Undead Chaos, page 11
When she was gone, I entered the room and closed the door behind me.
I gazed at my two companions. The Minotaur was half dozing, half watching Lucy stomp grapes while the Oracle gripped the sheet in pain. Tears leaked from his eyes. My heart went out to the guy.
“Now what?” Steve asked, his attention still on the television.
I tore my gaze away from Jones. “I have no idea.”
Steve turned to me. “That’s a terrible plan.”
“Tell me about it. Unfortunately, Jones is my only lead, and he seems to be heading downhill fast.”
“Apparently,” the Minotaur said, regarding the Oracle apprehensively. “He was almost coherent earlier.”
I nodded. “Alcohol does funny things to people.”
“Maybe to humans,” Steve huffed. “My race can actually hold their liquor.”
Jones clenched again with a whimper.
Someone knocked on the door before I could respond. I opened it and found one of the cute bobbysoxers waiting with a large platter and steaming pot of coffee. She rolled in, set the platter on the dresser and poured three cups of Joe. I tried to tip her but she waved me off. She skated out and the door closed automatically behind her.
Steve pounced on the food before the door clicked shut. He removed the cover and sniffed at the omelets and pancakes with a smile.
“Breakfast for dinner,” he said, scooping almost half of the contents onto a plate. “Best concept ever.” He grabbed one of the steaming mugs and thumped back to his nest.
My stomach snarled, so I followed the Minotaur’s lead and flopped three flapjacks onto a plate. I removed my pack and sword, gingerly eased myself into the chair by the bedside, and began eating. The food was hot and went a long way to easing the tension I’d felt since entering The Golden Teacup.
Jones, however, was nowhere near ready to eat.
Steve sipped his coffee, watching as the Oracle shook his head and mumbled incoherently. “He gets like this without booze. It’ll get a lot worse unless you dose him with something.”
“No way,” I said. “I need him to sober up.”
“You’d let another being suffer for your own needs, eh? Very human of you.”
I shook my head. “It’s not like that. Jones has access to information that may save lives, but the alcohol blinds him to it. The predictions he gave me in your bar were fuzzy at best. The only way he’ll be of any use is once his system is clean. Besides,” I added, “the booze is bad for him.”
“Says you,” Steve shot back. “This guy has spent a lot of time and money at my place and believe me, drinking is the only thing that’s kept him from killing himself. Something is eating his mind. Sobriety will exacerbate the issue.”
“Or,” I added carefully, “he may find that he’s strong enough to face his demons. Once you stop running, you discover what you’re truly made of.”
Jones grimaced, then vomited over the side of the bed into a trashcan. He evacuated his stomach two more times before curling back into a ball. The Minotaur glared at the suffering man and sneered.
“Apparently Forlorn Jones is made of vodka.”
* * *
Jones threw up for another hour before he finally passed out. As he lay panting, I quietly cleaned up his mess. Then I bussed the dishes and left the platter outside for the housekeeping staff. Once complete, I decided that since we had some downtime, I should clean myself up.
The shower was scalding, and I let the hot water blast the filth off me for a good twenty minutes. The scratches from Batman’s claws were shallow and I was able to seal them closed with a basic healing spell. My head ached from tapping my Skill and there was a nasty purple bruise on my hip from Batman’s punch. I ran my hand over the bruise, mumbling the healing words once more. The warmth of the water helped the spell ease some of the pain, but I opted not to bother with the cosmetics. No need to waste my Skill on vanity.
I stayed in the shower until my fingers turned into raisins. Gray-brown goop pooled at my feet as I washed the smoke from my hair. Some of it seeped into my eyes, causing them to sting, but it was a small price to pay for cleanliness.
It took two full scrubbings before I felt halfway sanitary again.
When I was positive that the filth from The Golden Teacup was gone, I shut the water off and grabbed a large fluffy towel from the rack. I exited the bathroom with the towel around my waist and found that Lucy had been replaced by The Honeymooners. Steve was watching with his eyes half closed, and Jones was snoring softly.
There was a gentle knock on the door. I searched around for a shirt. I couldn’t find one, so I opened the door a crack and peered around the edge. One of Millie’s girls was on the other side, chewing bubble gum and humming. She held up a small pile of folded laundry.
My Huey shirt was on top, so I opened the door farther. The girl gave me the once-over, smiled, and handed me the clothes. They were warm and smelled of summer rain. I thanked the girl, who winked and skated back down the hallway.
The outfit was free of smoke, sweat and Batman blood—and the rips in Huey were stitched together neatly. I dressed and tossed the wet towel under the pedestal sink in the bathroom.
Invigorated by the clean clothes and hot shower, I was itching to find some answers—preferably ones that didn’t come from a detoxing Oracle. There was still hope that Jones would point me in the right direction, but until he dried out, or at least ceased throwing up, I was on my own.
I’d only partially lied when I told Steve that Jones was my only lead. Millie was my go-to girl for Underground rumors and she’d pointed me to the Oracle, but my Rolodex was filled with even less reputable resources. Most of those were impossible to find during daytime, but the setting sun would bring them out from under their rocks. I left my backpack by the chair, buckled my sword to my back and pistol to my hip, and quietly departed the room.
“Dessert?” Millie greeted me as I came down the stairs.
“In a little bit. I have to run an errand first.”
Her eyebrows lifted and she cocked her head. “Going into the Underground at night? You’re either very brave, or stupid.”
“How about both?”
She grinned. “I’ll set something aside for you.”
“I appreciate that. Mind keeping an eye on my friends while I’m out?”
“Of course. Just be careful out there.”
“Aren’t I always?”
“No,” Millie said. “You’re not.”
As questionable as the Underground was by day, it was worse at night. Beings that normally skittered away from the light came out to play, preying upon the stupid, ignorant or unsuspecting. It was ill-advised to wander the streets alone, and if there were any way I could have avoided it, I would have. But the creatures I sought preferred the darkness, so I was forced to leave the relative safety of Millie’s. The farther away I traveled from the lights from the diner, the more imposing the Underground became, and the closer I moved my hand toward my Glock.
The difficult thing about tracking the paranormal scum of the earth is that they prefer to be left alone. They hide under rocks, slip into the shadows, and generally avoid the public as much as possible. It makes things tricky when you start asking questions—word travels at light-speed. Once they know you’re after them, they’re as good as ghosts.
The key to finding these pesky informants is patience. Either that or being owed a favor. Since I was light on the former and heavy on the latter, it was time to cash in.
My first stop was an alleyway known as Deek Street.
A hangout for magical destitutes, Deek Street was a place where creatures with no place else to go congregated for warmth and protection. Safety in numbers was paramount for surviving the night in t
On a normal evening, I would have found it packed with an odd assortment of beings, but it was frighteningly barren. There were no burning cans of trash, no off-key drunken songs and no overly inflated tales of how great life used to be. Instead, I found a cold and vacant alleyway. My skin crawled as I wandered through the abandoned boxes and discarded blankets. I gave Deek Street a thorough inspection and came up with nothing more than a chill up my spine that had nothing to do with the unusually cool breeze.
There was a scuffling behind me. I spun around, drawing my pistol and dropping into a defensive crouch. I scanned the alleyway, but saw nothing. A large cockroach skittered past and I re-holstered the weapon with an embarrassed grunt.
Still, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling of being watched. It was as if something was hiding in the shadows, but nothing was there. I glanced around me, keeping my senses on high alert, and left the uncomfortable emptiness of Deek Street behind me as fast as possible.
Next on the list of locales for informants was The Double Down. A popular gambling spot designed after a casino from the 1920s, the over-the-top glitz and glamour of the establishment had garnered paranormal fame as a must-see watering hole for visitors. Most beings left with empty pockets, and those that beat the house lived just long enough to regret it. Still, creatures from across the globe traveled to the DC Underground to try their luck or to check it off their bucket list.
There was no bouncer outside the large metal door, so I walked up and knocked. The sound echoed off the cavernous interior, but there was no response. I knocked louder and waited.
The hairs on my arms stood on end. I snapped my head left and right, but saw only shadows.
With two strikes against me and my paranoia rising, I decided to cut my research short by going directly to the last contact on my list.
I hurried down the streets to an antique bookstore located several blocks from the charred remains of The Golden Teacup. I could smell the ash and felt a slight twinge of guilt for torching the place.
Not that it had been intentional, of course.
My neck tingled as I scanned the area around me. The moon was beginning to rise, but the light did little to ease my tension. The sooner I got back to Millie’s, the better.
The alleyway leading to the bookstore was lit with soft lights, and I jogged the remaining distance to the front stoop. I paused at the door to catch my breath and settle my emotions. I drew a deep breath, slowed my pulse, and entered the building.
The interior was musty and reeked of ancient knowledge. Books lined every shelf and stacks upon stacks covered the floor. There was a muted quiet to the room that was compounded by the late hour and lack of customers. But the store was warm and felt like the kind of place a person could happily lose track of time.
“Welcome to Nick’s Knacks,” a voice said behind me. I turned to find a pretty little girl with thick golden locks smiling up at me. Her blue eyes sparkled with unnatural beauty. “I’m Erma.”
“Very nice to meet you, Erma,” I said.
“I’m accused of acting ten all the time.”
Her dimples deepened. “We’re closing soon, but can I help you?”
“I’m here to see Nick.”
“I can get him if you want.” Her eyes glimmered eagerly.
“That would be great.”
Erma beamed and raced through stacks of books taller than she was before disappearing into the back.
I strolled over to the shelves and perused the books. Most were hundreds of years old and in various states of disrepair. Despite their wear, the tomes were a wealth of knowledge from ages past.
I pulled a particularly tattered book off the shelf and opened it. The pages were yellow and brittle, but the book hummed with the remnants of ancient magic. The handwritten ink was faded with time, but the Latin was still legible.
I’d never mastered the language that was the backbone for the Skilled community, but I’d learned enough in school to understand the stories.
The book was packed with fables from humanity’s ancient past, and the author weaved intricate tales of Man’s plight against evil. They ranged from massive battles to the war against human nature. Hand-drawn pictures showed the struggles of magic in a world filled with paranoia and the brutal outcome for most of the Skilled community.
As I skimmed the pages, one story in particular caught my attention. It told the tale of a king’s obsession to unify the warring clans of his empire. His fixation with order led him to wreak havoc upon his people until they joined together and declared war upon their tyrant lord. Eventually the king was defeated, and celebrations spread across the countryside.
Their revelry was short-lived as the clans fell into warfare with one another. This time, however, they did so without the threat of royal punishment. The ensuing bloodshed wiped most of the clans from history, leaving barely a trace of their existence for posterity.
“We are an atrocious race, are we not?”
I jumped and nearly dropped the book. A wizened man with deep lines and thin white hair raised his bushy eyebrows. He wore a faded cardigan sweater and thick glasses. Behind his spectacles were bright eyes of blue that sparkled with the fire of a man still interested in life.
“Hello, Nick,” I said warmly.
“Hello, Marcus. Enjoying The Mantricore Fables, I see. Interesting that you picked that one.”
“No reason,” he said quickly. “It’s a very good read, but please be careful. It’s priceless.”
“And depressing,” I replied. “There’s a lot of bloodshed and dire warnings in it. At least it has pictures. Do they make a pop-up version?”
“Which tale were you reading?” he asked, ignoring my humor.
“The Cool Tool.”
“The Benevolent Tyrant,” Nick corrected, unable to keep a straight face. “An excellent story that stands the test of time. A passionate leader so obsessed with protecting his people, even from themselves, that he brings about their ultimate demise.”
“Ironic, isn’t it? It’s almost as if the people were better off beforehand.”
“That was the point. Mantricore was one of the best fable writers of all time. He puts Chaucer and the Grimms to shame, in my opinion. He was also a favorite to the king and wrote that tale specifically as a warning toward the man’s practices. As you can imagine, the king didn’t listen, and his life imitated art down to the letter.”
“Killed them with kindness, eh?”
“In a sense, yes. The clans brought themselves to the brink of extinction before being wiped out by invading hordes.”
“Where was this?” I asked.
“We now know it as Germany, but it was called something else in the days before Julius Caesar.”
“I thought Caesar was the first to record anything about the country?”
Nick shrugged. “Germany had a history long before the Romans ‘discovered’ it. Unfortunately time has erased most of what existed, save for The Mantricore Fables and a handful of other documents.”
“How old is this?” I asked, running my hand down the book’s creased and ragged spine. My fingers tingled as they brushed over the cracked leather, sensing the ancient energy that radiated off the pages.
“That edition was transcribed by priests in the fourteen hundreds, but the original manuscript was discovered in the bloody aftermath of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. It’s rumored that the Roman general, Publius Quinctilius Varus himself, pulled it from the body of a Cheruscan leader, but considering Varus committed suicide after his humiliating defeat, I highly doubt that. Whatever the actual history, the book was among the treasures recovere
The little girl appeared at the old man’s side and tugged on his sleeve. “Can I have a lolly?” she asked.
“Yes, but only if you lock up. And only one lollypop,” he emphasized. “We’re heading home soon.”
Erma flashed a victorious grin and skipped off toward the front. She locked the doors and retrieved a lollypop from a bowl on the counter. Nick watched her with smile.
“New hire?” I asked.
The old bookkeeper deflated a little. “Glenda’s daughter.”
“I never knew you were a grandfather.”
“Neither did I. Not until eight months ago when Glenda went missing.”
I shifted uncomfortably as he paused to clear the catch in his voice. I’d only met Nick’s daughter once and was stunned that she’d come from Nick’s DNA. Outgoing, talkative and bubbling over with energy, I could see why some folks wondered if there wasn’t a bit of the fairy folk in her bloodstream.
The old man ran a hand over his face and swallowed. “The authorities arrived on my doorstep with Erma, claiming I was the only living relative. I’ve been watching over her ever since.”
“What about the father?”
His shoulders slumped slightly. “No one knows.”
Pain flashed in his eyes and my own heart panged for him.
Erma skipped back, interrupting us. She sucked on her lollypop and held out another for her grandfather.
“Thank you, Peanut.” He tapped her nose with his bony finger. “Now go pack up your things.”
Erma giggled and trotted into the back room. Nick watched her leave.
“She’s cute,” I said.
“Heart of gold, that one,” he replied. “She fills the hole that—” He paused and turned to me with a serious gaze. “You’re not here, armed to the teeth, to talk about my family or early Germanic fables. What do you want?”