All Hallows Peeve

By Phantom Bard & Chelle

(Kill us later, please)

General Disclaimer:No one here resembles any character from any TV show except through the application of similes, though a couple names have been purloined. Some of the characters were introduced in Chelle's "Alternative to Uber", and are being employed again to keep them out of trouble. Some characters from Phantom Bard's story "Real Vampires" have made guest appearances as a plot necessity and a favor to the author. Finally, some of the characters are fictionalized representations of persons associated with Phantom Bard. In those cases, the names have been marginally altered. We are hoping that none of the characters will be stalked in the aftermath of posting this work.
"All Hallows Peeve",© 2003 Phantom Bard & Chelle. Contact: PhantomBard1@aol.comor…or not.
Specific Disclaimer Thingie: So yeah, it's me again, (Chelle), Hi. Well, so anyway, I should warn everyone that this story is like, really for adults, though I know adulthood's just a frame of mind, and often as not, an empty claim. It's like, we don't want to scare the children…childhood's scary enough with school and peer groups and puberty looming and all. Next, there's bound to be some questionable language. There are macabre details and unpleasant stuff, and even some supernatural creature thingies. There may be some violence…I'll let you know, promise <g>. And I should also mention that one of the characters is an incorrigible flirt and has a steady girlfriend now, so there'll probably be some sexy stuff. Well, so anyway, I'd never done a collaborative story before, but we managed to get through it without resorting to violence, though IMHO, Phantom Bard is an undiagnosed borderline sociopath (teehee). I mean, you should see the sh!t that passes for "art" hanging on the walls. Ha!
Author's Notes:For the record, Chelle spent inordinate periods of time on this project in various states of inebriation, and more often than not spent the night passed out on the couch with the TV blaring. Any spelling, grammatical, or continuity errors are strictly hers, IMHO. Also, she still owes me $158.30 for beer, about $17.06 for Skittles, and $312.72 for long distance phone calls to San Francisco. I have receipts. About my art, my sister is a psychologist and has told me that Michelle may or may not be delusional, whereas I myself am definitely sane.
Editor's Note:As an unbiased third party that has met both authors, it is my opinion that Phantom Bard has some peculiarities and Michelle has some affectations. I should clarify this. Neither is wholly rational. Personally, I'm quite sure that this is the last time that the publisher will indulge these flights of…whimsy.
So like, what a mouthful, (teehee), and yes, I do enjoy some affections. ~Chelle (Hi).

That said, on with the story…

A blob of plaster unexpectedly splattered across her nose, barely missing one violet eye. It mingled with the beads of sweat on her face and quickly become fluid. Down at the base of her skull, her stupid hindbrain stomped on her adrenal glands, causing them to squirt a generous shot of adrenaline into her bloodstream. The hormone prompted her to panic. Was that okay, boss,her hindbrain asked with palpable uncertainty. In response, she frantically grabbed for the nearest roll of paper towels, cursing as they flipped off the edge of the worktable and dropped neatly into the slurry bucket. Old man gravity urged the trail of sweat thinned plaster not to wait. It trickled around the side of her nostril and seeped into the corner of her mouth.
"Oh yuck!" She cursed. "That tasted like salty chalk, or maybe that Milk of Magneto stuff."
Michelle Allen flapped her plaster-coated hands in irritation, taking a perverse pleasure in slinging gypsum blobs in every direction. With a giggle of gratis-faction, she eyed a silver dollar sized splat that had found a new home on the cover of the cassette player in the shop boombox. Unable to wipe her hands clean so that she could wipe her face, she let fate run its course and licked the remaining plaster off of her kissably pouty lips with a quick swipe of her agile pink tongue. No osteoporosis today, her forebrain contentedly observed. But maybe a kidney stone eventually if this keeps up, her midbrain grumpily retorted. She was drawing closer and closer to a manic episode.
"So, like…shit! How did I ever let Stephanie talk me into taking this job anyway," Chelle complained rhetorically to the wall-walking roaches, before guzzling a cathartic swig from a plaster-coated longneck. She thought about how to describe the conditions of the workspace to her lover, who was all the way on the other side of the country, probably staggering drunk, and doing her job defusing bombs for the police department in San Francisco. "I must've been more impaired than usual and her reasoning just slipped past me. Well, damn! And like, being here is for my own good just exactly how?"
In fact Michelle hadbeen rather drunk the night that Steph had convinced her to go to the Big Apple. The young auburn haired hottie had awakened on an airplane somewhere over Ohio, with the sun rising annoyingly fast as she flew east towards it. Through a cheap headset settled over her ears, a soothing voice had been repeating, "you are feeling sleepy, you will not remember this, fasten your seat belt and pretend to have fun."She'd torn the headset off and flung it into the aisle, before gulping whisky to wash down a couple more of the motion sickness pills from the container marked Valium (diazepam 10 mg). Chelle later suspected that she'd been delivered to her sublet apartment share in a shopping cart, but it was all a blank and she tried not to think about it. She had however, noticed that she was dressed slightly differently when she'd regained consciousness. Similar things had happened before, especially back home in Kettleman City. ~Editor
So anyway, yeah, on with the description of the shop.
The space was set up as a casting shop, for making biological and fossil reproductions. It was packed from floor to ceiling with old molds, plastics, plaster, resins, rubber, chemicals, sprays, and hazardous industrial materials. Bolt-together steel shelves held cans of pigments, boxes of tongue depressors and latex gloves, sleeves of paper cups, acid and chip brushes, containers of Crisco, Vaseline, and Bowling Alley Wax, and several kinds of clay. Every surface was covered in a film of dust. Not the household dust that discreetly hides and forms into bunnies under sofas, but nasty urban/industrial dust, composed mostly of powdered cockroaches, spiders, asbestos, and masonry. Dust that arrogantly coated everything overnight, and had caused a couple of interns to be hospitalized with asthma attacks. Over time the dust had become compacted by humidity and habituation into pseudolithic matter, and ever so gradually the interior volume of the basement had been shrinking. The remaining space was filthy, dangerous, and bred infections. Had it been located on the North Dakota prairie, with the taxidermists and spoiled milk truckers, no one would have noticed. But Chelle's place of employment was shoehorned into the basement of a tenement apartment building in New York City.
When Michelle took the job it was late August, with the heat of summer lingering like pneumonia. Comfortwise, the space could only be described as a neo-Tartarus. The temperature was a sweltering 98.6ÚF, while the humidity sat at over 100%, (probably a technical impossibility, but we're talking subjective impressions of discomfort here). Buzzing clouds of flies populated the narrow aether between the low concrete ceiling and the damp concrete floor. And then there was the smell…Ha! Imagine, if you will, the stench arising from a dozen rounds of headcheese, left to fester for weeks in open buckets of warm water. Trust me on this, its all for a good cause. Now, add the fumes from several pounds of rancid carcass grease, and then blend in clouds of cigar smoke. Spread the resulting vapors with an oscillating fan, and serve over a bed of humid pavement that's damp enough to grow mushrooms sans culture medium. There you go.
The casting shop sat at one end of a long narrow basement; a single open space. The distant end held the processing lab. (Sounds innocent enough, huh? Conjures up thoughts of a film developing plant or maybe a facility where prototype Lean Cuisine meals are born. In fact, it was the habitue of horrors.) On dimly lit shelves, glass enclosures held ravenous African dermestid beetles of a species whose insatiable appetite for dried flesh made them valuable employees. Nearby, in a tableau straight from the old B&W horror movies, heads rolled…literally rolled, out of burlap bags and into the maceration buckets. There they spent a month submerged in "microbial processing" baths, happily fulminating cute little bubbles of foul gas and attracting gravid flies. The glazed eyeballs of a dozen species stared blindly at the ceiling from beneath a cloudy fluid that supported a floating skin of flotsam and maggots, until they finally disintegrated completely. Next, the crania were vigorously scrubbed with a patent pending Brain-Wash®. Eventually, after a laborious hands-on sequence of ghoulish tricks of the trade, the heads would metamorphose into the pristinely bleached, white specimen skulls so coveted by medical students, anatomical collectors, museums, and the morbidly obsessed. The processing lab was the dark secret, (well, one of them at least), of the landmark business that called itself Manubrium & Mastoid, Ltd.
The storefront was the darling of the tour guidebooks, a scene of children's educational TV segments, and a certified landmark retail concept site. The past mayor had visited and bought a skull. Celebrities and vacationing foreigners stopped in to shop. Satanists and Santerias filled out forms to add their requests to the wish lists. On the sales floor, Victorian antiques held a treasure trove of specimens in an air-conditioned and genteel atmosphere of classical music. Glamorous sales consultants assisted the public with their encyclopedic knowledge of the wonders of natural history. The store was pleasant and entertaining. But all was not so sunny behind the scenes at the "Death-Mart".
Neighbors regularly complained about the stench of chemicals and decomposition, but the labs had been located in a tenement basement, after all. This was no accident. If the building inspectors actually arrived in response to their complaints, the tenants' poor English insured that the city's agents couldn't understand the problem. If that wasn't sufficient, the boss paid "Paul the Cop" to let him know when the inspectors were in the neighborhood. Then, Gomez would sound the alarm and due process was skillfully thwarted. The exhaust fans were shut down and the lights were turned off. Special camouflaged doors, faced with bricks and sealed with rubber gaskets, were locked in place. Everyone held their breath as the officials walked right past the basement warren of workshops and labs, never suspecting the horrific health hazards hidden behind the crumbling bricks and Manhattan schist walls. Only the innocuous office remained visible. Inside, the inspectors would be greeted by the owners, Gomez, and his wife, Morticia, who plied them with drinks, money, and tips on the horseraces in New Jersey.
The same favors had bought the good will of Fenton, the dipsomaniac building super. He always let the owners know which tenants were on vacation, had been deported, were jumping bail, or fleeing warrants. A chicken carcass or a whole fish tossed in through the window of an empty apartment was sure to misdirect the complaints. Spreading rumors that an elderly tenant hadn't been seen recently was a useful tactic too, provided the employees had collected several days' mail from the recycling bin and left it overflowing the apartment's mailbox upstairs in the lobby. There had been fictitious complaints about Voodoo rituals and sacrificed children. Anonymous tips about a serial killer in residence also worked, but only once every few years.
Good as the precautions were, a few neighbors still caused chronic problems. There was Mrs. Sneed, for example, an obnoxious drunk who inhabited the unit directly above the company offices. The aging Saxon troll had lived through the firebombing of Dresden and was a certified pyrophobic. She called the firehouse every few days, complaining about the smell of smoke, her suspicions of gas leaks, possible short-circuits, and immanent lightning strikes. Firefighters in three of the five boroughs of the city knew her by name…those in the remaining two by her reputation. Fire trucks had been seen driving the opposite direction, away from fires, when the drivers spotted her out on the street. Had her apartment actually burned, firefighters would have gathered on the sidewalk to cheer. It was only a matter of time before one of them committed a "mercy arson" to burn her out. After hours, John, the hunchbacked moldmaker, roasted scrap wires with a propane torch under her apartment windows to produce the smell of burning insulation for her torment. Those employees who smoked were given free cigarettes if they'd take their breaks under those same windows.
Michelle slapped her plaster-coated hands clean on the thighs of her jeans and lit a Camel. She fled the nauseating miasma of the shop and took a seat on the kindling piled under Mrs. Sneed's bedroom window. As she relished the nicotine, she heard a string of obscenities and the window above her slammed closed. She displayed her middle finger in response. Her civic duty done, she gazed around the courtyard.
The designation of "courtyard" was actually a cynical misnomer. An architect would have hemorrhaged at the usage. The space was really an eight story deep pit, formed by the gaps between the segments of the tenement's wings and the junctures of the airshafts between them. An hour of hazy sunlight grudgingly illuminated the pit around midday. Pigeons did service as decorators. Across the space, several bold rats gnawed at the carcass of yet another squirrel that had failed at taking the bait from a rat trap. Tenants climbed the rusting fire escapes to steal each other's window unit air conditioners. Only a narrow walkway led between the building walls to a locked security gate at the sidewalk.
The fractured concrete that paved the pit was littered with the detritus of the tenants on the upper floors. Newspapers, take-out food cartons, discarded clothing, fluids, Pampers, condoms worn out from reuse, cigarette butts, broken glass, and garbage bags…even a discarded toilet, had been dumped into the courtyard by the savages. Beside the office door, a wooden crate the size of a coffin had just been delivered that afternoon, and it was already coated in pigeon guano.
It's so dismal down here, Michelle thought, compared to the land surrounding the house on the cliffs above the San Francisco Bay. Stephanie's beautiful house, with its view of the fog and the great bridge. It was their home, where Elvis and Nightshade, John Cougar, and dear swift Lizzie Cooper waited. This place was nothing like her home. From a window up above, someone flung a porno magazine. It flapped to the ground like a stricken bird and landed on the newly delivered crate. In one of the airshafts, an arc of a stinking yellowish liquid sprayed out of a window. She watched it splash against the opposite wall and trickle down to form a ammoniacal puddle that she could smell twenty feet away. At least someone was taking their vitamins, Chelle thought. Why, it's almost a desert, she realized. Chelle missed Stephanie, she missed her friends, and she missed her cat.
Finally Michelle stifled a groan, slugged down the rest of her beer, and flicked away the butt of her Camel. She stood up and flung the empty bottle at Mrs. Sneed's fire escape. It was time to get back to work.
Finally 9:00 pm arrived and it was quitting time. Michelle had just completed her dozenth plaster casting of the Dinictus squalidens fossil, when Gomez wandered into the shop cradling a coffee cup. It contained a completely desiccated Hungarian fruit bat; a natural mummy. He glanced at the castings lined up on the worktable and gave Michelle a happy smile. The boss seemed completely oblivious to the spatter on the walls. He also ignored the encrustation of plaster covering the swell of her firm full breasts with their proudly pointing…nevermind. Uhhh, the coating had come from repeatedly leaning over the plaster filled molds. It had hardened on her t-shirt, creating a breastplate of sorts.
"You're getting really good at this," Gomez said, nodding at the row of castings, "and someday I'll have to start paying you. By the way, I need you to come over to the office for a company meeting before you leave."
"Okay," Chelle agreed, noticing that her boss had been looking down into the cup as if hypnotized. "So, like, what's with the bat, Gomez?"
Without answering, the boss wandered out of the shop as if he hadn't heard her at all.
Well, so I wonder what's up with that, Chelle wondered. The asshole ignored me, her hindbrain spat, sounding like an asshole. He's acting more antisocial than ever,her midbrain commented antisocially. Nawwww, he's just preoccupied or else he's been put under a spell,her forebrain said with finality, so get cleaned up, Chelle, and let's see what he wants. You're supposed to be going out tonight.Okay, she agreed with herself.
After stripping off her work clothes, Michelle sprayed herself with Raid. After that, she lay down on the autopsy table against the wall and turned on the hose. She soaked her body with the cold water, scrubbed herself with Lava soap, rinsed with more cold water, and dried herself with paper towels. Finally, she applied a barrier layer of hand lotion to protect her skin from the city smog and dust. Chelle took her time, making sure to get the lotion everywhere; carefully rubbing it in until her naked body glowed. Then she dressed in her street clothes. Her work clothes went into a large screw topped specimen jar where the roaches and spiders couldn't get at them.
"Like the show?" She shouted up at the eyeball pressed tightly against the hole that had been drilled in the ceiling over the weekend. The eyeball disappeared, and the upstairs neighbor stuffed a rolled up ten through the hole. "Thanks," she shouted back as she stooped to pick it up off the floor. She teased him with a little wiggle. The hole went black as the underside of a rug flopped down over it again. From upstairs came the grating of furniture being moved back into position.
Michelle grabbed a longneck out of the refrigerator, lit a Camel, and walked over to the office. Outside the office door, the newly delivered crate had been pried open and now stood empty except for a few handfuls of dirt. Chelle walked inside and saw that the shipping room had become a temporary conference room since the actual office was so cramped it made a B-17 cockpit seem spacious. She unfolded a folded up folding chair and sat down near the shaft of what had once been the dumbwaiter for grocery deliveries. She'd be able to blow the smoke from her Camels up into Mrs. Sneed's kitchen through the hollow wall where the dumbwaiter had been.
The other employees were already present. Near the time clock sat John, the hunchbacked moldmaker, puffing on one of the Shield brand cigarettes he got from a website.*He was dressed head to toe in black leather, and reminded Michelle of the movie, Hellraiser VI, starring Charles Proteus Steinmetz. Gomez had warned Chelle on her first day that John was blessed with Multiple Personality Disorder and was therefore prone to lateral thinking. Her initial contact with him had been when he'd introduced her to the workings of the casting shop. He had shown her where the refrigerator for the beer was, demonstrated the controls on the ghetto blaster, and given her the jar for her clothes. Since then, she'd mostly seen him when he would explain the peculiarities of a new mold. Usually he stayed in the studio and machine shop, talking to himself, giggling at his own jokes, and building things for the company, such as the special brick faced doors.
*In New York City, the opportunistic bastards who ran things had pushed the price of a pack of cigs up to $12.50, in hopes of solving all the city's financial crises by victimizing smokers. They did this only because the racially diverse population would no longer accept legalized slavery or indentured office employment, and after Sept. 11th, no one trusted immigrants anymore. John had long bought his smokes from a website in Kentucky, but recently the perverted state legislators had seen fit to make such purchases illegal. (So much for the land of opportunity). At the same time, they had increased the sales tax rate to 14.685%, and in a fit of cynicism, had also voted to tax shipping charges on mail order sales as well. This had been done in hopes of changing the city's demographics. If things went according to plan, within ten years only the very rich and the very poor would remain in New York, everyone else having abandoned the city. The rich would then eat the poor, bringing back slavery, de facto. ~Editor
Seated by the roach filled Entenmann's vending machine was Ulrich, the company's forensic sculptor, who'd studied under the famous Dr. Mengele, back in the old country. He favored loud shirts and very tight jeans, the better to display his "cod". Ulrich compounded his voluminous heavy metal hairdo with high-heeled cowboy boots, creating an urban rock-a-billy persona a la Saturday Night Fever. He was smoking an abominable Indonesian clove flavored cigarette that would burn for twenty minutes straight. Since she'd arrived, Michelle had never seen Ulrich work.
On the far side of Ulrich, in a massive upholstered side chair made of welded oxided steel, sat Morticia, a Virginia Slims Menthol Light smoldering at the end of a tapered, black lacquered, 14" cigarette holder. The holder had been plugged with tars for over a decade, but it was only a theatrical accessory anyway. Morticia didn't really smoke. She was dressed for the meeting in one of her trademark form-fitting black lace gowns, complete with an antique veil and elbow gloves. She'd inherited her wardrobe from her mother, who'd once co-starred in a TV series, and she considered the clothing timeless and fit for all occasions. Norma Kamali had once begged her for the rights to reproduce some of the designs, but so far, Morticia had only briefly granted limited rights to Stevie Nicks. That had been back in the 80s. Morticia was the company's CFO, Head Buyer, and ran the public relations and advertising departments. She had a two-part assistant.
Lisa-Lisa had been named for the 90s pop singer of the same name…that was the story they told anyway, though there was a rumor that their mother had stuttered chronically and not made her real name preferences clear. Lisa, and her Siamese twin, Lisa, comprised Morticia's office help, and in the cramped workspace allotted to the office, she was indispensable. Gomez had sprung for the special office chair for the twins, so they could roll from station to station more efficiently and reduce the amount of necessary furniture. They ran accounts receivable and payable, and did business over the phone. No creditor ever reached the correct Lisa to air their complaints about past due balances. Lisa-Lisa was sitting next to Morticia in a custom-built doublewide office chair; absentmindedly rolling back and forth in short arcs on the chair's eight wheels. They were sharing a Rum Crook cigar, a double martini, and parts of their nervous systems. The Lisas had long wavy blonde hair, which had grown into a single coherent mat, two blue eyes and two of green eyes, both of them having one of each. They each had the life's ambition of keeping a secret from the other.
Seated in a corner by themselves were the well-dressed and somewhat elitist sales representatives. The store's manager, Lizzy, was a willowy brunette in an Armani suit. She was a non-smoker, and was turning a pale shade of green as she fed herself a constant stream of M&Ms. Lizzy kept her figure by consuming no starches or oils, only sugars, which her metabolism had adapted to burning at a furious pace. Her body temperature was normally 103.7°F. She was regarded as hyper, had been diagnosed as manic, and chewed her fingernails down to the knuckles. She was doing post-graduate work in archeology at Columbia, and had just returned from Molokai where she'd helped dig up the leper colony. Before working for Gomez, the store manager had made ends meet by selling her excess insulin to diabetics.
On her right sat Jake "the Snake", in a tailored, single-breasted Brooks Bros. suit, his tasteful violet tinged Mohawk revealing the Japanese kanji for "Damaged", tattooed on either side of his skull. Jake carried himself like a Chihuahua, and presented the darting mannerisms of a Tourette's patient. He was a vegetarian, meaning he consumed only Doritos, Mallow Pies, pizza, and Yoo-hoo. He was more skeletal than willowy, and was rumored to throw up after meals. For that, he carried a hip flask of Scope. Earlier in his life he'd been fashionably anti-establishment, and had spent his teens drinking with the homeless on the Lower East Side. That had stopped one morning when he'd awakened naked in an abandoned tenement building with a sore and fissured…nevermind.
The last member of the sales staff was Seamus, an illegal Irish immigrant who'd tripped over Fenton in a bar and vomited on him before passing out cold. Fenton had hog-tied the unconscious boy and dragged him to the store in a large plastic garbage bag, hoping for a bounty on his skeleton. Unfortunately, Gomez had noticed that he was alive and had decided to revive and employ him instead. Seamus had been new to NYC, and had originally intended to continue studying medicine, but he'd been rolled and dumped in the bar after getting drunk with some criminally inclined members of a Nigerian identity theft ring. When he'd come to, he had no money, no papers or passport, and no alternative but to work for Gomez. With his background in pre-med, he was a perfect employee. Seamus had been leering at Chelle since she'd arrived from California, and had turned completely around in his chair when she'd entered the room. Now he was staring at everything her leather halter-top and Tanga shorts didn't cover. Michelle ignored him and lit another Camel.
The low buzz of conversation immediately died with the influx of a mortuary stench that heralded the arrival of Enrique. The elderly Catalan was in charge of the processing lab and the smell of death followed him everywhere. It had long ago permeated all his tissues like a marinade, and even the smoldering Havana blunt he gnawed on couldn't cover the reek. The man's own sense of smell had been completely ruined, his nasal passages burned away by years of inhaling powdered hair bleach during his previous career as a beautician. (He was the company's sage and dispensed confidential advice from his fleshing table to anyone who sought him out…usually with Vicks Vapor Rub smeared under their nasal passages).
Enrique was carrying a plastic shopping bag that drooped under the weight of the meat he'd pared off of skulls and bones prior to maceration. He took the offal with him when he left, casually abandoning the bags while making his way home on the subway. Enrique was the source of a generation old rumor among city transit workers. For decades they'd been confronted with innocent looking bags of entrails and scrap flesh, discarded in subway cars, left on benches in the stations, or dropped off on the platforms. Several times those bags had made their way to the city morgue, only to confound the Medical Examiner. The boneless remains of sloths, chimps, giant anteaters, marsupial wolves, bald eagles, and spectacled bears in NYC weren't easy to explain. The one time that human flesh had been left on a train, the incident had made the papers. Gomez had been furious with Enrique, but nothing had changed. The business couldn't afford to be associated with the offal. It absolutely had to be removed from the premises, and the subway took it all over the city so that the origins were neatly obscured.
Enrique pulled the cigar from his blackened lips, spat a piece of loose tobacco on the floor, and, (ever the Old World gentleman), gave Morticia a small bow. She smiled graciously, appreciating his manners. He took a seat on the edge of the shipping room table, set the bag down next to him, and waited for the meeting to start.
They didn't have to wait long. The office door swung open revealing an explosion from a cheap theatrical flashpot that created a dramatic and choking mushroom cloud of smoke. Everyone in the shipping room groaned, except for Morticia, who reacted with an indulgent smile and polite applause. As the smoke cleared, it revealed the figure of Gomez, in a dark gray silk suit, a wide grin on his face and an unlit Havana between two fingers of his right hand. His left hand was stroking something hidden in the pocket of his jacket. He strode to the center of the shipping room to begin the meeting.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm so happy that you could all join me here this evening. As some of you may know, I've been looking for the perfect employee to work at posing the specimens for the insect collections. It's been a long and arduous search, let me tell you," Gomez added in a confidential aside before continuing, "so it's with great pleasure that I can announce that my search has been fruitful. And now, allow me to present your newest coworker…" here, he beckoned to a figure who'd been standing completely unnoticed in the office doorway.
Well, I'll be damned, Chelle's midbrain muttered, Gomez succeeded in distracting us all with his rhetoric and cheap theatrics. I'm actually impressed.Her hindbrain responded with a petulant, you're such a sucker!
The figure in the doorway stepped forward, out of the residual smoke from the flashpot, and sidled over next to Gomez. He was a late middle-aged man, thin, bespectacled, and dressed in a rumpled suit that looked remarkable cheap. Sears Roebuck or maybe thrift shop, Chelle's midbrain appraised uncharitably. That garment's certainly thirty years out of date, her forebrain appraised, why, just look at those lapels. She lit another Camel. The suit seemed to have been literally dug up out of a vacant lot somewhere. So soiled and stained was it that Michelle instantly thought, 30s hobo or 70s wino. No way is this for real. I'll bet he destroys those delicate specimens with his DTs. Gomez has lost it this time for sure. She noticed the filthy white Chuck Taylor's he was wearing, the likes of which hadn't been seen for decades. So okay, she decided, a 70s wino for sure. Despite that, there was something unwholesome about him that she just couldn't put a finger on.
"Without further to do, allow me to present, Cornelescu, who comes to us from a small village outside Bucharest, Romania. Apparently everyone else in the village died…there was a nuclear power plant accident, or was that a massive toxic waste spill?" Gomez asked himself uncertainly. "I'm sure it's all the same," he muttered to himself before returning to presentation mode and addressing his employees. "As for prior experience, well, he once managed a flea circus in the old country, and he has a way with roaches, but he'll work really cheap, coming from a down and out ex-communist country and all, so I hired him. Won't you please give him a heartfelt American style welcome?"
For the next few minutes, the employees pelted the man with questions, accusations, and threats. Cornelescu grinned through it all, responding only by waving timidly and bobbing his head. The overhead shop lights reflected strangely off his round wire framed spectacles. Chelle saw that the lenses were radically unequal in size; sorta monocle-like.
"Cornelescu doesn't speak any English," Gomez cheerfully announced, "and he can't understand a thing we say. I can't understand him either, so I guess we're even."
Everyone groaned at this. Ridiculing him would be pointless. For a moment there was silence, then, as if for the sake of testing Gomez's claim, John announced, "he looks just like that Werner Klemperer dude. You know, the guy who played the Colonel Klink character, on Hogan's Heroes?"
"Ach! Gott's hodens und hornblase, as it were. You're right," Ulrich agreed, before adding, "dirty communist bastard!"
Cornelescu nodded to him and smiled like an idiot.
"He'll be working nights, so I'll be locking him in when we leave…to minimize pilferage," Gomez continued, "and then I'll be letting him out in the morning. I'm sure he'll do great work," Gomez added, absentmindedly patting the shoulder of Cornelescu's filthy jacket, and then hurriedly dusting off his hand. To accomplish that, Gomez had to remove his left hand from his jacket pocket, and for a brief moment, Chelle had caught a quick glimpse of the object he'd been compulsively fondling. It was the mummified fruit bat. He'd quickly slipped it back into his pocket with a slight of hand move that no one else seemed to have noticed.
Well, yuck! So anyway, is that like, some kinda lucky obsession thingie or what, Chelle wondered? Like one of those disgusting rabbit's feet or something? She chugged down the rest of her longneck and then pulled a pack of Skittles from her cleavage. As she chewed on them, her midbrain wondered, wherethefuck is Bucharest or Budapest, or whatever…for that matter, where's Romania anyway? Or did he say, "Yo mania"?I'll have to ask Steph when I call her tonight, Chelle thought. Her hindbrain muttered, what's a communist…someone in communications?
Eventually, the meeting broke up. Chelle went out to meet Phantom Bard, her co-author for this story, whose apartment she was temporarily sharing. The writer was waiting for her in a lemon yellow Lotus Super Seven, and hastily waved her over. Just crossing the twelve feet of sidewalk, Chelle was the subject of several wolf whistles, an attempted groping, and was honked at by a couple passing cars. As she slipped into the passenger's seat, a cab careened over the curb, clipping a newsstand before regaining control.
"Irresponsible bastards," Phantom Bard groused, "you'd think they never learned how to pester a hot, sexy, scantily dressed young woman. They're a disgrace to the city."
"Well, huh?" Chelle asked. Stuff like that happened so often she really hadn't noticed.
"Nevermind. I see you're appropriately dressed for a nice night out at this club I wanted to show you. I think you'll like it a lot."
"Yeaahhh? So like, what kind of a club is it?" She lit a Camel.
"It's a friendly place where no one knows your name. People sorta act out there…."
The drive downtown flashed past in a blur of headlights and screeching tires. The Lotus shifted lanes, squeaked through gaps in traffic, and seemed to gleefully cut off other cars simply because it could. Chelle noticed that, like Lizzie Cooper, the Lotus drove itself with no attention from her roommate. Unlike Lizzie, there was no stereo and the car kept up a constant stream of muttered obscenities directed at the other vehicles.
"Seven doesn't like unaware cars much," Phantom Bard mused, noticing that Chelle had looked over her shoulder at a four-car pile up they'd caused. "It's an elitist thing, I guess."
"Dumb-assed, witless, Detroit-built, tinplated, shit-metal, gas guzzling, nameless…" it went on and on throughout the drive in a constant stream of vitriol, and only ceased after they'd stopped and the engine shut off. "…stupid, oil-burning, salt-corroded, engine-lighted, fender-skirted…"
Soon they were parked in a dismal neighborhood under the Manhattan ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge. Most of the streetlights were smashed and the sidewalks reeked from centuries of soaked-in urine. Down the block, a figure struggled as a swift moving shadow latched onto its neck and dragged it behind a dumpster.
"Have fun kids" the Lotus said, instantly cheerful, as they walked towards the club.
The "Flirt 'n Squirt" club was located inside the west ramp of the great bridge. The owner rented the space from the city government, which had decided that the space could generate income rather than remaining a dump for the victims of mob hits. The door was antique steel, set into a granite frame, and the hinges were on the inside. Phantom Bard flicked out a tactical baton and pounded on the door. A narrow slot opened and a pair of eyes glanced at them briefly from beneath extravagant lashes, then the door swung open.
They were greeted by a morbidly obese figure in a frilly negligee. Her eyebrows were certainly tattooed on…maybe the theatrical eye shadow too. Chelle gasped in surprise.
"But…everyone thinks you're dead," she squeaked.
"Chelle, meet Divine," Phantom Bard introduced, "she retired from acting and opened this club so she could enjoy a quieter and more wholesome lifestyle."
"Welcome to the Flirt 'n Squirt, my dear," Divine offered expansively. She placed one hand on the small of Chelle's back and then cupped her pubes with the other. "Just checking," she chuckled with a wink, "you've got the best toned legs and the tightest butt I've ever seen on a real girl." Divine leaned in closer and pecked a kiss her on the cheek.
"Well, so thanks," Chelle answered, still a bit star-struck.
"Go on in and have a good time," Divine said, ushering them forward with dramatically flapping hands. Her nails were three inches long and painted bright pink.
The door had opened into a corridor built from the same granite as the exterior walls around the entrance. It was carpeted in vicious purple shag that looked like it had been custom-made for a cheesy hippie van. The passageway was lit with flickering gas carriage lamps, mounted in wrought iron wall sconces. It led them on for about twenty feet before opening onto a cavernous space that smelled of cigarettes and mildew.
Along the walls, more sconces held glowing gas lamps that created pools of light while leaving the areas between in deep shadows. The floor was hardwood, painted black, and littered with sets of tables and chairs. An opulent bar that could have come from an upper crust British town club ran along one wall, while along the opposite wall, a stage had been built. It recreated the look of an Old World Theater of a century past, complete with multiple curtains, footlights, and a glided medallion suspended in the center of the massive valence above the stage. The sizeable medallion was decorated with a fancy monogram of the club's initials, in relief-molded plaster.
A couple hundred patrons were in attendance, conversing in small groups at the tables, sitting on stools at the bar, or wandering around aimlessly, while a few gave impromptu performances. Most were dressed in fetish-wear; latex for some, leather for others, those being the predominating "looks". Chelle took it all in and liked what she saw. There were also a few fringe appeals represented. In one corner, a dozen youngish women dressed in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms had gathered around an older man in a clown's costume. They appeared to be captivated by the small cylindrical puppet bobbing in his lap. Nearby, Michelle noticed a table occupied by a group of costumed men, cop, biker, construction worker, drill sergeant, cowboy, Indian chief….
"Well, so like, oh my god," Michelle gasped when she saw them, "are they for real too?"
"Sure," Phantom Bard told her, "this is New York City after all, and they're from the Village. Maybe they'll sing later. In the meantime, would you like a pony ride?"
"Well, huh?"
"C'mon over here."
Michelle found herself being led to a circle of people and discovered that they were surrounding an odd couple. The steroid pumped man was naked and crouched on his hands and knees. In his fists he clutched the grips of a pair of horses' hooves. A similar pair was strapped to his knees, while his feet were bound up onto the backs of his thighs. He also wore a padded bit, a bridle, and a pair of blinders. A mane had been glued to the back of his neck as an extension of his epoxy-stiffened Mohawk, and a similar tail sprouted from a plug in his bottom. From underneath his body, an impressive prosthetic horse member dangled. Behind him, a petite woman dressed in livery sat aboard a small ornate pony cart, gently flicking her "horsey's" flanks with a silk whip. He reared once and neighed for effect, and then moved forward, slowly drawing the cart across the floor at a stately pace. A couple of the schoolgirls sat in the back of the cart, necking passionately. Chelle was entranced.
"Oooo, I love it," she chattered excitedly, bouncing on her toes and clapping her hands, "why it's, it's so decadent…and so educational and historical too."
"They're a favorite here," Phantom Bard informed her, taking a numbered ticket from a dispenser on a stanchion and handing it to her. "Just wait until they call your number and you'll get to ride in the cart. I'll find us some drinks in the meantime."
Chelle looked around as she waited. A few yards away a commotion broke out, complete with a flurry of movement and theatrical screams. A naked woman wearing cat ears was being chased around and around a table by a man in a high quality doggy costume. He was barking and panting as he pursued her, both of them on all fours. People were cheering and laughing in hysterics as they watched. Before she knew it, Phantom Bard was handing her a drink.
"It's a bit perverted, but everyone here loves animals so they're very popular."
"It's pretty funny, actually," Chelle replied, tasting the drink, "so anyway, what is this?"
The Doggyman had finally caught the naked Catwoman and had pinned her under the table where he was slurping at her with a dangling rubber tongue. She was shrieking with laughter as he tickled her with his paws. Finally he had her underneath him where he proceeded to dry hump her thigh to the cheers of their audience. Eventually they came out from under the table and hammed it up, bowing to the crowd. Chelle applauded along with the others and the Doggyman came over and sniffed at her crotch. She giggled and patted him on the head. The woman in livery called Chelle's number.
Off in a shadowed corner, a tall figure in a black cape was overpowering a muscular man in a leather harness and jock strap. The figure held its victim in a viselike grip, forcing his head sideways and pressing its mouth against his neck. After a few moments of struggling he went limp. (TeeHee). The figure dropped him and disappeared into the crowd.
Several hours later, they lurched out of the club, having consumed a prodigious quantity of absinthe. Michelle had vague memories of a "clinical" doctor/patient performance that had been given on stage, as well as an "educational" teacher/student performance. Just outside the door they were approached by a tall woman cloaked in black. She gazed at them with an unnerving and petrifying stare. Chelle had the momentary impression of porcelain skin, lustrous white-blonde hair, and blue eyes that flashed briefly red. She blinked. The woman leaned in close and sniffed their skin, then recoiled in disgust and growled at them revealing fanglike canines.
"Artemesia! Ureeech!"
An instant later the street was empty and they were alone.
"Damned Goths," Phantom Bard slurred.
They finally reached the Lotus, which had been ridiculing their condition as they wove towards it up the block. Seven popped the doors open as they staggered up. The engine started and they fell into the seats as the headlights came on. As soon as they were rolling, the cursing resumed. "…bastard, grease-bucket, blown-gasket, dust-catcher, pot-metal, rivet-bellied, shiftless, glass-packed, retreaded…" Before they'd gotten onto the bridge they had both passed out cold.
Michelle was back at work in the casting shop on Monday. During one of her breaks, she lit a Camel and wandered into the insect area to have a look at Cornelescu's work. Spread out on styrofoam sheets atop the table were rows of large beetles and walking stick insects. They'd been briefly dipped in boiling water to soften and relax their desiccated bodies so they could be posed. Now they were drying again, but with their legs, wings, and antennae held in place with glassine strips and hundreds of black insect pins.
"So, well, huh? He really must be a drunk," she remarked to herself as she chugged from a longneck. Every single insect was asymmetrically posed. It was a clumsy and amateurish effort and all of them would have to be resoftened and redone. The desk chair held a pile of dirt. Filthy communistic bastard, her hindbrain spat in ridicule.
When Chelle turned around to drop her empty longneck into a trashcan, she noticed something lying in the refuse. "Well, whatthefuck?"
It was the remains of a roast beef sandwich from Korean Lenny's deli. She recognized the wrapping paper. The bread had been peeled away and the meat was lying in a pile by itself. The centers of each slice, where the beef had been bloody rare, were now a ghostly pale white. As far as she could tell, it looked like every drop of bloody juice had been sucked out of the tissue. It was certainly one of the weirdest examples of picky eating that Michelle had ever seen. I wonder if that's Jake the Snake's lunch,her midbrain wonderingly wondered for a moment, but then she remembered that Jake was a vegetarian. So okay, she thought, whoever it was left the bread…no starches consumed, so yeah, it musta' been Lizzy. She nodded to herself and lit another Camel.
Later that afternoon, she came upon John and Ulrich whispering together in the studio.
"So like, are you plotting the downfall of the western world and shit?" She asked seriously. They looked up at her with guilty expressions. "Okay, this has to be good…so spill it guys."
Ulrich groaned in his native tongue and John sighed so his hunchback appeared to deflate slightly.
"It's like this, Chelle," he began, "and this can't be repeated, understand?" He waited for Michelle to nod, and then continued. "Enrique has been fleshing the chimpanzees we bought from that Congolese bush meat dealer on Canal St., but he's been getting upset because none of them so far have had any blood in their bodies. It was there when we put them in the freezer a month ago, but since then, well, it's like they've all been drained."
"So you mean they like, leaked in the freezer or something? That must really have made a mess," Chelle said sympathetically, remembering when a pound of ground chuck had leaked blood all over the inside of her refrigerator.
"Well, actually, no," John continued, after looking around to make sure they were still alone, "Enrique claims that it's like they've been sucked dry…and each chimp has had a pair of holes punched in its neck. He was a basket case Friday, gibbering prayers in Catalan and crossing himself. Now he's hung garlic and rosaries all around his workspace. He claims it's the work of a vampire, just like in the old country."
"Das ist neinsense," Ulrich said, breaking his silence, "und Enrique ist vie Hispania-Harlem, ja, ja."
"Yeah, and last year he was sure the rats with the sutures in their throats had been victimized by vivisectionsts from UFOs…and the emus with the encapsulated chips were from the CIA." Seeing Chelle looking at him with uncertainty, he elaborated. "The throat sutures were from having their thyroids extracted for experiments at Columbia Medical School, and the emus were poultry…free range birds with implanted tracking devices. There wasn't anything clandestine about it. Enrique just has an imagination."
But a few days later, Michelle noticed a strange smell coming out of the studio. Clutching a longneck, she went to investigate. Probably the Krupp burning up, she thought, expecting to find the coffee maker charring its grounds. Ulrich had bought the machine and usually left it with the dregs in the pot and the grounds in the filter. He'd often just pour in more water and use the same grounds for several days, beginning the cycle with expresso and ending up making something like weak tea. Often it was left on for days, and the final result was akin to battery acid.
What Chelle found was actually much more bizarre. Over a hot plate, a water bath was boiling in a stockpot. Immersed in the boiling water was a Pyrex coffeepot half-filled with a clear boiling liquid. A large 2-hole stopper sealed its mouth. One hole held a thermometer, while the other held a length of ½" copper pipe. The pipe was attached to a 1" copper tube bearing inlets and outlets, through which clear plastic hoses delivered cold water from the faucet. The lower end of the tube revealed that the ½" pipe had actually passed completely through the larger tube, which acted as a cold water jacket. From the lower end of the pipe dripped a clear distillate that was quickly collecting in a 1000ml beaker. The ungainly apparatus was clamped to an artist's easel. The surrounding floor was littered with empty bottles of criminally cheap vodka. She lit a Camel.
"So like, what's going on guys?" She asked. John and Ulrich were hovering over the process like mother hens, eyeing the thermometer and the collecting distillate.
"Hi there, Chelle," John greeted, "we're refining this gut rot into pure ethanol."
"Making rocket fuel, huh? So is this like, an illegal chemistry project or something?"
"Ja! Verboten!"
"Gomez wants to make an Atremesia tincture…for research, so we need solvent."
"So like, you built a still and you're going to make absinthe? For Gomez?"
John winced. "Something like that, yes."
Incredible, Michelle thought, Gomez and Morticia always drink wine. They favored sweet drinks and a less destructive buzz. She shook her head and quaffed down half the longneck. Somehow, something just didn't seem right.
When Friday night rolled around, Chelle was finishing up a fiberglass replica of a narwhal skeleton. In the studio next door, the rumbling of the lapidary tumbler testified that the heavy glass anaerobic jars were constantly rotating. Each cylindrical 2-gallon container was filled with the refined ethanol and a mixture of eight herbs, Atremesia, Hyssop, Calamus, Melissa, Anise, Fennel, Coriander, and Chamomile. The liquid was turning a deepening green as the essential oils and chlorophyll were leached out of the sludge of chopped plant matter. She could hear the machinery clearly through the wall. Despite their misinformation, John and Ulrich were clearly distilling absinthe.
Tonight the duo had left early, heading off to Brooklyn for an important dog baiting party, and the studio was deserted when Chelle peeked in. The glass jars were doing their endless rotations and she found the movement mesmerizing. I don't suppose anyone would be the wiser if I sampled a bit, she thought…and it won't take much either, at 200 proof.
In moments Michelle had stopped the tumbler and removed a jar. She unscrewed the clamp holding down the gasket and lid, and then strained some of the "tincture" through a disposable surgical mask and into a cup. The vile liquid was dark green and the fumes had a life of their own, visibly rising from the liquid's surface like, well, like spirits.
"And so anyway, this is going to be bitter, but here goes," Chelle muttered to herself. She pinched her nose closed with one hand, held a dozen chewed Skittles on her tongue, and downed the contents in a gulp. It was like, really, really bitter, with a strong licorice flavoring from the Anise. The Skittles had helped, rendering the flavor only repulsive. The alcohol content nearly blasted the top off of her cranium.
Wellwhatthefuck? Her hindbrain howled. Damnit Chelle, what did we ever do to you? Her forebrain asked in a rare fit of outrage. We're in some serious shit now,her midbrain whined. Oh nooooo, I'm melting!Her liver cried dramatically.
The liquid was roughly equivalent to almost five shots of 86 proof vodka. Chelle smacked her lips. Not too bad, she thought, as she turned and took a wobbling step. Hits fast and hard. I like this. She stuffed another handful of Skittles in her mouth to cover the bitter aftertaste. I'd better put everything back like it was and get ready to clock out, she decided. In a few more minutes the lapidary tumbler was rumbling again with its glass jars endlessly turning as though nothing had happened at all.
Chelle struggled clumsily through her cleanup routine and pocketed another ten-dollar bill. She was noticeably affected by the homemade absinthe that she'd consumed…about two ounces of pure ethanol, thujone, and whatever else had been leached out of the herbs. By force of habit she snatched a longneck from the refrigerator and lit a Camel. When she lurched out of the lab, she finally noticed that it was after closing time. The store was already dark, locked up for the night. This had never happened to her before. Uh oh, she thought drunkenly, I hope the office isn't locked…I won't be able to clock out. She wove unsteadily to the office door and grabbed the knob, giving it a hopeful twist.
"Well, so shit! Fuckaduck!" The knob wouldn't budge even one iota, and like the store, the office was locked up tight. "So like, now what do I do? Morticia will kill me when she tries to do the payroll over the weekend."
It's time to panic, her hindbrain whined, poised to stomp on her adrenal glands. Fuck a duck, her midbrain cursed. Why don't you write a note, her forebrain asked reasonably?
"I could write a note," Chelle drunkenly thought, "except I don't have a pen or paper."
You could scratch a note on the door with a rock,her forebrain instructed.
"I'll scratch a note on the door with a rock," Chelle slurred triumphantly.
And so she went scrabbling around the courtyard on all fours, looking for a rock that would write legibly on painted metal. Behind the empty crate she noticed a chunk of slate with the imprint of a fern. It was part of a damaged fossil. She made a lunge for it and jabbed the back of her hand on the rusty nails that were poking out of a board on the side of the crate. They left a pair of jagged puncture wounds.
"Oh, shit, and yes, oh, fuck!" Michelle cursed, jerking back from the crate and sucking on the cuts. After a few moments of tasting the salty blood, she forced herself to pull the injured hand away from her mouth so she could look at it…a natural compulsion to inspect the injury. "So like, rusty nails…it's gonna be tetanus time. Well, damn! I guess it won't need stitches but it hurts like a sonofabitch! Now I'm so gonna die," she whined, savoring the drama.
With her wits effectively pickled by the absinthe, and preoccupied by the pain and surprise, Michelle didn't notice the roiling mass of roaches that were streaming out from under the office door on a softly clattering multitude of jointed legs. It was only when the light around her gave way to shadow that she realized something odd was happening right next to her. She looked up in time to see a growing tower of roaches blocking the light. Whatthefuck!!! Her excitable hindbrain squealed. Uhh ohhh, not good, not good at all, her flabbergasted midbrain muttered. Get the fuck outta here, NOW!!! Her forebrain strongly advised. The tower of roaches began to resolve itself into the figure of Cornelescu, in his filthy suit. Chelle blinked and shook her head in disbelief, causing her auburn hair to splay out in waves around her head. A cloud of girly pheromones and ethanol puffed off of her skin in the resulting air currents.
"Okay, so I'm hallucinating," she muttered in a moment of inebriated clarity.
Cornelescu solidified after a couple of tries. He shook himself to settle his suit, raising a billowing dust cloud and causing a dozen extra roaches to scuttle off under the crate. The Romanian gave her a sheepish look. It was the clumsiest materialization Michelle could imagine, and she'd seen some really bad movie effects in her time. Cornelescu shrugged and offered her an idiotic grin (as expected), and then pointed at her hand as he muttered something unintelligible in Romanian. The reflected light flashed off his monocle-like eyeglasses. Chelle found herself paralyzed. She thought that maybe it was the absinthe combined with beer.
"And like, that's it! No more absinthe and I am soooo switching to Coors," Michelle muttered to herself as Cornelescu took her wrist and examined her bleeding hand. He brought his monocled eyes closer and sniffled at the wound slightly.
"Gadzjkel wzaczeopck ba glodstrukney…absinthium," he muttered, shuddering.
Cornelescu released her hand and stared into her eyes through his smudged and dusty glasses. Michelle noticed that he had red eyes, just before she passed out cold.
When she rose to consciousness she was still lying in the courtyard. A circle of worried faces was staring down at her. At first she expected unsolicited group sex, but then she realized that it was just a collection of tenants from some of the lower floor apartments. Higher up in the pit, other tenants were populating the fire escapes. Michelle groaned and blinked. She noticed that a bandage had been wrapped around her hand. Someone muttered, "she's got violet eyes."
Among the rubbernecking tenants was Mrs. Sneed. She was hanging over the railing of her fire escape like an arthritic orangutan, exuding copious gin fumes. The hag was trying to focus both of her eyes at the same time and she looked pissed off. So anyway, when isn't she, Chelle asked herself rhetorically? I know that was just a rhetorical question, but yeah, she's always pissed off, her midbrain answered, agreeably drunk. Chelle staggered to her feet and lit a Camel.
The pyrophobic harridan immediately started in with, "she's the unholy spawn of the devil, a woman of questionable morals, a smoker, and a firebug, and she's just been bitten by a vampire. She'll bring death to us all after she dies…we have to kill her now!"
"Then I'll bring death to you first after I die. You should be hoping I live forever, you stupid old biddy!" Michelle yelled back. "And I'll burn your house down," she added on principle. "Anyway, there's no such thing as vampires…I should know. I'm from California and I've never seen one."
"Don't you lie to me you slut! Those're bite marks. I saw the wound with these." Here, Mrs. Sneed triumphantly held up a pair of children's plastic dimestore binoculars. "I watch everything that goes on in this building!"
"None of us saw anything except a homeless guy bandaging her hand before he dissolved into a pile of rats," a Vietnamese kid said, smacking his lips hungrily before adding, "and that doesn't mean anything."
"Happen all 'a time in my 'hood, yo," his friend, a Puerto Rican teen added.
"So like, yeah, you stinking tipsy witch," Michelle drunkenly spat, "mind your own nosey business."
"I'm not no slinkin' Gypsy bitch!" Mrs. Sneed bellowed, "I'm a Saxon!"
"Well, fuck you too," a Guatemalan tenant yelled, "I am a Gypsy! I drive my own cab!"
In the end, about a dozen neighbors drove Mrs. Sneed back inside her apartment with a barrage of insults, bottles, and rocks. The cab driver lit some of the kindling under her window for good measure. Finally, blessed silence resumed in the pit, with babies squalling, loud TVs, and the sounds of domestic violence coming from inside the apartments. Michelle was only too happy to leave the courtyard; one adventure a night was plenty if it wasn't fun. She was drunkenly making tracks, hastily weaving up the walkway to the security gate, when she tripped over a body lying in the dark.
"So shit! Who's dead and loitering on the walkway anyway?" Chelle complained as she kicked the cadaver onto its back to get a look at its face. (By this time she was too drunk and too irritated to be patient). "Well, what the fuck? It's Jake the Snake. Must'a been something he ate. I knew he'd veg out someday."
Jake had rolled over with his head sagging to one side and his mouth lolling open. In the dim security light over the walkway, Chelle noticed that Jake was even more pallid that usual. It was as if all the blood had been drained from his face and hands, leaving them a bleached and unhealthy white like a Goth. His tongue was the bubblegum pink color of a good quality pencil eraser. In the center of a pale hickey, she noticed a pair of holes in the side of his neck, remarkably similar to the pair of wounds she'd gotten on her hand from the nails in the crate. Jake had even worse luck with accidents than she did, she realized. He must have reached for the same piece of broken fossil and suffered a fatal accident. For a moment Michelle drunkenly wondered what to do.
"So, like anyway, I could call on my cell and report this…the 20thprecinct is just around the corner," she muttered. No, no, no! Her hindbrain whined, when did Jake ever do anything for you? The cops will just end up spending the whole night asking you the same three questions, her midbrain told her, what's your name, when can I have a date, and how much? Reporting this won't help Jake, and if he's here in the morning, Morticia can't complain about him being late, for once, her forebrain reasoned smugly, then added, besides, you're drunk, and when did he ever do anything for you?
"You're right," Chelle answered after some thought, "my girlfriend's a cop and I know how they work. I've already been asked for dates by seven cops here, and no, Jake never did anything for me. So okay, I'll leave him for Morticia. She hired him. She can fire him. The Lisas will do the paperwork. Thanks for helping me make up my mind guys," she told her brain parts.
Well hey, it's what we're here for, her hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain chorused.
"Don't know what I'd do without you," Chelle told them sincerely, really appreciating them for once.
Ahhh, we know you'd get by,her midbrain told her supportively. Yeah, with a bod like that…her hindbrain began. You're such a dog, her midbrain sniped, now shut up already. You're ruining a rare and emotionally comforting moment of solidarity, you pig. Well, fuck you too, her hindbrain cursed.
"That's it! Shut up the lot of you, or I'll blow my brains out," Chelle threatened as she stalked up the walkway to the security gate.
So now are you proud of yourselves? You're really such a shameful pair of louts, aren't you? Michelle's forebrain asked, claiming the moral high ground. Well fuck you, Mr. Smarty-Pants, her midbrain spitefully spat. Yeah, fuck you, her hindbrain agreed.
After a weekend spent in sustained inebriation, (mostly passed out on my futon couch that still smells noticeably of beer), Chelle returned to work on Monday, slightly hungover. By then her hand sported only a couple Band-Aids decorated with graphics of bullet holes and sutures. She found Morticia and Gomez in splendid moods, having collected Jake the Snake's cadaver for processing over the weekend.
"One less payroll to figure out," Morticia reported in an offhand way, just to make conversation while Chelle clocked in, "no hours to count, deductions to tally, or days off to calculate."
"Not to mention, we'll have his skeleton for sale by Halloween," Gomez gloated, "and we can sell those matched tattoos on the sides of his head in display cases. Same with his Mohawk. What a windfall. What a wonderful Monday! Enrique's already got him half fleshed out." Gomez waxed contemplative and added, "There was no blood though; that was a little strange, but it did save some time. Must have been his diet. I'll have to get John to plastinate his organs for sale as well. Did you know that Jake had a double appendix, a calcified gall bladder, and a hypertrophied spleen? Imagine that…absolutely majestic."
Chelle just nodded in agreement and headed to the casting lab. She was still hungover. Anyway, the concerns of management were always a bit different from those of labor, and Michelle had a busy day planned. She was scheduled to make a replica of the skeleton of a two-headed calf and she wanted to get an early start.
By lunchtime, Michelle had cast the calf's fused binary tibiae and fibulae, radii and ulnae, carpals and tarsals, and its deformed little hooves. After stripping the latex gloves off of her hands, she opened a longneck and lit a Camel. Then she headed for the studio where there was a place to eat the fried pigeon with French fries that she'd ordered from Cha Ching, the hole-in-the-wall carry-out Chinese kitchen. John and Ulrich were also eating there, seated under the beach umbrella at the table they'd salvaged down the street from the café's renovation. (They'd had to cut away parts of the umbrella's fabric and rearrange its ribs to clear the water pipes that ran along the ceiling of the basement studio, leaving it looking weird and cubistic).
"Nothing like a little Chinese food," John commented after glancing at Chelle's lunch, "and Cha Ching is nothing if not authentic."
"Ach!" Ulrich sagaciously added, while spitting out the contents of a gristle dumpling. (John and Ulrich kept a 5-gallon plastic bucket next to the table as a spittoon for the ubiquitous inedibles).
"So yeah," Chelle agreed, "the Chinese invented French fries along with spaghetti."
"They also invented gunpowder and German chocolate cake," John claimed.
"Nein! Das Poles invented Deutsche chocolate cake," Ulrich corrected, "ja, ja."
Michelle let the conversation pass her by for a while, stuffing bits of fowl and fries into her mouth. It wasn't really very good. In fact, it was quite leathery and tasted of rancid petroleum by-products, but Chelle was hungry, having left her morning hangover behind sometime around 11:18:34am. She was drawn back to the chat when she heard John mention a new tenant complaint.
"Mr. Confetti, the Burmese hurdy-gurdy man on the sixth floor, complained to Gomez this morning about a giant moth that woke him up last night. He's sure it escaped from our insect area. Apparently at around four this morning, he heard something banging and flapping outside his bedroom window. He poked his cane out into the airshaft and 'saw' this giant moth…crazy fuck," John said after spitting out a bone from the braised mice stroganoff he'd gotten from Lenny's. "Confetti claimed the thing was as big as a man and leathery. Everyone knows that moths are powdery and much larger."
"Ja, ja," Ulrich agreed, "Confetti und Sneed ist die cookoogehirn. Heh."
"Well yeahhh, everyone knows they're crazy," Chelle added. She spat a beak into the bucket and then asked, "So was there any dust or powder on his windows?"
"Nah, just a few dead cockroaches and a pile of dirt on the windowsill," John told her. After a moment's thought he added, "The only really strange thing was that Confetti also mentioned that the moth had Werner Klemperer's face."
The image gave Michelle a chill. She vaguely remembered an old horror movie where a fly with a man's face had cried, "Help Me!" It had been so pitiful.
"What did Gomez say?" She asked.
"He told Confetti that he'd only apologize if the guy could get a picture of the moth. I think he wanted to get a look at the bar code on its wings. After he left, Gomez told me that he thought it was really just one of the pigeons he's been mutating in the airshaft."
"So huh? Mutated pigeons?"
"Oh yeah," John continued, stuffing his mouth with mouse bellies and egg noodles. He chewed for a moment, hesitated, and then spat out a pelt. "Gomez has been raising mutated pigeons for years. See, every spring when they nest in the airshaft and he sprays the nests and eggs with WD40 and Lysol until they hatch. They're always surprising looking. Maybe you've seen a few upstairs in display cases in the store? They can never fly, so we catch them with butterfly nets and put them in the freezer. If they look too normal, we sell them to Cha Ching."
Michelle spat out a mouthful of fried pigeon entrails and then swigged down half of her longneck. Her meal suddenly seemed even less appetizing.
"But like, the pigeons are way too small. And so anyway, Mr. Confetti claimed that his moth was man sized, right?"
"Hon," John patronized, "Mr. Confetti lost his eyesight as a child. He claims the Tooth Fairy took his eyes one night, instead of the tooth he'd put under his pillow. After that he swallowed all his teeth. The guy still waits for Santa with a spiked baseball bat. He sets traps for the Easter Bunny. The guy doesn't trust anyone and he's as blind as a bat."
Blind as a bat, Chelle thought…OMG, like, a really big bat! Leathery, man-sized, and it left dirt and roaches behind after crashing into a sixth floor window. What we have here is a really clumsy vampire, Michelle realized in an uncharacteristic moment of clarity. Well, huh. She slugged down the rest of her longneck and finished her fries as she continued to ponder her brainstorm. Don't you mean brainstem? Her hindbrain asked.
"Und shall you eat das pigeon?" Ulrich asked, pointing to Chelle's takeout tray. When she absentmindedly shook her head "no", he reached over and claimed the refuse. Ulrich shoveled the squab into his maw like Jabba the Hut, crunching bones, cartilage, and the unplucked feathers as if performing a bad Ozzy Osborn impersonation. After an extravagant belch, he contentedly uttered, "Guten, guten, mmmmmm, WD40 auf das Lysol obertone."
Michelle wandered out of the studio, her appetite completely ruined, and lit a Camel. She took her usual seat on the kindling beneath Mrs. Sneed's bedroom window and looked around the pit. It was every bit as dismal as ever. For the first time, she noticed that some of the pigeons didn't seem to be able to fly. Looking more closely, she saw that one had the stub of a second head growing from its shoulder area, right above its atrophied left wing. Another scuttled along the ground with feet attached directly to its abdomen. Yet a third had a second pair of stunted wings, but no tail. How sad, she thought, as she looked away. Sure they were basically rats with wings, but in the New World her lover and her friends had created, some of them might actually be self-aware. They might need names. She wished more than ever that Steph was here with her. Only Stephanie Walker seemed to be able to tell at a glance if something was possessed of a mind, relied on only the instincts in its hindbrain, or still had no awareness at all.
Her gaze strayed to the airshaft. The litter was knee-deep in places. Along a wall, a glint of light on broken glass caught her eye. She got up to check more closely. Lying beside a pair of full Pampers and an old condom were the frames for a pair of eyeglasses, and the remains of the lenses that had once filled them. They had been distinctly different in size. Chelle gasped. In her memory, she could only recall one pair of glasses like that. Then she remembered that Mr. Confetti had claimed that the "moth" had the face of Werner Klemperer. It was simply too many coincidences to be anything but a reallyamazing coincidence.*Someone nearby was a clumsy vampire, and they wore the same glasses as Cornelescu. Not only that, but both the vampire and Cornelescu looked like Werner Klemperer. Well, huh, she thought, so anyway, a coincidence like this is pretty much impossible, but I guess stranger things have happened. I can hardly believe it. (She'd always had difficulty reaching a conclusion based on observing phenomena).
Michelle sucked up a lungful of burnt fiberglass and started coughing. She realized that she'd smoked her Camel down to the filter and flung it away in disgust. Well, yuck! I have to concentrate better, she thought, and anyway, it's time to go back to work. She took the frames and the remains of the lenses with her.
*At this point, it may be obvious to some readers that inductive logic is not one of Michelle's strong points. In fact, her "many skills" tend more towards consumption and carnality. ~Editor
Author's note: While I can readily agree with the Editor's assessment of Chelle as inductively challenged and carnally skillful, "consumption" is the antique euphemism for tuberculosis. To set the record straight, I spoke with Stephanie and she was fairly certain that Michelle has been wormed and has had all her shots and vaccinations. ~P B
OtherAuthor's Note: So like, anyway, I don't know what seductive logic really is…but I'm pretty sure carnality refers to meat, (like in chili con carnally, for example). Well, I resent being talked about like meat or like a dog…wormed…shots…vaccinations! It really isn't very nice and I think I deserve an apology…like, now. ~Chelle
Perhaps my post-disclaimer assessment of the authors has gained some credibility?
That night after she returned home, Michelle "consulted" with Phantom Bard.
"How many is that, Chelle?"
"Like, two bags," she answered, grinning drunkenly and holding up the empty Skittles packs. Her co-author groaned and counted the empty longnecks littering the floor.
"Looks like six to me," Phantom Bard muttered, "and what's with the weird specs?"
"You mean these glasses? It's like, I found them in the airshaft where some klutzy vampire crashed into a blind man's window last night."
"Uhhh, yeah," Phantom Bard said, "and does this happen often?"
"No, I don't think so," Chelle slurred, "but like, anyway, recently there's been a couple incidents of blood sucking, and like, Col. Klink dissolving into rats, or materializing out of piles of roaches…just harmless stuff like that." She opened another longneck and chugged down half the contents.
"Adolescent pranks, ya think?"
"The roast beef sandwich maybe, but like, Jake the Snake was drained of blood, and Cornelescu formed outta a pile of roaches when I cut my hand last week. So anyway, I think that's more of a twenty-something prank, don't you?" She yawned extravagantly, stretching provocatively against her cropped mesh tank top and lace Tanga shorts.
"Nawww," Phantom Bard replied evasively, "it sounds like the work of a communist, or maybe even an anarchist. I have some friends downtown at a club that should probably investigate this. Meanwhile, why don't you wear that collar I got for you when you're at work from now on…just in case anyone tries to bite your neck?"
"Well, so like, okay. I kinda like that collar anyway," Chelle mumbled, as her eyes slipped closed, "but do I have to wear the leash with it?"
"No, I think not…at least, not immediately."
Phantom Bard looked back at Michelle and noticed that she was already nodding off in an alcoholic stupor, her seventh longneck slipping from her fingers. The co-author took it before it spilled, downed the remaining Bud, and pulled a woven Indian blanket over Michelle's recumbent form. There were phone calls to make and plans to set in motion.
The next evening, Michelle was washing herself down on the autopsy table when the intercom squawked to life.
"Michelle, you have visitors waiting for you…should I send them down?" It was Lizzy calling from the store and she was irritated at the last minute guests for interrupting her rifling of the cash box while she was trying to close up.
"So like, yeaaaah!" Chelle screamed across the basement at the intercom box.
She was wondering who it could be, and she realized that she'd have to hurry to finish dressing before they arrived at the casting shop. Having practiced quickies back when she was contemplating a career in "adult services", it took her only seconds to jump into her clothes and run a comb through her hair. It was the sexy "wet" look of a surfer girl or a rain soaked starlet, and she knew how becoming it was. She'd just scooped up the ten from the neighbor upstairs when the door ground open revealing Phantom Bard and two women she didn't know…a curly-haired blond who was a dead ringer for Ephiny, and a taller Gothic chick with a worldly aura and a timeless beauty. From the vibes passing between them, Chelle instantly pegged them as a couple, and more than that, as soulmates. Well, damn, she thought, so like, maybe they'd be up for a threesome?
The thought was scarcely formed when the Goth chuckled. It was downright unnerving. The blonde looked at her partner and something silent passed between them. The blonde blushed, but she was also smiling. Chelle lit a Camel and smiled back nervously. Phantom Bard made the introductions.
"Chelle, this is Valerie McCormack," indicating the curly-haired blonde, "and her partner, Hekate Colchis," nodding to the Goth. The taller woman pinned Michelle in place with amber cat eyes, making her feel as if she were being dissected like a specimen under one of Enrique's scalpels. She took a nervous puff on her Camel. The Gothic woman released her by looking away from her and examining the shop. Phantom Bard continued, "Hekate and Valerie, this is Michelle Allen. She and her lover, Stephanie Walker, live in San Francisco. They're responsible for bringing about the New World."
"Another agent of change," Hekate remarked to Val, "I certainly got out of that business just in time, I suppose." Her velvety voice was mesmerizing and seductive, soothing and commanding of attention all at once. It was a voice that could seduce a person even as they shivered in mortal terror. For 18,000 years Hekate had been the Goddess of Change, Patroness of Witches, and Guardian of the Crossroads. Chelle was thankful that the words had been only an offhand remark to Val, and not directed with intensity at her.
"Actually, it was like, mostly Steph and her car, Lizzie Cooper that changed stuff," Chelle offered nervously, then added, "well, so anyway, like, Hi."
Both of the women made her feel like cringing as they focused their attention on her. Hekate was barely hiding a frightening power. Valerie was no less scary; she was just subtler, perhaps because she had once been a mortal human. They each moved with an unnaturally precise control that encompassed even the way they blinked, breathed, and stood. It was inhuman, Michelle thought, akin to the way Lizzy Cooper held mastery over the road. Phantom Bard and the guests moved closer to where she stood, nervously puffing on her Camel. When they spoke again it was very softly, meant to be heard only by her and no one else.
"Hekate and Valerie are here to investigate the situation with the suspected vampire that's been active around Manubrium and Mastoid, Ltd.," Phantom Bard told her, "They are very familiar with the behavior and abilities of "true" vampires, "real" vampires, and various other supernatural beings."
"Perhaps you should go and clock out?" Hekate suggested, finally speaking directly to Michelle. "You wouldn't want to cause Morticia a problem with the payroll, I suppose."
"N-n-no," Chelle stuttered, completely unnerved now. She fled the lab, snatching a longneck from the frig on her way out the door.
"She seems…excitable," Valerie commented.
"She's just displaced," Phantom Bard explained, "ya see, she's from California…and she's young." The two guests nodded in agreement. "I suppose we should begin the investigation, huh? Maybe snoop around a bit?"
"Hardly worth the bother," Hekate said with certainty. "There's most definitely a 'true' vampire on the premises. I see glimpses of him. He arrived recently and has been working here for several weeks, but he's had a couple misadventures…he's clumsy…not really very good at being a vampire at all, I should say. Not a bad soul though, really. It's unfortunate that he's allowed his presence to become suspected. Very amateurish."
"So where will we find him, and what should we do?" Valerie asked, just as Chelle returned to join them.
"Follow the trail of rats and roaches, I suppose," Hekate mused.
"Oh, yuck. Sooo disgusting," Chelle muttered.
"We'll have to take him with us before someone stakes him while playing 'Slayer'," Valerie added, shaking her head. "I wonder how long he's managed to survive, being so inept and all?"
At that moment, a fit of screaming pierced the air. It came from the direction of the office and involved at least two voices. The commotion riveted the attention of the four people in the casting lab, and in heartbeats they were running out into the deep evening gloom of the courtyard. By the time they crossed the broken concrete of the pit, they could hear struggling and screaming in the shipping room. Somehow, though they were already running, Chelle and Phantom Bard felt more than saw Hekate and Val pass them in the blink of an eye. They were already inside the shipping room before the co-authors even made it to the door. In all the excitement, the display of unnatural speed barely registered. Searching for the vampire had become academic.
Inside the shipping room pandemonium had broken out. Gomez and Morticia were frantically hovering over Lisa-Lisa, who were shrieking and flailing about in their special office chair. Cornelescu was squinting back and forth at the Lisas, obviously uncertain about which was which. Lizzy was holding her time card, and a closer glance revealed that she'd gnawed a corner off it and was compulsively chewing. She'd already dropped the cash box on the floor. Enrique was petrified, muttering in Catalan, and backed into a corner, clutching a bag of meat to his chest. He was staring at the Lisas in horror. Hekate and Valerie had moved to flank Cornelescu and seemed to be the only calm people in the room. Chelle and Phantom Bard froze in the doorway.
One Lisa was hysterical, screaming and pointing at Cornelescu. The other Lisa was hysterical, screaming and holding her neck as a trickle of blood seeped between her fingers. In front of them, Cornelescu was squinting at everyone with a sheepish grin on his face. He was muttering something unintelligible, probably in Romanian, and bobbing his head. His glasses were noticeably missing.
"What happened here?" Gomez finally asked. He was, after all, the boss.
"Looks like a vampire attack to me," Morticia answered airily, "why, who would have thought it could happen in this day and age, and in such an ordinary place as this? Such things never happen to normal people." She looked at the Lisas again and then bit her lip. Finally she asked them, "okay, how can you drink a martini that's half Vermouth?"
"A vampire attack? Why, I never believed in such things," Gomez exclaimed. "How can this be happening here? I paid my insurance premiums on time." His left hand was compulsively fondling the mummified fruit bat, which Chelle absently noticed was now almost scrubbed clean of fur.
It was Hekate who spoke directly to Cornelescu.
"Waszcti ab pukuski defcszeck dor vampyr," she pronounced derisively, "cagniscu obelskya un dal Saimeseku tuveinyas. Bagut gat jovezck yorg dogro iern?" She gestured to the people standing around staring at them. "Tracki jovczkru vampyr, I suppose."
("What a pathetic excuse for a vampire, biting only one of the Siamese twins. What are you going to do now? They all know you're a vampire, I suppose.")
Cornelescu stared around the room, his squint becoming even more pronounced. He didn't really seem to be able to see the other employees in any detail.
"Gorbatezku pacurick?" He asked like a dumbfounded schoolboy.
"Gorbatezku pacurick! Ha! Jovczkil fortuvczk tracki gatno impackula mortki!"
("Finish your meal! Ha! You'll be lucky if they don't stake you dead!")
Hekate leaned over and whispered something to Valerie, a look of total exasperation etched on her face. When she turned back to address everyone else, she allowed her lips to curl into a hint of a grin.
"Please be so kind as to grant me just a moment. Don't anyone move," she requested, actually projecting power, "I'll be right back."
The tall Gothic woman made a gesture of sweeping away with her right hand. For a moment, the overhead florescent lights glinted off the heavy silver ring on her finger, and then she vanished.
Though the employees' overriding impulse was to leap up and start panicking, no one moved. It wasn't as though they didn't try…they just couldn't. While the air looked no different than it had a moment before, now it resisted all their attempts at motion and felt as thick as concrete. No one could even utter a sound. Enrique lost his grip on his bag of meat, but it dropped infinitely more slowly than an empty shell fluttering to the sea floor in a National Geographic documentary. Michelle's mouth was hanging agape in shock, and a gaily-colored wad of half-chewed Skittles hung in place on her tongue, defying gravity. In their doublewide office chair, one Lisa had turned enough so that her Rum Crook was swinging past the other Lisa's face. The glowing ember at its tip stood in freeze-frame, only a fraction of an inch from the second Lisa's eye, and headed for their mat of hair. Gomez had petrified with his left hand in his pants pocket, fondling the mummified fruit bat, though it appeared that he might be fondly gripping his…never mind. Only Valerie was still able to move, and she simply took a seat on the edge of the shipping table and waited, absentmindedly swinging her legs.
"What a mess," she muttered to herself.
It was only a couple minutes later when Hekate reappeared, (though the time clock had remained frozen like everything else). Accompanying her was a Nordic looking woman with long straight blonde hair so pale it appeared almost white. Her skin was the color of marble and glowed in the overhead florescent lighting, in stark contrast to her long black dress. The newcomer hid nothing of her immortal nature. Medea moved with a grace so unearthly that she didn't even pretend to be human. No one would have believed it anyway. Her blue eyes gleamed with a supernatural inner light. Despite this, she was compellingly beautiful in a vampiric Norse fashion, if you discounted her air of murderous intensity and palpable asociality. It had been over four thousand years since she'd related to mortals in much beyond a culinary fashion. She took in the situation at a glance and moved to stand next to Cornelescu, examining him briefly before returning her attention to Hekate.
"What a mess," she said, in a voice so musical that the humans in the shipping room felt entranced. Their panic ebbed and their eyes all followed the newly arrived woman's every move with the compulsion of the awestruck. "You're correct, my goddess, he is certainly a 'true' vampire, but he has lost his…self-possession, certainty of will…his vampireness." While speaking, she'd revealed well developed, fanglike canines.
"I see," Hekate replied casually, "and so where did it go?"
"If I were to cast a spell to accomplish what we are seeing, I would transfer his mental facilities…his…his wits, if you will, into a fetish object…a repository."
"And what would you choose for such a fetish, Medea?" Valerie asked.
"It could be anything, but it would become compelling, especially to mortals."
The three women stood together thinking about the situation.
Well, so anyway, a fetish, Chelle thought curiously? The only fetishes she knew much about were thingies like coprophagia and coprolalia (Oh yuck!), infantilism (Teehee), watersports, pedophilia, pediphilia, padrephilia, pregnophilia, bestiality (understandable, but like, Eeeeeew!), BDSM, gyno/clinical fantasy and electro-stimulation, necrophilia, carnophilia, hemophilia, priapism, botulism, and vegetarianism…. She'd ticked them off on her fingers, but couldn't really see how any of them applied to the present situation. She shook her head in confusion and gave up with a sigh.
"He came in a coffin," Gomez offered, somewhat meekly. "Air freight. Couldn't even afford to fly in coach."
So like, maybe necrophilia, Michelle wondered? Maybe mortuary fantasies?
Hekate, Valerie, and Medea all turned to stare at Gomez at the same time, causing him to wilt somewhat from the intensity.
"Show me," Medea coaxed, as if addressing a skittish tree shrew, "show me the coffin."
"It's right back here," Gomez nervously replied, quickly moving to the hallway leading back into the insect area. The three women glided after him, their smoothness of motion making his jerky strides appear almost Parkinsonian.
Most of the employees followed them at a distance until they stopped in the storage space between the insect area and the employee's restroom. Sure enough, there was a ragged coffin, no more than a pine box really, with frayed planks and handfuls of dirt surrounding it on the floor. The lid squeaked open on a pair of rusty hinges as Medea lifted it. She shook her head in disgust as a pair of rats greeted her with twitching noses and whiskers. They blinked and sniffled at her, then fled.
"He seems somewhat lax at housekeeping too, I suppose," Hekate remarked, as she watched a handful of roaches furiously burrowing into the soil to escape the light.
"Oh yuck," Chelle added, staring in rapt horror over their shoulders, "more roast beef."
Sure enough, several slices of roast beef had been sucked dry and lay in a wad in a corner of the coffin. The roaches had been feeding on the desiccated scraps, which were surely no more appetizing than linoleum tiles.
"Midday snack," Medea explained lightly, "probably ruins his appetite."
"So is the fetish here?" The curly haired blonde asked.
Hekate and Medea concentrated on the soil, Hekate scrunching her brows, Medea staring daggers. The blonde's eyes glowed briefly.
"No," the reported in unison.
Medea let the coffin lid fall closed. The impact raised a cloud of dust into the air. Enrique sneezed. Behind him, Lizzy stuffed a handful of M&Ms into her mouth and chewed furiously. Chelle lit a Camel. Gomez sighed. Back in the shipping room, the Lisas had begun to cry and smoke…one Rum Crook cigar each in this time of stress. Their doublewide office chair couldn't fit down the hallway and they were too upset to walk with their insect-like four-legged gait. Michelle opened the bug freezer and took out a longneck. She dropped her empty in the trashcan. Sure enough, there was the wrapper and bread from a roast beef sandwich.
"So what next?" Valerie asked.
"Everyone back to the shipping room, I suppose," Hekate requested, her voice edged with a power that compelled the mortals to obey as if they'd wished to do nothing else since the days they were born. They practically ran, except for Morticia, who did a fast slink. Medea was appraising her stylishly form-fitting black lace dress, appreciating the trailing tails forming the hemline. She was almost certainly memorizing the pattern, perhaps thinking to replace her own generations old Victorian funeral attire.
"Now then," Hekate continued when everyone had settled themselves. "What other objects of fascination appeared here at the same time that Cornelescu arrived?"
Objects of fascination, Chelle thought, opening her longneck. A fetish thingie that was compelling to mortals, she remembered Medea had said. Something that had appeared at the same time as Cornelescu had. Well duh. The only thing she could think of that fit the bill was that yucky mummified fruit bat that Gomez had been fondling for the last three weeks. She remembered that he'd had it in a coffee cup the day he'd first introduced Cornelescu, and he was already obsessed with it even back then.
"So like, what's up with your dried bat, Gomez?" Michelle asked. She was nervously chewing a mouthful of Skittles…only the yellow ones this time. Everyone else turned to stare at the boss.
"O-oh well, w-why, it's n-n-nothing at all," Gomez stammered in a voice tinged with possessiveness. He reached into his pocket and clenched his hand protectively around the small mummy.
Valerie, Hekate, and Medea looked at each other and smiled. Even the mortals could see them thinking, eureka! Gomez saw their expressions too, but rather than surrender the bat, he bolted out the door and into the courtyard. Hekate shook her head. His obsessive behavior simply confirmed their suspicions.
"Would you please go and relieve him of the fetish," Hekate asked Medea, "and try not to hurt him…he isn't himself, most likely."
The mortals had the brief impression of movement, and Medea was gone. She probably would have returned quicker, but Gomez wouldn't have survived the acceleration. As it was, she dragged him back into the shipping room about four minutes after he'd fled. In one hand she held the mummified fruit bat, in the other, Gomez, suspended several inches above the floor by his collar. Neither gave a convincing impression of weight, as Medea seemed to be expending negligible amounts of energy in hoisting them both.
The bat appeared to be a mere husk of an animal, with sunken eyes and a dehydrated rictus. Gomez appeared to be merely in a trance, eyes focused blankly ahead, hands and feet dangling limp. Medea seated him upright on the shipping room table and displayed the bat to Hekate and Valerie.
"Wretched little thing," Val commented while inspecting it more closely. "Do you think it's still retained whatever was transferred into it after being stroked bare of fur?"
"We'll just have to wait and see, I suppose," Hekate replied, while taking a quick calculating glance at Cornelescu. "Perhaps the changes will be unnoticeable. Would you care to do the honors, Medea?"
"But of course," the pale blonde woman replied.
She walked around the table to where Lisa-Lisa was sitting in their chair smoking. The Lisas cringed away from the stranger, but really had no chance of avoiding her. Medea snatched the bitten Lisa by the neck to immobilize her, and squeezed a small trickle of blood from the bite wound that Cornelescu had inflicted. For a brief moment her eyes glowed and she parted her lips, revealing her fangs. She seemed captivated by the blood but shook it off as if it were a minor lapse of concentration. She never touched the blood itself; instead, she liberally smeared it on the bat by rubbing the mummy against the side of Lisa's neck. Lisa endured Medea's actions in a terrified paralysis, while her sister Lisa whined and tried to scoot further away in the chair. It didn't really work, of course, and Morticia could be heard chuckling, as she watched from her place by the office doors. Meanwhile, Lizzy had absentmindedly worried a silk button off of her suit jacket and popped it into her mouth, mistaking it for an M&M.
Once the mummified bat had been thoroughly coated with Lisa's blood, Medea released her grip on the twin's neck. Lisa began shivering and furiously puffing on her Rum Crook, while rubbing compulsively at the blood seeping from her wound. Medea completely ignored her and returned to Hekate and Valerie, showing them the bat cradled on the icy white palm of her left hand. Across the room, Chelle let out a choke of disgust and lit a Camel. That's so disgusting I could choke, her midbrain nervously muttered. I need Skittles,her hindbrain begged. The mummy had come to life, and begun writhing and twisting and flexing its wings. It swiveled its head around and snapped at Medea's thumb, but was unable to pierce her skin.
"Well, it certainly has the spirit of a blood drinker shoehorned in there," Valerie commented as she watched with a fascinated expression.
"Perhaps you should proceed with the repatriation?" Hekate prompted.
The blood soaked bat had just spread its wings as if to take flight when Medea closed her hand to cage it, and walked over to where Cornelescu was squinting around the room. The bat's head was protruding from between her thumb and index finger, snapping and threatening ferociously. Medea thrust it out, stopping an inch from Cornelescu's face. The Romanian vampire's eyes widened as it came into focus and he let out a girlie squeal. Lizzy giggled nervously around a mouthful of M&Ms. Morticia smirked.
Medea, who had been a deadly mortal witch and the High Priestess of Colchis back in the time of Jason and the Argonauts, had forgotten nothing about effective conjuring. She turned with a dramatic gesture, sweeping her left arm around to clearly present the bat to everyone in the room. The slightest of smiles curved her lips, as if she might be enjoying her performance. She then actually used her right hand to pull back her lace cuff, rotating her left forearm to show her audience that there was nothing hidden within her sleeve. Medea then exchanged a glance with Hekate, who gave her an indulgent grin and the merest nod. The witch dramatically turned back to face Cornelescu. The vampire squinted, trying to see what she was up to. While everyone was distracted, as Medea presented the bat with a theatrical gesture in front of the Romanian, she produced a plain black wand with a quick flick of her right hand, and brought it up to tap the bat on the snout. She then tapped Cornelescu on the nose. She repeated the movements with increasing speed until the wand was moving as fast as Carl Palmer's drumsticks during a press roll on the snare. The wand became a streaking black blur, rebounding between the bat and the vampire. The tension in the shipping room escalated with every tap. The audience was holding its collective breath.
With the panache of a carnival showman, Medea cried out, "ABRA-CA-DA-VER!"
She threw both hands up in the air with a flourish, as a flash of smoke and light flared up in the space between the bat and Cornelescu. A heartbeat later, she proudly showed off her empty hands. No bat, no wand, and no powder burns. She was wearing a shit-eating grin.
The smoke quickly cleared and revealed Cornelescu, cutting a dashing figure in a pristine black tailcoat, with a starched white shirtfront and bow tie. A gleaming monocle was clenched in one eye socket and a gold chain led to the watch pocket in his vest. Everyone applauded. Medea gave them a polite nod in appreciation. Cornelescu bowed like a maestro, gracefully.
"Very nicely done," Hekate praised, politely clapping, "and now I suppose it's time for us to leave." She gave Cornelescu another sidelong glance, noting that, because the bat had been rubbed clean of fur, he was now completely bald. No one had noticed.
"All's well that ends well, I guess," Phantom Bard said to the Gothic woman, "I'll give you a call tomorrow, Kate, just to check up on how he's adapting."
"Stop by for a drink if you have time," the goddess replied.
Hekate gave the author a nod and then took Valerie by the hand. She in turn took Medea's hand, and Medea took one of Cornelescu's, (ignoring the elbow he gallantly crooked at her in the gentlemanly fashion of a bygone era). The Gothic woman made a sweeping gesture, and the four of them vanished.
Well now, wasn't that some weird shit, Chelle's hindbrain muttered. I didn't see anything, and neither did you, her midbrain informed it with the vicious decisiveness of denial. I'll have to cogitate over this a bit, since it's wholly beyond the ken of my experiences and beliefs, her forebrain declared. It was all a hallucination brought on by too much absinthe, so don't get all scientific on me or I'll kick your ass, her midbrain retorted. "But I only had beer tonight," Michelle whined, "and so anyway, I want to talk to Steph about this, so like, shut up, the lot of you."
Phantom Bard looked at the people still standing around in the shipping room, trying to appraise them dispassionately. Enrique was mumbling to himself and clutching a bag of meat scraps to his chest like Linus with his security blanket. Lizzy was exhibiting a Parkinsonian tremor as her system tried to burn off the glut of sugar from the pound bag of M&Ms she'd downed in the last ten minutes. Michelle was arguing with her brain parts…literally talking to herself a bit at a time. Gomez was slowly coming around from the trance Medea had put him in earlier. It was almost certain that he'd remember nothing. Morticia was roasting the end of a Virginia Slims Menthol Light and forcing it into the tip of her cigarette holder. She was eyeing Lisa-Lisa, calculating how effective she'd be on the job tomorrow. Lisa-Lisa was turning green from the double-dose of Rum Crook cigars, (clearly presenting symptoms of carbon monoxide toxicosis), and was sobbing piteously as she mixed her-other-self a double martini, half Vermouth.
Yes, they'd seen things that mortals weren't meant to see and live to tell about, but the bottom line was that no matter what they said, no one would believe a word of it. A single interrogation would be sufficient to discredit the lot of them as witnesses to anything more rational than UFO abductions, Elvis sightings, or meetings with Bigfoot. Defense attorneys and tabloid editors loved people like these. Scientists and detectives considered them the bane of eyewitness evidence. More than likely, they wouldn't even corroborate each other's recollections. No action was necessary. There was no foreseeable threat. Obviously, Hekate had known.
"C'mon, Chelle, let's go. Seven's probably livid after waiting so long on the street. I'm dreading the ride home."
"'Kay," she replied, lighting a Camel and muttering, "goodnight," to the others. No one responded. They were too deeply in shock. She prepared for the ride home by pouring her beer into a McDonalds cup so she could suck the brew up through a straw.
Later that night, after a half-dozen more beers and some really, really bad Mexican food, Michelle called Stephanie in San Francisco.
"Hi Hon, how's New York City?" Steph slurred. It was about 7:00pm in California and she was already mostly drunk.
"Well, so it's been pretty weird tonight, and like, you'll never guess what happened at work."
"Prob'ly not," Steph replied. Chelle could hear her lighting a Camel. "So do ya wanna talk about it? Wanna tell me what happened?"
"Well, yeaahhh. See, these women came to M&M, 'cause there was a vampire thingie among us, ya know? And so anyway, they like, found the vampire and it was this retarded commie dude, Col. Klink, but his wits had been stuck into this mummified bat. It was like…his fetish? Our boss was possessed and kept the bat in his pocket for weeks and stuff. So anyway, this vampire woman, Medea? Well, she like, took it from him, and used magic to make Cornelescu, return to being a normal vampire. She like, did this magic trick and then they all disappeared."
"Amazin', Hon," Stephanie remarked after a pause to digest what she'd heard, "I don't believe a word of it. It almost sounds like an absinthe hallucination. Maybe ya better get on a plane and come home. I don't think New York's good for you."
"So yeahhh!" Michelle chortled happily, "I hate it here. The workplace is ghettoish and depressing, and like, all the people there are psycho. So anyway, Seven is this bitchy Lotus that's always cursing, and the pigeons are fucked up looking…and I had to eat them and spit out the beaks, and even the Bud here doesn't taste right. It kinda sucks in the majority. The only good thing is that I get $10 from the neighbor every time I strip after work. I'll be on a plane tomorrow…'kay?"
Chelle heard the receiver being dropped on the floor with a curse, and then Steph commenting to Lizzie Cooper, "Fuck, Chelle's deluded again, and she was finally OK when she went," and the tenderhearted little blue car replying, "Poor dear, the big city's addled her wits, it has. How very sad." Stephanie came back on the line.
"That's good, Sweetheart," Steph said with a sigh, "I've missed ya so I'll make some nachos and put 'em in the freezer for when ya get back. You can explain it all to Lizzie and me when ya get here. Maybe we'll be able to make some sense outta what you're talkin' about then."
The next night, around the witching hour, Phantom Bard revolved through the revolving door and into the Goth club called Nightwings. In the atrium, Medea provided directions for finding Hekate and Valerie, since the club was nearly filled to capacity for a concert by Enigma. Upon entering the expansive main floor of the club, Hekate caught the author's eye from a table on the first mezzanine, right in front of the bar. Valerie looked over the railing from her seat and waved a greeting. After a few minutes, the three of them were seated around a wrought iron table, where the flame from a black wax candle in a tall glass holder painted their faces with flickering light and shadows.
"So how's he doing? Has he recovered his vampire nature?" Phantom Bard asked.
"In so much as is possible, I suppose," Hekate answered, "though I suspect he was never the most proficient at his craft." The hint of a grin gave the slightest rise to the corners of her lips. She was otherwise immobile.
"He's a complete klutz," Valerie elaborated succinctly, bearing a facial expression reminiscent of a human sneer, "whoever made him a vampire should be staked."
"Now, now," the Goddess of Change gently chastised, "you heard his story. It's not really his fault."
"So what happened?"
"It would appear he was being experimented on during the last days of the Romanian communist regime," Hekate said, "enhanced infantry development or some such, perhaps. It would appear the scientists injected him with a blood strain that brought on his vampirism, but also left him mildly deficient…mentally. Certainly not the super-soldier they'd hoped for, I suppose."
"And of course, they couldn't hold him when he decided to escape," Valerie added, picking up the narrative. "He fled the lab, but found that the only people who would help him hide were Gypsies. One of them cast the spell that put what little wits he had into the bat mummy. Then they just boxed him up and sent him off by air freight to their enemies in America, the great capitalist Satan."
It was a pretty unlikely story, but stranger things had happened. Valerie resumed after taking a long pull on her drink.
"Somehow, Gomez managed to purchase him in a lot at a scientific curio auction, and before he knew what had happened, he was fascinated and obsessed by the bat fetish. That meant Cornelescu had a place to stay, at least temporarily."
"But of course, he wasn't competent to remain undiscovered," Phantom Bard added, piecing the more recent segment of the tale together from Chelle's fantastic comments.
"So it would appear," Hekate conceded. "Just since last night, he's vampirized a couple neighborhood dogs, but he was bitten in the process…."
"Does that mean the dogs are now vampires?"
"Yes, or at least, they were," Valerie confirmed, "and it got worse. The dogs bit their owners. One died and the other is hospitalized. I had to exterminate the dogs by drawing off their prana so they couldn't do anymore harm."
As a "real" vampire, Valerie could feed directly off of the life force of living things, draining their auras rather than drinking their blood like a "true" vampire such as Medea would have done. It only required proximity, not contact, and it made for a cleaner kill.
"I suppose Michelle has returned to California by now," Hekate said, completely changing the topic, as she was wont to do.
"Yes, she has," Phantom Bard confirmed, "she took a flight this morning at 11am. She was already in a drunken stupor, but I saw her strapped into the seat before take-off, and Steph called me around 7pm to let me know she'd arrived. The only problem is that she intends to write a story about all this and post it on the web."
"But she's a nut job," Val muttered under her breath, "no one would believe a word."
"Valerie, I don't think you realize how serious this is," Phantom Bard told them nervously. "She's the one that wrote about the advent of the New World. She disguised the events as an uber fiction, but everyone knows about the atomic bomb that went off out there. Everyone believed it, really, unlikely as that plotline was. They made a movie out of her book last year. This could be problematic for you both."
"I could kill her, I suppose," Hekate offered with a sigh. Executions really weren't her specialty, but in a century or two, who would remember? She had the power to cause a fatal embolism from 3,000 miles away.
"I have an idea," Valerie said. "How about if I kill her? I've always wanted to see San Francisco anyway."
"I think not. Even the bridges and cars out there worship her and her girlfriend," Hekate informed Valerie. "The New World was born from their efforts in that city and their followers are fanatically loyal. You'd be opposed by intelligent beings without life force. It could be dangerous, even for you."
Somehow the thought of the sexy, deluded Chelle lying cold and dead in a coffin because of a story she wanted to write didn't sit well with the author who'd shared the apartment with her for several weeks. She'd been mostly happy and entertaining, and very easy on the eyes. It seemed like such a waste.
"Maybe there's another way. What if she wrote the story, but it was so far out that no one would believe a word of it? What if it was dismissed as a fantasy, purely fictional, especially if it was posted around Halloween."
"And how would this happen?" Valerie asked. There hadbeen a lot of what ifsin Phantom Bard's proposal.
"It could happen if I co-wrote it and ensured that it was posted for the holiday," Phantom Bard offered. The goddess and the vampire were thinking it over.
"If anyone believes a word of it, we'd have to kill you too," Hekate cautioned.
"That's hardly likely," Phantom Bard replied with a gulp. "They've never believed anything I've written before, and it'll just be seen as me conniving to associate myself with a more popular and well known author."
"Well, it's worth a try, I suppose," Hekate conceded, "and if it doesn't work, then I'll have to make some changes…like, neither of you were ever born." She accompanied the threat with a glance that conveyed an intensity that was purely inhuman; something left over from a world incomprehensibly ancient. Next to her, Valerie grinned.
"Give it your best shot," the "real" vampire added with a hungry expression.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, the author's hindbrain wailed. And what's Michelle ever done for you? Phantom Bard's midbrain asked, trying to sound reasonable, She still owes you for Skittles and beer. And don't forget the long distance phone calls….Still, it could be a good career move, and you've got to gamble to get ahead, the author's forebrain added, personally, I'd give you one chance in three of pulling this off. Good luck.

The End - Happy Halloween

Chelle (aka Michelle Allen), San Francisco

Phantom Bard, Brooklyn

October, 2003

And finally…
Author's Note:Rest assured that everything you have read is the result of a creative act and in no way portrays even the merest shred of truth. There are no vampires of any kind, no living Goddess of Change, and no store filled with dead stuff. I mean, who in their right mind would believe any of that? ~Phantom Bard
Co-Author's Note:So like anyway, I just wanna let everyone know that every word in this story is absolutely and positively true. I have related the incidentals with admirable candor in all respects, (grin), and to the best of my abilities, just like I did in "Alternative to Uber".Personally, I don't see what Phantom Bard's so worried about, ya know? If this were really all fiction, then the psycho wouldn't have even mentioned needing to ulcerate about a death threat, right? (Teehee) So like, what does that tell you? ~Chelle
As an afterward, I should aadd that Phantom Bard will be lucky to survive to collect the money Chelle owes, while Chelle is probably so drunk that she's completely forgotten the details of her trip to New York.  Ah well.  New authors appear everyday, and my job, at least, appears secure.  ~Editor

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