Urban horror fantasy crime - Editor
by Henry Gaudet
As dream jobs go, private eye doesn't rate in the top ten, or the top hundred for that matter. It's not the sort of job you aspire to. It's the job you're left with when life closes all the other doors. Ask any ten dicks how they got their start, and you'll get ten tales of ten falls from grace.
My story's no different. Not so long ago, I was doing alright. I was an ordained Sheppard, a Knight of the Golden Shield, charged by Mother Church and the Divine Trinity to defend the public from dark magic and heathen witchcraft. Not an easy job, not a fun job, but it wasn’t all bad. That little gold badge comes with a lot of fringe benefits. Even so, for all the window dressing, it's still the same old story.
Loyal readers of the Herald may remember that dust-up about three years back involving the Cult of the Slumbering Eye and a few bored socialites looking for the next big thrill. Turns out the next big thrill involved a sacrificial troll calf and at least three dead pagan gods. One botched séance later, and we’re up to our collective neck in tourists from beyond the grave.
The poor little rich kids were, of course, the first to go, but they made a splash before they checked out. Lowside Park was all but swallowed whole, and gates popped as far away as Battersbridge and Grifton. Kept us busy for a week solid, and I’m convinced we never plugged all the holes. Two months later, we were still finding a corpse or two every day.
My partner Frank and I pulled the short straw and Father Cussler tapped us to look for strays. Not a lot of detective work, just a straight bug hunt. Personally, I’d rather be chasing down the puppet masters, the ones in this world and the next. Instead, we had to settle for breaking their toys.
We were on the way back to the station after an especially nasty bit of work on the South Side. Sure, we looked rough, but just you try looking daisy fresh on the two-hours-past-the-finish-line side of a twelve hour shift. Even so, we can take only so much credit for the stench. In our line of work, spatter is an occupational hazard.
The shambler was ripe, dead at least a month. It moved in with a bricklayer and his family a couple days earlier and stayed for dinner. Landlord went to the cops about the smell. Cops came to the door, got one whiff and called us.
There was a uniform waiting for us on the front stoop. He was a skinny kid, about 18, so pale I made him for a corpse and went for my badge. I was set to drop him when he spotted us and started acting like a breather.
He did his best to fill us in, stammering through the shock and hysteria like any teenage boy. Said he'd gone round back earlier and gotten a good look in the kitchen window. Stuck around long enough to lose his lunch across the screen door before figuring he might be better off waiting out front. You ask me, he should be proud he didn’t wet himself.
Sure enough, the shambler was there in the kitchen. It sat at the table, fumbling a fork across the days-old breakfast. A broken coffee cup crunched in the brown stain underfoot, most likely from an earlier effort.
Usually, it's only the new dead that try to remember their rituals. Once, I rested a body sitting on the crapper. Seriously, sat through the whole rite trying to pinch a phantom loaf. But you don't see this so often with the older corpses. Botched or no, the rites that got this thing moving again had some serious juice.
The bricky's wife and their eldest were still alive, but both were missing too many pieces and too much blood. They weren't going to make it. Thankfully, they were both too messed up to know just how messed up they were. Everyone else, the dog included, was picked clean. Never mind what you see in the papers. Brain-eaters may make for good headlines, but shamblers aren't big on reading.
We didn't waste time with protective rites. We pulled weapons and on three, Frank kicked in the door. We opened up, blasting chunks away until the thing started acting dead. Then we sent it on. It didn't go easy. Even as hamburger, it still took all seven greater circles and a solid hour of chanting to rest the damned thing. Like I said, serious juice.
By the time we were finished, the cops had sent over a couple of squad cars. The kid was gone. We stuck around long enough for the meat wagon boys to show and left clean up to them. Privileges of the gold badge.
Anyway, I was in a hurry to get back to the station. Alice from the lunch counter finally agreed to go out with me and I really, really needed a shower.
But traffic stopped cold in the Barrows with about a mile to go. Rush hour. Over fifteen minutes or so, we crawled past half a block of tenements and Glo-Writ signs declaring "Checks Cashed Here" and "Tattoo Tattoo Tattoo".
Frank stared absently out the window at a pack of goblins hanging out in front of the grocer on the corner. There were eight of them, slouching in a loose circle with a casual menace that drove foot traffic into the street.
“Damn duskies," Frank muttered. "Ought to run ‘em in."
"On what, Frank?"
“Aw, don’t give me that. They’re trouble. You know it and I know it.” Sometimes, I think Frank missed the war. The good old days when you could blow away a couple dozen goblins and they’d give you a medal. Back then, the grays were the Enemy. They were these hideous creatures swarming up from their rat holes to rape our mothers and eat our babies. After V Day, after the Accord, they were suddenly people, and for some reason, killing them wasn’t okay anymore.
“They're not doing anything."
"Sure, Joe. Maybe they're just waiting for a lift to choir practice." Frank's snarl reflected back at me in the window.
"They're breathers. Not our problem. Leave it for the cops."
One of the punks spotted Frank and they made us. Insults and cat calls carried over the dull grumble of motionless traffic. Wide mouths stretched into predatory smiles filled with too many teeth. Fingers stood erect with that confident ease that only comes from hours of practice in the bathroom mirror. Frank’s face turned seven shades of red, his jaw clenching so tight his teeth squeaked. I looked away. "Let it go, Frank."
The truck in front, an old Booker oil-burner, pulled ahead six inches and I nudged forward, close enough for the black exhaust to roll over the hood. Frank was growling now, eyes locked on the punks on the corner. I decided to play it safe and kept my eyes forward, so I never saw what set Frank off.
"Aw, that's it!" he said, door already open. "I don't have to take this crap!" Then he was out of the car, hand reaching for the cannon under his meat spattered jacket.
By the time I had my seatbelt off, Frank was in a shoving match with the beefiest, a squat mastiff of a punk with a face covered in labyrinthine gang tattoos. At least the gun was still holstered. The others were circling, hooting and cheering and shoving. Most of the pedestrians had already crossed the road, but the drivers started to get nervous.
One of the little guys came in close, giggling. “Hey, Father!” He struggled to hold back the laughter long enough for his one-liner. “You got a limmmf . . .” Without taking his eyes off the big one, Frank palmed the kid's head and shoved.
Only the kid was charmed, some sort of ward. There was a crack and a flash, and Frank spun face first into the side of a bus. The scrawny kid never budged. The gang exploded into that freaky goblin laugh, all wet and hissy. I was still on the wrong side of the car, watching through the Booker's oily exhaust.
Frank staggered to his feet, his nose broken and bleeding. He steadied himself against the bus, dragging a muddy palm print down the side. The goblins staggered with laughter, hissing and hooting, their too-white milk teeth and luminescent eyes stark in the growing shadow.
Then Frank pulled his cannon and blew a hole in the kid the size of a beer can, and the crew stopped laughing.
For one second, one magical moment, nothing happened. We all just froze, everyone staring at the dead goblin kid crumpled up next to the fruit display by the window.
It didn’t last.
Engines revved and horns blared and cars jumped the curb, trying to get the hell out of there. Everyone panicked, running and ducking and screaming. Everyone but the goblins. They didn't run; they crouched.
They weren't screaming either. Instead, they growled some sort of tribal chant, low and slow, the kind of deep buzzing you feel in your molars. With everyone else screaming and running and diving, Frank and the goblins were completely still.
I pulled my own piece and my badge. "Trinity!" I screamed, too high and shrill. "Everyone, on the ground!" They ignored me. Frank too. This wasn't my dance. "On the ground!" I shouted again.
Frank never turned. "I got this, partner." Somehow, I heard him. His voice was low, monotone, dead. But somehow, I heard him over the engines and the horns and the panicked screams.
"Yes, partner.” A raspy hiss of a voice, thick with Sub-continental accent. Tattoo-boy. "The Good Sheppard has everything under control." He took a step forward and his gang fanned out. "Isn't that right, Father?" Another step. The chant was getting quicker, rising an octave. The punk's hand dropped casually behind his back. "Say a prayer for us, won't you, Father? Save us from our blasphemies and pagan heresies."
Another boom and Tattoo-boy's knee disappeared. Frank didn't budge. Tattoo-boy tipped over howling something ethnic, before the chant rose to a crescendo.
The others made their move. Half a dozen goblins hopped up on what I hoped was just adrenaline lunged for Frank, leaping at least eight feet in the air. Another boom and Frank caught the next one in the face.
In the face.
The kid spun away as the rest came down on my partner. Hard.
Frank toppled under the wave of grays, a mass of teeth and talons and I thought I saw the flash of a switchblade. Still, Frank was a big man, six feet with some change left over, and he was giving as good as he got.
At last, I got close enough to do some good. I couldn't take a shot, but I pulled one kid off and slapped a binding on him. The thin chain whipped round, tying his legs together, pinning his arms to his chest. His snarl turned to shock as the chain constricted and he fell over, arms lashed painfully across his torso.
In that time, Frank had bloodied two more, leaving them writhing on the sidewalk, but one of the others bit into his arm and the cannon went skittering. Frank and the remaining three scrambled after it in a tangle of bodies, but it was Tattoo-boy got there first. I have to admit, he moved pretty quick for someone down half a leg. He hefted the gun and swung it around on us.
He was kneeling, balanced on a blackened stump, bleeding from his nose and a nasty gash over a swollen eye. He looked like hell, but the kid leveled the gun like a pro. Like a killer. I turned my own gun on him, nowhere near as steady. We weren't going to win a stand-off. The others were already circling, closing in. So I pulled the trigger.
It was just a brass caster, not like Frank's cannon, but it put a neat steaming hole in the kid's forehead, punctuating the runes across his face. His head snapped back, his face a perfect portrait of goblin grace. He was like that for ages, kneeling in front of the grocer, eyes upturned. Then he tipped to the side and stopped breathing and just like that the kid was dead.
There were still three goblins off to my left, but they never made their move. I guess they didn't like the odds. Frank groaned as he bent down and reached for his cannon.
"Don't move, Frank." I couldn't recognize the voice as my own. It was dead, just like Frank’s earlier. Just like the meat on the sidewalk that used to be three kids.
Frank looked up at me, chuckling. "What are you going to do, Joe? You going to stop me? You going to put me down?"
His bloodied hand was on the butt of his gun now. Somewhere behind me, the last goblin legged it around the corner.
"Leave it. The cops will be here soon. Don't make it worse." The shake was gone from my hand now. Frank was square in my sights.
"The cops?" Frank laughed. "The cops will thank us and buy us a round when their shift's over. You're really going to stand there and tell me that you'll turn on your own partner over this pack of duskie shit bags?!" The gun was in his hand now.
"We don't have to do this. Put the gun down."
I'm pretty sure his next words were going to be "Fuck you, Joe," but he was bringing the gun up, so I pulled the trigger and killed for the second time in my life.
The cops showed up later, and the reporters. I just sat in the car, badge on the dash. They had lots of questions, sure, but they'd think twice before asking.
Privileges of the gold badge.
I just sat in the car, stinking of rotten meat, until Father Cussler and the boys came to pick me up.
Frank and I gave Mother Church a public relations nightmare. Lucky for me there were so many witnesses. Frank got the blame. Frank got the condemnation. All I got was fired.
Well, that and the ghost.
Frank didn't waste much time before he started haunting me, but his heart was never in it. He said he just couldn't stay mad at me. I have a feeling it may have more to do with the fact that, gold badge or no, I can still rest him.
Instead, we struck a truce, and when I went private, he came along. I even put his name on the door, just under mine. When clients ask, I tell them he's a silent partner.