Night of the Hunter
Jack Slade #1
Jack Slade, Demon Hunter, special operative for the Diamond Group, travels to San Francisco to help the police solve a series of vicious murders. Once there, he finds out that behind the murders is a powerful vampyre whose goal is world control. He fights the monster’s assassins, battles his half-demonic minions and finally faces the vampyre himself in an epic battle for dominance. In the process, Slade discovers secrets about himself that will change his life forever.
Jack Slade paused in his climb up the face of the mountain and looked around at the Romanian countryside. It was a little before midnight, and like an unblinking eye, the full moon shimmered in the crystalline sky. It cast a silvery sheen over the densely wooded mountain range that dropped precipitously to the valley far below. In the distance, farmlands dotting the valley floor resembled a huge quilted coverlet stretched out in the misty darkness. Slade clung like a lizard to a rock-faced promontory six hundred feet above the valley, with still another hundred feet to go before he reached the top. Leaning out, he gazed upward and sighted the crumbling ruins of an ancient castle perched like an eagle’s aerie upon the crest.
Shaking the sweat from his eyes, he continued climbing.
Half an hour later, he reached the summit, climbed over the edge and flopped onto his back to catch his breath. He glanced at the moon again; at this height, it seemed close enough to touch. Perhaps it was fatigue, or maybe anxiety over what he knew was awaiting him beneath the castle, but he would swear the moon had become sinister, even menacing.
Grinning to keep his vivid imagination in check, Slade got to his feet and brushed the dust from his black leather jacket and dark trousers. He made sure the Colt .38 automatic was in its holster to the left of his belt buckle, angled for a cross-draw, and extra clips lined the back of his belt beneath the jacket.
Then he looked around.
The castle had been constructed in the fourteenth century, but hadn’t been occupied since the seventeenth. Now, it was only a ruin, with broken walls, collapsed ceilings, stone blocks and rotting timbers scattered everywhere. As he moved cautiously through the rubble, searching for an entrance, he thought back to the old gypsy woman who gave him the information about the castle. Slade found her in a village in the valley, and when he told her what he was looking for, she took him into her trailer and demanded to see his palm.
After scrutinizing his hand for some time, the wrinkles on her face deepened, and she gazed at him sadly. “You walk a dark path, young man,” she said in a voice thin with age. “You have one foot in this world and one foot in the other. It is your dark destiny to be a hunter—a hunter of demons.” She shook her head. “Your life is war, but this war will not end until the earth itself fades away.”
It was then she told him that what he searched for was at the top of the mountain beneath the castle ruins. And she told him about the entrance.
He saw it just where the old woman said it would be.
At the foot of a collapsed wall, almost hidden by fallen, rotten timbers, was a black hole leading down into the ground. Slade lifted an oaken beam, pushed it out of the way, then bent and peered inside. Only blackness met his gaze. A foul, rancid odor, like the stench of rotting flesh, struck him forcibly in the face. He pulled a flashlight from his pocket, flipped it on and aimed the beam into the hole. The entrance to a tunnel angled downward beyond the range of the light.
Taking a deep breath, Slade shifted the flashlight to his left hand, pulled the automatic, bent his six-foot frame almost in half and entered the cavern. The incline was gradual, and after about twenty feet, the tunnel opened up and widened so he could straighten and walk normally. The cave was cut from solid rock and continued downward into the bowels of the mountain. Slade directed his flash to the walls and ceiling, but he stopped when his foot struck a solid object. Shining the light downward, he saw that he just kicked a human skull. Casting the torch around, he discovered to his horror that half-buried skulls and bones littered the floor of the tunnel.
Suddenly he heard howls, like ravening beasts, sweeping up from the blackness beyond the light. The very darkness became malevolent—it clawed at the feeble light of the torch like some alien entity, seeking to devour it.
A drop of sweat cut a long icy furrow down Slade’s spine.
He moved on, flashlight probing the darkness, gun at the ready. With each step came sickening crunches as he crushed dry brittle bones beneath his shoes. There were too many of them to avoid, suggesting that demons had occupied this haunt for centuries. A glint caught his attention, something lying along the cavern wall at the periphery of the light. Turning the torch, he discovered a curved sword, still in its scabbard, with a leather belt attached.
He picked it up and pulled the sword from its scabbard. The sheath had protected the blade from rust, and the steel shimmered in the torchlight like a long blue flame.
“This will do,” he murmured, running his thumb along the sharp edge.
Slinging the belt over his shoulder so the sword hung beneath his left arm, he continued on. The howls were getting louder, the odor fouler and the darkness more threatening.
The demons knew that Slade was coming for them.
And they were swarming up to meet him.
The first thing he saw were crimson eyes glowing like coals in the darkness. Next, gaping jaws with long dripping fangs gleaming white in the torchlight. Finally came huge, wolf-like bodies bounding toward him at incredible speed.
Werewolves—a pack of them!
With the flashlight in one hand and his automatic in the other, Slade took aim at the beasts and fired. The roar of his Colt reverberated off the cavern walls like the thundering of cannons. He couldn’t count the creatures swarming toward him, but there were plenty. As one dropped, writhing beneath the withering sleet of death, another took its place.
As he leaped out of the way of a bounding wolf, Slade dropped the empty clip and rammed in another. His bullets were made of silver, and as the beast turned on him, he brought the gun up and shot it between its gaping jaws. Its skull exploded in a gruesome spray of blood, brains and bone. It fell backwards, impeding the charge of the others coming from behind.
Taking advantage of the momentary lull, Slade leaped away from the wall and fired at the beasts at point blank range, aiming for the head or the heart. He maneuvered among the pack, dodging the rush of living—and the fall of dead—demons.
The hammer of his gun struck empty. He had no time to reach for another clip. He dropped the torch on the bloody, corpse-littered dirt, slipped the Colt into its holster, then pulled out the sword and decapitated a lunging wolf with the same movement.
Lying half-buried in the mud, the flash threw a dim circle of light through the red mist, silhouetting the grotesque forms of werewolves thrashing and plunging in their frenzied attempt to drag him down. The sword flashed in patterns of crimson fire as he moved among them like a Demon of Death, sidestepping, pivoting, slitting throats, severing heads and thrusting the blade deep into hearts. The air was rank with the odor of blood, howls of rage and the guttural growls of the dying.
Deathly stillness descended over the cavern, and Slade leaned against the red-splattered wall, the notched and gore-clotted sword dangling from his fist. The battle was over. Gasping for breath, he picked up the flashlight and shined the light over the grisly pile of mutilated werewolves. His grey eyes widened with horror as they began returning to human form. Within minutes, the dismembered bodies of naked men and women littered the muddy cavern floor. Slade didn’t know which was more repellent, seeing them as wolves or seeing them as human.
* * * *
Slade leaned back in the cushioned seat of the private jet, sipped cold beer from a chilled mug and looked out the window. The Atlantic Ocean shimmered far below, the whitecaps glistening in the sunlight like a vast herd of white buffalo. It felt good to be safely out of Europe and headed back to the United States. Another tough job was behind him. He felt lucky to have gotten away with his life. He looked forward to going home and getting some much-needed rest.
The vibrator on his cell phone went off, and he reached into his jacket pocket. “Yes?”
“Hello, Jack,” said a cheerful voice.
“There has been a change in plans.”
“I don’t like changes in plans,” Slade responded coldly.
“Something has come up,” the voice continued. “The Chief requests that you do another job before you go home.”
“This is a special job. The Chief knows you are tired, but he is asking you to do it as a favor to him. He feels that only you have the necessary qualifications.”
Slade sighed. “What is it?”
“We are re-routing you to San Francisco,” the voice replied briskly. “You will touch down in Mexico City long enough to re-fuel, then you will fly on from there.”
There was a pause. “Remember a year ago, when you were leading an expedition in the Carpathian Mountains, and you stumbled across a certain style of killings?”
“Well, recently that type of killing has begun showing up in San Francisco.”
Fear was a black snake coiling through Slade’s guts as he thought back to the killings the voice referred to. The killer was a demon—a vampyre of tremendous power. He had stumbled across traces of the vampyre a few times in Eastern Europe since then, and had even come face to face with it once on a dark night in Budapest in the course of another job. That he survived the encounter still filled him with amazement.
The last thing in the world he wanted was to repeat that experience!
“Are you still there?” the voice asked cheerfully.
“I’m here,” Slade muttered and took another swallow of beer to moisten his suddenly dry throat.
“The Police Commissioner of San Francisco is a personal friend of the Chief’s,” the voice told him. “They went to college together or something. Anyway, he made a personal call to the Chief and asked if he had anyone on his team with experience in this type of thing. The San Francisco police do not know what to make of it, and the Commissioner wants it handled before he has a public panic on his hands. The Chief is asking you, as a personal favor to him, to go to San Francisco and take a look.”
“What if it is the same killer?” Slade demanded bleakly. “What the hell am I supposed to do about it?”
Fear gripped Slade again. Dark forces moved in the world, behind the scenes, that most people didn’t even know existed. No veil concealed those forces from Slade—that's why he did the kind of work he did. Still, he wondered more than once why he was privy to such dark things and, once he was aware, why he was still alive. Going to San Francisco to do this job was once again putting his head between the jaws of a ravenous beast—a beast that, despite his skills, Slade felt woefully ill-equipped to ‘handle’.
What if the beast decided to close its jaws this time?
“Of course,” the voice went on persuasively, “the usual funds, plus a generous bonus, will be transferred to your bank account.”
Slade let out a long sigh and finished his beer. “Alright,” he said at last. “I’ll go have a look.”
“Good,” the voice replied. “A car and a driver will meet you at the San Francisco airport. A dossier with all available information will be waiting for you on the back seat.”