Old Clerks Don’t Die, They Slay Away
It never ceased to amaze Gloria how going a few blocks on the Hill could feel like walking into a completely different world. There were so many people, buildings, and businesses densely packed together that a person could go for days without leaving a three or four block radius yet still be able to get anything they needed. So while the Club McPhisto was only a six or seven minute walk from the OneStop, it could still be in an area she barely knew.
“When the hell did this happen?” Gloria asked as they walked north up Grant Street. She gestured with her duffel bag at a half-finished building that had been nothing more than a parking lot last time she saw it.
“Oh, don’t get me started on that crap,” Caleb said. Gloria waited for him to get started anyway, but he stayed quiet. In fact, he had been pretty quiet for almost ten minutes now. That had to be a new record for him. She’d noticed lately that he’d been distracted, but she hadn’t asked him what was up. They may have been sleeping together, but that didn’t mean she’d gotten comfortable being too personal with him yet.
“Well?” Gloria asked. Caleb sighed.
“They started construction about a week ago.”
“And why would that bother you?”
“Well, just look at it.”
Gloria stopped and looked at the construction site. There wasn’t really much she could see. The outer edge was lit by the street lights, but most of it was just shadows. From what she could make out, it looked like it might be kind of high class when it was done. The upper floors looked like they would probably be apartments, while the bottom floor looked like it had multiple entrances. There would probably be a number of businesses there.
“Not really sure what I’m supposed to be seeing. Apartments and, what, stores?”
“Condos, actually,” Caleb said. “And from what I’ve heard, all the businesses are going to be things like big chain coffee shops or whatever.”
Caleb scowled at her. “You don’t see the problem here?”
“Fine. Let me put it this way. You know Shakespeare’s Records down on 12th?”
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’ve never gone in there. Isn’t it supposed to be kind of famous or something?”
“It was, but not anymore. Back in the sixties and seventies, this whole area was starting to catch on to the counter-culture thing. Probably because it’s so weird, people could do all sorts of drugs and thought the things they saw at night were just hallucinations or whatever. In the seventies, Shakespeare’s Records wasn’t just a music store. It was a studio, and the home of one of the earliest independent punk rock labels. It’s part of the reason I originally moved to the Hill. I thought being close to all that was really cool. Did you know, word on the street is that the first band on the label was a bunch of fairies? Supposedly they would turn the heads of anyone that booed them into donkeys. Don’t mess with a punk rock fairy, man.”
“Does this history lesson have a point? It’s really cold out here, and Jack Frost is nipping at my nose.”
“Actually, I think I saw him passed out in an alley a block back. My point is that that store is history. Not some cookie-cutter big box music store like you find for the tourists when you go downtown. You can’t just replace that one store with any other. And now it’s gone. Some company bought it out two weeks ago. That’s the exact same thing that’s happening all over this neighborhood. Give the Hill enough time, and everything that makes it unique and bizarre and awesome and scary will be gone. All that will be left is condos and Starbucks.”
Gloria looked again at the half-finished construction. She supposed he was partially right, but she didn’t completely buy it. “What was the last customer you served before you left work tonight?”
“What’s that got to do with any of this?” Caleb asked.
“Just answer the question.”
“Just a normal everyday human, I guess.”
“Well, okay. Before that, then.”
“Um, well… a vampire wearing nothing but a bathrobe and fuzzy bunny slippers. He bought a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.”
“Right. And you know what was one of the first things I did when I started my shift at the Sin Depot tonight? I gave a lap dance to a triffid.”
“That’s a bizarre and… strangely erotic image. But what the hell’s your point?”
“My point is where else can a giant carnivorous plant go for a lap dance? Where’s a vampire gonna go to get ice cream? As long as these things exist, they’ll need a place where they can go and do everyday normal things. Even if the Hill were to change, it can’t change completely. It will always be bizarre and wonderful and scary, no matter how much people try to whitewash it.”
Caleb grunted. “Maybe.” He started walking again. “Maybe things won’t change, maybe they will. Maybe some things will change and the wrong things will stay the same.”
“Caleb, I don’t have the slightest clue what you’re talking about. What has gotten into you lately?”
“Nothing. Come on. Don’t want to keep the flesh-stealing demon waiting.”
Gloria didn’t want to stop the conversation, but she knew him well enough to know when he was too stubborn to budge. Whatever was really on his mind, he wasn’t going to share it now no matter how much she prodded. She would just have to wait until he was ready.
They could hear the Club McPhisto before they rounded a corner and saw it. The ground shook with the bass of dance music, and there was a murmur of people waiting outside. That had to suck. The temperature was close to freezing at this time of night, and the weathermen had predicted the city would see the first snow of the year within a few days. Yet most of the people standing in line hoping to get in weren’t dressed very warm. They were dressed to look good in the hopes of picking someone up and getting laid. It probably didn’t occur to any of them that nobody looked good with frostbite.
The outside of the building was pretty plain. A few of the other trendy clubs in the city tried to entice people to them with flashy exteriors, but the Club McPhisto didn’t need that. It relied entirely on reputation and word of mouth to get people to it. During the day, casual onlookers probably wouldn’t even realize it was a nightclub. The only thing that clued people in on what might be inside the squat red building were the line of people, the velvet ropes outside the door, and the gigantic gentleman guarding the door with a clipboard. Gloria guessed that he probably wasn’t completely human, but he didn’t show any of the telltale demon signs of Mary’s bodyguards. Gloria and Caleb approached him slowly, aware that everyone in line was giving them the evil eye.
“Um, hi,” Gloria said. “Mary McPhisto is supposed to be expecting us.”
The bouncer glanced down at his clipboard. “Amesnay?”
Gloria blinked and looked at Caleb, who only shrugged. “Uh, Gloria Alvarez and… wait, Caleb, what’s your last name?”
“Seriously? We’ve been sleeping together for months now and you still can’t remember my last name? All your smoking must be killing your damned brain cells.”
“Hey, it’s not like I need to call out your last name during sex. I don’t even usually need to use your first name. All I need to say is ‘What, done already?’”
Caleb bristled. “Hey, at least it’s better than when I have to poke you during sex to make sure you haven’t fallen asleep.”
“Yeah? Well there’s a reason I keep falling asleep.”
“Yeah? Well so’s your face!”
“Eyhay!” the bouncer yelled. “Othbay ofhay ouyay, utshay ethay uckfay upyay. Ouryay othbay onyay ethay istlay.”
Gloria took a couple seconds to translate the pig latin in her head. “Oh. Okay.” The bouncer let them through the velvet rope, and there was an audible grumble from the waiting crowd as they went in.
There was a lady at a register near the front taking cover charges along with another bouncer. This bouncer must have been told a little about them, because he made sure to pat them both down for weapons before he let them go further. Despite their protests, he wouldn’t let them take their duffel bags in with them. Gloria hadn’t expected they would be allowed to go into the meeting armed, but she’d wanted to bring the bags just in case they could. As they walked into the club proper Caleb tried to say something, but the music was too loud for her to hear him.
“What?” she yelled.
“I asked when was the last time you were in here?” he yelled back.
“I don’t know, maybe a year ago? This kind of place isn’t my scene, even without the hellspawn owner.” The interior didn’t look like it had changed much, though. A long, remarkably well-stocked bar took up the center portion of the room. The bar itself looked like it was glowing, but Gloria couldn’t be sure if that was some trick of the lighting or something supernatural. A dance floor and a DJ booth took up one whole side of the club, while the other was full of tables and booths in dark corners. A quick glance showed Gloria that pretty much all of the dancers looked completely human, although she occasionally thought she saw a pointed ear or two poking out from someone’s hair. There were forms in the darkened booths, however, that were too disproportionate to be anything other than beasties. That would be where they had to stay, too, if they wanted to continue coming back to the Club McPhisto. If a mundy saw a malformed shadow, that could still just be dismissed as an effect of the alcohol or drugs being passed around. If one of these things came out into the shifting and pulsing light of the dance floor, though, that would make Mary McPhisto mad. And nobody wanted her mad.
“You want a drink before we get down to business?” Gloria yelled.
“Yeah, I’ll have a shot of No Fucking Way In Hell Am I Drinking Anything From This Place. With a cherry instead of an olive, thank you.”
Gloria shrugged. “Hey, how come the two of us never go out to places like this?”
“I didn’t think this was your kind of scene.”
“It’s not. But when was the last time we went anywhere that didn’t involve slaying something?”
“What, doesn’t that count?”
“Very romantic of you, Caleb. Really.”
Gloria stepped up to the bar and wormed her way through a crowd of drunk people until the bartender saw her. The bartender looked like she hadn’t slept in days, and when she looked in Gloria’s direction her gaze was unfocused. There were a pair of bracelets on her wrists that look suspiciously like golden manacles, although there was no chain attached to them.
“Yes?” the bartender asked. Her voice was hoarse but contained no inflection whatsoever. “What can I get you?”
“Are you okay?” Gloria asked.
The bartender paused, twitched a little, and then repeated herself. “What can I get for you?”
Gloria looked at Caleb, but he just shook his head. There was obviously something wrong with the poor woman, but they couldn’t do anything right now. “Um, we’re supposed to meet with Mary McPhisto. Can you tell us where we’re supposed to find her?”
“What would you like to drink?”
“We’re not here to drink,” Gloria said. “We’re looking for…”
“I can get you a drink.”
“Forget it,” Gloria said. “Guess we’ll just have to find her by ourselves.”
The bartender twitched, gave a small and pained gasp, and then spoke again. “Mistress is in her office.” She pointed with her thumb at a door near the back, then turned to the person next to Gloria. “Yes? What can I get you?”
Caleb grabbed Gloria by the arm and pulled her away from the bar. “Still want me to take you out here?” he asked.
“I didn’t say this place specifically. And no. I’m beginning to remember why I haven’t been here in so long.”
“I vote we go talk to that evil bitch so we can get the hell out of here with our souls intact.”
The door was down a short hallway, and as they approached it the sound of the music seemed to taper off. By the time they were actually within knocking distance of the door, they could barely hear any of the noise out in the rest of the club. There didn’t seem to be anything special about the hallway to deaden the sound, so Gloria could only assume there was something enchanted about it. Maybe McPhisto didn’t want to be disturbed by the sounds of her own club, although Gloria bet she more likely didn’t want anyone outside hearing things in the office. All manner of things could happen in there, and no one outside would be the wiser.
Caleb’s thinking must have been along the same lines. “I just want to state one last time for the record that I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“Anybody smart always has a bad feeling on the Hill. Can’t avoid it, though. I mean, come on. We’ve faced worse, right?”
Caleb didn’t answer. He was probably trying to think what else on the Hill might be worse than Mary McPhisto. Gloria couldn’t think of anything or anyone off the top of her head.
Caleb reached out and knocked on the door. Gloria fought the urge to smack him when she realized he was tapping out “Shave and a haircut.”
“Come in,” Hannah’s voice said from inside. It gave Gloria a chill. She wondered for a moment how McPhisto could imitate the voice without actually having Hannah’s voicebox, but for all she knew McPhisto had ripped out the poor girl’s larynx right along with her skin.
Caleb opened the door and they both walked in. Gloria had almost expected some medieval torture chamber inside, but it looked like a normal office. It was much larger than Gloria would have expected, and there were tall filing cabinets lining two of the walls. She doubted McPhisto needed all that filing space just for club business.
Mary McPhisto sat behind a large, somewhat ornate wooden desk with her elbows resting on the surface and her hands folded in front of her. There were three comfortable-looking chairs just in front of the desk, and McPhisto gestured for them both to sit. Everything appeared very civil and normal, if Gloria ignored the woman’s glowing red eyes.
“Glad you could make it, Alvarez,” McPhisto said. She nodded at Caleb and Gloria waited for her to say his last name, but she didn’t. “You as well.”
“Caleb, do you even have a last name?” Gloria asked.
“Of course I do. It’s…” He paused. The pause went on for a very long time. “Miss McPhisto, that’s the point where you’re supposed to interrupt me for comedic effect.”
“Don’t call me miss. And I don’t do comedic effect. Sorry,” McPhisto said. “I do business. Are you two ready to do business as well, or do you want to continue acting like morons for a while longer?” She reached down to open a drawer in her desk and pulled out a small, locked wooden box. She pushed it across her desk and let it sit between them. Gloria entertained the idea of just grabbing it and running, but she was sure McPhisto had a few hidden tricks that wouldn’t even let her get as far as the door.
“So,” McPhisto said. “I have the Osterhaggis Key. You want it. Let us see what it takes for me to give it to you.”
“Pardon me if this seems a little weird to me,” Gloria said. “You’ve had the key ever since the beginning of summer. You could have sold it, or you could have traveled to one of the places it works and used it. Instead you wait all this time and then want to just give it to us.”
“And right after your hostile takeover of the Sin Depot, too,” Caleb said.
“Your point?” McPhisto asked.
“So pardon us if it seems a little fishy,” Gloria said. “If we didn’t know any better, we’d say this is some sort of setup and you’ve got something planned.”
McPhisto nodded. Gloria waited for her to say something, but she didn’t.
“Well?” Caleb asked.
“Well what?” McPhisto asked back.
“This is the point where you’re supposed to say we’re wrong and make up some story about how your intentions are pure,” Caleb said.
“Anyone who knows me is aware that my intentions are never pure, unless you count that they’re purely for my own self interests.”
“So what are you saying?” Gloria asked. “That you want us to take the key for your own nefarious interests, and you’re not trying to hide that from us?”
“Why would I try to hide it? Despite the way you two always bumble your way through supernatural problems, I know you’re both intelligent enough to realize when I might be trying to screw you over. So I’m not going to avoid the issue. Yes, I want you to have the key so I can inevitably screw you over.”
Gloria looked over at Caleb, who stared at McPhisto with his mouth wide open. “Did you just…” Caleb said. “Are you actually telling us that you’re setting us up?”
“So… if we take the key from you,” Gloria said. “We’re falling into some sort of trap.”
Caleb blinked. “Then why tell us? In order to avoid whatever this trap is, all we need to do is not take the key. That doesn’t seem very smart.”
“Indeed,” McPhisto said. “Not smart at all. And do I strike you as the kind of person who isn’t smart?”
“So, I don’t get it,” Caleb said. “You’re smart, so you wouldn’t tell us you’re up to something by giving us the key. But you did tell us. Which must mean… um… you actually don’t want us to take the key.”
“But she would know we would figure that out,” Gloria said. “She tells us we can just have the key, so we decide we shouldn’t, but we know that’s what she wants so we decide we should. Which she knows we would do, so maybe we shouldn’t.”
“Okay,” Caleb said. “I’m completely and totally confused. We don’t want to do whatever she wants us to do, but what does she really want us to do?”
Mary just smiled at them both.
“So what do we do?” Caleb asked Gloria. “Take the key or not?”
Gloria looked at Mary, searching for a tell. Maybe it was easier for her to hide any kind of facial twitch when she was wearing someone else’s skin.
“I think we need to get out of here,” Gloria said. “Right now.”
“There’s the door,” McPhisto said. “You’re free to walk out of it at any time. Are you sure you don’t want to take the key with you? None of my customary contracts for this sort of exchange, no need to promise me your skin or soul. I’ll give it to you free of any charge.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” Gloria said. She stood up, waiting for Caleb to stand up with her before she went for the door. He moved slowly, like he was still too dazed by this whole thing to understand that a hasty retreat was probably the sanest move just now. Gloria waited for Mary to try something as she grabbed Caleb’s arm and pulled him to the door, but nothing happened. Once they were out the door and it closed behind them, Gloria paused. She thought some nasty surprise might have been waiting for them out here, but still everything was calm. In fact, it was a little eerie how serene the quiet hall was, considering how rowdy the crowd was not too far away.
“Gloria,” Caleb said, “why do I get the suspicion we just did exactly what she wanted us to do all along?”
“Because I have the same feeling,” Gloria said. “And I’ll do you one better. What do you want to bet that some time in the very near future we’re going to discover just how horribly screwed over we now are?”
Caleb declined that bet.