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.

The Photographer’s Dilemma (VII)

*

As soon as she was able to get some distance from Partridge she pulled out her mobile and opened up her social media on Rattle.web. She squinted down at her profile photo, it was a top-down angled portrait; she didn’t like it, she was trying to hard to look interesting, she thought to herself. What caught her attention after a few moments was the eyeliner she was wearing and how wide she was holding her eyes open. After a comparison she was certain, this was the picture. She cursed under her breath, how could she not have made the connection? It was so obvious. So easy. As easy to realize as it had been for who ever made the photo, to obtain. The internet was a bountiful sea of information, most of it public or at the least, publically accessible, no matter how intimate. Like shells beneath sand.

*

Ariadne was surprised to find her work in increasingly high demand in the ensuing weeks after her first major showing at the Thompson Gala. The little boutique art papers and e-zines covered her gallery with enthusiasm, noting a “bold new voice” with a “distinctive eye for gritty realism.” Calvin continued inviting her to his compound raves and she began to dance for the first time and found to her very great surprise she was good at it. Everything was going so smoothly that she nearly forgot all about the murder which she had nearly been drawn into and the eerie photograph of her eye and the theft of her photos and the man with the white jacket. Yet the more attention she received the more stressed and irritated she became. It was not that she was ungrateful, or that the galas were unpleasant but rather that everyone began to twist her art to fit their own personal narratives, there were feminist columnists who declared her pictures displayed the crisis of masculinity and conservative yahoos who declared that her pictures of the city were indicative of the need for a revitalization of the faith and its attendant patriarchal norms and there were anarchists who took her grim realism to be a calling card to a morally vacuous modality of thought which sought out the beauty of destruction for its own sake. None of it was true. Before next gala, Jamie, Calvin and Svetlana met her at cafe just outside The Tombs known as The Orange Tree.

Svetlana hugged Ariadne and smiled broadly, “I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks. I… wish I could feel the same way.”

Calvin titled his head inquisitively as they all sat down around one of only four rickety wooden tables in the joint.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t mean to say I’m unhappy or ungrateful – I owe you a lot of thanks, Cal – its just, every time there is a new article or podcast out about my work its always the same old song and dance. They don’t really care what it is actually about, they just want to use it for their own ends. They could just ask me.”

“Lynder once told me,” Svetlana broke in, “That there are only two reasons why a work of art is misunderstood, either because its author was lacking in talent such as to properly communicate its messages, or, it is deliberately twisted to fulfil a institutional function. You are certainly not lacking in talent.”

Ariadne balked, “I’m so sick of hearing that name.”

Svetlana looked to Jamie and Calvin for assistance. Neither had anything to say. When their drinks came Ariadne practically siphoned her cup down. She, typically prim and restrained in social outings, was too flustered to care about such trivialities. Jamies laughed suddenly and pointed to her lip.

“What?”

He was laughing so hard he could barely speak, “C-co-”

“WHAT?”

Calvin leaned in towards her over the table as a couple of detectives strolled by some five feet away.

“You’ve got a chocolate mustache.”

She twisted her spoon towards her such that it showed her reflect. Damn, he was right. She didn’t see what was so funny about it. Fuckers. Laughing. Laughing. Laughing. She reached for her napkin and from it a small slip of cream colored paper fluttered down into her lap.

She flipped it over and read it in horror.

Do you see?

The Photographer’s Dilemma (VI)

Thompson shook his head, surveying Ariadne’s works upon the wall. All her photographs hung from their frames where she had earlier placed them, all save one; the picture of the man with the albescent jacket.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Campbell, I’ve no idea where it went. It must have been…”

Ariadne nodded gravely, “Stolen. Its alright, Mr. Thompson. Wasn’t your fault. It doesn’t matter, I didn’t like it anyways, lets just focus on the show.”

He turned to her and gave a wry smiled and nodded and left off to answer the phones and order catering.

*

Campbell hadn’t seen him coming. She hated how silent he was.

“Now that you’ve finally got your gala-showing, do you look upon your work any differently?”

She turned furiously to behold Lynder Partridge standing behind her, a lit cigarette in his left hand, his right in his pocket, dressed all in a dark, sleek suit of diamond-patterned blue. She knew he’d show up sooner or later given that Thompson had invited him; had been waiting for him to do so. She dug the photo of her eye out of her pocket and thrust it in his face, “Mind telling me what the fuck this is?” He raised a brow slightly took a drag and then removed his right hand from his pocket and slowly took the photograph, examining it methodically.

“It is a photograph of an eye, Ms. Campbell.”

“No shit. You know whose eye?”

“It appears very similar to your own.”

“It is. Why was it in my house?”

“I’ve no idea what you are talking about,” She could tell he was legitimately confused which in turn confused her, “Explain precisely what happened from the beginning.” She told the tale and upon finishing he nodded, more to himself than to her and flipped the photograph around such that she could see it.

“I induce you believe this is the photograph I took of you at my last gala?”

“Yes. Obviously. What are you playing at?”

He shook his head fractionally, a movement so slight it was almost imperceptible and would have been had he not been standing so close to her, “You forget how flustered you were during our last encounter, your gaze were quite narrow, besides, this is a digital photograph, not analogue. Like you, I hem to the Leica, it is the only camera which I presently own. In fact, I was utilizing Mr. Thompson’s darkroom in place of my own, which is currently under construction. I can show you, if you should like.”

“If you didn’t take it than who did? You were the last person to take a picture of me.”

“As I said, it is digital. Consider how many pictures of yourself are presently available on the internet. It would be a matter of the moment to seize one, download it, crop it, blow it up to such exaggerated proportions and then print it. As for who delivered it to your abode, I could not say, but I can say that whoever it is they’re no artist.”

“On that we agree.”

She was angry. She had been positive Lynder was at the bottom of it, yet the more she considered the situation the more she realized how ridiculous her accusations must appear. He was one of the most popular up-and-coming artists in the entire city and given his previous comments on her lack of ability there was no reason for him to pursue her. She shook her head, hell, even now he looked disinterested. His comments about the internet and the ease with which one might obtain a photograph of her also rang plausible. Lynder was too much an artist to craft such a shoddy composition, there was no life in it, no message, no force or vitality. She took the photo from Lynder’s outstretched, black-gloved hand, gazing at it fixedly. He was right. It wasn’t art, it was graphic design. It wasn’t him. Then still the question: Who had left the photo? Was it the man with the white jacket? If he was indeed the killer of Greely perhaps he believed she had seen too much. Perhaps he feared she could identify him…

“Are you quite alright, Ms. Campbell?”

“No… no I am not.”

She turned to leave but he stepped forth, his presence of sudden interest restraining her like an invisible lasso.

“Congratulations on your first showing.”

She turned and smiled a hollow, cold smile, “Thanks.”

“I know you resent me because of my critiques of your work but know this, if I critique it is only because I believe it will aid your improvement.” He gestured to her artwork where it hung upon the wall, now swarming with students and professors and journalists and socialites, “As it clearly has.”

“Whatever, asshole.”

His face registered no emotion at the insult; he merely raised his cigarette back up to his mouth and took a drag and expelled a puff of smoke respectfully to his unoccupied left.

“Hubris is a sword, Ms. Campbell, be sure you don’t fall upon it.”

The Iron Garden: Part.6

The city buzzed like a hornet’s bag as the young woman moved up to the tiny little concrete housing center. The outer facade, wind scarred and watermarked, diveted as the skin of acne’d youth. She knocked, stood a moment, her hands relaxing about the large cargo bag, slung about slender shoulders as wind skimmed the corners of high, glistless rooftops. Cars moved in slow, congested lines behind the house, moving like great metal snails. Somewhere off in the thermals a bird of prey cawed. Shortly, a dark face appeared through a crack in the door, suspicious eyes watching from the shadows of the den.

“Anna…” the dark face muttered. It was less a greeting and more a reminder of the young woman’s name.

“Hello, Ms Afua. Brought you and little Adam some treats from the center.”

The dark faced nodded wordlessly. Sound of a latch turning and then the door swung open to reveal a short black woman donned in cheap cast-offs who took the bags with haste, as if she believed they might, at any moment, vanish unto the aether. Afua then stepped aside and ushered the younger woman into the tatterdemalion household. The room into which the community center worker moved was small and smelled of cats and damp and something frying and something else which Anna couldn’t place. Unpleasant and gamey. Right, the kitchen alcove; nothing but one cleft-bar featuring a toaster, a fridge, a sink and a tiny, gas oven. Left, a middle aged man of African extraction sat upon a tattered, moth-eaten couch, watching a tasteless reality show upon a old television. Upon the screen a bloated woman some 200 pounds or more yelled to a skinny white man about how he wasn’t her “baby daddy,” the crowd laughed and a slick, well dressed man in a suit gestured toward the camera, his palms spread wide, “I did not see that one coming!” he smirked beneath a pall of makeup. Again, the crowd laughed. Beside the middle aged man a small child sat, drawing with great concentration upon a memo pad, ignoring the flickering screen before him. The child’s large dewy eyes widened as he spotted the newcomer.

“Anna!”

“Hey there buddy, whatcha got there?”

“Drawings. See!”

The little boy swelled with pride as he held up the notebook for the woman to see. Upon the red-lined paper were four little doodled figures dancing about a poorly sketched house with a white picket fence and gigantic windows and a high, crooked chimney puffing little clouds of white smoke. The cartoon had been drafted in crayon and, despite its amateur stylings something about the deft mix of colors and the purity of the scene caught the eye. The boy had talent. Anna smiled and pointed to the figures, one by one; first to a small, black character who held a paintbrush and a drawing easel.

“Is that you, Adam?”

He nodded.

“And those two beside you?”

“That’s Afua,” he stated with a smile, pointing to the old crone where she stood silently beside the refrigerator, chopping vegetables, “and that… is Kojo,” he stated slightly nervously, glancing to the middle aged man upon the couch who turned upon hearing his name.

“Let me see, boy. Let me see.”

The boy turned the picture towards him and he studied it intensively.

“You’ll be a great painter someday. Like Yoofi.”

“Yoofi?” Anna intoned curiously.

“In Ghana there was a old man named Yoofi. All the villagers thought he was crazy because he used to go hunting for rocks. He’d spend days and days, looking for these rocks. Said he needed special rocks. He’d paint them like the villagers and place them on their stoops so that the villagers’ spirits might become like the rocks. Steadfast. Immovable.”

Anna turned to Kojo after he had finished speaking. He was starring straight at her. She couldn’t remember him ever paying her more than a passing glance. She smiled. He didn’t. Kojo then returned to his television program as Anna returned to the picture. There was one last figure upon the notepad, a woman with tanned skin and long, brown hair and a puffy blue windbreaker with a orange collar.

“Is that me?”

The boy nodded, smiling broadly, “Do you like it?”

“Very much so. Its really very good. I think Kojo is right, you’ll definitely be a great artist someday.”

The boy’s eyes twinkled dreamily.

“Can we go out for ice cream like we did last time?”

“Boy, you quite bothering the woman,” Afua intoned sternly without turning from the kitchen sink where she had taken some of the vegetables from Anna’s bag and skinned then piled them in neat little rows upon the mangy, foul smelling counter-top.

“But Afuaaaa!”

“Quite boy,” Kojo snapped, absorbed in his program.

Anna looked to the dark woman and crossed her arms about ample breasts, smiling slightly.

“You know I really wouldn’t mind, if that is alright with you.”

“You’re a busy woman.”

“Not that busy. Besides, I could use a break from work and its now trouble. Adam is always such a good kid.”

“Yes…” she noted with sudden solemnity, looking over her shoulder at the child where he sat upon the floor, drawing, pad upon his knees, pudgy little hands moving artfully about the paper in swirling pirouettes.

 

*

The cramped local ice cream parlour was abuzz with activity, motion of bodies and heat-sweat and conversations of the times. It was a place half out-of-time, all of wicker and paneled wood and leather with a massive oaken counter situated in the leftmost corner of the room with rows upon rows of small circular tables all about the right-back of the rest of the space. The once entirely wooden interior had given way to the march of renovation, slowly being consumed by plastic, metal and concrete. Some of the lights in the back had been changed from the dull yellow old-fashioned incandescent bulbs to the blue LED bulbs now in vogue, requiring but a scant 9.5 watts to produce the same amount of light as their 60 watt predecessors. None of the other patrons paid the lighting any mind and, at length, Anna turned from gazing at the bulbs in the back of the parlor as the sound of idle chatter filtered into her brain. Talk of immigration and corruption, rising crime and terrorist attacks. Racism and “the good ole times.” Even a ice cream parlor wasn’t safe from partisan politicization; it sadden Anna who frowned as she absorbed the dour atmosphere. She wished that everyone could just for once set aside all their haughty opinions and enjoy themselves. She ordered two cones, one a chocolate-vanilla swirl, Adam’s favorite, and a strawberry with sprinkles for herself. The child licked his cone mirthfully, brown-white liquid thick-pooling about his hands as it melting off from the cusp of the frigid confection. In short order his face was covered over with tracings of his consumption at which point Anna burst into laughter. The boy looked up at her confused and she reached for a napkin and cleaned his face, chuckling. They shared smiles and ate their cones and then turned as the sound of a newscasters voice burst in upon them with startling suddeness.

“Some people have said that a lot of this artwork is ‘fascistic,’ what would you say about that, Mr. Partridge?”

Anna turned towards the wall-attatched television screen to behold a TV news anchor sitting across from one of the most beautifully strange men she’d ever beheld. The news anchor was old and baggy-skinned, garbed in a crisp, expensive, yet ill-fitting, suit and tie. The strange man wore a tightfitting long sleeved blacksweater over which he’d chosen a expertly tailored black dresscoat with a white fur collar. His face was pale and his hair was black; eyes electric-gold below which was set a smooth, sensual mouth that played up into the faintest ghosts of a smile.

“I would say, firstly, that if you repeat something loud enough, long enough, most people will invariably believe it to be unquestionably true. Moreso if those who are repeating it are individuals such as you who are both charismatic and respected and also have the bully-pulpit of corprotocratic multimedia supremacy. Secondly, I would say that this word has become a by-line for absolutely anything that one doesn’t like. As with “racist,” as with “xenophobe,” as with – well – you get the idea. When a word can be made to mean anything it means nothing.”

“Do you believe the work, say of Dominic Sheer, to be ‘fascistic?’”

“No. But even if it was, there is no law against that. Nor would I have a personal compunction to disbar him from my gala. Furthermore, I’d note that most people do not even know what the words they use mean. How often do our literary critics label the dissident writer they find unbecoming to be ‘pretentious’ without ever stopping to inspect the utterance. Are they really so pretentious or is it merely that our critics lack understanding? Don’t mistake me now, for I see your brow furrowing, I know why, you think this condescension, but it is nothing of the sort. For instance, “evolution” this is a word in common usage, wholly penetrated into the fiber-make-up of your collective lexiconography. But how many of us actually understand the process of evolution? Very few, I’d wager; and there is no shame in this, Renaissance men are few and far between, I’m certainly not one, and people are busy, ever busy, too busy. But there IS shame in pretending you know something which you manifestly do not. For instance, how many of our polity, not just know of, but have read the works of Filippo Marinetti, Charles Maurras, George Sorel and Enrico Corradini? Going even further back, can my detractors say they have familiarized themselves with The Jacobins? No, no, no, no and again, no.”

The newscaster gave a uncertain chuckle.

“I must say, I have no idea who any of those people are… but… I get the sense that you believe people are ‘pretending’ to know things about your recent gallery?”

“I would posit that it isn’t a mere belief, but rather a cold, hard fact.”

“Some might interpret that as a accusation.”

“When one is at the receiving end of spurious accusations it is only fair that one wages accusations of his own. I can tell you that I shall not be put on the backfoot, nor shall I have the integrity of my institute rocked, nor its reputation – which is considerable – slandered for political points.”

“Political points? You mean it has to do with your support of the mayoral candidate, Aiken Layne?”

“Yes. He’s controversial. I understand that. I also understand that many people who used to publicly support my galleries pulled their support. But I didn’t need them then. I don’t need them now. That is the problem for them. Due my wealth they can’t economically ruin me. So they have decided to try and ruin my reputation as well as the reputation of all the artists who I employ or showcase instead.”

“And just who is this mysterious They?”

“Layne’s political opponents. I should be very surprised if Angela Vikander didn’t have a hand in the affair. Not directly mind you, she’s far too cunning to involve herself directly, but indirectly… it bears all the hallmarks of her style. Remember, she fell sharply in the polls after Layne trounced her in the last debate, despite all her eco-babble and femen-pandering. Without a scandal, her loss is secured and what could be more of a scandal than the whole public of the city finding out that one of Aiken Layne’s largest financial and public supporters is, himself, supporting ‘neo-fascist revolutionaries.’”

“Well, I couldn’t possibly speak to that.”

“You could, but then Vikander would be slandering you as well as myself,” the strange man replied with something similar to mirth, but not quite.

“Well if you’re not a fascist, what are you?”

Lynder Partridge’s keen yellow eyes flashed suddenly wider as he leaned slightly across the news-table.

“I’m a man who intensely values human creativity.”

Anna had heard of the man, Partridge before, he owned the single largest museum in the entire city. She had considered his gallery as a outlet for his painting but ultimately was unable to muster up the courage to send in her work to such a prestigious institution. Lynder Partridge was one of the richest and most celebrated individuals in the city, a successful industrialist, architect and scholar who had become a philanthropic titan to the most controversial artists on the rise. Intellectual terrorists who penned tales of revolution and capitalistic collapse, of racial taboo and technological godhead. Who was she in comparison and what would her coworkers think? What if she were to be thought to support Layne? What if she were fired? Instead she had sent her work to a smaller, more mainstream gallery, she’d been accepted, hesitantly and suspiciously, but the owners made no promises to keep her work on display. “We’ll see how it goes,” was all the owner had said.

A young woman at a nearby table to Anna’s immediate right, with a jacket bearing the insignia of the local Ferrum college, leaned in towards the man who sat across from her, scowling.

“You know that Dominic Sheer they’d mentioned,” the man nodded vaguely, “Apparently, I’ve heard, he’s like a massive racist, like some kind of white separatist.”

“Oh yeah? He like… in the KKK or something?”

“I don’t know. Probably. I can’t believe someone like Partridge would have someone like that in his gallery. I used to go to his gallery all the time…”

Anna shifted her attention to the table some distance to her left where a old couple sat, another man and a woman. The man was shaking his head, his arms folded across his breast, “I swear these media folks, these guys… everything is some kind of epithet with these people. You step out of line – an inch – and they’ll come after you. Hard. Sonsabitches.”

The middle aged woman sitting beside him nodded solemnly, a little sadly, “I was telling you, last time we went out, I used to teach at the college, teaching History, whenever I stepped outside of academy orthodoxy, boy oh boy, the students nearly fell into a riot. Reason I’m no longer working there. Everyone thinks I’m a ‘nazi.’ Who’s not, nowadays?”

The old man shook his head once again and then pointed to the TV screen, “I like that Lynder fella though, seems alright.” The woman nodded likewise and the two returned to their frozen yogurt and coffee as if nothing at all had happened.

 

*

The man with the chrysanthemum jacket stood looking at the ants which swarmed over the corpse of the baby bird; it was still alive, if only just, spasmodic neath the steel-glint of the sunfilters high and jagged and totalizing. The drones had bored a messy hole in the creature’s side and were wholly adsorbed in uncoiling its entrails out upon the concrete of the industrial sector, carrying off the fleshy remnants above their chitinous backs like a length of spongy rope. The bird’s last moments were spent in vain spasm. Soundless, it shuddered, once, twice, thrice and then was still forever.

The man cocked his head to once side as if to afford him a new perspective on the scene and then removed his bandaged hands from sun-faded jeans as he spotted a tall, beautiful blonde coming out of a meat-packing factory across the street. She was dressed in yellow and wore a hat of red with sunglasses of designer make. All about the woman was a well-dressed gaggle of toughs, bodyguards and before them, a female secretary, scribbling upon a digital pad and a old man with a graying mustache. Mustache and yellow-woman conversed before the group and all moved towards a long, black limo which had been parked before the curb. They were not just rich, but well-connected, the man deduced. Rich due their dress, well-connected due to the fact they were brash enough to park in so blatantly illegal a manner. Clearly they were not afraid of confrontation with law enforcement. The man with the chrysanthemum jacket wondered if mustache was a politician. He thought it likely.

Suddenly there came the patter of little feet. A boy tore around the corner of the factory beside which the man stood, a brood of pigeons scattering before him with awkward wing-gait. The child saw the man too late and collided with leg, nearly falling over. The man with the chrysanthemum jacket turned right to behold the little black boy where he mouthed a silent apology and then down to the ice-cream stain upon his jeans.

“I’m so sorry about that!” A young and shapely woman intoned with grave entreaty. She emerged around the left corner of the factory and moved to stand beside the boy with furrowed brows. When she spotted the ice-cream stain she repeated her apology, more frantically, pleadingly.

The man held up a hand for silence as mustache, yellow-woman and the whole cadre piled into the limo and left off down the street, past the meat packing facility and the old factory, peeling out of the industrial district and vanishing off into the fulgent sun-haze of the glistening spires beyond as the ants swarmed the head of the bird and feasted upon its eyes.

*

Anna dropped Adam back off at Afua’s in the housing district with a hug of farewell. Afua also bade farewell. Kojo lingered about the doorway after the boy and his guardian returned into the den. Anna approached him with a questioning gaze, the wind puppeteering her hair; phantasmal brown snakes bestringed to the moon.

“That artist you mentioned earlier, Yoofi, whatever happened to him?”

Kojo looked off towards the bone-like crescent of the drifting moon with sadness about the jaw.

“He wandered into The Evil Forest. From there, no one returns. They found only his teeth.”

*

A raucous wind kicked up as Anna drove down the central thoroughfair towards the middle of the city, Kojo’s words echoing geist-like throughout the dark cloisters of her mind-palace. At length she passed by Aiken Layne’s campaign headquarters. Protesters had assembled with placards and signs, all shouting and a couple of police officers and bystanders looking on in a mixture of concern and amusement. One of the larger signs, painted all in red, stated: No fascism, No KKK, Aiken Layne is not the way! The woman shook her head. So much hostility and for what? When she returned home for the night she looked up Layne’s platform policies online. She was shocked to learn he advocated net-neutral immigration, the construction of a border wall and the immediate deportation of all illegal immigrants. She thought of lovely, little Adam and considered life without him and quickly felt a tinge of sympathy for the protesters despite her inborn neutrality. At length she shut the laptop, undressed, showered and slept.

*

Anna woke early to the chirping of birds and the buzzing of cars. She stretched in the amber glow of the morning’s incandescence, bathed, dressed and spun off to work. The soup kitchen in the slums was more packed than usual, cloistered with metropolitan cast-offs.

The failure of cosmopolitanism. The triumph of the heart. She thought to herself as she spooned a withered old Mexican woman’s bowl full of chicken noodle soup. Anna shot the crone a warm smile. The crone frowned.

“The hell are you smiling about? There’s nothing to smile about. You look like a crazy person.”

Anna didn’t smile at anyone else for the rest of her shift.

*

Anna fixed the collar of her puffy blue windbreaker, tightened the belt on her jeans and picked the bag of canned beef and chicken noodle soup up off the ground, loaded it in the back of her ungainly 2014 Nissan Versa and drove off to Afua’s house. When Anna pulled into the driveway of the tiny little c-sec housing lot confusion subsumed the whole of her form. Kojo’s car was gone. It was the trios only means of transportation as the buses didn’t go out this far. Yet a light was on. Her pulse quickened. A break-in? A burglary?

She parked and hurried to the handle, tried it, found it giving way. The living room was completely deserted. From room to room, living, kitchen, bath, basement, attic, all empty. Nothing stirred. When Anna returned to the living room she stood a long moment and then cast her gaze out over the chip speckled couch, wrinkled blankets lay about in disarray, the remote, situated upon the rightmost arm of the furniture piece like a giant, flat and dull-shimmering slug. The silent television, odd-angled, as if someone had bumped into it without realization of the act. The carpet bore scuff marks. Something wasn’t right. A thick and heavy feeling of unease slithered about the woman’s gut, vice-like and distending. Why would they just leave? Where would they go? She wondered if it was another ICE Deportation. She pulled her phone out, signal was good. Dialing up “ICE raids” yielded nothing in the area. Out of the corner of her eye, beyond the flickering of the phone screen something lingered. Something white and brown-red.

A small, white chicken feather.

It was flecked with blood.

*

The dockworker squinted down into the depths. There was something in the water. Something small and brown.

“Jim,” the dockworker barked to a small, short Italian behind him who came scurrying to the edge of the cargo pier like a disgruntled crab.

“What is it Don?”

“There’s something in the water.”

“I don’t see anything. You been drinking on the job again? I told you”

“Right over there. Looks like a barrel.”

“Well, lets drag it out.”

The short stevedore removed a long hook-pole which one of the fishmen had left upon the pier and led the item to shore. When it was within reach Don reached down and plucked out the barrel, gasped and dropped the item down upon the dock, his eyes saucer-wide and his breath coming and going in sharp, erratic gasps.

It was a human torso. Judging from the size, it was the torso of child.

*

Anna heard the news at work. It came like a dirge. Everything spun as the world stilled. Everything stilled as her heart raced. Her heart raced as the workers slothed. The monitor screen buzzed with sounds and images. A little brown torso, aghast dockworkers, police offers standing beside them, a detective with dark bags under his eyes saying, “In all my 15 years I’ve never seen anything like this. Not once. Horrible. Evil. That’s the word for it. Evil.” The authorities had not yet identified the body but Anna already knew the name which they sought.

Adam.

“There something wrong, Annie?”

Anna turned towards the bespectacled and mousy little woman stood beside her in the community center kitchen. Anna struggled to remember her name. She was new. Kathy, Kristie, Kirsten. Kirsten, that was her name.

“Have you seen the news?”

Kirsten shook her head, “I try to keep from it much as possible. Always something horrible. Like they say, good stories don’t sell. Why, did something big happen?”

“Nevermind. Its not important.”

“Well, whatever it was it certainly has got you shook. My sister is like that. Total news junkie. Obsessed with politics. Always going on about this party, or that party, or some big scandal out of Washington. I keep telling her, it doesn’t really matter, its not like little folk like us can do anything about it. Best to just not listen to it. Ignorance really is bliss, ya know.”

“Yeah. You’re probably right about that.”

Anna returned to her duties and told her superior she was feeling ill, given the fact that she’d never taken off before the ruddy nosed old man let her off with a stern intonation, “Just this once.” She drove. She didn’t know where she was, nor where she was going. All that she knew was that she had to drive. She had to move. Constantly. Quickly. Else she had to think and nothing in all the world brought her more despair than to muse upon little Adam’s fate. But a day before she and the boy had strolled throughout the city park, feed the fish at the lake and talked with a old man selling books from a trashcan-turned-backpack. But a day before, she and the boy had ate ice cream and laughed at the frigid mustaches that there materialized from confectic consumption. But a day before Adam had been filled with life and mirth and art and smiles. Now he’d vanished from all the world entire, only a blood drained torso remained.

She pulled over, feeling suddenly feverish. Opening the door and ignoring the highway surroundings she fell to her knees and vomited out upon the curb as a murder of crows watched remorselessly from thorny thrones.

 

*

In the days following the murder of Adam Delle, Aiken Layne was twice assailed by protesters who claimed his anti-immigration polices had lead to the child’s death. The police had publicly stated that the limbs had been crudely removed but that the killer or killers were very careful to completely drain it of blood and remove several vital organs including the heart and lungs, though the liver and intestines were left intact. The Ferrum police department issued a public statement that they had no leads but were confident that the killer or killers were body harvesters and that the murder was likely financially motivated. Despite this announcement, Layne’s opponents were undeterred.

Layne passed through the immaculate halls of Partridge Museum, in through the high, wide foyer and then through wide semi-circular gala, past the milling crowd of onlookers, and up the similarly semi-circular grand stair to the second floor landing and from there to the in-house cafe. Two bulky men in suits with slicked back hair stood before the doors of the cafe, they patted Layne down and then the shorter of the duo nodded.

“Is this necessary every time I come?”

The man only nodded once more, subtly and gravely this time. Layne shook his head and sighed and fixed his collar and tie and moved beyond the portal into the brightly lit confines of the wide rectangular coffee shop. Not a single person was to be seen save for a lone man, finely, if simply, dressed who sported a overcoat all of black, tipped at the collar with white fur. He smoked languidly at a table in the middle of the room and sipped steaming coffee from china, bone-white and delicate as snow. Before him was a number of magnificent drawings, grotesque and beautiful alike and a silver samovar of coffee and a stack of newspapers and a ashtray of glass. The man did not look up as Layne entered, but rather spoke as if to himself.

“The thought should not cross your mind.”

Layne paused and arched a thick sepia brow.

“What thought?”

“That I don’t trust you. I only have them pat you down because they do as much to everyone else. A exception does not disprove the consistency of a general rule but the common man is rarely so much a logician.”

“You often say things, and I know they mean something, but honest to God I’ve no idea what.”

At last, Lynder Partridge met his guest’s eye. Layne had always been wary of the gallery owner’s eyes, gold-green and luminous; they did not just catch the light, but rather, seemed to affix it; to suck it from the marrow of the sky.

“At any rate, you’ve larger concerns than disentangling the meaning of my words,” he took a long drag and held up one of the newspapers, the headline read: Citizen’s Against Fascism (CAF) blame Layne for recent string of ritual migrant murders – do they have a case?

“Fucking hell,” Layne moved to stand before the table and accepted the paper from the gallery owner’s black-gloved hands, studying it intensely, speaking in hurried tones of stress and exasperation as he did so, “CAF, that’s one of Vikander’s pawn groups. They’re nearly completely funded through her Institute for Innovation and Equality. I’m gonna get murdered in the press after this…”

“You need to talk to less journalists and do more interviews.”

“I can’t hack it. I know my base likes me because of my occasional penchant for blustery rhetoric, fire and pomp and all that – and I am angry at the state of this, by God I am – but every time I step on the podium I’m nervous, takes my all just to keep from trembling. Just thinking about the way those yellow vultures will invariably hack up the interview-”

“Do it live. If you become too hot to handle their only recourse will be to pull the plug.”

“One of these days I really need to hire you to do all my PR.”

“Isn’t that what I do anyways?”

“Fair enough. Oh, Lynder, you’ve no idea the toll this has taken on my wife. You should see her, sobbing constantly. She thinks one of these CAF loons, or someone like them but more radical is going to assassinate me!”

“You’ve been twice assaulted. It wouldn’t surprise me if they tried a third time.”

“You’re supposed to be encouraging.”

“I refuse to be anything but honest.”

“If you were completely honest you’d have never gotten to where you are today.”

“And yet the reality of the situation rebukes your claim. Not divulging every nagging thought and divulging known falsities are two very different things.”

“Maybe I had it wrong. I shouldn’t hire you for PR, I should hire you for my legal team.”

Lynder smiled slyly as his compatriot folded the newspaper and laid it upon his lap.

“Why, Aiken, you insult me.”

“Oh?”

“They’re two things which utterly disgust me,” Partridge took a sip of coffee before continuing, savoring the hot, aromatic liquid, “Dogs and lawfare.”

“Dogs?”

“Of course. How could I ever place my trust in a animal whose loyalty can be bought with food? A animal which blindly defends its master?”

“Don’t you blindly defend what you care about?”

“Certainly not. Besides… I have no masters. But it was not to talk of me you came, it was for assistance.”

“Honestly, I don’t know why I came. Yeah, guidance, probably. I don’t know. You just always know the right things to say. I’m just feeling… discon… discom… aw, hell, what’s the word?”

“Discombobulated.”

“That’s the one – you mind if I have some of that coffee?”

Lynder plucked up one of the little china cups and poured a generous helping from the steaming samovar and gently slid the cup across the thick, white plastic of the spotless tabletop towards his guest. Aiken took the cup, cradling it in his manicured and lotioned hands as if it were a injured pigeon, it smelled unlike anything he’d ever received from the local city cafes, a potent earthy mixture of berries and chocolate, leather and honey. He wondered idly where Partridge had imported it from, all the better to distract him from pangs of conscience and the terror of circumstance.

Lynder leaned his elbows upon the table, folding his hands before his cup, starring intently at the misery-besotted politician.

“How are the kids?”

“Fine, fine. Too young to understand what is going on. I mean, they’re not dumb, they have a inkling that something isn’t right. That something is bothering me and their mother, the poor woman, but they don’t really get it. I’m glad of that. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.”

Lynder grimaced, “And when prolonged, bliss invariably becomes suicide.”

Aiken frowned, took a sip and watched a spider clean its forelegs upon a web in the far left corner of the room. A moth was fluttering dumbly towards it, ignorant of the peril.

“If that were true, Lynder, then every couple would be dead.”

“You, a man married for 12 years, of all people knows the fleeting nature of bliss. There is little bliss in coupling. In sex or in love. That is why men shouldn’t chase it. No matter what they do, it remains in their hands like some oiled hagfish, slipping out of grasp and slithering into briny depths unfathomed.”

“Then what should men chase?”

Lynder took a slow, thoughtful drag upon his gilded cigarette before answering as the moth entangled itself in the web. The spider, feeling the vibrations, carefully advanced.

“Understanding. That is, in point of fact, why you’re here. For understanding. But you already understand. Now is the time to act. Yet you don’t know what to do about the attacks. You need a personal detachment. A guardian.”

“Bodyguards?”

“At least one. Near you at all times. One, indeed, would be preferable, given the jingoistic rumors surrounding your campaign. A legion of guards would only increase those criticisms.”

“I can’t afford personal security. I’m popular, not rich.”

“Fortunately for you, I happen to be both.”

The spider leapt and sunk its fangs into the moth. A fluttering of wings and the shaking of a web. Dust-scatter and soundless scrapping. Then all was silent in the corner save for the mincing of a small chitinous maw and the exhalations of smoke from the prim, well-dressed man with eyes of ambered glow.


[this portion of the story was originally intended to be its own short story, separate from The Iron Garden (though still within the same world), however, halfway through I decided to incorporate it into the rest of the novel (which is still in progress).]