Eternal rest and salvation was the reward most men good men aspired to all their lives. Regrettably, Tony Grimaldi had only come to his faith late in life and had met his demise with his soul still in jeopardy.
As his consciousness floated in an ethereal wasteland between heaven and hell, he could not move on to either destination. He was trapped in a netherworld limbo and confused. Was he dead or alive? Was he awaiting some kind of final judgment or was this in fact his punishment, to linger throughout eternity as a lost soul?
The more his thoughts, for now he was nothing but pure thought, followed these tracks they seemed to chase after each other like the horses on a carnival carousel, never reaching answers but only continuing to spin round and round. It seemed a never-ending madness.
Then, just as he was about to succumb to a dark, enveloping despair, a light appeared before him. Slowly it began to shimmer until he realized it was taking on a vague, familiar form. A body emerged from the light, filled with an inner incandescence that was so brilliant, it would have blinded him had he eyes. But as a spirit, he could look upon the shape and watch its final materialization into someone he knew.
It was the girl from the bordello. The girl he had gunned down. The one who had thanked him for it.
Tony wanted to speak but he had no mouth, nor ears to listen if she spoke. But she was speaking and he could make out her words. Oh, not in any mortal, physical way, but inside his very being. It was as if each of her thoughts were being delivered by some arcane circuit of ectoplasm.
What she said was not to his liking. He was going back to the land of the living. To the land of pain and suffering. He was being sent as an avenging spirit to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. He had a choice and it was a very simple one. Accept the mission or continue on to eternal damnation. One chance to redeem himself. Whatever cosmic master was dealing the cards was not open to compromise.
The sweet young girl, now lovely in this afterplace, smiled and asked for his decision. The soul that was the late Tony Grimaldi didnít really have a choice.
He gave her his answer and bid limbo farewell.
Blackjack Billy Craddock was so afraid, he might start screaming any second. Still, that act would have required he open his mouth, and that would have caused him to inhale, which would certainly would induce vomiting. Of that, he had no doubt in his young, fear numbed, twenty year old mind.
Billy had a way with the cards. He was a born gambler. It was a talent he had been blessed with from an early age. His parents called it a curse. He was betting by the time he entered high school and quickly amassed a nice little sum of cash that made him quite popular with the other kids. All except those who lost to him in the after school locker room poker marathons Billy orchestrated.
Upon graduation, near the bottom of his class, he wasted no time packing his bags and buying a one way ticket to Port Nocturne. If he was going to be a big time roller, there was only one place to be on the coast. His mother thought he was an idiot and warned him that coming to that western den of depravity and sin would be his ruin.
After six months working a blackjack table at the Gray Owl Casino, Billy, now tagged with the new name, Blackjack Billy, had all but forgotten his motherís warning. He was living the good life and loving it. Then the gang war started and bit by bit it all went bad. One set of bizarre circumstances followed another, eventually leading him to his current predicament.
Billy was tied up, hand and feet, on the cold cement floor of an Old Town warehouse. In that condition, he was the only witness to the final moments of Big Swede Jorgenson, currently a lifeless hunk of meat hanging from the ceiling rafters by chains, his corpse a black-charred, smoking nightmare. His death had been a long and gruesome affair that Billy would most likely remember for the rest of his life. A life that was likely to be a very short one.
Billy inwardly cursed God and all the heavens at the total unfairness of his lot. He was not supposed to be here. He was not a hood. Well, at least not a gun-toting one for sure. He was a gambler. A man good with cards and favored, until the current situation, by the whimsical muse known as Lady Luck. But her favors had turned out to be fickle indeed.
The same attrition that had so decimated Don DiMiloís army had befallen Big Swedeís troops. Day after day, the street warfare diminished his ranks of soldiers until, in dire desperation, his lieutenants were forced to draft stooges from anywhere they could be had in Jorgensonís vast organization. When his personal driver was wounded in gun skirmish weeks earlier, Blackjack Billy had been chosen to replace him. When he tried to protest, he was told all he had to do was drive Big Swede. No one had expectations of him having to fight. Just drive. A chauffeur for a fancy, armor plated limo. That was all. How hard a job could that be?
Don DiMiloís men ambushed them on a rainy Sunday morning, on their way home from a rendezvous with some foreign dealers on the docks. While weaving their way through a tight, narrow back street, the lead car carrying the Swedeís personal bodyguards had been taken out by explosives affixed to the underside of a manhole cover. It detonated with a deafening explosion, sending the vehicle into the air, a massive hunk of twisted metal.
Craddock had slammed on the brakes and then shielded his eyes from the horrendous glare. By the time the wrecked car was slamming back down on the shredded asphalt, he was gunning his own machine backwards, his foot nailed to the pedal. Tires smoked on the wet street as Big Swede and his remaining bodyguard screamed frantically for Billy to get them out of that alley. He almost made it.
Only yards from the laneís entry, the entire world was suddenly blocked off by a giant, orange sanitation truck. The kid never had a chance and they slammed into it hard, the rear end of the limo crumpling like so much tissue paper. Dazed, his nose bloody from hitting the steering wheel, Billy fumbled for the door and fell out of the car. Gunmen, wearing city coveralls, were all around the stopped car, guns at ready. Billy was kicked along side of his head and fell into a puddle of brackish water. His last thought before passing out was that he might drown.
Perhaps that would have been a lucky thing. When he came to, he was bound and in the huge, cavern like warehouse. He had been awakened by screams and the stink of burning flesh mixed with the sharp, pungent odor of gasoline. Big Swede was burning up, the fire devouring his clothes and the flesh beneath with an unquenchable appetite. All the while the big, blonde man jerked and twisted in his chains, swinging high above the floor, trying to escape the pain that consumed him. His screams were raw notes of unadulterated madness.
Unable to watch any longer, Billy surveyed his surroundings and for the first time had a clear look at his captors. He knew, of course, that they were Don DiMiloís men. That was a given and of the three present in the dimly-lit building, he could only identify one, their leader, Guido Grimaldi. The killer was well-known throughout Port Nocturne and although the card dealer had never met the man face-to-face, he had seen him a half a dozen times patronizing various night spots in the town. Grimaldi wasnít the kind of character who laid low, no matter what the climate was.
Billy knew there had been two of them a ways back, but the other one, Tony, had disappeared a year or so ago. Word on the street was that Big Swedeís men had done the job. Which was obviously why the self-same individual was now a roasting carcass above them. From the smile on Grimaldiís handsome, hard face, Billy knew this particular hit was giving the man lots of personal gratification. He was enjoying this, the sick bastard.
The two men with Grimaldi were standing behind him on the other side of the burning man and Billy could just make them out. One was a beefy type with a broken nose and wearing a fedora a size too small for his big head. The man beside him was a thin, rat-face man with a cheap, gaudy suit. He was sucking on a toothpick and grinning, much as Grimaldi was. Another whacko.
Blackjack Billy Craddock tried to loosen his bonds but they were too tight. They had been tied by someone with experience in holding people captive. Frustrated, yet resigned to the inevitable, he stopped struggling, lay his head on the cold cement and waited with his eyes closed.
When the Swede finally stopped screaming, Billy knew he was dead and slowly opened his eyes to confirm the fact.
Sure enough, the charred corpse was still at long last, the foul smoke curling up towards the steel beams overhead.
"I think heís done," the small, natty crook said.
"Oh, heís done, alright," Guido Grimaldi conceded with a laugh. He walked over and pushed the dead manís feet so that his body started swinging back forth. "Iíd say heís well done!"
At that all three of them started laughing wildly.
"Boss, thatís a good one!" broken nose chimed in, wiping his eyes. "Well done! What a hoot!"
Oh, yeah, thought Billy. Hilarious. He was about to meet his end at the hands of bad comics. Now how sad was that. Life really wasnít fair at all.
"Well," Grimaldi continued, this time looking towards the boy on the floor. "Guess that leaves us with one final item to take care of."
Billy looked up at the merciless gunman and refused to let his fear show. If he had to die, then it would be would some degree of courage.
Grimaldi pulled the silver plated .45 automatic from his shoulder holster and pointed it at Craddock.
"Sorry about this, junior. You just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Too bad."
Billy swallowed, trying to keep his composure. Damn it, he thought, get it over with. Shoot!
Suddenly a cold, chilling gust of air swept through the warehouse, washing over all of them. Vin Detta looked around, trying to find out where the wind had come from.
"What the hell was that?" he asked, his head twisting around. "Must be a broken window up there somewhere." Outdoors, thunder crashed and a flash of bright, yellow light lit up the sky. It was enough to show there were no broken windows. All of them, situated high along the buildingís walls were intact.
Again the same cold wind swept over them. Bits of paper and debris skittered across the floor and the little gangster jumped.
"Take it easy," Grimaldi snapped. "Itís just a gust of air."
Then they heard the moaning.
"Thatís not just air!" Detta said pulling out his own gun, a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver.
The moan was coming from all around them. It was low and eerie, the voice of someone in agony.
Blackjack Billy was instantly forgotten as the gang chief turned his gun around and began trying to pinpoint the source of the creepy, low wailing cry.
"Who the hell is it?" he shouted. "Show yourself or get ready to eat lead!"
The moaning began to subside and the three mobsters looked at one another for some kind of explanation. None was forthcoming as each of them was totally mystified by what was happening.
"HOLY SHIT!" Vinny mouthed, his eyes going wide at something he saw behind Grimaldi.
Guido spun around, gun ready to fire, and looked at a white, transparent image of himself. The spectre flew across the space between them, arms reaching out in supplication and screaming, Guido fired at it.
Unaffected by the bullets, the pale apparition moved onward towards the other two men with the same outstretched hands. As it neared settled into a spot between them, it began its awful moaning again.
Completely unnerved, Vinny pointed his gun at the thing and fired off three quick rounds only to see his companion, he of the broken schnoz, take all the hits and go down dead as a doorknob.
The ghost moved in closer and Vinny could see it had no eyes. The sockets were empty black pools of nothing.
Insane with fear, Vin threw his gun at the spook and turning, bolted for the exit. He was gone in seconds leaving only Guido and the Blackjack Billy to witness what happened next.
For his part, Billy was mumbling all the prayers his mother had taught him as a child. Words he had thought long-forgotten were fresh on his lips as he mouthed them with all the sincerity he could muster. Dying was one thing. Being taken by a ghost was something else altogether.
But the spirit didnít want Billy, it was after Guido and he knew it. In the few seconds since it had flown past him, Grimaldi realized he was dealing with his brotherís ghost. It was Tony come back from the dead to confront him.
"So, what am I suppose to be, Tony?" he yelled at the floating, haunting figure before him. "Scared? You think you can scare me? You couldnít beat me in life, kid, and there ainít no way you can do it now. You got that?
"I ainít afraid of you!"
Then the ghost of Tony Grimaldi glided forward and reached out its hand again. Guido fired the rest of his clip with the same useless results as before. As the thing from beyond fell upon him, he tried to bat it away, only to have his arm pass through it cleanly. Then the ghost reached into his body and grabbed his heart in its icy grip.
On the floor, Billy had stopped praying, unable to look away from what he was seeing. The ghost was killing Guido Grimaldi by squeezing his heart until it stopped.
Guido gasped, his eyes rolled upward, the gun fell from his lifeless hand and then he collapsed.
The white wraith hovered over the dead gunman and once again its mesmerizing wail started up. Then, like a descending cloud, it settled over the body of Guido Grimaldi and began to merge with it. Billy blinked, his mind trying to grasp what it was he was seeing. That ghost thing was going into Grimaldiís corpse like a cracker sliding into a bowl of soup. Just like that, it was gone and with it the eerie cry.
Except for the booming storm still raging outside, a silence filled the place. Craddock, now very much alone, began to tug at his rope bonds again. Somehow he had to loosen them and get out of here. Sooner or later that other hood would come back to see what had gone down. If he was still here, then it would really be over. Somehow, through a bizarre, supernatural intervention, heíd been given another chance. He wasnít about to waste it.
Frantically pulling and twisting, he managed to get the thick cords to loosen a bit after nearly ten minutes of non-stop effort. Buoyed by even this minor success, Billy bit his lower lip and with all the strength he could muster, pulled his left hand free. Gasping with joy, he then tore the ropes away from his other hand and sat up on the hard floor. He rubbed his bruised wrist to restore the circulation to his hands. They were almost numb. Then, pulling up his knees, he began to work at untying the knots around his ankles.
There was a noise to his left and Billy looked up. The dead man was moving! After everything he had already seen, Billy was still not prepared for this final, unbelievable horror.
Like some marionette whose strings had been cut, the body of Guido Grimaldi began flopping around. Billy thought of a dead fish heíd once seen his grandfather throw on the docks at the lake where heíd spent summer vacations. The corpse was doing the same kind of dance. But it was dead! It wasnít suppose to be moving at all!
Then the dead man was rising and now Billy renewed his efforts to unfetter his feet. He had to get away from there! Managing to still his trembling hands, he undid the last knot and pulled his feet free.
"Stop where you are!" The voice came from beyond the grave. Billy all but jumped to his feet.
A dead manís hand raised up and pointed to him. "Heed my words, Billy Craddock!"
Billy was stunned. How had this thing, this zombie creature known his name? This was crazy. He should run as fast as he could for the door. No way this shuffling monster could ever catch him. But there was an implied warning in the words it had spoken. An unspoken threat that said no matter where he ran to, this thing would somehow find him. Right there and then, Billy Craddock believed it could do that. Hell, it knew his name.
Slowly the dead man walked over to Billy, the finger still pointing. As it neared, Craddock saw something happening over the manís hand. A tattoo of a black ace was fading and being replaced by one of a red skull. Now what the blue blazes was that all about?
"I have saved your life, Billy Craddock. Do you understand that?"
"YeahÖ I guess so."
The finger hit his chest, pushing Craddock back a half-step.
"Good. Never forget it. From this day forth your life is mine to do with as I please."
Billy kept his mouth shut. He wasnít about to start arguing with a zombie or whatever this thing was.
"You will obey my every command. Everything I demand of you will be done without question. Mind me and you will remain in good health. Cross me once and you will die."
"Err, right, Mr.Grimaldi..."
The hand grabbed his ear and the dead manís face was suddenly in his. "Guido Grimaldi is gone. My name is Brother... Grim."
Then he was released as the figure went back to where it had dropped its gun. It picked up the automatic, its movement becoming more fluid with each passing second. In fact, if one did not know the thing was dead, it would be virtually impossible to tell. Only one thing hinted at something unnatural. The eyes were cold.
Putting the gun back in its rig, Brother Grim examined his tattoo and then wiped a mop of hair from his forehead. He looked at the frightened kid and smiled.
"Do you have a car?"
"No. But I can get one."
"Good. Do so. Brother Grim has places to go and things to do before this fateful night is finished."
By midnight the storm raging over the coast had started to diminish, although sheets of rain still fell on the city and surrounding bay hills. It was a dark, lonely night and few people dared to venture out into its shadows.
Foraging rats were surprised and annoyed when the headlights of the small roadster came over the rise and drove onto the grounds of what had once been the Mt. Serenity Monastery. It came to an easy stop in front of the skeletal remains of the main house, now a broken erector set of burned timbers and piles of wet, dirty ash.
"Stay here and wait," Brother Grim commanded as he climbed out of the car. He pulled his fedoraís wide brim down over his face, slipped his hands into the sleeves of his dark, greatcoat and began walking through the rubble.
As he moved cautiously over what had once been the home and sanctuary of Tony Grimaldi, his mind replayed the newsreel of memories. They were all of goodness and warmth. Strange memories for a thug like Tony, but still his. Regardless of his new incarnation, they were still a part of him. So much so, that he was determined to make them part of his new life. But to do that he needed one thing and he was here to find it.
Remembering the floor plan to the workshop, he moved around past fallen support timbers until he saw the baking ovens. Millions of shards of broken clay were scattered across the floor and burned tables. Cautiously, he pushed aside debris and examined every nook and cranny. It was hidden beneath a heavy rag on the same table where Brother Anthony had last set it. The spirit mask was miraculously intact. There wasnít a scratch on it. As Brother Grim reached out and picked it up, a final flash of lightning split the horizon and the mask, wet with rain, shimmered.
Brother Grim held it up to his face and look through the eye-slit with black, lifeless eyes.
The grandfather clock in Don DiMiloís study chimed that an hour had elapsed since midnight. Swallowing the brandy he had been nursing, Gino DiMilo went over to his elaborate liquor cabinet and poured himself another glass.
It was late. Why hadnít Guido and the others returned? Had something gone wrong with the hit on Big Swede? No, that was impossible. Several of his other men had arrived after dinner to tell him the motorcar ambush had gone off without a hitch. The Swede, and some rookie kid driver, had been snatched and taken to the warehouse hours ago.
So why did it take so damn long to kill just two men?
DiMilo took another sip of the rich, sweet liquor and started pacing in front of his huge, mahogany desk. Dressed casually in his pajamas, slippers and silk housecoat, he was an impressive sight. DiMilo tipped the scales at well over three hundred pounds.
He had always been a big kid, from his early days on the docks. It was his strength that had brought him through the ranks to where he was on this night. A big man with big needs, as he liked to put it. There was nothing wrong with ambition. It was the grease that made the wheels turn.
Now he was only minutes away from realizing his biggest dream of all. Soon, when he knew for certain that Swede Jorgeson was dead, he would become the one true Boss of Port Nocturne. He would be the single power that ran the entire city. No more deals with men who were below his intelligence. No more compromises. No more having to deal with half-wits to placate the status quo. There was about to be a new status quo. One that would bring stability to the underworld and make him a legend in his own time.
So where in hell was Guido Grimaldi?
He heard the footsteps second before the hidden entrance opened behind the bookshelf on the wall to the left of the roomís entrance. Set on hidden hinges, the shelf covered the entryway to a passage that went to the garage in the mansionís lower, underground bowels. It was known only to Don DiMilo and his top lieutenants. Which was why he was startled by the figure that stepped out from behind the shelf.
Clad in a dark-colored topcoat with matching fedora, the man standing before him wore a white mask carved in the shape of a skull. In his gloved hands were two silver-plated .45 automatics.
Don DiMilo threw his glass at the ominous intruder and dashed around his desk in a desperate attempt to reach the gun in his top drawer.
Brother Grim fired once and the shot hit DiMilo in the leg, felling him like a running stag.
"Aaargh," he screamed, falling down against the front of the desk. "Who are you? Who sent you?"
"I am Brother Grim. I have come to avenge all the innocent souls you have butchered during your reign of infamy."
"What? Youíre some kind of nutcase," DiMilo raged, his hands holding on to his bleeding leg. "Look, it donít have to be like this! Iíve got money. I can give you anything you want. Just name it and itís yours."
"Can you give me peace, DiMilo?"
Brother Grim stepped over the wounded crimeboss and then, leveling both his guns, began to laugh Ė a haunted, ironic laugh.
The avenger fired point blank, sending round after round into the obese man at his feet. Each slug ripped through Don DiMilo and left him a bleeding, dead slug of humanity.
Brother Grimís laughter faded away and he stepped back from his handiwork.
Suddenly there was a loud scream from behind and Brother Grim whirled around. A young girl, beautiful with long, black hair, was coming through the front door and charging him with a long, sharp knife in her hands.
Before he could stop her, she drove the blade deep into his chest. Brother Grim cried out and slapped her with the back of his hand, sending her reeling back into a padded chair where he fell awkwardly onto her backside on the thick oriental rug.
Grim stepped over to the girl and dropping to knee, shoved the barrel of one of his guns under her quivering jaw, into the softness of her white throat.
"You bastard!" she yelled, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. "You murdered my father!"
"Your father was an animal who got what he deserved. Nothing more. Nothing less. The same will happen to all like him who cross my path."
Then, almost as if an afterthought, Brother Grim, using his free hand, pulled the knife out of his chest and held the blade in front of the crime mogulís daughter. It was clean. There wasn't a drop of blood on it.
"What are you?" she asked, her voice softening with the awareness that he was something macabre and not some mere gangster.
Grim tossed the blade away. "You can call me Brother Grim. I am the avenging angel from beyond the grave. Remember that, Vanessa DiMilo. Your soul is not yet corrupt enough to warrant my final justice. This night you are spared. It may not be so the next time we meet."
Brother Grim rose, put away his guns and then slipped away through the secret passage from which he had arrived.
"No." Vanessa DiMilo said weakly, to no one but herself. "Next time I will kill you, Brother Grim. I donít know how but if there is a way, I will find it. I swear it on my fatherís name."
Outside, on the small side street bordering the DiMilo estate, Blackjack Billy Craddock puffed away on his third cigarette in ten minutes.
Suddenly, without so much as footfall, Brother Grim was slipping into the seat beside him. Billy almost dropped his butt into his lap.
"My work is done," Grim intoned. "Drive."
Billy tossed the butt out the window, started the engine and gave it gas. Switching on the headlights, he sent the dark roadster rolling down the lane.
"What the hell did you do back there?" he queried, afraid he already knew the answer.
"Brought justice to Don DiMilo. The only type of justice his kind can understand."
"You killed him!" Billy said. "You killed Don DiMilo. Goddamn it, do you know what that means?"
Grim was silent behind his ivory mask.
"It means the two men who held this town together are dead! Both in a single night! That means that every two-bit hustler and hitman will be making some kind of play to take over where they left off.
"Hell, man, the whole damn town is going to be up for grabs. Itís going to be a bloodbath the likes of which no one has ever seen before!"
Brother Grim watched the sleeping streets roll by as they left the suburbs behind. Up ahead the lights of the cityís skyline were coming into view. They were majestically grand in their nighttime display. But it was only a mask, a cheap cosmetic trick hiding beneath it decay and corruption that would reawaken with the rising sun. It was a mask that Brother Grim was all too familiar with.
He turned to young Billy Craddock finally and made one single comment. "Then let the games begin."
The dead man laughed.