Thursday, December 29, 2011


Since we began the free promotion of the book, over 360 more people have downloaded the book!  The total now stands at 379. 

To all of you who downloaded the book, thanks for giving the book a chance.  I know that if you read it, you'll love it.  Please write an honest review and recommend it to all of your friends.

379 is great but I hope we can do better.  Let's try and get it over 500!!  (I'm calling it the EGO-thon. Hey, I'm giving it away for free so I have to have SOME kind of compensation!) The book is available free for the rest of the day.  The promotion ends at midnight PST so you still have a few more hours to download the book.  Tell all your friends and share it with everybody you know and save my ego!  It's for the children really.  After that the price will go back up to the atmospheric price of 99 cents.  So, dude, what are you waiting for?!

Thanks again and here's the link.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas!!: UPDATE

Merry Christmas everybody!!

And I have a special Christmas gift for all of you and any of your friends.  Starting tomorrow, and for the next five days, Limbo's Child (The Dead Things Series) will be available on Kindle Select, absolutely FREE!!  I know a bunch of you will be getting Kindles for Christmas so give it a try.  So please tell anyone and everyone about the book and this limited offer to get the Kindle version free.

And thanks to everyone who has read the book for all your kind words and encouragement.  I couldn't have come this far without you!

Thanks again,


Major Update: Since the promotion has been put into effect nearly 200 books have been downloaded!  Woohoo!  Thanks so much.  I hope you love the book and I hope that you share it with everyone you know.  The promotion is still going on for the next three days so get your copy free today!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Ultimate Spoiler

So it's been a long time since I've posted anything.  (The day job takes a great deal of my time in early December.  Yes...I'm one of Santa's elves.  Long story and I'm sure you don't care to hear about my boring life, back to the book.)  So I thought I would post something BIG to tide you over until the season is over and I can get back to regular blogging.

This is the very last scene.  Not of Limbo's Child, not of Silver Chains the sequel, but the very, very, VERY last scene of the entire five book Dead Things series.  It is, the ULTIMATE spoiler.  The video posted below is related, but if you don't want to know how it all ends, then look away, because here goes.  Highlight the text below to read.


Here's how it ends.  Two people, a young man, and a beautiful young woman, are driving at phenomenal speed across the Bonneville Salt Flats in an American made 1974 sedan in mint condition.  There is only one difference between this car and a car that rolled off the factory floor in 1974: the speedometer goes up to infinity.  The eight track is playing the following song when choirs of angels come out to join in and then the car sprouts giant wings and flies off into the sunrise.


(And yes folks...I'm dead serious. That's how the whole series ends. No foolin')

Friday, December 2, 2011

My Nanowrimo Novella!!

Well things have been a bit quiet on the blog lately.  That's a combination of two things really, one, the day job, and two, I've been participating in Nanowrimo, this challenge to write a 50k word novel in one month.

This had been my first year in Nanowrimo, and I'm happy to say I lived up to the challenge and hit the 50k target.  You can check out my stats here.  As you can see, there were a couple of weeks I just blew it off and somehow I still managed to hit the target.  Next year I'm gonna try and hit 75k just to push myself.

I used it as a way to jump start the next novel, but it didn't quite turn out the way I intended.  Instead of advancing the next novel I ended up writing this weird little novella, a kind of prequel if you will, to the second book.  It's mostly about the back story of the two main villains to the second novel and how they come together.  I'm not entirely sure I'm going to put it in the next book as it gives away too much of the story, and it doesn't really fit, but that seems a shame for a couple of reasons.  First, I really like it, and second, it solidified in my mind the villains motivations and characters for the second book.  So it deserves a hearing, but it just might not happen in the book, so I'm considering posting it here.

As usual, this is very rough, I haven't even been through it a second time myself, so please be forgiving of typos or just flat out bad grammar.

Also, THIS IS FULL OF SPOILERS.  It basically gives the plot to the second book away, and reveals several critical things about the bad guys and their goals and powers.  So be warned.  If you haven't read the first book, this will spoil some things, but nothing critical, but it is very spoilerish about the second book, right from the start.

So if you don't like spoilers...go no have been warned.

It also gives a little back history to some of the characters in the first book.  Most of this happens before the events in Limbo's Child.  We get to see Wallach, vampire master of Rivenden in Philadelphia in his prime, and we also find out how one of the minor vampires joined the clan.  Miles is also back for a short but critical role as well.  But mostly it's about our Big Bad for the second book, (well one of them at any rate) The Cowboy, and his sidekick, Rattlesnake Annie.  Hope you like 'em.

So here's the first twenty pages or so.  I'll publish the next twenty in a couple of days.


Night Train
Wallach crossed his legs and examined his clothes carefully and raised an eyebrow and brushed some non-existent lint off of his sharp pinstripe suit. He didn’t much care for the clothes of these days. The cut was too conservative, the fabric too plain. The pants hung loosely and concealed the fit form of the calf and the leg. The suits didn’t fit the man; they fit the job and concealed the man. You couldn’t tell the lean body of an aristocrat who lived in the saddle from the soft body of a bank clerk whose bottom never left the stool except to go home at five o’clock.
He hardly knew if he fit in anymore. The suits had hardly changed in the last thirty years, yet still he wondered. Was the suit out of style? Would people notice? Would they see he just didn’t fit in? That he didn’t belong in this age? Even if they did would they recognize the man beneath the suit? Would they see the fine features of Prussian and Romanian heritage, the latent nobility, the dark eyes and hair of an ancient proud race, or would they just think he was another immigrant just off the boat in a second hand suit? He guessed not. In the old country you could see quality and pedigree even when dressed in a peddler’s cloak. It wasn’t a matter of clothes, it was a matter of bearing, the proud glint of the eye. Here all the Americans saw was money. The suit was rich enough, it would pass. You could put a hobo in a good suit and everyone would think he was a Rockefeller or a member of President Roosevelt’s cabinet. Wallach sniffed. Roosevelt and Rockefeller were little better than hobos in good suits as it was.
America, he thought. What a high-spirited mediocrity. When he had come to America more than a century ago it held such promise for him: revolution, peasants rebelling against the old order, freedom, opportunity. When he was just seventeen he knew he had to come and join the fight. He was so assured of its certainty, its inherent justness. It was so romantic. His father was outraged, both at the very thought of rebellion and that his son would want to join up with a bunch decadent bohemians that spoke of transient nonsense like liberty and democracy instead of honor and duty. Such things were not done. People needed to know their place. Without the aristocracy, there was disorder, madness, chaos. Wallach had disagreed and fled and fought, and survived, after a manner, but now that he was older, much, much older than even his father could have imagined, he knew his father was right. He had seen the country manors and rolling fields of Germantown, swallowed up by the rowhomes of clerks, cobblers, and common merchantmen. The growth of the city was made possible by the whistle of the locomotive, the din of trolley cars and finally the honking of automobiles. Whatever promise this country had had at its birth it had squandered it on idle entertainments and diversions and noise. America was nothing more than an irrational exuberance belched forth on the world, all trace of nobility long since hunted down and strangled by the calmor of machines and ragtime and minstrel shows and now Jazz and talking pictures. No, no one would recognize him as a man of quality, let alone a noble. No one at thirtieth street station or on the train had recognized him as a noble or as second son to a count of a fiefdom that had ceased to exist after the Napoleonic Wars more than a century ago, and not a single soul would recognize that he was a vampire either.
Wallach uncrossed his legs and crossed them again. He looked out the window of the train car at the passing scenery as the scattered moonlight fell through the clouds on the grey autumn landscape. They were in New Jersey, somewhere between Trenton and Newark. Anytime now. Still, he was nervous. It had been a few years since he had left the manor for so long, and he had never been this far from the source before. But it wouldn’t do to have the source so close to him when he first met the cowboy. For this to work, he needed to appear weak, keep the source from him as long as possible, until the very end of the encounter.
He thought about his opponent. It was clever really: a sleeper car on a night train. A little advanced planning was all it required. An accurate schedule, a departure in the early morning hours or early evening, some heavy curtains, and an arrival after dark and a vampire of means could travel anywhere in the country in comfort. Pay off the porter and you could guarantee your privacy during the day, far superior than traveling in a hearse. Despite the gothic novels, vampires didn’t especially like traveling in coffins, but they were the only guaranteed way to travel long distances safely during daylight without arousing suspicion. He had always wondered how he had done it; how the oldest vampire in North America had managed to travel and meet all his appointments, all of his performances. He felt stupid that the he hadn’t thought of it before, but then he didn’t leave the manor very often any more, sleeper cars were still new to him.
He checked his pocket watch. He noticed very few wore them anymore, mostly old men, but the wristwatches were chafing. He wondered if he would outlive all the beloved fashions and habits of his age. Would he only be able to wear the clothes he loved inside the manor, far away from human sight? He snapped the pocket watch shut. He was getting impatient waiting for the person that had summoned him for this meeting. He never came himself. He didn’t even send one of his lackeys. They had only communicated by telegram. The Western Union boys would wander around the walls of the estate for hours and never could find the entrance. No mortal could. At first Wallach ignored these futile attempts to contact him, but his pursuer was persistent. Day after day new boys on bicycles came and they idled on the street corner, waiting. All day they waited. Then they started waiting on the corner past sunset. Then they started waiting until dawn. Forzgrim was practically beside himself. It was like dangling raw meat in front of a mad dog just an arm’s length outside his cage, but Wallach had forbad his hungry lieutenant from taking any action. If the uniformed boys with yellow badges and bicycles started disappearing, there would be uniformed men in blue, and then the attention would never stop. “The Cowboy” would know he was sending the telegram boys to the right place. “The Cowboy,” Wallach sniffed to himself. What a ridiculous name for a master vampire. How cloy. Well the cowboy certainly was very persistent, and annoying.
When the boys started standing on the street corner shouting out “Telegram for Mr. Wallach!” he had no choice but to take action. The boy lived, and returned a message, under the name “Samuel Benjamin Bitten V,” (He only used the name ‘Wallach’ with other vampires.) A reply came the next day, from a “Mr. Travis Lee,” this time addressed to “Mr. Bitten.” This one was sent from a hotel in Oklahoma of all places. It wasn’t galling that The Cowboy had found him, he always suspected he would eventually, it was just insulting that he wouldn’t come in person, or even send one of his Renfields, but when the most powerful vampire still living on the North American continent summoned you, you had to come. Only the chance of meeting him face to face had been enough to tempt Wallach out of his stronghold at Rivenden. He only hoped he was clever enough to come out of the encounter alive, but with some careful planning, he might come back with even more.
After a lot of empty pleasantries the last message had been refreshingly simple. “30TH ST. STATION. STOP. MIDNIGHT. STOP. COME ALONE. STOP.” At the courtesy counter a first class ticket for a sleeper cabin on the night train to New York was waiting for a Mr. Samuel Benjamin Bitten V. Boarding the train Wallach hadn’t noticed anyone unusual. No one was waiting for him, so Wallach settled into the club car and ordered a glass of wine. He hadn’t been able to taste a thing since a turning a few weeks after the Battle of Germantown, during the Revolution. American wine probably tasted awful anyway, but he could remember. He idly pretended to nurse his wine and read the Inquirer, but he was carefully watching the other nightowls. None elicited any suspicion. He suspected that The Cowboy would remain unseen, partly to avoid him, and partly to avoid his newfound fans. Celebrities were an odd breed. They worked for nothing but fame and notoriety and then once they had it they detested it when it dared followed them anywhere, even in their private moments. It was an odd affectation for anyone to seek out such attention, but even stranger for a vampire. When it was clear that none of them were the cowboy, or even any of his servants, Wallach asked the porter to take him to his sleeper cabin. He gave him a heavy tip to make sure he would be left alone. Since then, he was sulking in the cabin waiting. If the Cowboy was so anxious to meet him he would have to come and find him.
            He didn’t have to wait much longer. On the opposite side of the door to his cabin came a sharp knock. Wallach winced. It was light and jaunty and not at all serious in tone. He debated internally going to the door but uttered only “Come in.” instead. The door swung open slowly to reveal a buxom brunette woman with dark eyes, wearing a red evening dress and a fur wrap and matching red shoes and lurid red lipstick.
“Mr. Bitten?” She said brightly, not a trace of fear in her voice. If anything, it was sarcastic.
“Yes.” Wallach said coolly.
            “My name’s Elizabeth Sherman, but y’all can call be Betty.” She paused when he didn’t respond. “Mr. Lee will see you now.”
To be summoned like a low level clerk to a meeting with his manager! thought Wallach. The insults just kept coming. Wallach said nothing but stood upright slowly. He picked up his overcoat and homburg hat where he had set them on the seat beside him and draped the coat elegantly over one arm. He kept the hat in his right hand. The woman smiled and stepped aside and gestured for him to come out into the hall.
            As he passed she looked Wallach up and down quickly and suppressed a smile that told him the truth. His suit was out of style.
“If y’all just follow me, now,” She said with a wry smile and a slight Texan accent, “Mr. Lee has been just dying to finally meet you.” She even hit him on the arm in a playful way. She walked away down the narrow passage with a confident sashay and a swing to her hips. Wallach followed and as she walked she let the wrap she was wearing fall off her bare shoulders intentionally and turned back to smile at him. He smiled back but in a cold way. She was pretty, in the common familiar and vulgar way Americans appreciated, but she was no vampire. The Cowboy had no clan, no den or family. Rumor had it he surrounded himself with only female Renfields. Wallach guessed she was supposed to be a diversion, a temptation, whether as a potential companion or prey, it didn’t matter.
This whole endeavor, being forced to wait, being summoned like a servant, the girl, as if he could be so easily distracted, was all engineered to make Wallach feel small and inferior. Wallach was angry at himself for how successful it was. They passed down the narrow halls quickly. Most of the other passengers were already in their cabins, but there were still a few porters they had to turn sideways to squeeze by, and they each made every attempt to flirt with the woman. As they crossed from one sleeper car to the next, a rush of cold wind would blow her hair and wrap back in a flurry of snow kicked up by the speeding train. She would toss her hair and giggle like a little girl in her first snowstorm. The porters would hold the doors in the rushing wind between cars and reach out an arm to help her step across the jangling and dangerous gap, using every occasion to flirt some more. Each one got an over-enthusiastic “Why thank y’all kindly,” before she moved on. She actually blew a kiss at the last one. Wallach didn’t know whether to feel relieved that the porters didn’t think the two of them were together or emasculated that they didn’t consider him enough of a threat to care. In his manor in Rivenden no one treated him like this, no one would dare, but he had to control himself. He had to be patient and wait. He needed to know what the Cowboy had to say to him, what he wanted him for.
She led him nearly to the end of the train, passing through several cars until they reached a larger Pullman sleeper near the end. It was brand new from the look of it. Latest model, polished stainless steel, but Wallach hadn’t seen it before on the platform. Yodeling on stage seemed to be paying well; it should, for the cost to your dignity. There was no porter here, the woman opened the door herself and let Wallach pass through first. As she shut the door against the wind and adjusted her hair she spoke absentmindedly.
“Mr. Lee has a private car. He doesn’t like to draw too much attention to himself.”
Then maybe he shouldn’t prance around on a painted pony in a silver fringed suit. Thought Wallach, but if the woman noticed his sneer she didn’t show it.
“We have an agreement with Pennsylvania Railroad. The car was only coupled to the train after all the other passengers had boarded.”
Wallach smiled, but he had already noticed the heavy thump before the train pulled out and guessed as much. She led him down another hallway and opened the door on a clubroom that took up half the car. It wasn’t as bad as Wallach had expected. He had expected saloon doors and knotty pine paneling hung with spurs, branding irons and rusty horseshoes. Instead, it was restrained and modern, art deco, with only a few colorful touches: a cowhide, a Navajo blanket, a lariat and a saddle thrown over a sawhorse. Leaning next to them was an ornate silver guitar, but those were stage props, not decor. The Cowboy’s garish stage wardrobe was there, hanging in an open trunk stood up on end, a tasteless profusion of spangles, leather tassels and ornate silver buckles. The room was full of many trunks and cases, the typical traveling gear of a performer, covered in the hotel stickers from all the places he had toured – Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Tulsa, Cedar Rapids, Miami, Detroit ­– but the Cowboy himself was sitting in a modern leather chair in a rather conservative understated suit, although of a western cut. Even his boots were understated. He was leaning forward over the table looking at what appeared to be his press clippings.
The second Wallach entered, The Cowboy looked up and smiled enthusiastically. He stood up and strolled over to him earnestly like an insurance salesman making a sale.
            “Mr. Bitten! What a gen-u-whine honor! I can not tell you how long I have wanted to make your acquaintance. I couldn’t be more pleased if I were a pig in a holler.” He spoke with the same boisterous and overwrought open-mouthed western accent he used on stage and held out his right hand robustly. He was taller than Wallach had expected, and more handsome too. He looked older than Wallach, like a man somewhere in his early thirties. He was lean, muscular and jocular, seemingly straightforward and without guile, everything a cowboy should be, thought Wallach. He seemed even more charismatic in person than in his press photographs. He had small dark sparkling-eyes and wavy dark hair. He was masculine and rugged looking, unlike Wallach who had his mother’s fine and sharp eastern European features. There was not hint of pallor around him, but he was a ruddy as a workman who spent all day outdoors. No wonder the Americans loved him.
Wallach said nothing but slowly turned back to look at the woman, “Betty” and held up his overcoat. He had deliberately draped his overcoat over the right arm and picked up his homburg hat in his right hand to give him an excuse to avoid having to shake the cowboy’s hand.
            “Yes of course, where are our manners?” The cowboy said brightly, ignoring the sleight. “You’d a thunk we jus’ fell off the turnip truck and that this was our first rodeo! Betty if you wouldn’t mind.” Betty smiled slyly and took Wallach’s coat and hat. “That’ll be all Betty, us two ol’ boys can git along jus’ fine for a minute. We have horse-trading to discuss.” Betty fluttered her eyes knowingly and slowly turned and left the room, sashaying even more slowly than usual. Both Wallach and watched her go. When the door shut Wallach turned back to face the cowboy, who was still grinning, his hand still outstretched. Wallach slowly put his hands in his pockets.
The cowboy just laughed and put the hand down. “Now that ain’t no way to start a friendship, is it now Mr. Bitten.”
“It’s just Wallach actually, Mr. Lee.”
            The cowboy just laughed off Wallach’s snide tone, “That’s a bit better, and you can call me Travis. C’mon…let’s get this pow-wow started.” He slapped Wallach hard once on the shoulder before turning to sit down.
Pow-wow? Thought Wallach. The old vampire certainly was just laying it on a bit thick. The cowboy walked back over to the other side of the room and plopped himself down unceremoniously in the same leather chair as before and indicated silently that Wallach take the one opposite him. Wallach crossed the room slowly and sat on the edge of his chair like a man prepared to bolt. “Travis” just leaned back in his like a man confident of his position. There was a large engraved silver-plated six-shooter with a pearl handle in a holster hanging on a wide gun belt slung over one of the arm’s of the cowboy’s chair. Wallach was certain the bullets in the gun belt were silver. The cowboy must have seen Wallach’s eyes flit to the gun and just laughed.
“What this ol’ rig? Aw, that’s nuttin’ but a stage prop, pardner, full of blanks. You ain’t got nuttin’ to fret about.”
There was a long uncomfortable pause where no one spoke until the cowboy broke in again.
            “I’d offer you a scotch or a Cuban cigar or sometin’ but we both know that just won’t do for neider of us don’t we?” The cowboy actually winked at him then. “I could always rustle up some grub if yer want, something fresher, something rarer, if you had the notion.”
Rustle? Notion? Pardner? Ain’t got nuttin’ to fret about? There was something a bit too precious about this performance. What was the cowboy up to? He had to know that Wallach wasn’t one of his starstruck cornfed idiot fans. Why keep up the pretense? Or was he just trying to lure him into a false sense of security by playing the fool? Either way, Wallach had to buy a little more time and play along with the fop for a while longer. Newark was still a ways off.
“I’m fine, Thank you.” Wallach said coldly, folding his hands in his lap. “Tell me, Travis, do you keep up these ridiculous pretenses for the benefit of your fans or have you done is so long you just enjoy deluding yourself?”
The cowboy just laughed again and leaned forward in his chair. “Now why do you have to go and be like that before we even git down to business? We are both self-made men, Wallach, us more than anyone else living. That’s no way for us to act. In this land, is this age we can be whatever we want to be. If you want to be some dried up relic and hermit, fine. Shoot! I don’t care! That’s your business, no skin off my back. And if I want to be a singing cowboy, then that’s what I am.”
Wallach wasn’t looking at him when the cowboy began that little monologue. Instead he was idly pretending to clean his fingernails, but when the cowboy finished he felt compelled to look up, directly into the cowboy’s large eyes. There was something strange about what he had just said, and not just because he had dropped most of the hoakey colloquialisms. He had started rolling his “r’s” instead of dropping them too, but that wasn’t it exactly either. It was the way, he had said it. It was almost…magical. It made Wallach want to listen.
Wallach turned back to his fingernails. “Still,” He began diffidently, holding up the back of his hand to examine his perfectly clean nails, “It is a bit unseemly don’t you think? The last two ancient vampires of any significance in North America, perhaps even the whole Western Hemisphere, meeting on a train passing through New Jersey, around so many mortals.” Wallach tried to sound bored, but he had to shoot a glance the cowboy’s way to gauge his reaction. The cowboy was still smiling. “It would have been so much better to have met at my manor at Rivenden. We could have had some real privacy, perhaps even a genuine feast. I have lots of fresh meat in my larder.”
The cowboy sniffed, “I bet you do,” He leaned back in his chair and smiled and folded his arms across his chest. “But we both know that if I had stepped into that den of thieves of yours I never would have stepped out.”
Perhaps,” Wallach said not unlike a petulant girl, who’s just been insulted. Den of thieves, indeed. Thought Wallach. Better a master of thieves than a rodeo clown.
There was a pause before cowboy laughed again, great big rolling guffaws and then he slapped his thighs and shook his head. Wallach had to lean back to withstand its intensity.
“The two last ancient vampires in the Western Hemisphere!” He laughed. “Do you really believe that song and dance Wallach?”
“Well, if you don’t count the Turk.” Wallach said casually. “He’s been known to wander to this side of the planet on occasion.”
The Turk?!” The cowboy laughed. “Aw shucks, I thought he was just a legend. Do you really believe he exists?”
“People have asked me the same thing about you.” Wallach replied coldly.
The cowboy laughed again, even louder this time. Wallach winced at the vulgarity.
When the cowboy composed himself, he shook his head and smiled. “The Turk, The cowboy, The aristocrat,” he said in a mocking tone, “Where do vampires get these dopey names? Huh?”
Wallach raised his eyebrow and tried to contain a spasm of rage. No one had dared called him “the aristocrat” in his presence and lived. We wondered what his Father would have thought, an age where the very word, aristocrat, was an insult. The irony!
“I guess you don’t get to pick your own nickname though do you?” The cowboy went on.
“Quite.” Wallach said simply.
“Still if you’re stuck with it you might as well embrace it and make it work for you.”
            There’s embracing and then there’s abject surrender, thought Wallach, but he said nothing.
“Still, it must have been galling when they used to call you the aristocrat.”
Two thoughts struck Wallach at once. The cowboy was trying to manipulate him, play on his vanity, push him over the edge into recklessly revealing something, but this was overwhelmed by two simple words that surprised him.
“Used to?” He hadn’t meant to speak them out loud. The cowboy was getting to him.
The cowboy leaned back and turned his head inquisitively, then smiled the biggest smile he had all night. “Oh you can’t tell me you haven’t heard what they call you now?! That’s just plum incredible!”
Wallach tensed. He didn’t know.
“Well that’s just too good! That’s just as crazy as tits on a bull.”
Wallach felt odd. The cowboy was so vulgar, so common, but also so compelling. He knew he was toying with him, but he couldn’t help himself. Usually he didn’t care what others said, but now? Now he wanted to know what the rabble was whispering about his name when he was out of earshot, but he looked nervously to the cowboy, and his tight-lipped thin smile. The idiot wasn’t going to tell him. He was going to make Wallach ask. The ignominy of it all. Still, he felt almost flush and warm with excitement. It was a feeling he had not felt since he was mortal, since all those years ago when he first stepped off the boat onto the shores of America to make his way as a hero and a patriot of the new country. All the promise. Since then the closest he had felt was…hungry.
“What do they call me…now?” He blurted out quickly. He couldn’t conceal his interest though he tried to appear aloof and bored.
The cowboy smiled an even broader grin, and then spoke clearly, the phony accent almost completely gone. “They call you the ‘Devil Dog.’” The cowboy spread his hands before him and looked up as if he were reading the name from a movie marquee.
Wallach waggled his head from side to side and looked up. That wasn’t bad. A bit common sounding but it was far more intimidating than the “Aristocrat,” but the cowboy wasn’t finished.
            “Or sometimes the ‘Hound of Hell.’”
Hound of Hell, thought Wallach. That was even better. He tried hard not to smile, but the cowboy still wasn’t done.
“They call you…” the cowboy hesitated and paused on every word, “The Shadow…of…Death.”
And Wallach did smile this time. He even put his fingers to his lips. “The Shadow of Death!” It sounded so appropriate, so resonant, especially the way that the cowboy said it. It was so wonderful, so very perfect, so very…flattering. The warm feeling evaporated instantly. His eyes shot back to the cowboy, who was smiling as always. The cowboy had made him lose his concentration. This wasn’t just common flattery. The cowboy was doing something to his voice, something supernatural.
“What do you want?” Wallach spat out almost defensively.
“Enough small talk huh?” The cowboy laughed. “Now we get to the matter at hand.”
The cowboy stood up and walked around the cabin, pacing around the small coffee table with its press clippings. “You’ve always had a reputation for ruthlessness Wallach. Not many who cross you have ever lived to tell the tale, but something has changed.”
“Changed?” Wallach said curiously.
The cowboy smiled and walked around behind the back of Wallach’s chair. “Not to worry, your reputation is intact, it’s just that there have been certain rumors, rumors that are hard to explain…even for a vampire.”
“How so?” Wallach said idly looking up at the ceiling.
“Rumors of certain new abilities, rumors of specific new…shall we say…powers? Powers rare and unique even among the world of vampires.”
“Oh? And what would those be?” Wallach said playfully. It was time to make the cowboy ask.
“Well the ability to change into smoke or a monstrous dog for one.”
“Oh really?” Wallach said like an indolent spoiled child, who was telling his nanny he no idea how the vase got broken.
“Yes really.” Even though he couldn’t see him, Wallach could hear the smile in the cowboy’s voice. Wallach himself smiled at the thought of what they were saying about him. “They say you can heal from any wound almost instantly, that you can see the future, that you can steal a vampire’s very powers.”
Wallach smiled more as each of these were spoken in turn. It was so gratifying to know how much he was feared. How much he was envied, but then he remembered himself. This was what the cowboy wanted, for him to let his guard down while entertaining flattering daydreams.
And…” and here the cowboy paused for dramatic effect, “they also say that you have the power to walk in daylight.”
Now it was Wallach’s turn to laugh, but it wasn’t a warm laugh like the cowboy’s, it was a cold mirthless one. It was an awkward attempt at concealing Wallach’s growing urge to confess something, like a child bursting with secret pride of some sinful act. In the end he managed to contain himself and stick to the plan, the trap was baited and the cowboy was about to strike. “And you believe these stories do you?”
“You know we wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
“And of what interest is my supposed new abilities to you?”
“I have my reasons…but first I need to know if they are true.”
The cowboy had taken the bait. Wallach smiled deeper this time and had to look away to restrain the deliciousness of it all. It had to be played just right from this point out, if it were to work, or Wallach wouldn’t survive the rest of the trip. Wallach sniffed indignantly. “You really shouldn’t be so gullible Travis.”
            “So it’s not true?” The cowboy said, sounding surprised.
            “Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. Walking in daylight!” Wallach said trying to sound as nonchalant as possible, “And who, may I ask, is telling you all these wonderful fables, hmm?”
            “No one I want killed by you.” He said chuckling, “Besides, it’s not who’s telling them that convinces me, it’s who’s not telling them. The Prendergast clan for example.”
Wallach’s smile abated just a little. He fidgeted in his seat and fingered the stitching of the armrest on the leather chair. “You saw them?” He asked not looking up.
The cowboy walked back around in front of Wallach. “I saw what was left of them.” He said simply.
Wallach was practically beaming with delight, as much as he tried to contain it.
            “Oh? They came into some trouble did they?” Wallach looked away like a child trying to avoid his mother’s gaze when caught lying.
“You could say that.” The cowboy laughed. “I’ve heard you’ve done some dirty low things in your time, like those five sisters you killed off in their nightgowns?”
“I was feeling peckish.” Wallach said dismissively.
“But killing off a whole clan? One of the oldest clans in America? That’s excessive, Wallach. Even for you.”
The Prendergasts got what they deserved thought Wallach. It had been fun killing them, the stuffed shirt Southern Bluebloods of the Carolinas, but not as much fun as seeing the shock on their smug little faces turn to panic before he snuffed them all out and eliminated the last major clan other than his own on the east coast.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you are talking about.” Wallach said dismissively, but he couldn’t hide his beaming eyes. It was fun being coy for a change, then Wallach stopped short. This was what the cowboy wanted, to see him pleased with himself, to see the confirmation in his eyes. Wallach realized that this was all just another form of flattery. He would have to be more circumspect. He quickly regained his composure. His smile vanished, the cold exterior returned.
“I perhaps have been a little more robust, in my business dealings of late, but I assure you nothing…unusual…has merited the change.”
“That so?” The cowboy said simply.
“Yes indeed. Walking in daylight…I mean honestly Travis. Can you really believe that?”
“That’s what the people are saying.” The cowboy said simply.
“Yes, but you better than anyone should know the power of a…” Wallach paused and thought as if something just occurred to him, “suggestion.” He said flatly eyeing up the vampire sitting opposite him.
“Suggestion?” The cowboy said coolly, narrowing his eyes. Wallach was gratified that he had planted the seed of suspicion in him.
            “Yes.” Wallach said, “One must maintain a public persona, whether a performer or a vampire, or in your case both.”
            The cowboy raised his eyebrows at him.
            “We’ve all heard the legends, haven’t we?” Wallach went on casually. “Vampires that can turn into animals or smoke, vampires that can walk in daylight, a magical green stone that can restore a vampire to mortality, silver chains that can steal a vampires powers, or how about the great Father of All Vampires, what is he supposed to be called?…Oh! Yes!” Wallach said snapping his fingers as if the answer just came to him, but he knew it all along. “Hokharty-Ra! Who will come and restore us and make us rulers of this world. There are so many tall tales, Travis, so many rumors, I merely encouraged a few to take root about my person.”
“Really?” The cowboy said, and for once his smile disappeared and he seemed disappointed.
“Verily,” Wallach replied pompously as he stood up. “Fear is a great motivator, Travis. You can hardly blame me for encouraging it in others.”
“So that’s all this is, just some flim-flam, just some story to keep the other vampires at bay?”
“I’m afraid so,” Wallach said standing up, “Now if that’s all, I’ll have to excuse myself, I really can’t be detained by idle chatter about fairy tales.” Wallach made as if to go, but hesitated, waiting to read the cowboy’s reaction. The bait had been taken, but he needed to provoke the cowboy to act before Wallach’s reserve arrived.
The cowboy shrugged as if disappointed and then stood up too. “Well that’s the way it goes I guess. Y’know, when I heard the stories that’s all I thought they were too, just stories,” he waved both hands in front of him as if to sweep the whole topic away, “I mean shucks, people get spooked and make up all kinds of crazy things, especially when they are scared. Not even vampires are immune to an over-active imagination, if ya get my meaning…so no hard feelings right?” he held out one large hand, and this time Wallach regarded it closely. Wallach felt as if he couldn’t refuse, not in the sense of a polite obligation of courtesy, but as if his mind would not let him refuse. It was strange. He took the hand hoping to get it over with quickly, but the second Wallach’s hand touched his he found himself in an implacable iron grip. Then the cowboy slapped the other hand down hard on Wallach’s shoulder and locked his gaze on him. Instantly Wallach’s will left him. It was like being frozen, paralyzed and Wallach suddenly became very anxious as the cowboy leaned over to speak to him, his faces just inches from his own. As paralyzing as the grip was, the voice was worse, like thick poison dripping in his ear, soft and unstoppable.
“You’re not going anywhere, Mr. Bitten. I didn’t believe the stories either.” The cowboy whispered. “That is, not until just now when you walked into this room and I saw you in person for the very first time.” The one hand squeezed the shoulder and Wallach felt the bones crack. He was frozen. Immovable! Riveted to the ground. But it wasn’t the cowboy’s grip that was doing it. It was his voice!! The rich baritone tone was pouring into his being like hot lead, burning through him, crumbling his spine and drying up his innards and making his teeth clench so hard his molars felt like they were cracking. Wallach was stunned at the power. His eyes were locked in their sockets, rigid, unable to look away from the cowboy and his grinning stupid hammy face. His whole being was breaking down into nothingness and just as when it felt he might crumble into ash and dust, the cowboy let go of his hand and let the other slip from his shoulder and walked away.
Wallach stood panting and if he had been still mortal he would have been sweating. His whole body ached like tetanus, but he managed to look down into his stiff right hand and saw a crumpled press clipping that the cowboy had slid into his hand when he was frozen to the spot. He carefully and painfully uncrumpled the gray piece of newspaper. On the front of it was a picture of a modern and austere skyscraper. Wallach recognized it immediately. It was the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building on Market Street. The clipping was from the dedication of the building a few years back. The photo was of a large crowd gathered outside the building, waiting to be among the first to go in and see this strange new structure unlike any previously built in Philadelphia, unlike any previous built in the United States. There in the middle of the crowd with a circle around his head in pencil was Wallach, patiently waiting amongst the rabble wearing his Homburg hat. It was small, and blurry, and only half his face was showing, but there was no doubting it was him. He had turned at just the right – or wrong – time, looking back over his shoulder just as the photographer’s flash popped. He was even wearing the same suit as he was now. Wallach crumpled the small piece of paper into a tight ball in his fist with what little remained of his strength.
            “You do not disappoint, cowboy.” Wallach said weakly.
“Thank you, that’s what all my fans say,” the cowboy said graciously, as if he was hosting a friendly cocktail party instead of a showdown between two rival ancient monsters, “Please sit down, if you can,” he added sarcastically as he went back to his seat.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

First Half of Limbo's Child - FREE!

As a way of saying "Thank You!" to everyone who has read and likes the book, I'm going to be giving away the first half of the book free tomorrow on Thanksgiving!  Share it with a friend and let everyone know.

Check back to this post tomorrow for updates and details!



I'll be enjoying the Thanksgiving Holiday with family like a sane person, so enjoy this little gift, while I take the next few days off.

You can download the first half of the book here, for FREE.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Getting the Band Back Together

It's been a while since the last post and I since I will be kicking off for the next few days, (thanks to Thanksgiving, family and a desire to keep on track with Nanowrimo; I've already crossed 40k, but this is no time to get lazy) I thought I should give you something REALLY good.

So I decided to introduce you to three new characters of the second book, Silver Chains (which I'm almost ready to re-title "Silver Guitar" but I'm still on the fence on that one.)

This excerpt tells the story of three paunchy middle-aged definitely out of their prime vampire and zombie hunters, who decide, after twenty years, to "get the band back together" because strange things have been happening in Southeast Pennsylvania.  If you've read the first book, you know what those "strange things" are, Lucy and her new friends.

Currently this is the "Prologue" to the second book, but that may change.  It is very rough, but I thought it would be fun for those of you who have read Limbo's Child to review the first book from the faulty viewpoint of someone who wasn't there.

Should be fun, and as always, this is a bit spoilerish if you haven't read the first book.


Getting the Band
Back Together
The second he stepped into the bookstore, Frank Lewis was certain he was in the wrong place. It was the right address, and the brass bell the old glass and wooden door brushed by when he opened it had a familiar ring, but other than that, everything was different. The old Sophia Bookstore was a dark alley of a bookshop, made narrower and darker by tall bookcases, stacked floor to ceiling with used books, obscure and arcane ones, leather-bound, covered in dust and weighted down by authority. This looked more like a Starbuck’s.
There was a large modern counter with a glass case full of blueberry scones and bran muffins. Behind it was a stringy young man in Buddy Holly glasses and a black mock turtle and a white apron. He was tending a giant machine with more brass and valves than a steam engine. Behind that was a large chalkboard with the coffee specials for the day. Frank knew French, Italian, Greek, Latin and Romanian, but he couldn’t read most of the varieties of coffee they had up there. Elsewhere there were leather chairs, small tables and trendy carpets and vinyl lettering on the walls that spelled out inspirational phrases. And where had all the windows come from? Had they always been there, hidden behind the old bookcases? The sign outside said “Sophia Bookstore & Coffee Shop.” – the “Coffee Shop” part was new – but the only thing left of the “bookstore” was a couple of small waist-high bookshelves to the side that held glossy covered paperbacks.
Frank went over and picked one up. “Your Self-Image and You: A Christian Perspective.” Not exactly the Malleus Maleficarum. He put the book down. Whether it was the ten-hour drive from Kentucky or the nearly twenty passed years, he couldn’t believe he was in the right place, until he saw the man he had come to see, Archpriest John Markovich.
            He was sitting in the very back of the coffee shop at a small table in a cloud of cigarette smoke, the butts of a dozen or more cigarettes crushed out in one of three ashtrays or put out on the table itself. He was a big man with a broad chest and gut, with a long white beard and a full head of long white hair, pulled back into a ponytail. He had a large ornate silver cross on his chest, hung on a heavy chain. He was wearing the traditional black cassock, the floor length black robe most Orthodox priests wore, but under the cassock Frank could see the priest’s familiar black cowboy boots. Hung on the back wall behind him was a large black cowboy duster and a battered straw cowboy hat. The Archpriest had come to Pennsylvania by way of Oklahoma, Texas and Alaska. Frank didn’t see the shotgun but he knew it must be around here somewhere.
            Of all the things in the bookstore, the archpriest was the only one that hadn’t changed. Maybe the paunch was a little bigger, the beard a little longer and whiter, but other than that, the old priest looked exactly the same as he had the day they first met. It had been a heck of an introduction: Sitka Alaska, winter solstice, after midnight, twenty below. Frank had stumbled out terrified into the woods and fell down in the snow only to look up directly into the priest’s double-barreled shotgun. He would never forget the first word the priest had ever said to him.
Two shot-gun blasts later, and the two vampires chasing Frank had had their brains splattered all over the Alaskan snow by a couple of twelve gauge silver slugs. It hadn’t been an easy friendship. The Archpriest could be a difficult man to get along with. They both came from two different religious traditions and the two of them had had their arguments over the years: The Papacy, werewolves, the Fourth Crusade; but in the end, Frank had always appreciated the old priest, chiefly for two qualities: loyalty and good aim.
Archpriest John was so absorbed in his reading and smoking that he didn’t notice Frank when he came in. As he turned the page of the newspaper he was reading he peeked over the top and saw Frank for the first time. Frank smiled. The old priest only scowled.
“Over here padre!”
Frank looked down and made his way to the back of the coffee shop. He was always uncomfortable about people calling him “Padre” or “Father” or “Friar” when he wasn’t wearing his monk’s robes. Most people didn’t understand that Franciscan Friars could wear “civvies” when they weren’t on official business. It was just easier to avoid confusion by dropping the titles, but John, who was never out of his cassock, never missed an opportunity to rib Frank about being out of “uniform.”
“Hello John.” Frank said simply, pulling up a chair.
            John raised an eyebrow at Frank and eyed up his attire.
            “What happened? You get lost on the way from the luau?”
            Frank just rolled his eyes and looked down. Perhaps a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and Birkenstocks were not the best choice of attire, but John’s message was so urgent Frank hadn’t bothered with the robes and just got in his street clothes and came as quickly as he could.
            “I was on a spiritual retreat, John.” Frank remarked coolly.
“Where? The North Shore of Hawaii?!”
            Frank groaned, “Is this why you got me up in the middle of the night John? Cause if you made me drive all night from Kentucky just to criticize my wardrobe…”
John interrupted him, “What is it with Catholic friars these days? No one wants to wear the habit anymore! If you don’t want to wear the uniform then why bother joining in the first…”
Then it was Frank’s turn to interrupt John, “Are we really going to start on this again? It’s been seventeen years John, SEVENTEEN YEARS! and we keep coming back to the same old arguments!”
            “The clothes of the office matter Padre!”
            “Really John? Because I don’t think that ratty old duster or hat of your is exactly standard issue, or do you seriously think Jesus was a Texan?”
John got silent. For a moment Frank thought he had offended John, but then he narrowed his eyes and regarded the old priest carefully. The priest’s whiskers obscured any trace of a smile but it couldn’t hide the dimples around his eyes.
            “It’s good to see you too John.” Frank finally said.
            John seemed a little embarrassed by this sudden outburst of sincerity. For some people it was far easier to express affection through banter and insults than it was through a genuine compliment. And then the old priest did something Frank didn’t think he could ever do. He surprised him with a rare sincere moment.
“I’m glad you’re here Frank. This is big.”
Frank’s eyes widened at this unexpected earnestness on John’s part.
            “Nephew!” John suddenly bellowed, before the moment got too tender. The lanky kid tending the steam engine snapped to.
            “Yes uncle?” the kid replied.
“Get this man a coffee! He’s been driving all night.”
“Um…right, does he want a cappuccino? A latte? Or a macchiato? Or maybe a caramel half-caf esspressochino with a shot of…”
“Oh for crying out loud…just bring him a coffee! Willya?!” John bellowed again, exasperated.
They were the only ones in the shop. The kid looked disappointed that he didn’t get to at least fire up the fancy machine. It must have been brand new. Frank took pity on him.
            “Latte’s fine.” He said. The kid went right to work.
            “And make mine black!” John yelled after him.
            Frank raised an eyebrow. “Black?” he said curious. “What gives? You used to take yours with half a pound of sugar John.”
John grumbled under his breath, “Stupid diabetes.” Frank smiled but didn’t say anything. The years had put a few extra pounds and gray hairs on him too. He hoped he looked as good as John did at his age.
“You mind telling me what all this is about John?” Frank asked genuinely perplexed. That moment of sincerity earlier had unnerved him. “When the novice woke me up at the retreat he looked terrified.”
“In a minute…” John waved him off. His nephew was already approaching with their order. John obviously didn’t want to speak in front of anyone else.
            John’s nephew set the massive mugs in front of both of them. Frank’s had a heart-shaped dollop of milk floating on his. Kid knew what he was doing at least. John smashed his cigarette out on one of the newspapers on the table before picking up his coffee.
“Well I love what you’ve done with the place.” Frank said taking a sip of his latte. John looked back at Frank with a glare of pure venom before going back to his coffee. Frank had seen John gun down more than five vampires at once and face undead by the dozens, but that remark got him.
“My brother’s idea.” John grumbled. “He said we had to change or die.”
            Frank smiled to himself. He didn’t doubt which option John would have preferred.
            “Well…it’s actually kinda nice…” Frank said, not entirely unseriously, but he was mostly having fun ribbing the old priest.
“It’s an abomination,” John continued grumbling. “It’s practically….” John paused, “Protestant.”
            Frank sniggered and nearly choked on his coffee. “Well the old store never did turn a profit…” Frank offered helpfully.
“It never was about making a profit.” John replied testily, as he lit another cigarette and continued to puff on it angrily while he continued to peruse the news. John’s Nephew sighed angrily and emptied two of the ashtrays into the third and took it away.
John and his brother (and now Frank guessed the Nephew too) had inherited the bookstore from their first generation father, exile from the Ukraine. But the bookshop wasn’t the family business, killing vampires was. It had moved location more than six times, Kiev, New York, Tulsa, Texas, Alaska, but it was always the Sophia bookshop. It just moved wherever the trouble was. Harrisburg was simply the last location before the family business had dried up. Judging from the lack of customers, selling coffee wasn’t any more profitable. John ignored his coffee for a while, and took another drag on his cigarette and kept on reading. Frank leaned over to get a better look. He had a dozen newspapers from small towns all over southeast Pennsylvania. The priest was reading the obituaries and police reports.
“I didn’t know smoking was still allowed in public places in Pennsylvania.” Frank remarked looking over the pile of discarded butts and newspapers.
“It’s not, but the place is still half mine, and I’m too old for them to tell me what to do anymore.”
“Still…” Frank offered, not entirely ready to let John off the hook, “The smoking can’t help the diabetes.”
John rolled his eyes, “You’re worse than the Mormon.”
            Frank’s latte stopped halfway to his lips “The Mormon? You don’t mean…” but before he could finish, the bell to the door rang again and the “Mormon” walked in. He was still surprisingly baby-faced for a man in his mid-fifties, pale, blue-eyed and blonde with just a touch of grey. He was wearing a dark grey suit, crisp white shirt, simple red tie. He had a black briefcase in one hand and an incongruous black duffel over the shoulder. He had gained a lot of weight, but there was no doubt it was him, Alex Jenkins, a forensic pathologist out of Philadelphia, but John only ever called him “The Mormon.”
Alex had all the appearances of the stereotypical Mormon all right: polite, punctual, tidy, cheerful. He didn’t look like a stone cold zombie slayer. In fact, looking at him you wouldn’t think he could handle a room of kindergarteners, but you’d be dead wrong. During a zombie outbreak in Reading nearly twenty-five years ago, John and Frank had missed one of the contaminated bodies. When they found out it had been sent to Philadelphia morgue for an autopsy they feared the worst. A zombie in a room full of corpses? The outbreak could be enormous, but when the dead body Alex was working on groaned and got up off the autopsy table he didn’t panic at all. Instead he calmly and thoroughly beat it into submission with an aluminum chair. Then he dismantled it with a power bone saw. When Father John and Frank burst into the morgue to save him, he was already cleaning up. That was how Alex had joined the crew.
            He had been an invaluable addition. Alex had access to coroner’s and police reports, so he could keep an eye on any suspicious activity for the other two, but it was more than that. He may have been a Mormon but he was also a man of science, even-keeled and levelheaded. He had seen a lot in his career as a forensic pathologist, from drive by shootings to serial murder victims and mutilations. He wasn’t about to be put off his breakfast by a couple of zombies. To a guy who routinely testified in court against the very worst members of society, drug dealers, murderers, child abusers, the undead were just another collection of scumbags that needed to be taken off the streets. Frank and John’s fights, disagreements and religious differences had often paralyzed their efforts. Alex balanced out the two of them, got them to focus on the task at hand. And John was nearly always more irritated by Alex’s Mormonism than Frank’s Roman Catholicism, so Frank was glad to have the heat off of him at least. Now Frank was getting nervous. If John had called in the man he usually only called “The Mormon” it meant this was serious. It meant he needed the three of them to work together again.
            “Over here Mormon boy!” John called out. Alex didn’t even react, but just walked towards the back of the shop. As he passed the counter with John’s nephew, John barked an order to the boy, “Get the Mormon a coffee willya?” The old priest never missed a chance to rib Alex about his religion. The nephew paused, but Alex just leaned over and politely said, “Hot chocolate will be fine, thanks.”
Alex walked over to the table and pulled out a chair with a screech but didn’t sit down just yet. He set the briefcase gently on top of John’s newspapers, much to John’s annoyance, and then dropped the duffel to the floor. It fell with an ominous metal clunk. Alex held out his hand and smiled at Frank. Frank, a little chagrined, stood up to shake it.
            “It’s good to see you again Friar Lewis.”
Frank winced at the title, but the sentiment was genuine.
            “You too, Alex. It’s been a long time…”
            “Too long in fact.”
“Yeah, yeah, cotillion’s over Mormon boy, sit down.” John intoned.
Frank sat down quickly, but before Alex sat down he turned to the old priest and spoke in an utterly deferential tone, “Good morning, Archpriest Markovich, I hope you’re well today.” The old priest loved to needle Alex, so Alex responded in the only way he could to get back at John, with complete and total sincerity. “How’s the diabetes, Archpriest Markovich?” Alex was always certain to use the priest’s full formal title. You could tell it just galled the old priest endlessly. John just grumbled.
Alex turned his eyes to John’s black coffee and cigarette butts. “Archpriest Markovich, I thought we agreed you had to stop smoking and cut back on the caffeine.”
            “Don’t push that Mormon crap on me Mormon boy…”
“Archpriest, I’m not speaking as a Mormon, I’m speaking as your physician.”
“His physician?” Frank asked a bit surprised.
            Alex turned to Frank, “I can’t get him to see anyone else, and he won’t do a thing about his hypertension.”
“You can tell me to turn my head and cough later, Mormon, right now we have business,” but before the priest could continue the nephew came over with Alex’s order.
The nephew brought over a cup of hot chocolate that was piled four inches high with whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce in a perfect spiral pattern. The kid obviously didn’t get a lot of opportunities to show off. Alex said “Thank you” politely but the kid stood around for a while, until it became apparent no tips or further compliments were coming. Alex stirred the whipped cream into his hot chocolate, while John dragged on his cigarette and waited for his nephew to leave. Both of them just stared at Frank in silence.
Frank looked back at both of their implacable faces not knowing what to say. Whatever this was, it wasn’t going to be good, so he decided to lighten the mood.
“Soo…a Franciscan Friar, a Ukrainian Orthodox Priest and a Mormon Pathologist walk into a coffee shop…” He finally said.
Alex jumped in first, “This is serious, Friar.”
“Well I sure hope it ain’t an intervention, because I’ve really cut back on the sweets lately.”
            “This ain’t a joke padre.” John gruffed back.
            “You didn’t tell him yet, Archpriest Markovich?” Alex politely asked.
“Tell me what?”
“No I ain’t told him yet, he just got here himself!”
            Alex and John exchanged nervous looks, then continued to stare down the poor friar.
            “What’s going on guys?” Frank said at last growing more concerned by the moment.
“Enlighten him, Doc,” the old priest put out his cigarette on the table and waved the floor over to the pathologist.
Doc, thought Frank, not ‘Mormon Boy’ or even just ‘Mormon.’ This was serious.
            Alex opened the briefcase and took out two manila folders. He flopped them down in front of Frank. Frank winced. Autopsy files were never pretty. As Frank flipped through them cautiously, Alex provided the commentary.
“Two bodies. Harold Vickers, twenty-four from Southwest Philadelphia, six foot one, two-hundred and ninety-four pounds, dead of multiple gunshot wounds and massive cranial trauma. The second one, Carl Bednarik, thirty-eight, University City, six foot five, one hundred sixty pounds, dead of multiple gunshot wounds and a stab wound to the chest.”
The photos were no less graphic than Alex’s descriptions. One of them, “Vickers” by the label on the file, was a thick brute with the top of his head missing just above his tip of his nose. The other was a thin and angular one, oddly dressed in hospital scrubs.
Frank just closed the folders on the disturbing pictures and shrugged. “So?” he said, genuinely perplexed.
“So!” John bellowed. “Haven’t you seen the news Padre?! It was splashed all over the networks months ago!”
Frank sighed, “You do know what a spiritual retreat is, don’t you John? No television, no news, no internet, no distractions…”
“Yeah and only one telephone in the office too!” John huffed. “It was nearly impossible to get a hold of you.”
“Speaking of which, what did you tell that poor novice John? You scared the living heck out of him! When he came to wake me up he was so upset. He was acting like it was the end of the world.”
            “I told him it was the end of the world! What else?”
            “I told him that all hell was about to break loose and that if he didn’t want to be responsible for it he better wake up the exorcist pronto!”
Frank put his head in his hands, exasperated. “John, no one is supposed to know I’m an exorcist! Not even the monks at the retreat. My own diocese doesn’t even know!”
            “Uncle!” The Nephew replied embarrassed, “Will you please keep all that crazy ‘exorcist’ and ‘vampire’ crap down! What if we had customers?!”
            “CRAP?!! It’s not crap young man! And if your father wasn’t my brother I would show you such stuff that would make your hair stand up on end without all that fancy gel you put in it!”
            “AND WE NEVER HAVE ANY CUSTOMERS ANYWAY!!” John added pounding the table.
            “John!” Frank started in to defend the nephew but John turned on him abruptly.
“WHAT?!” The fury of the old priest’s response was only broken by the long hacking spell of smoker’s cough that followed it. The old priest had worked himself into a real fury.
Frank was about to get into it again when Alex stepped in.
            “Gentlemen, if we could focus on the matter at hand?”
The atmosphere cooled as Frank relented, and Alex patted the old coughing priest on the back, despite John’s protestations.
When the coughing fit was over Alex began again.
“Frank, what do you know so far?”
“I’ve been on a spiritual retreat for six months in a guest cabin at a monastery in the Kentucky backwoods, guys, let’s just assume I know nothing.”
Frank could see the retort forming in John’s eyes, Tell us something we don’t know! but for once the old priest was silent.
Alex went on. “Several months back, Vickers and Bednarik rammed a 1970s Chevy Impala into a Huntington Park Police Station in North Philly in broad daylight.”
            “North Philly’s a rough neighborhood.” Frank offered only half seriously, he was afraid he already knew where this was heading.
            John hmmphed under his breath and started coughing again, Alex just kept on talking.
“It was the final act in a two day crime spree that ranged all over southeast Pennsylvania. Kidnapping, destruction of property, assault, hit and run, child abduction and the theft of bodies.”
Frank looked up from the files. Those last two got his attention. “Child Abduction? Theft of bodies?
“A thirteen year-old girl was abducted from the hospital here in Harrisburg.”
Frank blinked. “That’s just right around the corner from here!”
“Fourteen bodies went missing from the morgue too.” Alex offered. “Neither the girl or the bodies were ever recovered. Authorities fear the worst.”
            Frank blanched for a moment at the unknown fate of the girl, but then shook himself and came back to the conversation, “How do you get a girl and fourteen bodies out of a city hospital?!” Frank asked perplexed.
“They had help, a woman. She was impersonating a lawyer from the hospital’s corporate headquarters. She violently assaulted a resident pediatrician in the process.”
John nudged Alex, “You’re getting ahead of yourself, Doc. Tell him about Bednarik and Vickers first.”
            Alex nodded and went on. “In the end. It took twenty bullets to bring down Bednarik. Vickers, fifty-four.”
“And a police cruiser!” John added helpfully. “It ran right over the big one’s head. Twice!” The old priest shoved two fingers into the air and coughed.
Frank remembered the photos. “That would explain why the top of his head was missing.” Frank said under his breath. He wasn’t enjoying where this was heading. “I’m guessing the police are blaming their phenomenal endurance on drugs?”
Alex slid another file in front of the friar in the Hawaiian shirt. “Toxicology report is negligible. Minor stuff. Some ecstasy, marijuana, nothing that would explain that kind of resistance to massive trauma. Both had criminal records, but they ran in completely different circles. Bednarik was a minor drug dealer who dealt dope to college kids, mostly to support his habit. Vickers was a gang member with a long criminal record of assault and armed robbery. As near as we can tell they never met each other before May fourth of this year. The press spun it as a cadavers-for-drugs deal gone wrong, but none of the bodies or their parts have ever turned up in any of the usual black market locations for body parts, not even in New Jersey.”
Frank looked up for a minute. Why did the worse elements always wind up in New Jersey? Alex went on.
“None of that explains what happened to the girl or the accomplice who are both still missing, or why Vickers and Bednarik decided to go out in a blaze of glory. That was May sixth.” Alex paused as if the import of this date should be obvious, but if it was, Frank didn’t pick it up. “But that’s not the most troubling fact.” Alex added at last.
“What’s the most troubling fact?” Frank said, idly paging through the toxicology report. It was gibberish to him but he wanted to look involved.
“Ha! Tell him, Doc.” John retorted.
“It’s where they met.” Alex tossed another pile of papers onto the desk. This one contained photocopies of the police reports and hospital records. Frank perused the police reports and medical records, but the facts didn’t line up with what Alex had just told him. Bednarik was stabbed in the chest after an altercation in Center City with one of his suppliers. That was late on May third. Vickers was shot in the head during a drive by shooting on Thirteenth Street in North Philly. That was early on May fourth. Both clung to life long enough to make it to Jefferson Memorial, but just barely. They died in the ER. Not long after which they were placed in the hospital morgue awaiting transfer to the Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsy, but they never made it.
Frank looked up slowly. “How did these guys wind up ramming into a police station on the sixth if they were already dead on the fourth?”
“Uh-huh…now he’s getting it!” Jon said laughing as he lit another cigarette.
“What’s the official story?” Frank asked still nervously leafing through the paperwork.
            “The official story is that they were misdiagnosed as dead when they were really in drug induced comas.” Alex took a breath and went on. “Then they woke up in the morgue, became best buddies and began their crime spree.”
The old priest in black just laughed. “Heh. Drug-induced coma! What a crock of…”
“Archpriest,” Alex interrupted mildly.
“Yeah I keep forgettin’ you and your Mormon ears. Well go on Doc, tell him the rest of the story already.”
Alex went on. “I spoke to one of the trauma surgeons on call in the ER that night. He never saw Bednarik, but he insists Vickers had a massive gunshot wound to the right frontal lobe. They never even got him to the CT scan or the craniotomy before he crashed. He’s adamant there’s no way Vickers could have survived. Of course that was before Vickers ever got to the official autopsy. There’s no CT scan or photos of the head wound, so the medical examiner’s office assumes that the physician on duty was mistaken and that the head wound was purely superficial.”
“Hmmph. Superficial.” John sneered. “Darn bureaucrats can explain away anything. They could explain away the sun if they didn’t want to believe in it.”
Frank looked at them both. He had a hard time believing it himself. It was next to impossible to believe that this was starting up all over again after so many years.
“Are you certain Alex? I mean are you absolutely sure?” Frank looked at him earnestly.
“I wasn’t at first. Overworked ER staff, lots of gun shot victims. It’s easy to make a mistake or confuse one shooting with another, but there’s more.”
“The first thing Bednarik and Vickers did when they left the morgue at Jefferson Memorial was to kidnap an orderly working there, and then they forced him to help them steal the body of a woman that was also in the morgue.”
            “A woman?” Frank asked curious.
            “We’ll get to her in a moment, keep going Doc.” John interrupted, coughing after taking another long drag on his cigarette.
“It was the orderly’s car they crashed into the police station two days later. The police found him tied up in the trunk. I spoke to the orderly myself. His name’s Tim Riggle. He claims that they forced him to help them. The surveillance tapes seem to back up his account.”
“Seem to?” Frank asked suspiciously.
“Hold on, let the Mormon finish.” John jumped in.
Alex ignored the sleight as usual and went on. “He was pretty beat up. Dehydrated, frantic. He was a wreck, but here’s where things get fuzzy. He claims he doesn’t remember much of anything about that night other than getting abducted and being forced into the trunk of the car.”
But?” Frank prompted.
            “Several witnesses at the hospital claim that just before he disappeared, the orderly escorted a strange tall man to the morgue, but he says he has no memory of the man or the event. The psychological evaluation claims he has partial memory loss caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
“That’s interesting.” Frank said mildly.
“Or convenient,” John humphed behind them.
“He might be telling the truth.” Alex offered. “He could have been drugged, or compelled…” and here the pathologist paused, “by other means.”
“Other means?” Frank asked curiously.
“Ha! Here’s where it gets good!” the old priest remarked, practically beaming with excitement like a kid who was just waiting for Christmas morning.
Frank however was not beaming. He was sinking lower into his chair with encroaching dread, like a kid waiting for a dentist appointment.
Alex continued. “The orderly doesn’t remember anything, but the nurse on duty that night does. She even remembers a name.”
Friar Frank’s Lewis’ eyes widened and unfocused, his heart sinking like a lead weight into his stomach. He knew exactly what name Alex was going to speak before the two words even crossed his lips, but he waited to hear them anyway, just to make sure his horror was justified.
“Lazlo Moriro.”
Alex said the name softly but it still fell like a hammer blow on Frank’s skull all the same.
            Lazlo Moriro.
            It was not a common name. Latin surname. Hungarian first name. It was the name of a ghost, an enigma, a demon, an ageless Faustian figure of dark legend. It was the name that Frank had been chasing through ancient books and moldy records for nearly forty years. The name first appeared in the court records of Philip IV, a young man and personal doctor to the king. His talent was revered as near miraculous. After that, things became foggier. Moriro left for the Americas and disappeared into Viceregal Mexico, but the name kept popping up every few years or so in the oddest places: London 1666, Vienna 1683, Budapest 1718, Mexico 1821, Budapest again in1867. Everywhere the name showed up, death, famine, war and destruction followed. The last time the name appeared it was on a sales receipt at a Ford dealership in Philadelphia back in 1946. It was the name of a necromancer, a man who according to myth who could call up the dead, a man who stood at the head of nearly every legend of every vampire, zombie or dead thing unleashed on the earth in the last 300 years.
Most thought Lazlo Moriro was a myth. The Vatican had suspended Frank’s membership in the international exorcist’s association and banned him from the Secret Archives when he refused to let it drop, but all these years later the name still haunted him. Not many believed in the Necromancer anymore, in fact, most of those that still believed in him were sitting around the table in this very coffee shop. Frank looked around the table. Wherever the three of them had tracked down vampires, or zombies, or demonic possessions over the course of a decade, the name of Lazlo Moriro had been spoken in whispers. The trail had gone cold long ago, but not the anger.
Frank was so lost in thought, it took John’s overbearing voice to bring him back to himself.
“Yep! Didn’t I tell you that would get him Mormon?” John slapped Alex hard on the back and got up and walked around the back of the small shop. You could see that the old priest was practically bouncing on his toes with excitement. He was like a horse at the gates and he was ready to run.
Frank blinked for a moment and then looked to Alex. “I’d like to talk to this orderly…” but before Alex could speak, John was already answering for him.
“Ha! Ya can’t! He’s gone missing too!”
“He quit his job citing stress and left his apartment with no forwarding address. Not even his family knows where he’s gone.” Alex explained.
            “Do you think he was involved?” Frank asked concerned. He was speaking to Alex but John answered.
“Who knows?! But whether he was in on it or not, someone’s trying to clean up their mess here padre. Go on Mormon! Put the pieces together for him!” John was practically beside himself with anticipation.
Alex turned back to Frank. “The woman’s body that Vickers and Bednarik forced Riggle to help them steal belonged to Margaret Miller from Ephrata, Pennsylvania. She died in a car wreck just outside Ephrata just before midnight earlier that night. She was airlifted to Philadelphia. She only had superficial wounds but she still died en route. Her daughter, Lucy Miller, was also in the car, but she was in much better shape. They sent her by ambulance to the hospital here in Harrisburg.”
“The same thirteen year old abducted from the hospital?” Frank said putting the puzzle together.
            “Now he’s getting the picture! Don’t stop now Doc, he’s almost there.”
Alex went on. “The nurse claims that that night, Lazlo Moriro came specifically to see the body of Margaret Miller. She even gave me a description, tall, gaunt, goatee, old army coat. He claimed to be Margaret Miller’s uncle.”
“Uncle?!” Frank said genuinely stunned.
“Oh it gets weirder, hold on to your hat padre, keep going Doc.”
“The same night that Lazlo visited the morgue, something strange happened upstairs in the oncology ward. A few of the people on staff claim they saw a man matching Moriro’s description wandering around the floor.”
“What would he be doing on the oncology floor?”
“Let the Mormon finish padre.”
“That same night, on that same floor, a near terminal cancer patient, Amanda Tipping had a miraculous recovery and checked herself out.” Alex dropped another sheaf of papers in front of Frank. They were the woman’s medical records. “The next day she shows up in Harrisburg, pretending to be a lawyer from the hospital’s corporate office.”
“The accomplice.” Frank said not looking up from the medical records.
“And Bingo was hi name-O” the old priest intoned sarcastically.
Frank poured over the medical records of Amanda Tipping. He didn’t want to know what Alex had to do to pull her private records, but they weren’t pretty. Advanced cancer. Every intervention had failed. Most of the lingo was over Frank’s head, but it was clear she was just days from death. What had Moriro done to the poor woman? Had she died and been turned into an undead slave, or was it something worse? What had he promised her in exchange for her soul?
“So what’s the scenario then?” Frank mused, “The Necromancer pressgangs these corpses and this sick woman into his service, steals the body of the mother…”
“Don’t forget the fourteen stiffs stolen from the Harrisburg morgue,” John added.
“AND the fourteen bodies from Harrisburg,” Frank added, sounding annoyed, “All to go after this kid?”
“That’s about the size of it padre.”
“But why? Why is she so important?”
“We don’t know exactly,” Alex shook his head.
“And then why go to all this trouble only to crash into a police station in broad daylight?!”
“Actually, they appear to have made a stop at a roadside diner near route 322 the night before then.” Alex went on, digging through his briefcase, searching for other documents, “But the details are bit murky. The car was definitely there, but no one actually saw Bednarik or Vickers at the diner. There also appear to be some other kids, teenagers, involved. Some claim they trashed the joint while others claim it was a feral pig or a flock of diseased ducks. All I really know about the incident is that two state troopers resigned immediately citing severe psychological distress.”
“Aw fer cryin’ out loud, what does it matter?!” John muttered, pacing, lighting his next cigarette on the stub of the old one, before tossing the butt to the ground and stomping it out with his foot. Looking down, there were several burn marks on the floor near this table but nowhere else. His brother and nephew probably decided to keep the damage to a minimum by confining the archpriest to this table. “All that’s important is that these dead things and this satanic sorcerer of theirs are still out there!” The old priest walked over and put his hands on the small table directly opposite the friar. “I ain’t gonna rest until Moriro is dead and that corpse-slave of his, Vickers, or whatever is animating him, is dead for the third and final time.”
“Third?” Thought Frank, but then Alex caught his eye before he even formed the question out loud.
            “After the incident at the police station, the body of Bednarik was cremated, but the body of Vickers disappeared from the Medical Examiner’s morgue.”
            John laughed a dry laugh that came out as more of hack. “Disappeared nothing Mormon boy! Escaped is more like it. And that’s only the beginning!”
            “Beginning?” Frank had hardly formed the thought in his head before Alex jumped in.
            “Since that time there has a been an increased number of unusual…incidents…in the region.” Alex said in his usual detached manner.
“Incidents?” Frank asked, knowing what the answer would be, but John jumped in before Alex could pull any more files out of that bottomless briefcase of his.
“Bloodlettings! Murder! Missing bodies! Graves wrenched open! Dark figures hunting in the night!”
            Alex returned with a more dispassionate appraisal, “They’re have been increased reports of grave desecrations and some reporting of fang-like bites on victims.”
“Strange wounds, mysterious deaths and disappearances Frank! Don’t you get it? The dead are up and on the feed!” John leaned in even closer to make his point. “We thought we had finished the job twenty years ago but we didn’t! We thought we had gotten them all but they just went underground. We always knew there was a big den of these vampires and dead things somewhere in the underbelly of Philadelphia but we never found it. Well it’s there all right and this proves it! We’ve never been this close before! Something big is going on, Frank! Something awful. These are dark ancient things, padre. They know how to hide. They never would have risked this much attention if it wasn’t really important. Well, now they’ve gone and slipped up, and now it’s our turn, to hunt these things down and put ‘em in the ground permanently.” Then the old priest John Markovich stood back with his hands on his hips and stared directly Frank. “So what is it Padre? You in?”
Frank looked form Alex to John and back again. He still had doubts. They weren’t exactly spring chickens anymore. Seventeen years was a long time. They were all far past their prime, if they ever had a prime. John could see the doubt in Frank’s eyes.
“Show him the kid’s picture doc.” He said over his shoulder. Alex slowly reached into the briefcase and pulled out one last file, a child’s drawing, but he didn’t lay it in front of the friar just yet, but held it close to his chest before he spoke.
“On the night Lucy Miller was abducted here, there was a near hit and run outside the main entrance to the hospital. It involved the aforementioned Impala and the woman Amanda Tipping. Accounts vary. Most say that the car barely missed her, but a few…” Alex paused, “A few say that the car passed through her.” Frank looked intently at Alex who looked far less placid than usual. “One of the witnesses,” Alex continued, “Was a girl watching from her hospital room window. She claims that just as the car was about to hit the woman, the woman transformed.”
“Transformed?” Frank asked, genuinely concerned. “Into what?”
Alex ignored the question and went on with his prepared statement, just like he would in a courtroom. “She had nightmares for weeks. She could hardly talk about it. Eventually the child psychologist got her to draw this.” And with that Alex carefully laid the crude drawing down slowly in front of Frank.
Frank looked at the drawing. It was simple and primitive, rendered in all black crayon. The artist couldn’t have been older than six, from the look of it. The lines were all over the place, crazy and jagged. The girl must have been terrified to draw it, but the drawing was clear enough. The picture showed a tall ghost like figure, white and terrifying. Over it had a large black flowing monstrous shape; hair or wings, maybe a cape, it was hard to tell, but beneath that was an empty face, with no nose or mouth, just two black hollows, pierced by two grey glaring eyes. It was the face of a demon. To anyone who hadn’t ever seen one before, it might just look like a kid’s nightmare or some Halloween spook. But Frank Lewis had seen one. You never forget a thing like that. And now he knew the girl had seen one too.
Frank pushed the drawing away from him, and Alex thankfully picked it back up, gathered the other papers and files and put them away out of sight in his briefcase.
No one said anything for long time.
            John broke the silence. “This is it padre. What’s it gonna be?”
Frank responded with silence, then John became uncharacteristically earnest. “I really need you on this one Frank. My own diocese thinks I’m a nut. I knew you wouldn’t believe me unless I brought the Mormon in on it. You don’t think I would call on a Catholic and a Mormon if I didn’t have a choice do you? You don’t think I’d go into a fight with vampires, zombies, werewolves and who knows what else if I didn’t absolutely need you, do you?”
“Actually Archpriest Markovich, as I’ve said before I’ve never seen any scientific evidence for werewolves.”
“What?! No werewolves?! Scientific evidence? What’s wrong with you Mormon boy?”
“Stop calling Alex Mormon Boy!” Frank decided to jump in before they got sidetracked on the existence of werewolves. Both of them looked to Frank. Frank bit his lip, then he paused and spoke, “You really serious about this John? You really want to get the band back together after all these years?”
John just smiled for a fraction of a second before bellowing out another command, “NEPHEW! Lock the doors! We’re closing up shop for the day!”
            The nephew nearly fell off his feet at the news. “But uncle!” he whined, “We’ll miss the afternoon rush!”
“What rush?!” The priest grouched back, “It’s just a couple of hippies who come in to use the wi-fi, they don’t even buy any coffee!”
“But uncle!”
“Just do it willya?!”
The nephew begrudgingly went off to lock the front door and turn the closed sign to the front, while the old priest put out his cigarette and went to the counter to get his answer to Frank’s question. He pulled out the familiar double-barreled shotgun, the one that had saved Frank’s life all those years ago in Alaska, the first time they met. Then he pulled out a box of massive twelve gauge slugs. He dumped the contents of the box out onto the counter. The slugs were custom, solid silver, each inscribed with a simple cross. The priest was a man of faith but he preferred his crosses to have as much stopping power as possible. He arranged ten of the slugs in a neat row and then cracked open the shotgun and loaded the last two into the chambers himself. Then he slapped the shotgun closed and cradled the now loaded weapon in the crook of his arm, but said nothing more. The loaded gun was his answer.
Frank looked back to Alex. Alex closed the briefcase and put it on the floor. Then he pulled out the black duffel he had dropped to the floor earlier with a metal thunk. He yanked open the zipper to the duffel and pulled out a battered aluminum baseball bat and a portable power bone saw and set them down on the table unceremoniously. Nope there was no doubting both of them were serious.
“How about it padre?” John said simply. “You in? Or did you leave your demon hunting kit back in Kentucky?”
“You know I’m not exactly on the Vatican’s official exorcist list anymore.” Frank said a bit sullenly.
John just laughed and held back another hacking cough. “When did that ever stop you before?”
Frank thought for a long moment, then he reached deep into one pocket and pulled out a small well-worn leather bound prayer book. It contained the three prayers against demons by St. Basil and the four by St. John Chrysostom as well as several others. The pages were yellowed and well-thumbed. Then from the other pocket he pulled a wooden rosary, with large beads made from olive wood taken from trees not far from the Church of All Nations in Jerusalem. The rosary was finished off by a simple silver cross of Ethiopian design. He laid that on top of the prayer book. Then from the same pocket he pulled out a small vial. It was made of lead crystal and had a lead stopper. It was filled with holy water, but the biggest secret was in the bell-shaped silver base, which contained a single knucklebone of St. Anthony of the desert, who had been assaulted by dozens of demons…and survived. But the old knuckle-bone was more than just a relic or a protective talisman. It was a demon detector. When it got close to demons, it rattled, like a bee caught in a silver bell. As he set it on top of the leather bound prayer book however, it was mercifully silent. Frank had only heard it ring a few times in his life, but that was enough to scare the living heck out of him. That was the whole kit. Unfortunately, unlike vampires and zombies, demons weren’t intimidated by bone saws, baseball bats or shotgun shells.
“Good!” Father John said brightly, like someone about to go on a fun camping trip. “It’s decided then.”
“Where do we start?” Frank said morosely, his gaze never leaving the holy water container and its secret knucklebone.
“There’s very few clues.” Alex said without emphasis. “All the principals are missing, Amanda Tipping, Vickers, the orderly, the girl, and none of the bodies have turned up yet. Someone found a torn jacket at the hospital with a name in it, a Miles Killam, possibly another victim, but there’s nothing much to go on. I suggest we concentrate on the girl, Lucy Miller. If we find the girl, we will find the den…and Moriro.”
“Right!” John said clapping his hands together with delight. “First find the girl – if she’s still alive,” Frank didn’t appreciate that observation, but John was on a roll. “If we find the girl, we find the den, find the den and we find Moriro.”
“Then what?” Frank said, almost afraid to ask.
            “Kill ‘em all. Burn the whole thing down to the ground, bring Moriro’s head back on a pike. What could be simpler?”
Frank looked up at John. He admired his enthusiasm, or more rather envied it, but in Friar Frank’s experience, these things were hardly ever simple.