“Let Dagon’s name be heard!” the man in the hooded cloak bellowed into the inky black swampy night sky. “Let the beast that dwells beneath arise, arise and devour all it surveys! Let Dagon’s name be feared!”
The twenty other acolytes echoed this last line, chanting it over and over ominously. “Bring forth the sacrifice,” commanded the leader through the chants. “Bring forth the sacrifice for Dagon.”
“Um…” said his second-in-command. “Carl?”
“What is it, Lenny?” hissed the leader through the side of his mouth, the chants of the others still going strong.
“We… that is, there was a problem with the form and it didn’t go through properly to admin head office.” The chants started to die down. A few acolytes kept going, oblivious to the argument between their two elders. “You forgot to fill in section 32B.”
“But we didn’t ask for a virgin!” said Carl the leader loudly, exasperated. The last of the chants faded away. “Ugh, I swear to the gods…”
“Maybe let’s just… I dunno… postpone this till next Saturday?”
“I’ve got dinner at Mark and Francine’s place next Saturday, you know this.”
“Right. Right… next Friday then? I think we can get this whole 32B mess sorted out by then?”
Carl, fearsome leader of The Immortal Cult of Dagon (Tallahassee Division), sighed. “Fine,” he said, with a whine. “Next Friday, it is. Come on, let’s go sort this crap with the forms out.” He turned to the gathered crowd. “Sorry, guys. Looks like we gotta raise Dagon next week instead.”
A collective aww echoed into the inky black swampy night sky.
“When you are hmmm hmmm… I’m hmmmm!” Phil sang to himself tunelessly, as he ruffled through the files in the shelf for sacrificial requests.
“Are you…?” started Howard, looking up from his computer and swivelling around in his chair to face his younger colleague, realisation slowly dawning on him. “Are you… actually singing that damn song?”
The pair sat in a small non-descript office in a small non-descript building in a small non-descript town. Howard felt that the office had already been too small for him since he got transferred over four years ago, so when upper management felt that his workload was getting out of hand, he thought that he was going to be moving into a bigger space to accommodate his understudy.
He has not been happy since finding out that this wasn’t the case.
“What?” said Phil.
“That damn Christian rock song. Are you actually singing it while we do this?”
“I’m gonna punch you,” deadpanned Howard. “I’m gonna punch you right in the face, you jackass.”
Phil stared at the senior administrator for a second, then laughed. “Oh, you’re pulling my leg…”
“I would punch you if my hip didn’t hurt so much,” mumbled Howard, turning back to his computer. “Now, stop karaokeing bad music and get me that file.”
“Everyone likes to shit on them, but they’re not so bad,” said Phil, before going, “Ooh! Got it!” and waving a folder triumphantly in the air.
“Good for you. You get a cookie. Now bring the damn thing here.” The junior administrator handed him the file and he gave it a cursory flip-through before smacking it on his table. “Goddamn idiots, I swear! Every last one of them! It says right there at the start of the form that if something is considered not applicable to them, they just need to write ‘NA’ in the space. Two letters. Two goddamn letters! I get that some of these guys come from the kiddie end of the gene pool, but come the fuck on!”
Phil stood stiffly behind his superior, stroking the sole, sparse patch of fuzz on his chin and slipping his too-long hair behind his ears. “Hey, Howard?”
“What is it, Phil?” the older man said through gritted teeth, rubbing the receding hairline of his left temple. He was thinking about Phyllis and the kids. He always thought about his family when this job got him down and how this steady and reasonably sizable paycheck was going to put Barbara through college. One more year of high school. Jeez, where does the time go?
“It’s, like, lunch, man,” said Phil. “Wanna grab a sandwich?”
The senior administrator sighed. “Yeah, all right.”
“Why did you take this job?” Howard asked, taking a bite of his club sandwich. The two of them sat on a park bench and absently watched a flock of pigeons fight over a single piece of bread.
“Is this, like, a performance evaluation?” said Phil, hesitantly.
“No, Phil. I’m just asking.”
“Oh,” the younger man said, then continued excitedly, spitting out bits of his BMT, “It’s wicked, man! I get to help bring about Elder—” The older man shushed him. He continued in a softer voice, “I get to bring about Elder Gods and other shit. And I get to use my degree, so my folks’ll totally stay off my back.” This last bit, he added weakly.
“You do realise that these idiots always seem to fuck it up somehow though, right? Like the cops or some nosy archaeologist or professor will get in the way and it’s off to the loony bin with them, right?”
“Well, yeah, but one of them’s bound to get it right sooner or later?” It wasn’t meant to come off as a question.
“Maybe,” Howard said. He always got an uneasy feeling whenever he thought about one of the groups actually succeeding. He knew the chances of that were next to zero, but the possibility always made him reconsider his line of work. He shook it off, finished his club and stood up. “Come on, Phil. Let’s get back. We’ve got a Thursday deadline on this job.”
“I’ve got one, Howard!” said Phil triumphantly from his computer.
“Lemme see,” said Howard, rolling his chair over to Phil’s table. The photo was of a brunette named Maria, early 20s, bright-eyed and happy, her whole future ahead of her. There was something about her that seemed familiar to Howard, but he couldn’t place it. “I don’t know, kid…” he said, still unable to place the familiarity, but preferring to err on the side of caution in this case.
“But she totally fits what the Tallahassee Division’s looking for.” Phil was right. She was exactly their type, right down to the fact that she was on her college swim team. The Tallahassee Division liked it when their sacrifices put up a bit of a struggle.
Cautiously, Howard said, “All right, fine. We’ll do some recon, then report back to them.”
“Cool! I got one!” Phil stood up and did a little dance, the same little dance he did whenever he found a suitable candidate. Howard suddenly thought about how Barbara was bringing her new boyfriend home to meet him and Phyllis this Friday, and he found himself hoping to god that he wasn’t the type of boy that spontaneously started dancing.
The road trip to Tallahassee was uneventful. Phil picked Howard up from his house at eight in the morning. “That’s your understudy?” said Phyllis as Howard kissed her on the cheek and picked up his duffel bag. “Isn’t he a bit…?” She trailed off.
“I was going to say young.”
“Be patient with him, dear,” Phyllis smiled. “Remember what you were like when you first started working.”
“Efficient? Professional? Neatly groomed?”
“Have a good trip, sweetie. I’ll have supper ready for you when you get back.”
“Thanks. Bye, hun.”
The two-hour drive was filled with Phil singing along to every song on a modern rock station and laughing at all the shock jocks’ juvenile jokes and pre-programmed fart sound effects. Howard spent the first half-hour looking through the files and trying to figure out what bugged him about this girl, but after a while, decided that if he had to hear the idiots on the radio go, “Zing-o!” one more time, he’d push Phil out of the moving vehicle. He plugged in his ear buds, and drifted in and out of sleep while listening to NPR for the rest of the ride.
The candidate’s campus itself wasn’t anything fancy, but Howard couldn’t deny that it was lively. Watching the kids running around to classes, sitting under trees and discussing their futures—it actually made him excited for Barbara.
“There she is!” shouted Phil excitedly, pointing at Maria as she made her way towards the Business and Administrations building.
“Put your hand down, you doofus,” said Howard calmly. “We’re just here to observe, not give her an invitation.”
“Sorry,” said Phil meekly. “Do you want me to follow her?”
“Yeah, you’d be less conspicuous than I would here. And, for god’s sakes, be subtle about it, all right?”
“Total ninja, man!”
“Whatever. Get back here by lunch.”
Howard groaned, as Phil hopped out of the car. He started to look through Maria’s files again. He’d done this sort of thing countless times before, so he wasn’t so sure why he felt uneasy about this particular job. Most of the time, the candidates were college girls just like this Maria. Turns out the “gods” really loved watching young and spry women getting decimated in their name. “Perverts,” said Howard under his breath.
Must be old age, Howard thought to himself. He thought about the family again. Phyllis getting back from work in the evening and getting dinner ready. Barbara excitedly talking about her new boyfriend over dinner and how she couldn’t wait to go to college.
And that’s when it occurred to him.
In the evening, they trailed the candidate to a local bar where the rules about underage drinking were obviously a bit lax. Phil and Howard walked in about fifteen minutes after Maria and her friends entered, and took a booth opposite the bar counter.
The candidate was laughing at one of her friends doing an impression of a particularly nasty lecturer, sipping her beer slowly, careful not to get too hammered. She was a good kid.
“Howard!” said Phil.
“I said, do you think we’ve got enough info?”
“Nope, but on a deadline like this, and considering how long it’ll take to process their order, this is about as good as we can do,” he said automatically, keeping the worry out of his voice. “Let’s follow her back to her dorm and just head back.”
“Food’s in the microwave,” read Phyllis’ note to him. He dumped his duffel bag on the sofa and walked up stairs. He stopped outside of Barbara’s room and quietly took a peek. He smiled to himself, watching her sleep peacefully. His little princess.
But she wasn’t anymore, was she? Bright-eyed and happy, she was on the cusp of becoming a strong, smart and independent woman.
He shut her door and walked back downstairs, grabbing his duffel bag and his own car keys, then took the two-hour drive back to Tallahassee.
“Jeez, man,” said Phil the next morning. “You look like crap on a stick. Did the missus keep you up all night, eh?” he added with a wink.
“Please stop talking about my sex life, Phil.”
“Hah! You know I’m just joking, man.”
“If you say so, Phil,” said Howard, putting on the pot of coffee. “Let’s get this Tallahassee job processed already.”
“Already started, dude. Dagon’s gonna get his nom noms on this Friday!”
Howard ignored the youth and forced himself to pour his usual cup of coffee, while that uneasiness churned his stomach. “Good,” he said over the brim of his cup. “Make sure you let me sign it before you send it off, all right?”
“No worries, man. I know the procedure. I’m on it. I’m golden.”
“That you are, kid. That you are.”
The girl squirmed in Lenny’s arm, her mouth gagged by his gloved hands. “This ain’t the girl, Carl,” he whispered through his ski mask.
“I can see that, you idiot, and how many times I gotta tell you to not use my real name?”
“Goddammit, did you check the requisition form?”
“I did, I swear I did! She’s supposed to be in this dorm!”
“No, sir,” said Howard sternly on the phone. Phil looked on anxiously. Howard nodded reassuringly to him. “No, sir, I don’t know how the girl could have gone missing.” A pause. “Well, to be fair, on a deadline this tight, we do have to consider that there will be certain factors that we can’t account for.” Another pause. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
He put the phone down, breathing out a sigh of relief that he didn’t know he’d been holding in. “It’s going in our permanent file, but that’s about it,” he said to Phil.
“Aww, hell no,” said Phil, brushing his hair back behind his ears over and over.
“Don’t worry about it, kid,” Howard said. “These kind of things happen. The permanent file thing is there just to keep people on their toes. We keep our heads down and keep doing our jobs and they’ll forget about it in a few months.”
“You sure, man? ‘Cause I really don’t wanna lose my job over this.”
“They almost never fire anyone. It’s not like there are tons of people lining up for this line of work.”
“Yeah, I know. I just… yeah, OK.”
By lunch, Howard was relieved and not entirely unsurprised to see that Phil was back to normal. A new order came in in the afternoon, this time for a different type of candidate. Phil scoured the files to look for someone suitable, but every time he came up with one, Howard told him to just keep looking. “We’re not in a rush, so let’s make sure we don’t mess it up.”
“Oh, right, man. Yeah, right.”
Howard parked the car in the driveway. Leaning back into his chair, he shut his eyes and breathed another sigh of relief. Monday, I’ll drop them my resignation, he thought to himself. I’m getting old and this latest job just proves that I’m slipping. This is a young man’s game and they’ll see that I mean it. My track record’ll handle the rest.
He opened his eyes and stepped out of his car. He thought again about how he hoped that Barbara’s new boyfriend wouldn’t turn out to be a moron like Phil and smiled to himself. He knew his baby girl was smarter than that.
Howard took one step forward before a gloved hand reached around and gagged him. He smelled chloroform and struggled for a little bit before losing consciousness. The blurring light of his living room shining through the windows was the last thing he saw for another day.
Phil walked into the office on Monday morning with a bounce in his step. He put the pot of coffee on automatically and switched his computer on. The phone rang, but he wasn’t surprised by how early calls were coming in this morning. He picked up the phone and said, “‘Sup?”
A pause, then Phil found himself straightening up. “Why, yes, sir. Thank you, sir! I’m totally all about innovation, man.” Another pause. “Nah, he thought he was being all ninja about it, but I knew better.” Pause. “Yes, sir! Thanks again, sir. I will.”
He replaced the phone, then sat back in front of his computer, and closed the file on the most recent job, an order for a middle-aged family man. “When you are hmmm hmmm… I’m hmmmm!” he sang to himself tunelessly.
© Wayne Rée, 2015