About the Author
John Connolly is the author of the Charlie Parker series of mystery novels, the supernatural collection Nocturnes, the Samuel Johnson Trilogy for younger readers, and (with Jennifer Ridyard) the Chronicles of the Invaders series. He lives in Dublin, Ireland. For more information, see his website at JohnConnollyBooks.com, or follow him on Twitter @JConnollyBooks.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Bad Men PROLOGUE
. . . they are not towers but giants. They stand in the well from the navel down; and stationed round its bank they mount guard on the final pit of Hell.
—Dante Alighieri, Inferno, canto 31
In the darkness of a Virginia prison cell, he stirs like an old demon goaded by memories of its lost humanity. The dream presses upon him once more, the First Dream, for in it lies his beginning, and his end.
In the dream, he is standing on the verge of a dense forest and a smell clings to his clothing, the scent of animal fat and saltwater. There is a weight at his right hand, a musket, its rough leather strap hanging almost to the ground. On his belt there is a knife, and a powder horn, and a bag of shot. The crossing was difficult, for the sea was wild and the waves broke upon them with the force of a great hand. They lost a man on the journey to the island, drowned when one of the bark canoes capsized, and a pair of muskets and a leather bag filled with powder and shot descended with him beneath the waves. They cannot afford to lose weapons. They are hunted men, even as they are become hunters themselves this night. It is the year of our Lord 1693.
Moloch, twisting on his bunk three centuries after the time of his dream, drifts between sleeping and wakefulness for an instant before he is drawn back into this world of images once again, slowly submerging, sinking deeper and deeper, like a man drowning in recollection, for the dream is not new, and its coming is by now expected when he lays his head upon the pillow and at last surrenders himself to its hold, his heartbeat loud in his ears, blood pumping.
And blood flowing.
He is aware, in the brief moment that he breaks the surface of his uneasy rest, that he has killed before, and will kill again. A conflation of reverie and reality occurs, for Moloch has slain in both dream and wakefulness, although now the distinction between the two realms has grown indistinct.
This is a dream.
This is not a dream.
This is. This was.
There is sand beneath his feet. Behind him, the canoes have been drawn up onto the shore and there are men around him, awaiting his command to move. They are twelve in total. He raises a hand to them and the whites follow him into the woods, the Indians breaking off and sprinting ahead of them. One of them glances back at him, and he sees that the native’s face is pitted and scarred, one ear missing, a consequence of mutilation at the hands of his own people.
Wabanaki. A Wabanaki mercenary, an outcast. The Indian wears his skins with the hair turned inward, in accordance with the demands of the winter season.
“Tanto,” says the native, speaking the name of the god of ill will. The foul weather, the drowning, perhaps even the fact that he is here in this place, surrounded by hated white men, all are ascribable to the actions of the bad god. The Wabanaki is called Crow by the other men. They do not know his tribal name, although it is said that he was once a great man among his people, the son of a chief, a sagamore, and that he would have become chief himself had he not been exiled by them. Moloch does not reply, and the native follows his fellow scouts into the woods without another word.
Later, when he awakes, Moloch will wonder once more at how he knows these things (for the dream has been coming more frequently in recent months, and in ever greater detail). He knows that he does not trust the Indians. There are three of them, the Wabanaki and two Mi’kmaq with a price on their heads back at Fort Anne, vicious men who have pledged themselves to him in return for alcohol and weapons and the promise of rape. They are useful for now, but he feels uneasy around them. They are despised by their own people, and they are intelligent enough to realize that the men to whom they have attached themselves despise them too.
In his dream, Moloch decides that they will have to be killed after their work here is done.
From the trees ahead comes the sound of a brief scuffle, and moments later the Wabanaki mercenary emerges. There is a boy in his arms, no more than fifteen years of age. He is struggling against his captor’s grasp, his cries stifled by the native’s large hand. His feet kick impotently at the air. One of the Mi’kmaq follows, holding the boy’s musket. He has been apprehended before he can fire off a warning shot.
Moloch approaches, and the boy stops kicking as he recognizes the face before him. He shakes his head, and tries to utter words. The native releases his hand from the boy’s mouth but keeps a knife pressed to his throat so that he does not cry out. His tongue freed, the boy finds that he has nothing to say, for there is nothing that can be said. No words can prevent what is about to occur. Instead, his breath plumes whitely in the cold night air, as if his essence were already departing his body, his soul fleeing the pain of what his physical being is about to endure.
Moloch reaches out and grips the boy’s face in his hands.
“Robert Littlejohn,” he says. “Did they tell you to keep watch for me?”
Robert Littlejohn does not respond. Moloch can feel him trembling beneath his hand. He is surprised that they have maintained even this level of vigilance for so long. After all, it has been many months since his enforced departure.
It strikes Moloch that they must fear him a great deal.
“Still, they must think themselves safe if they leave only a child to watch the western approaches to Sanctuary.” He eases his grip on the boy’s skin, and caresses it gently with his fingertips.
“You are a brave boy, Robert.”
He stands and nods at the Indian, and the Wabanaki draws the knife across the boy’s throat, gripping him by the hair to pull his head back so that the blade will have easier passage. Moloch steps back to avoid the arterial spray, but continues to stare into the boy’s eyes as the life leaves them. In his dream, Moloch is disappointed by the nature of the boy’s passing. There is no fear in his eyes, although the boy must surely have been terrified during his last seconds on this earth. Instead, Moloch sees only a promise, unspoken and yet to be fulfilled.
When the boy is dead, the Wabanaki carries him to the rocks above the beach and casts him into the sea. His body sinks from view.
“We move on,” says Moloch. They ascend to the forest, their footfalls carefully placed, avoiding fallen branches that might snap loudly and alert the dogs. It is bitterly cold, and snow begins to fall, driven into their faces by the harsh wind, but Moloch knows this place, even without the scouts to guide him.
Ahead of them, a Mi’kmaq raises his hand and the party halts. Of the other natives, there is no sign. Silently, Moloch creeps up to the guide’s side. He points straight ahead. Moloch can see nothing for a time, until the tobacco glows briefly red as the sentry takes a long draw. A shadow grows behind him, and the man’s body arcs against the hilt of the knife. The pipe falls to the ground, shedding red ash on the dirt and dying with a hiss upon the newly fallen snow.
Suddenly the barking begins and one of the settlers’ beasts, more wolf than hound, breaks through a patch of scrub and bears down upon a figure to Moloch’s left. It leaps, and then there is a gunshot and the dog bucks and twists in midair, dying with a yelp and falling on a patch of stony ground. Now the men are emerging from the cover of the woods and there are voices calling and women shouting and children crying. Moloch raises his musket at a settler who appears as a silhouette in the doorway of one of the cabins, the dying embers of the fire within making him an easy target. It is Alden Stanley, a fisherman like the savior he so adores. Moloch pulls the trigger and Alden Stanley is briefly lost in a cloud of sparks and smoke. When it clears, Moloch glimpses Stanley’s feet twitching in the open doorway until finally they grow still. He sees more knives appear, and short-handled axes are drawn as his men move in for close-quarters combat, but there is little fight in these people. They have been caught unawares, convinced of their safety in this remote place, content with only a single sleepy guard and a boy on a rock, and the men are upon them before they even have a chance to load their weapons. The settlers outnumber their attackers by three to one, but that will make no difference to the outcome. Already, they are beaten. Soon, his men will pick their victims from among the surviving women and young girls, before they too are dispatched. Moloch sees one man, Barone, already in pursuit of a little girl of five or six, with pretty blond hair. She is wearing a loose ivory gown; its folds hang like wings from her raised arms. Moloch knows her name. As he watches, Barone catches her by the hair and pulls her to him.
Even in his dream, Moloch feels no urge to intervene.
A woman is running, making for the interior, and he moves off in pursuit of her. She is easy to track, her progress noisy, until the stones and roots begin to take their toll on her bare feet, tearing at her soles and heels and slowing her down. He moves ahead of her and cuts into her path, so that she is still looking back toward the slaughter when he emerges from his cover, the pale light filtering through the branches casting his shadow across her features.
And when she sees him, her fear increases, but he recognizes the anger there too, and the hatred.
“You,” she says. “You brought them here.”
His right hand lashes out, catching her across the face and sending her sprawling on the ground. There is blood on her mouth as she tries to rise. Then he is on top of her, pushing her nightdress up over her thighs and belly. She strikes at him with her fists, but he throws aside his gun and holds her arms over her head with his left hand. His right hand fumbles at his belt, and she hears the sound of steel upon leather as the knife is unsheathed.
“I told you I’d return,” he whispers. “I told you I’d be back.”
Then he leans in closer to her, his mouth almost touching her lips.
“Know me, wife.”
In the moonlight the blade flashes, and in his dream Moloch begins his work.
∗ ∗ ∗
So Moloch sleeps, believing that he dreams; and far to the north, on the island of his visions, Sylvie Lauter opens her eyes.
It is January, centuries after the events of which Moloch dreams, and the world is skewed. It rests at an angle, as if the physical reality has somehow come to resemble her own perception of it. It has always appeared canted to her, in a way, always off-kilter. She has never quite fit into it. At school, she has found a place with the other outcasts, the ones with the dyed hair and downcast eyes. They give her some sense of belonging, even as they reject the concept of belonging as somehow unsound. None of them belongs. The world will not have them.
But now that world is altered. Trees grow diagonally, and a doorway has opened to reveal the night sky. She reaches out to touch it, but her view is obscured by a spider’s web. She tries to focus and sees the starburst shatter in the glass. She blinks.
There is blood on her fingers, and blood on her face.
And then the pain comes. There is a great pressure on her legs, and a terrible ache in her chest. To breathe is to be constricted by nails. She attempts to swallow and tastes copper on her tongue. With her right hand she wipes the blood from her eyes and clears her vision.
The hood of the car is crumpled inward, wrapped around the trunk of the oak tree in a twisted embrace. Her legs are lost amid the wreckage of the dashboard and the workings of the engine. She remembers the moment when the car veered out of control on the slope. The night rewinds for her. The crash itself is a jumble of sights and noises. She recalls feeling strangely calm as the car struck a great shard of sloping concrete, the front lifting as the passenger side of the vehicle left the ground. She remembers branches and green leaves filling the windshield; the dull sound of the impact; a grunt from Wayne that reminded her of the sound he makes when he is puzzled, which is often, or when he climaxes, which is often too. Now rewind again, and she and Wayne are on the edge of the man-made slope, the former site of the old gun emplacements and army bunkers, ready to freewheel down the incline. Now she is breaking into the garage, and watching Wayne steal the car. Now she is on her back upon a mattress, and Wayne is making love to her. He makes love badly, but still he is her Wayne.
She turns to her left and calls his name, but no sound comes. She again forms the word with her lips, and manages a whisper.
Wayne is dead. His eyes are half closed, staring lazily at her. There is blood around his mouth, and the steering column is lost in his chest.
She begins to cry.
When she opens her eyes, there are lights before her. Help, she thinks. Help is coming. The lights hover around the windshield and the damaged hood. The interior of the car glows with a diffused illumination as one of them passes overhead, and she wonders at how they can move in that way.
“Help me,” she says.
A single light draws closer, nearing the open window to her right, and she can at last see the form behind it. The shape is hunched, and cloaked with leaves and wood and mud and darkness. It smells of damp earth. It lifts its head to her, and in the strange half-light that filters from the lamp in its hand, Sylvie registers gray skin, and dark eyes like oil bubbles, and torn, bloodless lips, and knows that she is soon to join Wayne, that they will travel together into the world beyond this one, and that at last she will find a place where she fits into the great pattern that has remained hidden from her for so long. She is not yet frightened. She simply wants the pain to end.
“Please,” she says to the dead woman at the windshield, but the woman retreats and Sylvie has a sense that she is afraid, that there is something here that even the dead fear. The other lights also begin to recede and Sylvie extends an imploring hand.
“Don’t go,” she says. “Don’t leave me alone.”
But she is not alone.
A hissing sound comes from close by, and a figure floats beside her at the other side of the glass. It is smaller than the woman, and it holds no light in its hands. Its hair is white in the moonlight, and is so long and bedraggled that it almost entirely covers its face. It moves nearer as Sylvie feels a wave of tiredness wash over her. She hears herself moan. Her mouth opens as she tries to speak, and she no longer has the strength to close it again.
The figure at the window presses itself against the car. Its hands, with their small, gray fingers, clutch the top of the glass, trying to force it farther down. Sylvie’s vision is dimmed once more, obscured by blood and tears, but she can see that it is a little girl who is trying to enter the car, to join her in her agony.
“Honey,” Sylvie whispers.
Sylvie tries to move and the pain surges through her with the force of a jolt of electricity. It hurts her to turn her head to the right, so she can see the girl only from the corner of her eye. Momentarily, Sylvie’s mind clears. If she can feel pain, then she is still alive. If she is alive, then there is hope. All else is just the imaginings of a mind driven to the edge by trauma and distress.
The woman with the light was not dead.
The child is no...
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