Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin ~~ Chapter Twelve

Chapter 12

I’d like to say the minute I left the room I realized I was being a terrible person, let alone sister, and turned around and went back in. But no. I made my way down to the kitchen, fully expecting it to be full of children who just took a hit for their sugar fix, gossipy moms, and harried catering staff. I was pleasantly surprised to find that wasn’t the case, and it was strangely quiet. The only noise was coming from the back yard, where the children sounded as though they were having a contest to see who could scream the loudest.

The kitchen was modern, with shiny appliances, and a white paint scheme that I imagined took a full-time staff to keep clean. It was large enough to fit most my apartment in, but that’s what my brother gets for being the best personal lawyer in the area, and from the money that was left over from what our parents gave us.

I walked around the island to the large window overlooking the backyard. My nephew had opted for some kind of pirate theme, and was currently running around with his fellow buccaneers in their personal backyard playground. There was even a bouncy house. My other nieces and nephew were now dressed up, too, and my heart clenched. There was pure joy on their faces as they ran around, searching for treasure at the command of Jason, who was the spitting image of my brother. I couldn’t hold that against him, though—he was a pretty cool kid.

“Don’t feel like joining the party?”

I spun around to see a well-dressed man on the other side of the island, a small smile quirking the corner of his mouth. He was impossibly handsome, with features that toed the line between too rugged and romance novel cover model. His hair was a dark bronze, cut short on the sides and just long enough on the top to come off as devil-may-care. Like there just might be a bad boy lurking beneath the expensive, tailored, and designed-just-for-him conservative clothing.

But it was the expression in his honey brown eyes that reminded me of my brother at first glance: lawyer-ish and falsely concerned. My brother was a natural at his profession—a born and bred shark. For survival reasons, I’d learned early on to identify the surface emotions he used to manipulate people into opening up, or doing what he wanted.

However, if my brother was a shark, this man was something more. Something prehistoric that glided through the ocean with deadly grace, and put the fear of god in sharks of old if they’d been capable of the emotion. Something that sent a chill down my spine and made my bones ache with dread.

So, instead of answering his question, I decided to play on my apparent knack of irritating supernatural beings with my insulting questions. And if this guy wasn’t some kind of preternatural bugaboo, I’d eat my tongue.

If you keep irritating things that can murder you with a flick of their pinky finger, they just might make you eat it, Rational Brain grumbled.

Primal Brain was, once again, silent in its terror.

“What are you?” I asked, going straight for the offensive jugular of questions.

He blinked at me, once, long and slow. “I see no one has taught you how to speak to your betters,” he said with a faint hiss, his voice going from pleasant to dangerous as easily as flipping a switch.

I grit my teeth against the sudden surge of adrenaline from my flight response, and stubbornly jutted my chin up at him. “If I come across one maybe I’d be obliged. As it is, I don’t see the point.”

Why are you picking a fight with something that could murder us with less effort than it takes to open his eyes? Rational Brain groaned.

That was a good question. Why was I picking this fight? Maybe it had something to do with needing to lash out after discovering my brother was married to a demon and my nieces and nephews were half-demon? Nah. I was probably just this dysfunctional.

“You know, for someone with little to no standing, protection, or anything worthwhile, you’re quite mouthy,” he crooned, and moved slowly around the island separating us.

“So I’ve been told,” I said, and stupidly stood my ground.

He came right up to me, with barely half a foot separating us. I’ve always been short, so it’s no surprise when someone is taller than me. In fact, I expect most people to be taller than me more often than not. But there is almost a visceral shock that goes through you when someone quite a bit taller than you invades your personal space. You’re left staring at their chest at best, or the bottom of their sternum at worst, and breathing in their subtle, expensive cologne.

When I looked up at him, his eyes had flashed to the same indigo as Candy’s, though his seemed more blue than purple. A thrill of…not exactly fear went through me, and my eyes widened.

His nostrils flared, and a small smirk played across his lips. Then he leaned over until his mouth was right next to my ear.

“You know, I’ve heard you’re trying to help the goblins find whoever killed their wayward heir,” he said, his voice going low and smooth as silk.

At his pause I swallowed and nodded, the motion jerky and tense.

“The goblins are incredibly important clients of ours, and I’d hate to disappoint them with your amateurish—at best—detective skills.”

A flash of annoyance furrowed my brows. “I told them I wasn’t the person for the job, and they didn’t listen. Plus, they’ve already threatened my brother and myself. This seems a bit like overkill.”

His throaty chuckle raised the hairs on the back of my neck. “No, they threatened your brother’s reputation, but my brethren and myself will do more than threaten. And take more than just his reputation,” he said, and leaned back.

That statement dumped a bucket of ice water on whatever hormones had, however briefly, reared their atrociously timed heads. When I met his eyes, the cold-blooded malice that pooled in their depths held a promise of agony in my future. One that might not even be contingent on whether or not I succeeded at finding Stribs’ murderer.

Whatever he saw in my face must have pleased him to no end, because a huge grin broke out across his face and he laughed a full-throated laugh.

“Oh, human. Your kind is a source of endless amusement,” he said once the laugh had died down into a series of staggered chuckles.

Well, at least he didn’t call you an Ord, Primal Brain reasoned.

That pales somewhat in the face of him threatening Joel’s life, Rational Brain replied scathingly.

“What I find amusing,” I said, my voice taking on a slight growl, “is how pathetic all you supposed ‘better’ beings must be to rely so heavily on humans to do everything for you.”

His expression didn’t change, but he did quirk an eyebrow. “All good leaders know how to delegate tasks appropriately. You don’t see the farmer pulling the plow, but the ox,” he said.

I won’t react to him calling me a cow. I won’t, I thought, and grit my teeth.

“And what good does it do the farmer to abuse or kill the one pulling the plow?” I asked. “Sounds like nothing more than an excuse to be cruel for no reason other than pathetic self-amusement,” I spat.

Though his smile hadn’t died during our back-and-forth, it went gentle. His eyes softened, and his head tilted slightly as he leaned in close, our noses almost touching.

“There might be one more thing you should consider before you mouth off to someone less genial than myself,” he said, his breath tickling across my skin, and smelling subtly of mint.

“What’s that?” I bit out.

“We aren’t the only ones who know about your familial connections, and what do you think will happen to Candace—” I couldn’t help the brief moment of satisfaction I got from the fact that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to call her Candy, “—and the children should something happen to Joel?”

Whatever vindication I’d felt for that short second died at his words. I sucked in a shocked breath, and my chest tightened so painfully it hurt to breathe.

“Aunty Holly!” a familiar voice shrieked from the doorway leading out to the backyard.

I jerked backward from the demon just in time to catch a tiny, adorable, armful of pirate. He had an eyepatch and everything. I ignored the scream of protest from my hand, though I did let out a small, pained noise inaudible over the commotion the little one was making. I nearly inhaled the white-blond curls of my youngest nephew, Owen, who still sported that baby fine hair of younger children just like Evelyn Rose.

“Missed you, Aunty!” he proclaimed as he squeezed my neck with all the force of a python, despite the fact he’d seen me barely more than half an hour ago.

His breath smelled of sugar, and I gave him a suspicious glance. “You haven’t been sneaking frosting from your brother’s cake, have you?” I asked.

“No!” he proclaimed far too quickly.

I laughed. “Well, if you say so, I believe you.”

He grinned in triumph. Who was I to rain on his parade? I was the indulgent aunt who didn’t have to scold him about his brother’s cake if I didn’t want to. I’d leave that to my brother and sister-in-law.

“Were you and Uncle Dizzy going to kiss?” he asked, in all his youthful innocence.

I let out a strangled, inarticulate noise of surprise. I wasn’t sure which shocked me more. The fact he called him uncle, that his name was Dizzy, or if he thought we were going to kiss.

“What made you think we were going to kiss?” I asked, trying to keep the utter panic from my words.

‘Dizzy’ broke out into an amused, truly affectionate grin aimed at Owen.

“He was close to you like Daddy when he’s going to kiss Mommy,” he proclaimed, and bounced in my arms. After a moment, he tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “You know kisses are yucky, right?”

“Absolutely, which is why Uncle Dizzy—” I just managed not to choke on the name that didn’t fit the demon at all, “—and I certainly weren’t going to kiss,” I reassured him.

He pursed his lips as though he didn’t quite believe me, but then he started to wiggle, an indication he’d had enough of being held. I let him down, and he grabbed my uninjured hand and started tugging me toward the backyard.

“Come on; you’re missing the party!” he said, and tried to drag me away.

I planted my feet to keep from falling forward. “I’ll be out in a minute, Handsome. I need to ask your dad something,” I said.

He pouted and dropped my hand, then crossed his arms over his chest. “I want you to come now!”

“Don’t worry, dear heart, she’ll be out soon enough,” Dizzy said.

Owen looked between the two of us a couple of times before shouting, “Okay!” He ran back through the door, slamming it behind him and making me cringe as the glass fairly rattled.

There was a long moment of silence before he turned to consider me once again.

“Dizzy, huh?” I asked.

“It’s Dezanoth, actually, but try getting a five-year-old to say that,” he said with a shrug.

Well, he wasn’t wrong.

“And Uncle?”

He rolled his eyes. “You ask far too many questions, but in a roundabout, distant way you could say Candace and myself are related.”

I didn’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. The thought of having this…man for a brother-in-law gave me the heebie-jeebies. Now that I’d interacted with a demon far closer to what I expected, I could certainly appreciate Candace in a way I hadn’t before. Now I really needed to ask the two of them some questions.

“I really do need to speak with my brother, so, try not to murder any ‘amusing humans’ if you can manage it,” I said scathingly. With a glare, I turned and went to head back to my brother’s office.

“Holly,” he said, his voice soft, the words caressing my spine and making the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up again.

I turned back to look at him, and he was still on the other side of the kitchen. With how quick and silent supernaturals moved, I half expected to come face-to-face with him, and was relieved to find that wasn’t true.

When I met his eyes, though, I stiffened and my breath froze. The wicked look there promised all the imagined torments of hell would come to my doorstep one day, and the alluring smile gracing his lips indicated I might just beg for it to happen.

“Don’t forget: the farmer isn’t nearly as replaceable as the ox.”

 

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

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin ~~ Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

 

It turned out that Celinwel called the owner after she was released, and quit. So much for saving her to make my life easier. The night wasn’t that bad, though, since I forgot to account for Thea. She was efficient, quirky, though decidedly chatty about anime. I mean, I wasn’t sure how she was getting internet out in the Middle of Nowhere, Creepy Ass Woods, U.S.A., but it was probably highly illegal and I didn’t want to know.

As a weird speck of normalcy in the weirdest week of my life, I went to my nephew’s birthday party. They were lucky I showed up at all. Between sleepless days, working nights, and trying to solve a goblin murder to keep my brother’s tail out of the fire, I was dragging ass like a pug across a carpet. My only saving grace was that Saturday was my day off, and I’d managed some decent sleep before the party on Sunday. Slies had been conspicuously absent, but I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth and start to question it. I really didn’t want to wade through a pack of screaming children, but I needed to talk with my brother about a fair few things, which may or may not end with me yelling at him.

What kind of brother keeps the existence of the supernatural from his sister, and as a result she ends up beholden to a goblin leader to keep him from whatever terrible fate said goblin could concoct? A lame one, that’s who.

“Holly!” Candy’s voice cut across my nerves like the steel on steel squeal of a car collision.

If there was one word to describe Candy, it was ‘bombshell’. She was curvy, blond, stylish, and her eyes were a deep blue that almost seemed to flash indigo at times. Honestly, she was so perfect it was unreal. If she hadn’t had four kids with my brother, (and how unfair was it that she still looked that good after four kids?), I’d have guessed she was a robot.

She wore what I called ‘rich mom chic’, with a flowing, gauzy navy-blue shirt, black slacks you couldn’t call slacks because it was supposed to be ‘casual’, and silvery high heels. Her perfectly curly hair was swept into an up-do with a few artfully placed loose strands, and her various pieces of jewelry that could feed me for at least six months flashed in the low light of the entryway. The fact was, I was jealous, no two ways about it. She exuded grace like she was born to it, and the best I could manage on a good day was, ‘at least I’m not wearing sweat pants’.

“Hey, Candy,” I choked out without sounding too incredulous. I was getting better with time. It’d only taken me how many years to manage that? Still, point to me.

When I gave her a little wave her eyes widened at the soft cast on my hand.

“What happened to your hand?” she asked, some of the shininess in her voice wearing off. I should punch goblins more often.

“I, uh, lost my temper,” I said lamely.

She raised an eyebrow in expectation of more, but I simply smiled my most guileless smile, letting her know that was all I was going to say on the matter. I couldn’t very well tell her that a goblin healer had wrapped my hand, stating it was all he could do because goblin flesh was far too different from human for him to use his abilities. He said it was just fractured, but that I should still go to the hospital. I respectfully declined. I could barely pay for food let alone a medical bill.

“You wouldn’t happen to know where my dear brother is hiding, would you?” I asked, going for innocence, but probably not managing it very well.

“Oh, he’s—”

“Aunt Holly!” The unholy screech was my only warning before I was attacked by a pack of beasts, also known as my nieces and nephews. In total there were four of them: two boys and two girls, and they were all elementary and pre-school age.

At the moment I was only being accosted by three of them: Brielle, 7, Owen, 5, and Evelyn Rose, 3. Jason, the birthday boy, was turning 9 and likely commanding his birthday guest minions in some game of mischief or another. The child could wage a full-scale war from his tree house against the best military strategists out there, and I’d still bet on my nephew. If I hadn’t seen the birth certificate I would have sworn ‘Devious’ was his middle name.

“Hey, you three! Not causing too much trouble, are you?” I asked and hugged them close. Their behavior and my opinion of their mother’s name notwithstanding, I did love my nieces and nephews.

“Nope, just the right amount,” Brielle said, giving me a smirk to match her cheek.

I laughed, and turned at the insistent tugging of Evelyn Rose. She held her arms out to me in the universal toddler gesture of up, and I melted in the face of her forget-me-not blue eyes. Her hair was the white blond of small children, fine, and softly curling. It sat loose to her shoulders, because if anyone got near her with hair ties she threw unholy fits of rage.

I handed Candy the gift for Jason, and she tried to protest on my behalf since my arm was injured, but I waved her off with my good hand. I picked Evelyn up with one arm and she cuddled close to me, tucking her head beneath my jaw and resting on my shoulder. She took in a deep breath, and then stilled. Her sudden lack of movement made me freeze in response. Toddlers were naturally squirmy things, and any behavior outside the norm with them was cause for concern.

“Aunt Holly?” she said, her childish voice questioning and with an edge of confusion.

“Yes, Evy?” I asked, trying to keep my voice relaxed.

“You smell funny,” she said, and sat up enough for me to meet her eyes.

My breath caught in my throat at the sight: no longer blue, her eyes were the shade of mulberries, and the sensation of falling forward despite not moving threw my brain into full-out panic mode.

We’re falling! Primal Brain choked out, half in fear for us and half with instinctual fear for the potential to hurt Evelyn. Or maybe because of Evelyn.

We are not, but it’s unsettling, Rational Brain noted queasily.

“Evelyn Rose Bell—you will control yourself this instant, or you will be sent to your room!” Candy’s words rang out in the front hall, louder than they should have been but not in the sense of sound, and the reverberations made my bones ache.

Evelyn let loose her famous pout face, and I made to protest on her behalf, but Candy pulled her from my arms.

“Young lady, you know better. Now, go up to Nanny until your father and I are done speaking with Aunt Holly. Brielle, take her up. Owen, head out to play with your brother,” Candy said, issuing commands to each of the children in clipped tones I’d never expected from the perky woman.

As I shook what felt like fog from between my ears, I watched my nieces and nephews move quickly to do as their mother said. Apparently, this is what they meant by whipping out the ‘Mom Voice’.

When they were all gone Candy turned to look at me, and her eyes weren’t flashing indigo this time: they stayed that color. She stepped into my personal space and inhaled deeply right in front of my face, closing her eyes slowly as her lungs filled.

“Oh, Holly,” she said sadly, and opened eyes full of sorrow. “Come on, Joel is in his office. I think we all need to have a chat,” she finished, her voice soft.

When she turned and headed deeper into the house, I stumbled along behind her, my mind clearing more with each step. The newfound panic I’d discovered this week along with the existence of the supernatural was screaming and raking claws along my nerves, making me jumpy. I’d thought I’d already tumbled over my line of tolerance and found an equilibrium with co-workers, but this was family. Whatever was going on here was pushing me toward an edge in my mind, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb back over. Even I had my limits.

Candy knocked softly, but didn’t wait for a reply before opening the door.

“Dear, I said I’d be down in time for the cake and presents. I’m alm—”

“Joel,” Candy said, her voice still soft.

I stepped into the room in time to see my brother’s head snap up and his brows furrow with concern at his wife’s tone. Then his eyes turned to me, and his head tilted in question. My brother and I shared the brown sugar colored hair, hazel eyes, and need for glasses, but in everything else we differed. He was tall like everyone else in the family, while I was short, and I took more after our mother in looks and he our father. Typical genetics. My brother was clean cut, no facial hair, and if he hadn’t hated the thought of traveling he might have followed in our father’s military footsteps. He cut a nice figure in his business suits when he was working, but here at home he was dressed in the same artful casual as Candy.

Candy closed the door behind me, and remained standing a little back and to my left.

“Hey, Buttface,” I said, trying to defuse the tension with my affectionately dubbed nickname for my brother, and waved my injured hand at him.

He snorted, and gestured to my hand. “Getting into trouble still, Stumblebum?”

I harrumphed and tried to cross my arms without jostling my hand. “Technically, this trouble found me.” Then I scowled at him. “In fact, I’m holding you partially responsible for this.”

He raised a single eyebrow, leaned forward on his desk with his elbows, and steepled his hands in front of him. “Oh, really? Do tell.”

“Well, it might have something to do with someone named Gozuk,” I spat acidly at him, yearning for a reaction.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Joel jumped to his feet, his eyes flashing with anger as he strode around the desk. When he started toward me I did my best not to take a step back in surprise or fear, I wasn’t sure which, and then his hands were tightly gripping my shoulders.

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” he asked, his voice hoarse and low with fury and concern.

My eyes burned with the start of tears, but I knew if I started I might not stop, and I didn’t want to be a blubbering mess at my nephew’s birthday party. The fact was, though, that my brother and I might pick on each other to the point where we didn’t speak for months, but no one was allowed to lay a finger or level an unkind word in our directions. Making each other miserable was our prerogative and no one else’s.

“Not directly, no, but he put me in a situation, or a few, to be injured,” I said, my voice going soft like Candy’s. Then I turned my face up to search his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me about…them?” I asked, hesitating on the last word.

Joel sighed and loosened his grip. He shoulders slumped and he looked anywhere but at me when he spoke. “We’re not allowed to. There are rules and governing bodies in the various supernatural factions that prohibit it. I wasn’t even allowed to say anything when I was questioned about having you as a manager at that fast food place. They thought since I was…tolerable, for a human, that you might be as well. If you had reacted poorly they would have simply wiped your memory and sent you on your way.”

He picked up my injured hand in his and ran a finger over the rough material of the cast. “Now I wish I had just told them you wouldn’t be able to do it.” Guilt was rolling off him in waves, and I sighed, exasperated.

“It’s fine, Joel. You didn’t know Stribs was going to get murdered and that Gozuk was going to drag me into it,” I said, and did something rare and unexpected: I hugged my brother. It was awkward, but we both needed it.

Candy cleared her throat, and when the two of us parted we both looked at her. Her eyes darted between us and then she broke out into a genuine smile.

“You two are more alike than you let on,” she said with a little laugh. It died almost as quickly as our hug, though, and her mouth turned down in a frown. “Joel…” she said, nervously, biting her lip. Her eyes darted to me, and the panic from earlier was back.

Joel sighed again. “Holly—”

“I’m not sure I want to know,” I said, interrupting him. My eyes were wide and panicked.

No, no, no, no, no, Primal Brain said in a sing-song voice, covering their figurative ears.

It would be better to know, Rational Brain said, not unsympathetic.

“It’s not about you wanting to know. It’s about needing to, to keep you as safe as we can. I expected at your job you’d stay in the shallower end, given the, uh, rabble that works there, but you’ve been thrown into the deep end, and we both know you’ve never been a great swimmer,” he said, his voice firm. He scanned my face, but whatever he saw there didn’t reassure him.

“How about you tell us what’s been going on, and then we’ll move on to more personal matters?” Candy suggested.

I didn’t know why, but her words calmed me. I wasn’t sure recounting my week would help me with whatever bomb they were going to drop on me, but it couldn’t hurt. We made our way over to the pair of couches that faced each other in front of a fireplace. His office was large, the walls covered with bookshelves filled to the brim with law books and accolades. Honestly, the whole room was probably as big as my small apartment.

After we settled, I told them about my very busy week. Joel’s eyes narrowed in parts, in particular when I mentioned Knight and Thea. The former I could understand, he was law enforcement and my brother was a lawyer. Not to mention Knight was a grade-A asshole. Thea, however, was a surprise.

“Please don’t drive her home again,” Joel requested, the words holding an edge of pleading to them that set the hairs on the back of my neck to attention.

I gave him a hesitant nod. I wanted to know why, of course, but I had a funny feeling I was going to get more information than I wanted in short order. I didn’t need to overload on it.

When I finished, Joel leaned back against the couch, his eyes narrowed in thought.

“I might be able to give you some directions to go in, or suggest some people that could help, but I’ll need some time to make some calls. Your, uh, association with certain people will make getting you help difficult. But I’ll try to get you something before you leave from the birthday.”

My brows furrowed at his words. “What associations? The people I work with?” I paused. “You called them rabble earlier. That’s rather rude, Joel,” I scolded.

Candy cleared her throat, and Joel deferred to her with a tilt of his head, which was the most shocking thing so far today. There was more to my supposedly airheaded sister-in-law than I thought, and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt at the realization. I hadn’t treated her like someone who had two brain cells to rub together, and based off current evidence I’d been somewhat uncharitable in doing so.

Still can’t get over her name, Rational Brain noted, with a sniff.

I silently agreed.

“The Owner of the Infamous Chicken isn’t only known for his talent with food; he also tends to collect outcasts. No one that would cause anything overt as a war with a faction, but those who were no longer welcome with their particular group.” At my frown, Candy continued, “Like Odella. She killed her Master, and though she was within her right to do so based on Code Sanguis, or vampiric law, no one willingly associates or invites vampires that kill their Masters to be around them, or join their Clan. It would be like inviting someone who assassinated the President to live with the newest President, or another world leader. They are seen as pariahs. Hence why The Owner took her in.”

I wasn’t sure I was comfortable hearing about Odella’s life, or rather undeath, from anyone but Odella herself, but Candy was simply trying to give me an example. I couldn’t fault her for that.

“So, you’re saying that everyone I work with, in some way, is an outcast?”

“Yes, and you working with them gives you an unofficial outcast status, too. It limits how much I’ll be able to help, given my position,” my brother said, his lips pressed into a thin line.

I sighed. I was never very good at politics—that was always Joel’s deal—but it sounded like I had indeed ended up in some deep garbage just by trying to be gainfully employed. Fate was having a laugh at me, She had to be.

“Okay,” I said, and took a deep breath. “While I don’t understand all of it, I’ll appreciate whatever help you can give me. They were so sure it was Celinwel, but that theory is trash now.”

Joel nodded, and tapped a finger to his chin as he thought. The silence between us stretched to the point of uncomfortable, and I squirmed a bit.

Just bite the bullet and get it over with, Rational Brain prompted.

I took a shaky breath and met both of their gazes with a pointed look. “Tell me.” The words had tumbled from me before I could think anymore on it.

Candy licked her lips and Joel grimaced.

“Do you remember how Candy and I met?” Joel asked tentatively, as though feeling out my mood.

Wow, apparently, we were going way back. I shook my head and pursed my lips. “At some work party, or something, right?”

Joel gave a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, that was the story we told. The truth is that Candy was…kind of…a reward for something I did for some…thing,” he said.

With each long pause between his words my eyebrows climbed higher and higher.

“Are you telling me someone gave you a person as a reward?” I spat, disgust thick on my voice, and I looked at Candy. I was expecting her support in my revulsion, but I was shocked to find a soft smile on her face as she looked at my brother.

“It wasn’t the best of circumstances, at least not in the eyes of humans, but our world doesn’t work the same as yours. Even the beings who ape humans closely, or were humans before, have very alien customs in the eyes of humans. It’s why we tend to avoid them. That, and the fact that humans tend to destroy what they fear,” Candy chided.

It was still a struggle for me to reconcile what I was seeing with their words. If what they said was true, she was basically a slave and she had no choice in the matter.

“So, he didn’t—” I made a waving gesture with my hand between the two of them.

Her eyes softened at my display of concern. “No, he was very gentlemanly. Despite what he was told about me and my disposition, he refused to do anything until we’d courted properly.” Then she laughed, the sound happy and warm. “It was the first time in my very long life anyone had treated me like a person instead of an object. I would do anything for Joel and the children,” she said, and took his hands in hers.

Watching them, I had to let go of my misgivings. It didn’t sit well with me how it had happened, but at the end of the day it was none of my business. And if they were truly happy, who was I to try and kick over their jubilant little sandcastle of love?

I took a deep breath, and let it out slow. “Okay. I can’t say I’m completely okay with this, but obviously my hang-ups are my own thing, and I’ll get over them. Or, I won’t, but I’ll keep it to myself.”

Candy’s eyes filled with tears, and Joel pulled her into a hug, whispering soothing words to her as he rubbed her back.

At my expression, Joel pulled back from Candy as she pulled an honest-to-goodness handkerchief from up her sleeve to dab at her eyes.

“She’s been fretting how you would react. Though I treat her as she should be treated: with respect and care, not everyone believes she deserves that. Your reaction means a lot, Holly. Ever since you took the job, we’ve been discussing how we were going to tell you everything.”

Something relaxed in my chest that I didn’t know had been tense. “You were going to tell me at some point, then?”

Joel and Candy nodded. “We decided on today, after Jason’s birthday, but then everything with the goblins happened and we were going to postpone,” Candy said. “But then…”

“But then Evelyn’s eyes changed and she said I smelled funny,” I prompted her to continue.

She nodded, but my brother laughed at the face I made when I stated what Evelyn said.

“Don’t worry, she says that about me whenever I come home from meetings with anyone except…her kind. Children, of any sort, are not known for their tact,” Joel said wryly.

My heart was in my throat and I tried to swallow around it. “You have to stop beating around the bush. I’ve already been lectured on asking a certain question,” I said, remembering Lia’s words with a blush of embarrassment, “so please, just tell me.”

Joel and Candy’s expressions were pained. “We just don’t want it to change how you act around the children,” Candy said, fear written plain in the way she held herself still, as though with one move she might break.

“Well, I already call them little hellions, what could be wo—” I couldn’t finish the sentence. When I’d said the word ‘hellions’, Candy flinched and lowered her gaze.

I clenched my hands, my breaths were coming out in quick, shallow pants, and chest was tight. It had been years since I’d had an honest to goodness panic attack, and though this week had pushed me pretty close, this had done me in.

“You-you’re demons?” I asked. The final word came out much harsher than I’d intended, but I’d had to push it out, or I wouldn’t have been able to say it at all.

Candy nodded, still not looking at me, and Joel gave me pleading eyes. Begging me to understand.

I stood up suddenly. “I-” I snapped my mouth shut against whatever was about to fall gracelessly from my mouth, and looked at the door. “I need a moment.”

Then I rushed from the room like a coward, and pretended I didn’t hear a soft sob right before I closed the office door behind me.

 

 

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

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

Chapter Three

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

“Seriously, Stribs, just 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 braining yourself 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: was what I saw 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 other side of the office 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 into 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 systems at restaurants were slow enough it was applicable. 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? Primal Brain piped up.

I don’t even know if that’s legal, Rational Brain added.

“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.

 

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