Det. Jake Bolland had a look of defeat as he took down the landlady’s statement, which involved the words “private property” and “gross negligence” and “sue your ass” at an alarming frequency. The firefighters hosed down the last of the flames. The video store was now a hollowed-out, charred husk. No sign of the spiders remained.
Ben sat on the curb, swiping at his phone, looking for a car to drive him and Toby to class. The nearest one was ten minutes away. Toby was curled up in a ball next to him, napping. Sarah sat down on the other side.
“Is he gonna be ok?” Ben nodded to the cop he’d rescued, drinking coffee under a blanket on the back of an ambulance.
“He’s alive. I think you got him out before the spiders got into his guts, but we should probably have him looked at.” Sarah pulled out an envelope. “I’ve got something for you.”
“No,” Ben shook his head. “Sarah. We talked about this. I can’t take money.”
“It’s not taxpayer money,” Sarah said. “Me and the other cops who can see this shit put it together.”
“This is all my fault. The demons have been running rampant since I yanked Toby out of Hell. I left something open. They’re here because of me.” Ben pet Toby. The dog glanced at him then continued sleeping. “I shouldn’t get paid for that. You guys do most of the work, anyway.”
“Cool, you’re right. But also, shut up. Take it.” She forced the envelope into his hand. “Buy a vehicle. You’ll be more useful. What are you doing Friday night? My cousin sells used cars, I can bring you there, get you a deal.”
“I can’t, I have a, uhh…” Ben found it difficult to make eye contact with her. “…date.”
“What?!” Sarah smacked him. It hurt. He rubbed his arm. “Look at you! Who is she?”
“She’s a dog walker.” Ben smiled. “We work together.”
“That is your type. Are you sure you want to go down that road again? The last dog walker you fell for stabbed you and Toby to death.”
“She was nice to me after that.” Ben said, shrugging.
“Do you like her?” Sarah said. “This new one?”
Ben thought about it for a moment. Toby got up and stretched, yawning.
“I have no idea.” Ben said. Toby walked past him, heading for something on the other side of Sarah.
“You know how I know if I really like a guy?” Sarah pulled out her phone and messed with it. “I text him something funny and then, the moment I zone out, I look at it again to wait for the dot-dot-dot that says he’s typing back. It has to be unconscious. That means I can’t think about anything else. Shit, I’m calling you.”
She hit the End Call button. For an instant, she saw Ben’s phone screen change in his hand.
“Did you make a Batman signal with Toby instead of a bat and set it to show when I call you?”
“No.” Ben said, quickly pocketing his phone. “Yes. Whatever. I’m allowed to enjoy this a little.”
“You dweeb.” Sarah laughed. “You should’ve made it the Onislayer. The dog makes it look like I’m calling Toby and you’re his sidekick.”
A car horn honked right next to them. Toby was in the front seat of a dinky blue hatchback, paw on the steering wheel, standing on the lap of a very confused driver.
“Certainly no truth to that.” Ben said.
Out in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago, in a building that used to be a Pizza Hut, a class had begun. The door was propped open to let some of the heat out, and a small fan blew cool night air in. The floors were lined with gym mats. The far wall was covered in mirrors. A big banner above the mirrors read, in red-and-green block letters:
DRAGON MASK LUCHA DOJO
“Niños! Niñas!” Sensei Tatsuya paced back and forth, hands behind his back. Dragon tattoos poked out of the sleeves of his shirt. “You have come here at a momentous time! Great evil has embraced these lands. But times of darkness bring opportunity for warriors! Are you ready to be warriors?”
“Si, Sensei!” The dozen children lined up along the mirror shouted in unison. They wore baggy white pants and black t-shirts with a little “DMLD” logo. They had their hands behind their backs just like Tatsuya.
“Are you ready to be samurai?”
“Si, Sensei!” the kids repeated.
They all got into position, knees slightly bent, right foot in front, left foot in back, dukes up.
“As samurai,” said Tatsuya, “you must adhere to the code of Bushido. You must always hold in your heart the Eight Virtues! Justice!”
“Hyah!” The kids punched the air with their right arms. A samurai knows when it is right to strike.
“Hyah!” They punched with their left arms, because true courage is doing what is right. Toby laid in his little bed on the counter, dozing. Behind him, Tatsuya’s Dragon Mask mask observed the proceedings from its protective glass case, surrounded by photos of the old luchador’s greatest victories.
The kids each took a step forward and blocked an invisible punch with their forearms, because a samurai also knows when to defend. “Hyah!”
The students all returned to their starting positions, standing tall and proud.
The kids bowed politely.
“Ha ha!” Tatsuya laughed. “Bueno. Honor!”
The young samurai turned away to face the wall of mirrors. They stared into their own eyes and reflected on their past mistakes. With honor, they could not hide from themselves.
“Hyah!” The kids spun back and karate-kicked the air in their sensei’s direction. This one didn’t really have a deep and philosophical explanation. Tatsuya had just wanted a kick in there.
“Self-control.” Tatusya looked at the inugami. Toby opened one eye and glared back.
The kids froze, each keeping one leg up over their waist. Ten seconds passed. Twenty. A few kids wobbled.
At the far end of the line, Ben Carter struggled to stay upright. He was twice as tall and at least twice as old as the other students, and the extra decade of pizza and video games had taken its toll. With a grunt, he fell onto his side, slapping loudly onto the mats.
“Ben fights first. Again.” Tatsuya sighed. “Everyone get your pads.”
The children headed over to the pad racks to get their head guards, mouthguards and wrist pads. Tatsuya helped Ben up.
“Listen,” Ben said, quietly so the kids couldn’t hear. “I just came from a job. It’s been a long day. These fingers are new.” — he wiggled them — “Maybe we can just have the kids fight this time?”
Tatsuya nodded. “I understand. Ash!”
A short, thin girl with a long black ponytail turned while putting on her head guard. She slapped the side to make sure it was on tight.
“Go easy on him.”
Ashley Ocampo smiled, revealing her bright pink mouthguard. The other kids giggled. Ben heard rhythmic thumping and saw Toby wagging his tail against the counter. It was the dog laughter that hurt the most.
The kids all lined up against the mirror again, wearing their pads. Ben and Ash stood at the center of the room, facing each other. They got into their Dragon Stances. Ben didn’t have any pads. He was the only adult student, so Tatsuya had neglected to order grown up sizes.
The old luchador raised one hand, paused.
Ash took a step forward. Ben stepped back.
“What’s the matter, Big Ben?” Ash said, her words slurred by the mouthguard. She bounced from foot to foot. “Afraid to fight a girl?”
“No,” Ben said, moving more slowly. “I don’t want to hit an eight-year-old.”
Ash snorted. “I’m ten.”
“Oh. Well. In that case.”
He punched at her, way too high. She grabbed his wrist and spun, ducking down as Ben flew over her head and landed hard on his back behind her. The other kids cheered.
“Boom!” Ash said, “Just like the real Big Ben!”
“The clock?” Ben wheezed. He rolled to his feet. “In England? That didn’t fall down.”
“Yeah it did!” Ash said. “A spaceship smashed through it! The alien inside turned out to be a mutant pig!”
Ben frowned. “…What?”
She swung at him. He blocked it with his forearm and shoved her away. Ash spun, kicking him in the side. She tackled him while he was off-balance and pinned him to the ground.
“Bueno!” Tatsuya said, kneeling, ready to slap the mat three times and count Ben out.
Ben laid there for a moment on the mat, defeated, embarrassed, before remembering that he was a grown man, with the proportionate size and strength of a grown ass man. He stood, easily, with the girl’s arms still wrapped around his neck.
She kneed him in the stomach before letting go. He stumbled backwards towards the crowd of kids, who dove away to avoid him. He flopped up against the mirrors and slide down.
Bam! A small fist clocked him in the cheek. Bam! Bam! Ash punched him two more times. She went to do it again but this time, he caught it. She spun and kicked.
“Yamate!” shouted Tatsuya.
Ash’s foot stopped less than an inch from Ben’s face. He leaned away from it. Ash smiled.
“Self-control.” Tatsuya said. “Good.”
Ash backed up a few paced and bowed to Ben. He nodded to her. Something dripped down his chin. He wiped it. His nose was bleeding.
Over on the counter, Toby stood, stepped in a circle, and laid back down, facing away.
Later, when class was over, the kids goofed around by the changing rooms as they waited for their parents to pick them up. A severe-looking woman in her 50’s — thin face, pointy cheekbones, red hair that was unquestionably a wig — stood by the exit. She kept checking her watch. When Tatsuya passed her, she gave him a very fake smile then went back to scowling. Tatsuya handed Ben a vitamin water. Ben had a cotton ball stuffed in his nose.
“I am told you burned down another building.” Tatsuya said.
“You gave me a sword that starts fires.” Ben said, “It would be more surprising if I didn’t- Ow!”
Ash slugged him in the arm. She held out her hand for shaking. “You’ll get me next time, Big Ben.”
Ben shook her hand. “Take it easy, L’il Ash.”
“Ashley!” said the stern woman by the door.
“Bye Sensei! Bye Toby!” She gave Toby a quick pat on his head, which only annoyed him mildly. Ben rubbed his arm. Ash punched him right where Sarah punched him earlier. Why did girls keep hitting him?
“Ashley! Let’s go!” The woman pointed at her watch. She noticed Ben and Tatsuya looking and flashed them a false smile. She led Ash out the door. They were the last to leave. Ben and Tatsuya were alone.
“Tough kid.” Ben said. He took a drink of vitamin water then set it on the counter by Toby. It tasted like a pop that all the ice had melted in.
“She lives in that group home on Higgins.” Tatsuya turned off the light in the changing room. “Her parents died in a car accident. Very sad.”
Ben went over to the window. He saw the stern woman close the door on a white van. St. Felix Children’s Home was printed on the side in black letters. The women glared at Ben. He closed the blinds.
“I found her beating two teenagers senseless at the park and offered her free classes.” Tatsuya said, closing the changing room door. “That kind of anger needs a healthy outlet.”
“Like my face?”
“If you cannot beat a little girl in a fight, what good are you against yokai? I’m not making you fight children for fun, gringo. That is a bonus.” He put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “I’m trying to teach you. You cannot do this with half of your ass.”
Tatsuya cracked open a vitamin water — his second — and chugged the whole thing down. Ben helped Toby off the counter. The dog felt extra heavy, probably from all those spiders he ate.
“Hey, how come you never put the mask on?” Ben pointed at Tatsuya’s Dragon Mask mask. “Do some of your Dragon Mask moves.The kids would love it.”
Tatsuya crushed the vitamin water bottle between his hands.
“I never wore that mask sober.” he said. “Only a madman would.”
Ben and Toby trudged up the stairs to Ben’s apartment. The light in the hallway flickered. The smoke detector beeped sporadically, as it had been doing for a month. They stopped in front of Ben’s place.
“You know, you could just stay with me if you want.” Ben said, unlocking the door. “I got you a bed.”
He opened the door. A red cushion sat at the foot of Ben’s bed. It was on the smaller side of what a dog Toby’s size would need. Ben had still had to save up for it in order to get the quality and craftsmanship the inugami demanded. He gestured to it like Eh? Right?
Toby trotted two apartments down from Ben and scratched on the door. It opened.
“Toby!” said an elderly woman excitedly, “There you are! Let me fry you up some bacon.”
The dog looked at Ben, then followed the elderly woman into her apartment. The door closed.
“I can make bacon.” Ben muttered.