Old Clerks Don’t Die – Chapter 2

I apologize for again being late.  I have no one to blame but myself this time.

For anyone who’s become a fan of my stuff through this blog, I would like to point out that my new non-AS universe story collection Machina is now available for pre-order from M-Brane SF.  The official release date isn’t for another month, but now is your chance to get it early.

Thanks as always for reading!

Derek J. Goodman

Old Clerks Don’t Die, They Slay Away

Chapter 2

Gloria sometimes wondered if quitting the OneStop had been a good idea.  Neither of her jobs at the time had been glamorous, but the OneStop at least was considered “respectable.”  Her other job, even in a place like the Hill, where taboos were few and far between, was still something people looked down on.  But she had made her choice, and even if she was sometimes treated like even less of a person than she had been at the convenience store (which was really saying something), she at least made a hell of a lot more money by showing men her breasts.

As her last song ended, Gloria stooped to grab her tear-away bra from the stage and gathered up the assorted dollar bills strewn around the brass pole.  She took a closer look at one of the bills, realized it was a five, and then gave an appreciative nod to the man in a backwards cap at the edge of the stage who had given it to her.  The man, Carl, winked and clapped for her as she stepped off the stage.  Carl was a regular, and one of the better tippers.  Gloria usually took it as a good sign when he showed up at the Sin Depot.  Carl was a necromancer, and if he had lots of money to burn then that meant he had just done some really big job.  And when a necromancer did a big job that meant more undead walking around, which in turn made lots of people nervous, mundy or not.  Nervous people did their best to forget their troubles, and one of the ways they did that was by watching people like Gloria strut their stuff.

Natalia walked up to the stairs as Gloria came down.  “Well, how is it so far tonight?” she asked in a thick Russian accent.

Gloria held up her folded wad of bills.  “Looking good.  How about you?  You ready for this?”

Natalia nodded, but the poor girl shook visibly.  This was going to be her first time stripping.  She’d gone through a lot, though, so Gloria didn’t think going topless in front of a bunch of strange men would be any worse.  This was, after all, a girl who had been the subject of grizzly post-Cold War genetics experiments.  She looked beautiful, though, despite what Natalia might think of herself.  Her pale skin blended in almost perfectly with her short white skirt and white top.  The outfit was lined in gold thread, giving her every appearance of an angel.  Of course, that might have less to do with the costume and more to do with the giant white wings protruding from her back.

Most of the men and women watching the stage didn’t care that Natalia had wings, unless there were a few of them who were specifically turned on by it.  Strange things were common in this neighborhood.  The Sin Depot had certain girls, ones who could blend in like Gloria, that worked both before and after the sun set, but once darkness came on the Hill, girls like Natalia took the stage.  There were two more girls on the other stages right now.  One, Kimberly, gave every appearance of being a normal human like Gloria, but the other, Ginger, had partially changed herself into a cat.  Ginger worked most nights unless there was a full moon, since she had less control over her cat form then and had a tendency to go into heat.  Hancock wouldn’t let her anywhere near the customers when she was like that.  He made damned sure that everything at the Sin Depot stayed above board and legal, but the things an in-heat were-cat might do in the privacy of a lap dance booth came too close to prostitution.  There would be none of that here.

After putting her bra back on, Gloria strolled over to the bar and ordered a jack and coke before pulling out a cigarette from the pack tucked in her garter belt.  Emily, the girl who’d been quietly working on a crossword puzzle from the stool next to her, looked up at Gloria with a raised eyebrow.

“Whatever happened to you trying to quit?” Emily asked.

“That was last week,” Gloria said.  “I only try to quit smoking every other week.”

Emily shrugged and pulled up the top half of her costume from where it had been slipping down her chest.

“What are you even supposed to be dressed as?” Gloria asked her.  “You look like a cross between a cowgirl and a Japanese schoolgirl.”

“Actually, I think that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.  Hancock suggested it.  He thought it was exactly what a few of the customers would find sexy.”

“I can pretty much guarantee none of the customers care about your clothes.”

“Hey, I’ve got to try something, right?  Especially with Ginger over there tonight.  You know how tough it is to get decent tips when she’s around.  Everyone saves their money for her.”

Gloria took a sip of her drink instead of answering.  She liked Emily okay, but she was always blaming the other girls for her lack of tips.  In truth, the customers virtually ignored her because she danced like she was stuck in tar.

She wasn’t wrong about Ginger being a top earner, though.  Any of the girls who had a sense of the exotic to them tended to make more money.  This was probably the only strip club in the world where girls like that could dance in the open.  The Hill was a haven for all that the rest of the world pretended existed only in dreams and nightmares.  Even the daylight people who tried to ignore what happened to the neighborhood at night- the “mundies,” as they were known- couldn’t deny that there was just something off about the neighborhood.  No one knew why, although there were plenty of implausible theories.

“Carl’s in tonight,” Gloria said.  “You want some extra cash, I’m sure you can talk him into a lap dance.”

Emily shrugged.  She appeared far more interested in the crossword puzzle than making any money.

“You hear any interesting word on the street yet for tonight?” Gloria asked.  Emily looked at her, appeared to think for a second, then set her crossword puzzle down on the bar and leaned closer to Gloria.

“Have you talked to Hancock at all since you got here?” Emily asked.

Gloria shook her head.  “No.  Kind of weird, too.  On a night with this many customers he’s usually walking around making sure everything is running totally smooth.”

“I know.  I saw him for a second.  He was reeeeally flustered looking.  Going from his office to the front counter and back, really quick-like.  I’ve never seen the guy look so much like he was on a caffeine buzz.”

Gloria nodded.  That was weird.  Hancock was the sort of guy that never rushed anything, a really laid-back person.  Even when he got angry, it was the kind of fuming anger that stayed just below the surface.  “No clue what that’s about?” she asked.

Emily started to shrug, then cocked her head.  “No… well, maybe.  Something else- Hannah never showed up tonight.”

Gloria took a long drag on her cigarette, thinking.  Hannah Stein was a really quiet girl, not usually spending much time with any of the other dancers.  If she had a good reason not to show up, she wouldn’t have bothered telling anyone.  But there were rumors about her lifestyle.  She spent more than she could afford.  The gossip was she was behind on payments for her Mustang and her credit cards were maxed out.  She was even a bit of an amateur mad scientist, supposedly reanimating stitched together corpses every time there was a lightning storm.  That kind of equipment didn’t come cheap.  On a busy night like tonight, Hannah would have wanted to be here to make all the money she could.

“You think the two things are related?” Gloria asked.

“Don’t know,” Emily said.  She rolled up her crossword book and stood up.  “I’ve got to get going though.  I’ll be up in about five minutes.”

Gloria finished her drink and cigarette, turning on her stool to watch Natalia’s performance.  She was very awkward on stage, and her wings got in the way when she tried to do anything more complicated on the pole than swing around it, but she was still beautiful.  She already had a good pile of dollars building at the edge of the stage.  She seemed like she would be all right in the long run.  Gloria was happy for the girl.  She and her boyfriend Caleb had been the ones to help her out of her previous bad situation.  Gloria knew there were plenty of people who would say stripping at a seedy dive on the Hill still counted as a bad situation, but those sanctimonious assholes could go screw themselves.

She stubbed out her cigarette in the nearest ashtray and got up to go back to the dressing rooms.  It sounded to her like there might be some trouble going on tonight, and she wanted to check her supplies and make sure she had come prepared.

Gloria knew she wasn’t the only one who kept “supplies” with her wherever she went on the Hill, but she was one of the few who took some joy in it.  The duffel bag Gloria had stashed in the back was full of pretty common items for the Hill, things like stakes and silver and holy water.  Those were simply this neighborhood’s equivalent of mace.  Muggers were as common here as in any other rough section of the city, but here they were just as likely to be a vampire or were-something as they were a human.  Gloria, however, went beyond the simple necessities.  She kept things for even more bizarre occurrences, since she had the habit of seeking the bizarre out and trying to help wherever she could.  She supposed one could consider that her hobby.  Some people did crossword puzzles or crocheted.  Some people reanimated stitched together corpses.  Then there were the few, like Gloria, who spent all there extra time as freelance beastie-bashers and helped the helpless.  What could she say?  It was fun.

That was another thing that hadn’t been so bad about the OneStop, she supposed.  She never would have taken up monster-hunting (although that wasn’t a really good term for it, considering the so-called “monsters” were just as likely to need a hand as anyone else; just because they were different didn’t mean they did not just want to go about with their lives), if it hadn’t been for the brief months she’d worked at the convenience store.  That was where she had first realized things hid in the shadows when nobody was looking.  That was also where she had learned that all of those things, good or bad, were just as prone to late night munchies as anyone else.  The OneStop, being at the heart of the Hill, had often been the last place the beasties went before trying to destroy or take over the world.  The apocalypse had nearly happened several times a month.  Gloria had her mundy-cherry broken very quickly there, and she had never looked back.

That had also been where she had met her current boyfriend.  Caleb had been a clerk at the OneStop for a long time before Gloria had shown up, and he was still a clerk now.  Being at the OneStop meant he got paid to do what Gloria did for fun, but to him it was just part of the job.  At first he’d been nothing more than a friend at best, an annoyance at worst.  Her opinion had changed over time.  The man who had at first struck her as unambitious now seemed to her like more of a survivor, making it through life with what he’d been given.  Despite his insufferably snarky tone, she’d slowly fallen for him.

The fact that they had been forced into bed together by a cursed Rubik’s Cube might have helped their relationship along, though.

Even though Gloria still practiced her hobby alone most of the time, Caleb had still become a big part of her nightly excursions.  Sometimes he would come along with her when he wasn’t on at the OneStop, but usually he opted out, saying that was too much like work.  He was still a key source of information, however, especially when he was at the store.  She would have to give him a call and ask him if there was anything going on she should know about.

There were a couple other girls in the dressing room getting into their next change of outfit before they got on stage, but most were out in the main room, getting drinks or smoking or trying to talk a few guys into the lap dance booths.  Gloria went over to the lockers and started to put her combination into her lock, but she stopped when she looked back at the door and saw Hannah walk in.

Gloria turned and approached her.  “Hey, Hannah, where’ve you been?  Some of us were worried…”  She stopped when two very large men followed Hannah in.  There weren’t supposed to be any men allowed in the dressing room, not even Hancock.  If he needed official business taken care of while girls were in here, he sent in his assistant manager.  Even people who took their clothes off for a living needed a private place, and Hancock respected that.

Gloria was going to chastise the two men for violating this sacred principle, but she stopped before any words left her mouth.  Something was very, very wrong here.  Hannah was dressed in a suit- a very expensive one, from the look of it.  Gloria might not have known the girl too well, but she was pretty sure Hannah was not a suit person.  She was more likely to come dressed in a designer lab coat.  She also wore sunglasses, which were pretty useless to people who only came out at night.  The two men also looked off, like they were slightly out of proportion.  Each was well over six feet, and their skin appeared stretched over their faces, like there was something underneath straining to get out.

Both the other girls looked at the trio that had entered the room and they left, completely ignoring whatever makeup or costume changes they needed to finish.  Gloria didn’t blame them.  It was obvious to her that the men weren’t human, and while that alone wasn’t cause for alarm, Hannah’s demeanor might be.  She stood straight with her hands clasped in front of her, a briefcase clutched in her fingers.  This was not normal for Hannah at all.

“Hannah?” Gloria asked.  “What’s up?”

“You’re Gloria Louisa Alvarez, correct?” Hannah asked.  Her head moved up and down, taking Gloria in, almost scanning her.  Gloria initial reaction was to back away, but she held her ground.  Most of the girls only knew each other by first names and stage names.  Hannah probably shouldn’t have known Gloria’s last name, and she definitely had no way to know her middle name.  Gloria hated her middle name, and she hadn’t even told Caleb.

In a place like the Hill, that led Gloria to only one conclusion.  If Hannah couldn’t know her full name then…

“You’re not Hannah,” Gloria said.

Hannah cocked her head.  “No, but we’ve met.  Very briefly, although not formally.  I would say I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t remember me, but then I do also have something of a reputation.”

Hannah took off her glasses and stared straight at Gloria.  This time she did back away.  Hannah’s doppleganger had eye whites just like anyone else, but instead of irises and pupils there were just glowing red pits.  Only then, Gloria realized Hannah’s skin didn’t fit completely right on her, too tight in some areas while drooping in places it shouldn’t.  These were all the signs of a demon.  Not all demons looked like this, just very special kinds.  And there was only one demon like that of any repute on the Hill.  This could only be Mary McPhisto.

Mary was right.  They had met for one very brief, very chaotic moment in the past, and there had been no formal introductions.  Several months ago there had been another apocalypse.  Normally that was nothing special, but this one had partially been Caleb’s fault.  The problem with failed apocalypses was they tended to leave world-destroying artifacts lying around afterwards.  Caleb had taken to collecting them, leaving them all in one place where a sufficiently ambitious guy bent on making the world a better place had been able to get them all in one fell swoop.  He’d lured the most powerful people on the Hill into one location with the promise of auctioning the items off, although his real plan had been to wipe out everything that made the Hill different.  Gloria, Caleb, and their friend Phil had all been there trying to stop him.  McPhisto, on the other hand, had been there trying to buy her very own world-destroying artifact.

Had the auction been real, Mary McPhisto could have possibly walked away with everything that had been on sale, no matter the price.  She didn’t hide the fact that she had money to burn, although there were many differing rumors about how much.  She didn’t keep a low profile, either.  She owned the Club McPhisto, which was close enough to the edge of the Hill that even clueless mundies went there.  The club had a strict policy that anything non-human had to conceal its true nature within its walls (it also had a no zombie policy, but that was for a different reason entirely), although strange things still happened there.  Those strange things were exactly what made it so popular.  Everyone knew that a night at Club McPhisto would be a night to remember, even though Mary’s bouncers usually had to wipe the memories of the club-goers before they left.

While Mary McPhisto’s true nature might have been unknown in the mundy world, everyone on the Hill knew what she was and kept their distance.  If she wanted to go outside the Hill for business, then Mary needed to look human, but that wasn’t easy for most demons.  Their actual appearance varied depending on the type of demon, but generally they had red or purplish skin, often with horns, scales, or tails.  Some kinds of demons could make themselves look human with the proper illusion spells.  Mary was not that kind of demon.  Illusion spells slid off her body like water.  So in addition to magic, she needed something to physically cover her body.  In short, if she wanted to look human then she needed an actual human’s skin.

Gloria had seen people die on the Hill.  Sometimes it touched her and sometimes it didn’t, depending on the person and the way it happened.  Often she could shrug it off.  She should have been able to shrug it off now.  After all, she hadn’t been very close to Hannah.  No one here had.  But the idea that the girl had actually been skinned so that someone else could now go walking around in it?  For the first time in too long, Gloria had to fight not to puke.

Gloria backed in the direction of her locker.  She had no idea how she could get her weapons out of her locker without McPhisto or her bodyguards stopping her, but she would find a way.  She was going to kill this bitch.

McPhisto chuckled.  “If you’re thinking of doing something rash on Hannah’s account, let me assure you that I came by her skin in a completely legal manner.”

She opened up the briefcase.  There were quite a few papers inside.  McPhisto pulled out one and held it up for Gloria to see.  Gloria took a cautious step closer and looked at the bottom of the sheet.  There was a signature at the bottom that may or may not have been Hannah’s.  It was dated a month ago, and judging from the rust color of the ink, Gloria would guess it was signed in blood.  McPhisto put the paper back in her briefcase before Gloria could see anything else.

“She was having financial problems,” McPhisto said, “and heard that I would be willing to help.”

“And did she know what you would eventually be taking in return?” Gloria asked.

“It is not my fault if she was careless enough to sign without reading thoroughly.  The point is that anything I did to her was completely legal, when taken in context with the right authorities.  So if you get any closer to that locker while I am in your presence, I will consider it right and proper self defense to have my two associates eat every one of your fingers and toes.”

Gloria froze.  If this was anywhere else, that threat could have been nothing but an exaggeration, but Gloria knew better.

“How did you know my full name?” Gloria asked.

McPhisto laughed.  “Honey, you would be extremely surprised to know exactly which people are keeping a close eye on you and your boyfriend.”

“Hey!” someone said from behind Mary’s bodyguards.  “The rules are clear.  No men in the girls’ dressing rooms!”  Hancock pushed past the two guards, but stopped as soon as he saw McPhisto.  “Hannah?  What’s going…  Oh, Mary.  Um, I didn’t know you were here.”

“But you heard I might be coming, I’m sure,” McPhisto said.  She and the bodyguards turned their back to Gloria.  They must have had a lot of confidence in their threat if they didn’t expect Gloria to try something while they weren’t looking.  Unfortunately, Gloria had to admit at the moment that the threat was enough.

“There was some talk,” Hancock said.  He wasn’t a small man, being a little overweight but very tall.  In a fair fight it was possible he could take one of the guards if something happened, but demons rarely fought fair.  He trembled as he spoke, and with good reason.  “Would you like something to drink?  I’m sure that whatever you want to talk about…”

“I’m a busy woman.  I don’t have time to talk,” McPhisto said.  She reached into her briefcase and pulled out the paper that had been on top of the pile.  “I’m only here to give you this.”

“What…”  Hancock took the paper and looked at it, his eyes growing wide.  “This is ridiculous.  You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Please insert a cliché right here about how I never kid, Mr. Hancock.”

“This can’t be legal!” Hancock said.

“I knew that you would think that,” McPhisto said.  She took a large number of papers from the briefcase and handed them to him.  “So I took the liberty of making copies of all the paperwork for you to peruse.  You’ll want to make some phone calls, I’m sure, also have your lawyer look at them.  You’ll find that every possible loophole for you getting out of this has been filled.  From this moment on, you no longer own the Sin Depot.  It belongs to me.”


2 Responses to “Old Clerks Don’t Die – Chapter 2”

  1. March 14, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Oh you got to be kidding me. McPhisto? That is spelled T-R-O-U-B-L-E. How? Why? And most importantly: What for? (I don’t think she would buy exactly this place just for the hell of it. Then again…)

    On a partly-related note: Just how do you come up with all this stuff? Starting with all the artifacts and what they do (though I’d like to know what some of the artifacts that were merely mentioned so far could do exactly). It’s just insane… and terriffic 🙂

    • March 15, 2010 at 12:13 am

      When I wrote the first one, I just needed a whole bunch of stuff I needed them to chase after. Originally I wasn’t going to give any details on what the artifacts were and what they did, but as I was writing I found that it didn’t feel natural for Caleb and Gloria to talk about them without giving a few specifics. So most of the artifacts I just made up off the top of my head right there. A few I had an idea what they did right away, some I didn’t. None of them were actually supposed to have any relevance to the plot. But as I continued I found that some of them fix the action very well and served purposes I had intended for other things (such as the Flute giving the bad a bunch of minions to work with, or the One Clog providing the way to beat the baddie at the end). One or two of them you may never know what they do, but at least one will have its origin story in the print version of Tales From the Apocalypse Shift.

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