On the Trail of an Untouchable Rat (2)

Wherein Clifford Engram heads to a local watering hole, seeking the last person who might have hired the still missing, Ratso.

I had to walk a while and clear my head.

The stink of Ratso’s apartment had taken up residence and I couldn't shake the feeling something bad had happened. I know I was supposed to be involved in a different investigation but I had the distinct impression they were related in some way.

Criminal organizations, especially of the Hidden World, being the charming things they are, I was certain if I just hung around for a while, they would introduce themselves to me.

I decided to walk and let people know I was back in town. Gossip was a powerful communication tool. I was loaded for bear and the lightning cane was fully charged. I could drop a troll in his tracks; should I be stupid enough to be under a bridge in the dead of night.

Ratso only had a few haunts. Places he could go and run a short tab without a lot of comment. He wasn’t disliked completely, he was just avoided. The nature of his curse meant people didn’t want to get close to him. All it took was for him to feel threatened or dislike you for even an instant and you could go from having a pen explode on you, to having a nearby chainsaw break and having fragments of steel ripping through your eye.

After a few of his friends went this route, less people were willing to risk bodily injury to break bread with Ratso, let alone drink more than a beer with the man. Which was how I got to meet him in the first place. He had to have someplace to wait while he plied his only possible job given his condition: Hidden World courier.

All things considered, Ratso’s gift and curse should have had him sealed. Predicting the future is one of those gifts which can make trouble for a lot of people. If he could reliably predict the future…

Ratso would have been sealed after his Djinn-made curse gave him the ability of personal foresight, but from on high, his transgression was overlooked. Someone decided he should be given the opportunity to work for the Agency, moving portable things from one place to another. Things you didn’t want found or stolen from an operative.

But it’s hard to find operatives who lack ambition. Operatives who won’t try and run off with whatever you gave them to deliver. Ratso was such an operative. Lazy to a fault, unambitious and eager to please, working for the Agency put enough money in Ratso’s pocket he could always keep a place to live and food in his mouth, if nothing else. Before he fell on hard times, Ratso had a car, but his condition wouldn’t let him drive.

Something about running over pedestrians being a criminal offense. Judges frowned on this, even if it’s a proven mechanical failure. Three times in a row. Even if the people he was running over were wanted felons. Now, Ratso walked or took the bus. Which was why Elaine’s was likely to be my first stop.

The typical Spring day in the Bay which started with an unpleasant fog, cleared and ended, in San Francisco at least, with a fast-moving blanket of fog rolling back over the hills. It put me in mind of a smoky blanket I had watched too often from my apartment in the Sunset District when I was much younger. I could feel that same fog coming in as the sun set. The city was still as beautiful as I remembered it, no matter what terrors hid beneath that protective blanket of fog.

There wasn’t much foot traffic on the street, but it would change in a few hours as tourists looking for a bit of something special would wander into an area they had no business frequenting. Elaine’s establishment was such a place. Popular with the Hidden, Elaine maintained a place whose appeal lay in its folksy charm and unrevealed layers where any degree of sin could be found, for a price.

Off of Market street a few blocks, the building miraculously survived the earthquake of 1906 without a scratch. Nor did it catch fire. The entire building Elaine’s was in weathered the storm no matter what the disaster and this luck is what brought it to the attention of the Agency. In the 1960’s Elaine bought the building and became its slumlord, keeping it just shy of closure due to health code violations. But since most of her clients were Hidden, their taste in levels of cleanliness varied widely. Few complaints were ever filed.

The building, due to it’s primary occupant, Elaine, was a locus, a place of power. Nothing most people could use, fortunately. Everyone could feel it though. When you walked in the door, the hair on the back of your neck stood up. A tingle of excitement. A sense of wonder. A hint of danger.

I hated the place. These were the things I wanted least while I was having a drink.

I could hear the music down the block. There were good restaurants in the neighborhood and their exotic flavors mingled favorably reminding me I hadn’t eat at all today. If I’m alive after this visit, I will stop and get some Thai. I hadn’t realized where I was before a large hand tapped me in the center of my chest.

“Hey, trenchcoat. The line’s back there.”

Distracted, I realized the simian talking to me stood about eight feet tall. I had to look up and tip my hat back to see his face. While not literally an ape, his arms were covered with a luxurious coat of bright red fur which matched his extreme beard. His eyes were bright, probably on some darkworld spice, to increase his strength, durability and aggression, everything you want in a bouncer. His face was a patchwork of scars, looking more like the canals of Mars than a human being’s major descriptive feature.

“I’m here to see the boss. Here’s my card.”

“Do I look like a messenger to you? The back of the line is that way. Now move it.”

“Look at the card. Do you see that ‘A’? You know what an ‘A’ is right? It means I don’t stand in line. I don’t talk to apes who block doors, I go inside, I have a drink and conduct my business. Perhaps you should go inside and get someone whose IQ ranks in the low seventies before one of us gets hurt.” I proffered the card once more, flicking it so a slight glimmer can be seen from the right angle.

I admit, I could sense a moment of impending violence about to occur. The furry man-mountain’ fists, each easily the size of a Christmas ham, had begun flexing as he decided how many ways he could destroy this apparently effete and crazy Black man under six feet tall who wore a trenchcoat, hat and a cane. He figured he had me by at least two hundred pounds and my head should pop like a zit between his ham fists. I could see all of this in his glittering eyes as they narrowed, presaging his expression of barely contained violence.

The line backed up, appearing to have some experience with this particular bouncer, no one wanted to get any blood or entrails on their evening wear.

“Hold up, Beef.” A equally large hand snaked out the door restraining the man-mountain. “You don’t want to do that. It’ll bring heat.”

“This runt? Who’s he run with? The Choirboys? What’s he gonna do, sing me to death?”

The man coming out the door, seemed familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I thought I knew him. He had the same hopped up glint in his eye, but Beef, appropriately named, held himself at bay. “I am so sorry about our security team. We’ve had some incidents lately and you fit the description. I hope you understand.”

“Of course. I always fit the description of a perpetrator somewhere.”

“Are you calling me a racist?” Beef roared.

“Not at all, my hirsute fellow. It is just a fact of life for me. You being a bigot never crossed my mind. Being a moron perhaps, but never a bigot.” I looked Beef in his eyes, craning my neck back to do so. Not sure what came over me, but I could feel the coldness stirring on my right arm as Fenrir awakened. My seal turned to ice as it restrained his power. It wanted out. This was the kind of soul Fenrir loved to eat. Filled with violence and deaths aplenty on his soul, Fenrir would feast and nap for a week. It had already been far too long since he had eaten last.

I didn’t have time for fast food.

“Let it slide, Beef. The boss wants to see him.”

Beef (oh how appropriately named) stared intently back at me. But something happened in my eye. I could see it in his. He stared and locked eyes with the Beast. No man could stare him down. Only one being ever did and it cost him a hand.

We went in without further incident. Beef returned to blocking the door, visibly shaken. The sniper on the third floor across the way, relaxed visibly.

“Why the sniper?” I asked innocently.

He looked at me in the dim light of the corridor, a slight smile on his face. “You saw that? Of course you did. You wouldn’t be much of an Agency man if you didn’t.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

“I can’t tell you. I want to but I think the boss would prefer to tell you herself. She said to make yourself comfortable, she would come down to meet you shortly. Please don’t take offense.”

“We’re good. Can I get a gin and tonic before you run off?” He waved to the barkeep and gave him the ‘whatever he wants nod’ and disappears into the nightclub. The place was packed and it was still early. Mostly humans with a bit of the Hidden thrown in for good measure. Everyone seemed well-behaved given the kind of space this was. The scent of blood and bone marrow could be found here if you knew where to sniff. No matter what it looked like, this wasn’t a nice place at all.

The regulars were all in their places nursing their drinks, not looking around, invisibly hoping to disappear completely into their stupors without interruption. They were a mixed lot, their libations a diverse range of legal and illegally acquired substances. Tonight, that was not my business.

The poor sods were successfully doing so for the first half an hour I sat there nursing my own drink. Three young women who looked about twenty came in with a young man who claimed to be their escort.

He wasn’t escorting them to anything but the dinner table. His dinner table. He was a vampire. Invisible to most people, to me vampires stand out, as easy to see as a clown on fire.

Normally, I stay out of people’s lifestyle choices. If you want to share your blood with a vampire, that’s your business. It’s not recommended but once you reach the age of consent, no one will stop you. Vamp and Human relationships tended to be volatile and self destructive, but if that’s your cup of tea, have at it. The only rule was, no one died. If a vamp killed a human through drinking them, he has committed a crime and would be punished by the proper Human and Vampire authorities.

That would be me, if I weren’t here on other business. I hadn’t planned to get involved until I looked at him and he sensing my presence, looked back at me.

His connection was strong and fast. He locked minds with me and tried to immediately sway me with a vampiric glamour. Their primary mental power, vampires had the ability to cloud men’s minds, making them think they were seeing something other than what they perceive. Most vamps just used this ability to disappear when they didn’t want trouble with the local authorities. But if you had the right training and skill, you could do other things with it. This fellow was strong and well trained. His mind tried to reorder my thinking, to convince me nothing interesting was happening at his table and he was just a very lucky guy who planned to get even luckier later.

To most people, his efforts would have taken advantage of whatever psychology it would take to make those women less interesting. They might have looked older, or less attractive or some other feature which would make those women unappealing to them. The nature of their gift is its gentle working. Done right, there’s no trace of anything happening, most people don’t even realize it’s been done.

To my resistant and trained mind, he look like a child moving a bunch of blocks around in my mind. As soon as he left, I promptly put the blocks back, my memory intact; my mind unchanged. My interest piqued.

As he expected me to do, I broke visual contact with him, wondering why he thought that would be the best thing he could do. Maybe he was arrogant. He could be a vampire princeling used to getting his way and using his powers indiscriminately.

Wouldn’t be the first time I’d ended up on the wrong side of one of those interactions. My right arm ached, sensing the veiled aggression in the attempted mind-alteration, Fenrir shook the bars of his cage again, wondering why I was accepting such effrontery. I clenched my fist and he quieted down after a moment.

The vampire, apparently satisfied he had dealt with me, returned to his three young prizes, confident I would have lost all interest in them. It could have been Hidden world machismo, a flexing of metaphysical muscle, a displayed act for his girlfriends, nothing more.

He postured, I bowed apparently subdued. Un-life goes on. Maybe he just didn’t want to have to share.

I could sense her before I saw her. The two men with her were not her regular bodyguards. There was something about them which made them difficult to focus on. If I were a gun using type, I would find myself unable to target them effectively, a powerful standing glamour. Not her usual MO at all. Elaine was granting me an audience, in person. I didn’t know if I should be pleased or frightened.

Since I didn’t know these fellows with her, I decided I would be a little bit of both.

It seems Clifford has a bit of unfinished business with Elaine…Welcome to Part (3)

Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. Since they insist on constant entertainment and can’t subscribe to cable, Thaddeus writes a variety of forms of speculative fiction to appease their hunger for new entertainment.

Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies: Awesome Allshorts: Last Days and Lost Ways (Australia, 2014), The Future is Short (2014), Visions of Leaving Earth (2014), Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond (2014), Genesis Science Fiction (2013), Scraps (UK, 2012), and Possibilities (2012).

He has written two books: a collection called Hayward’s Reach (2011) and an e-book novella called Broken Glass (2013) featuring Clifford Engram, Paranormal Investigator.