Thursday, 26 July 2007

Bullets and Banshees

The following is the first part of a short story due for publication in late 2007/early 2008.

The Lexington Hotel on the corner of Michigan and 22nd was difficult to miss. The brick and terracotta structure dwarfed the surrounding buildings, reducing them into insignificance. Nevertheless, the cab driver still saw fit to announce it as we pulled up at the front.

"There you go, miss. Lexington Hotel."

"Thank you." I reached for my purse, intending to tip the driver.

"You don't need to do that." The driver waved at me to stop. "Fare and tip both paid for in advance. Be more than my life's worth to hustle you for any more."

As I stepped from the taxi, I looked around to gain my bearings. The trolley line ran outside the hotel with a stop nearby; I would be able to get back home easily enough. I would have ridden it to the hotel, had my prospective client not insisted on sending the cab.

Even though I had chosen to wear my Sunday-best frock, I felt distinctly under-dressed for the occasion, as I stepped into the hotel lobby. Bedecked in crimson and gold, it was a far grander place than those I usually frequented. I felt as if every eye was on me as I approached the reception desk, although I knew this to be just my own paranoia. Yet the beady gaze the rat-like reception clerk gave me made me wonder if there was reason behind my paranoia. I must confess that his unwelcoming expression threw me off my stride a little.

"I have an appointment to see a Mr. George Phillips." It was barely a whisper, my voice betraying me at the vital moment.

"You'll have to speak up," the clerk sneered. His gaze lingered derisively on my dress, but he refused to make eye contact. Clearly I had been judged and found wanting.

"An appointment." My voice cracked this time as I tried to keep a lid on the annoyance I felt at this creature's prejudice. "With Mr George Phillips."

The clerk's demeanor changed immediately. The snotty tones dropped from his voice; his body language took on a more subservient mien.

"Mr Phillips, yes, right away madam."

He lifted a telephone receiver and dialed a single number.

"I have a miss ..." He ran his finger down a page in a ledger open in front of him. "Sara English to see Mr. Phillips."

He listened intently for a couple of moments before replacing the receiver in its cradle.

"You're to proceed to the fifth floor."

He indicated the bank of elevators across the lobby from us.

"Which room?" I asked.

The clerk laughed nervously. "All of them."

Upon arriving on the fifth floor, I was met by two sharply dressed men. Neither of them had the look of a reputable gentleman: their faces looked battered, in the manner of boxers; and there was a leer to their expressions as they regarded me. They insisted upon checking the contents of my purse, but stopped short of patting me down for concealed weapons, which was gallant of them, if a little naive.

Frankie, the broader of the two men, who had the physique of a boxer to match his crooked nose and cauliflower ears, led me through into the suite of rooms. We passed through into an office, where a widely proportioned man with thinning black hair sat in an armchair reading that morning's newspaper.

"Mr Phillips?" I ventured.

"If you like," he said as he lowered the paper to look at me.

I stifled my response. The features of the man in front of me were immediately recognizable, considering he was the most famous man in Chicago and a regular feature on the front pages of the city's newspapers, including the one he had been reading.

His name was not George Phillips; it was Al Capone.

"She clean?" Capone asked.

Frankie nodded.

"Then get lost. I want to talk with her alone."

Frankie nodded. Backing out of the room, he closed the doors, leaving me alone with the man considered to be Public Enemy Number One.

"Take a seat." Capone gestured to a two-seater sofa. "Something to drink?"

I shook my head as I sat. "No thank you."

Capone sat facing me, not saying anything for a moment. I shifted in my seat, my levels of discomfort rising until the realization hit me: the most-feared man in all Chicago was nervous about telling me his problem.

"Ray tells me you're the real thing," he finally said.

I nodded, unsure how I should respond. "I was able to help Mr. Manelli with his problem."
Capone leaned forward in his seat. "I got similar ... issues."

"I'm sure I could try to ... "

"No!" Capone hammered his fists against the arms of his chair in a violent outburst. Had I not been seated, I would have jumped back several feet. "I've had enough hucksters 'trying' to help. You're genuine: prove it."

My heart was racing, but I was resolute that I wasn't going to let it show. "I need to know more about the spirit," I told him as calmly as I could. "What appearance it takes, when and where it appears."

The tension dropped away from Capone. The act of taking his problem seriously seemed to have gone some way toward mollifying him.

"It's a dame ... a woman," he told me. "She's all dressed in black ... a long flowing black dress. I been seeing her every night since I did that stretch in Pennsylvania. First she'd appear at night outside my cell. Now she takes to floating outside the hotel. And what's worse is that noise she makes."


"Yeah. Broad wails as if someone capped her kid."

Capone could not have failed to notice my reaction. I am sure that I must have blanched as white as snow.

"You know what I'm dealing with?" he asked.

"A banshee."

"Then you can help."

It wasn't a question. I wasn't sure I should tell Capone that the banshee’s cry traditionally foretells the death of the person who heard it. On one hand I didn't think he'd take the news well; on the other he had survived for more than a couple of nights after hearing the wail, suggesting there was something unusual about his situation. Either Capone had some form of unusual protection, or something else was holding the banshee back. Whatever the case might be, it meant that there was some room for me to work. It was possible that I would be able to help Capone after all. Even if I couldn't, the chances were that he would be dead, in which case I didn't exactly have to worry about his response to my failure.

"I can help."

Capone smiled briefly before adopting a more business-like manner.

"What do you need to get started?"

On my request, I was shown to Capone's bedroom, where I was left alone. The windows looked out over Michigan Avenue and some way beyond, but my interest was not in the view, at least not the one outside the window.

The concept of a third eye, one with oracular powers, goes back into antiquity. There are a number of spiritualists who claim to have this ability, although I've yet to come across one who actually manifests their third eye. Most claim that it's about spiritual reality, not what can be seen with regular sight. However, my third eye is real enough that its plainly visible in the middle of my forehead when I use its sight. Anyone attempting to touch it though, as many have, would only feel the unbroken skin of my forehead. The prodding is irritating; unfortunately some people don't seem to be able to satisfy their curiosity unless they can stick their grubby fingers all over everything.

The eye is illusory, an outward manifestation of my abilities. Despite its unreal qualities, it does manage to set me apart from the majority of the charlatans claiming to practice the esoteric arts. At the very worst it serves as a neat party trick.

It does have its drawbacks however. Aside from the aforementioned prodding, it has also had the regrettable effect of scaring a number of people. It sent my own mother into a screaming fit when she saw a third eye blink open in the middle of her seven-week old baby‘s forehead, at least so I've been told. Despite my extraordinary mental powers, I can't claim to be able to remember the incident.

Settling into a cross-legged position (not entirely necessary, but I find it comfortable), I closed my eyes and let all the tension drain from me. I blocked out my awareness of the things around me: the noise from the traffic outside the hotel, the scent of Cuban cigars lingering in the air, the press of the carpeted floor against my rear. My third eye opened with a rush of awareness.
I had been told that with my real eyes shut and my third eye open I look like the Cyclops of Greek myth, but it was a sight I'd never seen for myself. The illusion that creates the eye is one of the mind and unfortunately cannot be photographed.

It felt, as it always does, as if a whole new world had been revealed to me. I could see the trails in the air left by people passing through in the past; I could see shadows cast by the future. I could also see the points at which the spiritual realm pressed up against our mundane world.

The building was home to several ghosts: guests who had checked out of life, but not the hotel. Some of them had passed peacefully, leaving little but the faint waft of memory to mark their passage; others died violently, leaving a psychic tumult in their wake. Several floors beneath me, the basement perhaps, a dark stain, the scene of some unspeakable crime no doubt, spread its cancerous tendrils throughout the hotel, tainting everything with its malignant essence.

More pertinent to my purpose there, I could see the trace left by the banshee: where it had been and from where it had come.

Capone lent me his limousine and two of his bodyguards, Frankie and a slimmer, weasel-faced man: Hymie. I had been prepared to take a cab, but he had insisted.

"I want her taken care of properly," Capone had informed the two men. "If there's so much as a hair outa place, I'm taking it out of your hides."

I suppose the threat was supposed to reassure me; it only had the effect of making me feel sorry for Capone's two men.

The Cadillac was a beast, luxurious to be driven about in, but a beast nonetheless. Frankie, who had elected to ride in back with me, informed me about the alterations Capone had made to it.

"Bullet proof glass, back and front," he said. "Inch thick steel plate. You could unload a Tommy gun into her and you wouldn't see a dent. Tires will run even if they're flat. And then there's this."

He opened a hidden compartment to reveal a stash of weapons: handguns, Thompson machine guns and even, Heaven forfend, hand grenades.

"Never get caught on the hop in this beauty," he said, resealing the compartment. "So, if we run into any trouble ... "

"Hopefully it won't come to that," I interrupted, not wanting to even consider the unleashing of that arsenal for my benefit. I already had enough wandering spirits to deal with in my life; the last thing I needed were a load more, created because of me.

I had Hymie stop the car several times as I rechecked where my sight was leading us. It would have been possible while moving, but it was so much easier to take a proper bearing while not ducking in and out of Chicago's traffic with Hymie using language at the other motorists that would make a sailor blush. The route we took meandered in a northerly direction, heading into what Frankie informed me was the Irish gangs territory.

"Eventually they'll all roll over for Al," he informed me. "But for now they're still causing trouble."

Irish would make sense, I thought, considering the banshee was an Irish spirit. How could such a thing be raised though? My understanding was that the banshees only sang to herald the deaths of the Irish nobility. I couldn't be certain that my facts were accurate though. Unlike other spirits, I had no real knowledge of banshees. My awareness of Celtic spirits sprang from the books I read, many of which were contradictory.

"Stop here," I instructed Hymie, wanting to once more check our bearings.

He pulled over to the side of the road and again I slipped into my meditative state. The first time I had done so in the car, Frankie's shocked gasp had brought me straight out of it again. Subsequently he had managed to still his reaction to the manifestation of my third eye. I could tell he remained uneasy though; he hadn't managed to look at me directly since.

The world opened up to me and immediately I could tell something was wrong.

"We have to go. Now!" I yelled.

Startled, Hymie froze, not sure how to respond to my sudden order. Frankie solved his quandary for him. "Drive! Back to the Lexington."

The attack, when it arrived, came out of nowhere, literally. The air several car lengths ahead of us rippled and bubbled, busting open to expel a number of riders on ferocious black stallions. Both riders and mounts were clad in dark brown leather armor. Steam snorted from the horses' nostrils, a sight made all the more terrifying by the fact that it was at least 70 degrees outside.

Hymie spun the wheel around, sending the car into a barely controlled spin. Jamming his foot on the gas pedal, he did his best to put as much space between us and the new arrivals as possible.

Frankie gaped through the rear window at the riders who were urging their horses forward in pursuit.

"What the hell are they?"

My third eye still open to the perceptions of the unseen world, I opened my other two eyes to look at Frankie.

"It's the Wild Hunt."

"They won't be so wild after I'm done with them," Frankie said.

He pushed on a lever attached to the rear window. The whole assembly folded down, giving him a clear line on our pursuers. Pointing his Tommy gun out of the hole where the window had been, he opened fire. The signature ratatattat sound of the gun filled the car. I clapped my hands over my ears to block out the noise; my third eye disappeared along with my concentration.

"Keep the car steady, Hymie," Frankie growled. "I can't hit these mugs if you keep juddering about."

"You wanna come up here and drive?" Hymie threw back.

Frankie resumed firing as the Hunt closed the gap between us. Despite the larger target, Frankie's aim seemed to be no better.

"I'm hitting them," he announced. "But it ain't having any effect."

"Iron!" I realized. "That's the only thing that can hurt them."

"Why didn't you say so before?" Frankie responded. "Hymie, give them some smoke."

Hymie pulled out an unmarked knob on the dashboard. Thick black smoke poured out of the tailpipe.

"Burns oil," Frankie explained to me. "Should give us the cover to make this work."

I peered into the dark cloud tailing us. I could just about make out the indistinct forms of our pursuers.

"They're still gaining on us," I told Frankie.

"Not for much longer."

Frankie slid open a small hatch in the middle of the floor between us. I glanced back behind; I could see the green glowing eyes of the horses.

"Whatever you're going to do ... "

Frankie upturned a box over the hatch. Roofer's nails spilled out into it. They rattled underneath the car.

"Pipe runs underneath the car," Frankie explained. "Use it for puncturing tires."

The sound of hoof beats chasing us abruptly stopped.

"Cut the smoke," Frankie ordered.

Hymie depressed the knob. Within seconds the air behind us cleared. There was no sign of the Wild Hunt. They had vanished along with the smoke.

Capone paced angrily, in danger of wearing a trench in the thick carpet that covered his study floor. He stopped and pointed a shaking finger at me.

"If this is a way of you extorting more money from me ..."

"Mr Capone," my tone was cold, business-like, in complete contrast to how I really felt. "I can assure you that obtaining more money is the furthest thing from my mind. At the moment it's my well-being that I'm more concerned about. Calling up the Wild Hunt is not some parlor trick."

"And you two." Capone rounded on Frankie and Hymie. "How can you go along with what this broad is saying?"

"I swear it's the truth, Mr Capone," Frankie said. "Miz English was the one who saved us from them."


"The Huntsmen, like most of their kind, are vulnerable to iron," I explained.

"Iron? So I can get rid of that banshee by sticking her through with a poker?"

"I doubt it's that easy, Mr Capone. The temporary loss of a single banshee would likely prove little deterrent to your adversary."

"Temporary loss? I thought you said they were vulnerable to it."

"It can hurt them," I replied. "Even send them back from where they came. But it won't kill them."

Contemplating this, Capone strode over to the window, where he looked out over the city. His stance was that of one who owned all that he surveyed. From the lawmakers to the law-bringers, Capone ran Chicago. His hold over the city might not be complete, but as far as it counted, the city belonged to him. How this loss of control must rankle, I thought. Here was something over which he had no power.

"These things don't like iron, huh? Hymie, get to Diversey Park. I want enough iron rounds for all our boys. If these Irish ... things want a war, we'll give them Armageddon."

After Hymie had left on his errand, Capone turned to me.

"You'll stay here. You're hired on as my ... spiritual adviser for the duration. Frankie, get her set up with a room."

I knew it best not to argue, but I couldn't let Capone run roughshod over my life without the slightest protest.
"I don't have any of my things here," I told him.

Capone scowled. "After you're done with the room," he said to Frankie. "Run her back to her place so she can pick up what she needs." He paused for a second, thinking. "And then take her over to Marshall Fields and let her buy whatever else she needs. On my account.""

According to the clock in my hotel room, it was two minutes past midnight when the wailing began. I had slept for a couple of hours earlier in the evening following my shopping expedition, but I was wide awake now. Blocking out everything but the wail, I slipped into the light trance that allowed me to access my abilities. Prepared, I stepped to the window and threw it wide open.

Floating around the building, the banshee's attention snapped onto me. She hung in mid-air for a moment, before floating over to my window. She had the appearance of a young woman, long flowing copper locks, wide green eyes and wore a long green dress that came down past her ankles, trailing behind her like gossamer in the wind.

"What do you want here?" I asked.

The banshee, staring straight into my third eye, answered, entranced. "Capone's soul."

"Why haven't you already taken it?"

The banshee frowned, then shook her head, breaking free of the spell. "Beware mortal." She pointed an accusatory finger at me. "You play with forces beyond your ken."

With those words of warning, the banshee floated away from the window to resume her wailing lament.

"I'm sure I haven't heard that before," I muttered. All manner of spiritual nasties had attempted to warn me off in the past. I was still here; most of them weren't.

A window above me, on the fifth floor, banged open. A gun barked, loud into the night. The shot found its mark in the center of the banshee's forehead. Her wail diminished rapidly, as did the banshee, until all that was left was a faint echo in the wind. Then that too was gone.

"How'd you like them apples!" Capone shouted from above.

His window banged shut. I closed my own more gently, wondering what effect his action would have. Two hours later I found out as I was woken from a fitful sleep by a caterwauling from outside. I rose from my bed and dragging my bedclothes with me padded over to the window. This time it was not a single banshee lamenting the forthcoming death of Al Capone, but rather an entire chorus of them.

I returned to my bed. Stuffing a pillow over my head to block out as much of the noise as I could, I tried to return to sleep.

Bleary-eyed and in desperate need of a pot of thick black coffee, I joined the assembly in Capone's office. Out of everyone there, only Capone seemed to have had as bad a night as mine.

"Explain to me why I'm the only one who heard that racket last night," he asked me.

"The banshee's lament is only intended for the ears of one person," I answered. "So only you, or someone sensitive to the spirits would be able to hear them."

"You heard them too?"

I nodded. I caught a fleeting expression of relief cross Capone's face that he was not alone in his experience, but it disappeared so quickly that I wasn't sure if I hadn't just imagined it.

"All right," Capone announced. "This is what we're gonna do."

Fog rolled in off Lake Michigan, blanketing the Graceland Cemetery. Frankie peered out through the windshield of Capone's Cadillac, using his sleeve to wipe away the condensation forming on the inside of the glass.

"I don't like the look of this," he grumbled.

I was forced to agree; I was sure there was a preternatural quality to the vapor. I could have checked it out with my third eye, but the attack by the Wild Hunt suggested that someone had taken notice of the use of my ability and was taking steps against it. As an attempt to avoid this unwanted attention, I was using techniques that required a less conspicuous use of power. By holding a small brass pendulum over a city map, I had used simple divination to locate the cemetery, letting the pendulum be led by the power pouring out of it, rather than my own power. It was less reliable than my sight, but given the sheer amount of power being used, it was unlikely that I was mistaken in my identification of Graceland as the focal point.

"You want to turn back?" I asked. It was worth suggesting the option; I couldn't see how this could possibly go well for us.

"Only if I want Al using my head for baseball practice," he replied. "Okay, if we're doing this, let's get on with it."

There were twenty-one of us in all. In Hebrew numerology twenty-one was considered to represent wisdom. Not that Hebrew numbers were going to help us much. In Celtic numerology, as a product of three, twenty-one would be considered a number of power. Perhaps that was a better sign.

We came into the cemetery by way of the entrance on north Clark Street, fanning out once inside. Frankie kept close to me. I wondered which of us was supposed to be reassured by the other's presence.

"What are we looking for?" he asked.

"An altar. It'll have a circle surrounding it, possibly salted and probably with a couple of triangles inside it."

"Ain't going to be easy spotting it in this." Frankie looked around at the fog.

"That's why I have this." I set my pendulum swinging. It favored a direction north across the cemetery. "This way."

As we ventured deeper inside, the fog worked to isolate us from the rest of the city, so that Chicago became nothing but a memory. Phantoms, conjured up by the fog, played at the edges of our vision. Optical illusions, they nonetheless had everyone twitching at every gust of wind. A scratching sound somewhere beneath us only added to the atmosphere of poorly concealed terror.

A skeletal hand thrust itself up through the fog, breaking free of its bonds of grass and soil. A hail of hot iron greeted its arrival as all but three of the gangsters fired upon it, blasting it back to its resting place.

"Save your ammo," Frankie ordered. "We don't know what else is ..."

He didn't have the opportunity to complete his sentence. All around us the graves gave up the dead. The gangsters fired upon them, instinctively drawing into a rough circle. I took shelter in the center, scraping my own circle in the cemetery soil with my shoe. Inside the circle I drew an inverted triangle with a line bisecting it a third of the way down, forming the Celtic symbol for earth.

I crouched down over the triangle, swinging my pendulum over it, tracing the lines in the air. Trying to make the pendulum follow straight lines, when it naturally wanted to move in circles wasn't easy, but it did the job well enough for it to work.

"There's too many of them!" yelled Charlie, one of the younger members of Capone's crew.

I glanced up from my work. The press of animated cadavers, some of them nothing more than bones and rags, threatened to swamp the gunmen. Even with the automatic fire of the Tommy guns tearing them apart, every corpse mowed down was replaced by two new ones, like the heads of the Lernaian Hydra. If I didn't hurry and finish my work we'd all be dead, regardless of the weight of the firepower.

I swung my pendulum faster; the motion lines it left grew stronger, more definitive. They began to glow with a life of their own, forming a burning triangle in the air above its counterpart in the cemetery soil.

Overwhelmed by grasping hands, one of the gangsters fell to the onslaught of walking cadavers, dragged down into the fog. His screams were barely audible amid the cacophony of machine gun fire, which was some small blessing. The circle of guns drew in a little tighter around me, increasing my already screaming sense of claustrophobia.

I stopped the pendulum moving with my free hand. Even without the tracing action, the motion lines remained floating in mid-air, a bright light in the gloom of the fog-filled cemetery.

The reanimated dead overwhelmed another of the gangsters, several of them jumping on top of him at once. The others opened fire on them. A bullet finished the hapless gangster instead of the dead. Rather than fall over as the life left his body, the gangster's corpse was instead held up by the press of the dead around him. A moment later he moved again, his body animated by the same force that infected the rest of our assailants. Moving in an uncoordinated fashion, he brought his machine gun to bear on me.

I froze, my muscles locked in a spasm of fear. My ritual was still unfinished; his bullets would not only take my life, they would be responsibly, directly or otherwise, for the death of everyone with me.

The dead gangster pulled the trigger.

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