I’ve been following author R.S. Belcher’s work ever since I read his excellent weird western debut, The Six-Gun Tarot, back in 2013. His newest book, The Night Dahlia, is the second book in the Nightwise urban fantasy series featuring cynical mage Laytham Ballard. It comes out on April 3 and I’m really looking forward to reading it. I’m also excited to be able to share an excerpt of the book in this post!
If you like what you see, be sure to enter the giveaway – the winner gets both books in the series, so you can enter even if you haven’t read the first book. Instructions on how to enter are at the bottom of this post.
The Voodoo Queen on Milby Street was a dive that tried a little too hard to be a dive. It made the hipster kids feel like they were really slumming without the need for paying gangland tolls and packing pistols. I liked the joint from my last visit to Houston because the music was good and the folks there didn’t skimp on the alcohol in their drinks. I bypassed the voluminous menu of concoctions that came in hollowed-out pineapples and fishbowls with little totem poles of fruit spears and paper umbrellas for buying the lone bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Reserve they had up on the top shelf. The fetching lass that sold it to me had hair dyed white and a tapestry of tattoos covering her slender body.
“You’re kidding,” she said. “That’s like a three-thousand-dollar bottle of twenty-three-year-old whiskey. You know that, right?” I handed her a wad of cash.“
Here’s four K,” I said. “It’s a tip for being the prettiest sight I’ve seen all day, darlin’.” The bartender looked at the money, back to me, and stepped to the back bar to count the bills and make sure they weren’t fake by the light of the enormous fish tank full of brilliantly colored clown fish that adorned the back wall of the bar. She came back with the bourbon like she was cradling the Ark of the Covenant, and a glass tumbler.
“Ice?” she asked.
“Be like pissing in holy water.”
“What’s the special occasion?”
“It’s my birthday,” I said, getting up from the bar.
“Happy birthday!” she said and actually meant it. “Hey, I get off at eight. I’ve never tasted twenty-three-year-old bourbon before.”
“Well, come find me,” I said. “I’ll introduce you to it, but I suspect that whiskey is older than you are.”
She laughed, and I retreated to the shadows of the bar floor.
Funny thing, when you buy a bottle like this, they pretty much let you camp any damn place you please. I went around a velvet rope and sat myself down in a corner booth of a closed section. The only lights in here were the small round fills built into the ceiling, bright light under them, and deep shadow all around. I could still hear the music from the jukebox. It was playing the Swan’s cover of “Can’t Find My Way Home.” I poured a drink and sipped it like the first kiss from an old lover in a long, long time. I had stayed dry for eleven months, Magdalena’s influence on me. She was gone, little Joey was gone. Gone, baby, gone, like the song goes. But Dean-fucking-Corll would go on forever. That little girl was gone, but my evil ass sat right here in air-conditioned comfort, getting good and tight. Cheers. Seeing children’s brains sprayed all over walls seemed as good a reason as any to take a flying leap off the wagon. I drained my glass; it was smooth as Sinatra, worth every penny. I poured myself another one, saw that little girl’s eyes as she slipped away, and toasted the darkness.
“Happy birthday, asshole,” I said.
Half a bottle or so later, a waitress came back to see how I was doing. I told her to bring me a bottle of the cheapest, nastiest tequila they had and a Budweiser in a bottle. I gave her five hundred dollars for her trouble. After that, I had no shortage of customer service.
The bottle of tequila was almost gone, and a forest of empty brown beer bottles covered the table. The afternoon crowd in the bar had mostly been office folks skipping out for a beer at lunchtime, a few college kids with no classes and money to burn, and of course my people, the barflies who didn’t give a fuck about the décor or the crowd as long as there was a seat for your ass and booze to whittle away the hours of your life until the end. There is a certain Zen meditation present in hard-core alcoholism.
The evening crowd was in now. It consisted of more sketchy locals from the Second District, the surrounding neighborhood, and swarms of hipsters, nursing the one PBR they could afford. There was a battle over who was setting the tone for the night on the jukebox, the music jumping from blues, to dance, to country. I did my part for the war effort by tossing in Johnny Cash’s cover of “I See a Darkness” and followed it up with K.Flay’s “Blood in the Cut.” Take that, alt-folk scum! I paid the club manager a grand to keep my section closed. I wanted to be in a fishbowl, watching life, seeing how normal assholes spent their Friday night.
I had almost finished off the Pappy Van when the tattooed bartender walked up to my table with a stride like a panther. The black lights made her white hair almost glow. “You didn’t forget about me, did you?” she said over the throbbing music and the traffic jam of voices. She had a glass in her hand. I nodded for her to sit and she did. I poured her a glass, the last of the bottle, leaving a single swallow for myself. She raised the glass, and I raised the bottle.
“Happy birthday,” she said, “and congratulations on another successful fulfillment of your ongoing obligation, Laytham.”
I paused in drinking the last of the bottle and cocked my head at the bartender, who drained her glass and sighed. I looked across the bar and saw the same bartender, same tattoos, same hair, waving bye to the other bartender on duty as she headed for the door, her purse over her shoulder.
“That,” said the bartender sitting across from me, “is what sin tastes like.” I slipped a cigarette between my lips.
“Got a light?” I asked the Devil.
“You had two images prominent in your mind,” the embodiment of all malice said as she lit my cigarette like any good bartender would. “This sweet young thing you visualized rutting with, and that dead little girl back at the school. Since it was your birthday, I chose, sorry for this, the lesser of two evils.”
“What do you want?” I asked. “You are assassinating a very expensive buzz. I did your dirty work, and got you your AWOL scumbag back.”
“You did, Laytham,” it said. “I would have manifested sooner, but I had to wait until your consciousness was altered sufficiently for us to interact. I wanted to congratulate you on heroically saving that poor boy’s life, Laytham. Bravo.”
“Fuck you,” I said, and drained the last of the bourbon. It tasted like ashes.
“Technically, fuck you,” she replied, pouring herself a glass of the last of the oily tequila, “since you were the one who bartered away three years of your life in my service in exchange for those wishes you needed so desperately at the time.” I watched the Devil drink the last of my booze. I think there was a metaphor in there somewhere. “Haven’t we had fun these past few years? Me, breaking up the wearisome monotony of your plodding march toward self-induced oblivion with my little honey-do list of tasks. You, a villain most foul, given chances over and over again to act the hero, like you did today. Tell me, hero, how does it feel to be back on the side of the angels?”
I looked across the table for anything left to drink. There was nothing. I looked up at this thing of purest self-hate, conjured out of my own mind, and said nothing. There was nothing to say. The Devil knows you, because the Devil is you. She went on, taking one of my American Spirits out of the crumpled and almost empty pack. “I wanted to congratulate you,” she said, lighting the cigarette between those full lips, “and let you know I was here to give you a little birthday present of my own. You have worked off about a year’s worth of your debt in the past two. I am forgiving almost all of the remaining time on your account tonight, my dear Laytham.”
“Almost?” I said, leaning across the table, knocking several beer bottles over as I did. I think a few smashed on the floor.
“I’m holding onto one minute,” the Devil said. “That’s all. One measly minute, and of course the ragged chunk of your soul invested in that time will remain in escrow until that minute is paid. Am I not a generous god?”
“You’re what my granny would call a hoodooer,” I slurred. My companion nodded.
“Well said. How is your dear grandmother these days? Don’t hear much from her since you ‘helped’ her all those years ago, eh, hero?”
I roared and launched myself across the table at the son of a bitch. The table tumbled over as I fell. Bottles shattered everywhere. I was on the floor with all the other broken things, trying to get back up. The pretty bartender was gone; I was alone. I had been alone the whole time.
“Okay, big spender, time to call you a cab.” Thick hands lifted me off the floor and to my feet.
“Letgoame,” I said, articulately, and tried to pull away. It didn’t work. The guy holding me was a good six inches taller than me and outweighed me by maybe eighty pounds. He had a hardness behind his eyes that told me the smile fixed on his face was a lie. If I pushed, he would beat the hell out of me. “You have any idea who you’re fuhkin’ with?” I said.
“Look, friend,” the bouncer said, walking me out of the closed section, “Let’s just go outside and talk about this, okay?”
“Fuhyou,” I said and took a swing at him. “I’m fuhkin’ Laythm Ballard, you muther fuhker!” It connected, but there wasn’t anything behind it. I might as well have slapped him with a bar rag. I tried to put together a spell, some kind of spell, death spell? Fire-fall? My concentration was like mercury, and my energies were as scattered as any other broken-down old drunk’s would have been. The bouncer snapped off two quick, tight jabs at me. He wasn’t just a meathead that stood at the door and checked ID; he had training. There were bright lights popping behind my eyes, and I was falling. Then there was movement after some time in the dark. A female voice was near my ear.
“Who did he say he was?”
“Nobody, just an old, rich drunk,” I heard the bouncer telling the girl, “celebrating his birthday a little too hard. He was back there talking to himself for the last half hour.”
Laytham Ballard once protected humanity as part of the Nightwise, a secret order of modern-day mages dedicating to holding hellish supernatural forces at bay, but that was before a string of sadistic ritual murders shook everything he believed in—and sent him down a much darker path. One that has already cost him most of his soul, as well as everything he once held dear.
Now a powerful faerie mob boss has hired Ballard to find his lost-lost daughter, who went missing several years ago. The long-cold trail leads him across the globe, from the luxurious playgrounds of the rich and famous to the seedy occult underbelly of Los Angeles, where creatures of myth and legend mingle with street gangs and sex clubs, and where Ballard finds his own guilty past waiting for him around every shadowy corner. To find Caern Ankou, he will have to confront old enemies, former friends and allies, and a grisly cold case that has haunted him for years.
But is Caern still alive? And, perhaps more importantly, does she even want to be found?
Tor Books is sponsoring a giveaway of one set of Nightwise and The Night Dahlia! To enter, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with subject “Nightwise” and your name and mailing address. This giveaway is open until April 15, 2018 and is open to North American residents only.
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