Richard McGill was keenly aware that he must be either stupid or crazy. There wasn’t another reasonable explanation for what he was doing on the streets of Edinburgh, alone, at night, knowing full well that there would be werewolves on the prowl. The bright, round disc of the moon played hide-and-seek behind thick, dark clouds that threatened rain, plunging the entire city into shadow, and then bathing it in cool, creamy light once again. Richie cursed the impatience that had driven him out of the relative safety of the parking garage where he’d been crashing and into the perilous urban jungle.
A low, eerie howl reverberated through the damp air, sounding closer than Richie would have liked. Chills pricked at his spine, and he quickened his pace. This had to be the worst idea he’d had since running away from home to begin with. Desperation was making him reckless, and he knew it.
In every alleyway he passed, Richie thought he saw something slinking around in the dark. More than once, he darted past a pair of glowing eyes. On a night like this, stray cats and monsters looked about the same. Richie could feel the throb of his pulse in his temples and just hoped that nothing out there was listening for his heartbeat.
There was no warning growl—only snuffling and scuffling—and then something crashed into Richie’s side like a furry torpedo. Richie hit the pavement, and the skin ripped from his palms as he tried to catch himself. The weight of the monster’s body pinned Richie’s torso and the breath was knocked from his lungs. He glimpsed dripping teeth in a snarling muzzle before a massive paw shoved his head to the side, its claws pressed against his face. Richie closed his eyes, waiting for those teeth to sink into the soft flesh of his neck. He felt the heat of the werewolf’s breath and smelled the reek of its last kill, as its mouth dove for his jugular.
Richie heard a solid thud and the sound of breaking glass. A splash of liquid hit his ear, and the smell of alcohol filled his nose. The werewolf yelped and lifted its paw from its prey’s head. Richie looked up to see a figure take the beast by the scruff and the tail and sling it aside.
Any ideas of gratitude were overwhelmed by the panicky impulse to run. Which he did. He scrambled to his feet, put the sounds of rending and snarling at his back, and ran in a random direction as fast as his legs could carry him. Richie kept going, heedless of where he was headed, until his body refused to go any farther. He collapsed against a wall on a side street he didn’t recognize. His leg muscles spasmed. His chest burned. There wasn’t enough oxygen in Edinburgh to satisfy his lungs. If the werewolf had won the fight, and decided to go find its escaped prey, Richie would be as defenseless as the day he was born. Every predator for a mile around could probably hear him panting. Richie forced himself to breathe more slowly and willed himself to calm down.
“Need I tell you what a moron you are? A kid like you, out alone on the night of the full moon? You were practically begging to get eaten.”
Richie jumped clear out of his skin and looked around wildly to find the source of the voice. The labyrinth of buildings created deep shadows where anything could be hiding. A sweaty lock of his uncut cinnamon hair clung like a leech to his forehead, obscuring his view. Richie brushed it out of the way but still couldn’t make out the speaker. Then, the man himself stepped into the mouth of the alleyway, hands in the pockets of his tattered jeans. He was bare from the waist up, which provided Richie an unobstructed view of the lean muscles rippling beneath his milk-white skin. A tangled mane of black hair disappeared into the darkness about halfway down his back. He looked human enough, except for the bright discs of reflection behind his brilliant green irises.
“Relax,” the stranger said, followed with a short laugh. “I just risked my hide to save yours. No use killing you now.” He stepped closer, and Richie pressed himself farther into the bricks behind himself, not quite ready to trust a glowing-eyed Tarzan, even if he was the one who had just saved his life—assuming this really was the same person.
“W-who are you?” Richie asked, the words sounding small and choked.
“Folks call me Jack,” the half-naked man replied. “I have to ask: where the hell did you think you were going?” Jack crossed his arms over his chiseled-marble chest, his eyes wandering up and down Richie’s short, scrawny form, not unlike the way that Richie was examining him. Richie cleared his throat, hoping to make his voice sound stronger this time.
“Why did you save me?” Richie asked, not willing to divulge his destination just yet.
“I…huh. I don’t know.” Jack furrowed his brow and looked down at the ground. “It’s not something I do on a regular basis. Does it matter? You’re alive, right? And you didn’t answer my question.”
“The Dog and Centaur,” Richie said. He allowed himself to relax a smidgen.
“You’re old enough for that?”
“Yes! I’m eighteen.” Richie straightened up to his full height, forgetting his terror in the heat of his indignation.
“All right.” Jack put his palms up in a gesture of surrender. “I believe you. Well, actually, I just don’t care very much. Are you still headed that way or are you going to call it quits and go home?”
“I don’t have a home,” Richie said without thinking. Jack nodded, seeming unsurprised.
“I guess the pub it is, then. I know where it is. I’ll walk you there. Safety in numbers. I could use a drink myself, anyway.” Jack turned and walked out into the larger thoroughfare. Lacking a better plan, Richie coaxed his beleaguered muscles into following this odd man. Richie couldn’t entirely shake the suspicion that maybe his savior only rescued him to kill Richie himself, or worse, but Richie had gotten hopelessly lost in his mad flight from the scene of attack. He couldn’t stay where he was, so what choice did he have except to put a little faith in a stranger?
The Dog and Centaur was a place where werewolves in human form—as well as other bloodthirsty creatures—came to boast about kills and trade information. It was the latter that interested Richie.
Richie walked through the door so close behind Jack that he was in Jack’s shadow. Now that he was there, he was unsure what he was going to do. He knew how to get people to talk, but these were not exactly run-of-the-mill people. He didn’t have anything to bribe them with, or any leverage over them. Mulling over his dilemma, Richie mindlessly followed Jack to the bar and took the stool to Jack’s left. Belatedly he realized that this placed him right next to a werewolf patron. That was not a position he wanted to be in, but if he got up and moved that would be insulting.
Better to stay put.
Beside him, Jack ordered two scotches, which were delivered promptly. Jack slid one over to Richie, who downed the whole thing in a couple gulps before ordering a second. Jack sipped at his slowly. He held his little finger slightly away from the glass when he picked it up. Richie didn’t think there were real people that did that. It seemed like the sort of overly-fancy gesture that would be reserved for movies and mockery.
“I’ve always wondered, do Scotsmen normally drink scotch?” Jack asked of nobody in particular. He stared fixedly into his glass while he spoke, as though he expected the amber liquid within to speak its wisdom to him.
“Sometimes…” Richie said after an awkward moment where nobody answered. Jack gave a seemingly meaningless grunt in reply and returned to nursing his scotch. Richie glanced over his shoulder, taking stock of his surroundings. Because it was a full moon, the place was mostly empty. That was why he had chosen tonight—any werewolf that wasn’t out hunting would be of the less threatening variety, too sick or hurt to transform. A scrawny young man stared desolately at his table in a corner, stirring a tankard listlessly with his finger. Two women who looked like they had battled a chainsaw the night before sat in the middle of the room whispering to each other and looking annoyed about something, presumably whatever had scratched them up. And then there was the man sitting beside Richie. He looked dirty and grizzled. He also, Richie noted with surprise, looked old. He had never seen a werewolf that looked old before. Werewolves could choose to appear to be any age they wished. To live amongst humans they might chose to take on the look of aging, but they never looked old. This one had greasy, gray hair and a gray beard with a weathered face and tired eyes. Even though Richie didn’t much like werewolves, the sight depressed him somehow. Richie realized he was staring when the old wolf caught his eye. Richie turned away quickly, embarrassed.
“It’s all right,” the old wolf told Richie. “I know how I look. My face is what I feel.”
Richie turned his head farther in the opposite direction, trying not to engage. Jack, however, took the bait.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
In reply, the old wolf sighed dejectedly. Richie could tell he was gearing up towards a story. He supposed all old folks were the same. Feeling obligated to listen, Richie shifted his gaze back to the speaker as his second drink arrived. He saw the bartender roll his eyes and turn his back, evidently too sick of hearing the tale to feign politeness. The old wolf took a fortifying shot and then sighed again before starting.
“When I was young, I was the pride of my pack,” he said wistfully. “I made the most kills night after night. I was a terror to every town I visited. I loved the violence. I reveled in the bloodshed. Those were good times.” His eyes glazed over with nostalgia. It took all of Richie’s willpower to keep his reaction from showing on his face. He glanced over at Jack nervously. Jack—leaning forward with his head tilted slightly to the side like an inquisitive puppy—was clearly engrossed in the story. It didn’t seem to bother him that this old guy was a homicidal maniac. But then, Richie supposed that was fairly normal behavior for werewolves.
“A few decades ago—back in ’58, I think—I stowed away on a ship bound for America. They say there’s great hunting there because, you know, Americans don’t believe in monsters. They’re incredibly dense. And such good screamers! But that’s not the point here.
“One night, I was hunting as a guest in a pack from the East Coast. We decided to pick a fight with a vampire clan. You know, just for fun. We thought we could take ’em, easy. There were just three, and there were six of us. We didn’t know they were primum vampires. So—”
“What’s a, um, what you said, a ‘primum’ vampire?” Richie asked, absently swallowing the final dregs of his second scotch, raising his hand to get a third. Only then did he realize he was actually paying real attention to the story, which sort of surprised him.
“Primum are very strong vampires,” the wolf said, looking rather irked that Richie had stopped him midstream. “They’re almost impossible to kill, and they have wings—they knew we were coming and ambushed us from above. It’s a lot harder to fight something that keeps flying out of the way. They killed my two mates. I managed to run away, but I’d been bitten. Vampire venom is toxic to werewolves.” He directed this last statement to Richie, along with a look which clearly expressed that he thought Richie was ignorant.
“I know that,” Richie said.
“Good. You need to know these things. Well, I’d been bitten so many times I should have been dead in ten minutes. I expected it. At some point I blacked out, but then I woke up. And I couldn’t imagine how I’d made it. There was this woman, one of those cat people, standing over me. She said she’d saved my life. I never did figure out how she did it, but she did. It wasn’t just me. Sally—that was her name—had other patients too, with all kinds of problems. I was there for a few weeks, saw her reassemble someone who had been disemboweled, cure a man of blindness, there was even this one guy that she sucked the hallucinations out of. I mean, sure, everyone knows cotus have powers, but hers were astounding. I bet there wasn’t any ailment she couldn’t heal.”
Richie sat up attentively, and not just because their drinks had arrived. He wasn’t sure what a cotu was, but he was afraid to ask in case the man got annoyed and refused to finish the story. Richie wanted to know where this healer named Sally was. He had been trying to find a cure for months, and no one could help him. Every mystic and sorcerer he had spoken to said you couldn’t just take away something from out of your head. But if this woman could banish hallucinations, what couldn’t she do? Between the desperation of months of failure, and the influence of alcohol, this sounded promising.
“After I got better, she started showing me around her town. It was an amazing place. Can’t remember the name of it. It was sort of removed from the rest of the world, like a little bubble of a universe. There were all kinds of critters living there, on all the levels of about a hundred food chains. But there weren’t any murders there. Everyone got along with each other: humans, werewolves, vampires, things I couldn’t even name. It was surreal.” The storyteller stopped to take another long swallow from his glass.
“Sally told me I could stay there forever. I could live in peace and never have to fight again. But I was too young and hot-blooded. I wanted to go right back out and get revenge on the vampires that almost killed me. She wouldn’t let me leave until she was sure I was ready. I think she was just hoping I would change my mind. I started getting antsy, and one night I was out taking a walk, and ran right into a primum vampire. Not one of the ones from before—a new guy, but I attacked him all the same. Once again I got beat, but this time I wasn’t hurt. Turned out he was Sally’s boyfriend and didn’t want to undo all her hard work. Instead of offing me, like he had the right to do, he threw me out of town, literally. Once I was outside the barrier, I couldn’t find a way to get back in. It was like the town had vanished.
“Well, I decided not to worry about it. I went home without looking back and returned to my old ways. Everything was great for a while. Just like old times.
“But then one day, a couple years ago, I started thinking. And I started wondering, what was I doing? Why? All I ever did was kill, for fun. Nothing against that, of course, in and of itself, but I started thinking that it was so pointless. I never really did anything or got anywhere. I realized that my life is meaningless. If I live a thousand years, I’ll have nothing to show for it.
“In Sally’s town, everyone did something. Great or small, everyone had a job to do, a reason to be. If I’d stayed, they would have given me one. I didn’t think I needed a purpose then. My purpose was to enjoy myself. But then the joy faded away, and I wanted something more. Now that it’s too late, I see that I made the wrong choice. So now I sit here every night, an old man, waiting for the end of this miserable existence.” His well-rehearsed story ended, the old werewolf knocked back the rest of his liquor and sighed mournfully.
Richie was deep in thought. Finding this town and their doctor could bring exactly the kind of solution he needed. But how could he do that, he wondered, if the town was invisible from the outside?
“Um, if you don’t mind my asking, what did Sally look like?” Jack asked.
For the first time, Richie noticed that Jack looked even more anxious and excited than he was. He was leaning so far towards the old wolf that he was almost in Richie’s lap. The muscles in Jack’s arms and bare shoulders were as rigid as the glass in Richie’s hand. With no pretense of gentleness, he shoved at Jack to encourage him to exit the shared airspace. Richie’s weak push was no match for Jack’s iron body. In fact, Jack didn’t even appear to notice. He continued to stare at the old man with wide, eager eyes.
“I don’t know…brown hair, I think. I don’t remember it very well. That was years ago,” the wolf said, scooting over a bit on his bar stool to distance himself from Jack. He clearly hadn’t expected such a high level of interest in his tale. “Oh! I do remember her having green eyes. Bright green. They really stood out in a crowd. Why?”
“Do you remember where the city was? Like, what state?” Richie asked. With a little help from the alcohol, he was feeling increasingly upbeat about his newest—and only—lead.
“No. It doesn’t matter, you’ll never find it,” the old wolf said with a moan. He turned his body slightly to the left, away from his audience. Having received the attention he wanted, he clearly wasn’t planning on conversing any further.
Jack slumped back into his own seat. Richie, however, was too desperate and too inebriated to let it go at that. If some bird named Sally could fix him, then he intended to find her. It sounded like a great plan, except that it wasn’t one. Richie had to admit to himself that he hadn’t the slightest idea where to begin. Then he considered Jack’s overenthusiastic reaction and wondered what he knew. At the same moment, Richie and Jack looked at each other. Richie could see his own hesitant hope reflected in Jack’s eyes. What was Jack wishing for, that he thought Sally could provide? Richie suspected that Jack probably wanted some sort of healing, too. It hadn’t escaped Richie what an advantage Jack was to have around. Whoever he was, he was strong and good in a fight, and Richie needed someone like that on his side. Did he really want to put his life in the hands of this stranger? He knew nothing about Jack. But he knew he wasn’t likely to accomplish his quest alone. Jack interrupted his musings.
“You never told me your name,” Jack said.
“Richie,” he replied without hesitating. His rational mind screamed at him to stop, about-face, and back out before it was too late, but his intuition told him he could trust Jack. Or maybe that was just the buzz. Either way, at the moment it was convincing enough. He didn’t feel inclined to bother thinking about it too much.
“Richie,” Jack murmured thoughtfully, as though seeing how the name tasted. “Richie. You seemed interested in the story.”
“So did you,” Richie said, not yet committing to anything.
“Yes.” Jack paused, running his tongue over his upper lip. “You want to find this town.”
It was not a question, but Richie answered anyway. “I do.”
“I could come with you,” Jack said. “If you’d want me to. I could keep you safe, and I have information….” There was an undertone of begging to Jack’s voice.
Richie forced himself to think before answering. He was surprised at how inclined he was to say yes. Sure, Jack had saved his life, which meant something, but who was he? You’re homeless, penniless, and hopeless, said the thoughts crawling sluggishly through his brain. You can’t go any lower, now can you? This is the first solution to your problem that you’ve found—maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but what is there to lose? Well, life, limb, and sanity, for a start, but what the hell. Richie had already talked himself into it.
“Where do we start?” Richie asked brightly. The corner of Jack’s mouth turned up in what Richie thought might be a relieved smile.
“Let’s get back to my place,” Jack said. “We can talk there. Without, you know, people around.” He inclined his head toward the bartender, who suddenly took a keen interest in the glass he was cleaning.
“All right. Let’s go,” Richie said. He hoped his optimistic impressions of Jack were right as Jack paid for their drinks with wadded up pound notes and led Richie out of The Dog and Centaur into the thick night air.
Jack’s place was neither Jack’s nor was it a proper “place.” It was a small, run-down shack of a house with an ancient, overgrown For Rent sign in the front yard. Richie got the distinct impression that Jack wasn’t paying anybody for the privilege of living there. There was a combination lock on the door and a broken padlock thrown down beside the doorstep. While Jack put in the combination, Richie stared at the discarded lock and couldn’t help wondering what had become of the landlord. The lock opened with a click and Jack pulled back the door, rusty hinges squealing in protest, and held it for Richie to cross the threshold. Jack entered behind him and then allowed the door to fall shut. It did so reluctantly, taking a full minute to latch. Richie watched it every step of the way. After it had closed, he turned around to see the interior of the house. There was not much to it. A filthy stuffed chair sagged—deflated—in a corner. A sleeping bag, presumably Jack’s, was unrolled in the middle of the room. One medium-sized, wheeled suitcase, its innards spilling onto the floor, lay beside it. A bedraggled towel, which might once have been white and had a golden K embroidered on the hem, flopped out of one end of the luggage. A red-and-black notebook was using the opposite side of the suitcase as a bookmark. Scattered wrappers, bottles, and take-out containers completed the mess.
“I wasn’t expecting company,” Jack said in apology, hurriedly sweeping the majority of the debris into a pile and shoving it under the chair. Jack surveyed the room and nodded, apparently pleased with his clean-up efforts, then sat cross-legged by the head of his sleeping bag and gestured at the floor in front of him. Richie sat in the indicated location, nudging a half-eaten chocolate bar out of the way with his foot. The walk to “Jack’s place” had cleared his head; however, as he looked around, Richie was beginning to wonder what he had gotten himself into. He felt inwardly itchy, like there were cockroaches crawling under his skin.
“So, Sally—the healer the werewolf told us about…I know who she is,” Jack said. His left foot started to tap rapidly against the floorboards. Richie found it somewhat distracting, especially because that foot—and that foot alone—was clad with a lilac sock. As the only thing in the room not completely covered in grime, it drew the eye.
“I’ve been looking for her for a while now,” Jack continued. “At least, I’m pretty sure she’s the same person. Her name is Sally Kitch.” Jack reached into the suitcase and pulled out a green, spiral-bound notebook. He tossed the notebook at Richie, who barely managed to catch it before it hit his face. Richie opened the book. On the first page was a drawing of a young woman from the shoulders up. She had brilliant green eyes and long, wavy hair the color of milk chocolate. Beneath the picture, the name Sally Madeline Kitch was written in fancy, but barely legible script. Below that was another drawing of something that resembled a purple-black furry creature with bat wings and round ears.
“What is a cotu?” Richie asked, looking at the strange animal.
“You…don’t…know what a cotu is?”
“No, I don’t. Should I?”
“Um…never mind. A cotu…well, cotus are to cats as humans are to monkeys. Another stage of evolution. They’re thinking critters, felines, known for their shapeshifting. Usually they take the form of humans. Opposable thumbs, you know,” Jack said.
“That wolf said he wouldn’t have messed with that woman if he’d known she was a cotu. They’ve got to be pretty dangerous,” Richie said, thinking that they ought to approach Sally with caution.
“Sure, cotus are strong, but it’s a myth that we’re all bad. We just don’t—”
“Whoa, back up. You said ‘we.’”
“Yeah, ‘us.’” Jack squinted at Richie. “I guess maybe it isn’t obvious to you. Okay, well, I’m a cotu. An ice cotu, to be specific. All cotus have some kind of elemental power, like fire or water or electricity; mine just happens to be ice,” Jack said, acting as though it were no big deal. Richie felt a new twinge of fear. Jack must have seen it, because he quickly added “Hey, I said we’re not all bad, all right? I won’t hurt you. I promise.” He made eye contact, pleading. Richie liked to think he was good at reading people. He thought Jack seemed sincere, but then Jack wasn’t a “person” in the usual sense, so Richie couldn’t be sure he was reading him right. Richie’s throat worked as he tried to generate a response with which to fill the widening interlude of silence.
“You have a right to be suspicious,” Jack said finally, looking away from Richie and down at his mismatched feet. “To be perfectly honest I don’t trust you any more than you do me. But we have to trust each other a little bit if we’re going to try and work together.”
“I’ll try,” Richie said, hesitantly resigning himself to the fact that he didn’t have another viable option. Jack nodded to the floor in response. Jack jerked his head up and looked over towards what appeared to Richie to be an empty corner of the room. But momentarily, he was gazing at Richie again, and talking. Richie couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just missed something.
“Works for me. So, as I was saying, I’ve been trying to track her down. I’ve found plenty of records of her up till the mid-1960s, but then she drops off the grid. I think that must be when she went to this place we’re talking about. Where the werewolf went. On the fourth page is a list of people I think might know where to find her. Old acquaintances and such. As best I can figure, those are some of the last people to see her before she checked out.”
Richie turned to the indicated page, where a handful of names were listed, along with a line of pertinent information about each. “Mostly I’ve been working on compiling the list. I haven’t hunted those people down yet,” Jack said. “But I think it’s as good a place as any to start.”
“It’s not a very long list. It’s more than I have, though, so I guess we’ll start here. Where does that put us, exactly?”
“I’m in Edinburgh following a lead that will hopefully get me an address on that first person. I was sidetracked tonight, but I’ll try again tomorrow. If that works, we’ll know where to go. If not…I’ll cross that bridge when I trip over it. For now, though, I’m planning on getting some sleep. I suggest you do the same.”
Richie had tried not to put much thought into how tired he was, but his eyelids were on the heavy side and his muscles were still sore from his narrow escape earlier. Sleep did sound inviting.
“You can have the sleeping bag if you want,” Jack said.
Richie looked back and forth between the sleeping bag and the chair, trying to decide which was the lesser of the two evils. “No thanks, I’ll take the chair.”
“Right then. G’night.” With that, Jack crawled into his sleeping bag and turned his back to Richie. Taking the hint, Richie walked over to the chair, wiped off the worst of the dust and dirt, and curled up on it. Although uncomfortable, it was a marked improvement over sleeping on the ground, like he had been lately, and Richie fell asleep instantly.
The first sleepy hint of daylight was visible over the city as Jack slipped into the largest, busiest convenience store he could find open at this hour. It really wasn’t busy enough. Only four or five customers were wandering the aisles. This would be much better done in the afternoon, with more humans to shield him from discerning eyes or lenses, but Jack was on a mission to earn the kid’s trust before he had time to realize that Jack was nothing like a trustworthy person.
Jack turned his back to a security camera and slipped a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste into the pocket of his hoodie. He hated wearing the thing—too hot, too itchy—but it sure was handy for shoplifting. He probably could pay for everything with that twenty in his pocket, but he was saving that for liquor.
What the hell are you doing? the voice of reason in Jack’s mind chastised him. You can’t even take care of yourself! Now you’re going to babysit some homeless teenager? Do you want to get both of you killed?
“I can keep him safe,” Jack said, arguing quietly with himself while stashing a bar of soap in the hoodie. He had taken care of his brother and sisters when they were little, and this wouldn’t be much different.
Oh, yeah, because that’s worked out so well before.
“I’ll do better this time.” Jack noticed another customer looking at him strangely and realized he was speaking out loud. He could feel his blood rising into his cheeks. He ducked out of the store before he could embarrass himself further. He could make the rest of his “purchases” somewhere else.
Once out on the sidewalk, in the open air with scarcely a soul in sight, Jack felt a little better. He snagged an empty cardboard box off the ground and unloaded his prizes into it. This was a complete waste of his time, but collecting necessities for his new partner was a nice thing to do, right? Even if he didn’t need Richie to help him find Sally, Jack was sick of being alone, and the kid sure acted like he needed somebody, if only to keep him from being werewolf chow.
He doesn’t need you, moron. He needs a “responsible adult.” That ain’t you, brother.
“Shut up.” Jack spotted another shop that might be worth stealing from. He dropped the box behind a couple of trashcans and kicked it out of view of other would-be thieves. At this rate, he could gather everything Richie might require before the sun broke free of the horizon. A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. If he could manage to keep Richie alive long enough, this whole partnership thing might actually be kind of fun.
Richie woke up disoriented and unsure of where he was. He opened his eyes to see a dusty, cracked window. A few brave rays of sunlight fought their way through the glass to illuminate the room. He turned his head the other way and saw the dirty, dilapidated room, and he remembered where he was. It was an unpleasant way to start the day. He had dreamed that he was home and, for a moment after he woke, thought it had been real.
With a resigned sigh, Richie sat up in the chair and flinched as the wooden base creaked dangerously with the motion. He hoped he wouldn’t have to sleep on it much longer, because he doubted it would hold up. No wonder Jack slept on the floor. Speaking of Jack, where was he? Richie gingerly disembarked the chair and began wandering through the house. There wasn’t much to it—just a kitchen, a space that might have been meant to be a bedroom, and a bathroom taken over by spiders—and no sign of Jack. For a second Richie feared that he had been abandoned after finally finding a strong, capable guide to lead him. The idea of being alone and vulnerable again quickened his heart and sent a chill down his spine. Richie hurried back into the main room to check that Jack’s belongings were still there. To his relief, they were, along with a new addition to the clutter that Richie hadn’t seen before. There was a small cardboard box, placed conspicuously in the exact center of the room, with a note lying on top. It must have been there all along, but Richie had been too preoccupied to notice. He walked over, knelt on the floor beside the mysterious parcel and took the note off the top:
Setting the note aside, Richie opened the box. Inside were some basic toiletry items, a pocket knife, and a horseshoe-shaped neck pillow. Normally this would look like very little to Richie, but after several weeks of carving out a living on the streets, it was a treasure trove. And generous of Jack, even if he had stolen all of it. Apart from the clothes he was wearing, the items in the box were all Richie had to his name. He took each object out and placed them in a row on the floor, just staring at them, like he sometimes did as a kid on Christmas with his new toys. If this was how it was going to be, this was a partnership Richie figured he could live with.
Richie lay on his back on the floor, making good use of his new neck pillow. His breakfast, a bottle of water and a couple of packaged muffins, sat beside him. He broke a chunk off a muffin, brushing crumbs off of Jack’s notebook as he ate. After taking a shower for the first time in longer than he cared to remember and otherwise cleaning himself up, Richie had decided to take Jack’s advice and read up on this Sally Kitch. Only the first couple of pages listed information directly about her. She was an electric cotu of nobility, whatever that meant. She was born on October 31st, 1927. Her parents were Morris and Lightning Strike Kitch. What kind of names were those? Jack either couldn’t get an address on them or hadn’t tried, because none was listed. She had four siblings—Leaf Sun, listed as missing; Lily, deceased; and two brothers named William and Fireball, no other information given. She was an unlicensed medical practitioner, known both for assisting people who couldn’t otherwise get medical care and for occasionally performing rather questionable experiments on live subjects. Sally was also known for combining the occult with medicine, apparently with great success, before she vanished around 1965.
From there on, the notebook contained a record of Jack’s attempts to find her, although Richie found no mention of why Jack was looking for her in the first place. The detail and perseverance with which Jack attended to his search were more than borderline stalker-like. Richie had to admit to himself the possibility—nay, the likelihood—that Jack’s motives were criminal. On the other hand, some of Jack’s writings came across as protective. ‘I hate to look so hard and turn over so many stones. What if one of her enemies follows my trail?’ he had written a few weeks previously. Jack was turning out to be a thoroughly baffling enigma. Richie would have preferred to work with someone straightforward. But then he had never expected to have an opportunity to work with anyone at all, so he supposed he shouldn’t complain.
The latest entry in the journal was dated two nights ago and detailed how Jack was coming to Edinburgh to see if he could find a werewolf who knew where a wolf named Clement George lived. Richie remembered that Clement George was the first name on the list of contacts he had seen on the fourth page. He flipped back to that page, reading and rereading the list to familiarize himself with who he was supposed to be helping Jack find.
Richie had a hard time taking the last entry seriously. Vlad Dracula? Surely that wasn’t a real person. Well, maybe it was. Sometimes people had weird names like that. Richie felt incredibly sorry for the poor soul that had to go through school with the name “Dracula.” And on top of that, Vlad, of all things. His parents must have truly hated their son to curse him with such a name. Unless the entry referred to someone who had taken on the clichéd moniker after becoming a vampire, in which case it was merely tacky.
Richie closed the notebook and put it back in Jack’s suitcase. He couldn’t help seeing all the other notebooks in there. There had to be at least a dozen, of all different shapes and sizes, scattered amongst a collection of worn paperbacks. None of the notebooks were labeled in any way. It made Richie itch with curiosity to know what was in them, but he held himself back. They weren’t his to read. More importantly, they were Jack’s, and Richie didn’t know how mad Jack would be if he messed around in his stuff.
He scooted away from the suitcase to remove the temptation. He sat there for a full ten seconds, staring at the wall, before it dawned on him that he had nothing to do. Jack’s notebooks surfaced in his mind again, and Richie figured he had better find some form of amusement before he got himself in trouble. He thought about it for a minute and decided to be productive and do some more research on what Jack’s notebook hadn’t told him. He knew just the bookstore to find that information in, too. Assuming that the owner didn’t eject him on sight, after that last incident.
Richie tried his best to look casual as he walked into Tony’s Tomes, but unfortunately the door had one of those little bells on it. As soon as it rang, Tony looked up from his desk. When he saw Richie, his face turned a disturbing purplish red. Richie cursed under his breath.
“OUT!” Tony yelled, so loudly that they must have heard him in the space station. “OUT, YOU VERMIN! I TOLD YOU NEVER TO COME BACK HERE AGAIN!”
“OUT!” Tony stood up and waved a fist. He was a scrawny little waif of a man, but he could out-shout anyone. Well, almost anyone.
“I’M NOT LEAVING ’TIL I GET WHAT I CAME FOR!” Richie yelled, winning the battle of lung power by a long shot. Tony shrank back a little, but stood his ground, crossing his arms and glaring daggers at the intruder.
“You manhandled me, ransacked my shop, cost me hundreds of dollars in damages, and you have the nerve to come back here again?” Tony asked.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Richie said. “Besides, it was your fault for saying you ‘Don’t serve riffraff’ like me. You’d have been cross too if somebody insulted you like that. Now, if you’ll just calm down, we can conduct our business like civilized men.” Tony sucked in air to retaliate. “OR I can leave now, and come back later. With company. Either way, I’ll get my information,” Richie said, crossing his arms in a deliberate attempt to mock Tony. He was bluffing, really. If Tony gave him the boot, he would just ask Jack to explain things to him later. But Tony had made this a duel to prove who was boss, and Richie never turned down a challenge. The two sized each other up in silence for several minutes before Tony finally surrendered.
“What do you want?” he asked, deflating. Richie smiled triumphantly.
“Anything you’ve got on cotus,” he answered. Tony nodded, and shuffled off into the stacks with Richie following close behind. He weaved among the aisles until he came to a bookshelf in the back of the room. Tony pulled a thin paperback from a row of identical books and handed it to Richie. It was a plain, sand-colored book with the title, Smithfield’s Encyclopedia of Cotus, dead center on the front in black Times New Roman type.
“This is it?” Richie said. He flipped through the pages. It would do, he supposed, but he was hoping for a little more than fifty large-print sheets.
“That’s the official book on cotus. Their government has a lot to hide, so they’ve outlawed any books about cotus other than that one,” Tony explained.
“No wonder I’d never heard of them before,” Richie muttered.
“Those little ‘encyclopedias’ are given away to all unorthodox booksellers such as myself for free, and we’re required to let people take them for free. It’s a publicity thing. Cotus are trying to change their image. Or at least the ones in power are. But if you’ve got any money on you, I may be able to find some books in the storage room on cotus that aren’t, shall we say, mainstream?” Tony suggested. Richie deliberated for a moment, chewing his lower lip. He didn’t have any money anymore, and he’d been so sure Tony wouldn’t let him in the door that he hadn’t thought about trying to get ahold of any. He could probably nick some from an unsuspecting passerby on the street, but that could be dangerous, and he didn’t want to go to that much effort without knowing if Tony had anything that would be useful to him or not.
“Do you have anything on Sally Kitch?” Richie asked.
“Do I have anything on her? Of course I do. Almost all of the underground cotu texts have been written by her. One is a history of cotus that includes a wonderfully revealing autobiography and family history,” Tony enticed.
“When did she write them?”
“During the ’90s, mostly. There were only about fifty copies ever made, so you aren’t likely to find them anywhere else. I happen to have the whole collection, however,” Tony bragged.
During the 1990s. That was long after the last records Jack had on Sally. Those books could tell them where the unknown town was, or at least give him some clues. Or, Tony could be lying through his teeth. Still, it would be worth a large amount of hassle if those books were the real deal.
“How much would you want for them?” Richie questioned.
“Oh, about £6,500,” Tony said nonchalantly. “Which is a steal, considering what they usually go for these days. I generally sell my illegal items for less than other merchants, to avoid being noticed by authorities.”
Sixty-five hundred pounds! Nope, no way. Richie wasn’t that good a pickpocket. “Um…is there any other form of currency you’d be willing to use?” Richie stalled, while simultaneously trying to think whether or not there were any alternate forms of currency in his possession. He couldn’t think of any.
“Perhaps. Make me an offer,” Tony said. Richie didn’t have an offer. What did he own of any value? He wracked his brain, and could only come up with one, tenuous possibility, that maybe Jack owned something worth trading. He had a hard time believing that Jack would be living in the conditions he was if he had anything worth £6,500, but it could happen. It was worth a try, anyway.
“Will you hold the books for me until tomorrow?” Richie asked, shoving the complementary Official Encyclopedia into his back pocket.
“I’ll be back,” Richie told him, suspecting even as he said it that it was a lie.
It took Richie about six tries to get the combination right, but eventually he let himself back into Jack’s…living quarters. Richie couldn’t think of the thing as a house. Of course, he reminded himself, he lived there now too, temporarily, so he probably ought to think better of the place. With the door ajar, looking into the central room, he tried to view it with some measure of fondness.
It didn’t work.
Abandoning the effort, Richie entered the abode and flung himself onto the ground, leaning his back against his stuffed chair. He pulled the front cover back from his newly acquired volume and started reading.
He had intended to read every word in order to be fully informed, but he was never much of a reader and the encyclopedia was about as interesting as most books of that class. A brief, bland history said something about cotus originating in Australia, setting up a system of government, encountering the British, spreading all over the world, et cetera. Richie managed to discover that cotus reach maturity in ten years, before ceasing to age entirely, which explained the weird timeline of Sally’s life. After that, he reached a section written in impossible scientific jargon that seemed to explain cotu anatomy. Richie skimmed uncomprehendingly. The only part that managed to hold his attention to any significant degree was a section at the end that presented some common myths about cotus and the official statements on the matters. It seemed that the popular opinion about cotus was that they were vicious, animalistic creatures that infiltrated the ranks of other species by impersonation and were parasites to be feared and loathed. The counterarguments supplied by Mr. Smithfield were wonderful glittering generalities that Richie didn’t find particularly impressive or convincing. “Cotus are civilized members of global society.” Um, okay, so what does that mean, practically speaking? In Richie’s opinion, it meant nothing. After he had read as much as he could take, Richie closed the book and tossed it away in annoyance seasoned with a pinch of disgust.
“Politics.” He scoffed.
“What about ’em?” Richie whirled around to find Jack standing in the doorway. How Jack had gotten through that creaky door without him noticing, Richie hadn’t a clue.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that,” Richie said with a gasp.
“I wasn’t trying to, but, okay,” Jack replied. He walked over and sat down in front of Richie. “Good news, by the way. I have the address I was looking for. We can leave for London tomorrow. Unless of course you have something to attend to first. And what were you chucking across the room?”
“‘The Official Encyclopedia of Cotus,’ the most useless reference book in the world,” Richie replied.
Jack nodded knowingly.
“Which brings me to what I was going to ask you,” Richie said, and launched into relating his misadventures. It took him the better part of half an hour—Richie was discovering that Jack had a habit of asking lots of insignificant questions—but he eventually got around to telling Jack about the rare books Tony claimed to have. Richie pointed out that, as far as he knew, Tony was the source for occult literature in Edinburgh, perhaps in all of Scotland. It wasn’t a stretch to believe he might have books written by Sally Kitch hiding in his closet.
“So, what do you think?” Richie finished. Jack shook his head in a shell-shocked kind of way.
“Wow…I mean, I’d heard rumors that she’d, but, I never actually found…wow,” Jack said, practically babbling. “That’s a breakthrough I wasn’t expecting.”
“Yeah, I felt kind of like that, too,” Richie said in agreement. “But, assuming that Tony’s telling the truth, we haven’t got anything to pay with. Not that I know of.”
“I need those books,” Jack said. “Or, we do, that is,” he added, correcting himself. “Sixty-five hundred pounds. That’s just over ten thousand American dollars, if I remember the exchange rate correctly. Damn. But if this Tony really does have his hand in the cotu black market, then maybe I do have something he would want. Worth more’n he’s asking, probably.”
“You do?” Richie asked, disbelieveing. Jack nodded. He held out one of his hands, palm up. Richie watched with astonishment as a thick rope of gravity-defying silvery liquid somehow materialized and slid into Jack’s hand from behind. It solidified and turned black and, within seconds of its original appearance, stabilized into a large mammalian tail with thick coal-black fur. Richie rubbed the back of one hand hard across his eyes and blinked several times, but the tail didn’t disappear or melt back into liquid, so he assumed it must really be there.
“Cotus have what I guess you could call a stinger on the end of our tails,” Jack explained. Richie checked quickly and saw that, indeed, the tail vanished from view behind Jack and appeared quite convincingly to be attached to him. Richie looked back towards the tailtip as Jack used his thumb to brush back the fur at the end, revealing a wicked silvery spine like a two-inch length of sharpened stainless steel. “They’re extremely poisonous—or venomous, whichever it is—and make excellent weapons. People, mostly human people, will give up their firstborn for that kind of power. You don’t get many cotus just giving away their stingers, though, so they’re rare, and worth a bundle. If Mr. Tony knows anything, I bet you he’ll be happy to make us a trade.”
“That’s great,” Richie said, trying his best to hold his gaze on Jack’s face, rather than the anomalous tail. The lethal and inhuman weapon that hovered inches from his face was making him anxious, and distracting him from the task at hand. So he closed his eyes to consider Jack’s proposal. “If it’s such a powerful weapon, do we really want someone like Tony to have it? And do you really want to give away part of your body?” Richie thought about what he would do if his fingernails were made of gold or something. He decided that he would probably rip them off and sell them in a minute, but he doubted everyone would be so eager.
“Have you got a better plan?” Jack asked. “And why are your eyes closed?”
“Fair enough,” Richie said, opening his eyes and deliberately not answering the second question. “Let’s go first thing tomorrow morning and see about making a trade, then. But we’ll need to be careful. He might try to double-cross us.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. If that happens, I’ll take care of it.”
Richie opened his mouth to ask what Jack meant, then remembered the werewolf in the alley, and decided not to inquire further.
This time, when Richie came through his doors, Tony looked much more receptive.
“Well, you came back after all. So, what do you have for me?”
“This,” Jack said, revealing his tail and stinger just as he had done for Richie the night before. Tony managed to look both terrified and thrilled in the way only a black market businessman can.
“So, you have our books?” Richie asked.
“Right this way,” Tony declared, and hastened to the back room. Jack dropped his tail and followed. Richie brought up the rear, looking everywhere but the base of Jack’s spine, though it was difficult not to stare. Richie still had a hard time wrapping his brain around how Jack could be perfectly human one minute, and the next sprout a tail. It was quite disturbing to him. Nothing against tails, but Richie wasn’t accustomed to spending time with people who had them. He had always been taught that large, wild creatures with tails were something to be avoided, as they frequently interacted with humans in unpleasant ways.
It took Tony a few tries to fit his key into the lock. Finally, he managed to open the door and the three crowded into the tiny storage room. He picked up one of the many unassuming plastic boxes in the room and held it out to Jack and Richie. Richie took the box, which was heavier than it looked. A piece of masking tape on top labeled the contents as “S.K.” Richie took off the lid to verify that this was what Tony claimed it was. His eyes were drawn to a colorful hardback that had obviously been designed in deliberate contrast to the official cotu encyclopedia. The cover was decorated in abstract rainbow swirls and a title in very curly, very girly, black script: The Unofficial (But Vastly More Accurate) Encyclopedia of Cotus, beneath which was the author’s name, Sally Madeline Kitch.
Beside him, Richie heard Jack inhale sharply. Without a word, Jack brought his tail back into view, took the stinger between thumb and forefinger, and yanked it out. Jack barely grunted, but Richie heard himself cry out a little in sympathy. The way Jack had talked so nonchalantly about trading with this stinger, Richie had expected it to be something you could easily remove. Only then did he remember what happens to bees when they sting—removing their stinger kills them. Jack didn’t appear to be in danger of expiring, but the stinger didn’t come out smoothly. Jack didn’t complain, though, just handed the bloody object to Tony, who snatched it gleefully, but carefully, not letting it pierce his skin. Jack thanked him with stiff politeness and ushered a stunned Richie back out onto the street.
“Um…doesn’t that…hurt?” Richie asked, staring at the tip of Jack’s tail, where it hung several centimeters above the ground, dripping thick red blood onto the sidewalk. Where the drops hit the pavement, they seemed to eat away at it. Even though it probably didn’t make any difference to Jack, the fact that he was bleeding acid made the injury seem worse to Richie.
“Hell yeah, it hurts,” Jack grunted through gritted teeth. “But I’ll live. Let’s get back to the shack. I want to see what’s in those books.”
Richie nodded and led the way. He was amazed at how few people seemed to notice anything unusual about Jack and him as they walked back to home base, even though Jack looked like a Tarzan who had grown a tail and tried to cut it off. There was one little girl who seemed concerned about Jack but whose mother pulled her away, and one businessman in a suit that cursed when he stepped on a drop of blood and found out what acid feels like on the bottom of one’s foot. Other than that, everyone passed them by without a glance. Richie couldn’t believe the supreme obliviousness of the human race.
“Hold still!” Richie demanded. Jack stopped squirming, but his tail continued to twitch, making it immeasurably harder for Richie to bandage it. As if trying to apply gauze to a wound that was bleeding acid wasn’t hard enough. Richie couldn’t imagine how he had failed to burn off his hands yet. He supposed Providence must be on his side. The only good thing was that Jack had the foresight to have stolen a first aid kit.
“There! I’m done,” Richie said. Jack relaxed, tail drooping exhaustedly onto the floor. “Oh, so now you stop moving.”
“Sorry.” Jack’s apology did not sound particularly sincere.
Richie rolled his eyes. “It’s not a professional job,” he said. “But I suppose it’ll do. So, are you stuck with a tail until it heals, then?”
“Yeah,” Jack answered glumly.
“I’ll try not to step on it.”
“Gee, thanks. I appreciate it. So, are we going to look at those books I went through all this for or not?”
“Right.” Richie turned around and dragged the box in between Jack and him. Jack took the first book out with an expression almost of reverence, gently placing it on the floor between the box and Richie. Richie picked up the unofficial encyclopedia and turned it over in his hands while Jack continued removing the books out one by one and placing them in a row, precisely parallel to each other.
“So, I guess we have to read through each and every one of these now, don’t we?” Richie said. Despite his burning curiosity, he didn’t really want to do that.
“Yeah, I suppose so,” Jack replied. He had finished arranging the books on the floor and had already buried his nose in one. Richie followed his lead and opened the encyclopedia. The copyright date was 1994. It was dedicated to William, “The one who taught me to write and to be myself.” Richie remembered seeing that name in Jack’s journal, and wondered if there was a lead there. If Sally had dedicated her book to her brother, then he must be important, and might know where she was. But then, surely Jack had thoroughly investigated her siblings. Richie filed the thought away and read on.
© Meri Elena, 2016. All Rights Reserved.
Website and Content © Prospective Press LLC, 2015-2018. Not to be used without written permission of Prospective Press. All Rights Reserved.