Monday morning broke. For the first few peaceful moments, it was beautiful. Sunshine, the rich and welcoming light of dawn peeking across the valley, setting the hilltops ablaze. Green trees swaying in the breeze, and the soft low buzz of life in full swing outside. The blissful amnesia of sleep left my mind free to worry about minor, silly things. Where’s Betty? Where’s Li? What am I going to make them for dinner today?
Memory, like a process server, took a mischievous glee in pissing in my Cheerios. Betty was somewhere unreachable. Maybe even dead. Li Xue Zi was hundreds of miles away, on what might turn out to be a suicide mission. There was a threat to the world that didn’t have anyone to answer it. I had a fugitive goddess from a mad deity of dreams and hope on my couch. And I had work.
Schedule, routine, is an immense comfort to humans. When your life is falling apart, when you have a thousand things to do, being able to fall back into something simple yet consuming is one of the great human defense mechanisms. It’s the underpinning of every MMO and every mobile phone game.
The human brain is, functionally, an immensely powerful computer. You’ve heard the old ‘humans only use 10% of their brain’ cliché, and I’ll bet you’ve heard that it’s bullshit. I agree. I think humans, most of the time, use about ten percent of their brain consciously. The other 90%, then, is in an idle mode. It’s crunching problems in the background, like SETI using spare processor cycles on a PC to examine extraterrestrial signals. It’s studying lingering problems in your life, and trying to solve them.
Anxiety was like some malicious virus, then. Conjuring up hypothetical scenarios, and trying to solve them. Dozens of them, hundreds of them. Every time I imagined getting into a fight, every time I imagined a disaster, every time I thought of Betty or Li or Dane dying, it was my brain trying to solve a problem that hadn’t happened yet, and it was unlikely to ever come up with a solution. Like some goddamn Danger Room simulation running all the time, but without actually being useful or preparing you for the experience of having your life threatened.
When I had told him my dream of being a lawyer like him, my uncle had described life as a lawyer as a professional paranoid wreck I hadn’t understood at the time that he was trying to push me away from following in his footsteps in joining the noble profession of the law. I thought he was just being mean.
“Horace? I’m hungry.”
I smiled. Not everything had changed, then. “Hey, Ku.” The shark towered in the doorway, hunched over to avoid putting her head through the ceiling and into the crawlspace. “I’ll make you something for breakfast. Potato hash sound good?”
She nodded, smiling eagerly, sharp teeth gleaming. “And Horace, I’m sorry… I guess not for what I said, but how it made you feel, yesterday. About Betty.”
“It’s alright, Ku,” I said. “Water under the bridge.”
Randall had once said that happiness comes from a lack of knowledge of all the things that could destroy you, which are out of your power. Thus, happiness is linked with ignorance. Randall said a lot of depressing shit. But this one had always resonated with me. Understanding what was happening, knowing what was wrong, and not having the power to do a thing about it. That was hell. But you could deal with it. Focus on the things that you could change, lose yourself in them. And so, I lost myself in cooking breakfast. Grating potatoes, and frying them in oil. The little victories, to distract myself from the big defeats.
I checked the two lacquered wooden swords. Bokken, they were called. Carved out of oak. I carried them to the car, and set them in the back seat, along with a can of shellac and a smooth wooden cloth that I found in my mother’s closet, where the swords had been kept. “Wish me luck today,” I said to Ku, and smiled as she nodded her head solemnly.
The drive down into town was as beautiful as ever. Memories of school days now decades past flashed through my head, little more than brief flashes, a feeling more than anything. The world before I started being moved from place to place, the world when I had stability. I missed it, but only a little. I might complain, I might kvetch, but I had the most cherry Ford Thunderbird in the country. I had options. I could do something, once I figured out my bearings. I wasn’t going to die. I had to believe that I had some control over my fate.
Unlike all of the others who’d cared for Bastet over the millenia.
I arrived half an hour early to work. I parked on the sloped spot, set the parking brake, and began polishing the swords. They were finely carved, with no crossguards; just a length of carved wood, a notch around the circumference of the weapon about six inches from one end showing where the handle met the blade on a real sword. The fine cloth swept across the blades, removing what small bits of detritus and debris had accumulated on them over the years. There were a few fine scratches, which I gently filled with a thin coating of shellac. As I was polishing the shorter blade, the wakizashi, I noticed a roughness on the handles, and frowned.
I carefully lifted them to the sunlight, shifting the blade until the light caught in the grooves. I studied the word for a few moments. It was difficult to read, done in an extraordinarily ornate hand, but it looked like Recht. I frowned, and held up the other sword, the longer one. Rache.
I took out my phone, ready to look up the words. Then I saw the time. “Shit!”
I arrived at the front door, and unlocked it before punching in. Walter was in the back, his eyes on the floor, the huge man sweeping back and forth. His mane of stringy blonde hair was bundled into a hairnet, and he looked up, giving me a single nod. “Hey, Walter,” I tried, and received another silent nod in response as he returned to the work. I gave the tables a quick wipe, and lost myself in the rhythm.
You see a lot of people, in upstate New York, who are not in good shape. It didn’t make me feel good about myself that I had these thoughts, but there were a lot of people who were overweight. Who were clearly suffering badly from diabetes. Who were gradually eating themselves to death. I watched some of them joylessly eat, expressions of gloom and displeasure on their faces, as they went through the rote movements. Like me.
Then there were the people who really enjoyed themselves. Not many of them, not enough of them, but who ate with a zest for life, who dug in with gusto. A few of them looked like they came back to life after they ate, expressions becoming cheerful, bright, the food helping them. That’s what made me feel a bit better. Knowing that people could still enjoy themselves. It was a very temporary sort of happiness- but weren’t they all?
Then there was Wendy.
She came in around midday, with her sleeves pushed up all the way to her bony shoulders, marching forward. She pointed at me. “Long-fish Sandwich!”
“Of course, ma’am. Do you want that as a combo, or-”
“Just the sandwich.” She counted out the entire price, in change, and placed the coins painstakingly on the counter. I said a silent prayer to the gods of patience, if they even existed, as I counted it out and deposited it in the register, then put in the order. She took the cardboard box containing her meal like someone handling a piece of old TNT before scuttling over to the table she shared with her companion, the other old woman, setting the sandwich on the table. The two of them exchanged a whispered conversation as they opened the box and studied the sandwich. I considered watching them, but they seemed to be engaged in a whispered argument, and the lunch rush was building.
Daryl arrived, finally, around two PM, just as the lunch rush had died off, leaving the building empty except for an older man, heavily obese, breathing hard as he tore through his fifth Long-fish sandwich. The chair was groaning slightly each time he shifted in his seat, and his shirt was smeared with spots of grease. I tried to ignore that, and turned to Daryl. “Hey.”
“Oh, hey, man, glad you were here, heh, I totally flaked.” He ran his fingers through his dark, somewhat greasy hair, the bad beginnings of a teenage mustache on his upper lip. “Everything go okay?”
“Just fine. Hey… I was curious. Do you know what kind of fish these Long-Fish are? I’ve never heard of them before.”
“Oh, uh, man. I’ve got no clue. It might be, like, a Chilean Sea-bass thing?”
“You think they’re Chilean Sea-bass?”
“No, no. Like, Chilean sea-bass, that’s a name for a kind of fish. It used to be Patagonian Toothfish.”
I stared for a moment. “Seriously?” I took out the phone, and tapped in the statement. “Holy crap.”
“Right? Totally offputting name. Sounds disgusting, am I right? So some fishmonger, back in the 70s, gets the idea, ‘hey, let’s call this Chilean Sea-bass.’ Bam. Now it’s suddenly a delicacy.” Daryl chuckled, leaning against the wall as Walter walked out of the freezer, carrying a crate. “Same thing with imitation crab-sticks. They’re just whitefish, pollock, ground up, and made into this kind of, like, solid imitation food that looks vaguely like a big crab leg without the shell.”
“So… You’re saying that the Long-fish Filet is, like, Florida Marsh-crawler, or something. Some reasonably tasty food that has a really unpleasant real name.”
“Yeah.” Daryl chuckled. “Kinda makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, the whole reason Patagonian Toothfish was harvested in the first place was because there was a big supply, and people can’t tell fish apart all that easily. Especially those kinds of fish. So, probably the company found a big supply of the meat, some big schools of something that tasted good enough, wasn’t super-mercury-infected, and decided to put it on the market with a name that didn’t make people freak out.”
“I wonder how it got a name like ‘toothfish’ in the first place.”
“Right? There’s a marketing blunder right there,” said Daryl. “Oh, I should go check the freezers to make sure we have everything we need. Hey, uh, you want to, you know-” he mimed puffing on something.
“Alright. Don’t work too hard, man.” He gave me an easy grin, and slipped into the freezer, taking out a pen-sized vaporizer as he did. The sweet-smoke scent of cannabis proceeded to waft out each time Walter moved a large box, as I continued to take orders and clean up tables. Wendy and her girlfriend didn’t show up again, and the rest of the day went, by and large, quite peacefully.
As we closed up, I took a pair of Long-fish sandwiches from the fryer and put them into a box to take home to Ku. We’d just about sold them out over the course of the day, and weren’t expecting another shipment for a week. I confess, I was curious how Florida Marsh-crawler tasted, especially with the Chum Sauce. I saw Walter hefting a bag of trash, and stepped over. “Here, Walter. I’ll take care of that for you.” He gave me another silent nod as I smiled at him, and stepped out into the back, through the employee entrance.
The sun was setting. It was late August, and it struck me that the sun was setting around the same time that it would in April. We were quickly approaching the equinox, just a month away, and it was already getting darker out earlier. There was a nip of winter in the air, just a hint of the cold and dry that was waiting around the corner. Life kept on moving forward.
That was the trick with those rote tasks, the simple and comforting routines. You could get locked into them and watch your entire life pass by in a haze. I couldn’t have stood the jobs at these places if not for Betty. If she didn’t need me, if I didn’t have her to bring some meaning, some excitement into my life.
Of course, I had a choice, now. That offer from Ku. Depending on how things went… If Betty wasn’t okay…
How could I even think something like that? Jump to someone else if Betty died, if she was trapped? And what the hell would I do if she died and I didn’t go with Ku? I was going to be a target if she was gone. I was vulnerable without her.
I sighed, and hefted the trash bag, tossing it into the air, letting it slam satisfyingly into the dumpster, crinkling and jingling as something inside broke. The brain, coming up with problems to solve, problems that I couldn’t remotely deal with.
I walked back into the restaurant, and got the next trash bag, lifting it up. I hefted it, arms straining to keep it from dragging across the ground and ripping open. I’d had that happen once, and had quit after cleaning it up. I didn’t feel proud of that, but it had felt good to say to hell with something.
If I didn’t have Bastet, what would I do? Go back to school? Take up Ku’s offer? Well, probably die, because she was in Paradise to stop the apocalypse, and if something happened to her, we were all fucked. With that cheery thought in mind, I staggered back out to the parking lot.
And was greeted with the sound of low, slurping munching from behind the dumpster. I took a couple of steps back, carefully setting the bag of trash down, trying to get a look at whatever was making the sound. The light above the employee entrance was blocked by the dumpster, casting a shadow across the other side, deep as pitch. I squinted, and then recognized the figure there.
The obese man who had been in the restaurant before was hunched beside the dumpster. He had one of the sandwiches, a bite already taken out of it, condiments and sodas dripped over it in a way that made my stomach churn. He took a slow bite of it, and then looked up sharply, nostrils flaring.
“Hey, man. Come on, look, if you’re that hungry-” I took a step back, towards the car. “I’ve got a couple of Long-fish sandwiches, okay? You don’t need to eat out of the trash.”
“Nnngh,” he said.
“You going to be okay? Do you need to use the bathroom to…” I looked down at the sandwich and back up. “Puke, or something?”
I stepped towards the car, opening the back door, where I’d placed the sandwiches. I thought about it, and considered reaching for one of the two wooden swords. But that wasn’t exactly friendly, was it? That was the kind of thinking you’d use if you were in a horror movie.
Fuck me, my entire life was a horror movie. I grabbed the longer of the two swords, and the sandwich, and turned back towards the man, approaching him, keeping the sword behind my back as I held out the sandwich. He looked up, his eyes glittering in a way that was suspicious, but not really good reason to bludgeon him.
When he lunged up and opened his jaws wide, grabbing my shoulder and trying to chomp into my carotid, that was good enough for me. I brought my fist across, and slammed the hilt of the wooden sword into his nose. It wasn’t an amazing angle, and I didn’t have a lot of leverage, but it was sudden and shocking pain, snapping his head back against the dumpster. There was a sickening crack, and he slumped down as I stumbled back.
Did he have a family? Loved ones? A mother, wife, children, who I’d just taken him away from? What had I done?
I was both relieved and dismayed to hear him gurgle and grunt as he rose to his feet. It appeared he was just fine, springing back onto his feet quickly, his eyes flashing. He was showing a lot more grace than he had just a moment ago. A lot more hair, too. Stringy, greasy hair had become a proud yet tangled mane of white strands, flashing silver in the light streaming around the dumpster. His breathing was growing more ragged, turning into a low growl as he took one step towards me, then another.
His shoes split open, his feet suddenly too large for them, brilliant white fur covering the tops, black pads like a dog’s or a frostbitten person’s skin on the bottom. Long talons grew where his toenails should be, and he let out a low, soft grunt as he stepped forward.
He was taller, I noticed. Substantially taller, at least a foot or so, and the fat was gone from his frame. White fur grew down his shoulders, his clothes splitting open along muscles as hard and slender as iron cable as he hunched forward. A dangling manhood was quickly hidden in a thicket of matted fur as he let another low groan, plunging his hand into the dumpster, and withdrawing a dozen ragged, soaked sandwiches, shoving them into a massive maw full of sharp teeth. He chewed, swallowed, and let out a low groan as he grew a couple of inches taller.
His stomach was round, bloated. Like the pictures you see of African children suffering from famine, stomach swollen despite the rest of the frame being emaciated. His arms and legs were slender, almost skeletal, but there was a worrying strength in them. His clawed hands dug into the dumpster, and metal shrieked in protest as he tore gouges through it, breathing hard. His shining yellow eyes were on me.
“Hungry,” he growled. Then he lunged.
In the last year, I’d spent time learning how to fight. Not nearly enough to even hold my own against a trained fighter, let alone a supernatural monster which was stronger and faster than me by orders of magnitude. But I had learned a few things. For example, when your enemy thinks in straight lines, think in curves.
I dove to the side as the creature sailed through the air where I had been, hitting my shoulder hard and grinding it into the asphalt before coming back up. The creature struck the back of my car with a heavy thump and crunch, and I pulled myself to my feet, spinning to face it again. “Hey! Get the fuck off of that!”
It turned, and rose, looming over me. I could see the long gouges in the paint where the creature’s claws had torn at the poor, defenseless car, and my heart burned for it as I stood up straight. The monster that had been a man approached slowly, arms held out to either side, as though prepared for me to dive past it again. I rushed forward, and brought the katana across in a sharp arc that terminated in the creature’s armpit.
A good hit can do some serious damage. A wooden sword is much like a baseball bat, after all, save with a much smaller point of contact. It can shatter bones, even kill people. Miyamoto Musashi had once killed a fellow duelist who had a steel sword, using a wooden sword he’d carved out of an oar on the trip there.
I was not Miyamoto Musashi. This thing was not some errant Japanese duelist. The tip thudded home, vibrating hard enough to leave my wrist stinging from the impact, and the creature contemptuously swept my arm aside, the katana bouncing and spinning across the ground, a wrenching pain running through the shoulder as some ligament shrieked in protest. The thing turned towards me, and advanced another step, and another, cornering me against the wall. I stepped around one of the yellow bollards between the parking lot and the dumpster. Soon, my back was against the dumpster.
The creature loomed over me, and chuckled. I stared up at it, my eyes hard. “Yeah? Go for it, buddy. Come on. You think I’m fucking scared of you?”
I was. But I was damned if I was going to die acting terrified. I raised the wakizashi in my uninjured arm, and the creature raised its right hand, claws gleaming.
There was a tortured shriek that filled the air, starting high, and then slowly pitching down. The creature looked from side to side, confusion and pain apparent on its expression from the harsh sound. It turned around, and saw the car accelerating down the slope. The parking brake must have given out in the face of all the excitement it had gone through. The Thunderbird descended like the world’s most well-engineered meteor, and the creature tried to leap aside.
Several tons of Detroit steel met the bollards. It was not damaged, mostly because the creature’s leg had gotten between the two. Said leg now had a solid six inches where it more closely resembled wet hamburger than a shin, midway between the knee and the ankle.
I took a step back as the creature rose up, hunched, grabbing at the ground and the wall, moving towards me. There was a groan as the employee entrance opened, and the creature turned to attack whoever had intruded.
Walter’s fist came around in a right cross that I could swear rocked the ground beneath us. The creature had been able to take a swing from the wooden katana with no pain, but it rocked back on its feet as Walter punched it in the face hard enough to break something. I wasn’t sure whether the snap had come from Walter’s fist or the creature’s jaw.
It rocked back a couple of steps, which proved to be a mistake. It collapsed shrieking the moment it put weight on its injured leg, writhing and swiping at the air. Walter reached down, grabbing me by the good arm, and pulling me behind him, up against the door into the restaurant.
The creature managed to regain its feet, and lunged at Walter. He weaved around two blows- one of which would have torn his face off, the other of which would have opened his throat like a slaughtered calf. He responded with two quick jabs to the creature’s nose and solar plexus, leaving it off balance. It lunged at him, eyes wild and unfocused, and he caught it with an uppercut that laid it out flat on its back. He stood over it, breathing hard, nostrils flared, his bright gray eyes flashing as he watched the creature, circling it carefully, keeping his eye on it. His focus turned to the back of my car. The trunk had popped open when it had struck the creature and the bollard, and now hung open. His eyes widened.
“Whoa, man! What the FUCK is that?!” said Daryl, standing in the doorway, a joint hanging from one hand, gaping wide-eyed at that creature.
It looked up, and pushed itself to one foot, lurching towards him in a strange hopping movement, dragging its injured leg behind it, growling and hissing as it clawed and reached for him. I saw Walter moving, and knew that he would not reach the creature in time to stop it from disemboweling Daryl.
A year of occasional training did not give me the ability to fight a monster on equal terms, but dirty fighting was mankind’s way of evening the odds with nature. I smashed the Wakizashi into the creature’s broken shin with all the force I could muster, and the creature fell like a tree, brought down to the ground hard. It clutched at its leg. My eyes locked with its, and it struck me just how human the creature’s expression was. How human, how like mine. It was in pain. Suffering.
There was a titanically loud blast, and its head vanished into a growing pool of blood, bone fragments, and brain matter. I stared, my mouth opening and closing, ears ringing, and looked up. Walter stood there, a shotgun in his hands, the barrel smoking. “Where did you learn to fight like that?” I asked.
“Navy,” said Walter, his voice low, his accent mush-mouthed and vaguely Eastern European.
“You shot him,” said Daryl, staring down at the body of the man. The white hair was rapidly dissolving, leaving only the headless corpse of an obese old man, disconcertingly naked.
“Not my gun,” said Walter, nodding at me. He gently tossed the shotgun back into the back of the trunk. Daryl and I stared, and then stepped over, looking into the back of the car.
“Horace,” said Daryl, his voice shaking slightly, “what third world nation were you planning to take over tonight?”
“All of them,” suggested Walter.
The trunk was divided into four parts. On the far left were the guns, set in what looked like foam padding. A sleek and glossy looking shotgun, now hanging askew in its section. A slender assault rifle with a stock, what looked like an old hunting rifle, a machine pistol, a revolver- I’m sorry, I’d be giving all of the names and the snazzy details, but I knew fuck-all about guns beyond what a misspent summer of Counterstrike had taught me, and those models had been fairly low resolution. The second quarter was the ammo; boxes and magazines, enough ammunition to fuel a modest civil war, or an average weekend at an American gun range. The third rack were grenades, stacked like nitroglycerin-filled eggs in row after row of foam.
The last shelf was probably the most incongruous to the other two standing next to me. A large flask. Several small recipe cards. An address book. And several maps of the United States. I recognized a few marks on the maps; one in the house I was currently in, probably this very car. Three on a smaller map of New York City, one in the Museum of Natural History, one in midtown Manhattan at Randall’s apartment. One in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. And a simple pair of leather gloves.
“Horace. I… Look, man, I can let a lot of stuff slip, but- That guy just got shot in the head, and I think this pot had something nasty laced in it, and that is a lot of fucking guns, and oh my god, what the fuck are you, man, some spook? Some kind of, like, government hitman or something?” He swallowed hard, and looked at me with an expression I was entirely unused to when focused on me. Respect, leavened with tremendous quantities of fear.
I can’t say I was entirely thrilled by it. “No. This was… This car belonged to my uncle. All of this stuff was part of this… secret society, or something, that he was a part of.”
“Order of Set,” said Walter. I looked up sharply.
“How did you know about that?”
“I don’t speak. Some think that makes me stupid.” Walter’s eyes flicked to Daryl, but there wasn’t much heat in it. Just a tired expression. “But it is useful. Especially when the world is mad.” He nodded at the body. “That man was gone. What happened to him. What he became. When that happens. No coming back. This…” He waved his hand towards the body. “Is death, but the body still walks.” He looked up, and sighed. “The Atlanteans are making their move.”
“What?” I asked, staring, stunned.
“You, Horace. You are Randall’s boy. Yes?”
I nodded mutely.
“He always liked to pretend. That he was alone in the world. That he did it all himself. I hope you did not buy into that. The Order of Set is in dormancy.” Walter nodded at the body. “But it is not dead. Not as long as things lurk out there.” He looked over at Daryl. “I am calling your father.”
Daryl swallowed. “Dad. He’s involved with this.”
“Why do you think he put you in charge of this place, and sent me to keep an eye on you? You were bait.” Walter was quiet for a moment as he stepped away.
I reached out, and rested a hand on Daryl’s shoulder. “I’m… sorry.”
“Uh. Honestly, that’s kind of a step-up from the way my dad usually seems to think about me,” said Daryl. He looked down at the body. “Order of Set?”
“There are monsters,” I said. “They do horrible things, sometimes. The Order of Set, historically, objected.” I looked down at the man again, and frowned. “Violently.”
“Shit, man. Shit. I’m not hallucinating? That guy was some crazy fucking monster?”
“Yeah,” I said, softly. “I’m clocking out, boss. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
“Hey,” said Walter, leaning out through the door. “Be there. Tomorrow. This is important. Store will be closed. But you need to be there.”
“Yeah,” I said, waving a hand. I stared down at the trunk for a few moments, and shivered, closing it. That flask… I’d need to look into that. Find out what was in it. I checked the back of the car, and let out a sigh of relief. Despite the ominous sounds, there were no scratches in the paint, no damage to the fender, the creature taking the brunt of the impact. I rested a hand on the car. “Saved my life,” I murmured, softly stroking the rear fender. “Glad you’re okay.”
“You okay, Horace?” asked Daryl, concern evident on his face.
“Yeah. Fine. It bit me, but I’m fine.” I shivered for a moment as I breathed in, and then out. “Fuck. I hope that this doesn’t use zombie rules. Am I bleeding?”
He stepped closer, and frowned. “Doesn’t look like it. Well, if you start dreaming of, like, nazi furries and shit, then maybe you should look around for a silver bullet, huh?”
“An American Werewolf in London? You’ve never seen it? Classic.”
“God. I hope it’s not a werewolf.” I chuckled at the mental image. Imagining how Betty would react if I became a dog three nights a month. That reminded me of Betty, and the smile on my face slowly withered. I began to walk over to the wooden katana, lifting it off of the ground, checking the lacquer- It was scratched in a few places. I’d have to touch it up, but it could wait a little. “I need to get home. That was… a damn long day.”
“Yeah, man. Thanks.” He looked down at the thing, his eyes a bit wide. “Man. That guy- he would have fucking killed me if you didn’t help me. You were fucking badass there, man.”
I shook my head, and stepped into the car. It started without a moment’s hesitation. I rested a hand on the dashboard, and drove home. He was wrong, of course. I’d gotten lucky. Walter, and my car- they had protected me. I had just been lucky to survive long enough for that to happen.
I checked in the living room, where Ku was curled up in the dark, sleeping steadily. I nodded my head softly, and walked up to my bedroom. I was asleep almost before I hit the bed.