Another Systema Paradoxa book, All-The-Way House by Keith R.A. DeCandido, to be featured in a future Cryptid Crate. We have a lot of these coming up as we get the series up to spead. But don’t worry, there are some exciting titles coming up in other genres too! The neat thing about the SP books, though, is that even though they are a series and all feature cryptids, each author has their own take and style, and not only do the stories draw on echoes of other genres, but some–like this one–are a part of the author’s larger literary universe! Win-Win!
We hope you enjoy!
State of New Jersey, United States of America
“Why are we even coming to the office? It’s freezing.”
Valentina Perrone smiled at the plaintive wail of her apprentice. She was trying to find the right keys to her storefront office on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and North Carolina Avenue. Her leather gloves made that search take a bit longer, which was probably why Sarah el-Guindi was standing behind her complaining and shivering.
Finally locating the right ones, she unlocked the padlock that kept the bolt in place. With the lock off, the bolt could be pulled out, thus permitting the metal gate to rise from its lowered position and allow access to the glass door.
“Finally,” Sarah muttered. “And you haven’t answered my question.”
Chuckling, Valentina bent over, grabbed the handle, and then threw the gate upward. Its metallic rattle echoed in the frigid air.
As she tried to find the other key, which would unlock the glass door, Valentina said, “Atlantic City ain’t the most crowded place on Earth this time of year, but that doesn’t mean there ain’t nobody here, y’know? We might still get clients.”
“Who can call us or e-mail us.” Sarah was now jumping up and down to keep warm, her hijab sliding back from her forehead a bit. “Which we can answer in your nice warm house in Hammonton.”
“We get walk-ins here, especially from people who work the hotels and casinos. They don’t like to talk over the phone about this stuff. And their bosses tend to read their e-mails. There it is!” Valentina found the right key and inserted it into the lock.
Sarah practically ran past Valentina once she got the door open. The office space was small, which was good, as it kept the price down. The rent she paid on this space in Atlantic City would rent an office four times this size in her hometown of Hammonton, which was thirty miles to the west.
But AC also had the clients with the deepest pockets.
Sarah flicked the switch to turn on a fluorescent light in the middle of the ceiling and then moved directly to the space heater that sat atop the minifridge in the corner and put it on high.
Valentina had retrieved the mail from the small metal box next to the front door and then came in and shrugged out of her down coat. “Y’know, it’s been, what, five years now since you moved here? You ain’t used to Jersey winters yet?”
Warming her hands on the heater as it hummed to life, Sarah glanced back and said, “I come from a desert people, what do you want from me?”
“Last time I checked, it got cold in the desert, too,” Valentina said with a chuckle as she went through the mail, tossing all the catalogues and advertisements and political flyers into the garbage can. That left the notice to pay the rent from the landlord and a handwritten envelope.
Holding up the former, she said, “File this, will you please, Sarah?”
Sarah glared at her, obviously not wanting to move away from the heater. She also hadn’t taken her coat off yet. Walking over to the desk to snatch the piece of cardboard, she then went to the file cabinet next to the minifridge. “I don’t know why they send you these things. You pay the rent electronically.”
“I finally stopped asking them to not send me those things after the tenth time.” Valentina shrugged. “They got a computer system that sends ’em automatically. So I file ’em, just in case there’s a problem down the line.”
“Have you ever had a problem?”
“And yet you save every single piece of paper,” Sarah said in a long-suffering tone after filing the rent notice with the others in a manila folder and closing the file cabinet drawer.
“You never know when you might need it. Hey, listen to this,” Valentina added as she sat down in the leather chair behind her desk. She had opened the handwritten envelope. “It’s a thank-you note from the Frank family. Well, it says it’s from the Frank family, but it’s really from their little girl, Helena. ‘Dear Ms. Perrone. Thank you for getting the ghost out of our house. It really made me and Mommy and Daddy happy. We all had a good night’s sleep for the first time in forever, and now Mommy and Daddy say I can get a puppy. We love you, Helena Frank.’”
Sarah just stood there, her hands clenched over her heart. “Okay, that is the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Valentina grinned. “It’s the little things.”
“So, when do I get to learn how to use weapons?”
With a sigh, Valentina said, “Not this crap again. I told you, I’m more of a magick items kinda gal. Weapons just means people get hurt.”
“I was talking with José Maldonado—”
Crossing herself, Valentina said, “Jesu, Giuseppe, Mari, do not take advice on being a Courser from José. If it was up to him, we’d just shoot everything with that stupid .45 of his. And most of the time, that don’t work.”
“He also said you always use magick items because your cousin owns the store over on Baltic and Indiana.”
“Yeah, I love my cousin Bobby, but you may’ve noticed I don’t actually buy nothin’ at his store. I go to Saladin’s back home in Hammonton. If nothin’ else, Bobby’s prices are through the roof ’cause he’s gotta pay AC rent. Plus, most of his stuff’s garbage, ’cause he sells to tourists.”
“I seem to recall a supply of silver sticks you purchased from him last week.”
“’Cause Saladin was out, and I needed ’em for those rabid werewolves.”
The glass door opened, and a man wearing a very expensive-looking trench coat over a thousand-dollar suit walked in. He removed his Ray-Bans and put them in the inner pocket of his suit jacket. “‘Bout time you opened, Val. Been waitin’ all mornin’.”
After shooting Sarah an I-told-you-so look, Valentina stood up. “We been here, like, fifteen minutes, Rocco, what took you so long to walk in?”
“I been waitin’ back at the hotel. I had Freddie across the street keepin’ an eye out. He called me when you showed up, and then I drove over.”
Sitting back down in her chair, Valentina shook her head. She hadn’t noticed anybody across the street, but Freddie could’ve been in one of the fast-food joints. “Always a pleasure, Rocco. What can I do for you?”
Rocco, however, was staring at Sarah. “Who’s this?”
“Oh, sorry. Rocco Amalfitano, head of security for Atlantic Resorts Casino and Hotel, this is my apprentice, Sarah el-Guindi.”
Rocco turned to stare confusedly at Valentina. “You got an apprentice? That’s, like, a thing?”
“How do you think we get new Coursers?”
“The hell do I know? Maybe you grow ’em in a lab.”
Valentina chuckled and indicated the guest chair that faced her desk. “Have a seat, Rocco, and tell me what you need.”
As he sat down, Rocco pulled a smartphone out of his trench coat pocket. “We got a thing on the beach. Clients’re freakin’ out. I need you to get it the hell off the beach before the bosses find out.”
Sarah asked, “How does anybody even know it’s there?”
“Whaddaya mean?” Rocco asked.
“Who would be going on the beach in this weather?”
Rolling his eyes, Rocco said, “Somebody’s always on the beach. We could have ten feet of snow, and somebody’d be on the beach.” He had been fondling the screen of his phone. Finally seeming to find what he needed, he handed the phone to Valentina.
Taking the phone, she stared at the image. A sandy beach dotted with shells in the foreground, breaking waves of blue-green water in the background, and right where the two met, a dark-green-scaled creature that either had two arms and two legs, or four legs—it was hard to tell at that angle—with a large round head, tiny recessed eyes, and a snout that looked vaguely fishlike.
“That’s the only picture we got, but at least three clients’ve seen it. They’re sayin’ it’s the Jersey Devil, if you can believe that garbage.”
Valentina handed the phone to Sarah so she could get a look at it. “Aw, c’mon, Rocco, you don’t think the Jersey Devil’s real?”
“Maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t, but I ain’t never seen it. And I seen some stuff. Why you think I keep comin’ back here?”
Shrugging, Valentina said, “My charm and good looks?”
Rocco snorted. “Well, you are pretty good lookin’, for a crazy Courser lady.”
Sarah handed the phone back to Rocco. “Can you e-mail us the picture, please, Mr. Amalfitano?”
“Absolutely. And hey, call me Rocco. Mr. Amalfitano is what people call me when they got a problem, and it gets me all nervous. But I’m the one with the problem, so call me Rocco.” Rocco started fondling the phone screen again, and then asked Valentina, “Same e-mail address as last time?”
Tapping the phone screen with a flourish, Rocco said, “Sent,” and put the phone in his coat pocket. “You know what that thing is?”
“I got a few ideas,” Valentina said. “But don’t worry, I’ll have it off the beach and outta your hair within twenty-four hours.”
“Okay, great. So, I don’t gotta pay the usual rate for this, right? I mean, it’s the off-season.”
With a sigh, Valentina then engaged in her least favorite aspect of this job: haggling. It took about a minute and a half for her to convince Rocco that Coursers didn’t have an off-season even if casinos did, and for him to agree to her usual payment rate. Or, more accurately, her usual rate for the casinos, which was about twenty percent higher than it was for anyone else, as the casinos could damn well afford it. It was Valentina’s way of making up for how the casinos themselves overcharged for so much.
After that, Rocco took his leave. As soon as the door closed, Valentina crossed herself again. “Jesu, Giuseppe, Mari, every damn time.”
“He always tries to talk down the price?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah. If I charged twice as much, it wouldn’t be a helluva lot more than a damn rounding error in the casino’s budget, but no, he’s gotta try to nickel-and-dime me. And he pulls it every single time he hires me.” Valentina blew out a breath. “C’mon, we gotta take a trip up to the Pine Barrens.”
Keith R.A. DeCandido has written several other tales of Coursers (or Slayers) and their work keeping the world safe from supernatural threats, including the novels A Furnace Sealed and the forthcoming Feat of Clay (both from WordFire Press) and the short stories “Under the King’s Bridge” in Liar Liar (Mendacity Press), “Materfamilias” in Bad Ass Moms (Crazy 8 Press), and “Unguarded” in Devilish and Divine (eSpec Books).
His other work includes media tie-in fiction in more than thirty different licensed universes from Alien to Zorro, as well as fiction in his own worlds, including fantastical police procedurals in the fictional cities of Cliff’s End and Super City, as well as urban fantasy tales in the somewhat real locales of Key West and New York City. He also writes pop-culture commentary, primarily for the award-winning site Tor.com, but also for various books and magazines.
Recent and upcoming work includes the novels Phoenix Precinct (the next in his series of police procedurals in an epic fantasy setting, from eSpec Books), Animal (a thriller written with Dr. Munish K. Batra, from WordFire), To Hell and Regroup (a military science fiction novel written with David Sherman, from eSpec Books), and the aforementioned Feat of Clay; short stories in the anthologies Pangaea Book 3: Redemption (Crazy 8), Footprints in the Stars (eSpec), Across the Universe: Tales of Alternative Beatles (Fantastic Books), and Turning the Tied (a charity anthology from the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers); and new graphic novels from TokyoPop in the world of Resident Evil, tying into the Netflix animated series Infinite Darkness.
Keith is also a third-degree black belt in karate (he both teaches and trains), a professional musician (currently percussionist for the parody band Boogie Knights), an editor of many years’ standing (though he usually does it sitting down), and probably some other stuff he can’t recall due to the lack of sleep. Find out less at his website at DeCandido.net.