Monday, January 13, 2020

A Dirty Job Chapter 13

13 CRY HAVOC, AND LET SLIP THE GOGS OF WAR! Watching Madeline Alby die had shaken Charlie. It wasn't her death so much, it was the life he'd seen in her minutes before she passed. He thought: If you have to stare Death in the eye to be able to take the life out of your moments, then who better to do it than the man who shaves Death's face? â€Å"Cheese wasn't in the book,† Charlie said to Sophie as he walked her out of the shop in her new runner's stroller – which looked like someone had crossbred a carbon-fiber bicycle and a baby carriage and ended up with a vehicle you could use to take a day trip to Thunderdome – but it was strong, easy to push, and kept Sophie safely wrapped in an aluminum frame. Because of the cheese, he didn't make her wear her helmet. He wanted her to be able to look around, see the world around her, and be in it. It was watching Madeline Alby eat cheese with every ounce of her being, like it was the first and best time, that made him realize that he had never really tasted cheese, or crackers, or life. And he didn't want his daughter to live that way. He'd moved her into her own room the night before, the bedroom that Rachel had decorated for her with clouds painted on the ceiling and a happy balloon carrying a happy bunch of animal friends across the sky in its basket. He hadn't slept well, and had gotten up five times during the night to check on her, only to find her sleeping peacefully, but he could lose a little sleep if Sophie could go through life without his fears and limitations. He wanted her to experience all the glorious cheese of life. They strolled through North Beach. He stopped and bought a coffee for himself and some apple juice for Sophie. They shared a giant peanut-butter cookie, and a crowd of pigeons followed them down the sidewalk feasting on the river of crumbs that flowed from Sophie's stroller. The World Cup soccer championships was playing on televisions in bars and cafs, and people spilled out onto the sidewalks and out into the street, watching the game, cheering, jeering, hugging, swearing, and generally acting out waves of elation and dejection in the company of new companions who were visiting this Italian-American neighborhood from all around the world. Sophie cheered with the soccer fans and shrieked with joy because they were happy. When the crowd was disappointed – a kick blocked, a play foiled – Sophie was distressed, and would look to her daddy to fix it and make everyone happy again. And Daddy did, because a few seconds later, they were all cheering again. A tall German man ta ught Sophie to sing â€Å"Goooooooooooooooooooooal!† the way the announcer did, practicing with her until she got the full five-second sustain, and she was still practicing three blocks away, when Charlie had to shrug at confused onlookers as if to say, The kid's a soccer fan, what can you do? As naptime approached, Charlie looped through the neighborhood and headed up through Washington Square Park, where people were reading and lounging in the shade, a guy played guitar and sang Dylan songs for change, two white Rasta boys kicked a Hacky Sack around, and people were generally settling in for a pleasant and windless summer day. Charlie spied a black kitten sneaking out of a hedge near busy Columbus Avenue, stalking a wild McMuffin wrapper, it appeared, and he pointed it out to Sophie. â€Å"Look, Sophie, kitty.† Charlie felt bad about the demise of Bear, the cockroach. Maybe this afternoon he'd go to the pet shop and get a new friend for Sophie. Sophie screamed with glee and pointed to the little cat. â€Å"Can you say ‘kitty'?† Charlie said. Sophie pointed, and gave a drooly grin. â€Å"Would you like a kitty? Can you say ‘kitty,' Sophie?† Sophie pointed to the cat. â€Å"Kitty,† she said. The little cat dropped on the spot, dead. Fresh Music,† Minty Fresh answered the phone, his voice a bass sax sketch of cool jazz. â€Å"What the fuck is this? You didn't say anything about this? The book didn't say anything about this? What the fuck is going on?† â€Å"You'll be wanting the library or a church,† Minty said. â€Å"This is a record store, we don't answer general questions.† â€Å"This is Charlie Asher. What the fuck did you do? What have you done to my little girl?† Minty frowned and ran his hand over his scalp. He'd forgotten to shave this morning. He should have known something was going to go wrong. â€Å"Charlie, you can't call me. I told you that. I'm sorry if something has happened to your little girl, but I promise you that I – â€Å" â€Å"She pointed at a kitten and said ‘kitty' and it fell over, stone dead.† â€Å"Well, that is an unfortunate coincidence, Charlie, but kittens do have a pretty high mortality rate.† â€Å"Yeah, well, then she pointed to an old guy feeding the pigeons and said ‘kitty' and he dropped over dead, too.† Minty Fresh was glad that there was no one in the store right then to see the look on his face, because he was sure that the full impact of the willies dancing up and down his spine was blowing his appearance of unflappable chill. â€Å"That child has a speech disorder, Charlie. You should have her looked at.† â€Å"A speech disorder! A speech disorder! A cute lisp is a speech disorder. My daughter kills people with the word kitty. I had to keep my hand over her mouth all the way home. There's probably video somewhere. People thought I was one of those people who beats their kid in department stores.† â€Å"Don't be ridiculous, Charlie, people love the parents who beat their kids in department stores. It's the ones who just let their kids wreak havoc that everybody hates.† â€Å"Can we stay on point, Fresh, please? What do you know about this? What have you figured out in all your years as a Death Merchant?† Minty Fresh sat down on the stool behind the counter and stared into the eyes of the cardboard cutout of Cher, hoping to find answers there. But the bitch was holding out. â€Å"Charlie, I got nothin'. The kid was in the room when you saw me, and you saw what it did to you. Who knows what it did to her. I told you I thought you were in a different league than the rest of us, well, maybe the kid is something else, too. I've never heard of a Death Merchant who could just ‘kitty' someone to death, or cause anyone to die outside of normal, mortal means. Have you tried having her use other words? Like puppy?† â€Å"Yeah, I was going to do that, but I thought it might fuck up property values if everyone in my neighborhood suddenly fell over dead! No, I didn't try any other words. I don't even want to make her eat her green beans for fear she'll kitty me.† â€Å"I'm sure you have some kind of immunity.† â€Å"The Great Big Book says that we're not immune to death ourselves. I'd say the next time a kitten comes on the Discovery Channel my sister could be picking out caskets.† â€Å"I'm sorry, Charlie, I don't know what to tell you. I'll check out my library at home, but it sounds like the kid is a lot closer than we are to how all the legends portray Death. Things tend to balance, however, maybe there's some positive side to this, uh, disorder she has. In the meantime, maybe you should head over to Berkeley, see if you can find anything at the library there. It's a repository library – every book that's printed goes there.† â€Å"Haven't you tried that?† â€Å"Yes, but I wasn't looking for something specific like this. Look, just be careful going over. Don't take the BART tunnel.† â€Å"You think the sewer harpies are in the BART tunnels?† Charlie asked. â€Å"Sewer harpies? What's that?† â€Å"It's what I call them,† Charlie said. â€Å"Oh. I don't know. It's underground, and I've been on a train when the power goes out. I don't think you want to risk it. It feels like their territory. Speaking of that, from my end they've been conspicuously silent for the last six months or so. Not a peep.† â€Å"Yeah, the same here,† Charlie said. â€Å"But I suppose this phone call might change that.† â€Å"Yeah, it probably will. But with your daughter's condition, we might be in a whole new game, too. You watch your ass, Charlie Asher.† â€Å"You, too, Minty.† â€Å"Mr. Fresh.† â€Å"I meant Mr. Fresh.† â€Å"Good-bye, Charlie.† In his cabin on the great ship, Orcus picked his teeth with the splintered femur of an infant. Babd combed his black mane with her claws as the bullheaded death pondered what the Morrigan had seen from the drain on Columbus Avenue: Charlie and Sophie in the park. â€Å"It is time,† said Nemain. â€Å"Haven't we waited long enough?† She clacked her claws like castanets, flinging drops of venom on the walls and floor. â€Å"Would you be careful,† Macha said. â€Å"That shit stains. I just put new carpet in here.† Nemain stuck out a black tongue. â€Å"Washerwoman,† she said. â€Å"Whore,† Macha replied. â€Å"I don't like this,† Orcus said. â€Å"This child disturbs me.† â€Å"Nemain is right. Look how strong we've become,† Babd said, stroking the webbing that was growing back between the spikes on Orcus's shoulders – it looked as if he had fans mounted there, like some ornate samurai armor. â€Å"Let us go. The child's sacrifice might give you your full wings back.† â€Å"You think you can?† â€Å"We can, once it's dark,† said Macha. â€Å"We're stronger than we've been in a thousand years.† â€Å"Just one of you go, and go in stealth,† said Orcus. â€Å"Hers is a very old talent, even in this new body. If she masters it, our chance may have passed for another thousand years. Kill the child and bring its corpse to me. Don't let her see you until you strike.† â€Å"And her father? Kill him?† â€Å"You're not that strong. But if he wakes to find his child gone, then maybe his grief will destroy him.† â€Å"You don't have any idea what you're doing, do you?† said Nemain. â€Å"You stay here tonight,† said Orcus. â€Å"Dammit,† said Nemain, slinging steaming venom across the wall. â€Å"Oh, pardon me for questioning the exalted one. Hey, head of the bull, I wonder what comes out of the other end?† â€Å"Ha,† said Babd. â€Å"Ha. Good one.† â€Å"And what kind of brain do you find under the feathers?† said Orcus. â€Å"Oh! He got you, Nemain. Think about how bad he got you when I'm killing the child tonight.† â€Å"I was talking to you,† Orcus said. â€Å"Macha goes.† She came in through the roof, tearing up the bubble skylight over the fourth floor and dropping into the hallway. She moved as silent as a shadow down the hall to the stairs, then appeared to float down, her feet barely touching the steps. On the second floor she paused at the door and examined the locks. There were two strong dead bolts in addition to the one in the main plate. She looked up and saw a stained-glass transom, latched with a tiny brass latch. A claw slipped quickly through the gap, and with a twist of the wrist the brass lock popped off and clattered on the hardwood floor inside. She slithered up and through the transom and flattened herself against the floor inside, waiting like a pool of shadow. She could smell the child, hear the gentle snoring coming from across the apartment. She moved to the middle of the great room, and paused. New Meat was there, too, she could sense him, sleeping in the room across from the child. If he interfered she'd tear his head from his body and take it back to the ship as proof to Orcus that he should never underestimate her. She was tempted to take him anyway, but not until she had the child. A night-light in the child's room sent a soft pink band of light across the living room. Macha waved a taloned hand and the light went out. She trilled a small purr of self-satisfaction. There had been a time when she could extinguish a human life in the same way, and maybe that time was coming again. She slid into the child's room and paused. By the moonlight streaming through the window she could see that the child lay curled on her side in her crib, hugging a plush rabbit. But she couldn't see into the corners of the room – the shadows so dark and liquid that even her night-creature eyes couldn't penetrate them. She moved to the crib and leaned over it. The child was sleeping with her mouth wide open. Macha decided to drive a single claw through the roof of her mouth into her brain. It would be silent, leave plenty of blood for the father to find, and she could carry the child's corpse that way, hooked on her claw like a fish for the market. She reached down slowly and leaned into the crib so she'd have maximum leverage for the plunge. The moonlight sparkled off the three-inch talon and she drew back, and she was distracted for an instant by its pretty shininess when the jaws locked down on her arm. â€Å"Motherfu – † she screeched as she was whipped around and slammed against the wall. Another set of jaws clamped onto her ankle. She twisted herself into a half-dozen forms, which did nothing to free her, and she was tossed around like a rag doll into the dresser, the crib, the wall again. She raked at her attacker with her claws, found purchase, then felt as if her claws were being ripped out by the root, so she let go. She could see nothing, just felt wild, disorienting movement, then impact. She kicked hard at whatever had her ankle and it released her, but the attacker on her arm whipped her through the window and against the security bars outside. She heard glass hitting the street below, pushed with all her might, shape-shifting at a furious rate until she was through the bars and falling to the pavement. Ouch. Fuck!† came the shout from out on the street, a female voice. â€Å"Ouch.† Charlie flipped on the light to see Sophie sitting up in her crib holding her bunny and laughing. The window behind her had been shattered, and the glass was gone. Every piece of furniture except the crib had been overturned and there were basketball-sized holes in the plaster of two walls, the wooden lath behind it splintered as well. All over the floor there were black feathers, and what looked like blood, but even as Charlie watched, the feathers started to evaporate into smoke. â€Å"Goggy, Daddy,† Sophie said. â€Å"Goggy.† Then she giggled. Sophie slept the rest of the night in Daddy's bed while Daddy sat up in a chair next to her, watching the locked door, his sword-cane at his side. There was no window in Charlie's bedroom, so the door was the only way in or out. When Sophie awoke just after dawn, Charlie changed her, bathed her, and dressed her for the day. Then he called Jane to make her breakfast while he cleaned up the glass and plaster in Sophie's room and went downstairs to find some plywood to nail over the broken window. He hated that he couldn't call the police, couldn't call someone, but if this is what one phone call to another Death Merchant was going to cause, he couldn't risk it. And what would the police say anyway, about black feathers and blood that dissolved to smoke as you watched? â€Å"Someone threw a brick through Sophie's window last night,† he told Jane. â€Å"Wow, on the second floor, too. I thought you were crazy when you put security bars all the way up the building, but I guess not so much, now. You should replace the window with that glass with the wire running through it, just to be safe.† â€Å"I will,† Charlie said. Safe? He had no idea what had happened in Sophie's room, but the fact that she was safe amid all the destruction scared the hell out of him. He'd replace the window, but the kid was sleeping in his room from now until she was thirty and married to a huge guy with ninja skills. When Charlie returned from the basement with the sheet of plywood and hammer and nails, he found Jane sitting at the breakfast counter, smoking a cigarette. â€Å"Jane, I thought you quit.† â€Å"Yeah, I did. A month ago. Found this one in my purse.† â€Å"Why are you smoking in my house?† â€Å"I went into Sophie's room to get her bunny for her.† â€Å"Yeah? Where's Sophie? There might still be some glass on the floor in there, you didn't – â€Å" â€Å"Yeah, she's in there. And you're not funny, Asher. Your thing with the pets has gone completely overboard. I'm going to have to do three yoga classes, get a massage, and smoke a joint the size of a thermos bottle to take the adrenaline edge off. They scared me so bad I peed myself a little.† â€Å"What in the hell are you talking about, Jane?† â€Å"Funny,† she said, smirking. â€Å"That's really funny. I'm talking about the goggies, Daddy.† Charlie shrugged at his sister as if to say, Could you be any more incoherent or incomprehensible? – a gesture he had perfected over thirty-two years, then ran to Sophie's room and threw the door open. There, on either side of his darling daughter, were the two biggest, blackest dogs he had ever seen. Sophie was sitting, leaning against one, while hitting the other in the head with her stuffed bunny. Charlie took a step toward rescuing Sophie when one of the dogs leapt across the room and knocked Charlie to the floor, pinning him there. The other put itself between Charlie and the baby. â€Å"Sophie, Daddy's coming to get you, don't be afraid.† Charlie tried to squirm out from under the dog, but it just lowered its head and growled at him. It didn't budge. Charlie figured that it could take the better part of one of his legs and some of his torso off in one bite. The thing's head was bigger than the Bengal tigers' at the San Francisco zoo. â€Å"Jane, help me. Get this thing off of me.† The big dog looked up, keeping its paws on Charlie's shoulders. Jane swiveled on her bar stool and took a deep drag on her cigarette. â€Å"No, I don't think so, little brother. You're on your own after springing this on me.† â€Å"I didn't. I've never seen these things before. No one's ever seen these things before.† â€Å"You know, we dykes have very high dog tolerance, but that doesn't give you the right to do this. Well, I'll leave you to it,† Jane said, gathering up her purse and keys from the breakfast bar. â€Å"You enjoy your little canine pals. I'm going to go call in freaked out to work.† â€Å"Jane, wait.† But she was gone. He heard the front door slam. The big dog didn't seem to be interested in eating Charlie, just holding him there. Every time he tried to slither out from under it, the thing growled and pushed harder. â€Å"Down. Heel. Off.† Charlie tried commands he'd heard dog trainers shout on TV. â€Å"Fetch. Roll over. Get the fuck off me, you beast.† (He ad-libbed that last one.) The animal barked in Charlie's left ear, so loud that he lost hearing and there was just a ringing on that side. In his other ear he heard a little-girl giggle from across the room. â€Å"Sophie, honey, it's okay.† â€Å"Goggie, Daddy,† Sophie said. â€Å"Goggie.† She stumbled over and looked down at Charlie. The big dog licked her face, nearly knocking her over. (At eighteen months, Sophie moved like a small drunk most of the time.) â€Å"Goggie,† Sophie said again. She grabbed the giant hound by its ear and dragged it off Charlie. Or more accurately, it let her lead it by the ear off of him. Charlie leapt to his feet and started to reach for Sophie, but the other hound jumped in front of him and growled. The thing's head came up to Charlie's chest, even with its feet flat on the ground. He figured the hounds must weigh four or five hundred pounds apiece. They were easily twice the size of the biggest dog he'd seen before, a Newfoundland that he'd seen swimming in the Aquatic Park down by the Maritime museum. They had the short fur of a Doberman, the broad shoulders and chest of a rottweiler, but the wide square head and upturned ears of a Great Dane. They were so black that they appeared to actually absorb light, and Charlie had only ever seen one type of creature that did that: the ravens from the Underworld. It was clear that wherever these hounds had come from, it wasn't from around here. But it was also clear that they were not here to hurt Sophie. She wouldn't even make a good meal for animals this size, and they certainly could have snapped her in two long before now if they'd meant her harm. The damage in Sophie's room the night before might have been caused by the hounds, but they had not been the aggressors. Something had come here to hurt her, and they had protected her, even as they were now. Charlie didn't care why, he was just grateful that they were on his side. Where they'd been when he first rushed into the room after the window broke, he didn't know, but it appeared that now that they were here, they were not going to go away. â€Å"Okay, I'm not going to hurt her,† Charlie said. The dog relaxed and backed off a few steps. â€Å"She's going to need to go potty,† Charlie said, feeling a little stupid. He just noticed that they were both wearing wide silver collars, which, strangely, disturbed him more than their size. After the stretching it had gotten over the last year and a half, his Beta Male imagination fit easily around two giant hounds showing up in his little girl's bedroom, but the idea that someone had put collars on them was throwing him. There was a knock at the front door and Charlie backed out of the room. â€Å"Honey, Daddy will be right back.†

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