“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?”
“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.
“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?”
“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.
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?”
I started moving toward the sound of her voice.
“Over here!” she said again.
I adjusted course, eventually bumping into someone.
“Ready to go?”
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?”
“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.