Cedric Cooper, a computer analyst in Nova Scotia, has a monstrous time in an alley as he hurries to catch a train.
No age verification but there’s some scattered f-words and accents.
Cedric Cooper, the last surviving member of his branch of the Cooper clan, never really bothered with thoughts of his mortality. He was still young – thirty-two last April – and more or less healthy enough for a long-term office worker in metropolitan Halifax, the capital city of Nova Scotia, Canada. He ate sort of well, he didn’t smoke, he drank… well, he drank to excess but only really at the office party each year (of which he’d been to nine of, a fact that never failed to surprise him) and he managed to get to the gym once a week. Okay, usually once a week.
There was much about Cedric that was unremarkable. He was smart but no genius; he was a little on the tall side but certainly not remarkably so. He vaguely remembered his parents telling him, when he was small, that he had Inuit blood in him from a couple of generations ago but he’d never faced the discrimination suffered by the indigenous people because he looked, simply put, white. He wasn’t fat so much as filled-out, though he was dimly aware that if he didn’t start going to the gym more often, now that he was in his thirties, that he would probably get fat.
Long hours of being bent over a desk staring at a monitor – he was a computer analyst working for a mortgage company – had left him requiring glasses and they perched, stylish but not designer, on a nose that wasn’t too large and wasn’t too small. His sandy hair was uncoloured and conservatively cut. Only his eyes – a stormy, compelling blue-grey – drew much comment from his peers.
He lived a simple life and he enjoyed it. He liked his boss, he was interested in the work and while several of his coworkers would look better, in his opinion, with ballpoint pens shoved through their eyes, he had no real enemies to speak of. People either liked him or ignored him – usually the latter.
Even the unfortunate business of having to bury both his parents, who had died two months ago in a car accident, had deeply upset him but it hadn’t made him obsess over his own inevitable demise, as he’d heard grief can do to some people. It wasn’t as if he refused to believe he was mortal; those kinds of thoughts just never held much interest to him. He wasn’t religious and contemplating an eternity of no longer existing except as something to keep worms healthy with didn’t make his list of Interesting Things to Do.
Nonetheless he was about to start thinking it – though, of course, he wasn’t aware of that part of his future. In fact the only parts of his future that seemed certain were that he was likely to get a damn cold from the chill in the air as he walked home, hands dug deep into the pockets of his leather jacket, and that he really needed to piss.
Halifax is a grand, rambling city that covers a surprisingly wide area, not only of the bay on which it is centred but the land surrounding. Metropolitan Halifax is only one part of it, the inner core clustered on Halifax Peninsula, with the rest of the urban sprawl wrapped around Halifax Harbour. Radiating out from that are the suburban areas and the much broader rural locales. As with most cities it is layered, like an onion, with buildings and streets and parks and walkways all curving around a dense central point.
Cedric worked within the inner core on Halifax Peninsula. He lived, however, in a suburban district on the mainland and he didn’t own a car; for years now he hadn’t really needed one, being inured as he was to the foibles and idiosyncrasies of inner-city life. It was only about three quarters of an hour from his home in Bedford to the office on Halifax Peninsula by MetroTransit – when the services were running on time – so the luxury of having his own vehicle didn’t seem like a huge sacrifice to make in favour of having more money to save or, as was more often the case, to spend on frivolous crap.
Some days, though, he doubted the wisdom of giving up his car. This was one of those days.
It was October and the wheel of the year was turning inexorably away from Summer. The days weren’t yet the bone-chilling cold of Winter but the change in atmosphere meant more rain and even unseasonably warm days tended to be damp, soggy things that hung around in Life’s hallway and dripped, refusing to hang their coat on the peg or take off their boots because they’ll ‘be leaving in just a bit’.
Cedric’s hair was soaked. Luckily it wasn’t very long – he liked to keep it neat – but the rain ran in rebellious rivulets down the back of his neck no matter how he tied his scarf up. His glasses were all but useless, covered by a spattering of rain drops, and while the ground was mercifully snow-free there was no lack of puddles for him to put his feet in unexpectedly. Cedric did actually own an umbrella but had an unfortunate habit of forgetting it. He could see it in his mind’s eye, hanging from the inside door handle where he put it so he definitely wouldn’t forget it this time, mocking him with its silent umbrellaness. Or umbrellanocity, maybe. He wasn’t sure.
The sun was down and so was his head as he hurried toward the Lacewood Terminal to catch the Bedford line. From what little he could see through his glasses he guessed his watch was telling him that if he didn’t hurry he’d be late for the train but he knew without a doubt that if he tried to run he’d end up on his backside just off the curb. It’s not that he was clumsy, not really – or at least he didn’t think so. It’s just that the ground didn’t play by the same laws of physics that his feet did.
Luckily, a little over eleven years living in Halifax had led to some understanding of the city’s layout, and he remembered a particular alleyway that would shave, he guessed, just enough time off his walk that he’d make the train and maybe even be able to buy a Pepsi from a station vending machine before boarding. He’d have to hustle, though. As best he could.
The insistent push of his bladder irritated him and he decided to rethink the Pepsi.
Most alleys in Halifax were pretty benign places if you happened to be an adult white male which, of course, Cedric was. This particular one was wide and clean, as alleys go, though not terribly well-lit. It sat between a real estate office and a golfing equipment store, both mainstays of middle-class white Western civilisation, so he didn’t particularly expect any trouble. It went straight for a while, curved to the left and then –
Cedric stopped as he turned the corner, staring at the ten-feet high barrier, a wire fence that had been erected across the alley’s width about halfway down the stretch to the street he needed to be on. He blinked a few times but the fence, irascibly, refused to disappear; if anything it seemed to be a little more there, as if it had somehow managed to transcend physics and become more real just in order to make fun of his plight.
The fence hadn’t been there last week. He knew because he’d been running late for a birthday party for his best friend – a gloriously Rubinesque woman with coffee-coloured skin and rich black hair, named Janet by her mother but preferring to go by her middle name, Aurora – and had almost-run down this very alley to make up time. He’d still missed it but by far less than he otherwise would have.
Swearing under his breath slightly he turned back – he wasn’t going to climb the damn fence, not with barbed wire at the top – and took his glasses off to clean them as the rain had, thankfully, stopped. He made sure not to walk while cleaning his glasses just in case the ground did its defying-the-physics-of-his-feet thing it was so very fond of doing.
A slight movement ahead flashed by but Cedric had poor peripheral vision. He didn’t think to look up until he heard a slight grunt – a faint ‘hrrrnk!’ from high up – and felt as much as saw something land in front of him. Whatever it was it had landed so heavily that he’d felt the impact faintly through the blacktop of the alley.
He stared as a huge blurry… thing in front of him.
Cedric’s mind whirled as he tried to process what it was. An animal of some kind? He could see yellowish fur and the thing was on four legs, that was obvious, but there was black fur there as well. Behind the beast he could hear the faint sibilant hiss of escaping air, sort of like a punctured tyre.
“TREMBLE IN FEAR, MORTAL!” The voice was rich and deep, clearly female and carrying a very obvious African accent. “Cower in terror as you witness our majesty!”
Cedric fell over in surprise – literally. He tried to step back reflexively, caught his heel on an unexpected patch of not much and went down, bruising his tail bone rather badly. His hand closed around his glasses which, thankfully, didn’t break on the slick, wet ground.
Whatever it was padded closer. That silken African voice let out a laugh, one that would have been dreadfully attractive if it weren’t busy being just plain dreadful.
“Yes! Fear us, tiny -”
“You know it doesn’t have its glasses on, right?” cut in a second voice. This one was clipped and refined, distinctly English and also female. It could have been reading the news on the BBC and fit in perfectly. “Chances are we look like a rather alarming blob to it. Short-sighted, I’d say. Long-sighted humans don’t wear glasses on outside. Not usually, anyway.”
“But I was all worked up!” the African voice claimed, indignant and (to Cedric’s ears) just a little petulant.
Cedric’s brain started working and he made a quick motion, flicking the arms of his spectacles out and moving to put them on his face. His hands, unfortunately, were still several steps behind and the end of one arm hit him squarely in the left eye. Letting out a yelp he dropped the glasses and put a hand over the bruised orb, his other watering up in sympathy.
“Oooh, that looked nasty,” said a third voice, with surprising sympathy. It was a sensual, velvet drawl from the American South – probably Texas, from what Cedric could tell, but then he hadn’t met many Southerners. “Take your time, sugar, we can wait.” In a more firm voice it added, “We can wait, can’t we, right?”
“Don’t think much of it,” the African voice muttered.
“Hush, right,” the English one chided.
“Well,” the African stated, “I had worked in the line about majesty and everything, it’s annoying to have things go wrong when you’re on a roll.” The huge animal shifted and Cedric vaguely wondered if the owners of the monstrous creature were behind it, or next to it. They sounded very close.
“I… I have money,” he began, wiping his eye and staring up at the blur as the ache began to subside. “You can take my wallet, I won’t tell anyone I saw you!” He reached into his pocket and threw his wallet forward, heard it land on the ground with a thump. “If you take it and go now I won’t even be able to identify you -”
“So we won’t have to hurt you?” The English voice sounded amused. “We don’t want your money, little thing, but it was moderately quick thinking.”
“Money,” the African voice said scornfully, “pathetic mortal stuff.”
“No need to be acerbic, right,” the English voice stated flatly.
“I agree with right,” the Southerner said, and it was only then that Cedric realised the other two voices weren’t saying the word ‘right’ for confirmation or as a mindless sentence filler. They were using it as a name, ‘Right’.
“What do you mean?” the English woman asked mildly.
“Well… it’d be cuter if it worked out a bit more. As it is,” the Southerner added with an unimpressed sniff that went on just a little too long, “I ain’t that impressed.”
It was at that moment that Cedric arguably made a fairly big mistake. Having cleared his eyes of tears – though he knew his left one would be bloodshot for several days – he put his glasses on.
“Hello,” the English voice said convivially and for the first time Cedric got a clear look at who – at what – was speaking.
It was enormous, easily six feet tall at the shoulder. It had a lion’s shape, though it was more muscular and far larger than any cat, and the claws on its front paws slid out to scrape threateningly at the alley road. The broad shoulders supported not one, but two heads. One was the grand, heavy-jawed head of a great lioness with bright amber eyes and long, vicious teeth that it displayed between its lips, black-lined and drawn back in a challenging snarl. When it growled Cedric could feel it through the ground, feel it in his bones.
The other was a black-furred goat’s neck and head. Alien goat’s eyes – a disquieting yellow-green clearly showing their horizontally-slitted pupils – stared down at him with clear interest and two sets of long, curving black horns rose from its forehead, sweeping backward and around. Its tangled beard, ragged on its chin, bobbed and waggled as it chewed some nameless cud in a way that would have been actively humorous to Cedric if he hadn’t had a giant monstrous thing looming over him.
It was bipartisan, this creature, and he saw now that only its front half resembled a lion. The tawny fur gave way to glossy black hairs at its waist, the hindquarters the sturdy shape of an ungulant. Its rear feet were cloven hooves a deep yellow-black shade.
And its tail…
Emerging from the rump of the monster – Cedric was sure the word ‘monster’ fit, now – was not a tail but a thick snake, adorned with gleaming scales that began a shining black and lightened to a sandy yellow at the tip – which, of course, was its head. It arced over the beast’s back to peer at the man, long tongue flickering out to taste the air as its lidless eyes observed him from underneath triangular pointed scaled. It looked like a horned viper and some part of him instinctively knew that if it bit him he would deeply – if briefly – regret it.
This looming impossibility crowded Cedric’s head as his mind tried to simultaneously reject the thing’s existence and to find a logical explanation for it at the same time.
And that is the point in time when Cedric Cooper began to contemplate, very rapidly, his own mortality.
“TREMBLE IN FEAR, MORTAL,” the lion’s head roared, its African accent deep and rich, “cower in terror as -”
“You’ve done that part, Right,” the goat’s head pointed out, its accent precise and English. The lion’s head was indeed on the creature’s right while the goat’s was on its left.
“Don’t spoil the fun, Left,” the snake’s head scolded gently in its charming Southern drawl.
There was the sound like a very small hose and a sharp, unpleasant odour. Suddenly Cedric didn’t need to go to the bathroom any more.
“It wet itself!” Right said, sounding delighted.
“Eurgh,” Left opined, wrinkling its goatish muzzle up in distaste.
“At least you don’t smell with your tongue,” the snake-head quipped, though it still sounded more amused than anything.
While this was going on Cedric’s mind, half-frozen with fear, desperately struggled to work. He had to think his way out of this. There was no way he’d be able to fight the thing off, it was a huge thing of corded muscle and, it seemed, inherent bickering. The only thing he could think of was the scene in The Hobbit where Gandalf kept the three trolls arguing. Cedric doubted very much that this beast would turn to stone in the sunlight which, in any case, was hours away.
“We’ll claw the clothes off if you’re squeamish,” Right growled, and Left tilted slightly as if considering this. Then it nodded. “Tail?” the leonine head asked shortly.
“Hey, fine by me, sugar.”
“Right,” said Right, and moved to step forward.
“Wait!” cried Cedric and then, pulling the first thing out of the very shaky memories of mythology he’d gained from watching old movies, he sat up and said, “What, um, what has four legs in the, um, morning, three in the afternoon and, um, two in the evening?”
There was a long pause.
“Do we look like a damn sphinx to you?” Right snarled. “Really? A sphinx?”
“Tch tch tch,” Left said regretfully, “what are they teaching kids in schools this century? Anyway, you got the riddle wrong. It goes four in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening.”
“We’re no Egyptian half-breed,” Right glowered disdainfully, “we are the daughter of great Echidna! We are Chimera!”
The word sounded vaguely familiar to Cedric and the way the African inflection rounded the word out was almost poetic on the tongue – ‘keh-MEER-ah’. The beast stood proudly, the snake rearing up into a sinuous posture, the goat-head tossing her horns and the lioness bearing her teeth in what might have been a smile, though not a particularly pleasant one.
“Isn’t that a type of car?”
“What?” Right asked, suddenly uncertain, flicking an ear and looking over at Left quizzically. The goat-head said nothing but raised an eyebrow in confusion. Only Tail understood, shaking her head from side to side like a cobra rising from a charmer’s basket.
“No, honey,” she said with a hissing sigh, “Chimera. Keh-MEER-ah. Not Camaro.”
“First a sphinx and now a Chevrolet?” Left asked, slightly agog. “These comparisons are getting worse. Though I did eat a lovely Chevrolet once.”
“Haven’t you studied?” Right growled. If her tail weren’t a snake, Cedric suspected, she’d be lashing it from side to side. “Haven’t you at least been to a museum or a gallery? There are plenty of Grecian vases with our faces on them -”
“Not that any of them are any good,” Left added in sourly. “Terrible at foreshortening, kept making me look like I was coming out of our back. And they kept making our body entirely leonine -”
“I got missed out completely half the time,” Tail sniffed. “Me! Pretty, sinuous, sensual me!”
“I thought they did your horns nicely,” Right offered to Left.
“Oh, really?” Left looked pleased. “Well, even though they insisted on giving you a mane I felt they got your profile magnificently.”
Cedric watched as they talked and then, somewhat belatedly, realised that now would be a good time to not be present. Carefully he edged to his left, hoping to get around the creature while it was distracted. The finer points on ancient Greek pottery were lost on him anyway.
Without warning a bolt of brilliant fire streaked across the ground in front of him, making the asphalt bubble and melt. The stink of it was abominable. Cedric looked around to see wisps of smoke and flame jut from the lion’s muzzle as Right stared balefully at him. All three heads were watching him, now, eyes narrowed. Well, Tail’s eyes probably would be narrowed if she had eyelids but Cedric got the feeling that she wasn’t impressed.
“Don’t go anywhere, little human thing,” Right growled, “we aren’t done eating you yet.”
“We would be if you didn’t play with our food so much,” Left complained. She leaned out as far as she could and, closing her thick, flat, yellow teeth around the rim of a steel trash can, tore a piece of it off.
“What about this vegetarian craze that’s been sweeping the planet this last half-century or so?” Tail asked, and Right lolled her head to the side and let out a tired groan.
“Enough! Enough of the vegetarian thing, we’re a carnivore!” she stated.
“You speak for yourself,” Left butted in, chewing the strip of trash can with a sound like a cross between a roller door and a car crusher. “I consider myself more a can-ivore.” When the other two heads didn’t respond she swallowed the piece of metal and said, “I said, I consider myself to -”
“We heard,” stated Right and Tail in unison, in a tone that made it clear that they’d heard it many times before, that it wasn’t funny the first time and that it wasn’t getting any funnier through repetition.
“Hmmph.” Left looked offended and the monster’s back half sank into a sitting position. Tail’s head was now several feet lower but she could still look Cedric in the eye. With a grumble Left stretched out to tear off another strip of trash can.
“Y’know, it’s hard to believe you ain’t heard of us, sugar,” Tail mused. Her tongue flickered in and out even as she spoke, tasting the air, exploring the world around her. “We’ve been around a long time.”
Cedric shook his head. “S-sorry. State f-f-funded education,” he stammered.
“Lemme guess, art teacher kept goin’ on about ‘post-Modernism’?” Tail sighed heavily – as heavily as a snake can sigh, anyway. “What about old stories? Bellerophon right a bell?”
“Bellerophon,” Right growled, a deep and low sound full of undying hatred.
“N-no,” Cedric admitted.
Tail tilted her head. “Fair enough. Had a horse with big flappy wings. In what you’d call the Middle Ages artists started painting Perseus as the tamer of Pegasus but it was actually Bellerophon.” She sniffed again. “Stupid little bastard killed us way back when.”
Cedric opened his mouth and then shut it. Finally he cautiously said, “But… you’re… not dead.”
“Goodness,” Left said sourly, “thanks ever so for that little bit of information. We might not have noticed otherwise.”
“We are immortal, little human,” Right rumbled. “Even if killed we eventually come back into being.”
Tail nodded. “That’s right. Doesn’t hurt to be cautious, though. We’re legendary, and legends tend to follow patterns. There’s a place in the States called Bel Air. We’re avoiding it just in case.”
“And now your time has come, mortal!” roared Right, triumphantly, eager not to be drawn into a discussion about ancient heroes and let their prey escape. She laughed cruelly as Cedric scrambled backward and he let out a scream as the beast crouched and tensed, paws testing the ground before the great cat’s jaws opened wide and then it sprang –
Or, at least, the front half did.
The back half remained resolutely where it was, causing Chimera’s front paws to splay out in an ungainly manner as the leonine from half of the thing’s body fell with a thump to the ground. Right’s lower jaw bumped heavily on the ground and she let out a yowl of pain; Left’s head jerked downward but her expression didn’t change. She simply chewed her jagged strip of metal as if it were an interesting delicacy that took up all of her concentration.
“Wha’ did you do tha’ thor?” Right asked in a plaintive and hurt tone, blood dripping from her long pink tongue where she’d bitten it. She pulled their front half back upright, ears back and head down like a chided kitten.
“Oh, I have no idea,” Left said in the bright, too polite tone of someone who knows damn well what they’ve done and isn’t in the least bit sorry.
“Looked pretty funny from where I’m at,” Tail commented.
Right’s head dipped a little more. “It wath mean! I don’ wan’ go hungry thonigh’ and now I bi’ my thongue…”
“Terribly sorry, don’t know what came over me,” Left added nastily.
“Oh, be nice,” Tail urged. “Look, get up an’ let ‘er have this little one, then as a treat we’ll get whatever you want tomorrow night, okay?”
“Oooh.” The back half came up. “All right, deal.”
“We can get Mexthican if you like,” Right nodded, lifting her head and looking happier. The way Right said it didn’t give the impression that she was talking about Mexican food. “You like Mexthican, right?”
Left nodded, grinning bashfully. “It’s my favourite, yes.”
“That’s only because you ain’t back here,” Tail commented sourly, apparently regretting her suggestion. “And ‘cause you don’t smell with your tongue.”
“Very well, that’s settled,” Left stated, completely ignoring Tail. “Right, as you were.”
“Right!” said Right. “And now, human, your time ith – where did the bathtard go?”
Chimera turned around twice, her three heads peering around independently. The human was nowhere to be seen.
“Well,” Left said roundly, “bother.”
Cedric ran as fast as his legs would take him. He fell over more than once but he didn’t care and each time he got up, knees battered and scraped, toes aching (and one of them possibly broken), the heels of his hands raw and studded with gravel. By the time he reached the train station his pants were splattered with mud, his glasses were askew and his hands and knees so torn up that he smelled as much of blood as he did of urine.
The ragged-looking rain-splashed man ran onto the first train he found and sat down heavily next to a woman in bright blue gym gear. She got up and moved several seats down, wrinkling her nose in disgust and fear.
He didn’t care. He pulled out his phone and let out an audible, shaky laugh as he found he still had it and that his stumbling run from the alley hadn’t broken it. Cedric unlocked his phone and brought up Aurora’s number. He knew she’d answer her phone if he called but he didn’t yet trust himself to speak so instead he typed in a quick message and sent it off.
Rora, it said, fancy moving to Bel Air?
© Scott Thornby, 2013