In a Lunar Cycle

August 10, 1957

No, Pete did not pick graveyard flowers for Beth. If you really wanted to split hairs, he got them from the hillside just above the cemetery, where probably no one was buried. There were other fields he could have hunted for flowers, sure, but these were unlike any flower he’d ever seen. Sweet little translucent bells, so delicate the petal disintegrated if you touched them. Lovely. Off-putting scent, though. Oddly sweetish and cloying, like meat just about to turn. The perfume only got stronger as he carried them down that hill tucked in one sweaty hand.

It didn’t matter, anyway. Beth didn’t want the flowers. Beth didn’t want him. She stood there in that yellow checkered dress with her hair up in a daffodil-colored scarf, looking like sunshine incarnate, as she told him that her and Billy Voss had been going steady for weeks now, didn’t he know that?

At some point on the walk home, Pete looked down to find the flowers had wilted in his grip, so he let them fall on the ground. Their scent lingered, gave him a headache that bloomed into a migraine that spread to his body. At home Ma sat in her easy chair, watching her soaps, didn’t even look up when Pete came in pouring sweat and stumbling. He got himself upstairs somehow, and his clothes made it to the floor. After that it was all a blur of aches and fever and night sweat. His dreams were restless things where he ran endlessly, the elastics of his leg chewing onward without input from him. At one point he glanced in a window and saw the ghost of a devil-face grinning back at him.

Pete woke in farmer Lubbock’s sorghum field, quite nude. It was before dawn, thank God, so he only had to dodge Dan Lubbock on his way home naked as a jaybird. At home he could see the window to his second-story bedroom wide open, curtains blowing out of the frame. Was that how he’d gotten out? The back door was still locked, so it seemed like that. But he didn’t feel like he’d fallen off the roof. Pete just shook his head and shimmied up the lattice leaning against the side of the house. Crazy fever. Nothing to worry about.

September 9, 1957

Pete’s errand took him past the drug store. He detoured behind some parked cars because in the window he could see Beth and Billy sharing a malt. Disgusting how they had to flaunt it around town.

Not looking where he was going, Pete stumbled into Doc Nelson. Doc’s Airedale went rigid and started growling, every curly hair standing at attention.

“Sorry about that.” Pete could feel red spread across his face.

“Shucks, Petey, Rider’s small but he ain’t invisible,” Doc teased. He knelt down and began rubbing his dog’s shoulders. “Hush now, boy. You know it’s just Petey.” Other people paused to rubberneck at the scuffle.

Pete’s face flushed deeper. He snuck a peek across the street and yes, Beth and Billy had their heads craned out the drugstore window.

“Doc I-I’m late, I gotta run these things for my ma,” he blurted, trying to edge around them.

Rider jumped, teeth showing. He tented his back and turned so he faced Pete no matter where he moved.

“Hell, Petey, you got a sausage in your pocket?” someone crowed.

Pete turned and ran, the dog catching the end of his pant-cuff and tearing it off. The sounds of laughter and doc admonishing his dog faded as he ran down the sidewalk, errand forgotten. He kept up the pace until he reached the scrub outside the town’s pumpkin patch. Pete grasped his chest, sinking to the ground. His skin felt hot and prickly as the sweat evaporated. His bones burned.

Christ. No point in going back to town for a while. Beth had seen, and Billy was probably already laughing about it. Pete walked around the far side of the patch, to the weathered wood shed that seemed to belong to nobody in particular. It wasn’t empty.

“Oh,” Pete blurted, making to close the door.

“Don’t mind, young man.” The bum sat on an old axle gestured him in. “plenty of room.”

The man smelled of stale piss, but it was the most welcome Pete had felt all day, so he sat. A bottle of whisky with the label peeled off passed back and forth between them and the day grew hazy. It was probably close to sundown when Pete stood up.

“I have to go water the plants,’ he said. His conversation partner just waved him away.

Pete remembered opening the door. Yes, clear as a bell, he opened the door and…just felt pierced. Just pierced through. Like someone had shoved a white-hot brand through his whole body. He might have screamed, he might have fallen to the ground. The world seemed to wobble and bend like aspic.

And then suddenly…

Suddenly he woke outside. Naked, and comfortably full. As he opened his eyes, he saw the letters R-I-D-E-R just before his face. Pete sat up. Before him, white with red letters, was the doctor’s doghouse. The interior stank like blood and deep claw marks rent the white paint.

Snatching a shirt and pants from the clothesline, Pete ran home.

October 18th, 1957

It had taken a while, but the buzz about Rider was dying down. As far as people figured, a passing tramp with a vicious dog had stopped in the Doc’s yard to steal some clothes. Rider had died a hero protecting his master’s dress shirt. Pete had burned the clothes in the incinerator as soon as he’d gotten home. Ma had chided him for making the house stink, but she didn’t ask what he was doing the night before. Hell, he could’ve come in with a mortar round sticking from his gut and she wouldn’t have asked. She never had.

For the first week he’d walked around jumpy at the prospect of being fingered. That someone would magically sense what he’d done and call him to the floor. But no, all that happened was Beth and Billy walking through town, holding hands, in sickening proximity.

Pete began testing himself. He snuck portions of ma’s gin, making sure to keep it topped off with water, and when that didn’t bring out the result he would purchase bottles “for” her at the store. It didn’t work. No matter how drunk he got, he never felt the liquid rage of that night. Perhaps the bum had slipped him something in the whiskey. But then he himself had drunk from the same bottle. Had he felt the same thing? Pete went back to the shed the next day, but only found a torn-open bindle. Three yards from the shed, a discarded shoe. He had run away in a hurry, but from what?

Pete finally left the mystery in a jumble. No point in straining himself too much. He sank back into his normal routine of avoiding everyone he could whenever he could. Beth and Billy were regular fixtures around town, so he tried to avoid it. He took long walks around the farmlands that bordered town, which was how he ran into Clint Willoughby and his goons.

Pete had already been feeling under the weather. The air had that sort of wobbly quality that made him think he was getting the flu. He stood on the old stone bridge that had been a carriage-way but now was just a footpath littered with orange maple leaves that crunched under his feet.

Oh, she’s a beaut. Hand her over here, will ya?

The nasal tone floated up to Pete like a mosquito, piercing his peace. Clint had never gotten over middle school, where he’d grown hard and fast like a weed and towered over everyone else at twelve. Pete had always been a favorite target of his. Maybe he could sneak away in the other direction.

No such luck.

“Hey Petey’s here,” Clint crowed. In one hand he had a girlie mag, glossy black and white pictures of Betty Page and some other blonde in bondage gear. In the other he had a flick-knife. Behind him were Nate and Gary and Rob, the mouth-breather’s club from Franklin High.

Pete teetered. It felt like he was wading deeper into warm water, his limbs uncoordinated and his balance gone.

“Please,” he mumbled, “please not right now.”

Rob and Nate grabbed his arms, Gary got his head by the scalp and brought him under the bridge. They flicked matches on him and then they made him drink out of the tin can they’d used for chewing tobacco and after a while they got bored and simply kicked him.

The sun was sinking behind Clint’s shoulders as he hefted a big rock.

“My dad told me about this tradition in darkest Africa,” he said, “they got this warrior test where they take a man out to the desert and pile rocks on him. The more rocks, the braver the man.”

“Clint, when your dad ever been to Africa?”

“Shut up,” Clint said without looking away from Pete. “You want to show me how brave you are?”

Pete was splitting, just splitting in half. Like a maggot in a peach pit, he was ripping right in half and something was coming out.

“Please,” he said.

And then he woke up.

It was still night, or early enough morning it looked like night. It would have been very easy to write it all off as a fever dream, only he was so clear-headed now it hurt. He knew he was naked. His foot hit a wet sharp chunk of something and he shut his eyes and felt his way back up to the road. Whatever was under that bridge, he didn’t want to see.

November 7th, 1957

The town was abuzz about the wolf attacks. That’s what they called it. Wolves or wild dogs. The gun shop had a special on shotgun shells. Farmers doubled up their fences. The lover’s lane was cordoned off indefinitely, leading to a lot of rushed gropings behind barns and outhouses.

Some were forced out into the open. Beth wore Billy’s school pin like a crucifix; they kissed between classes and on lunch breaks and any time the sun was up. Pete had developed a sort of low-grade heartburn that was present at all times.

Clint’s mother had shown up to school assembly the first Monday after the his death with his bloody shirt, tearfully reminding everyone to stay where there were people. Pete kept his head down not out of respect but of fear. He suspected eyes on him at all times.

What had happened that night? Anything he’d done was almost certainly in the act of self defence.  Yet he knew instinctively he could not confess his presence at the scene to anyone, because it would be taken the wrong way. So what if he was sick? That didn’t mean he was a murderer.

Pete watched Bill Voss tilt his girl’s head up and kiss her like Cary Grant in the movies. He wrung his sweaty hands, one against the other. The last thing he needed was another thing to draw attention to him. It wasn’t his fault, whatever it was.

He walked down the sidewalk after school, head down. His forehead met the steady surface of a chest. Looking up he found it was Doc Nelson, his face held no trace of his former joviality.

“Oh, Petey,” he said, “how’s your ma holding up? It’s been a good while since our last visit. She needs her scrip filled, don’t she?”

Pete mumbled something, looking down at the sidewalk. He’d become so sweaty lately, nervousness oozing out of his pores.

“You might come in for a check up yourself, looking a little green around the gills.”

His hand moved to feel Pete’s neck, and Pete instinctively slapped him away. Doc stepped back, startled.

“Or don’t,” he said, “you’re old enough to know when you need to go.”

Pete ducked into his collar and hustled down the sidewalk. Everyone was staring at him. God damn this town. God damn Billy Voss and Beth Palmer. God damn the people who pointed their eyes at him like he’d done something wrong. God damn it all.

Ma was in the easy chair, watching her soaps. She sat too close to the TV and smiled witlessly at the actors pretending to live.

“Ma,” Pete choked out. He knew it was coming on, he could feel it rushing down the track like a burning boxcar. He fell to his knees.

Ma flapped her hand. “Keep quiet, child. Got no time for your nonsense.”

Pete grasped sweatily for her hand. “Ma, please. I gotta tell you something. I think…I done something bad.”

For the first time in what felt like years, his mother’s eyes drifted from their nine-inch television screen and to his face, floating like goldfish behind her thick rimless glasses.

‘Whatchu say?” she scowled. “Whatchu say to me?”

“Something’s wrong with me, ma. I’m sick. I think I’ve done something wrong and I don’t know what.”

She stared at him.

“Ma…it hurts.” A pain was parked at the base of his spine. “It all hurts. I don’t know what to do, ma. Please help me.”

Ma reached out, slowly, to touch his cheek.

And slapped it.

“You,” she hissed, “you—you—dirty boy! Wicked boy!” She rained weak blows down on his head and bent back. “You’re filthy, do you hear me? Dis-gust-ting!”

Pete hurt, the pain came from within and without. “Ma,” he sobbed, “don’t, please don’t.”

“Get away! Nasty thing!” She spat on him. “You should die!”

The fluid transition from now to then was oddly comforting. Pete closed his eyes as if in sleep and when he woke he was lying in the patch of violets under Beth Palmer’s window with an erection. His breath misted the glass as he looked down on her sleeping form, the charming twist of her cupid’s bow mouth. How hatefully calm she looked, never had a problem once in her life.

Pete walked home starkers, completely calm. As he drew close to home, he debated hiding from the men lingering in front of his splintered front door. But then Leo Palmer saw him and ran, shotgun balanced on his forearm.

“Petey,” he said, “oh damn, you too?”

Pete’s naked body was scratched and bruised from a dash through the undergrowth. Someone threw a horsehair blanket over him while they shielded him from the view of his living room.

“It’s a mess, son,” Leo said, “how’d you get away?”

“Guess I ran,” Pete said truthfully, “don’t remember much.”

His eyes were dry.

December 7, 1957

It was generally agreed that Pete should finish up the winter semester. His uncle that lived in the city was paged to take him on, at least for a few months. After all, he was nearly the age of majority, he could be responsible for himself.

Leo Palmer put him up. Pete slept on an army cot in a room with Beth’s little brother Ted and saw Beth Palmer at breakfast and supper. She made a study of not looking at him. At other times, her displeasure might have needled him, but Pete took a strange satisfaction from it now. She couldn’t escape into Billy’s lips, not at home. Pete relished in buying her mother fresh daffodils from the town florist and sticking them in a vase on the piano as Beth practiced her scales. Beth walked to the end of the driveway to meet Billy now, hair tucked under a scarf like a philandering housewife. It didn’t sting anymore. He would be gone soon. Nothing much mattered anyway.

Pete took to long walks around the fields. He was not fleeing anymore, he was etching their shape in memory. He felt he would miss them in the city.

In a dell that was blown over with snow, he found Beth and Billy locking lips.

“Supposed to stay close to town,” he said, savoring their startle as they pulled apart.

“Awjeez,” Billy exclaimed, dabbing Beth’s lipstick from his lips.

Beth stared at Pete, cold fury behind her eyes. “You’re a peeping tom, Pete Patton.”

“S’not peeping if you’re putting it out there for all to see,” Pete said. He wore no jacket, flush with his odd warmth.

“Well I wouldn’t have to, if you’d give me a moment’s peace,” Beth snapped.

“Calm down, sugar. He’s just lost his ma, he’s bound to be a little…” Billy gestured vaguely.

“Oh not even. Petey, you were a creep before and you’re a creep now,” she hissed, “and I don’t believe you’re sorry at all that your mama died.

The sunset was setting in a shade pink as Beth’s winter coat. Pete let the light fill up his eyes and drank it all in. The crisp snow, the dead gray stalks in the field, the couple shivering in their winter wear.

“Believe what you want,” he said, back prickling pleasantly. “makes no nevermind to me.”

Billy was glancing beyond his shoulder, puzzled. “What you lookin’ at?”

Pete smiled. “Wanna see something?”

December 8, 1957

Pete moved on.

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Scutt’s Palsy

Records place the first outbreak of Scutt’s island-bound illness at around 1875. Scutt lies just off the coast of Washington and boasted a population of around 300 at the time, not counting the cattle that suddenly displayed Scrapie-like symptoms. Though advised to cull the herd, there was no evidence of the islanders even moving to quarantine the sick cattle, due to the belief of the time that Scrapie was not transmittable to human beings. Instead, we see the outbreak of what came to be called Scutt’s palsy in the spring of of 1881. Victims displayed loss of motor control and speech, trembling, drooling, spasms, and finally death. One surviving brain sample taken from an autopsy (labeled H. Raglin, 24) shows spongiform encephalopathy similar to that of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. While the study of infection and disease was only in its infancy at the time, the similarities between human sufferers and the diseased cattle could not be overlooked. Islanders resisted the ordered extermination of their native livestock to the point that the national guard was dispatched to oversee the cattle’s liquidation. Losing the herd struck a blow to the islander’s pride in their self-sufficiency; too poor to import more cattle, they now had to make do with pricier imported meat or go without.

The Scutt’s palsy sufferers were exported to mainland sanitariums where they lived out the brief remainder of their lives. Scutt’s palsy passed out of vogue; with no cure or cause forthcoming the study was halted and the manpower rerouted elsewhere. Life settled down to something much like it had before the cattle’s illness.

Then, in 1907, it returned.

The fact that the resurgence even made it out to public eyes is owed to one woman: Bess Finch. Bess’s correspondence with her Scutt-dwelling sister, one Hedda Martin, ceased suddenly and unceremoniously. Bess became concerned with her wellbeing, doubly so when Hedda’s husband Edmund sent word that her sister had suddenly passed and the funeral had been held already. Despite repeated missives, Edmund refused to clarify whether Hedda had been cremated or buried, or if she had willed anything to her sister. This reticence had become common on Scutt since since the cattle cull. One anonymous source noted their funerals: “...mean and sparse, even for poor folk. The casket is always closed, the service brief to the point of blasphemy.”

Bess Finch refused to accept the widower’s explanation and created such agitation that mainland officers were dispatched to the island to investigate foul play. They found a number of doors closed tightly to their inquiry, and a grave for Hedda Martin that held an empty coffin. The island’s resident doctor had died in 1895 without replacement, so they had only the widower’s word that Hedda had died from illness alone. What seemed to lend credence to his story were the state of the islanders, many of whom displayed symptoms of Scutt’s mysterious disease.  While the initial outbreak had an infection index of around 15%, now the palsy struck closer to 45% of the population. While in 1881 it had plagued mostly the elderly and sick, now it spread equally across generations and genders.

More manpower was issued from the mainland. What had begun as a murder investigation turned into a mass arrest as newer and stranger evidence came to light. Investigators found Scutt’s slaughterhouse was in good repair despite the deficit of red meat on the island. It was only when they dismantled the building and its equipment that they found evidence of Scutt’s replacement protein wedged beneath a bin in the hide storage room.

It was a human femur.

The bin itself sat upon a trap door, once opened they found the door serviced a massive pit of bones bearing cut marks and “pot polish.” Scutt’s graveyard was subject to a mass exhumation, where they found that only one in five caskets held a body. The island’s priest who presided over the brief funerals was found to be a lay preacher unaffiliated with any church.

How, when, and why the islanders turned to cannibalism is a mystery lost to time. Perhaps a combination of bruised pride, medical ignorance, and lack of spiritual leadership worked together with the isolation of the island.  Scutt dwellers remained tight-lipped, even as they were brought to trial on the mainland. Physical evidence tells us that all funerals, barring virulent illnesses such as cholera, stood as a source of nutrition. Marrow and brains were highly prized, all but ensuring the spread of the encephalopathy.

By the time he stood trial for his part in his wife’s death, Edmund Martin already showed signs of the disease that would kill him and many others in prison. The last islander died in 1910 at 13 years of age, taking with him perhaps the last of the encephalopathy. Scutt island was evacuated after the trial and remains uninhabited to this day.

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The Magic Paintbrush

Gil read about the magic paintbrush at school. It was a story for an assignment, and he had the choice of either that or a story about a girl who loved horses. Of course he chose the paintbrush. The protagonist(which was one of seven words he had to use when writing the assignment) was a poor but virtuous boy, who only wanted to help his family. Halfway through the paintbrush was stolen by an evil emperor, who only used it for selfish reasons and ended up drowning in gold coins. The paintbrush went back to the boy, who only made humble, charitable wishes to help his family from then on.

Gil wished for that brush so hard. He knew the fairytale rules. He could make it work. He knew exactly who he would use it for. Miss Kelly down at the diner, who sometimes let him sneak food off of unbussed tables, she needed a man who wouldn’t leave bruises on her upper arms so she had to wear long sleeves in the summer. Mrs. Harvey, who used to babysit for him when he was little, her cat had died and she needed a new one. He thought, just a flash, about using it for himself. Only a flash, and it was gone just as quickly. Best to work up to the magic with some good deeds, so the paintbrush knew he was serious.

Of course, how could you tell a paintbrush was magic? In the stories they were usually old and shabby, and most folks didn’t give them a second look. Well, that would apply to most of the brushes in the art classroom, most of them barely had any bristles left. Gil slipped in to try them out, but none felt magical to him. He knew he would feel the magic as soon as the brush hit his fingertips. He had a sudden idea. Vic’s pawn shop, over by the payday loan place, probably carried brushes. And magical things always came from old trinket stores, didn’t they?

Gil had a ten left over from the last time he’d raided Pop’s wallet (the only way he got anything to eat) and so he skipped lunch and held onto the bill. He’d become so practiced he barely felt hunger pangs. Instead he stayed inside the library, doing homework.

He left the back way when school was out, running right to the shop. Old man Vic gave him a puzzled look when he asked to see the art supplies, but obliged. There was a broken easel and something called a mahl stick, along with an assortment of brushes. Most were old boar-bristle horrors or refugees from sumi-e sets, but there was one, a handsome specimen with a dark wood handle, that Gil just knew had to be the one. Vic gave him an odd look when he asked just to hold it. The brush fit his hand like it’d been made for it.

Vic looked over his specs. “That there’s a Sable round. Sable’s an antelope, son, and I hear they’re nigh-on extinct.”

That cinched it. Magic things were usually made of rare stuff. He had to have it.

“Now that there’s a nice one, son, I’ll have to ask how much you’ve got.”

Gil held up his crumpled bill. Vic frowned.

“I can tell that’s a lot to you, but…well, maybe when you get your birthday money.”

Gil felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. “I don’t get birthday money.”

“Not even from your granny?”

“She’s dead.”

“What about your Pop?”

“Gave me a scratch ticket once. He’d already scratched it.” Gil’s heart was hammering in his ears. He had to have the brush. He could always take…no. Stealing would turn the magic against him.

Vic gave a pitying look at his ripped jeans, his shirt with with so many puckered mends. “Now, that brush has been there a long while, as far as they go. I might consider letting you have it on condition, you understand? If you come by after school every once in a while and straighten up in here, you’ve got a deal.”

Gil clutched the brush and nodded so fast he thought his head would fall off. He signed an X to a contract the old man gave him and left, hand curled tight around the brush in his pocket.

The first stop was Miss Kelly, who was coming off her shift. He called, “Miss Kelly, come see what I got for you.”

Miss Kelly pushed open the back door of the diner, threw her hand over her mouth, and laughed. Gil had painted her a man on the concrete opposite the door. He didn’t know what her ideal man looked like, so he went off those romance novels he always saw her reading. Thick muscles, hair trailing in the wind, that kind of thing.

“Ain’t you just precious?” she gave him a sloppy kiss just above his eyebrow. “I gotta go now, Nate’s waiting for me and Nate don’t like to wait.”

The door slammed shut and Gil was left alone in the alleyway.

Mrs. Harvey was watching her soaps when Gil came in.

“Joseph, that you? Did your mama tell you to bring those smokes?”

“Nah, Mrs. H, it’s Gil.”

She turned her watery eyes to him. “Dill?”

“No, Gil.” He gave up. “I made something for you. Remember Mr. Muffin?”

“Muffin? He’s up on the shelf.” The old woman gestured to a bookshelf that held the jars of the cremains of her various pets.

“I made a cat for you. There.” He pointed to the wall above her dining table. He’d done the cat in marmalade-orange, poised as if he were just about to spring down.

Mrs. Harvey squinted. “Muffin? Why’d you let him up there? Git down, cat!”

Gil felt his smile slip away. “It’s a painting, Mrs. H. I made it for you, so you wouldn’t be so sad.”

The old woman grunted, flicking her attention back to the television as if Gil were a fly she’d shooed away. “Rick’s just found out Kaylee slept with his twin brother,” she said conspiratorially to no one in particular, “he’s going to duel him to the death now, you just see.”

Gil nodded dutifully. “Bye, Mrs. H.” He kissed her fuzzy cheek.

The sun was sinking as he walked, the sky turning dark as wine with blazing orange highlights. He imagined painting the sky, a new canvas every night. If only he’d been given a life where he could do nothing but paint. He squeezed the brush in his pocket and felt the solid wood. Please, he thought. As he neared the trailer where he lived, Gil’s stomach dropped again. His father’s truck was in the car port, hours early. He’d been counting on getting home before Pop was done at the bar and stashing the brush somewhere, but that hope was now gone.

Gil’s father was slung sideways on the couch, beer in hand, watching wrestling. He grunted as he heard the screen door open. By way of greeting he said, “turn out your pockets.”

If only Gil had been thinking clearly, he might have tucked the brush somewhere like the band of his underwear, or turned out everything in his pockets but the brush, but instead he fumbled awkwardly, which just made it obvious he was hiding something. Pop heaved himself off the couch and yanked Gil’s pockets out. The brush clattered to the floor. Pop picked it up and eyed it like it was a switchblade. “The hell is this?”

Gil’s mouth was dry. “On loan from school. If I lose it we have to pay damages.”

Pop squinted one eye. “Who told you you could just bring this shit home, hmm? You think I have the money to pay every time your dumb ass breaks something?” His other hand gripped his studded leather belt. “Well?”

Gil had two options. He could stay silent, take the beating, and just hope that his father didn’t break the brush out of spite. Or he could dash out the door again, making his father forget the brush in sheer rage at his defiance and earning him an even worse beating.

Gil did neither. Instead he kicked out and nailed his father between the legs. Pop gasped and doubled over, dropping the brush. Gil grabbed it up and ran.

There were several places around the trailer park Gil liked to hide when his father was in a mood. None of them seemed adequate at this point. Despite every instinct in his body screaming at him to run, instead Gil dropped to his hands and knees and squeezed beneath the trailer. He felt the screen door slam open so hard it bounced, and his father’s footsteps pound the trailer porch like an executioner’s drum. Pop bellowed Gil’s name and took off into the dark. Gil waited a good long while before creeping back into the trailer. There was a poster in his room that covered a hole his father had punched in the wall, this was where he kept his paint stash. Gripping the bottles and pots and the magic brush, Gil ran. While he ran, he pleaded. Not with his father, not with God, but the brush.

“Please,” he said as the breath shuddered in his chest, “please, I know it’s selfish to ask, but could you use your magic for me? Just this once?”

He ran until he had no breath left. The night was cold and made his sweat even colder. His skinny, malnourished frame somehow reached the old auto factory before he collapsed. How he managed to sleep at all was a wonder, but he woke up with the sun bearing down on him and his father calling his name. Gil rolled over and looked down from his perch near some old chimney stacks on the roof. Pop stood in the middle of the factory yard.

“There you are, boy.” He smiled. It was a mean smile. “A man should not have to chase his own son up and down half the town. Where’s your respect?”

He did not have his studded leather belt in hand. No, Pop carried a ball peen hammer from work, which he slapped into his palm.

“I always told you,” he drawled as he stepped closer, “you have to give respect to get respect. How’s about you show me some respect right now and git down here without me having to chase you no more?”

Gil stayed silent, watching from his perch.

“No? All right then.” Pop scratched the gravel with his foot like a bull ready to charge. “I’ll huff. And I’ll puff. And I’ll blow your house in.”

Pop set off at top speed from halfway across the yard. He’d been a fit man in his youth, and he could still go fast when he wanted to. He was going very fast when ran headfirst into the brick wall Gil had painted to look like an open door.

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Millie Turpin’s Haunted Brownstone

Millie Turpin’s brownstone was haunted. We knew that as well as we knew the sky was blue or that the ground beef at Kemp’s market was always bad. Day in, day out, she’d be rattling around the junk piled to the walls in her home like a round, pale fish. It’s a wonder she found enough room to thrash around at night, but she did. Moaning and wailing and crashing through furniture. Millie would scream at “them” to get out in her steam whistle shrieks. The people neighboring her invested in earplugs. Millie invested in the local paper. Folks say her entryway was shoulder-deep in back issues of that fishwrapper.

Millie was as old as the neighborhood, just about. Her grandparents had bought the brownstone and raised her father there. Millie herself grew up on those steps, went to school at the local Grover Cleveland elementary, she even worked for a little while out of high school. She split her time between the library and her parents, who lay at death’s door for the better part of twenty years. The Turpins. If we blame anyone for the shrieking, hoarding spectacle of our years, we blame them. They ruined Millie. Our parents always said her decline started right around the time Ruby and Joseph Turpin took to their beds and never got out again. Millie became a full-time nurse before she was old enough to vote. Any grandparent on the street could tell you exactly what the Turpins were like; Ruby, shrill and demanding and demeaning, and Joseph, so paranoid he refused to even deal with the doctors at hospital visits. Between the two of them they broke Millie.

Our parents can remember the day they found the Turpins. Completely incidental, of course. The meter-reader came by when Millie happened to be out, otherwise he never would have gotten in. A helpful citizen (Millie would wail and accuse, but no one ever fessed up to the deed) pointed out that the lock was one of the old-fashioned ones and with a little jarring, the door popped wide open. The meter-man stepped into 2305 Alcott street and clapped his hand to his nose. Inside was the most unholy air freshener-fog, mingling with something else. Something foul. The meter was in the kitchen, and the only way to the kitchen was through the den that had served as the elder Turpin’s sick room.

As far as they could figure, Ruby went first. She’d cut her leg and it had gone septic. Joseph would have prevented Millie from calling an ambulance for her mother, right up until the stroke felled him. They figured that happened while Millie was out, and without her care he fell and hit his head. They lay where they had fallen for six weeks, the coroner said, with Millie carrying on as she had around them.

Poor Millie. Naturally they had to put her someplace, and you know the hospitals were bad back then so she probably came out in worse shape than when she’d gone in. The brownstone was held in a trust, so at least she had a home to come back to. But she didn’t have a whole lot to come back with. No friends, no relatives (none that we knew of) not even a church. No, Millie went into that brownstone by herself and stayed.

The ghosts showed up shortly after.

Naturally, you’d have night terrors after such a thing. But night terrors were nothing to call the police over. The cops finally got sick of coming to our neighborhood after too many phantom burglars who vanished when they got there. That was Millie. She wore on you. After a time you learned to ignore the screams, close your curtains when she opened hers.

Millie started getting really bad around the time the makeup of the neighborhood changed. Brownstones turned into high-rise apartments, grocery carts became bodegas, and the kids spoke Spanish or Gullah. Her paranoia got worse and she got more aggressive. We all still remember the day she turned a fire extinguisher on girls double-dutching in front of her steps. The kids in the neighborhood knew Millie. They hated her.

No one’s really sure how the rumor started that she had a fortune in her place. It had weight, of course. Her secrecy, her paranoia, her thrifty ways. Buster Gutiérrez, before he quit the neighborhood one August night, used to say her folks didn’t trust banks after the Wall Street crash and started storing their money in floorboards. There was gold in that rat’s nest, provided you could shift past the mess that was already accumulating.

It was amazing. You never saw Millie out and about, but somehow the junk began to pile up in her place. Most of it was throwaway furniture people left on street corners. Of this Millie spoke only once, mentioning offhandedly that it kept “them” at bay.

“Them” of course being the ghosts she collected like fleas.

Her parents had only been the first few drops before the cloudburst. Suddenly Millie was chased from one end of her home to the other by specters every night. Somehow, and she never explained how, the hoard slowed them down. So she accumulated piece after piece until you couldn’t see properly through the windows, until the front door could barely be opened. The secret wealth rumor grew like a rash, because why go to all this trouble unless she was hiding something? It didn’t matter, of course. No one went for the money, not really. Usually the ballsy punks who wanted to go after Millie really just wanted out. After a while “Millie Turpin’s money” became a metaphor for skipping town. Punks came and went, going from leather jackets to buckskin fringe to black hoodies, and Millie stayed the same.

No one can name the exact day she died. No one knew. Going months, maybe even years without seeing Millie Turpin had become common. The smell drifting off the place had always been awful, probably down to decade’s worth of garbage never curbed, so the death-smell hadn’t tipped anyone off. No, what pushed the first domino was some anonymous punk and an act of petty vandalism. Some faceless hellraiser send a brick through Millie’s kitchen window just to savor the crash. Through the broken glass, he spied Millie, face down and pale as a beached manatee.

The coroner ruled Millie’s death as a misadventure. That’s a polite way of saying “accidentally tripped her own booby trap and died five feet from the door.” A snare cobbled from piano wire and a mattress spring that lay waiting by the table to cripple the legs of the unlucky. Millie died as she lived, mere feet from help and too proud to call for it.

Of course the whole neighborhood turned out for the clearing-out. In a way, we’d all been ready for it long before she’d died. The day they finally cracked that nut and told us more about the woman than we’d ever learn in life. Oh, we got exactly what we asked for.

We got Buster Gutiérrez.

He’d been waiting three feet from the stairs for all these years, face down beneath a bookcase full of old bricks, dried to the floor. She’d left him there. She’d left Jim Delacroix, the boy who had lit out after a argument with his father, by the old water heater. Downstairs Patrice Gibson, who had always sworn he would quit this town for something better. Well, he’d been half right.

It was like peeling a maggoty onion, each layer holding more bodies. Some people who had gone unmissed, some who had. The spinster who played organ for church found a letter jacket and sobbed into it. Now, they said, it made sense. Poor Millie was out of her wits, didn’t know the difference between the living and the dead. All these years trying to defend herself against phantoms that hadn’t been phantoms, and her poor addled brains hadn’t been able to ask for help.

….except.

Except that’s a little too neat. It would be easy to blame it on the hospital and call it a day. But think of Millie alone in that brownstone for weeks, living around her parents. Think of the quiet, the peace as first one and then the other dropped away. Think of the kind of rage built after a life of service for other people, the kind of rage that grows from being pinned to one place day after day after day. Everyone knows ghosts aren’t solid, you can’t trap them or barricade them in. And so many calls to the police for nothing, so many calls that they stopped coming out or cared about the noise coming from Millicent Turpin’s old place…

Maybe we weren’t wrong that Millie’s brownstone was haunted.

Maybe we were just wrong about what was haunting it.

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In a Time of Famine

Two children walked through the forest. They could have been twins, or simply close siblings. The boy was towheaded and the girl’s hair was plaited in two mouse-brown pigtails. Their feet were muddy and shoeless, and they had been walking for a very long time indeed.

As the trees thinned out, they spotted a tidy white cottage. The walls looked like fresh marzipan, the windows shone like spun sugar. Even the clean little picket fence gleamed like glazed bread. The widow who owned the cottage bumped the door open with her hip, bustling out to the clothesline with an armful of washing. She dropped it when she saw the children.

“Good heavens!” she said, “where did you come from? Have you been walking far?”

The children just stared at her. Their gazes were hungry.

“Oh you poor dears,” she said, crossing to unlatch the gate, “you look like you’ve had such a terrible time. Come in, come in.”

The interior of the cottage was spotless and spare. The old widow handed a broom to the girl, who gnawed on the handle. The widow snatched it away, laughing.

“No, girl! I’ll prepare you some supper. I’d like for you to do chores while I’m working. No children with idle hands in my house!”

To the boy she gave a rag and a tub of blacking and set him at the wrought iron oven in the corner.

“You, my boy, will give that oven a lick and polish.”

The widow cut up bread and cheese and one of the smoked sausages that dangled in the kitchen window.

“Where have you come from? Surely you must have walked such a long way to reach me.”

“The other edge of the forest,” the boy said in a flat voice.

“The other edge of…” the widow set a cheese-knife on the platter. “But that’s impossible, those trees are thicker than a dog’s fur. What possessed you to do that?”

“Famine,” the girl said in a thin voice, “we were sent away, so as not to be eaten.”

“Famine?” the widow shook her head. “I know these are lean times, but I haven’t heard such a thing. Perhaps things are worse on your side of the trees, hmm? Come now children, eat up.”

The food was gone almost before she set the platter down. The children looked at her, expectant..

“You poor children.” She pet their heads. “Many have come and gone in this house, but I thought I would end my days all alone. I know I am not family, but I invite you to stay as long as you want. Eat as much as you like, become plump and hale again.”

The boy gazed just past her, at the oven which glared black and baleful in the corner.

The girl said, “father warned us against talking to anyone we met in the forest. Said they’d try to eat us.”

“Well, you’re safe now, you poor dears.” The widow lay a kiss on top of each matted head.

She cooked another sausage for dinner and more bread and ladle after ladle of gravy. No amount seemed to decrease the children’s hunger, so finally she sent them to bed for lack of a better idea.

The widow woke in the night from an unfamiliar noise. She found the boy knelt in front of the oven where he had stoked a fire so hot it shone white from the grate.

“Oh you poor boy,” she said, draping her shawl over him, “you’re cold, aren’t you? I can unpack the winter bedding.”

The boy looked at her, face as inscrutable as the oven door. “I would like to cook something. How can you tell if the oven is hot enough?”

The widow, unsettled by his blank manner, tried to smile. “You open the oven and hold your hand before the flames and count. However long it takes until you pull your hand away will tell you.”

“Like this?” the boy held his hand a good distance away from the oven’s mouth.

“No, no, I’ll show you. The widow settled on her knees before the open oven and held her hand out.

When the girl arose, the boy was standing before the oven. The widow stuck halfway out, her body having smothered the fire. The two exchanged a look.

Over the next three days, they scraped the widow’s house clean. They ate up all the sausages and hams and bacon that sat in her smokehouse. They slaughtered her milch cow and mixed the blood with her flour. They left after uprooting the bulbs in her garden and enjoying an unsatisfactory last meal.

 

A shepherd’s wife was supervising her children in gathering chicken eggs when she spotted the siblings approaching, muddy and thin as reeds. She exclaimed and grabbed  them both.

“And who do you belong to?” she asked. “Nevermind. Let’s get you inside and get a meal in you before my husband gets home. He’s a right ogre about uninvited guests.”

Their house was one big room sheared down the middle with a crude twig fence. She sat her children, two girls thick and ugly as pitch, across the table from the newcomers. Everyone got the same glass of milk and side of mutton with potatoes. The brother and sister were done before her children had taken two bites. The woman shook her head.

“What kind of parent left you in such a state? Nevermind, you’re here now. Hide yourselves up in the loft until I can talk to my husband.”

The father of the family, twice the size of any of them and ugly as sin, came home at sundown with his flock. The sheep went to one half of their house, while he hung his hat in the other.

“Woman,” he said, “it stinks of secrets in here. What strays have you brought home this time?”

“How could you tell? Nevermind, I’ve found two children wandering like lost lambs.”

The wife beckoned them from their hiding place. The man took their chins in his big hands and turned their heads this way and that.

“More bone than flesh on ‘em,” he grunted. “Wouldn’t make a meal for a dog.” He patted the boy’s cheek, which held the beginning prickles of a beard. “Well, wife? Let’s fatten them up.”

The woman cooked a large meal from half a sheep’s carcass. The boy and girl’s appetite was only matched by her husband, who regarded them curiously.

“How do they feed you where you come from?” he asked.

“They don’t,” the girl said, “there is no food.”

“Where is this?”

As one, they pointed back at the woods.

“Schottsberg? Dressen? Surely not Hommsted?”

The children looked at him blankly.

“No mind. You’re here now, and you’ll learn a trade that will keep you happy and fat.” The man shook his ample gut. “Off to bed for you all.”

His girls had snow white nightcaps, but the muslin used to make them was all gone.

“I’ll make do,” his wife sighed, and quickly basted two red caps from an old shirt of her husband’s. The four children slept to one bed. In the middle of the night the boy arose. He took a knife from the kitchen area and slit the girls’ throats before exchanging their caps for his and his sister’s. When the man arose with the coming dawn, he ruffled their heads fondly before  he went out with his sheep. Then the boy and girl climbed out of bed. They found a large rock and, working between them, rolled it to the entrance of the house. They heard the woman wake up.

What slug-a-beds you two are. Come and get up, my girls are already hard at work.

They heard a mother’s anguished scream. They heard her thudding footsteps come to the door. They tipped the rock and it fell on the woman’s head, smashing her skull.

The boy and girl, carrying the other half of the sheep carcass between them, fled.

 

A woodsman was splitting a cord of yew outside his cottage when his wolf began to growl at the woods. He turned and found the cottage had been approached soundlessly by a boy and girl in tattered rags.

…No, they were small and spare, but they were not children. Their clothes had been outgrown for some time, but rather than mend them the pair had tied more cloth over the holes. Their hair was tangled and matted. It took a moment of puzzling before the woodsman realized they had no shoes.

“How do?” he asked. He set his axe down politely but kept it within reach. The wolf’s hackles remained up. The boy eyed the animal.

“Beast.”

“He’s no more beast than any other. He’s my pet, I’ve raised him by hand.”

“Wolves are beasts,” the girl said, “our father said they will use all manner of trickery to lure children in to be gobbled up. Some can even walk and talk.”

“Tales to scold naughty children,” the woodsman said. He grabbed the wolf by the scruff and scrubbed fondly behind his ears. “Jack here is no more beast than any other dog. He guards the house when I’m gone.”

The boy and girl gazed past him, to the cottage.

“That,” the boy said.

“House,” the girl said.

The woodsman glanced behind himself. Jack growled. He returned his gaze to the intruders to find that they had surreptitiously moved closer when he’d looked away.

“Yes? What about it?”

“Our father,” the boy said.

“Told us our grandmother lived in a little red cottage with ivy on the roof,” the girl said.

The woodsman shrugged. “I  know nothing about that. This place was abandoned when I found it. If your granny lived here, well…she doesn’t anymore.”

The intruders looked at him. Their eyes were flat and expressionless.

“Did you,” the boy said,

“Kill her?” the girl asked.

“No,” the woodsman said. “Come in and look if you like.”

Their feet left dark prints on the white wood floor. The woodsman kept his ax close by as he followed them through the cottage. They looked at the humble fireplace, the pantry, and the loft the woodsman shared with Jack.

“Where,” the boy said.

“Is she?” the girl asked.

“I can’t tell you something I don’t know,” the woodsman said, “why do you want to find her so badly?”

The two turned to him as if surprised he was still there.

“There was a famine,” the boy said, “our father turned us out of the house. He couldn’t feed us anymore.”

“He told us to go to our grandmother’s,” the girl said, “we would live with her and she would feed us and take care of us.”

“How long ago was this? I haven’t heard of a famine around these parts.” He looked at their faces, which held no answer. “Why seek her out anymore? You could take care of yourselves.”

They looked at him as if he’d started speaking in gibberish. “Only she can care for us. Father said.”

The woodman sighed.

“You’re welcome to the hearth tonight, if you wish. Tomorrow…we’ll just see.”

The boy woke in the middle of the night. Behind him a conversation had been going for some time.

“…but you must think of marriage soon,” the woodsman’s voice drifted over, “and I am well within my means to provide for you. If you’re worried about your brother, he’s more than welcome to stay. I’ll teach him my trade, he’ll be able to find a wife in no time.”

“But only grown women can marry.”

“Have you looked at yourself? You are old enough to make your own home, you don’t need your grandmother.”

“But we must find her, she will take care of us. Father said to trust no one but her.”

The boy opened his eyes. Across from him, silver in the moonlight, Jack sat. The wolf growled low in his chest when he saw the boy open his eyes. The boy began moving very slowly and silently, a skill he had gained over the years.

And what then, if you find her? If this isn’t her cottage and she hasn’t died yet, how many years does that leave you?”

Quick as a viper, the boy shot out of his blankets and cleaved the wolf’s skull in two with a carving knife he kept concealed  in his clothes.

“Jack!” The woodsman leapt up. The girl stabbed at his back with a knife they’d fashioned from a bit of bone, but only caught him through his clothes. The woodsman backhanded her and came leaping over the table to the hearth. The boy wielded his knife, but the woodsman had muscles as tough as oak and they had lost the element of surprise. He beat the boy and turned him out of the cottage, throwing the girl after him.

“Never come back,” he spat out the door, “beasts!”

He buried Jack under a cairn of stones so heavy he could barely lift them. True to suspicion, someone tried to disturb the grave in the night and only managed to shift one rock. He sat up the  next night and many nights after that, but nothing else dared to venture near.

 

A serf was wandering back from the fields late one day. He whistled and walked fast. He had a pint of good ale and a slab of meat waiting for him at home. This humble peace was disrupted when he stumbled upon a woman lying prostrate in a ditch, and a man who crouched by her head.

The man had a thick, matted blond beard and wore rags that were held onto his body with vines.

“Help me,” he shouted at the serf in a shockingly high voice, “she’s not moving!”

The serf had only a small knife for self defense, he didn’t want to come close to the wild man. But the woman on the ground did seem to be in distress.

“Well, what’s happened?” the serf crouched down. “Is it a female complaint?”

The man looked at him blankly. “Help her.”

“How? With what? I’m no doctor.” The serf stood again. “Hang on, I’ll fetch my brother-in-law. He’s handy with sheep, that’s as close as I’ve got.”

The serf returned with his in-law, only to find the man crouched over the woman’s face. He had opened a vein in his wrist, with his teeth, by the look of it, and was now squeezing blood into her slack mouth. He looked up with wild eyes.

“Isn’t this helping?”

The serfs shouted and crossed themselves, fleeing. The last anyone saw of the wild man, he had taken up the woman’s body and fled back to the forest. For many years after the serfs would warn their children to stay out of the woods, because all manner of terrible man-eating beasts lived among the trees.

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The Shambling Detective 8: Falling Leaves

When Mahoney checked out of the drunk tank in the morning, they gave him back his personal effects. That did not amount to very much.

“Shoelaces. One pair.” the desk cop slid them over. Mahoney accepted them and bent to re-lace himself.

“Belt. Bronze buckle. Necktie. Some vomit. Handkerchief. Some vomit.”

“Thanks a pantload,” Mahoney said drily, sliding them back to himself in a heap.

“Straight razor, European design.”

Mahoney stared down at the Firebird handle. “That’s…that’s not mine.”

The cop shrugged. “They said it was yours. Look, if you don’t want it, I’ll toss it into lost and found.”

Mahoney screwed his eyes shut and turned away. “I don’t care what you do with it.” He heard the scrape as the officer palmed it off the counter and didn’t open his eyes until he was sure the razor was gone.

The cop eyed him suspiciously. “You sure you’re good to go?”

“No,” Mahoney said simply.

They stood silently for an awkward moment.

“Ahhh, hell. Getouttahere.” The cop snapped a thumb at the doors. “I got worse things to deal with. Go change your shirt.”

And just like that Mahoney was a free man again.

He stood before the doors of the station and took a deep breath. The city smells mixed and mingled in a brown morass in his lungs, thick as tar. If he breathed enough of it, perhaps he could patch himself together again.

He took a step. Fought the urge to crawl. Took another step. Yes. He could do this.

Mahoney walked.

His body still felt so fragile, like every step was a knife-edge. He put his whole self into walking, putting one foot down and then the other. He could get away. He would get away.

It was the city, he realized. The city and all it held. All the secrets and double-dealings and blasted mysteries. If he got out of the bay, he could go inland somewhere. The farmlands, maybe. He could blot out what happened to him so much easier if he had different surroundings.

Mahoney needed to forget. It was the only way he could live on, he’d decided. He’d caught the other’s madness for a while, but Gillman had snapped him out of that.

Mahoney realized he’d technically fulfilled his client obligation when he’d watched Gillman slit his own throat and tittered. He slapped himself. No hysteria, not now. He would walk. Just walk and walk until his brains were in his feet. No thinking.

A rumble in the distance nearly made him drop to his knees. Mahoney realized it just a city dumpster being dragged and sobbed out a breath.

The world didn’t make sense anymore. Mahoney watched people passing him by and tried and failed not to see the words writhing behind them, like layers of onion skin. He started to teeter.

A broad-shouldered chap in a suit two sizes too small bumped chests with Mahoney. “Hey watch where you’re—” he wheezed in sudden disgust when saw Mahoney’s state. “Fuggin’ wino.”

He shoved Mahoney backwards, and backwards he went.

Mahoney staggered down an alley, just trying to regain his feet.  He saw a milk crate. It seemed as good a place as any to sit, so he sat.

Opposite him was a refrigerator box. Someone had pinned a tartan blanket over the mouth so it formed a crude privacy curtain. Mahoney stared intentely at the scene. Something was nagging him, something tickled and pinched and prodded at him about the box. It wasn’t until he looked to the side and saw an overturned trash can that he realized—this was the same scene he’d seen in Rousseau’s paintings.

Mahoney started to his feet.

A whistling, unhealthy breath wheezed from the box. “Tha’ you, Jezzy?”

A bum poked his head out of the box. “Hell, you ain’t Jezz’bell.” His mouth collapsed over lost teeth. His beard was white, yellowed by various bodily fluids. He was solid. He was real.

Mahoney’s chest eased, somewhat. He sat down again.

“You don’t mind if I sit, do you?” he asked.

“I don’t mind if you sits, stands, or does a dance.” the bum rolled his grizzled body out of his shelter. He hacked something up then swallowed it back down. “S’your alley just as much as mine.”

“Thanks.” Mahoney stared at his hands. All of the other paintings he’d seen were places he’d visited. And this one was the last he’d seen. He tried not to read to much into that.

The bum scritched his beard and looked at Mahoney. “You alright, feller? Lookin’ poorly.”

Mahoney wet his lips. “I…lost a friend, recently.”

“Happens to us all, ‘ventually. How’d he go?”

“He’s just gone.” Mahoney stared at the ground. “If he were dead it would be one thing—”

“Tell me ‘bout it. I saw a feller vamoose the other day. Broad daylight: vwip! Just like that.”

Mahoney had thought himself incapable of further shock. Apparently he’d been wrong.

“Did this man have red hair? Down by the Memorial Hall?”

“Got it on one.” The bum grinned. His remaining teeth were brown. “I axed the newsmen to talk to me, but they wouldn’t believe me.”

Mahoney leaned closer. “Tell me, did you…did you hear anything? Maybe like the rustle of large wings?”

The bum gave him the eye. “Now I know yer pullin’ my leg. Not nice to fun me around.”

Mahoney screwed his eyes shut and put his head down. “Nothing. Nevermind. Forget it.”

He covered his eyes with his hands to make extra dark. The act of opening his eyes now felt like a greater and greater burden. The more he looked the more he needed to look. Blinking felt like betrayal. He wondered if he’d still feel the same if he skewered himself with the radio antenna lying up against the trash can.

“Mahoney.”

Mahoney snapped his eyes open. Now sitting where the bum had been, upright and prim as if he’d stepped from his personal portrait, was Orroft.

Mahoney fell back, upturning the crate. “No.

Orroft stepped from the box and unfolded himself. It was like someone had clipped him from a magazine and pasted him into the dirty brick of the alleyway. It was unreal how clean and sharp the lines of his body were. Mahoney floundered, trying to push away with his limbs in a clumsy rowing motion. He went nowhere.

Orroft stared down with his hatefully blank face. His glasses were spotless and in them Mahoney could see his own haggard reflection.

“No, oh, no, please, no no no.” Mahoney held up a hand. “I’ll go. I’ll leave and I won’t tell a soul.

Orroft was impassive as a stone idol. “No you won’t, Mahoney. You won’t leave here. I think you know that.”

Mahoney’s mouth began watering and he could taste the beginnings of bile. He swallowed it down in a tremendous feat of strength.

“What did I do?” he asked, “what the hell did I ever do to you people? I didn’t ask for this.” His terror flash-fried into anger. “I never did anything to warrant this! The hell did I do to you bastards?”

“Please understand, detective Mahoney, it’s not what you’ve done. It’s who you are.” Orroft’s voice was soporific, like a shot of morphine.

“Who I am? I’m nobody. Open the phone book, you’ll see plenty of Mahoneys, even more private dicks.”

Orroft tilted his head slightly, peering just above the rim of his spectacles. “Mahoney, I’ve something very important to ask you.”

“Shoot.”

“What’s your first name?”

Mahoney opened and closed his mouth. Nothing came out.

“You can tell me that much, can’t you? Your first name? Your mother’s name, perhaps. A bit of your history.”

“I was in the war,” Mahoney blurted.

“What war?”

Mahoney stammered. Orroft knelt as if addressing a child.

“You were nearly correct in saying that you are nobody—you are very nearly nothing, Mahoney, no more and no less than what is needed.”

“Needed?”

“By the Oculus.”

Mahoney let a little terror-giggle escape. “You’re bananas. All of you.”

“No, really. You are a detective because you needed to seek. You have a name, because people needed something to refer to you by. Only what is essential to moving forward.”

“You’re crazy.”

“You know I’m not. I see. Don’t you see, Mahoney?”

Unbidden, the vision came back
                                                     to
                                                             him
but he blinked it away and clamped hands to his eyes. “Shut up, shut up, I don’t give a damn what you say, it’s all a nasty parlor trick. You’re some kind of fakir posing as a head shrinker, and this is all some dope-dream. I’m laying in an alley with a needle in my arm and piss in my pants.”

Orroft blinked. It was a slow, involved motion. “You are, once again, half correct. This is not ‘real’ by the metric one might measure life.”

“Stop talking in riddles.”

“Alright then, let me ask you this: a woman disappeared from your office. She did not exit via the door or any other method. How is that possible?”

“How did you—” Mahoney blinked. His eyes felt like sandpaper. “It’s not, okay?”

“James Gillman. Vanished from an empty sidewalk in broad daylight, appeared again in a police wagon to cut his throat with a razor he could not have been in possession of. Possible?”

“How the hell did you know that? Did you…” Mahoney could barely breathe. “Did you put him up to that? Make him off himself in front of me?”

“Answer the question. Possible or not?”

“Not,” Mahoney spat.

“Sikorsky’s architecture, Mahoney. Picture it. Is it possible?”

Mahoney thought of the not-pillar and swallowed. “No.”

“You have lived several impossible things, Mahoney. You see the words. Tell me: am I lying?”

Mahoney forced himself to blink. It hurt, made him want to hold his eyes open longer and longer which only made the inevitable blink worse, churning around in a vicious cycle. “No. I know you’re telling the truth. Now tell me how all of this is happening.”

“In service to the Oculus.”

“Shut up!” Mahoney burst out. “Shut up about your stupid cult god and tell the truth!”

“But that is the truth, Mahoney. The Oculus is real. I have it. You have it. The only real things are that which can be seen.”

Mahoney forced himself to blink. ‘The eye? That’s all your damn Oculus is? What the hell does that have to do with anything? Why do you call yourself the brotherhood of leaves, then, huh? What do trees have to do with it?”

Orroft blinked. The action made Mahoney’s eyes wince. “Leaves don’t just come from trees, detective.”

Like a guitar string snapping, the tinnitus started up within Mahoney. It tumbled
end
over
end,
       building      in a    roar,

             foaming, falling,
    like a—
    like a—

like the page of a massive book, a book as big as the universe itself folding and turning and crinkling like a book like a book like a book where he lay pressed between the pages flat as a flower.

Mahoney vomited.

Orroft produced a handkerchief. “You see now? You’ve been retreating from a beast while this whole time you have been in its teeth, Mahoney, and it has been laughing at you. There is no running.”

Mahoney spat at the handkerchief. “I’m real.”

“No.”

“Yes. yes yes yes YESYESYESYES!” Mahoney slapped the hand offering the kerchief. “I’m real, I’m real, I know I am.”

Orroft said quietly, “Mahoney.”

Mahoney slapped himself. It hurt. The pain had to be real, therefore he had to be real.

He ground fists into his eyes in denial of what could not, must not be. He was a man, solid and real, with a past and present and future. If he thought very hard, perhaps, perhaps—

Mahoney uncovered his eyes. “Oh, no.”

Orroft nodded. “Yes. You see now, don’t you?” His expression seemed to hold pity, although it may have been shadows cast by the tilt of his head.

Mahoney was on hands and knees, as if in supplication. “Why did you do this to me?”

“I did nothing. I am as you are, a prisoner of the system. I merely serve a function different to yourself. I can only do what is allowed of me.”

“End this.”

“It will end. You can see that for yourself.”

Mahoney looked down and puked again.

Orroft knelt, putting a hand to either side of Mahoney’s head. “I am not here to hurt you, Mahoney, I am here to help you down your path.”

“Kill me,” Mahoney begged.

“That will not happen. You will end, yes, but you will begin again. And again. As many times as the Oculus deems it.”

Mahoney folded his hands. “Please. Please? Please god no.”

Orroft drew up tall and stepped away. “Goodbye Mahoney. Until we meet again.”

“Please no, please stop. Stop it. Stop it!

Orroft stood clean and white against the brick of the alleyway.

Mahoney knelt, mouth running with various fluids, eyes watering, hoarse from screaming. “Stop it, I am begging you stop! Stop now! Stop it, stop it, stop reading—

The sidewalk was empty. Where Mahoney had knelt there was only a spot of crumpled paper, and that could have been trod on by any passing foot. Orroft bent down and unraveled it, revealing the marbled end-paper of a book with writing on the blank side. He hummed a moment as he read the scrawl that ate up every bit of space on the paper, then crumpled it up and threw it back down. He straightened his already straight tie and looked out.

“Since you have given me your attention so far,” he said, “I wonder if I might ask you a question. You held the life of our good detective in your hands, and dispensed with him as you wished. Would you now, if you were given the same choice, do it all over again?”

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The Shambling Detective 7: The Smiling Corpse

Mahoney crawled, hand over hand, elbow over elbow, for hours. Every so often he would hear the tinnitus that preceded the deafening noise, and he would put his head down and clench his whole body until it receded. He had no concept of the time, he only knew it was night by the street lamps. The smell of the vomit dried onto his suit had become mere background whisper, as had the pain from the injuries he’d sustained over the past few days. Mahoney crawled.

“Mahoney?” A pair of leather loafers stepped into his narrow field of vision. “Mother of god, what are you doing on the pavement? I called hours ago, I thought they got you!” Dooley knelt until his face was near-level with Mahoney’s. Disgust and fear were writ large on his face.

“Jesum Crow, you’re worse than I thought. What the hell did they do to you, man?”

Mahoney felt arms encircle his midsection, lifting him. He screamed “NO!” and pressed his body to the pavement. They dropped him.

“What the hell is the matter with you?”

Mahoney pressed his face to the sidewalk. It felt so solid, and yet insubstantial as smoke.

“There’s something wrong with the world,” he said. His throat felt like fire but he had to talk. “It’s a cage and we’re in here with the beast. They all knew. That’s why they hid in death. It’s following me Dooley, it’s everywhere. I’m in a web. Every step I take shakes a strand. No hiding for me.”

“Mahoney…Christ.” Dooley’s disgust turned consoling. “It’s all right now. We’ll get you help. Just after this.”

Mahoney lifted his head. There was a knot of policemen gathered on the sidewalk in front of him, and a few newsmen. Chick was carrying on an animated conversation with a beat cop, with lots of gesturing. Mahoney ran a tongue over sharkskin-rough lips and croaked, “what’s going on?”

“We got him, Mahoney. With your help.” Dooley produced a handkerchief and wet it with a flask. He dabbed at the front of Mahoney’s suit. “I tracked the bastard all the way to this house, and we’ve got enough dirt on him to put him away for a long time.”

“Who?”

“Who do you think? Orroft.”

Mahoney looked over at the building the policemen were gathered around. It had gables and towers and angles all arranged in the artful disarray of Milosz Sikorski.

Mahoney grabbed onto Dooley’s forearms. “No,” he said in a dry whisper.

Dooley, bemused, tried to wrench away. Across the lawn, the cops had produced a battering ram and were going after the door with evenly timed thuds.

“We’ll get you to a hospital, pal, just be patient.”

“No.” Mahoney was clawing at his suit jacket now. “Tell them not to go in there—not there!”

The door fell in. The cop at the end of the line threw his forearm over his nose.

Man, what the hell is that smell?”

Dooley was trying unsuccessfully to dislodge Mahoney’s hands. “It’s just a house, and they’re armed. Relax.”

“Not it’s not—that’s wrong! Everything is wrong.” No matter how he tried, Mahoney could not force sense into his words. He could not push the truth through fast enough to stop the policemen that now stepped over the threshold.

Chick walked over, suit jacket flung over one arm. “Lieutenant says we’re good to follow. Needs a translator for some of the stuff in there.”

Dooley tried to stand, but was stymied by the full weight of Mahoney hanging from his lapels.

“Don’t go in,” Mahoney begged, “the house is wrong—you’ll never come out!”

Dooley frowned thoughtfully. “How is it wrong? I need to know.”

“Sikorski. Sikorski did it. He folded it wrong so time runs every which way in there. He could see like I can. Dooley, please, you have to listen!”

Dooley, staring gravely at Mahoney’s face, nodded. Mahoney relaxed his grip as Dooley rose. He turned back to some of the cops that had chosen to stay with the vehicles.

“Hey,” he said, “could one of you watch him for me? Just ‘til I get back?”

A sudden terror flared within Mahoney. He would have leapt for Dooley to cling to him and drag him back, trip him, anything, anything to keep him from going in that house,
but       the     tinnitus
      flared         up again
           and   he    fell
to the sidewalk
                       screaming,
                 clamping his hands       to
his head,

                    screaming,
  clenching                           his whole body,
                screaming
         at     the thunder
               like                great wings—

He came to when someone splashed a lukewarm cup of coffee on his face. Mahoney leaned upright against the police car. His whole body ached as if he’d been clenching it for hours. He must have—dawn was showing pink in the east.

One of the cops sat on his haunches before Mahoney, his partner stood with truncheon tucked in elbow as he gazed back at the house.

“They still ain’t back,” the standing cop said, “we have to radio the chief.”

The crouching cop nodded, setting his empty cup down. “What do you think we should do with his little friend here?”

“Who him? Toss him in the paddy wagon, he’s just some drunk bum.”

Mahoney heaved froward, making the sitting cop fall back with a shout.

“No! Nobody goes in there, nobody else!” he grabbed and squeezed the policeman’s arms. “It’s a trap! The whole thing is a trap!”

There was the startlingly crisp sound of a truncheon hitting something, and compared to the solidity of that sound everything felt less real. It took Mahoney too much time to realize he’d been hit on the head, and by the time he processed it he was being thrown bodily into the paddy wagon.

There was hardly any room in the wagon. The seat nearest Mahoney was occupied by a young man with a dazed expression and track marks on his arms. When he turned Mahoney could see blood streaming from his temple. In the corner nearest to the cab, between two men who looked like they’d been in the same bar fight, was a red haired fellow who gibbered unceasingly  as the doors closed. Mahoney had to strain to hear what the policemen said over his stream-of-consciousness rant.

“…where you want them? Just dump them off in the drunk tank?”

—yellow, yellow, he’d never even used the color yellow before that day, how’d he get so many tubes—”

“Why not? Most of ‘em are stinko anyway.”

—there was a crooked man who built a crooked house, he drew up all the plans, that crooked little louse—”

“That feller by the door’s nodding off. We could wind up with a stiff if we don’t get him treatment.”

“—burn the roof off? You might as well saw the branch you’re sitting on, it all comes to the same end—”

“He dies in jail, he dies on the street. Same difference.”

“—My prison is a ladder that climbs endlessly upward, rung by rung by rung by rung—”

The wagon started to move. Mahoney fit his head into the corner where the body of the truck and back door met. The pain was refreshingly clarifying. He could think without the intrusion of fear.

“—thin as paper, all of you, all you bit players full of sound and fury signifying nothing—”

The intrusion of that, on the other hand….

Mahoney shifted in his seat and closed his eyes. Dooley was gone. He knew that with a certainty he could not ascribe to anything. Dooley simply would not be coming back out of that house. None of them would.

What was left to do? There was no way to throw light on it all now, now that he had lost Dooley. And furthermore, did he want to throw light on it?

Mahoney swallowed and it felt like a knife going down his throat.

He had been better before knowing. He had been able to live quite content, if cluelessly. And now he knew he was winding down a sentence without any hope of pardon. The minutes passed nearly visibly before his eyes.

He couldn’t inflict this on anyone else. Perhaps that was what the others had done as well. They had known they couldn’t go back, and the only thing left was to cut the infection off at the source. Perhaps not the maestro, but Rousseau and Sikorski, certainly. They had kicked and fought against the bars of their cage, but ultimately surrendered rather than be overtaken.

Mahoney did not want to be overtaken. Not at all.

He knew he didn’t have the strength within himself to stop the institute from claiming another victim, and if he couldn’t do that—

“—then what use is there in living on?” came a voice from across the paddy wagon.

Mahoney opened his eyes. The red haired fellow across the way was staring right at him. He smiled familiarly. Mahoney did not return it.

“I got a joke. Wanna hear it?” the fellow said.

Mahoney made no response.

“Two fish are swimming upstream. They see a duck coming down the other way, and the duck turns to them and says ‘hey,’ he says, ‘hey, how’s the water today, fellas?’ and the one fish turns to the other and says, ‘what the hell is water?’”

The red haired fellow grinned. Mahoney didn’t react.

“Wanna see a neat trick?”

Mahoney shook his head.

The red haired fellow pulled both of his sleeves open to show that there was nothing up them. He made a fiddling motion in the air with his hands and suddenly there was a small oblong shape in them. He thumbed the blade open and now Mahoney could see it was a straight razor. But not just any straight razor, the handle had a bird worked in fire-red enamels with a tail that plumed like smoke. Vladimirovitch’s razor.

“Presto,” the red haired man said, and slit his own throat.

The other drunks shouted and pulled away from the spectacle. The junky at Mahoney’s left was the only one who didn’t react, he lay against the wall stiff as a rake.

The wagon stopped, jarring them into their seats once more.

The cop who opened the back door whistled. His partner called something unintelligible from the front of the van.

“Yeah,” the cop called back, “looks like Gillman just slit his own throat.”

Something jolted through Mahoney’s whole body.

A garbled reply came from the front.

“Nah, we’ll just close the doors and let the desk sort it out when we get there.”

The cop boarded the wagon and snagged the straight razor from the dead man’s hands. He held it up.

“Anyone see how he got this?”

The drunks stared at him. Mahoney stared at Gillman’s corpse.

The cop let the silence linger for another minute and then shook his head, tsking. He hopped out of the wagon and slammed the doors, leaving them alone with the copper-smell of death.

“Forget this for a game of soldiers,” the drunk to Gillman’s left said, getting up to squash between Mahoney and the junky.

“You said it brother.” the drunk to Gillman’s right merely slid down the bench, compacting the others sitting next to him.

Gillman lay back against the wall, body jostling with every movement of the wagon. The smile on his face seemed triumphant, somehow. The rest of the ride to the station was silent. When the cop opened the doors again, he called for two stretchers. The junky had nodded off permanently sometime during the ride, so he was loaded next to Gillman’s smiling corpse.

One of the drunks caught Mahoney staring and nudged him. “Helluva day, huh?”

Mahoney watched the stretcher bear Gillman away. “…yeah.”

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The Shambling Detective 6: Ben Zoma

Mahoney did not wake. He opened his eyes and the world rushed in. Painfully.

He lay on
 the concrete
   just in front of
      his office and the
         sidewalk stretched
           away in either direction
         serpentine like a ladder
       that curled up a
      mountainside,
   spinning dizzily
until he closed his eyes once more and found meager refuge. The sound of everyday foot traffic was too sharp for his ears, and the sidewalk seemed to pitch beneath him, but with his eyes closed it was almost bearable.

There was the memory of a deafening noise in his ears, something that crackled like the roll of infinitely large wings. His eardrums felt tender.

He had been at the Oculus Institute, yes. That was the why of it. But the where of it had happened in the darkness between then and now, the yawning gulf where he could find no stable footing.

Against his better judgement, Mahoney
                                                            opened
                                                                his eyes
                                                              Again
                                                           and found
                                                         The
                                                      situation
                                                   unchanged.
                                                 He vomited
                                              and it formed
                                                little runnels
                                                   in every
                                                      direction
                                                       as if it too
                                                         was confused
                                                            about which
                                                              way was
                                                                  up.
A man stopped and bent down,
forming a U shape with his body
as he looked          Mahoney up
and down,             frowning. “You
okay, mac?           late night at
the club?”             Mahoney
waved him
away and
thankfully he just left, shaking his head. Mahoney coughed. The back of his throat felt like it was on fire, and it paired nicely with the rest of his aches and pains. A stolen glance up at the building made it seem insurmountable as Everest in his state. He couldn’t imagine standing with his head like this, although he could guess it would end with him on the sidewalk again in short order.

Mahoney grabbed a partition in the sidewalk and d r a g g e d his body s l o w l y across the s i d e w a l k, stopping every other pull to breathe. A secretary with her boss’s dry cleaning slung over one arm leapt his body like a show pony, made-up face arranging into a disgusted frown. Mahoney had dragged himself through the mess on the sidewalk. He took a deep breath of mostly fresh air and continued to p u l l himself up the p a v e m e n t until he lay before the front door of the building.

His keys were in his pocket. Rather, they were in the pocket of the suit he normally wore. Mahoney worked his way up the side of the building on his belly like a snake and pressed several bells. One rewarded him and the door unlatched. Mahoney set his body inside the entryway and just breathed for a few minutes.

He took
           each step
                           like it was
                                            the last rung
                                                                 on a ladder
                                             whose legs
                           ended in a
            bottomless pit.
Up and
           up, to the
                           fourth floor,

where he finally collapsed in relief. He pressed his face to the battleship linoleum floor and just breathed and breathed the welcoming smell of linseed and cork. There was the click of a door unlatching, then the startled exclamation: “oh my!”

Mahoney rolled his head to the side, and found the optometrist in coat and cap, on the verge of locking up his office. He peered down at Mahoney with a mixture of disgust and pity.

“Son, you’ve had a rough ride,” he said at length.

Mahoney croaked, “you ain’t just whistling Dixie.” Talking hurt. Hell, breathing hurt. And now that he was out of the public eye, something else pained him. An anxious paranoia that nipped at his body like a flock of angry gulls. He wanted nothing more than to curl into himself and simply lay there, unmoving, invisible.

A strange look came over the optometrist. He crouched on his heels and peered into Mahoney’s face. “Could you open your eyes for me? Just a bit?”

Mahoney managed one. The optometrist gently manipulated his eyelid, tsking quietly.

“Would you mind having a seat in my chair? There’s something I just want to see.”

Mahoney clamped his eyes shut. “I’ll need a shoulder.”

Between the two of them, they managed to get Mahoney on his feet and in motion. He kept his eyes tightly shut and leaned heavily on the old man. The chair, when it hit the back of his knees, gave him a jolt of panic. But the soft naugahyde gently welcomed his sore body and he collapsed into it.

A small spot of heat hit his face.

“Open your eyes again for me?” The doc had his equipment out, giving Mahoney another urge to bolt. The fact that he would have fallen on his face the second he left the chair kept him in. He was put through all the paces, and a look of increasing wonder spread across the optometrist’s face.

“Say, you haven’t had some kind of…procedure recently, have you?”

Mahoney swallowed down some bile. “Actually, I just got out of the Oculus Institute.”

“Really? What quack runs that place, and why go there when you’ve got a perfectly good eye doctor just down the hall?” the optometrist joked.

Mahoney gave him a long look. “You’ve never heard of that place?”

“Nope.”

“Thurgood Orroft?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell, and I know every other optometrist in town.”

“He’s not a…anyway, it wasn’t like that.” Mahoney squeezed his eyes shut. “I can see things now. Things I couldn’t before. It makes me dizzy.”

“Things like what?” the optometrist adjusted his lamp.

“Words. They…they jump out at me, they make shapes.” Mahoney cleared his throat. “They made me look into some kind of glass and now the world is wrong. I was strapped into a chair and made to look.”

The optometrist gazed at him with concern. “Now why would you go to a place like that?”

Mahoney said honestly, “I don’t know.”

The optometrist swept the skin under an eye with his thumb. “What kind of words do you see?”

Mahoney closed his eyes. “For the calamity will be visited thricefold on their heads, and they shall sup the marrow of their despair.”

“What?”

“From The Book of Eibon.”

The optometrist smiled gently and shook his head. “I don’t read fashion magazines, kid.” He walked over to a counter and clicked on a small lamp that gave off a deep red glare. “Can you see that?”

“Yeah.”

He clicked the lamp off. “You can see infra-red. That’s the lamp I use to set my molds.” He pulled a chair over and sat, fingers gripping his chin thoughtfully. “Your eyes are different, but I can’t say exactly how without better equipment. Like something out of those pulp magazines my Cheryl always gets.”

Mahoney laughed bitterly. “Yeah, written by Ben Zoma.”

“You Jewish?”

Mahoney stared. “What?”

The optometrist shrugged. “You said that name, I just thought—”

“What does that name mean to you?”

“Ah. Well, it’s been a while since my bar mitzvah but…” the optometrist returned several tools to a drawer. “Four rabbis were called to visit the garden of eden. Ben Zoma looked upon it and went mad. Ben Azzai looked upon it and died. Archer tried to destroy the garden. Only Rabbi Akiva departed unharmed.”

Mahoney realized he’d let his mouth fall open and shut it, quickly. The optometrist was straightening up the office, putting his instruments away.

“Where does a gentile like you hear the name Ben Zoma, anyway?”

“Oh you know…around.”

The optometrist chuckled. “Well, I’ve probably pried into your personal life enough for one day. Get yourself home and into a change of clothes.”

“After a spell.” Mahoney managed to stand on his own. “I have some things to attend to before I can walk out of here.”

The optometrist gave him a not-unkind look. “Take care of yourself now.”

Mahoney watched him go down the hall, listening until his footsteps faded on the stairwell  before turning away. His office door was locked, but with the right combination of shoves and jiggling, it sprang open anyway.

The familiar sight of his rooms should have been a comfort, but it wasn’t. It was tainted by association now. There was the table where he’d done the deal with the veiled woman, there was the wall safe where he stored the money, the desk where he’d written it all down. Even the scotch in his desk drawer tasted like dirty air. Mahoney leaned his hands into his eyes. Anxiety rattled up and down his spine, poisoned his blood. The world felt like a spiderweb now, insubstantial and infinitely fragile. A spiderweb that serviced something dark and unnamable. He could understand now why Robin Rousseau ate his paints, why Sikorski had opened his throat. His body didn’t want to move. It wanted to lay where it was and just let the inevitable roll over it, if only to be done with it.

Mahoney made himself dial Dooley’s extension instead. Ten rings, no pickup. He tried again. Fifteen rings this time. He dialed 0 and had the operator buzz every line in the news office. A very irate style columnist picked up. She icily informed Mahoney that she wasn’t anyone’s secretary before stalking off to grab Dooley. He panted as he jumped on the line, like he’d run from across the office.

“Mahoney, thank god. I thought they got rid of you, we’ve been combing the morgues around town looking for you.”

Mahoney tried to chuckle, it sounded rusty. “A little soon to be making funeral plans, isn’t it?”

There was a long moment of silence. “Mahoney, you’ve been gone for nine days,” Dooley said flatly.

Mahoney set the receiver down, then pressed his face into the cool surface of the desk.

“Mahoney?” the phone gained a tinny reverb from the wood. “You still there?”

Mahoney made a muffled cry of anguish against the blotter before scooting the receiver to his ear. “Yeah. Still here. Still kicking.”

“Good, because I’ve got news. They’ve arrested the soprano.”

“Miss Bianchi?” Mahoney blinked. “For what?”

“The murder of Vladimirovitch. She cut his throat with his own razor, a custom job with a Firebird on the handle.”

Mahoney caught a whiff of his own sick smell and buried his nose in scotch. “She said disappointment killed him.”

“I’ll say. Listen, we need to talk about what happened to you. What you remember. This case is going to pop like a boil, and soon. Can you get down here?”

Mahoney laughed. “I couldn’t tie my shoes at the moment. I’m at my office. I’ll spend the night here, start home in the morning.”

“They torture you?”

“Not…exactly.” It was coming on again. Mahoney put his head down and breathed hard.

“Well, what’s wrong?”

“I’m seeing words in my head. It’s like I can see through everything, like it’s a map folded in on itself.” Here it came, the terrible vertiginous pain. Mahoney squeezed his eyes shut. “Like everything’s happening or going to happen right next to each other. I can’t put it more clearly than that. And no, they didn’t dose me.”

“Did they dose you?” Dooley cleared his throat. “How’d you know I was going to ask that?”

“The same way I know anything, I just see it. And no, I didn’t find any trace of Gillman.”

“Do you think Gillman—” Dooley stopped short, irritated. “That’s getting old.”

“If I could stop, I would.”

“Listen, this can’t wait. I’ll meet you down at your office, maybe take you to a hotel afterwards. We have to assume that nowhere is safe.”

“Assume? From where I’m standing that’s just the plain truth.”

“Don’t joke about this. I’ve found some things out about our friend Orroft, really sick stuff. Also, Gillman might be alive.” Dooley was breathing hard. Despite it all, his journalist nose was twitching. “Just sit tight and I’ll be there in a few.”

“Like I got a choice.” Mahoney let the receiver fall to the side and listened to the repetitive disconnect signal. The world

       started                    to

                  scatter

          again

                                        but

he squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his whole body until the feeling went away. He wet two fingers with scotch and scrubbed the fuzz from his teeth. He just had to maintain until Dooley got here.

The sound started.

It began small, the whispery sweep like a thousand pieces of paper jostling into one another, building until it became a deafening rumble that sounded both within his ears and without. Mahoney did not know if it showed any signs of stopping, just that the world went mercifully black after a while, and he fell in darkness.

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The Shambling Detective 5: The Oculus Institute

Mahoney lay on the murphy bed with a wet washcloth over his eyes. Operating entirely by touch, he fumbled for the glass at his bedside table and brought it to his lips, sloshing bourbon on his unfastened collar in the process.

“So the pillar turned into a recess?” Chick Henshaw said. He sat at the card table Mahoney used in the dining room/den, ashing into a juice glass. “Sounds simple enough. A guy makes somethin’ round, halfway through he dents it in. Nothing to lose your lunch over.”

“No, it wasn’t like that. It was…it was just both at the same time. In and out. If you could have seen it—”

“Yeah, yeah.” The studio chair creaked as Chick rearranged himself. He had helped himself to some of the deli chicken in the ice box, the smack of him chewing made Mahoney nauseous. “I getcha. I was at one of those sideshows a while back with my girl, Gertie. We see one of those human knots, you know, and the way he was all pretzeled up didn’t seem possible.”

The door slammed and Dooley stalked in. “Chick, quit boring the detective with your love life. Mahoney? I’ve got the paper.”

Mahoney eased his feet off the bed and slowly sat up, keeping the washcloth to his eyes until the very last minute. As the wet cloth fell from his eyes it disclosed Dooley, shirtsleeves rolled up past the elbow and tie askew. He held an accordion-fold pamphlet printed on sickly green paper.

Mahoney gestured. “That it?”

Dooley pulled back a little. “You shouldn’t go there.”

“But I’m going.”

Dooley sighed. “Stubborn ass.”

“I got no choice, Dooley.”

“Yeah, if he don’t go, who will look after the kids?” Chick said through a mouthful.

Dooley glanced back. “Hush.”  To Mahoney he said, “look, I’ve got guys for this. Gimme a day or two to arrange something. This place is bad news. Why you need in there so badly anyway?”

Mahoney glanced beyond him to Chick. “Hey, check the drawer there for me, the one second from the right?”

Chick opened it with a rattle of silverware.

“What’s in there?”

Chick took out a small slip of paper. “The yellow sign.”

Mahoney looked back at Dooley. “I’m going in. I can’t quit because it won’t quit me.”

Dooley hissed air over his teeth. “Hell. Take this, I’m on a union break.”

He thrust the pamphlet at Mahoney and stalked over to the window, lighting up one of his hat-band cigarettes.

The pamphlet read “THE OCULUS INSTITUTE” in lettering only slightly more welcoming than barbed wire. A crown of laurel leaves  graced the front page. Mahoney sniffed. Laurel wreath. Brotherhood of leaves. Ha. So much for academic wit.

The pamphlet spoke as if singling him out as a misunderstood genius. The institute knew how society had failed him, how the disorder he struggled with was the fault not of him but the people around him. He needed to swim with like-minded individuals to recover. He needed the Oculus Institute.

Mahoney lowered the pamphlet. “Guys, I think I might be the second coming of Isaac Newton.”

Chick snort-chuckled. Dooley smoked irritably, not bothering to make sure the smoke successfully reached the slit of the kitchen’s hopper window.

Mahoney sped through the rest. It was rote, offering tennis courts and Olympic-sized swimming pools in the same breath as operating rooms and shock therapy. Basically a cush hamper to dump your unsightly relatives in until such time as they were ready again for polite society. The pamphlet was signed by one Thurgood Orroft, MD.

“And what do we know about the good Dr. Orroft?”

“Well, for starters he isn’t an MD.” Dooley flicked the ash off his cig with a pinky. “He isn’t M-anything. He’s what you might call a guru. They let him put that on the pamphlet because he’s got rich friends in the right places. I looked into this guy, Mahoney. He’s scary. You remember that senator’s daughter, the one who tried to stop a trolley with her mind and ended up smeared down seventh street?”

Mahoney nodded. The throb in his head was dulling, but it was being replaced with a general tension all over his body. He took another slug.

“He was her ‘therapeutic consultant’. Same with that Olympic diver who aerated his wife with buckshot. Or that chessmaster who took a knife to his handlers to see if they were real people or life-sized chess pieces. All graduates of the same laughing academy.” Dooley drifted over to the bed. “Look, whatever I can say to convince you this is a bad idea, I’ll use it. Religion, money, anything. I’ve been in the same room as killers and dictators and this guy scares white into my hair. Say you’ll wait. Say you won’t go in. What fare are you getting that’s worth all the trouble?”

Mahoney squeezed his eyes shut. “Nothing you’d understand. I just…I have to. It has to be me, and it has to be there.”

Dooley growled through his nose, stamping the life out of his latest cigarette. “All right, Mahoney. All right.”

 

Like all good supervillain lairs, the Oculus Institute sat atop a seaside cliff. Mahoney, his hair slicked to the side with borrowed pomade and wearing a suit he’d only worn once before, to a funeral, drove a dummy car up the front drive. There was no gate, an oddity in such a place. Mahoney tried to contain his sense of foreboding as he drove past thick cypress hedges and up to the front of the white stone building.

A female attendant was waiting for him. The uniform for the place was the same green as the pamphlet. The girl’s set came with a headdress that brought to mind Red Cross nurses from the war. Her eyes were at half-mast, her unsmiling face held no makeup.

“Mr. French?” Her voice was flat.

Mahoney tried to smile like someone else and ended up thrusting his chin out awkwardly. “That’s me, Harold French. Friends call me Harry.”

The girl said nothing. Mahoney realized she was waiting for him to get out of the car, so he scrambled.

“You are here of your own free will, yes?” Her diction was stilted, as if English wasn’t her first language and she had memorized her script by rote.

“Committing myself? Boy howdy. The office tells me—”

“You will be apprised of our going rates,” the girl continued smoothly as they crossed the threshold and into a very spartan hallway. It was as if someone had put a hotel front on a prison. The hall was unglamorous and identical to any number of buildings in the city, save for a series of canvases that hung the length of the hall. Mahoney tried to contain a rapidly blooming sense of unease as he walked past them. Even before he saw the cursive dash of “R.Rousseau” in the corner, he knew they were the late artist’s product by the sheer anarchy of the brushwork. These were cruder, possibly done early in his manic period. One canvas depicted an empty sidewalk that looked very much like the front of the Jackson Memorial hall. Another showed a bungalow crouched among weeds and creepers like a fleeing crab. Another showed a lonely house on a hill, Miss Bianchi’s mansion. Mahoney realized with a jolt that they were all places he had visited. He swung around to look at the others, got a glimpse of a lonely alley populated by an overturned trash can and an empty refrigerator turned on its side and used as a makeshift house, before the buzzer for the interior door sounded. The girl was through and gone before  Mahoney realized he’d lagged, and skipped to catch up.

The girl strode down the hallway as if she ran on a greased track, smoothly and efficiently so her green smock didn’t so much as crease. There was art on the hallway walls in here, too, every three doors or so. All the same portrait. Unlike the front hall, this painting was done by an artist who seemed afraid of its subject, and not without reason. The subject of the painting, a man with thick-rim glasses and a glowing bald pate, seemed to stare through the canvas. His face was empty of human emotion in a way that made the air around the painting seem a few degrees colder. It was the kind of face that could watch an opera or an execution and be equally unmoved. A brass plate below the frame read: “our founder.”

“The pamphlet listed our facilities,” the girl spoke monotonously, indicating the doors that lined the hallway with a hand. None of them were marked. “We have much more than what is available at the surface level, of course. All will be revealed in time. But not before your test.”

Mahoney spoke up. “Ah yes, I brought the results of my last physical, three months ago. No need.”

The girl looked at him, and the look knew things. Mahoney slowed his pace. A sudden bolt back down the hallway was only stymied by the automatic door, which had closed on his heels.

“You will be tested,” she said flatly.

Mahoney hunkered down and tried to breathe calmly. When the hall t-boned, the girl went left. Mahoney ran right.

Of course, escape was all but impossible. The windows he had seen from the outside didn’t seem capable of opening, and he doubted the place had a laundry chute handy for sliding down. He jogged around another right turn and met with an identical stretch of hallway. Thurgood Orroft glared down at him. Maybe this was why the grounds were unfenced, the place was practically a fortress. Each patient suite a cloistered cell accessible only from the outside, soundproofed, with a drain in the floor for easy cleaning. He rounded another right turn at a slightly quicker pace. If he could only get his hands on something sharp, maybe he could take a prisoner and negotiate his way out.

Mahoney slowed, stopping in the middle of the immaculate hallway.

He had turned right three times. Jogged about the same distance the every time. By all rights, he should be back where he started.

Mahoney started to perspire.

Easing into a light jog, he vowed to turn left at the next junction. That never came. Instead, he was stuck jogging down a series of identical right turns. When he finally ran back into the girl, flanked by burly young men in green scrubs, it was almost a relief.

Mahoney crouched and put his hands on his knees, winded. “Mulligan?”

The girl blinked. The men surged from around her like a green river and converged on Mahoney. He was seized in several places and carted bodily off down the hall.

“Your test lies this way, Mr. Mahoney,” the girl said flatly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Mahoney tried not to show shock. “Why are you calling me that?”

“We were told to expect you.” The girl stopped at a door identical to the ones around it and took out a large ring of keys. “Your vision test will be in this room.”

What lay behind the door was not a sterile white examination room as he’d expected, but a cold bare-stone interior about as homey as the face of the moon. Something he couldn’t call anything besides an altar sat in the middle of the room. A lens of thick, mottled green glass sat in a fork of carved soapstone, a strange sort of cradle just in front of it. Mahoney was given one blissful second of ignorance at its function before he was thrown, bodily, over it.

The girl watched with hooded eyes as they shackled his limbs beneath the cradle, leaving him lying prone on his stomach with his chin in a leather sling. The lens gleamed just before his face. The girl gave the glass a slight tilt, making all the shadows on the other side of it reverse. And suddenly he knew. He knew.

Mahoney fought. One of the wrist restraints pulled out of the stone after a few wrenches. This earned him a haymaker to the shoulder and a dizzying moment of pain. An orderly sat on his arm.

“We usually save the seeing glass for brothers of the leaves,” the girl continued, “they must graduate through several levels of mindfulness and discussion. Their minds widened before the glass helps them to truly see. You are the exception.”

Mahoney clenched his eyes shut and turned his head. A thick, muscular hand forced him to face forward. Two sets of fingers pried his eyelids open.

Above him, emotionless, pitiless, the girl stared down. Mahoney realized he hadn’t seen her blink the whole time he’d been here. His own eyes burned.

“Look into the glass Mahoney. It’s what you’re here for.”

Mahoney looked.

Mahoney screamed.

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The Shambling Detective 4: The Mad Maestro

It would have fit the list of horror cliches if the shelf in the school library had been empty. But no, in the 805 section, there was the entire run of the literary magazine. It took some trial and error to find the edition with The Lady in the Yellow Veil, but he eventually found it. Mahoney wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but the text still came as an unpleasant jolt:

She wore a saffron-colored bolt of opaque silk that completely covered her face. The dress she wore was aubergine, her jewelry was tastefully dark. A pigeon’s blood ruby winked from one hand, a black opal—

Mahoney let the volume drop in an exhale. Felt like he’d been hit in the solar plexus. The business with the yellow sign he could almost write off. More of an annoyance than anything else. But this…

This…

Mahoney speed-read through the piece. The woman in the yellow veil was an unannounced visitor in the nameless narrator’s parlor. Decorum prevented him from asking her name, or if they were even acquaintances, and they spent the evening in cryptic conversation. The narrator awoke the next morning not sure if the encounter was a dream or not, only to find the yellow veil balled tightly in his fist.

Mahoney rummaged around and found another edition with a Ben Zoma story: The Doomed Detective. As he flicked through pages, something fell out. He opened the magazine to the obstruction and found himself in the last pages of the story:

He ground fists into his eyes in denial of what could not, must not be. He was a man, solid and real, with a past and present and future. If he thought very hard, perhaps, perhaps—

Mahoney picked out the loose piece of paper that had marked the page. It was an end-leaf from a book, one side was fancy marbled pattern. The other held a crazed scrawl that scrabbled at every bit of space it could. The end comes, it read, and I am powerless to stop anything. I have lived not a life but a trick done cunningly out of sight. It follows with every step, like the flap of wings from a great bird. Death would be a pardon. Arty was wrong, it cannot be put asunder, it cannot be stopped. With each blink I am drawn closer and closer to the end. My prison is a ladder that climbs endlessly upward, rung by rung by rung by rung—

Mahoney blinked heavy and put down the paper to rub his eyes. A sudden vertigo had overtaken him. He’d once been sent a beautifully lacquered straight razor in an enamel case, the edge tinged with just the barest rouge of blood. This seemed like a far more oblique and looming threat.

Mahoney turned over the list of title that Briggs had given him. On the reverse side was a series of names he struggled to make sense of until one clicked for him: De Vermis Mysteriis. It was a secret catalog, listing the school’s unmentionable books.

The scowling librarian pointed him to a discreet telephone booth with accordian doors that very nearly didn’t allow him to close them. He prayed Dooley was at his desk and in a listening mood.

Three rings. Dooley picked up with a bored, “hullo?”

“Dooley, does this sound familiar to you: Al Azif?”

There was a long moment of dead air. He was almost sure Dooley had hung up, but then his voice sounded again:

“Where’d you hear that name?”

“What about De Vermis Mysteriis? The Book of Eibon? They seem like light reading?”

“Mahoney?” Deep breath on the line. “I think you’re out of your depth.”

“That’s what the rent-a-cops told me.”

“Mahoney, I’ve checked, that neighborhood doesn’t retain a private security force. Half those houses aren’t even rented out. I need you to quit, for your own damn sake.”

“I can’t.”

“For god’s sake, why?”

“Couldn’t tell you.”

“Is it money? Drugs? Tell me and I can help.”

“Nothing like that.” Mahoney looked over his shoulder at the reference desk, where the librarian was working the date stamp like an executioner’s sword. “The case found me, and now it won’t let me go. I wish I could explain it better—”

“Roger that.” Dooley sucked air over his teeth. “I’ve been calling around. One of SikorskI’s last projects was an opera stage for his friend Vladimirovitch.”

“I heard. A lot of fancy noise.”

“Not half of it, my friend. Vladimirovitch was working on a masterpiece too. A concerto that doubled as some kind of apocalyptic ritual: dancing maidens, chanting, all that jazz. My source said it was intended to bring about the end by burning the roof of the world. He wanted Sikorski to build him a retreat in the mountains where it could be held properly. Sikoski’s self-surgery put paid to that. Vladimirovitch was forced to air parts of the concerto to backers as an attempt to get another builder. They rioted. That’s when he applied the razor to his throat”

Mahoney swallowed. The air seemed very stale in the booth, but he had gained a sudden agoraphobia.

“I’ll need a source on that, if you please.”

“His lead soprano, Sophia Bianchi. Get this, she wants to talk to you.”

Mahoney shivered. Sweat had started up on his neck and forehead. “Why? How does she know who I am?”

“I don’t know, I just mentioned someone was investigating the deaths, and she asked to meet with you. Her place is up in the hills, I’m sure you know it. The big fancy cake box Sikorski designed. I’ll give you directions.”

 

The people that lived in the canyon liked to think they were monied and idle. The people who lived in the hills knew they were. Mahoney drove a single-lane road that bit into the hills like a sheep trail but functioned like an overlong driveway to several residences. The landscape was a dusty shag carpet, with the odd broccoli stalk of an oak dropped to gather pet dander. It could very well be mistaken for state land until you ran across a mansion that pretended to be something it wasn’t. He passed by english estates, a Sri Lankan palace, some ultra-modern place that looked like a crumpled bit of foil, before arriving at the Bianchi house.

Braking, Mahoney climbed from his car to goggle. Sikorski had skill, no doubt about it. The place had the fairytale scrolling of a european palace, it stood out unreal against the countryside.

There was no gate. Mahoney drove carefully up to the main house, eye out for errant security men. The ground was empty, save for peacocks that roamed the pathetic attempt at a lawn. Mahoney parked and climbed out. The front door looked as heavy as a siege gate, no doorbell. Before his fist could make contact with the wood, it pulled open. An older man in a butler’s uniform blinked at Mahoney with watery eyes.

“She is expecting you,” he said.

Mahoney flop-sweated. “Okay. Ah. My car, should I pull around—”

“No need, sir. You won’t be here that long.”

Mahoney didn’t know that he liked the sound of that. He was guided along a hallway with chintz drapes and heavily embossed wallpaper. Every surface seemed to crawl when his eye wasn’t on it, not a very comforting sensation.

Sophia was sat at a piano, staring out a massive bay window. The piano was shuttered and she was sidesaddle on the bench.

“Madam, detective Mahoney.”

Sophia turned, bringing the rest of her face with her. Mahoney clamped down on every muscle, trying very hard not to show shock.

A generous portion of her face was scar. Her left eye had melted into a cigarette paper-burn, the skin there was shiny and pink.

“Mister Mahoney?” Her voice was smokey, with jewel tones. Suddenly he could distract himself from her appearance.

He proffered his hand. She slid hers in and accepted a kiss to the back.

“I’m not sure how much my associate told you,” he said haltingly.

Sophia waved, a superbly graceful gesture. “I have heard things about you. Some true. Some not. That is not the purpose of this visit. You wish me to enlighten you about the maestro?”

“Artyom Vladimirovitch? Please. Anything you could.”

Sophia looked out the window. If you saw only the right half of her face, you saw a work of art. Dramatic arching eyebrows, dignified nose, and a pout like a Venus statue. Mahoney’s mind wandered at what possibly could have damaged this lovely creature. How she even went out in the daytime. A niggling, nagging thought burrowed to the surface.

“Miss Bianchi,” he said, “do you perhaps own a yellow veil?”

She looked at him, bemused. She played innocent well. Besides, her voice had a european tint to it that she never fully escaped, not at all like the east coast inflections of his mysterious visitor.

“Never mind,” he said, “proceed at your own pace.”

Sophia sighed. Even that was musical. “Artyom was genius unmatched. Many great men pursue vices in search of their goal, he was no different. He pursued many unlawful avenues of creative inspiration in the past.”

“You mean…things like illicit substances?” Mahoney asked delicately.

“Powders and pills. He never slept more than a few hours a night. He could be beastly, violent with anyone regardless of their station,. And yet those who worked under him would have died for him.” Sophia touched her breastbone. The bosom of her dress held a brooch made from the shell of a nautilus sliced laterally, revealing many pearly chambers. “When he joined the brotherhood, we thought he’d found recourse from his vices. Wisdom instead of chemical highs. And for a time, it was all true. He began creation of the great work, his magnum opus.”

“And it was an opera, correct?”

Sophia smiled, sphinxlike. “Part opera. Part concerto. Part ballet. An event. Dear Robin was contracted to paint backgrounds. Milo was to construct the venue. But Artyom could not find anyone to write the book…”

“…until James Gillman?” Mahoney ventured.

Sophia’s mouth gathered into a frown. “Gillman was not as cooperative as the others. He dragged his feet endlessly, setting the production back months. He was still undecided when Milosz and Artyom had their…disagreement.”

“Those two?”

“It’s the old cliche: artistic differences. Milosz thought the world should be saved. Artyom wanted the world ruined. They fell out so drastically, Milosz’s delicate constitution was wrecked. I spoke to him before he died, you know. He was quite fond of me, because I was the only person to truly appreciate his architecture while inhabiting it. He rang me one night, begged me to confirm that he was real. I invited him over, of course, but he declined. What happened after that I’m sure you know.”

Mahoney tapped his pencil on the tangled mess he’d already written. Why couldn’t anyone in this town die like a regular person?

“How did the maestro take it?”

“Oh, quite hard. Milosz had not begun construction on the venue, Artyom was convinced he was the only one who could do it. And he was right.”

“I see.” Mahoney scribbled that down. “And when he had to screen his music to financial backers, that was when he killed himself?”

Sophia frowned prettily again. “I’m not sure where you got that innuendo, but it is entirely false, detective. Artyom’s killer was disappointment. After a public screening that garnered a very visceral reaction, he realized that his music would never be understood by anyone, not the common masses, not by his peers. His concerto worked on the power of belief. And if no one can believe you, well…”

Mahoney cleared his throat. “I was told that James Gillman and Milosz Sikorski met at a certain sanitarium. Would I be wrong in assuming—”

“Artyom went there, yes. For his substance problem. That was where he found something much greater than any pill. He came back brimming with ideas.” Sophia turned and pulled a cord that disappeared into the wall. “My butler will give you the address.”

Mahoney stood. “Thank you so much, Miss Bianchi….if you don’t mind my asking, was the public screening when…?” he gestured at her.

She pet the hair away from the ruined half of her face. “Artyom was unsatisfied with my performance. Again and again, he chastised me for being unable to reach the heights he needed. He decided I was too distracted by the physical to reach the ethereal realm, if only I could be cut free from my vanity. He took up a small quantity of oil of vitriol…”

Mahoney tried not to stare. “He did this to you on purpose?”

Sophia nodded. “They were only just able to save the sight in my right eye. If he had gotten his way I would be fully blind.”

Mahoney’s mouth worked, trying to construct words. “You don’t sound entirely broken up about it, Miss Bianchi.”

She looked mildly surprised. “Oh, but he was right. Once I emerged from the bandages, my voice could soar to heights it had previously refused.” She tilted her head back and let loose.

Gooseflesh formed on Mahoney’s arms. It was like whale song, or the magnetic whine of the Aurora Borealis. Dark and deep, not something that should come from a human throat. Sophia’s lips met in a cupid’s bow, but the air remained pregnant with reverb of her last, haunting note.

She stared at Mahoney. “True art can only be achieved by shedding what is accepted to be reality. This is something all artists must come to terms with. Here—” she beckoned him over to a corner of the room where a curtain hung, servicing no window.

“My house was built early in Milosz’s career,” she said, pulling the sash, “but even still, his brilliance shone through. Here.” she took Mahoney’s hand and put it to the surface.

It was a column. Exactly round, stood in the corner as more of an aesthetic touch than a structural necessity. Mahoney’s eyes followed it to the ceiling—

—where a plant in a raffia swing hung in the middle of it. Mahoney slid his eyes up and down, up and down, but could find no seam, no place of transition from convex to concave. It was a pillar until it suddenly wasn’t. He was sick again.

“Please excuse me,” he said to Sophia.

He just barely made it outside before heaving the contents of his stomach out near an upset peacock.

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