Catherine ‘Cat’ Eagle, petite bike messenger with a pixie nose, red hair, freckles and a perpetual tan, loved nothing better than the freedom of riding. Just her, her bike, the city streets and her uncanny sense of direction.
That sense led her to discover the Goblin Alley, the magical connections that connected every city in the world to Goblinus — home of the goblins and other faerie creatures. That secret world called to Cat, and she had to follow, only this time she wasn’t alone.
Lounging on one of the threadbare, ass-eating chairs in the front lobby of Mercury Messengers, Catherine ‘Cat’ Eagle watched the rain run down the outside of the office’s single-pane windows and the condensation running down the inside. Two drops on opposite sides of the glass were in a neck-and-neck race. Who would win the Tour de France? Outside? Inside? Outside merged with a larger drop and surged into the lead. Cat let the weight of her bicycle helmet pull her head back on the chair, groaning.
“Come on Bert, what’s the point in keeping me on the clock this afternoon? It’s dead.”
Behind the orange counter Bert Downing, her boss, chuckled hard enough to make his thick jowls jiggle. Sometimes she thought that Bert was entirely made of Jell-O, given how much of it he ate. Even now he had a cup of strawberry banana and was spooning it into his mouth. “Someone might call for a pick-up. No one wants to go out in the weather like this.”
Cat closed her eyes. He actually could be right, except the phone hadn’t rung once. Not like last month before Valentine’s day. Something about the most nauseating holiday of the year compelled people to have their flowers and chocolates and stuffed bears and who knew what else delivered via bike messenger. At least she got out riding. But March? She ended up sitting around too much. Some of the other guys loved nothing better to loaf around but for her the best thing about the job was being out on her bike cruising the streets and, when she got the chance, ducking back into the goblin alleys. She could spend a lifetime exploring the goblin city of Goblinus, connected to – she was told – all of the cities of the world by the alleys. If Bert would only give her the afternoon off she could slip out and find an alley leading to the other world. Maybe there it wouldn’t be raining. Even if it was it’d still be more interesting than watching the Seventies era orange and brown stripped wallpaper peeling from the walls, or listening to Bert slurp down yet another cup of Jell-O.
The bell of the back door jangled. One of the other riders stuck with working today must have returned. Probably Erik Powell. Cat sat up, swinging her bare calves off the arm of the chair. Her cleats on the bike sandals clunked against the tile. “Bert, look, that’s probably Erik. Let him sit around here in case anyone wants a pickup.”
Bert put down his empty Jell-O cup. He pointed his plastic spoon, still decorated with gory bits of strawberry-banana Jell-O, at her. “You sound like you’re not too interested in a job, young lady. Don’t I pay you for this? What other job lets you sit around so much? You should consider yourself fortunate.”
“If I sit here any longer my ass is going to melt into that chair. You’ll have to hire professional cleaners just to scrape me out.”
Bert grinned. Right then Erik came through the swinging doors to the back room where the messengers had their locker rooms and Bert kept the packages waiting to go out. An empty room right now. Erik was alright, cocky, dark hair and five years younger than her. So far he hadn’t given up on asking her out, obviously deluding himself into thinking that he could wear her down. Erik looked between the two of them and opened his mouth. Cat held up a hand.
He chuckled, jiggling again on his chair like his favorite desert. He waved his spoon around in a circle. “Fine. Don’t want to get paid? Just saving me money.” He jabbed the spoon in Erik’s direction. “You sit down where I can see you. I’m not sending everyone home yet.”
Cat bounced up and out of the chair. “Thanks Bert.”
Erik took two stiff steps toward the chair. His tight blue jersey glistened with water, more drops ran off his helmet and down his legs, bare beneath his knee. “Don’t I get a say in this?”
“No.” Bert and Cat said together.
Cat touched Erik’s arm as she went past. “Tough luck.”
She grimaced before she even hit the door. Why did she do something like that? Touch his arm? It was only going to encourage him. Simple answer. Get the hell out of there before Erik found some excuse to follow her into the back. She hit the door moving fast and picked up speed as she shoved through. In the back she ran to her locker. Her fingers felt like lead as she spun the dial for the combination lock. For a second her mind went blank. She didn’t have any idea what the numbers were, but her fingers stopped it on the first number. 13. Lucky 13. All the rest came back. She got the locker open, snagged her bag, making sure that she had her u-lock inside because she had forgotten it before, and locked back up. In the lobby the phone rang and she faintly heard Bert answering. Slinging the bag strap over her head onto her shoulder she headed toward the rack to get her bike. The bells on her bag jingled with each step. She copied that from the pedicabs over in Goblinus. Those guys, mostly goblins, all had bells on their cabs to alert pedestrians to their presence. Now it sounded loud and annoying.
Cat pulled her bike out of the rack just as the lobby door swung open, with Erik hurrying into the back. His face lit up when he saw her.
“Great! You haven’t left yet. Hold up a sec, I’ve got a pickup run to make but I have loads of time, we can ride together for bit.”
Cat pushed her bike toward the exit. She never should have touched his arm. “Sorry, can’t wait. I’ll see you later.”
She didn’t stop. Erik ran for the bike rack and she shoved her bike outside into the wet and rain. One, two steps and she swung her leg up over the seat and dropped onto the pedals. She pushed hard and shot down the back alleyway behind the building. Her attention turned inward, looking for that feeling in her chest that signaled the alignment of an alley with Goblinus. She felt it, but not here, not right now. The alleys shifted and moved over time. She had an unerring sense of direction and it was telling her that she needed to head North.
Cat rolled out to the street, turning smartly into the lane when she saw it was clear, and stood up to tackle the hill. As she rode she looked over the top of a battered Geo parked on the street and saw Erik come out of the alley behind her. She pushed harder. No way he’d be able to keep up and soon enough she’d ditch him when she found an open alley.
At the top of the hill her gut told her to head left and she did, climbing slightly again but heading towards a development along the ridge. Lots of office buildings with a view rising up above the trees, expensive places for people with expensive tastes. And wherever there were people with expensive tastes they’d have alleys to hide their dumpsters and let their menial workers come and go through back entrances. That had to be the place. Traffic increased on the road but she kept the lane, pushing to the pedals and easily cruising along at almost thirty. She didn’t see Erik anywhere when she checked her helmet mirror. He might have given up on the charge up the hill, but she doubted it. She started looking around, sure that he had to be somewhere, but she didn’t see him.
The feeling that she was on the right track grew stronger as she reached the conflict. She raced around a roundabout planted with young Douglas fir trees and on into the main drive for the first complex. Movement out the corner of her eye caught her attention and she saw Erik coming up the sidewalk! She shot past, cursing because he had to have seen her. Now she had to get to the alley before he caught up or he’d see her cross over.
Her bike carried her on past all of the V.I.P. parking, around the back of the nearest building. A metal bar gate crossed the road ahead, but there was space to the side. She curved smoothly around it and kept going, pedaling hard as the pull grew stronger. It was almost time for the alley to change. She had to hurry!
There. Just ahead a narrow alley opened onto the roadway. She knew that was the spot. She raced toward the opening and heard gears grinding and the growl of something large. Cat braked hard, her tires sliding on the road, and she stopped just before a large garbage truck squeezed out of the alley with the concrete buildings rising on either side. It barely fit at all, maybe a foot to spare on either side. Cat clenched her handlebar grips and waited for her chance.
As soon as the truck cleared the alley she shoved forward, pedaling hard into the narrow space. Her tires splashed through the thin ribbon of water running down the center of the concrete alley. Recessed yellow lights gleamed in reinforced pockets on the walls. As exultant as if she were crossing a finishing line Cat rode the change from this alley to another only to realize with shock that there was someone coming up hard on her left elbow. Too late to stop, too late to do anything except cross.
Bright sunshine hit her eyes as if the clouds had been ripped away. The smooth gliding ride across concrete gave way to a teeth-rattling cobblestone. Cat hit her brakes and came to a stop. She heard swearing and saw Erik lose control of his bike, as he wobbled and then toppled over on the uneven surface.
The buildings rising around them were made of light yellow bricks but the alleyway was paved with cobblestones. Balconies hung over the alley, overgrown with plants that dangled down the sides of the buildings. Clotheslines strung with colorful garments crisscrossed the alley above there heard. She heard voices, some raised in song and others laughing, and smelled something eye-watering-hot cooking. Even more striking was the absence of any traffic sounds. Further down the alley, at least a hundred yards past where Erik was slowing picking himself up, a couple people in bright tunics were walking this way. Only not human people, she could tell even from this distance. Both of them what she thought of as classic goblins, standing about shoulder-high with green skin, pointy ears and large yellowish eyes. The one on her left wore a blue tunic stretched tight by his bulk and had a shaven head. His companion wore a bright pink tunic and had long dark hair pulled back into a top-knot. Neither goblin looked alarmed to see two humans on bikes suddenly show up in the alley. The trick, Cat had learned, was to look like you belonged and had a purpose. Then most folks left you alone. In both worlds.
She rolled forward to join Erik as he picked up his bike, but his attention was on everything else. She leaned closer. “You look like a tourist. Close your trap and follow me.”
“Do it!” She pedaled toward the approaching goblins, hoping that he’d be smart enough to follow. She checked her helmet mirror. He was on his bike, riding after her, his fingers holding tight to his handlebars as they bounced along the alley. It wasn’t that bad once you got used to it, but rougher than most city riding. Some sections of the city had better streets but vehicle traffic was limited to a few radial streets and designated roads around the center of the city. She didn’t recognize this section of the city but that was hardly surprising considering the vastness of Goblinus. She knew that the Goblin King’s city was a huge amorphous blight on the landscape and stretched miles out from the dark spires at the heart which housed the Goblin King himself. So far she’d stayed out of the inner districts, always coming into the city in places like this. And so far her luck had held for her to find her way back out again, thanks to her keen sense of direction.
It only took moments to reach the goblins. She didn’t say anything to them, just focused on steering around them, her bells jingling the whole time. Erik stayed right behind her as if he was trying to draft off her. As they passed the goblins she heard one of them sneer, “Othersiders.”
Cat didn’t respond. She kept riding, but slowed slightly now that the alley was clear. Erik rolled up alongside us. His face looked pale.
“What was that?”
Cat glanced back, but they were far enough away. “Goblins. This is their city. Not just goblins, of course, there are other types of people here including humans. Don’t act like a tourist and you won’t stand out.”
“This is impossible. You went into that alley between the offices –”
“And came out here. Tell me something I don’t know.” Cat softened slightly. “It surprised me too the first time.”
“You’ve done this before?”
“Yes.” Cat brought her bike to a stop. Erik stopped with her. “You shouldn’t have followed me. I didn’t think you could follow me, honestly.”
“You mean you brought me here?”
Cat shrugged. “It’s not like I meant to. I was trying to ditch you.”
Now Erik got some of his color back and grinned at her. “Not that easy to ditch me.”
“I guess not, but now we’ve got a bit of a problem.”
“I’ve got to get you back safely but I don’t know if I can. Even if I find the route back what if you just stay stuck on this side?”
“That could happen?”
“I don’t know! Maybe? It isn’t like I’ve brought people over here before.”
“I followed you this way, why wouldn’t it work going back?”
“Maybe it will.” Cat pushed off on her bike. “I just wish I knew if it would or not.”
Erik caught up with her and they rode down the alley to a wider cross-street. There was a lot more pedestrian traffic on the street. Mostly goblins of the green variety but Cat saw some of the leather-clad yellow goblins that looked like some sort of police from a nightmare bondage fantasy, and even a couple of the bigger gray goblins stomping along with their over-sized feet and protruding lips. Here and there in the crowds she saw other types. A thin, fine-featured man with long white hair, no idea what he could be, as well as the occasional humans. No one looked like they were giving her any second looks as she wove among the crowd, trying to project the image of a bike messenger with a purpose. Erik wisely kept up and didn’t say anything. So long as they kept moving Cat felt better. She concentrated on her sense of direction. Which way home?
Her gut told her to keep going down this street so she kept pushing on the pedals. Now and then she checked on Erik with her helmet mirror but he doggedly stayed right behind her on her left. Everything considered he was handling himself well. Her gut feeling didn’t get stronger but she remained convinced that she was going the right way. As she rode she kept an eye and ear out for any trouble. Goblins mostly gave way at the sound of her bells. She caught a few scowls but also passed a pedicab being pedaled by a big gray goblin with his own bell jangling from the canopy over his empty passenger seat. She smelled fresh-baked bread riding past one building, and right at the next something with a strong garlic odor started her stomach growling. A short distance on she passed a cart with row after row of dried fish hanging on strings. Other merchants hawked their wares along the street from carts and tables, boxes and discreet samples in pockets. A constant babble of overlapping voices came at her from all sides. Riding past a group of yellow goblins they burst into raucous laughter, which she thought was directed at her and Erik at first, but then she saw one of the goblins flick a pebble at one of the light posts. The rock pinged off the glass globe at the top and inside one of the captive fairies kicked and hit at the glass, making rude gestures at the goblins. The others lay about in their day-time stupor, too tired or too apathetic to care. Another rock hit the glass and triggered another tantrum which set the goblins off laughing once more.
Cat looked away and kept peddling. She’d been shocked the first time she saw the fairies in the lamp posts, now she tried not to look at them. Erik rode up beside her.
“Did you see that?”
“Yes, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Get behind me.”
“Are those fairies?”
“Yes, Erik watch out!”
Her warning came too late. He didn’t see the big pink goblin in his path until he was just about to collide with the unfortunate pedestrian. Erik swerved wildly, somehow missing the goblin but his only option was to head into a narrow alley. The goblin shouted and took a swing at Erik, but missed. Cat braked and swung her bike around. The goblin turned his attention to her.
She smiled widely. “Sorry about that.”
In the alley Erik shouted in alarm. Cat stood up on the pedals and shot toward the alley, swerving around the goblin’s grasping hands. More shouts rose up behind her but she didn’t look back. She shot into the alley and saw Erik pedaling away from her, deeper into the alley. At first she didn’t see what he was fleeing from but then a section of the red brick wall moved. It bulged out and jumped down into an alley, landing on all fours. It wasn’t a section of the wall at all but a geist, a sort of chameleon-like goblin she had encountered before. Its skin matched the bricks as it loped after Erik. And it wasn’t alone. Several other geists chased after him, some leaping from balcony to balcony above, or racing along the roof top. Cat hesitated only a second before she raced after the geists and Erik, the whole while her gut telling her that she was going in the wrong direction. Erik was standing up, pedaling as fast as he could, but it looked like the geists were gaining on him.
They raced down the alley, the geists hot after Erik and Cat speeding along behind, but gaining. The rough cobblestone of the alley rattled her teeth and bike until her arms and wrists ached. As she closed the gap between her and the geists she caught a strong urine scent from them. Then she rode up alongside the trailing geist, a creature of knotted muscles beneath the lumpish cobblestone appearance of its skin. It snarled at her with teeth of splintered stone. Cat reached back with one hand, and pulled her u-lock from her messenger bag. The geist lunged at her calf and she swung the metal u-lock down at its head hard. The blow sent tremors up her arm and the geist crumpled to the ground. Just then her bike’s front tire hit a protruding rock and bounced. She almost lost control of the bike but managed to recover and pedaled harder to catch up with Erik.
Geists on each side came at her but she swung the lock and knocked them back. One leaped from a balcony, attempting to land on her but she ducked down and it missed. All around she heard the harsh panting of their breath and that urine scent stung her eyes. Then she passed the leading geist and pulled up alongside Erik. His face was pale and intent on navigating the alley. It was so narrow that there wasn’t much more room than the two of them side-by-side. Cat thought about home and felt the tug in her gut that indicated a crossing, but it wasn’t home. She didn’t know where it would go. She was still debating it in her mind when a large geist with skin colored like stone and nails like wrought iron dropped from the rooftops three floors above and landed directly in their path. It rose up baring teeth of broken glass and roared.
“Oh shit!” Erik cried.
Before he could brake Cat reached over and grabbed his arm. Inside she reached for that sense of the crossing and –
They rolled together into an equally narrow brick-lined alley that came to an end right before them. There wasn’t any time to stop before they rolled out, startling a woman, and into a street in front of a small blue car. The car braked and the bearded man inside swore at them. Erik lost control of his bike and toppled into the street. Cat swung off her bike and knelt beside him.
“Are you okay?”
The man in the car yelled at them again, in French. Cat recognized a word or two. She raised a hand. “Pardon!”
Erick picked himself up. “I’m okay.”
He grabbed his bike and she went to her bike. Together they pushed their bikes on across the street. Erik was looking at her but Cat’s eyes were drawn to the end of the road. There, rising above the trees, was the Eiffel tower. The man in the blue car drove on past.
“What is it?” Erik asked. “Not more monsters.”
“No.” Cat laughed. She pointed down the street. “Take a look.”
Erick looked. “No way! How?”
Cat tore her eyes from the tower and looked at Erik. He was sort of cute in a kind of goofy way with his curls poking out from beneath his bike helmet. “The goblin alleys connect Goblinus to cities everywhere. It looks like we ended up in Paris.”
“That’s crazy. How do we get home?”
Cat grinned again. “Well, since we don’t have passports I think our best bet is to go back through the goblin alley. I’ve got a great sense of direction.”
“You brought us here!”
“That was only to get away from the geists. We’ll be more careful the next time. Are you up for it?”
“On one condition.”
“Okay, two conditions.”
Cat raised an eyebrow.
“Look,” Erik said quickly. “Just two things. When we get back you explain everything, and we go out to dinner together. Like a date.”
“If you do what I tell you too this time,” Cat said.
Cat turned her bike away before he could see her smile and swung her leg up over the seat. First, find the way back to Goblinus and then home. After that, a date might be nice. And it’d be cool to have someone to share all this with. She pedaled slowly down the street, Erik falling in behind her, savoring the view of the tower. Her gut told her it might take a while to find another crossing. Or maybe she just wanted to check out the sights a bit before they left.
This story is the 23rd weekly short story release. I originally put this story out under my pen name “Michael Burges.” I wrote this back in early 2011. It was a tie-in to the Goblin Alley series that, at the time, was only one novel. Cat would eventually show up again in a guest appearance in The Eleven Lords.
I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is another Goblin Alley tie-in, The Forest Path.