Jose smiled awkwardly at a woman who was gawking at Chris. She was dressed in a yellow tank top and white shorts and seated five feet away at a small table outside of a fancy looking coffee shop. Her laptop was open and there was a small white mug and matching saucer in front of her. Jose wondered if she had food coming. Maybe she would share if he looked pathetic enough.
“Calm down,” Chris said again loudly to the sky. “I’ll find it.”
The woman in yellow pulled a cell phone out of a white handbag that was on the ground next to her chair. Still gawking at Chris, she began to text.
Jose sighed. He couldn’t blame her. He and Chris were standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk in the middle of downtown, pedestrians taking their lunch break sped past them on either side, cars jammed the road, and there was Chris, a dirty kid standing next to him, having a loud conversation with an invisible person named Ernie. Could they be more stereotypically crazy-homeless-people? Still, Jose didn’t want to be this strange lady’s next post on Facebook.
“There’re too many people here for me to smell it,” Chris said angrily. “What? No, I… Ernie… Ernie… Don’t tell me how to do my job, Ernie. I know how to do my job.”
“Hey, yo,” Jose called to the lady who looked like she was preparing to sneak a picture. “Hey, lady,” Jose called again.
The woman looked left and right and then motioned to herself as a question.
“Yeah, you,” Jose said, walking toward her. “You think you can you spare seventeen dollars and eighty-nine cents?”
“No, Ernie. You’re the one wasting time,” Chris yelled. “If you’d just leave me alone, I’d probably have found it by now.”
“Oh, um,” the woman stammered.
“You see,” Jose said, “My uncle over there, well, he and I were headed home to Virginia. But our car broke down. The heat coolant hose sprung a leak. It’s just like five blocks that way.” Jose pointed in no particular direction down the street. “And we walked to a mechanic, and he said a new hose will cost seventeen dollars and eighty-nine cents, but we spent the last cash we had on gas.”
“Is this boy bothering you,” a thin waiter with slicked back hair asked the woman in yellow. The waiter placed a small plate with four chocolate biscotti on it in front of the woman.
“Oh, um,” the confused woman said to the waiter.
“What’s you’ problem?” Jose said to the waiter. The teen reached forward and took a piece of the biscotti off the woman’s plate. “We’re just having a conversation.”
“You need to move on before I call the police,” the waiter said.
“Anyway,” Jose said to the woman, ignoring the waiter. He took a bite of the biscotti and crunched it in his mouth while he spoke. “My uncle gets real stressed when things go bad. If you could just loan us seventeen eighty-five, I could get him back in the car and on the road.”
“Oh, um, sure,” the woman said. She reached down and picked up her handbag. “I think all I have is a twenty, but that should do it.”
“You don’t have to give this boy any money miss,” the waiter said with frustration.
“Thank you so much,” Jose said sweetly, shooting a nasty look at the waiter. “My uncle will calm down once we are in the car and on the — ouch!” Jose yelped with pain as a strong hand squeezed his wrist.
Chris gently removed the biscotti from his partner’s fingers and placed it on the table in front of the lady in the yellow top. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” Chris said. “Please put your money away. We’re fine.”
“It’s no problem,” the woman said. “I’m happy to help.”
“Our car is fine,” Chris said. “My nephew just likes to make up stories. Thank you, though.” Slowly Chris began backing away, pulling Jose along with him by the wrist. “Thank you,” Chris said again before turning to walk away.
“I almost got us some cash,” Jose complained as he struggled to keep up with his partner’s pace.
“We don’t steal and we don’t beg,” Chris said. There was disappointment in his voice.
“That’s not one of the twelve,” Jose grumbled.
Chris spun on his partner and pushed the boy down a side alley. Jose stumbled but kept his feet under him. “It shouldn’t have to be one of the twelve,” Chris barked, throwing his hands in the air with exasperation. “Stealing food? Really?”
“I was hungry,” Jose said looking at his shoes. “And she was staring at us. And I didn’t like it.”
“Of course she was staring at us,” Chris said. “Stupid Ernie wouldn’t shut up. You stare too if you saw a crazy looking homeless man with a kid talking to himself in the middle of the sidewalk.”
“I wish you’d use that fake cell phone,” Jose said. “She wouldn’t stare if you used it.”
Chris pulled the dead flip phone from his pocket and waved it at Jose. “I don’t need props,” he said. Then looking at the sky he yelled, “I just need Ernie to leave me alone when I’m hunting.” Looking back at Jose he added, “And don’t change the subject. We don’t steal.”
“I just figured that since she was getting a show with her meal, she should cough up a little for it,” Jose said, looking at his shoes again.
“Stop justifying your behavior,” Chris said, jamming the fake flip phone back in his pocket. “You know what’s happening back there right now? That waiter is calling the cops to complain about homeless people harassing his customers. The cops are going to come in a few hours to make a report and they are going to hear all about a homeless man with a kid. They’ll probably assume I’m some kind of pervert and then they’re going to start looking for us. We won’t be able to come back to this district during the daytime for a month.”
“Sorry,” Jose said, looking at his shoes again.
“Just don’t do that shit again,” Chris said. Then he sighed, dropped his head back with frustration, and closed his eyes. “Yes, Ernie,” he said. “I can still hear you. I know… I know, Ernie. I’m on it.” Looking at Jose, Chris said, “We need to find this damn Slake so Ernie will leave me alone. Let’s try to get on a roof so we can get a better view.”
Jose pointed behind Chris at the three-story parking garage across the street.
“Perfect,” Chris said.
At the top of the parking garage, they surveyed the streets below. The crowds were beginning to dissipate as the lunch rush slowed. Chris spent less than a minute looking up and down Franklin Street. “Nothing,” he said and he moved quickly to the right.
Jose followed behind, hoping to be helpful.
Chris looked up and down Saint Paul in the same way. “Nothing,” he said again and the pair moved to the right again.
“There!” Jose yelled, pointing to a bus stop at the corner of Orleans and Saint Paul. Standing in a huddle on the corner under a short billboard that read, “$30 Unlimited Text, Talk, and Data” was a small group of men smoking and chatting. Everything about them looked perfectly fine, except one had a thin rat-like tail poking out of the bottom of his blue jeans.
“Good work kid,” Chris said. “Let’s go get him.”
They ran down the ramp of the parking garage together. Jose’s mind raced with excitement. This would be his first kill, first Slake, first experience as a Grancanjo. It was everything he’d been training for. His mouth watered as they exited the garage and took a right around the corner.
“Since this is your first time,” Chris said slowing to a walk as he approached the group. “Hold back. Let me handle it.” If the Slake had spotted them, it wasn’t giving any sign.
“Okay,” Jose said, unable to hide the disappointment in his voice.
“Watch out for the tail,” Chris said. “With Slakes, you always have to watch the tail.’’
They approached the group of men, quietly joining the circle. There were three normal looking guys there. They all wore blue uniforms that were smudged with grease. Jose wondered where they were coming from. Probably some kind of automotive shop. They were all smoking. One of them offered Chris a cigarette. Chris took it, lit it on the man’s lighter, and took a long drag.
“I’m telling ya,” one of the men said. “My boy says they look good. Ain’t no way we miss the playoffs again. We’re gonna go all the way. I’m telling ya.”
The other men laughed at the first man’s optimism. “Man,” another of the men chimed in. “These punks ain’t shit without Ray.”
“Ray,” a third said. “You mean Ed. Fuck Ray. Ray ain’t who we miss. We ain’t got any pass protection without Big Ed.”
“Ha, ha, yeah,” the Slake agreed. Its voice was deep and gravelly. It was dressed in baggy jeans, an over-sized t-shirt, and an O’s hat. It stood among the men like it belong, but Jose could tell they were all unnerved by its presence. The beasts large hips stretched the jeans in an odd manner, its arms were shorter than a man’s, and it’s nose came to a sharp point. Evidently, this group of men was too polite to say anything to the odd looking thing standing next to them.
“Really?” Chris said to the Slake.
“Which Ray are we talking about?” the fourth man said. “Cause I heard Rice might beat the wrap and be back by the first game.”
“Yeah. Back,” the Slake said. While the monster was trying to play it cool, there was panic in its black eyes. It knew it had been caught. It was just a matter of time now.
“We don’t need either Ray,” the first man asserted. “Listen, my boy was watching some of them work out and he said that we look good. I bet we go thirteen-and-three, take the division, and then blow right through the playoffs.”
The wheels of a lumbering city bus squealed as it came to a stop at the sign. Continuing their conversation as they went, the men all tossed their cigarettes on the ground and snuffed them out with their feet as they loaded the bus. The Slake tried to fall into line behind them, but Chris grabbed it by the shoulder and said, “You stay. We need to have a chat.”
“Oh, okay,” the Slake said phony surprise. “Bye guys,” it called, waving to the oblivious men boarding the bus.
“Damn it, Andi,” Chris said as the men left. “I thought I told you not to come back here.”
The Slake took off its hat and held it with both hands. Beneath the hat was a mop of thick, brown, tangled hair. “But I like it here,” the beast said. “Baltimore’s my city. Let’s go O’s!”
“You know the rules,” Chris said.
“Hey,” the Slake said, extending its hand to Jose. “Is this your new partner?”
“I’m Jose,” Jose said, shaking the monster’s hand while looking at Chris with uncertainty. The Slake’s nails were black, sharp, and cold like steel.
Chris rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“I’m Andi-tichus,” the Slake said. “Came to Baltimore in seventy-seven. Love it here. Great city.”
“Oh,” Jose says. “I’m only twelve.”
“He means eighteen-seventy-seven,” Chris said.
“Came during the Great Railroad Strike. What a mess? I’m telling you. So many angry people. I was running with a group of Mardocks back then. They liked following the army. Lots of pain to be had if you followed the army. They all moved on, but I fell in love. Such a great city. Charming. That’s what H.L. used to say. Charming.”
“I like it here,” Jose said.
“You don’t know any different because you’ve never been anywhere else,” Chris said.
“Well, I’ve been all over and you can take it on my word, this is a great city,” Andi said with a smile.
“Alright,” Chris said. “That’s enough.”
“Come on, Chris,” Andi whined. “I’m not hurting anybody. I just like to walk around.”
“There are rules,” Chris said.
“But the Kinetic Sculpture race is on Saturday,” Andi said. “You know how much I love that. And it’s going to be great weather. And there’s this one group I heard making this giant alligator. It’s going to be so cool.”
“Fine. Listen,” Chris said crossing his arms. “I’ll make you a deal.”
“Yeah,” Andi said with a smile. “Anything.”
“Do you have a coin?” Chris asked.
“I’ve got a few,” Andi said. “But don’t tell anyone.”
“Fine,” Chris said. “You tell me about this Bose character, and I won’t kill you. You can cross the Veil with your coin instead.”
“When can I come back?” Andi asked.
“As long as I don’t know you’re here,” Chris said, “I don’t care.”
“Deal,” Andi said with excitement. “So Bose is one of Azo’s top three. Scary Conculous. Made a name for himself during the rebellion. Now he’s Azo’s front man. Leads a team of scouts. If Bose is here, Azo’s army isn’t far behind.”
“Great,” Chris said rubbing his temples with both hands. “He left me a message that he wants a box. You know anything about it?”
“Not really,” Andi said with a shrug. “I don’t spend a lot of time on that side anymore. Not really in tune with what goes on there.”
“Okay,” Chris said. “Get out of here before I change my mind.”
“Thanks, Chris,” Andi said as he dug into his pocket for something. “Jose,” Andi said, retrieving a small pink coin. “It was nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” Jose said, still shocked by the entire interaction.
Andi looked up and down the street. Deciding it was safe, he dropped the coin on the ground. A pink hole opened in the sidewalk. Jose could feel the air around him being sucked into it. The pull of the hole was slight but present. He stared into it. It looked like a swirling pool of bright liquid.
“Thanks for being understanding, Chris,” Andi said. Then he turned and hopped into the hole disappearing into the pink liquid. The hole closed behind him, leaving no evidence that it had ever been there.
“You happy now, Ernie,” Chris yelled to the sky. Then looking at Jose he said, “I know you’re confused. They’re not all evil killing machines. Some of them are just stupid.”
“Oh,” Jose said, not sure how else to respond.
“Let’s go find some lunch,” Chris said. “I’m hungry after all of that.”
The story above is a working draft of chapter three from my new book, The Twelve Commandments. I haven’t been publishing much over the past two months because I’ve been working hard to finish the book by Christmas. The book is a prequel to Mencken and the Monsters. I hope to be publishing again on a regular soon.