Kate Sullivan, the intrepid founder and once-mastermind of Candlemark, put together a fantabulous StoryBundle of neo-noir speculative fiction that went live today. From space opera to swords and sorcery, from horror to urban fantasy, corrupt elves, werewolf cops, ghostly soul-whisperers, and Twitter-obsessed superheroes, it’s all there — just take a gander at that snazzy lineup!
To celebrate this, here’s a Justin Robinson bonus story unfolding in his Night Wars monsterverse. Pull up a seat and dig into this version of thanksgiving in the Los Angeles of Nick Moss! And if you haven’t yet delved into Justin’s inspired noir/pulp monster mash, City of Devils and Fifty Feet of Trouble is with us, with Wolfman Confidential gearing up in the wings.
Light or Dark
by Justin Robinson
– a City of Devils/Fifty Feet of Trouble Companion Story-
Nobody was looking at the dead man in the middle of the room anymore.
The late Edward Coleman just lay there, face down on the threadbare Persian rug, leaking whatever remained of his life out of the crack in his head. He’d told his last off-color joke. He’d swallowed his last Ballantine. And most importantly, he’d paid his last bill to Pacific All-Risk Insurance. Now all that was left was to wrap him up in that carpet, throw him in the trunk of Dick’s brown Ford coupe outside, and bury him in a shallow grave somewhere in San Berdoo. All while trying to avoid the swarms of ravening monsters prowling the streets under a harvest moon.
You know, a normal Thanksgiving in the City of Devils.
Only that’s not what happened. And until the present situation was resolved, it wasn’t going to. No one in the room — not Dick, not Eunice, not even Wayne — remembered the mortal remains of Edward Coleman were there. He might as well have been an invisible man.
“Oh, I am so pleased to be invited!” borbled the pile of pinkish goo presently at the head of the dinner table. It would have been sitting, but it had absorbed the chair, which was now visible through the haze of pink, dissolving away, bubble by bubble, right in front of what was left of Edward Coleman’s front door.
Dick glanced at his hand. Yep, he was still holding a bloody rolling pin. That was when he remembered dear old dad’s body was in the room. Right where he’d left it.
“Dick!” hissed Eunice. In Dick’s opinion, she was a real tomato, and not the killer variety. But sometimes, she could be a real nag. He had found her fresh off the bus from Wichita or Omaha or some damn place trying to be an actress, but Hollywood was a long way off even when you could see the sign from your back porch. “Get the potassium powder!”
“What am I, made of money? We have potash.”
“Then get the potash!” Eunice said.
“Wayne,” Dick said. “You deaf? Go get the potash.”
Wayne ran off without thinking twice. That’s what Dick liked about Wayne: he didn’t think much. Did whatever Dick told him to do, and had been for going on five years. Made for a good and lasting friendship.
“Mr. Cooper!” the blob blurted. “Say, why did the poor man sell yeast?”
Dick’s last name was Coleman, not Cooper. He answered anyway. When a gelatinous apocalypse is in your dining room, it pays to be polite. “Uh… I don’t know?”
“Because they have their own scales!”
The blob chortled and wobbled. Every last hair on Dick’s body stood on end. Since the blob flowed in like a spring mudslide, only thicker, he’d been on edge. Although it was easy to blame the jiggling pink monster at the Thanksgiving table, Dick’s snit had started maybe thirty seconds before the wood of the door started smoking and the bits of pink came oozing through, right about the time he was kissing Ed upside the noggin with the rolling pin.
The blob had merely made things worse. Blobs made everything worse. Dick glanced over at the door. Well, doorway now that the blob had eaten the actual door. The door was there inside the blob, bubbling away like Coca-Cola off the walls of a bottle. Through the doorway, then, Dick could see a slice of the porch and the quiet street beyond. Anyone could just look in and see the sordid little tableau unfolding. And the centerpiece of this Thanksgiving feast? Edward Coleman lying in the archway between living and dining rooms, blood leaking out of him like gravy.
If you thought about it, Dick reasoned, this was all Ed’s fault to begin with. If this had gone to plan, Ed would have choked at the table, just another sad holiday mishap. An object lesson about how you should really chew your food. If you looked at it in a certain way, even the blob was the old bastard’s fault. Somehow. Dick couldn’t put together exactly how, but the white rage building behind his eyes was in danger of blinding him.
“Mr. Cooper, say, would you pass the yams?”
The Thanksgiving spread was nothing special. Eunice wasn’t much of a cook on her best day, and she’d been jittery ever since they’d bought the rat poison. Used to be you got it at a market. Now you got that stuff at the neighborhood apothecary, along with your allward, your wolfsbane, and your potassium powder, if you were well-heeled enough.
Edward Coleman hadn’t been. But he’d spent on insurance. Spent big.
Dick glanced at the doorway. The street was still quiet; monsters wouldn’t start showing up in earnest until the dark gathered. He hadn’t counted on a blob just wandering in, even though one was always oozing somewhere around the neighborhood. But actually coming in? And during daylight hours? Even blobs respected the Fair Game Law.
“I got the potash!” Wayne said, charging into the room, tripping over the raised end of the rug — Dick caught a memory of Ed’s flailing leg pulling that bit up, leading to the afternoon’s next depressing little error — and sprawling over the floor. The jar of potash spilled, throwing a streak of orangey powder across the room.
Dick, Eunice, and Wayne all froze, staring at the blob in terror. It had to be able to sense they’d brought in something that could kill it. The blob wobbled like Jell-O, chair and door disappearing inside its pink acid depths.
“Mr. Cooper, say, would you pass the yams?” the blob repeated.
Dick stepped over Ed’s corpse. He realized, once again, that he was still clutching the rolling pin. A rolling pin! Life was basically a cartoon, but bloodier. The wood was still sticky with flour and Ed’s blood. Two thwacks was all it took, and that was it for Ed. One to knock him to dreamland, one to send the bastard right to Old Nick. Wasn’t supposed to be a rolling pin. It was supposed to be that rat poison, hidden in the pie presently turning golden brown in the oven. But Ed just couldn’t resist saying something. Ed was always saying something.
Well, not anymore.
Dick reflexively put the bloody rolling pin behind his back. Frowned. The blob hadn’t mentioned it. Maybe didn’t even see it. Did blobs even see? Dick had no idea.
“Uh, yeah. You want yams, Mr…”
“I’m Keyes! Gelatin Keyes! So nice to meet you, Mr. Cooper!”
“And I am…”
“Mr. Bob Cooper, of course! You won the contest.”
“To host Miss Pilar O’Heaven on this Thanksgiving Day!”
Dick’s eyebrows reached for the sky. He knew who Pilar O’Heaven was. Every red-blooded man did. She was a dish, in Dick’s considered opinion. He had her pinup in his locker at the plant. “I won the contest?” A look at Ed. Still dead. “I guess I kind of did, didn’t I?”
“I am sent to make certain everything is prepared!”
“What is it talking about?” Eunice hissed.
“How should I know?” Dick shot back.
“This is your father’s house!” Wayne pointed out.
Dick raised the rolling pin, thinking maybe he didn’t like Wayne so much anymore. But then I’d have to carry Ed, and Eunice wasn’t going to be much help there. Oh, and there’s still a blob at the table. The sticky crimson on the rolling pin caught Dick’s eye.
“Mr. Keyes, right?” Dick said.
“That’s me! A thousand thousand voices speaking as one!”
Dick tossed the rolling pin to the blob. The wood hit the jiggling pink surface. It tried to rebound, but was stuck fast, and soon sank into the gelatinous form like a doomed mammoth into tar.
“These yams are delicious! And so crispy!” the blob borbled.
“What are you doing?” Eunice asked.
“Getting rid of a murder weapon,” Dick said.
He watched understanding dawn across the faces of his accomplices like a tiny, dim sun in a smog-choked sky.
“That’s pretty smart,” Wayne said. Not that Wayne would know smart if it hit him upside the head with a rolling pin, but Dick appreciated the compliment.
“There’s more where that came from!” Dick called to the blob.
“Thank you extremely, Mr. Cooper! My employer will be so pleased!”
Dick waved the other two into a huddle. “Do you see what just fell into our laps? We got a perfect patsy. All we gotta do is tell the wolves the blob did the whole thing.”
“You think the wolves are going to take the words of a couple meatsticks over a blob?” Eunice asked.
She was right, but Dick wasn’t going to admit it. Not when he was really rolling on this plan. He had to get it all out, and Eunice and Wayne could bask in it, like cats in a sunbeam. The same way they’d basked in the original plan, before Ed decided to fubar the whole thing and damn near beg to take five pounds of beechwood to the temple.
“The wolves don’t have to take our word for anything,” Dick said. He felt the plan sparking in his brain, sharp and brilliant as the light glittering in old Ed’s spilled blood. “They’ll find the body in the blob.”
Eunice and Wayne couldn’t have looked more surprised if Dick had pulled off his mask and revealed he’d been a killer potato all along. With his red hair and freckles, Wayne always looked like Archie, but in that moment, he looked exactly like the comic book kid, down to the gobsmacked expression. Dick almost asked him if he knew where Jughead was.
“Jesus, Dick, you’d do that to your own father?” Wayne asked.
“I’d do it to you too,” Dick told him, and meant it. Wayne quailed. When Dick turned, Eunice flinched. Dick was glad that she understood that what went for Wayne went for her too. She was a dish, no mistake, but there were a lot of dishes, and more coming to Los Angeles every day. Still thought they could be in pictures without getting turned.
“Say, Mr. Cooper,” the blob said, “Why is the cemetery so popular?”
Dick ignored the blob. He was thinking about logistics. That’s what came with being the brains of any operation, even a penny-ante one like this. Someone had to think, and there was no way it’d be Eunice or Wayne. Hell, Wayne still thought ice cream came out of frozen cows.
“Because he wanted to raise some dough!” said the blob, wiggling in apparent delight.
“Come on, Wayne. Help me out.” Dick picked up his father’s limp feet.
Wayne looked like he was about to toss his cookies, but he picked up the other end of the dead man just the same. Ed’s head lolled around like it wasn’t attached very well. A bit of crimson, gone as tacky as canned cranberry sauce, stuck to the front of Wayne’s shirt. More evidence to dispose of, but they’d lucked into a solution. The more the blob ate, the better the story looked. Blobs were always going nuts and trying to eat whole cities.
They hauled old Ed Coleman over to their jiggling visitor.
“So, Mr. Keyes, do you prefer light or dark meat?”
“Oh, Mr. Cooper, why choose between light or dark when the dark is ever hungry?”
“He makes a good point,” Dick said.
Wayne couldn’t stop shuddering. He looked young. So young. And kids couldn’t keep their damned mouths shut.
“On three,” Dick said, starting to swing the body. “One… two… three.”
Ed soared all of a foot before alighting in the pink mass. Then he started sinking, his skin carbonating away. Wayne was sick all over the floor.
Yeah. Weak like a little kid, Dick thought. The plan was already being modified in Dick’s mind. Making new allowances. And, like he had said, the more the blob ate, the better things looked for the wolves. They’d buy it.
“Wayne, help me over here.” He gestured at the rug. The two of them moved a few chairs, then rolled it up, the juicy parts inside. Wayne got one end and Dick got the other. They hauled it over to Keyes. Ed was still sinking into the blob, with half of him dangling out.
“Tamp him down,” Dick said, and nudged with the carpet.
Wayne turned greener, but obeyed, mashing the body inward with the rug.
“Say, Mr. Cooper,” said the blob. “This is the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had! You know what I’m thankful for?”
“No, Mr. Keyes. What are you thankful for?”
“For such a gracious host! And for looming death!”
“You and me both, Keyes.”
Dick wished he’d checked to see if there was any indemnity on the insurance. Ed had monster insurance — what human didn’t anymore? — but Dick couldn’t be sure the exact sum. It’d be the same as the original plan. Split three ways.
Well, two, anyway.
Wayne stepped back as Keyes took the carpet. It stuck out of the blob like a giant Persian cigar. The blob was looking awful crowded, cloudy with shadows of its meals. It also looked bigger. It had once taken up space at the head of the table. Now it was taking up nearly the entire side of the room. Dick wondered how big the thing was going to get.
Wayne wiped his forehead, then put a hand over his mouth and shuddered. “Okay, Dick. It’s done. Let’s call the wolves and–”
He didn’t get anything else out. There was just the red sound of the carving knife going into Wayne’s back. Dick planted a foot in Wayne’s keister and shoved, and the kid fell into the blob with the sound of a boot getting stuck in mud.
“Dick!” gasped Eunice.
Dick turned. “Calm down, doll.”
“You killed Wayne!”
“That what you saw? Because what I saw was a blob kill my father and my pal. Then eat half my pop’s dining room set.”
Eunice was shivering now, her skin stark white.
“Say, Mr. Cooper, why are fish so easy to weigh? Because people are dying to get in!” The blob wobbled with glee. The end of the rug, still sticking out of its… upper area, Dick supposed… flopped over.
As Dick looked at Eunice, he had a realization. Then he made a calculation. Money split a lot better one way than two. And there were always dames getting off of buses.
He brushed imaginary dust off his hands, watching Eunice sink into the blob. She still looked surprised. He didn’t think it was all that surprising when you got down to it. Bye, doll, Dick thought.
“Okay,” he said to himself. “That’s that.”
“Mr. Cooper! Will you pass the pumpkin pie?” Keyes asked.
“You got it,” Dick said, sticking the bloody carving knife into the blob, and was pleased to see it bubbling away inside.
Imagine that! Dick thought with real appreciation. They could even eat metal. When this was all over, he was thinking maybe he should approach a blob about a more permanent partnership. There was a lot they could do together.
“You know something, Mr. Keyes, I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to express my gratitude to you.”
“It is my pleasure, Mr. Cooper! And my boss will love this place.”
Dick was finally ready to call the wolves. He’d have to play the part of the distraught and frightened meatstick. He was pretty sure he knew what that looked like. He’d seen enough pictures. Blubber, beg, shake. The big three. He mentally prepared himself. Eunice had been the actress — so she said — but this couldn’t be too hard.
When he tried to turn, he found he couldn’t. Halfway there, then pulled back. His arm, the one that had been holding the knife, was abruptly cold, like he’d dunked the whole thing in ice. But when he looked down, he didn’t see ice. He saw pink.
“What are you–”
He didn’t get anything else out. The blob was too hungry.
“Thank you, Mr. Cooper!” said Keyes into the now-empty room. “The pumpkin pie was delicious! My favorite! If you don’t mind, I’ll have seconds of everything.”
There were no objections, and Keyes kept eating. He had thirds. Then fourths. Then fifths. By then, the sun had gone down, and a helpful passing phantom called the authorities. Keyes was pretty hard to miss, seeing as most of the house was gone by then, too. The wolves called some sanitation workers, who hosed Keyes down with powdered potassium, turning most of the blob into acrid pink smoke. They never found any bodies, and no one was going to raise a stink over some missing humans.
Eventually, the police returned Keyes to his employer. Pilar O’Heaven, at fifty feet tall the largest sex symbol in Los Angeles and perhaps even the world, answered the door in a dressing gown that could have swaddled a yacht. Even unmade up, she was still gorgeous. She thanked the wolves in blue, and they gave her a lot of stammering and a concerted effort not to look up that same gown. When they had loaded back into their cars, she put her hands on her hips and shot her chauffeur a stern look.
“Where were you?” she demanded.
“You sent me to the contest winner, who would host you on Thanksgiving!”
“I had to walk to that contest winner. You weren’t there!”
“Thanksgiving was delicious! I got light and dark meat!” Keyes said.
Pilar shook her head, letting the blob in. She’d have fired Keyes a long time ago, but it was so hard to get help that didn’t die when she stepped on it.
Image: Gelatin Keyes by Fernando Caire