Monday, October 15, 11:00am
Skemp Park, Green Lawn District
The Apothecary had stood on the edge of Skemp Park since the late 1950s when it was established by Ed Lake as the Skemp Park Drug Store. Back in the seventies his son, Rick, had changed its name to the Apothecary during the height of the new age movement. He was the one who began to sell holistic and alternative medicines alongside more traditional medicines.
Mina had taken over from her dad eight years ago when he retired. Unlike her father she’d gotten a medical degree. He often complained at how much the business had changed. In fact she was on the phone with him talking about just that when she left work for her lunch break.
She was walking into the park to have lunch at her favorite spot, the chess table under the willow by the pond when she saw that someone had already taken it.
“Hey, dad, I’ll call you back.” – Mina, seeing that the girl was obviously a teenager.
“Besh-I-Lesh-I-Lu / what are you / I got to know how to kill you.” – the girl sang
“Excuse me, miss, but shouldn’t you be in school.”
The girl turned toward her and gave Mina a puppy dog look. Her brown eyes wide.
Mina glanced at the table where the girl had a number of books that look like old journals and a tablet.
Suddenly the wind picked up flipping the page of the open journal and revealing unmistakable First Tongue script in the margins.
“What are you doing around here?” – The girl.
The girl, the Wolf was glaring at her, she must have caught her scent on the wind that moved the page. She was trying to look relaxed but her body language was dangerously tense.
“This is where I live and work.” – Mina.
The girl was coiled like a snake ready to strike – or bolt – she closed the book.
“Don’t you have someplace to be?” – The girl
“You’re sitting in it.” – Mina, showing the girl her lunch box.
The girl’s expression changed.
“This was your territory? Your pack’s territory I mean. Doesn’t anyone know you’re here?”
“Was? I mean, I might just be one girl, but the park’s still mine. I watch it, I spend most days with it. This is my home!” – Mina.
The girl broke eye contact.
“I grew up here, my family’s shop is right over there… I can be an asset. I know the territory, I know its people and I know its shadow. I lost my pack and I don’t know why or how. We aren’t immortal, we’re not…” – Mina
“We’re not exactly what you call a pack, but yeah, I’ll talk to them, I’m Chelsea.”
“I’m Mina, Ithaeur and Bone Shadow of the… heh, never mind I guess. Do you need some help with that?” – Mina
Chelsea looked down at the bag full of books and unzipped it.
Later, at the Duplex
Georgia was overseeing the men who inexplicably showed up that morning to start doing work on the duplex, which Satch had somehow purchased in less than twenty-four hours. Satch was talking to the foreman, looking over plans of some sort when the door burst open.
“I know what it is!” – Chelsea, before coming to a sudden and complete stop.
“Hi sweetie, you’re home from school early.” – Georgia
“Uh, yeah whatever, we need to talk, uh, mom?”
Satch excused himself and the three sequestered themselves in the small downstairs bedroom.
“I know what it is, the Beshilu, I know what we’re dealing with.”
“The Rat Host?” – Georgia
“You know what they are?” Chelsea
“Yes and no, I know that they’re the prey of the Hunters in Darkness. I never ran into them myself.”
“Yeah, well they’re the children of the Plague-King, he was to rats what Urfarah was to wolves. Our ancestor tore him to shreds and the Host are all that remains, essence infested rats that can become sentient–”
“Oh yeah, they’re kind of like physical spirits and they merge together and they infest people… oh jeez… all those bodies.” – Georgia
“And they’re driven by their nature to burrow through the Gauntlet.”
She showed them the entries she found in the various books.
“How did you find this in two days?” – Satch
Nelly was just heading out, leaving Mina to finish closing the Apothecary when she heard a tapping on the door.
It was Chelsea just like she promised, and she had the others with her. Mina immediately understood when she said that they weren’t really a pack.
While Chelsea wore second hand clothes that were nondescript and comfortable, the man she was with wore a ridiculously expensive pinstripe suit while the woman looked like a bike messenger.
And now they were adding a doctor to the mix.
They all had one thing in common though. They were all orphans. So maybe they were more alike than she gave them credit for.
“Hi, thank you for meeting me, I’m Dr. Mina Lake, welcome to the Apothecary.”
“Georgia Meyers, this is Satch Francetti, you’ve already met Chelsea of course.” – the woman.
She was smiling and warm but Mina knew immediately that the woman was protective of the other two.
Mina locked the door behind her.
For a moment she was sure they were being watched.
“What?” – Satch
Mina turned but the face was gone.
“Nothing. First thing you learn about this part of town, sometimes it plays tricks on you.” – Mina
Getting coffees from the Starbucks down the block, they wandered the park, taking turns telling stories and asking questions.
Mina was a relatively young wolf, only having gone through the First Change nine months before. She was away on business when her pack, the Quiet, simply vanished. Their Totem, Sorrow Wing, had been discorporated by unknown means before they vanished and refused to speak on the subject.
She was also a healer and impressive shaman for one so young, even for a Bone Shadow, showing wisdom well beyond her years.
“Do you need a business partner? I’ve been attempting to seed some money in the local economy and I could help you with any renovations you might want to make.” – Satch
Georgia sighed audibly.
“Not at this time, Mr. Francetti, though I’m grateful for the offer we just renovated last year.”
“That’s too bad; it would have shown trust in any other endeavors we might take together.”
“What Satch is trying to say is that you can run with us. We’re not exactly a pack, but we’ve been watching each other’s backs.” – Georgia.
Georgia furrowed her brow.
“Do you guys smell that?” – Georgia
The others sniffed the air.
“You’re going to have to be a bit more specific.” – Chelsea
“I smell cigarettes.” – Georgia
“Do you see anyone smoking?” – Georgia
The others shrugged.
“Like I said, this park can play tricks on you.” – Mina
Even as they moved on, Georgia couldn’t shake the feeling they were being watched.
“Anyone else hungry?” – Chelsea
They made small and went back and forth about what to get for dinner before deciding on a small Chinese restaurant called the Seven Dragon. The dumplings were delicious, the noodles less so, everyone thanked Mina for insisting they order the Peking Duck.
“So Chelsea says these things infest people, does that mean that when we kill the host and rats start pouring out will we have to kill them all or do we have to kill just the one?” – Satch, after the server finished carving the duck.
“Are you asking if it’s it like if we kill the head vampire all the baby vampires die?” – Georgia
“Do you know the answer?” – Satch
“I don’t know enough about them. The Quiet never dealt with the Beshilu and Chelsea’s mentor describes a number of strains, everything from the legendary Rat King to rats the size of wolves to anthropomorphic swarms.” – Mina shuddered.
“Could we be a little quieter while other people are present?” – Georgia
“What are you talking about? The waiter left already, we have the dining room to ourselves.” – Chelsea
Georgia looked again, perplexed. She was sure there had been someone sitting at the bar playing with their phone.
“Are you okay, Georgia?” – Satch, putting his hand on her shoulder.
Chelsea opened her backpack and pulled out one of her journals that had been marked by dozens of different colored post-its along with her tablet.
“We’re having dinner.” – Satch
“And? I just remembered something, gimme a sec.” – Chelsea, flipping through the old book.
“Right here, the Rat Host are cowards by nature, hiding away while they gnaw through the gauntlet… once they successfully winnow it away it begins to collapse, creating a verge… the spirits that were drawn by their violent burrowing are able to come across unbidden…” – Chelsea stopped reading aloud and turned the page
“And?” – Satch
“There is no surefire way to kill the Rat Host. Even the weakest is of ancient origin and of a cunning unseen outside the Shadow.” – Chelsea, reading aloud again.
“The Gauntlet’s already all but gone, at least on the top floor of the hotel.” – Georgia
“What about the Harvesters?” – Mina
“I’d be too weary of them seeing a request for help as weakness and trying to take back the territory by force.” – Georgia
“I don’t like it either. We don’t need to fight a war on two fronts.” – Satch
“The Harvesters’ll keep their distance, they’re glory hounds, but they refuse to put in the work.” – Mina
“Besides, they were willing to give the territory up with little more than me keeping eye contact during our conversation. I think they know somethings very wrong and don’t think they can handle it.” – Chelsea.
“I think we can clean it out ourselves. Either way, we don’t need to be too sneaky I bought the property this morning.” – Satch, flipping a pair of keys on a key ring.
When they finished eating Satch paid, leaving an exorbitant tip.
None of them noticed the smell of cigarette smoke when they left.
Just after Midnight
The El Dorado seemed all the more menacing now that they knew what they were dealing with.
“Someone else came through here.” – Georgia, opening the window at the top of the fire escape.
“The Beshilu?” – Chelsea
Georgia sniffed the air; cigarettes, again but mixed with gun oil and the chalky odor of unspent gun powder.
“I don’t think so.” – Georgia, becoming a wolf.
Satch stepped into the corridor behind her, a small flashlight in hand.
She followed the smell of cigarettes to abattoir door, and then on to the staircase at the end of the hall. The cigarette smell was fresh, but she didn’t recognize the brand.
Mina took the Dalu form as she slipped through the window.
Chelsea followed after, blocking the moonlight with the sheer size of her shape in Urshul form.
Her footfalls were surprisingly quiet for her size.
Georgia’s posture told them that they were not alone.
She saw the corridor in the gray undertones of a wolf’s vision at night. She saw the stairs up ahead as she approached the staircase.
Then she saw him, his hair was loose but cut short, the way her father had worn his. He wore a dark suit with a skinny tie. He was young and thin and handsome and if it weren’t for the cigarettes and the shotgun she wouldn’t be able to smell him at all.
Surprised, Georgia grew into the Urshul only for the boy to literally vanish just before Satch’s flashlight fell on him. It was only her keen hearing that told her that somehow he was downstairs running down the corridor.
“What was it?” – Satch
Georgia, unable to respond in a way that he would understand chased after the boy. The others followed, spoiling for a fight.
“Was it the Rat-thing?” – Satch, pulling his own gun as he let Mina and Chelsea pass him.
When he reached the bottom of the staircase Georgia was sniffing the ground looking for something.
“It was a kid or something.” – Chelsea, once again a sixteen year old girl.
“It wasn’t a spirit, I say we ignore it.” – Mina
Georgia growled at the idea, her opinion was clear.
“The floor’s creaking under your weight, Georgia.” – Satch
The giant wolf vanished into the shape of an athletic young woman, in part to be quieter, but also to better fit down the next staircase, which was cluttered with old broken furniture.
Chelsea bound toward the middle of the heap, having become a wolf, and cleared the entire staircase.
“Dammit, girl.” – Georgia
Chelsea stalked through the corridor and soon found herself joined by Georgia.
Chelsea licked the black-furred wolf.
Georgia grumbled. She couldn’t smell anything, not even the cigarettes; somehow their scent was fading as they tracked it.
What could do that?As if to answer they heard the sound of a shotgun being fired farther down, closer to the ground. The pack as one charged across the corridor and down the staircase twice more.
What they saw was the young man in the dark suit opening fire on what looked like a six foot tall rat standing on its all too human legs.
By the time they reached the bottom Chelsea, Georgia and Satch had gone Urshul once again.
Georgia sprung toward the rat, bounding over the mysterious shot-gunner and clamping her jaws onto its head, her teeth biting deep into the bone. The hot dirty oil taste of its blood coated her tongue.
Its body crumpled to the floor, headless.
She dropped it.
“Is it over?” – Mina
“Jinxed it.” – the young man.
As if on cue the Beshilu’s body seized, arching its back up onto its shoulders as its skin erupted like a great, petulant boil. Brown rot burst forth in an unsettling cascading skittering.
“Oh god…its rats.” – Mina
And it was. Dozens of them, far more than sanity would say was possible, roiling and fighting over one another, each one no less than a foot long.
There were at least a hundred of them.
The man opened fire on the swarm, blasting away with what looked like buck shot.
Chelsea yipped in what seemed to be wolfish glee as she dived into the hoard, taking two or three of the diseased rodents in her monstrous jaws. Satch took a more measured approach, the largest of the dire-wolves used his jaws in tandem with his dagger-like claws to shred as many as possible.
Georgia was there with them, slashing and chomping as many as she could.
Mina seemed a little weary, raising Satch’s forgotten Pistol and blasting at them.
By the time swarm dispersed, the young man’s shotgun was spent, as was Satch’s pistol, but the nascent pack and their mysterious ally had killed nearly all of them, with only a handful or so escaping their wrath.
The young man was paler up close; his eyes were bright in the absolute darkness of the room, as though he had no problem perceiving them as they darted from wolf to wolf to woman and back again.
He dropped his shotgun and a switchblade danced in his hand.
Satchel laughed a wolf’s laugh, going so far as to yip and roll onto his back and to his feet again, his tail wagging wildly.
“I’ll cut you up." – The man, backing toward the staircase.
Chelsea sniffed at him and smelled nothing but cigarettes and gunpowder.
Satch was still laughing when he stood into his human form.
“What are you?” – Mina
“I could ask the same.” – The Man
He was calm, cool, collected.
Georgia and Chelsea joined Satch and Mina as people, though they all continued using their wolf eyes to see in the dark.
The man grinned knowingly.
Satch darted forward, suddenly in the man’s face, he was no longer laughing.
“You’d best put the knife down, son, it doesn’t matter how cool you are or how many jabs you get in, you can’t beat me and you won’t survive the attempt.” – Satch
The man smirked dismissively as if he were going to say something but instead the knife flickered. It was just gone.“Now that we got that out of the way– “ – Satch was interrupted by the man flickering, followed by the hotel’s long boarded up front door suddenly bursting open in a crash of broken wood.
He turned back but the man was gone.
Mina tucked the gun into her belt behind her back as they all rushed out of the hotel.
“God Dammit, man! I just wanted to talk! Come back!” – Satch.
Georgia sniffed at the air and then bent down to sniff the ground, melting into the wolf-shape as she did.
She followed her nose to shadows behind the front stair, away from the street lamp.
“Hi.” – Georgia, suddenly a woman again.
The man, cornered as he was, smiled resignedly.
“We just want to talk, sir.” – Satch, having followed Georgia.
“So long as you don’t try to make me puppy chow.”
“You won’t be puppy chow. Ladies, ladies, please, can we all be people right now so we don’t frighten our young friend?” – Satch.
Chelsea acquiesced grudgingly, before walking off. Mina was nowhere to be found.
“No puppy-chow.” – Satch.
The man adjusted his tie and smoothed his tailored suit. The lines were antiquated, like something Satch had seen in a Tom Cruise movie back in the eighties, but it was most definitely high quality.
The guy pulled a cigarette and lighter out of nowhere and lit up.
“You’ll forgive me, old habit.” – The man relaxed.
“Not bugging me. Quick question though, why were you in my building?” – Satch
The man took a long drag.
“Killin’ a monster.” – the man blew the smoke as if to punctuate his thought.
“And how did you know there was a monster?”
“It killed some people. Things like that get noticed.”
Georgia knew he was dissembling.
“We only noticed yesterday.” – Satch.
“Connected some dots, figured out what needed to die, killed it. Thanks for the assist, champ.” – The guy, tapping Satch’s shoulder with his fist.
Satch looked at him, hard.
“I’m so full of shit right now, it’s hard to walk, all you need to know is that I’ve been watching you, I came here to see what you’ve been up too and found a seven foot tall rat.” – The man.
“You want to watch us? All you need know is that we’re fixing up the neighborhood, buying some property to better put down roots and that it’s best if you leave us to our work. If you want to know how serious we are just look me up, I’m Satch Francetti out of Miami.”
“And you’re werewolves?” – the guy.
The woman snorted.
“Let’s get back in there, Satch, Mina’s still in there.” – Georgia, patting the man on the shoulder.
When Satch turned back the man was gone.
Satch was already bored of that trick.
Mina studied the third floor of the run-down hotel in gob smacked horror. The barrier between flesh and spirit within the El Dorado was almost non-existent. If the Beshilu had been allowed to work any longer than it had the hotel would have become a verge of the worst variety.
What was worse was the fact that there was no way they got all of the rats, which meant that the shard was still out there, still alive.
“How could I have let this happen?” – Mina
She caught movement out of the corner of her eye and turned to see the ceiling begin to weep black blood.
She recognized the resonance of a murder spirit when she saw it.
It seemed the Charnel house upstairs spawned all kinds of critters.
“That’s not good.”
All the while the black puddle of murder oozed ever closer.
Two Days Later
The Apothecary, Green Lawn
Mina was waiting for Nelson to arrive for his 4 o’clock shift, she’d warned him that if he were late again, she’d document him and was kind of hoping he wouldn’t call her bluff. Nellie (no relation) was busy clearing the scripts that had been up for more than 72 hours to make room for any new scripts that would be placed during the rush hour.
Something moved at the corner of her vision. The wolf rushed to the surface, ready to run if necessary.
There was no one there. Then she heard the sound of someone on the other side of the shelf. It was just another customer.
When had a customer come in?
Mina smelled the air expecting the normal smells of sweat, blood and perfume.
She couldn’t smell anything.
She walked around the shelf. There was no one there. What was going on?
Mina went back to work, but she kept her eyes open. She was behind the counter, having just taken care of Mrs. Wilkerson when something touched her shoulder.
Mina spun, the wolf pleading with her to run.
“Did you learn anything new about the, oh heck, what did you call that rat thing?”
It was the man from the hotel. He was wearing the same, or a very similar, suit.
“Beshilu? We haven’t learned anything else, yet. There only seemed to be one and as far as we could tell we didn’t get him.” – Mina
The figure grunted.
How had she not realized he’d been there the whole time? It was like he was just coming into focus.
Just looking at him in the light of day, he had fair, ashen skin that stood out against his chestnut hair handsomely. But it was his eyes that stood out, they were a shade of agate she’d never seen and reflected the light of the room like glass. Those eyes weren’t human, at least not entirely. His shadow too, now that she really looked, didn’t seem quite right in the light coming through the storefront windows, seeming too defused despite the western exposure to the afternoon sun.
She listened closely but once again heard nothing as he stared at her. No breath. No heartbeat.
No scent save cigarettes.
The man turned and began perusing her holistic wares.
“How much of this actually works?”
“All of it works.” – Mina
He shot her a cynical look before smelling the contents of a glass jar filled with dried St. John’s Wort.
“It just depends on whether or not you use it properly and for the right reasons.”
He smiled and put the glass back.
“Can any of this stuff be used recreationally?”
The bell over the front door chimed and Mina turned unthinkingly.
“Sorry I’m late; I couldn’t find a sitter for Duffy.” – Nelson
In the second it took for Mina to turn back he was gone.
Satch hung up the phone. It would be another 3 weeks, minimum, before the police were done with the hotel and probably a month after they were done for cleaners to go in and clean it out further.
The newspapers were having a field day with the revelation of the “El Dorado Larder”, which was a stupid name but seemed to be sticking for now.
Of course some good came out of this debacle; Satch had made good inroads with a couple of cops who were willing to look into their mysterious visitor. He gave them the best description he could but with no fingerprints, gun or evidence and a broad and ill-defined description there wasn’t much the police could do.
He almost broke his phone.
He drove over to the property anyway.
They’d taken turns watching the place at night to make sure nothing came through the nearly breached gauntlet but after just a few days the familiar haze of a healthy barrier were starting to appear and there hadn’t been any crossing that they could see.
Chelsea and Georgia were due back from their shift, which they spent across the street looking like a girl and her large, black dog that looked too much like a wolf.
Satch parked a half a block down and shed his human form for that of a wolf as he stepped into the building through the back entrance. The police had opened the back door the morning of the “grisly discovery” and it was easy enough to slip in unnoticed while the cop took a leak.
The place had a peculiar odor during the day, like the mold was reacting to the heat outside.
He’d come to take his frustrations out on the hotel’s still numerous rat population and was making good work of them when he smelled the familiar herbaceous scent of Mina.
Satch stood to his full height, trading fur for the designer jeans and t-shirt he’d worn over as he turned toward the back entrance.
He didn’t expect to see the kid from the other night.
The kid shrugged and approached without making a sound.
“What’s happening, Satch?” – The kid, watching something in the recesses of the still dark hall.
“It’s been quiet the last few days.”
The kid’s head jerked up suddenly and for a moment Satch was confused before he heard it; voices, human voices, and footfalls on the staircase.
How could he have been so stupid? He hadn’t even bothered to check with the girls to see if there was someone in the building.
“Room 15.” – Satch, pointing at a door he’d been in with one of the detectives when he’d called in the bodies.
The lock was broken, they could easily sneak inside and just pray that the cops were too distracted to notice the creak of the ancient hinges.
The hinges practically screamed as the kid opened the door wide for Satch to run in after him.
“Who’s there?” – One of the cops.
The door closed with a solid thud. Evidently the Louisiana humidity had warped it enough to allow it to announce their exact location.
“Check the doors. They went into one of them.” – The same cop
They listened as the cops went from door to door. Satch let out a low growl in frustration, he’d grown more than a foot since entering the room, preparing for the cops to open the door and meet their deaths.
“These ain’t budging, I don’t think they’ve been opened in years.” – the other cop, rattling a knob and giving the door a good shouldering.
Footsteps approached the door. Satch readied himself for murder. The Herd Should Not Know.
“One of them was opened.” – The first cop
The cop walked right past the door.
What the hell? Satch looked at the kid and then at the door again, except he couldn’t, not really, it was as if his eyes were sliding off of it.
“Are you sure? I didn’t hear anything.” – the second cop.
“What? Really? That was loud.” – But the first cop wasn’t so sure anymore.
“These are all locked and warped shut, there’s no way one of them opened.”
“Guess so. Let’s just go… I need a coffee and you’ve been away from your post for too long.”
They listened to the cops leave and Satchel wasn’t sure to be confused or impressed.
“That was a neat trick, kid.” – Satch
But when he turned, he was alone.
Just past dusk, somewhere in Green Lawn
Chelsea had been tailing Tree for about an hour when she lost him around a corner. She’d been careful, keeping her distance and doing what she could to blend into the herd, but it was clear that he’d caught wind of her.
It was also clear, though he thought he was clever, that he was directly behind her, dropping silently from above. She was impressed.
Chelsea turned, her flowered sundress twirling about her.
“Hyah.” – Chelsea, smiling and waving
“Why are you following me?” – Tree, towering over her.
“Do you remember me? I’m Chelsea, we met the other night near Skemp Park?”
“Why are you following me?”
“Well, you know, I’m new in town and I don’t know anybody and I was just thinking that it’d be great if, you know, we hung out and stuff.”
He looked around, wary of an ambush.
“Are you flirting with me?” – Tree
He seemed completely flummoxed.
“Not necessarily, I was just, you know, looking for someone to show me around.” – Chelsea, blushing
“Fine, but we’re leaving my territory. Now.” – Tree
“Okay.” – Chelsea, trying to take his hand.
He pulled away.
They got three blocks before she tried again.
It turned out that they had a lot in common, they both loved online gaming and crappy food, and they both loved a good book and history. She was surprised when he said he followed Black Wolf.
Before she knew it an hour had gone by as he showed her his favorite dive, a small hole in the wall that sold what he claimed were the best enchiladas in Louisiana and though he refused to talk about anything that could be construed as “pack business” he was eager to swap stories about rites he’d tried and the local spirit ecology.
For the first time since George’s death, Chelsea was having fun.
Later, The Duplex
It seemed that the werewolves were busy sprucing up the joint.
Roy found a stack of paperwork on the new dining room table that included an invoice for plumbing, electrical and general repairs that had all been done with priority for a hefty sum.
It also appeared that the big guy, Satchel, had purchased the other apartment and had the tenants relocated on his dime. It was clear that Mr. Francetti had the chicken to scratch. Enough to put pay for this house, the rat-infested hotel from hell and pay for a storefront two blocks down over the course of only a few days.
That was serious juice.
Roy slipped upstairs and into the main bedroom, which looked like it was being prepped for a renovation. He found the gun, a custom .44 Desert Eagle that had had been fired but not cleaned. It had the same blood on it that the kid had smelled downstairs.
There were a few suits in dry cleaner bags.
He also found a few burner phones that had already been pre-programmed though, and found that very useful. He recognized a few of the numbers, those of a local real estate agent that had brokered the various purchases for Mr. Francetti, a high end accountant, a lawyer at Cohen, Garber and Swan.
It seemed that Mr. Francetti was very well connected.
Someone came through the front door; it seemed that it was time for him to go.
Roy slipped out of the bedroom and down the stairs. The girl, Chelsea, was standing in the doorway while she talked to one of the tallest people he’d ever seen and it was clear to him that whoever he was, he was like her and her friends.
How many werewolves were there in the city?
“Thank you for the night, T.”
“I had fun too.” – T.
“Do you want to come in?”
Roy rolled his eyes.
“I gotta get back. Jack’s been blowing up my phone.”
“Yeah…” – the girl.
The girl even whimpered like a dog. She stepped backward into the house and just like that Roy was outside, loose in the glorious darkness of the Louisiana night.