Read Dead Matter Online

Authors: Anton Strout

Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy

Dead Matter (3 page)

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“Hi,” I said in a whisper of uncertain fear. As it tensed, I raced to lift my bat. I wanted to get at least one shot in before it could do anything, but even wounded, it was far too fast for me. It leapt straight at me, knocking me over and the bat out of my hand. It landed on me, pinning me to the floor with its crushing weight. Bits of drool and chunks of meat fell from its maw down onto me. Panicked, I tried to throw the monstrosity off, but it was no use. I was trapped.
“Watch your eyes,” I heard Jane call out. Without even giving it a thought, I shut them. The familiar thud of a battery hit the creature, followed by the dull
of the seams giving away. The hiss of the acid filled my ears, but thankfully nothing hit my face, although I felt some of it drip down onto my coat. As the hissing got louder, I dared to open my eyes. Acid was eating into the leather of my coat the same way it was eating away at the creature’s skin. Its mouth was drawn back in a pained and horrifying expression. It looked back over its shoulder at Jane as if it was considering its options. To deal with her, it would have to get past the remaining barrier of garlic on her side. It looked down at me. Pinned there, I was no threat to it and with the circle broken on my side, it chose freedom over fight, but not before one last crush into me as it pounced off toward the exit.
I sat up, soreness kicking in the second I did. I gave myself a quick once-over, making sure none of the battery acid was about to eat through my flesh anywhere. Luckily, my coat had taken the brunt of the damage. It was totaled, unless Swiss cheese chic was going to be all the rage this season in fine leather.
Jane ran over, mindful of stepping into any of the acid pools, and offered me her hand, which I gladly took. Any paranormal encounter where you still had a hand to hold after it was okay in my book.
“You all right?” she said.
I looked around at the chaos we had made of the store, the swath of destruction that the creature had cut through it. “All things considered? Yeah.”
“You want me to go after it?”
I shook my head. “It’s long gone,” I said. “Did you see how fast that thing was?” I slid off my acid-covered coat. I barely let it fall to the floor before Jane grabbed me and hugged me. Tight. I tried not to wince given the tenderness from the fall. From the way she held me in her death grip, I could tell she was spooked. Much of her work was in the office, not in the field.
I kissed her on top of her head, hoping to calm her. “Thursdays are
day to rescue
, right?”
She laughed into my chest and I felt her grip loosen a little. She stood back and looked up at me, smiling.
“Nobody messes with Taco Night,” she said.
I reached down and gathered up my jacket. Several shards of battery casing had lodged themselves into the leather and I plucked one of the larger ones out, reading the bit of label still attached to it. “Explosion proof, my ass!”
“Hey!” a woman’s voice shouted out. I looked up and saw who I assumed was the store owner coming over to us. She was an older woman in her fifties with gray hair cut into a short bob. As she looked over the damage in the produce aisle, her eyes were so wide that I thought they might actually fall out and roll across the floor. She clutched an industrial-sized broom in her hands, but it looked puny in the face of all the damage. “What … what was that thing?”
Her accent was eight shades of old-school Brooklyn. I winced at the sound of it. “Rabid dog, ma’am,” I said, trying to put on a serious face.
“Rabid dog?” she said. “Seriously? Did you see the size of that thing? That wasn’t no dog.”
“No, really,” I said, not even buying my own story. The look on the woman’s face told me she wasn’t buying it, either. I unfolded my jacket and searched for the inside pocket, looking for one of the cards with the number for damage claims like this. I felt the edge of one and pulled it free. As I leaned forward to hand it to the store owner, the card disintegrated in my hand.
Jane slid her tiny backpack off her shoulders and produced one of her own, handing it to the woman with a reassuring smile. “You’d be surprised how big these poor mistreated animals grow when they’re left to a life in the sewers,” she said.
Something about the sweet, understanding look on Jane’s face soothed the woman. Hell, it soothed me.
“You call that number and speak to Mr. David Davidson,” Jane continued. “He’s with the Mayor’s Office. He’ll send a team out to assess the damage, and the city will see to the repairs.”
The woman remained silent, clutching the card as though it was the one thing that was keeping her mind from snapping. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the mountain of red tape downtown to process her claim might take longer than the store would last. That was government work for you. Jane and I left the woman standing there as people started coming out of hiding and looking around. We took our baskets of groceries up toward the register area, but everyone had gone off to the produce aisle to gawk at the epicenter of the incident. I bagged our groceries and left enough cash to cover them before heading out into the streets.
Jane and I checked for signs of the creature outside the store. I followed a trail of blood for about twenty feet before it vanished in the middle of the street.
“Too late,” I said. “I had hoped it would be bleeding bad enough that we could track it, but the way that thing kept healing, it dried up the trail quick.”
Jane looked disappointed, but also hopeful. “So … where to?” she asked. “Home?”
I nodded. “Some people might find an attack on their person by some half-crazed demonic monstrosity terribly unnerving, but not me.”
“No?” Jane asked, puzzled.
“Nope,” I said. “I’m more worried about the metric ton of paperwork this is going to generate back at the office.”
We headed back to my SoHo apartment nearby. I’d call the incident in to the Department of Extraordinary Affairs tonight and worry about the paperwork tomorrow. Right now I just wanted to get home and try to enjoy the precious little time off with Jane that I was able to catch these days. Besides, like the woman said, no one messes with Taco Night.
Despite the incident, Taco Night proved a success, but the attack must have drained both of us more than we thought. It was hard to get motivated the next morning, and once we gave up hitting the snooze alarm for the fifteenth time, the two of us stumbled our way up from SoHo to the East Village. By the time Jane and I rounded Second Avenue onto East Eleventh, my eyes finally creaked open as the smell of coffee drifted down the street from inside the Lovecraft Café. Like a blood-hound on a trail, I followed the scent and headed for the café’s familiar red-framed windows and giant oak doors. Once inside the cover for the Department, I felt at home. Well,
at home. The bohemian coffee shop with its exposed-brick walls thick with old movie posters was only a front for our offices.
The main room was cluttered with a mismatch of sofas and comfy chairs, but the two of us passed through all that and headed straight for the counter along one side of the wall. I had just barely placed our order when my boss barreled out from behind the curtain at the back of the shop. To a casual coffee shop customer, it would appear that he was coming from the old-world movie theater back there, but I knew he was emerging from our secret government office, which was hidden behind the theater.
Inspectre Argyle Quimbley was in his late fifties and, despite being fairly fit, he looked winded. His breath heaved in and out, causing the ends of his walruslike mustache to flip back and forth like they had a life all their own. He wore a tweed jacket and his arms were wrapped around a stack of files. His eyes lit up behind his glasses when he saw me, and he made a beeline toward us.
“Simon,” he said. “Good. You’re here.”
I checked my watch. “I’ve got two minutes to get to my desk. Just thought I’d grab …”
“There’s no time,” he said, his eyes wild and his voice thick with his soft and sophisticated English accent. “There’s simply no time!”
My heart raced at the promise of action. Terrifying as many aspects of my job might be, I also thrilled at the call to arms. The adrenaline rush was just one of the perks of working as a paranormal investigator in Other Division. Ghosts, ghouls, things that go bump in the night …
“I’m on it,” I said. I threw open the left side of the backup coat I’d had to break out after last night’s incident. I patted the holster where my bat sat. “Where do you need me?”
Flustered as he looked, the Inspectre looked down at my bat, then back up at me. He put down his armful of files on the counter and grabbed my lapel, pulling my coat closed. “Not among the norms, my dear boy,” he said, looking around the coffeehouse. As usual in New York, no one was paying attention. He placed his hand on top of the pile of folders he had just put down, tapping them. “Besides, I don’t need you in the field.
are for you.”
“Are all of these new?” I said. “All of this since last night?”
The Inspectre nodded. “I’m afraid so. Some of it is for Connor, but either way, it’s all new material. We’re seeing a lot of ghostly activity right now and eyewitness accounts seem to be at an all-time high in graveyards throughout Manhattan. No one is quite sure why … and with Connor still on vacation …”
“It falls to me,” I said. “I gotcha, sir.”
The Inspectre put his hand on my shoulder. “We’re all burning the midnight oil right now, son,” the Inspectre said. He clapped me on the arm and gave me a beaming smile. “That’s my boy!”
I gave Jane a weak smile while I scooped up the folders in my arms. Jane handed me my iced coffee and rested my bear claw on top of the pile, kissing me on the nose as she did so.
“Isn’t this almost as exciting as last night?” she said.
The Inspectre gave a deep cough, haroomed, and pounded his chest. “I believe that falls into the Too Much Information Department …”
I blushed before I realized what Jane was actually talking about. “No, sir. It’s nothing like that. We were attacked last night … at the grocery store, by this thing … fangs and …”
As I struggled to articulate myself, the Inspectre was already lost in his own thoughts and wandering back toward the curtains and the office proper. “Yes, yes,” he said, distracted. “Write it up in a report and I’ll go over it. Make sure you get to those others as well …”
I sighed as he slipped back through the curtains and was gone. “And I’ll make sure to file an incident report to document that I filed an incident …” I said.
Jane laughed, then grabbed my bear claw and took a bite of it.
“Do try to have all of it done by seven or so,” she said. “We’ve got tickets to
Mamma Mia
, and if we’re late, they only seat during a break in the show.”
The Inspectre popped his head out from the curtain, looking every bit like a magician. “Oh,” he said. “I nearly forgot. Ms. Clayton-Forrester, Director Wesker left a message with me for you. He assumed you’d be tethered to Mr. Canderous, and wouldn’t you know, there you are …”
I bristled at the mention of the head of Greater & Lesser Arcana. Thaddeus Wesker had no doubt made the
comment, which made him not only Jane’s boss but an ass to boot.
“Yes, sir?” Jane said with great earnestness. Being an ex-cultist meant she had to work twice as hard to earn respect around here.
“Director Wesker is already up at Tome, Sweet Tome,” he said. “Several of the more rambunctious books seem to have been … picking … on a few less rowdy ones. He needs you up there to help straighten things out. He seemed out of sorts that you weren’t already there, but then again, he
seems out of sorts, doesn’t he?”
The Inspectre gave Jane a soft smile, and she couldn’t help but smile back at him. Then he followed up with a curt nod, and disappeared again, but not before giving me and my pile of folders a get-to-work kind of look.
“That’s me,” Jane said. “Librarian to the Damned.” Jane kissed my cheek, then grabbed her coffee and muffin. “Remember, theater tonight. Be ready or be dead.”
“One’s more likely than the other in my field,” I said, but Jane was already running out the door, heading for the subway over at Astor Place. I hefted my stack of paper and walked to the back of the coffeehouse and through the black velvet curtain hanging there.
The Silence of the Lambs
was playing in the ornate old theater despite the early hour, but at this time of morning the theater was all but empty. I headed down the main aisle, turned right, heading off toward a short corridor at the end of it on the left. Across from the theater bathrooms was the solid oak door marked H.P. that lead into the secret offices. Without a free hand, I slammed my pocket with my keys in it against the sensor pad next to the door. I prayed my panel humping would set it off and was relieved a few seconds later when I heard the door click open.
Arcane runes decorated the main bull pen of the office. I worked my way past the cubicle-farm part of it, past the myriad doors along the wall that lead off to God knew where. Farther along behind a set of ceiling-length red curtains, I found the next section of the office where Connor and I shared an old partners desk that was covered in far more paper than I had in my arms.
I set my iced coffee down, then the stack of folders with my bear claw on it. I sat down, took stock of it all, and fought the urge to slam my head against my desk until I went unconscious. I’d get to it all, but not before I grabbed my bear claw and coffee. I was going to be damned if all this paperwork ruined my breakfast.
The work day hours passed in a fog of mind-numbing filing and collation. Sometime in the late afternoon, Jane pulled up at my desk and kissed me on the head. She had changed from her jeans and T-shirt into a short black dress that highlighted all her deliciousness. “How’s it going?”

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