By Howard Pyle - https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18494745
While the wizard is mixing
his potions, a few rare herbs
that thrive only in the fertile
ground beneath a dragon's anus,
please take the time to read
our brochure and note the fine
variety of vacations available.
Thankfully, the Wrexham Road
soon veers off into the countryside
where a noble assortment of Greys
administer or discourage, depending on
each individual's aesthetic tolerance.
Colin James has a couple of chapbooks of poetry published. Dreams Of The Really Annoying from Writing Knights Press and A Thoroughness Not Deprived of Absurdity from Piski’s Porch Press and a book of poems, Resisting Probability from Sagging Meniscus Press.
Photo by Robert Linder on Unsplash
Making love is not unlike
a restful vacation.
Somewhere there are church bells,
flowers of practical impartiality.
Grass cuttings spread like immigrants
around the vaguest of garden borders.
To sit for how long on this stone bench?
Best to time your shadow's defense
before airlifting casualness.
The shade is only partially ideological
simulacrum sunglasses a must.
Colin James has a couple of chapbooks of poetry published. Dreams Of The Really Annoying from Writing Knights Press and A Thoroughness Not Deprived of Absurdity from Piski’s Porch Press and a book of poems, Resisting Probability from Sagging Meniscus Press.
Photo by Kees Kortmulder on Unsplash
A bonafide engineering marvel of its time,
we knew to take the express line
another lover would be less attentive.
Frosting like a cake, sweet.
I can imagine you making adjustments
if still alive, taking up your hair, spitting.
At the edge of the crater
I adjusted your weight
before tossing you in.
Caught up on your mother's knee,
I briefly considered correcting
gravity's spiraling cliches
by probing with a tool provided,
a very long red metal rake.
Only a plethora of smoke prevented this.
On my way back to the chalet,
I passed several climbing couples
laboriously carrying dying relatives.
I ignored their sarcastic empathies.
Breakfast was later served facing away
from the Aegean
seas afore mentioned flatness.
Colin James has a couple of chapbooks of poetry published. Dreams Of The Really Annoying from Writing Knights Press and A Thoroughness Not Deprived of Absurdity from Piski’s Porch Press and a book of poems, Resisting Probability from Sagging Meniscus Press.
419, by Fionn Murray
Ger sat at his desk in the office. It was 5:30 on a Saturday evening, and he was trying to work up the nerve to buy drugs.
It was October; the last time Ger had slept for eight consecutive hours had been mid-July. To fall asleep, he required a bare minimum of fifty-five minutes of uninterrupted silence: any sound above a given decibel threshold (the washing machine cheerfully beeping upon completing a cycle, the shutters descending on the garage around the corner, his son Conor hurling a racial slur down his headset while playing computer games) would reset the clock. He’d experimented with a couple of cans of Perlenbacher before retiring, or a mug of sweetened peppermint tea, or even (in desperation) guided meditation via a smartphone app: but even in combination, these could only shave off a few minutes at the best of times.
July was when the client had first contacted Ger’s boss, Ivor. Ger knew the client was an investment firm based in London, but the terms of the NDA were so stringent that even he only ever referred to them as “the client”. Ostensibly, the firm was merely “exploring” the possibility of relocating most their staff to Dublin, as part of a wide-ranging risk assessment. Unofficially, Ivor knew that the decision had been made and signed off less than two weeks after the June referendum: the upper management was only holding off on a public announcement until the logistics had been ironed out, at which point it would be too late for the shareholders to raise an outcry. So, as the most experienced QS in the company, it fell to Ger to plan for the construction of a new campus in the docklands, large enough to facilitate at least 700 full-time staff. Ivor had never undertaken a project of this scale before; if the company managed to complete it in time and under budget, a steady stream of big contracts would be nigh-guaranteed. It was a big “if”, though.
Thus did Ger’s “new normal” begin, in fits and starts. Eight-hour days became nine, then ten; five days in the office became six, sometimes seven; lunch hours vanished. After the first two weeks, Ger’s sleeping schedule and that of his wife Mags had become so skew that he’d started sleeping in the spare room. Within a month, the grey hairs on Ger’s scalp had doubled. His face somehow appeared gaunt and pasty from one angle, and bulging and choleric from another, while his brow settled into a perennial frown, hard and inflexible as granite. His weight boomeranged from fortnight to fortnight: there were week-long stretches in which all he could stomach was coffee and Nurofen, followed by ravenous mornings on which he’d devour three breakfast rolls in ten minutes. Interlocking matrices of tiny grazes covered his cheeks as a result of trying to shave while half-asleep.
To Ivor’s credit, he made every effort to be accommodating: opening Ger a personal expense account, keeping a taxi service on retainer if Ger was too tired to drive, circulating an office-wide memo urging staff to be considerate in the event that certain (unspecified) colleagues were not observing the usual standards of social grace or bodily hygiene. Every day, new design requests rolled in from the client, each more baroque and laden with notions than the last: specialized light fixtures to match the fluorescent characteristics of actual sunlight, motorized desks which could be used for sitting or standing as the user preferred, an in-house physiotherapy clinic so that staff would not need to leave the campus for their sessions.
“Exactly how much feckin physiotherapy do you actually need when your job is sitting at a desk all day selling shares,” Ger growled at no one in particular. “You’d think these lads had just come home from Afghanistan or something.” After nearly three months, Ger couldn’t remember the last time he’d dreamt of something other than mazes of copper wire, roll upon roll of reflective insulation, crates of responsive thermostats. He couldn’t simply leave his work in the office: even asleep, he was clocked in, on call. He’d barely seen Mags in weeks. He was buying so much paracetamol that the girl in the pharmacy had once slipped a Samaritans leaflet in the paper bag alongside his receipt. He was on first-name terms with all of the Polish security guards who had to take turns cajoling him out of the office at closing. He was having attacks of hypertension, his blood pressure was soaring, he didn’t even have time to check who was playing Anfield this weekend. Beer or red wine simply weren’t cutting the mustard to help him relax: he needed something stronger.
His first thought was going to the GP and seeing if he could wheedle a Valium prescription out of him, but Mags would be sure to find out and he didn’t fancy having that conversation. There was nothing for it but to go the illicit route. The problem was, in all his forty-eight years, Ger had never touched anything stronger than Bushmill’s (and only at Christmas). He had nothing but contempt for the spaced-out couples with prams he passed on Talbot Street, cadging coins for fictitious hostels, barely thirty teeth between them. He would read stories about “head shops” in the Sunday supplements, and tsk-tsk, and tell Mags it was “disgraceful” such loopholes could be so easily exploited. Conor might mock him for being unfamiliar with the concept of a “roach” or the “Mary Jane” double entendre, but he took a certain pride in his ignorance.
But now he found himself wanting to buy drugs, but having utterly no idea of how to go about doing so. Never mind not knowing who to ask; he didn’t even know what to ask for. Resting his elbows on a stack of printed ISO documentation, he covered his face with his hands and tried to think of the relevant terminology. “Dope”, “jenkem”, “smack”, “monkey’s eyebrow”, “elderflower extract” were the first few to come to mind. Valium was meant to help you relax, he wanted something like that; but some drugs, he was dimly aware, had the opposite effect; they made you excited, bouncing off the walls.
Well, those spaced-out couples on Talbot Street: perhaps they bought their supplies somewhere close to home? It was something to go on. He glanced at his phone: 5:40 p.m. Trying not to think about how ridiculously he was behaving, he stood up from his desk, marched hastily to the coat rack to don his blue windbreaker, and left the building. A security guard named Kostas, pushing forty with a greasy combover, was on the evening shift today, and looked positively startled to see Ger leaving before sunset.
Ger briskly made his way west along the quays, hanging a right just after George’s Dock, straining to ignore the sinewy surges in his guts: the faster he walked the less nervous he felt. Along the way, he walked past an endless parade of briefcases, greatcoats, pencil skirts, silk blouses – none of these people could help him, they looked far too decent. He might have had better luck with the occasional Brazilian student or Just Eat cyclist he crossed paths with, but decided against it: finding what he sought was going to be hard enough without trying to navigate a language barrier.
He walked up Amiens Street, then left onto Talbot Street. The understated solemnity of the Omagh monument contrasted grotesquely with the stomach-churning aromas emitting from the row of takeaway pizza shops across the road. Passing underneath the DART bridge, he noticed a woman sitting in front of the bookie’s. Her hair was matted and stringy, jagged cheekbones bulging out, skin scarcely distinguishable in tone or texture from the pavement beneath her, dried muck caked on the ends of her navy tracksuit bottoms. It was impossible to gauge whether she was twenty-three or forty-four; you’d have to cut her open and count the rings, he thought. She clasped a battered Insomnia cup in her hands. Ger approached her.
“Any spare change for a hostel pal,” she said. It wasn’t quite a question, it was devoid of any inflection at all, she was going through the motions without any expectation of a response. She didn’t even look at him, her sunken, glazed eyes fixed on a bichon frise tied to a bollard across the street, periodically barking without enthusiasm.
“Sorry love I’ve none on me,” Ger started, then stopped himself. He reached into his pocket and fished out a euro, and dropped it in her cup.
“Cheers pal, god bless,” she said in the same reedy monotone, still staring at the dog.
“You’re grand love, get some food into you,” Ger said, rubbing his wrist with his thumb. “Eh – would you mind if I asked you a question?”
“What,” she said.
“Ask you a question?”
“Would you happen to know, eh,” he began, glancing across the road and running a hand over the back of his head. “Would you happen to know anywhere I could buy some, em, some drugs.”
The word was a shibboleth, a trigger phrase finally prompting her to meet his gaze, furrowing her brow. “I don’t use drugs, I’ve never used drugs in my life, who d’you think you are casting aspersions on me, I know me rights I’ve never done anythin like that, you’re a bleedin tick-”
“No no no, c’mere, it’s not that love,” Ger said, hunkering down next to her, trying to ignore the shooting pains in his thighs. “I know you’re not on drugs, I’m only saying, as in, do you know where I could get some.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Are you a guard.”
“No I’m not,” he said, discreetly gesturing for her to lower her voice.
“You’re a bleedin copper you are, I’m not tick, I wasn’t born yesterday like. Gwan and feck off back to Store Street already-”
Abandoning the attempt, Ger shudderingly stood up. Her tirade continued as he resumed walking towards the Spire.
Half an hour later, Ger had walked all the way to Moore Street and had spent an additional six euro and thirty cents on three other panhandlers, but been met with essentially the same response from all of them. Did he really look that much like a policeman? Patchy stubble and bloodshot eyes notwithstanding, he simply looked too respectable and too old for his queries to be taken at face value: everyone heard his question and assumed there must be an angle. He could hardly blame them.
What on earth was he doing?
In a chain coffee shop, he ordered a cappuccino, then sat down on an overstuffed leather couch. He took a moment to wipe his brow on his sleeve, willing his armpits to stop sweating.
His phone buzzed in his pocket, startling him so much he nearly knocked over his coffee. It was a message from Mags, asking if he could print off an essay for Conor in the office printer, as the home printer was out of toner.
He was short on time, and ideas. In resignation and feeling terribly foolish, he opened the browser on his phone and laboriously typed out “how to buy drugs” with his index finger.
The search returned Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Cialis and Viagra. He frowned, and amended the search to “how to buy drugs dublin”.
Boots, McCabe’s, Adrian Dunne. He amended the search again to “how to buy illegal drugs dublin”.
Finally, something promising: a website he’d never heard of called “Craigslist”, which featured dozens of posts full of alien terminology: “42O”, “Benz0$”, “Quaaludes”. Some were accompanied by photos of round clumps of some furry green substance; he suspected this might be dope, but wasn’t sure. He tapped on the first such post. The description advised him that a range of substances (“ec$tasy”, “premium Moroccan ku$h”, “#dublincocaine” and more besides) could be delivered anywhere in the city centre within two hours, and that he should contact the poster via an app called Kik. The poster’s username was xX_dota_powder_Xx.
After a full hour of embarrassment, Ger had reached his peak: the cold sweats had ceased, the palpitations gradually attenuating in intensity. At this point, no option remained but to barrel through the awkwardness to the other side. Signalling the barista for the same again, he downloaded Kik and set up a profile. When the app prompted him to fill in his personal details, he thoughtlessly entered his forename, but then stopped himself: presumably a degree of discretion would be advisable. He deleted “Ger” and replaced it with “drugbuyer2016”.
He found “xX_dota_powder_Xx” and, taking a deep breath, texted “Hello”.
Three tortuous minutes later, a response: “howiya pal what’s the story”
His right knee jiggling up and down, Ger replied, “How’s it going… I saw your ad… I want to buy some drugs”
“ha ha cool what do you need”
Ger hesitated: if this person became aware of just how ignorant Ger was, he was sure to be ripped off. Best to forestall that revelation as long as practicable. “What have you got on you?” he asked.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ive got everything pal
“got a few ounces of some banger hash in over the weekend
“few grams of ket, 30 quid a gram
“ive about 20 yokes with beamer stamps on them”
Ger was reminded of holidaying in France, arduously piecing his way through menus, looking for solitary words he recognized and hoping to infer the meaning from context, much too proud to ask the waiter for assistance. The word “hash” looked familiar – was that the same thing as dope? That sounded right. That was what people with cancer were after, to help them unwind after the chemo.
Okay, good, let’s try that.
He texted: “I see… how much for a hash?”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ha ha cool
“so the hash comes in 25 bags but the minimum order is 5 bags
“but if you buy 5 bags the fifth one is free
“so it’s a 100 quid for the whole lot pal”
Ger frowned. Was that a reasonable price? In the day job, Ger drove a hard bargain, but now found himself so far outside of his frame of reference that haggling would have been pointless. He’d had no idea drugs were so expensive: how could those spaced-out couples pushing prams afford a lifestyle this lavish?
“Okay grand, that seems fair… send me your bank details.”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ok so
“we only take payment in steam vouchers
“with bank transfers and paypal there’s a paper trail
“it’s too risky
“but they cant trace steam vouchers
“so its safer for you and me pal”
Of course, Ger thought, there was no way it could be that simple. He noticed the barista behind the counter periodically glancing over at him, apparently curious as to why he was hunched over so intently, gawping animatedly at his phone. She probably thought he was anxiously awaiting the results of an endoscopy, or disputing an insurance claim, or something similarly age-appropriate.
“Okay… sorry but where would I get a steam voucher?” he asked; surely this person was already guffawing at Ger’s ineptitude.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “grand
“go to gamestop
“before you go in take out 100 quid from a cash machine
“ask them for a 100 euro steam voucher”
Ger didn’t appreciate being bossed about by this cocky dealer, most likely less than half his age; but there was no sense in objecting. Google Maps told him there was a GameStop just around the corner, but it was already closed: the nearest open branch was in the Stephen’s Green centre, and it was closing in half an hour. He tossed a tenner on the table and raced out of the coffee shop, hailing a taxi.
Just a couple of minutes after 7, he had the voucher in hand. Professing his ignorance to the sales assistant, he gathered that “Steam” was a website on which one could buy computer games and download them to one’s PC, not unlike Netflix. He sat down on a marble bench in front of the Gaiety, the only such bench not covered with a sleeping bag, and allowed himself a prolonged series of sighs. He scratched his knee (his legs were itchy from all the walking), then withdrew his phone from his pocket and texted: “Okay I’ve got the voucher… what now?”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “sound pal
“okay I can meet you in an hour
“you’ll see me in a white audi
“I know your not a timewaster but before I come out
“can you send me a pic of the card so I know you have it”
Ger dutifully took a photo of the voucher and sent it.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “deadly
“on the back of the card there’s a bit of foil
“like on a scratch card
“can you scratch it off and send me a pic of that so I can verify it”
Ger retrieved a fifty-cent coin from his pocket (the one bit of change he hadn’t wasted this evening) and scratched off the foil to reveal a fifteen-character code. He took a photo and sent it.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “cheers pal
“let me verify that and I’ll get back to you in a minute”
A minute passed.
Ger didn’t want to seem pushy, but it had been a stressful evening, and he didn’t even know where he was supposed to be meeting this person. The music blaring from Sinnott’s bar was giving him a headache, and the two cappuccinos taken in quick succession were accelerating his heartbeat again. He unbuttoned the second button of his shirt (his armpits were positively saturated by this point), took a deep breath and then texted, “All good yeah?”
A minute passed without response.
Ger sent a couple more follow-up messages and heard nothing back.
It wasn’t until 7:30 that it dawned on him.
A quick Google search confirmed it: the fifteen-character code was all that was needed to redeem the voucher and claim the cash value.
He’d been had.
Ger growled. He punched his thigh, then the bench. He wanted to break something, dart across to the smoking area in Sinnott’s and smash a rake of empty pint glasses, but common sense prevailed. Frankly, his humiliation outweighed his fury. He’d really been so naïve as to trust a drug dealer called “xX_dota_powder_Xx”; been fool enough to entrust €100 to someone he’d never met, who for all he knew didn’t even have any drugs in their possession and was just waiting to spring traps on easy marks.
What a fabulous evening.
He was too tired to drive home, so instead he shambled over to Great George’s Street and hailed a second taxi, promising the driver a fiver if he didn’t say a word. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this ashamed of himself, but be grateful for small mercies: at least it wasn’t a public humiliation. Mags would never learn of his gullibility; the only person who knew what an arse he’d made of himself was “xX_dota_powder_Xx”.
“You’re home early pet!” Mags exclaimed when he opened the front door at twenty past eight. “Something happen?”
“Oh yeah, nothing really like,” Ger said, carefully removing his windbreaker (his back was giving him hell). “Ivor said he’d been in touch with your man in London and they’re, well, they’re happy how it’s coming on, so he said I might as well take off.”
“That’s good,” she said, brushing her curls behind her ear; she thought he didn’t know she’d been dyeing her greys. “Did you eat? There’s coddle left. We can watch some telly if you’re not too tired.”
“Yeah thanks love, I’ll have it in a bit, just need a sit down first. Could you grab us a beer?”
They sat quietly on the leather couch in the living room, holding hands as he sipped his Perlenbacher, Mags’s beloved Einaudi wafting from the soundboard. The embarrassment was starting to recede.
“Oh pet,” Mags said, startling him such that he dribbled a little beer on his shirt. “Sorry to pester you, did you print out that essay for Con?”
“Feck, sorry love, slipped my mind. He won’t need it til Monday yeah? I’ll do it for him tomorrow.”
“Where is he anyway?”
“Oh, you know,” Mags said, rolling her eyes. “Comes home from school, says hello, straight to his room.”
“Where else?” Ger said, rolling his eyes in turn.
“Yeah. He mentioned earlier that he’d won a competition or something, he got a voucher to buy some new games with. Well for some, eh? Lucky sod.”
Ger blinked. He let go of Mags’s hand, leaned forward and set his beer down on the coffee table. His nostrils flared, bile rose in his stomach.
“Lucky sod is right.”
Fionn Murray is a published writer whose short fiction has appeared in The Sunday Business Post, The Honest Ulsterman, Headstuff and Anomaly. Her novel Mayfear was highly commended in the 2022 edition of the Irish Writers' Centre Novel Fair
Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash
Overcast skies and salted air antagonized Milo at the end of a long morning's drive to the Oregon Coast. Charleston Harbor butted against a heavily wooded arm of the South Slough estuary at the mouth of Coos Bay where idle Dungeness crab trawlers crowded the marina for the off-season. Milo searched for the address listed in his copy of the Charleston Bulletin and tracked it to a run-down Bait & Tackle shop on the wharf. Inside, an overweight Frederick M. Price, the Bulletin's Editor-in-Chief, scowled from behind the counter with a half-done bowline in one hand and a tarnished double hook in the other.
"Excuse me. I'm Milo, the biology student from Siskiyou University. I wrote to you about the ecology paper I was working on? The one about the effects of encroachment on Oregon Coastal habitat?"
He recognized Milo's name from the letters.
"I was hoping you might provide more details about the recent . . . 'animals found butchered on the outskirts of town, their bones missing'?" Milo quoted from Mr. Price's article.
Price shifted his bulging gut. His eyes sank back down to the line and hook in his hands. He mumbled, "Doesn't concern you," and "Wasting your time."
Milo insisted, "Any information you have might help. Then I'll be out of your hair."
Milo wouldn't leave, and Price's face turned cruel. He looked at the young student sideways and told him, "Try the library . . . across the bay. One-O-One North . . . second left after the Eastside Bridge . . . can't miss it."
Milo thanked him, and Price bid his visitor goodbye with an evil smirk.
Certain colleagues of Milo liked to label him "Bigfoot-chaser", among other things, for running after the strangest of leads. But he didn't do so to entertain what he considered to be fairy tales. He did so because no one else would, leaving them all to himself. Charleston was just another case of man's clash with nature after encroaching on the habitat of mountain lion, black bear, bobcat, and other predators, like many others he'd documented. He was sure of it. And just like the others, it was going to help him earn the prestige he deserved. He wouldn't let obstinate locals or anyone else stand in his way.
Before heading to the library, he detoured to Ivy Landing, the neighborhood mentioned in the Bulletin. Swaths of overgrown blackberry bushes, with shriveled, overripened fruit clinging to their vines well past season, crowded against backyard fences, forming a natural barrier between Charleston and the untamed forest beyond. Misted darkwoods lurked on the other side, swooping into the hills of Oregon's coastal wilderness, a mossy temperate rainforest with pockets of unexplored, centuries-old forest so dense that the sun never touched their lowest levels.
"--the last house on Ivy Landing," the article mentioned.
A weather-worn 1950's style ranch home took up the end of the lane with a neatly trimmed lawn, sculpted hedges, and thoroughly weeded flower beds. A rusted station wagon occupied the driveway that had clearly been in recent use.
Milo knocked. No one answered.
A ragged curtain flapped through a broken window behind one of the flower beds. A quick look inside showed a living room that had been tidied. However, dark splotches on the carpet and walls hinted at what must have occurred there. Unless the window had been broken previous to the incident, such circumstances ruled out virtually every predator besides black bear. Rare behavior, indeed, but not entirely unheard-of.
Milo saw a next-door neighbor inch halfway onto his front porch out of the corner of his eye, a balding, middle-aged man in a flannel bath robe. He stared down his nose at Milo through a pair of gold-framed spectacles.
Milo hollered, "Do you know the people who live here? Do you know when to expect them?"
The man sneered, and said, "No one lives there anymore." He slid back inside. The door clicked shut.
Milo eventually found something useful in the Coos County Library archives--with no help from the librarian, a cantankerous skeleton of a woman. After wading through a slew of microfiche dating back to Charleston's "Gold Rush" days, a grainy headline jumped out at him:
BONE EATER MASSACRES TERRORIZE CHARLESTON GOLD MINERS
People had been found butchered all over 19th-century Charleston, their bones missing--people, not animals--entire families gone overnight. That explained what might have happened on Ivy Landing and what Mr. Price might have been concealing. Milo shivered.
Graves had also been robbed, especially those of Charleston's oldest cemeteries. Coffins had been dug up and left exposed, bones taken.
One author in the Coos Bay Gazette, 1857, made accusations towards Redmaw, Charleston's closest neighbor to the south: "Those pale-skinned reprobates are the ones to blame. The ones we've all seen skulking in the hills outside our beloved Charleston. The ones with nothing moral or decent to offer the world. Those debauched souls who spend their days in sloth and their nights at the feet of unGodly, unholy idols! Those wretched denizens of Redmaw!"
A bony finger tapped on his shoulder.
"The library will be closing--"
Milo left equally horrified and titillated. People as victims better suited his thesis. To identify whatever terror was responsible for the killings would make a fine capstone to his project and no doubt earn him high marks, not to mention boost his chances at candidacy for graduate work. He was tempted to gloat to Mr. Price about what he'd uncovered, but returned to the Bait & Tackle shop only to find the place closed for the night.
Milo was hungry.
Sunset turned Charleston's gray skies into deep shades of indigo, crimson, and violet. Milo sat at the bar in Kilgore's Fish House up the road from the wharf, asking everyone within earshot, between baskets of fish-'n-chips, for directions to Redmaw. Customers and waitresses turned their backs and shunned his questions. The bartender, out of pure cruelty or simple impatience, eventually scrawled what he knew on a greasy napkin and handed it over.
That quieted Milo. He parted with a belly full of deep fried cod and holed up for the night in a shabby motel across the street.
The town of Charleston was built on Coos Indian land. Even Milo had heard their stories, as well as those of the Siletz, Siuslaw, Umpqua, and others, about certain non-human races who walked the earth before mankind: there was Tall Man, known to white folk as Bigfoot or Sasquatch, who wielded powerful medicine; Tall Man's cousin, the evil one, who wasn't to be spoken of; the Little People who helped lost ones, especially children; and the Mist People, servants of the sea-god, who emerged from their cave dwellings when the fog was heaviest. If the recent attacks had anything to do with such legends, or if the people of Redmaw were of any relation to the so-called Mist People, Milo wasn't concerned.
The unmarked turnoff down Seven Devils Highway was easy to miss. A poor excuse for a service route branched off into moss-covered woods and ended at an assemblage of bizarre lean-tos huddled together within a twisted knot of dirt roads. This was Redmaw.
Every shack displayed ugly collections of sun-bleached driftwood and ocean-smoothed stone carved into obscene idols that would've been more at home among the gargoyles of Europe's most grotesque cathedrals, or the ancient sculptures that haunted many Aztec and Mayan ruins in Mesoamerica. Local Indian tribes shunned such practices and attributed them solely to the Mist People, or "Tehshu Kheh'she" in the extinct Coosan tongue. The most prevalent image, and the most unnerving, was that of the sea-god, the two-headed serpent Ci'Suotl, whom the Mist People supposedly served.
Milo paid these no mind. He pounded on doors, yelling for someone to come out and answer his questions. Small-framed, pallid figures hid inside of every tumbledown shanty and refused to speak to him. They peered from mute shadows, faces, hair, and clothes all uncouth, disheveled messes, and stared as if Milo's words were utterly incomprehensible. None would help him. He exhausted himself trying.
He wandered to the edge of the village where clumps of squalid dwellings teetered on the edge of a precipice overlooking the ocean. He followed a steep, narrow path down the cliffside to an isolated beach. Frothed, clouded waters crashed over jagged rocks and licked mottled beds of smoothed stone and coarse, grayish, volcanic sand. A sheer bluff met the water in layers of rust-colored sandstone pockmarked with gypsum and reddish-brown iron-oxide veins. Milo felt eyes on him wherever he went.
At the base of the rock, Milo uncovered inlets where the cliff face had eroded into hidden caves and alcoves, some deeper than others. These were littered with more obscene idols, depictions of unnatural beings more grotesque than the ones above ground. Hardened amorphous pools of wax hinted at what must have been nightly vigils held in those places. Again and again, Milo stumbled on two-headed statues of the serpent-god Ci'Suotl decked with strange offerings, each one larger and more disturbing than the last.
The deepest recess sliced away from the shore, unreachable by foot. Milo searched for another path when movement caught his eye. Something scampered up the ledge. Reddish-brown fur blended in too well to distinguish from the cliff until it moved again. The thing scaled the precipice, lunging from rock to rock with inhuman strength and agility. It paused at the top and stared. Then it was gone.
The tide was rising. Milo was out of time. He retraced his steps through Redmaw under the depraved eyes of its inhabitants and returned to Charleston to seek a means to reach the inaccessible cave.
Most sailors in Charleston shied away from the first mention of Redmaw, pretending not to be sure of the way, or making up some other reason to withdraw from the conversation. The one skipper daring or desperate enough to hear Milo out was a man called Moe, short for Moebius, who captained a trawler named La Vierge.
"I'll pay you double the cost to take me there and back," Milo offered.
With finances stretched thin waiting for Dungeness season to kick off, and many mouths to feed at home, Moe agreed.
The ocean was an abyss without end in the hours before dawn. Black waves slapped against the hull of La Vierge. A weary Milo huddled in the cabin over a borrowed thermos of coffee behind Moe who navigated the dark sea by instrument and flood light. Moe's lanky first mate walked the deck bearing an electric lantern, floating through the night like a ghost.
They arrived at an eerie spot. Turbulent waters shook the boat in ways that left Milo disoriented. The bluffs of Redmaw were shadowy walls basking in the spray of murky waves. Somewhere beyond the reach of the trawler's flood lights was the cave.
They dropped anchor and lowered Milo in a flimsy raft with only a flash light and a hardcover journal in which he kept his notes. Tide-worn pebbles crunched on the shore where he landed as he dragged the raft away from the ocean's dark roar.
Candles flickered in distant alcoves. Faceless shadows flitted in an out, scuttling up the path which Milo had taken before to the ramshackle village, their pale bodies making spectral blurs in the twilight. Milo found the cave ahead.
Dampness crept up the walls and along the sandy ground. The deeper cavities were stratified by jagged bands of red jasper, tiger's eye, burnt orange calcite, and rust-tinted aragonite. Fallen, fallow-colored boulders showed sings of scraping where something had been sharpened against then. Stone flakes, slivers, and coarse dust piled around them. An awful, fetid smell wafted from some unseen place.
Milo aimed his light upwards and saw strings of bones hanging down by the hundreds. Not a square foot of cave roof was unadorned. Cryptic skeletal designs also decorated the upper walls, spelling out things that Milo couldn't comprehend. Others were clear depictions of the two-headed serpent Ci'Suotl.
Milo jumped when a shadow stepped in front of the cave entrance. He spun around with his light and found a beast hunched over on its foreknuckles, its fur gross and discolored in mangy patches. Lidless eyes jerked under a sloping forehead, trying to steal a better look at Milo. Its pupils contracted, and its nostrils twitched in his direction. In one hand, it held a long, pointed stone with an uneven, tapered edge. As rapidly as it appeared, it darted away.
Milo was shaken and exhilarated in the same rush. Whatever that thing was, it spelled the discovery of a lifetime. He needed evidence.
He climbed onto the boulders to better reach the hanging bones. He pulled one, and a piece broke off. The string that held the bones together was a sinewy fiber that Milo didn't recognize. The bones were marred by jagged grooves made by the creature's primitive stone tool, as well as teeth marks where it had gnawed. Milo bundled them under his arm and sprinted back to the raft, looking over his shoulder for another sight of the creature but saw nothing. He reached La Vierge and the first mate hauled him aboard.
"Did you see it?" Milo asked, catching his breath. "Did you see which way it went?"
The first mate said nothing. Milo hurried to the cabin and asked Moe if he'd seen which way the thing had gone, but he said nothing either. They weighed anchor and sailed full speed for Charleston, Milo searching the dark coastline for another glimpse of that wretched, hairy, cave-dwelling thing.
Milo gave Moe the rest of what he owed back at the docks, then the two parted ways. Milo went straight to his motel room to start documenting what he had found while it was still fresh in his mind.
The sea raged that night. Thunderous clouds rolled in on terrible winds. The water was blackened by an ominous shadow, a dark, serpentine mass. Frightening swells rose wherever it went. It raced from one end of the bay to the other. Waves surged into the harbor, tossing boats aground. The marina was ripped and tangled up into a complete wreckage. A heavy mist descended from the hills so thick that neighbors couldn't see each other across the street. The tempest forced every man, woman, and child of Charleston to barricade themselves indoors.
Through the mist, small, pale-skinned figures scurried down streets and alleyways and loped over rooftops. Even Milo heard thumping on the motel roof but dismissed it as the wind.
In the aftermath the following day, the windows of Milo's room were found shattered and the inside strewn with remains. If they were Milo's, his bones, along with his journal and the sum of his findings, were gone.
Nathan Sweem served as an Army linguist specializing in Arabic and taught high school algebra for a stint. He writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in The Worlds Within, The Antihumanist, Active Muse, and others. Connect with him and find more of his work through social media (@nathan_sweem) and his personal website (darkislandfire.net).
Photo by Michael Kucharski on Unsplash
"American Aerial Cruise Lines service to Seattle is now boarding,” said the PA system. Silence followed. The usual hustling, queuing, and shuffling were missing. American Aerial Cruise Lines' boarding process was usually tranquil. The Line flew from a private aerodrome with one gate. Seventeen passengers waited to board.
American Aerial Cruise Lines operated a fleet of a dozen blimps. Each blimp accommodated twenty-four passengers. The blimps offered quiet, gentle trips along scenic routes. Blimps cruised the front range of the Rockies, the Great Lakes, the Hudson River, and the Pacific coast.
Captain Jonathon McLeish stood at the head of the gangway with his first officer, Marie Gupta, waiting to greet their passengers. McLeish was a former Navy pilot. Gupta came from commercial aviation.
McLeish and Gupta greeted their passengers by name. Most received the same greeting, "Welcome aboard American Aerial Cruise Lines. Please, verify all your luggage is in your stateroom. Join us for the mandatory safety briefing in the lounge before departure."
On every cruise, some passengers needed special attention starting when they boarded. This cruise was no exception.
Ramon Trudeau, and his wife Cleo, needed special attention. Cleo was pregnant and rode in a wheelchair. Trudeau pushed his wife's wheelchair. The chair was laden with medical equipment. The Trudeaus were heading for a specialist in Seattle. They booked passage for the blimp's quiet and absence of stress. The blimp could cater to her needs. She needed to soak her feet in a mineral solution every three hours. Three five-gallon bottles of mineral solution were in their cabin as well as extra towels.
Ramon Trudeau must be a dedicated husband, Gupta thought. We're not cheap.
There was one business traveler Gaia Alexius. She was a speaker at a climate change conference next week. She thought she was important. She chose to travel by blimp for ecological reasons.
The final passengers needing attention were a honeymoon couple, Harrison, and Juliet Funar. They planned to spend their honeymoon backpacking in the Cascades. The aerial cruise was a surprise wedding present. "Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Funar," McLeish began. "I hope you enjoy your cruise. Please, ensure all your luggage is in your stateroom. You must attend the safety briefing in the lounge. We don't want to interrupt anything," McLeish said. Harrison Funar smiled. Juliet Funar blushed.
Wonder how many trays they're going to order? McLeish thought.
The passengers congregated in the lounge.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with American Aerial Cruise Lines. Welcome aboard the airship Volans," the captain began. "I will be brief. This meeting takes the place of the demonstration of the seat belts you have on the airlines. We do have seat belts. Please, use them, when directed."
"There is a rail around your beds for the same reason. A curtain pulls down on the open side of the bed to serve as a seat belt. We recommend you use it."
"In case of an emergency, you will find a life jacket at the back of your closet. Emergency exits at the front and rear of the airship and in the lounge."
"We recommend you open windows in your cabin for ventilation. We do have the ability to close all windows remotely. Please, do not rest anything in an open window. Occasionally, we hit a rain squall and close the windows."
"Our estimated flight time to Seattle is thirty-six hours. We will probably be cruising at about five hundred feet and thirty-five miles an hour. We will serve breakfast as soon as I turn off the seatbelt sign. Have a nice flight."
McLeish found Gupta already on the bridge. They ran through the preflight checklist as the blimp moved out of the hangar.
"Checklist complete, captain," Gupta reported.
McLeish opened the PA system. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are ready to depart. Please, have your seatbelts fastened."
A blimp's take-off lacks the drama of an airplane's take-off. The blimp is released from the mooring mast and begins to rise. The six engines channeled their thrust upward. The blimp floats away. Upon reaching cruising altitude, the engines switch to drive the blimp forward. The captain keyed his mike, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are at our cruising altitude. Feel free to move about the ship and enjoy your breakfast."
The captain turned to his first officer, "Marie, get some breakfast and some sleep. See you in six hours."
"Sounds good," she replied as she left the cabin.
The weather was clear. The forecast called for mild winds. NASA said an asteroid would pass beyond the moon sometime tonight. A calm flight is in the offing, he thought. The asteroid could be an interesting nonevent. Hope the stewards get the breakfast trays here soon.
Once aloft, the Trudeaus went to their cabin to allow Mrs. Trudeau to rest. Stewards brought breakfast trays to the bridge. The Funars headed for their cabin after a hasty breakfast. They requested lunch trays. The other passengers spent the day getting acquainted, watching the ships and dolphins, playing cards, and reading. The flight was calm.
At six PM, Captain McLeish sat down at the captain's table. Six people asked to dine with him. Gaia Alexius was seated across from the captain. A retired couple, John and Margot Bucur, were to the captain's right. A pair of travel authors, Petr and Olivia Majerczyk, sat to the captain's left. Henry Gaiser, an EMT, completed the table. Tonight, as on most nights, the conversation went to unusual places.
As they were served, Ms. Alexius directed the conversation to an unexpected direction. "Captain," she asked, "why doesn't the airship have electric motors? Electric motors are better for the environment."
"The company did consider electric motors but chose not to use them," McLeish began.
"Don't they care about the environment?" Ms. Alexius demanded.
"We care about our passengers," McLeish began. "Our tickets are pricey. The space required for batteries would eliminate half the staterooms and double ticket prices. The diesel engines let us turn a ship around more rapidly. Another crew is waiting for us in Seattle. They will sail the next morning after we arrive. Batteries could not recharge that fast."
"The environment should come before profits."
"There are regular sail-only charters between San Diego and Seattle. Why aren't you sailing with them?" McLeish asked.
"They cost too much and couldn't get me there in time," Gaia replied.
McLeish let the matter drop.
Gaiser jumped into the void, "Why the seven AM departure, captain?"
"We want to pass San Francisco after dark. The lights of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge are beautiful. It takes fourteen hours to get from San Diego to San Francisco."
"Makes sense, I suppose," Gaiser said.
"I saw something in the papers about an asteroid," Mrs. Bucur said. "Do you think we will see it?"
"Maybe," McLeish replied. "I don't remember seeing when the asteroid would be visible."
"I hope we get lucky," Mrs. Bucur replied.
The conversation drifted through multiple alleys.
At seven PM, the captain thanked his guests for their company. He excused himself. He was due on the bridge.
Marie Gupta watched McLeish come into the bridge. "I've had a quiet watch, Jonathon. Let's see you keep it up," she said with a smile.
"I'll do my best, Marie," he replied. "Go get some supper and some sleep."
McLeish, Nigel Brockton the copilot, and Nancy Ledesma the engineer/navigator settled into their watch. They reached San Francisco Bay shortly after dark. The lights were outstanding.
The next two hours were uneventful. Then Ledesma asked intensely, "Captain is that the asteroid NASA mentioned dead ahead?"
A red streak appeared in the sky. It was falling fast.
McLeish did answer her question. "Hard aport!" he ordered. "Engines to full power. Come about to a southwest heading. Close the windows and put on the seat belt light."
"What's happening?" Brockton asked as he complied.
"I think NASA was wrong about that asteroid. The red streak looks like a meteor. I don't want to be there when it hits. I hope it burns up," McLeish replied. "Hang on."
McLeish's hope went unrealized. Brockton barely brought the Volans' nose around as the meteor slammed into the cliffs on the shore. A loud explosion followed. The explosion sent a shock wave in all directions. The Volans, being lighter than air, was pushed like a leaf in the wind.
"Keep the nose up!" McLeish ordered.
"Aye, sir," Brockton responded as he fought the controls.
"Try and keep her between five hundred and a thousand feet. Don't be worried about the heading if we don't get turned around," McLeish ordered.
The airship bucked like a bronco. The passengers would later agree if their experience could make a good theme park ride. No one was sure how long the shock wave drove them or at what speed. The designers of the Volans did a good job, and the airship rode the shock wave.
When the winds settled, McLeish turned to Brockton, "What's our heading?"
"Our heading is 220 degrees, sir," Brockton replied.
"We want to head due west. Engines to one-third power," McLeish ordered.
"Due west, sir?" That makes no sense. He wants to go further off course, Brockton wondered.
"I know what you're thinking. We don't know what is happening on shore. I want to assess our situation before we turn east. We know we don't want to go south," McLeish explained.
"Aye, aye, sir," the copilot answered.
The captain keyed his mike, "Ladies and gentlemen, I believe a meteor struck the cliffs to our east, creating a shock wave. We just rode the wave. We are in no danger. My crew and I are assessing our situation. I will be in the lounge in about a half hour to explain our situation. Officers to the bridge."
McLeish turned to his engineer, Nancy Ledesma, "What's our status?" he asked.
Before Ledesma could answer, Marie Gupta entered the bridge.
"Just a minute, Nancy," McLeish said. "Marie, how are the passengers?"
"Shaken up," she replied. "Not everyone got on their seatbelt. I don't think we have any serious injuries. Mr. Gaiser attended to the passengers as best he could."
"Good," he replied. He turned back to his engineer, "Sorry for the interruption, Nancy. What's our status?"
"I am still checking systems. This what I know," Ledesma began. "The pressure in all the gas bags is normal. The engines are all running fine. The impact threw dust in the air. Our radar just shows snow. Hopefully nothing will get fouled flying through it. Now the bad news. The shock wave had an electromagnetic wave with it. I don't know how much equipment it impacted. The GPS isn't working. Either I do not get a signal, or the response makes no sense."
"What do you mean makes no sense?" Gupta inquired.
"We've got a reading that says we're off Japan. I don't think we went through some time warp like the movies," the engineer said. "I can't pick up anything on the radio. I don't if it's our equipment or whether the California stations knocked off the air."
"How would the meteor knock stations off the air?" the captain asked.
"The meteor, probably not. Remember the meteor impacted in California? We don't know what fault lines triggered. I would expect earthquakes which could silence stations."
"Anything else?" the captain asked. If that is not enough, he thought.
"We don't know what time it is. Our timepieces are electronic. The ones I've checked showed very different times."
By the time Ms. Ledesma finished, the other officers had reached the bridge. The captain asked her for a recap for the sake of the other officers.
After a pause, Marie Gupta asked, "What now, captain?"
"We need to ensure the integrity of the ship. I want riggers monitoring the gas bags. They are to report to the bridge by the house phone every half hour, more often if they find a problem," McLeish began trying to sound confident.
McLeish turned to the purser, Samuel O'Grady, "Add Mr. Gaiser to the crew's manifest. He might as well get paid. Inspect every cabin and check for damage. We must know the walls are sound. Note any damage. Drinks are on the house for the next hour. We will offer the midnight buffet if the kitchen is functional."
"I need the engineers to do everything to make radio contact with someone. "
He paused and pulled out a pocket watch, "This is my grandfather's pocket chronometer. I carry it as a token, but it is accurate. According to it, the time is now 2307 hours. We will use that as ship's time. Set your timepieces."
McLeish instructed both copilots. "Brockton, you and Vargas, staff the bridge. Keep steady on our current heading."
Turning to his assembled officers, McLeish asked, "Any questions?" There were none.
He continued, "Gupta and O'Grady, organize our efforts. We don't know when we can go back to normal watches. I am going to the lounge. I need the plan when I get back."
McLeish headed for the lounge.
McLeish found chaos in the lounge. The bartender was trying to keep order. McLeish jumped up on the bar.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please be quiet so I can tell you what we know," McLeish began.
A babble of questions and demands assaulted the captain. He waited a minute and raised his hands.
"Take a seat and be quiet, please. I can't answer twenty questions at once. You will have a chance to ask questions."
The crowd found seats. McLeish met multiple intense expressions.
"Let me begin by assuring you that we are safe. The ship has not sustained structural
damage. We are inspecting all cabins and the airbags. You will hear people walking above your head tonight," the captain began.
He continued, "We think a meteor hit the cliffs east of us. We did not have time to warn you. We turned the ship's bow away from the shore to protect the ship and yourselves. The meteor generated a shock wave. The shock wave drove us out to sea. The shock wave messed with our electronics. Our GPS is not working. We have lost radio contact. My crew will be working through the night to re-establish communications."
He paused for a minute before continuing. "Let me expand on my comment about our safety. We can stay aloft indefinitely as the gas bags are intact.
"We have three limitations: food, water, and fuel. We need to conserve all three. "
"We left San Diego with enough food for one week under normal conditions. We will serve a midnight buffet tonight. A normal breakfast will be available tomorrow morning. We will reevaluate our approach tomorrow."
"We started with enough fuel for a week at our normal cruising speed, longer if we slow down."
"Water is the most problematic. Our recycling facilities are limited. We recycle water from wash basins and showers, not from toilets. To conserve water, we are suspending the laundry service. You will have to make do with the towels you have. Showers will only be available between seven and eight AM and eight and nine PM."
"Finally, I doubt any of you has compared timepieces. If they are electronic, they are probably wrong," the captain paused and extracted his chronometer from his vest. "I am holding a pocket chronometer. I believe its reading is accurate. We are using this as ship's time. If you want to reset your timepiece, the time is now 11:37 PM."
McLeish waited as some people reset their watches. This will get ugly, he thought.
"I will now try to answer your questions. One at a time, please."
Petr Majerczyk's hand shot up first, "If the GPS is down and we are off course, how will we get back on course?"
"Good question, Mr. Majerczyk," McLeish began. "We have options. The best-case scenario is the GPS starts working. Failing that, we have a sextant on board. If we can see the sun, I can calculate our position. We plan to turn north in about a half-hour. We will cross the shipping routes for Portland and Seattle. We can hail a ship and ask for their position. If the ship is heading for Seattle, we'll follow the ship."
Another hand shot up, "If we're going to turn north, what direction are we heading now?"
"We turned southwest to minimize the damage from the shock wave. We are currently heading due west at about fifteen miles an hour. We don't need to go any further south," the captain replied.
"Why aren't we just heading back toward shore?" demanded Ms. Alexius.
"We don't know what is happening on shore. We must pass the meteor's impact sight. If it's throwing rocks, we want to stay away," the captain answered. Ms. Alexis' expression showed she wasn't satisfied.
"When will we get to Seattle?" came a question from the back.
"I don't know. We have lost at least two hours. We are out to sea and must make up that distance. We were nineteen hours out of San Diego when the meteor hit. It will probably be at least another twenty hours to Seattle, maybe more."
"Why not head back to San Diego?" John Bucur asked.
"We were past the point of no return when the meteor hit. I presume we still are," the captain replied.
"When can we open the windows?" a voice demanded.
"I don't know. The meteor kicked tons of dust into the air. Until the skies clear, the windows will stay closed."
"Was this the work of space aliens?" asked a younger voice.
"I doubt it. Even if it was space aliens, they haven't tried to board us," the captain replied, trying not to laugh.
A crew member handed McLeish a note. "I have just been informed the crew finished checking the cabins. We have no structural damage. The shock wave tossed people's belongings about. If something of yours broke, take a picture so the company can make good the damage. The rear observation deck is closed for the rest of the trip. The shock wave cracked the plexiglass. Are there any other questions?"
The captain was met by sour expressions and shaking heads, but no questions.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Either I or first officer Gupta will be at breakfast to answer questions. Is Mr. Gaiser in the lounge?" Gaiser's hand shot up. "Could I speak to you for a moment before I return to the bridge?"
Gaiser approached the captain. "Mr. Gaiser, thank you for caring for passengers. Mostly bumps and bruises?" the captain began.
"You are welcome. You are right about the injuries. We may have a few sprained wrists," the EMT replied.
"I added you to the crew roster. So, you will be paid. We may not be out of the woods yet," McLeish continued, "I'll talk to the purser about where we slot you."
"I appreciate that captain. Thank you. Just so you know, I was an Army medic before I became an EMT," the EMT replied.
McLeish entered the bridge. "What is our status?" he demanded.
O'Grady responded first. "I sent that note to the lounge. We are still checking the kitchen equipment. The refrigerators and freezers are working. We are checking the stoves."
"Very good. Do we have a bullhorn, and an air horn, on board?" McLeish replied.
"Maybe. I will check, sir," the purser responded. Why would he want those things? O'Grady wondered.
"Ms. Gupta, status, please."
"Captain, we have full control of the ship. The airbags are fully pressurized. We checked with mechanical gauges. Our heading is due west," the first officer responded. "Mr. O'Grady and I have worked out six-hour watches to monitor the ship, especially the airbags."
"Very good. Can we see the surface of the ocean?" he replied.
"Ms. Ledesma, status, please."
"Captain, we have run self-checks and diagnostics on the equipment. The equipment passes. The GPS still is not working. We cannot pick up anything on the radio," the engineer replied.
"Very good. Everyone, thank you for your work. At 2400 hours, ship's time, we'll turn due north at the current speed. We need to post lookouts at first light. We need to hail any boat or ship we find. Hopefully, we can get a good heading. We need to implement our plan," the captain said.
Turning to the first officer, he said, "Marie, which one of us sleeps first? Whoever takes the first watch has to answer questions at breakfast."
The first officer laughed, "If that's my choice, I'll get some sleep."
The night passed slowly. Visibility was restricted by the falling dust. Ledesma kept trying the radio and GPS with the same result. The lookouts reported shortly after five AM. Just before McLeish's watch ended, one of the lookouts spotted a sailboat with furled sails.
"Drop to one hundred feet and pull within a hundred yards of that sailboat," McLeish ordered. "Ledesma, try and raise the sailboat on the radio."
"Aye, aye, sir," Brockton responded. I hope this works. We'll be flying way too low, he thought as he complied.
The Volans slowed and dropped. The radio remained silent. When the airship was parallel to the sailboat, McLeish opened a window and sounded the airhorn multiple times. A head popped out of the cabin.
McLeish turned on the bullhorn, "Ahoy!" he called.
The person on the boat cupped his hands and shouted, "Ahoy."
McLeish replied, "We're the airship Volans. What's your heading?"
"Let me check," the person replied. He ducked into the boat's well. "I'm heading five degrees north. My GPS isn't functioning. Are you in distress?"
"We were hit by a shock wave when the meteor hit. Our GPS isn't responding either. Thanks for verifying our heading. Why are you out here?" the captain responded.
"I was in San Francisco Bay last night. A good size tremor hit. I don't know how big. Probably over seven. I saw some fires break out and the Golden Gate sway. I just cast off," the figure replied. "Planning to head to a friend's place in Oregon."
"A meteor struck north of us. You may want to get further out to sea. What's your boat's name?" McLeish asked.
"This is the California Girl," the sailor replied.
McLeish got an idea, "Do you see an antenna hanging under our gondola?"
"If you mean like a long wire, no," the sailor replied.
"Fair winds and following seas," McLeish replied with a wave.
McLeish turned to Brockton, "Bring us to five hundred feet. Heading 350 degrees northwest. Hold the course for a half hour and come about to due north. Make a note of that boat in the log."
Phew, Brockton thought. We got away with it. "Aye, aye, sir."
"Ms. Ledesma looks like we're not alone with GPS problems. More important, the shockwave must have severed our antenna. That explains the radio problems," McLeish said.
"Semi-good news, sir," she replied.
"Can we rig some kind of antenna?" the captain asked.
"I'll have to think about it. Maybe, sir," the engineer replied.
"I don't care if we run cable in the corridor. Do what you can."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The bullhorn and airhorn woke Gupta. She appeared on the bridge early.
"What was all noise?" she asked with a smile.
"We found a sailboat. He confirmed our compass reading is right. His GPS isn't working. If we can get out from under this dust, ours may work. We learned an earthquake happened in San Francisco. We discovered we lost our antenna. Ledesma is trying to figure out if we can replace it somehow. I think we want to stand several miles offshore and then head north at our current speed," McLeish answered.
"Is the radar picking up anything but snow?" Ms. Gupta asked.
"No, ma'am," Ledesma replied.
"You know we're going to be over six hours late?" Gupta asked McLeish.
"We're not technically late yet. I want to be safe," he replied.
"Sounds good," she replied. "Good luck at breakfast."
As McLeish left the bridge, the availability of showers was announced.
McLeish didn't try to nap before breakfast. He showered, shaved, and changed his uniform. He went to the lounge. He knew he'd be early for breakfast, but he needed coffee.
In the lounge he got a cup of coffee and took a seat. He was going to wait until most of the passengers arrived.
The buffet opened at seven. The offerings looked normal. In a few minutes, the rapidly scrubbed passengers queued up.
McLeish stood up, "Ladies and gentlemen, please get your breakfast. Once most of you are seated, I will tell you what happened overnight."
The groggy passengers got their meals and found their seats. When a dozen people were seated, McLeish began his report.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are heading north. About an hour ago, you probably heard an air horn. We found and hailed a sailboat. We confirmed our compass is correct. The sailboat's GPS wasn't working. We discovered the shockwave snapped our antenna. We are trying to create a workaround. Not great news, but positive. We learned the meteor probably triggered earthquakes around San Francisco," McLeish reported.
The passengers took a few minutes to digest McLeish's information. The questions started.
"When will we get to Seattle?" was the first question.
"We will be at least six hours late, probably more."
"Why aren't we going faster?" Ms. Alexius demanded. "I have to attend a conference."
"We know the compass is right. We still don't know our exact position. I don't want to find ourselves in Alaska. We hope our lookouts will spot a ship that might give us our position. Once we have an exact position, we may pick up the pace."
"We are keeping the water limitations in place and the windows closed. We will decide about the midnight buffet by dinner. Any other questions?"
A teenage passenger raised her hand. "In school, we learned a meteor killed the dinosaurs. Did something like that happen last night? Could we be the last people on earth?" she asked nervously.
"Miss, we know we can't be the only people on earth. There was at least one person on the sailboat. If a meteor the size of the one that killed the dinosaurs hit last night, we'd be dead. I'm sure you're not the only one thinking that way," McLeish replied gently. "Anything else?" Silence followed. McLeish got his breakfast and went to bed.
McLeish's alarm went off five hours later. He threw water on his face, dressed, and headed for the bridge.
Just before he reached the bridge door, McLeish felt a tap on his shoulder. "Captain?" an urgent voice sounded behind him. McLeish turned around and found himself facing Ramon Trudeau. Trudeau held a handgun.
This is impossible, McLeish thought.
Trudeau's face was drawn and hard. "My wife needs to get to her doctor! Get in there and stop stalling. Get this thing moving!" Trudeau demanded.
McLeish thought for a minute. "Mr. Trudeau put the gun down. We are doing what we can to get to Seattle."
"I don't want to hear it. We need to get going!" Trudeau demanded, jabbing McLeish with the gun.
"I can't. The door is locked from the inside," McLeish said, trying to get a good idea.
McLeish knocked using a rhythm signaling the door should not open. What next? McLeish thought.
A door slammed open behind Trudeau. A very unpregnant Mrs. Trudeau ran into the passageway screaming, "They're dead! They're all dead! I'm not wearing that gross thing again!"
Trudeau half-turned. His hand holding the gun dropped away from McLeish. McLeish punched Trudeau in the jaw. Trudeau dropped the gun. McLeish had not noticed a second door had opened. John Bucur kicked away the gun and wrestled Trudeau to the ground.
McLeish was stunned. What? How? He thought.
"Captain, do you have something I can use to restrain this bird?" Bucur asked, "Rope, belts, duct tape?"
"Sure," a stunned McLeish replied. He picked up the house phone. He called the purser. "Get to bridge with the cable tie handcuffs!" he ordered.
Mr. Bucur looked up at the captain, "I need to reintroduce myself. John Bucur, retired detective sergeant, Boise Police Department. I heard the screaming, and old training kicked in."
O'Grady hustled up with the cable tie handcuffs. Bucur professionally handcuffed Trudeau. O'Grady was the closest thing the blimp had to a security section. He was over his head.
"If I may make a suggestion, gentlemen," Bucur began. "Mr. Trudeau needs to be arrested and read his rights. You have a solid case for air piracy and unauthorized possession of a handgun on an aircraft. With your authorization, I would be glad to do the formalities."
"Add Mr. Bucur to the crew manifest as an assistant purser," McLeish instructed.
"Immediately," the purser replied. That covers us, McLeish thought.
Turning to Bucur, McLeish said, "Please proceed, sir."
Bucur recited a Miranda warning to Trudeau and charged him.
"Mr. Bucur, I am out of my depth," McLeish admitted. "What do we do next?"
"I think we should find out why Mrs. Trudeau was screaming," the detective replied.
"Would you please find Mrs. Trudeau, Mr. O'Grady?" the captain asked.
The purser left to find the lady.
While they waited, a fishy smell filled the corridor. "What could cause the smell, captain?" Bucur asked. McLeish shrugged.
O'Grady returned a few minutes later with a shaken Cleo Trudeau. Mrs. Trudeau held a large glass of wine.
Bucur took over. "Mrs. Trudeau, my name is John Bucur. I am an assistant purser and a retired police officer. I'd like to ask you some questions."
Cleo gulped wine and nodded yes.
"Mrs. Trudeau, you screamed, 'They're dead!'. Who is dead?"
"The fish are dead."
A puzzled Bucur asked, "What fish?"
"The fish in the shower," Cleo answered, swallowing more wine.
"Would you show me, please?" Bucur continued quietly.
The captain, the detective, and Mrs. Trudeau entered Trudeau's stateroom. She led them to the bathroom. The shower drain was plugged. Floating in the shower were two ugly fishes. The fishes were about eight inches long. The fishes were dead. Lying next to the tub was the prosthetic belly Mrs. Trudeau wore.
Bucur was perplexed. He recovered quickly. "Mr. O'Grady, would you have someone from the kitchen come here with a sealable freezer bag? We should put the fish in the bag and mark the bag EVIDENCE. Have the bag placed in the freezer until we get to Seattle. I'm not sure what the fish are evidence of, but they've got to be evidence of something."
O'Grady called the galley. "I need a large freezer bag in cabin five right away." He listened for a minute and turned to the detective. "He's on the way," he reported.
"Good. Once the fish are in the freezer, seal this room. A Do Not Disturb sign should do. OK?" the detective instructed. O'Grady nodded yes.
The detective faced the captain, "Can we talk someplace else? If I'm in this stink much longer, Margot won't let me back in our cabin."
"We can talk in my cabin," the captain replied. "Mr. O'Grady join us after this cabin is squared away."
A few minutes later, the group reconvened in the captain's cabin. The cabin had a small sitting area. The Trudeaus were seated. The captain, detective, and purser stood. Mr. Bucur began the conversation.
"Mrs. Trudeau…" he tried to begin.
"Let's get one thing straight,' Ms. Trudeau interrupted. "I am not married to that sleazeball. My name is Trudeau. But I'm Ms. Trudeau."
Slightly taken back, the detective resumed his inquiry. "Ms. Trudeau, why were there fish in the shower?" he asked calmly.
"This started about two weeks ago. I work as a stripper. The pay is good if you can put up with creeps. Ramon is one of our least creepy regulars. He approached me with a proposal. I told him no way I was marrying him."
"He replied, 'I have a business proposal. If I said proposition, you really would have got mad. You can make about $11,000 in two days.'"
I replied, "I'm a stripper. I'm not a hooker or a porn queen. How could I make that kind of money?"
"He said, 'You will keep your clothes on. I need help to deliver some fish.'"
"I was getting agitated. No one pays that much to deliver fish!"
"He said, 'This isn't simple. Let's go to Johnny's Diner across the street. Order what you want. Just promise to hear me out.'"
Ms. Trudeau took a drink of her wine and continued, "Johnny's is a safe place. I agreed. We ordered. He started explaining before we got the food."
"He started, 'Sometimes someone finds a kind of fish scientists think died out with the dinosaurs. That kind of fish shows up occasionally in the Indian Ocean. A rare, possibly prehistoric, fish started showing up in a small Mexican village. The fish taste lousy. The people figured they could sell the fish to collectors, like drug lords. Since the fish are rare, there is a market. I distribute exotic fish and animals. My supplier can get some fish. I have a customer in Seattle.'"
"OK, so you rent a car or a truck," I says.
"'Won't work,' he says, 'the only thing that works is a blimp.'"
"I don't have any fancy education, but I'm not stupid. Those things fly over football games. How is that going help?'" I asked.
"'You're close,' he said. 'There's a company that offers blimp cruises between here and Seattle.'"
"I still don't get what you want from me?"
"'Here's the part where you need to listen.' I nodded yes. 'We book passage as Mr. and Mrs. Trudeau. I get a fake ID with your last name. Maybe you've heard, when an actress needs to look pregnant, they put a big bubble thing under her top?' I nodded again. 'We got something like that. We seal the fish inside the bubble and strap it on you to before you board. We tell the blimp people you're having a rough pregnancy and need to see a doctor in Seattle. You put on some pale makeup and ride in a wheelchair. Once in the cabin, you take off the belly and only the belly. I tell the blimp line you need to soak your feet and have big bottles of mineral water in the cabin. The mineral water is seawater. We plug the shower and fill it with water from the bottles. Everything three hours, we change the water. You don't have to touch the fish. You help wipe down the shower with a towel. Your meals will be served in the cabin. And you won't be able to shower.'"
"That's nuts," I told him. "Why would I do that?"
"'When you put on the belly, you get $1,000 cash and a physical airline ticket to wherever you want. You wear the belly to get on and off the blimp. When you get off the blimp, you get $10,000 cash. That's why,' he replied as he bit his burger."
"I had to think about that. A girl can't be too careful. Do know how long it would take to get that kind of cash stuffed in my garter?" I said," I'll do it, but with a few conditions."
"What were your conditions?" the detective asked.
"I had to count the $11,000 before I put on the belly. I needed to see the airline ticket. I got the $10,000 when we got to our cabin." Cleo continued before taking another drink of wine.
"Weren't afraid you'd be involved in something illegal?" the captain asked.
"I'm no lawyer," she said, "it looked like the only thing I might be guilty of was impersonating his wife. I doubt that's a crime."
Trying to get back on track, the detective asked, "He agreed to his conditions?"
"He did. Ramon fixed things with the club's manager. The day before we left, he called and told me to get ready. I packed an overnight bag. When we left, Ramon picked me up in a limo. There was a big jug in the backseat with us. I counted the cash, and we left."
"About a block from the terminal, we stop. Ramon gets the belly out of the trunk. There were fish in the jug. Ramon puts the fish in the belly. My makeup makes me look like a zombie. I strap on the belly. I get in the wheelchair at the terminal, and we board."
"I was glad when the safety briefing was over and we went to the cabin," she continued. "I took off the belly. Big bottles were waiting in the cabin. Ramon showed me how to wipe out the shower. We filled the shower from the bottles and opened the bathroom windows. We dumped the fish in the shower and waited for our breakfast trays."
Cleo took another drink of wine. She noticed her glass was empty. "Can I get a refill?" she asked.
"We'll order a refill while you finish your story," the captain said quietly. He picked up the phone and called the bar.
"OK," she replied. "Not much more to tell. Ramon's plan worked fine until the meteor hit. When the ship started bucking, water got thrown out of the shower. Ramon just kept trying to pour in more water. I tried to mop up the water with towels. I don't know how we kept standing. We noticed the windows were shut, and we couldn't open them. Ramon went to the meeting in the lounge. He came back and told me we had problems. The windows couldn’t be opened. We weren't going to get more towels. And the blimp was slowing down. Keeping the fish alive would be a challenge."
"We did what we could until we were almost out of water. Ramon took linen from empty cabins. There wasn't enough seawater. Ramon went berserk. The fish were dying. I screamed. You know the rest. Where's my wine?" she concluded.
"What do we do?" the captain asked the detective.
Bucur's brow furled. "Let's work through this a step at a time. We must restrain Ramon, whatever his name is. We seal the Trudeau's cabin. I can't think of anything to charge Ms. Trudeau with," he began.
"Was Ms. Trudeau right about empty cabins?" the detective asked O'Shay. O'Shay nodded.
"Let me make some suggestions," Bucur said. "Mr. O'Shay, please make sure two empty cabins have linen. Captain, wait here with Ramon. I will go to Trudeau's cabin with Ms. Trudeau. She will be allowed to pick up her belongings and move to a new cabin. We collect Ramon's belonging and move him to another cabin. We lock him in. We seal Trudeau's original cabin. Does that make sense, captain?"
"Can't think of anything better," McLeish said with a sigh.
"Where's my wine?" interjected Ms. Trudeau.
Ramon broke his silence, "Give me the money back, witch!" Everyone ignored him.
"Sounds good, Mr. Bucur," the captain said.
The Trudeaus had settled in their new cabins when the announcement "Captain to the bridge" came over the public address system.
Gupta has got to wondering what is happening, McLeish thought. I'd better hustle.
McLeish gave the all-is clear knock on the bridge door. The door opened.
Ms. Gupta greeted him, "What adventures have you been having? We lock the door and then nothing."
"Not much," McLeish returned, "We had a hijacking attempt. We were smuggling ugly fish. And we have a new assistant purser."
"Is satisfying your curiosity the only reason for paging me?"
"Our watch is about to end. Two things you should know. Ledesma has rigged an antenna. The new antenna is about a third the size it should be. Ledesma dropped a cable through the ceiling of the rear observation deck. We don't know the range," Ms. Gupta began.
"We think we are picking up a ship on radar. The image isn't clear, but it's not snow."
"Those are two pieces of good news. What is our distance from the ship?" the captain said.
"The ship appears to be about fifteen miles to the northwest."
"Engines to normal cruising speed, but gently. Head for the ship. Your watch is relieved, Ms. Gupta," the captain said.
"Thank you, captain. I can't speak for everyone else. I'll stay here until we know if we found a ship," the first officer responded.
"In that case, have the galley bring us lunch trays."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Twenty-five minutes later, a shape appeared in the fog of dust. The shape looked like a cargo ship and was moving under power.
Ledesma tried hailing the ship. Initially, static filled the speakers. The captain was about to order another hail when a voice erupted from the speakers.
"Airship Volans, this is the merchant ship United Merchandiser, go ahead."
McLeish grabbed the microphone. "United Merchandiser, where are you bound, and what is your heading?"
"We're about seven hours out of Seattle." An exact heading followed.
A sigh of relief filled the Volans' bridge.
McLeish replied, "May I speak with your captain, please?"
"This is the captain," came the reply.
"We were about thirty miles from the meteor strike. Our navigation gear is giving us problems. Will we cause a problem if we tag along with you?" McLeish asked.
"As long as you stay several hundred yards astern, no problem. Glad to help," the Merchandiser's captain replied.
"Will do, captain. What is your speed? We are using a jury-rigged antenna. Could you contact our company to let them know we're coming in?"
"We are holding twenty knots. Give us frequency, call sign, and message," the Merchandiser replied.
McLeish supplied the frequency and call sign. "Message follows," he continued, "Request representatives of our HR department, the U.S. Marshall's Office, and the Fish and Wildlife Service meet us when we arrive."
"I know it sounds screwy. When we reach port, I will buy you a drink and explain," McLeish replied.
"Will do," the Merchandiser's captain replied.
McLeish keyed the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed a ship through the windows. The ship is heading for Seattle. We will follow the ship and hope to be in Seattle in about seven hours." Cheers came from the lounge.
Seven and a half hours later, the Volans followed the United Merchandiser into Seattle harbor. McLeish gave the United Merchandiser's captain his cell phone number, thanked him for his help, and renewed his offer of a drink and an explanation.
The Volans landed at the Seattle Aerodrome. The landing was uneventful. The same could not be said for offboarding. Getting off the blimp wasn't the problem; the world had changed in the forty-eight hours they'd been aloft. The passengers thought they had gone through a time warp. The skies were grey with dust. Seattle's daily rain showers gave way to mud showers. The dust decreased the sun's intensities making solar farms almost useless. Satellite communication and commercial air traffic were sporadic west of Denver. Things were worse in California. San Francisco and Los Angeles experienced significant earthquakes. Some fires broke out, and buildings collapsed. The airports were closed. The biggest problem was the disruption of the electric grid. The quakes hit early in most EV charging periods. People who tried to flee in their EVs experienced inoperative charging stations and exhausted batteries. Thousands of electric vehicles were dumped in ditches. People hoped the situation was temporary.
Most of the Volans' passengers received an apology, a full refund of their fare, and a discount on a future flight. Authors wanting to write books about the passengers’ experiences besieged them.
Majerczyks had begun their book while on board. Normally, they worked hard to make travel sound like an adventure. They had a genuine adventure. This book would be different and could change their careers.
Gaiser and Bucur dealt with HR to get paid. The cruise line asked Bucur to train pursers for handling situations like the one on the Volans.
"Unless the job is part-time and in Boise, no," he answered. "Margot would kill me." He did stick around to help turn over Ramon.
Ramon Trudeau's real name was Ramon Gastonovich. He was silent as the US Marshalls took him into custody.
The Fish and Wildlife Service sent Agent Maria Gomez. She was baffled.
"Why did you ask me to meet the blimp?" she asked O'Grady.
"Come with me," he replied as he led her to the freezer. He extracted the freezer bag containing fish. "We had passengers trying to transport these. The fish originated in Mexico and are valuable to collectors. We called for you as we don't know anything about the fish. Was a crime committed?"
"Dammed if I know," Agent Gomez replied.
Agent Gomez interviewed Ms. Trudeau. Ms. Trudeau stuck to her story. Gastonovich was silent. The agent packed the fish in ice and headed for the University of Washington. At the University, the ichthyologists fell all over themselves. The agent presented them with an unknown species possibly related to coelacanths in the Indian Ocean.
Unknown species cannot be on the endangered species list, she thought. I doubt a crime had been committed.
Agent Gomez gave the scientists the fish and let the matter drop.
Cleo Trudeau gave the authorities dispositions and disappeared.
Ms. Alexius got a huge shock. She was an environmentalist and the environment changed without her permission. Her conference happened. Attendance was low due to transportation issues. Speeches about electric cars and solar panels rang hollow. The phrase most often heard was "The situation is temporary." No one was sure. Scientists noted a phenomenon called Seismic Dominos by the press. The meteor triggered earthquakes on the faults. The earthquakes triggered volcanos. Mt. St. Helens erupted. Popocatepetl showed signs of awakening. There were rumblings in Yellowstone. Each event kicked more dust into the atmosphere. No one knew where it would end. As in the past, the world might adjust its temperature without any environmentalist solutions.
McLeish kept his promise to the captain of the United Merchandiser. After he finished, the Merchandiser's captain asked, "Were you shooting a movie?" They both laughed.
The Volans received a new antenna. Radio direction finders were installed for navigation purposes in place of GPS. Shattered plexiglass was replaced.
McLeish and the crew were hailed as heroes. They received a paid layover during the ship's repairs.
The crew was also besieged by authors.
Aircraft using jet engines were grounded west of Denver until the skies cleared. The blimps were the largest commercial aircraft operating on the west coast. Corporate spied an opportunity. Several cabins were gutted. Airline seats were installed in place of furniture. The remodeled blimps could carry twice as many passengers. The seats were booked almost immediately. The blimps would cruise at a higher speed. Adding more blimps to the west coast was discussed.
What next? McLeish wondered. I still have a good job. I just hope the next flight is not another adventure like the last cruise. The Navy was less stressful. Only time will tell. Better make sure grandpa's chronometer keeps working.
Alan lives in suburban Detroit with his charming and understanding wife. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan. He has been published internationally. His stories have appeared in As You Were: The Military Review, Vol. 16, Round Table Literary Journal, 101words.org (multiple times), commuterlit.com, and CafeLit.uk.co.
Saturday Night Off, by Linda Boroff
The four occupants fall silent as the Buick crests the top of Empire Grade and begins to wind down the narrow blacktop road, nearly invisible in the night fog.
“Pick it out, willya?” says the man beside the driver. In response, Royal throws the car into neutral, takes his hands off the wheel and crosses his arms. He removes his black-booted foot from the gas pedal and rests it against the dashboard. The car instantly surges forward like a horse with the bit in its teeth.
“You was soundin’ like you was wantin’ to drive, Don,” Royal says as the car accelerates toward a stand of young oaks bisected by the road.
“Shit, you crazy bastard!” Don lunges for the wheel, but his glancing touch only causes the car to veer and careen, throwing the two women in the back up against each other and eliciting sharp screams. Royal winks at Don and resumes the wheel with exaggerated cool, throwing the car into second and turning calmly into the skid as trees flash past.
The women yelp and whimper, shielding their faces. Lauren, the one with long dark hair, covers her eyes with her arms. When she dares peek out, the car is again traveling smoothly down the steep grade. The blonde-haired woman beside her now focuses in silence on the back of Royal’s neck, her lips pursed and eyes narrow.
“Oh my God,” Lauren gasps.
“Just watch it the hell,’ says Don to Royal, trying to reclaim his hegemony with this loser.
But Royal only laughs, scowling. “Just you open that pie hole one more time, Don.”
Don glares straight ahead, consumed with rage. Royal half-turns to the two women. “And that goes for you too. I’m the one drivin’, you got that clear?” As Don’s mouth opens, Royal raises his voice. “And you don’t none of you know shit.”
Don exhales noisily. Headlights loom, but the cars narrowly clear one another. “Fuck you very much,” mutters Royal at the other driver.
“Are we getting close yet?” Lauren ventures after what feels to her like a long time.
“Shut up,” says Don. “We get there when we get there.” Royal gives a short, contemptuous huff.
“Just be patient, honey,” says Kathi. Lauren turns to her, and Kathi smiles apologetically. Royal’s just testy that way, the smile seems to say. Don’t take it personal. Lauren tries to smile back at Kathi.
Women are so much more understanding, Lauren thinks. We really are the superior sex. We know how to be nice to each other even when we’re nervous. To show simple human kindness.
Kathi’s very short blonde hair is cut in playfully ragged wisps. Even in the dark, her eyes look bright blue. Those must be contacts, Lauren thinks. She wonders vaguely if Kathi’s daring hairstyle would look good on her, then dismisses the thought. No, she was a classic brunette through and through. She had tried all that when she was younger, dyeing her hair, and the roots kept growing out and looking cheap. She just didn’t have the persistence to be a proper bottle blonde. Anyway, inch for inch she is prettier than Kathi; her breasts fuller, and her face more sophisticated, more classic, everyone says as much. Just because Kathi has those plump cheeks, people assume she’s still a teenager, but she’s at most three or four years younger than Lauren. Tops.
“This’ll all be over in a few minutes honey,” Kathi says. Royal turns and glares at her. “… And you’ll be on your way home,” Kathi continues, staring back defiantly at Royal, who turns away with an exasperated head shake.
The hair falling over his collar is blond, thick and wavy, enough hair for a woman, Lauren thinks; two women, in fact. Royal’s hairline is low for his age—forties—which makes him look like an animal, albeit a kind of handsome one. But a low forehead is a sign of bestiality. Lauren has heard that alcoholics don’t lose their hair because the booze suppresses their male hormones. So anytime you see a mature man with the hairline of a ten-year-old boy, that man is most likely an alkie.
Lauren cups her hands to her temples and tries to look out the window into the night, but here in the deep woods, there is nothing to see, not even the lights of a cabin. No street lamps either. Santa Cruz might be one of the world’s most beautiful places by day, but now, amid thick redwoods and fog, beauty did not exist. Nothing existed.
“You remember that movie The Lost Boys?” Don says, and nobody answers. “Well this here place reminds me of that movie. Pure Santa Cruz.”
“This place is nothing like that movie,” says Lauren. “That movie was mostly on the beach. And the boardwalk.”
“The hell,” says Don.
“Are you getting senile or something?”
“Will you two morons shut the fuck up?” Royal snarls. Kathi turns to Lauren and puts a finger to her lips in mute appeal. Silence again crushes the car like an iron weight. “Pardon my French, you two ladies,” Royal finally says.
“I guess it’s somewhere around here,” Kathi ventures.
“You guess?” Royal bridles again.
“I can’t see nothin’ in this dark.”
“Well ain’t that just peachykeen,’ says Royal. “Our guests here are expecting a quarter million’s worth of blow, and you ‘guess’ the house is ‘somewhere around here.’”
“I done everything just like you told me,” says Kathi, and Royal reaches around and smacks her face so hard that she grunts. He slams on the brakes, and Kathi begins to sob softly.
“Now wait just a fucking minute, man,” says Don. “I think this is maybe where Lauren and me get out.”
“No, there it is, the house,” Kathi says through her tears. “Thank God.”
“You sure?” says Royal. “Or I got some knuckles for you.”
“That’s the place.”
“S’more like it.” Royal pulls the car off the road, and sure enough, Lauren sees a lighted house through the trees. But a deep ravine separates it from the road. Were they going to have to descend all the way down to the bottom and cross the river in the dark and then climb back up the other side to get to that damn house? That sounded crazy. How she yearned to be in that lighted house right now, warm and cozy, with a drink in her hand and some lines on the table. A nice, strong whisky and ginger ale would be perfect.
“How do we get across the ravine?” Lauren says.
Royal looks straight at her. “You don’t,” he says, “until me and Kathi search you. And then I will show you the way. There’s a bridge. But you can’t cross it till we search you.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” says Lauren. “Here. Look at me. You can see I’m not carrying anything. Not even my purse, just like you said.” Royal scans her closely. She wears only a white tank top with no bra and tight yellow pants. There’s no way she could fit a playing card into those pants, let alone a gun or a wire or anything else, not even underwear.
“Them’s the rules,” he says. “Climb on out. Kathi’ll search you, okay?”
“It’s just a formality, honey,’ says Kathi.
“You wait here,’ Royal says to Don, who is looking deep into the dark ahead and not moving.
“Don’t you get no ideas neither,” says Royal. “We don’t show up with the money, we’re dead. We trusted you with this and don’t you try to bail on us now. We gotta bring you in one at a time, and all searched, so we’ll be right back.” Kathi is patting Lauren’s body gently with her hands, running them up and down Lauren’s curves. Watching her, Don feels a little aroused, nervous as he is. Those two would be quite an interesting pair, except for the fact that he never wanted to see Kathi or that crazy-ass Royal again. This is the last piece of business he will ever conduct with those two batshits.
Don lights a cigarette and watches the moon play hide and seek through fast-scudding clouds; stars prick the dense black sky. He tries not to dwell on what he would do to Royal if given half a chance.
“Stanislaus County Superior Court… etcetera,” Denny reads from the legal-size manila folder in his lap, “denies appellant’s motion for modification of the penalty and imposes a judgment of death. Appeal is automatic.” He looks up at Fanchon like a little kid who has found a buck. “Did you hear that, baby? Appeal is automatic, and they’re letting me handle it.”
But Fanchon does not respond. Is this intentional, he wonders, or is she merely preoccupied? Feeling a little foolish now, he bends once again to the file and pretends to read for a few moments, but he is really listening to Fanchon make the salad. He steals a glance to see her shaving the cucumber’s deep green, warty skin in long, sinuous strips.
Off in some parallel salad-creation cosmos, she wipes her forehead with the back of her hand, then seizes a red onion the size of a softball, peels its purple parchment, and slices it deftly into concentric rings, which she frisbees into the monkeypod bowl. They land on a glistening bed of ruffled emerald lettuce. When she shakes the vinegar, the sudden, sharp smell makes Denny’s mouth water. And it waters too at her spandex-clad ass tilted up as she leans on one leg, bending her knees a little at the counter because she is nearly six feet tall.
Denny lifts his wine goblet, so large and thin that he has to cup it breastlike from the bottom to raise it to his lips: Oh, this is too good; his cup truly runneth over: Saturday night off, just him and Fanchon alone together, the baby with his parents. He should simply bask in the moment.
Still, he can’t leave it alone. “Did you hear me? About the death penalty?”
“Stop reading right now.” Fanchon tosses the salad with two giant, square-tined wooden forks. “Can you just stop for a little while?” Her tone is playful, but irritation lurks beneath.
Instantly, he feels like a rebellious little boy. Why did she marry an assistant D.A. if she was so squeamish about crime? “You act like I committed the damn murder,” he grumbles. To conduct a truly juicy capital murder trial had been his sustaining fantasy, his holy grail. What other reason for all those nights battling the waves of sleep lapping seductively at his splintery little craft, tossing on the vast, shoreless ocean of law school.
“You just seem as if,” Fanchon searches for words, shaking one of the forks like a ruler at a student, “I don’t know, you’re beginning to sound as if all these people exist only to populate your trial. As if they weren’t even real people, just… names in a file. Or a cast of characters, yes, in your very own play.”
He swallows his wine, still deep in recalling his student self, lonely and scared shitless, swilling bitter vending machine coffee, memorizing each self-inflated professor’s favorite aphorism as if it were scripture. Enduring the patronizing sneers and veiled threats and rumors; wriggling like an insect on a pin under the merciless fluorescent classroom lights. Now he feels more like a cat who has laid its hard-hunted rat at the feet of an adored mistress only to be greeted by a scream and the broom.
“Somebody has to deliver justice; it’s the least they deserve, these victims. Even if they were dope dealers.”
“Well that’s better. At least you aren’t seeing this case totally as a career builder.”
“Not totally. Just monumentally.”
“Or I should say, you’ve learned the right formulaic response to placate me.”
Fanchon tilts her head the better to admire the salad she has constructed: how can something so simple and cheap be so utterly gorgeous? The lettuce—brilliant shades of green that don’t even have names—sparkles in its bath of thin, savory oil. The sliced tomatoes, speckled with coarse grated pepper, jut vermillion from their leafy nests. And here came the croutons thundering, dark with rich garlic, real, jagged-edged bombers, not those little prefab porous cubes in a plastic bag.
Would he even notice this joyous riot of a salad, this synthesis of nature and art—or would he merely shovel it in, oblivious, while he went on about his bloody murder and scumbag defendants and witnesses rotten with secrets; his colleagues conniving in backstage machinations. Fanchon shudders. The sun is slipping down toward the deck, but she had better put up the table umbrella or they would be baked alive.
“Admit it,” Denny says at the worst possible moment, “Murder is fascinating.”
“If you read one more gruesome sentence, though, you can eat dinner alone.”
“Okay okay.” He tops off his glass of wine. “A great pinot,” he says to flatter her, because he really can’t tell the difference.
She whips her head around grinning, and her dark blonde curls bounce like a little girl’s. “It took me half an hour to pick that out.”
“Time well spent.” But he is thinking, good save. And the baked potatoes smell incredible. So he reads on alone, his internal sea once again balmy and blue, letting the pinot carry him back into the moment.
“I’m sorry, Denny,” she intrudes suddenly, contrite. His slightly downcast expression reminds her of one of her students struggling with long division. The shock of brown hair falling over his forehead is boyish too, and his gray eyes are softened now from the keen, cynical glance he has recently affected—perhaps to compensate for being the youngest assistant DA working felonies? “But you prosecutors,” she continues, searching for words, “you get so… desensitized. You don’t even realize how all that ghastly stuff affects regular people. It may be fascinating, but it’s nothing to read out loud before a nice romantic dinner sans Her Diapered Majesty. And we haven’t had a night off in so long.”
The setting sun suddenly sneaks below the kitchen blinds and shoots a molten golden arrow right into Denny’s eyes. Blinded, he reaches for her, and she permits him a promising grope before dancing out of his arms and then playfully yielding again to his imploring hands.
“At least listen to this part then,” Denny dares, emboldened by the wine and by the affectionate weight of Fanchon now in his lap, curled around him in her half serpent, half ingenue way.
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Fanchon says. “Okay, just make it quick.” Denny gives her his mischievous cat/canary stare and reaches behind her and opens the manila folder.
“Thank you for humoring me. This is a big event in my life, a trial like this. In our lives.” Fanchon sighs with good-humored resignation and reaches for her wine goblet as Denny shuffles the papers in the file.
“This is one of the perps testifying, we charged her with accessory and she caved; that was major. ‘Royal,’” he reads, “‘first he made me dig a couple of shallow holes to bury them in. That was the day before. He lured the two of them there to pick up the $250,000 worth of cocaine. He told them that this was where they was to take delivery, in a house nearby.
‘I went along with Lauren. See, Royal told them they had to be searched before they went in the house to get their coke. Then after I searched her, Lauren leaned up against a tree, and he shot her in the back of the head. Then he turned quick around and Don was standing by the car, and Royal did the same thing but in his chest. But Don did not die at first, and so Royal shot him a second time, in the head that time, and then he did die.
‘And then Royal, he cut off their heads and put the torsos, that’s what they call them, in the holes I had dug. And then we had some quicklime that Royal’s friends, these two girls he knew, had bought.’”
Denny stops reading. “Got that?” he says. “Remember that, Fanchon: quicklime.”
“Okay. I shall remember quicklime,” Fanchon says, cuddling compliantly.
Denny reads again: “‘… because Royal he said that dissolves bodies fast. So we put the quicklime on them and then we covered the graves with dirt and brush and leaves. The rest of the body parts, we put into plastic bags, and Royal got rid of all that shit. And the gun too. I never did know what he did with that.’”
Denny stops reading and lights a cigarette, an infrequent indulgence these days. Fanchon suppresses her urge to admonish him. “On February 20,” Denny reads, slowly and distinctly, “a mushroom hunter off Empire Grade discovered fragments of a female skull. They belonged to a missing woman named Lauren Graven.”
“How horrible. Now I won’t sleep tonight.”
“You won’t anyway.” Denny grins. “The mushroom hunter brought the fragments to the sheriff’s office—I know, he should not have moved them, chain of evidence, but there was plenty of other evidence, believe me. The sheriffs went back to the site and they pieced the other fragments together. One skull had a hole the size of a .44- or .45-caliber slug. The next day they found more bone fragments, some hair, a shovel, a kitchen or steak knife, and a green garbage bag.”
“How do you like your steak. You like peppercorns?”
“You really have to ask me that?”
“Medium rare, is that right?”
Denny nods. “Humor me,” he says. “They found another naked body the next day. And here is the grand denouement. Here’s the fascinating part. Each torso had a white, clay-like substance clinging to it.”
“What was it?”
“Can’t you guess? No. We couldn’t either, at first. Anyway, Don Macalister’s skull, the second skull, they found in the same area on March 18. And there was a .45-caliber hole in the skull, no surprises there. They surmised from neck and wrist wounds that the heads and hands had been removed post mortem with a slicing or chopping instrument, perhaps a hatchet, machete, or cleaver. They confirmed the identity of the victims through dental records.”
Denny reads quickly now. “Defendant’s involvement became known when Kathi Kent, fearing for her life and the safety of her family, disclosed her participation to her brother-in-law, who arranged for her to meet with an FBI agent and local law enforcement officials.
“Kathi Kent claimed to have acted under the domination of defendant and to have feared him. She testified about her relationship with him and about various drug-related criminal activities they had participated in prior to the murders.”
“Okay, but aside from all the legalese,” Fanchon says, “what about the white substance?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Fanchon looks at him blinking expectantly. Slowly, with relish, Denny returns to the file. “...The evidence, insofar as it relates to the murder counts, blah blah blah.... okay. Royal’s two teenybopper accomplices waiting in that house came out after the shots and joined them at the murder site. They were ordered to take the clothing off the bodies and place the clothing in one of the garbage bags. As they were doing so, Royal Cooney tried to use a hacksaw to cut off Macalister’s head, but the blade broke.” Fanchon closes her eyes.
“I’ll spare you that. Anyway, here comes the good part.” Denny looks up and grins. “See, the perp had sent these two Rhodes scholars waiting in the house to buy quicklime that would dissolve the bodies, but what they brought back instead was regular oyster shell lime they had bought at some garden shop. That was the white substance we found all over the bodies. So nothing dissolved, all the evidence was preserved, and we now get to send Royal Cooney’s worthless ass to the gurney. Tell me that’s not sweet.”
“Oh my God,” Fanchon blinks. “You guys caught a big break there.”
“Did we not.”
She embraces him. “So tell me, what possible defense could there be in a case like this?”
“Oh they pulled out a whole bag of tricks at trial, all right,” Denny says, “but they kept getting buried in that damned oyster shell lime.”
“Tell me some of the tricks.”
“Happy to.” Denny takes a deep drink of wine. Finally, at long last, she is hooked.
Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. She was nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2016 and 2021. Her first novel, Twisted Fate, was published by Champagne Book Group in March 2022. Her Young Adult novel, The Dressmaker’s Daughter, was published in March 2022 by Santa Monica Press.
Photo by Jon Butterworth on Unsplash
Romania sounded like the name of a distant planet located on the event horizon. Dr. Peter ‘Elegant-English-Name’ Worthington explained that to me once. All about how the Anglo-Saxons had a history of going around making everyone else miserable with words strung together to make longer ones instead of inventing new ones, including names, when they waded over to the island off the coast of France for a feast ̶ a black-tie event at sunset. Okay, I didn’t remember the details, but I did remember Dr. Pete.
“Don’t ask me why, but Dr. Pete thinks you’re the guy who ought to investigate one of his long-lost relative who traveled south instead of west, and stumbled into Abrud, Romania about nine-hundred A.D. He asked for you by name. He’s willing to foot the bill, so you’re going, Coulter. Pack a suitcase,” Vincenzo ordered.
As senior manager of the Independent News Service, “Vinny” could order a stringer like me to travel off the beaten path for half the funding, and pocket a few bills for himself. “What am I looking for, Chief?”
“Something interesting about Dumitru Codrin. Snoop. There’s an old stationhouse on the rail-line to Cimpeni that was allegedly built on his grave. Take a few photos. And try not to irritate the Romanian cops. If they have cops. Here’s your ticket and five-hundred bucks. Scram.”
At least it was a round-trip ticket. How dangerous could it be? Gail let me know.
“Are you nuts? Ceaușescu is a Communist. Step out of line there, and …” Gail pretended to be hanging from an invisible rope.
“I’m not going to give anyone a reason to stretch my neck. Besides, I need the money in case I want to buy a ring or something.” That got her off my back, pronto! Women hear the word ring and they hear wedding bells.
I headed over to see Dr. Pete before I headed to the airport. “Who was this guy Codrin, anyway?”
Like most eggheads, Dr. Pete smoked a pipe and wore a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. “I’m a cultural anthropologist. Legends and old wives’ tales are my bailiwick, and legend has it that Codrin was an ancient chieftain who’d kill people with a magic axe. Not for any good reason either. Allegedly, somebody painted a picture of him that hangs in the stationhouse. The picture’s called the Scourge of the Steppes, and it’s said he looks like Rasputin.”
“What do you want me to do, steal it?” If that was the case, it would cost him more than he’d want to pay.
Dr. Pete laughed. “I want you to photograph it. I guess that’s a form of theft. And I want you to get some information about it … who the artist was, that sort of thing. I’ll be on sabbatical at the University of Prague, where I can compare it to the pictures of Rasputin the university has. I’d go to Romania myself only…I’m too famous.”
“I’ve never heard of you.” I was rude, but truthful.
“I…ah…helped some dissidents escape about a year ago. Politically, I’m persona non grata. You’re a political nobody even if you’re a well-known pain in the ass around here.”
For an ivory tower resident, he was he was a down-to-earth kinda guy. After talking to him, I was ready to make a reservation on the next plane to Europe.
“What do you mean there’s no train to Abrud? There’s a rail stationhouse half-way to Crimpeni that’s still on the map.” I unfolded a worn paper map and put in front of a woman as sturdy as the oaken desk that hid her girth. She brought it within two inches of her thick eye glasses, and looked up at me after an eternity of study.
“This map is pre-war. The government closed it and the train no longer takes this route. What do you mean you don’t understand?”
I bit my tongue. “Is there a way for me to get to the stationhouse? I’m on assignment.”
All I got was a stare as she was sizing me up. “You’re not from the government?”
“No. I’m from Los Angeles. USA. I’m supposed to get picture.” I hoisted my camera case on to her desk and opened it to show her my Kodak. “You know, National Geographic? I work on spec.” I know that Vinny and Dr. Pete wanted no publicity.
She niffed and refolded the map. “There’s a man. Giorgi. He has a cart.”
“He has a cart pulled by a horse?” I half expected her to tell me I’d have to pull it myself.
“He has a horse. Rudolph.”
Giorgi could sling a suitcase like a shotput. My camera case I carried on my shoulder. I scrambled into the cart bed and held my suitcase tight. “You want to go to stationhouse, I take you. I follow the tracks, not the road.”
“Is there a hotel nearby?”
“Is there anywhere I can stay the night?”
“Miheala put you up for the night. She my woman. Her house, my house. You should not be at the stationhouse at night. Go in the morning.”
At least I got a look at the historical site as Rudolph plodded past the Victorian-style doll house. Built between two sets of railroad tracks ̶ no doubt designed to provide guests all the expensive comforts of home as they waited to make connections, or sell tickets to civilization ̶ it was surrounded by a thick forest. The front yard, maybe eight square feet, was enclosed with a wrought iron fence and filled with tares and weeds. The steps, divided into two staircases, suggested the place had once been a church. What a great place for an Arkoff movie I thought. Places like this were treasure troves of old-world artifacts and stories of weird locals. Or is it weird artifacts and old-world locals?
It was dusk before Giorgi reached the home of his woman. We fought over the suitcase for a few seconds. Finally I said, “Careful, okay? I’ve got lenses in there,” and Giorgi nodded before he yanked it off the wagon. It landed with a thud! on the gravel driveway in front of a white-washed cottage where a raven-haired slender woman waited at the door.
“Overnight visitor,” Giorgi said to her. “I take his bag upstairs.” To me he said, “Twenty leu. In advance. Twenty-five if you want to eat.”
“The name’s Coulter. Ace reporter.” I handed him the twenty and three American dollars. “Which do you prefer?” I said. He took both. I got a clean room, a ham and cheese sandwich on cardboard-like bread, and warm vodka.
Miheala brought me a towel and soap, and advice: “Get to sleep, Ameriki. Giorgi gets up early.”
Easier said than done with a dog howling a mile off. I wrote notes detailing my ordeal and impressions. I wanted Dr. Pete to know I had suffered in his name. One word notably absent was “fun” in the impressions category. Yet, fall asleep I did and was awakened by Miheal’s incessant hammering on my door. “Yeah, I’m up!” I yelled.
She must have heard ‘come in’ because she charged the bed and was peering down at me with tear-flooded eyes. “Giorgi’s dead. Stone cold dead.” She was sobbing like a wife.
“Let me get dressed. Where is he?”
“In my bed.” She put her arms around my neck, pressing her ample bosom to my chest.
I pried myself loose. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
She wiped her eyes with her apron. “I’ve made breakfast. There’s hot chocolate,” she said as she walked to the door. “The doctor’s coming.”
I checked in on Giorgi before I went to the kitchen. She needed an undertaker not a doctor. “You can take Rudolph to the stationhouse. You’re no use here,” she said. “Just follow the tracks.”
That’s how I came to play the Lone Stranger in a Romanian forest. Rudolph, I learned, had one gait: slow. Still, it was better than walking. I took shots of the surrounding countryside, and frontal shots of the overgrown garden and Drac’s Castle Jr.. Inside, however, was evidence of a former glory. Though there was rotting near the ceiling, the wood paneling was spectacular. I came closer to photograph the intricate carving that made a mural out of one wall. I pulled my camera back quickly. Was I seeing what I thought I was seeing?
Yes, the mural depicted scenes of torture and execution. Severed heads atop trees shorn of the branches, severed limbs strewn around bubbling cauldrons. People on stretching racks, tongs grasping testicles, people pinned to wheels, drownings, quartering, burnings, even a body halved by a plow. I hunted for a signature, not really expecting to find the creator admitting to the horror. Bayeux may have its tapestry, with its depiction of war and mayhem of the Norman invasion, but Abrud had carved historical record of medieval atrocities that would put Hollywood to shame.
I moved on to the ticket counter, separated from the stationmaster’s office by an iron grating turned green with age. It reminded me of a cage and I shuddered remembering all the time I had been inside a jail cell. That weekend in Georgia was especially harrowing … I took photos of the station’s wall, the counter, and a calendar on the wall with the date: 1945. Yeah, I stole the calendar. It fit perfectly in my shoulder bag.
I continued my photographic journey in the stationmaster’s office as the cage’s door was missing its hinges. Piled high in a seven foot rack were valises, suitcases, boxes, and packages. Why all the abandoned luggage? I took a photo. Does leather outlast wood? Because the luggage was looked to be newer. I wasn’t going to steal from anyone, but curiosity got the better of me. I opened an unlocked one and found ladies clothing, a hairbrush, and a silver mirror. A little voice inside me said, “Where she went, she didn’t need a change of clothes.” A travel pass laying on top of a silk dressing gown read: issued in 1942..
I returned to the wall mural. Maybe it was a monument to a local legend … or a cenotaph to a local reality. That’s when I heard a dull thumping beneath the floorboards. I took a step back. “Anyone here?” I put my ear to the floor. “Anybody down there?” The stationhouse was at least six feet above the ground, so I knew there was a basement. I pounded back. “I hear you. I have to look for a door.” I wasn’t frantic, yet. I thought I heard a groan.
I hunted for a cellar door, then checked for a pull-up door in the floor. There had to be one. Maybe the door was outside hidden among the overgrowth. I went outside. No door. No window. Unless one or the other was sealed with bricks. I went inside. “Stop pounding and start talking,” I yelled. It could be a trapped animal. I’d have to pull up the floorboards.
Maybe the abandoned train car contained some tools. Nope. But the seat upholstery was weak from age. I pulled off some material and exposed the metal frame with loose bolts. I managed to pry off the frozen metal bar at the top of the seat ̶ about three feet ̶ that would work as a crowbar.
I had a mission now. No matter what was under the floor, I was going to free it. I started with the boards nearest as metal grate I guessed was a drain. Maybe a heating vent. Wood rot made it easy to dislodge the slats and in twenty minutes I had a made a four by five foot hole. “Hell-ooo?” I leaned into the blackness. It was sealed alright. Not a ray of light illuminated the space. I leaned against the wall, facing the mural. Whatever the pounding was, it didn’t come from anything alive.
I rubbed my eyes. The mural seemed to be moving. Some figures shrinking, others growing, coming alive, congealing into the figure of a man struggling to emerge from the wall. All six foot of him! dressed in green leggings and a leather tunic, and heavy black boots, an animal skin draped over one shoulder, and a silver-bladed axe. He raised the axe as he stared down at me. “Dumitru Codrin?” I said.
His mouth formed a smile, but his eyes narrowed with hate. If I didn’t move quickly, his axe would find its target. I grabbed my crowbar, and rolled into the dark hole. If he tried to follow me in, I’d crack his skull.
I heard his boots pounding above me, but the sound grew faint. I popped up and took a quick look around. He’d gone. I pulled myself up and beat feet outside. Pete never said Codrin might still be alive. He’d be at least twelve-hundred years old, but he didn’t look a day over fifty and fit enough to swing that axe. The only explanation was that he lived in the wall; it made no sense, but I’d seen enough weird stuff in my life to know things don’t have to make sense to be real.
I found Rudolph half a mile down the tracks. Codrin probably needed a faster mount if he was in a hurry. When I got back to the inn, I tried calling Pete. The overseas operator had a hard time understanding me. I talked to a Dr. Ameris in St. Petersburg, Florida and St. Peter’s Church in Trenton, New Jersey, and finally agreed to wait for the operator to call me back when she reached Doctor Peterson in Seattle. That was alright. It gave me time to reconsider recounting my story to Miheala who had returned in the meantime from a meeting with the undertaker.
She fed me goose liver pate and butter crackers, and promised me she would cook a full dinner. Somebody had slaughtered a boar. After my encounter with Codrin, I didn’t want more details.
I know what you’re thinking. What about Giorgi? Am I a heartless bastard? Didn’t I want details about how he died? Well, I’ll tell you. I heard the words heart, bed and Miheala and my imagination filled in the blanks. But it was her morning visit that motivated me to get myself in gear. Female entanglements, especially with someone who’s boyfriend was as rustic as Giorgi dead or alive, were more trouble than they were worth. But now I had a problem that could only be solved with information. I needed her.
“Tell me about the stationhouse. Is it haunted?” Miheala’s eyes were red and swollen from weeping, poor woman. “Who owns it?”
“The government. After the war, they stopped the trains and the mail stopped coming. People around here believed the government thought everyone was dead.”
Her expression changed from grief to fear. “We all knew the government didn’t want to do anything about the ghosts. No one would work there because of them.”
“Who is them? The ghosts or the government?”
“But you’ve been inside.”
“Once. Never again.” I knew she’d seen the mural. “Especially at night.”
“Who’s ghost lives there, Miheala?” Did she realize I believed her?
“There’s more than one. Hundreds, I’d say. But there’s only one station master: the demon, Dumitru Codrin.”
Now I was getting real information. “I saw him this morning.”
Her face flushed. “Oh, my Lord, he’s coming for Giorgi! He’s coming to take his soul to hell!”
I didn’t want to deal with a hysterical woman, but I knew she had cause for alarm. I reached for my emotional wallet … did I have any emotional resources? “Miheala, stop. I saw him hours after Giorgi died. His soul is just fine and I know he died happy.”
Her wailing went from overwhelming to simmer in a matter of seconds. “You saw Codrin?”
“Axe and all.”
“Did you see the treasure, too?”
Dr. Pete’s motives was suddenly as clear as Codrin’s destination. “No. It’s not in the stationhouse. Where does he keep it?”
“In the forest. He captures the souls of the dead, and stores them in pieces of silver. Nobody has lived to tell where he keeps them. That’s how he got his name. Dumitru Codrin. The Silversmith of the Forest.” She stared at me with menacing eyes. “No one’s alive who’s seen him, except you.”
“I told you, I didn’t see a treasure. But…” I purposely kept my pause pregnant.
“We could find it,” she said.
“Where does the legend say he keeps it?”
Miheala stood guard armed with a WWII Nagant pistol and a crucifix while I inspected the mural. I wasn’t trained in hieroglyphics, but I knew enough about them to know the gruesome tortures carved in the wall were the demon’s way of meting out justice. In the center of the wall was a throne, now empty, surrounded by human skulls, chests of coins, and chunks of rocks. Gold nuggets no doubt. And around a pentagram were headstones with printed names and dates.
“Is there a cemetery around here?” I asked Miheala.
Greed covers a multitude of misgivings. “Half a mile east are the graves of the Old Ones. There you’ll find the markers.”
So, Codrin did have a grave. He just couldn’t stay there. Or didn’t want to. An eternal demon had plenty of time to lay in wait for an unsuspecting and uninformed Los Angeleno reporter. “Can you take me there?”
Miheala was smiling now. “I’ll show you the way.”
We crossed the railroad tracks and it was as though we were walking on the surface of another planet. The many trees split the sunlight into shards that dimmed each step. “It’s only as little ways, now,” Miheala said. Her voice had turned raspy and low as though suppressing an inner excitement.
We came to a clearing, a mist arising from a ring of headstones surrounding a huge chunk of granite with a table-top as smooth as a mirror. Miheala climbed up the six-foot crag, and gazed at me crouched like a beast, her face contorted in a triumphal smirk.
“It’s here,” she said. “This is his tomb. Come closer.” She was posing, seductively, but experience had taught me never to enter a circle of evil. Codrin had captured Giorgi. And he’d sent his servant to capture me. “Don’t you want to see his treasure?” she hissed. She reached into the stone and pulled out a long bone that turned from pale white to a golden yellow. “There’s more where this came from,” she sang.
I hated to think of it, but I knew she was lost and in the demon’s grasp. Somewhere on the path we’d trod, I’d find the cross she’d dropped I was sure, for on her forehead was an open wound that oozed blood. “Come to me,” she ordered, her purring now a desperate cry as flames appeared at her feet and traveled up her legs, slowly consuming her until the stone sucked her inside as she burned, screaming in agony. It’s the same for all dictators. Minions who fail were punished with pain.
For me, it was fight or flight ̶ I chose both. I ran though the trees, and found the tracks that I followed to the inn. In the kitchen, I searched for anything I could use as an accelerant. Lighter fluid. Turpentine. A bottle of brandy. If fire was the demon’s destruction of choice, then I would oblige.
The wall undulated when I doused it, the floor, and the ticket counter with every drop of liquid bane. A hand protruded from the wall, and I could see Codrin’s arm forming from the wood, saw the gleam of his emerging silver axe. He’d soon be able to wield it. I struck a match, lit the matchbook, and threw it towards the wall. Instantly, it was ablaze, it’s unfortunate captives in the throes of panic, screaming and begging for mercy. Codrin’s burning body fell out of the wall and rolled on the flaming floor. I rushed to the door...he followed me down the steps and into the yard. I tripped once and he grabbed my ankle, then my shoe as I scrambled away to the fretting Rudolph pacing to and fro as the stationhouse became engulfed. Somehow, I got astride, and turned just as Codrin, his flesh hanging from his bones, explode into green ash.
I was no longer afraid. I reined in Rudolph and the two of us watched the stationhouse crumble from the fire and the weight of its own foul deeds. Who would believe the story? Dr. Pete, probably. But the American consulate? Vinny? The Romanian government? They’d be happy to charge me with arson and murder. I’d like to think I rescued the tormented spirits of Codrin’s stationhouse torture chamber, but I’ll never know if they were his disciples or his dupes.
I still had the calendar, my photographs of the stationhouse, the wall, Giorgi and the inn, but I couldn’t show them to anyone except Dr. Pete without incriminating myself. Vinny would never publish them. I suppose it’s just as well. Even I doubt the camera’s lens as much as I doubt my eyes really saw the ancient Silversmith of the Forest. Only the silver coins I carried in a small leather bag proved the truth of my hallucinations - a leather bag I found in Miheala’s pantry next to a jar of arsenic.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology, and received her MFA from Eastern Kentucky University. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over two-hundred-sixty print and on-line journals. Her how-to book, Writing Beyond the Self; How to Write Creative Non-fiction that Gets Published was published by Vine Leaves Press in 2018. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not Your Color.
Look At Her, by Nelly Shulman
Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash
The evening did not go well from the very beginning.
Still being awkward at German, he did not realize that the metro station he needed was closed. The old train crept past the platform cluttered with cement sacks. Embarrassed by his language, he did not dare to ask the fatigued evening passengers what was happening on the line. Only having aligned at the crowded transfer station he saw some advertisements on the walls.
Berlin transport authority started to translate all messages into English. Boris understood that he needed to get on a free shuttle bus, transporting passengers between stations.
A fine rain of early spring drizzled outside. A rather large line gathered at the exit of the metro. After two months, he was already familiar with the city.
“Straight, and in front of the square to the right.”
Hoisting a canvas bag over the shoulder, he perched a cap on the top of his balding head. The act could not hide his age.
“No need to hide it,” Boris grunted. “I am going to the life drawing class but I am sure that not only youngsters are expected there.”
He found the announcement of the classes with a live model in a library. Participants paid what they could, which seemed a modest contribution even for a refugee like him.
“Coffee and tea on the studio,” said the announcement. “Come at eight in the evening.”
Gazing at a thrush jumping on a wet lawn, he drank a raw charm of April twilight. The sunset gilded over the house roofs. A yellow tram rumbled along the intersection. The thrush shrilly squealed, fluttering on the garbage can.
The chestnuts lined the street. A couple of days ago a tender green haze wrapped the trees. Passing a crowd of smokers on the pavement, Boris noticed a glimpse of something white in the basement window.
A girl in a gymnastic suit and a tutu put a bare leg on a chair, tying the ribbons of the ballet shoes. A mass of dark curls obscured her face but Boris finished the painting with small freckles and barely noticeable languor under her eyes.
“They are certainly gray,” he decided. “Better even grey-green.”
Having found the correct house, he pressed the studio button.
“The second courtyard,” said a cheerful young voice. “Take an elevator to the seventh floor, we are open.”
The studio was located right under the roof. Boris missed the rustle of pencils, the light debris of eraser, the pristine cleanliness of the sheet. In his canvas bag lay a freshly bought etude album.
“The class is starting soon,” he went through a hollow entrance. “I wonder who the model is?”
He found a high door in the second courtyard, painted in Prussian blue. The thrush was singing somewhere at the top of the roof. Boris pulled a copper handle. At the entrance, several bicycles stuck together in a flock. A children's cart with sheepskin forgotten inside stood nearby.
The elevator buzzed and the door slammed again. Something sweet swept over Boris.
“Wait,” ordered the girl, “I, too, go upstairs.”
He recognized the dark hair, now gathered in the messy bun. Her bare knees were unsuitable for the beginning of April. The suede ribbons wrapped the thin ankles. She remained in the tutu but threw a canvas jacket over the gymslip. A black scarf embroidered with bright patterns hid her throat.
Her eyes, as Boris requested, turned out to be grey-green, but he noticed only a few freckles.
“Few but in the right place, “the specks scattered across rosy cheeks. “It turns out that she is an actress and an artist.”
The girl dragged a bag with the logo of some theater.
“Sorry, “muttered Boris when her thin finger poked into the peeling button.
The girl tilted her head to the side.
“You have an accent, “her dark eyebrows moved. The elevator crawled upward. She also spoke an accented English.
“Russian,” he admitted. “My name is Boris.”
The elevator shaft was built outside the house. Light and shadows changed on her face. Thin lips painted with carmine smiled.
“I am modeling today, “the girl did not let go of his palm. “I am Marta, a refugee from Ukraine.”
He wanted to hit the ‘Stop’ button, but the doors wheezed. The electronic music splashed on the landing, thundering in the studio.
“See you soon, Boris,” Marta dived into the crowd besieging the entrance.
The elevator, barking something in German, pushed him inside, offensively but not painfully. The doors closed and Boris found the bottom floor button. Leaving an empty album on a bench near the entrance, he walked back to the subway.
Nelly Shulman's previous publications can be found at her website at https://nellyshulman.blog/portfolio/
Tinnitus, by Lorna Wood
Tredz knew it was tinnitus, caused by years of listening to loud music and performing with his band, the Pod Rats—but that didn’t make the sounds any less maddening. As he got up and groped around his shipping container apartment for clothes, the sounds grew shriller. Every now and then they exploded in a sound like glass shivering to pieces in slow motion.
He did exercises on the bar bolted to his wall and rolled his neck around. By the time he was vaping with his coffee he had reduced the sound to a vague chirping. When he put earpieces in both ears and listened to last night’s set, it disappeared.
But when he got to the revolutionary “From Below,” his ears suddenly produced a high-pitched, dissonant tone of their own above the long synth bass note. Gradually the random bursts settled into a pattern of two beats, rest, five beats, rest, forming an eerie counter-rhythm to the ominous drumbeats at the heart of the number.
Tredz messaged in sick to work. Today was not for serving coffee and overpriced baked goods. Today was for composing music to raise the undesirables up from their shantytowns and roil his fellow pod rats out of their container tenements. Today, even more than other days, was for revolution.
As fast as he thought of a song, new sonorities filled his ears and flowed out via synth software. For “I’m Not Your Coffee Boy,” coffee-pouring sped up to form a crazy ostinato. For “Hopeless,” a dirge-like love song, a sound between chains and bells distorted the bass. For “You’ll Always Be (nothing but a pod rat),” an oppressive stomping gave way to the roar of a rocket engine. He worked without breaks, only pausing to listen to their suggestions or play them his idea—until he stopped, alarmed that he was thinking of his tinnitus as “they.”
He pulled up his screen. All over the world academics and cocktail pianists and Javanese gamelan groups were producing innovative music. Audiences were fired up. Those interviewed said they felt enthusiastic, motivated to engage with the world’s problems, after hearing the inspiring tunes. A White House concert by a well-known pop diva even inspired legislation funding housing for undesirables—though this had been shouted down. And a few artists claimed they received guidance from internal voices.
Tredz barely ate lunch. He wanted to write more songs, but the noises were getting louder and stronger, less like suggestions and more like a constant barrage. Sometimes it sounded like “Out, out, out.”
He pulled up his screen again. The news cycle had turned. Even over the jackhammers assaulting his skull, the pattern of madness and unexplained deaths was clear. A researcher showed how viral fragments, escaped from a government lab, fed on electrical impulses in the brain, multiplying until--
He shut it off, but it just morphed into his dad’s yelling face. “Think you’re special, son? Speaking truth to power? Bread and circuses. That’s all it’s ever about.”
Lorna Wood's horror flash has appeared on The NoSleep Podcast and in Canyons of the Damned and Schlock!, Every Writer, and Every Day Fiction, among others. Her flash, “The Splitting,” was a finalist in the Sharkpack Poetry Review’s Valus’ Sigil contest.
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