Saturday, April 24, 2010

Excerpt: DEAD HARVEST, The First Five Pages

Sam Thornton collects souls. The souls of the damned, to be precise. Once collected himself, he's doomed to ferry souls to hell for all eternity, in service of a debt he can never repay. But when he's dispatched to collect the soul of a girl he believes is innocent, Sam does something no Collector has ever done before: he refuses.


Light spilled through the window of the pub as I watched them, casting patches of yellow across the darkened street but conveying no warmth. It had been three rounds now, maybe four, and Gardner had yet to pay for a drink; his reading tonight went well, and they were falling over themselves to share a pint with Britain’s Greatest Living Author.

I fished another Dunhill from the pack, lighting it with the dwindling ember of the one that preceded it. The ground around me was littered with cigarette butts – I’d been standing there a while. But the moon was high overhead, and the night was getting on. I wouldn’t have to wait much longer.

Finally, midnight rolled around, and the last straggling patrons were ushered out into the chill spring air, the barkeep locking up behind them. Gardner headed up St. Giles, listing slightly. I took a last long drag off my cigarette, and then pitched it into the street, falling in behind him. I kept some distance between us, in case he looked back.

He didn’t.

A few blocks later, he ducked into an alley to take a leak. I gave him a minute, and then followed. He was leaning one-handed against a wall, pissing behind a Dumpster. The toast of Oxford, or so I’d been told. From here, it was hard to see.

He turned toward me, zipping up his fly. When he spotted me, he started, and damn near tipped over. “Who the bloody hell are you?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”

I stepped toward him. My hand found his chest and reached inside. He knew then. Who I was. What I was doing here.

“Sorry,” I told him. “It’s nothing personal.”

I yanked it free then, that light, that life. Gray-black and swirling, it cast long shadows across the alley, and its song rang bittersweet in my ears. Of course, if anyone had happened by, they’d have seen nothing, heard nothing. No, this show was just for me. For Gardner, too, perhaps, though even then I couldn’t be sure.

Gardner’s body crumpled to the ground, whimpering as it hit the pavement. I paid it no mind. It was already dead, or near enough. Sometimes it takes a minute for the meat to get the message.

I removed from my pocket a bit of worn cloth and a small length of twine, wrapping my prize in the former and binding it tight with the latter. The whole package was scarcely larger than an acorn. I slipped it into my inside coat-pocket and then set off down the street, whistling quietly to myself as I disappeared into the night.

***

Sorry – it’s nothing personal.

I wish I could tell you I have no idea how many times I’ve uttered that phrase. That I have no idea how many bodies I’ve left crumpled and inanimate in my wake. I wish I could tell you that, but I can’t.

The truth is, there’ve been thousands. Some, like Gardner, are so damn surprised, they never even see it coming. Some spend their lives in fear of the moment, and catch my scent a mile away; they beg, they plead, they scream. In the end, it doesn’t matter – I always get what I came for. And I remember each and every one of them. Every face. Every name.

I collect souls. The souls of the damned, to be precise. Not the most rewarding gig, I’ll admit, but I didn’t choose it – it chose me. Once upon a time, I was a man named Sam Thornton. I paid my taxes. I went to church. I didn’t litter. I was a model fucking citizen, and then it all went to shit. That business with Gardner? Sixty-odd years ago, that was me, and believe me, my collection was nowhere near as pretty.

The River Cherwell glimmered in the morning sun as I strolled along its bank, the path before me empty but for the occasional enterprising Oxford student out for a pre-class jog. By noon the place would be packed – couples strolling hand-in-hand through the gardens, tourists poling rented punts up and down the river – all manner of lively good cheer I’d just as well avoid. Now, though, I’d done my deed, burying Gardner’s soul deep beneath a patch of dog’s-tooth violet, and I thought that for a moment, at least, I could wander in peace. I should have known better. That’s the bitch about being damned – things rarely shake out your way.

“Collector!”

Her call came from behind me, carried like a song on the breeze. “Morning, Lily,” I said, turning. She was a few paces back on the path, her red hair cascading down over a whisper of a summer dress, her bare feet leaving no prints on the dirt path as she approached. “Aren’t you up a little early?”

“When I rise is no concern of yours, Collector. And I’ve asked you not to call me that.”

“Right,” I replied. “Must’ve slipped my mind.”

She cast an appraising glance my way, the faintest of smiles playing across her face, and despite myself, I flushed. “You look like shit,” she said. “Why you persist in eschewing the living in favor of these rotting meat-suits, I’ll never know.”

“The living give me a headache.”

“That is what they do best.”

“This a social call?” I asked, shaking a Dunhill from the pack and striking a match.

“Hardly. Are you going to offer me one of those?”

“No,” I replied, taking a long drag and slowly exhaling. “So who’s the job?”

“Her name is Kate MacNeil.”

“Contract or freelance?”

“She struck no bargain. Her actions are to blame.”

“What’d she do?”

“As I understand it, she slaughtered her family.”

“Christ,” I said, noting her disdainful glare. “Where is she now?”

“Manhattan,” she said. “I trust that’s not a problem?”

“It’s a place like any other,” I replied.

“Of course it is. But as you well know, failure is not an option. I simply thought that, given your history there…”

“I’ll get the job done.”

“Yes,” she said, “I expect you will. You should know that there’s a timeline on this. It seems she’s caught the eye of some rather influential… people. I wouldn’t dally.”

“I never do.”

“No,” she said, “You never do.” She caressed my cheek, a teasing gesture, and then strolled northward past me up the footpath. A warm breeze kicked up from the south, and her sundress clung to her beautiful frame.

“Oh, and Collector?” she called, glancing backward.

“Yes?”

Do try to enjoy yourself, won’t you?”

And suddenly she was gone, replaced by a teeming swarm of butterflies, left to scatter on the warm southern wind.