Dead Man's Hand Exclusive Excerpt

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Grimsby woke up some time later, having not even realized he had slept. There were no streetlights or other vehicles in sight as Mayflower guided the jeep down a darkened road.

“Where are we?” he asked through a stifled yawn.

“Nearly there,” Mayflower said.

He pulled off the road into an empty lot of cracked, sun-​bleached pavement. The lights of Boston shone on the southern horizon, and the tallest of the city’s structures were just barely visible through the treetops and deep curtain of night. The sound of the highway was nearby, but any traffic was beyond sight.

Mayflower climbed out of the jeep and opened the back door for Grimsby, who climbed stiffly out onto the concrete. He tried to stretch, but the cuffs made it impossible.

What struck him more than anything was how empty the entire lot was. There were no walls, no towers or fortresses or gargoyles. Not even a ditch that might serve as a moat. It was just...empty. It looked like a commuter parking lot that had been abandoned sometime in the distant past.

“Wow. Nice place. Fort Knox would be jealous,” Grimsby said. The cool autumn wind cut through the trees around them in a sudden gust that pierced easily through his T‑shirt and jeans. He shuddered and clutched his arms around himself, at least as much as his chains would allow.

Mayflower was already pacing the pavement, searching around with an old flashlight that looked heavy enough to club a man to death with. “It’s beneath us,” he said. “An old safe house left over from when the Therian Liberation movement died out, forty years back or so.”

“Wait, she lives in a werewolf Mafia den?” Grimsby asked.

“Therians, not werewolves.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Werewolves have some degree of discipline. Either way, it’s a former Therian Mafia den; we made certain of that.” His voice took on a tinge of nostalgia for a moment before he shook it away. “Though it may be more dangerous now than it was before. Stay close, and don’t touch anything.”

Grimsby jingled his handcuffs. “That’ll be hard. Can’t you take these off?”

“Not happening.”

“Why not?”

Mayflower pressed a pair of fingers to his brow in exasperated annoyance. “Because I don’t trust you, Grimsby. You’re a witch. You’re young. You’re stupid. Any one of which is reason enough to give me doubts. All three is likely to get me killed.”

“Then why cuff me if I’m so incompetent?”

“Those could keep even a witch like Mansgraf from managing a spark of magic,” Mayflower said. “With them on, you’re only young and stupid.”

“I’m not stupid!” Grimsby said.

“You let a man with a gun who had most of a mind to kill you just a couple hours ago drive you into the middle of nowhere, alone, in the middle of the night,” Mayflower replied.

Grimsby opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, failing to find a cutting reply.

“Well, I’m not that young,” he said.

Mayflower muttered a curse under his breath and gestured to a patch of asphalt that was just beyond the light of his flashlight. There, barely visible, was the round shape of a manhole.

The Huntsman went to it and pried it open with disturbing ease. He was oddly casual, as though he weren’t about to delve into the hidden lair of a paranoid witch that happened to also be the former lair of a syndicate of criminal Therians. He shone his light down within.

Grimsby peered over Mayflower’s stooped shoulder to see nothing but iron rungs sunk into the wall of a concrete shaft. They descended below the light and into the darkness beyond. Decades-old claw marks marred the walls of the shaft and bit deep into the decayed rungs.

“I don’t like this,” Grimsby said.

“You wanna try the Marriott instead?”

“I mean, if you’ve got a secret witch lair in one of those, I wouldn’t argue.”

Mayflower rolled his eyes under his gray sunglasses. “This place is safe because it’s remote and because you’d likely die trying to get inside. If it were easy for us to get into, it’d also be easy for anyone else.”

“I thought you knew Mansgraf. Don’t you know, like, a password or something?”

“Yeah. The password is shut up and don’t touch anything.”

Grimsby grumbled. “I still don’t like this.”

“Good,” Mayflower said, “you’d be insane if you did.”

“Well, you sorta look like you’re having a good time. What’s that say about you?”

Mayflower only glanced at him with a cryptic expression. And something almost like a smile.

“Maybe I should wait here,” Grimsby continued. “Keep watch, you know?”

“For what? Nobody has any idea about this place. With luck, it’ll be weeks before anyone manages to find it. If they ever do. Besides, your sight might make the difference down there.”

“Are you sure? Your glasses are probably good enough, right?”

“Mansgraf was a witch, and a damned good one.” He pointed at the shaded glasses he wore despite the dark of night. “I can see some of what she might have left behind, but only enough to kill it. Anything more subtle than an invisible bear and I’ll miss it. That’s where you come in.”

Grimsby swallowed a lump of hard fear in his throat.

Mayflower was right; he had nowhere near the perception a witch did of the Elsewhere. It was part of what made witches so essential long ago, when folks had much darker things than witches to be scared of, and that hadn’t changed much. Technology could replicate at least as much, if not more, of the destruction witches could manage, and even some of the utility. But so far, nothing could see into the Elsewhere like a witch could. He could see things no Usual could, and that made him useful.

However, at the moment, he did not feel like being useful.

He felt like being useless and crawling into a hole in the ground. But not this one. One that was safe. Although he was beginning to believe safety wasn’t an option. Not yet. If he wanted to have someplace safe to wait out this insanity, he had to make it for himself.

“All righty-roo,” he said, voice cracking as he said that particular word for the first time in his life.

Mayflower grunted. “You first.”

“Wait, what? Why me first?”

“You can see. We just went over this.”

“You have the gun. Why don’t you go first?”

“Because I have the gun,” he said simply.

“This is seeming less and less like a safe house and more and more like a ‘Let’s Kill Grimsby House.’ ”

“Again, you’re free to walk away. You asked for my help.”

“You need me, too!”

“I really don’t; I’m just trading back pain for headaches at this point,” Mayflower said.

“Fine,” he grumbled. He stretched his taut and nervous fingers in their chain confinements and wiped at his brow. “All right. Here I go,” he said, without moving at all.

Mayflower waited for a few breaths before sighing. “Any time now, witch.”

“Yeah, right.” He edged cautiously forward, peering into the pit.

“I’m going to push you down in ten seconds,” Mayflower said.

“Then you won’t know if anything’s down there or not.”

“I will if I hear you land on something other than concrete.”

“But you—”

“Six.”

“Six? I don’t think that was four—”

“Three.”

“Oh, fine!”

As Mayflower grimly continued to count, Grimsby dipped one foot down and alighted on one of the rungs. It creaked in a manner that would have wholly uninspired confidence if he had any to lose but otherwise didn’t give way under his weight.

He inched down farther, feeling for the strength of the rungs below him before trusting them enough to descend again. It was a slow, nerve-wracking process, and after what felt like half an hour, his head descended below the surface of the pavement.

“Keep going, witch,” Mayflower said. “I’m putting my light away.”

“How am I supposed to see anything?”

“Use your damned second or third sight or whatever you have.”

“Oh, right.” Grimsby clung to the rungs with his left arm and closed his eyes as he reached up and fumbled off his glasses with the other. An impressive feat in handcuffs.

When he opened his eyes, the world had changed.

The scarred walls of concrete looked more like claw-slashed mud and stone. The steel rungs were something closer to bone, almost riblike as they descended beneath him. The air smelled of wet dog, burning oil, and blood. Up above, he could just make out a black moon in a red sky, while down below, it was a roiling cloud of white shadows that bubbled thicker than fog, obscuring the depths. He glanced at Mayflower, but the Huntsman had faded to a bland, detail-less Figment, a shadowed silhouette of himself. It would have been near impossible to tell him apart from anyone else.

At least, had it not been for the gun in his hand. That item was disturbingly clear.

Mayflower spoke, but his words were blurred, like whispers through cotton and rain. “Keep going,” he said; at least that’s what Grimsby heard.

Reluctantly, Grimsby descended, deeper and deeper into the dark. As he neared the writhing fog, it receded, letting him see a few yards farther into the pitch of the depths below. It was more of the same for a long time. At least, it felt like a long time. Between the strangely slow and fluid motion of the Elsewhere and Grimsby’s own nerves, his internal clock was going mad.

Then there was a deafening crack, the sound of splitting bone. Grimsby looked up to see a pair of large, goatlike eyes and a grin of dozens of sharp teeth staring out from recesses in the stone. A frantic heartbeat later, the rung he was clinging to wrenched from the wall under his weight.

He tried to catch himself with his other hand. He would have been able to reach, if not for the shackles. His grasping fingers came up short, the chains around his wrists pulling as taut as one of his Binds.

He fell backward, both hands scrambling numbly at the walls, but his limbs were slower than his senses. It felt like he was clawing his way through molasses. He tried to brace his back against the far side of the shaft, but he was too short, and it was just out of reach. His feet slipped, and he began careening down the shaft into whatever was lurking in the twisted shadows below.

At best, it would be solid concrete.

At worst, it would be something else.

Neither was likely to be survivable.

Which made the fact that he was falling all the more inconvenient. He twisted in the air, managing to peer downward, waiting for the inevitable parting of the fog and the hard impact of solid ground.

But it came far sooner than he expected.

The roiling mist vanished suddenly, revealing the ground only five or six feet below. When he crashed into it, it hurt, but it was hardly lethal. He lay on the ground, stunned for a long moment, his ego bruised more than his body, though not by much. The thin layer of mist that remained dried up and disappeared with a strange giggle.

He thought he saw that same face in the dark, grinning and inhuman. Then it was gone.

He looked up at the rung that had broken beneath his grip, about six feet above him, and groaned. “I hate Tuesdays,” he muttered, though it was probably Wednesday by now.

He climbed to his elbows, twisting awkwardly in his cuffs, and rolled over, staring down a single long hallway ringed with scars of claws and fire. In the darkness, he saw a flicker of movement.

Mayflower was right; there was something down here

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Dead Man's Hand by James J. Butcher

Dead Man's Hand

James J. Butcher

In the tradition of his renowned father, James J. Butcher’s debut novel is a brilliant urban fantasy about a young man who must throw out the magical rule book to solve the murder of his former mentor.

On the streets of Boston, the world is divided into the ordinary Usuals, and the paranormal Unorthodox. And in the Department of Unorthodox Affairs, the Auditors are the magical elite, government-sanctioned witches with spells at their command and all the power and prestige that comes with it. Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby is…not one of those witches.
 
After flunking out of the Auditor training program and being dismissed as “not Department material,” Grimsby tried to resign himself to life as a mediocre witch. But he can’t help hoping he’ll somehow, someway, get another chance to prove his skill. That opportunity comes with a price when his former mentor, aka the most dangerous witch alive, is murdered down the street from where he works, and Grimsby is the Auditors’ number one suspect.
 
Proving his innocence will require more than a little legwork, and after forming a strange alliance with the retired legend known as the Huntsman and a mysterious being from Elsewhere, Grimsby is abruptly thrown into a life of adventure, whether he wants it or not. Now all he has to do is find the real killer, avoid the Auditors on his trail, and most importantly, stay alive.

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