A Punishable Offence – C J Dotson

“So, ah,” he said, leaning on the merch table a little bit, and she hid a smirk. They always started like that, the boys who were about to use the worst pick up line she’d ever heard – and she’d been around a while. “So, ah,” like it was a compulsion. He half-smiled and finished, “Are you for sale?”

Nothing too wrong with using a cheesy line, Natalie reminded herself. Lacking originality wasn’t a punishable offence. She smiled brightly, jerking her thumbs over her shoulders to point behind herself as she answered, as always, “No, but the tee shirts are!”

She showed her teeth just a little too much in her smile as she watched him, waiting to see how he would respond, waiting to see what she’d get to do tonight. Don’t let me down, baby, she thought.

He leaned further over the table, his smirking expression not shifting so much as intensifying, and before he even spoke Natalie felt the bubble of excitement in her chest. It was in his eyes; this would be more fun than the time the lead singer of the last band she’d toured with had stolen the tip jar to dye her hair purple, and then refused to return the money, citing it as a “business expense.” Natalie had caused all of her hair to fall out, and if that was a little on the nose it was also fucking hilarious. Especially when the silly little bitch had gone and sold her soul to make it grow back — Nat had gotten partial credit for that transaction and a tidy little reward. It wasn’t often a girl in the revenge department got a bonus from acquisitions, and she preened a little every time she thought of it. The fella leaning on her merch table seemed to think her unconscious posturing was for him, and Natalie had to stop herself from laughing and ruining the whole game.

“Come on,” he said in what he clearly thought was a seductively persuasive tone, “Are you sure you’re not for sale?”

Natalie flipped her long, dark hair over her shoulder and pursed her lips, schooling her expression into one of blatant distaste. She didn’t want him to mistake her avidity for interest — she was trawling for the ones who knew they weren’t welcome and pressed anyway. “Yeeah. I’m sure I’m not for sale,” she said with a chill in her voice, “But the tee shirts are.”

“Don’t be like that, come on,” he said, and Natalie rolled her eyes with an expression she’d perfected over eons, calculated to convey exactly the right balance of scorn and boredom.

“Tell you what,” she said, “why don’t you take one of the free stickers and get out of my face.”

She’d been working the revenge gig at music festivals since togas were fashionable, and throughout all of human history the most reliable call for vengeance was on people who didn’t listen to “no.”

“Seriously,” he said, “I’ll give you money to go home with me tonight.”

Natalie’s predatory thrill soured. If he was serious, if this wasn’t a pushy pick up attempt but a real offer, that complicated the revenge business. Soliciting a prostitute wasn’t vengeance-worthy.

“Listen, buddy,” she said dismissively, “I’m running a merch table here, not a brothel. Take it somewhere else.”

She expected him to retreat at this point, misunderstanding cleared up, and turned her gaze out to the passing crowds in search of a new target. And she’d been so sure that this guy –

“I’ll give you two thousand dollars,” he said, anger creeping into his tone.

Natalie’s interest returned. Soliciting doesn’t warrant punishment, but trying to force the issue… she might be back in business.

“I said no, man. Go away.”

“What, you think you’re too good for that?” The young man was beginning to raise his voice, still trying to crowd into her space in spite of the plastic-topped folding table in his way. “You think I don’t have it? Two thousand dollars!”

Natalie smiled inside as she watched him escalate, and she let her mind wander just a little. What would the punishment be? She could go with old classics like thumbscrews or hot irons, but fuck that was boring. Let the amateurs stick to the tried-and-true tortures – Natalie liked to mix it up, tailor the punishment to fit the crime. Like that small-time band who’d abandoned her in the middle of nowhere at a gas station after their first tour fell apart halfway through; they were still missing, and Nat would guess that they hadn’t figured out where they were yet, either.

“You think you’re better than that? You think you’re better than me?” The guy was really shouting by now, and at that moment the rhythm guitarist of the band she was currently pretending to work for arrived.

“This guy bothering you?” the guitarist asked, and Natalie had to stop herself from laughing at how far into human cliche this conversation had spiraled.

A new group took the nearest stage, and in a dreadful attempt at comedy they launched into a death metal cover of “Baby Shark.” Natalie’s mirth was temporarily buried beneath an avalanche of disgust. I will think of something terrible for them. Later.

“Not anymore. Your set done?” Natalie said to the rhythm guitarist, and when he nodded she grabbed her tight leather jacket and pulled it on. The rest of the band would arrive soon to take over the table, so she could split for the night. (She’d have to find someone new to work for soon, these guys were alright. Too alright; they gave her nothing to work with. Sure, they had more than their share of little human ego problems, but they never did anything actually wrong. Boring.) “He’s your problem now,” she added, and fished her tips out of the jar, blew the guitarist a kiss, and then for good measure she threw a last dirty look at the guy still leaning on her table. “I’m heading home.”

Natalie didn’t glance back as she walked away, smiling to herself. She didn’t need to look back, she could feel it. She was being followed. With an anticipatory grin, Natalie paused under the light above the women’s room door and lit a cigarette, being sure to take her time. The festival wasn’t one of the really big ones, not like Rock on the Range or Ozzfest, and it didn’t hold a candle to Woodstock (what fun she’d had there); it was mostly local acts and the crowd reflected that, but it was just busy enough that if she wasn’t careful she might lose her pursuer.

There were two ways she could go to reach the festival gates, through the crowded and decently lit thoroughfare or down a little alley between the buildings housing the restrooms and then between the backs of the food vendors’ stands and merch tables and the chain link fence marking the perimeter. If Natalie had really been who she was pretending to be, she’d have taken the former option.

She blew a cloud of smoke straight up at the muzzy yellow lamp above her, hid her grin, and slipped into the trash-riddled little alley. She moved lightly in spite of the high boots, never seeming to touch the mess she walked through even though at least once she should have stepped right into it. Behind her she heard the crunch of a shoe on broken glass, then the crinkle of paper being stepped flat. She took a last drag of the cigarette then ground out the cherry on the brick wall, dropping the butt to join the rest of the garbage on the floor.

“Hey,” the voice behind her was less smooth now, there was less in it of attempted seduction. But he didn’t sound nervous or uncertain, either. The tone was familiar to her; he was eager.

Natalie had been doing this since the first Pythian Games, when she’d been summoned to take revenge on the winner of the music competition (it is not a crime to win fair and square, but if the rules are loosely interpreted — Natalie’s favorite way to interpret rules — then it is a crime to try to summon a demon to kill someone for winning fair and square, so the sore loser that long ago day had really lost twice) and she knew what it sounded like when someone was contemplating doing something bad for the first time. This was not the young man’s first time deciding with ill intentions to follow someone.

Natalie’s smile briefly showed all her teeth. All of them. She pulled her mouth back to a human smirk before she turned around.

“Are you following me?” she demanded.

“Don’t be so hostile, sweetheart, I just want to talk.”

Something rustled through a discarded sandwich wrapper near Natalie’s foot, and she toed the greasy paper aside to see a fat rat blinking up at her.

“I don’t want to talk, I want to go home,” she said, half her attention still on the rodent.

“Well that works out, I’d love to take you home!”

Nat leaned slightly, extending a hand to the rat, who watched her quizzically.

She looked back up with a shake of her head. “By myself, dude.”

“Don’t be a stuck up bitch,” he scolded in a deliberately patronizing voice, stepping closer. The rat inched nearer to Natalie as well, and moving so quickly that rat and man couldn’t follow it, she leaned down to snatch it up. It heaved itself against her hand once and then, at her whispered command, became still. “What the fuck-” Natalie was amused to finally hear a tone of uncertainty in his voice “-trying to act like a weirdo or some shit?”

“You think I caught a rat,” Natalie asked flatly as she stroked it behind the ears, “to make an impression on you?” She let half of her mind slip out of mortal existence and into the workings between places, silently beginning to unlock it.

“It’s not gonna work, sweetie. Crazy’s a bonus for hot chicks.” He stepped closer, trying to loom over her, but no matter what the physical height difference is, it’s very difficult to loom over an ancient demoness in the process of silently invoking a gate. The uncertainty in his tone crept into his eyes as Natalie, though remaining half a foot shorter, managed to smile down at him.

“I said I’m going home,” she repeated, and though her voice was sweet it was the way that rotting meat smells sweet — it wasn’t a clean sound, it had corruption in it. “You ought to leave a girl alone when she says she just wants to go home.”

Let lesser demons fool with chanting and sigils, Natalie needed only a few moments of focus. Oh, and blood. The gate pushed at reality, trembling; she marveled that the human couldn’t feel it.

“Hey, I’m not stopping you from going home. I’m just keeping you company.”

“You don’t want to follow me home, baby, you really don’t,” she chuckled, her voice dropping a little in both volume and pitch. Her eyes gleamed with terrible light, but he was looking somewhat lower than her eyes.

“I think I do,” he said, still trying to sound menacing, not realizing that he was completely outclassed in menace.

“Suit yourself,” Natalie rumbled, and he looked up at last, the light in her eyes catching him, her teeth showing — and showing — and showing. Then there was something writhing, there were claws, and the rat died before it even felt the piercing. The blood fell and the gate shattered the boundaries of the world in one small back alley.

If the crowds at the festival thought they smelled sulfur, thought they heard an untold number of faint screams and one not at all faint scream, those details slid out of their minds, shrugged off with the thought that weird shit always happens at shows.


CJ Dotson is a rustbelt native who’s been reading for as long as she can remember, and writing almost as long. She’s a lifelong lover of SFF and horror. CJ’s a stepmom and mom who enjoys baking and painting in her spare time. Visit on twitter @cj_dotson, or at cjdotsonauthor.squarespace.com

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 33 Contents Link

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