The problem with Arn Arn was that he was an addict. Not one of those blubbering and shaking waste-of-space folk with their skin sprouting blisters and falling off, but an actual functional kind with clear skin and a dependency made of long use. They said it was a myth, but Arn Arn seemed to pull off this golden path for addiction with ease.
Boyet was bagging what was likely the last batch of the day on the back of a grocery counter when he glanced at Arn Arn from two counters away. While the harsh flourescents of any grocery, like the hundreds of other Wondermarts in Metro Manila, would make anyone look like a corpse at a wake, Arn Arn with his long hair and five o’ clock shadow was, to Boyet’s practiced sight, someone you could easily tag as a druggie on a street corner in any of those stoner movies they loved to watch when high on kush laced with fantoma. Except Arn Arn, when he smoked that good stuff, was exceptionally focused and fast. Just like he was now, his boy had no wasted movements, no shakes as he assembled and filled several boxes for a foreign customer, efficiently laying down milk cans at the base of the box and then stacking the lighter items on top. When he was finished with the boxes, Arn Arn swiftly carried them to the nearby shopping cart and gently placed them within, one by one.
“Happy to be of service at Wondermart, ma’am!” Arn Arn quipped at the old white woman in the standard brand reply of the grocery franchise. She handed him 200 pesos and smiled at him as a uniformed maid took hold of the cart and swiveled it away. Arn Arn glanced at him and winked. No doubt the sneaky bastard had taken a toke in the back without him.
Boyet finished bagging all the items in what was the seventh tote bag on his own counter and spat out the standard brand line to a frowning middle-aged man. He forced himself to smile with as minimal amount of teeth as possible. The guy mumbled something under his breath and grabbed all his recyclable totes. Boyet knocked on the steel counter to catch the attention of the cashier. “End of shift, Ate Nena,” he said and then walked to the back of the grocery employee lounge.
Every grocery, whether stand-alone or within a mall, had wide passageways that traveled through and within the public spaces of the shopping areas. Grimy was an understatement for these corridors and back rooms. They were used to transport deliveries, hold and prep items for the stock before they went out on the floor. Often, management wanted to save money so they put up the cheapest materials and equipment for the illumination, ventilation, and sanitation of these areas to cut all possible corners. Employees hurried through them like ants within a hive hill. Nobody smiled. Boyet couldn’t blame them as he walked through an open threshold marked by plastic hangings that served as one of the employee entrances from the public floor; the hallway was ill-lit and dusty as heck that he felt his sinuses water almost instantly. He hugged the wall and danced around a small rat that had peeked from a gutter on the side, both of them were trying to stay out of the way of other employees hurrying from the commissary and stock room to the floor, burdened with items in their arms.
Christ, am I the only clean person on this group? Never mind, don’t answer that and let’s just blow this shitty joint.
He found Arn Arn at the bagger’s lounge, really just a room with graffitied lockers and three wooden benches. He nodded to Stella, already dressed in street clothes and combing her wet hair as all their shifts, Arn Arn included, ended at the same time.
“Stells, you actually showered here?” Boyet said as Stella high-fived him in greeting.
“What, it’s disgusting? Boy, you need to look at your face right now and determine that the real nauseating thing in this room is your face and body odor after two straight shifts.”
Arn Arn laughed. Stella high-fived him, too, harder. And then they both laughed. Arn Arn grinned and shook his head, unable to come up with a suitable snapback.
“Eeeey, I know a great shower room at the Saint Jill hotel on the corner,” quipped Arn Arn. “Just pay the guard 50 bucks and you’re gold. Or just flash him your tits,” he pointed at Stella. “Although come to think of it, I think he was peeping at me last time I showered there, so maybe just give him a blowjob and you can bathe there for a month, Boy!”
Stella smacked Arn Arn behind the head. “You motherfucker,” she pointed her finger like a knife.
“What did I do?!”
Boyet caught Stella’s questioning eye. He sighed and nodded. “Yup.”
“What did I dooo?”
“You know what, you fucking junkie.”
Arn Arn started to laugh then shrugged and held out his hands to indicate he was indeed guilty.
“Christ, am I the only clean person on this group? Never mind, don’t answer that and let’s just blow this shitty joint.” Stella shrugged, putting on her shoes. Boyet was shaking his head at mock disbelief as well just to continue to rile Arn Arn while he changed out of his uniform into casuals and sneakers.
The plan is to make our good friend Chef Jun happy by kidnapping him!
The three of them clocked out, got frisked, their bags searched until they finally walked out the employee-only doors. Tonight’s early dusk air was dirty and polluted but to Boyet, the best feeling came at the end of any shift, when a sense of liberation and having accomplished a clean day’s wages mingled like coffee with his favorite condensed milk. He’d been working since 4AM, scoring an extra shift due to one of the other baggers suddenly going on sick leave. His arms ached and he was hungry as hell. A toke of that joint that Arn Arn was still no doubt holding would help ease that pain.
“Stells, give me the plan again,” Boyet asked as they walked to her car. He lit a cigarette then punched Arn Arn on the arm hard as he could apropos of nothing, eliciting a satisfying “Aray!” and a mock-hurt look.
“The plan is to make our good friend Chef Jun happy by kidnapping him!” quipped Stella as her digital keys opened an old black Honda. Chef Jun wasn’t really a chef, he was a sharp and talented fry cook who had once been just another grocery store bagger like them, but his mad skills had since been noticed by an actual top chef of the famous restaurant Manga Tree, the Thai fusion brand de rigeur among socialites. And voila, just like that, Jun got out and got recruited to earn wages thrice as good as any bagger’s. That was five months ago and Jun had surprised all of them, especially Boyet, by keeping in touch and by showing up at the Wondermart employee gates, waiting for them with cuttings and leftovers from Manga Tree to spice up their drinking sessions. Recently, though Jun had been transferred and now worked at one of the nearby buildings a few blocks from Wondermart, a subsidiary of the restaurant franchise that did only take-outs. They started calling him chef to chide him. The nickname had since stuck.
When they got to the car, Arn Arn tried to ride shotgun but Boyet pulled him away from the passenger seat and punched him again, this time on the other arm.
“Ow! Please don’t hurt me with your Mexican ground karate, Boy!”
“You better have some more of that fantoma kush or there will be blood,” Boyet said. Arn Arn put his hands up and got in the back.
Stella started the car and continued to explain. “Before I was so rudely interrupted by toxic masculinity, the plan is that we—and by we I mean you two total wastes of space—will go fetch Chef Jun by surprising him at the dark kitchen inside the Momentary Group compound along South Super. Which we are currently heading to, if one of you can turn on Waze. You will then get Chef Jun out here then inform him that we have made reservations for the prestigious Da Klak beach resort. He shall be convinced that he needs a good time. He will forget that his grandmother died last month and that Pucci, that dirty junky whore, left him last week. A good time will be had by all and I can finally get drunk and wasted this long weekend. If I am extremely lucky, there’ll be a handsome piece of man at the resort for me to sink my fangs in and I can leave your sorry asses to whatever perverse pleasures you three deviants tend to cook up. Clear?”
“You said dark kitchen,” Arn Arn said from the back of the car. “What the fuck is that?”
If I am extremely lucky, there’ll be a handsome piece of man at the resort for me to sink my fangs in and I can leave your sorry asses to whatever perverse pleasures you three deviants tend to cook up.
Boyet grabbed Stella’s phone and turned on Waze, then stuck the phone on a dash dock when he got the pin right. “A dark kitchen or cloud kitchen is a delivery-only restaurant without a physical space for dine-in customers,” Boyet said. “Like the one where Chef Jun works, it cooks up takeout orders from Manga Tree and all the other big Momentary Group restos. Say a customer wants something from the Manga Tree menu? Chef Jun cooks it there, but it also processes their Mexican and Indian menu orders. That building we’re heading to now is a huge compound where dozens of brands share one commissary, one kitchen, and also the shipping and receiving. Shit. How the fuck do we find Chef Jun’s station again, Stels?”
“Remember that time in Laguna, at whatshisface’s house, where you all smoked that new kush strain laced with fantoma?”
“100 Percent Terror!” laughed Arn Arn.
“I swear you only remember kush strain names, you fiend,” Stella said, “That time Chef Jun got shitfaced after Pucci had another one of her meltdown walkouts and he went on and on about the clever way he and the other cooks got around to avoid the compound guards and have a smoke at the helipad?”
“Yeah,” said Boyet. “So what?”
“Yeah, so what?” echoed Arn Arn.
“So the fucking what, is I recorded it all,” Stella replied. “All his rambling, strangely clear and lucid instructions on how to get into and out of the compound, navigate through the dumb waiters and fire escapes, out to the helipad, and especially relevant, down into the exact dark kitchen station where he works. Right from the chef’s doped fucking mouth.” She fiddled with her phone and a video recording of Chef Jun, a small and bearded mestizo guy in his late twenties with sad eyes filled the screen, as he sat on a bar stool reciting exactly the speech that she had just described. He seemed both entirely lucid and deeply stoned at the same time. The way Chef Jun looked was so comedic they all started laughing and Arn Arn slapped their shoulders until Stella almost ran into a teen on a bike. She gave Arn Arn a withering look and he quickly slouched back.
“That’s that fucking Terror, alright,” grinned Arn Arn. They all started laughing again.
By the time they got through traffic and across the compound, it was early but fully night. Boyet and Arn Arn were on the street leaning on the car, smoking down the half of the special kush that was left in their stash. They were also reviewing the video footage of the instructions Stella had forwarded them.
It regarded them through irisless, shiny grey eyes. Then it smiled.
“This is the last joint?” asked Boyet.
“I swear, yeah,” Arn Arn rifled through his pockets and held up a small, clear Ziploc bag of oddly yellowish green weed and rolling papers. Inside it were just seeds, small branches, and burnt bits of the strain smeared with fantoma known as Swampy Soul Cool.
“How is this one different from Terror? And just what the fuck is fantoma anyway?”
Arn Arn stretched his arms and gave a yawn, then shook his body like a cat throwing off water from his fur. “Well, this one has just the right amount of sativa and diluted gel fantoma. The Terror has a dusting of powdered fantoma which makes it conducive to zoning out for flow, while Swampy for me gives a mellow focus that you feel untouchable even as things slow down. So I like it when we work because I can do everything fast without focusing on just a single thing and getting lost in it.”
“Your hands never shake either,” laughed Boyet.
“Fantoma itself is pretty much a mystery still, but it’s definitely an organic plant with dark blue and gold flowers whose whole system is used to make different intensities of the drug after processing,” shrugged Arn Arn. “Streets call it Ghostie or Multo but nobody can really determine its origins since manufacture of it has been placed at conflicting locations like Afghanistan or China. There’s rumors there are cooks in the heights of the Mountain Province and the Cordilleras but I don’t know, man. Those are all just junkie talk and you can’t ever trust their tall tales.”
“You didn’t stutter once there, either,” said Boyet. Arn Arn smiled and shrugged. “I like this Swampy one better. Gets me relaxed but still coherent and ready. Tell me more about fantoma later.” Arn Arn nodded, grabbing a knapsack from the open window of the car. “We’re going!” Boyet tapped the door where Stella was taking selfies and she waved them off with her other hand, not even looking.
The compound of the Momentary Group was a sprawling complex of red brick and concrete that used to be a series of government-owned buildings, rising squares and rectangles jabbing at the sky like faded Lego pieces. The patterns of colorful tiles on each façade were an effort to make them look less Brutalist but to Boyet there was no escaping how they still resembled tombstones or grave markers of varying sizes. Arn Arn was walking point to the parking lot fence and Boyet watched the video to guide them until they got within sight of the security guard. Just as Chef Jun had indicated, there wasn’t even any need to dodge this blue-uniformed flunky. Even from their distance, he could see him sleeping, head tilted back into his chair and his mouth open to what Boyet’s mother called the kind of pose that invited mosquitoes and flies to come in and lay eggs. The two duck-walked their way past, taking care not to noisily crunch the gravel underfoot but they reached the far wall with the drop-down fire escape ladder without issue. The traffic masked their passage. The guard had not stirred one bit. Boyet looked around the parking lot. There were three cars in the sprawling area the size of two basketball courts. Chef Jun’s intel was on point. Boyet gave Arn Arn a boost so he could reach the fire escape ladder. It dropped down with a creak of hinges and a soft bang of metal against stone as it hit the ground. Boyet glanced at the guard. Nothing. They climbed and the ladder pulled itself up automatically once their weight was off it. Once they stepped inside the fire escape door, Boyet realized he had been holding his breath. The light from the street traffic and the parking lot came in through the metal-barred windows on the landing but all the sounds were subdued. He looked out the window but there was nobody and nothing coming to get them. They high-fived.
Boyet pointed down the corridor. “This way, upwards, then out the helipad and then a straight shot down the service elevator to the basement.” Arn Arn walked point and found a light switch, and a flood of strong bulbs illuminated the corridor. Arn Arn opened a door suddenly.
Strange shit went down! Abandon plan.
“The fuck are you going? We gotta exit on floor eight and then climb up to the helipad on the fire escape,” Boyet said. Arn Arn ignored him and went inside. “I’m taking a piss, daddy!” shouting over his shoulder and flipping him off. Only then did Boyet notice the Male sign on the comfort room door.
As he continued to double-check Chef Jun’s video, a small and stocky man in chef's whites, double-breasted jacket and pants in a houndstooth pattern, came out another door from his left, his apron draped across a shoulder, and quickly strode past Boyet without a second glance. Boyet had no time to hide so he looked down on his phone as if engrossed and tried his best to look casual, inconspicuous. But the receding steps suddenly halted. Shit. Boyet counted to five then looked up and to his right. The man was a full head shorter than him. He was tying his apron as he regarded Boyet with a quizzical and exhausted look, something that bordered on sadness and frustration. Boyet nodded, smiled, and said “Dark kitchen? First day here.” The short man’s arms, Boyet noticed as they were revealed by the rolled up sleeves, were very hairy. Finished tying his apron, the man exhaled and then pointed a finger to his feet, tapped downwards in the air twice, then turned away and exited through a side corridor in the same quick strides. Boyet nearly fainted. When Arn Arn came out, he was stinking and sweaty. “There was no ventilation in there!” Arn Arn protested as Boyet pushed him to climb the stairs.
“I’ve smoked pure fantoma once,” said Arn Arn, apropos of nothing as they reached the eighth floor without incident and not another soul in sight, the hallways eerily quiet even though they sometimes heard echoes of voices behind closed doors. It’s something that would have normally disturbed Boyet if not for Chef Jun on video saying the upper floors of this annex were rarely used and most of the cooks preferred to use the main facility next door, across the parking lot. “It’s incredibly fucking expensive,” continued Arn Arn. “I swear that thing gave me the best and purest high ever, just extreme psychedelia. The world looked like one of those Kirlian photographs where people are like walking eggshells of super colorful light. Reminds me of church windows with the art on them. Why’s it so dark in here? Fucking management always scrimps on employee facilities anywhere!”
Man, I don’t want to be killed by an aswang on meth.
Boyet ignored the lout. They exited through the other side of the building to another fire escape, climbed the last four flights and were on the helipad, crossing the wide expanse built to hold the corporate chopper and to the elevator and side entrance door that jutted to one side of the flatness. Cigarette butts and some Coke cans were scattered on the floor. Signs of Chef Jun and his work buddies sneaking out from their shifts to grab a few minutes of their shift break to themselves. The grind of being a service employee was soul- and body-numbing. A cigarette break just to watch the expanse of the city and to remind yourself that you constantly had to swim upward against a tide of inequality to keep from being drowned in poverty and crime was crucial to keep your sanity together in an essentially insane country. Boyet sent Stella a DM to update her as Arn Arn called up the elevator that had only one direction. Inside the elevator there were only three buttons, two for the security floors that Chef Jun had indicated was to ferry VIPs, and one marked B. Boyet pushed B and then turned to Arn Arn, realizing that his friend stank of weed and…something else—a swampy, densely sweet scent with a bitter trailing note that reminded Boyet of a cinnamon roll and donuts place he had once visited. As the elevator descended, bossa nova muzak played through the tinny speakers.
The elevator stopped and the doors opened. Boyet checked his phone, trying to DM Stella that they were in, but noted that there was no signal down here when it failed to send. Arn Arn stepped out to the basement.
“A guy came out while you were pissing, Arn,” Boyet said as he walked around the wide area filled with paper and plastic boxes, scattered trolley carts; on the floor were trimmings of translucent flat straw and packaging tape and to one side was a smooth and sloping driveway. High windows let light in and looked out into the street of the first floor, on what would be the level of people’s feet had there been pedestrians. The place was obviously the deliveries area, receiving items from the first floor.
“Shit! Did he bust your balls?”
“Nothing happened. I pretended we were new minions and asked about the dark kitchen.”
“So that’s our cover?”
“My aunt always said, if you ever get caught trying to case a joint, just pretend you’re an idiot and say you’re a new recruit and you got lost.”
“I never thought of that. I bet that works all the time?” Arn Arn said.
“Who the fuck knows? She’s in jail for robbing a convenience store while here I am with a fucking junkie trying to kidnap Chef Jun to go to a beach where I am not going to hook up with Stella. Story of my ordinary, decent, slightly criminal life.” Boyet sighed and headed for the double doors at the other end of the shipping and receiving area, where Chef Jun said the dumb waiters were located. They needed to ride one to the third basement.
“You’ve held a torch for that girl ever since she joined Wondermart, man. Just tell her how you feel when we’re at the resort. It’s the perfect and most romantic place to do it!”
Arn Arn opened the double doors. The corridor was surprisingly well lit, several dumb waiters, bunched in pairs, lined the right side. At the other end of the wide hallway was a naked woman with her back to them. Or at least it resembled a naked woman. She had long black hair past her ass, short legs, and what looked like very long arms. Her skin seemed greyish like the color of fading ink on paper when Boyet was still in elementary and his ball pen was running out of juice during a quiz.
“Ooooh, what do we have here? Your boy Arn is here if you need help, miss?” Arn Arn said and automatically approached the woman. Boyet grabbed his friend’s arm. Arn looked at him and he just shook his head. At a distance of around 120 meters away, the woman turned and put her hands down to the floor. Boyet could see that she was fully naked, she had arms too long, their knuckles bruised and almost raw, length dragging down to the filthy floor. Her hands were like hams, huge as a gorilla’s, the fingers sausage-thick and distended, ending in curved claws like they were for digging rather than ripping. It regarded them through irisless, shiny grey eyes. Then it smiled and Boyet could see that, with its lips peeled back, black and dark pink gums were attached to a perfectly linear set of very small, feral incisors that looked filed down to points, their tone a sickly yellowish ivory. They were all frozen in place until the thing they thought was a girl literally loped like an animal to them on all fours, a clacking sound coming from it that Boyet realized were its teeth chomping the air. Her speed was amazing. Aside from the soft slap of her bare feet and hands on the tiled floor, there was no other sound. She was coming. And fast.
The same creature they had encountered was above the man, gnawing at his face.
Boyet pushed Arn Arn to the nearest dumb waiter and said “Get in!”
Boyet barely had time to squeeze himself in, push the down button on the outside of the dumb waiter, and close the thin metal grate when the thing hit the barrier. Flinching as the outline of its fists pounded on the metal, Boyet mentally willed the slow-moving mechanism that transported items and food from one basement level to the next to move faster. Faster. Nothing followed him down, though, even if the pounding never relented, but fading the deeper down he got. Soon, he hit the second basement and was able to get out. Arn Arn was already there, waiting.
Arn Arn was now his usual shaky and nervous self. “What the fuck was that? It was like something out of The Exorcist! Let’s get out of here. Fuck this kidnap Chef Jun plan.”
Boyet wasn’t any better, his nerves raw from the sudden adrenaline rush, but he agreed with Arn and tried to call Stella. Still no bars of signal. He sent a DM that simply said, “Strange shit went down! Abandon plan, we are trying to find exit.” He saved it. His phone had a function that would automatically keep trying to resend it when it finally found a signal.
“No idea how to get out from here, though. And that thing is upstairs so no dice. Maybe we can just find Chef Jun and ask for help? Like we planned? We have the directions anyway.”
“Yeah, good idea. Just come clean and face the trespassing consequences. Man, I don’t want to be killed by an aswang on meth or fantoma PEDs or whatever that thing is on!” Which meant going down another floor to the third basement level, according to the video of Chef Jun himself. As if by magic, Arn Arn had a joint on his lips and was trying to ineffectually light it with his Zippo in shaking hands. Boyet slapped the lighter from out of his hands.
“Now? At a time like this?!” Boyet restrained his fists.
“The fuck did you do that for? And I need a hit right now because I am in a very upset state!”
Boyet sighed. “You said there were no more joints.”
“Technically no, you asked if there were any Swampy Soul Cool left. This one is different.”
“100 Percent Terror?” Boyet helped his friend light the joint.
“Fucking 100 Percent Terror. The harder stuff.”
“I’m sorry, Boy. I am an addict. A dirty junkie. And I lie. That’s what we all do.” Arn Arn exhaled a foul-smelling stench from joint.
“The problem with you, Arn, is that you are a filthy addict. And I thought what you smelled like was your new deodorant.”
Arn Arn shook his head. He put out the joint and laughed, now calm, then got up and followed Boyet to search for stairs. Though the hallways were well lit, the trolleys and carts stacked in an orderly fashion, all the rooms on this floor were locked and they tried almost every door. When they rounded a bend, the new area looked more like a hospital floor than a shipping and receiving wing. Boyet checked his phone again and saw that his message to Stella had gone through. There was one bar, barely. And he told Arn to look for any spots on his phone that had a better signal. Arn was able to open a door leading to a room that looked like a cafeteria space with four circular tables, upturned chairs on them, and a food counter with refs behind it. They caught their breath here and rested.
It dawned on Boyet that they had bad intel. Or they had gone into a completely wrong building. “I think we fucked up, Arn. I don’t get why there’s nobody here when Chef Jun said this was the floor he worked on.”
“I got three bars over here,” Arn said. “I’ll try to call Stella. You try Chef Jun?”
Boyet nodded and dialed Chef Jun. To Boyet’s great relief, he answered on the third ring.
“Boy, my boy! What’s cooking, am still at work so I can’t talk long!” said Jun happily on a staticky line.
“We’re in your building and in trouble, Chef!” Boyet hastily explained, as fast and as calmly as he could about their plan for a road trip to The Klak, how they got into the complex, the wild woman, and the mystery of the empty floors. By this time, Arn had come into his vision and shrugged, indicating that he couldn’t get through to Stella. Boyet made a thumbs up sign and smiled at Arn Arn, who raised his arms in victory. Boyet put the call on speaker. Chef Jun sounded way too loud in the room.
Chef Jun said, “Fuck bro, thanks for the thought and I’d love to go on that vacation! But yeah you guys fucked up because everyone on the dark kitchen crew got moved to the main building two weeks ago. Sorry, I never told you guys but I didn’t know you’d pull this crazy stunt either. Listen, it’s going to be okay. I think I know what happened: some homeless druggies very likely got in and made themselves at home there when we left. So, you just get yourself and Arn to any one of the commissary exits. Follow the floor plan graphic above any of the fire extinguishers and I’ll tell one of my boys to come and get you. The dressing down won’t be fun but it’s better than getting lost down there in that maze where there’s plenty of dark kitchens that—”
100 Percent Terror. This was a truth he could abide with. 100 percent. Pure.
The call dropped. Boyet tried again but it kept failing, even when he tried Stella.
Arn Arn had by then found the floor plan and ripped it from its frame, “Well, let’s do that so we can GTFO. There’s one of those exits he mentioned on the next floor below.” Boyet followed and when they stepped out of the cafeteria doors, all the lights went out. Arn Arn cursed. Boyet turned on the flashlight of his phone, shining it on the floor plan in Arn’s hands.
The strong light of a powerful torch surprised them that Arn yipped in surprise and dropped the floor plan. Boyet by instinct stood up and adopted a fight stance. “I knew you sons of bitches were in here somewhere,” said a voice behind the flashlight. It was the security guard from the parking lot. “You are trespassing, fags.”
“Oh, thank God,” Arn said, folding up against authority. “Boss, we’re sorry, can you get us out of here?”
“We got lost trying to find our friend,” echoed Boyet. Being defiant wasn’t a smart play here.
The security guard chuckled, his sidearm and equipment, making a ruckus against his waist as his protruding belly, draped above a utility belt, moved in sync. “Thought you guys were just some of the fucks who smoked on the helipad. But seeing you flounder around here told me you’re outsiders. Come on, I don’t want you here before my shift ends. Paperwork can eat my ass.”
He motioned for them to follow and Boyet picked up the floor plan that Arn had dropped. Folding then pocketing it. The guard walked point with Arn Arn following, then Boyet bringing up the rear.
“It can get spooky down here and you can lose your head what with the power going out at times,” the guard happily said aloud as they climbed a set of stairs behind a door that Boyet had no idea was even there. They went past the floor where they had encountered the wild woman and past the massive receiving area. Out into some kind of opaque mezzanine with windows where Boyet could hear the traffic of the streets but could only see vague shapes and blobby lights. “Seen some weird folk roaming the empty here, too, ever since everyone got transferred to the main building.”
“I think we met one of them. Poor girl,” Arn Arn replied.
“Fucking junkies. Shoot them all, I say,” the guard said, miming aiming and pulling a trigger. “They creep me out.”
Something fast, silent, and large tackled the security guard when they reached a cross-corridor. The flashlight flew off and as Boyet tried to turn on his phone’s own flashlight, Arn backed into him. They both fell down in a tangle. A horrid animal screaming that Boyet had only heard in cats when some of the neighborhood bullies tortured the strays on their street was keening above the racket of the traffic and the road. By the time he could turn on his phone light, Arn Arn had scrambled up and was screaming himself. Boyet shone the phone over to where the security guard lay and saw that the same creature they had encountered was above the man, gnawing at his face with a wide mouth that split its face, its maw full of the sharp teeth that gnashed against the nose and cheeks. The guard’s body shook as in a seizure, wet, sloppy sounds of the feeding echoed through the empty halls. This monster did not have long hair or boobs on its chest, though. As far as he could see, this one was male. The same irisless black eyes but with shorter hair and a bigger upper body that reeked like a greasy fish. When it opened its mouth to take a chunk out of the guard, a fetid, swampy smell of rot and refuse in its breath assailed him. Arn Arn had also turned on his light and caught the wild woman on all fours rushing to them from the left side of the hall. Arn Arn braced for impact. Boyet saw, though, how the woman monster stopped right in front of Arn Arn and raised its mouth in the air, as if sniffing him. It turned its attention to the security guard and pushed the boy fiend instead, shouldering it out of the way. It wanted its turn at the security guard. The boy monster clacked its massive teeth against the female and for a moment the two fiends were arguing in combat.
Boyet scampered back against the horror to find a wall on his back. His mind kept going back to the name of the fantoma-laced drug that Arn Arn had: 100 Percent Terror. This was a truth he could abide with. 100 percent. Pure.
The two fiends approached slowly and cautiously, clacking their teeth at each other in what seemed like communication, their jaws dripping fresh blood.
“Run, Boy!” Arn shouted and fled down in the direction the girl had come.
Getting his feet under him, Boyet followed suit as the creatures battled it out over the security guard. He took a right just as his friend had and went past a long row of interlocked, parked grocery carts. At the end, the hallway only had one door. Above this was an EXIT in green lights and above it on wood was written COMMISSARY. The door was bolted shut with a padlock. Arn Arn was shaking it open to no avail. It was a dead end. Beyond though, between the thin space where the padlock didn’t hold it shut, you could hear and see the street. There was the escape from this madness. Boyet spotted a red IN CASE OF EMERGENCY glass cabinet at the end of the long line of carts. A fire extinguisher and axe housed inside. He ran back and kicked the glass ‘til it broke. With axe in hand, Boyet rushed to the door and shouted for Arn Arn to step aside, hammering at the padlock until it gave. Arn yawped. Boyet laughed. But when they both tried to push open the door it gave a but a little. There was a chain outside, Arn told him, even as he continued to ram his shoulder against it.
“They’re here!” shouted Arn Arn. The two fiends approached slowly and cautiously, clacking their teeth at each other in what seemed like communication, their jaws dripping fresh blood. As Boyet hacked at the door with the axe, Arn Arn grabbed the nearest weapons he could find, the grocery store carts, and started kicking them, flinging them against the creatures like rolling missiles. Not one of them hit, but it kept the fiends dodging as Boyet hacked what he could see of the chain.
“Open the door, Boy! Get it open!” Boyet calmly noted the hysterical trebly note in his friend’s voice even as he doubled his efforts. Cart wheels squeaked against the floor and the clash of metal against metal, the carts crashing against each other, rang in the emptiness. Arn Arn raged at the fiends, cursing and hooting, like they were animals he could shoo away with enough noise. Soon he ran out of carts within reach. Boyet knew the fuckers would charge them now. He was so tired. He’d never take two straight shifts again. Dropping the axe, so heavy in his hands, he sagged against the door he’d failed to open.
A high single whistle and someone shouting “Ebwa ebwa ebwa!” stopped the two creatures in their tracks. Another two-note whistle and they both ran back the way they came.
“Never fear, the cavalry has arrived,” an approaching figure said and laughed at his own joke. From out of the dark, between the two retreating monsters emerged Chef Jun in his black cook’s jacket, a short toque on his head. His eyes were sad, sleepless bags under them, and his skin a pale white that seemed to Boyet, was leaning toward the sickly grey of the monsters that had just fled.
“Oh thank fuck, it’s Jun!” Arn Arn said.
“Sorry about that but it took me some time to get away. While I appreciate the gesture, you really should have told me you guys were coming. They don’t like surprises here at work but that’s neither here nor there.” The sound from the door behind Boyet was a chain being pulled off. “Ah they’re opening the exit now. I told you, I’d take care of it.”
“What the fuck are those things?” Boyet asked as he stood up.
“Drug addicts,” said Jun. “You know the kind.” The exit opened and another man, uniformed in the same chef blacks as Jun, stood there with the chain at his feet and the padlock beside it. Jun gave him a thumbs up. The man nodded and turned away, walking towards the entrance of another building beyond. “Follow him, please, am sure you don’t want to stay here with those things about.”
The place where your favorite thing in the world is made, my friend. Cooked with love and care and plenty of Multo to flavor them all.
Arn Arn and Boyet exchanged a look that said they were both in agreement that none of this was okay. Arn Arn shrugged. Boyet nodded. They didn’t have any choice in it. “Were you able to call Stella?” he asked as he followed the other cook, keeping a hold of the axe. Arn Arn followed behind. The last to exit was Chef Jun. He rechained the door and padlocked it behind him.
“Oh, Stella is already there. Come, bro. I think you’re both owed a clear explanation.”
“What fucking kind of dark kitchen is this, Jun?” Arn Arn said.
The cook in front of them opened another set of double doors and they led to the balcony that overlooked a sophisticated and fully equipped kitchen covering the expanse of what must have been half a football stadium. Cooks and chefs were shouting over the roar of fires and the smells of many cuisines, the brands of the Momentary Group. Above them all wafted a scent that was swampy, densely sweet with a bitter trailing aftertaste that reminded Boyet of cinnamon roll and donuts.
“The place where your favorite thing in the world is made, my friend. Cooked with love and care and plenty of Multo to flavor them all.”
“Fantoma,” Arn Arn said, as he spotted the cooks sprinkling their meats with a black and golden powder, dusting the dishes like the drug was a spice.
“That’s how the ebwa are made, you see?” Jun continued calmly. “It really is a wonder drug. A strain of it can separate the soul from the body but another can turn the dependent into a corpse-eater. The young ones can be aggressive so we use them as guard dogs until they get tempered and mature into thinking orderlies.”
“Those in the other building. You guys made them? You weren’t lying when you said they were addicts.” Arn Arn said and rushed Chef Jun. He simply bobbed to dodge the clumsy attack and Arn Arn collided with the wall, all by his own momentum. Boyet raised the axe and took a swipe at the other cook. Quicker than he could see, his legs were swept from under him and he found himself on the floor. He’d lost the axe. The man put his shoe against Boyet’s chest.
“Of course with the correct dose and processing, fantoma can enhance and elevate, as well,” Chef Jun said. “But you two will never be able to appreciate such a fine balance, the flow that lies beyond mere addiction. That is for those chosen.” He nodded to the other cook and Boyet was released from the pressure. “For you three, there is a different purpose. Similar to Pucci’s, who was also in her own way an addict to her toxic ouroboros behavior.”
“We don’t even know what all this is! What the fuck you’re doing here, this operation, just why put drugs in the food?” Arn Arn climbed back to his feet, too. His hand was a bloody mess since he had punched the wall.
“Three? Jun, please, we’re your friends. Just let us go,” Boyet begged.
“I told you Stella was already here. I always liked her and it will be hardest on those clean, previously without drug use, to accept the transformation, but we will give you a chance to win freedom. This way please.” He led them to a side door that opened up to a huge hallway that was the size of a parking garage, curving ever downward. When they reached a part where the lights stopped, both Chef Jun and the unnamed cook beside him handed them each an axe.
“Don’t even think of using those on us. Besides, you must conserve your strength, you’ll need it,” Chef Jun said as he pulled out a Ziploc bag with two joints within. He handed each joint to Boyet and Arn Arn.
“100 Percent Terror,” said Arn Arn as he smelled the joint.
“Your favorite strain, Arn,” said Chef Jun. “Listen: beyond the lights is the darkest part of our dark kitchen. It’s where we keep and breed the ebwas. This is their hive and free-range home. But beyond that is the building you just departed. From there it’s a straight shot to the parking lot where you came in. If you’re fast enough and vicious enough, you’ve got a good chance of making it. Now smoke up.” Chef Jun held up a lighter.
Arn Arn didn’t need any more prompting but Boyet held onto his defiantly until Chef Jun said, “Please Boy, this just might help you escape.” Boyet doubted it but he did need something to calm his nerves.
Chef Jun continued, “Now, the young ebwas are still sensitive and they don’t like the light. But the mature ones can roam anywhere they please even if they’re likely sleeping now. The Terror you just smoked will mask your scent and turn away the ebwas for a while, until it fades from your system. Should take about an hour, maybe a bit more. This is why the young female ebwa did not charge you Arn Arn. It sensed you were a fantoma junkie, too. Nominally, they are corpse-eaters and will only attack easy prey like the terminally sick or the dead and dying, but since we’re breeding them, the young ones, like I said, tend to be aggressive and just bite at anything they don’t find to their liking. Even each other.”
“This is suicide. Why let us have a chance, even?” Boyet said.
“Because we were once friends,” Chef Jun held out his hands to emphasize that this was no longer the case. “Stella is already within. I picked her up after you called. You may just be able to find her and help her because she opted not to smoke the Terror.”
Chef Jun filched in her pocket and held up Stella’s phone. “Hand me your cellphones as well,” he said.
The sound of many feet padding and teeth clacking could be heard echoing through the empty corridor.
“Jun, you’re such a self-righteous dick,” Arn Arn said as he handed over his iPhone. Boyet gave up his new Samsung reluctantly.
Chef Jun smiled. “You know what your problem is, Arn? You’re only a junkie. Now go.” Jun and his fellow fantoma cook turned on their heels and made their long way back to the kitchen floor.
Boyet and Arn Arn looked at each other.
“Let’s rush the bastards and take them?”
Boyet shook his head. “They’re too fast and like Jun said they’re enhanced in some way. We stand a better chance with those things and besides I don’t want to leave Stella alone in there.”
Arn Arn shrugged. “I’m focused enough right now, anyway. Guess you can finally put your Mexican ground karate to the test, Boy.”
Boyet laughed. “Happy to be of service, you bastards.”
He walked point and gripped his axe, Arn Arn trailing. Beyond the lights, in the darkness, they sought to exit, the sound of many feet padding and teeth clacking could be heard echoing through the empty corridor.