1433 words (5 minute read)

Prologue - 1893

      Montrose stood outside. Rain hammered the muddy streets, soaking through his overcoat. The heavy downpour forced his bowler hat low over his head. A breathy, irritated sigh escaped him as he looked down at his saturated boots covered with mud. He wished it would snow. He thought that perhaps it did not snow in Alabama very much. Montrose hesitated as he reached the door, taking a moment to calm his irritation. The saloon was noisy, raucous laughter and poor piano music drifted out of the building. He would have preferred to be somewhere else, somewhere dry, but the nature of this task required certain concessions. With another sigh, Montrose entered the building.
      A smokey haze filled the room, a combination of cigars and a faulty hearth. The smoke mixed with the smells of spirits and sweat, occasionally spiked by a flowery perfume worn by the ladies of the establishment. Montrose used a stick by the door to scrape mud from his boots. He took note of how crowded the place was, packed with sweaty humanity. Several card games were in progress, money changed hands as fortunes turned, cheers and curses punctuated the flip of the cards. Serving girls rushed back and forth amid grabbing hands and cat calls. A large negro man, bulk stretching his white pressed shirt, played a rambunctious tune on the piano. A queue had formed at the top of the balcony stairs, men waiting for a chance to pay for companionship. Montrose removed his hat and soggy overcoat; his hair, shaved high on the sides, was wet from the deluge outside. He made his way to the crowded bar top and squeezed his way to the front.
      "Mr. Higgins, where can I find him?" Montrose asked the bar keep. The noise was so great that Montrose had to repeat himself. Once he understood Higgins’s name over the noise, the bar man was quick to point out the man, sitting at one of the card tables in the center of the room. Higgins was a rough looking Caucasian man with long, wild hair and large mutton chops. A ridge top style cowboy hat hung off the back of his chair. Higgins appeared deep in his cups.
Montrose approached the table. Five other men sat around the table with Higgins, joking and cursing in turn. They were all very loud, competing with the noise of the saloon, laughing too hard at each others’ jokes.
      "Mr. Higgins?" Again Montrose needed to repeat himself, more than once, before he was noticed. "A word, sir. Mr. Higgins."
      "I don’t think I know you." His southern accent was thick and heavy with drink. "I’m indisposed right now. Come back tomorrow."
Again Montrose sighed. "No, Mr. Higgins. We will speak now."
The men at the table grew quiet. Montrose could feel the surge of drunken adrenaline that washed over the moment. Higgins pushed his chair back and placed his hand on the gun hanging from his belt.
"You’re being rude, mister. My boys don’t take too kindly to rude. You best leave now before someone here gets upset." Higgins gestured to his cronies.
"The Hand does not take kindly to threats, Mr. Higgins," Montrose said as Higgins stood up from the table. At the mention of the Hand, Higgins’s face paled.
"It was out of my control. My man panicked." Higgins looked panicked himself, his eyes darting around the room as if he expected some sort of ambush.
"You were given specific instructions that no harm was to come to the girl. Mr. Higgins, the leadership is very troubled by how you failed to perform." Montrose could see the dangerous desperation building in Higgins.
"I tell you that it was not my fault. The girl had protection, a bodyguard. My man was trying to save himself." One of Higgins’s men nodded enthusiastically, an Indian by his looks, likely the one who had killed the girl.
Montrose narrowed his eyes, "You and your men are insignificant. The girl, unharmed, is what we agreed to. I am afraid that excuses do not...." Higgins shot Montrose in the chest. Blood began to pour from the wound. Montrose looked down in surprise. The rest of the people in the saloon screamed and ducked low, many trying to find the exit. Montrose stuck his finger into the hole in his chest. "Mr. Higgins..." Again Higgins shot, five more times into Montrose. The force of the bullets knocked Montrose off his feet. Higgins was breathing heavily. The gun clicked as he continued to pull the trigger. Montrose sighed yet again, and stood up.
"That is unfortunate, Mr. Higgins. I was hoping for a simpler resolution." Blood was oozing from the wounds saturating Montrose’s shirt . Montrose sighed deeply, expelling a dark, black smoke from his lungs. An eldritch wind began to blow, horrible howling sounds overpowering the screams of shock and terror that came from the men at the table. “Too late, Mr. Higgins. You and your men have failed us.” The blackness mixed with the smoky interior and grew in size completely filling the room. The people who did not leave after the gunshots found themselves trapped as the smoke slammed the door shut. The smoke grabbed people, tossing them across the room. Bystanders were dashed against tables and each other as they suffocated. Screams of those trapped were swallowed by the sinister wind. Blood leaked from people’s eyes and ears. Higgins himself was ripped apart by the cloud, shock and disbelief on his face as he died. Montrose almost laughed as the rest of Higgins’s men were reduced to bloody piles. The Indian, the one who killed the girl, was slammed through the chandelier and smashed into paste as he hit the ceiling. A chuckle did escape Montrose then. He sighed again and the evil cloud rushed back inside his nose and mouth, vanishing almost as suddenly as it appeared.
Montrose glanced around the room and frowned. The piano player was still seated on his bench, very much dead.
"Play something sad." Montrose whispered as he traced a symbol on the man’s face with his own blood. Dark energy flowed and the dead man began to play.
"A bit excessive, Oliver, don’t you think." A short man, head shaved, and dressed in a brown clergy cassock walked into the carnage. Montrose always assumed he was Greek. Other than a quick glance the Priest paid no attention to the bodies at his feet.
"He shot me." Montrose offered with a shrug.
"You must have spooked him." The Priest’s voice was deep and smooth. He spoke as if he were giving a sermon at all times.
"Dealing with Higgins set us back a bit. I dislike dealing with mercenaries; it leaves too much out of our control." Montrose examined his ruined shirt and sighed.
"It cannot be helped,” the Priest said, his tone like a father comforting a child, “We are stretched too thin, Oliver. The undertaking is immense. We have to suspect that there could be loss, it is unavoidable. As long as we don’t have any issues like the one in England we should be fine."
"England is a waste of time. All of the research points to the Americas. It will come down to us or Brazil. All of Europe is a waste!" Montrose sighed softly. "If Higgins lost us the girl..."
"If Higgins lost us the girl, Oliver, we will start something new. This is not the only path, remember that.” Montrose was starting to get irritated by the patronizing tone. “Do not worry, Oliver, Gideon will clean up here. You should check in on the Dallas team. I will send word after I reach San Francisco."
"How many girls are in route?" A series of wrong notes came from the piano causing the two to look over. The animated pianist did not notice.
"Forty, so far. We have a few more targeted, but we will make the deadline." The Priest took out a small revolver from his pocket as he stared at Montrose’s undead creation.
Montrose sighed again. "Very well, then. Off to Dallas." He walked to the door and collected his wet coat and hat. The rain was still falling but the storm had lost its fury. Gideon was outside, his massive bulk easily recognizable even in the dim street. Montrose nodded to the man and continued down the street. As he headed out, a single gunshot silenced the music.