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.
“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.