For the current blurb/promo of this work, read this post on patreon. I’m not copypasting that massive thing here lol.
This is the third chapter from part one of what will be a full-length novel when I finally get it finished. If I post more chapters as I finish them, they’ll be linked at the bottom of the post for flow and comprehension. If I post enough of them I’ll make a Chapter Index and retroactively edit the posts to link to the Index.
CONTENT WARNINGS: violence, persistent hand trauma.
Ted Grove is the boss at Island Three’s offices for the Spiritual Wellness Center. He used to work over on the center island but a ghoul got on top of the Judicial Building and exploded in front of a whole gaggle of tourists and locals, so he was transferred in shame to here, the circle’s slim version of The Sticks.
Kenji once heard the man laugh and say it could’ve been worse, he could’ve been fired outright, but being kicked out of one of the busier and most well-paying posts in the circle proper is sort of like being fired anyway, he thinks.
Not that he himself would want to live in the higher-paced parts of their manmade country. If he turned up at work hungover and cranky to one of those then he’d be in trouble, and that’s just unacceptable. Better to just stay where he is and drift along.
“Okay, we’ve got two dishes up top scanning the airwaves for the next incident, so as soon as we’ve got something to track we’ll be good to go.” Grove clicks on the power point and it switches from the coversheet covered in clip art palm trees to a time-chart for agent team rotations.
Yanno,” Abe says from his characteristic backward lean in his chosen chair, “if they just did their job we wouldn’t need to wait for someone else to die.”
Kenji is entirely too hungover for this shit. “Fuck off, Abe.”
They’re in one of the conference rooms back at HQ, this one actually used for meetings instead of handing it over to Yadira. Grove always sets up a projector and a power point for every meeting.
Kenji’s old enough to remember power point, but he never learned to use it, god damn.
Grove ignores both Kenji and Abe. “The kids over in analysis stripped restraining charms off the ghoul remains that are very high level and have a distinct signature. The net we’re casting on this will catch some false positives, since other charms of that level might give out the same ping, but we can deal with that as we get to it.”
A rustle of a turning page happens to Kenji’s right. He looks over at Gabriel, sitting with one empty chair between them, doing his special paperwork. Kenji has no idea what Gabriel is always fussing with and he’s never asked. If it’s mission-related Kenji has to sign off on it but since he’s never seen a page, this is all stuff for Gabriel alone.
Well, he has to sign off on most of it. He didn’t sign off on the one-pager last night but Grove just shrugged at him when he asked about it when he got in this morning.
Severe burns must be a pass. When Kenji got shot in the gut he didn’t get a pass, but sure, burns are totally fine. Fuck’s sake.
Grove continues to drone on about working in tandem with the “normal” cops. Kenji tunes him out in favor of flexing his hand and inspecting the rubbery-looking repaired flesh under the fluorescent lighting. As a bonus, it doesn’t smell like cooked steak anymore. He’s going to be avoiding barbecue for a while.
Gabriel flips another of his papers over, there’s a little thud of punctuation that catches Kenji’s attention. He’s clutching that pen a little tight over there, he’s gonna blot out all the words if he’s not careful.
“–and above all, please remember to be alert. Whoever is doing this has unknown motivation, but I think we can all agree that anything that requires turning people to paste is a bad thing.”
Okay, Grove’s dumb joke closer has happened, they’re free. Everyone starts to get up and hustle out the door, while Grove unplugs the stuff he brought in to run the power point. After the time chart at the start, the thing was full of incomprehensible data that he abandoned referring to pretty quickly, so not even the boss was really into it today.
Gabriel gathers his papers quickly. Kenji stands and steps around the empty chair to get over to him. Not close enough to touch, not really, but close enough to talk low and be heard.
He takes a deep breath. “Hey, Gabe?”
Gabriel slams the portfolio he just shoved all his papers into closed and stands, then goes the long way around the table– a route that makes him slide past Grove!– to get out of the room.
Kenji is astonished.
Grove starts to wind the cord from the projector around its base. He looks askance at Kenji after Gabriel is out the door.
“That’s some dedication to avoid you, huh?”
Kenji shakes his head a little and then starts to pick his own way out of the conference room. The short way for him, thanks.
“Don’t praise him, for fuck’s sake,” he says.
Grove hums. “You need to fix this. Whatever it is.”
“I know,” Kenji says at the door. He peers out into the room, can’t see Gabriel anywhere. Did he leave? He’s not at their desk.
“It’s dangerous if you don’t,” Grove says. “Job quality suffers, someone gets hurt, all of that.”
Kenji scrubs both hands through his hair, digs his fingers into the mess and clutches at his scalp.
“I know, all right?” he says. If he’s talking too low for Grove to hear he doesn’t really care. “I know!”
Kenji perches at their shared desk for a veritable age until Gabriel comes back, but that’s just in time for Grove to trundle out with his printed assignment sheet that goes up on the white board and his stack of folders to hand out. There’s no room for talking, not with everyone paying attention to the boss.
Grove’s ex-wife is the Vice President of the leading office supplies contractor based over on the Main Island, and she loves to dump unsold stock onto him every few months “to help with his little business.”
The last shipment was heavy on pastels and neons for the springtime crowd, which is why Kenji and Gabriel’s assignment is printed on mint green paper and comes housed in a neon pink folder.
Today their patrol is over by the central canal and on through the arcade walk that runs southeast from there. It’s an area well-known to house teenagers in the early evening and the late-night drunks move in a bit later.
Gabriel takes the paper with him while he double-checks the map for their range. Kenji follows a few steps behind, keeps his hands crammed tight in the pockets of his jacket. He loves this jacket, he’s had it for a decade and has spent a shitload of money keeping it in good repair, but right now the damn thing feels too tight on him, is making him feel constrained and awkward.
“We’ve been there before,” Gabriel says. He taps on the map on the wall with one finger, right over Fresco street. “That’s the karaoke place that had an infestation of chowderbits.”
“Yeah, you had to sing them down,” Kenji replies. Gabriel was extremely uncomfortable, it was hilarious.
Gabriel hums, then leads the way to the stairs. Other pairs of agents are on their way out, slumped shoulders and shuffling steps notwithstanding.
It’s a thirty-minute walk to the canal from the office. Traffic is light enough that they could call a cab and get there much quicker, but Kenji side-eyes Gabriel, and Gabriel side-eyes him back, and by unspoken mutual understanding they start walking.
Today is one of those rare sunny days where the breeze off the ocean is warm and light. Being out in the middle of the sea means temperamental weather, changing on the flip of a coin, but when it’s nice out it’s easy to forget the biting winds and weeks-long raining jags.
The sun is strong enough that he’s starting to really sweat in his jacket. The thing is made of leather, of course it’ll make him sweat. But he manfully ignores it. This jacket is the only “cool” piece of clothing he owns, so he will wear it, even if he’s turning into an ambling swamp inside it.
Gabriel’s suit is made of light material and he looks perfectly comfortable, the brat.
They hit the canal before Kenji soaks through his shirt. The walkways down by the water are full of tents and shoddy structures made of shipping pallets and appropriated plastic bins. Every island in the circle has a homeless population, and every encampment of them tends to at least partially seek refuge at the canalworks.
Kenji stands in the sun and stares down into the shaded areas of the canal– there’s some sunlight on the other side, but the way things are angled right now the entire bank they’re facing is in shadow. He watches the people down there go about their business, chat to one another, crouch around a radio to listen to a late morning news program.
“If a ghoul popped up down there they’d be toast,” he says.
Gabriel covers his mouth with one hand, has the other arm crossed over his chest like it’ll protect him. “Can we ask Grove to assign resources?”
“Grove hates the homeless.” Kenji turns away from the encampment and begins to walk down it to the East, towards the closest edge of the Island and the nearest port. “They’re probably fine down there anyway. No real way to get a ghoul out of there quietly, however this guy did it. Too open.”
Gabriel follows him, mouth still covered and chest still protected.
“How did he do it in the first place? Sound dampener charms might help with the destruction but ghouls are loud, and whoever it ate probably screamed a lot too.”
Kenji checks across the street, peers down an alley between an independently-run arcade and a smoothie bar. Other than a few overflowing trash bins it’s empty. “Maybe it ate the head first so there wasn’t time for the victim to scream.”
He glances over at Gabriel, who has his thinking face on. “Yanno. Brain food.”
The thinking face vanishes, Gabriel switches to a twisted mouth of annoyance and narrowed eyes.
“It’s factually true but also hilarious.”
A group of teenagers squatting next to the door of a Golden Royal break into laughter down the street. Kenji tries to spot what they’re laughing at and doesn’t see anything.
“It’s not hilarious. Bad jokes aren’t funny just because you say they are,” Gabriel grumbles.
Both of their phones go ping and vibrate. Kenji takes his out of his inside jacket pocket to check the screen. The geeks working the scanners have sent a priority message, says a charm matching the strength signature is in their area, at 667 Fresco street.
“Where is that from where we–“
“Checking the map,” Gabriel says. He swipes a bit more at his phone. The teenagers down the street are still laughing at something. “Next intersection we take a left on the bridge over the canal, then it’ll be to our right. Illuminated Hardware.”
They pass the teenagers on their way. One of them, a gangly boy with a tangled snarl of hair on his head, quirks an eyebrow at Kenji that looks so judgmental he has the urge to stick his tongue out at the kid.
He doesn’t do it. But he wants to.
Illuminated Hardware is an open business that specializes in light fixtures going by all the hanging lamps along the high ceiling of the showroom.
“How can I help you fellas?” the woman behind the counter asks once they’re in view. They have to edge around what looks like a coat-rack with light bulbs screwed on all the branching ends and then Gabriel takes the lead while Kenji stares in horror at a lit up cartoon cat on a display table nearby.
“Mam, I’m with the SWC and we’re here to inspect something that came up on our radar. Do you have a level five charm on your premises, perhaps somewhere near your back bay or alley?”
The woman raises an eyebrow at Gabriel. She’s either really tall or wearing extreme high-heels because then she looks right over his head straight at Kenji, too. She flutters her eyelashes a little, quirks her lips into a grin. “We’ve got a security charm inlaid with our system. Supposed to keep kids from messing with the cameras out back.”
Gabriel waves a hand at her and her gaze snaps back down to his face.
“May we see it, please? We just need to verify the signal and then we’ll be through,” he asks her. Kenji tilts his head to the side and can see a sliver of Gabriel’s jaw. It looks tense, like he’s gritting his teeth.
The woman quirks a thin eyebrow, then smiles slow. Says, “Sure, right through there,” and waves a hand like a television presenter towards the open doorway behind the long counter.
Kenji sidesteps the grotesque cartoon cat lamp– the eyes bug out so much he’s sure they’re an explosion hazard, it’s scary– and brushes his knuckles of his right hand against Gabriel’s shoulder. “Thank you, mam.”
“Oh, call me Lucinda.” Her grin is downright sultry. “Everyone calls me that.”
“Much appreciated, mam.” Kenji grins at the minute falter of her pose, turns away to lead Gabriel away before she can recover.
A long hallway travels lengthwise against the wall separating the showroom to the back areas. At the end of the hall is a switchbox, and on top of that switchbox, a charm console.
Gabriel takes the lead on the console, it’s too technical for Kenji to be comfortable with. The thing is hooked directly into the switchbox to monitor the power coming in, anything that draws from it, and probably any other bits that go in there. A sticker on the inside of the switchbox door is of the Justicar Security logo, so the cameras the charms are protecting must run through there.
After he presses a few buttons and checks the readouts, compares something on the screen to the information on his phone, Gabriel tsks his tongue and leans back from the console, gently swings the switchbox door closed as he goes.
“Not what we’re looking for,” he tells Kenji. He looks beyond him, his face goes tense all over again.
“Anything wrong?” Lucinda asks.
Kenji does not jump. He feels a jolt down his spine like he wants to jump, but he stays rock solid with his feet on the tiled floor and slowly turns around.
The woman widens her eyes a little, not enough to bug them out but just enough to be obvious in her innocence.
“Nothing is wrong, sorry to bother you,” Kenji says.
Gabriel’s phone vibrates. His teeth are clenched as he taps with his thumbs, probably using the secure application Grove tries to make them use to report back that this ping on the scanner is a bust.
“I hope I can be of some help,” Lucinda says. She puts a hand on Kenji’s arm, the one he’s got the hand of crammed in his pocket so if the string drips out Gabriel won’t see it. There’s no astral wonkiness from her touch, just exasperation.
“That won’t be needed, mam.” Kenji sidesteps out of her grip.
She sighs, then rolls her eyes. “Well, if you’re done here I’ll lead you out.”
Gabriel and Kenji’s phones simultaneously vibrate. Gabriel swipes up on his own and blinks at it.
“Another hit?” Kenji asks.
“Yeah, back near the canal.”
Kenji sighs, and gestures at Lucinda to lead the way out of here.
They strike gold on the fifth ping that comes through that night. Out behind an udon joint are smears of human gore in a puddle of ghoul juice. This one is bigger than the last, so either the guy charming the ghouls got one a bit drippier than usual or he found one of the rare ghouls that are absolutely massive.
Three rookie agents from the tech department quickly arrive to assist on the scene after Gabriel calls it in to the office. As soon as their van blocks off the alley that leads to the lot, they scramble out and start to use the scanning equipment hauled out of the back of the van and make excited nerd noises over everything.
Gabriel unfolds a three-pronged rod he brought with him in his pocket. He starts stabbing any pile of five or more bags of garbage, looking for a ghoul. Kenji watches the violence for a little bit, then elects to check around the backdoor to the restaurant this lot caters to.
He finds a cluster of trash cans that look promising. He raps his knuckles on one with a lid on it. This is one of two that are close together, but the one he’s knocking on has a shimmer to it that doesn’t pass the mundane test.
“Fuck off,” the filth-licker inside the can groans.
“Look, I know you’re scared and lost and alone, but I really need to know what happened here.”
The fact that the creature hid inside a garbage can is reason enough to expect it’s terrified. These things like being inside dark houses and bathrooms, licking up the filth from the corners. Not sitting inside garbage cans where a human can lift the lid at any moment.
“Fuccccccck offfffffffff,” the filth-licker reiterates.
“Did you come from the udon shop? Did the ghoul come from in there?”
The filth-licker bangs around inside the can. Must not be a lot of garbage in there. Or he ate it all. Do demons stress-eat? They must.
“Look,” he says, “I can help you get out of here. But we’re looking for something bad and–“
The garbage can starts to wobble menacingly. This filth-licker is extremely rude, and is wearing down Kenji’s patience.
“Yanno, I can take a peek any time I want to.”
The filth-licker inside the can goes still.
Kenji gently places his fingers under the rim of the lid, makes sure he’s got a grip no matter how tentative, then slowly starts to lift it up.
A whip of a tongue lashes out through the sliver of a gap to smack his fingers, with the tip slicking up the back of his hand.
Kenji drops the lid and shrieks as he scrabbles back a step. It’s not a manly shriek, it’s one of pure disgust and terror. He holds his hand out from his body and sees the wet sheen of saliva on his skin.
How does he know if rot is setting in? What does rot look like? He knows what decomposing looks like, but not demon-induced rot. This is so disgusting and gross.
The filth-licker cackles inside its can so hard it rocks in place.
“What are you doing?” Gabriel asks.
Kenji whips around, cradles his befouled hand by the wrist close to his chest. Gabriel has apparently stopped poking at the garbage with his long pointy stick to come see what Kenji is making noise over. Even the rookies over by the ghoul puddle have stopped their excited squeaking over the equipment and are glancing back at Kenji in concern as they work.
There’s no way he can save face with this; it’s gone too far, and his shriek was too loud. He settles on telling the truth.
“It’s the demon’s fault.”
The filth-licker continues to cackle. The lid rattles a little from the force of its glee.
“As soon as I get you out of there you’re getting a bath,” he snarls in its direction.
The garbage can stops rocking and the cackling stops.
Kenji turns back to Gabriel, who doesn’t look impressed. It’s in the mouth. Gabriel’s mouth only goes flat like that when he’s not happy about something.
“Once the trace is found we have to move quickly,” Gabriel says. “Will you be fine to do that?”
Kenji startles, draws his shoulders up and takes a step to the side, away from the filth-licker’s trash can.
“It just licked me, I’m not critically injured here.”
Gabriel’s gaze never leaves Kenji’s face. “Your head hasn’t been in the game for a while.”
“Hey, you’d be yelling too if the little shit whipped you with its tongue!”
Gabriel hesitates. He obviously doesn’t have an argument for that.
“I just think you need some more rest, maybe.”
“I don’t need rest, I need a beer.” Kenji waves his unlicked hand in front of his face, brushes away that tangent. “But we’ve got a lead here so I can’t have either of those things.”
“You’ve been cutting corners lately. A lead won’t do us anything if you–“
“Taking shortcuts.” Gabriel rubs at the side of his jaw. “The last couple weeks in particular. Just… rolling a goblinade into a canal? That’s cruel.”
Kenji’s mouth has dropped open in outrage. He snaps it shut right on a snarl. “Oh come on, they’re sturdy. I landed right on it in the store and it didn’t even wheeze.”
“I think you should go home.”
“What you think doesn’t matter because I am the senior agent, so I get to call the shots!” Kenji lightly kicks the filth-licker’s can for emphasis. The demon inside grumbles.
Gabriel stops palming his own face and his mouth sets in a grim line.
“You may be the senior agent, but there are lives on the line here,” he spits, “and you don’t get to half-ass this like usual.”
Kenji snaps his mouth closed, his teeth clack together loudly in the quiet of the evening.
Gabriel’s eyes get wide, he swallows and takes a half-step away from Kenji.
“Are they gonna have a slapfight?” one of the rookies asks, too loud.
“Shhh!” another one hisses.
Kenji doesn’t look at them. He’s too busy staring down Gabriel. “You’re saying I’m going to get you killed, huh.”
“You don’t communicate,” Gabriel says, softly. “Something is going on with you, and that’s what you’re focusing on. You’re not focusing on the danger. You don’t care if you get yourself killed.”
“Pick. One.” Kenji snaps. “Either I’m getting you killed here or myself, can’t be both.”
Gabriel’s face does some complicated twisting around the mouth. Kenji grits his teeth in response. He’s not going to feel bad about putting him on the spot like this, because Gabriel is the one being an ass about this.
Sure, he has reasons. Kenji’s been expecting a confrontation and call-out any time now. But to say he’s going to get someone killed? No. Absolutely not.
“Uh, agents? We have the trace.”
Gabriel spins on his heels and stomps away from the confrontation. Kenji follows him.
The agent who spoke is the blond one with freckles all over his face and his tie done too tight at his neck. He holds out the tablet that has information from the scan they did to Gabriel, who takes it from him.
The other two rookies pack the scanner back into the van. It’s one of those stubby ones with a truncated cargo space and very few seats for passengers. There’s not enough space for both him and Gabriel to ride inside. They’ll have to call a cab and make the cab follow the van as it follows the trace.
Kenji rubs at his forehead and stifles a groan. Cabbies are always iffy on the whole “follow that car” thing, this is going to require an argument and extra money.
“Good job,” Gabriel says and hands the tablet back to the rookie, who blushes and looks down at his shoes.
Kenji raises an eyebrow at the blush, but then Gabriel turns to him and he’s got that clench to his jaw that makes Kenji brace for impact.
“You need to decide if this is the job you want, and recommit if it is,” he says.
“What.” Kenji tilts his head to one side. “I better not be hearing Grove rhetoric from you, kid.”
Gabriel’s face does a full twitch, then smooths out.
“Go home, Agent Masuda,” he says, then climbs into the front passenger seat of the van.
The rookie driving glances at Kenji with wide eyes and scurries around the front to get behind the wheel. The side door slides closed, protecting the other two from his wrath.
The van is a light electric engine. There is no need for it to clunk into a start or even rev before going. The headlights blink on and it speeds off near silently, only the high-pitched whine of the engine warming up and the crunch of the tires on the wet asphalt sounding it’s exit.
“Agent Masuda?! Are you fucking kidding me?!” Kenji screams after the van, after them, after Gabriel.
The van reaches the road, the left indicator blinks on, and it turns off, out of sight.
Kenji stands in the middle of a crime scene by himself and listens to the buzz of some nightbugs attacking a nearby street lamp. They’re banging on the glass of the lights like they have something to prove. It’s annoying.
Far back into the scene the filth-licker begins to cackle, a low bemused thing.
“Fuck this,” Kenji says, and pulls out his phone to call a cab.
End of Pt1 Ch3