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  • I had been on the job for only a few hours when I managed to track down the suspect and his little child at a department store. I had done a decent job of staying out of sight and could tell they had no idea I was following them. They stayed in the store for quite a long time, perhaps an hour? They were browsing and acting like a parent and child doing parent-child bonding.
    The sun had set when they decided to exit and move on. I followed. As they cross the parking lot to some parked car in the mass of vehicles, I split off and went in the opposite direction. I didn’t have a car, but I spotted one nearby that I could steal and use. I waded through the throng of shoppers moving in the parking lot while trying to keep a casual watch on where the duo was headed. I noticed they were nearing a cluster of tan cars.
    I used a lockpick to quickly open the door of a mid-80’s type of van which had a camper style back to it. No one was inside and it was in dirty but seemingly working condition. I didn’t know who it belonged to but I wasn’t going to damage it much and they’d get it back eventually. I hotwired it from under the steering column.
    I looked up in time to see the man and presumably the child driving away in a tan 70’s sedan. A real boat of a car. It had a white vinyl top. I coaxed the van into gear to follow, but as soon as I edged the nose out of the parking spot, a cluster of people got in front, including a car that was trying to move out of a different spot, and another blocking that car from behind while trying to get through. It was a typical traffic pile-up of idiots refusing to get out of each other’s way.
    By the time it cleared and I was able to get out of the parking lot and to the notch in the sidewalk leading to the main street, the man, child, and their car were long gone. I didn’t see which way they had gone. I beat a hand on the steering wheel in frustration.

    Some time later, I stood in the same lot bent over the side of a parked car. The lot lighting was mostly off, the store long-since closed. I was having a mild argument with the man sitting in the car, centered on the idea that I was going to go run off and do something brazenly idiotic and probably morally wrong, and he was trying to talk me out of it. We were on the same side of things, really. Both of us were trying to track down the man and child, but at this point I had stopped being passive about it and was planning a confrontation. I even had a helper, who was parked next to the department store in a blue, idling 80’s Ford bronco. My own was parked behind, though it was also an old, blue 80’s Ford bronco. Company cars? I ended the argument by walking away, but the guy got out of the car and followed, still arguing that we shouldn’t go out and do some random vigilante justice act. He followed me all the way to the door of the waiting Bronco, where the other guy sat in silence and just looked at us. We were still arguing over it.

    Some time passed and I was alone in the parking lot, standing far away from the department store, and on the sidewalk. It was colder now and there was a bit of a wind blowing through. Things were still fairly dark. Only some street lights and a random parking lot light were keeping the darkness from swallowing everything. The lot was deserted. It must have been really late, or early. Depends on how you looked at it.
    I spotted something moving in the shadows of the side of the department store building. It wasn’t a customer area or a loading dock. Just a fenced in spot for storage and a bare white-painted cinderblock wall. I walked towards the deep shadows.
    My eyes adjusted as I moved out of the lighted areas and I could see two dogs running in circles around each other, and around the shadow area of the building. They never went into the lighted areas. They were slender like greyhounds, but a bit larger. One was black and one was white. I remembered someone telling me that these dogs would shred anyone who went into the darkness. They weren’t really dogs, after all. I stepped into the darkness with them and they skittered towards me, claws clattering on the dark asphalt.
    I pulled out a round tin from my jacket pocket. It was grey and had embossed writing on the top. It wasn’t important. It was just a holder. I turned the lid and a slot opened on the top. I shook it into my open hand and two marble-sized objects fell out. They looked like cheap dog food pieces, all brown and powdery. But they were squishy in my fingers. They were also made specifically for this.
    The two dogs were upon me. I couldn’t see their eyes, just their bodies and long legs and rows of sharp teeth. These weren’t normal dog teeth, but more like peaked sawblades. I could see the sharpness as the flashed in the dark, rising up to me.
    I casually tossed the little food/treat balls to each not-dog, one for each. The not-dogs instantly stopped in mid-air and silently dropped to the ground. They weren’t chewing. They seemed to just have absorbed the things, or swallowed them whole, or they just vanished into their bottomless mouths. It didn’t matter. It was the offering that mattered. Both were now ‘bought’ and would serve me for a while. They started to circle around me, still darting about with randomness but not straying far, as if on a hunt. I started walking again, towards the back of the building, keeping to the shadows. The not-dogs followed, circling close, silently, save for the clattering of claws on the cold asphalt.

    I was searching for someone. I had remembered talking to them some time ago. They were in desperate shape. I remembered they were wearing torn clothing, a trenchcoat or an overcoat maybe. It had holes worn in it and was dirty. They looked homeless, though their manner seemed more of sheer fright. It was as if they had been attacked several times and had been on the run. They needed help. Someone else, or perhaps myself, had told them to seek out this one place. It was a rehab center for druggies, but was also more than that. It was a safe haven. See, the guy wasn’t being attacked by anyone or anything. What had been after him was something unearthly. The rehab center was a safety area where such things wouldn’t be able to attack. He had run off after agreeing to go to the place, and I wasn’t sure if he understood what the place actually was. So, now I was going to look for him to make sure he made it. It’s also why I had bargained with the two not-dogs. They were for protection.
    I kept walking along the back of the department store, through the silent load dock area. I reached from the main street to the far residential street. The wall of the department store was a blank, white facade in the darkness. The area behind the loading dock was paved in spots alternating with blank dirt areas. There were no buildings there, though my mind told me there should be. I almost reached the end of the dock area, near the residential street, when the rehab center building came into view like the filtering haze of a mirage. It was as if I just couldn’t see it, but now I could.

    I hopped over the landscaping boundary between the dock lot and the parking area for the rehab center. It was just a step-length filler of some crushed, dark rock with small trees planted into them. The trees were young and barely leafy. It looked like they were held up by red, wooden sticks. It was brighter, warm, and not-quite-sunny. It was more of a moonlit sort of light, but without the cool blue tint.
    A security guard at the gate to the lot seemed to instantly become aware of my presence in the lot and stepped out of the guard shack while staring at me. He noticed the two not-dogs circling and just nodded slowly, then stepped back into the shack. I nodded back and walked towards the front of the building, past a few nice cars in the parking spaces.
    I stopped when I heard the sobbing. It was coming from behind some cars, near the front entrance of the building, but off to the side closer to the corner. I walked over and around the cars. The two not-dogs circled in closer to me, almost rubbing against my legs.
    The man I was searching for was on the ground, kneeling haphazardly on the red gravel, clinging to a slightly thicker young tree and the accompanying wooden stick it was lashed to. A man was standing nearby and bent close, leaning a hand on one knee while extended towards the man on the ground. I recognized him as my vigilante partner from earlier. He nodded to me as I walked closer.
    The man on the ground was sobbing deeply and moaning. He kept repeating the same words in some fashion.
    “It’s me! My fault! Me! Me! I angered it! I angered them. I have to stay here. I can’t go … I have to stay here. I angered Hik! The … Hik …”
    I looked at the other guy and he just shrugged.
    I knew the name, vaguely. Hik. Some kind of supernatural thing. I guessed the guy on the ground was hugging the tree, thinking that was a way to atone for whatever transgression he had done. It must have been something dire, since he was even more beat-up looking than when I had seen him last. He really crossed a bad supernatural force.
    Well. I was there to help with that.
    I put my hand down at my waist with my palm towards the ground. Both not-dogs stopped circling and stopped under my hand. Obedient little guard spirits. Of course, their doglike bodies were just a convenient way of getting around without undue notice, out here in the open world with people. They were far more potent, and gruesome, than they appeared. The lack of eyes was one small giveaway at their true nature.
    My hand held two black leashes, and each let to one of the not-dogs. There were no collars for them to attach to. They just extending into the bodies of each, at the neck area. I stepped over and handed my 'partner’ the tin of treats and told him to get two out, and give them to the not-dogs as soon as they made a move towards him. I then handed the leashes to him. The not-dogs, contract with me now broken, moved to attack the man, straining at the leashes that held them. He immediately fed them the 'treats’ and the two not-dogs settled down, but were straining at the leashes. They wouldn’t attack me, as my contract was a voluntary separation and a hand-off. They were still bound to protect, just not obey. That was now what my 'partner’ had as a responsibility. I told him to let go of the leashes, as the not-dogs worked best if they were free to roam and circle as they needed. He let go.
    The not-dogs scampered around in the parking lot, never straying far, this time with their noses to the asphalt as if following scents that led deep underground. Their pacing sped up, almost frantic, as they scrambled around and around.

    Something was near.

    I noticed a group of people near the center of the small parking lot. There were maybe five or six of them. Some were dressed in brightly-colored raincoats. A woman in a red one seemed to stand out the most. She was looking down with a stern expression. They all were.
    I walked closer. The not-dogs stopped to look at me, then stared into the middle of the circle of people, as well, though from a bit further away. They appeared to be straining, noses pointed toward something underground.
    In the middle of the circle was a square of missing asphalt. It reminded me of a kitchen floor with a ceramic tile pulled out, but on a larger scale. Two workers were in the hole created from the missing square, about a knee-deep level lower than the lot. The stuff underneath was like a waterbed made of pink or orange material, but more like clay in how it behaved. The workers pulled at the side of it as their feet sank into the spots they were standing. It looked almost organic.
    One of the not-dogs brushed up against my side and under my hand.
    I was suddenly detached from myself. I was a floating camera eye in the air, invisible and free to move in any direction. My view moved towards the ground, then under the ground, much like a camera showing the surface of a still lake then plunging underneath to view from below the surface. My view was similarly unhindered save for a slight haze. I could see the underside of the pink-orange layer and the underside of the trees, the roots, the sky far above them all. In one corner of the pink layer was a shape. I focused there. It looked like a face, or a skull, pressed to the material. The material was stretched over it, or perhaps was sucked into it. This was what the people were looking for. It was …

    I was woken up.

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