She had begun seeing the graffiti about four months ago, appearing in hazard orange spray paint first on the alley wall of the deli six blocks from her office building, then on a park bench near her usual bus stop in Flamingo Rock. The coded blacklist in the lonely hearts ads she was used to; she checked them regularly out of habit, the way someone might read the classifieds with only a vague sense of what they were looking for, but rarely made an effort to look for the people they described, largely uninterested in her civic duty toward her fellow freaks. But when the Uncanny Union stooped to such obvious warnings, you took notice, because it meant that more subtle methods hadn’t worked to eliminate the problem. It meant that the person they were after wasn’t just an inconvenience, but a danger.
She knew about the Southpaw Man, of course - what cryptid in the Badlands didn’t? He was the latest fashionable urban legend, something thrilling and frightening to gossip about at Paradisco on Saturday evenings. A figure taken straight out of Dracula, an Abraham Van Helsing for the modern age, and he allegedly did his hunting with horrifying efficiency. They said he could smell the glam on you, would know you for what you were at a glance - that he was a glammer himself, and it hid him until it was too late. She knew there had been too many disappearances lately, too many to blame them all on Weird Flight from the metastasizing suburbs, but she had never credited the rumors. It was too fanciful, too storybook. The Southpaw Man was no more real than the Jersey Devil, which had after all been nothing but a stray thrall of the Roadkill God that had wandered into the Pine Barrens out of the Vagary. It had mauled no more than a handful of hikers before expiring in its own tumorous juices, and she'd assumed this one-hand jack was a low-grade Agonist at most, someone Angelo's boys would have under control inside a month.
But she was standing a block from her new bus stop now, looking at the back wall of the video rental store across the street, reading the warning there - no whimsical murals with an inconspicuous signature, just tangerine text that shouted at the eyes. They were dead serious. The Union Committee not only believed the Southpaw Man was real, that he was a threat - they believed that he had been in no fewer than three of the places she went regularly. It wasn’t just unsettling - she had bypassed unsettled days ago. It was actually frightening.
It had been a long time since she’d genuinely been afraid of something. The hunger stole compassion first, because a predator wouldn’t survive if it could empathize with the animals it was supposed to hunt, but over time all of the other emotions seemed to go too. It was like progressively going colorblind, and after awhile you almost forgot what things like yellow and orange had looked like, until they returned without warning and scorched your eyes. She was afraid, but she also needed to work if she didn’t want to depend entirely on the good graces of Angelo de los Angeles and his cronies - and the mistake that would undo her, on this gorgeous summer afternoon, was the simple, universal assumption that nothing truly bad can happen in the middle of the day.
She sat at the bus stop, back stiff, smoothing her dark brown hair with a slender, olive hand. Her nerves were rattled, yes, but she felt fine - the overblown incompetent she did secretarial work for was so prodigiously fat that she could afford to parasitize him twice a week, and she had left him in his office in a daze, totally unaware of what she had done. She’d started to notice small sores at the corners of his mouth, and wondered how much longer it would be before she needed a new job. She wondered if he’d given what he’d caught to his wife - if the woman could even bear to be touched by him at all. She wouldn’t have blamed her if she couldn’t.
Fifty years ago, she might have felt some stirring of horror at her own train of thought, at how casual and flippant it was - she could even remember a time when she had felt horror over it, long ago - but she had, as they said, lived since then. Why should she care if her fat, lecherous boss caught rabies or hepatitis? Why should she care if his wife, or even his wife’s mistress caught it? What should she care if the whole of the Electric Coast caught it? If she had learned anything about people since they had invaded the Neon Badlands, it was that there were always more of them, much the same as the last had been, and that only the calamity of all calamities would ever succeed in wiping them out entirely. It was none of her business.
She wrinkled her nose at a sudden waft of unpleasant odor - the tang of whiskey, overlaying a smell that reminded her vaguely of a rotten onion. Her back stiffened a little further when a tall, lanky man dropped down on the far end of the bench from her. He was obviously homeless, bundled in a ratty coat despite the summer heat and jeans faded to the color of dishwater, leather shoes whose expensive brand she could only excuse by their battered condition. He had pulled them from a dumpster, probably, and worn the tread threadbare since. There was no debating the source of that stench, and she felt a ping of irritation and contempt, avoiding the man’s haggard face with the reflexive ease most Haves experience when confronted with a Have Not. Don’t make eye contact, the maxim went, and she wouldn’t, because he might ask for change, or take her attention as an invitation to begin some delusional panegyric. Cripes, but he stank.
The homeless man sat blessedly silent and unobtrusive beside her, hands jammed into his pockets and face buried in the collar of his coat, but she still felt a flood of relief when she saw the bus approaching, and shot to her feet with a haste that bordered on rudeness. She didn’t care - the homeless were, in her own opinion and that of many of her friends, useful only as a very last resort. If one had to stoop to eating the indigent, one was either incompetent or desperately ill - or possessing unaccountable poor taste.
She boarded, paid her fare, and chose a seat halfway down the length of the bus, preparing to settle in with the half-finished book in her purse. Another wave of that stench stopped her before she had even opened the cover. The homeless man had boarded the bus behind her, slotting coins slowly into the farebox, and she firmly glanced away the moment he turned down the aisle, holding her breath as he passed. He took a seat near the back of the bus - probably planned to sleep there until he was kicked out at the end of the circuit - and the driver pulled away into the thoroughfare, leaving her in a steel box with that horrible stink.
After suffering it for five minutes, she glanced cautiously to the left and ahead of her, gauging the reaction of the other passengers. Really, it smelled so bad she thought someone else must have noticed it, but none of the other commuters seemed bothered. The old woman sitting across the aisle from her had glanced toward the back of the bus once with an expression of sadness, or maybe pity, but that was all. Humans had weaker senses as a rule, but she didn’t know how they could miss it - that horrible, pervasive stench of spoiled vegetables.
And…and something else, she thought. The overlaying smell of alcohol made it hard to pick out, but there was something beneath it, too - a sort of musky, polecat odor that made her think of roadkill. She curled her lip at the thought, then frowned at a tickling of familiarity the smell tried to bring her. It was a vague thing, and she couldn’t quite seem to get it, fleeing further away the harder she tried to focus on it. Shaking her head like a dog trying to clear its ears of water, she determinedly opened her book and tried to read.
She managed twenty minutes of the hour-long drive across town before she finally gave into the urge to actually turn around in her seat and look at the man, whose presence she didn’t seem able to completely shut out. She had been prepared to look away immediately if she thought he might catch her, but she found that she needn’t have worried. The homeless man did indeed appear to have fallen asleep, his forehead pressed to the grimy bus window, mouth a little ajar, breathing slow and even. He was older, long, bone white hair shot through with strands of steel gray, but just looking at his weather-beaten face, she couldn’t have said if he was fifty or seventy. She got the sense that he might have been remarkably handsome, once - in the strong cleft of his chin, the shape of his jaw, the evenly spaced eyes - but she couldn’t bring herself to find any beauty in the dirty ruin of a thing he was now. She felt another surge of contempt for him, stronger this time.
He had stuffed one hand into his coat as if to hold in the warmth, although he was visibly sweating, and his other hand rested lax on his lap, tough, pitted fingers curled between the V of his bowed knees. He looked dead to the world, and she thought the odds that he would get off before her stop extremely slim. She thought of mentioning the man to the driver and asking to have him removed, but she had seen him pay his fare, and no one else seemed the least bit bothered by him, or even aware of him.
She tried to read again, actually angry now, but after little more than a page or so found her mind wandering, snagging again and again on that lingering sense of familiarity that was trying to become memory somewhere in the back of her mind. It niggled at her, like something important that she knew she had forgotten. She smoothed her hair again, and she didn’t see the single bloodshot disc of an iris gleaming at her from under coal gray eyelashes.