by Bruce S Levine
It was a beautiful sunny day in LA so as usual the streets were deserted. Occasionally I’d pass a down on his luck vampire or demon peering hungrily from the shadows of a dark alleyway but none would dare venture into the sunlight. Being dead seriously limits your dining options.
Now me, I’m alive. It’s not that I haven’t had offers mind you, but I prefer breathing to placing a bet on the postmortem roulette wheel. Immortality’s not so enticing when you may end up with the lifestyle of a ghoul or zombie. I tell you the day the earth opened up and released the Gas, uncertainty hit a record high.
The only thing distinguishing the pink stucco building I entered from the other pink stucco buildings on the block was the number above the front entrance. I climbed the four flights of creaking steps, praying my landlord would finally find a still living elevator mechanic. Okay, the place was a giant rat trap but low rent can be very seductive. I took a short breather before opening a peeling door marked:
The Last Living Detective
Yeah, I know about that sleazebag Rex Milner in Tarzana but I set up shop years before him so I kept the tagline anyway. I was last first.
It’s only a gimmick but a gimmick that works. Why hire a mortal? you ask. For one thing, we can work the daylight hours the undead can’t. And money means more to us so you got better service. Besides all those rich vampires loved telling their liberal friends how they employed an underprivileged pink.
Being basically lazy, the décor of the office was same beige on beige motif it sported when I first rented the place. Only now it was clean and spotless. I hired a squad of mite men to come in from Torrance once a week. Say what you will about those repulsive buggers, they did an amazing job of keeping the dust down. Valerie looked up from her computer on the reception desk and zeroed in on the paper bags in my hand. “One of those better be for me.”
“Would I forget my favorite employee?” I threw her one of the bags and it clucked angrily as it hit the desktop. “Lunch ala McKluski’s.”
She smiled so sweetly one could almost overlook the set of gleaming fangs. “I’m your only employee. And you should have gone to O’Toole’s; their chickens have bigger veins. “
Val’s a good kid. At least I think she’s a kid. I remember when she first showed up at my office wearing worn clothes and a complexion several shades whiter than the one she wears today. I’m not normally a big fan of bloodsuckers but I didn’t have the heart to send her away. So, I took her out for a pint at the local blood bank, bought her a new outfit, and gave her a job on thirty days’ probation. Turned out to be the best investment I’ve ever made. I didn’t believe her at the time but she really was a primo hacker in her previous life. Ask her anything, she’d go to her computer and by hook or crook find the answer in minutes. And she works cheap too. I think she’s just grateful for a place to stay out of the sun during daylight hours.
“What’s in the other bag?” she asked.
“Just a Reuben for me.”
Val sighed as she adjusted her blouse. “You know I miss sandwiches the most.”
“Should have thought of that before you offed yourself.”
“And not be young and pretty forever? Maybe you should have thought of it yourself. You must have been young once.” Val glanced up from the desk. “Though I doubt you were ever pretty.”
“Way to suck up to the boss.”
Suddenly there was a nibbling sensation on my lower leg. Looking down I saw an undead goldfish flying upside down and attacking my ankle. The rotting flesh exposed yellowed bones as he unsuccessfully tried to penetrate my sock. “Oscar!” I screamed as I kicked him away.
Oscar’s Val’s pet or used to be. Once her pride and joy, he swam in his bowl at a place of honor on her desk. I still remember the day I came in and found Val crying behind her computer. I never realized vampire tears could be so bloody. And then I noticed Oscar floating belly up in his bowl. “We all have to go sometime,” I told her. Boy, was I ever wrong.
Anyway, she was too broken up to perform the mandatory burial at sea so I volunteered in her place. Now I know it’s rare for animals to undergo Change but I guess Oscar never got the memo. Moments after flushing the toilet, the zombie goldfish came flying out of the bowl and swam through the room in his trademark upside down position. He quickly sailed past the restroom door and disappeared somewhere in the front office. Every once in while he comes out of hiding and tries to eat me or some visitor. Possessing no teeth, the attacks are more annoying then dangerous. We tried several times to trap him but the damn fish always proved too elusive.
“One of these days I’m going to catch that rotting devil.”
“And then what?” Val asked.
I shrugged. “Return him to the wild, I guess.”
“He’s undead. He has no wild.”
“Well, there must be someplace he fits in,” I stuttered. “It certainly isn’t here.” With the Oscar back in hiding, I came behind the desk and scanned the headlines on the screen. “Anything new and exciting?”
“Well, the Bone Gnawers and the Lords of Shambling had it out in downtown last night.”
“Ghouls and zombies eating each other! Hell, I’d pay to see that.”
“The Police Commissioner sent a dragon squad to break it up. As for the survivors…” She squinted at the screen. “Oops, there were no survivors.”
“Werewolves have no sense of humor.” I patted her on the shoulder. She was so cold to the touch I almost feared getting frostbite. “Any appointments?”
“In weather like this?” Val pointed at the sunny view outside the smog tinted window. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Well I’ll be in my office if anything comes up.”
“I’ll be sure to wake you if it does.” Val took the chicken out of the bag, sat it in her lap, and gently petted it until it stopped clucking.
“You know you could wait till I’m out of the room before doing that?”
“I know,” she said then sank her teeth into its neck.
My office is my home away from home. Actually, nowadays it’s my home. I used to rent an apartment but I spent so little time there I finally gave it up. The upholstered couch and padded desk chair alternate as substitute beds and I moved in a small fridge and microwave. I now have everything I need. Well everything but company but that’s another story for another day. The walls are festooned with pictures of past friends and lovers I’d be better off forgetting and awards from obscure trade organizations I once made the mistake of joining. As a final touch, the large oak desk separated the room into client and owner zones.
No, I’m not a recluse or anything but agreeable people are getting harder and harder to find these days. The undead tend to look down their noses on mortals. What about family? you ask. Val’s the closest thing I’ve got to family and I like it that way. Jeez, I guess I am a recluse.
I settled into my chair, propped both feet on the desk, and remembered back to a time before the Gas Changed everything. Odorless, colorless, nobody but a few geologists even noticed it at first, but its impact was soon hard to ignore. Oh, it’s not like the cemeteries emptied out or anything; those guys stayed dead. No, it first showed up at the hospitals. Fresh corpses were suddenly walking out of the morgue as an assortment of vampires, zombies, ghouls and other mythical creatures. There was even a news story about a doctor who performed an assisted suicide and got eaten by his patient for his troubles. Just goes to show no good deed goes unpunished.
At first the public was terrified, demanding answers from their equally terrified leaders. Studies with monkeys quickly revealed the Gas to be the culprit but no antidote was ever found. And living forever does have its allure. As the epidemic raged on and more and more undead appeared on TV proselytizing the benefits of Change, there was less and less interest in a solution. The researchers quickly switched tracks to finding a way to control the Change but to no avail. Dying would certainly give you immortality but you never knew as what. And of course, you never got to see the sun again.
Despite the drawbacks, dead soon became the new black. Suicide clubs were popping up everywhere and it became chic to off yourself on your twenty first birthday. They’d hold big parties for the soon to be departed and placed bets on what kind of creature they’d come back as. Gun, tranquilizer, and pesticide sales soared to all-time highs. It became almost embarrassing to remain mortal.
Me, I was just an average PI at the time, scratching out a living handling divorce and embezzlement cases. Then the Gas came and quickly ate away my business. People were too busy enjoying their newfound personas to worry about such trivial things as marriage or bank accounts. I was just about to throw in the towel when the undead suddenly started reappearing at my door. It should come as no surprise that being deceased didn’t make anybody a better person. Nor did it protect you from the heartbreaks of adultery or theft. And a live detective was novelty they couldn’t resist.
I drifted off and found myself dreaming about that succubus client who paid in more than cash when the intercom rudely interrupted me mid-coitus. “Mr. Jones, I have a client to see you,” Val announced.
“Give me a minute.” I hurriedly wiped the sleep from my eyes, brushed down my sports jacket, and clipped on a tie. “Send ‘em in, Val.”
A three-foot figure in a black sun protection burka gracefully walked through my door. Reaching the desk, it shed its covering, revealing a full-fledged elfin maiden. This was a bit of a surprise; you don’t see too many elves these days. They usually kept to themselves, disappearing into their own pocket universes. It’s been said all elven maidens were knockouts and this one certainly didn’t disappoint. Her green tunic drenched in delicate silver filigree not only accentuated her slim figure but spoke of big money. Gorgeous as she was, her stern emotionless greenish-silver face would give the even the most ardent admirer pause.
I introduced myself “What can I do for you Ms…?”
“Alvyra. Just call me Alvyra.” I doubt that was the name she was born with but it wasn’t my place to judge “Mr. Jones, I need your help finding my husband.”
I began my standard lecture. “Listen Alvyra, even if I find your husband there’s no guarantee he’ll come back with me. Before you invest a lot of time, money, and effort into this, maybe you should consult a good divorce attorney…”
“Oh please, I don’t want him back. But he took something of mine when he left.” She produced a photo from her leather pouch. It was a gold wedding band indistinguishable from any other gold wedding band including the one on the elf’s finger. Some weird engravings in a foreign alphabet were visible on the inside. Didn’t look elvish to me but what do I know. “It has great sentimental value.”
Somehow I suspected this cold-hearted elf never had a sentimental feeling in her life. “Why haven’t you gone to the police?”
“I did. Useless. Those smelly werewolves couldn’t find a bone if you unburied it for them.”
Grabbing a yellow notepad, I took down the usual who’s, what’s, and where’s. She gave me a swanky Beverly Hills address as her contact. “Got any photos of your husband?” I asked.
“Oh, you’re not allowed take pictures of Gorm. He’s a god.”
Finally, something interesting. “A god? Forgive my asking but how did a nice elf like you get mixed up with a god?”
“Let’s just say I was young and foolish and leave it at that.” She took a cigarette out from her neck pouch and lit it.
“That’ll stunt your growth you know.”
Alvyra gave me a look that would freeze any man in his tracts. “Do you want the case or not?”
I went into my spiel about a retainer, out of pocket expenses, per diem fees, and overtime. She didn’t even blink as she produced a checkbook, signed it, then slid the whole thing across the desk to me. Maybe it’s time to raise my fees.
Nothing about this passed the sniff test but a job’s a job. I made a show of tearing out the check as I read the hand-written register above it. One name was repeated several times: The Strigoi Foundation. “Thank you Alvyra. I’ll get on this right away. My assistant Valerie will keep you up to date on our progress.”
The elfin maiden threw on her black burka and left without a further word. A few minutes later I went up front to Val’s desk.
“Anything interesting, boss?” she asked as she cleared the last of the feathers from her desktop.
“Just some jewelry recovery from a dumped husband.” Val made an exaggerated yawn. “But there’s something not quite right about this. Just for giggles check out the Strigoi Foundation for me. Ms. Alvyra’s dropped an awful lot of dough on them lately.”
Val’s fingers flew across the keyboard for a minute. She glared at the screen until a satisfied grin came across her face. “It says here they’re some kind of vampire think tank. Research, welfare, yada yada. Funny, I’ve never heard of them.”
I shrugged. “Why in hell would an elf be interested in vampire welfare? Check the directors roster for the names Alvyra or Gorm. Nobody dumps that much cash on a charity without at least getting a seat on the board.”
Val did her magic then shook her head. “Sorry, no hits. But wait.” She squinted closer at the screen. “This is a pretty new page. Let’s hope they didn’t erase the old ones yet.” Her fingers did their flying act again until she sat back and smiled. “You’re right as usual, boss. Up to two months ago they were both proud members of the Board of Directors. They must have done something really nasty to get their names erased that fast.”
“Hard copy me the address.” I opened the closet to gather my coat and supplies. “And while you’re at it, see if you track can down the locale of a god named Gorm.”
“I went out with a god once.” Val said. “What a prick. The only thing he was good for was turning oregano into pot. The trouble was he constantly smoked the results.”
You’re probably wondering why I never made a play for Val. Not that I haven’t fantasized about it, mind you. It’s just that I worry it would mess up our employer/employee relationship such as it is. Besides, it’s said vampiresses eat their boyfriends when they don’t sexually satisfy them.
Some more furious typing and Val announced, “That was easy. He’s got a setup in Temple Town by Sepulveda. He must be doing okay; got four stars on Yelp.”
I looked at the sunshine outside the window and sighed. “Well, it’s such a nice day out, I think I’ll walk. The Foundation’s on the way to Temple Town so I’ll stop there first. Wish me luck.”
Val flashed me a look of concern. “You do realize it’ll be dark soon?”
“Don’t worry, I can handle myself. I’m loaded to bear with crosses, amulets, and holy water.”
Right about now you’re probably wondering why I never pack a gun. A: I rarely if ever need one and B: with my sense of aim I’d probably end up shooting the wrong person. Why ask for more trouble than you already have?
I flashed Val a wink. “I didn’t know you cared.”
“I don’t. I ‘d just hate to look for a new job.” It’s hard to tell on vampires but I think she was blushing as she turned her attention back to the computer screen.
It was getting past four and the streets of the downtown were filling with businessmen and women in black burkas carrying briefcases. Flying carpets, unicorn drawn carriages, mounted prehistoric beasts, and even an old-fashioned car or two poured out of the surrounding parking structures. Driverless taxis and limos sent by Uber wizards patrolled the district looking to ferry office workers to their favorite nightspots. Beneath my feet, passenger worms rumbled through the subway tunnels on their journey to the far suburbs. I checked the addresses on the building fronts and soon found myself standing before a modern looking glass and steel edifice bearing the legend:
The Strigoi Foundation
Working for a Bloodier Tomorrow
The lobby was a study in gleaming marble and glass, its walls covered in heraldic family shields and oil portraits of important looking bloodsuckers attired in Armani. A large photo of a long line of empty suits holding an oversized check graced the place of honor at the front of the room. Vampires don’t photograph well.
I was wondering whether the staff had taken off for the night when a tall well-groomed vamp in business attire suddenly appeared in front of me. “Can I help you?”
In most walks of life, looking average and nondescript was considered a handicap. But in my profession, it was an invaluable asset. You could go anywhere and pass yourself off as just about anything you needed to be. With luck, they might not even remember you were ever there.
For now, I figured ignorance mode was best. I don’t know what it says about me but it was the easiest mode to don. I blinked with exaggeration to signal nervousness. “Er- I heard about your foundation and decided to check it out for myself.”
He gave me a disdainful look. “You’re a little old for the breeding program.”
Breeding program? “No, I recently received an unexpected windfall and I’m looking for a worthy cause to support. What exactly is it you do here, Mr…?”
The vampire’s face lightened. “Alucard. Vlad Alucard” The Gas could radically change a person’s appearance but did nothing to improve their imagination when it came to choosing names. “I’m the Assistant Secretary of the Strigoi Foundation. Let’s go someplace more comfortable and I’ll tell you about the good work we do.” He pointed to a door off the foyer.
Vlad’s office was decorated in early junior executive. The customary ersatz wood desk and even cheaper looking laminated bookshelves half filled with dusty unread volumes were making their mandatory appearance while meaningless award plaques and inspirational posters were plastered across the walls. A photo of a bat dangling from a cave ceiling bearing the moto: HANG IN THERE, BABY graced the coveted spot behind the desktop We took seats on our respective sides of the desk.
“I must say it’s nice to see a pink-er forgive me, mortal- taking an interest in averting the upcoming catastrophe.”
“Global warming?” I said. “I thought that went away when the Gas arrived.”
“No something much worse.” Vlad’s face took on an expression so intense, I unconsciously fished the cross out of my shirt. Leaning over to an easel beside the desk, the vampire flipped the first card, revealing a downward trending graph. “Global famine. It’s all the fault of you mortals really. Your birth rate is down and with the growing popularity of early suicide, your numbers are predicted to dwindle below critical mass in the next decade. Why even now, do you realize how many vampires in this country go to bed hungry each morning?”
“Can’t you just drink animals. My assistant does that and seems okay.”
“Glad you asked.” Vlad flipped the chart again and uncovered a graphic showing a wide variety of food animals. “Oh sure, there are a few species whose blood will sustain us short term. Even gods, succubus’s, elves, and fairies will do in a fix if you can catch one. But it’s only the wholesome red corpuscles of living humans that can provide us with complete and balanced nutrition. Sure, we have blood banks contributing expired product, off the street donations, local hospitals sending red bag waste, and even host a suicide club every Friday but these are only stop gap measures at best. It’s urgent we establish a more reliable source of nourishment before it’s too late.”
I was afraid to ask but I did anyway. “So, what’s the solution?”
He flipped the chart again to reveal a drawing of a human couple holding hands with a small child between them. “The only real answer is breeding. We hire mortals to procreate and then collect the offspring.”
I pinched myself to make sure I was awake. “You don’t seriously expect people to hand over their children to you?”
“Why not?” He flipped the chart again to reveal a drawing of a happy looking adolescent with a red tube trailing from his neck. “We’ll pay them well throughout pregnancy and the child’s growth period then harvest the offspring in late adolescence. After we’ve humanely drained them, they’ll be released into the world as one of the undead. And the benefits don’t end there. In accord with the International Species Conservation Treaty, we’ll set a harvesting limit of only one child per couple. Afterwards, they’re free to have as many progenies as they want. Not only do we secure a reliable food supply but help save the mortal race from extinction. It’s a win-win scenario for everybody.”
I fought hard to keep down my nausea. “How far have you gotten with this project?”
“For now, it’s only a work on paper but I feel with time and the proper funding, we can have a viable colony of mortals in as little as five years.”
Five years? That scheme wouldn’t work in a thousand. Thankfully it was time to change the conversation to a more pertinent subject. “Oh, I almost forgot. Gorm and Alvyra told me to say hello if I came by.”
Vlad shot straight up from his desk chair. “Gorm and Alvyra? A lot of nerve those two have after what they’ve done.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them and they spoke so highly of your foundation.”
Vlad’s eyes narrowed. “You know vampires have a keen sense of smell and right now you seriously reek of bullshit. I understand those two split up and I doubt either one has anything nice to say about us. You’re not a werewolf so you’re probably not with the police. Who are you really?”
As the saying goes: when all else fails, try honesty. I produced a business card and handed it to Vlad. “Sorry about that. The name’s Elmer Jones and I’m a private investigator. “
Vlad carefully inspected the card. “Private dick, eh? Who sent you and what do they want from us?”
“Professional ethics forbids me from revealing my client’s identity but I’ve been hired to recover a missing item.”
Vlad sadly shook his head. “This missing item, it wouldn’t be a gold ring would it?” I nodded and he leaned back in his chair, throwing his hands up in the air. “Why not? We’ve tried the police without results. Maybe you’ll have better luck.”
I pulled a notebook and pen from my jacket pocket. “First tell me about Alvyra and Gorm.”
“Well, I know it’s odd for a god and an elf to care about vampires but when they first came to us they seemed sincerely touched by our cause. And yes, it was strange we never saw the two of them together but they were friendly enough and their checks didn’t bounce when we cashed them. Eventually we put them on the Board. I guess it was all an act to uncover the location of our vault. We discovered the robbery a few weeks later.”
“A robbery? How do you know it was them?”
“We can’t prove anything but who else but a god could rip an eight-inch solid steel door off its hinges? And we haven’t been seen or heard from them since the break-in.”
“What else did they make off with?”
Vlad poured himself a shot of blood from a crimson decanter. “That’s the crazy part. The vault holds an extensive collection of priceless relics–medieval armor, ceremonial weapons, ancient venipuncture devices and such–but they weren’t even touched. All they took was that damn ring.” He had an imploring look as he slid his business card across the desk. “If you find it please return it to us, Mr. Jones. Monetarily it’s not worth much but I’m sure we could arrange a small compensatory award for its recovery. It has great sentimental value.”
The world was getting awfully sentimental lately. “I’ll see what I can do.”
As I was leaving I could feel Alucard’s watchful eyes on me, so I peeled off a couple of bills and stuffed them into the collection canister by the door on my way out.
It was getting dark by the time I reached Temple Town and the sidewalks were crowded with every known variety of undead tourist. Along the curb, kiosks manned by translucent poltergeists hawked everything from Official Temple Town Souvenir Snow Globes to t-shirts bearing the likenesses and mottos of the more popular gods to golden pastries stuffed with a choice variety of ground body parts. I had to laugh when I witnessed a zombie trying to lift a wallet from a passing golem only to leave his dismembered hand dangling from the victim’s back pocket. No matter who you are, there’ll always be at least one field of endeavor you suck at.
Circling overhead, werewolves in police uniforms mounting flying dragons kept the district from turning into a giant food fight. It wasn’t that long ago the dragons sued the city for equal pay and civil rights. They easily won the pay hike but they still couldn’t get those hairy bastards off their backs.
Temples of every conceivable size, shape, and hue lined both sides of the street. Someone once tried to pass an ordinance to bring some uniformity to the district but the Supreme Court struck it down on First Amendment grounds. Worship of every flavor was welcome here, from the dwindling devotees at the Church of the Crucified God to the chattering hordes in the pagoda dedicated to the Monkey King. Gas or no Gas, religion was still big business especially when the gods themselves were present to pass the collection plate. It was a short two blocks before I found myself standing before the Temple of the One and Only True God Gorm.
The usual gang of tentacle-heads were picketing the sidewalk outside with signs bearing slogans like GORM BLESSES BUT CTHULHU DEVOURS! OPEN THE COSMIC GATE AND LET THE REAL GODS IN! and WORSHIP THE WINGED OCTOPUS WHILE YOU STILL CAN! I quickly pushed through the protesters to the shrine’s entrance. While the outside of the temple was little more than a plain adobe cube, the inside was a flamboyant smorgasbord of pre-Gas chaos. A host of colored lights and lasers flashed constantly, reflecting off walls covered with free form aluminum sculptures, old license plates, outdated art exhibit posters, various guns and armaments, gleaming torture implements, and anything else that struck its designer’s fancy. On the chapel floor below me, frenzied worshippers danced with abandon to a loud and overpowering techno beat. Following the rope line to its end I was greeting by a large, grim faced gargoyle in a tux. I slipped him a few bucks and he silently unhooked a satin cord to let me pass.
On my way to the dance floor, a young witch stepped into my path and met me with an agreeable smile. She would have been quite a looker if it weren’t for all those warts on her face. “How about some Ecstasy?” she asked. She waved her hand in the air and suddenly I was filled with a sensation of utter happiness and euphoria. A second later it dissipated. “There’s plenty more where that came from.”
“I’ll pass,” I told her and moved on.
Once on the chapel floor, I scanned the room for Gorm. He wasn’t hard to find. The deity sat at the back of the chapel on a golden throne atop a dais, gulping from an enormous silver goblet and waving encouragement to the dancing worshippers. With his garish oversized Hawaiian shirt, cut down shorts, and spreading middle aged midriff, he looked exactly like any other slob you’d see on the street with one exception. The god was about five times larger than any human being could ever be. For a moment, I tried to imagine Alvyra’s and Gorm’s love life but quickly gave up in disgust. A crown of laurel leaves encircling his brow, Gorm was the very picture of a happy deity in his home environment.
Threading my way through the throngs of frenzied worshippers, I finally stood before the Throne of Gorm. I called out his name several times, but he just ignored me, laughing and chatting with the blue robed priest beside him. No surprise there. In my experience, gods were usually self-important narcissistic assholes. This one certainly did nothing to change my opinion. The only thing beings like these respected was a dose of over the top chutzpah. Exasperated, I shouted, “Hey, big guy. Your wife sent me to talk to you.”
The god suddenly glared down and scowled. Raising his hand, the music and dancing came to an abrupt halt and the crowd of worshippers nervously moved away from me on all sides. “What’s the little bitch want this time?”
I didn’t know what powers he possessed but from his breath Gorm might well have been the patron god of alcoholics. “She says you have a piece of jewelry that belongs to her.” I pointed to a gold ring dangling from a chain against his hairy chest. “That one. She hired me to collect it.”
Gorm laughed and took a deep quaff from his silver goblet. “Well, you can tell her to go fuck herself. It’s mine and she can’t have it”
I could see this was going to be a long and difficult negotiation. “You mean you stole it fair and square?”
Gorm’s face reddened and he awkwardly stood up from his throne. Ominously pointing his finger at me, his voice took on the deep gravelly tone that has long become a standard among deities who want to make an impression. “YOU DARE MOCK YOUR GOD? KNEEL DOWN BEFORE ME, MORTAL OR FACE THE WRATH OF GORM.”
I was expecting this. Armed with a variety of protective amulets, I knew I could handle just about anything the god threw at me. “Sorry, kneeling’s hard on my knees.”
Gorm’s features reddened even more. He tilted back his head and let out an ear-piercing howl. Then silence ruled the room.
At first it started as a faint buzzing from afar. It then grew in loudness and pitch until every beam and drywall of the temple reverberated in synchrony. Whatever was coming there were certainly a lot of them. I’d have to chant fast, I told myself as I waited to see which mantras I needed to activate which amulets.
I wasn’t kept in suspense long. Suddenly I was immersed in a whirling cloud of brown grasshoppers. Covering my nose and mouth for protection, I stood my ground while the enraged insects buffeted me from every direction. The world turned black with locust for what seemed an eternity as I waited for the god’s wrath to subside. It ended as abruptly as it began.
Patting myself down, I was intact and unharmed. “That’s it?” I said, laughing. “You’re the god of locusts?”
‘TREMBLE BEFORE ME, MORTAL.”
“Why? Do I look like a shaft of wheat to you?”
The god shook his head and clumsily sat back down. After signaling for the music and dancers to resume, he motioned me to stand beside his throne then whispered, “Look, I understand you’ve got a job to do but seriously, do you have to cast shade on my gig?”
I flashed Gorm a sardonic grin. “Just give me the ring and I’ll be out of your hair forever.”
“Would that I could.” He absently searched in vain for his goblet. “You don’t understand what this little bauble means to me. Alvyra’s got her own so why does she need mine? “
It was then I noticed across the chapel a trio of wendigos making their way up the rope line. With their camouflage outfits, short cut fur, cadenced gait, and military style clipped and sharpened antlers, everything about them screamed mercenary. Their wolfish features looked every bit as unfriendly as the automatic assault rifles slung from their shoulders.
“Get down!” I shouted to the giant god but it was too late. In unison, the wendigos leaped the rope line and opened fire on the worshipers dancing on the chapel floor. But the one thing the mercenaries didn’t factor into their military planning was that gargoyles and several other types of undead were pretty much bulletproof. The stone bouncer quickly pinned one of the attackers to the floor while another disappeared beneath an angry mob of equally indestructible vampires and zombies. Managing to slip past the defenders, the remaining wendigo raced across the chapel floor, spraying ordinance as he went. He leaped onto the dais and fired a short round pointblank at the bewildered god’s head. Gorm fell from the throne with a resounding thud.
The mercenary bent down and unceremoniously yanked the ring from the bloodied god’s neck. With a sadistic smile, he turned toward me and said, “Nothing personal buddy, but our employer demands a clean operation. Good luck in your next life.” As he raised his rifle I regretted there was no such thing as a protection amulet against gun fire.
I felt sure I was about to embrace Gas when out of nowhere a well-dressed vamp leaped onto the wendigo’s back and sank his teeth deep into his neck. The ring clattered to the dais as the mercenary flailed wildly against his attacker. But the vampire held fast and drank deeply from the wendigo. As the embattled duo sank to the floor, I caught a glimpse of my savior’s face. It was Vlad Alucard! I gathered up the ring and raced for the rear entrance. As I passed the late, great Gorm, I noticed the god’s body had inexplicably shrunk a little.
“I know where you work, Jones,” Vlad hissed as I ran out the backdoor into the darkness.
Fleeing Gorm’s Temple, I noticed a peculiar soft buzzing sound following me. Maybe one of the god’s locust took a shine to me. It’s a good thing the Gas didn’t effect insects or we’d all be goners by now. Anyway, I had bigger things to worry about than amorous grasshoppers.
I was well away from Temple Town when I stopped and took a break on a wooden bench beneath a street light. Pulling the ring from my shirt pocket, I examined it closely. What was it about this nondescript trinket that people were willing to lie, steal, and even kill to possess? Aside from the indecipherable glyphs on the inside, nothing distinguished it from the millions of other gold wedding bands making the rounds. And if those mysterious markings made this bauble so irresistible, why not just copy them down and be done with it? I promised myself I would get to the bottom of this before handing it over to Alvyra or anyone else.
It wouldn’t be long before dawn broke and Val would be back at her desk, so I decided to go back to the office. Even if Vlad made good on his threat, I doubt he and my assistant would see eye to eye on the topic of drinking her boss. Besides, if anyone could crack those cryptic markings it would be the once infamous Valerie the Cyber Queen.
I was approaching La Cienega when I notices a set of footsteps joining the buzzing behind me. Turning around, I came chest to face with a bearded midget clad entirely in green. He tilted an emerald top hat bedecked with a brass buckle at me then stuck a worn wooden pipe in his mouth. “Ye wouldn’t have light for an old and weary sod, would you now?”
Now I know leprechauns were supposed to be an ancient venerable people but asking for a light had to be a ruse far older than the race itself. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, I answered, “Sorry, I don’t smoke.” I turned away to find myself surrounded by three more of the emerald tricksters. They smiled viciously as they pounded their palms with their shillelaghs.
The first leprechaun laughed “Now that you met me boyos, perhaps we be moving our business to somewhere more private like.” Poking and prodding me with their wooden clubs, the midgets merrily chatted as they guided me down a narrow alley between a mortuary-restaurant for ghouls and a marijuana dispensary. They unceremoniously pushed me against a brick wall.
I don’t have time for this, I told myself. Figuring the best course was to go along with my muggers, I removed the wallet from my back pocket and opened the billfold.
The leprechaun with the pipe just chuckled and shook his head. “Now what would us good Sons O’ the Shamrock be doing with that? Ye know what we be after, don’t ye?”
“Lucky Charms? “
One of the other leprechauns suddenly raised his shillelagh and shouted, “Why you unbelievable racist whanker…”
The leader outstretched his hand to calm his angry companion, “Now now, Shaun. This poor benighted stook be ignorant of our ways is all. Let us conclude our business like gentlefolk.” He then turned to me and smiled. “Gold. It’s gold we be after. Got any?”
“No,” I told him.
His three comrades quickly pinned me against the alley wall as their leader shouted, “Search him, fellas. Watches, rings, necklaces, anything that be that lovely gold.” I struggled against the three emerald clad undead but to no avail. After a rough but thorough pat down, my lie was soon discovered. “There be something here, Patty,” one of the henchmen said as he extracted the ring from my shirt pocket.
Their leader reached over and took the trinket from his comrade’s hand. Holding it up to the moonlight, he laughed gleefully. “Now this be gold! Gold!” With his comrades cheering him on, the elated leprechaun broke into an elaborate jig. “Gold! Gold!” He danced around the alley waving his hands in jubilation but the celebration ended abruptly when he bit into the ring. The leprechaun leader suddenly ceased his jig and his expression turned to disappointment. “It be fake,” he exclaimed as he spat the ring onto the alley floor.
The other leprechauns let go of me, I picked the ring off the ground and examined it again. I admit I’m no metallurgy expert but if that wasn’t gold, what the hell was it? “You sure?”
“As sure as I be a leprechaun.” He placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. “Hope ye didn’t spend many a yard on that one, lad. Your mot be mighty upset if ye bring that little trinket home.” His comrades chortled agreement.
The leprechauns started gathering up their shillelaghs. Call me insane but despite everything that just happened I wanted to part friends. After all, these little folks inadvertently did me a good turn adding one more mystery to all the other mysteries surrounding the ring. Besides, I try not to leave behind enemies if I can avoid it.
I put on my best deflated face and tucked the ring back into my shirt pocket. “Look, why don’t we just call this all a big mistake and no hard feelings?” I took out my wallet again. “You guys go find a bar and have the first round on me.”
The leprechauns sadly cast their eyes downward and shook their heads. “It’s not that we be ungrateful, lad,” their leader explained. “But we be banned from all pubs and taverns hereabouts.”
I couldn’t imagine why. “Okay, there’s a Seven Eleven down the street. Why don’t I treat you all to a couple of six packs?”
The leader licked his lips as we filed out of the alley. “Been too long since I had me a taste o’ the Guinness.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “On my budget, Bud will have to do.”
Bidding the happily inebriated leprechauns goodbye, I decided to change my destination. What bothered me about the ring is though it looked and felt like real gold, it wasn’t. That made it even more puzzling that people would fight over it. I knew an old acquaintance who might help me determine its composition. I called for an Uber flying carpet and headed out to Pasadena.
For someone with the reputation of being able to repair anything, Harry’s shop was an old, grime encrusted eyesore spoiling an otherwise agreeable neighborhood. The locals once banded together and tried to get Harry to clean up his act but quickly learned the dangers of angering an ogre. Since then, they politely kept their distance.
Beyond the rusting screen door, Harry’s place was a scrapyard of old abandoned appliances and industrial equipment. As a young man, he trained as a materials engineer but found fixing junk more to his liking. It said that people came from as far as the Orange County to have the “Miracle Ogre” look over their failing prized possessions. We may live in an age of magic and wonder, but folks still loved their technology.
I found Harry at his work bench behind three rows of rusting refrigerators. He was squat and massive even by ogre standards. A series of broken stools next to the workbench gave evidence to this. He was sporting the same filthy overalls and undershirt he wore when I first met him years ago. Harry once told me he didn’t change his name after death so why should his clothes be any different. Logic like that’s hard to refute.
“Hey Harry, got something for you to look at.” I said as I approached the desk.
He raised his warty face from a tiny watch cradled in his enormous hands. “Can’t you see I’m busy, Elmer? Leave it and I’ll get to it tomorrow.”
“Oh, but this is something special, even interesting.” I pulled the ring from my pocket and brandished it before him.
He eyed the trinket quizzically. “Are congratulations in order?”
“It’s not a gold wedding band,” I told him. “Hell, it’s not even gold.”
The ogre took the ring, sniffed it then rolled it between his fingers. “Are you sure?”
“A leprechaun told me.”
“A leprechaun? I thought Immigration sent those punkers packing a long time ago.” He examined the ring again. “But if there’s one thing those little buggers know, it’s gold.”
He took me into a back room filled with bright, shiny machines that could pulverize, analyze, and weigh just about anything on earth. This freelance lab was the real source of Harry’s income, the front room merely his passion. “This is going to take a while,” he said as he slipped the ring into an open machine slot. “How about some coffee?”
We sat by his work bench drinking a rancid brew from grimy cracked mugs. If you wanted to get along with Harry, first thing you had to learn was to put up with his coffee. “You still in the PI game?” he asked between sips.
I shrugged. “What else am I good for? It keeps the lights on. What’s new with you? Those guys from Cal Poly still bugging you?”
The boils on Harry’s face jiggled as he laughed. “Yeah, they still come around every once in a while. Full professorship and all that crap. Sent a few of them back wrapped in wrought iron to make sure they got the point.” He took another sip of coffee and leaned back in his chair. “You know I still remember the time you brought me that gremlin infested SUV.”
“You’re not going to make me apologize for that again?”
A few reminisces later, I noticed the soft sound of approaching hoof beats. In a curved ceiling mirror, I spotted the intruders. Two hobgoblins were quietly sneaking their way down an aisle of outdated computers. Brandishing pitchforks, their slim bodies were aglow with tiny flames as their cloven hooves carefully crept down the walkway. Their horned red faces brimming with malice, somehow I didn’t think they were here about a broken printer. Silently I pointed them out in the mirror to Harry. “I think it’s for you,” he whispered.
Suddenly, a pitchfork flew through the air, barely missing the ogre and lodging itself in a half dissembled wooden music box. “Hey, I worked hours on that!” the ogre exclaimed.
I saw the attacker pull another pitchfork from his quiver as he split up from his companion. “Give yourselves up and we promise to make it quick and painless,” one of the hobgoblins shouted.
Not exactly an offer you can’t refuse. “No thanks,” I yelled back. “I’ll stick with defending myself if you don’t mind.”
“You’ve always attracted an interesting crowd,” Harry said as we ducked under the workbench. “Remember that cyclopes syndicate?”
“You’re bringing that up again?”
Harry shrugged. “Just saying.”
As I reached for a lead pipe on the floor, Harry stopped me. “They’re only hobgoblins,” he told me. “There are far better ways to deal with hell scum like that.” He fished around and brought out the end of a garden hose. Turning on the spigot, he aimed a stream of water at the aisle and alternately sprayed each attacker. The hobgoblins screamed in agony as the water hit them. They tried to flee but the wetter they got, the greyer and slower they became. Moments later, two steaming ashen statues stood in their place. Brandishing a ballpeen hammer, Harry quickly ran over and reduced them to dust.
“Now that that’s over, let’s see about your ring.” Harry left to check the machines in the back room. It was an unusually long wait before he returned with the ring, a printout, and a puzzled expression on his face. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” he exclaimed. “The metal’s an entirely unknown composition. It even made the spectrograph go negative at one point. And look at this scan. It’s faint but you could see printed circuits and nanoprocessors embedded throughout the interior. Hell, it even radiates an electromagnetic field. It’s not a ring but some kind of machine!”
“You know any local shops that could have made this?”
“I don’t know anybody in this world that could have made this.” Harry examined the ring again with fascination. “This has got to be the most advanced piece of technology I’ve ever laid eyes on. Where’d you get it?”
“Sorry,” I told him. “Client confidentiality.”
Harry looked at the ring with the expression of a kid holding a newly found puppy. “Can I keep it a while? I’d love to study it. It wouldn’t be for sale, would it?”
“It’s not mine to give away or sell.” I reached out an open palm and Harry reluctantly handed back the ring.
“Promise you’ll call me when you’re done with it,” the ogre asked with imploring eyes.
“You’ll be the first on my list,” I assured him.
It was dusk by the time the winged Uber steed arrived at my office building. As it circled for a landing, I noticed a police dragon on the rooftop huddling next to the air conditioning unit’s exhaust vent for warmth. I seemed to be getting very popular lately, I thought as the Pegasus set down by the entrance. After tossing a tip in my ride’s feedbag, I climbed the steps to find Val at her desk.
Val raised a finger to her lips then pointed to my office door. “You have a cop waiting in your office.”
“Yeah, I saw the dragon on the roof,” I whispered. “You wouldn’t believe the night I had.”
“I followed the whole thing on Facebook. The only thing I can’t believe is that you’re still alive,” Val told me. “But on the plus side, it did do a lot to enhance your reputation.”
“Reputation? I have a reputation?” I pulled the gold band from my shirt pocket and handed it to her.
“Aren’t you suppose to go down on one knee first?”
I laughed. “That little trinket is what all the trouble was all about last night.”
“Hardly looks like the One Ring to Rule Them All,” Val said as she examined the band.
“But in the darkness it does bind them. Just keep it out of the good officer’s sight. And while you’re at it, scan the engravings on inside and see if you can make any sense of them.”
“I’ll give it a whirl, boss,” She said pulling a scanning wand out from the desk’s lower drawer. “But you should clean up before you go in. You look like hell.”
“Always with the compliments.”
After washing away a day’s sweat and grime in the bathroom sink, I opened my office door to find a hairy policeman sitting in my chair behind my desk. It was an incredibly rude act but I decided to let it slide. Now was not the time to start a pissing contest with a werewolf. Lawrence Talbot proclaimed the name on his badge. Really? As I sat in the clients’ seat, I wondered how many other Lawrence Talbots were on the LAPD payroll. “What can I do for you, officer?”
Now there’s no ordinance saying you had to be a werewolf or dragon to join the LAPD but somehow they were the only ones who made it through academy training. I sometimes wondered if they ate the others to thin out the competition.
Talbot passed me a tablet displaying the carnage around Gorm’s throne. “What’s missing from this picture?”
I scanned the image. There were plenty of dead bodies on the dais: priests, worshippers, and even a drained wendigo mercenary but no Gorm. Vlad wasn’t accounted for either.
“I didn’t kill anybody” I told Talbot. “Armed wendigos…”
“Yeah yeah, we got all that from the witnesses. But perhaps you can tell me what happened to Gorm’s body.”
I shrugged. “Beats me. I ran out of there too fast to notice if Gorm ever got up again.”
“Gods don’t reincarnate like mortals. When they die, they tend to stay dead”. I winced as Talbot stopped and scratched vigorously behind his ear. It was going to take a week to get all that fur out of my chair. “Witnesses saw you two arguing before the shooting went down. Something about a ring?”
“Yeah, I was sent to retrieve one but never got it”.
“Who sent you?”
“Professional ethics prohibits me from revealing a client’s identity.”
The policeman pulled back his lips and snarled in frustration. “Well, the priests desperately want it back. They say it has great –“
I looked at my nails as I finished the sentence for him. “Sentimental value?”
The policeman revealed his yellowed fangs. “Well, I hope you’re telling the truth. If not you’d better hand it over now. I’d hate to bring you in on theft and obstruction of justice charges.” He slammed his fist into his palm. “That is if I decide to bring in what’s left of you at all.”
I rubbed one if my protection amulets for luck. “My lawyer will take care of your career if you try. Basilisks can be very vindictive if you know what I mean.” I rose from my chair to signal the end of the meeting. “Now that I’ve answered your questions, I have a business to run. If you need more information, call first.”
“I’ll be keeping an eye on you.” The werewolf rose from his chair and gave me an unfriendly look before leaving. As I followed him out, he stopped at Val’s desk, leaned close to the vampire and said, “How about you and me getting together later?” Where was Oscar when you really needed him?
Val grimaced. “I don’t know. Are you housebroken?”
Still scowling, Talbot angrily stomped out the door.
“Please tell me he won’t be coming back,” Val said.
“Not if I can help it.” I turned my attention to her computer screen filled with an assortment of enigmatic algorithms. “Find anything new about those markings?”
“No but then I’ve always had trouble translating gibberish.” She handed me back the ring. “It’s not in any language on any database I can find. It probably won’t work but there’s this new program I read about I’d like to try out on it.”
“Play with it all you want but don’t spend any personal time. You’ve got to eat at least. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to catch up on my shuteye.” I retrieved a can of air freshener from the restroom and walked back to my office.
When I woke, night had fallen and Val was gone. Changing my shirt, I contemplated what to do next. Avyra could wait for her damn ring. Besides it was standard PI practice to pad the bill a day or two.
As I ran the electric razor over my face, I remembered Harry saying nobody in this world could have made that ring. That leaves somebody from another world and there was only one place you could find that. But first I needed to work out a plan. My growling stomach demanding attention, I decided to mull things over at dinner.
There were three establishments that graced the shopping strip on Fourteenth. The first was a drinking hole that catered to cops. Non-werewolves were certainly not welcome there. Next door was a BBQ joint for their dragon partners who always had a taste for burnt flesh. The smoke and heat tended to drive away other customers. Then there was Mama Lo’s for the rest of us.
Mama’s place was a tradition in the neighborhood long before she died. Even after she was reborn a Buddha, she continued dishing up her trademark dim sum and fried noodles to the hungry masses. Shunning the glitz and tourism of Temple Town, her establishment served Chinese to the very same shady crowd that patronized her while alive. On any given night, you’d find a wide assortment of cons, grafters, and scammers occupying her tables. They may be the shadowy underbelly of LA but they knew a great dumpling when they tasted one.
I walked in and waved to Mama as I took an empty table. The six hundred pound Buddha sat oblivious atop her oversized lotus blossom near the kitchen door, a beatific smile across her features. It wasn’t like I expected a response. No one’s seen Mama move or talk for years. Still it’s rumored she rides hard and rough over the kitchen staff but nobody can figure out how.
As I waited for a follower to take my order, I looked around the room. There was everything from wizards to centaurs to basilisks merrily chatting as they gulped down Asian cuisine. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize any face that was worth talking to.
“Mind if I join you?” I looked up from the menu to find Benny the Weasel miraculously standing before my table. He seemed to appear out of nowhere but then that was Benny’s style. The Weasel served an indispensable function as the unofficial neighborhood news gatherer. For the price of a meal or a drink, he’d pass on more gossip than a local newscast and be twice as entertaining doing it. I nodded and he tucked in his tail as his long, slender body took the seat next to me. He then poured himself some tea, inserted his muzzle in the bowl, and lapped it up. “I’ve been hearing a lot about you and that ruckus up in Temple Town last night,” he said. “A word to the wise, the cops have developed an unhealthy interest in you.”
“I know. One of them was in my office this afternoon.”
Benny’s pointed ears perked up and he leaned in closer. “Really? Which one?”
“Officer Lawrence Talbot.” I knew what I said would be broadcast all over town by morning but with Benny you had to give information before you got any.
“Watch what you say around that one, Elmer. He’s dirty.”
“Aren’t all werewolves dirty?” I said chuckling.
“I’m not talking hygiene, beating heart. That one’s filthy paws are dipped in every racket in the city. Even had the nerve to try shaking down Mama once but the customers banded together and threw him out on his ear. Just be careful with Talbot. He’s a bad one.”
We were interrupted by a saffron robed acolyte setting a dish of dim sum before me. I placed one of the dumpling on a small plate and slid it toward Benny. “Any word on the street about somebody counterfeiting gold wedding bands?”
Benny laughed as he brushed a clump of his fur off the table. “Why? Are we running out of jewelers? Who’d want to get into a chump change racket like that?”
I didn’t really expect more but still I was disappointed. “Just asking for a friend.”
Benny shrugged then wolfed down his dumpling. “By the way, have you heard the latest on Mama? Don’t know much about astral projection but she’s been spotted around town getting hot and heavy with a certain Jesus from the Calvary Burger Barn on Figueroa…”
The Weasel and I shared dumplings and gossiped for a couple of hours while I contemplated my next move.
Once again, I found myself threading my way through the crowded sidewalks of Temple Town. Live and undead devotees stood in front of their houses of worship, preaching zealously to oblivious pedestrians passing by.
Suddenly a slim, feminine figure stepped into my path. She was gorgeous from head to toe in a very human way. Her deliberately skimpy attire made no effort to hide her curving charms. Even the green feathers growing from her scalp only added to her allure. But it was obvious from her demeanor that such beauty came with a price tag.
“Want a date?” she asked.
“No thanks” I tried to push past her.
Within an instant, she began to change. Her chest flattened as her entire frame grew more muscular. A goatee of feathers sprouted on her once feminine face. “How about now?” he asked.
“Again, no thanks. I’ve got somewhere I need to be.” I quickly walked past the street walker and looked for my destination. Pushing my way through a group of dancing Hindi sleestaks, I finally came upon the Hall of Cthulhu.
The interior of the temple was a nightmarish maze of black curving corridors bearing off kilter doors. The ebony walls were randomly painted with hordes of unsettling glowing icons and terrifying portraits of eldritch gods. The few faithful I encountered ignored me as they went about their ritual treks through the temple. Then I came upon the main chapel, a large chamber with jutting limestone walls. A multitude of tentacle-heads, many in rags, knelt before an enormous gilded likeness of the Winged Octopus. Silently they rocked back and forth mouthing passages from the opened Necromicons on the floor before them. Nowhere in the chapel did I see what I came here for.
Wandering down more of the maddening corridors, I finally came upon a sign marked OFFERINGS and followed the arrow, hoping the rumors about this place were true.
Eventually I arrived in a large room teeming with stacks of crates bearing the Seal of the Winged Octopus. It was there I saw what I came for. At the back of the storage area was a glowing green hole in the wall. The portal! I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my time but this had to be the craziest. Do I send a note ahead or just crawl on through? It was then when I heard approaching footsteps and ducked behind a stack of crates marked GLUTEN FREE VIRGIN TENDERS.
A young mortal man in dark blue work overalls approached from the other end of the room and carefully examined a clip board hanging beside the portal. Next, he inspected a nearby machine with blinking LED’s and nodded his head in satisfaction. Whistling refrains from a current pop tune, he rolled a conveyer belt in front of the portal and loaded it with crates. After pushing the cargo into the glowing greenness, he turned and shouted, “I know you’re in here; I can hear you breathing. Come out and let’s talk about this.”
Maybe it’s time for a refresher course on my detective skills. Nothing for it, I raised my hands and stood up. The worker smiled as he saw me and motioned me closer. He introduced himself as Andy. “You’re about a month early.” he said. “We only do sacrifices on High Holy Days. And we never send mortals; they’ve way too much to lose.”
“I’m not here to sacrifice myself,” I told him. “I want to get in touch with whoever’s on the other side of that thing.”
“You’re planning on coming back? That’s a first.”
“I was thinking of sending a note.”
“Won’t work. We’ve sent through tons of prayers from the faithful but never once got back a reply. Whatever’s on the other side of that portal is either illiterate or just doesn’t give a damn.”
“Then how do you know anybody’s there?”
“Well, every once in a while, a tentacle pokes through, grabs a box, then withdraws back into its own dimension. Spooky but then this is the House of Cthulhu.” Andy looked me up and down then shook his head. “What do you hope to gain from this stunt?”
“I need information only they can provide.”
“You and everybody else.” Andy thought for a minute then said, “If you’re mind’s really set on this, maybe I can help. But only on one condition.”
“You give me a detailed account of what’s the other side when you return,” he said with a wink.
“Deal.” I shook his hand.
“I was originally trained as a theoretical physicist,” Andy said as he led me to a desk parked beside a closet door. “That’s why they trust me to maintain the portal. But I did some work in aerospace before I got this job. Every so often, a whiff of atmosphere comes through the portal. It’s green and smells like shit. I don’t know exactly what it’s made of but you’re going to need this if you want to breathe on the other side.” He opened the closet door to reveal a genuine NASA spacesuit.
I eyed him suspiciously. “You’ve thought of doing this yourself, didn’t you?”
“Yeah but who’s going to fix the portal if something goes wrong while I’m on the other side?”
I ran my hands along the spacesuit’s smooth fabric. “Nice. You get this through your aerospace connections?”
“Nah, Ebay.” He unhooked the suit from its hanger and removed it from the closet. “C’mon, I’ve got a couple of oxygen tanks to go with that.”
As I stood before the portal in my spacesuit, Andy checked the seals for leaks. “Now remember you’ve got three hours of air, but for safety’s sake I’d suggest you start heading back when the dial reaches two. Good luck and you’re a go.”
I climbed onto the conveyor belt and crawled into the portal. Creeping through a fog of radiant green, I unceremoniously fell to the ground after only a few feet. Before me was a cracked and barren plain populated with a forest of tall weathered Grecian style marble columns. They rose up into the sky, disappearing into the overhead jade mist. Empty crates were scattered about the bleak landscape but I saw no other signs of life.
As I got to my feet, I heard a deep commanding voice in my head. “You come here often?”
I turned around and there beside the now blue portal was Cthulhu himself. An octopus as big as an office building, the only thing more impressive than his eight writhing tentacles was the set of gigantic leathery wings sprouting from behind his oval eyes. “Congratulations. You’re the first sacrifice to arrive alive.” Cthulhu said inside my mind. “I hate to tell you this but I don’t eat your kind any more. Bad for the figure. Try Yog-Sothoth. He might still be into that sort of thing.”
I held up my empty palms. “I’m not a here as a sacrifice, deity. I came to ask you a few questions.”
Cthulhu’s mood abruptly changed. “You dare come to my world to questions me? What makes an insignificant insect like you think you could even comprehend answers from one such as myself?” The god blew a hearty stream of water from his siphons. “You lesser forms are certainly annoying. Maybe I should pay your dimension a visit and teach it some manners.”
I’m not much on religion but this being coming through the portal could pose a major problem for humanity. Swallowing my pride, I kneeled before the god. “Oh, Great Cthulhu, please don’t punish an entire world for my trespasses.”
The eldritch god laughed as it waved an enormous tentacle in the air. “Only kidding. I have no intention of ever setting tentacle on your world again. Way too hot and muggy for my taste. And the last time I was there, some of your fellow mortals tried to make sushi of me. I like it better here; good weather, free food, and we even get cable.”
Not exactly what I expected from a deity with his reputation. Although he was quick to anger at the slightest provocation, he was equally quick to forget. “But aren’t you the—“
“Devourer?” Cthulhu’s siphons hissed water again. “Isn’t that always the way of it? Eat one measly universe and they brand you for life. I keep telling them it was only a youthful indiscretion but nobody listens. You’ve nothing to fear from me, tiny creature. Go ahead and ask your questions but be quick about it. My show’s on in a few minutes.”
I pulled the ring from the suit pocket. “What can you tell me about this.”
The octopus god deftly plucked the ring from my hand with a tentacle and held it before his enormous eye. “Is someone getting married?”
“I have it on good authority it’s not from my world.”
“Not from mine either.” He tossed the ring back to me. “Our jewelry’s far better made. Bigger too.”
Dejected, I stuffed the ring back in my front pocket. “If it’s not from my world or yours, where could it have come from?”
Cthulhu chuckled. “Is yours the only world in your universe?”
“You’re not talking extraterrestrials?” I said incredulously. “No one seen even a UFO since the Gas was released.”
“Maybe they’re in hiding.”
“Not exactly logical,” I said.
The deity’s body writhed and streams of many colors ran through its skin. “Logic? You think I’d allow myself to be constrained by such a puerile thing as logic? I detest logic and will have nothing to do with it. Now if you’re done with your questions, my show’s on.”
I could see there was no point in continuing. This fickle god could snap at any moment and destroy me. I looked down on the oxygen gauge and discovered the dial was already creeping past one. “Thank you for your cooperation Your Mightiness. I’ve got to go too.”
Already forgetting his anger, Cthulhu’s waved his eight tentacles to signal goodbye. “Drop by anytime. It gets lonely here. And I’ll introduce you to the other gods if you like. They’ll just eat you up.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
I leaped into the blue portal and within seconds found myself sprawled at Andy’s feet. “That was fast,” he said. “You’ve only been gone twenty minutes.”
“My watch says two hours.”
“Time dialation. Amazing! Let’s get you out of that suit and you can tell me what you saw.”
We sat by the desk sipping coffee as I described Cthulhu and his world to Andy. I didn’t mention anything about the ring though. The poor guy had enough on his plate.
“And you say he’s never returning?” Andy asked with surprise. “The priests’ have been promising his reappearance for years. They even reserved an apartment upstairs for him.”
I shrugged. “What can I say? He hates this place.” Glancing overhead I added, “Anyway I doubt Cthulhu would even fit up there.”
Andy thought for a moment then leaned over and whispered. “Let’s keep this to ourselves. Tell no one, especially not the priests. If this gets around, they’ll probably close the temple and I’ll be out of a job.”
All I could do was smile. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
And that, dear friends, is how many a religion’s managed to survive the passage of time.
Dispirited, I shuffled into the office to be greeted by Val behind her desk.
“Rough night?” she asked.
“You don’t know the half of it.” I told her. “I think I dredged up more questions than answers.” I proceeded to tell her about my fruitless meetings with Benny the Weasel and Cthulhu.
“You are one crazy detective.” She swiveled the computer screen toward me. “I might have something to cheer you up. Remember that new algorithm I told you about? I ran it and found our glyphs.”
“You’re able to translate them?”
“Not exactly but I think I know where to look for a Rosetta Stone.” Her fingers danced across the keyboard and a thesis paper appeared on the screen: “Written and Guttural Protolanguages of isolated Pleistocene Societies. “
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Oh boss of little faith.” Val scrolled down the paper until the screen rested on a photo of a cave wall bearing markings resembling those on the ring. She also showed me diagrams of other glyphs in the text itself. “I’m not sure how this connects to your ring but it makes you think.”
“Who wrote this?” I asked.
With a flick of her wrist, an old Kodachrome snapshot appeared on screen. “Meet Dr. Joseph Senecka, linguist extraordinaire. Or at least he was extraordinaire before he disappeared. Because of his brilliant work with prehistoric languages he was considered a rising star in the field. He was also introverted, distrustful, and quarrelsome, all of which eventually cost him his professorship at UCLA. After that he became a consultant to a mining company and spent his time holed up in his humble San Bernardino home.”
“Might be the right guy to talk too. But you said he disappeared?”
“It happened about two years ago. Neighbors say they heard a gunshot then saw a moleman scurrying out into the front yard. The police believe it was Senecka after he Changed. Anyway, he frantically burrowed into the ground and hasn’t been seen nor heard from since.”
I leaned closer to the computer, examining Senecka;s unremarkable features. “That’s all very interesting, Val but how does it help decipher the ring?”
“Now we come to the good part, boss. The house is still there. With no relatives, loved ones, or offspring laying claim, it remains pretty much undisturbed while the County figures out what to do with it. Maybe, just maybe he left something inside that can help us translate those symbols.”
“Val, you’re a genius.” She flashed me a set of pearly white fangs in gratitude. “I think it’s time I took a ride up to the SB.”
I was going into my office to retrieve my car keys, when I suddenly felt something viscously nibbling on my ankle.
Fighting the late afternoon freeway traffic, night had fallen by the time I reached the Senecka home. It was an old decaying single family ranch house dropped smack in the middle of a seedy neighborhood replete with cauldron lounges and check cashing businesses. The long neglected front lawn was a mixture of green growing weeds and brown dying grass. Decaying side boards and a rusted-out bicycle frame added an extra touch of decrepitude to the front porch. All in all, it was your typical suburban LA dump. Might make a good crack house someday, I thought as I parked in the driveway of the abandoned residence.
Now I’m not big on breaking and entering but considering the physical and legal status of the place, there wasn’t much help for it. I was retrieving my flashlight and a pair of latex gloves from the trunk when I heard the faint buzzing sound return. That’s one love struck grasshopper I told myself as I approached the walkway pavers. But this time the sound didn’t fade away. It grew louder and louder until it was directly overhead. A moment later, a dragonfly the size of a coffee table landed right in front of me. As it settled onto the lawn, the bug began to vibrate until it became little more than a blur in the flashlight beam. It’s shimmering iridescent wings flashed and swirled until the overgrown insect dissolved into a familiar petite figure.
“Alone at last, Mr. Jones.” The elf reached into her hip pouch, pulled out a gun, and pointed it at me. “I see you found Joe’s place.”
“Let me guess. You’re his girlfriend.”
“Fiancé.” She glanced at the house and smiled. “Not that I haven’t been engaged before. I still don’t know why but that mining company paid him so well. He was supposed to be just another mark. Eventually I’d get the diamond ring and whatever else I can carry and leave. But instead of a precious stone, I got this.” She tapped the wedding band on her finger.
I looked around for anything I could use as a weapon. I found none. “I take it you were disappointed.”
“At first, yes. But if only you knew what this baby can do. It changed everything. The sky’s the limit now.”
It changed everything? I thought. Now might be a good time to try on the ring myself but the elf would probably shoot me first. If there was any chance of getting out of this alive, I had to keep her talking. “Is that when you decided to rid yourself of Senecka? Who did the honors, you or Gorm?”
“Gorm of course. What else was the big lug good for? Unfortunately, we didn’t figure on Joe running off with his ring when he Changed. That left us with only one. At first it was okay. We took turns wearing it but after a while both Gorm and our arrangement got very tedious.”
“Is that where the Foundation comes in?”
“You’re trying to buy time, Mr. Jones,” the elf stated with a laugh. “That’s alright. We have all night and after the work you put in, you’re entitled to some answers. Well, Joe had often hinted there were more of these things. I remember him telling me about this vampire literature professor he palled around with at the mining company. By the time the detective I hired had tracked him down–” She stopped to make the sign of the tentacle. “—the professor was killed in a “sunlight accident” and left all his worldly possessions to the Strigoi Foundation. On the inventory list was a gold wedding band even though he’d never been married. That’s when I knew we found our second ring.”
I tried to scratch my nose but Alvyra menacingly waved the gun. “Just keep your hands where I can see them and we’ll get along fine.”
So much for getting to the ring. Note to self: invent bullet proof amulet. “But after you two split up, why’d you need his ring?”
“Oh, you know how it is. New lifestyle, new boyfriend—“
Just then, I heard another flapping of wings and a dark feminine figure fell from above onto Alvyra. Sprawled on the ground, she held the elf down as she bit deeply into her neck. Alvyra valiantly tried fighting off her attacker but it wasn’t long before the elf ceased struggling.
I grabbed the flashlight and gasped when I saw the vampire’s face. “Val! What are you doing here?”
Val raised her blood-stained face and smiled. “Protecting my paycheck.” She tried to get up but somehow couldn’t. “After seeing what you went through the last few nights, I decided someone had to watch out for you. So, I reached out to my inner bat and followed you here. It wasn’t hard. You drive slower than my grandmother.” Val stumbled as she again struggled unsuccessfully to stand. “It’s been a long time since I had the Real Thing,” she said in a slurred voice.
I’ve heard about blood intoxication in vampires but never actually witnessed it before. “She’s an elf not a mortal.”
“Yeah but that little floosy sure packs a wallop.”
I wasn’t sure what the wedding band did yet but I was concerned it was still on Alvyra’s finger. “As long as you’re down there. you mind handing me that ring?”
“Sure thing, boss.” She tugged unsuccessfully at the ring several times then sighed and bit off the finger. A moment later she spat out the trinket, handed it to me, and continued happily sucking on the severed end of the digit.
“You really have to do that?” I asked.
“Can’t help it, I skipped lunch.” She managed to get up and stumble over to me. Collapsing into my arms, she laid her head on my shoulder and muttered, “You know if you weren’t such a mortal, I’d…”
It was then that I noticed the corpse was changing. Alvyra was getting taller and her complexion was losing its greenish elfin patina.
Val saw it too. “Jesus H. Nosferatu, she’s a pink!”
I looked again at the corpse. With her dress torn apart by the sudden growth spurt, she was now obviously human. But small hairy spikes were beginning to sprout all over her body. “I think she’s Changing,” I told Val.
Holding up the drunken vampire, I watched as the metamorphosis unfolded. Alvyra began to shrink again. Her torso broadened out as the skin grew a covering of thick black carapace. The head became rounder but still retained her human features. Two extra appendages grew from both her sides. A moment later, she crawled out from beneath the torn dress.
“I’m a spiderwoman!” Alvyra exclaimed as she examined a hinged arm. “You son of bitches made me a spiderwoman! You’ll pay for this.”
The creature rose up on its eight legs and opened its mandibles to reveal rows of needle sharp teeth. Howling in defiance, it was ready to attack when a large hairy foot came out of the darkness and squashed her beneath its heel.
I aimed the flashlight up and saw a huge yeti standing before us. “You always were a bitch, Alvyra,” the white ape said as he examined her crushed remains.
“Gorm I presume?” I tried again to shove Val behind me but she wouldn’t cooperate.
The creature shook its massive head in confirmation as a grin flowed across his shaggy face. “That’s what I used to be called. Guess I’ll have to think up a new name now. I knew Alvyra would come back here sooner or later so I waited for her in the house. I saw and heard the whole thing.” He jutted out a massive paw to me. “I’ll take my ring back if you don’t mind. In fact, I’m feeling especially greedy tonight. I’ll take them both off your hands.”
Suddenly there was a swishing sound and the yeti’s head flew from his body. As the decapitated ape crumbled to the ground. I raised the flashlight and saw Vlad Alucard brandishing a gleaming broadsword in his place.
“Sometimes old school is best,” Vlad said eyeing the body. “Maybe this time he’ll stay dead. I was hoping you’d bring the ring back to me but all my management courses taught me to always have a backup plan.”
Val sleepily roused. “Boss, if you’re throwing a party how come you didn’t invited me?”
“You’re not the only gatecrasher here,” I told her as she faded off again. “How did you find this place?” I asked Alucard.
“I just followed your assistant as she followed you,” Vlad wiped the sword clean with the edge of his jacket. “She’s right about your driving, you know.”
With all these people flying after me, some air traffic controller must be having a fit. “I take it you want to bring the rings back to the Foundation.”
“Hell no, those rings are worth a fortune. It would be a waste to have them gathering dust in a vault when they could be actively supporting my new lifestyle.” Vlad raised his sword. “Sorry about this but I can’t leave witnesses behind to tattle.”
But as Vlad stepped forward a bloodied wooden stake sprouted from his chest. The vampire fell face first to the ground and the hirsute form of Officer Talbot took his place.
“Yay, the cops are here,” Val mumbled as she tried to stay on her feet.
The policeman walked over to Alvyra’s crushed remains and shook his head. “Too bad. You know this was her idea from the start. Get some poor dumb detective to do all the heavy lifting and we’d take care of him after he recovered the ring. I sent those incompetent wendigos and hobgoblins on your trail just to hedge our bet. It seems mercenaries just don’t take pride in their work anymore.”
“I take it you’re the new boyfriend.”
“You could call me that.” He again eyed the remains of the spiderwoman. “Maybe it’s all for the best. She was a great lay but I knew I’d have to get rid of her eventually.” He unholstered his sidearm. “Well, me and Vlad agree on one thing. No witnesses.”
My eyes swept the lawn for Alvyra’s gun but it was too far away for me to make it.
Val roused again and noticed the armed werewolf. “I’ve got an idea, boss,” she muttered sleepily. “Why don’t we throw a stick and see if he fetches.”
Talbot scowled. “Lady, the way you were flying you’re lucky I didn’t write you a ticket.” He stepped over the headless yeti and retrieved the wooden stake jutting from Vlad’s chest. Hefting it in his paw, he said, “Hate to admit it but I’m really going to enjoy this.”
Suddenly there came a strange high-pitched voice from behind the policeman. “Officer Lawrence Talbot, you’re under arrest for murder. Drop your weapon and give yourself up.”
The werewolf snarled in fury. “You traitor!” Talbot turned but it was too late as a ball of fire immediately engulfed the police officer. Talbot lasted only a few steps before he fell to the ground and expired. Then a police dragon stepped into the light of the burning werewolf.
“Another one?” Val said as she raised her head from my shoulder. “Boss, are you holding a convention?”
The dragon incredulously surveyed the carnage around him and shook his head.
“We’re doing Hamlet,” Val told him.
I tried unsuccessfully to get Val behind me yet again. “I suppose you want the rings.”
The dragon scanned the bodies again. “No thanks. After what I’ve just seen, those things are nothing but trouble.”
From the badge on his chest I discerned his name was Eragon Flame. “But Officer Flame, won’t you need them for your report.”
“There’s not going to be a report. You don’t know what it was like. Going here to collect a bribe, going there to shake down some ambrosia dealer, that asshole rode my wings ragged with his corrupt schemes. I guess I was just waiting for the right moment to be rid of him.” He viciously spat a short trail of fire at the smoldering werewolf. “I quit!”
“So, what do you do now?” I asked.
Flame’s undersized claws fiddled with the fastenings of his police harness. “I’m going to do what I should have done a long time ago. Go home.” The dragon dropped his harness and happily spread his wings in the moonlight. “If you’re ever in Rim Forest look me up.” With that he flew away into the night sky.
I turned to the inebriated vampire on my arm. “Come on, let’s get you inside.”
“Boss, you sure know how to show a girl a good time,” Val slurred as we awkwardly stumbled up the walkway. “You realize we’re never going to get paid for this?”
“That’s alright. She left a retainer.”
Someone had ransacked the house long ago. Broken furniture and belongings were flung everywhere. I cleared the ripped pillows from the half intact couch and laid Val down on it. Wiping the blood from her face with a found washcloth, Val responded to my tender ministrations by turning over and snoring.
I began my search in the office. A rectangle of thinner dust demarked where Senecka’s computer once proudly resided. Books, pens, and printed papers were haphazardly scattered across the floor. A fallen cracked picture frame showed Senecka smiling in front of a boarded up mine entrance in a desert hillside. The upper plank displayed a hand carved sign: END TIMES MINE. Somehow I didn’t think it was a hobby.
My exploration of the rest of the house was equally fruitless. I checked inside and behind drawers, in and above closets, and behind and beneath every intact appliance in the house but there were no notes or data discs to be found. Giving up I started knocking on in the living room walls.
“Boy am I hung over,” Val said as she sat up on the couch. “Do you have to bang so loudly?”
“I’m looking for safes or secret hiding places,” I told her.
She shook her head in disbelief. “Some detective you are. You’re dealing with a geek not a criminal mastermind. Where’s the office?”
I led her to the computer room. She slowly scanned the rubble on the floor.
“I’ve already searched in here,” I told her.
Val ignored me and picked up a loose pen, unscrewed it and threw it on the desktop. She repeated the process again and again until she gleefully handed me a half pen. “I think this is what you’re looking for.”
I examined the plastic piece and found a USB plug jutting out from its open end. “Well. I’ll be damned.”
“No, you’ll be not geek savvy.” Val examined the rest of the pens but found nothing more.
“Let’s get out of here.” I told her. “Daylight’s coming and somebody’s bound to notice all those bodies on the front lawn,”
In a cheap motel room a few freeway exits from the Senecka house, Val sat on one bed slowly sipping a carton of goat’s blood while I was parked on the other picking over the remains of something pretending to be pizza. Fighting her hangover, Val was frantically entering passwords into her smartphone. “If I had my laptop, I’d have broken this flash drive by now.”
“Try Alvyra,” I said as I fought down the rest of my slice.
She typed into her phone and smiled. “Wow boss, it worked.”
“You’re not the only one who knows geek around here.”
Val spent a good twenty minutes examining the flash drive’s contents. “Whew, this is the worst excuse for a language I’ve ever seen. Past, present and future tenses don’t even look alike. And don’t get me started on these insane prepositions. This is like a dialect designed by people with brain infarcts. Oh well. time to go low tech.” She took a notepad from the motel night stand then asked for the rings. Painstakingly she deciphered the engravings using the pen. “It says ‘If found please return to the Celestial Mining Company’ and gives a PO box in Dry Well, Nevada. It’s the same on both rings.” Val held up a gold band to the bed lamp. “Who says romance is dead? What do you say we try them on?”
“Too risky. We still don’t know how they work.” I shoved the pizza box into the waste basket. “Looks like my next stop is Dry Well. Can you make it back to the office on your own?”
Val’s face almost turned red. “After all we went through last night, you’re going to ditch me?”
“It might be dangerous, Val. I’d never forgive myself if something happened to you.”
Val angrily slammed her fist into the mattress, “And I’ll never forgive you if you don’t let me see this through to the end. I’m a grown vampire and don’t need your permission. I’m coming along even if I have fly all the way to Dry Well.”
I could see this was one argument I was never going to win. “Okay, I surrender,” I said throwing my hands in the air. “But unlike you vampires, us mortals need sleep from time to time. When I get up, I’ll rent some supplies and we’ll leave tonight.”
Val flashed me her fangs in the best possible way as she picked up her cellphone. “Give me a list and I’ll find them while you’re asleep.”
Dawn was breaking as I took the gravel turnoff into Dry Well. The rising sun painted the desert hills and plains in multiple hues of crimson and yellow. In the passenger seat, Val fidgeted putting on her black burka. “I’ve always hated these things.”
“Sorry but with all that spelunking equipment in back there wasn’t room for a coffin.”
She spread out the burka for display. “Hey boss, you think this makes me look fat?”
I laughed. “I’m not falling for that one. You only have to put up with it for another hour before we get to Dry Well.”
“Last time I travel economy class.” She glanced at her smartphone. “Oh look. Yelp gives the town minus four stars.”
“We’re not going as tourists. I need to find who made those rings if I’m ever going to put this business behind me.”
“I feel the same way. I guess I’m as insane as you are.”
To call the municipality of Dry Well small would be an understatement. A gas station, a quickie mart, and a hotel/casino that had seen better days were all the amenities the town had to offer. A handful of abandoned and boarded up buildings lined the main street, separated by swaths of sand from the scattered tiny residences of the locals.
It was afternoon by the time we checked into the hotel so I left Val in the room. She was so grateful to be out of her burka she didn’t even raise a protest. Downstairs, I asked the desk clerk and a few card dealers about the Celestial Mining Company but none had ever heard of it. Taking a walk outside, I checked the fronts of the abandoned building but found no evidence any had ever housed a mining office.
Stopping at the quickie mart, I perused a rack of tourist pamphlets by the door. Most were for once-in-a-lifetime attractions and fun-filled recreational areas far, far away from Dry Well. Then I came upon a brochure advertising a tour of local mines. The address given was the very shop I was standing in.
The proprietor behind the counter was a grizzled old man who seemed happy to have a someone to talk to. “The Celestial Mining Company? Sure, I remember them.” He said as he looked down from the TV above the counter. “Used to have an office in that building across the street but they left years ago when they shut down the mine.”
“What can you tell me about them.” I asked as I set a bottle of soft drink on the counter.
“Not much. Secretive sorts. Kept mostly to themselves. Never hired any locals. Don’t even know what they were extracting. Probably copper; that’s mostly what you find out here or at least you did before it petered out. If you don’t mind my asking, why you so interested?”
Time to lie again. “I’m a locale scout for a movie company. I saw a photograph of something called the End Times Mine and thought it’d be perfect for this production we’re working on.”
“That’s theirs alright but it’s a ways out from here. If it’s abandoned mines you’re after, I can take you to a couple closer ones if you like. Be nice to have a movie company in town.”
“Well if this doesn’t pan out, maybe I’ll take you up on that. How do I get there?”
After drawing a map on a paper napkin, the shop owner said, “Whatever you do, don’t go inside. Those old mining tunnels can be pretty treacherous if you know what I mean. And if you get hurt, there’s nobody within miles to help you.”
“I’ll be careful,” I said and bid him goodbye.
Back at the hotel, I met up with Val in the lobby and I treated her to the best restaurant in Dry Well. Of course, it was the only restaurant in Dry Well. I ordered this tough, leathery object they called a steak and Val had the chicken. She seemed to heartily enjoy her meal but unfortunately I had to watch her drink it. I told her about the End Times Mine.
“You really think that’s where the rings came from?” she asked as she wiped the feathers from her chin.
I shrugged. “It’s the only lead we got. I suggest we head out in the morning and look it over.”
Her face took on a look of disgust. “The morning? You’re not really going to make me wear that burka again?”
“Driving through the desert in the middle of the night is a great way to get permanently lost. Besides if there’s anybody out there, the signs will be more obvious in daylight.”
Val put down her chicken and got up from the table. “Now that my hangover’s gone, I think I’ll check out the casino while it’s still dark.”
“Try not to eat too many of the locals,” I said as she left the dining room.
It was rough ride out of Dry Well. Although the rental jeep handled the rugged terrain well, my body couldn’t say the same. Add to that Val’s constant bitching about her burka, I was seriously relieved when we finally reached the End Times Mine four hours later. We walked up to the entrance and examined the dry rotted wood nailed there. No false door, no new hardware, it all looked genuine.
“I don’t think anyone’s been here for ages,” Val said as she took a selfie of her burka and the mine entrance. “You sure you got the right place?”
“That’s what the sign says.” I began to unload the jeep. Twenty minutes later, I had one end of a rope tied around my waist and the other to the front bumper of the jeep.
“Stay here,” I told Val. “If you feel me tugging, it means there’s trouble and haul me up immediately.”
“It would be easier if you just told me on the Bluetooth. Why do you always have to do things the hard way?” Val tapped her phone and checked if my camera was working. “And if you’re really in trouble, I’ll do more than tug on a rope. I don’t have vampire strength for nothing.”
“I don’t want you putting yourself in danger again.”
“Spoken like a true mortal.” Val played with her phone. “Audio and video are both up and running. You’re set, boss.”
I pried a few boards loose, turned on my headlamp, and stepped into the darkness. “One small step for a fool,” Val said in my earpiece. “One giant leap for stupidity.”
I never cared much for caves. They were dark, dank and even a little spooky. This tunnel was no exception. Carefully watching my every step, I avoided the rubble on the ground and followed the mine shaft down through a couple of twists and turns. I found nothing but old timbers supporting rocky walls. It was somewhere around the fourth turn that I noticed a light ahead. “Val, there’s something here.”
“I see it,” she replied. “Just be careful. Okay?”
As I rounded the curve I was greeted by a gleaming metal corridor opening into the rock tunnel. Light panels shedding illumination from every angle, the structure looked more like it belonged in a modern office building than an old copper mine.
“Looks like you’re really roughing it,” Val said through the earpiece.
“I don’t think I’ll be needing these.” I untied the rope and removed my headlamp. Following the corridor down a few yards, I was stopped by a featureless metal door set in the tunnel’s dead end. A keypad with figures similar to the ones on the rings was the only visible means of opening it. I tried prying the door open with the prongs of my rock hammer but with no success.
“Well, it’s official; I’m stumped,” I finally proclaimed to Val. “Any ideas?”
Before I could finish the sentence, I heard the flapping of leathery wings and saw a large bat fly into the corridor bearing a tire iron in its claws. The bat settled onto the floor and quickly metamorphosed into my assistant.
“Val, I told you to stay up top.”
“Sorry boss but watching you trying to open that door was downright painful.” She said. “Stand aside and I’ll show you how us vampires do it.” With that she inserted the flat end of the tire iron into the door jam. Even with her vampire strength, it took a great deal of effort before the door gave way enough for us to slip through.
We found ourselves in a hallway similar to the first one only larger. A host of portals marked with unreadable glyphs occupied either side of the corridor. “I wish I had brought along those translation notes,” Val whispered.
It was then that we heard footsteps approaching from down the hall. I grabbed Val’s arm and quietly led her through a nearby archway to hide. The room we entered was cavernous with oversized desks and machinery dividing the space into aisles. As we hid behind a blinking apparatus, I heard a soft tapping sound further down the aisle. Crouching, I stole my way to an intersection and found a moleman at a laptop seated on the floor. Totally nude except for a gold gourd hanging from a chain around his neck, he obliviously typed away into the tablet. His thickened, sparsely haired skin wrinkled and unwrinkled with every movement. Despite his overgrown claws, the creature seemed quite adept at the keyboard. But the thing that really caught my eye was the gold band on one of its digits.
A moment later, he lifted his squat, star nosed face from the screen and noticed me. “You’re new,” he muttered. “I didn’t think they were hiring any new employees.”
“Dr. Senecka?” I asked.
“Yes, but who are you?”
I motioned Val over to me. After a short introduction, I explained why we were here. “Who runs this place and what do they do here?” I asked.
“Aliens,” Senecka pointed a claw behind me. “As for the rest, why don’t you ask them yourself.”
I turned and saw eight-foot tall hairless magenta humanoid figure behind us. It displayed a variety of small appendages around where its shoulders should have been and stood on a pair of smooth multijointed legs. A quartet of lidless round eyes crowned its forehead. Outside of a necklace similar to Seneka’s, it wore no clothing or other adornments. The alien made a series of short wet sputtering sounds at us.
“No habla our language,” Val muttered, transfixed as she studied the extraterrestrial.
The alien extended one its arms and dropped a pair of gourded necklaces in front of us then pointed to the one around its neck. Donning the gold chains, we found we could understand the alien’s speech.
“Welcome,” it said. “We don’t often get a chance to meet the local inhabitants.”
I introduced myself. “What’s your name?”
The alien stared blankly at me. “They don’t have names,” Senecka interjected. “They’re sort of a colony mind like ants.”
“How did you ever find us?” the alien asked.
“With these,” I pulled the rings from my shirt pocket and held them up to the alien.
“How very clever of you.” Watching the alien talk was somewhat disconcerting. The movements of its slit-like mouth didn’t synch with its speech. “We give those out as perks to our native employees. They really do seem to enjoy them.”
“What do you do here?” I asked looking around.
“Why make mythical creatures of course. Come, I’ll show you.”
The alien led us into the hallway. “We take great pride in our projects. We use only the latest in transformational technology.” It led us into what looked like a large control room. The aliens were everywhere; sitting at consoles, watching flickering screens, and putting a few machines into plastic crates. It pointed to an oval screen in the middle of the room. “That’s our incoming orders display. Our quality control programs triple-check each item before we fill it. It wouldn’t do to produce a horde of zombies when a herd of centaurs are needed. And those large grey cylinders over there is our transformational gas reserve. From here it’s teleported to geological fissures all over your world. Oh, and thanks for all the fracking; it made our job so much easier. Per regulations, we keep enough stockpiled to last fifty galactic years.”
So this is where the Change is controlled, I told myself. But to what purpose? “Is all this in preparation for an invasion?” I asked.
The alien elongated its eyes and vibrated all over in what I assumed was its version of laughter. “Invasion? Why would we want a waterlogged planet like yours?”
“You’re not soldiers then?” Val interjected.
The alien continued to vibrate. “No, we’re technicians hired by the faculty at Altair III University’s literature department. We’ve been sent here to facilitate studying the legends and mythos of your civilization. Through the Interstellar Net, the students can carefully track each transformation to observe and categorize its properties for their thesis papers.”
In a weird way, it all made sense. Maybe that’s what frightened me. “Couldn’t you just read the myths?” I asked.
“Who has time to read? This way they can download the data and get on to more important things like mood altering substances and sex.”
The alien led us into the hallway and through another portal. We found ourselves in an enormous metal lined cavern, smack in the middle of which sat a gigantic disc shaped craft.
“A flying saucer!” Val gushed.
The alien waved its arms at the spacecraft. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she? Outfitted with all the best camouflage circuitry, she’s so nimble and unobtrusive she’s rarely spotted when we do our supply runs.”
All around the gargantuan ship, hordes of aliens were rolling boxes up shiny ramps into the spacecraft. I had an unsettling feeling when I noticed no equipment or personnel were being unloaded. “Looks like you’re packing up.”
“They’re leaving,” Senecka sadly announced.
Our alien guide rocked back and forth on its heels in what I assumed was a shrug. “Isn’t that the way of it? When we first started, this was the most popular site on the Lit Web. But as time went by and more exciting civilizations came online, interest waned and our hit rate seriously degenerated. Analysts forecast that within two of your planet’s solar rotations, this project will no longer be financially sustainable. It’s time to shut it down and cut our losses.”
“But what about us?” Val sputtered. “Do we just go back to dying and staying dead forever?”
“Oh, don’t worry. It won’t come to that.” Our host pointed to a group of large red canisters across the cavern. “That’s a phage we designed to infect any organism containing human DNA. It’s very quick and painless, I assure you.”
“They’re planning on exterminating the human race,” Senecka stuttered.
Gazing downward, the alien said, “Well, we can’t simply leave behind a planetary ecosystem contaminated with our technology. Our corporation does have a conscience, you know. Oh, don’t fret. I’m sure in a million years or two, another intelligent species will arise to take your place.”
“Is there anything we can do to change your minds?” I asked desperately.
“I guess you can become more interesting.” The alien silently scanned our faces. “Nah, that’s not going to happen. You’ve had a good run. Just be satisfied with that. Now it’s my turn. I have so many questions to ask you. Why do some of your race evacuate your nasal cavities with paper while others use a cloth? Why do so many of your people look alike? Why do you change sexual partners so often? Isn’t one human’s genitalia pretty much the same as another’s?”
Val and I took turns answering the alien’s inane questions. While it was occupied, I scanned the room looking for an exit to the outside world. There weren’t any.
Finally, the alien glanced down at a blinking glyph on the floor and said. “I’ve got to get back to work. It’s been nice talking to you. Feel free to enjoy our facilities until we leave. Dr. Senecka can show you the commissary if you’re hungry.” With that, the alien turned and walked out the entryway.
The commissary was a small cavern whose walls were lined with a variety of dispensing machines. But sitting on the oversized stools around a large table, we were all too dejected to eat.
“You knew about this?” Val furiously said to Senecka.
“Yes, but only after I returned. I first discovered this place researching Prehistoric Native American sites. Back then they were friendly, helping me decipher the written language they left behind on scouting expeditions. They also paid me a handsome salary, financed by the minerals they uncovered while excavating this base, and gave me a ring.” He tapped the gold band on one of his claws. “They even came up with another when I became involved with Alvyra. What a mistake that was.”
I stared at him with hostility “You’re going along with wiping out the human race for a ring?”
“I’m going along with nothing,” the professor replied defensively. “I’m a prisoner here as much as you are.”
Val sadly shook her head. “There must be some way out.”
The professor shrugged. “Don’t waste your time. Believe me I tried.” He pointed to a pair of aliens heedlessly walking past. “See, they ignore us because they consider humans harmless.”
“Harmless?” Val sputtered. “I’ll show them harmless!” Before I could stop her, she leaped from the table and attacked a passing alien. She never got a chance to touch it before a sparkling aura appeared around the alien, repelling her several feet away from her intended victim. The alien obliviously went on its way.
“I tried to warn you,” Senecka said to the vampire sprawled on the floor. “The force fields around the exits are even stronger.”
Val huffed as she took her seat. “Maybe if all three of us tried together, we can force our way through the barrier.”
I shook my head. “And then what? You’ve seen this place. Even if the outside world believed us and sent an army, this site is an impenetrable fortress. Nor is there likely to be a battle. If pressed, the aliens can release the phage anytime they want.” I turned to Senecka. “Maybe messing with the settings on their machines could gain us some time.”
Senecka shook his head. “They’re not designed for use by humans. Know anybody with eight fingers on their hands?”
“There must be something we can do,” Val said.
I sat and surveyed my companions. Val was on the edge of tears. The moleman sat beside her, gazing at his paws in misery. And I wasn’t feeling all too happy about the situation myself. Bleak seemed to be the order of the day.
Then an idea hit me. Pointing to the ring on Senecka’s finger, I asked, “How exactly does that thing work?”
He held up the paw bearing the gold band. “It’s simple. You form an image in your mind of what you want to become then put the ring on. Nothing to it.”
“The world’s coming to an end and you want to cosplay?” Val exclaimed.
I smiled at her. “This place was designed to withstand an invasion from the outside but I doubt they ever considered an attack from within.”
Val looked at the ring on Senecka’s claw and her eyes widened with understanding.
“Dr. Senecka, can you take us back to the cavern with the spaceship?” I asked.
Senecka nodded then got up from the table. We followed.
At the entrance to the launch cavern, Val turned to Senecka and asked, “By the way, if you can Change into anything you want, how did you end up a moleman?”
“Because it’s what I chose,” he answered. “No one approaches you, no one bothers you, it’s the perfect persona for a linguistics professor.”
“To each his own,” I said watching the aliens load their saucer in ant like waves. “What do you think, Val? Gods, gargoyles, winged elephants?”
Val thought for a moment then exclaimed, “Boss, you remember that crappy Japanese movie I showed you a couple of months ago?”
“How could I forget? I still can’t believe anybody would make something that bad.”
Val nodded. “So bad it’s good.”
Looking into the vampire’s eyes, I suddenly understood what she was getting at. “When was the last time someone called you crazy?”
“It happens every day,” Val answered with a laugh. “It’s kaiju time!”
I quickly handed Val one of the rings. “You ready?”
“I was born ready for this.” Val closed her eyes then slipped on the ring.
I did the same. The band automatically expanded to fit my finger. Within seconds I felt light headed and dizzy. The earth seemed to move beneath me but it was probably just my body enlarging. I could actually feel my skin thickening and becoming scaly. I winched as my head bumped against the cavern ceiling. Opening my eyes, I inspected my reflection in a nearby metal wall. I looked like a chubby tyrannosaurus who’d been around the block too many times. The face was almost cartoonish and the bony spikes on my back somehow seemed incongruous with the rest of my body. As I tried to stand up straight, the ceiling above me crumbled, sending chunks of metal and dirt raining down on the already panicking aliens.
I turned to examine Val. She had Changed into a cross between a plucked chicken and a pterodactyl. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s called Rhodan. It’s almost as big a star in Japanese cinema as Godzilla. Can’t help it but I’m partial to wings.”
I scanned the cavern and noticed a group of aliens fiddling around the red canisters. “I think our hosts are up to no good.”
“Not for long.” Val stood on her feet and began rapidly flapping her wings. The aliens and canisters scattered before the gale force wind she created.
“I think I have a more permanent solution.” Instinctively, I opened my mouth and a white-hot stream of fire escaped. The canisters quickly dissolved into a puddle of hot glowing metal. Then I aimed at the far side ceiling and it collapsed, burying the melted canisters and some of the aliens beneath a ton of rubble. “Take that you literary Nazis,” I shouted.
“What do you say we take a stroll through the rest of the compound?” Val said excitedly.
“Good idea. But I have a few things to finish up here first.” I reached down and picked up the terrified moleman and gently placed him into the crack in the ceiling. “Dr. Senecka, it’s time to get out of here.” He didn’t need to be told twice. Without a word, he burrowed into the dirt and disappeared.
“Can we go now?” Val asked with annoyance.
“Not yet,” I answered, turning toward the spaceship in the middle of the room. Lumbering forward, I grabbed the giant disc and bit into it. Sparks and clouds of smoke poured from the wound I inflicted in its hull. The aliens around me scattered in terror as I not so gently tossed the ship against the far wall. It landed with a satisfying crunch. “Now we can go.”
Stepping through throngs of fleeing aliens, I took several hits from their energy weapons but it did little but tickle my skin. Ignoring them, we widened portals and proceeded to transform the aliens’ headquarters into rubble. Val amused herself by blowing our hosts over with her giant wings and dropping heavy equipment on the heads of the fleeing extraterrestrials. As for me, I took my time lumbering through each enclave. It wasn’t quite as much fun as wading waist deep through Tokyo looked on screen but the effect was the same. A floor covered in broken furniture, smashed machinery, and the orange blood of the aliens gave testimony to our efforts.
The pterodactyl scanned the demolished room with glee. “That should put a permanent kink in their plans. All we need now is an exit.”
“I’ve got an idea.” I led her back into the cavern containing the wrecked spacecraft. “The ceiling has to open somehow or they’d never be able to fly that thing out of here.”
A series of wet sputtering sounds were emanating from the damaged saucer. Using her beak, Val picked up a gourd necklace from one of the alien cadavers littering the floor and listened. “It’s a countdown!” she shouted. “Their ship is self-destructing!”
“We have to get out of here now!” I scrambled awkwardly to the center of the room and breathed fire on the ceiling. The white-hot metal glowed until a large seam became apparent. Inserting my claws, I instinctively let loose a booming roar and widened the opening in the overlying dome with my claws. Through the falling sand, I could see it was evening outside.
“Way to rock your kaiju, boss.” Val hovered above me then grabbed my shoulders with her claws. She lifted me out of the cavern into the night and sped in the direction of the city lights. It’s a good thing there was nobody within miles, I thought. Seeing a pterodactyl hauling an obese T-Rex through the night sky could cause a run on the local psych ward. A few minutes later, a blinding flash of light erupted from the aliens’ cavern. Looking back, I saw the sand sinking to form an enormous crater where the alien headquarters had once been.
Val set us down next to the mine opening. “Boy that was fun! Too bad we can’t do it again.”
“You thought saving the world would be boring?” We both removed our rings and within seconds we were standing naked beside the jeep. I quickly reached inside the open window and retrieved a blanket for Val and a jacket for me. “You wouldn’t know how to hot wire one of these things?” I asked Val. “I left the keys in my other body.”
“You’re in luck. I once dated the Valley carjack king.” A few moments later, the sound of a running engine filled the desert. Val moved over to the passenger’s seat and I drove us back to town.
It was almost dawn by the time we reached Dry Well. We walked through the hotel’s main entrance, our scanty attire drawing curious stares from the staff and guests. Soon we were standing before a centaur manning the front desk. “We left our keys in the room when we went to use the pool,” I told him.
“We don’t have a pool,” the centaur said, swishing his tail in annoyance. Shaking his head, he took down a key from the board behind him and handed it to me. As we proceeded to the elevators I heard him mutter, “Guests get weirder and weirder every year,”
“Boss, you’ve got to be the worst liar I’ve ever seen,” Val told me as we boarded the elevator. “I’d avoid the poker table if I were you.”
Back in the room, we took turns showering and dressing. “I’ve been thinking,” Val said. “What happens now that the Gas is gone? Do we stop Changing? Are only mortals going to be left after a while?”
I shrugged. “I’m sure there’s still some Gas leaking out somewhere. But when it finally runs out, who knows? At least we all get to live.”
Packing a duffle bag, Val sheepishly turned to me. “Sorry boss but I don’t think there will be a better time to ask than now. How about a raise?”
I put on my best outraged expression. “A raise? What makes you deserve a raise?”
“B-b-but after all we just went through…” Val stuttered.
Unable to keep up the charade any longer, I broke into a grin. “I was thinking of making you partner instead.”
“Oh boss!” Val ran over and buried me in a bear hug. Her embrace was freezing cold and more than a little too tight but I loved it anyway.
Bio: Bruce S Levine is a retired bird & exotic animal veterinarian in Southern California. He and his wife are currently working as minions for their household pets.