Connor cursed the darkness as he tried to discern any little detail about the figure at the other end of the alley, a figure he had only previously glimpsed in the blinking red of Securities, Ltd. Was he tall? Short? Was he wearing a hat or did he just have big hair? Could he be wearing a trenchcoat or a cape? All of the nuances Connor tried to pick up on were tenuous and appeared to change even before his eyes. This felt weird to Connor, who didn’t so much observe the man physically morphing between all of these different extremes as he kept second guessing what his own eyes were seeing. It was as if they couldn’t settle for seeing just one vaguely ominous creep in the shadows, so they decided to see several at once.
Connor felt like a deer in headlights while the man shrouded in darkness stood there staring at him. Neither took a step; neither said a word. The world was a freeze frame composed of these two antitheses, light and shadow, the defined and the nebulous. The juxtaposition of contradiction reached its zenith of composition in their poses. They were squared off, standing at opposite sides of an alley as if the very streets and buildings themselves were holding their breath to see what might happen next. Panic spread up through Connor’s chest. A cockroach crawled across his shoe.
When the shadowy watcher finally took a step, it broke the spell and Connor sped out of the alley. His gait was uneven because of the beating he had just taken, but adrenaline pushed him to bolt now and lick his wounds later. He loped around the corner and came to the front of Nattie’s Bar.
Arriving at the door, he glanced to the right and saw that the man had just cleared the alley. Though the steps the shadowy figure took appeared slow and labored, he was gaining on Connor at incredible speed. There was no other choice: he slammed into the door of the bar and locked it behind him. He would rather face the barkeep’s wrath than figure out what would happen if that guy caught up to him.
“Connor! What did I tell you before? Get out!”
“Nattie, you don’t understand.”
“Let me explain.”
“Don’t make me get Lucy.”
“Nat. You can shoot me if you have to. I ain’t goin’ out that door for nobody.”
Nattie seemed perturbed by the idea. “Speak.”
“There’s a guy out there. Only the thing is: I’m not sure he’s really a guy. He …” Connor’s concentration was broken by a cockroach crawling across the bar.
Sensing Connor’s anguish, Nattie smashed the bug with his bare hand. Wiping the remnant away on his apron, he said, “Didn’t take you as someone who was afraid of bugs.”
Another roach crawled across the floor. “I’ve been learning that sometimes a little irrational fear can be a good and healthy thing.”
The barkeep looked impatient, “So you saw a man that might have been a transvestite?”
“No. I’m not sure if what I saw was even … human.” He had stopped midsentence to take stock of the roach situation. There were more now, dozens more. They didn’t have any particular goal but instead just scurried aimlessly around on the floor and walls. They looked like any other cockroaches, except for their increasing number.
“Blast! I’ll have to get the place fumigated. Damn little beasts, every time I think I’m rid of them they plant some eggs in my walls and pop out all over again.”
“You get this many roaches that often?” Connor could feel the fear raising the pitch of his voice.
“Yeah, at least once a year. Usually does happen about this time. So why wasn’t this guy human? Could he lift a car or something?”
Some of the fear released from his chest. He hoped rather than believed Nattie’s version. Surely this was just a normal, garden-variety roach infestation. It wasn’t like that was all that surprising in a place like this, “No. Well, I don’t know. I didn’t see him near a car. He just had this quality about him. You just looked at this guy and something felt off.”
“Yeah, off.” Connor looked down to see that the bugs had doubled in number. They were getting larger, too. The hazy lights of Nattie’s Bar set a wicked gleam on their hard, dark shells. They shook their feelers at Conner with what felt like menace.
“Did he have two legs?”
“Did he have a weird face or something?”
“I couldn’t tell you. He was standing in the shadows, but even for that this guy was hard to get a good look at.” The number had tripled from what it had been a few moments before. Connor’s hope was shattered; this wasn’t your average infestation.
“So let me get this straight: you saw a guy standing in shadow that gave you the willies and now you want me to let you stay in the bar that I just kicked you out of?” Their number had doubled again.
“I know how it sounds, but please, Nattie.” Doubled again.
“I’m getting Lucy. Do not be here when I get back.” Doubled again.
Connor tried to make his legs move. He tried to run straight for the door before the portly redhead came back with the shotgun. But the number had doubled yet again, and the roaches were starting to get as thick as the floor itself. He could hear the slight, metallic rustle as Nattie picked the weapon up off of its rack.
Gingerly, he moved towards the door. He could hear the crunch of the bugs under his shoes as he took slow, uneven steps. With every step it felt like the roaches were somehow growing angrier, as if every crunching sound was the rallying cry of the cockroach revolution. They were starting to gather up in one spot, preparing for the opening salvo of their bloody coup.
“You must not have much sense Conno … Jesus Christ!” Nattie had finally noticed the disturbing roach situation that was getting ready to devour Connor whole. “God damn cockroaches! You can’t have my bar!”
Nat unloaded both barrels of Lucy into the coalescing mound of bugs. They were scattered and splattered by the spread of the shot, so Connor took the opportunity to bolt for the front door. He slid the lock’s mechanism aside and pulled the handle as hard as he could. The exit swung open and Connor dashed into the night to the music of Nattie’s yelling, “Don’t you dare come back here, Donnelly!”
The street was empty and dark; Connor hurdled a tipped over trash can and ran with all his might. He couldn’t see the shadowy man any more, but he wasn’t about to wait around to see if the coast was clear. He sprinted across the street, trying to clear his head and think.
He had to come up with a plan; it wasn’t like he could run forever. But what could he do about a nondescript stalker and his permanent insect escort? He was in a part of town made up with old factories and broken down warehouses. Maybe there was an insecticide factory close, and he could trip the joe and send him and his trick bugs into a vat of the stuff. It sounded like a great idea, but the possibility seemed unlikely. There had to be something that would work.
A cockroach skittering on the sidewalk freaked Connor out. He took a sharp right at the intersection and ran as if the bug were going to rat him out to its fellows. For all he knew, it would.
This is nuts, Connor thought to himself, what am I supposed to do to get away from cockroaches in this city? His muscles were beginning to burn and breath was coming in gasps. He had no plan and was getting too worn out to continue. With a split-second decision that felt stupid even in the moment, he veered off the sidewalk and smashed through the door of an abandoned warehouse.
Once the echo of his break-in had faded, Connor realized that this was the equivalent of a gazelle hiding from a lion in a pile of t-bones and was likely to have a very similar ending. The warehouse was extremely dark inside, so he couldn’t even tell if the guy had figured out where he would go and was lying in wait for him. He found a lightswitch by the door, but, as luck would have it, nothing happened when he toggled it. His breathing was still heavy and labored. His legs felt like molten lava. His sides were protesting indignantly from the pain of the beating he had sustained. The adrenaline was beginning to ebb, his body shaking and shivering with a dull, cold ache. There wasn’t much choice. Connor pushed through into the dark, empty building.
As his eyes adjusted to what little light there was, Connor could see that the warehouse was not, in fact, completely empty. Large, industrial-grade shelves were filled with boxes. Curious, he poked his fingers into one and pulled out its contents. Paper. Just great, of all the crappy warehouses he could have wound up in, he couldn’t find the one with boric acid. Instead he was in a rat and cockroach paradise with no recourse left but to slump down and wait for the end.
He heard a slight rustle and a skitter as he plopped onto his backside in the space between two shelves. It felt like inevitability. This was the culmination of a whole week’s worth of shitty luck, really shitty luck. He had never thought about himself as being a lucky man before now. Hell, he lived in squalor in a town that was slowly eating itself alive. If you called that luck, then the slums were the luckiest place on earth.
That was before he had this new stick to measure against, though. Now he realized things could always get worse. When he considered that he had had a roof over his head, a good working relationship with his colleagues, and the potential interest of a girl he fancied, it sounded like he had been living the dream. On top of that, he had never had a job truly go south. There were a few close calls here and there, a few scores left behind, but he always made it back in one piece. He hadn’t appreciated that kind of luck before: the luck of not getting more trouble than he could handle. He was appreciating it now that it was gone.
Maybe he had been so busy reaching for the sky he hadn’t truly realized all the good things he had. Apparently he hadn’t even noticed when the sun had burned off his wings. And now that his luck had turned, it had turned hard. It felt like this creepy man and his circus act of dancing roaches were the manifestation of all of that bad luck come to life. Bad luck was following him around now. It was killing his friendships, taking his money, and beating him up behind the schoolyard.
Connor smirked. On second thought, most of that can’t really be blamed on the shadowy stalker.
The skitterings in the darkness became more pronounced. Connor tried to steady his breathing to make himself as quiet as possible. He put his hands over his mouth to try to muffle the noise that, to him, sounded like a typhoon in the large warehouse. Each rush of air that went to his lungs seemed to carry with it enough sound to both give away his location and knock over a small fishing village. He hoped that his hands were helping to tamp down the noise, but it still felt as if there were a duel of winds taking place in front of his mouth.
I hate people with cool tricks, Connor thought ruefully. Chauncey with his lie-detector, this guy with his bugs, why couldn’t he have some interesting little thing he could do? They had probably worked for years on their weirdo abilities, Connor decided, that was the only explanation. Maybe there was even a kit you could order in the mail that would train you to see lying ticks or make roaches dance on command. There probably was something like that, but it took years upon years of practice to actually do it. He didn’t have the patience to do something crazy like that. It was like those Asian kids who took music games too seriously: sure it looked cool for five minutes, but what a waste of time.
Though admittedly training roaches was feeling like much less of a waste of time in that moment. The noises of tiny, scurrying feet were definitely getting louder. He couldn’t see well enough to tell how big the swarm had grown, but he knew that it must be getting pretty big to be this audible. There were, at least, no sounds of footfalls to go with the endless rustling, so Connor figured that the guy hadn’t arrived yet. He stayed quiet and still, stifling a whimper as a cockroach crawled across his hand. His hope was that, if he didn’t attract too much attention, he could let the man go past him and then leave the way he came in.
Somehow this all had to connect back to Leyla, Connor realized. Chauncey wanted her for some reason. Even the guy’s trained bugs had been more fixated on her back at the job. What could she have possibly done to get the attention of such incredibly weird guys? He had to find her. He had to warn her, maybe, and wring out her neck while he was at it. This stuff was dangerous, and she had brought it onto his head. Leyla. When he got out of here, he had more than a few choice words in mind for that broad. If he got out, that is.
The rustling sound was intensifying, which disturbed Connor. More disturbing, still, was that another sound was rising up amidst the clamor. He couldn’t tell if the sound was in spite of the rustling of legs or because of it. It sounded like the same movements of thousands of little legs and bodies, but the sounds were focused, purposeful. The noises were combining in a cacophony of cacophonies that nonetheless were forming patterns. In Connor’s brain, they took the form of a word.
The din rose, seeming almost delighted in the sound that had formed from the chaos. The word was repeated and echoed over and over again.
Thief Thief Thief Thief
Thief Thief Thief Thief
Connor could feel the strain of panic pulling at his limbs, telling him to bolt. His eyes welled up, and he could feel the sting of saltwater at the edges. The word echoed over and over as the tumult grew. A new word began to form in the furious rustling.
The delight of such a new, complicated word was apparent as the previous word was left completely to take up the new pronunciation.
Murrrrddddeerrrruurrr Murrrrddddeerrrruurrr Murrrrddddeerrrruurrr
Until finally both words were picked up and repeated ad nauseum. A continual chorus of call and response resonated throughout the warehouse, creating a scattered reverberation that hurt Connor’s eardrums.
Thief Thief Thief
Thief Thief Thief
This was enough for Connor. He drew the line at talking cockroaches. Heedless, he ran through the mountains of bugs towards the door. He didn’t even pay attention to the crunching sound beneath his feet or the slow rise of the floor as he landed on more and more of the insects. He wanted out of this crazy building and out of this crazy mess that he had unwittingly found himself in the middle of. He turned a corner then booked it towards the door. He could see the dim outline of the entrance as he raced. All the while the words never relented.
Thief Thief Thief
Thief Thief Thief
They spurred him forward, pushed him to run faster. He put everything he had into escaping that terrible warehouse. He was running so fast by the end of it that he almost ran straight into the shadowy man that was standing right outside the door. Connor’s heart leapt to his chest and he could feel his shoes skidding as he tried to stop. His momentum toppled him and landed straight on his back only inches away from the dark stranger, who had succeeded in luring him out.
Even this close, Connor couldn’t really discern any more detail about the guy than he had before. His perception of the man’s height, weight, build, face was always shifting. It was like his brain simply couldn’t get a handle on what it was seeing. He was sure that a hand was reaching out towards him. Connor crawled away backwards from the chilling figure, unsure of what was going to happen if the guy touched him. Though he didn’t see the mouth move, he could hear the guy speak two words:
Connor flipped over and found his feet. He stood then turned back towards the perplexing pursuer. It felt unreal, looking at the enigmatic, vacant man that was still reaching out a hand towards him. Fear was beginning to overwhelm all of his other senses. His brain was awash with panic, and all that he could think to do was say, “No, stay away from me, leave me alone!”
“I don’t know you. I don’t know what you want. Just go away!”
“What do you want?! God, I’ll give you anything, just get away from me!”
As much as he tried to back away, the man kept Connor within arm’s reach. There was no escape, he realized. No place he could hide. No amount he could run. He was resigned to it now. He began to reach out his hand to touch the mysterious stranger that had caught him. There was nothing else to do, he reasoned, he might as well shake hands and let the guy do what he wanted and be on his way.
The dark figure seemed to sense his capitulation. His hand reached out once more to take Connor’s. Connor felt transfixed, hypnotized by the appendage that was still indistinct even as it drew near to him. What was this guy’s deal? How could someone who was so clearly right here not be discernible at all? What would happen when that hand touched his? It was less than an inch away when the sound of a siren broke his captivation.
Connor turned his head to see a cop car speeding towards them. Though he was filled with the natural panic and urge to run that accompanied his profession, his legs refused to move. They had given up entirely at this point and were resigned to their fate. A spotlight came on, and Connor had to shield his eyes and turn his head away. In astonishment, he realized that the man was gone, nothing but a mass of fleeing cockroaches remained on that sidewalk. The noise of the siren died down as the car came to a halt. The spotlight shone on him, but, despite the blinding illumination of it, he could make out the outline of the car itself: it wasn’t a normal black and white but an unmarked cruiser. Suddenly Connor knew that he was safe for the moment.
“Donnelly! Get in!” A gruff, female voice shouted from the driver’s seat.
Connor obeyed and scrambled for the side, opening the back door and jumping in as fast as his body would allow. He slumped down into the seat. He ached all over, his muscles felt like jelly, and there was a worrisome pain in his guts. This had set a standard for bad days that he hoped never to beat. As the cruiser sped off down the dark street, Connor at last allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief. “Hey, thanks, Lizzie.”
“Don’t mention it, Connor. Sorry it took me so long to find you. You weren’t waiting at Nattie’s like you said you would when you called.”
“Yeah, well, I ran afoul of more trouble than I could handle: a guy started chasing me. Standing around waiting felt like a bad idea.”
“You mean the thing that was reaching out towards you just now? That didn’t look much like any guy I ever saw.”
“Yeah, maybe ‘guy’ is too strong of a word.”
“Then what in the hell was it?”
“Honestly, Lizzie, it was the stuff of nightmares.”