I sat at the computer, looking down at my badge. Sergeant Dane Larson. I’d been so proud when I’d made sergeant. Just like Dad had always dreamed. He’d been there at the ceremony. He’d died a few years later, in the line of duty. Then my hand strayed down to my stomach. The cuts were long-healed, but I still winced when I touched them. A phantom of the pain that had ripped through me when that creature had gutted me like a fish. I swore I’d never let something like that happen to one of the officers under my command. Not when I could still do something about it.
The commissioner had asked me-personally, as a favor, to check out the break-in at Creed LLC. I’d thought it was because there was something important there. When the elder Creed had walked in, swinging his balls- pardon my french- like he owned the place, I’d been half tempted to write him right there. The commissioner and the district attorney had both told me to pack it in, and in I packed it. And now, here was the lesser Creed, telling me that he knew something about the supernatural, by way of his uncle. Which means the old… schmuck had probably had an inkling of what was going on. And was trying to keep me out of it.
I turned over to the small stack of books I kept in one of the large file cabinets, and picked one out. The kid had said something about ‘Ateroleum’. My Latin was almost rusty enough to be a historical artifact, but the name rang a bell. I pulled out the eleventh volume of Pliny’s Natural History.
Pliny had been a Roman philosopher and naturalist type, who had died because of toxic gas released by Mount Vesuvius. Embarrassing death aside, the man had put together what was functionally an encyclopedia of all contemporary knowledge of the Roman Empire at the time. There were ten volumes in the standard set, ranging on subjects from astronomy, through anthropology, to zoology. Everything worth knowing from the time period. The volume I held in my hands now was not on the official table of contents.
Most scholars who’d written about it said that it was fake, a cunning fraud, meant to bilk the unwary and the gullible. I saw my share of hoaxes, and might have written it off for the same reasons. Except, of course, for the picture that featured on its cover.
I ran my fingers across the cover. The long-clawed rat thing. Something added by the translator, it was one of a number of hand-sketched illustrations of creatures described therein. I’d bought it, and it had brought, if not genuine enlightenment, at least a bit more understanding about the things that I fought out there. The biggest part of the Watch was preparation, after all. I flipped the book open, and scanned through the pages. Soon, I’d found it. It was another illustration, this one black, and almost bird-like in its shape. Two large, yellow eyes, slitted like a cat’s. Pliny had written at length about them.
The creature called Ateroleum, so named because it bears a smell akin to burned olive oil, is a parasite of sorts. It was discovered in the great sewer tunnels of the city of Rome, and spreading itself among the community there. It shuns the touch of light, and fire is its bane. The creature spread out, consuming lives, and nearly ten score men were taken by it as it grew, until it was destroyed by a greater monster.
With its oil, it made thralls out of living men, mummifying them and replacing the blood in their veins with its own oil. Once the creature was destroyed, its thralls became strange and maddened. Some tried to kill those who had felled it, some tried to return to their lives. All of them were dangerous, and the better part of a cohort were injured or killed in the putting down of these creatures. The Ateroleum’s thralls had the strength of oxen, and skin that repelled the finest iron cudgels.
I put down the book, frowning as I leaned back in my chair. That was a lot of dead and injured men. In the six months since I’d started the Neighborhood Watch, we’d had maybe half a dozen encounters with strange things. Usually, we only had the barest idea of what we were dealing with, mostly from folklore or questionable sources. Things like the eleventh volume of Pliny’s Natural History, Monstrum.
And sometimes, it paid off. Like those kidnappers who’d gone into screaming conniption fits when they’d been pinned in iron cuffs, and who’d agreed to return the children they’d stolen in exchange for their freedom. Notably, they had not negotiated how, precisely, their freedom would be granted. I’d settled for cutting off their hands. It was better than they deserved. They seemed to agree.
Sometimes, though, there just wasn’t much information. Sometimes we weren’t fast enough. Sometimes things went wrong. There’d been six of us when we’d started. Even with the new recruit we’d taken on a couple of months back, we were down to four people. It would have to be enough. Things were going mad in the city. If these things were going to try to cause trouble, they weren’t going to get away with it easily.
I rubbed my hands together, and sat up, heading down to the range. There was something calming about it. Standing in the booth, the cool grip of the M4 in my hands, the heavy ear-protectors over my head, I stared down the line at the target. I took slow, steady breaths, letting my heartbeat calm. This was what I could do. I pulled back slowly on the trigger. There was a buck, and a smell of cordite in the air. All of it as it should be, action and reaction. Even if I couldn’t change the world, I could make a small part of it cleaner.
The vision of my own insides joyfully leaping into the fresh air and the smell of the rat made it hard to focus, though. I pushed the thoughts of trauma out of my head, and squeezed off another shot. It had been nearly a month since we’d last gone out on a hunt, after Pauly had lost his nerve when he saw something down in the sewers. The rest of us hadn’t caught a glimpse of it, but he’d gone white, and started screaming about eyes. He was still on psychological leave. It wasn’t the most encouraging outing we’d ever had. Still not the worst, though.
After half an hour and a box of ammunition, I decided that I would be prepared in case of an attack by sapient paper target people. I carefully unloaded the weapon, returning it. I took a few minutes to wash my hands in the sink, letting the hot water clean away the gunsmoke and the grease. Another quiet bit of ritual. I walked up the stairs, and stepped up to the desk sergeant, giving him a broad cheerful smile. “Hey, Gary. Anything unusual happening in the city today?”
“Oh, yeah, Larson. You’re going to fucking love this one.” The desk sergeant leaned back, an old gray-haired man with a grin a mile wide and a warm demeanor. “So, about half an hour, a guy in the meatpacking district called. Said he was jogging home from the grocery store, and a gorilla grabbed his dinner and ran off. How’s that for comical? I sent a couple of patrol officers down to check out the area, but they weren’t seeing anything. Guy sounded pretty drunk to me.” I smiled, even as I felt a cold little knot in my stomach. “What do you think? Neighborhood Watch going to be going after Koko?”
“Maybe.” I frowned. “Mind keeping me in the loop if you get any other strange reports from that area?”
“No problem, Larson. Have a good weekend, alright? Don’t spend the whole time traipsing around warehouses.” The old man gave me a grin.
The Neighborhood Watch met at John’s place. Technically speaking, it was an apartment, and accurately speaking, it was a basement. The four of us were gathered around his kitchen table, the pale light of the street lights illuminating the sidewalk outside. He had the room lit by a single overhead light. It always made me feel like someone was about to pull out a revolver with a single round, and place it on the table. We were to figure out what we were hunting tonight.
“Alright, boys.” I sat down at the table, a cigarette in hand. John, an older man with pale skin and a pair of shoulders like a bear, had a hard cider. I took it out of his hand. “No drinking. We’re going out tonight.” Marco sat in the corner, the young rookie disassembling the fancy combat shotgun he had brought, and carefully cleaning the bore.
“What we hunting tonight?” Hector asked, the dark-skinned man sitting back in one of the chairs. He had it balanced it on one leg as he moved his hips a little bit, keeping it upright through sheer bloody-minded equilibrium. “We’re not going after those rats, are we? They’re fucking nasty. Cousin of mine had to be hospitalized with plague. He was working for the city to try to do some extermination. Who the fuck even gets plague nowadays?”
“There’s that crazy girl who pickpocketed me,” John suggested. “I mean, I don’t know if she was a monster, technically, but we could at least track her down and give her a stern talking to, right?”
“I’ve been reading up a bit on something. Ateroleum ‘thralls’.”
Marco frowned. “What the heck is that? Sounds Italian.”
“Close. Roman. Means something like… ‘Dark oil.'”
“What, like, gasoline?”
“More like ‘nightmare fuel’.” John volunteered. I sighed.
“Thank you, John. That was very helpful. Etymology aside, they’re some kind of parasite. They take people over. Apparently, the Ateroleum thing itself got killed off by… Some guy’s cat.” The entire table went quiet, as the others stared at me, trying to judge if I had lost my mind. If anyone asked me, the answer was ‘yes’. “Look, that’s what he told me. Maybe he’s schizoid, but he suggested that at least one of its thralls got away. Somebody’s corpse, walking around, going crazy. And we need to put it down before it hurts someone.”
Marco nodded. “What do we know about the thing?”
“It’s vaguely human. Looks a bit like someone got dunked in a vat of oil. They’re very strong, and very tough, but supposedly, they’re vulnerable to light, and fire.” Marco brightened up. “Oh, Jesus, Marco, please tell me that you didn’t-”
He proudly proffered a large box. Inside were twenty-five shotgun shells, each a brilliant orange above the firing cap. “They just arrived yesterday. Fate, I’m telling you!” Dragon’s breath shotgun shells. The rookie had been excited about them for weeks. “Come on, tell me you don’t want to see a torrent of magnesium devouring some crazy-ass monster thing.”
“That would be pretty awesome, Larson.” John said, his voice as calm and neutral as only a man working my last nerve could manage.
“In an abandoned warehouse. In the middle of the meatpacking district. Where fires could so easily spread and devastate.”
“Ah! Got you covered.” Marco reached down into his duffel bag, and took out a large fire extinguisher, with a shoulder strap. John grinned.
“Hmmm. If we could corner the thing… I bring the riot shield forward, pin it back, harry it, until it’s in a narrow corner, Marco moves forward, unloads on it…”
“Hmm. Warehouse quarters aren’t the best for a rifle-man. I might need to take some time to find a good perch. We track the thing down, I’ll get into position, and when I see the fire, I land a few shots. Or I could come in with the rifle…” Hector continued, as I stood up, and moved over to the fridge. I pulled out a bowl of pasta, and reheated it in the microwave as the three traded ideas for maneuvers. It was the usual discussion. Once we were in the thick of it, plans would fall apart. Backup measures would fail, clever ideas would turn out to be not nearly clever enough. It was the truism of all combat that planning was mostly a farce. But it made them feel better. Hell, it made me feel better. Maybe if we were really damn clever, we’d think of everything before-hand.
John slid open the silverware drawer, and took out a massive machete. Eighteen inches long, thick steel, honed to a razor’s edge, he sat down with it. “Oh, for god’s sakes, John.” I shook my head. “You’re not a goddamn Colombian cartel killer.”
“Hey!” Marco said, though he seemed more amused than offended. I had no idea where he was from, but I’m pretty sure it was Staten Island, so I ignored him as John chuckled.
“Hey, you said this thing’s strong, and we need someone to keep it off of the rest of us. I’ll bring the riot shield, we’ll pin it back, leave it open for a shot. We’ll be back in time for a really late night drink.” John smiled. “Let’s get going.”
The four of us piled into the large Land Rover, our gear stowed in the back. We wouldn’t be in legal trouble if someone found it. New York assault weapons bans didn’t apply to the police, even off duty. It would be damned awkward, though. I checked my phone as we drove into the meatpacking district. “Two more calls. Both from people who saw something moving around in… The Department of Sanitation building. Shit. Pardon my french.” The four of us drove into the small driveway, just off the freeway around the city, just on the edge of the Hudson river.
The building had brick fronting. Eight windows faced out onto the street, dingy and grimy. Two of them were visibly broken open. Paul took the lead, Marco just behind him. Hector and I were carrying M4s, the safeties on. Tactical flashlights were clipped to the barrels of our weapons, three points of light illuminating the face of the building. The lights were off. “Man. I cannot believe we have to fight monsters in a garbage truck depot. What happened to the hot vampire chicks in clubs?” Marco growled, as he stepped forward.
This was the first time he’d gone out with us on one of these little hunting expeditions. He’d joined up with the Neighborhood Watch after he’d been attacked by something that had come through a mirror at him during a domestic disturbance call. He was eager, and he was a bit too much of an action-movie fan for my tastes. Nonetheless, the rookie was enthusiastic, and had a good heart, more or less, even if he occupied most of it with Soldier of Fortune back issues.
“Two downsides to a place like that.” Hector checked behind us as he spoke. “First of all, it’s not fun to shoot hot girls. Unless you’re a lot more messed up than we think. And second, it’s not fun to try to shoot monsters who are surrounded by panicky, intoxicated civilians.” He never told us what he’d seen that made him believe in the supernatural. He did get very nervous the one time we found a black cockerel nesting in an old abandoned apartment, though. I’d wondered about that a lot.
“Oh, man, yeah. House of the Dead style, right?” The three of us stopped to stare at Marco. “God damn, how old are you all?”
“Old enough that I can pretend not to understand what you’re saying.” John murmured, a grin on his face as he held the machete up, the large plastic riot shield transparent and providing a good view of the rest of the hallway. He was the oldest. He’d been on the same call as me when I’d been gutted by that rat-thing. He was the person on the squad that hadn’t gotten his head pulled off.
He stopped abruptly, holding up a hand. The three of us flicked on our lights, directing them forward. In the darkness, a squat, broad-shouldered figure was lifting cans out of a waste bin. It looked up at us, two bright yellow eyes flickering. The room was a large office, with several ancient looking computers, and a large drink machine pressed up against one wall. It was surprisingly clean.
“Recyclables. Separate.” It grunted, its voice low, grating, dull. It turned back towards the can. “You. Cut links. On six-packs?” The four of us exchanged glances. We had rather lost the initiative.
“It sounds intelligent, Larson.” John whispered. The creature had returned to sorting the cans, placing them in a small plastic bag at its side. Thick black slime was dripping across everything it touched, stinking of burnt coffee. “What do we do? I don’t think we can arrest this thing.”
“From what I read, it’s just the lingering fragments of brain activity. The guy this thing was is dead. The most we can do for him now is…”
The creature’s head turned up. “Reduce! Reuse! RECYCLE!” It bellowed. With a sudden, brutal rage, it charged us. It moved in a lumbering gait, its arms out, and ran directly into John’s shield as the man lowered his shoulder and braced himself. He used to play football, I remembered. He met the creature with a low stance, and still slid back nearly a foot, his boots squealing on the ground as the creature plowed into him. The three of us piled in behind John, helping him to force it back through the doorway, and into the open room. It was incredibly strong, and the stink of burnt coffee filled the air as it gurgled and cried with rage.
Once we got it into the room, John gave a final shove, sending it stumbling back. Hector and I flicked the safeties on our weapons, and fired. In the cramped conditions of the corridor, the sound was deafening, leaving our ears ringing, but there wasn’t much choice. Half a dozen rounds slammed into the oil with a sound like mud being churned with an eggbeater. The creature didn’t move, letting out another savage growl, and began to advance. We raised our aim, and fired again. This time, half a dozen shots rang out. Ripples passed through the creature’s head, and its eyes jiggled disturbingly, making my stomach heave. We landed each shot in its head, and they didn’t even faze the thrall.
John roared, and slammed into it full tilt, sending the creature reeling backwards. He stepped smartly to the side, and Marco stepped forward, lifting his shotgun as he slotted one of the orange shells in. A spray of brilliant white light filled the room, leaving dancing blue lines on my vision as the torrent of flame caught the thing full in the chest. It let out a horrific shrieking noise, as a large amount of black gas filled the air. The ringing in my ears cleared just long enough to hear Hector pump the shotgun, the shell popping out. The creature stumbled back, as the thick smoke filled the air around it.
John’s eyes widened as he took a breath, and a globular fist slammed into the plastic shield, cracking it in half. The big man was sent spinning across the ground, his machete skimming over the ground, coming to a rest at my feet. His eyes were wide, and he began screaming. It was a uniquely unpleasant noise, full of raw terror, the kind of scream that said the person making the sound had no dignity or concept of restraint left.
Hector fired another series of rounds into the thrall, and it didn’t show any sign of being inconvenienced. Marco fired a second round, and another swirling cloud of black gas surrounded the thrall. Then, it swung out, grabbing the shotgun, and ripping it out of Marco’s hands. He dropped to the ground, clutching his hand, his index finger at an unpleasant angle. It must have been caught in the trigger guard.
Hector was shouting something at me. I couldn’t hear him. He was reloading, and the creature was advancing on John, the shotgun raised like an impromptu club. I looked down, and saw the machete. I grabbed it by the rough handle, and charged forward. I took a deep breath as I approached the cloud of black gas, closed my mouth and my eyes, and thrust into the darkness. There was a wet feeling around my fingers, as though I’d just plunged them into a bowl of hot jelly. When I opened my eyes, the thick oil was slowly dripping away, leaving some poor bastard’s mummified body behind.
Marco was cursing, holding his hand, his eyes watering, and John was staring, wide-eyed, up at the ceiling. I waved a hand in front of his eyes. “John? Come on, old man, you’re still with me, right?” He was breathing hard, his cheeks puffing in and out, not responding. I felt for his neck. His pulse was erratic, but there. I looked over at Hector. “So, what do you think the odds are that we’re going to be able to get out of here before someone starts asking questions?”
Bright red and blue lights began to flash through the window. “Pretty remote.” Hector stated. I put the machete down, unslinging the gun, and raising my hands, as he did the same. “You bring a white under-shirt?” He nodded, and stripped off his top, handing me the shirt underneath. I walked carefully to the door, and opened it, swinging the shirt. “We surrender!”
The half dozen officers entered the building with their sidearms drawn. I showed the senior officer my badge. “Neighborhood Watch, sir.”
He whistled softly. “Seriously? I’ve spent the last six months thinking that the lieutenant was playing some kind of extremely strange prank on me. You guys seriously…?”
“And so that guy…?”
“Is what remains of some poor bastard who got attacked by something horrible.” I looked down at the body. No signs of bullet-wounds. Damn thing might have been bulletproof with that thick tar around it. The body was desiccated, like every drop of moisture had been pulled out of it. Veins and arteries bulged like cables, and the only visible wounds were some burn marks around the chest, and a very distinct hole where the machete had pushed through its stomach. I was going to owe John an apology, if and when he recovered. “Sorry we didn’t get in and out quickly enough to save you all a bit of paperwork.”
“Christ.” He shook his head. “So… Does this mean I qualify? Like…” He lowered his voice. “I can join the Neighborhood Watch?”
I looked down at the two men. Friends of mine. One with his hand moderately mangled, the other with a cracked rib and still not responding even as a paramedic tended to him. One of the police officers was using the fire extinguisher to put out the small fire that had been lit by a stray trail of magnesium. “I couldn’t stop you if I wanted to.” I murmured softly.
I awoke, the next morning, with an angry phone-call from the commissioner on my phone about the people breathing down his neck about what had happened. I drank vodka heavily, and woke up two or three more times before it finally stuck at about five in the afternoon. Then, I took out the card. Marco was in a cast. Hector was still shaken. And John was still unresponsive.
I’d told the kid, Horace, that I was a professional. It was bullshit. I was in the dark about these things. Maybe even more than he was. I needed to find out how he knew what he knew, so that this never happened again. I took out the phone, and dialed. It rang three or four times, before picking up. “Hello?” The kid had a kind voice over the phone, I realized. I’d been in a bad mood the last couple of times I’d talked with him, and looking him in the eye had made it worse. This, though, was a different case.
“Creed? It’s Larson. I…” I swallowed, looking down at the bottle. My voice was raspy and dry, and slightly slurred. “I think I might be able to do with that dinner you mentioned.”
By the time I was on the subway, a truly magnificent headache was blooming. By the time I’d made it to his apartment, I was in the mood to be incredibly… foul towards someone. The door opened, and I was greeted with the smell of chicken, potatoes, and other things that I couldn’t identify, but wanted to get to know better. I found myself face to face with a young black woman, wearing nothing but a T-shirt, and a pair of cat-ears. “Oh, you must be that human.” She said, leaning in the doorway, blocking my way in. Horace stepped behind her, and gently pinched the back of her neck. She let out a protesting noise as he gently eased her out of the way.
“What have I told you about answering the door?”
“That it’s… polite?” she asked, frowning as she gave me another look. Bright green eyes sparkled as she studied me with an unnervingly bright expression.
Horace turned towards me, with a long-suffering look on his face. He managed, through some strange alchemy, to turn it into a bright smile for me. “It’s great to have you here, Dane. What made you change your mind?”
I stepped into the room, and closed the door. Then, I began to tell the story. He watched, his expression going from surprised, to concerned, to horrified. And then, the black girl started laughing, a grin on her lips. “What in the hell is wrong with you?” I asked, hissing, my eyes narrowed at the girl. “Two of my friends, people I’m responsible for, are badly injured. What in the name of god could you possibly be finding funny?!” I asked, advancing on her, feeling the sudden, overwhelming desire to express myself with violence instead of words. She stood up, grinning, and I stopped, feeling a sudden wave of uncertainty that was both unfamiliar and unpleasant.
“You used fire on one of the Ateroleum’s thralls. That’s hilarious. Fire just ignites the dark stuff on them. It can mess humans up pretty badly. That’s probably why your friend is unconscious. Fire is their bane, after all. But the really funny thing is…” She grinned, and leaned forward. “You actually beat it. That’s pretty impressive, for a human!”
I frowned. “Two of my squad were injured. I don’t feel impressive.” I sighed, and Horace gently patted my shoulder.
“You killed one of those things. You know what happened both times I got cornered by one of those things? I screamed and got saved. By my cat.” The girl waved, smiling. It was a nicer smile than it had been before.
“I am Queen Betty. And I am also a goddess, as well as being a cat. It is my duty to fight to protect people. And I want you to know that, for a human, you did surprisingly well.” She leaned back on the couch, purring. “You are not, apparently, an entirely incompetent individual. Maybe I will even give you my blessing in your future endeavors.” She grinned. “You know, it took a full squad of ten Roman soldiers to bring down one of the thralls in the past. And they would consider all of them being alive to be a clear sign that the gods had favored them.” She licked her fingers, a curiously feline motion. It somehow clarified the fact of the matter. She wasn’t human.
Horace walked in, carrying three plates. Large slices of roast chicken steamed, basted in some sweet marinade. Large baked potatoes sat stuffed to the gills with cheese and sour cream, and the artery-clogging scent of crumbled bacon. I dug in, and found myself weeping tears of relief, to my extreme embarrassment. I could feel an intensely tight knot in my stomach coming undone, as I began to breathe again. Queen Betty picked at the meal with a look of mild annoyance as she ate daintily. “Aaah. Too hot.” She tsked, frowning. “I like my chicken nice and rare!”
“Sorry, Betty.” Horace apologized, smiling. “It has to be thoroughly cooked or we might die, and then, no more chicken.”
“She’s really a goddess?” I asked softly, staring down at my food.
“She’s… something.” Horace admitted, as he scraped up some of the juice dripping off of the chicken, and poured it onto his potato. I noticed he had the smallest portion.
“I don’t really believe in gods. Or goddesses. There are strange things out there, but they’re not… magical. Unexplainable. There has to be a reason for them.” I looked up, staring at her defiantly. There weren’t many people who could meet my gaze when I wanted to get into it. But as of late, I was running into an awful lot of them. Queen Betty just stared back, her green eyes glittering wildly.
“It doesn’t matter whether you believe in me or not.” She purred. “Because the important thing is, I believe in you. A human who has taken up the sword against the things in the darkness-”
Betty continued, apparently not fazed by my droll comment. “A human who has taken up any form of weapon against the darkness cannot easily give up their position there. Once you begin to prod the darkness, it knows you. It would be safer for you to continue to fight, and stay sharp, than to attempt to leave the fighting to others, and find yourself attacked in the rear.”
“I don’t… think that’s the right phrasing, Betty.” Horace said, smiling apologetically. “How did you find the thing, anyway?”
I shrugged. “A lot of weird calls come into the NYPD. But you start to see a pattern in some of them. Weird enough to get dismissed as a prank, or someone who’s drunk, but clearly speaking to something deeper going on. I just heard a bunch of reports of food being stolen in the area, and a strange, dark assailant. Horrible things usually try to keep what they’re doing quiet, but it’s hard to do anything very secretly in this large a city. And even if it’s not actual evidence…”
Horace looked over at Betty. She had stood up, and gone to the kitchen. He leaned closer. “Look. I think that you have some skills that Betty badly needs. You know how to do research, you’re apparently good enough that you were able to take out something that kills humans regularly, and you can help her find things.” He looked over his shoulder again. “I’m worried about her. She gets in over her head. It would mean a lot to me if you could help us out. At least help her out.”
“I don’t… know, if I could fight something like that again. It was close. Way too close for comfort.”
He smiled back at me. “Well, maybe the rest, then. Research, tracking things down, helping Betty. Then she can take care of the actual fighting part. Leave it to the professionals, right?”
I frowned. “That stung.”
“Good food, though. Mind if I come around here again some time?”
“Sure. But next time you have to kick in some cash for dinner. This stuff isn’t cheap.”
And the next day, when I dug out the copy of Pliny’s natural history, I searched for another entry.
Of the goddess, protector of cities and man, I say little, but this: That she goes where death goes, and when she leaves a land, it is decimated.