The Flatulent Adventures of Dr Stench
and
the DC Underground
Writings


Dr Jonathan Stench hasn’t had it easy ever since he was left for dead in the sewers of Washington DC.  Now, his precious girl…the love of his life… has been seized by a tumorous brain named Rymnail, and he must work to uncover the secrets between her abduction and the disappearance of the Smithsonian's ancient crystal skulls, before its too late.  What he doesn't realize is that even with the help of four young Indigo Children and a deck of Tarot cards, he may not succeed.

Querus Abuttu
is a writer with an education and professional background in forensics, criminal justice, public health and fiction writing.  She writes whenever and wherever she can, and when she can't ....she dreams.

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NOTE TO THE READERS:

The following is simply a rough draft sample of the novel in its gestation cycle.  Enjoy! Feel free to provide any feedback to the author, if you take time to read a smattering.  Feedback is always appreciated whether positive or critically constructive in nature.  Stryker saws to my writing fingers, however, may be a bit excessive so please refrain.

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Prologue

 

“There are times when silence has the loudest voice”

~ Leroy Brownlow

 

 

Washington DC 1849

 

"I told you not to do it yet!" Horto hissed.

            The man’s hands jutted out from the edges his crimson shirtsleeves, and were clenched in irritation. Horto’s charcoal pants, faded with wear, sported holes at the knees and the bottoms showed his ankles. He was abnormally tall. There were few clothes that fit him. The sight might have been comical, except that the man’s stare was like a piercing dagger. And the object of that stare was his younger brother, Grego, who stood fidgeting next to the coffin.

            Grego released the iron handle from his sweaty grip, reacting as if it was covered with porcupine quills. He made a quick step backwards. Thunk! The smooth black metal fell with a firm bang against the coffin. He cringed inwardly as it hit, and chose to retreat from the stare he knew would greet him. His eyes found his pants and then his feet. The soft brown cloth of his trousers bore recent stains from the cemetery’s red clay. The stains would never come out. Mother Nature was too good at coloring fabric and she took pride in making a lasting mark. A deep scuff on the right toe of Grego's black leather shoe held his attention, and he hoped to squelch his nervousness and suppress his grief by staring at it. Reaching up, he pulled the brim of his hat over his face, keeping his eyes glued to the blight he’d discovered, secretly wishing the move would make him disappear. It didn’t.

The burial ceremony would soon be over. It was in to the wee hours of morning, and the cemetery was a creepy place to be in the dark. It wasn’t far from the river, although the hills here were steep and filled with the scent of rotting leaves and old oaks. The Harvest moonlight made it easier to see, but he would much rather be back at his wagon. Next to his wife. Warm in his bed. Away from Grego.      

Surrounding marble headstones, bearing prominent names of families in the area, made it clear that the gypsies didn’t belong here. It was a good thing Mr Renwick promised their Queen that her dauther would rest in this spot forever. The famous architect planned to build a church over her body. A beautiful church with stained glass and such. A lasting monument to his secret love. It was the perfect place, although no one could ever know she was there.

Two other men shuffled their feet nearby, but didn't dare say a word. Queen Vadoma would split their hides if they ruined the moment. Neither of them would deliberately spoil it. Farewells were seldom easy among their people, but this farewell took a toll on their wandering spirits. To see their Princess hidden in a wooden case for eternity was not only unbearable, but inconceivable. In life, she'd been as bright as the fiercest sunlight--her voice infused with musical laughter. They had all been in love with her. Even now they loved her.

It was just as unbearable to see their Queen torn with grief, and yet oddly satisfying to see the flames of revenge seethe inside the woman.

            This much was true. None of THEM would want to be the soul that caused the Princess harm. Such a soul would be destined to suffer torment for all eternity. Such a soul would never rest till its debt of pain was paid. Each of the men had no doubt Queen Vodoma would see to that. A chill shook each of their bones with the thought.

            The moon, still visible high above, began to fade against the dawning sky. Beneath an old oak, where Queen Vadoma sat, a mournful tune rose from her throat and erupted into the air. A young toddler, a girl with soft auburn curls, lay sleeping soundly near the old Gypsy. She remained undisturbed by the Queen’s haunting voice. The child, exhausted from crying for her mother, was sound asleep.

            The Queen's voice spiraled up higher into the sky and plunged into the air of the waning night. She sang words that urged her daughter's spirit into the afterlife, and after a few long moments the Queen's voice fell silent. At the end of her song, the men stretched their hands uncertainly towards the box. Dark red dust clung to the four of them and cast a shadowy appearance across the sweat on their skin and their tattered clothing.

            "Stop!" Queen Vadoma’s commanded. The men looked at each other, confused, and backed away. A thoughtful frown crossed the old woman’s face. "Wait.”

            She covered the toddler with a patchwork quilt, shifted her weight and pushed her crooked body upright. Hobbling towards the container that held her daughter, she reached out with gnarled fingers and traced over the fine symbols carved throughout the walnut wood. She slid the top of the polished lid to the side with some effort and made a grim face as her child’s body was exposed.

            The pale and lifeless face of her firstborn greeted her. Her daughter's corpse had been prepared according to ancient gypsy tradition. Spells and curses were in place, meant to protect her soul against spiritual assaults. But the Queen still had one more protection and curse to add. Reaching into a black velvet purse, decorated with silk symbols of ancient runes, the Gypsy Queen’s fingers closed around a small cold item. She pulled it free from the fabric but guarded it from the view of the others. For a brief moment, the smooth surface of the item reflected brightly in the moonlight as the Sinti Monarch held it against her palm. Carefully, she placed the object into the stiffened hands of the deceased girl, then closed her fingers around them.

            "For you, my chey." She breathed the words against the cold edge of the body’s ear. "May it watch over you, and protect your spirit from harm.”

            Queen Vadoma plucked a few long dark hairs from the head of her daughter’s corpse, then reached down and grabbed two fistfuls of red earth from the burial site. Her mouth worked vigorously to concentrate saliva onto her tongue, then she spit upon the dirt and rubbed the sputum into the soil between her palms, mixing it with strands of the dead girl’s hair. As she did this, she chanted:


    "Till all comes round, comes right, comes true.

    The underground shall follow you.

    The one now cursed who took your life,

    shall find his world engulfed with strife

    and parts and pieces of souls who die,

    who suffer vandal or suicide

    shall spring eternal till you find peace

    and guard your form without surcease.

    Thus the watchful eye now grasped

    by ardent enemy of the asp

    will set to right the wrongs entombed

    and grant revenge within the womb."

 

            When the old gypsy finished, she scattered the mixture in four directions, placed a pinch of it inside the coffin and then wrapped the rest inside a small cloth. "A gift for the Tiber,” the Queen muttered.

            With the ceremony at an end, Queen Vadoma bent over her daughter one final time and whispered parting words to the deceased in a language so ancient not even those around her would have understood. It was not English. It was not Sinti. It was a language long dead for many years.

            A soft glow shimmered over the body, and sank down into the contents of the coffin covering it like a handmade blanket. Pulling the lid closed, the Queen nodded to the group of men. They gathered around their Princess, and with roughened hands worked together to lift the wood box up over the gaping grave. Then they solemnly lowered it into the recesses of the tomb, which was lined with concrete and stone after their digging. They still had more work to do, to seal the top with more of the same material.

            Not one of them spoke a word. The blood red sun creeping over the horizon said enough.

 

 




Chapter 1: Run a Monk

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
~Lao Tzu


Washington DC  1870

Hermit

 

            Hermit was going to be late. A knot settled into the pit of his stomach at the thought. He couldn’t afford to be late. The world would never forgive him if he missed this event. And he would never forgive himself.

            Looking back at the hole in the earth, from which he'd emerged, he saw two golden eyes staring out at him. Blue and gold scales of a fish tail, framed against the opening of a small cave, and immersed in a little creek emerging from it, sparkled in the rays of the evening sun. The fish, named Kira, wagged her posterior back and forth biding him a successful journey. It was warm for the end of October, and on this day, the 31st to be exact; the air was balmy, and filled with the earthy scent of withering leaves and falling acorns.

           "I'll be back soon." he reassured the fish.

            Kira was his best friend--his confidant and closest ally. With a return wave in her direction, Hermit adjusted his robe and trod down from the hill, to a road that followed the slow moving creek and journeyed towards the inner city. The sun, sinking low behind rows of old oaks, helped obscure the path in the dimming daylight. Dry brown weeds and clods of dirt mixed with horse manure made it difficult for Hermit to navigate. It didn't help that the tallest he could make his own body was two feet high.

            If Hermit were placed side by side with an average sized Whole One, he would barely come to up to their knees. This fact was part of what made the terrain challenging. That, and his footwear. He looked down and sighed. Rope sandals were not meant for traveling such countryside.

                Drat these short legs and little stubby feet!

                "Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha". Hermit chose a mantra meant to dispel obstacles, and repeated the phrase over and over. The words, softly spoken, sounded like wheat grains caressed by an evening breeze. Hermit tried to move his little legs faster. The fiery red orb was slipping down towards the horizon. If he weren’t quick enough, the event would happen without him. It was imperative he didn't miss it. It was a matter of life and death.

            Maybe one of my black brothers will take pity on me and fly me the rest of the way.

            Hermit’s eyes scanned the skies as he continued to chant, fervently hoping he would there in time.

 

II

Jacob

            In his dressing room, located in the basement of the theatre, Jacob stared at his reflection in the mirror; then took another large swig of Vin Mariani. The wine was laced heavily with what Washington locals euphemistically called The White Demon. Its bitter aftertaste made him shudder. He couldn’t recall if this was his second or his third bottle tonight. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was an actor. What mattered was that he needed to be ready to step out onto the stage and play his lead role as Wilford in The Iron Chest. He was at the National Theater no less!  He had to show them---no--he had to show HER--- he could do it!  He was glad he’d decided to spend the night here and practice his part.

            Jacob opened his mouth and gargled his lines:


            "Heap circumstance upon me and multiply

            charge upon charge ;

            Pile seeming fact on fact,

            still I maintain my innocence.

            Look at me!"

 

            In one wild motion Jacob swung his arms wide, but suddenly lost his balance and staggered forward. He paused in a funny crooked stance and tried not to fall. It was difficult because his brain was whirling and his vision was blurry.

He shook his head.

Get a grip! He thought. You finally have a lead role!

And he should be happy to have landed it. Instead, he found he remained obsessed with the fact that he had a perfect, youthful, baby face. It was the face of a teenager. The kind of face that wooed young girls to their knees and caused them to chase him with arduous desperation. The kind of face women sought to know the front of, but never bothered to learn what was on the inside.

Jacob thought about his face. He was sick of seeing it reflected in the mirror; sick of the baggage that came with the face. Despite his twenty-four years, his physical features left him largely unsuitable to play robust male roles. To add to the embarrassment, not a day would go by when someone in the audience, or at a public place in town, would say something coy, or tease him about his boyish good looks.

            What tormented Jacob most was the knowledge that the woman he loved, a half-gypsy named Nadya, avoided him simply because of his face.

            My pretty-boy face. His hands went to his cheeks.

            Jacob couldn't blame her. How could a girl say she was with a man when she was with someone who looked like him?  He thought of the scent of her auburn tresses and the joy of gazing into her cool lavender eyes. Jacob's mind drifted back to the day he'd finally worked up the nerve to ask Nadya to share an evening with him out on the town. He’d walked up to her and started to introduce himself, when that damned Frank Bancroft came out of nowhere and swept her away from him. He'd taken the girl right out from under his nose. The bastard was the epitome of masculine, with his well-muscled body and penchant for sports. He was the complete antithesis of Jacob’s own slender physique.

            Took her right out from under my nose. My nose!

            Jacob stumbled into the bathroom, and  stared in the mirror there trying too focus on his nose through his clouded vision. Its perfection and symmetry was beyond painful, and he felt an indescribable revulsion at the sight of the flawless flesh. It was then his mind brimmed with a fanatical idea, and he swiveled his head towards a far corner of the room.

            On a small corner table, a sharp paring knife rested atop a silvery pewter plate, along with the remnants of some bread and cheese he’d eaten an hour earlier. He tripped over his feet as he made his way over to the old oak table where the knife rested, then picked up the blade and negotiated his way back to the mirror in the bathroom. It hung on the wall just next to the toilet.

            The Tiber creek ran under the floorboards of the toilets at the theater. It was this construction that allowed human excrement from the patrons to be washed away during the theater’s scheduled intermissions. Jacob’s dressing room was right next to the patron facilities, but rated a private loo.

            He looked at himself once more in the mirror.

            I'll bet if I didn't have this perfect nose, she'd look at me!  THEN she would pay attention!

            Jacob's fingers gripped the handle of the blade and he made a decision. He'd show Nadya he was a man. He wouldn't be a pretty boy anymore.

III

Hermit

             I must be vigilant!

            Hermit's eyes scanned the surface of the Tiber in detail as he slid off of the back of a kindly Raven and onto the banks of the creek. He thanked the creature for the transport and made a bow of respect before it flew off cacawing forest gossip to the rest of his brothers. The waters of the Tiber were mud brown and stank of urine and human feces. It would be hard to see anything that swirled in the cesspool. Hermit’s gaze followed the creek upward along its jagged path, and finally came to rest on the building in front of him.

An anguished yell from inside the National Theater startled Hermit briefly, and then his entire body flooded with relief. He hadn’t missed it. It was definitely time. A few moments later his heart leapt with joy as he spied what he'd come for.

             That's it! That's the one!

            Hermit’s eyes darted towards the edge of the creek, frantic to find the most strategic place to retrieve the item. It was a small thing, white and fleshy, bobbing in the water. The banks of the waterway were dirty, slippery and dotted in places with uneven clumps of grass. Stretching his hand out, as the item floated by, he tried valiantly to scoop it up with his fingers. But just before he could touch it, the thing was caught in a small whirlpool, spun round in the center of it, then exited into the center of the creek, just out of his reach.           

            Hermit almost cursed (he was glad he didn’t) and sprinted as fast he could, further down the waterway towards another grassy spot. This place looked promising. Once again he reached out, but he slipped and fell, missing the item once again.

            He couldn’t take time to think, but sprung up again and ran futher along the bank. Spying an area jutting just inwards of the creek, he jumped towards the spot, stooped low, and stretched his hand far out in a desperate motion. His sandals slipped against the moist dirt along the side and for a moment he feared he would fall again. But this time Hermit barely caught the drifting mound a moment before the turbid water could swirl it away from him. He brought the item to his chest, cradling his prize against his warm skin, and breathed a prayer of thanks.

            "There, there.” Hermit whispered gently, pulling a red cotton cloth from a pocket hidden deep within the folds of his robe and placing the item in it. "Don’t worry. Everything will be alright."

            Peering down into the fabric, he examined his catch. The pinkish-white lump, now resting in his palms, was a nose. Completely severed from the face of its owner. Blood, which once caused the appendage to pulse with life, was seeping from it, and the color of the flesh extremely pale.

            Hermit’s pulse pounded and his shoulders tensed as he cupped his brown wrinkled hands around the nose. He blew his warm breath on it, and then mumbled a mantra. Almost immediately the flesh began to quiver. Barely perceptible at first, then progressively stronger. The pinkish color returned. He blew on it once more, and the delicate nares flared with shallow, regular respirations.

            The Hermit's shoulders relaxed and a slow smile spread across his wizened face.

            "Let's take you home, shall we Jonathan?" Hermit had always liked the name. It meant 'gift'. Johnny for short. And this little one was a gift, of that he was sure.

            Swaddling his precious cargo inside the makeshift blanket, Hermit made his way back home along the path, back towards the entrance in the earth where Kira would be waiting. They both had a lot of work to do.


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Chapter 2: Stench In the Underground

"One never knows what one knows till one knows what one knows, does one?"
~Chinese Proverb


2008, February 14th (Early Afternoon)

I

Johnny

Johnny lay on his belly, and stretched his body out on the rooftop of the Lincoln memorial. His skinny appendages were stuffed into a pair of loose jeans, and he wore charcoal skaters, which covered his hairy toes and nimble feet.

 Peering over the edge of the monument building, Johnny’s small black eyes were drawn towards the waters of the Potomac River, and dazzling jewels of light reflected on its surface in the rays of the afternoon sun. Late winter winds whistled through the branches of bare cherry trees, and it was almost peaceful. Yes, perhaps the jarring sounds of automotive horns blaring in the distance were a little distracting, but overall there was a hush blanketing the city that only the chill of winter could cause by driving people indoors.

Johnny was lucky most of his body never felt cold, but the cold did cause problems. His head, which was mostly nothing but a giant nose, often developed a case of the runs in the winter. He couldn’t keep the snotty secretions from drizzling down his body unless he perpetually sniffed to keep them from doing so. A creative method he’d developed to expel the boogery stuff, was to inhale deeply and snort it out the mucous from a single nostril. Usually the left one. He’d gotten quite good at it, and could even take aim and fire at objects. Unfortuately, his longtime girlfriend, Iris, hated the practice and walked away from him when he did it, pretending not to know him. He pretended not to care. At least his head was clear.

Johnny closed his eyes and inhaled the mixed scent of fresh and salty seawater that came wafting up from the river. He soaked up the sensation of the oily smell of melting snow on the slick city streets. This moment, for him, was bliss and he sighed with contentment.

Life is good. He thought, and gazed downward once more.

University rowers were going through their paces, and kept perfect cadence inside their nautical shells as they crossed the Potomac. Iron gray waters hugged the boats as they rowed, and the warm odor of sweat beneath their armpits reached him and tickled his nostrils. He loved the smell of them. There was beauty in their teamwork and their perseverance against the harsh winter elements. It was so beautiful that for a moment he forgot he despised Whole Ones, and then he reminded himself. Much like batfish, they weren’t to be trusted. Ever.

Lost in his thoughts, and still as a stick, he would have been perfectly happy to remain that way if it weren't for a large seagull, which suddenly flew overhead and smacked Johnny from his reverie by dumping a large mess of white and yellow bird droppings on him.

"Damn it!" Johnny muttered. Warm sticky splatter, with its pungent dung odor, missed most of his brown Fedora but successfully hit the bulk of his large nasal head. And there was nothing to clean himself off with except his own jacket. His brand new jacket. This year’s birthday gift from Hermit. The dark synthetic leather was perfect for the Underground of DC. It repelled water and wasn’t ruined whenever it got wet.      Shrugging his shoulders to lengthen the sleeves a little, he tried to use the fabric on each arm to help wipe away the mess. It didn’t do the job. He succeeded only in smearing the stuff into a slimy goo across his skin. He wrinkled his nose with frustration and settled for using the lower edge of his shirt. It worked better than the jacket.

As he was cleaning himself off, suddenly he felt a strange little tingle on the tip of his nose. It wasn't from the bird droppings. It was something else.

Johnny scratched at the red tongue design plastered midway down the chest of his Rolling Stones T-shirt. The odd tingle pricked his skin and made him shudder throughout the length of his celtic-knot body. Something was generating a cloying density in the air. He couldn't tell what it was exactly. It was beyond simple smell.

The gasping winter winds, which fought off the first breaths of spring, felt ponderous, heavy, and pregnant with a warning. It reminded him how spiders hide their eggs from prying eyes until their young are ready to burst forward and feed. Johnny made a face at the thought, and shuddered once again. He really hated spiders.

Turning his head, he gazed towards the east side of the city, and his used his keen sense of smell to search tentatively at first and then more boldly in that direction, in order to confirm his suspicions.

It can't be. He thought. I took care of that problem a long time ago.

"Hey Johnny! Johnny!" A pair of high-pitched voices called out to him from the ground. Johnny looked over the edge roof and down towards some cedar shrubs that lined the memorial. He did it more to be polite than to see who was there. He'd caught Phil and Angie's scent over twenty minutes ago.

Angie stood below waving her arms up at him. She was a thumb, with a desperate passion for growing plants. That is, she wished she could grow them, but the truth was there was not a plant in the world that the little finger could keep alive. She killed every living leafy thing she touched. She was short and plump, and her inability to nurture botanicals didn’t stop her from decorating her body with fake vines and other fine plastic greenery in order to mimic the horticulturalist she so desired to be. Despite her handicap, no one excelled better in the knowledge of botany, biology and herbology than she. Everyone knew she was the best in the District when it came to that. 

"What is it, guys?" Johnny tried once more to wipe some of the bird poop off of his face, but with little success. "You're not supposed to be out here by yourselves."

"Dad sent us,” said Phil. He was breathing hard from running, and his little brow was furrowed. His voice was trembling too. "There's trouble. Hurry!"

Phil was a young pointer finger and a self-taught artist. He spent most of his time painting murals on the concrete and brick walls of the DC Underground. He sported a tuft of horsehair glued to the top of his head (his own idea), which effectively made him look like a paintbrush. His T-shirts were smudged with a variety of colorful acrylic paints, chalks and oils. The mixed medium of color was his wardrobe signature, and he frequently smelled of turpentine. Phil was a veritable palate unto himself and he took a great deal of pride in his own unique look.

Johnny suspected there was serious trouble for their father Digit to send Phil and Angie above ground without an older Separate. They were young and hadn't learned well enough how to keep out of sight of Whole Ones. Both little digits were impulsive, much like Johnny had been when he was young and inexperienced.

An uneasy feeling pulled at Johnny again, this time more specifically drawing his attention eastward towards Congressional Cemetery. It had been several years since the DCU Guardians had battled to lock the darkness away in an impenetrable crypt, to bind it from causing further harm to the city’s inhabitants. Some of the shortcuts he’d taken to bind the entity to its prison shouldn’t have made that much of a difference. He’d followed Hermit’s directions to the letter, in every way.

Every way except one.

His inner voice reminded him of his negligence without an invitation, and he shook his head quickly to will it away.

Jumping up from his perch on top of the Memorial, Johnny grabbed his skateboard and scrambled effortlessly over the ledge, then slid down one of the white marble columns that graced the building. His limbs were quite good at grasping walls. Almost as good as a roach or fly. Landing on the ground he leapt over to stand alongside the two little fingerlings. Johnny smiled at them. "Let's go, then."

Grabbing up Phil and Angi into his spindly arms, he jumped onto his skateboard, and rolled over towards a nearby sidewalk.  He kick flipped the board up into the crook of his arm, and then stood overtop the lid of an ice covered sewer cap. In a flash of light he disappeared into the depths of the Underground, leaving no trace behind him except a few flecks of bird poo.

II

Dr Roid

A pair of miniature hands grasped a pack of worn Tarot cards, shuffled them, and then flipped the cards over one by one, laying them into a traditional tree pattern on top of a rosewood table. Dr Roid gazed at the Rider Waite faces and then pressed her lips together at what she saw. It was, as she feared. No doubt Johnny already sensed the shadow of energy growing in the east, but she doubted he would know exactly what to do about it.

            She turned another card over and smiled. Her favorite chocolates were coming her way. It was a small consolation, but always nice one. Poor Johnny. He couldn’t be allowed to suspect what was waiting in his future, and she…well, she would be the last to tell him everything. Sometimes meddling in world affairs only made things worse. Sometimes meddling changed things beyond repair, and one never knew if those changes would cause good or ill. She planned to tell the giant nose only what he needed to do to make things right. Or at least to make things better. For the most part, anyway.

            Dr Roid decided to let her dear sister know to look out for the arrival of the olfactory organ, and to send him right in as soon as possible.

"We've got company coming!" she called out to the front office. No one answered. The receptionist's desk was vacant. Dr Roid rolled her eyes.

“It’s so hard to get good help these days,” she muttered.

III

Johnny

Despite the urgency of the journey, Johnny sensed Phil and Angi enjoyed the ride.  They’d used their DCU gifts to shrink down to miniature size, and now they rode inside his front jacket pockets, their little heads sticking out of the top lip of the fabric. Johnny was Master of the Sewers on his board, and used every curve, every rise in the cement to make his skateboard fly and leap across the tunnel floors. He sometimes used a little earth magic to help it along. It added to the fun, especially when he wanted to make long impossible jumps, or needed to ride on the sides of sewer walls when there were no available walkways to get around the sludge. Swimming in sewer water was not his idea of fun.

The old brick tunnels of the original sewer system were seldom seen by Whole Ones. Only city workers and delinquents came here, and sometimes FBI and CIA agents occuppied the tunnels that ran by the White House or the Capital Building.  The stink of the Underground kept most people away. Raw sewage, mixed with runoff water, carried with it a combination of pesticides, detergents and antifreeze, and was a toxic mixture not to be experienced by the faint of heart. He’d gotten used to the odor, and found it was essential in providing him news of what was happening in the District. Whole Ones, for the most part, couldn’t stomach it and as a Separate, that fact couldn’t please him more.

Digit’s home was a short distance from their current location. Just a mile away or so, but given the urgency he decided to take a quicker route.

Thank goodness for portals.

 One such portal lay a few feet ahead. Johnny spread his hands out in front of him and yelled the word, “Patefacio!” The hidden portal opened up, its brilliant green glow spreading out in concentric circles like ripples in a pond. Light enveloped them as they reached the center of it, and the stench of sulfur suddenly filled the air. The smell didn’t matter, especially here. And the portal took him just where he needed to be.

In an instant they were transported just a few feet from Digit’s home. He owned a place not far below Octagon House, living in close proximity to Earnest, a sage old ear. As they rolled up, Johnny saw Digit waiting outside his home, pacing next to the master woodwork of his carefully crafted door. He wore a traditional flannel shirt, patterned with square checks of red and brown, and tan carpenter pants. Like Phil and Agni, he was a finger, and he served as their adopted father. As a ring finger, he’d been severed from the hand of a local wood worker sometime in the early 1900’s. The wood worker’s wife, demonstrated with the cut of his own hand saw, that she was not fond of his extramarital activities. With a few jagged slices, Digit was born.

The door Digit waited near was carved from oak, with leaf and acorn designs swirled across the face of it. The grain of the wood was exquisite and its polish shimmered like gold. The woodworking Separate was renowned for finding spare lumber and turning garbage pieces into master works of art. There was no doubt the carpenter enjoyed his craft.

 “Hurry!” Digit said, opening the door as Johnny and the little ones came closer.

Johnny whisked inside, and deposited Phil and Angi on the floor.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s Ms Lingual” Digit was close to tears. “I think she’s dying.”

Digit led Johnny into the living room. It smelled of lemon oil and old red bricks. An oval braided rug, made of blue and red rags, covered a portion of the polished wood floor, and resting upon the rug was a tongue, otherwise known as Ms Lolly Lingual. Her usual moist skin was now dry and pale. Warm light from the flames of a nearby fireplace flickered across her face. Maple logs burned alongside scented pinecones making the odor in the air festive despite the seriousness of the occasion.

“Lolly?”  Johnny bent down to touch the woman’s little hands. They felt cold. “Lolly, can you hear me?”

Lolly’s yellow French dress, muddied and wrinkled, was twisted oddly around the frame of her oblong pink body. Her breath, sour from a combination of dehydration and recent shock, came in shallow respirations. Her eyes were closed. She looked close to death.

The tongue struggled to open her eyes, but her lids only managed to obey halfway.

“Get her some water.” Johnny told Phil as he kneeled on the floor. Both of the fingerlings just stood there and stared.

“Now.” he emphasized, and both brother and sister turned and scampered to the kitchen, happy to get away from the dreadful sight and still have something to do that could help.

Then, Lolly started to speak, grasping Johnny’s hand. “They’re l-loose, J-Johnny.” She stuttered the words, her southern-belle drawl sounding melodramatic.

But Johnny’s heart sank when he heard her. He instantly knew what she meant. But, it couldn’t be true.

“The F-Famished. They’re l-loose. I, I barely g-got awa-ay.”  Her body shook, and then her torso convulsed. “O-one of ‘em t-touched me. T-touched  m-me!”

            The Famished were starving spirits that lived in the Underground. Spirits born from dead scientists who once worked at the National Institute of Health, known by many as NIH. These scientists willingly practiced cruel experiments on living animals. When the scientists died, their souls were sucked into a supernatural prison, which shackled them inside lower confines of the NIH Underground. No one understood exactly what caused this to happen, but the result was that the Famished endlessly endured the screams of innocent and tormented lab animals. They hungered for the sound of the screams to stop. They hungered for food, and hungered for warmth, but never received so much as a morsel to sate their needs. Not the tiniest bit.

On a rare occasion, a Famished would find a way to escape its prison. When it did, its hunger drove it outwards to the DCU to feed on the spirits of whatever living things it could find. Those who encountered a Famished seldom lived to tell the tale. Lolly had barely escaped with her life. Even so, she might not survive.

Johnny wasted no more time. He spread his hands over her.

“Stand back” he warned Digit, and he bent over the tongue. The energy he generated need to go directly into Lolly. He couldn’t afford to waste it or have the energy accidentally spread to the others. Johnny flexed his fingers and then his knotted hands started to glow bright red. Suddenly, crimson light poured outward from his fingertips. The knotted hair that made up the entire length of his body, also started to glow, and as he generated enough power for the act, he reached out and touched one of his palms to Lolly’s forehead and placed another on her belly.

Mens sana in corpore sano.”  Johnny repeated the words three times, and closed his eyes. For the most part, Latin was the language used in the magic he practiced. Most of the spells Hermit taught him were in old Latin; though it was strange Hermit almost never used the language in any of his own spells. Hermit’s spells were repeated in Sanskrit, or in languages he’d yet to teach the nose.

His inner energy left him, and a red ribbon of it traveled into the air connecting to the supine form of Ms Lingual. Johnny’s intent was to drive the blight of the Famished out of her cells. Lolly’s form twitched and contorted after a few moments. Digit, as well as Phil and Angi (who’d both returned sloshing glasses of water in their wee hands), stood transfixed in awe as a dark greasy smoke suddenly puffed out of Lolly’s mouth, rose up into the air, and then curled like a snake over the tongue’s supine body. Its head wove back and forth like a smoldering serpent for just a few seconds, then quick as a flash, the whole thing darted towards Digit’s front door, slipped under the bottom crack and escaped into the freedom of the DCU tunnels.

The glow of Johnny’s hands subsided, and with the fading light Ms Lingual coughed loudly and took in a deep rasping breath. Under his palms Johnny felt the normal rise and fall of her chest. He opened his eyes. Lolly’s color had returned. She started to sit up, but Johnny prevented her, and cradled her head with one of his hands. Taking a glass of water from Phil, he held it to her lips and she drank it down in just three gulps.

“Another, pp-please” she asked. It seemed the worst was over. He took the other glass from Angi and held it to Lolly’s lips.

Phil and Angi were both unnaturally quiet. Johnny turned towards the two. Their faces were solemn, and Angi was trembling. Johnny knew it was the first time they’d seen someone who had encountered a Famished. For them, the mythical shades were only  made up creatures; figments of scary bedtime stories. The stories weren’t supposed to be for real. Now they knew. Neither of them would sleep well tonight, that was for sure.

“She’ll be alright guys.” Johnny tried to reassure them. He looked over at Digit. “Does her husband know?”

“I sent emergency word via the Teleroach Line. He should be here any minute.”

Satisfied that Lolly would be OK, Johnny stood up and made a move for the door.

“I’ve got to go,” he said. “Make sure that she rests.”

Digit spoke before he left. “One more thing, Johnny.”

There was a pause in his words, and Johnny turned to regard him. Digit went on.

“The Teleroach Line is refusing to take messages to the East Side now. A few brave ones say they are willing to go, but most of them are simply boycotting the place. They won’t say why. I just thought you should know.”  Then Digit reached over and slipped a piece of paper inside Johnny’s jacket pocket. “We need to call the Guardians together soon.”

Johnny nodded but said nothing, grabbed his skateboard and slipped out the door. Calling the Guardians was a pretty big leap. All of them had worked to keep the DCU safe, but now it seemed something was threatening that safety. As a Guardian himself, he felt a twinge of guilt. It seemed as if he might have failed at that task.

Aside from the upcoming meeting, he knew what he had to do, but the thought of visiting Congressional Cemetery on the East Side, wasn’t pleasant. Deep inside he realized he wasn’t ready to go back there. Not yet. The memories of the last battle were far too painful. But he had to go back, and so he needed to see Nano before he went. The mouse had resources and capabilities that Johnny didn’t. And he hadn’t seen the little furball in quite a few days.

 

Johnny’s skateboard propelled him across the pathways of the Underground for ten minutes or so, and he arrived a large concrete wall, which sat just alongside the underground tunnels of the Pentagon. He had discovered this spot when the Pentagon was being built in the 1940's, and used some crafty construction and a little of his magic to conceal it from the Whole Ones. None of them realized it was there. It just so happened that his special hideout also sat squarely beneath the main War Room of the five-sided building, and was located next to some of the most sophisticated electronics in the nation, if not the world.

The concrete door was grayish white, and just around the corner of it a part of the wall stuck out like a little ledge. No one could have guessed how easy it was to pull that ledge to the side like a sliding door. The illusion of the wall being completely solid left Johnny and Nano needing very little security to keep their office safe. They only had minor deterrents set up to scare away curious invaders.

Johnny pulled the door open, and zipped into his sanctuary. A long cascade of stairs led down into a wide upon room below. It was sufficient space, with a good 40 feet in each direction, the concrete floor painted with intricate designs. One corner of the room painted with concentric circles and a variety of runes. The lighting was good here too, and almost as bright as natural sunlight. Above the room, the ceiling sported a decoration of glowing stars, which he and Nano had put up together once, and which glowed brightly whenever they shut out the lights. And it smelled of sassafras. Johnny smiled a little. It would.

Briefly surveying his hideout, his eyes roved over to his workspace, which sat on one side of the room. It was filled with dusty electronics, shelves crammed with books and yellow wrinkled papers. Johnny swiveled his head towards the farthest computer. Nano was there at work, clicking his paws briskly on the keyboard. The mouse was obviously making a vigorous attempt at tracking something on his computer.

Nano had been trying to catch a cyber creature for months now--a thief that flitted from business to business in quantum space, and who purchased merchandise with a variety of bogus credit cards. The thief managed to have the items delivered to a post-office box owned by a person that, according to Nano, didn't exist. The creature even found a way, sometimes, to transport the illegally purchased items right through the computer system. Nano hadn't figured out that trick yet, and it would be really convenient if he could. What he HAD figured out was that the creature was a she. At least that was her preferred identity everywhere she went, and whenever Nano did catch a glimpse of the thief in cyber space, he'd told Johnny that seemed as if the entity were a girl.

"Slip through your fingers again?" Johnny teased.

Nano looked up from his computer with a slight blush, reached behind him and started fiddling with his tail. It was a habit he’d developed whenever he got nervous. His Einstein T-Shirt was wrinkled from being slept in once again, the E=MC2 design sported a ketchup stain and had a large crease across it. For a mouse, Nano was really quite brilliant though not very hygienic. It grated on Johnny’s nerves a little that he was so messy. Still, Johnny was glad they'd remained good friends over the years.

"Yeah, I guess so." Nano looked down again, dropped his tail and clicked the keyboard again. He hated admitting his computer failures, even in front of his very best friend.

"Well, better luck next time, then." Johnny plopped into a green wooden chair and pulled out a crumpled paper from his pocket. “You’ll catch her. Don’t worry.”

Nano saw the piece of paper Johnny had taken from his pocket and moved from his keyboard over to where Johnny was sitting. He climbed up on Johnny's shoulder to look over at the words scrawled across it. "What's that?"

"DCU Guardian meeting. Digit gave it to me. We're supposed to meet on the 21st."

"Why?"

"I was hoping you could tell me. Have you picked up anything?"

Nano gave him a nervous look. "You think it's loose again, don't you?" He scrambled back to the computer, putting together his sensor network. His little paws trembled as he assembled parts and pieces.

"I think it's going to be soon." Johnny said, getting up and following him.

"Did you tell Iris?" The keys on the keyboard seemed to thunder under Nano's touch, and the lack of an answer caused him to look back at Johnny. Their eyes met and Johnny just shook his head.

"Not yet. I don't want to worry her," he confided.

Nano turned back to his screen, and made a brief sigh. The monitor he’d designed was sophisticated--able to pick up any psychic negative energy across the city, and extremely useful when looking for malevolent entities.

"Nothing registers on a large scale yet," he said. "Doesn't mean anything, but nothing yet."

"Keep me posted."  Johnny turned to head back out the door.

"Where are you going?" Nano swiveled his computer chair towards the nose.

"To do some sniffing around." Johnny smiled.

"Yeah, yeah, O.K. Hardy har-har." Nano replied. But as he returned to the computer screen, he knew where Johnny was going, and he didn't think it was a particularly good idea.








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