Thursday, June 14, 2012


Thank you for taking the time to visit this page.  CRUCIFER is a science fiction/horror novel with Noir-Gothic atmosphere and dark eroticism.  Peter Romito, a drug addict and a prostitute, is about to become the messiah of a world of machines, and all they ask is that he die for their sins.  Warning: these novel excerpts are not child-friendly.  Your readership and comments are greatly appreciated.

--R.J. Crowther Jr.

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CRUCIFER - Synopsis

[short version with major spoilers removed]

The year is 2168, The City of Angels. Peter Romito, a drug addict and a prostitute, is about to become the messiah of a world of machines. Peter is hunted by the Priest who murdered his girlfriend, and the Priest, like Judas, will do anything to stop him. The Priest, guided by the Collar that enslaves him, is sacrificing those who taught him the mysteries of the flesh. He carves out his victims’ hearts as sin offerings, each one a key that will unlock the gates of heaven.

The Priest is the director of Project Ezekiel, which was founded by the Vatican Space Commission, to determine if its long-lost colonies survived. The colonies were early casualties of the Great Collapse, which followed in the footsteps of the Red Death nanoplague. One of the colonies became a giant tomb, maintained by the machines that were sent to build it, the same world that calls to Peter in his drugged-out visions.

Lieutenant Monica Regent, head of the serial homicide task force, races to solve the puzzles left by the Priest. Each victim has been posed in a grim tableaux, with Bible verses scrawled in blood, all of which are riddles. Regent is burdened with guilt for failing to save her father, a vice detective who was killed by a teenage junkie. Her quest to stop the Priest offers redemption, but the battle will test her faith as she becomes the hunted. If she fails, she’ll never see her son, Danny, grow up, and her cocky partner, Detective Rodriguez, will never know she loved him.

Plagued by drug-fuelled visions of an alien world, and haunted by the ghosts of the murdered prostitutes, Peter flees to the colony of sentient machines which have embraced the faith of their dead creator. The Biomechs, undead hybrids of machine and flesh, are at once sublimely beautiful and grotesque. They were created by a mad prophet, who went insane after lethal spores infected his brain, and uploaded his mind into an A.I. After the spores killed the remaining colonists, the biomechs built the city of ROM. The Cathedral of Bones lies at the heart of the city, a place where every tower is part of a single entity. The biomechs embrace Peter as their messiah. All they ask is that he die for their sins.

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CRUCIFER, Bk. 1, Chapter 1

Los Angeles

March 19, 2168

The Priest stood in a narrow alley south of Hollywood Boulevard, the skirt of his black cassock flapping in the wind. The stiff, double-breasted robe clung to his chest, the trappings of a general at war with the flesh. Thunder rumbled overhead and he squinted at the sky. “Where are you?” he asked.

He didn’t get an answer.

Mist fell through the gap between the old brick walls, beading on his black hair which he wore slicked back. He dropped his gaze, wiped his face, and his fingers grazed the Collar. An electric shock made him flinch and chilled him to the core.

On the wall to his right, someone had stenciled an inverted pentagram, shining with cold blue light that bled into the mist. The pentagram was two meters wide with a goat head in the center, circled by a narrow border filled with Hebrew letters. He read the glowing script and whispered, “BAPHOMET.” Sparks crawled across the seal as if he’d cast a spell. He knew that what he saw was not a magic show; the demonic seal was made of countless nanites. He touched one of the letters and the characters shifted, spelling out the first law of the damned--“Thou art God.” He smiled, lowered his hand and the letters shifted back.

“Come,” the Collar prodded him. “Our wait is nearly over.”

The Priest crept along the wall and peered out of the alley. Across the street stood a gothic church, converted into a nightclub. Streaks of light fanned through the scarlet glass in the rose window, and over the doors, “Church of Steel” was backlit with red neon. He felt more than heard the music leaking through the doors, the heavy beat pounding like a mechanical heart.

Crowded on the steps of the church and spilling onto the sidewalk, were several dozen men and women dressed for a nightmare. Black vinyl was the fabric of choice for many of the hacks, making them look like they were painted with crude oil. Piercings gleamed on pallid faces, spikes jutted from lips, and tattoos scrawled across their skins like tribal hieroglyphs.

Some of the tribe had been enhanced by strange technologies, their hacked genes making them an endangered species. One couple had long black horns that curved down their backs, and when they kissed their horns clacked with a hollow sound. A woman with a shaved head went without a shirt, exposing the chrome vertebrae imbedded in her spine. Instead of hair, tentacles snaked over one man’s shoulders, writhing with purple bioluminescent suckers.

Then there were the old school hacks who worshipped Rice and Poe, anachronisms dressed for a Victorian funeral. Their eyes glowed in the dark like jewels lit by flames, their irises injected with luminescent proteins. Cool poses of disdain appeared de rigueur, but a few who didn’t give a damn broke convention and laughed. These hacks embraced the scene with a wink and a nod--everyday was Halloween in the shadows of the towers.

“Dressed to kill,” the Priest said.

“Or be killed,” whispered the Collar.

The Priest scanned the pale faces. “Travis isn’t here.”

“Patience, the night is young and murder is a virtue.”

“We’ve been waiting all night. That whore said he would be here.”

“Trust me. Hell calls, and the heart will answer.”

The Priest clenched his jaw. It all came down to the heart.

The Collar had first spoken to him during his ordination, while he lay face down on the floor of the cathedral, arms spread at the feet of the cardinal.

“Fear not,” the Collar said. “I’ve got places to take you. You have much to learn before you enter your Father’s house.”

In the years that followed, the Collar led him on a pilgrimage of flesh. His teachers had been high class hookers and back-alley whores. He crossed every boundary until all that remained was taking a human life or forfeiting his own. Just when he thought that he could take on no more sin, Father Funes, the chairman of the Vatican Space Commission, put him in charge of Project Ezekiel.

The VSC had launched the project a decade ago, to reestablish contact with its off-world colonies. Fifty-six years had passed since Rome lost contact, and the first colonies they found were nothing but graveyards. The colonies were early casualties of the Great Collapse, which followed in the footsteps of the Red Death nanoplague. His appointment to director came as little surprise; he’d been the head of R&D under Father Funes, and brokered a construction contract with Tesseract, which gave them a cut rate deal on a fleet of starships in exchange for exclusive rights to exploit exo-tech.

With his appointment, the Collar told him that the time of purging was at hand. He would wash his robes in the blood of the martyrs. None of them appreciated the honor that was theirs, but one by one, through love and the knife, they came to an understanding.

“He’s coming,” the Collar said.

The Priest scanned the street. A glossy, black speed bike roared overhead. Instead of wheels, plasma coils spun like balls of lightning. The biker shot between the buildings, hunched like a jockey. When he reached the cross-street, he leaned hard to the left, pulled a one-eighty and sped back toward the church. Brakes flared beneath the bike and it landed near the alley. The biker shut down the engine and removed his helmet.

“Travis,” the Priest sighed. He sank into the shadows.

The man was in his late twenties, his head shaved to the scalp. The hustler climbed off his bike and removed his leather jacket. The Priest was surprised to see that he wore no shirt beneath it, exposing his lean, muscled torso to the cold. A red, Chinese dragon tattoo covered half his chest, clenching his nipple in its jaws like a pearl. The Priest ached, remembering the night he tasted it.

Travis turned around and tossed his jacket on the seat. A metal rod with red lenses gleamed on his spine. He walked away and pressed his key fob, setting the alarm, and a shiny black carapace slid over the cockpit. Sensing he was being watched, Travis glanced his way, his eyes narrowing to slits beneath his heavy brow. Could Travis see his face gleaming like marble? Perhaps he saw the white square glowing on his throat. Travis frowned, turned away, and strode toward the club, the heels of his biker boots thudding on the pavement. When he reached the middle of the street, he reached behind his back and touched the metal rod between his shoulder blades. Scarlet wings unfurled and slowly beat the air. The traceries were holograms of angelic grandeur.

“Beautiful,” the Priest sighed, stunned by the display. He wrapped his hand around his neck and felt the Collar tremble.

A group of hacks were smoking near the doors of the church. Travis climbed the marble steps and his tribe embraced him. He returned their hugs, laughing, slapping backs, folded his ruby wings and went inside the club.

“Now,” the Collar said.

The Priest went after him. Several hacks looked his way with fleeting disdain, and a girl he passed as he entered the church looked embarrassed for him. His cassock wasn’t a faux-pas, it was a cliché. Perhaps he should have taken it further and capped his teeth with fangs. The scrawny boy in the ticket booth didn’t seem to care; a Chinese girl in a snakeskin dress was gnawing on his neck. The Priest paid the cover with a dead man’s credit card and pushed through a pair of black velvet curtains.

Fog flooded the sanctuary and pooled around his feet. Purple spotlights washed over the crowd on the dance floor. The DJ in the pulpit above them changed the music, and a sultry female voice rode synthetic waves, sighing about fallen angels “chasing wings of steel.” His eyes were drawn to the crucifix that towered above the altar. The marble cross was surrounded by a nimbus of green lasers, which made Christ look like a deep sea god passing judgment on the damned.

He wandered down a gallery that ran along the dance floor, a circus of atrocities that mocked God’s son and saints. He passed a topless woman in a cruciform, rebar cage, and saw her nipples had been crossed out with electrical tape. A bald girl in a gasmask hung from a stake, twitching as red lightning forked up her legs. He could hear her moaning through her breathing tube. What would the French think of this bondage Joan of Ark?

He paused before a naked man in an executioner’s hood, who tensed and groaned while shackled to a St. Andrew’s cross. A nun in a rubber habit poured wax on his chest, tipping the glass chimney of a votive candle. Some of the wax had dribbled over his crotch and hardened into white stalactites that hung from his shaft.

The spectacle froze the Priest. He struggled to swallow. Nothing had prepared him for these obscenities. But a more honest part of him felt like he’d come home, the part that throbbed between his legs to the beat of the music.

The Collar tightened like a leash. “This is not your playground. You are not allowed to taste the fruit of Hades’ garden.”

“But it’s so sweet,” the Priest said, caressing the man’s thigh.

The Collar choked him and he yanked away his hand. Gasping, he clutched his throat and reeled toward the dance floor.

“See with my eyes,” the Collar said, loosening it’s grip. “See what has become of the house of your Father.”

“It’s still His, all of this, the beauty and the terror.”

“You have work to do. Another fruit to pluck.”

The Priest nodded weakly and searched for his angel. The dancers swayed with hypnotic grace to the alternating beats, reaching up and swinging down like they were plucking apples. None of them paid attention to their siblings in extremis. Even Hell failed to shock with enough exposure.

Then he spotted Travis leaning on the bar. His ruby wings hugged his back, given substance by the fog. The Priest glided through the crowd and squeezed in beside him.

The bartender, a tall woman in a red vinyl tank top, had a sharp face, pearly skin and burgundy hair. Frosty white contact lenses blotted out her eyes. She filled a glass with red wine and set it in front of Travis. He winked at her and she stroked his chin, her brow creased with regret.

Travis spotted the Priest in the mirror behind the bar. He met his gaze with cool disdain and took a sip of wine.

“What are you having?” the bartender asked.

“Same thing as the angel.”

The woman glanced at Travis and he raised an eyebrow. Sneering, she filled a glass and set it on the bar.

“You remember me,” the Priest said.

“How could I forget?”

The Priest smiled, lips closed, and paid for his drink.

Travis swirled his wine and stared into his glass. “They think you’re wearing a costume.”

“You’d know all about that.”

Travis set down his glass. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

“I saw your bike, very nice. Very expensive. Wasn’t I the one who made the down payment?”

“Leave before you get hurt.”

“That’s gratitude for you.”

The Priest reached for his glass and Travis grabbed his wrist.

“Not here,” Travis snarled. “I’m not fucking around.”

The Priest calmly stared at him with black, unblinking eyes.

Travis swallowed and released his arm. “What do you want?”

The Collar rasped, “To split your ribs and lick your beating heart.”

The Priest muzzled the Collar. “I think you know.”

“Fuck off,” Travis growled. “I’m not on the market.” He grabbed his drink, shouldered the Priest and strutted away.

“You still eating Lotus?”

Travis froze in his tracks.

The Priest smiled into his glass. “Hard to get these days.”

Travis stormed toward the Priest, his face an angry knot, and spun him around. “How the fuck would you know?”

The Priest sighed, looking bored. “I’ve got connections.”

“How much are you holding?”

“Enough to show you God.”

Travis’ eyes smoldered. “Be more specific.”

“Ten mils.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“Trust me. I’m a priest.”

“Yeah, and I was an altar boy.”

“That explains a lot.”

Travis looked like he wanted to kill him. “What do you have in mind?”

“You know the alley across the street with the glowing pentagram?”

“Sure I know it, the Devil’s Snatch. Next to the Pan’s Pipes bookstore. Did a rivet girl there once, after Church got out.”

“Meet me there in five minutes. I’ll head out first. You feed me your junk and I’ll send you to heaven.”

“That’s it, just a blowjob? No reciprocation?”

“Just promise me you’ll put your heart into it.”

“What’s the catch? With what you’re holding, you could have your own boys’ choir.”

“But I wouldn’t have you, and you’re so very special.”

“Okay, you’ve got a deal. But I swear, if you burn me...”

“There’ll be Hell to pay.”

Travis strutted away.

The Priest gave a thin-lipped smile. “Don’t forget your wings.”


Peter Romito slouched in the back of a yellow hovercab, the worn vinyl seat sticky with human residue. Thank God it was dark so he couldn’t see the stains; after a night spent turning tricks, he didn’t need reminders. The cabin reeked of cigarette smoke mixed with body odor, poorly masked by cheap vanilla air freshener. Thanks to the old black man flying the cab, he’d smell like an ash tray when he met his dealer.

He shivered despite the warm air blowing from the heater. It didn’t help that the rain had soaked his black lambskin trench coat. His dark eyes were black holes with the pupils blown, and his chalky skin made him look like a drowning victim. He wiped his face, his second best physical feature, and gazed out the window at the City of Fallen Angels.

Storm clouds blotted out the stars and rolled over the towers, titanic structures that surged into the sky. Some of them were dazzling geometric puzzles; others curved and twisted, warping light and space. Far below, an older city had been smothered by the towers, crumbling blocks and monuments of concrete and stone, the labyrinthine graveyard where he had been born.

The cab banked and soared over Melrose Avenue. Plasma coils churned inside the cab’s dented fenders. The vibrations from the engine settled in his teeth. He looked at his trembling hands and clenched them into fists. An entire day had passed since he swallowed his last hit, and his wetware was shorting out, in need of a fix. Taking a deep breath, he leaned back in his seat. If he panicked, he’d get swallowed by the terrors.

For weeks he’d been stretching out the time between each fix, but kicking Slam on your own was a death sentence. Treatment meant getting his brain scrubbed by nanites, which would quarantine the Slam retrovirus. The only thing that scared him more than bugs in his brain, was the fear that his girlfriend would abandon him. Tony was six years older than him, a streetwalker gone straight, and he loved her with all the love he didn’t have for himself.

As if he sensed Peter was drowning and wanted to push him deeper, the old black man at the wheel turned on the stereo. The voice of Billie Holiday crackled over the speakers:

“Sunday is gloomy,

My hours are slumberless

Dearest, the shadows

I live with are numberless...”

Peter looked at the driver in the rearview mirror. Had he picked the song just to torture him, or was grandpa simply feeling nostalgic? Everyone was going retro, obsessed with the past, chasing the ghosts of time like half-crazed reincarnates. Blue dots underscored the old man’s sunken eyes, glowing on his cheeks like tiny fireflies.

The driver met his gaze. “Does my ink surprise you?”

Peter shrugged. “We’re all marked one way or another.”

The driver’s tattoos got brighter. “You on some bad shit, huh?”

Peter smirked. “Being on shit isn’t the problem.”

The old man narrowed his eyes. “How old are you?”

“Old enough. I turn twenty-one tomorrow.”

“Well, tomorrow’s here. Happy birthday, kid.”

Peter huffed. “Been a long time since I was a kid.”

“At least when I was your age I had something to live for.”

“You saying that I don’t?”

“I’m saying that I did.”

“So what happened,” Peter asked, knowing he’d regret it.

“My son was hooked on Slam. He shot himself. My tattoos are the tears I shed when I buried him.”

“Jesus, I’m sorry.”

“Then do yourself a favor. Give yourself a birthday present. Get off that shit.”

“Yeah, well, thanks for the advice.”

“Consider it a gift.”

The cab shuddered, struck by a sudden gust of wind. The voice of Billie Holiday crooned in the background.

“Gloomy is Sunday,

With shadows I spend it all

My heart and I

Have decided to end it all...”

Peter winced. “For Fuck’s sake, would you turn off that song?”

“Sorry, hit a nerve?” The old man killed the music. He reached for a pack of menthols sitting on the dash, lit one, took a drag and slowly exhaled. “So, have you got any plans for your birthday?”

“My girlfriend’s taking me out.”

“You’re shitting me. Well, there you go. You do have something to live for.”

Peter wiped his mouth, feeling sick with guilt. “I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “Forget Sunset Terrace. Take me to the Reef, landing platform twelve.”

The old man fought back a smile and punched in the destination. Sunset Terrace was skin central, but the Reef was residential. “Had enough for one night?”

Peter didn’t answer. He dug his phone out of his coat and speed-dialed Tony.


“How’s it going, babe?”

“I’m doing all right.” Tony’s voice grew cautious. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, everything’s fine. What are you doing right now?”

“I’m just working on a painting for my new show. It’s too normal, though. Kinda turns my stomach. I’m ten seconds away from slashing the canvas.”

Peter smirked. “That’s my girl.”

“Where are you right now?”

“In a cab, a couple minutes from your door.”

“Really? Come on over. I’ll make some tea. I just hope you don’t mind if I smell like turpentine.”

“Heh.” He squeezed his nose. “My favorite perfume.”

“I love you.”

“You too.” He ended the call.

The cab flew past an egg-shaped ring that arched into the sky with a hologram projected inside. A broken DNA chain spiraled in the center, looking like a staircase on the verge of collapse. Stars spun around the chain, repairing the links. The image zoomed out through the eye of a middle-aged Latina, and a ring of light washed over her face, obliterating decades. She smiled and fading text replaced her lovely skin--“End Time. Born Again. ReNEwTM with Dynagene.” The holovid blinked out and the loop started over.

The driver huffed. “Whatever happened to growing old gracefully?”

Peter stared at his own reflection. “There’s no such thing. LA’s morgues are packed with beautiful corpses.”

“Rotten hearts in young skins, that’s the real problem.”

“Well, when they hand out new hearts, I’ll be the first in line.”

Beyond the egg, a scarlet reef skirted the Hollywood Hills. The crescent of glass towers branched like coral growth. Bands of light scored the towers, made of countless windows. Tony’s tower, the tallest in the Reef, stood at the center. Near the top, a ring of spikes curved upward like fangs, a dozen blazing beacons, carving up the night.

Red light spilled inside the cab as it glided through the Reef. The cab slowed and hovered over one of the landing platforms. The plasma coils rose in pitch as the cab slowly descended. Peter’s door lifted open and the air hissed out. The cab fare flashed on a meter wedged between the seats. Peter punched in a tip and pressed his thumb on the scanner. The meter dinged when the charge went through and he climbed out of the cab.

“Thanks,” he said.

The old man tipped an imaginary hat.


The Priest waited in the alley, hugging himself. Finally, Travis emerged from the church. Fog streamed from his nose as he padded down the steps and crossed the glassy street, his ruby wings aglow. Glancing back to make sure he wasn’t being followed, Travis ducked into the alley with the glowing pentagram.

“Where’s your car?” Travis asked.

“Who needs a car?”

Travis wiped the rain from his scalp. “The storm is getting worse.”

“A good night for a baptism.”

“You’re a sick fuck, you know that?”

The Priest didn’t deny it. He reached for the hustler’s belt.

Travis pushed his hand away. “Show me what you got.”

The Priest pulled out a vial of glowing, ice blue liquid. Lotus, despite it’s name, wasn’t a narcotic. It amped the user’s senses with an orgasmic rush, feeling like a million volts charged your nervous system.

Travis whistled, impressed. “Where did you get it?”

The Priest remained cool, detached. “From a man who doesn’t need it.”

Travis gave him a sly look. “You didn’t kill him, did you?”

The Priest rocked the vial. “Would it make a difference?”

“Not really.” Travis smirked.

“Good, I’m glad that’s settled.”

“One more question, Priest. How do you want to die?”


Travis leapt into the air and kicked him in the chest. The vial flew from the Priest’s hand and he crashed into the wall. Before the vial hit the ground, Travis blurred with speed. He caught the vial in one hand and landed in a crouch.

The Priest slid down the wall. Pain shot through his ribs. He stared at Travis, shocked by how quickly he had moved.

Travis hunched in front of the Priest like a gargoyle. “You should have done your homework, Priest. Time stops for the Lotus eater.”

The Priest drew a breath and winced. “Synaptic enhancement.”

Travis smiled and tapped his nose. “Another gift of the Lotus. How do you think I cut through this city like a razor? I can fly at two-hundred clicks without even blinking.”

“Keep him talking,” the Collar rasped. “The real fun’s just begun.”

“Hush, I’ll handle this.”

“Who the fuck you talking to?”

“Try looking behind you.”

“You think I’d fall for that?”

The Priest shrugged. “Either way, the devil’s got your back.”

Travis glanced over his shoulder at the Seal of Baphomet. “Yeah, he does, doesn’t he? Looks like you picked the wrong God.”

“Not quite.” The Priest punched him in the mouth. Blood flew from his lips in a thick, ropy spray.

Travis snarled and lunged at him, swinging his fist, but the Priest dodged and the hustler’s knuckles cracked against the bricks. Travis still clutched the vial, which shattered with the impact, spraying blue light through his lacerated fingers. He howled and clenched his wrist like a snake had bitten him. The Priest tackled him and punched him again. The rain quickly diluted the blood that ran down his chin. Lightning forked overhead, whiting out his skin.

The Priest stared at the sweet spot of his heaving chest, pulled out a lightblade and hit the power switch. A thin blade of blue plasma emerged from the guard, with a curved edge like boning knife. Travis stared at the blade and shuddered violently. Shards of glass poked like fins from his palm and fingers. The Lotus, mingled with his blood, shimmered in the wounds.

“Oh, Shit,” Travis moaned. His teeth began to chatter. Enough of the drug had entered his veins to kill a dozen men.

“What do you see?” the Priest asked.

Travis thrashed and groaned. Fragments of his ruby wings sprayed across the pavement.

“Tell me!” the Priest demanded.

Travis tried to focus. The Collar shone brighter, brighter, lighting up his face. “Oh, Christ,” Travis moaned, his eyes rolling up. His chest hitched like he’d plunged into an icy lake.

“He’s dying,” the Collar said. “His heart’s about to burst.”

The Priest reached under his arms and hauled him off the pavement. Travis leaned on his shoulder and he stabbed him in the gut.

“Momma,” Travis whimpered. He shuddered and went limp.

Blood hissed on the blade as the Priest withdrew it.

He kissed Travis on the forehead, laid him on the ground, yanked off his boots and socks and tugged down his pants. The skinhead’s cock rolled across his thigh like a giant, bloated maggot. Even now, the sight of it made him ache with longing. He wadded up Travis’ pants and wedged them under his back, propping up his shoulders so his wings could unfurl. Travis moaned and blood bubbled from his lips. Was this how the angels looked when they fell from heaven?

The Priest sliced across his chest, then carved through his sternum and pried apart his ribcage, exposing his heart. The sight of the beating organ filled him with awe.

“Quickly,” the Collar rasped, “before his soul escapes.”

The Priest nodded weakly and went back to work. He severed veins and arteries, ripped out the heart, clutched it against his chest and bowed his head.

Normally, he wrote a Bible reference near the body, finger-painted with the blood of the sacrifice, but he knew the rain would wash away his message. Rising to his feet, he walked down the alley, wondering why he felt a pang of remorse. None of his other victims made him feel this way. Then he remembered what he did to a hustler named Peter. The boy was barely old enough to shave when he tied him to a bed, and torturing him felt like he defiled something holy. When the time finally came to collect Peter’s heart, he would need the Collar’s strength to carry out the act.

Pulling out his phone, he called his hovercar. A few seconds later, a black sedan glided overhead and landed in front of him, blocking the alley. The door rose and he popped the locks on a ribbed metal briefcase, which he’d left on the seat when he put the car on autopilot. He dropped the heart in a plastic bag and zipped shut the seal. Blood oozed from the severed arteries, pooling in the sack. He opened a second bag containing a wet towel, cleaned his hands, wiped the locks and gently closed the briefcase. Setting the case on the passenger seat, he climbed behind the wheel. The door sealed like a coffin lid and he soared into the night.

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CRUCIFER, Bk. 1, Chapter 2

Peter stood before a curved wall of glass, gazing at the Hollywood Hills in the distance, which rolled dark and flecked with lights above the maze of towers. The Griffith Observatory perched on the tallest hill, its three, verdigris-frosted domes like a crown of rising moons.

He heard a ceramic clink and shifted his focus. Tony stood in the kitchen, reflected in the glass, pouring steaming tea into a pair of mugs, which she’d bought on their last trip to Little Tokyo. She wore a deep blue silk kimono that came to her ankles, and she’d pinned her long black hair into a French twist. She padded into the living room and handed him a mug, the stoneware rimmed with sea green glaze and lacking a handle. He wrapped his arm around her waist and she leaned her head on his shoulder. He caught a whiff of Chanel No. 5, his favorite perfume, but beneath the sweetness he could smell a hint of turpentine, like a bouquet of flowers on a pinewood box.

Tony gazed out the window. “What are you looking at?”

“When’s the last time you remember seeing the stars?”

She gave him a curious look, her blue eyes shadowed with kohl. “You mean, aside from when I fell in love with you?”

He glanced at her. “I’m serious.”

She smiled. “So am I.”

He kissed the side of her neck. “I think it was last summer.”

Tony fingered a gold cross that hung from a delicate chain, which he had given her on their one year anniversary. “It was New Year’s eve. Remember how we gasped? The stars were so much more impressive than the fireworks. It made me sad when all the smoke got in the way.”

“I remember.” He sipped his tea and tasted Genmaicha, the mildly astringent brew mellowed by roasted rice.

Tony frowned. “Your hand is shaking. How long has it been?”

He stared out the window.


“I’m fine,” he snapped.

She stiffened and he swore he felt her temperature drop.

“Tony, I’m sorry. Look, I’m here, okay? I could have gotten a fix, but I thought you’d want to see me.”

“Don’t hang this on me.”

Peter sighed, “I’m not.”

“But the terrors...”

He forced a smile. “You keep them away.”

Tony caressed his cheek. “I wish that were true.”

She pulled away and glided to the center of the room. A vidscreen covered the middle third of the wall behind her. On the screen was a Japanese print of ink-brushed bamboo. She wrapped her hands around her mug. “Why don’t you move in?”

Peter stared into his mug. “We’ve been through this before.”

She picked up a silver frame that stood on the table. The photo showed them smiling as they leaned their heads together. “We could be happy. Live like a real couple.”

“You know I take house calls. I don’t mix business with pleasure.”

She gave him a pained look. “Which one am I?”

“That’s not fair.”

She set the photo on the table. “I went to see my friend, Father Alaric, this morning.”

Peter’s chest grew tight. He knew where this was going.

“He said there’s an opening at the new treatment center. St. Michael’s is state of the art and it’s funded by the church.”

“Do you know how they cure you? They pump you full of nanites. The last thing I want is to spend a week strapped to a bed while those little butchers swarm like gnats inside my head. That’s a mind-altering experience I can live without.”

“But you’re already altered. The Slam took care of that. It changed your receptors, rewrote the code.”

“At least my brain is still my own.”

“What’s left of it.”

Peter turned his back to her and pressed his hand on the window. He felt her watching him, but didn’t know what to say.

“There’s something I want to show you. I was saving it for your birthday.”

Peter lowered his arm and watched his handprint dissolve. “What is it?”

She set her mug down. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

He followed her into the hallway, skirting a bookcase. Art books crammed the lower shelves, several on Francis Bacon, and a mob of paper-machete skeletons stood on the top shelf. The Día de Los Muertos figures were painted garish colors, but didn’t seem out of place in her minimalist apartment. Her living space, like her life, was carefully segregated.

She took his hand and led him back to her studio. The door whisked open and a ventilation fan sucked the air inside. Unlike her living quarters, the studio was in chaos. She’d used the walls as giant palettes, smearing them with paint, and the floor was an action painting tracked through with footprints. Her work table was covered with cans and wrinkled tubes of oil paint. An avalanche of unfinished canvases buried the corner. A large canvas sat on an easel in the center of the room, but the painting faced away so he couldn’t see it. Before he could examine it, Tony grabbed his wrist and led him to another painting draped with a white sheet.

“Wait,” he said, “I want to peek at the one you’re working on.”

“It’s a mess. This is the one that I wanted to show you.” She reached for the sheet and hesitated, having second thoughts.

“What’s this?”

“Something that I made for you.”

He grinned. “You made me a painting?”

She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I’m afraid you’ll hate it.”

“Of course I won’t hate it. Come on, let me see!”

She bit her lip and pulled off the sheet. It crumpled to the floor. She pressed her hands against her lips, praying for forgiveness.

Peter’s eyes grew wide as he took in the painting. A Tau cross, made of steel, rose from a sea of blood, the shaft notched like the gears of an old machine. Meat hooks attached to chains hung from the crossbeam, turning the cross into a scale of suffering. A giant snake--or was it a worm?--looped around the cross, with lesions on its ashen skin like a bad case of syphilis. The snake had a human head which sagged over the beam, and a crown of razor wire dug into his brow. The man’s face was frozen between a snarl and a scream. Peter cringed as he recognized the face as his own.

Two figures flanked the cross, a bald man and a woman, both gazing up at him with cold metal faces. The woman had blue eyes and dull pewter skin, but the man’s metal skin had been scorched in a furnace. Both were dressed like the priests of a metal god. The woman was Tony, the man, his best friend, Rath.

Peter winced and shut his eyes, feeling sick inside.

Tony touched his shoulder.

“Don’t!” he jerked away.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

His voice was tortured--“Why?”

Tony’s eyes filled with tears. “Because that’s how I see you.”

Peter’s brow creased with pain. “Is that who I am?”

“I know it’s terrible, but it’s a message of hope. The two people who love you most never leave your side.”

He forced himself to look again. “Then why am I screaming?”

“You hate it, don’t you?”

“I hate its truth.” He turned to her, his face slack. “It’s the best you’ve ever done.”

Tony wiped her eyes. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

He pressed his forehead to her own, kissed her trembling lips. Then he gently raised her chin and looked into her eyes. “I’m the one who hurt you. I promise I’ll get help.”

“You’ll call Father Alaric?”

“I’ll think about it.”

She hugged him and he stroked her hair, staring at the cross.


Later, they curled up in bed, unable to sleep, with the white down comforter pushed down to their waists. Tony laid her head on his chest, caressed his pallid skin, and traced the trail of fine black hair that led down to his crotch. The soft peaks of her breasts pressed against his ribs. He ran his fingers down her spine and her skin broke out in goose bumps. She slid her hand beneath the sheet and gently squeezed his cock. He dry-swallowed, removed her hand and placed it on his heart.

“I’m not--”

He felt her stiffen. “What? Not in the mood?”

His eyes were desolate. “Not clean,” he told her.

Tony squeezed his hand.

“Can you just hold me?” he asked. “I want to fall asleep in your arms.”

“I love you, Peter.”

He pressed her fingers to his lips. “I love you too.”

He held her, closed his eyes and heard her breaths grow shallow. Finally, fell asleep, but it wasn’t peaceful. In his dreams he was a serpent hanging on a cross.


Lieutenant Monica Regent walked down the rain-swept alley, with the Crime Scene Evidence Probe floating behind her. Regent was the head of the Serial Homicide Task Force, and right now she regretted following in her father’s footsteps.

Behind her, three patrol cars cordoned off the alley, their flashing red and blue lights streaking through the rain. A yellow force beam glowed between a pair of warning lights, holding back the crowd from the Church of Steel. The officers who manned the line shivered in their rain gear. Several hacks and rivet heads were weeping for their friend, while others jockeyed for a glimpse of the latest spectacle.

She came to an abrupt stop when she reached the body, her face hard and cold grey eyes reflecting ruby wings. Water trickled down her black vinyl trench coat, the fabric streaked with blue light from the glowing pentagram. She glanced back at the droid. “CSEP, start analysis.”

CSEP drifted past her and canvassed the crime scene, the cameras on its spidery arms snapping photographs. Every time the strobes flashed, they erased the victim’s wings, but Regent knew the video would show the holograms. The hustler was stretched out like he’d been crucified, and his green eyes, the pupils blown, were fixed on the sky. The rain pooled in his eyes and streamed down his cheeks, as if the clouds wept for him because he couldn’t cry.

She gazed into the rain-filled pit where Travis’ heart had been. Footsteps splashed behind her as her partner approached.

Rodriguez stopped beside her and sniffed to clear his nose. He stood a head taller than her, broad and muscular, with narrow eyes, a wedge-shaped jaw, and a thin moustache. His head was shaved high and tight, a style that he’d kept ever since his brief stint in the space marines. He gripped two cups of coffee and handed one to her.

“Thanks,” she said. She peeled back the lid and sniffed the steaming brew.

“Black, no sugar. Just the way you like it.”

She warmed her hands on the cup. “Where did you get it?”

“In the club. You should see it. It’s a regular Sodom and Gomorrah.”

“Sounds like your kind of place. I’m surprised you didn’t stay.”

Rodriquez smirked. “I forgot to bring my nipple clamps.”

Regent sipped her coffee and nodded toward the body. “You’ll want something stronger than this before we’re done here.”

Rodriguez followed her gaze. “Our perp’s a twisted fuck. He put that junkie on display like a piece of public art.”

She threw him a sideways glance. “Colorful as always.”

“Am I wrong?”

“Cocky bastard.”

“That’s what I thought.”

CSEP extended one of its arms and photographed Travis’ hand. A UV scanner whirred over the hole in his chest. When it finished, CSEP glided over the body, scanning it from head to foot with a pair of survey lasers. CRIMENET would use the scans to build a 3D model, which it would store as a forensic avatar. CSEP finished the scan and waited for instructions.

“CSEP, sleep.” Regent said.

The droid’s legs retracted. It floated to the pentagram and powered down its sensors.

“Where’s the M.E.?” Regent asked.

“He’s still en route.”

“We’re losing evidence to the rain. Trace is a wash. If he doesn’t get here soon, there’ll be nothing left to bag.”

“He was in bed when he got the call. Not everyone sleeps in a coffin.”

She gave him a scathing look.

He raised his hands. “I’m kidding.”

“I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier. About this being public art.”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“Our perp’s gone public in a big way. He’s overconfident. There’s a good chance he screwed up and left something behind. If he did, I don’t want it going down the drain.”

“CSEP’s finished with the prelim. We should pitch a tent. Hell, you’ll be doing the M.E. a favor.”

Regent looked past the body to the far end of the alley, where a couple black-and-whites flanked an evidence van with “CORONER” stenciled on the side in yellow letters. Evidence techs huddled around the open cargo bay with their collection kits stacked inside the hold. A cryopod was secured to the deck like a sleek white coffin.

Regent called out to them. “We can’t wait any longer. I need you to bring your kits and set up a tent.”

The techs hauled out the poles and set them up along the walls. Generators tipped the poles like rocket-launched grenades. They turned them on and a ruby force field flashed over their heads.

Regent stepped under the tent as the techs brought over their kits. She pulled a lipstick case-sized chamber off her utility belt, thumbed the top and popped out three glass and metal marbles. Pressing buttons on the spheres, she gave them instructions. “Triangle, floodlight mode, height, two-point-five meters. Target victim on the ground, positioned in the center.” She tossed the spheres into the air and they flew to their positions, lighting up the corpse from just below the tent. Rodriquez stood behind her as she squatted near the body. Setting down her coffee, she popped open a kit, tugged on a pair of gloves and tilted Travis’ head. Unlike the last two victims, his throat wasn’t cut. She pulled down his split lip. His teeth were gummy with blood.

She grabbed a pair of tweezers and tugged a shard of glass out of his palm. Blood and glowing ice blue liquid seeped out of the wound. “Lotus. He crushed a vial during the struggle.”

Rodriguez took a closer look. “It broke when he hit the perp.”

“Maybe.” She dropped the shard into a container. She turned over Travis’ hand. His knuckles were abraded. “Looks like he punched a wall. We need to find the rest of the vial. I’m hoping we can lift a partial off the stopper. Same goes for his boots. I want them bagged and tagged.”

“You think he OD’d?”

“If he was lucky. One thing’s for sure though, he didn’t go down easy.”

“That’s not what his rap sheet says.”

“Show a little respect.”

Rodriguez frowned at Travis’ crotch. “You think he was raped?”

“With all the traffic from the club, I’m betting no, but he sure as hell didn’t get the Lotus for free. We’ll have to wait for the pelvic exam and a swab for semen. See if there is any rectal tearing or bleeding. I’ll leave that for the M.E.”

“Sounds like a hot date.”

“Where’s the kid who discovered the body?”

“He’s waiting in the club.” Rodriguez turned on his pad and scrolled through his notes. “The kid’s name is Jarrett Spencer. White male, age nineteen. He entered the alley to take a piss, and that’s when he found the body. The bartender and owner of the club is a woman named Sandra Wells. She said a guy she’d never seen before cruised the victim, and they got into an argument when the suspect propositioned him. The suspect left the club and Warth followed him.”

“What about the Lotus?”

“She didn’t mention it, but get this, she said the john was dressed like a priest.”

“Jesus.” Regent stripped off her gloves and dropped them in a waste bag.

“At least it explains the messages we found near the other bodies. If he thinks he’s a priest, it’s a personal crusade.”

“What if he really is a priest? Have you considered that?”

“I don’t think butchering prostitutes fits the job description.”

“Obviously, he doesn’t consider murder a sin.”

Rodriguez took a gulp of coffee. “Exactly my point.”

She wanted to smack the cup from his hand. “You’re missing the point. If he thinks he’s serving God, it’s sacrifice, not murder. The killer is playing by God’s rules, not ours.”

Rodriguez frowned at the corpse. The ruby wings flickered out. “If that’s how God treats his angels, what are we fighting for?”

Her throat burned. “To prove we are better than our maker.” She stood up, cinched her belt and strode toward the police line.

“Regent?” he called after her.

She didn’t answer.

The rain trickled down her back, colder than before. The officers that manned the line let her through the barrier, and she waded through the huddled mass of pierced and painted mourners. They parted in silence as she climbed the steps of the Church of Steel. She paused and gazed at the rose window high above the doors. The fractured disk of scarlet glass blazed like the eye of Hell.

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The Cathedral of Bones

CRUCIFER, Bk 2. Chapter 2, scene iii:

Peter approached a giant archway made of silver bones, which framed a pair of metal doors, smooth and without handles. Atarah and Penuel stood several steps behind him, silently watching him to see what he would do. A pair of angels twice his height guarded the doors, both praying on one knee and angled toward each other, but these were not the marble statues that wept over graves; these were the children of Azrael, God’s executioner.

The angels had sloped heads with grey, glossy skin, and though bald, their faces were clearly feminine. He realized the angels were identical twins, with the same cold blue light shining from their eyes. The backs of their skulls tapered into crescent fins. Their lips parted as they sighed, exposing silver fangs. Wings like enormous scythe blades curved down their backs. Cables ran down their arms. Black daggers tipped their fingers. Both of them had large breasts with nipples like drill bits. Ribbed cocks curved up their bellies with knives below the shafts, the long, serrated blades attached like giant bayonets.

Peter approached the doors, but the angels didn’t move. He pushed on the massive slabs. The doors wouldn’t budge. The angels turned their heads and focused on him. Their fingers curled into claws. He felt a surge of panic.

“Stand back,” Atarah said.

Peter backed away, his heart pounding so hard he thought he’d blow a gasket.

Atarah raised her hand and her eyes burned brighter. Peter heard a thunk and the doors slowly parted.

“Behold the Cathedral of Bones,” Penuel said.

Peter stepped inside and gasped in awe and horror, his soul expanding, shrinking back, rushing up and falling. The sanctuary was immense, the rib cage of a Titan, with a vaulted, steel ceiling soaring high above him. Gunmetal vertebrae supported the vault, braced by gleaming ribs that curved along its sides. Each rib descended to a massive phallic pillar, the steel shafts crowned with heads of polished hematite. Between the pillars, black lanterns hung from heavy chains, but instead of flames, blue-plasma seethed inside the cages. The plasma was the same color as the biomechs’ eyes, as if they had all been lit from a single torch. Was this the light of their souls? Did they share a power source?

He dropped his gaze and saw his reflection in the center aisle, a single slab of black glass that stretched to the chancel. A Tau cross, made of steel, stood behind the altar, four meters high with pipes and screw rods embedded in its arms. Interlocking teeth ran down the middle like a zipper.

“Oh, no.” He shook his head. The cross was fucking real. Just like Tony’s painting and the one in his vision. He looked back at his guides for an explanation. Their faces were impassive--they didn’t have a clue.

“We will wait here for you,” Atarah told him. She nodded toward the cross. “Go and learn the truth.”

Filled with dread, he faced the cross. He didn’t want to know.

“Peter,” she prodded him. “The Prophet awaits.”

Who was this Prophet they kept talking about? He sighed with resignation and started down the aisle. He saw the pews were sculpted from black-lacquered bones. Every sideboard had a skull embedded in the center. They leered at him as he passed and whispered, “Ave Peter.”

The skirt of his vinyl cassock shimmered with each step. He reached out and touched a skull, hard and dry as chalk. Were these the skulls and bones of the missing colonists? How many people died to furnish this cathedral?

He made his way across the transept and looked to his right. A steel statue of the Virgin stood inside the chapel, not the Mother of God, but the Queen of Agony. The Virgin was larger than life. Her red eyes burned like coals. She was an iron maiden, cruel and without mercy. A wedge of scarlet flames roared between her thighs. He shuddered and looked away, feeling violated.

If she wasn’t bad enough, her counterpart was worse. The statue in the chapel to his left put the fear of God in him. The naked giant, his namesake, had been crucified upside down. Like the Virgin, his eyes bore the glow of the furnace. A pair of golden keys hung from a chain around his waist. The tip of his rigid penis pressed against his navel. This was how ROM saw its rock, its very foundation.

Peter reached the chancel steps and stood before the altar. He wondered if the front of the cross opened like a cabinet, and thought about the story of Pandora’s box. The box had unleashed all the horrors of the human condition, but hope remained inside, a promise of salvation. It looked like those horrors had spilled into the cathedral. What he saw behind the cross filled him with terror, but the perverse need to know goaded him forward. He circled behind the cross for a closer look.

A dozen naked men and women were trapped inside the wall, crucified in cross-shaped niches like a row of statues. None of the colonists looked older than thirty. Their heads were bald as polished stones. Their lean bodies were hairless. A morbid bas-relief covered the wall, shiny metal arabesques cast from human bones. He noticed strange organic forms that looked like octopi, and horseshoe crabs with splayed legs, working pumps and valves. Serpentine pipes converged around the cross-shaped niches, divided by spinal columns that ran up the dome. Three gunmetal steps circumscribed the wall, looking like crescent moons of frozen intestines.

Peter hugged himself and walked along the steps, examining the bodies of the colonists. Steel rods pierced their temples, holding up their heads. Silver spikes pinned their hands and feet to the wall. Dark green webs fanned through their translucent skins, as if their tortured flesh was sculpted from moss agate. Were the webs created by a pathogen? Or were they side effects of their preservation? Cannulas punctured their sunken abdomens, attached to clear tubing filled with lime-green fluid. Embalming fluid, he realized. He shuddered in revulsion.

Then, as he paused before a woman in her twenties, he noticed rings of scar tissue around her puncture wounds. “Oh, my God,” he groaned--the woman wasn’t dead. Or at least she hadn’t been when the tubes were inserted.

He heard a rumble of steel grinding against stone. The sound was coming from the cross. What now? he wondered. Has his presence triggered a locking mechanism? He went and stood before the cross. Gears and screw shafts turned. The doors of the cross were slowly sliding apart. Fog poured through the gap and boiled across the floor. Through the gap, he saw a man. The cross was a sarcophagus.

A man with long, black hair was crucified inside. A fist-sized garnet cabochon glowed over his heart. Organic machinery pulsed and whirred around him. Oily pistons fucked tubes of grey, glossy meat.

A halo of surgical steel rods pierced the dead man’s brow, a crown of thorns fit for the Messiah of Machines. Like the other colonists, his skin was translucent, but fewer of the mossy tendrils wormed through his flesh. The Prophet’s crotch and armpit hair hadn’t been shaved. Somehow, those curly tufts made him more human. But was he really dead? Did his ghost haunt the machine.

Two fiber-optic cables snaked out of the cross and attached to bio-ports on the back of the Prophet’s head. Blue light pulsed through the cables, transmitting data. Peter clutched the back of his neck and saw a blinding flash.

Clouds of steam boiled over him, trapped in blazing glass. He was back in the shower stall of his last apartment. Blood sprayed from the shower head and pooled around his ankles. Two needle-headed cables slithered up his legs. They pierced his groin, bored through his torso and burst from his shoulders. His eyes rolled up and he started thrashing, suffering a seizure. The cables snaked around his head and drilled into his skull. He saw another blinding flash and stood before the Prophet.

Every horror of his life was part of God’s plan.

A grand-guinol puppet show.

He sank to his knees and screamed.

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