Avengers of Blood Excerpt


IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL night for a killing. One of those gorgeous Southern evenings that occur only occasionally as summer draws near, cool and clear, nearly devoid of humidity. Overhead, the stars sparkled in a vast expanse of velvety sky, their shimmering brightness dimmed only by the whisper-thin gauze of smoke that hung in the nearly motionless air.

Despite the smell of terror and charred flesh, the clearing retained the cheery, slightly crazed atmosphere of a traveling carnival. The crowd had at first been pensive, watchful, but once the killing was done a sense of relief swept through the watchers. Women gossiped and tittered, drinking soda pop from bottles dotted with condensation. Children played chase through the forest of legs and took turns reenacting the murders they'd witnessed only moments earlier. Men smoked pipes and cigarettes, talking in low voices and tapping dried mud from their tired work boots.

The sheeted men nearest the fires took off their hoods and their damp faces gleamed in the flames. People pulled back to give the photographer room and a bright burst stung the night. At last the crowd drifted away, women calling children and fussing at their husbands to hurry home. A few engines cranked in the still air, but most left on foot.

The men in sheets lingered until the last of the crowd was gone and then congratulated themselves on how quickly justice could be served. A rustling startled them and one man took long strides to the side of the clearing and parted two azalea bushes bearing papery violet blooms. A filthy figure gazed up at him, face tear-streaked and snotty, a broken pencil and tattered paper clutched in one grimy hand.

It took a moment, but at last he recognized the child. He leaned over and snatched the paper, calling to his companions. They towered over the tiny body, muttering to one another and turning the drawing to the firelight to see crude representations of the horror they had wrought. At last one of them lifted a foot clad in a pointy-toed cowboy boot and nudged the child toward the road.

"Get on home, now," he said. "And don't you ever talk about what you seen. You understand? Don't draw no more pictures, neither." The child looked up at him with dark eyes that pierced his soul. He blustered on. "What happened here tonight can just as easily happen to you. Easier, even. 'Cause there ain't nobody to look out for you now."

He watched as the child scurried away. Once out of reach, it turned and looked back at them with a burning gaze, searching their faces. He lifted his foot again and the child fled, swallowed quickly by the night. The laughter of the others was at first hesitant, as if they too had felt the intensity of the child's hate. But the sound swelled and gained confidence and at last he joined in, hoping to obscure the vague uneasiness settling in his gut.



CASS ELLIOT GROWLED AS she strained against a crowbar wedged between the wall and a stubborn two-by-four. "I hate these things."

"Easy now," Bruce coaxed, leaning around her to slide a piece of half-inch plywood between the crowbar and the wall. "You'll dent the sheetrock."

"I'll dent your sheetrock," she huffed, giving another mighty heave. The cabinet shrieked as three-inch nails screeched from their stud beds. She dropped the crowbar in the cabinet cavity, turned the volume down on the police scanner, and swiped Bruce's freshly opened soda from the table. Sucking a long gulp, she eyed his broad frame, dark features, and - she frowned - clean clothes. "Where're you going, my favorite brother?"

"I didn't know I was your favorite."

"You're my favorite when you're helping me rip out the kitchen." She watched as Bruce added a newspaper clipping to a collection beneath a magnet on the refrigerator. "I wish you'd stop that."

"Let me be famous vicariously." The clippings from the Forney Cater - featuring photographs of Cass, her partner Mitch Stone, or the smoldering remains of a cabin in the Sabine River bottoms - fluttered as Bruce tugged gingerly on the refrigerator's duct-taped handle. He grabbed another soda.

"I just wish it was over. Where're you going?"


"You don't teach on Wednesday night."

"Some of the students need time in the shop to finish their final projects. I told them I'd open up today."

"Those aren't teaching clothes, Bruce. Those are date clothes."

"I might have a little something planned for later on. And speaking of dates, Sam McGee called while you were hauling trash to the dump."

She winced.

"Come on, Cass. He's nice enough. The McGee's are a good family. The two of you would make pretty babies."

"What is it with men?" she asked, raking loose strands of hair, darkened by sweat to the deep red of a merlot, into her ponytail. "I went out with him once and declined every time he's asked since. Surely he's got the message by now."

Bruce lifted an eyebrow. "You gave him hope. He'll think it's possible that you'll say yes again."

"How do I get rid of him? Nicely?"

"It'll take mean. You can do it. I've got the scars to prove it."

"And every one of them was well deserved."

"Or you could start dating somebody else. That's a good way to get the message across."

"Yeah, and there are so many options in Arcadia."

"Tom Kado's one."

Cass groaned. "Don't start."

"The man has a thing for you." He cocked his head to one side. "But, it might be a conflict of interest if you went out with him, right? Since you both work for the police department?"

Do I work for the department anymore? she wondered. "Haven't thought about it," Cass lied. "Besides, his wife died about a year ago. He's in no shape for a relationship."

"Everybody grieves differently," Bruce said. "I don't know why you don't go out more -," he held up a strong hand when Cass tried to interrupt. "And that's your business. But if you're looking for a decent guy, I think Tom Kado might be one."

"Message received. Where's Harry?"

"Upstairs. The almost-ex-wife called and there's an emergency with a client." Her shoulders slumped and Bruce shrugged. "Daddy's not due back from this morning's delivery until tonight, so you get the crowbar and sledgehammer all to yourself. Paradise, if you ask me." Bruce knelt to examine the hole in the kitchen floor revealed when Cass removed the cabinet under the sink. He stuck his hand between the jagged edges and pulled out bits of a mouse nest. "I always wondered why it was so drafty when I was washing dishes."

"I said I'd help." Cass wiped the day's sweat from her brow with a forearm. "I didn't think I'd have to do the whole thing myself."

"It's good experience. Fixing the roof and leveling the porch was hard work. But tearing out a kitchen? That's plain fun. Hey," he continued, plucking his keys from the table, "when you get that one out, start on the cabinet in the corner. Might as well get it all done today."

Cass watched him stride across the tired linoleum floor, boots crunching over the grit and rubble strewn across its surface. The screen door banged shut behind him. Silence, followed by the cranking of a pickup's engine, filled the late afternoon air.

"Fine," she muttered, turning the scanner's volume back up and reaching for the crowbar. "I'll do it myself. But you're not my favorite anymore."


GOOBER JERKED THE RED riding mower's steering wheel and managed to avoid an armadillo trundling across the county road. Scowling, he stomped on the little mower's gas pedal, urging the machine to move faster. Sunset wasn't for another two and a half hours, but the narrow lanes between his small trailer and The Whitehead Store were already crowded with shadow from the massive trees flanking the road. In Goober's world, darkness in any form was bad. Goblins lurked in the dusty gloom beneath the bed; vampires needed the night; and zombies, who could function during the day, vastly preferred terrorizing simple villagers while hiding beneath a cloak of darkness. Goober was a sudden expert on all things monster because, in a moment of insomnia driven weakness, he had flipped on the horror channel last night and watched, trembling, until the wee hours when he fell asleep on his sofa.

The mower's engine whined with the strain, but Goober pulled the tip of his baseball cap down over his forehead and kept his foot on the pedal. He briefly wondered how much gasoline was left in the little machine but pushed the thought away; he'd leave her on the side of the road if he had to. This trip to the store wasn't just for fun. Goober was out of snacks. Although he ate a fairly healthy diet, today's craving for salt and crunch would not be denied. Hence the venture out along Forney County's small, eerie roads in spite of the sun's continuing decline.

Goober rounded Church Bend and looked up to see the wink of a tail light in the distance. A thrill of fear raced through him and he patted the pocket in his overalls where he tucked his folding money. He extracted a battered Timex and saw that it read five twenty-nine - this was cutting it too close. The Whitehead Store closed at five-thirty on the dot. He lifted his heavy work boot and stomped on the accelerator again.

A squirrel dashed onto the road, flicked its tail at the red machine, and darted safely to the other side. So intent was he on reaching the store, Goober hardly noticed. At last, the gas station's concrete apron came into view and Goober screeched to a stop at the pumps. He jumped from the mower and charged across the tiny parking lot, relief in his veins: the 'open' sign still hung in the door. He pushed inside with a greeting on his lips and reaching for the Frito display when he skidded across the sparkling linoleum. Startled, he looked down see to a trail of amber liquid on the floor. The smell of gas reached his nose and his ire rose. Most people were considerate enough not to trail gasoline when they came inside to pay. Goober always wiped his feet and if he made a mess, he knew good and well how to clean it up.

He looked for Mr. Whitehead and spotted a puff of smoke floating through the open stockroom door in the back of the shop. Goober gazed at that black abyss and in a move that would later surprise himself and everyone else, he squashed the ripple of terror threatening his legs and ran toward that open door instead of away from it.

A FIGURE IN DARK clothes stepped inside and watched the man in overalls dart to the back of the shop. He took in the neat rows of shelves and gleaming refrigeration units. There was no sign of disturbance, no indication that anything sinister had happened here. Odd, he thought. If there was no one to murder, why would the three of them come here?

He moved to the counter, avoiding the gleaming streak of liquid on the otherwise pristine floor. Again, nothing was out of place. A yellowed newspaper clipping taped beside a crucifix on the wall caught his attention. He leaned closer and read a short story about the store's grand opening in 1979. When his eyes rose to a picture of the ribbon-cutting, an icy wave of shock froze him in place. The unsmiling face staring from the photograph took him back almost twenty-five years, to his father's death when he was nine years old. His father's death. It couldn't be true.

He hurried around the counter to study the clipping more closely. The thick shock of dark hair, the chiseled features that were so similar to his own. There was no mistaking the man who held a pair of scissors over an uncut ribbon. He was a ghost, burned to a crisp in 1978. But he wasn't dead. He wasn't dead at all. In fact, he'd given up his life and his only child, for what? To open a gas station in some mosquito-infested backwater in Texas?

The events of his life and their meaning re-ordered themselves in his mind, and an immense sense of loss and betrayal sliced through him. Tears stung his eyes and he drew a deep breath, tasting a foul smoke. He turned then, gaze coming to rest on the open stockroom door.

A LAYER OF TRANSLUCENT smoke greeted Goober as he dashed into the ransacked stockroom. The sight of toppled shelves and a smear of some dark substance across the floor brought him up short. A creak drew his glance to the murky light filtering through the outside door. He went up on his tiptoes and sidled around the mishmash of food and broken containers. A rancid, stinging smell made his eyes water and a faint popping grew louder as he crossed the stockroom. Goober's empty stomach turned and he pulled a yellow kerchief from his overalls, covered his mouth and nose, and stepped out to a small courtyard.

A concrete patio was open to the evening sky and surrounded by a tall wood fence. The small area was a study in contrasts. The north side was orderly and somewhat peaceful. A hand truck rested against the wall beside neat stacks of wood pallets and flattened cardboard boxes. Garden implements and leggy ladders hung in tidy rows from pegs, and a green water hose was wrapped around a reel. A metal gas can squatted beside a weed trimmer leaning against the wall.

The rest of the area was chaos.

A wheelbarrow lay on its side against the southern portion of the fence, alongside a toppled step ladder. Closer to the middle of the courtyard, a misshapen pile of red plastic smoldered. A sycamore tree grew in one corner, its smooth-barked trunk rising gracefully from a patch of scraggly dirt. Goober whimpered as his vision expanded to take in the scene. Only seven feet or so from the ground, the tree's lowest limb sprung outward at a nearly ninety-degree angle, and from it dangled a zombie, blackened and blazing. Tongues of orange flame danced in a mouth stretched wide in a silent scream and nibbled at the rope around the zombie's neck. The concrete beneath him was scorched and heat rose in shimmering waves from its surface.

Goober danced in a tight circle and fought the savage urge to flee as a debate raged through his brain. Everybody knew that zombies were dangerous. They lived on human flesh. But zombies were undead, which meant that they were alive until they were dead. Goober hated to see any living thing hurt, and if this zombie was alive, it didn't deserve to burn even though he knew he'd have to kill it eventually. He wasn't sure he could save a zombie that was already on fire, but - in another surprising move - he decided to try.

He felt for the spigot, never taking his gaze from the zombie as it swayed ever so slightly on its noose. Goober yanked the hose from its reel and flinched away from the steam that rose when the sputtering stream hit the burning body. Suddenly, the rope around its neck snapped and the zombie hit the ground with a smacking thud. It lay motionless for a moment, then stirred.

Goober's released a blood-curdling shriek before dropping the hose and charging into the stockroom. He slammed the door shut and stood trembling, heart in his throat, listening as the zombie staggered to its feet. Goober took a running leap over the gooey mess on the floor and sprinted into the store, where he dove behind the counter and grabbed the phone.

With shaking fingers, he pecked out 911. "Police? This is Goober. We got a burnin' zombie on the loose in The Whitehead Store. Bring the machetes. We gotta cut his head off."

THE MAN RECOILED AT the shrill scream and hid between two rows of shelves. He watched dispassionately as the overall-clad man darted behind the counter and started babbling about zombies. The door to the stockroom was still open and he slipped through it, taking in the toppled shelving and burst food containers. The rancid, smoky scent was stronger here and he sidestepped the mess on the floor to make his way to the outside door. Gently pulling it open, his eyes narrowed as he peered through a small crack and then opened the door more fully.

It seemed the murderous little trio did have a purpose in coming to this remote store.

He inched closer to the form smoldering on the concrete, gaze latching on to a sooty gold ring with a red stone fixed to its dome and then roving the figure more carefully. An unscorched tuft of thick white hair was still attached to the scalp. Although the face was blackened and stretched, its basic structure was still evident: broad forehead, defined cheekbones, angular jaw. Unbidden, his mind recreated the muscular detail that once covered those features.

The scarlet edges of rage crowded his vision and he sucked in a stinking breath, fighting back a scream. Everything he'd believed, all the circumstances of his life - it was a lie. Panic thrummed through his veins and he physically forced himself to study the smoking body, memorizing the horrifying tableau and dipping deep into the well of hate in his soul. His spirit quieted then and the despair morphed inside him, settling into a molten and searing ball of fury.

Without a backward glance, he retreated through the courtyard gate and melted into the woods, dabbing at the sweat beading his upper lip. He trotted at a slow but steady pace toward his car and brought his breathing and thoughts under control.

Until today, he had considered the murderous little cabal his silent partners. Granted, he had no idea why some of the same names had landed on both their kill lists, but between them and the work they had completed so far, the world was a far better place. Since learning their identities several months ago, he had traced them to this slice of redneck paradise and watched, moving with caution to learn the rhythms of their lives. But he hadn't stalked silently; instead, he had poked and prodded into their personal lives to see how fragile they were. If they were made of the right stuff, perhaps he would've approached them, wormed his way into their inner circle. He wanted to understand their motivations and discover who else they had marked for termination. The trio was careful, and that he appreciated. They must've known about this victim for some time, because they hadn't visited this little store since he'd been tracking them.

But any semblance of camaraderie he felt for this odd group of executioners vanished at the sight of their latest victim. In its place sprang the germ of revenge - they had bested him, understanding his own life even better than he had. And from their knowledge, they had taken his father from him. Again. A hope he hadn't known existed, extinguished before it could form. They were now the enemy.

His mind focused on his new prey with an eerie intensity. He would extract payment from each of them for what they had cost him. Payment in full.


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