Old habits die hard. For the eighth time that morning Tom checked to make sure his gun was still in its holster where it belonged. He adjusted his sweater back over the gun, hoping the folds would help conceal its presence. It would do well enough; it wasn’t as if the average passerby would jump to ‘ghost-hunting spook’ as their first conclusion.
Tom took in an eyeful of the dingy public bathroom. It had that indoor pool smell of wet concrete and cleaning product, with graffiti on just about every viable surface. He fidgeted in place, remembering what he came for, and flipped open his cellphone to text Margaret.
No sign of anything here. Moving to next site.
He was on his way out when his guts signaled for his attention. While I’m here, he thought. Tom headed into a stall.
Locking the flimsy door behind him, he dropped his pants and settled in, fishing his cellphone out of his fallen jeans. There he sat, opening his social networking profile and chortling to himself as he entered a pithy status update.
Fourth day on nicotine gum. Excessive consumption may result in a laxative effect.
He'd barely taken a moment to check his private messages before Artie had left a response.
Gross! Artie's gap-toothed grin mugged back at him next to the text’s teal backdrop.
Bet you wish I'd kept smoking, Tom punched in with a smirk. He waited a moment; Artie was always prompt with this stuff. Poor guy was behind a desk all day, logged into three different messengers and tabbed onto at least two social pages.
There's no need to inflict your suffering on others, Artie posted. Tom sniggered to himself. A message from Margaret popped up.
Children, she had added.
Tom was drawn to her thumbnail photo. The Director’s headshot employed what he and Artie privately referred to as ‘the angles’. You could only see her lips and neck, making her appear thinner than she actually was. Tom knew she was self-conscious about her weight, but he didn’t see the need for it. He’d call her voluptuous, or curvaceous.
Tom heard another person enter the bathroom. He finished his business and stood. The photo got him thinking at length about Margaret's body. He thought it might be good to give her a call in a few. Better yet, he'd text her. He pulled his jeans up, holding them in one hand while texting with the other.
What are you doing tonight? He wrote. He sent it to her personal entry, rather than the work number from before. He slipped the phone back into his pocket and started fumbling with his zipper.
He was stopped in mid-motion by a wet sound from outside the stall. His ears perked up. There it was again, a slurping sound. Something wet and squishy, dragging across the tile of the bathroom.
“Everything okay?” he called out. There was no response, but the sound stopped. Then there was a ferocious hiss, like an angered snake.
Tom swore under his breath, feeling exposed and trapped at the same time. His fingers played over the handle of his pistol. He unhooked the clasp to let the weighty firearm come free.
“I'm off-duty,” he said. “Fuck off back where you came from.”
He heard the hiss again. He didn't jump-- he'd long since been trained not to-- but a cold wave of dread washed over his chest. He looked around to assess the environment. Nothing in the stall, or the rest of the tiny bathroom world, was shifting. Whatever it was out there, it was Visible. The phone buzzed in his pocket.
A raspy woman's voice sounded from beyond the door of the stall.
The door shifted on its frame. That wet sound started up again. He pulled the pistol out of its holster, leveling it at the door and pulling back the hammer.
“I'm packing,” he said, not letting his voice waver.
“Fresh,” a second voice repeated, another woman's voice. Tom was finding himself glad he'd just used the toilet.
“Fresh. Fresh. Fresh,” the first one insisted. Whatever they were, they were pressed up against the door of the stall, making damp slithering sounds. Tom prepared to fire, expecting them to try and break it down.
The voice came from above, making his heart skip. He looked up at two faces with dark hair strewn across their features. They had no skin, only the bare facial muscles. Wet, fat tongues lapped out of their mouths as they slavered with hunger. Tom raised his gun.
“You have to the count of three.”
One of them hissed at him and bared deep yellow teeth. The other lashed out its tongue to several feet in length and wrapped it around his gun. The weapon was wrenched from his grip, and his stomach turned. The creature flung the weapon backwards out of the stall with its whip of a tongue. Outside the stall the gun hit a mirror and shattered it.
Tom stumbled backwards against the toilet bowl, and looked up with his hands raised to guard his face. The heads had climbed on top of the stall door, a feat possible because they had no necks or bodies. Instead they slithered along like slugs, on what Tom was horrified to recognize as their organs. Lungs, hanging hearts, stomachs, and esophagi; the innards of a person with no body or bones. The creatures wormed across the walls of the toilet stall like snails on a garage door, their human heads hissing at him all the way with long tongues flapping hungrily.
Tom balled up onto the ground, defenseless. Killed in action in a toilet stall, pants around his ankles. This would be the legacy of Thomas Bell. Tom closed his eyes, and the world spun as though he were drunk, as he waited for the end.
The slithering stopped. Now there was gentle splashing, and a voracious, almost erotic groaning. Tom hazarded to open one eye, and then swiftly wished he hadn't.
The creatures were embracing each other, at least as best as things like them could. They were poised over the toilet bowl, their tongues interlocked and lips playing sensuously against one another’s. The heads groaned with content. There were brown smudges across their teeth and mouths. Whip-like tongues unraveled and plunged into the toilet bowl.
“Fresh,” the creatures moaned with delight, taking famished slurps from the grimy toilet.
Tom wanted to vomit. He scrambled to his feet and unlocked the stall door, stumbling out into the bathroom. He fumbled to pull up his pants, and looked around for any sign of his firearm in the debris from the shattered mirror. The gun had landed in one of the dirty washbasins. He snatched it up, turned around and shakily pulled the hammer back again.
Tom gave an incoherent scream of disgust and fired the gun blindly into the stall. The shit-eating head-creatures dropped dead with a couple of wet splats, their blood and brains splattered against the wall and toilet. Shiny worms of tongues flopped to the ground, dead.
Tom fumbled the gun back into its holster. He struggled to do up his jeans on his way out, pausing to fish around in the pocket for a piece of nicotine gum.
Outside, a chocolate-skinned man holding a mop bumped into him, shaggy head hidden under a cap. Soapy water sloshed on the concrete from a wheeled bucket.
“Whoa. Watch it, man.”
“Can't go in there,” Tom grunted.
“Were those gunshots?”
“Yes. Out of order, occupado. Don't go in.”
“I'm the janitor,” the man said, and shook his mop—the one in his hand, not on his head. “What just happened?”
“Don't go in,” said Tom. He angrily drew his wallet and flipped it open. His Federal Agency of Domestic Investigation badge caught sunlight and glared in the janitor’s eyes.
“Did you just shoot somebody?” the janitor insisted.
“Don't call the police,” Tom ordered. “I am the police. Nobody goes in there.”
“Jesus, they don't pay me enough for this.” The custodian hobbled off, grumbling to himself. Tom took several deep breaths.
Another man approached the bathroom. He was overweight, dressed in khaki shorts and an ill-fitting button-up, and he also sported a patchy neck-beard and a pair of expensive-looking sunglasses. To Tom’s eyes, he looked like a lost cause. He was carrying a clipboard under one arm and too preoccupied with muttering to himself to notice the agent in front of him. Tom put up a hand to stop him.
“Can't go in there,” said Tom. The overweight man paused, giving Tom a long, awkward look.
“Gotta use the bathroom,” the man replied. He had a deep voice and spoke like there was peanut butter on the roof of his mouth. He tried to walk around Tom, who stopped him again.
“Crime scene,” Tom said, flashing his badge again. The bearded man eyed the wallet with disdain, but a moment later, he took a sharp inward breath.
“FADI?” he said. It was not the bewildered tone of someone who had never heard the name before, but instead the shock of somebody who was all too familiar with it. Tom raised an apprehensive eyebrow.
“Yeah,” he said skeptically. “What's the matter?”
The fat man didn't respond. He stood glued to the spot, eyes hidden under his designer shades. Tom got the feeling that they were angry little dots, darting around, looking for a means of escape. Tom gave the guy another once-over. Fat, poorly groomed, badly dressed. A greasy ponytail. Someone who didn't get out much.
“What've you got there?” said Tom. He motioned at the clipboard under the man's arm. Tom put his wallet away, and his fingers drummed against the holster of his handgun.
“Let me see it,” said Tom. He thrust out his hand.
“Excuse me? I said let me look at it,” Tom demanded. He brushed aside the hem of his jacket to reveal his holstered pistol. The fat guy eyed the weapon, not with panic or surprise, but quiet concern. He was silent again. Tom snapped his fingers.
The guy reluctantly handed over the clipboard, fidgeting. It was a folded street map, with various locations circled in red permanent ink. Many of them had rough crosses put through them with the same marker. Tom ran a finger over the map, noting that a red circle marked their current location.
“Looking for something,” said the man.
No response. Tom perused the map in silence, and came to a puzzling conclusion.
“These are all toilets,” he said carefully.
It didn't take long for the pieces in the agent’s head to click. Tom swallowed, and looked up from the map at the bearded man.
Their eyes met for a solid half-second. It was enough to spook the guy. Before Tom had time to react, the man was off like an overweight missile, sneakers clapping on the pavement. Tom dropped the clipboard and grabbed his gun.