Wednesday, January 31, 2018

#017: CULT OF BOVINITY




THE KNIFE FELT RIGHT in the bald man’s hand. It was part of him now, an extension of himself formed in twelve inches of cold steel. He found serenity as he knelt, naked and wet from the shower, caressing the blade, running his fingers over every surface, exploring each nook and cranny, stroking it in the way a parent would their newborn child.

The power of the thing seemed to vibrate from somewhere deep within and so he clutched it tighter. He bent, brushing his lips across the steel with a gentle touch, and for one brief moment, felt freedom. A sigh escaped him and he allowed himself a small smile.

He took out a whetstone and sharpened the knife for the third time that morning. He ran the blade along the stone’s surface, losing himself in the repetition. After a time he tested the blade on his thumb. He drew blood with the smallest touch. It was perfect.

He ran his bloodied thumb along this freshly shaven scalp, knowing that the runes tattooed there on his head were glowing. He could feel heat from the power of the runes as they fed upon that which flowed through his veins. His life giving life to the magic.

The runes were everywhere but the bald man’s face, the palms of his hands, and the pads of his feet. The process had been agonizing, but the magic he controlled now made it all worth the pain. But it wasn’t enough. One could always gain more power. The knife would help the bald man do just that.

He spoke aloud the arcane words of spell-work as he wrapped the blade in a clean, white, lint-free cloth, taking more care then he would with his very life. Droplets of water rolled lazily from his body as he chanted. The runes burned and shown with an inner light.

The wrapping completed, he took up the bundle in his hands, cradling it, and fantasized about what was to come. It would be his first time killing another. Would it be like the animals he’d sacrificed on the altar of power? Would there be as much blood? How would it look to see the life fade from a fellow human’s eyes? The excitement was almost too much.

An image formed in the bald man’s mind. The face of his sacrifice. He could imagine the look of confusion, the fear, the pain that would roll across the woman’s features as he ran the blade along her throat. The moment played over and over in his mind and his excitement grew to giddiness. The emotions were coming quickly, feelings that were like strangers to him. He found it all a bit overwhelming and for a moment, he began to cry.

It was like an emotional reboot and he gave himself over to it, sliding from the chair to lie on the floor with his knees hugged tight to his chest. He rolled back and forth as the tears fell. Time had no substance as he wept there on the floor, but as the cries passed and the tears ceased to fall, he found that his body was no longer wet from the shower. How long had he been on the floor? A quick check of the clock showed that it was nearly time. He’d have to hurry.

He rose and strode into the bedroom where he slid into his ceremonial robes, the color of blood. It wasn’t easy, this simple task, as he found he still clutched the cloth-wrapped knife in his hand. Another smile found its way onto his face as he placed the knife on the small table next to the bed.

A new emotion suddenly fell over him. It was the deep sorrow that comes from loss. But he had suffered no loss. Was it the knife? It was within reach. Surely the loss of the knife from his hand was not the cause of this pain he felt. The object in question drew his eyes and he looked upon the thing with longing. Something in him wanted to snatch the knife up, to tear it from its cloth bundle, to hold it close, let the steel touch his skin, swim in the tactile sensation the blade would bring to him. But he left the knife where it was.

The sadness quickly turned to anger as he thought about what he had been about to do. It was just an object, a tool, a means to an end. The knife was not something he could allow himself to get attached to. For an instant he wanted to fling it away, to throw it from him and show the thing that he owned it, not the other way around. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he slid it into a pocket. Out of sight but still weighing heavily on his mind as he lifted the hood over his head and left his quarters.

He entered the arena to the sound of chanting. Hundreds of voices becoming as one, their deep intonation causing the hair on his arms to stand on end as the words drew power from the very stone around them. He stood there, just inside the entryway, pausing to bathe in the feeling, the raw electricity that crackled throughout the room. Then, head bowed, he stepped forward.

His stride was slow, but purposeful, and soon he found himself standing before the altar. He pulled the hood back, revealing his bald, tattooed head.

The chanting stopped. His eyes took in the assemblage of monks in their brown robes. Never before had he seen so many in attendance. These were truly great times.

“Brothers,” he said. The runes glowed as he spoke, his voice heard by each ear as if he stood next to them. “Soon it will be our time.”

“AHHHH!” The monks responded in monotone unison.

“We have selected our sacrifice. Soon we shall have her, then our reign will begin.”

“PRAISE MINOS.”

“We have been found worthy by the Bull God and we will show our devotion in blood.”

“AHHHH!”

“And then, my brothers, then, we will have the power we have desired. The power we deserve. The power to rule!”

“AHHHH!”

“It is our time, brothers. We have waited long enough. In less than forty-eight hours we will step forth from the shadows and the world will tremble.”

A roar erupted from below them. A bellow that shook the walls.

The arena dropped into silence and the monks looked to each other in concern.

“Minos calls out his approval, brothers!” The bald man shouted, throwing his left fist into the air.

The monks cheered. He couldn’t have asked for a better sign.

He led the monks in prayers, speaking the words of their religion in low deep voices that resonated throughout the arena. They praised their god and sang their devotion. Less than an hour later the prayers ended with each of the monks drawing their own blades across their palms, letting the blood spill out onto the floor beneath them in sacrifice to Minos.

“And now, brothers, I must finalize the arrangements for tomorrow night,” said the bald man. But before he could turn to leave, a voice spoke out from the crowd.

“What about Norman Oklahoma?”

“Who?” said the bald man.

One of the monks stepped forward.

“Norman Oklahoma, Great One,” the monk said. “He is a man who has a history of interfering in the doings of those such as us.”

“Is he a wizard?”

“No, Great One.”

“Is he a god?”

“No, Great One. He is a man.”

The bald man laughed. The assemblage laughed with him. The lone monk looked down in shame.

“He is no wizard, you say. He is just a man, you say. Then, like all others who have stood in our way, this Norman Oklahoma, should he bend an eye upon us, will die.”

With that the monks shouted and cheered. The cacophony followed the bald man from the arena. It was then that he realized that his right hand had been in the pocket of his robes the entire time, his fingers wrapped around the hilt of the knife.



Monday, January 29, 2018

#016: FROM THE PAN TO THE FIRE




I FEEL THAT IT needs to be said that I don’t like cats. Not one bit

They’re weird and creepy and don’t seem to be the most affectionate of creatures. I don’t cotton to an animal that ignores your presence. It’s why I ain’t too keen on cattle. But, unlike cattle, cats come off as creatures of the devil. They act as if they own you. Like the only reason they keep you around is so that you can serve them. If not for that, they would swallow your soul and move on.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that under normal circumstances, I’m a dog man.

Today, however, I was Team Cat all the way.

I followed Biscuit, Clem’s only surviving cat, through the underground labyrinth, trusting that the cat was leading me out and not further into danger.

Eventually, as the light behind us dissolved into nothingness, I switched on the headlamp to avoid stepping on the cat.

Everything down here looked the same. Nothing was recognizable as a tunnel I may have taken before, or a room that I’d already been in. I was somewhat concerned that there was such a network underneath Eudora. If I ever got out I’d have to come back sometime after more preparation to do a more extensive investigation. Just how far did these tunnels reach? How many were there?

I mean, it was obvious by the group I’d seen chanting at a distance that these tunnels were still being used. I would have like to have checked those fellas out at the time, but getting out was currently high on my list of priorities.

But when I do come back down here, I’d know what I’d need. More glow sticks along with paper and pen to map everything out. Sure, I could have brought all that with me this time, but I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’ve only ever been in one other goblin warren and that was in Texas following the Civil War. And that wasn’t as epic as this one. Five rooms total and a dozen or so tunnels, all fairly straight forward. Easy in, easy out. It had still been a bit random and chaotic, but nothing like what we had going on down here.

It was like another world down here and I needed to know more about it. Just not now. For now I needed to get back to the surface. I needed air, I needed food, I needed water, and frankly, I wanted coffee.

So I put all my faith in a cat.

A few minutes later, as a dull green glow appeared ahead of us, as we got closer and confirmed it was one of my glow sticks, I found that I’d backed the right horse. Even if it was a cat.

I left the glow stick where it was and moved on to the next one. Now that I had a trail to follow I picked up the pace. Soon Biscuit was dogging my heels.

When we reached the room in which Biscuit had been held captive, we found that the body of Lolm, the troglodyte I’d had to shoot, was gone. I found that more than a little curious, but felt little in the way of urgency to find out where it had gone. The closer I got to freedom, the more suffocated I felt. The world was closing in on me, weighing me down. I needed out and all other considerations fell to the way side.

So I pressed on.

It wasn’t long before I reached the end. The top of the cork screw. I checked my watch. I’d been down here for nearly four hours. I ran my hands along the bottom of the hidden door and within moments it clicked and I pulled it open. Biscuit, now done with me, shot forward into the basement. The cat was up the steps and out of sight before I could close the big slab door behind me.

“Biscuit!” That would be Clem from the kitchen above. “Where did you come from?”

“She’s with me,” I said, as I stepped into the kitchen.

Clem was there, Biscuit held tightly in his arms. Old Clem smile on his face that could’ve powered Wichita. Pat was with him too. She sat at the cluttered kitchen table. Though that hadn’t registered with me right away. I was too busy taking in the air. In fact, the kitchen wasn’t good enough. The walls and ceilings pressed in on at me.

So I did the only thing I could. I ran.

Right through the kitchen and out into the driveway where I fell to my knees and vomited.

“Norman?”

That was when it hit me that Pat had been back in the kitchen. She must’ve followed me outside because quickly after saying my name, she was crouched beside me, a hand on my shoulder.

“You okay?”

“I am now,” I said.

“Where the hell have you been?” She stood.

“A few hundred feet or so below our feet.”

“What?”

“Not now, Pat,” I said. “I really don’t want to talk about it.” It occurred to me that going back down to map the underground was going to rocket to the bottom of my priority list.

I stood as Clem joined us in the drive way.

“You found Biscuit,” he said, still smiling, still holding on to the cat like he’d never let go.

“More like Biscuit found me,” I said. “I’m sorry, Clem. The others are gone.”

Something passed through Clem’s eyes. Sadness. Regret. But it was gone just as quick.

“I figured as much,” he said. “But at least I got my Biscuit back. That’s something.”

“That’s a fine cat you got there, Clem,” I said. “She saved my life.”

I reached out and patted Biscuit on her head. She purred in return.

Clem thanked me a few more times before taking Biscuit back into the house. I had a feeling that Biscuit would no longer be allowed outside. Not that she’d been outside when they grabbed her in the first place.

That reminded me. I’d need to get someone out here to seal up that door. Maybe even get Oz down there to throw some kind of charm over it so that it couldn’t be opened again. I’d have to make some calls once I was back at the office. But first…

“Why are you here, Pat?” I asked. “Clem get worried and give you a call?”

“No,” Pat said. “Bob told me where you were.”

“You looking for me, then?”

“I wanted to let you know that the Walrus is on his way to Leavenworth.”

“Leavenworth?”

“Just a precaution. Not knowing just how strong he is, they have the only cage around here that I feel comfortable putting him in.”

“That’s probably a good idea, but you didn’t have to come out here to tell me that. You could have just left a message with Bob.”

“True, but I was out this way anyway...” She trailed off.

“What?” I said. “Something you aren’t telling me.”

“Another girl disappeared earlier this morning,” she said.

“Another one? That makes what, three now?”

“Four,” she said. “Four in the last year. But this one was older. A teenager.”

“You need me to look into it?”

“Believe it or not, Norman Oklahoma, the Eudora Police Department has solved a case or two in their day,” she said. “Besides, nothing about any of these disappearances point to anything that involve your kinda thing.”

“Well, you say you got it handled, I’m going to trust you. But if you need any help, you let me know. I don’t like these disappearances. Not one bit.”

“None of us do, Norman, but we can handle it.”

Just then her phone buzzed and she held a finger up to me as she put the phone to her ear.

“Chief McCrea,” she said and turned her back on me.

I waited.

A few moments later she slid the phone into her breast pocket as she turned toward me, a glare on her face.

“That was Francine down at the station,” she said.

“Okay.”

“She calls me from time to time when I’m out, just to keep me updated.”

“Okay,” I said again. I wasn’t sure where she was going with this.

“Apparently, not long after I left, a call came in from Abner Lemonzeo.”

“Oh yeah?” I said, the very essence of innocence.

“Yeah,” she said. “Claims someone shot up the Pub. John’s been down there all morning.”

“That’s curious,” I said. “There sure is a lot going on this morning. Francine say who it was?”

“No, she didn’t have that yet.” She stepped closer. “I swear, Norman. If I find out it was you…”

“Me? Come on, Pat. I told you I was gonna be nice to Abner.”

“I hope so, Norman. With all that’s going on today, I’d hate to have to run you in.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “Just find those girls.”

With that we parted and I drove back to the office, thinking that maybe I’d look into these disappearances anyway, despite what Pat said. But first, I made a quick stop by the Happy Hamburger for another coffee.”

Bob hadn’t moved. He still sat at the desk. The book had changed, however.

“Solve the case,” he said from behind the book.

“Yes, and no. Found one of Clem’s cats. Goblins had taken them.”

“Of course,” Bob said.

“Never found no goblins though, which has me worried. That reminds me, could you get Oz on the phone.”

“Frank?” Bob put the book down. “What do you need Frank for?”

“The goblins had a tunnel the opened right up into Clem’s basement. I’d like Oz to seal it shut for me.”

“What happened to your neck?”

“Troglodyte,” I said, feeling at the bite mark. The healing itch had been consistent since I’d woken on that stone floor earlier.

Bob frowned and then looked at his watch.

“Well, I was going to Frank’s later this morning, anyway. How about I just go now and I can tell him in person.”

“What business you got with Oz?”

“I’m buying one of his paintings. Thought it would look good in here.”

“If you say so,” I said. “I don’t know nothing about art.”

“Yes,” Bob said, getting up from the desk. “I know.”

“Well, just tell Oz that I may need to go back down there, so seal it up, but not permanently.”

“Anything else?” Bob asked as he reached the door.

“Nope. Got my coffee, that’s all I need.” I hadn’t had a sip yet. I like my coffee hot, but not too hot.

“Need anything for that neck?”

“The neck is fine,” I said. “I t should be fully healed soon.”

“Fine,” Bob said. “Nothing for you.” Then he was gone.

I smiled and walked into my office. I hung my coat and hat on the coat tree, unstrapped my guns, and placed them on the desk along with the rifle and the bag.

I yawned. It had been quite the morning. Maybe I’d skip the coffee all together and have a nap. I was working on just an hour or two of sleep after all. Had I been more refreshed Bob wouldn’t have even noticed my neck. I put my hand on the wound. Still tender.

I went the window and looked out, yawning again. Yeah, I needed a nap. Still, the coffee did smell good.

So, watching the people outside go about their business, I brought the cup to my lips. As I was about to tilt it back and take a taste, the phone rang.

I sighed and walked to the desk. I had my hand just above the phone when my office door exploded inward. I ducked behind the desk and, dropping the coffee, threw my arms above my head as splintered wood rained down on me.

The phone continued to ring.

“Norman Oklahoma!” a voice roared from where my door used to be. I knew that voice.

I stood as the phone rang for the last time and my answering machine picked up. I heard my voice say that no one was available to take the call and all that jazz. But I wasn’t paying much attention to the outgoing message. Instead I focused on the hulking figure in my doorway.

“Ah, there you are,” the Walrus said, and in two quick strides, he was across the room.

I looked from the oncoming walrus to the guns on the desk. I tried to go for them, but I was too slow. The Walrus had reached the desk, batted it aside with one massive hand, and before I could run screaming from the scene, he had snatched me up, holding me over his head in both hands.

“Norman,” Pat’s voice rose from the answering machine that now lay on the floor. “It’s Pat. I’m not sure why you felt you needed to lie to me about the Pub, but we’ll talk about that later. For now, I don’t know where you’re at, but you need to know that the Walrus escaped custody and I’m afraid he’s gonna come looking for you. I’m coming down to your office. Keep safe.”

“Thanks, Pat,” I said.

Then the Walrus threw me out the window.



Thursday, January 25, 2018

#015: GETTER DUNN




THERE HAD BEEN A time when Jack Dunn had been considered an important man.

A made man.

Getter Dunn. That’s what they used to call him because he could get stuff done. Back then he was one of Abner Lemonzeo’s most trusted men. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t have done for the Boss, and there wasn’t much he hadn’t done. He was a known man back then. Trusted by the man who employed him, and feared by everyone else.

All of that had changed the day that Mr. Lemonzeo had gone to jail.

After that, Jack had fallen, and fallen hard.

Rolf Klein had stepped in to fill the void that Mr. Lemonzeo had left behind. Once that had happened Jack might as well have not existed. Klein and Lemonzeo were bitter enemies. There was no way that one of the Boss’s most trusted would find a place in Klein’s family.

Yet, Klein had offered Jack a job. Jack, of course, had refused. He’d rather live under a bridge, penniless and alone, then work for Rolf Klein. The man was an animal. He had no loyalty. No honor.

It was two years before anyone would hire him, and even then it was for small jobs like collections or shakedowns.. He wasn’t happy about it, but he took what he could get. Besides, it sure beat flipping burgers.

His current job involved Jack sitting behind the wheel of a sedan, engine running, as the three men who’d hired him knocked over a bank on the south side of Leavenworth. They had met up in an old barn just outside of town. From the barn it had taken them eight minutes to get to the bank, it was going to take another six minutes inside the bank, then eight minutes again back to the barn. From there they would split the loot and then separate, each driving away in a different direction.

All in all it was less than an thirty minutes out of his life for a score of maybe twenty-five grand. Not too shabby for driving a car.

Jack took the job, of course. Twenty-five grand may not have been much six years ago, but now he needed every penny that came his way.

The three other members of the team, a word Jack would use in the loosest possible sense, had been in the bank for less than a minute when his phone vibrated. He looked at the screen. The number was blocked, which was common in his line of work. Potential employers didn’t like having anything traced back to them.

“Yeah,” Jack answered.

“Jack Dunn?”

“Yeah,” Jack replied. “Who’s this?”

“You don’t remember me Jack? I’m hurt.”

“Mr. Lemonzeo?” Jack nearly dropped the phone. “You’re out? I’m sorry, sir. Had I known I would have come to see you straight away. Please, accept my apologies, sir.”

“No apologies necessary, Jack. Had I wanted it known that I was out, you would have known. Think nothing of it. You busy?”

Jack glanced up at the bank.

“No, sir,” he said.

“I got a job for you Jack,” Mr. Lemonzeo said. “You up for it?”

“Of course, Mr. Lemonzeo. Of course. When do you need me?”

“There’s a police van leaving Eudora in two minutes. They’re transporting an associate of mine to Leavenworth. I’d like you to intercept the van. Can you do that? I know it’s pretty short notice.”

Jack glanced once more at the bank before shifting the car into gear and driving away.

“What route are they taking?” Jack asked.

“Tonganoxie Road.”

“That’s good. Not a lot out there once they’re north of Tonganoxie. That’s where I’ll hit them.”

“So you can do it, then?”

“I’m on my way now, Mr. Lemonzeo.”

“I know I could count on you, Jack.”

Ten minutes later Jack was racing south on Tonganoxie Road. Five minutes after that he turned left onto Seymour road and then turned around, pulled to a stop on the shoulder of Seymour, and waited, facing Tonganoxie Road.

He didn’t have to wait long before the police van passed by. Jack followed.

Now all he had to do was get the van to stop. Jack turned a couple of ideas over in his head. He could come up from behind and ram the van, maybe try to push it off the road. Or he could speed past and then block the road ahead. He didn’t like either idea. Both involved the possibility that Lemonzeo’s associate could get hurt.

It was then, as Jack had decided it would be safest to block the road ahead of the van, that the two doors in the back of the van burst open. Jack nearly wrecked the car as he jumped in surprise at what now stood in the back of the van, looking out onto the road below.

The Walrus.

Jack had heard of the Walrus before, but never gave much stock to to the guy’s reputation. He just figured him for one of those body builder types. But there he was, in the flesh, and wearing a set of orange prison coveralls. Jack slowed the car when he realized that the Walrus was going to jump. Surely whoever was driving the van must’ve noticed that the rear doors were open.

Yet the van never slowed.

Jack hit the brakes as the Walrus jumped onto the road, rolling into a ball once he’d hit the pavement.

The Walrus rolled right off the highway and into the ditch. Jack stopped on the shoulder where the Walrus had left the highway. He got out the car, gun in hand. Never hurt to be safe.

He could see the walrus laying there in the ditch below him, unmoving.

“You okay?” Jack called out. He should probably go down there, but couldn’t quite get himself to move.

The Walrus groaned.

“My name’s Jack Dunn. Mr. Lemonzeo sent me for you. To help you. If you’re alright we need to get moving. Whoever they got driving that van might be an idiot, but they’re gonna notice that you’re gone sooner or later.”

“You’re one of Lemonzeo’s men, huh,” the Walrus said and then sat up.

“I am.”

“I’ve heard of Jack Dunn.” The Walrus stood and brushed himself off. The coveralls were torn and ripped, but he looked no worse for wear. “Getter Dunn, right?”

“That’s what they used to call me, yeah,” Jack said.

“You gonna shoot me, Getter Dunn?”

Jack realized he was still holding the gun.

“No,” Jack said and then put the gun away. “Come on, I can get you out of here.”

It was a good thing Jack had been driving the sedan. Anything smaller and the Walrus may not have fit. But the sedan was a boat with plenty of leg room. It wasn’t perfect, but the Walrus looked comfortable.

“Where we going?” Jack asked once he was back behind the wheel. “Mr. Lemonzeo said to free you, nothing beyond that.”

“Take me back to Eudora,” the Walrus said. “I have something that needs finishing.”

Jack turned the car around and in moments they were heading south. He didn’t know what Mr. Lemonzeo wanted with the Walrus, but he knew by reputation that there was only one reason to hire him. Whatever job needed finishing in Eudora, Jack could only assume that it would end with someone’s death.



Thursday, January 18, 2018

#014: LOST AND FOUND




I’D BEEN RUNNING FOR what felt like forever before I finally stopped to rest. Tunnel after tunnel, room to room, choosing my path with less thought then I would chose my socks. Of course, if you don’t know me that well then you wouldn’t know that I don’t put a lot of thought into choosing socks. Probably because all of them are the same color and brand.

Anyway, I can tell you that I felt like a real idiot. There I was, underground, lost, and I was running all over the place like some dern fool. There could be all manner of creatures lurking about down here and I wouldn’t know it until it was too late.

I looked up and down the tunnel I rested in. I could go back, but the moment I reached a crossroads I would have to guess. I could go forward. Either choice could get me closer to getting out, or take me in deeper. I wanted to cry.

Instead, I sat and switched off the headlamp. There, in the dark, I calmed my breathing and listened.

You could call it meditating I suppose. I mean, I wouldn’t, but I suppose others would.

But what I did was to focus outward, listening. I was hoping to hear something, anything out there in the darkness. Any sound that might help guide me out.

It wasn’t easy. My own heartbeat for example, sounded like one of them giant Japanese drums. And my breathing was like a hurricane. Heck, I could even hear the blood flowing through my veins. It’s amazing what you can hear when there is nothing else out there. No television, no cars passing by, no birds chirping or insects buzzing, no wind, nothing. When the only thing you have to hear is what’s happening inside your own body, it’s like someone plugged you into a state of the art PA system.

Me, I had to try and tune it all out.

Like I said, it wasn’t easy. But when you have no choice and you’re desperate, you can accomplish quite a lot.

My stomach growled and I cursed. I hadn’t eaten since the sausage biscuit I’d had on the way to Clem’s. I checked my watch. That had been nearly three hours ago. I’d been running around down here like some kind of insane marathon runner for longer than I thought.

I checked my bag and found a candy bar, one of those they had packed with peanuts. I tore into it, tossed the wrapper aside, and washed it down with a small bottle of warm water I’d also brought along.

Then I went back to it.

I pictured myself reaching out with my ears. Sounds stupid, but it helps in situations such as these.

I heard nothing.

I waited.

The silence pressed down on me. The darkness absolute. It was suffocating. But I ignored it. I had too. The candy bar was all I had. If I couldn’t find my way out, if I was trapped down here for a while then I might starve to death.

Honestly, I wasn’t even sure that I could starve to death, but I sure as hell wasn’t willing to find out if.

I was all there was. The only sounds where those made by me. The beating of my heart. My own breath. I tried to tune them out.

But, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could see a faint glow to my right, off in the far distance. It wasn’t much, more like a memory, a remembrance of light. But it was something. A way to go. A place to start. Not back, but forward. It wasn’t green, so it wasn’t a glow stick. But could it be another room?

I stood and moved toward it. Despite the fear that slithered up and down my spine, I left the headlamp off. But I clutched at the rifle like a life raft.

I moved slowly, but with purpose. Pausing now and again to listen, thinking I’d heard something behind me only to realize it was the sound of my own feet scraping across the floor. Then, as I drew toward the light, as it was still nothing more than a whisper of a glow, I heard something up ahead. It was almost imperceptible and I couldn’t identify the source, but you combine it with the indistinct light, then there was certainly something up ahead.

I crept closer.

Eventually, as the light grew brighter, I could make the sound out as voices. Maybe more than five, all speaking in unison. Chanting. I couldn’t make out any words though, I still had a ways to go.

I checked the rifle, it was cocked and loaded. I had no idea what I was walking into, but I wanted to make sure I was ready in case there would be shooting involved.

I moved slowly, giving my eyes time to adjust to the light as it grew brighter. Soon I could make out enough of the chanting to realize that it was in a language I didn’t recognize. Which just meant it wasn’t in English. I may be over a hundred years old, but that doesn’t mean I’ve had time to learn a second language.

The light was straight ahead of me now, and I could see figures from within, though they were nothing more than blobs. They were still a ways off, so they looked like toys at this distance, but I could make out thirteen of them. Twelve were all in a group facing one standing alone.

Before I could get any closer, however, I tripped over something that hissed and screeched beneath me. I fell, hard, the cold stone floor rising up to meet me like inevitability.

I didn’t move from where I struck, sprawled face down across the tunnel. I was still quite a distance away from the group of chanters, but sound carries far down here. But the chanting continued, and the blobular group ahead of me in the light didn’t move.

I breathed a little easier. But then something rough and wet touched my hand and I nearly screamed.

I was the cat. Biscuit.

The dern cat that got me lost down here in the first place. I have to admit that I thought about smacking it in the head with my rifle. But then it started to purr and rub its head against my hand and well, I couldn’t very well brain it at that point, could I.

Then Biscuit did something a bit odd. It walked away from me, down the tunnel from where I’d come. Just a few steps, then it stopped and looked back at me.

I arched a brow.

Then Biscuit did it again. It walked a few more steps, then turned to look at me.

I sat up.

Did it want me to follow it? That’s not normal cat behavior, is it? A dog, sure, but a cat?

Biscuit loped back to me, and once again, purring, it rubbed its head against my hand. Then, still purring, it walked away a few steps and then turned to look at me.

What did I have to lose?

I stood and the cat moved off into the dark with me not far behind.



Monday, January 15, 2018

#013: TROGLODYTE FOOD




TROGLODYTES ARE SCAVENGERS, THE hyena of the monster world.

They don’t go looking for fights, preferring to come in after it’s over and pick off the remains of what lost. But they can look after themselves when necessary. They ain’t no wilting flower that’s to be sure.

Yet, at the same time, they startle easily and when given the choice, will run rather than fight. Which is why, when I fired, I aimed low and the bullet struck within inches of the thing’s big webbed feet.

It screamed and ran off through one of the side tunnels, it’s feet flapping against the slime-hardened floor.

I levered another round into the chamber and followed it on into the tunnel, sending another shot its way. But again, the purpose was to frighten, not kill. The thing didn’t deserve to die. It wasn’t hurting no one. So I let it run and returned back to the room with the cages.

Sure enough, in one of the cages, I found a cat. It was fat, like it had been eating well. Which made sense. If a goblin pack had been using these cages to hold cats to eat, they would’ve been fattening them up. We do the same thing with cattle, so I ain’t judging.

I had no idea if this cat was Mrs. Whiskers, Meowzers, or any of the other foolishly named cats of Clem’s. It could’ve belonged to one of the neighbors. Regardless, it was why I was down here so I needed to get it free.

The trouble was the big iron lock on the cage’s door. It was like something King Arthur would have used to keep his round table locked up for the night. It was big, it was old, and it looked dern near impenetrable.

In the movies, or on TV, when faced with a lock and no key, the hero of the tale would often just shoot the thing off. I try to avoid that if I can. It works if you know what you’re doing, and I do, but I didn’t want to come all this way and accidentally shoot the one cat that seems to have survived.

I stared at the lock for a moment without any ideas. So I switched my headlamp back on and took a look around the room. The fire pit contained the bones of what I figured were the former residents of the empty cages. That was news I wasn’t looking forward to taking back to Clem.

I bent to get a closer look at the lock. I’ve been known to pick a lock or two in my day, but the few times I’d been successful had come more from luck than skill. I sifted through the contents of my bag, thinking maybe I’d brought along something that might help me out. I’ve collected a number of artifacts over the years, objects of power that have been known to come in handy from time to time. But I had nothing on me that could get me through that lock, not without killing the cat in the process. Which, again, I didn't want to do.

Then something struck me in the back of the head. My vision blurred and the ground rose up to meet me as everything went black.

When I could open my eyes again, I was on the floor with something large on top of me.

The troglodyte.

“Human not steal food!” It bellowed into my face, coating me in spittle.

It reared back and I could see a rock in its hand.

It brought the rock down on my head before I could think to move. Everything went aquatic at that point, like moving underwater.

“Lolm hungry!” It shouted.

It reared back once again. I brought my arms up in time to stop the third blow.

“Pretty kitty is for Lolm!” It hammered at my arms as it had done with the lock. “Not for human!”

I pushed and managed to roll, taking the thing with me. It fell to the floor but was back on me before I could so much as blink.

“Lolm stop human! Lolm eat pretty kitty!”

Once more, it reared back, preparing to bring the rock down on my head. I threw my hands out, clawing at the dirt around me, searching for anything I could use as a weapon. The cat yowled and hissed behind us.

The monster swung. I managed to move my head enough that the rock only grazed my temple. I barely felt it, I was beyond pain at that point. All I could think about was not dying in some dern goblin tunnel, and certainly not by a troglodyte. I had my pride, after all.

The troglodyte threw the rock aside and opened it’s wide, catfish mouth. Then, with a roar, it bit me where my neck and shoulder meet, it’s yellowed teeth sinking into my flesh.

I screamed and threw a fist into the side of the monster’s head. It grunted but didn’t let go.

I hit it again, and again, but I couldn’t dislodge it from my neck.

I tried going for my guns, but I must have dropped the rifle when I fell, and the creature’s knees kept me from my pistols as it straddled me.

I searched with my hands along the dirt floor as the thing tore a chunk from my neck. It threw its head back and swallowed.

A troglodyte had just eaten a piece of me. I’d never before been so offended, disgusted, and afraid all at the same time. I clung to the anger as my life poured from the hole in my neck. I would heal, probably, but I couldn’t let the thing take another bite.

The problem was that I was losing strength fast. Fortunately the anger over being eaten had pumped a fistful of adrenaline into my system and I was able to rock to the side once more. But this time, the troglodyte managed to stay atop me. However, it had moved just enough that I was able to pull one of the Peacemakers, and, as it went for my neck for the second time, I thumbed back the hammer, jammed the barrel into the side of its head, and squeezed the trigger.

The gun crashed and the creature rolled to the side, carried by the force of the bullet. It rolled off me and lay still.

I blacked out, I ain’t gonna lie. I’d had a hunk bit out of me and I needed to heal. When the wound is bad my body tends to shut down so that it can divert all of its energy into the healing process.

When I woke the cat was purring. Everything had gone dark but for a red glow nearby. The fire had gone out. All that was left were the glowing embers.

I sat up and felt at my neck. It was tender and raw to the touch. It still bled a little, but most of the hole had closed.

I checked my head and found that I still wore the lamp, so I switched it on. The light hurt my eyes.

I pulled myself to my feet. I was a little unsteady, but all in all, considering I’d been gnawed upon, I felt pretty good.

I scanned the floor around me with the headlamp and soon found both the rifle and the pistol. I replaced the spent shell in the pistol and returned it to its holster. Then I checked my watch. It had been coming up on Eight when I had arrived at Clem’s earlier. The watch said it was now half past Nine. I hadn’t been out that long. But still, Clem was probably freaking out. I needed to wrap this up.

I went to the cage and had a look at the cat. Around its neck, hanging from a leather collar, hung a metal tag. The tag had the name Biscuit engraved into it.

I smiled. This was Clem’s cat.

But how to get the dern thing out of its cage.

The cat only looked up at me and purred.

“You and I got one thing in common,” I said to the cat. “We were about to be a troglodyte’s dinner.”

I laughed which got my head to swimming. My vision clouded and I fell to my knees in the dirt, one of them slamming down onto something solid that tore through my pants.

I grabbed at the thing, thinking to toss it aside. But I didn’t.

As with any foreign object that we, as human beings, step on, fall on, or encounter in such a way that it causes us a moment of pain, I took at look at the thing. I wanted to see what it was that hurt me. We all do it, and I’m glad that I did. The thing that I had pulled out of the dirt was a large, iron, key.

I gave it a try and, sure enough, it fit perfectly in the lock. Clem wasn’t going to be happy about the others, but knowing that I’d be able to bring one of his cats back to him, knowing that he would find comfort in the fact that one of them survived, brought some comfort to me as well. It almost made up for being chewed on by a dern scavenging troglodyte.

But as soon as the cage door swung open the cat was out like a shot. The only thing that stopped it from getting too far was my face, which it clung to with a fairly strong set of sharp claws.

I reacted the way most folks would react to having a furry ball of claws and teeth attack their face. I screamed, back peddled around the room, and tried to swat the dern thing off with my rifle. It eventually let go and took off down one of the tunnels.

Once I’d caught my breath and wiped my own blood out of my eyes, I thought about letting the dang thing go. But then I thought of Clem and how he was gonna feel knowing that he lost all his cats. I couldn’t do anything about the ones that had been eaten, but could certainly go after the one that still had some juice left in its tank.

My face itched, an unpleasant feeling that was like a colony of ants crawling all over my skin, but it meant that the healing had begun. Luckily it was only a few scratches otherwise I would have blacked out yet again. But I didn’t, so I pushed the feeling out of my mind and set off after the cat.

I’ve made many mistakes in my life. A fella who’s lived as long as I have is bound to make their share. But looking back on it now, going after that cat was certainly one of the dumbest.

I followed the cat for as long as I could. But, as most of you know, cats are fast. Of course, this one was rather fat, so even after it took off ahead of me, I eventually caught up to it sitting there in the tunnel cleaning itself. But then, once I’d gotten close enough to grab it, it was off again. This happened several times and it chose tunnel branches at random.

I ran out of glow sticks fairly quick as I chased the cat down this tunnel and that. Left fork, right fork, then right, left, two more rights, another left, and then… well, I lost track. After a while I couldn’t even see the cat anymore. It wasn’t long before I hit upon two very important realizations.

Important Realization Number One: The cat was gone.

Important Realization Number Two: I was lost.



Thursday, January 11, 2018

#012: THE THING IN THE DARK




GOBLINS ARE NASTY LITTLE creatures. They live underground, sometimes alone, sometimes in packs. Along with the claws on their toes they have them at the ends of their fingers as well. Plus the teeth, which are a bit like what you’d find in a shark. And whatever you do, never let one spit on you. It’s all over at that point.

I put the flashlight away and retrieved the Winchester from where it leaned against the freezer. I levered a round into the chamber. I still wore the headlamp, which should be all the light I’d need. I would have liked the flashlight as well, but I only had two hands. I’d need both for the rifle. Besides, as much as I would’ve liked the extra light, I always felt better in the darker places of the world with a gun in my hand.

I took myself one deep breath, loosened my tie, released the top button of my shirt, and then stepped into the tunnel. The stone door swung shut behind me, sealing me off from the rest of the world. I sighed.

I hadn’t noticed the noise from outside earlier — the hum of the freezer, the clunk of Clem’s boots on the kitchen floor above as he paced — hadn’t noticed them at all. I surely noticed their absence now. There was nothing down here with me but the sound of my own breathing. That, and possibly a goblin or two. As many cats as had been taken, just from Clem’s house alone, much less his neighbors, I figured I was dealing with a pack of goblins. One alone couldn’t eat that many cats in such a time frame.

I took a glow stick from the backpack, one of them chemical lights that glow green when you crack the tube inside and give it a shake. Which I did before dropping it on the floor behind me. I got moving, rifle pointed forward. I tried to take comfort in the fact that the tunnel, while dark and beneath the surface of the earth, was big enough that I didn’t have to bend or stoop. It was also dry, so that was something.

There was no rhyme or reason when it came to goblin tunnels. Nothing was planned, nothing mapped out. While a pair of goblins had some control over where a colossal slug went, guiding them wasn’t an exact science. Or at least the goblin race had never cared enough to fine tune their control over a slug, not in my experience anyway.

It takes two goblins to guide a slug. I don’t know how they do it, I ain’t never been invited to watch them work, but I’ve been told it takes two. The goblins might have a target destination in mind, such as Clem’s basement, and they can eventually get the slug to where they want it to go, but the path the slug takes ain’t usually a straight line.

I was about a hundred yards in and so far this tunnel did nothing but slope down and to the left. The curve to the left was so gradual that I only noticed when the glow stick I’d dropped at the entrance eventually popped out of sight. I stepped back until I could see it again and dropped another. The glow sticks, as long as I always kept one in sight, would help me find my way back. And they would last for twelve hours, though I didn’t plan on being down here that long.

To be honest, I don’t like being underground. Makes me feel off. Disconnected. The air always seems too thin. To be more honest, being underground scares me more than a pack of angry biters. It’s not debilitating, obviously, but if I’m gonna die I’d prefer to do it with the open air on my skin.

But I was here for Clem, so I bit down my fears and moved on down the tunnel. It continued on with the gradual slope downward and the curve to the left. It was like walking along a giant cork screw. The further I went, the deeper I went, I could feel the weight of the world pressing down, and the pressure only increased with each step.

To make matters worse, there was a smell in the air that I couldn’t quite identify. Stale coffee mixed with burnt toast, maybe some skunk added in, and something sweet. Was it coconut? I tried not to dwell on it.

Eventually the tunnel leveled out and I came to a fork. Two options. Left or right. I was about to continue with the theme of the journey so far and go left when I heard it. A metallic banging from some ways off that sounded almost familiar, though I had to strain some to hear it.

It was coming from somewhere far ahead, down one of the two tunnels. I pointed my rifle down one, then the other. I couldn’t tell which tunnel led to the sound. Maybe both tunnels led to the same place. Wouldn’t surprise me. Goblin warrens are the worst.

The banging continued. I had to make decision.

A moment ago, before the distant hammering had sounded, my gut had told me to go left. So I went left.

The tunnel stretched out for about dozen or so yards and then opened up into a small room with low, rounded ceilings. Like the tunnel, the room was all rock and earth held together with worm slime.

The banging stopped for a moment and I listened.

There was something else out there in the distance, but it was faint. It was like someone singing off key, but I could make out nothing more than that.

Then the banging started up again, calling to me, urging me forward. I ignored it. I wasn’t about to rush into anything down here. Instead I took a moment to look around. The room was spherical, like the inside of a big ball, the top half, anyways. You’ll find many such rooms when you travel a slug tunnel. Slugs, just like the rest of us, have to sleep once in a while, even the colossal variety. This room was one of their sleeping chambers, and it was big enough to park a couple of cars.

See, the slug, when it’s done a good day’s work and is ready to bunk up, carves itself out one of these rooms then curls up into a balls and sleeps. Once it has moved on, a tribe of goblins move in. They fill the bottom of the bowl with rock and dirt to flatten it out, then they start decorating. Usually with cat furs and skeletons. What can I say, goblins really like cats.

While this room had the bottom filled in, it was undecorated but for a small rock pedestal in the center. It had a cow skull atop it. I wasn’t sure what that meant.

I stood at the threshold looking in, the light from my headlamp seeing what I saw. Nothing.

There weren’t even any tracks in the dirt.

I took a chance and, rifle in the lead, stepped into the room.

Nothing happened.

Now that I was in, I could see no less than five tunnels leading out. One of them was right next to the one I’d just exited. Looking into it I could see a faint green glow some ways back. One of my glow sticks. This was the right fork of the tunnel. I shook my head, two tunnels leading to the same spot.

I moved into the center of the room. The metallic banging continued, and from where I stood I could hear which tunnel it was coming from. To be honest, it all felt like a trap, but the noise was the only lead I had. So, dropping a glow stick outside the tunnel that brought me into the room, and another inside the tunnel that was taking me out, I continued on.

I didn’t have many of the glow sticks left. Any more twists and turns and I’d soon be out. Luckily the tunnel I followed was long and straight, no other tunnels leading off from it.

The banging noise drew closer as I loped along and I realized what it sounded like. It was as if someone was hammering on a wire cage, like what you’d see in an animal shelter. I didn’t like what it meant. Not one bit.

After another five minutes of walking I could see a pinprick of light some ways ahead. I switched off my headlamp and crept on toward the light.

I stopped every now and then as the light intensified so that my eyes could adjust. As the light grew, so did the noise. Eventually I’d reached the end of the tunnel. I hung back, as far into the darkness as I could, and tried to spy what was in the room beyond.

The banging stopped. In it’s place was a yowling, like an animal in distress. This was the off key singing from earlier. I crept forward another step and then someone spoke.

“Pretty kitty,” it said. The voice was low and wet, like someone talking with food in their mouth. It was ahead of me, from the room beyond the tunnel.

“Soft fur,” it continued. “Pretty fur. All trapped. Nowhere to go. It okay, kitty. Nice kitty. Lolm try more, get kitty out.”

The banging started up again. I moved closer, rifle ready.

The room was the same size as the last, which would make sense as it had probably been carved out by the same slug. There was a fire burning in a pit lined with rocks in the center of the room. At the far end, on the other side of the fire, sat a row of wire cages. Ten wide and four high. The cages I could see were empty. The cages I couldn’t see were blocked from view because something was standing in front of them.

It was stooped and no taller than me. It wore rags that resembled old bed sheets. It’s skin was scaly with random patches of fur. It held a jagged chunk of rock that it used to hammer on the front of one of the cages, probably the lock. By the sound of the yowling I could only assume that the cage held a cat. Possibly one of Clem’s.

The creature took a breather from banging on the cage. The cat continued to yowl and holler.

“Lolm will open cage,” the thing said. “No fear. Lolm will free you, pretty kitty.”

I wasn’t quite sure what the thing was, the light in the room was bad. But whatever it was, maybe its intentions weren’t of the nefarious type. Maybe it was trying to free the cat. Like I’d said earlier, not all monsters are bad. Most of them just want to get through life with as little fuss as possible. Despite the way it looked, regardless of the gloom and the terrifying location, it was entirely feasible that this creature was actually trying to help.

“Lolm so hungry, pretty kitty.”

Then again, I’ve been known to be wrong.

“Lolm will free you and then he can eat you,” it said.

I stepped into the room, rifle at the ready.

“Lolm’s gonna put the rock down and step away from the cage,” I said. “Or Norman’s gonna put a bullet right into Lolm’s head.”

The thing turned to me in alarm, hissing. It’s eyes were yellow and round like saucers, its mouth wide like a catfish.

A troglodyte.

I squeezed the trigger.



Monday, January 8, 2018

#011: INTO THE BASEMENT




TODAY WAS NOT MY day for coffee.

On the way to Clem’s I’d made a quick stop at the Happy Hamburger Drive-In. It wasn’t even close to lunchtime yet, but they served up a few of them breakfast sandwiches. You know, sausage and eggs on biscuits and such. Plus they poured a decent cup of coffee.

The coffee rode in the cup holder I’d glued to the dashboard of my Scout. The biscuits I’d eaten during the drive. I arrived at Clem’s place and stepped out of the Scout. I leaned in to grab the coffee. Then, cup in hand, I backed away and turned. But I had misjudged the distance between the cup and the door so terribly that the cup struck the door, flew from my hand, and fell to the gravel below. The lid popped off, of course, and I watched in dismay as the coffee fled, soaking into the driveway.

I’d yet to even take a sip. Before I knew it I had a pistol in each hand, cocked and ready to fire. I ain’t rightly sure exactly what I’d planned on doing at that moment, to tell you the truth. Shoot the cup, maybe? I can sometimes let my anger get the better of me over the most mundane of situations.

So I took a breath, or twelve, eased the hammers down, and holstered both pistols. I took another few dozen breaths, eyes closed, head down, and got myself under control. Then I threw the empty cup into the Scout and slammed the door.

Clem could see, the moment he opened the door, that I was in no mood for much of anything. I’d left my hat and coat back in the Scout, so I’m sure I must have been quite the sight standing there on his porch. Along with the Peacemakers at my hips, I cradled my rifle, the trusty Winchester, in my arms. There’s just nothing like a good old Winchester to make a man feel safe.

I’d brought along more than my guns, however. I wore a backpack full of other items I felt might come in handy if I was to be dealing with what I suspected were the culprits behind the missing cats. Which were not, I want to make clear, aliens.

Clem only nodded and took me directly into the kitchen.

The basement lurked at the bottom of a rickety, wooden stair case. As I stood there at the top, looking down from the kitchen, I could see nothing but the inky gloom that comes from being underground.

“There’s a string down there once you step off the stairs,” Clem said. “Give it a pull and you’ll get some light.”

I didn’t wait to reach the bottom of the steps. Instead, I pulled off the backpack and retrieved a small lamp on an elastic band. I strapped the lamp to my head, switched it on and, rifle in hand, headed on down.

I stepped on to the dirt floor of the basement and found the string right away. It hung from a light fixture in the ceiling that contained just one, dust-covered bulb. I pulled the string and light struggled to shine through the layer of grime on the bulb’s glass. The fixture hung from its own cord and now swung back and forth creating dull shadows that played about on the rock walls like a dance troupe with no sense of rhythm.

Along the wall to the left perched a tall set of metal shelves which held various mason jars of differing sizes. The dust and grime covered each of the jars so that even by the light of my headlamp I wasn’t able to discern exactly what they held. Liquids in some, solids in others, even a bit a both in a couple.

To my right was a coffin freezer. It too was caked in layers of dirt and grunge. So much so that I had no clue as to the thing’s original color.

I got to thinking that Clem didn’t come down here too often, or if he did, it surely wasn’t to clean.

I remained at the foot of the steps and scanned the floor leading to the back wall. There, in the dirt, as clear as the letters in a book, were two sets of foot prints.

The first set was made by a pair of boots and they led in two directions. From the stairs to both the coffin freezer and the metal shelves, and then back. These prints were more like a well-worn track in the dirt, suggesting that when Clem did use the basement, it was to retrieve items from the freezer and shelves, or to places items in either.

The second set of foot prints went from the back wall to the stairs and back. And they were made by something that was not at all human. The first clue was how each of the toes ended in small claws. The second clue were the toes themselves. There were only four per foot. The prints were also small, like a child.

I walked to the back wall and tapped lightly on the rock. Not sure why. It sounded like rock, which is what I would have expected.

I set the rifle aside, leaning it against freezer and took a handheld flashlight from the backpack. I switched in on and used it to scan each inch of the back wall. More specifically the area where the four-toed foot prints entered and exited.

“You find my cats?” Clem said from directly behind me.

I’d like to say that I wasn’t startled, that the sudden sound of Clem’s voice in my ear didn’t cause me to jump a bit, that I didn’t involuntarily put my left hand on one of the Peacemakers and had begun to clear leather before realizing who it was. I’d like to say all that . . . but I can’t.

“Dang it, Clem,” I said, holstering the pistol. I turned to him. “I’m trying to investigate here. What do you want?”

“You find my cats?” He asked again.

“I’ve been down here for what, five minutes now?” I said.

Clem only stared at me, a blank look on his face.

“No, Clem, I haven’t found your cats,” I said.

His face dropped.

“Look,” I put a hand on his shoulder. “You go on back upstairs. This may take me a while, but once I find something I’ll let you know. Okay?”

“Okay,” Clem said. “I can do that.”

“Alright then,” I clapped him once on the shoulder. “You make sure you stay upstairs now, okay? No matter what you hear, you stay on up there.”

“I’ll stay upstairs,” he said, then looked confused. “What might I hear from down here?”

“Well, I don’t know, Clem,” I said. I tried not to let the frustration creep into my voice, but the man was making it difficult. “Just stay upstairs, okay?”

“Okay,” he said. Then turned and climbed the steps, closing the door at the top behind him.

I returned to inspecting the back wall. I ran my hand along its craggy surface, moving from top to bottom. I found what I was looking for where the wall met the floor. A small section of rock that moved slightly under my hand.

I pushed on the rock and nothing happened. I lifted up on the rock like a door handle and a section of the wall swung out into the basement on a set of hinges.

A hidden door. I shone the light of both my flash light and my head lamp into what lay beyond. It was a tunnel that sloped downward at a slight angle. It was tall enough and wide enough that I could step inside comfortably. And so I did.

The dirt walls were round and smooth like glass, as if a giant worm had born its way through, eating the dirt and excreting some sort of chemical that stabilized the walls around it. Which is exactly what had happened.

Deep underground, a mile or so below your feet, lives the Colossal Slug. Though it shares more similarities with the common earthworm than it does a slug.

They live off the earth, literally. Chewing up dirt and stone as they tunnel their way around beneath us. Most of what they eat goes back into the earth eventually, and there aren’t that many left alive at this point, so there’s no worry about the ground caving in beneath us. Especially when you consider the chemical that they produce, which coats the tunnel around them, is what is essentially solid stone. Only harder.

It’s all very technical and biological and somewhat magical. I don’t know how it all works, but it works.

But it wasn’t the slug that took Clem’s cats. Slugs don’t care for meat. Nor do they make hidden doors. No, it was what used the slug to carve out the tunnels that had taken them. Something that was small like a child, has four toes ending in claws on each foot, can manage to coerce a colossal slug into creating a series of tunnels for it, and has a taste for cats.

Goblins.

I loathe goblins.



Thursday, January 4, 2018

#010: ABNER HATCHES A PLAN




ABNER LEMONZEO COULDN’T STOP counting the money. No matter how many times he counted, it continued to come out the same.

One hundred thousand dollars. Nearly five inches worth of hundred dollar bills.

He sat in his booth in the back of the Pub and counted them again, a smile glued to his face.

“How many times are you going to count those?” Jenner said as he entered from the back room.

“Just let me enjoy this,” Lemonzeo said.

Jenner sat across from him. He was an unassuming man. Average in almost every way. It was like he’d been designed to blend into a crowd, to go through life unnoticed by others, to be anonymous in all respects. His hair was brown, short and conservative. His suit, gray, not too expensive, but not cheap. He wasn’t tall, wasn’t short, wasn’t skinny or fat or athletic. He just was.

His eyes, however. Sometimes when Jenner looked at him, Abner could see through them and into infinity. He’d always found it more than a little unsettling.

“What’s your plan?” Jenner asked. “The vampires didn’t look too happy when they left.”

“I’m not worried,” Lemonzeo said. “So Oklahoma survived. Had it really been an issue, they wouldn’t have left me the money. In fact, they probably would have killed us.”

“You assume they knew I was in the back, watching.”

“Oh they knew, I can guarantee you that.”

Jenner cocked an eyebrow.

Lemonzeo just laughed.

“You remember the day we met?” Lemonzeo said as he shuffled the bills.

“Of course,” Jenner said.

Abner thought back. It had been in prison. Two days into his five year stretch, three large men, all of them covered in tattoos, had cornered Abner in the yard. It was the same old prison story. He was a new fish, fresh meat, and they’d wanted to take him for a test drive.

But then Jenner had stepped in and that was it. He had calmly stepped between Abner and the three men and then looked at Abner’s would-be assailants. Just that, a look, and they had apologized and walked away. Ran, actually.

“You were the expert then,” Abner said. “You knew how to get by and you took care of me. Now it’s your turn to trust me.”

“I trust you,” Jenner said. “It’s those monsters I don’t trust.”

“You know,” Lemonzeo said. “I never thanked you for saving me that day.”

“Not necessary,” Jenner said. If the subject embarrassed him, he didn’t show it. “I was only repaying a debt.”

“A debt you owed my father, not me.”

“Same thing, as far as I’m concerned.”

“One day you’re going to have to tell me what it was my father did for you,” said Lemonzeo.

“That’s between your father and I.”

It was the same thing he’d said that day. It was what he always said, so Lemonzeo didn’t bother pushing him. Whatever it had been his father had done for the man, these many years later, Jenner had proven time and again that he was true to his word.

Jenner had even been released two years before Abner and had moved to Eudora to look over things until Abner’s return.

“Well, Dad’s dead, so he’s not talking,” Lemonzeo said.

Jenner didn’t respond so Lemonzeo let it drop.

“Okay,” Lemonzeo said. He stuffed the bills back into the envelope. “First thing’s first. I’m going to need some men if I’m going to go to war with Klein.”

“You won’t get many with just a hundred thousand dollars,” Jenner said.

“I don’t need many. Not yet. I want to take this money and use it to get more.”

“How so?”

“We can take our first shot at Klein and make some money in the bargain. We take out that gambling den of his in Desoto.”

Jenner’s expression didn’t change. It rarely did.

“The fight next weekend,” Jenner said. “There should be over a million dollars in that building after all the bets are placed.”

“That’s what I was thinking. I figure between the two of us, maybe two other guys, we should be able to knock the place over without much effort. Security won’t be too tight, Klein’s reputation is security enough. What do you say? Feel like getting your hands dirty?”

“Whatever you need, Mr. Lemonzeo. You got any guys in mind?”

“I do, but I’ll need you to track them down. I haven’t spoken to them since before I was sent up.”

“Give me the names and I’ll find them. Shouldn’t be too hard if they’re still in the life.”

Lemonzeo took a small notebook and pen from the inner breast pocket of his suit jacket. He wrote the names down, tore the page out, and handed it over to Jenner.

“What are we going to do about Norman Oklahoma?” Jenner asked after pocketing the paper.

“I don’t know.” Lemonzeo pulled at his mustache. “I was so certain that the Walrus was a sure thing.”

“I’ve heard stories about Oklahoma,” Jenner said. “I’ve stayed out of his way these past two years, but the rumors about him have always had me curious about the man.”

“You mean the ones about how he can’t be killed?”

“Those are the ones. I’ve always dismissed them, but…”

“He’s a man, he can be killed,” Lemonzeo said. “He’s just been lucky.”

“But the Walrus?”

“The Walrus must have underestimated him. It’s the only explanation. He let his guard down. I’m sure if given the change he’d do it differently.”

“Well,” Jenner said. “Maybe we give him that chance.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oklahoma said he didn’t kill the Walrus, right?”

“Right,” Lemonzeo said, still pulling at his mustache.

“Then that means the cops have him.”

“More than likely,” Lemonzeo said.

“You think they have him up there at the station?” Jenner asked.

“If they do, he won’t be there long. The Walrus’s strength is practically superhuman. I don’t think they have anything sturdy enough to hold him up there. No, if they have any brains among them, they’ll move him.”

Lemonzeo continued to pull on his mustache as he thought it over.

“In fact,” Lemonzeo said. “If it were me, I’d take him to Leavenworth just to get him out of my hair.”

Jenner glanced at Lemonzeo’s bald head. It had been a quick look, but Lemonzeo caught it. Neither one of them said anything about it.

“We could intercept them en-route,” Lemonzeo said. “Free the Walrus.”

“Surely, if they were going to move him, then he would already be on his way.”

“I know someone, he lives in Leavenworth. Or at least he used to. He’s more than capable. One call and providing they are still on the road he can take care of it.”

“How much will that cost?”

“Nothing,” Lemonzeo said. “Jack Dunn has always been my man. He’s one of the two on your list.”

“We don’t know for sure where they’re taking the Walrus though,” Jenner said. “If they’re even taking him anywhere.”

Lemonzeo looked around. “I think maybe it’s time I called the police.”

“The police?”

“A wild gunman shot up my bar. Don’t you think I should report that?” Lemonzeo smiled. “Depending on who they send, well, I’m sure we wouldn’t have too spend to much to get the information we need.”

Jenner pulled out his phone.



Monday, January 1, 2018

#009: ALIEN ABDUCTION




THERE’S NO SUCH THING as aliens.

Werewolves? You bet.

Zombies? Of course.

Vampires? Obviously.

But aliens? It’s all just a pile of paranoia and conspiracy theories if you ask me.

“How many cats are we talking about here, Clem?” I asked.

“Five,” Clem said.

“Five?” I asked.

“Five,” he clarified.

“Someone has taken five cats from you?”

“Not all at the same time,” Clem said. “Every couple of days one of ‘em has gone missing.”

“How long has this been going on?” I asked.

“Little over a month now,” he said. “It started with Mrs. Whiskers.”

“Mrs. Whiskers?”

“Yes sir,” he said. “About a month or so back I got up one morning and filled all the cat dishes for breakfast. Them cats can hear that sound from anywhere in, or out of the house. That food hits one of them bowls and them cats come running.”

I nodded to show that I was listening.

“But that morning, all but Mrs. Whiskers showed up,” he said. “Didn’t think much of it at the time. I mean, though they do come inside once in a while, they are outdoor cats. I’ve had a few go missing over the years. They’ve wondered off or been run over or just went off somewhere to die from old age.”

“Sure,” I said.

“But then three mornings later, Meowzers didn’t show. Two mornings after that, it was Biscuit. Then Sweetcakes two days later. Then Princess Purrington. After that I figured something odd was going on.”

“Did you notify the authorities?”

“Yes sir,” Clem said. “I called and spoke to Francine down there at the station. She put me through to officer Hanks.” Clem leaned forward. “Officer Hanks, he came by, took my statement and looked around a bit. He even drove by the house once or twice, but he never did find out what was going on.”

“And that’s why you’re here,” I said.

“Yes sir. Actually,” he leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs. Some of the dried mud from his boot broke off and fell to the floor. “I told Barbra June, that’s my sister, I told her that it didn’t seem like there was anything that officer Hanks was gonna be able to do. So she told me ‘Clem,’ she said, ‘You gotta call that Norman Oklahoma,’ she said. ‘He specializes in these kinds of things that’s all mysterious and such.’. Then I remembered how you’d helped me with my wife them years back and so I took Barbra June’s advice and gave you a call. ”

“When Officer Hanks stopped by, did he do more than just take your statement?” I said.

“Yes sir, he came out and looked the place over real good but said he couldn’t find no evidence of foul play.”

“So it’s possible that each one of these cats just wandered off?”

“We’ll, it’s like I said. Cats will do that. But five of them in a month? I ain’t never had that happen, and I been owning cats for most of my life.”

He had a point.

“It’s them aliens, I tell ya,” he continued. “Them aliens came down in one of their saucers and took my cats away.”

I tried not to sigh, but one got out despite my effort.

Six years ago Clem’s wife, Nattie, took off on him just two days shy of their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Clem woke up that morning to find her note stuck to the front of the refrigerator with a magnet in the shape of one a’them alien faces, the kind with the big, black eyes. Ironic really, once you consider what was in the note. But then, maybe that’s why she chose that particular magnet.

Anyway, her note said that aliens had been visiting her for the better part of a decade. She’d written that a lone scout had come at first to gather intelligence for his home planet so that they could better understand us as a species, making it easier for them to enslave us when the mother ship eventually arrived.

She claimed that she’d struck up a friendship with this alien who she called Blont Gaglefranch from the planet Bulp. Inevitably, the mother ship had arrived, managing to avoid all radar and other such tracking mechanisms being so vastly superior then us when it came to technology. She’d met with the High Flunt, the leader of the Bulponians, and explained to the alien ruler that Earth wasn’t worth their time.

She talked about global warming, World War I and II, the atomic bomb, slavery, the Trail of Tears, the Crusades, Nicholas Cage; basically all the bad stuff we’ve done to each other and the planet over the years. In the end, she’d had him convinced and the aliens were set to leave us alone.

That’s when Blont stepped in and threw himself a tantrum. Turns out this Blont Gaglefranch was the High Flunt’s son and he’d grown somewhat attached to Nattie. So much so that he wanted to take her back to Bulp with them. Well, of course, she didn’t want to go, but Blont threatened to use their superior alien technology to blow up the Earth if she wouldn’t leave with him.

The High Flunt, being one of them helicopter parents I suppose, backed his son’s play. So Nattie had no choice really. She would have to go with them if the Earth was to keep on spinning. At least that’s how she wrote it.

Clem, after reading the note, contacted me.

I’d given the case the attention that it deserved, which meant that I’d verified that Nattie Sims, wife of Clem Sims, had purchased a one way train ticket to California. She had herself a sister in Dunsmuir. So I’d made a few calls and tracked Nattie down at her sister’s house in Northern California.

When I spoke to her, Nattie had made me promise not to tell Clem. She didn’t want him knowing that she had left because of him. She may not have loved him enough to stay married to the man, but she loved him enough not break his heart.

Clem, of course, had believed the whole thing. He took to bragging to anyone that would listen about how his wife had sacrificed herself to save them all. Of course, most folks had known that she’d left, and why, but no one wanted to hurt old Clem so they kept up the charade.

Now he apparently believed them same aliens had taken his cats.

I had a different theory. I was pretty sure I knew what had taken Clem’s cats. And if I was right, he’d never see any of them again.

I didn’t want to worry him quite yet, however.

“Well now, Clem,” I said. “I can’t discount that aliens ain’t involved. I’ll look into it, that’s for certain, but I had their word the last time that they wouldn’t be taking anyone or anything no more, and being the trusting man that I am, I got to take them at their word. So, I have to think that aliens ain’t the case here.”

“Maybe so, maybe so,” Clem said. “But the cats are missing all the same. What’s more strange is that I got to talking about what’s been happening to one of the neighbors just the other day and she tells me her cat went missing too. So did a couple of other cats on the block.”

That about clinched it for me.

“Clem, do you have a basement?” I asked.

“Pretty dumb to live in Kansas and not have a basement,” he said. “Tornadoes and all.”

“So that’s a yes?”

“Yep.”

“Mind if I come by and have a look around your basement?”

“Well, no,” he said. “But they ain’t in the basement. Checked it myself.”

“Still, I’d like to have a look around,” I said.

“Sure,” Clem said. “Anytime.”

We talked for a moment about my fee and made arrangements for me to meet him out at his house in an hour. With that he left.

I could have gone out to Clem’s right away, but the rumble that had just sounded in my belly told me that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a little something to eat. I grabbed my coat and hat and stepped out into the waiting room.

“So?” Bob said. He was still behind his book.

“So what?”

Bob put the book down. “We got a case or not?”

“We do,” I said.

“Good,” Bob said. “Maybe you’ll start paying me again.”

“Oh, come on now, Bob. What do you need those paychecks for? You got more money than Mickey Mouse.”

It was true. Bob was the type of rich that was typically preceded by the words filthy, and stinking.

“That doesn’t mean I work for free,” he said.

“Dear Lord, Bob. You weren’t cashing any of them checks anyway, even when I was paying you.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s the principle.”

“Well dern, Bob. If you want a paycheck I’ll write you out one right now.”

Bob’s eyes widened and he gasped as if I’d just asked him to steal from the Pope. “I’m not taking a bad check from you, Norman.”

“You ain’t gonna cash it anyway!”

“Like I said.” He went back behind the book. “It’s the principle.”

“Bob, you are a confounding man. I don’t understand your principles, but I surely do respect them.”




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