“You do know how ridiculously fucking gullible you’re being, right, Connor? Like, blind nun at the gypsy carnival levels of gullible.”
The cruiser had made it back into the city and was now slowly making its way into Francis’ neighborhood. Connor had asked Lizzie to drop him off a few blocks away from the pawn shop when she’d lost it. “What do you want me to do, Liz? The whole point of going out to Millers’ Crossing was to find a lead on Leyla, and we came up empty handed. Now I have a solid lead. Do you expect me to just throw it out with yesterday’s garbage?”
“I want you to start thinking with your brain instead of your dick. Don’t you think Francis might be lying on behalf of Joey or Terence to get you out in the open?
“Don’t you think that occurred to me?”
“Why are you letting your hard-on for Leyla overwrite your common sense?”
“Because, Detective, they don’t know how hard I’m looking for Leyla. Why would Joey set me up with Leyla bait if he doesn’t know I’m desperate to find her?”
Lizzie’s voice was an avalanche of sarcasm, “Yeah, that logic seems airtight. No flaws there. No sirree. Una-fucking-saillable.”
“Besides, what would I even do? It’s not like I gotta lot of resources these days.”
“You got me, you jackass! Now stop beating around the bush. I’ve been around you too long to think you’re just walking in there empty handed. I know you got a plan and I know you need my help. Stop playing the martyr and tell me what you need.”
Connor smiled; Liz knew his game too well. “Fine. First I need you to go get that file, then I need you to swing by the pawn shop. You’re dropping me pretty far from Francis,’ and I need to get a coffee anyway, so you should arrive just shortly after me.”
“Okay, then what?”
“One of two things is gonna happen. Maybe it’s Leyla in there or maybe it’s Joe and Terence. Either way you bust in and make a big show of arresting them. I’ll hide scared and run out afterwards.”
“Why would you do that?”
“If Francis sees me buddying around with you, it’s curtains for my career. He’ll tell every ten-penny fence in the city that I’m no good and I’ll never find work in this town again. If you bust in, however, Joey and Terence will probably be in the middle of a crime like trying to murder me. You can arrest them on the spot and haul them in no problems. Even if they are just talking, Terence has a warrant on him. You get your man, and I walk away clean.”
“But why arrest Leyla?”
“She probably won’t be too keen on sticking around once I show up. If you slap the cuffs on her, I can talk to her in the cruiser and get any info I need.”
“That’s pretty stone-cold, Connor. Are you saying you’re over that soulless, blonde succubus?”
“I’m saying it’s a tight plan with no loose ends.”
“Let’s hope you’re right. You get out here.”
The cruiser deposited him on the corner just opposite Securities, Ltd. He picked up a coffee from the same lady in dreadlocks who had served him on that fateful day. Everything was exactly the same but in reverse, like he had somehow taken a wrong turn in the space time continuum and now time was flowing backward. Now he was getting coffee, soon he would go to the pawn shop, then he would talk to Leyla. Maybe, if he was lucky, his life would rewind to the point that he never met the broad and he could start over completely clean. He sipped his coffee and tried to clear his mind. A day and a half without sleeping made his thoughts slipshod and fantastical. He had to focus on the job; there was too much risk in going to the pawn shop.
Hillman’s Pawn and Hock stood there, orange and pristine, as it always had, but something felt a little off. Connor couldn’t put his finger on it, the boarded up buildings and empty lots were just as old and run down as they ever were, but there was a tingling on the back of his neck that stopped him in his tracks when he was within sight of the shop. He looked around, nervous that there might be some attack, but didn’t see so much as an errant cockroach. Still, having been through the wringer with the Om de Daunatori too many times now, he approached with caution. His steps were slow and deliberate, and he checked around constantly for any signs of bugs. There was still nothing, so Connor trepidatiously pushed the door to the pawn shop open, his neck still alight with angry, electric buzzing.
Inside the pawn shop was empty except for Francis. The shiny pate of his bald, brown head gleaming as Connor slowly walked into the store. The man’s head was down, apparently reading a newspaper on the counter. Connor looked left and right down the rows of shelves, but didn’t see any ninja bug assassins waiting in the wings. The entry bell rang, but Francis didn’t so much as glance upward. Connor started to move toward the middle-aged man with a nervousness gnawing at his guts.
The man didn’t respond. Connor saw an image of Eileen’s face
Not so much as a twitch. Connor envisioned the empty eye-sockets filled with bugs.
“Huh?!” Francis started awake. “Oh, sorry Connor, must have drifted off there for a moment.” Francis gave a weary smile to Connor.
“Jesus Christ, you had me worried.” Connor looked around, making sure there were no bugs or mobsters. It looked clear, but he couldn’t shake the tingling.
“You seem a little twitchy, son. Is something the matter?” Francis’ slow rhythm to his speech calmed Connor down, if only a little.
“Yeah, I just got a little lady trouble, is all.” Connor took to wandering the counter, looking around at the merchandise on display. “Speaking of, you said you thought Leyla might have stopped by?”
“Oh, was that her name? Sorry, I guess it must have slipped my mind. I just remember you said to call if a pretty girl came around trying to fence or asking questions about you. I guess it wasn’t her.”
“That’s okay, Francis.” Connor raised his voice as he moved between the shelves, perusing the miscellany with little interest. “So a pretty girl was asking about me? That seems pretty lucky on my part. When’s this dame gonna’ be back?”
“Oh, I suspect any minute now.”
“I wonder where I know her from. I don’t exactly meet a ton of ladies in my profession.”
“You’ll have to ask her that when she gets here. She said her name was …” Francis took a long pause, trying to conjure the name while Connor picked up a tiny knick-knack. Finally the name finally seemed to come to the pawnshop owner. A small smile lit the corners of his mouth as he slowly spoke the word, “Eileen.”
Connor dropped what he was holding and stared at Francis in stunned silence. Francis flashed him a toothy grin as a cockroach climbed over his hand. Connor looked quickly over to the door, trying to estimate how long it would take him to bolt for it. It was no good. He could see through the very diffuse light coming off the frosted glass that the door had become entirely covered with bugs. The tingling grew more and more insistent. Connor’s eyes darted between the smiling pawn shop owner and the door as a desperate thought took root deep at Connor’s center: Looks like my luck has run out.
“Well you sure do talk better than Eileen did. That’s a pretty impressive trick, Francis.”
“Iiiit’s because I’m still partly alive. The bugggs, they’re in my brain.” Connor could see the flitting of antennae poking their way from Francis’ eyeballs as if they were peeking out to say ‘hello’ before scurrying back. “Iii can feel them … crawling there, Connor, telling me what to do, what to say.”
“Don’t suppose you can fight it?”
Francis convulsed a bit and his hand hit the counter. A shudder ran through the frame of the large, middle-aged man and his head cocked to the side for a moment. His head shot back up. “Nooo. They’re eating … me from the inside. I can feel them laying eggs … inside my skull.”
“Goddamnit, I’m sorry, Francis.”
“Sorry for what? For being a shitty thieefff and a muurrderrer?”
“Sorry for this blowing back on you. But for the record, I ain’t no killer.”
“Buttt you are, Connnnor. You murdered ppppoor Eileen and you murrrrdered mmmme.”
“I think you’re mistaking me with your Daunatori buddy.”
“The Om de Daunatori is just a cccccurse. It’s just a ssingle minded willl. You were the one who keppt running even though you knew you were cursedd. It’s like driving drunk or leavving a burnnner on. You knew you were a ddanger to others and yet you continued anyway.”
“Well, I ain’t too keen on dying.”
“So it’s right for others to die in your place? Me, Eileen, how many lives are worth yours?”
Connor grimaced; there was almost no stutter or hesitation left in Francis’ language at all. “I’m not really much for the big, philosophical questions, Francis. Ethics and morality ain’t my thing. Don’t think I didn’t notice you equivocating there, though. How many people has he killed?”
“So many homeless people around this neighborhood, Connor. So many bodies to keep you from slipping away again.”
“He had me dead to rights a couple nights ago, but I got away. What makes him think I won’t be able to repeat my disappearing act?”
“If you do, he’ll just find you again. But with more bodies, more of your friends, more innocent people taking your punishment. Why don’t you give up and give him what he wants, Connor?”
“If I knew what that was, Francis, I would’ve done it already.” The bugs were beginning to stream in from under the door and behind the counter.”
“You took something. You took what’s his, and he wants it back.”
“I haven’t taken anything that’s his. That job was a complete bust.”
“You took it and you must return it.”
“I didn’t steal anything!” Connor was beginning to feel desperate. The insects were piling in, and he didn’t even know what it wanted.
“You took it and you must return it.”
Connor decided it was time to switch tactics. “And if I give ‘it’ back to you, it’s done? No more curse, no more threat of death, I just walk away clean?”
“No. You possess it. You must join him just as the original owner did.”
“What original owner?”
“He summoned the Daunatori to guard the gem, but never realized it would guard the item from him. Now he is an eternal guard, just like you will be. The Daunatori says you met him when you were in the building.”
Connor suddenly remembered the Cthah and Cheeah of decaying breath and the sight of a rotting person staring at him. His eyes stung at the thought of that being him, a living corpse in a brown jacket with its collar turned up breathing on unsuspecting thieves. “That sounds like a pretty shitty deal, Francis. I don’t suppose there’s room for negotiation? Like I get to live, and in exchange I’ll bring creepy bug guy all the stale bread he could ever want?”
“This isn’t a negotiation. The Om de Daunatori has you now, Connor.” Connor could see the mass of bugs starting to grow into the homunculus of writhing pests. “Give in, and it will all be over quickly.”
“You know, in any other circumstances, I would gladly throw in the towel for Mr. Daunatori here. So it’s really too bad for him.”
“What’s too bad for him?
“That I’m in a pawn shop.” Connor put his entire weight behind a large, nearby TV. It fell onto the Om de Daunatori with a crash, crushing most of its bulk underneath. There was a large smear of insect guts as the remainder of the creature’s form skittered away, new piles of bugs streaming in to reconstitute it. Francis screamed in one high-pitched, sustained note as Connor pulled his lighter from his pocket and jumped the counter.
“Muurrrddddeerrrerrr!!” Francis cried out.
“I’m glad you got Francis to translate for you, buggy boy. Your English is so much better now. Though next time maybe you should just send away for some of those language cassettes. It’s probably slightly easier than ‘pawn shop owner possession.’”
There was a great whoomp as the doors burst open. Mountains of bugs were pouring in from outside. Connor peeked over the counter then brought his head down, trying to get his surprise ready. He could see the piles upon piles that were slowly filling up the space. They were beginning to crawl on him, trying to get into his mouth, ears, and eyes. He swatted them away annoyingly. Finally standing, Connor was just in time to see the contraction of the bugs as the Om de Daunatori reassumed its form.
“You will die, Connor. Give it up.”
“Aw, hell, Francis, by this point I’m starting to have too much fun. Maybe the bugster and I can start a circus act together: Connor Donnelly and his pesky, no-good, curse monster.”
The Om de Daunatori started moving towards him.
“I think you’re your own worst enemy, Francis. You know why?”
“You talk too much.” Connor was backing away, creating some distance from the encroaching Daunatori.
“That seems to be the problem you alone have. Even now, you’re wisecracking.”
“Bad habit, I know. But do you remember when you told me about those vandals having to put the tools of their trade in hock? Do you remember why you said you had to keep it stored behind the counter?”
“Connor…” Francis’ tone was angry.
“Because spray paint is flammable.” Connor clicked on the lighter and pressed down on the top of one of the cans he had loaded up on. A bright flash of near white shot from the can and lit up the Daunatori. Connor kept the flame of the lighter on and kept spraying at the monster in bursts. It backed away, parts of it already alight. With a little bit of space, Connor cleared the counter then continued to spray his deadly jet of liquid fire through the mountains of bugs that were still pouring in through the entrance.
It felt hopeless. Bugs were still trying to crawl up him, and the Om de Daunatori was making it’s way around. With a sudden flash of insight, he grabbed a small knife from nearby and punctured one of the cans. Spraypaint began streaming out of it. Connor kicked some bugs away, then placed the can on the ground and lit it. A couple more cans and he at least had his rear covered. He pulled out a new can and continued moving forward. Having finally reached the door through the bug covered row, he could see that it was still covered top to bottom with writhing insects. There was nothing else to do. Keeping the jet of flame going, he charged through the entry.
A moment of intense disorientation came over Connor as he waded through the massive blockade of beetles, cockroaches, and ants. His flames were clearing out in front of him, but there were so many that they were piling in just as fast. So he found himself for a couple seconds completely covered in bugs. It was not what he expected. In his nightmares, he had always imagined it as feeling like drowning in a thick, gloppy, shiny pool. Instead his whole body felt like it was being lightly tickled.
The light, writhing bodies of the thousands of insects teased and flitted across his skin as if he were being covered with a thousand butterfly kisses. When he came to the other side, his whole body itched like someone had run a giant feather over it. He smacked his hands up and down his body to clear any bugs that had found their way up into his clothing. He was glad the experience was so short. After only a few seconds he had gotten at least a couple hundred insects inside his pants and shirt, he didn’t want to know what they could do with a full minute.
As he turned to continue his hasty retreat, he was reminded exactly what they could do with a full minute. The entire area of the street surrounding the door to the pawn shop was surrounded by a ring of various vagrants Connor had seen in the neighborhood at one point or another. The sores and mangy beards of most of them were grotesquely accentuated by the myriad pieces of flesh and skin that had been eaten away by their creepy crawly controllers. Not to mention the empty eye sockets that nonetheless remained fixed on him. In the center of the ring stood Eileen, barely recognizable now that a good deal of her skin was gone. The mob started moving forward, pressing in on him. All the while they chanted in unison
Connor had nowhere else to go. The ring of bug zombies was too thick for him to push through, and he doubted they would care as much about being lit on fire. Really that would just make them a more effective barrier, Connor thought. They closed in, slowly shrinking the area between him and the door. The Om de Daunatori appeared from the entry, Francis at his side.
“I told you, Connor. There is no escape this time. Whatever lucky star you live under has abandoned you.”
“I’ve always said, Francis, it’s better to be prepared than lucky.” Connor looked around at the mob of zombified bums. “It seems like you’ve learned that lesson in spades. But, then again, so have I.”
Lizzie’s unmarked cruiser smashed through a few bums then slid to a halt right beside Connor. Her voice was tense and her eyes bright shamrocks as she screamed, “Get the fuck in!”
“Think about what I said, Francis. We could be a killer circus act.” Connor hurried into the car and slammed the door.
The cruiser backed out, encountering the bump of several bodies as it cleared the circle of zombies and sped off. Connor breathed in gasps, and he checked back several times to make sure they weren’t being followed. Liz looked him over several times, “Are you fucking okay, you stupid son of a bitch?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Connor tried to say the line with a cool confidence, which was marred somewhat by the discovery a few extra cockroaches he hadn’t managed to get off himself yet. He opened the window and sent the last few hitchhikers packing.
She hit him on the arm. “Next time I say it’s a motherfucking trap, don’t fucking ignore me just because you got a cheese fetish. I swear to God, you could find trouble in an empty field.”
“Yeah, that Om de Daunatori is starting to be a real hassle for you, my apologies.” He started pulling the leftover cans of spray paint from his coat and placing them on the seat between them.
“No Leyla, I take it?”
“No Leyla. Some information at least.”
“The bug guy thinks I stole something from him.”
“I don’t think so, but maybe that will help Charise. I’ll call her in a sec. First, did you get that file?”
“Of course I did. Sorry I wasn’t here quicker; the captain wanted to chat. I might have told him to shove off if I thought you were going to be surrounded by homeless bug-zombies.”
“Well it’s hard to predict when harmless bums will get the itch to become possessed by bugs. I do appreciate your dramatic entrance, though.” Connor opened the file and perused the contents, particularly the section where Sergeant MacKenzie entered into the report.
“Yeah, you owe me for repairs.” Her eyes were still glowing as she looked over at him. “Anything interesting in there?”
“Other than a disturbing inability to tell the difference between the words hour and our, yeah, one thing. I got a couple of phone calls to make and afterwards I probably need to swing by Brody’s then my apartment.”
“Why? What are you gonna to do?”
“If I’m lucky, Lizzie, I’m gonna wrap this entire ridiculous mess up in brown paper and string and write ‘Return to Sender’ on it.”