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A Dirty Job Chapter 25

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25

THE RHYTHM OF LOST AND FOUND

The Emperor was camped in some bushes near an open culvert that drained into Lobos Creek in the Presidio, the land point on the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate where forts had stood from the time of the Spanish, but had recently been turned into a park. The Emperor had wandered the city for days, calling into storm drains, following the sound of his lost soldier’s barking. The faithful retriever Lazarus had led him here, one of the few drains in the city where the Boston terrier might be able to exit without being washed into the Bay.

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They camped under a camouflage poncho and waited. Mercifully, it hadn’t rained since Bummer had chased the squirrel into the storm sewer, but dark clouds had been bubbling over the City for two days now, and whether or not they were bringing rain, they made the Emperor fear for his city.

“Ah, Lazarus,” said the Emperor, scratching his charge behind the ears, “if we had even half the courage of our small comrade, we would go into that drain and find him. But what are we without him, our courage, our valor? Steady and righteous we may be, my friend, but without courage to risk ourselves for our brother, we are but politicians – blustering whores to rhetoric.”

Lazarus growled low and hunkered back under the poncho. The sun had just set, but the Emperor could see movement back in the culvert. As he climbed to his feet, the six-foot pipe was filled with a creature that crawled out and virtually unfolded in the creekbed – a huge, bullheaded thing, with eyes that glowed green and wings that unfurled like leathery umbrellas.

As they watched the creature took three steps and leapt into the twilight sky, his wings beating like the sails of a death ship. The Emperor shuddered, and considered for a moment moving their camp into the City proper, perhaps passing the night on Market Street, with people and policemen streaming by, but then he heard the faintest barking coming from deep in the culvert.

Audrey was showing them around the Buddhist center, which, except for the office in the front, and a living room that had been turned into a meditation room, looked very much like any other sprawling Victorian home. Austere and Oriental in its decor, yes, and perhaps the smell of incense permeating it, but still, just a big old house.

“It’s just a big old house, really,” she said, leading them into the kitchen.

Minty Fresh was making Audrey feel a little uncomfortable. He kept picking at bits of duct-tape adhesive that had stuck to the sleeve of his green jacket, and giving Audrey a look like he was saying, This better come out when it’s dry-cleaned or it’s your ass. His size alone was intimidating, but now a series of large knots were rising on his forehead where he’d smacked the doorway, and he looked vaguely like a Klingon warrior, except for the pastel-green suit, of course. Maybe the agent for a Klingon warrior.

“So,” he said, “if the squirrel people thought I was a bad guy, why did they save me from the sewer harpy in the train last week? They attacked her and gave me time to get away.”

Audrey shrugged. “I don’t know. They were supposed to just watch you and report back. They must have seen that what was after you was much worse than you. They are human, at heart, you know.”

She paused in front of the pantry door and turned to them. She hadn’t seen the debacle in the street, but Esther had been watching through the window and had told her what had happened – about the womanlike creatures that had been coming after Charlie. Evidently these strange men were allies of a sort, practicing what she had taken on as her holy work: helping souls to move to their next existence. But the method? Could she trust them?

“So, from what you guys are saying, there are thousands of humans walking around without souls?”

“Millions, probably,” Charlie said.

“Maybe that explains the last election,” she said, trying to buy time.

“You said you could see if people had one,” said Minty Fresh.

He was right, but she’d seen the soulless and never thought about their sheer numbers, and what happened when the dead didn’t match with the born. She shook her head. “So the transfer of souls depends on material acquisition? That’s just so – I don’t know – sleazy.”

“Audrey, believe me,” Charlie said, “we’re both as baffled by the mechanics of it as you are, and we’re instruments of it.”

She looked at Charlie, really looked at him. He was telling the truth. He had come here to do the right thing. She threw open the pantry door and the red light spilled out on them.

The pantry was nearly as big as a modern bedroom, and every shelf from floor to ceiling and most of the floor space was covered with glowing soul vessels.

“Jeez,” Charlie said.

“I got as many as I could – or, the squirrel people did.”

Minty Fresh ducked into the pantry and stood in front of a shelf full of CDs and records. He grabbed a handful and started shuffling through them, then turned to her, holding up a half-dozen CD cases fanned out. “These are from my store.”

“Yes. We got all of them,” Audrey said.

“You broke into my store.”

“She kept them from the bad guys, Minty,” Charlie said, stepping in the pantry. “She probably saved them, maybe saved us.”

“No way, man, none of this would be happening if it wasn’t for her.”

“No, it was always going to happen. I saw it in the other Great Big Book, in Arizona.”

“I was just trying to help them,” Audrey said.

Charlie was staring at the CDs in Minty’s hand. He seemed to have fallen into some sort of trance, and reached out and took the CDs as if he were moving through some thick liquid – then shuffled away all but one, which he just stared at, then flipped over to look at the back.

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He sat down hard in the pantry and Audrey caught his head to keep him from bumping it on the shelf behind him.

“Charlie,” she said. “Are you okay?”

Minty Fresh squatted down next to Charlie and looked at the CD – reached for it, but Charlie pulled it away. Minty looked at Audrey. “It’s his wife,” he said.

Audrey could see the name Rachel Asher scratched into the back of the CD case and she felt her heart breaking for poor Charlie. She put her arms around him. “I’m so sorry, Charlie. I’m so sorry.”

Tears splattered on the CD case and Charlie wouldn’t look up.

Minty Fresh stood and cleared his throat, his face clear of any rage or accusation. He seemed almost ashamed. “Audrey, I’ve been driving around the City for days, I could sure use a place to lie down if you have it.”

She nodded, her face against Charlie’s back. “Ask Esther, she’ll show you.”

Minty Fresh ducked out of the pantry.

Audrey held Charlie and rocked him for a long time, and even though he was lost in the world of that CD that held the love of his life, and she was outside, crouched in a pantry that glowed red with cosmic bric-a-brac, she cried with him.

After an hour passed, or maybe it was three, because that’s the way time is in grief and love, Charlie turned to her and said, “Do I have a soul?”

“What?” she said.

“You said you could see people’s souls glowing in them – do I have a soul?”

“Yes, Charlie. Yes, you have a soul.”

He nodded, turning away from her again, but pushing back against her.

“You want it?” he said.

“Nah, I’m good,” she said. But she wasn’t.

She took the CD out of his hand, pried his hands off of it, really, and put it with the others. “Let’s let Rachel rest and go in the other room.”

“Okay,” Charlie said. He let her help him up.

Upstairs, in a little room with cushions all over the floor and pictures of the Buddha reclining amid lotuses, they sat and talked by candlelight. They’d shared their histories, of how they had come to be where they were, what they were, and with that out of the way, they talked about their losses.

“I’ve seen it again and again,” Charlie said. “More with men than with women, but definitely with both – a wife or husband dies, and it’s like the survivor is roped to him like a mountain climber who’s fallen into a crevasse. If the survivor can’t let go – cut them loose, I guess – the dead will drag them right into the grave. I think that would have happened to me, if it wasn’t for Sophie, and maybe even becoming a Death Merchant. There was something bigger than me going on, something bigger than my pain. That’s the only reason I made it this far.”

“Faith,” Audrey said. “Whatever that is. It’s funny, when Esther came to me, she was angry. Dying and angry – she said that she’d believed in Jesus all her life, now she was dying and He said she was going to live forever.”

“So you told her, ‘Sucks to be you, Esther.'”

Audrey threw a cushion at him. She liked the way that he could find the silliness in such dark territory. “No, I told her that He told her that she’d live forever, but He didn’t say how. Her faith hadn’t been betrayed at all, she just needed to open to a broader understanding.”

“Which was total bullshit,” Charlie said.

Another cushion bounced off his forehead. “No, it wasn’t moo-poo. If anyone should understand the significance of the book not covering everything in detail, it should be you – us.”

“You can’t say ‘bullshit,’ can you?”

Audrey felt herself blush and was glad they were in the dim orange candlelight. “I’m talking faith, over here, you want to give me a break?”

“Sorry. I know – or, I think I know what you mean. I mean, I know that there’s some sort of order to all this, but I don’t know how someone can reconcile, say, a Catholic upbringing with a Tibetan Book of the Dead, with a Great Big Book of Death, secondhand dealers selling objects with human souls, and vicious raven women in the sewers. The more I know, the less I understand. I’m just doing.”

“Well, the Bardo Thodrol talks about hundreds of monsters you will encounter as your consciousness makes its journey into death and rebirth, but you’re instructed to ignore them, as they are illusions, your own fears trying to keep your consciousness from moving on. They can’t really harm you.”

“I think this may be something they left out of the book, Audrey, because I’ve seen them, I’ve fought with them, wrenched souls out of their grasp, watched them take bullets and get hit by cars and keep going – they are definitely not illusions and they definitely can hurt you. The Great Big Book isn’t clear about the specifics, but it definitely talks about the Forces of Darkness trying to take over our world, and how the Luminatus will rise and do battle with them.”

“Luminatus?” Audrey said. “Something to do with light?”

“The big Death,” Charlie said. “Death with a capital D. Sort of the Kahuna, the Big Cheese, the Boss Death. Like Minty and the other Death Merchants would be Santa’s helpers, the Luminatus would be Santa.”

“Santa Claus is the big Death?!” Audrey said, wide-eyed.

“No, that’s just an example – ” Charlie saw she was trying not to laugh. “Hey, I’ve been bruised and electrocuted and tied up and traumatized tonight.”

“So my seduction strategy is working?” Audrey grinned.

Charlie was flustered. “I didn’t – I wasn’t – was I staring at your breasts? Because if I was, it was totally by accident, because, you know – there they were, and – “

“Shh.” She reached over and put her finger on his lips to shush him. “Charlie, I feel very close to you right now, and very connected to you right now, and I want to keep that connection going, but I’m exhausted, and I don’t think I can talk anymore. I think I’d like you to come to bed with me.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Am I sure? I haven’t had sex in fourteen years – and if you’d asked me yesterday, I’d have told you that I’d rather face one of your raven monsters than go to bed with a man, but now I’m here, with you, and I’m as sure as I’ve ever been of anything.” She smiled, then looked away. “I mean, if you are.”

Charlie took her hand. “Yeah,” he said. “But I was going to tell you something important.”

“Can’t it wait till morning?”

“Sure.”

They spent the night in each other’s arms, and whatever fears or insecurities they had been feeling turned out to be illusions. Loneliness evaporated off of them like the steam off dry ice, and by morning it was just a cloud on the ceiling of the room, then gone with the light.

During the night someone had picked up the dining-room table and cleaned up the mess Minty Fresh had made when he crashed through the kitchen door. He was sitting at the table when Charlie came down.

“They towed my car,” said Minty Fresh. “There’s coffee.”

“Thanks.” Charlie skipped across the dining room to the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down with Minty. “How’s your head?”

The big man touched the purple bruise on his forehead. “Better. How’re you doing?”

“I accidentally shagged a monk last night.”

“Sometimes, in times of crisis, that shit cannot be avoided. How are you doing besides that?”

“I feel wonderful.”

“Yeah, imagine the rest of us all bummed about the end of the world, not being cheerful.”

“Not the end of the world, just darkness over everything,” Charlie cheerfully said. “It gets dark – turn on a light.”

“Good for you, Charlie. Now ‘scuse me, I got to go get my car out of impound before you start with the whole ‘if life gives you lemons you make lemonade’ speech and I have to beat you senseless.”

(It’s true, there is little more obnoxious than a Beta Male in love. So conditioned is he to the idea that he will never find love, that when he does, he feels as if the entire world has fallen into step with his desires – and thus deluded, he may act accordingly. It’s a time of great joy and danger for him.)

“Wait, we can share a cab. I have to go home and get my date book.”

“Me, too. I left mine on the front seat of the car. You know those two clients I missed – they’re here. Alive.”

“Audrey told me,” Charlie said. “There’s six of them altogether. She did that p’howa of undying thing on them. Obviously that’s what’s been causing the cosmic shit storm, but what can we do? We can’t kill them.”

“No, I think it’s what you said. The battle is going to happen here in San Francisco and it’s going to happen now. And since you’re the Luminatus, I guess this whole thing is riding on your shoulders. So I’d say we’re doomed.”

“Maybe not. I mean, every time they’ve almost gotten me, something or someone has intervened to pull out a victory. I think destiny is on our side. I feel very optimistic about this.”

“That’s just because you just shagged the monk,” said Minty.

“I’m not a monk,” said Audrey, bounding into the room with a sheaf of papers in hand.

“Oh, shit,” said the Death Merchants in unison.

“No, it’s okay,” Audrey said. “He did shag me, or, I think more appropriately – we shagged – but I’m not a monk anymore. Not because of the shagging, you know, it was a preshag decision.” She threw her papers on the table and climbed into Charlie’s lap. “Hey, good-looking, how’s your morning going?” She gave him a backbreaking kiss and entwined him like a starfish trying to open an oyster until Minty Fresh cleared his throat and she turned to him. “And good morning to you, Mr. Fresh.”

“Yes. Thank you.” Minty leaned to the side so he could see Charlie. “Whether they were here for you, or for our clients who didn’t die, they’ll be back, you know that?”

“The Morrigan?” said Audrey.

“Huh,” said the Death Merchants, again in chorus.

“You guys are so cute,” Audrey gushed. “They’re called the Morrigan. Raven women – personifications of death in the form of beautiful warrior women who can change into birds. There are three of them, all part of the same collective queen of the Underworld known as the Morrigan.”

Charlie leaned back from her so he could look her in the eye. “How do you know that?”

“I just looked it up on the Internet.” Audrey climbed out of Charlie’s lap, picked up the papers on the table, and began to read. “‘The Morrigan consists of three distinct entities: Macha, who haunts the battlefield, and takes heads of warriors as tribute in battle – she is said to be able to heal a warrior from mortal wounds in the field, if his men have offered enough heads to her. The Celtic warriors called the severed heads Macha’s acorns. She is considered the mother goddess of the three. Babd is rage, the passion of battle and killing – she was said to collect the seed of fallen warriors, and use its power to inspire a sexual frenzy for battle, a literal bloodlust. And Nemain, who is frenzy, was said to drive soldiers into battle with a howl so fierce that it could cause enemy soldiers to die of fright – her claws were venomous and the mere prick of one would kill a soldier, but she would fling the venom into the eyes of enemy soldiers to blind them.'”

“That’s them,” said Minty Fresh. “I saw venom come from the claws of the one on the BART.”

“Yeah,” Charlie said, “and I think I remember Babd – the bloodlust one. That’s them. I have to talk to Lily. I sent her to Berkeley to find out about them, but she came back with nothing. She must have not even looked.”

“Yeah, ask her if she’s seeing anybody,” Minty Fresh said. To Audrey: “Did it say how you kill them? What their weaknesses are?”

Audrey shook her head. “Just that warriors took dogs into battle to protect against the Morrigan.”

“Dogs,” Charlie echoed. “That explains why my daughter got the hellhounds to protect her. I’m telling you, Fresh, we’re going to be okay. Destiny is on our side.”

“Yeah, you said that. Call us a cab.”

“I wonder why of all the different gods and demons in the Underworld, the Celtic ones are here.”

“Maybe they’re all here,” Minty said. “I had a crazy Indian tell me once that I was the son of Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-headed god of the dead.”

“That’s great!” Charlie said. “A jackal – that’s a type of dog. You have natural abilities to battle the Morrigan, see.”

Minty looked at Audrey. “If you don’t do something to disappoint him and mellow his ass out, I’m going to shoot him.”

“Oh yeah,” Charlie said. “Can I still borrow one of your big guns?”

Minty unfolded to his feet. “I’m going outside to call a cab and wait, Charlie. If you’re coming, you better start saying good-bye now, because I’m leaving when it gets here.”

“Swell,” Charlie said, looking adoringly at Audrey. “I think we’re safe in the daylight anyway.”

“Monk shagger,” Minty growled as he ducked under the doorway.

Auntie Cassie let Charlie into their small home in the Marina district and Sophie called off the greeting hump of devil dogs almost as soon as it started.

“Daddy!”

Charlie swept Sophie up in his arms and squeezed her until she started to change color; then, when Jane came out of the kitchen, he grabbed her in his other arm and hugged her as well.

“Uh, let go,” Jane said, pushing him away. “You smell like incense.”

“Oh, Jane, I can’t believe it, she’s so wonderful.”

“He got laid,” Cassandra said.

“You got laid?” Jane said, kissing her brother on the cheek. “I’m so happy for you. Now let me go.”

“Daddy got laid,” Sophie said to the hellhounds, who seemed very happy at hearing the news.

“No, not laid,” Charlie said, and there was a collective sigh of disappointment.

“Well, yes, laid,” and there was a collective sigh of relief, “but that’s not the thing. The thing is she’s wonderful. She’s gorgeous, and kind, and sweet, and – “

“Charlie,” Jane interrupted, “you called us and told us that there was some great danger and we had to go get Sophie and protect her, and you were going on a date?”

“No, no, there was – is danger, at least in the dark, and I did need you to get Sophie, but I met someone.”

“Daddy got laid!” Sophie cheered again.

“Honey, we don’t say that, okay,” Charlie said. “Auntie Jane and Auntie Cassie shouldn’t say that either. It’s not nice.”

“Like ‘kitty’ and ‘not in the butt’?”

“Exactly, honey.”

“Okay, Daddy. So it wasn’t nice?”

“Daddy has to go to our house and get his date book, pumpkin, we’ll talk about this later. Give me a kiss.” Sophie gave him a huge hug and a kiss and Charlie thought that he might cry. For so long she had been his only future, his only joy, and now he had this other joy, and he wanted to share it with her. “I’ll come right back, okay?”

“Okay. Let me down.”

Charlie let her slide to the floor and she ran off to another part of the house.

“So it wasn’t nice?” Jane asked.

“I’m sorry, Jane. This is really crazy. I hate that I put you guys in the middle of it. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Jane thumped him in the arm. “So it was nice?”

“It was really nice,” Charlie said, breaking into a grin. “She’s really nice. She’s so nice I miss Mom.”

“Lost me,” Cassandra said.

“Because I’d like Mom to see that I’m doing okay. That I met someone who’s good for me. Who’s going to be good for Sophie.”

“Whoa, don’t jump the gun, there, tiger,” Jane said. “You just met this woman, you need to slow down – and remember, this comes from someone whose typical second date is moving a woman in.”

“Slut,” Cassie murmured.

“I mean it, Jane. She’s amazing.”

Cassie looked at Jane. “You were right, he really did need to get laid.”

“That’s not it!”

Charlie’s cell rang. “Excuse me, guys.” He flipped it open.

“Asher, what the hell have you done?” It was Lily. She was crying. “What the hell have you let loose?”

“What, Lily? What?”

“It was just here. The front window of the shop is gone. Gone! It just came in, ripped through the shop, and took all of your soul thingies. Loaded them into a bag and flew away. Fuck, Asher. I mean FUCK! This thing was huge, and fucking hideous.”

“Yeah, Lily, are you okay? Is Ray okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. Ray didn’t come in. I ran into the back when it came through the window. It wasn’t interested in anything but that shelf. Asher, it was as big as a bull and it fucking flew!”

She sounded like she was on the edge of hysteria. “Hold on, Lily. Stay there and I’ll come to you. Go in the back room and don’t open the door until you hear me, okay.”

“Asher, what the fuck was that thing?”

“I don’t know, Lily.”

The bullheaded Death flew into the culvert and immediately fell to all fours to move through the pipe, dragging the bag of souls behind him. Not for much longer – he would not crawl much longer. The time had come, Orcus could feel it. He could feel them converging on the City – the City where he had staked his territory so many years ago – his city. Still, they would come, and they would try to take what was rightfully his. All of the old gods of death: Yama and Anubis and Mors, Thanatos and Charon and Mahakala, Azrael and Emma-O and Ahkoh, Balor, Erebos, and Nyx – dozens of them, gods born of the energy of Man’s greatest fear, the fear of death – all of them coming to rise as the leader of darkness and the dead, as the Luminatus. But he had come here first, and with Morrigan, he would become the one. But first he had to marshal his forces, heal the Morrigan, and take down the wretched human soul stealers of the City.

The satchel of souls would go a long way toward healing his brides. He marched into the grotto where the great ship was moored and leapt into the air, the beat of his great leathery wings like a war drum, echoing off the grotto walls and sending bats to the wing, swirling around the ship’s masts in great clouds.

The Morrigan, torn and broken, were waiting for him on the deck.

“What did I tell you?” Babd said. “It’s really not that great Above, huh? I, for one, could do without cars altogether.”

Jane drove while Charlie fired out phone calls on his cell, first to Rivera, then to Minty Fresh. Within a half an hour they were all standing in Charlie’s store, or the wreckage that had been Charlie’s store, and uniformed policemen had taped off the sidewalk until someone could get the glass swept up.

“The tourists have to love this,” Nick Cavuto said, gnawing an unlit cigar. “Right on the cable-car line. Perfect.”

Rivera was sitting in the back room interviewing Lily while Charlie, Jane, and Cassandra tried to sort through the mess and put things back on their shelves. Minty Fresh stood by the front door, wearing shades, looking entirely too cool for the destruction that lay strewn around him. Sophie was content to sit in the corner and feed shoes to Alvin and Mohammed.

“So,” Cavuto said to Charlie, “some kind of flying monster came through your window and you thought this would be a good place to bring your kid?”

Charlie turned to the big cop and leaned on the counter. “Tell me, Detective, in your professional opinion, what procedure should I use in dealing with robbery by a flying monster? What the fuck is the SFPD giant-fucking-flying-monster protocol, Detective?”

Cavuto stood staring at Charlie as if he’d had water thrown in his face, not really angry, just very surprised. Finally, he grinned around his cigar, and said, “Mr. Asher, I am going to go outside and smoke, call in to the dispatcher, and have her look that particular protocol up. You have stumped me. Would you tell my partner where I’ve gone?”

“I’ll do that,” Charlie said. He went into the office with Lily and Rivera and said, “Rivera, can I get some police protection here at my apartment – officers with shotguns?”

Rivera nodded, patting Lily on the hand as he looked away. “I can give you two, Charlie, but not for longer than twenty-four hours. You sure you don’t want to get out of town?”

“Upstairs we have the security bars and steel doors, we have the hellhounds and Minty Fresh’s weapons, and besides, they’ve already been here. I have a feeling they got what they came for, but the cops would make me feel better.”

Lily looked at Charlie. She was in total mascara meltdown and had smudged her lipstick halfway across her face. “I’m sorry, I thought I would handle it better than this. It was so scary. It wasn’t mysterious and cool, it was horrible. The eyes and the teeth – I peed, Asher. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, kid. You did fine. I’m glad you had the sense to get out of its way.”

“Asher, if you’re the Luminatus, that thing must be your competition.”

“What? What is that?” Rivera said.

“It’s her weird Gothy stuff, Inspector. Don’t worry about it,” Charlie said. He looked through to the door and saw Minty Fresh standing at the front of the shop, looking at him, shrugging, as if saying, Well? So Charlie asked: “Hey, Lily, are you seeing anyone?”

Lily wiped her nose on the sleeve of her chef ‘s coat. “Look, Asher – I, uh – I’m going to have to withdraw that offer I made you. I mean, after Ray, I’m not sure I really ever want to do that again. Ever.”

“I wasn’t asking for me, Lily.” Charlie nodded toward the towering Fresh.

“Oh,” Lily said, following his gaze, now wiping her eyes with her sleeves. “Oh. Fuck. Cover for me, I’ve got to regroup.” She dashed into the employee washroom and slammed the door.

Rivera looked at Charlie. “What the hell is going on here?”

Charlie was going to try to come up with some kind of answer when his cell phone rang and he held up his finger to pause time. “Charlie Asher,” he said.

“Charlie, it’s Audrey,” came the whispered voice. “They’re here, right now. The Morrigan are here.”

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