By Matt Tighe
I’m trying to clean up from one of the practice bouts but my mop is really only pushing blood around the Arena floor. A good mop is hard to find.
“Becca,” Entwistle calls. “Perhaps you could take a short break?”
That’s a surprise. Entwistle likes a clean Arena. But now he is looking down at me from the VIP platform, all pale cheekbones and natty pinstripe suit like normal, and there is something in his eyes that I don’t quite get. I shake my head and he frowns, his giant bushy eyebrows drawing down.
“I’m almost done,” I say.
Entwistle turns back to his guest. The man is dressed in an army uniform with lots of shiny medals, and he is standing ramrod straight, but he is also old, and seems kind of soft. He has two younger, fitter offsiders, but one of them looks fidgety. I know that look. Maybe he had heard about monsters, but until today, he had no reason to try and make them fit with the shape of his world. I almost feel sorry for that one, but I can see that Mr. Entwistle is worried, and that makes me uneasy. Entwistle is a great boss, and he looks after all the monsters. He makes sure the ghouls only get prime beef cuts, and he even lets the living dolls do their weird self-oiling thing when they are on break, which is kind of gross if you think about it too much.
“So,” the old army guy says, “can we get on with this?”
Entwistle sighs. “I’m telling you it’s a mistake, General. You don’t want a Frankenstein. A Sphinx will beat a Frankenstein hands down every time.”
I think I know why Entwistle is entertaining this guy. The Arena is not exactly legal. It’s what Entwistle calls an open secret, and I get that. I’ve seen more than one big fat cat in the audience, placing bets. Sometimes I know their faces from the TV, or those stupid ads on my Facebook feed. This guy I don’t know, but I can guess he has more power than our pale, sweaty mayor. And he wants something.
“Really?” the General says, and raises one grey eyebrow. It’s not as bushy as Entwistle’s, but it’s no malnourished caterpillar. “That’s not what our analysts say.”
“Frankensteins are brutes. Sphinx’s like puzzles and riddles as much as they like eating people. They are thinkers.”
That’s not anywhere near the truth, and I think both Charlie and the Lady would both be pretty upset to hear it, but I get it. Entwistle is trying to avoid a mess, and by the sounds of it, maybe trying to stop Charlie being drafted.
The General smiles, and it’s not a nice smile. I live with monsters, so I should know.
“We’ve been through this. You can show me what you’ve got, or I can take it all.”
Entwistle shoots a quick glance at me and I turn away to empty my bucket. I don’t want him to see the worry on my face. All the dark corners of the world are now lit up by the glow from smart phones and computer screens, and no one, and no thing, can hide from Youtube forever. Places like this, shelters like this, are few and far between. The monsters have nowhere else to go. Not anywhere safe, anyway. I know I don’t.
“Fine,” Entwistle says, and waves a hand.
The gate opens and the Lady walks into the Arena – stalks really, like the cat she kind of is. She stops and crouches, her body rippling with muscles, her giant wings folded against her golden flanks, her beautiful face haughty and unmoving.
A moment later the Frankenstein (actually, a Frankenstein’s monster, Charlie can be a bit pedantic about it) comes bursting through his door. He roars and presents himself, chest bared, all thick black stitching and mismatched limbs. He has one huge arm that is almost dragging on the ground, and he roars again as he sees the Sphinx across the Arena. I try to hide my grin. Charlie, who loves Gilbert and Sullivan and is always trying to get someone, anyone, to form an improv group on nights off, is certainly making a show of it.
The Lady crouches as still as only a waiting cat can. Charlie charges, roaring again, and hits her as hard as he can – or tries to. She flaps her wings once and leaps straight up into the air, and Charlie stands there, a puzzled expression replacing the rage on his horrible hatchet job of a face as he stares at the space she had just occupied. And then the Sphinx strikes as she hovers there, her giant wings thrumming. She does not bite or kick or even roar. She simply reaches down with one giant paw, claws extended, and plucks the stitching that runs around Charlie’s neck. Yanks it, actually. And, well, the rest is quick but messy. Someone is going to be busy with sewing for a few days, and I hope it’s not me. Charlie can be a real ass about the cross-stitching.
The General looks a bit nonplussed, and shoots a glance at Entwistle that is perhaps a little suspicious.
“So it’s the Sphinx,” he says. Entwistle sighs.
“I only have the one. And she will only do your bidding if you answer a riddle correctly. Get it wrong and she will eat you.”
The General frowns.
“You know the deal, Entwistle. I want a monster for my new program. Now, either show me what you’ve got that can beat the Sphinx, or I’m shutting this place down.” He smiles again. “Maybe you and the Sphinx will need to be a package deal.”
I am gripping my broom handle so tightly I think I’ve gotten some splinters. The General is lucky the monsters are all out of hearing as well as sight. None of them would take kindly to Entwistle being threatened. I think even the Lady is looking a little unimpressed.
Entwistle looks away from the General and once again gives me that funny look. This time I understand. Of course. He has planned this like one of the bouts – scripted down to the finest detail. I look at this army man who has so casually threatened my boss, and I give a little nod.
“So,” the General says. “Do you have something that can beat the Sphinx?”
Entwistle seems to hesitate. “Well, I do have a Tulpa.”
“What’s that?” the General asks.
“It’s a manifestation of will. Often associated with eastern religions, but the one I have is inherited.”
“Well, yes,” Entwistle says. “But you need to understand, General, that once a Tulpa is released, it will not stop until its objective is met.”
“But that sounds perfect,” the General says. He is even smiling a little.
Entwistle shakes his head. “Yes. I know how it sounds. But a Tulpa interprets its own success.”
The General shakes his head. “That just sounds like a matter of clear orders. Come on, let’s see this thing.”
Entwistle looks at me, and I see the faintest flicker of a smile as he nods. I don’t feel like smiling. I don’t like extra mess.
The Sphinx is still crouching in the arena. There is a lot of blood and embalming fluid on the floor now, but Charlie has been dragged away, playing dead no doubt as enthusiastically as he played the enraged brute. I hate trying to clean up embalming fluid. It stinks so much.
“Should I climb down?” I ask Entwistle.
He shakes his head.
“Why bother? I was hoping to avoid this, but it seems we are at an impasse.”
I nod, avoiding the curious gazes of the old General and his young sidekicks.
Entwistle frowns in thought, his comic eyebrows drawing down for a moment before popping back up.
“Perhaps just a brief show of the Tulpa’s capability. If the General agrees, of course.”
The General frowns a little, first at Entwistle, and then at me. I get the distinct feeling he is not used to actually recognising underlings such as myself as anything close to human. Which is kind of amusing, given the situation.
“Yes,” the General says slowly. “But I don’t suppose I need to remind you of what would happen to this place if something happens to me.” He pauses, eyeing me and smiling. “What would happen to all of you.”
I don’t say anything, and neither does Entwistle. I do feel a little sorry for the General (and his sidekicks), but only a little. I can recognise a monster when I see one.
“Well?” the General says. I look at him, and after a moment, his pompous smile curdles at the edges. I know what he is seeing. I’ve seen it in the mirror. My face and my body is suddenly partially obscured by a misty substance that has started to coalesce in front of me. It feels like sweat cooling on my skin. It’s funny, but not, you know, ha ha funny. There is no pain, and I don’t have to make any conscious effort. I simply decide it is happening, and it is. In a moment the grey mist has formed into something like the smoky outline of a person, wavering and shifting in front of me. It does not take direction from me now, but it did as it formed. I am as curious as anyone to see what it will do with its limited instructions, but I know two things that Entwistle also knows – the Tulpa also likes it here at the Arena, and the Tulpa always surprises.
The misty form glides forward, shifting and shimmering, twisting its ethereal limbs like it is dancing towards the General. One of the uniformed sidekicks (the non-fidgety one) steps forward, drawing a handgun, and I find it in my heart to finally feel properly sorry for him. He looks scared but determined.
The Tulpa slides into him and he shrieks and drops the gun. That’s good. Unlike some of the monsters, I’m not bullet proof. He drops to his knees, holding his head as the Tulpa slides out the other side of him. He falls down, and I know he is dead before he hits the floor. It won’t be just beef for the ghouls tonight, I suppose.
The General backs away and throws a terrified glance at Entwistle.
“What do you think you are doing?”
“I think your analysts maybe got more than a few things wrong.”
“You have no idea of the shitstorm that will rain down on you if you do this.”
Entwistle smiles a little.
“Oh, I’m not worried. The Tulpa is nothing if not creative.”
The second sidekick – the one that looked so afraid earlier – suddenly throws both hands straight up in the air, like he is being mugged. In truth, it’s probably the smartest thing he could’ve done. Much better than running. The Tulpa sways, considering him for a moment, and then continues towards the General.
“You can’t do this!” he screams. His nasty smile has finally fled. Given the General’s threats, I’m also very curious to see what the Tulpa will do.
The Tulpa reaches the General and sways to and fro in front of him, just like it is thinking. Maybe it is. Once I release it, I have no magic window into what is going on in that smoky head.
Finally, it reaches out with one wispy hand. The General shrieks and shrinks back, but not far or fast enough. The Tulpa’s hand reaches into his chest. The General’s eyes roll up until all I can see are the whites, and I think he is going to collapse. He surprises me, though. He just stands there shaking, while his remaining bodyguard stands next to him, his hands still thrust up to the sky. After a long moment (which I’m sure is much longer for the General), the Tulpa pulls its hand back out, and I see it is missing one smoky finger. Ah.
The Tulpa shimmers for a moment and then dissipates, the grey smoke of its body flowing away like it has been caught in a strong breeze. There is a long, pregnant silence. The bodyguard looks around and then hesitantly lowers his hands. His face goes a little pink.
The General takes several deep breaths and then straightens. He is pale, and his eyes are definitely a little too wide, and a little too darting, but he has recovered surprisingly quickly. Maybe his training has kicked in, or something.
“You’re done, Entwistle. This place is done,” he snaps, and then pauses, glancing about. Nothing happens, and he suddenly looks more confident.
“Let’s see how your misfits fare against a platoon or two of my…” he drifts off, and his eyes roll upwards again so all I can see are the whites. It is like he is trying to look inside his own head. I wonder if he sees anything.
Slowly he seems to recover, and as his eyes come good he raises one hand and rubs at his chest. He stares at me, his face suddenly sweaty.
I nod at the question I see there.
“The Tulpa has a finger on your heart, General,” I say. “It usually surprises.” I smile widely. “So – surprise.”
Not long after that the General leaves. There is no more bluster from him, no more threats. The Tulpa has him in the palm of its hand. Well, kind of.
Mr. Entwistle looks at me.
“Thank you, Becca. I know you don’t like to let it out unless you have to. How can I show my gratitude?”
I smile. I like Entwistle. I like my home. And I even like my job. Mostly.
“Can I have a new mop?”
About the Author:
Matt lives in northern NSW, Australia. He is an academic with never enough time to write. He has published in Daily Science Fiction, Nature Futures and other places, and received the 2021 Australian Shadows Award for his short story ‘A Good Big Brother’ published in the award winning anthology ‘Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies’.
You can follow his sporadic tweeting @MKTighewrites.