Time to find out how to get this curse off my back, Connor thought as he held the ‘crazy’ cell phone to his ear. Lizzie was driving the cruiser out to Brody’s ‘off the grid’ place outside the city. When Connor had called and told Brody that Joey was on his back, his trusted tech-savvy pal told him they had to meet at the nervous man called ‘the shed.’ It didn’t matter to Connor, he wanted some space from the craziness that had just transpired at the pawn shop. It also gave him the time to think and make sure all his ducks were in a row.
Charise was the last call he had to make, mostly because he hadn’t wanted to think of bug monsters until he was on the highway outside town. He couldn’t come up with a good rationale for his belief that thinking of the Daunatori caused it to appear faster, but superstition and paranoia were winning over reason lately. At any rate it had made sense to give her some time, since he had just talked to her a few hours ago.
The dull, tinny ringing seemed to take forever before Charise’s rich alto answered on the other end. Connor crossed his fingers and silently prayed to God, Buddha, Vashti, Jupiter, and whoever else might be listening that this would be the last time he ever had to call the crazy, occultist history teacher for anything. Somehow he knew that prayer wouldn’t be answered as he heard, “This is Dr. Charise Blackwood.”
“Heya, doc, it’s Connor again.”
“Hello, Connor! I just finished that microfiche I was telling you about, how did you know to call me?”
“I didn’t. I …”
She cut him off, “Or maybe you have a latent precognitive ability...” She paused a moment before speaking again. “It’s loud. Are you on the road again?”
“Yeah, Liz is taking me to a friend’s. I gotta’ keep movin’, right?”
“Yes, a car should keep you far from the Om de Daunatori. Anyway, about the microfiche, I have some interesting options for your curse. Did you find any ancient scrolls and read them out loud?”
“What? No. Who reads ancient scrolls out loud? I mean, even if you could read them, read silently like a good third grader. Curse avoided.”
“Hm. Okay, well have you ever heard of the ancient totems of …”
“Look, doc, I’m pressed for time here. I called because I got some info that might help you narrow down your search.”
“Oh. Good!” He could hear the sound of papers shuffling around over the phone. “Okay, what did you find out?”
“The Om de Daunatori said it was hunting me because I had an item that belonged to it.”
“It ‘said’ that? Om de Daunatori don’t speak, as far as I know.”
“Oh, they speak. Believe me, they speak. It ain’t nothing you ever wanna hear though. This is different. He made someone else a bug zombie, but this one had the ability to conversate.” He switched over to his effeminate voice. He wasn’t even sure why he was being sarcastic now, other than it being his defense mechanism. “We had a little heart to heart about the Daunatori: its goals, its secret hopes and dreams, and its ideal date. Y’know, typical guy stuff. And, in the middle of the worst manicure I’ve ever given, he let slip that big buggy wants an item and to make me a walking corpse. Talk about rude!”
If she found his affectation funny or insulting, she didn’t let it show through her response. Her tone was even as she said, “Well that certainly narrows it down. It must be a cursed item.”
“I got that. What can you tell me about it that may in some way forestall my impending zombification? Can we sacrifice a chicken or something and remove its bad mojo?”
“Uncursing an item takes a lot of time and research. So I don’t think that is going to be an option unless you have a place you could hole up for a few days and not get killed.”
“Okay, no uncursing, got it. What else you got?”
“If it had been within 24 hours of contact, you could just hand the item off to another person, but I’m afraid that’s not going to work any more. The curse is clearly attached to your life essence now as evidenced by the Om de Daunaotri’s growth in power. I doubt it will let you go easily.”
Connor’s hopes flagged. He had been hoping he could just find the item and hand it to someone, but this option was cut off from him now. “Okay, doc, is there anything I can do?”
“Nothing short of a Writ of Possession would do it.”
“Writ of Possession. It’s basically an official document a person signs, saying they have the item.”
“So like a deed or a title, but for an item?”
“Maybe not quite that official, but it is vital that they affix their signature to it.”
“How specific does it have to be? Do they have to have it in their hands, or in a container?” The gears in Connor’s mind raced and suddenly a light bulb went off. “And, if a container, how big can the container be?”
“It could be in a box but not a building of which they took possession. They’d have to know they were taking the item, though, and that it was cursed.”
“Connor.” Lizzie’s voice broke in on the conversation.
“Just a sec, Liz. I’m almost through.” Connor put the phone back up to his ear. “Anything else I need to know about cursed items?”
“That’s pretty much it. The only thing I could add is that you do not want to destroy the item under any circumstance. That would release the curse without destroying it, and it would be free to roam the earth forever.”
“Got it, no cursed item demolition derbies. Thanks a ton, doc.”
“Connor.” Lizzie was getting impatient.
“No problem, Connor. If you survive, I would like the chance for my colleague to perform an examination on you. I told him about your condition and he was fascinated.”
“Oh, sure, Why not? After being chased down by a curse monster, what’s there to fear in a few pokes and prods? No sweat, really.” He was sweating.
“There is one troubling thing I should probably mention.”
“Connor!” Lizzie was audibly upset now.
Connor covered the microphone, but kept the receiver up to his ear. He had just enough time to follow Lizzie’s gesture towards the source of her frustration before he heard Charise’s voice over the phone saying, “Well, if the Om de Daunatori has an agent who is smart enough to hold down a conversation, then he or she is probably intelligent enough to drive a car.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna have to hang up on you now, Charise. We’ll catch up later. Let me buy you dinner sometime! Ok, later, bye.” He hung up before hearing her response. Amidst the light traffic that filled the highway, Liz’s consternation was focused on a little, white Mustang with a disturbingly obscured windshield. It was covered in a mass of brown, writhing shapes. Every window and the back windshield were covered as well, Connor discovered, as the vehicle came speeding up beside them and slammed into Lizzie’s cruiser. Connor felt the jarring bump of the two cars colliding.
“I’m never picking you up from a fucking bar again, Connor. You can drown in beer and piss for all I care. I thought you needed a designated driver, not a goddamn, motherfucking fumigator.” Lizzie’s cruiser darted and weaved past a few cars. Connor could see the perplexed looks of the other drivers as they saw the Mustang.
The cruiser sped forward to narrowly avoid another sideways bump from the driving Daunatori. “I don’t suppose we could pull him over for a traffic violation? I mean, he hardly has his eyes on the road.”
“He’s got a thousand fucking eyes on the road, Donnelly!” The cruiser lurched forwards and the Mustang slammed into it from behind. Lizzie turned the wheel to break a slide before pounding the gas to move away. “Besides, if we send traffic cops after him, we’ll just get traffic cop zombies. We need a way to get rid of him.”
Lizzie darted around another couple of cars that were close enough together to box in the Daunatori. They had a little bit of space for a moment. “I might have an idea. Can I borrow your gun?”
She punched him in the arm, the cruiser swerving a bit as she did. “Stop coming up with stupid-ass ideas. Even if I could let you discharge my weapon for no reportable reason, what makes you think I’d give a black, fiery bringer of death to an untrained civilian who’d probably just blow a goddamn finger off?”
The insect-filled muscle car made it past the two slower vehicles and collided with their rear again. “Well, sorry, doll! Why am I always the one who has to think of something? Maybe it’s your turn.”
“That’s what you fucking do, Connor! It’s practically your living. You’re a smartass who talks back constantly and comes up with smartass plans that are secretly brilliant. So fucking do it already.”
Connor really tried to think, but car chases were not his area of expertise. The Mustang kissed the corner of the cruiser, nudging it towards a powerslide that Lizzie corrected out of. This sent Connor’s mind into panic mode. “Can’t you just make his car stop or something?”
“Make his car stop?”
“Yeah, put out those spikey strips or whatever?” The cruiser weaved around a few more cars.
“The Great Motherfucking Donnelly, ladies and gentlemen.” Lizzie flourished her hand in an exaggerated fashion that emphasized the sarcasm in her tone. “Even if I had one of those strips on me, which I don’t, how do you want me to put it out on the fucking road?”
The cruiser creaked again as the Mustang bumped into their rear. “Isn’t driving your specialty, really? I mean, don’t they give you cops that super-spy driving school class?”
“It is called tactical driving and it’s the reason we’re still on the road and not a new piece of the guard rail.”
“Don’t they teach you how to stop cars?”
Lizzie swerved a bit to avoid a collision with a car on her right. The guy inside was on a cell phone and apparently hadn’t noticed the chase or the disturbing sight of the Mustang. “Yes, they taught us how to stop a fucking car. I could have that car dead in its tracks right now, but there’s a hitch in your assless chapped giddyup there. Either I’m stopped with him, or he’s stopped alone and people go to check on him. I’m not putting lives at risk that I don’t have to. I’d rather throw you out the fucking side and let the Daunatori have you.”
“Great. Saint Lizzie the Profane. If we can’t stop the car, what exactly do you want me to think of, your venerable holiness?”
“Something outside of the box and crazy.”
Connor thought of the craziest thing he could. “Alright, I don’t suppose you have any flammable liquids on you?”
“I got an old can of lighter fluid from back when I smoked.”
“It’s mostly empty though.”
“Shouldn’t matter. Find a good exit that has a secluded place to park.”
“Park? What are you going to do?”
“What do you think I’m going to do? I’m gonna try and run a grift on a zombie-making curse-monster.” He wasn’t sure why she was staring at him so agog; she had asked for crazy.
Lizzie gained a little distance on the Mustang before exiting. She parked the cruiser underneath an overpass which looked to have little foot traffic other than the occasional vandal. Connor had just enough time to find a convincing spot and pull out his lighter before the Mustang slid to a stop. Francis got out first, the Om de Daunatori following behind. It opted for its shadowy, indistinct form. The bugs in the car started pouring out the open doors and massing up. The Daunatori moved towards Connor as soon as it was out. Francis seemed pleased, “Thank you for finally accepting your fate, Connor.”
Connor held up the lighter fluid, “Not quite yet, Francis. I still got one last ace in the hole.”
“Your fire might kill the bugs, but the Om de Daunatori will just keep coming. Give it up, son.”
“I’m just about ready to, but, I wonder, would Mr. Daunatori be wanting his item back first?”
Francis’ eyes narrowed. “He will take it before or after; it doesn’t matter either way.”
“Ah, but I don’t have it on me. How’s he going to get it once I’m gone? After all, his abilities seem to be tied to me. Once I’m gone, there might not be much more power left in him.” He couldn’t hang a flea on a line as thin as he was putting out, but it was at least enough to cause Francis to pause.
“We’re not letting you go, Connor.”
“I don’t want you to. I just want a couple hours to say my goodbyes in peace. After that I will bring the item to you, and we can finish this once and for all.”
Francis considered for a moment. “You are a grifter, Connor. Why do you think we would trust the word of a grifter?”
“Hey, if I’m lying, you can just use your super-curse power to hunt me down again, am I right? It’s the same to you either way, so why not give me a shot?”
Thought filled Francis’ eyes. Connor could feel a bead of sweat on the back his neck. It was a matter of small nudges, and he hoped that he had provided enough to convince both the man and the monster. Finally a smirk played at his adversary’s lips. “Fine. You have two hours. Where would you like to meet?”
Connor scribbled down an address on a piece of paper in his little notebook and weighted it under a small, loose chunk of concrete. “Feel free to show up fashionably late if you want to.”
“Two hours exactly. Please understand that it will be a world of torment for you if you don’t show up.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Francis.”
Connor got into the cruiser, pulled out his phone, and began calling Brody to update his request. All Lizzie could manage to say was, “That was some fucked up shit there, Connor.”
When the cruiser pulled into the tiny, dirt road that weaved and winded its way back to the little steel prefab building Brody called ‘the shed,’ probably because it looked like a really big shed. Connor was starting to worry about the time. They had lost another ten minutes getting out here and they still had to drive back. He estimated he would have less than an hour to complete everything he needed to do in town. No use worrying about stuff you can’t change, he decided. The shed was obscured by a group of trees and foliage, such that a person could easily miss it even up close. Connor knocked out the rhythm to the 1812 Overture and then opened the door. He gave one last thumbs up to Lizzie, as cops weren’t allowed in the shed, before opening the door and slipping in.
It was quite dark inside. The prefab had no windows in it, and Brody never cared about lights. So the glow of computer screens made up the bulk of the illumination, with the rest of the light coming from a bench light and a mirror with a neon border advertising some kind of liquor. Brody had won the mirror in a game of darts, so he displayed it proudly despite how poorly it fit in among the pizza boxes, soda cans, and mountains of electronics. The space consisted of a long workbench in the back with a terminal, a large, U-shaped desk in the center of the room with a three-monitor display on it, and a tiny kitchenette, which was just a fancy word for a hot plate and a mini-fridge. Brody, who was rail thin like Connor but taller with curly, brown hair and a goatee, was bent over an item on the bench, a soldering iron in his hand.
Brody didn’t say anything for a second, clearly intent on his work. After a minute of silence, he sat up and stretched then turned to Connor, “Welcome to the shed, my friend. Want a pop?”
Connor hated the man’s midwestern reference to soda, but ignored it, “Kinda on the clock right now, man. Thanks for the offer, though. Don’t suppose you got what I need?”
“What do I look like, a noob?” Brody reached down and picked up the item he had just been soldering. It was a tiny, little circuit board, which he placed into a black, plastic square about an inch on each side with a little button inset into it. When the plastic shell clicked together, he tossed it to Connor. “There you go.”
“It’s bigger than the version I saw.”
“Hey, you want James Bond shit, move to England and talk to Q. I work with the tools I got. That right there will get the job done. Trust me on that.”
“Of course I trust you, Brody. We go way back. I don’t suppose you’ve made any progress on the other thing I asked for?”
“Naturally. I called my friend at that little shipping place on 2nd. He’s putting your request together right now. He said you can pick it up in half an hour or so.”
“I don’t have no way to pick it up, pal.”
“He’s letting you borrow his vehicle.”
“That’s pretty impressive.”
“I may have promised him a grand in payment.”
“Jesus, Brody, I’m tapped out right now.”
“Not my problem, Connor. You said you needed it lickety-split, that costs a thousand bucks.”
“Alright, alright, I’ll figure it out. Thanks Brody, you’re a pal.”
“You’re damn right I am. I don’t know what kind of crazy scheme you got going that needs all this stuff, but you’d better cut me in on the score.”
Connor was at the door as he said, “This kind of score, Brody, you probably don’t want in on.”
The cruiser roared down the highway. Lizzie had stayed silent for awhile after Connor had gotten back in, the glow of her eyes back in full force. He was becoming far too familiar with those shamrocks, he decided. It was definitely time for a vacation. When her worry had obviously overwhelmed her, she finally spoke, “So what are you gonna do now, Connor?”
“Now I gotta find the item and figure a way to get it to the Daunatori without it eating me.”
“Oh, is that fuckin’ all? You got a plan?”
“Maybe half a plan, but that’s better than no plan at all. I still gotta get the item first.”
“And you’re sure it’s in your apartment?”
“Yeah. I think so, at least. I know the exact moment that thing started hunting me, so there’s really only one place it could be.”
“What’s the next step?”
“I can’t tell ya, Liz. You know that.”
“Because it may or may not involve stealing, fraudulent activity, and blackmail. Would you be able to let me do it if it did?”
She looked away from him, focusing on the other corner of the road. “Goddamnit Connor, why can’t you ever come up with a plan that I can help with?”
“If you ever get to the point where you’re willing to play fast and loose with the rules, gimme a call and I’ll be glad to cut you in.”
“Or you could learn to play by those rules and let me help you get out of this life.”
“Hey, I’m just using what God gave me, sweetheart. Don’t blame a guy for using the only tool in his toolbelt.”
“Just don’t die, please.”
She was somber, morose even. For a brief moment, Connor really did consider letting her in, but it was out of the question. He was on one side of a great moral divide, and she was on the other. There was no place to meet in the middle unless he wanted to leap to his death. He just had to keep walking and hope that he got clear of this whole mess through quick talking and sheer willpower.
The car stopped off near his apartment as he said, “A good grifter never dies, Lizzie, his lies just grow until they’ve left his body behind.” As he closed the door, he added, “Goodbye, Detective O’Shea.”
It was a quick jaunt up the stairs, which he cleared two steps at once. He didn’t have much time left to piece it all together. The apartment was in the same neat array it usually was. He was grateful for the lack of roaches as he came inside. Even if everything fell apart, it was nice to at least have a couple hours of not looking at every creepy crawly that came by. He walked up to the black bag he had thrown and left to the side of his bed. He remembered stubbing his toe on it yesterday, remembered packing it, and remembered Leyla scrambling over it the night of the Securities, Ltd. job. He reached inside, felt around for a moment, then pulled out a simple, black box from the bag. He opened it up and emptied its contents onto his hand.
There, in his open palm, sat the red gem with the strange mark carved in the top.