The hall of the SRO smelled of urine and bleach. Badger McCormick, investigative reporter and famed debunker of mythical creatures, put on his winning smile, adjusted his sunglasses, and knocked on the door to room 312.
“Come in,” said a raspy voice.
Badger walked inside. The room was dominated by a large king sized bed, a swollen shape huddled beneath a stained yellow sheet, and the pungent smell of alcoholic sweat. A bearded face, lined and tear stained, poked out of from under the bedding.
“You’re the Manticore?”
“Call me Monty.” The figure struggled into a sitting position and labored to breathe. The sheet fell to his waist and revealed the upper body of a lion whose fur was grayish red, and skin that sagged with age. “I assume you’re the one from the rags.”
“Yes. I’m a reporter.” Badger pulled a small recorder from his pocket. He turned on the device and set it on an end table.
“I don’t quite understand.” The Manticore cleared his throat. “Why do you even want an interview?”
“Tastes have moved on, sir. The years when reporters pounded on my door have long since passed.”
“I wanted to do this interview.” Badger smiled. “Personally.”
“I saw you at the Palladium in seventy-seven with my girlfriend Amy.”
“A fan.” The Manticore smiled and showed his yellow teeth. “You’re a fan.”
“You guys were amazing. You played for three hours straight.”
“We were at our best then. It was all a little overblown, I admit. Was that the tour with the inflatable guillotine?”
“Yes. And the lasers.”
“We sure burned a lot of retinas in those days.” The Manticore shifted. His scorpion tail slid out from the sheet. “So many believed in me then.”
“How did you break into the music scene?”
“Robert Fripp found me busking with my oboe in the underground, and used me on some early King Crimson albums. You know, I still get a Christmas card from him every year. After that, I met Osprey. Osprey Van Hooten, the phoenix. We clicked and built the band. It all came together after that. It was Osprey who insisted we name it “Manticore” after me. Bless him. He really was very kind.” The Manticore stared up at the ceiling. “Poor old Osprey. I wish he was here.” He rubbed his wet eyes with the back of a whitish paw. “Sorry.”
He sighed. “Well, after we hit it big and our band had money, fame, and enough sex, well, that was all we had ever really wanted. I think that’s when Osprey lost it. I’d cart him out on stage and he’d just stand there, his guitar around his neck, and his wings dangling at his sides. It broke my heart.
“Osprey went into seclusion after that. I started to disappear too. Fewer people believed in me, and when no one believes in you, well, that’s just about the end, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Badger leaned forward. “The end.”
The Manticore stared up at Badger with red rimmed eyes. “What did you say your name was?”
“Me?” Badger took off his sunglasses. “I’m Badger McCormick. I’m a reporter who destroys lies like you, Mister Manticore.” He stood up and loomed over the bed. He could hardly contain himself. “No one believes in you anymore, Monty. You’re not real. You were never real. You’re just a confused description of a man-eating tiger that lived somewhere in India over a thousand years ago.”
The Manticore shrank from him. His hair became grayer and the shining skin of his scalp showed through.
“By the time your foolish story arrived in medieval England, no one could even make up their minds about your tail. It was a scorpion’s one week, a dragon’s the next, and every other Sunday poison quills shot from it. Come on. Poison quills? Honestly.”
“Why are you doing this?” The Manticore gasped. His eyes sank deep into his face and turned a milky blue. He tried to sit up, but couldn’t. His scorpion tail fell limp and useless.
“You, the legendary Manticore, supposedly ate your victims whole and then devoured all of their earthly possessions. You and I both know, those people, they just used you as an excuse to run away.”
“Why?” The Manticore’s mouth gaped open. His eyes rolled back in his head. He no longer moved.
“After that show of yours in seventy-seven, my girlfriend Amy left me to become a professional musician. She would never have believed in anything so preposterous, if it wasn’t for you. And you,” Badger laughed, and poked the Manticore in the chest. “You. Never. Existed.”
The Manticore sank into himself, flattening, losing form, until he was nothing but a child’s drawing of a tiger traced in black soot on the yellow bed sheet.
Badger sat down with a look of smug self-satisfaction and stopped his recorder.
The doorbell rang.
Badger got up and cracked the door a hand’s breadth. “Yes?”
A phoenix with a tail of gold and scarlet elbowed its way into the room, a 1959 Les Paul standard guitar with a sunburst finish dangling from its shoulders. “Where’s Monty?”
“You’re too late, Osprey.” Badger nodded toward the drawing.
“What have you done to him?” The phoenix pushed past Badger aside and rushed to the bed. “Monty. The fans, Monty. The fans want us again. Thousands of fans. Millions of fans. Our sales have gone through the roof and they’re clamoring for us to tour.”
Badger smirked. “Pathetic.”
“We mean something.” The phoenix strummed a power chord and lit up in golden flames. “We mean something, again.”
The room shook with a trumpeting roar.
The soot drawing sparked, bloomed, and erupted into the Manticore, who stood upon the bed, his eyes flaming, red fur burning, a mane of wild hair swirling all around him. “They believe in me,” he howled. “They still believe in me.”
He saw Badger McCormick fumble desperately with the door. He pounced across the room, claws first.
After a screenwriting career in Hollywood, love transformed Arthur Lorenz into a San Franciscan, where he currently writes a mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and lives with his lovely wife and an imaginary cat named Philip. (He’s not supposed to talk about the cat.)
The Badger McCormick character is the joint creation of Jon E. Greene, Eric Del Carlo, Tim Kay, Matt Nelson, Doug Nerad, and Arthur Lorenz, and was dreamed up during a writing exercise proposed by Jon E. Greene at the Borderlands writers group in San Francisco.