The sun had just begun to rise as Ben pulled to a stop outside the dilapidated old barn. Purple and orange light cascaded out over the cornfields, which stretched to the horizon in either direction. Ben checked his phone again to make sure this was the right place.
No one answered. Ben yawned and helped Toby out of his basket. He cracked open the Red Bull he’d bought at the last gas station. Toby sniffed around on the grass.
There was a loud thunk inside the barn. The big wooden door swung open, and three wolves pranced out, followed by Marcus Alcindor. He waved when he saw Ben.
“Little early for you?” he said.
“I just stayed up all night.” Ben chugged his energy drink in one go. The wolves circled Toby, and he wagged his tail, letting them sniff his butt, sniffing theirs. He was getting more comfortable around them and vice versa. “Are we still in Illinois?”
It had taken him three hours to drive out here. The moped wasn’t built for long distances. He’d had to stop for gas twice.
“City people.” Marcus muttered. “You think Chicago is all there is. Ninety percent of the state is rural.”
“Yeah, and there’s like twelve people in all of it.” Ben tossed the empty can in Toby’s basket and cracked his knuckles. “What are we doing? Dog training? He’ll sit on command, but beyond that he doesn’t do a lot of dog tricks.”
Marcus whistled. The wolves came running to him.
“Wait here.” he said, heading into the barn.
Ben leaned against his moped. He pulled out a Slim Jim and took a bite. Toby trotted over and sat in front of him. Ben ripped off a small piece and tossed it. Toby caught it in his mouth.
“Hey,” Ben pet the dog behind the ears. “You haven’t said anything in my head in a while. Are we cool?”
The inugami did not respond, in either body language or mental link. Ben ripped off another piece of Slim Jim. Maybe more bribery would–
Marcus stomped out of the barn clutching a thick rope in both hands, dragging a large animal out of the darkness. It was mostly white, with a few big brown splotches, including one over its left eye. The wolves circled it, nipping at its heels, herding it out of the barn towards Ben and Toby. The cow seemed understandably nervous about that.
“Uhm,” Ben had never seen a cow up close like this. They looked a lot smaller from the highway. “What’s the cow for, Marcus?”
“This cow…” Marcus stopped five feet from them. “is for your inugami.”
“What do you–” Ben figured it out. “Oh. No. Toby doesn’t…He eats hot dogs and stuff. See?”
He held the piece of Slim Jim in his palm next to Toby’s snout. The dog stood, ignoring it, and stepped closer to the cow. There was a red glow in Toby’s eyes.
MEAT, Toby thought.
“What do you think a hot dog is, Ben?” Marcus said, patting the side of the cow. The cow mooed again. “Pure beef franks!”
“No, you listen.” Marcus let go of the cow’s leash. The wolves circled the animal, keeping it where it was. Marcus pointed at Toby. “That is not a dog. You don’t play frisbee with him, you don’t take him out for ‘walkies’, and you sure as hell don’t feed him Slim Jims. That is an inugami. He’s a predator. He needs to hunt. He needs to kill.”
KILL MEAT, Toby thought.
“You want to know why can’t control him? He has eight hundred years of pent up aggression, and you yell at him every time he starts to cut loose. He needs an outlet. Let him eat the cow.”
Toby stepped from foot to foot, focused entirely on the cow. A shadow began to grow around him. Ben could hear him panting inside his head. Toby was mentally panting. Ben couldn’t hold him back much longer. He looked at the cow, and it stared back with big brown eyes.
“Does it have a name?”
“Its name is Inugami Food. It’s a cow, Ben. If you want to do this right, if you want to get serious about training your inugami, you need to get over that sensitive shit.”
The cow had had enough. It backed up towards the barn, but the wolves got in its way, barking, growling. Toby turned to Ben. His eyes glowed. His fangs had grown. He snarled.
Ben sighed. “Go ahead.”
In an instant, Toby and the three wolves pounced upon the cow. Ben turned away.
“See? He waited for your command.” Marcus patted Ben on the shoulder. “You’re making progress already.”
The cow let out a bellowing noise of pain and terror before gurgling and falling silent as the four inugamis tore into its flesh. Ben would never forget that sound. It was almost human.
Several cats, newly loosed upon the world, scattered as Sarah and Jake approached St. Felix Children’s Home. Three squad cars were already parked out front, lights flashing. The front door hung loose, bottom two hinges broken. One of the guys from Forensics fiddled with the door, completely ignoring the splash of dried blood on the frame. He nodded to Sarah as they passed.
A blond girl, about thirteen years old, sat on the living room couch, answering a beat cop’s questions. She stared at her shoes, hands in her lap, eyes hidden behind her bangs. Sarah recognized the cop as the one Ben pulled from the spider sac back in that video store. He patted the girl on the shoulder and went over to the detectives.
“Chris, right?” Sarah said. The cop smiled sadly. “What we got?”
“Not much.” he flipped through his notes. “One adult, two children missing. She says her caretaker and one of the kids were fighting, shouting at each other, and then they hugged and made up and left the building together.”
Jake looked at the girl, still staring at her shoes. “They hugged and made up?”
“Her story’s vague and inconsistent and it doesn’t match the evidence. I don’t think she knows if she’s lying. She might be in shock.”
“Ok. We’ll talk after the EMTs take a look at her.” Jake said, heading for the kitchen. Chris rubbed the back of his neck, staring at the blood on the door.
Sarah waited until Jake was out of earshot. “What do you really think happened?”
Chris gestured for her to come in close. He spoke quietly, deliberately. “They can’t see the blood.”
“No, they can’t,” Sarah said. “But we can.”
He looked at her. “I’ve been seeing things since the spider. Weird animals. Talking plants. Hands reaching for me out of the darkness. Faces in the trees.”
“You have one impossible experience, and either your brain erases it to protect your sanity, or you can’t turn it off.” Sarah snatched his notepad out of his hand. “You been getting headaches?”
Chris nodded. “Am I crazy?”
“Definitely, but you’re not the only one.” Sarah handed the notepad back with her phone number on it. “You see anything that looks like it might hurt somebody, you call me.”
The girl on the couch screamed. The cops ran over. A small brown spider, a common house spider, crawled across the carpet near her foot. She cowered in the corner of the couch, pointing at it, hiding her face. Sarah turned and stormed towards the kitchen as Chris comforted the girl. She found Jake leaning on the counter, flipping through a stack of crayon drawings.
“You didn’t think the witness screaming was worthy of your attention?” Sarah said.
“I’m sure you handled it.” Jake showed her a drawing of a stick figure girl kicking a lion in the face. “Kid draws this many pictures and none of them are hanging on the fridge.” Jake said. “That seems off, right?”
“I think we should–”
“We’re not calling Ben.”
“Jake, trust me on this.”
“No. This isn’t a friggin noise complaint. It’s a kidnapping and a possible murder. There’s nothing about this case that can’t be explained by human beings acting like humans.”
“The girl remembers it wrong.” Sarah said, pointing to the other room. “She couldn’t see it.”
“She’s lying to protect the caretaker, she’s lying to protect the other kids, she’s lying to protect herself, or she’s blocking it out because she is a child and she saw something horrible. It’s not mystical! Not everything is little demons! I’m not going to–” Jake took a breath, collecting himself. “Can we please just do our jobs and solve one damn case like regular cops?”
Sarah started to argue, then didn’t. “Ok.”
“I’ll interview the girl. There’s nothing in here.”
Jake headed back into the living room. Sarah looked at all the crayon drawings. Mostly pictures of little girls and dinosaurs. She drew a lot of those herself, back in the day.
Something shifted in the cabinet above her.
Sarah’s hand hovered over her gun as she reached up, pausing, her fingers barely touching the cabinet handle. She swung the cabinet open.
A small girl, no more than five years old, was curled up amongst the cereal boxes.
“Is the monster gone?” she said.
Ash Ocampo drifted in and out of consciousness as the wind rushed by and the buildings slid past. The world was a blur. She had a sense of moving upwards and a feeling in her stomach, a dizzy feeling, like being upside-down on a swingset. She felt fear, she felt anger, but none of it truly mattered because it was all so far away.
Ash opened her eyes. Cars zoomed down the highway many stories beneath her. She shrieked, reaching around for something to grab onto.
“You should rest, young samurai,” the mouth on the back of her head said. “You’ve had a very busy day.”
Her hand brushed something sticky. Ash looked around. She was between two skyscrapers, suspended at the center of a giant spider web. Her hair, impossibly long, was shaped into eight spider legs, each delicately clutching a strand of web.
“Take me down!” Ash said.
“We are safer up here.”
“Take me down!” Ash repeated.
The mouth sighed. The hair legs carefully stepped from web to web, onto the side of one of the buildings, and began silently skittering down towards the ground. Ash’s body dangled helplessly. She tried to move her hand and found that she couldn’t. Her entire body was currently outside her control.
They touched down in the middle of a dark alley, next to a red door and a large metal dumpster with a chain on it. Rock music played, muffled through brick walls. Ash found that she could move again. She reached for the mouth on the back of her head. Her own hair swatted her hand away.
“You killed Mrs. Greco.” Ash said.
“I gave you exactly what you wanted.” the voice said. “There is no need to thank me.”
“No! I didn’t…” Ash rubbed her eyes. They felt dry. When she pulled her hands away they were covered in green. “Why are you doing this?”
“We’re going to help each other. We’re going to make this whole city, the whole world better. Together.”
The door next to the dumpster opened. The rock music was suddenly much louder. A busboy — under 20, white apron, wispy facial hair — stepped out into the alley carrying a full trash bag in in each hand. He and Ash made eye contact.
“Help me.” Ash said. “Help!”
Before the boy could respond, Ash’s neck cracked, and her head spun around 180 degrees. She was staring at a brick wall. She felt her hair rush away from her body. She heard scuffling and then a body hit the ground. The busboy didn’t even have time to scream.
“Don’t hurt him…” Ash whimpered.
“Oh, it’s far too late for that. Come,” the mouth said. “There is work to be done.”