DEAD JACK AND THE PANDEMONIUM DEVICE
CHAPTER 1. Waiting for mY Wee-Man
I reached into my jacket for a Lucky Dragon once the shakes began. The undead aren’t known for their dexterity so I had a bit of fun getting that hellfire stick. I was like a drunken mummy trying to do jazz hands. I burned off half the skin on my left index finger lighting the damn thing. That made three fingers now that were practically nothing but bone. If this continued, I’d end up a skeleton inside a cheap suit and fedora. I doubted anyone would notice.
Being a member of the great unwashed dead isn’t all bad, though. I was happy for my dulled sense of smell. The alleyway stunk like rotten cabbage and sour apples.
I had tried everyone in downtown ShadowShade, but no one was holding. Out of desperation, I came here to Irish Town in search of Fine Flanagan, my old dealer.
Without dust, the hunger becomes overpowering, and when I’m hungry, no one’s safe. I’d eat my own dead granny.
I had been waiting in the alley behind Finn McCool’s Pub for at least an hour before the leprechaun appeared.
Flanagan isn’t your typical lep. First off, he’s not that short. Maybe five-foot-two in his pointy shoes. He’s broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, and someone you don’t want to mess with. He also has the saltiest mouth in all the Five Cities of Pandemonium.
As he entered the alley, he sang:
“There once was a fellow McSweeney who spilled some gin on his weenie…”
With a large sack slung over his shoulder, he swaggered past the reeking dumpsters full of what must have been hundred-year-old cabbage.
“Just to be couth, he added vermouth. Then slipped his girlfriend a martini…”
“Sorry to interrupt that charming little ditty,” I said, slipping out of the shadows as I blew smoke out of all the holes in my face. All nine. Real bad-ass.
The lep stopped deader than my libido. Like I’d caught him bathing naked in his pot of gold. (Leprechauns don’t really have pots of gold, by the way, but they are known to carry sweet, sweet fairy dust, the closest thing to heaven in this godforsaken world. And Fine Flanagan had the finest.)
The sack jerked and the lep gripped it tighter.
“What’s in the bag, Flanny? Someone didn’t pay their vig?” I noticed the lep’s fashion sense had changed since I last saw him. He wore a green duster that hung to the ground, but there was no pointy hat on his head. His curly red hair blew in the wind. Leps love hats almost as much as their shoes. And his shoes, I noticed, weren’t even pointy. They were square-toed boots. What the holy heck?
“None of your fookin business,” the lep said. “Now, if you wouldn’t be minding, I have better tings to do than conversate with a zombie. I be needing to get to me apartment.” When the lep took a step forward, I blocked his way.
“Look, meat bag, I don’t be wanting any trouble tonight,” he said.
“No trouble. I’m just looking for dust.”
The lep exploded into laughter. He actually placed his hand over his belly. A real guffaw.
“You fookin dust head. Oh, Jackie boy, I thought maybe you was on a case. I should have known what you was after. All you zombies are the same. You people are the dumbest pieces of filth in Pandemonium. Just soulless, corpse-faced, brain-licking ghouls.”
I told you he had a mouth on him. “Nope. Never licked a brain. Total myth.”
“Mouth-breathing, empty-husk, meat-headed, motherless bags of bones, the whole lot of you.”
“You’re wasting me precious time.”
“Just a gram, Flanny. The hunger is starting to eat through my innards.”
“You have innards? Figured it’s all just sludge inside you by now. Like ya fookin brain.”
“The last time I went cold turkey, it ended real bad for some fairies. I went wilder on them than a pack of weres. I’m still not welcome in the Red Garden.”
“You ain’t threatening now, are you, ya dead dick?” He smiled, exposing the four or five teeth left in his mouth. I heard he was quite the boxer back in his day.
My hands shook and my bones rattled as I held them up. Flanny probably thought I was trying to conjure a demon. I dropped the hellfire stick and ground it out with my shoe. “I’m desperate.”
“Then you’re out of luck. I don’t deal anymore. I have new opportunities.”
There was a clink, like a glass bell, from inside the sack and then it shot up in the air. Flanagan nearly lost his grip but managed to pull the canvas bag back down. The lep shot me a look so dirty I thought of taking my first bath in seventy years.
“What’s in the sack, Flanny? A sentient beer keg?”
“None of ya fookin business, you filthy corpse.”
“Does Dana know what you’re up to?”
“Don’t you be talking about that blessed woman. This is none of ya business.”
“What if I told your leprechaun queen you were up to some unsavory stuff? She might just kick you out of the club. Unaffiliated leprechauns aren’t treated very well in Pandemonium, are they?”
The lep spit out a laugh like it was venom. “I don’t have to be worrying about that, zombie. You are the one who needs to worry. This is going to be your last night in Pandemonium.” The fairy swung the sack into my crotch. I flew into the wall, and Flanagan took off down the alley. Fortunately, I have a dulled sense of pain so I easily shook off the between-the-legs shot. (As for my zombie genital situation, the less said about that the better.) Still, something in me snapped. Maybe my hunger had reached its apex, or maybe I didn’t like the way he called me a filthy corpse. Either way, I pounced on him like a lycan on a moonpie. I don’t even remember feasting on the little guy, I was in such a blood frenzy. I do remember him tasting damn delicious, though, like smoked sausage and sweet beer. Then Oswald, Pandemonium’s most obnoxious creature and my associate, appeared out of nowhere.
I sat on the ground, gnawing on a leg bone when the alley filled with a blinding light. I continued eating. Like I said, it was damn good, and I hadn’t eaten in so long. The light died out and I saw the Studebaker—my Studebaker. The driver’s-side door opened and out slid the homunculus.
The little bugger stared at me, not saying a word, his X-shaped eyes unblinking. This was supposed to shame me. But I’m a revenant (which is a fancy way of saying zombie). I’m beyond shame.
I took a bite out of Flanagan’s calf. It was stringy, but I wasn’t complaining.
“I cannot express how very disappointed I am in you.” Oswald tried to sound tough, but when you’re all of eight inches and nothing but a marshmallow with a mouth, the effect is underwhelming. No one knows what Oswald is, or was. The best description I’ve come up with is a homunculus, which is another way for me to say I have no idea. I think I’d rather not know where he came from. It would most likely lead to trouble and Oswald is plenty of trouble already.
The sack rolled down the alley.
“What’s that?” Oswald said.
I licked the lep’s shin. Salty with just a hint of sweetness. It just made me hungrier.
“Hey, dummy!” Oswald shouted. “Let me remind you that you’re eating a leprechaun in the middle of Irish Town!”
I sprang up—as best a zombie can spring up, which meant I awkwardly repositioned my bones into a standing position. I stepped over to the sack and picked it up. I opened bag, but wasn’t prepared to find what I did.
Mr. Obvious said, “Is that a naked baby inside a glass jar?”
“I’m sorry for ever calling you a terrible detective, Oswald. You figured it out on the very first try.”
The dope smiled.
I stood the glass jar up. The baby looked at us with curious silver eyes.
“Maybe this is like those ships you find in bottles,” I said.
“How did you get in there, little guy?” Oswald asked.
The fact that he didn’t cry should have alarmed me, but I was still on a high from my leprechaun buffet. I wasn’t thinking straight.
The baby pointed at the top of the jar. He was a cute little fellow. Pink and soft and full of rolls. A mass of golden curls covered the top of his head.
The observant marshmallow said, “I think he wants you to remove the glass stopper and let him out.”
The fact that the baby didn’t pop off the glass stopper himself should have made me wonder, but Oswald distracted me with his prattling.
I removed the stopper.
The hole certainly didn’t seem big enough for a baby to fit through, even a naked one, but that didn’t stop him.
He slid out of the bottle like he was a piece of taffy. But instead of falling onto the ground as a normal baby would, he floated into the air. The large black wings that had unfurled from his back helped a lot with that, I think. The now-winged baby stopped just out of our reach, shot me a dirty look, gave me the finger, and disappeared into the blood-red sky of Pandemonium, going north. Bye-bye, evil baby.
I wasn’t able to conjure up one of my famous ripostes, though, because at that moment two irate leprechauns barreled towards us.
Excerpted from Dead Jack and the Pandemonium Device, copyright © 2018 by James Aquilone.
DEAD JACK AND THE
CHAPTER 1. THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME
A moleman with a smirk as greasy as a succubus’s thighs limped out of the shadows and dragged the orc’s body toward the back of the Little China dust den. A thick milky-white liquid rivered out from the gunshot wound in the giant goblin’s right temple, leaving an ominous trail on the grimy floor.
I rested on a milk crate in the middle of the room, opposite Carlos, a junkie brownie with a twitchy eye. Between us sat a table covered in fairy dust and around us crowded some of Pandemonium’s biggest degenerates. You know, the type of guys who tripped sea hags for laughs. Tonight, the crowd of dragon men assassins, ogre gangsters, and vampire pimps got their kicks betting on which of us idiots bit the magic bullet or won the sparkly powder.
They howled and hollered over the orc’s death, but finally quieted down when Frod, the werewolf dust den boss, picked up an enchanted revolver with a ridiculously huge barrel and spun its fat cylinder. He handed the weapon to Carlos. The oversized gun looked like something you’d see in a Looney Tunes cartoon or a novelty shop. I didn’t understand how the ’chantment worked, just that it could kill any supernatural stupid enough to be in the way of its blast. And there’s no one dumber than me in all of Pandemonium’s Five Cities.
With the orc down (as well as three other sad sacks before him), that left Twitchy Eye, and everyone’s least favorite zombie detective.
For good luck, I sat the comatose Oswald in front of me. Why not? My homunculus associate hadn’t done me any good since he fell asleep at the end of our last case. The runt was due.
Obviously, things hadn’t gone well since I returned to ShadowShade a few months ago. I had been on a non-stop dust binge, with shots of Devil Boy thrown in for good measure. I hadn’t taken a job since that whole Pandemonium Device business. Oswald was a lump of fluff now. A good for nothing, as usual. But he had zero to do with my decision. I didn’t have the heart to bother with the detecting business anymore.
The dust I had gotten from the Goblin Queen went straight up my nose and I didn’t have a penny to my name. If I couldn’t score any dust, I was as good as dead anyway―after I ate through half of ShadowShade. (Without dust, my zombie hunger takes over, and no one wants that.)
The brownie held the enchanted revolver to his tiny temple with a trembling hand. His left eye blinked rapidly. Either he had some spastic condition or couldn’t flirt with a succubus. The sleazeballs placed their bets.
Dark smoke mingled with the stench of death and desperation.
A few minutes later, the werewolf boss held up his hairy paw and shouted, “No more bets!” The horde fell silent.
Russian Roulette is played a bit differently in Pandemonium. Instead of putting one bullet in the six chambers, they start with five. We were down to one now, after the orc, a gnome, a banshee, and a two-headed thing called Gus got carried off by that creepy moleman. He looked like a furless sea otter with eyes like pinpricks. I had no idea what he did with the bodies and didn’t care to know. Molemen, I’ve heard, have weird sexual predilections.
Fat beads of sweat dripped off the brownie’s chin.
I blew a kiss at him, hoping to soothe the pipsqueak’s nerves. “Nervous, little guy?”
Carlos nodded. His long, pointy nose wagged at me like a crooked finger.
“Don’t be,” I said. “Your head is so small it’ll be like blowing out a dandelion with a howitzer. You won’t feel a thing.”
Twitch-twitch-twitch. That eye gave me the creeps. “What the fook would you know, zombie?” He practically spit out the words. “Your brain is nothing but dust and snot.”
I had never heard that one before. I had to laugh. “Are you trying to send Morse code messages with that eye of yours?”
“After you blow your non-existent brains out, I’m going to take that giant marshmallow of yours and roast him on a stick. Homunculus s’mores sound de-fooking-licious.” He rubbed his round tummy to emphasize his lame joke.
“I lied. That Bugs Bunny cannon is going to hurt like a bastard. You’re going to have a headache for weeks in the afterlife.”
“It’s not going to be me, brain licker. It’s going to be you.” He pointed the ’chanted gun at me.
“I’m one lucky son of a goblin. Always have been. I was born the seventh son of a seventh son on the seventh day in the seventh year. I even have seven nipples. I can’t lose.”
“Seven nipples? Can I milk you? I could go for some chocolate milk.”
“Get on with it already!” the fat werewolf shouted. Even with my dulled sense of smell, his fetid breath made me gag like someone dunked my head in a cesspool.
“Pull the trigger already or we’ll all blow our brains out!” some creature yelled from the back of the room.
The crowd jeered and hissed. Frod held up a paw to silence the demonic delinquents. “Click-click.” He pointed a finger gun at the brownie.
“I need to turn away first,” Carlos said. “I don’t want this ghoul’s ugly face to possibly be the last thing I see. He looks like the offspring of a burnt piece of toast and a giant turd.”
I let him have the last laugh, because I figured it would be his last ever.
The brownie turned his head, screwed his eyes shut, pulled the trigger, and―click―the damn runt didn’t blow his brains out. The first miss of the night. The others had all gone down on the first try. If Carlos really had some magic mojo, I was in trouble.
The fairy let out a sigh and, with a filthy grin, passed the gun to the werewolf. “I told you I was lucky, you soulless fook.”
Frod spun the cylinder and handed me the gun. The dust den dirtbags placed their bets. I removed my fedora, set it beside Oswald―no use ruining a seventy-year-old hat―and raised the gun to my temple.
“Aren’t you already dead?” someone from the peanut gallery shouted. Everyone laughed. Har-har-har. What a bunch of morons.
The warm revolver burned my skin. A howitzer blowing out a dandelion. Maybe I should make a wish. A wish that I had never gotten involved with that damn Pandemonium Device. I thought of Ratzinger, but blocked it out. I didn’t want that Nazi scum to be my final thought. He had plagued too many of my thoughts. The sick doctor ruled my dreams ever since he’d been resurrected on Pandemonium. Every night, I revisited Room 731 and the terrible things that happened there. But even while awake or high on dust, I felt as if I floated in a dark abyss of despair, more so than usual for a zombie. I thought it might have been because Oswald fell into a coma. I did miss bossing around the homunculus and chiding him for his error-laden reports. (I had even bought the dunzy a dictionary.)
If I was an honest corpse, I’d admit wanting to scramble my brains just to stop the misery. But I’m not, so I won’t. It had been an anguishing afterlife these past seventy-two years in Pandemonium. Maybe it was time to go bye-bye.
I wrapped my index finger around the trigger, but that fookin suit of bones showed up before I could squeeze it.
“Jack! Jack! Don’t do it! You have so much to live for, buddy!”
Garry stood there waving his arms around like a maniac. The obnoxious twit barged into my office about a week ago, blathering about lost souls. The creep had been watching my office for days and only fueled my already increasing paranoia. I burned through a dozen kilos of dust because of him. I thought he’d been spying for the resurrected Nazi doctor, but he turned out to be another pathetic corpse with a pipe dream. Me and Garry went way back―back to the war where we both served in the U.S. Army as well as Ratzinger’s dirty little band of undead brothers.
“Scram, Garry.” I jabbed the gun into my skull for emphasis. Calling Garry a zombie would be a bit of an exaggeration. He was the zombie’s ultimate nightmare: a skeleton in an ill-fitting zoot suit. The ridiculous bouffant wig on his skull didn’t help. “Aren’t you due back at anatomy class by now?”
“Jack, pal, please, hear me out.”
“How did you even know I was here?”
“Lilith told me. She’s worried sick about you. She says you haven’t been the same since Oswald died.”
My ghost secretary had a big mouth.
“He’s not dead!” I slammed my fist on the table. The dust jumped.
“Help me find our souls, Jack, before Ratzinger does. You know what that’ll mean, don’t you?”
Garry had the biggest and whitest teeth I had ever seen.
“I don’t even know if I believe in souls anymore. I’ve been fine without mine.”
“Cripes, you don’t look fine to me. You’re holding a gun to your head in front of a mound of fairy dust. I’d say you’ve hit rock bottom, buddy. You need an intervention. I can get you into a twelve-step program. The first thing you have to do is admit you have a problem.”
“The first thing you have to admit is that you’re wearing a dead gremlin on your head. I can’t take you seriously with that stupid wig, Garry. There’s no shame in being a skeleton. Embrace it. You’ll be much happier.” I wasn’t crazy about the purple and black zoot suit either―or the gold watch chain that hung from his belt down to his ankle and back into his side pocket. Real snazzy.
“Does it really look that bad, Jack?” He adjusted the toupee. “It’s made of real elf hair. They donate it to skeletons, you know? It’s a great program. They use only the best elves. Real top-notch supernaturals. So don’t poop on it, alright? If you’re going to be that way, I might not tell you how you can revive Oswald.”
“Seriously, less talking and more bang-bang,” Frod said. “It’s like you guys don’t even want to blow your brains out. I can have the moleman take your friend into the back room, Jack.” His yellow eyes lit up when he said back room and his voice had a tiny bit of mischief that made my skin prickle. I made a mental note not to ever go in the back room.
“Wait, Frod.” I lowered the gun. “What was that about Oswald?”
“Now who’s stalling?” The brownie stroked his curly brown hair.
“I said I know how we can revive Oswald,” Garry said.
“How?” I asked.
“I know a guy.”
“You don’t know anyone but bad tailors.”
“Buddy, I’m no liar. I’m as honest as the day is long.”
“Pandemonium days are pretty short. Why didn’t you say any of this before, dunzy?”
“I tried back in your office, but you were acting irrational and sweating like a vampire in a cross factory. You kept ranting about Ratzinger. You weren’t making much sense, buddy. Quite frankly, you were scaring the bejesus out of me.”
He was right. I didn’t listen to a word he said that day. I might have been a little messed up on dust, and by a little I mean a whole lot. I kept seeing tentacles emanating from Garry’s hairpiece.
“If you’re lying to me,” I said, “I’m going to use your bones to beat your damn wig to death.”
“Come with me and I’ll explain everything.”
What did I have to lose? I could always blow my brains out another day.
“Hey, arsehole, what about the game?” the werewolf boss shouted. “We have bets placed!”
“Get some other loser to fill in for me.” I slammed the gun down on the table―and the damn thing went off. Oops! The brownie flew out of his seat and landed halfway across the room, his head fully evaporated from the blast. I warned the dunzy. I guess having seven nipples wasn’t so lucky, after all.
In the ensuing commotion, I grabbed my hat, Oswald, and a handful of dust, then hightailed it out of there with Skeleton Garry. I’ve had much worse ideas.
Excerpted from Dead Jack and the Soul Catcher, copyright © 2018 by James Aquilone.