Alex Reynard's Online Books
PHOBIOPOLIS: Killing Machines
by Alex Reynard
Yeah, you're a natural
A bleeding heart of stone
You gotta be so cold
To make it in this world
-Imagine Dragons, "Natural"
If you search deep enough into any big city, even one as pretty as Coryza, you will always find spots as rotten and seedy as a wormy apple.
Into one such disreputable zone, Junella Brox was aimed.
The street was cracked. Her footfalls were soundless. The city's walls were an hour from closing. The eternal night of the region was darkening perceptibly as the moon withered and died yet again. Shadows grew bolder; an inkwash over the sketchy tight alleyways the skunkess padded catlike through.
Within the shadows, she was camouflaged. Nothing of her visible but a ghostlike white scarf and two unblinking orange eyes. They saw everything. Everything the city wished it could disbelieve.
Lousy music played over card games destined for violence. Unseen diaperrats rustled, feasting. Locked windows. Boarded windows. Broken bottles. Stained and pitted concrete. Derelicts huddled against walls with hollow gazes, so drained of will they had become inanimate objects. A bloodstain in the shape of a child. A lumpen, snoring, naked woman dreaming in a pile of uncollected garbage bags. Junella passed them all without looking back.
The lithe black skunk wasn't on the clock. Nor was she looking to get drunk (although that was always an option).What she wanted down here was a fight. Two days back, she'd bitten off a mouthful of shit sandwich she could neither swallow or spit out. She'd let herself be trapped between two forces too powerful to oppose. Rather than face her mistake with maturity, she was looking to redirect the red cloud of wrath around her thoughts onto someone else.
Junella stepped from the shadowed concrete cleft onto the openness of Galloway Street. The streetlights craned their necks over potholed pavement, stripped cars, wet cardboard boxes, and jimmied-open newspaper kiosks. Her weapons were out of sight. She wanted to appear alone and vulnerable. She pulsed with inner fire. Casting her keen-edged gaze around, she wished for some lecherous slug to make a grab at her. Even a stumblebum flopping his ragdoll self against her by accident would do. Any excuse to flash her teeth and scream into the night as she drew blade and drew blood. Any excuse to make someone else's night worse than hers.
But the street was empty. At least, of anything that might be coaxed to pose a threat. A couple of indistinct face-suckers were pawing each other under an awning. Some sad sack in a raincoat was propped up against a brick wall with one arm, looking like he was about to- Yep. There came the puke. Right on schedule.
Everyone else was inside, casting shadows on their window shades. A rare calm night in this part of town.
"For fuck's sake. Do I have to do everything myself?"
If she couldn't draw a scuffle out, then she'd go to the source. Junella beelined towards the neighborhood's epicenter of ugliness. A three-story liquor wonderland with a sign above the door that read simply, 'TAVERN'. Presumably, most of its patrons wouldn't have bothered shaking off Phobiopolis' auto-onset illiteracy. (Though with this caliber of clientele, who knew if they'd been able to read back when they were alive?)
The noise pounded her ears from a block away. An ailing piano conducted a battered-sounding band, amplified just barely above the rolling ocean of sudsy shouting. Once she was in sight of the place, Junella saw they were having a profitable night. Drunks were practically falling out the windows. Patrons wandered in and out like sacks of oily seawater poured into clothing.
And to her great annoyance, not a single one of them molested her as she made her way up the deathtrap stairs to Tavern's main doors. Maybe her vinyl skin matched the night too much. Maybe she was too short to be noticed. Phobiopolis reduced all souls to childhood upon entry, and she'd only chosen to let herself advance to her teens. Most of the people here looked middle-aged. Wasted wrecks who'd probably been in the afterlife longer than their real ones. All their original memories forgotten. Nothing left to do but drink and drink to try to forget that this place was forever.
She stepped through the battered doors into chaos. Chaos that stank. She felt like she was already getting drunk just smelling the air here. 'Might as well make it official.' She threaded past reeking, stained bellies towards the bar. The crew behind the counter looked like combat-hardened war medics. 'Things could be worse. I could be them,' she thought. She glanced around. Every seat was filled. Cavemen roaring laughter into their companions' faces. Sullen heaps brooding in candlelight. Catatonics sleeping under tables. The only unusual thing she noted: the far corner was even louder than normal. 'Something going on back there.'
When one of the bartenders caught her eye, she pointed at the bottles behind him and didn't care which one he grabbed. He poured. The shot went down like thumbtacks in vinegar. Appropriate to her mood. A mere glance at the barman's willwell paid her tab. He returned a weary nod of gratitude to her for an easy, no problems transaction.
Now with a bit of mean gasoline in her stomach, she hopped off the stool and navigated across the room, dodging vomit, to whatever event was transpiring in the back. She elbowed past jiggling, drippy idiots, all of them talking at great volume in fluent drunkenese. A tight ring of patrons were smashed in together, spectating. Junella melted herself through.
Stepping into the searing yellow light of a bare hanging bulb, Junella saw a table streaked with fresh hot blood, and a stranger in town.
Maybe they just ran in different circles, but she was pretty damn sure she would've remembered seeing a guy with wrenches for arms and no top to his skull.
He was draped over his chair like a thrift store overcoat. A sleepy, smug grin curled from a canine jaw. Blue jeans and leather jacket; sleeveless, obviously. One ungodly-enormous claw-jaw wrench dragged on the floor beside him, connected to his shoulder. The other was propped up on the table. Open, inviting its next challenge.
Junella had only seconds to observe these details before a steaming water buffalo shoved his way past her, holding his own mangled arm in his opposite hand. He rounded and brandished it towards the mutt at the table. An arc of crimson splashed the crowd. "YOU SON OF A BITCH! IT'S A DAMN GOOD THING I'M TOO FULLA VODKA TO FEEL THIS! NOW I GOTTA WALK ALL THE WAY ACROSS TOWN TO THE GODDAM HOSPITAL! YOU SON OF A BITCH!!!"
The mutt's nonchalant expression didn't even twitch. No wry comeback. Just a shrug of his shoulders: 'You pays your money and you takes your chance.'
The crush of onlookers swung open long enough to let the bloodsoaked grumbler pass, then clapped themselves shut again. Within seconds they were roaring encouragement for someone else to take the vacant chair.
Someone with very poor taste in friends got pushed forward, his buddies all patting his back. "You can do it! You can beat him! Get it on!!" The newcomer was a lion in a hardhat and a kilt. He looked like he worked at a junkyard, compacting cars with his bare hands. He struggled his shirt over his head, tossed it to the floor, then slid into the chair across from the mutt.
Junella had already guessed the game. It suited this unknown Frankenstein perfectly.
The lion slammed his elbow onto the wooden table, grinding it into the dent that had developed over the past few hours. The red puddle left by previous competitors soaked his sandy fur. He flexed his fingers, making ropy veins twist inside his forearm. He growled like a churning incinerator.
The mutt, meanwhile, looked like he couldn't muster the enthusiasm to even sit up straight. His raised wrench looked immobile, except for the sloppily-welded hinge of an elbow down the middle of its length.
"COME ON, FUCKER!" the lion blared.
The mutt simply pointed with his eyes to a paper bag stapled to the table's edge. "First, you pay. If you win, the whole kitty's yours. If not, it's mine. Them's the stakes." His voice was soaked with alcohol, but perfectly intelligible.
The lion grunted acceptance of the rules, dug in his pockets, came up empty, then winced and picked his shirt up off the floor. In the breast pocket he found a pebble of imaginite.
The canine nodded, and into the bag it went. He pulled his chair a little closer.
The lion eyed the serrated edges of the wrench's jaws. A bit of worry snuck into his expression, but he quickly stuffed it down with a snarl of confidence. He slotted his fingers into a good grip on the steel and skootched his elbow around until it felt right on the table. "You ready to do this, you grinning, cheating puppy punk!?"
"Any time you are, Cochise. On three?"
"Then a-one. A-two... A-three."
Both combatants slammed the pedal to the metal and surged power into their arms. Junella had expected an instant win, but either the lion was as strong as he looked, or the mutt was starting off toying with him. The big cat's tail lashed furiously as he pushed against steel. Junella saw his shoulder throb like a hot water bottle.
The canine did not show strain, but determination. "Beer!" he barked, and someone from the crowd held out a longneck bottle. With surprising delicacy, he took it in his other wrench and didn't spill a drop as he brought it to his mouth. Junella took note of the agility this required, since his elbows could only swing laterally. The mutt sucked the bottle dry in a single long, steady gulp, all while maintaining an eye-lock with his opponent. He finished and handed the empty to the crowd. "Thanks," he said as it vanished.
Noises like bad constipation were coming out of the lion. The veins on the back of his hand were fat as sausages. The chair he was sitting on creaked from shaking. His free hand clawed ruts in the table. His exhales sounded like steam overflow.
The canine decided to stop jerking off and start playing for real. He bared his fangs and bore down hard. He'd merely been keeping the lion's arm in place so far. Now he drove it towards the table with the relentless strength of a steamhammer pounding railroad spikes.
The lion screamed. No growl of bravado: a reflexive yelp of fear and pain.
"You can say uncle," the canine offered graciously.
"EAT SHIT!" the lion counter-offered.
"Allright then. I tried to be nice." With a small shrug at how rude some people could be, the canine suddenly spiked his opponent's arm against the table with a gunshot-loud CRACK of tendons snapping.
This time the lion's scream was much louder. He became a shrieking teakettle as he stared at the remains of his bicep. It looked like a lightning-struck tree stump.
The mutt exhaled and slumped back in his chair. His wrench-jaws parted to let his opponent retrieve his now-useless hand.
The lion scrambled backwards out of the chair, right arm dangling like a stocking full of lard. "FUCK YOU! FUCK YOUR MOTHER AND YOUR WHOLE FAMILY!!"
The canine didn't dignify him with a glance. "Next."
When the lion made a fist with his remaining functional fingers, the crowd surged like a sea wave and pushed him back. Sore losers could nurse their wounds at the bar or get the fuck out. They wanted to see more action.
Junella stood quietly and watched two more chumps get their limbs demolished before deciding to give it a try herself.
She let the latest loser drag himself past her. He at least had enough dignity to merely grumble, not make a scene of useless machismo. Junella stepped towards the chair and slid herself into it in one lyrical motion.
The crowd became quiet in befuddlement.
And the canine expressed the first real interest she'd seen on his face so far. Confusion at the size difference between her and his previous challengers. Mild discombobulation at the presence of a shapely dame. And then a wary, intrigued, approving grin at the rocksteady confidence in her eyes.
This close, she could finally get a good look at the shipwreck this guy called a head. The whole upper deck had been cleared away, capped off with a metal disk. His ears and eyeballs were held in place by wires. He even had teensy metal eyelids.
"You can stare," he said mellowly. "It's not every day you meet a fella this handsome."
Junella snorted a chuckle. Her needle-tipped fingers found the grooves on her body to reply, "Ha. You're about as ugly as my temper tonight."
This made his faux-fur eyebrows raise. "Well ain't that something! You don't just look like a record album, you are one! Plus you're in a place like this without bein' falling-down shitfaced. The eighth wonder of the world, right in frunna me!"
"You can stare," she sang back, then put her other arm on the table. "But I ain't got all night. We gonna get this clownshow over with or what?"
He glanced at the paper sack. "Pay first."
She nodded. "I didn't forget. Though I don't usually carry rocks on me. Do you take collateral?"
An eyebrow twitch asked for clarification.
Junella reached beneath the table briefly, and when her hand reemerged it was holding a six-shot revolver. She placed it on the table with just enough sound to convey its heft. Real metal. No prop.
The mutt licked his lips at it. "Not somethin' I can use. But it's pretty. One of Red Velvet's jobs?"
She shrugged. "It's from whoever-it-was I killed and took it off of."
An 'Oooooooh' from the crowd.
"Fair nuff. And yeah, that pea-shooter's got resale value. We're on." He unclenched his wrench-jaw to let her slip her hand inside. "Careful you don't scratch my finish with those needles of yours," he kidded.
She gave him no reaction. "Just to be sure now, the rules are, whoever's hand touches the table first, they keep the bag?"
"Then let's do this, trashface." Junella wrapped her comparatively-tiny vinyl paw around the stranger's pockmarked steel.
The crowd was muttering. Placing bets and expressing overconfident opinions. A few of them had heard tales about a black plastic skunk with orange eyes, and knew they were about to see something they'd be teling their friends about tomorrow. This one had a reputation of rattlesnake venom in her veins.
The canine sat forward in his seat, getting serious again. He scanned Junella top to bottom. The only part of her that seemed any threat was that tail of hers. Skunks sprayed, he knew. Plus he could see record shards embedded in its underside like porcupine quills. Her arm was a dainty, feminine thing. If it wasn't for the swagger in her posture, he'd have been sure he was about to launch her straight through the westward wall.
Junella simply kept her eyes on his. Perfect poker face.
"On three," the canine said.
The skunk acknowledged.
His wrenches were not inanimate prosthetics. He could feel her skin and the record grooves that covered her every surface like a full-body fingerprint.
Junella adjusted her posture, bracing her legs. She felt the weathered, battered metal of the stranger's strange hand. She kept her other paw on the table.
He didn't want to disrespect her by fucking around. Or to be caught off-guard by some hidden inner power she possessed. He surged a volcano's worth of power through his bolted-in shoulder mount, down the precision-channeled blood conduits in his wrenches.
But he was too slow by half. Junella's hand sprung up from the table like a jack-in-the box. Like pure magic, the revolver vanished from the table and appeared in it.
He had only time to see a flash.
Her trigger finger sent a bullet through the soft meat of his neck and out through his brains. The wall behind him became a crimson masterpiece. His skull's metal cap went flying like a flipped coin.
Before gravity could even stop gawking long enough to start pulling the mutt's body towards the floor, Junella snatched the paper sack of imaginite into her hand. She stood and turned without looking back, and let the assembled mob know it was time to get out of her way.
The onlookers erupted. Some were hooting and clapping, others called her a cheating bitch. Junella did not give even the smallest fuck in the world. She had a hefty little handful of cash and, while that wasn't a solution to her current pickle, money almost never made a bad mood worse.
She walked away slow, but with her ears up. Alert in case some rummy got the idea they could lighten her load.
But as she was halfway back to the bar, she heard an unexpected sound.
The canine was laughing his absolute ass off.
Surprised, she spun back. For starters, he'd resurrected goddamn quick. That took an impressive will, and a substantial level of familiarity with dying. But also, the laughter wasn't mocking or angry. When he finally pulled himself up off the floor with tears in his eyes and an intact head, the mutt's smile was huge and pure.
"Holy hot SHIT, that caught me off guard! Wait! Wait a second! Come on back for a handshake at least!"
Her back arched. This was not normally how people reacted when she murdered them. She stayed fixed to the spot, unsure of an ambush.
The mutt tried to take a step on shaky legs, bracing himself against the table. He ended up knocking it over with a loud clatter, not even noticing. He flailed his woozy body past the crowd (who didn't know how the hell to react anymore) and bumbled over to the skunk, grinning boyishly. "That was kinda great."
"I shot you in the fucking face," she sang flatly.
"Yeah!" he replied, as if this was a prank on par with a joy-buzzer or a tee-peeing. "I didn't expect that! Some damn fine Gordian Knot thinking, I gotta say."
She sized him up. He seemed genuine. "Well... thanks." His wrench-hand was out, so she hesitantly gave it a shake.
His muzzle still smiled, but then a hard glint came to his eyes. "Of course... I'm gonna need that bag back."
He did not clamp his wrench down on her hand, although he somehow conveyed with mere touch that he could. And if he did, he'd crimp it as flat as a potato chip.
Junella turned to iron and drilled her eyes into his. "I won."
"You cheated and you know it," he replied softly. Still the same jaunty tone, but now with a flinty, warning edge. "Without that money, I don't eat tonight."
Junella readied her needles to reply, considering whether to challenge him, insult him, or maybe just rake his face and run. But then she paused.
Something about his eyes...
They were bloodshot and tired. And they looked like this was the most excitement they'd seen in weeks. Maybe months. They were starved for it. Like he wanted to fight her for the money even more than he wanted the money itself. Like he didn't really care whether he lost, just so long as something made his night memorable.
It wasn't like looking into a mirror. But she could understand that look. Flashes of a shared feeling.
And then Junella suddenly realized that this could be her lucky day.
Making an instant decision, she shoved the paper sack into his chest. Not hard enough to spill it, but enough to catch him off guard and make him fumble to hold on.
He stared at it, genuinely surprised it'd been that easy.
She cocked her hip and rested her palm on it. "You got a name?" she demanded.
"Uh." He looked up. "Zinc."
She couldn't immediately find the word 'zinc' on her vocabulary and had to steal from 'kitchen sink'. "Zinc what?"
He shrugged. "That's it. No last. No middle."
"You want a job?"
That made him stand up straight and cock his head at her like she'd lost her mind.
"Do I hear a no?"
He fumbled for words. "No! I mean, yeah! I mean... Shit! I'm not the kinda guy who matches up well with a steady paycheck. But if you can help make sure I'm fed and not sleepin' on asphalt, you gotcherself a deal."
She couldn't help but smirk that he hadn't even asked about the particulars. "The name is Junella Brox. You're gonna wanna remember that for the rest of your life. And I've got a problem you might be a solution to. So let's get the fuck outta here and talk someplace where the air ain't half-poison."
No argument. Zinc simply gestured to the door: 'après vous'. Her new employee's arms turned out to be quite useful for shoveling sloshed carousers out of the way.
Once they were outside, Junella sucked in a welcome lungful of night air. It felt like rinsing her guts. She hurried down the steps to the sidewalk, kicking a green bottle out of her way. A prone boozer lunged for it, in case it had a few drops left inside. "If I ever let myself get that mushy, bury me," she instructed her future self under her breath.
Zinc kept up with her. Following behind like a puppy, appropriately enough.
She sniffed. Twice to be sure. Wrinkling her nose, she whipped around. "I thought I was done smellin' that place! But you brought it out with you! If we're gonna work together, your ass is takin' a bath first thing!"
He hunched his shoulders, embarrassed. "Hey, I take a shower whenever it rains."
She was about to crack wise at that, then hesitated. She noticed for the first time that his clothes looked like he hadn't taken them off in a very long time. "...You homeless?"
Zinc didn't reply for a moment. "I got a car," he said, as if that answered the question.
"Huh," was all she could think of to say.
They walked on without words for a block. Above them, the streetlights made their shadows stretch like rubber bands in all directions. The apartment buildings murmured from goings-on inside.
"So, ah... Where we goin'?"
Junella stopped short. She winced, realizing she probably should have mentioned that earlier. She wasn't used to sharing plans with other people. "The Tatterdemalion," she tossed back to him. "Nothing ritzy, but it's better than Tavern. And they got soap there."
"And food!" he was more concerned with. "I been there a few times. Nice joint."
"Good. I won't have to steer you. And I know it's late, but I got an understanding with the management."
"You know the Xenoikos?" He asked, impressed. They were fairly famous in Coryza.
"Sure, sure. I walked in and stopped a robbery once. Drove my steel right through the guy's head. Mia said, 'I could have handled that.' And I said, 'Yeah, but I felt like killin' somebody.' She laughed and bought me a beer."
The mutt cracked up. "That's great, that's great! So. We gonna fuck?"
Junella spun like an arrow and backhanded him so loud she woke up half the winos on the block. "ExCUSE me!?"
Zinc fully expected the slap and showed no reaction to it, not even when his nose bled. "No offense to yer dignity, lady. I'm just askin' for clarification's sake. Just in case this "job" you mentioned was me bein' your gigolo for the night. Which, hey, no complaints if it is."
She felt her temples throb. She had to admit, given the circumstances, it wasn't an unreasonable assumption. Still, she kept a snarl in her voice."Are you fuckin' deadbrained stupid? LOOK!!" She gestured to her crotch like taxiing in a plane. "Nuttin' but smooth down there, jackass!"
He merely regarded her doll-like body with unfazed curiosity. "Darn."
She turned away and stomped off. She let him keep following, but didn't look back. (And also didn't tell him that she could have had something down there if she felt like it, but NOT fucking tonight, thankyouverygoddamnedmuch.)
Neither said anything for several more blocks.
Then Zinc piped up, as if there had been no break in the conversation, "So didja want me to kill somebody then?"
Junella didn't turn around, but she did stop and blink hard. "...Yes, actually. Potentially. Probably." She was cagey, not sure what his reaction would be to this.
It really shouldn't have surprised her that he took it in stride like everything else. "Oh. Yeah, that's usually the other thing."
In the time it took for them to walk to their destination, Coryza raised its walls for the night. Rumbling, crashing clangs rang out across the city like the world's largest churchbells, as eight mammoth panels slotted into place, sealing the citizens in as tight and snug as a dancer in a music box. The nightmares in the desert beyond would find no entrance tonight, no fresh blood to slake their endless thirst. All up and down the tidy, colorful streets, windows opened and lights popped on. Coryza at night was as safe as home.
And the Tatterdemalion itself was cozy as always. Brown brick walls and climbing ivy. Junella was still in a shitty mood, but she had to admit it was nice being able to bed down for the night in a place where you could let your guard down.
They entered. Zinc wiped his bare feet on the doormat and swiveled his head at the whorled wood paneling. He inhaled deeply, a bit stunned. He'd lied about staying here. He'd only passed through long enough to grab a drink. This was well beyond his usual standards.
Lady Mia Xenoiko was at the front desk, even at such a late hour. A living 2D tattoo, she was half housecat, half tiger, and entirely a proper hostess. "Welcome back again, dear Miss Brox. You've been gone all day. Have your efforts borne fruit?"
Junella tilted her hand in a 'kinda sorta' gesture. "They netted me a walking wrung-out fur coat," she sang, hooking her thumb at Zinc. "Gonna need accommodations for this one."
Mia extrapolated that Miss Brox did not intend anything romantic towards her new associate. She also knew of the skunk's financial state, and that a second suite would be an unfeasible suggestion. "I can add a batbed to your current room for a minor handling fee."
A nod. That was fine. Mia never overcharged. "Any mail?" Junella asked, biting her lip and hoping for a 'no'.
Xenoiko checked. "Nothing currently. No updates from Lady Crynight at least."
Junella tried to hide her relief.
The innkeeper clasped her paws. "But you'll have progress to tell her about soon, I'm certain of it. You are exactly the right key to unlock our current entanglement."
A wince. There was a reason Junella didn't usually allow others to have faith in her. Disappointing them felt like swallowing dirt. "We'll see."
Zinc had built up enough courage to approach the large, beautiful, demure, imposing, paradoxical innkeeper. "Hiya."
Her gentle smile did not waver in the slightest as she took in his jumbled appearance. She put out her tiger paw for a shake. "Any companion of Junella Brox is embraced here."
He shook, impressed by her boldness and his new boss' reputation.
"You know about batbeds?" Junella asked him.
"Sure, sure. On the ceiling, right?"
She nodded. At least he wasn't a rube too on top of being a street stray. "I have had a long, ugly day. I am going straight up to bed. Which means you are too. And you're gonna be quiet all night. Understand?" Her iron voice let him know this was not open to negotiation.
He put up his hands in surrender. "No arguments on this end. A cushy mattress? Real blankets and pillows? You couldn't hold me back!"
She poked him in the nose. "Bath first," she growled.
"Ow. Careful with them needles. You could hurt a guy."
"I could," she agreed. She headed for the main staircase and swished her paw through the air, commanding him to follow.
Appreciating every inch of the velvety carpet beneath his tired footpads, Zinc followed.
Lady Xenoiko watched the vinyl skunk and augmented dog wind their way up the stairs and out of sight. She was possessed of many years' experience and insight. She was no detective, but she could follow A to B to C.
If the unfailingly-independent Junella Brox had actually, unbelievably, sought out assistance, then the task she had been recommended for was more dire than appearances already suggested.
All of Coryza might be in danger.