A knock on the driver’s side window startled Einar from his catnap. Outside the beat-up ’66 Buick LeSabre, a skinny white boy in his early twenties held his hands up, his expression nervously apologetic. Einar turned off the car radio in the middle of the chorus to Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone,” then rolled down the window.
“Sorry, did I wake you up?” the kid asked.
“You’re late, Rafferty,” Einar grunted in reply.
“I know, sorry. Study group ran long—I’m the TA for Intro to Mythology this semester.”
“I don’t care about your excuses. You got my money?”
The grad student nodded and passed an envelope through the window. Einar wordlessly took it and opened it up, counting the bills within. After a moment he nodded, tucked it into the inside of his jacket, and stepped out of the car, where he took a moment to fish a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and light one.
He was short, barely coming up to Rafferty’s chest, but built like he’d been carved from a granite boulder, barrel-chested and clearly strong as an ox. With his shoulder-length hair, braided beard, and leather jacket, bystanders might assume he was an outlaw biker, or maybe a roadie for a metal band. They’d be wrong. Einar wore his hair long not because he liked the style, but because it covered up his slightly pointed ears and made it easier to go out in public without a glamour or a disguise.
He led the young man around to the trunk and popped it open. John Rafferty, University of Pennsylvania class of 1987, Ph.D. candidate by day and small-time drug dealer by night, looked in and smiled.
“Can I get a little extra coke this time? It’s selling like crazy—I sold out a week ago and want to make sure I have enough until next month.”
The Svartalf just shrugged. “Sure. I’ve got plenty of everything. Same deal as always.”
The kid nodded and handed his supplier a backpack. “Fill her up.”
Einar silently began to pack the bag with various narcotics, mentally chuckling that the grad student spent all day studying mythology and folktales and never realized that he was working for a being straight out of his stories.
After a long night of similar meetings, resupplying a half dozen of his dealers and collecting his cut, Einar pulled into the parking lot of an old brick building by a pier on the Delaware River just as the sun was coming up. With a yawn, he made his way inside.
“Any problems, Einar?” called out a woman’s voice with a thick Hispanic accent.
He grunted in reply. “No, none of these humans are stupid enough to try to rip me off.”
“Damned shame, that,” a much lower voice rumbled. “It’s been too long since we’ve gotten to teach any of ’em a lesson.”
Einar glanced in the voice’s direction, at the impossibly large figure lounging on an old sofa in the corner of the room.
“I know your kind likes fighting, Tal,” he shook his head, “but I like things nice and quiet and orderly. And that’s how I run things.”
“Damn your dwarven efficiency,” Tal said while pushing himself to his feet. Standing almost nine feet tall, he loomed over Einar, his head almost touching the ceiling. If Einar had been carved from a boulder, Tal looked like he’d been carved from a small mountain. A particularly ugly mountain, at that.
The hulking brute scowled. “It bores me out of my mind. This whole operation is boring me to death, really. No trouble with the dealers. No need to worry about the cops. No real competition in years. Just the same thing, month in, month out. I hate it. I want some action, damn it!”
“Cálmate, Talfryn,” the woman’s voice called, “Tranquilo.” A stunningly beautiful Latina, wearing a white dress that perfectly accentuated her curves, stepped out of a back room with a smile on her face. “It is better this way—we can make our money in peace and the Arcanum does not come sniffing around.”
“The Arcanum?” Tal rolled his eyes. “That sorcerer is a drunk. You could walk into his shop and he probably wouldn’t even notice you were glamoured, much less care.”
“Don’t be stupid, amigo,” she replied. “Even a drunk, washed-up Sorcerer of the First Rank is no trifling matter.”
“I’m just saying, is all,” he grumbled. “All this sneaking around don’t hardly seem necessary.”
“Verdad?” She quirked an eyebrow. “Really? Do I really have to explain this to you again? Need I remind you why we hide in the shadows? Your fellow giants gave up manflesh ages ago, but you still have the taste, do you not? That’s why your kin cast you out. I’m a Patasola—while your diet is merely a matter of preference, mine is my curse. I must consume the blood and flesh of man to survive. The Arcanum is sworn to protect humans from the things that go bump in the night. We are the things that go bump in the night, Talfryn. And Einar here is an outlaw, do you forget? Three men killed in broad daylight! Should he be caught, by the terms of the Treaty of Uppsala, his life is forfeit. Rodrigo, mi amor, was exiled from the Kingdom Beneath the Waves for his crimes. You think any of us would be welcomed at a Faerie Market? At an Arcanum Conclave? Hell, even in that Fae pendejo Bran’s pub in Fishtown?
“No, the four of us are misfits. Outcasts. We have no place in the magical community at large. And we cannot risk being caught on camera—it’s not the 1800s anymore, it’s the 1980s. There are security cameras now. No one will notice if the occasional homeless junkie quietly goes missing, but if you were to be caught on video without a glamour, bashing in some dealer’s brains to make a point, the sorcerer would be forced to act, drunk or not.” The giant grunted. “And this is no second-rate self-taught sorcerer that we might be able to take in a fight—he’s trained, ranked, and has the full authority of the Arcanum behind him. You’ve heard the rumors of what he did in Canada. We all have. Should we draw his attention, he’d be within his rights to kill us without a second thought. At the very least he would be compelled to drive us out of Philadelphia and force us to set up shop elsewhere—somewhere, perhaps, with a Rector or a ranking sorcerer who isn’t a drunk, where we might actually have to worry about getting caught. So, let us keep everything tranquilo, my friend. Let Einar manage his dealers his way. It is easier for us all.”
“Fine, Victoria, you win. Like always.” The giant belched and plodded off towards the bathroom.
Einar looked at Victoria, who rolled her eyes. “Must we have this conversation every week?”
The dwarf snorted. “That’s why he’s just the muscle and you’re in charge, boss. Better you than me. I’m gonna have a smoke and then hit the sack. I need to get some sleep.”
“Do that,” she nodded. “Rodrigo will be here tonight with the next shipment from Medellín. It’ll be another late night.”
“Where’s that damn fishboy at?” Tal muttered.
Einar just raised an eyebrow and took a drag on his cigarette as the three of them waited by a quiet dock on the Delaware River a few miles downstream from their home, outside of Philly proper. The giant was glamoured, his magical disguise shrinking him to a more reasonable six-foot-seven. Besides avoiding getting caught on camera, the spell was the only way he could fit in the car to get here. But Einar knew Tal hated having to hide his true form, and his irritation grew every extra minute they had to wait for Rodrigo to show up.
“Right here, my large friend,” a Spanish-accented voice called out as a man’s head broke the water’s surface. “My sincere apologies for the delay—the currents were not with me on this trip.”
“Mi corazón!” Victoria exclaimed. “I have missed you so!”
“And I you, my love,” Rodrigo replied as he swam closer to where the group stood in darkness on a small dock. “My heart sings to look upon you once more!”
Einar rolled his eyes. “Save it for the bedroom, you two. Let’s get this over with.”
“Of course, of course!” the merman laughed. “Business first, pleasure after.”
He swam right up to the dock and pulled himself out of the water. As his lower body left the water, the shimmering silver scales of his tail transformed into muscular legs, and the gills on his abdomen closed and disappeared. He sat naked on the edge of the dock, looking like nothing more than a roguishly handsome man with a toned swimmer’s physique, his feet dangling in the water.
“Who has my clothes?”
Einar wordlessly tossed a backpack at him.
“Gracias,” Rodrigo said as he opened it and began pulling out a pair of briefs.
“Rope?” Tal asked.
“Ah, yes, I almost forgot!” Rodrigo laughed. He unwrapped a thin silk rope from his left forearm and passed it to the giant. The other end was still underwater; Tal began pulling hand over hand as the merman got dressed. In a minute, the top of a mesh bag broke the surface, and the giant reached down and grabbed it, pulling it onto the dock with a single mighty heave where it thudded heavily on the wood.
“Two hundred kilos of Colombia’s finest, courtesy of Victoria’s friends back home,” the now-dressed Rodrigo said, taking a deep theatrical bow next to the sopping wet bag full of plastic-wrapped bricks of white powder. “Reagan can pour as many millions into the drug war as he likes; the Coast Guard will never be able to spot a merman on sonar!”
“Great,” Einar grunted as he flicked the butt of his cigarette into the water. “Let’s get it in the trunk and head home.”
As Einar stepped through the front door of the dilapidated brick building they called home, he sensed something was wrong. But as he turned to look around, he felt a heavy thump at the base of his skull and he sprawled forward onto the floor.
Rodrigo was following Einar inside when he suddenly saw his companion fall down, but he hadn’t seen why.
“What . . . ” he began to exclaim, then stopped abruptly as the barrel of a shotgun was shoved in his face from someone standing off to the side of the doorway.
“Inside, pretty boy!” the man holding the gun shouted at Rodrigo with a harsh Philly accent. “Come on! All three of you, inside! Even you, big guy, unless you want to get your head blown off!”
Einar groaned and shakily climbed to his feet as his companions trooped through the door with their hands held up in front of them. Rodrigo’s expression was calm, but Victoria and Tal both looked furious. Glancing around, he saw they were outnumbered, a half-dozen armed Caucasian men standing around the room with weapons aimed at the gang. The one at the door with the pump-action shotgun had it trained on Talfryn, who he’d apparently—and correctly—identified as the biggest threat. Apart from him, the rest had an assortment of handguns.
Magical beings tended to be pretty resilient compared to ordinary humans. The pistols would hurt, but they weren’t a serious threat. The shotgun, though, might be a problem, depending on what it was loaded with. Buckshot wasn’t a major concern, but not even a giant would survive a couple of 12-gauge slugs directly to the skull. The gang followed instructions.
“Over there, in the corner!” shotgun ordered. “Drop the goods in the middle of the floor, big guy! Come on, hurry up!”
Tal looked over at Victoria, who quickly shook her head.
“Do what he says, Talfryn.”
“That’s right, Tall Friend,” the man said, “listen to the lady. Don’t do nothin’ stupid.”
“Keep your pants on,” the giant rumbled as he carefully set the mesh bag full of drugs down, then stepped back with his hands up.
“You!” the man gestured at Einar with the shotgun, “Get in the corner with the rest of ’em.”
Einar rubbed the back of his head and complied. He was going to have a lump later. Probably a headache, too.
“All right, amigo,” Victoria said, her voice icy, “what’s all this about?”
“Do you know who I am?” the man with the shotgun asked, lowering the barrel slightly.
“Not a clue,” she said. “Should I?”
“Yeah, you really should. I’m Donny O’Brien. I worked for Mikey Sullivan. You might say I was his right-hand man.”
Her expression changed from furious to quizzical. “Mikey? We’ve been on good terms with the Irish for years.”
He laughed humorlessly, then shook his head.
“No, lady. You were on good terms with Mikey Sullivan. He wasn’t a bad guy, but for some reason he was a pussy when it came to you. I don’t know what you had on him that got him to leave you alone and let you take over the coke business in town without a fight. But Mikey’s dead. I’m in charge of the Irish here in Philly now. And things are gonna change.”
“I see.” She nodded calmly. Her expression turned thoughtful, and she lowered her hands to her hips. “Mikey’s dead. And he never told you why he elected not to bother us. This all makes much more sense now.”
“Right,” Donny nodded back. “So, here’s how it’s gonna be—you lot work for me now. You keep doing exactly what you’ve been doing for the last few years, but you owe me half of your take.”
Victoria shook her head.
“No, Señor O’Brien. I don’t think that will work for us.”
“Oh, it won’t work for you?” he snapped. “How about option B, where me and my guys here just shoot all of you dead and we take over your operations ourselves? In case you hadn’t noticed, there are more of us than of you, and we’ve got the guns. You prefer that option? Just say the word. Only reason that’s not my first choice is that it’d be a hassle having to set up our own deal with the Colombians and find a whole new set of street dealers. But I’m comfortable with that extra work if you’re gonna be a pain in my ass anyway.”
Victoria just smiled. “Have you ever heard of la Patasola?”
“What?” Donny replied, apparently taken by surprise. “No, I haven’t. What the fuck is a Patasola?”
“Back home in Colombia,” she answered, “there are tales of a beautiful woman who lives in the forest. She appears to hunters and loggers, inviting them to enjoy her company. She’s beautiful, and they’re lonely, so of course they often go with her. But when the two of them are deep into the jungle, she reveals her true form as a hideous one-legged monster, the product of a horrible curse, and then she devours them. She is la Patasola.”
“Fascinating,” Donny smirked. “What the fuck does a ghost story have to do with this?”
“Everything,” Victoria replied, her smile gone. “La Patasola is why your friend Mikey chose not to bother our operations, to leave the drug trade to us and stick to running guns and cigarettes.”
“Huh? You told him a kid’s story and he left you alone? Bullshit. Mikey was a lot of things, but he weren’t never scared of ghosts and monsters, lady.”
“You see,” Victoria continued, her tone turning deadly serious, “I am la Patasola. Mikey left us alone because years ago, when we first set up operations in Philadelphia, after he objected to our presence, I revealed my true nature to him and made it quite clear that if he ever decided to fuck with me or my people, I would eat his wife and children in front of him.”
“Is that right?” Donny chuckled.
“So, my new friend Donny, instead of either of the options you gave me, I will present you with the same choice I gave him.” She held out her right hand, palm up, as if to offer him something. “You can turn around and walk out of this building right now without another word, and I will forget any of this ever happened and we will all return to our lives as they were an hour ago.” She held up the other hand. “Or you can watch helplessly as I kill and eat all your men here, followed by whatever family you may have, followed by everyone you ever cared about. And then I will eat you. Slowly. While you’re still alive, screaming, feeling me take and savor every bite, until you finally pass out from the pain and I finish my meal in peace. Choose.”
He pursed his lips as if in thought and nodded once. Then, without warning, he raised the shotgun to a firing position and pulled the trigger. The front of Victoria’s torso exploded in a bloody mess and she collapsed where she stood. Einar heard a ringing in his ears and his mouth filled with the taste of copper as a fine pink mist filled the air.
“Mi amor!” Rodrigo shouted as he dropped to the ground next to her broken form and cradled her head in his lap.
“Can you believe that crazy bitch?!” Donny laughed to his men as he turned his head over his shoulder to look at them. “Guess she won’t be eating anyone anytime soon!”
Einar and Talfryn just looked at each other. The giant began to chuckle as they both lowered their hands to their sides.
Donny’s head snapped back over to look at him.
“What’s so funny, big guy? You didn’t like her much either?”
Tal shook his head. “You fucked up, pal.”
“What?” He aimed the shotgun at the giant’s head. “You want to be next?”
“Buckshot was a bad choice,” Einar said, his voice full of pity.
“You really should have loaded that thing with slugs,” Einar shrugged. “You aren’t going to like what happens next.”
“Uh . . . boss?” one of Donny’s men nervously interrupted their conversation.
“Yeah?” he said while keeping his eyes—and his shotgun—focused on Talfryn.
“She’s getting up.”
“What?!” he snapped.
“The . . . the crazy bitch. She’s getting up.” He sounded afraid.
His turned to look, and saw Victoria pushing herself to her feet. Her front was a mess, her chest looking like bloody hamburger meat where it showed through the tattered remains of her once-white dress. But despite the horrific wound, she stood tall and glared at the man who’d shot her.
“Mi amigo is correct,” she snarled. “You should not have done that.”
“What the fu—” Donny gasped, stepping backwards in shock.
Her form began to rearrange itself. Her sleek, elegant legs merged into a single animallike appendage, covered in coarse fur and ending in a hoof. Her torso elongated and she gained over a foot in height. Her fingers stretched and grew long claws. And her face seemed to melt and shift, with her eyes turning a deep crimson and her mouth widening until it stretched impossibly from ear to ear. She grinned, revealing a set of wickedly sharp teeth.
“This,” she said, her previously melodic voice now unrecognizably raspy and harsh, “is the part where you scream.”
His eyes wide, Donny looked back over at Einar and Talfryn, only to see that the giant had dropped his glamour, too, and now loomed over the gangster at his full height and weight.
“Who the fuck are you people?! What the fuck?!”
“She already told you that,” Einar shrugged.
“What is happening?!”
“Dinner, that’s what,” Rodrigo said with a laugh.
“Kill ’em!” Donny shouted to his men. “Kill ’em all!”
The guns all began barking at once, impossibly loud in the confined space. They stopped a few seconds later, as handgun slides locked back on empty chambers. Einar winced with pain; a few shots had hit him in the chaos. He noted with irritation a couple holes in his jacket; he knew he’d heal just fine, but good leather was expensive.
He saw Talfryn step forward, seize Donny by the throat with one huge hand, and lift him a couple feet off the ground. With his other hand, the giant grabbed the gangster’s ankles and snapped them both with a single twist. Then he dropped him to the floor, and he and Victoria turned their attention to the other gunmen.
Einar could barely hear the screams through the ringing in his ears.
Einar sat in the driver’s seat of his car, drumming the fingers of his left hand on the steering wheel in impatience as his right held a lighter to the cigarette in his mouth. Rafferty was late again. Like he was every month. On the one hand, it was annoying that the kid was never on time and Einar had to wait for him. On the other, it was predictable, and Einar appreciated predictability.
He took a drag on the cigarette and chuckled to himself as Red Rider’s “Lunatic Fringe” came on the radio.
“ . . . I know you're out there,” Tom Cochrane sang. “You're in hiding, and you hold your meetings . . . ”
“Yeah we are,” Einar thought to himself. He took another drag and reflected on the events of the past month. Victoria was right—the four of them were misfits. It was better to stay in the shadows, unnoticed by that drunk Arcanum sorcerer, the Fae, or anyone else who might want them out of town. That was easier to achieve when everyone did what they were expected to do, even if it wasn’t quite as Einar would prefer. He expected Rafferty to be late, so it was tolerable.
When anyone tried to mess with Einar’s quiet, predicable, efficient system—like the Irish had—well, that was unacceptable. But at least Tal hadn’t bitched about being bored for a while. He and Victoria had been eating well for weeks, and they hadn’t even gotten to Donny himself yet.
Personally, Einar didn’t care for the flavor of human flesh, and he definitely thought eating children was in poor taste, especially in front of their father. He’d tried to make sure he was out of the building during mealtimes recently—the screams ruined his appetite.
But he understood it was necessary. The four of them didn’t worry too much about the cops, but if they left any survivors, there was always a chance that down the line someone would come looking to figure out what happened to his or her dad, and maybe see something they shouldn’t, and things could get out of hand. Easier and more efficient just to leave no loose ends in the first place. And while eating them wasn’t strictly necessary to achieve that goal, it wasn’t like Victoria and Talfryn to waste good meat. They hadn’t had to snatch any homeless guys from dark alleys in a month.
Besides, Victoria had offered Donny a choice, and she was merely following through with the option he’d taken. It wasn’t her fault he hadn’t really believed her. La Patasola always kept her word, and Einar appreciated that. It helped keep things predictable.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the skinny form of John Rafferty approaching.
“You’re late,” he called as he flicked the butt of his cigarette out of the window.
“I know, I know, sorry!”
“Whatever. You got my money?”
Back to business as normal.
Copyright © 2021 by A.C. Haskins
A.C. Haskins is a former Armored Cavalry Officer and combat veteran turned economist and business strategist (and occasional defensive firearm instructor). He has a lifelong love of speculative fiction, having written his first science fiction novel as a class project in the eleventh grade. His interests include (but are not limited to) ancient and medieval history, mythology, applied violence studies, tabletop gaming, and theoretical economics. He lives in Michigan with his wife, two cats, and a dog.