The basement of the Holy Heart Church on East 125th Street in New York City smelled like a strange combination of dust, hundreds of years of age, and the leftovers of charity dinners cooked in the kitchen hovering just above it. It wasn’t an unpleasant scent, but spoke of the age of the building and the fact that thousands of people had passed through there, many with their eyes down and faces averted.
And that made it the perfect place for the meetings now hosted there. AA and Narcotics Anonymous and Compulsive Gamblers Group and Trumping Testicular Cancer—and a host of other vice and disease meetings that required support or a kick in the ass on a day-to-day basis.
All of them met in the little room in the basement. It was tiny, cold in the winter, broiling in the summer, and with an odor like a concentrated version of old pot roast and lasagna mixed with the sweet scent of stale holy water.
Natalie Gray was late to her meeting in said locale. That was typical, actually. Even she would admit it, though she had an excuse. Working nights at the morgue made her world all . . .discombobulated, and sometimes it was hard to remember what time it was. She couldn’t quit, though. She had rent to pay and food to buy, just like everyone else. Not to mention the job helped her cover up . . . other things. Things she had to deal with at the meeting, actually.
And so as she hustled her way down the back stairs toward the tiny, smelly room, she cursed in her head (not out loud, it was a church after all and she had standards, low as they may be). She checked her watch. Fifteen minutes late. There was going to be hell to pay.
The door to the meeting room was closed, but a little window near the top allowed her to see inside.
It was weird; the church allowed the various “anonymous” groups to meet in their basement, but then they forced them into a room with a window on the door. Sometimes Natalie felt like they wanted you to deal with your shame, but never forget it was shame and that everyone, including God, knew it. If there was a group for obsessive voyeurs, Natalie guessed they’d love it all the more.
The worn-out sign hung on a plastic holder outside the door said MONSTOFELLDOSIS (MFD) ANONYMOUS. Someone had stuck a creepy butterfly sticker on it that was beginning to fray around the edges.
“Stupid name for a stupid made-up ‘disease,’ ” she muttered as she looked through the glass.
Yup, everyone was there in their little sharing circle . . . well, almost everyone. Bob didn’t seem to be present. Odd, since, as the group’s facilitator, he was almost always first to welcome them and get them all seated, hopefully not near someone they hated. That in itself was no easy task. Over the years, most everyone in the group had developed some kind of aversion to everyone else, either through hurt feelings or worse. Natalie certainly didn’t envy Bob his role.
She opened the door and stepped inside. The room fell silent and everyone’s head pivoted to look at her. What they spoke of in this room was definitely not for outsiders to hear, so the group was always careful about the door opening. Once they saw it was Natalie, the faces were relieved, and then annoyed.
“The meeting for the chronically late is down the hall,” Kai, one of the other women in the group, said as she dug for a cigarette from the purse beneath her chair. The purse’s logo said Michael Kors, and Natalie couldn’t believe Kai had set it on the dirty floor. But then again, money never seemed to be an issue for her.
Kai was tall and slender, with an exotic olive complexion that made it hard to place her ethnicity, as did her long blond hair with dark streaks dyed through it. She had an I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude and Natalie had learned over the years that it wasn’t a put-on.
“Ha, ha, ha,” Natalie said as she took one of the few empty places in the circle. “I’m not the only one who’s late. Where’s Blob?”
Next to her, the older man dressed in a bizarre cape over wrinkled jeans and a black shirt glared in her direction with surprisingly intense eyes. Natalie felt a weird pull and broke the eye contact. It was so annoying when he did that.
“Careful, little one,” he hissed.
She glared. Just because he looked so much older than them, he always thought it was okay to be condescending.
“What? It’s just us,” she snapped.
“Bob,” said another of the group members, this one named Alec, a good-looking man with long shaggy dark hair, bright amber eyes, and a scraggly beard that was borderline homeless chic, “didn’t show.”
“That’s weird,” Natalie muttered. “He’s never late.”
“Yeah, we went over this while you were staggering off the subway fifteen minutes ago,” Kai said with another perfectly arched eyebrow. She was a gorgeous woman, no one could deny that, but she always looked on the edge of smacking someone.
Currently that someone was Natalie. Scary.
“So what are we going to do?” Linda, the only other woman in the circle, whined as she scratched at her hands absently. She was plain except for her stunning green eyes. Or at least they would have been stunning if they weren’t always puffy from crying.
“We’ve never done group without Bob.”
“It’s not like we can’t. We’re all grown-ups . . . mostly.” Kai shrugged. “Let’s start with the usual. Everyone introduce yourself and give us the ‘therapeutic’ spiel about your . . . um . . .”—she looked back over her shoulder, double-checking that the door was shut—“issue. Natalie starts.”
Natalie shut her eyes. Everyone knew she hated this part of the group meetings. It was so awkward and clichéd. Even after all these years she wasn’t sure exactly what to say. Obviously having to kick things off was her punishment for being late.
“Bitch,” she muttered under her breath.
Kai didn’t react except for a tight, expectant smile. There was clearly no getting out of this, so Natalie hauled herself to her feet. She shuffled those same feet in complete discomfort and started to speak.
“Hello, my name is Natalie and I’m a”—like Kai, she glanced over her shoulder to make sure the door was shut—“Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s been . . . um . . . sixty years or so since anyone last discovered my true identity.”
“Hi, Natalie,” the group droned in sync like a bunch of zombies. God, she had always hated that term . . . zombie, it hit way too close to home.
She sat down with another glare for Kai, one which was ignored, of course, and watched as the older man in the cape next to her stood up.
“Hello, my name is Dracula, though I’m forced to go by Drake in this city.” He folded his arms. “I hate that name. Why I cannot simply be called by my real moniker—”
“We’ve gone over this before,” Alec interrupted with a roll of his eyes. “Dracula attracts a lot of attention. And ridicule. You’d be a joke. A bigger one than you already are with that cape.”
“Alec,” Kai interrupted, her tone sharp and frustrated. “Your circle etiquette. Let him finish.” She glared at Drake. “But hurry it up, we don’t have a century for you to drone on with one of your monologues. It’s not the 1500s anymore. People have places to go and things to do.”
Drake scowled. “I am a vampire and it’s been twenty years since anyone last discovered my true identity.” He hesitated, then added, “But those sparkling whippersnappers running around out in the open aren’t helping. They whine and go out in the sun. Are they trying to get themselves killed? Don’t they know they’re attracting the wrong kind of attention by mooning all over the place, over some silly little girl who—”
Kai squeezed her eyes shut. “Drake, we’ve gone over this in several meetings. Those ‘sparkling vampires’ aren’t real. They’re from a movie. You must know what a movie is, you’ve been around for, like, a thousand years.”
Drake opened his mouth to argue, but before he could, the shaggy guy leapt up and started talking. “Hi, I’m Alec. I’m a werewolf. It’s been seventy years since someone last discovered my true identity.”
As the rest of the group said hi, Natalie watched Alec. Sheesh, he was good. With all that scruff and the literally puppy-dog eyes that he could make so forlorn, he pretty much got laid all the time. He even winked at her as he sat down.
“I’m Linda,” said the nervous woman who had been picking at her hand. “I’m a Swamp Dweller.”
Before she could continue, the bonding adhesive that had been used to hold her fake skin on her hands loosened and a chunk of skin dropped away, revealing dark green scales beneath.
“Oh shit,” she said as she dropped down to grab for it. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“It’s okay,” Kai said, but her tone was less than soothing and she barely spared Linda more than an eye roll. Not that Natalie could blame her. Linda was a bit . . . needy; the constant attention and comfort she required did get a bit old.
Still, it was hard not to feel sorry for her. Like all of them, Linda had to constantly battle to keep the monstrous parts of her appearance from becoming too obvious. Being part amphibian, part human, meant extensive makeup, constantly watery eyes (which Linda exacerbated with her emotional outbursts), and gills that only Blob had ever seen.
Natalie could sympathize. For her it was the scars all over her body, the fact that she was super-tall, and the slightly different skin tone of one leg versus the other. There was a reason she never wore skirts. But at least she didn’t have green skin or bolts sticking out of her neck. Stupid movies.
Linda knelt on the floor and tried to force her skin back on with the now-dingy adhesive. “It’s really not okay.”
Kai sighed. “Oh my God, Fishlady, chill out.”
Linda shot Kai a look. “Don’t call me Fishlady. And Bob wouldn’t have said ‘chill out.’ ”
“Well, I’m not Bob, thank God . . .” Kai sighed. “Next.”
The next man stood up and said, “I’m Dr. Henry Jekyll—”
As if about to hiccup, he shut his mouth and paused. After a moment, he opened his mouth to continue—but before he could speak, he tensed, his body twitching like he was having a seizure. Of course, no one moved to assist. It wasn’t like they hadn’t seen this before. Kai did rush over to the door and stood in front of it to block what was about to happen from unexpected passersby.
With a lot of groaning and grunting, Jekyll staggered forward. There was a sound of rending flesh and he groaned in pain. His body tensed and he arched backward with another half roar, half whine.
Slowly, his body separated in half, the back of him staying put as the front pulled free. And suddenly a second man stood in the middle of their group. One who was almost a mirror image of Jekyll except for the wicked gleam in his eye and the disheveled quality of his appearance.
As Jekyll bent over at the waist, panting with the exertion of what he’d just done, the twin version of him said, “And I am Edward Hyde. It’s been four weeks since someone last discovered our true identities.” He smiled, thin and unpleasant. “Although they won’t be speaking about it.”
Natalie shivered. Of all the members of their meeting group, Hyde was the only one she thought of as a “monster.” He actually liked being what he was, liked being some kind of weird twin who had never been fully separated from his brother.
The two men shared a face, but Hyde had gotten all the wicked impulses, the frightening desires, and Jekyll all the ability to control those things. When they were formed as one person, it was fine. Jekyll had the control and could rein his brother in. But when they weren’t . . .
It was creepy. Partly because the more evil he was allowed to be, the more twisted and ugly, the more monstrous in form, Hyde became.
Jekyll reached forward to grab for Hyde and re-form as one . . .entity, but Kai slammed a fist down on the podium before her and shook her head. “Oh, no, no, no! If you two are going to rejoin, do it in the bathroom. No one here wants to see it.”
The rest of the group nodded with various expressions of boredom and disgust. Seeing the two men go through what they called the “Bonding Ritual” was pretty troubling. There was lots of coughing and growling and sometimes even screaming and blood . . . Not good.
Jekyll frowned, though he did as he’d been asked and stepped away from Hyde. “You know we can only stay like this for a short time.”
“An hour,” Kai snapped. “Enough time to get yourselves into trouble on a regular basis, so don’t give me the you’re-threateningmy-existence speech.”
“Excellent.” Hyde laughed as he took the seat the two had once occupied as one person. “I’ve wanted some fresh air for days.”
He folded one leg over the other and smiled at the group. Jekyll turned and realized his . . . brother, for lack of a better term, had taken his spot. The doctor let out a heavy, put-upon sigh as he stomped across the room to grab another folding chair from the corner and added it to the circle beside Hyde. The two exchanged a glance before Jekyll folded his arms and turned his face.
“Okay,” Kai said. “That leaves me—”
Linda had collected her skin and climbed back in her chair with a glare for Kai. “Unless Ellis is here.”
Kai shut her eyes with a groan. “Oh, right, that asshole.” She looked around. “Ellis, are you here?”
There was no answer, but that didn’t mean anything. As the Invisible Man, Ellis often liked to play tricks. He hid right out in the open (often giggling like an idiot), followed people home to play tricks on them, and God knew what else. Natalie had heard he’d once watched Kai get undressed, but she’d caught him and beaten the snot out of him for it.
“Ellis . . . ?”
But despite . . . or perhaps because of his invisibility, he also loved attention. He was obsessed with being on the stage, with being seen. No discouragement from the group kept him from regularly going out on casting calls for Broadway and commercials. He never got any parts, but he kept trying, certain he’d win a Tony if “they” would just recognize his talent.
“I’ve never known him to be quiet for more than five minutes,” Natalie pointed out. “Maybe he had an audition.”
Drake nodded. “He was rambling on about that the other night when he called my new smartphone. What do they call it? An Ephone? Aphone? Some vowel-phone combination . . .”
Natalie turned on the man beside her with a blank stare. “You have a cell, a six hundred dollar cell, but you think sparkling vampires are real?”
Kai bit back a laugh. “Okay, we’ll just assume he isn’t here, because if he is, ignoring him will drive him crazy.”
Alec let out a burst of laughter. “I like that idea.”
Kai tilted her head. “And I guess we are back to me for introductions. So I’m Kai. I am a mummy, reincarnated by some idiot archaeologists in 1922.”
“That makes you the oldest and the youngest of our group,” Alec pointed out, just as he did at every meeting.
And just like at every meeting, Kai pursed her lips in annoyance and continued, “It’s been since . . . I guess 1940 since I was last revealed to anyone, though there were some close calls in the nineties. Stupid mummy movies . . .”
She shook her head and adjusted her suit jacket. Natalie blushed as she caught a glimpse of the white gauze Kai always wore beneath her clothes. She’d once admitted it was a way to keep moisturizer trapped against the dry skin, but Natalie always felt like she was seeing her underwear whenever she caught a glimpse of it.
“Hello, Kai,” half the group droned, while the other half was distracted by other things.
Kai sighed. “Great, so that’s done. Now, does anyone have anything they want to talk about?”
“Ellis might be at an audition, which explains his absence,” Linda whimpered. “But what about Bob?”
Natalie stared at Kai. Yeah, what about Bob? Blob. The Blob. She was kind of wondering that herself.
Hyde snickered. “Perhaps he got stuck on a subway car. Literally. Fat ass.”
Natalie folded her arms. Hyde was a nasty bastard and she refused to encourage him. “Look, the guy might be big, but he’s never missed a meeting in all the years we’ve been doing this. Plus, he runs Overeaters Anonymous in the room after us. I can’t picture him skipping out on two meetings without some kind of notification for someone. It’s just not in his nature. You know he takes this shit super-seriously.”
“Unlike some of us,” Kai said with a pointed glare for Natalie.
“All this talk and speculation won’t do us any good until we actually know what’s going on. Has anyone called him?”
Linda nodded her head quickly. “Oh yes. Every day. He didn’t answer this morning.”
Natalie blinked. “You call Blob every day?”
Linda’s green eyes narrowed at Natalie’s tone. “Lay off the attitude, Zombie Girl. I like to check in.”
“Shit.” Alec chuckled. “That might explain it right there. Maybe he just needed a vacation from Linda.”
Kai ignored them all. “Whatever the reason for his absence, can someone do a welfare check on Blob tonight?”
Silence hung heavy over the group. They might meet a couple times a week, brainstorm on how to stay hidden, and keep each other informed about things that might be of interest to the modern monster . . . but none of them had ever been all that big on actually helping each other.
Kai shook her head in disbelief. “Seriously, no one is willing to do this? Drake, you live near him, don’t you?”
“He’s just a few blocks from me.” Drake nodded. When Kai gave him an expectant stare, he sighed heavily. “Fine, I’ll stop by.”
“Great, thank you. Are there any other issues?” Kai asked, though by her terse tone and tapping foot it was clear she was done with all of this.
Alec ignored her signals and waved his hand low at his side. From his grin, Natalie couldn’t help but think he was doing it on purpose just to piss Kai off.
“Yeah,” he said when Kai pointed at him with annoyance.“One. So I actually just got another warning from my nighttime delivery job.”
Drake shook his head. “Young man, you are only drawing attention to yourself.”
Kai nodded in agreement. “For once, Drake isn’t wrong. Were you caught stealing razors from shipments again?”
Alec shrugged sheepishly. “Look, you have no idea. I have to shave three times a day to keep from being wolfed out all the damn time. And when it’s this close to a full moon? Forget about it. It’s more like six times a day. And each shave is, like, three or four heavy-duty razors.”
Jekyll tilted his head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Why don’t you just buy them?”
Alec glared at him and the teasing in his tone and on his face faded to something a bit darker. Not Hyde dark, but a little monstrous nonetheless. “Not all of us have family money, Doctor. We don’t all live on Park Avenue and wear thousand-dollar suits.”
“Three-thousand,” Hyde said with a thin smile as he smoothed the fine line of the suit he currently wore.
“Hyde,” Jekyll said softly, without looking at Hyde. “You know that isn’t true.”
Hyde shrugged. “Only because you’re cheap. Honestly, a fifteen-hundred-dollar suit is hardly fit for peasants, brother.”
“You think too much about money. Among other things.” Jekyll rolled his eyes, then shook his head apologetically, as if to imply they all knew Hyde. And they did.
“Whatever.” Alec shrugged. “I make, like, fifteen an hour at my job—”
“Fifteen hundred?” Jekyll interrupted with wide eyes as Hyde snorted in amusement at his brother’s inexperience when it came to normal people.
Alec stared for a moment, then slowly shook his head. “No, numbnuts, fifteen dollars. U.S. currency, a ten and a five. Shit, you are clueless. What that means is that I don’t have the cash to pay for that kind of expenditure.”
Natalie shook her head. “But Alec, if you lose your job because you’re caught stealing too many times, you won’t have any money at all. Plus, I’m sure the amount of razors you take has to seem super-weird. Don’t you worry they might get nosy if they start the paperwork to let you go—ask too many questions about why you need that many razors? It draws attention to you in a way that could be dangerous.”
He grinned at her, crooked and utterly charming. “I’m not sure I’m going to lose anything, sweetheart. This is my third warning and there’s been no consequence so far.”
Drake tilted his head. “How do you manage that if they keep catching you in the act?”
Alec laughed. “Female supervisor.”
Kai rolled her eyes. “So did you bring this up to brainstorm ideas on how you can manage to get razors and keep your job, or did you bring it up to brag about all the tail you get?”
“Both?” Alec said with a shrug.
“Eh,” Kai groaned. “You’re on your own, jackass. Anyone else have something to say?”
Linda raised her hand and the group as a whole sighed. There weren’t many movies about Swamp Dwellers. The closest one had been Creature from the Black Lagoon, and in that feature the monster didn’t talk and he/she (that part wasn’t really clear . . . ) was always portrayed as a bit of a badass. A thing that could get things done, even when they were totally evil things.
Linda . . . not so much. In fact, she was living proof of what everyone in the room already knew: authors of books and directors of movies got their lives so consistently wrong. Those hacks took a fraction of truth and then exploited and twisted it beyond recognition.
So Linda, unlike her movie counterpart, was timid, needy, and . . . well, flaky. Kind of like cooked fish. A joke Linda did not find funny in the slightest, so Natalie kept it to herself.
“Seriously, Linda?” Kai asked. “Really?”
Linda’s hand came down slowly and she slouched in her chair. “I like Blob better.”
To be honest, so did Natalie. He was the calming influence on a grouchy bunch of freaks. They didn’t argue as much when he led the proceedings. Hell, sometimes they even had a breakthrough, not that any of them would admit that if asked. Poor Blob had been trying to get someone to acknowledge a breakthrough for years.
Kai shrugged. “Well, maybe he’ll be back where he belongs on Wednesday, okay? And then you can tell us all about your cats and your neighbors you don’t like and whatever other tedium constitutes your day. Until then, why don’t we break this up for the night?”
Although Linda still looked pissed, the rest of the group appeared as relieved as Natalie felt. After all, they shared a common bond of what they were, but other than that, she felt very little connection to these people . . . er, things. And she had to go to work anyway. The medical examiner’s office waited for no man, nor beast. Not in New York.
Everyone gathered their things and Jekyll and Hyde ducked into the bathroom to perform their creepy ritual. No one waited for them. Instead they trailed out onto the street in a disorganized and silent group. No chitchat. No offers to share a cab or a walk to the subway station.
The church was on an iffier end of the street where there were no doormen at the apartment buildings. To Natalie’s mind, that made it the perfect place to be mugged, and so as she half-assed waved to the others and trudged toward the station, she kept a wary eye out for people. She was made of various parts from dead people, convicts, mostly, which she tried not to think about (thanks a lot, “Dad”). Whoever had “donated” her ears to the project had exceptionally good hearing in life. Natalie used that to her advantage in the city, where danger did occasionally lurk, though admittedly not as much in the last fifteen years when the city had been “cleaned up.” (Translation: freaks were not welcome).
In the distance she heard a woman arguing with a man, probably over a purse. Part of Natalie thought about heading in that direction, of using her super-Frankenstein’s-Monster strength to be a hero.
But she’d learned the hard way that a hero’s path didn’t really get a person anywhere. Hell, she’d been chased out of a German village a century ago by people brandishing pitchforks and torches because she’d tried to help a child. And afterward? The brat had turned on her and started screaming and running.
She shivered. Not again. Nope, not in this life.
So instead of putting on her superhero cape (which she just knew would be far more stylish than Drake’s Dracula cape), Natalie walked down the steps into the train station and off to work with the dead. None of them talked, none of them caused her any problems whatsoever.
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