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A Dirty Job Chapter 27

Essay Topic:
string(195) " looked at the black ship and realized that it was sitting way, way too high out of the water – that, in fact, it was sitting with its hull on the bottom in only about six inches of water\."

27

BITCH’S BREW

Lily had been looking all night for a way to approach Minty Fresh. She’d made eye contact with him a dozen times over the course of the evening, and smiled, but with the atmosphere of dread that fell over the room she was having trouble thinking of an opening line. Finally, when an Oprah movie of the week came on the television and everyone gathered around to watch the media diva beat Paul Winfield to death with a steam iron, Minty went to the breakfast bar and started flipping through his day planner, and Lily made her move.

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“So, checking your appointments?” she said. “You must be feeling optimistic about how things will go.”

He shook his head. “Not really.”

Lily was smitten. He was beautiful and morose – like a great brown man-gift from the gods.

“How bad can it be?” Lily said, pulling the appointment book out of his hand and flipping through the pages. She stopped on today’s date.

“Why is Asher’s name in here?” she asked.

Minty hung his head. “He said you’ve known all about us for a while.”

“Yeah, but – ” She looked at the name again and the realization of what she was seeing was like a punch in the chest. “This is that book? This is your date book for that?”

Minty nodded slowly, not looking at her.

“When did this name show up?” Lily asked.

“It wasn’t there an hour ago.”

“Well, fucksocks,” she said, sitting down on the bar stool next to the big man.

“Yeah,” said Minty Fresh. He put his arm around her shoulders.

With Charlie pulling on the legs of the bobcat guy (who was doing some impressive screaming considering he had prototype vocal cords) and the squirrel people dog-piling onto the Boston terrier, they were eventually able to extricate their lieutenant from the jaws of the bug-eyed fury with only a few snags in his Beefeater’s costume.

“Down, Bummer,” Charlie said. “Just chill.” He didn’t know if chill was an official dog command, but it should be.

Bummer snorted and backed away from the surrounding crowd of squirrel people.

“Not one of us,” said the bobcat guy, pointing at Bummer. “Not one of us.”

“You shut up,” Charlie said. He pulled a beef jerky from his pocket that he’d brought for emergency rations, tore off a hunk, and held it out to Bummer. “Come on, buddy. I told the Emperor I’d look out for you.”

Bummer trotted over to Charlie and took the beef jerky from him, then turned to face down the squirrel people as he chewed. The squirrel people made clicking noises and brandished their weapons. “Not one of us. Not one of us,” chanted Bob.

“Stop that,” Charlie said. “You can’t get a mob chant going, Bob, you’re the only one with a voice box.”

“Oh yeah.” Bob let his chanting trail off. “Well, he’s not one of us,” he added in his defense.

“He is now,” Charlie said. To Bummer he said, “Can you lead us to the Underworld?”

Bummer looked up at Charlie as if he knew exactly what was being asked of him, but if he was going to find the strength to carry on, he was going to need the other half of that beef jerky. Charlie gave it to him and Bummer immediately jumped up to a higher, four-foot pipe, stopped, barked, then took off down the pipe.

“Follow him,” Charlie said.

After an hour following Bummer through the sewers, the pipes gave way to tunnels that got bigger as they moved along. Soon they were moving in caves, with high ceilings and stalactites in the ceiling that glowed in various colors, illuminating their way with a dull, shadowy light. Charlie had read enough about the geology of the area to know that these caves were not natural to the city. He guessed that they were somewhere under the financial district, which was mostly built on Gold Rush landfill, so there would be nothing as old-looking or as solid as these caves.

Bummer kept on, leading them down one fork or another without the slightest hesitation, until suddenly the cave opened up into a massive grotto. The chamber was so large that it simply swallowed up Charlie’s flashlight and headlamp beams, but the ceiling, which was several hundred feet high, was lined with the luminous stalactites that reflected red, green, and purple in a mirror-smooth black lake. In the middle of the lake, probably two hundred yards away, stood a great black sailing ship – tall-masted like a Spanish galleon – red, pulsating light coming from the cabin windows in the rear, a single lantern lighting the deck. Charlie had heard that whole ships had been buried in the debris during the Gold Rush, but they wouldn’t have been left preserved like this. Things had changed, these caves were all the result of the Underworld rising – and he realized that this was just a hint of what was going to happen to the City if the Underworlders took over.

Bummer barked and the sharp report echoed around the grotto, sending a cloud of bats into the air.

Charlie saw movement on the deck of the ship, the blue-black outline of a woman, and he knew that Bummer had led them to the right place. Charlie handed his flashlight to Bob and set his sword-cane on the cave floor. He drew the Desert Eagle from the shoulder holster, checked that there was a round in the chamber, cocked the hammer, then reset the safety and reholstered the pistol.

“We’re going to need a boat,” Charlie said to Bob. “See if you guys can find something we can make a raft from.” The bobcat guy started down the shore with Charlie’s flashlight, scanning the rocks for useful flotsam. Bummer growled, tossed his head like he had ear mites or perhaps to indicate that he thought Charlie was insane, and ran out into the lake. Fifty yards away he was still only in water up to his shoulder.

Charlie looked at the black ship and realized that it was sitting way, way too high out of the water – that, in fact, it was sitting with its hull on the bottom in only about six inches of water.

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“Uh, Bob,” Charlie said. “Forget the boat. We’re walking. Everyone quiet.” He unsheathed his sword and sloshed onward. As they approached the ship they could make out details in its construction. The railings were fashioned from leg bones lashed together, the mooring cleats were human pelvises. The lantern on the deck was, in fact, a human skull. Charlie wasn’t exactly sure how his powers as Luminatus were going to manifest themselves, but as they reached the hull of the ship he found himself very much wishing it would happen soon, and that levitation would be one of the powers.

“We’re fucked,” said Bob, looking up at the black hull curving above them.

“We’re not fucked,” Charlie said. “We just need someone to climb up there and throw us a rope.”

There was some milling around amid the squirrel people, then a lone figure stepped out of the little crowd – this one appeared to be a nineteenth-century French dandy with the head of a monitor lizard. His outfit – the ruffles and the coat – actually reminded Charlie of pictures that Lily had shown him of Charles Baudelaire.

“You can do it?” Charlie asked the lizard guy.

He held out his hands and lifted one foot out of the water. Squirrel paws. Charlie lifted the lizard guy as high as he could up to the hull, and the little creature caught ahold in the black wood, then scurried up the side of the ship and over the gunwale.

Minutes passed, and Charlie found himself listening hard for some hint as to what was going on above. When the thick rope splashed down next to him, he leapt two feet in the air and barely contained blasting out a full-blown man-scream.

“Nice,” said Bob.

“You first, then,” Charlie said, testing the rope to see if it would hold his weight. He waited until the bobcat guy was about three feet over his head before he tucked the sword-cane down inside the Lexan plate strapped over his back and started the climb himself. By the time he was three-quarters of the way up the rope, he felt as if his biceps were going to pop like water balloons and he entwined his motocross boot into the rope to rest. As if being granted a second wind by the gods, his biceps relaxed and when he resumed climbing he felt as if he might really be gaining his power as the Luminatus. When he reached the railing, he grabbed one of the bone mooring cleats and swung himself up until he sat straddling the rail.

He swung around and his headlamp caught the black shine in her eyes. She was holding the bobcat guy like an ear of corn, her claw driven through his skull, pinning his jaw shut. There was flesh and goo glowing dull red, running down her face and over her breasts as she tore another bite out of the Beefeater.

“Want some, lover?” she said. “Tastes like ham.”

At the breakfast bar in Charlie’s apartment, Lily said, “Shouldn’t we tell them?”

“They don’t all know about us. About this.” Minty held the date book. “Just Audrey.”

“Then shouldn’t we tell her?”

Minty looked at Audrey, who was sitting on the couch entwined in a sleepy pile with Charlie’s sister and one of the hellhounds, looking very content. “No, I don’t think that would serve any purpose right now.”

“He’s a good guy,” Lily said. She snatched a paper towel off the roll on the counter and dabbed her eyes before her mascara went raccoon on her again.

“I know,” Minty said. “He’s my friend.” As he said it, he felt a tug on his pant leg. He looked down to where Sophie was staring up at him.

“Hey, do you have a car?” she asked.

“Yes, I do, Sophie.”

“Can we go for a ride?”

Without any hesitation, Charlie whipped the sword-cane out of his back and snapped it down on the Morrigan’s wrist. She lost her grip on the bobcat guy, who bolted, screaming, across the deck and over the opposite railing. The Morrigan grabbed the sword-cane and tried to wrench it from Charlie’s grasp. He let her – pulled the sword free, then drove it into her solar plexus so hard that his fist connected with her ribs and the blade came out her back, sinking into the wooden hull of the lifeboat she was reclining against. For a split second his face was an inch from hers.

“Miss me?” she asked.

He rolled away just as she slashed at him. He got his forearm up just in time to deflect the blow away from his face, the thick Lexan plate on his forearm stopping the claws from taking off his hand. She lunged for him, but the sword kept her pinned to the boat. Charlie ran down the deck away from her as she screeched in anger.

He saw light coming from a door that must have led to the cabin at the aft of the ship – that same red glow – and he realized that it had to be coming from the soul vessels. Rachel’s soul could still be in there. He was only a step from the hatch when the giant raven dropped in front of him and spread her wings out across the deck, as if trying to block the whole end of the ship. He backpedaled and drew the Desert Eagle from the shoulder holster. He tried to hold it steady as he clicked off the safety. The Raven snapped at him and he leapt back. The beak then pulled back, changed, bubbled into the face of a woman – but the wings and talons remained in bird form.

“New Meat,” said Macha. “How brave of you to come here.”

Charlie pulled the trigger. Flame shot a foot out of the barrel and he felt as if someone had hit him in the palm with a hammer. He thought he had aimed right between her eyes, but the bullet had ripped through her neck, taking half of the black flesh with it. Her head lolled to the side and the raven body flailed its wings at him.

Charlie fell backward onto the deck, but pulled the pistol up and fired again as the raven was coming down on him. This one caught her in the center of the chest and sent her flying backward, up onto the cabin roof.

The ringing in his ears felt like someone had driven tuning forks into his head and hit them with drumsticks – a long, painful, high-pitched wail. He barely heard the shriek from his left as another Morrigan dropped out of the rigging behind him. He rolled to the railing and brought the gun up just as she slashed at his face. The gun and his forearm pad absorbed most of the blow, but the Desert Eagle was knocked from his grasp and slid down the deck.

Charlie did a somersault to his feet and ran after the gun. Nemain flicked her claws at his back and he heard the sizzle as the poison strafed the Lexan pad down his spine and burned onto the deck on either side of him. He dove for the pistol and tried to roll and come up with it pointed at his attacker, but he misjudged and came up with the back of his knees against the bone railing. She leapt, claws first, and hit him in the chest just as he fired the Desert Eagle and he was driven backward over the railing.

He hit flat on the water. The air exploded from his body and he felt like he’d been hit by a bus. He couldn’t breathe, but he could see, he could feel his limbs, and after a couple of seconds of gasping, he finally caught a breath.

“So, how’s it going so far?” asked the bobcat guy, about two feet from Charlie’s head.

“Good,” Charlie said. “They’re running scared.”

There was a big chunk bitten out of the middle of Bob’s torso, and his Beefeater uniform was in tatters, but otherwise he seemed in good spirits. He was holding the Desert Eagle cradled in his arms like a baby.

“You’ll likely need this. That last shot connected, by the way. You took off about half of her skull.”

“Good,” Charlie said, still having a little trouble catching his breath. He felt a searing pain in his chest and thought he might have broken a rib. He sat up and looked at his chest plate. The Morrigan’s claws had raked the front of it, but in one spot he could see where a claw had slipped under the plate and into his chest. He wasn’t bleeding badly, but he was bleeding, and it hurt like hell. “Are they still coming?”

“Not the two you shot. We don’t know where the one you stuck with your sword went.”

“I don’t know if I can make it up that rope again,” Charlie said.

“That may not be a _roblem,” Bob said. He was looking up to the ceiling of the grotto, where a whirlwind of squeaking bats was spiraling around the mast, but above them was beating the wings of another creature altogether.

Charlie took the pistol from Bob and climbed to his feet, nearly fell, then steadied himself and backed away from the hull of the ship. The squirrel people scattered around him. Bummer let loose with a fusillade of angry yapping.

The demon hit the water about thirty feet away. Charlie felt a scream rising in his throat but fought it down. The thing was nearly ten feet tall, with a wingspan of thirty feet. Its head was as big as a beer keg, and it appeared to have the shape and horns of a bull, except for the jaws, which were predatory, lined with teeth, like a cross between a shark and a lion. Its eyes were gleaming green.

“Soul stealer,” it growled. It folded its wings into two high points behind its back, and stepped toward Charlie.

“Well, that would be you, wouldn’t it?” Charlie said, a little breathless still. “I’m the Luminatus.”

The demon stopped. Charlie took the hesitation to bring up the pistol and fire. The shot took the demon high in the shoulder and spun him to the side. He turned back and roared.

Charlie could smell the creature’s breath, like rotting meat, wash over him. He backed up and fired again, his hand numb now from the recoil of the big pistol. The shot knocked the demon back a step. There was shrill cheering from above.

Charlie fired again and again. The slugs opened craters in the demon’s chest. He wavered, then fell to his knees. Charlie aimed and pulled the trigger again. The gun clicked.

Charlie backed up a few more steps and tried to remember what Minty had shown him about reloading. He managed to hit a button that released the clip from the pistol, which plopped into the water. Then he unsnapped one of the pouches under his arm to retrieve an extra clip. It slipped out and fell into the lake as well. Bob and a couple of the squirrel people splashed forward and started diving beneath the water, looking for the clip.

The demon roared again, unfurled his wings, and, in one great flap, pulled himself to his feet.

Charlie unsnapped the second clip and, with his hands shaking, managed to fit it into the bottom of the Desert Eagle. The demon crouched, as if to leap. Charlie jacked a shell into the chamber and fired at the same time. The demon fell forward as the huge slug took a chunk out of his thigh.

“Well done, Meat!” came a female voice from above.

Charlie looked up quickly, but then back to the bullheaded demon, who was on his feet again. Then he braced his wrist and fired, and again, walking forward, pumping bullets into the demon’s chest with each step, feeling any second as if his wrist would just shatter into pieces from the recoil, until the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. He stopped, just five feet away from the demon when it fell over, facefirst into the water. Charlie dropped the Desert Eagle and fell to his knees. The grotto seemed to be tilting before him, his vision tunneling down.

The Morrigan landed on three sides of him. Each had a glowing soul vessel in her claw and was rubbing it on her wounds.

“That was excellent, lover,” said the raven woman standing closest to the fallen demon. Charlie recognized her from the alley. The stab wound his sword had made in her stomach healed over as he watched. She kicked the bullheaded demon’s body. “See, I told you that guns suck.”

“That was well done, Meat,” said the one to Charlie’s right. Her neck was still knitting back together. She was the one he’d blasted up onto the cabin roof.

“You guys do bounce back with a certain Wile E. Coyote charm,” Charlie said. He grinned, feeling drunk now, like he was watching all this from another place.

“He’s so sweet,” said the hand-job harpy. “I could just eat him up.”

“Sounds good to me,” said the Morrigan to his left, whose head was still a little lopsided.

Charlie saw the venom dripping from her claws, then looked to the wound below his chest plate.

“Yes, darling,” said hand job, “I’m afraid Nemain did nick you. You really are quite the warrior to have lasted this long.”

“I’m the Luminatus,” Charlie said.

The Morrigan laughed, the one in front of Charlie did a little dance step. As she did, the bullheaded demon lifted his head from the water.

“I’m the Luminatus,” said the demon, black goo and water running between his teeth as he spoke.

The Morrigan stopped dancing, grabbed one of the demon’s horns, then pulled his head back. “You think?” she said. Then she plunged her claws into the demon’s throat. He rolled and threw her off, sending her sailing twenty feet in the air to smash into the hull of the ship.

The Morrigan behind Charlie patted his head as she passed. “We’ll be right with you, darling. I’m Macha, by the way, and we are the Luminatus – or we will be in a minute.”

The Morrigan fell on the bullheaded demon, taking great chunks of flesh and bone off his body with each slash of their talons. Two took to the air and swept in, taking swipes at the demon, who flailed at them, sometimes connecting, but too weakened from the gunshots to fight effectively. In two minutes it was finished, and most of the flesh had been flayed from it. Macha held his head by the horns like she was holding the handlebars of a motorcycle, even as the demon’s jaws continued to snap at the air.

“Your turn, soul stealer,” Macha said.

“Yeah, your turn,” said Nemain, baring her claws.

Macha held the demon head out in front of her, driving it at Charlie. He backed away as the teeth snapped inches from his face.

“Wait a minute,” said Babd.

The other two stopped and turned to their sister, who stood over what was left of the demon’s corpse. “We never got to finish.”

She took one step before something hit her like a ball of darkness, knocking her out of sight. Charlie looked at the demon head coming at him, then there was a loud smack and Macha was yanked to the side as if she’d had a bungee cord attached to her ankle.

The screeching started again and Charlie could see the Morrigan being whipped around in the darkness, splashing, and chaos – he couldn’t follow what was happening. His eyes wouldn’t focus.

He looked to Nemain, who was now coming at him with her claws dripping venom. A small hand appeared at the edge of his vision and the Morrigan’s head exploded into what looked like a thousand stars.

Charlie looked to where the hand had appeared before his eyes.

“Hi, Daddy,” Sophie said.

“Hi, baby,” Charlie said.

Now he could see what was happening – the hellhounds were tearing at the Morrigan. One of them broke, jumped into the air and unfurled her wings, then dove at Sophie, screeching.

Sophie raised her hand as if she was waving bye-bye and the Morrigan vaporized into a spray of black goo. The souls, thousands of them, that she had consumed over the millennia, floated into the air, red lights that circled the grotto, making the whole huge chamber appear to have been frozen in the middle of a fireworks display.

“You shouldn’t be here, honey,” Charlie said.

“Yes, I should,” Sophie said. “I had to fix this, send them all back. I’m the Luminatus.”

“You…”

“Yeah,” she said matter-of-factly, in that Master of All Death and Darkness voice that is so irritating in a six-year-old.

The hellhounds were both on the remaining Morrigan now, tearing her in half as Charlie watched.

“No, honey,” Charlie said.

Sophie raised her hand and Babd was vaporized like the others – the captured souls rose like embers from a bonfire.

“Let’s go home, Daddy,” Sophie said.

“No,” Charlie said, barely able to hold up his head. “We have something we have to get.” He lurched forward and one of the hellhounds was there to brace him. The whole army of squirrel people was coming around the bow of the ship, each carrying a glowing soul vessel he’d retrieved from the ship’s cabin.

“Is this it?” Sophie said. She took a CD from Bob and handed it to Charlie.

He turned it in his hands and hugged it to his chest. “You know what this is, honey?”

“Yeah. Let’s go home, Daddy.”

Charlie fell over the back of Alvin. Sophie and the squirrel people steadied him until they were out of the Underworld.

Minty Fresh carried Charlie to the car.

A doctor had come and gone. When Charlie came to he was on his bed at home and Audrey was wiping his forehead with a damp cloth.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” Audrey said.

“Did Sophie tell you?”

“Yeah.”

“They grow up so fast,” Charlie said.

“Yeah.” Audrey smiled.

“I got this.” He reached behind his chest plate and pulled out the Sarah McLachlan CD that pulsated with red light.

Audrey nodded and reached out for the disc. “Let’s put that over here where you can keep an eye on it.” As soon as her fingers touched the plastic case the light went out and Audrey shuddered. “Oh my,” she said.

“Audrey.” Charlie tried to sit up, but was forced back down by the pain. “Ouch. Audrey, what happened? Did they get it? Did they take her soul?”

She was looking at her chest, then looked up at Charlie, tears in her eyes. “No, Charlie, it’s me,” she said.

“But you had touched that before, that night in the pantry. Why didn’t it happen then?”

“I guess I wasn’t ready then.”

Charlie took her hand and squeezed it, then squeezed it much harder than he intended as a wave of pain washed through him. “Goddammit,” he said. He was panting now, breathing like he might hyperventilate.

“I thought it was all dark, Audrey. All the spiritual stuff was spooky. You made me see.”

“I’m glad,” Audrey said.

“Makes me think I should have slept with a poet so I could have understood the way the world can be distilled into words.”

“Yes. I think you have the soul of a poet, Charlie.”

“I should have made love with a painter, too, so I could feel the wave of a brushstroke, so I could absorb her colors and textures and really see.”

“Yes,” Audrey said, brushing at his hair with her fingers. “You have such a wonderful imagination.”

“I think,” said Charlie, his voice going higher as he breathed harder, “I should have bedded a scientist so I would understand the mechanics of the world, felt them right down to my spine.”

“Yes, so you could feel the world,” Audrey said.

“With big tits,” Charlie added, his back arching in pain.

“Of course, baby,” Audrey said.

“I love you, Audrey.”

“I know, Charlie. I love you, too.”

Then Charlie Asher, Beta Male, husband to Rachel, brother to Jane, father to Sophie (the Luminatus, who held dominion over Death), beloved of Audrey, Death Merchant and purveyor of fine vintage clothing and accessories, took his last breath, and died.

Audrey looked up to see Sophie come into the room. “He’s gone, Sophie.”

Sophie put her hand on Charlie’s forehead. “Bye, Daddy,” she said.

EPILOGUE

THE GIRLS

Things settled in the City of Two Bridges, and all the dark gods that had been rising to erupt out over the world remembered their place and returned to their domains deep in the Underworld.

Jane and Cassie were married in a civil ceremony that was dissolved and sanctioned a half-dozen times over the years. Nevertheless, they were happy and there was always laughter in their home.

Sophie went home to live with her Aunties Jane and Cassandra. She would grow to be a tall and beautiful woman, and eventually take her place as the Luminatus, but until then, she went to school and played with her puppies and had a fairly wonderful time as she waited for her daddy to come get her.

THE SHOPKEEPERS

While Minty Fresh had believed in the adage that in every moment there is a crisis, his belief had been somewhat academic until he started seeing Lily Severo, when it became very practical indeed. Life jumped up several steps for him on the interesting scale, to the point where the Death Merchant part of his existence became the more prosaic of his pursuits. They became renowned around town, the giant in pastels always in company with the short, Gothic chef, but the City really stood up and took notice when they opened up the Jazz and Gourmet Pizza Place in North Beach in the building that had once housed Asher’s Secondhand.

As for Ray Macy, Inspector Rivera set him up with a lady pawnbroker from the Fillmore named Carrie Lang, and they hit it off almost immediately, having in common a love of detective movies and handguns, as well as a deep mistrust for most of humanity. Ray fell deeply in love, and true to his Beta Male nature, was doggedly loyal to her, although he always secretly suspected her of being a serial killer.

RIVERA

Inspector Alphonse Rivera has spent most of his life trying to change his life. He’d worked in a half-dozen different police departments, in a dozen different capacities, and although he was very good at being a cop, he always seemed to be trying to get out. After the debacle with the Death Merchants and the strange, unexplainable things that had gone on around it, he was simply exhausted. There had been a brief time when he’d been able to leave police work and open a rare-book store, and he felt as if that might have been the only time he had ever truly been happy. Now, at age forty-nine, he was ready to try it again: take an early retirement and just read and live in a calm, unevent-filled world of books.

So he was somewhat pleased when, two weeks after the death of Charlie Asher, he went to his mailbox to find a substantial envelope that could only be a book. It was like an omen, he thought as he sat down at his kitchen table to open the package. It was a book – what looked like a very rare and bizarre children’s book. He opened it and turned to the first chapter. So Now You’re Death: Here’s What You’ll Need.

THE EMPEROR

The Emperor enjoyed a happy reunion with his troops and went on to rule benevolently over San Francisco to the end of his days. For leading Charlie into the Underworld, and for his boundless courage, the Luminatus gave Bummer the strength and durability of a hellhound. It would fall to the Emperor to explain how his now all-black companion – while he never weighed more than seven pounds soaking wet – could outrun a cheetah and chew the tires off a Toyota.

AUDREY

Audrey continued her work at the Buddhist center and did costuming for a local theater group, but she also took a volunteer job with hospice, where she helped people to the other side as she had done for so long in Tibet. The hospice position also, however, gave her access to bodies that had been recently vacated by their souls, and she used these opportunities to cycle the squirrel people back into the human flow of birth and rebirth. And for a while, there were remarkable instances of people recovering from terminal illness in the City, as she exercised the p’howa of undying.

She didn’t give up her work with the squirrel people altogether, however, as it was a skill she had come to over a long time and a lot of work, and it could still be extraordinarily rewarding. At least that’s how she was feeling as she looked over her latest masterpiece in the meditation room of the Three Jewels Buddhist Center.

He had the face of a crocodile – sixty-eight spiked teeth, and eyes that gleamed like black glass beads. His hands were the claws of a raptor, the wicked black nails encrusted with dried blood. His feet were webbed like those of a waterbird, with claws for digging prey from the mud. He wore a purple silk robe, trimmed in sable, and a matching hat with a wizard’s star embroidered on it in gold thread.

“It’s only temporary, until we find someone,” Audrey said. “But take my word for it, you look great.”

“No, I don’t. I’m only fourteen inches tall.”

“Yeah, but I gave you a ten-inch schlong.”

He opened his robe and looked down. “Wow, would you look at that,” Charlie said. “Nice.”

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