Chapter Twenty Seven
“Stop, please,” said the security guard as soon as we entered the building. He was middle aged, sleepy, and fat, which told me a lot about this building. If they had this guy guarding the entrance, they must not have been all that worried about intruders.
Then again, my more suspicious side butted in, this is a Mythic hideout. They wouldn’t leave the protection of something like that up to Pudgy McGee here, would they?
“Actually,” Dex spoke up, “that won’t be necessary.”
The guard shook his head. “All visitors must…”
Dex held his jacket open, letting him see the scepter inside.
“…right. My apologies. I’ll call Mr. Heisen immediately.”
Dex nodded self-importantly. “You do that. And this young lady,” he gestured to me, “needs to go the mail room.”
“Wait,” I spun to look at him, “what?”
“That’s where most of the Mythics are hidden,” Dex whispered while the guard went to make a call from his office. “This isn’t a real Sanctuary. More like…a pitstop on their way to wherever they’re going. They get a place to sleep in exchange for work, and then they leave.”
A chill went down my spine. “You think Kaylie and her pack will be down there?”
He thought for a second, then shook his head. “No. The pack is based in Chicago, which means they have their own hideout somewhere in the city.”
“And you’re not coming with me?”
“No.” He glanced at the guard, who was talking on his phone. “We don’t want them asking too many questions. If Majestic finds out I’m here with you, we’ll both be in serious trouble.”
“Or Hendricks,” I said with a shiver.
“Right. Or Ol’ Tighty Whities.”
“So, I’m pretending to be here on business, and you’re my assistant. While I’m talking to the bigwigs upstairs, you’ll hang out in the mail room. Use that time to talk to a few of the Mythics. Let them know who you are—but not what—and what you’re looking for.”
I gulped. “But…”
“Sir!” called the security guard. “You can go through. Mr. Heisen will see you immediately.”
Dex nodded again, and the turnstiles beeped to let us in. He led the way with the familiarity of someone who’d been here before, winding his way through the entrance corridor and into a lobby big enough that Stark’s cabin would have fit inside it twice. Security as Tight as a Riddle! declared the company’s motto in big, sparkling gold letters. It didn’t make much sense to me until I looked ahead of us and saw a great big fountain the size of a swimming pool taking up a whole third of the floor. On it stood a brass sphinx with its wings flared behind it, its human face staring heroically out into the distance.
“Nice mascot,” I muttered under my breath.
“Oh, it’s more than a mascot,” Dex said.
I looked at him. “What does that mean?”
“It means,” he pointed in front of us, “that your elevator is waiting for you.”
I immediately forgot about sphinxes and statues when I saw a huge gorilla of a man waving at me. He was standing outside an elevator at the far end of a long line of other elevators. He didn’t look unkind, really, but his arms were easily seven times thicker than my own. The idea of getting into a tiny box with him and no means of escape made me nervous.
“You’ll be fine,” Dex promised me. “Nobody’s going to hurt you here. Just socialize a little bit, and I’ll come get you after I’m done talking to Mr. Heisen. Half an hour, tops. Promise!”
I sighed, but made for the far elevator anyway. “Fine.”
Dex went to a different elevator, which dinged open for him as soon as he pushed the button. With a cheeky little finger wave, he stepped inside and was gone. I watched the floor number above the elevator rise, the realization that I was alone here weighing on me like a collapsing brick wall.
“Goooo…dowwwwn?” the operator asked in a deep monotone voice.
I nodded and stepped inside with him. This elevator, I realized, was enormous compared to the one Dex had gotten into. Like it was built to carry things way, way bigger than any human being. The operator stepped in behind me, closed the doors, and pressed the only button on the wall. The elevator began to move with a loud groan.
The operator didn’t say a word while we descended. He barely even seemed to move. Now that I was closer, I could see that his skin was as pale as a corpse’s and that, if I looked closely, there were scars all over him like he’d been stitched together from scrap.
Somehow, that didn’t surprise me at all.
Remember, I could practically hear Dex whispering to me, socialize!
Great. I hadn’t told Dex this, not wanting him to make fun of me again, but I hated talking to people I didn’t know—a hatred only made stronger by living with Hendricks for so long. I wouldn’t call myself antisocial. If you got to be my friend—rare as that was—I’d talk you to the moon and back. But strangers? They were like that alligator dentist game my mom and I had played when I was a kid. Picking a conversation topic was like poking one of those little plastic teeth, and if you picked the wrong one…SNAP! Only here, it would be my spine that was snapping with those gigantic hands wrapped around me.
Well, time to make some new friends, I guess, I thought. Out loud, I said, “So, uh, how long have you been working here?”
The operator paused, scratched his head, and then held up three fingers. “Thiiiiis…mannnny!”
“Oh, three years?” I asked. “Do you like—”
“Noooo.” He shook his head. “Threeee…hunnnnndred.”
I blinked. “Dang.”
“Joooob…eaaaasy,” he went on. “Pushhhh buttooooon…riiiiiide elevatooooor. Gonnnnng…liiiiiiike.”
“Your name is Gong?”
“Mine’s Amber. I’m a—”
“Ammm…berrrrrr.” He tasted the word in his mouth, smacking his lips. Then he made a face. “Mehhhhh!”
I stood a little straighter. “Excuse me?”
“What’s so bad about it?”
“You…don’t like my name because it’s not your name?”
Gong nodded. “Gonnnng…gooood…nammmme. EEEEEvery…ooooone…shooooould beeee…Gonnnng.”
The elevator finally stopped moving, and the doors opened. I stepped out, rolling my eyes.
“I’ll keep that in mind, Gong.”
I stopped in the entryway to the mail room while the elevator closed behind me with another ding, and then froze. What I saw in front of me was enough to take the breath away from even someone as jaded as I was. I’m not even sure I can explain it properly. This room made the lobby upstairs look like a broom closet, for one thing. It was so huge that even my superhuman eyes couldn’t see the far wall. Metal tubes came down from the ceiling for mail canisters to be loaded into. The whole place smelled like sweat and cigarette smoke.
But it wasn’t the room itself that left me standing there, stunned like I’d just been tasered. It was filled with so many things! The first thing I saw was a satyr like Stewart, but he was followed close behind by a centaur. Nearby there was a trio of fairies struggling to fly one of the mail cannisters up to its tube. An eight foot tall, blue skinned troll took it from them and placed it inside, earning him a nod of respect from the trench coated skeleton that was walking past. I’d spent the last three years living with Hendricks, and the year before that living with werewolves, so I was no stranger to being around nonhumans. But to have so many of them right here, in one place, made my head spin!
“Hey, you here to work?”
I turned to see a…I’m not even sure what he was…making his way towards me. He (I’m assuming it was a he) had two snake tails coming out of his pantlegs to let him slither across the floor. What looked like a snail’s shell was coming out of the back of his shirt, but his hands and face looked human enough, if not a little bit…slimy.
“Uh, yeah,” I answered.
He nodded, then pointed to where another woman with three big, fuzzy fox tails was pushing a mail cart across the room. “That’s Shin Ya. Get with her, and she’ll show you the ropes.”
I looked at him, surprised. He hadn’t asked who I was, where I’d come from, or anything else. It was just like what Dex had said. In a place like this, everyone was family. You didn’t have to question your family.
And I was planning to betray that trust.
Focus! I snapped at myself. This is no different than before. You’re not one of them. They may all look less human than you, but you’re…
You’re the real monster here.
Swallowing my hesitation, I thanked the snail-snake-dude and headed after the three tailed woman. What kind of Mythic was she, I wondered? Maybe some kind of—
Before I could reach her, though, a hand reached out from inside a large pile of boxes and grabbed me by the arm. I should have been ready for something like that, would have been ready if I hadn’t been overwhelmed by all the different creatures around me. So there was nothing I could do as the hand yanked me out of plain sight and slammed me into the wall.
“You,” said a dangerous sounding voice, “made a big mistake coming here!”
I blinked, head throbbing a little from hitting the wall, and took an instinctive breath through my nose. I froze again when I recognized the scent.