Chapter 1

I looked down at my clipboard and reviewed the information one last time. I looked up at the young couple in front of me.  The blonde wife clutched her husband’s hand. The husband grimaced, whether in anticipation of my coming report or because his wife’s grip on his hand was cutting off circulation to his fingers, I couldn’t tell. The wife had pretty well developed biceps. She looked like she spent a lot of time with her personal trainer.

“Mr. and Mrs. Guilfoyle,” I said. “I have completed my appraisal of your property. By my estimate, your house is worth six-fifty.”

“Oh,” Mr. Guilfoyle said, “That’s not too bad. Six hundred and fifty thousand is a lot of money. I mean we’re still underwater but…”

I shook my head. “No. I’m afraid you don’t understand. When I said six-fifty I meant six dollars and fifty cents.”

Mr. Guilfoyle’s shoulders sagged. His wife tightened her grip on his hand and started to cry. I thought I heard a finger snap, but it was hard to tell with all the sobbing. Mr. Guilfoyle looked like he might pass out.

“Six dollars…” he stammered. “But we paid eight hundred and fifty thousand…”

I shrugged. “What can I say? The market has tanked. If it’s any consolation, a lot of people are in your position.”

“How?” Mrs. Guilfoyle wailed. “How is it possible that our house is worth less than a McDonald’s value meal?”

“Well,” I replied. “The house is made of tongue depressors held together with Elmer’s glue. The walls are construction paper. And the stucco on the exterior? That’s paper mâchè. This place was put together with materials available to your average fourth grader. This sort of cost cutting happens every time there’s a real estate boom. Your case is pretty extreme, though.”

“God dammit Linda,” Mr. Guilfolye said, pulling his hand free from his wife’s grasp with a great deal of difficulty. “I told you. I told you the builder looked awfully young, but you wouldn’t listen.”

“I thought he was a little person,” Linda said through her tears. “I didn’t want to be rude.”

“Children are little people!” Mr. Guilfoyle screamed.

“You know what I mean, you insensitive jerk! I just didn’t want you to make another racist comment about dwarves, like you did at the Christmas party. “

“Dwarves aren’t a race!” Mr. Guilfoyle said. “I swear to God, Linda I regret getting you that World of Warcraft subscription almost as much as I regret letting you talk me in to buying this house.”

I cleared my throat. “Mr. and Mrs. Guilfoyle, I can see you’re having a private moment here, so if you could just pay me my fee, I’ll get out of your hair.”

They both turned and looked at me with murder in their eyes.

Mr. Guilfoyle said, “How exactly are we supposed to pay you? We have nothing! Our equity is gone and we’re in debt up to our eyeballs!”

“That’s a nice Beamer you’ve got in the driveway,” I said. “Perhaps you could take out a title loan?”

With an ear-piercing shriek, Linda Guilfoyle launched herself across the room, her face a hideous mask of pain and rage. I stumbled backwards, tripping over my own untied shoelace. Mrs. Guilfoyle passed right over me, crashing though a plate glass window. Well, she crashed through what would have been a plate glass window in a house that hadn’t been built by greedy kids out to make a quick buck during a real estate boom. Instead, she crashed through a wall of Saran wrap, spun around a few times, and collapsed on the deck, thrashing and wailing. I quickly ducked outside and made my escape while her husband knelt over her, trying to claw a hole in the plastic wrap so his wife could breathe.

As I made my way to my beat up Toyota Corolla, I kicked myself for not having my phone ready so I could have recorded Mrs. Guilfoyle’s little misadventure. That sort of thing was YouTube gold, and my YouTube channel could have used the traffic. Embedded ads were pretty much my only steady source of income these days. Now that no one was buying real estate, real estate appraisers weren’t much in demand, and the jobs I did get usually ended with someone’s face contorting into a hideous mask of pain and rage, just like this one had. People rarely paid their bills once you told them that they didn’t have any of the money they thought they did. People are funny like that.

I jumped into the car and headed back to my office. While my office wasn’t in a great part of town or even a semi-decent part of town, it did have its charms. It was cheap, and it was in a building that had been built back when buildings were built by adults who used proper materials. When you jumped through a window in my office you didn’t end up suffocating in plastic wrap. You got cut to ribbons by glass. You also fell three stories onto the street because my office was on the third floor of a four-story walkup. I shared the third floor with two other tenants. Alexandra Blavatsky was a psychic and occultist. At least that’s what it said on her door.  Rex Hardman was a private investigator. At least that’s what it said on his door. If you asked me, Alexandra was a con artist and Rex was an alcoholic, but they probably would have gotten even less business than they did now if they started being honest. And I wasn’t in a position to judge. It wasn’t like I was planning on changing my door to read “community college dropout” anytime soon.

I threw open my office door and walked in, careful not to trip on the loose floorboard I’d been trying to get the landlord to fix since I’d signed the lease. I flipped the light switch, and the ancient sixty-watt bulb mounted in the ceiling fan sputtered to life. The fan began to rotate slowly, stirring the stale air.

Kitty looked up from her desk and then went back to what she had been doing, which was killing a mouse. Kitty is a cat; a tabby, and the star of my YouTube channel. She is not to be confused with Kitty, my secretary. Kitty, my secretary, who I had taken to calling Kitty 2, was nowhere to be seen. I could hear her though. The walls were paper thin. She was over in Rex’s office. She had a thing for Rex.

I pounded on the wall. “Kitty 2,” I said. “Your secretarial skills are needed.”

“Keep your pants on,” she yelled.

“Try saying that to Rex sometime,” I replied.

“I’m right here, you know,” Rex said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I know. How’s it going Rex?”

“Not too great,” Rex replied. “If a hot dame doesn’t come through my door soon, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

“What am I, chopped liver?” I heard Kitty 2 ask.

“A hot dame with a case, doll,” Rex replied. “You know what I meant. Now scoot on outta here.  I’m two drinks behind where I usually am by this time on a Tuesday morning.”

I thrust my hands in my pockets and whistled a tune while I waited for Kitty 2 to come down the hall. After a couple of minutes she walked in, still smoothing out her skirt. She went around behind the desk and stared in horror at the eviscerated mouse Kitty had left for her.

“I swear to God, that cat…”

“It’s a gift. Kitty likes you.”

“Well I don’t like Kitty, and I don’t see why you can’t just rename her instead of calling me Kitty 2. It’s not like she comes when you call her.”

“She was Kitty first, so it’s only fair that she gets to keep the name.”

“That’s only true if she was born before 1982,” Kitty 2 replied.

“You know what I mean,” I said. “She was the first Kitty in this office. And besides, Kitty is a very good name for a cat.  Why don’t you change your name? How about Diane? Denise maybe? Something with a D.”

Kitty 2 stomped her foot. “Kitty’s not a good name for a cat. It’s just a description. Naming a cat Kitty is like naming a baby Baby. Kitty’s what it says on my birth certificate, and that’s the name I’m going to use. I swear to God, if the economy wasn’t so bad right now…”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know how you feel.”

Kitty 2 used a file folder to push the dead mouse off her desk onto the floor and sat at her desk.

“Make sure you get rid of that mouse corpse before it starts to smell in here again,” I said.

“The stench of death beats the smell of that cheap perfume our last client left, any day,” Kitty 2 replied.

“That might be true, but I still want the mouse gone,” I said.

“How’d the job go?” she asked.

“About like usual.”

“Someone’s face contorted into a hideous mask of pain and rage and you didn’t get paid?”

“Yup.”

Kitty 2’s shoulders slumped. “We better hope this message you got is legit.”

“Oh well, I guess I’ll go follow Kitty around with my phone…” I stopped mid-sentence. “Did you say I have a message?”

Kitty 2 nodded.

“It’s not from my mom, is it?”

Kitty 2 shook her head.

“Bill collector?”

Kitty 2 shook her head again.

“Ex-girlfriend?”

“You had a girlfriend at some point?” Kitty 2 asked.

“Just give me the message Kitty 2,” I said.

Kitty 2 picked up a scrap of paper and started to read. “A Mr. Barnabas Ephraim Waite called. He said he represented a consortium of investors who specialize in very distressed properties and they’re looking for someone to appraise a potential purchase for them.”

“A consortium?” I said. “That’s promising. A consortium sounds more likely to pay their bills than a group or a bunch, don’t you think?”

Kitty 2 shrugged. “I can’t even spell consortium.”

“Did this guy leave a number?”

“No,” Kitty 2 said. “He left an address, though, and he said you should come as soon as you can.”

I snatched the scrap of paper from Kitty 2’s hand and headed for the door.

“You stay here and keep an eye on Kitty,” I said. “If you think she’s going to do something amusing, for God’s sake get it on camera.”

“Whatever you say, boss,” Kitty 2 said.

I was in such a hurry going down the steps that I didn’t see the beautiful woman walking up them until I had bumped into her. I stepped back and looked her over. She had a set of breasts on her chest, and red hair growing from her scalp. And her legs. Well, her legs went all the way up to her waist, where they stopped.

“Are you looking for Rex Hardman?” I asked.

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Lucky guess,” I said.

“Am I in the right place?”

“Yeah. Third floor. Second door on your left.”

“Thanks,” she said, and started to walk away.

“Hey,” I said. “Can you do me a favor?”

“What is it?”

“When you get to the top of the stairs you’ll see a door marked ‘Real Estate Appraiser.’ Just walk in and ask for Rex.”

“Why?” the woman asked.

“It’s my office. My secretary has a thing for Rex, though. So she’ll be really jealous if she knows a beautiful woman like you is in there with him.”

The woman smirked. It was a very impressive smirk. “You’re a wicked man. You know that?”

“Lady,” I said. “I appraise real estate.”

The woman continued up the stairs. I pulled out my phone and called Hardman’s office.

“Rex Hardman.”

“Hey Rex, it’s me,” I said. “There’s a redhead headed your way. I have no idea who’s been murdered, but she did it.”

Rex laughed. “Thanks for the head’s up.”

I hung up, bounded down the stairs and jumped in my Corolla. I had an appointment. And hopefully a paying job.

Chapter 2

The address this Waite guy had given Kitty 2 was outside of town by the lake. I took that as a good omen. If this guy could afford property by the lake then he must have money. In real estate location is everything. A house on a lakefront lot is worth more than a house at the bottom of a lake, for instance. It was a fine, sunny day, and I was in a good mood. The prospect of a paycheck helped to push the morning’s disaster out of my mind.  I couldn’t get anything good on the radio, so I sifted through my collection of audio books. When I say audio books, I really mean books on tape, since my Corolla was only slightly younger than I am.  The bad thing about books on tape was that I had trouble finding recent titles, but the good thing was that the titles I could get were cheap. I got the collected works of Donald Trump for five cents at a garage sale, after extensive haggling. The owner had wanted ten cents, but there was no way I was paying that much. I sent Mr. Trump a letter describing my negotiating prowess because I thought he would be impressed by how I had managed to get such an incredible deal for all of his collected wisdom. I never heard back. I’m not a sensitive guy, but being ignored hurt my feelings.  If Donald Trump and I are ever at a party together, I’m definitely going to give him the cold shoulder.

I followed the winding road along the lake, passing many fine homes. I checked the address again, but couldn’t seem to find my destination, so I stopped at a convenience store to ask for directions. I went into the store and grabbed a candy bar. I walked up to the counter and laid my purchase down. As the old woman behind the counter rang it up I asked, “Do you know where the Waite house is?”

At the mention of the Waite house, the old woman looked up at me, her finger hovering in the air over the register buttons.  “Not many people have reason to go to the Waite house,” she said.

“Well,” I said. “I am one of those few people who does have a reason to go to the Waite house. In fact, I have been invited to visit, so could you please tell me where it is?”

The old woman shrugged. “Sure, it’s just that old man Waite has a reputation around here.”

“Is it a reputation for not paying his bills?” I asked.

“No. He’s what you might call eccentric. A recluse. I don’t think anyone’s seen him outside of that big, empty house of his for decades.”

“So he’s solvent, is what you’re saying?”

“Oh, he’s richer than old Croesus, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“That is what I’m asking,” I said. “And does this Croesus guy live around here? Do you think he needs any real estate appraised?”

The old woman gave me a disgusted look and rang up my purchase. I guess she had something against real estate appraisers.  I paid her. She made change.

“Go back the way you came about half a mile. There’ll be a dirt road on your right that winds up the hill. You can’t miss it if you just keep an eye open for the dead trees,” the old woman said.

I drove back the way I came, and I soon found the road the old woman mentioned. I wondered how I had missed it the first time. While the trees around the lake were quite verdant, the tall trees lining the dirt road were gray and barren, their spindly branches reaching far into the sky, blotting out the sun. I drove up the dirt road through the unnatural gloom. I felt a chill creep into the air through the open driver’s side window.  It got so dark I turned on my headlights. As I made my way down the road a deer leapt in front of my car. I slammed on my brakes, coming to a stop just a foot from the animal. The deer turned and looked at me, squinting into the headlights. The deer then walked around the driver’s side of the car, narrowed its eyes, leaned back a bit and spat right in my face before strolling off into the trees. I   wiped the deer spittle off my cheek with the back of my hand and rolled up the window.  I was starting to get the feeling that something wasn’t quite right here.

When I emerged from the woods, I found myself in the driveway of a large, crumbling Victorian mansion with peeling paint and sagging gables. I thought I saw movement at one of the many darkened windows, but I couldn’t be sure. The place had a nice view of the lake, but it was definitely a fixer upper. After checking to make sure the area was free of wildlife, I got out of my car and approached the house. There was no doorbell, but the massive oak door had a huge brass knocker in the shape of man’s face, his mouth contorted as if screaming in terror. I grabbed the knocker and banged it a couple of times. I was relieved when the only sound I heard was the dull thud of metal against wood. After a couple of minutes I heard some ominous shuffling footsteps slowly approaching the door. The door creaked inward to reveal an attractive brunette woman in business casual attire.

“Hello,” she said. “Are you the appraiser?”

“I..uh..yes,” I stammered.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting out here for so long, but I sat on my leg funny and it fell asleep, so I had to kind of shuffle down the hall. You know how it is.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I hate when that happens.”

“Anyway, come on in. Mr. Waite is expecting you,” she said.

The woman ushered me inside. I stepped into the musty foyer.

“I’m Diane, Mr. Waite’s personal assistant,” she said.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied. “And let me just say Diane is fine name for a personal assistant. I was just trying to get my secretary to change her name to Diane this morning.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Diane led me down a long hallway past a long row of portraits that appeared to be of the same skeletal old man in various styles of dress, including colonial garb, a Victorian style suit, a top hat and tails, and a wig and a hoop skirt. When I reached the last one I stopped and stared. I couldn’t help it.

“Are these all pictures of Mr. Waite?” I asked.

“Oh, no. These are his relatives,” Diane said. “I believe that’s his great aunt Adeline.” She pointed to the old man in the hoop skirt. “I think she died of pneumonia or maybe consumption. One of those diseases with a lot of coughing.”

“They all bear a very strong resemblance,” I said.

“Yes,” Diane replied. “The Waite family has a very distinctive bone structure.”

She led me to a large door, which she pushed open.

“Go in,” she said. “Mr. Waite will see you now.”

I stepped into the office, squinting in the darkness. I could make out a frail figure sitting behind a massive desk. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I could see that the room was packed full of curios. I recognized shrunken heads and strangely shaped corals, as well as shelves full of preserved biological specimens I could not identify. Still another cabinet contained large crystals, and another was full of Beanie Babies. I was glad my cousin Wanda wasn’t around. She would have lost it over the Beanie Babies.

“You must be the appraiser,” the man behind the desk rasped. “Please sit down.”

I sat down and looked at Mr. Waite. He was dressed in a black suit and tie. He had the same skeletal look as the people in the hallway portraits. He opened his mouth to speak, but started to cough instead, spasms wracking his body.  I waited for the coughing to stop, but it just kept going.

“Do you need some water?” I asked after a while.

He shook his head, but kept coughing.

As the fit wore on, I had to resist the temptation to look at my watch. I didn’t want to appear rude. He was a client after all. Finally, the coughing fit stopped, and Mr. Waite regained his composure.

“My apologies,” he said. “My health isn’t what it used to be.”

“Whose is?” I replied.

“I suppose you are wondering why I have asked you here.” Waite said.

“Not really,” I said. “You told my secretary you needed some property appraised.”

“Yes, but I mean I suppose you’re wondering why I chose you specifically.”

“No.  My firm is listed first in the phone book. I named it AAAA Appraisals for a reason. So people who don’t like to think too much about stuff can find me without effort. And to screw over those guys at AAA Appraisals. I hate them.”

“Yes, well that may be the case,” Mr. Waite continued. “But I have a very special property that needs appraising. I, and the consortium of investors I represent, need an appraiser with a discriminating eye. One who isn’t afraid to look past the surface and see the real value of a piece of property. One who isn’t afraid to get to the truth. Because we must know the truth before we invest.”

“If you’re saying this is a setup for some sort of insurance scam then you came to right place. I’m definitely not scared of the truth,” I said, winking for emphasis.

Mr. Waite shook his head. “I’m afraid you misunderstand me. I need someone who will bring me a full report on the property. A report that looks past the mere bricks and mortar that holds a property together and reveals its true essence.  I’m told you are such a man. You come very highly recommended.”

Now I knew this guy was blowing smoke. The last person who highly recommended me for anything was my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Hemlock. And she was recommending me for summer school. I had learned a thing or two since sixth grade, though, so I decided to play along.

“Everything you’ve heard about me is true,” I said. “Of course, my services don’t come cheap.”

“I didn’t think they would,” Mr. Waite replied. “How does $10,000 sound?”

“That sounds….acceptable,” I said, grabbing onto the arms of the chair to keep myself from jumping up and dancing a jig. “Tell me about this property.”

“The property in question is an outlet mall in an out-of-the-way village called Innsbruck,” Mr. Waite said. “For many years Innsbruck was a busy place. It was located on a main thoroughfare, and many people stopped there to shop for deals on brand name merchandise. This mall helped the town prosper well into the Eighties, when a bypass was built so that travelers no longer had to pass through town. The bypass hurt business at the outlet mall, and for many years it struggled. People seemed to forget about Innsbruck.  Then the Internet came along, and Innsbruck all but disappeared from memory as people turned to shopping online. Indeed, in time Innsbruck even seemed to drop off of maps. But rumors persisted. Rumors that the mall still received shipments of brand name luxury goods in the dead of night. Rumors that brave shoppers could, for a certain price, find deals at the Innsbruck Outlet Mall that were unavailable anywhere else in the world. And now word has come that the mall may be for sale. I want you to travel to Innsbruck and appraise this mall for me. Let me know what you think it’s worth.”

“Sure thing,” I said. “Sounds like a cinch. Now, about that ten grand…”

“I have a check here for five thousand,” Mr. Waite said, sliding a piece of paper across his desk.  “You will receive the other half of your fee when you present your appraisal.”

I casually snaked my hand out and grabbed the check, slipping it into my pocket.

“Well, Mr. Waite, I won’t let you down. I’ll be making your appraisal my top priority,” I said, rising from my seat. “I’ll just show myself out.”

I backed out of the room as quickly as I could, anxious to get to a bank before Mr. Waite came to his senses and stopped payment on the check. I scurried down the hall and out the door. Gray clouds kept the sun at bay, and I shivered as I emerged onto the front steps. Wind made the dead leaves in the desolate trees rustle in ominous bursts. I was heading for my car when I heard someone speaking in hushed tones.

“Hey,” the voice said. “Over here.”

I looked around, but I didn’t see anyone. I shrugged my shoulders and was opening my car door when I heard the voice again.

“Hey,” it said. “Over here.”

It seemed the voice was coming from a bush. Between the confrontational fauna and the talking flora I couldn’t wait to be away from this place, but I decided to see what the bush had to say.  I had never conversed with a plant before. Plants don’t talk much, and I figured if one of them wanted to talk to me it must have something pretty important to say.  I walked over, and, as I got closer, I realized the bush wasn’t doing the talking. Diane was hiding inside the bush.

“Are you hiding from that deer?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder to make sure the ill tempered beast wasn’t sneaking up on me.

“What deer?” Diane asked, looking confused.

“Never mind,” I said. “If you’re not hiding from the deer why are you in the bush?”

“I wanted to warn you,” she said. “You seem like a nice guy, and I just wanted to let you know you’re not the first appraiser Mr. Waite has sent to the Innsbruck Outlet Mall. Two others have gone before you. The first disappeared, and the second one, Oliver Barley, is now in the De Sade Hospital for the Criminally Insane. You might want to visit with him before you go to Innsbruck.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” I said. “I’ll do that.”

I jumped in my car and sped away. I began to believe my luck was changing. If the two previous appraisers hadn’t disappeared and gone crazy, respectively, I wouldn’t have just made the easiest five grand I had ever earned.

Chapter 3

After I deposited Mr. Waite’s check, I headed back to the office. I parked on the street and got out of my car. That’s when I head Kitty 2 screaming.

“Help! Up here!”

I looked up and saw a couple of goons dangling Kitty 2 out of my office window by her legs. Alarmed, I sprang into action, whipping my phone out and recording some video.

“Where’s your boss?” one of the goons snarled.

“That’s him,” Kitty 2 said, pointing at me. “The guy on the sidewalk recording this.”

The two goons looked at me. I waved.

“That’s your boss?” The lead goon asked.  “What kind of boss just stands there taking video while his secretary’s being dangled from a third floor window?”

“A bad one,” Kitty 2 replied. “Will you please stop dangling me from this window now?”

“Sure thing,” the lead goon replied, and they hauled Kitty 2 back into the office.

Since there was nothing more to record, I put my phone away and headed upstairs. I wasn’t worried. This sort of thing happened about once a month. Hired goons would show up looking for Rex and get the wrong office, even though Rex’s office, like mine, was clearly labeled. There’s no literacy test to join the local Goon’s Union. After the first time some goons showed up and dangled Kitty 2 out a window, I had gone down to the local union headquarters and politely suggested that they make sure their members get some basic literacy training so that we could avoid future misunderstandings. After I got out of the hospital, I gave up on the idea of trying to get goons to read.

I opened my office door and ran smack into the two towering goons, standing there with their bulging arms folded across their massive chests. They both glared.

“Gentlemen,” I said. “I’m afraid there’s been a mix-up. You’re looking for Rex Hardman. His office is next door. It’s the one with ‘Rex Hardman, Private Investigator’ painted on the door.”

The goons exchanged a look, and then one of them grabbed me by my shirt collar and lifted me off the ground while another one whipped out his phone and showed me his calendar app. It had my name listed as their afternoon appointment. I held my breath so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the scent of hair gel, Axe body spray and garlic.

“Does that say Rex Hardman?” the goon asked.

“Yes. Yes, it does,” I replied.

“Nice try,” the goon said, putting his phone away. “But I graduated cum laude from Eastside Elementary. Your little mindgames won’t work on me.”

“In that case, intimidate away,” I said.

The goon holding me slammed me up against the wall and pressed his face close to mine.  His grip was iron, but his face was soft and smooth, like he moisturized every day.

“You’ve been hired to appraise an outlet mall, correct?”

“Yeah. So what?”

“Well, our employer wants you to give your report to him instead of the guy who hired you. Understand?”

“Okay,” I replied.

The goon looked puzzled. “Okay?”

“Yeah. It’s not like there’s some appraiser’s code of ethics that prevents me from appraising the same property for two different people.  I’ll even give your employer, whoever he is, a discount.”

“You’re sure you don’t want to make a wisecrack or spit in my face or something?”

“Yes. I’m sure.”

The goon’s shoulders sagged, allowing my feet to touch the ground.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“It’s just that half the fun of this job is the give and take. When people give in right away a lot of the enjoyment gets sucked right out of it.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” I said.

“It’s not your fault,” the goon said, letting go of me and stepping back.

The other goon stepped forward and handed me a card with a phone number on it. “When you’ve completed your appraisal call this number.”

“Will do,” I said, slipping the card into my shirt pocket. “You guys take care.”

The goons started out the door, but had to step aside as Alexandra Blavatsky from across the hall came barging into my office. She was dressed in a loose flowing dress and a turban with some sort of crystal mounted on it. She accessorized this outfit with a scowl.

“What’s all the racket?” she demanded.  “I’m trying to hold a séance.”

“I was just having a friendly conversation with these gentlemen here,” I said.

“What was with all the screaming earlier, then?” Alexandra asked. “Do you know how hard it is to make contact with the spirit world when your secretary is over here screeching like a banshee?”

“In Kitty 2’s defense, she was being dangled out a window when she did that screaming,” I said, pulling my phone out and bringing up the recording. “Look.”

Alexandra chuckled as she watched Kitty 2 flail around and yell for help. “Oh, that’s good. You’re putting that on YouTube, right?”

“You better believe it,” I said.

Kitty 2 took this as her cue to emerge from the back office and try to snatch the phone from my hand.

“Over my dead body are you putting that on the Internet!” she said.

I backed away from her and held the phone over my head.  “Think of the hits,” I said.

“I’ll show you hits,” Kitty 2 replied, picking up a stapler and chucking it at me. I ducked, and the stapler hit Alexandra between the eyes.  She staggered back into the hallway, and I closed the door. The goons had had the good sense to make themselves scarce.

“I’ll sue you! That’s assault!” Alexandra yelled from the hallway.

“You’re supposed to be psychic,” Kitty 2 replied. “You should have seen it coming.”

Alexandra’s office door slammed, and I was alone with Kitty 2, who snatched up a coffee mug and prepared to throw it at my head. All I could think to do was pull five-hundred bucks I had gotten when I deposited Waite’s check out of my pocket and wave it at her. She put the cup back on the desk.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Money,” I said.

“For me?”

“Yes,” I replied.

Kitty 2 grabbed the hundred dollar bills from my hand and squinted at each of them.

“These are real,” she said. “What did you do?”

“I got paid.”

“I can see that,” Kitty 2 said. “What did you get paid for? Did you kill someone? Are you dealing drugs? Oh my god, you are, aren’t you? I have a niece who’s in high school. I’ll bet a bunch of her friends would buy drugs. We’ll make a fortune.”

“I’m not selling drugs,” I said. “I got paid for an appraisal.”

Kitty 2 stuffed the money into her bra. “Whatever you say boss. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” I replied. “And I’m sorry those goons dangled you out a window. I don’t know what that was about.”

“It’s fine,” Kitty 2 said. “I don’t really mind being manhandled by two big, strong men with no regard for my well being. I wish it happened more often, honestly.”

“Glad to hear it,” I said. “If you’re not too busy I need you to see if you can find an address and some background information on a fellow real estate appraiser named Oliver Barley. In the meantime, I’ll be in my office. If anyone asks, I’m not in.”

“I’ll get right on it,” Kitty 2 said. She gave me a crisp military salute and then sat down at her desk and began filing her nails. I went into my office and closed the door.

The original Kitty joined me at my desk as I uploaded my latest film to YouTube. Then she fell asleep on the windowsill while I honed my solitaire skills. I’m pretty good. If there were a professional solitaire circuit I could do pretty well, but it’s not that kind of game.

After a while, Kitty 2 sent me an email with all the information about Oliver Barley I had been too lazy to Google myself. There was nothing remarkable about him. He was a partner in an appraisal firm that specialized in commercial properties. The cached version of his firm’s Web page had a picture and brief bio. He was bald and wore glasses.  He had a wife and three kids and enjoyed golf. There was nothing to suggest he might go insane except for the three kids and the wife.  Kitty 2 also sent me his home address and phone number. I called, but the line had been disconnected.  I called Barley’s old firm, but the minute I mentioned his name the receptionist started speaking Chinese, so I gave up and decided to go to the De Sade Hospital for the Criminally Insane to see if I could talk to the man himself. I figured maybe he had finished his appraisal before he lost his mind. If that were the case, I might be able to save myself a trip to Innsbruck.

I Googled the De Sade Hospital for the Criminally Insane. I was surprised to discover that it was not named for the Marquis De Sade, but for a fellow named Melvin De Sade. According to Wikipedia, Melvin De Sade was born in Skokie in 1927. Unlike his more famous predecessor, Melvin was a normal guy with normal proclivities, but his name proved a burden. As a child he was singled out for repeated psychological evaluations despite the fact that he showed no signs of being disturbed, and pet stores refused to sell him a puppy. As a young man he had no trouble attracting members of the opposite sex, but his relationships tended to fall apart once the women realized Melvin didn’t have a dungeon in his basement. Instead of changing his name, Melvin vowed he would reclaim his surname from the ignominy in which it had languished for so long. He went to Yale and then Harvard for medical school and became one of the foremost psychiatrists of his day. His research contributed a great deal to our understanding of the root causes of mental illness, but he had died a failure. The Marquis De Sade was still more famous than he was. Old Melvin probably could have saved himself a lot of heartache if he had bothered to read Justine before embarking on a life of virtue.

I jotted down the hospital’s address and left my office.

“I’m going to visit a mental hospital,” I told Kitty 2 on my way out the door.

“It’s about time,” she said, not looking away from her computer screen.

The De Sade Institute for the Criminally Insane had a big sign out front with its name on it. Next to that one was a second sign reading “Not Named After the Marquis De Sade.” I drove past both signs and onto the hospital campus. There was a security gate, but I got past the guard by telling him I was thinking about going on a killing spree and needed to check myself in. The hospital grounds were lush, green and well-manicured. The hospital building was a large white Georgian structure whose aesthetic charms were undermined somewhat by the bars on the windows.

I went up the stairs and through the front door, which was unlocked. I found that a little disconcerting, but I tried not to let it bother me too much as I walked up to the nurse behind the desk in the entranceway. She was trying to clip a hangnail with a pair of safety scissors. She looked frustrated. I cleared my throat to get her attention.

“Do you have some scissors?” she asked.

“No, sorry.’ I replied.

“A knife? A boxcutter? Anything sharp, really.”

“I can’t help you,” I said.

“You’re not here to check in, then?”

“No.”

The nurse arched an eyebrow. “And you are?”

“I’m here to see Oliver Barley. I’m his uh…attorney,” I said.

The nurse punched a few keys on her computer. “You’re not scheduled for a visit until Thursday.”

“Something urgent has come up,” I said.

The nurse shrugged. “You might as well go see Dr. Valerian since you’re here. I’m sure he’d like to speak with you.”

“Excellent. Can you point me toward his office?”

“Down the hall. Third door on your right.”

My shoes squeaked on the white linoleum floor, and I caught a faint, but distinct scent of urine lurking behind the smell of industrial strength disinfectant as I walked down the hall.  When I reached Dr. Valerian’s office, I stopped and knocked.

“Come in,” a soothing voice said.

I opened the door and stepped into a book-lined office. The smell of cleaning products and piss was replaced by lavender, which came from a large bouquet of flowers on the doctor’s desk. The flowers were set next to a picture of the doctor and a much younger man holding hands on a beach.  Dr. Valerian was a small, white-haired man with a well kept white goatee and a receding hairline. He wore a red bowtie and a seersucker suit.  He stopped studying a file open on his desk to study me. I resisted the urge to say “What’s up doc?” Doctors hate when you ask them that.

“Dr. Valerian,” I said. “I’m Oliver Barley’s attorney. I’d like a word.”

“Yes, of course,” Dr. Valerian replied. “Sit down, please.” He gestured to a chair in front of his desk.

I sat.

“Doctor, I was hoping you could give me a little insight into my client.”

“What would you like to know?”

“Well,” I said. “What exactly did he do to land him here?”

Dr. Valerian arched an eyebrow. People seemed to do that a lot here. “Surely, as his attorney, you know what Mr. Barley has done.”

“I wanted an..uh..medical perspective,” I said.

“Well,” Dr. Valerian said. “Mr. Barley is an interesting case. I think he may warrant an academic paper or even a book. He has had a psychotic break, yet there was nothing in his past to indicated a tendency to mental illness. Do you know how rare it is for someone his age to manifest psychotic tendencies?”

“No,” I said.

“Extremely,” Valerian said. “He seems to have developed a sudden belief that consumerism is destroying the world.”

“What’s psychotic about that?” I asked. “A lot of people feel that way. They’re called hippies.”

“You misunderstand,” Dr. Valerian said. “Mr. Barley seems to think that people buying things will literally destroy the world. That once a certain critical mass is achieved, the desire of people for more stuff will tear the very fabric of reality allowing a creature of some sort access to our plane of existence.”

“That’s crazy,” I said.

“That’s the medical term for it, yes.” Dr. Valerian said, reaching out and setting the Newton’s Cradle on his desk in motion, the balls making an annoying clacking sound every couple of seconds.

“So, help me understand how his beliefs led to his actions,” I said.

“Well, as you know he tried to cut up his wife’s credit card.”

“Yes,” I said. “But could you go into a little more detail?”

“With a chainsaw.”

“And…”

“His wife was handing it to a cashier at Macy’s at the time.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s exactly what the police report said. I just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page. Was my client brought in with any possessions? An appraiser’s report of some sort, perhaps?”

“No,” Dr. Valerian said. “Just his eyeglasses and a very bloody suit.”

“In that case, is it possible for me to speak to him?” I asked.

“Of course,” Dr. Valerian said. He pushed a button on the intercom on his desk. “Emily, would you send an orderly down to escort Mr. Barley’s attorney to speak to him?”

“Yes, doctor,” came the reply.

“I only ask you one favor,” Valerian said.

“What’s that?” I replied.

“If Mr. Barley says anything of note please let me know. As I said, I’m very interested in writing about his case, and I’ve had very little luck getting anything coherent out of him.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard of attorney-client privilege,” I replied.

“Yes,” Dr. Valerian said. “I’m not asking you to violate that. I’m just asking for any information he may divulge that wouldn’t bear on his case. I mean, he has an insanity defense all sewn up as far as I’m concerned.”

“No promises,” I said.

“Very well,” Valerian said.

A couple of minutes later I was being led down a long corridor by a man the size of a school bus.

“This place is pretty quiet for a mental hospital,” I said.

“Most of the patients aren’t really that bad when they’re not trying to kill you,” the orderly said. “Most of them are also on a lot of drugs. Like a Michael Jackson lot of drugs.”

“So,” I said to him. “How do you like working here?”

“Beats my last job,” the guy said.

“What was that?”

“Kindergarten teacher,” he said. “I don’t have to touch bodily fluids nearly as often here.”

The orderly stopped in front of a metal door with a slot on it at eye level. He pulled the slot back and gestured with his thumb. “Barley’s in there,” he said.  He wandered off down the hall to give me some privacy.

I peered through the slot. Barley was wrapped in a strait jacket and rolling around in his padded cell, mumbling to himself.

“Hey Barley,” I said.

Barley stopped rolling around and looked at me for a second. Then he went back to rolling around.

“I want to talk to you about the Innsbruck Outlet Mall.”

Barley started to laugh. He laughed and laughed. I pulled out my phone and checked my email. When I finished he was still laughing. Once he quit laughing, he started to speak. “That mall,” he said. “That mall is the nexus. It is the end of the world. It is where all human weakness comes together. It is where He waits, patiently, for the moment when this world will belong to him. All will be swept away in a wave of madness. The lucky ones will die instantly. Those that remain will envy them.” Once he was finished, he started laughing again, his lips flecked with foam. His eyes wide.

“That’s all very interesting,” I said. “Do you happen to have an idea of what the mall might be worth?”

Barley struggled to his feet and came toward the door.  He met my gaze with his dark, hollow eyes.

“I was like you once,” he said. “I was blind to the true nature of things. Going to work every day, casually putting dollar values on property, as if it mattered. I made money and I spent it, well, mostly my wife and kids spent it. Well, my wife, really.  But I never gave it a thought. Then I went to Innsbruck, and I had my eyes opened. I’ve seen what’s coming and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Everything you know and love will disappear in an instant.”

“What about the things I hate?” I asked.

“Those will disappear too,” Barley said.

“So, there is some good news,” I said. “You’re just a glass half empty kind of guy. Maybe you just need a change of perspective.”

Barley laughed some more. “Oh, my perspective has changed,” he said. “And yours will too if you visit Innsbruck.”

“I don’t know about my perspective,” I said. “But I know my bank balance will change.”

“Ph’nglui mgla’nafh Cthulhu fhatagn!” Barley barked.

“Gesundheit.” I replied.

Barley started laughing again, and I closed the slot in the door. I found the orderly and asked him where the exit was. He told me to follow the signs for the gift shop, so I did.  I tried to resist the temptation to buy a souvenir, but they had some really neat stuff, like embroidered strait jackets, a do-it-yourself electroshock therapy kit, and bottles of jellybeans labeled like antipsychotics.  In the end I settled on a novelty lobotomy spike, and I bought a mug for Kitty 2. It had the hospital logo on one side and “You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Work Here, But it Helps” on the other. I thought she’d get a kick out of that. On my way home I called Valerian’s office. He answered himself, so I figured his secretary had called it a day.

“This is Barley’s lawyer,” I said. “You wanted to know if my client said anything interesting that wouldn’t violate attorney-client privilege, and I’ve got something for you.”

“Well, out with it,” Valerian said.

“Ph’nglui mgla’nafh Cthulhu fhatagn!” I yelled into the phone before hanging up.

Valerian called back a couple of times, but I let it go to voicemail. It felt pretty good to know someone else was as confused as I was.

Chapter 4

The next morning I went into the office early. Kitty was waiting by her bowl, giving me a dirty look, so I fed her and put on a pot of coffee. I put Kitty 2’s new mug on her desk and went into my office to check my YouTube account. The video of Kitty 2 being dangled out a window was doing pretty well. It had already garnered ten thousand hits and seemed well on its way to going viral. Most of the comments seemed to be from men commenting on how nice Kitty 2’s legs were, but the comment at the top was from user Kitty 2. It read, “I’ll get you for this.”

I was pouring myself a cup of coffee when Kitty 2 came in. She shooed Kitty off her desk and picked up the mug I had bought for her.

“For me?” she asked.

“Yes. A little souvenir from my trip yesterday.”

“You know this mug would be a lot funnier if it were ironic in some way. My therapist really does keep telling me that I’m crazy to keep working here. She keeps urging me to quit. She just shook her head when I told her you called me Kitty 2 because of the cat, and I’m afraid to tell her you just stood there recording me while I was being dangled out of a window by goons. I think it might make her cry. She’s very sensitive.”

“That’s why sensitive people make lousy therapists,” I said. “If you’re going to listen to people tell you their problems all day, the key is to be totally indifferent.”

“Well, I guess you’d make a great therapist, then,” Kitty 2 said.

“I would,” I said. “But don’t get any ideas. I don’t want to know your problems.”

“You already know my problems,” she said. “You’re the cause of most of them. Why were you at a mental hospital anyway? I know you didn’t have a sudden flash of insight.”

“I was trying to save myself some unnecessary work,” I said. “I’ve been hired to appraise an outlet mall and the guy who they hired before me was in the mental hospital. I was hoping he had finished the job before he went nuts, but no such luck.”

“That’s too bad,” Kitty 2 said. “I know how you feel about work.”

I shrugged. “You can’t win ‘em all.”

“Why’d the guy end up in a mental hospital?”

“As far as I can tell his wife had a shopping addiction that drove him over the edge.”

“Poor guy.”

“Exactly.”  I said. “And I guess it finally got to him.”

“So what’s on the agenda today?” Kitty 2 asked.

“I suppose I should look into going to Innsbruck and checking out this outlet mall.”

“Where’s Innsbruck?”

“I’m not sure.” I said.

“Let me look it up,” Kitty 2 said, sitting down at her desk.  She spent a minute or two typing and then frowned. “I can’t seem to find an Innsbruck anywhere in the tri-state area.”

 

I decided to consult my library, which consisted of a real estate appraiser’s handbook, Encyclopedia Britannica Vol. 26 (Pre-Colombian-Sacred), the 1997 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and a 1969 road atlas. I plucked the atlas off the shelf and started leafing through it. I found Innsbruck. It was on Route 33, in between Shanksville and Scupperton; two places I had heard of and was pretty sure were still listed on maps.

“Look at this,” I said, showing Kitty 2 the atlas.

“Look at this,” Kitty 2 said, pointing at her computer screen.  There was no Innsbruck between Shanksville and Scupperton.

“Huh,” I said. “Maybe this Innsbruck place is a ghost town. Maybe everyone packed up and left years ago.”

“Why would there be an outlet mall there, then?” Kitty 2 asked.

I shrugged. “Maybe there’s not. Maybe Mr. Waite doesn’t know what year it is. He really didn’t seem like the type of guy who keeps up with current events, but his check cleared, and that’s really the only thing that matters.”

“So, What’re you gonna do?” Kitty 2 asked.

“I suppose I’ll drive out there and take a look around,” I said. “I mean, even if there’s only a burned out shell of a building, it’s still gotta appraise for more than that house I appraised yesterday.”

“Well, if you’re going out there I’m coming with you.”

“Who’s going to mind the office?”

“Kitty.”

“Who’s going to record Kitty if she knocks stuff off the desk or something?”

“Kitty can perform without an audience for once,” Kitty 2 said. “Sitting around here gets boring.”

“You just got dangled out of a window yesterday,” I said.

“That was yesterday,” Kitty 2 said. “I probably won’t get that lucky two days in a row, and besides, Rex is off working a case, so that really leaves me with nothing to do all day.”

“You could try organizing my files,” I said.

“Yeah,” Kitty 2 said. “I was saving that for a special occasion, like the end of the world.”

“All right,” I said. “You can come. It’s going to be a long drive and some company might be nice.”

“We’ll take my car,” Kitty 2 said. “There’s no way I’m listening to The Art of the Deal again.”

It was a two hour drive to Shanksville, a quaint little town that depended largely on the tourist trade for its economic well-being. Its claim to fame was that it was the site of the first major prison riot in the United States. The town was called Pittsfield until 1876, when a man named Wilberforce Shanks was incarcerated at the local prison for beating several people at a local tavern for looking at him funny. A generally ill-tempered man, he hadn’t been imprisoned long when he used a sharpened piece of metal to murder a guard and then set fire to a large part of the prison, resulting in the death of many prisoners and guards. Once order was restored, Shanks was dead, but he had given his name to any sort of improvised knife, achieving eternal infamy.

Pittsfield tried to put the incident behind them until the Depression killed the town’s other industry, and an enterprising chamber of commerce president had come up with the idea of renaming the town, doing tours of the old prison, and holding a weekend- long festival every year culminating in a reenactment of the riot. I had never been, but I had heard good things.

Kitty 2 had one of those new European cars, the kind that you can fit 63 clowns in, but only two actual people. It wasn’t all that comfortable to ride in, but the upside was it was easy to find a parking space. She managed to slide the car in between a lamppost and a fire hydrant, and we got out to stretch our legs.

Kitty 2 went to get a latte, and I went to see if I could learn anything about Innsbruck from the locals.

I wandered around the town square for a while. Preparations for the annual festival were obviously underway. Municipal workers were picking up litter, planting new flowers and cleaning the pigeon droppings off the statue of Shanks, standing on the corpse of a dead prison guard, his hand, clutching the weapon that now bears his name, thrust over his head in triumph.

I went into a local pharmacy and sat at the lunch counter next to an old man nursing a cup of coffee and frowning at a newspaper through a pair of bifocals. He made eye contact with the waitress behind the counter and she came over and topped off his drink before asking me if I wanted anything. I ordered a coffee, which she delivered with three creamer packets.

“The coffee’s crap,” The old man said. “You’ve been warned.”

“Then why are you drinking it?” I asked.

“It’s cheap,” he said. “And old habits are hard to break.”

I sipped the coffee. The old man was right. It tasted like someone had ashed a cigarette in it.

“Nice town you’ve got here,” I said.

“You should see it come festival time,” the old man said. “The prison riot reenactment is something to behold. Did you know they use three fifty-five gallon drums of fake blood every year? “

“No. I didn’t know that. If I get a chance I’ll have to check it out,” I said. “I’ll bet they don’t have anything half as impressive in Innsbruck.”

The old man looked down into his cup. “What’s your interest in Innsbruck? Shanksville’s got a lot more to do and see,” he said. “I’m kind of the unofficial welcoming committee around these parts, and I’ll be more than happy to show you around town.  I was born and raised here, and spent twenty years as a long haul trucker. The happiest day of my life was when I gave up the road and settled down. Well, it would have been, if retirement hadn’t made me realize I liked my wife a lot more when I only saw her every three months. So, I spend my days here at the diner, and she gets the house. You could visit the Chamber of Commerce and get a map, but it won’t take you anywhere interesting,” the man said, nudging me with his elbow.  “My tour, on the other hand…”

“While your offer is tempting,” I replied. “My girlfriend has her heart set on visiting Innsbruck.”

The old man grunted. “There was a time when Innsbruck was known for its shopping,” he said. “But not many people have reason to go there now. It’s an odd place, not very welcoming to outsiders these days. And people ‘round here tend to avoid it. Ther’re lots of people who’ll tell you crazy stories about Innsbruck. About how the townspeople made some kind of deal with the devil once the bypass was built, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in those stories. People like to talk is all. You see people from Innsbruck around here every so often, and they don’t seem all that different from you and me, truth be told. I suppose you can go there if you want, but I don’t know that there’s much to see. You’d be better off stickin’ around here for the festival.”

“I do enjoy a good re-enactment of tragic events. In fact, I lost my virginity in one of the medical tents during a high school field trip to the annual Gettysburg reenactment, but I’ve got a schedule to keep.”

“Well, feel free to stop by the festival if you get bored in Innsbruck.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll do that.”

I hopped off my stool and went outside. I found Kitty 2 leaning against her car sipping from a gigantic cup of coffee. She had put on large Jackie-O style sunglasses even though it was overcast. She was frowning.

“I got recognized,” she said.

“From a wanted poster?”

“You know what from!” Kitty 2 hissed. “The barista didn’t ask for my name when she took my order. She just wrote ‘Window Dangler’ on my cup.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s the Internet. Tomorrow there’ll be a video of a monkey riding a skateboard or something and everyone will forget you ever existed.”

“God, I hate you,” Kitty 2 said. “I hate you so much I probably should just keep this to myself, but I think we’re being followed.”

“Really?” I said. “What makes you think that?”

“Well, it was the two goons that followed me into the coffee shop and then followed me back here and are now sitting on a bench across the street pretending to read upside down copies of Ladies Home Journal.”

I looked across the street, and there were indeed two large men in cheap suits who seemed very interested in their choice of reading material. I couldn’t see their faces, so I couldn’t tell if it was the same two goons from yesterday, but I was willing to bet it was.

“Let’s play it cool Kitty 2,” I said. “Act like you don’t notice them.”

“You really don’t have to call me Kitty 2 outside the office,” she replied. “Your cat’s not here.”

“She’s here in spirit,” I replied. “Now let’s get going. I want to make Innsbruck before lunch.”

“Did you manage to find out anything?” Kitty 2 asked.

I told her about how many drums o fake blood the prison reenactment used. “Man, I’ve got to see that someday.” Kitty 2 said. “That sounds almost as good as a Gwar show.”

“I didn’t know you were a Gwar fan,” I said.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” she said. “Now let’s get going.”

I offered to drive, but Kitty 2 said she didn’t trust me that much, so she got back behind the wheel, and we headed out of Shanksville. I fiddled with the radio dial, but I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t country music or talk radio, so I decided a game of punch buggy might break up the monotony. When I saw a red Beetle going the opposite direction I yelled out, “Punch Buggy Red!” and gave Kitty 2 a good, solid punch in the shoulder. Kitty 2 didn’t respond. She didn’t say a word. After about ten minutes another Beetle came down the road. Kitty 2 rolled down her window and opened the sunroof.

“Mace Buggy Blue!” she yelled, producing a can of pepper spray from out of nowhere and blasting me right in the face.

“AAARRGH!” I yelled. It was difficult to yell. My throat was closing up. I undid my seatbelt and stuck my head through the sunroof. The wind helped blow some of the tears and mucus out of my eyes, but I still couldn’t see. Lucky for me, it started to rain. I turned my face up and let the water wash the poison out of my eyes. When I could see again I sat back down. Kitty 2 closed the sunroof.

“You could’ve just said you didn’t want to play Punch Buggy,” I rasped.

“Where’s the fun in that?” Kitty 2 replied. “If you can see again, I need you to consult that atlas of yours. My GPS is on the fritz and I haven’t seen a single road sign for Innsbruck.”

I opened the atlas and squinted as best I could.

“Are we still on Route 33?”

“Yes. I think so.”

“Then the turnoff for Innsbruck should be up here on the right, I think. If we hit Scupperton we’ll know we went too far.”

“Don’t you think it’s odd that there aren’t any signs?”

“The guy who hired me said it was hard to find, but I’m sure we’ll find it.”

The rain intensified, and Kitty 2 turned on her lights and wipers. Fog set in, and our progress slowed to a crawl. After about half an hour I saw what looked like a turn-off.

“There,” I said, pointing. “That’s got to be it.”

“You’d better be right,” Kitty 2 said. “I’m not stopping at some dilapidated farmhouse to ask directions. I’d rather not end up as stew.”

“Kitty 2,” I said. “I’m surprised. I didn’t know you were racist against hillbillies. And besides, the last documented case of cannibalism in this state was in 1983 when the health department shut down the Martense Diner.”

“Hillbillies aren’t a race,” Kitty 2 replied. “And they haven’t documented any more cases of cannibalism because anthropologists keep disappearing.”

“Speaking of which,” I said. “I’m getting kind of hungry.”

“You should’ve had something to eat in Shanksville,” Kitty 2 replied. “We’re not stopping until Innsbruck. If there is an Innsbruck.”

Chapter 5

There was an Innsbruck. After driving for what seemed like forever through dense fog and cascading sheets of rain, the headlights of Kitty 2’s car illuminated a faded wooden sign announcing that we were entering the Innsbruck city limits, although no signs of civilization were apparent.

“Well, we’ve found it,” I said.

“So far all we’ve found is a sign,” Kitty 2 said. “I’ve yet to see anything that qualifies as a town.”

“Keep going,” I said. “We’re bound to find something.”

After about a mile another sign loomed out of the fog. This one was much larger, but just as old as the city limits sign. Kitty 2 slowed down enough so that I could make out the words “Innsbruck Outlet Mall: Everything You Could Ever Want.”

“That doesn’t look too promising either,” Kitty 2 said. “If the mall were open they’d pay to keep the billboard in better shape.”

“It’s a great sign,” I said. “I don’t care if the mall is a smoldering crater. In fact I hope it is. It’s pretty easy to put a dollar value on a smoldering crater. They’re worth exactly zero dollars.”

“Does that account for inflation?” Kitty 2 asked.

“Math wasn’t your best subject was it?” I said.

Kitty 2 didn’t see fit to reply, so we drove on in silence. We entered a residential area. The rain slowed and the fog cleared up enough to see that the houses were all run down. The lawns were unkempt, and weeds grew through cracks in the sidewalks. We were the only car on the street, and no people were out walking. I chalked the desolation up to the lousy weather, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that our arrival had been noticed.  I thought I saw curtains stir in the windows of some of the houses as we proceeded toward the center of town, but I couldn’t be sure.

The condition of homes improved as we proceeded through town, but Innsbruck was still a place that had been down on its luck for a while. Storefronts stood empty and street signs were rusted. A stray, half-starved mongrel sat on a street corner, eyeing us with suspicion.

“That dog might be the mayor,” Kitty 2 said. “I don’t think anyone else lives here.”

“Let’s see if we can find the mall, or someone who can tell us where the mall is,” I said. “Unless you want to ask the mayor.”

“He doesn’t look like one of those dogs that speaks, at least not English,” Kitty 2 said.

As we cruised down the street I spotted a grocery store that looked open.

“There,” I said, pointing. “Park here. We’ll go into that store and ask someone for directions.”

“You’ll go into the store and ask someone for directions,” Kitty 2 said. “I’m sitting here with the doors locked. This place gives me the creeps.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”

I got out of the car and entered the store, which was empty except for a sullen looking young woman  standing by the register chewing gum and looking bored.

“Excuse me,” I said.

She grunted.

“I was hoping you could direct me to the mall.”

That got the girl’s attention. She stood up straight and gave me a hard look.

“You don’t want to go to the mall,” she said.

“I do.” I said. “I really do want to go to the mall. I have a very good reason for wanting to go to the mall.”

“Trust me,” the girl replied. “Outsiders aren’t welcome there. If you’re not from here, and I mean really from here, then you’re out of luck. This is the strangest place I’ve ever lived. The only reason I’m here is because the store I worked for was closed, and this was my only option to transfer. I’ve been here six months and people here have barely spoken a word to me. These people are strange, and they don’t like people poking their noses into whatever it is that goes on around here. And whatever it is that goes on around here involves that mall.”

“So is the mall closed or something?” I asked.

“Not technically,” she said. “But I just don’t think you’ll find it to be a very welcoming place.”

“Look,” I said. “This has been a very confusing conversation, and really all I want are directions, so could we just skip to the part where you tell me how to get to the mall and let me decide for myself how welcoming it is?”

“Go two blocks south and turn left at the light. Then go half a mile. The mall will be on your right.”

“Thanks,” I said and left the store.

When I returned to the car Kitty 2 was looking at her phone and scowling. I knocked on the window and she unlocked the doors. I got in.

“That took you long enough,” she said.

“You ever have one of those conversations where the other person just won’t get to the point?” I asked.

“Yeah. Every time I talk to my mom,” she replied. “My mom’s not in there is she?”

“Is your mother in her twenties?”

“Nope,” Kitty 2 said. “I don’t think she was ever in her twenties. Do me a favor and see if you can get a cell signal. I’m not picking up anything. I can’t even find a wireless network.”

I checked my phone. I didn’t have service either.

“Nothing,” I said. “Let’s head toward the mall. If nothing else, they should have wireless.”

We followed the cashier’s directions, and sure enough a mall loomed in the distance, a relic of a bygone era that man could only dimly remember; The Seventies. A seemingly endless parking lot led up to a truly wretched collection of vast, featureless rectangular buildings emblazoned with names of various manufacturers of consumer goods. I felt a piercing stab of boredom as I gazed at the drab exterior of the mall. Like any sane human male I hated malls and shopping. We now live in a glorious age where a man can sit at home in front of a computer and order a pair of pants while not wearing any pants, thus bringing us closer to the pantsless society that man has dreamed of since the dawn of pants. To me, this mall represented a more savage time. A time when the only way to buy a pair of pants in your boxer shorts while drinking a beer was to wander into a J.C. Penney’s after a particularly rough Saturday night down by the docks. I shuddered at the thought.

“I wonder if they have a Victoria’s Secret,” Kitty 2 said.

I shook my head. “We’re not here to shop, Kitty 2.” I said. “Let’s keep focused on the task at hand.”

You’re not here to shop,” Kitty 2 said. “I need some nice underwear. Having half the world see you get hung upside down out of a window while wearing a skirt really hammers home the importance of having nice undergarments. I mean, that video is mortifying enough, but I don’t know what I’d do if I had been wearing granny panties. The term murder-suicide comes to mind, however.”

“I can’t believe you’re still angry about that. It’s been almost 24 hours. You should really work on being more forgiving.”

“I thought you didn’t want to be my therapist.”

“I don’t. And I also don’t mean you should be more forgiving of everyone, just me. I am your boss after all, and sometimes I get the impression you don’t really respect the employer-employee dynamic.”

“That might change if I got paid on a more regular basis, but don’t hold your breath,” Kitty 2 said as she pulled into the parking lot.

While the town of Innsbruck might have been empty, the mall seemed to be doing a brisk business. The gigantic parking lot was nowhere near full, but there were many more cars in it than I had expected to see.  Kitty 2 swung her car into an empty space between a couple of SUVs, and we got out and walked toward the mall entrance.  As we approached we got our first look at the locals when a couple of them came out of the mall clutching bags. From a distance, I could tell the couple was fashionably dressed, but as I approached I detected something unwholesome about them. They were quite pale and had bulging eyes and thick lips. The sun, which was now peeking out from behind the clouds, seemed to cause them pain, and they scurried, animal-like, to their car.

As we opened the doors to the mall entrance, we were met with a blast of cold air that made us both shiver.

“They could stand to ease up on the air conditioning a bit,” Kitty 2 said, folding her arms across her chest. “I might have to buy a sweater just to walk around in here.”

“That’s just what they want you to do,” I said. “Don’t fall for their clever tricks.”

“Would you rather I die of hypothermia?”

“Oh, now you’re just being melodramatic,” I said.

The mall’s interior was dim. It seemed like at least half of the fluorescent lights were out. I wondered if it was due to mall management skimping on maintenance or if it was a sign of something more sinister, like a problem with the wiring that would hurt the building’s value. I made a note to ask the mall manager about it. I also made a note to figure out exactly where the mall manager’s office was. Fortunately, there was one of those “You Are Here” type mall maps to tell us exactly where we were. From studying it, I learned that the mall was two levels and the stores were centered around a food court and fountain. Mall management was located in a small office on the second floor.

“Ooh, Victoria’s Secret does have a shop here,” Kitty 2 said. “I’ll meet you later in the food court.”

“Not so fast,” I said. “As my assistant you are obligated to assist me. Business first, then underwear.”

Kitty 2 sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”

I decided to have a look around before heading to the manager’s office. I wanted to get a feel for the building without anyone peering over my shoulder. I took a sharp right and wandered past a Baby Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and Banana Republic before wandering into a Rack Room Shoes. There were a few customers browsing. I was admiring a nice pair of wingtips when I noticed a woman trying on a pair of sandals out of the corner of my eye. There was nothing remarkable about her except for her webbed toes. I must have started staring because she looked up at me and scowled. Then the removed the sandals and put on her sneakers before standing up and rushing out of the store in a huff.

I found Kitty 2 in the women’s shoes aisle, trying on a pair of black pumps.

“Whadda think?” she asked.

“They look great,” I said. “But you can come back for them later.”

“I don’t need them anyway,” she said, slipping them off and putting them back in their box.

“You hungry?” I asked.

“I could eat,” she said.

The food court had all of the usual suspects: Panda Express, Sbarro, Cinnabon, and other indistinguishable purveyors of bland cuisine staffed by surly teens. At its center of was a fountain, or at least what was supposed to be a fountain. A dark monolith that reached almost to the roof stood in a stone pool of stagnant water. As we approached, I could see the monolith contained strange bas relief carvings of bizarre symbols and vaguely humanoid creatures.

“I can’t say I get modern art,” I told Kitty 2, gesturing to the monolith.

“I kinda like it,” Kitty 2 said. “It reminds me of the cover art on my dad’s old prog rock albums.”

We  wandered through the food court, looking for a place to eat. The Sbarro had three anchovy pizzas ready to go and nothing else. There was a Mexican place where the pictures of food on the menu board had an unnerving number of tentacles sticking out of them. We settled on Panda Express, where a lone worker was leaning against the counter, arms crossed. He didn’t make eye contact as we approached, but he did speak.

“Welcome to Panda Express,” he said. “How may I help you?”

“I’ll have the beef and broccoli,” I said. “And anything you can tell me about the mall manager.”

The teen snorted and looked up at me.

“You mean Haddock?”

“If he’s the manager, yes.”

“Guy’s a jerk,” the kid said. “Thinks he’s a king. Treats everyone around here like dirt. Whenever he eats here, I spit in his food. He’s always sucking up to the suits, as if he’s ever got a chance of being anything other than a retail monkey.”

“You seen him today?”

“Yeah,” the teen said. “Me and Randy were smoking out back on our break and he came out and told us to get back to work, even though we still had five minutes left, douche.”

Kitty 2 ordered General Tso’s Chicken. The teen handed us our styrofoam containers of food, and we found a table.  We wolfed down our bland meals in silence, and then headed towards the escalators. I noticed we were drawing a lot of looks from the locals, most of whom bore some degree of resemblance to the couple we had passed in the parking lot. They were careful not to stare, but they glanced at us and quickly turned away, the same way you might sneak a peek at an attractive woman and hope not to get caught. It occurred to me that I was with Kitty 2, and that might account for all the glances. She was quite attractive, especially compared to the women I’d seen here.

We stepped onto the escalator and rode to the second floor. After some hunting, we found a long corridor that led to a door marked “Mall Manager’s Office.” I knocked and got no response, so I turned the knob. It was unlocked, so Kitty 2 and I stepped inside. We startled a portly man sitting behind a cluttered desk. His office was dim, but even in the darkness I could tell he seemed to have a bad case of psoriasis, giving him a scaly appearance. He wore a pair of cheap khakis and a white short-sleeved dress shirt usually only seen on NASA employees, as well as what I strongly suspected was a clip-on paisley tie. He sighed when he saw us, and scowled.

“Are you the manager of this fine establishment?” I asked.

“Yes,” the man croaked. “I’m Richard Haddock, and I manage this mall. Who are you and what are you doing in my office?”

I handed the scaly man my business card. He looked at it and frowned.

“I have been retained to assess the value of this property by a client who is interested in purchasing it,” I said.

Haddock threw my business card into the garbage can by his desk.

“I’m afraid your client has been misinformed,” Haddock said. “The Innsbruck Outlet Mall is not now, nor will it ever be, for sale. I’m sorry your time has been wasted in this fashion, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’m very busy.”

“Were you this rude to Oliver Barley when he came by?” I asked.

Haddock parted his thick lips as if to start yelling, but then thought better of it. Instead, he took a deep breath and exhaled, filling the office with the scent of anchovies. I surmised he had eaten at Sbarro for lunch. I wondered if he’d figured out the kid at Panda Express was spitting in his food.

“I’m afraid I’ve never met anyone who goes by that name. Now, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the premises. I can’t have you poking around unaccompanied. If you don’t leave now, I will call mall security.”

“We’re not afraid of mall rent-a-cops,” Kitty 2 said.

“Rent-a-cops will be the least of your problems if you stick around,” Haddock replied, snatching a stress ball up off his desk and giving it a squeeze. I was certain he was pretending his hand was wrapped around Kitty 2’s windpipe as his grasp tightened on the ball and his scaly knuckles turned pale.

“Are you sure there isn’t someone else we could speak with?” I asked.

“No,” Haddock replied. “There isn’t.”

“All right,” I said. “Apparently there’s been some miscommunication here. I’m sorry we disturbed you.”

I left the office with Kitty 2 right behind me.

“Well that went well,” Kitty 2 said. “Now what?”

I pulled out my phone. I still had no signal, and it didn’t look like the mall had an open wi-fi network.

I shrugged.

“I might go back into town,” I said. “And look at the records on file in city hall to see if I can figure out who owns this dump. Call me crazy, but I’m not sure that guy was exactly in the loop on things. By the look of things, I’m not sure anyone would bother to tell him if the place was for sale. You can stay here and shop if you want.”

“No thanks,” Kitty 2 said. “This place doesn’t seem all that welcoming.”

Chapter 6

I was able to locate city hall without too much trouble. It was in the center of the square, right where you’d expect a small-town seat of government to be. I found that reassuring. What I didn’t find all that reassuring was the fact that the columns on the building were decorated with the same weird carvings that were on the fountain at the mall.

“These people seem to lack imagination,” I said to Kitty 2 as we mounted the steps. “They have a very narrow definition of decorative art.”

“Maybe they just know what they like,” Kitty 2 said.

“Maybe someone should get them a subscription to Architectural Digest.”

The city hall was as dimly lit as the mall. I was beginning to suspect the town was in the midst of some sort of halfhearted conservation effort that involved using only 40 watt bulbs everywhere. Our footsteps echoed on the tile floor as we made our way down the hall. I pushed open the door to the register of deeds office and stepped into the nineteenth century. Instead of computer workstations , there were rows and rows of musty, leather-bound books covered in so much dust, that I wondered if anyone had touched them in decades. I also wondered if the janitor had quit. Kitty 2 started sneezing. The noise summoned a woman from deep within the shadows of the stacks. She was young, but her hair was pulled back in a bun so tight I imagined it must have hurt to blink, which was probably why she didn’t blink as she stood there staring at us as if her training hadn’t covered what to do if someone actually walked into the room.

“Hello,” I said.

“This is the register of deeds office,” the woman said, as if sure we were in the wrong place.

“That’s good,” I said. “Because I need to consult your records.”

“You…want to consult our records?”

“Yes,” I said. “I need to find out who owns the Innsbruck Outlet Mall.”

“The outlet mall?”

“Yes. Can you tell me which one of these books holds that information?”

A light seemed to go on in the woman’s head. “Follow me,” she said, turning and walking down a cramped row between shelves. Kitty 2 and I followed. The woman stopped and pulled a large book off the shelf, grunting under the strain. She carried the book to a table and dropped it, making a lot of noise and stirring up a huge cloud of dust that made Kitty 2 and I both start sneezing.  When I was able to open my eyes again the woman had vanished.

“She wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, was she?” Kitty 2 said, sniffling.

“Probably some city council member’s cousin,” I said. “You know how it is with government work. It doesn’t matter if you can do the job. It matters who you know.”

“I wish I knew somebody,” Kitty 2 said. “I wouldn’t mind a job sitting around all day.”

“You have a job sitting around all day,” I said.

“I meant one with benefits.”

I ignored Kitty 2’s comment and opened the book. Flipping through the yellowed pages, I found the deed to mall. Unfortunately, it didn’t tell me much. The registered owner of the property was a Dagon Inc., and its address was a Cayman Islands P.O. box.  I slammed the book shut and instantly regretted it as another cloud of dust erupted causing both of us to have sneezing fits again. When we could open our eyes again the woman had reappeared.

“Did you find what you need?” she inquired.

“Yes. Thank you,” I replied.

“Will there be anything else?”

“No,” I said.

“Then please leave,” the woman said, pointing toward the door.

Kitty 2 and I left city hall and got back into her car.

“Did you learn anything in there?” Kitty 2 asked.

“The owner is Cayman Islands based shell corporation,” I said.

“So where does that leave us?” she asked.

“Sitting in your car.” I said.

“I meant metaphorically. What do we do now? No one in this town seems particularly friendly, and we’ve pretty much been banned from the building you’re supposed to appraise.”

“Someone around here’s got to know something,” I said. “If I can just get in touch with the owner, then I can explain the whole situation and get permission to appraise the mall. If I can explain to him that someone is interested in buying the mall I’m sure we can get permission to appraise it. I’ve never known a businessman who wouldn’t at least listen to a proposition like that.”

“How do you propose we find somebody who’ll be willing to give us that information?” Kitty 2 said.

“Take me back to the grocery store,” I said. “I know where to start.”

The clerk looked up from her copy of Us Weekly when I came through the door.

“I told you you didn’t want to visit the mall,” she said.

“Oh, I still want to visit the mall,” I said. “But I want to learn something about it first.”

“Like what?”

“Like who owns it for starters.”

The clerk shrugged. “No idea. Like I said, I’m not from around here, but if you really want to know I’d ask Old Wolfgang. He’s from around here, but he’s not like the others. If you get him stoned he’ll talk your ear off. Most of it won’t make sense, but I think he’s your best shot.”

“Where might I find this Wolfgang?” I inquired.

“There’s a park about four blocks south of here. He’s usually there just staring at clouds.”

“Thanks,” I said. “One more question.”

“Shoot.”

“Do you know where I can get some weed?”

“I wish,” the clerk replied.

I went back to Kitty 2, who was sitting in the car drumming her fingers on the steering wheel.

“I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news,” I said.

“Is the good news that we can go home?”

“No. It’s that I’ve got a lead on someone who might be willing to give us information about the mall.”

“What’s the bad news?”

“Apparently the guy needs some marijuana to get him talking, and I’ve got no idea where to get any.”

“That’s not as big a problem as you think,” Kitty 2 said, opening her purse and pulling out a joint roughly the length and width of my index finger.

“Kitty 2, I’m shocked.” I said. “I had no idea you were a dope fiend.”

“It’s my emergency stash,” she said. “In case I find myself at a jam band concert. I got caught at a String Cheese Incident show sober in college, and I swore it would never happen again. Ever. So I keep an emergency doobie on me at all times.”

I took the joint and dropped it in my shirt pocket.

“Let’s walk down to the park and see if we can find this guy,” I said. “And I’ve got to come up with some sort of drug testing policy.”

“Bite me,” Kitty 2 said, getting out of the car.

I joined her on the sidewalk and we set out toward the park to see if we could find the mysterious stoner who might be willing to talk to us.

“So,” I said. “Are you high at work a lot?”

“Not nearly as much as you would think or I would like.”

It was starting to get dark, and the town was starting to show some signs of life. As we walked, we saw people coming out of the run down houses and walking down the street. Most of them had the same big-lipped, scaly appearance that seemed common here. They were all moving in the same direction, heading toward the center of town while we were heading away. While they were careful not to make eye contact, the locals definitely noticed us, stiffening up and being careful to keep their eyes front as we approached.

The park wasn’t very well kept up, either. Between the run down houses, the register of deeds office without computers, and the lack of lawn care, I was beginning to wonder where all the money went. The mall was doing business and the people, while quite ugly, didn’t seem to be poor. In fact, the uglier the person was, the better dressed they seemed to be. If they were hoping to draw attention away from their looks with their clothing, it wasn’t working. A man with a terrible case of eczema in a Brooks Brothers suit is the sort of thing you notice.

Kitty 2 and I followed a cobblestone path into the park. Kitty 2 pointed to a figure reclining on a bench in the distance.

“That’s gotta be the guy,” she said.

“Let’s go introduce ourselves.” I replied.

As we got closer, I could see we were dealing with a full on casualty of the Sixties. He had a beard down to his bellybutton, and he persisted in wearing a ponytail, even though all the hair had long ago disappeared from the top of his head, leaving with only a sad bald man’s fringe. And speaking of fringes, he was also wearing a pair of buckskin pants so ratty and stained that I was pretty sure he had bought them from the wardrobe assistant who worked on Easy Rider. The pants drew attention away from his ridiculous poncho, though, so I wasn’t really that put off by them.  What I was put off by was the funk of patchouli, body odor and stale weed coming off of him.

As Kitty 2 and I approached, the old burnout straightened up a bit and looked at us, a flicker of surprise crossing his face as he realized we weren’t locals.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you Wolfgang?”

“Who wants to know?” he replied.

“Just a couple of humble pilgrims in search of enlightenment,” I said.

“You might be better off going out to Big Sur.”

“I hear Big Sur has gotten kind of touristy,” I replied.

“Yeah man, nothing’s what it used to be,” he said, shaking his head. “Did I ever tell you how I helped organize the first Big Sur Folk Fest in ’64?”

“No,” I told him. “We just met. We’ve never spoken about anything before.”

“Right. Right,” he said. “My memory’s not what it used to be.”

“Whose is?” I said, pulling Kitty 2’s joint out of my pocket. “What say you, me and my friend here smoke this joint and reminisce about how everything was better in the Sixties?”

“Were either of you even alive in the Sixties?” Wolfgang asked.

“Let’s not get bogged down in details,” I said, handing the old man the joint.

He shrugged, produced a lighter from his poncho and sparked up. He took a couple of big puffs, exhaling large clouds of smoke.

“Don’t bogart that joint,” Kitty 2 said, sitting on the bench next to him. Wolfgang passed it to her. As she took a toke he started to talk.

Wolfgang, it turned out, had been at every culturally significant event and met every single artist, celebrity and politician of the decade. He’d also slept with a lot of them apparently. He said Joan Baez was into some pretty kinky stuff. I’d always suspected that on some level.

Wolfgang had been in Dallas when JFK was shot, attended Woodstock and Altamont, partied with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground at the Factory, shot heroin with William S. Burroughs at the Beat Hotel in Paris, driven the bus for Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, walked arm in arm with Civil Rights protesters in Birmingham, tried to levitate the Pentagon with Abbie Hoffman and Norman Mailer, and even worked craft services on the soundstage where the CIA faked the moon landing. He was supposed to be killed after that job, but he got Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong some really good weed, so they pulled some strings and instead of being murdered and buried in the desert, he got to be a test subject in MK Ultra, which really wasn’t that bad since he took a lot of acid anyway.

When Kitty 2 and Wolfgang had smoked the joint down to the roach, I decided I had been patient enough with the old man’s ramblings and decided to cut to the chase.

“So,” I said. “What do you think of the Innsbruck Outlet Mall?”

“Oh man, that mall man,” he said. “When I left Innsbruck it was this quaint, little New England town, man. A little uptight, yeah, but a nice place, you know, friendly.  But when I came back after they kicked me out of MK Ultra, that mall was here and everything changed, man. That mall was here and all kinds of people were coming to visit, you know, spending all this money, like buying stuff was going to solve all their problems.

I tell you, that Lucius Waite, he made money hand over first for years, and the mall employed a lot of people. Prices were cheap. They were so cheap that there were rumors that the old man would travel to places like China, Bangladesh, Cambodia, anywhere there were sweatshops, and he’d actually cut out the middlemen, you know. They said he could just persuade sweatshop owners to just sell the goods directly to him and that all those shops at the mall were just fronts. All of the money just went back to Waite.

“Then the bypass came. Sure, Old Man Waite threw his money and influence around at the legislature, but even he couldn’t stop the bypass. That was when things got weird. Old Man Waite disappeared for a while. Some said he had some kind of breakdown, but most people seemed to think he’d gone somewhere overseas. When he reappeared a few months later, he seemed different. He called all of the mall management to a meeting at his house in the dead of night. A week later the mall reopened with a a lot of fanfare. There was a huge ceremony and entertainment. The entire town turned out, and the Old Man himself spoke. He promised everyone a new age of prosperity if they trusted him. He rehired everyone who used to work at the mall and then some. “

“So a guy named Waite owned the mall?” I asked.

“Yeah. Or he did. He’s been dead for a while now,” Wolfgang said.

“Who owns it now?”

Wolfgang shrugged. “No idea, man.”

“Did this Waite guy have any heirs?”

Wolfgang shrugged.

“Have you ever heard of Dagon Incorporated?” I asked.

Wolfgang sat up a little straighter and looked me in the eye.

“You’re asking a lot of questions.” he said.

“You’re just now noticing this?”

“Well, yeah. I’m pretty stoned, really. But my point is….What were we talking about?”

“Dagon Incorporated,” I said.

“Oh, yeah.” Wolfgang said. “Take my advice, man. Stop asking so many questions. Where’d you hear that name anyway?”

“It’s listed on the mall’s deed at city hall,” I replied.

“Oh, man. You want another piece of advice?” Wolfgang asked.

“Are you going to tell me to stay away from the mall?” I asked. “Because I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that advice, and if I were going to listen to it I’d of already listened to it.”

“That’s good advice, but I was thinking more along the lines of get out of town, now,” Wolfgang said. “People around here aren’t going to be happy you’ve been asking questions, and if you went down to city hall everyone in town knows about it by now.”

“You know leaving’s not a half-bad idea,” Kitty 2 said. “It’s getting late, and I would kill someone for a plate of hash browns.”

I looked at my watch. It was getting late, and spending the night in Innsbruck didn’t seem like that appealing of a prospect. I wasn’t particularly worried in the way Wolfgang seemed to think I should be, but I didn’t want to have to spring for a hotel room.

“Thanks for the information, Wolfgang,” I said.

“No problem man,” he replied. “Thanks for the weed. Hey, did I ever tell you about how I helped organize the first Big Sur Folk Festival in ’64?”

“You mentioned it,” I said. “Well, I guess we’ll see you around.”

“Not if you’re smart,” Wolfgang said as we walked away.

Chapter 7

Our plan to leave town hit a snag when Kitty 2’s car wouldn’t start. She turned the key in the ignition, and the engine chugged a couple of times and quit. She tried it again with the same results.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me. I just had this thing serviced,” she said.

“Pop the hood,” I said. “I’ll have a look.”

Kitty 2 popped the hood, and I got out and raised it. I am not a mechanic. I know nothing about cars or internal combustion engines in general, but I know enough to know that sparkplugs are necessary for combustion and that Kitty 2’s car didn’t have any anymore. I closed the hood.

“There’s good news and bad news,” I told her when I got back in the car.

“What’s the good news?” she asked.

“I know what’s wrong with the car, and it should be easy to fix,” I said.

“What’s the bad news, then?”

“Someone stole the sparkplugs out of your engine.”

“They what? What kind of person steals sparkplugs?”

“One who’s not very good at stealing,” I said. “You can get sparkplugs for like seven bucks each at an auto parts store.”

“That’s one possibility,” Kitty 2 said. “But what if someone doesn’t want us to leave? What if that old hippie was right?”

“Then it would be the first time a man with male pattern baldness and a ponytail was right about something,” I said. “We passed a hotel walking back from the park. Let’s go up there and see if they’ll let us use their phone to call a tow truck and get the hell out of here. Worst case scenario, we have to rent a couple of rooms and spend the night.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Kitty 2 said.

“Yes, let’s,” I replied.

The Innsbruck Inn, like every other building we’d been inside, was terrible. There was some furniture in the lobby that looked like it had been rescued from the curb, and the carpet was marked with nameless stains.  It smelled like dead low tide, and somewhere in the back I could hear a talk radio personality ranting, but I couldn’t make out any words. There was, of course, no one to greet us at the front desk, which was covered in dust. I rang the service bell and waited. No one came, so after a couple of minutes I rang it again. It was then I heard some stirring in the back somewhere and a woman, who bore all of the hallmarks of being a lifelong resident of Innsbruck, emerged from a back office.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Do you have a phone I could use? It seems we’ve had a bit of car trouble and we can’t get any cell service.”

“I wish I could help you,” the woman said in tone of voice that contradicted her words. “But our phone’s been out for a couple of days.”

“Do you have a cell phone I could borrow then?”

The woman shook her head.  “Gotta say, those newfangled phones never really caught on around here.”

“So, how do you communicate across a distance?” I inquired. “Carrier pigeons?”

“They tried a city run carrier pigeon service,” the woman replied. “But people kept eating the birds.”

“Of course they did,” I replied. “Is there an auto parts store in town?”

“There’s one on Church Street, but it won’t be open till morning.”

“In that case could I rent two rooms from you for the evening, preferably adjacent ones.”

“Only got one room available.”

I looked around the lobby to make sure I wasn’t in the Ritz-Carlton. I wasn’t.

“All of your rooms are booked, except one?” I asked.

“Yup.”

“Is it a double, at least?”

“Nope.”

Kitty 2 started making a low growling sound.

“We’ll take it,” I said before Kitty 2 did something rash. I handed the woman my credit card. She gave me a key for a room on the fourth floor.

“Thanks,” I said. “I don’t suppose you offer wake-up calls?”

The woman shook her head and smiled.

The elevator was out of order, so Kitty 2 and I trudged up four flights of stairs.  There were seven rooms. Ours was 403. I slipped the key in the lock and found that the door was already open. I pushed it open and we went inside. The room was the sort of place a prostitute would be reluctant to call home for 15 minutes. The bedspread was ratty and moth eaten, and to call the carpet threadbare was a compliment. The only furniture was a dresser with an ancient television on it and a bedstand that looked like it had been cobbled together by one armed carpenters. The walls were painted turquoise, but the paint was peeling off in strips. The room smelled of mold and cocktail sauce.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Kitty 2 said, brushing off the bedspread before taking a seat on the corner of the bed. “There are third world prisons nicer than this place. I’m tempted to call Amnesty International. I’d say I hope you enjoy sleeping on the floor, but I’m not sure that sleeping in the bed will be any better.”

I locked the door, noting that the lock, like everything else in the room, was of poor quality. I also noticed that there had once been a chain on the door that seemed to have been recently removed. Kitty stood up and tried the door to one of the adjoining rooms. It was locked. She knocked on it. There was no response. She tried the other one and got the same response.

“There’s no way this was the only available room in this place,” she said.

“Maybe there’s a convention coming to town.” I said.

“I haven’t been hit on by any drunk men with wedding rings, so I don’t think so.”

“Good point,” I said. “I don’t like this any more than you do, but it’s not like we have a choice. We’re out of here as soon as we can get your car working again. “

“I think something really weird is going on here,” Kitty 2 said.

“I think you might be right,” I said. “Try and get some rest. I’ll wake you up if anything strange happens.”

“Strange things have already happened.”

“I meant if anything else strange happens.”

“I’ll lie down and close my eyes, but I can’t promise I’ll rest,” Kitty 2 said. “I guess this is what I get for wanting to get out of the office for a day.”

She lay down on the bed fully clothed and closed her eyes. Despite what she said, I could tell she had fallen asleep after about ten minutes, her chest rising and falling regularly. Also, she snored. I paced back and forth. After a while, I thought I heard voices. I stopped pacing, but I didn’t hear them anymore. Getting tired myself, I sat gently on the edge of the bed, so as not to wake Kitty 2.

Then I did hear something. It was the faint but unmistakable sound of footsteps in the hallway. They came closer, stopping in front of our door. The knob turned gently as if someone were trying to test the lock without attracting attention.  The footsteps then continued down the hall. I heard the door to the adjacent room to the north open and then someone turned the knob to the door that led to our room.  At this point, I knew I should wake Kitty 2 because we were definitely going to have to make a run for it, but I figured whoever was in the next room could probably hear her snoring, and if she suddenly stopped they would know the jig was up, so I figured the best move was to wait. The mysterious visitor returned to the hall and then slipped into the room to the south. Again, he tested the knob, finding it locked. I heard the lurker move back into the hallway.

I pulled the musty curtain of the room’s only window back and looked outside. I had a wonderful view of a brick building and a four story drop into a dark alley. Looking to the south, however, I saw a three-story shop of some sort on the main street whose roof looked to be within reach if we could make it to the room two doors to the south. I let the curtain drop back into place and nudged Kitty 2.

“Wake up,” I whispered.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I think we’re going to have to make a run for it,” I told her. “Someone just tried to get in here, and I have a feeling they’ll be back.”

Kitty 2 jumped off the bed. “Let’s go,” she said. “What are we waiting for?”

It was then we heard strange croaking voices and pounding footsteps on the stairs.

“Quick,” I said. “Help me push the dresser in front of the door.”

Knocking the television to the floor, Kitty and I grabbed the dresser and used it to block the hallway door just as someone started pounding on it.

“Now what?” Kitty 2 asked.

Seeing no other option, I threw myself against the locked door to the room to the south. The shoddy construction was a godsend, as the doorframe partially cracked. I hit it a second time and Kitty 2 and I darted through. I closed the door behind us, and we both grabbed the dresser and used it to block the way. We heard the door to the room we had been in crash open. As I threw myself against the next door, more people started pounding on the hall door of the room we were now in.

Kitty 2 grabbed the bedstand and used it to block that door, while I threw my shoulder into the door that would let us into the room where we could jump to either freedom or our deaths. Fear must have given me superhuman strength because it opened with one blow.  We quickly barricaded the doors to the room, our pursuers right behind us. I grabbed the television and hurled it through the glass. I peered out the window, relieved to see that the jump was not as intimidating as it had seemed from afar.

“Go!” I shouted at Kitty 2.

She looked out the window, shrugged, and hurled herself through the empty frame. I followed just as our pursuers came crashing into the room. I hit the roof and rolled, coming to a stop, unhurt. I grabbed Kitty 2 and pulled her to her feet.  We looked back over our shoulders and saw a group of men peering angrily at us from the broken window.

“We’ve got to keep moving,” I said. “Are you hurt?”

Kitty 2 shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

The building we were standing on had a fire escape, so we clambered to the street and took off running into the night. Once we started to get winded we ducked into an alley and crouched behind a dumpster, where we could see the inn’s front door.

“What exactly is their problem?” Kitty 2 asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’m used to people attacking me, but it’s usually one or two people at a time, and that’s usually after I give them some bad news.”

“So these people are just being proactive?”

“We’re talking about people who don’t seem to have computers or cell phones. I don’t think proactive is in their vocabulary and, more to the point, we need to quit worrying about their vocabulary and start worrying about how in the hell we’re going to get out of here.”

“You have any brilliant ideas?” Kitty 2 asked.

“No,” I said. “You?”

Kitty pointed at the inn’s door, which burst open, disgorging a crowd of misshapen shadows who were gesturing wildly with flashlights and making guttural sounds as if speaking to each other in some unknown language. They paused, unsure of which direction we had gone.

“I say we run,” she said.

“Works for me,” I said as we both sprinted through the alley and out into a side street.

We ran for a couple of blocks, taking shelter in an abandoned building. The sounds our pursuers made grew louder, as if they were raising an alarm, and we saw lights turn on in surrounding homes.

“We’d better keep moving,” I said.

Crouching low and running fast, we went for a few blocks and turned down a street I hoped would lead us to the city limits. We hadn’t gone very far when a group of four robed, hooded figures jumped out of a clump of bushes and blocked our way.

The group’s leader held up his hand. Kitty 2 screamed and pulled her can of mace from her purse, letting loose. The robed figures started choking and coughing and stumbling around, clearly unprepared for a full frontal assault. I put my shoulder down and plowed through them like a linebacker, knocking them to the ground. As Kitty 2 and I pushed forward, one of the robed figures reached out and grabbed Kitty 2’s ankle, tripping her. I turned and stepped on the guy’s arm as hard as I could a couple of times. He howled in pain and let go. I pulled Kitty 2 to her feet just as one of the robed figures managed to croak out, “We’re trying to help, you morons!”

“Help kill us!” Kitty 2 yelled.

“No,” the man in the robe replied before falling into a mace induced coughing fit. “They’ve got the road out of town blocked. You’ll never get out that way. Come with us.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Come with the guys who are clearly in a cult. That’s a great idea.”

“How do you know we’re not just friendly monks?”

“What order do you belong to?” Kitty 2 asked.

“Uhh…”

“Never try to fool a former Catholic school girl with a fake monk routine,” Kitty 2 said. “You’re cultists all right.”

“Okay, we’re cultists, but we’re not the bad guys here. They are,” the hooded man said, gesturing to the shambling mob of men who were rounding the corner. “You can come with us or take your chances with them. It’s up to you.”

I reached down and pulled the hooded figure to his feet.

“All right,” I said. “We’re with you for the time being.”

The other cultists rose as well, rubbing their eyes and gasping for breath.

“This way,” the head cultist said, leading us down a narrow space between two houses and across someone’s backyard. We climbed a wooden fence and then ran into a stand of trees. We came out the other side in front of a dilapidated stone church. Kitty 2 and I followed the cultists inside and down a flight of stairs through a stone corridor to another flight of stairs. One of the robed figures in front of us flicked on a flashlight, providing a glimpse of a narrow passageway lined with rough, uneven stones. After descending for what seemed like a very long time we emerged into a rectangular chamber dimly illuminated by torches. In their flickering light I could make out more carvings like those on the fountain at the mall and city hall. These hidden carvings, however, seemed more detailed, more grotesque, depicting vaguely humanoid creatures as they engaged in mundane acts like going to the ATM, buying and selling goods, doing laundry and even playing a game that resembled tennis.  At least that’s what it looked like to me, but it was pretty dark, so maybe it was just my mind playing tricks on me.

In the darkness, the hooded leader turned to us. Kitty 2 inched closer to me. I thought maybe she was afraid, but she whispered in my ear, “I hope this isn’t some kind of new-agey thing. If they think I’m going to pay money for a chakra enema or something they’re in for a surprise. I don’t care if they did save us from an angry mob.”

The leader of the group cleared his throat and started to speak in a wheezing voice. I wasn’t sure if that was his actual voice, or if he was just having trouble breathing because he’d recently caught a couple lungfuls of pepper spray.

“I suppose you’re wondering what’s going on?” he asked.

One of the other cultists produced a pack of wet wipes from his sleeve, removed one, and started passing them around. One by one the cultists took them and started trying to wipe Kitty 2’s pepper spray away.

“All I need to know is that people are trying kill me,” I said. “And I already know that. Knowing anything else would really just complicate things , so If you’ll just point us to the nearest road out of town, or maybe call us a cab, we’ll just let you guys go back to whatever it was you were doing before we got here.”

“You have stumbled onto a secret old as time,” the leader continued. “We are the keepers of the ancient knowledge of the Great Deep One, Dagon, who dwells beneath the waves. We are the Inscrutable Order of Dagon, and I am its high priest Arnold Bass.”

“That’s really great,” Kitty 2 said. “It really is, but I’d kinda like to know who those guys chasing us were.”

“Oh, they’re the Esoteric Order of Dagon,” Bass said.

“How is that different from the Inscrutable Order of Dagon?” I asked.

The leader of the Inscrutable Order of Dagon sighed. “Look, you’ve come at a rather awkward time. I mean, normally the guys and I here would have been out there chasing you with the best of them, but there’s been a bit of disagreement about the whole direction the Order of Dagon should take, and we’re not all exactly on the same page right now.”

“So you’ve got a schism in your religion?” Kitty 2 asked.

“Schism is such an ugly word,” Bass replied. “It’s just a disagreement, like I said. It’ll get sorted out.”

“You keep telling yourself that,” Kitty 2 replied.

“So, which group is opposed to gay marriage. Yours or the other one?” I asked.

“What?” the leader asked.

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” I asked. “Gay marriage is the fashionable thing for religious people to disagree about these days.”

“The Great Deep Ones have nothing to say about the institutions of mortals. They came to this planet millennia before man existed and now, though they lie sleeping, they shall rise again and all that mankind has created will be erased from existence without a thought,” Bass said.

“So, you’re okay with gay marriage then?” Kitty 2 asked.

Bass shrugged. “Sure. I mean all human endeavor is a waste of time, but I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

“Good,” Kitty 2 said. “Just so long as you’re not bigots.”

“No,” he said. “The disagreement within our religion is grounded in a difference of opinion on whether or not to take our message to a wider audience. For years worshippers of the Great Deep Ones have closely held onto their secret knowledge, preparing for the day when our masters would return and members of the order could finally throw ourselves screaming into their gaping maws as the ultimate sacrifice, but our numbers are getting kind of low, really. Innsbruck isn’t what it used to be, and the mall doesn’t attract the numbers it used to, which makes it hard to find recruits and human sacrifices for that matter, and on top of all that, a lot of the young people in Innsbruck today don’t even want to join the Order. They say our deities are just a fairy tale, like vampires or werewolves. At this rate there won’t be more than a couple of hundred of us to greet the sleepers when they awaken, and how’s that going to look to Dagon? “

“Why do you care so much if all human endeavor is a waste of time?” I asked.

“Because we’re not exactly human,” Bass said, throwing back his hood to reveal his hideous visage. His scaly skin was green and he had huge, bulging fish eyes as well as cartilaginous flaps on his neck resembling gills and a fin that started on the top of his head and appeared to run down his back.

A high, piercing scream filled the room. I turned to Kitty 2 to comfort her, and then I realized I was the one screaming, so I stopped.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Bass said. “Actually I’d be more offended if you hadn’t screamed.”

“Good,” I said. “And not to be rude, but what are you exactly?”

“We’re Deep One hybrids,” the leader said. “We start out looking like you, and as we get older we end up looking like this, which is a big part of why the idea of going public with our Order has been met with such hostility. There is some concern that people might not react favorably to the revelation of our existence, but I think that, once people get past the initial shock of discovering that there are fish people living in cities under the sea and interbreeding with humans, they’ll be understanding and receptive to what we have to say.”

“I hate to say this, but I think you might be a tad optimistic on that front,” Kitty 2 said.

“We’ll never know unless we try,” Bass replied. “And we really do have a lot to offer. If you go all the way and breed with a Deep one your offspring will be immortal and get to live under the sea, thus being spared the coming apocalypse that will destroy all humanity. And who wouldn’t want that for their children, really?”

“You’re the one who put out the rumor that the mall’s for sale?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s more than a rumor,” Bass said. “I think I have enough votes on the board to make it happen. Not everyone who is sympathetic to our cause has come out publicly. There have been several interested parties too, but we’ve just had trouble keeping members of the Esoteric Order of Dagon from getting to them first.”

“Why do you want to sell the mall?” I asked.

“It’s the center of our religion,” Bass replied. “And that’s the problem. We’ve become too attached to it. Our religion isn’t a place. It’s an idea. A glorious vision of mankind’s extermination at the hands of ancient beings that will free those of us who had the good sense to give our allegiance to and interbreed with the Deep Ones to spend eternity worshipping them in the great sunken city of Y’ha-nthlei. We must free ourselves from Innsbruck and the mall in order to spread the word of Father Dagon. Divesting ourselves of the mall is essential if Dagon worship is going to ever be anything more than a niche religion. We’ve got to put ourselves out there, you know, like Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

“I don’t know,” Kitty 2 said. “The Catholics have held on to the Vatican and they’ve done all right. And the Muslims have an entire city too. They even make visiting mandatory. I’ll bet the tchotke vendors in Mecca live the life of Riley.”

“Kitty 2, “I said. “Quit trying to talk these nice….people out of a real estate transaction.”

“I’m just sayin’,” she said.

“I think your idea of selling the mall is a good one,” I said. “And I happen to know an interested party, but they want a full appraiser’s report before they make any kind of offer, and I’m not exactly sure how to make that happen right now, seeing as how there’s an angry mob of people or fish or something trying to kill us.”

“Excuse me,” Kitty 2 said. “Can I have a sidebar with my employer?”

Bass shrugged. “Sure.”

Kitty 2 grabbed my arm and pulled me into a dark corner.

“Are you out of your mind?” she asked.

“No. I have a job to do. If you want your cut of the other five grand, you’ll play along”

“You want to get involved in some sort conflict between a group of cultists who are, at best, half human and, at worst, all fish?”

“Well no,” I said. “Or I wouldn’t if there weren’t a paycheck involved.”

“Do you know the first thing about what these…people believe?”

“Nope,” I said. “Nor do I care.”

“I just think we need to tread lightly. We really don’t have any idea what’s really going on here.” Kitty 2 said.

“That’s really not that different from how I usually operate,” I replied.

Kitty 2 closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. Then she opened her eyes and glared.

“I just think it’s likely we’ll make things worse if we get involved here. This has got nothing to do with us.”

“How close are you to being evicted?” I asked.

“Pretty close,” Kitty 2 said. “I’d have to move back in with my mom.”

“Then think of this appraisal as your ticket to independence,” I said. “I’ll split the fee with you fifty-fifty.”

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Kitty 2 said.

“If I can’t appeal to your greed, then I’ll appeal to your sense of self preservation. Do you think these…people are going to take it well if we turn them down?” I asked.

“They do belong to some sort of death cult,” Kitty 2 said. “I guess not.”

“Right,” I said. “So let’s do this and get the hell out of here.”

“Okay, okay,” Kitty 2 said. “As long as we leave at the first opportunity.”

“Of course,” I said. “You think I want to spend any more time here than I have to?”

I took Kitty 2 by the hand and led her back over to the center of the room.

“Gentlemen,” I said. “My assistant and I will be happy to appraise the mall for you, but there is the small matter of the homicidal mob…” I said.

Bass turned to the cultist next to him. “Martin,” he said. “See if we have a couple of spare robes around here somewhere, and escort them to the mall.” He then turned to us. “I and my associates must go. We have business to attend to elsewhere.”

Bass put his hood back up.  He, and all of the cultists but the one I could only assume was Martin, filed out of the room.  Martin turned and started rummaging around in a crate that was pushed up against the wall. He came away with a couple of baggy gray garments that he thrust toward us. I grabbed one and handed it to Kitty 2 and took the other one for myself. The robe’s fabric was rough and itchy, and it smelled like mothballs.

Martin pulled the hood on his robe back, revealing a face that, except for being a little green, seemed normal. He had a head full of wavy black hair and his nose was pointy enough to support a pair of thick glasses.

“I’m sorry about the robes,” Martin said. “They’re itchy and hot, and I have no idea how long they’ve been down here.”

There was no zipper or anything, so I found the bottom of the robe and slipped it over my head. Martin was right. The robe was heavy and abrasive like steel wool.

“Do you guys wear these all the time?” I asked.

“Only on special occasions, like sacrifices or when we’re trying to scare outsiders,” Martin said.

“They’re not terribly practical,” Kitty 2 said. “And I take it they’re one size fits all?”

Her robe had swallowed her. The sleeves hung down several inches below her hands, and the hem dragged the ground, obscuring her feet.

“Yeah,” Martin said. “Most people have theirs altered to fit.”

“How are we going to get to the mall?” I asked. “I’m not really sure I’m comfortable just walking down the street, even if we are in disguise.”

“That’s okay,” Martin said. “My Prius is parked out back.”

Martin pulled a flashlight from the folds of his robe and flicked it on. “Come on,” he said.

Kitty 2 and I followed him out the way we came, through the stone corridors, up the stairs and back into the church.

“How come those other cultists didn’t follow us down there?” I asked as we emerged into the sanctuary.

“Oh, there’s a lot of underground structures around here. Every time there’s a change in leadership the new man in charge thinks he’s got to build a new underground chamber. That one we were in dates from the Eighties, so it’s been mostly forgotten.”

“I can see how people might forget something built in the 19th century,” I said.

“Oh, no,” Martin replied. “I meant the 1980’s. It was part of an effort to make the Esoteric Order of Dagon more contemporary that never really took off. I think they even had pastel robes for a while.”

We followed Martin down the front steps and around the back of the church, where his car was parked. He pulled out his key fob and opened the doors. Kitty 2 took the passenger seat, and I got in the back.

“Be sure to keep your hoods up,” Martin said as he started the car. I know it’s dark, but let’s not take a chance on you being recognized.”

Kitty 2 and I flipped our hoods up, and Martin turned the key in the ignition. His radio was tuned to NPR. All Things Considered was on. Martin drove down a weed lined dirt road behind the church that led back to the main road.

“So,” Martin said. “Wher’re you guys from?”

“The City,” Kitty 2 replied, her voice somewhat muffled from the oversized hood hanging down over her face.

“I’ve always wanted to visit the City,” Martin said.  “I’ve even thought about moving there, but the powers that be tend to frown on people leaving the Order. That’s why I’m helping Bass. The old men in charge of the Order are obsessed with secrecy and control. They’re convinced people would want to wipe us out if they knew we existed. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I mean, being part fish doesn’t obviate your human rights, does it? And surely Dagon worship is covered under the First Amendment. I mean, I talked to these Mormons that came to town once, and really our religion didn’t seem any stranger than theirs. And honestly, I’m not even sure Dagon exists.  An immortal creature that lives at the bottom of the sea? Really?”

“So you’re dagnostic, then?” Kitty 2 said.

Martin chuckled. “Yeah. I guess that’s exactly what I am,” he said. “The truth is I’m only a quarter fish person. My mom married an outsider when she was young enough to still look fully human. Of course as soon as she started growing gills, dad was out of there. I was only two, so I don’t really remember him.”

“That’s awful,” Kitty 2 said. “I’m a child of divorce too. It’s very traumatizing.”

“I’ve never really felt at home here,” Martin said. “And I’ve never really been as into the whole cult thing as everyone else. What I really want to do is study computer science.”

“You could always do distance learning,” I said.

“Yeah, but what would the point be? It’s not like there are any programming jobs in Innsbruck.  You either work at the mall or you don’t work at all.”

“A lot of people must not work at all in this town,” I said. “It’s a big mall, but it can hardly support an entire town.”

“Oh, there’s a lot more that goes on at the mall than the average customer knows,” Martin said. “You’ll see.”

Chapter 8

Martin drove us to the mall, approaching from the rear, where I could see people loading a truck under the harsh glow of floodlights. Men were carrying large boxes onto a tractor trailer as a driver waited, leaning against the cab and smoking a cigarette.

“Shouldn’t they be unloading the truck?” I asked. “Aren’t they doing things backwards?”

“I told you,” Martin said. “There’s a lot more that goes on here than you think. Now, I’m going to park and we’re going to go in through an employee entrance. Keep your hoods up and your mouths shut. Let me do the talking.”

“Got it,” Kitty 2 said. “Heads down. Mouths shut.”

Martin parked, and we all got out of the car. Martin started walking toward the mall, and I tried to follow as best I could, but the hood made it difficult to see, and I kept tripping on the hem of the robe. I wasn’t used to wearing robes. I just focused on Martin’s feet and tried to take careful steps. Kitty 2 cursed under her breath behind me, and I realized she was probably having an even worse time than I was, since the robe was so big on her. Martin approached a gray metal door and swiped a keycard through a slot on the wall. There was a click and Martin yanked the door open, stepping aside so Kitty 2 and I could enter. We found ourselves in a nondescript hallway with pale linoleum floors and fluorescent lights. Martin closed the door and gestured for us to follow him as he started down the hall. Soon, we heard voices.  When we got close enough to hear what they were saying, I realized it was people bitching about work. I knew we were approaching an employee break room.

“That asshole scheduled me for a double on Saturday after I told him about my kid’s Little League game,” someone said. “Can you believe that shit?”

“Yeah,” said a female voice. “I can. He’s had me closing every Friday night for the past two months because he likes to stand around and leer at me while I tally receipts. He’s miserable and bitter that he has no life, so he takes it out on the rest of us.”

I risked a glance to my right as we passed the break room, and I caught a glimpse of two normal looking people sitting at a folding table, surrounded by a couple of vending machines and a refrigerator. The two unhappy employees didn’t even glance at us as we strode by in our robes, as if devotees of Dagon were as ubiquitous here as Hare Krishnas used to be at airports.

Martin stopped at an elevator and swiped his card again. The elevator opened and we all stepped inside. Once the door had closed, Martin spoke.

“We’re going down to what you might call the basement,” Martin said. “I think that’s probably the best place to start if you’re going to appraise the property. It’ll give you some sense of exactly what you’re dealing with. It’s very important that you don’t draw attention to yourselves. Follow my lead, and whatever you see, keep your composure. It’s a whole different world underground.”

With that, Martin pushed the button and we descended as Kenny G played over the elevator’s speakers. The ride was a long one, and I glanced over at Kitty 2, but I couldn’t how she was doing with her head shrouded. The elevator came to a stop and the doors opened. I looked up, and gasped. We were in a massive cavern, one bigger than I would have thought possible to build. And it had been built. There were vaulted ceilings and every inch of wall space was devoted to intricate carvings of sea beasts, some of which I recognized. Others, well, they would have given Jacques Cousteau pause. There were bulging eyes and long, sucker covered tentacles mashed together with the lumpy bodies of sea cucumbers, and creatures with fins and claws and huge, grinning mouths filled with shark teeth. At the center of it all, at the very highest point of the cavern, was a carving of a merman with the head and torso of a human and the tail of a fish.  Directly underneath the carving was a large pool of water.

The cavern was awe-inspiring, but what it contained was even more shocking. There were rows upon rows of tables where fish people sat working sewing machines, making garments, while others sorted their work product into boxes. We were standing in a huge sweatshop. I suddenly understood the mall’s reputation for low prices, and why those men had been loading a truck instead of unloading it. The fish people were producing more counterfeit designer goods than a struggling, forgotten shopping mall could sell. The tables stretched off so far in the distance that I couldn’t tell where they stopped. The mall might have been struggling, but someone was making money hand over fist here. They had to be.

“I told you,” Martin whispered. “It’s a whole different world. Shift change is soon, just stick close.”

A bell rang, and all of the fish people stopped what they were doing and headed for the pool in the center of the room, slipping into the dark water and disappearing. Martin took advantage of the activity, and motioned for us to follow him. We made slow progress, moving against the crush of scaly bodies anxious to get off work. My mind was racing. I had lots of questions, and not just about whether anyone had bothered to obtain the proper permits before building a massive underground cavern. I remained silent, though, as Martin instructed.

As soon as the crowd began to thin out, more scaly people began to slither out of the cold water to clock in and take their places at the tables, sewing goods together and slapping counterfeit labels on them. Martin kept walking toward the back of the cavern, and I followed as best I could, careful to keep my eyes downcast, so no one would notice my absence of gills. Martin slipped down a narrow corridor near the back of the cavern and we followed. He pulled a key from his pocket and opened a door. We went inside. There was some fumbling around in the dark, but Martin eventually found the light switch, revealing a janitor’s closet. There were shelves lined with various cleaning solutions, and mops and brooms were piled haphazardly in the corner.

“This is what you wanted to show us?” I asked. “A closet?”

“”No,” Martin replied. “I just know no one will bother us in here.”

“What about the janitor?” Kitty 2 asked.

“I am the janitor,” Martin replied.

“Oh,” Kitty 2 said. “And I thought my job sucked.”

Martin sighed. “I hope you’ve realized what’s going on here by now.”

“You people seem to be producing a helluva lot of counterfeit goods,” I said. “But I don’t really see what that has to do with the value of the property. If you were running a giant meth lab, it might be another story, but this isn’t really that big a deal.”

Martin shook his head. “You’re missing the point. These counterfeit goods go all over the country. Do you know what your profit margins are when you can pay workers in sardines? It’s no wonder the elders on the council have lost sight of the true purpose of Dagon worship and have become blinded by greed. If they want to stay rich, they need secrecy.”

“You know what they say,” Kitty 2 said. “You can’t serve Dagon and Mammon.”

“I get it,” I said. “You went to Catholic school.”

Martin looked confused. “Who’s Mammon? Is he another Elder God?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Kitty 2 said.

“So what exactly do you want from us?” I asked Martin.

“We need the mall appraised, and we need that appraisal to be so high that the High Council of Dagon will have to take the offer.”

“I see,” I said. “Does this appraisal include all of these underground rooms and tunnels, or are we just talking the mall upstairs?”

“The whole shebang,” Martin replied.

“You realize the market for this sort of thing is probably pretty small,” I said.

Martin shrugged. “We’ll find someone. We have to.”

“Do you know if this, uh, structure meets local building codes? I mean, was any of this properly permitted? If it’s not you might have trouble putting it on the market.”

“I’m not really an expert in these things,” Martin said. “But you’d be surprised how cavern-friendly Innsbruck’s zoning board is. They really just rubber stamp anything that comes in front of them that involves excavation. I’m sure the mall was properly permitted.”

“What about state building codes?” I asked.

“What about them?” Martin replied. “We answer only to the mighty Dagon. We do not fear human’s petty bureaucracy.”

“You don’t have a driver’s license, do you?” Kitty asked.

“No,” Martin replied.

“I didn’t think so. If you did you would have learned to fear human bureaucracy,” she said.

“Building codes aside, how exactly am I supposed to get a good look at anything when the entire town is trying to turn my assistant and I into a ritual sacrifice?”

“To be honest, I hadn’t thought much beyond getting us into the janitor’s closet,” Martin said.

“Well it’s a great closet as far as closets go, but I don’t think any of us wants to stay here forever,” I said. “Does this sweatshop run 24 hours a day?”

“Pretty much,” Martin said. “There is a break every shift, though, so the workers can bow down to Dagon. Mostly they go out back and smoke though. We’ll wait until we hear the three bells. That’s the break signal. Then we’ll sneak out of here and make out way up to the main level. I know a way we can get there where we’re not likely to run into anyone.”

“So how long until break?” Kitty 2 asked.

Martin pulled up his sleeve and looked at his watch.

“Only four hours.”

“Four hours? We’re going to sit in a broom closet for four hours?” Kitty 2 asked.

“The shift just started, so unless you want to be sacrificed, yes.” Martin replied.

“Do you at least have anything to read stashed away in here?” Kitty 2 asked.

“I’ve got some books on coding around here somewhere,” Martin replied.

“Forget it,” Kitty 2 said. “I’m not that desperate.”

We lapsed into an awkward silence. Martin turned to a shelf and made a show of organizing various cleaning solutions. Kitty pulled out her phone, sighed and put it away. I stood there, sweating in the uncomfortable robe, contemplating a career change to something more respectable and less likely to get you killed, like a carny or a blood diamond smuggler.

“So,” Martin said after a few minutes, “Anyone seen any good movies lately?”

“Nah,” Kitty 2 said.

I just shook my head.

Martin gave up on conversation and just stood with his arms crossed.  Kitty 2 took off her robe. I followed her example. Then I sat down on the floor. Kitty 2 started to fidget. Time became a blind, three-legged tortoise with dementia. I began to wonder if the janitor’s closet existed in another dimension outside of time and space. It was a ridiculous idea, but then so was a race of aquatic beings supporting themselves by making counterfeit designer goods, and that was happening. Either that or I had experienced a total psychotic break. Maybe I was really Barley, safe in my padded cell, swaddled in a straitjacket and being pumped full of powerful drugs. It was a comforting thought.

I must have nodded off at some point, because I was rudely awakened by Kitty 2 poking me with the tip of her shoe. Kicking me really, if I’m being honest.

“Put your robe on,” she said. “It’s time to get the hell out of here. I think I have brain damage from breathing all of these cleaning solutions for the past four hours.”

“Quit trying to blame industrial solvents for your cognitive shortcomings,” I said, climbing to my feet and picking my robe up off the floor where it had been serving as a pillow. A lousy one. I had a sore neck. I tossed the robe on and turned to Martin.

“Now what?” I asked.

“When the bell rings three times we file out of the closet and make our way to the stairwell,” he said. “There should be enough commotion that no one will notice.”

A bell rang three times, followed by the sound of people moving around and talking. Martin opened the closet door and we stepped out. Gill-necked people were wandering around, talking to one another. Some stretched, while others made a beeline for the loading docks to smoke. I wondered briefly how smoking worked when you had gills, but I didn’t have time to contemplate the matter as much as I would have liked because I was busy trying to keep up with Martin and Kitty 2, who were wasting no time making a dash for the stairs.

We made it to the stairwell, which was carved out of stone and went around in a spiral because of course it did. We wound our way upwards and came out in a room full of people dressed in robes like ours sitting around a conference table watching someone, also dressed in a robe, give a PowerPoint presentation.  Martin, Kitty 2 and I sat down in three empty seats near the door and tried to look interested but inconspicuous.

“As you can see, demand for fake Burberry products has leveled off, and is anticipated to remain weak over the next quarter, but demand or Gucci and Chanel products are up two percent over last quarter. Overall, we’re still gaining market share over our competitors. Our ability to produce the goods cheaply here, instead of having to smuggle them in from overseas, continues to allow us to undercut all of the other players in our industry.”

One of the robed figures raised his hand.

“Yes, Ted.” The presenter said, pointing at the guy with his hand raised “Do you have any projections on how long until we achieve total market dominance?”

“That’s an excellent question, Ted.” The presenter said. “As you know, we’re in a rough business, and our competition doesn’t play fair, but we’ve got Dagon on our side, so I think we’re going to be okay.”

“The board is getting impatient,” Ted said. “They want to know when we can implement phase two.”

“Soon,” the presenter replied.

“That’s what I told them last month, Gus.” Ted said. “I can’t keep putting them off forever.”

“Total market dominance isn’t something that just happens overnight, Ted,” Gus replied. “It’s not like Microsoft just sprang into existence one day and suddenly 95 percent of computers used Windows. No, it took years of work, and it would have been even harder if Steve Jobs had been a gangster. Have I not mentioned that our competitors are gangsters?”

“So what if they’re gangsters? We’re a cult with an ancient evil from beyond space and time on our side. You just said so yourself.”

“It will happen when the Great Dagon wants it to happen, Ted. Just tell them that. No one can argue with that, can they?”

“No, I suppose they can’t.”

“Good, now if there are no more questions we’ll adjourn. Please remember there’s a mandatory sexual harassment seminar on Wednesday.”

The room groaned at this announcement.

Martin rose, so Kitty 2 and I followed his lead. We filed out of the room into the hallway, but instead of following the rest of the group, we went in the opposite direction.

“They usually don’t use that conference room,” Martin said. “It’s way too far underground for anyone to want to use it. There must be a lot of activity upstairs.”

“Could it have something to do with us?” I asked.

“Probably,” Martin said.

“I was afraid of that,” I said.

“Martin,” Kitty 2 said. “What’s phase two?”

“Oh nothing,” Martin said. “Just the phase after phase one.”

“What’s phase one then?” Kitty 2 asked, undeterred.

“Oh, that’s cornering the market in counterfeit designer goods,” Martin said.

“And phase two is…” Kitty 2 asked.

“I told you,” Martin said. “It’s what comes after the Order corners the market on fake designer goods.”

“Could you be a little more specific?” Kitty 2 asked.

“Is she always like this?” Martin asked, turning to me.

“You should see how persistent she is when her paycheck is late,” I replied.

Kitty 2 stepped forward and grabbed Martin by his hood and pulled his face close to hers. “Phase two,” she hissed. “What is it?”

“It’s when Dagon rises from the deep as the forerunner of the great Cthulhu.”

“Who is Cthulhu?” I asked. “You guys keep going on about Dagon. I thought he was your god.”

“Dagon is our god,” Martin replied. “But he is a minor deep one whose appearance will herald the awakening of the Cthulhu, the greatest of the Deep Ones, who sleeps, dreaming in the submerged city or Ry’leh. Dagon is merely his servant.”

“And how does that particular tenet of your religion relate to counterfeit handbags?” Kitty 2 asked.

“Perhaps I can explain that,” a voice said. We all turned to find the mall manager, Richard Haddock standing behind us, an ancient revolver clutched in his scaly hand. “But first I think we should have a little visit with the high priest. You should have listened to me when I told you the mall wasn’t for sale.”

“Listening was never my strong suit,” I said.

“What is your strong suit? Out of curiosity,” Kitty 2 asked.

“Now is not the time, Kitty 2,” I said.

Haddock looked confused. “If you’re Kitty 2 who’s Kitty 1?”

“Kitty 1 is behind you,” I said.

Haddock turned to look, and I sucker punched him and screamed, “Run!” We all ran.

“I can’t believe that worked,” I said as we ducked around a corner.

“Neither can I,” Kitty 2 said.

Our escape was short lived, however. I probably shouldn’t have yelled “run” at the top of my lungs because as the three of us turned the corner we ran smack into a bunch of hooded cultists coming to see what the commotion was. I decided to stick with the running gambit, since I couldn’t think of another one.

“Run, you fools! Run!” I yelled.

The cultists stopped in their tracks, confused. We were clearly running from something, and they looked like they were about to break ranks and run too, when Haddock came scrabbling around the corner.

“Grab them!” he yelled.

Given the choice of listening to the guy who handed out paychecks or a total stranger, the cultists sided with their paymaster and pounced on us. I was resentful, but I could understand. I would have done the same thing in their position.

“You’ve caused even more trouble than that last idiot, Barley,” Haddock said. “I think it’s time you met the high priest. He can be very persuasive.”

The cultists roughly pushed us back down the hall toward the elevator, where they shoved us inside and then tried to cram in behind us. There were about eight or nine of them, I hadn’t really counted, but it was enough to make cramming into one elevator tricky.

“You’re stepping on my robe,” somebody said.

“No, you’re stepping on my robe,” someone else replied.

“I’m getting crushed back here,” Kitty 2 said. “Maybe some of you could take the stairs. The exercise would be good for you.”

The cultists ignored Kitty 2 and continued trying to cram themselves into the elevator like, and I know this is going to sound kind of racist, but like sardines. At least that’s what it smelled like, with all of the robed fish people jockeying for position. Someone stepped on my foot and I shoved them. The Kenny G wasn’t helping my mood.

“These things have a weight limit, you know,” Kitty 2 said. “Are you morons trying to kill us all? I mean, I get the idea you’re trying to kill me and my idiot boss, but is the prospect of some cardiovascular exercise really so daunting you’re willing to die to avoid it?”

“The high priest’s office is in the sub-basement,” someone said. “Do you have any idea how many stairs you have to walk down to get there? Like a million.”

“This place has a sub-basement?” I said. “That’s the sort of thing I’m going to need to know if I’m going to do a proper appraisal.”

“You’ll appraise nothing,” Haddock barked. “Somebody please hit the button for the sub-basement.”

Someone hit the button, and the doors started to close, but someone’s robe must have gotten caught because they opened up again.

“That’s it,” Haddock said. “One of you get out. Someone’s going to have to take the stairs.”

“Why don’t you take the stairs?” I said. “You could stand to lose a little weight.”

“Shut up you!” Haddock said. “If I could lift my arm right now I swear to Dagon I’d shoot you right in your big mouth.”

“But you can’t, can you,” I said. “No wonder this mall sucks so much. You can’t manage getting people on an elevator, let alone a retail establishment. It really does need new management. I think the Inscrutable Order of Dagon might be right.”

“The crabs will pick your carcass clean for such blasphemy!” Haddock said. “Someone push the down button, seriously.”

Someone pushed the button. This time the doors closed. We rode downward in awkward silence as Kenny G serenaded us on our interminable descent. After a couple minutes the elevator came to a stop and the doors opened.

“You’re going to have to wait for the next one,” said someone at the front.

“Do you have any idea how long I had to wait for this one?” someone else replied.

“Tough,” came the reply before the doors closed, and we continued on our way.

After another five minutes or so, I wasn’t really sure since I couldn’t lift my arm to check my watch, the elevator came to a stop again, and this time people started to file out. The cultists grabbed me, Kitty 2 and Martin and dragged us out of the elevator and down a long stone corridor lit by torches toward a large metal door.

“There’s no way those torches meet state fire codes,” I said.

“Stop trying to appraise the building,” Haddock said.

“It’s what I do,” I replied. “I can’t help it.”

“It’s annoying.”

“I don’t really care if you’re annoyed,” I replied. “I think I’ll continue to annoy you at every opportunity. What’s with the torches anyway? Couldn’t you run wiring this deep?”

“Look up,” Haddock replied, pointing to a row of unlit fluorescent lights. “There’s electricity down here, but the high priest says fluorescents give him headaches, so we go low tech down here. It adds to the ambiance, too.”

“So, really all you’d have to do to meet code is extinguish the torches?”

“Yes,” Haddock replied. “But none of that matters because you’ll either be dead or insane soon, and the mall’s not for sale anyway.”

“We’ll see,” I said.

The cultists pushed us toward the door, which began to swing inward slowly as we approached. I could see in the dim light it was decorated with the face of some hideous tentacle monster. We stepped through the doors into what could have been a doctor’s waiting room. There were chairs lining the wall and magazines on tables. A blonde secretary who didn’t look like a fish at all sat behind a large desk, tapping away at a computer keyboard. She looked up disapprovingly at such a large mob of people crowding into her nice, neat waiting room.  There were no torches in here. The room was lit by fluorescent lights. I figured it was probably difficult to fill out spreadsheets and such by torchlight.

“Mr. Haddock, to what do I owe this wholly unexpected intrusion?” the secretary asked, making no attempt to conceal her contempt.  I briefly wondered if I could hire her to replace Kitty 2, or at least give her secretary lessons.

“I know I didn’t make an appointment, Ms. Bletchley, but this is urgent. I have captured another appraiser and his assistant as well as a member of the treacherous Inscrutable Order of Dagon.”

If Ms. Bletchley was at all impressed by this bit of information she didn’t let it show, but she did pick up the phone and start to speak.

“Haddock is out here with a couple of appraisers and a traitor,” she said. “Yes. Yes. I’ll tell him.” She hung up. “The high priest is busy. He said to put them in the dungeon with the other prisoner and maybe he’ll have time to squeeze you in after his three o’clock.”

“Are you kidding me?” Haddock asked.

“If I were capable of kidding I certainly wouldn’t do it with you,” Bletchley replied.

Our captors grabbed us and marched us out of the office back down the torch lit hallway through a maze of corridors until we came to a large series of cages. Most of them were empty, but one appeared occupied. That was the one the cultists opened and stuffed us into. They slammed the door behind us and left us alone with the dark shape huddled in the back corner of the cell.

“Stay behind me,” I told Kitty 2 as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Our fellow captive stirred, and in the darkness I thought I recognized something familiar in the shadowy outline. I took a cautious step forward, squinting, and then another, and then I breathed a sigh of relief, realizing our cell mate was one of the goons who had manhandled Kitty 2, threatened me and then followed us to Innsbruck. For a moment I had been afraid he was dangerous.

“Man,” I said. “Am I glad to see you.”

“Stay away from me, or I swear I’ll bust your head.”

“It’s us. You know, the real estate appraiser you’ve been following and his assistant who you made into a viral video star?”

The goon stood up and came forward slowly, his hamlike fists clenched and ready for swinging. When he saw I was telling the truth he sank to his knees and started sobbing.

“Stu…” he stammered “Stu…”

“Are you saying the food here is bad?” Kitty 2 asked.

“N..No. My partner Stu. These maniacs, they fed him to some kind of sea beast that tore him limb from limb…” Unable to go on, the goon curled up on the floor in the fetal position and started sucking his thumb.

“So, this monster, “ Kitty 2 said, turning to Martin, “Is that Dagon or whoever?”

Martin shook his head. “No. That’s just the Kraken. He’s Dagon’s servant, and he can be summoned with a ritual sacrifice.”

“I thought you said you didn’t know if any of your religion is real?” Kitty 2 said.

“I said I didn’t know if Dagon was real,” Martin replied. “The Kraken’s definitely real, though. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Whether it’s really a servant of Dagon or just a hungry sea creature?” Martin shrugged.

“Well, we’ve got to get the hell out of here,” Kitty 2 said. “I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all. I eat seafood. Not vice versa.”

“Hey,” I said to the goon on the floor, “Why were you tailing us anyway? What’s your interest in all of this?”

The goon pulled himself into a sitting position and wiped away his tears, attempting to gain some semblance of dignity. Then he spoke.

“Call me Richard,” he said.

“Okay. why were you following us, Richard?”

“The organization I work for has a substantial interest in counterfeit goods, and there’s been some stiff competition lately. Another organization undercutting our prices at every turn, taking all of our customers, and we haven’t been able to find them to, you know, deliver a message. Finally, we got a name, Innsbruck. But where is Innsbruck? No one in the organization’s ever heard of it. Then, through our connections in the construction industry, we hear about some old guy who’s throwing a lot of money at real estate appraisers to go to this town none of us can find on a map and appraise a piece of property that doesn’t exist. Stu and I just decided to start working our way through the appraisers in the phone book, shaking each of them down until we found someone who knew something. We got lucky. You were the first in the phone book. And now here we are waiting to get eaten by a giant squid or something.”

“I told you I’d call the number on the card,” I said. “So why’d you feel the need to tail us?”

“We didn’t trust you, of course. You gave in way too easily,” Richard said.

I shrugged. “I really was going to call. I just have an aversion to being smacked around, that’s all.”

“Well if I had it to do over again I’d stay home and wait for your phone call. That’s what I get for trying to be ambitious.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Ambition will get you every time. That’s why I keep mine locked in a safe deposit box at the bank with my passport.”

“Hey Martin,” Kitty 2 said. “You work here. You don’t happen to know about any secret passages or anything like that that will get us the hell out of this cage, do you?”

Martin shrugged. “No. I’m just the janitor, and really I’m not asked to clean the dungeons much. They’re not used that often, and really, it kind of sends the wrong message if you have a dungeon that’s too clean, you know what I mean?”

“You have a point about the ambiance,” Kitty 2 said. “But make yourself useful and help me push on these stones to see if one of them opens a secret door or something.”

Kitty 2 and Martin began pushing on the slimy stones on the back wall, but seemed to accomplish nothing other than getting their hands dirty. I watched them for a few seconds and turned back to Richard.

“So, how’d you end up in here?” I asked.

“We came into town and started asking around about the mall, and the next thing you know here come all these guys in robes. Stu and I started laying them out, just swinging left and right, but there were just too many of them. They dragged us down here, and then some of them started asking us questions about why we were interested in the mall and you, and we told them to go to hell. We don’t answer questions. We ask them, after all. So, they took us down the hall to this room with a giant pit in it, and they took Stu and dragged him to the edge of this pit, and started chanting, and then this…this thing rose up out of the pit and it just…it pulled him apart. Ripped him to pieces.” Richard’s head dropped in shame. “I told them everything I knew. Everything…”

Richard broke down sobbing again, which unnerved me given his occupation. Watching a goon cry isn’t comfortable. I turned back to Kitty 2.

“Any luck with the secret passage?” I asked.

“No,” Kitty 2 replied. “I’ve just managed to break a couple of nails.”

I turned back to Richard.

“Think,” I said to him. “Was there anything you saw or heard that might help us get out of here?”

The goon shook his head and wiped away his tears with his sleeve. “If I had any idea how to get out of here do you think I’d be sitting here waiting to get eaten alive?”

“No,” I replied. “I suppose not. I just thought I’d check.”

“Hey,” Kitty 2 said. “I think I found something.”

“A door?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “A loose brick.”

“That’s not very interesting,” I said.

“Come here and help me pull it out,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Have you got anything better to do?” she replied. “I don’t want to break any more nails.”

She had me there. I didn’t have anything better to do, so I went over to the wall, and started wiggling the brick.  It was loose. I didn’t have high expectations, but I kept working at it. Eventually I worked it out of the wall enough to get a grip on it and pull it free. I peered into the empty space left by the brick, but I didn’t see anything.

“Hey Kitty 2, why don’t you put your hand in there and feel around?” I asked.

“Why don’t you?” she replied.

“Look, you’re the one who was anxious to get this brick out of the wall, so you put your hand in there.”

Martin brought our debate to a premature end by rolling his eyes and thrusting his hand into the hole. To my relief, he didn’t start screaming. He did, however, pull a sheaf of yellowing papers from the hole.

“What’s that?” Kitty 2 said, snatching the papers out of Martin’s hand.

“Hey!” Martin said.

“It was my idea to take the brick out o the wall, so I get to see what’s on the paper,” Kitty 2 said.

Martin sighed, but kept his mouth shut. Kitty 2 squinted at the papers in the darkness. We watched her for a couple of minutes, waiting for her to speak.

“Well,” Martin said. “Does it say anything?”

“It definitely says something,” she said. “But I’m not sure what. I can’t make out most of the writing, and most of what I can doesn’t make any sense. There’s a lot that’s not even in English.”

“Let me see,” Martin said, putting his hand out.

Kitty 2 handed him the note.

Martin gazed at the paper, moving it back and forth, trying to bring the ancient letters into focus in the darkness.

“I think this document is written in ancient Kaar’le’bal’lech,” he said. The last word sounded like a noise someone might make if they had a really bad cold and got hit in the chest with a tire iron.

“Ancient what?” Kitty 2 asked.

“Kaar’le’bal’lach,” Martin said. “It’s a language my people developed eons before they set foot on land. It’s been largely forgotten.”

“Can you read it?” I asked.

“Nope,” Martin said. “I know someone who might be able to, though.”

“Wait,” Kitty 2 said. “What were your people writing on underwater?”

“What?” Martin said.

“What did they write on?” she said. “I mean it’s not like they could use ink or paper or whatever.”

“Uhh,” Martin said. “I guess they carved it into stone or something, I don’t really know.”

“So, they like hand chiseled their wedding invitations and stuff? That must have been very labor intensive. And the postage must have been really expensive.”

Martin shrugged. “I guess. I’m not really a historian.”

I cleared my throat.

“If we could get back to the matter at hand,” I said. “We’re in a cage, and we need to get out, otherwise we might be eaten by a giant monster. Unless that paper is part of a treatise on lockpicking, I don’t think we can afford to spend a lot of time thinking about what it says.”

Conversation came to an abrupt halt. Martin stared down at his shoes. Richard the Goon sniffled. Kitty 2 peered into the hole where the brick had been.

After a while, we heard the sound of shuffling feet and murmured voices coming down the hall.  It was Haddock, surrounded by his compatriots. He peered into the cage and grinned.

“The high priest will see you now,” he said.

“He finally found time in his busy schedule for you?” I asked. “I was expecting to be here at least a couple of days.”

“If I had my way, you’d be here forever,” Haddock said, unlocking the door with a giant iron key. “But I think you’ll find the high priest has something even more unpleasant in mind.”

We filed out of the cell while the cultists loomed, faces shrouded by hoods. We were outnumbered, so I decided to cooperate. I was an appraiser, not a fighter, and besides, I wanted to meet the high priest. I hoped he might be more reasonable than Haddock.

Haddock took a torch from one of his minions, and led the way back to the high priests office. When we got back to the part of the hall that had fluorescent lighting I had to suppress a chuckle. A man carrying a torch down a fully lit hallway is an amusing sight whatever the circumstances.

Haddock marched us into the high priest’s office and approached Ms. Bletchley, who regarded him as one might regard roadkill.

Haddock cleared his throat. “I’m here so see the high priest. I have an appointment.”

“You don’t have an appointment,” Bletchley replied. “They do.” She nodded at our motley crew.

“But…”

“You’re to wait out here,” the secretary said. “The rest of you can go in. He’s expecting you.”

Haddock’s shoulders sagged as we filed past him into the high priest’s office.

Unlike his secretary’s domain, the high priest’s office looked like a high priest’s office. The cavernous stone room was lit only by a couple of torches and the faint glow from a laptop screen sitting on a gigantic mahogany desk. Outlined in the glow of the computer, I could make out a hunchbacked figure. He was squinting at the screen and muttering to himself. I cleared my throat to get his attention. He looked up, startled.

“Ah, you must be my four o’clock,” he said. “I apologize. Sometimes I get caught up in Minesweeper.”

“Who doesn’t?” Kitty 2 said.

The high priest closed the laptop, revealing a bald, bluish green head and large, yellow eyes that glowed eerily in the darkness.

“Which one of you is the appraiser I keep hearing about?”

“That would be me,” I said, stepping forward.

“Who are all the rest, then?” the priest asked.

“Well,” I said. “The lady is my assistant, Kitty 2, and that fellow is Richard. He’s a goon. And Martin is Martin.”

“I see,” the priest said. “I take it that Haddock has explained to you that the Innsbruck Outlet Mall is not, and never will be, for sale, so there’s no need for an appraisal.”

“He did mention that,” I replied. “But that position doesn’t seem to be one held by everyone in Innsbruck.”

“Bah!” the priest said, banging his hand on his desk. “You’re talking about the Inscrutable Order of Dagon. Those heretics will get exactly what’s coming to them. Our kind were building temples under the sea while reptiles ruled the land. Innsbruck is our home, and this building is built on a site that has been sacred to our kind for millennia. The Esoteric Order of Dagon is the one true Order, and it will be here when all else has been wiped from the earth.”

“Oh, give me a break,” Martin said. “Innsbruck is a dump. No one comes here anymore. The population has been shrinking for decades, and everyone is related to everyone else, which isn’t good for the gene pool. Your attachment to this place is holding us back. Dagon worship shouldn’t just be confined to fish people. It has a broad appeal, and we can use the fresh blood. This is just a building. The Old Ones are an idea. Ideas can survive anywhere.”

“Blasphemer!” the high priest hissed. “What do you think the land dwellers would do if they knew we existed? Welcome us with open arms?”

“I really think you’re not giving humans enough credit,” Martin replied.

“Humans are utterly insignificant,” the priest said.

“Woah, hey!” Kitty 2 said. “Can we knock it off with the casual racism? You’re the only person in the room who doesn’t have any human blood.”

“I’m sorry,” the high priest said. “I didn’t mean it. Without humans we wouldn’t be able to feed the Kraken, so you’re not completely insignificant.”

The high priest picked up his phone.

“Ms. Bletchley, will you tell the boys in the pit to get the Kraken ready? Thanks.”  He hung up.

On cue, Haddock and his crew appeared behind us, grabbing us roughly and dragging us out of the priest’s office, past Ms. Bletchley and into the hall. Faced with the prospect of facing the monster that had killed his partner, Richard started crying again.

“You guys really have this coming,” Haddock said. “Usually I have mixed feelings about feeding people to the Kraken, but you guys…”

His voice trailed off as he led the way through the damp, mazelike corridors beneath the mall. I kept my eye open for an opportunity to escape, but it was hard to see in the dark. I tried to stay positive. Maybe the Kraken was just a really irritable fighting fish, like they sold in pet stores, I told myself. At the end of a particularly dark, damp corridor we came to a spiral staircase. I stopped short, despite the fish people prodding me.

“This place has another basement?” I asked.

“This place has a lot of things that are none of your business,” Haddock croaked.

Someone shoved me, and I slipped, falling and spinning and falling and spinning and falling and spinning until I hit the bottom. When I opened my eyes Kitty 2 was kneeling over me, her eyes filled with concern.

“Oh good,” she said. “I thought you might have died.”

“I didn’t know you cared,” I replied.

“I don’t,” she said. “It’s just that you got me into this mess, and it wouldn’t be fair if you didn’t get to be eaten alive too.”

“You asked to come on this trip,” I said.

Kitty 2 sniffed. “I suppose you’re right, but I still blame you for all this.”

A couple of fish people pushed past Kitty 2 and pulled me to my feet. We were in yet another narrow corridor, but this one had a large steel door at the end. Haddock walked to the head of the group and opened it.

“The Kraken awaits,” he said.

The fish people pushed us toward the doorway. I was first. When I saw what was inside, I grabbed the sides of the door, so I wouldn’t be pushed into the abyss the loomed before me. The room was a giant pit surrounded by a six inch ledge. I could hear water, but I couldn’t see it. I slid to the left, precariously balanced on the slick rock ledge, and grabbed Kitty 2 when she came through the door, so she didn’t fall. She sized up the situation and, back pressed to the wall, slid toward me. Martin was next, but he knew what was coming and adroitly slid along the ledge to the right of the door. Richard was still crying, and the fish people had to shove him into the room. He almost tumbled into the water, but Martin grabbed his collar and pulled him back from the brink. The steel door slammed shut, leaving us with only faint light. I looked up and realized this room was open at the top. I could tell by how faint the glow of the stars was that we were deep underground.

“So, Martin,” I said. “What happens now?”

“Well, we either stand on this cramped ledge until we fall or jump, or the Kraken shows up and eats us alive,” he replied.

“There’s no third option?” Kitty 2 asked.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Martin replied.

“Hey Richard,” I said. “You were in here once, how’d you get out?”

Richard said something, but his crying made him unintelligible.

“Take a deep breath and try again,” I said.

“I just..I don’t know,” he said. “The monster didn’t eat me, so some guy opened the door and let me go back to my cage. Oh God I miss that cage!” he wailed.

“Martin,” I said. “Does this Kraken have any weaknesses we should know about?”

“Not that I know of,” he said.

“What good is cult if you don’t know secrets?” Kitty 2 asked.

“You mean besides knowing an underwater race of fish people who want to destroy the world?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I meant useful secrets.”

“Sorry,” Martin replied.

Beneath us in the darkness the water started to churn, like a washing machine on its highest setting.

“It’s here,” Richard shrieked. “It’s come for us!” He started trying to climb the walls with predictable results.

I took a quick inventory of my pockets, and came away with the novelty letter opener/lobotomy pick I’d bought at the De Sade Hospital for the Criminally Insane. I showed it to Kitty 2.

“Well, it’s better than nothing,” she said.

“Do you have any pepper spray left?” I asked. “You’ve been pretty liberal with it.”

“I always carry a spare,” Kitty 2 said, reaching into her cleavage and pulling out a canister.

Any further conversation was rendered moot by an inhuman shriek from the depths and the sudden appearance of a huge, purple tentacle which shot out of the pit and snaked around Richard’s ankle and pulled him, screaming, into the blackness. His screams stopped when he hit the water with a loud splash.  The three of us just stared into the pit, afraid to move or make noise, lest we draw the Kraken’s attention. I tightened my grip on the novelty lobotomy pick/letter opener and tried to steady my trembling hand.

After a few minutes of silence, Martin spoke.

“It might be full,” he said. “It might not be back for a while.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Kitty 2 said.

The relief was short lived, as a horrible, slime covered tentacle covered in pulsing suckers rocketed up from the depths and wrapped itself around Kitty 2’s waist, plucking her off the ledge and into the air.

“Help me!” she screamed.

Martin and I exchanged looks, each hoping the other would think she was addressing him directly. When Kitty 2 began to disappear into the darkness, though, I knew I had to act. Finding someone to work for an irregular paycheck and no benefits wasn’t easy, and I didn’t want to have to wade through the hundreds (okay, dozen or so) resumes my Craigslist ad would bring, so I jumped from the ledge onto the tentacle, wrapping my arms and legs around it and holding on for dear life as we both disappeared into the dark water. Keeping your grip on a giant tentacle isn’t exactly easy. True, they do have giant suckers, but that’s only on one side. The other side is really slick. Also, the water was cold and dark, and I couldn’t see anything until the Kraken opened its giant, jaundiced eyes with pupils the size of truck tires, as black and empty as the soul of a divorce lawyer.

I let go of the tentacle and swam for the closest eye, still gripping my novelty lobotomy spike/letter opener. When I was close enough, I stabbed the Kraken right in the pupil. The beast reared back and tried to grab me with one of its immense appendages. I felt it cut through the water next to me. It missed by a couple of feet. It’s follow up attempt to ensnare me went wide as well. I realized that by damaging its eye, I had thrown off its depth perception. I flailed my arms, trying to find Kitty 2 in the darkness, but I came up empty, and I needed to resurface. My lungs were bursting.

“I never expected to see you again,” Martin yelled as I broke the surface.

I was too busy breathing to reply. It was a good thing I managed to get a lungful of air too, because that was all I had time to do before I felt a tentacle encircle my chest and drag me back under. The Kraken started slowly crushing my ribcage. I had dropped the novelty lobotomy spike/letter opener, so I had no way to attack the coil of muscle that was killing me. I felt myself getting faint, and I was sure I was dying when I saw a form emerge from the darkness. I lost consciousness.

Chapter 9

I woke up on a beach staring up at the stars, which was unexpected, since I had never believed in an afterlife, and I didn’t remember any of the major world religions saying anything about heaven being a beach. Then fear gripped my heart as I realized I might be in that other place. I quickly sat up and looked around, but I didn’t see any t-shirt airbrushing kiosks, drunk rednecks, or a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum. Whatever I had done in my life, it hadn’t been enough to land me in Myrtle Beach. I thought about finding my old Sunday school teacher and rubbing it in that, despite her rather dire predictions and fervent wishes, I had managed to dodge eternal torment. Instead I turned my head to the side and coughed up a lungful of foul-smelling salt water.

“He’s awake,” someone said.

I propped myself up on my elbows and had a look around.   Kitty 2 and Martin were sitting on a large piece of driftwood watching me.

“I told you,” Kitty 2 said to Martin, “You owe me twenty bucks.”

I tried to speak, but just ended up coughing up more water. I was soaked and freezing and full of questions.

“What happened?” I managed to ask before coughing up even more water.

“What happened,” Kitty 2 said, “was that Martin here saved us both from drowning or being eaten. It was kind of a toss up, really.”

“That thing,” I gasped. “It didn’t eat you.”

“Yeah,” Kitty 2 said. “I guess I have you to thank for that. It let go of me when you stuck it in the eye. I mean, you’re still a lousy boss, but I was kind of impressed you were willing to jump onto a gigantic tentacle to try and save me. “

“Cheap help is hard to find,” I said. “And Rex would probably have kicked my ass if I let anything happen to you.”

Kitty 2 sighed. “Rex probably wouldn’t have even noticed I was gone,” she said. “The guy’s not a bad way to kill some time, but he’s a little wet-brained.”

“True,” I said. “How did we get out of the Kraken pit?”

Kitty 2 pointed at Martin.

“Turns out that being part fish person makes a guy a pretty strong swimmer. He dragged both of us out though the tunnel the Kraken came in.  Also, he has gills and lungs so he could breathe air into our lungs without worrying about drowning.”

“Thanks Martin,” I said. “I guess we both owe you one.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied.

“So, what do we do now?” Kitty 2 asked. “Since these lunatics likely think we’re dead, I vote that we get the hell out of here and never look back.”

“I concur,” Martin said.

“Not so fast,” I said. “I have a general rule about getting involved in sectarian religious disputes that I don’t understand and have no stake in, but I do tend to take it kind of personally when people try to feed me to a sea monster. It rubs me the wrong way.”

“What are you suggesting?” Kitty 2 asked.

“I’m suggesting we appraise the living hell out of that mall and help the Improbable Order of Dagon sell it.”

“It’s the Inscrutable Order of Dagon,” Martin said.

“Whatever,” I replied. “Just take us to them. Now.”

As we moved through the dark streets and alleys, there were no signs of life. The hunting party had given up and gone home, content in the knowledge that the outsiders and the heretic had been eaten by a giant sea beast. Nevertheless, we skulked in the shadows and peered around corners before stepping out in the open, and when we did have to step into the open, we scurried as fast as we could to the next welcoming patch of cover. It turns out that being fed to a monster by a cult makes a person a little paranoid.

Bass’s house was just as dilapidated as the rest of the homes in Innsbruck, but I noticed the door had been reinforced and there were bars on the windows. I guess you can’t be too careful when you’re leading a religious splinter movement. We snuck around the back of the house and Martin produced a key from his robe that allowed him to unlock the storm cellar doors, which were secured with a chain and padlock. He pulled the doors open and we descended into the basement. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the basement was not the dark, dingy room I had been expecting, but had instead been outfitted as a den, complete with a recliner and leather couch as well as a large flat screen television. There was a picture on an end table. I picked it up. It was Bass and a woman I assumed was his wife smiling. Each of them held an identical young girl. The twins looked to be about two years old and entirely human, unlike their parents. I put the photo back on the table.

Exhausted, I threw myself on the couch.

“That’s leather,” Kitty 2 said.

“So?” I replied.

“You’re soaking wet,” she replied. “You’ll stain it.”

“So?”

“We need these people to help us,” Kitty 2 said. “The least you could do is not damage the furniture.”

“All right, all right,” I said, standing up.

“I’m going upstairs to see if Arnold is around,” Martin said. “He needs to know what happened tonight.”

When Martin disappeared, Kitty 2 and I shed our soaking robes, which made us a little more comfortable. Unfortunately we were still both wearing soaking clothes.

“That was pretty brave of you back there,” Kitty 2 said. “I gotta say, I never saw you as the type of guy who would jump into a monster filled pit to save anybody, let alone me. It’s almost enough for me to forgive you for uploading that video to YouTube. Almost.”

“Well, what can I say?” I replied. “You never know how you’re going to react in any given situation until you’re in it, and I probably would have missed having you around a little. Kitty’s good company, but she doesn’t really say much.”

Our conversation was cut short by the sound of feet on the stairs as Martin returned, followed by Arnold Bass. He seemed pleased to see us as far as I could tell. I couldn’t be sure, really. Bass looked enough like his namesake that it was hard for me to read his facial expressions. I have no idea how you tell a happy fish from an angry one or a sad one.

“My spies told me you were fed to the Kraken,” Bass said.

“We were,” I said. “But it must’ve had indigestion or something.”

“The details are unimportant,” Bass said. “All that matters is that you’re here. We’re going to need all the help we can get. The word is the high priest is preparing to purge all suspected sympathizers of the Inscrutable Order of Dagon, and we have to be ready.”

“And by purge you mean?” I asked.

“Kill,” Bass said. “They’re going to kill everyone.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” I said.

“Let me see if I can get Agatha to round up some dry clothes and robes,” Bass said.

As Martin was removing his wet robe, the piece of paper he had found behind the hollowed out brick in the dungeon fell from wherever he had been hiding it.

“What’s that?” Bass asked.

“It’s a scrap of something written in Kaar’le’bal’lach,” Martin said. “We found it behind a loose brick when Haddock had us locked up in the dungeon.”

“How is it that that thing didn’t disintegrate completely while we were in the ocean?” Kitty 2 asked.

“We’re really good at waterproofing stuff,” Martin said.  “We’ve had eons to work on it.”

Bass picked up the paper and squinted at it.

“Damn,” he said. “I wish I’d paid more attention in Kaar’le’bal’lach class. You said you found this in the dungeon?”

“Yeah,” Martin replied.

“There’s no telling how long it’s been there. I’ll have to have someone translate it, but right now we have more pressing matters to deal with,” Bass said.

Bass put the paper in his pocket as a voice called out from the top of the stairs.

“Is everything all right down there, honey?”

“Yes, Agatha, everything’s fine.” Bass said. “We’ve got some guests. Do you think you could rustle up some spare clothes and robes?”

I could hear Agatha sigh from the top of the stairs. Her footsteps were heavy as she descended into the basement and stuck her head around the corner so she could get a look at us. It was the woman from the picture, only a few years older. She really wasn’t bad looking for someone whose eyes were on the side of her head.

“Hello Martin,” she said.

“Hello Mrs. Bass,” he replied.

“I’d ask if you’re keeping out of trouble, but I already know that answer to that question,” she said.

She gave Kitty 2 and I the once over and shot her husband the sort of nasty look that married people use on each other to speak volumes without saying a word.

“I’ll see what I can find, Arnold,” she said. “But I’ve just about had it with your Inscrutable Order of Dagon nonsense.”

“It’s for the greater good, dear,” Bass said. “

“If you were really interested in the greater good you’d clean the gutters,” Agatha snapped before clomping back upstairs.

Bass grinned sheepishly.

“Please excuse my wife,” he said. “The reformation is taking an emotional toll on her.”

“That’s understandable. She probably doesn’t want to go down in history as the Anne Boleyn of the fish people or whatever, and I can’t say I blame her,” Kitty 2 said. “If I’m being perfectly honest, I’m having some doubts about this myself. I mean, these jerks did try to feed us to a sea beast, and I’m wet and cold and hungry, and I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to enjoy the clam chowder at Don’s Diner ever again, which is a shame because Don makes really good clam chowder. We should really just pack it in.”

“And what?” I replied. “Return the money to that Waite guy?”

“Oh hell no,” Kitty 2 said. “Did I say anything about returning any money? Five grand isn’t anywhere near enough compensation for all of this crap. I’m just saying we should go home, that’s all.”

“Your car doesn’t work,” I said. “And I don’t remember where it’s parked, anyway.”

“Wait,” Bass said. “Did you say Waite?”

“You just said ‘wait’ twice, what of it?” Kitty 2 said.

“No. You just said a man named Waite is the one who hired you to appraise the mall?”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s right. A guy named Barney Waite, or something.”

“Are you sure?” Bass asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Weird old guy. Lives in a big, old house. Has a study with a lot of curios and Beanie Babies in it.”

“The Waite family used to run this town,” Bass said. “Lucius Waite was the man who built the mall.”

“Yeah,” Kitty 2 said. “We gathered as much talking to the old hippie that hangs out in the park.”

“You talked to Wolfgang?” Bass replied. “You didn’t let him tell you about the Big Sur Folk Festival did you?”

“Oh hell no,” Kitty 2 said. “Not that he didn’t try. Twice.”

“You dodged a bullet there,” Bass said. “I’ve heard some boring stories in my time, but that one is, by far, the worst. Anyway, Lucius Waite, not only built the mall, he brought the Esoteric Order of Dagon to town. He came back from one of his long trips to the East with many strange artifacts, including that obelisk in the mall. Once he had that, the fish people followed. And once the fish people arrived, Lucius declared himself the high priest of the Order of Dagon, and promised everyone in town, my parents included, eternal life and prosperity for their children if only they would become one with the underwater creatures.”

“So, wait,” I said. “Was that high priest guy who tried to kill us Lucius Waite?”

“No,” Bass said. “Lucius disappeared years ago, leaving the outlet mall to be run by the High Council of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Supposedly, he  went to live under the sea full time to await the coming of Dagon, having become so like fish people that he could no longer survive on land.”

“”Well, I’ve got news for you,” I said. “The guy who hired me didn’t look anything like a fish. And neither did his ancestors if the portraits hanging in his house were at all accurate.”

“If what you say is true, this could change everything,” Bass said.

“Including the fact that a bunch of people are going to try to kill us?” I asked.

“No,” Bass said. “It’s not going to change that.”

Agatha’s footsteps on the stairs interrupted our conversation, and she reappeared holding a handful of garments, which she tossed on the sofa.

“This is all I could find,” she said. “I’m not sure if it’ll fit or not, but I did manage to find you a smaller robe, young lady.”

“Thank you,” Kitty 2 said. “Getting around in that other one wasn’t easy.”

Kitty 2 rooted around in the pile of clothes and came away with a pink pair of sweatpants that had “Juicy” printed on the ass, a pair of old sneakers and a t-shirt that read “I’m with Stupid” that had an arrow pointing to the left. She quickly shed her wet clothes, put on the dry ones, and then stood to my right.

Martin and I dressed in old jeans and t-shirts, neither of which bore insults of any kind.

“Well, I feel better,” Kitty 2 said after donning a dry robe over her clothes.

“I’d feel a lot better if I knew exactly what the hell was going on,” I said.

“Well,” Bass said. “I’d imagine Haddock and the high priest are gathering the faithful at the temple as we speak, and once they’re sufficiently riled up, they’ll probably come to kill members of the Inscrutable Order.”

“So,” I said. “What you’re saying is the mall will be empty?”

“Well, they do generally offer time off for purges, otherwise people would just work overtime, so the mall should be pretty empty,” Bass replied.

“Then that’s where we’re going,” I said. “I don’t know what the hell’s going on here, but I’m definitely going to have a closer look at that place.”

“What’s going on here is that people, or fish, or whatever, are trying to kill us,” Kitty 2 said. “Are you sure going back to the mall is a good idea?”

“He’s right,” Martin said. “We should go back to the mall. It’s the last place anyone would think to look for us.”

“No one’s looking for us,” I said. “We’re missing, assumed fish food.  But I’m going to go through the high priest’s office to see if we can find any useful information, and it’s probably a good place for the members of the Enigmatic Order of Dagon to lay low until the torch and pitchfork brigade get tired.”

“It’s the Inscrutable Order of Dagon,” Martin said. “But we already have a place to lay low.”

“Martin’s right,” Bass said. “We’ve prepared for this eventuality. I’ll put the word out. Martin, you and the outsiders head back to the mall. I’ll gather the others at the safe house. You’ve still got your keys, right?”

“Right here,” Martin said, taking an oversized key ring out of his pocket and jangling them.

“Excellent,” Bass said. “Let’s get moving.”

Bass and his wife disappeared up the stairs, leaving the three of us alone in the basement.

“C’mon,” Kitty 2 finally said. “Let’s get going. I never thought I’d get sick of going to the mall, but here we are. I swear, Amazon is going to get all of my business after this.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” I said. “Online shopping is the best. You can order anything you want, and you don’t need pants.”

“I heard Amazon is actually run by aliens,” Martin said. “And Jeff Bezos is their leader.”

“And after what I’ve witnessed here, I’m half-inclined to believe you,” I said. “But as long as they’re not trying to kill me I really don’t care.”

“How do we get back to the mall?” Kitty 2 asked.

“That shouldn’t be too difficult,” Martin said. “The temple of the Esoteric Order of Dagon is in the center of town, and that’s where everyone will be, so if we keep to the side streets on the edge of town like we did before, we should be able to get there without a problem.”

“All right,” I said, pulling my robe over my hood.

I pushed the basement door open. Kitty 2 and Martin followed me into the darkness.

Martin was right. We had little problem skirting the edge of town and making it back to the mall. I tried not to think about the mob gathering at the center of town getting all worked up for a good old-fashioned bout of sectarian violence. I knew the fact that I didn’t believe in Dagon or whoever these fish people were planning to kill each other in the name of wasn’t going to mean much once heads started rolling.

When we got to the mall, Martin let us in through the back entrance.

“You’re going to have to lead the way, Martin,” I said. “This place is like a maze to me. I don’t think I could find my way back to the high priest’s office if I had a lifetime.”

“Follow me,” Martin said. “I’ve been emptying the trash cans in there every night for years.”

Our footsteps echoed eerily on the linoleum as Martin led us to the high priest’s office.  When we reached the door, he pulled out his key ring and unlocked the door. We stepped into the waiting area and came face to face with a surprised-looking Ms. Bletchley, who had apparently been burning the midnight oil. The look of surprise turned into one of outright fear when we removed our hoods.

She stood up. Before she could say anything, Kitty 2 leapt across the room, grabbed the handset of the desk phone and hit the old woman in the head with it as hard as she could. Ms. Bletchley let out a yell and staggered backwards as Kitty 2 vaulted the desk, dropped the phone receiver, grabbed Bletchley’s keyboard and let her have it so hard right across the face that the keyboard broke in half. The old lady hit the floor like a sack of hammers.

“Remind me not to piss you off,” Martin said.

“Kitty 2,” I said. “I think you might need anger management counseling.”

“When you graduate from secretarial school you take an oath to only use your powers for good,” Kitty 2 said. “And she violated that oath.”

“If you took an oath like that, then how do you justify working for me?” I asked.

“You don’t really take an oath,” Kitty 2 said. “I just don’t like her.”

Bletchley let out a pitiful moan from the floor, and Kitty 2 responded by giving her a swift kick in the ribs.

“You so much as bat an eyelash, and I swear to God, I’ll have your teeth for a necklace,” Kitty 2 said. “You two, go search the high priest’s office. I’ll keep an eye on little miss ‘Get the Kraken ready’ here.”

“All right,” I said. “Just holler if there’s a problem.”

“Oh, I’m not going to be the one doing the hollering,” Kitty 2 said, cracking her knuckles and eyeing the trembling, bleeding woman on the floor the way a starving dog might look after wandering into an unattended maternity ward.

I grabbed Martin and pulled him into the high priest’s office.

“We’d better make this quick, or I get the feeling there’s not going to be a lot of Ms. Bletchley left,” I said. “You said earlier this whole place was wired for electricity. Are there actual lights in here? Because if we have to search this place by torchlight it’s going to take forever, and we’ve got significantly less time than that.”

Martin walked to the back wall and opened a panel in the rock wall. He flicked a switch, and the high priest’s office was no longer a dim cave lit only by a couple flickering torches on the wall. The place was a lot less intimidating bathed in light.

Now that I could see, I noticed a mounted sailfish on the wall. I wondered if it was a relative of the high priest and he kept it in a place of honor the way people keep their dead grandmother’s ashes on the mantelpiece in their living room. Then it occurred to me that the sailfish might have crossed the high priest in some way, and it now served as a warning to others who might do the same.

I took a seat at the high priest’s desk. I jiggled his mouse a little, and his computer came to life. Unfortunately, it was password protected. Fortunately, the high priest was a moron, so I guessed it on the first try when I typed in “Dagonrulez.”

I shook my head, “This guy,” I said. “How did he get the top gig around here?”

“It’s my understanding he was Lucius Waite’s handpicked heir,” Martin replied.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said. “But I’m beginning to question the intelligence of a lot of the people who’ve gotten caught up in this whole Dagon worship thing.”

“You and me both,” Martin replied.

The high priest’s screen background was an aquarium scene. I opened his file manager and started poking around. His most used program was Minesweeper. I was tempted to check his Internet browsing history, but then thought twice. Who knew what a half-man/half-fish hybrid got up to sitting around in here all day in dark?

I scrolled through folders, but I didn’t see anything marked “evil plans,” or “world destruction,” so I wasn’t sure what I was trying to find. There were a lot of files filled with spreadsheets, but they seemed to keep track of the number and type of counterfeit goods produced and shipped each week. I found a folder marked “Accounts Receivable” and opened it up. It was full of spreadsheets too, but these detailed the payments coming in for the counterfeit goods. I let out a low whistle. It was a lot of money. I wondered where all the money was going. I printed out one of the spreadsheets.

“Look around and see if you can find a thumb drive,” I told Martin. “If nothing else, we might be able to interest the IRS.”

“Martin started rooting around in the desk drawers, and I gave into curiosity and checked the high priest’s browser history while I waited. He spent a lot of time surfing Tumblr sites dedicated to Japanese tentacle porn. On the one hand I was disturbed. On the other hand, I was relieved because I finally knew who the audience was for that sort of thing. I was distracted from my thoughts by a clicking sound.

Martin hadn’t found a USB drive, but he had found some kind of switch hidden in one of the drawers that caused a secret compartment to rise out of the floor. It was a metal box about two feet by two feet. Martin walked over to it and yanked on the handle. To our surprise it came open without needing a key or combination. We looked at each other and shrugged.

Martin reached inside and came away with a scrap of paper much like the one he had found hidden in the dungeon.

“What do you make of that?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I told you, I’m not fluent in Kaar’le’bal’lach.”

“I don’t think anyone is, to be honest,” I said. “Do you think it might be part of the same document you found?”

“It could be,” he replied. “Regardless, if the high priest thinks it’s important we should take it. Because screw that guy.”

“I agree,” I said.

I brought up Outlook and started scanning subject lines. Most of it was the usual workplace crap: reminders from HR about upcoming seminars, someone begging for people to join the office softball team, a rather terse note reminding everyone that reserved parking spots were marked “reserved “ for a reason. I was getting bored when I ran across an email from Haddock with the subject line “Barley.” I thought of the poor loon wrapped in a straight jacket in the De Sade Hospital for the Criminally Insane and opened the message.

Haddock@Dagon.org

Subject: Barley

 

High Priest,

I have done as instructed and sent Barley’s wife the coupon for Macy’s. I’m sure there’s no way she’ll be able to resist 80 percent off. I’m sure that will trigger the response we want. He may have gotten away, but I can assure you, he has not escaped.”

HighPriest@Dagon.org

Subject RE: Barley

 

                Excellent work Haddock. I’m beginning to think you’re almost competent, despite last’s week shenanigans. Barley’s mind will surely crack, and then no one will believe his story. Bwahahahahaha!

 The High Priest

I was a little surprised the high priest had gone through the trouble of writing out the sound of his evil laugh as he relished the thought of driving an innocent real estate appraiser insane, but other than that, I couldn’t say I was shocked. I printed out a copy of the email exchange, folded it up and stuck it in my pocket. I didn’t know if it would help Barley at all, but I figured I kind of owed the poor guy.

“You don’t know how this guy organizes his files?” I asked Martin.

“No idea,” he replied. “You should do a CTRL-F and see if he has any files marked ‘Calling Dagon,’ or something like that.”

I ran the search. It came up empty for ‘Calling Dagon,” but I got a hit on ‘Summoning Dagon.” The folder held a Word file with the same name. I opened it up. As promised, it turned out to be a step-by-step guide for waking a long dead god from his millennia of slumber at the bottom of the ocean.

“Huh,” I said. “This is really the sort of knowledge you would expect people to keep in some kind of ancient tome bound with human skin and inked in blood.”

“It’s the 21st Century, dude,” Martin said.

“True,” I said. “But I’m a little disappointed. I mean, a Word document?”

“Microsoft’s not evil enough for you?” Martin asked.

“Good point,” I replied, printing out a copy of the ritual, which I folded up and stuck in my pocket with the emails about Barley and the accounts receivable spreadsheet.

“Well,” I said. “This has been a productive bit of breaking and entering, but I don’t see anything here that’s going to help us avoid a theologically-motivated massacre.”

“There’s got to be something,” Martin said. “Let me have a look.”

I got up from the high priest’s chair and let Martin have my place.

Kitty 2 opened the door and stuck her head in.

“I think Ms. Bitchly out here might have something to say that you want to hear,” she said.

“Okay,” I said. “Martin, you keep looking through the high priest’s files.”

Martin nodded.

Kitty 2 had used phone and power cords to tie Ms. Bletchley to a chair. Her eyes were wide with fear as she struggled to get loose.

“Keep her away from me!”  Ms. Bletchley blurted when she saw me. “Please. She’s crazy.”

“That’s not a very nice thing to say about my secretary,” I said. “But I might be able to help you if you have some useful information for me. Now, I know Haddock and the high priest are planning on killing their rivals, and I know a man named Barley completed an appraisal of this mall. So, here’s the deal. You tell me everything you know about the impending massacre and where I can find the appraisal documents and maybe, just maybe, I forgive you for working for a cult that tried to feed me to some sort of underwater abomination. Are we clear?”

The woman nodded so hard I was afraid she might get whiplash.

“Whatever you want,” she said. “Just don’t let her staple my mouth shut.”

Kitty 2 had picked up an expensive looking Swingline off the desk and was clicking it ominously, oblivious to the pile of staples accumulating at her feet. She smirked.

“I know Haddock took the appraisal documents, but I don’t know what he did with them,” she said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” Bletchley said. “Gary gave them to me to shred, but Haddock came by later that day, and said Gary wanted him to handle it, so I gave them to him.”

“Gary?”

“That’s the high priest’s name. Only strangers and underlings refer to him by his title,” Ms. Bletchley said. “Anyway, I thought it was weird that Haddock would concern himself with something like that, but I had a lot to do, so I just gave him the documents. If he didn’t destroy them, they’re probably in his office.”

I removed the spreadsheet from my pocket and waved it in front of her.

“What can you tell me about this?” I asked.

“It’s a spreadsheet.”

“Yes,” I said. “One that indicates this place is bringing in a lot of money. What happens to it?”

“It doesn’t go in my paycheck, if that’s what you’re asking,” she replied.

“It’s not,” I said. “Where does the money go?”

“I’m just a secretary,” the woman sputtered. “I don’t know where the money goes. I think the board owns the mall, so they’re the ones who would know about the money. I answer the phones and file things. That’s it.”

“That’s good to know,” I said. “Now, about the impending nastiness…”

“I can’t help you there,” she said. “Gary’s already gathered up the faithful at the temple. It’s too late to stop it.”

“Maybe not,” I said, stroking my chin. “Do you have to dial nine to get an outside line here?”

“Yes,” Bletchley said.

“Thanks,” I said. Then, to Kitty 2, “I’m going back into the priest’s office to make a phone call. Don’t do anything else to her unless she tries something stupid. She’s probably a grandmother.”

“Yeah, but she’s probably the type of grandma who offers you hard candy when you come to visit instead of something actually edible,” Kitty 2 said.

“Nevertheless, please exercise a little self control,” I said.

Kitty 2 shrugged. I decided that was as close to an affirmative response as I was going to get and went back into the high priest’s office.

The card with the phone number on it the goons had given me had been destroyed when I’d jumped into the water, but it didn’t matter. I had the local mafia’s regional office number memorized. I punched nine and dialed the number. The phone rang a couple of times only to be answered by an automated female voice that asked me to push eight if I wanted to continue in Italian. After that the voice scrolled off a list of options. The recorded voice on the phone droned on and on until I lost patience and pushed zero. The phone rang a couple more times, and a woman with a thick New Jersey accent picked up.

“Whaddaya want?” she asked.

“Connect me with the counterfeiting division please.”

“Currency or designer goods?”

“Designer goods.”

“Please hold.”

After a couple of minutes of listening to Frank Sinatra croon “My Way,” someone answered.

“This is Big Paulie. Who the hell is this?”

“This is the guy you sent a couple of goons to threaten the other day.”

“You’re really gonna hafta be more specific,” Paulie said.

“The real estate appraiser who was going to Innsbruck.”

“Oh, yeah. I remember now. You got your appraisal done?”

“No,” I said. “But I know exactly where your competition’s factory is located, and they’re fighting among themselves right now, so if you want to take them out, this is your best chance.”

“Hmmm,” Paulie said. “I knew that shit was coming from Innsbruck. What better place to run a criminal enterprise from than a town that’s dropped off the map?”

“Yeah,” I said. “The main operation is in the basement of the old outlet mall here. It’s unguarded right now, so if you can get a crew together and move quickly, you can get back on top.”

“Why’re you telling me this?” Paulie asked.

“I have my reasons,” I said. “And I don’t want my legs broken.”

“Smart man,” Paulie replied. “But if I find out you’re lying, broken legs will be the least of your problems.”

“Understood,” I replied. “Innsbruck is between Shanksville and Scupperton. I’ve got to go. Hope to see you soon.”

I hung up the phone and turned back to Martin.

“So,” I said. “Find anything else?”

“Well, it seems like the high priest and Haddock plan to use the deaths of the members of the Inscrutable Order as a mass sacrifice in order to summon Dagon.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in Dagon?”

“I don’t know if the he exists, but I know I exist, and this could be bad.”

“How bad?”

“The end of all life bad,” Martin said. “Or, a bunch of people get their throats slit for no good reason.”

“That’s pretty bad,” I replied. “Why now?”

“Well, according to these documents I found, the volume of counterfeit goods from Innsbruck has reached some kind of critical mass, which will make summoning Dagon easier than it would be otherwise.”

“Now,” I said. “I think I’ve already made it clear I don’t understand your religion, but how do fake handbags and sandals play into this again?”

“Well,” Martin said. “For lack of a better word, the goods that get made here are cursed. Each of them carries with it a small part of the great evil that resides here with it, and as that evil is spread, it makes Dagon stronger. And the stronger he is, the easier he is to summon.”

“That makes no sense,” I replied.

Martin shrugged. “It’s religion. You’re not supposed to think about it too much. Oh, and speaking of summoning, I couldn’t help but notice you seem to have summoned some members of the organized crime community. How do you think that’s going to help?”

“I’m not sure if it will,” I said. “But I’m not sure it’s actually going to hurt anything at this point. And besides, they have guns. Do you have any guns?”

“No,” Martin said.

“Then I stand by my decision,” I said. “You didn’t happen to come across anything that might help us stop the high priest from summoning Dagon?” I asked.

“No,” Martin said. “I don’t think Dagon worshippers have put a lot of time and energy into researching how to not summon Dagon.”

“Fair enough,” I said, taking the paper with the ritual printed on it out of my pocket and unfolding it. “I suppose the only thing we can do is to hope we can find some way to disrupt the ritual.”

“We could stop them from killing all the members of the Inscrutable Order of Dagon,” Martin suggested. “That would disrupt the ritual.”

“I think you’re setting the bar kind of high,” I said. “But what the hell? We can try. Any brilliant ideas?”

“Not really,” Martin said. “We should head to the safe house, though.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “It’s an underground chamber of some sort.”

“No,” Martin said. “It’s a loft. Everything around here’s underground, so a loft is the last place anyone will look for us.”

“Excellent,” I said. “Let’s go.”

Kitty 2 was leaning against Ms. Bletchley’s, desk cleaning what I hoped was dirt out from under her fingernails while staring through narrowed eyes at her prisoner.

“It’s time to go Kitty 2,” I said. “We’ve got what we need, and I think she’s had enough.” I gestured to the captive.

Kitty 2 sighed, “I guess you’re right. You’re sure we shouldn’t kill her so she can’t snitch on us?”

“I won’t say anything, I swear!” Bletchley moaned.

“I think we should just leave her here. She’s not going anywhere.” Martin said.

“But she’s the only person who knows we’re still alive,” Kitty 2 replied. “I say we tie up loose ends.”

“Kitty 2,” I said. “Get your bloodlust under control. The way things are going, you’ll probably have the opportunity to kill a lot of people tonight. Save it for later.”

“All right,” Kitty 2 said. “I just hope I don’t regret this.”

“If we live to regret anything, we’ll be incredibly lucky,” Martin said. “We can’t waste any more time.”

Martin headed for the door, and since he was the only one who knew the way back to the exit, Kitty 2 and I had no choice but to follow. Outside, the night air had acquired the faint, acrid sting of smoke indicating a fire somewhere.

“That can’t be good,” Martin said. “They’re probably trying to burn people out of their homes. We’d better hurry and get to the safe house to see who’s there.”

“Shouldn’t we try to stop whatever’s going on in town?” Kitty 2 asked.

“It’s going to take more than the three of us to do that,” Martin replied. “And our best chance of finding allies is at the safe house.”

“Lead the way,” I said

Martin led us between hedges, over fences, through backyards and alleys until we reached a battered brick warehouse. He opened a side door with a key from his immense key ring, and we went inside and started climbing stairs. I had forgotten how much harder it was to walk up stairs than down them, having spent the majority of the day descending deeper and deeper beneath the Earth’s surface.

We were almost to the top floor when a voice boomed out, “Who’s there?”

“It’s us, Arnold.” Martin said.

“Us?” Bass replied. “You mean those two crazy people haven’t gotten themselves killed yet?”

“We’re right here,” Kitty 2 said. “And I highly resent your characterization of my mental health. I’m not the one who worships a giant lizard.”

“Fish god,” Bass replied from the darkness.

“Oh, that makes all the difference,” Kitty 2 said.

“You guys might as well come on up,” Bass said.

We ascended the stairs and emerged into a dusty, open room filled with rotting crates and lit only by a couple of lanterns. In the gloom, I could make out the shapes of five or six people, not including Bass.

“Is this it?” Martin asked.

“I’m afraid so,” Bass replied. “I’m hopeful more will show up.”

“I’m not so sure,” Martin said. “I could smell smoke coming from the center of town.”

“Not good,” Bass replied. “Not good at all. We’ve got to take action. Now.”

I stepped into the center of the room and cleared my throat.

“It just so happens I have a plan,” I said. “I’m just going to need a few volunteers.”

No one stepped forward from the gloom to volunteer.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll start with the easy one. I need someone to get a van and drive to Shanksville and steal a couple of the fifty-five gallon barrels of fake blood they use every year for their prison riot reenactment.”

“Oh man, I’m up for that,” someone said, emerging from behind a stack of crates. I squinted. It was Wolfgang.

“What the hell are you doing in here?” Bass asked.

“I was just having a nap, man,” Wolfgang said. “The vibes in town got real harsh, so I figured I’d hang out here until it blew over.”

“You got wheels?” I asked.

“A VW van, man.”

“Of course,” I said. “Of course. Just take it to Shanksville, get some of that fake blood and get back here as fast as you can.”

“Sure,” Wolfgang said. “No problem. Can I bum like ten bucks for gas?”

“Here, here,” Bass said, shoving a bill at Wolfgang. “Now go do what the man asked.”

“Cool man, I’ll be back,” Wolfgang said, heading down the stairs.

“Okay,” Bass said. “Now what?”

“Now we need a distraction,” I said. “Something that will force the Energetic Order of Dagon to pay attention and buy us some time.”

“It’s the Esoteric Order of Dagon,” Bass said. “It’s like you haven’t been paying attention this whole time.”

“I’m being paid to determine the value of a piece of property, not study comparative religion,” I replied. “Esoteric Order, Inscrutable Order, it’s like trying to tell a Methodist from a Presbyterian.”

“I don’t really understand that reference,” Bass said.

“Now you know how I feel,” I said.

“Fair enough,” he replied. “Now what about this distraction? And what’s all the blood for?”

“The blood is to disrupt the ritual,” I said, taking the paper with the ritual on it and showing it to Bass. “It says here it requires fifty gallons of blood to summon the Deep Ones. If we swap out the real blood with the fake one, then, no Deep Ones.”

“Yes,” Bass said. “But most of that blood is currently inside members of the Inscrutable Order of Dagon, and I’d like to keep it there, if that’s possible. If we wait until it’s been extracted, then we’ve kind of missed the point.”

“I’ve already had this conversation with him,” Martin said. “I don’t think he’s very good at listening.”

“You guys are just full of complaints, especially when you consider the fact that you’re asking total strangers to help you solve your problems.”

“Hey,” Martin said. “If the Esoteric Order succeeds then mankind gets destroyed, so don’t act like you don’t have a dog in this fight.”

“Well,” I said. “That brings me to my next step. My faithful assistant and I are going to infiltrate the Esoteric Order’s mob. They think we’re dead, so we should be able to put our hoods on and blend right in.”

“Is there a second part to this incredibly reckless idea?” Kitty 2 asked.
“We sow discord, thus distracting the mob from its true aim,” I said.

“And how do we do that?” Kitty 2 asked.

“We’ll think of something,” I said. “And besides, we only need to buy enough time for the mafia to get here.”

“The mafia?” Kitty 2 and Bass said in unison.

“Yeah,” I said. “I called them from the high priest’s office and told them where to find your competing counterfeit designer goods operation. They’re on the way here now. With guns. Lots of guns, hopefully.”

“That was a really great idea,” Kitty 2 said.

“No it wasn’t.” Bass said. “Are you out of your mind?”

“Possibly,” I said. “There’s this guy I know named Dr. Valerian who I might ask about that once this is over. But I thought you guys were all about a new, more open form of Dagon worship that didn’t rely on creating counterfeit designer goods?”

“The mafia?” Bass said. “They’ll kill us all.”

“So will Dagon, if I understand the situation correctly,” I said.

Bass shrugged. “You’re right. I don’t see how this situation could possibly get worse.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are ways,” I said. “C’mon Kitty 2. Let’s go.”

Kitty 2 and I pulled our hoods up and headed down the stairs.

“What do we do in the meantime?” Martin asked as we left.

“Try not to get murdered,” I said.

Chapter 10

“So,” Kitty 2 said as soon as we were outside. “We’re going to run like hell, right? That’s the only intelligent play here.”

“No,” I said. “First off, I haven’t gone through this much trouble to leave here without getting that appraisal from Haddock’s office, and secondly, these idiots might actually destroy all life on earth.”

“Don’t tell me you believe that crap.” she replied. “Undersea gods from space waiting to wake up and annihilate all life?”

“I don’t know what I believe,” I said. “These people we’ve been dealing with definitely have gills, and that Kraken thing they tried to feed us to was a giant underwater monster for sure, so maybe there’s something to all of this.”

“I’m not saying there’s not something to all of this,” Kitty 2 said. “What I am saying is we should run as far away as we can get as fast as we possibly can.”

“Oh you’re right,” I replied. “That’s what we should do. But not what we’re going to do. Now let’s get moving. We’ve got a riot to incite.”

“Well, I can’t really say no to an opportunity like that,” Kitty 2 said. “Keep an eye out for loose bricks. I’m gonna need something to throw.”

“We can do better than that,” I replied.

I started off down the street, and Kitty 2 followed. We skulked from doorway to doorway for a while, until we realized there was no one around to hide from, so we just started walking down the sidewalk like normal people. I figured if we ran into someone who wanted to know what we were doing, I’d just say we were late to the riot because our DVR wasn’t working properly and Kitty 2 didn’t want to miss The Bachelor.

We made our way toward the center of town, where we could see a rising column of smoke blacker than the night itself. As it happened, I noticed a brick in the gutter and picked it up.

“Give me that,” Kitty 2 said. “I called dibs on bricks.”

“I’m keeping the brick,” I said. “And before you complain, just give me a minute.”

I turned down a side street, and then another, until I found what I was looking for. We were standing in front of a large plate glass window with the words “Innsbruck Wine and Spirits” painted on it. I hefted the brick in my hand a couple of times to get a sense of its weight, reared my arm back and chucked it at the window. It bounced off and landed at my feet.

Kitty 2 let out a loud sigh, picked up the brick and let it fly. The liquor store window shattered into a million pieces. We both looked around to make sure the sound of breaking glass hadn’t caught anyone’s attention, and stepped inside, careful not to cut ourselves on the shards still stuck in the window frame.
“Find the high proof stuff,” I whispered.

“I’ve made a Molotov cocktail before,” Kitty 2 said. “I know what I’m doing.”
“When did you make a Molotov cocktail?” I asked, taking bottles off the shelves and squinting in the dark to read the alcohol content.

“College,” she said.

“I never pictured you as some kind of campus radical.”

“I wasn’t” she said. “It was sorority rush week.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Here it is,” Kitty 2 said. “Pure grain alcohol.” She waved a bottle at me in the darkness. “How many do you think we need?”

 

“How many can you carry?”

“A lot,” she said. “These robes have plenty of pockets.”

“I know,” I replied. “Otherwise they’re not very practical, but there is a surprising amount of storage space in these things. You stuff your pockets with liquor. I’m going to see if I can find some rags and matches.”

I found a display of disposable lighters at the counter and grabbed a couple. Rooting around behind the counter, I came away with a couple of rags that would work as fuses. I figured if worse came to worse, which it certainly would, I could tear my robes or shirt to make more fuses.

“So, what’s the plan?” Kitty 2 asked as we exited the store. “We climb up on a roof and start lobbing these bad boys into the crowd?”

“I was thinking of something a little more civilized and a little more risky,” I replied.
“You know, I used to think you were just some lazy bum who was scamming people by pretending to be a real estate appraiser, but I’ve seen a whole other side of you since we came here. You fought a sea monster, and now you’re coming up with plans that don’t involve burning things down. There’s a lot more to you than I thought, and, quite frankly, I’m not sure I like it.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “I’d hate to think anyone liked me.”

“Now what’s this idea you’ve got?”

“Look around you. What do you see?”

“A dump,” Kitty 2 said, not bothering to look around her.

“Exactly,” I said. “And that counterfeiting operation at the mall is raking in so much cash that the mafia is willing to come out here with a bunch of goons to shut it down or take it over. And the Esoteric Order owns the mall, runs the operation and presumably gets the profits. So, where’s the evidence of it? Why is everyone here living in squalor? Who’s sitting on all that cash?”

 

“The high priest and all his cronies,” Kitty 2 said.

“Exactly,” I said. “Everyone in this town has a common enemy. We just have to make them realize it.”

“That might work,” Kitty 2 replied. “But what are the Molotov cocktails for then?”

“It might not work, and then we’ll just burn everything to the ground.”

I handed Kitty 2 the lighters and rags I had found in the store. Without being told, she started tearing the rags into strips and stuffing them into the tops of liquor bottles that seemed to magically appear from her robe.

“I’m ready,” she said. “Are you?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I said. “And if this all goes south and we end up thrown into the gaping maw of some ancient horror, I want you to know you were the best secretary I ever had.”

“Thank you,” Kitty 2 said. “I didn’t know you had other secretaries.”

“I didn’t,” I said.

“You could’ve lied just then,” Kitty 2 said.

“You could’ve just taken the compliment.”

Kitty 2 sighed and we walked shoulder to shoulder into the center of town, our nostrils filling with the scent of smoke, and our ears besieged by belligerent vocalizations that grew in intensity and frequency as we drew closer. We rounded a corner to find a huge crowd of robed figures holding torches, clustered around a pile of burning debris. Gary the high priest, flanked by Haddock and a few of his other cronies, stood on a hastily erected scaffolding above the crowd, egging them on.

“Burn the possessions of the heretics!” the high priest intoned. “Their blasphemy has brought us into disfavor with Dagon. They would seek to defy the ancient wisdom that had guided our way of life since before life crawled from the womb of the sea onto the accursed land. Tonight we will purge this blight from our midst, and the He will be appeased!”

 

The crowd roared and waved their torches and various blunt and bladed instruments in the air.

“All right, Kitty 2,” I said. “This is it. I want you to see if you can get to the roof of City Hall. That looks like a good place to lob firebombs from. I’m going to do my thing and try not to get torn to pieces.”

“Be careful,” Kitty 2 said, reaching out and talking my hand. “I’m going to need you as a reference if I ever want to get a better job.”

“You be careful too,” I said. “If this goes bad don’t try to be a hero. Throw enough cocktails to cause some confusion and get the hell out.”

With that I marched into the crowd, shoving my way through the mass of robed bodies baying for blood from foam specked lips, waving machetes and pitchforks along with their torches, high on their own righteousness. Some of the cultists glared at me as I pushed them aside, but I kept my gaze straight ahead, walking with authority, as if I belonged there and knew exactly what my purpose was. The mob assumed I was one of them, driven by anger and eager to cause havoc, and in a way I was. They had no way of knowing that the source of my anger was not their own, and that I was their enemy. Their rage blinded them. The high priest thought he could control it, but I could tell that would not be the case for long.

I reached the makeshift scaffolding that had been erected to allow the high priest to tower over the crowd and the bonfire. Without hesitation, I climbed the stairs. When I reached the top, a couple of henchmen started toward me. I took my hood off and they stopped in their tracks. They had been there when we had been thrown into the Kraken’s lair, and my presence shook their confidence. Over their shoulders and through the haze of smoke, I could see Haddock and the high priest gaping at me.

“Seize the outsider!” the high priest managed to sputter, but his voice didn’t have enough confidence in it to inspire anyone to move.

 

“People of Innsbruck,” I shouted. “Look around you. You stand here today ready to murder your neighbors, people you’ve known your entire lives, but will that solve anything?  Suppose you root out every single member of the Inscrutable Order of Dagon from your midst? What will you do then? Go back to sewing fake handbags all day and returning to your dilapidated homes you don’t have the time or money to repair because you’re too busy making somebody else rich? Have you ever stopped to think about that? Those impressive fake designer goods you churn out for your god, they don’t get given away. They get sold…”

“Silence!” the high priest bellowed. “I have no idea how you escaped the Kraken, but you’ll not escape your fate.”

“He escaped the Kraken?” Someone from the crowd shouted.

“Yes,” I bellowed. “The Kraken was unimpressive.”

“How did you manage that?” someone else asked.

“I’ll be happy to tell you all about it later,” I said. “But right now, I’d like you to consider how you’re being exploited. You work your fingers to the bone all day, and they tell you it’s for the collective good. They tell you it’s for a spiritual end, but this town is falling apart. The streets are full of potholes. The sidewalks are cracked. The buildings are falling down. Why aren’t you seeing any of the benefits of your hard work?”

“What need do we, as worshippers of the Deep Ones, have of money?” the high priest shouted. “Money is a human invention, and humans will soon be cleansed from the face of the earth, and we will live forever under the sea.”

“That may be so,” I replied. “But in the meantime wouldn’t it be nice to have some decent sidewalks, or to take home enough money to repair your gutters, or, God forbid, afford a flat screen television?” I took the accounts receivable spreadsheet out of my pocket and waved it above my head. “This document here lays out how much money your counterfeiting operation brought in last month.  I realize you can’t see it from here, but there are a lot of zeroes here. Workers of Innsbruck Unite!”

The crowd roared.

“Haddock!” the high priest screamed. “Kill him! Kill him now!”

Haddock started toward me, but there was a sudden crash and he burst into flames, thrashing around on the scaffolding, trying to tear his alcohol soaked robe off as the fire consumed him. The high priest and his followers jumped to the ground in an effort to avoid being set ablaze by Haddock, who was screaming in a register almost too high for human ears to hear. He was also beginning to smell a bit like fish sticks that had been left in the oven too long.

As I dove from the scaffolding, I told myself I was definitely going to have to give Kitty 2 a raise. You don’t run across a throwing arm like that every day. I hit the ground with a thud, and was instantly yanked to my feet by a group of cultists.

“Where’s that spreadsheet you were waving around?” one of them demanded.

I reached down and picked the crumpled paper up off the ground and handed it to them. The group crowded around, squinting.

“Those bastards,” someone said. “They won’t even spring to fix the snack machine in the break room. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.”

“Glad I could help,” I said. “If you’re really serious about political reform, there’s a little book you should read called Das Kapital. Now, as much as I’d love to stick around and witness the triumph of the proletariat, I’ve got to get going.  Do any of you guys know where the high priest is holding the members of the Inscrutable Order, by chance?”

“The mall,” someone said.

 

“Thanks,” I said, patting one of the cultists on the shoulder and backing away, relieved at how well things had gone.

That was when a caravan of black SUVs roared into the square and came to a screeching halt. Large men in black suits clutching large guns spilled out and started shooting into the crowd. The mafia, right on time, now that I didn’t need them.  I waved my arms, trying to get their attention. I did. They started shooting at me. I decided now was not the time to try and explain that I didn’t really need their assistance anymore and started running toward city hall. As I approached, I saw a flaming bottle arc through the air, landing squarely on the hood of one of the SUVs. The gunmen who had been using the vehicle for cover fled. Moments later it exploded. The blast knocked me off my feet, but I got back up, and hit the front door or city hall at top speed. It was unlocked and I tumbled inside, out of breath.

Kitty 2 burst through a side door with an unlit Molotov cocktail in her hand.

“Well,” she said. “You were a regular Eugene Debs out there. I was sure you’d be dead in two minutes. I think you almost succeeded in bringing socialism to America. It’s too bad someone called the mafia and they showed up and started killing everyone. Who could’ve guessed that would happen?”

“Nice aim,” I said.

“Thanks,” she replied. “What do we do now?”

“Try not to die,” I said.

“Apart from that?”

“The mall,” I said. “The priest escaped, and someone told me he had Martin’s friends at the mall. We’ve got to help them. And get that appraisal.”

“You and that appraisal!” Kitty 2 yelled. “Is it worth dying over?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It is. My entire life I’ve taken the path of least resistance. When the going got tough I quit. That’s why I’m a community college dropout who lives in a studio apartment and scams people into thinking I’m a real estate appraiser.  But today I’ve faced down I don’t know how many angry mobs, fought a sea monster, and managed to bring class consciousness to a race of people I didn’t know existed until yesterday. So, I’m not going to just shrug my shoulders and walk away. That’s what I’ve always done, and look what’s it’s gotten me. Nothing. Look, I understand if you want to hit the bricks. You said earlier running was the intelligent play, and you were right, so I won’t fire you if you decide to take off running right now and never look back, but I owe it to myself to see this thing through. If I end up dead, or the world ends, whatever. At least I tried.”

“Damn,” Kitty 2 said. “You know how I said I wasn’t sure I liked this new, decisive, take-charge side of you?”

“Yeah.”

“I was wrong,” she said. “Let’s save the world or die trying.”

I took the Molotov cocktail from Kitty 2’s hand, pulled the rag out of the bottle neck and took a swig and immediately began to choke as the grain alcohol burned the top layer of cells off of my throat. Kitty 2 took the bottle from me.

“One step at a time,” she said. “You’re not Rex Hardman yet.”

“Oh my God,” I rasped. “It’s like kerosene, only worse.”  I broke down into a coughing fit. After a couple of minutes I could breathe without searing pain.

“How about we hang out here for a bit?” I said. “Give the shooting and looting time to subside?”

“Fine with me,” Kitty 2 replied.

I took a seat at the clerk’s desk and fired up her computer to see if I could play Solitaire or Minesweeper. No luck. Kitty 2 wandered off. I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her footsteps on the stone floor. I spent some time trying to get the ancient PC to connect to the Internet, to no avail. Out of boredom, I started rooting through the files, but the only thing of interest I found was a partially completed novel about the star-crossed love between a broad chested Maine lobsterman and a beautiful fishwoman torn between her attraction to his mammalian virility and loyalty to the creatures of the sea. I figured the clerk here had a lot of free time on her hands, in addition to repressed sexual desires. I had just gotten to the part where the fisherman discovered that his beautiful fishwoman lover had secretly been emptying his traps when Kitty 2 let out a yell.

I doubted that whatever Kitty 2 had found had the dramatic potential of the clerk’s story of forbidden love, but I got up. I found her in a musty room lined with row upon row of leather bound books. She had taken one off the shelf, and it lay open on a large table.

“Here,” Kitty 2 said, poking the book’s brittle, yellow page. “It looks like these books contain the official version of Innsbruck’s history. As far as I can tell, this town was a pretty unremarkable one after its founding. The locals relied on fishing and whaling to make a living. Nothing out of the ordinary, until 1795 when the Waite brothers settled here.

“Brothers?”

“Yeah. Ephraim and his older brother Elias. They were both wealthy, but no one was sure how they made their money. All they ever told anyone was they made their fortune in the South Seas. They started a shipping business that helped make the town prosperous, and soon they were the two most respected citizens in town.”

Kitty 2 flipped a page, raising a huge cloud of dust that set us both to sneezing for several minutes. Once the dust settled we stood shoulder to shoulder, reading. The Waite brothers had worked together to build a market specializing in rare items they brought back from their trips. It prospered until 1812, when it burned down shortly after Ephraim and Elias had been seen arguing in public. Not long after the fire, Elias vanished, leaving Ephraim in control of the family business until his death in 1837.  There was no mention of either of the Waite brothers marrying or having children, which I thought was odd, since I found it hard to believe that Lucius Waite and Barnabas Ephraim Waite could have been anything other than ancestors of Innsbruck’s two town fathers.

“This is fascinating,” I said. “But we need to find out about the mall.”

Kitty 2 searched the shelves until she found a volume of bound newspapers. She took the book off the shelf and slammed it on the table, raising another cloud of dust and triggering yet another sneezing fit for both of us. When we could see again, she opened the book and started flipping pages. There was a lot of information on the opening of the mall. Lucius Waite, who was identified as the great-great grandson of Ephraim Waite, was touted as a hero for returning to the town his family had abandoned years ago to open a brand new business venture right on the site of the old Innsbruck Market. There was even a picture of Lucius, who looked like a much younger version of the man who hired me, cutting a ribbon with giant scissors at the mall’s grand opening.

“Is there anything about him disappearing and reappearing like Wolfgang said?” I asked.

“Doesn’t look like it,” Kitty 2 said. “This history seems to be pretty selective. It didn’t mention Ephraim or Elias having families, but obviously at least one of them did.”

“True,” I said. “I’ll bet Bass knows a thing or two about the Waite family. We should head back to the warehouse and see if anyone’s still alive.”

The gunfire and screaming had faded a bit, so we snuck out the back door of City Hall. The square was littered with robed bodies and shell casings. A good portion of the town square was on fire. We peeked out from behind the building and watched the mafia guys pile back into their SUVs and speed away. Once they were gone we emerged from our hiding spot, as did others. Robed figures seemed to materialize from shadowy doorways and alleys. Soon the streets were full of robed figures running together in small groups. Some looked like they had a destination in mind, while others were busy looting, smashing out windows and breaking down doors. Kitty 2 and I ran past a crowd of fish people just standing and watching Innsbruck burn. They didn’t seem very concerned as we rushed past.

We reached the warehouse where the Inscrutable Order of Dagon was hiding and ran up the stairs. Everyone was still there. They were staring out the grimy windows at the smoke and flames.

 

“What’s going on out there?” Bass demanded as he turned from the window to face us. “Was that gunfire? It looks like the whole town is burning.”

“You can’t blame us for that,” Kitty 2 said. “The high priest was holding some kind of pep rally in the square that got out of control. Do you guys not have a fire department?”

“We do,” Bass said. “A volunteer one, but half of us left when we formed the Inscrutable Order of Dagon.”

“We have bigger problems than a fire,” I said. “I think I managed to turn some of the townspeople against the high priest by pointing out that he’s getting rich off their labor, but I assume he’s still got enough loyal members of the Esoteric Order to carry out his plan.”

Bass covered his face with his hands. “What have I done?” he said. “I just wanted us to be more open and honest about who we are and what we believe. I never wanted any of this. I just wanted to make things better for everyone.”

“Now, now,” Kitty 2 said. “There’s no way you could have known that causing a spilt in an ancient religion would have unintended consequences.”

“Hey,” Martin said, stepping forward. “Lay off Arnold. He was just trying to make life better for the people who live here. You have no idea what it’s like, and you don’t know anything about our history or culture, so why don’t you two shut up?”

“The only reason we’re here is because you guys are trying to sell the mall out from under everyone,” Kitty 2 said.  “I mean, we show up here, and try to do a simple job and three-quarters of the town tries to kill us? What the hell is that about? If that’s how you treat people, maybe you’re better off staying isolated from the outside world. I have news for you, but people don’t react well when you try to feed them to sea monsters.”

“You invited the mafia to come shoot the place up!” Martin replied.

 

“Only because most of the town wants to kill us!” Kitty 2 said.

“Whoa, whoa. Let’s all calm down,” I said, stepping between Kitty 2 and Martin, who looked like they were about to come to blows. “It’s been a long, stressful day for all of us, so it’s natural that tempers are starting to flare. Let’s all take a deep breath. We’ve got to keep our eye on the big picture here. There’s going to be a human sacrifice at a shopping mall, and, whether or not that actually summons a giant monster or not, it’s pretty serious, and we need to do something to stop it.”

“It’s not technically a human sacrifice,” Kitty 2 said.

“Now is not the time to discuss semantics, Kitty 2,” I replied. “Now is the time to act.”

Kitty 2’s shoulders sagged. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m a little cranky, that’s all. I just need something to eat. And a nap. And for everyone to stop trying to kill me. I’ll be fine.”

“That’s a bit of a tall order at the moment,” I said. “But I know where you’re coming from. I’m more than a little sick of this myself, which is why it’s time to end this.”

“He’s right,” Bass said. “It is time to end this. One way or another, this madness has to stop. We’ve got to get to the mall.”

Kitty 2, Martin, Arnold Bass and I went downstairs and outside. The smell of smoke hung heavy in the air, and the light from the distant flames gave the night an ominous glow. The periodic screaming wasn’t all that reassuring either.

“Do we have to walk?” Kitty 2 asked. “After all this running around my feet are killing me.”

“I’ve got a car,” Bass said, pointing into the dark recesses of the parking lot. I could make out a dim outline of something vaguely automobile shaped, but not much more. Bass started walking toward his car and we followed. As we got closer, I realized it was a shit brown Chevrolet Chevette of the sort my elementary school teachers used to drive once they got a raise and traded in their Yugos.

“Does that thing still run?” I asked.

 

“Of course it does.” Bass said. “It was my grandmother’s, and she only drove it to meetings of the Esoteric Order, so not much wear and tear.”

It was one of the two-door models, so Martin and I had to squeeze into the back. Kitty took shotgun and Arnold slid into the driver’s seat. The car started on the first try, which gave me a little hope.

“So, now what?” Bass asked, taking away the little hope I had just gained.

“Drive to the mall,” I said.

“Yeah, but what about your plan? With Wolfgang and all the fake blood?” Bass asked.

“Oh,” I said. “That was really just to get rid of him. Hippies aren’t much good in a crisis.”

“So, you’ve got no plan?”

“What can you tell me about the Waite family, Arnold?” I asked.

“Don’t try to change the subject,” he spat.

“I’m not,” I said. “This situation is forcing me to improvise, and I feel like I’m missing some vital information that might hold the key to averting this impending disaster.”

“Lucius Waite was the founder and owner of the Innsbruck Outlet Mall. He was a pillar of the community, beloved by everyone. This town started going to hell after he died. There isn’t much more to know.”

“What about Ephraim and Elias Waite?” Kitty 2 asked.

“I…”Bass stammered. “Where did you hear those names?”

“Kitty 2 and I did a little research in the City Hall archives while waiting for the riot to become a little less rioty,” I said. “Now answer the question.”

“They were brothers. They settled here at the end of the eighteenth century. Innsbruck was just a village then, and they were already rich when they arrived. They set up a shipping business that did very well, but they had a falling out of some sort. Rumor has it Elias burned down the market they ran together and his brother killed him for it, but there’s no proof of that. Other than that, there’s nothing to tell. Lucius was the great-great grandson of Ephraim.”

“So, Ephraim was married?” I asked.

“He had a wife, but she never appeared in public. The most popular rumor about her was that she was a princess from some savage tribe in the South Pacific, but who knows?”

“What about Elias?”

“No family.”

“Did Lucius have kids?” I asked.

“No,” Bass said. “He was a lifelong bachelor.”

“Does the name Barnabas Ephraim Waite mean anything to you?”

“No. Nothing at all,” Bass said.

“Really?” I asked. “That’s the name of the guy who hired me to appraise the mall. I would think you two would have some sort of relationship.”

“We contracted with an outsider to handle those matters,” Bass said. “I have no direct involvement.”

“And this outsider you contracted with just found a guy with the name of the most prominent family in this town’s history to serve as a front for you?” I asked. “That’s a helluva coincidence, don’t you think?”

“Waite’s not an uncommon name,” Bass replied.

“Ephraim is an uncommon name, though,” I replied. “So, would you like to explain to me what’s going on here? Or should I let Kitty 2 claw your eyes out?”

“All right. All right,” Bass said. “Calm down. There’s an explanation for all of this.”

“Let’s hear it,” Kitty 2 said as she produced a nail file from somewhere on her person and began filing her nails to points.

 

“The Waite brothers were explorers, and in their travels they found something. Something that gave them immense wealth. When they settled here they brought the secret with them. That secret was a ritual that brought forth the fish people, who gave them gold and jewels in return for, well, in return for their worship and the occasional human sacrifice. At first, that was all they wanted, but eventually the undersea dwellers wanted mating rights with the locals. Ephraim was all for it, but Elias wanted nothing to do with that bargain.  He was okay with the occasional blood sacrifice because there were always criminals who could serve that purpose, but he was against the idea of forcing people to mate with the Deep Ones.  Ephraim, however, married one of the deep ones as a sign of loyalty. Elias never forgave him, and after the Innsbruck Market was built as a front for the dark, ancient religious rites that went on in the caves underneath, he burned it to the ground and disappeared. Ephraim claimed to have killed his brother for this betrayal, but no body was ever found.  So, who knows what happened to him? “

Bass killed the headlights as we approached the mall. He slowed and turned down a gravel road, inching along.

“This will take us around the side of the mall,” Bass said. “I don’t think we should try to walk in the front door.”

After about a half a mile we could see the glow of the lights in the mall’s parking lot. Bass stopped the car.

“We go on foot from here,” he said.

We piled out of the car. My legs were cramped, and I didn’t relish the prospect of walking. Kitty 2 looked at me and rolled her eyes. Martin fell in behind Bass as he made his way up the road.

“After you,” I said to Kitty 2.

“Well, aren’t you a proper gentleman?” Kitty 2 said, following the others.

 

I waited a couple of seconds and then started after them. I didn’t want to rush, since I still had no idea what we were going to find inside the mall, or what I was going to do once we were inside. I didn’t have a lot of experience with human sacrifice or sea monsters. True, I had handled the Kraken well, but that might have been beginner’s luck. And my only knowledge of human sacrifice came from old horror movies I’d caught on television over the years, but those were always done by Satanists, and only involved one victim, usually a nubile virgin. I knew the Aztecs had been big into mass sacrifice, but the only thing that stopped them was Cortez and his army. I lacked an army. I had Kitty 2, and I had to admit she was quite formidable, but I would have rather had an army.

We made our way down the gravel road, which abruptly turned into a rutted dirt path and descended sharply. Kitty 2 slipped, and I reached out and grabbed her before she tumbled head over heels down the embankment.

“Thanks,” she said.

“Don’t mention it,” I replied. “Are you ready for this?”

“As ready as I can be,” she said.

I picked my way down the slope where everyone was waiting for me.

“Down the path a little ways there’s an entrance to a series of tunnels that should get us inside the mall,” Bass said.

“More tunnels?” I asked. “Are you sure you guys aren’t related to the mole people?”

“There’s no such thing as mole people,” Bass said. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“If you say so, fish man,” I replied. “Just point the way.”

Bass scurried off in a huff and we followed down a ravine where there was a hole in the dirt just big enough for a person to squeeze through.

“That’s it,” Bass said.

 

“You first,” Kitty 2 said.

Bass lowered himself about halfway into the hole before getting stuck. The three of us stood there and chuckled while he squirmed and groaned.

“A little help,” he said.

I lifted my foot and brought it down on the top of his head. He descended a couple of inches, so, despite his protests, I did it again. And again. And again until he disappeared into the darkness. There was a yell and a thud.

“You okay?” Martin asked into the hole.

“Fine,” Bass said. “Get down here.”

Martin slipped through the hole, and I followed, landing hard on my ass. The tunnel was damp and dark. I got to my feet and looked up at Kitty 2 peering down at me.

“Catch me,” she said and lowered herself through the hole. I grabbed her by the waist and lowered her to the ground.

“Follow me,” Bass said. “We can get into the warehouse from here. It should be empty, since everyone will be at the sacrifice.”

We stumbled along in the dark until we came to an old metal door set in the rock wall. Bass grabbed the handle and pulled. The door moved an inch. He pulled again. Another inch. I pushed Bass aside and grabbed the handle.

“A little help, Martin?”

He grabbed the handle too, and we were able, with great effort, to get it open enough for us to slip inside. The door came out behind a gigantic shelf like you might see in a Costco, packed with shrink-wrapped pallets of boxes. We held our breath for a few seconds, listening for any sound that might indicate someone was in the warehouse. It was silent, so we proceeded. We moved toward the door that would take us into the mall proper. A gigantic, muffled roar went up somewhere, followed by many voices chanting something unintelligible in unison.

“This ritual’s begun,” Martin said. “We’ve got to hurry.”

He took the lead and we hit the warehouse doors running. The halls were empty, so we kept moving, letting Martin guide us down the tiled halls. He ducked into a stairwell and we followed.

“Everyone will be around the statue in the common area,” he said. “If we get to the mezzanine we’ll be behind and above them.”

We charged up the stairs as the chanting grew louder and more feral, losing any semblance of humanity. Martin peeked out the door at the top of the stairs and then slipped through, motioning for us to follow. We did, immediately dropping into a crouching position so the mezzanine’s railing would obscure us from view.

I rose on my haunches enough to get a view of what was happening below. A group of at least a hundred robed figures still loyal to the high priest, facing the grotesque fountain and chanting. The high priest stood directly in front of the fountain, facing the crowd, his hands raised above his head as he swayed back and forth as if in a trance. In one hand, he clutched a large, curved dagger, dripping blood. At his feet, were a pile of bloody, naked bodies. I couldn’t be sure how many. The ritual required fifty gallons of blood, and I knew the average person had about five liters of blood in them, but I had no idea how to convert liters to gallons.

“Martin,” I whispered. “How many liters in a gallon?”

“I’m not sure exactly. I think a liter’s about a quarter gallon,” he said.

I did some quick mental calculations and realized that each person had about a gallon of blood in them, which meant the sacrifice would require that many victims. Fortunately, there couldn’t have been more than ten dead people in the pile at the high priest’s feet. We had a little breathing room.

 

“Do you have any idea where the members of your order might be?” I asked.

“Probably the dungeon.” Martin said.

“Great. Then we should go get them,” I said.

My plan was rendered moot when the chanting stopped and the crowed parted so a group of large hooded figures could herd a group of naked, bloody fish men toward where the high priest stood. The crowd hurled curses, and those who were close enough punched and kicked them. One man staggered and would have fallen, but one of his fellow captives caught him and pulled him to his feet. When the group reached the high priest, the guards formed a semicircle around them.

“Okay,” I said. “So much for that idea. How do we stop this ritual?”

“Don’t look at me,” Bass said. “I’m just…”

A massive explosion interrupted Bass’s thought. The entire mall shook, bringing the ceremony below us to a stop.

“What was that?” Bass said.

“Unless I miss my guess, that would be the mafia blowing up your loading dock. You know, to send a message.” I said.

“Shooting the town up wasn’t enough? “ Bass asked.

I shrugged.

The high priest quickly recovered from the shock of the explosion. He grunted something, and a couple cultists seized one of the prisoners and dragged him forward. The high priest spoke again, and the cultists bent the man over the fountain and the priest slit his throat in one deft motion. The prisoner convulsed as his blood drained into the pool around the obelisk, which began to give off a faint green glow. Another prisoner was dragged forward and dispatched. The statue’s glow grew brighter.

“What’s happening?” I asked Bass.

 

“The blood in the sea water is activating the beacon, summoning Dagon,” He replied.

“You use seawater in your fountain?” I asked.

“It’s not a fountain. It’s a religious object.”

“Whatever,” I said.

The cultists dragged the screaming, writhing prisoners toward the altar one by one to meet their fate. We watched on in horror, unable to stop the slaughter. Despair washed over me as the stone’s green emanation cast the mall in a nauseating glow. The cultists dropped the final prisoner at the high priest’s feet and he raised his knife, but before he could strike a blow a car came crashing through the glass doors of the mall’s front entrance. A group of robed men piled out. One of them stepped forward and pointed at the high priest.

“Gary,” he said. “What that guy said at the bonfire made a lot of sense. We,” he said, gesturing to his comrades, “are the United Workers Front of Innsbruck and we demand the right to unionize.”

“Paul,” the high priest said. “This is really not the time.”

“When is the time Gary?”

“I don’t know. Just not now.”

“Yes. Now,” Paul said. “We demand a 20 percent pay raise, paid sick time, health and dental insurance, paid maternity leave, ten holidays a year and an eight hour work day.”

I elbowed Bass, and indicated everyone should follow me. I figured the labor negotiations wouldn’t last long, and decided to use the distraction to get closer to the priest and his followers. We crept along the mezzanine and down the escalator into the food court, where we jumped behind the counter and Panda Express. It gave us a clear line of sight, and we were behind most of the cultists, so whatever we were about to do, at least we would have the element of surprise.

“Kill them!” the high priest yelled, gesturing toward the class conscious intruders.

The loyal members of the Esoteric Order rushed at the hapless men, who ran. They ran right into a

VW van that came crashing through the only unbroken glass doors left.  Not slowing, it ran over Paul and his friends and plowed into the crowd of Dagon worshippers.

“It’s Wolfgang!” Kitty 2 said. “I never expected to see him again.”

“We can all have a tearful reunion later,” I said. “This might be our only chance to stop this madness. Move!”

We vaulted over the counter, making a beeline for the fountain, where the high priest was pulling himself up out of the bloody pool of water he had fallen into during the chaos. I charged. He never saw me coming. The blow sent him flying back into the pool of water and blood. I threw myself on him, grabbing the hand that held the dagger with my left hand and punching him in the face as hard as I could with the right.

“It’s over,” I said.

He responded by headbutting me so hard I nearly blacked out. My grip loosened. The high priest pushed me away and rolled to the side. I struggled to stand, but he came up first, raising the knife above his head. He started to bring it down, but Martin jumped onto his back, wrapping an arm around the high priest’s neck and his legs around his torso.

“You were always an asshole, Gary,” Martin hissed. “Now you’re gonna get it!”

“Screw you, you quarter-breed mongrel!” the high priest said. “You should have been killed in your crib!”

In response to that insult, Martin sank his teeth into the high priest’s ear. The priest screamed and flailed wildly, trying to loosen Martin’s grip. I turned to see where Kitty 2 was. She was in the thick of it, of course, with a can of mace in one hand and a nail file in the other, giving the members of the Esoteric Order who weren’t running away hell. I didn’t see Bass, but Wolfgang was trying to unload a drum of fake blood from his van. He dropped it, and it popped open, sending a flood of red liquid rushing across the floor.

 

The high priest staggered into the spill and slipped, falling backwards and leaving Martin to take the brunt of the impact. The high priest rolled onto his stomach and got to his knees, then his feet. He locked eyes with me.

“You should have minded your own business,” he said.

“Probably,” I admitted.

“You think you’ve won?”

“Looks that way,” I said.

The high priest let out a maniacal laugh and ran toward the fountain. I thought he was trying to get away, so he was too far away for me to stop him when I realized what his real intentions were. He jumped into the pool and raised the dagger above his head before plunging it into his own neck. His blood spurted out, mixing with already bloody sea water.

As the blood hit the water the pillar began to vibrate and the glow grew so intense that I had to close my eyes.

“Kitty 2,” I yelled. “Where are you?”

“Over here!”

I started moving toward the sound of her voice.

“Over here!” she said again.

I adjusted course, eventually bumping into someone.

“Kitty 2?”

“Yup.”

“Ready to go?”

“Yup.”

 

She took my hand, and we ran together into the breeze. I was relieved to feel concrete beneath my feet and risked opening my eyes. The glow from inside the mall was too bright to look at directly, blotting out the stars and undoubtedly making people up and down the coast wonder where the night went.

“It’s a beacon,” Kitty 2 said. “It has to be.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Time to run.”

We took off at top speed, which really wasn’t all that fast if I’m being honest. The road we were running down had a view of the sea, which had turned rough despite the absence of clouds and wind. The whitecaps raged, and waves that reached six feet crashed on the rocks. We kept running until we spotted a pair of headlights in the distance. I stood in the middle of the road and waved my arms. The car approached, and I was surprised to see it was a limo. I signaled Kitty 2 to keep her distance and walked around to the back passenger side window. It descended and I found myself face to face with Barnabas Ephraim Waite.

“Congratulations,” he said. “I knew you were the man for the job.”

“Uh,” I said. “I haven’t drawn up my final report yet, but I’m thinking that the mall is probably worth around zero dollars on the open market.”

Waite laughed, which soon became a coughing fit. I tapped my foot, waiting for it to end.

“Care to elaborate?” I asked once his fit subsided.

“You found it, didn’t you?”

“Found what?”
“My last will and testament. I presume it was still where I hid it when my brother imprisoned me.”

“Your brother?” Kitty 2 asked, arching an eyebrow. “Are you saying…”

“I’m Elias Waite,” he said, finishing her sentence. “Yes. I’ve been waiting a very long time to return to Innsbruck to save the Esoteric Order of Dagon from the path my brother set it on. When word reached me that there was dissension in the ranks, I knew it was time to act. Please get in, time is short, and I know you have many questions. I’ll explain while we drive.”

“Nope,” I said. “Not gonna happen.”

“Time is short.”

“Who are you?” I asked. “No bullshit. No lies. Elias Waite vanished in 1812.”

“I can see you’ve done your homework,” Waite said. “But history is rarely entirely true. After Ephraim and I had a falling out, he had me imprisoned deep underground, where I would have surely died if not for a few brave sympathizers who arranged for me to make my escape. Ever since then, I have been waiting and watching for an opportune moment to return and set things right.”

“How the hell are you still alive?” Kitty 2 asked. “There’s no way you can be who you say you are.”

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Waite replied with a desiccated laugh. “Dagon can grant his followers many gifts, one of which is a long, long life. You look tired. Please accept my offer of a ride. I realize you have good reason not to trust me, and I regret that the deception was necessary, but you wouldn’t have believed me if I told you I was over two centuries old and I needed you to help me prevent a misguided group of fish men from making a grievous mistake, would you?”

“I don’t believe you now,” I said. “But I am tired of walking.”

The limo door swung open and I got in, dragging Kitty 2 with me. We settled into the plush leather seats facing Barnabas or maybe Elias Waite. The limo began to move.

“You have the paper?” the old man asked.

“A guy named Arnold Bass has it,” I said.

“Good,” Waite said. “There’s still time to avert total disaster.”

“Really?” I asked. “Because a whole lot of people have been murdered and the entire town’s an inferno. If that’s not total disaster I don’t know what is.”

“Oh, it could be much, much worse.” Waite replied. “Where is Bass?”

“He was at the mall the last time we saw him,” I said.

Waite punched a button, lowering the divider between the driver and passengers.

“Diane,” he said. “To the mall, quickly.”

By way of reply, Diane stomped on the accelerator.