Read The Killing Floor Blues Online
Authors: Craig Schaefer
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Paranormal & Urban, #Sword & Sorcery
5. The Killing Floor Blues
Fleiss cradled the folder to the chest of her gray wool blazer like it was a sleeping rattlesnake. The glass elevator chimed, its cage shuddering as it soared up to the penthouse floor. Her final destination.
The door opened onto a window-walled antechamber done up with burnt-orange trim and beech furniture. A young woman—her dress an identical shade of orange—rose from behind the reception desk.
“Welcome to Northlight, Ms. Fleiss,” she chirped. “Did you have a good flight?”
Fleiss ignored the pleasantries. She slipped off her mirrored sunglasses as she strode toward the tall double doors at the opposite end of the waiting room, her heels clicking on the hardwood floor.
“May I see him?”
The receptionist waved her hand, still flashing a thousand-watt smile, and the doors swung open onto darkness.
No windows in the penthouse. The doors glided shut behind her, sealing her inside, plunging her into shadow.
That was fine. Fleiss could see in the dark.
Behind a curving desk, a figure sat silently in the gloom. A man built of shadow and fog, a living negative scratched onto the film of the world. He idly shuffled a worn-out pack of tarot cards. He’d flip a few cards onto the desk, study them for a moment, then shuffle them back in and try again.
His head lifted, tilting Fleiss’s way, and he flashed gleaming, perfectly white teeth.
“My darling,” the Smile said. “Now what was so important you had to come all the way here just to see me? I hope you’re bringing me happy news.”
“My lord.” She dropped into a nervous half bow. “We may have a problem. I just received the latest surveillance data from our seers.”
She set her folder on the desk between them.
“They believe—” She paused, swallowing hard. “They believe the Paladin was in Las Vegas. Recently.”
He didn’t reply at first. Ghostly fingers opened the folder, leafing through pages of hand-typed transcripts.
,” he finally echoed, his voice gone cold.
“By the time they picked up the trace, it was too late. They only caught the faintest scent. They don’t even know if it’s a man or a woman this time around—”
“The Paladin is a woman,” the Smile spat. “It is
. Do me a favor, love: go down to the laboratory, pick out the weakest seer, and put a bullet in his head. Then give the others a pay bonus. See if that encourages them to work more diligently.”
“There’s something else,” Fleiss said.
“Of course there is. Continue.”
“There was some sort of occult-underworld gathering in Chicago. A poker tournament. They think at least one of our enemies was there, but that’s not the problem. Daniel Faust was in Vegas at the same time as the Paladin. And we know he was at that tournament in Chicago, too. It could be a coincidence, but—”
“But there are no coincidences. First rule of magic, I’ve been told. You’re
Faust is nothing but a penny-ante street mage?”
Fleiss nodded vigorously. “I’ve swapped him into the Play, making him take the Thief’s place. I couldn’t have done that if he was one of…one of
kind, my lord. It wouldn’t have worked. My concern is that he’s being manipulated by outside forces. A rogue pawn.”
The Smile shuffled his cards and tossed one down, letting it flutter to the desk. The Fool. Then another. The Wheel of Fortune.
“I would like, with your permission,” Fleiss said, “to hedge our bets.”
Fleiss touched the desk with her fingertips. She eyed the cards as the Smile scooped them up again.
“All the Play actually
is that the Thief—or in this case, Daniel Faust—be imprisoned, suffer, and die. We’ve already achieved the first condition just by snaring him in our trap. While I have no doubt that the ordeals ahead will get the rest of the job done to your satisfaction, I could arrange to send in a pair of contractors with concealed weapons. They’ll ensure we get the ending we need.”
“You mean to say,” the Smile asked, “that you want to guarantee the fulfillment of a sacred prophecy by
She bowed her head.
“I meant no offense, my lord.”
up from his desk, a serpentine coil of darkness mimicking a man’s shape. He glided against her, three hands stroking the small of her back, two cold mouths tasting the skin of her neck as she rolled her head back and gasped.
“I approve,” he murmured. “Do it.”
“Anything for you, my lord,” Fleiss whispered. “I worship your shadow. I revere the ground you walk upon.”
He chuckled, slowly pulling away. His smoky outline billowing.
“I know,” he said. “I created you that way. And soon I’ll be back to my old glory. I’ve been stretching my muscles a bit. Reminding myself what I’m capable of. Not much I can do beyond this paltry tower, but it keeps me entertained. Now go. Kill Faust for me. Fulfill what is written.”
Behind her, the penthouse doors swung open. Fleiss bowed and took her leave. She strode through the sapphire-blue lobby, her heels muffled on the thin gray carpeting. The receptionist, his suit the same shade of blue as the walls, rose from behind his desk.
“Thank you for coming, Ms. Fleiss,” he said with a smile. “Have a safe flight home.”
I woke to the grind of a school bus engine and the stench of diesel exhaust.
, I thought, looking out at the Mojave Desert through a mesh of reinforced steel,
not a school bus
My head pounded like a five-tequila hangover and my mouth was dry as a cotton ball. I tried to rub my forehead. Chains rattled. My hand jerked short.
Shackles. A heavy leather belt was locked around my waist. A belt over a dingy orange jumpsuit. Chains ran to the cuffs on my wrists and ankles.
“…the fuck am I?” I muttered. The guy sitting next to me had
tattooed down his neck in flowing calligraphy. He gave me the side-eye.
“Transfer bus, man. Goin’ to the Iceberg. Eisenberg Correctional.”
Now I was wide awake. We rode near the back of a packed bus, two men in jumpsuits and chains to each dirt-brown vinyl bench. Up front, a Department of Correctional Officer held a shotgun like he thought he was in a cowboy movie.
“What? That’s a prison.”
He looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head. “Uh-huh. You were expecting Disney World?”
“I was expecting
. I just got busted an hour ago. I should be in jail waiting for—”
No. Not an hour ago. It all flooded back to me at once: the setup, getting caught red-handed with a dead drug dealer and a gun one bullet short. Hauled in by Las Vegas Metro. Trying to convince Harmony Black that the Chicago Outfit’s pet shape-shifter had framed me for murder.
. I knew it just happened. So why was the high-noon sun burning down at least twelve hours later, and why couldn’t I remember anything that had happened in between then and now?
“There’s been a mistake,” I told the guy. “I can’t be going to prison. I haven’t even had a bail hearing yet, let alone a trial.”
He shook his head, giving me a gap-toothed smile.
“Man, most dudes just insist they’re innocent and leave it at that. You’re really going the extra mile.”
I stared out the window, though the mesh, looking out over the desolation. Nothing here but rocks, cactus and sand, stretching out to the horizon line. Then the bus turned, the two-lane highway bending hard left, and I got a glimpse of our final destination.
Beehives. Those were what I thought of when the towers loomed up ahead, boiling like a mirage in the dry desert air. Three giant beehives, fat cones of drab beige concrete dotted with tiny windows that caught the sunlight and flashed like diamonds.
“Bigger than it looks,” my neighbor told me. “Had a buddy who did a nickel in there. He says most of it’s
I wouldn’t know. The hardest time I’d ever done was a three-day stint in a county jail, if you didn’t count my stretch in a halfway house for wayward youth. I’d always held that the most important skill in any career criminal’s resume was “not getting caught.”
At the moment, that wasn’t working out so well for me.
Two rings of fencing stood between us and the prison, fifteen feet high and topped with razor-sharp concertina wire. A bright orange sign on the outer ring screamed “This Fence Is Electrified at All Times,” next to a cartoon silhouette of a skeleton hit by a lightning bolt. The bus slowed to a stop and waited. A horn blared, twice, and the outer gate slowly rolled open.
As we stopped again, between the two gates, guards circled the bus. One held a huge black mastiff on a lead, while the other inspected the bus’s undercarriage with a mirror on a telescoping rod. They were some kind of private security outfit, not state Correctional Officers, wearing crisp navy blue uniforms and belts loaded for bear: sleek black automatics on one hip, canisters of pepper spray on the other.
Satisfied, the guard with the mirror rapped on the bus door and waved us on. The second gate rolled open, grinding on its wheels, and my stomach roiled like I’d just gulped down an entire bottle of hot sauce. This was wrong, this was all wrong, and I wanted to run until my legs gave out.
I looked out the window, up to the towers that dotted the fence line. Polished windows gave each crow’s nest a three hundred and sixty degree view of the action, and every guard on point wore a military-grade sniper rifle slung over one shoulder.
I hadn’t even gotten off the bus yet, and I was already counting all the ways to die.
“On your feet!” shouted the officer up front as the bus came to its final stop. “You will exit the bus single file. You will follow the white line into the processing building. You will not speak.”
I was bad at following orders. I got up and joined the slow line off the bus, shuffle-stopping every few feet until I got close enough to catch the officer’s eye.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I need to talk to somebody in charge. There’s been a mistake—”
exit the bus.” His fingers tightened around the shotgun barrel. “You will
No point arguing with a brick wall. Especially not a brick wall with a gun. I stepped off the bus, my sneakers—
no, not my sneakers
, I thought, looking down at the ratty white track shoes—touching down on dusty gravel. Autumn had washed over the desert, casting the sky in a gloomy haze but not doing a thing to temper the gritty heat.
Two more guards stood at the edge of a long white line painted on the gravel, next to a gray plastic barrel. They unlocked my shackles and belt, tossing them into the barrel. I rubbed my wrists as I walked the line and smeared a bead of sweat on my forehead. I didn’t feel any freer.
The white-line highway ran between two walls of fencing, an open yard on either side where inmates did pull-ups on chin bars, played chess, walked, and shot the breeze. Mostly, though, they watched. Casually glancing to my left and right, I saw more cons watching me than guards. They were casual about it, too, but I knew when I was being sized up.
Just ahead of me, my seatmate said softly, “Don’t make eye contact, bro. Don’t wanna start shit ’til you get the lay of the land.”
It was good advice. I kept my mouth shut and my eyes open. I wasn’t planning on moving in, anyway; as soon as I got the ear of somebody in charge, he’d figure out the mix-up and I’d be on the first bus out of here. I was already working on my exit strategy.
My lawyer, J.T. Perkins, was a demon in the legal arena—and everywhere else, for that matter. He’d make sure I’d be granted bail. I’d walk out of jail and
walking. Just take Caitlin and go.
Vegas was over. Nicky Agnelli was on the run, his empire in ruins. Jennifer would have to run, too, just in case Nicky decided to try his luck at turning state’s evidence. The Chicago Outfit had won. That stung, but all I cared about was breathing free air. Maybe I could pack up my whole crew: take Corman and Bentley, Jennifer and Mama Margaux, and escape to someplace without an extradition treaty. Find a white-sand beach on the edge of paradise with crystal-clear water and frosty piña coladas all day long. Early retirement.
The fantasy kept my feet moving. Reality waited on the other side of a reinforced steel door, inside a lobby that reminded me of a DMV. Whirring, overtaxed fans pushed stagnant air around, and we followed the white line across a grimy linoleum floor.
“Head of the line,
” a basso voice shouted. The voice’s owner had a head like a block of granite, with a broad lantern jaw and a flattop buzz cut. He walked up and down the line, taking time to give each and every one of us the stink eye.
“My name is Correctional Officer Jablonski,” he bellowed, puffing out his chest. “You will address me as Correctional Officer Jablonski, or you will address me as sir. I do not know where you came from, and I do not care. You are now in
house, and so long as you are living under my roof and eating my food, you will obey my rules. The first rule is to keep your toes
that white line.”
“Asshole thinks he’s a drill sergeant,” my seatmate muttered next to me.
Jablonski’s head snapped on a swivel. He was up in the con’s face in a heartbeat, leaning in so close I could smell the liver and onions on his breath. “
did you say, prisoner?”
He held up his hands in a nervous apology. “Nothing, man, nothing. Sorry.”
Jablonski stared him down, daring him to open his mouth again. I held my breath. The convict cast his gaze to the floor. Satisfied, Jablonski slowly turned away.
The baton slid from his holster so fast I barely saw it coming. My seatmate didn’t see it at all. Jablonski spun around, whipping the baton across his head with a deafening crack. Blood spattered the shoulder of my jumpsuit as the convict dropped like a sack of rocks, dribbling a trickle of crimson across the white line.
Fight or flight. My heart pounded, mainlining on a sudden speed pump of raw adrenaline. How many guards in the lobby? Six? Seven. Too many guns. No chance to fight, no chance to run. And while I wasn’t up on the latest in prison administration policies, I was pretty goddamn sure what I’d just witnessed was illegal as all hell. I swallowed it down, bottling the fear, standing still as a statue and digging my nails into my palms to keep my hands from shaking. Same as the other convicts.
“Take this joker to the hole,” Jablonski told a nearby guard. “Write it up. Prisoner was reaching for my weapon. Self-defense.”
They dragged him off by his wrists. I felt like I had a chicken bone lodged in my throat.
“Excuse me,” I said, my voice coming out softer than I wanted it to. “Correctional Officer Jablonski. Sir.”
His gaze swung my way, steady and harsh as a spotlight.
“I think there’s been a mistake,” I said. “I’m supposed to be in county, waiting for a bail hearing.”
“What’s your name, prisoner?”
“Faust. Daniel Faust.”
He waved over a guard with a sheaf of papers on a stainless-steel clipboard. His finger slid down a list of names, his lips moving as he read silently.
He rapped the clipboard, twice. Then he looked my way. His voice low, on the edge of a growl.
“Do you enjoy wasting people’s time, prisoner? Let me phrase that a different way. Do I
like somebody whose time you should be wasting?”
“No,” I said, bracing myself. “Sir.”
His hand eased toward his baton.
On the street, I’d know what to do. Throw the first punch, and make it a good one. Get inside his reach and beat him down before he knew what hit him. If we were alone, away from witnesses, whip out some magical firepower. On the street, I could have handled Correctional Officer Jablonski.
We were a long way from the street. And I realized, feeling the eyes of every guard in the room burning into me, I didn’t
any options. Jablonski could do whatever he wanted to me, and all I could do was take it.
Helpless. I’d learned what it meant to be helpless as a child growing up in my father’s house. And I’d dedicated most of my life to making damn sure I’d never feel that way again.
But here I was.