I stood in the entrance to the police station, holding the tape in my hand, and feeling slightly foolish. When I had seen the video of the dark creatures splattering on the ground, I had been certain that it was important. But I was slowly realizing, I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have any contacts in the media, and the idea of going up to the local TV news station and presenting it as some kind of evidence struck me as a wonderful idea for a prank, but a very bad way to try to get information into the hands of the people who needed it. I had no credibility, and no one to show the information to. So, after a week, I had decided to settle for vindication. But standing here in the busy lobby, I wasn’t sure how to find who I was looking for. I settled for standing with a lost and confused look on my face. That’s when she approached me, and in a tone with absolutely no good humor in it at all, said “Hello, sweet-cheeks.”
“Sergeant Larson, I’m glad to see you. Look, I’m sorry about my uncle, but I’ve got something-”
The dirty blonde hair hung over her eyes in a way that couldn’t have fit regulation. She was dressed in a desk officer’s uniform, her hat drawn over her eyes. The sergeant had been the one to interrogate me when the Ateroleum had tried to kill me. She looked like she was holding a grudge about that night. Randall Creed had that effect on people. “Young man, I have enough trouble to deal with already. I do not need to be harassed by a spoiled rich kid who thinks his connections will get him out of trouble with the law-” She stopped, as I held up the disc, frowning.
“Please. Just watch this. It’ll only take a couple of minutes.” She looked me hard in the eye. I’d been practicing with Betty, though. After you got into a staring contest with someone who didn’t blink, human competition wasn’t nearly as daunting. After nearly a minute, she pulled off her cap, and sighed.
“If this is a waste of my time, kid…” She left the rest of the threat unspoken, but her body language elaborated on it in graphic detail. The two of us slipped into the rear of the station, and she led me to a small office. I stood and watched her as she popped the DVD in. Her expression turned from suspicious, to shocked, took a brief detour through nausea, and settled on blank. I watched her. To my great surprise, she wasn’t asking me whether it was a hoax, or a fake. The video quality was decent, but I had to admit that it had occurred to me. Instead of accusations, however, she simply sat there, her face drawn. “Do you know what those things are?” she asked softly.
“I… have an idea. Someone close to me called them Ateroleum, I think. Latin. They’re made out of oil and dead bodies. They’re from somewhere… Else. I don’t really know much about them beyond that.” The sergeant leaned back in her chair, and took out a pack of cigarettes, slipping one between her lips. She lit it up, and my eyes flickered up to the ‘Thank you for not smoking’ sign on the wall. Someone had scratched out the ‘not’ with a knife. “Sergeant, I know this is kind of crazy, but I think that it’s real. One of these things tried to strangle me to death last night.” She stared at me.
“How the hell are you still alive? Pardon my french, but I’ve been hearing about these things for the last month. Then, suddenly, after getting a murder report practically every other day, they just… disappeared. No more killings.” She frowned. “Do you know why they stopped?” I weighed the options. Honesty hadn’t served me very well with anyone so far, but it was always worth another try.
“I think my cat killed them.” I could see from the look on her face that Honesty should have been leavened with a little more Tact. I leaned forward and placed my hands on her desk, trying to get her to make eye contact. “Someone killed off the creature that was responsible for making those thralls. I’m treating it like my cat, and she said one of them got away. Look, I need to tell people about this. If there are these kinds of crazy, monstrous things walking around the city, people need to know about them. They need to protect themselves.” Her eyes moved down to the desk, her lips setting into a hard line, and I lifted my hands off of it. “I came to you because I thought… I don’t know. I guess this was a dead end.” I frowned. “You can keep the disc. I made copies. If you know someone who could do something useful with it…”
She leaned back in her chair, and pulled her shirt up. “See this?” I had turned my head aside when the shirt had begun to lift. “For christ’s sakes, kid, I’m not hitting on you. Look at this.” I looked.
“They’re very nice.” She spat out a curse and another ‘Pardon my french’. Then, I looked closer. Across her stomach were three jagged white lines, in parallel. They looked very much like the kind of scars you’d have after something tried to gut you.
“About a year back, me and a couple of other cops were performing an eviction on an old tenement. This old lady is refusing to leave the premises, and threatening to burn the place down around her. We force entry, and suddenly, where there was an old lady, there’s this nine foot tall thing with a face like a rat and…” She shuddered visibly. “Claws. It tore the head off of one of my men, and nearly gutted me before running off. I spent a month in the hospital recovering, and I got damn lucky.” She puffed on the cigarette, the tip flaring like a cherry.
“I’m sorry,” I said, not sure what else to say.
“Kid, I know that there are some hideous things out there. The thing about this, though… That rat-thing ran. The… ‘Ateroleum’… were being careful about not being spotted. We’ve found a few signs of them going out of their way to destroy records of their presence. They don’t show up on the video in your building. We don’t usually get many reports of them.” She pointed at the screen. “So the question I have for myself is, when all of these bugshit- pardon my french- freaks are being so careful about not being spotted, why do you have this tape?”
“They were a bit distracted. Maybe they didn’t have the time to clean up after themselves. They were getting attacked by whoever that woman is.” Honesty had been going badly. I was going to give it a little time before telling her that the woman was my cat.
“Maybe. But think about what they were going after. The Ateroleum targeted mostly drifters, the homeless, unemployed loners. People who wouldn’t be missed. Then they go after you in the middle of a prestigious law firm.” She stared down at the video. “Do you know why criminals make mistakes? Because they get desperate. Because doing things carefully would take time they don’t think they have.” She puffed on the cigarette, and stubbed it out on the desk. “So. What’s your connection with all of this supernatural weirdness? How do you know their name?”
“I heard it from my uncle. He said that’s what they’re called. He was drunk as hell.”
“Have you asked him more?”
“No. He’s… Not an approachable person.”
She smirked. “Yeah, I met him. Real charming guy with the sexism and all.” She sighed softly. “Alright. You said they were dead, yeah? Did you get all of them?” I frowned.
“I don’t know. One of them got away to attack me. There might be another one out there.” She swore under her breath.
“Pardon my french, but… Ah, god damn it!” She threw the cigarette butt at the corner. A rat skittered out of the way, and hissed at the two of us, rearing onto its hind legs, before disappearing through a hole in the wall. It was shiny and black, with brilliantly red eyes. “Damn things have infested the station house lately. We’ve been getting promised an exterminator for months.” She sighed. “The little bastards still freak me out.” Her hand had gone to her stomach. Her expression turned contemplative.
“I’m going to share something with you. I don’t want you spreading it around, because it’s not strictly legal. There are a few of us on the force who have seen strange things. We get together sometimes on the weekend, to try to track them down. Make things a little safer in the city in our spare time. If you get any more information like this, or if you should happen to find out about where one of these things is hiding…” She took out a small card, and a pen, and scribbled down a number, handing it to me. “Leave it to the professionals to take care of this kind of thing. Alright?” She smiled. “We know what we’re doing out there.”
I took the card, and slipped it into my pocket. “Thanks, Officer.” I frowned. “So. What do I do about the disc?”
“My advice… Put it in a safe place. If there’s something serious happening out there… To be frank, kid-”
“Horace.” She raised an eyebrow. “My name. It’s a little bit less embarrassing than having you call me kid all the time. I’m in my twenties.”
“Dane.” She gave a brief smile. “To be frank. The city is a dangerous enough place as it is. People don’t do well when they’re frightened, and while these things are bad, they’re not that common. My advice is just let it stay secret. If people start panicking, things could get bad. We still don’t know much about these things, and that means people are more likely to panic if they find out they’re out there.” She shook her head. “People are a panicky, unruly mob. You can’t trust them with the truth. Most of the time, they’ll just hurt themselves with it.” She smiled wanly. “That’s one of the benefit of years of experience on the force.”
“Sounds like a pretty dark way to look at the world, Dane.”
“Yeah. But amateurs should stay out of the things they can’t handle. Me and my people, we’re trained to deal with this kind of thing. More or less.” She sighed softly. I looked at her face. There were bags under her eyes. Her expression was strained, and there were a few strands of white in her hair. She couldn’t have been out of her forties, but she looked like death warmed over.
“Hey, uh… Would you be willing to come over to my place, this Saturday?” She stared at me. “Not in a romantic sense. Just… You look like you could use a home-cooked meal or something.” She frowned at me, and I shrugged. “Think it over. Alright? You look like you could use a chance to… Well, feel like a human being again.” I tore a section off of the card she had given me, and scribbled down my address. “Here. Just in case you feel like it.”
She snorted. “I look that bad, huh?” Nevertheless, she took the card. “I’m going to accept this invitation, but only because I love food that doesn’t come out of a can.” I gave her a bracing smile, and walked out, trying not to look disappointed by what had happened. She knew more about what was going on than some people, but clearly, not enough. It seemed like nobody was certain what they were dealing with. That was frustrating, but typical.
I walked down the stairs and out into the thick, musty heat of the evening. Garbage was piled high on the curb, and the stench of it was a uniquely New York experience, organic and sinus-sizzling. I took a deep breath through my mouth and did my best to hold it until I was in the subway. Once in the cloying heat of the subways, I took a few deep breaths to clear the smell out of my head. I consoled myself that at least I knew that the city had some sort of measure in place to deal with the supernatural.
I would’ve felt better about it if said measure had been something more effective than a group of traumatized police officers going hunting on their days off.
On my way out of the subway, I was stopped by a waving hand. “Horace!” I looked down, and nearly lost my lunch. Harold gave me a bright grin. “Yeah, I know, I look like shit.” His nose and lips were black, looking painfully damaged. “Black plague. Who would have guessed, right?” He coughed into his hand. “Managed to survive, though. Not even infectious anymore, although it was a bit touch and go.” I tried hard not to let the animal terror inside of me make him feel uncomfortable.
“Christ. How’d it happen, Harold? How’d you survive, for that matter?”
“Same way it happens to everyone. Those fucking rats, and their goddamn fleas. That church I told you about helped get me treatment, though. They’re doing an outreach program for the homeless in the city.” His nose was gone, leaving only a pair of nostrils, and his teeth were bared by the damage to his lips. “They took me in, got me treated up right. Even looking into some prosthetics. I always thought I could use a bit of a nose job!” He laughed, and I smiled along, even though it hurt to think of that happening to him.
I’d known him since I’d moved into the neighborhood, and I hadn’t even known he’d been sick. He could’ve died, and I’d never have known. He continued on, heedless of my green expression. “You should come down some time. They could use some more people helping out. There’ve been a lot of cases in the city, lately. They could use a nice kid like you helping out. They’re good, real professional- Heck, you’ll probably even keep your nose!” He grinned, white teeth visible and shining. I felt a little chill, but managed to return the smile.
“That sounds really admirable. Where’s the church?”
“Ah, they’ve got a clinic going on the corner of eighty-eighth and Broadway. Drop in this weekend, it’d be great to have you by!” He grinned, and showed more teeth than I’d ever wanted to be able to see in a smile. I fished into my wallet, and dropped a 20 into his lap. “Hah! Hey, that’s the plus side about this: People are real generous with a plague survivor!” He gave me a wink as he scooped up the twenty. “Stay safe!”
“You too, Harold.” I smiled weakly as I set off down the street. I wasn’t having a very good day. It got worse when I got home, and found half a dozen dead rats arrayed in a little starburst on the floor of my apartment, just beyond the door. Their bright red eyes stared sightlessly up at me, horrified expressions on their tiny mouths.
“Betty! Why! Why would you do this to me!”
Queen Betty lay across the couch, wearing one of my casual shirts. LOVE GOD was stretched across her chest, written in slender, scratchy script. I’d never had the guts to wear it outside of the house, but it looked fetching on her. She smiled from her place on the couch. “You wanted to get stronger, right? To be a great hunter? Well, this is how I would teach my own kittens! Starting with the prey, so you know what they look like.” She stood up, and picked up one of the thick, slick-furred black rats by the tail. Its wide red eyes stared accusingly into my soul, asking me how I would live with myself, knowing that this tiny act of slaughter had been committed in my name. “Now, eat.”
“I am not going to eat that. For so many reasons. It’s a rat. There are cases of black plague going around. It’s a rat. I don’t know where it’s been. It’s a damn rat, Betty! I’m not eating it!”
She shook her head, still holding the rat up to me. “I know what plague rats smell and taste like. I’d never feed you one of those! These are perfectly healthy, untainted rats. Good!” She held one up to her mouth, and I covered my eyes. There was a crunching sound. “Mmmm! The heads are the best part!” Her words were muffled by a mouthful of something. I groaned softly.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get the salmon yesterday. The price had gone up! It was expensive! But I got some this evening on my way back, alright? Just please, never eat a rat in front of me again!” The sound was going to be a key feature in my nightmares for a long time. She giggled, and I opened my eyes. She was holding the clearly un-eaten rat, and a large, partially chewed walnut was visible between her teeth. I glared daggers at her. “Clean those up. And remember to use the blue trash-bags for organic stuff.” I gagged, and walked into the bathroom. If I’d eaten lunch, I probably would’ve been heartily sick. As it was, I just lay with my head on the cold porcelain of the toilet until I felt better.
When I made my way into the kitchen, Betty was sitting on the counter, tail flicking back and forth. “How was your day at work?” she asked, smiling cheerfully, her eyes fixed on the package I had left on the counter.
“You know, I’m perfectly aware you’re just asking to be polite, and you really want that salmon right now.”
“Heheh, yeah, bosses can be such a pain.”
“You’re not paying attention to me at all, are you.”
“Well, you know, you’re a valuable employee!”
I sighed. Funnily enough, what she said made me feel better, even if it was completely detached from reality. I began preparing the slender salmon filets, and Betty slipped a twenty onto the counter. “You know, the only reason I accept these is because I don’t know who to return them to, and it would be illegal to destroy them.”
“Yes, I’ve heard your justifications! Salmon salmon salmon,” she sang, smiling, her eyes fixed on the meat, her tail beginning to flicker back and forth, agitated. I popped it into the oven, alongside a large potato. “So, did you end up showing that disc to the police like you said?”
“Yeah. I met the same woman who interviewed me the night we met. She told me that if I shared it with people, it would just make them scared, and panic them, because they can’t do anything about it.” I frowned down at the oven. “She might be right, too.”
“So strange. You know, in the old days, part of the duties of my human was to announce when I was going to be taking on a new threat. They would go to the city forum, and shout it to the heavens, as I prepared to battle dark things. And when I defeated them, everyone in the city would know that I was there, protecting them! They weren’t scared at all by rumors of monsters in the dark.” She gave a bright grin. “Because they had their own monster out there, protecting them. Why would these watchmen be frightened of people knowing the truth?”
“I guess that they’re a bit less confident that they can succeed. And maybe people trust their protectors a bit less, nowadays. I think she’s right, at least partially. If people knew that there were dark things out there…” I shook my head “The good guys don’t always win. You know? If people knew how close things were to falling apart, how would they be able to keep living their lives? Knowing that at any moment, everything might end.” I leaned forward. My head felt suddenly very heavy, and I could barely stand under the weight of it. Then I felt Betty’s hand resting on my shoulder, nails digging reassuringly into my shoulder. My mood lightened, even as I winced.
“Ah, the silly things humans worry about. Perhaps the world will end. Perhaps it won’t. If you live your life fearing the consequences of your actions, then how can you act?” She smiled, and pressed her face against my neck, purring loudly as she rubbed her cheek against me. “What’s important is that in a few minutes, there will be salmon, and if you’re smart and clever, there will be salmon tomorrow, too. And you will know that I am strong, and the world is not so dark a place as you may fear. Now, I’m pretty sure that salmon is ready.”
“It’s only been in there for about three minutes.”
“Oh, come on!” She protested, frowning, and gave my neck a gentle bite.
“You can bite me all you like, but it’s not going to make the fish cook any faster.”
A few minutes later, the two of us sat in the living room, on the couch. She had her arms crossed under her head, her mouth open, as she lay with her head in my lap. I fed her morsels of the salmon, and she purred loudly. And I thought about what my uncle had said. She was kind, and capricious, and careless, and protective. She’d saved my life twice now, and she had protected me, and she was attractive enough that life around her was a kind of enjoyable hell. “Betty… Have you ever killed people? Humans, I mean.”
She was quiet for a few moments. “Horace, the Deal was to protect two things. My human, and humanity, as a whole. If it meant protecting you, or one of my priests, or humanity, then yes, I would kill a human. And I have. Some people aren’t good. Some people, well. They need to die.” I stared down at my food. I didn’t feel very hungry, all of a sudden. I pushed the salmon filet around the plate slowly, feeling a little gnawing sense of worry. “Hey, are you going to eat that?” She asked, smiling. I cut off a section of the salmon, and held it up for her. She gently nipped it from out between my fingers, and purred loudly.
“Did you ever know-” She bolted upright, staring at the walls, her ears lifted, her tail standing straight up. I listened, and in the silence, I could hear a soft scratching. She disappeared into the bathroom. “My father.” I finished lamely. I sighed, and walked to the kitchen to clean up. I could hear the distant sound of squeaking in the walls. Then, it was cut off abruptly. It was good to know that Betty was on the job. I made my way to the bedroom, and lay down. I woke up a few times in the night, to find Betty curled up next to me, her arms around my shoulders, purring loudly as she licked and groomed my hair. It made me quite happy until I thought about where her mouth had been.
The next morning, she was gone again. I didn’t see any sign of Harold as I went down the street to the subway station. The air conditioning wasn’t working on the subway, and I sweated clean through my shirt. I needed to get one of those bike rentals, but they still hadn’t made their way up to where I lived. Work helped, a bit. Uncle Randall kept the office at a brisk sixty degrees during the summer. Too cold to be comfortable for most people, but it certainly kept everyone alert and awake.
“Did you hear? One of the Turtle Bay Twelve died in the hospital last night.”
“Really? Damn. This strike’s been going on for days now, what the heck are they hoping to accomplish? It was a fluke, getting the plague like that.”
“Apparently, they want the city to hire exterminators. The rat problem has been getting really out of hand. And if there’s bubonic plague… Well, it can be really dangerous.”
“Yeah, but with the sanitation workers striking, the trash is just piling up. That has to be a part of the problem.”
I stood in the copy room, organizing the files for the discovery process of one of the firm’s cases. The two interns were talking softly on the other side of the room as they worked on their boxes, but I could hear what they were saying. The memory of Harold’s face came back to me, and my stomach twisted. It was a good old-fashioned fuckup. People accidentally hurting each other through their actions, causing a public health crisis. There was nothing supernatural about the situation, just plain old human frailty.
I paused, and examined that thought for a moment, trying to figure out whether that made sense. Of course, it was odd, even unusual that there were so many rats around, but it didn’t necessarily mean that it had to be supernatural. I briefly wondered whether denying the supernatural nature of an event would guarantee it was supernatural, but life didn’t work that way.
“Horace.” The three of us went stiff. Randall was standing in the doorway. “My office. A word. You two. Have this finished by the time I’m done with him, or you’re going to be getting a black spot on your records.”
As the two of us walked out, I hazarded a question. “Did you mean a black mark?”
“No. I will hire pirates to kill them if they’re not finished by the time you’re done. Keeps them focused.” The two of us entered the office. I frowned. On the far wall, where there was usually a shelf full of legal texts, sat a massive, empty glass terrarium, lit from within. Then, something massive, scaled, smooth to the touch, and incredibly heavy fell on my shoulders.
I screamed, but in a very rugged and manly way, with no tones of little girl in it at all. Randall stood over me, frowning, as the massive albino-scaled snake loosely coiled itself around my shoulders. It had to be nearly thirty feet long, and it weighed enough to easily pin me down on the ground, on my back. I went very still. “So, you got out of your cage, you rascal? Someone must smell something he likes!” The old man grinned. “You been around rats lately, boy?”
“Sir, please don’t let your snake strangle and eat me.” The serpent coiled a bit tighter, although it was far from bonecrushing. Its tongue flickered out at my face, and it gave me a look that might have been cute had it not been attached to a predator that could effortlessly crush me into a fine jelly and devour me whole.
“Oh, he’s not interested in eating you. He doesn’t eat people.” Randall grinned. “Not anymore, anyway.” He reached into a drawer, and withdrew a large white rat. He tossed it into the air, and the python lunged upwards, snapping the rat down with two large gulps. It slithered off of me, and returned towards its cage, coiling up the bookshelf with surprising strength, and back into the large tank. Seeing it from a safe distance, it was a beautiful creature, cream and yellow scales shining under the heat lamps. “I’ve moved him here for now. Didn’t want him getting up to mischief while I spent long hours at the office.”
I took a seat at one of the chairs, shaking slightly, and swallowed. “Is that legal?”
“Not particularly.” The old man took a seat at the desk. “A few people have complained, of course. But I have a native wild-life rehabilitation license.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“It’s amazing how useful it can be.” Randall leaned back in his chair. “There are exceptions to every law. And I have something rather important to share with you. About your father, and I.” He tented his fingers together, frowning. “We used to be quite at odds with one another, you know. Brotherly rivalry. But the two of us fell in with…” He sighed. “It’s hard to describe. Somewhere between a cult, a country club, and a museum. We were chosen because of our spirit.” He smiled. “We saw strange things in those days. Monsters. And we slew them.” He looked up sharply. “Remember that. With monsters, it’s never ‘kill’, and certainly not ‘murder’. It’s a slaying. They’re not people, even if they act like it.” He was meandering.
“Uncle… Why are you telling me this?”
He was quiet for a few seconds. “It used to be so much more peaceful. I thought the dark things were all gone, that there was no more room for them in the world, that they’d been thrown back. Even with the order dying, I thought, perhaps, that there was no longer a need for it.” He leaned forward, tenting his fingers together, his thumbs flicking back and forth. “I was wrong. There may be a day, soon, when I will need your help. I will need to call on you, and ask you to believe in impossible things, and to help me. There is a great tide sweeping towards us. And I cannot handle it without your help, Oliver.” I froze.
“I’m… Uncle, it’s me, Horace. Not my father.” He started slightly, his eyes widening. Then he waved a hand, his face going hard.
“Yes. Sorry, just a bit of overwork. I suspect that I’ve been… Yes.” He shook his head. “I just need to know. When the moment comes, will you be willing to stand by my side, so that we can protect people? Will you do that for me?”
“Of course, uncle.”
“Good. Good,” he muttered to himself. “You know, I don’t test people because I hate them. Or because I want them to fail. I test them because… It is important to know how people will react when they are tested. Steel stands strong, but iron shatters. And when iron shatters, it can kill good men.” He looked down at the desk, frowning, and then looked up. “Return to your duties. I’ll tell you more at a later time.” I nodded, and stood up. “One more thing, boy. That woman. The one in the video.” I paused. “Have you seen her?”
He nodded with satisfaction. “Good. If you do, stay away from her. If you see her again… Be certain that you tell me about her. I will do everything that I can to keep you safe, my boy, but I will need you to trust in my judgment.”
“… Who is she?”
My uncle snorted. “She’s a monster from out of the night, Horace. She’s a dark old thing that should have stayed buried, just like the rest. That’s all you need to know about her. Trust me, the less you know in this world, the safer you are. Knowledge begets power, power begets responsibility, and there are some things that no one can bear the responsibility for.”
I walked out of the office, and made my way to the copier room. The two interns looked up, eyes wide. There was still a couple of boxes unsorted. “Don’t worry.” I smiled, in response to their terrified expressions. “He was just kidding with you.” And I quickly helped them sort the files, before anyone checked on us. You never really knew if the old man was joking or not.