We’ve got company this week so I’m trying not to do so much blogging (and I already blew an hour or two on Dennis’s Sunday Awards and Meme show), but I just wanted to let everyone know that A Flock of Crows is Called a Murder has been approved and released on Kindle. Get yours here — only 99 cents! And of course no post about Crows would be complete without an excerpt to whet your appetite …
Calvin Trott had awakened, sore and sober, on his living room floor. The palliative effects of the alcohol had worn off, but its evaporation had left behind his drunken conviction that the old church had to go. It was encrusted in his mind like the rime of salt that came from dried sweat. So he had gotten up and grabbed his coat and driven right out to the future site of Quentin Farmer’s plaza.
Hot-wiring the bulldozer was easier than he had expected. So was driving it. It might have a new coat of shiny orange paint, but it wasn’t much different from the heavy machinery he had operated during his stint in the army. It was kind of small, but since Karl Castle had removed his own equipment from the scene, it would have to do. And it certainly seemed to have enough power; it chewed through the woods, smashing down the saplings and the underbrush, the motor filling up the morning with its rumbling roar.
As he broke out of the woods, he saw a guy across the canal, pissing into the water and staring at him. He hadn’t expected a witness, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. The bulldozer rumbled and bounced, rattled and clunked and clanked like a phalanx of medieval knights. The treads churned through the soggy earth, propelling him speedily forward. He angled it at the edge of the church; he would clip it in the corner, rip the left wall right out, and if that didn’t work he’d swing around and do the right one too.
See, Simon? This wasn’t so God damn hard.
Then he heard, over the noise of the motor, a metallic clang. He had no idea what it was. Then he heard another one, and felt a stinging sensation across the front of his head. An instant later blood poured into his eyes and he smelled burning skin. The blood blinded him, the odor sickened him. He wiped his face with his hand and his fingers came away sticky and red, and he still couldn’t see anything.
Zing! Something whizzed through the air inches from his nose. He looked right, across the canal, blinking crimson from his vision. He couldn’t see very well through the haze of blood, but it looked like his witness was pointing at him. Then he saw a tiny puff of smoke, and the wire mesh screen around his seat sparked and shook.
Christ! The guy was shooting at him!
Calvin ducked down low. He couldn’t see a thing. Blood flowed around his nose, into his mouth, down his chin. The church was looming close now, nothing but a great black monolith through a haze of tears and blood. He thought he may have drifted somewhat off target and tried to steer the bulldozer left, back toward the corner. He didn’t want to hit the place head on, or he’d be right in the middle of it when it collapsed.
Zing! Another bullet hit. This one tore through the wire and ricocheted off a metal support and winged him across the hand. He watched his skin open up in a black-lipped line. Blood rushed from the wound; he thought he could see ivory bone through the scored flesh. A second later the pain hit, and he shoved the hand into his armpit and squeezed it tight.
The bulldozer rumbled forward. The church was only a few yards away; he was heading straight for the front door. He lunged forward, grabbed the wheel, but it slipped through his bloody hands, he couldn’t get it to turn.
And then, suddenly, the world groaned and tilted. Calvin fell forward, against the controls, as the bulldozer tipped front-end first into an inky pit scant feet from the front door of the old building. The blade hit stone with a crash, throwing Calvin forward through the opening in the front of the driver’s compartment. He rolled along the hood of the bulldozer and fell through the gap between the blade and the body of the machine, landed on cold, damp rock, staring up at the opening of the pit he had fallen into. Above that was the front of the church, curving down over him.
Laughing at him.
The treads of the bulldozer were still running, only a few feet from his head. He shrank back from them, but even as he did the engine coughed a couple of times and died. The stench of diesel fuel sank down and enveloped him, overpowering the faint earthy odor of the pit. Calvin scuttled out from under the machine, crawling on his back like a crab. As he came out from under it he slid off the stone he was on, felt earth beneath his hands; he realized that he’d been sitting on the flagstone that had formed the front patio of the church. It had been a covering for some kind of subterranean hollow, and the bulldozer had been too heavy for it to hold.
God. Was he in some kind of crypt now? Stuck in a pit with century-old bones?
He stood. The bulldozer had fallen completely into the hole, but it was stuck at an angle. The blade had pierced the flagstone and was sunk deeply into the earth; the treads were jammed into the furrow they’d carved down the wall.
Blood still trickled into his eyes and he wiped them with his good hand. Who had that maniac been, shooting at him? Jesus, he could’ve been killed.
The cut in his forehead was bad, but the hand was worse; he had to do something to stop the bleeding. Before anything else, he had to do that. Calvin slipped out of his jacket. It was freezing in the hole, felt fifty degrees colder than it had aboveground. Gritting his teeth to keep them from chattering, he removed his old flannel shirt and ripped off the left sleeve. He wrapped this around his injured hand, pausing now and again to shake blood from his eyes. He managed to tie the makeshift bandage in place, then ripped off the other sleeve and tied it around his forehead. The wounds burned where the fabric touched them, but it was better than letting the blood just pour right out.
That done, he sagged back against the wall to catch his breath. He felt a little bit light-headed, from shock or loss of blood, he didn’t know which. He wondered again what the hell this great big hole was supposed to be. The light coming in from above illuminated his end of the chamber, but it obviously stretched out beyond the reach of the rising sun, and in its depths was utter darkness. He thought again of old bones buried in the earthen walls, and shuddered to think what sort of people would have been interred in a place like this.
What was that?
He squinted, tried to fix on what he thought he saw, grey shapes twisting beyond the light; but when he wiped his eyes and looked again they were gone. Blood loss, he thought. Too much blood loss. The wall didn’t seem quite solid behind him. It rippled kind of, like there was something inside it trying to get out. Felt weird, kind of grabby. Clutching, bony fingers. He stepped away from it, but then the floor started up, thrumming beneath his feet, pulsing, shivering. Like walking on a trampoline when somebody else was jumping on it.
He climbed up onto the bulldozer. It didn’t shift under his weight, not an inch. He looked at its back end. Still five or six feet below the lip of the pit. He might be able to get hold of the edge, but it looked crumbly and unstable and would probably come apart under his hands, send him tumbling back into the hole. Even if he wasn’t hurt and groggy and bleeding and half-blind, he wouldn’t be able to climb his way out.
He crawled into the operator’s cubby, with its walls of mesh and its dented metal roof. He wondered if the guy with the gun was going to come after him. He settled onto the tilted iron seat, and he saw the grey thing flitting around in the dark in front of him. He closed his eyes. It wasn’t there. It couldn’t be there. What could be moving around down here in this sealed-up hole?
He opened his eyes.
It was still there. It had moved closer.
It didn’t have what he could positively call a shape. It was amorphous, sort of vague, like a large sheet of plastic wrap waving in a breeze. It would flicker and vanish and flicker again, somewhere else, in a different form. Calvin huddled down in the cab of the bulldozer and waited for it to go away, but it didn’t, not this time. It kept coming closer, and closer, and closer, and it brought with it a chill, sharper and deeper than the air.
It stopped only a few yards short of the bulldozer, and he could see it now, see it in the ghostly light that wrapped around the edge of the pit and shone on it and through it. He saw vast wings, twenty feet tip to tip, brushing the earthen walls and knocking away clods of stone and mud. And a hump of a head, a suggestion of features, half-human, half-avian. And eyes, vast pits for eyes, full of intelligence and pent-up malice.
The thing spoke.
What am I bid, it said, for the life of this pitiful thing before me?
The two shimmering wings bent forward and wrapped themselves around the blade of the bulldozer, twisted around and around and around, snared it.
The bulldozer groaned.
It began to move.
It went forward slowly, tilting more and more toward the level, until its treads came free and it crashed down flat on the floor of the chamber. Something deep inside the machine rumbled in protest as it was pulled deeper into the lair of the thing, the bird-thing that lived under the church. And Calvin clung to his seat and trembled, and even though he was freezing cold inside his jacket, his body grew clammy with sweat.
But he couldn’t move.
And the darkness closed over him.
And the wings enfolded him.
And when he tried to scream, he could only gasp instead.