Thursday, 3 September 2009

Angel of Death by J. Robert King (Excerpt 2)

I am sure those who visited recently are waiting with baited breath for the day two excerpt from J. Robert King’s new urban fantasy Angel of Death from the HarperCollins new imprint Angry Robot Books.

The excerpts are written for a mature reader. Part 1.

The angel of death in Chicago oversees all people in the megalopolis, making sure their deaths fit their lives. Though most deaths naturally do, those that result from serial murder do not, so the angel spends much time trailing a serial killer in his patch.

On the trail of one such man, he encounters a cop and falls in love with her. When he is assigned to kill her, though, he has to make a choice between divinity and humanity.


Young man, I see you. I see how you move among them, like one of them. Your battered old London Fog coat comes almost to your knees and sticks too far out as if you are some kind of flasher – the coat of a Goodwill shopper and a murdering madman. Keith McFarland. I know you will kill even tonight. I know you are prowling.

You look lost in your trench coat. Your shoulders are too narrow for the smudged gray polyester that drapes you. Even your thin neck – it should be red but is white and stubbled with the new growth of an inattentive razor – holds an Adam’s apple two sizes too large. A greenish Granny Smith, swallowed whole.

You have not bought gas. You duck your oil-sheened black hair away from the cashier and move toward the compact orange bags of peanuts. There you stop. You seem to be looking at snacks. In fact, you glance at the T-shirted man who stands at the counter.

The man has his hand out. He waits for the small flask of Mr. Boston spiced rum he will be sneaking tonight on the walk with his collie mutt. He stinks already of a cheap cigar that smolders on the painted board of the gas station stoop.

The cashier knows this man. Not his name. Only his addiction. The man knows it too. He has already doled out the three dollars and ninety-four cents it will take to buy two hundred milliliters of oblivion. Sometimes he pays in nickels and pennies fished from the tie tack drawer and the couch cushions.

The rum is set in his hand. For a minute it glints, liquid gold. Then it is gone in a fold of loose canvas pants.

“Have a good one,” the cashier says, sliding closed the ringing register drawer.

The rum man nods and pushes his way out the door. Around him rises a breath of petroleum on asphalt in late autumn. In the momentary gap of the door, the collie is visible, eyes wide with anticipation beside the leash that holds her to the two-by-four stoop. The door closes. Through mud-spattered glass, you see the secret drunk loose his shaggy dog. They make their way out into the lifeless light of the gas station dolmen.

From within your trench coat, you watch.

They move toward the road. Cars whir past in the rushing, gravel-cracking haste of a November night in Wisconsin.

“You need some help?” asks the cashier. He is young. A baseball cap brim curves between his shoulder blades. A sleek, thin ponytail rides his spine.

Your black hair shifts listlessly above your sallow face. “N-N-No.”

The trench coat moves; not you, just your coat. Then you, too, are gone into the anonymous glare. You are just another wedge of light in the dirty-paned door.

You pause on the stoop and look toward the angry, shushing cars. A newspaper tumbles over wet blacktop, crumpled but still airborne, not yet soaked and plastered to the road. You follow, white trash after white trash.

Avatar. You do not know that term, but I do. You are the avatar of all backward inbred hicks – a disaffected loner from a silent race that has never been invited into the modern age. Sullen. Fitful. Gaunt. Enraged. As murderous as the night.

You stutter-step along the gravel margin of the road, in the very footsteps of the man with the secret rum. Human eyes cannot detect it, but I can: the rum man’s feet leave faint prints of warmth on the autumn stones, and your feet fall in those very prints. As you pass, the stones turn cold again with night and death.

The rum man turns down that dark road and takes the first bitter swallow of the gall he hides from all but himself and his dog. You stalk and follow. He will be your kill tonight.

These eyes of mine see more than footprints. I see who this man is, and that it is indeed time for him to die. He is a newspaper editor for the local rag, a man using distilled spirits to fill up the gap between what he is and what he had intended to be. A writer. A novelist. A family man. That’s what he had hoped for, but instead he lives alone, hacking apart the words of other hacks and making them into the bland garble of modern journalism.

He takes another drink.

Thirty-eight is young to die, but not young enough for this one. A depressive, an alcoholic, a loner, family off in Wichita, and friends… what friends, aside from that collie mutt?

Oh, you have chosen your victim wisely, a moody man who’ll be fired for not showing up before he is truly missed, who will be replaced by one of the clamoring young reporters who attack a job posting like piranha on bloody meat. The FBI would call this a low-risk victim, a drunken man walking alone at night on an untraveled country road.

Except for the dog. I might have had to step out of time to do some orchestration, but you hesitate; you fear the dog. And well you should. A gap-toothed cracker such as yourself had first owned her and kicked her daily until she ran off. She might seem friendly enough, but once there’s a shout and a scream and blood, she’ll remember your kind and go for your throat.

Ah, though, that’s the key. The man has only this dog in all the world. The leash he holds does not so much keep the dog next to him as keep him next to the dog. Ambush them and kill the dog. Let him see you kill the dog. Use your gun on the dog, not the man, and then let him worry over the thing’s body. Or, better yet, it’s deer hunting season, and this fellow’s a budding author – he has an imagination. He’ll put the pieces together.

I whisper the idea in your ear. You are too disorganized to do anything but listen. There’s a deer path that heads off from the road here through that little stand of trees and out onto the access road. If you walk quietly along it…

You stalk from the road, pulling your coat around you as if it were a rain poncho and you a little girl. Maybe that’s what he thinks when, on the red rim of road, he looks back and spits, then takes another drink. He thinks he is hiding from you, and not the other way around. You pick your way across the vacant field then among the autumn-hard rows of broken cornstalks. Already, he is down the other side of the hill.

Oh, what fun, to hunt this way! The pines are black and murmurous in the settling dark. You see the road beyond, where he will be shuffling into view in moments. You crouch down among tenacious roots of pine and pull out your pistol. It gives you a hard-on every time you touch it. Yes, here will be a good place. They will pass within ten feet. The shot will echo, and the editor will not know the difference between a pistol and a deer rifle. He’ll think you’re just a bad hunter.

He comes, leather-soled shoes on a chip-and-oil shoulder. He looks around. His face is slack already from drink, though his eyes squint against the night. The bottle in his hand glints purple inside its wrinkled skin of paper. He drains it one last time and throws it into the trees, just near you.

You fire. It’s all right. You were afraid, but it’s all right.

Half the dog’s head is gone. It whines a moment and turns as if to scratch its remaining ear, then goes down upon the chips and quivers sickly.

He doesn’t look toward you but sinks down atop the dog. Already he is wailing. He holds the thing stupidly. The thrown bottle was all the better, as if it had triggered the bullet. An accidental but elegant nuance.

He looks up. Blood is on his face, with tear tracks through it. He is furious. Some of the blood is his own, from a lip he has sawed open between teeth. He is murderous.

“Fuck you, God damn it! Fuck, fuck, fuck!” he cries.

Yes, crouch lower, but grin still. That erection feels like a jabbing stick among the pine roots. Enjoy the moment, killer. Your day will come, too.

“Fuck you! Fuck you! God damned fucking asshole hunter! Fuck you!”

His shouts are like the moans of a lover. Don’t come yet, killer. Keep it in until he is dead, too.

Ah, he has stopped his shouting. He lifts the still body off the road and sets it gently on the shoulder. He kisses the mutt’s tangled fur and whispers something. Now he rises.

He’s coming to find you. He expects you to be in the glade beyond, a man who feels bad for having accidentally killed a leashed dog. A man with a rifle that the editor can grab and swing against a tree to break it. That’s what he expects to do. That’s what he would write about.

He rises, scarred leather soles on the smooth humus of pine. More curses grumble from him, these meant not for you but for himself, stoking his engine. He wants to be good and angry. Hunker down, now. He grabs the brittle bole of a nearby tree. He steps beyond it and keeps going.

You rise. Dead needles fall from you as if you are some monster of humus. He doesn’t even hear you, raging to himself. You follow him a couple paces.

“T-T-T-Turn around, quiet n-n-n-now, or you’ll be d-d-dead as your d-dog,” you say.

Your door-hinge voice is enough to spin him. His bravado is gone. He is white in the dead evening. You point the gun at his head. He holds his hands up, as if in a movie.

“Kneel!” You manage to say it without your stutter. He complies. Very good. You move up to him, getting the gun to his forehead. Your other hand fiddles with your fly, almost too slow. You’d wanted to be inside him, but this is almost as good.

He pulls away. You shoot.

His head is like a fountain as he falls back. You let him fall and strip off your coat. That’s why you had worn it. It will cover the blood on your clothes after you are finished.

The killing has not happened as I had hoped, as I had planned. You were supposed to ask him to write his own obituary before he died, so that the editor could become a published author only by writing his final words. I am distressed by your impulsiveness.

Still, you do the rest. You drag both bodies away from the road and into a cornfield. Then you take the man’s wallet, and cut off his head and hands. This is hard and messy work, but you’ve done it before. You used to do it because you heard it kept the body from being identified. Of course, in such a small town, it’ll take only days instead of weeks to do a head count and figure out who’s missing, but the amputations are now part of your fantasies. You’ll carry the head and hands home inside plastic and burlap.

These arrangements also happen to serve my ends. The man’s head and hands were what he worked with as an editor, and his work was always separated from his heart, which makes this death somehow fitting. Also, he lived a life of quiet desperation and inner anguish, so a death of overt anguish and loud desperation is also ironically satisfying.

I could have done better and may even return to the event to make certain you get the obituary written, but there have been serial killer victims who have done much worse than this one.

I will be glad the day I get to kill you, Keith McFarland.

All Rights Reserved. Angry Robot Books, HarperCollins Ltd.

Excerpt Part Three tomorrow.

Publication Date UK/AUS: September 3, 2009
US/Canada – Spring 2010

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