“Hector, this is not a nightclub.” Luis glared up at the towering building of granite and glass.
“It’s that stupid bank. Again.”
“It’s not a bank.” Hector answered his cousin in Spanish. Luis might’ve vowed to only speak
English once they arrived in Miami from Puerto Rico, but Hector refused to speak anything but
Spanish to a person who spoke the language. Plus, his “refusal to assimilate” irritated Luis, so it was a
thing now. Hector frowned in concentration at the building’s dark windows. There was
something... enthralling about this place, he decided. It made no sense, but night after night he kept
finding himself here, as if he were being drawn to it.
“It’s still not a nightclub,” Luis grumbled in English. He sauntered toward the nearest glass wall
and leaned on his hands to peer inside. “Dude, we’re gonna get arrested for trying to rob this place.
Plus, I did not dress this fine to loiter around closed buildings.”
“Fine. We can go if you answer one question.”
“Why is my cousin a weirdo?”
“No,” said Hector. “My question is this: Why do we keep ending up outside this building? Even
when we don’t mean to?”
Luis shrugged, but Hector could see he’d wondered the same thing before. “Because you keep
taking detours that bring us here? Because you’re a weirdo?”
Hector shook his head. “No, that’s not it...”
Luis studied his reflection in the glass, running a hand through his thick hair, straightening his
collar. “Can we go now? It’s Friday night and this much fineness is meant to be danced with.”
Hector said nothing, squinting to see anything beyond the reflection of the building’s mysterious
“This place looks like it comes with a SWAT team.”
“There’s something...” Hector craned his neck back to study the upper floors, but just then a
light came on in the depths of the lobby, arresting his attention.
Luis took a startled step back. “Holy shit, would you look at the size of that dude? He’s even
bigger than your gargantuan ass!” He had forgotten to speak in English, and when Hector pointed at
him triumphantly, Luis cursed. They watched from the shadows as a man three times the size of an ordinary adult moved through the building’s lobby—which lit up as he moved through it, revealing ultra-modern decor that matched its sleek outside. The man stepped through some sort of fancy waterfall-stream thing, then the building’s doors slid open to let him through, and Hector and Luis realized too late that the man was moving right toward them.
“Luis and Hector Ayala,” he called, and Hector and Luis flinched back simultaneously. Luis hissed something about prison in rapid Spanish, but Hector was too freaked out to gloat over language
issues. The man looked terrifying as he loomed over them. One side of his face was hideously scarred
as if by some monstrous-sized lizard’s claw, his left eye miraculously intact beneath the jagged pink
gash that ran from his hairline to the center of his cheek, and his wide neck and enormous arms were
completely covered in intricate tattoos. Hector and Luis stood frozen to the spot, staring.
“We...” Hector managed. “We...”
“How do you know our names?” Luis demanded, stepping forward and raising his chin. “We
have rights, you know. We’re American citizens.”
The giant laughed down at Luis, and it transformed him completely. Even with his scar, bulging
muscles, and strange tattoos, he suddenly didn’t seem scary at all.
“You guys have been hanging around for an entire week,” he said, crossing his enormous arms.
“But unfortunately Tobey’s still in California, so I’ll have to be your substitute welcoming committee.”
“Welcoming committee for what, exactly?” Luis had moved to stand protectively in front of Hector, which Hector thought was kind of funny, since he could see right over his head.
The huge guy seemed to think it was funny, too, because his dark eyes danced with amusement.
“I was in the middle of restocking herbs, so let’s make this quick,” he said. “First question. Do
you believe in monsters?”
“Monsters?” Hector asked, his voice squeaking against his will.
“Monsters.” The man nodded his scarred head. “Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies—monsters.”
The two cousins simply stared at him.
“It’s a simple question, boys. Do you believe in the supernatural? That our world is more than
just...science and logic.”
“Yes,” said Hector, raising his eyebrows at Luis when he turned to look at him in surprise. He
added softly, “You do, too. Don’t pretend you don’t.”
“That’s not the point,” Luis hissed. “We’re standing here in the dark with an extremely scary
stranger, having a conversation about monsters? Not wise, man.”
“¡Bueno!” The stranger clapped his enormous hands, making them both jump and face him
again, sure he’d just understood every word they’d said. “Now that that’s out of the way, hello. I am
Duardo.” The giant extended his hand to Luis who hesitated with embarrassment before shaking it.
Then, just as Luis’s hand touched Duardo’s, Hector watched his cousin’s eyes widen in what looked
like...surprise? Awe? Fear? No—Luis feared nothing.
A moment later, when Hector shook Duardo’s hand himself, he understood. The instant the
stranger’s enormous hand engulfed his, Hector felt somehow renewed with glowing health. It was as if
he were cured of a flu he hadn’t realized he’d been suffering from until a new level of well-being filled
“Woah...” he breathed, before he could think better of it. “How did you do that?”
Duardo grinned widely at them, shrugging his massive shoulders. “I’m a Healer. It’s really not a
big deal around here.”
“What exactly is here?” Luis said, waving toward the building. The lights had gone off inside
again, plunging it back into mystery.
“The Infernal Guard,” Duardo said brightly, as if it were obvious. “We fight monsters. We keep
our world safe from all the scary things escaping the Underworlds.”
Hector and Luis blinked stupidly. The man was making no sense.
“I knew your grandfather, Diego,” Duardo added, as if that cleared things up. “He was a great
Tvastar.” He nodded at Hector. “Maybe you’ll take after him.”
“Dude,” Luis said, determined to speak English again. “We have no clue what the hell you’re
talking about. What’s a vahs-taar?” He pointed a finger, looking ridiculous instead of intimidating as
he said, “And yo, you better not talk shit about my grandfather.”
“See?” Duardo looked up at the trees. “I said I was bad at this, but would anyone listen? No! No
one respects the replenishing of the herbs, that’s the problem. Put Duardo on Trainee-welcoming duty,
they said! He’s not doing anything important, they said!”
“So, what you’re telling us is...” Hector began, uncertain. He felt as if he were dreaming, as if reality were slipping from his grasp. He tried to remember exactly what he’d eaten, suddenly worried he’d gotten food-poisoning at the Chinese place his drama class had dragged him to earlier. Maybe this was actually some kind of sickness-induced hallucination. But the glowing-health feeling still held, at
odds with this theory.
“What you’re saying is...” Hector tried again. “Is that our grandfather was part of some kind of
monster-police cult called The Infernal Guard?”
“It’s not a cult, man,” Duardo said, but he didn’t seem offended, only amused.
Luis crossed his arms and craned his neck, like if he tried hard enough, he could stretch himself
to Duardo’s height. Duardo didn’t seem to notice Luis trying to look like some kind of mini-badass as he let out a long sigh and studied the trees again. “This is the part I’m not good at. I freaking told them...” Hector and Luis waited, the nightclub completely forgotten as they glanced at each other.
“You guys should’ve been here last week. Tobey’s really good at the inspirational speech about reaching a crossroads. He gets philosophical. It’s extremely moving.” Duardo seemed to be waiting for them to agree, so Luis and Hector nodded, trying to look sufficiently disappointed by Tobey’s absence.
“Um...” Duardo searched the trees for answers again. “Oh, yeah! You have twenty-four hours to decide if you want to dedicate your entire future to keeping our realm safe from devouring evil. You’re supposed to ask yourselves if you want to live an ordinary life, or experience terrifying excitement on a
near-daily basis for the greater good?” He pointed to his face, grinning. “Maybe even get some stylish
scars like me, eh?” He laughed as Luis ran a hand through his perfect hair and swallowed, his eyes wide. “Oh, and warnings,” Duardo added, pointing at them, as if nothing he had just said was warning
enough. “The various perils and dangers of becoming a Guard member. Almost certain gory death and
all that. Blah, blah, blah.”
“Why twenty-four hours?” Luis asked. Duardo ignored him. “As you near your seventeenth birthday, if you possess the hereditary genetic makeup that drew you here to us, that means you’re Guard. It means you’ll develop one of five Talents.” He counted off on his giant fingers. “Healers—that’s people with the magic touch, like me. Jodha—those are shapeshifting warriors, usually to birds of prey, but not always.” Hector and Luis both looked at the tattoos of various and vicious-looking birds covering his neck and arms with renewed interest. Duardo went on, “Then there’s Illusionists—they’re basically like magicians, able to conjure sensory illusions of all kinds. And rarest of all are the Seers—people with various psychic powers, plus they all have these glowy emerald green-blue eyes, for some reason.” Duardo leaned toward them, studying their brown eyes with a grin. “So you guys are probably out for that Talent,” he said. “And finally there’s the Tvastars—they create special weapons and stuff. They’ve got to be extremely strong, so they’re all huge, like you.” He nodded at Hector. “And your grandfather.”
“Huge, huh?” Luis said, nodding up at Duardo. “So why aren’t you a Tvastar?”
Duardo grinned, his kind eyes sparkling, and shrugged his massive shoulders. “No idea, man. I’m just not.” They all looked at each other in awkward silence for a moment.
“Anyway!” Duardo said finally, clapping his hands again. “You’ve gotta decide, because if you don’t want to join you need to say so. There’re options, so you don’t wake up one day turned into an owl or whatever, and freak out. Also, I’m supposed to warn you that you’ll always feel unsatisfied with your life if you choose not to join. That’s an incurable side-effect of denying your destiny, or something
poetic. Tobey puts it much better than I do...” Hector nodded, actually missing Tobey now.
“Okay. So you’re saying we’re already Guard, we just need to commit to the life or regret it forever. Right?”
“Right!” Duardo grinned brightly. “Good job, young Hector. Your grandfather would be proud.
Can I get back to my herbs now?”
“No, you cannot get back to the herbs now,” a deep voice drifted from the darkness in perfect
Spanish, and Hector and Luis spun, surprised to see an elderly Indian man with a greying beard and
man-bun gliding across the grass toward them. He was moving fast, graceful and effortless as he passed them. Hector knew at once that, like Duardo, this was no ordinary man. Duardo started to protest, but when he followed the older man’s gaze, he silently fell into step beside him until both men stood protectively between Hector and Luis and the darkened garden beyond. Hector and Luis turned to look and gawked, stumbling back. An impossibly old, impossibly short, and impossibly ugly man stood between what was obviously a Vampire—an actual, flesh and blood Vampire—and some kind of terrifying shadowmonster with glowing purple eyes, like something straight out of a horror movie. Hector felt every hair on his neck stand on end as his heart pounded, and when the impossibly old man spoke, the sound of his voice turned Hector’s blood cold, adrenaline flooding his system.
“Fresh meat?” The man—thing—tilted its head to peer behind Duardo and smiled wickedly at Hector and Luis with teeth that shone gold, sharpened to fine points.
“Benjamin,” the Indian guy said, nodding to the Vampire and ignoring the ancient guy.
The Vampire nodded back, the movement reptilian in its elegance.
The purple-eyed monster fluttered like living shadows, expanding until it towered over the scene, black smoke roiling across the grass, and if Hector hadn’t been so frozen with shock, he thought he could’ve run faster than he’d ever run in his life.
“Carlton Lloyd.” Duardo’s voice was full of disgust for the ancient guy. Hector decided maybe he only looked uglier for standing next to the Vampire, who happened to be stunning. Gorgeous, even.
The Indian guy said softly, “What did we say would happen if we ever saw you in this country
The man—thing—grinned wider.
“You said I would die,” it answered cheerfully, its expression excited in a way Hector knew would give him nightmares for the foreseeable future. “You promised me some action, Abhijay...in
spite of my immunity.” He shrugged one shoulder. “But, as you see, I have brought friends with me.”
He spread his stubby arms wide, and Hector smelled his mother’s tembleque.
“What do you want, Carlton?” The Indian guy—Abhijay—seemed suddenly dangerous as he
focused his full attention on the little old man.
Luis whispered, “Why do I smell flan de queso?”
“Because this here is a Goblin, boys,” Duardo said. “They smell like your favorite food. They
prey off your greed. Do not be fooled by their grandfatherly appearance.” Hector almost laughed. What the hell kind of creepy grandfather did Duardo have, anyway?
“Dude,” Luis whispered. “I think I’m beginning to believe in monsters...”
Hector nearly choked. “You think?”
“The contracts from three hundred years ago are void,” Duardo told the Goblin. “You can stay in
this realm only if you abide by our rules. Nothing is yours. Not anymore.”
“I like your fresh meat,” the Goblin said as if Duardo hadn’t spoken, smiling even more wickedly than before. “They’re about to die slowly, and yet they laugh.”
Hector and Luis were no longer smiling. Duardo and Abhijay took a step forward, moving as one, and Hector blinked, gaping again. Impossibly, they held large exotic-looking weapons that hadn’t been in their hands only a split-second before. As the shadow-monster drifted toward them, Duardo lunged to put himself in front of Hector and Luis, and Abhijay burst into a blur of motion, his weapon moving with blinding speed as he advanced on the Goblin. But the little ancient man was impossibly fast, too. He giggled with a flash of golden teeth and danced out of reach to hide behind the shadow-monster as Abhijay shouted, “Get them inside, Duardo. I’ll cover you.”
Duardo shook his head, not taking his eyes off the shadow. “I’m not leaving you alone with an
Hector noticed the Vampire looked bored. He was actually studying his nails.
“You will do precisely as you’re ordered, and take these boys out of harm’s way. They have no
training. Do you want their deaths on your hands?” His Spanish was so rapid, Hector blinked.
“Nope,” Duardo answered. “No, I won’t do it.”
Two enormous owls fell from the sky then, turning into fully-armed men before they reached the
ground. Dressed in all black, their weapons flashed as they attacked the shadow-thing, and after a series of soft pops from the largest revolvers Hector had ever seen outside of a science fiction movie, the shadow stilled, falling like black satin to the ground. The new arrivals leapt through the air, their long dreadlocks trailing behind them as the first one sliced through the solidifying darkness with a long sword, and the next instant there was nothing left of the monster but an oily puddle on the ground. Part of Hector’s brain acknowledged that it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen.
Then he realized Duardo and Abhijay had subdued the Goblin, who lay motionless at their feet,
their strange weapons held at its throat. In the chaos he’d missed watching it.
“Took you guys long enough,” Abhijay growled at the owl-men—Jodha.
Instead of being offended by this, the men grinned happily, the taller of the two said something
in a language Hector didn’t recognize, and Abhijay burst into sudden laughter.
Then the Jodha noticed Hector and Luis, and straightened. The man with shorter dreads lunged
forward and Hector and Luis stepped back in unison.
“Welcome to The Guard,” he said, his accent Jamaican, his smile brilliant. He turned to Duardo.
“We starting with field training now?”
“No,” Duardo said. “This was an unplanned exercise. They still have twenty-four hours.”
“Oh, I’m definitely in,” Luis said, shaking the man’s outstretched hand cheerfully. Apparently
he’d found something he enjoyed more than flirting and dancing. The second owl-man slapped Luis on the back, and he staggered forward with a laugh. Hector shook his head. Luis really was afraid of nothing. Already he was practically as relaxed as the others.
“You want to tell us what the hell’s going on?” The first man turned to Duardo, wiping his weapon—one Hector couldn’t even begin to recognize—on his long shirt. The weapon was absolutely stunning, and in that moment Hector hoped he really was a Tvastar, if it meant he could someday create such beauty.
“Why don’t you answer that, Benjamin?” Abhijay called to the Vampire, not taking his attention
from the Goblin at his feet. Duardo's weapon seemed to be digging into its neck. The Vampire looked slightly annoyed, but pouting only seemed to add to his exquisite looks. Duardo snorted. “Five hundred and sixty-eight years, and he suddenly decides to quit peaceful asylum and go into business with the Goblins and Asura for Civilian killing-spree rights. Explain that shit, if you can.”
“That is not what this is about,” the Vampire drawled, his voice just as beautiful as his face.
“And if you had given us a chance to explain, instead of butchering the Asura like wild barbarians...”
“Please.” Abhijay sounded dangerous again. “Enlighten us, then.”
The Vampire opened its mouth to speak, but just then the Goblin regained consciousness with a
terrifying shriek. “Wait! Don’t kill me!”
Abhijay pushed his weapon against the Goblin and its eyes rolled toward the Vampire, its gaze
pleading. “Give me one good reason not to,” Abhijay said quietly.
“There is a Khakhua. Here.” Seeing that the Vampire would make no move to help it, all of the
Goblin’s smug composure vanished as the four Infernal Guard men stilled, the night air charged with
their intensity. “Please! It already killed two of my colleagues and now it’s after me.”
Abhijay dug his weapon farther into the Goblin’s chest and growled, “Why?”
“You have to protect me! I have asylum! You have to—”
Duardo stepped on the Goblin’s hand. “We do not have to do anything.”
The Jodha with longer dreads turned to Hector and whispered, “We do have to protect him,
“There hasn’t been a Khakhua in this realm in over a hundred years,” Abhijay said, his voice full
of disgust. “What did you and your filthy colleagues do to bring one here? Piss off a Gjenganger?”
Hector and Luis glanced at each other, the meaning of the Indian guy’s words completely lost on
them. “It was one shipment of Makara tongues—one shipment of dozens,” the Goblin whined. “We
didn’t think it would be missed.”
Duardo put more weight on the Goblin’s hand and it cried out as Hector heard bones snap. “How
much time do we have until it jumps again?”
The Goblin shook its head rapidly, his tiny figure writhing under their weapons.
“An hour. Maybe two,” the Vampire drawled, bored.
“Tarone, Bembe,” Abhijay said, not taking his eyes off the Goblin. The two owl-men made a hand-gesture at each other before stepping forward. “Take this filth into custody at the resort until we find the Khakhua.”
“Yes, Sir,” they said in unison, easily dragging the Goblin to his feet.
“The resort?” The Goblin looked close to full-out panic now, and Hector felt pity at the sight of an old man being bullied by a group of younger, much stronger men. But then the Goblin flashed its sharp teeth at him and Hector was glad it didn’t seem to be able to break free from the carved metal the two Jodha had wrapped around its arms. “You can’t take me to the resort!” The Goblin was frantic now, turning toward the Vampire with a shrill cry. “Benjamin, please!”
The Vampire winked at Hector and he felt a jolt of nausea spread through him even as the Vampire’s smile dazzled him with its beauty. The Goblin continued to scream, “Benjamin, you traitorous bastard! You know that’s where the Khakhua went!”
The two Jodha holding the creature froze, turning to Abhijay with widened eyes.
Abhijay stepped forward, towering over the Goblin.
“Explain exactly how you led a Khakhua into our resort,” he said softly. “And choose your words carefully. Asylum or not, your life very much depends on the words you say next.”
The Vampire took a step back and rolled his eyes.
The Goblin swallowed hard, looking absolutely pathetic, and Hector nearly moved to help it, but with a golden shimmer, it transformed to a ghoulish version of itself, its nose piggish, its eyes red, its skin a silvery-gold. Hector realized its previous appearance had been some kind of disguise.
“The Asura subdued the Khakhua,” the Goblin began, “after it jumped from Reynolds, and we —”
“Reynolds is dead?” Abhijay demanded.
The Goblin nodded its head rapidly. “After Murphy it jumped to him. I knew I was next—it was
the three of us involved in the Gjenganger shipment two hundred and seventy five years ago...”
“And so? What then?”
“We, uh, I knew you could help us destroy it, don’t you see? That the Gjenganger might not
follow up on its revenge if... if it thought we were dead...”
“Liar,” Abhijay said. And before Hector could register what happened, the Goblin lay dead on
the ground, its head and hands severed. Tarone and Bembe jumped lightly aside, as if their bones were
light as feathers, and Hector marveled at their grace even as he shivered at the sight of the severed hands twitching against the ground before finally falling still. The Vampire yawned, looking for all the world like a bored model. “I told him this was a stupid plan. When a Gjenganger finds you, you can try to run, but you’re dead. And now there’s a Khakhua loose in your resort. With your beautiful granddaughter.” Abhijay took a lunging step toward the Vampire, but it jumped back smoothly.
“I’d say you actually have...” The Vampire looked at its wrist, pouting. “Fifty minutes until it
jumps again.” The Vampire straightened his suit jacket with an elegant shrug. “I actually did get a glimpse of the guy.”
Everyone stilled, waiting. “Obese white dude. Maybe six-three? Sunburned. Hideous sandals.” The Vampire waved a hand elegantly. “Horribly unfortunate cargo shorts, balding red hair, big Patriots fan.” It grimaced. Abhijay kicked at the remains of the Goblin. “We let you live, you get this proof of its revenge to the Gjenganger before it decides to send more Khakhua.” The Vampire raised one perfect eyebrow, and smiled shining fangs.
“You let me live?”
Duardo and the two Jamaican Jodha stepped forward in unison and the Vampire cocked its head and raised its hands in surrender, taking a step backward. “Deal,” it said.
Abhijay nodded once, and, in a blur of movement, the Vampire and Goblin disappeared back into the shadows. Abhijay turned to Bembe and Tarone. “Gather the others. We’ll check the cameras.” Duardo cleared his throat. “Well?” Abhijay said, jerking his chin at Hector and Luis. “Continue the lesson.” Duardo scowled at the trees, but motioned for them to follow as he moved through the trees
toward the tourist-trap resort that towered over the ocean, glittering in the night a few blocks away.
They walked in silence, Luis jogging to keep up with Duardo and Hector’s long strides, and then
Duardo said in Spanish, “Do either of you happen to know what a Khakhua is?”
The cousins glanced at each other and shook their heads.
“No, sir,” they said together.
“Have you heard of the cannibal tribe of West Indonesia, the Korowai?”
“Uh, not really, no...” Hector said.
“Well, the Khakhua is a demon from one of the Underworlds. It possesses an unsuspecting man, never a woman, we don’t know why. While the man continues on as usual, completely oblivious to his
eminent death, the Khakhua eats him from the inside out, turning his blood, organs, and bones to ash
before jumping to its next victim. The only way to stop a Khakhua is to cook and eat the host.”
“Isn’t there any way to save the man?” Hector asked, horrified.
“Nope, not that we know of.” Duardo thought. “Maybe if we got to the guy immediately after
the possession, before the Khakhua could start feeding? It’s never been done though...”
“So...” Luis started, panting to keep stride with Duardo.
“So, the Korowai aren’t strictly a cannibal tribe, right? Good.”
Luis shook his head at Hector, his eyes wide, and Hector knew they had been thinking the same
thing. We aren’t going to have to cook and eat a man, are we?
“Um...” Hector began. “The person has to be eaten...? You guys won’t actually—”
“The possessed person, right,” Duardo said. “To save the tribe. Actually, wait. If there hasn’t
been an actual Khakhua in our realm for over a hundred years, I guess they are just cannibals. Never
mind.” He waved a giant hand.
“And...Makara tongues...?” Luis panted. Hector glanced at him in surprise. His cousin had been
paying more attention to the details of monster-hunting than he would’ve given him credit for, judging
by his inability to stop flirting and pay attention in any classroom.
“Sea monsters,” Duardo answered. “From the tenth world. Very difficult to come by, apparently.”
Tenth world? The man made no sense.
“Sea monsters?” Luis asked.
“Yep. A crocosaurus, if you will. Extremely ugly, according to the drawings.”
“So, this jane...gang,” Hector began. He realized how insane he sounded, but was still unable to stop himself. “It’s some kind of crime boss monster who deals in crocosaurus tongues...?”
“From what we know, the Gjenganger is pretty close to the Scandinavian legends,” Duardo answered. “A creature that returns from the dead, seeking revenge for unfinished business. Only they
aren’t actually ghosts—they’re Talatala realm monsters. It’s lucky for the Goblins they rarely leave
their territories, much less their realm.”
Duardo swept on as if Hector hadn’t spoken. “Nothing we know of can hold a grudge like the
Gjenganger. The Goblins must have been out of their damn minds to steal from one. And now we’ll
never know what their motives were, since Abhijay lost his temper.”
“Because of his granddaughter,” Hector said.
“Mostly,” Duardo said, shrugging one shoulder. They were quickly approaching the resort’s employee parking lot now. “Just goes to show what can happen when money and power go to your head, boys. That Goblin was 800 years old, but still didn’t have the sense to know not to threaten Abhijay’s family.”
Hector and Luis followed Duardo down a wide alley that ran between the resort and a parking
lot. Almost to its end, he opened a large metal door in the building’s side which they entered to find
themselves in room filled with computer monitors. Abhijay sat at a chair facing five monitors, each one showing four images from security cameras within the resort.
“There!” Abhijay pointed, without turning to them, his finger hovering over an image of an obese man in shorts and sandals, wearing a Patriots T-shirt. “Got him.”
Duardo moved to stand behind Abhijay’s chair and Hector and Luis gathered around next to him. Abhijay froze the image and zoomed in on it, his fingers moving across the keyboard closest to him, and within seconds, the image of a Boston driver’s license filled the screen, showing them a 34 year old Paul Jackson. Duardo grabbed the chair next to Abhijay’s, shoving it aside as he pulled up the resort’s bookings on the closest monitor.
“Paul Jackson. Room 312.” He slapped the desk. “Got you.”
Before Hector had time to protest Paul Jackson’s eminent death, the interior door opened, flooding the room with bright light, live Indian music, and the smell of cooking spices and vegetables. A tall girl with blonde hair pulled into a French braid, stood in the doorway. Despite her height, she looked to be only fifteen or sixteen. She was dressed like a waitress—white collar-shirt, black pants—a short silk apron patterned with paisleys and wide pockets wrapped around her waist. For a split-second she looked startled to see Duardo, Hector, and Luis, but she recovered quickly, and entered the room with confident strides the moment she saw Abhijay.
“BapuJi?” she said. “Rajeev said you wanted to know if anyone orders anything... unusual?” She continued to ignore the three others as she handed Abhijay a white slip. “Room three-twelve just
ordered... blood soup. And brain.”
Abhijay took the slip from her and stood, the picture of calmness.
“We don’t... actually serve brain, do we?”
“Of course not.” His smile widened. “You can get back to work now, Lexi, thank you.”
The girl—Lexi—turned to scowl at Hector, Luis, and even Duardo before she left.
Duardo said, “I hope you don’t expect me to bring these two...”
“Of course not,” Abhijay said again, checking an enormous revolver that seemed to magically
appear in his hands. “They can stay here and lend a hand in the restaurant until we get back.”
Duardo reached out to grip his shoulder in his enormous grasp, and Hector felt his knees threaten to buckle, even as another wave of glowing health washed over him.
“Okay, boys,” Duardo said. “Through that door is the kitchen. You tell them the boss sent you to help out. You wash dishes, clean tables, chop food, whatever. And you say absolutely nothing about anything monster-related to anyone, understood? When we get back we’ll show you to your suites and
get you settled in.”
“What about our twenty-four hours?” Hector asked, suddenly panicked he’d never see his family
“You still have them.” Duardo grinned. “You’ll just know your way around better once you
decide to join.”
Abhijay opened the door to the alley, and Duardo hurried to follow him out, leaving Hector and
Luis alone in the glow of the monitors. The image of the unfortunate tourist was no longer plastered
across them, but Hector felt as if the face of Paul Jackson was now and forever seared into his memory. After standing uncertainly in the office for a few more seconds, the cousins crossed through the restaurant door as Luis said, “Do you think the Khakhua—”
“What did Duardo just say, man?” Hector hissed at him.
“Oh, yeah.” Luis looked chastised. “Sorry. I just—”
The blonde girl stood leaning on the wall behind the office door, her arms crossed. She glared atthem as she pushed herself off the wall, moving with a fluid grace that immediately reminded Hector of the Jamaican Jodha.
“The Khakhua?” she asked. “The mythical demon of West Indonesian Korowai tribe fame?
What about it?”
Luis’s steps faltered in surprise, but he managed to smile his best flirty smile at her. Instead of melting into giggles—the usual reaction—Lexi only narrowed her eyes.
“I was talking about hot chocolate,” Luis told her. “Cacao. Why you gotta bring demons into
this?” Before Lexi could answer, Hector added, “The boss hired us to help. That’s why we’re here.”
Lexi eyed their clothes skeptically. “Yeah?”
Luis grinned, stepping close to her. “Oh, yeah.”
She rolled her eyes, but turned away from the sounds of live music toward the sounds of the kitchen as Hector and Luis followed.
“Asha!” Lexi shouted as she entered the kitchen. An Indian girl sat at the counter, dressed identically to Lexi, her dark hair in two high buns held up with sticks, reading a book and eating. She raised a finger without looking up.
“BapuJi sent these two for you to manage, so break’s over.”
Asha nodded at her book.
“They were talking about Khakhua and acting... suspicious.”
The girl looked up then, and Hector stared in surprise before he could stop himself. Her eyes
were a startling bright green-blue. A Seer’s eyes.
“The mythical demon of West Indonesian Korowai tribe fame?” she asked. “What about them?”
“Hot chocolate recipes,” Luis insisted, placing a hand on his heart in a charming gesture, and bowing his head. “That is all, I swear it on my favorite kitten.” When he smiled, Asha smiled back, then grinned when he added, “Is she always like this?”
Lexi shoved past him to Asha’s side. “The party of ten at table six asked why we don’t have belly dancers. Again.” She reached into her apron and slapped a leather bill folder onto the counter in front of Asha. “So either you take over their table, or we find out what happens to the human nose when jalapeños on toothpicks are violently jammed into them.”
“Yes,” Asha said, tucking the folder into her own apron. “She is always like this. It’s part of her charm.”
“We just want to work,” Hector said, extending his hand. “I’m Hector. This is my cousin Luis.”
“I’m Asha,” the girl with the strange eyes said, shaking his hand with a smile. “And that’s Lexi.” Lexi raised a hand in a backward wave as she left the kitchen. Asha pointed at the men working in the kitchen. “That’s Rajeev in the paper hat there. Then Raj, Justin, and Roberto. What do you guys want to do? Bus tables? Fill dishwashers? We won’t make you interact with customers on your first night, don’t worry.” Luis looked down at his clothes and started to protest, but Hector said, “Whatever you need.”
“Oi!” Lexi leaned into the kitchen. “You! Luis! Clean up on table ten.”
She was gone, replaced by a waiter who looked harassed as he gathered up a platter of food and rushed back out again.
Asha laughed at the look of horror on Luis’s face. “C’mon,” she said. “I’ll show you.”
She set towels and cleaning solution into a delicate silver cart and wheeled it into the restaurant,
a room broken up by different levels, full of exotic silks in warm reds, oranges, and golds. Hanging
lanterns cast a dim glow over the tables below them, the carved silver platters on the walls, the colorful
Persian rugs. A band of six musicians played off to the right, sitting on the floor of a low, circular stage.
Asha told them over the music, “It’s not usually this crazy around here, but there’s a wedding and a business conference this weekend. And, on top of that, two of our other wait staff called in sick.” She led the way to a deserted table near the restaurant’s main entrance, and the three of them stood, looking down at what Hector thought was surely the result of some kind of animal going berserk as he surveyed the mess of spilled food and drink, broken dishes and glasses, scattered silverware and
napkins. “Uh...” Asha hesitated as another customer waved at her. “Just... gather everything in the
tablecloth, put it all in the bottom of the cart, and wipe down the table.” Hector and Luis turned matching pleading stares at her.
Asha laughed and slapped them each on the shoulder. “You got this. Welcome to the restaurant
business.” She raised her thumbs at them, and hurried to see what the customer needed, then drifted to other tables, leaving them to clear the mess. Luis lifted the toppled flower arrangement and Hector gathered the table cloth—a delicate looking patterned silk, which proved to be stronger and more synthetic than it looked—into a kind of sack. He lifted the dripping mess and quickly placed it into the bottom of the cart. He raised his head and gasped. An obese man wearing sandals, shorts, and a Patriots T-shirt was entering the restaurant, approaching the host. Luis paused in his half-assed job of mopping up the table with a towel.
“The guy,” Hector hissed, pointing his chin. “The Khakhua thing.”
“You watch him. I’m gonna see if Asha has Abhijay’s number.”
Luis stepped closer to Hector. “What do you mean watch him? What the hell am I supposed to do if he...if he...”
It was Lexi, her arms crossed, her eyes narrowed at them once again.
“No problem,” Luis said brightly, returning to wiping the table.
“I need to use the restroom,” Hector announced.
Lexi shook her head as she headed straight toward the table where the possessed man now sat,
and greeted him, all smiles and cheer. Hector tried not to run through the restaurant as he followed Asha’s disappearing form into the kitchen, nearly colliding with another server who was carrying a platter of drinks.
“Hector, are you okay?” Asha looked alarmed. “You look...”
“I think I’m—sick,” he said. “Do you have the boss’s number?”
“My grandfather? Yeah, sure.” She unlocked her phone, handing it to him. “Here, sit down. You
seriously don’t look okay.”
“Thanks,” Hector mumbled. So Asha was Abhijay’s granddaughter. Of course she was. Hector began to feel the weight of what Abhijay might do if anything horrible were to happen to her, being that there was a fucking monster sitting in the next room. He could probably kiss his chances of joining The Guard goodbye, for starters. Abhijay answered after one ring.
“This is Hector Ayala, sir. Uh...” He glanced at Asha and she quickly turned to work on a bill.
“The guy—the ugly sandals dude—is, he’s here.” In his agitation, Hector had completely forgotten the
man’s name. “In the restaurant.”
“We’re on our way,” Abhijay said. “Keep him there.”
“Do not let Asha or Lexi—or anyone—know anything is wrong,” Abhijay said. His voice was
dangerous, just like when he’d spoken to the Goblin, and Hector stilled, nodding stupidly.
“They are only fifteen and as yet innocent of The Guard,” he continued. “Let’s keep it that way.”
“Now, go. We’ll be there shortly.”
Hector didn’t see Asha, so he pocketed the phone and rushed back into the restaurant, where Luis stood still wiping the table down, his eyes fixed on Sandal Dude. When Hector joined him, he hissed in rapid Spanish, “What if he’s fine? I mean, what if he’s just a normal guy, you know? Not possessed by a fucking demon?”
“I...” Hector shook his head, feeling very close to panic. His aunt definitely wouldn’t approve of
them getting an innocent man cooked and eaten. “Abhijay said he’s on his way. We just... keep him
here. And watch him.” Luis swore colorfully. “It’s fine,” Hector said, as much trying to convince himself as Luis. “It’s gonna be fine.” They watched as Sandal Dude studied his menu, looking completely normal and not at all like his insides were turning to ash.
“I gotta be honest,” Lexi said, suddenly at Hector’s elbow. “You guys aren’t helping out much.
And it’s not polite to stare at the customers. You can scare people like that, you know.” She eyed Hector. “Especially you.”
She shoved a pitcher of water at him. “You were about to fill his glass. I’m not going near him.”
“Why?” Asha had joined them. Hector groaned inwardly. How the hell was he supposed to keep
these two from noticing anything?
“Because,” Lexi said. “He just ordered brain.”
Asha’s eerie eyes widened, and Hector was sure they looked brighter. “Excuse me?”
“What the fuck is up with all these people ordering brain tonight? It’s not like it’s on our
fucking menu. And BapuJi isn’t here. I just checked the office.” Hector grabbed the water from her and strode to Sandal Dude’s table, filling his glass with a smile. He tried to make small talk about the weather—getting nowhere—then asked him if there was anything at all he could get for him. But just as the man lifted his menu to explain—brain with a side of blood, no doubt—Tarone and Bembe entered the restaurant. Hector couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so happy to see anyone in his life. Lexi hurried to greet the Jamaicans at the door, greeting the Jodha like old friends, performing
some kind of complex, very Guard-esque handshake with them and laughing. As Hector watched, Lexi’s expression filled with confusion as they pointed to Sandal Dude, no doubt telling her they were
there to meet him for dinner. Maybe the Khakhua could sense Jodha. Maybe it was just getting ready to “jump” as Duardo had called it. Whatever the case, Sandal Dude suddenly tried to stand, and Hector—panic driving his movements—placed a hand on his shoulder and shoved him back into his seat. The man looked up at him and time seemed to slow as all hope that this was an ordinary human left Hector’s mind. The thing opened its mouth, wide, wider, and wider still. Hector saw something shining and green writhe in its gaping throat and felt a scream building within himself as every instinct shrieked at him to take his hand off the demonic monster and run—but there was Luis, slamming a butter knife into its hand, pinning it to the table. The thing closed its mouth with a snap as powdery ash spilled from its wound onto the white and gold place mat. Time jolted back into place as Tarone and Bembe reached them in a blur of movement from one side as Asha rushed toward them from the other, her blue-green eyes full of alarm. “You can’t touch customers—what are you doing?” She spoke rapid, fluent Spanish, just like her grandfather. And she was almost to the table. Hector didn’t stop to think how ridiculous he would make himself. He spun and staggered toward her, clutching her shoulder to turn her to him as he swooned heavily to the ground, twitching his legs for good measure. It worked. A group of people exclaimed in alarm, and all of Asha’s attention was immediately on him alone as she crouched at his side and yelled, “Oh, my God! Hector!”
Lexi ran to her side, and Hector realized with relief that Abhijay was with her.
“Hurry,” he said. “Help me get him into the office before the other customers get upset.”
“Get upset?” Asha gaped. “BapuJi, Hector needs an ambulance!”
“Nonsense,” Abhijay told her. “He’ll be fine. See? He’s walking already.”
Lexi and Asha stared at each other wide-eyed but said nothing more as they helped Hector to the
office, where Asha quickly pulled up a chair for him.
“You have your medication, I hope?” Abhijay asked him, and Hector nodded, patting his pocket.
“Water, Asha,” he ordered, and she darted for the sink in the corner. “Thank you. You two will
stay here and keep an eye on Hector until I return.” The girls glanced at each other, but didn’t protest, and Abhijay left the room. “This has been one strange-ass night,” Lexi muttered the minute the door closed behind him. “Yeah, it has...” Asha watched Hector with concern as he pretended to take medicine from his pocket and swallow it. “Reminds me of the night—”
Abhijay entered the office again, saying, “Hector, you may join Luis. Take a break outside after
you clean up.” Lexi and Asha widened their eyes at each other again. “Already?” Asha said. “He just collapsed like five seconds ago!”
“His cousin is concerned for his well-being,” Abhijay told her. “And I need you two to help me
Hector hurried back into the restaurant where Luis was busy collecting the ash-covered
tablecloth into a bunch and shoving it into the cart. The band still blared, the singer shouting even louder in a language Hector didn’t recognize, and the dim lights helped keep the other patrons’
attention on either the raised platform, or their own parties, thankfully.
“You should have seen it,” Luis said excitedly. “They were like ninjas! So cool, man...”
“Abhijay wants us in the alley,” Hector told him, taking hold of the cart. “Hurry up.”
In the alley, Duardo, Tarone, and Bembe stood over Sandal Dude, pointing their revolvers at his
round middle as he lay on the asphalt. The thing’s horrific mouth began to slowly open again, something like slimy green fingers beginning to wiggle in its depths...
“Stand in front of that door and keep it closed,” Duardo told Hector.
To the others he said, “Now.”
Hector watched as they shot the unfortunate man—not man—with something that definitely
wasn’t bullets, and as Duardo tossed something at it, the Khakhua burst into flames with a sound
Hector could hardly describe, like metallic talons along a blackboard during a car crash. The night
filled with the stench of burning flesh a moment later as a cloud of ashes floated on the ocean breeze.
Hector tried not to breathe. Too soon, the flesh stopped burning. It was simply...cooked. Hector wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer, but he couldn’t stop the words from bursting out of him.
Bembe grinned. “Now we feed some wild boars, mon, what else?”
“That’s right!” Tarone slapped Hector’s back as Bembe wrapped the remains in some kind of silvery, fire-proof quilt thing and lifted it into a waiting SUV. “What did you think? That we’re cannibals, eh?”
The three men broke into laughter, performing a strange handshake a moment later, and Duardo got in the car as the two Jodha transformed into owls in the blink of an eye, silently blending with the night sky. Hector and Luis stared after them with their mouths hanging open, until Duardo called, “Good work, boys! Stay here and help out until closing. I’ll be back.”
Luis saluted him as Duardo drove away—to meet up with wild boars, presumably—and Hector continued to gaze up at the darkness blanketing the world around them. Suddenly the expanse of star-filled sky seemed even more endless, even more filled with impossible possibilities, and Hector shivered in spite of the heat. “I can’t believe Abuelo didn’t tell us anything about any of this shit!” Luis said, dusting off his jacket. “We could’ve—”
“Shit, here you are.” It was Lexi again. She had said ‘shit’ like it had three syllables. “Are you two here to work, or what the hell?”
“Lexi, for Christ’s sake,” Asha hissed. “Give him a minute.”
Lexi pointed at them. “Something is weird about you guys. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
“I know, right?” Luis fixed his hair. “It’s really weird how handsome I am!”
“Yeah. You can take over table six with your handsome ass.” Lexi turned back toward the door.
“I’m sure we can even find you a belly dancing outfit.”
Luis shook his hips behind Lexi’s back, and Asha widened her eerie eyes at him in warning before bursting into laughter. As Hector followed the girls back into the restaurant he shook his head in wonder. Without a doubt, whoever was lucky enough to join The Guard with Asha and Lexi was in for some adventures, that was for damn sure.
Wow! What an amazing year it has been for fiction!