Into the Wild, a Hellman & McAulffie Short Novel
Two deadly women. One vicious crime lord. In a world of guns and magic.
Nobody goes into the wild, the grey deadlands between the five worlds. But when a blonde with a bag full of gold and city’s biggest crime lord on her heels comes to me for aid, I can’t turn her down.
I should have.
Because when the bullets start flying and every gun in town is turned against us, the wild may be the safest place left.
Into the Wild is a 1920s urban fantasy with gangsters and monsters, guns and magic. If you like an equal dose Sam Spade and Glen Cook, with a sprinkling of the Dresden Files, you’ll love Into the Wild.
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Into the Wild - Chapter 1
Nobody goes into the Wild. I said as much to the blonde standing in front of me.
“Aren’t you a guide, Miz. Hellman?” she replied. “Hellish Hellman, no?”
She was good-looking. Tall, maybe an inch or two on my own five-foot eight, and well-muscled. A doll face the color of caffè latte and dark eyes that sparkled with mischievous mirth. Smooth calves topped by a tight, dark-blue cotton skirt that promised more, with a matching jacket on top.
A class act like her had no business being in my basement office. It wasn’t even my basement, but a rented space with unpainted, cracking red bricks and the dusty smell of dry rot in the stale air. I had a camp bed hidden in the old cupboard on the side. Home, bitter home.
“I go through the Wild, Miz…?” I left the title hanging but she didn’t oblige. I hate it when they play coy.
“Look,” I continued. “I can take you to Oberon, Skye, or Nevis. That will cost you five hundred. If you show me you can take care of yourself, I’ll take you to Perdition for a thousand, gold, in advance.”
She didn’t seem fazed by the cost. Instead she pulled up what I called my nice chair, an old, worn number with peeling paint and two broken slats in its back, and sat down, crossing her legs. The pose caused her skirt to migrate north. She didn’t pull it down. Her perfume added a touch of violets to the air, but couldn’t quite mask the smell of dry mold and flagging paint.
“I do not wish to go to Perdition, Miz Hellman,” Blondie said. “I wish to go into the Wild.”
She placed a long-fingered hand on her exposed knee. Her nails were pearlescent white, short and well-manicured. They sparkled, as if some Nevis mage had ensorcelled them. Blondie was everything I wasn’t. It was like looking into one of those funny mirrors that twists everything around. For a moment I could hear mother’s voice, scolding me to be more ladylike. She’d have loved Blondie, but to me the nails, the skirt, the smile, all of it was a perfect mask. And whatever she was hiding, that mask was going to get Blondie eaten in the mists.
The Wild was the gray, washed out places between the worlds. I’d traversed it often enough as a guide, herding people from the City to Nevis or Skye, keeping to the army-maintained paths, and being careful to burn anything that didn’t look right.
I’d even been to Perdition, twice, and lived to tell the tale, and I’d fought the incursions of the Wild while in the army. I was good, and I knew it.
And I didn’t send people with too much money and too little sense off to get killed. Blondie might have been lacking in the sense department, but she’d been courteous, and being rich wasn’t a reason to die, at least not to me.
Besides, I found myself liking her. She had that kind of aura. So I tried to scare her off.
“Lady,” I said, “if you want to die, there are faster and more pleasant ways to do it.”
“Not if the Landlord finds you, Miz. Hellman.”
I felt a grin crawl across my face. So much for my soft heart. This was the dumbest angle I’d heard since Rob No-nose complimented me on my itty-bitty titties in an attempt to get me into the bag. The Landlord hated my guts, but I wasn’t big enough a threat to his underworld empire for him to come gunning for me.
“Miz., I don’t know what you think you’ve got, but you’re sitting in a chair with a broken back, looking at a woman wearing third-hand army fatigues and owning exactly six ria and eighty-seven sen.”
Now Blondie laughed, a sound like champagne glasses clinking. I wondered if it was her normal laugh, of if it was as much of a mask as her skirt and expensive nail polish.
“So if I wished to extort someone,” Blondie said, “I should have picked a better target, is that what you’re saying, Miz. Hellman?”
“Yep, and you’re starting to annoy me so beat it before I beat you,” I said.
“I don’t think you would,” said Blondie. “But we’re getting off on the wrong heel, so this is what we are going to do. I will give you a hundred ria-” she magicked a gold double eagle from her glossy, black leather shoulder bag, and plunked it down on my desk “-and then you are going to treat me to dinner at the finest restaurant in Ten Pillars. And you can keep the change.”
I picked up the double eagle. It was one heavy bastard of a coin. For a second I wondered if there were more, and if a pile of ria could buy me out from the stinking cellar I sat in. Probably not. It wasn’t money that had me in the Landlord’s hate-and-kill book.
Money might make it easier to escape him, though. But what the blazes. It was dinnertime, I was hungry, and I’d love to see the look on the maître d’s face when I waltzed into Frederico’s with Blondie on my arm.
“Blondie,” I said, “you’ve bought yourself a date.”
Maybe she’d even tell me her name. And it wouldn’t hurt to listen to whatever she had to say, either.
Into the Wild - Chapter 2
The food was amazing. Bread so fresh it melted the butter. Prosciutto so thinly sliced I could shred it with my tongue. The salt and ham mingled with the smell of tomato and garlic coming from the next table over. And since I had a pocket full of money, the majordomo’s thinly veiled disgust at my attire only made me grin. I’d always dreamed of eating at Frederico’s. When I was in the army, I’d bribed a waiter to steal me a menu. Just holding it made me feel rich. I put the last piece of ham into my mouth and shoved it in with the smaller of the two forks they’d given me. The fat guy in the gray suit sitting behind Blondie shot me a disapproving frown. I ignored him. Let the rich toy with their fancy forks. I was there for the food.
“All right,” I told Blondie, pushing my empty plate aside. “You have my undivided attention, at least until they come with the chocolate for dessert.”
“Do you enjoy chocolate, Miz. Hellman?”
“Quite,” I said. I didn’t add that I’d only eaten it twice before, at my graduation, and at my mother’s funeral. Blondie’s raised eyebrow told me I didn’t need to add it, but she didn’t comment. Instead she asked:
“What do you know of mind crystals, Miz. Hellman?”
“You’ve been to Skye,” I said.
“And to Nevis and Oberon. And Perdition.”
I whistled, earning me a disapproving glance from the fatty in the gray business suit sitting behind Blondie.
“What do you need me for then?”
“I need a guide into the Wild.”
“Have you ever wondered why there are only five worlds? Why five? Why not six, or ten, or more?”
I leaned back in disgust.
“You’re a Seeker,” I said, trying to keep the disgust from my voice. Those Wild-loving crazies had gotten more good guides killed than most incursions.
“Nothing of the kind,” Blondie answered. “And before you ask, I’m not a Gray Path worshipper, nor do I wish to die.”
“Blondie, you want to go into the Wild. You could have fooled me.”
She leaned in, the intensity of her face drawing me closer against my will.
“I know a secret,” she said, then nodded at the approaching waiter. “But it will have to wait until after the wine.”
The waiter, a small, mustachioed man with an unbleached linen apron covering the top of his black pants, approached cradling a bottle as if it was his newborn.
“Chateau Brigantine 1483, as requested,” he said.
Blondie nodded at him, a curt, dismissive gesture bordering on the insolent.
“That will be fine.”
He glanced in my direction.
“The bottle is fifty-five ria, Miz.”
“I believe you mentioned it when we ordered,” Blondie said. Her tone could have been used to chill drinks.
The waiter gulped and proceeded to uncork, air, and offer the wine. Blondie gave it a quick whiff.
“That will be fine,” she repeated and the waiter withdrew to make way for two serious gentlemen bearing trays covered by silver cloches. The cloches were large enough to reflect the glowing electric lights in the chandelier above our table. The waiters unveiled their cargo and our discussion was interrupted. I dove into my garlic-stuffed calamari while Blondie supped on a light veil cutlet. After a while I stopped to wipe my chin.
“So, no Seeker, no Path-walker, and no death wish,” I said. “And yet, here we are, discussing infinite worlds.”
“Not infinite, only five.”
“And that is supposed to be your big secret?”
“No, Miz. Hellman. My big secret is that there’s one more.”
I sighed. Why do I always get the nut cases?
“I’m not insane, Miz. Hellman,” Blondie said. Either she was an exceptional empath or my poker face had gone on vacation.
“No, you are a Skye mind wizard come to absolve us all of sin. Well, you get your dinner, I get my ria, and then we part ways.”
Blondie snorted, a decidedly un-ladylike noise.
“I’m sure your wit is sharp enough to cut a five-year-old,” she said. “But misplaced. Consider this: the mists shift. Sometimes the boundaries around a world shift, and the mists cut off parts of that world. Sometimes you enter a gate and safely walk along the path to Nevis, and the next day that same path is broken and the army has to find and burn a new one.”
“Blondie, I fought in the mistwar,” I said, shoving an olive into my mouth. “Tell me something my dead buddies don’t know. And the paths are never safe.”
“Right. But what happens to the lost pieces of the world?”
“They show up a hundred years later, covered in maws, mistlings and the bones of dead men.”
“Or they don’t show up at all.”
“You’re making my case for me, Blondie. Nobody goes into the Wild.”
She sipped her wine.
“The army does,” she said.
“The army sends in whole engineering battalions, with flamethrowers and concrete, for very limited tasks, and even then, they sometimes don’t come back. The answer is no.”
She looked at me, her cool, calm gaze unsettling.
“I do not believe,” she said, “that you are in a position to say no.”
“Because you will tell the Landlord where to find me.”
“The Landlord already knows where you are.”
“If he knew, he’d have sent someone.”
“He did,” Blondie said. “Me.”
“Burn,” I said, wishing I had my gun. Yet Blondie didn’t look like a bruiser. More like the kiss-and-kill-you-afterwards type. Then she smiled and I wasn’t so sure anymore.
“But, as you can see, I chose to disassociate myself with the gentleman, and take something with me when I left.”
She opened her bag and withdrew a crisp parchment.
It was a Van Zant draft, for ten thousand ria. My heart did a tap dance and waved the maracas.
“Is that real?” I breathed.
In response, Blondie pulled out a needle and pricked her thumb, drawing a bead of blood. Then she swiped it across the Van Zant seal and the two fencers on the paper moved into motion, lunging and parrying.
“Blessed waters,” I said, draining my glass. Blondie picked up the bottle and refilled it.
“You should savor your wine,” she chided, “it really is quite good.”
I drained the glass a second time. Where I came from, ten thousand ria would buy you a city block. Or two. Or your untimely death.
“Do you have any idea what the Landlord’s going to do to you? Blood-locked Van Zant’s aren’t transferable. He’ll torture you until you sign it over. Then he’ll torture you some more.”
“Of course. But he’ll have to find me first.”
“I think he already did,” I said, nodding at a quintet of goons pushing their way past the majordomo.
Four of them were muscle, big, brawny men in well-tailored black suits. They looked like pall-bearers at a politician’s funeral. The fifth was a woman with close-cropped, dark hair, and possibly more muscle than the presumptive pall-bearers. She was also one of the Landlord’s enforcers.
“Troublesome,” Blondie said. “Could I perhaps hire you as a bodyguard for the hour?”
“Give me a tenth of that Van Zant and you can have me for the day.”
“A rather extreme sum, don’t you think?”
“It’s a seller’s market.”
“Agreed. You take the two on the right and I’ll take the rest.”
“With what?” I said, but then the thugs were upon us.
The fight was short and brutal. I tossed the plate of half-eaten calamari at the lead thug, then cracked his buddy over the head with our almost empty bottle of Chateau Brigantine. He went down, and I finished off his scampi-covered pal. Blondie kneed one thug in the groin and stomped her heel through the foot of another. That one proved tougher than he looked, for he managed to grab her, leaving the woman time to shove a hand beneath her jacket and start drawing a large revolver.
That was as far as she got before my bottle hit her in the temple. Blondie finished off her opponent. Only the clink of falling silverware broke the silence. I stuffed a bread roll into my pocket, then Blondie grabbed me by the arm and half-dragged me toward the door. The majordomo had recovered his wits and tried to block our way. There was a gash on his bald head and a thin rivulet of blood ran down his cheek.
“You—” he began, but I grabbed his hand, slapped the double eagle into his palm and told him to keep the change. His eyes bulged and I didn’t know whether it was at the violence or the gold. Then we exited Frederico’s, somewhat more rapidly than we had entered it.
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