Hell is what you make of it.
Fifteen years ago, Jack died and was presented with a simple choice: stay dead and go to Hell or sell his soul to a demon and keep living. Now, soulless and out of prison, Jack is living as a drifter in the streets of Boston, trying desperately to be nobody.
It’s all working out until Jack’s only friend turns on him, possessed by something far worse than the demon holding the contract to his soul. It’s only the beginning of the nightmare. Dragged out of the shadows by an ancient order with roots in the Inquisition, Jack is blackmailed into hunting down whatever’s turning Boston’s homeless into ravenous killers.
Paired with a centuries-old witch, Jack is in a race to track down what’s killing his people, all while staying one step ahead of his own brutal past.
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I don't sleep well.
I wake up even worse.
For that first hour, the world simply will not register in its normal state. Everything is this sort of hazed out, slow motion blur. To make matters worse, I'd spent the previous night and most of the day before in a haze of cheap gas station wine and had now subsequently found myself the proud owner of a hangover that could quite possibly kill God himself. Now, take that and couple it with the fact that I normally wake up with said hangovers in abandoned buildings, or under freeways overpasses, huddled and shivering beneath rags and cardboard, with the constant rumble of engines overhead and you have the typical start to my day.
I stared bleary-eyed around the most recent of the five-star establishments I was lucky enough to find myself in, still trying to shake off the after effects of my most recent bender. It was a vast expanse of old factory, mostly empty, except for a few old, stained mattresses tossed here and there. The walls and concrete floor still held the markings of the fire that had gutted it years ago. There were a few other squatters huddled around barrel fires, eating scraps of hoarded food, shooting up, or drinking booze from bottles wrapped in brown bags.
Whatever it was they were doing, one thing was fact. They kept on surviving. Street people are tough in that regard. When I died, I had to literally sell my soul to stay out of Hell and keep breathing. The people here, they gave Death the finger on a daily basis. They kept scratching and clawing at life, getting by on any means necessary, not just because they could, but because they had to. The majority of them didn't have any other options except to keep on keeping on.
I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt up over my head, mostly hiding the hundreds of scars that were carved into my face. They trailed down my body in perfect symmetry covering my throat, my neck, chest, stomach, back and arms. Each scar was a symbol, a word written in infernal script, and carved into my skin by a demon named Alice. Most people on the street thought they were some kind of gang initiation, or something that I had gotten after crossing the wrong person when I was in prison.
God, don't I wish that was the fucking case.
"You look like shit, Jack."
"Nice to see you too, Essie," I said, lifting a hand in greeting.
In another life, Essie may have been someone's kindly family matriarch, surrounded by grandkids and passing her golden years away in relative comfort. Instead fate had cast her in the role of just another of the hundreds of tough old birds that had to keep fighting tooth and nail against cold, against hunger, against everything the streets of Boston could throw at her. More often than not, she made it look damn near easy. She had been one of the first people I had met after getting out of prison and she'd taken me under her wing when I started living on the streets. At the time, I had considered it a more viable and appealing option than the life I had left behind, which is probably saying a lot about my former career choices.
She was dressed for the weather, her tiny, hunched frame bundled in a pair of cast off blue jeans a few inches too short over a pair of stained sweat pants. She had a coat that very well may have been more patch work and duct tape than actual fabric. It had to be at least two sizes too big. She wore it belted around her waist with a length of rope, the zipper long since gone. Her hair was the color of worn steel, tied back in a tight frizzy braid.
She smiled, a wide grin full of rotten and broken teeth that vaguely resembled a jack-o-lantern. With a creak of tired joints and a wincing sigh she took a seat on the floor next to me. Stale cigarettes and cheap booze rolled off her like some kind of special hobo perfume. The moonlight, leaking through various holes in the wall, gave her face a pale, almost glowing pallor. It made her look damned near ghastly, truth be told.
She winked at me and shrugged an old backpack off her shoulder, settling it at her feet.
"Brought you a present Jack-Jack," she said.
"Please tell me it's a cigarette," I groaned, a wave of hangover induced pain and nausea sweeping through me.
Essie reached into her coat and produced not just a cigarette, but a whole unopened pack of cancer inducing perfection.
"I could kiss you right now," I said, packing the cigarettes against the palm of my hand.
"Well pucker up then, big boy."
I tapped one of the smokes out.
"Light?" I asked.
"You want me to kick you in the ass, jump start your lungs for you too? Maybe file you as a dependent on my taxes?" she asked, tossing me a book of matches.
I lit the cigarette and took a long drag. They were cheap and harsh, the smoke burning my throat dry as it went down. It was damn near orgasmic.
"You're the best," I said.
God only knew where Essie pulled together half the things she managed to come across. Smokes, food, booze — if she didn't have it when you needed it, she'd get it in short order. It wasn't uncommon for her, if you were sick, to just show up smiling that broken grin and throw a bottle of cough syrup or Tylenol in your lap. The best part, she'd never ask for anything in return outside of a little conversation. A lot of people looked at her as a sort of mother figure amongst the street folk.
"You haven't seen the best part of the stash yet, Jack-Jack. We hit the gravy train."
"Unless you have a hooker hiding in that bag, I'm not really seeing how things can get too much better," I said.
"Such high standards you have."
"I'm a man of refined tastes," I said.
"So I've noticed."
Essie dug into the backpack. She tossed aside a few crumpled sheets of yellowed newspaper and an old steel can she used for cooking. For a second, I thought she was just going to crawl inside of it, close it behind her and vanish or end up with just her feet kicking back and forth out of the opening, like some sort of half crazed Christmas elf digging through Santa's bag.
Then the smell hit me. Grilled onions and green peppers. A touch of garlic. Steak, still warm and lathered in grease and cheese. Somehow, she had gotten her hands on an honest-to-God, still hot, Philly cheesesteak. The myriad of smells, the sight of the butcher's paper stained with gray spots of grease as she pulled it from the confines of the bag, set my mouth to watering. I was pretty sure the sound that came out of my mouth at the sight of it was more than just vaguely sexual.
And I was pretty sure that what came out of my mouth when she set the two cans of Pepsi on the floor between us, crossed the line from vaguely sexual and went straight into obscene.
"Stole the sandwich from some delivery guy's car while he took an order up to an apartment. Got the soda's from one of them hot dog vendors while he was chatting up a pretty girl," she explained.
She handed me a can and unwrapped the sandwich, tearing it into halves and passing me the bigger one.
"Essie. I'm gonna dance at your wedding," I said, finishing off the cigarette and taking my half of the bounty.
"Darlin', marriage is what got me living in this palatial estate, if ya get me," she said, taking a bite from her half of the sandwich. "'Sides, I don't think I've seen you eat in a day or two, you know, being fall down drunk and all. Thought you could use it," she said around a mouthful of food, a thin line of grease running down her chin.
For a long moment, I stared at the sandwich in my hands. It was heaven, nirvana and Shangri-La all wrapped up in two slices of soggy bread, dripping with melted cheese and mayo.
The first bite nearly sent me into some sort of intoxicated sensory overload. I completely forgot my hangover and tore into the sandwich.
When we finished, Essie settled back watching the interior of the building with distant, thoughtful eyes. She had a cigarette perched between her lips, the smoke curling around her mouth like tiny serpents.
"Gonna be a cold winter," she said finally.
"Essie. It's Boston. Every winter is cold," I said, wiping grease off my mouth with the back of my hand.
"I s'pose so, Good Lord willing this'n won't be the death of me."
"Spring chicken like you?" I asked, smiling.
"Bah! The Good Lord ain't got no use for an old bird like me," she said. "'Sides. I know things."
She gave me a conspiratorial wink, tapping her index finger to her temple between puffs off her coffin nail.
"Is that right?"
I settled back, trying to find a more comfortable position against the wall. Essie had had seizures for as long as I knew her — a symptom of her chronic alcoholism. She had gotten sober last summer, but the seizures were going to plague her for the rest of her life. Her "fits" as she called them, were a constant reminder of a long and painful past that she'd never be able to outrun. It was a history that, in the end, would probably be the death of her.
She also claimed the fits gave her a direct line to God and that The Almighty sent her visions of the future.
"Don't happen to know the winning lotto numbers do you?" I asked.
"If I did, Jack-Jack, we'd be sitting on a beach somewhere and I'd be drinking little fruity drinks outta coconuts while you fanned me with a banana leaf."
"Is that right? I'd be fanning you?"
"Gospel truth," she said. "And you'd be damn happy to do it."
"I doubt that."
"Maybe, maybe not. Anyhow, Jack-Jack," she said with a sigh, patting me on the knee, "I'm old and I needs my beauty sleep. 'Sides I hear Father Hernandez is making rounds with his Roach Coach tomorrow and I'm not going to stand in line all morning. Want me to bring you a plate?"
"You do that."
"I'll do that."
She stood up, arthritic joints groaning in protest.
"Try and get some more rest, Jack-Jack. You look like ten pounds of crap in a five pound bag."
"You're too kind," I muttered.
"Yeah, yeah I am."
I waved, settling back and watching her walk away before I closed my eyes, letting my thoughts drift towards a few more hours of sleep and leaving the sandwich to settle in my stomach. What felt like a few minutes later, I felt something stir the air and ignored it, focusing on sleep.
The screams started just as I was hitting that weird spot between being half asleep and half awake. It was a terrified, high-pitched wail of horror counterpointed by an animalistic snarl of rage — almost like the two sounds were competing with each other, fighting for space in the stale air. The snarl won, its opponent turning into a wet, bubbling gasp.
I made the transition from near sleep to wide-awake in the span of a heartbeat. Prison had left me with a fair amount of paranoia, and an even better set of reflexes when it came to situations that could potentially result in bodily harm to yours truly.
Something came flying towards me out of the gloom. I rolled to the side, scraping my knees and hands against concrete and broken glass. A body, an actual human body, slammed into the wall where I had been sitting only a second before. If I hadn't moved, I'd have been crushed by about three hundred pounds of very broken and very dead wino.
I stared at the body for a moment in utter disbelief, my hangover forgotten. Oddly enough, it wasn't so much the corpse, but the fact that someone or something had just thrown a body at me. Lifeless eyes, red from years of alcohol and vacant in death, stared back at me. There was a torn, ragged hole where his throat used to be.
I pulled myself to my feet and started moving on sheer instinct, staying as low to the ground as I could without actually crawling. The interior of the building was, for the most part, a massive open space littered with a few empty fifty-gallon barrels. Half of them radiated the orange glow of lit fires. That same glow would display my shadow on the floor like it was a movie screen. It didn't leave me a whole lot of options as far as cover went. I kept moving, heading towards one of the few barrels that didn't contain glowing embers.
I still didn't know what was happening. It's not everyday someone starts throwing dead bodies around. More importantly, I was currently too busy devoting the majority of my focus to keeping my own ass intact to care. If a few other people died, well, they should have run faster. I ducked in behind one of the drums, taking a quick minute to catch my breath and figure out what in the holy blue Hell was going on.
My hands burned, pieces of broken glass wedged under the skin. I ignored it. In a few seconds they'd be completely healed.
Behind me, I could hear the sounds of panic, shoes scraping on concrete mixed with frightened cries as people ran for cover. Something, or someone, growled. It was a low rumbling sound like the thunder of a distant storm.
I shot a quick glance around the barrel. Essie was alone in the center of the room. She had a feral look stretched across her features. It was a far cry from the kind, somewhat crazy old bag lady I had recently shared a sandwich with. She was crouching, her hands resting lightly on the floor. Her face was streaked with blood, and something less than pleasant hung in thin, glistening strings from what was left of her teeth. She was sniffing at the air like an animal. The growl was coming from her.
I wasn't exactly swimming in options. I could stay and hide behind my barrel or make a break for it and head for the door. To do that, I'd have to get past Essie. Given the evidence, it was a safe bet that Essie wasn't exactly acting in a manner that would be conducive to my making a hasty retreat without her intervening.
So, I took a chance.
"Essie?" I said, keeping my voice light and stepped out from behind the barrel. I kept my posture loose and relaxed, trying to appear non-aggressive. Granted, aside from the scars, that wasn't hard. I wasn't exactly a big guy, barely five and a half feet tall and a hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet.
Her head snapped towards me, and there was nothing left in her eyes that looked even remotely human. Cold, primal fear ran through me. They were glowing. Literally glowing a pale nauseating green that seemed to pulse in time with her heartbeat. The color reminded me of toxic waste, of cancerous sickness. A wave of heat, feverish and oppressive washed over me, mixing with the ice water bite of fear. I felt my stomach revolt, threatening to toss the sandwich and soda back up my throat. Apparently my impromptu dinner had a stronger drive for survival than I was currently displaying. I had to force myself to focus, to push past the inherent wrongness radiating off her tiny form.
Her whole body tensed. I could almost physically feel her eyes sliding over the scars on my face. I felt my stomach drop when I realized what she was doing.
She was reading.
Honestly, I didn't even know what the contract scarred into my flesh actually said. I couldn't read Infernal. Granted, I had a general idea having signed it with my soul and all.
"You are a Host," the thing that had been Essie said. Its voice, modulated in and out to the point it sounded like there were fifteen or so of them, speaking all at once in contrasting tones. They rolled over each other like feedback.
I ignored it and spoke to Essie, or what I hoped was left of her.
"Essie ... you in there?" I asked, hoping my nervousness wasn't showing through in my tone.
"Dead. She is dead," Essie, or the artist formerly known as Essie, said.
"Sorry. I don't buy that."
The Essie-thing growled, crouching lower to the ground, muscles taut and ready to pounce. The motion triggered a burst of adrenaline that set my muscles and nerves to the point of combustion. Everything around me seemed to slow down, and I could see with perfect clarity, despite the gloom.
"Essie, if you're still in there. It's Jack. Think you can try and get a word in?" I said, keeping my voice as even and neutral as possible. I didn't know what had Essie, but anything that can take a body over has to beat the host's will to do it. It has to be able to shove the original personality aside and then maintain that control. Regardless, it was a fight, and this thing had won said fight real fast, taking her over in a matter of minutes.
There was a slim chance Essie was in there, somewhere. If I could get through to her, reach past the thing that had her with the right words, I could get her to at least try to force it out.
If it didn't work, I'd have to kill her. It wasn't a notion I was keen on, but it wasn't something that would keep me awake at night either. I liked Essie, but I wasn't expecting this thing to just let me walk out the door. In a situation of me or x, there is no "or".
"Host," it growled again, its voice echoing off the walls. The building had emptied out, leaving just me and what had once been the closest thing I had to a friend staring at each other across an expanse of refuse littered concrete.
"Essie, listen to me. That thing, whatever it is, can only stay in there as long as you let it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Demon Jack"
Copyright © 2013 Patrick Donovan.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very enjoyable action filled story .