Josh of the Damned Triple Feature #2: The Final Checkout
Josh Caplan thought he’d solved his home office problem and stopped the Quik-Mart Corporation from expanding into hell, but it turns out a guardian’s work is never done. Medusa has plans for him, and she’s not the only one.
What's a poor night clerk to do when he’s besieged on all sides by deluded vampire slayers, angry zombies, crazy gods, and the most terrifying enemy of all: a dickish CEO?
To survive this, Josh will have to do more than just rely on his necromancer boss, his hot vampire boyfriend, and his yeti stalker. This time, he’ll have to find his own inner hero to save the day.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Clerk of the Living Dead
There was an odd sort of comfort in just not worrying that you were about to die. Well, sort of.
Josh went home in the morning, certain he’d get a phone call about not bothering to come in for work tonight, that his last check would be mailed to him, but he was so unconcerned about it all that he just brushed his teeth and went to bed. So this was the end of his short career at the Quik-Mart—so what? There were plenty more low-income, no-hope jobs in the sea. Besides, he couldn’t have let those company guys through the portal, or reality would have imploded and everyone would have been killed. He’d picked the lesser of two evils.
When he woke up to find Doug on the couch, smoking a bowl and watching American Dad, his roommate told him there’d been no calls for him. Weird. Did it really take that long to get a message back to the home office? Or were they up to something? Since the portal didn’t open until nightfall, the home office was limited in what they could do during the day. He was sure this was some mix-up, but he got dressed and headed to the bus stop anyway.
Cindy, the early evening clerk, was finishing her shift when he showed up, and the Quik-Mart looked the same as always. She had no message for him, so he started working as normal, wondering if they were going to fire him mid-shift. Or maybe they’d be coming back with more guys this time? Not that it would help them. Bobo could probably crush the entire army, and with Colin helping, he could do it in half the time.
Colin showed up with the first lizard customer of the evening, although they weren’t together (well, as far as he could tell). Colin had a weird look on his face, one Josh figured was either worry or an upset stomach. Did vampires get indigestion?
Colin came up to the counter and pulled something out from his coat. It looked kind of like an iPad, only it was way thinner, black, and when Colin gave it to him, Josh discovered it was lighter than most paperbacks. Whoa, was there an Apple iHell now? “This some new kind of tablet?”
Colin shrugged and shook his head, sending a mixed message. “Medusa wanted to talk to you.” His expression was grave.
“So, what? This a new way to knock me out?” As Josh inspected the tablet for some hidden Taser nodes, the screen popped to life, and even though it was riddled with interference lines, he could see the brass figure of Medusa sitting behind her desk, wearing those same glasses as before, her hair rippling around her like it was caught in its own private windstorm, her lips so red it made her mouth look bloody. Her suit today looked to be an almost violent blue.
“Colin told me what an excellent job you did yesterday,” she said, her voice coming out staticky, but clear enough that the lizard in the chip aisle jumped and almost dropped his bag of Ruffles. So they all knew what she sounded like, huh? Maybe she broadcasted end-of-year messages, like the Queen or Lady Gaga.
“Um, oh. Well, he deserves credit, too. Him and Bobo. The Quik-Mart guys would have ignored me if they hadn’t been there.”
She smiled, but it seemed predatory. Her lipstick probably wasn’t helping. “Everybody received their due credit. As it is, Josh, I could use an agent who can work in your dimension regardless of whether the vortex is open or not. I’d say you passed the first test with flying colors.”
“Um, huh?” He kind of knew what she was saying, but he couldn’t quite believe it. Was this whole thing—from Medusa tasking him to stop the home office, to the stupid parking lot battle—a test?
“How would you like to work for me?”
Josh looked at Colin, but he stared back blankly, his expression giving nothing away. “Umm . . . do I have a choice?”
Her grin grew wide enough that it nearly threatened to split her face in half, and her snakes quivered like they were waving goodbye. Or laughing at him. “What do you think?”
Oh shit. Not until this moment had the job of burger flipper ever seemed so damn good.
“What exactly is it you expect me to do?” Josh asked, shooting Colin a questioning look. The vampire’s expression remained caught somewhere between numb and grimly determined, with emphasis on the grim.
Medusa continued to smile like this was all a big lark, but it felt like having a shark grin at you and try to sell you Amway. “Nothing really. Just be my eyes and ears in your world when Colin or another one of my people can’t be there.”
“Umm . . . it can’t be that simple.”
Medusa chuckled in a way that was just a bit menacing. “No, it can’t be, can it? You’re a quick study. But don’t worry, I won’t ever expect you to do anything contrary to your moral code or to the wellbeing of your species as a whole. And there are perks. I’m sure Colin will tell you all about them.” She pressed a button on her desk, and the picture winked out like an old television signal.
“I’m sorry, Josh,” Colin said, putting the tablet back in his coat. “I tried to talk her out of it, but when she sets her mind to something, you can’t really dissuade her.”
“What, you can’t talk the crazy snake-haired god out of doing something? You’re just not trying.”
Colin let out a small, weary sigh. “As long as you understand.”
“So what are these perks? Do you have a million-dollar check in your pocket?”
“If I did, why would I give it to you? No, what I have right now is this.” He pulled what looked like a gold bracelet out of his pocket, one patterned like overlapping snake scales, or Medusa’s skin. (The same thing?)
“A wrist cuff. It’s meant to protect you.”
“How? I mean, if there were two, maybe I could deflect bullets like Wonder Woman, but I don’t see one helping me much. Unless it’s real gold. Is it? I hear you can sell that for a lot of money.”
Colin frowned at him. “Would you just hold out your hand, please?”
Reluctantly, Josh did, and Colin opened the bracelet and slid it under his right wrist.
Josh yelped and jumped backwards as the bracelet curled itself around his wrist. But it wasn’t like he could detach from his arm, although right now he desperately wanted to. The cuff was kind of warm, but it definitely felt like metal against his skin when it coiled and tightened. Then it stopped, flattened out a bit, and turned a slightly darker color, like burnished copper. With reluctance, Josh tapped it, but it felt like a regular metal wrist cuff with an intricate snake scale pattern, save for the center, where there was an outline of an octopus for some reason.
“What the hell is this? Is it alive?”
That was reassuring. Colin would make a hideous crisis counselor. “Not really? What do you mean, not really? It either is or it isn’t.”
Colin bit his lower lip, which made Josh even more nervous than he already was. “Not always. It’s impregnated with some of Medusa’s energy.”
“Eww. That sounds disgusting.”
“Yeah, in retrospect it kind of does. But it’s not. It will protect you when I’m not around.”
Josh rolled his eyes, a bit torn on how he felt about this. He wasn’t helpless. Then again, he was only human, and he was surrounded by a lot of fucking weird monsters. “What have I said about not needing to be protected?” Even though, to be fair, he kind of did need to be protected, but admitting it was so embarrassing. He didn’t want to seem like a total pussy in front of his vampire boyfriend.
“You need to take this seriously,” Colin said, giving him his most stern look. It sort of hinted at how goddamned old he actually was. “Medusa thinks things will probably get worse before they get better, and I’m inclined to agree with her.”
“What does that mean? Are you sayin’ these guys are gonna try again?”
“Would the home office give up that easy?”
Good question. Josh wished he knew the answer. “I dunno. I guess not. But what can they do? They’re only humans.”
Damn it, Colin was still giving him that look! “Aren’t you forgetting something? They were prepared for werewolves, and they thought they could handle me. Your boss is a necromancer. You have to stop assuming only you know of the rift.”
“So Mr. Kwon and I aren’t so special anymore?”
“No, you are, but with smartphones and all the other shit around nowadays, not everything can be counteracted. Some evidence of the portal is going to surface someday. And Mr. Kwon is hardly the only necromancer in the world. Just because the home office is human doesn’t mean they won’t play dirty.”
“Oh hell, man, I know that. I went to high school.”
Now Colin just looked confused, which was adorable.
The lizard bustled up with his armload of chips. He kept casting sidelong glances at Colin, and at the wrist cuff. Josh hardly even felt the bracelet anymore, but the lizard guy kept well away from it. As soon as he was gone, Josh asked Colin, “Can you ever, like, stay here a day?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you have to go back to your universe every night? Or could you like hang out for a while?”
Colin leaned against the counter, giving Josh a look, equal parts curious and flirtatious. “Why?”
“’Cause next weekend, Doug’s going to Minnesota, I think for a family wedding or something, and I’m gonna have the place all to myself. We could have a sleepover— Wait, do you sleep? I mean, I wasn’t trying to offend you . . .”
“I sleep,” Colin assured him. “And I could probably last one day.”
Josh considered the many possible replies before settling on, “Last a day . . .?”
“Remember what I said about your reality rejecting us? The longer we stay in it, the more it hurts. It’s why no vampires have ever set up shop here, and why the zombies and the werewolves wander home when it would be easier to just stay here. It’s like a . . . an invisible pressure. You kind of notice it at first, but then you get accustomed to it. And then it feels like your skin is trying to crawl off, and you get these weird aches, which is really startling because when you’ve been a vampire for a while, you kind of forget what pain feels like. It gets exponentially worse, until you want to rip your own flesh off. I figure, from past experience, that I can take a day, but after that it’ll be too much.”
“Oh. Okay.” Josh almost wanted to take back the invitation. He’d had no idea it was so awful for Colin. “Hey, does that mean you’ve tried to stay here before?”
Colin’s smile was sheepish, but still somehow proud. “Of course I did. That’s like the first thing you do once you’re through the portal. Then you find out this isn’t your world anymore, and this world isn’t designed for us.”
“Does that mean, like, there’s something running things? Like a higher power or whatever?”
Colin stared at him a moment before answering. “Medusa’s a god.”
He hadn't been sure about that. He’d Googled Medusa, but after weeding out the metal bands, he’d found a lot of contradictory stuff. About all they agreed on was she had snakes for hair and was hideously ugly (which he knew wasn’t true). “Oh, is she? I wasn’t sure about that. So, do we have a god?”
Colin shrugged. “I have no idea. But I don’t think gods are what you think they are.”
“What do you mean?”
“Medusa doesn’t control the entire universe. She doesn’t guide our destinies. Why would she? We’re like ants to her. If there is a human god, I imagine it would be the same way.”
He’d never been super religious, nor had his family, but this was so weird to contemplate. “Yeah, I guess.” This brought to mind an image of Earth as a big ant farm and some kind of deity looming over them like a creepy little kid. Man, he didn’t want to think about that too long. Growing up, he knew this neighborhood kid who would spend hours burning ants with his grandfather’s reading glasses on sunny days. Gods didn’t have glasses, did they? “But doesn’t Medusa keep all the monsters from being extra aggressive on this side? Isn’t that micromanaging?”
“No, it’s ruling through fear, which is different.” Then Colin kissed him, softly and surprisingly, on the cheek.
“What was that for?” He looked around nervously before stopping himself. It was a weird reflex.
“For not being angrier at me for the whole thing.”
“Who says I’m not angry?” Josh countered, then sighed in defeat. “Hey, you were under orders. I don’t like it, but I get it. Still, I expect you to make it up to me.”
Colin made a show of thinking about it before smiling slyly. “You know, being bitten can have different effects, depending on where you’re bitten.”
“Really?” Being bitten by a vampire was awesome, and Josh’s mind boggled at the possibilities. “And you’re only telling me this now?”
“I was saving it for a special occasion.”
“You little tease.”
Colin just grinned as he backed toward the door, giving Josh a beauty queen wave. “Wait for me, I’ll be back before you’re off shift.”
“Beat the bus, or your blue balls are your problem.”
Colin didn’t look too distressed as he walked out.
After Colin left, Josh studied his new fashion accessory. It was a manly wrist cuff, at least there was that, but as he looked at it, he realized there was no hinge or catch. He couldn’t take it off? It was too small to slide off. Huh. He was going to have to ask Colin about this. Was he permanently branded Medusa’s bitch? He better not be.
The next customer in was a zombie, and the zombie looked at his wrist cuff too, so intently that one of his eyeballs drooped out of the socket. Did that mean they recognized the symbol on the cuff, or the object itself? He couldn’t ask a zombie, as they didn’t talk, or at least he couldn’t translate their grunts in any meaningful way. Come to think of it, he couldn’t ask a lizard guy either, because he didn’t understand their language. So who could he ask? Damn it, he was going to have to hope for a vampire to show up.
To prove his life was just one irony after another, it suddenly went dead, and he had no customers at all. He put on a CD and started to read the local paper, but lasted two minutes before remembering why he didn’t read the newspaper anymore. It didn’t help that he instantly stumbled upon the fact that there had been a rash of robberies in the area, all affecting convenience and liquor stores. Shit, he so didn’t need to know that. Although it would break up the boredom, as long as Colin or Bobo showed up to rescue him from a pistol whipping. Once in a lifetime was more than enough.
He opened a Snickers and had switched to a gossip rag when a customer finally came in, only it wasn’t a lizard or a zombie—it was a weirdo.
Or really, just a guy who looked a bit like Silent Bob. He was kind of short, chunky, with long, shoulder-length brown hair and a scraggly beard that covered his neck and brushed the top of his torso. His wardrobe was all black: a black duster, a black leather cowboy hat, and a bandolier across his chest that wasn’t holding bullets but . . . what the hell were they? They looked like vials.
“Where are they?” the weirdo asked, his eyes aglow with what could only be craziness. Josh thought of the robber, but supposedly he was a guy in a sweatshirt and a ball cap who wore a bandana on his face. Not exactly flamboyant, but maybe his methods had changed.
He eyed the weirdo warily. “Where are who?”
“Huh?” He wasn’t pretending to be shocked; he was genuinely surprised anyone was asking.
“According to Art Bull, this is a supernatural hotspot.”
The name meant nothing to Josh, and he wondered if this was some kind of joke. “Art Bull? Is that, like, an improv group or something?”
The guy scowled at him. “No, he’s a podcaster. He used to be on radio, before he got too real for the Paranoid America crowd.”
“Really? I thought they made most of that stuff up.”
The guy glared at him like Josh had just told him to go fuck his mother with his stupid hat. “Why are you protecting them? Are you in on it?”
Suddenly, Josh wished the guy was here to rob him. “Dude, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Now, are you here to buy something or did you just come here to be crazy?”
“I’m not crazy,” the crazy guy insisted. “I’m Kevin the Vampire Slayer.”
I absolutely adore this series...a comedy of fun that has left me laughing until I cry.... [S]ettle in for one hell raising adventure from start to finish.
[A]bsolutely cracked me up . . .
[F]unny as hell and yet, still contains a lot of heart . . . [D]on’t pass The Final Checkout and this series up.