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Circle of Death
A Shadow Thriller
By Brian Sitts
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It's The Shadow vs. the end of the world. Nothing more, nothing less.
Doomsday is coming as an evil mastermind plots to destroy all of humankind. Not even The Shadow knows the enemy’s true identity. But the clock is ticking with people all over the world dropping dead each and every day.
As The Shadow gathers a small band of allies, he knows this is one fight he cannot lose Because anything else means the end of all life.
NEW YORK CITY
I’M TELLING THE story like it happened just last night. That’s how it feels to me. Even with the distance of all these years, parts of it still seem incredible. But it was totally real. All of it.
It was early 1933. New York City was being menaced by an army of bloodsucking killers. I know it sounds strange when I say it out loud, but that’s the only way to describe what was going on. They weren’t vampires or zombies. Nothing supernatural. They were poverty-stricken young men under the control of a demented doctor. Rodil Mocquino was his name. This guy had taken medical hypnosis to a criminal level. He’d gotten to the point where he could turn ordinary men into murderers, and make them kill on command.
The killers only moved by night, which made them even more horrifying, and they traveled in a pack, which made them even more dangerous. Some people thought they had super-human strength or magical abilities, but it was really just mindless stamina. Nothing could stop them. If you saw the gang from a distance, you had a chance to escape. Maybe. But once they got close, you were dead. Simple as that.
A few years after, somebody wrote a novel about Mocquino and his killers. It was called The Voodoo Master. It was really popular at the time—a bestseller—but they got a lot of stuff wrong. I should know. After all, I’m the real Lamont Cranston, which makes me the real Shadow. And I lived it.
Here’s the real story.
I was living uptown. Like most nights, my girlfriend, Margo Lane, was staying over. She was my business partner, my confidant, and the person I loved and trusted more than anybody else in the world. Margo was smart and levelheaded. She thought I sometimes went off half-cocked. And she was right. I didn’t always think things through.
We’d both been hearing and reading about the maniacal bloodsuckers for weeks, and the NYPD seemed to be powerless against them. The whole city was paralyzed with fear, and the killings just wouldn’t stop.
I knew it was time for the Shadow to go into action. I had to find these bloodsuckers and end them once and for all. If not me, who? When I heard a report of another killing, I decided to do it. That night. By myself.
Margo and I had a fight about it. She thought I was being reckless again. But pretty soon she realized she couldn’t talk me out of going. She hugged me at the door. “Be careful,” she said. “I’ll be waiting up for you.”
“In that case,” I said, “I’ll be extra careful.” I kissed her good-bye and headed out into the dark alone. I was trying to keep it light with Margo. I hoped I’d be back.
But I knew it wasn’t a sure thing.
THE MOST RECENT victims had been found in a park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. So why was I heading downtown? Pure instinct. People used to say “The Shadow knows,” and sometimes I actually did. At least I made some educated guesses.
I figured that an army of bloodsuckers would need a place to hide and regroup. So I headed for a part of the city with a lot of big, empty buildings.
In that era, the Lower West Side of Manhattan was filled with docks and warehouses. That’s where the big White Star ocean liners came in, and where cargo ships loaded and unloaded. Depending on the season, warehouses would fill up and then go empty. Sometimes companies went bust and spaces would stay vacant for months. Even in normal times, the waterfront was a rough area. Nobody in their right mind would go down there at night. But like I said, I had problems with impulse control.
I was invisible now. At that point in my life, it was the only super power I had. When I reached the waterfront, I crept along the row of warehouses, trying not to step on a loose plank or a wharf rat. At the end of the row, I saw a huge warehouse with its loading bay partway open. There was a glow from inside, like the flicker from a wood-fired stove. And I could see shapes moving against the back wall. Maybe dock workers on the night shift, I thought at first. But my gut told me it was something else. A chill shot right through me.
As I got closer to the open door, the smell hit me. It was the smell of unwashed humans. Musty. Sour. Sickening. I stepped into the open doorway, and there they were—cadaverous, dull-eyed bloodsuckers. Dozens of them! Some were slouched against the wall; others were lying on the floor in some kind of stupor. Their clothes were tattered, and stained with patches of dried blood.
I was pretty good with my fists, but against those odds, I knew that starting a fight would be suicide. For a second, I thought about knocking over the stove, bolting the door, and burning the whole place down with the killers inside. But I worried that the fire would spread to the rest of the waterfront.
So I decided to turn myself into bait.
I made myself visible.
The second I rematerialized, the bloodsuckers rose up and started to come for me. They made low, guttural howls—a sound I’ll never forget. I backed out of the doorway and ran. I figured that would trigger some primal pursuit response, and it did. As I headed for the docks, I looked over my shoulder. They came as a pack, lumbering like animals. Their eyes were fixed on me, like I was their favorite prey. So far, so good. My pulse was racing. My plan was working.
I stepped onto one of the main piers. It stretched for two hundred yards into the Hudson River. The pack followed. As long as I held the attention of the few at the head of the crowd, the rest kept following. That was the way they’d been trained—or programmed. They moved like a single organism.
I started running toward the end of the pier, faster and faster. I could hear footsteps pounding on the planks behind me. When I ran out of pier, I did a brave or stupid thing.
I dove off.
As soon as I hit the black water, I doubled back and slipped underneath the pier. I grabbed a piling and watched as the bloodsuckers tumbled off the end. They sank like weighted sacks. I figured they’d be too dazed or demented to swim. A few bubbles rose up. I saw thrashing underneath. Then the water was still. Thank God! My Pied Piper act had worked.
I climbed back onto the dock. I was soaked and exhausted, but relieved. It was over.
Then I heard splashing.
I LOOKED BACK toward the river. The water was frothing. An arm stretched out from underneath. Then another. And another! As I watched, the damned bloodsuckers rose up, spitting out water and crawling over one another to get back to the dock. They swarmed up the pilings and grabbed the thick metal cleats.
I needed a new plan. Fast.
I ran back toward the warehouses and then took off through the downtown streets. When I reached the 14th Street subway station, I headed down the steps. The station below was empty. I turned around. The filthy, dripping bloodsuckers were coming down the stairs, crowding onto the platform, pressing me toward the edge.
I backed up until my heels were overhanging the lip. Then I turned and jumped down onto the tracks. I ran into the dark tunnel that led out of the station. The mob jumped onto the tracks and came after me. I planted my feet in the middle of a wooden railroad tie between the two main rails. I could hear the howls echoing against the tile. In the tight space, the odor of all those wet bodies hit me like a wave. I grabbed a long metal bar from a service alcove. The creatures surged toward me in a single mass, ready to engulf me. At the last second, I threw the bar like a spear. Not at the mob. At the third rail.
The one carrying six hundred volts of electricity.
The charge ran up the metal bar and jumped to the soaking bloodsuckers, one after the other. I threw myself against the tunnel wall. I could hear the bodies sizzle and explode behind me. When I looked up, I saw blood and brains all over the tunnel.
I climbed out and staggered up the stairs to 14th Street. I walked back uptown, tired and numb. I remember trying to get the howls and the smells and the gore out of my head. I didn’t get home until two in the morning, and I could barely make it up the stairs.
When I walked into the bedroom, Margo was waiting.
Just like she promised.
AS I WRAP up my story, Maddy gives me a slow clap. Maddy is nineteen—my youngest living descendant. She’s sitting on the floor in front of me. To be honest, I expected a little more excitement.
“Pretty good,” she says. “I liked the parts with Margo.”
“What about the rest?” I ask. “What about me?”
“To be honest,” says Maddy, “I actually preferred the book. It seemed more believable.”
Now I’m really getting annoyed. This used to happen all the time. Fans fell in love with the books and radio shows about the Shadow. But they weren’t the real thing. Not even close! Maddy, of all people, should know that by now.
“But the book is not how it happened,” I tell her. “I was there! I’m the Shadow, remember—the real one. Not a character some writers made up!”
Maddy’s clearly not impressed. She shrugs. “Maybe they just told it better.”
MADDY’S A LOT more excited this morning. That’s because I’m making my famous banana-nut pancakes. They’re a family favorite. And the whole family is here. Maddy and my wife Margo are already sitting at the kitchen table with Maddy’s grandmother Jessica, who raised her from a baby. Bando, our Scottish terrier, is crouched at my feet, sniffing the air and pawing my leg. He can’t wait for his portion.
“That smells so good!” says Maddy. “I’m drooling over here!”
“Be patient,” says Margo. “Perfection can’t be rushed.”
“Remember,” says Jessica, “extra nuts in mine.”
I’m watching the circles of batter in the hot skillet, waiting for the bubbles to break through the surface, watching for the perfect moment to flip. Patience is key. And Margo is right. It’s not my strong suit.
The morning sun is pouring through the windows behind me. The air is filled with the aromas of fresh coffee and sizzling butter and warm bananas. I’m thinking how much I love this room, this house, these people.
We’re all living in the mansion I built in the 1930s—back when I started my career as an investigator in New York. Before Margo and I even met. It was a big house for a bachelor, but I had the money and I liked living in style. And maybe, deep down, I knew that someday I’d be filling this place with a family. I just didn’t know it would take more than a century.
Now! The bubbles are popping. I angle my spatula and flip the pancakes one by one. I turn to see the light streaming into the kitchen. Why waste this great weather? I nod to Maddy. “Let’s have breakfast on the terrace, okay?”
Maddy grumbles a bit as she picks up the plates and flatware and carries them outside. She’s very mature in some ways, but she’s also a typical teenager. Cheery one second, grumpy the next.
I think about the changes this house has been through since I built it. About all those years it sat empty after Margo and I nearly died. About those long decades when we were both held in suspended animation—until Maddy found us and brought us back to life. By then the house was in the hands of a world dictator—who turned out to be my old enemy Shiwan Khan. Very dark days.
Khan almost killed us all, right here in this house. My house! But we managed to defeat him. Me and Maddy. The girl who turned out to be my great-great-great-great-granddaughter. The girl with powers of her own—powers she’s still trying to figure out.
“Hey, chef! Watch the flapjacks!” It’s Jessica calling from the terrace.
Dammit! The griddle is starting to smoke. I flip the pancakes just in time. A little dark on top, but still presentable. I really need to focus when I cook. When the pancakes are done on the other side, I grab a pair of oven mitts and carry the whole plateful out to the terrace.
I have to say, even slightly overdone, my pancakes are world-class. I toss one to Bando. He catches it in midair and gobbles it down. The rest of us dig in.
It’s a beautiful morning, and a beautiful setting. The terrace overlooks the garden, our own private paradise. Just beyond the bushes and flowers, I can see the bustle of pedestrians and vehicles on Fifth Avenue.
After years of living under Khan’s repression, the city is trying to get back to normal. People are starting to trust each other again, instead of worrying about getting rounded up in random police raids or getting murdered en masse, like Khan was planning.
I admit I feel a little guilty living in a thirty-two-room house while so many people are still struggling. I actually resisted moving back here. I thought it might make us too visible to the wrong people. It was Margo who convinced me. She said I’d earned it. I decided she was right. Besides, this isn’t just my home. It’s my headquarters. And I need it now more than ever.
Maddy pours a river of syrup over her second helping of pancakes. “Not your best,” she says, spearing into her stack with a fork. “But still great.”
I don’t want to spoil the mood by telling the family what I know—what I’ve learned about the evil brewing on the other side of the globe. First, I need to be sure things are ready on the home front.
“How are the guest rooms?” I ask. We have half a dozen. Almost never used.
“Why?” asks Margo. “Are we expecting company?”
“Yes, we are. Party of five.”
Margo raises her eyebrows. First she’s heard about it. I still keep a lot to myself.
“Who’s coming?” asks Maddy. I can see she’s excited by the idea of having some new faces around the house. Maybe some younger faces.
“Work associates,” I say. “People I trust with my life.”
“Sounds like you know them pretty well,” says Jessica.
I slice into my pancakes. “Actually, we’ve never met.”
“PLEASE! I’M NOT in kindergarten!”
Maddy’s right, of course. She’s a college freshman, majoring in criminology. And she absolutely hates it when I walk her to school. She’s made that very clear. Many times. But the City College campus in Harlem just reopened. And there are some pretty rough neighborhoods along the route.
“I’m nineteen, remember?” she says. “And I can throw lightning bolts!”
She’s right. I know she’s a very capable young woman. But I’m a little overprotective, and I don’t apologize for it. I love this girl so much.
“I need the exercise,” I tell her. “I’m getting on in years.”
“Which is why I’m embarrassed to be seen with you!”
After a while, she gives up and stops arguing. She knows that there’s no stopping me anyway. I’m just happy to have a little extra time with her. Even when she’s doing her best to ignore me.
As we walk north, we see signs of the city coming back from the repressive Khan years. Shops are reopening. People are walking freely. There’s new construction everywhere. Things have improved a lot in the past year. But there are still plenty of danger zones. Sometimes one good block is followed by three bad ones. And I’ve heard about some problems near Maddy’s school. That’s the real reason why I’m tagging along. The Shadow knows.
When we start seeing clusters of other students heading toward the campus, Maddy stops and puts her hand on my arm. “Okay,” she says, “I can take it from here. Really.”
I decide to do a shape-shift. It’s a power I evolved while I was in my long chemical coma. And I have to say, I’m getting pretty good at it. In a second, I’m no longer Lamont Cranston. I’m a doddering old man, white-haired and hunched over.
“Oh for God’s sake…” Now Maddy’s even more embarrassed.
“Pay attention now,” I say. “See how harmless and vulnerable I seem?” Even my voice is weaker.
“You are harmless and vulnerable,” says Maddy. “And you’re even older than you look.”
WE’RE A BLOCK from campus. Maddy is trying to outpace me. In fact, she’s pretending I don’t exist. I grab a thin stick of wood from a trash barrel and use it as a cane to push myself along. It always takes a little time to adjust to a new form.
On the outskirts of the campus, there’s a low wall shaded by tall bushes. A wooden bench sits back from the sidewalk under some overhanging branches. The bench is occupied by three young men. Not exactly college types. This is the corner I heard about. This is where the trouble is.
The guy sitting in the middle is tall and muscular, with bare arms and a tight-fitting vest. He sits forward and scans his surroundings like a radar dish, looking for threats—and opportunities. His partners lounge back on the bench, legs spread. Macho. Arrogant. Like nobody can touch them.
Maddy is a few yards ahead of me. She knows the right thing to do, which is to just keep walking. But the men don’t make it easy. I see their eyes tracking her as she gets close.
“Baby, you make my heart stop,” says one. He slaps his palm across his chest and pretends to slide off the seat. His buddy starts panting like a dog and strokes his crotch. Classy. The big guy tries to catch Maddy’s eye. His right hand taps his pocket. “Whaddaya want, whaddaya need?” he mutters, just loud enough for her to hear. Then again, the same pitch: “Whaddaya want, whaddaya need?” Maddy ignores him. Just keeps going. Smart girl.
I’m catching up to her. My makeshift cane clicks on the sidewalk. Maddy turns around and glares at me. “Stop!” she says, her voice low and quiet. “I’m fine. Don’t make a scene, okay?”
Now the two guys on the ends of the bench stand up. They’re lean and fit.
One of them is wearing a watch cap. The other has a bald head covered in tattoos.
“We don’t have a chance with this lady,” says the guy in the cap, joking to his buddy. “Can’t you see she already got a boyfriend?”
“Nah, I don’t think he’s a good match for her,” says his friend. “Gimp can barely walk.”
Maddy doesn’t look at them. Doesn’t even acknowledge the taunts. I don’t take the insults personally. After all, they’re not seeing the real me.
Suddenly, I feel my cane being kicked out from under me. I lurch to one side and catch my balance. The cane clatters on the sidewalk a few feet away.
“See that?” says the guy in the cap. “Old man can’t even stand on his own two feet.” Both guys are cackling like crows.
Now, for the first time, Maddy turns toward them. “Hey!” she says. “You’re making a mistake.”
“No mistake, baby,” the bald guy says, lifting his T-shirt to expose a chiseled belly.
“I got your attention, didn’t I?”
I stoop down and reach for my cane. A heavy boot comes down on top of it, snapping it in half. I look up. It’s the guy in the vest. The boss man.
“This is a place of business,” he says. “You’re distracting my associates.” His voice is raspy and threatening.
“He’s leaving,” says Maddy, calmly. “Right now.”
All of a sudden, the guy in the cap grabs Maddy around the waist. He pulls her up tight against him, his nose in her hair, his lips near her ear. “The best idea is you hang with me and forget about this fossil!”
I can feel my blood boiling. It’s a really great feeling.
I plant my feet and plow into the boss man’s midsection, knocking him off-balance. Then I pick up the two halves of my busted cane, one in each hand. The thugs are surprised at how fast I’m moving. The old fossil. Before they can react, I crack one half of the cane hard against the head of the guy holding Maddy. He rocks backward. She spins away. The third guy comes at me hard. I side-step him and bring the other half of the cane down on the base of his skull. He drops face-first onto the sidewalk.
When I turn around, the big guy is holding an ice pick. He weaves it in front of my face, then thrusts it at my belly. I see a flash and blur. The ice pick is not in his hand anymore. It’s in Maddy’s. She has the guy on the ground, and the steel point is poking against his throat.
“I changed my mind,” says Maddy. “I want drugs. All you’ve got.”
From an early age, Maddy knew she had the power to control the behavior of others. And this guy is in no position to resist anyway. He reaches into his pockets and pulls out small packets of white pills. A bunch of them. Maddy grabs them in her fist and tosses them down a storm drain. Then she stands up and gives the guy a solid kick in the ribs. “Now go! If I see any of you back here again, I’ll have my doddering old boyfriend murder you.”
The thugs struggle to their feet and hustle down the block, looking back over their shoulders as they go, like they can’t believe what just happened.
Maddy picks up the two parts of my cane and throws them into the bushes, along with the ice pick. I can see she’s annoyed with me. “For once,” she says. “Can’t you just be normal?”
“I made pancakes for breakfast, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did,” says Maddy. “And now you made me late for class.”
“Admit it,” I say. “Wasn’t that satisfying? Just a little bit?”
Maddy doesn’t even smile. She turns and heads through the campus gate. “Don’t get lost on your way home, old-timer.”
BY THE TIME I get back to the house, I’m myself again. In my own body. And I’m worn out. Sometimes I forget how much of a drain shape-shifting can be. It really takes a toll, especially in a fight. I have to remind myself that I can only hold another form for short stretches. Just long enough to get the job done. Even my invisibility power is limited now. I used to be able to disappear for hours at a time. Now I can only manage short bursts. I like to pretend that I’m the same Shadow I was in 1937. But I’m not.
When I walk through the front door, Margo is coming down the main staircase. “They’re here,” she says. “Your mystery guests.”
“All of them?”
“Three of them.”
“Not sure. I was in the garden when they arrived. Jessica showed them into the library. She said they seemed confused.”
“Right. That’s not a surprise.”
If three are here, that means two are missing. Not good. I need the full team.
I give Margo a kiss on the cheek. “This can’t wait. I’ll get started.” I walk down the long corridor to the library. The pocket doors are open. I walk in and slide them closed behind me. The three visitors are poking around the room, checking out books and bric-a-brac. When they hear the doors shut, they all turn to face me. They look puzzled—and suspicious.
For me, the whole scene takes a few seconds to sink in. I can hardly believe my eyes. It’s like going back in time. After all these years, I’m looking at Jericho Druke, Moe Shrevnitz, and Burbank. Actually, their namesakes—the progeny of three of the best associates the Shadow ever had. And I realize that they have no idea who I am.
“Please sit,” I tell them. “Welcome.”
They all crowd onto the sofa. Jericho occupies a large percentage of the cushion. Like the original Jericho, he’s a huge Black man with bulging thighs and broad shoulders. The other two guests take what’s left of the real estate on either side of him. Moe is short and pudgy, with a graying crew cut and heavy jowls, like a bulldog. Burbank looks like he just came from teaching a computer class. Slight build. Thinning hair. Wire-frame glasses. Genes are amazing. All three are the spitting images of the men I once knew.
“Your invite,” says Jericho. “It didn’t say anything about why
- On Sale
- Jul 3, 2023
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing