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Excerpt: Spells, Salt, & Steel

Spells, Salt, and Steel

by Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin

 

Chapter One

 

When all else fails, the ass end of a carp makes a damn fine weapon.

I’d been lying in wait for the ningen to show up, and by the wee hours of the morning, I was tired and cranky and out of coffee. As soon as the sun went down, I pulled in to the Linesville, Pennsylvania, spillway. The tourists were gone, and the concession stand’s gates were closed. Still blows my mind how many people will come look at a bunch of fish. Even if those fish are a boiling, writhing mass of three-foot long, twenty-pound carp that look like something out of a Biblical plague.

I’m Mark Wojcik, mechanic—and monster hunter. I gank things that go bump in the night so that most people never have to know supernatural uglies exist outside of bad horror movies. No one chooses this life; it chooses you, usually in a violent and awful way. In my case, a deer hunt turned into a wendigo hunting us. I survived—barely—but my father, brother, uncle, and cousin didn’t. Neither did the wendigo, when I was done with it.

The carp weren’t my problem. Tourists loved throwing day-old bread into the water to watch the carp roil over each other, mouths gaping. Tonight, they weren’t the only ones with an unnatural interest in big fish.

A corpse-pale creature balanced on the low concrete rim of the spillway catch basin. It stood about five feet tall, slender with long arms, and a body that looked like a giant white tadpole with arms and skinny, short legs. Ningen can get as big as sixty feet, or so the cryptid sites say, but then again, they say that ningen are only found in Japan, so I don’t put much stock in them.

Koko ni sakana no kao ga kuru,” I called to it, betting that a Japanese monster might understand Japanese. Then again, I’d looked up key phrases on Google Translate, so God only knows what I actually said. “Come here, fish face,” I repeated in English, in case the ningen was bilingual.

The ningen cocked its round head and blinked its solid black eyes. I leaned over the railing and waved my bait at it, a nice piece of salmon I’d paid fifteen bucks for at the supermarket, thinking the creature might want an upgrade.

“That’s it,” I coaxed, dangling the prime wild salmon and giving it a shake. “That’s a good little sekana no neko.” That’s the magic of translation: “fish fucker” sounds classier in a foreign language.

If the ningen felt offended, it didn’t look it, although for all I knew, maybe I’d been descriptive instead of insulting. The ningen raised its head and opened its mouth, scenting the air. It shuffled toward me on its stubby legs, like it had its pants down around its knees. I grinned, keeping the sharpened iron harpoon blade concealed behind my back in my right hand.

At the speed the ningen hop-walked, it might take it ten minutes to get to me, but once I ganked him, I’d be back home relaxing with a nice cold beer.

That’s when the damn thing leapt into the air like a horny salmon going to spawn and grabbed the filet in my hand so hard he pulled me over the fence and into the carp-filled water.

I lost the piece of fish, but managed to keep the harpoon. When I fell in, fully-clothed and in my steel-toe boots, I thought I’d sink, but I fell onto the roiling carp that made a moving, lumpy net beneath me. They buoyed me along just long enough for me to regain my wits and scramble onto the small stretch of rocky shore between the overflow basin and the wall below the fence.

The ningen crouched, eyeing me as it shoved the raw salmon into its mouth, and I got a look at its jagged, sharp teeth—something else the cryptid reports had been less than accurate about. I realized then that the small strip of land around me was covered with fish bones. Those all-black eyes kept staring at me, and although I’d heard long pig tasted like chicken, this jagoff looked like he was wondering how much I’d taste like fish.

It sprang for me, and I rolled, gritting my teeth as the sharp stones and fish bones jabbed through my jacket and jeans. I brought up my harpoon gun and got off a shot. The barbed iron blade hit the ningen in the shoulder instead of the chest like I’d hoped, but it must have hurt like a mother since the thing let out an ungodly howl that would have put any loon to shame.

I yanked on the rope attached to the base of the blade with all my might. The ningen stumbled toward me. Then it grabbed the rope and pulled. And I found myself face down in the water, getting smacked in the head by carp the size of toddlers.

I scrambled back onto the rocky bank. What little I could find about ningen, that was written in English, said it would have less power on land. I yanked the rope again, getting angry now, and the ningen bared its barracuda teeth at me and gave another ear-splitting shriek.

The iron had an effect on it; I could see black veins radiating from where the blade lodged in its shoulder, spreading across the once-perfect white skin. I just didn’t know how long the iron blade would take to kill the creature, or if it would do the job completely. My gun was safe and dry in my truck, since I’d figured going for a forced swim was likely. But I had a couple more tricks up my soggy sleeves.

The ningen closed in on me, and I grabbed a kada, one of those martial arts sickle blades, from a scabbard on my back. I didn’t know if Japanese weapons were extra-lethal on Japanese monsters, but I fully intended to go ninja on its ass for leaving me soggy and freezing and smelling like carp.

“Let’s see you shi’ne, you piece of fish shit,” I muttered. I watched as much anime as my Crunchy Roll subscription could handle, and I’d picked up on a few overused phrases. “Die” seemed like a good one.

Except that the ningen didn’t seem to take it the way I’d intended and jerked me back into the water.

I managed to roll so I got the kada blade between us and swung as hard as I could, sinking the point of the curved blade into its chest where I hoped its heart might be. The black veins from the iron blade had spread across its entire torso, up its fish-belly white neck, and down its overly long arms.

But it wasn’t dead yet, and it came at me again, forcing me to fall backward in the water into another mass of carp. I kicked with my legs to get some distance between myself and the ningen. The carp weren’t pleased to have me land on them, and one of the fish jumped out of the water and landed in my arms, all thirty pounds of him.

Instinct took over, and I wrapped both arms around the carp’s middle and thrust its powerful tail toward the ningen. The fish wriggled wildly in my grip, its tail slapping back and forth with sharp scales and fins. It knocked the harpoon deeper into the ningen’s chest, as the black lacework of the iron’s poison spread across the rest of its skin.

I got my feet under me and dragged myself onto the shore, still holding a pissed-off carp between me and the monster. The ningen lurched forward, grabbing for me with its long, skeletal arms and clammy, dead white hands. Then it fell over and lay face-down amid the carp, completely covered by the deadly pattern of the iron’s taint running through its veins.

“Tora, tora, tora that, fish fucker,” I muttered. I dropped the carp, and it disappeared into the roiling mass of its companions.

I hauled myself back up on the rocky shore and caught my breath. The night was warm, but that’s a relative statement in this neck of Northwestern Pennsylvania, and I started to shiver. The ningen lay where it fell, and I was just about to pull it out of the water when I saw its body twitch.

“Oh, no you don’t!” I growled, but before I could climb up the wall to get my gun out of the truck, the carp began to thrash. My stomach turned as I realized that the ningen wasn’t moving on its own; its body jerked and moved because dozens of carp were nibbling at its flesh.

In the next moment, the ningen’s form sank lower, pulled down by the fish. The pale body vanished beneath the water, and the fish fought each other to get closer, obscuring it from view.

“Hey buddy! No fishing!” I turned and got a face full of flashlight beam, blinding me. The perfect end to a lousy evening would be getting arrested for monstercide. Or in this case, fishing without a license.

“Oh, it’s you, Mark.”

I blinked and recognized a familiar voice. Louie Marino, a guy I’d known since first grade, and one of Linesville’s Finest.

“Not fishing, Louie. Honest. Just business.” Louie’s one of the few area cops who know what I really do. He gets it—mainly because when he had a nasty little infestation of demon-possessed rabid raccoons a few years back, I took care of it for him, no questions asked.

“Keeping busy?” he asked, angling the flashlight so I could see again.

“Always. They pay you enough to be on fish patrol at this hour?”

Louie shrugged. “Workin’ nights this week. Drew the short straw. Just another day in paradise.” He wrinkled his nose. “You stink like carp.”

“I’ve heard of ‘swimming with the fishes,’ just didn’t intend to take it literally,” I replied, wringing out the water from the hem of my flannel shirt.

“Do I want to know?”

I shook my head. “Probably not. If the rangers at the Spillway say anything about their fish count being down, tell them it’s been taken care of.”

Louis grinned, taking in my utterly disreputable condition. “You’re just lucky I was on duty tonight, or you’d be going from the fish tank to the drunk tank.”

“Ha, ha. Very funny,” I mumbled, although I knew he was right. “Oh, and Louie?” I said as we headed back to our vehicles. “If I were you, I wouldn’t eat any carp out of the lake this season. I think their diet’s been a little…off.”

 

*****

 

Regular soap didn’t get the carp stink off of me, so I opted for the canned tomato juice I keep around in case of skunk. That made me feel like a Bloody Mary, but being a brunch drink was better than smelling like day-old catch.

I knew when I ambled in to Hamilton Hardware the next day that I’d be in for a ribbing.

“Whoa, Chick!” Blair Hamilton called, her affectionate mangling of my last name. I’d long ago quit correcting her—since it only made things worse—but for the record, it’s pronounced “voy-chick.” I’ll answer to anything close. Most people who can’t figure it out just go with “Mark.”

“Whoa, yourself,” I replied. “What’s the word on the street?”

Blair blew raspberries. “This is Conneaut Lake. Nothing ever happens here.” Blair is five-ten to my six-two and with her military background, I’d put my money on her in a fair fight. She inherited the family hardware store, the third-generation Hamilton to supply the good folks of Conneaut Lake with all their hunting, fishing, shooting, and hardware needs.

She gave a knowing grin. “Except that I hear there was a commotion over at the Spillway in Linesville last night. Poachers or something.”

“That so? Can’t trust anyone these days,” I replied. The store was fairly empty. I’d intentionally waited until the “dawn patrol” of DIY-ers and contractors filled their urgent orders and I knew Blair would have time for some less conventional requests.

“I got a job coming up,” I said when the few remaining customers were out of earshot. “Gonna need another big bag of rock salt, a case of shotgun shells, and about fifty feet of hemp rope.” I paused. “Oh, and can you let Chiara know I need her help on something?”

“How about you tell me yourself?” Chiara Moretti Hamilton slipped behind the counter and threw an arm around Blair’s waist.

“I need some intel,” I replied.

Chiara gave her wife a squeeze and then beckoned for me to follow her. “Step into my parlor,” she said.

I followed her through a doorway Blair had cut into one wall of the hardware store that led to the adjacent building, which had been many things over the last century. Now, it housed Crystal Dreams, Chiara’s New Age bookstore, café, and gift shop. In the renovated office upstairs, Chiara also ran a website development company. On the sly, she did Dark Web research for me and other hunters, and there was an invitation-only back room behind the hardware store that carried a variety of silver, iron, spelled tools and weapons, holy water by the keg, and other hard-to-find herbs and items necessary for hunting or warding off ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties. She and Blair weren’t even thirty yet, and they made me feel like a slacker, even though I had less than ten years on them and owned my own car repair shop.

“Coffee first,” she said, holding up a hand to stop me before I got on a roll. “And sugar.” She poured me a cup of joe, black, and started a latte for herself. Then Chiara reached into the display case and pulled out a couple of sfogliatelli pastries fresh from her family’s bakery.

“Good, right?” She nudged as I bit into the lobster tail-shaped flaky bit of heaven and gave a pornographic groan of sheer bliss.

“You’re not going to make Blair jealous, you know,” she joked. “I don’t bat for that team.”

“Shhh,” I joked. “Don’t ruin the moment. This is between me and the pastry,” I said, and rolled my eyes back in my head with another groan.

“You better not try that if you ever stop by the bakery,” Chiara warned. “Grandma won’t put up with any ‘lascivious goings on.’”

“Spoilsport,” I retorted. Chiara treats me like one of her older brothers, and considering that she’s got five of them, she can dish it out and take it with the best of them. I chugged the coffee, still groggy from the late night, and Chiara obligingly refilled it before taking a seat at the bar next to me.

“So what is it this time?” she asked. At the moment, the cafe was unusually quiet. That wouldn’t last. Tonight, the Tuesday night Bunko group would be gathering in the social room in the back, and no one aside from a privileged few would realize it was really the local coven. There aren’t a lot of people in the supernatural community around these parts and mostly, we look after our own.

“I need everything you can find on the old Keystone Ordinance Works plant,” I said, sipping the coffee to make it last and savoring the caffeine buzz.

“You mean the KOW?” She pronounced it “cow” and laughed when I looked puzzled. “The old TNT plant in Geneva?”

I nodded. “Yeah. You’ve heard the story about the Nazi sniper that got shot off the water tower?”

“Hasn’t everyone?”

“Yeah, well apparently it’s true, and something’s got his ghost riled up.”

“You know that place is dangerous, right?” Chiara cautioned. She tucked a strand of dark hair behind one multiply-pierced ear. Chiara’s thin enough to qualify as “waif-ish,” but she’d hit me if I ever called her that. With long dark hair, big brown eyes, and a light olive complexion, Chiara’s a looker, but she’s been heart-and-soul for Blair since high school. “Part of it’s owned by a big corporation that doesn’t like urban explorers, some of it’s still military—and lord knows, they’re not friendly—and the other piece is owned by a local guy who’s put out the word that trespassers will be arrested, or maybe shot.”

“Nice,” I muttered. “Actually, I’ve got the invitation from a guy in the corporation, and they’re paying me. I did a job for his uncle—got rid of a ghost that was hanging around his hunting cabin, scaring off the game—and got me access.”

“Not going to help you if your Nazi spook Heil-Hitlers over onto private property and you get your butt filled with buckshot.”

I shrugged. “Won’t be the first time, probably not the last either.” I drained my coffee cup and met her gaze. “Can you see what you can dig up? I’ve got all the easy stuff Google can give me.”

“You want what’s in the old records—old government records—don’t you?”

“Something powered this ghost up after seventy years, and he’s been poltergeisting around the place, vandalizing corporate property.”

“You sure it isn’t kids?” Chiara asked. “Every high school kid around here knows the story, and a ‘no trespassing’ sign is an open invitation for anyone who wants to impress a date enough to get lucky.”

My eyes narrowed. “Do I sense a story here?”

Chiara grinned, though her cheeks colored a bit. “Maybe. Blair hopped the fence and brought me back a souvenir when we were first dating.”

“And did she get lucky?”

Chiara’s blush deepened, as if I hadn’t already guessed the answer. “Shut up,” she protested in jest, and smacked me on the arm. “When do you need the intel?”

“As soon as you can get it,” I replied. “Apparently the company is planning to refurbish some of the old buildings on its land for labs and product testing. The planning team that went out to look at the buildings thought they were being shot at. They called the cops, reported gun shots, and holed up like they were under siege.”

“And when the cops came?”

I shook my head. “Nothing. No spent shells, no footprints or tire tracks, no bullet holes. Now the architect and the designer refuse to set foot on the property until it gets ‘exorcised,’” I added, making air quotes.

“Are you trying to put Father Minnelli out of a job?” Chiara teased.

I put my hand over my heart. “As God is my witness, and much to my grandmother’s sorrow, I’ve got no interest in being a priest,” I swore. “I just didn’t have time to waste explaining that ‘exorcising’ ghosts won’t do a damn bit of good. Demons, yes. Ghosts, no.”

“Is it actually dangerous?” Chiara finished her coffee.

“Don’t know, don’t want to find out the hard way,” I replied, draining the rest of my cup. “That’s why I need anything you can find for me. If I’ve got to chase the damn thing, I want to know everything about that property, and that ghost.”

Chiara looked up as the door chimed and a customer walked in. “I can work on it tonight, after we close. Should have something to you first thing tomorrow.”

I grinned. “Blair’s got fine taste in women. You’re the best!”

Chiara punched me in the shoulder, just enough to twinge. “Gotta go. I have to set up for the Bunko meeting tonight,” she added with a wink.

Shit. That meant she’d be closing late. I was in a hurry for her data, but not enough to piss off a coven of witches. I sighed, carried my empty cup up to the counter, and ambled back to pick up the rest of my purchases from Blair before I headed home.

I pulled into my driveway with a truckload of supplies and a hot pizza. “Home” is a cabin down a gravel lane in between Adamsville and Atlantic, two towns with a combined population of less than two hundred. Suits me fine, although now and again I still have to go out and handle restless ghosts from the big tornado twenty years ago that damn near took out both towns and a couple other ‘burgs, too. I reckon we’ve got more residents under the ground than above it, and since I keep the local cemeteries blessed and ghost-free, it makes for a nice, quiet place to put my feet up between hunts.

Chiara pulled some strings—legal and not so much—to get me better internet out here than anyone would ever believe. I popped open an Iron City beer and fired up my laptop to go over everything again. Demon, my big softie of a Doberman, planted himself next to me and dropped his head into my lap for attention. I scratched his ears as I read over my notes.

If I’d have put as much effort into my homework back when I was in school as I do getting ready for a hunt, I’d have the grades to be a brain surgeon. Sadly, I couldn’t see my way past anything that didn’t have to do with cars or girls back then. Girls broke my heart; cars didn’t, which is one reason I’m still a mechanic after all this time, but my love life’s deader than most of the things I hunt.

It’s not that I’d mind having a good woman in my life. It’s just that finding one who would put up with my anime and comics collection, my poker nights, and the odd hours I keep at the shop would be rough enough, without the monster hunting stuff on top. My wife Lara left me after the wendigo incident. Blair and Chiara are lucky—they didn’t have to convince each other that the supernatural shit is real. Blair saw stuff that can’t be explained when she was military, and Chiara’s brothers offed a werewolf when she was in high school. Most of the time, I’m too busy to think about finding myself a girlfriend.

Or maybe I’m just chickenshit.

I finished the beer and pizza and powered up my secured search engine. There are many times when my browsing might raise a few questions, so I figure it’s better not to take chances. Urban explorers have done a pretty fine job of taking pictures despite Keystone’s “off limits” status. The photos revealed dilapidated two- and three-story brick buildings with their windows long broken out, rusted machinery, junker trucks from the 1940s, storage silos, and the famous water tower—still standing after all these years. According to the blog posts, someone had thought it was a good idea to raise cattle on what had to be a Superfund site. I wondered if the cows still ran loose at KOW, and if the sniper cared.

I’d heard the story about the Nazi spy at the TNT plant when I was growing up, but now that I needed details, they were hard to find or were classified, and any eyewitnesses were either over ninety or dead. Still, I pieced together what I could. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

My phone rang at the same time a chime on my computer indicated that I had new email. “Did you get what I sent?” Chiara asked as I juggled the phone and logged in to the Dark Web, trying not to get pizza sauce all over my keyboard.

“Give me a minute,” I growled, wiping away a stray bit of sauce as I pulled up her file on the anonymous file-sharing network and looked at the results. “All right, walk me through it.”

“The spy’s name was Helmut Zinzer, but he infiltrated the plant back in 1944 as Hank Stump. His job was to sabotage the production of ordnance in any way he could, and also to find out about the secret projects German high command suspected were taking place at the plant,” Chiara recapped as I scanned the old documents she sent. Even though they came from government servers and over seventy years had passed, parts were blacked out for security reasons.

“Secret projects?” I took a swig of IC and peered more closely at the old files.

“Pittsburgh manufacturing was hot stuff back then, some of the best engineering in the world,” Chiara said with pride. “There was a big glass company that tried to build an invisible plane.”

I let out a low whistle. “You mean, like Wonder Woman’s?”

Chiara sighed. “You win, Blair,” she called out, and I heard snickering. “Yes, comic nerd, like Wonder Woman’s. Only they wanted to build it for real, out of super special secret glass. Zinzer was supposed to halt production, assassinate the engineers on the project, and grab the plans.”

“Only it didn’t work out,” I added, still torn between being annoyed and secretly pleased that Chiara and Blair had bet on whether my comic-fu would pick up on the connection.

“Closer than you’d think,” Chiara said as I flipped through the rest of the file. “The two lead engineers died suddenly, one with a heart attack and the other from a car accident, both suspicious. An early prototype was destroyed in a lab fire. But the project continued, and rumor has it that a second, improved prototype was not only built, but aced its initial tests. Zinzer stole some schematics and passed them off to an associate, then went back to finish the job. He planned to detonate some of the ordnance, destroy the lab and prototype, and get the hell out of Dodge.”

“But someone picked him off the water tower before he could do that, and now he’s haunting the place,” I said. A long pull finished my beer, and I scowled at the computer. “Bad enough we never got the flying cars they promised, but we coulda had invisible planes, too?”

“Life’s a bitch,” Chiara commiserated.

“So why now?” I asked, leaning back and debating popping open another beer. “Has ol’ Helmut been haunting the place all this time, but there wasn’t anyone around to see?”

“You mean, if a ghost haunts in a forest and no one’s there, does he make a sound?”

“This is the sound of one finger clapping,” I muttered, tossing her the salute. She responded with a chin flick.

“Could be,” Chiara replied. “I mean, who would know or care? But get this—the corporation that hired you is the legal successor of the company that wanted to make the invisible plane out of special glass all those years ago. Only now, we’ve got all kinds of polymers…”

“And so it might actually be possible,” I said. “Holy shit…so Helmut’s back on the job, different war, same shit.”

“That’s what it sounds like to me,” Chiara replied.

“Okay, thanks. You totally rock. This helps.”

“Hey Mark—be careful,” Chiara cautioned. “Helmut was a dangerous guy, and he offed a couple of people before he lost his luck. He might be pissed about that, so watch your back.”

“Will do.” Just what I needed: a pissed off Nazi ghost assassin. Well, I already spent the advance so it’s too late to back out now. Guess I’d just have to gank the Jerry and save the invisible airplane.

Funny, I’d always pictured myself more Space Ghost than Wonder Woman.

“And I scored big,” Chiara continued.

“TMI,” I protested. “I don’t want to know—”

“Not like that, perv,” she joked. “I was talking about the whole TNT plant thing with Blair, and she reminded me that her aunt’s neighbor used to tell stories about working there during the war. Want to go see what he remembers?”

Which is how I ended up standing on a stranger’s doorstep to see a man about a ghost. I’d like to say my innate charm opened the door, but I’m betting it was Chiara’s box of homemade Italian pastries that did the trick.

Despite being over ninety, Eugene was sharp as a tack, and he told us plenty of stories, including a first-hand account of the night his Army patrol shot the sniper off a water tower.

“Thank you so much,” Chiara said, after Eugene’s story came to an end. “We’ve taken up enough of your time.”

“Would you like to see the stuff I kept from when I worked there?” Eugene’s rheumy eyes sparkled, and I bet he was having more fun flirting with Chiara and eating the pastries than he’d had in a long time.

“We’d love to!” I replied before Chiara had a chance to protest.

Eugene got to his feet and reached for his cane. “Be back in a moment,” he promised, setting off down the hall.

“Blair is gonna kill me,” Chiara murmured. “I’m late opening the shop.”

“Wait ‘til she finds out you’ve been flirting up a storm,” I joked, elbowing her.

She rolled her eyes. “Blair knows better.”

Eugene shuffled back with a box in one hand and put it on the coffee table before settling back into his worn recliner. “I kept a little of this and a little of that over the years,” he said. “This is the box from my time in the Army.” He opened it, revealing a collection of badges and medals, hunting licenses, snapshots, and…buttons. Dozens of buttons of all kinds.

I must have looked confused because Eugene laughed. “My mother was quite the seamstress when I was a boy, and I used to amuse myself playing with her button jar. Never quite got over my fascination, so I’ve always picked up the odd button when I saw it and added it to my collection.”

Then he held up a pebbled black button. “You know where I got this?” Eugene asked. When Chiara and I shook our heads, he chuckled. “Our Jerry spy ripped his jacket when he took a header off the water tower. We found the button in the grass. German-issue. I pocketed it, since I figured it didn’t matter to anyone else, and I’d been part of the team that got in the lucky shot.”

I felt a chill go down my spine. “Mr. Sprake—”

“Eugene,” he corrected.

“You probably aren’t going to believe me, but that spy you shot came back as a ghost.”

To my surprise, Eugene nodded. “That’s old news, son.”

“You know?”

“Yep,” Eugene replied, and helped himself to another pastry. “We’d see wisps up on the catwalk around the water tower after he was shot and hear a voice muttering in German. Never came to anything, and then we all cleared out, and the place stood empty for a long time. Figured it served him right, being stuck as the last sentry after trying to kill us.”

“He’s back, and a lot stronger—strong enough to cause trouble,” I said. “I was wondering, I know it’s a lot to ask, but may I have that button? I need to make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

Eugene fixed me with his gaze, and I felt like a teenager caught breaking curfew. “You’re that monster hunter guy, aren’t you? I’ve heard about you.”

I tried not to cringe. For obvious reasons, I didn’t advertise my side job, figuring that people who needed my services would find me on their own. Still, word gets around, and I hated to think what he might have heard.

Eugene chuckled. “None of that now,” he chided. “Blair’s older brother was at the VFW and had a bit much to drink one night, started telling stories, and got to the one about that werewolf he and his brothers took care of. Said there was more stuff like that out there, and that you were one of the guys who got rid of it.” He shrugged. “At the time, I blamed it on the whiskey, but I saw him later, and he swore it was true.”

“It’s true,” I confirmed.

Eugene nodded. “I’ve seen a strange thing or two in my time as well,” he said, and dropped the button into my hand.

“I won’t be able to return this,” I warned.

He shrugged. “You gonna use it to get rid of that Nazi bastard once and for all? Keep it, with my blessing.” His eyes blazed with the fire of the young soldier he once had been. “And when you send the son of a bitch to hell, you be sure to tell him that’s for my brother Mickey and his friends, the guys who never came back from Normandy.”

My fingers closed around the button. “It would be an honor.”

 

*****

 

The old Keystone Ordnance Works looked even more ominous in the dark. The full moon should have let me navigate easily, but the cloud cover kept blocking the moonlight. We’re in one of the spots in the US that has the most cloudy days, and I’d been told that was one reason the TNT plant got located here—because aerial surveillance didn’t work well. Tonight, it made my job that much harder.

Forget about climbing the fence. I found a hole in the chain link and crawled through. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who’d decided to ignore the warnings. Thanks to the maps and Chiara’s research, I’d come in near the old water tower instead of near the front, because the site covered acres and I didn’t want to hike through tick-infested scrub or fall into a polluted catchment pond.

The clouds broke, and I could see clearly. In the distance, I could make out the silhouette of one of the larger buildings, like a hulking shadow. Ahead of me, I saw the water tower, and to its right, a stand of trees.

I’ve got to admit, I was feeling pretty jazzed about this hunt. My grandad fought in “Dubya-Dubya-Two” as he called it, and now here I was, picking off a Heinie sniper. I felt like Indiana Jones and the Hunt for the Last Nazi.

Shoulda known it was all gonna go right to hell.

The weeds tangled around my legs like tripwire, dragging at my jeans with burrs. Mosquitos rose into a fierce, bloodsucking cloud, and I wondered if I could get turned into a mutant superhero by getting bitten by one, considering the stuff that probably got dumped in the shallow ponds. The ground beneath my feet felt rutted and squishy, probably from the rain we’d had lately. Bats dive-bombed me, swooping out of the broken windowpanes like a squadron on a mission.

Great. Bats, mosquitos, ticks, and Nazis.

That’s when I tripped over a rusted piece of equipment, landed flat on my face in the mud, and added “lockjaw” to the list. I got to my feet, and then I realized there were two water towers and I had no idea which one held the ghost of Helmut the sniper.

A shot rang out. I heard the cha-ka-ching of the bolt and guessed Helmut had a Mauser K98k, one of the deadliest guns of the war. Ghost or no ghost, I ducked and ran for cover. Another shot, and son of a bitch if the dirt didn’t kick up close to me. Fucking ghost sniper was shooting fucking ghost bullets.

I didn’t intend to find out whether or not those shots would kill me. I dodged into the stand of trees between the water towers and weighed my options. The clouds parted again, and I could make out some cattle far down the field, apparently oblivious to the spectral sniper. Then I looked from one water tower to another and spotted my quarry.

“Gotcha,” I murmured, watching the silvery shape of a man in an outdated uniform scan for his next shot, with his rifle sighted and ready.

Except, I didn’t have him, not yet. I knew where Helmut was, but I had fully expected him to come down from his perch and hunt me like a man. Fortunately, I’d come prepared. I shrugged out of my backpack and pulled out my paintball grenade launcher pistol. I grabbed a paintball shell I had repurposed, pre-filled with salted holy water and an iron BB inside, and let fly.

The first shell hit the tower just over Helmut’s head, and I heard cursing in German as the water splashed the rusted catwalk where the sniper had just been. His ghost winked out, only to reappear at a better vantage point to take a shot at me, and I threw myself out of the way as a bullet cracked against the tree trunk behind me.

I popped up, got off another shot, and this time, the shell went right through Helmut’s chest before it hit the tank behind it and splashed all over everything. The yowl of pain might have been from the salt, iron, or holy water, or a little of all of them. Damn, this was even more fun than firing holy water balloons with my hunting slingshot.

Helmut showed up again, a few feet to the right along the walkway by the tank, and I nailed him again with another paintball shell. His shot nearly parted my hair, forcing me to scramble to change positions before I discovered whether his bullets were “real” enough to do damage. I had the feeling we could shoot at each other all night and still be at a draw come morning.

According to what Chiara and I had found in the records, the Feds took Helmut Zinzer’s body away and disposed of it, so salting and burning his bones wasn’t an option. But I had Eugene’s button, and a half-assed plan, and that was as good as any of my jobs ever got.

First, to distract Helmut. I had made a run over the Ohio line earlier in the day and came back with a trunk full of fireworks I couldn’t buy locally. I pulled out a string of firecrackers, tied it to a stone so it would fly when I threw it, then lit them and tossed them so they hit to the right of the water tower.

They went off like a series of loud pops, and in the distance, the cows mooed their annoyance.

Then I pulled out a big cylindrical container of salt that I had duct taped onto an M80, lit the fuse, and lobbed it under the water tower where Helmut’s ghost was still firing at my dummy shooter.

The M80 exploded, tearing the canister to bits and spraying salt in a wide radius that effectively trapped Helmut on the tower. I used my grenade launcher pistol to send another holy water paintball shell through Helmut, momentarily dispelling him and buying myself enough time to run headlong for the safest place—directly under the water tower. Helmut couldn’t come down to ground level because of the salt, and he couldn’t see me from the catwalk. The water tower tank and its catwalk might be steel, but the rusted support structure was iron, which ghosts hate.

I pulled out the old button and clutched it in my palm. Ghostly footsteps paced above me, and the cows sounded downright pissed. I had to hurry because the firecrackers had been loud and I didn’t want to explain myself to either a local cop or a security guard.

I put the old button in a tin can that I’d brought for that purpose, filled the can with kindling, gave a squirt of lighter fluid, and dropped the button into the flames, followed by a generous handful of salt and iron shavings.

Overhead, I heard a man’s shriek followed by what I guess was some creative cursing—everything sounds worse in German. All the research Chiara and I found said that burning a personal possession in the place where a troubled spirit manifested with plenty of salt, iron, and holy water should do the trick if the bones were not available. I hoped that was right because I’d sure as hell had enough of the KOW to last a lifetime.

Once the fire burned out, I dusted off my hands and stared up at the catwalk overhead. The clouds slid free of the moon, but I did not see any trace of Helmut’s ghostly silhouette. Cautiously, I edged out from under the water tower, ready to dive back to shelter if a shot rang out, but nothing happened, and I sighed in relief.

The galloping hoof beats echoed in the quiet night, and I looked up to see a wild-eyed, full-grown, big as fuck bull coming right at me like a hellhound with horns.

I grabbed my backpack and ran. I’d faced down wendigo and werewolves, vengeful ghosts and possessed raccoons, but right now, I was reenacting the Running of the Bulls in Bumfuck, Pennsylvania, in the middle of the night, and my money, if I were a betting man, was on the bull.

I lit a cherry bomb and threw it behind me, barely slowing my pace. It exploded, and the bull made a noise between a snort and a whinny that told me it intended to have Wojcik-kabob for dinner.

The fence loomed up ahead of me, and now that I looked at the cut I had used to enter, I wondered whether or not the bull could tear right through after me. I’m thirty-five, so I’ve slowed down a bit since my teenage years, but tonight, my legs ran like I was seventeen again. I threw myself at the fence like a two-strikes junkie caught with a pocket full of dime bags and scrambled up the metal links before my manly ass could get deflowered on the point of that bull’s pointy horns. As I flipped over the barbed wire at the top and shredded my jacket, I thought about how easy they make this look in the movies.

Just before I could let go, the bull hit the fence full speed, catapulting me free. I might have pissed myself, just a little. Or maybe I landed in a puddle. Either way, I came down hard and landed with an inglorious splat.

The bull stared at me with pure malice in its beady black eyes, huffing and snorting on the other side of a chain link fence that looked as delicate as lace to me right then. It backed up a few steps, and when I saw how the fence support posts had tilted after its last charge, I had visions of it chasing me all the way back to Adamsville.

Screw that. I reached for my grenade launcher, grabbed another paintball shell, and took my shot. The shell hit the chain link fence and exploded all over the bull, spraying holy salt water in its eyes and pinging it on the nose with the iron BB. I didn’t wait; I ran for all I was worth, legs pumping, chest heaving, and I didn’t stop until I collapsed next to my big, black Silverado pick-up, Elvira. I damn near threw up on my boots, and I sat on the running boards until I could breathe without gasping, then I hauled my ass into the driver’s seat and spun out on the gravel, before that bull could follow.