The door shattered, and a nightmare stood in the frame. I was in the copy room, working late into the night to print, collate, organize, and file all of the countless pieces of evidence the senior partner said absolutely had to be ready by tomorrow morning. I had been staring down at my phone while the ancient printer whirred and chugged in a losing battle against mechanical failure. There had been a soft, wet squelching noise, and a smell like motor oil. I’d dismissed it as either a sign the copier machine was in even worse shape than it looked, or I was about to have a stroke. I didn’t care either way. That’s when the wooden door separating me from the rest of the deserted office ripped messily in half. A large chunk of wood struck me in the head, knocking me to the ground.
There was a sound like a rubber boot getting stuck in the mud. Something thick, greasy, and only vaguely hand-shaped closed around my shoulder. I watched a drop of heavy black oil drip onto my best dress shirt, and cursed blearily. It was also my only dress shirt. “You. Sacrifice.” The voice was like a drowning garbage disposal, all harsh metallic saw noises muffled and bubbling unpleasantly.
The creature began to drag me along, and I briefly considered not struggling. Being killed by some horrific nightmare thing was sounding preferable to surviving. If I survived, I would have to explain to the senior partner why I had allowed the copier machine to be destroyed. Not to mention explaining why my only decent shirt was now stained with viscous black oil. But he’d probably find a way to punish me for dying, anyway.
I kicked, trying to pull myself up. A fist like a bag of walnuts struck me in the stomach, knocking the wind out of me. “Sacrifice. No struggle!” Bright yellow eyes were visible in large, featureless black faces as the creatures dragged me along. It reminded me of fish eyes, somehow, the kind of things you would see staring back at you from a murky aquarium window.
They pulled me unkindly me through the office, towards the conference room. I tried to protest, because if there was any kind of stain on the grand mahogany table, I knew I was going to be eviscerated by my supervisor. On the other hand, the glinting obsidian knife in one of the strange, lumpy hands of the black things told me he’d have to wait his turn.
My assailants were identical in broad details. Vaguely humanoid, nearly covered in a thick black oil. The only color on them were their bright golden eyes. But one was tall, skeletally thin, and carrying the knife. The other was short, with lumps that could have been muscles or tumors visible under the slime. Neither of them looked like nice people. “What are you planning to do to me?” I asked, in the hopes that looks would be deceiving. The two of them exchanged a glance, and rolled their large, yellow eyes. The thin one bent over, and spoke in the kind of slow, deliberate voice that was universally recognizable as ‘explaining things to the terminally stupid, young, or foreign’.
“We. Ah. Going. To. Cut. You. Open. To. Let. One. Of. Ah. Brothers. In.” he paused. I stared. The thing sounded almost exactly like John F. Kennedy. “You. Stay. Quiet. You. Die. Easy. Deal?” The tall one rolled his eyes. “Humans. Always need an, er, explanation.”
“Sacrifice. Nosy.” Croaked the other one. If there was a Kennedy he sounded like, it was one of the ones they kept locked in the attic, and didn’t allow out to meet strangers.
The tall one shoved open the door to the conference room, and yanked me up off of the ground, which was nice, because the carpet was starting to chafe. It then slammed me down onto the expensive mahogany table, which was somewhat less pleasant. A slender arm lifted in the air, the blade poised over my chest. I felt a sudden rush of fear run through me, and tried to pull free, managing to wiggle a bit to the side. The tall thing sighed.
“Now, look at this. What a, er, disgrace. You almost got stabbed in the arm, which would be a, er, very painful way to bleed out!” Its free hand slammed down into my stomach, and pinned me. Breath exploded out of me, and my lunch would have followed had I had lunch that day. It lowered the blade, lining up the strike. “You ah, er, lucky that I’m the one doing the cutting! I take serious, er, pride in my craftsmanship!” He lifted his arm, and the lights went out.
Two pairs of yellow eyes glowed like storm lamps in the conference room as the slimy things looked around. The door was hanging open. The entire floor was dark. The lights of the other buildings lit up the interior a little bit, giving more of an impression of the surroundings than any actual illumination. But it was enough for me to see the figure standing outside, in the hallway.
If they were dressed, it wasn’t with much. The sheen of bare skin made glistening by sweat was visible, but I couldn’t make out if it was a man or woman. Eyes flared green in the darkness as they reflected the light from outside. “Help!” I shouted, and felt like a bit of an idiot. They were either here to help me or not, and they probably weren’t open to suggestions from me on which it should be. The three figures ignored me, turning to facing one another. The atmosphere grew tense as I saw the two slimy things move apart, releasing me. I rolled off of the table and crouched under it.
There was a hiss, and a sound like a knife being thrust through a sack of butter. A quick ripping noise, followed by a gooey rushing. I looked over the edge of the table. The shadowy figure had cut open the short thing. Something sticky and white was flowing out, and it reminded me of the last time I’d eaten a Cadbury creme egg. I felt nauseous, my head spinning, as the smell of burnt oil filled the office room.
The shadowy figure stood bolt upright, hands up in what looked like some kind of martial arts stance, not moving. The tall one rushed forward, knife flashing, and the shadowy figure stepped around the blow with contemptuous ease. There was no excess movement in the way the shadow fought. There was, however, an obvious lack of respect for the monster’s ability to land a blow.
This was quite beautiful, but the effect was spoiled when the short thing reached up from the floor, and with a rapidly deflating arm, grabbed one of my savior’s legs. The shadowy person let out a high-pitched yelp of surprise, and fell over. She certainly sounded like a woman as she cursed in some unfamiliar language. The tall, thin figure stood over her. “Well, ah assailant. So you, er, decided to try your luck again.” He laughed, as she spat another curse at him. “You, er, ah as disrespectful as always. Well, if I’m going to hell, you, er, can save me a spot!” He lifted the knife.
I brought the chair down on his gelatinous head as hard as I could. The fine oak furniture splintered, jarring my arms, and leaving my shoulders aching. The tall thing turned, its eyes narrowing in annoyance, more irritated by my attack than devastated. There was a slick noise, and it fell, its hamstrings cut, onto the floor. “I did NOT need your help,” the woman hissed, standing up. Before I had time to protest, the two black things piled into the shadowy figure, bull-rushing her against the glass of the window. It shattered loudly, and the three of them tumbled downwards, to the street below.
I stood by the table. The window was broken. White slime and black oil covered the floor. Furniture was smashed. I made my way over to the window. There were thick black splatters across the ground outside, but no sign of any of the three figures. I was six stories up. I picked up my smartphone from where it had fallen out of my pocket. The screen was badly cracked. I made my way to the conference room phone. The power was still off.
By the time I found a phone that was working, ten minutes later, on the floor below, the fire crews were arriving. The police weren’t far behind. “So.” The rather attractive sergeant was sitting across from me in one of the offices, her dirty blonde hair tucked in a bun that made me think of a schoolteacher. Her stark blue eyes were not remotely sympathetic. A police badge proclaimed ‘Dane Larson’ as her name. “Two… ‘Slime People’ broke in the door, after apparently not setting off any of the alarms. They overpowered you, dragged you into the conference room, threatening to sacrifice you, and then were attacked by a…” She checked the pad. “‘Kunoichi’?”
“You know. A girl ninja.”
“I know what a kunoichi is. So, she proceeded to tear them apart with her bare hands, tumbled through a shatterproof glass window, fell six stories, and left behind nothing but a rather large quantity of motor oil.”
I cursed my mother to an eternity in hell for telling me honesty was the best policy. That wasn’t really fair, though. She’d also told me not to be a damned fool. “Yes.”
She took a deep breath, and adopted the Friendly Cop approach, a smile on her lips which didn’t reach her cold blue eyes. “Now, from what I see here, you were having a rough night. Been working long hours. Mescaline may seem like a fun way to make the hours pass on a late night shift. I was your age, after all. I know how tough it can be. But, I suspect your employer is going to be angry enough about your destruction of property and reckless endangerment charges, without also earning you a stay in a mental hospital. Now, do you think you have another story you want to tell us?”
“I think I’ll handle it from here.” Randall Creed stood in the suddenly open doorway. His hair stark silver, glittering. His white suit impeccable as always. Liver spots visible on his forehead, but standing with his back straight as an arrow, his arms crossed behind his back. “We’re not going to be pressing any charges, officer.”
The sergeant bristled, her eyes narrowing. “Not all of these are your charges to press. Whatever he threw out of that window could have done serious harm to someone, and we’re-”
“Yes, the thing he threw through a shatterproof window which proceeded to disintegrate into motor oil upon striking the ground. Please don’t waste my time, sergeant.” The man smiled. “It is my name on the partnership, after all. Go away.” She met his eyes. I looked away. That was a mistake. People don’t stare down Mister Creed. She made a very brave effort, though. It was nearly half a minute before she broke eye contact, and stood up.
“I’m going to be bringing this to the district attorney nonetheless.”
“Yes. When you do, be a dear, and please remind him we have a tee-time on Sunday.” The old man smiled pleasantly. “Thanks, sweet-cheeks.” The fury in her eyes blazed as she stalked out. Mister Creed sat down, and I swallowed. “Horace. My boy. Nephew. Do you want to try to tell your story again?” I was silent. “I’ve been good to you, Horace. Haven’t I?” I nodded. “I’ve given you a position here. A prestigious one. One that will one day pay off with truly fantastic dividends.” I nodded. “I’ve provided you aid because of how close your father and I were.” I nodded again. “I’ve worked you hard, I will confess.” I didn’t move my head. It was an obvious trap. “But I have also been fair with you. Correct?”
“I’m not lying, sir. I saw something. Something strange.”
“You’ve been working hard, Horace. Exhaustion’s getting to you. A little psychotic break. They’re not uncommon in this business. I tell you what, how about you take tomorrow off?”
“Tomorrow is Saturday, sir.”
“Oh, damn, right. We’ve got that court date to prepare for. Okay, then make it the day after tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Uncle Creed.”
“Unpaid, of course.”
I didn’t tell him I was salaried, and wouldn’t be paid for working on a Sunday anyway. It always seemed to cheer him up when he was withholding money, and at the moment, I was desperately grateful the punishment hadn’t been any worse. With my uncle, it easily could have been.
I slept in the broken copy room, and showered early the next morning in the small bathroom. I could’ve gone home, but it seemed like a waste of time. It was already past midnight. I shaved in the sink, and sighed as I stepped into the spare set of clothing I kept in my briefcase. It wasn’t the first night I had spent at the office, but the next day was particularly hellish.
The church we represented was being sued by the federal government, an attempt to remove its tax exempt status. They’d put a substantial amount of money into purchasing the law office’s services in proving the religion was legitimate. I spent the day organizing large pages full of translations, explanations, and incredibly tedious minutes of religious councils. Millions of dollars were riding on the case. And I couldn’t have cared less.
By the time the evening rolled around, and I was free to go home, I was exhausted. I stepped down the stairs, and picked up a large tuna salad sandwich from the deli in the lobby. It had begun to rain outside. I wished I had an umbrella, but made do with my stained dress shirt.
As I walked down the street towards the subway, something caught my eye. There was a flicker of movement. I turned towards the alleyway, freezing. I had seen something black moving in the dark of the alleyway, barely illuminated by the street lights. I stood stock still, my body tensed, waiting for some horrific thing to come leaping out of the gloom. After a few seconds filled with a complete lack of flashing yellow eyes and murderous black blades, I stepped forward into the alleyway. Crouched in a box, which was only barely keeping the rain out, was a black cat. It let out a hiss.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay.” I crouched down, avoiding making eye contact, trying to appear harmless. It pulled back a little bit into the box. It was terribly thin, and its fine black fur was torn out in places, leaving bald patches. A large hole had been taken out of one of its ears. “You hungry?” The cat hissed again, and I opened up the sandwich. I tugged out a large morsel of tuna, removing the celery, and placed it in front of the cat. It sniffed suspiciously then lunged forward, grabbing the chunk and wolfing it down. Its tail was straight up as it ate, its ears lifted.
I continued. The cat was ravenous. Finally, I was left with a pair of soggy pieces of wheat bread, and a few slices of celery. There was my dinner down the tubes. The cat was purring loudly, though, and that seemed to make things a little bit better. It looked up at me. It had been favoring its left foreleg, holding it up. “Are you hurt?” I asked softly. It didn’t answer, obviously. I reached out, and it recoiled a bit. “Hey, I’m going to take you back to my place, get you checked out, make sure you’re okay.”
It was a silly thing to say. It wasn’t as though the cat could understand English. And yet, it seemed to relax as I spoke. I reached out, gently lifting the cat, and pulling it out of the cardboard box. It was alarmingly light, ribs prodding my fingers. I held it in my arms, bending forward, shielding it from the cold, driving rain. “Come on, you.” I whispered softly, as I carried the cat to the subway. It was purring loudly in my arms, although that could have been because of its injured leg, rather than any actual affection.
The cat sat on my lap peacefully throughout the entire trip. “You must have been a house-cat, once, huh?” I asked softly. “How did you wind up out on the streets, kitty?” The cat didn’t answer me, for obvious reasons. I wasn’t crazy, despite what the police sergeant and my uncle had thought. I was just seeing strange and unexplainable things, and talking to cats. I sighed softly, as I scratched behind the cat’s ear. It bit me, but not very hard, on the thumb.
Before long, I was stepping out of the subway, the cat still in my arms. I approached the small brownstone apartment. Sitting among countless identical buildings on the upper west side, I walked past the doorman with a polite smile and a nod. It was a nicer place than I could afford, but there were extenuating circumstances involved. I took the elevator to the fourth floor. “There are no pets allowed in this building, just so you know,” I murmured to the cat. “So try not to make too much noise.” The cat meowed loudly, and I gave it a long, quiet look. The cat’s amused look made it very hard to believe it had not done so on purpose. “Yes. No sounds like that.”
It wasn’t as though anyone was likely to hear it. The building didn’t have many tenants. They always moved out after a few days. On the plus side, it meant that I got a great deal on rent, which was good, because roommates inevitably moved out after a day or two, too.
I stepped out of the elevator, making my way down the hall to the small apartment I called my own, the dingy yellow lights giving everything an unhealthy appearance. It sat on one of the corners of the building, with an excellent view down the adjacent streets. I gently set the cat down on the couch, and went through the ritual of safety. Turning the lock on the handle, setting the deadbolt, pulling the chain. “Alright. I’m going to bandage this up. It’s going to hurt a bit, but it’ll help you feel better. Okay?”
I got out the last of the gauze I had in the bathroom. It wasn’t much, but I tried to gently bandage the cat’s leg. It hissed, and swiped at me, and I cursed. “Hey! I’m just trying to help, alright?!” The cat hissed, and I sighed, frowning as I gently wrapped the gauze around its arm. By the time I was done, I needed to use the rest of the gauze on myself, streaks of red dripping down my palm. I gave the cat a dark look. “You’re real ungrateful, you know that? Damn.” I sighed softly, and sat down next to the cat. “So.” I reached out, and it let out a low, warning noise. I rested my hand near it, and after a couple of seconds, it licked where it had slashed at me. I smiled softly. “Am I crazy, cat? I saw something completely impossible.”
The cat purred gently, and rested its head on my hand. “Yeah. I guess that’s true. If I’m talking to a cat, how sane could I possibly be?” I lay there on the ground next to the small, black couch for a while, before standing up. The cat meowed in protest at its bed becoming suddenly animate. “I need some sleep.” I walked into the bedroom, and heard a soft padding. The cat ran between my legs as I walked, hopping up onto the bed, surprisingly spry. I lay down, and it settled next to me. “So, a name. How about… Queen Betty?” The cat yawned, curling up against my side, its bandaged paw lifted away from its body a bit, as it closed its eyes. That was approval enough for me. “Good night, Betty.”
I watched the cat for a few minutes. It was slender, and its fur was incredibly smooth to the touch. I found it surprisingly easy to sleep with the patch of warmth by my side, and soon, I was out like a light.
The next morning, I woke up, and my stomach rumbled angrily. It was still a week until payday, and I was short of cash, as usual. The paralegal work for my uncle didn’t pay well. I sighed softly, and looked around. Queen Betty was nowhere to be seen. I shook my head, and stood up, walking out into the living room. I didn’t see any sign of the cat there, either. On a hunch, I checked the laundry hamper. Sitting in the middle of the laundry basket, on top of my unwashed clothes, the black cat had curled up, its eyes closed, in a nest of used shirts.
“Gross,” I muttered, and stepped out into the rainy day to pick up groceries. As I walked down the street, I noticed one of the homeless men who hung around the area. He stood out mostly because of the bright yellow oilskin coat he wore. “Hey, Harold.”
He looked up, and smiled. “Hey, Horace. New apartment going alright? Not gotten attacked by any crazy ghoulies?” He laughed, his mottled skin crinkling with a grin.
“Nothing but the usual insects. Nothing too bad.” I smiled. “How’re things going with you? That new homeless shelter helping things out any?” He nodded.
“Oh, yeah. They’re doing God’s work down there. Going to drop by this evening. Don’t suppose you’ve got anything extra on you?” I dug into my wallet, and pulled out a five dollar bill. “Much obliged, Horace. You’re a good kid. They made you head of the law firm yet?”
“Oh, it’s close.” I smiled wanly. “Real close. Keep safe at the shelter, okay?” He laughed cheerfully, and smiled. “Hey, Harold…” I looked around. “I saw something weird last night. Something… Shit. Okay. I was working in the copy room, real late. And these two things, covered in this black slime, burst in the door, grab me, saying that they’re going to sacrifice me. One of them had this crazy black knife.” I frowned. “I don’t suppose you’ve… heard about anything like that?” My voice grew steadily less certain as I spoke. Harold was giving me a long, uncertain look. “Does this sound completely insane, Harold? Because I swear to god, sleep deprivation usually just makes people see things. These wrecked the place.”
“I don’t know, Horace. Sounds like some bad acid to me. Maybe don’t take any pills from strange young women?” I smiled softly. “I’m sorry. Nothing I’ve heard about people getting snatched or anything like that. Just the usual bull, y’know?” He smiled. “Hey, look, if you start seeing crazy black shadowy figures menacing you, I wouldn’t tell anybody else. That sorta thing can mess with your life. Take it from one who knows. That’s how I wound up on the streets.”
“Thanks, Harold.” I sighed, and kept walking.
By the time I returned home, I was soaked. The rain was worse than usual, and I felt a bit drained, making my way through the downpour. I entered the room, and didn’t notice the woman sitting on my couch at first. I stepped into the small kitchen, and set my bags down on the counter. My hindbrain finally caught up with what my eyes had just seen, and signaled my consciousness urgently. I stepped out of the kitchen, and stared at her.
The dark skinned woman was sprawled out across my couch. The first thing I realized was that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her eyes were the green of the sea off of Montauk Point on a stormy day, her figure svelte and shapely, her hair black as night, and her features like someone had applied Photoshop to real life. The second thing I noticed was that she was dressed in nothing but one of my shirts, which fit her poorly, and yet seemed to flatter her figure. The third thing I noticed was that she was cradling her arm. The same one which had been broken on the black cat. The fourth thing I noticed were her cat ears, with a chunk taken out of one of them, and her smooth black-furred tail. “Hey, human!” She grinned at me. “Make me some food! Now! Now!”
Her voice was attractive, although when she said ‘now’, it took on the plaintive tone of a cat’s meow that grated on the brain. “What in the- Who are you, lady?” I narrowed my eyes. The answer was painfully obvious, but if I said it out loud, I’d be embracing insanity, and I really didn’t want to do that. She rolled her eyes, and without any fuss, she was no longer there. In her place was the black cat, its paw raised up, meowing plaintively at me. I crossed my arms. “You have to be kidding me.” There was another soft pop of air being displaced, and she was sitting on the couch again.
“I like you. You smell good, you made my arm feel better, you took me out of the rain, and you have lots of food and nice-smelling clothes. So, I’m going to be staying here for a while. You have a job, right? You can buy more food and clothes and stuff?” I nodded slowly. “Good! Make me some fish! You’ve got some salmon, right?” I opened my mouth, and closed it. I repeated the process a few times, trying to think of something to say to her besides ‘alright’. “Yes! They’re the ones that do that mouth-open-close thing. Get me some!”
“How… did you break your arm?” I asked, grasping for something. The previous night’s events were still buzzing in my brain. The darkness. The stench of burnt oil. The glowing yellow eyes in the night. And the sound of flesh hammering against flesh, and the spilling of ichors. I felt a brief wave of nausea just from remembering it.
“Big fish.” She lifted her hand up and licked her fingers, then winced, her eyes watering. She looked up at me, her ears going flat against her hair. “It hurts!”
I approached her quickly, grabbing the roll of bandages out of my pocket, gently wrapping it around her arm. “It’s a compound fracture. You really should get this looked at by a doctor. Or, uh…” I gently touched it, and she mewled in a way that sounded slightly over-dramatic. “A vet. I guess.” I carefully wrapped the bandage around her arm. “I’ve got some painkillers. What would help?”
She looked up at me with big, soft, bright green eyes. My heart thumped in my chest. She didn’t smell like flowers, or fruit, or any other chemical shampoo smells. She smelled like someone who was very healthy and who had been working out all day, musky in a deeply appealing way. “Maybe some fresh Alaskan salmon?” she asked, and then faked a truly pitiful sounding cough into her good hand.
I sighed. “I’ve got some tuna.” Her eyes brightened up. “Canned.” She smiled, and her tail went straight, standing up with her ears, practically screaming with excitement in cat language. “Do you want it on a sandwich, or-” She shook her head. “I’m going to find out why you’re here.” I walked towards the kitchenette, stepping behind the small counter.
“I’m here because you have food! That’s all. And you should be glad I’m here!” She smiled brightly. “The last people who owned this place didn’t! And you know what happened to them!” The police reports flashed through my head. People, cut to pieces, left in chunks. There was a reason I was able to afford this apartment. It wasn’t because of my generous employer, or my great family connections. It was because people had died in this apartment. A lot of people, in truly stomach-turning ways. I tried not to think of the photos I’d found online. It was still difficult to sleep at night, but I didn’t have a whole lot of choice available to me. You could get used to a lot of things when trying to find a place to sleep in this city.
“Were you the one who did that to them?” I asked softly, and she snorted, giving me a derisive look from her warm spot on the couch.
“No. I’m the one who keeps the nasty things away from the nice humans who give me the food I want.” She lay back on the couch as I brought out a bowl of tuna. I sat beside her. “Feed me?” she asked, smiling, her eyes bright.
I took a seat next to her, and frowned, as I began to feed her large chunks of fish. She leaned back, opening her mouth, and crossed both arms behind her head, without any sign of discomfort. “You’re not actually hurt at all, are you.”
She smiled brightly. “No. I already healed. I’m tough!” She smiled. “But you’re a good human, taking care of me, so, I’m going to help you out! Those two things that grabbed you last night? They were bad!” I waited for her to elaborate. She didn’t.
“Alright… Why did they want me?”
“Because you smell good!”
I again waited for her to elaborate. We went through half of the bowl of tuna before it became clear she wasn’t going to. I sat there for a while, and she began to purr, a loud vibration ringing through her body as she leaned her head against me. “What should I call you?” I asked.
“I like that name you gave me! Queen Betty. Call me that from now on! Remember to do the whole thing. If you just call me Betty, I’ll ignore you!”
I fed her another chunk, and considered this claim. “You’re a cat, though. Won’t you ignore me anyway?”
“Yes. But it will be because you used the wrong name, rather than because you tried to command me.” She purred loudly. “Rub my ears, human!” I frowned. Taking orders from my cat was… I sighed. It was probably a perfectly ordinary thing to be doing, actually. It wasn’t like she was ordering me to kill. I reached down, and her face split into a broad grin as I began slowly rubbing and stroking her ears. Her tail swayed back and forth slowly between her legs, as she stretched out against me, invading my personal space happily.
“So why are you here?” I asked softly, dreading the answer a bit. “In the city, I mean. You’re the one who saved me last night, right?” She nodded. “Are you leaving?”
“No. The world’s ending, human.” She purred, her hands moving above her, as she arched her back, making a sound of utter contentment. Then she looked up, frowning. “Human, you’ve stopped petting me! That’s very bad etiquette! What on earth could be more important than petting my ears?!”
I stared down at her bright, green eyes, and her petulant expression. “When you say the world is going to end-”
“I mean dark things are crawling their way out of the cracks in the Earth. Evil, vicious things. And they’re going to kill every single human on the planet, and leave the world a burned out, smoking husk!” She purred, wriggling. “Right here.” She flicked her mauled ear.
“You sound awfully calm about that.”
“Oh! Didn’t I mention? I’m going to stop them.”
I looked down at her, frowning. “You… How? If they’re strong enough to destroy the world, to kill everyone, how can you stop them?”
“Because I’m a goddess.” She flicked her ear again. “Now, keep scratching!”