Ethel’s Addiction

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I didn’t meet Ethel until after the events I’m going to talk about here and no her name isn’t really Ethel. Thing is I know she’ll never read this but I it would be a sin to let her real name get out there. She’s not a freak and lord knows she’s suffered enough. I want however many days she has left to be peaceful ones.

But, I can’t not share her story. It haunts me.

No one ever intends to become an addict but all it takes is that first sip of wine at dinner or a sampling of an illicit pharmaceutical at a party for an unlucky individual to start down a path of self-destruction. Drugs and alcohol aren’t the only thing that can prey on the weak willed or unlucky, shopping, food and gambling have all made people miserable at one time or another. Whole industries have sprung up to help men and women from all walks of life take back control of their lives. But Ethel’s addiction was an unusual one, there were no recognized treatments or easy explanations.

Ethel, you see, was addicted to popping pimples. It began with a YouTube video that her friends shared amongst themselves. A woman with a cyst on her back the size of an apple. It was the kind of video that was sent with the header of, “Can you watch all the way through?” or “Super Gross Out!”

The woman in the video, Ethel never saw her face or heard her name, was in what looked like a doctor’s office. Hands in latex gloves covered the oversized blemish with antiseptic and made sure plenty of gauze was nearby. Then a sharp scalpel came into view. It cut the skin and white-yellow fluid all but burst from the wound. It went everywhere some even landing on the camera filming the event. The person using the scalpel kept working, rolling the tip of the instrument around, coaxing more and more of the noxious-looking fluid out until all the flowed from the wound was blood.

Ethel was riveted, she watched the video dozens of times.

That YouTube video led to others, link after link of squeezing fingers and lancing instruments. The videos led her to Reddits and forums, to exclusive Facebook and Pinterest pages.

Watching kept her up late at night, sometimes she never went to bed at all.

She remembered being a teenager, the occasional breakouts and her mother cautioning her not to pick at her face. Compared to the other girls she had been lucky; there were some that had hidden their faces behind the books they were caring, who had endured insults like ‘Pizza Face’ and worse. Everyone said Ethel was one of the prettiest girls in class.

But she was thirty years old now, bored with work and marriage, The next time Ethel got a blemish, it was on her shoulder, she stared at it a long time. She had drawers of special skin care products for this kind of thing, but she decided that this time she would take matters into her own hands.

pop

It took barely any pressure at all, certainly less than she expected. And it was so much better experienced than watched; the discomfort, the sudden pressure, the release, and the lingering soreness. On some level she couldn’t understand she both heard and felt the blemish give way.

Then Ethel took to giving her husband Floyd back rubs. He certainly didn’t protest, that hour or so was probably the most time they’d spent together in months. His law practice kept him busy, maddeningly so at times.

When she found some ingrown hair or neglected pustule he would ask her to not pick at it and she wouldn’t listen. She was relentless, it didn’t matter how much he squealed or if she drew blood. To keep him from shying away she made sure that her grooming sessions ended with sexual intercourse.

To Ethel it was a perfectly mature understanding, Floyd got what he wanted and she got what she wanted.

It went on like that for a time, Ethel sating herself with videos until a bump or blackhead appeared on herself or her husband. Those were moments she savored like fine wine. She probably could have gone on like for the rest of her life but Floyd had other ideas. One night at dinner he told her that he was in love with a coworker and he was leaving.
Ethel had wondered why he’d pulled the old suitcase out of the attic days earlier but never thought to ask. She’d never suspected she needed to.

Soon enough she was living alone for the first time in her life, alone and inconsolable. She had friends and family close by but it wasn’t enough, she had a busy work schedule and that wasn’t enough. Finishing off one bottle of Chablis a week wasn’t enough.

Even the pimple popping videos weren’t enough.

So, Ethel changed her diet, eating more and more fast food, more and more chocolate. She read articles with skin care advice and did the opposite of their recommendations.

Then she waited.

The first few blemishes were small, little pinpricks of red that almost looked like freckles. Ethel worked at them eagerly having grown her nails out and bought a new makeup mirror for just this occasion.

pop

Tiny but exhilarating, the discharge they expelled was thick and solid; she could roll it around on her fingertips.

pop

When the next few pimples began to show she left them be, let them fatten up;  whiteheads grew, blackheads darkened. The whiteheads almost always went painlessly but spectacularly, marking the surface of her mirror with speckles of yellow, white and green. Sometimes she would keep the pressure on until she added a spattering of red to the mix.

The blackheads could be more challenging, sometimes resisting her attentions for hours at a time until they were nothing so much as swollen nubs of pain that felt far larger than they actually were. When the surface of one finally broke it would exclude a thin streamer of puss. She would watch in fascination as the little filament of exudate twisted along her finger and then squeeze harder and harder until something would give way and a rivulet of blood veined with yellow and white shot from the wound.

She would celebrate each of her victories of those blemishes with a glass of wine and a dab of Sea Breeze.

Pop

Left cheek then right cheek, forehead then chin, she would let one part of her face fester and work at another. She learned how to cultivate razor bumps when she shaved her legs and was amazed at how resistant they could be but made them give up their secrets.

All it took was a sewing needle and persistence.

Occasionally she filmed herself but it was never the same on playback, no matter how close she got to the camera. And Ethel never ever considered posting them, this was for her and her alone. She could imagine no experience more intimate.

Late at night when was lying in bed, half drunk with her face and legs stinging with astringent, she would wonder how much she had drained from her body this way, drop by drop, spurt by spurt. A pint? Maybe a gallon. She tried to imagine it, a an empty carton or milk jug overflowing with thick, putrefying liquid. She thought of the skin cells she shed every day and the mucus that gathered in her nose, of the mites that lived on her eyelashes and the bacteria that made their homes in her gut.

In the end was that all a person was? A festering wound? A host for infections?

Pop

Ethel’s friends and relatives would try to broach the subject of her complexion with her, never directly though. They would ask if she was sick, if she had seen a doctor or what beauty products she was using. She would wave such concerns away and change the subject. What did they know about her and her interests? As she drifted from one party or family reunion to another she would see more and more pitying gazes thrown her way, Ethel accepted them with a grim amusement.

Sometimes she would see people staring at a particularly swollen blackhead or purposely neglected twin-headed pimple and see a flash of something familiar in their eyes. They wanted to get their fingers on those blemishes as much as she did, to feel the lump skin protest against the squeezing and then give way. She was never uncomfortable with these people. Let them stare, let them be jealous.

Other times she would see nothing but pure disgust in someone’s expression, someone with perfect skin and hair that judged her and saw her as somehow inferior. With those people Ethel wanted nothing more than to give a demonstration of her newly developed skills, to send an arc of pus sailing into their face with a single, simple gesture.

But she never did that, it would have been a waste.

POP

Then she had the accident.

It was a stupid thing really, Ethel had been driving back from the store when she’d become distracted by a previously unnoticed ingrown hair lurking just behind her earlobe. She knew better than to text and drive, or call and drive, she wasn’t even one to fiddle with the radio while in traffic but her attention kept returning to the blemish. One hand on the wheel she tried to get it to go by pinching it between the fingers of her free hand.

No luck. It was maddeningly resistant.

So, finally she gave in to temptation and used both hands to push at the ingrown hair. The pimple plopped open just as she clipped the front fender of the Nissan running the yellow light ahead of her.

She wasn’t in the wrong, that was obvious but the officers on the scene insisted on breathalyzer tests all around. They found Ethel’s blood alcohol level to be with the legal limit, but just barely.

It was all so embarrassing, and the Nissan’s driver only made things worse by suing anyone and everyone possible. They told a story that painted them as a victim of irresponsible drivers, poorly designed intersections and soft tissue damage.

Ethel was surprised when she saw her ex-husband Floyd among the attorneys involved in the deposition, she was even more surprised when he didn’t recognize her. When she finally approached him after the proceedings all his well trained lawyerly dispassion was gone in an instant. When he spoke his voice was loud enough that everyone in the room heard.

“What the Hell happened to you?”

Those words followed Ethel home from the courthouse. Every time she glimpsed herself in the rearview mirror or reflective surface she heard it again. “What the Hell happened to you?”

When she got home she cursed that there was no alcohol in the house but she had told herself she needed to cut down. The accident had been a close call and she had been frightened to realize later that she didn’t know how long it had been before her last drink and hitting the road that night.

But she would have loved a drink right then. She wanted her mind to be empty and spinning, she wanted her vision and senses blurred.

Once, not too long ago, he had looked upon her face with adoration, then, later on, resignation. In time Ethel had become used to both, but the expression of horror on his face. It had been too much to bear.

She cleaned off her makeup mirror and looked at herself, not the blemishes old and new, not the oily patches and deep, bruised-looking pockmarks. Ethel saw herself, saw the extent of her self mutilation.

Why had she done this? Why had she become so obsessed with act of whittling away at herself to the point that she had become unrecognizable to the man that had shared her bed for nine years? Remembering the tiny blooms of pleasure she had taken in the act suddenly left her feeling sick to her stomach.

Ethel ran her hands over her cheeks, they were ragged and eaten away, her forehead was a ruin of interconnected scars and her chin was a festering wound of pustules half gone to becoming cysts.

Someday, long from that moment, she would come to learn the terms Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior and Excoriation Disorder but that night, the night she wailed with self-disgust and self-realization and smashed her mirror, Ethel only know this it was more than she could take.

And after all, what was one more mutilation at this point?

She hooked each of her hands into claws and brought them forward, and, after a deep breath to steel her courage, drove them deep into her eye sockets with all her might.
Then she pinched.

POP POP

Grovulché: a tale of the Night Blogger

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“This is the story of Roy Foster Jr and the summer he lost forever.”

Table of Contents

Prologue – A statement of intent (Free Preview)
Chapter One – Arrival
Chapter Two – The Yellow, the Green and the Blue
Chapter Three – The kids of cabin B-3
Chapter Four – Introducing Preston
Chapter Five – Caught Red Handed

_________________________________________________________

You know that Cousin Roy and Ashley Fowler went to the same summer camp, but you don’t know the whole truth.

The serial novel Grovulché tells the whole story but you have to be a subscriber to my Patreon’s $25 tier to read it.

New chapters will post every Saturday!

Other Tales Of The Night Blogger will be available to subscribers at this level as well as exclusive access to other fiction and Night Blogger Podcast Bonus Episodes.

Become a Patron!

Abaddon Ship

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December 11th- The annual Hudson River Booze and Boobs Cruise was something of a local institution, a three hour boat ride from the port of Albany to the city of Troy and back again. The cruise offered a buffet, a bar and more exotic dancers than you could shake a money clip at. Ostensibly this low grade bacchanalia was a way for local entrepreneur Edward Fingle to raise money for the Tri-city IBS Treatment Society or T.I.T.S. for short. It was the kind of event that brought greasy ‘philanthropists’ from all across the tri-city area.

It should be noted that Edward Fingle is more commonly known around these parts as ‘Goodtime Eddie Filth’ and he has been running four ‘adult novelty’ stores since the 1970s. Goodtime Eddie used to be raking in the cash but just like every other brick and mortar store he had been hit hard by the online revolution. Businessmen like him weren’t prepared for a world where you can get live nude girls on your smartphone and dildos delivered by Amazon drones.

Because of these changes Goodtime Eddie needed the Hudson River Booze and Boobs Cruise to help balance the books. It was like his Christmas, Christmas with herpes.

The MS Better Knot had always been the ship of choice for Goodtime Eddie’s oceanic adventures. It was a three level cruise ship ten years past its prime but the lower decks had tinted windows and central air to keep the sights and smells of the event from the landlubbers.

As you can imagine, after each of these cruises there was public outrage, municipal embarrassment and condoms washing up on shore for weeks. The forces of decency would rally and vow to put an end to the Hudson River Booze and Boobs Cruise, but no one really thought the party would ever stop. Not when there was more than enough money for bribes after the owners, the caterers, the dancers, and local mobsters had been paid off. The only people that got shut out in the end were the only people left hanging were T.I.T.S..

But when the party finally did stop, it stopped forever.

*

I was drunk, seasick and horny. It was almost ten thirty at night and I believed I was the only person on the open air upper deck of the MS Better Knot. It was thirty degrees, just cold enough to make me feel like I might either sober up or pass out. The party raged on beneath me.

And yes I do mean raged. The booze and the boobs had done their ugly work making some of the male attendees aggressive and demanding. The bouncers had their hands full and they had begun deputizing members of the ship’s crew to keep what was supposed to be a nice charitable orgy from degenerating into a series of manslaughter charges. The more I thought about the things going on down there, the more sick to my stomach I felt.

So why was I here? Because this event had hired my Cousin Roy as the DJ and he’d gotten me a free ticket. I said I wouldn’t go but loneliness and the lure of free drinks had weakened my will.

I stared woozily up at the sky, there were no clouds, just bright stars and a brighter moon. I found myself wishing it would snow, wishing a blanket of white would cover me, this boat, this city, everything. I wanted… I wanted to feel cleansed. I wanted to know what the fuck I was doing with my life.

Most of all wanted to forget about Sara Bishop.

There was a crash to my right, I turned around expecting to see another partier in search of fresh air or an original place to throw up.

What I saw was a partier all right, he staggered along the guardrail; his face, throat and gut had all been torn away. Air whistled through his ragged neck, a loosened eye rolled and jostled against an exposed cheekbone. Entrails, reeking and bloody, brimmed from his belly, slithering down to his feet.

He blubbered and reached for me

Then something brought him down, a lean, canine shape.

I heard the bites that killed the already dying man. The loud snaps of a powerful jaw followed by grunts that might have been from effort or from pleasure. My every muscle was locked in place, I was utterly terrified but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was fascinated too.

The thing chomped and swallowed while I ever so slowly retrieved my smartphone and snapped a few pictures.

Click: A paw immersed in a shallow puddle of blood.

But the paw wasn’t right, it was clumped and gnarled like an old branch. Something about it made my skin crawl.

Click: A long arching back, a supine torso covered with hair but not thick with it. Its hindquarters were hunched, its shoulders were sagging, its blunt muzzle was buried deep in the torso of the dead man.

Like the paw, the entirety of the creature’s body was hard to look at. At one glance it brought to mind a sickly or deformed beast and with another it made you think of a child clumsily play-acting at being an animal.

Click: Closer now, zooming in. There were traces of what might be bruises or war paint along its throat. The jawline was distended and monstrous looking, the ear was pert and seashell like. With one eye it looked directly into the camera.

Without warning the thing loosed a long keening howl.

When it howled I screamed.

I don’t remember running. I don’t remember running at all. I do remember falling down the stairs and landing with a thud onto the main deck. The smallest of the seven bouncers on duty, a pair of guys named Adam and Phil, helped me to my feet. They ushered me over to a chair at an empty table and got me a glass of water. Cousin Roy’s fifteen minute ‘My Humps’ dance remix was throbbing from the speakers. No wonder no one had heard the nightmare going on upstairs. “Aren’t you Roy’s brother?” Adam asked, “What happened?”

“Someone is hurt.” I pointed, “Up on the deck. There’s blood.”

What else did you expect me to say? That I’d seen a monster? I know better than that and so should you.

Phil went upstairs to check, I looked around the room. That thing, that whatever it was, could be anywhere now. If it moved on all fours it could slink between the tables and be on me before I could so much as piss myself.

That made me concentrate on my surroundings all the more but I saw no monsters, just table after table of empty, lonely and broken men and the single mothers, runaways and other lost girls trying to feign interest in what they had to say.

And make no mistake dear readers, I was very much a part of this scene. Sure, I partook in lap dances and dry banter from women that would never tell me their real names. Women I was treating with no more thought than a handful of tissues.

Suddenly I was being manhandled to my feet and dragged up the stairs by the bouncers. They didn’t look amused at all.

It seemed darker now but that might have just been the beginnings of the alcohol poisoning I had been courting all night. The Patroon Island Bridge was looming up ahead. No one was more surprised than me when I suddenly threw up all over the bouncer’s shoes. “Aw God Damn it!” Adam hissed.

“Never mind that,” Phil pulled me over to the far railing.

Of course there was no body. There was plenty of blood but no body.

“Now,” Adam said, “what the Hell happened up here?”

As far as interrogations go, the one I got from the two bouncers wasn’t all that bad. I told them what they expected to hear and insisted we had to turn the boat around and call the police.

Phil looked at me like I’d just beamed down from the Starship Peckerhead, “Are you outta your mind?”

“Someone might have fallen overboard!” I said, “We gotta get help.”

“All that happened is someone fell and hit their head,” Phil glared, “head wounds bleed a lot. Poor sap probably wandered back downstairs.”

“That doesn’t even make sense! Think about what–” I stopped talking when I felt a meaty hand on my right buttock, “Hey that’s my wallet!”

“Mr. Fingle doesn’t need the police or any kind of trouble,” Adam rooted around until he found my driver’s license. He pocketed it, “So you keep your mouth shut or we’ll find you and make you sorry.”

“I’m already sorry” I snatched my wallet back, “you guys are making a big mistake.”

They crossed their arms in unison. Phil said, “We’re professionals, we don’t make mistakes.”

“Oh please,” I rolled my eyes, “this isn’t Roadhouse. Can’t you see we’re all in danger?”

“Danger? How?”

“Well… Well…” I self-consciously adjusted my straw fedora, “I haven’t been one hundred percent up front with you guys.”

“Oh?” Phil stepped closer.

“I saw something else… It attacked the guy… The guy that isn’t here now…”

“Something else?”

So I told them everything, the whole story and I cringed with every word. When I was finished Adam asked, “Are you saying you saw a werewolf?”

“Hey now!” I raised my hands, “I did not use the ‘W-word’.”

“But that’s what you mean right?” Adam continued, “You’re saying you saw a monster eat somebody.”

I snapped my fingers and reached in my jacket, “Hold on. I snapped a picture of it…”

Adam and Phil stared at the pictures for almost a minute; then they exchanged glances and Adam tossed my smartphone into the Hudson River.

“Hey!” I shouted, “What did you do that for?”

“The rules said no recording devices allowed on the boat.” Phil said, “You remember that?”

“I think we’re beyond such concerns now,” I tried to match him glare for glare but that isn’t easy when your line of sight is roughly equal to a guy’s pectoral muscles. “We should be worried about the werewolf!”

The two bouncers started laughing. Adam gave me a shove, “Werewolf? All I saw was some naked hippie chick.”

“Hippie chick?”

“Yeah, you know all hairy and shit.”

I facepalmed, “Oh sweet lord.”

“All I gotta say is you better stay out of trouble for the rest of this trip or you’re gonna get a tasering.”

With that I was alone on the upper deck again. A hippie chick? I thought to myself, Was he for real?

He probably was, when faced with the preternatural most people default back to their most comfortable frame of reference. I guess Adam had a thing for hirsute ladies.

Part of me wanted to leave these idiots to their fate. What would happen if I literally jumped ship? Could I make it to shore? I could probably make it, I’d dealt with worse than hypothermia in my life.

But that would mean leaving Cousin Roy, and other semi-innocent people to a fate they didn’t deserve. I had to do something, so I decided to present my case to the captain of the MS Better Knot. He might take me seriously.

Sure, and daisies might grow out of my ears.

Sighing with resignation I headed up the stairs to the bridge. I rehearsed the lie I was going to tell in my head, editing out any details that might arouse suspicion or laughter. I was so focused on this that I almost didn’t notice when my hand came up from the railing wet and red.

Oh no. Oh no…

I froze in place and thought about turning back but after a moment of self-hatred I started up the stairs again. But a little more slowly and quietly this time. There was a small fire extinguisher in a case on the wall. I grabbed it.

The engines of the boat thrummed, the waves lapped and splashed against the hull. I could hear the sounds of laughter and pounding of the music down below me. The stars began to pale as the lights of the patroon island bridge grew larger and the flash of headlights passing across it became brighter and brighter.

The door at the top of the stairs was a sliding metal affair, it looked very secure, too bad it was wide open. There was blood on the walls and the instrument panels, there were bits of the bridge crew smeared around the floor. A bit of the captain here, a bit of the first mate there, a bit of something unrecognizable in the corner.

I walked into the room; I wasn’t hoping to find survivors, I was hoping to find the radio so I could call for help. I could hear hissing static nearby, the handset had been ripped out and the controls had been smashed.

There was a roar. Then a flash of pain as I was thrown forward. A sharp ache bloomed up the right side of my back, the kind of ache that always precedes an unhealthy amount of blood loss.

Terror and adrenaline kept me on my feet. I spun around swinging the fire extinguisher. Metal struck bone. Teeth clattered to the floor.

I brought the fire extinguisher back around again for another swing. Another ugly crunch of bone, my attacker- the creature- the werewolf went down.

And thank God for that because the torn skin and muscle of my back was screaming now.

No time to rest, I thought, Finish this. Could I really crush the thing’s skull? If it really was a werewolf shouldn’t I be looking for something made of silver? I stood over it, saw it thrashing half-heartedly.

Finish this! It was more than a thought now, it was a primal instinct. Grunting at the pain I raised the fire extinguisher above my head.

And that was when the MS Better Knot crashed into the Patroon Island Bridge.

*

You must know the rest, it was the news story of the year. The MS Better Knot striking the Patroon Island Bridge and capsizing. The five dead, including the captain and bridge crew, and two missing. The millions of dollars in structural damage done to one of the main routes from Albany to Rensselaer. The full-fledged boat rescue in the middle of the night that was made the more insane because Cousin Roy had decided to leave Gordon Lightfoot’s Summertime Dream playing at full volume before abandoning the DJ’s booth in favor of a life raft.

The wound on my back was a deep one, stitches couldn’t close it, they had to use surgical staples. I see an epic scar in my future. I also see a long wait at the DMV to get my driver’s license back since bouncer Adam was among the dead.

When I consider what happened that night I think about Tyke the elephant.

Stay with me on this, I’m going somewhere.

In 1994 during a performance of the Circus International in Honolulu, Hawaii Tyke went berserk, killed her trainer and ran wild through the streets. Twelve people were injured and eventually Tyke was brought down in a hail of gunfire.

I think about that poor creature, snatched away from anything remotely resembling a normal life and forced to perform for the amusement of others. I think I can understand why that elephant did what she did and I bet you can too.

Item: Among the injured was a dancer named Zora. Investigations revealed that she was a fifteen year old illegal immigrant that had been smuggled into the country from Armenia and forced to work as a dancer and a prostitute by Edward Fingle’s adult entertainment company.

Item: Further investigations revealed that several girls on the Fingle payroll were in the same situation as Zora.

Item: Goodtime Eddie Flith is in a lot of trouble and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Item: Despite having a broken jaw, dislocated shoulder and shattered clavicle Zora disappeared from the hospital shortly after her identity was discovered and hasn’t been seen since. The authorities suspect Goodtime Eddie’s associates had something to do with it but I’m not so sure.

I don’t think I’ll ever know who, or what, the girl named Zora was but I think I can understand why she did what she did and I bet you can too.

Screams From Valhalla

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The following story is dedicated with awe and inspiration to George C. Chesbro

November 3rd, 9:51 PM;

Martin ‘Marty’ Biddle got home from visiting his parents to find the front door of the apartment he shared with his two roommates wide open. Since he didn’t live in the best of neighborhoods the wisest course of action would have been to call the police, but Marty didn’t do that. Instead he grabbed his phone and started filming. He would explain later that he had only wanted to make a video record for insurance purposes, but let’s all be honest here, Marty went in there trying to catch what we all want these days- an image so amazing or amusing or awful that it will set the internet buzzing and tweeting. A post modern money shot.

The only light in the parlor was the pale blue illumination from an overturned TV. Everything that could have been smashed had been smashed, everything that could have been torn apart had been torn apart. Marty called out for his roommates but there was no answer.

He made his way past the kitchen to find the bathroom door had been pulled off its hinges. The toilet had been shattered and the sink pulled from the wall. All the chips and shards of porcelain had been heaped together and every single grooming supply had been reverently emptied onto them. It should be noted that Marty’s roommate Brett was a model, his other roommate Sergio was a hairdresser and between them there had been enough gel, shampoo, body wash and mousse to cover the entire pile debris. The smell was more powerful than you could imagine. Sweet and cloying it took Marty’s breath away, it made his head swim. It kept him from noticing the shaggy figure slouching out of the shadows towards him until it was too late.

Marty Biddle was about to go viral.

*

Luckily for Marty someone nearby heard the sound of his near-disemboweling and called 911.

The authorities immediately started downplaying the attack, calling it an ‘isolated incident of drug-related violence’. That explanation seemed plausible enough, so long as you didn’t look too closely or think too hard about it. I don’t know how things are in your town but in Albany drug related crimes aren’t nearly as ‘bitey’ as what had happened that night. The poor guy had been gnawed on in dozens of places.

Then the video from Marty’s phone, the video the authorities had been trying so hard to keep under wraps, leaked. Those few minutes of footage started flying around the Deep Web like an ear infection moving through a daycare. The two sites that really fixated on the video were 4Chan and the ‘Fear and Truth’ message board. All the gang at 4Chan did with the video was add cartoon sound effects and racism but my friends and conspirators on ‘Fear and Truth’ enhanced the Sweet Holy Hell out of that footage and broke it down frame by frame.

What that revealed provoked a long and ugly online argument, with some forum users insisting that Marty Biddle had been attacked by a Sasquatch and others declaring that they damn well knew a rabid hippie when they saw one. My opinion was firmly in the rabid hippie category and I decided to prove it.

*

The best way to skulk around a hospital unchallenged is to dress in scrubs and look like you know what you’re doing. So at the very least I dressed in scrubs and showed up at Albany Med during evening shift changeover.

There were two uniformed police officers stationed in front of room 357; both were older men, desk jockeys working overtime. They seemed more interested in bullshitting with each other than their surroundings, which was fine by me. I kept watch on the room for almost an hour, the doctors and nurses that entered the room all wore surgical masks and latex gloves. The two police officers stepped far away from the door whenever they passed.

It was around quarter to eight when I put on a surgical mask of my own and started walking towards the room.

I punctuated my every footstep with the thought I’m supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be here. and prayed that the middle aged boys in blue caught the vibe. The officers barely acknowledged me as I approached

Nailed it.

Then the radios on their shoulders crackled to life. They had a brief confused conversation with their superiors and then walked away from the door they had been so lackadaisically guarding. They brushed past me as they headed for the elevators.

Still nailing it. I thought as I entered Marty Biddle’s room.

And immediately thought I was in the wrong place.

The man strapped to the hospital bed didn’t look anything like the pictures I’d dug up online. His arms, face and neck were covered with tufts of hair, his eyes were crazed with inhuman fury and his jaw was distended. He had been chewing at his upper lip and his teeth were smeared with blood. This was no rabid hippie.

“Marty?” I whispered, “Marty Biddle?”

His only answer was a growl. So much for the interview section of my story. I whipped out my smartphone and started taking pictures- HIPPA be damned.

The door clicked open behind me. Moving with the speed of a true coward I dove into the darkened bathroom and closed the door almost but not quite all the way shut.

A trio of figures walked into the room, one woman, two men. They wore whimsical cat masks and serious gray suits.

Not something I expected to see but there are precedents.

They surrounded the bed. “Great scott!” the man in the white cat mask said.

“I thought you’d remember,” the woman in the black cat mask said.

The man in the orange cat mask spluttered “How is this possible?”

“Nobody is sure yet.” the white cat shook his head, “It can’t be Valhalla all over again. It just can’t.”

The orange cat asked, “Has anyone reached out to Dr. Fredrickson?”

“Isn’t he dead?”

“No,” the black cat said with a sigh, “just in France.”

I was texting all this information back to myself when I heard the hospital windows shatter.

That sound was followed by the crash of toppling furniture, animalistic grunts and all-too human cries. It sounded like a war had broken out in a monkey house. There was no mistaking the voice of the man in the black cat mask and the serious suit, his outraged cry dwindling to a death rattle.

Part of me wanted to get out there and see what was going on but the rational part of me, the part that mostly knows better, convinced me to close the bathroom door and put my shoulder against it.

I listened as the two cops burst into the hospital room. They were shouting orders but it only took a heartbeat for those bellowed orders to become high-pitched screams.

*

The authorities took my statement into evidence, then my iPhone and then finally my scrubs and clothes. They sent me home from a long night of interrogations with nothing more than a preposterous story and a second hand tracksuit.

I was never so glad to have left my hat at home.

I stopped by Cousin Roy’s place to have a drink and unwind. He didn’t even ask why I was dressed like a low rung mobster, he was too excited. He told me his new plan to become financially secure. It involved him getting declared mentally incompetent and then waiting for the public assistance to roll in.

Maybe I should have reacted with outrage or at least told him to not have Fox News playing in the background but I had too many questions and too little bourbon sloshing around in my head.

Who where those people in cat masks? What did they mean by “Valhalla all over again?” What had come crashing through the sixth floor hospital window to liberate Marty Biddle after reducing those cat mask wearing individuals into something bloody and unrecognizable?

I knew my first step to finding an answer would be to track down that Dr. Fredrickson they mentioned.

*

After the events of the hospital things moved quickly. Albany’s Chief of Police went on TV and declared a city-wide manhunt for the ‘drug crazed hooligans’ that had killed at least five people. I am sure that little soundbite was a great comfort to the citizenry as was the show of force that took place the next day. At high noon on November 5th the forces of law and order went marching through the poorer neighborhoods of Albany in all their army surplus enhanced glory. The whole scene was the very model of a post 9/11 dystopia. The final results of the brouhaha in body armor was twelve arrests on unrelated charges and outstanding warrants, a neighborhood dog being shot and not one ‘drug crazed hooligan’ being taken into custody.

While all this was going on I was busy learning all I could about Dr. Fredrickson. I assumed the good doctor was some kind of mad scientist but it turns out that this doctor had a degree in criminology. He taught for a while at a downstate college before opening up his own private detective agency. That was when Dr. Fredrickson’s story got weird- I mean really weird.

I’m talking Swan Lake being performed by mimes with Tourette’s syndrome in a running car wash weird. You see Dr. Fredrickson’s cases weren’t of the standard ‘act as a bodyguard’ or ‘find out of my spouse is cheating’ variety. His life was spent investigating all kinds of grisly murders, as well mysterious disappearances and the occasional ninja.

Yes, you read that right. Actual ninjas!

While I did my research things kept getting more and more complicated. There were almost a dozen sightings of what I will ironically describe as ‘man-animals’ in Troy but they were all dismissed as hysteria and lies by the powers that be. Some unlucky citizens were attacked but those attacks were blamed on rabid dogs. By the third chewed up jogger the local newspapers began to get suspicious but their investigations went nowhere because both the survivors and the dead were kept under a strict quarantine.

It took some doing but on the Novemeber sixth I struck pay dirt.

My investigations revealed that in 2006 Dr. Fredrickson moved to France to act as a consultant for Interpol and never came back. In fact he moved his whole damn family across the ocean with him. I found his Interpol email address and sent him a guarded message.

I got an answer almost immediately. God bless you social media.

*

The place: Troy, New York.

The time: high noon.

Going to secluded locations at the behest of people you’ve met on the Internet is only slightly dumber than climbing into the back of a van offering free vasectomies. But I went anyway.

To the secluded location, not the vasectomy.

I parked my car across the street from a flower shop and made my way to a long-abandoned textile mill. Abandoned buildings are nothing new in Troy; the town is an urban explorer’s dream but the mill was unique in that after the Volsung Company shut down operations and moved production to Taiwan they held on to the property- and let it rot.

At least until the Volsung Corporation went belly up in 1985. The city took the property over and came up with one idea after another of what to do with it. None were ever acted on.

The mill was an ugly rectangle of red brick with tiny windows and a pair of chimneys. It looked like an orphanage out of a Dickens novel. Dr. Fredrickson had told me he was booking a flight to New York right away and planned to meet me there. Personally I would have preferred to meet the man at the airport or a nice restaurant but if this was how he wanted to play it I didn’t have much choice.

I wanted answers.

Like most creepy, long-abandoned buildings the mill was surrounded by a chain link fence that was crawling with tetanus. There is no way to casually climb a chain link fence in broad daylight so I just got it over with as quickly as I could. My bum knee screamed in protest when I landed.

There was a brief, angry moment when realize there had been a man-sized hole in the fence just a few yards to my right but I got over it. Trash and weeds ringed the building, one of the loading dock doors was wide open, it gaped hungrily, waiting for me to enter.

And enter I did, my iPhone filming every second. The loading dock looked like… well, a loading dock. Truck bays, ramps and offices. A double door led to the interior of the building, I nudged it open with my foot. The mill was empty, no walls, no machines. The afternoon sun was level with glassless windows, I passed from shadow to light to shadow. Somewhere an owl hooted and flew away.

The only thing worse than the stink of a building gone to rot is the odor of death and lucky me, I was smelling both. I hated myself for not asking for more answers from Dr. Fredrickson but he’d insisted that he no longer trusted the security of any email system.

The message had told me to come with an open mind and a length of rope.

Just in case this whole thing was a trap I decided against bringing a rope. I had no intention of being trussed up by someone as deadly as they were thrifty.

The light from smartphone found footprints on the dirty floor; dozens of them, all barefoot and all walking on the balls of their feet. I followed the trail deeper into the building. Half-eaten animal corpses were strewn everywhere. I’m not 100% sure what kind they were but I imagined there were a lot of folks in Troy missing their cats and dogs.

“Stop right there!” a voice called from the shadows. It was soft, heavily accented in French, and deadly serious.

I stopped.

“Look down,” the voice said.

There was a hole in the floor right in front of me. I exhaled heavily, “I should have brought that rope.”

“Nice to finally meet you,” A trench coated woman stepped into view. She was beautiful with refined features and ghostly white skin. She was an albino. “I like the hat.”

The stranger was wearing a chapeau of her own, a dark blue trilby that anchored down her white dreadlocks. “Back at ya” I said, “And you are?”

“My name is Chloe Tree, you’ve been emailing my Uncle.” There was a rucksack over her shoulder, she pulled a slender object from it. There was a muffled crack followed by a hiss, the road flare she was holding burst to life.

“He sent you?”

Chloe Tree walked over to the edge of the hole and dropped the flare. The stick of reddish flame fell for eight seconds before hitting bottom. She nodded sagely and shouldered out of her rucksack. “Good, I brought enough,” she handed me one end of the rope, “please tie it around something solid.”

There was a free-standing support column about six feet to our left. “So,” I started looping rope around it, “Dr. Fredrickson is your Uncle?”

“When I was four years old my parents were killed by a man that thought my skin and organs could give him great power. The Fredrickson brothers rescued me.”

“And then Dr. Fredrickson’s brother adopted you?”

“His brother Garth and his wife Mary.”

I stared at the knot I had tied for a moment or two. I’d never been a Boy Scout and I couldn’t be sure the ugly tangle of rope would hold, but it would have to do. “Ready!”

She dropped the rope down into the pit, “The Volsung Company presented itself to the world as an agricultural research company but they had other interests.”

“Bio-weapons?” I asked.

She flashed me a smile, “How did you know?”

“What can I say?” I shrugged, “I’m a good guesser.”

“Indeed.” After one last look around she hefted the rucksack and began lowering herself into the hole in the floor, “Climb carefully now.”

Climb down into a pit in an abandoned factory? That’s how I roll.

This was my first time rappelling so I took it slowly. How far down were we going? I thought eighty feet was a good estimate but that begged the question- what the Hell was down here? What had this company been doing on the side? “So,” I panted, “I guess Volsung was making some kind of killer virus…”

“Worse, a morphic impacting pathogen.”

“I have no idea what that means but it makes me want to wash my hands.”

She gave a little laugh and she dropped from the rope to land on the floor below, “You’ve seen the results of it on Martin Biddle, a complete re-writing of DNA to the point where a physical transformation is triggered. The transformation is mental too, millions of years of evolution are wiped away. Their minds become primitive and malleable.”

“Are you telling me,” I dropped down after her, “that this thing turns people into cavemen?”

“To put it simply yes. But the damage done is so profound that the children of any surviving victims will be pseudo-neanderthals.”

What she was saying was impossible, it was insane, it was the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey in reverse but I’d seen it. I’d seen what that poor bastard Marty Biddle had become.

She produced a flashlight from her backpack of tricks and swept a beam of light around the chamber. The place was at least three hundred feet across in every direction. It was populated with long, flat buildings,  obelisks and statues rose up to brush the roof of the chamber. It was positively cathedral-like, “Why would anyone do this?”

“They called it the Valhalla Project,” she walked over to one of the statues, it was covered with an ugly, foul smelling fungus that grew in streaks and lumps along what must have once been a seventy foot tall effigy of some saint or wise man. The coating of fungus left the face and inscription impossible to make sense of, “The plan was to let the virus do its work while a chosen few survivors waited in a dozen places like this around the globe. Then once the human race had been fully regressed they would emerge and guide mankind into a less warlike state of being. A kinder, gentler human race.”

“That’s… that’s…” I boggled, “You’re not kidding are you?”

“No,” she started walking then paused and glanced back at me before continuing on. It seemed like her too-pale face lingered in the shadows after her. Chesire-like.

I used my phone to snap a few pictures along the way but I knew I would never post them, not when everything looked like a seventies album cover. “It would be nice if you could tell me what we’re looking for.”

“Some clue as to who blasted that hole up above. Everyone that experienced the Valhalla Project firsthand should be dead.”

“Everyone?”

“Everyone except for my father and those curious cats,” the entrance to one of the buildings was open, we took a moment to peer inside. There were four rows of TRS-80 era looking computers, a skeleton was slumped over one of the keyboards. It was covered with fungus, everything was.

“What is this… gunk?” I ran my fingers along the wall, scooping up a handful of the stuff, it was moist and clammy.

“It was supposed to be a food source, I guess after the place was abandoned it got ambitious.”

“Ichhhhh!” Now I really wanted to wash my hands.

Up ahead was something that must have been a town square, a gathering place for discussions of great importance and possibly the occasional biome hoedown. There was a gathering taking place there, or maybe ceremony is a better way to describe what I saw.

There was a toppled obelisk nearby, Chloe and I took cover behind it and observed the ugly troglodyte figures as they danced about a flaming pile of bones.

Somewhere an amplifier was playing a speech that sounded like it had been recorded long ago, “Let every man remind their descendants that they also are soldiers who must not desert the ranks of their ancestors, or from cowardice fall behind…”

It boomed and echoed, the acoustics of the place were amazing.

“There are more than I expected,” Chloe said.

“…strive to be the bravest of men. And I think that I ought now to repeat what your fathers desired to have said to you who are their survivors…”

I have never been so out of my depth in my life. I asked, “What do we do now?”

“We retreat,” Chloe said, “We contact the authorities and we hope.”

“Love it.” I said, “Best plan ever.”

There was a pause in the recording. We turned to go. I stepped on a bone. The sound of it snapping resounded like a gunshot.

Of course the man-animals heard it.

Of course we ran.

Of course they caught up with us easily.

The moment one reached us, Chloe clocked it with her rucksack. Then her hand was in the rucksack, grabbing two more flares.

There was a crack and a hiss. The road flare burned to life. The man-animals backed away in panic but surrounded us just the same.

We weren’t going anywhere.

“How long do those things last?” I asked her.

“Here,” she threw the other one to me and I almost caught it.

When I bent down to retrieve it one of the man-animals pounced. We tumbled along the slimy, moldy ground. Teeth brushed my throat. I fought to push it away but only managed to keep the creature from biting into my neck.

My scream was half-pain, half-terror. Chloe was shouting something in French. I begged the creature nuzzling into the meat of my clavicle for mercy.

The man-animals would have killed us both then and there if not for the timely arrival of a robed, red-haired man. He ordered them to stop in a voice that was patient and gentle. The man-animals immediately forgot about us, they fawned and groveled at the man’s feet.

“Chloe…” I panted. “Are you Ok?”

Dirt and bruises contrasted with her pale, albino skin, “Morceau de merde stole my bag…”

I was clutching at the wound on my shoulder. There was so much blood. My hand looked like I was wearing a single red glove. Direct pressure. I told myself, Apply direct pressure.

The stranger sent the man-animals scurrying with a snap of his fingers. He had a tall forehead, frizzy hair and an almost nonexistent chin, “We meet again Ms. Tree.”

“Mr. Volsung,” Chloe said his name like a curse.

“‘We meet again?’” I said woozily, “Who the Hell says that in real life?”

He glared at me, “I just did.”

It was at that moment I realized I was on my knees, I tried to stand up but my legs weren’t having it, “Are you really going to release a killer virus and destroy the world?”

Mr. Volsung turned his attention back to Chloe, “Who is this idiot?”

“He’s a fellow investigator.”

“Is this fellow investigator aware that he will soon be reborn as a Beast of Valhalla?”

“Is that bad?” I asked, “Because it sounds bad.”

Mr. Volsung’s reaction was a roll of the eyes, Chloe’s expression became pained. In other words it wasn’t as bad as it sounded, it was worse. I was infected, I was on a one way trip to Troglodyte Town.

“Come,” Mr. Volsung gestured to Chloe Tree, “we have matters to discuss that are not for lesser ears.”

“Oh no.” I said, “I’m a part of this, I want some answers.”

Mr. Volsung snapped his fingers and the man-animals swarmed me. They lifted me up and carried me away…

*

My name is Chloe Tree and it has fallen upon me to tell this part of the story. Please understand that this is not the whole story, there are facts that must be obscured for the sake of humanity but I respect Brian Foster and what he has tried to accomplish.

Know then that the man called Volsung is the last and least of a bloodline as arrogant as it is ugly. Let it be known however that Volsung labors alone like in the financial and scientific ruins of his betters. The mighty had fallen, I just didn’t know how far.

“Come,” he said to me, “we have matters to discuss that are not for lesser ears.”

“Oh no.” Brian’s voice was desperate, “I’m a part of this, I want some answers.”

All it took was a snap of Volsung’s fingers for the pseudo-neanderthals, the creatures some called the Beasts of Valhalla, to fall upon Brian. There was a moment of terror when I was certain they would tear him limb from limb, but why would the beasts do that when he would be one of them soon enough?

They lifted him up and carried him away deep into the heart of this fungus choked monument to one man’s hubris. “How?” I asked, “How do you make them obey you like that?”

“All in good time,” there was a tremor in his voice that seemed to spread through his entire body. He began to walk away knowing I would follow.

Brian’s straw fedora had fallen to the ground, I tossed my own hat off my head and put his on in its stead. Even now I am not sure what my motivation was for doing so. You might think it was so he could be with me in spirit,  but I don’t believe in spirits, or monsters or gods. There are only mysteries that have yet to be solved.

It was sentiment I suppose.

“Does your adoptive father know you’re here?” Volsung asked.

“He’s none of your business.”

The path he led me along sloped downward. The white fungus became thicker and thicker as we progressed, it popped and hissed underfoot like a carpet of bubble paper. The air it released was foul and choked with spores.

“What is this?” I asked.

“It was the only thing to survive when the facility descended into chaos. It spread from  hydroponics to contaminate everything.” He ran a hand along the veins of soft, whiteness, “From foodstuff to conquerer in less than a generation. Impressive no?”

This was getting nowhere, I changed the subject, “What about Brian?”

“What about him?”

“There must be some kind of cure, some way to help him.”

“No. The infection is incurable and for all but 2% of the population.”

“2%? Which 2%?”

“For some reason it does not impact individuals with a mutation of the MC1R protein. Speaking of mutations,” Volsung paused in mid stride and glanced back at me, “I was sorry to hear about your ‘uncle’ but I suppose he lived longer than someone with his genetic setbacks should have.”

I said nothing.

“Did he ever consider,” he began walking again, “That perhaps his encounter with the Valhalla virus was the source of his prolonged lifespan?”

“He…” I took a moment to compose myself. This is the curse of an atheist; a religious person finds solace in the knowledge they will be reunited with their loved ones in an afterlife. Atheists know better, dead is dead and gone is gone- we only live on in memory and even that is fleeting. “He would have wanted me to try and appeal to your sense of reason.”

Volsung chuckled, “My sense of reason doesn’t come into it.”

“This strain of the virus is flawed, it could never do what you want because it is only passed through bodily fluids. All you’re going to do is create human misery.”

“Look around you Ms. Tree, we’re already in a world of human misery. Better to begin again or never to have been at all.” The door to hydroponics had fallen from it’s hinges, the ultraviolet lights dangled by half rotted fixtures and wires. The fungus was everywhere, it surrounded us on all sides, a thick mound of it festered in the center of the room. “If it is to survive Humanity must stop warring with itself. It must become one mind, one soul.”

That brought a question to mind, “Is that how are you able to control the beasts?”

“One mind,” His robes and voice trembled again. He approached the mound and caressed it, “One soul.”

An ugly suspicion took hold of my thoughts, “Whose mind?” I asked, “Whose soul?”

His expression became sly, he undid the belt of his robe and let it fall open to reveal corruption. The same fungus that had run riot over the complex had grown fat on his flesh. It pulsed in time with his heartbeat. “It has such tranquility to share,” he said, “It will forgive your trespasses.”

I dropped to my knees, he liked that. I asked, “What does this have to do with saving humanity?”

“Livestock survives. Livestock endures.”

“You’re insane!” I reached down “Think what you’re saying.”

“Don’t you see?” Volsung spread his arms wide in a gesture of welcome, “Every flock needs shepherds. We. Have. Been. Chosen.”

One of my father’s old friends had given me the pistol and the ankle holster I drew it from. I fired twice, both shots hitting him in the face. There was less blood than I expected. Thick tendrils quivered and lashed at the air before becoming still. He didn’t fall, he just stood there like a toy with batteries that had run down.

The mound of fungus in the center of the room began to quiver, I imagined it erupting like a boil and filling the room with spores and tendrils. It was time to get away, but first I had to find Brian.

*

Aside from a few disconnected images I can’t really remember what happened.

I know the man-animals carried me away to what might have an auditorium. There were TV screens on every wall, some hissed static others played old newsreel footage from World War II. The man-animals sat me down in the first row of seats. Just before I blacked out I realized one of the man-animals had stolen my pants.

Then gunfire. Chloe Tree came charging into the room like, if you’ll pardon a bit of alliteration, an albino avenging angel. She dragged me to my feet and pulled me out of the room. The man-animals started to give chase but a few shots over their heads scattered them.

She practically carried me through the complex. All around us the white fungus was pulsing angrily.

Somehow we got back to where we had come in. How the Hell did she get me back up that rope? Men and women in cat masks and Brooks Brothers suits waited for us at the top of the shaft. They must have had something to do with it. There was construction equipment everywhere, cement mixers mostly. They had knocked out the east wall of the mill to get them in there.

A man in a calico cat mask approached Chloe. It didn’t take long for them to start arguing about me, something about me not leaving here alive. I wish I could remember exactly.

At that point I wanted to say something but I was too busy blacking out again.

Days later I woke up in the most sterile-looking hospital room I had ever seen. There were no windows, the bed was standard prison issue; the door was locked and there was no TV. My shoulder had been patched up and there were needle and IV tracks up and down my arms. Either I was being held prisoner by a shadowy government agency, or Albany Med had a terrifying new way of dealing with uninsured patients.

Thankfully it was the former and after a few more days of observation and tests they let me go with a warning never to tell my story to anyone.

But come on, what did they think I was gonna do?

By the time I got out Chloe Tree had already gone back to France but she had kindly emailed me the file I posted above so you could know what I missed.

Item: If you recall Volsung mentioned that people with a mutation of the MC1R protein are immune to the virus. The protein in question is the one that makes you a ginger. You don’t actually have to be a ginger to have that genetic marker, it’s recessive but just having it is enough to save you.

Item: I only have one picture of my absentee grandpa but if you haven’t guessed already he had bright red hair.

Item: In the two weeks I was gone Mrs. Vinchenzo and Cousin Roy went out of their minds with worry, now that I’m back they’re out of their minds with anger.

Item: At least I got my straw fedora back.

Item: You won’t find anything beneath the textile mill anymore, nothing but eighty-plus feet of fresh concrete, and pretty soon you won’t even find the mill itself. The city of Troy has decided to knock it all down and build a community playground.

I wonder if there’ll be monkey bars.

On The Fritz

fritz

What follows is a tale of things that happen in dark and private moments, a tale of emotional needs supplanted by physical desire, in other words a tale of fucking.

It begins with Roseanne Gluckman, a woman unlucky in love but skilled in the stock market, a self made millionaire at thirty years old.

Roseanne’s plans had been to make her fortune first and get married second but now the fear that her suitors were only after her for money left her unable to get past a first date much less third base.

On the Internet we call this a ‘first world problem.’

Since women have needs just like men, Roseanne found a workaround, an expensive and preternatural one, but a workaround nonetheless. She nicknamed him Fritz; he was high on maintenance and low on personality but he got the job done and he was always ready for more. He made her feel things she’d barely been able to imagine feeling before. Sure she always felt a little guilty afterwards but that wasn’t enough to make her send him away, not when she was in a relationship with so few rules or expectations.

And isn’t that what every relationship comes down to? Rules and expectations?

Speaking of expectations, one she had been told to accept was Fritz’s complete silence, he would never ask questions, make complaints or ask about her net worth. He was a blank slate she could overwrite with her every fantasy, he could be everything she ever wanted.

Then he started humming.

That faint almost tuneless sound turned turned her warm post-coital sweat ice cold. She realized what she had done with a scream, a scream the shape beside her in the bed ignored.

She ran from bedroom and locked herself in the bathroom. This was bad. She had broken the rule- THE rule. She had committed a sin far worse than breaking a roomful of  mirrors or feeding a gremlin after midnight.

The hum became a voice, almost too faint for her to hear, “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?” 

*

If you only know Saratoga via that Carly Simon song then let me explain that Saratoga is the closest thing upstate New York has to Beverly Hills. Except of course for it has a near complete lack of celebrities, glamor and decent weather- but it has a nice racetrack, so it’s got that going for it.

The time? Two days after Fritz’s impromptu serenade had driven Roseanne Gluckman from her high priced condo to her even more expensive McMansion.

I was barricading us into her spacious study. Rosanne was loading the gargantuan revolver she’d just purchased. She’d said it made her feel safe.

That was one of us.

My Macbook was in the corner of the room, Jasper’s face was in the chat window, “This is the most ridiculous and insane thing I am ever heard. Why am I doing this?”

“Because it’s in our mutual interest,” I put the hammer down and approached. “Did you find anything?”

Jasper he held up a sheet of paper with Hebrew lettering on it to the camera;

אמת

“It’s the word ‘truth’,” Jasper explained. “You inscribe it on a golem to bring it to life.”

“A golem?” I scanned the room. The study entrance was nailed shut. A heavy oak bookshelf had been pulled in front of the glass balcony doors. There was a pitiful looking log burning in the fireplace. The fireplace poker was beside it, the business end buried in the hot coals. “She turned her sex doll into a golem?”

“It is not a sex doll,” Roseanne said frostily, “it is a Macho Manikin Fully Articulated Love Companion.”

Jasper’s voice said from the Macbook, “It’s a golem now.”

“It cost twelve thousand dollars!”

“Then it’s a twelve thousand dollar golem,” Jasper started shuffling through his notes, “the thing is the word ‘Truth’ is supposed to be on the golem, not the golem’s owner.”

“That damned leper…” Roseanne held her forearm up for us to see, the Hebrew lettering was there. It wasn’t a tattoo or a birthmark and had started to appear the night the singing had begun. It had been growing darker and more pronounced by the hour, “Surama did this to me.”

Jasper said, “Brian, how can I be sure this was the same Surama I crossed paths with?”

“How many creepy mystically-inclined lepers do you think are out there?” I crossed back over to the door again and tested it. Would it hold?

My thoughts went back to Surama, also known as the Favored One, the Lich of Iram, the Repairer of Reputations and a dozen other nicknames that would have made HP Lovecraft swoon. Who was he really? And what did he want? How did he choose his victims?

I didn’t know, I couldn’t even guess.

But what I really wanted to know is how Jasper had crossed paths with the guy. All he told me was that he had a ‘spot of bother with the man’.

“He’s the Devil,” Roseanne said.

“I sincerely doubt that,” Jasper’s exasperated voice crackled from the Macbook screen, “And it’s not like you sold him your soul.”

“Actually…”

I said, “Why am I just hearing this now?”

“It was more of a promissory note,” she replied.

Jasper said, “Can we all step this back? There is no such thing as the Devil. Whatever this is, whatever Surama is, he is not the Devil.”

“OK a promissory note then,” I said, ignoring Jasper, “What did you promise?”

“The deal was that Fritz would come to life and… take care of my needs until the day I found true love…” her voice trailed off.

“And?” I gestured for her to continue.

She sighed, “And if I ever let a single teardrop fall onto Fritz I would become his true love.”

There was a long pause, I looked from Roseanne to the Macbook, Jasper just stared out of the screen at both of us. Finally he cleared his throat, “This is the highest form of insanity..”

I pinched the bridge of my nose, “She is not… Wait. You cried on him? On it?”

This whole affair was getting more bizarre by the minute, I wondered if she was putting me on. It’s happened before, you folks remember the time I received an email from a concerned citizen about a haunted house only to learn it was actually a meth lab, or the time I got a tip about a coven of vampires only to find out it was a group of swingers with a love of crushed velvet and LARPing. Both those adventures had nearly gotten me fucked over- just in very different ways.

“Yes I did,” Roseanne said, “but not on purpose. Do you think I wanted to end up spending my nights getting off with some kind of a magic robot? That night I was so disgusted with myself that I started to cry.”

“I’m really sorry. I didn’t think-”

“I got a gal who’s always late,” A syrupy, Prince Charming voice interrupted us, it was making its way up Roseanne Gluckman’s driveway. “Anytime we have a date…”

“And here we go,” I closed the Macbook lid. Jasper had time for a single shout of protest.

Meanwhile the serenade was continuing, “I’m gonna walk up to her gate, and see if I can get it straight…”

There was a crash that could only be the sound of the house’s front door being kicked in. The home security system started going berserk. A stern sounding operator began issuing stern sounding warnings from the intercoms but all the while Fritz kept singing away, “Cause I wants her, I’m gonna ask her- Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?”

I turned back to look at Roseanne, the paleness was spreading out from the word on her forearm, something about it made her flesh take on an artificial tone. She cried, “You said you had a plan!”

The singer was getting closer now, I could hear his footsteps on the landing, “The way you’re actin’ lately makes me doubt…”

“I do have a plan,” I explained, “it just happens to be an awful one.”

The study door crashed open and I got my first glimpse of Fritz. Imagine if you will Kirk Cameron’s head perched atop the hairless body of a romance novel lothario. He wore only Roseanne’s flowery bathrobe and a pair of silk boxers. Poking out the fly of those boxers was the main selling point of a Macho Manikin Fully Articulated Love Companion. It wasn’t so much a penis as it was an assault on all sense of proportion and sanity. “You is still my baby, baby,” his mouth opened and closed like a puppet’s, “Seems my flame in your heart’s done gone out…”

His doll eyes zeroed in on Roseanne. She made a small terrified sound. I approached the thing, “All right now. Easy big fella. Let’s talk about this.”

“A woman is a creature that has always been strange…” Fritz took another step forward, I moved forward again, quite literally cock blocking him. “Just when you’re sure of one you find she’s gone and made a change…”

“I don’t think you’re a monster,” I said, “No monster has a singing voice like that. Let the lady go.”

He paused. Was he listening to me? Was there an actual soul of some kind that could have understood what I was doing or was he just a wish and a curse made manifest? I’ll never know because that was when Roseanne decided to shot him.

It was like a bolt of lightning crashed over my shoulder. A hot breeze blasted past my cheek. My right eye was flash blinded. My right ear was deafened. The bullet hit Fritz dead center in his smarmy smile and lodged deep in one of the steel joints that held his PVC skull together.

There was a long pause. I think Roseanne said “Sorry Brian.” but the ringing in my head was so loud it sounded a lot like “Starry fryin’.”

Then Fritz started singing again from what was left of his mouth, “ITH you iTH or iTH you ain’t my baby? Maybe baby’TH found THomebody new…”

He picked me up by the lapels of my leather jacket and threw me into the oak bookshelf we’d been using as a barricade. I hit it with enough force to send it pitching backward. It smashed through the glass doors and suddenly I was out on the balcony.

Roseanne kept firing. Fritz kept singing.

Blam!

“Or iTH my baby THtill my baby true?”

Blam!

“ITH you or iTH you ain’t my baby, baby?”

Blam! Blam!

“Baby boy, the way you’re actin’ lately makeTH me doubt…”

Blam!

“THee here, who’TH been cuttin’ me…”

I got to my feet in time to see Roseanne throw the empty revolver at him. It bounced off his jaw, taking out a faux tooth before it hit the floor. She was backing away. It might have been the concussion talking but it looked like her movements were getting stiffer, her face losing the ability to hold its expression of terror.

What was it Roseanne had been told? If she ever let a teardrop fall onto his silicone flesh she would become his true love. What would a Pinocchio with a priapism like Fritz want?  Another living doll of course.

There was no choice, it was time to implement my awful plan. I scrabbled across the study and grabbed the fireplace poker. It had been sitting in the fire for almost an hour so it was good and hot.

“You’TH is THtill my baby, baby. Baby boy, it seemTH my flame in your heart’TH done…”

I charged, crashing past Fritz and bringing the red hot metal down onto Roseanne’s forearm scalding the flesh down to the bone reducing the ‘truth’ marking to a blackened ruin…

*

It was a lucky guess and something I’m surprised no one at the mercy of a demonic promissory note ever tried before. Then again this may be the first time anyone had ever tried to make a semi-sentient love doll.

Item: the Saratoga Police burst into the room about thirty seconds after I’d given Roseanne her life saving third degree burn and ten seconds after Fritz had collapsed lifelessly to the floor.

I can only imagine how the whole thing looked so I am not holding a grudge over the tasering, beatdown and crushed fedora.

Item: Jasper isn’t talking to me again.

Item: Roseanne Gluckman didn’t thank me for saving her, or offer any kind of reward but she didn’t press charges either so we’ll call it even. In the time since this little misadventure she’s given her heart, and a good amount of her fortune, to the Colonie Crusade for Christ.

Please don’t think I’m rolling my eyes at her decision. She seemed like a nice enough person and all she wanted was to be loved, maybe the Church is where she’ll finally find it.

But there also may be another reason for Roseanne’s sudden conversion.

Item: There was a break in at the evidence storage facility used by the Saratoga Police Department. The only item that went missing was one heavily damaged Macho Manikin Fully Articulated Love Companion.

Murder Most Foul

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Victor Bisolglio spent most of his time either making meth or playing World of Warcraft but his pursuit of one was always a detriment to the other. Sometimes he missed raids because he was too busy cooking, other times he was so fixated on his daily quests that he ended up making a useless batch of product.

He lived in a trailer on his parents property, they’d long ago given up on him but they didn’t have the heart to kick him out either. Victor was just an unpleasant obligation to them now, like jury duty or spring cleaning. Maybe if they had known what he was doing in that tool shed he’d quickly and shoddily constructed a few yards from his double wide they’d have reconsidered.

At ten o’clock in the evening the door to that shed hung open to reveal a mad scientist’s dream of tubing, containers and smoke. A stink like cat piss and nail polish remover wafted from the rickety structure. Victor sat at a picnic table nearby, crouched over the dim multicolored illumination of his laptop. He was lost to the game: he only had eyes for the imaginary world unspooling before him, he only had ears for the constant on and off topic chatter of fellow gamers.

Did Victor care that he was slowly turning his parents’ property into a small scale toxic waste dump? Did it worry him that the last three batches of meth he’d delivered to Murder Mekembe  had been unsellable garbage? Did he care that his friends, just like his family, had given up on him?

No, not in the least, not when he had reached a place where respec mattered far more to him than respect.

I was nearby, hidden behind one of the trees that groundwater poisoning hadn’t left leafless and bent.

A few low level dealers and cooks had been murdered recently. Their throats ripped out, entrails clawed through, skulls split open and emptied. They say that the police had found a secondary source of DNA in the wounds, and teeth marks too. They say that witnesses had reported seeing a man near the murder scenes. They described him as shambling, dead eyed and covered with dirt. If anyone had the temerity to use the ‘Z word’ they were quickly silenced by the forces of order and decency.

At a quarter to midnight a shape lumbered out of the shadows, heading straight for the double wide and the smoking toolshed. I snapped a few pictures on my iPhone and watched. Victor was too intent on his screen to notice the figure bearing down on him.

Closer.

Closer.

Closer still.

My conscience got the better of my caution and I shouted a warning but Victor didn’t hear anything beyond the music, sound effects and online chatter blasting through his earbuds.

The dark figure flipped the picnic table over and reality came crashing down on Victor Bisolglio. The dark figure swiped at him but Victor managed to scramble out from under the table and get clear of grabbing range. He might have even lived if he hadn’t recognized his attacker.

I heard him shout “Earl?”

Victor sure as Hell hadn’t expected to see Earl Edmonds again, not since he’d buried him in the woods almost three weeks ago.

When the dark shape advanced again Victor pulled what I thought to be a revolver from his jacket. He issued some of the standard threats but his attacker kept coming.

I broke cover and ran towards them, waving my arms, begging them to stop before this got out of hand. The shambling figure didn’t react but Victor did.

He screamed and fired his weapon.

Not at me, but at the man he’d once called a friend.

A bright ball of Fourth of July fireworks leaped from the barrel.

That’s right, a flare gun. Victor’s sidearm of choice had been a flare gun.

There was just enough time for me to think What is this? I don’t even-

Then sputtering ball of burning red bounced off the shambling figure’s chest, bounced twice along the ground and rolled into the toolshed.

Boom.

The report from the fire inspector would later reveal that there was also a propane grill being stored in the cheap little building. That was why the blast blew the walls out and the roof ten feet into the air.

Victor was lost to the explosion. Had it hurt to die like that or had it been too fast for him to even know what happened? I hope for the latter.

The other figure wasn’t so lucky, the fire engulfed it. The figure staggered and flailed. Then it screamed.

And perhaps, in his final agonizing moments, Earl Edmonds realized he wasn’t really one of the walking dead after all.

*

Let the record show that if you are going to be an investigator in all things preternatural and uncanny, then you are going to find yourself huddling in the bushes more often than a compulsive masturbator in a nudist colony.

It was almost dawn and I had been watching the comings and goings at the house on Lana Drive for half the day and most of the night. When the owner left on an errand I did a little breaking and entering. I gave the first floor of her place a quick once over, I couldn’t risk taking the time to check out the basement or the second floor.

And it was a good thing I chickened out because I got back to hiding spot in the woods just as Murder Mekembe pulled her escalade back into the driveway. A car full of her thugs showed up few minutes later. The rest of the night was cars coming and going, a constant ebb and flow of customers and cronies.  It wasn’t until 4 a.m., when the last car full of cronies left that I made my move.

Raevyn ‘ Murder’ Mekembe , half Bokor, half crime boss, didn’t look at all surprised to find me knocking on her door. When she addressed me it was with a community theater level Jamaican accent, “Brian Foster. Come in. Come in.”

“Not surprised to see me?” I asked as she closed the door behind me.

“I been expecting you,” she said. Her skin was the color of coffee, her hair the color of bone, “They all said there was some guy in an ugly hat going around asking lots of questions.”

“Well, you can’t learn anything if you don’t ask questions,” I grinned.

We were both smiling but they were phony smiles, politicians’ smiles. She led me past her parlor with all its faux Voodoo knick-knacks and a pair of very real Lorcin .380s on the center table.

It was very telling that she hadn’t grabbed them, I guess she didn’t see me as much of a threat. Her and everybody else in Albany.

There was a long hallway through the center of the house leading to a trio of bedrooms. My earlier snooping had revealed that Rayven used the bedroom on the right for sleeping and the one on the left was where she kept her ziplock bags of dried pufferfish, marine toads and hyla tree frogs, as well as her Tupperware containers of Datura paste and lysergic acid diethylamide in crystal form. The third one was where she warehoused her product.

I followed my host to her bare kitchen. There was a bottle of rum on the counter, her last bottle of rum if I was correct. It was already half empty.

Raven ‘Murder’ Mekembe half Bokor, half crime boss, fully functioning alcoholic. She poured me a glass and offered it, “Have a drink.”

I lied, “Sorry, I don’t drink.”

“Your loss,” she emptied my glass then refilled her own. “What you be wantin’?”

“I know you had Victor Bisolglio killed, a lot of other people too.”

“You wearing a wire?”

“Why would I help the police?”

“Maybe you want to be a hero,” she said.

“I just want the real story, for my dozen or so readers,” I explained, “they love stories like yours. Do you know there are people out there that think you raise the dead to do your bidding?”

“You believe everything you hear Brian Foster?” Her accent slurred to an Irish brogue for a syllable or two then back again, “Everyone tells these crazy stories. I’m a drug dealer, I’m a witch, I’m an insatiable nymphomaniac…”

“Er… That last one is a bit of a surprise…” I didn’t know whether to cringe or blush so I did a little of both, “But back to the matter at hand. My sources tell me that Earl Edmonds O.D.ed at a party you held here almost a month ago. The same sources say that rather than get the authorities involved you had some of your employees wrap him in an old rug and bury him in a shallow grave.”

I paused for effect but she just smiled.

“Now someone dug up that grave a few days later and I’m pretty sure that someone was you. Why did you do it? Because Earl wasn’t dead. Oh, he looked dead but he had been drugged with a little psychotropic cocktail people sometimes called,” I made quotation marks in the air, “‘zombie powder’.”

She raised an eyebrow and emptied her glass of rum. Then she poured herself another, the bottle was two-thirds empty now.

“This zombie powder causes a paralysis so severe that a layman might think the victim is dead. It’s the stuff of Edgar Allan Poe’s nightmares.” I took a cautious step towards her, “And all the while the poor bastard is in a state of living death they’re having nightmarish hallucinations. Imagine all that happening and being buried alive to boot.”

She laughed at me, but I’m used to women doing that so it’s all good.

I continued, “I imagine the Earl you dug up was not the same man from just a few days before. I imagine it would have been easy to mess with his broken mind. How long did it take you to convince him he was a zombie?”

Murder emptied the glass again but this time she set it down on the counter beside her, “Why would anyone do something so… Theatrical?”

“Oh I agree it is a very theatrical way to go about things but then again I’m not the failed law student from Wisconsin pretending to be a witch woman from Jamaica so what do I know?”

That got her. She frowned and crossed her arms.

When in doubt keep talking so that’s what I did “Like they say on the Internet, Google is your friend. But don’t worry your secret is safe with me.”

“Why-” she paused as if she was collecting her thoughts, “why would I go to all that trouble?”

“Because criminals are a cowardly superstitious lot.”

I waited to see if she got the reference. She didn’t so I went on.

“You did it because you suspected there was a snitch in your organization. You used poor Earl to eliminate the usual suspects.” I counted off on my hand, “They found what was left of Craig Aden in a dumpster. Shortly after that a 911 call sent the police to Adrian Driscoll’s apartment but there wasn’t much they could do for him. There wasn’t much an undertaker could do for him either if you get my meaning. Then there was Sandro Elsdon, he was killed alongside his girlfriend and two young kids.”

“But why? Why not just put a bullet in their heads instead?”

“Because it taught your employees a very valuable lesson. Cross Murder Mekembe  and you end up dead, or worse.” I took off my straw fedora and fiddled with it, “What are you going to do now that your pet zombie is really dead?”

“If what you’re saying is true I would just make another. Maybe I got more waiting down in the basement. What would you do then? What if all I had to do to wake them up was just snap my fingers?” She tried to snap her fingers for emphasis but her hand wouldn’t quite obey her.

Panic settled into her eyes. Her legs failed her. All the while she slid down to the floor she kept trying to snap her fingers.

There was a handkerchief in my left pocket, I used it to pick up the bottle of rum and pour it out. I suppose you readers out there figured out what I did when I was snooping around her house

Murder said “Fa- fa-”

I’m not sure if she was trying to say my name or curse me out. Truth is I didn’t much care. I had a packet of baby wipes in my coat pocket and I spent a little while cleaning off any of the places I might have touched. All the while Murder called after me “Fa- fa- fa-” while her fingers spasmed and her eyes shone with rage.

Finally I looked down at her, “Don’t worry, I didn’t give you a lot. At least I think I didn’t. Once I get a few blocks away I’m going to make an anonymous call to 911 and since you’ve got enough meth here for a tweekers convention I think that once I have the police get here they’ll have you,” I paused for effect, “dead to rights.”

Gloating and puns, two great tastes that go great together. 

*

 Yep I just confessed to another crime or two on the Internet but once again my story in no way matches the way the powers that be want to portray events. If they arrest me my testimony will raise too many questions.

 I  waited until I was halfway home before I made a 911 call on a burner cell phone but when the authorities got the house on Lana Drive they found Raevyn ‘ Murder’ Mekembe dead. Something, maybe several somethings, gnawed her flesh down to the bone.

The authorities  blamed the attack on pit bulls which is an insult to all the well behaved pit bulls out there and an insult to reality because  Murder was allergic to dogs.

So I guess maybe she did have some spares somewhere in the basement I never got around to checking. I wonder if they heard our entire conversation as they lay there on the cold basement floor in a state of living death and decided to get a little payback.

Or maybe in her weakened state she couldn’t control them or their appetites.

All I know for sure is that sometime between me leaving and the police showing up, Murder managed to snap her fingers.

Bad Medicine

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By the time Kris Halloran reached the building on Thornburg Street the bullet wound had gone from searing pain to a dull ache. He’d made it home without attracting undue attention from bystanders, done a functional if clumsy job of bandaging himself up and changed into a clean pair of pants. The only problem now was finding some way to get the bullet removed. He couldn’t go to an emergency room, even if he hadn’t been a paroled felon there was no way he could use the ‘I was cleaning my gun when it suddenly went off’ excuse- not when he’d been shot in the ass robbing a convenience store.

Beaumont would take care of it no questions asked, every shady character in Albany knew that, even if they didn’t know exactly what kind of doctor he was. All you had to do was meet his price and keep your mouth shut. Beaumont’s three-story home was on the bad side of Albany but no one gave him or his patients any trouble. Since Kris lived on the bad side of Schenectady the trip to Thornburg Street was one of the most miserable experiences of this life. Do you have any idea how hard it is to drive a car when you can’t sit down?

But it all seemed to be worth it in the end, both figuratively and literally. Despite the hour Beaumont was awake and eager to help. Kris was broke so Beaumont took his payment out in trade. His price? Swatches of skin, a little more than twelve in total. It was a creepy as Hell thing to commit to but what choice did Kris have? Besides Kris had heard stories about guys that had ended up losing a kidney or worse. The good thing was that Beaumont had promised to leave Kris’ elaborately tattooed arms alone and take the skin from his back instead. Even the doctor had paused to admire the work that had gone into the patterns of ink that stretched from each wrist to shoulder; the series of interlocking Roses and barbed wire that twisted around each other in patterns that drew the eye back again and again.

Hours later, when Kris recovered from the anesthesia he found himself alone in the cramped operating room, there was no sheet on the gurney and the IV bag hooked to his arm was empty.

A groggy moment later he realized he had no idea what time it was, or what day. The windows in the room were blacked over and there were no clocks. Kris had a meeting with his parole officer that he couldn’t afford to miss-if he’d slept through it then all this had been for nothing. He called out for Beaumont but there was no answer.

Finding his clothes was easy, putting them on was agony. His backside hurt, so did the places where the skin had been removed. Beaumont had promised he’d take no more than twelve inches but Kris felt pain from shoulder to shoulder.

Pants on, shoes on, and shirt forgotten he eased himself into his leather jacket. He wondered what he gotten himself into? Was a return trip to prison really work selling off parts of himself? Kris popped the IV out of his arm and started for the door at a slow hobble. He wanted to move faster but it hurt too much to try.

He saw a shape waiting by the doorway. Nothing about the figure made sense, it was a jumble of misshapen limbs, a ragged silhouette.

When the shape spoke Kris Halloran did run, pain be damned.

*

The police found Kris Halloran stumbling through traffic, his stitches torn open and his expression crazed. He babbled about having escaped from a house full of monsters but when the police investigated his story they found nothing. There was no record of anyone named Beaumont anywhere in the tri-city area and when they went to the supposed house of horrors all they found was an empty building. The mortgage for the property was owned by a Mrs. Mary Ingolstadt, a very elderly and confused citizen of Switzerland. By the time the police got that part of the story straightened out it was already too late. Kris Halloran, perhaps in anticipation of his probation being revoked, had vanished.

Any story that begins with a man screaming about monsters and ends with the same man disappearing without a trace will get the attention of the Fear And Truth message board. Over the next few weeks the story of Kris Halloran captured the imagination of the user base.

You see Kris’ tale was not a unique one, there are other stories about a physician offering his services to people that lacked the resources or respectability to go anywhere else. They’d been circulating around Albany, Troy and Schenectady for years. The name of the doctor changed frequently but the modus operandi never did. You either paid in cold hard cash or you gave up a pound of flesh, give or take a few ounces. There were rumors of criminals donating part of a lung in exchange for plastic surgery and desperate parents sacrificing an eye or a limb for the sake of an uninsured child.

After a while the story faded into the background, lost amid the off topic flame wars, chatter about the latest Hudson Valley UFO sighting and a flame war about whether or not Devil Monkey scat had been found at Water Slide World.

But some of us kept our eyes peeled and our ears to the ground. Inevitably our secret sawbones surfaced again, this time in Hamilton Hill. If you don’t know anything about the neighborhood of Hamilton Hill let me give you this succinct description- stay the fuck out of Hamilton Hill. The crime rate is high, the landlords are scumbags, the businesses are shuttered and the population is either desperate or demoralized.

Ironically enough the location the man now calling himself ‘Professor Wilton’ chose to operate out of this time was just a block and a half from where Kris Halloran had lived. After trading notes with the moderator for Fear And Truth I decided to do a little undercover work.

That was how I found myself sitting in the stained barber chair that Professor Wilton used for an examination table. I was a little dazed and pretty drunk, my nose bloodied and flattened, my arm was aching and there was a good possibility I, once again, had cracked my rib.

“So,” Professor Wilton leaned over me, he was thin, almost anorexic looking. There was no compassion in his voice when he spoke, just boredom, “You got into a bar fight?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but you should see the other guy.” And by that I meant that the other guy didn’t have a damn scratch on him.

“Did anyone see you come here?”

“No.”

“How did you hear about me?”

“Word gets around.”

He frowned at that, “And you’re on probation is that it? Do you have any kind of health insurance?”

I shook my head. This was my cover story, I was a broke ex-con having a hard time staying out of trouble. Now a cover story was all well and good but where did I get the injuries to go with it? For that I actually did get into a bar fight. I had just a few drinks in the hope of taking the edge off the pain and then went looking for trouble. I didn’t throw the first punch but I did throw around a lot of profanities and crass remarks until somebody got sick of my antics and took a swing.

He pulverized me and all I managed to do was get two wild punches in edgewise. The bouncers quickly threw us out. My sparring partner thought we were going to go at it again out in the street but instead I thanked him, gave him my blog address and made my way to my car. I bet he’s still there wondering what the Hell happened.

“Your nose is broken,” Professor Wilton walked away and came back rolling a metal tray brimming with medical supplies, “and you’ve dislocated your wrist.”

“Dislocated my wrist?” I lifted my arm and winced.

Professor Wilton said, “My rates are simple, I will either need seven hundred dollars in cash right now or I can take it out in trade. I think an ear would suffice.”

“An ear?” My stomach went cold at the thought, “Why would you want one of my ears?”

“That isn’t your concern,” he said. “Now how do you plan to pay me, or are you just wasting my time?”

“I’ve got the money,” I pulled a handful of hundreds from my pocket. He looked them over, trying to ascertain if they were real. They were. This investigating the unknown stuff is pretty damn expensive sometimes.

Professor Wilton pulled a huge-looking needle from his tray, “Lets get started then.”

A syringe was buried in my wreck of a nose and jerked back out again before I knew what was happening. “What the Hell was that? Give a guy some warning for Christ’s sake.” I sat up, then laid back down again, “I… I’m… what?”

“Just a little morphine,” he said in a matter of fact way, “I need you to speak to me with a little more candor.”

“Candor…” I repeated. At that moment, in that delightful haze, I loved the sound of that word more than anything else, “…candor.”

“Who are you young man?” he asked, “Who are you really?”

The jig was up. Part of me wanted to make a run for it but the rest of me just wanted to lie there on that comfy barber chair forever. I couldn’t even get all that upset when he leaned it all the way back so I was staring at the ceiling. I even chuckled a little when he strapped my arms down.

“I like morphine.” I said. A chill swept over me, it took a moment for me to realize what was going on, “Why are you taking off my pants? That’s silly.”

And then my feet were strapped down as well. Professor Wilton called out, “You can come help me if you want Tania.”

The face that peered down at me was like something out of a child’s nightmare. A distended almost rat-like nose, an apish brow, eyes that were nothing but darkness from lid to lid and a mouth brimming with silvery fangs. Suddenly I didn’t feel all that mellow anymore, I screamed and started trying to get loose from the chair.

“What are you gonna do?” she asked.

The longer I looked the more ‘what the fucks’ I found. She was wearing a tank top and it revealed there were patches of flesh on her too-long arms that didn’t quite match. There were blunt dermal spikes in a ridge along her skull. You’ve probably seen metal ones poking out of some body modification enthusiast’s head at one time or another but these spikes were bone, finely polished bone.

“What is going on?” I said as Professor Wilton set a plastic bowl down on my belly, “I just wanted my nose fixed!”

“And your wrist,” he added.

“Can I have my pants back?”

At that Tania said, “Master you’re scaring me again…”

“You’re scared?” I looked from her to him and back again, “Did you just call him Master?”

Professor. Wilton said, “No one comes to me for something as simple as a broken nose-”

“-and a dislocated wrist.” I added.

“-and they certainly don’t come to me with a wad of brand new hundred dollar bills.”

“That’s how they came out of the ATM!”

“But Master…” It might not have been easy to read Tania’s features but there was no mistaking the worry in her voice, “what are you going to do?”

There was a scalpel in his hand, he waved it as he spoke, “If he doesn’t tell me exactly who he is and who sent him I am going to open up his scrotum and put his testicles in this dish.”

“Oh no! Oh Hell no.” I wanted to clasp my hands over jimmy and the boys but the straps on my arms held fast, “Let’s all calm down here. My name is Brian Foster and I’m just a reporter looking for a story.”

Tania looked genuinely interested, “A reporter?”

I kept talking, “Everyone’s heard of you, the mysterious physician that takes his payments in flesh and bone. You change your name but they always call you the same thing.”

“Do they now?” he glowered, “What do they call me young man?”

“Uhm…” I couldn’t help wondering if this bit of information was going to amuse him or make him mad, “They call you… I mean not me of course… They call you Dr. Butcher.”

He made a huffing sound, “What paper do you work for?”

“I, uh, I have a blog.”

“It doesn’t sound like you’re much of a reporter at all. Sounds to me like you’re a nosy little nobody.”

“You’re not the first to say that.” I said, “But let’s get back to the whole cutting my balls off thing. How about we not do it?”

Professor Wilton held the scalpel over my ever-shriveling groin. “I have many rivals, how do I know you’re not trying to steal my research?”

“I didn’t even know you had research!” I looked pleadingly at Tania “You believe me don’t you?”

“Master,” she reached out and caught his arm, “we can’t do this. Only volunteers, you promised.”

Professor Wilton replied, “He knows too much.”

Morphine or not everything felt all too real; the bindings that held me, the cold air on my balls, the sight Tania’s arm keeping the scalpel away from me.

Her arm especially held my attention.

Like I said before, her arm was too long, with elbows that were too thick and hands that ended in spidery fingers. The flesh of it was a patchwork of scars and conflicting skin tones, one sizable part even had a tattoo.

“I thought you said only volunteers?” I didn’t know if I was going to scream or pass out, “I want to go on record as no volunteering.”

“I think in your case we can make an exception,” Professor Wilton pulled his wrist free.

“What about Kris Halloran?” I asked, “Did he volunteer?”

“Who?” he snorted.

“The last patient you saw before you closed up shop on Thornberg street.”

“Oh. Him.” He frowned, “The one that nearly ruined everything.”

Tania looked sorrowful, or as close to sorrowful as her face could manage, “I just wanted to talk to him.”

“I had to sacrifice months of work so we could get away,” Professor Wilton said.

“Is that why you killed him?” I asked.

“Killed him?” he said, “Are you some kind of an idiot?”

“He ran away,” she said, “He went to the police.”

“And then…” I paused for effect, and to drool a little, “…he disappeared.”

“Are you going to believe him or me?” now the scalpel was moving towards my throat.

“He had some very nice tattoos!” I said quickly, “Roses and barbed wire!”

Both Professor Wilton and I watched Tania study her forearm with growing horror. “You said you wouldn’t hurt anyone else,” her voice shook, “You said the project wouldn’t hurt anyone else!”

Project?

Professor Wilton’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he finally said, “Go to your room. I don’t need your help.”

“Why did you lie to me?” she asked.

“I do what I have to, you understand that.”

“You said,” her night colored eyes were full of tears, “you said you’d stop.”

He pointed the scalpel at her, “Go. To. Your. Room. You have to get ready. Surama is coming tonight.”

When Tania leapt over the barber chair she didn’t look like a young woman, she looked like a monster out of a horror movie. The sobbing scream she made however, that was very human.

*

And then I woke up.

Now before you start to get pissed off let me clarify that I woke up in that same makeshift operating room, in that same barber chair but I was no longer tied up and pantsless. I didn’t remember passing out, one moment I was seeing that classic tableau of a creature rising up against its creator and the next I was out cold. Just as well I suppose, I don’t know if I would have wanted to see how those streaks of blood got on the walls and floor.

I got to my feet and since I am a glutton for punishment I decided to have a look around. I woozily headed for the basement stairs.

One wall of the basement was stacked high with medical supplies. On the other wall were three freezers, in one was a supply of pharmaceuticals that could only have been obtained illegally. The other two held supplies of a much more organic nature, and those could only have been obtained illegally as well. In the middle of the room was an oil drum that reeked of acidic chemicals. A very fresh-looking arm was sticking out it the acid. Just a few hours ago that arm had been poised to use a scalpel on me.

Item: Using the name Tania as a point of reference I was able to determine that Professor Wilton aka Beaumont aka Doctor Butcher was in actuality Trajan Snow. He had been a surgeon of some renown about twenty years ago.

Item: Shortly after the birth of his daughter Dr. Trajan Snow began to suffer the effects of late onset schizophrenia. His fellow surgeons noted that his work was becoming dangerously slipshod and his wife reported that her husband spoke to her less and less and that he had taken to sleeping in his office.

Item: Dr. Trajan Snow began to submit long rambling articles to medical journals and other doctors he thought might share his views. Those articles quickly became infamous, and a cause for worry.

Item: Before Trajan Snow could be committed he fled his home state of Arizona, taking his young daughter Tania with him.

Item: The good doctor’s papers revealed that he had become obsessed with a vague apocalypse. Always the worst kind. He was convinced the world would change and that humanity had to change with it. He illustrated his vision for the future with crude drawings; humanity he felt would need long arms and legs that bent at strange angles, their heads would have to take on a more bestial aspect with jutting spines, shark-like teeth and discolored eyes.

Item: Several times in these treatises he stated his willingness, in fact his eagerness, to subject his loved ones to these alterations.

Oh God damn, his own daughter. I can only hope the sonofabitch was still alive when she sunk him into that oil drum.

But where is Trajan Snow’s daughter now? I can’t say. I do know that she stole my wallet but that’s fine.

If it helps her find someplace… someplace good I won’t cancel my credit cards. She can run those babies right up to the max. I always wanted to see what it felt like to declare bankruptcy anyway.

Not every monster is out to get you, not every healer is a saint. Lesson learned.

I guess that’s about it.

Except…

Tania if you’re somehow reading this, thank you.