I Kill Monsters - Chapter 1
It's not a glamorous job.
At the end of the day, you're covered with mud, grime, and blood. If you're lucky, the blood isn't yours; it's the dark blood of creatures you won't find in any zoological books. On bad days you come home with bite wounds on your shoulder, hoping that you can have a quiet night with whiskey and antibiotics. And all of that assumes you didn't slip and fall into sewer sludge, so you come back covered in crap and smelling worse than anything you could puke up. That's an average day. An uncomplicated one.
My brother and I have a very dirty job. He's Mikkel and I'm Szandor. We're the Nowak brothers. We kill monsters. And we're actually damn good at it.
Despite our foreign sounding names, we are 100% American. Born and bred. Our father might have been an immigrant and gave us weird-sounding names, but we don't have any funny accents. We're two American kids from New Avalon doing our best and killing monsters. Yes, we're young - I'm twenty and Mikkel's twenty-two. We're probably a little young for this life, but it's where we ended up.
We don't work for a shadowy government agency. We're not associated with the police. We don't have any security clearance. We're not backed by a major corporation. We're not millionaire playboys with a dark need for justice. We don't have super powers, we're not from a family lineage of monster hunters, and we haven't been bestowed with any supernatural gifts... that we know of. We're just two guys who grew up on the poor side of town and run a website for people who need help.
If we're lucky, we even get paid for what we do.
Let me tell you about the time Gertrude Ferguson sent us a message on our website. She was experiencing a problem with some kind of a serpent in her apartment. She didn't know who to turn to and was afraid to take a bath for fear it would attack her or her cats. She needed help and we stepped up to help.
I'll admit we did so reluctantly.
Mikkel and I knew Mrs. Ferguson from the old neighborhood, so we had concerns about what she was telling us. First off, she was like 80 million years old, so what the hell was she doing on the internet? I was impressed that her message wasn't in all caps. Second, a serpent in her apartment? How was she finding time to read our website? Why isn't she, say, running in terror or just dead?
Ultimately, I went to check on Mrs. Ferguson alone. I was unlucky. Mikkel tried to tap out first by claiming he had plans with Vanessa. I didn't have a hot date of my own to counter it, but that's not how we work. I demanded a coin toss for who was going. I still lost. So while Mikkel romanced his flavor of the month, I was stuck visiting the Widow Ferguson.
Of course you're wondering why we were bothering - excuse me, why I was bothering. There were a few reasons. We've known Mrs. Ferguson since we were kids, so we weren't about to blow her off despite her strange account. And we take all reports from the old neighborhood seriously - that's our main place for pro-bono work. But beyond all that, we had been getting odd reports from her block. A husband had gotten bitten by something no one had a good look at, an indoor cat was missing from a locked apartment, strange sounds were heard in the walls, and dogs were growling at the trash bins in the alley. Individually, it all sounded like crap, but put them together and it seemed a little suspicious. We had actually gone to check it out once already, but we had found nothing conclusive and nobody had gotten a good look at whatever it was. We had kept the investigation open, but had no new leads before Mrs. Ferguson.
I showed up at the Widow Ferguson's apartment dressed for hunting. I was wearing thick boots, jeans, and a canvas jacket. I didn't bring my entire kit. I didn't think she needed me showing up with my full arsenal until there was a problem. I carried only a sheathed machete on my belt. I wanted to be respectful to Mrs. Ferguson - I had even cleaned most of the dirt off my boots before showing up.
When she opened the door, I expected her to launch into some sort of old person nostalgia banter like, "Oh, look at you! I remember when you were so small that your mother needed to carry you up stairs, and look at you now, gutting malicious creatures with a machete!" But there was none of that. Her eyes were haunted. She was afraid. It's the type of look that makes you start taking everything very seriously.
The only comment she made was that I smelled like cigarettes.
The apartment was the size of a postage stamp. I grew up in a small apartment, but this one was somehow tinier due to all the furniture stuffed into it, probably collected over many years. Or maybe not that many years, since the way it was decorated it seemed like it was in a stasis bubble. Somehow this apartment had frozen in the 1970s and had never progressed. The shag carpet, the corduroy couch and the peeling avocado green wallpaper all gave me a sense of vertigo, like déjà vu for a decade I wasn't even alive for.
She half-heartedly suggested making me tea, but I shook my head. "Mrs. Ferguson, tell me about the serpent." Serpent was the word she had used. I doubted it was actually a serpent, but I wanted her to open up, not feel like I was telling her she was wrong.
Sighing heavily, she practically collapsed into an armchair. A gray longhair cat instantly jumped into her lap and began rubbing up against her hand.
"I don't know what to do," she said, starting a speech I had heard too many times. "It's a crazy thing. I mean, who would have believed -" If I didn't stop her, she'd go on with this. People feel uncomfortable admitting they think they encountered a creature science doesn't acknowledge. So they have a long preamble of how they're not crazy or delusional but they did see something. As much as I had affection for this little old woman, listening to it again after she contacted us on our very explicit website would make my skin crawl and my blood pressure spike.
"Mrs. Ferguson," I said, "with all due respect, I've seen monsters before, you knew that already. You don't need to convince me. You don't need to convince me you're not crazy, nor do you need to convince yourself. You clearly believe it enough to have contacted me."
She sighed again, but nodded her head. I think a weight lifted from her, though she stared off at the walls, not at me.
"So what did it look like?" I prompted.
"It was scaly," she said, then trailed off.
"Okay, what else?" I said, reaching in my pocket to pull out a pad and pen.
"That's all I remember," she said. "It was so quick. I was turned the other way but I heard a hiss behind me. The cats sometimes fight, so I didn't think much of it. But then Gypsum ran into the room and I heard her make a growl that she doesn't usually make. I thought there was a problem, so I turned my head. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark flash of something. I remember scales. For some reason I remember that."
"So you barely saw it at all?" I said.
"Right. Gypsum saw it, though," she said, nodding to the cat in her lap. "I don't think Shecky did."
"And that's all you saw?"
I scratched the back of my head. There wasn't really a lot here.
"Have you had any strange occurrence before or since then?" I said. "Weird sounds? Strange marks? Anything unusual?"
"The super hasn't fixed anything in a long time," she said and I nodded. In South Egan, your superintendant was neglectful at best, in worst cases he was criminally negligent. "The pipes rumble when anyone else turns on the water," she continued, "and the oven makes a pinging noise when it's on. But nothing new."
"What color were the scales?" I said.
"Green? Gray? Something like that," she said. "I'm sorry I can't remember more. I'm not sure why I remember scales."
That's always a problem. Sometimes people have good information. Other times they have bad information - sometimes so bad it could be dangerous. I didn't think she was lying, but sometimes people think they saw something, then fixate on that fact so much that it becomes even more true in their minds. If she barely saw a dark shape and can't remember the color, how could she have seen enough detail to see scales? It was possible, but I was beginning to wonder if maybe she just saw her cats up to strange antics or maybe there was a rat in the apartment.
I looked around the tiny apartment, looking behind furniture and keeping my ears open for out of the ordinary sounds. But besides an orange cat paw poking at my boot from under the couch, I didn't notice anything. Of course, she had so many little knickknacks and statuettes on everything, I didn't want to try moving anything for fear they'd fall off and break. I had never known my grandmothers, but I imagine their homes would have looked exactly like this.
"What room did you see it in?" I said.
Mrs. Ferguson nodded to a door. "The bathroom," she said ominously. That explained why she was sitting out here semi-relaxed and not sitting in the corner brandishing a frying pan.
"I guess I should check it out," I said.
"Be careful," she said, ominously again. Okay, maybe her tone was getting to me a bit.
I moved toward the door slowly. I drew my machete and held it in front of me, in case something burst out at me. I had a sudden thought. "Are the cats accounted for?" I said. The last thing I wanted was to go in there and mistake a cat defending its territory for a ravenous beast, leading to a bloody and tragic accident. I mean, I was holding a machete.
"No, they're accounted for," she said, holding one cat in her lap and gazing at a long haired tabby that was eyeing me from under the coffee table.
I nodded. Alright, it was show time. With a quick step forward, I pushed the door open, machete held at the ready in my other hand.
The bathroom was empty.
Well, that wasn't the first thing I thought. The first thing I thought was, This is the pinkest bathroom known to man. Despite her color choices in the rest of the apartment, Mrs. Ferguson had let out her inner thirteen year old girl when decorating the bathroom. Pink shower curtain, pink rugs, pink wallpaper. It was a welcome relief from the Pepto-Bismol colored vertigo to see that the bathroom tiles that poked out from behind the closed shower curtain were an average white porcelain.
Looking left and right, I saw nothing threatening. I stepped away from the door and it swung shut behind me. I opened the cabinet under the sink, but found nothing of interest to me. I tactfully poked at the laundry basket, not wanting to see Mrs. Ferguson's unmentionables even accidentally. I checked the corners of the toilet, but found nothing. The toilet was a generic white, though it had a furry seat cover that was pink.
Since those all seemed fine, that left just our old friend the mysteriously closed shower curtain. I'm not sure about you, but the only time I ever have the shower curtain closed is when I'm actually taking a shower. I'm sure some people like to put on good appearances for guests and close it when they exit, but it always makes me suspicious. Like, if I were just some average joe, I'd wonder if someone was hiding behind it or if there was a dead body in the tub. But with my line of work, I instead usually wonder if there is some horrible many limbed beast waiting to claw my eyes out as soon as I sit down on the toilet for number two.
Some part of me considered just whacking away at the shower curtain with the machete. If there was a ravenous beast in here, the only place left for it was behind the shower curtain. I'd be a fool to not try and get the jump on it. But no, instead of hacking up Mrs. Ferguson's nauseatingly pink shower curtain, I slowly reached out. With two fingers, I delicately grabbed the edge of the shower curtain and with one quick motion I threw it open...
...and there was nothing hiding behind it. Despite all my worry, all I had done was reveal that Mrs. Ferguson really enjoyed scented bath products, that she didn't use a mesh filter to stop hair from going down the gaping hole of the drain, and that one of the cats had dropped a dookie in the tub.
I let out the breath I was holding. Well, this was a waste of time. I sat down on the closed toilet and reflected on my evening. So far I had found nothing at all. I guess I should have suspected this from the "serpent" report, but I really had hoped there was some real work here. I pulled out my phone and called Mikkel.
"Don't tell me you're in trouble," said Mikkel in a hushed voice, probably walking away from the table his date sat at. "I'm this close to getting Vanessa home, I'm not interrupting this to back your ass up. I'm not putting up with blue balls again." Ladies and gentlemen, my brother.
"Last time you fought with blue balls, you kicked ass," I said. "You were in the zone."
"That's because I was angry and frustrated," he said, "not because I was in the zone."
"Maybe you need to be in the blue balls zone more often," I suggested.
"Maybe you need to fuck off more often, Sandy."
I bristled at my most-hated nickname, but eased back into teasing. "Are you sure the date is going well? You sound frustrated already."
"Do you need help?" Mikkel said. "Because otherwise I have this beautiful girl here who I plan to regale with stories of me killing zombies and being manly."
"No," I said disappointedly. "I think this trip is a bust. Mrs. Ferguson doesn't have a lot to tell me. I'm sitting here in the pinkest bathroom in the whole universe but I'm really not seeing any evidence of anything here."
"So no sea serpent in the tub?"
I turned my head to look at the tub and the cat poop therein. "No sea serpent there," I said, rubbing my eyes and wondering why I wasn't the one out with a hot girl. Instead I was sitting in a pink bathroom, a phone to my ear, and a machete across my lap.
"Eh, we knew it was a long shot, but we gotta keep the neighborhood clean. We still don't know what's biting things," said Mikkel.
If I hadn't been listening to him, I might have heard the faint hiss and scrape from the tub.
"You mean I gotta keep the neighborhood clean, your ass is trying to get laid," I said.
"Really, we're going to do this? I win the coin toss and now I'm suddenly not doing my fair share?"
"What about the zombies out in the Husks?" I said, my fashionably punk haircut blocking peripheral vision of the thing that was in the tub.
"You're bringing that one up?" he said incredulously. "I had been down in the tunnels, and I said I'd come help if you waited a bit. You decided to check it out on your own before I could get back. And It was like three zombies, that's nothing. I figured you could handle three zombies."
"You forget I got bitten that time," I said, getting a little angry.
"Yeah, because you suck at it," said Mikkel.
"Yeah, well, fuck you! And fuck -" and then I was suddenly interrupted by a very loud hiss.
My head slowly turned to look at the tub.
Well, it wasn't exactly a sea serpent, but I could see how you could use that name for it. My first name for it would be Big Fucking Snake, but panic is really not the best time to name a new species. It had a long thin snake body that rose out of the tub drain. Its yellow eyes were staring right at me. Its mouth was open wide in a hiss. Its teeth were sharp, but it lacked the fangs that typically indicate a venomous snake. Having tangled with one of its kind, I knew it didn't need them.
Previous experience did not make up for my slow reaction time. With lightning speed, the snake lashed out at me. Its goal wasn't to bite me. As I sprung to my feet, it quickly wrapped itself around me. In a moment its coils tightened around my arms, trying to crush me.
Then it bit me.
Luckily it tried to sink its teeth into my shoulder instead of my neck, so my jacket took the brunt of the bite. I still felt pain and knew it had broken my skin, but thankfully it was a very shallow bite. Of course, it was still trying to crush me to death.
The machete had fallen to the floor, but even if I had been holding it, it wouldn't have mattered because my arms were pinned. The goddamn snake kept hissing in my ear too, as if trying to taunt me in a snake language I didn't understand.
Other men might have given into their fear. Other men might have given up. Other men might have said, "Well, I've had a good life, nothing to be done." I am not one of those men.
Since I still was on my feet, I threw my body at the tile wall behind the tub. I crunched into it with great force, breaking some of the tiles. It hurt like hell, but importantly I had also rammed a bunch of the coils of the snake against those tiles. By hurting myself, I had also hurt it. That's how these things work, right? I picked tile because I figured the regular drywall wouldn't do much. I wanted maximum hurt and of course maximum bruises for when I crawled into bed and regretted my life choices that night.
The constricting coils of the snake faltered for a moment, but then resumed their near-bone breaking tightness. My enthusiasm for staying alive not fazed by the extreme pain, I threw myself into another tile wall. Tiles broke against my shoulder and I winced in pain. I was fairly certain I hadn't broken anything, but it still hurt like hell.
However, the snake's grip on my body loosened. Its coils widened and I found I could move my arms. It still had a death grip around one of my shoulders, but I could actually do something. First order of business was getting armed. I bent forward and grabbed at the machete. It had fallen on the pink rug just outside the tub.
I'm not sure if the snake knew the significance of the machete or just didn't like losing control of the situation, but we started a desperate tug of war where I kept leaning forward to grab the machete and it kept pulling me backwards. I reached forward, almost grabbing the machete handle, then it pulled me back. I reached forward again, fingertips grazing the handle before I was yanked.
In a herculean feat of strength, I finally leaned forward and pulled myself free of the snake's grip. I reached down and grabbed the machete. I let out a triumphant roar.
But now there was a new problem. The snake was trying to beat a hasty retreat. I noticed its length sliding off me and beginning to slither down the drain.
"Oh no you don't!" I shouted. There was no way I was letting this one get away after beating myself against the walls.
With my left hand I grabbed at its length that was close to the tub drain. Normally snakes aren't slippery like some people expect. They're actually more leathery. But when a snake has been travelling through the drainage system for a low income apartment building, it gets slippery to the touch and frankly pretty gross. So even with my hand around it, the snake was slipping through my grasp down the drain. I was just slowing it down.
I had a split second to make a decision. Do I drop the machete so I could use both hands to try to pull the snake back up out of the drain, or do I hack wildly at the still available part of the snake, hoping to actually hit its writhing body and do some serious damage? It was an easy decision. I didn't feel like pulling a snake out of a drain and I wasn't going to miss the chance to be proactive about hacking something to death.
Cursing, I slash my machete at any part of the snake I could see. What followed was a succession of loud hits in the tub and against the tiles. Many of the tiles not already broken by my previous thrashing were now broken. But finally I managed to hit the damn snake. Blood splashed on my face. I kept hacking. Blood gushed all over as I cleaved the machete down on any inch of snake I could.
Finally the creature stopped moving at all.
I was left in silence. I was gasping for breath and covered in blood. I was crouched in the tub, one hand still on the snake's body at the drain and the other holding a machete dripping with the unpleasant ichor of diced snake. I kept breathing, trying to slow my heart rate and come out of adrenaline and shock.
I heard a small voice from across the room. "Szandor! Are you there?"
I pulled my body forward and reached a dripping arm towards my phone on the rug. Staining the pink rug with drops of blood, I grabbed the phone. Mikkel hadn't hung up.
"I'm here," I said, still out of breath.
"Good!" he said. "After all that, I wasn't sure if you were going to answer the phone or the creature was."
"Very funny," I said.
"Hey, I'm always glad when you win, brother," he said. "I need someone to have my back. So what was it?"
"Plumber's Snake," I said, reaching in my jacket pocket for my cigarettes. I paused for a second wondering if I could smoke in Mrs. Ferguson's bathroom. Then I looked around at the broken tiles, the room covered in blood, and the snake carcass in the tub and figured it wouldn't matter anymore. I lit up.
"Plumber's Snake? Shit, it's been a while since we saw one of those," said Mikkel.
We'd tangled with Plumber's Snakes exactly twice before this. They are notably stealthy beasts, as you might guess from the fact this one was slithering through the drains. Plumber's Snake is obviously not its formal cryptozoological name. I'm not sure if it has one. I once asked Paulie about it, but other than the death worms of the Gobi, he hadn't heard anything remotely close to it. So we kept our initial off-the-cuff name of Plumber's Snake.
We named it that because they are very long, but unlike most snakes, they don't get thick when they get longer. So you might have a twenty foot snake that still has the diameter to slither through a narrow pipe, or in this case, aging apartment plumbing. I can't remember which one of us had the idea, but we notice the similarity to the tool plumbers have, which is also a long cord used for removing blockages from drains. The name stuck and we haven't found anything better. Plumber's Snake. It fits.
"Well, it's dead now," I said. "This bathroom is fucked and I'm covered in blood. It's half sticking out of the drain. I'm going to need that backup now."
"Shit, come on, man," he said. "Vanessa's..."
"You did just listen to my entire struggle with the fucking thing, didn't you?"
"So get over here. I need the van," I said.
Twenty minutes later Mikkel showed up with our cleanup bag and a change of clothes for me.
In the intervening time I had smoked a slow victory cigarette and then had opened the door to explain to Mrs. Ferguson what had happened. She was shocked, horrified, and finally angry at the state of her bathroom, but it's not like she could complain that I was a fraud. There was quite clearly a big and bloody snake carcass in her bathtub. It even had the green-gray scales she had described.
She shut her mouth in frustration and settled for yelling at me for smoking in her apartment. I conceded that point and put out the cigarette. She also demanded I get back in the tub until Mikkel showed up, so I wouldn't drip blood on anything. Anything else.
While she was clearly mad at me despite the life-or-death conflict I had in her pink bathroom on her behalf, she was quite friendly when Mikkel showed up. Of course the guy who cleans up is the hero, not the one who practically bathed in snake blood making her home safe for her and her cats.
Remember earlier when I said I wasn't at all interested in pulling the snake out of the drain? Turns out I ended up having to do that anyway. We needed to get the rest of its length out of the drain so Mrs. Ferguson could actually use the drain. And since I was already covered in snake blood, it made sense for me to get back in the tub and do it. I wasn't happy, since pulling a snake out of a drain isn't easy work. I didn't want to yank too hard for fear it might just sever at some point, leaving a length of snake in the pipes. So it was a slow laborious pulling when my muscles already ached from slamming into tile walls.
Once we had pulled out the entire snake, we stuffed it into a giant plastic bag we had on hand for this situation. We began hosing down all the blood in the tub, relying on the fact that we had a now-cleared drain. Finally Mikkel asked me to strip naked so he could hose me down. I gave him a withering look.
"Don't worry, I'm a doctor," he quipped.
"No, you're not," I said, reluctantly peeling my clothes off.
"No, but I am your brother and I've seen you naked enough that I've suppressed my need to laugh," he said.
"Fuck off," I said.
He turned on the shower and grabbed the shower head, which Mrs. Ferguson luckily had on a long cord. He began hosing me down. It was ice cold.
"F-f-fuck you! Turn on the heat!"
Mikkel laughed, but he finally turned on the heat. I began to wonder what was so great about family.
Once I was hosed down, we did the laborious work of scrubbing and bleaching all the blood we couldn't hose down in the tub. Even with masks, we were soon pretty high from bleach fumes. When that was all done, we stuffed those in plastic bags and I finally could get dressed in clean street clothes.
I carried the bags down to the van while Mikkel stood around to debrief Mrs. Ferguson. I was too tired to care. I wanted to just get home and crawl into bed. Soon Mikkel came down to help. Together we heaved the snake remains into the van and we closed it up. He patted me on the back and then we got inside. He drove while I practically dozed in the passenger seat, looking forward to sleep and waking up with some severe bruises.
We didn't get paid.
This is our life.
Continued in I Kill Monsters - Available Now!