"Karma," in The Crimson Pact Volume Two
I'm pretty excited about my urban fantasy, Karma, being included in The Crimson Pact volume 2, alongside stories by so many other talented writers. In keeping with a long tradition of authors posting story teasers, here are roughly the first 2,700 words (out of a little over 15,000) of Karma.
You'll also find a few notes on writing the story at the bottom of the post, along with the video trailer they made for it.
by D. Robert Hamm
We hit the interstate like an unguided missile.
Needles of frozen rain and jagged blades of wind beat my face numb and turned what was left of my dress into a full-body ice-pack. Even with the heater on ‘incinerate,’ I couldn’t stop shivering, but the outside air was all that kept me from gagging on the smell of my own puke and the rusty stench of blood, so the window stayed down. Between the black pavement and blacker sky, the air was wet and gray, and sucked the vitality from my headlamp beams well before their natural time. That was okay; I wasn’t paying much attention to the little they revealed anyway.
The man in the passenger’s seat either didn’t feel the cold or was too stoic to show discomfort. The dashboard glow turned his short white beard to green and deepened the age lines in his face, and... Gods, I’d loved that face growing up. It was my grandfather’s face. But right then, I could barely look at it, because this wasn’t my grandfather, just a sad, confused spirit wearing his body. And even though he was one of the good guys, that didn’t mean it was easy to take.
“You’re going to catch cold,” Not-Grandpa shouted over the storm.
“I’m . . . what?”
Since last night I’d been shot at, whipped, and electrocuted. I’d watched a good man beheaded and disemboweled before my eyes, and learned things about myself, my family, and especially my past, that had already driven other people into padded-room territory. I was marinated in a vile concoction of blood and various other body fluids, quite a bit of it my own, and had spent the last however-many hours fighting horrors that should never have existed. In the middle of all that—because I’m an overachiever—I took time out to kill a man I loved.
And this guy was worried that I’d catch a fucking cold.
Once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop. The kind of deep, full-body laughter that doubles you over and makes your stomach muscles ache for days afterward. The kind that shreds the lining of your throat and rises in pitch to rapid staccato squeaks, like sneakers on a hardwood floor. I held back the worst long enough to wrestle the car onto the shoulder, then let go. The laughter turned to howling, the howling into screams, the screams into sobs, and the sobs into a quiet whimper that finally, gods finally, tapered off, and I could breathe again, in great, ragged gulps. I wiped away a rope of snot hanging from my nose and sat hunched over with my eyes closed and my forehead against the steering wheel, shaking, while the rain pummeled my back with tiny, ice-cold fists.
In shock? Probably. Hysterical? Definitely. Look, I make sandwiches at my family’s restaurant for a living, okay? Fucking sandwiches.
Not-Grandpa waited until I quieted down before speaking. “I’m sorry,” he said. It was the dozenth or so time he’d said it. The line of his mouth stayed hard, but his eyes and his voice were soft and broken. I believed him. Had to believe him.
“I know.” I didn’t mean for it to sound bitter. He’d saved my life after all; I just didn’t know if I could forgive him for that.
* * * * *
A little too “in media res” for you? Yeah, me too.
So here are the vitals: My name is Karma Miranda Rodriguez. I’m twenty-three years old, five foot six, brown eyes, light brown skin, and dark brown hair that I keep boy-short. I claim to be a size five, and I dare you to say otherwise. I like strawberry daiquiris, support equal rights for supernaturals, am indifferent toward long walks on the beach, and . . .
And oh, yeah—Apparently, I kill demons.
* * * * *
Eli’s Borderland Station, my family’s restaurant, has been the only twenty-four hour eatery on the Kansas City Plaza since back before the Jasonites outed the supernatural community (aka, “The Quiet World”) and we had to coin the term ‘daylighter’ to differentiate plain vanilla humans from those touched by the paranormal. During the riots that followed the Jasonites’ little party, and all through the Apocalypse Wars, my Grandpa Eli and Uncle Garston kept the restaurant open as a free kitchen-slash-aid-station for refugees and emergency workers, and turned the upstairs apartment—which is mine, now—into a de facto headquarters for various peacekeeping forces.
So alongside our Absolutely Killer Turkey Sandwich (made from, according to the menu, genuine killer turkeys), we serve up a mean side-order of history. Obviously, a lot of things have changed since the AWs; for instance, the Plaza, always an upscale shopping district, is now a level four Private Patrol Zone with the best law enforcement money can buy. As you’d expect, our main business is well-heeled shoppers whose sidearms are more fashion statement than personal defense, but we try to keep prices reasonable enough for the average college student, too.
No amount of money will buy you a table or a bar stool in our VIP lounge, though, even if every other seat in the house is taken. The lounge is permanently reserved for veterans, proxies, bounty hunters, elites, and so on. It’s where people with code names like Halloween Jack, Lucy D.T., HalluciNathan, and so on come to catch up with one another, trade information, or just relax. Grandpa and Uncle Garston are technically civilians now, but a lot of the VIPs still use their call signs from way back when, so if someone in armored leathers with notched weapons and a stare that looks like they’re counting the ways they could kill you with one finger says they’re going to see The General and Body Mass, they’re not talking about some secret mission, it just means they’re headed our way for the lunch special.
On Tuesday nights we lock up for a few hours of uninterrupted cleaning with my special patented Karma Rodriguez closing procedure. This involves, among other things, lots of dancing around with brooms and mops, and other Weapons of Mess-Destruction, and me in a casual dress singing along with loud music at the top of my lungs. It’s effective. The more I can make work feel like play, the faster and more efficiently I get things done, and as proof of that, what used to take three people on Tuesday nights now requires only two.
At thirty seconds to zero-dark-thirty on a drizzly February evening, when my grime-fighting partner Jayden and I were the only ones left in the restaurant, I locked the front door and hit the music. My mix for the night was weighted heavily in favor of pre-Apocalypse rock—music that was old before I was born. It was a minor tragedy when it cut off about ten minutes into the shift, right in the middle of David Bowie’s Rebel, Rebel. Jayden and I both trailed off a cappella.
“I didn’t hear you singing if you didn’t hear me,” Jayden said. “We stick together, and nobody can prove anything.” He fixed me with what would have been a deadpan stare if not for that quirk at one corner of his mouth that I thought of as his, ‘our little secret’ smile.
I put on my best film noir ‘tough dame’ voice. “It’s always secrets with you, isn’t it? Fine, I’ll play your game.” Staying in character, I headed upstairs with an over-the-top hip-swaying sashay to reboot the router while Jayden kept cleaning.
I can’t be objective about Jayden, so I won’t try. He was one of a kind. Literally. Part Aosidhe, part Graealfinsidhe, and part daylighter, Jayden was a medical miracle, and he got the best from each branch of his ancestry. Six and a half feet of lean muscle, flawless skin, hair like pale gold silk, and . . . you get the idea. His ears were only slightly pointed, and with his hair down, he could pass for an exceptionally pretty daylighter. If not for his eyes, that is. Whiteless, and bright turquoise in color. They suited him.
And yeah, I know. If only I wasn’t his boss.
Jayden had something of a ‘mystery man’ air about him that only added to his status as local lust-object. Among other things, the way he dressed like a wastelander (only cleaner) but acted like a gentleman fueled speculation, and there was that duffle bag he carried everywhere that no one had ever seen inside. He kept his past and his private life just that, though—past, and private. It was like the world was in love with Jayden, but Jayden wasn’t sure how he felt about the world and didn’t want to lead it on.
When I got back from confirming that the router was indeed fried, those exotic eyes of his were fixed on the big screen in the main dining area. I came up behind him and stopped, gaping. “What the . . . ?”
Just north of us, people were fighting in the streets and looting, while Hushville—Jayden’s neighborhood—burned.
“Short version?” Jayden said without turning around, “They busted the wrong guy for the Taylor murders, so they released him. He lasted a whole three hours.”
“They didn’t give him police protection?”
“He was under police protection when it happened. Now everybody has a conspiracy theory, and apparently with every conspiracy theory this week, you get a free Molotov cocktail kit. Speaking of which . . . ” He rewound a few seconds and paused on a burning apartment building. “Great firebomb, huh? Good thing I wasn't home.”
“Shit. Wow. I’m sorry.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
He shrugged, his back still to me. “Theoretically speaking. I carry everything really important with me.”
“You want to talk about it?”
“Want me to leave you alone?”
He paused, as if considering. “No.”
“Okay. But know what? Fuck cleaning. Help me get the trash out, then haul your duffel bag upstairs. You’re staying at my place tonight.”
Jayden turned and looked at me as though I were speaking Swahili. “Your place?”
“You just lost your apartment to a xenophobic asshole with a fire fetish, and you need crash space. Friends do that kind of stuff for each other.”
That earned me a confused look. “No, I just . . . Yeah, that’d be great. Thanks.” He seemed utterly bewildered. So much for his famed stoicism and unflappability. Ah, Jayden. Such a strange, strange boy. I ran up to get my coat and pull on a pair of jeans under my dress, and Jayden and I dragged the first can out into the alley.
I remember that the air tasted of cold grease and wet pavement. I remember the electric buzz of the street lamp, and the way its dirty light turned the drizzle into sparse gray streaks like anime rain. I remember the exact cadence of the trash can’s scraping and banging as we dragged it toward the dumpster. How screwed up do things have to get before taking out the trash is a fond memory worth replaying in your head?
We didn’t hear the patrol team until they entered the mouth of the alley, running hard toward us, shouting at us to get inside. The woman’s name was Lawson. She’d lost her helmet, and a sheen of blood covered the left side of her face. Her partner, Hall, had a crack running down the side of his faceplate, and his body armor was shredded in places. They both carried their weapons at the ready, scanning the roofline as they ran.
Before they’d even finished their warning, a clot of shadow and sickening angles detached from the rest of the dark. The slaughter-spider—
How did I know what it was?
—dropped from the roof and—
The demon monster things and the bad people are making us walk a long way again. I don’t say how tired I am because I am almost eight years old, and that means I’m a big girl, and because it would make Mommy feel bad that she can’t carry me that far. Mommy and me are in our nightgowns because we were asleep when they—Where were these images coming from?
—landed in the alley behind them. It was an impossible thing, eight or nine feet tall, all mottled ochre-and-black chitin, with eight spiked and bladed spiderlike legs from which it took its name, serrated mandibles beneath great protruding compound eyes, and short, thick, writhing tentacles suspended from the underside of a bulbous, misshapen central body.
I shouted my own warning, but Hall was already emptying his magazine at the thing as he backed toward us. Lawson either tripped or dove in our direction, twisting in mid-air to land on her back. She raised her shotgun, and—
grabbed us, and it was really late because both moons were out, but they let us put on our boots before they made us start walking. Mommy tried to fight them and she shot one of them but they beat her up and cut her cheek really bad. But she is still the prettiest lady in the whole wide world. It was real people, not demons, but they don’t act like real people. Mommy says they have another kind of demon inside them called Qlippoth. I think the Qlippoth are telling the other demons what
—made it roar as she hit the pavement.
The monster’s cry was like a foghorn made of cats and feedback, a spike that shoved through both eardrums. Lawson had hurt it, taken out one leg, in fact, but it wasn’t enough, and Hall’s automatic gunfire cut off with a sickening, meat cleaver sound as the spider sliced through his neck. Hall’s head flew from his shoulders and bounced against the alley wall while the spider eviscerated his body before it could hit the ground, as if he weren’t--
to do. A man tried to run away today, but they caught him, and instead of shooting him, a slaughter-spider stuck one of its sharp arm/leg things in him and cut him open and played with his insides until he stopped screaming, and I cried, but I won’t cry anymore, because I’m a big girl, and
—dead enough already. Even as far back as Jayden and I stood, hot, sticky wetness splattered our faces.
It tried to leap toward us, but its missing leg threw it off balance. Lawson’s shotgun was out of ammo, so she fumbled out her .45 and taunted the slaughter-spider while edging toward the side of the alley opposite the door. Sacrificing herself—
big girls don’t cry. The demons usually kill everybody, but now they only kill people who try to run away or stop walking before they tell us to stop or people who fall down and can’t walk anymore, but sometimes when somebody falls down they let somebody else make a travois, which is a kind of sled thing that you drag
—to give us a chance to get away. My gun was in my purse inside, but even if I’d had it on me, I couldn’t loosen my grip on the trash can, let alone force myself to move.
I caught Jayden’s eye. I’d never before realized–-
when I feel like crying I think about Daddy. Daddy is a general, which is a kind of soldier who tells other soldiers what to do. He is a long way away fighting other demons, but when he comes to save us, the demons and the bad people are going to be sorry. I am going to be a soldier like Daddy when I grow up and—
how much he and I communicated without speaking, but with that look, I knew we’d done the same math. One of us might—just might—make it to the door. If we left the other one to die along with Lawson.
(continued in the anthology)
About this story
Fantasy author Paul Genesse, who edited the anthology, set a 10,000 word limit for each story. The first draft of Karma was easily twice that--it wanted to become a novel, and may yet, someday--and although I cut and summarized as much as I was able, the final draft came in at over 15,000 words. I didn't think I could cut any more and still tell the story I wanted to tell, and apparently Paul agreed, because he graciously accepted it anyway.