Chapter the Third; In Which Improv Encounters Travelers From Out of Town.
There was a party going on on Broadway. The third big brouhaha of the month and probably the eighth since New Years. The Tricentennial encouraged people to take any excuse to party and run with it and the college kids around Morningside Heights could run with the best of them.
And it sounded like they were marathoning that night. Improv could hear whoops and the beat of the music from blocks away, in a man made valley of brownstones in the shadow of a towering student apartment building for the nearby college.
In addition to his armor, helm and goggles, he wore a long, wool coat with lots of pockets, not only for his various devices, but for the potentially useful pieces of scrap of hardware he picked up during patrol. And he carried the Big Stick over one shoulder.
It had started life as a baseball bat but now looked like a knobby club made out of curved ceramic tiles with a rounded steel cap. There was a row of pressure sensitive triggers in the handle.
It was near the end of his patrol, just a quick loop through the community garden the neighborhood maintained to make sure there were no hoodlums using the walled off, winter-barren park to deal drugs out of and then back home. He’d be hurrying home too. It was the one day a week that his wife cooked and tonight’s menu was pork loin and her famous macaroni and cheese.
More than just a damn sight better than the odds-and-ends casseroles that he made on his night to cook or the takeout Tatar they ate the other fives days of the week, it was also his favorite. Just the thought of three melted cheeses and the tender pork put some extra speed in his steps.
That was probably why he didn’t hear the screaming until he was already in sight of the garden park. Whoever was doing the screaming came tearing out of the gates, staring back over his shoulder the entire time. He didn’t even notice Improv before the big man caught his shoulder to stop him.
It was someone he’d put away before; Lovell, a red faced, shaven headed pusher of cocaine and street chemist created nasal sprays. He was missing his usual backpack of extralegal wares, and his heavy winter coat had been roughly torn, spilling its stuffing in the street.
Lovell screamed even louder when Improv grabbed him. Eyes wild, recognition dawned on him in stages. “Y-you!” He breathed. “Wait! You… you can help. You’ve gotta help me, man!”
Improv’s goggles adjusted to tracking a closer target, which conveniently mimicked squinting at the career criminal. “What?” He asked, wondering what could possibly frighten a man who spent most of his life in those days running and hiding from law enforcement and the heroic community to beg for his help.
“T-things, man!” Lovell babbled. “Back there! There was this… this light and… Christ, man! You gotta protect me!”
So ‘things’ were the big scary. Helpful. Improv trained his gaze on the gate. Nothing there at the moment, but Lovell was honestly scared. He glanced back at the pusher. Unfortunately, he didn’t have anything illegal on him and hadn’t done anything in front of him. Therefore, he went free.
Swinging the Big Stick off his shoulder, Improv weighed it out in front of him and pushed Lovell aside. “Run away. Don’t let me find ya again.”
Lovell didn’t need to be told twice. He fled down the street in a straight line away from the park.
Improv ignored him. Out of sight, out of mind. Keeping the Big Stick at the ready, he strode with long, even steps toward the garden. Soft growls and the rustle and thud of something heavy, yet soft hitting the ground over and over were coming from just beyond the wall.
He slowed his steps, growing cautious. Soft though they were, they were the growls of something big. More than one something big. Among his many bulging pockets, his free hand found his bear mace. One too many large dogs and once, an urban living cougar were object lessons in the role of animal repellant in the life of someone who prowled tucked away parks, junkyards and back alleys.
“A cougar?” Stunner interrupted. Improv grunted in the affirmative. “I’d have to see it to believe it.” She made a face, but covered it buy taking a drink of beer.
“There are all kinds of wild animals in the city.” Urban shrugged. “I haven’t run into any predators, but I have seen deer in Central Park.”
“But someone must’ve put them there.” Stunner argued. “We’re on an island with bridges. Deer and wild cats don’t just trundle on across bridges.”
“Wasn’t there a big all to do last year about a bear on the George Washington Bridge?” I asked, tossing more chips on the pile to raise. My best hand of the night: two jacks and a queen high.
Owl snickered. “Just trying to escape Jersey.”
“That’s my point though; people saw it!” said Stunner, “It was on the news, for god’s sake, the vendors had shirts with its picture within 24 hours.”
“That’s the one we saw. For everyone we see, three probably get in. Ninja bears.” I must admit, I relished that ‘just bit into a lemon’ look that put on her face.
“We’re getting way off track here.” Urban said as she saw me and raised. Gulp. “Can we please just let Improv get on with his story?”
Stunner frowned. “I want to hear the cougar story later then.” Improv shrugged and continued.
He wasn’t sure what he expected to see when he looked around the corner of the garden wall. In retrospect, that was a blessing, because he would be been wrong.
At first they were shadows inside the shadows of the wall, tussling over possession of something shapeless and floppy that made the heavy thudding sounds each time one knocked it out of the other’s arms.
They moved like men, but men with extra joints, or at least one put in the wrong place. Favoring running on two legs to charge one another, their arms extended easily enough to the ground to add to stability. Orangutans would be a better description now that he thought about it. Orangutans with their arms taped up in trash bags.
But as his eyes adjusted, all thoughts of the primate family went out the window. Their skin was taunt and black with a texture like old leather stretched over a wooden puppet, except where it thickened to irregular scales marching down their backs and tails and across their massive pectorals. And that frame wasn’t a human one; with extra, rear-facing knees on the legs, and the last digit of their four fingered (with one opposed) hands almost the length of their entire body.
Worst of all were their faces. More human, or subhuman than not, they had lolling, snaggle-toothed jaws from which a slavering, black tongue like some sort of exotic flatworm. What pased for nostrils were just triangular, skeletal holes in their faces, and in place of eyes, there was only a bony ridge of scales like those across their chest and down their back. Similar material formed long, batlike ears that swept up from either side of their body.
Those grotesque fingers trailed plastic looking lengths of thin skin that rustled as they bashed one another with the knuckles of their free fingers. One such blow sent what Improv now identified as Lovell’s leather backpack tumbling up the path, away from him. Both creatures went for it, shouldering one another savagely as they fought to be the first to reach it.
The victor ignored the protestations of the other and dipped its head into a hole torn in the side. It came up with a mouthful off plastic baggies, which it chewed once, twice, then swallowed with a gulp that looked like vomiting in reverse.
Improv wondered at them. They were eating Lovell’s drugs. Eating enough in fact to overdose a battalion of junkies. What the hell were those things?
Someone moaned over by the wall, a ragged sound but a human one. In the green world of nightvision, Improv spotted a shape against the wall, amid a spreading pool of rapidly cooling fluid. Blood.
And he wasn’t the only one that noticed. The terrible heads of the monsters swiveled around. The drugs that had distracted them were all but forgotten.
One bent low, effectively dropping to all fours and held its tail out rigid. A dove tailed bard glittered at the end of it. The creature’s jaw dropped even lower and a high, clipped trill came from it. The other remained upright, and appeared to be sniffing the air.
“Dios mio.” Owl mutters. “That sounds like what The Weekly Truth said was found down in Florida a month ago.” He had folded and taken the opportunity to light up a cigar. It was threatening to fall out of his mouth thanks to his slack-jawed expression.
I’d heard the story before, second hand, and even my skin was crawling now. Improv wasn’t he kind to lie, or even embellish. It was hard enough to get him to convey in the first place. If he said that’s what he saw, then light had reflected off it, entered his eye and been captured on his retinas to be translated b his brain. He was just that kind of guy.
“Saw that too.” Improv nodded.
As had I. As had, I was sure, all of us. The Weekly Truth was a terrible rag of a tabloid, but most of NYC’s prelates bought it for two reasons: They covered the occasional strange happenings that might not set off alarms with the cops, but did when compared to our experience. They also covered powered battles more than any media outside of comics. We’re all subject to basic human vanity.
That particular story hadn’t involved us at all though. It was about a gruesome corpse found in a Jackson suburb, after getting caught and crushed in a garbage truck’s compactor. The official word was that it had been a homeless protomorph. But a source told the Truth that DNA tests had come up not human.
I noticed that even Stunner wasn’t arguing. She was probably thinking the same thing we were: That something dangerous was out there. Something we didn’t understand.
The injured man on the ground didn’t seem to notice as he came to. Shock probably dulled his senses and clouded his memory of how he’d ended up on the ground in the first place.
“Jesus, man. My arm.” He moaned. “What happened to my arm?”
The thing on all fours struck at the sound, throwing itself forward and extending it’s arms. The trash bag material hanging off it’s fingers caught the air and turned the leap into a glide. Wings. The thing had wings.
It didn’t reach it’s victim. Instead, the Big Stick reached it.
Large though he was, Improv was fast on his feet. And he didn’t have as far to go as the monster. One big swing batted the thing out of the air, it’s jaw clacking closed after rebounding off the ground. It didn’t have time to react before he brought the stick’s heavy end down on its head again.
The other, apparently enraged at seeing someone else strike something it had been attacking over Lovell’s drugs earlier, let out a high pitched scream and charged. It didn’t bother trying to glide, it just lunged forward on thin, but powerful legs.
It was rewarded for its act of vengeance with a stream of bear mace. Chemical irritant splashed across it’s head and down it’s chest. There were no eyes to target, but there was a wide open mouth and an open, unprotected nose.
Shrieking in the same tortured chord as it had upon it’s comrade’s injury, it cut it’s charge short and went to all fours, rubbing it’s face in the dirt, trying to rake up clods of it into it’s mouth to try and removed the burning chemicals.
Improv didn’t know how long he had. He backed up to the wall and looked down at the man on the ground. For the first time, he saw the wound.
The man had been wearing a coat and a long sleeved shirt. The fabric of the right sleeve of both was gone. Hideous, ragged lacerations ran from a few inches above the elbow, all the way down to his hand. His ring finger and last finger were gone. Rivulets of blood spurted out of the stumps and from a dozen places up his arm with every heartbeat.
It was one of the worst wounds Improv had ever seen. Putting two and two together, he figured that it had come from trying to use the backpack as a shield. They’d been going for him before they got a taste for drugs. Being knocked out had saved him for a few moments, but now he was back on the menu and even if he wasn’t eaten, he’d bleed out soon without attention.
“Looks bad.” Improve said and dropped the Big Stick into a loop on his belt. He reached into an interior pocket and came up with a set of zip cuffs he used to detain criminals. It would have to do as a tourniquet.
Keeping the bear mace at the ready, he wrapped the zip cuffs over the unfortunate junkie’s bicep and pulled it as tightly as he could. He was about to help the man up when he heard slurping.
Glancing down, he found the worm-tongue of the creature he’d hit with the Big Stick. It snaked out from the mouth at least three feet and was writhing around in the pool of blood. No, not just writing, sucking it up. Hundreds of pores were opening and closing along its slimy surface, drawing the blood in a cacophony of tiny, sickening slurps.
Improv hooked one arm under the fallen man’s shoulder and with the other, he hosed down to loathsome organ with the mace. Disgusted beyond thought, he emptied the can over the monster’s tongue and into its mouth.
The loathsome beast let loose with a scream so inhuman that it make Improv’s stomach twist. Gritting his teeth, put the empty can back in his pocket and started to drag the injured man away bodily. Just in case, he took the Big Stick off his belt loop and held it at the ready.
He got his charge out of the gates before the first creature he’d hit with the mace recovered enough to attack. Taking the same four legged stance as the other had earlier, it let loose with a similar high pitched trill before leaping into a long glide, its rear legs pulled up and at the ready to slash.
But it had started from further away and that gave Improv time to prepare. He leveled the Big Stick, couching it in his elbow. Two triggers pressed forward and the steel cap popped out of the housing a few inches, primed.
Squinting at the oncoming monstrosity, he waited until it was within arm’s reach and pulled a third trigger back.
Normally, he pulled a forth trigger before that last one. That one would have caused the top of the cap to drop off, revealing a pad soaked in a powerful adhesive, a last ditch grapnel designed to save him from falls, or to attach to a fleeing helicopter or flying car. With the cap firmly in place, however, when the explosive charge went off, it fired the equivalent of a two pound cannonball directly into the monster’s face.
The thing didn’t have a chance. It’s head snapped back in a series of vicious cracking sounds, the ridge where it’s eyes should have been collapsing. It was flipped over from the impact and it’s body bounced on the sidewalk.
A long, keening wail came from the other creature, even as it hacked and rubbed it’s tongue on the ground, trying to overcome the mace. It took one step toward him, but then something strange happened.
After the body hit the ground, the steel cap, still attached to the Big Stick by a length of cable, had come to rest on the creature’s chest. Where it lay, the skin began to sizzle, then it ignited in bluish fire.
That seemed to make the decision for the second monster. Staggering backward, it turned and fled further into the garden.
Improv pulled another trigger and the cable connected to the cap reeled in. Gently, he laid the injured man against the wall and took out his palmtop to summon an ambulance. He glared out into the garden as he did.
Once the bleeding junkie was seen to, he’d go hunting. Now he knew how to kill it.
“Kill it?” said Stunner with a scowl.
“Wasn’t human.”He replied, paying to see my hand.
“Yeah, but you can’t just go around killing things.” Stunner shook her head. “They even tranquilized the bear.”
“Not an animal.” Improv added.
“It’s a difficult thing to deal with.” Urban said, watching the game intently. I got the feeling that she thought one of us had been bluffing. “I’ve been hearing from Nermal: a lot of weekenders have run into some freaky stuff. And not just here in the Apple. They call ’em Outsiders. As in not from Earth.”
I knew the truth, being on fairly good terms with the folks who knew the cause. But a poker game was not the place for trying to explain ‘bad fairies’. I’d disseminate that information via Nermal next time I spoke to him. For the moment, I just nodded and said, “Yeah, I’ve heard that too from people I trust.”
With that, I put my cards on the table.
“Still…” Stunner said, now sounding less certain of herself.