Photo by Thomas Wolf via Wikimedia Commons
Corncob stood in Archie’s doorway with his arms folded, doing his very best imitation of a CIA heavy. It would have helped if he was wearing a suit with shiny leather shoes rather than torn work pants, muddy steel-toes, and a t-shirt with the Abbey Road album cover on it. He thought even a pair of sunglasses would have helped if only to armor himself against Archie’s narrowed eyes as Michael poked about. If the geriatric actually had the morphine stashed away, it was nowhere to be found in his room. Thankfully, Archie didn’t seem to have any weapons either because Corncob was pretty sure the old codger wouldn’t hesitate to use one right now.
“You ain’t never going to find it, so just piss off,” Archie said.
Michael went to the closet for the fourth time, listening with one ear cocked as he rapped on the walls.
“If you come clean now,” Michael said, “Special Agent X and I can make sure you won’t get sent to Guantanamo.”
Archie made a rattling noise with his mouth that sounded like a set of dentures getting in the way of a raspberry. “Now I know you two Nimrods aren’t with the government. Gitmo? The spooks only put towel-heads there. Citizens get put under Yucca Mountain with the Nazi rocket scientists.”
Michael paused and looked back at Archie. “What in the world makes you think there are even any Nazi rocket scientists still alive?”
“Not the originals, you idiot, their kids. There’s a whole colony of ‘em there under the mountain, except they’re not as bright as their parents, cause they’re all inbred. That’s why all them space shuttles blew up. They’re on the third generation now, and the government’s lucky if it can even launch a bottle rocket. So now they ship political prisoners there as breeding stock.”
Michael turned to Corncob and gave a hidden wink. “He’s remarkably well informed.”
“I don’t know, Agent Y,” Michael said. Impersonating a government agent was one thing, but besmirching the space program was quite another.
“Special Agent Y, you mean,” said Michael
“Bologna! You two rubes are as dumb as a box of rocks,” Archie said. “I made that all up.”
“Archie, just tell us where the drugs are, and we’ll leave,” Michael said.
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
Michael stood over Archie in his chair. “Try us”
Archie just smiled. “Nuts to you, Special Agent Goober.”
Michael’s shoulders bunched and for a moment, Corncob thought his partner might hit the old man. Then Michael straightened and held out his hand. He spread his ring and little finger, and peered through the gap like he was about to do a mind read. Not that Archie would know that, thought Corncob. Michael then let out a breath that might have been a laugh, and reached for his flask.
“Drinking on duty, Goober?” Archie sneered. “Or are we playing peek-a-boo?”
“You’re right, Archie, we’re not from the government,” Michael said. “We’re mages.”
Corncob checked the hallway to make sure it was still empty. “Michael,” he whispered.
“You going to pull a rabbit out of your whiskey?” Archie said.
“No. You see, I’m what you might call a kind of mind reader. My colleague over there does somewhat the same thing except with machines.”
“Mind reader? Fine. I’m thinking of a number between one and ten.”
“Thirteen,” Michael said, taking a swig. “You old liar.”
Archie’s eyes widened for a moment, then he shook his head. “Bull hockey! Lucky guess.” Archie folded his arms and glared back at Michael. Corncob didn’t believe it either. Michael’s magic was sedated, as was his own. At least he thought so. He tried to remember how long the pills were supposed to last, when he realized the doorjamb he was leaning against was whispering to him.
I was installed by a left-handed man. My middle hinge is loose. The outlet’s wire skin was nicked by a careless knife and now cries blue arcing tears -- I fear it will burn us all down soon. I wish I weren’t painted …
Corncob’s stomach lurched, and he glanced over his shoulder at Erasmus. Did the old mage feel that whisper of power? He seemed agitated. Was his face always that pinched?
“No sir, I don’t lie about my gift,” said Michael. “So I’m going to give you a chance to tell me where all the morphine is, or I’m going to go through your memory and find all your secrets.”
“Michael, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Corncob said. “Erasmus –“
“Is under sedation. He won’t feel us stretching our legs a little.”
“I don’t like it Michael. What if he wakes up and goes nuclear? He could fry our brains without even realizing it.”
“Duly noted.” Michael turned back to Archie. “So are you going to tell me, or do I have to expose all the skeletons rattling around in that skull of yours?”
Archie laughed. “There ain’t no such thing as magic.”
Michael sighed and shook his head. “Corncob, what do you call it when a guy believes there’s a Nazi space program under Yucca Mountain but says there’s no such thing as magic?”
Corncob thought for a moment. “I believe they call that irony, Michael.”
Michael nodded. “So they do, Corncob, so they do.” He raised his hand to his eyes, and peered between his ring and pinky finger at Archie. Moments later, the air whooshed from Michael’s chest and he bent at the waist with hands on his knees. Corncob ran to his partner and helped him steady the flask at his lips. Michael’s throat bobbed until the contents were gone, then he slowly stood and waved off Corncob’s support.
“There’s an AA chapter that meets on Thursdays in the ballroom,” Archie said. His arms were still folded, but in a way that seemed more nervous to Corncob than defiant.
Michael nodded. “Someday, maybe. But you know Archie? You weren’t kidding. I wouldn’t have believed you.”
“Believed what?” Corncob asked.
“It’s the dog. The dog’s running the whole show.”
“Wilhelm?” Corncob said.
“Appears so.” Michael said.
Archie’s jaw hung open. “You saw that in my head? The mutant dog and the lady from the Illuminati?”
Michael nodded. “Yes, and I know all about the fake fire extinguisher with all the jewelry you’ve filched over the years. You’d better hope a fire doesn’t break out on the second floor.”
“Wilhelm’s not a werewolf, is he Michael?” said Corncob.
“No. There’s no such thing as werewolves. At least not in any form you’d recognize.”
“Maybe he didn’t remember it right. Could it have been Nurse Thora?” Corncob said.
“In my brain,” Archie said. His eyes worked from side to side and a look of horror came over his face.
“How do you know?” Corncob said.
“Because it’s a yeth hound, and it’s definitely not a creature that takes orders.”
“Okay, I’ll bite,” said Corncob, “What’s a yeth hound?”
“But there’s no such thing as magic,” Archie said.
Michael turned to Archie and patted him on the shoulder. “It’s okay. If it makes you feel any better, focus on the moon landings. Those were faked.”
“Michael!” Corncob snapped. Michael just winked and gave him a wave.
“Sure, a soundstage in Hollywood. The moon rocks are just CIA-doctored meteorites. Anyway, a yeth hound is thought to be the damned soul of an unbaptized child, a kind of grave spirit. Their baying chills the soul, and the ancient Scots were said to run for safety before the hound bayed three times. And the yeth hound gets quieter the closer he is to his victims.”
“But how does it get into a locked med chest, and what does it need the morphine for?” Corncob asked.
Michael wiped at his brow. “From what Archie saw, it just noses at the lock, and it pops open. Nurse Thora takes the meds out and tosses it down Wilhelm’s gullet.”
“The moon?” Archie said absently. Then his expression hardened. “You don’t scare me, David Copperfield. You’re not getting my stash.”
“Archie, you have bigger problems than someone snatching your cubic zirconia. Yeth hounds are bad news.”
“Bad how?” Corncob said.
“Bull!” Archie said, and leapt from his chair. He dodged Corncob and shot into the hallway.
“Wait –“ Corncob said, but Michael pulled him back.
“Let him go; we have to get Erasmus out of here.”
“Okay, Michael.” Corncob wondered if he could take a car using his magic before Erasmus’ morphine wore off. If not, he’d just have to hotwire something.
“Strange thing is,” Michael said, “I thought yeth hounds took the forms of headless dogs.”
A scraping of nails on wood made them turn around. A glassy-eyed Thora stood in the doorway, resting her hand between Wilhelm’s ears. The dog shook his head, and Thora fell to the floor. He shook out his coat and regarded Michael and Corncob.
“You know how peasants embellish, mage,” Wilhelm said.
Corncob glanced around the room for a weapon, wishing the retirement home had been constructed with a hunting lodge theme; a boar spear would have been the very thing to have close at hand. Michael seemed unruffled, but Corncob thought he saw his partner’s lips tighten as he regarded Wilhelm.
“Is she dead?” Michael said.
“I must say it is so good to be talking to people on my side of the fence,” Wilhelm said. “With mundanes, they’re always carrying on, ‘oh no, a talking dog’ and all that rubbish. I don’t suppose you two follow the Premier League standings by chance?”
“We’re football fans,” Michael said, “not soccer.”
Wilhelm sighed. “Mages, but still American. Thora was never alive, just a construct I could manipulate. A flesh puppet, I believe you Yanks call them. Mundanes are so reluctant to give keycard access to those of us without thumbs. I’m glad to be rid of it. Splitting one’s consciousness between two bodies is so very distracting.”
“So why just the morphine, and not any of the other drugs?” Michael asked.
“Because morphine is a pure extract, and not a synthesized product. The additives and binders in those other drugs make me sick,” Wilhelm said.
“You eat it?” Corncob said.
Wilhelm panted in what must have been a canine equivalent of a laugh. “No, not directly. I use it for finishing off the livestock before harvest.”
“The patients, or at least their souls.” Michael said.
Wilhelm cocked his head and panted. “I doubt the farmer sees ducks as patients when he makes foie gras, though the principle is the same.”
“What’s foie gras?” Corncob asked.
“Gourmet food, Cornelius. They force-feed ducks until their livers swell, then make pate out of it.”
Corncob scowled at Wilhelm. “That’s sick.”
Wilhelm panted some more. “Really, mage, their inner lives are so much better: pleasantly euphoric, never bored, happy until the very end. And when their souls release, as they were going to anyway, they taste so much sweeter. Surely this is the most humane way to treat your unwanted elders.”
Wilhelm looked to each of them and sighed. “I can see you don’t agree, but it’s academic anyway. Time for me to move on.”
“The Brotherhood isn’t going to like you messing about with Erasmus,” Corncob said. “Your activity had to have caused him great pain.”
“The battle mage?” Wilhelm glanced over his shoulder. “I was fattening him up for a truly celestial meal, one that would have required me to cover my head with a napkin to hide my face from the Almighty. But I suppose this will be one of my many regrets.”
“To say the least,” Michael said.
“Let me tell you a secret,” Wilhelm said. “Now listen closely.”
Corncob inadvertently leaned in and stared in dawning horror as Wilhelm’s jaw unhinged, revealing a throat that could swallow bowling balls. The maw grew wider and the jaws split to the left and the right, filling the doorway. A sound no louder than a whisper but with the pressure of an ocean wave bowled him over. His limbs went numb and overhead lights faded. A hand grabbed at his shoulder, and Michael was there, pulling him to his feet.
“Find something to stop him!” Michael called, “I’ll keep him busy!”
Corncob searched around the room as Michael twisted at an oxygen knob built into the wall behind the hospital-style bed. Corncob grabbed at an armchair and hurled it at Wilhelm, who was drawing in another breath. The chair briefly lodged in its throat, then collapsed into splinters and was swallowed.
A tongue of fire shot from the wall where Michael held a conjured flame in his palm in front of the gas jet. Helldog spittle crackled and gums turned black, but Wilhelm’s jaws still blocked the doorway. Corncob put his hands on the bed, and reached out with his mind to release the brakes. He swung the bed around and launched it at Wilhelm.
Wilhelm bayed a second time. The flame died, and Corncob found himself sandwiched between the bed and the wall. His muscles went rubbery and the room seemed to fade into monochrome. Michael lay face-down on the bed, struggling to push himself up. Corncob stood and rolled Michael to the floor. He heaved the bed toward Wilhelm, but it slewed as it reached the doorway, jamming itself. Wilhelm’s long red tongue snaked out and curled itself around the footboard. Corncob pulled, but the bed didn’t move.
Corncob’s gift whispered in his head, and his eyes came to rest on a plain white box with molded handles slung between the bed’s wheels. His hands reached for the box as Wilhelm’s maw gathered the room’s air. Corncob’s hands slapped the box and came away with the handles, now two saucer-sized, shiny metal ovals with wires leading back to the box. A high-pitched whine cut through the dog’s growl.
“Clear!” he shouted, placed his hands on either side of Wilhelm’s wet nose, and depressed the button under his thumb. The button closed a switch, releasing a capacitor’s stored electricity. Blue plasma arced from the defibulator’s paddles through the yeth hound’s nose, transforming Wilhelm’s third bay into an ear-splitting yelp. The hound’s jaw closed and it took a step back into the hallway.
Corncob ran for the door, but Wilhelm lowered his head and knocked him off his feet.
“You’ll pay for that one, mage,” Wilhelm said. Yellow ichor flowed from its eyes. “Your pain will take you to madness as I pull your soul out like taffy.”
Michael heaved himself up. “You know what, Wilhelm? You remind me of a four-legged Jordan Montigane. Tossing magic around a place like this is like playing with matches at a bomb factory.”
Wilhelm growled and shook out his coat. His jaws distended, and the air rushed from the room. A wheezing shout sounded behind him, and the air around the dog seemed to shudder. Corncob felt a pressure in his head and he fell to the floor.
When his eyes opened a moment later, the room’s color had returned. A glittering white stone statue of Wilhelm stood in the doorway. The statue held together for a few seconds, then collapsed into a pile of salt. Across the hall, Erasmus’ open eyes regarded Corncob for a moment, then rolled back as his mouth opened in a wordless scream.
Corncob half-crawled, half-ran to Erasmus’ room and fumbled at the man’s IV pole. His fingers found the morphine drip’s control and his magic instantly told him everything about the unit. Erasmus gasped even as Corncob tapped in a code that shot more painkiller into the old man’s system.
Erasmus’s body relaxed, and the pain reflected in his face melted. Erasmus’ chest rose and fell in a slow rhythm.
“Damn,” Michael said behind him.
Corncob nodded. “Can you imagine how much power Wilhelm threw out to wake Erasmus from coma plus the morphine?”
“No, I mean he’s under for another three months now at least.”
“You wanted to leave him not too long ago.”
“Sure,” Michael said. “That was before I went through all this trouble. It would have been nice to know if the Packers were going to cover the spread this Sunday.”
“Can Erasmus predict stuff like that?”
Michael shrugged. “I don’t know, but it never hurts to ask.”
Corncob looked at the pile of salt across the hall and shook his head. “Michael, I beg to differ.”