Happy holidays from Candlemark & Gleam!
To help bring a little extra cheer – and another present for the pile – author Justin Robinson has whipped up a special seasonal story set in the world of City of Devils!
Without further ado, we present “A Creature Was Stirring” by Justin Robinson!
My eyes snapped open. My room was dark, and I had to get within inches of the clock to see the actual time. 2:30 in the morning. That made this Christmas Day. Zippity-doo-dah. Merry Christmas to Nick Moss, all alone in my sad little house after a sad little year, the highlight of which was hiring a secretary last month and being pleasantly surprised when she didn’t try to eat me.
First Christmas I’d had at home—at a home I could call my own—since, what, ’48? Something like that. After that, it was a series of increasingly Dickensian Christmases, first in a hotel, then a refugee camp, then in Gilmore Field (home of the minor league Hollywood Stars!), and finally a storm drain. At least then I’d had folks to share the holiday with, even if the best gifts came in the form of ammunition.
Then, it’s March and whaddaya know, we have the Treaty of St. Louis. Hey, all you meatsticks, you can go home now. We’ll stop trying to turn you into your nightmares as long as the sun’s in the sky.
I yawned. 2:30 in the morning. That also meant I’d been asleep for maybe two hours if I was lucky. The banshees knocked it off around midnight, I think. I mean, I have nothing against carolers, but these were banshees. They hit all the notes at ear-shattering shrieks, and their rendition of “Up on the Housetop” was positively bone-chilling. I suppose I should have been happy they thought to carol to us humans at all, but that was before I was lying in bed with my pillow pressed around my ears, getting visions of my own tombstone.
So like I said, not sure when I passed out exactly. I had been pretty tired all week, but I’d wrapped up the case I was working on Christmas Eve and even got to give a frightened wife her husband back, and in the same condition to which she had become accustomed. The meat golem had him all strapped up on the gurney and was ready to harvest him, and in came Nick Moss with a pitchfork and some torches. I successfully impersonated an angry mob, and now Mrs. Ortega could celebrate Christmas with Hector without worrying about him going berserk and throwing people into the reservoir.
Which begged the question: why the hell was I awake? I didn’t have work tomorrow. Sure, I’d go into the office, but I’d given my secretary the day off. She squealed, clapped her webbed hands together, and said she was going to sit at a soda fountain. I didn’t press her. Wasn’t until later I remembered that gill-men and sea hags don’t even celebrate Christmas. Well, not orthodox ones, anyway. I can’t keep track of every monster religion. I can’t even keep track of my own. I think I used to be Methodist. I know it was some kind of Protestant.
I blinked, listening to the silence. Silence? Could that have been it? The racket at night on Juniper Street, where my little one-story house was tucked into the comfortable suburbia of Watts, was deafening in the best of circumstances. Like every monster in the City of Devils suddenly turned into a horny tomcat every night.
Did they take Christmas off?
And then my question was answered with a resounding nope.
It would be tempting to chalk up the hoofbeats on my rooftop to eight tiny reindeer. There was every other monster, right? Why not St. Nick? And why wouldn’t he visit his namesake who had spent all of ’53 being a such good boy?
No, it was that headless horseman who had been treating my street like Santa Anita… or it was some devil prowling over the eaves, trying to find a way in and trick me into signing my humanity away? I knew the wards were there, but it wouldn’t hurt to check. I was awake now anyway.
I stifled a yawn and checked the bedroom window. The horseshoes were in place, as were the tiny gold coins on the sill. Those were some of the most expensive things I’d had to get, and I had to keep them on the inside. Sure, we didn’t have any hoodlums on our street, but gold can tempt the strongest of kids. Why couldn’t horsemen be terrified of tin? Make my life easier.
I checked the other windows: the one in the living room, the ones in the kitchen, and even the little one in the bathroom. Maybe the devil or the horseman was unusually flexible. Everything was in place. I heard the clop of the hooves quicken and then stop, and a devil hopped down from my roof onto my lawn. A pumpkinhead who had been lurking near the street for the last month shot him a fiery glare. The devil didn’t seem to notice.
I glanced over at the sad, threadbare tree I had in the corner. Not a single present under there, either. Oh, I might head over to Will Hammond’s place for Christmas dinner, so don’t feel too sorry for me. Be nice to have someone to have a real Christmas morning with. I sighed. Now wasn’t the time to get maudlin. Plenty of time for that on New Year’s Eve.
I smothered another yawn and was about to wander back to bed when I heard a scratching sound. I turned to my fireplace, really a useless thing to have in Los Angeles, but there was one in most houses on the street, just for show. Dirt—there was no soot, since I don’t think the fireplace had ever been used for its intended purpose—showered down.
It made a weird kind of sense. We had elves of a sort. Granted, they were inhuman monsters who used the animals of the forest as an unholy army, but maybe one put on some weight and got a holiday fixation. I sighed. Stop being a sucker, Nick. You forgot to ward the chimney. That’s all.
I picked up a flashlight—always good to have one within arm’s reach for gremlins, gill-men, and your run-of-the-mill blackouts—and leaned into the chimney, blinking back the dirt showering into my eyes.
The beam of the flashlight picked out a furry face. His yellow eyes reflected back at me, looking like the coins on my windowsills. I hesitate to call what he was doing a grin, even though it split his face; still, he was showing teeth, though the teeth he was showing were razor-sharp, stained pink, and their entire purpose was eating human beings.
“I didn’t know you guys could fit down chimneys,” I remarked.
The wendigo grunted at me, worming closer and closer, each inch heralded by another brown snowfall.
I got out of the fireplace, turned on the gas, and crumpled up pages of the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Minion, then lit them on fire. Fire was great against wendigo, who didn’t even like it when the mercury climbed past eighty.
I smirked, barely even wondering what I was going to tell the LAPD tomorrow when I called to have a barbecued wendigo taken out of my chimney. Christmas prank gone wrong, I suppose. The fire blazed merrily, and then, with a whoosh, blue-tinged air shot through with snowflakes washed over the flames, smothering them in ice. I cursed, yanked an Algonquin ceremonial mask out of the front window and stuck it in the fireplace.
A terrified yelp came from the chimney, followed by frantic scratching. I stayed there, arm up the flue, until I saw the wendigo leap off my roof like the devil had done and flee on a cushion of frigid night air. I yawned and rehung the mask. If I had the money, I’d have that stupid chimney removed.
The crunch and growl from the kitchen stopped me from heading back to bed. What now? Had I really forgotten another ward? I tiptoed to the archway leading into my kitchen. I peeked in.
A gremlin was sitting on the counter, munching on cookies.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The cookies had been a gift from my secretary, and I guess she didn’t understand human taste very well anymore. Miss Sargasso was a sea hag, so she spent most of her time swimming around in the Pacific, I guess, and had developed a bit of a fondness for seafood. Anyway, they were gingerbread and halibut. I had to eat one in the office and put a smile on my face while my stomach thought I was mad at it. She looked so happy. I think. She has a pretty terrifying smile herself, so it’s tough for a human to separate happy and hungry.
Anyway, the gremlin was doing me the favor of eating them, and he was shoveling them into his maw like he was scared they’d get away. It was quite a sight, especially since he was the owner of a majestic snowy white neckbeard that was presently catching crumbs of gingerbread and scraps of halibut.
I waited in the threshold until the gremlin had devoured the last of the cookies—and thus would not have to lie to my secretary when I told her a gremlin ate them—and was looking around for more snacks. There was a limit to my hospitality; I couldn’t have him raiding my bologna or I’d go hungry. I whirled into the room. The gremlin’s red eyes widened and he rasped, “Yum, yum!”
“All right, pal, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” I flicked on the flashlight and waved it in his face.
He tried to fend off the beam with his three-clawed hands and fell of the kitchen counter. “Meatstick, caca!” he hissed.
“Yeah, you know, when my buddies in the Pacific told me about you guys, I didn’t believe them.”
The gremlin limped, stumbled, hit his head on the cabinet, and retreated. I opened my door, nudged him out, and closed and locked it again. The lights must be broken or something. I’d have to check them. Another thing I couldn’t afford, and next time I might not have a plate of disgusting cookies to distract my visitor. But it could probably wait another couple hours for dawn. Most of the monsters probably had it out of their systems by now anyway.
I went back into the bedroom, ready to get a tiny bit more sleep.
I felt the hand clamp around my ankles, not that I was able to really process what it was. Not before it yanked me right off my feet and I fell to the carpet with a thump. There was something under my bed. Something with a hairy arm and some frightening grip strength. Something with big glowing eyes, black and white, and slitted like a cat’s. A bogeyman. In my goddamn bedroom. I thought they only went after kids.
He started to pull me under the bed.
The panic washed me in ice. I struggled, for all the good it would do. He was under the bed, in a darkened room, and now he had frightened prey. That was like the Charles Atlas program for those creeps. Didn’t stop me. I kicked at what I thought was head, catching it on what felt like scales. I kicked again, this time taking my time and lining it up right for that big glowing eye. My heel caught the squishy ball and the bogeyman squealed, “Hey! What’d you do that for?”
I scrambled to my feet and absurdly noted that the bogeyman’s pupils had gone from vertical slits to wounded circles. His eyes had changed shape, too, now downturned and sad. I lurched out of the bedroom, through the little hallway, and into the living room. No idea what I was looking for. I didn’t have a single thing to repel bogeymen. I didn’t even know they were a problem.
The bogeyman lurched to his feet. In the darkness, I only made out a vague, simian shape that had far too many arms, all reaching for me.
The light! That’s right! They couldn’t stand light, and any kind would do. The flashlight was in the bedroom with him, but the light switch was close by. All I had to do was turn on the light!
I reached for the switch right as the bogeyman barreled into me. I flew across the room, slamming into my sad little Christmas tree and breaking a couple glass ornaments. The bogeyman advanced in an odd, tumbling gait. Though his arms flailed all around, his glowing eyes—once again almond-shaped and vertically slitted—fixed on me. He was taking his time, trying to get me nice and seasoned with as much fear as he could muster. It was working too. I had lasted through World War II and the Night War, and this was how it was going to end. I’d get to spend the rest of my days—well, nights—lurking in closets and under beds.
Which is what some of the monsters I’d burned in the course of my job claimed I did anyway.
I reached for the fireplace poker. I might be going, but at least I could give the bastard something to remember me by.
Instead of the cold iron poker, my hand mashed into something soft and fuzzy. I grabbed it, putting it between me and the monster.
It was a teddy bear with a red ribbon tied around his neck.
The bogeyman shrieked in terror, tumbling back into my bedroom. I got up, holding the teddy bear out like a cross. “Mr. Bear’s here! He’s right here! Mr. Bear’s gonna get you!”
There was a howl from my bedroom, but it was distant and echoey, the bogeyman vanishing to wherever it was they went. I clicked on the lights in the living room just to be safe, and then in the bedroom. Only then did I go in the room. I checked under the bed. Just some dust bunnies. I checked the closet. No monsters.
I settled down on the floor with a sigh. Too keyed up to sleep now.
And then it hit me. I turned the teddy bear around and looked into his benign button eyes. He didn’t have much to say.
Where the hell had the bear come from? I hadn’t bought it. I hadn’t owned a teddy bear since I was five. It was under the tree for my panicked hand to grab. But I hadn’t put anything under the tree.
What happened next, well, I won’t swear to it in a court of law. Hell, I won’t even talk about it unless you get a couple slugs of whiskey in me first. But I swear, in that predawn stillness, I heard a sound echoing over Juniper Street.
Something that sounded a hell of a lot like “Ho! Ho! Ho!”