by H. M. Snow
After turning the key and pushing the penthouse door open, Bryndis first noticed the subtle resonance of hot tub jets. The hum drifted into the living room from doors leading off to her right. She followed it, only to find a man in his early twenties relaxing in a huge tub. “Who are you?” Bryndis asked, “and what are you doing here?”
His eyelids flew open. “Who are you?” was his response.
“The new owner of this apartment. My question still stands: who are you?”
A door opposite the hot tub opened to emit a billow of steam and the head of a young blonde. She looked from Bryndis to the man, wide-eyed.
The man groped for the towel that lay on the floor beside the hot tub. As he climbed out and wrapped the towel around his waist, he demanded, “What do you mean, ‘new owner’? Where’s Mr. Etienne?”
Bryndis crossed the space between them so that they were eye to eye. She made use of her slightly superior height to lean in and say, “Answer my question before asking your own. I have paid for this apartment; that makes you trespassers here. If I do not get a satisfactory answer from you within the next two minutes, I will have you arrested.”
The blonde emerged from the sauna, bundled in a terrycloth bathrobe, and interposed herself between them. “We’re sorry,” she said, “we didn’t know the apartment had changed hands. Mr. Etienne always told us we could come and use his place whenever we liked. I’m Kate, and this is my boyfriend Josh.” She grabbed her boyfriend’s wrist and steadied him when he would have backed away from Bryndis in his alarm. Though he was her elder by a few years, she was better able to stand up in front of Bryndis’ searching stare.
For some seconds, Bryndis gazed unblinkingly at Kate. Then she appeared to arrive at a decision. “As for your Mr. Etienne, he has died.”
“Died!” Kate and Josh spoke the word in unison. Kate alone continued on to add, “Was he in an accident?”
“Accident?” Bryndis echoed. “I don’t know that I would call it an accident. Suicidally bad judgment, perhaps. Whatever the cause, he died in extreme debt. I offered to purchase this place. I would prefer not to see you turn up whenever you like. I prefer an orderly environment. If you care to come back, I will be available at six this evening. You might bring pizza– I eat only vegetarian,” she added. “I have cleaning to do.”
Though Bryndis did not use a threatening tone, the two young people retreated from the apartment posthaste. Bryndis followed them as far as the living room. There she took out a smartphone, searched for a locksmith, and placed the call. “I have an emergency job… how soon can you be here?” She informed them of the address and the security code for the front door to the highrise building before she hung up and made another call. “I have a report for the– oh,” she faltered, “young head, I hadn’t expected you to answer in person. Yes… yes… it’s just as we anticipated, except I can’t see him running away when he had two sheep fattening here all the while. He will come back for them.” Bryndis listened for a few moments. “Yes, that is my plan. I have arranged for them to return this evening, just after sunset. The man would not be such a great loss to the human race. He had a few unpleasant names to call me, but he lacked the courage to say them aloud, not knowing I heard his thoughts. The girl is different. No, I will attempt to save them both. I am not as contemptible as my prey.” She listened once again. “Thank you, young… Mairen. You are very kind. I will report again afterwards.” Bryndis hung up the phone with a thoughtful look in her eyes and a slight smile softening her stern features.
She shrugged out of her jacket. The kitchen was her first target. Outwardly it looked like any high-class kitchen meant more for prestige than use. The stainless steel refrigerator was full of rotting food and blackening mold, however, and the cupboards were stuffed haphazardly with random objects, many of them bearing no relation to culinary endeavors. Bryndis began filling trash bags, tying them, and setting them aside for removal. By the time she finished emptying the kitchen, she had run out of trash bags and the intercom was buzzing for the locksmith’s admittance.
Her manner changed with this oblivious bystander working there. She hovered near him while he changed the locks. She cast many wary glances down the corridor toward the elevator, and if the lighted elevator numbers showed that someone was ascending, she stood in the lobby outside the penthouse until the upward progress stopped at one of the lower floors. She was quick to pay cash to the locksmith and send him away once he finished his work. Then she locked herself inside the apartment.
With the door secured from outside interference, Bryndis launched a more earnest search through the rooms. She began in the bedroom behind the spa-like bathroom. Like the kitchen, the bedroom was presentable at first glance, only to reveal deposits of filth and mildew in closets and under the bed. Suspicious stains under the rug made Bryndis narrow her eyes. She replaced the rug and took out her smartphone to make a note about tearing out the flooring down to the subfloor. On this bout of searching, Bryndis did not bother cleaning what she found. She examined and made notes to herself and moved onward. Bedroom, office, bath, living room: all showed signs of an attempt at hiding the chaotic impulses of the prior resident. Then she noticed stairs leading upward from the kitchen area. They led her to a loft overlooking the kitchen and living room. Here too the rubbish was heaped thick on the floor, but beneath it she found what she had been searching out: sealed plastic bags containing an assortment of human bones.
Her alert senses brought her upright at the noise of a key in the lock. The lock and the knob rattled a couple times before the person on the other side knocked twice.
“We brought pizza!” said Kate, too cheerfully and quite unnecessarily. She set down the two large pizza boxes on the now-clean kitchen counter. “You’ve been busy!”
Bryndis did not answer at once. She went to the sink to wash her hands. Josh was emptying a canvas shopping bag onto the counter, item by item: a two-liter bottle of cola, two bottled waters, one pack of paper napkins and another of paper plates, and a six-pack of beer. He avoided making eye contact with Bryndis as they passed each other. Meanwhile, Kate kept chattering into the silence. “We got a margherita pizza, since you said you’re vegetarian. Is that okay? I thought about going vegetarian once, but it’s really inconvenient, isn’t it? I just couldn’t give up bacon,” she said with a light laugh. “When did you figure out you didn’t like meat?”
Bryndis took a slice of the meatless pizza. “I did not choose vegetarianism because I dislike meat. Rather, I like meat a little too much.” Her calm gaze made Kate turn away, flustered.
“You never said what your name is,” Josh said.
“I’m Bryndis. Were you well-acquainted with your Mr. Etienne?”
“Sure,” said Josh, “we hung out all the time up here. He let us watch whatever we wanted. He let us use his Jacuzzi even when he wasn’t around. It was like we lived here.”
“But do you know much about him?”
“This is his favorite pizza.” Josh held up a slice of the other pizza, overloaded with an assortment of meats. “He was a great guy, lots of fun—pretty much exactly your opposite.” His eyes challenged Bryndis.
“I am glad to hear it,” she replied. “You may go ahead and turn on the television, if you want. There might not be much time to watch anything, but you should carry on as you have done, if only for a little while.” She dabbed at the corners of her mouth with one of the napkins watching Josh hunt for the remote control.
Kate remained at the kitchen counter, torn between the offer of entertainment and some lurking sense of propriety toward the new owner. “Don’t you want to watch? Mr. Etienne gets all the best channels.”
“No, I have work to do. You may do as you like.”
Still Kate lingered. “I never noticed what a mess this kitchen was. Do you want some help?”
“If you like.”
The roar of cheering crowds erupted from the television. “Great,” said Josh loudly, “the game is only just started. Glad I didn’t miss it.”
Kate threw an impatient glance at her boyfriend. “You could offer to help.”
“This is the playoffs!” he retorted without turning away from the television.
“Men,” said Kate as she came around to the other side of the counter to help Bryndis. “Some of them just can’t think about anything but sports. Um, Bryndis… what did you mean, ‘not much time’? Are you expecting somebody else?”
“In a manner of speaking,” was all Bryndis would say.
They were still scrubbing at the mildew under the sink when the apartment door opened with a bang. Kate bumped her head on the cabinet frame, startled, but Bryndis merely sat back and listened to Josh as he exclaimed, “Etienne! You jerk, they said you were dead!” in a jovial voice.
Kate stood so that she could see over the counter. “Mr. Etienne! You’re alive?” Then she stiffened from head to foot, mouth ajar and eyes wide. Her whole body trembled, but she remained as though rooted in place. Instead of speech, she made a pitiable whimper through her nose.
A visceral squish resounded in the sudden stillness of the apartment. Bryndis stood up, wiping her hands on a towel. She faced the man who stood in front of the sofa. “Good evening.”
Disheveled hints of sophistication still lingered about the one who had called himself Etienne. He seemed unaware of the blood spatter on his creased trousers. “A guest,” he said. “Have we met before?” His dark eyes smoldered in a gaze meant to captivate.
Bryndis left Kate paralyzed in the kitchen and approached Etienne. “No, you would have remembered.” Coming around the sofa, she gazed down on Josh where he sprawled on his back, bloodied from a gaping wound across his abdomen but frozen in place just like Kate. She met his terrified gaze for a moment before addressing Etienne again. “Humanity does not become you, ettin.” She raised her hand toward him.
His dark eyes dulled for a few seconds. His disheveled appearance wavered like a mirage and then disappeared altogether. In its place stood a monstrous figure, deathly white and gaunt except for a distended belly. The skin split vertically down that belly to reveal a gaping mouth full of diseased teeth and lolling tongue. The mouth in the monster’s head said, “You smell familiar. I couldn’t quite place it while I maintained the disguise, but I’m certain I have met you before.”
“Do you have any memory of your meals after you’ve eaten? Do you remember the meals that escaped your grasp? There was one, a girl. You left her until last, and she escaped you.”
“I remember every meal,” said the ettin. “Only one has escaped me.” It drew a breath through narrow nostrils. “You smell so familiar.” Then it brayed with laughter. “You smell like me! Are you one of us? My power has no effect on you, but yours affects me a little.”
“No, I am not one of you. My mother took great pains to see that I did not become one of you.”
“The meal that escaped,” the ettin mused. “You cannot be her, so you must be her half-breed! You must be one of the wanderers, like that one. But how can your pitiful share of my blood affect me? Your people were weak. They even tasted weak.”
Bryndis tucked her hair behind her left ear. There, in the uppermost curve of her ear, an amethyst stud burned purple.
Some of the mockery faded from the ettin’s ghastly face. “You enslaved yourself to the young head.”
“The strength of my abilities comes from the authority she holds. The list of your slaughters is long. The young head has decided that your time must come to an end. She gave me the privilege of carrying out her will because of my detestable connection to you.”
“As if any half-breed controlled by a child can survive against one of the elder ettin in all his strength!”
Bryndis sighed as if bored. “You have no concept of the power of the authority Mairen wields.” Again she stretched out her hand toward the monster. While he stood rigid, fighting the paralysis she imposed on him, she took from her pocket a large switchblade. With the blade open, she hamstrung the monster so that he toppled backward, destroying the coffee table with a crash. Then she took the knife in an overhand grip, braced her other hand against the handle, and drove it between the ettin’s eyes all the way to the hilt. “For the young head and for my mother,” she said over the carcass as if in benediction.
Across the room, Kate collapsed to the floor, sobbing in terror. Hearing this, Bryndis yanked the knife from the ettin’s skull, wiped it clean on Josh’s trouser leg, and put it away. She crouched down beside Josh and pulled the wound closed between her hands. After a minute or so of steady pressure on her part, the edges of the cut remained together and were visibly knitting back together. She kept her left hand a few inches above the wound until only a faint scar was visible. Then she turned from him as if he no longer existed.
Bryndis helped Kate to sit up. “You should go home to your people,” she said. “You were raised well. This experiment in rebellion has not been successful.”
Stammering between sobs, Kate demanded, “What was that… thing?”
“Your Mr. Etienne is nothing but an ettin. It’s an old word that means ‘devourer.’ They are little but an insatiable stomach with a brain, but their abilities enable them to deceive the unwary.”
Kate drew a convulsive breath. “Then… what are you, to be strong enough to kill it?”
“Kill it? No, it isn’t dead.”
Kate stared at her in renewed fear.
“I destroyed the part of its brain that allows it to use its abilities, nothing more. Others will see to the destruction of the whole body. You have not succeeded in changing the subject, Kate. You need to go home to your people. Your judgment of character needs additional development before you try to rely on it again. That ettin would have kept you there, watching it as it dismembered and devoured your wretched boyfriend alive. Then it would have come for you. Perhaps it would have eaten you straightaway; that is the most likely scenario, since it knew we were coming after it. But perhaps not. Ettins are arrogant. It might have believed it had time enough to toy with you first, as it did to my mother.”
“Were you not listening? The same happened to her when she was young. The ettin took her whole family, paralyzed them, tore them apart while they yet lived, and ate them before her eyes. Then it grew drowsy and stupid from its feast, so it decided to molest her instead and eat her later. She escaped, badly injured, while it slept. She still suffers nightmares.”
“I’m sure I will too,” admitted Kate.
Bryndis set her right hand on Kate’s head. “No… I can prevent that. But you must go home to your people.”
“Home…” Kate dozed off against the kitchen cupboard door.
Leaving her there on the floor, Bryndis made another call on her smartphone. “It is done. The sheep survived… Yes, thank you. I’ll meet them in the lobby. Goodbye.” She hung up and walked to the door to unlock it. She waited a few seconds before opening it. “Welcome.”
In the lobby an assortment of people were appearing as if walking through a door that could not be seen. Each one wore an earring of some sort at a different position in his or her ear. “How many humans?” asked one man.
“Two. The male lives downstairs on the fifth floor; the female must go to her people in a different neighborhood.”
The man who had asked the question lifted Josh as if the young man weighed no more than a loaf of bread. A woman lifted Kate likewise. To this one Bryndis said, “I have already begun the memory alteration process. Her last conscious thought will be of an impulse to return home, nothing more. This is what her home looks like.” She touched the woman’s forehead with her right hand.
The rest gathered around the ettin. “This one’s a big one,” remarked an older woman. “Elder-sized. Good job, Bryndis.”
“It was my duty,” Bryndis replied. “Thank you for disposing of it.”
“That’s my duty,” said the woman with a smile. “For the sake of the young head.”
Bryndis nodded. “Yes.” She watched them depart, bearing the ettin’s limp body between them. Then she returned to the laborious task of cleansing all traces of the monster’s destructive presence from the apartment.