The Neon Boneyard – Craig Schaefer

Daniel Faust was an occult gangster, a professional thief, and a merchant of vengeance for hire. Then he landed behind bars. A prison break did more than leave his old identity legally dead; it gave him the drive he needed to pull his life out of a tailspin and claw his way back to the top. Now he has a new job to add to his resume: underboss of the New Commission, the criminal syndicate taking control of Las Vegas one block at a time. Daniel’s nemesis, known as the man with the Cheshire smile—or simply the Enemy—is on the move. He’s the villain of the first story ever told, a piece of fiction made real, and he’s out to fulfill the purpose his author wrote for him: to burn the entire multiverse down, one parallel Earth at a time. He’s turned countless worlds into horror-infested cinders, and now he’s preparing for a repeat performance. Daniel has ruined his plans twice, and in the process uncovered a key to the Enemy’s secrets: a wand owned by 1940s stage magician Howard Canton. The wand has the power to create and banish illusions, and one slight flaw. It only works when you’re trying to do something heroic. Considering Daniel is a con artist and a killer, he and his new tool haven’t been getting along. Now he’s trying to find a loophole and learn more about Canton, namely, why the Enemy is obsessed with the dead magician’s legacy. His other rivals haven’t been sleeping, and one just sprang a trap long in the making. The shape-shifting cannibal Naavarasi made a play to snare Daniel’s soul along with enslaving his lover Caitlin, the right hand of a demon prince. Daniel and Caitlin fought side by side, found a way out, and left Naavarasi humiliated.

Meanwhile, a mysterious syndicate of criminal sorcerers called the Network has been carving out a foothold in Las Vegas. What Daniel doesn’t know is that his three greatest adversaries—the Enemy, the Network, and Naavarasi—have joined forces. All three are using each other for their own ends, weaving a web of lies, but they share a common goal: to destroy Daniel Faust and all that he holds dear. Prologue The man with the Cheshire smile made a deal with the devil. Ironic, considering how many humans would be quick to give him that title on sight alone: a flickering, photonegative blur of a man. White scratches crackled across his shadowy hands as he pored over a leather-bound book in the darkness of his penthouse office. Given his legacy and his calling, it was a title he’d normally wear with amusement. Normally. Tonight he was too distracted to take pleasure in his work, and the pages before him offered up no answers. THE ENEMY studies the play, read the faded type on the page, seeking insight into his suspicious ally.

He doesn’t notice MR. SMITH, ESQUIRE, sitting behind him. Then he speaks. SMITH: So, most of your power is still trapped inside that thing? “So, most of your power—” said the agreeable voice at his back. “Yes,” he snapped. His shadowy feet stayed rooted facing the desk, while the upper half of his body swiveled around to face his uninvited guest. “We’ve unlocked a handful of acts, enough to restore a generous portion of my magic, but we appear to have reached an impasse. It was bad enough that Faust couldn’t just die in prison like he was supposed to. No, he had the gall to attack me in my own home and ruin another sundering. The man is a curse.

” Mr. Smith sat in a chair in the corner of the room, his forgettable, bland suit a gray smear in the shadows. He crossed one leg over the other. “No use crying over spilled milk and all that,” Smith said, “but perhaps this could have been averted with slightly better crisis-planning techniques?” “Excuse me?” The lawyer shrugged. “Your time was running out, you knew you were cornered, and you put most of your power into that reliquary before your enemies could steal it from you. That I understand. But why make it so difficult to open? You could have just, I don’t know, password-protected it. ‘Open sesame’ or something.” The man’s permanent, pearly smile twisted into a grimace, set deep in his eyeless face. “I had no idea how long I’d be imprisoned in that miserable void.

I couldn’t take the chance that someone would steal the book before I managed to escape, and open it for themselves. No, the keys had to be unique, titanic, complex; difficult was the point. And I broke my magic into pieces so that even if someone did manage to unlock an act, all they’d steal was a small portion of my power and I could eventually reclaim the rest. Still…it wasn’t supposed to be quite this infuriating.” “Faust,” Smith said. “Ruiner. Do you know how long it took me to lay hands on a Cutting Knife? There are only nine of the damned things and they’re scattered across the entire multiverse. And he waltzed into my inner sanctum and stole it from me.” “To be fair,” Smith said with a glance to the office doors, “you do have another one handy.” The shadow crackled, head blurring as it shook.

“No. Fleiss is my right hand. She’s served me faithfully for a dozen lifetimes. This particular ritual would leave the knife…broken. Damaged beyond repair. She’s too useful to squander like that.” “Even if it means never getting the rest of your magic back? Fleiss might be loyal, but she hasn’t been hitting too many home runs for you lately, has she? Is she carrying your bags, or are you carrying hers?” The man with the Cheshire smile turned away. His thoughtful silence was his only answer. “As it happens,” Smith said, “it may not be an issue. We’ve got one, you know.

” “One what?” “A Cutting Knife.” The genial man spread his baby-soft hands. “The Network. We’ve got one. We could probably work out an arrangement. Of course, since we wouldn’t be getting it back—not in working condition—we couldn’t do it for free.” “Name your price.” “Oh, I couldn’t possibly arrange a contract on the spur of the moment,” Smith said. “I have to run it up the flagpole, talk to the gentlemen in the home office—” The shadow dashed across the room in the blink of an eye, trailing streamers of jetblack smoke. He loomed over the lawyer.

White scratches flickered across his body like flashes of lightning. “Name. Your. Price.” Smith didn’t answer right away. A tiny sliver of tongue ran across his lips, and he appraised the man like an auctioneer sizing up a piece of exotic art. “Rumor has it,” he said, “you found a little something-something down in Mexico. A real, honest-to-goodness interdimensional gateway. A gate leading straight to the heart of the Garden of Eden.” “I found three,” the shadow replied.

“I had two of them destroyed. The third is mine.” “The Network would very much appreciate access to that gateway. I’d like you to consider granting it to us as a token of goodwill, to celebrate our newly founded partnership.” “Access? To do what? Have you seen that place? Do you have any idea what kind of a nightmare you’d be walking into?” Smith rose to his feet. He ran smooth fingertips down the sharp folds of his jacket. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, sir. But I can understand your hesitancy; you want to see results, am I right? So let’s deal with the problem at hand, first and foremost. Give me a chance to impress you with what the Network can accomplish.” “Faust.

” “Correct.” Smith inclined his head, offering a reserved smile. “We have a team on the ground in Las Vegas, and if my watch is correct…well, they’ve already made their first move.” * * * Is she carrying your bags, or are you carrying hers? The memory of the lawyer’s voice, drifting muffled through the office doors, cut Ms. Fleiss like a scalpel across her heart. She knew she shouldn’t have been eavesdropping, but she was only looking out for her lord’s best interests. Smith and his people were a dangerous wild card, interlopers with their own agenda. And now Smith was trying to turn her lord against her. Fleiss had burned entire worlds in service to this holy crusade. She’d burn him, too.

At least she wasn’t the only injured party. Sitting across from her, sunk deep in the limousine’s leather bucket seats, Naavarasi looked like someone had used her as a punching bag. The sullen, raven-haired woman cradled an arm blotched with bone-deep bruises, and her oversized dark glasses couldn’t conceal the beating her face had taken. “I don’t like you,” Fleiss said, “and I don’t trust you.” Naavarasi shifted in her seat. She winced. “The feeling is mutual, but we’ve established this.” “What I do trust is your motivation. Your kingdom was stolen and your family, your entire species, was put to the torch while you were forced to watch. You want to see this universe burn.

And you know that serving my lord’s cause is the way to victory.” “Your point?” Fleiss slid forward on her seat. The limousine rumbled over a pothole and the cabin jolted. Outside, the cold night streets drifted by behind panes of smoked glass. “This ‘Network’ and their man Smith, we don’t know what their ambitions are. They’re sowing discord, brewing trouble. And that gives you and me a reason to work together.” “Smith,” Naavarasi mused. Her voice was drowsy, like she’d popped a handful of painkillers before crawling into the car. “What do we know about him?” “He doesn’t have fingerprints.

According to my lord, he doesn’t have a history. No timeline, like he was born twenty minutes ago. I offered him a glass of water, so our scientists could study the DNA he left behind.” “What is he?” “Human,” Fleiss said. “A perfectly average human. Too average. There are no flaws, no odd markers, no genetic defects of any kind. He’s the kind of average that doesn’t exist in nature. The point is, we have to deal with Daniel Faust before the Network does, in case they’re planning a betrayal.” Naavarasi held up one jade-nailed hand and grimaced.

“Let me stop you there. Word has it that Faust has been anointed a knight of hell. Specifically, by one of my court’s rivals. I can’t make a direct move against him now. It would violate the Cold Peace; that’s an act of war. I wouldn’t survive my prince’s retribution.” “I would hardly expect you to make a direct move against anyone,” Fleiss replied. “But you intimated to my lord that you have a servant in play. A skilled assassin who can act as a deniable proxy.” “I might,” Naavarasi said.

“What if you were to…lend this servant to the Network, to support their efforts in Las Vegas? He could keep an eye on things for us. And when the time comes to take Daniel Faust off the table, he could ensure things are done properly. No tricks from our new ‘allies.’” “And you and I share the credit?” Fleiss hovered on the edge of her seat. Her hands clenched her knees as the limousine swayed. Her eyes were fervent pits of smoldering coal. “That so-called lawyer is pouring poison in my lord’s ears,” she said. “I need a victory, do you understand? I need him to remember how valuable I am to his cause. I need him to need me. I need him to love me.

” Naavarasi tugged down her sunglasses. Her bruised, bleary eyes stared at the woman as the limousine slid up to the curb. “I’ll make a few calls,” she said. “This is your stop.” . 1. I swore I’d never see the inside of a jail again. When I made that vow, just after escaping from Eisenberg Correctional, I didn’t take visitation into account. Or the possibility that some teenager hopped up on a new designer drug would ask for me by name. My real name, the one I’d left dead and buried in Eisenberg’s burning ruins.

So tonight I was breaking my promise to myself, standing silent while Detective Gary Kemper—a cop with demon blood, an ax to grind, and blackmail hanging over my head— talked Jennifer and me past the night-duty sergeant at the City of Las Vegas Detention Center. The place could have passed for a bank on the outside, with pristine white stucco walls and a bright robin’s-egg-blue rooftop. You had to look closer to notice the ten-foot fence ringing the back of the compound, topped with spools of shiny barbed wire, and the slim gray cameras poking out from every nook and cranny. The paranoid who lived in the back of my brain wondered if this wasn’t some elaborate ruse to take Jennifer and me off the street. That once we passed through the heavy beige security door—past two layers of metal detectors, so we had to leave our steel outside— we’d find a swarm of guns in our faces and empty cells waiting for us. I had to give it a moment’s contemplation; that paranoid voice had saved my life more than once. I wasn’t too worried, though. As he’d made clear time and time again, Kemper could end my life with a single phone call to the FBI. I was more useful to him on the streets, for now, dealing with problems Metro wasn’t equipped to handle. As for Jennifer, well, she’d clawed her way to the top of the underworld’s food chain and brought Vegas’s feuding gangs, the Chicago mob, and city hall to heel.

Kemper wasn’t stupid. He could lock Jennifer in a cell, but he knew it would take an army to keep her there. An army bigger than hers. “Lawyers,” he told the sergeant with a less-than-friendly nod in our general direction. “Here to see a juvie who got picked up in that bust on Eagle Glen tonight. Helms, William H.” The sarge rattled a few keys, pulling up the prisoner files, and glanced our way. “Lawyers, plural? Gotta be a trust-fund kid.” “Good for him. He’s gonna need all the help he can get.

” No argument there. A whole bunch of trust-fund kids had been partying in that house on Eagle Glen Road, and somebody had added a twist to the usual mix of alcohol and Adderall: a new designer drug sweeping the nation at the speed of crack cocaine. On the street, they called it ink. The kids at Eagle Glen had gotten their hands on a bad batch. Twelve of them were dead. Three were in a rubber room, under observation after their psychotic break and the ensuing murderous rampage. One—Helms, William H.—was possessed. “Gotta sign in,” the sergeant grunted, shoving a tattered logbook in front of us. I signed it as “Cary Grant.

” Jennifer buried a smirk behind her hand and scribbled “Grace Kelly.” The sarge didn’t even glance at the page. He took the book back, pocketed his twentycent ballpoint pen, and went back to surfing the web. Kemper passed me an unlabeled manila folder as we walked. “Mayor wanted you to see these.” I opened up the folder, took a look at the crime-scene photos, and wished I hadn’t. I pictured them as an art-gallery exhibition: Fragments of an Atrocity. Here was a sheet of glass, unread coffee-table books tilted at the perfect angle, drenched in so much blood it looked like a glaze of raspberry jam. Here was a designer lamp, spattered red, a handful of severed fingertips scattered around the base with an interior decorator’s touch. Feng shui with body parts.

A shadowy, naked body stood in an open closet, arms stretched above his head, wrists bent and dangling from rust-red ropes. No, not ropes. I squinted at the photo. “Are those…his tendons?” Kemper kept his eyes forward, stone-faced. “One of the survivors says he did it to himself. Opened himself up with a kitchen knife and started pulling. He couldn’t get ’em tied to the closet bar on his own, once his arms were useless, so he asked for help and two of the ones who went psycho stopped in the middle of their murder spree to help him out.” A barred gate painted mint-green rattled shut behind us. A klaxon rang out, like the drone of a truck horn, and another gate opened just ahead. We passed through the tiger trap and into the slumbering cellblock.

“You were right to call us,” Jennifer told him. “I didn’t call you. Mayor Seabrook did. I’m just the messenger.” Kemper jabbed a finger at the folder in my hands. “Get the message?” “Loud and clear,” I said. After a short and bloody war with the Chicago Outfit, the New Commission—Jennifer’s bid to unify the Vegas underworld—was the last power standing. Seabrook was willing to work with us, to a certain deniable extent. She could turn a blind eye to our rackets, authorizing the occasional token bust but leaving our real operations alone, so long as we kept the peace.

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