Monsters hide among the suburbs. Roland McReedy knows because he works for one, under duress. "The Rajah." Roland and his partner Nelson hunt down occult oddities under threat of death for themselves, and worse for their families. Roland and Nelson face the night with only their knives, billy clubs, and wits to protect them.
But the Rajah's latest demand pits Roland and Nelson against the foulest creatures in the San Francisco Bay Area, including a horror older than time itself.
In a world full of monsters how can a mere human survive?
Caught Between Monsters, an exciting dark urban fantasy novel, set in a world where magic causes more problems than it solves. A standalone Edge of Humanity novel from Stefon Mears, author of the Rise of Magicand the Spells for Hire series.
Stefon writes a lot of urban fantasy stories. He also writes damn fine crime stories. His Edge of Humanity series blends both skills in a wonderful way. Monsters in the suburbs? Who knew? Well, Stefon, of course. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Sometimes being human sucks.
That was all I could think as I lay there among the dirt and garbage, my head spinning from its sharp crack against the side of the old, abandoned Safeway. At least I missed the edge of the dumpster. That was some small mercy. I rubbed my aching head as my sore ribs expanded, letting air back in along with the stench of decay. Painful, getting the wind knocked out of you, and that blow to the head was going to need a lot of ibuprofen later. Why was I here again?
"Roland! Little help here?"
I looked up and saw my partner, Nelson, squaring off against that thing. The scene should have been comical. Nelson had too much pudge and too little hair. You might have mistaken him for an accountant, especially in his short-sleeved shirt and tie. Well, you'd have been half right. He used to be an accountant. But Nelson had the soul of an MMA champion – you could see it in his stance, his bearing, the way he held his billy club. You could almost believe he was a hero. Of course, it helped that the thing he faced had let its human guise slip. While we shadowed it, the thing looked like Jed Brunner, track star and poster boy for the Aryan Nation. A few nasty blows later, its hair grew long and coarse, its fingers into claws the color of bruises, and its teeth into fangs stained yellow-brown from their diet of human flesh.
It took us five days to find this ghul. Had to be the right kind, too, none of those Western European cemetery haunters. No, the Rajah insisted on…
The ghul lunged and Nelson rolled to one side, swinging his club at its knees as he went. He missed. I shoved myself back to my feet and almost lurched onto my face. My head pounded a rapid dance beat. No, wait. That was from Hy Brasil, the dance club on the corner and the only thing in this half-empty shopping center still pulling in a crowd. All my head did was throb.
No sign of my knife or billy club. The pockets of my khakis only contained keys and my wallet, and my windbreaker only held the sample bottle. Nelson and the ghul circled each other again. Both had taken enough lumps to hesitate, now each wanted an opening before attacking.
I sighed. I had no weapon. My options narrowed to something stupid, but let's be honest here. Everything about my life these days was stupid.
I roared and charged. Nelson feinted with his billy club to hold the ghul's focus and I drove my skinny, six-foot frame into its side in an open-field tackle that would have made my high school football coach proud. I caught it from behind, just below the rib cage, and we went down in a heap.
Nelson was right there. His club whistled past my head and slammed into the ghul's skull, the blow magnified by the asphalt. I grabbed the ghul's elbows and pinned its arms to its sides. Two, three, four, five more blows and the ghul stopped struggling. Nelson gave it one more for good measure, but this thing was out, and when it woke later it would have a worse headache than I would.
That made me feel a little better.
"Took you long enough." He showed me teeth marks on his billy club. "The thing damn near bit me."
"Sorry," I said with a shudder. "Got my bell rung pretty bad."
"Well you're buying the beer."
"Wait, I get beat half unconscious and I buy the beer?"
He shoved his billy club in my face. The fang scars looked worse up close, but Nelson would have suffered more than lacerations if those teeth had struck true. "All right, the first round is on me."
"The first round, take it or leave it."
"My paycheck's no bigger than yours."
Speaking of paychecks … I pulled out the sample bottle with its rubber top and shoved it against what I hoped were the ghul's incisors. Its teeth were all so sharp I couldn't be sure. Rubbing from the back of the jaw, I massaged a biting motion and listened for the spraying sound of venom jetting into the bottle. A minute later the bottle was full and I sealed it with its special cap. I slipped the bottle into the pocket of my windbreaker.
While I was busy Nelson found my club and knife for me.
"Think we should kill it?" Nelson toyed with the handle of his knife, an army surplus Ka-Bar like mine. "It's going to be pissed."
"Ghuls are too practical for vengeance." I shrugged. "All it will remember is that we beat it and left it alive when we could have killed it. It'll probably go out of its way to avoid us."
"It eats people."
"What if we have to get more venom? Do you want to track down another ghul?"
Nelson grimaced, but then looked up with a smile. "But we have the venom. And now, beer!"
"And now the Rajah. Beer after."
We left the ghul where it was, among the garbage.
* * *
The Rajah's mansion perched high in Los Altos Hills, on six acres of hilltop that, even undeveloped, would cost more money than a guy like me would see in three lifetimes. Add in the ten thousand plus square feet of opulence, and the Rajah's place must have cost more than the GNP of several small Central American countries.
"You'd think this guy could afford to pay us better," I said as Nelson and I stood on the doorstep. Mind you, that doorstep included a covered porch twenty feet wide and ten feet deep, made from some sort of milky-white stonework with veins of purple and gold running through it. Three steps of the same material led up to it, and I could not see a single chip or smudge anywhere on that gleaming, polished surface.
And that was for people to stand on. People who might never make it past the ornately crafted red front door. I could only imagine what the Rajah spent on his bedroom. Probably enough to feed and clothe the Bay Area's homeless for a decade.
But it wasn't just the money. This sort of extravagance carried an arrogance along with it. For example, behind us I would have sworn the fancy sheet rock driveway — private road really — resented the presence of my beat up, used Camry.
I took the whole scene in with a wave of my hand. "You know he's getting top dollar for what we bring him."
"Every time, you say that." Nelson shook his head. "At least come up with a new complaint."
The door opened and there stood the butler. I could never tell exactly how old the butler was. Somewhere between sixty and ninety. His perfect posture accented his slim build the way the neat trim of his ghost white hair accented the red tint of his pale skin. As always, he wore a full, formal uniform, without a wrinkle or a mote of dust showing anywhere. Immaculate, from the trim of his eyebrows to the perfection of his shave to the shine of his shoes.
"How are you tonight, Jeeves?"
I didn't know what his name was. The butler never spoke in our presence. But I had to call him something, and Alfred would have implied that the Rajah had some kind of cool, Batman vibe.
Jeeves ushered us into our usual small waiting room. Two huge comfortable chairs for us, high backs and wide arms, both sunset blue. Between the chairs sat a carved teak tripod table holding a spotless silver ashtray. The chairs faced a leather recliner that sat taller than our seats. Above it on the wall was a painting of a tiger, shadowed in its den. The whole room was done in dark woods, with a throw rug on the floor in a red and orange pattern that looked Eastern to me.
"Something to drink, Jeeves?"
Jeeves favored me with a patronizing smile and left.
"When has he ever brought us drinks?" asked Nelson.
"Never hurts to try, right?"
"You always have to push."
"Look, hospitality implies certain etiquette."
"Are you trying to get us killed?"
"Anytime you're finished, gentlemen."
Nelson and I stared slack-jawed at the chair facing us. The door never opened. No special effects. Just, suddenly, the Rajah was seated, a short, thin Indian man with black hair and eyes, wearing a cerulean shirt and pants and a blood red smoking jacket. He wore slippers that matched the jacket, and a gold ring with an emerald the size of a dime on the middle finger of his right hand. He also had gold stud earrings, one in each lobe.
Some people might mistake the Rajah for human. Which would make sense, since most people don't know that ghuls and things like the Rajah – whatever he was – were running around the San Francisco Bay Area, preying on human beings. There was a time when I didn't know that either. I wish I still didn't. I'd love to go back to that blissful ignorance, but it's way too late for me.
Of course, even then, I would have recognized that there was something wrong about the Rajah. Heck, I did recognize it, the sense of menace, of threat that he carried. I still felt it — his wrongness — but I'd been around him enough that I only noticed it as a flutter in my stomach.
Still, when the Rajah looked at you, you felt like a rabbit facing a wolf; you wanted to freeze or run, but it didn't matter which because it was already too late. You were dead. You just didn't know it yet.
"Good evening, Rajah." I forced the words out because I knew Nelson could not have. He had been working for the Rajah longer than I had, and had lost the ability to speak in the boss' presence without a direct order. Poor Nelson was sweating more right now than he did in our fight with the ghul.
"Are you here because you have milked a ghul for me or because you have failed and are ready to be eaten?"
"We have the venom!" I almost fumbled the bottle in my haste to toss it to him. "Here."
"There is still empty space in the bottle."
"There's a fill line. On the back. I passed it."
The Rajah held the bottle up to the light. "So you did." He opened the lid and held the bottle up to his nose. His nostrils flared. "Pure ghul. Three shapes tonight, including primal. I would guess ..." he took a deep sniff "… older than one hundred, but not older than one hundred fifty." He replaced the cap. "Very high quality. Well done. Not only will I not eat you tonight, you will each receive a bonus. Return tomorrow for your next assignment."
"So soon? We both got pretty … badly …" My words trailed off. Nothing in the Rajah's posture or expression changed, but I suddenly felt as though he were reconsidering eating us. As though I needed to shut the hell up and live to see the morning.
"Tomorrow then," said the Rajah as he stood. We stood by reflex, and suddenly Jeeves was there, guiding us back out through the front door.
"Always have to push," said Nelson.