Detectives Bolland and Martinez waited outside a Catholic school gymnasium. It was Sunday afternoon. The last of the parishioners stood outside the church across the street, chatting up the priest. He had his keys out, ready to lock the doors the moment these old folks finally went home.
“All these stupid missions…” Jake bounced a stray dodgeball off the brick wall. “It took me eight years to make detective. All I ever wanted to do when I was a kid, you know? Solve crimes, bust crooks, keep the streets safe.”
“Me too.” Sarah said, half listening while deleting emails on her phone.
“This is a waste of our time. I became a detective to do detective work.”
“We’re helping people.”
“Are we? Martinez, look…” Jake caught the ball and walked over to Sarah. “You’re a good cop. You’re my partner. Our dads worked together back in the day. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
Sarah looked up from her phone. “What’re you getting at?”
Jake frowned, trying to think of the right way to put it. “Every time you bring in your friend to fight invisible demons with his magic dog, I respect your judgement a little less.”
A moped buzzed across the school parking lot, wobbling unsteadily around parked cars. Ben waved to the cops. Sarah waved back.
“They’re only invisible to you, Jake.” she said.
A white van came around the corner, following Ben. There was a large mural was painted on the side depicting three wolves — two black, one white — running across the snow by moonlight. Sarah sighed.
Ben rolled up to the curb and kicked out his kickstand. The van parked behind him. Marcus stepped out, duster blowing in the wind. He nodded to the cops, smiling smugly. He strutted to the back of the van and popped the rear door open. Three wolves — identical to the ones painted on the van — jumped out and lined up along the sidewalk.
“This is different.” Jake said.
Marcus palmed a few treats and popped one into each of the wolves’ mouths. Jake went over to him, flashing his badge and keeping his distance from the wolves, who watched him with dark eyes as they chewed.
Ben hoisted Toby out of his basket and onto the concrete. The dog shook and stretched, heading to a nearby fire hydrant. Sarah grabbed Ben by the shirt and pulled him in close.
“You brought the wolf guy?!” she whispered.
“Marcus is cool!” Ben said. “We’ve been texting back and forth. He knows a lot about yokai and stuff. He can help us.”
“Are you sure we can trust him?”
Ben shrugged. “If he wanted to kill me, he had a pretty good opportunity at the forest preserve.”
“That’s not really–“
“Hey Sarah?” Jake backed away from the wolves as they stood and approached him. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Go get coffee.” Ben said, “We’ll get rid of the thing before you guys get back. What is it, anyway?”
Marcus sniffed the air. He plucked the dodgeball out of Jake’s hands and held it in front of the wolves, who sniffed it intently. The priest walked past, froze when he saw the wolves, then kept walking a little more quickly.
“It’s a foot with a face.” Sarah said. She didn’t look happy about this. Toby lifted his leg to pee on the fire hydrant then glanced at Ben.
“Roger that.” Ben said, turning away to give Toby some privacy.
The lights were out as Ben, Marcus and their canine companions entered the gymnasium. Ben found the light-switch near the door and clicked it.
All the way on the far side of the room, atop a pile of ripped-up gym mats, stood a severed human leg. At the top, where the knee would be, grew a tuft of light brown hair. On the front of the shin, a human face with a single large eye gasped. Its nostrils flared. Gym mat stuffings dribbled from its mouth.
The foot shrieked and bolted. Marcus whistled, and the wolves chased after it. Toby ran with them. Ben went to follow, drawing the Onislayer, but Marcus stopped him.
“Let ’em run.” Marcus said. “The dogs need the exercise.”
The sentient foot hopped like a bunny around the edge of the gym, circling it. The wolves and Toby followed. Toby was out ahead of wolves now. His tongue was hanging out the side of his mouth. He looked hungry. The foot bounced past the humans and briefly made eye contact with Ben.
“Tasukete!” said the foot. “Aieee!”
It tried to hop out the door but the wolves boxed it in, forcing it to stay inside the gym. They herded it back towards the mats.
“I hate the ones that look like rearranged body parts.” Ben said, holstering his weapon. “They’re unsettling.”
Marcus grunted. “You ever meet the old man with the eyeball in his ass?”
Ben laughed. “Yeah dude, he’s basically my arch-nemesis. This one time he–“
Toby barked. The windows rattled. A shadow started to form around him, tentacles whipping off his back. The foot with a face squealed in terror.
“Īe!” said the foot. “W-Warui inu!”
“Toby!” Ben closed his eyes and held his pointer fingers to his temple. Toby slowed down a bit and the shadow around him faded.
“You in his head right now?” Marcus rubbed his chin. “That kakawari shit is insane. I don’t do it like that.”
“You’re not bonded to them?”
“Only the old-fashioned way. I tried with the first one, Jordan, but neither of us took to it. You can’t do it with three inugamis, anyway. That much conflicting sensory information would make your brain melt out of your skull.”
Ben nodded. “Where’d you get three inugamis, anyway?”
“Back in my early 20’s, I was teaching English in Japan, down in Kunisaki.” Marcus made a Japan-like shape with his hand and pointed the the bottom of his palm. “I was hiking up near Futagoji Temple, alone, and I slipped on some loose rubble and broke my ankle. Jordan found me and led me to the temple, to safety. If it wasn’t for that wolf, I probably would’ve died up in those mountains.”
The wolves and Toby had their fur tentacles out, poking at the terrified foot sporadically, but not hurting it, just taunting it. There was a cruelty to the act that Ben didn’t like.
“A couple years later, an old Buddhist monk saw me in town, with Jordan, and offered me his wolf. He wanted to make sure someone who knew inugamis could take care of Pippen when he died. The white one, Longley, I didn’t get until I was back in the states. Dental hygienist in Ohio found me on the internet. She wanted to go straight and get married, basically the same deal as the monk. There aren’t really shelters for these. If you ever want to give it up, you have to find someone. What about you? How’d you and the dog get hooked up?”
Ben went through the basics, about how he had been hired to walk Toby just as the Children of Tengu attacked, forcing the inugami to bind himself to Ben for protection. He talked about Dragon Mask and his family watching over the inugami for generations, whether the inugami liked it or not. He went into a lot of unnecessary detail about how Emily Gritz, the leader of the Children of Tengu, had fallen deeply, passionately in love with him before she died. That part wasn’t true, but this guy didn’t know that.
“So,” Marcus said, lighting a cigarette. “An old luchador taught you everything you know about inugamis and the other yokai.”
“Tatsuya, yeah. I don’t think you should smoke in here. This is a grade school.”
Marcus nodded, but didn’t stop smoking. “The cops find the demons, they call you, and then the dog eats the demons. So what do you do?”
“Uhh, well,” Ben reached back and drew his weapon. “I’ve got the Onislayer. Demons burn at its touch. Also, with the kakawari, Toby can’t be hurt unless I’m hurt, so–“
“But if you’re in there with the bat–“
“It’s more of a sword.” Ben said.
“If you’re in there with the paddle, aren’t you getting injured a lot?”
“Yeah, constantly. I got my hand cut off a few days ago.”
“So how is it better to have you in there, actively involved, than if you stayed out of it?”
“I…” Ben didn’t have an answer. The foot was slowing down now. The face on its shin was panting. The wolves weren’t playing with it anymore, and were actually hanging back, trotting along, looking kind of bored. Toby, on the other hand, was in full beast mode, big and black and bear-shaped, his eyes glowing red. The chase had riled him up.
“Toby!” Ben shouted. “Cool your jets!”
“I wouldn’t normally do this, but…” Marcus dropped the cigarette butt and stomped it out. “I can train you with Toby. I can make you integral to the operation.”
“Uhh,” Ben laughed nervously. “No thanks. Tatsuya’s already–“
“I’m sure Tatsuya is a great fighter, but he’s had one inugami that he didn’t really get along with. I have three. I know how to handle an inugami. You gotta be the alpha dog.”
“Alpha dog. Right.” Ben said. Toby barked. The whole gym shuddered. The foot whimpered. “Toby! Come on!”
“Show the dog his place. You can’t be in there swinging your paddle around, you gotta be stand back and supervise. See?”
Marcus whistled. The three wolves sped up, zooming past Toby and pouncing on the foot.
“These animals are the ultimate killing machine.” Marcus said. “You shouldn’t need a weapon.”
Toby kept running, passing the foot and the wolves. His eyes were blank. He wasn’t focused on the foot. The rage had taken him. The door opened behind Ben and Marcus, and Jake stepped into the room holding a large coffee.
“Hope I’m not interrupting–“
Toby leapt on him, claws out, growling. Jake’s coffee went all over his shirt.
“Hey! No! Toby!” Ben stepped towards them but was swatted away by flailing tentacles.
“Jesus! Shit!” Jake shouted. The inugami snarled in his face, teeth bared. Jake tried to crawl backwards but the beast kept him pinned. “Get him off of me!”
Marcus stepped forward, casually dodging tentacles, and pulled a small metal tube from the inside pocket of his duster. He placed it to his lips and blew. There was no sound, but the wolves all looked up. The foot, still alive, whimpered. Toby blinked and backed away from Jake.
The cop scrambled to his feet, dripping with coffee. He pointed at Ben. “Control your mutt, Carter!”
Sarah entered carrying three coffees just as Jake stormed out. To him, it had simply been a small orange dog jumping on him. He had no idea how dangerous the situation truly was.
The beast sat, staring at Marcus and his dog whistle, head tilted to the side. Marcus stepped towards him, continuing to blow. He pulled the whistle away and shushed. He gently placed his hand in front of the beast’s face, an inch from his snout. The giant black inugami form slowly faded until only the Shiba Inu remained.
“What the hell just happened?” Sarah looked past Toby and saw the wolves tearing the foot to shreds. It let out one final pained shriek. Both she and Ben winced at this. Marcus did not.
“This one me?” Marcus took one of the coffees from Sarah, sipped it. He turned to Ben, pulling out a flip phone.
“Tomorrow morning. Meet me at this address.” He sent a text. Ben’s phone buzzed. “I’ll teach you the most important lesson you’ll ever learn.”
Ash sat at her desk, trying to focus on Taylor’s math homework. She had a mouth on the back of her head. A talking mouth. Last night, when she’d tried to show Mrs. Greco, the woman had been unable to see it, and Ash had been unable to describe it. When she tried, her thoughts got all jumbled, her words slurred. Mrs. Greco thought Ash was faking it to get out of the extra homework. Sensei Tatsuya could help her. He would know what to do. She just had to make it to Tuesday night, and then–
Muffled shouting reverberated through the wall. Mrs. Greco was yelling at Sophie again. It wasn’t fair that she and Ash had to bear the full brunt of Mrs. Greco’s wrath. Taylor was probably on the couch, playing on her phone, watching old TV for the sixth straight hour in a row.
“I can stop it, you know.” said the mouth on the back of Ash’s head.
“Shut up.” Ash said. “You’re not real.”
“All I need is your permission. Can’t you see, young samurai? You have power now. You can help her.”
The muffled shouts grew louder. Ash took a deep breath and wrote down the answer to the problem on her worksheet.
Sophie started crying. A strand of Ash’s own hair reached down and plucked the pencil out of her hand. She got up and went to the door, opening it a crack.
Sophie was standing in the dining room, a picture of dinosaurs in her hand. Crayons were spilled all over the floor. Tears streamed down her face. Mrs. Greco had her hand clenched around Sophie’s wrist. Her face was twisted in anger, her lips curled back in a cruel sneer. Taylor was laying on the couch, pretending not to pay attention.
“Ash!” Sophie said.
Mrs. Greco’s spun around and pointed at Ash. “Finish your homework!”
Ash shut the door. Several strands of hair were operating independently, each clutching a different part of the door.
“I can end this.” said the mouth.
Ash closed her eyes and made fists. “Do it.”
Her neck cracked, and her head spun at an odd angle. Another crack, and her head rotated a full 180 degrees. The mouth smiled. Ash’s body rose off the floor.
The door opened again, the tore from its hinges. The creature emerged from the darkness, its hair propping it up like spider legs, its small human body dangling limply.
“Mom,” Taylor said, without looking up from her phone, “Ash is out of her room again.”
One of the hair limbs shot forward and wrapped around Mrs. Greco’s wrist. Sophie looked up and screamed.
“Damn it, Ashley.” Mrs. Greco said, unsure why she couldn’t move her wrist. She saw Ash standing in the TV room, looking a bit off. “What did I just-“
The creature darted forwards and wrapped all of its hair limbs around the woman. The four or five cats in the room howled, scattering. Taylor looked up from her phone for the first time, saw Ash standing near Mrs. Greco, arms outstretched. Sophie kept screaming, frozen in place. She could see it. She could see the monster.
The tendrils of hair wrapped around the woman, tightening. She gasped. Blood dripped from her mouth.
Sophie turned and ran towards the kitchen, opened a cupboard, and climbed inside of it.
“A…Ashley…” Mrs. Greco gurgled. The hair tightened around her. Blood pooled in the whites of her eyes.
The mouth smiled.