I woke up on a beach staring up at the stars, which was unexpected, since I had never believed in an afterlife, and I didn’t remember any of the major world religions saying anything about heaven being a beach. Then fear gripped my heart as I realized I might be in that other place. I quickly sat up and looked around, but I didn’t see any t-shirt airbrushing kiosks, drunk rednecks, or a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum. Whatever I had done in my life, it hadn’t been enough to land me in Myrtle Beach. I thought about finding my old Sunday school teacher and rubbing it in that, despite her rather dire predictions and fervent wishes, I had managed to dodge eternal torment. Instead I turned my head to the side and coughed up a lungful of foul-smelling salt water.
“He’s awake,” someone said.
I propped myself up on my elbows and had a look around. Kitty 2 and Martin were sitting on a large piece of driftwood watching me.
“I told you,” Kitty 2 said to Martin, “You owe me twenty bucks.”
I tried to speak, but just ended up coughing up more water. I was soaked and freezing and full of questions.
“What happened?” I managed to ask before coughing up even more water.
“What happened,” Kitty 2 said, “was that Martin here saved us both from drowning or being eaten. It was kind of a toss up, really.”
“That thing,” I gasped. “It didn’t eat you.”
“Yeah,” Kitty 2 said. “I guess I have you to thank for that. It let go of me when you stuck it in the eye. I mean, you’re still a lousy boss, but I was kind of impressed you were willing to jump onto a gigantic tentacle to try and save me. “
“Cheap help is hard to find,” I said. “And Rex would probably have kicked my ass if I let anything happen to you.”
Kitty 2 sighed. “Rex probably wouldn’t have even noticed I was gone,” she said. “The guy’s not a bad way to kill some time, but he’s a little wet-brained.”
“True,” I said. “How did we get out of the Kraken pit?”
Kitty 2 pointed at Martin.
“Turns out that being part fish person makes a guy a pretty strong swimmer. He dragged both of us out though the tunnel the Kraken came in. Also, he has gills and lungs so he could breathe air into our lungs without worrying about drowning.”
“Thanks Martin,” I said. “I guess we both owe you one.”
“You’re welcome,” he replied.
“So, what do we do now?” Kitty 2 asked. “Since these lunatics likely think we’re dead, I vote that we get the hell out of here and never look back.”
“I concur,” Martin said.
“Not so fast,” I said. “I have a general rule about getting involved in sectarian religious disputes that I don’t understand and have no stake in, but I do tend to take it kind of personally when people try to feed me to a sea monster. It rubs me the wrong way.”
“What are you suggesting?” Kitty 2 asked.
“I’m suggesting we appraise the living hell out of that mall and help the Improbable Order of Dagon sell it.”
“It’s the Inscrutable Order of Dagon,” Martin said.
“Whatever,” I replied. “Just take us to them. Now.”
As we moved through the dark streets and alleys, there were no signs of life. The hunting party had given up and gone home, content in the knowledge that the outsiders and the heretic had been eaten by a giant sea beast. Nevertheless, we skulked in the shadows and peered around corners before stepping out in the open, and when we did have to step into the open, we scurried as fast as we could to the next welcoming patch of cover. It turns out that being fed to a monster by a cult makes a person a little paranoid.
Bass’s house was just as dilapidated as the rest of the homes in Innsbruck, but I noticed the door had been reinforced and there were bars on the windows. I guess you can’t be too careful when you’re leading a religious splinter movement. We snuck around the back of the house and Martin produced a key from his robe that allowed him to unlock the storm cellar doors, which were secured with a chain and padlock. He pulled the doors open and we descended into the basement. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the basement was not the dark, dingy room I had been expecting, but had instead been outfitted as a den, complete with a recliner and leather couch as well as a large flat screen television. There was a picture on an end table. I picked it up. It was Bass and a woman I assumed was his wife smiling. Each of them held an identical young girl. The twins looked to be about two years old and entirely human, unlike their parents. I put the photo back on the table.
Exhausted, I threw myself on the couch.
“That’s leather,” Kitty 2 said.
“So?” I replied.
“You’re soaking wet,” she replied. “You’ll stain it.”
“We need these people to help us,” Kitty 2 said. “The least you could do is not damage the furniture.”
“All right, all right,” I said, standing up.
“I’m going upstairs to see if Arnold is around,” Martin said. “He needs to know what happened tonight.”
When Martin disappeared, Kitty 2 and I shed our soaking robes, which made us a little more comfortable. Unfortunately we were still both wearing soaking clothes.
“That was pretty brave of you back there,” Kitty 2 said. “I gotta say, I never saw you as the type of guy who would jump into a monster filled pit to save anybody, let alone me. It’s almost enough for me to forgive you for uploading that video to YouTube. Almost.”
“Well, what can I say?” I replied. “You never know how you’re going to react in any given situation until you’re in it, and I probably would have missed having you around a little. Kitty’s good company, but she doesn’t really say much.”
Our conversation was cut short by the sound of feet on the stairs as Martin returned, followed by Arnold Bass. He seemed pleased to see us as far as I could tell. I couldn’t be sure, really. Bass looked enough like his namesake that it was hard for me to read his facial expressions. I have no idea how you tell a happy fish from an angry one or a sad one.
“My spies told me you were fed to the Kraken,” Bass said.
“We were,” I said. “But it must’ve had indigestion or something.”
“The details are unimportant,” Bass said. “All that matters is that you’re here. We’re going to need all the help we can get. The word is the high priest is preparing to purge all suspected sympathizers of the Inscrutable Order of Dagon, and we have to be ready.”
“And by purge you mean?” I asked.
“Kill,” Bass said. “They’re going to kill everyone.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” I said.
“Let me see if I can get Agatha to round up some dry clothes and robes,” Bass said.
As Martin was removing his wet robe, the piece of paper he had found behind the hollowed out brick in the dungeon fell from wherever he had been hiding it.
“What’s that?” Bass asked.
“It’s a scrap of something written in Kaar’le’bal’lach,” Martin said. “We found it behind a loose brick when Haddock had us locked up in the dungeon.”
“How is it that that thing didn’t disintegrate completely while we were in the ocean?” Kitty 2 asked.
“We’re really good at waterproofing stuff,” Martin said. “We’ve had eons to work on it.”
Bass picked up the paper and squinted at it.
“Damn,” he said. “I wish I’d paid more attention in Kaar’le’bal’lach class. You said you found this in the dungeon?”
“Yeah,” Martin replied.
“There’s no telling how long it’s been there. I’ll have to have someone translate it, but right now we have more pressing matters to deal with,” Bass said.
Bass put the paper in his pocket as a voice called out from the top of the stairs.
“Is everything all right down there, honey?”
“Yes, Agatha, everything’s fine.” Bass said. “We’ve got some guests. Do you think you could rustle up some spare clothes and robes?”
I could hear Agatha sigh from the top of the stairs. Her footsteps were heavy as she descended into the basement and stuck her head around the corner so she could get a look at us. It was the woman from the picture, only a few years older. She really wasn’t bad looking for someone whose eyes were on the side of her head.
“Hello Martin,” she said.
“Hello Mrs. Bass,” he replied.
“I’d ask if you’re keeping out of trouble, but I already know that answer to that question,” she said.
She gave Kitty 2 and I the once over and shot her husband the sort of nasty look that married people use on each other to speak volumes without saying a word.
“I’ll see what I can find, Arnold,” she said. “But I’ve just about had it with your Inscrutable Order of Dagon nonsense.”
“It’s for the greater good, dear,” Bass said. “
“If you were really interested in the greater good you’d clean the gutters,” Agatha snapped before clomping back upstairs.
Bass grinned sheepishly.
“Please excuse my wife,” he said. “The reformation is taking an emotional toll on her.”
“That’s understandable. She probably doesn’t want to go down in history as the Anne Boleyn of the fish people or whatever, and I can’t say I blame her,” Kitty 2 said. “If I’m being perfectly honest, I’m having some doubts about this myself. I mean, these jerks did try to feed us to a sea beast, and I’m wet and cold and hungry, and I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to enjoy the clam chowder at Don’s Diner ever again, which is a shame because Don makes really good clam chowder. We should really just pack it in.”
“And what?” I replied. “Return the money to that Waite guy?”
“Oh hell no,” Kitty 2 said. “Did I say anything about returning any money? Five grand isn’t anywhere near enough compensation for all of this crap. I’m just saying we should go home, that’s all.”
“Your car doesn’t work,” I said. “And I don’t remember where it’s parked, anyway.”
“Wait,” Bass said. “Did you say Waite?”
“You just said ‘wait’ twice, what of it?” Kitty 2 said.
“No. You just said a man named Waite is the one who hired you to appraise the mall?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s right. A guy named Barney Waite, or something.”
“Are you sure?” Bass asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Weird old guy. Lives in a big, old house. Has a study with a lot of curios and Beanie Babies in it.”
“The Waite family used to run this town,” Bass said. “Lucius Waite was the man who built the mall.”
“Yeah,” Kitty 2 said. “We gathered as much talking to the old hippie that hangs out in the park.”
“You talked to Wolfgang?” Bass replied. “You didn’t let him tell you about the Big Sur Folk Festival did you?”
“Oh hell no,” Kitty 2 said. “Not that he didn’t try. Twice.”
“You dodged a bullet there,” Bass said. “I’ve heard some boring stories in my time, but that one is, by far, the worst. Anyway, Lucius Waite, not only built the mall, he brought the Esoteric Order of Dagon to town. He came back from one of his long trips to the East with many strange artifacts, including that obelisk in the mall. Once he had that, the fish people followed. And once the fish people arrived, Lucius declared himself the high priest of the Order of Dagon, and promised everyone in town, my parents included, eternal life and prosperity for their children if only they would become one with the underwater creatures.”
“So, wait,” I said. “Was that high priest guy who tried to kill us Lucius Waite?”
“No,” Bass said. “Lucius disappeared years ago, leaving the outlet mall to be run by the High Council of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Supposedly, he went to live under the sea full time to await the coming of Dagon, having become so like fish people that he could no longer survive on land.”
“”Well, I’ve got news for you,” I said. “The guy who hired me didn’t look anything like a fish. And neither did his ancestors if the portraits hanging in his house were at all accurate.”
“If what you say is true, this could change everything,” Bass said.
“Including the fact that a bunch of people are going to try to kill us?” I asked.
“No,” Bass said. “It’s not going to change that.”
Agatha’s footsteps on the stairs interrupted our conversation, and she reappeared holding a handful of garments, which she tossed on the sofa.
“This is all I could find,” she said. “I’m not sure if it’ll fit or not, but I did manage to find you a smaller robe, young lady.”
“Thank you,” Kitty 2 said. “Getting around in that other one wasn’t easy.”
Kitty 2 rooted around in the pile of clothes and came away with a pink pair of sweatpants that had “Juicy” printed on the ass, a pair of old sneakers and a t-shirt that read “I’m with Stupid” that had an arrow pointing to the left. She quickly shed her wet clothes, put on the dry ones, and then stood to my right.
Martin and I dressed in old jeans and t-shirts, neither of which bore insults of any kind.
“Well, I feel better,” Kitty 2 said after donning a dry robe over her clothes.
“I’d feel a lot better if I knew exactly what the hell was going on,” I said.
“Well,” Bass said. “I’d imagine Haddock and the high priest are gathering the faithful at the temple as we speak, and once they’re sufficiently riled up, they’ll probably come to kill members of the Inscrutable Order.”
“So,” I said. “What you’re saying is the mall will be empty?”
“Well, they do generally offer time off for purges, otherwise people would just work overtime, so the mall should be pretty empty,” Bass replied.
“Then that’s where we’re going,” I said. “I don’t know what the hell’s going on here, but I’m definitely going to have a closer look at that place.”
“What’s going on here is that people, or fish, or whatever, are trying to kill us,” Kitty 2 said. “Are you sure going back to the mall is a good idea?”
“He’s right,” Martin said. “We should go back to the mall. It’s the last place anyone would think to look for us.”
“No one’s looking for us,” I said. “We’re missing, assumed fish food. But I’m going to go through the high priest’s office to see if we can find any useful information, and it’s probably a good place for the members of the Enigmatic Order of Dagon to lay low until the torch and pitchfork brigade get tired.”
“It’s the Inscrutable Order of Dagon,” Martin said. “But we already have a place to lay low.”
“Martin’s right,” Bass said. “We’ve prepared for this eventuality. I’ll put the word out. Martin, you and the outsiders head back to the mall. I’ll gather the others at the safe house. You’ve still got your keys, right?”
“Right here,” Martin said, taking an oversized key ring out of his pocket and jangling them.
“Excellent,” Bass said. “Let’s get moving.”
Bass and his wife disappeared up the stairs, leaving the three of us alone in the basement.
“C’mon,” Kitty 2 finally said. “Let’s get going. I never thought I’d get sick of going to the mall, but here we are. I swear, Amazon is going to get all of my business after this.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” I said. “Online shopping is the best. You can order anything you want, and you don’t need pants.”
“I heard Amazon is actually run by aliens,” Martin said. “And Jeff Bezos is their leader.”
“And after what I’ve witnessed here, I’m half-inclined to believe you,” I said. “But as long as they’re not trying to kill me I really don’t care.”
“How do we get back to the mall?” Kitty 2 asked.
“That shouldn’t be too difficult,” Martin said. “The temple of the Esoteric Order of Dagon is in the center of town, and that’s where everyone will be, so if we keep to the side streets on the edge of town like we did before, we should be able to get there without a problem.”
“All right,” I said, pulling my robe over my hood.
I pushed the basement door open. Kitty 2 and Martin followed me into the darkness.
Martin was right. We had little problem skirting the edge of town and making it back to the mall. I tried not to think about the mob gathering at the center of town getting all worked up for a good old-fashioned bout of sectarian violence. I knew the fact that I didn’t believe in Dagon or whoever these fish people were planning to kill each other in the name of wasn’t going to mean much once heads started rolling.
When we got to the mall, Martin let us in through the back entrance.
“You’re going to have to lead the way, Martin,” I said. “This place is like a maze to me. I don’t think I could find my way back to the high priest’s office if I had a lifetime.”
“Follow me,” Martin said. “I’ve been emptying the trash cans in there every night for years.”
Our footsteps echoed eerily on the linoleum as Martin led us to the high priest’s office. When we reached the door, he pulled out his key ring and unlocked the door. We stepped into the waiting area and came face to face with a surprised-looking Ms. Bletchley, who had apparently been burning the midnight oil. The look of surprise turned into one of outright fear when we removed our hoods.
She stood up. Before she could say anything, Kitty 2 leapt across the room, grabbed the handset of the desk phone and hit the old woman in the head with it as hard as she could. Ms. Bletchley let out a yell and staggered backwards as Kitty 2 vaulted the desk, dropped the phone receiver, grabbed Bletchley’s keyboard and let her have it so hard right across the face that the keyboard broke in half. The old lady hit the floor like a sack of hammers.
“Remind me not to piss you off,” Martin said.
“Kitty 2,” I said. “I think you might need anger management counseling.”
“When you graduate from secretarial school you take an oath to only use your powers for good,” Kitty 2 said. “And she violated that oath.”
“If you took an oath like that, then how do you justify working for me?” I asked.
“You don’t really take an oath,” Kitty 2 said. “I just don’t like her.”
Bletchley let out a pitiful moan from the floor, and Kitty 2 responded by giving her a swift kick in the ribs.
“You so much as bat an eyelash, and I swear to God, I’ll have your teeth for a necklace,” Kitty 2 said. “You two, go search the high priest’s office. I’ll keep an eye on little miss ‘Get the Kraken ready’ here.”
“All right,” I said. “Just holler if there’s a problem.”
“Oh, I’m not going to be the one doing the hollering,” Kitty 2 said, cracking her knuckles and eyeing the trembling, bleeding woman on the floor the way a starving dog might look after wandering into an unattended maternity ward.
I grabbed Martin and pulled him into the high priest’s office.
“We’d better make this quick, or I get the feeling there’s not going to be a lot of Ms. Bletchley left,” I said. “You said earlier this whole place was wired for electricity. Are there actual lights in here? Because if we have to search this place by torchlight it’s going to take forever, and we’ve got significantly less time than that.”
Martin walked to the back wall and opened a panel in the rock wall. He flicked a switch, and the high priest’s office was no longer a dim cave lit only by a couple flickering torches on the wall. The place was a lot less intimidating bathed in light.
Now that I could see, I noticed a mounted sailfish on the wall. I wondered if it was a relative of the high priest and he kept it in a place of honor the way people keep their dead grandmother’s ashes on the mantelpiece in their living room. Then it occurred to me that the sailfish might have crossed the high priest in some way, and it now served as a warning to others who might do the same.
I took a seat at the high priest’s desk. I jiggled his mouse a little, and his computer came to life. Unfortunately, it was password protected. Fortunately, the high priest was a moron, so I guessed it on the first try when I typed in “Dagonrulez.”
I shook my head, “This guy,” I said. “How did he get the top gig around here?”
“It’s my understanding he was Lucius Waite’s handpicked heir,” Martin replied.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said. “But I’m beginning to question the intelligence of a lot of the people who’ve gotten caught up in this whole Dagon worship thing.”
“You and me both,” Martin replied.
The high priest’s screen background was an aquarium scene. I opened his file manager and started poking around. His most used program was Minesweeper. I was tempted to check his Internet browsing history, but then thought twice. Who knew what a half-man/half-fish hybrid got up to sitting around in here all day in dark?
I scrolled through folders, but I didn’t see anything marked “evil plans,” or “world destruction,” so I wasn’t sure what I was trying to find. There were a lot of files filled with spreadsheets, but they seemed to keep track of the number and type of counterfeit goods produced and shipped each week. I found a folder marked “Accounts Receivable” and opened it up. It was full of spreadsheets too, but these detailed the payments coming in for the counterfeit goods. I let out a low whistle. It was a lot of money. I wondered where all the money was going. I printed out one of the spreadsheets.
“Look around and see if you can find a thumb drive,” I told Martin. “If nothing else, we might be able to interest the IRS.”
“Martin started rooting around in the desk drawers, and I gave into curiosity and checked the high priest’s browser history while I waited. He spent a lot of time surfing Tumblr sites dedicated to Japanese tentacle porn. On the one hand I was disturbed. On the other hand, I was relieved because I finally knew who the audience was for that sort of thing. I was distracted from my thoughts by a clicking sound.
Martin hadn’t found a USB drive, but he had found some kind of switch hidden in one of the drawers that caused a secret compartment to rise out of the floor. It was a metal box about two feet by two feet. Martin walked over to it and yanked on the handle. To our surprise it came open without needing a key or combination. We looked at each other and shrugged.
Martin reached inside and came away with a scrap of paper much like the one he had found hidden in the dungeon.
“What do you make of that?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I told you, I’m not fluent in Kaar’le’bal’lach.”
“I don’t think anyone is, to be honest,” I said. “Do you think it might be part of the same document you found?”
“It could be,” he replied. “Regardless, if the high priest thinks it’s important we should take it. Because screw that guy.”
“I agree,” I said.
I brought up Outlook and started scanning subject lines. Most of it was the usual workplace crap: reminders from HR about upcoming seminars, someone begging for people to join the office softball team, a rather terse note reminding everyone that reserved parking spots were marked “reserved “ for a reason. I was getting bored when I ran across an email from Haddock with the subject line “Barley.” I thought of the poor loon wrapped in a straight jacket in the De Sade Hospital for the Criminally Insane and opened the message.
I have done as instructed and sent Barley’s wife the coupon for Macy’s. I’m sure there’s no way she’ll be able to resist 80 percent off. I’m sure that will trigger the response we want. He may have gotten away, but I can assure you, he has not escaped.”
Subject RE: Barley
Excellent work Haddock. I’m beginning to think you’re almost competent, despite last’s week shenanigans. Barley’s mind will surely crack, and then no one will believe his story. Bwahahahahaha!
The High Priest
I was a little surprised the high priest had gone through the trouble of writing out the sound of his evil laugh as he relished the thought of driving an innocent real estate appraiser insane, but other than that, I couldn’t say I was shocked. I printed out a copy of the email exchange, folded it up and stuck it in my pocket. I didn’t know if it would help Barley at all, but I figured I kind of owed the poor guy.
“You don’t know how this guy organizes his files?” I asked Martin.
“No idea,” he replied. “You should do a CTRL-F and see if he has any files marked ‘Calling Dagon,’ or something like that.”
I ran the search. It came up empty for ‘Calling Dagon,” but I got a hit on ‘Summoning Dagon.” The folder held a Word file with the same name. I opened it up. As promised, it turned out to be a step-by-step guide for waking a long dead god from his millennia of slumber at the bottom of the ocean.
“Huh,” I said. “This is really the sort of knowledge you would expect people to keep in some kind of ancient tome bound with human skin and inked in blood.”
“It’s the 21st Century, dude,” Martin said.
“True,” I said. “But I’m a little disappointed. I mean, a Word document?”
“Microsoft’s not evil enough for you?” Martin asked.
“Good point,” I replied, printing out a copy of the ritual, which I folded up and stuck in my pocket with the emails about Barley and the accounts receivable spreadsheet.
“Well,” I said. “This has been a productive bit of breaking and entering, but I don’t see anything here that’s going to help us avoid a theologically-motivated massacre.”
“There’s got to be something,” Martin said. “Let me have a look.”
I got up from the high priest’s chair and let Martin have my place.
Kitty 2 opened the door and stuck her head in.
“I think Ms. Bitchly out here might have something to say that you want to hear,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “Martin, you keep looking through the high priest’s files.”
Kitty 2 had used phone and power cords to tie Ms. Bletchley to a chair. Her eyes were wide with fear as she struggled to get loose.
“Keep her away from me!” Ms. Bletchley blurted when she saw me. “Please. She’s crazy.”
“That’s not a very nice thing to say about my secretary,” I said. “But I might be able to help you if you have some useful information for me. Now, I know Haddock and the high priest are planning on killing their rivals, and I know a man named Barley completed an appraisal of this mall. So, here’s the deal. You tell me everything you know about the impending massacre and where I can find the appraisal documents and maybe, just maybe, I forgive you for working for a cult that tried to feed me to some sort of underwater abomination. Are we clear?”
The woman nodded so hard I was afraid she might get whiplash.
“Whatever you want,” she said. “Just don’t let her staple my mouth shut.”
Kitty 2 had picked up an expensive looking Swingline off the desk and was clicking it ominously, oblivious to the pile of staples accumulating at her feet. She smirked.
“I know Haddock took the appraisal documents, but I don’t know what he did with them,” she said.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes,” Bletchley said. “Gary gave them to me to shred, but Haddock came by later that day, and said Gary wanted him to handle it, so I gave them to him.”
“That’s the high priest’s name. Only strangers and underlings refer to him by his title,” Ms. Bletchley said. “Anyway, I thought it was weird that Haddock would concern himself with something like that, but I had a lot to do, so I just gave him the documents. If he didn’t destroy them, they’re probably in his office.”
I removed the spreadsheet from my pocket and waved it in front of her.
“What can you tell me about this?” I asked.
“It’s a spreadsheet.”
“Yes,” I said. “One that indicates this place is bringing in a lot of money. What happens to it?”
“It doesn’t go in my paycheck, if that’s what you’re asking,” she replied.
“It’s not,” I said. “Where does the money go?”
“I’m just a secretary,” the woman sputtered. “I don’t know where the money goes. I think the board owns the mall, so they’re the ones who would know about the money. I answer the phones and file things. That’s it.”
“That’s good to know,” I said. “Now, about the impending nastiness…”
“I can’t help you there,” she said. “Gary’s already gathered up the faithful at the temple. It’s too late to stop it.”
“Maybe not,” I said, stroking my chin. “Do you have to dial nine to get an outside line here?”
“Yes,” Bletchley said.
“Thanks,” I said. Then, to Kitty 2, “I’m going back into the priest’s office to make a phone call. Don’t do anything else to her unless she tries something stupid. She’s probably a grandmother.”
“Yeah, but she’s probably the type of grandma who offers you hard candy when you come to visit instead of something actually edible,” Kitty 2 said.
“Nevertheless, please exercise a little self control,” I said.
Kitty 2 shrugged. I decided that was as close to an affirmative response as I was going to get and went back into the high priest’s office.
The card with the phone number on it the goons had given me had been destroyed when I’d jumped into the water, but it didn’t matter. I had the local mafia’s regional office number memorized. I punched nine and dialed the number. The phone rang a couple of times only to be answered by an automated female voice that asked me to push eight if I wanted to continue in Italian. After that the voice scrolled off a list of options. The recorded voice on the phone droned on and on until I lost patience and pushed zero. The phone rang a couple more times, and a woman with a thick New Jersey accent picked up.
“Whaddaya want?” she asked.
“Connect me with the counterfeiting division please.”
“Currency or designer goods?”
After a couple of minutes of listening to Frank Sinatra croon “My Way,” someone answered.
“This is Big Paulie. Who the hell is this?”
“This is the guy you sent a couple of goons to threaten the other day.”
“You’re really gonna hafta be more specific,” Paulie said.
“The real estate appraiser who was going to Innsbruck.”
“Oh, yeah. I remember now. You got your appraisal done?”
“No,” I said. “But I know exactly where your competition’s factory is located, and they’re fighting among themselves right now, so if you want to take them out, this is your best chance.”
“Hmmm,” Paulie said. “I knew that shit was coming from Innsbruck. What better place to run a criminal enterprise from than a town that’s dropped off the map?”
“Yeah,” I said. “The main operation is in the basement of the old outlet mall here. It’s unguarded right now, so if you can get a crew together and move quickly, you can get back on top.”
“Why’re you telling me this?” Paulie asked.
“I have my reasons,” I said. “And I don’t want my legs broken.”
“Smart man,” Paulie replied. “But if I find out you’re lying, broken legs will be the least of your problems.”
“Understood,” I replied. “Innsbruck is between Shanksville and Scupperton. I’ve got to go. Hope to see you soon.”
I hung up the phone and turned back to Martin.
“So,” I said. “Find anything else?”
“Well, it seems like the high priest and Haddock plan to use the deaths of the members of the Inscrutable Order as a mass sacrifice in order to summon Dagon.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in Dagon?”
“I don’t know if the he exists, but I know I exist, and this could be bad.”
“The end of all life bad,” Martin said. “Or, a bunch of people get their throats slit for no good reason.”
“That’s pretty bad,” I replied. “Why now?”
“Well, according to these documents I found, the volume of counterfeit goods from Innsbruck has reached some kind of critical mass, which will make summoning Dagon easier than it would be otherwise.”
“Now,” I said. “I think I’ve already made it clear I don’t understand your religion, but how do fake handbags and sandals play into this again?”
“Well,” Martin said. “For lack of a better word, the goods that get made here are cursed. Each of them carries with it a small part of the great evil that resides here with it, and as that evil is spread, it makes Dagon stronger. And the stronger he is, the easier he is to summon.”
“That makes no sense,” I replied.
Martin shrugged. “It’s religion. You’re not supposed to think about it too much. Oh, and speaking of summoning, I couldn’t help but notice you seem to have summoned some members of the organized crime community. How do you think that’s going to help?”
“I’m not sure if it will,” I said. “But I’m not sure it’s actually going to hurt anything at this point. And besides, they have guns. Do you have any guns?”
“No,” Martin said.
“Then I stand by my decision,” I said. “You didn’t happen to come across anything that might help us stop the high priest from summoning Dagon?” I asked.
“No,” Martin said. “I don’t think Dagon worshippers have put a lot of time and energy into researching how to not summon Dagon.”
“Fair enough,” I said, taking the paper with the ritual printed on it out of my pocket and unfolding it. “I suppose the only thing we can do is to hope we can find some way to disrupt the ritual.”
“We could stop them from killing all the members of the Inscrutable Order of Dagon,” Martin suggested. “That would disrupt the ritual.”
“I think you’re setting the bar kind of high,” I said. “But what the hell? We can try. Any brilliant ideas?”
“Not really,” Martin said. “We should head to the safe house, though.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “It’s an underground chamber of some sort.”
“No,” Martin said. “It’s a loft. Everything around here’s underground, so a loft is the last place anyone will look for us.”
“Excellent,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Kitty 2 was leaning against Ms. Bletchley’s, desk cleaning what I hoped was dirt out from under her fingernails while staring through narrowed eyes at her prisoner.
“It’s time to go Kitty 2,” I said. “We’ve got what we need, and I think she’s had enough.” I gestured to the captive.
Kitty 2 sighed, “I guess you’re right. You’re sure we shouldn’t kill her so she can’t snitch on us?”
“I won’t say anything, I swear!” Bletchley moaned.
“I think we should just leave her here. She’s not going anywhere.” Martin said.
“But she’s the only person who knows we’re still alive,” Kitty 2 replied. “I say we tie up loose ends.”
“Kitty 2,” I said. “Get your bloodlust under control. The way things are going, you’ll probably have the opportunity to kill a lot of people tonight. Save it for later.”
“All right,” Kitty 2 said. “I just hope I don’t regret this.”
“If we live to regret anything, we’ll be incredibly lucky,” Martin said. “We can’t waste any more time.”
Martin headed for the door, and since he was the only one who knew the way back to the exit, Kitty 2 and I had no choice but to follow. Outside, the night air had acquired the faint, acrid sting of smoke indicating a fire somewhere.
“That can’t be good,” Martin said. “They’re probably trying to burn people out of their homes. We’d better hurry and get to the safe house to see who’s there.”
“Shouldn’t we try to stop whatever’s going on in town?” Kitty 2 asked.
“It’s going to take more than the three of us to do that,” Martin replied. “And our best chance of finding allies is at the safe house.”
“Lead the way,” I said
Martin led us between hedges, over fences, through backyards and alleys until we reached a battered brick warehouse. He opened a side door with a key from his immense key ring, and we went inside and started climbing stairs. I had forgotten how much harder it was to walk up stairs than down them, having spent the majority of the day descending deeper and deeper beneath the Earth’s surface.
We were almost to the top floor when a voice boomed out, “Who’s there?”
“It’s us, Arnold.” Martin said.
“Us?” Bass replied. “You mean those two crazy people haven’t gotten themselves killed yet?”
“We’re right here,” Kitty 2 said. “And I highly resent your characterization of my mental health. I’m not the one who worships a giant lizard.”
“Fish god,” Bass replied from the darkness.
“Oh, that makes all the difference,” Kitty 2 said.
“You guys might as well come on up,” Bass said.
We ascended the stairs and emerged into a dusty, open room filled with rotting crates and lit only by a couple of lanterns. In the gloom, I could make out the shapes of five or six people, not including Bass.
“Is this it?” Martin asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Bass replied. “I’m hopeful more will show up.”
“I’m not so sure,” Martin said. “I could smell smoke coming from the center of town.”
“Not good,” Bass replied. “Not good at all. We’ve got to take action. Now.”
I stepped into the center of the room and cleared my throat.
“It just so happens I have a plan,” I said. “I’m just going to need a few volunteers.”
No one stepped forward from the gloom to volunteer.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll start with the easy one. I need someone to get a van and drive to Shanksville and steal a couple of the fifty-five gallon barrels of fake blood they use every year for their prison riot reenactment.”
“Oh man, I’m up for that,” someone said, emerging from behind a stack of crates. I squinted. It was Wolfgang.
“What the hell are you doing in here?” Bass asked.
“I was just having a nap, man,” Wolfgang said. “The vibes in town got real harsh, so I figured I’d hang out here until it blew over.”
“You got wheels?” I asked.
“A VW van, man.”
“Of course,” I said. “Of course. Just take it to Shanksville, get some of that fake blood and get back here as fast as you can.”
“Sure,” Wolfgang said. “No problem. Can I bum like ten bucks for gas?”
“Here, here,” Bass said, shoving a bill at Wolfgang. “Now go do what the man asked.”
“Cool man, I’ll be back,” Wolfgang said, heading down the stairs.
“Okay,” Bass said. “Now what?”
“Now we need a distraction,” I said. “Something that will force the Energetic Order of Dagon to pay attention and buy us some time.”
“It’s the Esoteric Order of Dagon,” Bass said. “It’s like you haven’t been paying attention this whole time.”
“I’m being paid to determine the value of a piece of property, not study comparative religion,” I replied. “Esoteric Order, Inscrutable Order, it’s like trying to tell a Methodist from a Presbyterian.”
“I don’t really understand that reference,” Bass said.
“Now you know how I feel,” I said.
“Fair enough,” he replied. “Now what about this distraction? And what’s all the blood for?”
“The blood is to disrupt the ritual,” I said, taking the paper with the ritual on it and showing it to Bass. “It says here it requires fifty gallons of blood to summon the Deep Ones. If we swap out the real blood with the fake one, then, no Deep Ones.”
“Yes,” Bass said. “But most of that blood is currently inside members of the Inscrutable Order of Dagon, and I’d like to keep it there, if that’s possible. If we wait until it’s been extracted, then we’ve kind of missed the point.”
“I’ve already had this conversation with him,” Martin said. “I don’t think he’s very good at listening.”
“You guys are just full of complaints, especially when you consider the fact that you’re asking total strangers to help you solve your problems.”
“Hey,” Martin said. “If the Esoteric Order succeeds then mankind gets destroyed, so don’t act like you don’t have a dog in this fight.”
“Well,” I said. “That brings me to my next step. My faithful assistant and I are going to infiltrate the Esoteric Order’s mob. They think we’re dead, so we should be able to put our hoods on and blend right in.”
“Is there a second part to this incredibly reckless idea?” Kitty 2 asked.
“We sow discord, thus distracting the mob from its true aim,” I said.
“And how do we do that?” Kitty 2 asked.
“We’ll think of something,” I said. “And besides, we only need to buy enough time for the mafia to get here.”
“The mafia?” Kitty 2 and Bass said in unison.
“Yeah,” I said. “I called them from the high priest’s office and told them where to find your competing counterfeit designer goods operation. They’re on the way here now. With guns. Lots of guns, hopefully.”
“That was a really great idea,” Kitty 2 said.
“No it wasn’t.” Bass said. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Possibly,” I said. “There’s this guy I know named Dr. Valerian who I might ask about that once this is over. But I thought you guys were all about a new, more open form of Dagon worship that didn’t rely on creating counterfeit designer goods?”
“The mafia?” Bass said. “They’ll kill us all.”
“So will Dagon, if I understand the situation correctly,” I said.
Bass shrugged. “You’re right. I don’t see how this situation could possibly get worse.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are ways,” I said. “C’mon Kitty 2. Let’s go.”
Kitty 2 and I pulled our hoods up and headed down the stairs.
“What do we do in the meantime?” Martin asked as we left.
“Try not to get murdered,” I said.