Chapter 3: Beating a Dead Horace

I packed up my work at the office. Another long, dull day of copying, calling, and filling out forms. I had spent the day thinking about Queen Betty, and her odd warnings. She’d disappeared without a trace that morning, and I’d been worried and distracted at work, drawing my uncle’s ire. Even seeing her at lunch hadn’t helped. She was up to something dangerous, I knew, and though I’d only been taking care of her for a few days, she was still special to me. Maybe I was just afraid that she would disappear, like so many other things I’d cared about through the years.

I looked around the office. The rest of the staff had left by 7 PM, in the hopes of getting home with enough time left to get some sleep. And here I was, sitting in a cubicle, finishing the last few forms for this case. Trapped by my own hopes for the future.

It had been the job that would lead to the next job, a year back. Start your way at the bottom, and work your way up. That was what my uncle had told me. He’d been lying through his teeth, but I kept working because it was comfortable, and the idea of trying to find a new job terrified me. It would mean spitting on what little my uncle had given me. It would mean putting myself in the hands of the economy. And worst, it would mean no letter of recommendation. I had spent the last year working my ass off, I couldn’t leave here with nothing.

The door to the copier room hadn’t been replaced yet. Instead, the ruins were removed entirely, leaving the doorway open. It was an improvement, not least because it kept the copier room from growing stagnant and musty. The broken window currently had a substantial amount of emergency tape covering it, but I had caught two different attorneys staring wistfully at it. I’d reminded them that a jump from four stories was more likely to cripple them for life than actually kill them, and that the company life insurance policy wouldn’t pay out in case of suicide anyway. This had seemed to make them, if anything, more depressed. I wish I could’ve thought of something cheerful to tell them, but all I had was the vague and unfounded hope that circumstances had to improve. .

It was half past seven when I left the office. The sun had set. It was growing darker outside, and I remembered the request Betty had made of me. I stopped in the small grocery store, and briefly cursed how expensive salmon was, before selecting a modest filet. I wouldn’t be eating much this week if I bought it for her. As I weighed my options, my mind wandered over the strangeness of it all.

I had a cat living in my house that claimed to be a goddess, and was probably telling the truth. Even if she wasn’t a goddess, she was something strange. She’d moved in, and I couldn’t bring myself to kick her out. When I’d found her, she’d had a broken arm, and had been huddling in an alleyway. The fact that she had probably broken her arm saving my life from a pair of nightmarish oily things the day before had been a point in her favor, too. I placed the filet in the shopping cart, and tried not to sob as the cashier scanned it. How could one pound of fish meat cost so much? I picked up a copy of The Times, and made my way to the subway.

The Times was full of the usual doom and gloom. At least three people had gone missing in Central Park over the past month, and the police blamed a serial killer. One of the city’s mental hospitals had been closed due to budget cuts, and the patients there had been dumped on the streets, leading to an uptick in the number of assaults. A series of vandalism against several of the major churches in the city. A rash of pickpocketing and indecent exposure in Washington Square Park. And apparently, several sanitation workers had come down with some nasty disease. Ebola and ISIS warring for headline space.

I thought about what Queen Betty had said. That doomsday was coming. That humanity was coming to an end. And here I was, sitting on the subway, still working at the same piece of shit job. I shook my head, and closed the newspaper. Regardless of whether the world was coming to an end or not, I still needed to eat, and so did she. So I’d make damn sure there was food on the table. Even if it was only a small amount.

I stepped out of the train into the furnace heat of the subway station, and wiped my brow. The summer was lasting long into the autumn this year, and it was starting to drive me a bit mad. I climbed the stairs to the surface, where a mild breeze turned the temperature from lethal to merely unbearable. The subway rumbled off underground, shaking the metal gratings and sending a rush of hot air up from the tunnels as I trudged towards my apartment. I looked up, and noticed the window was open. That meant Betty was probably home, and she’d not closed the window behind her. It was going to be muggy in the apartment. I just hoped she’d turned off the air-conditioning. I noticed there was no sign of Harold in his usual spot at the corner. It was probably just as well, because I didn’t have any spare change on me.

As I stepped into the apartment, it was clear she hadn’t turned off the AC. The large box was chugging noisily in the living room. I shut it off, and looked around. There was no sign of Betty. I sighed, and put the food in the kitchen before checking the bathroom. I nearly gagged. The bathtub had over an inch of thick, black oil coating the bottom, stinking horrifically of burnt coffee grounds. There were streaks of the stuff across the floor, and on the walls. The only sensible explanation was that Jackson Pollock had taken up road construction, and chosen my bathroom for his first project. I switched on the shower, water pouring the thick black slime back down into the drain with a thick gurgling, ululating noise. I frowned, as I opened the bedroom door.

Betty lay across the bed. It was a mess, but I was immediately distracted by the state she was in. Her eyes were closed, and she was purring softly. I’d once heard cats purred when they were injured, and it seemed the same was true for Betty. One of her ears looked bent at a nasty angle. Blood was dripping down her forehead. I could see a red stain in the side of the white shirt I’d given her. Her skin was burnt and red where oil had eaten away at it. I rested a hand on the side of her head, and she made a soft mewling noise of pain, her eyes opening. “Hey… You’re home. Finally.” I crouched next to her, feeling my heart hurt.

“Betty… Do you- Should I call an ambulance? How can I help?” She looked at me, her brilliant green eyes flashing. Her tail flickered a bit. The fur was matted, and it hung at a crooked angle.

“Pet me,” She whispered. I opened my mouth to tell her to be serious, and then shut it. I reached out, and stroked her hair. She let out a soft mewl, and her skin seemed a little less red. “Did you bring the salmon?” she asked, her voice a touch stronger. I nodded. “Thank god you can take direction. Got something for you.” She reached up towards her chest, and I averted my eyes, still petting her, as the torn and tattered shirt exposed her for a moment. Then she held up a rather ratty looking pair of twenties, and a ten-dollar bill. She pressed the money into my hand. “Got you this. Told you I was good luck.”

She lay back against the bed, purring loudly, as I kept petting her. I gently lifted the shirt a bit, to check her side. There was quite a lot of blood on her skin, on the bed, and on the shirt, but no sign of where it had come from. I heard a crunch, and watched as one of her ribs readjusted itself under the skin.

“What the hell did this to you, Betty?” I asked, as I stroked her hair, brushing it back out of her eyes. She was still a mess, but she didn’t look like she had been run over by a car anymore. “I thought you were hunting birds.”

“Really big bird. Had yellow feathers. Kept telling me I hadn’t been donating to public television.” I leaned forward, resting my head against hers. She purred loudly. I felt better. If she could tell bad jokes, then she couldn’t be that badly injured. I lifted her up, my arms sliding beneath her shoulders and her knees. She was surprisingly heavy for her size, and I could feel the stiff, toned muscle beneath her skin. “Where are you taking me now? I’m comfy.”

“You need a bath.” She put up quite a spirited fight as I carried her to the bathtub, but once I began running the hot water over her wounds, she seemed to relax. Where the sticky black oil had covered her, the skin was reddened, though the flush seemed to be going away as I washed her. Despite her protests, she seemed to be much happier as I began to comb the oil out of her hair. “Well, I’m sure you won the fight against the big bird.” She nodded proudly, and I rested a hand on her forehead. Her eyes closed, and she leaned back into the water, one of her legs lifting out of it.

I tried not to stare. She was a painfully attractive woman when she was shaped like a human. The fact that the white T-shirt she had borrowed was turning transparent in the water was making it very hard to look directly at her. Much like staring at the sun, if I watched her too closely, I might go blind. Of course, it would probably be because she’d gouged my eyes out. I’d seen enough Japanese media to know how this sort of thing went.

I opened the linen closet and selected a couple of large, soft, fresh towels. I helped her stand up out of the bath, and brushed her down. She accepted it with bad grace, making a low, rumbling sound that resembled a chainsaw. Both in its tones, and in the likelihood that I would lose a finger if I kept touching. Eventually, though, I managed to lead her out into the living room, and on top of the couch, where she huddled between the two towels. I frowned. I could swear there was more black oil out here than before. I must have accidentally dripped some on the floor as I was carrying her. She snuggled up, and purred loudly. I rested a hand on her head, and she nuzzled it.

I walked into the kitchen, and turned on a fan. The smell of burnt coffee coming from the oil was making me nauseous. I poured a little salt and pepper onto the slender salmon filets while the oven pre-heated, and placed them on a baking sheet. “You know, if you were going to wash yourself off in the shower when you got in, you could at least have left it running long enough to clean out the tub.”

“Mmmm?” She asked from the living room. I heard a soft creak behind me.

“The bathtub was filled with oil when I got here.”

“Well, I didn’t do it.”

There was a moment of silence. I spun, and a fist caught me around the throat. The tall, skinny black-oil thing lifted me up with superhuman strength, yellow eyes glowing madly. Its pupils were darting around, as it held me up. “You, er, bastard, you, er, bastard, you, er, bastard-” Its voice was just a fraction too fast, and it repeated like a record stuck running over the same section over and over again. Its fist was tightening, my eyes beginning to feel swollen, like they were about to pop. My temples pounded, as I stared into those wild yellow eyes. I clawed at the gooey black flesh of its arm, and my fingers burned as they sank into the thick sludge. “I, er, am going, er, to kill you, then, I’m, er, going, er, to kill, er, that, er, er, er, er-”

The psychotic litany was cut off by a wet noise, and the thing’s head fell off, splattering to the floor with a notable lack of dignity. The creature’s fist opened, and I landed on my ass. The slime collapsed to the ground, making an almighty mess. I gasped for breath, my heartbeat slowing as my head stopped spinning. The mummified shape of a human body fell, revealing Betty. She stood over me, frowning. She was also entirely naked, and bending over to check my eyes. “Are you alright?” She didn’t sound the way she usually did, kittenish and playful. Her voice was serious. She smacked my cheek. “Hey! Answer me! Can you tell how many fingers I’m holding up?”

“You… aren’t holding up any fingers, Betty.” She nodded with apparent satisfaction, and turned on the sink, washing her right hand clean of the trails of black slime on her fingers. “What the hell was that?”

“Oily thing. I killed its master earlier tonight. Apparently it sent one of its thralls to get revenge on me. Weird behavior. Usually they’d just scuttle off to hide, and try to gather enough strength to replace its master. Prey’s behaving strange.” She frowned, and shook her head. “Make sure the salmon doesn’t burn!” She turned, and walked into the bedroom. She exited moments later, pulling on another of my shirts. The shreds of the previous shirt were resting on the floor.

The aroma of salmon filled the air as I opened the oven. Rich, savory, and sweet. I set the plate down in front of her, feeling the weight of the money in my pocket. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?” I asked, as I took a seat by her side. She smiled, and began to dig in. That seemed to be as close to a ‘go ahead’ as I was going to get. “Did you steal that money?”

“Yes. But it was from a watchman who didn’t give me food, so that’s okay.” She smiled innocently as she lifted flakes of the rose-colored filet bare-fingered, eating hungrily. Her ears were perked, her tail swaying back and forth lazily as she ate, leaning into me, and brushing her cheek across my side.

“That’s not legal, you know.”

“Ah, not legal for humans. I’m a cat. I can do all kinds of things humans aren’t allowed to. Plus, I’m a goddess.” I thought about my empty refrigerator. Fifty dollars could buy a decent amount of food, and I wasn’t in the mood to argue morality with the person who had just saved my life.

“What were those things?”

“Oily things. They attacked once before, when I was in Rome. Might have attacked at other times, but I never heard about them, so probably not. They gather in big cities, with complicated water-works. They try to infect people. Pour into them, create a sort of hive-mind, and take over the city. They come from another world. They’re not big on confrontation. This one fought a lot harder than it did the last time.”

“You’re saying… It’s the same thing?”

“Oh, yes. Only one oily thing, as far as I know. It was really desperate. It probably was running from something.” I swallowed, hard.

“If this thing takes over cities… What would scare it so much?”

Queen Betty shrugged. “Who knows. A bad god. Some horde or another. There are lots of bad, frightening things that lurk out in the darkness. Human beings that spend too much time thinking about it get kind of messed up! One of my humans, I told him too much about what happened. He never went around seafood again, and he’d get really terrified of rats. I told him I’d take care of it, but he just kept talking about the good old ones, and the rats in the walls…” She sighed, shaking her head. “There are a lot of scary things out there, Horace. But you know, you can help me.”

“How?”

“By making sure we have plenty of salmon, and by petting me, and by caring for me. That’s The Deal. I made it with humans, a long time ago. If I had a human, they would feed me, and shelter me, and provide companionship where necessary. And I would keep the dark things from killing you all.” She smiled. “And you have very nice warm hands, and you cook tasty fish for me.” I stared down at the mummified corpse, still sitting on the linoleum of the kitchen. It was shriveled, shrunken. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to deal with that, but it wasn’t a question for tonight. Tonight had more than enough questions lingering already.

“Then… If I keep you. More of those things are going to try to kill me, aren’t they? They’ll try to get at me because I make you stronger. It’d be easier to kill me than you.”

Betty leaned against me, looking down. Her tail was flicking back and forth, agitated. I rested a hand on her head, and it seemed to bring her out of her reverie. “Yeah. It’s The Deal. I protect everyone. But the person who takes care of me, they are in danger. In the old days, there were special priests who did the duty as my caretaker. They didn’t usually live long. It’s a risk, taking care of me. I wouldn’t blame you if you told me to leave.” I stared down at the plate, and smiled. Then, I laughed. She glanced up at me, frowning. “I’m serious!”

“I know you are.” I grinned, rubbing the tears out of my eyes, smiling brightly. “I just… I can hardly believe it. You know?” All of those worries about the apocalypse. About what I could do to help. And I’d been given a way. “I can’t believe you’re willing to protect the world in exchange for some salmon and a warm place to sleep at night. That’s… way more selfless than I would expect from a cat.” She preened, grinning, apparently pleased by this statement.

“I can afford to be thoughtful to my subjects. Humans go to such lengths to care for all of my children, after all. It allows one to be… magnanimous.” She stretched out, lying across my lap, yawning as she pinned me down, a smile on her face. “So, you won’t be turning me out into the streets again?” I thought of the sight of her, covered in blood and making weak noises on my bed. My imagination conjured up an image of what might have happened to her if there hadn’t been somewhere for her to recover.

“No. Definitely not. I told you, I’m not going to turn you out.” I frowned. “But, you really shouldn’t be stealing, either.”

“I’m probably still going to. There are offerings that are supposed to be made. It is another part of the deal. The duty of caring for me is meant to come with certain rewards.” She smiled cheerfully.

“You’re going to do this no matter what I tell you, aren’t you.” She nodded. “And even if I don’t use the money, you’re going to keep doing it.” She nodded with a bright, open grin. “You know, for the amount that salmon filet cost me, I could have bought you about three pounds of tuna.” She smiled indulgently, as she rolled onto her back, looking up into my eyes. I found it very hard to return the look. She didn’t blink much.

“The point is not to fill my belly. It is to have the finest things. The salmon is very fine indeed. And even if it’s more expensive, it is worth that expense.” She reached up, and toyed with my hair lightly. “In the same way, if I wanted to, I could have the entire city worshiping me, and saying prayers to me. But that is not as satisfying to me as a single devout believer, who labors for my good alone. Some gods may believe in quantity over quality. But I like to have just one really good worshiper.” She giggled, and purred, curling up. Her breathing began to grow regular.

“Betty, I still need to take care of things. I haven’t even had dinner yet!” She yawned sleepily, and pushed her face against my stomach, purring loudly.

“I can’t see how that’s my problem, Horace.” She slid her arms around my waist, squeezing me lightly, and like that, she was asleep.

I leaned back, and let out a slow sigh. I had always harbored a secret desire to make the world better. To do something that would help everyone, to protect people. I’d wanted to be a firefighter, and then a doctor, and then a scientist, and then a lawyer. And along the way, I’d begun to lose any hope of being able to do anything meaningful. It had seemed so easy to change the world when I was a child, and the world was tiny and barely anyone lived in it. Then I’d grown up and discovered just how many people there were, and how badly they were suffering. I’d hoped to, at most, preserve one or two of them.

And here the world was giving me a chance to do something that mattered. It would be dangerous, but I could help her, and keep people safe. And her. I stroked Betty’s ears slowly, and she let out a soft purr, her tail swaying slightly as she opened her eyes for a moment, and then closed them. And I thought again about the sight of her, broken and helpless on the bed. The thing that had done that to her had been running from something much more frightening. I trailed my fingers through her hair, and frowned.

She thought she could do it all alone. But I’d seen personally that she couldn’t. I needed to find a way to get stronger. Something I could do to help protect her. I wasn’t content to just stay home and worry about the things out there in the darkness.

I woke up at 4 AM. My stomach growled, and I limped over to the refrigerator. There was no sign of the mummified body, or Queen Betty. I decided I wasn’t going to ask any questions about that if I saw her again. In the mean-time, I made myself breakfast, and surfed the internet for an hour or so, allowing my brain to dissolve into a soft slurry. By the time 6 AM rolled around, I was on my way to work. I spent the next twelve hours in the copier room.

“Do you know what I say about potential, my boy?” I froze. Randall Creed was standing in the open door frame. I had been working diligently, but something about his voice always made me feel like I’d been jerked out of a sound sleep while on the job. I stood up straight, and the words came right from my hindbrain.

“It’s a lie people tell themselves to suggest their position is a choice, rather than a fate. It’s what they say because they haven’t achieved anything but want to feel like they still have control.” The words burned a bit as I said them. I hated my uncle’s philosophy.

“Hrn. Good. You remember everything I’ve told you.” The old man stepped closer. “It’s also not the whole truth.” The old man pulled out a chair from the table next to the copier. He took a seat, and waved to the other chair. I sat down beside him, feeling nervous. Mister Creed’s voice was cracked, more exhausted than it usually sounded, and there were bags under his eyes “I talked with an old friend of mine last night. I brought up your little story about what happened to the window, and the door. And he told me I should look at the tapes. Just in case.” It was late. Most of the other people in the office had gone home by now. I had been getting ready to go home when the old man had come in.

“And what did you see?” I asked, frowning. Mister Creed was quiet for a moment.

“Do you drink, son?” He took out a flask.

“No, sir.”

“Hrn. Kids today. Teetotaler?”

“No, sir. I just remember the time you fired someone for bringing beers to the company party. You told him you despised people who drink on the job.”

“There are always exceptions, son. Drink.” He handed me the flask. I took a sip. It tasted vaguely like orange juice after you brush your teeth. I did my best to choke it down, and handed the flask back to him. “I come across as something of a tyrant, don’t I, son?” There was a moment of silence. “Do I come across as a tyrant, or don’t I, damn it?” The man’s cheeks were red. He’d never struck me, growing up, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t scared of him. Of course, I’d gotten choked by a psychotic oil-covered corpse from New England last night. There wasn’t all that much room for fear left in me.

“I don’t know about a tyrant, sir…”

“Don’t bullshit me, son.” I sighed. I was sick of the games. The lessons. The horrible things he did to people.

“You’re a cruel, hard-working bastard who never had his own family and who treats the entire office like they should follow your example. I’ve seen you personally reduce an attorney of 15 years practice to tears after a five minute talk. There are standing rumors you sold your soul to the devil floating around the office. Not for any kind of gain, but because you thought having a soul was a sign of weakness. You’re a tyrant, an asshole, and I think you’re wrong about everything you’ve ever said, sir.” I braced myself for the explosion of anger, and was surprised when the old man simply chuckled, his wrinkled face breaking into a smile.

“And that’s the other side to potential. Sometimes, a person really does have potential. Iron’s damn brittle stuff, but when you force it into fire, and hammer the ever-loving shit out of it, it turns into steel.”

“People aren’t iron, sir.”

“Feh. You’re so much like your goddamn father. Soft. Too damn soft for this world.” He took a swig of the flask, and growled. “And while I appreciate your willingness to stand up to me, remember that if you ever do it in front of the other employees here, I will turn your life into an unending nightmare.”

“Dear god, sir. You mean you’d make me an associate?” He laughed, a crackling, grinding noise. Then it ended as suddenly as it began, and he leaned forward.

“I saw something horrible in those tapes, son. Something from out of the darkness. Something damned dangerous.” He looked me in the eye, his gaze firm. “If you ever see that thing again, I want you to tell me. Alright? There are some horrible things in this world. I thought the peace would last longer than this, but I guess we didn’t get rid of them as well as we thought, your father and I.” He sighed, and I stared at him. He’d never talked about my father before. And he’d sure as hell never mentioned anything like this. “I guess that this is the price you pay for the things that we did. Getting dragged into the same madness that we found ourselves neck-deep in when we were young.”

“What? The oily things?” I rested a hand on his shoulder. Carefully, at first, like touching a stove to see if it was still hot. “Hey, it’s okay. You know? I… met someone. They’re going to keep me safe. Alright? It’s all going to be okay.” He was hunched over, his eyes lidded. I’d never seen the old man like this before. “They’re not that dangerous, apparently. Everything’s going to turn out fine.”

“Not the Ateroleum.” He grunted. “The other one. The old killer. She’s bad luck, boy. She’s always around when things go to hell. After all, how do you think your father died?” I stared. And then the old man slumped forward, the flask hanging loosely from his hand. I shook him.

“What the hell do you mean how my father died?!” I shook him again, and watched with a certain amount of annoyance as he slouched forward in the chair, snoring loudly. I took a moment, and swore very loudly. It made me feel a lot better. “We’re going to be discussing this again.” I murmured to the unconscious man, as I carefully hefted him up. He was surprisingly light, leaning against my shoulder, as I carried him back towards his office. The large, plush seat leaned back as I gently sat my uncle down at his desk. I stared at him for a few seconds. “Tyrant,” I muttered, and headed for the door.

Then, I noticed the large envelope in the out-tray. It was addressed to me. I frowned, and picked it up, opening it up. A slender DVD slid out of the envelope. It was a security recording. I looked around the office, and made my way to my small cubicle, popping the DVD into the computer. It was a video, from the building across the street. I skipped forward in the video, until I found the moment when the glass had broken. I watched, as the two black figures tumbled with Betty, until they struck the ground. All three of them with their inhuman features fairly clear as they split up in different directions.

It was proof.

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