We are excited to bring you an excerpt of Megan Mackie’s Death and the Crone. This novel is a stand-alone set in the author’s Lucky Devil universe, exploring the stories of support characters from the main novels.
Death and the Crone – Chapter 1
The young man unlocked the metal door and let it swing open, beckoning Margaret inside. The old, homeless woman stopped on the threshold, a small wizened thing, wearing clothes that were never hers and stinking to high heaven of her own and others’ filth.
“You are one crazy kid, you know that?” she told the young man standing before her, as he struggled a moment to remove the high-tech key card that never-quite-fit-the-lock from the door.
The young man flashed his youthful smile at her, tossing his newly freed keys and his umbrella onto the glass coffee table in the open living room. Without a further response, he walked past the island—the only thing separating the kitchen from the living room—to a refrigerator that shone dull silver in the dim light. The old woman stood still in the doorway, clinging onto the frame fighting her instincts to run. The room would have been less scary if it was filled with torture equipment.
Instead, a dark-wood dining room set with tall, throne-like chairs stood just a few feet from the doorway. To her left was a dark, leather couch with a clear, glass coffee table. Both pieces of furniture faced a wide flat-screen TV mounted on the wall. The couch sat on a beige carpet while the dining room set sat on wide square blocks of smooth stone-like tile with no wall in between to separate the two rooms like a sane person would expect. It was pure, uncomfortable luxury.
The extreme contrast of herself to the world in which she now stood, was so keen even she was embarrassed by it. The feeling penetrated through the hardened shell that told the world she didn’t care what it thought of her, to touch the gentle, little girl she had once been, and in some ways still was, underneath.
“Come in, shut the door,” the kid said from the kitchen.
Two glasses now sat on the island counter. She watched as he drew a bottle of something from his stainless steel fridge and set it next to them. Three red-topped stools waited on the opposite side for some glamorous woman in a too-short little black dress and heels to sit upon one of them. Not a woman dressed in rags, old enough to be his grandmother.
When she didn’t move, he left the kitchen to come to her once more. He smiled his gentle smile, the one that persuaded her to take him up on his offer in the first damn place. As the smile washed over her, it made her insides melt. Most people shunned her at first sight, tried to keep upwind and at least five feet away—more if possible. It had been like that for too many years. This kid, instead, had come up to less than a foot beside her, both in the alley and now as she hovered in his doorway. Gently, he touched her shoulder to guide her inside and shut the door behind her.
“Would you like some water?” he asked. As he locked the door behind her, the old woman filled with a sense of doomed finality. Her skin itched.
“Whatever,” she answered and proceeded further inside. If he didn’t care about the crud on her tattered shoes staining his pretty carpet, then she didn’t give a rat’s ass either.
She brought her old body up onto one of the stools, though it took all her limited strength to climb up the damn things. It seemed to satisfy him, and he continued with that angelic smile as he poured out two glasses of bubbly water from the fancy bottle. While he did that, she studied him again in the light coming down from the three hanging lamps over the island counter.
He was beautiful. Too beautiful in her mind. Tall and thin without being gangly. The word ‘lithe’ floated through her mind. He wore dark clothes, a fine black button-up shirt that was open at the top, and matching black slacks with dark, square-toed shoes she had seen models wear in magazines. His hair was the longish-style that only beautiful men could pull off without it looking like a mullet. The hair itself was dark, framing a perfectly chiseled face with nice cheekbones and a sharp chin. His eyes were dark blue, so dark the pupils were hard to see. They were as equally hypnotic as his smile. To her, they seemed like eyes that had seen too much, full of understanding instead of judgment. He had long fingers that handled the bottle of water expertly and she imagined for a minute those hands wrapping around her throat, choking the life out of her while she got to gaze deep into those dark, dark eyes. She snorted at the image.
“Look, kid, I know this has to be a part of some ritual for you or something, but you don’t have to play nice with me before you do whatever the fuck it is you plan on doing to me. I don’t really give a damn anymore,” she said, defensively.
“I understand,” he said and slid the glass of water over to her on its own fancy-schmancy coaster made of cork. “Drink that up, we have all night and you’ll need it.”
“What is this bullshit?” she grumbled but picked up the water anyway and stared down into it. “Probably drugged anyway,” she said. Before she could take a sip, he plucked it out of her hands with those long fingers and took a healthy gulp instead.
“What the fuck? You fucking with me?” she snapped. “Some sort of power trip, you ass…”
“See, not drugged,” he said and held it back out to her to take. She eyed him and the glass with hateful suspicion for several long minutes. The last thing she wanted was to reach out for it and be made a fool again. She had known several so-called men who would have thought yanking it out of her grasp the height of hilarity.
“I reach for that you will just snatch it back again,” she concluded bitterly.
Nodding again with those damn understanding eyes, he set the water back on its coaster and picked up his own to drink. He leaned against the far counter, putting himself out of snatching range and watched to see what she would do.
She ignored the water. “Don’t like feeling like a goddamn lab rat,” she grumbled again. “You’ve got me up here, kid. Now, what do you want with an old bitch like me?”
“I told you, I’m interested in you. I want to help you,” he answered and sipped his water, his eyes roving over her being.
God knows what he could be looking at. The old woman stared down at her wrinkled, scarred hands; the skin had gone thin until her bones showed underneath. She hated looking at her hands; she never recognized them. Over most of her body, she wore an old, burnt-orange jacket that was made for a man three times her size and went down to her knees. She liked it because it kept her warm on cold nights like this one if she tucked her knees into it. Dirty, white sneakers that were falling apart held her feet. On her legs were three pairs of sweatpants layered one over the other. She had just as many layers of shirt under the jacket, and her mess of gray, dirty, greasy hair was stuffed up under an old, black, knitted hat that she hadn’t taken off for a long, long while. It was probably fused to her head by now. She hadn’t seen herself in a mirror in years. She didn’t have to. God knew how bad and ugly and old she looked, and this dumb fool just kept smiling at her as if she was… she was… what?
“What the fuck are you looking at, you freak?” she snapped again, with the old reliable defensiveness that was meant to keep her safe and away from harm.
He laughed out loud. Genuinely laughed, as if she had just told the world’s greatest joke. There was no malice in it, which left her stunned.
“I’m looking at you, of course,” he said, in that cryptic way that he had been doing for the last hour. Never quite answering her questions. He had picked her up in the alley only a few streets away. She had been digging through a garbage can when he came up beside her, an umbrella over his head to keep the light, cold drizzle of late fall from coming down onto his beautiful self.
“You want to come home with me?” he had asked after he had stared at her for a too-long moment. She was hurting, hurting for another fix or another drink, anything to keep the demons away. The need was so great that her instinct to protect herself gave way to the addiction, much as it had most of the years of her adult life.
She would have followed Lucifer himself if he had come a-calling.
“Why am I here?” she finally asked when the silence between them became annoying. Her skin crawled.
“Why do you think you are here?” he asked back.
“Because you either want to fuck an old cunt because you’re sick in the head or something, or you want to murder me in some horrible way because who would miss street trash? So, whichever it’s going to be, can we just get on with it?!” she shouted and swiped the glass of water off the counter. It made a satisfying, wet crash on the floor. “Because it don’t much matter to me either way. I’m done with living.”
He didn’t move when she threw away his hospitality water. Didn’t get angry either; just studied her, then slid his own glass of water across the counter to replace the one she broke and waited. She shot him an angry, black look, then picked it up. For a moment, she almost threw it after the other. It would have been satisfying, but she didn’t. This time she stared at the crystal-clear liquid with its tiny bubbles and started to drink it. It actually tasted so good in her dry mouth. She couldn’t remember the last time she had simply drunk water. As she gulped it down, she had to resist the urge to slosh it all over her face as well.
“How old are you?” he asked after she came up for air.
“Too damn old. Should have died years ago,” she answered.
“Especially after all of the drugs you’ve done,” he stated simply. Again, no judgment. Just facts. She still reacted as if he was judging her anyway.
“You been spying on me, you fucking animal?”
He held up his right hand, letting the sleeve fall back to show his right wrist. He tapped the wrist with the finger of his left hand and pointed at her own.
“You’ve got scars. I bet they go all the way up, don’t they?” he said.
“Everyone’s got fucking scars.” She drank the last dregs of the water. It tasted so good, she didn’t realize it was gone until she had tried to keep drinking when all that was left was air.
“Do you like doing it?” he asked. He retrieved the glass after she set it down and refilled it, emptying the bottle.
“What? Drugs? No. Who the fuck does? But the demon’s gotta be fed. I owe him that much,” she answered. “What’s with the questions?”
“You said ‘the demon’s gotta be fed, you owe him.’ Owe him for what?”
She set the glass gently onto the counter, becoming hyperaware of the shake in her hands, her eyes drifting away to the other place. The place long in the past, the place where the demon had made its home and cried with a baby’s voice. “I owe him for keeping the pain away.”
The young man honored the silence around that truth. The creeping feeling in her skin that had been slowly building was impossible to ignore now. It was coming for her. Eating her alive, piece by piece. She’d waited too long. It would come for her and eat her heart. It would leave her dead soon enough. She needed the next fix to ward it off. The idea of her heart stopping, her life ending in writhing pain made her shudder. She had seen it before. Dying of withdrawal… even the corpses looked as if they were in agony.
While she didn’t care if she lived, that wasn’t what she wanted. Why wouldn’t he simply end this already? It was becoming too hard to focus on him. The light was blinking in and out as she tried to stare at him with his hands braced on the counter behind him, his dark hair and dark clothes made out of the flashing darkness. She could see him for what he was now. The demon himself. He had come for her at last. He was beautiful.
“Come, it’s time to take a shower,” he said suddenly, straightening up to move around the counter.
“Shower?” she asked, blinking as she tried to bring awareness back to herself. The darkness melted off of him. Panic rose in her. A small voice said she should run now, but why bother? She came here to die by this monster’s hand. She was going to do just that.
He took her wrist in his hand and pulled her off the stool to her feet.
“It’s through here. Follow me, my beautiful girl.” He led the way to a doorway just past the living room.
“I should just fucking run out the door right now,” the old woman mumbled to herself, her old bones creaking as she moved. The right knee took its time working properly and she limped a few steps before it started smoothing out into a normal gait. He didn’t comment or rush her. He was a well-mannered monster, she’d give him that.
He led her into a bedroom. It was much like the living room, in that it had the beige carpet and high-end motif. A king-size bed dominated the room, neatly made with a black comforter and heaps of pillows. A large mirror hung over the black wood headboard. Out of habit, the old woman side-stepped so she couldn’t see her reflection. Again, the young man didn’t comment, just led her to the right, through another entryway. He slid up a light switch to halfway as he passed, not that she could really see it. What she did see was the darkness of a ritual room, lit with fire all around. She didn’t stop but double-blinked. The room changed as her demon—or was it a monster?—stopped and let go of her.
It was a bathroom, not a ritual room.
“A bathroom makes sense,” she muttered. If he was going to kill her, bathrooms were easier to clean up.
“You’re going to get clean in here.” He reached into the shower—its own little room made of clear glass—and turned the water on. The rain shower head spouted water down, quickly filling the space with steam as the water made gentle plinking sounds on the faux-stone tiles. The young man shut the glass-door and turned to her, still smiling that goddamn peaceful, beautiful smile. Then he came up to her and started popping the snaps on the orange coat.
She jumped and flinched back, trying to bat his hands away, but her own shook so hard they had become useless. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“Undressing you,” he said simply.
“I can do it myself.” But she couldn’t, her fingers wouldn’t cooperate. “You want me to shower, right?” she asked, embarrassed. It wasn’t a question she wanted answered, and he didn’t answer it but simply waited. After a few moments, she gave up and he took over. “I gotta get all clean for you,” she continued to mutter. Staring down at the ground, she realized the floor writhed beneath her shoes. She tried to look elsewhere, only to return her focus to the floor. It was better than looking at the walls as the monsters tried to push their way through the flames burning there. She felt like the small girl she hadn’t been in years. Too late, those old memories surfaced once more, and she was twelve again, not innocent enough to not know what was coming.
“You need to get clean, yes. Come on, you’ll feel better. Take ten years off of you,” the beautiful demon quipped, and he reached out to pop more snaps. She stood there and let him, not moving or responding as he undid the coat and drew it off her arms. The smell got worse even to her blinded senses.
“It’s…it’s been a long time,” she said in a small, shy voice, though whether she meant bathing or sex, she wasn’t sure. Both were true.
“It’s okay. Here, I’ll dim the lights down even more so it’s more relaxing.” He moved to slide down the dimmer switch. Now they stood in a warm twilight serenaded by the gentle patter of water. The monsters growling in the ground and walls quieted as the light dimmed.
Patiently, almost like a nurse, he undressed her, one article of clothing at a time. As each piece came away, it was as if her skin was flayed off until she stood before this beautiful demon, her small, wrinkled, drooping body uncovered for his dark eyes to see. The lesions on her skin had gotten worse; scaly and red and sore. Gently with a thumb, he caressed one.
“Look at how beautiful you are,” he whispered, and his fingers trailed up both arms to rest on her bare shoulders. She raised her head then, expecting to see craziness in his eyes or a mean quirk at the corner of his mouth. But his gaze remained just as loving as it had been. Her cheeks burned with an embarrassment she had thought life had pounded out of her years before.
“You’re sick in the head,” she said again, but she lacked the will to spit at him.
“Your life is all in your skin. Every wrinkle and crease. It’s beautiful. You’ve lived so much,” he said.
“It was a shitty life; I’m glad it’s over,” she said, gravelly. “My body’s broken and useless.”
“The most beautiful things are often broken. And besides, you are not your body. You are beautiful.”
She blinked at that. “What? Am I already dead and this is heaven or something? Heaven’s got a beautiful man waiting for me?”
That drew another one of his musical laughs, which made him look just a little bit crazy this time. She found his madness oddly comforting. At last, something she expected. “You’ll have to tell me,” he said and began to unbutton his own shirt.
She took a step back. “What are you doing?!”
Each button came away, popping one at a time to reveal a beautiful, well-muscled chest. His torso was long, and the edges of him were perfect. He toed off his shoes as he undid his belt in that way that every woman from the swooniest teen to an old crone like her recognized as sexy. “What are you doing?!”
“I’m going to bathe you. It’ll be fine. I won’t hurt you. I won’t do anything you don’t want. You have only to tell me,” he said as he became beautifully naked himself. She stared at his long legs, which were just as muscled as the rest of him. He had to be one of those running fools that regularly shoved past her as they screamed at her to get out of the way, to get a pair of legs like that.
“No, no, this is wrong. This is wrong,” she said as panic rippled through her. She wanted to run, but she was frozen to the spot as he approached in all his glory and pulled her into his arms, shushing gently in her ear.
“It’s alright. I will take care of you. You are safe,” he said and rocked her gently, so gently. He smelled good, like forest loam and summer rain and beautiful man. He smelled like a place and a person that she always dreamed would come for her, but never had.
What did she care? She came here to die.
“Do whatever you want,” she whispered.
She let him draw her into the shower. He sat her on a stool waiting inside, and the warm water sluiced over her tired body. She thought it would burn her away, but after a few moments, the heat eased the cold inside her and she began to feel…truly warm. It had been a cold fall; frost and winter winds hounded the people of the streets earlier than they were ready for.
While he moved around behind her, she stared at her feet. The toes had been crushed inward ages ago, her toenails more like talons. Now they just looked like two old clubs at the end of deformed sticks. Between her feet, she watched the dirt swirl down the drain as the water washed over her. Grey foam replaced it as he began to lather over her back and arms. She went as compliant as a doll, her shaking easing somewhat. He left no cranny undiscovered or slathered in sweet-smelling soap.
“Jasmine?” she asked softly when he made a second pass.
“Do you like it?”
“Yes, it’s lovely,” she said as if in a dream. “It has been so long since I’ve felt so warm.”
A different soap, this one smelling of citrus, lathered up in her hair as his fingers slid through, finding tangle after encrusted tangle, but he never rushed and never stopped, breaking up the cakey mess with gentle fingers. He washed her hair four or five times, but by the last rinse, those long fingers rolled through the strands smoothly, gently massaging her scalp. She swore she fell asleep while he touched her, each pass a sweet caress, the likes of which she could never remember having felt before. The hypnosis lasted a long time. Letting the water continually wash over her, she realized he had stopped washing her and was simply holding her in his arms against his chest, skin to skin. At some point, he had shifted her back and off of the stool, but she had no memory of it. Her head rested on his shoulder, and he cradled her on his lap. It didn’t feel strange or lewd. Instead, it was innocent and… sacred.
“How do you feel?” he asked softly.
“Oh, kill me now, because I cannot live after this,” she sighed in pleasure.
“I was right.”
“Took ten years off of you right there,” he said, playfully.
“Oh, shut up,” she snapped, the spell breaking. She tried to sit up, but he held her in place.
“Don’t move just yet.” He reached up above him to stop the water with a quick turn of the faucet. The old woman was sad it was over.
With ease, he stood up with her in his arms and carried her out of the bathroom and back into the bedroom. He laid her gently onto the bed, still wet, and pulled the clean sheet and comforter up and over, enveloping her in more delicious warmth.
“What is going to happen now?” she asked, watching his beautiful backside with its unbroken line as he went back to the bathroom, disappearing from sight.
“You will suffer,” he answered. Her heart jumped in her chest, and she struggled to sit up.
“Fuck,” she said. It was just as she feared, but her old body wouldn’t respond, the ingrained aches that had been eased from the warm water still lurked beneath her skin. The walls and the covers of the bed rolled and fluttered once more. It made it so hard to sit up.
He returned from the bathroom carrying a bucket and several towels over one arm.
“Most likely, it will take several days,” he continued, setting the things next to the bed. “I will keep you hydrated, but it will hurt, and there is nothing I can do about that.” He pulled open a drawer in the nightstand next to the bed and pulled out long black straps, setting them on top before closing the drawer. “I might have to restrain you, but I’m hoping my holding you will be enough. Rest assured, I’ve done this before a few times. I’m going to try to make this as easy for you as possible.”
The old woman tried to scramble away, to get out of the bed, and almost fell into the open maw reaching up to her from the other side of the bed. He was there then, her demon crossing the blackness as he tipped her back into the bed.
“Don’t get up, it’s already starting,” he said. She tried to struggle—even though the room grew dimmer. She screamed in fear.
“Let me go! Let me go!!” she panicked. Something held her down, binding her in this hellscape that screamed and roared and laughed around her. Always that persistent laugh. Her whole body trembled so hard she barely realized she was crying. He shushed her gently in her ear.
“It’s ok, it’s ok. I’m here. I’ll get you through it,” he said.
She flinched, but he wasn’t the demon. He was pure light with dark hair. He was there to save her. To ease her over to the other side.
“What? What the fuck have you done to me?” she hiccupped out. Then she understood, just before she passed out. The world faded away and melted into the old familiar pain.
“Your withdrawal has started,” the demon’s voice laughed from the edge of the bed, crawling across the sheets to devour her once more. Except he was already within her, always had been. Just before he raised his ugly head, his eyes black and burning, she thought about begging this other creature of light to kill her now. Then the demon pounced and took his price, chewing away at what was left of her—mind, body, and soul.
Megan Mackie is a writer, actor, and playwright. She started her writing career as an indie author and had such smashing success in her first year with her inaugural book The Finder of the Lucky Devil, that she made the transition to traditional publishing. She has become a personality at many cons, recognizable by her iconic leather hat and engaging smile. She has recently joined Bard’s Tower, a mobile con bookstore, and has sold her books next to great authors such as Peter David, Melinda Snodgrass, Dan Wells, Claudia Gray, John Jackson Miller, and Jim Butcher, to name a few.
She has written five novels including: The Finder of the Lucky Devil, The Saint of Liars, The Devil’s Day, Death and the Crone, and Saint Code: Lost all currently released through eSpec Books. She is also a contributing writer in the role-playing game Legendlore soon to be published by Onyx Path Publishing.
Outside of writing she likes to play games: board games, RPGs, and video games. She has a regular Pathfinder group who is working their way through Rapanthuk. She lives in Chicago with her husband and children, dog, three cats, and her mother in the apartment upstairs.