Two Zeros and The Library of Doom! is coming out soon. Final proofing is nearly complete and ebook formatting has commenced. Keep an eye out for big release news!
While you wait, here's Chapter 1: This Place is Empty to whet your appetite!
Keep on clickin' to read it!
Keep on clickin' to read it!
* * *
CHAPTER 1: This Place is Empty
CHAPTER 1: This Place is Empty
Gil was the first through the hulking behemoth of a front door; it swung open with a groan that sounded like an elephant sighing. Huge brass lion’s heads were mounted at the center of each door, iron rings dangling from their mouths. “Big knockers,” Gil chuckled.
Wait a second and let me explain, begging your pardon on behalf of my boss–a man who’s actually come to be a good friend. The first thing you need to understand is that Gil Abercrombie can’t help himself. Exuberantly youthful billionaire, monster hunter, action figure collector, comic book reader, lego builder–and yeah, I did say monster hunter. Quite a combo to bring together in the package of a fifty-something old guy with a bushy mustache. He’s a grown man, or so his AARP card claims.
My name is Dylan, former police officer, soldier, and private security specialist. I’m good with my hands, guns, and knives. Recently I’ve been forced to add swords, maces, pikes, axes, and even the quarterstaff to my already respectable skill set. It was just such a skill set that got me hired not long ago by Gil as his new heavy. Essentially, I drive the car, cook the meals, offer the more grounded reader’s perspective, and try to keep my new friends safe. Along with Gil’s partner, Alistair Finch, we make up what we affectionately refer to as the Zeros: three guys worth nothing to no one (except each other and our portfolio manager–in Gil’s case, at least). A bit dramatic, perhaps, but true enough. Anyway, we get in scrapes with monsters and nasties of all kinds. Gil would say we’re heroes. At first, I thought it was a little weird. I’m okay with it now. Gil’s the heart, Finch is the brain, and I’m the guy that breaks stuff. Anyway, back to the big scary house and our tale that is already in progress.
Built from faded red bricks and covered with ivy that looked more like veins on a weightlifter’s forearm, the mansion and one time sanatorium was called Callowleigh, and its history since being shut down by the state was more sordid than its current state of disrepair.
“Any thought you had to using magic in this dump, you better shelve it right now, big man. I’m getting all kinds of weird feelings in here,” Gil said, pulling wide tangles of spiderwebs out of the air.
Ahh, yes, magic. Let’s just say that magic and I were reluctant bedfellows, currently embroiled in a bit of a love/hate relationship. I don’t want to talk about it. “No magic, huh? I can live with that,” I said, stepping into the foyer behind Gil and giving the huge door a push, letting it shut behind me with a puff of stale air. “I’d be afraid the place would come down around us if we tried.”
“Probably would,” Gil said. “If the roof comes down, catch it before it hits me in the head, would ya, big man?” From inside his coat–a plaid professor’s jacket with elbow patches and a button on his lapel that read “BAZINGA!”–Gil pulled a pipe and slipped it into his mouth. He tamped down the tobacco, his coat opening to reveal an Iron Maiden t-shirt beneath. A match snapped lit, opening a small halo of light in the dark foyer before it disappeared into the bell of the pipe. Foul clouds of smoke rose into the air moments later.
The room was massive, leading off to at least a half-dozen halls on our left and right. From what I could see, the place still looked fully furnished; a few old-fashioned chaise lounges decorated the open entryway, plush oriental carpeting beneath our feet, thick with dust and dirt accumulated over years of neglect. The most impressive part of the room, however, lay dead ahead of us.
“Holy moly,” Gil said.
A grand staircase, crimson-carpeted and at least fifteen feet wide, rose up before us, leading toward what looked to be a mezzanine. My eyes followed up upward to a broad stained-glass window that overlooked the entire room. A crash of lightning outside illuminated the brightly colored mosaic: an image of Christ on the cross at Golgotha.
“That’s… dramatic,” I muttered. Thunder rumbled in agreement.
“Dramatic? It’s freakin’ scary to see that thing when you first walk in. A gigantic crucifixion scene? Welcome to Callowleigh, enjoy some tea and ritual execution while you recover from surgery.”
Callowleigh, previously known as the Callowleigh Retreat for Surgical Recovery and Recuperation, was our new job. More specifically, finding the missing caretaker was our new job. The Zeros had been hired by a business partner and on-again-off-again client Eleanor Robbes-Grillet, Callowleigh being just one of about a million properties in and around Philadelphia she owned. In this case, the grand old mansion retreat was more than a few miles out from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, nestled into the quiet Amish country of Lancaster County.
“Let’s find this guy and get out of here,” I said, my voice a whisper. I swallowed, I little more frightened than I should have been. Whatever, I’d seen enough already to know that big dark houses look scary for a reason. Thunder rumbled again.
“You wanna get out of here? I’m ready to kill to get out of here. There’s a Hercules: The Legendary Journey marathon that starts at ten. Let me tell you, big man, I plan on being there when it happens. We’re probably gonna find this old-timer reading back issues of Reader’s Digest in the bathroom.”
Gil took the first step of the grand staircase, the wood beneath the matted carpeting creaking. I gave him a minute, looking around the room and trying not to make eye contact with giant Roman soldier or giant Saint Peter.
The sound of rumbling thunder almost masked another sound that shuddered behind me. It sounded like the shaking and creaking of metal parts, like loose gears or hinges. I turned to look over my shoulder, freezing as I saw a blur of motion in one of the darkened hallways.
“Hold on,” I said. From beneath my own coat, I pulled a heavy Maglite flashlight and clicked it on, passing the beam of clear white light over the wall on the eastern face of the room.
“What is it, you see something? Hey you got a flashlight? That’s not fair.” Gil muttered, his voice uneasy.
“You know, for a billionaire, you are sorely lacking in supplies.”
“What do you mean? I brought my Gameboy.”
The wall was covered with a sick green wallpaper that had nebulous shapes on it like rotten paisleys. Over certain stretches of wall, the green paper was torn and hanging in tattered strips. A few dark splotches stained the wood beneath the ripped paper. Large, framed pictures or paintings hung at uneven intervals, each covered with a dusty drop cloth. Something about the jagged rips looked like more than random tears to my eyes.
“No,” Gil said firmly. “No, no, no. I don’t want to say that. Not yet. Absolutely not. Those are not... claw marks. They can’t be. Hercules, remember? Ten o’clock? When I agreed to do this job for Eleanor, it was because it was easy. This caretaker guy’s phone is broken and he doesn’t know it. That’s why he’s been out of touch. We’re here to fix his phone and go home. Easy as pie.”
“You did give Finch the night off,” I said.
“He’s got a date for the first time in like two hundred years, so yeah I gave him the night off. This isn’t supposed to be super bad, remember?” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was convincing me or himself. “This is going to be easy. Our first easy job after almost getting killed by that nutball djinn and the–”
The sound of rattling chain again, silencing Gil. He took a step down towards me. “Did you hear it that time?” I asked.
He moaned. “Uh huh.”
I moved the beam of the flashlight further down the wall, the broad circle of light eventually coming to rest on a darkened doorway that I’d originally taken to be a hallway. It was no hall. Instead of a door, the accordion gate of an old elevator barred the entryway. A long chain wound around the gate and looped through holes drilled in the door jamb, holding the gate shut. On the other side of the gate was an empty space. The elevator car was missing, revealing only the black shaft.
As we watched, the chain shuddered again, the gate rattling against the chains that bound it shut, as if unseen hands worked to pull it open.
“Whoa, buddy!” Gil said, pulling his pipe from his mouth and taking a step closer to me at the same time that I took a step back. We collided, and I almost knocked him over. He closed a hand on my arm and peered over it, eyes wide.
“What’s going on, Boss?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” he said.
“Do you want to get out of here? Get some reinforcements? Come back?”
From Gil, I heard a long silence. All around us, the room seemed to be slowly coming to life, sounds beginning to arise from every dark corner. The rattling of chains was only the beginning of it.
At this point–regardless of the fact that I’d only worked with Gil for a couple of weeks–I understood the calculations that were spiraling through his mind as we stood in the center of the mansion foyer. There was a man somewhere in this mansion, an old man, all alone. The old caretaker’s name was Edward Dawkins, and he worked as a novice in restoration of historic landmarks. I’d read a little about Callowleigh before we’d come, hoping that the evil that once had such a grip on this grand old place had left it. Either way, the man had a lot of hard work ahead of him. Dawkins had volunteered for the position five weeks earlier, and he made his small salary watching over the terrible structure with its wicked past because no one else–more experience or otherwise–would. With his care and guidance, hopefully something good could come of this place for a change. Without a person who cared, whatever evil that called Callowleigh home would only fester. Gil sighed. Without us, the odds were that this Mr. Dawkins would never step out of Callowleigh alive.
“Boss?” I asked.
“No turning back,” he said. He wouldn’t, not when an innocent man’s life was at stake. I knew he’d say it, and I was okay with it.
“Press on, big man. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a spooky place like this dump, but oh well, we’ll find our way. Just stay close, ya hear?”
“You got it.” I turned my light away from the elevator shaft, ignoring the rattling of chains and the whispers that seemed to come up the shaft from below.
It wasn’t so hard to ignore those sounds. It was harder to ignore the sounds of countless footsteps on the floors above. Or the squeak of a rusted wheelchair axle turning. Or the distant sounds of laughter.
Together, Gil and I climbed the stairs.