“-Military has stated that the unprecedented operation was in response to a major terror threat by the known cult, the Church of the Survivor, to detonate a low-yield nuclear device in Central Park. They attribute their victory to the quick actions of Dane Larson in tracking down the cultists, and the device has been safely dismantled-”
“- of the Survivor was brought down by one man, Harold Schmooli, an early survivor of the plague that the Church had unleashed on the Big Apple. A homeless itinerant and former investigative journalist, his shocking footage of the clinics, the isolated patients below-ground, and the obvious breeding facilities for plague rats-”
“-e have Harold Schmooli in the office today with his brand new book, ‘Saints with black hearts: The Church of the Survivor.’ Now, it’s been only a few days since the cult was brought down, and you’re already putting out a book that everyone is fascinated by. How on earth did you manage it?”
“Well, thanks, Carol, and thanks for having me here today. The answer is, great ghostwriters.”
“-all Creed was found dead in the rubble after the house collapse on the Upper West Side. His firm has been implicated in the Church of the Survivor’s actions, and there are lingering concerns that he was responsible for-”
“-spected that the sudden die-off of the plague is because of the downfall of the Church of the Survivor, which is now being blamed for prolonging symptoms and releasing new rats into the city. The city is humming back to life, and while there has been a substantial economic downturn, disaster relief money is already pouring in, and the Dow Jon-”
“-n Discovery, we’ll be hearing an explanation of how the Aurora Borealis was responsible for the strange phenomenon of the ‘glowing moon’ just a few days ago, on Yukon Me-
“Are you ready, kids?”
“Aye aye, Cap’n!”
“I can’t hear you!”
“AYE AYE CAP’N!”
I looked up from the bed as Betty walked out of the bathroom, toweling her hair. I looked away when I saw she wasn’t wearing anything. “Look, Betty, you have a human body, the least you could do is be ashamed of your body like a normal person.”
“Are you kidding me? Look at how excellent I look. Come on, look!” I didn’t look. “Oooh, I love this show. It always makes me hungry.” She climbed onto the large hotel room bed, making herself comfortable on the crisp, white sheets. It was soft, in that special way that only hotel mattresses can be, particularly after you’ve been dealing with a long, difficult day. “You never had any of these shows at your house.”
“I couldn’t afford cable.” I tossed her a pillow, and she sighed, reluctantly covering herself partially. The small hotel room was a bit close, but it was cheap, and I didn’t mind living in close proximity with Betty.
“How long can you afford this place?”
“About… Another 12 hours. Then we’re out on the street.” I sighed softly. “You know, you could pickpocket some deserving people, right? Like mob bosses and stuff?”
“But they’re a lot harder to find than policemen. They usually don’t wear uniforms and stroll around the streets with badges, either.” She smiled as she leaned across the bed onto my shoulder. “You okay?”
“Not especially. My uncle’s dead, and he took my job and my apartment with him. I don’t even have a letter of recommendation or anything.” I sighed. “Who knows what the hell’s going to happen with his will, or when for that matter. I didn’t end up getting any of the credit or the vast amounts of money being made on this whole deal. You’re right, the world probably should be more aware of this stuff. Sacrificing everything you have for other people seems like a good idea at the time, but then you’re out on the street with nobody to help you.” I leaned my head back against the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Then, Betty was lying next to me, purring loudly as she leaned against my side.
“Not with nobody.” She smiled. “You’ll always have me.”
“I know that you’re not completely aware of human culture, Betty, but if the only person who cares about you is a cat that you feed, that actually makes you more pathetic than if you had no one.”
She purred and pressed her face into my ribs, hugging me gently. I groaned softly. My jaw was still aching, and my ribs felt tender, but I hadn’t needed a doctor’s visit. That was good, because I couldn’t remotely afford one. “Thanks,” I murmured softly, petting her hair as she leaned against me.
“Things will get better.”
“Oh yeah?” The phone rang.
“Yeah.” She smiled, as I picked up the hotel phone, sitting up.
“Hello, Mister Creed? This is James Watt, your uncle’s estate attorney. Do you think you could make time to come down to the office in about an hour? There’s some news about your uncle’s estate.”
“Oh! Yes, that’s great! Thank you.” I looked up, and gave Betty a smile. She returned it. “I’ll head over now.” I hung up the phone, and opened up one of the trunks. I did my best not to notice the small bronze trophy, or the bundle of rat tails. The pain of loss was still sharp and fresh. I’d known Phoebe for only a little while, but she’d been special. And I couldn’t help the thought. The one that said, deep in the pit of my heart, that I could have saved her. The bundle of rat tails was a reminder. I could’ve been powerful enough to save everyone. It wasn’t impossible. Every night, I dreamt of having that power, of being able to protect the people I cared about.
I shoved the idea out of my head. I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t my uncle. I couldn’t even cast the few spells I’d learned from Phoebe anymore. Without her helping me along, they just didn’t work. She’d been supporting me. I wasn’t sure whether to be angry about it or not. “I’ll be back soon, okay? I’ll get us some Shark Belly’s at the end of my shift.”
“Get me a Great Whitefish!” she said, smiling.
“I’ll get you something off the Small Fry list. Okay? We need to tighten our belts.” She pouted. I sighed. “Oh, fine.”
I stepped out of the door, and into the hallway. The small hotel was in the middle of Chinatown, and I’d chosen it because it was the cheapest place that was still in the city. My meager savings were already being eaten away. Finding a job was proving difficult, as my resume’s last position was ‘Clerk at law firm responsible for black plague in NYC.’ The whole city was still in economic turmoil, and I’d been working two shifts at a fast food restaurant just to keep the lights on. I’d thought the job with my uncle had been bad. This was worse. But at least it was Friday. I had a whole two hours until my shift that afternoon.
I checked my wallet, and opted to walk. The law office was only a couple of miles away. The heat had dropped precipitously in the last couple of days, and this morning, there was a nip in the air. Trees lining the streets were changing with the season. The trash had been removed from the streets, finally. I’d actually made a couple of hundred dollars working as a temporary freelance worker for the sanitation department. I sighed, taking a breath of the clean, fresh air. It felt good. I always preferred fall to summer, in the city.
The law office was buzzing with activity as I entered. I walked past the reception desk, following the corridors to the office. James Watt had been a friend of my uncle’s for a long time. I’d been here before. Granted, at least once before it was to serve a summons on behalf of my uncle, but James hadn’t held it against me. I knocked on the door. “Just a minute.” I waited by the wall, leaning against it. I wasn’t dressed my best. It was hard to get up much enthusiasm to dress nicely for law offices anymore, particularly if I was walking there. “Alright, come in.”
I opened the door, and took a seat. The office was small, and cramped, full of signs of life. A battered paperback copy of Saints With Black Hearts, pictures of his kids. It was in many ways the opposite of my uncle’s. I liked it. The seat was comfortable, and didn’t even conspire to make me feel like a naughty child called to the principal’s office. “So, you said you had news?”
“Yes. First of all, your uncle’s estate. He’s left everything to you in his will.”
“That sounds good.”
“Yes, I thought you might think that. Unfortunately, with the recent crisis, and his role in it as a legal counsel for the Church of the Survivor, he’s been under investigation by the FBI. His assets have been seized and frozen, and even if they’re ever unfrozen, it won’t be for years. I’m afraid that the financial assets, the law office, the house in Amagansett, his apartment overlooking Central Park, his various collections, have all been seized. I wouldn’t get my hopes up about them. But, on the positive side, you’ve become the inheritor of a trust for his pet.” He held out a form, studying it owlishly. “For an… albino, reticulated python, male. Name is ‘Li Xue Zi’, or ‘Beautiful Snow Son’. This also includes the title he held as a wildlife rehabilitation expert in order to own the snake, and-”
“Wait- Male?” I asked, frowning.
“Apparently. A small trust was set up for the snake, and you are now the trustee for it. It should provide what you need to buy an appropriate terrarium, feed it, and so forth. Unfortunately, the snake itself is missing, and hasn’t been found, but if animal control tracks it down, we will of course have it shipped to you as soon as possible.”
“So… I can’t actually use that money to pay for an apartment or somewhere to live.”
“I don’t suppose you need a paralegal?”
“We couldn’t really justify the expense at the moment. Besides…” He shrugged. “Your last employer had something of a reputation. We wouldn’t want to be tarred with the same brush. I’m sure you understand.”
“I helped save the world! I let my uncle die to protect everyone, and I didn’t get a single damn reward for it! And you can’t give me a fucking job?!” is what I didn’t scream in his face. “Of course,” is what I said, my shoulders hunching down.
“The secretary will give you the information on the trust. Good luck.” He smiled, patting my shoulder. “You’re a good kid. All of this will blow over soon enough.”
“Yeah.” I stood up, and walked out.
I didn’t bother to change on my way to the Shark Belly fast food joint. I arrived, and the manager hurled abuse before leaving for the day, leaving me to mop the floors. I got to work, setting down a large yellow sign, and began mopping, hating the entire world just a little bit. “Well, don’t you look charming. You seriously working at these places? Haven’t you heard about the Shark Belly Slasher?”
I looked up. Dane stood over me. She was still pale from the brush with illness, but she looked a lot better than she had the last time I’d seen her. Flanking her was a tall man who I didn’t recognize. He held out a hand. “Colonel.”
“Colonel…?” I shook his hand, letting the question linger in the air.
“Just Colonel. I don’t make a habit of sharing around my name. Name magic. Dangerous stuff.” I stared at him blankly for a moment. He looked dead serious. I sighed, and returned to mopping. “I wanted to thank you. You played a substantial part in saving your country from both a deranged cult, and a power-mad man. I don’t know the specific details of the confrontation with Randall after he was possessed by that thing, but I know that you helped the Protector to put it down.”
“He wasn’t possessed. He was able to overcome it. He saved everyone who had been touched by the disease. He could have been a guardian for the entire world, if he had just been a bit less stubborn. If he just could’ve listened,” was what I didn’t say. Instead, I simply nodded.
“I know it can’t have been easy, seeing what became of him. And it cost you personally a significant amount. Your home. Your livelihood. Your last remaining family member.”
“Yeah.” I leaned on the mop, looking up at him. “I don’t suppose there’s a reward out there for that? Some money? A job? Maybe a shiny medal?”
“There aren’t many rewards for the jobs we do. We stay deep in the dark. The world’s better off not knowing how fragile it can be.”
“Yeah, I heard that line of thinking was what caused the Cuban Missile Crisis, too.”
The colonel smirked. “Smart mouth on you, kid. Of course, there is one possibility… The rat tails.” I didn’t freeze up or look up sharply. I simply raised my head, frowning. “We haven’t been able to find them in the debris.”
“Maybe they were destroyed. That would probably be for the best, right? Nobody should have access to that kind of power.”
“Maybe. Or maybe that kind of power could be used for good. People shouldn’t be powerless. That kind of power could give us a great advantage the next time this happens. And believe me when I say that it’s going to happen again.” The man lit up a large cigar. I pointed up at the ‘No smoking’ sign. He smirked, and puffed on the cigar, letting the trail of smoke rise to the ceiling. “In any case, if you should happen to know the location of the rat tails, we might be able to make an agreement. See about getting the FBI off your uncle’s assets. You could live awfully well on that money.” I sighed.
“You couldn’t just do that because it’s the right thing?” He smiled indulgently. “No, of course not. Sorry, colonel, I haven’t seen any sign of it.”
“That thing could do a hell of a lot of damage in the wrong hands, boy. Remember that.”
“Trust me, Colonel, if I knew where it was, I’d do everything I could to keep it out of the wrong hands.” He eyed me, and then shook his head.
“Fair enough. By the way, here. A little something to say thank you.” He took out a small can. I took it. Fancy Feast.
“She doesn’t like this stuff. She prefers salmon.” I handed it back.
He shook his head. “That’s not good, feeding a cat nothing but fish.”
“She’s a goddess. I don’t think it’s about the nutrients. I think it’s about showing I care.”
The man snorted, withdrawing the can. “Well, tell her that if she ever wants a job, and can learn to follow orders, we’ll be there to help out. Until then…” He looked around the restaurant lobby, twirling his cigar between two fingers. “Good luck with the food service industry.”
I resisted the urge to hit him with the mop. I’d lose my job, and probably get my ass kicked. It would be worth it, but only until I had to tell Betty why she wasn’t going to get fed. I took a moment, breathing deep, letting the anger float out of me as he walked away, leaving Dane and I alone. “Sorry about him. Turns out that being in charge of a secret government branch of paramilitary activities isn’t actually a job that attracts kind-hearted or noble people.”
“That’s life. I’m used to it. So, look at you, eh? Deputy Inspector? That must come with a whole extra dollar a year raise.”
“Yeah. I’d help bail you out, but they don’t exactly pay out the nose for this job. The hazard pay was just enough to cover the hospital visits for Marco.” She sighed. “Amazing how they can find new ways to fuck you, while you’re still recovering from the last round. Pardon my french.” She studied me. “What actually happened after Randall got possessed?” I shrugged. She frowned. “You don’t think you can trust me?”
“It’s not worth talking about. It’s over now. And he’s dead. He paid for his hubris.”
She studied me. “Was it really hubris, what he did?”
“He thought he was equal or superior to the gods, and wound up dying because of it. It is the textbook definition of hubris.” She smiled.
“He just wanted to be strong. I can empathize. When we tried to distract them… Magical weapons, tactics, and we were still no match against them. I don’t know if we even made a difference, being there.”
“Oh, we definitely made a difference. A positive one, too.” I shrugged, rubbing my chin as I leaned on the mop. “What else are we going to do? Stop trying to help people, just because it’s hard?” She looked around the restaurant, and raised an eyebrow. “Hey, it keeps me and Betty off the streets. Sometimes you have to help who you can.”
“If you say so, Horace. Good luck.” She clapped me on the shoulder. “And if you see anything weird, give me a call. I’ve been hearing some weird reports about attacks around Shark Belly franchises throughout the greater Metropolitan area. The Shark Belly Slasher is no joke.”
I moved into the back, washing the surfaces, and preparing food. At the end of the night, my coworkers left early, leaving me to shut things down alone.
It couldn’t have been more than a month since Betty had joined me. It had been exciting. Terrifying, full of danger, and caused by a threat to the entire world, but it had been fun. I’d met new and interesting people. I’d gotten a chance to do something, even though it hadn’t been as heroic as I’d hoped. And now, everything magical was dripping out of my life. I felt a dull little ache in the pit of my stomach, and wondered if this was how it had felt for Randall when he’d realized that the world was safe again. How many times had he been shit on for doing the right thing before he grew cold, and started focusing inward? What had happened that made him who he was? Another thing I’d never know.
The back door exploded open. Two bulky forms stood in the darkness beyond the door. The thick stench of low tide swept into the kitchen, along with a significant amount of mist. They had gills, and scaled skin, white and grey. The taller one approached me, speaking in a thick Louisiana accent. “Human! You have profited off of the devouring of our kind for too long!”
He was nearly seven feet tall, flabby, and reminded me of nothing so much as a colossal walking catfish. The other had a figure more like an alligator gar, lean, with a jaw that projected out over a foot long, sharp teeth gleaming in the light. I stepped back, trying to keep my balance on the floor slick with condensation, backing towards the fryers. “What the hell? I don’t own the place! I just work here!”
“Your death shall be the glorious call to battle for our kind! We shall dip you within the very oil with which you turn our brethren into your cheap food, and share your flesh at our holy table! Rejoice, human, for you shall be reborn as muscle and sinew in our great warriors! THE DEEP SHALL RISE AGAIN!” The catfish stepped sideways as the alligator gar approached me, grabbing my shoulders, his jaws opening wide. I grabbed the handle on the deep fryer’s basket as a glint of white scales flashed in the door. I lifted the basket, dripping with boiling oil, and flung it into the gar’s face.
There was a sizzling sound, as the gar shrieked in pain, stumbling back, hand going to his eyes. At the same time, Li’s arm went around the catfish’s throat, and there was a wet choking noise. I kicked the gar in the stomach hard, using the fryer to stabilize myself as I shoved him towards Li, and she put the two of them into a head lock, dragging them out through the back door. I sat, panting, and looked around the kitchen. “Shit.” I muttered softly. “There goes that job.”
In the back, the large dumpster had closed. Li was standing, her arms crossed, smiling. “You seemed to be less frightened of the unknown, that time.”
I reminded myself. Not she. “So… You were a guy all along.” I looked at Li’s face. It was still very hard not to think of those pretty features as female. He crossed his arms, flushed.
“Yes. I, ah… Well. I thought you would become disturbed if you realized I was male. I know that there can be taboos on that kind of thing.”
“I mean, it doesn’t bother me.” I considered. “There’s probably a much bigger taboo on being kissed by a snake, anyway. So, what the hell were those things?”
“I don’t know.” Li shrugged. “Perhaps they would be somewhere in Randall’s notes, or the many books that he collected, but those are beyond my reach. They wanted to hurt you, so I put them into a choke-hold. They’re not dead, though. I wanted to question them. Later, once you were safe.” He looked down at the bodies. “I suspect that they may have something unfortunate in mind.”
“I thought that we’d have a little more peace than this.” I admitted, staring down at the two. “It’s been less than a week, and already…”
“That is the nature of our world. We live on the brink of chaos. There is always something happening.” He smiled. “You are not tired, are you?”
I looked down at the dumpster. “You know, you’re mine, now.”
“When’s the last time you had a good meal?”
Li tilted his head.
“Come on. Let’s get back to the apartment. Those two will keep for a few hours, right?”
I smiled, and put an arm around Li’s shoulder. I was going to have to do a long personal inventory later, about the thoughts that he brought up in my head, and the fact that the best kiss I’d ever had was with him. That could wait, though. The strange monsters who had tried to deep fry me might get away, too, but that was also something that could wait. “I’m probably going to be fired in the morning. I’m okay with that.”
The two of us walked home together, towards the apartment. I sighed softly. Tomorrow morning I’d need to start looking for a new job, and we’d be out on the streets. For the time being, though, I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to confront that fact.
I opened the door to my apartment room. Betty was wearing a shirt, and talking animatedly with a man. He turned, and I recognized the lack of nose. Harold was sitting on my bed, wearing a rather snazzy looking jacket. He stood up, grinning brightly. “Horace! I’ve been having an absolute bitch of a time tracking you down! I was lucky to run into Betty today!” He clasped my hand, and pulled me close, hugging me fiercely. “Can you believe it! Ten years since I’ve been able to find someone to talk to in the news industry, and now, I’ve got a book out! And all thanks to you. I always knew that you were a good man. Giving everything you had, even when it hurt you.” He smiled, and I felt something in my palm. I held up a check. There were a substantial number of zeroes on it.
“What’s this?” I asked. I didn’t want to question it. It felt like it might vanish like a pleasant dream if I asked too many questions.
“It’s your part of the royalties! Now, I’m afraid that it’s not as generous as I’d like it to be. The book’s popular, but it’s still a bit of a specialty market. Still, it should be enough to help you get back on your feet, and with any luck, there’ll be more like it!”
“I… I can’t accept this, Harold, I mean-”
“Nonsense! I’m back in the game! I only have what I do because you helped me, so many times, when you really couldn’t afford to. I can afford to help you now. It’s the least I can do.”
“But…” I stared down at it. It felt wrong. Maybe too many games, where the right and moral thing was to refuse reward and to do it even when it hurt. Maybe I enjoyed being a martyr too much. Or maybe I felt like, when so many people had been hospitalized, killed, sacrificed everything doing something meaningful, and all I’d done was sit there, useless… The truth was, perhaps, that the world just didn’t work this way. Good things didn’t happen to the right people. Problems weren’t solved because you helped someone out at the right time. Not in reality.
Harold gave me a long look, and smiled. “Take it, Horace. So often, we tell ourselves that the world isn’t fair, that good people get treated badly because life is cruel. And that’s why humans have to be kind. This is me helping you, because you’re a damn good person, and you deserve to be rewarded. A happy ending can’t happen unless someone makes it happen.”
I stared down at the check. It wasn’t ‘retire’ money, but it would help a lot. Enough to support us for a few months while I searched for work that could keep us going. My tongue felt thick in my mouth. “I don’t deserve this-”
“You really do, Horace,” Betty said, smiling.
I stared down at it, feeling a smile blossom across my face. “Thank you, Harold. I thought… I don’t know. I thought you’d forgotten about me. I thought everyone had. I thought-” I wiped a tear from my cheek before it could give me away.
Harold grinned. “Well, it’s not entirely motivated by altruism and debt-repayment. The book’s selling well. My agent thinks that there’s a real market for these kinds of real-life conspiracy things. I figure that if I can keep you and Betty close, we get another book. Symbiotic relationships. They’re great, aren’t they?”
I nodded slowly, and then raised my head. “That reminds me- Betty, I was attacked by a group of… I don’t know. Fish-men? At the restaurant tonight. They said something about the deep rising again. Do you know anything about that?”
Her eyes widened. “Fish-men?” She was practically salivating.
“They were pissed about being eaten or something like that. Sounded like something important?”
“Never heard of them.” She smiled. “Sounds interesting, though. I’ve been getting bored sitting around.”
“Oh. And Li’s going to be living with us from now on.”
She took this rather worse, her smile turning into a dark frown. “What, really?” She eyed Li, annoyed. “You’d better not hit on him.”
“Or what?” Li asked demurely, smiling mischievously as he rested a finger on his lips.
I laughed, as the two began to bicker. There was a certain release of tension as I felt my life slipping back towards madness. It was absurd, the idea of throwing myself back into that danger. These fish-people weren’t my problem, and it was dangerous. But in danger, I found strength. I found meaning given to the people around me. I found meaning for myself. I could meet new people. I could do the things that my uncle should have done. Maybe, someday, I’d even be able to tell people that he’d died a hero. I could tell everyone about Phoebe and all she’d done in just a few short days. Maybe I’d even become strong enough to save the people I cared about. I was a failure in the real world, but when things turned mad, I could finally justify my existence. I had meaning. I wondered if that was how it had felt for Randall.
I looked down at the trunk, where the bundle of rat-tails sat, unnoticed, unremarkable. Just a trophy of what had happened, with the power of a god resting inside of them. I wasn’t ready to handle that kind of power, yet. I didn’t know if I’d ever be.
But I knew that a human could have the power of a god. I’d seen it done once. That meant it could be done twice.
Betty slid an arm around my shoulder possessively, frowning at Li. “Just don’t steal any of my food, and if I find you two messing around, I’m going to be very angry.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of letting you find out about it.” Li said, grinning broadly. He seemed to be enjoying himself a great deal. I smiled, and forgot about the bundle of rat tails, for now.