Watch Out For The Quiet Ones

He always closed his eyes as the moment of death seized and stole away the person whom he was killing. It wasn’t because he was afraid to see the finality of his actions take shape in the form of gasping death rattles, screams, and, sometimes just sometimes, a strangely comfortable smile. He viewed death as a personal experience and what he so often had to do was just too damned… impersonal. Who in tarnation was he to watch these last moments of life from people he would never know? ‘Life may not be fair,’ he thought ‘killing them might be doubly unfair in their eyes, but the least I can do is offer one last act of decency at a moment of indignation.’ There were two certainties in the world: It was kill or be killed and the apocalypse had come and gone.

The apocalypse wasn’t one of those cockamamie events like an alien invasion, biblical natural disasters, nuclear fallout, or zombies begetting zombies…nor was there a trumpet to be heard when it tumbled across the world. He had heard some scientist types talking about the apocalypse and they kept referring to it with terms such as “the man behind the curtain syndrome” and “the Oz theory.” Hell if he knew what any of that sciency talk meant. What he did know is that the world had crumbled in on itself and if you weren’t a scavenger, ravager, or bandit, you were a drifter.

Folks called him Pad. Stood for Post Apocalyptic Drifter which was meant to be an insult, he reckoned, though he quite liked the brevity and anonymity that was attached to the trite title. Ramblers often asked him what his life was like before the “man behind the curtain syndrome” blanketed the world. Funny thing was, all he could say is, “I forgot.” Most of the folk would give their best gun and prettiest daughter to remember and revel in the way the world once was. And so it goes, folks thought Pad to be some kind of loony for forgetting. Ten years is a long time in a society that technically no longer existed. He didn’t mind their thoughts of him being loony all that much either. Just meant they usually thought twice before speaking to him if they worked up the nerve to speak at all.

Sleeping was a slippery slope for Pad. Being a drifter and all, he was indefinitely on the road which meant he was contending with the likes of other drifters, bandits, and all manner of bad people that wouldn’t think twice at making a corpse of him. Then, there was the fact that every time he closed his eyes, the sounds of the machines beckoned to him. Machines from another life.

It was the wild west all over again: dusty, cow Polk towns surrounded by the remnants of a civilization that went out with a whisper instead of a bang. Finding any such town that was not barricaded to drifters or decorated with old military warning signs at their entrances that read “USE OF DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED,” under which something along the lines of “THIS MEANS YOU DRIFTER SCUM” would be hastily scrawled on either the sign itself or a piece of rickety plywood that sat directly under.

Pad was used to that sort of reception. Society had openly regressed 200+ years…or what was left of society to be more succinct. Although, the word society entails having a highly structured system of human organization…which was as far from the truth as China in the present day of reckoning.

So when Pad moseyed up to a town that greeted him with open arms, warm smiles, and, hell, the smell of fresh baked apple pie riding the back of the humid August air of Northeast Ohio, his first instinct was to turn and run. It’d be a goddamn of a thing too…had he listened to that gut instinct. Maybe it would have kept him from the gallows.

The name of this town was as classic as it was overused: Purgatorium. Seemed like every town was named some variation of Hell, Purgatory, or the Divine Comedy. Paradise or any variation thereof was something people would joke about over a few rounds of rye. Purgatorium was unique in that it still had a veritable organizational system within its machinated walls: A single boulevard ran through the center of town and had ten off shooting lanes (five on each side of the main boulevard) that each had a makeshift sign standing at their corner. Each lane was, of course, a dead end. With Purgatorium being a fortified compound and all. All the same, they had maintained the illusion of society, complete with a sheriff, hangman, saloon, brothel, an inn, and a town drunk.

A soft bed…Pad had not be a privy to such comforts for well over eight years. Even so, he was leery of comfort. It only brought on the lullaby of the machines…then the darkness. Once the darkness took hold, it was all a shit storm from there on out.

When Pad awoke the next morning, he decided to explore Purgatorium in depth, starting with the saloon. As he swaggered into dilapidated pole barn, Pad tipped his beaver-skin fedora to the geezer sitting outside the saloon and kept moving. ‘Why’d this all seem so familiar?’ Pad thought then shook off the quasi-deja vu feeling. The saloon lacked in what made saloons classy: No card games going, no live stock wandering through, no upstairs brothel—that was down the road in a congregation of porta-pots that had been retro-fitted to be such which said a lot about the way the townsfolk felt about whores without saying a word—no piano man, hell, there really wasn’t even a bar…Just a piece of plywood laid across cinderblocks that had been raised to about four feet off the ground. Behind the makeshift bar, stood a man whose chin barely stretched over the edge of the piece of plywood which was weathered and stained with dark splotches and splintered segments.

“What’ll it be stranger?” the little man croaked over the plywood with a raised chin.

Odd, he hadn’t referred to Pad as a drifter. Pad dropped a few coins on the plywood, “Whatever that’ll buy me.”

The little man snorted and eyed the coins with disinterest then turned, grabbed a shot glass from a bookshelf behind him, and sat it in front of Pad. “This is what those’ll buy you,” the little man said nodding toward the glass. “P.A.M. is easy to come by just like these here midget glasses. You want drink? You’re gonna have to cough up something other than useless P.A.M.”

P.A.M. was what most folks called the money from before the apocalypse. Pre Apocalyptic Money was its true meaning. And the little man was right. It was easy to come by which made it useless.

“I see the server reflects this fine establishment’s service,” Pad shot back, trying to push a button.

“Oh yeah?” the little man returned calmly, “How’s that? Short?”

A quick, broad smile formed across Pad’s lips as he fought back a chuckle. Checkmate. The little man’s brow unfurled as he lazily snatched a bottle of brown liquid from the same bookshelf he grabbed the shot glass from.

“Since you got yourself a sense of humor, stranger,” the little man said as he filled the glass, “I’ll give you one on the house. Such as it is. Sense of humors are hard to come by these days.”

“Pad,” he said as he silently toasted a ‘thank you’ to the little man and knocked back the liquid.

“Brutus,” the little man replied. “And you’re welcome.”

Pad reached into the bag he had slung across his shoulder and withdrew a box of 12 gauge slugs. “Noticed the shotgun on your bookshelf back there. I’ve got no need for these and your stock looks a little light from here,” he said and slid the box across to Brutus. The little man stopped in mid-corking of the bottle of rye (which Pad had identified from the cinnamon, wood grain taste of the brown liquid) then turned and sat the bottle beside Pad’s shot glass.

“Light,” Brutus replied, “is putting the condition of my stock for that shotgun in kinder words than are necessary. I don’t think I’ve had ammunition for that monster for well over three years now.”

Pad removed a gun cleaning kit and sat it beside the ammunition. “You’re gonna need this then too.”

Brutus’ eyes lit up and he pulled two more label-less bottles from the bookshelf behind him and placed them next to Pad’s first bottle. “And you sir are going to need these. Why, you are a regular Sears and Robuck with that bag of yours. Give our general store a run for their wares, of that I can assure you.”

“I gather this town don’t see a lot of trouble then?” Pad casually probed.

Brutus raised an eyebrow on his nearly perfect round face then scrunched his face into disbelief, “What gave you that idea?”

“Seeing as how this is a saloon and you haven’t shot that cannon back there in over three years.”

“Not a lot of drinkers in this town,” Brutus replied with a shrug. “Most of the trouble happens over at the brothel which our lovely Sheriff Hicks deals with if it a’int taken care of before he gets there. Just goes to show you three things still sell after the end of humanity: booze, sex, and violence.”

Pad tucked away the bottles of booze and his shot glass, tipped his hat to Brutus and exited the saloon. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a slight movement and turned to see a familiar face.

“Gr—” He began to speak then shook his head and exited the saloon.

“Did you say something?” Brutus called out the quickly closing door but received only the final latch of the door as a response.

Pad wondered up and down the main drag of Purgatorium, keenly observing the names of the off shooting lanes that could loosely be called streets. There were ten streets, five on each side of the main drag with the following names painted on plywood or sheet metal and haphazardly posted on each corner: Bel Air Drive, Vuillafans Way, Bosnia Estates, Moravia Grove, Normandy Circle, Baramati Avenue, Saint Petersburg Lane, New Orleans Boulevard, Baku Road, and Rome Court.

The saloon was on the corner of Rome Court and the main drag. The brothel was positioned a little ways down on New Orleans Boulevard. The sheriff’s shack was on Normandy Circle. The inn was on the corner of Saint Petersburg Lane and the main drag. The gallows sat tucked away on Bosnia Estates. The general store sat on Bel Air Drive and the town drunk could be found wandering between any one of the ten lanes. All the lanes were rat-packed with shanties that looked to serve as domiciles for the townsfolk…at the very least they were shelter from the elements.

The townsfolk themselves were cordially introverted in their mannerisms. They’d tip their hats, smile, make a quick palm gesture to signal a hello, or some other non-verbal recognition of another being passing within their presence. Very few spoke and even fewer asked questions. In fact, the only person besides Brutus that Pad talked to was the Sheriff. Sheriff Woodrow Hicks in his full and formal title.

“Most of the people just call me Hicks or Sheriff depending on which side of the prison cell they’re on,” Sheriff Hicks said as he shook Pad’s hand.

“Pad.”

“Some handshake you got there boy-o,” Sheriff Hicks commented. “Interesting name too. Most people would invoke a tussle at being called such a name.”

Sheriff Hicks was a tall wisp of a man and teetered over Pad a good four to five inches. His eyes were deeply set and the left one had a tell tale sign of recently being blackened with brush strokes of a fading yellow bruise. Though a bit gangly, Pad sensed the man could take care of himself in a brawl. There was an animalistic quality to the Sheriff. Hicks must have sensed the same in Pad.

“People ’round here are friendly for the most part. Just folk trying to get by and move on in life…much as can be done for either. Few of them like to cause trouble and its those few that call me Sheriff instead of Hicks. It is my hope that you’ll come to call me Hicks and not Sheriff.” Sheriff Hicks flicked a gnat from the rusty star pinned to his ruffled khaki shirt then gave Pad an expectant look.

“I stick to myself and don’t go lookin’ to make or have trouble made for me,” Pad replied. “Much like the townsfolk, Sheriff Hicks, I’m just trying to get by.”

Sheriff Hicks quaffed in a deep drink of dry air then blew lazily through his lips. “Well,” he said, “now that we understand each other, maybe you’ll look into taking up residence here. A community is only as strong as its numbers and if raiders, scavengers, or ravagers decide to burst on through unexpectedly, one more gun hand would not go amiss.”

“I’m just passing through,” Pad admitted in a practiced neutral tone. “Had hopes of stocking up on some supplies, maybe restin’ a few days, then heading back out.”

“What are you running from, boy?”

“Pad,” he corrected with a short smile.

“Hell, we both know that’s not your real name,” Sheriff Hicks retorted. “So what difference does it make at what I call ya?”

Pad had never thought of it in those terms. Sheriff Hicks had a point.

“Can’t say I am running from anything in particular,” Pad lied. “Just don’t like the idea of settling.”

“You’re young yet,” the lawman chuckled. “Can’t says I blame you.”

The night was crawling on the town and after several visits to a closed general store, Pad decided to go back to his room at the inn and fight the urges to sleep.

…The machines beckon from inside the building. Pad treads past, knowing he will have to go in and heed their call soon enough. In front of him, he sees a model 92 Winchester and a box of .44 caliber bullets beside it. The rifle was lever action, so after Pad loaded five rounds he had to work the lever to advance a round into the chamber. “This is the way I wanted it,” a tendril of a voice whispered through the air. Pad drew a bead on silhouetted figure in the distance and slowly squeezed the trigger…

A calamitous commotion caused Pad to stir from his seated slumber. He sprung to his feet as nimble as a cat and had his lever action rifle in hand and ready to fire at the first thing that moved…except nothing did. The ruckus was being made outside on the main drag and seemed to be moving away from the inn and toward the lane marked Bosnia Estates. Pad pulled on his boots and hat and cautiously moved outside, following the bouncing lights of both flashlights and torches. He caught up to the tail end of a mob of people and realized instantly exactly what kind of mob it was: a lynching mob. People in the front were chanting something that could faintly be understood as “GIVE US JUSTICE!”

Pad pushed his way to the front of the crowd and saw the sheriff standing on the platform of the gallows detaining a hooded man. On the other side of the trap door, by the kill switch, was death itself waiting for its next victim, wearing a red hood instead of the classic black. Sheriff Hicks revealed the hooded man and the crowd roared with disapproving delight.

Pad tapped a short, fat, elderly woman in front of him and asked, “Who’s the fella they’re about to lynch?”

The woman turned around and gave a toothless smile and wheeze then replied, “Oh, sonny, that’s Mr. Booth. He runs the general store…or, well, did run the general store…in about five minutes that is. Funny how a quick drop and a few hops strips ya of your life and ownings.”

“What is his crime?” Pad asked, damning himself directly after the question left his lips for his incessant curiosity about business not of his own.

The old woman licked her lips then smacked them together as if tasting a juicy morsel of meat in the form of gossip. “Oh, well now that is a devilish story indeed. Mr. Booth was caught trying to kill a baby!” The old woman turned and threw her voice toward the gallows as he hollered the last bit. “Before it were born even! Oh, the savagery of humanity. All in the name of some troubled hussy down from that yer brothel.”

“How do you mean?” Pad inquired, damning himself again.

“Oh, well, that yet another devilish story that goes deeper down the gopher’s hole.” The old woman said then spat on the ground next to Pad’s boot. “Sorry sonny, I’ve got all manner of snot just bubbling up from my failing lungs. Better out than in. I wanna live longer than the bastard about to be hung. Now where were we?”

“The whore?” Pad offered, giving in to the possible death his curiosity might bring some unfortunate cat.

“Oh, yes, Delilah.” The old woman gave her head a light wrap then continued. “Delilah was a pretty young thing. That is until the raiders hit us few months back and marked up her face real good and went and impregnated her. Must’ve had at least 30 men between her legs that night alone. Then the next night at least another 20. All of ‘em unwillingly of course. I mean, she worked at the brothel, sure, but even whores can say no…or can they?” The old woman cackled at the tasteless joke. “Any road, no telling who impregnated the whore, but impregnated she was.”

“Let me guess…” Pad begun under his breath but the old woman continued his thought without noticing what he had said.

“And the little whore didn’t want to keep the baby! What savagery. So she turns to Mr. Booth who used to be a hoighty toighty doctor in his old life…well, I can’t say too much bad about his apothecary skills. He did remove a few varicose veins from my leg for me…” the old woman wrapped her head lightly again. “Any road, he goes and kills the baby inside her so she could get back to whoring I ‘spose. Well, whores being whores, they can’t keep their mouths shut and the whole town found out Mr. Booth had done the deed. So, here we are.”

“And the whore?” Pad asked.

“What?”

“Where is the girl…Delilah, was it?”

“Oh,” the old woman flapped her lips and swatted at an invisible fly. “out whoring I ‘spect. That’s what whores do you know?”

Pad tipped his hat at the old woman and turned his attention back to the gallows.

“Any last words?” Sheriff Hicks announced. More so that the mob could hear him than anyone.

“Yeah,” Mr. Booth growled in the same manner as the sheriff’s. A chorus of boos and “baby killer” echoed back. Mr. Booth looked directly at Pad and Pad recognized the face immediately in the slice of light from a nearby torch.

“Grandpa?” Pad said slowly then shook his head. The shadows were playing tricks again.

“Yeah!” Mr. Booth roared, now red faced with lividness. “I killed a baby. A baby that would have likely been born into a world not fit for babies. Hell, look at yourselves! You all know what happened and you think I am the bad guy?! Mr. Corday? I reset your nose on more than one occasion! Mrs. Gerard?” He was looking directly at the old woman whom Pad had just spoke with. “I removed those varicose veins and got rid of those pesky ‘fleas’ you had down in your nethers.” Mr. Booth made air quotes with his bound hands behind his back as he said ‘fleas’ and had to turn sideways to show the mob. “Felix? My best FUCKING friend? I could tell this entire mob all the things I’ve done for you and you’d probably end up standing here next to me with your last neck tie…but I have more discretion, dignity, and fucking respect than that…unlike your chubby ass. That’s it. That’s all I wanted to say, you freaks. See you all in hell.”

Sheriff Hicks fitted the noose around Mr. Booth’s neck then gave it a test yank. The sheriff stepped back and nodded to the hangman who hesitated only slightly, then pulled the kill switch. The trap door sprung open with an eager clang and Mr. Booth danced death’s jig.

The mob gasped, cheered, then dispersed like mulling cows; slowly and near aimlessly. Pad remained, eyes closed, not seeing the hangman and sheriff mixing in with the crowd like a pair of rock stars after a blazing performance.

“Fuck,” Pad muttered to himself at the realization that the general store would now be either permanently closed or soon raided. He turned on heel, opened his eyes, and headed back to the inn for another battle with the temptation of sleep’s sweet womb.

…The machines beckon him. His time was almost near. He could feel it in the air. Certain sounds at certain times reveal this to him. It is almost his time. Pad sees the lever action rifle. He picks it up, loads it and draws a bead on the silhouetted figure in the distant. As Pad pulled the trigger, the silhouetted figure’s face caught a glint of light and Pad saw Mr. Booth a split second before half of the man’s face exploded into a chunky pink mist…

Pad woke to a start and slivers of sunlight trying to part the mauve curtains that hung over the singular window of his room. His dreams never changed and only got more intense as time wore on. It wasn’t the content of the dream that drove Pad to go sleepless for nearly a week at a time…it was the repetitiveness of the dream. He knew there was a message to be had. A message he had tried to decode for seven years. He was quite literally chasing a dream. Seven years of the same night haunts would drive any man crazy…Pad thought he was managing fairly well.

Pad should have gathered his accoutrements and stole out of the town like a thief in the night. It was a broken record tune to him at that point. So he turned the record player in his head off and did what he knew he shouldn’t. Pad went to the porta-pot brothel on New Orleans Boulevard to seek an audience with the whore Delilah.

Pad counted a total of 20 porta-pots across that were three deep, cut apart in places, and retro-fitted with sundry objects to rejoin them back together in order to make ample quarters for doing what whores do best. Not exactly a marvel of modern architecture, but it did intrigue Pad as to where they found 61 porta-pots to build the brothel. A singular plastic shit-house stood in front of the other 60 with a tilted and weathered sign that was supposed to read “MADAME HOROWITZ’S PLEASURE CHAMBER” but someone had  crudely graffitied a “W” in front of “HOROWITZ” and the word “POTS” after “CHAMBER.” Brutus had lied to Pad. Someone else in this town had a sense of humor. Pad opened the door to the rickety shit-house after a light knock was answered by the voice of a woman with a thick, Mexican accent that said, “Whatchu whant?”

Pad courteously removed his hat as he stood in front of an obese Mexican woman who was sitting on the shitter with her floppy tits hanging out like sock puppets flapping in the wind. The woman had a pock-marked face with prune sized moles growing off her neck and tits. One mole in particular made Pad do a double take with a quick eye dart because he could of swore it was a third nipple. From the waist down she was sheathed in a flowing black crepe material that strained to stay together around the woman’s rotund mid-section. More horrific was the sour smell that emanated from the shit-house and created a phalanx in Pad’s nostrils. He was no springtime flower himself, but he knew the smell of putrefaction when he came across it; plenty of rotting bodies alongside the roads he had travelled.

“Eh! gringo?”

“Ah, my apologies, Madame Horowitz?” Pad asked.

“Yeah, that’s me. Whatchu whant?”

“I was hoping to get in to see Delilah.”

Madame Horowitz stared at Pad with a wrinkled look of disbelief, farted, then dabbed the sweat away from her brow with a piece of toilet paper. “Why you whant to see her?”

Pad reached into his bag and withdrew three Hershey’s chocolate bars and a Snicker’s bar and tossed them at the feet of Madame Horowitz. The things had probably long since gone bad, but the same could be said about the Madame.

“What the fuck?” Madame Horowitz bellowed. “You can’t even hand them to me?”

“I could,” Pad replied as he waited patiently.

“Room 13,” Madame Horowitz reluctantly revealed after Pad withdrew a Snicker’s bar of his own and began chewing on it.

“Much obliged,” he said, picking up the candy bars and flinging them on Madame Horowitz’s fat gut. He let the porta-pot door slam shut then spit out the half-chewed Snicker’s bar. Definitely bad.

The Road Show!

The Road Show!

For this episode we traveled to the Ohioana Book Festival (which I mysteriously fail to mention) and have me dear ol’ dad, Mr. Jerry Stahl if you please, as our special guest. I apologize in advance for the lack of quality in the sound of this episode. I was not using my normal recording gear and touched it up as best as I could. As always, enjoy, leave us some feedback on iTunes, and follow us on Twitter @screamingbooger.

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Aefop’s Sables

       Once upon a time, in the faraway land of Ruan, there lived a young zombie fox named Aefop. Aefop was not like the other young zombie foxes. Whereas the rest of his skulk were rotted, mangy, and full of flies—such was the typical fashion among zombie creatures big and small—Aefop was sleek, clean and kept his rusty red coat of fur as such. In fact, the only way one could tell he was a zombie fox at all, was by the gangrene green of his eyes, his partly chewed on left ear, and his appetite for living flesh. Every morning and every night, Aefop would go to the edge of the woods in search of an acorn, finger bone, or some other makeshift mane grooming device so that he might brush out all the burs, bugs, and bits that liked to stick to him. The other young zombie foxes of the skulk liked to tease and chase Aefop around while chanting:

“Aefop, Aefop, we’ll gobble you up! You look well! You look alive! So, first we’ll eat your pretty eyes!”

Or,

“Aefop, Aefop, your fur is clean! Where’s the rot? Where’s the flies? Where’s the guts? Are you alive? Let’s eat him up, before he dies!”

            Chase him as they may, the other young zombie foxes could never catch up to Aefop because his fur was free from the extra weight of flies, burs, and bits. However, one day the skulk got lucky and was able to corner Aefop in a briar.  Their leader—the most mangled and rotted of them all—stepped forward and said, “Aefop, since you are so different and refuse to change in order to suit us, then we hereby banish you to the Wicked Woods of Woodrow. You look too alive to be dead and we cannot have such a differing look running about in this skulk.”

“But,” Aefop protested, “I am the same as you! I am a zombie fox that craves living flesh and fresh brains!”

“But you do not look like a zombie fox that craves living flesh and fresh brains,” replied the mangy leader.

“So?” Aefop shrugged.

“So?!” the leader howled. “SO?! You think being a zombie fox is all about eating fresh brains and craving live flesh? Well, young Aefop, you are quite mistaken. It is also about looking scary and mean and all manner of other things that you obviously are not aware of.”

“I can look scary and mean,” Aefop offered.

“No, you can’t,” the leader said flatly. “Now, be gone! You are no longer welcome in this skulk of zombie foxes!”

With that, a mucus filled tear bubbled up in one of Aefop’s gangrene green eyes as he sulked away from the rest of the skulk and toward the Wicked Woods of Woodrow. Aefop arrived at the Wicked Woods of Woodrow by nightfall and crept into that dangerous place with the utmost stealth. It was told that there were creatures in those woods who would like nothing more than to add another skull to their collection of thousands that they were known to sleep on at night; creatures that did not crave flesh or fresh brains but only death.  Aefop darted from tree to tree, keeping a keen nose and a sharp eye on his surroundings as he did so. After much darting and sneaking about, Aefop found a suitable hole under a rotund poplar tree and made a bed for the night, but not before finding a suitable makeshift grooming device to comb out his fur. This time, he found a fishbone which worked magnificently. True though it was that live foxes were nocturnal creatures and stayed out through the night, zombie foxes were the exact opposite.

The next morning, Aefop awoke to a peculiar smell.

“Brains,” he said to himself as his nose twitched with delight.

“Brains, indeed,” a voice grumbled from up in the rotund poplar tree.

“Who’s there?” Aefop called up. “Show yourself.”

A gunmetal gray fox hopped with ease from higher branches, down to lower ones and landed gently on a sturdy limb that was just out of Aefop’s reach. The gray fox was old and covered with dozens of pin-stripe scars that were visible through his fur. One of his eyes was milky white and honeycombed with blood vessels while the other was as black as pitch. The fox rested his chin on his paws and peered down at Aefop.

“Who, might I ask, are you young zombie fox?” The gray fox said in a low, aged-to-perfection voice.

Aefop frantically tried to claw his way up to the gray fox but always with the same unsuccessful result. After almost an hour of frantic clawing and continued falling, Aefop, exhausted and near unconscious, rested at the bottom of the tree.

“My name,” he huffed, “is Aefop. Now will you come down so I can eat your brains?”

“No,” the gray fox said, moving one branch higher. “However, I will tell you that my name is Woodrow and these are my woods. So, if any brains are to be eaten, they most certainly will be by me…except, I don’t eat brains because I am not a zombie. Now, tell me, Aefop, how did you come to be in my woods?”

“I was banished for being different,” Aefop replied dully. “It is my curse.”

“Could have fooled me,” Woodrow said with a smirk. “Actually, you almost did. You do not look like the other zombie foxes that I have seen. Your fur is, well to put it simply, nice.”

“You think my fur is nice?”

“Certainly much more nice than mine,” Woodrow chuckled as he indicated all of his scars with his nose.

“How did you get up in that tree?” Aefop asked.

“Come now, Aefop! If I told you that then you too would be able to climb this tree and could eat my brains. I’d like to avoid that at all costs if that’s okay with you. But I will share a secret with you. Gray foxes are the only type of fox that know the proper way to climb a tree which is how I know that you cannot climb this tree. For, you are a red fox. Or were, at some point. So, knowing that, how about we just have a civil chat and maybe I’ll let you pass through my woods unscathed.”

Aefop swallowed hard and thought for a moment, “okay,” he said.

Woodrow and Aefop talked and talked under the rotund poplar tree until day turned to night, night turned to day, and day turned to night once more. On the third day, Aefop—who had dozed off at some point during the second night—awoke to find a freshly killed marmot lying beside him. He looked up into the tree and saw Woodrow, with a blood-stained snout, staring down at him.

“Not exactly my brains,” Woodrow chuckled. “But it’s better than nothing.”

Aefop thanked Woodrow then proceeded to savagely feast on the remains of the marmot which included its, still warm, brains. After finishing his breakfast, the young zombie fox asked Woodrow, “Sir, have you seen fit to let me pass through this woods unscathed?”

Woodrow finished cleaning his paws and snout before answering, “Aefop, you are indeed different from any zombie fox that I have seen both by your looks and by the stoutness of your heart. Or what’s left of it anyway. For two days and two nights we talked and, my goodness! What a conversation it was! For this, I shall let you pass unscathed and give you two bits of advice that I advise you keep close to your stout heart. Or what’s left of it. The first bit of advice is that beyond my woods lies a burrow of zombie sables who you might find to be very accepting of you. The second bit of advice is that being different is not a curse. In many cases, being different can work to your advantage. Finally, take this gift so that you may never lose your ability to keep your fur clean.”

Woodrow dropped the fishbone that Aefop had used the first night to groom his mane, only there was now a string attached to it so he could slip it around his neck.

“Woodrow!” Aefop squealed with delight. “How can I ever thank you?”

“You can start by promising never to eat my brains,” replied Woodrow with a sly grin.

“Consider it promised! Now, why don’t you come down out of that tree so that I might properly eat your brains….er, shake your paw?”

Woodrow sighed then said, “You cannot outfox a fox, dear Aefop. Now, on your way! I will call ahead to the more terrible creatures of my woods and tell them to leave you alone.”

Woodrow disappeared into the rotund poplar tree as Aefop set out through the woods to find the burrow of zombie sables. Unbeknownst to both Woodrow and Aefop, a spy from the skulk of young zombie foxes was following Aefop and had listened to every word uttered during the two days and two nights of conversation.

Aefop passed through the Wicked Woods of Woodrow, as promised, unscathed and came upon the burrow of zombie sables, also as promised, in less than a day’s trek. It was then that Aefop understood the reasoning behind Woodrow’s first piece of advice. The zombie sables were sleek, clean, and had tree bark brown fur (with a patch of light yellow below their throats) that they kept as such. In fact, the only way one could tell they were zombie sables at all, was by the puss yellow of their eyes. Aefop introduced himself to the zombie sables and to his surprise, but again as promised, they accepted him with open paws and clean fur. The zombie sables spoke very little and were diligent workers. They had devised a plan—which they allowed Aefop to be privy to for two reasons: one, because Aefop was clean like them and two, because Woodrow had told the zombie sables that Aefop was trustworthy of such secrets before Aefop arrived—to overrun a group of farmers that were holed up in a shanty just over the bluff from their burrow. The farmers’ fresh brains and flesh would provide provisions enough to last the entire winter for the burrow. The zombie sables promised to let Aefop stay with them and to share their provisions if he could help with the attack on the unsuspecting farmers. Aefop replied, “I am a zombie fox! We are known for our cunningness and sly ways in attacking unsuspecting things. Of course I will help! In fact, I have a few additions to your plan that you may find to be quite useful.”

All the while, the spy sent from the young zombie fox skulk was listening in and as soon as he heard about the shanty of unsuspecting farmers, he ran double-fast back to the skulk to report to the mangy, rotted leader. The leader was pleased by the news and proclaimed, “Aefop and his sables are not deserving of such spoils and we, the true zombie foxes, will take it from them.”

So, the skulk of zombie foxes set off for the bounty and arrived two nights later. They slid about through the field, silent as death, and crept up on the shanty of unsuspecting farmers while keeping a look out for Aefop and his band of sables who were nowhere to be seen or smelled. “The brains are ours for the taking,” the leader said and in doing so did not notice the fine bit of string strung across the last bit of field before the shanty until the last possible moment. This particular length of string had a baker’s dozen worth of bells attached to it. As the leader quickly tried to readjust and duck under the string, the burs, bits, and other objects protruding from his fur caught hold of the string, sounding every bell in baker’s dozen worth. All of the other zombie foxes in the skulk followed suit, if only by accident, making an even louder ruckus while also getting stuck on the string. Within moments, the farmers were up, locked and loaded with double-barrel shotguns, and opened fire on the skulk of zombie foxes, killing every last one.

Upon Aefop’s arrival at the zombie sables’ burrow, four days earlier, Woodrow had appeared once more to inform them of the spy he spied from his treetops. Instead of killing the spy, Aefop let him eavesdrop of the plan about the shanty knowing that the leader would try to outfox Aefop and his sables. But as Woodrow said, “You cannot outfox a fox.” The plan then was to use the skulk of zombie foxes as a distraction and a way to lure the farmers out of hiding. Aefop and his sables waited patiently behind the woodpile at the side of the shanty until the massacre was over then leisurely waltzed out to confront the farmers.

“Look!” One of the farmers shouted. “There are more of them!”

But another farmer with a keener eye said, “Naw, look again. Their coats are clean as a whistle. They ain’t zombified like them others. Thems just plain old sables and a fox. Probably endangered now if I had to venture a guess. Put your guns away and observe their beauty. ”

Like lightning to a rod, Aefop and the group of zombie sables sprung upon the unsuspecting farmers and dispatched them in the most inhumane ways possible. The zombie sables kept their promise and Aefop continued to keep his fur free from burs, bugs and bits. And so, the moral of the tale is sometimes it pays to be different. Even for a zombie. The End.

Missing Persons

The missing persons episode…Where have all the guests gone? James and I fly solo this episode and discuss topics ranging from a Chinese man licking a monkey’s bottom (which is also a Kung Fu move) to pooping on the sunroofs of cars. Don’t worry, we still did the segments and actually got it right this time. Enjoy! As always, you can follow us @screamingbooger on Twitter or leave us feedback by emailing us at info@screamingpileofblog.com.
Thank you!

Play

Smoke in the Volcano (Excerpt)

I

I’m not crazy. Never have been and don’t plan on being. Some people say every crazy person that ever was says they’re not crazy. I say that’s a crock. Craziness doesn’t even run in my family…at least as far back as can be traced through medical records, newspapers, journals, etc…But when my father, a pillar of stability, came to me and said I had to be sacrificed by way of Kilauea volcano in the name of God almighty…Well, I had to wonder about the whole craziness business. Scratch that. I didn’t just wonder about his sanity, I questioned it. I would go so far as to say I doubted the very fabric his sanity was woven from not to mention the stitches that held it together. I guess to understand the entirety of the story, we would have to start on the day of my birth and work our way to my 29th birthday, but, since time is of the essence, you will have to settle for the abridged version of my youth.

I grew up always on the move. Home was a fictionalized, dramatized, reproduction only seen in Saturday morning cartoons and family matinee movies. That’s not to say I didn’t have a good family. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I refer to a home, I simply mean roots. For as many times as I was transplanted from place to place, school to school, room to room, it’s no wonder my soul hadn’t withered up and died. I guess that’s where having a good family helped. I came to abide by the saying, “Where I lay my head is home.” It made the most sense under the circumstances. We weren’t a family of fugitives, circus midgets, or gypsies, so don’t get the wrong idea. My father was a military man, my mother a homemaker, and my big brother an antagonistic bastard like all big brothers tend to be sometimes. All that was missing was the white picket fence, loyal family dog, and a house to call our own. From the time air filled my lungs until the time I was 16, I had lived in over 26 states. That works out to moving, approximately, every six to eight months. With those statistics, we may as well have been fugitives; although circus midgets and gypsies probably have it worse. Don’t ask me to name all the states I’ve lived in. Most of them I was too young to remember and others I think I’m better off forgetting. Suffice it to say I’ve seen the Pacific, Atlantic, and nearly everything in between. Now, don’t let me give the wrong impressions to the would-be heroes of America. A six to eight month stretch on any military base is considered unusual and atypical even by military standards. My father was a spook. A spy, not the derogatory reference to a black person and for that matter my father wasn’t black either. He was practically a vampire he was so white. He never openly admitted this to anyone of course…being a spook or vampirically white that is. We knew what he did because we didn’t know what he did. Many arguments between my mother and father were endured through a glass drinking cup to the wall. I guess spying was in my blood. The subject of the arguments was always the same: “Why don’t you ever talk about what you do? All the other wives around the neighborhood know what their husbands do,” my mother would plead to which my father—in his standard issue unwavering, matter-of-fact, swaggering tone—would reply, “If I told you, then I’d have to kill you and if I kill you, then I’d go to jail. Who then would make the most amazing blueberry muffins known to man? Even if I didn’t kill you, which I most certainly wouldn’t, I would still go to jail.” Then he would laugh that deep, lolling belly laugh which always made me think of Santa Claus being tickled to death. It was my father’s trademark laugh. If you heard it once, you would never forget it. One time, when I was eight, I even got up the cajones to ask him what he did for good ol’ Uncle Sam. He just winked at me and said, “One day, you’ll know. Until then, try not to listen so much with that glass against the wall when your mother and I are talking.” Eight years later, two things ended: My mother and father’s arguments about what my father did for the military and my father’s military career. One hand washes the other, as they say. That is also where the real story begins. My name is Cidonis Othello Smoke, Cid to most, and I was 16 when my father was put into the ground after allegedly dying in a plane crash. Confused? You have every right to be. I know I was for years; doubly so when he showed back up 12 years later. When the accident happened, we were living on a military base on Oahu…Hawaii to anyone who has never lived there. “Tragedy in Paradise” read the front page heading of the Honolulu Star Advertiser while featuring a grainy photo of a wrecked, fiery fuselage of a 747 jetliner scattered across the runway. Needless to say, it was a closed casket funeral. The official story by the FAA was the cabin had mysteriously depressurized at 7,000 feet and about 20 miles from the runway. The pilot was able to guide the plane in so far, and then it literally fell like a rock from the sky. Good old Newton. What goes up must come crashing down. The crash was in June of 1998. The black box on the plane was lost in the wreckage, so the FAA could only piece together a fuzzy picture, at best, of what happened based on the pilot’s last transmissions. Aside from my father, 489 other passengers perished in that crash.

My brother Cillian (who was eight years older than myself), my mother Cecilia (who most people called CiCi), and myself packed up our belongings—with an enthusiastic and funded nudge from the military—American flag covered casket and all, and transplanted back to a one stoplight town called Mucksville, Ohio; the birthplace and not too final resting place of my father. Moving every six to eight months wasn’t as stressful as one might think. You might even say it was stress-less; less attachments, less goodbyes, less heartache, less stress. That’s not to say I didn’t make friends, I just didn’t keep them. The stress came when we moved back to Mucksville and realized we were there to stay. From paradise to purgatory…Hell comes later. People speak of culture shock when travelling to third world, aids infested countries that can’t even afford the basic of luxury commodities like toilet paper and toothpaste. Coming from Oahu to Mucksville, Ohio gleaned me a glimpse of what those people speak of. It’s like this: We went from beautiful beaches and a diverse melding pot of races, religions, and restaurants to nothing but white people, riding lawnmowers, and McDonalds. I think I saw one riding lawnmower while on Oahu whereas almost every front yard in Mucksville seemed to come pre-packaged with either a John Deere or Cub Cadet. Ah, to be 16 again. Most people reflect kindly on that statement, especially ones from a town where the population is equivalent to the combined maximum capacities of the four in town McDonalds. 1492. That was both the censured population of Mucksville, Ohio and the combined maximum capacities of the four in town McDonalds in September of 1998. Sadly, the population fluctuated on a regular basis from so many people dying of myocardial infarctions; better known as heart attacks if you’re trying to sound fancy.

I was an observant, pissed off 16 year old who had no interest in making friends with any of the muckety-mucks from Mucksville. That’s not a clever, condescending whip-crack at the people of Mucksville on my part. That was a Frankenstein’s Monster of their making. I was transplanted into Mucksville High School two weeks after the start of my junior year. Mucksville High: home of the fighting Muckety-Mucks. Muckety-Muck: an important and often arrogant person (as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary). Now, in a high school of 220 kids—221 if you count me, but I never did because I never felt like part of the ‘team’—you would think one among them would have concocted a formidable mascot for the school, but you would be wrong. Furthermore, how does one personify a Muckety-Muck. According to the class of 1957, you do so in the form of Frank Sinatra. Yes ladies and gentleman, for 41 years Mucksville High’s mascot has been none other than old blue eyes himself, the head Muckety-Muck, Mr. Sinatra if you please. I can’t make stuff like this up and besides, I’m a horrible liar. Let’s just say the Mucksville High talent show was a grisly equivalent to Sinatra Karaoke night at the local watering hole except without the liquor to help you swallow all the honking, missed notes from guys just emerging into puberty at 17.

It wasn’t all bad though. I met two people that would change my life forever at Mucksville High: My best friend and a witch who almost stole my soul. I know, I know…I said I had no interest in making friends, but then again, I also had no interest in almost having my soul stolen either and that still happened. That’s one lesson I learned without my father: Just because you are not interested in having something happen, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. My father’s life lessons were more along the lines of: Police records are like herpes. They are for life and always flare up at the most inconvenient of times. It was a double entendre. Needless to say, I always practiced safe sex and never got involved with the law. Back to the best friend and witch though. Oddly enough, they were both transplants as well. My best friend’s name was J. No, his birth certificate did not reflect the fact he only used one letter to identify himself and yes, the movie Men in Black caused him a lot of grief even though he looked nothing like Will Smith. Comparatively speaking, J looked more like a red-headed Errol Flynn and had the swagger to match. Our friendship began under nefarious circumstances to say the least and even though I hate to admit it, it was the witch that was responsible for our friendship. A backfired plan on her part. The best friendships are often forged in the fires of adversity. J grew up in Indiana and moved to Mucksville at age 12. When J—whose full name was Jaysukh McTavish O’Brien due to his mother’s obsession with Hindu culture and his father’s Irish and Scottish descent—and I first met, the conversation was both of little mutterings and consequence.

“Hey,” I said to J.

“Hello there,” J replied as he slid down the hallway like a slinky.

J wore what he considered to be the modern day samurai look: Extra wide, extra baggy jeans and a hooded sweatshirt…also extra baggy. I can’t say I would have disagreed with his sentiment although at the time any sentiment I had was pretty disagreeable with J. See, the witch—whose name was Eliza Radcliffe and for all intents and purposes was in fact a conjurer of cheap tricks, spells, charms, curses, and terrible music—thought it would be good sport to turn the only two redheaded guys at Mucksville High against each other. Her ploy was to have another girl, whom she thought both J and I were interested in, tell each of us that the other was out to get the other. Little did Eliza the witch know that men of Irish descent, even if there is only inklings, are impervious to both psychoanalysis and witches. What neither of us knew at the time is that the unnamed girl was under some clunky spell that Eliza had found in a DIY grimoire for beginners. J and I mistook the curious ramblings of the girl as hashed up gossip and left it at that. Essentially, he thought I was trying to be the new kid on the cellblock and I thought he had some sort of repressed crush on the unnamed girl until one day in Geometry class when him and I were paired up for a project and held a conversation that extended beyond monosyllabic mush. It was there, in the middle of Geometry class, that the mystery of the unnamed girl unraveled and our friendship began. On that day, we also discussed becoming witch hunters, but agreed we were both too poor to afford the proper pilgrim hats. So, when someone asks me how J and I became friends, my standard response is:

“Through a witch, an unnamed girl, and Geometry class.”

II

Please bear in mind, I am not crazy. Never have been and don’t plan on being. I thought I was for a stent after I moved to Mucksville; what, with the revelation that I was going to high school with a witch, but I soon found out I was not the only one who knew about Eliza’s tricky little secret. The one positive aspect of my father dying as he did—in the line of duty as the military called it—was the money that his life insurance plan left my mother Cecelia. $700,000.00 to be exact. Be that as it may, my mother was known to pinch pennies so hard it would “leave a bruise on the bronze,” as the song goes. She bought a modest house (big enough for the three of us and a guest or two), sent Cillian to the local college branch where he would later be recruited by the F.B.I., and put enough money back to send me to whatever college I wanted to go to after I graduated…which left $526,529.11… Not that I was keeping track or anything. So where did all that money go? Well, my mother always joked that she buried the remaining $526,529.11 in an undisclosed location that would be revealed when the time was right. At least, I thought she was joking. Then I remembered my mother couldn’t tell a joke without laughing through most of it. She wasn’t laughing when she said she buried the money. In point of fact, she was quite agitated by the fact that I knew the exact remaining amount even though I wasn’t keeping track. We’ll chalk it up to a good guess and leave it at that. Again, craziness does not run in my family nor does Alzheimer’s, but I was questioning whether my mother had went crazy and praying she wouldn’t forget where the money was buried.

“Dude, you’re crazy,” J said to me as I stuffed incalculable amounts of Camel cigarettes—menthols, 100’s, lights, ultra-lights, full flavor, and filterless alike—into both the hood of his hooded sweatshirt and the elastic waist of my pants.

“No,” I replied. “I am an ambitious young businessman in the process of a hostile takeover…on a non-corporate level of course. WATCH OUT! Never mind. False alarm. Thought it was security. Carry on.”

After our little pow-wow in geometry class, J and I had ended up in his basement—through a series of coincidental events—and discovered we had more than a few commonalities between us: 1) we were both obsessed with Han Solo and Indiana Jones. At the time, being obsessed with such things was not the cool thing all the other kids were doing, but we took that as a sign that we were carved from a rarer stone than the rest. 2) we carried strange and ancient virtues that two-bit street thugs and cheating husbands emptily promised they had: loyalty and honor. And, 3) when life hands you lemons, squirt lemon juice in life’s eyes, head butt it, steal its wallet, and buy lemonade for the less fortunate. “Why not just make lemonade for the less fortunate with the lemons life handed you?” one might ask. “Where’s the adventure in that?” J and I would respond.

We had a racket in high school which went something like this: The lifestyles of the under-aged and heinously rich of Mucksville High included the impression that Camel cigarettes were exotic and thus, made the person smoking them appear equally exotic. How’s the old saying go? Appearances can be cancer inducing? Nonetheless, J and I would ride our bikes—or on lucky days hitch a ride with one of the heinously rich and under-aged—to the local grocer known as Squawkins Market and execute what we dubbed the ‘screwy chewy shuffle.’ Bear in mind, this was before the technological tsunami that swept across the world shortly after the turn of the 21st century. So although security cameras were in use, they were rarely monitored and the tapes inside the VCRs that were supposed to be recording hardly ever were except on holidays and weekends. We had an inconsequential inside man at Squawkins Market who provided us with the details to pull our great heists and in return we gave him a little cut of the profit. By little, I mean enough to buy a fifth of Jack Daniels once a week. Through our inside man, J and I learned that the loading dock and stock room were camera free which allowed us to pull the screwy chewy shuffle, if need be, without exposing ourselves too much.

To properly execute the screwy chewy shuffle, you first need two smooth operators and a designated mark. For ease of explanation, the smooth operators will herein be represented by the letters (A) and (B). (A) and (B) first play a best of three game of rock, paper, scissors to determine who will be the screwy chewy and who will do the shuffling. (A) will be the screwy chewy and (B) will do the shuffling. (A) will casually stroll through the marketplace and do a little non-committal, light shopping while (B) waits by the loading dock. Once (A) has determined where the security guards are and what their general sweep pattern is, (A) then slips to the back and lets (B) in through the loading dock. From there, it is a simple snatch and grab unless a security guard happens to wander into the back…In which case smooth operator (A) would start acting screwy while making Chewbacca noises and (B) would shuffle (A) out of the through the stock room; apologizing that his autistic brother had mistakenly wandered into the stock room looking for the bathroom. Luckily for J and I, the turnover rate for security guards at Squawkins Market was unbelievably high. Apparently, they always got caught stealing from the stock room. It’s not what you think though. The screwy chewy shuffle was not a direct or indirect result of the security guards getting canned. They actually WERE stealing from the market and more so than J and I ever did. Our inside man gave us the skinny on that fat bit of grisly gossip. Irony at its finest. An interesting side note: The screwy chewy shuffle was inspired by the movie Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Once J and I had the cancer sticks, we would then sell them for $6.00 per pack. Some people laughed, some people cried, some people remained silent with their mouths open as though waiting for a fly to buzz in and land, but they always paid. The heinously rich and under-aged had a weekly allowance that was at least ten times that much so it was not like they couldn’t afford it. Besides, $6.00 for a pack of smokes in current times is a forgiving price to say the least.

Skip ahead to graduation: May 28th, 2000. I had the prestigious honor of graduating at the age of 17. Admittedly, I turned 18 the very next day, but who’s counting? J and I walked the graduation walk with mixed emotions. On the one hand, no more screwy chewy shuffle, hanging out, or writing our names in the snow with our urine. On the other hand, no more high school, Frank Sinatra, or Muckety-Mucks. When the summer of 2000 ended, two things would happen: I would be going to Akron University more than 70 miles away and J would find out he was to be a father. Not to fret though, Mucksville was kind of like joining the mob: every time you thought you were out, it would always pull you right back in. J, of course, remained in Mucksville and did the respectably responsible thing and married the mother of his child while providing food, clothes, and shelter for both of them. As for me? Well, as I said, I went to Akron University, but what I did was less than respectable and sure as hell wasn’t responsible…by no fault of my own.

At the time I had no idea Eliza Radcliffe, the witch of Mucksville High, was planning on attending Akron University as well. Not only did that spell trouble, it brought about a trouble of spells all aimed at me. It wasn’t until my second semester at Akron U that I ran into Eliza. Turned out we had an art class together. Witches change their appearance so much; sometimes it’s hard to identify them. The art school was the red-headed step child of the university and sat alone nearly half a mile from the main campus. It was a one story building with a labyrinth of hallways lined with showcases that showcased pet projects of particular professors or projects of particular students also known as professors pets.  I had taken a major in photography with a minor in computer graphics. Had I known that the computer graphics revolution was on a Napoleonic rampage that would grow to Caesar sized proportions within the next ten years, I would have switched my major to my minor and vice versa. C’est la vie. As for Eliza Radcliffe, even after I realized who she was, I didn’t say much to her beyond hello and goodbye. As the semester progressed, I found myself becoming chattier with the witch, which was a double double toil and trouble brew waiting to happen and soon enough I was in her bed naked as the day I was born…That will teach me for letting a witch borrow one of my pencils.

Allow me to reiterate that I am not crazy. I know it seems like all the evidence points to the contrary at the moment, but all the pieces to the puzzle have yet to show up on the board. I assure you all of this is truth…paraphrased in some spots, sure, but not exaggerated by any means. Everything I speak of can be traced through school and financial records so, anyone willing to take up the gauntlet, it has been thrown. Back on topic, all the trouble did indeed start with the borrowing of a pencil during class. At the time I was unaware that in order for a witch to cast a spell on a potential target, the witch needed a personal possession of the potential target. The more emotion that was tied to the possession, the better the spell would work. In my case, it was a KOH-I-NOOR Technigraph drafting pencil; bright red shaft, green finger plunger on the top to release the 2B lead, a stainless steel grip to tie the package together, and made in Italy to boot. This pencil was also the last gift my father gave to me before he took his fateful flight. So to say there were strong emotions tied to it was a bit of an understatement. Now, a curious and attentive reader might ask, “Didn’t you say men of Irish descent, even if only an inkling, were impervious to witches?” True, I did say that and yes we are, however I never said we were impervious to spells. I simply meant their witchly woman wiles and conjuring charm. When Eliza got ahold of my pencil, she neither realized the significance nor the power of what she held. Double Entendre. The spell she cast using the pencil was what was referred to as a master and slave spell; me being the slave. What was it like? It was like being trapped in a murky dream where every decision does not feel as though it were your own. But there was a bright side. Since Eliza was not aware of the adulated emotions I had toward my pencil, she mistook the success of the spell as a testament to her skill as a witch. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

At first, she had me doing simple tasks like her homework, laundry, cooking, etc…For all intents and purposes you could have said we were dating which is what most people thought anyway. Only, the road was one way. I was incapable of thinking at that point. I honestly wish I could tell you more about the three years I was under Eliza’s spell, but it was all an insignificant blur. At least, up until the very end. In those three years, I managed to drop out of college, get a part-time job at an amusement park selling silly light up trinkets, nearly lost my best friend, and came within a hair’s width of permanently being in the clutches of Eliza by almost signing over my soul. In order to break a master/slave spell, the item of the slave must be given back to the slave by the master. What happened was a stroke of dumb luck. During our three years together, Eliza had squandered many spells on people that either backfired or were weak at best. In her flimsy research, she found a grimoire that stated if a witch took the soul of another, her spell casting effectiveness would increase ten-fold…When I reflect back on it, it sounds like something she read out of a video game manual and for all I know, that could have been the case. Taking the soul of another seems like it should be an arduous process, but after doing my own research I discovered it is nothing more than a few incantations and signing on a line drawn with the blood of baby albatross. Nothing to it. I remember when Eliza said sign on the line of baby albatross blood, looking for something to write with and seeing my drafting pencil blazing through the murkiness in my brain as it sat perched in a dusty cup; bathed in the golden shoestring rays of the early morning sun on the window sill of her dorm room.

“Hey,” I said as I walked over and snatched my pencil out of the dusty cup. “I’ve been looking for this. Are you done with it?”

“Yeah. Sure. Fine. Whatever,” Eliza replied impatiently as she continued refused to look up from the grimoire she read from.

The best way I can describe the jolt I felt when I regained ownership of my beloved pencil and was consequently released from the grip of the spell I had been under for three dark years is like this: imagine having a rubber band that was stretched the distance travelled in three years being released and snapping against the back of your neck within seconds. In two words: unpleasantly shocking. After all the realizations hit, I did the only thing that made sense at the time and moved back to Mucksville; jobless, penniless, and on the border of becoming the next poster child for mental health month. But as I said, I’m not crazy. Never have been and don’t plan on being. My mother, bless her soul, forgave her prodigal son and allowed me to live at home again. And with all the damage Eliza did to my once promising life, you would think she would have the common decency to move on, but unfortunately evil has a way of turning up again and again. Aside from my mother, there was one other who was there to help pick up the pieces of this poached humpty dumpty.

“Sooooo,” J said dramatically, “you were under the spell of a witch for the past three years because of a graphing pencil—which by the way is a really nice pencil—your father gave you before he died?”

“I know how it sounds,” I said automatically on the defensive. “But I’m not crazy.”

J was the only one I could confide in about this whole witch business without worrying about whether or not I was going to get the men in white called on me.

“Never said you were. The crazy part is you and I went to high school with a witch and I didn’t know about it.”

“Eliza Radcliffe?” I offered.

“She really was a witch?” J’s eyes sparked with recognition and a sprinkle of thoughtfulness. “I thought people were just being mean when they said that.”

“For all we know, they probably thought they were just being mean too, but she is a bona fide witch. Not a very good one either.”

J rolled the last statement around in his head then asked, “not very good in the sense of moral alignment or skill?”

“Both.”

“Ah. Hm. Well, stranger things I guess.”

That was J for you. He took everything with simplicity. I was never much for religion but if J were a Rabbi, I wouldn’t mind attending his synagogue. In a way, J was a substitute for the wisdom my father would have bestowed on me had my father been around.

III

            Jesus. I nearly forgot to talk about the sinkhole. The sinkhole comes nine years after Eliza the witch. Nine years of odd jobs, odd people, odd lots, and lots of odd. The house my mother bought when we moved back to Mucksville had a couple of acre of woods that J and I duly dubbed the couple acre wood. The name had a bit of a double meaning because the acronym for couple acre wood is CAW which was all that could be heard when walking through the woods due to the overpopulation of crows. It was also in the couple acre wood that J and I stumbled on an out of place sinkhole that lit the fuse to this Roman candle fairytale.

After I had fully recovered from the curse of the witch, J and I made a habit of traversing the couple acre wood—and sometimes ending up a couple of acres into someone else’s woods—which was comprised of dead or dying congregations of trees with arthritic joints. One day, after a few drinks, we stumbled through the woods and found a hole in the ground where it appeared a tree had been inexplicably uprooted and taken from the woods. Most of the trees surrounding the sinkhole were anywhere from 10-15 feet tall, so it only stood to reason that the tree which once occupied the hole was of similar stature. Yet, there were no tell-tale signs of the tree being removed; no broken branches, drag marks, or remnants of any roots. It reminded me of…well…me. J and I came to the conclusion that the tree was not uprooted, but, rather, swallowed whole by the earth itself thus, the sinkhole.

To test this theory, we took a 40 pound dumbbell weight, tied a 200 foot nylon rope to it, and threw it in the sinkhole. Every five feet I had tied a knot so we could gauge just how deep the rabbity sinkhole went. Slowly and most assuredly the dumbbell was swallowed up by the earth and the rope tugged along with it. Luckily, I had brought plenty of booze so; J and I sat and drained the stout bottle of rye. Each time a knot disappeared into the sinkhole, one of us would notch the tree we were leaning against to keep visual track of the depth. Four eyes are better than two, but with as much as we had to drink, we had the sight of about one and a half near-sighted eyes. I was at least 85% sure we had put the correct number of notches in the tree. Although, I’m also fairly certain J put a couple of extra notches just so he could turn up the blarney when he got to re-tell the story later. Either way, the train of rope had seemed to pull into its station after 13 knots or 65 feet deep…give or take. Neither J nor myself were sure if the dumbbell had reached the bottom of the sinkhole or if the weight was not heavy enough to carry it past a potential layer of sediment. The end result was not as satisfying as I had hoped so with wobbly legs and a singsong “whoa oh ho,” I hauled the weight back out of the sinkhole…only, what came up was most certainly not what I had put down. Even Issac Newton would have been baffled by this conundrum.

Instead of pulling out the 40 pound dumbbell, a glass drinking cup slurped out of the flabby stomach of loose mud; the rope coiled around it like the tongue of a chameleon. The glass wasn’t any run of the mill drinking glass either. Somehow, some way, it was the exact same glass I used many a times against a wall in order to listen to my parents arguing. How did I know it was the same one? Because I had carved my initial into the bottom of the glass with a diamond-tipped drill bit when I was nine and those same shaky initials stared me down like a gunslinger: C.O.S.

I must have had a look on my face that was somewhere between shitting my pants and already having defecated in them, because J was quick on the draw with the quip, “you look like you need to wipe.”

I snapped out of my daze momentarily mutter, “This is my cup.”

“I wasn’t going to fight you for it,” J replied quizzically.

“No,” I said shakily. “You don’t understand. This is MY cup.”

“Well, yeah, I think I do understand. You found the cup. It is yours. Plant your flag, sir, and pillage thy booty. I’d wash it before you drink out of it though. No telling what could be swarming around in that mud.”

I tried to recompose myself, but was too awe struck by the inconceivability of a cup that had supposedly disappeared 12 years ago, reappearing in a sinkhole of all places.

“J,” I said after a few more moments of reflective silence, “this cup shouldn’t be here.”

“That’s obvious. It should be in a cupboard somewhere with all of its brother and sister cups…You think cups can be categorized into sexes and relations?”

“Well,” I replied in thoughtful earnest as I momentarily considered the notion then re-railed my train of thought and blurted out, “NO!”

“Take it easy. No need to get excited. It was just a theoretical question. And a bad theory at that.”

“No,” I said shaking the dingleberry thought from my brain and flipping the bottom of the cup around so J could see the C.O.S. “Listen, this cup disappeared almost 12 years ago. Shortly before I moved here actually. I thought it had been lost in the move, but here it is and there is no plausible or possible reason why it is here.”

“That would make a pretty sweet story idea,” J snorted. “Are you writing a story? Arranged all this, did ya? That way when you write the ‘true’ account you can use me as a corroborating witness thus, making the story more believable? Clever. I like it.”

“What?” I said confusedly. “No, I’m not writing a story. I’m saying…well, I already said it.”

The dead or dying trees of the couple acre wood all seemed to turn and twist their gnarled and arthritic limbs toward J and I as though listening intently to our conversation. Even the CAWS of the crows quieted down. I’d like to say it was a trick of the light mixed with a fleeting breeze mixed with the booze, but it was an overcast day with no wind and after seeing that glass, I was as sober as my mother who affirms she has never had a drop of alcohol in her life. Poor woman.

“That is strange,” J said after a moment.

I could only think one thing. “The witch,” I replied quietly.

“Which witch?”

THE witch.”

“Oh,” J replied with an elongated O sound that resembled the shifting tone of a slide whistle, “THAT witch. You think she had something to do with this?”

I took a moment to consider the timeline of events and the fact that she never knew about the glass then concluded, “No. But she might know something about how or why it would be here.”

“You think that is wise? I mean, she did try to steal your soul.”

“When you’re right,” I shrugged, “you’re right. But do you have any better or safer options or know another witch?”

J receded into his thoughts as did I then we looked at each other as though someone had simultaneously flipped on both our idea bulbs.

“Where’s the adventure in that?” We harmonized.

Helheim of Atlantis – A Novel by Ryan Stahl (Excerpt Only)

Prologue

The River Oceanus

777 B.C.

The tiny boat was manned by a crew of five. Four of them tended to the menial tasks of securing lines, sails, etcetera, while the fifth kept the boat on course and protected their preciously dangerous cargo. There were two skies on that night as the stars reflected with a mirrored perfection on the still waters of the River Oceanus. The wake of destruction, however, could still be seen for miles as flames clawed at the sky from the continent of Atlantis. The fifth man on the boat—whom the other four had not spoken of or to since they escaped the great inferno—watched the horizon with a wildness oft seen in that of a rabbit being chased by a pack of hungry wolves. The man donned a well-trimmed gray beard though his eyes suggested an age far beyond the grayness.

One of the four crewmen worked up the courage to speak to the man and said in the humblest of voices, “Sir, it will not be long before they begin their pursuit, if they have not done so already.” The crewman paused and turned to the other three as if to draw from a collective courage pool then continued, “We want to thank you for saving us back there. I suspect we are the only ones from our village left alive.”

The man turned at a three-quarters angle to the crewman and smiled a smile that seemed to channel warmth from the blazes of Atlantis and replied, “Please, call me Tyche. It always was my favorite name.”

Tyche hovered around a chest carved from the native stone of Atlantis. The other four crewmen passingly wondered what the chest contained, but were too indisposed with the idea that they had survived the unspeakable tragedy that had befallen their homeland to ask Tyche of its contents. The stone obelisk, also carved from the native stone, that had been brought along at Tyche’s request was more than familiar to the crewmen. They had been land markers that were placed all throughout the six rings of Atlantis which contained stories of the distant past when the old ones covered the world in darkness and chaos. The obelisks served as both a reminder of the inexplicable horrors that once were and a warning of what could forever be.

One of the crewmen noticed something peculiar about Tyche: He looked completely different than most of the people that lived in Atlantis. There were several reasons why it took the curious crewman this long to notice such obvious differences, lack of observations notwithstanding. The four crewmen were from a village within the populous—or second ring as it was referred to sometimes—of Atlantis whose people were known as the LaGrasse. Tyche’s skin was pale and lacked the color and texture that most of the LaGrasse people were known for. What stuck out the most, in the crewman’s mind, was Tyche’s eyes. They were gray, like his beard, but somehow surrounded by white instead of the traditional colors of the LaGrasse. The crewman kept darting quizzical looks from Tyche to the planks of the boat’s deck and back until Tyche finally caught the crewman’s eye.

“I must look strange to you, no?” Tyche said with an understanding smile.

The crewman shook his head with an embarrassed negation.

“It’s ok,” Tyche continued. “I am actually a LaGrasse, just like you…only from a many, many years ago.”

“So the stories are true then?” Another crewman spoke up.

Tyche only smiled and went back to watching the horizon as they sailed ever northward with the wind and flames of a burning civilization at their backs. The five men sailed on in relative silence for hours. Even at the distance they traversed, smoke could still be seen clotting the sky from Atlantis.

“Where are we going?” The third and yet unspoken crewman asked Tyche.

“Somewhere to hopefully rid this world of what we carry on this boat.”

The crewman wondered why they had not left the cargo in Atlantis to burn with the rest of its secrets, but soon dismissed the thought as being discourteous to the man who had saved his life and the lives of his three brethren. Tyche took a seat beside the stone chest and touched his hand to its lid. The stone from which it was carved was a dark green, but the warmth of Tyche’s hand caused it to glow ever so slightly around the shape of his hand. The four crewman were not fazed by this and seem to barely notice.

The riptide hours slipped into a current of days, then weeks, and, soon enough, two months were counted off before the five travellers made landfall again. Tyche had guided the boat to a gallbladder shaped patch of land in territory far to the north that the crewmen had neither heard of nor dreamt existed. For all the crewmen knew, they had sailed to a distant star. The ground was covered in a cold, white powder and hard as rock which were both foreign sensations to the four exiles of Atlantis. They offloaded the boat as Tyche clutched to the stone chest like a dying breath. He eventually found a place to settle and carefully unbound the metal clasps that held the lid shut. From it, he withdrew a large, pale bound book that had caught the attention and entranced the crewmen. Two months on the River Oceanus and not a word whispered about the contents of the chest and now its secret unraveled before their marveling eyes.

“Please,” Tyche said cautiously, “let us focus on the task at hand. Our time is limited.”

Under Tyche’s direction, the crewmen carried the obelisk to a designated spot on the island and sat it upside down in the mud so the point of the obelisk was jammed into the hardened ground. The curious crewman, who had noticed the subtle differences in Tyche’s appearance, became undeniably aware of how much shorter Tyche was from the rest of them. In comparison, the four crewmen were, at the very least, a head and a half taller than the obelisk where as Tyche’s head barely broke even with its height. The curious crewman felt ashamed for not realizing this sooner, especially after being on the same boat for two months.

Once the obelisk was steadied, the four crewman backed away and Tyche began reading from the pale bound book. The words were blasphemous to the ears of the crewmen. They stood in awe and shock as Tyche drummed the words off his tongue with a feverous excitement. The obelisk started to glow and pulsate to the phonetic highs and lows of the spoken words. The crewmen edged back even further and wanted to bury themselves in the ground, but resisted the urge to do so. In the space of a heartbeat, the obelisk plunged into the earth and disappeared like a knife blade into unwelcoming flesh. The four crewmen rushed to the edge of the newly formed hole in the earth and watched as the glowing stone disappeared into the earth at an unfathomable speed. The crewmen were so amazed by this feat that they had failed to notice Tyche had stopped talking and slipped around behind them.

The earth trembled and the hole in the ground began to crumble in on itself, widening its circumference. Before the other three crewmen had time to react or help, the most curious of the lot quite literally had the earth yanked out from under him and was swallowed by the groaning pit. Seconds later, two more of the crewmen tumbled in, but this time it was by a great heaving push which came from Tyche. The last remaining crewman turned and looked just as Tyche leapt and sunk a jagged stone blade into his chest. The earth was still rumbling as the crewman toppled inches from the mouth of the pit.

“Why?” the crewman sputtered between labored gasps.

Tyche gazed into the crewman’s eyes with an almost apologetic smile and said, “I am ensuring that the most dangerous secret of this world stays just that…a secret.”

The green and red eyes of the crewman lolled in their sockets as Tyche withdrew the blade and rolled the body into the trembling, hungry hole in the earth. He then said a few more words from the book, replaced it in the stoned chest, and hurriedly dumped the entire package into the hellishly deep pit. Tyche began to make his way back to the boat then noticed he was still clutching the jagged stone knife. He rushed back to the edge of the hole and sunk the blade into the mud.

Months later…

A pale, battered cord of a man sporting a patchwork duster coat approached the edge of the pit with a slow burning rage in his walk. He noticed the jagged stone knife sticking out of the ground and withdrew it, holding it above his head and examining it. Even in brightness of the day, the jagged blade glowed green in the warmth of the midday sun. The cord of a man smiled and revealed two pointy teeth which also glowed green.

“We will meet soon enough, old man,” He said as he tucked the knife into his duster and leisurely strolled away from the pit.

 

I

Oak Island, near Nova Scotia

July 20th, 2010

“Oak Island has been the site for many treasure hunters and pirate lore fans since its discovery in 1856,” the female news reporter cheerfully relayed from her cue card. “The treasure that lies hidden beneath multiple layers of booby traps is said to be that of the most feared pirate to have sailed the seven seas, Captain Blackbeard. Blackbeard was once quoted as saying, ‘I buried me treasure so deep that the devil himself guards it.’ Now, after nearly two centuries of failed attempts to recover the treasure, a rag-tag team of treasure hunters are optimistic that they, with the aid of their research vessel the Vardøger, have what it takes to outwit the devil and Captain Blackbeard.”

Drasil chuckled to himself as he switched off the newscast on the television in the galley of the Vardøger. He ascended the spiral staircase to the wheelhouse to do his morning rounds.

“Good morning Captain!” A lightly peppered Russian voice called.

“Morning, Nikola,” Drasil replied. “How are things looking for—“

A jittery noise in the corner grabbed Drasil’s attention away from his original thought. “What is that thing?!” He protested.

“Do not offend. This is Thor, my gerbil. He is my co-pilot,” Nikola smiled with a guilty shrug.

“It’s not going to…I don’t know…give us the plague or something equally as terrible, is it?” Drasil said as he looked into the cage and poked his finger at the spaghetti blond gerbil.

“Thor is very clean. Look at his face, you make him sad,” Nikola joked.

“Keep him away from the dinner table. He is still a rodent in my book,” Drasil replied with a wry smile.

“Do not listen to this mean man Thor,” Nikola said over his shoulder. “To answer your question, preparations for today are almost complete. A Low Key company relay ship is on its way to offload 1,124 tons and drop off 250 tons worth of junk leaving us with approximately 874 tons to play with.”

“Sounds delightful,” Drasil scoffed. “Do me a favor and go down to the cargo bay. Make sure all of our less than legal hatches are secured. Just in case.”

“Alright, Thor, keep an eye on the Captain. Make sure he doesn’t break anything,” Nikola said as he tipped his brown cabby hat at Drasil then disappeared down the galley staircase.

Drasil moved over the ship’s wheel and stared out over main deck. The outer cargo bay doors were closed at his request. He didn’t want any wandering eyes or bodies and shut the ship up tight as a preventative measure for the duration of the exposé reporters were running on the Vardøger.

“Captain?” a voice crackled over the shortwave radio.

Drasil stared at the receiver with a disdained interest.

“Captain? Are you up there?” the voice called again. “Okay, well, we figured out a way to reverse the polarity and­­—“

Drasil snatched the receiver and growled into the receiver with a quiet discontent, “And had I not been up here do you think it would have been the best use of your breath to announce whatever it was you were about to announce into thin air?”

The prolonged silence that followed made Drasil’s ego smirk with satisfaction.

“Tom?” Drasil finally said. “You still with me or did I lose you somewhere between all those hard to pronounce words?”

“A hypocrite and a prick,” Tom’s voice statically rang. “You must be the battle-hardened, cookie-cutter badass of this lovely sea-faring epic?”

“Love you too Tom,” Drasil said flatly. “Now, what does my dorky, yet somehow unusually lucky, brother need of his badass captain?”

“Right. You might just want to come down here Drasil. We are almost ready to go,” Tom answered.

“Alright, I’m on my way,” Drasil said as he hung up the receiver.

Drasil was Tom’s thirty-six year old brother and boss. Oddly, there weren’t that many sibling feuds between them given the boss/brother gray area and the fact that Tom was eight years older than Drasil.  Their entire family had been sea-faring folk for as long back as history could trace. Tom and Drasil’s father used to joke that the wood from their family tree was used as a mast on some great, heavenly ship. This was, of course, after many shots of spiced rum. The two brothers were brought up to be hard workers albeit in different areas of expertise. Drasil went the path of his ancestors and remained on the sea while Tom pursued his master’s degree in physics at Miskatonic University.

As Drasil turned to exit, his nose came tip to tip with the nose of an unconventionally attractive woman in her early thirties who was glaring at Drasil with caramel brown eyes.

“Alba?” Drasil said barely moving his lips.

“We need to talk,” Alba said. “And don’t call me Alba. I hate that name.”

“Aw, come on. It’s so cute,” Drasil squeaked antagonistically. “Besides, we have work to do. No time to talk.” Drasil began to sidestep Alba.

“Now, Drasil,” Alba growled as she intercepted Drasil’s sidestep.

“Now is not the time, darling,’” Drasil smiled with a twinkle of annoyance in his eyes. “And if you ever bark orders at me on my boat again, we are going to have more than a few unkind words.”

“Wow. Tom was right. You’re a hypocrite and a prick,” Alba scoffed as she turned and trotted down the galley steps.

“He also said I was a badass,” Drasil called with an amused tone.

“No, you are just an ass,” Alba’s voice faintly echoed up the stairs.

“I heard that,” Drasil said with a satisfied chuckle.

Drasil stood for a few more moments while scanning a oceanographic chart with index finger.

“Captain?” An unfamiliar voice called from behind Drasil.

“Someone is always calling my name—“ Drasil muttered under his breath as he turned to face the voice, “What? Oh, hello.”

Drasil changed his tone from cranky to charming at the site of the petite but full-breasted frame of a light skinned blond that had a press pass hanging between her delightful bosoms.

“I was wondering if I could ask you some questions?” The little blond squeaked.

“Haven’t I seen you somewhere before? “ Drasil asked knowing full well he, in fact, had not.

“Probably. I am a reporter for the Channel 3 news. I just do field reporting mostly. For the surrounding islands and what not,” The blond explained innocently.

“Of course! Well, my services are at your disposal. Walk with me,” Drasil offered  the direction towards the Galley steps with a curt hand.

“How long have you been Captain of the Vardøger?” The blond called behind her as Drasil held her hand to help her down the galley’s spiral staircase.

“Seven years,” Drasil replied.

“And you have had the same crew for the duration of those seven years?” The blond asked as she jotted down notes on a flip out notepad.

“Thankfully, yes,” Drasil responded as he held the door to the galley open for the reporter.

“So I take it the crew’s dynamic together is pretty good?”

“As good as seven years worth of blood, sweat, and sea water can get.”

“Is it odd having only one female crew member and how does that affect the relationships between other crew members?” The reporter asked as she looked shyly at Drasil.

“Are you trying to ask me out on a date?” Drasil teased.

“Wha—No, I was just—” The blond blushed.

“You little minx,” Drasil smiled. “I’m just kidding with you. We are one big happy family on this boat. No complaints to report, gender based or otherwise.”

“Oh, oh ok,” The blond shook her head as if to shake loose a journalistic dingleberry. “Your corporate sponsor is Low Key Incorporated, is that correct?”

“Yes it is,” Drasil replied as they slowly made their way down the outside staircase to the main deck.

“Now, you do research and cargo transport for Low Key but you have also been known to take on independent contracts yet there is no information on the specifics of those contracts. Care to comment on the rumor that you take on smuggling jobs as part of those independent jobs?”

“No,” Drasil said without changing his swaggering tone.

“Why have you never advertised your services on the internet?” The reporter asked in desperation.

“We are not the type to advertise our business. Internet or otherwise,” Drasil said as he began to outpace the little voluptuous blond. “You’ll have to excuse me.”

Tom stood waiting halfway down the main deck. Tom was nearly an inch taller than Drasil pushing the limits of 6’2”. Drasil and Tom both had full heads of Auburn hair courtesy of their mother’s father however; Tom’s hair was, of late, becoming infested with patches of gray around his ears. Tom wore a pair of small round spectacles that always reminded Drasil of the type of glasses a mad scientist would wear. Often times, Tom could be found wearing black waders and an old lab coat, which just intensified his mad scientist image. If it were not for his brown eyes, Tom could pass as a clone of his father. Drasil was blessed with the mysterious grey eyes of their father that looked like storm clouds about to burst forth a fury of lightning.

“What was Alba all in a fuss about?” Tom questioned as they walked toward a waiting shore boat.

“I’m sure I’ll find out later,” Drasil smiled dryly.

“You always were the caring type,” Tom said.

“Oh, what? You have a complaint now too?” Drasil replied.

“No,” Tom smiled. “Just a concern.”

“Well I have a complaint!” growled a husky, six-foot tall, red-bearded gorilla of a man standing at the bow of the shore boat.

“You always have a complaint,” Drasil said to the Grizzly Adams clone.

“Alba chopped off his balls,” Tom nodded his head in the general direction of Drasil’s crotch.

The large man looked at Drasil with a grimacing concern as Tom and Drasil positioned themselves in the shore boat.

“She did seem a mite fired up when she left a few minutes ago. Maybe she just needs a good, hard—“ The red-bearded gorilla began.

“Ogre?” Drasil inquired openly.

“Yes, Captain?” Ogre replied.

“Kindly put us in the water now,” He said with a tinge of annoyance. “And don’t break anything while we are gone.”

“I see he wears panties now that his balls are gone and they seem to be in a bunch today,” Ogre said as he lowered the boat eight feet down the port side of the Vardøger to the water’s surface.

“I’m not liking all these reporters poking about,” Drasil eyed Tom cautiously.

“All we can do is hope for the best,” Tom replied addressing the unspoken issue. “Nikola and Ogre can keep a handle on things for a while. Quit worrying.”

The ride into Oak Island was approximately two nautical miles from the anchored windward position of the Vardøger. The ride was long enough for Drasil’s mind to start envisioning worst-case scenarios and escape plans for those scenarios. Prepare for the worst even in the face of skepticism.

Many people had heard the news of Drasil’s proposal to convert his father’s cargo ship into a research vessel after his father died ten years ago. Several corporate sponsors and three years later, the Vardøger was launched from its berth.

One corporation, Low Key Incorporated, took an uncanny interest in Drasil’s proposed modifications and funded over 85% of the total cost for the project which worked out to nearly 1.5 million dollars. Not only did the funding give the cargo ship a scientific makeover but it also helped Drasil learn that empty spaces on his ship can come in handy as long as the authorities didn’t know about them.

Drasil knew that smuggling was the quickest way to repay loans and earn a profit. He also knew that he needed an honest front to throw off any curious authorities. The cargo to research vessel transformation was feasibly tricky. Drasil had included a non-negotiable clause in his contract with Low Key, Inc. that he would be permitted to assemble both the renovation and ship’s crew. That was the feasible part.

The tricky part was calling in favors owed to Drasil from less than reputable associates for the renovations and convincing the only four people under the heavens he trusted, to sail into potential danger with him. Drasil was very particular about trusting people based on lessons learned the hard way. As taught by his father, Drasil wanted to give and receive trust and respect amongst his crew. He felt fear was a foreshadowing of failure and should only be used on an enemy. This is why before any of his intended crewmembers agreed to join, Drasil made them openly aware of the fact that both honest and dishonest jobs alike would be considered depending on the profit and plausibility of the job. Drasil also informed his intended crewmembers that there would be no hard feelings if they said ‘no’ to his proposal. They were the only people he trusted not to go running to the lawmen after hearing his intended plan. All he asked was a little trust that he would never put any of their lives in danger needlessly. Drasil was raised in a close-knit family and felt that a good crew should mirror that knit.

Tom was onboard without hesitation. Having a PhD in physics from Miskatonic University had landed him a lab job. Tom had turned out to be a less than successful family man and had no paternal obligations after his divorce so his schedule was pretty much open. Tom never preferred the open sea to land despite his nautical upbringing but was a fish to water, so to speak, as soon as his feet hit the deck of the Vardøger.

Nikola was the second crewmember to join almost immediately. He had one condition to Drasil’s proposal: He wanted his room to be in the wheelhouse. As there was plenty of room for a small cot in the wheelhouse, Drasil had no objections. Nikola was born in Russia, raised as a Russian but considered his home to be at the wheel of a worthy ship. This was a large contributory factor as to how Drasil, Tom, and Nikola all became friends. They grew up together albeit on different ships and usually thousands of miles apart for months at a time. They felt that knowing someone was not so much about time spent together as it was about trustworthiness of character. The only difference they agreed to disagree on was their methods of problem solving. Drasil and Tom were not the type to fix something that was not broke whereas Nikola was methodically mathematical about solving life’s little riddles. Nikola spent endless hours during his youth studying and memorizing schematics for all manner of naval vessels. Lost in the chaotic jungles of numbers, Nikola felt at home. It was a centering mantra for him when the outside world became too much to deal with. He put off most people that met him. He was handsome enough but he would often times get in ‘moods.’ Nikola had the brain of Einstein but the social skills of a piece of sandpaper. Drasil simply recognized that even perfection has bi-products.

Ogre was a dishonest traveling drunkard whose name matched his general demeanor and appearance. Eight years ago Drasil had gotten into a drunken debate with Ogre about who should have the last cashew in the nut bowl at a bar in South Boston.  Ogre, not knowing Drasil, felt that the cashew should be his. Things got heated and eventually resulted in punches being thrown, teeth being cracked, and ribs getting bruised because Drasil refused, in his drunken reasoning, to be pushed around by someone who didn’t have to wear a fake beard at Christmas. The fight was pretty one-sided until Drasil got lucky and smashed a half empty keg of beer over Ogre’s head, ending the fight instantaneously. Ogre was so impressed by Drasil’s keg smash that when he came to, he offered Drasil his services, when need be, which included ship engine maintenance, cooking, and smashing teeth if necessary. As Drasil reached for Ogre’s hand as a sign of truce, Ogre drew back with his free hand and tried to get in one last sucker punch. Living by an old rule that a dishonest person can always be trusted to be dishonest, Drasil was on guard enough to block the incoming punch and jabbed a pool cue into Ogre’s groin. Ever since that encounter, Ogre was always eager to work with Drasil and was on board before Drasil could finish his speech about personal danger.

Alba took a bit more finessing to convince. Alba hated the name Alba and could be heard randomly screaming at one of the other crew all of whom were steadfast in their decision to call her Alba. It was not the fact that Alba was not her real name that bothered her. It was the embarrassing story attached to the name that caused a prick in her paw every time someone casually said, ‘Hi, Alba.’

It was Nikola who coined the nickname Alba at one of the first dinners aboard the Vardøger. Alba never asked Nikola why he called her that and vainly assumed it was because he thought she looked like the actress Jessica Alba based on the way he always raised his eyebrows when he said Alba. At the time, she did not know Nikola was prone to facial twitches. After a few nights of Nikola using the name Alba, Drasil got curious and pulled him aside to ask why he kept calling her that name. The next morning, the entire crew had converted to the name Alba. Alba, being of a sensitive nature but smart enough to sense collusion, finally asked what was up with the name Alba. Nikola, through uncontrollable gut wrenching laughter, told her he had no idea who Jessica Alba was and thought she knew he was referring to the Albatross from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Formerly a sign of good fortune, some jackass killed it then had to wear it as penance. So the story goes. Nikola was raised with an ancient mariner attitude and felt that women onboard a ship, especially during its launch from its berth, were bad luck. The name Alba was Alba’s personal albatross that hung heavy around her neck along with her personal history with Drasil. Drasil met Alba under nefarious circumstances during an Eco-rally hosted by Miskatonic University in 1998. At the time, Eco-maniacs were passively protesting cargo ships such as the future Vardøger with flyers and petitions. Alba was finishing her first degree in Marine Biology and helped organize the Eco-rally by adding important issues to the flyers such as illegal cargo transport, i.e., smuggling. It was the small ironies in life that warmed the deepest cockles of Drasil’s scoundrel heart.

During the demonstration, a fellow sea merchant 20 years Drasil’s senior, got irritated by some of the protestors and threw an ice cream sandwich which consequently bounced off of Alba’s head. Drasil stood nearby and watched the situation unfold with an observed interest. Without a word, Drasil sauntered over to the assaulting merchant with an approving swagger and an outstretched hand. As the merchant moved in to accept the handshake, Drasil sucker punched him with a southpaw haymaker. The punch connected with such a driving force into the eye of the 220 pound man that his head bounced off the telephone pole he was leaning against. Drasil, having the image and ding of a fight bell stuck in his head, almost forgot to assume a defensive stance in case of retaliatory action while trying to stifle a chuckle. A schoolyard fight circle formed around Drasil, the merchant, and the telephone pole with the few quick shuffles of feet and a chorus of muffled ‘oh, my gods.’ The merchant fell to one knee and staggered to brace himself against the telephone pole. Alba stood frozen in half horror half delight at the violence and taste of ice cream in her mouth. Drasil put down his guard and cautiously approached the merchant.

“You alright?” Drasil said as he offered a hand.

“Guess that was a pretty dumb thing to be doing at my age, eh?” The old merchant chuckled.

“No dumber than what I just did to you.” Drasil smirked as he helped the sea merchant to his feet.

“Your father’s a good man,” The sea merchant said while dabbing the blood away from his eyebrow. “You’re not turning out so bad yourself.”

“Thanks. On both accounts,” Drasil smiled and met the merchant’s eyes.

“Would you mind doing me a favor? I’m a bit embarrassed and was wondering if you might apologize to that young lady for me. Judging by the way she’s been undressing you with her eyes, I’d venture a guess she’d rather hear it from you anyway,” The merchant winked at Drasil and clapped him on the back then disappeared into crowd.

Drasil was confident about his looks. He was an average Joe Smo at his worst and handsome at best. His real weapon of choice, when talking about tracking a mate or a temporary mate of carnal affections, was his swaggering charm. He loved to fight and fought for what he loved. He also knew that, despite how much women complain that they ‘just want to find a nice guy,’ it is the bad boy who has the most fun. He had been in enough trouble not to look like an idiot and had a justified tale of wit for each of his 12 public offenses. Drasil approached the eco-rally’s foldable table with a faint smile and a solid stare at Alba who was darting looks between Drasil and a group of papers on the table.

“Sorry about that,” Drasil said as he met Alba’s eyes. “On both accounts.”

“Such a gentleman. Tell me, does that bad boy, alpha male bullshit get all your other girlfriends wet?” Alba scoffed.

“Only after I get them too drunk to know better,” Drasil replied matching Alba’s sarcasm.

Alba stood with her mouth slightly ajar.

“Such a charmer. Straight to business, skip the pleasantries. Kinky. That is what a real woman like me needs,” Alba batted her eyes. “Jerk.”

“Hey, no need to jump to conclusions. I just came over to apologize for the other guy because he was too embarrassed. I’m sorry you took that as me coming onto you. I was just trying to be civil,” Drasil turned around and began to walk away.

“Wait, wait. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude,” Alba called after with sincerity.

The corners of Drasil’s lips curled into a smirk.

“Yes you did,” Drasil said as he turned around straight-faced. “But, it’s okay. You were right. I was just using the apology as an excuse to come over and ask if you wanted to have dinner or a drink later.”

Alba grinned up at Drasil with a won over gleam, “You are going to be trouble aren’t you?”

“As much as you can handle, darling,’” Drasil returned the smile. “Be back at 7? Will that work for you?”

“You don’t even know my name!” Alba said incredulously.

“You can tell me if you decide to go out with me. How’s that sound?” Drasil reasoned. “That way if you decide to skip out before 7, you won’t have to worry about whether or not I know your name.”

“Why would I worry if you knew my name? Are you a killer?” Alba joked.

“No. But I figured if you decided to stand me up, it would be less embarrassing for me and less uncomfortable for you. See you at 7. Maybe,” Drasil smiled and left.

At 7’oclock the crowds had died out and the sunlight began to fade. Alba finished packing up her papers and paused briefly to look around expectantly.

“So did you decide?” Drasil said from the infamous telephone pole.

“I’m still here aren’t I?” Alba replied.

“I meant on food or drinks,” Drasil said with a smirk.

“Well, what if I want both?” Alba smirked back.

“You’re bad,” Drasil shook his finger.

After that night, Drasil and Alba were as inseparable as the seas would allow. Alba finished out her degree in Marine Biology at Miskatonic U and acquired a job at a sea life reservation in Boston. Drasil always made it a point to convince his father to take cargo shipments that passed near or around Boston. Drasil and Alba’s relationship, if described briefly, was one hot mess. When they were physically together, they could not keep their eyes, hands, and other unmentionable appendages off of each other. It was the weeks apart that drove them to pointless arguments and empty threats regarding their relationship. When Drasil took over the family business when his father died in 2000, it became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. He worked so much that in two months he saw Alba once. Two months after that, Drasil pretty much disappeared. The accumulation of missed dates and broken phone conversations prompted Alba to say the four words that Drasil knew to be the herald of relational tragedy: “We-Need-To-Talk.”

Alba stayed at the sea life conservatory in Boston while Drasil poured all his energies into the renovation of the Vardøger.

Alba was the last person Drasil wanted to proposition about being on his crew. He knew he could trust her. He was just not positive as to whether emotions would rule the boss/co-worker relationship given their past history together. She was the best in her field and was looking to do some research of her own based on her articles published by National Geographic. Drasil now appreciated what it was to be stuck between a rock and a place of unforgiving hardness. The bottom line was she would be an asset to the crew either way and it was that rationale that helped Drasil make a trip to see Alba.

“You are out of your mind!” Alba protested after listening to Drasil’s proposed plan over an uncomfortable reunion dinner.

“Thanks for your honesty,” Drasil replied. “But you know I’m not crazy…well, not completely and I need you on my crew. I’ve been open and honest with the pros and cons as they apply to you. Now, give me an answer.”

“What is wrong with you?!” Alba scolded. “You can’t just decide something like that over dinner! This is a life altering decision.”

“How?” Drasil playfully jested. “You are going on an extended cruise with a the possibility for more fun than any other boat could offer.”

“I don’t call the possibility of death or life in prison fun.” Alba retorted.

“There is danger in every job and I don’t aim to land anyone in prison. Besides, you work with wild animals. I’d say there is a pretty significant chance of death involved in that. How is this any different?” Drasil persuaded. “Plus, you get complete control of the research front. You order the equipment, maintain the upkeep, and continue your studies. The rest of us will be the dirty workers.”

“Now I know you’ve lost it,” Alba said in between chews.

“Come on darlin.’ Don’t be like that,” Drasil antagonized.

“Don’t call me darlin.’ I hated it when we together and it is twice as bad now,”  Alba said as she rolled her eyes disapprovingly.

“I’ve got a few other choice names I could call you. As I recall you were quite fond of a couple of them,” Drasil grinned.

“Shut up!” Alba said incredulously.

“Look, I know it’s a lot to ask. Will you at least promise me that you will give me a definite answer within the next couple of days? Please?” Drasil asked with dignity.

“Okay,” Alba agreed.

“Okay, you’ll do it?” Drasil said with bright eyes. “That’s great!.”

“What? No. I’ll think about it,” Alba looked at him with disapproving eyes.

“It was worth a shot,” Drasil shrugged.

Alba and Drasil said their goodbyes outside of the restaurant and began to go their separate ways.

“Drasil?” Alba called. “What about us?”

“I made it a point not to make a fuss about that subject at dinner. You can be assured of the same ‘no undue fussing’ policy if you accept my offer,” Drasil replied.

“And what happens if we change our minds?” Alba persisted.

“Every job has its dangers darling,’” Drasil waved goodbye one last time and made his way to his rental car.

The next morning Drasil awoke to the clanging ringer of the old rotary telephone on the night stand of his motel room.

“What?” Drasil spoke into the receiver as he fumbled it to his mouth.

“Just promise me one thing?” Alba’s voice echoed through the receiver. “I mean if I decide to say yes.”

“Mmmkay,” Drasil said with grog in his voice.

“We can explore locations I decide on. In between other jobs I mean,” Alba said with a waver in her voice.

“Sure thing darlin,’” Drasil said still refusing to disturb his comfortable nest egg position. “Be at the docks by six tonight. I’ll introduce you around, show you the new layout, get you situated, et cetera.”

“Don’t call me darling,’” Alba growled.

Drasil rolled back over and lazily placed the receiver in its cradle.

For nearly seven years, Drasil had been sailing with his handpicked crew. They had endured all the trials and tribulations seven years at sea could muster and still managed to function well. One big happy family.

A sharp splash of water from the wake of the shore boat sliced Drasil’s cheek and brought him out of his memories.

“We’re almost there,” Tom called noticing Drasil’s attention shift.

Drasil stayed quiet and nodded in acknowledgement.

A Sleepier Hollow – Part Four (Conclusion)

“Well,” Smoke began with a defeated sigh of irritation, “for starters, he was the reason I ended up resigning from the bureau. Long story short, the bureau had just assigned him as my partner. The little prick was fresh out of the academy. No field time at all. I reviewed his transcripts and all I can say is someone’s palms had to have been greased somewhere along the way for him to make it out of the academy. It took one day of working with Agent Flemming for me to realize he was dumber than a box of rocks and lazier than a pile of sticks. I asked the upper echelons of the bureau to reassign him but they felt working with a good agent would help him improve. I tried playing nice with the kid but he thought he knew it all. We were assigned to a high-profile case that required a bit of finesse both publically and privately. He, of course, wanted to be a cowboy and go in guns blazing. We were on a stakeout one night in front of the suspect’s house. Ha, this still boils my blood. There was no reason to even approach this person’s house. We were sent to watch for any ‘unusual traffic’ then report it. As I said, finesse. Well, Flemming gets all worked up and impatient and decides he’s going to go question some people. I tell him to sit still but he bolts from the car. He wanted to be a hero or something, hell I don’t know. I end up following him out of duty more so than want. Personally, I was going to cuff his ass and put him in the trunk of the car. Before I could get to the front door, I hear a gunshot. Goes without saying, I pulled my gun and when I get up to the house, I find out that Agent Flemming has shot our suspect’s prize Siamese cat. He said he thought it was a weapon.”

“You’re yanking my chain,” Captain Hitchcock interjected disbelievingly.

“Hand on the bible, it’s true. Anyway, he is in shambles about it, afraid he’s going to lose his job and all that. So, I covered for him. Said I was the one that shot the cat. Next thing I know, that little poof is telling our boss that it was my idea to breech protocol and approach the house. Then, to compound matters further, I find out Flemming stole all of my files on the investigation and went to our boss’s boss complaining that he was doing all the work on the case and I was just shooting cats. I guess he got scared I was going to snitch on him. I got reassigned to what amounted to filing papers while wonderboy went on riding people’s coattails. The rest is history.”

“Seems history is repeating itself,” Captain Hitchcock chuckled.

“I found this in my mailbox this morning,” Smoke said as he pulled the note from his pocket and presented it to Captain Hitchcock.

“’Two is a couple, three is a crowd,’” Captain Hitchcock read aloud. “Well, whatever it means, it’s the feds problem now. I’ll be sure Agent wonderboy gets it. Now, c’mon, let’s forget this business and have a drink.”

“It’s only ten o’clock in the morning.”

“Well, you’re on leave and I’m taking a personal holiday because all of this excitement has left me,” Captain Hitchcock paused then sighed dramatically, “emotionally compromised.”

“I think I’ll pass. I’m just going to go home and get some sleep.”

Captain Hitchcock shrugged, “Suit yourself,” he said. “If you need me, you’ll know where to find me.”

Smoke had no intention of going to bed. He still needed to examine the analysis Agent Soren emailed him. Agent Flemming may have confiscated Smoke’s work computer but it would take time for him to seize the station’s email server which Smoke had access to from his apartment. Since he had yet to view the email, Smoke knew it was still neatly packed away on the email server. When he arrived at his apartment, his beliefs were confirmed and he breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of INBOX (1 unread message) winking approvingly on his computer screen. At first glance, the analysis was as Agent Soren had said: Ordinary. A closer examination revealed something peculiar to Smoke. On both bodies, there were increased levels of water in the bone fragments at the top of the neck bone. Smoke recalled his rude awakening from that morning then flipped open his phone and speed dialed Captain Hitchcock.

Before Captain Hitchcock could manage to say hello Smoke was already talking, “I know we’re off the case but hear me out,” he began. “The killer is using water to cut off the heads.”

“Come again?”

“Water. The killer is using water to cut off the heads of the victims.” Smoke said hurriedly. “It was something that went unnoticed on the analysis but it fits.”

There was a long pause before Captain Hitchcock spoke again, “Agent wonderboy is dead,” he said quietly. “Found him in his car, same M.O. as the others. Head cut off, chess piece placed on the stump, and no sign of the head anywhere. This time the killer left a note.”

Smoke was taken aback momentarily by the news. It had been less than two hours since he had left the station. The killer was a fast and efficient worker which is what scared Smoke the most. “It wasn’t me,” he said sporadically.

“What? I know that. Feeling guilty for punching him in the face or something?”

“Not really.”

“Ok, listen, the note says ‘THE PALE JOCKEY RIDES AGAIN WITH NO END TO HIS VENGEANCE. YOUR EVIDENCE IS A CAROSUEL THAT GOES AROUND AND AROUND BUT NEVER GETS YOU ANY CLOSER TO ME,’” Captain Hitchcock said with the static buzz of bad reception. “Does that mean anything to you?”

“Other than being really bad poetry?”

“Come on, Smoke. I need your input on this.”

“Okay,” Smoke thought for a moment then resumed. “Have forensics check for fingerprints on the chess piece and the note. I’d put money on it that Mr. Ken Yokohama’s fingerprints are on both. In the meantime, I need to make a trip to the hardware store.”

“You’re on leave Smoke. You can’t be working on this case.”

“That’s kind of a double standard statement, don’t you think Captain? Don’t worry, I just need some nails for a picture,” Smoke replied then closed his phone before any rebuttal could be voiced.

Smoke drove to the local hardware store where he previously commandeered a ladder. This time, the scraggly old store manager was more than happy to offer any assistance he could. Smoke did some internet research beforehand on building portable, high-pressured water systems that could pressurize water to such an extent that it was capable of cutting metals up to two and a half centimeters thick; Mr. Yokohama’s comment about the man with the backpack full of hoses and gauges had been a vague yet accurate description of such a device Smoke found in his research.

Smoke made a list of materials needed to build the device and asked the hardware store manager if he remembered any customers purchasing similar materials recently, to which the store manager replied, “son, this is a hardware store. Stuff like this is sold regularly.”

“Yes, I know,” Smoke replied. “but all at once? The man I’m looking for is a bald, white man. He’s tall, probably a fit or athletic build.”

“Now that you mention it,” the scraggly old man said, “nope, nothing.”

Smoke sighed with a frustrated huff then a light popped on in his head, “What about rock carving tools? Those aren’t commonly sold items here, is it?”

“Nope,” the old man replied. “Just one guy I know of that buys that crap.”

“You got an address for him?”

“You got a way of making a couple more of my parking tickets disappear?”

“How many tickets do you have?” Smoke asked curiously.

“37.”

With a little more haggling, Smoke obtained the address then called Captain Hitchcock again to inform him of the new light that had just been shed on the investigation. After a few scolding words, Captain Hitchcock agreed to have the address checked out. Smoke sat in his car and switched on his scanner to listen to the police chatter. It was a matter of waiting at this point. Smoke was either spot on or completely off with his theories. The scanner squelched out that a squad car was on its way to the address Smoke had obtained. Minutes later, there was a call for backup to the same address, officer down. Smoke flipped on his car’s built in siren, put his churning red emergency light on the roof, and sped off.

By the time Smoke had reached the address, the area was swarming with emergency crews and police cruisers. He got out of his car and watched as three, Rorschach blotted canvas bags were carried out of the dilapidated trailer the officers were buzzing around. A small smile spread across Smoke’s face. He glanced over at one of the police cruisers and saw a bald man smiling through the back window at him. Captain Hitchcock spotted Smoke and trotted over to his car.

“I don’t know how,” he said with a confused awe, “but you found the bastard.”

“Does this mean I can come back to work?” Smoke said.

“You haven’t even been on leave 12 hours,” Captain Hitchcock thought for a moment. “Hell, why not.”

“Good, I want to interrogate him.”

Smoke found out later that the killer, who called himself The Pale Jockey, had gotten spooked by the officers that were sent to check out the address and used his pressurized water device to cut off one of their hands. Forensics confirmed Smoke’s prediction of the chess piece and note found on Ronald Flemming as having Mr. Ken Yokohama’s fingerprints on it. He called it a lucky guess. Additionally, the three canvas bags retrieved from The Pale Jockey’s trailer contained the heads of Brutus Ackerman, Mr. Ken Yokohama, and Agent Ronald Flemming. As of now, the case was cut and dry. Smoke was allowed to interrogate The Pale Jockey but with little results. The Pale Jockey refused to say a word and sat silently for over four hours. Legal counsel was also refused and a confession was signed without any dispute. Before The Pale Jockey was hauled off to his holding cell to await trial, he slipped Smoke a small piece of paper with a sloppily scrawled message on it: THE PALE JOCKEY RIDES NO MORE. HIS SHANK REACHES FAR AND WIDE, it read. The Pale Jockey smiled at Smoke one last time, baring his perfect white teeth, before the two officers escorted him out of the interrogation room.

“Seems a little too easy, don’t you think?” Smoke asked Captain Hitchcock. His gut was telling him there was something more; something he was still missing.

“It’s not enough to catch the bad guy?” Captain Hitchcock said incredulously. “What more do you want?”

Smoke shook his head then checked out for the night and went home. The paperwork could wait until morning. For the first time in nearly a week, he was able lay in his bed and drift off to sleep. His dream was peaceful enough. It was of a conversation he had with the local heroin kingpin over two years ago at Brutus’ bar.

May 29th, 2008

4:00 P.M.

“John Doyle,” Smoke said as he sat across from a clean shaven, well-dressed Mexican with slicked back, wavy black hair. “I’m on to you.”

“Is that so?” Doyle replied. “Let me ask you a question Detective Smoke.”

“That’s usually my job but I’ll play ball. Go for it.”

“Have you ever heard the story of the way I got my nickname?” Doyle asked while sipping his steaming latte. “While I was in jail, of course.”

“Can’t say that I have.”

“Well, there was this man. We’ll just call him Jack because I honestly can’t remember his name. Jack, you see, he wanted to go off and run his mouth to the guards about my little financial enterprise, we’ll call it, that I was running on the inside. I offered him a cut in my business but, Jack, he had some twisted sense of morality and unwisely refused my offer. Later that night, moral Jack was brutally killed with a shank to the neck. Of course, they immediately tried blaming his death on me but, as poor old Jack was being shanked, I was fast asleep in my bunk. The vatos on my block would joke that ‘John Doyle has a shank that reaches far and wide,’ and they weren’t talking about the one between my legs although the description fits. I, therefore, became John ‘Farshanks’ Doyle.”

Smoke opened his eyes and said to the darkened room, “Farshanks.”

Hours later, The Pale Jockey was found dead in his cell with a shank in his neck.

A Sleepier Hollow – Part Three

“One thing I could never do,” Agent Soren said with a wince, “is lie to you. Ronald Flemming will be the lead investigator on this case. So, if there is anything you need analyzed, tested, or scrutinized, now would be the time to give it to me.”

Captain Hitchcock bit back an inappropriate comment as Smoke shot him a ‘keep it to yourself’ look in anticipation of the comment.

“I need some tissue samples analyzed as well as a piece of brick from that wall,” Smoke instructed as he pointed to the area where he found the note lodged. “How soon can you get back to me and when can we be expecting Agent Flemming?”

“Well,” Agent Soren thought momentarily, “Flemming will probably be here early to mid afternoon tomorrow. I can have the analysis results back to you before then. What are you hoping to find?”

“Not sure yet,” Smoke replied. “I’ll know when I see it.”

Smoke retrieved the samples he needed analyzed and gave them to Agent Soren then sent her on her way. There was no time to waste especially on the age old ‘catching up over drinks’ then ending up in bed together. She was right. He had married his job instead of her, but what was done, was done, and as much as he would have liked to change the past or give their relationship a second chance, he knew it was not possible. There was always going to be a bad guy to chase. He made his decision seem as selfish as possible, those many years ago, to try to make her hate him. It was less complicated that way. The truth was he did not want to put her in danger. Not that any of it mattered now. At this point it was a fog of confusion on an ocean of doubt which Smoke was trying to avoid. Right now, he needed clarity which he found inside a foil wrapped piece of chocolate candy: DON’T LOSE YOUR HEAD.YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO THINK IF YOU DO, the message on the wrinkled foil read. The chocolate candies were fortune cookie knock-offs that contained less interesting messages with more tasty treats. The message in Smoke’s piece of chocolate made him chuckle. What were the odds?

Smoke took the foil wrapper and pinned it to the cork board in his office. He was sure it would serve as a healthy reminder later on in life. It had been four hours since he found Mr. Ken Yokohama’s headless body and over 48 hours since he slept. The sleeplessness was taking its toll and causing him to nod off while he sat at his desk waiting for a call from forensics. If the killer was watching him, as Agent Soren suggested, then Smoke was better off behind his desk than out on the street, according to Captain Hitchcock who ordered him to stay in his office for the time being. Smoke was not usually one to challenge authority but he disagreed completely with Captain Hitchcock’s order which was the how and why of the matter of the two guards posted outside of Smoke’s office. Captain Hitchcock knew Smoke well enough to know that he would not stay put for very long unless forced to do so. Of course, the ever transparent ‘they are there for your protection’ line was used to try to assure Smoke that the guards were there more so for his protection than his detainment.

What bothered Smoke the most, more so than the detaining guards posted outside of his office, was the lack of connection, thus far, between the two murders. From what he could tell, according to witness statements, intuition, and a little common sense, Brutus Ackerman and Mr. Ken Yokohama knew nothing of each other. In fact, the only thing they commonly shared was the cobblestone alleyway behind Brutus’ bar. Smoke’s desk phone jangled to life with a quick two tone ring.

“Detective Smoke,” he answered.

“This is Trudy from the forensics lab,” a deep female voice replied. “We’ve found something, well, out of the ordinary to say the least.”

“Go on.”

“We were able to lift a set of finger prints from the note you found and the chess piece that was on Mr. Yokohama.”

“Why is that out of the ordinary? That’s a good thing.” Smoke said listlessly as he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

“They both have Brutus Ackerman’s fingerprints on them.”

As Smoke quickly leaned forward, the unintended jolt from his chair stopping nearly knocked the receiver to the phone out of his hand. “Really?” he said in awe.

“Yes, really.”

“That is,” Smoke pondered a suitable word, “odd.”

“I’ll send the reports up to you ASAP.”

“Thank you,” Smoke said as he began to hang up the phone then remembered his manners. “Good work, by the way. Didn’t mean to seem rude, it’s just I haven’t slept in two days and…” the phone line chirped three times followed by the dead hum of the dial tone. “So much for clarity,” he said to himself as he hung up the phone and pondered the possibilities of the newly discovered evidence.

Minutes later, Captain Hitchcock arrived in Smoke’s office followed by a lab technician with the reports promised by Trudy from forensics.

“The wife brought over some pot roast,” Captain Hitchcock said as he plopped down a steaming Tupperware bowl on Smoke’s desk. “Said she was sad that you couldn’t make it to the house for dinner then yelled at me for not being there.”

“You made it kind of hard for me to take a piss without one of those uniforms at the door knowing about it,” Smoke replied. “Tell Bertle thanks for the roast though.”

“Come on, Smoke. I did that for your own good. I can’t have you out gallivanting around the city if this murderer is following you.”

Smoke chose his words carefully then spoke, “we don’t know for sure that the killer is following me. It could have been just coincidence which is wishful thinking, I know, but it is also called keeping an open mind. This roast is delicious.” He said as he chewed between words, “Kudos to your wife. Anyway, forensics found something rather interesting.” Smoke opened the file the lab tech had left and flipped to the correct page, “see here, Brutus Ackerman’s fingerprints found on both the chess piece and the note I found in the wall.”

“How is that possible? He couldn’t have killed Mr. Yokohama.”

“Never said he could have,” Smoke smiled, closed lipped, as he chewed more of Bertle Hitchcock’s delectable roast.

“So?” Captain Hitchcock said impatiently.

“So, what?”

“So, what do you know that you aren’t telling?”

Smoke’s cell phone lit up and began to ring, “Talk about timing,” he said. The caller ID displayed Agent Soren’s name across the face of the cell phone. “Hello?”

“So you do answer your phone differently,” Captain Hitchcock grunted.

“I’ve got those results for you, Cillian,” Agent Soren’s silky voice melted through the phone. “But you’re going to be sorely disappointed.”

“Why’s that?”

“They turned up nothing unusual. The tissue samples had no traces of anything out of the ordinary; same with the sample of brick.”

“Can you email me the results?” Smoke asked.

“What for? I just told you there was nothing out of the ordinary.”

“And I told you when you asked what I was looking for that I would know when I see it. Since I have yet to see the results of the analysis…” Smoke trailed off feeling that he had adequately made his point.

“Fine,” Agent Soren said sorely. “They should be to you in a few minutes.”

“Thank you,” Smoke replied kindly. “We’ll talk later. Catch up over drinks or something.” A proposition Smoke knew he could not keep.

“Sure, sure,” Agent Soren grumbled. “Take care of yourself, Cillian.”

With that, Smoke closed his phone and stared at it for a moment then realized Captain Hitchcock was still in the room and staring at him. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m zoning out. Really tired is all.”

“Alright,” Captain Hitchcock said with an exaggerated huff, “time to clock out and call it a night. You look like something I did in the men’s bathroom earlier and that’s not a compliment m’boy. This city is going to need you well rested and at your best tomorrow when Agent Flemming arrives. Go home and get some sleep.”

“Please tell me you’re not going to send a uniformed officer with me?” Smoke groaned. “I won’t be able to sleep if I know someone is watching me.”

“Fine, fine. Now scram.”

Smoke went straight home and was asleep before his head could make it to his pillow which is why he ended up with a neck cramp the next morning. He fell asleep while taking off his boots and his head lolled over the edge of the couch, staying that way for most of the night. A nuclear bomb with a megaphone could not have woken Smoke up. A stream of water to the face, however, could and did wake him out of a graveyard sleep. Smoke sat up while wiping the water from his face wildly. It was a brisk, cool morning which was evident from his front door standing wide open. Smoke tried to look around but his stiff neck only allowed for a robotic shoulder turn of his upper torso. He got up and crept around his apartment, going from room to room in a methodical manner and finding only emptiness. As he returned to the entrance way, he noticed a small trail of water that lead from his couch to his front door and beyond. It was then that Smoke irrationalized that someone had broken into his apartment, seemingly, just to spray his face with water. He followed the trail of water which ended at his weather-worn metal mailbox. The sun was just making its climb over the horizon and provided enough light to see clearly but all Smoke saw was the ordinary sights of his apartment complex’s parking lot which was a huddled mass of cars and two industrial dumpsters. Beyond the lot was the main road that led straight into town and was already bustling with commercial vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Smoke took a breath then turned back to his mailbox. Out of curiosity and habit, he opened the mailbox and found a note sitting loosely inside.

He opened the note and read it quietly, “Two is a couple, three is a crowd.”

Without hesitation, he threw on his clothes and headed to the station. Another head was sure to be missing somewhere in Bethlehem.

IV

            Smoke’s foot did not let off the accelerator as he wove his unmarked cruiser in and out of the commuting morning traffic like a possessed crochet needle to a ball of yarn; horns and flying fingers were left in the wake of his motoring indecencies. He reached for his cell phone to add mayhem to the traffic fiasco he was already creating and swerved to miss a construction barrel unsuccessfully. The barrel popped into the air and caught some hang time on the car behind Smoke, then rolled into the ditch. He was in a rush, not because he knew whose head was next on the chopping block but, because he had clumsily forgotten to check the analysis Agent Soren had sent him the previous night. His intuition was telling him there was something on the analysis that would only make sense to him. It was that gut feeling he had learned to trust over these many years and for good reason: it was never wrong…so far.

Smoke burst into his office and found a welcoming committee of five federal agents, headed by none other than Agent Ronald Flemming.

“Detective Cillian Smoke,” Agent Flemming said with a tone of unimpressed snootiness as he seated himself behind Smoke’s desk. “You’re late.”

“Fashionably,” Smoke retorted with a half-cocked smile.

Agent Ronald Flemming was a short, balding man that thought there was sex appeal in his badly formed comb-over and polyester, pin-striped suit. He stood apart from the other five agents in the room by looks alone. He also had a bad habit of not trimming his nose hairs which could be seen hanging out of his hooked-beak nose without even standing near him. For this reason, many people dared not get close enough to be caught staring. He also had the bad habit of stealing other people’s work and claiming it as his own.

“Where’s my computer?” Smoke said as he looked around his office with an unbreakable scowl. “And the files that were on my desk? What happened to those?” He knew the answer without having to ask the question but he wanted to hear it from Agent Flemming.

“The bureau has taken over this case,” Agent Flemming replied as he leaned back in Smoke’s chair and waved his hand around like a listless magic wand that made all of Smoke’s notes on the murder cases disappear. “Poof! I have confiscated all of your investigative information on this case and made it mine.”

“Doesn’t surprise me,” Smoke growled. “A poof like you is pretty good at stealing other people’s work and claiming it as his own.”

“Come now, you’re not still angry about that are you? That was over four years ago.”

“I’m not going to make the mistake of threatening to punch you in the face,” Smoke said as he approached his desk. “I’m just going to do it.”

Before the other four agents could stop him, Smoke jumped on his desk, grabbed Agent Flemming by the tie, and punched him hard enough to dislodge his gelled comb-over from his forehead. Captain Hitchcock had come into Smoke’s office just in time to see the comb-over dislodging first punch and pulled Smoke off the desk before he could connect with a second devastating blow. Despite his age, Captain Hitchcock was still as strong as a young ox and managed to life Smoke into the air then plop him on the ground like a satchel of potatoes.

“What’s going on here?!” Captain Hitchcock exclaimed while looking around at the room for an explanation.

“I’ll knock the pin-stripes off that silly fucking suit of yours you little prick,” Smoke said as he scrambled to his feet and tried to get at Agent Flemming again.

Captain Hitchcock pinned Smoke to the opposing wall with a forearm to the throat, “You need to calm down, son,” he said with a quiet but aggressive tone then looked back at Agent Flemming.

The four other agents huddled around Agent Flemming and were offering their handkerchiefs to help stop his nose from spraying blood. He forcefully declined all of their attempts to help him, letting the blood drip through his hand and onto Smoke’s desk.. “‘ju better get ‘cuntroll of ‘jur boy ‘Capin ‘Hisscoch. He’s lucky I ‘dunt ‘pwess ‘sharges,” he said with a pinched nasally whine.

“That would be a little hard to do seeing as how you would have to press charges through this city’s police department. We protect our own, Agent Flemming. Just a word to the wise.” Captain Hitchcock replied.

“City?” Agent Flemming laughed. “This is a TOWN ‘Capin  Hissoch. You ‘backwuss ‘hwillbillies are ‘awhl the same. ‘Inbed and dumb as ‘sheit.”

Captain Hitchcock began to walk toward Agent Flemming with a wild look in his eye but was stopped by Smoke grabbing his elbow.

“Are you going to confiscate my chair too?” Smoke said.

“What? No?” Agent Flemming replied.

“Good. Then get out of my chair and stop bleeding on my desk.”

Agent Flemming smiled maliciously then wiped his hand across Smoke’s desk and chair as he stood up. His entourage followed him like ducks in a row as he walked to the door and paused by Smoke. “Have fun ‘inbestigating missing cats for the rest of ‘jur life, ‘Depective ‘Ssmopke,” he said as he walked out still pinching off his bleeding beaked nose.

Captain Hitchcock turned to Smoke, “You want to tell me what in the name of hellfire that was all about?” he said angrily.

“A lot of things.”

“Well, we’ve got plenty of time to talk since you’re off the case and taking a two week leave of absence.”

“A what!” Smoke yelled. “What the hell for?”

“I just witnessed you assault a federal agent, Smoke. You expect me just to pat you on the shoulder and say good job? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to but I can’t. So, why don’t you tell me what that was all about and I’ll see if I can’t shorten that leave to a week.”

A Sleepier Hollow – Part Two

“Fair enough,” Captain Hitchcock replied, typically, as he sat his coke down on Smoke’s desk and looked at him with an expression of concern. “Look, I know this is a sore subject for you, but unfortunately we’re all out of vasoline so I’ll just get right to the ass-fucking. As much as I don’t want to get the Feds involved with this, we don’t have the equipment necessary to handle this sort of case. Hell, we had a hard enough time getting a fingerprint match let alone trying to do any sort of blood analysis or any of that jazz. Most of its being sent out to labs in other jurisdictions which means they’ll put the ‘let’s move slower than molasses’ sticker on it and get back to us in a week.”

“Give me 24 hours,” Smoke replied. “I still have a reliable source in the bureau that could help us out. She owes me a few favors anyway.”

“Sounds kinky,” Captain Hitchcock burped as he raised his bushy grey eyebrows in conformation of it being a good out. “You’ve got 18 hours. I don’t need another one of this city’s residents or, God forbid, a vacationing tourist dying at the hands of this psychopath because you want to play Sherlock Holmes.”

“This is a town,” Smoke corrected while wondering who in their right mind would want to vacation in Bethlehem let alone in the month of October. “And it shouldn’t take me more than eight hours to get what I need. I said 24 hours originally in case I needed to butter my source up first, grease her palms if needed, but, as you said, we’re all out of vasoline.”

“I trust you, Smoke. Don’t make me question that. Better yet, don’t make this city question its trust in us, the BCPD. When was the last time you slept? You look horrific.”

“I can’t remember, doesn’t matter. I’ve got work to do.” Smoke said as he closed the manila folder, tucked it under his arm, and headed for the door.

“Hey, the wife is cooking a pot roast tonight. She would really like it if you stopped by. Hell, I guess I would too. I know it’s hard to get sleep with everything that’s going on but a man shouldn’t go hungry too.”

Smoke stopped in the doorway. Captain Hitchcock and his wife, Bertle, had been like parents to him the past three years. They never had children of their own and Smoke had lost his parents sixteen years ago. They weren’t dead. He had literally lost them. Or so they thought. He knew exactly where they were but they wanted nothing to do with him, which they made abundantly clear by packing up, moving, and leaving no forwarding address on his 18th birthday. They had never wanted children but did not believe in abortion or adoption. So, they raised him and on the day that the law said their obligation as parents had been fulfilled, they disappeared, leaving only a letter that said ‘Our obligation is fulfilled. Good luck son.’ Smoke would later discover after joining the bureau that they had moved to Arizona and had opened a pet shop. It went bankrupt within a few years because they couldn’t seem to keep the animals alive. Smoke would send them money now and again to help cushion the blow from their pet shop failure. Part of him thought he did it to show them that at least he was not a failure while the other part of him just felt obligated.

“As much as I’d like to Captain,” Smoke said regretfully, “I doubt I’ll have the time. But I appreciate the thought.”

“Bertle said you’d say that and she told me to tell you dinner is at seven.”

Smoke smiled, “Seven it is then.”

Smoke had called his contact in the bureau almost immediately after leaving his office. As luck would have it, she transferred to the Cleveland field office and was available for lunch. Smoke was ready to drive the 201 km to Cleveland, however after his contact heard that he had been awake for more than 43 hours she told him she would come there instead. Either way, Smoke was not going to able to sleep. He revisited the crime scene to check for any missed evidence while he waited for his contact to arrive. The rain had been turned down to a light drizzle but the sun was playing hide and seek behind the clouds which made the inevitability of the cool fall temperatures that much more apparent. As Smoke had expected, the preliminary forensics report indicated no fingerprints or any other discernable evidence on Brutus Ackerman’s body or the chess piece.

The killer watched from afar as Smoke poured over the crime scene. He had not returned to do as Smoke was doing and recover evidence. He was there to ensure Smoke would find the evidence he put there for him. The killer was not a fanatic fan of Smoke’s and did not collect newspaper clippings of all of his cases nor did he idolize Smoke in any way. The funny part was, he did not hate him either. The killer recognized that the only difference between him and Smoke was the blurred line of the law. Sure, they had differing moral aptitudes, but they were both doing a job that had to be done. If the killer felt anything at all for Smoke, it would have been respect.

“Wha’ ‘chu looking at wit does binoculars meesta?” A voice said from behind the killer.

The killer immediately tucked away his binoculars and turned to face a short, smiling oriental man with a flat billed baseball cap that had the word ‘SMILE’ embroidered on it. The killer walked off briskly and left the little oriental man standing with a look of stunned glee.

“Hey! Where you going?” The oriental man called out then looked in the direction the killer had been looking with a strained squint. “I know that man! That meesta Smoke. HEY MEESTA SMOKE!” he said while waving his arms wildly.

Smoke recognized the voice instantly. It was Mr. Ken Yokohama, Bethlehem’s only Japanese resident and an invaluable confidential informant as Smoke had found out two years earlier during an investigation into the local heroin ring. Due to Mr. Yokohama’s broken English, most people make the mistake of assuming he cannot understand English when, in fact, he understands it perfectly; it was the speaking part that gave him trouble. Such was the mistake of a couple of heroin dealers who tried to get Mr. Yokohama to be their mule which he gladly agreed to then delivered the goods straight to the BCPD. Smoke was able to convince Mr. Yokohama to wear a wire and do a couple more jobs as a mule after every other cop in the BCPD had failed in doing so. This was, in part, due to the fact that Smoke had taken a few Japanese classes in college, but was in the same boat as Mr. Yokohama when it came to the language: He understood it, but had trouble speaking it. Mr. Yokohama found Smoke’s attempts at Japanese to be very admirable and agreed to work solely with him. The investigation as a whole only turned up small fish, but one name was given which Smoke believed was the big fish in the heroin ring: John “Far-shanks” Doyle. The investigation is ongoing and few arrests have been made.

“What you doing here meesta Smoke. No see, long time!” Mr. Yokohama called from the second story fire escape, two buildings away from the alley behind Brutus’.

Smoke waved, but waited until he was under the fire escape to engage in conversation. Yelling that far seemed unnecessary given the circumstances. “How are you doing Mr. Yokohama,” he asked once he was under the fire escape.

“Oh, me? I just fine.” Mr. Yokohama replied with a wide grin and a brush-off hand wave. “Like my cap say, SMILE! That what I do. I hear there is murder! But I still smile.”

“Have you heard anything else?” Smoke asked as a shot in the dark.

“No. But I see. There was tall man standing here watchinga you wit hees binoculars. I saya to him ‘HEY! Wha’ ‘chu looking at wit does binoculars?’ But then he run off.”

Without moving, Smoke looked around from building to building trying to sense which way the man might have run. “Are you sure he was watching me?” he asked, considering the possibility of Mr. Yokohama overreacting. “He could have been bird watching and maybe you startled him.”

“Ha, Ha. Thata funny one meesta Smoke. Maybe you a bird, because he wasa watchinga you! You come up here and see.”

Smoke climbed up the rickety, tetanus-waiting-to-happen fire escape and stood beside Mr. Yokohama. The only thing that was visible from where they stood was the taped off crime scene behind Brutus’ bar and the backsides of brick buildings with no windows. At that point, there was no doubt in Smoke’s mind that he was being watched. He stood there for a moment, beside Mr. Yokohama who was still smiling as though he had won the lottery, and stared at the narrow cobblestone alley behind Brutus’. He had that nagging feeling of forgetting or missing something important, kind of like when coffee drinkers forget to turn off their coffee makers and remember after having already left their house. Since he knew his troublesome feeling had nothing to do with a coffee maker, due to the lack of owning such a machine, he could confidently narrow it down to something about the crime scene. As he continued to survey the scene from above, he noticed something out of place: A pristine area of brick wall above the horizontally running, steaming air ducts of Brutus’ bar which was only evident from an elevated position.

“Wha’ ‘chu looking at meesta Smoke?” Mr. Yokohama asked while trying to peek over Smoke’s shoulder.

“I’m not sure yet,” Smoke replied as he began to descend the shoddy fire escape ladder then stopped. “What are you doing up here?” he asked realizing it had not occurred to him to do so earlier.

“Me? Oh, I live righta up there. I move in two weeks ago,” Mr. Yokohama indicated one story above with his pudgy finger. “It’sa how you say…Jeep. ‘avery jeep place to live.”

“Cheap?”

“Yes, thatsa what I say. A jeep place to live. ‘Avery jeep.”

Smoke smiled then began to descend again and stopped again, “You didn’t happen to see what this man that was watching me looked like by chance?”

Mr. Yokohama stroked his well-groomed beard and thought, “He wasa tall. Asa tall asa you. But he have no hair. He wasa white. That’sa all I see before he banish like a magician. But he have a strange thing with him. On hees back.”

“A backpack?” Smoke offered.

“No, no, no. Kinda yes. But eet have lots of hoses and switches and gauges on eet. Bery strange.”

“Well, D?mo Arigat?, Mr. Yokohama,” Smoke said with a smirk and a clumsy bow. “If I need anything else I’ll give you a call.”

“You a funny man meesta Smoke,” Mr. Yokohama replied with a big grin. “Don’t forget,” then, without finishing his sentence, he pointed to the single word on his hat: SMILE.

Smoke clambered down the fire escape ladder and walked back over to the taped off crime scene. The pristine spot on the wall was nearly four meters off the ground which was one meter too high for him to reach without a stool or utility ladder. Although Brutus’ almost certainly had a ladder he could use, the bar was locked up tighter than a church’s offertory  on account of the owner’s untimely decapitation and Smoke did not feel the use of a ladder merited breaking into a dead man’s bar. It was a matter of respect at that point. The local hardware store was less than a block away which Smoke was more than willing to walk in spite of the rain; the light drizzling mist was refreshing to his tired eyes and helped keep him on an even keel, or at the very least helped him from keeling over.

Smoke was able to borrow what he needed after a brief haggling debate with the scraggly old hardware store manager about commandeering a ladder for police business which ended with the promise of losing a couple of parking tickets for the manager. He quickly made his way back to the alley and set up the ladder under the steaming air ducts. He climbed to the top and examined the pristine area of bricks that he had spied earlier. Smoke removed a digital camera from his jacket pocket and snapped a few pictures of the area. The bricks looked as though they had been recently pressure washed, thus restoring them to their original fire engine red tint as opposed to rusty fire engine red of their surrounding counterparts. Upon closer examination, Smoke noticed a folded piece of paper wedged between a crack in the mortar of the restored bricks. He removed a pair of tweezers and slipped on a latex glove from his ‘just-in-case’ case (which contained one pair of tweezers, one pair of latex gloves, and one evidence baggie, all neatly packaged in what was originally a plastic on-the-go wet wipe container) then carefully removed the piece of paper from the crack.

Smoke unfolded the piece of paper which had a curious message typed in 12 point font, all capitals, and centered perfectly on the page:

LOOK BEHIND YOU

            Smoke did as the note said and first scanned the ground below him; there was nothing but rain soaked cobblestone. His eyes rose to an even, horizontal line of sight and he saw what the note had wanted him to see. There, on the second story fire escape two buildings away from Brutus’ bar, was Mr. Yokohama on his knees and slumped over. Smoke jumped most of the way down the ladder and raced over to the fire escape.

“Mr. Yokohama!” He called up but received no answer. A knot tightened in his stomach as he noticed a thick pool of blood collecting on the asphalt below the fire escape. He climbed up to the second story and pulled out his .38 revolver. He checked all of his corners, in all directions and saw not a soul. Smoke slowly approached Mr. Yokohama and knelt down beside him. It was then that he realized Mr. Ken Yokohama’s hat which simply said ‘SMILE’ was sitting, not on his head, but on the bloody stump where his head once sat. Smoke removed the hat and choked back a gag at the sight of the headless body. As with Brutus, an alabaster horseman from a chessboard was lodged in the grotesque wound.

Smoke flipped open his cell phone and called 911 then called Captain Hitchcock.

“Captain Hitchcock,” the old man’s voice rattled.

“You might want to call your wife and tell her we’ll be late for that dinner.”

III

October 1st, 2010

3:00 P.M.

Smoke had barely moved by the time the medics had arrived. Not that they were needed. There was no one there that could be saved. When the cavalry finally showed up, (i.e. forensics, other detectives from Smoke’s unit, and wild Bill himself) a media flashbulb feeding frenzy had broken out. They were like hungry sharks that smelled the freshly spilled blood. Reporters from as far away as Columbus had travelled to Bethlehem in hopes of getting an exclusive interview or privileged information on the homicides. It was, as Captain Hitchcock would eloquently describe, a Colonel Custer cluster fuck.

“This is a Colonel Custer cluster fuck, you know that Smoke?” Captain Hitchcock said as he watched the forensics team set up shop around Mr. Yokohama’s corpse. “Let me guess, no sign of Mr. Yokohama’s head?”

“Nope,” Smoke replied dryly.

“Two murders in less than 24 hours? I don’t see how we have any other choice BUT to get the feds involved. Man oh man, this city’s gone to hell in a harrier.”

“You’re overreacting,” Smoke said calmly while trying to ignore Captain Hitchcock’s incessant misrepresentation of Bethlehem as a city, “and isn’t it ‘gone to hell in a hand basket?’”

“Usually, but a harrier is a lot faster. It’s a jet for christsake! And that’s my point! This city has gone to hell in less than a night! Overreacting, my ass! I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation.”

“No disrespect intended sir,” Smoke replied with a tinge of irritation, “but I don’t think you understand the implication of the situation.”

“Are you a poet all of a sudden?” Captain Hitchcock asked with a recoiled look of disbelief. “Speak plainly.”

“What he means,” said a silky female voice from one story above Smoke and Captain Hitchcock, “is that the killer has been and, more likely than not, still is watching your every move.”

Smoke and Captain Hitchcock looked up with synchronized gazes of startled incredulity. A light-framed, light-skinned, light-haired woman in a professionally tailored suit hung out over the third story fire escape that was connected to Mr. Ken Yokohama’s apartment.

“Agent Soren,” Smoke said while trying not to stare at the female’s erupting cleavage that was also hanging out over the fire escape railing. “Just in time.”

“You never were very good at keeping things simple,” Agent Soren retorted playfully. “Looks like you’ve got your hands full.”

“Holy mackerel! I’d say so,” Captain Hitchcock exclaimed while staring directly at Agent Soren’s bosoms then non-discreetly whispered to Smoke, “YOU know that pair of beautiful, bouncing,” Smoke elbowed Captain Hitchcock in the ribs before he could finish. “Blue eyes,” he said with a muffled groan.

“Captain Bill Hitchcock,” Smoke said with a cordial introductory tone, “meet Agent Marin Soren, my reliable contact in the bureau.”

“The pleasure is all his, I’m sure,” Captain Hitchcock retorted with a nod toward Smoke. “I’m married.”

Agent Soren giggled then replied, “The pleasure WAS all his, many years ago, but he married his job instead of me.”

Captain Hitchcock returned the rib jab to Smoke, “Idiot,” he murmured.

“Well, Cillian,” Agent Soren said as she descended to the second story of the fire escape, “I won’t be your reliable contact for very long. The bureau has already caught wind of this and will be sending down their top agent to assist in the investigation.”

Another knot tightened in Smoke’s stomach, “Their top agent?” he said inquiringly.

“I refuse to believe that YOU are not their top agent,” Captain Hitchcock interjected with a broad smile and a wink directed at Agent Soren.

“Cillian here WAS the best of the best,” Agent Soren said.

“And that’s all ancient history now,” Smoke growled as he began to walk away then stopped and turned to Agent Soren, “Just tell me it’s not Flemming.”