A dark and bloody busine.., p.1
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       A Dark and Bloody Business - Charley Cat's Carnival: Book 0, p.1

           Dora Badger
 
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A Dark and Bloody Business - Charley Cat's Carnival: Book 0
A Dark and Bloody Business

  Charley Cat’s Carnival: Book 0

  Published by Menace & Whimsy Press

  © 2015 by Dora Badger

  Menace & Whimsy Press

  8933 Dexter Avenue

  Detroit, MI 48206

  menaceandwhimsy.com

  Copy editing and technical support by Woodward Press, LLC.

  This ebook is licensed for your own personal enjoyment only. No portion of this ebook may be resold or given away to other people in any format whatsoever, except in the form of limited excerpts for review purposes. Thank you for respecting this author’s hard work.

  Dedication

  For Amanda, always.

  (and for Nutmeg…RIP, you beautiful, surly old bitch)

  A Dark and Bloody Business (1901)

  Hungry.

  Joseph Albers used the tip of his heavy hickory cane to scratch the word into the packed dirt of the crossroads for the third time, and for the third time he scuffed it out at once. Bullfrogs splashed in an unseen creek at the bottom of the drop to the south and grumbled in thick hiccoughs which hammered the base of his skull until his eyes watered. Insects sang in the thick woods crowding the road. Their rippling calls sent his exhausted mind into painful swoops with each buzzing, chittering crescendo. His chest stung where the fist-sized lump of coal dangled inside the rough woolen bag he’d strung around his neck, both his hands and arms up past the elbows were a mess of blisters from poison ivy, the yarrow blooms he held were already wilting in the early summer heat, and the devil he’d come to meet was due any moment. Despite all that, after a full two weeks of fasting – and those coming on the heels of a month of raging illness, far too much death, and far too little food – Joseph could think of only one thing.

  Joseph scratched the word in the road again. Surely midnight was almost here. He ran the tip of his cane over it, carving his hunger into the center of the crossroads although he knew full well no matter how hard he pressed, the word would disappear with only a few passes of his cane or his foot. If only he could wipe away the hollow screams of his belly as easily as he erased the word from the dirt, he would be—

  Joseph paused. A tense emptiness crept toward him from the west: the insects along Firedown Road were falling silent. As the hush moved toward Joseph, the bullfrogs barked in surprise and went still. Behind the silence, a hulking, creaking noise began to rise.

  Past the far end of the crossroads, a hundred feet or so along the edge of Firedown Road where the carriage turnaround clearing ended and the rich Kentucky forest began again in earnest, a brilliant, flickering beast moved just inside the treeline. It was the size of a bear and slunk along with its body hunched down in the way of wolves. The trees shuddered with each of its heavy steps. A curiously sweet odor of smoldering leaves drifted on the wind. It was impossible to see the thing clearly through the forest, or perhaps it was simply that its form shifted with each step. Even from here, Joseph could tell the advancing brute wasn’t causing the lumbering noise he heard; that sound moved more rapidly, and came from much farther along Firedown. Deeper shadows loomed along the tree-shadowed road, too many and too close together for him to make out in the dark.

  Trust that damned Dickie Beaubeau to leave out the most important part: when that sanctimonious con man told Joseph the secret of Hudsonville’s success, he hadn’t mentioned that the crossroads demon would bring an entire infernal host.

  Joseph stared along the length of first Firedown Road, then Runner’s Way, but saw none of his neighbors or family. His home, a deeper black atop the high granite rise of Albers Estate Bluff, remained dark and still. That was lucky, at least.

  The creature snuffled, and lifted its head. In spite of the distance, and the forest, and the flickering glow of the beast itself, Joseph could see the infinite embers of its eyes take his measure. It kept its gaze on him and began to trot. The shadows pacing it continued their steady advance.

  Joseph’s heart skittered in an alarming fashion. He cast another nervous glance up the bluff, half expecting his mother’s shrill screams to echo through the trees. The venomous crone would doubtless delight in ruining his only opportunity to save Piquette, especially if it meant displaying her control of him before the Devil himself.

  When the demon snuffled again, Joseph jumped. He dropped his cane and fumbled in the bag beneath his shirt. His panicked heart stopped its flailing for one terrible moment when the coal fetched up inside and wouldn’t budge. An instant later it loosened and Joseph knelt, gasping, in the dirt with his cane and the scrawled word that had come to define him between himself and the beast. Joseph closed his eyes and raised both hands, one with its clutch of dying blooms and the other closed about the black, oily stone. He took a deep breath of the rapidly warming air just as the creature emerged from the trees and settled across from him. Its red and yellow glow pierced Joseph even through his closed eyelids. An odor, as of some exotic spice set aflame, rippled from the beast, pulsed from its body along with its astonishing heat. He’d expected sulfur; after almost a year and a half in coal country he’d even been ready for it. This rich baking-house scent inflamed the hunger within him even as it made him think of his poor, lost Anna. Each fragrant, obscene breath stole another sliver of his resolve.

  Joseph wanted to pray, but hunger and terror crowded the words from his mind before his voice could give them form. The beast murmured and crackled in its own heat.

  “You will dim your light,” Joseph said. His voice limped from his throat, a pale and frightened thing. Joseph clenched his fist around the coal tight enough for the sharp edges of the rock to dig into his flesh. When he spoke again, his voice was louder.

  “You will reshape yourself into a form I find pleasing.”

  Something chuckled. Footsteps padded along the road. Although the hot red glare on the other side of Joseph’s eyelids didn’t move, it did fade somewhat. He risked a peek, then opened his eyes. A massive dog-shaped demon sat fifteen feet or so across from him. Flames shimmered along the edges of its fur, and its smoldering eyes were filled with bloodlust and fine high spirits. The firedog dropped its jaw to reveal an eight-inch tongue running along two-inch teeth. It panted with doggy good humor. Behind it, a black, spotted cat the size of a mountain lion narrowed its glowing white eyes and strode ahead of the largest woman Joseph had ever seen. A liquid shape darted in front of them all: a speckled wildcat with a kittenish face.

  Joseph turned his attention back to the firedog. He had to crane his head back to look into its eyes. His throat clicked, suddenly dry. His voice was a pained whisper.

  “I abjure thee, demon–”

  “You are referencing the wrong religion.”

  Joseph jumped. The large, cougaresque cat was gone. A man-shaped thing crouched in its place. It looked as though it’d been whelped from an Indian and a Negro. Its ferocious black eyes gleamed in the firedog’s hellish glow, and the tight, nappy furze at the top of its head blended seamlessly into an impeccable, equally tight beard. Thin fur covered its entire body. Subtle spots glinted deep within the fur. The creature was quite male, and utterly nude. Joseph couldn’t look into its eyes, and he certainly couldn’t look down below. He opted to look at the large woman instead. She stared back at him, bold as any man, until Joseph had to turn his eyes away from her, too.

  The man-thing sprung at Joseph. He skipped backwards, much too slow. It landed on all fours in front of him, stood, and grasped the front of Joseph’s vest before he’d taken more than a few fumbling steps. Joseph leaned back as far as he dared. It twisted its long, black claws into the fabric of
his vest and yanked him forward. It leaned its face into the hollow of his neck. Joseph flailed, imagining sharp teeth tearing his veins wide, but the creature held him fast. It inhaled deeply from the left side of his neck, around his throat, and around to the right. It chuckled, and even in its new form Joseph recognized its voice as the one he’d heard before.

  “You reek of death,” it growled. It took another deep breath. “The deaths of others – many others.” It extended its arm, pushing Joseph away and appraising him without releasing him, then pulled him back again, almost cradling him. Joseph’s entire body clenched.

  “Joseph Albers, Joseph Albers,” the creature sang: a simple, purred lullaby, damning and soporific. “What have you done, what have you done?” It repeated its song, and again, and Joseph slumped forward. His hands loosened and his offerings fell. No matter. He heard the judgement in the creature’s voice. Joseph realized it was staring into his soul, killing him with those intolerable eyes, and that was fine, that was right. A quiet, melodious death was more than he deserved.

  It stopped singing and snarled. Joseph floated, waited to fall to the ground. Somewhere, his useless body was being shaken until its
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