An interdimensional freelance hero of dubious talents faces demons at war with a gangster
|“Face facts, dude, she totally wanted me so much more than you.”
My attempt at enjoying my meal failed long before Parker managed to close out another one of his self-gratifying tales of derring-do. It took considerable effort to eat the last of my pancakes. My sullen glare fell short in cracking his ostentatious sense of self-worth. He glanced down at my empty, syrup-stained plate and clucked with disapproval.
“You know, layin’ off the carbs might do you some good in the sweet lovin’ department. You’re getting a little…” His forehead tightened as a rare burst of concentration weaved through his mind. A smile spread across his face. Paunchy. That’s a good description. You’re getting a little paunchy.”
“Can you even spell paunchy?” I snapped; no small feat, considering at the time I had a mouthful of masticated flapjacks.
His smile dazzled. It was one of the maddening things about Parker Shaw. He managed to somehow surpass physical perfection. Every time he walked through a room, he stole gazes. His smiles elicited schoolgirlish giggles. When he winked, heartbeats skipped. Most of this was fine by me; I prefer eyes on everything but me. But the fact that he was aware of how goddamn beautiful he was made things brutal for those around him.
“I’m just saying that pancakes are no man’s friend. Doughnuts, too, for that matter.” He regarded me with a studious glare. “They say that junk food is as bad for you as Russian roulette.”
“Do me a favor then: I’ll eat, you play, and we’ll see who keels over first, ‘kay?” I threw back a glass of milk. Parker kept staring at me. “What now?”
“Is that skim milk?”
“Oh for the love of everything holy,” I gasped. “I’m not going to debate my eating habits with you. We are on a job, and that’s where our focus should stay.”
Parker sighed and rolled his eyes. “I was just trying to help. No need to get bitter.”
“I’m not bitter!”
“If you say so, tubby.” He breathed a theatrical gasp and clapped a hand over his mouth.
I aimed a sticky fork at him. “Listen here, pretty-boy, I can cut you out of this job. I’m doing all of the heavy lifting.”
“That’s appropriate, you being the heavy one and all.”
“I’ll show you appropriate, nancy-boy…–”
The door to the diner swung open, accompanied by the tinkling of chimes. A massive figure entered, ducking below the doorframe. With broad shoulders and thick arms, the man might have been carved from a mountain. From the scowl on his face, it likely would have been a very grumpy mountain.
The man locked eyes with me and offered an imperceptible nod.
A waitress approached him, barely coming to his waist. She gave him an anxious smile. “Sit wherever you like, hon.”
“Thanks,” the man replied, and he stalked toward our table.
Parker looked upon the newcomer with overt awe. For once, something struck him silent. I failed to hide my smile; victory is far too delicious to conceal one’s delight. The man glared down at Parker with narrow, predatory eyes.
“Push over.” His voice sounded like boulders rolling down a steep hill.
“Well, Leon, always nice to see you,” I said cheerfully. “Didn’t expect the boss would send someone as high-up as you to help in this case. I hope his confidence in me isn’t fading.”
Leon smirked; it looked odd, as if his facial muscles weren’t used to flexing in such a direction. “I’m here because his confidence in you is exactly the same, and he wants to be sure you don’t screw this up.”
“Ah.” I countered.
“So where is this guy?” Leon glanced around the vacant diner. “You said he’s here every day.” He briefly glanced at Parker, who continued to fail at reacquiring speech, before settling back on me. “Arch, you better not be wasting my time.”
“Patience, big fella. He is here every day. I never said it was like clockwork.” I gestured toward Parker. “We’ve been coming in every day, reconnaissance-like.”
Leon scowled. “Recon? From you?” He shook his head and sighed. “Let me guess: you wore that.” He gestured toward my greatcoat and tricorne with disdain.
“Is there a problem with my clothes?”
“Not at all, if we were going to a Renaissance fair!” Leon groaned. “If you were tailing him, he’d pick you out without even trying. Why the hell do you wear all of that crap?”
I sniffed and tugged at my coat irritably. “I am the Archduke of Ithaca. I have an image to uphold.”
“Then it’s best if you laid off the sweet stuff,” Parker blurted. “That coat is bulging a bit around the middle.” He glanced nervously at Leon, who said nothing.
“Shut it, you.”
“If you ladies are finished,” Leon interjected sharply. “Then we can focus on whether or not your cover was blown.”
“It wasn’t blown,” I assured him. “It never even looked in our direction. It came in and scarfed pancakes for hours on end. Apparently our quarry has a bit of a sweet tooth. It can’t resist the food here.”
Parker mumbled under his breath. I glared at him. “Care to share with the class?”
“I said ‘He’s not the only one.‘” Parker replied.
“My eating habits are not in question here!” I growled. I glared at Leon. “Would I still garner the full pay for my services if my partner mysteriously disappears?”
“Have to catch me to kill me, fatty.” Parker sneered, poking out his tongue.
The diner door swung open again, and a new figure emerged. It was another massive body, only this one was morbidly obese rather than covered in muscle. His multiple chins were masked by a coppery beard. A bad comb-over covered a splotchy bald-spot. The man waddled to a booth and squeezed into a seat. The waitress tottered in his direction.
“That’s it,” I said softly, and Leon openly stared. The fat man paid us no notice, too caught up in placing his order, which I knew from experience consisted of three stacks of jumbo pancakes, extra buttery.
“That’s Cazael?” Leon whispered. His eyebrows were trying to leap from his forehead. “You think he’d go with a better look.”
“That’s pancakes,” contributed Parker sagely. He poked me in the shoulder. “See? Pancakes. That’s all they’ll do for you.”
“Oh, do shut up. I look nothing like that.”
“You’re well on your way.”
“Both of you be quiet,” Leon hissed. He seized my shoulder. “You’re sure that’s Cazael. Absolutely positive?”
I spread my hands. “It’s what I do. Gift and curse, remember?”
Leon nodded, but his gaze wasn’t on me. He chewed at his lip briefly, before standing. “Well, I guess that’s that. I’ll take it from here.” And he began walking toward Cazael.
I snatched toward him to stop him, but he walked with long strides, and he was nearly halfway there. I grimaced openly and sank into my seat, pulling my cap down over my eyes.
“What’s the matter, tons of fun?” Parker jeered.
“Oh, nothing,” I said, choosing that moment to ignore the insult. “It’s just that Leon plans on killing something right now, and he’s probably going the wrong way about it.”
Across the diner, I watched Leon approach the fat man. I heard Leon say, “I have a message for you,” as he reached in his jacket, and watched as he drew a gun with terrible fluid speed. Two loud, cracking reports filled the space, and the fat man’s head jolted backward, spraying red everywhere.
The waitress screamed. Leon winked at me.
And then things got so weird.
I feel the need to take a moment to explain certain things about mortality versus immortality. You might feel like you have a handle on this discussion, but do the guy in the great coat a solid and humor him for a few paragraphs.
Mortality and immortality in almost all cases is something separated by the effect that time has on a physical body. A mortal being, like you and I, ages over time. As we age, our physical form deteriorates. We can prevent this with clean living, even though clean living doesn’t do anything about the bus that might jump the curb and make a mess of things.
Immortals don’t have the same constraints. They aren’t affected by time. Their physical forms remain intact. They don’t get bogged down because of several decades or even centuries of living.
But remember that hypothetical bus jumping the hypothetical curb?
Yeah, that’d smear an immortal into the afterlife just as quickly as a person that got old and gray by 55.
Immortals, in short, bear a title that isn’t exactly honest. They can die.
But, after centuries of life experience, they might just know a few tricks that makes them much harder to take out.
Even if they do take two bullets to the frontal lobe.
Ok, back to it…
Weirdness is something that just won’t do people a favor and stay under proper guidelines. It breaks molds before said molds have a chance to even be formed.
So it was that when Leon shot the being known as Cazael, that things took a turn that nobody could have seen coming, unless they likes rubber walls.
The fat form rippled and bulged a Leon walked away, and I couldn’t look away. It reminded me of a hot dog in a microwave, bulging and shuddering from the waves of radiation. Parker was making a soft groaning sound next to me. Leon noticed our expressions and turned to face his latest kill. His form stiffened.
Cazael might have appeared to be a man with some poor health choices, but in truth I knew him for his true nature: a demon with a gluttonous appetite and a mean streak. In my investigation, I also learned he was over a millennium old.
What I witnessed after the assassination attempt in the diner was that Cazael wasn’t going to be quite so easy to put down.
Remember what I said about learning things over time? Yeah. Cazael busied himself with some homework over the years.
With a soft, wet, tearing sound the fat man began to split, halving as if some unseen zipper beneath his skin pulled itself open. Less blood than I would have expected poured from this rift. There was a burst of colored gas that belched forth from the new opening.
The waitress fainted. I did my best to do the same, but as luck would have it, I remained conscious.
The body sagged further, the skib wrinkling and folding into deeper creases as the split widened. A wicked trio of rose-colored claws emerged from the base of the tear, jagged and horrifying. The body bulged perversely.
The rift exploded open with a horrible rending sound, and there were a set of arms for each set of claws, and a muscular form. Leather wings flapped wetly, spraying gore and bile against the walls. Hoofed feet clopped along the floor, clicking loud and hollow. All of this seemed secondary to the snarling, angular face that scowled upon us, and the curved crown of horns that seemed to tickle the ceiling.
It shrieked, high and piercing.
Leon opened fire, hopping back on the balls of his feet, moving with profane quickness. Parker lunged forward, drawing his own gun and joining into the firefight. The true form of Cazael twitched and roared, speaking in a strange language that was never meant to be heard by men.
I drew my own weapon. I liked my .380. It was small but efficient. It was easy to hide in a pinch and would drop most targets with a well-aimed shot. I considered the best location to empty my clip.
I chose out the door and as many blocks away as my feet could carry me.
I think Parker shouted something at me as I rushed out the door, but I wasn’t wasting time to engage in whatever conversation he had in mind.
Before I am judged too harshly, keep in mind that there’s a minuscule line that separates cowardice and a keen sense of survival. Chances are that I have stepped over that line on occasion. Things happen.
The crowds outside were rushing away from the diner. The echo of rapid gunshots will disperse a crowd with unparalleled effectiveness. I joined the masses in their panicked flight.
A crowd of people huddled at the mouth of an alleyway and waved me toward them. Their pale faces and wide eyes marked them as crisis virgins. I ducked into their mass and froze. I found comfort among their numbers, even though I was well aware that there was nothing that these people could do to stop something nightmarish from happening.
A large, dark-skinned man in a threadbare suit grabbed my shoulder. His face trembled with an ashen expression. “Did you see who was shooting? Was it terrorists?”
“No,” I assured him. “Not terrorists.”
“Oh, you saw then!” called another voice in the throng. “Was it gangbangers?”
“Um…” I considered.
“Mobsters!” bellowed a third, sounding supremely confident. The floodgates spilled open, and they all began voicing their analysis of the matter at hand. Most of the ideas seemed to be gleaned from watching too many police procedurals. Others ranged from the end times to kids and video games. My head hurt.
The conversation ceased as a red, winged, shrieking form zipped through the air nearly a hundred feet above.
The dark-skinned man blanched. He leaned close to me and whispered,”Terrorist satanists?”
I sighed and shook my head. “Close enough.”
I turned to see Parker standing near the mouth of the alleyway. He wore an expression of exhaustion and disgust.
“Do I know you?” I asked, touching a finger to my lips. He snatched me by my collar and yanked me toward him. I always knew he was strong, but I’d never pegged him as capable of manhandling me. “Ah. Yes. I suppose I do recognize you, after all.”
“What. The hell. Was that?” Parker panted. “We are partners and you just bailed on me back there!”
“I’m sorry; was there a question in there? The only one you asked already had an answer following it.”
His face purpled. “I should kill you!” A vein on his temple throbbed. His fingers twitched around his gun. For a moment I wondered if he was truly contemplating a quick and easy murder right there on the spot.
And then Cazael shrieked nearby, and our concerns changed quickly.
“We can deal with the sensibility of killing me later,” I remarked. “For now we have to figure out how to stop this thing before something horrible happens.”
Parker’s eyes narrowed. “We’re going to deal with it.”
“Yes, good. Now: where is Leon?”
Parker sighed. “Last I saw of him, he was running after the thing, guns blazing like some kind of cowboy. I couldn’t keep up. Where did you find this guy?”
“I didn’t. He hired me.” I twitched at a sudden unearthly shriek, only a matter of blocks away. “Leon is the top enforcer for the Handsome. So yeah, he’s a pretty bad dude. If we are gonna do anything to kill that thing, we will need him.”
Gunshots echoed in the same direction. Parker’s eyebrows raised. “Will he need us?”
“Maybe as a distraction. Otherwise probably not. Ergo: Bad Dude.”
Parker blinked. “I’m not sure you used that word right.”
“What? What word?”
“Ergo.” He scratched at his cheek in thought. “Yeah, you used it wrong. It means hence or therefore. ‘Otherwise, probably not. Therefore: Bad dude.’ See? It makes no sense.”
I thought about it and frowned at him. “Oh, shut up. Bigger fish to fry at the moment.”
“Says the guy who ran away screaming at the first sign of danger.”
“There was no screaming,” I retorted. “That would have attracted attention.”
One of the members of the crowd cleared his throat and raised his hand. Parker and I turned toward him. He was a little old guy that might’ve been on a morning stroll when my trio pissed off an ancient, murderous demon. A sweatband encircled his spotted pate. “Um, pardon me, but: what is going on?”
“A monster from Hell is on the loose,” Parker said, raising his gun in a heroic pose. “We are going to stop it.”
“Ah,” replied the old man, doubtful. He merged back into the crowd. The dark-skinned man raised his hand. It reminded me of third grade.
“Yes?” I asked, impatient.
“While I’m glad you’re going to stop whatever the hell that thing was, what are we supposed to do?”
“Hiding is good,” I replied.
“Will that thing eat us?” demanded another. “I don’t wanna be eaten!”
“Unless you’re wearing butter and maple syrup, you should be fine,” I snapped.
“Why are you dressed like George Washigton?” inquired another.
I sighed. “C’mon Parker, let’s get this thing before I change my mind and decide to use these morons as human shields.”