Mystic Taxi

Demon Fare by Karen Duvall writing as Cory Dale. Coming December 20, 2014, in paperback and ebook.

In an alternate history New York City—one hundred and fifty years after an earthquake from hell nearly destroyed the planet—the twenty-first century clings to an industrial age. Steam engines rule, and demon-powered technology is the up and coming thing. Henry Paine, a half-demon taxi driver, is the go-to guy for just the right demon to possess your machine and automate any mechanical gizmo with or without an engine. The creatures are tame as pets. Or at least they have been… until now.


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Chapter One

Clouds of steam billowed through manhole covers and sewer grates, making it extra hard for Henry to see while driving in the dark. The taxi’s smudged headlamps didn’t help. He opened the throttle and the twenty-first century Model T barely sped up. “Mystic, can’t you go any faster?”

Lights blinked on the possessed taxi’s dashboard and the tuner flickered through a dozen stations before finding what it wanted. A Victrola horn protruding from the dash blared a few chosen words from the airwaves: “Need... water… for steam.”

Dammit.” Henry would rather not be late for tonight’s pick-up. Levi was his best friend, but the man had no patience when it came to business. He’d lock Hell’s Gate just to keep Henry from getting what he needed.

The radio sputtered so he reached outside the cab’s window to give the antenna a twist. The static cleared and a sultry melody of band music hummed through the cab. Henry shook his head. After a century and a half of recovery from The Great Earthquake, you’d think the industrial world would be caught up by now. But no. Not even a freaking radio worked right.

He patted Mystic’s steering wheel and shifted in the seat, his cramped knees hitting the dashboard. Releasing the lever on his back-up water supply, he said, “Full steam ahead.”

I’m… on it.”

The taxi lurched forward and the sudden force shoved the hair back from Henry’s face. That’s more like it.They sped over the Brooklyn Bridge, suspension cables strobing by on either side, the cab’s spindled wheels thrumming over bumpy pavement. The radio cycled to a new station. A barbershop quartet crooned a catchy harmony until it came to the chorus, where it repeated two words over and over.

Call the police coz you’ve stolen my heart… the police… the police… the police…”

A police steam car sidled up beside them on the driver’s side. A cop stared in through the window of the cab.

Henry leaned forward, relaxed arms folded across the dashboard, though his heart hammered against his ribs. The last thing he wanted was to get rousted by the cops for speeding.

Hoping to come off as friendly, he called out the window, “Evening, Officer!”

Eyes wide enough to show their whites, the cop flushed crimson. He looked madder than a mule chewing bumblebees.

“Hands on the wheel, mister! Pull over!”

Crap. “Better do as the man says,” Henry muttered.

Mystic slowed down and steered to the curb. At three in the morning, the streets weren’t nearly as congested as they’d been during the day. The cab angled into a deserted alley. “Ticket,” Mystic said through the radio. “Traffic… Ticket.”

Not if Henry had anything to say about it. One more ticket and he’d lose his hack license and would no longer be allowed to operate his taxi business. Legally, anyway.

The police car parked behind them, and its driver stayed in the car while his red-faced partner lunged from the vehicle as if launched by a slingshot. He slammed the door behind him and stomped up to the cab.

“This your rig?” The cop jabbed the brim of his police-issued derby back from his forehead. The act of aggression made the scales on Henry’s spine stiffen in response.

“Yes, sir.” Just be polite. Nothing to get worked up about. He might still be able to talk his way out of this and only talk. None of the tricky stuff like he used to do. Those days were over.

“Did you know you were speeding?”

Technically, he wasn’t speeding. Mystic was. “It didn’t feel like I was speeding.”

“Are you being a smart ass?” The cop pulled his face into a scowl tight enough to burst a blood vessel. 

“No, sir.”

“Ten miles over the speed limit.” The cop huffed in and out like a bellows. He acted angry, but Henry smelled fear strong as rancid seawater off a Manhattan pier. A scared man was a dangerous man. He knew that from experience.

Henry held his hands up in a pose of surrender. “My mistake. It won’t happen again.”

“Cut the crap.” The cop gritted his teeth. “License and registration.”

Henry nodded at the wooden glove box set into the lacquered dash. “Help yourself.”

“Get it! Now!” The officer jabbed his thumb backward over his shoulder. “Out of the cab.”

Henry tugged his bowler down to cover his pointed ears. The gray scales running down both sides of his neck might rile up the cop even more. Though Hellspawn were grudgingly accepted in the city, some humans weren’t so keen about it. Henry had a feeling this cop might be one of them. He couldn’t afford a confrontation, not with Hell’s Gate expecting him at any minute.

Henry leaned sideways to grab his license and registration from the glove box. Tossing his head to make his longish hair fall forward over his scales, he climbed from the cab.

He stood slowly, knowing the cop’s eyes followed every inch of his seven-foot height as he straightened his back and legs. Mr. Policeman’s eyes widened and his face blanched while his hand rushed to the gun on his hip.

Well, shit. Henry could let the man shoot him for all the good it would do. His wounds would heal while the cop watched. At the age of a hundred and fifty, but looking like a man in his mid-twenties, Henry had been shot, stabbed, strangled, and beaten enough times to prove just how sturdy he was.

The cop’s hand shook as he pointed the gun. “You’re Hellspawn.” He waved his weapon at the cab. “And I bet that’s one of your demon pets possessing your cab.”

Mystic was much more than a pet. She was a friend. Henry snorted and crossed his arms over his chest. He should have gone into acting because he didn’t feel nearly as confident as he pretended to be. “What’s your point?”

Not letting Henry out of his sight, the cop stepped sideways toward his car. “Mac? Mac, get out here. I got me a big one.”

His partner slid out of the car, knees bent in a slight crouch. Every movement he made shouted his intention to bolt at the first sign of trouble. “What’s he done?”

“Nothing,” Henry said.

“Shut up.” The first cop circled Henry in slow, measured steps. “Who said you could talk, Spawnster?”

Henry winced at the nickname.

“Don’t like being called a Spawnster, huh? Well, word’s out that a big ole Spawnster robbed a corner market in Brooklyn tonight. You match the description.”  The cop jerked his chin at Mac. “Get me the brine gun.”

“That’s goin’ a bit far, ain’t it, Ned?”

“Bullets won’t hardly stop him.” Ned stood in front of Henry again. “But I know what won’t heal so fast.” Mac returned carrying what looked like a rifle with a tank the size of a small fire extinguisher attached to the stock. He handed it to Ned.

Sweat beaded on Henry’s forehead. He gritted his teeth, steeling himself for what was to come. He could stand it. Wouldn’t be the first time he got salt-burned. Let ’em have their fun so he could move on. It was better than the alternative; Henry rather not hurt anyone.

“You recognize this, do ya?” Ned grinned, showing a silver tooth that glinted in the light of a street lamp. “These squirters come in mighty handy on nights like this. You never know when you’re gonna meet up with a trouble-making Spawnster.”

Henry shifted uneasily on his feet. This could end badly. He’d never known a cop to be this paranoid. “I’m not a thief—"

“I told you to shut up!” Ned lifted the gun and aimed it at Henry’s chest.

Henry sucked in a breath. Salt water would burn clean through his half-demon skin, but he’d heal. He always did. If they wanted to take him into custody, fine. His nephew would bail him out within the hour.

“No sense getting your monkey up, Officer. You want to arrest me? I’ll come in peaceful. No trouble.” Arms held above his head, Henry waited for the cop to put the gun down.

“Arrest you? Where’s the fun in that?” Ned pumped the gun and re-aimed it at Henry. A breeze blew dried leaves around their feet, the raspy sound like a crackle of electricity inside Henry’s head. Then came a click, loud as a mallet to a nail, when Ned’s finger squeezed the trigger.

Henry dodged a stream of salt water from the gun’s muzzle and shielded his face with one hand. The water sizzled over his skin, steam rising from the scorched flesh. Exquisite pain shot through his fingers.

Ned laughed.

Henry struggled to hold his temper. Jaw muscles flexing in time with his heartbeat, he stared at the cop with eyes he knew glowed red with barely contained rage.

Woo-ee, we got us a feisty one.” Ned chuckled and aimed his gun at Henry again.

Mac stepped forward to grab his partner’s arm. “Don’t be stupid. He’s Hellspawn, Ned! You don’t know what you’re messin’ with.”

Ned jerked away. “The Hell I don’t.” The shit-eating grin dropped from the cop’s face.

This wasn’t just an act of bigotry. The cop behaved like he was on a mission and Henry was it. Come to think of it, Henry wouldn’t put it past his ex-business partner to hire a cop to do his dirty work for him. Out of hundreds of Hellspawn in New York City, why pick on Henry? Because Jasper Clark, kingpin of the Hellspawn underground, held one hell of a grudge.

Blisters formed on Henry’s hand, the bubbled flesh already leaking warm, sticky fluid down his upraised arm. He had no choice now. Time to shut it down. “Put the gun away.”

“Ain’thappenin’, friend.” Ned lifted the gun higher, setting his sights squarely between Henry’s eyes. Blindness was a deal-breaker for Henry. He wouldn’t hold back this time.

Henry sucked in a breath, the pressure behind his eyes building and flooding his brain with heat. He focused on Ned, seeking the other man’s will, braiding his own will around it like strands in a rope. Ned stiffened and lowered the gun.

“Good boy,” Henry said as the heat in his eyes intensified. “You’re starting to forget why you picked up the gun in the first place.”

Ned’s eyes glazed over. “Forget.”

“That’s right. You and your partner never saw me or my cab on the street—”

“Hey!” Mac put his hand on Ned’s shoulder and narrowed his eyes at Henry. “You’re doin’ one of those mind-whammy things. You hypnotized my partner!”

Henry nodded. He wasn’t too concerned about anxious Mac, who was obviously unhappy with the whole situation. “You gonna try to stop me?”

Mac swallowed. “No.” His shoulders slouched. “Sometimes Ned doesn’t show a lick of sense. I knew goin’ after you would be a mistake.”

“It sure was.” Henry slid his gaze to Mac, then refocused on Ned so as not to lose the connection. His powers were limited. He couldn’t influence more than one person at a time. “But he’ll be fine. Just take him home and put him to bed. By morning he won’t remember a thing.”

Ned’s body began to shake. He resisted. A slow trickle of blood dripped from his nose.

“What are you doing to him?” Mac sounded frantic.

Henry kept his focus, mild pain thumping at his temples. “Ned’s in denial, that’s all. Just hurry and get him out of here. The sooner he’s away from me, the faster he’ll recover.”

Mac grabbed hold of Ned’s shoulders to steer him toward the police car.

“Oh, and Mac?”

Mac turned to look at him.

Henry glared at the cop. “This stays between you and me.”

Eyes round as aviator goggles, Mac nodded and quickened his steps with Ned stumbling alongside him.

Tension eased from Henry’s shoulders as he watched the two cops drive away. That had been close. Too close. There was a time in his youth when he had thrived on altercations just like that one. Back then, he’d had no qualms over controlling the will of others, making them bleed from the nose, eyes and ears, often to the point of passing out. He hadn’t cared who he hurt, but that had been over fifty years ago. Times had changed. He had changed. The day his human descendants found him and accepted him into their lives, he had stopped hating humans. His life had purpose now: To be with his family and keep them safe.

Thoughts of Jasper Clark nagged at him. If his ex-partner wanted to take Henry down, what would stop him from going after his family, too? Humans were no match for an enraged Spawnster with a thirst for vengeance. Henry would have to take extra precautions for the safety of his human kin.

Henry stretched his neck, feeling the vertebrae pop with released stress, and marched toward Mystic. He had a new batch of demon arrivals to retrieve. Hell’s pets made life easier for everyone, including humans, and Henry had a job to do. He would make sure his demons had a safe place to go.

He slid onto the front seat of his taxi. “To Hell’s Gate, Mystic, and make it snappy.”