The Dead of Venice (1914)

By Dan Klefstad


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Vivaldi? Yes. And Bach …” 

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

I close my eyes. 

“… Handel … Monteverdi…” 

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

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

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

###


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

Scalegrave

“What ya looking at?”

“A tire.”

“Tire? Tire-frame is more like it. From an old tractor by the looks of it.”

Dan Kennedy stood over the tire-frame with a glum look and prodded it with his work boot.

“Yep. Says C. B. on it. Whose tractor do you fancy this used to be?”

“Tell me, Mr. Ellis, you ever heard of Chester Bedell?”

“Can’t say as I have.”

“Was a prominent landowner here in Berlin Township in the late nineteenth century. Owned some 1700 acres. This used to be his land. One of the reasons I brought you out here.”

Ellis perked up and swiftly drew a small black, leatherbound notebook and a pen from his red plaid jacket, opened it and began energetically scribbling down his guide’s story.

“Bedell was an atheist. Problem was, most who lived thereabouts, then as now, were Christians. A woman by the name of Mary Hartzell caught his eye and they married in 1851 Mary’s father, Henry Hartzell demanded that Bedell and his family come into the fold. Into the church. Propriety and all that. Wanted his daughters kids to be brought up right. Demanded that Bedell have his baby boy baptized. Bedell, despising the church, would have nothing to do with such a proposition. He had his own philosophy and, in his opinion, no need for a Christian one. Well… Hartzell didn’t like that. Not one bit. So he sent in a Presbyterian minister to baptize his newly born. Bedell was furious and began publicly denouncing the Bible as a myth and Christianity as foolish superstition. Caused quite a stir, as you can well imagine and only furthered the tension between the two men, Bedell and Hartzell, and, as a consequence, tensions rose throughout the whole of the community, some of the folk siding with one or the other in their bitter dispute. Shortly thereafter, there was a string of barn burnings. Arson. One of them burned down with a little girl still inside it and a choir girl for the church. The murderous fire-bug was fingered as none other than Bedell himself. Said he wanted to get back at the Hartzell’s someways and that torching their flock was one of um. Now Chester, he denied he had anything to do with it and said that just before the latest barn had burnt, he’d seen three men heading thereabouts, three associates of Simon Hartzell, Henry Hartzell’s son. Hard to say who was at the bottom of it, but one of the supposed arsonists kilt hisself and the other two were clock-cleaned in court by Bedell how sued them for defamation of character. Bedell publicly boasted of his victory, blaming his old foe Hartzell for siccing his son and his men on him, said it was a frame job and that again and again, he were an innocent man, maligned. As the disputation grew, so did Bedell’s disdain for religion, his contempt for the clerisy, such that he told his family to “Shun priest of all orders.” Well, many years passed and Chester Bedell was now an aged and sickly man, he knew he was nearing the end of his life and, unrepentant, said, “If there be a god, let him fill my grave with snakes.” Shortly thereafter, the old farmer died. He left behind two sons and two daughters, the sons, having took up the irreligious philosophy of what Bedell called “Universal Mental Liberty,” received equal shares of his property, whereas his daughters, who had gone into the fold of the Presbyterian church, received nary more than a dollar each. After the funeral, the bearers took Bedell in his coffin to the spot they’d dug in the North Benton cemetery and then froze to a hissing. They looked down into that gaping hole and saw that it were filled with snakes of every shape and had to put the coffin down and clear out the attendees so they could kill the serpents without making a scene. When Bedell was finally buried, his will dictated that a bronze statue of hisself which he’d commissioned in his final days be erected over his grave. This was done and yet… you know what they found on the statue, not a day after it had been placed?”

Garret Ellis looked up over his notebook and smirked, “Lemme guess. Snakes?”

“That’s right. Snakes. Whole area is infested with um. Don’t matter how many they kill, they jus keep a coming back, as if they’re materializing from the very air…”

At this point in the tale Ellis laughed. “Well, that’s quite a story! I could definitely use this in my book. Uh, look, its getting dark, I’ve gotta head back to my motel.” He shut the notebook and pocked it alongside the pen, “But I wanted to thank you for showing me around, filling me in on the local history. Searching up articles online is one thing but actually being here, seeing the land, the people, hearing their stories, that’s quite another.”

“It was no trouble at all Mr. Ellis-”

“Please, call me El, all my friends do.”

“Well, was no trouble at all El. I hope you just remember to include me in the credits of your book.”

“Of course, I always include my sources.”

*

Ellis drove swiftly, racing against the encroaching darkness and arrived at the North Benton Motel just before nightfall. The moment he closed the door to his room the phone rang. He cursed under his breath and picked up the phone, lighting a cigarette as he did so and gazing out the front window at the half-dead trees which loomed across the road like gigantic, bony claws.

“Yeah?”

“El?”

“Oh, hey Jimmy.”

“Hey Jimmy yourself. You’re wife’s been blowing smoke up my ass ever since you left. You have your phone turned off, as usual.”

“You know how I work. I don’t like distractions. Not when I’m researching.”

“Well take a break, El. You’re wife is worried sick.”

“She only has two hobbies. Worrying and let me know it.”

“Kinda cruel for a man not to give his wife a call.”

“I’m busy Jimmy. Anyways, what are you, my psychiatrist now?”

“The way she’s been speaking, I think a marriage counselor would be more appropriate.”

Ellis chuckled.

“So whats on your mind, Jim. I know you wouldn’t have called just to tell me I’m married to an overbearing witch.”

“Sheesh. Harsh. But true. I just wanted to know how your research was coming. There’s plenty of books out about the history of Ohio but there aren’t many out there that are solely about so small a place as Benton. You dig up anything interesting?”

“Yeah, actually think I might have. Old urban legend. Very juicy.”

“Oh? Like a murder?”

“Nah. A curse.”

“Curses are good. Curses sell paperbacks. Look, I’ve gotta go. You ring me up in the morning and tell all about it.”

“I’ll send you an email.”

He hung up on the editor, returned the phone to the ringer, took a drag and looked out the window once more. He could have swore he saw something moving out there beyond the treeline…

*

The flee market hummed like a overworked engine as Ellis, notebook in hand, strolled down the main thoroughfare, between the stalls of the vendors, busily hocking their wares to the easily ambling faregoers. Upon arriving at the eastern-most stretch of the fairgrounds, Ellis paused and beheld a young Amish woman step up to a clothing stall, wait until the vendor’s back was turned at which point she grabbed hold of a ornate, hand-sewn dress and slipped it up underneath her shirt and began walking away. The stall owner turned about in perplexity, aghast that her dress had vanished. Shortly her eyes met Ellis whereupon the man raised his brows and pointed to the slowly ambling Amish woman. With astounding velocity, the dress merchant leapt over her stall grabbed the Amish about the hair, shouting, “You blind? Sign says flee market, not free market! Only thing free round here is a beating.”

“You must be mistaken-”

The dress vendor yanked hard as she could upon the thief’s hair, snarling, “Don’t bullshit me, sister!” at which point the Amish let out a howl, saying “Alright, alright! Here, here!” Once the dress was returned the vendor, slowly and with narrowed gaze, released her quarry, who, bug-eyed and gulping, ran away as fast as her plump and knocking knees could carry her. A few people turned to look and stare, but most were too absorbed in buying, selling, conversating or trying to thieve their own prizes to notice the incident. Police were no where to be seen.

Ellis walked up to the vendor who had set about re-folding the lifted dress.

“Howdy, ma’am.”

“Oh, hello, thanks for that. She would have got away clean if it weren’t for you.”

“Why aren’t there any police officers here?”

The woman laughed, “You’re not from around here are you?”

“Nope. Coastalite, I’m afraid. Hope you don’t hold it against me.”

“Depends on how smug and over-syllabled your verbiage is.”

The exchanged smiles and momentarily, Ellis strode forth with his hand extended.

“My name’s Garret Ellis.”

She smiled, arching her brows with surprise, “Debbie Barrow. What brings you to our little corner of nowhere. Ain’t much around here of ‘historical significance. We had the mob, steel works… ghost stories and… that’s bout it. You ain’t one of those UFO, cryptid people are you?”

“The who now?”

“You know, tin foil hat types – oh, most of them don’t really believe it, what they write and vlog about, but it sells – we had a couple of guys from the history channel come by asking if anyone had seen any bigfoots recently. The HISTORY CHANNEL. Don’t that beat all.”

“It does indeed. But no, to answer your question. That’s not my wheel house. I’m researching the history of Benton for a book. See it occurred to me a little while ago that though there are no shortage of history books on Ohio generally, there weren’t very many on Benton, give how small it is, that made sense, but I wanted to uncover the reality of the place, all its hidden stories and I was told you were a member of the historical society, thought you might be able to help.”

“You picked a strange time to ask, Mr. Ellis.”

“Yeah, sorry to drop in on you like this – your dresses are very nice by the way – you make them by hand?”

“Yep.”

“Impressive. I quite like them. Think my wife would like them even more.”

“Married? Congratulations.”

“You’d think that would be the appropriate response…”

“Ha. I’m bout to wrap up here. Going to be heading down to Hal’s diner which is inside the historical society council hall. You’re welcome to come along. Could use some company.”

“To protect you from sneaky Amish?”

“Nah. That I got covered.”

*

Hal Hewit was an enormous man with a head like an overripe melon and two small, squinty eyes that twinkled with keen intelligence. He doubled as both the chair of the Benton Historical Society and the rustic diner inside it which he’d named after himself and when he spotted the two newcomers, he smiled broadly and raised one of his enormous, meaty hands and waved from behind the polished wooden counter.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in. Who alls ya friend, Debbie?”

Ellis returned the smile and walked up to the diner counter and shook the man’s hand.

“Garret Ellis. I’m a historian. Researching the history of Benton. Daniel Kennedy might have mentioned me.”

“Oh yes, yes of course. Dan had mentioned you’d be stopping by. Well, ya’ve met Dan and Debbie and now me, that’s half the town already, haha.”

“Dan had told me about Chester Bedell.”

The big man froze. The smile slowly vanishing from his face.

“W-well, ah, I don’t know much about that; how bout some coffee and doughnuts, or bacon and eggs? Yall hungry right.”

“Hungry as a hog,” Debbie replied.

Ellis was confused at the man’s reticence. How could he, the leader of the historical society, “not know much about that?” Perhaps, Ellis thought, there was some family history. Perhaps the Hewits were, at one point, as bounded up with the Bedells as the Hartzells… perhaps…

“Debbie, I got the doughnuts over here, why don’t you come and grab so that our guest doesn’t wither away while I’m rustling up the eggs.”

Debbie stood up from where she sat across from Ellis and then made her way across the patternless green linoleum floor. Ellis watched them from the corner of his eye; the big man was whispering something into her ear, then he stood up straight with a cheezy smile and slide a tray of doughnuts across the table to the woman. When she sat back down opposite the investigator he folded his hands together and leaned forwards.

“What did he say?”

She paused a moment, waiting until the Hal had vanished into the kitchen.

“Hal’s kinda superstitious. He doesn’t like talking about bad things that happened around here. Thinks it will scarce off customers.”

“Well, he’s dead wrong about that. Brought me here didn’t it? Besides, why do you think there are so many ghost hunting, cryptid-catching, conspiracy theory shows on television? So many websites with that stuff plastered everywhere? Its because people love it. They’ll gobble that stuff up. Rather than driving people away, it’d drive people in. By the boatload.”

“Maybe.” She grabbed a doughnut and began munching idly. Ellis’ mouth began to water, it only occurred to him then that he had not eaten all day. He plucked out a fine chocolate glazed pastry and popped it into his mouth.

“Splendid. Ya know my father always said, ‘Be happy for what you have to eat. There are starving kids in Biafra.”

“Biafra?”

“Secessionist state in West Africa.”

“Oh. My mother always used to withhold our desserts until we had ‘earned them.’ She’d say ‘Plenty breeds indolence.”

“She’d have gotten along well with my father then. Oh, tell me, is Hal religious?”

“Yeah, he’s a Presbyterian. Goes to The North Benton United Presbyterian Church.”

“Where is that?”

She smiled and shook her head, “Ya know, you might be a historical expert but you sure aren’t perceptive about the present.” The woman jerked her thumb over her shoulder and out the diner’s front window. He followed her gesture and discerned a large church situated directly across North Benton Road.

“Oh,” he grinned sheepishly.

*

After Ellis and Debbie had finished up at the diner they said their goodbyes and she departed to go see to the dog of a neighbor whilst he stayed and convinced Hal to give him a tour of the historical society. When they passed through the library, Ellis paused to query.

“You have archives I take it.”

Hal’s small, squinty eyes flicked to a door to the left momentarily. “You can look through the records if you like, but its quite a bit of paperwork.”

Ellis pulled out his notebook and smirked, “I’m used to long hours.” He flipped through a stack of records until he saw the name “Bedell” and then flipped upon the folder and rifled through until he lit upon a grainy photograph of a intelligent, yet imposing looking man with a thick, well-groomed beard and dark suit. Chester Bedell.

All the while Ellis worked through the files, Hal watched the man with great interest.

*

When Ellis had satisfied himself as to the archives and filled his small, black notebook up with dates and names and hidden stories, he closed his book and headed for the exit, the image of Chester Bedell burning in his mind. Pausing at the counter of the diner on the lobby floor to thank his gracious host. Hal nodded stoically and then put his hand upon Ellis’ shoulder.

“You ain’t going up to Ole Bedell’s grave, is ya?”

“I was planning on it. Files say his grave was moved up by Canyo on Hartzell Road. Figured I’d go have a peek for my research. Why?”

The big man shook his head, his brilliant black eyes going wide and mournful and filled with something else. Something that looked a lot like fear.

“I wouldn’t say its wise. Now listen, I know its easy enough to laugh. To dismiss the whole thing as nothing more than an ole wives tale… but there’s usually some truth in such tales and I tell ya, there is truth in this.”

“Well… I’ll keep that in mind.” It took considerable effort for Ellis to keep himself from smiling.

*

When Ellis pulled into the wide, gravel drive of Hartzell Cemetry he was surprised at how small and sparse the place was, nothing more than a few slabs of stone stuck into a couple of tiny plots of grassy land, boarded up in the middle by wind slashed oaks. He had expected gargoyle statues and grand iron-works and roiling clouds of mist, maybe a spooky old groundskeeper, yet his only company was a fat raccoon which looked up from one of the graves with an oily hamburger wrapper in its mouth. Its eyes flashed and it bolted into the treeline. The daylight waned as Ellis made his way between the graves, the ground, hard and unyielding; probably thick with clay, he thought idly. He passed a grave which read Henry Hartzell, Ellis tipped his hat towards it and then bent and placed a sheet of paper over the tombstone and ran a piece of charcoal over it until he had a good impression. Then he folded up the paper, slid it into his inner right coat pocket and moved on. He could see Chester Bedell’s grave up ahead, even if one wasn’t looking for it, the edifice would have been hard to miss for it was the largest grave in yard with the largest font. In the archives, Ellis had read that there used to be a statue of the old farmer with a raised tomb in one hand that said: Universal Mental Liberty, whilst his foot crushed a scroll which read: Superstition; however, some yahoos had shot it up in a drunk frenzy and it was removed to a local museum for renovation. As he stood before the grave in the twilight, he tipped his hat.

“Hello, old man.”

Moments later, as if in response, there came a hissing.

Ellis whirled and leapt aback as an enormous snake slithered up from the ground and coiled about the grave. One his heart-rate returned to normalcy he smiled and shook his head and then leaned towards the serpent as if in defiance.

“You seem to have mistaken me for Hal, old girl, I ain’t afraid of snakes. My friend Julie’s got a pet python that would gobble you up for lunch.”

He gingerly grabbed the snake by its tail and, with the utmost caution, slid it across the ground until it was well and clear of the tombstone. Then he bent to Bedell’s grave and jotted down some notes and made a copy of the faceplate as he had done with Hartzell’s. Just as he was about to finish, there came yet another hissing and another; jerking his head to the left he could see two massive black rat snakes coiling up about him. He drew back silently, rising from the grave. Something was very wrong.

He turned to make his way back to his car and beheld a figured in the distance, standing at the treeline. The man was tall, with a thick beard and a fine black suit over which he wore a battered overcoat, drab and dark. His eyes were pits of void and the hissing of the serpents then grew louder as the clouds slithered over the warming light of the sun and choked its bountiful rays from all existence. Ellis screamed and ran.

*

Night fell like a blanket of smog as Ellis drove back from the cemetery to his motel on North Benton Drive. Upon returning he locked the door behind him. His breathing erratic; eyes bulging, slightly crooked teeth grinding back and forth.

“It couldn’t have been real. It couldn’t have been real…” He muttered to himself, pacing, veins flashing out like ruddy-blue worms against the pallor of his skin. He lit up a cigarette and poured himself a glass of wine to calm his nerves. Then he paused, mid drag, a thought flashing through his skull with blinding clarity.

The apparition that I seen was extremely tall. Who else in town is of a similar height?

*

Debbie laughed like a hyena as Hal recounted his twilight haunting in the dimly lit confines of his diner, now closed up for the night.

“Ya should have seen the look on that fellas face!”

“Oh, its a little cruel. I feel bad for laughing.”

Dan Kennedy waved away her concerns as if they were a gaggle of mischievous pigeons and gestured to the owner.

“Don’t be so melodramatic, he weren’t hurt. Just scared. Like Hal said before, this is gonna drive business. Big business. We keep this up, we’ll be practically rolling in cash.”

Hal intervene, suddenly severe.

“That’s as may be, but we’ve gotta be careful,” He stabbed his finger through the air at Kennedy, “This if anyone finds out that you’re the one whose been putting snakes on the grave it will all be for nothing.”

“Well, I always do just like ya say and check to make sure there ain’t no one there before I place um. Them ole rat snakes are easy ta catch once ya can find um, so I been breeding them out behind my barn and ain’t no one ever goes out there.”

Hal nodded as if that were acceptable and then turned to Debbie, “Alright, now when your historian friend calls you – you did give him your phone number right?”

“Yep.”

“Ok. Good. When he calls you and tells his story, you tell him that’s happened before, really ham it up, if we keep saying there’s been tons of these sightings and enough people listen, they’re bound to believe it. At that point I won’t need to play dress up and Danny here won’t need to keep bringing snakes, they’ll be all so convinced about the truth of it, they’ll starting seeing things themselves, now that’s bound to bring in some news stories.”

“Hell,” Dan snickered, “Forget the news, that fella is bound to write this up in his book, I looked him up, he’s pretty well known. New York Times bestseller and all that.”

“Alright we just have to-”

Suddenly there came a thumping, but wherefrom, none of the conspirators could tell. Hal rose first and swiftly, “What was that?”

Dan shrugged, unconcerned, lighting a Marlboro and taking a swig of Coors. Moments later there came a second thumping. Debbie jumped and Dan shook his head, his brows going up and his facade falling to amused disappointment.

“Yall are jumpin’ at shadows, probably just a coon. Ya know how they get up on top of the roof sometimes-”

“It werent no coon.” Hal whispered grimly.

Debbie yelped suddenly as a black snake twined about her ankle. She windmilled her arms and fell to the floor howling and kicking whereupon Hal froze and Dan cursed aloud.

“How the fuck did one of your snakes get loose?”

“It weren’t one of mine Hal, I swear they all locked up.”

Both men paused then and looked at each other as Debbie rose and steadied herself as the snake moved out to the middle of the floor. They followed it with their eyes and when it reached the center of the diner they heard the thump once more and followed its source to a tall man in a dark suit with thick mane of hair who stood at the window outside the restaurant. His eyes were luminous and dark as collapsing stars and his mouth formed a cold and motionless line and the only expression he made were like the face of Death himself.

Debbie cried, Hal went white with terror and Danny swore and took a step back.

When they looked again, he was gone. Only the serpent remained.

*

In the little cafe to the immediate right of Hartzell road, Ellis sipped his coffee; the place was packed to bursting. A Amish woman came in and asked to sit and he nodded, “Sure. Yeah, of course. I don’t own the table.” She sat down beside him, ordered coffee and eggs and asked to see the newspaper. When she flipped it open and raised a brow.

“What is it?”

“Hal and Dan Kennedy, co owners of Hal’s Diner recently claimed that they had been assailed by… a ghost.”

“Oh? Does their ghost have a name?”

“Chester Bedell.”

“Oh. Interesting.”

“They’re claiming that they’ve been cursed. That the grave of Chester Bedell is haunted.”

Ellis grinned like a jackal as he sipped his coffee with his left hand and zipped up a bag filled with a fake wig and beard and a dark, old fashioned dress suit.

“Mighty good for business.”

 

Fiction Circular 8/24/18

WEEKLY FICTION | compiled by KAITER ENLESS


FLASH FICTION

Over at The Dark Netizen, several pieces of flash fiction most notably, Lights In The Water. I’ll be perfectly frank that most flash fiction feels under developed; too airy for public consumption. Simply writing something should not predispose one to put it up for others to read. However, Netizen’s excellent piece baffles expectations with a emotional twist ending. Some much from so little! Also from the Dark Netizen, No Entry, another (very) short piece.

We’ll certainly be interested to see what he can do with longer works where he has more time to build upon characters and themes.

The Story Hive published, The Weight Curse, a short tale about a haunting, tea and, as the title suggests, a curse. Certainly seems like good groundwork for a more elaborate and detailed story.


SHORT STORIES

Longshot Press has a fascinating and sad story entitled Lawrencium by Liz Kellebrew. As I have stated before and will continue to state well into the future, the beginning of any story is the most important part, for if you fail to capture a reader’s attention at the first, they will read no further and then it will not matter how interesting or well-developed the rest of the story. This is a principal Ms. Kellebrew has taken to heart for her story begins, “There was a giant jellyfish in the St. Lawrence River-” I’m hooked already (Why is jellyfish? How is jellyfish? What does it mean?!).

Recommended and the Logos pick for Best Of The Week.

You can find more of Kellebrew’s work at her website: lizkellebrew.com

Speaking of jellyfish, Jellyfish Review has a peculiar story entitled Dump Truck by Robert Long. The plot follows a pig who is observed getting aroused by trash; I’ll not say it is a pleasant read but there is a clever metaphor here that I shant spoil for the prospective reader.

Terror House Mag has a fantastic story this week in The Crowman by Charlie Chitty. Something like a fusion of The Crow and The Mothman Prophecies. It would have been our pick for best of the week but it, far too often violates the dictum: Show don’t tell. That being said, it is still well worth reading. TerrorHouse senior editor Glahn’s darkly hilarious White Dwarf is also well worth a read (even if you aren’t big on fiction, take a gander at the cover image). If we gave out a Most Bizarre Of The Week award, White Dwarf would easily be top contender. You can find Glahn’s Twitter here.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine published a excerpt from Drift by Chris Campanioni, entitled Born Under Punches.

“As a rule, I strive for lucidity in loneliness-“

Drift stands out for its stylistic uniqueness, a Delilloesque stream of consciousness which conveys speed and emotional intensity. It is only a excerpt and for this reason can not be evaluated of its own accord given that it is meant to be read as a part of a much larger piece. We can however say that it certainly accomplished its promotional goal; we’re quite interested in reading the full text upon release.


NOVELLAS & NOVELS

I have started going through my old stack of paperbacks and discovered some treats which I had either never read or never finished. One of those I had finished but only read once was the tepidly received Hannibal Rising (2006, Delacorte) by Thomas Harris. Reading it through a second time I liked it much better. Even if it is fairly scattershot and a little too sparse in sections (especially as concerns Hannibal’s uncle), it is stylistically, my favorite Harris novel.

“Night heron revealed

By the rising harvest moon –

Which is lovelier?”

Hannibal Rising, p. 145.


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Thanks for reading.

The Second Visitation | The Sea of Corn

IN MY DREA M | I stalked along a dusty road which ran betwix two fields of corn that stretched beyond the line of sight and vanished into the space between earth, horizon and sky, the liminal realm where Apep lay with baited breath for the encroachment of his eternal foe. Each stalk, higher than the highest man and certainly higher than the five foot, eight inches of blood and bone and flesh.

A strong wind gusted in from above and shortly thereafter, a sound in the corn. A steady and readily multiplying thrumming, liken to the sound of footfalls, but unlike the footsteps of any normal man. My heart raced and my breath quickened as something moved beyond at the periphery of my sight, fear subsumed me and pressed me to its bosom. With haste, way was made into the cornfield, stalks flying by, as if accelerated through some cosmic convergence; shortly, a clearing with an old scarecrow. I braced myself against the farmyard prop and listened. Nothing. Straightening, I caught the mischievous wyrm-of-breath which sought its escape from my heaving lungs, longing to return to its brethren in the clouded realm of the lunar dancers where they thundered to ancient and draconian rhythms.

Back in, back in! I require thee! Fuel for my engine. Fuel to flee this queer plot.

The next moment there came a dreadful creaking. Wood. The scarecrow was moving! It’s head spun about in unnatural, inhuman contortion to stare at me with it’s blank, black sack-hole eyes. Then it leapt from its wooden perch, leapt at me! The next moment was a blur of motion, my feet hitting the husk scattered ground hard and fast until I was long and good and free and clear of the animated farm ornament and his clacking and odd-angled limbs of wood and hay and cloth.

They are coming. To rend and tear. To rip and gnash. To sund and split.

Alack, again that voice, ringing in mine ears as if it were emanating from my vary brain! It was HIM. He who I had encountered in my last dream, he who had loomed over me upon the endless stair in the limitless hall. I could not see his centipedal form but could feel his presence, pulsing, not around, but within me.

What will you do? How will you gird your pathetic flesh? Can you? You can barely keep up this pace. Already your legs slacken, your pulse soars and your pores slick over with wetness. The whole of the body subsumed by fear. Feeble.

Shut up!

Anger will not avail you. I did not bring you here. You have no one to blame but yourself.

I’m not the one chasing me – now – get out of my head!

The scarcecrows close upon you. You cannot outrun them for they do not tire.

Get. Out. Of. My. Head.

The words poured out of my mouth this time, no longer merely contained to my mental sanctum; as if the foreign entity within me had expelled all speech, as if his consciousness had begun to displace my own. Control swiftly dissipating. Tension and dread the whole of my form, form the whole of my world. Was this how it was to end? Was I to die sad, harried and alone in a nowhere cornfield? I would not allow it. This was not my design.

Your imagination rebels against demise, for you can picture a life beyond your present circumstance… the will is lacking.

The will? Did he expect me to fight them? Still running haplessly, I shot a glance behind; the scarecrows where everywhere, numbering in the hundreds, lumbering through the corn with savage increase, their forms horridly skeletal in the failing, amber light.

Why aid me, ᚲᚺᚨᚨᚱᛁᛉᚨᛚ?

An amused laugh echoed throughout the endless caverns of my mind.

Why not? Better you then they. They’ve no imagination. They are no artists. They are no creators. They are husks and nothing else besides.

Tell me then, what am I to do?

Find the ship that lies to the north.

I nearly gasped for my route of escape had taken me south. To find the ship the entity spoke of I would have to transgress against the skeletal horde.

The choice is a simple one. Your coward’s heart or me. Decide.

I glanced out at the field, roiling out and beyond the horizon’s fathomless edge. He was right, there was no escape. Steeling the nerves and focusing my will I turned upon my heel and rushed the grotesque conglomerate. The first scarcecrow, feeble and rickety was as a brickwall and against it I was powerless. The creature pinned me to the ground, it’s sightless gaze piercing the outer sanctum of my mind; tearing into my flesh and reaving great and bloody gashes upon the ground. I shouted out in desperation.

ᚲᚺᚨᚨᚱᛁᛉᚨᛚ, help me!

The moment the words had left my mouth my skin was covered over in chintinous plate as dark as pitch, hard as obsidian and ‘gainst this newest skin my foe’s ravishments were rendered superflous; its scrawny wooden-straw arms dinging off my glistening carapace. Strength such as I had never experienced before surged throughout my body and with the lightest jerk of my arm I tore the monster’s head from it’s miserable body and threw it into the oncoming waves of its fellows. Charging through the rest was as if I were but passing through a shallow shrub and when fifty had been rendered by my hand a great galleon of clockwork rose up from the sea of corn, a ladder hanging from its side. Climbing aboard, it instantly began to rise, though it unhelmed and empty.

Standing upon the bow, the ship floating across the top of the stalks as if fording mighty waves, I looked down upon my inhuman form and smiled.

The Chittering

Night fell like a blanket of smoke over the hunters, the clicking of crickets in the forest beyond the old bunker, the only sound save for the rustling of the lonesome wind. The men were two in number, one middle aged and the other graying about the temples, languidly smoking a cigarette and listening to the portable radio he’d set up inside the bunker. Phil sat fiddling with the radio, it hissing white-noise in bitter hums between channel emissions. The Sandhill Crane is exceptionally large, reaching heights of 7 feet and possessed of red coloring about its eyes-; hiss; the Brown Bear can often be found-; hiss; President Istvan and Vice President McAfee sat down with Praetor Hui of New China today to discuss what should be done concerning the recent flurry of homemade drone strikes upon the settlements in the Eurasian De-Militarized Zone, suspicion falls on Zoroastrian Neo-Persian radical Reza Jor-; hiss; “I wish a buck was still silver. It was back when the country was strong. Back before Elvis. Before the Vietnam war came along. Before The Beatles and ‘Yesterday.’ When a man could still work, still would. The best of the free life behind us now. And are the good times really over for good?”

“Phil,” the younger man intoned with vexation, “Would you mind changing the channel?”

“What’s the matter, Tom, don’t like country?”

“Nobody likes country music.”

“Heresy!”

Tom shook his head and rose from the elegant scribbling of his notebook to give his compatriot a unamused raise-of-brows.

“Fine, fine. Changing it. Can’t believe you don’t like Merle Haggard… what kind of American are you?” He switched the dial. Silence, then a voice, sonorous and official of tone.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Breaking news: mysterious sights seen over the town of Holdover, Nebraska. These reports come to us straight from our reporter on the ground, Emily Curtis who we have here on livefeed. Ah, hello, Emily, what is all this ‘mysterious sights’ business really all about?”

“Good evening, Chris. To answer your question it’s hard to say… we recently interviewed several people who have reported instances of a strange… creature, moving about the trees. Some say it had wings, though most say it was too dark to see but-“

A old voice, croaky and filled with agitation suddenly cut in.

“They’ll shake their heads and laugh, but goddammit I know what I saw! Its there! ITS THERE!”

When the newswoman had recovered her composure she interjected in befuddlement.

“Who are you, sir?”

“Cooper Greene.”

“And… what is it that you saw in the woods, Mr. Greene?”

“Well,” he seemed to have calmed some and the sound of a beard being stroked could be heard over the airwaves, “I caint rightly say as I know what it were. Weren’t human, I kin tell ya that. No, ma’am…”

“Well, uh… alright, there you have it, Chris. We may never exactly know what it was that was being seen but, according to Mr. Greene… it… wasn’t human. Emily Cochran reporting for National Vita, back to you Chris.”

“Thanks Emily. What a curious story,” the news anchor could barely contain his amusement, “Moving on, noted motivational instructor, Christopher Wisdom challenges noted ophthalmologist to a fencing match – the twist… the fencing match will take place on a hockey rink-“

“Well, hell, what do you make of that,  Tom?

“Strange spot for a fencing match.”

“No, meant the business in the forest. You know they were talking ’bout Offstead Park, right? That means they were talking about this forest, our forest. According to old man-whats-his-name there’s some kinda… thing hereabouts.”

Tom gave his companion a looked of utter indifference.

“Yeah, and I’m Salvador Allende.”

“Come on, you have to admit, it is weird.”

“What? The fact that a bunch of drunk-off-their-gourd hilljacks leap at shadows? Hardly out of the ordinary.”

“No, come on, you know what I’m talking about. This is the eighteenth sighting in the past month. Shit ain’t normal. Something is going on.”

“What do you fancy that something is?”

“Hell if I know,” Phil took a puff of his cigarette and a sip of his beer as he leaned back in the ancient wicker chair, the upholstery covering creaking neath his burly frame, “Could be anything, but it sure as shit ain’t nothing.”

“Ain’t nothing ain’t much of something.”

“Sometimes I think you just like being contrarian. Like when Frank was telling us about that haunted house.”

“You know I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“Sometimes I wonder what you do believe in.”

“Pretty rich coming from a Lapsed Catholic.”

Phil threw up his hands in entreaty, set his beer down with a decisive clink and turned to eye his compatriot over his shoulder with supreme exasperation.

“Listen, I’m not saying its spooks and goblins, I’m just saying I’ve heard about this kinda stuff, read about it too and there are just too many things that we can’t explain and dismiss out of hand. Back in 2021 there was a unidentified object over the pacific, US battle cruisers couldn’t get a bead on it, one of them said it looked like a giant bat with glowing eyes, had no idea what it was but it jammed their signal; 2023, four children said they saw a winged creature over their farmstead in Appalachia; 2029, 15 different people in Iowa claim they received strange phone calls where this here fella up and tells them that there’s to be a death in the town in seven days, seven days come and pass and some young beauty is murdered by her boyfriend, crime of passion, or so they said. You just telling me all those people who corroborated each other’s stories were making it all up?”

“Not necessarily, though that would be more believable to me than a giant, glowing bat that can signal-jam a battle cruiser. Could be mass delusions, could be their eyes deceived um and they made up a story after the fact to explain it. In India, there was a holy man who millions believed could heal the lame and wake the dead.”

“Well… maybe he could.”

“Yeah, and maybe the moon is made of cheese.”

“Now see, why ya gotta be that way?”

“Ain’t being no way.”

“Hell if ya ain’t. I could walk up and offer you two strippers, a pole and a case of black label, and you’d assume it was some kind a prank.”

“Knowing you, I just might. You’d never shill out that much money for a couple of broads. Now the black label, that I’d believe.”

They exchanged smiles but Phil’s vanished quicker than his friends; he shook his head.

“Well, I ain’t one ta argue,” the older man noticed Tom was massaging his templed, blinking rapidly, “You alright?”

“Fine. Just a migraine. Head’s starting to pound all of a sudden. Must be the pressure from the elevation. Probably just not used to the altitude.”

Phil took a long drag on his cigarette and then bent to change the dial yet again, before his hand could reach it, the hissing of radio-static overtook the channel.

“Aw, dammit – lost the signal.”

“Would you mind turning that thing off? My head is gonna explode. Where’s that Motrin?”

“I’m trying, the dial is stuck,” Phil huffed under his breath, furrowing his brows with consternation as he tussled with the whirring machine, “Come on, you sonofabitch…”

Tom slammed his notebook shut and rose, passing the hunting rifles and coolers of beer and bottled water, and moved towards the door. Massaging his temples still, more forcefully now, face flush and a slight sweat beginning to break upon his brow, despite the frigidity of the old bunker.

“I’m going out. Taking a walk. Let me know when you’ve got that thing under control.”

“K. Just don’t go too far, wouldn’t want you falling down a mineshaft or stepping in a bear trap.”

Tom nodded and snatched a flashlight off his desk, threw on his Carhartt jacket, strapped his homemade knife-sheath to his belt and, massaging his temples, left out of the bunker. Outside the rusted construct a chill wind blew under-girded by the swelling cacophony of the forest’s multitudinous host.

The bunker was situated in a small clearing, the ground, damp and mossy, here and there a stone, smooth and the height of a man’s shin, laying like the eggs of some gargantuan beast, calcified in some cataclysm beyond all reckoning. Oak and willows surrounding, heavy with slithering vine, scratching the sky as if in vengeful protestation of it’s withdrawal of the sun. Moonlight shown through the boughs, illuminating efts and mew alike and them skittering off into the darkness with the faintest of fey rustlings, the scent of mud and bark and wet stone heavy in the air.

Tom Callahan stretched and breathed deep the sweet scents and gazed up unto the night sky, his cold blue eyes shimmering with the reflections of the lunar disk, white as bone. His head was feeling better already. Lungs swelling with sweet mountain air. Skin caressed by the soothing filaments of the northern wind. He decided at length to look around. The bunker was a recent discovery and he and Phil had only recently set up there, as such it occurred to the man quite suddenly that the duo had never scoped out the old quarry which they had seen from a distance when they were tracking a deer the following morning. Curiosity swelled in his breast and without wasting any further time he spun on his heel and left off towards the north. Making way over the tumultuous hillocks, then descending down a steep bank, once a mighty river that twined like a sorrowful and desiccated serpent down unto a flat and trammeled plain of grey stone that crunched with every measured footfall, like a bevvy of pulpy chitin.

Callahan gazed about in wonderment at the quarry. It was more a place out of some fantastical workshop of eldritch dream than a thing of materiality, so queer-lit and ambiguously skeletal in it’s stony lay-lines of dry-rent earth. Everywhere were large boulders, some standing thrice the height of any mortal man, they rooted to their moon-slit and respective shades as if in stoic obeisance to some rule outside the realm of knowing. As he approached the wayfarer discerned yet another peculiarity about the wide, square boulder, strewn and stony expanse; small piles of bones. Animals of all habitats and morphologies, toads, newts, boar, deers, birds of many variations and, here and there, the great horned totem of a elk.

“What on earth,” he mouthed to himself as the wind swept up.

He drew closer to the nearest skulls-pile which had been carefully situated beneath a high rock outcropping which let down into a echoing cavern. Atop the bird, deer and elk skulls sat a horrid effigy.

A human skull.

Instinctively, unthinkingly, Callahan flinched and drew back, muttering a cure underneath his breath, quivering much from fear as from the wind’s savage increase. A cold, liquid dread slithered up his spine and coiled about his reptilian ganglia. Then, as if from a dream, eyes like flashing embers shone through the inky voided architecture of the cave. A great and terrible entity sprang forth, wings liken to the wings of a mighty sphinx, its body towering about the man, eclipsing him in its shade, as if the light were there leeched from his very essence.

The man screamed, turned heel and ran into the failing light as twisting tendrils of cloud slowly covered the moon.

*

Phil watched the television’s techno-colored dance and fondled his everpresent cigarette and discount beer as Tom flipped furiously through the hefty stack of tomes he’d checked out from the local Offstead Library. There were only four other people in the bar and all of them eyed Tom nervously, as if he were cursed.

“Why does everyone here keep looking at me like that?”

“Cuz they think you’re crazy.”

“I know what I saw.”

“That’s just what Greene said. Just like him you called up the news.”

“It’s not like they gave me the time of day, they’d moved on from the story.”

“Yeah, but you know how word travels. Look you know I trust you, but I think you’re getting a little too worked up about this. Haven’t even been to work since… you saw… well, whatever it was you saw.”

“I’ve got new work to do now,” he muttered under his breath with vexation, peering at series of black and white photograph on the page of one of his library books. The pictures were of a strange humanoid looking creature, some eight feet tall, with round, glowing eyes, it appeared to be cognizant of the camera and, in the very last photograph, it vanished. The book noted that it was suspected a hoax.

Gasping, Tom slide the book across the table to Phil.

“Look… this thing looks like what I saw.”

“Hell, Tom, you can barely see anything, could just be a man on stilts with a reflective mask. Says right here it was suspected to be a hoax.”

Tom flipped to the previous page, “What about the fact that these sightings have a history dating back to the 1700s?”

“Tom, people see all kinds a thing in the woods out there. One time when I was out deer hunting I swore I saw a dinosaur, turned out to be a log sitting at a weird angle. Tricks of light and shadows,” He gestured sadly at the pile of books, “I just don’t see the use in all of this.”

Tom grimaced and slammed the book shut, “Fine… fine. You know what… you’re right, I don’t see the use in talking to you either. I thought you of all people would believe me…”

Phil held out his hand in entreaty, “Now, come on, don’t be that way. Tom!”

Tom ignored him and packed his book into the backpack sitting on the floor beside the bar. He ignored everyone as he left. He ignored the cold of the moon as he made his way back to the library which had become something like a second home to him since his sighting at the cave. The street was quite and the ghastly shell of the lunar disk peeked around high billowing nimbus, it reminded him of when he had seen it. He moved on with a wary eye and quickening feet. Suddenly a black shape drifted out from the shadows and screeched horridly. The world seemed to stop in its turning and Tom gave a shuddering gasp and fell straight back off his feet to the flat of his back, quickly peering up only to discover a large, unruly black tom-cat starring back at him. He cursed at the beast until it ran off and then rolled his eyes and made his way across the deserted street to the local library.

It was a old building, all of colonial brick, some of it crumbling and all in desperate need for repair. He passed beyond the high oaken double doors and passed the librarian who gave him a hesitant wave and then returned to watching the small portable television screen which had been set up at the front desk. Beyond the foyer, with its reception desk and low, flickering lights, and low, moldered ceiling and alabaster colored crenelations, lay the library proper, with fifty five rows of bookshelves standing about the room like dutiful sentries and the walls all likewise covered in the same. Tom adjusted his pack about his shoulder and scanned the books until he found the ‘Unexplained’ then he picked out a few more books and took them to his usual sitting place upon the upper landing nearest the southern-most corner.

Some twenty minutes into his venture the sound of footsteps intruded upon him. He looked up to behold a old man dressed in mangy flannel and tattered jeans. He was bearded and graying, gaunt, wild-eyed and possessed the look of one who had lived too long in a world beyond his conception. The man pocketed his hands and stood a moment in silence before addressing the bookworm.

“You Tom Callahan?”

“Yeah. Wait… I know you, I recognize your voice, you’re Greene right, Cooper Greene?”

“That’d be me. Word sure does travel fast in this town, don’t it. Pleased to meet ya. I saw you walking up the stairs and thought I’d say hello. You mind if I sit?”

“No, go right ahead. Chairs here are public property, I don’t own um.”

The man gave a tired little laugh and set himself down opposite Callahan. After another few moments of uneasy silence the old man affixed Callahan with a curious gaze.

“They all laughed at ya, didn’t they?”

“What?”

“Because a what ya said. Cuz of what ya saw.”

“…Yeah. No one believes me. My best friend said the shadows were playing tricks on me, wife told me that I’m just stressed out from working too hard, the reports I tried to talk to just waved me off as a crazy, said the story wasn’t a story, said it wasn’t worth covering, my kid said I was being silly. Even my fucking kid, doesn’t believe me, man. But you saw it, didn’t you… that… thing.”

The old man nodded solemnly and looked out the window into the resting darkness beyond the pane. Out off into the blackening woodlands where an eerie mist was rising like the tendrils of some great, beached kraken.

“Yeah. I saw it. Went through the same. Boss told me to take sometime off, said I was bringing too many reporters to the office, said I was too distracted, that I just wasn’t thinking clearly. Hell do they know? They weren’t there. They don’t know nothing. I just wanted to tell ya that, no matter what you do, no matter what you say and no matter how smart the people ya know are, they will never – and I mean NEVER – believe you… unless you walk into the sheriff’s office with that monster’s body slung about ya shoulder, ain’t no one ever gonna believe your story… or mine.”

“You suggesting we go hunting?”

“Maybe I am maybe I ain’t. Wouldn’t matter none until I hear your opinion.”

They held each others eyes for some time; the old man was intensive, determined whilst Callahan faltered under the weight of his uncertainty. He remembered the jeering voices of his wife then, of Phil, of his son, of his coworkers, his boss, his neighbors and the reporter’s he’d contacted. They’d all scoffed. Mocked him for weeks and weeks after that fateful encounter; everyone had turned on him. Isolated him. Everyone but Greene.

At last Callahan fully met the old man’s eyes.

“I think a hunting trip sounds like a lovely idea.”

*

Phil leaned back in his seat examining the woman with a cautious eye. He didn’t quite know what to say, words escaped him. Had she have been any person other he wouldn’t have believed her but Tom’s wife wouldn’t lie. Not about him. Not about this.

“He what now?”

“He left. Didn’t even phone me or David. How could he… I just… I just don’t understand any of this.”

“Well, hell, Cathy, I wish I did so I could explain it to ya. I knew he was worked up about… whatever it was he thinks he saw out their but I had no idea it was eating him up this much. When did he leave?”

“Late last night. He said he was going out to the bar, with you. I called him and he said he had left the bar, that he’d went to the library to study about whatever it was he saw.”

“What he thought he saw.”

Cathy sighed and closed her eyes, rubbing her weathered and sun-kissed face with her palms and falling into stony silence for a beat. Then she raised her head and looked out the window of the tiny little burger joint at the dewy drops of rain, pecking away at the arboreal tarp of the earth.

“I just can’t bear the thought of anything happening to him, he means the world to me…”

Phil nodded gravely, “I know, Cat… I know. We grew up together, that little bookworm and I, he saved my ass from so many fights when we were going through our punk days I lost count…,” he paused a moment, took a bite of his burger, found it tasteless and greasy, set it down, swallowed and looked again to the woman. She was crying now, shaking her head.

“You like Merle Haggard, Cat?”

“What?”

“The singer. Ya like him?”

“Yeah. I guess so. Oh, gosh I haven’t listened to him in years… Do I like his music? Hm… not, really.”

“Oh, not you too.”

“Too campy. Ya know, a little kitsch.”

Phil shook his head in defeat, “Well, then what all do ya like? Hell… caint believe we never talked music before…”

“Townes Van Zandt.”

“Yeah, he’s good, lonesome sonofabitch, but he’s pretty good.”

She at last broke out into a tired smile, chuckling faintly under her breath and then falling still. Her mind turning back to her husband and the dark woods into which he had fled. Abruptly, Phil placed his hand atop her own and leaned slightly forwards, the better to meet her gaze.

“You gotta calm down, I know he’s been agitated but he can take care a hisself. Now listen… I’m going to head up there, to our bunker, see if he’s staked out there, if not I’ll look around the woods a bit. He can’t stay out there in those forsaken woods forever, he’s far too fond a that famous… hell’s bells, whatcha-ma-call-it?”

She smiled the slightest ghost of smile and spoke in a thankful whisper.

“Foie gras.”

“Yeah. That’s the one. Ole Tom always did love that Frog food.”

“Thank you, Phil. Just… be careful.”

He nodded, rose from the booth, threw on his jacket and headed for the door.

*

The old man’s cabin was littered with crushed empty cans which rattled like wind-rapt bones, the walls covered corner to corner with red-lined newspaper clippings. In the center of the tiny little hovel stood but a single wooden table, two rickety folding chairs and a single lantern that looked as if it was dredged up from some ancient silver mine. In the left-most corner lay a foam mat, a pillow, a backpack and a hunting rifle poorly concealed beneath the bedding. Nothing else in that creaking den but the two men who stood a moment, engulfed in fear and uncertainty. At length the old man moved to the southern wall and drew a grease stained finger across one of the newspaper clippings, “1978, strange creature spotted in woods beyond Offstead,” he drew his finger further across the wall, closer to Tom where he stood beside the doorway, “1998, another siting, this time someone got a good look at it, massive black wings he said,” again the old man drew his finger further across the wall with more verve and nervous energy this time, “2010, two kinds say they seen a monster in the woods, but… they’re kids, so who would believe um. And now… its back… or maybe… maybe it never left.”

Tom nodded indecisively. He wasn’t certain that the old man’s tales were all true but he knew what he had seen in that cave and that was enough. One’s own eyes do not lie.

“If that’s the case,” Tom stated grimly, as he unslung his rifle from his shoulder, “Then we had best get a move on.”

*

The moonlit duo moved across the uneven ground like brigands skirting the law after some devious heist; hardly making a sound as they traipsed beneath the wind-twisted boughs of the forest groaning. The shrubbery seemed to obscure all manner of life which skittered and chittered here and thereabouts, yet never revealing itself unto them. Always in shadows. After some twenty minutes of trekking they made their way to the old quarry and passed beyond the piles of bones, illuminated in ghastly effulgence by the radiance of the celestial spheres. Standing before the cave the two men raised their rifles and exchanged anxious looks and nodded one to the other and passed into that infernal portal. There was nothing. The whole of the cave was as devoid of all sentience save their own as were the skulls surrounding void of life. They left out of the chasm shortly and there heard a rustling, unlike those which had previously sounded, some ways off in the distance, cutting through the silence of the starry night like with all the force of some executioner’s blade.

“You hear that?” Greene whispered to his compatriot. Tom nodded without speaking for turning; he realized suddenly his hands were shaking. It was close. He could feel it. Out there. In the blackness. In the shadow. In the null space which beckoned to him like some self-planned tomb. Watching him with those blazing eyes of fathomless fire.

Tom gestured for the old man to be silent and pressed his rifle-butt to his shoulder, dropping to a knee and scanning the treeline. The boughs rustled with the breeze and the shrubbery shook with the faintest breath of the wind. Tom’s heart leapt in it’s bony cage as he realized with terror that there was something moving through the bushes, moving out between the trees. A huge, looming shadowy thing, walking forth with the crunching of stick and stone with all the stolid confidence of a alpha predator.

“It’s… here,” Greene mouthed breathlessly, crouching down behind a grassy hummock upon which Tom had laid himself out on his stomach. Tom’s hands shook upon the trigger and stock of the rifle as he steadied his mind and calmed his nerves. There would only be one chance to get it. This was the moment to prove what he’d saw, this was the moment where he would show them. He’d show them all how foolish they were for refusing to believe him. For telling him he was losing it. For saying he was mad!

“It’s coming out of the trees!” Greene hissed.

“Keep your goddamned voice down.”

The thing picked up speed as it descended a bushy incline and broke through the most dense portion of the treeline. Tom took a deep breath, aimed and pulled the trigger. The shadow-beast flinched and fell back into the shrubbery and then scrambled across the ground. Greene took aim now and fire a volley into the darkness until the skittering had subsided.

Then all was silent save for the whistling of the wind. Tom and Greene exchanged dire looks and then nodded and rose from their hilly perch and trudged across the mossy ground and peered behind the bushes. They froze in abject horror at the sight which then greeted their eyes.

A human body lay in a twisted heap upon the ground, a large red hole showing grisly and raw upon the abdomen. What little was left of the man’s head leaked out bits of brain and silver-black rheum upon the cool, lichen-wrought ground and somewhere a crow cawed in the darkness as if in acknowledgement of some soul’s passage into the underworld. Tom tore at his hair as he starred down at the body; it was familiar to him, dreadfully familiar.

It was Phil.