“Fuck, Vernal, you smell like dish soap.”
Vernal turned to the big man next to him. Then he looked at the well-endowed brunette. Then he turned back to his drink. “And you smell like a whore’s snatch.”
The woman smiled as Dobie grabbed the stunted man and lifted him off his feet. “What?”
Vernal didn’t flinch. “Gonna hit me again?”
The big man noticed people staring and dropped Vernal back on his bar stool. “Not fuckin’ worth it.”
Vernal swallowed the rest of his drink and raised the glass to the mechanical bartender in a silent request for another. “It’s not soap.”
“I said it’s not soap. It’s lemon juice.” His grated voice sputtered the words like a two-stroke engine.
“Did you fuckin’ shower in it or something?”
“I hear it’s good for the skin.”
The bartender slid along a track at the base of the bar. He stopped before Vernal and poured another drink. His pseudoflesh had worn away, and he greeted the world with lidless eyes and a constant metal grin.
Vernal shuddered. It was creepy. “Where’d you get the girl?”
“None of your god-damned business.”
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
“Hi.” The woman reached around the hulking man. “I’m Yunique.”
“Yes, you are.” Vernal noticed one of her eyelids drooped which gave her a seductive, sinister appeal.
“I love your voice.” She giggled. “You sound like a grumpy cat.”
“Thank you.” Vernal bent to kiss her hand, but Dobie slapped it away.
“Don’t touch her. Pervert.”
Vernal smiled and bared his chipped teeth at the fighter. “Where the hell is he?”
Dobie looked at an empty chair in a corner of the bar near the window, which was heavy and reinforced with steel cross-bars. “He’ll be here.”
“That’s what you said when we got here. And again twenty minutes ago. Yesterday you said he’s here every day. All the time.”
Vernal looked at the chair, then around the room, then back to the chair. “Well, I don’t see him.”
It was the middle of the day and the bar was mostly empty. The TV in the corner was playing the Westheria-Japanamania game. The Giants were creaming the Imperials 214-73.
Dobie took another drink.
“So?” Vernal pushed.
“So, something musta happened.”
“How the fuck should I know? The guy’s here every fuckin’ day like clockwork. He sits in the corner and reads the paper and no one fuckin’ talks to him. Then he goes home and no one sees him until he comes back the next day. Been that way for months.”
“You said he goes home. Where’s home?”
“How the fuck should I know where he lives?” Dobie glanced toward the door.
It was quick, but Vernal saw it. “I’m not waiting any longer.” He threw some money on the bar and stood up.
Dobie put a heavy hand on Vernal’s shoulder. His knuckles were well-scarred. “Just wait a minute.”
Vernal brushed the big man’s hands off him and stepped toward the door without a word. He stopped as two men walked in. He took one step back and ran into the big fighter, who rested both his hands on Vernal’s arms.
“Got you, you fucker.”
Vernal looked for another exit. The bar’s few patrons stood and went for the door as the two men walked toward him.
Dobie pushed Vernal forward. “Here he is, just like I told you.”
The first man was dark skinned with thick, curly hair raised in spikes. His eyes were lean and he stared at Vernal’s bones. His voice was deep like the night. “I can see that.”
The second man was thinner and bald and wore a sneer on the right side of his face that he clearly never dropped. He was dressed in old battle fatigues and held a knife. He pointed it at Vernal. “You must be Vernal Wort. My name is Sciever. This is my associate, Rabid.”
Vernal frowned. “You might wanna have him put down, then.”
Sciever smiled and played with his knife. “Do you know who we work for?”
“Answer the question,” Rabid growled.
“What is this all about?” Vernal asked.
Dobie smacked Vernal hard.
“Ow.” Vernal rubbed his ear.
“Mr. Pimpernel would like to talk to you.”
Rabid nodded and Dobie grabbed Vernal’s arms, holding him still as the two men stepped closer.
“Where’s the key?” Rabid asked.
All three men towered over Vernal. “What key?”
Rabid pointed to the bar. Dobie took Vernal’s left arm and yanked it. The stubby man pulled as hard as he could, but the fighter was a rock, and he flattened Vernal’s hand on the wood.
“Wait, I seem to remem–”
Sciever cut off Vernal’s index finger before the little man could finish his sentence. There was a crack as the knife severed bone. Vernal screamed and collapsed, but Dobie kept his left hand pinned to the bar. The bartender had disappeared. Yunique held her mouth in excitement. She stared at the blood dribbling onto the counter.
“Wa–wait.” Vernal huffed. He could only feel a quarter-stub of his finger.
Rabid grabbed Vernal by the knot of hair on his head. “What the hell is wrong with your voice?” He scowled. “Fuck. You smell like dish soap.”
“It’s the new thing.” Vernal smiled.
Rabid punched him hard in the face. Vernal heard the smack of skin on skin and felt the sting travel up his nose and eyes, which started watering uncontrollably. He could taste blood on his teeth. “Ow.” He raised his free hand to rub his face.
Rabid knocked it away. “Where’s the key?”
“Outside,” Vernal said. “Out back. On the lower road.”
Sciever picked up Vernal’s finger from the floor and wagged it in his face, laughing. “Next it’s your cock, little man.”
Vernal flashed a red smile as Rabid grabbed him by the neck and moved him toward the back stairs.
Dobie followed, but Sciever motioned him back. “Stay here.”
The big man bristled but complied. “When do I get the reward?”
Rabid didn’t look back. “Consider it a down payment on your next fight.”
“Fuck,” Dobie cursed and kicked a stool.
Yunique pulled him close and whispered in his ear.
Sciever stepped from the staircase and looked up and down the lower road. Except for the trio, the basement block was deserted. “What a shit hole.”
Overhead, the upper road blocked out most of the sun. The neon sign over the stairway to The Dive blinked on and off. A poster in the window across the street announced a new adult feature starring Dongo, the thrice-cocked man-ape, who displayed his erect trident while standing in front of an orgasmic mass of skin.
“Well?” Rabid asked. He kept tight hold of Vernal’s neck.
The little man couldn’t turn his head and had trouble walking. Down the street, a tireless husk of a car rusted in silence. Above it, a cartoon whale smiled at them from a faded billboard. He wanted them to try Breen mouth cleanser. All around, junk clustered at the base of the concrete pillars that kept the upper road aloft. Vernal pointed to an alley across from the bar. He clenched his other hand, trying to stop the bleeding, but he could feel the warm blood drip, drip, drip from his open wound.
“You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me.” Sciever wrinkled his nose as they entered the alley. “Jeez, this smells like a toilet.” He kicked a broken pallet and scared a pair of purple pixies. They fluttered away in squeaks.
Rabid squeezed Vernal’s neck. “Where is it?”
“It’s okay,” Vernal called. “You can come out.”
For a moment nothing happened; then a disheveled man—bearded, dirt-covered, and barely clothed—emerged from behind a dumpster.
“It’s okay,” Vernal repeated. The haggard visitor seemed wary. “These are the men I told you about.”
The homeless man nodded and took a cautious step forward.
“Where is it?” Rabid asked him.
The man, mostly skin, pointed to his distended stomach.
“Fuck,” Sciever cursed.
“Not again.” Rabid rubbed his eyes, then motioned to Sciever. “Cut it out of him.”
“Why do I have to cut it out of him?”
“Because you have the knife, asshole. Hurry the fuck up before he runs away.”
But the man didn’t run away. He lay down on the ground and bore his belly, which bulged near bursting.
Rabid and Sciever looked at each other, then back at the filthy cretin.
“Fuck,” Sciever cursed again. “How many people are gonna swallow this damned key?” He walked over, and, after a moment’s pause, plunged his knife into the man’s stomach.
There was an audible pop as the organ burst like a balloon and thousands of wasps filled the alley.
“Venom wasps!” Sciever screamed and dropped his knife. He swung at the air as the tiny, flesh-hungry insects nipped at him, injecting droplets of poison into wells of bitten flesh. Females, already pregnant, crawled into the conjunctiva of his eyes and began to lay their eggs. He shrieked.
Rabid held Vernal with one hand and backed out of the alley, swatting at the swarm. Vernal cocked his wrist and plunged the stirge stinger into the Murderling’s thigh. Rabid yelped and dropped to the pavement, tearing at his clothes as the wasps covered his body. Then his body seized and his mouth foamed from the poison.
Vernal trotted from the alley unscathed. He walked down the street toward a set of stairs to the upper road, walking briskly and looking back only once. He had stolen a car near the wharf and left it parked two blocks away.
The top deck was populated but not busy. Delivery trucks belched black smoke and the occasional passers-by did little but look at the odd man with the bloody hand.
The parking lot was full of the cars of midday patrons. Vernal walked to the back wall and turned in circles as he fished his keys out of his left pocket with his right hand. He dropped them, picked them up, and stumbled around the car, hands shaking. He had lost enough blood that he was in real danger of passing out. He needed to get away, to get to his closest safe house, and quickly.
Vernal looked up to put the keys in the door and saw Yunique sitting cross-legged on the hood. He turned and saw Dobie walk up behind him, blocking his only exit.
Dobie hit Vernal hard. Right in the jaw. It was a solid blow, one the fighter had practiced many times before.
Vernal dropped like a wet rag.
“I got you, you fucker.”
The last thing Vernal felt before drifting into unconsciousness was Dobie’s boot in his stomach.
Chapter 13 of my ultra-gory pulp thrill-fest, FANTASMAGORIA, which I released under a pseudonym.