Connor stood up to greet the crime boss and his associate. The man next to Joey was probably about six feet with hair the color of dirty dishwater. He was vaguely ethnic, maybe Italian or Greek, with sunken-in eyes of dark hazel. The man wasn’t particularly muscular, but was very lithe and held himself with a posture that somehow felt menacing. Connor shook Joey’s hand then offered it to the newcomer, who refused. “Glad you could see me, Joey.”
“You kidding? I was just about to send for you myself.”
“Oh yeah? Hopefully not for something bad.”
Joey was tightlipped and straight-faced. “Sit down, kid. Let’s talk business.”
“Sure thing.” Joey motioned for Connor to take the side farthest from the exit. The mysterious associate sat opposite him while Joey took the head of the table.
“So, for starters, why are you here, Connor?”
Connor eagerly pulled out the neat stack of bills, “Ten large, just as you requested.”
“Look at this guy, huh! That’s good work, my friend, really good work.”
“And that’s really all I came down here for, so I guess I’ll be on my way.”
Connor started to get up, suddenly feeling nervous about the look the man on the other side of the table was giving him. Joey gave an irritated wave, and Connor slowly sat back down. Joey straightened the money a few times, not saying anything. Connor could feel a nervousness pulling at the edges of his brain, telling him to run out the door right now. Finally Joey spoke, “Connor, you know I like you, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so. What is it, Joey?”
“I mean, I’ve seen you lie straight to a cop’s face, never breaking a sweat. And I always said to myself, I said, ‘Joey, here’s a guy who ain’t never gonna drop a dime. Here’s a man who’ll always be loyal.’”
“Of course, Joey. I’d never rat you out. I’d never rat anyone out.”
The man across the table grew agitated at this statement. He reached his hand into his suit pocket. At first, Connor thought he might pull a gun, but instead he reached in and placed down on the tabletop a tiny, black dot. His stare was murderous, but he never spoke. Joey broke in, “Connor, sorry for not introducing you sooner. This here is my friend, Terence. Terence, this here is Connor Donnelly.”
Connor’s guts clenched down to the size of a pea. He could feel his bowels threatening to loosen. Before he had only gotten a vague sense of menace from the man, but now he understood it was out and out rage. “T-Terence? Nice to meet you.”
The Chopper said nothing still, so Joey continued, “Now, you see, Connor. I got this problem. My buddy here, he’s not too fond of cops. Now, I know you know how that feels.”
“Of course, Joey.” Connor had the vague sense that he knew where this was heading. He wanted to cry. Worse still, a cockroach streaking across the wall near the sidebar sent Connor jumping out of his chair.
“Hey! Hey, relax Connor. We’re all just talking here. Nothing to get twitchy about.”
“What? Yeah, of course.” No other bugs appeared, but Connor kept his eyes fixed on the wall.
“Now my buddy Terence, as I said, he don’t like the five-oh. So imagine how he felt the other day when a whole swat team was just outside his door? I mean, talk about your shitty days, am I right?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty bad luck, I guess.” Connor thought he saw another flit of a cockroach, but it was too low to be sure. He slowly raised himself up in the chair. Joey and Terence exchanged a meaningful glance.
“Bad luck. That’s what he thought. But he decides to get himself checked out after he escaped from said cops.”
“How’d he do that?” Connor was trying to distract himself from thinking about massive piles of bugs.
“How’d he get away from a full swat team.”
Joey looked at Terence. “He didn’t say. It’s not that important, Connor. Look, he ran a sweep and he found this bug had been sewn into the lining of his jacket. Weird right?”
“Yeah, totally weird.”
“So naturally he came to me. I talked to my very close friends on the force,” ‘close friends’ was of course his euphemism for dirty cops on the payroll, “and they found out these two pigs named Romsky and Lennon are trying to put the bracelets on my good buddy here. That made me curious as to how they might have come up with such a genius plan as getting a tracker into the coat.”
“Joey, I …” A few more roaches were streaking in through ventilation ducts now.
“Hold up, I’m almost finished. So I had my close friends buy these two gentlemen a drink, and, darndest thing, you know what they said? They said this guy from another precinct gave them the idea. Said his name was MacKenzie. Can you believe that? MacKenzie! Isn’t that the same name you use when you’re running as a fake copper, Connor?”
The cockroaches were starting to enter in earnest now. Connor could see them pooling on the ceiling. He knew he had to get out, but wasn’t sure how to accomplish it. “Yeah it is, Joey. You know that. It’s Stan MacKenzie.”
“Well, you might see how that puts me in a bit of a bind, Connor. This mystery cop and your alias sharing the same name.”
“Purely coincidental, I assure you.”
“That’s what I thought at first too. But you know what? I called around all the precincts, and there is no policeman of any rank named MacKenzie. Which I thought was pretty hilarious, actually, because how many MacKenzies are in this damned city? Yet none of them are cops. Strange but true. Some people might think that you were the one who told those cops to plant a tracker, but I know that couldn’t be. Not Connor Donnelly, no way. So I promised my friend, Terence, that I would ask you face to face. So I want you to look at me, Connor. Look at me right now, and you tell me that you were not the one who sold this dear friend of mine up the river.”
Connor could see the riot of roaches on the ceiling. Some of them had fallen off to form another, small pool on the floor just behind Terence’s chair. He wanted to scream and run, but he also knew that would get him dead just as fast. “Joey. Listen to me, we have to get out of here right now.”
“Why aren’t you answering the question, Connor? I need you to look me in the eye and tell me the truth right now. Otherwise I’m gonna’ have to let Terence do the asking, and I don’t think you’re gonna’ like how he asks.”
Just then a call came from the phone that sat on the meeting table. Joey picked it up and said, “Eileen, I’m busy.”
Connor could hear the murmur of the pretty secretary’s voice on the other side, but it was too muted to make out.
“Yeah, mhmmm. Who’s that?”
More murmurs. Connor tried to not look at the alarming overhead image of cockroaches crawling all over each other.
“And he says he saw him there, you’re sure?” He eyed Connor for a moment.
More garbled talk. A cockroach fell from the ceiling onto the floor just behind Terence. It scuttled off and joined the group on the floor.
“Fine. We’ll be right there.” Joey hung up the phone. “Sorry, Connor, that’s business I gotta’ take care of. It won’t take very long, so just sit tight.”
He gestured, and Terence got up with him. Connor hoped the Chopper might see the disturbing pile, but his chair perfectly covered the bugs on the floor. Connor rose as well, “Y’know, I could come along too. I’m sure I could do something to help with your business.”
Joey shot him a dangerous look. “Sit down.” Connor obeyed. “We’ll be back in two shakes, and, when we are, I want to see you sitting right at this spot. Believe me when I say it would be very bad for you if you weren’t.”
They closed the door. Connor could hear the click of the lock as it slid into place. He looked up at the growing darkness of the cockroaches overhead and knew that he couldn’t stay put. He stood and rushed to the door. He was dimly aware of the growing mass on the floor on his periphery. They were rising up from the blue carpet now. Roaches on top of roaches on top of roaches forming an ever growing mountain. Connor inspected the lock. It was a fairly complex design with a keyhole on either side of the door, clearly someone was paranoid about a break-in … or a break out.
Connor looked over at the growing form on the carpet. Great swathes of the bugs on the ceiling were taking suicide leaps off of their high perch and landing on top of the pile. It was growing faster and faster now, the body of the Om de Daunatori forming out of the continual chaos of writhing, skittering shapes. Connor had his picks in his jacket pocket, but he knew that he didn’t have the time.
He inspected the rest of his pockets, trying to think of something that might forestall his imminent demise. The little notebook seemed hardly useful. Several burner cellphones in various pockets could be used to call for help, but he doubted even Lizzie could make it in time to save his hide. A cloth handkerchief he would occasionally fold up as an impromptu pocket square was at least available to use as the white flag of surrender. A couple of business cards and scraps of paper rustled around like pieces to a puzzle he’d never complete. Then he checked his pants pockets and found his lighter. An idea struck. It felt like a long shot, but in that moment of total desperation it was better than no shot at all.
Connor stuck to the edge of the room, trying to keep as far away from the imminent Om de Daunatori as he could get. He didn’t have much of a window for success, the aisle around the table was narrow, and the mounting mound of pests was growing geometrically inconvenient. He could hear the squish of a few bugs here and there as he sidled along the sidebar. He reached out his hands, stretching his fingers. He was dead even with the mountain of roaches now; he could feel their bulk spilling out between his legs. More and more bugs were dropping down from the ceiling, making a crawling pillar down towards the floor. Connor’s fingers finally reached their target. There was a compacting of the column of creatures as the mass gained awareness of his presence. He gripped down on the object of his desire and jumped away before an arm formed from the pile and reached out for him.
He moved quickly from there. Setting down his plunder, the whiskey bottle, he unstoppered it and poured half of it out. He pulled out the handkerchief and twisted it up until it had formed a tight line. He pushed it down into the bottle, thankful that it was just long enough to dip down into the liquid. He twisted it down and around so that it stopped up the mouth of the whiskey. Finally he took out the lighter and clicked it on, running the bright orange flame up and down the exposed end of the handkerchief until it was one long, burning wick. He turned to the Daunatori just in time to hear its voice
“Yeah, I know this bit. How about you get a new act, creepy? In fact, here, I got just the thing to give you that extra flare.” Connor tossed the improvised molotov at the base of creature. It went up in a flash, and the hiss and pop of bugs in a fire filled the air. He was instantly gratified that Joey was the kind of tightwad that would buy the chintzy nylon carpet that didn’t have any kind of flame retardant. The blue fibers lit up, adding a distinctive red hue to the flame.
The Om de Daunatori’s bulk was popping and whining in the searing heat, its straining bulk sounding like a thousand little screams. Connor wasn’t about to sit around and wait for the thing to get itself together. He pulled out his picks and ran to the door. It was a tricky bit of work, but he’d had a lot of practice with doors when he was getting ready for the Securities, Ltd. job. He tripped the lock and sprung the door open. He spared half a glance towards the cursed spirit hunting him; it had separated itself from the cockroaches. Connor could see the form of the shadowy man, which looked at him with something that could have been taken for rage. Connor rushed out, knowing for certain that more bugs were on their way.
The secretary, Eileen, stood up at the noise of his coming. She went over to the front door and blocked the exit. She looked down for a moment, confused by the streams of ants, centipedes, cockroaches, spiders, and beetles that were crawling in under the door, but still had the dedication to bring her gaze back up and look haughtily at Connor. “Mr. Malone said that you are to wait for him here. You can’t leave!”
“Do you see what’s going down, sweetheart? It’s like the goddamned plagues of Egypt in here. I suggest you get away from that door. You don’t want to see what’s following behind me.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Donnelly. My instructions were quite clear.”
It was faster than Connor was hoping. Eileen’s eyes grew wide, and Connor turned back to see the Om de Daunatori, its form wreathed in smoke from the now blazing conference room. It didn’t look to be in a playing mood any more and it started moving at incredible speed. Eileen screamed then flung the door open. Connor was right behind her. Despite his still sore legs and aching side, he passed her quickly. It is not good to be a desk jockey when it comes time to run away from the freaky bug-composite curse monster, he thought sardonically. He was already partway down the block when he heard the scream. He turned and saw that Eileen’s stiletto heel had broken and she had fallen flat on her face. That last sliver of conscience in Connor told him to go back and help her. He took a few steps towards her as she got up. She had hobbled only a few steps before the Om de Daunatori had caught up to her.
For a moment, it looked like the Daunatori had eaten her whole, leaving nothing behind. It simply walked up then through her, and, when it passed, there was nothing of her on the other side. Connor stood in shock, unable to comprehend something devouring all the way through the bones that fast. It looked at him for a moment then took a step to the side. Eileen was there, still perfectly intact other than the disheveled hair and clothes and the blank look of absolute shock on her face.
“Come here, doll. You need to get away from that thing.”
She didn’t move, and Connor wasn’t sure what else to do. The monster was probably going to start moving again any second, and he needed to be gone before then. He decided to give it one more try, beckoning to her while keeping one eye on the creature. “Hey, lady, come along now. Can you hear me?”
“Mmmm….” She whimpered.
“We gotta’ go. You don’t wanna be standing there when it moves again.”
“Mmmmmaaaaaaa….” A tear slid down her cheek.
“This ain’t no time to cry for your mother. Last chance, doll. Come with me and let’s get outta’ here.”
“MMMMMaaaarrrrDDDeerrrrraaaaaarrr.” Cockroaches climbed out of her mouth while beetles and ants pushed her eyeballs out of their sockets. More bugs poked out from various places on her skin. She took a shambling step towards him, and Connor lost it.
“Fuck!” He almost fell backwards but regained his balance and ran faster than a sailor trying to make last call at the whorehouse.
“MMMuuaarrrDDerurrr.” Eileen’s voice was a raspy, desperate yell as Connor turned the block and kept running. The sun was setting, and the dim oranges and reds reminded him of the still blazing fire at the law office. His legs were complaining so loudly that he had barely even made it a block before he knew he was nearing the end of his capability. A bicycle messenger was coming from the cross street and turning his way. Without a moment’s hesitation, he tackled the biker off and stripped the vehicle from between his legs. Fear drove him as he hurriedly mounted the bike and pedaled away. The messenger stood up and ran after him, yelling all the while.
He made it several blocks before his panic wore down a bit. Looking behind him, he couldn’t see Eileen or the Om de Daunatori. He slowed his pedalling a bit and tried to think. I kinda’ wish that Charise had told me the damned thing could make bug zombies. That’s the kind of information you should probably be sharing, he thought ruefully. He biked past the oncoming fire trucks that were on the way to the law office. He let out a deep sigh of agitation.
So far today he had made a deal he wasn’t really committed to with a dangerous Brit, probably gotten in Terence’s crosshairs, burned down Joey’s place of business, and gotten no closer to knowing how to stop the terrible bug guy that was making a bad habit of turning up when it was most inconvenient. This day was turning out to be a total wash. He didn’t know where Leyla was, he didn’t know how to get the hit off of him, and he didn’t know how to break the curse. He got the grim feeling that he was trying to play Russian Roulette with a semi-automatic.
After almost an hour of biking, Connor found himself at a little coffee shop. The people inside were chatting excitedly. They all looked animated and happy, the exact opposite of how Connor felt. He had been running around all day, and biking now for way longer than any sane person should. He was exhausted, yet he couldn’t rest or sleep. He had to keep moving. Visions of poor Eileen flashed in his head as he ordered a latte with as many shots as the barista would let him have.
He drank it eagerly, wanting to get going again so badly that he burned his tongue. He threw the empty paper cup in the trash and went back towards his bike. He had almost slung his aching leg over when one of his burners rang. Pulling it out, he noticed that it was the number he had given to Lizzie and Charise. He felt foolishly hopeful as he pushed the button and put the phone up to his ear.
“This is Connor.”
“Yeah, it’s Liz. Hope I’m not bugging you.” The inflection on the word was in poor taste after the scare he had just had.
“Eat shit and die, Detective.”
“Whoa, sorry, Connor. I didn’t know you’d had your sense of humor surgically removed. Didn’t you know that can lead to Irritable Bitchy Syndrome?”
“Lizzie, do you got a reason to call, or are you just shooting the breeze?”
“Fucking Fuck, you are in a foul mood. I ain’t seen you this pissy since that time you found out bank doors have magnetic locks.”
“Goodbye, Detective O’Shea.”
“Wait! Wait. I’ve got something for you, but I don’t think it’s going to help your moodiness.”
“What is it?”
“It’s hard to explain. I need to show you. Where should I pick you up?”