• C E Huntingdon

Weremom - Kafenthropy Part III


Continued from Part II >

“It’s not safe!”

“Someone has to do something.”

“We’re just gonna let a maniac run loose on the streets?!”

“Now hold on, one at a time, please.” Mayor George Harvey stood waving his hands in the air, trying to bring order to the raucous crowd. Completely disregarding the Mayor’s request, the locals continued to cast their grievances wildly into the gymnasium.

“This is unacceptable, the city has to act!” A middle-aged woman stood up and pointed a red-tipped nail at the councilors.

“Yeah, that’s right, what are we paying all those taxes for?!” A heavily-bearded man with a large belly teetered out of his chair and shook his fist. Cries of agreement rattled through the crowd as more concerned citizens got to their feet, jeering.

“Hey! Come on now, calm down.” Harvey banged his fist against the plastic folding table, pleading for a silence that didn’t come. Defeated, the Mayor sank back down into his chair, which bent under his heavyset frame. The city council members seated on either side of him whispered amongst themselves in tense, worried tones.

“Calm down!? With three murders over the last three days?! This is insanity!” The crowd keyed up again as Mayor Harvey rubbed his eyes with his thick fingers.

“And the theft!” Old Mrs. Theedle belted out. “My shop was ransacked just last night. All my back-stock of coffee, gone! And during St. Rosebeary’s Intervention…someone has got to answer for this!”

“Yeah! And all this talk from the city about putting a round-about in at 35th street? Really?!”

“Alright, alright, let’s not get off track here,” Mayor Harvey took advantage of the confusion to interject. “We’re all here for one specific reason. Let’s cover the facts so we can work together. I know you’re all very concerned, and we are doing our best to address the situation with the resources we have. We’re here to be very transparent with you tonight. Everything we know, you’ll know.”

The Mayor paused, enjoying the bated breath before him for just a moment before continuing on. “First, we know Ken Kenderson was found deceased in his home three days ago,” Mayor Harvey held up his hand, pointer finger extended. “Second,” Harvey added his middle finger to the display, “Louis Nelbow was also found deceased in his home, and his wife Jane is missing. And third,” the Mayor threw up a third finger, “last night…that uh…ummm, that, that mason jar guy-”

“MASON JAR GUY, REALLY!?!?!” A member of the crowd erupted, followed closely by others at the insensitivity of the Mayor’s comment.

“His name was Japloody! Brande Japloody, and his mason jars were very innovative!”

“Right,” Mayor Harvey continued, “well, what was left of Mr. Japloody was found in his mason jars.”

Gasps and outbursts of shock echoed through the gymnasium, as most citizens of Vente West had not yet gotten ahold of this juicy piece of gossip.

Johnson watched from the corner of the gymnasium, leaning against the padded wall with his arms crossed. Fools, he thought to himself, they have no clue what they’re dealing with. He shook his head as he watched the people of Vente West cope with the horrors their town faced in the only way they knew how; panic.

Their angry outbursts couldn’t hide their fear as it bounced and echoed off the walls of the high school gym, the dancing mascot of the Grande Grinders grinning back at them. Johnson watched from the shadows until he could no longer stand the chaos. Just as a wispy young woman stood up to blame the Mayor for her son missing his scooter practice, Johnson stepped forward.

“Alright people, listen up!” Johnson bellowed as he swaggered past the rows of cheap folding seats. There was an air about him that settled the crowd into a low buzz. “The murders, the coffee theft…this is only going to continue, and it’s going to get worse. A lot worse.”

The crowd broke out again, sputtering with confusion. Johnson glared at the assembly cooly, refusing to explain further until some semblance of order returned.

“What’s going on? Who are you?” A voice rang out.

“I’m the only one who knows what you’re dealing with here,” Johnson said, with a wild look in his eye.

“Hey, I know you! You stopped us four days ago while we were walking!” Linda cried out.

“No, that was just three days ago, Linda,” Kathee corrected her friend loudly.

“I’m pretty sure it was four.”

“No, it was definitely three,” said Sue.

“It had to have been four days ago. I remember because I had to take Phil to the dentist.”

“I’m sorry, Linda, it was three,” Johnson chimed in.

“Alright, three days ago. You’re Special Agent Johnson!” Linda pointed out triumphantly.

“Yeah, yeah, I know you!” The Mayor’s voice whined out. “You showed up here last week, asking about that Chizgany cart, bugging people around town. We looked into you…” George Harvey looked down the table at his City Manager. “Audrey, uh, remind me what we found.”

A young woman nodded and stood up to address the crowd. “I called the Bureau of Investigatory Investigations, and they said that Special Agent Johnson had been released from service six months ago, something to do with an incident in Florencia? They said they had no record of him being reinstated or any agents assigned to a case anywhere near Vente West.”

“Thank you, Audrey,” Mayor Harvey said. “Now, Mr. Johnson, what are you really doing here?”

Before Johnson could get a word past his ample mustache, the crowd erupted again.

He’s probably the murderer!”

“Arrest him!”

The Mayor raised his hands to try and quiet the crowd once again, but it was to no avail. They were incensed and convinced that the Vente West Body Boiler was standing before them.

“Fine! Fine! You want the truth? You want the sad truth?!” Johnson shouted. “I screwed up, I made a mistake that cost the lives of a handful of good, goddamn agents and one particularly underrated fourth-grade math teacher.”

Johnson paused for a moment, gripping his forearm where those closest to him could just barely make out the beginnings of a tattoo that read ‘S-p-i-’ with the rest disappearing under his rolled-up sleeve. “On top of that, I let my perp get away. And for that, they made me turn in my badge. But that doesn’t change who I am! That badge didn’t give me the authority to stand up for what’s right.”

“Well…it kinda does…” a meek voice shot out from the crowd.

“And that doesn’t change what’s gotta happen here tonight!” Johnson continued. “Now I’ve put my time in with the Bureau, and what you folks have here…is a Kafenthrope.”

“A what?” said the Mayor.

“Kafenthrope,” Audrey said, leaning towards George Harvey’s ear.

“Kafen-yea…Kafenthrope,” Johnson confirmed awkwardly and with somewhat less gusto at having been cut off by the City Manager.

Murmurs passed over the assembly, the new exotic name falling from the lips of the locals as they questioned each other in the hopes of learning more. The Mayor’s voice broke over the crowd to ask the next question.

“What is a Kafenthrope?”

Johnson put his hands on his hips and shook his head as the knowledge weighed heavily on him. To share that ancient knowledge of this terror with the poor folks of Vente West was a duty he’d regret, but it was something they had to know.

“Before the cats walked upright and the dog sailed in from the west, there were moms. Chizgany moms, trapped in their homes with nothing to do. Homes were a lot smaller then but also a lot dirtier. Which meant they had to do a lot more work, a lot more than we have to today! And they didn’t have any help. No superstore to run to get cleaning products, no ancient wisdom to lean back on for how to get a stain out of a skort. All they had was their firm, ample bosoms and the will to have a spotless home, which was damn near impossible then. A clean home, it was enough to drive the first homemakers mad.

“So, they turned to magic. They thought they could fill their shortcomings with sorcery, and so the mothers of that age poured together all their malice, all their hate for cleaning, and their will to have the perfect home. They brewed it down with their ancient alchemical skills, deep into a thick black sludge, and that sludge became coffee.

“By itself, it’s just a drink, a strong stimulant to keep the body going, to perk up the mind, and flush the spirit with happiness. But even then, it wasn’t enough. You can’t make a dirt home made out of dirt clean, it’s just impossible! But they didn’t know that then.

“For some, it was adequate. Most of the first moms tolerated the gross, bitter coffee, drinking just enough to get the job done. But for others, it became about more than just keeping their homes clean. Some, well, they started to enjoy that coffee just a little bit too much. They grew to love it, and in their black hearts, they sensed its dark potential and became the Mad Moms.”

“I actually like the taste of coffee,” a local blurted out.

“WHAT, WHO SAID THAT!? No you don’t, none of you do. No one actually likes coffee! It’s too strong, harsh on the tummy, and it tastes icky. You have to water it down with milk and sugar to even make it tolerable. For most of you, it’s just a goddamn status symbol, show how hard you are for drinking a dark cup of brew. I’ll tell all of you right now, I’m a man, and I don’t like the taste of coffee. There, I said it!”

The crowd was silent. For a town filled with ‘coffee lovers’ and an economy based on barista bars, it was a harsh truth to swallow. Though they would never admit it, the shuffling of feet and downcast eyes spoke the truth for them.

“Where was I, before all these goddamn interruptions? So, anyways…these Mad Moms, they came together, and they took that alchemy of theirs, and they bound it to ancient spell crafts, which survive still to this day as the common Chizgany curse.”

“Oh no! I’ve ordered from that Chizgany cart before!”

Johnson threw his hands up as another member of the crowd cut him off from telling his story.

“It’s fine,” Johnson stuck out his hand in a halting gesture. “Their coffee is especially terrible, but you have nothing to worry about, ma’am. The Chizgany curse only works on those who have saturated themselves in coffee. Think about it, it makes sense, doesn’t it? Those Chizgany Mad Moms, they made a spell that only worked for them, only for those who had already consumed so much of that dark, magical brew that it was a part of them.

“They realized, it was the coffee that was productive, the coffee that was hot and flowing and could get things done. The cup would always be just a cup, only ever stained by the brew. It could only absorb so much without losing its integrity until it was inevitably empty again, waiting to be filled. The Chizgany moms, they were just the cup that held the coffee, but what if the coffee…didn’t need a cup?”

“Why did they have to have ample bosoms?”

“GODDAMMIT, IT’S BECAUSE THEY’RE MOMS! That’s not the point! The point is, for a century after that fateful night in that dirty hut, Kafenthropes wandered the Chizgany hills, wreaking havoc wherever they poured. The perfect blend. The strength of a full-bodied roast at a hundred and eighty degrees and the sentience of man, utterly diabolical.”

“Even if we are to believe that there’s such a thing as a Kafenthrope, you said someone had to be saturated in coffee? What does that even mean?” Sue’s voice piped up.

“That means three hundred and sixty-five days of coffee. Non-stop. Morning, lunch, dinner, afternoon snack, tea party but with coffee. All of it. Every day, all day. There hasn’t been a person like that in over three hundred years. And there shouldn’t be, the church hoped that the intervention would stop it. But there are people who flout the rules! People…like Jane Nelbow.”

Another audible gasp sounded from the crowd.

“Not Jane!” Linda swooned and fell back as Kathee caught her.

“Excuse me, but are you saying you know the identity of the killer?” Mayor George Harvey interjected.

“Yes, sir, I do!” Johnson exclaimed confidently. “I’ve been trying to track that Chizgany coffee cart since Feebisdale. That particular Chizgany barista was known to be a little hot and loose with her curses. She’s had her license to brew revoked over six times.”

“She’s been brewing on a suspended license?”

“She’s been brewing on a revoked license!” Johnson smashed a fist into his open palm.

The crowd gasped in horror.

“That’s right! She’s been selling coffee illegally up and down the coast for years. Don’t worry, though, while I was inspecting her receipts, her espresso machine met with a horrible accident…”

A furious clapping filled the air as a large man in an apron stood up, obviously a local barista operating his business by the books. Johnson held up his hand to stifle the applause.

“You see what we're dealing with here now, the stakes? The Bureau doesn’t have the resources to chase every illegal brewer around the countryside. I knew it was only a matter of time until one of her errant curses met up with someone who blatantly flouted the coffee laws. Unfortunately, that someone was here all along, in Vente West. I blame myself for not making this more of a priority while I was at the Bureau. I should have known that if I didn’t do it, no one would.”

“That’s great,” Mayor Harvey interjected, “and your racial insensitivity to the Chizgany people has been noted, but what does this fanatical fairy tale have to do with Jane Nelbow, an outstanding member of our community, being a…a…murderous coffee monster? If you have any sort of proof, sir, we’d sure like you to get to the point. If not, stop wasting our time with this flim-flamery so we can get onto the real issues at hand.”

The Mayor had slowly risen out of his seat and seemed rather pleased with his bold address. About half of the assembly nodded their heads in agreement and began to make their demands.

“Yeah! You expect us to believe all that?”

“Where’s your proof?”

“Jane can’t be the murderer!”

“That’s right, her hands are too small!”

“Oh, by Riley’s good earth!” Johnson exclaimed, rubbing his weary brow with the tips of his fingers. “Flim-flamery, sure. Racial insensitivity, maybe. But how many killers do you know that boil people alive without any traces of water and the distinct smell of espresso? Because let me tell you, that’s a classic sign of a Kafenthrope.

“Why do I think it’s Jane? Why do I know it’s Jane?” Johnson fumbled for a moment in his pocket before pulling out a small wrinkled piece of paper. He held it up to the agitated crowd, smoothing it between his fingertips.

“You see this here? This is one of the receipts I pulled from that old Chizgany woman’s cart. It’s a receipt for the purchase of a cup of coffee from one Jane Nelbow, and you see this here?” Johnson tapped the bottom of the receipt, where something seemed to be scrawled in red ink. “It says ‘cursed!’ Now those Chizgany peoples may be many things, but disorganized they are not, and they keep an exact record of every penny spent and every curse they doll out with it. Meticulous, some might call it. Malicious, I’d say.

“Now, only three people in this town were cursed, only two of them could possibly have consumed enough coffee for it to matter, and only one of them happens to have relations to two people who were murdered…and also happens to be missing herself.”

Johnson paused for a moment as he turned to submit his evidence and slid the receipt in front of the Mayor. The crowd murmured with faint hints of belief, heads nodding. Whispers of ‘could be,’ ‘maybe,’ and ‘that makes sense’ peppered Johnson's ears.

“Tell me, none of you smelled it on her?” Johnson continued. He knew he’d cracked through their layers of disbelief. All he had to do now was hammer in the truth. “The subtle hint of roasted beans that permeated her clothes? The odd bit of grounds always dusting her fleece jacket? The drip stain on the front of her shirt, like some kind of wild animal with a hole in its lip? The way she marked her day by lattes instead of hours. I’m betting Jane never truly abstained from coffee all her life. I shared one morning with her, and it was enough for me to see all this. Surely you’ve noticed the same?”

“Well, she did always bring her own tea from home during the intervention…” Linda piped up again, fully recovered from her earlier fainting spell.

“And who needs that large of a travel mug? Who drinks that much tea at one time?” Kathee chimed in.

“That’s true, Kathee, and it’s because no one does, not unless they’re hiding something. Like a thermos full of thick, black coffee!” Johnson paused to shake his head dramatically while heaving out a sigh.

“It’s sad, really. Maybe Jane could have led a normal life, lived to a ripe old age. Maybe she and Louis could have been happily sipping coffee out on their stoop with the grandkids one day. But, all that coffee…makes you wired, makes you bold. Makes you strong like a thick roast. Sometimes coffee makes you forget your manners when you need them most, like when you happen to be dealing with a curse-wielding Chizgany cart dealer.

“But that’s all in the past. Right now, we need to act, and we need to act fast. We’ve got to get to Jane before her transformation is complete. By day, she’s still a woman, but by night, when the Kafenthropy takes hold, she’s a pure brewed monster. It won’t be much longer now until that change is permanent. And then...” Johnson shuddered at the thought. “Once she’s gone full Kafenthrope, not even St. Rosebeary himself could save Vente West.”

“What do we do?” Fear could be heard in the question flying from the crowd.

“I’ll tell you what you need to do! Mobilize your police force. We’re going to need to get to her house before nightfall before she transforms. And we don’t have much time left…”

“How do you know she’ll even be there?” A skeptic called from a row of cheap plastic seats.

“Oh, she’ll be there.” Johnson was determined. “Jane wouldn’t leave her espresso machine unguarded. And until the transformation is complete, a Kafenthrope must sleep near the bean grinder from which she was ground.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because it’s magic, goddamnit, it doesn’t need a reason! Now we’ve got to move on this, and we’ve got to do it now!”

“Uh, well…Vente West doesn’t actually have a standing police force,” Mayor Harvey’s voice wheezed out quietly.

“I don’t believe what I’m hearing. No police force?!”

“No, we have our voluntary Constable Club Members,” the Mayor motioned to the corner of the gym. An antique-looking woman with puffy white hair, an even older and shorter balding man, and what seemed to be a lanky stick with eyes, all stood up and gave a few awkward waves.

“Okay, well then, send the constables in.”

“Ah, sir,” the Stick spoke, “we’re ah, really only trained to enforce minor city codes. You know, ah, snooterwagon violations, inappropriate yard sales, homeowner association complaints, the odd pickle stand incident…” the Stick swallowed down his nerves audibly. “We’re just, not really equipped or trained to deal with whatever it is you’re, ah, suggesting here.”

Johnson moved to speak, but the Mayor interrupted, “This is your job, you volunteered for this, you can’t just decide not to do it. The city needs you!”

Confused murmurs from the crowds ensued after the Mayor’s statement before a Vente Westian spoke up.

“Now hang on a minute, we all pay our bills. The council has been profiting from our coffee taxes for years. YOU should be the ones doing something about all this!” A finger pointed angrily at the council.

Cheers rang out from the assembly as fists pummelled the air in angry agreement. The city councilors visibly shrunk behind the plastic folding table that was their barricade. Mayor Harvey rose to retort but was shouted back into his seat at the cry of, “Maybe we should elect a new city council!”

It was then that the Mayor and councilors came to realize just how much power was held in the hands of their constituents. An island now among the newly ensuing chaos, Johnson raised his voice once more.

“I don’t care who it is that comes with me, but we need to put a stop to this now, damn it!”

Without waiting for an answer, Johnson left the gym with the brisk saunter of a man who knew exactly what it was he had to do.

Johnson stood with what he considered the minimum number of people he needed to fight a coffee monster. The quorum, as he had named them, assembled loosely at the bottom of the hill that led up to the Nelbow house. They mingled and swayed as if they were inspecting a new coffee shop, just waiting for the owner to arrive. They hadn’t realized yet the gravity of the situation they faced, nor the severity of the consequences if they failed.

Johnson sipped quietly from his thermos. There was a chill in the evening, and the night was coming on fast. He looked at Vente West’s finest, scattered before him, as he contemplated their chances.

Audrey Rinspindle was the youngest of the group and the city’s manager. She was sharp of both mind and tongue. Johnson figured she had to be, to keep that old mayor in check.

She stood next to Arnold Prinselhoffel, a man clinging to the edge of middle age and going downhill fast. Prinselhoffel ran a small espresso machine manufacturing company that everyone seemed obligated to buy from, if only to appease the city council. If that wasn’t a conflict of interest, Johnson didn’t know what was.

Talking over his fellow councilors was Stew Potroastenson, a boisterous man mostly known for his terrible taste in knit ties. Potroastenson had tried to make a livelihood off of his name, but unfortunately, “Potroastenson’s Pot Roast Roast House” only opened its doors for two months before Stew found that his cooking was worse than his name.

Then there was Susan Lurbavich and James Blue. The two of them stood slightly away from the rest, chattering nervously. Johnson could tell Lurbavich was one of those earthy types. A master recycler, by self-definition, she could often be found patrolling the streets on garbage day, re-sorting the catstronks from the bins, and leaving passive-aggressive notes for the neighbors.

James Blue shared similar interests to Lurbavich, but his passions lay in public art. When he wasn’t at his studio, printing prints, he was out canvassing for canvases, trying to find the next best spot for the newest coffee-themed mural to be splashed into town.

And then there was Mayor Harvey, a portly man so out of date with the times, he likely still had suspenders holding up his underwear.

Johnson took the final sip from his thermos. It was cold and stung him with its acrid taste, but he swallowed it all the same and gasped lightly into the chilly evening air. Tossing the thermos into his wagon, Johnson walked over to the group to get them ready for their assault on the Nelbow household.

“Now, just to clarify, no one has been drinking any coffee during the intervention, right? This is very important. If she smells caffeine in you, you’ll be the first to die as she gashes your tummy and sucks it out from the source.”

“Hey, I just saw you drinking some, not two seconds ago!” One of the councilors interjected.

“You worry about you, and I’ll worry about me,” Johnson snapped, his mustache bristling in the dusky sunset, casting its long foreshadow.

“Alright, let's go over the plan. We are going to breach the house at the front door.” A hand shot up immediately as he finished his sentence.

“Yes, Susan?”

“Special Agent Mr. Johnson, umm, what do you mean by ‘breach?’”

“Good question. We are going to knock down the front door and sweep and clear the living room before moving through the rest of the house to secure Jane’s grinder and espresso machine. We’ll then have the upper hand and move to find and subdue Jane.”

“Ok, well, no, we can’t do that,” Susan laughed nervously. “We can’t legally break into a citizen of Vente West’s house, let alone,” She paused, looking away, “arrest her.”

Oooh, we can’t legally break into a woman’s house, who’s a coffee monster, and arrest her before she kills everyone in our town, oooh and eats all our beans and becomes a giant bean roast, oooh laws, ooooh,Johnson sneered as he viciously mocked Susan’s reservations. “We don’t have time for your shit, Susan, or your goddamn community laws. A Kafenthrope is above the law, and so must we be!”

Susan pursed her lips, sighing and rolling her eyes before glancing up into the dusky sky. “Well, excuse me,” she mumbled.

“Alright. So, we’re gonna roll in through the front door. We’re gonna sweep and clear. Secure the machines. We’re gonna stick together and move from room to room, looking for Jane. And when we find her, we’re going to overwhelm her with overwhelming force. Which brings me to my next point; weapons.”

Johnson sauntered over to the boot of his snooterwagon and pulled out a shoddily assembled box with an egregious amount of labeling over it.

“This is my personal stash,” Johnson sighed as he pulled out a handful of little round containers. They looked like the individual creamers one might find at a diner, but a bit bigger, and read “Gagenburff’s Best” on the label.

“This is the worst coffee on the market, absolute garbage.” He began to hand them out, two at a time, to the assembled quorum. “You will pull back the little tab that says ‘pull,’ you will aim for the center of Jane, in whatever form she is in, and you will throw!”

“Form?” Potroastenson belted out the question.

“Yes. Form.” Johnson held up a closed fist, extending a finger to punctuate every statement that followed. “Human. Bean. Grounds. Hot coffee. These are the stages of the Kafenthrope! Now, these syrupy grounds are bad enough to keep a Kafenthrope at bay even in her liquid form, but not for long, and let’s pray she hasn’t gotten that far.”

Johnson raised a fist to shake a pod of Gagenburff’s Best in the air, “Now, let’s see what you brought.”

Johnson walked about the assembled council members, examining each of their weapons in turn. He had sent them all home right after the town hall meeting with instructions to grab the most dangerous weapon they could find.

The first into position was James Blue, almost inappropriately eager. He produced from his pocket what he considered to be a spinning vortex of pain.

“Ehhh…” Johnson said before he was interrupted by Mr. Blue.

“It’s an egg beater! I’m gonna churn that bitch.”

“Well, I like your enthusiasm,” Johnson said admirably.

“I’m gonna get behind her, I’m gonna shove this in her hair, and I’m gonna restrain her with it!” The twinkle in James’ eye was impossible to miss.

“Well, she might not really have hair. We don’t know what stage she’s in. And besides, even if she does, her cut is kinda short. But you know…uh, good job?” Johnson patted the man on the shoulder, who was furiously spinning his egg beater with an egregious smile, and moved on to the next councilor. It was Stew Potroastenson.

“What’s this, some kind of homemade bomb?” Johnson said, eyeing the silver cylinders in the man’s hands, a hint of approval in his voice.

“Oh no, sir, these are my homemade chili powders. My best chili powders, they’re exceptionally spicy! But still, allow you to taste that great tang and flavor.”

Johnson cocked his head and squinted his eyes, “And you’re planning to…” he trailed off as he waited for Potroastenson to finish his sentence.

“Well, sir, ah, one time while at my restaurant, bistro actually, I was making a particularly spicy sandwich for a customer who’s a regular here in town, and if you ask me, I think he likes spicey a bit too much…”

“Yep, yep, uh-huh,” Johnson said as he rolled his finger in an attempt to speed up the conversation.

“Well, I…I shook one of these, uh, too hard to try and get more chili powder, uh, onto his sandwich, and I ah, got some in my eyes, and it was very painful, sir. So I uh, thought that would be something I could do to Jane.”

“Once again, predicated on the fact that Jane is somehow not a full-blown coffee monster yet and has eyes which to blind, but, okay. Sometimes originality pays off in this line of work. We’ll just have to see.”

Johnson shook his head slightly as he continued down the line.

Audrey Rinspindle brandished a set of sharp kitchen knives with the most severe city council face she could muster. Stoic, yet approachable.

“That’s just dumb. What are you going do with those, cut the coffee? By Riley’s holy fur.” Johnson huffed as he turned around and headed back to his wagon. He fumbled about for a moment with the sound of a creaking clasp before turning around with a pigeon clasped firmly in each hand.

“Alright, take these,” Johnson said between muffled coos as he thrust the disheveled birds at Rinspindle. “I talked with Jane’s walking buddies, they said she absolutely hates pigeons. They steal all the bird food from the pretty birds she puts the feed out for.”

Johnson once again thrust them forward for Audrey to take. She stood awkwardly, eyes flickering back and forth between the fluttering birds in Johnson’s grasp and the sharp, glinting knives in her own.

“Ummm…what do I do with these then?” Audrey said, still uncertain that the exchange of arms would be beneficial to her.

“I don’t care, shove ‘em up your ass, just don’t use ‘em. Now come on, hurry up and take these damn pigeons.” Johnson shook the birds angrily at Audrey, their heads bobbing up and down as they cooed in rhythm. Setting her knives gingerly on the ground, Audrey hesitantly took a bird in each hand, and a look of utter perplexion settled onto her face as Johnson continued down the line.

“Alright, Mr. Mayor, let’s see what you’ve got.”

A somewhat dim look entered the Mayor’s face as he glanced left and right at his fellow council members. “We were supposed to bring something?”

Johnson’s nose flared as he shook his head, his lips retreating into a thin line, “uh huh, yep,” before moving on.

Arnold Prinselhoffel stood with both his hands hidden behind his back and a slight grin across his face.

“Are you woefully ignorant too or…” Johnson began to say, but Prinselhoffel then produced what could only be described as four coffee mugs taped together in a slight arch, with a finger slid through each handle.

“...just stupid, yep.” Johnson finished.

“So I thought to myself, how do you fight a coffee monster?”

Johnson made to open his mouth, but Prinselhoffel continued.

“In all those gangster novels, they always have knuckle dusters, and unlike these guys, I know Jane might not be human, so knuckle dusters wouldn’t do anything to her. But coffee cups,” Prinselhoffel tapped his nose before pointing at Johnson repeatedly, “coffee cups, yes, and knuckle duster coffee cups,” he brandished his creation, “…Absolutely!”

“Why not,” Johnson sighed, “but I have to ask, why are they all…moopily shaped?”

“I made them myself, they’re the highest quality. I take a pottery class every Thursday night. A good six months' worth of work right here. Jane’s going down!”

Johnson didn’t feel the need to respond to Arnold as he threw a few punches into the air with his knuckle dusters, shoulder audibly popping with each thrust. Instead, he just moved on for the last time to see what Susan Lurbavich had to offer.

“Don’t plan on breaking the law with that pitchfork, eh Susan?”

Lurbavich started back at Johnson with a silent scowl as she fidgeted with a worn pitchfork in her hands. Its prongs were rusty, but the tips glinted with the hint of a more recent and purposeful sharpening.

Exasperated, Johnson dug into his supplies once more and began handing out little paper disks. “Now, when we find Jane, we’re going to use these.”

“Coffee filters?”

“Yes, that’s right. These will slow her down, and hopefully, together with the use of those fine weapons you all brought, we can subdue Jane long enough for me to capture her.”

“Capture her? How are we going to do that?”

Instead of answering directly, Johnson grunted as he rummaged around in the back of his snooterwagon once more.

“...eh, capture her, eh, heh…with this.”

He turned around, holding a large, shiny, cylindrical object.

“Is that some sort of…monster catching device?”

“This bad boy,” Johnson said as he patted its side gently, “is a commercial-grade, stainless steel portable buffet coffee carafe with a push-button lid. It comes with a glass-lined insulator, lever serving system, and a comfortable flip top handle, making it the perfect portable prison for a raging hot coffee monster.”

Johnson sighed, and his arm went limp for a second, “But we can only do that if we secure her espresso machine and her grinder. If we extricate those from the premises, we can reduce her power significantly, stacking the odds in our favor and making sure all of you get home for your morning cup of mud. Though to be honest, most folks who come toe to bean with a coffee monster, well, let's just say they end up drinking tea.”

“I’ll do it, I can get it out of there, you bet ‘cha!” Mayor Harvey bravely volunteered as his fellow council members grimaced and shook their heads at the false chivalry of their duly elected leader.

“Sure, ok, well, any more stupid questions, or can we go catch a serial murdering coffee monster?” His rhetorical statement was met with a few awkward mutterings followed by an uneasy silence.

Johnson sized up what he had to work with. He knew he was heading into a gunfight with a schoolyard of kindergarteners holding one-legged puppies, and that was a hard truth to swallow. But that was all he had and the best that Vente West could produce.

It was a quiet journey as the quorum ascended the gravel hill and made their way solemnly to its peak, where the Newlbow residence awaited them. The only sound that passed between them was the gentle fluttering of the pigeons clutched tightly in Audrey Rinspindle’s hands, along with the sporadic popping of aging knees and gnarled hips.

Johnson thought he heard a small gasp escape Stew’s lips as they finally crested the hilltop.

“Didn’t notice it until now, did ya?” Johnson said as he cast a sideways glance at the aging Potroastenson. The first time Johnson had cased the place, it had caught him by surprise too.

At first glance, the Nelbow’s house was the most unassuming thing he’d ever seen. Tucked quaintly away, a short stint off of the main road and surrounded by towering trees. It had all the appearances of a peaceful residence. Just an ordinary, well-kept home, but like all things, the down was in the pillow.

The moonlight cresting overhead brought out the hidden details. Those who had visited Jane’s house before had never noticed. Now, though, knowing what she was, her candidacy as a Kafenthrope became all the more apparent. The mahogany-stained siding was a deep roast color, while the white accents had a curious hint of creamy foam to them. Even the decorative circles cut into the house’s shutters seemed to take on a suspiciously oval bean shape. The more one really looked, the more one saw the guises of her hidden addiction.

“She’s got a real problem, doesn’t she?” Audrey said quietly.

“Wait until you see the painting in her living room,” Johnson replied before motioning for his team to follow him. The house was dark and quiet. No lights or sound greeted them as they circled around the front door.

“Alright, stack up!” Johnson said in a harsh whisper.

“What?” Arnold asked.

“Line up along the wall there,” Johnson gestured and waited for his team to get into position. The Mayor cut in front of Johnson, who was waiting first by the door.

“What the hell are you doing?” Johnson whispered.

“I’m the senior official here, so I should go first,” Harvey replied in a low voice.

“No, that’s not how this works.”

“Well, if we’re going by seniority, I should technically go next since I’m the City Manager,” Audrey whispered from down the line before sneaking up and cutting in front of Johnson.

“Actually, Councilor Blue is acting Mayor when you're away, so he should go next.”

What followed was a baffling shuffle of self-importance and pretentious whining. The councilors arranged and rearranged themselves based on their own minor and forgotten duties, which were only now remembered to gain a superior position within the line's order. Johnson watched, unable to stop the madness without raising his voice. Powerless, he waited until finally an order was settled upon. An order that saw Johnson at the back of the line, as he no longer carried a civil position, having been fired from the Bureau, and was now a private citizen.

“Okaaaay...uh, breach?” Johnson whispered, unable to hide his exasperation.

“What?” Mayor Harvey inquired.

“Go through the door quickly please.”

Mayor Harvey nodded with the most masculine nostril flare and head tilt he could muster, before walking up to the front door and jiggling its handle.

“It’s locked.” The Mayor looked back at Johnson, confused.

“Son of a bitch,” Johnson muttered under his breath as he massaged the crinkle between his eyebrows. With a great huff, he moved to the front of the line and kicked in the door before turning back to the Mayor and gesturing to the entryway.

“Breach.”

The Mayor gave Johnson another masculine nod before charging through the doorway, followed quickly by Rinspindle and Blue.

Laburavich, though diminutive in stature, managed to smack her pitchfork into the door frame with a loud bang, knocking her back on one foot. She hopped backwards, trying to regain her balance, and bounced off Johnson’s chest before charging back in, pitchfork lowered appropriately this time.

“Sweet Riley’s bum,” Johnson cursed quietly, shaking his head. He then realized the two councilors still outside with him, Potroastenson and Prinselhoffel, weren’t moving.

Johnson waited a moment before peering into the house to see what the hold-up was. It didn’t take him long to spot the problem. Mayor Harvey had entered the Nelbow residence just far enough as was convenient for him and then stopped, his middle-aged man bulk clogging up the entry.

“Mayor Harvey?” Johnson said, barely even bothering to lower his voice as all attempts at stealth and tactics had vanished.

“Yes, Agent Johnson?” The Mayor replied, turning around.

“Please move a bit farther into the room.”

“Oh, okay.” The Mayor walked forward only a few more steps, but it was enough to allow Potroastenson and Prinselhoffel entry.

As Johnson followed up from behind, the Mayor gave him a curt nod. “We’ve secured the living room.”

“Good for you,” Johnson said, giving the modest area a once over. If Jane was hiding behind the mocha-colored couch or under the coffee table, she surely would have pounced by now.

“Alright, we need to focus on securing the grind-”

“I know where that is!”

Without waiting for a response, James Blue lept into action, blazing past a detailed coffee-themed still life hanging on the living room wall.

“No, goddamnit Blue, wait!” Johnson bellowed at the balding man running towards the kitchen. But rather than a reply from Blue, he heard the ominous answer of a coffee grinder.

“No, no, NO!” Johnson tore off after Blue, the quorum hot on his heels.

They raced around the corner of the dining room and stopped just before the kitchen. It was too dark to see what lay beyond, and no one was brave enough to reach in and fumble for the lights. Finally, Susan chanced the switch in the dining room, which turned on a stained-glass lamp over the table. This spilled just enough light into the kitchen to make out some semblance of shape. In the middle of the room stood a human-like form that the intruding light could not penetrate.

“Blue?” Stew chanced.

“He tried to touch my grinder,” a voice emanated from the darkness in the kitchen.

The suggestion of someone else in the room forced nervous glances around the rest of the kitchen, where another figure came into focus, slumped against the cupboard. A crack of lightning split the night, its electric flash illuminating their ignorance of the gruesome scene before them.

Blue was slumped in the corner against the otherwise pristinely white cupboard. A trail of blood leaked from the severed stump of his arm, which set their eyes wandering in search, only to find the missing appendage crammed into a DD Deluxe bean stripper.

“There’s no lighting forecasted for tonight…” Poatrostensen muttered, puzzled.

With a hair-raising shriek, Susan Lurbavich charged, pitchfork lowered in front of her. She reached the shadow that was Jane and thrust the freshly sharpened prongs forward with all her might.

“I GOT HER!” Susan yelled. A distinct note of pride was in her voice, echoing her distaste for Jane’s award-winning biscotti recipe.

She had but a moment to enjoy her triumph.

Then, Jane began to twitch, head shifting from side to side as pieces of her began to fall away in the dark. Susan leaned in closer only to find that it was beans, coffee beans, slowly crumbling from Jane and dropping to the floor, one at a time. Confident and curious, Susan extended a finger to poke at one of the beans as it began to dislodge itself from what should have been Jane’s ear.

The hollows of Jane’s eyes turned to stare at Susan for the briefest of moments before her entire body tumbled into a pile of beans, clattering against the kitchen floor.

“LURBAVICH, GET ‘OUTTA THERE!” Johnson roared, but it was too late. The beans began to vibrate against each other violently. They moved quickly, engulfing Susan’s legs, whipping themself into a frenzy as they rose up and around her body.

The last thing he saw of Susan was a look of understanding followed by terror creeping into her eyes, just before Jane enveloped her in a whirlwind of beans. What followed was a hideous scream, cut short by what could only be the sound of shredding flesh and grating bone.

“Oh, that’s disgusting!” Prinselhoffel yelled as George Harvey turned and retched, spewing his dinner across the dining room table.

“SHE’S SELF GRINDING!” Johnson yelled. “NOW! WHILE SHE’S DISTRACTED!”

Arnold Prinselhoffel lept into action. Reaching into his pocket, he grasped one of the paper filters Johnson had handed out. He flung it with precision—or as much precision as one could fling a flimsy piece of paper—at the mass of writhing beans, which continued to slowly break themselves down against Susan’s flesh and bones. At the same time, Stew Potroastenson ran forward with his jar of homemade chili powder and unscrewed the lid to give Jane a heavy dose of the volatile seasoning.

But the vortex of churning beans and grounds had generated a powerful wind that gusted away Arnold’s paper filter and blew the powdered chili right back into Stew’s face. Howling in pain, Potroastenson clutched his face and rubbed his eyes, which were now streaming with red, grainy tears.

Johnson pushed the two councilors aside as he readied a pod of Gagenburff’s Best in hand and pulled back the tab. He launched the open pod into the churning terror and took a step back. He waited, two seconds, three, ten. Something should have happened by now, the horrid taste of Gagenburff’s Best should have been enough to at least slow the Kafenthrope’s mad grinding.

“Goddamn it, she’s too powerful!” Johnson called out.

Then, something did happen. At first, Johnson thought with a glimmer of hope that Gagenburff’s had just taken its sweet time, but a hideous squelching proved otherwise. The mass that was Jane had succeeded in grinding itself into a fine powder. It pulsated as it feverishly sucked all of the juices from the pulp that was left of Susan and transformed itself into a dark liquid. The quorum froze as the Kafenthrope pooled itself together. Slowly it rose, as ropy liquid tendrils grew into a grotesquely formless yet hauntingly human shape.

“RINSPINDLE, PIGEONS, NOW!” Johnson roared.

“Ummm, okay,” Audrey whined as she stumbled forward, her hands dampening the pigeons with a nervous sweat. Still unsure why she was holding the birds or what to do with them, Audrey approached Jane. The birds flapped madly in her hands, causing them to jerk back and forth erratically in her effort to control them.

Much to her surprise, it seemed to be working. With each cautious step Audrey took, the creature squelched back. Emboldened, she took a deep breath and focused on steadying her hands to keep the birds pointing straight at the Kafenthrope.

The horror that was Jane suddenly stopped. A gurgling laugh echoed as the creature brought what had once been hands together in a sickly wet slap before extending her arms into the air. The two inky tentacles stretched out into a bizarre sort of victory pose, reaching far beyond the length any human arms should stretch.

The sight immediately drove the pigeons mad with fear. Something deep within their little pigeon hearts, beyond their understanding, shrieked at them to flee. They fluttered in a wild panic, their coos almost transformed into screams as they flailed madly in Audrey’s hands.

She could no longer control the birds.

Wet slops squelched from Audrey’s face while Johnson and the remaining council members looked on in terror as the birds impaled themselves head-deep into Audrey’s eyes, fluttering madly, still trying to escape Jane. Audrey screamed and howled, still holding onto the birds as they clawed into her cheeks, shredding ribbons of the thirty-something-year-old’s flesh.

After moments that lasted too long to be forgotten, Audrey collapsed onto the ground, blood pooling around her face, pigeons still fluttering hysterically from her eye-holes. A moment of silence, save for the flapping of wings, enveloped the Newlbow residence.

A recovering Potraostenson wiped his eyes as he suddenly realized that, in comparison, his own situation wasn’t really that bad.

Johnson's own attention was pulled away from the fluttering of pigeons by the whistling crack of a weaponized tentacle that flicked past Potroastenson, burning a hole in the wall behind him. A reflexive and empathetic jerk took hold of Johnson upon witnessing the near hit.

“She’s getting too hot, we’ve got to cool her off. Check the fridge for some ice!” Johnson shouted.

“I got this,” Mayor Harvey said as he entered the kitchen, wiping a bit of vomit from his chin. He trotted over to the refrigerator and began digging through the freezer. Oblivious to the plight of Potroastenson, who had just dodged another crack from the whip-like tentacles flailing towards him, the Mayor pushed aside a frozen steak, noting the leanness of the cut.

The soul-hollowing screams of Audrey Rinspindle started up again, shattering whatever calmness remained of the party’s resolve. Johnson’s eye twitched as he grimaced against the sheerness of her shrieking.

“That’s not helping anyone!” he screamed down at her, “and where the hell is that ice?!” Johnson shot his head to the right, the chubby posterior of the duly elected mayor staring back at him.

“No ice cubes, but this should work?” George Harvey spun around, an open carton of skim milk clutched in his hands, which he promptly tossed at Jane like the greatest of fops. The carton whizzed through the air, where it hit the Kafenthrope with an anticlimactic thup, before disappearing into her inky bulk.

“Yaaay!” The Mayor cheered as Johnson starred on in horror.

“What have you done!?”

“Whaaa?”

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?”

Full-bodied laughter bubbled out of Jane as her neck swayed back and forth. Another crack of lightning flooded the room as Jane’s liquid body mixed with the skim milk, swirling from within to replace her rich black exterior.

“This lightning is really unusual,” Stew commented.

“Is she cooling off?” The Mayor queried.

“No, you idiot, she’s turning into a latte! You’ve added milk to a hot coffee. You son of a bitch!”

“Is that bad?” As if to answer the Mayor, Jane’s newly tan-colored tentacle snapped out again at Potroastenson, this time launching an arm clean from his body.

“WE GOTTA RETREAT!” The Mayor squealed in panic.

“No, no, we can’t retreat!” Johnson yelled.

“RETREAT!” Mayor Harvey squealed in an even higher pitch as he tore out of the kitchen.

Another thwack sounded, followed by an anguished yell from Potroastenson as the latte monster skillfully severed Stew’s foot from his ankle.

Prinselhoffel turned and ran, following the Mayor on his expeditious retreat as another crack shot through the air, sending Stew’s leg flying. Without much of a choice, Johnson realized he could stay and die with Potroastenson, or retreat with what was left of his team. Johnson turned to follow, and as he was leaving, another piece of Potroastenson was carved off and fell to the floor, his fingers still wrapped tightly around the cylinder of spices.

Johnson rounded the corner just in time to hear the Mayor let out a yelp as he struck the corner of a decorative table with the full force of a middle-aged man, his toe taking the brunt of it.

“Ow!” Mayor Harvey let out, instinctively and rather pathetically. He toppled over, clutching his toe, making an impromptu hurdle for Prinselhoffel and Johnson to clear. Johnson would have stopped to help, had Jane not been hot on their heels and Prinselhoffel taking the stairs two at a time. It was one of those moments in an agent’s life where he had to realize that some people are beyond saving.

“Prinselhoffel, wait!” The Mayor cried out.

The councilor turned around as he was halfway up the stairs, but Johnson forced him to keep going.

“Leave him! He’s already gone!”

“What, I am?” the confused voice echoed from below the stairs, followed by a cry of searing and agonizing pain.

Johnson gritted his teeth against the sound as he and Prinselhoffel rounded onto the second story landing.

“Heeelloooo Mayor,” came a guttural slopping voice, “thank you for the miillkk. I hope now is not a baaad time to talk about some grieeeeeeevances.”

The screaming continued as Prinselhoffel dove into an open closet in the master bedroom. Johnson slid in beside him, closing the door as he went. Through the door, they could clearly make out Jane’s continued torture of the Mayor, unwilling to imagine exactly what she was doing.

“Taaax exemptions for pre-ground coffeeee? Have you ever grouuuund your own beans?” The voice creaked as it spoke.

“Aaaaaagghhhh!”

“I thouuught not.”

As they listened to the screams through the door, Prinselhoffel shook his head in disbelief and whispered a question in Johnson’s ear.

“I don’t get it, you said she turned into a latte?”

“Yeah, that’s what happens when you add milk to a coffee,” Johnson said, restating the obvious.

“But, how’s a latte stronger than coffee? You’re literally diluting the brew with a non-caffeinic?”

“The Kafenthrope’s favorite drink in life is their strongest form. Jane was nothing short of a latte addict before the Chizgany curse. With a little bit of skim milk, she’s ten times stronger now.”

“Ten times? That seems rather arbitrary. If her favorite drink was just black coffee, wouldn’t she already be ten times stronger?”

“Shuuush! ...Do you hear that?” Johnson interrupted.

“No?”

“Exactly! The screams have stopped.”

“Oh no, is she coming?” Prinselhoffel’s voice shook.

“I don’t know, but I’m not gonna hide in this damn closet anymore. We’re gonna finish this!”

“Maybe we should just wait until morning. Maybe she thinks we’re gone.”

“Oh, come on, put on your big boy panties, and let’s go! Are you an elected official or not?”

Without another word, Johnson slid open the closet door and moved out, Prinselhoffel following hesitantly behind him. The room was dark and quiet, there was no sign of Jane. They exited the bedroom, Johnson’s eyes peeled for trouble.

“Alright, same plan,” he turned and whispered to Arnold. “We sneak down, grab the grinder an-”

“Ouch!” Prinselhoffel cried out as a sizzling drip landed on his shoulder. Fear and realization entered the men’s eyes as they stared at each other, before slowly raising their heads to look at the vaulted ceiling of Jane’s second-story home.

While the house was doused in shadow, Jane’s gelatinous shape was now unmistakable as it hung from the ceiling. A gurgling laugh bubbled out before the shape dislodged itself and twisted into a narrow stream.

Prinselhoffel was already screaming when the liquid found his mouth, forcing its way into his body. Johnson tumbled backward, falling on the mocha-colored carpet as he watched in horror while Jane siphoned herself into the man’s body. Unable to move, Johnson watched until every last drop had flowed from the ceiling and into the wide-eyed espresso maker's mouth.

Prinselhoffel stumbled backwards, confused but seemingly unhurt. “She di-she didn’t burn me? ...I got her? Johnson, I got her! Ge-get your carafe, I’ll spit her back out into it. We got her!”

The look of terror had not left Johnson’s face as he crawled backwards on his hands.

“I’m sorry,” Johnson said.

“What do you mean ‘sorry,’ it’s fine! She didn’t burn me, I’m fine!”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Johns-”

A loud, tummy gurgling projected from Prinselhoffel as he doubled over in pain. He turned and stumbled, bracing himself against the banister as he went.

Johnson picked himself up and began to run as fast as he could back to the kitchen. It was up to him now.

As he reached the first step, he chanced a look back. Down the hall, Arnold Prinselhoffel had managed his way to the bathroom. Its yellow light illuminated the end of a dark hallway, where the man was desperately trying to remove his grey slacks. All the while, the gurgling only grew louder.

As Johnson hit the bottom step, the last words of Prinselhoffel cried out, “What do I do?”

“I’M SORRY!” Johnson replied, a tear forming in his eye as an otherworldly squelching noise flooded the house.

“AAAAGGHHH-FFFFLLUUUUUURRRRPPPPTTTHHHHHH!”

The wet, sickening sound filled Johnson’s ears as he beelined for the grinder, unable to save his team, yet again.

Pieces of councilors lay everywhere as Johnson entered the kitchen. He caught himself as he moved through the gore. The tile was slick with the blood and viscera of appointed officials. But he could see them, the grinder and the espresso machine. If he could just get them outside, get them away from Jane, he could come back with reinforcements.

The kitchen light flicked on.

“If you waaanted your own cup, all you had to do is ask. I’d happily maaaake you one.”

Johnson froze, unable to pull his eyes away from the silver-coated, blood-speckled espresso machine. He was so close. All had to do was extend his hand, and he’d be touching its metallic surface.

“Thooouuugh, you might want to be careful, I make a strong breeeeeew,” the voice behind him goaded. “You might end up cleeeeaaaaring yourself out, and I’m afraid my guest baaathroom is quite a mess right now.”

“After sixteen years at the bureau, I don’t think I’d mind a real cup of coffee for once,” Johnson said as he recovered, turning around to sneer at the monster that was Jane.

Johnson reached for the Gagenburff’s Best in his pocket, but with an unnatural speed, Jane closed the distance, latching on to his arm and one of his feet. He howled as the searing liquid burned at his flesh.

“Thank yoooouuuuu for bringing the city council with you, you’ve saaaaved me the effort of tracking them dooooown. They had just a hint of coffee left in them, it was a pleaaasure to suck it out. Without city governance, it will be aaaalllll the easier. You seeeee, I’ve done a bit of reaaaseaarch, since last we met, and I know what I am nooooww, what I’ve always been. And you seeee, I’ve realized something veeerryyy important. There’s never been a Kafenthrope like me, or at least not yet.”

Johnson howled as Jane sucked him in a bit more, prolonging his suffering.

“The ooothers only had peasant coffee to sustain them. A carafe here, a mug there. But Iiiiii have an entire town. Warehouse upon warehouse, filled with the best beans and the daaarkest roast. Once I’m done with you, I’m going to absorb all of Vente West an-Achk! Achk!” Jane spat and hacked from her gelatinous form.

“THAT TAAAASTE!? Your body, your skin…RAAAAAAAUUUGHHH!” Jane bellowed and writhed.

Johnson mustered a smirk through the pain of his melting limbs.

“That’s right, IT’S DECAF!” he screamed as he shoved his free hand into Jane’s scalding body.

“NOOOOOOOO!” Jane squelched and thrashed as she tried to rid herself of Johnson.

“AND IT’S CHURCH DECAF, YOU SON OF A BITCH!” Johnson roared as he thrust himself against Jane’s mass, breaking through the surface tension of her writhing liquid form.

Johnson’s body finally failed as he forced his face into the squirming mass. He went limp as the Kafentrhope’s natural process leached the liquids from his body. Floating in a black and empty void, the muted howls of Jane’s dying gurgles slowly faded away as his mind closed, satisfied at having won.

“I see, so you laced your body in the event of your capture with poisonous decaffeinated church coffee. That’s, well, that’s damn fine police work, Johnson,” Director Tiggleghast said.

He sighed as he sat back in his chair, seated next to the hospital bed. A ray of sunlight snuck in from the bedside window, casting a soft glow on the aging director, highlighting his graying hair.

“It’s a damn shame about those city councilors, but sacrifice is part of the job, and we can all rest a bit easier now that Vente West is safe.”

Tiggleghast slowly pushed himself up out of his chair, buttoning his black suit before reaching into his pocket.

“I know we’ve all had our differences, but we’d like to invite you back, Johnson.”

His request was interrupted as the door banged open and a slightly tired-looking nurse bustled through.

“Excuse me, sir, visiting hours are over. Mr. Johnson needs his rest,” the nurse said, but not unkindly.

“Think about it,” Director Tiggleghast said with a wink before depositing Johnson’s old bureau badge on the bedside table. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Tiggleghast gave the nurse a nod as he left, being sure to close the door gently behind him on his way out.

Johnson managed a smile through his half-bandaged face. He had received severe burns across most of his body, unfortunately losing the right side of his mustache in the process. As he watched the director leave, he reached out to grab the badge, rubbing the familiar grooves longingly with his bandaged hand.

“Can I get ‘cha anything, honey?” The nurse asked.

“Yeah,” Johnson said, still staring at the badge.

“I could use a cup of coffee.”



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