As you may have noticed, we have launched a new campaign, GHOSTS AND GHOULS AND OTHER CREEPY THINGS, this time for three horror books: Even in the Grave edited by James Chambers and Carol Gyzander (ghost anthology), Eyes of the Dead by James Chambers (zombie serial), and Rags by Ty Drago (supernatural/black magic novel). All three books are a part of our new(ish) NeoParadoxa imprint and all of them are phenomenal. We already shared an excerpt from Eyes of the Dead a few weeks ago (click the above link to check it out). And here is a sneak peek at Rags.
The First One to Go Down
—is the pimply-faced gangbanger in the leather jacket. One second, he’s laughing with his crew, getting off on how scared I look, and how Corinne’s just gone and passed out at my feet. The next, he gets grabbed from behind and yanked into the shadow of one of the big steel pilings, the move so sudden and swift that it almost seems like a magic trick.
A moment later, Pimples screams.
A moment after that, his body gets tossed out from behind the piling as if he were a rag doll instead of 160 pounds of wiry muscle. He flips end over end and lands with a loud thump in the sand. There he writhes, groaning and clutching his face with both hands. Despite the patchwork of shadows beneath the pier, there’s no mistaking the blood.
His face has been slashed.
Wait. Did I say “slashed?” Well, that’s wrong.
His face has been all but peeled away, like an apple skin.
And the whole thing took maybe five seconds.
For several more seconds, nobody moves. Not me. Certainly not poor out-of-it Corinne. And not the three other bangers encircling us, either.
They’re all in their late teens or early twenties, stoned out and itching to hurt somebody. A teenage girl like me coming out here was foolish, plenty foolish. But bringing my nine-year-old foster sister along cranked “plenty foolish” up to “outright stupid.” While being under Steel Pier at midnight wasn’t exactly safe at the best of times, running into these dudes was the kind of boatload full of bad luck that could rachet “outright stupid” all the way up to “stone dead.”
Except, suddenly, that boatload of bad luck had turned on the tide.
“What happened to you, man?” one of the bangers yells. He stares at his homeboy, who’s still wailing piteously. Then, realizing that Pimples has got nothing to say just now, he looks fearfully around. He’s still clutching an open butterfly knife, the one he planned to use to cut away my coat and clothes to “get a peek at the candy.”
Another of the gang yells out a stream of cusses that would have had Aunt Kell grounding me for sure. Then this third dude draws a gun—a snub-nosed .38 revolver—from inside his coat. He starts waving it around, scanning the gloom for a target.
A figure emerges from behind the pillar.
He’s still bathed in shadow, but I get the impression of old clothes, mismatched and well-worn—a mixed bag of dumpster pickings from behind a thrift store. Most of it looks tattered, little more than rags. He’s not a particularly big dude, and his shoulders are pretty slim. But, for all that, there’s something about him—a “presence”—that’s hard to overlook. It seems to run through the air like electricity.
Oh, and he’s holding an enormous bloody knife.
“Who the hell are you?” Butterfly demands.
“Who cares?” Thirty-Eight adds. Then with another imaginative cuss, he fires. The muzzle flash is blinding and the noise deafening, bouncing off the concrete underside of the pier and momentarily drowning out the surf’s constant rumble.
But when the noise and flash subside, the figure’s gone. Not dead. Not shot. Just gone.
Only now, something sticks out the front of Thirty-Eight’s chest, jutting through his coat. It takes me a moment to get what it is—the point of a knife. His knife. Rag’s knife. It’s got a long blade of black metal that gives back none of the lamplight leaking under the pier from the nearby Boardwalk. The blade’s darkness is so complete—so perfectly empty—that it almost looks like a triangular bit of Thirty-Eight’s chest has been somehow erased.
But the truth is way simpler.
The banger’s been impaled from behind.
I try to scream, but I can’t seem to make a sound.
Thirty-eight’s eyes roll up inside his head. He topples over, revealing Rags, who leans down and smoothly pulls his knife out of the banger’s back.
My mind reeling, I take in the raggedy man’s moth-riddled wool coat and the heavy hood he’s wearing that completely conceals his face. I can’t tell anything about him. I can’t even say for sure it’s a “him.”
Two gangbangers remain. One is Butterfly, who’s taken to bobbing and weaving in a way that I guess is supposed to look badass. The knife he’s waving is hilariously small compared to the one Rags wields. Nevertheless, the dude does his best to compensate.
“Back off, man!” he screams. “I’ll cut you! I’ll cut you wide open!”
Rags doesn’t reply.
The last banger, the youngest of them, who hasn’t said a thing so far—and who didn’t seem all that psyched about joining in his homeboys’ rape/murder party in the first place—just stares.
Then he turns and runs face-first into a steel piling.
Sounds dumb, I know, but it’s easier to do in the dark than you’d think. He staggers back from it, moaning and cupping his palms over what’s got to be a broken nose. Then he drops to his knees in the sand.
Butterfly apparently sees this as an opening and charges forward, yelling like an Apache in one of those old John Wayne movies Uncle Nick likes to watch. His knife is raised, his eyes wild from dope, desperation, and a double-sized portion of fear.
Rags kicks him—hard.
He does it like it’s nothing, just lifts his foot, wrapped in an army boot that looks about fifty years old, and drives it straight into Butterfly’s sternum. The gangbanger’s Apache cries downshift into an agonized wheeze as he doubles over and then goes flying. Three feet. Six feet. Nine.
Jesus, how strong is this dude?
Butterfly’s body slams into a piling—the same one that Pimples’ was pulled behind—with terrific force. Despite the surf and the sound of Broken Nose’s nasal sobs, I hear the dude’s ribs crack. He manages a kind of broken wheeze before he drops to the sand, either out cold or close enough for it not to matter.
I try to scream again. Nothing. I try to move. Can’t. I want to throw myself over Corinne’s body. She’s still unconscious, though how the girl—this sweet, precious little girl—can stay fainted through all this noisy carnage is beyond me. I’m not even sure what good I’d be doing, shielding her like that. I mean, this dude’s knife is more like a machete, easily long enough to pin us both to the dunes.
But she’s my foster sister, and I have to do something!
Except I can’t freakin’ move!
Fortunately, the raggedy man isn’t interested in us. Instead, his attention turns toward the only remaining banger.
Despite his whimpers and obvious pain, Broken Nose is doing his best to crawl away.
It’s Corinne. When I glance down at her, her eyes have opened. She sounds groggy, disoriented.
“Shhh!” I hiss.
“Abby? Where are you?”
I start to reply. But before I can get the words out, I hear footsteps in the sand behind me—light, almost silent—and my heart freezes up. I glance over my shoulder. I don’t want to. It’s more reflex than conscious thought. After all, if Rags has decided it’s my turn, there’s probably not much I can do about it, and something tells me I’d rather not see it coming.
But it’s not coming, at least not yet.
Instead, the raggedy man walks past us, slow and with an eerie grace, almost close enough to touch. He doesn’t even glance at Corinne or me but instead approaches Broken Nose. The last banger is still crawling, but when he sees what’s coming after him, he manages to scramble to his feet and stumble desperately forward, making for the open beach beyond the pier.
He doesn’t get there.
Rags explodes into motion, a patchwork blur that tears up the sand, dodging one piling after another. Then, leaping up and vaulting smoothly sideways off a third, he pivots in mid-air and lands less than a foot in front of Broken Nose.
Dude’s a freakin’ acrobat!
Broken Nose shrieks and tries to backpedal, but he’s nowhere near fast enough. A grimy fist snaps out, cobra-quick, catching the banger’s coat and pulling him up and off his feet like he weighs nothing.
Broken Nose starts wailing.
“Please…” he stammers. “Please don’t …I didn’t hurt nobody! I don’t even know those guys!” He covers his bloodied face with trembling hands and sobs.
I don’t blame him a bit.
For several long seconds, Rags just studies the dude. Then, as I watch, he slowly raises his knife.
And before I even realize I’m going to, I yell, “No!”
To my surprise—scratch that, astonishment—Rags stops. He tilts his head past the banger he’s so easily holding up and looks at me from under his cowl.
My mouth goes dry.
Even so, I steel myself and say, “Please. Enough.”
He seems to consider a little longer. Then he drops Broken Nose, who lands hard in the sand, blood spraying across his already messed-up face. But, for all his terror, he’s no fool, and he’s up and running a moment later. Okay, maybe “staggering” is a better word, but at least he’s getting away—abandoning his homies, sure. But getting away.
And Rags is letting him.
The whole fight, start to finish, lasted maybe forty-five seconds. Now, around us, one dude’s dead, one’s broken and unconscious, and one’s sobbing and trying to keep his face attached.
My breath catches as Rags comes toward us. My first instinct is to run. But it’s like my legs are rooted in the sand. The best I can do is try to twist my body and put myself between him and Corinne. I’m only partway successful.
“Abby?” Corinne asks again.
“Shut up,” I murmur. Shouting doesn’t seem like the smart move right now.
Rags stops about four feet away, looking at me with eyes I can’t see. Under his hood, his features are a complete void, the shadows so deep that there might as well be nothing there at all.
I swallow, looking at the blade. Rags clutches it tightly in his right fist, which is mostly buried inside the long, wide sleeve of his ratty wool coat. I can’t even tell the color of his skin.
For the first time, the smell of him hits me. Coffee grounds, urine, mildew, and rotting food. It’s almost like he’s made of trash!
Then he speaks.
It’s the first time he does, and his voice sends the mother-of-all-chills down my spine. It’s raspy, like fingernails on a blackboard, and hard to listen to. It seems wrong, not quite human, and just the sound of it sets my teeth on edge. It doesn’t help that his words are bullshit.
I almost reply, “What?” But then I catch myself. The last thing I want to do is strike up a conversation with this head-case.
He raises his hand, not the knife hand, but the other one, his left hand. When he points, I get a quick glimpse of his skin. Except I don’t. What I see is totally caked with grime, oil, and sand. I still can’t tell what color he is. But it’s not a big hand. That much I’m sure about.
With one finger, he points up the beach, the way we came, toward the same set of stairs that Corinne and I used to get here.
He’s letting us go.
With a ton of effort, I gulp down what little spit I’ve still got. Then, glancing around one last time at the carnage, I whisper, “Thanks.”
For a long moment, Rags doesn’t respond. Then his head nods ever so slightly.
And he’s gone.
I don’t mean he leaves. I don’t mean he runs off, cat-quick like I’ve seen him do. I mean, he just kind of vanishes. Like a ghost.
Seeing it turns me cold in a way the December midnight air can’t explain.
My heart’s going wild, and I’m sweating.
Can you be freezing and sweating at the same time?
Seems you can.
“Abby?” Corinne says. She pulls herself weakly up to a sitting position. “Where’d you go?”
“I’m right here,” I tell her, a little irritably. Is she blind? I think, immediately feeling bad about it. Corinne’s not brave. She never has been. Fainting was like her go-to response when the bangers surprised us—not much of a defense mechanism, but the only one she’s got. Besides, maybe she hit her head when she dropped. There are all kinds of things in the sand beneath the pier: rocks, discarded chunks of concrete, broken beer bottles, and worse stuff.
I’ll have to check her for cuts or bumps—once we find some light.
“It’s cool,” I tell her. Then, finally, I get moving. “Keep your eyes closed,” I say, reaching down and taking her hands. “Don’t look around. You hear me, pumpkin?”
Corinne doesn’t argue. She just lets me pull her up. Then she hugs me, hard and desperate. I hug back. Nearby, the Atlantic Ocean roars and crashes.
Moving in slow, halting steps, I lead my foster sister away from the bodies and toward the somewhat safer Boardwalk, our little midnight adventure cut short.
I could say that’s how the whole thing started.
I could, but I’d be lying.
That’s just where I’ve decided to start telling it.
Ty Drago is a full-time writer and the author of ten published novels, including his five-book Undertakers series, the first of which has been optioned for a feature film, and Dragons (eSpec Books). Torq, a dystopian YA superhero adventure, was released by Swallow’s End Publishing in 2018. Add to these one novelette, myriad short stories and articles, and appearances in two anthologies. He’s also the founder, publisher, and managing editor of ALLEGORY (www.allegoryezine.com), a highly successful online magazine that, for more than twenty years, has features speculative fiction by new and established authors worldwide.
Ty’s currently just completed The New Americans, a work of historical fiction and a collaborative effort with his father, who passed away in 1992. If that last sentence leaves you with questions, check out his podcast, “Legacy: The Novel Writing Experience,” to get the whole story.
He lives in New Jersey with his wife Helene, plus one cat and one dog.