When the dead are the last things to stay buried . . .
In Winnipeg's underworld, every mortician is on the take and every revenant of myth waits to claw their way out of their tombs. The dead stay in the ground because of Winter Murray, a necromancer of the Compact. A victim of abduction and a criminal herself, Winter stalks Winnipeg's Graveside, preventing larger, more heinous crimes from spilling over into the lives of the Sunsiders, no matter what laws of gods and men she must break to do so. Winter is a chimera, sharing the genetic material of her own never-born fraternal twin sister. Her dead twin's essence provides her a link to the Kingdom—the land of the dead—and a tie to a past she's run from for thirteen years. Winter struggles to find a redemption she doesn't believe she deserves. The temptation of dirty deeds is everywhere: An animated skeleton with a penchant for wearing dead men's clothes wants her on his payroll. Her deceased, but not gone mentor, still pushes her to take the easy way by being hard. A composite man assembled from soldiers who still puts boot to ass when Winter demands. A vampire that wants just a taste. Each pulls at Winter ensuring a normal life remains eternally out of reach, and the easy way is anything but.
Shortlisted for the Aurora Award. Necromancers, undead twins, animated skeletons, composite men made of dead soldiers . . . this book has it all! An action-packed foray into "Graveside" underneath the city of Winnipeg, where anything can happen. Perfect for fans of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files and Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books. – Sandra Kasturi
"Ginther brings the paranormal to Manitoba in this supernatural thriller, which is sure to delight lovers of gritty urban fantasy. . . . [T]his series launch should appeal to fans of the hard-boiled fantasy novels of Richard Kadrey and Simon R. Green."– Publishers Weekly
"With old friends lost and new associates added, and a few threads still unraveled at story's finish, it may be expected those loose ends will lead into other storylines and be tied together in future novels. If this is the case, the sequel to Graveyard Mind and the further adventures of Winter, et al, will be eagerly awaited."– New York Journal of Books
Grave digging takes time. Grave robbing goes quicker than you'd think. By now, I could do this in my sleep: get to the top of the coffin and clear enough room to open the viewing hatch. No point in eating the whole box of cereal when you want the toy at its centre.
Straddling the corpse of death cult scumbag, Karl Daher, wasn't high on my list of Wednesday night plans. Yet here I was.
I slipped a small candy ball from my pocket and popped it into my mouth. I bit the candy, snapping it in half. A taste of mint and a rush of air, like I was trying to breathe with my head out a car window, and Karl's stolen last breath returned to his body. His eyes snapped open and the moist earth smell of the grave was eclipsed by Karl voiding his bowels.
"What the fuck?" he screamed.
I pressed the spade against his chest, and put my weight on it. I kept its edge nice and sharp. Karl's head snapped back against the coffin's velvet cushion as he shrank from the pressure.
"Shut up, Karl." I grabbed a handful of dirt, sprinkling it over his Salvation Army suit. "Or I cover you again."
Who would've thought such a short word could last so long? Sure, he broke it up with the occasional sob and whine. I glanced around. Noise like that, no way he'd miss it. And the last person—living or dead—I wanted to bump into while on the job, was him. I didn't want to think his name. Speak of the devil, and all that.
Stupid bastard would get us both killed. I didn't have long to piss around.
I pulled a one-litre plastic water bottle from my pack and set it beside him calmly. Such a simple thing, and it startled him back to a semblance of coherence.
"What is that?" he asked.
"Water," I said, smiling.
He licked his cracked lips. "For me?"
I nodded. "You must be parched. When I close up your coffin, I don't want you to die of thirst."
His shoulder twitched, trying to make his hand grab the bottle. Obviously, Karl hadn't been listening too carefully. I elaborated. "I want you to live long enough that the hunger makes you consider eating your fingers, hoping I'll come back for you. Eventually."
His face, already corpse-grey, went white as the moon. Good. He heard. And he believed.
"Would you want that?" I asked.
Again with the wailing. Whoever—whatever—his master was, they must be pretty hard up.
"You keep shrieking and I'll talk to your corpse." That quieted him. "I'm going to ask you some questions, Karl, and I'd better like your answers." I leaned forward again; his stink wafted over me. "I'll know if you're lying."
He squinted his eyes tightly shut and choked down his sobs. "Please don't leave me here."
Sometimes it paid to be the heavy.
"Who do you work for, Karl?" I asked. I kept using his name. I'd found it created an intimacy that added to intimidation. What else might I know? Wife. Mistress. Kids. Dog. Anything, and everything.
His eyes were still wide, haunted. I worried I may've pushed him a bit too hard. But then, thinking about what he and his fellows had likely been doing since their arrival, I wasn't too concerned. I'd watched the memorial service earlier, wondering who might show up. Not a popular guy, my mark—hardly surprising for a self-righteous lowlife. He'd served his purpose; I had photos of the interested parties from the funeral. Unfortunately, no one remotely in charge had shown up, and the "mourners" turned out to be dead ends. I still had no idea who was moving in on my turf.
That's why I'd planted Karl. To make sure he'd talk.
"Church of the Risen Redeemer."
I groaned. "You're shitting me."
Everyone working Graveside knew the Redeemers were a sham and a front. A ruse used by any number of cults to suck in ignorant low-level fodder. People who desperately wanted to believe in something and with the right leader, could be made to do anything.
"I don't like that answer, Karl."
"Oh, Jesus, no."
If he'd been brave enough to move, he might've tried to cross himself.
"Jesus has no part in what you do." I smiled. My teeth were a row of tombstones. I'd practised this face years ago, when Grannie had shown me what I was. "Who do you serve?"
"I'm dead. I'm dead. He'll kill me."
"Karl, I'll kill you, too. But I'll also stop caring when you leave the city. You won't get any fairer than that. Get gone, stay gone, and to me you'll be gone."
It was a simple technique. Show them the darkness. Offer a sliver of light. Most'll go towards it. Most'll take the easy way.
I still had nightmares about the ones who hadn't.
I wondered which cult topped this branch of the Redeemers. It didn't matter. Whether they claimed to worship God, Hades, Hel, Mictlantecuhtli, or Tuoni and Tuonetan, what Graveside folks followed weren't deities in the way Sunside thought of them. Those Who Dwell Beyond the Threshold used their worshippers' souls to hold entropic forces of the Kingdom at bay—consuming the faithful instead of answering prayers. You bought reprieve from them with your sacrifices, but they'd get you eventually. Necromancers of the Compact—like me—tried to keep them from getting everybody.
Tendrils of fog drifted over the rough edges of Karl's grave. I looked up, wrinkling my nose. Something stank like a dead body in high summer. And it wasn't my patsy.
"Say nothing," I hissed at Karl.
The poor bastard looked ready to pull the lid closed on his coffin and call it a night.
Mist wrapped around the open grave, swirling until it coalesced in the shape of a man. He wasn't much to look at. You could see him on any street and not remark on anything other than his pallor. His bald head had a sloping point to it. The clothes he wore—no doubt stolen from his last victim—accentuated his paunch. Despite his shabby appearance, and being shorter than me, Christophe knew how to loom. All vampires did.
"Ah, little Winnie," he cooed.
"My name is Winter." It was hard to keep the edge from my voice, but I managed.
"I am your elder." He smiled his shark-toothed grin. "Surely you will forgive me for using the diminutive."
It pissed me off, but it wasn't worth starting a rumble over. Leastways one I wasn't sure I could win. The necromancer who'd first raised a vampire needed a kick with a steel-toed boot. And I knew right where to put that boot.
"Sure," I said, straining for a light tone. "I can forgive it, this once." This once. He used it every damn time I saw him.
"Excellent," Christophe said. His grin fell away and his Hades-dark eyes, small and shrivelled, like rotten blueberries, ran up and down my body. It was hard deciding what was scarier. His smile, or his frown. "I warned you about digging for prizes in my boneyard."
He had. If Frank hadn't been with me, I might've died that night.
So I lied. "I thought I was in McCoy's territory."
"Do not speak of Mister Bones to me," he snapped.
I pointed at Karl and tried to keep my tone light when I said, "He's alive, Chris. One of mine."
I could use the diminutive also. I shouldn't be trying to piss him off.
The vampire's smile returned and he laughed. There was no blood or flesh caught between his jagged teeth. He hadn't fed tonight.
Not a good sign.
Christophe wiped away a fake tear. Vampires could mimic human bodily functions. Vampires needed to do none of it. They didn't breathe. Didn't tire. They could sit perfectly motionless for hours—days if they need to—waiting for prey. They'd learned the trick of appearing human. Breathing, blinking. The little twitches and shifts in body posture we all do when we're "at rest." They had to, or they'd be pretty easy to spot—and kill. Try sitting across the table from one not playing human. The slight sensation of wrongness growing and growing until you knew you were going to be eaten.
"A necromancer claiming the living as one of 'her own.' If only I had someone to share this jest with." His gaze drifted to Karl and I knew that was it; no more information from this patsy.
Christophe knelt next to the open grave, reached into the coffin, and jerked Karl out by the hair. The vampire's mouth distended slightly, like a snake swallowing a meal, and his gums pushed out past the edges of his mouth. He didn't subdue Karl with his gaze. I tugged my cloak in front of me, to shield me from the inevitable, and looked away as Karl screamed. Keeping the peace was worth more than keeping him alive.
His cry collapsed into a wet gurgle as Christophe bit down. Karl kicked earth into the grave, peppering the hood of my cloak. When his scrambling ended, the night was still but for Christophe's ecstatic moans as he lapped the slowing trickle of his victim's lifeblood.
Karl's body tumbled atop his coffin unceremoniously. The vampire sat with his legs dangling over the edge of the grave. He leaned back on one arm and ran his tongue over his teeth. He missed most of the blood painting his face.
I put my hands on my hips, inching one hand toward an obsidian knife in a leather sheath hidden by my jacket. It should kill Christophe deader than any wooden stake. If—and that was a big if—I could tag him with it.
"I wasn't done with him."
He smiled, feigning innocence. "You should have worked faster. Or scared him less. His blubbering cries brought me here, not your swaying steps. How did you manage to sneak in, my dear?"
"Trade secret," I said.
"I could pull it from your mind."
"Perhaps you could." I forced my back straight. Vampires had powers to sway and control the living. They were among the few risen dead that could do so. A necromancer had power over the dead—including the undead. I didn't, however, want to risk a contest of wills between us.
"You don't need such subterfuge. I could be persuaded to give you free rein of my little domain here."
"Your price is still too high," I said, and meant it. To do as he asked, to let him taste my blood, could give him absolute power over me. Something, once freely given, could never be revoked.
"If not the warmth of your blood, then, your body?"
"No," I spat. "You can't even have sex."
He wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Everything is sex with you breathers."
"It keeps us going."
"Yes, I suppose it does. If it wasn't for you beasts rutting, I'd have run out of food long ago." His eyes glinted wolf-yellow as they caught the moonlight. "It wouldn't be the first night you spent with a dead monster's arms wrapped tightly around you, would it?"
Shit. Did he know or was he guessing? Sweat beaded at my brow. His smile said it all.
"Frank's worth ten of you."
"I knew it!" Christophe hooted joyfully, springing to his feet, almost capering. A happy vampire was no less unsettling than an angry one. "And what has he done to earn this . . . value?"
"He saved my life."
"And meanwhile, I have spared it. On numerous occasions, I might add." His finger wiped the sweat from my brow. He smelled the bead before a long, black tongue licked it from his digit. "A pale promise of your taste," he said with a sigh. "Someday."
"Not any day soon."
He spread his arms wide and bowed. "I assure you, I have time to kill. You may question his corpse if you wish. I will allow you that much. Tidy up before you leave."
The bastard knew that'd be no help at all. Karl's spirit would need to settle for a full turn of the moon before it could be convinced to come to my call. If it could be convinced at all. Taking a bit of his body to compel Karl would be taken as another challenge to Christophe's territory.
Christophe snapped his arms back up theatrically and a cloud of bats and rats tumbled from where he'd been standing to flap and scurry away, squeaking into the night.
I looked at Karl. "Sorry, pal. Not how I saw tonight going."
A sibilant voice whispered, "I wonder how quick your tongue would be if you'd lost someone you cared about?"
Summer. My neverborn twin. I heard her loud and clear. No one else could. Lucky them.
"If such a person existed."
She shouldn't have been stirring. The new moon was past. It should've been weeks before I'd hear her again. But I was in the 'yard, and she was always anxious around the dead. The looming thirteenth anniversary of my kidnapping wouldn't help.
Neverborn, and Summer still managed to piss me off. I supposed I should be grateful—her and my chimeric nature were my gateway to the world of the dead. What a gift.
I grabbed a small flask from my back pocket. I unscrewed the lid and took a long swallow. The whispers stopped. Summer had a child's palate. I took another slug to bolster myself.
It was awkward stuffing Karl's corpse back into the coffin but I managed without getting too much literal blood or waste on my hands.
Figuratively, I was swimming in it.