible Belt town.
Got along fine, like I said, but this abuse of Boyfriend annoyed me.
“What’s this shit? This was gonna be a tour and drug demo.”
“Oh, you big city types are so impatient. Come on, Boyfriend, get those arms moving.” Suzi D wheezed laughter. I could smell her ashtray of a mouth.
The terrified kid developed an erection. It strained the front of his tight pants and threatened to poke up over the waistband.
Finn rubbed his cheek and leered at the bulge. The woody was his doing.
Suzi D stopped laughing. “Okay, that’s enough. Enough, I said. Let him go.”
Smiling, Finn dropped his finger from his cheek.
Boyfriend collapsed, his strings cut. He started crying as he covered his crotch. His lipstick smudged his hand when he wiped his nose.
Suzi D pulled a syringe of red liquid off her desk. “It’s all right, baby. This’ll make you feel better.”
She stabbed the needle into Boyfriend’s tricep.
He slapped her away. “Ow! You meanie, that hurt.”
Suzi D giggled. “The effects will take just a minute.”
I dug my fingers into my crossed arms.
I wish I could tell you I was some badass with big ole muscles and sunglasses and a trench coat straight out of an action movie. I was more of a jeans-and-sweater type. Just your average, five-nine, hundred-eighty-pound thug who looked like an old college student. Perfect for jobs like this. So there was nothing intimidating about my glare at Suzi D.
I nodded at the empty syringe she deposited into the overflowing ash tray on her desk. “That your witch’s brew?”
“Yeah. You think that’s a good name for my product?”
Suzi D called her drug witch’s brew because of its main ingredient: witch blood. She needed a reliable source of witch blood to manufacture it. I’d traveled here to sell the blood to her. My boss, Mister Garcia, had a hag on his Rolodex. The hag even had nose warts, byproducts of the mutation that produced her psychic powers. She bled out a couple ounces for me to take along as a good-faith offering. Suzi D had accepted it and launched right into her questions about how much blood I could supply and when. Guess I had a trustworthy face.
That’s how our meeting started earlier that day, anyway. But then the fool ran off at the mouth, like most amateurs. Said she needed more buyers. Did I know anyone? The users had to be folks in the supernatural underworld.
“You saying cracker redneck meth heads aren’t good enough?” I’d said.
That made her scowl as she sucked her cigarette. Felt good to pay her back for the African-American mockery. She’d said no, of course not, and said I damn well knew why.
The mainstream world, including cracker redneck meth heads–we called them all mainers–didn’t know the underworld existed. Not for real. Psychic magic and alien technology were the stuff of fiction, as far as mainers knew. The Confederation of Bosses liked it that way so they could profit from it. Mister Garcia was a member.
Their cabal went back to medieval times, by the way. You think the Salem witch trials were products of mass hysteria? If you do, then you probably believe the “magic bullet” in the Kennedy assassination wasn’t actually magical. That’s right; Bosses like Mister Garcia have had their fingers and dicks in everything for centuries. Believe me, the safest place to hide when they don’t like you is the dark side of the moon, and then maybe not even there.
But back to Suzi D. She’d said her target market was the underworld. She wouldn’t say why, not yet. “I don’t think you’ll believe me unless you see a demo.”
So that’s why I now stood by an ash-covered desk and a plastic copy of Michelangelo’s David. Suzi Darkstone didn’t appear to own anything more sophisticated than a cell phone, but then these people weren’t mental giants. The boarded-up windows made the night darker. She lit the place with bare bulbs and Christmas lights. Classy.
“Okay, Finn. I know you’ve been wanting to see Boyfriend’s dick for a while. Make him drop trou.”
Boyfriend scrambled to his feet. “Honey, no! This has gone far enough. I am not going to–”
“Shut it. You’ll do what I tell you. Go on, Finn.”
Finn leered and stroked his cheek.
“I am not dropping my pants.”
“You will if Finn makes you.”
Finn rubbed his cheek harder as he stared at Boyfriend’s crotch.
But the kid only stood there, wiping away tears. “Fuck you, Suzi. I am leaving you.”
“I said shut it. Now come on, Finn. What’s the matter with you?”
Finn gave up and shook his head.
Suzi D burst out laughing and turned to me. “What do you think, homie?”
Homie sounded like an awkward foreign word in her mouth. Patronizing me. I’d make her pay for that.
“Your witch’s brew is a resistance drug against puppeteers?”
“Not just puppeteers, homie. It’s good against all psychic mages. Influencers, inquisitors, memory suckers, you name it.”
Maybe they weren’t the morons I took them for.
Suzi D lit a fresh cigarette. The smoke hung on her sweaty jowls. “Today’s your lucky day, ain’t it? You’ll get a commission on supply and distribution.”
I kept my face neutral. Mister Garcia had heard these rednecks were just using witch blood to manufacture some new narcotic for mainers. He’d sent me to investigate. But he would freak when he learned Suzi D could kick out the underworld’s tent poles.
“So, you interested or not, homie?”
“Good ’nuff. Let’s have a drink and firm up details.”
Leaving Boyfriend and Finn behind like they didn’t exist anymore, Suzi D led me away. We entered a room lined with copper barrels positioned over electrical hotplates. Inverted cones like dunce caps closed off the tops of the barrels. Rubber tubing rose from the cones to connect with more barrels. Other tubes dripped reddish liquid into mason jars. A moonshine still.
As Suzi D rummaged through a refrigerator, I smirked at her dump truck of an ass. “Why am I not surprised by this setup?”
Then she did surprise me. Again. She handed me a bottle of beer.
“What, no moonshine?”
Suzi D rolled her eyes. “This ain’t no moonshine still. This is where we make the witch’s brew. I mix the blood with a few choice ingredients in here.” She tapped the side of the largest barrel. “Thought maybe you’d like to see.”
Another goon, a tall white guy with a soul-patch beard under his lower lip, appeared in the doorway.
Suzi D nodded at him. “Bring us a couple more chairs, and tell Finn and Boyfriend to come in here. We’re gonna get drunk and celebrate. You play cards, homie?”
The requested chairs and people entered the room.
Socializing was the last thing I wanted. I set my beer on the table untasted. “Here’s what I want to know. If I get you steady suppliers and buyers, you won’t screw me over.”
Suzi D paused from shuffling cards. She stared like I’d pissed on the table. “Whaddya mean, am I gonna screw you?”
“You think because you’re white you’re smarter than me?”
Finn and Soul Patch Goon gaped as they sat down. Boyfriend, hugging his knees against the wall, appeared to doze.
“No. What are you–”
“I’m not fresh outta my mama’s legs. I know your type. I’m gonna buy your witch’s brew and take it up to DC, and that’s when I discover these syringes are full of red water.”
“No. That’s bullshit.”
“And when I try to find you again, you’ll have skipped town with my money.”
“No. Listen to me.” Suzi D’s eyes looked wide and scared, which was how I liked them. “I’m not gonna screw you over. Here, take this.” She reached into a box on the floor and withdrew a syringe. Her hand shook a little as she held it out to me. “It’s yours. Good faith offering, like that blood you brought down.”
I only glanced at the syringe like it was a turd. “So?”
“There’s a full dose in there, good for ten minutes of resistance. Use it to demonstrate to a buyer.”
I let the silence stretch out.
“Don’t pay for the box right now, okay? Take the whole thing up to DC. Sell it all, and bring me my cut next time you come down with more witch blood.”
I finally accepted the syringe and placed it carefully into my leather coat’s breast pocket. “Your cut is what?”
“Eighty percent. You keep twenty.”
“All right, you keep thirty. That’s the best I can do. I’m already paying you for the blood.”
“Fine. I’ll have to clear this with my associates, but I’m sure they’ll be down with it.”
“Good, good.” Suzi D raised her beer. “Hey, let’s have a toast.”
Finn and Soul Patch Goon raised their drinks.
I held up my hands. “Sorry, I gotta piss now. Negotiations put my kidneys into overdrive. Know what I’m sayin’?”
Suzi D laughed and puffed her cigarette. She laughed too much. “It’s around the corner on the right.”
Somebody turned on the boom box as I left the room. Another cracker heavy metal band from the ’90s.
A shirtless Asian dude nodded as I passed him on the way to the can. He wore a pistol in a shoulder holster. Had big ole biceps and ripped abdominal muscles like a xylophone. He and Soul Patch Goon had patted me down on the way in. Soul Patch had enjoyed it too much.
In the bathroom, I took out the witch’s brew syringe. It didn’t seem to matter if it hit a vein. Suzi had injected Boyfriend’s arm muscle. Good enough for me. I stripped off my coat, pushed up the sleeve of my Polo shirt, and jammed the needle into my shoulder.
As the drug began to circulate, I activated my tooth bag.
The tooth bag was really called a “bag of holding,” a portable pocket universe that could store unlimited quantities of junk. Since it was from alien technology and not psychic magic, I hoped the witch’s brew wouldn’t interfere with it. I called it my tooth bag because it was inside my mouth. A dental implant controlled it–the second molar on my lower left. I opened it with three taps of my tongue. As the implant created a wormhole to the pocket universe, it communicated wirelessly with another implant in my brain. In the occipital lobe, maybe? The surgeon who put it there told me, but I was too busy trying to get him to attach cables to the brain part that stores porn.
The brain implant allowed me to visualize and retrieve the bag’s contents. I’d needed two surgeries, two months of recovery, and weeks of training to learn how to use it.
The tooth bag was an example of “mechanized spatial distortion technology.” Just saying that makes my mouth hurt, so I call it spatial tech for short. If psychic magic was the underworld’s right hand, then spatial tech was its left. Between the two, Bosses like Mister Garcia could choke out anyone–through badasses like me, dig.
The Bosses reverse-engineered spatial tech from alien artifacts found at places like Roswell. I have no doubt that’s true. I’d never met an extraterrestrial, but it was impossible to doubt their existence after years of offing creatures like puppeteers. Then there was that time I might have seen an actual UF-frigging-O, but that’s another story.
Personally, I didn’t give a shit if spatial tech came from three-year-olds playing with broken glass so long as it worked when I needed it.
Like now. As I stood in Suzi D’s smelly bathroom with a two-hundred-fifty-pound, armed goon waiting outside, the tooth bag distorted my face. My mouth stretched to twice the width of my fist so I could reach inside. My forearm disappeared down my throat. I closed my eyes and concentrated as my implants communicated, and I found what I was looking for.
I pulled my hand out, holding a pump-action shotgun.
Not just any shotgun. This is where spatial tech got bad-ass. The weapon had a biometric grip, meaning I was the only one who could shoot it. But that wasn’t the coolest part.
I emerged from the bathroom muzzle-first. The Asian goon didn’t look my way until I racked the shotgun’s slide.
I squeezed the trigger, and energy blasted from the barrel to engulf the big ape. The energy’s concentrated mass ripped a hole in space-time. At the center of the glowing balloon that materialized in his chest appeared a tiny black hole. Its gravity well sucked him inside. Blood exploded from his extremities as the vortex squeezed him through at relativistic speed. The hole’s gravity slurped in that red cloud as well. A second later, it all disappeared.
In the room with the drug still, the heavy metal band on the boom box sang about passion plays and self-destruction.
Suzi D shouted, “Hell’s going on?”
Soul Patch Goon met me at the door as I pumped to recharge the shotgun. He’d drawn his weapon. When I pulled the trigger, my blast caught his gun arm. He had an instant to look shocked as his forearm disappeared into the black hole before the rest of him followed. The red cloud of his fluids hung in the air for a moment before the hole vacuumed it up and vanished.
Suzi D overturned the card table in her haste to stand up. Beer bottles, cards, and smoldering cigarettes scattered across the floor.
Finn remained seated, furiously rubbing his cheek.
I pumped the shotgun again.
Suzi drew a pistol from a holster around her tree-trunk ankle. “You backstabbing ni–”
I shot her in the face.
Finn didn’t stop rubbing his cheek. Had to hand it to him. It’s a rare talent to stay focused as your boss disappears into a pink garbage disposal.
I pumped my shotgun. “What’s the matter? Puppets not playing nice today?”
The boom box on the floor screamed for me to obey my master.
Finn’s eyes widened. He must have realized the witch’s brew was protecting me. He reached for his gun.
I shot him in the nuts, just for variety.
The song continued shrieking about masters of puppets. Finn must have chosen that cut deliberately. Far cry from my usual tunes. I pumped again and blew the boom box away, opening a hole into the abandoned floor below. Blessed silence.
Boyfriend, the only person left, stayed down. He stared at me with bloodshot eyes. Couldn’t have been older than sixteen. What a waste.
Mister Garcia’s orders were to leave no witnesses, same as always. But I hesitated when I noticed dirt stains on Boyfriend’s knees.
“Get those blowing someone?”
“Huh?” He glanced down. “Yeah. They made me.”
Damn. I couldn’t kill him. I just . . . couldn’t.
I took a deep breath. “Today’s your lucky day. You’ll never have to do that again.”
He scrambled to his feet. “Thank you. Oh, thank you.”
“Now get out of here, and forget you ever saw me. Dig?”
“Yes, sir.” The wispy kid hurried past me. “Thank you . . . uh, mister hit man.”
“You already said that.”
“What is your name, anyway?”
“Mister hit man. Now go.” I racked the shotgun slide to make my point.
He squeaked and took off.
I sighed. With the redneck mafia out of commission, all that remained was to destroy their drug still. This I did with a few well-placed shots.
Afterward, I returned the shotgun to my tooth bag. Then I bagged the entire cardboard box of witch’s brew syringes. It joined the other junk I kept in there, like emergency food rations, cash, and lockpicking tools.
Outside the flour mill, a pedestrian plaza fronted a busy intersection and railway overpass. I plopped down on a park bench and pulled out my phone. As I dialed Mister Garcia, a train rumbled over the bridge. Beautiful spring night. Wished I could enjoy it.
Mister Garcia picked up. “Talk to me.”
Our phones stayed secure from mainer snooping–no need for burners–so I gave it to him straight. “It’s me. It’s what we thought. Rednecks made a psychic drug for mainers.”
“I assume you took care of it.”
I was mildly offended he even asked, like he didn’t trust me. The Confederation of Bosses paid people like me to cap people like Suzi Darkstone. She might have breached the underworld’s secrecy to mainer society.
“What about this drug of theirs?”
“Very good. Now come back to the nest, little bird.”
We hung up. Our conversations always went like that. Never a “hello” or “goodbye.” He’d been calling me “little bird” ever since I met him thirteen years ago. Guess he wanted me to squawk when I called him, but instead I always said, “It’s me.”
Me. I’d stopped wondering who I was long ago. I was comfortable with myself, although not enough to leave a trump card like witch’s brew on the table. Mister Garcia was like a father, but when it came to an opportunity like that, I’d rather be an orphan.
Me? The boyfriend called me mister hit man, but that was only a job description. A man’s more than his profession. What did I stand for beyond my job?
Going soft. Why the hell did I let the kid go? Not my M.O. at all.
Had to stop thinking so much, asking questions I’d never asked before.
Fuck it. I was okay. Nothing wrong with me. I had all I needed: a box of witch’s brew, my job, and my name.
My name is Samuel Coventry.