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.
“Is it a double, at least?”
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.
“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.”