The following originally appeared in the occult detective anthology A Cat of Nine Tales by Rookhaven, and is designed to be a simple vignette--a peek, if you will--into the origins of Vinnie Caponi. Of course, all of Vinnie's secrets are brought to light during the events of Hitmen, but I consider this a nice primer. Or, if you've already read Hitmen, then this story works on an even deeper level, elaborating on things only hinted at in the novel. I hope you enjoy the story and, once you're done, go pick up Hitmen and see how Vinnie's battle against the supernatural unfolds!
Josh Banks turned his key and entered the country shack. The place seemed colder these days without her there. On the wall, where portraits of her pretty face once smiled back at him, there was only bare wood-paneling. Vinnie had already removed all the painful reminders of her beauty, her warmth. Dirty clothes lay draped over furniture and empty bottles of Bourbon were scattered on the carpet, but what bothered Josh most were the stacks of strange books. Vinnie’s new obsession.
“Vin?” Josh called out into the evening gloom, barely broken by the glow of a lamp in the corner. Silence answered him. Maybe Vinnie was off doing more research on the case. Vinnie had always been thorough—that was what made him such a great private investigator. But this new Vinnie—one without Allison—was driven in a new and terrible way.
Drawn by morbid interest, Josh plucked a thin book off the top of the nearest stack. The spine read White Magic, Black Magic. “Aw, Vin…I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into.”
The cell phone stashed in his baggy jacket blitzed and Josh nearly dropped the book. He fumbled to bring the phone to his ear. “Yeah?”
Vinnie sounded hollow and distant, a shadow of the jovial giant he had been only a month ago. “Vinnie? Where you at? You told me to meet’cha.”
“There’s been a change of plans. Meet me at the lake.”
Not that again. “What for?”
“I’m gonna summon Tanner’s spirit and I need your help.”
Josh’s blood froze in his veins. He felt like the Devil himself was standing behind him. At last, he swallowed hard. “I’m on my way.”
* * *
Vinnie Caponi pressed the chalk to the dock boards, finishing the runic configuration, mumbling the incantation as he did so. With each syllable, he felt himself slipping into darkness, crossing a line he’d never even knew existed a few weeks back. Allison had been a faith-driven woman and he respected her beliefs, though he never entirely shared them. Since he was a boy, Vinnie had been a practical thinker, observing physical facts to draw conclusions about the unknown. That, coupled with his desire to mimic the two-fisted detective stories he enjoyed in his youth, had led him to join the Willowbrook P.D. However, reality was not as rewarding as fiction, and corruption on the force drove him away. He went into business for himself, with Allison’s brother Josh at his side. It was an unlikely partnership, as his brother-in-law was lazy and undisciplined, but Vinnie had done it for Allison. He would have done anything to make her happy. To repay her for noticing him when so many others hadn’t. Vinnie better resembled John Candy than John Wayne, yet Allison made him feel accepted and loved.
But Allison was gone... Was she in heaven now? Had her faith rewarded her? Or was she someplace dark and cold and alone, waiting for him to save her? Or, at the very least, avenge her?
He’d watched the camera footage a thousand times. The thing that was there when Allison died…it wasn’t human. It took six slugs like someone was throwing pebbles at it. It bled dust. Its face was a ghostly skull, nearly luminescent in the dark. Vinnie had never believed in ghosts, but the way that thing—that Skullface—flickered out of sight and vanished…
The world had opened to him and proven itself a terrible, unknowable place, shattering every perception he held, ruining his life—and triggering his rebirth. He was shuffling around in the cocoon and wasn’t quite sure how he would re-emerge when the transformation was complete.
He straightened as he finished his task, readjusting the black trenchcoat and fedora that warded off the encroaching cold. Josh materialized from the shadows onto the small pier, stepping into the white-blue beam of the overhead lights. The string bean looked worn, reminding Vinnie that Josh had lost Allison, as well. But I’m going to make this right. I can fix this. For both of us.
“What do ya think you’re doin’?” Josh sighed, looking more annoyed than angry.
Vinnie regarded his intricate scribbling on the ground, mindful of the instruction book he held in his hand. It hadn’t been easy—or cheap—procuring the text. “It’s a summoning spell.”
“Dude,” Josh groaned, “what is your problem? Will you just listen to yourself? Spells, ghosts…this is dark stuff, man.”
Vinnie knew Josh was right. He’d buried himself in research the last few weeks, taking a crash course in the occult. Even from what little he read, he understood he was dabbling in powers he couldn’t control. He was aware of the thin line he walked between salvation and damnation. “If it gets me closer to the thing that killed Allison, then it doesn’t matter.”
“It does, too, Vin! What does it matter if you get your revenge, or whatever, but you lose your own soul in the process? Allison wouldn’t want that.”
No. She wouldn’t. There were a lot of things Allison wouldn’t have wanted. “Allison’s dead.”
Vinnie saw Josh flinch and marveled at how well he was holding it together. Josh was calm, clear-headed, though he had to be hurting. Sad as it was, losing Allison had been good for Josh, maturing him overnight into a good man. Am I a good man anymore?
“She is,” Josh reflected. “But that doesn’t mean you have to die, too.”
Vinnie set his teeth on edge, his heart pierced. “Are you going to help me or not?”
“I ain’t touching that magick stuff, man,” Josh snarled like Vinnie held a plate of spoiled sour kraut. Eyeing the tome in Vinnie’s hand, he asked tentatively, “What is that, anyway?”
“It’s one of the Nine Books of Carvac. It contains spells for conjuring spirits and binding them to corporeal form.”
Josh stared at him for a long moment. “Great plan, Sherlock. What do you plan on doin’ after ya got this Tanner cat where you want ‘im?”
The spirit in question was Jimmy Tanner, a twenty-six year old man who drowned in the lake back in the 1960s. He was backward and probably mildly retarded—but he was far from innocent. He was known to mutilate animals and spent too long lurking around playgrounds for parents’ liking. Tanner was a hulking man, and Willowbrook feared him. Then one day, he turned up missing. Years went by until, in the mid-80s, a group of men confessed to running afoul of Tanner when they were thirteen, returning from a Little League game. The boys teased the man, called him names, and provoked him into a fight. When Tanner lashed out, the frightened kids retaliated, nearly beating the man to death, and pushing his body into the water where he met his demise. The secret had stayed with the boys into their adulthood, until guilt moved them to confess what they’d done.
But Tanner’s body was never recovered.
Instead, his vengeful ghost became the stuff of stories told at the nearby summer camp. There had been a few unexplained accidents out there, often attributed to Tanner’s lingering fury.
Allison had died near those woods. Near the lake. Vinnie found a photo of Tanner—huge and lumbering—and believed it matched the shape of the phantom he glimpsed on the video.
At least, he wanted to believe.
“Check the bag.”
It was only then that Josh noticed the duffel on the ground, a sawed-off shotgun protruding from the open top. Josh knelt and handled the weapon with respect and awe, then looked back to the detective, his eyes betraying a broken heart. “Vinnie…”
Vinnie detected the hurt in Josh’s voice, knowing he had let down his friend. Vinnie had always owned a pistol as a cop and later a P.I.—had been trained to use one—but as a pacifist by nature, he preferred to make friends of his enemies and reason his way out of difficulties. Resorting to violence was traitor to so many things he once stood for. But he was changing. “The bullets are enchanted. I used one of the spells on them, so they should be lethal to a supernatural being.”
Josh stood, shaking his head. “You’re losing it.”
Vinnie could not argue.
Relenting, Josh exhaled. “So, after you kill this guy or send him back to hell or whateva’, then what?”
Vinnie hung his head. “I don’t know.”
“Because it won’t bring back Allison, you know?”
The truth stung like a slap to the face. Then again, what was truth anymore? Vinnie was starting to understand that the rules could be rewritten. With the right symbols, the right incantations, anything was possible. Anything… “Yeah…I know…” He felt the weight of the Book of Carvac in his hand. His eye was drawn to its yellowed pages. They held so many secrets about death—and life beyond. Maybe he could find a way to breach that veil and see Allison again. Maybe…bring her back. “This book is powerful…” he muttered, his heart tripping in his chest, as he felt himself sink a little further into darkness.
Looking up, he saw Josh’s eyes widen. The kid wasn’t stupid. He fixed an accusing glare on the book, then Vinnie. “No! Don’t even think it!”
“But if it works on Tanner, it could work on—”
In a display of anger Vinnie had never seen in him, Josh charged and slapped the book from his hand.
In the second it took the book to drop, Vinnie drew his Colt 1911 from his shoulder holster and pressed it to Josh’s nose. Ice surged through him—hate and pain and grief—as he leveled the gun.
Josh paled. “What are you doin’, Vin? You gonna shoot me now?”
Vinnie’s hand trembled, his pulse pounding in his ears. Josh was standing in his way. Hadn’t he promised himself he would do anything to make things right? To bring Allison back into the world and make everything whole again?
Josh stared him down, growing bolder in the silence. He had Allison’s eyes. Maybe he had her heart, too.
What are you doing? Vinnie asked himself, echoing his friend’s words. He really didn’t know anymore.
Slowly, he lowered the pistol. Slid it back into its holster.
“I’m so lost, Josh…I miss her so much…”
Josh’s familiar easygoing, lopsided grin returned. He patted Vinnie on the shoulder. “I know, big guy. I do, too.”
Vinnie had lost Allison: his wife, his friend, his reason to get up in the morning. But maybe in the end, he’d gained a brother. Josh’s goodwill warmed his soul and he found himself smiling again at last.
“Come on,” Josh said, nodding towards the end of the pier, away from the lake and its temptations. “Let’s get rid of this crap and go get a pizza. I’ll even let you buy.”
It sounded wonderful, but there was one catch. “We can’t.”
Vinnie looked to his boots and the chalk drawing beneath them. Already the symbols began to glow a faint red. He frowned. Too late to turn back now. “Because…I already did the spell. I already summoned Jimmy Tanner.”
A soul-shivering howl split the night and the screaming giant exploded out of the lake’s cold depths. Josh let out a curse and tumbled back onto his seat as the behemoth landed on the pier, cracking the boards under his weight. Vinnie stepped back, his hand hovering over his pistol, but not drawing it. The thing before him stood over six feet and wore coveralls and a discolored flannel shirt. Its shriveled skin was white as marble and bloated, its hair a strange shade of green. But Vinnie recognized the overbite, the bushy eyebrows.
This was Tanner.
But…this was not Skullface.
“Is it him?” Josh screamed, scrambling in a crab-walk, desperately retreating as the waterlogged giant clomped closer.
“No,” Vinnie said at length, his heart breaking. It wasn’t Skullface. He had disturbed this murdered man, stirring those decades of rage…for no reason at all.
Tanner’s grotesque body raised its arms for Vinnie, and the thing bellowed a hungry, hate-filled cry. Josh screamed like a small girl, but Vinnie steadied himself. Without fear or anger—even the grief was gone—he slid his pistol into his hand, took aim, and fired one magickally enhanced bullet. The spinning projectile flew from the barrel and struck the Goliath’s forehead. Tanner went limp, tumbling forward on the dock.
The waters bubbled, lit from below by a green light. Vinnie trembled, wondering what else he had released. Suddenly, the boards snapped, jutting skyward. Vinnie stumbled and was saved from impalement by Josh’s quick thinking and quicker feet. “Come on!” he squeaked, lugging Vinnie off the pier.
The two of them stood on shore watching as an eerie fog rose from the waters, moaning as if alive, and encircled Tanner’s limbs. Slowly, the mist dragged Tanner down into the lake, sealing what remained of his soul in its final resting place. As he sunk below the surface, the ghostly echoes faded and the waters grew dark and still once more.
Vinnie and Josh stood without speaking for a long time.
But Josh was never very good at keeping his mouth shut. “Did...we just see that?”
Feeling an odd sense of peace, Vinnie reached into his deep pockets and retrieved his favorite treat while on a stakeout—a Dum Dum sucker. He unwrapped a bubble gum-flavored one and popped it into his mouth. “Yep.”
“I vote we never do this again.”
Vinnie felt the same. He couldn’t save Allison. He couldn’t bend the laws of the universe to his own whims—the consequences were too dire.
But before he could voice his agreement, he realized he had emerged from the cocoon that her death had spun around him and knew what he had become. “I’m not so sure.”
Josh did a double-take. “Come again?”
Vinnie chuckled. “Easy. No more meddling with the Books of Carvac. I get that. But…I know, now, that there are some strange things hiding in the shadows. I can’t turn my back on all I’ve learned. There are monsters out there, and somebody’s gotta fight ‘em back. Maybe that’s me. Maybe I’m—”
“An urban mythologist?” Josh snickered.
Vinnie grinned around his Dum Dum. “That ain’t got a bad ring to it.”
The two of them contemplated the idea in the cool autumn breeze. After a moment, Josh stuck his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “So, you, uh, think you’ll need a partner?”
“It never hurt before. You interested?”
As they gathered their things and headed away from the lake and the ghosts they’d laid to rest, Josh explained, “Well, it just so happens that I used to work for this private investigator, but he quit the business. So you could say I’m in between internships. What does an urban mythologist pay anyway?”
Vinnie crunched on the sucker. “It pays in truth.”
“Aw, man, that’s really cheesy.”
Vinnie laughed for the first time since his world turned dark, and felt sure that somewhere Allison was laughing too.
Copyright 2012 Greg Mitchell