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.”
“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.
“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.