Chapter 1: Madrigal
Her pistols were .44s, ivory handles yellowed with age – more than a hundred years of faithful use will do that to a tool. But embedded in the ivory were small steel crosses and they were shiny, as highly polished as the body of each revolver. Aside from the antique style and the yellowed handles, the weapons looked new, almost as young as the woman on whose hips they rested.
She was maybe 22 or 23, short straight blonde hair framing an almost boyish face. Almost but not quite. Even with no make-up her inherent prettiness was apparent, cheeks and small nose colorful enough from a dusting of freckles. The color was enough to set off sea green eyes and pale pink lips.
Beneath the busted up denim jacket and baggy cargo pants there were curves, but the clothes and the Western gun belts and her dusty python boots downplayed the obvious signs of femininity. She had the look of a young woman who had been forced at an even younger age to learn how to hold her own with men – hold her own and then some.
She absentmindedly gnawed at her lower lip while glancing at the glowing face of an old Timex. She then pulled on a pair of tight black leather gunner’s gloves and sighed.
Patience was not among her virtues.
“Been here long?”
The voice was cold and raspy, masculine yet quiet. He sounded like a man trying to recover from a fatal disease. And failing.
She glanced over her right shoulder into the gloomy pine woods behind her; a tall, gaunt figure wearing steel rimmed sunglasses stepped into the clearing just as the full moon peeked from behind the clouds and lit up the area. The man made no sound.
“Nope,” she said. “You?”
“Trailed him awhile. He should be coming up the road inside five minutes.”
The pale man smiled a little and rubbed the side of his long, thin nose with a cracked leather gauntlet.
“Preoccupied. Response time right now would probably be about half an hour.”
The young woman nodded and raised an eyebrow. She’d have to get the story on that one later. At that moment she was busy with a pair of binoculars scanning the old house in the shallow valley below their position. The porch was illuminated warmly by a yellow bug light. A lamp was softly glowing in the living room – she could see that through a side window. In the front yard, just beyond the porch and within the pool of yellow light, sat a battered reddish Subaru Brat. Normal enough.
Slowly, her gaze followed the rough driveway back to the sandy road – more of a wide trail than a road – and traced the pale ribbon backwards into the shadows. Even with the help of the moon there wasn’t much to see: dirt road, recently harvested tobacco field, old house, truck, hillsides, black trees.
Suddenly she thought she saw something moving, a pale speck moving up the road towards the house. It was in no hurry.
“Do you -- ?”
“I’ve been watching him all along. That’s his tee-shirt you’re seeing.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Smoking. And picking his teeth.”
“Oh, bullshit. You can’t see that from here.”
“Oh ye of little faith.”
“I think half the time you just tell me things to see what I’ll say.”
“Maddie, I can even tell you what brand he’s smoking.”
She glanced at the pale man.
He laughed a quiet, painful sounding laugh.
“Had you going there for a sec, didn’t I?”
The young woman who was known to others as Madrigal shook her head and put the glasses back up to her face. But the truth was, she never knew if her partner was being truthful about what weird things he could do – he was always changing, a little at a time. After every trip to Texas, he came back a little paler, a little thinner, a little stranger. A little more powerful.
She wondered what it was costing him. She never had the guts to ask – these things were private matters. But over the years she’d seen some pretty harsh trade-offs in the name of The Job. Hell, she’d made some herself.
The young woman spat.
Her partner’s voice was suddenly serious. “But he is picking his teeth. With a toothpick”
Madrigal’s jaw locked as she gritted her teeth. Easy, she told herself while forcing herself to loosen up. Easy.
She looked through the binoculars again. The lone figure was now closer to the house and was beginning to catch a little porch light. The pale spot was a tee shirt and she could actually make out the pale orange glow of a cigarette as it flared when the figure took a draw.
Madrigal glanced at the pale man behind her for a moment. His eyes were concealed by the sunglasses and he looked impassive. He shrugged. The young woman looked back through the field glasses.
The figure walked to the Subaru and stretched before pulling out some jingling door keys. Whistling drifted up from the valley floor to the sandy ridge where Madrigal crouched behind the tree line. The fellow below sounded fairly contented.
The man stepped up on the porch, which creaked under his weight, and disappeared, position obscured as he passed under the roof. The screen door opened, keys jingled again, and the front door opened and shut. More lights came on inside as the man went through the house. A pause. Then the blue flicker from a TV came from somewhere in the front room, the one with the lamp.
Madrigal’s partner stood beside her now, his scarred black leather duster rubbing her shoulder. She looked up and watched him watching the house below.
“Ready?” he asked.
She nodded absentmindedly, as if he could see her while not looking in her direction. Maybe he could, for all she knew anymore.
She stood, quietly drawing her gleaming pistols. The pale man pulled back his duster revealing four black Colt .45 automatics with custom made extended magazines. An extra set of magazines for each pistol was attached to the webbing on his chest.
The man silently withdrew one pistol.
Together, Madrigal and the pale man descended the hill.
The young woman motioned toward the rear of the house and her partner disappeared in that direction. Taking a deep breath to slow her pulse, she went to the front corner of the house and slid over to the side window, the living room window. She quickly peeked in and rolled back. Nothing odd. TV on the SciFi Channel, a reading lamp glowing on the table next to a couch. All in all, a tiny, but very clean, bachelor’s house.
Gnawing her lower lip, the young woman went over to the side of the front porch, sat down, and slowly swung her legs up, careful not to scrape the wood with the heels of her boots. She eased along on her hands and knees beneath the front window till she could stand in front of the front door. Her training had allowed her to do all of this without causing the porch to as much as squeak.
Then there was the screen door. She’d have to get through that without losing the element of surprise, but she knew that the spring on it would creak loudly when stretched. Breathing deeply, she flared her nostrils, pursed her lips, and decided to take her chances.
You only live once.
The left pistol was slipped back into its holster and then she jerked the screen aside, grabbed the door knob, and twisted. The lock broke; oddly, blue sparks showered from it. Madrigal ignored this and kicked the door open, pistol at ready.
The floor of the living room was an old fashioned light green linoleum with a black pattern. It caught her eye and wanted to hold her attention – something about it reminded her of . . . something, something from long ago, something bad. Something terrifying.
Damn it – stop!
She blinked hard and refused to look down again.
A young man in a white tee shirt was standing in the hallway into the living room that linked the back rooms to the front; he was directly across from Madrigal. He had an unlit cigarette in one hand and a toothpick clenched between his teeth. The air smelled like cigarette smoke – menthols.
The man had long hair, black, and was tanned, a little thin. Blue jeans and dusty Reeboks – stylish enough. Except for the dried blood around the mouth.
“Hey,” he said, smiling, “I’m glad you came.” His voice was enthusiastic, sincere. It didn’t belong to someone who was frightened, nor to someone you’d want to shoot.
Madrigal brought the pistol up. The man blinked – she hesitated a long moment. He took a gentle step forward.
She squinted and looked away from his eyes – the pistol barked.
The man staggered back and slammed against the wall, his hands involuntarily clutching at his chest. Thick black ooze splashed the floor with a quiet hiss.
“You bitch!,” he screamed. “I just wanted to talk!”
Looking from his liquid covered hands to Madrigal, the man stood back up and took a long stride toward her. She hesitated again, but recovered inside a second. Her pistol jumped three more times. Chunks of flesh and bone flew from the back of his head as two bullets slammed into the left eye and then another caught him dead in the throat.
Madrigal’s head was swimming as she listened to the thing squeal, pig-like, its hot, hissing black fluids pouring out on the strange linoleum. She closed her eyes tightly and drew the second pistol, firing rapidly as she backed out the door.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, . . ..
Suddenly, the air was split by 32 rapid thunderclaps – Madrigal glanced up to see the thing she’d been facing fly apart in flaming bits as each shell struck the body – it fell with a heavy sound, smoldering, flames starting to pour from the wounds.
Her partner stepped over the body and into the room, as silent as ever, two pistols smoking in his hands. He turned her around and gave a gentle push off the porch – she came to herself and jumped out into the yard. The pale man followed.
They watched as the house began to smoke, then burn, its ancient dry timbers set ablaze by the dead thing in the hallway.
“I’ve never had that happen . . .”
“Yeah . . . yeah, like it was . . . wrong to kill it.”
The pale man looked down at her. The reflection of the flames was dancing in the dark lenses.
“That sort preys on women, Madrigal. Their magic is aimed entirely at overpowering a woman – even one as powerful as you, evidently.”
“Where were you?”
“Watching. For the most part. I wanted to see the thing in action – usually I only arrive to see the aftermath.”
His cold voice was filled with a sort of fascination, as if he were an entomologist talking about a rare insect.
“What the Hell do you mean, ‘Watching?!’ That thing could have taken me to pieces – didn’t you see that it was almost immune to the pistols? My God.”
“Well, I was also ransacking its library – interesting reading habits, to say the least.” He reached into an inside pocket of his duster and pulled out an ancient tome; it was covered in oak boards with strange carvings held together by dark leather. After showing it to her, he replaced it.
“I didn’t want to leave this lying around for the emergency responders – when they finally get here.” He cocked his head. “Which will be in about fifteen minutes.”
They sprinted up the hill back to their vantage point, the heat from the house oppressive on their backs.
Madrigal looked up at the moon. “It’s about one. We meet back at the motel inside four hours.”
He smiled at her. Madrigal was scowling, more than a little put out that her partner had used her in some sort of test.
“I was watching, Maddie,” he said. “And it’s not as if I couldn’t have shot it through the wall.”
And with that, he silently disappeared into the forest’s shadows.
She stood for a few minutes, listening as the sirens came into range before holstering the pistols and making her way through the woods herself. There was a deep ditch about half a mile back that led to a large culvert beneath a back road. On the other side of the road, in the culvert, was her motorcycle. She’d take the long way out to the highway and enjoy riding beneath the moon – while trying to forget the horrid, crawling pattern in the green linoleum, the light in the thing’s eyes, and its voice, the voice that turned off all the years of training and combat inside of just a moment.
. . . pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Richard Van Ingram
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