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Eddie pulled hard against the weight of the full bag, his own body a counter balance, pivoting on the balls of his feet like some half-assed Olympian doing the hammer throw. The black plastic of the bag rustled as it flew, slamming into the propped-open lid of the dumpster like a backboard, then falling in atop the bags of stinking refuse already there.

?Two points,? he said aloud, grinning for the first time in hours. Bussing tables at Rinaldo?s was a crap job, but it paid the bills.

Well, some of them.

He glanced back toward the door, already closed to cut off the kitchen clamor, seeing nothing but the small square window cut face-high glowing faintly in the gloom of the recessed doorway. He nodded, slipping the pack of Marlboros from his apron pocket. His scheduled break wasn?t for another half-hour, but it wasn?t like those prissy bastards were going to brave the the alley to come find him. They didn?t come out in the back alley. That?s what they had Eddie for.

The skritch of the lighter, a quick flame, and the sharp scent of tobacco smoke cut through the miasma that filled this little slice of Hell. Three different restaurants backed onto this alley, all of them with over-full dumpsters, and the odors mixed together in this windless little dead-end in a way polite company might have called ?interesting?. Eddie thought it smelled like the Devil?s own asshole, but at least it assured him privacy.

A rustling and a high-pitched chittering sound brought Eddie?s head around.

Privacy from everyone but the damn rats, he thought.

His attention focused on the deep shadows next to the dumpster across the way. The wall above the door back into Rinaldo?s had the only source of light, an ancient ceramic fixture containing one yellowed bulb creating a dim island in the sea of shadow that was the nighttime alley. The surrounding walls of old red brick even swallowed the sounds of the city, making the lighted street nearly a block away, with its occasional car passing silently by, seem to be another world entirely.

Without taking his eyes from the pool of blackness hiding the rat, Eddie scooped up a mostly-empty paint can from the refuse piled next to his dumpster. With a one-step wind up worthy of any of the professional bowlers he watched on television, he sent the can flying, underhand, into the shadows. The bang of the can and squeal of pain brought Eddie his second smile of the night.

?And a strike! Man, I?m on a roll!? He brought the lit cigarette up for a long drag, but froze just before the filter touched his lips. From the shadows where he?d heard the terrible squeal, a pair of eyes now caught the glow of the lonely bulb, one squinting nearly shut but still reflecting the light back at him redly. Eddie held no love of rats, but those eyes stared out at him with a malevolence that seemed too deep and knowing to be just a dumb animal. It was almost unnerving.

?Back for more, huh?? Eddie said, more to himself than the rat. ?No problem, pal. I?m on a streak.?

He bent to pick up the second discarded paint can but got no further before a second pair of eyes opened in the shadow next to the first.

Then a third.

Eddie felt his adam?s apple bob as he swallowed, and he straightened, throwing hand empty.

?Well?? he began, but stopped to swallow again as the red glimmer of more eyes appeared in the blackness beneath the dumpster, then the shadows to the other side of it. Six sets of eyes now stared at him, unblinking from the dark. Eddie was suddenly very aware that he was alone. He glanced at the street, distant and silent, and the otherworldly feeling of his little back alley suddenly loomed large in hid mind. He flicked the Marlboro away, unsmoked.

?Fuck this,? he muttered, turning to head back into Rinaldo?s. ?I?m outa he??

He gasped, falling back a step as he came around to find the deep shadows beneath the dim square of kitchen window staring at him with two pairs of red, shining eyes. As he did, something hit him in the back of the head, hard. There was a clang at the impact, then another as his stumbling feet tangled with that second paint can, and he went over flat on his back. The first paint can, the one he had thrown, rolled next to him and he recognized it as what had hit him. He caught his breath and inhaled to scream, but his smoke-weakened lungs spasmed in a coughing fit.

A rat threw a can?? he thought, as he hacked, then motion caught his eye, and what he saw shocked him to silence.

Though he was aware others crowded around him, he couldn?t take his eyes off the one standing right next to his head. Man-shaped, though barely a foot tall, the dim light showed it to be covered in dark fur. Small fangs grinned beneath over-sized red eyes, one of which was swollen nearly shut. He thought the snout-like nose was bleeding, but his attention was taken by the object the thing held above him in a two-handed grip. He recognized it as a car radio antenna, the end-cap removed, apparently sharpened to a wicked point and aimed directly at his left eye. His gaze flicked from the antenna to the creature wielding it, and he noticed its headgear, which looked suspiciously like most of a human skull.

It was like a crowd of voices yammered in his head, all panicking, screaming to run, to just get away, that this could not be, but the voice that rose to the top was strangely calm.

That?s not a rat, it had time to say, just as the spear came down.

 

 

 

 

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Tribe was published in DarkMedia Online Ezine as a Reader's Choice Selection in August, 2012