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 the 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, that is, 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 late-morning light 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 edgy music playing in the background 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, swung freely.
I stepped into the dark hallway. His woodsy, aromatic scent made 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 varying versions of Stribs were in front of the assembly table, conversing.
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. 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 Stribs’ 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 I wasn’t sure they’d ever smooth out, 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, and 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.