The guy would be an easy mark. Long dark coat draped over one arm, fancy briefcase in the other, really nice black suit, even nicer shoes. Just walking down the street without a care in the world. No sense of — what had Emma called it? Oh, yeah: situational awareness. That was it.
Dougie shook his head in disgust. Seriously, what kind of idiot came into this neighborhood after midnight and expected to not get robbed?
Nobody was that dumb.
Except, apparently, this guy.
Dougie twisted his head around, peering out of the alley at the tricked out Lexus the guy had parked across the street. A polished silvery-grey with tinted windows and a pitch perfect engine; the low growl as it came down the street had made the hairs on Dougie’s arms stand on end.
Most everybody else — or, everybody who was still up and around — had scattered. But not Dougie and his boys. Things had been a bit slow lately. They had bills to pay. Emma’s tuition was due, Adam’s Gran needed her meds, Jimmy had a bookie he owed too much and, of course, Jeremiah expected his monthly payment to stay off their street. So, time to part the idiot from his fat wallet, his fancy briefcase, and his really nice shoes. Probably his watch, too. Guy like that had to have a classy watch.
Dougie turned back to Adam and Jimmy, lined up in the alley behind him. Or, at least Adam was there.
“What the hell,” Dougie whispered low, crouching closer to the wall. “Where the hell’s Jimmy?”
Adam rolled his eyes and tipped his head across the street. “Where do you think?”
Dougie swiveled around on his toes, dropping lower. Sure enough, there was Jimmy, hoodie pulled down over his forehead, hands shoved into his pockets, making straight for the Lexus. He must have darted down the alley and around the block and was now heading back up the street.
Dougie waved his arms, flapping his hands. He even risked a low hiss and whistle. Jimmy ignored him, focused on the fat prize sitting by the curb.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Dougie dove out of the alley and across the street, Adam just a few steps behind him. Fast and quiet. Jimmy already had his slim jim out and had stepped off the sidewalk, making for the driver’s window. Dougie grabbed him by the back of his collar. Jimmy let out a startled “eep!” and nearly dropped his slim jim. Adam grabbed Jimmy’s arm and they hustled him around the Lexus and into the nearest alley.
“What the hell, man?” Jimmy huffed, spinning around to glare at them.
“What are you doing?” Dougie demanded, voice hoarse.
“Come on! Sweet ride like that? Could pay off everything I owe and then some! Keep your sister in that fancy school so she can leave this fuckin’ place!”
Dougie shoved him hard in the shoulder, sending Jimmy into the wall. “Don’t be stupid! That car has an alarm and GPS and who knows what else! Be lucky you can get into it, let alone drive it off! Think.” He slapped Jimmy in the forehead. Jimmy flinched and shoved him away. “We take the guy. Leave the car. Now come on.”
Shifting his jacket and pulling up his hoodie, he peered around the edge of the alley. The guy was nearly at the end of the block, approaching the T-shaped intersection. Dougie motioned and stepped out, Jimmy and Adam following along. He kept his head down, eyes locked on the guy as he drew yet closer to the corner, steps even and unconcerned.
If the guy went right, they could pull him into the alley next to Mr. Lake’s pawn shop. If he crossed the street and went left they could get him by the boarded up Chinese place.
Closer. Dougie could hear the swish of the guy’s coat over his arm. His briefcase looked odd; fatter than normal, like it was supposed to hold more than just papers.
The guy stopped right at the edge of the sidewalk, near the single functioning streetlight, and stared up at the building directly across the intersection. Rundown like everything else in this neighborhood. Cracked steps, one stone balustrade half chipped away, front door that had been kicked in so many times that it didn’t lock right anymore; the ground-level windows all had bars, but some of them had been bent or ripped out. A second set of stairs led to a basement apartment which had not been lived in for who knows how long.
Okay, maybe they would just take him right here.
Dougie motioned to Adam and Jimmy to form up and circle around the guy. Once they were far enough out on either side, he called out.
“Hey, man. Spare a couple bucks?”
The guy didn’t react, didn’t acknowledge Dougie. He didn’t seem to notice that he had been surrounded.
Or he didn’t care.
Dougie frowned, a funny little twist of apprehension tugging at his stomach. “Yo! Dude!” he called out again, louder. Somewhere, a dog barked and another howled in response. A few blocks away, sirens wailed.
The man finally spoke, still not taking his eyes off the tenement across the street. “Go away. Grown-up business.”
Jimmy snorted, yanking his switchblade from his back pocket. Adam followed suit a second later, pulling a large kitchen knife from inside his jacket.
The man sighed, turning on his heel to face Dougie. “As I said, I am quite busy. Find someone else to rob.”
Dougie frowned. The guy had a weird accent. Not American, not English. Canadian? Australian? Emma would know. She was smart like that. Now that he got a good look at him, Dougie realized that guy wasn’t white, either. But also not Hispanic.
Who the hell was this guy?
Jimmy was getting impatient. He took a step forward, waving his knife. “You think this is a joke?”
“I think this is a tiresome distraction, and I have more important matters which require my attention. Leave.”
Jimmy lunged, yelling.
The guy moved. Between one blink and the next, he slid back and to the side, around Jimmy, whose momentum continued to carry him forward. The guy whipped his arm up, wrapping his long coat around Jimmy’s neck and yanking him back, hard. Jimmy flailed. The briefcase connected with his hand and the switchblade tumbled to the sidewalk. Twisting the coat, the guy continued to haul Jimmy back and then forced him to his knees. Jimmy scrabbled, clawing at the coat, panting, his eyes wide.
All of which took about three and a half seconds.
Dougie gaped, mouthing hanging open.
“Tiresome,” the guy repeated. He wasn’t even breathing hard. His suit was still perfectly pressed, his dark hair still neatly combed. A green jewel glinted in his tie. Dougie spotted a colorful, swirling patch of a tattoo above his right wrist, where he twisted the coat tight. Hazel eyes with weird flecks of green and black narrowed in Dougie’s direction. “Leave.”
Adam took off, shoes slapping against the concrete as he bolted down the street and then disappeared down the alley next to the pawn shop.
Dougie swallowed hard, backpedaling.
Jimmy squeaked, one hand reaching for him.
Dougie stopped and swallowed again. “What … what about him?”
One eyebrow went up and the guy stared at him for a long moment. “Promise to behave? Leave me alone and stay away from my car?”
Dougie nodded quickly, head going up and down so fast that the guy’s face was a blur.
A flick of his wrist and the coat unwound. Jimmy fell forward, gasping, clawing at the sidewalk. Pebbles and grit tumbled around his fingers. Dougie scrambled the few steps between them, grabbing Jimmy under the arms and half hauling him to his feet. He almost fell as Jimmy pushed against him, shoving himself the rest of the way upright.
Dougie caught his sleeve, pulling Jimmy further away. His face was screwed into an angry snarl. He shouted at the guy, shaking his fist. “Who the fuck you think you are, man? Yeah, you! Who the — ”
Dougie pulled harder, yanking Jimmy around and giving him a shove down the sidewalk. Jimmy glared and spat. His eyes jumped back and forth between Dougie and the guy, who was calmly re-draping his jacket over his arm. “Fuck you,” Jimmy snapped, and Dougie wasn’t sure which of them he meant.
Hands shoved deep into his pockets, Jimmy stomped away.
Dougie watched him for a minute. A flicker of movement caught his eye. The guy had turned his back to Dougie and was once again watching the tenement. The windows were all dark except for a single light up on the fourth floor.
Dougie cleared his throat.
“You’re still here?”
“Uh, yeah. So, uh, if you’re planning to rob that place I could, like, be your look-out. You know, for a cut.”
“I am not here to rob anyone. I am here to kill something.”
Dougie frowned. “In there? There ain’t anyone in there worth killing. Least not by a high class pro you.”
The guy chuckled. “High class, am I?”
Dougie jabbed a thumb back towards the Lexus. “You definitely ain’t from around here.”
The guy shifted his briefcase in his grip and stepped off the curb. “What’s your name?”
“Uh.” Dougie looked around, hesitated, then followed. He stooped to pick up Jimmy’s knife as he passed, folding it and sticking it in his back pocket. “Dougie.”
“Douglas it is, then. You may address me as Mr. Smith.”
Dougie huffed. “That’s original.”
“And accurate.” The guy — Mr. Smith — stepped onto the far sidewalk, then stopped next to the crumbled balustrade and half-turned. He flipped his jacket off his arm and into his hand and held it out. “Take this.”
Dougie bobbed his head and darted over. He carefully took the coat, making sure not to drag it on the ground. It was heavier than he had expected and made out of … what was this stuff? Not like normal cotton or linen or anything. This was some heavy-duty kevlar-like stuff, like the cops wore. The whole inside of the coat was lined with it. And there was some kind of weird writing; funny squiggles and geometric shapes sewn into the fabric.
“Cool.” Dougie nodded his approval. “How much this thing set you back?”
“Arms out,” Mr. Smith ordered.
Dougie held his arms straight out, and Mr. Smith laid his briefcase across them. “I am looking for a Mrs. Abbott. Are you familiar with her?” He flipped the latches and raised the lid.
Dougie tried to peer over and then around the lid. All he could see was some kind of plush lining. “Mrs. Abbott?”
“Yes.” There was the odd sound of something sliding across the velvet and then Mr. Smith held up a —
“Is that a glass knife?” Dougie stared, hoping his mouth wasn’t hanging open again.
It was, indeed, a glass knife. Or, at least it looked like one. The hilt seemed to be some kind of ceramic, or maybe bone, curved to fit Mr. Smith’s hand. The blade, roughly the size of the kitchen knife that Adam had wielded earlier, was completely transparent and scary sharp. The light from the one working lamp refracted off it in crazy rainbows. He saw a figure through the glass, warped and shadowed.
“Mrs. Abbott, the old lady with the funky hair and the lazy eye and the nine cats?”
“You’re here to kill her?”
“Well, that’s convenient, ’cause she’s standing right behind you.”
Mr. Smith blinked at him, hazel eyes going wide, then very slowly turned on one heel. He starred at Mrs. Abbott. From the far side of the steps, she starred back with her good eye, hair poking out at wild angles. She clutched a brown grocery bag in one arm and a beat-up cane in the other. One of her socks had fallen. Two of the nine cats wove between her feet.
Somewhere, a dog barked and another howled in response. Sirens went off a few blocks over.
Mr. Smith turned back to Dougie and pulled a clear glass vase out of the briefcase. “Awkward. Douglas, whatever you do, do not drop this or lose it.” He shoved the briefcase aside, which landed with a clatter, and pushed the vase against Dougie’s chest.
“Uh, what?” Dougie automatically grabbed for the vase, losing his grip on the coat.
Mr. Smith snatched the jacket out of the air, rolling his arm so that the protective fabric wrapped around it. “And try to stay out of the way.”
With that, Mr. Smith turned and leaped. Fast. Insanely fast. One foot landed on top of the crumbling balustrade. He immediately pushed off, twisting, aiming straight for old Mrs. Abbott with her funky hair and her lazy eye, glass knife held high.
The cats scattered.
She changed. Old Mrs. Abbott changed. Her groceries and cane fell to the ground. Her arms and fingers and nails stretched. Her knees bent sideways. Her jaws widened, exposing sharp teeth that just seemed to get longer and longer ….
She bent backwards, lying so close to the ground that Mr. Smith sailed right over her. The knife flicked, taking off a length of her hair. Mr. Smith hit the ground and rolled. Smoothly rising to his feet, he spun around and lunged again. The knife sent rainbows skidding across the face of the building.
Mrs. Abbott — the thing that was Mrs. Abbott — scuttled across the sidewalk and halfway up the stone balustrade. She hissed, harsh and low, a tongue nearly as long as her arm flicking in and out of her mouth.
Then her skin fell off.
Dougie shrieked. He fell on his butt and vomited into the glass vase.
He lost track of what was happening for a few minutes. There were the sounds of stone breaking and probably bone, too, and wild hisses and heavy panting and snarls and a high-pitched ringing like glass breaking.
Blinking, his stomach rebelling, he lifted his head and tried to focus.
And there she — it — was, right in front of him. It stank, hair a mass of snarls, muscles a sickly grey, fat an awful yellowish-white. He could see its heart and lungs and guts through a thin grey membrane. It bled on him from deep cuts in its arms and torso.
Dougie shrieked again, clutching the vase with one hand, scrambling backwards. He kept screaming as the monster stalked him, sharp nails scoring the concrete. His hand touched something hard. Knife. Switchblade in his back pocket. Snot running down his face, he hunted frantically, fingers clumsy.
Where was he? Where was Mr. Smith? Where —
Suddenly there was empty air at his back and he went tumbling down the stairs towards the basement apartment. The stone dug into his back and his legs. He banged his head. It hurt. He crashed into the door and it half-opened, so that he was leaning awkwardly, legs still on the stairs.
The monster snarled, lips pulling up into the freakish imitation of a grin. One step, then another, it crawled down towards him, taking its time.
Its tongue whipped out, deep red and wet.
Dougie swung the switchblade. It caught, then pulled through, ripping the monster’s tongue in half.
It lurched back, wailing. The sound echoed and echoed, bouncing off the stone all around them.
And then he was there. Mr. Smith. He was bleeding from gashes on his forehead and cheek. His tie was shredded and one whole sleeve of his fancy suit coat and pressed white shirt was gone, hanging in tatters, exposing a swirl of colorful tattoos. The long, dark coat was still wrapped around his other arm, but that was looking battered, too.
He jumped, dropped, landed square in the middle of the thing’s back. It howled and twitched, trying to buck him off. One arm wrapped beneath its chin, Mr. Smith swung the glass knife around, burying it hilt deep in the monster’s heart.
The knife sang. A clear, clean, pure sound.
The monster’s howl abruptly ended. Dougie watched, paralyzed, as it began to shrink and twist in on itself, muscles and membranes and fat and organs turning to ash and smoke. Mr. Smith dropped as the monster disappeared from beneath him, the glass knife changing from transparent to greyish-black.
And then the thing was gone.
Dougie lay there panting, ears ringing. It took him a long, confused moment to realize that Mr. Smith was yelling at him.
“The vase, Douglas! The vase!”
Dougie shoved it forward, arms shaking, hands slippery with sweat and blood. Bracing one hand beneath the vase, Mr. Smith carefully inserted the knife, the hilt lining up perfectly to create a seal. Seconds later, the vase filled with a greyish, ashy haze. Through the smog and the globs of his own vomit, Dougie caught sight of the knife, once again transparent.
Mr. Smith gently positioned Dougie’s hands, molding his fingers around the vase. “Do not move,” he ordered. “Understand?”
Dougie nodded, mute, staring at the smog. It continued to swirl and spasm, almost like it was trying to escape ….
Mr. Smith pushed to his feet and climbed up the steps. He returned moments later, briefcase in hand. He knelt awkwardly, squeezing between Dougie’s legs and the bottom step. He flipped open the briefcase, exposing the plush lining within and the indentation for the vase and knife.
“In we go.”
Dougie shook his head, eyes wide, unable to let go.
“Douglas. Douglas. Very well, let me help.” Mr. Smith balanced the briefcase on his knees. “Here, like this. Yes, that’s it. Nice and easy. Right in the hole, just like this. Good job. You can let go now. Douglas, let go. There you are.”
The briefcase closed with a soft snickt.
Dougie could hear his own heavy breathing, and Mr. Smith’s, though it was a lot slower and more even. He hurt, all over. His mouth tasted like vomit, and he was pretty sure that he had wet his pants.
Mr. Smith rose and unwrapped his long, dark coat from around his arm. He pulled it on over his ruined suit jacket and shirt, then bent to pick up the briefcase. “Many thanks for your assistance this morning, Douglas. I could not have done it without you. Try not to die in some pointless turf war, hmm?”
He turned and walked up the steps.
Dougie licked his lips, spat, and licked them again. “Hey,” he called out, voice a bare croak. “Hey.”
Mr. Smith stopped, looking down at him from the sidewalk.
“What — I never — What was that?”
Sirens somewhere off in the distance. Nowhere close to here. Of course not. Nobody would have bothered to call the cops, no matter what they heard.
“Spiritifur lama. Boo hag. They live off the breath they steal from people, usually sleeping infants. Their victims do not survive long, especially if they have a skin the boo hag desires. One does not often see them outside the Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina, but they have been known to occasionally migrate inland. Good-bye, Douglas.”
And he walked away.
Dougie stared at the spot he had occupied.
No way. No. Way. The guy — Mr. Smith — he came into this neighborhood, Dougie’s neighborhood, Dougie’s home, scared off Adam, nearly choked out Jimmy, dragged Dougie into his crazy monster hunt, killed a fucking monster right in front of him, and now he was just going to leave?
“Hey. Hey!” Dougie pushed himself upright, wincing at the feeling of wet cloth sticking to his legs and abdomen. His stomach and head both protested, but he forced himself up the steps to the sidewalk. “Hey! Yo!” he yelled more loudly.
Mr. Smith was most of the way down the street, headed back to his tricked out Lexus.
Dougie hobbled after him, picking up speed. “You can’t just take off, man! Not after that! Hey! Stop when I’m talking to you!”
Mr. Smith slowed and gradually turned around. He was still bleeding from his forehead and cheek, and Dougie could see now that his right pants leg was ripped, exposing a gash in his thigh and more swirling, geometric tattoos.
Dougie stumbled to a halt, arms and hands flapping. “So, what? That’s it? You just come in, you know, just — come on, monsters?! — and, and, and just drive off? Ain’t gonna happen, man. Nah-hunh. No. Way.”
Mr. Smith was quiet. He leaned slightly to the side, favoring his injured leg.
“That is precisely what is going to happen,” he finally answered. “I am going back to my life, filled with monsters and magic and horrors you cannot possibly imagine. And you are going back to your life of poverty, petty thievery, and inevitable incarceration. You’ll live longer. Believe me.” He turned on his heel and continued on towards the Lexus. “Forget what happened here, Douglas. E noho rā.”
Dougie watched as he gently set the briefcase in the passenger seat, then climbed in himself. The Lexus purred to life, a warm rumble. A tight u-turn, the headlights flashing. Dougie remained in the middle of the road, watching the red taillights until the car disappeared from sight.
Something brushed his leg.
He jumped, stifling a scream. The switchblade was still in his hand. He whipped his arm around, ready to strike —
It stared up at him with big eyes and meowed.
Pressing a hand to his chest, Dougie willed his pounding heart to slow down. “Damn cat,” he muttered. “You ain’t a boo hag, too, are you?”
“A boo hag? Is that what she was?”
The cat hissed, back arching, and bounded away, disappearing down the alley.
Dougie spun on his feet, wobbled, nearly falling on his butt again. Adam stood a few steps away, hands shoved into his pockets, shoulders hunched.
“Fuck’s sake, Adam! You scared ….” His voice trailed off. He frowned. “Wait. How … you heard of a boo hag …?”
“Yeah. I figured she was something, just couldn’t figure out what.” He shrugged. “Didn’t really matter, so long as she kept outta my way. Sorry, man. I’da a stayed, but … uh, well. He’s got a rep, in certain circles. Kahurangi Smith. Recognized his tats. So, yeah, sorry.”
Dougie licked his lips. His fingers spasmed, clenching around the switchblade.
Adam huffed. “I can see it. In your eyes. The questions. You’re curious now. Seeing things you didn’t before. Can’t have that. Got my Gran to think about.”
He tried to swallow. “You … what kind of monster are you?”
Adam’s lip curled into a sneer. “Monster?” He shook his head, the sneer becoming a hungry smile of sharp, sharp teeth. “Not one you’ve ever heard of.”
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poems and short stories can be found there.]