Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin, Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven

The Salty Wench was a tavern on the outskirts of town. The kind of place my parents would drive by and turn their noses up at. Even my Army father who’d been in dives down and dirty enough to make your hair curl would sniff disdainfully every time we passed. I couldn’t even pinpoint what it was that made my parents detest the place so much. There was an old-timey, wooden sign hanging from wrought-iron hooks off a weathered post. The sign itself read ‘The Salty Wench’ in curling, archaic letters, charred black against dark, aged and varnished wood.

Set back from the road was the tavern itself and the gravel parking lot, surrounded by towering evergreens. It looked as though it was plucked from every RPG starting location, as though if I walked inside someone would have a quest for me. Single-story, wooden, and with a rustic charm, the Yorkshire, lead-lined windows shone with a warm yellow light into the deep darkness. It was inviting, delightful, and beautiful.

Yet, disgust pervaded every iota of my being, and I wanted nothing more than to turn the car around and leave. Instead, I grit my teeth and parked in the lot next to Odella’s sleek, black sport’s car.

Run! Flee! Primal Brain howled.

Rational Brain raised an internal eyebrow. You’re making a scene, you know.

It’s gross! And dangerous! We must leave.

There won’t be any reasoning with her. Rational Brain sighed.

I wasn’t sure how long I sat there, eyes fixed on the dashboard display, while gripping the wheel as though I’d be swept out to a sea of panic if I let go.

“There’s a charm on the building,” Odella said.

I twitched, and tried to rip my fingernails off in my haste to clench my hands into fists. I turned to face her, my eyes wide with shock and pain. She’d opened the door without me noticing, and bent over a little at the waist to meet my gaze.

Odella smiled a small, pleased smile, and her nostrils flared wide. Her ample chest expanded with a deep breath, and the material of the shirt strained to keep all of her contained. Her breasts were intimidating.

“Do you all have charms and spells to keep humans from noticing you guys?” I asked. I broke eye contact with The Intimidators, and gave the rest of her a once-over, but didn’t note anything like what Slies carried. Of course, she could have been keeping it concealed.

“Just those of us who can’t pass for human, or places where we’ll be gathering in large groups. The only reason you were able to drive onto the property was a combination of following me here, and the fact they can’t make the charm too strong, or people will drive off the road to avoid the lot.” She paused, and tilted her head, trying to catch my gaze.

I knew better now, and shifted my eyes to her chin. When her grin widened, it revealed her unnaturally sharp canines gleaming dully in the yellow-amber glow from the parking lot light. I swallowed against the hard lump lodged in my throat.

“Don’t worry, dear. You’re not on the menu tonight.”

Not precisely reassuring, Rational Brain mumbled, as she stepped back so I could get out of the car. I tried to move out of the car’s doorway to close it, but my feet remained firmly rooted in place.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, mischief dancing through her eyes like the flame of a candle in a stormy breeze. Then she leaned in and kissed me, full on the mouth.

My eyes widened again and I froze, too afraid to react let alone move, like a rabbit caught in the jaws of a wolf. Her lips were soft, and the kiss was gentle as a spring rain, but the hunger she held in check ran through the center of her being like a piano wire on the verge of snapping. Then I realized her lips were cold—the same temperature as the chilly night air.

I shuddered, and broke away from the kiss, and went to wipe my mouth on the back of my jacket sleeve. She reached up, fast as a snake striking, and grabbed my wrist. Her grip was strong as steel bent around my arm, like a bracelet that could crush my bones with just the slightest tightening of her slender fingers.

She leaned back in, nuzzling along my cheek and jaw until her mouth was near my ear. Her breath tickled the fine hairs on my skin as she spoke. “Now, now. If you do that, I’ll have to kiss you again, and this time I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to hold back,” she said, her voice low. “Our DNA allows temporary access, sort of like a stamp to get into a club. It marks you as belonging to one of us.”

“Us?” I asked, the word spoken so soft I wasn’t even sure I’d said it out loud.

“Supernaturals.”

Then my brain slammed into gear. “Belonging to?” This time the words were louder, and an edge of hysteria crept in, but I remained still.

“Just temporarily. We’d have to do something more…invasive for it to be permanent,” she reassured me cheerfully, leaned back, and patted my hand.

I shuddered, and didn’t care to think further on that particular statement.

“Is it okay that I’m here? They don’t seem to want humans around,” I hedged queasily. Rational Brain thumbed through all the scenes of every horror and fantasy movies we’d ever seen, as well as all the books we’d read, and what a supernatural being could do to a human…Well, things weren’t looking all that great for my chances of survival.

“It’ll be fine,” she said, and waved away my concern. Despite her words, her shoulders were tense.

My stomach clenched. “I guess.”

Or not, Primal Brain Fumed.

So glad you could rejoin the conversation, Rational Brain teased.

Primal Brain sent a particularly scathing glance toward Rational Brain. We’re not going to talk about that.

Rational Brain harrumphed.

Everyone else’s cars were parked, and they were probably already inside. I was delaying the inevitable. I was teetering on a mental cliff, ready to fall down into a dark chasm, not knowing if I’d die once I hit rock bottom. One thing was for sure, though: nothing would be the same.

You’re in the dark, in front of a bar full of supernatural beings, and you were just kissed by a vampire. This is it. Walk away now, before you get in so deep the alligators are eating your eyeballs, Rational Brain said.

Uh, gross. Primal Brain scoffed. Also, this is the coolest thing since, well, ever that’s happened to us.

And dangerous, Rational Brain reasoned. Plus, weren’t you just freaking out?

That was the spell. Primal Brain sniffed. We have an agreement, anyway. We can’t just back out now: think about your brother.

You don’t care as much about him as you’re letting on. You just want to go on some cockamamie adventure.

Enough! I cut in on the bickering.

“Let’s go,” I said, looking down into the proverbial chasm and giving it the finger before taking the plunge.

“Fantastic!” Odella gushed, and linked her arm in mine. She practically dragged me away, and I did my best to close the car door and set the alarm before I was out of range.

She pulled me along to the door and I tried not to stumble through the gravel. Though the entrance toward the front door was lit, the short hallways was not. It held deep shadows like a cup, and only the small window in the door cast a dim light no mere mortal could see by.

In those shadows, a small lump moved.

“Eh, Odella? Whatcha got?” Whatever-it-was snorted. “Somefink tasty?”

“Keep your grubby fingers to yourself, Krot,” she said amiably, “this one’s mine.”

“That so?” Krot queried, and a small, hairy face moved into the light, its up-turned, pig-like nose giving a snort of derision. The small, beady black eyes shone with mischief, and something that edged too close to darker things played in his feral smile, displaying blunt, yellowed teeth. He took a couple of cursory sniffs, leaning further into the light. I couldn’t tell if he wore animal skins, or if he was just that hairy.

“I smell ya, a-sure. Mayhaps she wants my grubby fingers, eh?” He brought the aforementioned digits into the light and gave me a finger-wiggle wave. “Think she’s a squawker?” He cackled.

“Try and find out, and you’ll lose more than your fingers,” I hissed, my ire rising along with the scaredy-cat hairs on the back of my neck.

Everyone you meet is a potential enemy. Show them no fear. Even if you’re quaking and shaking from it, give them nothing to use against you. Fear is the small death, the falling of the little rocks that lead to an avalanche that will crush the life from you. Now go, and refuse to give in to your terror.

My father’s words echoed through my mind. It was a speech he’d given to me at my seventh birthday party, when we’d all been given foam dart guns and sent out into the woods to wage elementary-school war on each other. I’d always been afraid of the woods, and of being shot in the eye with a dart. Both stemmed from my brother; the former because he told me there was a man in the woods who’d eat my fingers and toes if I went in, and the latter because he’d once shot me in the eye with a dart.

In a fit of parental, ‘get the fuck over it’, my father had arranged this little ‘game’ to force me to confront my fears. It didn’t work. I still hated the woods and those damn toy guns, but his words were great for slapping some steel in my yellow spine, and at least faking it till I wasn’t at risk of being eaten.

Krot’s cackle grew to an all-out belly laugh that had him doubled-over.

Well, if you can’t make them fear you, making them laugh seems to be a legitimate alternative, Rational Brain observed.

I imagine it’s something like a kitten hissing at a dragon. So absurd it has to be funny, Primal Brain agreed.

“Go on, then,” Krot said, sinking back into the shadows as through the blackness was a pool, and had substance. “But I’d keep this’n close. Not everyone’s as nice as me.”

“Of course, Krot. You’re the soul of benevolence,” Odella said, and unhooked our arms. She took my hand in hers and tugged me along.

Krot laughed again, but said nothing in return.

Odella opened the door, and a blast of warmth, laughter, and the smell of alcohol and too many bodies shoved into a small space assaulted my senses. Before I could get my proverbial feet beneath me, Odella had pulled me in, and the door shut with the smallest of thuds behind us.

The issue, I found, was that my eyes didn’t know where to look first, my nose couldn’t decide what to smell, and my ears what to listen to. It was a typical bar and grill, but not. Like someone had taken a medieval tavern, a modern pub, and a mythological encyclopedia, and thrown them all into a blender.

The area was a large, nearly open-spaced rectangle, interspaced with large, load-bearing pillars of smooth, grey stone. The crossbeams were age-worn, and wrapped with decaying, frayed rope. The chandeliers hanging from the ceiling in no clear pattern were a clash of ye olde times and contemporary. They were wrought iron, with three bars connected together at the top with what looked like an upside-down call bell, hanging from a chain. The bars then went down and ended in hooks, which hooked through a metal circle, where five, electric pillar candles ‘burned’ atop flat wrought iron discs. They cast a typical, candle-like glow on the area, but cut down on the potential fire hazard.

Televisions were shoved into various spaces, displaying everything from crime-drama to sports. All along the wall were deep mahogany bar tables and stools, while everywhere else had matching regular tables with chairs or benches, depending on the size.

To the left was a gigantic stone fireplace, where some kind of two-foot, naked fire woman danced along the twenty or so logs. Her hair was long and thick, and swirling around her body as she spun, pirouetted, and swayed her curvy hips to some kind of music only she could hear. Her skin and hair were in varying shades of orange, yellow, red, and pink—one minute like a brilliant sunset, and the next like a blazing wildfire. She threw her hair back and lifted her ample chest up as she jumped, and then slid back down to the logs on a fiery stripper pole she conjured from nowhere. Then she used the fire like some kind of stage curtain to tease and titillate. When she saw me staring, she winked her solid red eyes at me, like someone had removed all the facets from a couple of rubies and polished them smooth. I blinked, long and slow.

She was cheered on by a couple of leering Satyrs, dressed to the nines in button-down dress shirts rolled up to their elbows, suit vests, and ties. One had varying shades of gray from dove to slate, and it went well with his raven fur and hooves, small, white, curling horns, and the rosy-pale skin of his face, fingers, and pointed ears peeking through his thick, slicked-back hair. The other had a white shirt, and a dark blue tie and vest. His fur and hair were cinnamon, and he’d left his hair to curl around his face. His skin pleasantly tanned, and his hooves and horns were more of a coffee with heavy cream color. Every few seconds they’d try to snatch the dancing fire girl, and she’d blip out, like when you blow on a candle and it seemingly sputters in and out of existence. Then she’d reappear in another spot, with her laughing silently, as though mute, and the Satyrs roaring with glee and clapping each other on the back. Their snazzy attire was at odds with the lower half of their bodies, where thick, curling hair did little to conceal just how happy they were to watch the fire-woman.

That sight was one of many vying for my attention, but Odella decided I’d had enough time to adjust to my surroundings, and pulled me along toward the bar that was taking up almost the entire back wall. There were a few double-takes as I went by, and silence followed behind us like the wake of a boat. I kept my eyes on the back of Odella’s head, not willing to chance a look around.

I wasn’t normally one to tiptoe around, afraid of offending someone. I’m not saying I go out of my way to be a bitch, but for the most part people could take their hurt feelings and go nurse them in a corner. Here, though, it was a different story. Maybe looking someone in the eye would mean a fight to the death, or a certain hand gesture might mean I’m down for an orgy later. I just didn’t know, so I erred on the side of caution.

Then we reached the bar, and my eyes widened when I caught sight of the bartender.

He was tall, easily six and a half feet, with warm eyes that were a caramel color. When he smiled, his fangs were a shocking white against his skin the color of a dark espresso without the crema. A dark, charcoal mane—literally, a mane—was brushed back from his face, which was unwrinkled, but spoke of an age that stretched into the thousands of years. The mane disappeared into his t-shirt, which was, to my surprise, the color of boysenberries. His nose was turned down, cat-like, with the darker, single line versus a human’s double philtral ridges leading down and splitting his upper lips. He didn’t have any whiskers, that I could see, but everything from the neck down was that of a well-muscled lion-man. Human hands, with slightly knobbier knuckles ended in sharpened, non-retractable, thick claws. The paler, tawny fur over his arms shone, glossy in the low light, and he had tufts of fur at his elbows. Amber eyes, with round, widened pupils gazed back at me through the dark, and rounded, furry ears twitched in my direction.

The silence in the bar was thunderous, and I dared not look away from his gaze, or even draw a breath.

Then he spoke; “A murderer is condemned to death. He has to choose between three rooms. The first is full of raging fires, the second is full of assassins with loaded guns, and the third is full of lions that haven’t eaten in three years. Which room is safest for him?” His voice was a low rumble, like thunder grumbling in the distance.

“Are we talking about regular lions, or supernatural ones?” I asked. I knew the answer, but my usual riddle rulebook was thrown out the window in the presence of beings that shouldn’t exist. I’d gotten a little too obsessed with a certain trilogy in middle school, and decided to memorize an obscene number of riddles in case I came across any evil creatures lurking in caves, carrying all-powerful rings. Also, I apparently hated the idea of being popular, and decided instead that annoying my classmates with riddles they couldn’t answer was the best way to get friends.

He smiled again, though this time it was less feral, fangs, and eat your heart, and more amusement. “Normal.”

“Then it’s the lions. Lions—normal lions—who haven’t eaten in three years are dead.”

“Excellent,” he said, and meant it. “So glad I don’t have to eat you. Welcome to The Salty Wench.”

“Th-thanks,” I stuttered, the breath knocked from me by his statement.

The activity in the bar resumed, as my place amongst them was validated. I’d been seconds away from being consumed, and didn’t know it. Sure, I’d reckoned it as a possibility, but to have it boldly stated as fact…Primal Brain wanted to shriek internally again, but Rational Brain had something else in mind.

I yanked my hand out of Odella’s grasp, and glared at her, accusing. “You knew I might be eaten if I answered incorrectly?”

“Well, yes, but I had the utmost confidence in you,” she said cheerfully, and beamed like a proud parent.

I could only splutter in indignation, and Lion-Man chuckled.

“Odella was only following the rules. No warnings to the Ords, and any cheating ends in automatic consumption. It keeps the level of unworthy Ords at a minimum, ensuring this remains a safe haven for Supernaturals,” he said, reaching under the bar for a wine glass.

I ground my teeth at his use of the slang term for humans, but kept my opinion to myself. He could still eat me at his discretion, I was sure.

With the glass in hand, he turned and drew something from a metal canister, with some kind of writing unknown to me scrawled across the side. When he faced us again, I swallowed hard against the knot in my throat.

“Fresh today, Odella, my sweet,” he said, and handed her the glass that was half-full of a thick, red liquid that looked suspiciously like blood.

She giggled, and took the glass from him. He looked over at me. “And for you?”

“Uh, just some cranberry juice. I have to drive later.” I paused as he poured the drink. “Didn’t the Sphinx in Oedipus Rex kill herself when Oedipus answered her riddle correctly?” I asked.

He handed the glass over to me, and nodded. “Yes, but that kind of ‘falling on your sword’ honor went out of style when humans started murdering us every chance they got. Enjoy your drink,” he said, not a little huffy, and moved on to an ugly, oversized humanoid creature with greyish-green skin, and small, black, unintelligent eyes, waving him down at the other end of the bar.

“You’re so fantastic at making new friends,” Odella quipped, as she started to move through the crowd toward the back-right corner, not far from a hallway with a sign stating it was where I could find the restrooms and a payphone, of all things. “Suggesting the man should have killed himself when you got the riddle correct, instead of introducing yourself and asking his name. It’s a wonder we don’t bring more humans around,” she finished bluntly.

My face flamed with embarrassment, and I stole a quick glance over to the Sphinx. He caught my eye, and I gave him my best apologetic grimace, and mouthed ‘Sorry’. He shrugged.

I turned back to follow Odella, and grumbled my irritation at myself, while getting fleeting glances of my co-workers as the crowd shifted away from us.

I love it when you give me an awkward, shameful moment as fodder to replay in your mind, over and over again. You’re too kind, Rational Brain said, and bowed.

Fuck you, I spat back, as the first of many replays of the moment ran through my mind like a movie projector I couldn’t turn off, and shame washed through me like someone flushing crap down a toilet.

Don’t forget, we still have a job to do, Rational Brain said, and played the moment again.

I sighed, and caught sight of a particularly pissed off Celinwel.

Maybe I should have just let the Sphinx eat me.

 

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Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin, Chapter Six

Chapter Six

Aside from my brother, I’d never really had roommates except in college. The only reason it worked with him and me, was because we didn’t have a choice. We were two pet rats thrown in a cage that never got along, and no amount of biting, clawing, or squeaking our dislike would change the rat owners’ decision to house us together. My mother never really wanted to deal with our bickering, and my dad’s solution was to tell us; “Get along, or get beat.”

College had been a bit of a challenge for me, in the way it was challenging for a betta to tolerate another of its kind in its tank. I’d thought it was my chance to expand my horizons, meet new people, learn some spiffy new stuff, and potentially make friends far removed from my awkward high school years. Maybe it was me finally being away from home that made my usually pessimistic self so hopeful, but my four years at a state college socked the optimism from me faster than a heavyweight fighter versus a lightweight. It also just made me hate people more.

I was drained. I’d reached the end of my, ‘Adrenaline is a totally appropriate replacement for sleep!’ tether. With rebellious eyes drooping of their own accord, I faced Knight.

“No,” he said, and pointed a finger at me, eyeing me up and down. “I’m not driving you home, and if you get pulled over for erratic driving you better not mention my name.” A flicker of something passed through his expression, too quick for my sleep-addled brain to track.

He scoffed and shook his head, either from exasperation, or trying to hide whatever I’d missed. “Get out of here. I need to call the owner to let him know he can open the store back up. You and the green crew need to skedaddle before then.”

I looked toward the back door. The other Goblins were already piling into the back of the van, leaving just Slies, Knight, and me in the kitchen. I turned weary eyes down to my new hip attachment.

“How does this work? You can’t walk out like that. Do you have some kind of disguise?” I asked, knowing I’d lost any semblance of tact the minute the words tumbled from my mouth like a waterfall of word vomit.

“Something wrong with the way I look?” Slies asked, belligerently.

“Uh, no. I just mean it isn’t very covert to walk around with a green man the size of a toddler.”

“Who you callin’ a toddler?”

The situation had the vibe of a trap with no outcome except the loss of a hand, or something equally vital. So I just stared at him a moment, and then turned on my heel and walked away.

“Hey!” Slies hurried up with me, his pack slung over his shoulder. “Jeez,” he said, under his breath, “can’t you take a joke?”

“I’m too tired for yours, or anyone else’s, shit at this point. And I still have to work tonight.” I groaned. My toenails still throbbed from being on my feet all night, and weariness weighed on my shoulders like concrete dragging me down into the icy depths of exhaustion.

“No worries. You won’t even notice me around.”

Doubtful, Rational Brain said, dryly.

“To answer your question, we have, ‘look the other way’ charms crafted by a local Witch. As long as we’re not actively trying to draw attention to ourselves, people can’t see us.”

He’d caught up to me at that point, right as I stepped out into the sunlight. The van had driven off, taking all the other Goblins, dead and alive, back to wherever it was the Goblins lived. I looked down at the talisman he held out.

It was a disc that fit in the center of his palm, about two inches across. It was made from dark, reddish-brown cherry wood, which I knew because my father went through a weird phase post-military, where he wanted to reconnect with his inner man and work with his hands. Or something equally teenage eye-roll worthy. It was varnished with something to make the wood darker, and for some reason my bones were aching from more than sleep just from being in its presence. There was a symbol etched into wood, a triskele, in fact. A swirly Celtic symbol I recognized from one of my more eccentric college roommate’s books. It was like three octopus arms, curling out from a central point in the same direction, sans the suckers. When I tried to concentrate on it harder, my eyes slid away, like water across a puddle of oil. It had a small hole through the ‘top’ and sides, like a long tunnel through the wood, in which a length of worn, brown leather cord was threaded through and looped around Slie’s neck.

There was something disconcerting about the sensation, and it left me mildly uncomfortable. Whatever powered the charm didn’t seem to care for me, almost like a person rolling a piece of hard candy around in their mouth, just to spit it out when the flavor didn’t suit their taste.

“Witch, you say?” I asked, curious despite the disagreeable impression from the talisman.

“Yeah, she’s as old as the woods around the town, and the Boss has been doin’ business with her for almost as long as that.”

Brings to mind some interesting questions about the lifespan of supernaturals, Rational Brain noted.

Sleep, Primal Brain mumbled, and I stumbled on one of the small bits of gravel. Although, I could trip on the air itself some days, so I couldn’t blame my worn state. I managed to make it to my car, and Slies hopped in on the passenger side after it unlocked with an ungodly cheerful chirp.

As I slid in on the driver’s side, Slies asked, “You okay to drive?”

“I’m fine,” I groused, as I tried at least three times, unsuccessfully, to get the key in the ignition. On the fourth, with Slies’ eyebrows climbing ever higher with each failure, I managed to get it in. “See? No problem,” I said, and yawned so big and long, a tear was one stray water molecule away from rolling down my cheek.

“I’m so reassured,” he muttered.

I puttered out of the lot, and headed back to my apartment. Slies only had to shriek once, or twice, to alert me that I may have been driving off the road. We made it to my apartment without any accidents, and I trudged bleary-eyed up to my door. I unlocked it, opened it, and shambled to my room. The one thing I made sure to do was close and lock the bedroom door. I was too tired to care about what else he might do in the apartment. I flopped onto my bed and fell asleep.

****

An insistent beeping invaded the black, dreamless void of my mind, and I groaned and reached blindly for my phone. It was time to wake up, oh joy. I flipped open the cover on my phone, and poked the screen until the beeping stopped, never taking my face from the pillow.

“Time for work, eh?”

Adrenaline slammed through my system like a locomotive through a car on its tracks, and I scrambled in my covers, an unholy shriek torn from me like yanking out someone’s spleen. My feet tangled in the beige sheets, and I fell over the side of my bed. My head bounced off the carpeted floor, and stars skated across my vision like water striders across a lake.

When the little lights cleared, the tips of two large, green ears peeked over the edge of the bed, followed by the rest of Slies’ face.

“What the fuck are you doing in my bed?” I screeched.

Slies’ ears curled at the loud noise, and he scowled. “Jeez, you’re loud.”

I crabwalked backward a few feet from the bed, and it was then I saw enough of him on the bed to see he wore a pair of loose, blue cotton pajama pants pulled tight at the waist with a drawstring. He was shirtless, and a patch of curly black hair was spread across his chest, over his sternum, and then in a thin line down his midline all the way to his pants.

“And why are you half naked?” I was louder this time, and Slies actually covered his ears.

“I don’t like sleeping with a shirt on, and I’m in your bed because I’m not sleeping on that pathetic excuse for a futon you have out there. You might as well sit right on the springs, the thing is so thin.” He paused, removed his hands from his ears, and if possible his scowl deepened. “Not that your bed is much better. What the hell are you made of, that you can sleep on this rock?”

“Apparently sterner stuff than Goblins who shouldn’t be in my bed any way,” I growled back at him.

He shrugged, and took a gander around my room. “Also, you need to fire your interior decorator.”

The room was Spartan, with only a full-sized bed and boxspring set directly on the floor. Saved on me having to vacuum beneath it, if it had one of those simple frames. The sheets were a washed out, greyish-brown the color of three day old soggy oatmeal. The thinning comforter had been washed near to colorless, though it had started life as some kind of trendy-named beige. I had a plastic tote on the floor containing all my unmentionables, as my mother calls them, and a hamper that was occasionally home to the dirty clothes littering the floor. I had a standing lamp that I used for reading at night when the overhead light was too bright, especially given that reading meant changing positions and no one liked trying to block an overhead light with a book.

The closet had a few scattered plastic hangers, with some shirts, a couple jeans, and now my work clothes. When my mother had discovered wire hangers in the closet, she hadn’t beaten me with them, but she had a case of the vapors, to be sure.

“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” I said, and stood, doing that awkward lifting of your legs and feet when trying to get something untangled from your ankles. I headed for the bathroom, and Slies scooted from the bed.

My hackles rose and I turned a deadly gaze toward him, my eyes a little wide, daring him to complete his path toward the bathroom door. It was one of those bathrooms that had two doors: one to the bedroom, and one to the main area of the apartment. Slies’ eyebrows rose, and he held his hands up in defense as he scooted around the end of the bed, heading toward the living room.

That’s right, you little slug, Primal Brain rumbled, still somewhat amped up on shock and adrenaline.

I don’t think we’re his type, Rational Brain replied dryly.

The bathroom matched the rest of the apartment: small and unremarkable. The shower curtain was that plastic that eventually cracked, and the lightest of airflow would send it sticking to an unsuspecting body part, eliciting an unholy shriek. It was maroon—the color that was on sale—and had matching plastic rings to hold it up. Though a few were blue, to replace rings that had broken, and there were none of the same color to replace them when I bought new ones.

The bathtub itself was the real coup de grâce. It was an older apartment building, before they made the plastic, one-piece shower surrounds. Mine was tile, old and crumbly, and the heavy, ceramic soap holder had fallen out of the wall and onto my foot. The bruise had been nasty, and the gruff, old super with a bent back, wrinkled skin like a hound dog, and salt and pepper hair was unsympathetic. It revealed a real moisture issue eating away at the wall behind the tile, but he’d just patched it up, and told me not to use it. The rest of the tub was the same ceramic, with rust-like stains in the corners and running like a reddish-brown river from the faucet, to the overflow faceplate, and on down to the drain.

The sink was white, vanity top, and sitting over golden pecan engineered hardwood. It was bubbled and warped from too much water left on it, and not being cleaned up, from before I was ever in the apartment. There was no mirror over the medicine cabinet, busted by some druggie tenant prior to me, and never replaced.

The apartment had never been ideal, but it was cheap, and within my means.

I took a shower at land-speed record, and blow dried my hair out. I peeked into the bedroom to make sure Slies wasn’t there, and I went in and got dressed even faster. I walked out into the living room to see Slies dressed, and eating something from a bowl while sitting on the aforementioned rock-hard futon. I assumed it was my cereal, since there really wasn’t much else here to eat.

“No wonder you’re single. You’re the worst housekeeper I’ve ever seen, and your cereal selection sucks,” he said around a mouthful of bran. “Bring some food home with you.”

“No wonder you’re single. You haven’t got a tactful bone in your body, or any manners to speak of,” I shot back, gathering my things for work, and putting on my shoes.

Slies smiled, his sharp teeth revealing bits of bran stuck to them. “I’m a highly eligible bachelor, but I don’t have time to get into the intricacies of Goblin courtship. You ready for this?”

The smallest, teeniest worms of doubt squirmed in my gut. “I’m not really sure what you guys want me to do. Celinwel doesn’t like me, and how am I supposed to know she’s some kind of supernatural drug dealer? It’s not something that comes up in casual conversation at work.”

Slies shrugged. “Guess you better get good at making friends, then, Toots.”

I took the high road and ignored the nickname. Slies hopped up from the futon, and walked over to the sink. He rinsed the bowl out and it thudded in the bottom of the sink.

“I’m taking a shower, then I’ll be out to do some sneakin’. I don’t know if I’ll be home when you get here, but I shouldn’t be too long gone.”

“Later then,” I said, and watched him go into the bathroom.

Should we tell him about the soap dish? Rational Brain wondered.

Nah, Primal Brain responded.

It was only scant seconds after the shower head turned on that a muffled thud sounded from the bathroom, followed by a howl of pain.

The super wouldn’t be happy, but I couldn’t help but cackle as I walked out the door.

****

I’ll admit I was reluctant to be the Goblins’ inept detective, or rather bait to bring out the criminal when I ‘got too close to the truth’. If that ever happened.

Julia and the other humans were already out the back door, and my crew already inside, by the time I arrived. When Julia and I reached each other, just for that brief hand-over report, she grimaced.

“I know it would have been nice to have a slow night, because of Stribs, but it’s turning out to be an average, crazy Thursday. Try to keep them motivated.” She paused. “Somehow. Good luck!” Then she was gone faster than I could say lickety split.

Not that you’d say that anyway. What is this, the 1800s? Rational Brain said scornfully.

In reality, I was stalling. I didn’t want to deal with any of this: Stribs’ death, Celinwel’s animosity, the Goblins, Knight… The list went on. I’d also been flying from one thing to the next without a chance to really process any of it. Sharp claws of panic were making their way up from my gut toward my throat, but I swallowed them down and continued on to the back door. This time they’d left the smallest part of a wedge door stopper in the door for me, so I wouldn’t have to knock, and it allowed just the barest of finger holds to grab the edge of the door. With a casual glance it would appear closed, but it also meant Odella wouldn’t have to wait for me.

I went in, picked up the door stopper and set it on a shelf near the back door, and then headed to the crew room. I could hear the kitchen bustling, though there wasn’t any chatter going on. I hung up my jacket, put my purse on the shelf, and grabbed a headset from the bin over the registers at the first window.

I nodded at Lia as I passed the sink area, and she nodded back, but didn’t offer a greeting. Her expression was a mixture, as though her mind was on a loop of thoughts, and none of them very appealing.

I walked through the grill area, and noted a new face. She turned enough so I could see a nametag that read ‘Thea’, and then our eyes met. Hers were the bright orange of Halloween pumpkins, with vertical slits like a cat, set in a triangular face with prominent cheekbones. She had a happy, somewhat offbeat look, and smiled at my stare.

“Hello!” She beamed. She was on the heavier side, and moved with a bit of a spring in her step. Hair that was in a ponytail but would touch just beyond her shoulders if left down, was straight, thick, and the color of cinnamon streaked with honey.

Everyone within my view tensed at her voice, and it raised some internal eyebrows. It was more than her replacing Stribs. That level of uneasiness went much deeper than that.

“Holly!” Odella called, and I didn’t have any time to think on it further.

The night went by in a blur, punctuated by a few snapshots of interactions.

Bea stopped me on her way to the crew room for her ten minute break and asked, in almost a whine, “I wasn’t too mean to him, right? I just don’t want him to have died thinking I hated him.”

I didn’t want to break it to her that I doubted Stribs’ last thoughts were of her, but I also didn’t want to point out that Stribs wasn’t the nicest character.

“No, I don’t think you were too mean, Bea,” I reassured her. Her shoulder slumped in relief, and she whispered a quiet ‘thank you’ as she loped off.

Odella was somewhat aloof, but I wasn’t shocked, being that—according to all the literature I’d ever read—she was already dead herself. I wouldn’t say she sent out vibes of relief, but she wasn’t exactly broken up about it, either.

Anne was her usual, bouncy self, though she did tone it down an iota around Celinwel. It was our first night without the cloud of Stribs’ negativity hanging over us all, and Anne, being the little neurotic ball of sunshine she was, was going to shine no matter what.

Leo was off for the night, so I didn’t get to see his reaction, but he was a zombie, after all. And Nathan stayed well away.

The real puzzle was Celinwel herself. She’d kept her head down, making food, and her mouth shut, which was odd for her. And instead of being somber, she was more puzzled and angry, than anything else.

In an effort to do what Knight and Gozuk asked, I’d walked up to her on my own ten minute break, and offered my condolences.

She scowled at me. “Like you know anything about it,” she’s said, her voice like an angry buzz of bees. It was also an odd response. Then she glanced over my shoulder, and caught sight of something. Her scowl lessened a hair, though her lips pressed out in a thin line. “Thank you,” she ground out between clenched teeth.

I turned to see what was behind me, and Odella wasn’t too far away, watching our interaction like a mother cat keeping watch on her kitten interacting with a bird of prey. Celinwel didn’t have Stribs with back up her behavior, or her, his, anymore. I faced Celinwel again and nodded. “No problem.”

At the end of the night, as everyone was getting ready to leave, Odella stopped us all and made a surprising suggestion.

“I know I wouldn’t be able to stay for more than twenty minutes or so, but how about we head to The Salty Wench for a drink, on Stribs’ behalf,” she said.

There was a general murmur from all those assembled by the crew area, and it was uneasy and leaning toward ‘no’ before Anne piped up with, “That sounds perfect. Stribs loved that place.”

I looked to Celinwel, who wasn’t happy, but she nodded. The others agreed, except Lia, who begged off. I assumed it had to do with her odd schedule issue, though I assumed Odella’s issue would be the same, her being a vampire.

“I’ll meet you outside and lead you there,” Odella said to me, as everyone headed out.

In all reality, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed. But with Knight and Gozuk hovering over me, as well as Slies probably already in my bed, I didn’t have much choice.

“Sure thing.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin, Chapter Five

Chapter Five

Four of the Goblins, Zeec, and the others whose names I’d learned were Kreg, Brikt, and Drubleg, carried off the cardboard box containing Strib’s body like grimacing pallbearers. The smell itself wasn’t awful; it was knowing what the smell was attached to that got to you. Apparently, even the monsters had their limits. The bottom of the box was soaked through with grease and fluids oozing from his cooked flesh, so a sense of urgency was in the air as they went about their task, before his body broke through and fell out the bottom.

Knight had run outside for a minute to back the van right up to the doorway, minimizing the chance they’d be seen. He scowled while going about the task, which the Goblins viewed as some strange form of servitude to them, rather than him covering his ass to make sure they weren’t seen. There was a gleam in their eyes and mad cackling and heckling as they ordered him about while directing the van’s position.

As I watched their cautious yet hasty progress, Knight came over to where I stood by the vats. His eyes were an angry storm ready to rain all over my already pathetic parade, his shoulders were tight and bunched upward, and his hands were shoved into his pockets.

He stopped in front of me, blocking my view of what was going on. “You need to negotiate with them,” he said, under his breath, as though he didn’t want them to hear.

I didn’t think anyone would be able to hear us if we spoke normally. Even with most everything off, it was still loud in that way machinery tended to be; slowly dulling to a low roar in the background after you heard it for long enough. If your brain tried to always hear every little thing around it, you’d go insane, so it put certain things on the back burner.

I hadn’t expected him to voluntarily speak with me, let alone offer me advice. I figured he was simply seeking the only other one of his kind in the room. Kind of the way you gravitate to those seemingly most like you in an unfamiliar setting.

I gave him a long blink, and then raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“Are you deaf as well as dumb?” he asked, and then he shook his head. “You need to be quicker on your feet and in your mind if you want to survive in their world.” He jerked his head backward and to his left to indicate the only two Goblins still in sight, Slies and Gozuk. I took a quick peek around Knight, and saw the two of them conversing, much the same as we were.

“What exactly do you mean, negotiate?”

If he rolled his eyes any harder he’d be bowling with them. “Everyone knows Goblins consider everything negotiable.”

“Well, I’m not everyone.”

“Ain’t that the truth?”

I took a deep, steadying breath, and decided, for once in my life, to be the adult. My family members would die of shock if they ever found out. Good thing they never would, since I couldn’t talk them about this without being committed to some form of sanitarium. Taking in Knight’s cantankerous attitude and hunch in his shoulders, being sent away would be the least of my concerns if I advertised the existence of the supernatural.

“So, when you say everything, you mean…?”

“Even the manner of your demise at their hands can be bargained—if you have the right leverage. Deals and bargaining are their weakness. More than that, really. Once you present one to them they can’t back out. It’s like a compulsion.”

“And what leverage do I have?” I was afraid of the answer.

“You. They need you to do their little task to try and find Strib’s killer.”

I gave him the incredulous scowl the comment deserved.

His gaze traveled over my body, taking in my wrinkled, black jogger sweatpants, and matching slim-fit, zip-up hooded jacket. I’d run a brush through my hair a couple times to get rid of the sleep-snarls, and had thrown on an old, gray faded ball cap when my bangs decided to be uncooperative. The only bit of color in my outfit was a pair of pink cross-trainers with dark gray lines my mother insisted on giving me.

“You wear too much black!” my mother had scolded.

“Admittedly, it’s not much,” he said, disappointment coating his voice like a layer of scum on a pond.

Death before dishonor, Primal Brain growled.

He is kinda being an asshole, Rational Brain agreed.

But he’s our only lifeline in all this craziness, I countered.

We can always find someone else, Primal Brain stated, giving my eyes an unfriendly glint, as brittle and sharp as a honed flint knife.

Not in the timeframe the Goblins likely want. Rational brain paused. Plus, we don’t know the first thing about disposing of the body without being caught.

Semantics, Primal brain argued, though not convincingly.

Take the high road. Take the high road…I repeated in my mind, grinding the words out like a miller making flour.

“I’ve never bargained for anything in my life.”

He leaned down so his face was near mine, our eyes locking. “Looks like you need to start figuring it out,” he whispered harshly, and with no sympathy as the sound of the Goblins making their way over to us bounced against all the metal surfaces.

“What sweet nothings has our virtuous Knight been whispering to you?” Gozuk asked when he approached, the sweets words belying his churlish demeanor.

Knight flushed, and a vein pulsed in his neck, half from anger and half from embarrassment, from what I could tell. Knight turned to meet Gozuk head-on, his fists clenched at his sides. There was something there, in their pasts, with the way they made war and not love with their eyes. I wondered if I’d ever get to hear that story. From Knight’s expression, I’d be worm food in the apocalypse before it ever happened.

“What’s in all this for me, Gozuk?” I asked, and broke the stare-down at the O.K. Chicken Corral.

Gozuk’s gaze didn’t waver from Knight. “Your brother’s continued good health and excellent standing in the community.”

Don’t waver, Rational Brain urged.

“That helps him, not me,” I said, throwing as much emotion out of my voice as I could, as if it was as useful as last week’s garbage. That got Gozuk’s attention, as though it were pulled from Knight by force against his will. “I asked what was in it for me.”

Gozuk glanced between Knight and me, his scowl deepening. “I didn’t think you had it in you to help a fellow Or—“ Gozuk caught himself with my dirty look, “—human again, Knight. Not after what happened with—“

“Enough, Gozuk,” Knight cut him off, his voice deep with implied, potential violence. “What I do, or do not do, is no concern of yours.”

“It is when you spoil a good deal for me.”

Knight didn’t blink. He wasn’t helping me so much as trying to make life difficult for Gozuk. I was nothing more than a pawn in their supernaturally-rigged game of chess.

I was more of a cribbage girl myself.

“You always did want something for nothing.”

“I’d be a fool not to.”

“Well, Gozuk,” I prompted, bringing his attention back to me. “What is finding your son’s killer worth to you?” I asked, as the other Goblins joined us. They glanced between their boss and me, almost…curious.

I’d placed the ball in his court. Go too low, and they would think, ‘If that is the value of the son, what am I worth?’ Too high, and he’ll be seen as a fool; easily taken advantage of.

From the way his skin around his eyes tightened, he didn’t appreciate the position I’d put him in.

“His weight in gold?” Knight suggested, helpfully. Or from the way Gozuk glowered at him, not so helpful.

“Yes, but pre- or post-deep fried?” I wondered aloud.

“Hmm,” Knight pondered, tapping his chin for effect. “Pre, if you’re honoring the memory of who Stribs was. Post, if you’re trying to rain vengeance down on his killer.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Slies agreed, and the other Goblins nodded their approval.

Gozuk’s gaze sharpened at the other Goblin’s words, the way a head chef honed his knives, ready to stab an insubordinate dishwasher who handed him a dirty pan.

“You’re still not coming from a position of strength. Your brother is more than enough.”

Be strong. Don’t think of the potential gravy loss, Primal Brain urged.

I shrugged. “We don’t really get along.” Which wasn’t a fabrication. I indicated our surroundings with a wave of my hand. “Or can’t you tell by my illustrious position here, versus his?” It wasn’t a total lie. My brother probably could have offered me a job, but the two of us in close proximity, especially where he would hold a position of power over me…Well, the battle at Little Big Horn ended better for Custer than that situation would have turned out for us.

He’d kept eye contact with me as I spoke, considering my words.

“You mean that,” he said, shocked.

“Family isn’t everything.” The words came out even, and my heartrate remained normal. Some small part of me must have believed that, and I held onto it, using it as a lifeline to fool the Goblins. Maybe myself, too. Distancing myself from it was a good way to not feel bad if this all fell down around my ears like an angry avalanche.

The Goblins looked around at each other, murmuring. I’d disturbed them on some deep level. Even Slies, who seemed a more neutral party than the others, pursed his lips and shuffled his feet.

Knight opened his mouth to say something, but a strange look passed over his face, just before a flash of silver near the heated product cabinets caught most everyone’s eye.

“Nathan?” I asked, though I knew the answer. Unless we had another ghost running around, it wasn’t likely to be anyone else. Which made me wonder.

“Why hasn’t Strib’s ghost shown up? I mean, the guy loved himself too much to not feel like he has unfinished business,” I said, as Nathan continued to ‘solidify’.

Knight snorted. “Ghosts are a purely human thing. Not to mention, if every person who had ‘unfinished business’ became a ghost, we’d be up to our eyeballs in them.”

“You know, let’s go with the assumption I don’t have your fantastic knowledge base on the supernatural, because, oh, wait, I don’t,” I said, fairly growling the words at him.

It was getting tiresome, him treating me like I’d skipped out on all my Supernatural 101 classes in college, or something. As if I just didn’t want to learn about it, not that I’d just discovered it existed last night. He can shove his superiority right where the sun doesn’t shine, Jackass.

Here, here, Primal and Rational Brain agreed.

“You are being a bit of a prick about it. Even for you, Knight,” Slies said, and shrugged a false apology at his words, holding his hands upward as though to ask, ‘can you really blame me for the truth?’.

“’Spare the rod, spoil the child,’” he quoted scathingly.

“I don’t appreciate you speaking to her that way, sir,” Nathan said, his voice distant, like a sigh heard from the next room over. Almost echoing. There was a nervous thread to his words, like crooked embroidery on the foundation fabric.

I was a little taken aback by him standing up for me; we’d only known each other for one night.

“Don’t worry about him, Nathan,” I said, pulling his burnished steel colored eyes toward mine. “You didn’t happen to see who killed Stribs, did you?” I asked.

Everyone started, as though they tripped without moving. Nathan’s eyes widened, and he shook his head.

“No, I didn’t.”

Even that split second had allowed a small bit of hope to enter everyone’s minds that the situation would be ended in a snap. With his words, it was as though we all deflated, like kid’s party balloons left outside for days in the rain.

“How do we know he ain’t lyin’?” one of the Goblins, Brikt, I think it was, asked. The name was apt: he looked like a solid green brick wall of muscle. From the way his dull, black eyes roved over all the assembled, his intelligence level was on par with one, too.

“Well, ghost?” Gozuk asked, and scowled up at Nathan, who dipped down behind the cabinet a bit.

“What would he have to gain from lying?” I asked, not liking the way Gozuk watched the ghost, as though he was some kind of roadblock on his way to finding his son’s killer. Roadblocks were easily removed, especially for someone of Gozuk’s clout.

“I’m no fool. My son was not widely liked by his co-workers. Keeping that knowledge to himself would save the murderer—a potential friend, maybe?” Gozuk theorized out loud.

Nathan sank even further behind the cabinet. Everyone’s attention was on the ghost, and the Goblins were making slow progress closing in on the cabinet, but a small movement in my peripheral vision caught my eye. The utensils on the table and over the grill were trembling—tongs, spatulas, sauce guns, grill squeegee, and so on—as though a small earthquake was happening.

“Do I need to get an exorcist in here, ghost?”

One of the spatulas over the grill clattered as it fell onto the grill. I snatched it up before it melted. The things were heat resistant, but that didn’t mean they could stand up to the grill’s continuous heat on them. After I put it away, I turned back to find everyone still fixated on the ghost.

The utensils rattled louder.

“Enough!” Everyone turned to me, startled by my exclamation. “You’re all just bullying him. If he says he didn’t see anything, I believe him.”

They all gave me incredulous looks. “Just take him at his word, should we?” Gozuk asked. “Why wouldn’t he have seen anything? Not like he has somewhere else to be.” The Goblins chuckled, and a sauce gun fell to the floor, ejecting mayonnaise all over the floor. Some of it even made it onto Gozuk’s polished shoe.

“You little piece of ectoplasmic snot!” Gozuk thundered.

I rolled my eyes. “If you’re going to get angry, save it for the killer,” I said, and Gozuk turned the angry storm in his eyes to me. I ignored him, and looked up at Nathan, who was now little more than a pair of eyes and the top of his head hovering above the cabinet.

“Nathan. You told me last night you can only manifest if there are supernatural beings around, correct?” I asked.

He rose an inch or so, and nodded. “Yes, that’s correct.”

“How many do you need here in order to do that?”

The more I spoke, the higher he rose. “At least three. Though, as the number increases I can appear more clearly. Like now, with—“ confusion washed across his features like a wave rolling over the shore “—six and a half?” He glanced back and forth between Knight and me, until he firmly landed on Knight.

Nathan opened his mouth, but Knight’s knotted eyebrows and downward curve of his lips made him clamp it shut.

Curiouser and curiouser, Rational Brain murmured.

“Anyway,” he said, dipping down a bit again. “Three, at least.”

I wanted to prod at Knight like a kid poking at a dead animal with a stick for the first time, but I needed to make sure Gozuk didn’t kick Nathan to the afterlife curb.

“So, unless there were at least three supernaturals here when Stribs was killed, you couldn’t manifest,” I reiterated, then an idea popped into my head, unbidden. “But can you see, or sense anything when you’re not visible to us?”

He turned his face and eyes down and away. “A little.” If he’d had any blood, he might have been blushing. “I’m not a very strong ghost. If no supernaturals worked here, I’d probably never have had the energy to manifest, and I’d have just faded.” His eyes widened, eyebrows rose, and his mouth contracted. Once again, if he’d been alive, I’d expect to see a cold sweat breaking out along his brow. The very thought of fading scared him near to death, or it would if he wasn’t already there.

“So did you sense anything before the day crew got here?” I asked. It had to be the only time it could have happened.

He frowned in thought. “I could sense you, a little. I know after I lost my substance, you moved around for a bit and then went to the bathroom. Someone came back in, but I figured it was just one of the night crew grabbing something they forgot, and then there was another person behind them. At that point, though, I’d gone too far ‘away’ to know what was happening, and they didn’t stay long enough for their energy to bring me more awareness.” With the word ‘away’ he shuddered. Wherever it was, it wasn’t a pleasant place to be.

“Did the second person feel like another supernatural?” I asked.

Nathan nodded.

“Well, that confirms what I said earlier about you not being the killer,” Knight said, and nodded at me, and for the first time he didn’t have a disgusted look on his face.

“Thank you for your help, Nathan,” I said, and gave him a smile. He gave me a watery one in return, and floated away.

“No help at all, really,” Gozuk muttered.

My mouth turned down and twisted in annoyance. There is no pleasing some people.

Then Gozuk turned weary eyes to me. “You prove Celinwel did this, human, and you can have his weight in gold—whichever you prefer.” He jerked his head toward the back door. “Let’s go, boys.”

Gozuk straightened his shoulders, and made his way to the van, his men following behind. They went in through the back, past where Strib’s body was being kept. The last two in—Zeec and Brikt—closed the van doors.

Slies remained behind, as ordered, and the three of us looked around at each other.

“I think I’m ready for a nap,” I said, yawning and stretching. The lack of sleep and current circumstances left my eyelids drooping every few seconds, and my limbs heavy.

“So, do I get to sleep in your bed?” Slies asked, and tilted his head forward, lifting his eyebrows suggestively.

I snorted, surprised. “Absolutely not. You get the couch.” Then my brain stuttered to a halt. “Wait, why are you staying with me?”

“Didn’t ya know? We’re stuck like glue ‘til we prove Celinwel is the killer,” he said, a mischievous grin making his eyes shine.

Knight snickered at my stricken expression.

“Oh, no. I don’t think so,” I said, holding my hands out in front of me as a warding off gesture.

“Sorry, human. Them’s the brakes,” he said, and seemingly pulled a backpack out from behind some random piece of equipment. “Shall we go?”

This was a bad idea.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin, Chapter Four

Chapter Four

I’d never had much of an opinion on the supernatural. I always called bullshit on the scary witch in the dark woods, the demons talking through Ouija boards, or ghosts in the abandoned houses at the end of the dirt road. Whenever my father changed duty stations, it was same story, different place. A group of kids tried to convince us that some big bad lived somewhere just outside of adult supervision, and tried to scare the pants off of us. Until we were teens, and then it was to try and get us to drink and have sex.

Well, now I knew better, didn’t I?

“I didn’t sign up for this shit,” I grumbled, slouched and bleary-eyed behind the wheel of my car. No one told me that part of monster-sitting was going to include being dragged out of bed in the middle of my ‘night’.

Someone was murdered. Show some sympathy, Rational Brain scolded.

“I’d have more sympathy if I had more sleep,” I countered. Primal Brain agreed. To be fair, though, I wasn’t much of a people person to begin with. I mean, did I feel bad that someone died? Yes. Did I still wish I’d gotten more sleep? Double yes.

Not to mention that cop was a total ass. And how did he know I was the only human on graveyard?

Cops are in on it, Primal Brain added, dipping toes into the paranoia pool.

I snorted. When aren’t they?

Then my thoughts slid back to the real question. Who? If I was being called in, then it had to be one of the crew from last night. I didn’t know any of them very well, so I don’t know what help I could be.

Unless you’re a suspect.

I turned a corner and hit the main thoroughfare through town. The morning light now streaming in through the windshield stabbed through my sunglasses and into my pupils like angry, hot knives wielded by gleeful little demons. Daytime was the only time I wore contact lenses so I could wear sunglasses, because I wasn’t a fan of transition lenses. Still, it sucked putting in contacts half asleep when your eyes are still dry. At least the sunlight made them water.

It’s just what I needed, being suspected of murder.

The Infamous Chicken came into view, the lot eerily quiet, except a lone, unmarked cop car, a black panel van, and a large traffic sign that said, ‘CLOSED’. Weren’t crime scenes usually crawling with people? With nifty, edgy background music while they collected the smallest dust particle and interviewed witnesses.

I parked a distance from the two vehicles, on the edge of the gravel lot. I didn’t know who owned the snazzy, new van, but I figured the unmarked vehicle was the cop’s. Either way, I wasn’t parking near them.

I shut off the vehicle and made my way to the back door. Just as I had hours before, I knocked, and a moment later the door opened and a head poked out.

The face itself was young, but the cynical, angry lines worn into it were likely carved by the stress of the job, and his hickory brown hair was streaked generously with a smoky white. He was attractive, in that lean, rock star way, with a heavy five o’clock shadow, prominent cheekbones, and dimples even as he scowled.

Then he opened his mouth.

“Took you long enough,” he said, the tone matching the one I’d heard over the phone.

“So sorry,” I said, the thick sarcasm dripping from my voice like syrup left out in the cold. “I wasn’t expecting to be pulled out of bed in the middle of my proverbial night.” I scowled right back at him.

“Huh,” he said, not impressed. “We’ll see if you still have that attitude in a few minutes.” Then he pushed the door open, and held it so I could go through.

His slate gray suit was a hair wrinkled, as though it’d been on the floor for just a couple hours before he’d thrown it back on, and it clashed with the pressed, white shirt. The jacket was unbuttoned, and his grid-patterned tie with lines of dark grey, light blue, and dark blue against a thin pale gray and white-lined background, swung freely.

I stepped into the dark hallway, his woodsy, aromatic scent making me instinctively inhale deeper to catch more of it, and the door slammed behind me. This time, though, there was no one to block the view into the kitchen, and about six older versions of Stribs were in front of the assembly table, conversing.

The other five were turned toward the one I expected was the leader, just by the way the others deferred to him in the conversation. He was also the largest, and the exact opposite of Stribs. His black hair was buzzed near to bald, his ears were longer, he wore a suit, and he was an animated talker, moving his hands through the air like a conductor directing an orchestra. The skin over his knuckles was a paler, mint green from layers of scarring, and though his bulbous belly strained against his black jacket, he was muscled just about everywhere else. This guy was no peacock like Stribs.

The smallest, slight one, whose black eyes squinted my way, jerked his sharp chin upward in my direction. His obsidian hair was slicked back, and the lean, corded muscles of his arms were exposed where his black t-shirt didn’t cover. He wore dark wash jeans with black dress shoes, and his hands were relaxed and in his front pockets, with his thumbs hooked through a couple of belt loops.

“Boss,” he said, his voice a nasally whisper that carried over the tile. It was the first time I realized almost all the machines were powered down, except the hum of the refrigerators and freezers.

The larger one turned, and glowered at me, too. Apparently, no one was happy to see me today.

“Took you long enough, Ord.” His voice was rough and reminiscent of Chicago, and there was a lump in his lower lip where a pinch of dip was safely ensconced.

Lieutenant Knight gave an exasperated sigh, and out the corner of my eye pinched the bridge of his nose.

I kept eye contact with the great green lump. “I promised the last Goblin who called me that would get punted. My name is Holly. Use it.”

Four of the five behind Boss tensed at my words, while the corner of the small one’s mouth twitched. Even Lt. Knight stiffened.

Boss grunted, and swallowed his dip spit. Gag. “You got yourself a sassy one this time, Knight.”

Knight’s demeanor immediately went from worried to irritated. “I don’t ‘got’ anything, Gozuk. Now get on with it.”

Gozuk grunted again, and motioned for me to join the group. “Well, come on, Ms. Holly.”

He walked over to one of the big, chicken fryer vats. There was a medium-sized cardboard box in front of it that usually held bags of our leaf lettuce for the burgers, but the bottom was soaked through with grease. The flaps were down, folded one over the other to stay closed, covering whatever was inside.

“I don’t rightly want to show you what’s in the box, you bein’ a girl, and all. But you should see, all the same.”

Old fashioned sensibilities, but I didn’t know how long Goblins lived, so I wasn’t going to argue with him. I made my way over to the box, not really wanting to see what was inside. When I was standing over it, ringed by the Goblins, Gozuk nodded his head.

It was the smaller one who moved forward. He pulled open the flaps, the sound of cardboard sliding against itself followed by the weird pop they do once the pressure is released and it’s opened.

It’s a deep-fried mutant chicken, Rational Brain reasoned.

Of course, that was my pre-Infamous Chicken, ‘Surprise! Supernatural beings are real!’ existence, brain saying that.
It’s Stribs, my new point-of-view proclaimed.

And it was, smelling strangely of deep-fried beef. He’d been fried in the vat. His mouth hung open, with his tongue engorged and fried, hanging out the side of his mouth. He was naked, save for a very crispy pair of undergarments, thankfully, saving me from a full-on view of deep-fried sausage. His hair was plastered over his face, and breaking off, just likes the tips of his ears, nose, and chin. Everything was shrunken, the way it does when meat is heated, which was why he could fit in the box. Of course, it didn’t explain why he looked so much like the chicken, and not just someone who’d been thrown in hot oil.

“Was he, uh, alive, when he went into the vat?” I asked. Having been burned by grease more times than I cared to hazard a guess at, it was uniquely painful. Almost on the level of stubbing your pinkie toe.

“Our healer, Zeec, checked out his body,”—Gozuk waved a hand in the direction of a Goblin with spiky hair, multiple, gleaming silver ring piercings along his right ear only, a similar outift to the small one, and bright, parakeet green eyes—“but as far as we could tell he was dead when he went in. In fact,” Gozuk said, and nudged the box with the toe of a very shiny dress shoe, “he was drowned in the buttermilk marinade, breaded in the flour, and then tossed in the vat. Our healer’s scan found evidence of buttermilk in his lungs,” he finished, explaining how they knew he’d drowned.

“Well, that would explain why he looks like that,” I choked out, getting the words past the lump in my throat.

“You know, Gozuk, I didn’t even need to see her reaction to Strib’s body to know she couldn’t have done this,” Knight started. “She’s, what? A buck twenty-five, and doesn’t look like she’s ever laid eyes on a set of weights.” I turned wide eyes from Stribs to meet Knight’s mocking gaze. His hazel eyes blazed with irritation. “Goblins are strong, and even a priss like Stribs could lift the heavy end of my car over his head, one-handed, multiple times. No way she subdues him long enough to drown him.”

Gozuk simply grunted his agreement.

“Not to mention there’s no way I’d be caught with Stribs in his underwear, even with it being as stylish as it was,” I said, noting the barely legible stitching on the waistband, spelling out some designer name.

The small Goblin snorted, and I glanced back toward the group.

“Stribs was a prima donna of the highest order, so what was he doing working here?” I asked, genuinely curious. The other Goblins shuffled about, and murmured low while casting anxious glances toward Gozuk.

Gozuk swallowed another mouthful of spit, and sighed. “His pop is the head of our “family”, but Stribs was a bastard in definition and temperament. His pop’s favorite of the lot of them, in fact. But even favored children need to be taught valuable lessons about money and responsibility; especially when they spend their father’s money as freely as a coked out movie star attending a party at a bar.”

From the vibe of the group, and the way he said ‘family’ with such a heavy emphasis it almost carved the quotation marks into the very air with a butterfly knife, and I was expecting Speak Softly, Love, to start playing in the background.

Oh, boy. Time to cut to the chase before I wound up sleeping with the fishes. Both Primal and Rational Brain groaned at my horribly clichéd turn of phrase.

“So, why am I here? You knew who it was, you knew I didn’t kill him, and I’m kind of at a loss as to why you dragged me out of bed.” I almost kept my voice even, and only let a small amount of irritation stray into it.

Gozuk’s only indication of amusement was the slightest curl at the corner of his mouth, parting his lips because of the dip and revealing the same sharp teeth as Stribs. Where Strib’s smile was more leering and condescending, Gozuk’s was that of a top of the food chain predator. As in, if we met in a dark alley, he’d enjoy showing me how badly I’d damaged my liver in college—right before he ate it.

“We’re pretty certain we know who did this, but the thugs would see us coming from a mile away. That’s why we need you to find out if we should exact Strib’s life-debt directly from her flesh, or that of her little gang’s,” Gozuk said, and this time he didn’t swallow his spit, but let the disgusting, brown-stained globule fly. It hit the tile with a sickening splat.

I frowned. “You know I have to clean these floors, right?”

Gozuk waved an indifferent hand back and forth at my displeasure, as though he were dissipating a noxious smell. “You’re avoiding the topic.”

“I’m avoiding it because I can’t help you. I’m not a detective.” I cut a glance toward the glowering Knight. “You have that. Use him,” I finished, and jerked a thumb toward the sourpuss.

“They know Knight, and he abides by a strict, spineless, ‘Don’t rock the mythological boat,’ policy. His position is much like yours; it exists to make sure the supernatural and ordinary don’t bleed into each other—literally. I didn’t want to do things this way, and I’d hoped to play off your sympathy toward a fellow crew member—“

Fat chance, that. As far as I could tell, no one had liked Stribs, I reasoned, trying to keep things light-hearted, but Gozuk’s words dropped like a cannonball in my gut.

“—but I know some things about your brother. His clients, how he runs his firm.” Gozuk’s smile widened, the dip barely staying inside his lip as he revealed the remainder of his lethal, yellowed teeth. His black eyes gleamed like the iridescence on a blob of tar.

Damn you, Joel, Primal Brain cursed.

He’s a lawyer. What did you expect? Rational Brain said, logical but fuming.

“It’d be a shame to see your family fall on hard times if his dealings were brought to light.”

Little did he know, I was now furiously calculating just how much I truly loved my brother, his wife, and spawn. Kidding! Mostly.

“Blackmail, Gozuk, really?” Knight said, crossing his arms over his chest and raising a single eyebrow. His mouth turned down in irritation, and he tilted his chin down to meet Gozuk’s narrowed eyes and puckered mouth.

“I will find out who killed my son, Knight,” Gozuk growled, and balled his fists, the knuckles cracking with potential violence like bones breaking under a baseball bat.

Oh, shit. His son? Primal Brain squeaked.

Of course, Rational Brain concluded.

Don’t act all high and mighty like you knew all along, Primal Brain fumed.

Rational Brain harrumphed, but did not dignify the retort with a rejoinder.

“You’re going to get her killed,” Knight spat, and gestured toward me. However, he wasn’t concerned for my well-being. More like he’d be annoyed at all the work my dying at the hands of a supernatural would cause him.

“Un-bunch your panties, Knight,” Gozuk growled, and grit his teeth. “I know that. Did you think I wouldn’t give her help? Xodall’s Knife must have taken your brains as well as your balls,” he scoffed.

My eyebrows climbed toward my hairline, and my eyes were pulled toward Knight’s nethers. When I turned my scrutiny upward, Knight’s eyebrows were so knotted a serial killer would be impressed, and his jaw was tense as piano wire.

“Figuratively speaking, of course,” Gozuk added, prodding Knight further.

Knight snorted, and turned back to me. He pushed his jacket out of the way to put his hands on his hips, revealing his inside-the-waistband holster on the right side of his waist. The menacing black grip of some kind of 9mm was the only visible portion of the weapon. My father had tried desperately to get me interested in any kind of weapon when my brother refused. Unfortunately, I didn’t develop the zeal for it he would have liked, but I know enough to identify the basics, and not accidentally get myself killed.

“Are you going to go along with this foolishness?”

I didn’t so much consider my brother as much as my parents, and how disappointed they would be if something happened to my brother and I could have prevented it. Thanksgiving dinner would be off the table for the year, and I lived and died by my mother’s gravy.

We must, for the gravy, Primal Brain intoned. Even Rational brain solemnly agreed.

“I don’t really have much of a choice, do I?”

Knight dropped his head and shook it, disappointed in my obvious stupidity. Of course, the man had never tasted my mother’s gravy. Poor, unfortunate soul that he was.

“If she’s murdered, I’m not your clean-up crew this time.” Knight pointed a stern finger in Gozuk’s direction, shot me one, last scowl that spoke volumes about his opinion on my level of intelligence, then turned on his heel and stormed out.

Gozuk chuckled. “That man never fails to pick losing battles, especially with the opposite gender. Maybe it comes from being married for eight-hundred years, give or take twenty, but I learned centuries ago to never argue with a woman when she’s made up her mind.” Gozuk turned a long, considering look my way, and grunted.

He circled his right hand in a ‘hurry up’ motion, the nails so sharp and thick on the end of his fingers I was surprised the air didn’t bleed, and one of the Goblins scrambled away. When he came back with one of the drink cups, Gozuk spit the wad of dip into the cup. Either the Goblins knew, in general, how long the ‘Boss’ kept the dip in, or they were telepathic.

“Now, on to business. As I said, I need you to try and get in good with the one we think killed him. Or, more likely because the little she-devil don’t have the guts to do it herself, the one who did the deed for her.” Gozuk paused, and his eyes were drawn toward the body of his son. He grit his teeth.

“Do you know the first person they consider when someone is murdered?” the small Goblin stepped in and spoke, his voice still a whisper.

Having marathoned enough crime drama shows to give me a healthy sense of paranoia, and expand my general knowledge of at least basic police procedures, I did know the answer to this one.

“The significant other. Do you mean…?

The small Goblin nodded. “Celinwel, the Gnome.” As a group there were curses and scowls at the mention of what she was.

Well, now I knew for sure what she was, and that Goblins and Gnomes didn’t care for each other, but there was one problem. “Uh, she kinda hated me on sight. I doubt I could get buddy-buddy with her.”

“The Gnome thugs occupy a certain position within the community, providing recreational, mind-altering entertainment,” he said, raising an eyebrow and giving me a ‘catch my drift?’ look.

I nodded. They were drug dealers.

Caught between a mafia rock and a gang hard place. This is going to go over so well, Rational Brain said scathingly.

If we survive. Primal Brain snorted.

Hey, focus. We need positive thoughts.

Like how lovely we’ll look in a coffin lined by white satin, especially if your mom picks the outfit? She does have a killer fashion sense, Rational Brain replied, and Primal Brain nodded.

Useless, I growled.

“You’re right: she’d never willingly start a friendship with you. Which is why you’ll be approaching as a customer.”

A thrill of fear raised the hair on the back of my neck. “Uh, I’ve never done anything remotely that illegal. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

Gozuk, breaking eye contact with his progeny’s body, gave a sly smile and rejoined the conversation. “I wasn’t lying to Knight when I said I’d have someone with you. Slies here will be your personal guide to all things concerning the supernatural underbelly,” he said, indicating the small Goblin.

Slies nodded, his eyes dancing at my discomfort. “It’ll be fun,” he said, his whispery voice full of delight.

I highly doubted that.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin, Chapter Three

Chapter Three

“Knew she couldn’t handle it. Typical Ord.”

“Seriously, Stribs, shut up.”

“Or what, Dog Breath?”

“Or I’ll tell Celinwel’s crew you cheated on her. Again.” Then a pause as she asked in a whisper, “Does my breath really smell bad?”

“Of course not, Bea. Stribs is just being a prick.” There was another, small pause, this time from Anne. “And a tiny one at that.”

It went down an incredibly vulgar hill from there.

The conversation floated around me like the pesky dandelion fluff that inevitably set my sinuses off. Something hard and segmented was under my back, and it left my legs dangling so that my toes barely brushed the floor. Harsh, fluorescent light stabbed through my eyelids, and the fatty, delicious aroma of fried chicken saturated the air like humidity before a thunderstorm.

I groaned, sat up, and gasped as whatever I was laying on shifted beneath me. My eyes shot open, and I blindly grabbed for anything to catch myself before I fell. As I wind milled uselessly, someone grabbed my wrist in a vice-like grip, keeping me from hitting the floor.

“Easy there,” Odella purred. “Can’t have you hurting yourself after we just kept you from knocking all the brains from your head against the grill.”

She lifted me until my toes were an inch from the floor, my arm in a dead hang. I relaxed in the hold, not wanting to strain my shoulder. When I met her gaze, her eyes were no longer red or green, but a swirling mix between the two. I took a deep breath to even out my breathing, and when I blinked, I gave her calm eyes in return. Despite my controlled breathing and nice, resting heartrate, I was scrambling around in my mind trying to remember every (non-trashy, sex from cover-to-cover) book I’d ever read about vampires. At least, I was pretty sure that’s what Odella was.

You’ve gone mad, Rational Brain commented, rather unhelpfully.

Or, you’re not crazy and she really is a vampire. Stop with the denial and be useful.

The tennis match going on in my brain must have been evident on my face, because Odella smiled a small, knowing smile. Then she set me down on the floor.

“I told you you’d have to see to believe.”

It took every ounce of self-control I had not to bolt for the back door. Partially, because holy-freaking-duck-bucket, these people were real, live monsters. But mostly because I didn’t want to get eaten, and running from predators was a sure way to wind up as a snack.

I rubbed my shoulder. “I’m not one for jumping to conclusions, or subtlety,” I prefaced, “so tell me: what I saw was real, and not some elaborate joke on the new person?”

She shook her head. “You’re the only human here. Cross my cold dead heart, and I’ve already died,” she said, making a slow sensuous ‘X’ over her left breast.

I followed the movement of her finger as though it compelled my attention, like two magnets drawn together.

“I’m not sure I can do my job if you keep trying to hypnotize me every time we’re in the same room,” I said absently, my eyes unable to look away.

“But it’s so entertaining,” her voice said, smooth and warm, like sipping on a tumbler of swanky whiskey.

I’d never been much for alcohol, though, being much better acquainted with the, internalize and ignore your emotions route of dealing with stress. I had quite a bit of anger and other pesky emotions built up, and the, ‘let’s fuck with the human,’ was getting my back up.

Establish dominance, my father’s voice growled. It might not have been incredibly useful advice in the third grade against Kelly I’ll-yank-your-skirt-down-at-recess-and-call-you-fat Hines, but it might have promise here.

I gathered all of my repressed—and unnecessary according to my father—feelings into an ugly, messy ball in the center of my chest, and pushed it outward right at Odella’s face. She rocked back on her heels, and whatever held my body in thrall snapped, like a rubber band being stretched too far and breaking.

When I looked up, her eyes were wide, but she didn’t let that keep her down for long. This time when she smiled her huge, manic grin, I couldn’t help but notice the razor sharp canines and lateral incisors.

I just had to get through tonight without being eaten, and then I could go home and freak out.

I took another deep, calming breath, and stabbed at the heart of the matter with a nice, pointy, wooden stake. “Why, exactly, do you need me here?”

Odella opened her mouth to speak, but someone else butted in.

“You’re a glorified babysitter, Ord. Here to make sure they don’t see us, and none of us try to eat them,” Stribs said scathingly. He rounded the corner of the crew room, and leaned against it, looking up at me. It was an odd sensation, being that I wasn’t very tall.

Odella let out an exasperated sigh and frowned, but didn’t dispute what he’d said.

“Is that a concern? Being eaten, I mean,” I asked, trying not to stutter.

Stribs made a disgusted hack at the back of his throat and shook his head. “Ord—“

“Call me that one more time,” I said, deadpan, and leveled a stony expression his way, “and we’ll see if Goblins are as easily punted as they are mouthy.”

I didn’t need to know everything about the word Ord to know it was some kind of insulting term for humans.

Sharp as an orange, this one, Rational Brain said, and jerked a proverbial thumb toward me.

“You gonna let her talk to me that way?” he whined at Odella, his ears curling at the tips as he cringed.

She raised a single, incredulous eyebrow. “You’re the one insulting her. Don’t come crying to me.” Then she motioned for me to follow her. “Let’s go. We’ve got work to do.” The she looked down at Stribs. “All of us.” Her voice hardened in a way that such a reprimand was a common occurrence.

He skulked off, but not before casting a baleful look in my direction.

“Don’t mind him. He’s just put off because we hired you for the manager position instead of promoting him. No one likes the fact we need a human to interact with the other humans, but aside from Stribs and probably his girlfriend, Celinwel, they accept it. Now, let’s get you a headset,” she said, everything coming out in a rush.

She walked over to the office on the other side of the wall, and grabbed a wireless headset from a small, clear plastic bin up on one of the shelves.

“Nice,” I said, and took it from her. “I’m not a fan of the belt-pack headsets.” It was also great to find some normal ground, even if it was a small island amidst the sea of supernatural chaos.

“Yeah, they have their disadvantages, too, but I agree: wireless is better overall,” she said, and smiled her first typical smile I’d seen since meeting her.

We walked past the first window, sporting a ‘Closed, Please use Next Window’ sign.

“That gets closed off at 9:50, and you’ll be the only one to greet and hand everything out at the second window.”

Which begged the question: “Who’s up there now?”

“Lia. She can alter people’s perceptions for short periods of time, but it’s not her specialty and she tires quickly from it. Ah, speak of the devil,” she said.

The girl with the liquid movements and blue hair flowed our way, more than walked.

“I’m no Devil,” she said, and she stared straight at me, then tilted her head back a touch and to her right. “Don’t give the new girl any strange ideas. She just might believe I’m really a Devil, or some other hellish incarnation.”

“What are you, then?” I asked, curious.

Her eyes flashed, and everything in the store stopped. Aside from the noises of the various machines, nothing moved and no one spoke.

“Have you ever seen someone let their child pee on the floor in the middle of a room?” Lia asked.

I frowned, and shook my head. My nieces and nephews were little hell-beasts, (well, not really, but who knew, now?) but I’d never witnessed that, that I could recall. They’d thrown my phone in a toilet one of them had just used, and not flushed, but I don’t think that counted.

“Well, the hypothetical child’s behavior is the equivalent of you asking that question.”

I blushed to the roots of my hair. “Uh, got it. Major social faux paus, penalty me,” I said.

She brushed past me and headed toward the back.

Look at me, makin’ friends everywhere I go.

“She breaks down and washes all the dishes, and anything else that can come apart to be cleaned. One rule with Lia: she needs to be gone at least half an hour before the sun rises. It means her schedule can vary, and she doesn’t mind staying to help with things if the dishes are done, but never break that rule,” Odella warned.

“No problem.”

We finished walking up toward the front, and Odella showed me the ins-and-outs of the menu on the POS—Point Of Sale. No, not piece of shit, though sometimes the system was slow enough it was applicable. It wasn’t just this place, but everywhere I’d ever been encountered the same issues.

BING.

Odella nodded at me. The headset operated by using four buttons, located on the opposite side of the fuzzy part against your ear. The bottom button allowed you to talk over the headset with anyone else wearing one. Two buttons, just above it and side-by-side, controlled the volume. The top button, when pressed, kept a continuous line open to the customer at the order speaker.

I hit the top button. “Hello, and thank you for choosing The Infamous Chicken. What can I get started for you?”

“Uh, is your shake machine working?” asked a stentorian, female voice.

I grimaced and lowered the volume on the headset. I looked over to Odella, who stood by the machine used for making ice cream and shakes. She pointed at two blue lights on the front panel, and gave me a thumbs up.

“Yes, it is,” I said.

“Okay. Um, I’ll get a cheeseburger, but with no cheese.”

Gotta love the random questions followed by not ordering what they asked about.

“So, you want a hamburger?”

“No, I want a cheeseburger with no cheese.”

“O-kay,” I replied, and raised an eyebrow, but kept my voice even and polite. Half of working with customers is being able to fake friendly. “Anything else?”

She continued to order, and when she finished she still hadn’t ordered a shake. Color me shocked.

“Is everything on your screen correct?”

“Sure,” she said, impatient and dismissive.

“Then your total is—“ She drove away, automatically turning off the headset and cutting me off. “—15.57, and thank you for letting me finish before you drove off,” I muttered.

I turned to face the order assembly station. It was where the bags, condiments, napkins, and so on were kept, and caught sight of what sent my brain tipping over the edge from potentially plausible to, what the actual fuck, earlier.

The ghost.

Having stepped in the proverbial social crap pile earlier with Lia, I controlled my reaction.

“Hello,” I said, not letting the electric spiders of surprise that were skittering up my spine make any inflection in my voice.

“Hi,” he said, nervous. “I’m Nathan.”

“Nice to meet you, Nathan. I’m Holly.”

“I just want to say I’m so sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said, his expression truly pained and apologetic.

“No harm, no foul. Don’t worry about it,” I replied. “You just surprised me.” Odella was smiling over by the fry station as she made the woman’s fries, and I couldn’t help a nervous chuckle. “Apparently shock and awe is the only way for you guys to get people to believe in you.”

“True,” he said, and floated closer. “I didn’t believe in any of this either. I was a day shift worker, and I…died, out in the lobby.” His face blanched, if such a thing were possible, and the silver and white light making up his ghostly form shimmered.

Before I could respond, Odella interjected, “You need to greet the customer within fifteen seconds of being at the window. By my hearing and count, she’s been there 11…12…”

I made my way over to the window, pasted an overly affable smile on my face, and slid it open. I was expecting more resistance, and accidentally banged the window open against the frame, making me wince.

“Hi, sorry about that. The window’s lighter than it looks. Your total is 15.57. How are you tonight?” I asked, as I took her money and paid her out at the register underneath the POS.

“Fine,” she mumbled, and aside from taking her change she ignored me, just staring straight ahead, scowling. She was smoking a cigarette, the smoke wafting into the window, despite it being illegal to smoke within twenty-five feet of it. Her unnatural red-dyed hair was pulled back in a tight bun, and slicked down with gel. She was young, pale, and typical for an early-twenties Washington native railing against living in the ‘boonies’.

“Do you need a drink carrier?” I asked, cranking up the cheer a couple notches.

“No.”

“Alrighty then. They’re working on your food now,” I said, and handed the drinks out the window, followed by the straws. She kept her eyes away from mine, and huffed out an annoyed sigh.

If it was at the drinks, me, or the wait, I wasn’t sure. Not that it ever mattered with some people. I’d had customers complain about things taking too long, as well as ones who complained it didn’t take enough time. There was no pleasing everyone.

The order assembly area was just out of sight of the window, with only the front counter, ice cream station, and various drink-making stations in view. I stepped around the Mechanized Beverage Dispenser to stay out of her line of sight. Not that she was watching me, but after a minute they’ll generally look up to see what you’re doing.

It was a lose-lose situation. If you’re stocking items, then why weren’t you making food? As though staring at the timers made food cook faster. If you took a moment to get a drink for yourself, you were lazy. If they couldn’t see you, you were ignoring them, and so on. The list never ended, and at least a third were never happy no matter what was going on.

Odella assembled the food in the bag, quick and efficient, and handed it to me. I, in turn, passed it out the window.

“Here you go!” She said nothing as she snatched the bag from my hands.

“Is this everything?” she asked, tone indicating that even if I said yes, she wouldn’t believe me.

“Yes,” I responded any way, as she dug through the bag. I didn’t mind customers checking bags at the window. I’d rather them do it here than call the store later and yell at me because they were missing something, or it was wrong.

She finished her inspection and tossed the bag on the passenger seat.

“Thank you, and have a nice—“ She peeled away. “—night.” I closed the window.

“Bitch,” Stribs commented from his perch just past the order assembly area, next to the heated, slotted cabinets where product was kept in trays after it was cooked.

I shrugged. “You get good ones and bad ones,” I said, trying to keep a professional outlook. At least on my first night. I’d griped about my fair share of customers at other jobs. Everyone did. I’m sure I’d get there eventually here, too.

The rest of the night was a mixed bag of customers: good, bad, drunk, high, and so on. So, a typical night at any fast food place.

However, the customers weren’t the issue. I’d been spit at, cursed at, had drinks thrown at me, and so on at other places. Those situations I could handle. Mutiny, on the other hand, was something else.

Everyone had a period of time where they needed to prove themselves at a job. As a new manager, especially one not promoted from within, I’d expected resistance.

Stribs was less resistance and more like an overly aggressive goose; honking loudly at each thing that displeased him, even minimally, flapping about, and making messes faster than, well, shit goes through a goose.

Everyone took on an air of resignation about the whole affair, and offered little sympathy to me when I checked to made sure certain things were being done. As per the list Odella had given me.

After the third, “Well I’m going to do this instead,” or just outright ignoring me, I ceased communication with Stribs, and instead spoke only to Bea. Instead of pleasing him, this sent Stribs into a sullen silence. His overinflated view of his abilities and talents didn’t handle such a blow to the ego very well.

Celinwel played off his moods, either inciting them by arguing or agreeing with him, or setting up arguments between him and the other crew. It was quite a spectacle.

Finally, we finished up for the night, getting things prepped and ready for the ‘opening’ crew. This included: changing out the product in the cabinet from dinner to breakfast, finishing touches on stocking and cleaning, covering the big chicken fryer vats, since they weren’t used again until lunch, as well as draining the giant tubs of the secret recipe buttermilk marinade in the fridge for a fresh batch, and a few other tasks. We did all this while taking and making orders, which trickled in less and less as the night wore on.

Odella had gone into the office around 3 a.m. to do paperwork, and emerged right before we were set to leave. She checked on everything to make sure there was nothing left to do, adding a few finishing touches of her own. Lia had left not long after Odella went into the office.

“It’s always better to be safe than dead,” she said to me, when she checked to make sure there was nothing else I needed her to do before she left.

“Uh, right,” I agreed. “You’re good to go.”

She nodded and turned to leave, but stopped and looked back at me. “Not too bad, new girl.” Then she made her way to the crew room, and out the back.

At least one of the crew didn’t hate me.

Bea was neutral, and she watched my every move as though evaluating me right down to how I walked from one place to another. Anne had been eerily silent since our interaction at the beginning of the night. However, they were both fast and efficient at their jobs, and I figured interpersonal work relationships could be patched and improved as we moved forward. Leo was a steady, consistent worker, though it was the consistency of molasses, to be fair. Nathan was there to help me while Odella was in the office. However, I noticed any time he got nervous things started falling off shelves, or items would slip from people’s fingers, as though pulled out. I’d also had to explain away his occasional, panicked moaning during rushes, as an odd noise the refrigerator system sometimes made.

By the end of the night, even my toenails ached, and I was going to need to work out a way to interact with Stribs. At least, one that didn’t involve me strangling one of the first supernatural beings I’d ever encountered.

“There’s a ten minute window of time where it’ll just be you, as our crew leaves before the morning crew comes on. They don’t, and can’t, know about us. Luckily, those ten minutes aren’t, well,” she said, and waved her hand back and forth. “You know.”

I did, but graveyarders were a superstitious lot, to say the least. If you mentioned it was slow, or that you were going to start cleaning something, or someone was going on a break, you’d get slammed. It was fast food science.

“Sure, no problem. You guys have a nice night,” I said.

Odella tilted her head to the side. “See you tomorrow night?” she asked.

I hesitated. I’d been debating that ever since I’d come to after seeing Nathan floating above the hot cabinets. In the end, though, they weren’t all that different from humans in behavior, and no one had tried to eat me.

“Absolutely,” I said, my voice much stronger than the quivering jelly that were my guts.

“Fantastic!” Then she waved. “Good night!”

She vanished, or maybe she moved too fast for me to see. Either way, she was gone, and the others filtered out behind her. I got a few waves from Bea, Anne, and Leo, and scowls from Celinwel and Stribs.

What a pair, said the eternal romantic that was my mother.

I rolled my eyes, and looked up at Nathan. He was fading out, and I stood up in a rush.

“Are you okay?” I asked, concerned.

He nodded. “The only reason I’m visible is because of the supernatural energy emitted by the others. It allows me to manifest in the visible spectrum,” he said, almost gone from my sight. “See you tomorrow.” Then he was gone, and I was truly alone in the store. At least for another eight minutes.

I went to the bathroom, and then made myself some food to eat while I waited. I ate out in the lobby, since I didn’t fancy eating in the dark of the crew room.

The morning crew got there, and after a few brief introductions and hellos, I trudged out to my car. The twilight hour between night and dawn made things difficult to make out, and the trees near parking area still clutched at the darkness, not wanting to let go. I looked over and saw what I thought was a pair of eyes watching me, but when I blinked they were gone. I was getting to the point of sleep deprivation where I was starting to see things. I headed home, quietly chuckling. Now that I knew there really were monsters in night, I couldn’t decide if I was more, or less, scared of the dark.

It was going to take a few days to get used to working night shifts, and I didn’t envy my future self waking up to what this was going to feel like later. I miraculously made it to my apartment without crashing my car into anyone or anything, and went inside. After a brief shower I crawled into bed, and promptly fell dead to the world, too tired for the freak out I’d promised myself earlier.

It was about five hours later when my phone rang. My sleep-deprived brain scrambled about, and I tried to pry open gritty eyes to look at my nightstand. When that didn’t work, I fumbled blindly for my house phone, finally landing on it on the fourth ring.

“Hello?” I asked after hitting the button, voice husky and low from sleep. I curled my body around the phone, kept my eyes closed, and tried not to fall asleep before the person answered.

“Is this Holly Bell, currently employed at The Infamous Chicken?” an authoritative voice demanded to know.

News travels fast, apparently.

“Yes, and who is this?” I asked, still fighting the clutches of slumber trying to drag me back into the sweet, dark abyss.

“This is Lieutenant Knight of the Thunder Hollow Police Department. We need you to come down to your place of employment to answer a few questions.”

My focus snapped to just as fast as my eyes opened. “What is this concerning?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss that over the phone. You can either come down here, voluntarily and answer some questions, or I can drive over there, cuff you, and take you to the station.”

Jeez Louise—aggressive much?

“I’ll be down as soon as possible,” I said, taken aback. “But what’s so important that you’re dragging me out of bed not long after I got off my overnight shift?” I asked, my irritation waking up like a slow-moving goliath. “Any why me? I’m just a shift manager.”

“Murder, Ms. Bell, and because you are the only human on said shift,” Lieutenant Knight said in an angry whisper. “Now, get your ass down here,” he barked, and the line went dead.

“Fuck,” I said emphatically, and let the phone drop to my lap.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin, Chapter Two

Chapter Two

I paused inside the doorway to let my eyes adjust to the gloom.

At my hesitation, Odella spoke, “Sorry about the light. It’s been out for a while now.”

“Why don’t they change it?” Or did they not care? The undertone of my words hung in the air. The answer to the question would reveal what kind of work environment I was walking into. I’d experienced the full range of employers in the past, from tyrants who criticized uniforms down to a single stray string, to weaklings who let their employees walk all over them like a doormat in a whorehouse.

“Places like this always have something broken down. It’s about prioritizing. Just so happens everything else is higher on the list than the light.” She paused, and I swear she sniffed a couple of times, delicate and barely audible, but I couldn’t be sure. “The owner is practical, but he does care.” She turned to face me, her green eyes glowing somehow, like jewels backlit by fire.

“Sure,” I said, taken back by her conviction. “That’s understandable.”

She nodded, face serious, and then inexplicably broke out into a wide grin. “Great! Practicality is such an undervalued trait these days.”

Random…

She pointed to my right. “This is the freezer.” Then to my left. “This is the walk-in fridge.”

The doors must have been around the corners, because I saw none along the hall walls. The walls were made of some kind of white plastic material, easily wiped down and cleaned off, but textured, making it almost impossible to completely do so. Ah, the anomalies of fast-food buildings. It met with the baseboard, which was the typical, burned orange quarry tile. It was curved where it met the floor, instead of having a sharp corner, which meant food and debris weren’t easily trapped there. Surprisingly enough, though, there was nothing in the grout lines between the tiles. Most places had bits and pieces of anything that found its way to the floor ground into the grout. It took a steam cleaner, or someone with a compulsion disorder and a toothbrush, to completely clean those lines.

I wasn’t sure if I was impressed, or suspicious. They probably just had it cleaned.

We continued down the hall to where it opened into a wider area. When we exited the hall, she turned, and held out an arm to point toward my left. Since she was taller than me, and her body blocked the view of the rest of the space.

“This way is the dry stock, sink, washer, soda dispensers, mop station, and hot water heater.”

I could just make out the dry stock shelves, and the track on the floor indicating they were moving shelves, which helped with storage in smaller areas. There was also the walk-in door along that wall leading to the dry stock, large and a polished stainless steel. The handle was a typical latch handle, and when I looked to my right the freezer door was the same, but closer to the corner of the hall.

Beyond the sink, along the wall opposite the dry stock and in the corner, was the washer for towels and aprons, then the mop station, hot water heater, and the soda dispensers. The three-sink system was right next to the corner, which meant they didn’t have a dishwasher. Well, not an automated one, at any rate.

“No dishwasher?” I inquired. I was coming in for a manager job, but it was standard practice to make the newbie wash dishes until they learned the ropes. I didn’t look forward to cracked, bleeding skin from papercut-like cuts from having your hands in soap, hot water, and sanitizer all night.

“Not unless you count Ke—I mean Lia.” She laughed a little too forcefully, trying to play off her stumble.

I raised an eyebrow, but said nothing, and surveyed the sink area. It was immaculate, just like the grout.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Between the walk-in and dry stock, along the wall, was a manual trash compactor with no trash to speak of. It was just change shift, so the last crew had probably emptied everything on their way out. Yeah, and my car was a robot in disguise. In my experience, day crew only cleaned when threatened with a nuclear response; anything short of that was met with a sudden hearing problem, or an evasion worthy of a scene in a popular sci-fi movie that had no spoons.

The night crew hadn’t been back here long enough to warrant such a clean space, and it was strange that no one was around. The Infamous Chicken was 24-hours, and had steady business. There should have been people coming back for product, cleaning dishes, or doing any number of activities.

I made a move to look around Odella, but she moved with an imperceptible speed, and remained in my line of sight. It was like she moved with my eyes, but I couldn’t actually see her moving. I’m probably just tired; no one moves that fast.

“Wh—“

“And over here,” she interrupted, “is the crew room and office.” She moved to a couple of doorways along the wall perpendicular to the freezer’s wall. As we moved, she angled her body to keep the rest of the area out of my sight, and it was going from accidental body placement, to purposefully annoying.

However, I obliged and looked in on the crew room. It had no door, was small, and had a couple of two-seater tables. There was a long, single cubby along one wall, where you could use that or the shelf on top, plus an area to hang jackets beneath that. I rolled the strap of my purse beneath itself, and placed it into the cubby next to a few other bags. On the top part of the shelf was a small, blue lunchbox, covered in a fine layer of dust.

I turned to ask Odella about it, but when I did so, she was a mere inch away from my face.

“Any questions so far?”

“No,” I said, holding my breath so as not to breathe into her face. Not now, anyway.

“Excellent! Let’s have a look-see at the office, and then…then you’ll meet the crew.” The latter statement was made with such a sense of finality, that perhaps I should have made arrangements with a lawyer to update my living will.

What’s with this chick? It was never easy to get a sense of who someone was when at work. You can’t wear your regular clothing, and your personality is muted by professionalism. She was all over the place, but friendly. I had no issue working with oddballs; I’d worked graveyard in other places, and it tended to be the Island of Misfit Toys. Anyone whose personality didn’t jive with normal was shunted there, availability willing.

Odella was strange so far, but not so much so that I was unwilling to continue. I’d only met one manager who’d ranged so far outside the territory of sane that I’d been forced to quit. The incident involved tongs, nudity, and a lot of yogurt. Even I had my limits.

When we went into the office, right next to the crew room, she continued her body-sight-blocking routine. The dramatic build-up was getting tedious, but I kept my mouth shut and entered the office.

It had a desk, computer, a multitude of cupboards, a couple of filing systems, and a safe. Pretty atypical of most small offices in restaurants. She brushed past me, and I smelled orange blossoms as she sat in the rolling computer desk chair. It was black, and her hair blended in with the matte fabric.

“I’ll make this short, since I need to get back on the floor: we’re not your normal graveyard crew. I’d tell you just how strange, but it’s one of those, ‘you won’t believe it until you see it,’ situations. We need someone with your particular skill set here to interact with the customers where we cannot. You’ll be the only one face-to-face with the customers, barring exigent circumstances, like right now. Tonight you’ll just be getting a general idea of how the restaurant is run, and you’ll be on the headset, listening to me taking orders. Think you’re up for it?”

It was the weirdest introduction I’d ever been given at a new job, and I mentally ran down the list on my résumé, trying to think of what skill set I possessed that someone else didn’t.

I was coming up blank, but I wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Maybe the entire crew had bad interactions with the customers in the past, and now they needed a babysitter? Seemed a poor business decision, but maybe they were really good workers otherwise.

“I will certainly try my best,” I said. I set about building up my mental fortitude to meet some potentially abrasive co-workers.

Odella smiled, as though my efforts were visible to her, and she stood back up. She grabbed a polo shirt from a cabinet above her head. It was black, just like hers and Julia’s.

“Then put this on and follow me.”

She left the office, but turned her back in the doorway to block the view and give me privacy. I pulled the polo on over the tank top, but left it un-tucked, since that was how Odella had it. I let her know I was finished. She turned, gave me a once-over, and nodded in approval. She started walking to the right, and I followed behind her toward the food prep/assembling area. She still blocked my view, though as we passed I saw the first window, grill, fryers, prep tables, and a couple of fridges and freezers.

“Everyone, this is the new human graveyard shift manager, Holly,” Odella said, then moved aside.

My brain only had a scant second to wonder at the word ‘human’ before it was assaulted with sensory input it couldn’t process. At first, I wondered if someone decided it was ‘Halloween in September’ night at The Infamous Chicken.

The first thing that caught my eye, only because he took up the most room, was the guy who was dressed like a zombie. His skin was gray and desiccated, with dark circles under bright, blue eyes made large by his wasted skin. He wore a red hat with restaurant logo on it, so I couldn’t see his hair color, or even if he had any. His cheeks were sunken, and he hunched over, as though he was exhausted. The bright blue crew shirt hung limp on his tall, lean frame, and was tucked into jeans that were cinched tight at his waist with a black belt. The gloves he wore on his hands, as required by food service workers in most places, actually extended above his elbows.

“Hi,” he said, in the flattest, most humdrum voice I’d ever encountered. “I’m Leo.” He gave me the weakest wave of his hand, and then shuffled over toward a set of large, deep fryers on my right. They were beeping, insistent that he immediately remove whatever food had been placed in them.

At this point, alarms bells were clanging distantly in the back of my brain, like when you think you hear a siren while you’re in the car, but it’s so distant it was difficult to tell. You turn down the music, or even roll the window down to try and make sure you’re not hearing things.

What an incredibly detailed costume, the rational part of my brain said, as cool and collected as a stack of refrigerated sliced tomatoes.

It’s a zombie! The primal portion screamed, and ran around in circles uselessly.

Impossible. The rational side argued back. Control yourself, you ninny.

I’d stilled, like a person spotting a bear in the wild for the first time. I’d nearly convinced myself it really was a costume, until some small movement pulled my eyes back over to the assembly table.

She was petite, and would make me appear tall. Her hair was a light, coppery red, and curled so perfectly it would make a model envious. It fell down to her mid-back, even in the high ponytail. Her features were delicate, and had an ethereal beauty that would will men to march to their deaths just to see it, like Helen of Troy. Where Odella’s eyes were like emeralds, hers were a green that spoke of the Mediterranean Sea. Her skin was smooth, and tanned so perfectly she either lived at a tanning salon, or it was her natural tone.

Then, she spoke. “Hi!” she said, her voice impossibly cheerful and high-pitched, grating against my eardrums. “My name’s Anne.” It all came out in a jumble, and fast. Then she rushed forward and gave me a bone-crushing hug that removed all the air from my lungs, and lifted me from the ground.

She’s stronger than she looks, I wheezed. I stiffened under the embrace. I’d never been a hugger. My personal comfort level with such things ranged from extreme germaphobe to ‘I’d rather set myself on fire than be touched’.

She put me down, somewhat put off by my reaction, if her pout was any indication.

“Jeez, Ord—it’s just a hug,” a grating, nasal voice declared.

I looked over Anne’s head to see a small green…thing on top of a step tool. He was around three and a half feet tall, and his prominent nose was long and hooked, nearly meeting his pointy chin. I had Wizard of Oz flashbacks of the Wicked Witch of the West. He bared a feral smile my way, full of sharp teeth that would make a piranha proud, and crossed spindly arms over a scrawny chest. They must have ordered his uniform shirt special, because it fit him well, and I imagined he had to shop in the kid’s section for his pants. Pointed, green ears stuck out sharply, and extended well beyond the back of his skull. His feet were a normal size, and out of proportion for his body, but what was most out of place was his hair. It was black with blonde highlights, straightened in a swoop across his right eye, and screamed, “Fall Out Boy fanboy”.

What a mental mouthful.

He narrowed beady black eyes at me, and indicated he wasn’t very impressed with what he saw.

“Don’t call her that, Stribs,” another girl growled at the…very short guy in the costume.

He’s a mother-lovin’ Goblin! Primal Brain shrieked.

That’s not a very nice thing to say to a little person in some kind of cosplay, Rational Brain scolded.

Can anyone say denial? Primal Brain scathingly retorted.

The girl was normal by all accounts: height, weight, light tan, medium brown hair done up in a bun with a few flyaway, errant curls. She wasn’t in uniform, just a pair of white-washed jeans and a sweatshirt for the local high school—go Thunder Hollow Bears!—but I didn’t have too long to wonder why. She turned and looked at me, her bright orange, bordering on yellow eyes gleaming in the fluorescent lightning.

I didn’t think it possible, but my eyes widened further, and my heartrate picked up. Her nostrils flared, and her pupils dilated a touch.

Then she turned back to Stribs, as though it pained her to continue keeping eye contact with me. “That’s not cool.”

Uh, nice contacts? Rational brain proposed, a little more on firmer ground with this one.

I don’t know what she is, but she wants to eat us! Primal Brain wailed, and assumed the fetal position in the corner of itself.

Rational brain shook its proverbial head. Don’t be such a schlemiel.

“No one asked you, Bea,” someone spat from behind Stribs. She shifted over—she was also on a stool—and I caught a glimpse of white hair expertly done in a plait. Curled bangs covered her forehead, above striking, cornflower blue eyes, and an upturned nose. Tiny fists were balled and on her even tinier hips. She was also not in uniform, and wore black yoga pants and a graphic tee that said, ‘I Never Liked You Anyway.’ Her dour frown backed the words up poetically.

Gnome, or dwarf? Primal Brain wondered.

Not enough facial hair for a—I mean, it’s it little person. Stop trying to sidetrack me. Rational Brain admonished.

Primal Brain rolled its imaginary eyes. Whatever. 

“Be nice, Celinwel,” Anne said, catching the tiny person’s ire-filled stare.

Just as she opened her mouth to speak, she was interrupted, which was the running theme for the night.

“Odella! This guy wants to speak with a manager,” someone said near the front, where the second window was.

Everyone turned and made a hole for the woman who spoke. She was slender and sleek, like a willow reed, and she moved like water flowed: smooth and tranquil. Her hair was steel blue at the top, and darkened into an Egyptian blue at the tips, where it brushed her shoulders. Even when she didn’t move, her hair did, like she was floating in a pond. Her skin was pale as moonlight, and her eyes an ice blue, nearly white, like a frozen lake deep within a forest during the depths of winter. She held the wireless headset away from her delicately pointed ear, grimacing as inaudible screaming poured in through the little foam protector.

Whoa, was all Rational Brain said.

I second that, replied Primal brain.

I turned just in time to catch Odella’s reaction: her green eyes changed to the red of a glowing ember.

“Excellent,” she said, and sprang toward the front with glee, an extra bounce in her step. “I’m coming, Lia.” Just about everyone in the service industry loved being able to tell someone no, but it was all the more sweet if they were being an asspain and you were a manager. You were judge, jury, and executioner; your word as final as death itself.

“How—“ I started to ask, in reference to, well, everything, when yet something else caught my attention from the corner of my eye.

It was a silvery mist, coalescing near the ceiling above the heated cabinets where cooked product was kept until a customer ordered it. It took on the form of a young man, with short hair of an unknown color, an oval face with a pinched, anxious expression, and worried eyes. He wrung thin hands, over and over, and looked between all those gathered and me. He was more solid in his upper body, though ‘solid’ might be too strong of a word for someone you could see through, but completely faded out around his waist. He was still wearing his Infamous Chicken uniform.

I think I’d hate to die in that. Primal Brain commented.

The room tilted, and there was a ringing in my ears. Distantly, I realized I’d stopped breathing, and with all eyes on me I could think of only one thing to say:

“I think I need to sit down.”

Then everything went black, but not before Primal Brain gave a parting shot to my ego:

Who’s the schlemiel now?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin, Chapter One

Chapter One

There was nothing that Wednesday morning to indicate I’d experience anything incredible. That my beliefs would be challenged to the point I was debating checking myself in for mental help. Or that I’d be pulling someone’s body from a fryer vat.

The fact that pulling the body out of the vat—a murder by all indications—was the most mundane thing to happen all night, might land you somewhere far outside the ballpark of strange I’d wound up in. Never in a million years would I have expected my life to take such a turn. I was a nice, normal girl, from a nice, normal town, and nice, normal girls from nice, normal towns don’t get themselves tangled up in fast food rage murders.

The death, while awful, didn’t begin to cover all the strange happenings I wasn’t prepared for when I went in for my first night at work. Of course, what I didn’t know is the death of my deep-fried, former co-worker would kick the proverbial hornets’ nest of mayhem in our sleepy little town. That is, if the hornets were the size of the jacked-up, mudding trucks the high school boys liked to drive down in the hollow our town was named for.

My name is Holly Liberty—my dad was in the Army, so sue me—Bell, and unlike me there’s nothing ordinary about this story.

******************

I opened the newspaper to the classifieds section with the enthusiasm a person reserved for sticking their hand down a rabid gopher’s hole. The small-ish town of Thunder Hollow, Washington wasn’t so small that everyone knew everyone else intimately, but apparently not big enough that using the internet for job advertisements was a thing. Hence the old school newspaper.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against print. Give me a real book over an electric one any day of the week. It was the fact I was job hunting, again. I gripped the edges of the newspaper, crinkling it, and did my best not to grind my teeth, for my mother’s sake. “I paid 6,000 dollars on your teeth, and you better take care of them!”

Apparently, it was reprehensible to give a pizza—one that was going to be thrown away, anyway, mind you—to a homeless person. The same day I was let go for, ‘not promoting a clean work environment’. The subtext? “We don’t want dirty, homeless people flocking here thinking they can get free pizza. It might put off the paying customers.” Sure, Thunder Hollow had a few homeless people. What town doesn’t? But they made it out as though we’d be plagued by a horde of homeless zombies à la night of the living dead style. It was lame, and good riddance.

However, a girl still needs to pay the rent. My meager savings weren’t going to hold up to the onslaught of bills that inevitably showed up to my door like lions pouncing on a wounded gazelle. So just three short months after being hired at Speedy Pizza, I took my last few dollars of spending money to one of the two cafes in town, The Mountain Retreat Cafe. I bought a vanilla iced coffee, an apple turnover, and the aforementioned newspaper. I wasn’t expecting my dream job to jump off the page. This is Thunder Hollow we’re talking about, not jobtopia. I just needed something to stem the slow, steady bleed from my finances.

I’d sat down the best of intentions at one of four small, glass tables, complete with uncomfortable, cheap, dark metal chairs, and a plum purple umbrella that had seen better days. But they had the best damned java, ever, and it wasn’t a bad place to wallow in my jobless self-pity. From the number of pages boasting job listings, the high schooler die off from summer jobs was well under way. Employers needed to fill the sucking void with adult-like humans to get through the end of summer rushes, and get their scheduling in line for the slower, rainy months. It is a not-so-rare window of opportunity that is as constant as animal migrations, the quarterback getting the head cheerleader pregnant, and Christmas items going on sale in October.

Once I’d been fired from job of the year at Speedy Pizza, I’d gone on the hunt for any type of employment that could be considered upwardly mobile. I mean, I was a college grad, albeit a few years out. Fresh out of college I could have posed for any of those happy-faced, college graduate commercials promising new, and exciting opportunities. Four years beyond my graduation date, however, and I was more likely to be in a montage for people needing government assistance to eat every month. Apparently, no one is hiring people these days; just résumés. I didn’t have the seven to fifteen years of required experience, or a six year degree, or any redeemable traits, so far as the responses I received were concerned. At one point, I was told I wasn’t even qualified to wash laundry. What an ego booster.

While I was only half paying attention as I scanned the pages, taking in what was likely the last of the late morning summer sunshine like a kid eating a giant pixie stick, my phone rang. I dug through my small purse, which still meant I got to it just before the final ring sent it to voicemail. I didn’t even have time to groan before I answered as I read the display: Buttface.

“Yes, dearest brother of mine?” I queried, in the sweetest, most angelic, leave-me-the-hell alone voice.

“Job hunting again?” he asked, figuratively launching one of his first-place javelin throws at my heart. My brother was the perfect jock and student, whereas I was winded just thinking about exercise and had mediocre grades in anything that was considered academic. I probably could have tried harder, but he cast a big shadow, and I decided at a young age that the best way to stand outside that shadow was to amount to nothing.

You see how well that turned out for me.

“If you must know, yes, I am. Called to gloat?”

“Can’t a brother be worried about his sister’s situation?”

More like his sister’s potential to divert funds from his pack of hellions spawned from him and his wife.

“Uh-huh,” I said, unconvinced.

“Candy”—I would never know why anyone decides to take a perfectly good name like Candace and turn it into a stripper’s stage name—“wants to know if we’ll see you at Jason’s birthday party this Sunday?”

Read: Will you be bringing my hell-spawn a gift? I kid. Mostly. My nieces and nephews were great. In small doses. One at a time. Every couple of months.

“Yes, I’ll be there, and I bought the gift a month ago.”

“Great! We’re looking forward to you being there.”

Long pause.

“Something else?”

“How close are you to getting a new job?”

“Goodbye, Joel.” I hung up before he could protest.

I loved my brother to death, but we were as alike as potatoes and puppies, as opposed to two peas in a pod. In fact, when I’d asked him once how we could be so different when we had the same parents, he’d told me aliens had beamed me down because I was such a rotten alien baby. Ah, brotherly love.

Of course I would never ask my parents for financial assistance. They’d already gifted my brother and me with trust funds, which they established after my father got some kind of settlement from the government for something he’s not allowed to talk about. My brother utilized his slightly better than me, which was possibly why he was one of the best lawyers for miles, and I was regularly turned down to wash laundry. But who really knew? The fact was, the fund kept me just far enough above water that I wasn’t drowning, but a job was the difference between that and not counting out my pile of nickels and pennies to pay for coffee.

With renewed motivation, though I guess you have to have it in the first place for it to be renewed, I perused the classifieds. It was on the last page, reserved for the desperate and nigh hopeless, that I found this gem:

The Infamous Chicken is urgently in search of a UNIQUE individual

to manage the graveyard shift, 10-4, 6 days a week

Call 555-981-3518

Ask for Julia

I’d leaned forward while reading the ad twice. I wasn’t sure why unique was in all caps, but it piqued my interest, for sure. I sat back in my chair and bit my lip.

The Infamous Chicken was, well, infamous for having the best fried chicken outside the Bible Belt. At least according to our Pacific Northwest residents. It catered to a wide age-range, from kids to the geriatrics, like a fast-food catch-all. The chicken was juicy, its coating crisp, and let’s say a certain Colonel couldn’t touch the taste with a ten-foot pole. They sold fries or corn fritters as the sides, soda or beer, and even had a limited breakfast menu for those on their way to work who wanted something fat and delicious. They sold burgers, too, but they were definitely more of a chicken joint, though the burgers were still something to write home about. It was owned by some guy no one ever saw, but rumor was he was a recluse who was good at concocting delicious marinades for dead animals.

It was never overly busy, but business was always good for them. After a spate of misfires with the career pistol, this might be just what the doctor ordered. I usually flew to manager positions before I went down in a fiery tailspin for one reason or another. So I did have manager experience, and they didn’t ask for a certain amount in the ad. That might change when I spoke with Julia, but for now I’d hope for the best.

***********

I called Julia, as directed, and after a few questions she directed me to send my résumé—cringe—to her work e-mail. I sat at my computer, staring at the screen, willing the e-mail to appear. I hit refresh like I was addicted to clicking the mouse, wandering away for moments before returning to my vice. There was no guarantee she’d get back to me today, but the ad had said urgent.

Hours went by, and at each loud, nerve-grating tick of the clock on my wall, my hope dwindled bit by bit. I hadn’t realized I’d fallen asleep until the phone rang, and jolted me awake. Drool puddled around my elbow on my desk, and I grimaced as I wiped my mouth across my shoulder on my plain grey t-shirt.

I snagged the phone and answered, “Hello?”

“Hello. I’m looking for a Ms. Holly Bell,” the caller, a woman, said.

“Speaking,” I responded, my voice husky from sleep. I cleared my throat. “May I ask who’s calling?”

“This is Julia from The Infamous Chicken. I’m calling back in regards to your application.”

“Oh, wonderful! I’m glad to hear back from you.” Though I wondered if I ever had to answer the phone, if I’d be able to keep a straight face when I said, ‘The Infamous Chicken’.

“Good to hear,” she said, an edge of hesitation in her voice.

Uh, oh.

“One of our employees, who had put in their two weeks, decided to just quit instead of finishing out his time. Would you be available to come in tonight for a trial run, so to speak, and meet the…crew members you’ll help manage?” she asked, hesitating once again for only a moment when mentioning the crew members.

Maybe they were a handful? Perhaps that was why unique was in all caps on the ad? Well, I’d babysat my nieces and nephews, who could almost climb walls they were so rambunctious, and did manage to do so at one point. Let’s just say my brother and sister-in-law now stow their mountain climbing gear where the kids can’t get to it, particularly the shoe spikes and pickaxes. Have you ever walked into a living room to see a four year-old hanging eight feet from the ground, holding onto the handle of a pickaxe embedded in the wall, giggling like a madman? Heart attack and unsettling doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Adults should be easy as pie, or rather chicken, in comparison. Maybe even chicken pie.

“Absolutely,” I answered, my voice more confident than the butterflies in my gut.

“Do you own a pair of slip-resistant shoes?”

“Yes, I do,” I said. At least something useful came from working at Speedy Pizza.

“Great. Wear those, black socks, an undershirt or tank top, and a pair of blue jeans—no rips. We’ll have a shirt for you here.”

“Fantastic. Will this be a normal-length shift?”

“First you’ll just meet the crew. If everything goes well from there, yes. Please show up no later than nine-fifty,” she said, putting so much emphasis on the time, it was underlined and bold in my mind.

“Sure, no problem,” I said, somewhat taken aback.

“Good. We look forward to meeting you.”

She hung up.

Oooo-kay. Well, maybe she just wasn’t a phone person.

It was nearing nine, and the darkness crept up toward the window of my one-bedroom studio apartment like the fingers of a skeleton slowly rising from the grave. I had a lovely view of the evergreen forest surrounding the town that I covered up with blackout curtains. The apartment was basic down to the smallest detail, as I wasn’t much for home decorating.

I started getting ready early, the butterflies having turned into gnawing little rats of anxiety and doubt.

“You suck.”

“You’ll screw this up too, loser.”

“No one likes you.”

I let it go on for another minute before I shut it down.

Takes one to know one, you useless eggplant.

Shining standard of mental health, was I. I put on a plain, black headband between my bangs and the rest of my straight, thick golden brown sugar colored hair. It was cut in a bob, to just below my jawline. My black, plastic, thin-frame glasses outlined my hazel eyes. They were small enough that my chubby cheeks of my heart-shaped face didn’t push the frames up when I smiled. My face matched the rest of me: flirting with the line between average and plump. It didn’t help that I was a mere five-foot-two, a midget compared to the tree people of my family.

I grabbed a pair of clean jeans, some black socks, a black tank top, and headed out the door to the concrete landing just outside my door to put my shoes on. Slip-resistant shoes, especially when worn in areas where food is made and drops on the floor, can get majorly nasty. After I tied them, I locked my door and headed down to my car. It was finally full dark, but only just. I unlocked my dark blue, four-door car, black in the night, and hopped in.

The Infamous Chicken was just on the outskirts of town. It was a good place, not too far from the town to the east and highway just to the North, but far enough away that the parking lot was sizable, and traffic wasn’t a huge concern. It took me fifteen-ish minutes to get there, since my apartment was within walking distance of the outer edge of the inner city. It helped that traffic was light this late, since most normal folks were home and in bed.

When I pulled into the parking lot at nine-forty-eight, I followed the sign for employee parking on the far side. Roughly eight people were leaving through the rear entrance as I parked and got out of the car. The gravel crunched underfoot, the rocks common for parking lots in the area, being so near to the Cascades.

A couple people watched on, curious, as I made my way to the back door, and a couple nodded, to which I nodded in return. I may hate people, but that was no reason not to be polite. I wasn’t raised by wolves, after all. Though the members of my father’s old unit, and the charity committee members my mother was acquainted with might disagree. We were a rather tenacious family.

As I reached the back door, a woman exited at exactly nine-forty-nine on the nose. She wasn’t much taller than me, her short sangria hair was pulled back in a ponytail that couldn’t quite gather all the hair up. Bangs that were wavy went across a forehead with a light dusting of freckles, which could be found everywhere her pale skin was exposed. Her black polo had the logo of The Infamous Chicken’s mascot: a chicken wearing a swashbuckler’s outfit, complete with poofy plume on its hat, and a sword.

She turned and came face-to-face with me, the only indication of her surprise at my sudden nearness a slight widening of her sapphire blue eyes.

“Julia?” I guessed. Her shirt was black, but everyone else who’d filed out had worn electric blue. It was an educated guess, since most places gave managers different colored shirts from the crew.

“Yes, are you Holly?” she asked, her voice a veritable battlefield between relief and apprehension.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.

“Great. Nice to meet you. Just knock on the door; the other manager is waiting for you.”

“Uh, you aren’t staying?” I asked, a little thrown by the exchange, as though I’d missed a step on the stairs.

“No, I can’t stay,” she said in a rush, panic flashing behind her eyes. “Don’t worry. The other manager will show you the ropes.” She looked down at her watch. “Good luck!” Then she hurried away, got into a red, old, but well cared for car, and sped out of the lot; kicking up gravel as she left.

A million questions ran through my mind. Not the least of which was; if Julia wasn’t the one training me, why was she the point of contact? Also, why weren’t they promoting from within? The latter question far more suspicious than the former.

I knocked on the back door as directed, since it had no handle and could only be opened from the inside. A scant second went by before it creaked open, the lone yellow bulb above the door not able to penetrate the darkness I could see through the jamb into what I assumed was a hallway.

I stepped around the opening door as someone asked, “Yes?” The voice was sultry and low, almost a purr. Then I came face-to-face with a woman with piercing, emerald green eyes, smooth, deathly white skin, raven hair with bluish highlights in the low light pulled back into a high, immaculate bun, and long, slender limbs.

“I’m, uh, here for the graveyard manager position,” I said, the words faltering from me like scattering pieces of scrap metal across the concrete.

“Ah, I see,” she said, a slow smile curving blood red, lipsticked lips. “I am Odella, and you must be Holly.”

When she said her name, there was the faintest hint of an accent, absent from the rest of her words. I’d experienced it with other expats during our various travels from my father’s Army years. Usually ones who were young when they’d left their native country, and spent many years elsewhere.

“I, uh, yes. Yes, I’m Holly,” I continued to stumble, mesmerized like a bird with a snake.

Weak! Get your shit together, soldier. My father’s voice bellowed out in my mind, harking back to his Drill Sergeant days.

I’m not a soldier, I spat back. Irritation at some of the worst years of my childhood giving me the will to break eye contact with the woman.

“Interesting,” she murmured, her voice betraying not a small amount of shock, if not a little curiosity. “Why don’t you come in, and meet the rest of the crew.”

She pushed the door open wide, and held it for me. With the spot on the door her hand was against—right near the middle hinge—it should have been difficult for her to hold a heavy, metal door with such ease. At the very least, she should be trembling with the effort as I stood there like an indecisive child. Yet she made it look effortless.

“Sure. I’d love to,” I replied, my words slow and tentative.

I looked beyond her into the looming dark of the hallway, to a bright light in what I assumed was the kitchen area. There were the usual noises of food being made, mixing with the outside sounds of cars pulling through the drive-through on the opposite end of the building, and night creatures calling from the woods that backed up to this side.

Then I stepped into the dark, and the door closed with a heavy thud behind us.

 

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