The Silence & The Howl (§.27)

CHAPTER 27


She found Harmon in his room, staring at a series of drawings affixed to the wall. In the center hung a meticulously detailed graphite illustration of a young dark-haired woman with handsome mediterranean features. Harmon’s eyes shimmered with strange intensity from where he sat in statuesque silence in the middle of the spartan room, on a stiff wooden chair, spine arched, hands upon a sketchbook and it on his knees.

He said nothing as the woman entered the room, the sound of charcoal upon paper filling up the aural void.

“Heya.”

Harmon waved briskly in the woman’s direction without looking at her, his eyes fixed on the drawing, his hands moving across the surface of the cheap faux-leather-bound sketchbook, tightly clutched in his pale, scar-worn arms.

“I’m not bothering you am I?”

“No. Just distracting me. But I could use a little distraction. Couldn’t sleep?”

“Nah. Drank too much coffee at the cafe probably. Stronger than what I’m used to here.”

“Its pretty potent. Andy back?”

“No. Still out with the boys I guess. Probably got blitzed and spent the night at Jake’s house. Something of a habit for him.”

“I see.”

“I wanted to thank you.”

“What for?”

“For suggesting the cafe, introducing us to your friend, taking us all out to eat and paying for the food. It was nice. Andy needed that.”

Harmon nodded, “No problem.”

She moved forwards, hands in the pockets of her cotton pajama bottoms.

“Whatcha drawing?”

Before she could position herself behind him to view the illustration, Harmon softly shut the sketchbook and turned in his chair.

“I never show my work before its finished.”

She rolled her eyes and then offered him a beer.

“Wanna watch a movie?”

“Sure.”

He took one last look at the portrait upon the center of the wall and rose methodically, placing his drawing upon the small and only table in his temporary domicile.

They moved to the living room, Harmon taking up the same spot in which he had sat when last he and Lyla were still talking, however infrequently. Marla sat down beside him, just where Lyla had when they’d watched Andy’s strange horror film. Harmon couldn’t remember how much time had elapsed since the four of them had watched the movie. All sense of temporal continuity had left his mind. Marla snatched up the remote from the battered wooden coffee table and snapped the ON switch. The news played. A young, smartly dressed woman with asiatic features stood upon a dock, close to the camera. Behind her stood a massive oil rig, rising from the industrial architecture surrounding like a massive alien starship, bright with flame.

“-were able to contain the fire. While initial reports speculated the blast might have been caused by a methane bubble in the drill column, Anton Schmidt, a spokesman for Synnefo Consortium Heavy Industries, dispelled the theory and told me, in a interview just a few minutes ago that the source of the explosion has been determined to have originated from a detention device planted near the drill column.”

A spray-tanned and whiskey-bloated man in a navy blue suit with a silken red tie appeared upon a secondary feed to the right of the female reporter.

“Are you saying this was an act of terrorism?”

“That what it looks like, Joe.”

“Astounding. Absolutely astounding. Alright. Thanks Ling.”

The woman nodded turned from the camera as a crowd of men moved swiftly past her, towards the blazing oil rig.

“Thanks Joe-”

The feed cut out.

“I’m Joe J. Turner. Up next-”

Marla changed the channel as Harmon ran his hands from thighs to knees, spine curving as he bent forth in reverie.

“I can’t stand the news.”

Harmon turned towards her with a quizzical expression, “Why’s that?”

“Its so fucking depressing.”

“Good news is no news.”

“Rather not have any in that case, everything is depressing enough as it is,” she took a swig of beer and flicked the channel again. A film in early color played. A hideous amphibian monster attacked a woman in a pink bikini on a mist-covered beach as a melodramatic score, slightly too jubilant for the content, roared from the speakers.

“What’s got you down?”

She sighed and went lax, he head lolling against the couch cushion, her eyes wandering about the ceiling.

“I dunno. Its not one thing. Andy’s depressed. Doesn’t know what he’s going to do. For money. For a career. He can’t even decide on a hobby. Whole area is filthy. Trash everywhere. Drug peddlers. I thought it would be nice to get away from the city… but its precisely the same. And, oh, I don’t know… I just thought I’d be doing something interesting at this point in my life. Something better.”

She took a swig of beer and looked to Harmon expectantly.

“There’s no use worrying about that.”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

“What do you mean?”

“You never seem worried about anything. Didn’t seem to care at all you got fired. And by telephone. Didn’t even have the good grace to tell you to your face.”

“There’s always another job that needs doing.”

She shook her head.

“How is it you always manage to stay so calm?”

Harmon thought hard upon the question before answering.

“I focus.”

“On what?”

“On my art. I had long considered drawing and writing a hobby. A pleasant diversion. I figured I’d be working construction for many years. Maybe I still will… but I’ve had time to reflect. To reconsider. Now I understand the importance of crystallizing my thoughts; of channeling my attention; of pairing away my delusions and examining my mistakes; of elaborating upon my fantasies that they may become realities.”

“What have you been fantasizing about lately?”

Harmon turned and fixed her with his gaze, his expression opaque. Harmon imagined Lyla weeping, on her knees before him, laying bare her transgressions and begging for forgiveness. Honest and unabsolved. Desperately seeking reconciliation.

“About what I’ll be doing once I leave.”

She reached out and touched his arm.

“I hope you don’t feel pressured to leave. We don’t mind having you around.”

“I appreciate that, Marla. But you two are building a life together, and with all the problems Andy’s been having… I just don’t want to get in between that.”

She smiled and ran her hand down his arm, rolling her head over the couch cushion towards him.

“You’re so sweet. Oh hey, I meant to ask – that drawing. In your room. That’s Lyla, isn’t it?”

At the mention of the name Harmon straightened and answered flatly.

“Yes.”

He took a swig of beer and focused his attentions to the screen and the cop-drama unfolding before him.

“I thought so. Its really nice.”

“Thanks.”

“Wish someone would draw me.”

“Would you like me to?”

She smiled broadly and leaned against him.

“No,” she craned her neck up towards his face, her hands drawing about the back of his neck, “Right now, I want you to kiss me.”

Before Marla could taste his lips, Harmon shoved her hands free and withdrew and rose. He stood a moment, starring at the wall and then glanced at the woman over his shoulder.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Harmon, I’m sorry, I… just thought that-”

“I’m not disloyal.”

“I thought you and Lyla had broken up. I mean she never comes around and…”

“And what about Andy?”

“I wasn’t thinking. Harmon, wait, where are you going? Harmon, wait.”

The front door slammed shut and all was silence.

*

Roadkill

Sitting and lazily swiveling in my broken leatherette desk chair, I looked around my office, searching its contents for some sense of purpose for being there, but much to no avail.  Brown bookcases lined the walls, squeezed tightly together in a uniform fashion. The shelves were concave, virtually choking on artifacts collected (hoarded, really) over my three-year tenure at the university. Many of my interests, adopted since graduate school, were also sufficiently represented: Old English textbooks, manuals on psychotherapy, stacks of literature—most of the poetry and “dirty realism” ilk—and guides that promised to convey all one could ever want to know about qualitative research methods and their ethical applications. They were more distractions and dalliances than anything, really, that—in lieu of slowing things down and actually reflecting on my life—occupied my mind and most of my free time. Despite the random bursts of clutter that, strategically, were left untouched so as to add a sense of busyness to the room, it was a pleasant space to be in, with its dark, laminate wood furniture (in their varieties of almost-matching hues) and motley knick-knacks that, while decorative, gave visitors little to no information about the inner-workings of my head, leaving them a bit disturbed and slightly off-kilter. The main culprits were a gold-leaf Ganesh statue that doubled as a paperweight; a plaster skull that served as a makeshift bookend; a worn copy of the Zohar on the console table by the door; a metal dachshund on a wooden base, peeing on a fire hydrant; an earmarked book of daily reflections on stoicism; and a vintage toaster from the 1950s that sat atop the bookcase near the office’s rear window that immediately pulled one’s attention towards the back wall, where multiple degrees were mounted like stuffed deer heads, but with no sense of pride or accomplishment attached to them. Stopping mid-swivel, I eyed the few shelves dedicated to the field that I not only currently taught, as a full-time assistant professor, but had dedicated a good portion of my adult life to, social work.

Many titles rang familiar, as I had immersed myself in the profession (clinical practice to be exact) for more years than I cared to admit, hitting heights in my career that even I had never anticipated. I smiled and nodded to myself, as I scanned book spines for titles I was particularly fond of and found most useful. Most of them centered around cognitive-behavioral therapies and developmental theories: the subjects that had lent greatly to my success as a therapist and college instructor. Other titles were observed, however, inserted willy-nilly amongst the familiar, that fell upon my consciousness with a dismally lackluster thud. I had no recollection of where they came from or even why I bought them in the first place. Their subject matters were relevant enough, spanning everything from family therapy to mindfulness-based practice to the “science of compassion” (whatever that was), but I had never handled any of them, nor flipped a single page between any of their crease-free, paperback covers.

Must have been bought last year when I still gave a shit…or at least tried to, I thought to myself, disturbingly unmoved by the assumption.

Truth be told, I was no stranger to orchestrating a life based on what I “should” do, though the origin of that narrative really was never quite clear to me. The pursuit of upward mobility and goal attainment had become second-nature, making alternate options tantamount to failure or—at the very least—proof that all the things I had been trying to convince myself that I wasn’t were, indeed—after all—true. To ponder too long upon such thoughts was unacceptable. “We don’t do that,” my father used to say to me (when we were still speaking, anyway), after any suggestion of doubt or surrender was made audibly known, as if he were speaking to one of the many faceless football players he had coached during his long, acclaimed high-school teaching career. The radio silence between the old man and me should have made things easier for me to find a way out of my current sojourn into limbo, but it didn’t. Some specters follow you no matter how much time has passed. No matter how many skins you’ve shed and brushed under dusty carpets; they stick like birthdays or the need to breathe. No, those thoughts just didn’t do. They were weak. Dangerous. After all, what would chucking it all have meant in retrospect? All those years of graduate school. The years of training. The late nights and weekends working in the ER until sun-up. My private practice. The systematic sacrificing of what little personal life I had had. All wasted? No. That wasn’t an option. From a practical standpoint, it made absolutely no sense to shift gears this late in the game—much less, start over from scratch. That meant giving up everything I had talked myself into thinking was important and that couldn’t happen, even though I—more than anything—wished it could.

As the silence of my office began to stab at my ears, I was overcome with the urge to feel tethered to something—anything. The groundlessness of what seemed like a constant free-fall was beginning to wear on me.  I was always in my head, and when I was lucky enough to be present—really present—I felt pressed by the weight of it all—my life—and hyper-conscious of the meat that burdened my leaden bones.

My work had brought me a decent amount of security over the years, opening enough doors to help me coast through life. Up until a few months prior, that had been the most important thing in my small world, but—more and more—the prospect of more years of automaton-like productivity had begun to grate on me, gradually tearing away at the illusion of my career and its once-held platinum-card appeal. Maybe it was because I never really wanted to become a social worker—and clinician—in the first place. After all, it was just a means to an end, a way to prove something; though I wasn’t sure to whom. Maybe that was what came from expecting too much, or too little, or nothing at all. Maybe it was what came from forcing a purpose in life and not letting one just unfold before me. To have expected a different outcome seemed silly. In truth, the glamour had faded and, ultimately, I was left navigating a cold world of hard edges and empty space.

Leaning my head back onto my chair’s headrest, thoughts pulled me back to the summer of 1977 when I drowned in my apartment complex’s swimming pool; I always went there when I found myself walking that thin line between depression and numbness. School was out, so my sister and I had gone down to the pool to let off some steam and cut the boredom of the day. I remembered my father was there, reading a newspaper on a nearby bench with his usual cup of black coffee. My sister, Lisa, a pretty and slightly chubby girl, was laying on her stomach in a black Woolworth’s one-piece with sash-like fuscia and turquoise stripes that wrapped around her thick waist, flipping through a then-current issue of Tiger Beat magazine with John Travolta on the cover. I aimlessly dog-paddled about the shallow end of the pool, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my back and the silky coolness of the water that glided around my legs. After a while, a boy about my age—probably from another unit in the complex—entered the pool gate and headed to the patch of grass near the water. While close to the same height, the boy was much bigger than me. He threw his towel in the grass and dove in, surfacing close to where I was treading water. It wasn’t long before a friendly exchange took place, and both of us shot-the-shit, chatting about everything from Legos to what pains-in-the-ass sisters were. Eventually, a game of tag ensued, and we flopped about, darting to-and-fro, launching ourselves from the rough-surfaced pool walls in relentless, individual efforts to make the other ‘it.’ I remembered one of my ankles being grabbed and then being pulled down, hard, but not before an excited laugh escaped my lips; a moment of true, unadulterated happiness. I remembered being underwater for a long time, not being able to breathe or rise above the surface. There was thrashing and kicking. The pulling didn’t stop. I remembered the play of shimmering webs of sunlight on pool walls around me. I remembered the distorted world above the surface that seemed miles from where I was. I remembered panic and the color light-blue.

Then black.

When my eyes opened, I was on my back; the silhouette of Lisa’s head looming over me, as the noon sun beat down in a relentless assault. Instinctively, my eyes searched around for my father, but he was gone. It was just Lisa and me. She had given me CPR and saved my life; a fortuitous perk of her working part-time, as a lifeguard, at the city pool that summer.

“Oh, my God, Jacob! Are you ok? Are you ok?” Tears filled her eyes.

I was disoriented and had taken in a lot of water. I was too busy coughing up what seemed to be an endless supply of it to answer her. Each cough set off a fire in my chest, as small trickles of warm liquid splashed upon the concrete under my left cheek.  “Where is Dad? I want dad!” I cried.

“He’s getting help. You stopped breathing, Jacob. We—I couldn’t find a pulse. Oh, my God! You scared us to death! Are you ok?” Barely navigating her way through the too many emotions she was having, she pulled up my limp body from the ground and hugged me, tightly; something that had never happened before. “That fucking asshole! Was he trying to kill you?”

“What? Who?” I asked, laying back down on the warm, wet concrete, finding its hardness soothing.

“That kid. That asshole you were playing with! He pulled you down and wouldn’t let go.”  Lisa began to cry, stifling her sobs, as she continued. “I—we didn’t notice what was happening until…We saw you under the water. You weren’t moving!”

Lisa moved away to give me some air, leaving me even more muddled and blinded by the sun. I asked, “What happened to him?”

Lisa looked confused. “What are you talking about, Jacob?”

“The boy. Where is he?”

“I dove in and tried to pull you away from him, but he just wouldn’t let go. He wouldn’t stop. Asshole! That fucking asshole!”

“So, how did you—”

“I kicked the fucker in the stomach! Hard! That’s how!  He wouldn’t let you go!  I snatched you away and he took off, crying. I don’t know where. I pulled you out and…you weren’t breathing. You weren’t breathing!” She sobbed, wiping hot tears from her cheeks. “I checked after I got you out. You didn’t have a… Are you ok?” I had never seen her look at me with such care before. For a moment, it felt nice.

About a minute passed before I could speak, as I clutched the hard ground beneath me, waiting for the world to stop spinning as if I could be flung off into the blackness of space at any minute. “I think so,” I said, still in shock, shivering. I raised myself onto my elbows, slowly, with my eyes—like my chest—burning with chlorine. “Where is Dad? I want dad! Where was he? Did he see?” I asked, wishing it had been him who had saved me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the bench where he had been sitting; a newspaper was neatly folded on its surface and his coffee cup was gone.

I rarely thought of that summer day; it, essentially, remained wiped from my memory, except for when things got low—really low—which happened every so often, but still more than I cared for. I chuckled to myself at the irony of being saved only to live a life that didn’t seem like mine anymore. Guess God wasn’t done with the show yet. At times I felt like maybe things were so hard because I did come back, almost as if I wasn’t supposed to be here anymore, and the world let me know that at every turn. Or maybe I didn’t come back all the way—a jumble of remnants that couldn’t quite be properly pieced together, again. It was all so tiring, but that is what happens when you live life on a dare; the words “want” and “can’t” just don’t exist, so there is no choice but to keep moving and trying until the day you just don’t anymore. Truth be told, I longed for that day, sometimes, but that wasn’t up to me.

I could hear the custodian cleaning the office next door; he would be in my office soon.  It was almost six in the evening, according to the clock on the computer. I let out a long, drawn-out exhale and gathered a stack of ungraded papers from under my keyboard and stuffed them into my satchel, powered down the computer, and prepared to lock up for the night. I turned off the lights and took one last look around the space for anything I may have missed. Turning to leave, I slightly hesitated, noticing how peaceful the room was without the electric hums of fluorescents and a running computer. It was time to go, though.

Papers to gradeDogs to feedSleep.

The drive home was calming. The lulling, rhythmic kisses of rubber treads on the road. The random selections of my iTunes on low. The stale smell of cigarettes and sweat in my car that reminded me of my grandfather, who died forty years ago too soon, and his old, white Ford pick-up. I took the backroads home, as I always did, which took a little longer, but they were rarely used that late in the day, so I could take my time driving when the inclination hit me. I didn’t mind. I liked to drive, especially when the quiet in my life threatened to overtake me, granting license to thoughts and memories to rouse and scramble, looking for hints of light that seeped in through doors, opened ajar, hungry for recognition. I reached my right hand over towards the passenger’s seat, threw back the flap of my satchel, and dug into its contents for a Marlboro, fumbling through the sharp edges of papers and uncapped pens with determined purpose. Keeping vigilant, my eyes were fixed on the road, ahead, when I felt the edge of a cardboard box graze my fingertips. I pulled out the pack and with my thumb flipped open the top, bringing it to my lips, where I proceeded to pull out a lone cigarette with my teeth. I lit it with the lighter I had purchased that morning at 7-11; one more to add to the slew that I had, progressively, stockpiled at home in errant drawers, leather bags, and even the bathroom, where I ritualistically had my first smoke of the day, after dragging myself out of bed. I always forgot them when I left the house—too many thoughts, too early.  I took a long, crackling drag and held it in my lungs for a while, exhaled, and then wrested my wrist on top of the steering wheel. As the cigarette dangled between me and the speedometer, I eyed the yellow-grey smoke, as it streamed from its flaming cherry, lost in how it rippled and curled like a fine silk ribbon. I admired the graceful poetry of it and thought it a shame to turn it to shreds with another exhale.

A loud ruckus suddenly broke my reverie, as the car and everything in it shook and shifted.

Shit! Did I hit something?

My eyes darted forward and found nothing but open road, then I quickly looked into the rear-view mirror, noticing nothing but a blackening sky that slowly melting into asphalt that was divided by intermittent dashes of vibrant yellow. Pulling my attention back to the world outside the windshield, I noticed a shock of red among the dark hues that flooded the rear-view. I squinted and focused, intently, into the mirror, noticing a band of red that stretched in tandem along the road’s surface, while my tires intermittently jarred and sounded, as if driving over stones and wet, rolled-up newspapers. Confused, I clutched the steering wheel with my other hand—so hard I pumped the blood out of my knuckles—and scanned the road before me, noticing the same ruddy hue extending off into the distance. Clumps of black speckled the highway, disappearing into the periphery, as quickly as my tires propelled me home. Intermittent bumps and pops from the road, below, reverberated within the cabin.

What?

I tossed my cigarette out of the cracked, driver-side window.

Something got run over.

I checked the rear-view, again, and saw no cars behind me, then decelerated to better see what was going on straight-ahead.

It’s blood…and fur.

Given the distance that the length of gore had stretched and the amount of carrion on the road, it appeared as if some poor animal had been hit and dragged along for quite some time. As if in an automatic response, I turned the wheel, slightly, to adjust the position of the car within the lane, centering it directly over the deathly strip. Off to my right in the distance, I spied a motionless black mass by the side of the highway, much larger than what had then been feeding the road and my tires. I drove on and followed my “guide” until it minimized into sporadic smears and splatters that trailed off onto the side of the road, where the still thing lay. Veering off, I parked just ahead of it, turned off the ignition, and just sat there, staring at it in the rear-view.

A quiver possessed my legs, as I noticed my hands were still grasping the steering wheel.  I released them, my right hand instinctively searching for another cigarette

Damn!

Stopping myself, I remembered I had just smoked the last one.

It’s gotta be dead.  No way he could survive that.

I wondered why I had stopped. What could I do? It didn’t make sense, but something inside me knew I had to stop and take a look. Bracing myself, I released the seatbelt and opened the door. The air that night was cooler the usual—chilly, almost. I poked my head out into the dimmed light of evening and looked to the right, then left. Still no cars. I—we—were alone. I got out, closed the door, and took a deep breath. I looked ahead of me at a field of cotton that flanked the left side of the highway. The stalks looked black against the evening sky with a peppering of stark white that punctuated the—seemingly—lifeless expanse’s absence of color. It seemed colder all of a sudden—the air more humid and nipping than before.

I turned to my left and walked towards the heap, the crunching of gravel and clods of dried mud beneath my feet. With every step, splatters of crimson and bits of meat and fur marred the path ahead of me. I finally came upon it. The headless tangle of broken limbs—a dog, likely—had thick, black, wooly fur, that was stickily matted with congealing blood and gore. It was sprawled out in an almost apologetic fashion, seeming to want to edge its way towards the shallow canal just beyond its reach, past a patch of chaparral trees some forty feet away from where I stood. Looking down upon the sad lump, safely distanced from it (though safe from what I didn’t know), I stood in silence and inspected my “summoner.” Shards of bone and bloody, gray innards crept out of peeks of torn flesh. Flies and ants had already started to feast.

Doesn’t take long, does it?

The smell of carnage hung in the moist air like the odor of pennies that had been held in a sweaty fist for too long. I thought of how much it must have suffered. How long it must have taken to die.

All alone…out here.

I wondered if he belonged to anyone. If he was missed. If anyone even cared… or would.  No answers came. Just the whispering of the wind through the chaparrals and black stalks of cotton beyond.

I wanted to feel sad, but didn’t… couldn’t. Something stirred within my chest; a burning.  I thought about what I would have done if I had found the animal alive. I would have tried to save it—if I could. Stayed with it—if all was lost—so he wouldn’t have to die alone; a prospect that made the fire in my chest rage even more. I imagined it alive and what it might have looked like, a pair of pleading, brown eyes, looking up at me for comfort; a tail, furiously wagging. In my head, I heard it whining and whimpering from fear and pain.  “We don’t do that,” escaped my lips before my consciousness could ground me in the bloody place where I stood. My eyes began to sting and moisten, but no tears came. Silent and fatigued, I hung my head, as if in prayer, and watched the fading sun glistening off dampened, black fur and red-tinted bones, finding my thoughts pulling me towards the comforts of home and six dogs that were very much alive.

Before I got back into my car to leave, I pulled off the college ring I had bought myself years ago, after graduation, and tossed it onto the carcass, as if to show any passers-by that he—maybe I— wasn’t alone.

Todesregel Isle (Part II)

The scavenger watched the newcomers from a tor-borne perch above the marsh. They had found the body. It was only a matter of time until those that had put it there found them. He did not envy them their predicament.

*

Villavic and the hundred and nineteen cast-aways trudged up out of the marsh to the north, shuddering with the cold and all the while not a single soul spoke. Villavic’s mind churned relentlessly, with thoughts of the terror in the swamp and what could possibly have done it. It was no native island animal, of that he was certain. He had seen nothing but crows and gulls and lizards and insects since he had been interred on the worthless strip of land and all such creatures proved unaccustomed to Man and his ceaseless intrusion and darted for the shadows or the sky upon his approach. It had been a man. Or a woman. Or a band thereof. Who were they? Why had they committed such an atrocity? Perhaps there was no accounting for it, he thought dejectedly. Why did cats torture their prey, sometimes without eating it? He could find no answer. There seemed to be no evolutionary advantage to the action, no increase in survivability, if anything, the feline’s decadence both wasted energy and put it in danger of becoming prey itself.

The pangs of hunger there overtook him and broke the man from dark reverie. He paused and unshouldered the sacks of flour and rolled his shoulder with a grunt of pain and looked to the hideous swamp, now behind him. The scent of moldering fungus and decaying vegetal matter seethed about the forest which rose up around the wayward prison-band. The temperature dropped in tandem with the rise of the moon, which shone like the eye of some ghastly and eldritch being and snow began to flutter from the sky.

“What kind of place is this?” Derrick exclaimed.

“Cursed.” The old crone declared with some difficulty, “Cursed.” Shortly, the old crone swayed and slumped against a young fir, too tired to continued on as the mangy congregation surrounding let up a cry of dismay at their ill fortune. Murmurs of discontent rebounded throughout the forest.

“Where are we going? We’re on an island, there is no where to go.” A burly ex-boxer grunted.

“Better in the forest than on the shoreline. ‘specially with a storm coming in. Look at the clouds.” A middle-aged and mustached barkeep replied.

The waif braced the old woman and struggled to move her from the fir to a mossy, low cave some fifty feet off in the distance as the wind kicked up and tore at cloth and skin. Villavic gave a shout for all to press for the cave at which point the murmuring ceased and all looked with hungry hope towards the dark crevace. A disputation erupted when it was discovered that only half of their number could fit within the cavern. A fist fight broke out and shortly Villavic’s voice thundered across the portal to the abyss as the snow began to stream in thick whorls.

“Enough. Fighting will gain us nothing. All the elderly, young, womenfolk and sickly should be allowed harbourage therein, all else, who’er of sturdier stock, can find other safety elsewhere and, at daybreak, we can meet once more.”

“Are you mad, man?” The ex-boxer growled, stalking towards Villavic threateningly, “If we stay out here throughout the night, there won’t be a morning. We wouldn’t live to see daybreak.”

“Only if we stay out in the open. Your name?”

“Gunter.”

“Help me, a moment,” Villavic gestured to the big man with his left arm and girded the snow from his face with his right and moved to a fallen tree branch, thick and gnarled, like a withered hand.

“Help your bloody self, you fool.” The pugilist turned his back on Villavic and strode imperiously towards the cave, when a few of the men tried to stop him and talk he struck he shunted them aside. A brawl erupted once more. The women and children ran from the broil and hid in the cave as the men grappled neath the auspices of the wind’s savage increase.

“Imbeciles,” Villavic muttered before flinging himself into the fray, heading straight for the prime instigator.

“Gunter, there is no time for this idiocy.” Villavic’s voice, despite its strength, was barely audible above the skyhowl. The men around the fringes of the contest paused and watched like famished wolves as Gunter turned to his challenger. Villavic stood tall. Their gaze met like rending steel. Muscles tensed. Seconds later there came a dull thud and the big man crumpled to the snowy ground. Behind him stood the waif with a long, thick tree branch in her scarred and shaking hands.

Todesregel Isle (Part I)

The wind hissed and twined like ethereal snakes above the taiga. All was silent save the cawing of crows who high-circled the heads of the prisoners on the creaking ferry and they one hundred and twenty in number, all chained and over-watched by guards who moved pendulously, left to right, machine guns at-the-ready, eyes masked by helmet-dark. One lit up a cigarette and watched a pack of crows tear an eagle from the sky without comment or concern.

No distinction was made nor given to that swelling fearful mass of fletynge flesh, all similarly garbed in gray, tattered wool, white bands of incrimination upon every arm, distinguishable in the failing light due only their size and pallor. Though all fettered shook with the chill casting off the water like the spirit of death, none dared raised their voice in protest to the bandless sentries who stalked the deck like clockwork toys.

Gregor Villavic starred at the chains about his wrists and ankles and followed them to their source in the side of the ship. If the vessel capsized there would, for the prisoners, be no escape. He turned and watched a pale boy look to his arm band and thought of his ragged little body eaten by fish, bloated by wave-churn and parasites. The child whispered that his armband reminded him of his mother’s tablecloth and that it had been tied too tight by the guards. He asked if Villavic would remove it. The man shook his head and leaned against cold steel of the ship, “If I try to take it off, they’ll shoot us. You know why this is happening. Why they put that on you?”

The boy shook his head.

Villavic nodded, more to himself than the boy and arched his back to view the island, fast encroaching. The isle was small and uneven and covered in mist and strange jutting tors that looked like the ferne halwes to a deity beyond all reckoning. When the ship made landfall the guards ordered the prisoners up and set a plank and disembarked and loosed their fleshy cargo on a rock outcrop just beyond the shore as the wind tore above them like an insane curse. The guards threw them four bags of flour and told them that should they try to leave the island they would drown and should they not, they’d be shot by the villagers on the land surrounding who were under orders from the regional regime.

An old woman wailed and began to cry like as the women and the waves lashed the shore and soiled the sediment with foam like the blood of some cthonic beast and then receded as a strange bird loosed a howl as if in welcome.

Villavic stood up straight and addressed the crowd, “I know none of you. Not your names, nor your religion or from whence you came. None of that matters now. All that matters is cooperation. You there,” He pointed to a bald middle aged man missing an eye and most of his front teeth.

“Derrick.” The bald man replied flatly, his glassy eyes flicking to Villavic and then back to the prison ship as it ghosted into the mist and vanished from sight.

“Derrick, you look fitter than most, can you help me carry the flour.”

The bald man nodded.

“Good. Lets try and find a place to sleep. Somewhere further inland.”

The women weren’t listening and the old crone sobbed and hugged herself, muttering a prayer under her breath and rocking back and forth.

“What is her name?”

Derrick shrugged. A reedy waif spoke up with suddenness.

“Olga, sir. She doesn’t speak yer tongue.”

“Do you speak hers, girl?”

The waif nodded and addressed the crone who nodded solemnly and said a final prayer and rose awkwardly, so weak with fear and the depredations of the crossing that she could barely stand. Villavic gestured for all to rise and shortly the crowd was brought under his control and he lead them from the southern shore to the north, up a steep incline which flattened out into a filthy marsh, coated at every turn with skeletal brush and reeds the bones of animals. Up went a wail as the crone fell to her knees in the filth, making a sign that was unfamiliar to all but the waif and she gasping with terror the whole of her pallid frame. When Villavic followed their gaze he cursed neath his breath.

Laying in the muck before the women was a human skull, slick with blood.

Derrick and an old man with a long gray beard sided up to Villavic as the waif led the crone away from the horror.

“That poor soul was hewn to pieces. Hair and flesh still cling to it. Whatever killed the man, they did it not long ago.” The old man intoned grimly.

Villavic surveyed the settling dark apprehensively and responded flatly.

“Whatever or whoever.”

Firebug

Devlin Carver heard it in the morning. The dull scratching on the ceiling that had kept him up half the night. Something in the walls…

He rubbed the dream-dust from his eyes and rose and paused, listening intently. The scratching intensified for a brief moment and then fell silent. Shortly, the sound started up again in roughly the same spot.

Insects.

Carver cursed under his breath and moved to the left to examine the wall, placing his ear against the dull, green surface. The sound of multi-legged skittering greeted him. Could be termites. Pine beetles. Ants. Something else. Maybe a family of mice or some other type of rodent. He considered his options as he showered and hurriedly dressed. He’d need to call a exterminator to rid his tiny house of the mysterious scourge on his way to work. Unless…

“I wonder if I could make a trap?” He mumbled aloud as he brushed his teeth. He had no idea what kind of insects were in the walls and thus, had no idea what kind of trap to build. When he thought on the matter for just a little longer he realized he had no knowledge of insect traps whatsoever. He knew that sticky paper could get rid of flies and certain zapper-lights could kill moths and other light-drawn night-fliers, but he’d no notion of how to construct such items, nor where to purchase them and figured it didn’t much matter because such devices wouldn’t work inside his peeling walls. He hoped his erstwhile guests weren’t possessed of some vile disease. He’d heard of that before. Read of it. Bug disease.

Suddenly, the scratching came again – so swift and loud and sudden that it caused Devlin to swallow a little of his toothpaste by accident. He cursed under his breath and turned to the flat, tiled wall. There was nothing. It was as if the creatures in the wall could tell when he was near…

*

Devlin arrived at work five minutes late and was met by Jamie Brinks outside his work station.

“Where in Waldo’s name have you been?”

“I was only five minutes late.”

“Seven now.”

“Shit.”

“Cameron is gonna flip.”

“He’s always flipping about something.”

“You been sleeping ok, man? You look a little… brittle.”

“Couldn’t sleep last night. Some kind of… infestation… in my house. You know me. I keep tidy. Don’t know how it happened. But, anyway, it sounded like… insects… or… something.”

“Gross. Sorry to hear that.”

“Can hear them in the walls. Gotta call an exterminator. Know any?”

“Uh, yeah, actually, I do. When Maggie brought back one of her weirdo foreign plants, turned out to be filled with some kind of tree-killing beetle and the damn things went around and started fucking up our orchard. Killed the fuck outta all the trees. Can’t remember their names. The trees or the bugs. Anyways, we called this small company that operates out of the suburbs. Cheap, quick, clean. I can give you the number.”

Brinks reached into his suit’s inner breast pocket, withdrew a memo pad and a pen and began furiously jotting down a name and phone number.

“Thanks, man. Appreciate it.”

“Ah, shit, here comes Cameron.”

A short, fat man strode – or rather waddled – up to the duo, his pin-prick eyes smouldering with strange intensity and his shiny, spa-smoothed brow reflecting like a mirror. He looked, to Carver, like some kind of disgruntled bullfrog.

“You’re late. Again.”

“Sorry.”

“I don’t need apologies. I need good workers who know how to set their alarms. Clearly that isn’t you.”

“But sir-”

“You’re fired.”

*

Devlin Carver shook his head and ate a pickle and called the waitress of the diner over and ordered another coffee; he wanted a drink of something stronger but detested the taste of alcohol. He simply couldn’t believe he’d been fired for being only a few minutes late. It was only the fourth time in four years. So what, he thought furiously, so what if I’m late, so fucking what? He thought back to his time at the company, clicking a keyboard, filing reports, getting yelled at for incompetence and laziness. Four years of his life down the drain. Four years of his life spent laboring for a company whose board and CEO he’d never even seen or talked to, four years he could have been building up his own company, his own venture, his own life, rather than serving those he didn’t even have the courtesy to give him the time of day. It was all their fault. Them and those things in his walls.

Motes of dust like flecks of burning gold spun through the ambered light of the Jenny’s diner. He wondered who Jenny was, if she was the fat woman behind the counter to the far left of the room or the hot little number serving beer and sandwiches to an old couple at a table to the right. The duo must have been in their late sixties, perhaps old, and yet they chortled and moved with a vivacity that Carver associated with the gilded fervor of youth. He bet they had plenty of cash to burn. Coasting on retirement funds. Subsidized unto the tomb. The pickle raised before his mouth slipped from his hand and splashed upon his breeches, soiling them with juice, prompting a muted curse. The man’s fists shook as he picked up the pickle and grabbed a napkin off the table and began sopping up the mess as the buxom waitress, returning from the old couple, began to laugh, siding up to Carver with a twinkle in her eye.

“Having some technical difficulties, sir?”

“Doing fine. Thanks. Just dropped my pickle.”

” You dropped your pickle on your pickle.”

She laughed raucously but quickly brought herself under control as her boss shot a dissaproving frown in her direction. Carver wanted to punch her. Wanted to slam her over-powdered face straight into the corner of the table. He remained silent.

“I’m sorry, sir, I shouldn’t laugh. Anything I can get you?”

“Got a new pair of pants in the back?”

She smiled and chuckled as Carver forced a smile.

“Fraid not.”

“Didn’t think so. Thanks for asking.”

A jolt of realization shot through his mind and he scrambled for his phone as the waitress went about her work. He had forgotten his date. Julia was going to be distraught. What was the time, he thought frantically, what was the time! He pulled out his phone and sighed.

He was late for his date. Late by half an hour.

He paid for his meal and hailed a cab.

*

When he arrived at the Scallop he was greeted by an exceedingly prim, mustached waiter who leaned towards his ear.

“You are Mr. Carver, yes?”

“That’s me.”

“Julia Farrah, with whom you had secured a reservation, wanted me to deliver a message,” the waiter handed a small folded piece of paper to Carver and then shifted away.

“Where’d she go?”

The waiter paused briefly arched his brows, “She left, ten minutes ago.”

*

Carver blamed the things in the walls. For his firing. For the spilled pickle. For missing his date. Costing him his relationship and it but fetal and barely formed, so filled with promise, now dashed. He would have gotten up at day-break if the whatever-in-the-walls had not have kept him up half the night with their incessant chittering.

He swigged vodka from a ceramic coffee cup adorned with palm trees and hula girls and looked out the window of his decaying apartment at a gang of youths harass police officers on the street.

“It’s not my fault.”

As if in response he heard the chittering. A rancid insectal thrumming.

“It’s not my fault.”

He started, eyes widening and then swore and threw his cup at the wall of his study where it shattered, raining ceramic fragments to the floor. The noise ceased momentarily and then picked up, louder than ever. Carver’s ears rang. His head felt as if it would, at any moment, burst under the strain of the ratcheting aural assault.

He rose and kicked the wall, but the sound only increased. He swore and snatched up his cell and punched in the number that Brinks had given him. A smooth male voice answered on the other end.

“Y’ello.”

The voice sounded strikingly familiar to Carver, though he could recall who it belonged to or where he’d heard them speak.

“Hi. This is Devlin Carver. Jamie Brinks gave me this number. Said you were a good exterminator.”

“You say your name was Devlin Carver?”

“Yeah.”

“I think I know you.”

Devlin paused, furrowing his brows and pursing his lips, “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, you’re Julie’s friend, right?”

Devlin froze, his knuckles going white about the phone, eyes engorged with the dying amber light that filtered in through his windows from the slowly setting sun. He had heard this voice before, at Julie’s family’s Fourth of July party…

“Who is it, babe?” A female voice inquired from somewhere in the near distance.

Devlin hung up the phone. He knew if he didn’t he’d scream. The noise started up again, scratching the interior folds of his brain much as it scratched the plaster and drywall. He rose and moved from his study in the far left corner of the room to his bed on the opposite side of the room and threw himself against the sheets as motes of dust leapt into the air. In the golden light of the vanishing sun, they looked to all the world like ashes from a crackling fire. The noise continued to pummel his brain, now coming from the floors and the ceiling. He put the pillow over his head and then screamed as his bed began to reverberate with the chittering.

Carver leapt off the bed and lit a candle on his nightstand, shut his window and ran for the kitchen and turned on the gas and left the tenement as the sun and the world was covered in shuddering darkness.

*

Carver watched the firemen tend to the charred ruins of his former home. The ensuing flames from the explosion had taken out at least five other apartments. The skittering sound had ceased. The things in the walls were gone. Gone forever.

Unless…

Unless the creatures in the walls were fireproof…

The Iron Garden: Part.12

Campaign

Angela Vikander stood anxiously upon the balcony of her expansive highrise, overlooking the main thoroughfares of the city. She wanted a cigarette badly but had decided to quit, a move to improve her image; it had been Erlen’s idea. Vikander cursed her campaign manager under her breath. Damn him. Why the hell do I need to quit smoking? No potential voters is going to know or much care what the fuck I do in private. No one cares what people do in the privacy of their own homes. Look at those genderqueer freaks… no one bats an eye any more about them and their bizarro protests, their period fetishes… any sane person would gag seeing those loons. Yet you see the news hen-pecking them, Erlen? Fuck no. No one gives a shit.

These were inappropriate thoughts, she well knew, thoughts which, if given voice, would sink her campaign almost as quickly as the CAF albatross which had been thrown about her neck. Everything was coming apart at the seams. She inhaled deeply and leaned against the cool steel of the balcony as a voice echoed from behind.

“You look a little stressed. Did I come in at a bad time?”

She turned to address Erlen Straik. He was a short, thin man, with immaculately styled hair, designer glasses and a swooning way of moving that Vikander had always found infuriatingly effete and affected.

“No. What is it?”

“You need to see this.”

He moved to the table in the middle of her make-shift conference room and laid out a news article. The headline read: CAF Attacks Art Gallery. What Part Did Vikander Play?

Angela sighed, “That from The Trumpet. They’ve been pro-Layne since he announced his campaign.”

As Straik pulled his phone out of his pocket and swiped the screen, illuminating his face with dim, blue light.

“That isn’t all, it gets worse.”

He showed her a online article from his news-feed, the title read: Prominent Democrat Backer, Damien Holt Declares End of Support For Vikander Campaign.

“That bastard… He didn’t even call me!”

“It’s pretty bad. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way but… what were you thinking? Arguing with Layne in the middle of a public gala?”

“He made a snide remark. When he saw me he smirked like the smug fuck he is and said, ‘Surprised to see you here, figured the Epstein Institute would be more your speed.’”

“I don’t get it. The what-now?”

“The Epstein Institute. Geez, you’re supposed to be my campaign manager how do you not know this?”

“I’ve been busying doing damage control all morning. So sooorry.”

“Don’t do that.”

“What?”

“That bitchy little lisp thing.”

Straik shook his head and then looked to the would-be mayor once again.

“So why’d this make you angry again?”

“The Epstein Institute is some weird art center, all contemporary abstract stuff, you know, paintings of white squares and statues of police men beating immigrants, all either on-the-nose or political propaganda or some kind of “deep” art that is beyond everyone but the artists who make them.”

“So he was saying you were a pretentious snob?”

“God you’re slow… yes, Erlen, he was implying I was a pretentious snob. So I made some quip back at him, I can’t even remember what I said, it was all a blur – the doctor put me on these shitty pain meds, been messing with my short term memory –  anyways, we were there arguing one moment and then those CAF freaks broke in and-”

“Those CAF ‘freaks’ are some of your biggest supporters.”

“Unfortunately.”

“Their vote is as good as any. Besides, we can turn this to our advantage. We already know how this is going to play out.”

“Do we? I was never much of a student of history but the one thing that I learned from reading it is that assumptions concerning the future almost never pan out accurately.”

“Almost. Pretty big almost.”

“Ever heard of Nostradamus?”

“Who?”

“Nevermind. So what’s rattling about that devious brain of yours?”

“Well, like I was saying, we know how this is going to play out because we know Layne and his base. Nativist populism almost always manifests itself in the exact same way. They’ll say that CAF are terrorists, that they’re threatening the public’s safety – especially after the recent cold-cocks which Layne’s taken – and they’ll try to directly tie you to CAF so that you take responsibility. So we can then say that if you are to be blamed for the unurged actions of your supporters, then Layne must be blamed for the actions and words of the actual Neo-Nazis and fascists which support Layne. We just have to be sure that we pound the table the loudest.”

Vikander nodded in silent affirmation before responding.

“Put out a memo.”

“You should also probably drop this thing with Partridge.”

“The fuck I will.”

“You can’t beat him in the press.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“Why are you so dead-set on getting to him anyways? Because he supports Layne? I mean, ok, but I just don’t get it.”

“Lynder Partridge is one of the most influential people in this city, he’s the one who put Layne up on the pedestal he now precariously occupies. If Partridge goes down in flames, so does Layne.”

“I don’t know that that is necessarily true. I mean, Layne has kinda become his own thing. His supporters – I mean his die-hard supporters – at this point would follow him for him not because of his big backers or even for the change they think he can bring.”

“Yes, all those slavering “patriots” consider him their dear, little leader… But he’s not really in control. He’s just a puppet.”

Erlen gave a sudden wry chuckle.

“Aren’t we all?”

The Iron Garden: Part.11

The knock came late at night, sharp and sudden as the deluge that followed it. Skies loosed their astral tears upon the tumble-down motel as Afua stirred and wrapped her aged bones in a tattered shawl.

“Who is it?” Kojo rasped from the bed adjacent her own.

“I don’t know.”

“Well go and see, woman.”

She nodded dutifully and rose from her bed in the left corner of the motor inn and rubbed the sand from her eyes as thunder roared in the distance with Apophitic fury. Pulling back the curtain no forms revealed themselves to her. Nothing and no one stood beyond in the frigid downpour that coated the gray gravel drive beyond the abode’s confines in a sheen grayer still. She looked through the view-hole of the door and beheld a tall man standing in the rain, he wore a dark navy ball cap low over his face and a albescent jacket of white with red geometric patterning upon the shoulders and elbows. Afua straightened and raised her voice, taking care to abate the fear that rose within her soul.

“Who is it?”

The door caught her in the face from the man’s kick with such ferocity that it took the frail old woman off her feet, the whole of the world spinning to a singular blur; nothing but motion, sound and endless fright. Kojo leapt up from his bed and lunged for the lamp which stood upon the nightstand adjacent the bed. With a grunt of exertion he swung the artifact at the intruder’s head but connected only with the powerful right hand of the intruder who ripped it from Kojo’s own and dashed it back against the wielder. Kojo staggered which gave the trespasser all the time he need to swing a haymaker into the dark man’s gut. Kojo dropped to his knees, recovered and with a howl of rage charged the entrant. The tackle drove the intruder up against the wall, from some hidden belt-sheath the intruder produced a black-glistening combat knife and drove it into Kojo’s shoulder, retracted it and then kicked the African in the gut where the punch had previously landed. Kojo fell to one side, gasping for air and bleeding out upon the carpet, groaning in pain.

“What do you want!” Kojo sputtered, straining against the searing sensation in his clavicle.

The man with the combat knife did not answer. His ghastly xanthous eyes shining through the dark, his body ferine in the flashing emergence of the tempest. Lynx-like in its limber austerity.

“We have n-nothing! We’re poor. There is nothing to take here. We have nothing!”

At last the man responded.

“You have your lives.”

Kojo, eyes wide and breath erratic, sprang for the door as the xanthous eyed man made to piece his spine with the deadly blade. Before he could reach his quarry the old woman latched on to his leg, crying hysterically. The blade whisked through the air, slicing nothing but shadows.

“He’s all I have! He’s all I have!”

The woman distracted the xanthous-eyed man just long enough for Kojo to make his escape and vanish into the gravel drive, now fogged by skyfall. Spiraling black arms and expanded brown eyes and the sound of rain and footfalls of the harried and then Kojo was gone.

The man turned and watched Kojo flee; Afua could see a strange sigil upon the back of jacket as he crooked. A red and mathematically perfect chrysanthemum. Then the man with the chrysanthemum jacket returned his attention to the old woman and removed a small drawing from his back pocket. It was the artwork of a child, drawn in crayon, it depicting a scene of three adults and a little brown boy. One of the figures born a considerable resemblance to Afua herself. The drawing was signed: Adam. Afua began to cry again, shaking her head, eyes shuttered, grasping the man’s leg in vain entreaty.

“He was a cursed child!” She looked up pleasingly into remorseless yellow eyes, “We h-had no c-choice… no choice…”

“There’s always a choice.”

Then he plunged the knife through the top of her skull.

*

Kojo pulled over at the curb of the highway which let back into the city, cursing under his breath and attempting to calm the frenzied buzzing of his mind. He looked to his bleeding shoulder and rummaged in the glove box, pulling out the bottle of rubbing alcohol he’d kept there for Adam who had sometimes cut himself playing around town in the rubble of The Tombs or the ramshackle odds-and-ends of the Old Wharf. A momentary grief seized him and the whole of his consciousness began to shatter as a building rent by the roaring earth. Tears filled his eyes as poured the liquid upon the wound, half from the searing pain, half from memories and dreams remembered. He closed his eyes and leaned heavily against the leather upholstery of the car-seat and thought of Afua and Adam and their times together and of his homeland, the harsh and overbearing light of the suns upon the Safari and the chattering of his fellows where they had gathered around a late-night campfire and told stories up unto the moon and of the warnings of the wise oracles and of the witch doctor from Uganda who he had once conferred with and of the Evil Forest where he had buried three children at the behest of the concoction men of his village in Bongo. He had resisted – at first – but the elders had convinced him that administration of the poison was all that could dissuade the evil spirits. He knew they were right. Knew way back then that what he had done, no matter how trying, was necessary to secure the welfare of his family lest they starve in the coming of hard times. He was less sure now of the validity of the elder’s wisdom. At length he collected his wits and dug his cell phone out of his pocket and punched in a number, the call was answered in a matter of moments.

“Yes?”

“It’s me. Someone is after me.”

“I fail to grasp how that concern us.”

“Karol owes me. He owes me after everything I’ve done for him. I need help.”

“Whoever doesn’t?”

The line clicked off to silence. Kojo looked to his phone in disbelief and then gave a howl of despair and slammed the steering wheel with his rough and battered hands and then fell silent as the downpour redoubled beyond the stuttering, little machine.

At length he stilled the raging flux of inner mind and pulled off the curb, vanishing into the pall of the rain-cloaked waste. Back to the city.

The Iron Garden: Part.10

*

Kojo sipped whiskey out of a mason jar and then stubbed out his cigarette in a small, tin peach can as the fan whirred about his head, fanning the air and a mechanical waspish whirring out into the cloister of the old, decaying motel. The inn straddled the intersection of The Tombs and the docks, near to Vandemburgh’s principal thoroughfare and the great bridge which let out of the city altogether. Afua was crying again. Head in her hands. Such behavior came and went in sudden spasms, like the ebb and flow of the lunar-tide. She sat now, bleary-eyed and muscle-tense, a bag of bones and sorrow, in the far left corner of the sparsely decorated living room. Kojo lit up another cigarette, ignoring the woman’s plight. He’d quite enough of it. Was tired of it.

“Adam… my little Adam.”

“Adam is gone. Your tears won’t reach him.”

“How can you be so cruel?”

“He was a cursed child.”

The woman shook her head. Though she agreed, she was loathe to admit it.

*

The television flicked as the news anchor read from the teleprompter, “Good evening, I’m Ted Braston with News Tonight. First, our special report, and I must warn you this report contains graphic images which you may find disturbing. A mysterious fire has engulfed the Johnson Tenements of Lowtown, sometimes known half mockingly as The Tombs, in the eastern district of the city of Vandemburgh. Two bodies were recovered from the smoldering remnants. One has been identified as Edward Joseph Brine, a member of the Counsel of Human Rights. The second, Catherine Reilly, a student of the Vandemburgh Institute of the Arts. What was most bizarre was that both individuals were confirmed to have died before the fire. Reports from the scene state that Ms. Reilly died of burns from a propane operated steel-cutting device of high industrial grade. Brine’s cause of death was also due to this same device which was found at the scene. Both were found chained and bound, we will spare you the… truly horrifying details. The Vandemburgh police department have stated that the fire was caused by leaking gas from the stove which was turned on by a person or persons unknown. Upon the wall was carved the words: Fire finds the filth. Only one bystander, Liet Harkness, a independent journalist working out of Midtown, was there immediately after the explosion and saw a man walking away from the tenement, they exchanged words and then the man walked away. It is believed that this man was the one who caused the fire. A police sketch is currently being compiled and we will keep you updated as the story develops-”

The phone rang like a gunshot, drawing the man with the chrysanthemum jacket’s attention away from the TV screen. He reached over to pick up the phone on the table adjacent the bed upon which the watcher sat. Placing device to ear. A mechanically distorted voice issued forth.

“Reckless behavior. They’ll have your face, sooner or later. You know what this means. Go subtlety in future endeavors.”

Then a hissing; the line went dead.

The man with the chrysanthemum jacket nodded in affirmation of the order and then gingerly hung up the phone. After a moment of contemplation he shifted upon the bed, sitting bolt-straight, legs firmly braced to the floor and returned his attention back to the television screen where the news still played. The anchor had moved on to the next story.

“Well, there was a bit of a dust-up today at a art gallery of all places. For the past ten years, the Partridge art gallery has held an annual gala featuring the work of a hand-selected group of talented, up-and-coming artists from all around the city. The most recent gala debuted the work of three students from the Vandemburgh Institute of the Arts but it wasn’t them or their work which caused the uproar. As many watchers will known, its election season and the two principal candidates for mayor are Angela Vikander, a democrat known for her environmentalism and pro-migration, open borders advocacy and Aiken Layne, a member of the republican party who some would call a paleoconservative, others a reactionary and others still, a out-and-out fascist. Both are controversial figures in their own right and both have personal scores to settle, as they’ve a long history of public disagreement. When both appeared at Lynder Partridge’s gallery a argument quickly erupted between the two prospective politicians. Some members of a grassroots political movement called, Citizens Against Fascism, otherwise known as CAF, then entered the building and a brawl quickly broke out. Reports from the scene stated that they had targeted the gala because they believed it housed what they called, ‘Fascist art.’ Our reporter from the event, Andrea Azikiwe, has more on the story.”

The screen split and a middle aged and dark skinned woman with dreadlocks and massive gold earrings appeared upon the screen adjacent the prim reporter. “Thanks for that Ted. I’m here at the Partridge Museum of the Arts with Brandon Chase, the son of steel magnate, Edmund Chase and one of the artists whose work was being exhibited during the brawl. So, Mr. Chase, can you explain what exactly happened here?” A tall, muscular blond man with a winning smile and bright, twinkling eyes and the clothes of a trust-funder sauntered into screen, the whole of his form forcibly amiable and open.

“Yeah. Well, I was just standing in before my exhibit, talking with some of the fine folks here at the gala, speaking about my work, my inspirations, art history, business and so on and so forth when Mr. Layne walked in, that is, Aiken Layne-”

“Your father, Edmund Chase, is friends with him as I understand.”

“Uh, sort of, honestly I’m not really sure. My father doesn’t really share a whole lot of his work with me, they’re familiar though, yeah. Did some business together and, because of that, I went over to say hello, before I could even reach him Angela Vikander came over and started arguing with Mr. Layne. Very nasty. And then, out of nowhere, a bunch of people, well I should just call them what they were, thugs, busted into the gala, all in black, red bandannas around their mouths, like half-masks. Some of them wore sunglasses too, I imagine to protect their identity. And they just started shouting and stomping around. I kinda thought they were drunk at first. Aiken called for security – they had apparently waited until the doorman went to use the restroom before entering – and so security came up and someone threw a punch. Honestly happened so fast I don’t know who struck first, the protesters or the guards, but a bit of a fight broke out and it kinda spilled over into the gallery patrons who you can see are still behind me over here and there. Absolutely crazy stuff. I mean, I understand that everyone is a little heated right now over this political race and some of the crime that has occurred and, ya know, other stuff, all that stuff, but everyone just needs to take a deep breath and calm down.”

The man with the chrysanthemum jacket looked on, unblinking, unmoved by the words and images upon the screen. He heard the words, processed them and began to wonder of the lives of the art patrons and the artists and the politicians and the protesters and the security guards who had repelled them. The grand wheel of their lives and the delicate weave that bound them all together seemed superbly laid out before him, in the endless sprawl of his mind’s eye. Floating. High above the city, far beyond his body where it sat upon the bed, so small and weak and susceptible to the vicissitudes of time. He imagined the soothing caress of the wind, the buffeting moisture of the wastrel clouds and the thunderclaps in the distance, clattering away like the war drums of some olden god, nameless and terrible. Down below the endless sky, the city prominent, glistening with muted radiance and seeping up out of the ground like some aberrant and mechanical mycelium. Rooftops vanished and the lives of nine million squirming souls were laid bare before him, as a ant-hill cleaved in twain. There they were, naked and clothed, lazing and productive, scheming and bequeathing, hurting and helping, lying and fucking. Killing. Killing. Killing. Nine million swelled to ten and from ten to twelve, twelve to twenty and on and on the city swelled until the limbs wild twisted up against glass panes and fences, forced by other bodies, eventually spilling out unto the street and ghettoizing. Money war, religious war, class war, ethnic war, race war, war for fun and for living space within what they were told what was already their own living space. More rarely, a war against lies. Even deeper than the surface strata was a hundred billion, billion different tunnels leading to a billion, billion worlds, all ever-shifting, turning, inverting, vanishing and re-emerging. Phonelines and wirelines and wireless trajectories of ascent and spread and interwebs within cybernetic systems that were as much a part of the hyper organism as the flesh and blood which had built them. The man thought that some foreign interstellar intelligence, if ever they had or would chance upon humankind, like as not, would view cities as a biologist might regard a coral reef, seeing only the surface structure and failing to grasp, upon first glance, those intricate and tiny begins which wormed within, sustaining it.

At length he broke from his reverie and stalked to the middle of the apartment floor and bent his body out in a straight-line, allowing himself to topple, face-fist, towards the floor, halting his fall with powerful arms before he struck the carpet. Two hundred push-ups later he showered in silence and contemplated the stillness of infinite space.

The Iron Garden: Part.9

Hunter

The tenement was tumble down and filthy, located in the decaying heart of the slums which its denizens had unceremoniously dubbed, The Tombs, and was covered over with discarded papers and the remnants of the rain. The man who stood before the door was thankful for the rain; it washed away the filth and smell. The filth of stale soda and beer and tampons and shriveled up used condoms and the smell of piss, defecation and dead animals now was but faint background, no distraction to the task at hand. He paused at the door as an old drunk stumbled across the trash strewn ambit some fifty paces off, groaning and coughing like a man beplagued. Some kids appeared about the corner of the alley and accosted the doddery rednose, laughing and prodding. They wore chic and spoke with affected slang. None had known hardship. When they noticed the light glinting off the chrysanthemum jacket they paused. The man held their gaze until they turned and left out of the passage, shaken by a placeless fear. Red nosed swiveled to behold what manner of beast had secured his salvation and raised a half empty bottle of vodka in thanks. Footsteps clattered in the din, one set departing the alley, another entering in from the door to the crumbling tenement. When the door opened, the man with the chrysanthemum jacket, looked up into the thin, squinting eyes of a huge man of indeterminable ethnic extraction, some forty years of age.

“Yeah?”

No response. Fist to gut and the big man went dropping to his knees as a knee met his skull. When the big man awoke he was in a damp room that he recognized as his basement. Ropes secured arms and feet to a steel chair bolted to the floor. Beside him was the dismembered torso of a young twenty something. Her blood spread out across the floor; now hard and dry and stucco’d like coral in the foam of the sea. Behind the foam, eyes of topaz glinting in dark.

“The fuck is this?”

The xanthous-eyed man did not reply but rather titled his head upwards all the better to study his subject, fixing the slightly ruffled sleeves and cuffs of his immaculate, white jacket, smoothing them out. Heavy breathing came and went from the chair, small eyes twitching back and forth, side to side, seeking escape in nervous tandem with the arms that strained their bonds. All movements in vain.

There was no escape.

At length the prisoner spoke once more. His desperation increasing with every passing moment.

“Who the fuck are you? What do you want? Did Karol send you? Fuck. Fuck. He did, didn’t he? Its fine. All cool. Tell him its cool. Ok? Tell him. I’ve got the money,” a nervous chuckle, “Eddy Brine has always got the money. Its in the safe. Ok? Ok? You just untie me and I can get it and we can bring it to him together.”

The xanthous-eyed man gazed silently to the bloody, dismembered corpse which hung in suspension from the rafters of the low, musty ceiling, flesh seared from face, breasts melted into stomach and a retching odor filing up out from that horror. The man’s movement was neither a question nor a indictment, but merely a shuffling of consciousness, the renewal of immediacy, the return of the real. Brine squirmed. When the xanthous-eyed man picked up the propane burner Brine gasped. When the flame began vaporizing his hands he screamed. None to hear. None but two.

When the man with the chrysanthemum jacket had extracted all required information and carved his message he turned to the dead woman. She was wearing a bracelet. The small silver ring dangled limply against the small mass of her upper arm out. Xanthous eyes studied it through the gloam and left off out the basement as a stream of vain blubbering echoed from the pit.

“Where are you going? Hey. Hey! Heeeeeey! You can’t fucking leave me like this, you can’t fucking leave me like this! Help! Somebody heeeelllllppp mmmmeeeeee!”

The man with the chrysanthemum jacket moved up to the kitchen. The sink was filled with blood. His eyes widened with boundless intensity and his hand moved to the stove dials. Turned them on, all of them. Gas flooded the room.

*

Liet Harkness spit up his coffee outside the laundromat as the blast rocked the street. A great ball of flame gushed up into the phantasmal horizon and beyond it, resonating a furious howl. Fire glistened above stocky tenements and birds scattered from catastrophe, squawking as if in warning.

“What the-”

He jogged down the shattered sidewalk, to the south, to the heart of The Tombs, past the old industrial factory, now defunct, past the cast-off shop, past the curio where a strange old man watched him from the window and then took a hard left to behold a great c-section housing block consumed in flames. Blackened detritus lined the streets and twisted, exoskeletal re-bar dull-shimmered in the midday light. A figure stood before the building. A man. Of indeterminable age, quite tall and well built and wearing a jacket of white, xanthous eyes half-hidden by a plain navy ball cap, low-pulled over the face.

Harkness took a sip from his paper coffee cup, took a deep breath and walked forth along the thin alley way which let out to the blasted tenement. When the man with the ball cap heard Harkness approached he paused.

“What happened?”

The stranger regarded Harkness keenly a moment before responding and when he did the voice was like mist.

“A star wandered too close to a black hole.”

“The hell does that mean?”

The man with the dark ball cap ignored him and passed by and vanished out the alleyway. When the fog had cleared from Harkness pounding brain he ditched his cup in a nearby trashcan before the alley and ran after the mysterious stranger. Upon emerging out into the street before the tenement only the old man from the curio shop could be seen, starring with vacant eyes.

“Fire hazard. I warned um.”

The Iron Garden: Part.8

Museum

The Partridge Museum was a massive building, a construct more akin to some kind of techno-futurist military compound than the staid and neoclassical constructs of the other buildings surrounding. Clair Andretti stood before the plain, unadorned facade of the massive, brutalist monolith and inhaled deeply. Excited, emboldened and hopelessly nervous. She hated being nervous. Then she passed within the huge, electronically released double glass paneled sliding doors and moved down the wide, onyx tiled foyer, her reflection following like a inter-dimensional shade.

Past the foyer was a gargantuan gallery, of stark white concrete, the floor, like the lobby, all of black stone. The sound of gritty electronica rattled over the massive bio-flow, a modulated moog-wave synth leading the aural assault in undulating filtered crescendos.

Andretti was surprised, she had expected Debussy or Rachmanioff, not EDM. She paused in the middle of the wide, semi-circular gallery and surveyed the jostling crowds. There was Jonas Beach and Brandon Chase, chatting with Hiroko Akane, a second year journalism student from the nearby University. The threesome stood in the center of the vast vestibule, Brandon dashing and randy as ever, Akane, giggling stupidly at his bawdy, purposefully bad jokes and Beach looking to all the world as if someone had placed a squid upon his head despite manifold protestations. In the far right corner, observing a series of speculative architectural drawings was Cole Hathers with a young, curvy woman who Andretti had never seen before. Something about the woman’s ceaselessly dour and drained expression and lifeless, unexcited movements caught Clair’s eye. The fragile little creature drifted past the portraits lining the alabaster walls with the listless moroseness of a funeral mourner, as if every work of art were a soul departed. A lonely sort of passion in which there was some peculiar beauty. Andretti normally detested any woman with a better figure than her own but some nagging fragment of inborn, instinctual sympathy prevented the formation of any such scorn, yet it did make her self-conscious. She looked down at the dress mingling with the body below, ankle-high leather boots, black jeans, tight, black T over which was a thin gray hoodie; wonders on matters of decorum filled the ambit of the thin and frigid creature’s cerebral ambit. At length she determined that it didn’t really matter; all that mattered was that Lynder noticed her and that the crowd noticed her work. An artist was nothing without her public.

Suddenly a figure appeared at the top of the upper landing, peering down at the insignificant host collected in idle study below. Lynder Partridge was of middling height with tar-pitched hair, cut short on the sides and wide at the top, dressed in a black overcoat, tipped at the collar with white fur. His face was pale and sharp, lips, blood-red and his eyes catching the light with the pale glinting of topaz. His posture was slack, yet ferine, as if at any moment he might pounce with sudden and terrible excitation. All about the man, a retinue of wealthy social climbers stood, taking in the crowd below a moment and then raising champagne glasses to lips and moving out their line against the balcony, waiting for their boniface to speak. Suddenly, the music ceased and Lynder raised his smooth, sonorous voice, which echoed throughout the entirety of the hall with regal splendor.

“Greetings and salutations, ladies and gentlemen, I am so pleased to see you gathered here before me for this momentous occasion. Now, to some, the unveiling of a series of drawings and paintings means little enough. They’re just pictures after all. Same as any other. But we understand the truth of it, that these are no ordinary pictures, because such pictures were not crafted by ordinary hands. Nor were they conceived of by ordinary minds. They were conceived and forged by visionaries and dreamers, by those bold enough to ask the question: Of what use is the art which does not ceaselessly seek to force life to imitate it? And to respond: None. To no one! So, without further adieu, it is my great joy and pleasure to introduce you to our three newest additions to the gallery, Jonas Beach, Brandon Chase and Clair Andretti!”

He gestured one by one to the three young artists as he spoke their names and upon finishing, the crowd erupted into applause. After the applause had died away, Partridge continued, raising a glass of sparkling moscato and smiling cheerily.

“To our new friends health and the flourishing of all!”

Those below who had glass in hand raised their goblets and toasted likewise with a practiced ritualism, as if this were some lauded tradition. Clair was surprised at how reverent the response was, how sacral and mirthful the unfolding of the scene was. After Partridge had finished his toast he moved to the leftmost stair and, along with his cortege, descended to the gala floor as the museum goers moved about from alcove to alcove, gazing with wonderment at the elaborate sketches and illustrations, of charcoal and graphite and paintings of multifarious palettes and sculptures of brass and marble, alabaster and quartz. As the crowd dispersed out across the great U shaped ambit of the gallery Lynder coolly traversed the clacking marbled floor with a broad smile, crystal goblet held up beside his breast like a royal scepter.

He paused a respectable distance before the young woman, inclining his head, low, but not too low, as if greeting some lesser nobility.

“I’m so pleased you could make it, Ms. Andretti.”

“I wouldn’t have missed it for all the world,” she cursed herself for such a bubbly and ill controlled response. The excitement was palpable all throughout the school-girlishness of the culled response. The legs close together, arms clasped together before nubile, lolling breasts, mouth slightly parted in a innocent and attemptedly beguiling smile, teeth white enough yet slightly yellowed by a penchant for coffee and sweets, eyes twinkling with longing and admiration. All of it ostentatiously performative. Clair cursed herself doubly at the visuality of the scene which anteceded the mental formations. I look like I’m trying to show off my bust. Like I’m trying to fuck the teacher. What disturbed her further was the uncertainty concerning whether or not that was necessarily false. Lynder was unaffected and wholly unconcerned with the impression he’d made upon the young artist as well as the impression which she attempted to make upon him. His bright eyes and sharp features impassive, unsettlingly opaque. The industrialist raised his free hand and gestured to one of his footmen who stood dutifully behind his master with a tray of silver upon which several glasses of champagne, half filled, rested.

“Would you care for a drink? Celebration without libation is such a sorry thing.”

Clair nodded thoughtlessly accepted one of the small, dainty glasses from the footman. She would have preferred some whiskey or Cognac in a fine little snifter but felt it rude to refuse. At any rate, she was thirsty.

“Walk with us, Ms. Andretti, I shall introduce you to my friends as we do so and you can tell us of your current and future projects as we admire the fruits of endeavors past.”

She wordlessly obeyed, fascinated, not just by the tumbling and spinning surroundings but also by Lynder’s catlike and slinking gait, an easy cavorting, a languidity rare amongst the tense and squeaming populace. Introductions were made; first Clair was acquainted with Jill Habermass, a nebbishy and elderly curator for the Institute of Urban Design, next Danny Price, a fiery, youthful mestizo and the owner of Price Construction, the second largest construction company in the city, then Domnal Eins, a middle-aged man of indiscernible ethnic extraction who did something with marketing analytics and crypto-currencies that eluded Andretti’s ken and, lastly, Mariana Ester, the chief officer of the Vandemburgh Consortium of History and Heritage. They all asked a plethora of questions about Clair’s life, half-disinterested but obliged, the rest genuine; they asked of her upbringing and whether or not she was seeing someone and what got her into art and what she wants out of life and what she thought of the heated political campaigns of the ongoing mayoral race. Clair answered all of the questions in vaguest and most passing and from-the-hip of fashions, trying to give as little away about what she actually believed on any given topic as possible; largely succeeding.

“Deplorably perfunctory!”

Lynder erupted suddenly, waving a hand in the air as if dispelling some arcane conjuration. All present fell silent as he spun upon them, expression showing mild disappointment and motioned to Clair’s panel alcove which occupied the leftmost portion of the great U of the gala. “It is of her work itself that you have come, for that is what is on display, not the woman herself. Tell me, Mr. Eins, what do you make of that one,” Partridge gestured to an enormous, hyperrealistic drawing of a futuristic cityscape with multiple layers, each of which was suspended above the other and each serving a distinctive function; the bottom layer for agriculture and food production and waste disposal, the second layer for transportation and distribution, the third for housing and socialization and the fourth for governmental administration and aerial defense.

“I’m not sure I understand it.”

Lynder’s face phased back into utter opaqueness.

“Then it wasn’t for your understanding. I find it most wondrous. Past patterns for future eventualities. The present is nothing without its visionaries.”

Clair was struck by the intensity of his tone, despite his ostensible lack of expression. He looked to the elaborate drawing as if it were some sacred image, a totemic idol of direst consequence. The young woman’s technical skill had been impressive from an early age and her choice of subject had long been lauded, but no one, not even her most admiring professors, had ever spoken of her work with such sacral appreciation. It caused her heart to flutter and a smile of self-satisfaction to ever so briefly flicker across her smooth, colorless face.

“Clair, Mr. Partridge, other, uh, people-to-whom-I-haven’t-yet-been-introduced, hello,” Brandon Chase sided up behind the gathering, Jonas and Hiroko Akane trailing, nervously, uncertain of whether or not they should speak.

“Ahhh, Mr. Beach, Ms. Akane and the dashing Mr. Chase,” Lynder enjoined warmly, “So good of you to finally join us. From the looks of the crowds surrounding your respective works, I’d say that your public has properly found you. Most wonderful!”

“Yes, yes, well, I’m all for an admiring public but goodness these people are chatting my ears off.”

“The graphic artist is not nearly so lauded as the film star but both, upon finding sufficient celebrity, will quickly come to be the subject of desire for all their envious admirers; it must be realized that the reason for such admiration is not to be found in the actual works, or at least solely within the works of the artists themselves, but rather in the fact that they have achieved such social laddering-up by the creation of such works. Art ever seems easy to those who’ve never had a hand in its creation and thus the public at-large erroneously tend to believe that such a life is one to be envied and so they become envious themselves, failing to realize that were such a life their own they’d despise it with every fiber of their being.”

Eins gave a little chuckle, “That may well be the case but there aren’t a whole lot of artists who make the kind of cash I do on a regular basis, good art requires willful ignorance of the market, otherwise you’ll always be beholden to your audience’s whims, which means that to be a good artist, or at least one with integrity, you’ve gotta take hits to the wallet like a kevlar vest takes bullets, that is, with grit-teeth and frequently.”

Clair felt a welling distaste for the currency trader, she knew his type, trust-fund kid, smart, but not too-smart, educated but not well read and aware of it, always attempting to insert himself into a conversation if there was the possibility of pumping the ego and convincing all the rest of the conversant his intellect leveled up to his bank account.

Lynder didn’t directly respond, instead removing a small, gilded pack of 100s from his inner jacket pocket of his overcoat, lighting up the fag with languor and returning his attention to the artwork of the long, white stand-up panel, expectant of future innervation.

Jill Habermass was the first to pick up where Eins had left off and the two quickly fell into a good natured argument about the relationship of the artist to the market and various metrics of success. It was all rather staid and boring to Clair, who sided up to Lynder where he stood still admiring her work, seemingly unconcerned with the argument spreading out behind him.

“Um, Mr. Partridge.”

“Yes, Ms. Andretti?”

“I just wanted to thank you, personally, for all that you’ve done for me. It really means a good deal to me. So thank you.”

He turned to her and smiled ever so slightly, but his eyes didn’t laugh.

“Unnecessary. Go and met your public. Mingle. Network. Have some fun.”

Without another word Lynder returned briefly to her work and then departed to greet a group of well dressed philosophers from the nearby art school.

Clair turned to behold the crowd behind her which had grown doubly in size since she had moved to stand at the leftmost corner of her selfsame project. Half of the crowd glanced on in wonderment at the intricate series of buildings, her ideal sky-cities and mechanical sprawls, whilst another half had fallen into debate concerning the content of the drawings themselves. Even in art school Clair had very rarely ever seen such boundless vigor for creation nor such interest in its manifold applications. The scene filled her with wonder and mirth even as she moved away from it, wary that her presence and the questioning thereof and of the extrapolation of her creation would someone diminish the exhibit. The feeling pulled the woman back from all crowds and all the artifice of the museum the better to observe the objects and their relations. It was only then she realized the worth of her own work. Drawing, illustration, painting, all had been a venture undergone for the pleasure it generated, for the thing-in-and-of-itself, there, a quandary, for the essence of a thing could never be gotten at. Could not be unearthed by digging. There was no shovel for it. What she sought could not be found by looking. It arrived of its own accord. As if by some alien intelligence.

Lost to time a clacking of soles ruptured her reverie. She turned to behold a familiar face. Aiken’s face. A thick bluish bruise marred his otherwise handsome, blocky face. His eyes were foggy, faraway; a hidden sadness leaking through with jellied light.

“What the hell happened to your face?”

“CAF fanatics. They blind-sided me on my way to the campaign office.”

“Did you file a report?”

“Nah. I probably should. Too busy. Seems like your work is getting the attention it deserves,” he gestured to the crowd still huddled in gentile argumentation around Clair’s exhibit, “I’m glad. Clearly you are as well.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You look happy.”

“Is that so unusual?”

“You want me to answer that honestly?”

She smiled wryly and punched him lightly in the arm. Gaze to gaze, face to face. She wanted badly to kiss him but knew better than to do so in public. Together they walked back to the seething crowds whereupon they crossed paths with Cole Hathers and a dire-eyed young woman with long, dark hair and pure, Italian features.

Cole stopped short, shocked to see his foe standing so comfortably beside someone so well known as Layne.

“You’re Aiken Layne.”

“That’s me. You a friend of Ms. Andretti’s?”

Hathers shot Clair a embarrassed look and ran his tongue quickly across his lower lip as he always did when he was nervous. Clair was pleased.

“I know her from school. From the college. I’m Cole Hathers. Graphic Designer. Uh, this is-”

The young woman cut him off and moved forward with a forced facade of amiability and conviviality.

“Anna Campana. Nice to meet you two.”

One by one in turn, Layne and Andretti took the woman’s hand and shook it warmly. The four shared stagnate conversation, walking in a tandem with the curvature of the great U shape of the gala, from left to right, surveying Clair’s exhibit, then Jonas’, then Chase’s. Upon passing Clair’s work Hathers clenched his fists, lip twitching, upon passing Jonas’ he shrugged, upon passing Chase’s he nodded approvingly as Eins turned greeted a short, garishly dressed blonde.

“Well, well, I didn’t expect to see you here, Ms. Vikander.”

*

Jonas Beach stood before his exhibit. It was a tall white assemblage of three matte panels upon each of which hung his varied works. From somewhere nearby he heard a young woman cackle, “What the heck is this stuff? I thought this place only put out the ‘finest’ up-and-coming artists. Fantasy art… I mean, really? That’s so a decade ago.” Beach could feel his blood pressure rising, his brow furrowing; a serpent of endless rage uncoiling from his reptile brain. The woman was young, pretty and exceedingly banal. She was thin and wore a fake tan. Spray on tan. Cheezy smile. Over-sized and superfluous scarf wound about the neck like a great desiccated python. Eyes blitzed out from marijuana consumption, donned in pop-fashion chic with a fake alligator bag slung about her bare, left shoulder. Cell phone blue-glowing in her free right hand. She was perfectly normal by the standards of the city.

Jonas Beach wanted to bash her face in.

*

Lynder Partridge swilled the last of his champagne with relish from the heights of the second-floor landing overlooking the gala floor. His eyes swept over the teeming multitudes below, stopping upon the unfurling forms of Angela Vikander and Aiken Layne. They were arguing. A throng gathered, some laughing, others enjoining, still others dourly observing in silence. Clair was aghast. Chase looked amused. Jonas was nowhere to be found.

“Well… that was quick,” The footman intoned with mild surprise, “I knew they didn’t like each other but I didn’t expect things escalate like this…”

Lynder handed off the empty glass to his loyal attendant without removing his eyes from the scene of chaos playing out beneath him. Almost instantly a guard walked up to Lynder as the footman departed.

“Mr. Partridge, you’ll want to see this.”

The guard handed off a small digital tablet displaying the security cameras which thronged the outer facade of the museum. Upon the camera-output screens were numerous black-clad CAF members assembling; the motley assortment carried flags and picket signs, a couple had rough-hewn sticks as makeshift weapons. There was no sound but they were clearly chanting in something approaching unison.

Lynder turned to the guard without expression.

“Call security.”

The Iron Garden: Part.7

Anna gazed out the window and watched the people below, so tiny and distance-blurred. It was passe, she recalled, when viewing people from great heights, to say they looked like ants, but they looked like nothing of the kind. They were smaller than that, less vibrant, yet more noisy. How was it they could carry on in so blasé a manner after what had gone before? In a city plagued with religious and political hysteria, crime and murder aplenty, they chugged on as if nothing whatsoever had changed. Perhaps, she pondered, it had not, perhaps she herself was the one who had changed. The thought terrified much as it motivated. She spent the entire morning in her cramped and cheap-paneled apartment loft studying stories of crime all throughout the city, looking up newspaper archives and political blogs and city statistics and federal surveys and think-tanks, combing through every niche and cornice of every relevant information vault for ritual murders and cases of dismemberment and abduction, especially those cases which involved children. She was shocked to discovered that what happened to Adam was far from irregular. It took some digging. Much digging. There had been seven such instances in the past five years. She had heard of none of them. She was further horrified to discover that, despite a profligate number of suspects, absolutely zero arrests had been made in any of the cases. Every single one involved a child, later found dismembered, in three of the seven cases the blood had been drained like as to Adam’s own. When she broadened the search to include adults and teens as well as children the number of murders increased by four to eleven dating back ten years. Ten years. She muttered the words “ten years” to herself, over and over as thoughts crystallized across the mine field of internal cognitive weave, synapses firing like the jarring pistons of a great clockwork machine.

How? How was this even possible? How could so many people just up and vanish? Children no less? Was no one looking after them? Was no one curious what happened? How few must have been aware for this to have gone on so long unchallenged…Did no one care?

Vain thoughts. The asking thereof alone would yield nothing which well she knew, yet still she was compelled. She had to know. For if this had occurred before then the ones who were responsible might well have been responsible for Adam’s death. If she could find a thread and seize upon it then the truth might be made clear.

Suddenly, a ringing. High, shrill and somewhere nearby. Phone. She answered with a harried, “What?”

“You okay, Annie? Haven’t been to work for a couple of days. I called up Mike. He said you were feeling ill. Come down with a bug or something?”

“No. I mean, yes. Yes. Just not feeling very great. I have to go. I’ve got things to do…”

“What? What’s the matter? Come on, you can talk to me.”

“I’ve really got to go.”

“I’m coming over. You’ve got me worried.”

“No. Really its fine. I’m fine.”

“Uh huh. I’m still coming over. I’ll be there in under an hour.”

The phone clicked off into silence. She cursed under her breath. Cole Hathers arrived half an hour later. Anna rose upon his rapping and cries of, “Annie? Its me, Cole. You’ll never believe the traffic. Sea of cars. Everything all backed up.” The door of the loft open under the force of the woman, before he stood a short man, skinny, freckled and red headed. 27 and well dressed for someone so obviously poor, a certain disdainful smugness perpetually playing across his rounded baby-face.

“You doing okay?”

“No. Cole. Frankly I’m not. You know how I sometimes take the cast offs from the Community Center to The Tombs, to the Ghanians there, the migrants.”

“Yeah.”

“One of them was recently murdered,” she watched as his plucky face fell and then moved to her laptop where it lay upon her work table. Turning the screen, Anna gestured to a recent news article from The Vandemburgh Daily which prominently featured a picture of Adam Delle.

“You knew this kid?”

“The boy I told you about. The one who wanted to become an artists… this was him.”

“Fuck. That’s awful. What happened?”

“No one knows. He… h-he was cut up into pieces. Drained completely of blood.”

Cole screwed up his face in visceral disgust, shaking his mane of curly rust colored hair.

“The hell would someone do something like that?”

“The police think… they think it was organ traffickers. Likely from Africa. They’re not sure. There are rumors that Ghanaian migrants from The Tombs are responsible but there’s no proof of anything yet. No one is talking.”

Cole pulled up a chair and sat down beside his friend, eyes affixed to the screen, to the thin black face of the dead boy. He looked quite happy in the photo, a wide, blissful smile breaking out and ruffling the smooth youthful skin, revealing two rows of teeth, crooked, immature and still falling out and growing back in. Anna studied Cole’s face, he wasn’t sad, not really, she could tell by the listlessness about the eyes and the nervous, impatient tapping of his left foot. This wasn’t a issue upon which interaction was desired. He wanted to flee now. Flee back to comforting her. Anger began to boil in her blood, rising up and threatening to tear out of her throat with a harsh vocality. At the last the woman stilled the clangorous ringing of her soul, inhaled and exhaled meditatively; she had to focus, it wasn’t his fault, she told herself, it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t his fault. The one to blame was somewhere out there, out beyond her shabby loft, out beyond the soaring apartment complex that sat near the border zone of The Tombs. In that moment, as she looked again to the picture on the screen, observing Cole’s lack of concern and morbid curiosity, she vowed she would find the killer. She would find the one’s responsible and make them pay. Dearly.

At length Cole turned in the creaking, leather-bound swivel chair, his spindly, yet well muscled hands twining together with queasy excitement. He wanted to speak. To comfort his friend. Words failed him. Finally he mustered the courage to vocalize, “You know today is the big unveiling of the new gallery at Partridge Museum. I… I’ve been thinking of going. Would you like to come with me?”

“Yeah, I’d like that. I could use something to take my mind off of,” she gestured at the screen, “All of this.”

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).]