We write. We rant. We wrestle the magic.
I know. It’s been awhile. This is a (final) draft of what is to become the first chapter in the latest installment of the Demos City Series, tentatively titled, SIEGE. I love this chapter because it shows Leon in his not-so-good guy early days when all that he needed was a paycheck to support his daughter, Shauna. The events here aren’t random, however, and they’ll play a key role in the story to come. Enjoy!
Thirteen Years Ago
The drill bit snaps, making a crackling sound through our earpieces. A string of expletives follow in its wake giving way to the metallic clatter of the drill itself crashing to the floor. Most of the team sprints towards the vault. Adrenaline leaps at the panic buttons. Jaws turn into locked jail cells. Two of the boys come down from the roof, one more from the front entrance, and the rear exit lookout. The building is a Gilded Age ‘summer home’ in the northeast: five stories of limestone, terra cotta, platinum leaf and sculpted concrete surrounded by 12 acres.
Servants are all dead or tied up.
One of them hit a soundless alarm before bleeding out in the Great Hall. Private security and law enforcement from half the county are more than likely in-bound.
We find our safe cracker stomping on the magnetic drill with the heels of his shoes. He doesn’t stop upon noticing us, just keeps on wailing away like that’s going to make some kind of a difference. His whole look conjures the image of a kid who’s gone with his dad to a baseball game – backwards hat, warm-up jacket of a team I don’t care about, sneakers missing the laces. He might be eighteen with soft features and a grass blade over five feet tall. The tantrum he’s busy throwing is ill timed. A couple of the boys might kill him on the spot but for me. Want honor among thieves? Make sure one of those thieves is a werewolf. Two of our crew members flash pleading faces — eyes full of their whites, nostrils puffy — as if begging for permission to wound the kid just enough to teach him a lesson. There isn’t enough time for that kind of a spanking. To look at him, though, there is no denying he deserves it.
Hack Emory – the only ‘breaker in the business needing a babysitter.
I put two fingers between my lips and blow a sharp note.
“Clock is running out,” I say motioning to the closed vault. “Can you get in there or not?”
“Unless someone brought military grade explosives and a super villain’s death ray, it’s gonna be a long night,” Hack says turning to me. “It’s a Mosler. A real fucking Mosler.”
“What the hell is he talking about?” Seth, our resident voodoo man, chimes in over our earpieces. “When did this operation become a juvenile detention center?” He’s stashed in our getaway vehicle a couple hundred yards out. The coincidental magic flowing out of the dreadlocked bastard makes him an ideal wheel man. Pursuers just happen to get flat tires and blown head gaskets whenever he’s in the driver’s seat. Been with us about a year. Haven’t lost a man during his tenure.
“Mosler Safe Company,” Hack yips in response. “They build vaults, Seth. Like for missile silos and priceless artifacts. Seriously, does anyone do any kind of research around here? I mean. It’s not that hard to tell me what I’m up against.”
“Isn’t that your job?” one the boys asks him. “Just get the door open. I don’t care how.” The rest of them grip their assault weapons in agreement. Emory seems youthfully unconcerned. He simply points to the broken drill bit sticking out of the vault door – defense exhibit A. The vault looks like an antique and lacks any highbrow security features – just a single-hinged slab of steel with a dial combination lock. Our magnetic drill is meant to bypass that lone roadblock, allowing us to waltz right in and secure the cargo inside. Of course, we didn’t count on that door weighing more than 50 tons and having the ability to withstand a goddamn nuclear blast.
“Can’t you just shift and wolf your way in there?” Hack asks me. “I’ve seen you tear down walls before.”
“This is one door I can’t huff and puff, kiddo,” I say. “Might as well throw a wet rag at it.” Claws won’t do any good against all that metal. I’d barely be able to make the hinges rattle before I collapsed. Hack’s cheeks expand with a new complaint ready to deploy when Charlie, our last man on the lookout, comes running into the vault room. He doesn’t need to say anything, we all know. The sirens waft at the edge of my hearing. There are two, maybe three minutes, left in the game. The boys turn their collective gaze in my direction.
Time to call the play, Leon.
“Clear a way out of here,” I say to the guys holding the guns. Turning to Hack: “The longer you take, the more people are going to die.” The boys heft their assault rifles, fanning out into the compound to set up fire points. I start shedding clothes.
“You’re not going to do it in here are you?” Hack groans still unmoved by the situation. “The sounds always make me want to puke.”
“You’re in for worse than that when those cops breach the door, boy,” Seth laughs over the com, “Five minutes, Leon. Five minutes and then I’m leaving without you and the rest of them. That’s the contract.”
“Blah blah,” Hack rolls his eyes.
“Dammit your voice is annoying,” I say as my muscles began to twitch. “I might slip up and eat you this time if you keep talking.” Barely get my pants off before the change is on me. Last thing my human eyes see is Hack’s face flush against the locking mechanism – eyes closed. His small hand turns the combination dial with almost imperceptible slowness. Without the drill to bypass the lock, he’ll need to do things the hard way. He’s not the only one.
Pain pushes me away from the vault room, sending me staggering on plush carpeting. The change isn’t a revolving door or a grocery store during the graveyard shift. It’s more like a Black Friday bulrush. The beast tramples human cells like a ravenous housewife after a discounted HD flat screen. Bone warps and splits. Tendons flip and flop in jump rope fashion. Each second is a hammer adding up to a ridiculous construct. New hands come with claws the color of spilled ink. A cartoonish tongue flops from an elongated mouth. Sometimes, when the change throws my humanity into the trunk of my mind, the agony is all there is. Every now and again, I catch myself loving it.
The beast nips at the salt-riddled air, catching the residues of a dizzying array of smells. I (now we) gobble up every one.
We’re going need more before it is through tonight.
“Hold the reins,” I tell myself. “Stay awake.” Keeping a limbic porthole open to the world takes an Atlas-shouldering-the-world effort. Sleep, or want of it, is a growing weight.
The beast brooks no reason. It wields blunt instinct in the gaping hole left by jettisoned reason. Most wolves let all conscious thought drift away when the best takes hold. For them, the beast’s opioid dose to their humanity is preferable to the pain of remaining conscious. They give a collective sigh of ‘fuck it’ and fade to sort out the shredded details in the morning. Checking out now could get us all killed or worse, arrested. Light floods through the home’s massive windows in staccato blasts of blue and red. The police trudge on the grounds establishing a perimeter. They’re planning for hostage negotiations. Rote procedures commence. Bullhorns buzz. Ranks pull. Oh, they’re so damn close my teeth can taste them. Fifteen, no, seventeen with their semiautomatics in their sweaty hands, assholes shut tighter than graves.
One of them is pregnant.
Wait you son-of-a-bitch. Let them get closer.
My heels slip in the mud inside my head as the beast moves my powerful limbs. The chain made of my own meat inches its way further out of my grasp with each breath. We (I) slink down the velvet stairs of the Great Hall, past the opened bodies of stubborn servants, through tepid pools of their drying fluids. On the first floor, the boys’ heartbeats form the steady backbeat to the wild cymbal crashes of the remaining hired help. We’d bound those left alive with zip ties, grouped them in the center of the room. I count about a dozen. They say prayers, make bargains, promise to be better people if someone, somewhere would just let them make it out of this one alive. A clean escape is better for all concerned. The more bullets in the air, the higher chance one of us catches a stray, leaving some DNA for the cops to find. That’s a career-ending injury in our line of work. One of the boys throws up a closed fist, pointing towards the home’s entrance foyer.
A breach team approaches, rummaging over the manicured grass, trampling through the rose gardens. So much for a long standoff.
My elevated senses count five men, tasting aftershave with little ships on the bottle, chewing tobacco, rum, mint. The bolt catches of American-made assault rifles ping into place. We’d hit hard, send these hick police scrambling for backup. Nothing personal. Just business. Before the spent shells settled, we’d be gone – as long as Hack gets that damn vault open. My hulking form wraps itself in shadow like a mother taking the chill out of a winter cold. Distended jaws gape. My humanity clings to a single link in the chain to keep me still. On the other side of the door, the breach team is about to blast a million dollars worth of wooden architecture apart. The plan is a hairpin from sprung until one of the boys orders the hired help to their feet. He shoves several forward towards the door.
“Run, if you want to live,” he says to them. Many stand dumb, wearing terror in place of self preservation and basic motor skills.
Of all the blind audible calls…
Snap fire from an M-16 sparks orange across the carpeted floor, spooking the herd into a headlong charge. Now, I might be a criminal, but I’m not a butcher. A wolf in full bestial form attacks to end a threat, not recklessly kill anything that moves. Still, as I watch them run, a darker spot inside me thinks the ploy is a well-reasoned move.
Hold onto the chain, my friend whispers from within. Let it play out.
The fur along my spine shakes above the flesh.
Ah, damn it.
Part of me runs to save them. The other part dives into their midst for fear of missing a meal. The sight of me only adds to the hired help’s horror, but they don’t have long to worry about the werewolf suddenly bearing down on them. The breach team ignites the shaped charges on the home’s Beaux-Arts doors, blowing the whole thing inward in one concussive gust of sound and heat. The seconds pile up on themselves, stopping all counting in the tumbling scrum. Eardrums turn to tattered banners. Sight and touch scramble for footholds that aren’t there. I know the blast throws me backwards into the Great Hall, but I can’t gauge how far. I also know the remaining servants die — my sense of smell works just fine. Police in SWAT gear move slow through the new hole, giving the boys all the time they need. They send bursts of automatic weapons fire into the new, smoldering choke point. Two officers drop wet to the ground, but more come. Tear gas canisters and flash grenades lob into our midst. The beast works hard to heal my wounds, but drifts into the background from the exertion. Slivers of wood and concrete shrapnel freckle my torso and limbs. One large shard protrudes in jagged edges from my diminishing snout. I try to stand, but can only crawl. As the firefight rages on around me, I make for the stairs. Have to reach Hack, and at least make it out of here alive. Completing the job is all bonus round stuff at this point. Twenty yards away, one of the boys takes a sniper’s bullet in the throat. His M-16 fires in all directions as he falls, striking living and dead alike. Still, I propel my shifting frame along blood-slick carpet, up the stairs towards the vault room. The beast never wants to go back indoors. He fights to hold onto each cell; begging like a lover sent away, hurling obscenities as a remorseless killer on his way to the chair.
The pain is waiting when my humanity breaks through the surface at the top of the stairs. My vision, once again human, idles without much focus. The beast knit my bones, closed my wounds, but I’ve lost a lot of blood in the process. On hands and knees, I scuffle to the vault room door. Gunfire still rains unchecked downstairs. I hear some of the boys yelling for a fighting retreat in between reloading. Each man has maybe three extra clips on them. The authorities can just wait us out now. The situation inside the vault room gives my concussed brain a shiny bit of good news.
The vault door, all fifty tons of it, is wide open. Did Hack pick the combination out of the damn air? My bones could sprout wings. We have a shot. A fool’s hope, maybe, but a Hail Mary is more than we had a second ago. My knees find enough strength to support my weight. My clothes lay right where I tossed them minutes past. Get dressed, Leon. Can’t flee the scene in nothing but your skin.
“Hack!” I call out. “Grab the loot and let’s get the hell out of here!”
In hindsight, I blame the chalky tang of gunpowder and the sounds of men fighting for their lives as cover for what is basic self-preservation. I’m pulling my shirt over my head when my hobbling steps touch the lip of the opened vault door.
“Kid, c’mon we gotta–”
The vault is four walls of featureless steel. There are no piles of gold coins, priceless Renaissance art or stacks of tightly wrapped bills. In the center is a marble pedestal standing about four feet tall – empty. Funny, the man who hired us never told the crew what we were looking for; just that it was inside this vault. Both Hack Emory and the job, whatever it was, are in the wind.
A tiny fart of a laugh pushes out from my mouth. Disbelief, then sadness followed by a wildfire. Of all the forms of rage a man can experience, none quite measures up to betrayal. Playing a man’s game now, Hack. You’d better hope I die here tonight.
I hear Charlie screaming from the Great Hall. Police reinforcements just arrived, and we’re fresh out of bullets.