pt. I

The first indication that I was going to be in for some trouble came when Sister Mercy kicked down my apartment door.

I say "kicked down" because that's what her entrance always reminded me of. We were both dead, and it would have been pretty silly for her to kick down the door when she could just walk right through it, wouldn't it?

But in all the years I'd been here - or been here and awake, more like - the old bag never announced her presence before coming in like a minor Storm, eyes blazing and six-guns drawn.

"Stand still, young lady," she commanded like she was still teaching schoolgirls at St. Mary's, keeping those two guns of hers pointed right at my head. And then she looked at me, like she always did - looking right through me, and into my soul, where the other me does its business.

This time she took her sweet time, and there was a moment there when I thought This is it - she's going to put me down just like she did to Fred...

But she blinked, finally, and lowered her guns, crossing them in front of her waist as she always did. She didn't show an ounce of relief, concern or embarrassment, either; Pardoners never did - it went against their whole ethos to act like they cared.

"You're still borderline, Rachel," she announced, as though she were grading an assignment: "Borderline, but holding."

"Well, that's good to know," I said, relieved that I still had at least another surprise visit left to me: "I've been doing what you told me. Really-"

"No, you haven't," she interrupted, leaning in: "I've seen you go to him."

I sighed, looking around the uninhabited room and throwing up my hands. Okay, she had me there - no sense denying it.

"The more you affect his circumstances, the stronger your Shadow grows," she went on.

"Yeah, and if I just sit back and do nothing, what happens then? You know the trouble he's in..."

"I know that he got himself into that trouble, Rachel."

"Well, maybe you don't know what it's like to have a son, you being a Nun and all. But I'd love to see how you'd handle this situation."

She just looked at me, gritting her teeth; I think she wanted to smack me across the face with one of her revolvers.

"I can't sit back and do nothing," I said, standing up to look her right in the unblinking eyes: "I won't. He's my son, and I love him, and I have to help him."

"Even at the cost of your soul?"

Her question made me want to smack her. What planet did that bitch come from, anyway?

But I answered her, just as I always did: "A thousand times over."

"It may just come to that," Sister Mercy said, shaking her head and turning to go: "You know what the Damned are like, Rachel. You may harm thousands just for the saving of one."

"I'll take that risk for him."

"So nice to hear it..." she snorted: "Just hope that I'm the one who finds you, Rachel. I'll be as gentle as I can."

"That's what my first boyfriend said," I shot back.

"Well, I'll be just as quick, too," she replied with her back turned to me: "And that reminds me... I came here for a reason. There's something you need to know."

"Go to hell," I said, not really wanting to hear any more from the cow.

"Your friend Laris has been seen in the area," she announced, completely ignoring my insult, as she always did: "And he's been making inquiries about your son. I think your boy's gotten himself into a lot more trouble than usual, this time."

That got my attention, but I didn't ask her what she meant; I knew that's what she wanted, and I wasn't going to give it to her.

Sister Mercy paused in mid-stride out the door, thrown off-balance by my not falling for her little line. She recovered quickly, though, and walked right back out the door without saying another word.

And then I heard her "kick down" another door, down the hallway, and start harrasing the poor, half-ossified spook that used to be there.

I have to say that I miss Sister Mercy: she was mean, nasty and overbearing - and too stupid to see she was way out of her depth - but I think that she really cared. She had a Pardoner's way of showing it, of course, but every so often I could see some actual concern in those cold, glassy eyes of hers.

{That and she had something approaching a sense of humor, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for the guy they replaced her with...}

But I also knew Sister Mercy well enough to know that there was no sap to her approach. If she told me that Laris was looking for Joey, then she'd had a damn good reason for doing it, and maybe I'd better ignore her advice and go check it out.

So I waited exactly three minutes - I counted the seconds, slowly - and headed out, myself, looking for the Ferryman.


Laris and I had met a few years back, when he'd been dealing with a particularly nasty Haunter over on the east end of town. That little incident - and what we had to do to stop it - led to my having an "understanding" with the Ferryman.

{It also got me in real good standing with The Order, and a bad rep with the Haunters, but none of that really matters in the long run: not compared to stopping that sick freak like we did, anyway...}

In the years since then, I figure I've into the guy - if he really is a guy under all those robes and all that armor - about ten or so times. Sometimes he needed my help, sometimes I needed his, and once he really just wanted to talk to me.

Well, it was more of a case of me wanting to talk to him, and him taking the time to listen; And I told him just about everything he might want to know about me, that night, and a lot of what he probably didn't.

So yeah, I told him about my first, second and third husbands, and how my boy never got along with any of them. I told him about the "troubles" I had, and how I tried to keep my son away from them, but somehow just knew that he was going to wind up right in them - with or without me.

I even told him about the hot shot that sleazeball Lenny cooked up for me - arsenic, salt and all - and how he watched me puke and shiver myself to death on his nice, tile floor.

And after I'd confided that in him, I'd told him the rest: waking up to find out that my boy had become a man, and was right up to his pierced eyebrows in "trouble"; How I tried to get him out of it, but never could get it into his thick head that he was heading for the same fall I'd already taken; How The Order had caught me at it, and made me the offer I couldn't refuse. Hell, I even told him how I'd been getting around the offer, after that little business with the Haunter...

All that in one night, and he just sat, listened, and nodded his cowled head every so often.

When it was all over, I was drained - even my Shadow was too damn tired to make any snappy comebacks, or laugh about how I should have taken back my own with a vengeance. And Laris reached over, and lifted up my chin so I could look into the darkness of his cowl, and see what might have been his eyes...

The prisoner can only ever free himself, he said, nodding: One day you will understand.

And with that, he stood up, bade me goodbye, and walked right back into the Barrier. I never got him to explain what he meant, and I figure he never will, either; Ferrymen never explain anything to anyone - it's as much a part of their deal as acting like callous bastards is to the Pardoners.

But I have to say this: Laris was the first man who'd never lied to me, tried to trick me, led me on, treated me like a sex toy or just flat-out used me, and that gave him a hell of a lot of credit in my book.

So if he was looking for my son, I wasn't going to chase after him because I was afraid he was going to harm him. I was going to go see what he knew that I didn't, and hope he'd explain enough of what was going on so that I could actually help - for a change.

Funny how these things work out, isn't it?


Of course, knowing my son, if the Ferryman was looking for him, I could only think of one reason why. And that would be because his "trouble" had taken a turn for the worse...

"Trouble" - funny how I have such a hard time saying the word "drugs," isn't it?

But that's what it was - drugs. Heroin, to be precise.

Yes, it is ironic that it eventually killed me, but that's what you get for tasting your own goodies: dead.

I'd gotten into dealing back when I was young, stupid and pregnant by some guy I've never seen since. I knew heroin was bad news, but the money was good enough to get me through some tough straits, so I didn't see the point of getting out.

One of those straits, by the way, was my out-of-wedlock birth to Joey, which got me kicked out of my own family.

It wasn't the fact that I'd had one without a ring to show for it, though: my own mom was well into her seventh month with me when the bridal pictures were taken. No, it was the fact that I brought a "nigger baby" into their home, and claimed it was their grandson, that did it.

And that is, more or less, why I kept pushing; I could have found a more legal job, but not one that paid the baby bills like that did...

So my son got to grow up in a less than ideal environment, always seeing things I didn't want him to see. I went through three husbands, all of whom were involved in the trade in one way or another, and none of them were shy about letting the family business leak out.

Worse than that, Joey started to think that the scumbags, weirdoes, users and connections that I had to deal with - or to - were people to be looked up to, or admired.

I'll never forget the day that Charlie came over, with three girls from his stable in tow, and started telling my son that he ought to start reading Iceberg Slim. Joey was only twelve, and he was hanging on every word that damn pimp was slipping into his ears, dreaming of the day that he could have "ladies" of his own.

If you had to pick a moment when - as most of the priests of The Order would put it - Joey's Fate had been "Made Plain," that was probably it.

From that moment on, nothing else mattered: not the fights I had with the three men in my life, or the countless other boyfriends; not the close calls with cops; not the shootouts; not the ODed customers, and the occasional friend; not even the constant fear of being ambushed, taken off and killed for no reason that comes along with the easy money and high living of dealing... None of that had as much impact on my son's mind as that one afternoon, right there.

{Word has it that Charlie died content enough to escape being a Ghost - some jerks have all the luck.}

It didn't take me too long to catch up to Laris' trail. A Ferryman who's dressed for battle attracts a lot of attention - especially when he's asking questions from folks who move too slow to run and hide.

A really slow Freewraith I know - Dr. Wallis, the wheelchair paramedic - pointed me in his direction, waving off towards the north end.

"Came through here about an hour ago, wanting to know where your Joey was," he told me, shrugging: "I was gonna tell him I didn't know any Joey, but he was really insistent. I thought he was gonna whack my head off with that hammer of his..."

"It's okay, Doc," I told him, not blaming him in the slightest: "If he's looking for my boy, he's not gonna kill him."

"I sure hope not," Dr. Wallis said, putting his hands on his wheels and getting ready to hustle off down the street: "He told me to stay inside and keep my head down. He said a whole legion of the Damned was on its way here... winging straight up from H-E-L-L."

That got me hustling, and I hoped the Doc had the good sense to take the Ferryman's advice.

The Damned tended to be solitary monsters, and thank God for that. There's an old joke that says the surest way to kill one of the Damned is to get another one into the same room, and then sit back and watch nature take its course.

No, the only time the Damned ever work together is if there's a Storm - and those are thankfully rare - or if something really big and bad's about to go down in the real world.

You know how people come out of massacres, high school shootings, terrorist attacks, bombings - whatever - and say that they just knew something was going wrong? That's because they could feel the bad things coming through on the other side: sitting there, watching and waiting for the moment when it all went to hell, so they could feed on the misery...

Yeah, it's pretty sick, but there's a reason why we call them the Damned; Sometimes they're even the ones stirring it all up.

The Order says there's no sense getting involved when it's about to happen, and to let things take their course, but then they would. Fortunately, that doesn't stop the Ferrymen and the Pardoners - even the Messengers, sometimes - from taking a hand.

So that left me, running my ass off into the North end of town, towards my son's apartment building, and hoping I wasn't too late to help...