The Machine of Wester Moorley (§.02)

§.02

Albrecht shoveled the jam-and-butter-slathered bread into his mouth as Otto consulted a small glass of whiskey. Otto sipped and gestured to the jellied-roll on the engineer’s plate.

“You’re lucky. We’re nearly at the last of it.”

“Of the bread you mean?”

Otto nodded and held up the glass, swirling the amber liquid.

“Bread and whiskey both. Grain don’t grow out here no more, barley neither, and even if it did, we ain’t got no distillery. Have to order a new shipment soon. Place is dryer than a lizard’s backside…”

“Drought is worse than the papers made out.”

Again Otto nodded.

“Far worse. Situation’s been making folk a little crazy—those that’ve stayed, anyways.”

“Crazy—how so?”

Otto screwed up his face and looked out the window of the crowdless diner. A old, wrinkled woman, the owner, brought them coffee and hashbrowns and beans and forced a smile and departed without a word. Nervous. When she’d gone Otto returned his attention to the engineer, his voice low, barely above a whisper.

“Folk ain’t rightly religious in this town. Might call um superstitious. See, the drought started round the same time ole Wester Moorley came to town, fifteen years ago. Well, some of the old-timers came to believe that Ole Moorley had something to do with the drought. Blamed it on him. For the death of their crops. Their cattle. The heat. For losing their homes. For needing to move. For near everything whats gone wrong.”

“Why’d they blame him?”

“He’s a machinist. Folk round here don’t like machines. Besides, he’s a strange fellow. Keeps to himself, shut up in his homestead out to the north, just beyond town. Always tinkering away on some contraption or another. Won’t see nobody. Nobody but Mara—Henry the shopkeeper’s—daughter and a few’a the folk what come to believe he alone can save this place after the oil dried up and the pipelines failed. Don’t come to town no more. Sends Mara to pick up what he needs from the grocer. Well… folk naturally got curious. Asked Mara what all Ole Moorley was getting up to in that tumbledown out in the nowheres. Says she don’t know nothing and that make folk suspicious. Folk started thinking that one of them queer machines a’his lies at the bottom of it; others thought him a sorcerer, and that the machines were just a ruse to mask ritual sacrifice. Some have said they seen him slip out in the dead of night and return with a cattle skull. Now, I’m not keen on rumor-mongering. I ain’t. Find it downright distasteful. But I caint help but hear. Caint pocket my ears. I’m telling you cause you’ll hear it from someone else, sooner or later. I don’t know much what to think of it all myself, just want you to understand how things stand hereabouts.”

Brandt, furrow-browed and frowning slight, nodded, processing the information and filing it away in the crystalline corridors of his mind.

“I appreciate the edification. Far as I can figure though, I’ll be in and out soon as the pipes are laid and the water-tower is up.”

*

The Machine of Wester Moorley (§.01)

§.01

The barton of Nilreb sat upon a dry, razored plain, encircled by high and jagged mountains of reddish-beige stone that looked from afar like the fangs of some ancient and gargantuan beast. Only one road let in from the outer world to that wasted space and upon it, a lone man strode, a thin and handsome sort, with sharp, inquisitive features and clothing, neatly tailored but faded by the travails of lengthy passage. At his side was a large leather satchel and about his head, a misshapen hat which shaded bright blue eyes that scoured the cracked and inhospitable plane for any sign of life. He carried a plain white parasol in his leather-gloved left-hand and a smoldering Turkish cigarette in his right. Momentarily, he paused, cigarette dangling from his lips, ashes dancing on the wind, and removed a small, leather journal and mechanical pen from his right waistcoat pocket and made a few deft strokes upon the page, noting the humidity and temperature and sketching the plain before closing the book, pocketing it and taking a long drag as the wind threw sand across the truant’s boots, uncovering the skeleton of a steer, sun-bleached and wind-polished, glistening porcelain-white upon the ground, acrid as the bright and searing sky. He stopped and stared at the remnants, half-entombed by windblown earth and then returned his attention to the road and the distance beyond it.

In thrall to the heat, the horizon writhed like the nuchal organs of a feasting polychaete. The itinerant squinted against the hazebright, finding a shifting series of shapes in artificial sprawl beyond the toothy, ancient rocks surrounding. An acrid hamlet lay some half-hour off, tucked away in a depressed and craggy reach to the north.

When the man arrived at the outskirts moved cautiously between creaking, wooden structures whose stripped and unvarnished composition suggested recent abandonment. So dusty and worn were they that the itinerant feared they might collapse at the slightest gust.

The wayfarer peered through window after window and was, time after time, greeted by empty rooms.

After some ten minutes of fruitless wandering, a voice sounded from the rambler’s immediate left. Hoarse and matter-of-fact.

“Place isn’t worth looting—if that’s what’s on your mind.”

The itinerant went stiff with fright and spun to behold a stern, middle-aged man with a long, ugly scar upon his face.

“You’re mistaken, sir. I’m a engineer. Albrecht Brandt. Pleased to meet you.”

“Funny name.”

“So I’ve been told, sir.”

“You that fella the mayor brung in?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“Names Otto.” The man extended a hand, “I work with the mayor. Had I known you’d be here so soon, I’d have sent someone to the train station to pick ya up.”

“That’s quite alright. Wasn’t quite as long of a trek as I’d thought it would be,” He paused a moment and looked around in perplexity, “Where is everyone?”

“Folk been leaving on account of the drought. That’s why you’re here. Least one of the reasons. Suppose’n ya wanna see the mayor?”

“I’d be much obliged. But first I should like something to eat, if that were possible.”

Otto nodded, turned, left out and gestured for Albrecht to follow as the wind thrummed in the distance like an airy sepulchre, full-up with the howling of the dead.

*

Bonnie & Clyde 2059

Assault lasers illuminate the Moon’s black sky. A shattered colony dome leaks oxygen as bodies flush into the vacuum of space. Another Luna Federation Agent shot dead, another shopkeeper-bot stumbles to die in a pile of its own liquefied processors.

Flashes of green and blue blistered from under the batwing doors of a supercharged stealth-rover. Droplets of blood forming and dancing in zero gravity outside the site of the latest in a string of robberies across Earth’s Moon.

In the expertly driven truck, a hardened, thin-faced youth, his hair matted with pomade, fires a Browning laser-rifle during the getaway. His accomplice, a deadly accurate side-gunner and thief, a striking beauty with crimson color-change-curls, usually smoking a cigarette, scanned their six, firing another machine laser, spraying green bolts to deter a pursuit. 

The newly liberated nation of Tranquillitatis has been struck by violence again, for the 8th time this lunar year. Two brazen individuals, assuming the identity of Clyde Barrow & Bonnie Parker, embarked on a year-long crime spree, have hit another helium deposit and cryptocurrency mining firm. 

Struggling to build a peaceful, prosperous, and safe nation after their Great Civil War, this latest murder of a Luna Fed agent, and large scale helium robbery is especially embarrassing. At a rover checkpoint between Mare Serenitatis and Dorsa Smirnov, Luna Federation agent, Kingston Jack, was shot between the eyes, straight through his space helmet, by a calm, cigarette smoking Bonnie, as the pair pulled to stop for the police barricade. 

Jack, 110 years old, made the fatal error of leaning his head under the couple’s Tesla T Rover’s batwing doors, in an attempt to question the young drivers masked in a cloud of smoke. 

Their criminality began last year, when a string of snail and mushroom farmers living near the original Apollo landings began reporting robberies and missing equipment. The largest lunar colony in the area, known as Armstrong Prime, became the site of their first openly brazen heist. 

In The M-Voss CrytpoExchange on Washington Avenue, they shot and killed 4 guards, making off with over 1,000 Bitcoins, and various fractions of other alt-coins. The pair then briefly paused at a nearby bar, Torchy’s, to also rob some imported-from-Earth alcohol. Weighed down by their haul, the young hoodlums escaped in their camo-painted Tesla T, wings up, lasers blasting. 

Apparently, the dangerous lovers reunited after small stints in separate lunar prisons. Clyde, originally known as Charles McRay, was sent away for stealing nitrogen and small artifacts from neighboring colony pods.

Age 13.

Bonnie, formerly Molly Xoa, sent away for withholding information about a murder involving a prominent Tranquillitatis Diplomat’s son.

She was 11. 

Together, the self proclaimed new Bonnie and Clyde, are wanted for 27 murders, and countless robberies, kidnappings, network hackings, malware attacks, and laser battles inside pressurized colony domes with Luna Fed agents and local municipality police forces. 

Bonnie, the titian-haired gunner, seems quite proud of her accuracy, as the laser pistol she uses shows a nifty digital display, tracking her hit percentage, and of course, number of headshots. At the time of publication, the counter read 7. Clyde usually handles the navigation computer, or manual guide stick when necessary, as Bonnie covers their daring exits. 

So far this month they have struck several small targets, refueling center, parts labs, and various farms and storage houses. The smoke, or alcho-bars, they treat as way stations and safe houses, always acting like Robin Hood dispensing stolen cryptocurrency, either in food rations and drink, or direct payment. 

In response to this latest killings of one of their own well loved agents, Tranquillitatis F.B.I are said to have laid roadblocks, as well deploying drone swarms to hunt and destroy the dangerous outlaws. But, as Bonnie & Clyde roll around in a stealth T Rover, with reinforced spiderweb Kevlar, a hacked driving computer, and bat wing doors that fly up as the start shooting starts, there may not be a more unstoppable force on the face of the Moon. 

A victim of the deranged, yet charming criminals, was released after a brief kidnapping that aided in their escape after the slaying of agent Jack. Another agent, who was working the checkpoint with Jack, Martin Shelly, was dropped at a small refueling outpost unharmed. 

Upon his rescue, he stated, “She told me no nice girl smokes cigars. Also, they told me to loose some weight.” After shaking his head for nearly one whole minute during his mental press conference, the Tranquillitatis agent went on to say, “When I was tied up in the back seat, she kept saying something about death and the wages of sin. I don’t know. But I swear, I am going to capture those little moonrats. Dead or alive.” 

Agent Shelly’s quote was later redacted by Federal authorities, saying the agent only meant to think dead or alive, not mentally broadcast his own personal opinion, which is understandable given the agent’s recent trauma, or so says the Tranquillitatis Fed Press Corps. 

After an explosive riot caused by co-conspirators working on the inside of the Hartford Lunar Prison, and the subsequent escape of over 100 high level convicts aided by Bonnie and Clyde, induced the Commonwealth of Colonies to offer up a 1,000,000,000 $M$ reward, in Tranquillitatis Goldbacks, for the capture of “the most dangerous desperadoes on the Moon.” 

Public opinion is split, as many colonists on the Moon sympathize with these hard scrabble youth, their rebelliousness, fearlessness. And, Luna Citizens may even be envious of their quick trigger fingers. Bonnie and Clyde were outcasts, colonist orphans, a burden on a hostile rock. 

A young Clyde, reported to refrain, “They may hate us together, but they can’t stop us.” While Bonnie has used her celebrity to call out local police and political figures, “You’re hardly doing your job. You ought to be home protecting the rights of poor folks, not out chasing after us!” 

These young members of a burgeoning new nation on the Moon are seen as Tranquillitatis’ dark side, a perfect example of Luna Craziness, otherwise known as Space Madness, an often cited reason Earth politicians do not want those on the Moon to govern themselves. But perhaps, these two criminal kids have grown too fast, seen too much, private prison abuse, murder, rape, kidnapping. All before 15 years of age.

Tranquillitatis Sheriffs have been more brazen in there intentions, “We’re shooting to kill, I’ll tell you that.” So informed us, Mare Serenitatis Sheriff, Weolo Manchester. “The John Dillinger Bot Gang is unimpressed with these two school children, playing a very dangerous game, and I have to say that I for once in my life agree with a criminal robot.” He went on to describe the latest activity and progress by Federal and Local law enforcement. 

“These criminal terrorists will get hunted down. They just struck near here, on Montes Caucasus, hitting another local cryptomining vault. 100,000 supercomputers at near zero gravity, in the cold of space. Supercharged AI assisted algorithmic mining. You can see why it was such a tempting target. It has been reported that The Bonnie & Clyde gang siphoned off millions. Information about their next target has been telepathically leaked, and Tranquillitatis agents are in pursuit. There has been a warning issued to remain indoors and be on the lookout for the young couple with well manicured hair. Last seen heading toward the penal colony near Lons Vista 7. And again, rumor has it, to free their siblings and friends held there in the work camps…” 

The Sheriffs mental press conference was cut short, local programming resumed. Here in Armstrong Prime, at a local coffee shop, the patrons can be heard discussing the youthful bandit couple, speaking in hushed tones of reverence about the duo’s vow, they will not be taken alive. 

My sources here on the Moon, with access to Tranquillitatis Police and Governmental RSS feeds, have informed us that the stealth Tesla T was last seen visible for just a moment on the route 99 darkside highway, between New Vegas, and Lacus Somniorum. 

Witness reports from automated vehicles traveling in the same direction describe the vehicle as a leopard striped floating affair, bat wings up, Clyde in the front seat, cigar and Browning Laser Rifle in hand. Bonnie, cigarette and pistol. Their doors were seen closing, and the vehicle vanishing into the charcoal horizon toward the Lons Vista 7 Penal Colony. 


 

The Dead of Venice (1914)

By Dan Klefstad


She promised to do it quickly. I promised to stay out of sight. All bodies float, which is why I brought two anchors – one for me, one for her victim. All she need do is throw us in, then the chainsfollowed by the weights. This far out the lagoon is forty feet deep, maybe fifty. From down there our lifeless ears might still enjoy the sounds of Vivaldi performed in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Just as likely, we’ll hear the rattle of Europe’s emperors as they prepare – once again — to exterminate a generation of working class blokes like me. As I row, I point to Italy’s newest battleship which dares to keep its lights on; perfect target for a night raid. I ignore that bit as I play the tour guide for Fiona and tonight’s meal. “The Regina Elena. Faster than the HMS Dreadnought wot I helped build. Yup, this next war looks to be a doozie.” 

In the lamplight, Fiona toys with the gold dragonfly I pinned to her ball gown. I can see her eyes well up and her mouth tremble. Lorenzo, heir to the Duke of Parma, raises his fist at the glowing gunboat. “Viva l’Italia!” 

Toff. What does he know of war? I served in the Tibetan campaign, so I know it’s a nasty business for those who actually fight. I want to hit him now but we’re still within sight of ship and shore. Looking back, I see a city of free spirits being hemmed in by sandbags and barbed wire. Bloody hell, when did the Four Horses of the Quadriga flee the Basilica?  Someone said the statue might go to Rome for safe keeping. From what — So the Turks can’t take it back? 

I suppose I owe you an explanation as to why three people are in a boat, after dark, and two of them will soon head to the bottom. Hang on: The young swell is giving Fiona his kerchief. Blimey, he even recites a Shakespeare sonnet – in English. She tries to smile but struggles to contain her thirsty teeth and, guessing here, a broken heart? Concern for her future? Both hands cover her mouth as she leans forward, shoulders quaking. This exposes her breasts which prove such a distraction that Lorenzo misses the oars resting and the blackjack falling toward his scalp. I wanted to wait ‘til a hundred yards off the Main Island, our usual point, but the fog rolled in so … Boom. Done. Colazione is ready. 

uncork my wine and try not to stare as she sinks her canines into his neck. It always amazes me how efficient she is. No wasted drops. Her lips move gently as she slowly sucks him dry. I’ve never timed her, but bottle and body usually empty together. Then I chain him to the anchor and over he goes. The rest – hundreds of them – are a little further out in what I call “the cheap seats.” This will be my final resting place. I can barely stop my tears now, but they’re not for me. Creatures like her are vulnerable these days. She’ll need someone to look after her, but my pain is almost debilitating now; I couldn’t arrange a replacement. 

I take another sip and remember how our partnership began with an ad in the Daily Mail 

“Seeking Personal Assistant. Must be physically strong, and willing to work all hours. Compensation: copious. Benefits: worthy of a parliamentarian. Nota bene — People with the following characteristics should not apply: squeamish, weak-willed, illiterate, semi-literate, religious, superstitious, melancholic, alcoholic, xenophobic, agoraphobic, unimaginative, uninventive, uninspired, and with rigid moral standards.” 

I had to look up Nota Bene and, if pressed, would cop to some grumpiness without a few pints each night. But I posted a reply. Benefits worthy of a parliamentarian. What did that mean?

***

We met soon after sundown in Hampstead Heath, at the gazebo. I wore a suit that no longer fit and she wore a dress that barely contained her bosom. Her coal black hair waved gently across the palest shoulders I’ve ever seen. I thought she was a courtesan looking for some muscle, and she did nothing to dispel that notion. She gave me money to hire a carriage which took us to Charing Cross. We stopped outside a row of fancy homes and that’s when she turned and handed me the dragonfly. All that gold with emerald eyes; I couldn’t guess the value of this “down payment” as she called it. Then she lowered her voice and — without blinking — said, “A gentleman lives there. I am going to drink his blood and he will die. Your job is to wait in this carriage until I return. If you tell anyone what I just said I will know, and I’ll come after you to reclaim my dragonfly. And you. If, on the other hand, you wait as instructed, I will pay a handsome sum. But first you’ll need to get rid of the body. Think of a place to bury him. And start thinking of places for tomorrow night, and every night. Welcome to your new career.”

***

She didn’t tell me for a week that I was her first. Guardian, I mean. Or caretaker or whatever you call someone that works for a … Whoops, not supposed to say that word. Anyways, from backbreaking work in a shipyard I started breaking my back for Fiona, digging graves and such. That first week I made more than all the previous year and a half. I quit that job — Hello new job — and soon graduated to being the murderer. Things were getting hot for Fiona, what with Scotland Yard improving their detection and all. She needed someone to do the dirty work, which I didn’t mind. I killed before, but it always bothered me that the people you shoot, stab, or blow up often go to waste. You seal them in a coffin or burn them and that’s it; they serve no further purpose. These days, when a body goes limp in my hands, I know it’s about to give life. 

She looks ravishing afterwards. Her hair gets full and wavy. Her skin glows like the moon. And her eyes – you could drown in them, they’re like a clear lake with a bottom so deep, so full of secrets that you’d need to swim forever to discover them. It’s the opposite, though, when she doesn’t get her ten pints. That’s the nightly quota. The first night without a victim is bad, but her hair starts to fall out on the second. Then her skin wrinkles and begins to smell, and her eyes harden to the point where I think she’d eat an entire schoolyard of children. I work very hard to make sure I never see that look again.

***

“We have to move,” she announced one night. “Detectives, newspapers – I feel like we’re surrounded. Did you know Venice has lots of people and very few policemen? It’s also easier to get rid of bodies there.” 

“Where will I dig? It’s a city built on water,” I said before realizing her point. “Fairly deep water actually, between the islands.” 

“Yes.” She frowned. “The only problem is getting there.” 

Before the night is over, I’m nailing her into a trunk with an unconscious bloke beside her. The journey would take two weeks by ship so she warned me: Some passengers would have to die. When I asked how many, she wouldn’t answer. I think she didn’t know the minimum needed to sustain her. In the end, I tossed three bodies over the rail; we couldn’t risk any more. To this day, I pity that poor bastard that crossed our path after we landed. I did a rum job of subduing him, and Fiona ripped him so terrible that half his blood painted the alley. Absolute horror show. We didn’t have a boat yet, no weights. Just my blackjack smashing his nose, a knock-down drag-out into the alley, and Fiona attacking his throat like a rabid dog. The musical accompaniment, though, was amazing. A lively melody emanated from a church across the street. I’d never heard a string ensemble perform, so I was unprepared for the effect it had. The bowing and plucking lifted my spirits, opened my heart, and stimulated an awareness I’d never felt before. 

A spark of inspiration – Let’s make this disaster look like a Mafia hit. I took my knife, severed his head, and tossed it into the nearest canal. Wouldn’t you know, that did the trick. The next morning, I scoured the papers and saw nothing. No mention of a blood-sprayed alley, headless body, or bobbing face screaming in silent agony – Niente. There was, however, an article about another event on that same street: a review of a concert featuring music by the baroque master Antonio Vivaldi. It said they did five shows a week at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and they always sold out when performing The Four Seasons. 

***

St. Stephen’s became our main hunting ground. Fiona and I surveyed the crowd and she picked the swain who’d leave with her as the musicians stood to rapturous applause. That’s how we claimed the cream of European societyToo bad I won’t see the job through to its finish. Here, off the Piazza San Marco, this dying East-Ender is preparing for his curtain call. I am not even good enough for an emergency snack because the cancer makes my blood smell bad. When she said that, when I realized could serve no further purpose, I replied “Enough. Let’s end it.” 

“Well,” I stand chained to my anchor, “you found me. You’ll find someone else.” I wipe my nose and eyes and lower my head toward her. “I’m ready.” 

Her hands caress my face as her lips melt against mine; I taste a little of bit of Lorenzo. Now our foreheads rest against each other. “You’ll feel a brief shock but no pain. I promise you.” 

“Will I hear the music from St. Stephen’s?” 

“Vivaldi? Yes. And Bach …” 

I nod, tears mingling with hers in a puddle at our feet. She drapes her right hand around the back of my head, stroking my hair, while her left tightens around my chin. “And Corelli … Scarlatti…” 

I close my eyes. 

“… Handel … Monteverdi…” 

I feel the shock but the flash behind my eyelids is a surprise. From inside the boat I hear a series of sobs. Then a splash, followed by a slight wailing sound, which gets wobbly as I sink beneath the waves. Her voice grows fainter and fainter as I take my place among our Venetians. 

Her timing was perfect. The concertmaster is tuning up the ensemble. I hear a pause. Then, glory of glories, they launch into the first movement, La Primavera. Four violins, one viola, a cello and bass fill my ears. Even the bells of the Regina Elena keep time with the bowing. I’ve seen this show dozens of times and never got tired of it. But the water bends the music in ways I couldn’t imagine. Antonio, if you’re in the ground somewhere, find a way to get yourself down here. Your Four Seasons never sounded better. 

Best seats in the house, eh boys? You can thank Fiona for that. Better yet, keep her in your prayers. It’s the least we can do for her. God, what an amazing place to spend eternity. 

###


‘The Dead of Venice’ is a chapter-excerpt from Dan Klefstad’s upcoming novel, ‘Fiona’s Guardians.’

The Caretaker

By Dan Klefstad


Dear Applicant,

Congratulations. Out of hundreds of applications, yours stood out for your “unwavering persistence to get the job done.” Well put! No doubt you will deserve the eight-figure salary and opulent benefits that come with this job. But I must warn you: The more you read, the more my employer will consider you a threat if you decline our offer. If you have no intentions of taking the job, delete this message now before reading further.

This is your final warning: Turn back if you’d rather not devote every day of your prime years to an employer who demands utter secrecy and loyalty. Take a moment to reflect on which is more important – a career that allows for family and vacations, or a mogul’s retirement. To be sure, the job is not all work. Right now, I’m enjoying a 1948 Graham’s port – a gift from my employer and one of the last such bottles in the world. I also have enough money to retire on my own Greek island. I hope you land in a similar place when your time comes. To get there, though, you’ll have to do more than drag your soul through the mud. Your hands will get dirty to the point where they’ll never get clean.

If you’ve read to this point, the job is yours. So, Dear Trainee, it’s time to meet the boss who will give final approval. Wear a suit and tie next Thursday just before midnight. Be courteous but not obsequious, and never say “That’s impossible” or “That goes against my beliefs.” Say this or something similar and everything will end. Abruptly.

I’d also advise you not to stare at her eyes, mouth, or any part of her body. If all goes well, I’ll train you for two weeks. If you’re wondering whether there’s a word for our profession, it’s Păzitor, Romanian for “guardian” or “caretaker.” The only other Romanian word you need to be aware of, but never say, is the peasant noun for our employer and her associates: strigoi. I’m saying it here, once, for instructional purposes. Uttering this could expose your employer to those familiar with Balkan folklore. Moreover, it’s an insult equal to the worst human slurs. Say it and expect a cruel death.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but you must also never say “Undead,” “Nosferatu” (meaning “not dead”), or, “Vampire.”

***

My first employer – not even a century old – lives in the apartment next door. It’s 1986, my sophomore year at college. I haven’t met him yet but see his “roommate” every night returning with a plastic cooler. Around 1:00 a.m., he walks by as I fold laundry downstairs. He never speaks but nods politely. Then one night, covered in blood, he asks when I’ll finish using the last available washer. “Someone tried to rob me but I fought him off. The blood is his,” he smiles. “I’m Ramon.”

Each night after, Ramon says, “Hi” as he walks by. Until the night before my final exams. As usual, I study downstairs while doing my girlfriend’s laundry; she works the night shift at the hospital. But I hate studying so I’m relieved when, an hour before dawn, a stranger enters the room. Wearing a tight vest and tie, he gazes at the period stain on one of Sarah’s panties. Then he hands me a cream-colored envelope that feels ancient. Inside is $300 plus a note and key. “Ramon’s dead. I need you to contact his family. Last name Valenzuela.”

I look up. “Why don’t you do it?”

He looks out the window. “If you don’t know the difference between Camus and Sartre by now, you never will. Am I right?”

“That depends. Are you a philosopher or dressed like one for Halloween?”

He looks like he’s about to rip my head off. Then he takes a deep breath and walks out. “You’re low on iron. Buy some red meat.”

I open the note:

Daniel,

Tell the funeral home to pick up Ramon tomorrow. You, and only you, will let them in. After they leave, lock the door behind you. I’ll collect the key tomorrow night. For this, I’ll pay an additional five hundred. I might even offer full-time work so you can stop pretending to be a student.

Søren Fillenius.

***

The apartment is filled with dark furniture and portraits of nobles. I pull back heavy curtains and tie them to boar’s tusks jutting from the wall. The books on the shelf are leather-bound with gold titles. Most are about the onetime rulers of Carpathian Mountain kingdoms.

A knock on the door. I realize I don’t know which room is Ramon’s, but then I see one of the bedrooms has a lock that bolts from the inside. The opposite door opens easily, and I show the men in. Ramon lies on the bed, arms folded. The nightstand has black-and-white photos of his family.

***

“Next time, make sure you draw the curtains when you leave.” Søren hands me the promised money.

“Does that mean I’m hired?”

“Once you take this job, there’s no quitting.”

“What is the job?”

“You clean the house, buy blood for me, and get two thousand dollars a month.”

The word “blood” would stop many people. But we, Dear Trainee, are a different breed. We focus on the money. “Where do I get this blood?”

“Hospitals mainly. Some are at least an hour away so you’ll take my car. There’s a pick-up schedule on the refrigerator.” Søren waves a bejeweled hand toward Ramon’s room. “You’ll sleep there.”

“I sleep with my girlfriend.”

“Sarah’s fucking a gynecologist. Believe me, you can’t compete.”

“How do you know?”

He frowns at me. I shift my weight to the other foot. “Standard week?”

“Pardon?”

“What days do I have off?”

He laughs and then glares at me. “I’ll tell you when I get a day off.”

***

Søren owns an ’81 Honda Accord which, at 250,000 miles, is nearing its end. While good on gas, it’s far less glamorous than James Mason’s ‘63 Cadillac in Salem’s Lot. For me, Mason is the archetypal caretaker with his bowler hat, silver tipped cane, and three-piece suit. He and his vampire, Kurt Barlow, buy and sell antiques, moving their shop to whatever hunting ground seems most promising:

Barlow & Straker Fine Antiques – Opening Soon

It gives me chills every time I remember it. Not that I completely enjoyed the movie because Straker dies while defending Barlow’s lair — Sorry for the spoiler. In fact, every caretaker in every vampire film dies violently. I think about each of them as I drive east to Chicago or north to Rockford. Søren never buys locally.

“Where’s Clarence?” I ask a stranger at Northwestern Memorial.

“Family emergency. I’m filling in.”

His lab coat has no ID. Clarence is supposed to page me when problems occur. “Who are you?”

“He said you’d be upset.” The stranger takes a case from the refrigerator and opens it. “Ten bags of O negative. That’ll be 15 hundred.”

“No,” I straighten. “I said ten bags of A positive for one thousand.”

“Fuck.” He looks at the bags. “She gets O negative.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. Come back tomorrow.”

§

Fiona

“There’s been a mix-up,” I announce as I enter the apartment.

“I know,” a woman replies. As the door opens, I see her relaxing while Søren empties the remains of last night’s dinner into her glass.

Søren sets down the decanter. “You’ll have to go out again. Call our man at Rockford Memorial.”

“He’s tired, look at him.” Fiona extends her hand as she approaches. I never shook Søren’s so I’m surprised by her icy fingers. She holds on as I try to withdraw. Finally, I relax and look at her – black hair and eyes, red lips, purple gown with a long slit, smooth thigh, black pearls resting above the palest breasts I’ve ever seen. “It’s okay. I’ll get coffee on the road.”

***

I can’t stop thinking about her which is how I miss the classic signs of a dead alternator. The headlights dim before the dials go black. Standing on the shoulder, halfway to Rockford, I’m ready to chuck it in:

“Fuck you, Søren! If you want blood, fly out here and drain me. Here.” I tear open my collar and shout at the stars. “PUT ME OUT OF MY FUCKING MISERY.” A honk reminds me that I strayed into the road. I walk, zombie-like, toward the Amoco station a mile back. This truck stop is busy for a Monday with dozens of rigs parked in front.

“What’ll it be Honey?”

I stare at a menu, trying to look normal. “Just coffee.”

“Cream?”

“Sure.”

“I thought you might be here.” Fiona gathers her gown, exposing an entire thigh as she slides in next to me. I look to see if anyone else saw her come in. Everyone ignores her, even the waitress who reaches across her to deliver my coffee. Suddenly I’m hyper-aware: Here’s the most beautiful woman east of Hollywood, dressed to the nines, and no-one is looking at her. My eyes are still scanning when I finally speak. “It’s not fair if only one of us is visible.”

“You can see me. You can also see my driver who sabotaged tonight’s order.”

“Where?”

“Aston Martin. Center window.”

I see a hulking sports coupe with the steering wheel on the wrong side and a shadow behind it. I put a dollar on the table. “I’ll speak to her.”

“No.” Fiona hands me a foot-long scabbard covered with jewels. I slide out a blade shaped like a boomerang. When I slide it back, Fiona is gone.

***

“Who the fuck are you?” The woman gets out on the right-hand side. “And what are you doing with my Gurkha knife?” She looks into the window. “Where’s Fiona?”

“Fiona says you deliberately screwed up tonight’s order. She’s done with you.”

“Done with me?” She takes out a revolver and taps it against her chest. “You know what I did? I got cancer. That’s why she’s getting rid of me.”

“No Tanya,” Fiona steps through the door. “You’re trying to starve me.”

“Wow, you’re losing weight already.” Tanya aims the gun. “Time to lose some more.” A second later, the gun falls to the ground with a hand attached. Tanya looks at her bloody stump. “What the fffffuck?”

I swing again, cutting through her neck. As her headless body collapses, I stare at the blade, trying to comprehend. Fiona opens the left-side door. “Put her in the trunk and let’s go.”

***

“Watch your speed.”

I look at the dial. “It’s in kilometers.”

“88 and keep it there.” Fiona glances at the trunk and sniffs.

I hold up a flask. “I collected some.”

“She had cancer.”

“You mean, you don’t…”

“You wouldn’t eat meat from a diseased cow, would you?”

“I’m not sure I’d know.” I shift into third. “I’m not sure I know anything anymore.”

Fiona watches the moon over the surrounding farm land. “Harvest moon.” She laughs softly. “Not much of a harvest tonight. That was some fancy knife work.”

“That was a real sharp blade.”

“It’s yours.”

“This too?” I hold up the revolver.

“No. Open it.”

I release the cylinder and see it’s fully loaded. Fiona removes a bullet with her long nails. “Look.” She turns on a light and holds it in front of me.

“Is that wood?”

“Yep.” She tosses it in back.

“Does that… work?”

“I’m not going to find out. We have to ditch the car.”

“What year is this?”

“1969.”

“Now that’s a crime.” I ease off the highway while Fiona punches the cigarette lighter. We stop behind an abandoned barn and she turns her back to me. “Unzip.” I do as she says, exposing a crocheted bustier that looks centuries old.

“Undo me.”

It takes a few minutes to loosen the laces. She pulls the garment away from her as she exits the car. Then she rolls it tight, crushing it with her fingers, and stuffs it in the fuel port. I use the cigarette lighter. As the material ignites, I glance at her large breasts with dead-white nipples.

“Not what you expected, huh?”

I look away. “Sorry.”

“I meant me owning an Aston Martin.”

***

Fiona’s home has soft colors, curved furniture, and silk pillows. But the floor plan is the same as Søren’s: two bedrooms, one bath, small kitchen, large living room – all on the second floor. She stands at the edge of the hallway, wearing a pink kimono with a long-necked bird on one side. Her head rests on the wall.

I rise from the couch. “Do all of you own apartments?”

“We can’t maintain a yard and exterior.” She walks unsteadily toward the couch, accepting my outstretched hand. I sit next to her and notice wrinkles near her eyes and mouth. “How can I help?”

“You know the answer, Daniel.”

“Name the supplier and I’ll get it.”

“They’re not available, thanks to Tanya. We have to move.”

“Where?”

“First I need to eat. Now.”

“There’s a hospital in town.”

“Too risky.”

I pause. “Does it have to be human?”

She scolds me with a look. Chastened, I look at my right arm. “I could spare a pint. Maybe two.”

“I need ten.”

“I could… find a homeless person.”

She nods. “Park down the street when you’re ready.” Her voice is brittle. “I’ll come down.”

***

A woman looks up as I enter the tent village under the bridge. “Ten dollars will feed me and my baby. Can you spare it?”

I step closer. She looks forty but is probably half that, rocking back and forth, scratching bruised, scabby forearms. My eyes focus on a crucifix tattooed on her right hand between her thumb and forefinger. “Where’s your baby?”

“Sleeping. All it takes is twenty to feed a family.”

I point to her jacket. “Those Navy pins, are they yours?”

“Fuck that supposed to mean? Of course they’re mine.”

I point to a patch on her shoulder. “Corpsman?”

Rocking back and forth. “USS Virginia. CGN-38.”

“See any action?”

“October 23rd, 1983.”

“Huh?”

“October 23rd, 1983. Lebanon.”

A demolished building leaps from my memory to the forefront. “The bombing of the Marine barracks.” I pause. “You went ashore for the wounded?”

Rocking back and forth.

“Just curious.”

“YEAH I WENT ASHORE.” She continues rocking. “Tried to save one life and lost three.”

“Hmm.”

“Guy with rebar in his throat was a goner. Shoulda gave him morphine and moved on.”

“Hmm.”

“DO YOU HAVE TWENTY-FIVE OR DON’T YOU?”

I crouch down. “I’ll give you fifty if you take a ride with me.”

Her eyes narrow. “Where?”

“Not far.”

“You’re not a serial killer are you?”

I smile. “Do I look like a serial killer?”

She glances away. “What do you want?”

“What any man desires but can’t get at home.”

She notes the absence of a wedding ring and I can see her struggle. I offer her my other hand, but she bats it away. “Well, good night.” I start walking back.

“Fine. But no rough shit.”

§

Sex, Death & Dentistry

The stolen car is in a secluded lot. During our walk a battle rages in my mind:

“Killing her is a mercy because she’s a hopeless addict.”

“Killing a veteran – a homeless veteran — is the worst thing you could do. Except killing a child.”

“She said she had a child. She’s lying to get more sympathy.”

“If you don’t kill this woman Fiona could die.”

“She’s an addict who’ll never get clean, no matter how much society spends on her.”

“This woman gave her all for your freedom and now you want to take her life?”

“IF YOU DON’T KILL HER FIONA WILL DIE.”

“STOP IT!” I put my hands to my ears.

“You’re freaking me out.” She stands a few paces behind me, hands on hips, silhouetted against the setting sun.

I manage a smile as I open the door. “What’s your name again?”

“I didn’t say. What’s yours?”

***

The previous month, I read about human dentistry to see if we’re that different from vampires. Not much, it turns out. If you start with the upper jaw, the first tooth right of center is the right maxillary central incisor, followed by the right maxillary lateral incisor, followed by the right maxillary cuspid, or canine (right fang in vampires). Then the right maxillary 1st and 2nd  bicuspids.

When she takes me in her mouth, I can tell which ones are missing. She hums a tune which I find comforting as I pull the twine slowly from my right sleeve. With my left hand, I wind the string above her head. I stop when it’s about three feet long.

She stops too. “Is this going anywhere? I haven’t got all night.”

“Look at me.”

“I am but there ain’t much to look at here.”

“Look up here.”

Earlier, under the bridge, her eyes were cold and hard as flint. They’re softer now as she puts on a pout. “What’s a matter, baby?”

My left hand swoops twice around her neck before I pull the rope tight. She gasps as one hand scratches my face and the other scrapes the door. I turn to protect my eyes as she kicks toward the other door, feet reaching for the window. The twine digs deeper and deeper and I think her skin might break. The rope does instead.

The door opens and she spills out, coughing. She tries to scream, only croaks. As she stumbles away, I start the car and put it in reverse. Two seconds later I feel the impact. When I get out I see her crawling on her elbows, dragging her useless legs. “Son of a bitch,” she coughs. “You sick motherfucking son of a bitch.”

I stop next to her. “I’m sorry.”

She spits on my shoe but I’m focused on something she said. “Were you telling the truth about the baby?”

She’s still now, elbows in the gravel. “That’s something you’ll never know.”

I sigh. As I wrap a fresh length of twine around her neck, she starts to whisper:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

I wait to be sure she’s finished. Then I step on her back and pull the twine tight.

***

The adrenaline shakes my body as I drive back with Fiona’s dinner. I’m also starving. If an animal crossed my path I’d chase it down and eat it with my Gurkha. When I imagine this, I realize I experienced for the first time something Fiona hasn’t felt in years: the thrill of the kill. You probably don’t know this feeling. When it happens, you’ll understand what’s in Fiona’s dreams: the panicked breathing, the breaking skin, the hot gushing blood. It’s a distant memory for her, one she gave up at the dawn of modern policing. Your job, Dear Trainee, is to keep those longings in her past with a donated supply that never ends. If there’s a break in the chain, you’ll have to be the predator. It’s a guilt that’s not impossible to overcome. At least I hope so. Perhaps the Ionian Sea will wash away the blood of all my victims. Perhaps the sun will blind others to the monster among them. And maybe the wine will make me forget. This vision kept me going through all my years of service. You’d do well to find your own and cling to it.

I wish you well.

D.

###


 You can find Mr. Klefstad’s novel, Shepherd & The Professor, online, here.

C. H. Christie’s The Oyster Pirates (1973) | A Review

“Barton masterminded the deal. He knew a lot about the oyster business. But that was all he knew.” — The Oyster Pirates, Adam, March, 1973, Vol. 54, No. 4

In shuffling through old archives I recently stumbled across Adam Magazine, a curious mixture of erotica, corny comedy sketches and pulp fiction. The stories were of mixed quality, but one of them, entitled, The Oyster Pirates stood out to me.

The plot, like the prose, is simple: Doyle, a down-on-his luck prawn fisher is approached by a “enthusiastic” oyster dealer and refrigeration mechanic named Barton, who offers a singular proposal to sail with him to the island of Toraki Island in search of a “special kind of oyster” which are “as big as a saucer.” Barton asserts they’ll fetch a pretty penny in Sydney.

There is just one problem.

Fishing on the island of Toraki is illegal.

Doyle is hesitant. Barton, however, proves too persuasive and the two agree to split the profits 50-50, and together with Doyle’s friend, Smiley, a “raw-boned half-caste” of Aboriginal origin, set off upon the Esmeralda for the isle of Toraki.

When the trio arrive, Barton strikes up a deal with the local chieftain. In accord with their deal, the chief lets out some of the men and women of his tribe. With a massively expanded labor pool, oysters begin swiftly piling up. However, things quickly sour, when Barton, soused, chastises the chief’s son, slandering and physically abusing him. Doyle objects but Barton pays his partner no heed. Weeks pass and the trio assembles a mighty haul, which they estimate to be worth some $10,000.

Adam_v54n04_1973-03.Kenmure_0000.jpg
Cover for the issue containing ‘The Oyster Pirates,’ depicting Barton, Triki and the chief’s son, at the tale’s spectacular and penultimate climax.

Doyle is pleased and when the refrigeration unit in the ship’s hold becomes unreliable, suggests they return and cash in on their adventure. Barton, drunk, declines, declaring that he wants “a full load.” Doyle then suggests his partner “lay off the booze” because he was treating the natives “too rough” which enrages the blonde oyster hunter. Barton tells Doyle to “go to hell,” and beats Smiley over the head with a bottle after discovering the Aboriginal had been sneaking sips of whiskey, nearly killing the poor man. Doyle, furious at this fresh indignity, demands they depart to seek medical attention for Smiley, but again Barton declines and having paid for the entire trip, has Doyle and Smiley wholly within his power.

The next day a native frantically approaches Doyle and points to the jungle, but lacking the linguistic proficiency, is unable to tell him what is amiss. Doyle heads to the jungle for the stories penultimate climax and finds Barton, in a drunken fit, attempting to force himself upon the beautiful native, Triki. She attempts to resist the oyster pirate but he easily overpowers her. From behind, the Chief’s Son creeps in from the foliage to the left, spear in hand, seeking revenge for his previous humiliation at Barton’s hands. Doyle shouts a warning and raises his rifle at which point the girl, Triki falls into the water as Barton whirls, pistol in hand, thinking Doyle the threat. Immediately thereafter, from the water of the nearby river, a hungry crocodile emerges, imperiling the beautiful woman.

Doyle is faced with a impossible choice: Shoot the chief’s son, shoot the crocodile or shoot Barton. He shoots the crocodile, saving the woman, as the Chief’s Son kills Barton with his spear.

Doyle buries Barton there, on Toraki isle and, with Smiley, returns to civilization.

The big oysters prove to be a sensation in Sydney, just as Barton had predicted.

Adam v54n04 (1973-03)_0025
Illustration of the deadly crocodile, eventually slain by Doyle.
Adam v54n04 (1973-03)_0026.jpg
Illustration of Triki in the perilous river.

I really enjoyed the tale, which faintly reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Polanski’s Nóż w wodzie (1962).

Like Heart of Darkness, the story sees men of civilization venturing into untamed lands where mysterious natives dwell, but yet never tips-over into strict dichotomizing of either the old paradigm of civilized vs savage (for the upkeep of civilization mandates savagery), nor the new paradigm of industrial exploiter vs noble primitive (to dispel this Rousseauian myth one need only take a cursory survey of the prehistorical archaeological record of our ancestors), nor ever engages in finger wagging moralizing, which, even when in competent hands, has a damping effect upon the pacing of a plot as a mechanical necessity.

Like Nóż w wodzie, the story centers on the conflict between its two male leads: the noble, if not particularly heroic, Doyle, and the ruthless, power-mad Barton; though, unlike Nóż w wodzie, the source of their disputation is not a woman, but money. Greed, or perhaps, more accurately, the inability to moderate desire, forms the central theme of the work and acts as the catalyst for the spectacular set-pieced showdown of the climax; for if Barton had simply heeded Doyle’s suggestion, he’d have escaped the retribution of the native. For Barton, however, he could never have enough, not enough money, social control, sex or alcohol. Ruin, a invariable outgrowth of his disregard for the Paracelsusian formulation; sola dosis facit venenum.

“The dose makes the poison.”

 

 

The Silence & The Howl | Part 16

§.16


The moon ghosted above the ancient coal breaker. Odd figures walked the streets, surreptitiously passing small plastic bags to each other just beyond the illumination of the streetlamps and the lights of Andy’s house.

Bluebird did not call before she arrived. She parked her car in the front of the drive and clattered down the way to the door in dark purple yoga pants, faux-designer boots and a short-sleeved T and a windbreaker. She knocked on the door and waited trepidatiously as a mexican eyed her up from the leftern lot. Momentarily, Andy opened the door.

“Hi there. You’re Lyla, right?”

“That’s me. And you’re Andy, we’ve met once before.”

“Yeah, you stopped by work to give Harmon a sandwich or something.”

“Speaking of – is he here?”

“Yeah. Come in. Let me take your coat.”

“Thanks.”

She slipped out of her puffy, oversized windbreaker and held it under her right arm as she stepped inside to behold a small little living room covered over with stained leaf colored shag and unadorned walls of pale beige. To the immediate left of the door, a old television sat pressed against the wall, blaring a sitcom, before it a ratty couch upon which lounged a middle aged woman who was dressed as someone fifteen years her junior.

“This is Marla. Marla, this is Lyla.”

“Hi.” Marla intoned without much interest as she fished out a gummie bear from a crinkling plastic bag upon her lap, eyes fixed on the flashing box before her. The box squawked, ”

Andy turned away from the couch-bound woman and pointed to the stairs which let up to the right.

“He’s upstairs. Door to the right.”

“Thanks.”

When she reached the upper floor landing she paused and listened for him. She knew his footfalls well. He was pacing restlessly. She entered and found him languidly smoking by the window, gazing out towards the coal breaker.

He turned slowly. The light of welcome absent from his keen green eyes.

“Hello, Bluebird.”

“Hey.”

She moved forth and slowly draped her arms against his immobile form. He reciprocated the gesture and then offered her a cigarette which she swiftly accepted. They stood smoking menthols, looking out the window at the gang members hocking opioids on the corner.

“So whats new?”

“Oh, not much. You know how it is.”

“I do indeed.”

“So what happened? With Richard?”

“He called me a liar and I told him I wasn’t and he threw me out.”

“What? Really? That’s what you two are fighting about?”

“No. I’m not fighting anything. Ain’t worth fighting with people that don’t care about you.”

“That wasn’t directed at me was it?”

“Why would you assume it was?”

“I know I haven’t been around much,” she took a long drag and shook her head as she exhaled into the pane, “But I’ve been busy.”

“What with?”

“Prepping for the gala – the next one, that is.”

“Next one?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, sorry. Yeah, I um, I – the last one was really successful.”

“I know. I was there.”

“Are you mad?”

“Yeah. But not with you.”

“Richard?”

“I kept thinking. Bout hurting him. Over and over again. Stomping down on his shiny little head until it popped like an overfilled water balloon.”

“I don’t think that would be the best way to handle it.”

“No. But it’d be a way.”

 

*

The Silence & The Howl | Part 15

§.15


Harmon drew the device’s teeth against the wood grain.

The sound of the chainsaw split the tranquility of the placid Sunday afternoon and sent the sparrows spinning from their thorny thrones.

The smell of the wood, the metal, the machine’s furious humming engulfing the grotesque chittering of the wide outer bright.

He stood over a small, felled tree before Andy’s old, creaking house, the species-name escaping his ken, and rolled it with his booted-heel and worked the grinding steel of the mechanical saw against the spindly branches which shivered like insectal limbs with the impact. He paused to behold a group of men walking along the street. Familiar faces all. They were those he had seen so many days before, waiting at the corner just beyond Sprawls’ house. The congregation wore brightly colored and expensive clothing and moved with a languid swaggered, as if the entirety of the sidewalk upon which they walked belonged to them.

A young and scantily-clad woman moved down the side walk, heading straight for Andy’s lot, ass pushed up and out in jeans one size too tight, hair cropped on both sides, long on top and combed wildly to one side, below which a thin, ribbed and sleeveless exercise top girded her wobbling breast, paler than her spray tanned skin. Harmon thought he’d seen her before but could not remember where. She paused and turned and yelled something at him, her round, lacquered face contorting in vexation. He stopped the chainsaw.

“What?”

“I said why the fuck you gotta make so much fucking racket.”

The gangbangers laughed and muttered jokes concerning the scene.

Harmon furrowed his brow and methodically set the machine down beside the brush pile and dusted off his jeans and turned to the woman with a placid expression.

“Just clearing some brush.”

“Well, clear it somewhere else.”

“Ain’t no other brush to clear. Even if there was, think that would probably be trespassing.”

Her expression softened and she crossed and uncrossed her arms anxiously.

“Andy around?”

“Harmon nodded fractionally and jerked his thumbed above his shoulder, pointing towards the house.

“He’s inside. Bout to leave though. Better hurry.”

She did so and made he way to the door and and passed therein as Harmon bent to his lent chainsaw and returned to work as the toughs, having lost their source of amusement, ambled along down the street.

A hour passed. The woman hadn’t come out of the house. Bluebird hadn’t called. His anger had ebbed some but he refused to allow placidity to overtake him.

Lessons must be learned, so first, they must be taught.

He surveyed the flat, dying grass of Andy’s diminutive lot, restarted the chainsaw and imagined the tree was Serena’s throat.

*

Todesregel Isle (Part V)

Villavic sat upon a large flat stone before the crackling fire, his lean body hunched, chin upon his entwined and roughened fingers, knuckles rough as sand. The rock-sitter’s tatterdemalion companions told him their tales; of their lives and loves and losses and how they were swept into the scouring-purge for mechanical heresy. After they had finished the waif came up to Villavic and laid her head upon his lap and closed her eyes. He ran his fingers through her hair and watched the light play across the cave walls like Togalu Gombeyaata. When the wind died down and the snow stopped half the travelers moved from the cave carrying their sacks of flour as their stomachs ached with hunger and the sky darked with encroaching thunderheads. Led by Gunter, the forging party endeavoured to find any clean-looking water-source beyond the marsh which shrouded the outer bounds of the forest like a giant moat.  Their quest came to an end after eight days trudging through snapping ferns and ruddy shrubs through the discovery of a small river that cut in a wide arc to the northeast of the cave. They fanned out over the silt-strewn and rocky ground of the beach in search of food. Desire and pain subsuming their somas as they rutted through the melting snow and filth, skittering over the crackling earth-skin like pale and malformed crabs. Some licking the stones. Others consuming the moss and lichen, where eft and vole eschewed those looming, odd-angling shadows and slipped out of all sight. Failing to find anything  else to eat, other than bitter leaves and poisonous berries, they mixed the flour with water and ate it with great rapidity. Shortly thereafter came fits of pain, aches of the stomach, inflammations of the lung. Dysentery and other ailments. Another snow storm blew in and forced the forgers to scurry into a small burrow that looked to have been vacated by a family of deer. Within the week, half the men had died and when Gunter returned to the cave only five followed with him and they ragged and sickly. They found the cave barren save a large lizard which raised up its head and blinked and then scurried off into the abyssal lower dark. Gunter swore and collapsed against the cold, stone entrance, crying and moaning like a wounded animal.

“We’re all going to die here. We’re all going to die.”

The Barkeep looked to the giant of the man, curled fetal at the cavern’s maw-like threshold, rocking like a fitful child and shook his head sadly. For a long while words escaped him and then he mustered the syllables that slow frothed from his starved and insensate brain.

“Maybe. You don’t know to a certainty. Ain’t no use cawing bout it.”

“They’re all dead. They’re all dead.”

“We don’t know where Villavic’s group went but I don’t see any bodies. Don’t see any blood. Here or outside. Unlikely they’re dead. Villavic’s sharp and Derrick is right capable of defending the gals. I knew him slight. Before the purge.”

The three young men who accompanied them conversed amongst themselves and when The Barkeep turned to them they fell silent. They looked worried.

The Keep didn’t like the look in their eyes. Greedy and feral. They had been those who had kept to the outer edges of the crowd when all the prisoners had landed and been freed. They’d always kept to themselves and seldom spoken. He wondered if they were brothers. Their features bespoke as much.

Garth, the evident leader of the youthful trio began babbling as Gunter continued to moan.

“What are we going to do? We… We’ll starve if we kept at it. If we don’t do something. You saw… saw what happened to those that drank from the river. Died. Shit themselves to death. Water. Its poison. This whole fucking island is poisoned.”

Suddenly there came a hideous cry and following it a rusted machete. Gareth screamed and dropped to his knees as the brand sliced into his skull and continued to scream as its wielder withdrew the weapon and then brought it down again and again and again.