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A Gathering Evil

Michael A. Stackpole

  A Gathering Evil

  Dark Conspiracy

  Book I

  Michael Stackpole


  Awakening in a speeding ambulance, with the scream of its undulating siren ripping your brain apart, is not a pleasant experience. It becomes even less so when you realize you're in a body bag zipped up tight and you can't move. Trapped in suffocating darkness, with the rubberized canvas pulling at your flesh, you realize that if this is death, eternity in a grave will be hell itself.

  The strap across my chest and another just above my knees bound me tightly to the gurney. They kept me with it as it crashed around in the back, jouncing up and down or smashing side to side with the fast turns. The driver, mercilessly pushing the whining engine to its top end, sadistically pounded his way through potholes as if on a divine mission to crush them all.

  The irritating stink of rubber and the lingering scent of decayed meat filled my nose. I tried to breathe through my mouth, but I could not make my lips part. I fought against the paralysis locking my jaw and quickly discovered the condition extended to my whole body. I could still feel the straps dig into my flesh and the slick roughness of the bag against my fingertips, but I could not make my muscles work. Try as I might, I could not even open my eyes.

  It took no genius on my part to know I was in severe trouble. Being in a body bag meant the ambulance folks thought I was dead—and that conjured up all sorts of horrible images of premature burial or a seriously distasteful cremation. I started to panic, then fought against it because a clear head was all I had to get myself out of this situation.

  And getting out of it was even more important that wasting brainsweat on figuring how I'd gotten into it.

  The siren snapped off and the ambulance began to slow. I heard the crunch and ping of gravel beneath the tires, then felt the jolt as the gurney clanked against the inside of the ambulance as we rolled to a stop. The sound of passenger doors opening and closing cut off the static from the radio, then I heard the doors in the back open. I rolled forward, then landed hard on the ground.

  "Take it easy, Jack."

  "The stiff won't care."

  "Yeah, but Harry will charge us for damage to the gurney." I tagged this speaker as Gruff-voice.

  Jack hacked out a cough. "So, we take it out of petty cash. This guy was loaded. His cards will be worth something."

  "No need to spend what we don't have to." Gruff-voice took a couple of steps away from the ambulance, his footfalls moving from my feet toward my head. "Where are they?"

  "They'll be here." Another hack. "See, there they are."

  Both men fell silent as I heard another vehicle drive up. Its engine had a nasty ticking sound and the door slid open. I immediately imagined it to be a van or delivery truck.

  Jack greeted the newcomers. "Evenin', tulmen."

  "The last batch was unsatisfactory." The voice had no compromise, and even less humanity in it.

  Jack managed to keep fear out of his voice, but he radiated it so palpably that I could feel it from within the bag. "I know, and I'm sorry about that, but look, this one will make it up to you."

  I heard a pair of clicks and the pressure on my chest and legs went away. I felt a tug near the top of my head, then heard the rasping sound of the zipper being undone. For a half-second the air rushing in felt cool; then it turned hot and very dry. I smelled dust in the air and the sharp scent of burned-out engines and steaming radiator fluid. My nasal passages dried out immediately and I could feel myself desiccating as they stood there.

  Gruff-voice tried to let laughter override his anxiety. "Look, he's mid-30s, clean and in good shape. No scars. You can get kidneys, a liver and a heart out of him. His eyes should be good, too. Hell, you could even take his lungs and give them to Jack, here."

  Panic again surged through me. They're selling off my parts, but I'm not even dead yet. They can't do this, I have to let them know I'm still alive!

  "Why? He'd just ruin them as well." I felt fingers poke and prod me. Hands slipped beneath my right shoulder and lifted me enough to get a brief glimpse of my back. My head fell back, opening my mouth, and I gasped aloud. Jack and Gruff-voice jumped back, with one of them clunking against the ambulance.


  Yes, there, now they know I'm still alive.

  The inspector laughed harshly. "Come now, aces like you know gasses build up in corpses. Only time you'll see this deader again is in your nightmares."

  My heart sank.

  "Well, we don't spend as much time around them as you Reapers do. We generally get them before they become spare parts."

  "So you do. Still warm. Good. Looks clean. Where did you get him?"

  I heard Jack swallow hard. "Call came in an hour ago. He was in a squat-shack hotel in Slymingtown. Setup looked staged, like he had been dumped there. No one was asking questions, but Scorpion Security was on its way, so we snatched him and called you. How much?"

  "A meg, plus 10% of anything unusual we get."

  "A meg? Are you kidding? I could get three megs piecing him out, and still get a point on DNA applications."

  Jack had sounded angry, but the Reaper called his bluff. "If you can, do it. You'll find it is a buyer's market, Jack, not a seller's. I could see going 1.5 megs, but you'll drop to 7% for exotics."

  "With two points on DMA aps?"

  "One, and only because I've forgotten how the last two maggot-ranches you gave me weren't fit for dog food. Literally, we left them in the desert and the coyotes wouldn't touch them."

  "And we keep the effects?"

  "Yes, Jack. We care not for his earthly possessions." I felt a hand grasp my forehead and work my head side to side. "Good bone structure and no cranial damage. I think we can save the brain. This is good. Do we have a deal?"

  "Done. Always enjoy doing business with you Reapers."

  "You lie poorly, Jackson, but we tolerate you because of your product." The Reaper snapped his fingers. "Gord, Kenny, red tag this one and put him in the back. We want to do him quickly, before he spoils any more."

  The zipper closed again, shutting me away in the stuffy world of rubber and stale flesh. I sagged into a U-shape as two people grabbed the handles at my head and feet. I swayed between them as they carried me along, then I heard the rumble of a roll-away door sliding up into the truck's ceiling.

  "Which side do we put him on?" one voice asked thickly.

  "You sar him; he's vanilla."

  They rocked me three times, then I flew up into the truck and landed solidly. Something shifted below me and I half expected to be buried beneath an avalanche of corpses. I slid a bit sideways, but nothing crashed down on top of me. The door slammed shut and the engine coughed to life. Gears ground and we lumbered forward.

  I heard another sound in the back of the truck above the ticking idle of the engine. I first caught it as a cyclical pinging and noted it remained constant. I wondered what it was, but not for long: I felt a chill nibbling at my toes and fingers. The logic of icing down a truck full of corpses did not surprise me, but the reality of it sent a jolt of adrenaline through my body.

  The cold and adrenaline combined to do what all my willpower had been unable to manage. I started to shiver. My limbs trembled uncontrollably. I found myself no longer locked in the grasp of paralysis.

  I tried to move my hand under my conscious direction, but still found myself unable to do so. Too ambitious, I decided. I tried to open my eyes, but realized, in the dark, in a body bag, I could not tell if I had been successful. I made an attempt at breathing through my mouth, but found I still could not open it.

  Despair opened its jaws wide to swallow my spirit whole, but the hope inspired by my shivering saved me. Before you can run, you must le
arn to walk. Before you can walk, you need to shiver. Shivering is good. Shivering is progress. Think cold. Make your body want to do what you cannot make it do.

  I abandoned myself to cold and panic, repeatedly having to overcome unconscious efforts to control myself. I knew each burst of adrenaline that pumped into my system was helping, yet I felt constitutionally averse to admitting panic. It represented a total loss of control, and that spelled disaster. It felt as if part of me believed that by admitting I was in serious trouble, I would not find a way out of it.

  Though I knew I should have been paying attention to the motions of the truck, I decided against it. I knew it would have been simple—a child's game—to keep track of twists and turns. By counting slowly and estimating speeds, I could have easily cataloged our journey and had an excellent chance of backtracking it. I had done it before, but not knowing where we had started, and unsure if I ever wanted to return there, I let it go.

  I also found, for the brief time I did keep track of things, that the driver was doing his best to take us through a very evasive and difficult-to-follow route. We changed levels several times and traveled both city streets and highways. We made no more stops, which I pridefully saw as a reflection of my own value, and ended the journey with a long downward slope.

  My shivering stopped instantly as the truck door opened. I felt all my senses come alive as if I were trying to project my mind outside the bag to see where I was. I could not, of course, and my attempts were interrupted by the jerk on the handle at my head. My body limply slithered over other corpses, then I slid free of the truck and my legs slapped stiffly on the ground. "Key-ryest, Gord, don't let the legs hit!" "Geez, Kenny, the guy ain't complaining." "But the doctor will. Soft tissue damage, she calls it." There was nothing soft about the way my legs and heels felt as Gord hefted me up. Hitting the ground had hurt and I would have screamed had my jaw not been locked. Anger twisted my belly up and burned like fire. I wanted to let it run wild like I had the panic, but I immediately shunted that energy away and calmed myself.

  Then I noticed that the rage—or pain—had caused my fingers to claw inward. They felt stiff, but they had moved. One by one I willed them to straighten out again. The paralysis fought me, but the commands got through. On my right hand, my little finger snapped to attention first, then the ring finger and the index. I reissued the order and the middle finger complied.

  My left hand responded more sluggishly, but it did respond. I tried to curl my toes inward and they also worked. Concentrating hard, I forced my fingers back in again and the right hand got almost all the way down into a fist. The left hand tried, but failed. The fingers did straighten out again on command, and I managed to flex all the muscles in my right arm, which gave me great cause for joy.

  So concerned was I with regaining the use of my limbs that I was unprepared for Gord and Kenny dropping me on a table. I smacked the back of my head on the surface and saw stars in front of my eyes. As they sizzled off like Technicolor comets, I heard the bag being unzipped, then I was tipped right and left so they could whisk it from beneath me.

  They left me lying naked on a cold metal table. Despite my eyes still being closed, I could see a golden glow from outside my eyelids, and I could feel the warmth of the lights on me. I brushed the fingertips of my right hand across the surface and felt a shallow groove running from beneath me toward the edge of the table.

  A door opened and I heard a woman's voice. "Oh, this is a fine specimen. Thank you, tulmen. Andre, roll tape on this one. We want to document him."

  "Yes, doctor."

  I heard a wheeled cart roll closer to the table. The clink of instruments accompanied its arrival and I did not like how close to my head it all sounded.

  From right above me I heard the woman's voice. "Subject is a white male, six feet tall, approximately 175 pounds, moderate body hair which is dark in color. He is in excellent condition, with no visible signs of trauma. Fluids will be drawn and toxicology run to determine cause of death."

  I'm not dead! I made my right hand into a fist.

  "Subject shows no sign of male pattern baldness, so we will attempt to preserve the scalp intact as we go in after the brain."

  I straightened my hand again and slapped it against the table. There, she has to hear that!

  "Doctor, his right hand moved," I heard Andre tell her. "I think he is still alive."

  "Andre, I think you are right. This is a complication."

  Had I the ability to do so, I would have smiled.

  "Quickly, Andre, over there, the cabinet."

  Good, get something to fix me.


  Yes, Andre, you idiot, do what she tells you to do.

  "Yes, Andre, bring them to me."

  "Is this enough?"

  "Four? I suppose, but bring a couple more, just to be sure." I heard her pat the instrument table. "Put them here. Whenever one is alive there's always more blood. You can never have enough towels."

  The whirring buzz of a bone-saw hovered over me like a malevolent wasp and wrung the last ounce of adrenaline out of me. As the saw descended, my eyes snapped open. The doctor brought the instrument down with both hands, but my right arm shot up on a desperate collision course. Forearm to forearm I blocked her, then shoved back with all my strength.

  Her grandmotherly face disappeared in a red mist as the saw-blade bridged the gap between her eyebrows. She flew back out of sight with her stool clattering metallically against the tile floor. I scissored my legs left over right and pitched myself off the right side of the autopsy table, then half-collapsed as my legs buckled beneath me.

  I thought that a disaster, but it turned out to be more fortuitous than I ever could have imagined. As I sank toward the floor, the snap-kick Andre had aimed at my head missed cleanly. From below I posted my left leg up into his groin, and that took all the fight out of him. He doubled over, moaning. Grabbing a handful of his hair, I accelerated his face into the tile floor.

  I sagged down beside him, almost as limp as he was, and felt as if I had been de-boned. My limbs moved as if they were made of lead and powered by the wind, but I gathered them beneath me. Inch by inch, I climbed up one leg of the autopsy table and hauled myself back upright. I glanced over at the doctor. The only sign of life there was the cutter still whirring away in her right hand. Andre was out for the count, if not the rest of this incarnation, which left me safe for the moment.

  Now, without knowing where I am or how many people exist outside, I have to escape. Oddly enough, quantifying the problem in that way, I did not so much find it impossible as annoying. It was a time-consuming complication. Those who had inconvenienced me would pay.

  I stripped Andre of his pants and donned them, despite their being three inches too short. I likewise appropriated his shoes—nautical-style loafers that fit after I loosened the rawhide lacings—and white lab coat. I pocketed the four scalpels on the instrument tray, then picked up one of the white towels Andre had dropped.

  Crouching next to the doctor, I looked around the room. Aside from a certain amount of mildew on the grout between the tiles, the room could have passed for a hospital emergency ward. The glass-fronted cabinets housed small drug ampules and stainless steel implements. Over on a filing cabinet I saw three glass jars with various organs preserved in them, and noted on a table back in the corner that four others were open and ready for filling. The back wall had three rows of small, squarish doors that I assumed held deaders in various states of harvesting.

  I swished the towel through the doctor's blood puddle, then pressed the dripping cloth to my head. It obscured enough of my face that I believed I could pass as Andre, so I crossed to the door, yanked it open, and slumped in the doorway. "We have trouble. He was alive!" I shouted in a voice that matched Andre's with surprising accuracy.

  People throughout the warehouse-like structure reacted. Four steps away a man drew a pistol and sprinted forward. As he closed, I flipped the towel over his head and snatched the pis
tol from him. I snapped the automatic's safety lever down and pumped a round into his stomach at point blank range.

  The two large men who were unloading bodies from an ice cream truck onto a cart had started to run toward me, but the gunshot brought them up short. They clawed beneath their jackets for weapons, but never got a chance to complete their draws. Cutting to the left, I snapped off a shot that sent the one on the right to the ground clutching his throat. I hit the other in the shoulder, slowly starting him to spin to the right, then dropped him with a shot to the middle of his back.

  I glanced at the gun to confirm visually what I already knew about it by feel. Colt Krait. Ten millimeter ammo, muzzle brake, open sights. Fourteen in the clip, could have had the first one in the chamber. I'm running four shy of full.

  Above me I heard the hollow clank of a boot on a catwalk. I dove forward in a somersault, then let my legs splay out to stop me. Craning my head back, I saw a woman with a machine pistol sweep a thunderous line of fire back through where I should have been. Our eyes met as I pumped one round into her chest and sent her flying back off the other side of the catwalk.

  His black trenchcoat flying open, a slender man leapt from the driver's seat of the truck. He pointed at me and yelled in a voice I recognized. It was the Reaper who had bargained for me. "Shoot him, but not the head. Save the head!"

  What is it about this guy and my brain?

  I dropped the Krait on his outline and sent two rounds into him. They both hit high chest and sent him tumbling backward. Off to my right two men ran round a corner, each with a submachinegun in hand, but they discounted the sight of me because I was in a lab coat. A head-shot put the first man down and a gut-shot jackknifed the second man to the slick concrete floor.

  I sprinted across open ground to the ice cream truck. The keys were still in the ignition, so I dropped into the driver's seat, shifted the pistol to my left hand and cranked the engine. It sprang to life, still ticking like a bomb. I jammed the clutch down and forced it into first. The truck lurched forward and I started it turning in a large arc toward the ramp and the big doorway that would take me back up to street level.