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"The safest place I can think of right now is with you." Celeste stared defiantly into his eyes, then continued to follow him down the stairs, treading cautiously to avoid giving them away. Near the bottom, she caught his arm. "The Mithraeum is his temple. It's underground. We need to find the entrance. That's where everything will take place."
The Ghost gave a curt nod, still unsettled by her unexpected knowledge of these things. He wondered what the h.e.l.l they were walking into, what hideous things they would see. He swallowed, wiped his brow on the sleeve of his coat. He wouldn't let it come to that. He'd get there first, finish the Roman before he had a chance to summon the creature, before Celeste had an opportunity to do anything stupid. He would d.a.m.n himself to h.e.l.l before he'd let her give her own life.
And it might yet come to that, he considered, as he padded silently across the hallway, searching for the door that would lead him to the subterranean temple.
Donovan allowed himself to be dragged along by the shambling monsters, seeing no benefit in trying to fight back at this point in the proceedings. If he did try anything, the moss men would likely rip him apart, each one tearing at a shoulder until his limbs were wrenched painfully from their sockets. Instead, he allowed himself to become floppy, a deadweight, and hoped that this ruse might buy him some time to consider his options. He hoped also that the Ghost was on his way back from the car by now, but he couldn't count on the vigilante arriving in time to help him. He'd already relied on the man too much in the course of the last few days; perhaps now was the moment for him to stand up for himself. He would be patient, wait for the opportunity to present itself. But at the back of his mind was a nagging doubt. He feared it was already too late.
As the moss men squeezed through a small doorway and into a brick-lined pa.s.sageway that appeared to descend beneath the house and garden, he wondered what the Roman was planning. The tunnel had clearly been mined out beneath the foundations of the old house, probably sometime in the last few years, and electric lamps had been strung on long, fat cables at regular intervals along the walls. The walls were slick with damp, and there was a rank, musty smell in the confined s.p.a.ce; partly, he a.s.sumed, emanating from the two golems who were forcing him along, his boots sc.r.a.ping on the dirt floor of the sloping pa.s.sage. His shoulder had begun to ache again, the gunshot wound open and oozing blood down the inside of his sleeve.
He saw a pair of tiny red eyes in the distance; wondered momentarily if it was the Ghost lying in wait, but then realized his perspective was shot in the darkness, and it was nothing but the hungry eyes of a rat, regarding him eerily in the gloom. It scuttled away as the moss men lumbered closer. They continued on.
Presently, after what felt like an age, the floor of the tunnel leveled out and the moss men came to an abrupt stop before a pair of wide double doors. They were roughly hewn, banded with iron fittings, and he wondered if they had been stolen, too; a relic from an old monastery or church, brought here for the Roman's deluded rituals, the doorway to his subterranean dungeons. Christ-the thought suddenly occurred to him that the lunatic might actually have built an arena down there, that the reference to him being an "interesting morsel" might mean he was about to find himself thrown to the lions, literally, like the Christians of old. That was no way to go.
A mobster from the leading party stepped forward and pushed one of the twin doors aside, offering Donovan a glimpse of the room beyond. It wasn't what he'd been expecting. It was a large, open s.p.a.ce-a cave hollowed out from the bedrock-with two long, parallel stone benches lining the walls to either side. The floor was compacted dirt, and a row of wooden torches sputtered and guttered in iron brackets affixed to the walls. The cavernous s.p.a.ce terminated in a high stone arch, about a hundred yards beyond the doors, above which an intricate and elaborate fresco of the celestial heavens was painted in startling blue and yellow. It looked like something from a history book, a painting in the ancient tradition, dedicated to the magnificence of a powerful, mythical G.o.d.
Beyond the arch was a large recess that housed two rare items. The first was a life-size marble sculpture of an armored man killing a bull, his cape flapping open behind him, capturing the movement so well that it looked almost as if the man had been frozen in glistening white marble, caught in the act. A snake and a dog were drinking from the wounds of the slain beast, and a large scorpion was attacking the man's t.e.s.t.i.c.l.es. Donovan had no idea of the tableau's significance.
The second item was the marble wheel that Donovan had witnessed being stolen from the museum. But now the wheel was suspended vertically in a large wooden frame, flanked on either side by two tall metal towers that fizzed and sparked with veins of dancing electricity: the channeled energy from the power station. The glow of the two towers lit the underground room with flickering, brilliant light.
The mobsters led the way into the room, filing through the door one by one, taking seats on the stone benches along either side of the chamber. The moss men heaved Donovan through behind them, handling him roughly, dropping him on the floor at the foot of the marble wheel so that he jarred his hands as he tried to prevent himself from landing on his face. They lumbered away, leaving it to one of the mobsters to bind Donovan's wrists behind his back with a silk tie and maneuver him to a s.p.a.ce near the end of the bench. It seemed he was going to be awarded a good view.
He sat down heavily, testing the bonds by flexing his arms discreetly behind his back. They were firm, but he guessed he could free himself, given enough time. He set to work, angling his body away from the others so that they wouldn't see what he was up to. He scanned the faces of the mobsters on the opposite side of the chamber. There were five, no, six of them, and each of them wore an identical expression: a mix of awe and terror, their faces pale and frozen in rigid fright. He wondered how the Roman managed to hold such sway over these men, whether they were simply weak-willed, or whether he had some other means of keeping them in line. He supposed he might find out, if he could stay alive long enough to discover exactly what was going on.
It was only a matter of minutes before the Roman himself put in an appearance, striding across the center of the room, his head held high as he approached the recess at the far end of the chamber, just a few feet from where Donovan was seated. He turned to regard his audience. "Gentlemen. Welcome." He followed this with something in Latin, an elaborate litany that sounded very much like a religious verse, although Donovan had little experience of the language or its meaning. Then, more in English: "Today marks the culmination of all of our efforts. Today great Mithras himself smiles down upon us from his place in the Heavens. Today we grant life to those who have known no life, and reward those deserving few amongst us who have given themselves over to the worship and instruction of the constant soul."
The Roman was breathing hard, barely containing himself as he drew out those last few words, and from where Donovan was sitting he could see the mad gleam in the man's eyes, the sweat standing out on his forehead, the spittle frothing from his lips. Donovan didn't doubt it at all-the man was utterly insane.
The Roman moved round to stand beside the electrical tower to the left of the marble wheel. Donovan noticed for the first time that there was a large lever there, wired up to the metal pylons, and was able only to sit and watch as the mob boss took this lever in both hands and cranked it toward himself. The mechanical contraption gave a long, grating moan, and then suddenly the room was flooded with light.
Reflexively, Donovan tried to shield his eyes, but as his hands were still tied securely behind his back he was able only to squint into the sudden pulse of bright energy, white and hot and painful. The ma.s.sive electrical currents being drained from the power station had somehow been discharged into the marble wheel, and most bizarrely of all, the circular hole in the center of the wheel was now filled with a puddle of crackling blue energy. It looked to Donovan like the surface of an azure sea, rippling with waves of intense light. He felt himself being drawn into that light, being swallowed by its embracing depths, entranced by its hypnotic movements as it hummed and spat with the sheer intensity of the power involved.
Then the air was filled with the fetid stench of death, and something terrible burst forth from the surface of the light, something so exquisitely otherworldly that Donovan felt himself almost swoon with shock. Six vast, translucent tentacles whipped out from the puddle of blue energy, each a full ten feet long, probing around the mouth of the portal inquisitively, patiently, as if searching for an anchor to pull the rest of the creature through the opening, or else searching for prey. Each glistening tentacle dripped with a thick, cloying mucus and ter minated in a tiny mouth filled with needle-sharp teeth that snapped hungrily at the air.
Donovan was overwhelmed by a desire to run, to get as far away from the creature as humanly possible. But the mobsters had each had the same idea, and they were scrabbling frantically for the door, fighting amongst themselves to be the first out of the cavern. He'd never be able to fight his way out, not with his arms still tied behind his back. He rose to his feet, backing away slowly from the hideous thing, attempting to keep out of the reach of its monstrous, questing mouths.
And all the while, the Roman stood beside the marble portal, his hands behind his back, laughing insanely to himself as he watched his people flee in abject fear.
rom the shadows at the back of the chamber, the Ghost watched the tentacles emerge from the puddle of light and was filled with an upwelling of panic, fear, and a sense of sudden loss. He'd failed. For a fleeting moment he was back in France, climbing out of the wreckage of his airplane, stumbling toward the nearby farmhouse, almost blinded by his own blood streaming down his face from a terrible wound in his scalp. He witnessed himself open the door and fall in, replayed that initial sense of dawning horror as he saw what was waiting for him there in the darkness.
This creature-this foul, hideous monster-was born of the same nightmares, molded from the same recalcitrant dreams. He fought the urge to turn and flee. To run now would be to turn his back on everything he'd fought for, everything that defined who he was. To run now would be to abandon Celeste, and he knew he would fight for her until the bitter end.
He watched as the tentacles snaked out, two of them snapping forward like forks of lightning, each one striking a fleeing mobster and burrowing expertly into their backs. He stood there, transfixed, as he saw the creature draw the blood from their corpses, channeling it along the hollow, translucent flesh toward its waiting maw, still trapped, he presumed, on the other side of the portal. He watched the dark blood course along inside the tentacles, saw the pale, drawn bodies collapse to the floor, discarded, reduced to nothing but dry, empty husks.
Donovan was still backing away from the monster, ducking its probing appendages, trying desperately to free himself from his bonds. He sidestepped a sudden swipe from a tentacle, and then shifted too late to avoid another, which crashed into him with a sharp, jerking crack, sending him careening into the wall. He collapsed in a crumpled heap, and was still.
The Ghost had to act. He darted forward, showering the nearest tentacles with a sparkling spray of explosive flechettes.
The monster reared as the rounds struck home, but the tiny blades failed to take, rebounding off the rubbery flesh and scattering to the ground, detonating like firecrackers amongst the dust. Chaos reigned as the remaining mobsters tried to get away, screaming as, one after another, the creature stabbed at them with its darting tentacles, biting deep into their flesh, drawing the very lifeblood from them as it patiently, relentlessly sated itself.
He spotted the Roman, crouched to one side of the marble portal, clutching a tommy gun that had been discarded by one of his dead goons. He would have to wait. First, the Ghost had to deal with the monster.
He rushed forward, ducking beneath a flapping appendage, sprinting for the mouth of the portal, his long, black trench coat billowing behind him as he ran. He heard Celeste scream from somewhere behind him as he dropped to one knee and raised his arm, firing deep into the portal itself, giving everything he had to the monster, willing the flechettes to take, to bite into the strange translucent flesh and burn it up from within. But the creature's only response was to whip him hard across the face with one of its tentacles, sending him sprawling to the floor. He tried to roll, flipping himself out of the way of the snapping mouths, but he was too slow, and one of the thrashing tentacles buried itself in his left thigh, chewing its way into the muscle.
The Ghost screamed in agony as the sharp teeth gnashed at his leg, gulping blood and flesh alike. He saw the vital fluid flow away down the gullet of the strange organ and he grasped at it, trying desperately to wrench it free. It was no use; the tentacle was buried too deeply in his leg, and he couldn't gain a good purchase on its slippery, mucusslick surface.
Gasping with pain, feeling the energy literally draining out of him, the Ghost reached down inside his jacket, pulling the cord and igniting the rocket propellants that were strapped to his boots. Bright spurts of flame licked out from the bra.s.s canisters, and he fought to angle himself so that they kissed the tentacle that was buried in his leg. But it was no use. The fire hardly seemed to touch the creature, provoking no response, doing no harm whatsoever to the thick, pellucid flesh.
He heard the chatter of gunfire, looked up to see Celeste charging toward him through the chaos. "Get back!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. "Get ... back!"
But it was too late. Bullets from the Roman's gun had already punctured her thin, beautiful body, causing gobbets of blood to spatter the wall behind her as she ran. She stumbled as the bullets struck home, coughing and spluttering, blood streaming from multiple wounds in her chest. The Ghost screamed in horror and protest, refusing to believe what he was seeing unfold before his eyes. "No! No! No!"
Something inside of him broke.
The Roman stepped forward from the shadows, the tommy gun smoking from the hot discharge of bullets. He was still laughing.
But the last laugh would be Celeste's. As her body pitched forward toward the Ghost it was caught by a thrashing tentacle, which burst into her rib cage, grasping her in its terrible embrace and lifting her high into the air, swinging her above the writhing ma.s.s of drained corpses and tentacles below. The Ghost watched her bright red blood as it surged along the hollow appendage toward the cyclopean monster on the other side of the dimensional rift. Up there, she looked like a rag doll being tossed around by an errant child. Tears p.r.i.c.kled his eyes. Blackness swam at the edge of his vision.
The creature gave a sudden, jerking shudder. The Ghost howled in pain as the tentacle buried in his leg began to thrash uncontrollably, tossing him back and forth with the motion. He jarred his elbow on the ground, felt a rib crack as he was lifted into the air and then dashed to the ground again in a single, violent movement. Then the tentacle burst from his leg and withdrew, slapping the ground feebly as it crept back toward the portal. He realized the translucent flesh had begun to take on a grayish hue, and stared in astonishment as the tentacles gave one last, sorry flutter of movement, and then dropped, motionless, to the ground. There was a strange, disturbing, keening sound-the dying gasp of a creature from another world-and then everything in the Mithraeum was silent, still.
Blinking, the Ghost pulled himself along the ground to where Celeste's broken body lay in a tangled heap. Tears were streaming freely now, coursing down his cheeks. He climbed to his knees, laid her out flat on the ground, gently cradling her head. She was pale and cold, and she was very much dead.
He heard footsteps behind him and he spun around to see the Roman approaching, brandishing the tommy gun before him, his face tired, unreadable. Behind him, the light of the portal still fizzed and crackled. The dead beast was sprawled across it, half in this world, half in the other.
The Roman waved the nose of the gun in the Ghost's face. "Get up a The Ghost lowered Celeste's head gently to the ground and stood, shakily, flinching at the pain in his wounded leg. He felt woozy and light-headed from the loss of blood. But his anger burned deeply and fiercely. This was the man who had killed Celeste. This was the man who had taken everything dear to him and dashed it on the ground, who had murdered and taunted and wounded and worse.
The Ghost no longer cared if he lived or died; didn't know if he could continue without Celeste. He stared at the Roman with such a look of menace on his face that the mob boss actually took a step backward, before planting his feet firmly on the ground and stabbing the gun forward so that its barrel was pressing against the vigilante's stomach.
"What would be a fitting death, do you think, for a man as troublesome as you? The gallows? Poison? The guillotine? To tell you the truth, I haven't the patience left to decide. So I'll settle for a bullet in the gut, just like your little lady." The Roman sneered, glancing down at the dead woman by his feet.
The Ghost moved like lightning, striking whilst the other man was gloating. He swept his arm up and out, sending the gun clattering to the ground a few feet from where they were standing. Then he raised his fist and struck the man hard across the face, sending him spinning backward to the floor. Blinded by rage, the Ghost rushed forward, ignoring the screaming pain in his leg, intent only on one goal. He reached down, hauling the Roman up by his collar. He struck him again, then again, and then lost count of the number of times his fists pounded into the man's face, channeling all of his rage, all of his hurt, years' worth of pentup anger and confusion and aggression into each blow. Tears streamed from his eyes as he beat the Roman's body to a b.l.o.o.d.y pulp, and then finally, his knuckles bleeding, he dropped the unconscious man to the ground and fell to his knees, weeping. The Roman's chest was still rising and falling with a b.l.o.o.d.y, rasping wheeze.
After a moment, the Ghost got to his feet and limped across to where Donovan was stirring. He knelt down beside the inspector and freed his hands, and then coaxed him back to consciousness. Donovan had cracked his head against the wall when the tentacle had bowled him over and was sporting a b.l.o.o.d.y welt from the blow. The Ghost helped him to his feet. "The Roman's still alive. We've got him, Donovan. You should take him to the precinct, throw him in a cell. Today we do it your way."
Donovan nodded his a.s.sent, tentatively touching the wound on his head.
His breathing ragged, his chest burning, the Ghost hobbled over to the mouth of the portal, staring into the bizarre miasma of that other place. It was strangely beautiful, alluring. But the Ghost couldn't see the attraction of living forever. He could barely see the attraction of living at all.
He crossed to the lever and shut off the power. The portal crackled and hissed for a moment and then stuttered out of existence, winking like a dying star. The remaining tentacles, now severed from the rest of the gargantuan body, slumped to the floor amongst the dead. The Ghost reached up and grasped hold of the lip of the marble wheel. Heaving, he shook it loose from its wooden housing and toppled it over, stepping to one side as it crashed to the ground, shattering into a series of jagged fragments.
The Ghost started, suddenly, at the sharp report of a gun going off. He made to duck, turned around quickly, whipping his flechette gun into place. But he saw it was Donovan, standing over the Roman's b.l.o.o.d.y corpse, a gaping hole in the side of the mobster's head.
"He went for the gun." Donovan met the Ghost's skeptical look with an unwavering gaze, as if challenging him to disagree. Then he shrugged. "Today, my friend, we do it your way."
The Ghost smiled, a sad, lonely smile. He crossed the floor to where he'd laid out Celeste's body on the dirt. He scooped her up, cradling her in his arms. He buried his face in her long, auburn hair, drank in her smell for the very last time, kissed her forehead.
"I'm sorry. I know you tried so hard to save her."
The Ghost nodded. His voice cracked as he spoke. "And in the end, Donovan, she was the one who saved me." And he knew the other man could never understand how profoundly true that statement was.
He turned toward the exit, staggering under the extra burden of Celeste's corpse, his wounded leg trailing behind him. Then, at the door, he stopped and glanced back at the inspector, still standing in the middle of the ruination, looking lost and unsure what he had to do next. "It's over, Donovan. Finished. Go back to your wife. Tell her you love her, get blindingly drunk, and make pa.s.sionate love to her. Then go and get that shoulder checked out at the hospital. This never happened." He offered the inspector a meaningful look. "You understand? It could never happen."
Donovan nodded. "I suppose tomorrow the place will be mysteriously gutted by a fire?"
The Ghost looked sanguine. "Something like that. Perhaps after Arthur's had a chance to take a look at the contents of that room full of treasures. The Roman owes him that much." He reached up, brushing the hair from Celeste's pale face. "Come on. Time to go home."
Donovan dropped his gun beside the Roman's corpse and followed behind the vigilante. "Do you ... would you like some help? With Celeste, I mean."
The Ghost shook his head. This was one burden he intended to carry alone.
rom the drawing room, Gabriel Cross could hear the sounds of people carousing merrily in the garden; men and women engaging in that perpetual game of courting, daring each other to make a drunken pa.s.s, each of them wishing they only had the gumption to do it themselves. The Johnson & Arkwright Filament had been stoked and the swimming pool was steaming in the cold winter afternoon. Ariadne and her cohorts had congregated in the water, looking cold despite themselves, but steadfastly refusing to admit it.
The party went on. The party always went on. The party was life, in some abstract fashion; he needed the party like he needed air, and he could give it up only so much as he could give up breathing, even if both of them proved painful. The party was necessary. It reminded him of what he had, and what he had lost. It reminded him of who he was.
Gabriel looked up, watching the revelers through the window with a sad smile on his face. He knew what Celeste would have said. But Celeste wasn't there any longer, buried now in his family mausoleum. He'd tried to trace some of her family-that elusive, unusual family she had spoken of-but his search had proved fruitless, and so instead he had given her a s.p.a.ce amongst his long-dead relatives in the grounds of the old house. He knew she would have enjoyed the irony of that.
He hoped her family would be proud of what she'd done; what she'd sacrificed. She'd been true to herself to the last, true to him, also. He loved her for that. Loved her for her tenacity, for her pa.s.sion, for her sultry smile and her honesty. She'd known him for who he truly was, known him better even than he knew himself. He owed it to her, now, to live that life, to embrace what she had taught him about himself, to be done with pettiness and vengeance. He had a job to do, and he would do it. He would do it for her, and he would do it for the people of New York.
Gabriel realized he'd been toying with the controls of an electrical device on the windowsill as he stared out at the party. He looked down. It was the b.a.s.t.a.r.dized holotube terminal from his Manhattan apartment, the one he'd turned into a recording device in an attempt to capture Celeste.
He flicked the switch, waited for the unit to warm up. And there she was, perfect in her long, clinging dress, her hair pinned up to one side, swinging her hips gently as she caressed the microphone. She parted her lips to sing, and her voice echoed out around the room, drowning out the revelers' voices, drowning out the ache in his wounded leg, drowning out everything but the hole in his heart where Celeste used to be. He flicked the switch and she stuttered to a stop, fading out to nothing in the mirrored cavity of the small box. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.
He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Celeste wouldn't have wanted this. He leaned back in his day chair and steadied his breathing. Then, reaching for a cigarette, he pulled the tab and took a long pull of nicotine, feeling it flood into his lungs.
He heard someone calling his name from the garden and looked up. His people needed him. He pulled himself to his feet and straightened his rumpled suit.
He had an appointment in the city, later. But for now, Gabriel Cross had a party to attend to, and that was exactly what he intended to do.
From the roof of the precinct building, the Ghost could see half of Manhattan, lit up like a fairy tale, doused in starlight and wonder. He looked out across the rooftops as if he were a lion surveying its territory. A police dirigible floated high overhead, its searchlights crisscrossing the sidewalks below.
Beside the Ghost, Felix Donovan stood in the gloaming, his shoulder now expertly strapped and healing, the wound on his head slowly beginning to mend. The man had been lauded as a hero for his role in bringing down the Roman, and while the Commissioner had not been pleased to hear that Donovan had taken to working on his own, leaving his sergeant behind to clean up his mess, he couldn't fault the man's results.
Of course, as far as the Commissioner was concerned, Donovan still had his work cut out; there was a vigilante loose in the city, and the inspector had been tasked with bringing him in. Somehow, the Ghost knew that Donovan wasn't about to repeat his recent success. At least, not any time soon.
"How are you, Gabriel?" The concern was evident in Donovan's voice.
The Ghost turned away from the view, regarding the inspector from beneath the brim of his new hat. "Well enough, Donovan. Well enough. What about you? How's Flora?"
Donovan smiled. "I took your advice. Let's just say we're enjoying each other's company, more than we have in years."
They both laughed.
"It feels kind of empty, doesn't it?"
The Ghost ceased his laughing and met his friend's gaze. "Yes. I know what you mean. I've never been good at sitting by whilst the world keeps turning."
Donovan looked as if he was about to speak when he suddenly stopped and looked up. A dead bird was plummeting out of the sky, its broken, mangled wings fluttering aimlessly as it dropped onto the gravel rooftop nearby. Its body made hardly a sound as it landed.
Both men approached the bizarre corpse, stooping to take a look. It was just like the others the Ghost had seen, all over Manhattan, in his Long Island garden.
Donovan shrugged. "What is it with all these dead birds?"
The Ghost looked up. He caught a glimpse of a strange object in the sky, distant now, buzzing away over the rooftops. It glinted in the reflected light of the city; made of bra.s.s, about the size of a human being. He pointed it out Donovan.
"I have no idea. But judging by that, I think it's high time we found out."
Donovan grinned. He watched as the Ghost charged toward the lip of the building, launching himself into the air, his rocket boosters igniting as they fired him away on a bright plume of flame, his trench coat flapping open behind him like a shadowy pair of wings.
I have no name.
I am the judgment that lives in the darkness, the spirit of the city wrought flesh and blood.
I was born of vengeance and I have no past. I am both protector and executioner. I represent the lives of the helpless; those who will not or cannot help themselves. I show no mercy.
I exist only in the shadows. The alleyways and the rooftops are my domain. I feel the heartbeat of the city, like a slow, restless pulse; I flow unimpeded through its street map of veins.
I live to keep the city clean, to search out the impurities and deliver retribution.
I am Life and Death, Yin and Yang.
I have a name ...
I am the Ghost.
And I know where to find you.
EORGE MANN is the author of The Affinity Bridge and The Osiris Ritual, as well as numerous short stories, novellas and an original Doctor Who audiobook. He has edited a number of anthologies including The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, The Solaris Book of New Fantasy and a retrospective collection of s.e.xton Blake stories, s.e.xton Blake, Detective. He lives near Grantham, UK, with his wife, son and daughter.