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September 22nd, 2012

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Starred Review, Shelf Awareness
Crackpot Palaceby Jeffrey Ford
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Speculative fiction has produced several great practitioners of the art of the short story whose critical acclaim matches that given to more traditionally "literary" writers. With his fourth collection of short stories, Crackpot Palace, Jeffrey Ford is positioned to join such luminaries as Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison in that inner circle.
Ford's stories are stuffed with so many ideas, weird scenes and startling denouements that it is hard to summarize them. In "Down Atsion Road," Ford mixes urban legend, a ghost story and the New Jersey Pine Barrens to chilling effect. While his inventiveness is unmatched, he is also a master of psychological realism. There is a gritty day-to-day aspect to some of his tales that adds a degree of verisimilitude to events most genre writers wouldn't have a clue how to sustain. In "Every Richie There Is," a mentally challenged neighbor's slow disintegration from cancer and madness is chronicled with devastating skill. Finally, Ford's sense of the place where the weird intersects with the beautiful is unsurpassed; "Dr. Lash Remembers" is a steampunk gem where dream, sickness and hallucination are layered into disorienting new patterns.
With Crackpot Palace, one has a chance to read a collection by a true master of the short story. For lovers of the weird and fantastic and lovers of great writing, this is a treasure trove of disturbing visions, new worlds and fully realized craft. --Donald Powell, freelance writer
Discover: 20 fantastic and disturbing visions, including the never-before-published "The Wish Head," from a master of the short story.



Kirkus Reviews -- 
The fourth collection of stories from Ford includes examples of fantasy, science fiction, neo-steampunk, noir and a few genre-busting curiosities.
The longest piece in the book, “The Wish Head,” is a haunted police procedural set in upstate New York in the mid-20th century. “The Double of My Double Is Not My Double” doubles down on the rich history of the doppelganger; it is funny, morbid and very clever. “Every Richie There Is” is a dry-eyed look at our inevitably mixed feelings about our neighbors. “Glass Eels” smarts like a sliver of glass under a fingernail. To all but one story, Ford adds a note. These notes pay homage to generous editors, describe flashes of inspiration, explain references and enlighten the ignorant. One note contains a bonus track, an additional story. 
Ford finds his way into scenarios infernal, haunted or merely strange, and keeps his wits about him on the journey.



Library Journal Review of Crackpot -- 
Ford, Jeffrey. Crackpot Palace: Stories. Morrow. Aug. 2012. c.352p. ISBN 9780062122599. pap. $14.99. F
Within the fantasy genre, Ford (The Shadow Year; The Girl in the Glass) is not a writer who is easily categorized. This collection showcases not only the range of his imagination but, based on his own notes describing the origins of many of the stories contained in this collection, also the depth and breadth of his personal interests in science, history, culture, and the human condition. Nor does Ford remain close to the shore of reality merely dipping a toe or finger into the fantastical from time to time. Instead, he wades—often waist-high or deeper—into the often murky waters, deliberately entangling his narrative in the inescapable undertow one finds there. It is here Ford’s writing skills truly shine as he deftly draws the reader into his tale—whether it be one of an ancient science experiment gone awry as in “The Dream of Reason” or the smoke-filled atmosphere of a Prohibition-era jazz club in “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” 
Verdict Recommend to readers willing to explore many facets of fantasy writing. [See Prepub Alert, 7/1/12.]—Nancy McNicol, Hamden P.L., CT



Monsters and Critics Review
Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror ReviewsBook Review: Crackpot PalaceBy Sandy Amazeen Jul 30, 2012, 2:41 GMT
This new book of from the Edgar Award winning author of The Girl in the Glass is Ford’s fourth short story collection that is certain to delight his fans and generate new ones. Ford’s imaginative writing almost always delivers a strange twist to what at the onset, seems like a perfectly ordinary story as demonstrated in “Daltharee” which begins with a thriving city in a glass bubble but turns into something else entirely. “Relic” tells the tale of Father Walter in charge of a church and relic at the end of the world. When a visitor takes a piece of the relic with her, Sister North sets out on a journey to the beginning of the world to get it back but is the precious item truly a relic and does it matter? In an attempt to fit in with his girlfriend’s family, a young man agrees to sit in church overnight with her recently deceased relative in “Sit the Dead”. What happened that night will haunt him for the rest of his life. Anyone who thinks daddy longlegs are cute, harmless spiders will reconsider after reading the chilling “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening”. 
Although most of these were previously published, it is a delight to have them brought together. Each story includes background information about what served as inspiration, the intended message if any and where it first appeared in print. Ford excels at creating vividly imagined, finely nuanced characters and settings, frequently with an unexpected dark side that drags readers along on a short but exhilarating ride. These are great good fun and highly recommended.



Rajan Khanna's review "Like a Meaningful Dream" for TOR.com
http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/08/like-a-meaningful-dream-crackpot-palace-by-jeffrey-ford 



Gary Wolfe's review for Locus Magazine
 http://www.locusmag.com/Reviews/2012/09/gary-k-wolfe-reviews-jeffrey-ford/ 




September 18th, 2012

On Being Profound

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Don't worry.  I haven't lost my mind.  I know I posted that non-advice thing on FaceBook the other day, and here I am back with yet more gruel that could be considered advice.  It just so happens that this essay I wrote for publication was recently (within the last couple days) declined due to the editor already having something very similar.  So I figured, why waste it.  I'm sure there are those who will read it who totally disagree with it, and that might lead to an interesting discussion.  I promise, no more non-advice from me for a loooooong time.  



On Being Profound

          The tendency of new fiction writers to want to be profound in their work is an admirable trait and a noble pursuit but can often lead to stories that are dead on arrival.  The desire to say something important to the world makes sense, because if not that, then what's the point?  The problem with it, though, is that the new writer sometimes isn't yet aware of what fiction actually is or how it works and this results in a story that's pedantic. 

          No reader of fiction wants to be lectured.  What readers come to fiction for is to be immersed in a convincing world, to meet and follow interesting characters and travel with them on their adventures or live with them through their challenges.  The new writer, although wanting the same when she reads, forgets when the pen is now in her hand that fiction isn't about telling the reader what to think or righting the wrongs of the world but instead to tell what happens, how it happens, to whom, and to tell what happens next. 

          New writers are lured into this misperception of fiction by the literature classes they take in school.  They forget all the intense pleasures they've experienced in fiction -- the delicious frights of ghost stories, the wonder of fanciful worlds well-described, the engaging friendships they had with characters.  These are all replaced by one big question.  The teacher will ask, "What does it mean?"  Then the teacher and students will spend some time dismantling the story or novel, analyzing its constituent parts, and trying to fathom the writer's purpose in writing it.  They will hunt down symbols, trace leitmotifs, infer connections between the wider world and the world of the fiction.  All well and good as that's what one does in literary analysis.  The teacher is trying to help the students get at what is profound about a text.  Considering the meanings of stories is what the reader does or can do, but this is not the job of the writer. 

          The students in the literature class come to believe that above all, for a book to be great, to be revered by their teachers and society, and to be worthy of the term "Literature" it must have a clear and undeniable message that can be identified through the hunting of symbols and literary allusions.  In short, a book has to be about something, the more profound the better.  Because of this, the student gets the idea that the way fiction writers create their stories is by beginning with a profound idea and then inserting clues by way of symbols and sly secret messages into a story so there will be no mistake as to what exactly that big idea is and why it's important.  With this stilted view, fiction writing becomes a mechanical process.  Start with the big idea, and then round up some characters and scenery in order to serve as a vehicle for it. 

          The results of this process are very often deadly boring.  Because the emphasis is put on the logistics of engendering the big idea, the characters are afterthoughts; thin, pale creations to be bullied about by an author so that they will do what's necessary to serve the conveyance of meaning.  Likewise, the world of the story, the setting of the characters' lives, must adhere to the same controlling  demands.  Characters become slaves who are put through their paces in a world that lacks all verisimilitude since it lacks the element of chance or surprise, and the writer becomes a puppet master.  There might be a big idea at play, but the fiction, due to the writer's desire for control will be lifeless. 

          Fiction writing isn't about getting up on your soap box and lecturing the world about the way things should be.  Fiction writing is first and foremost about describing experience.  If you want to relay a big idea to readers, write an essay.  If you want to write fiction, concentrate on what happens next.  The secret to writing effective fiction is not to exert more control as you might want to in driving a car, but instead to exert less control, to take your hands off the wheel and let the characters and their stories lead you.  It is to see the characters clearly in the imagination, sense their personalities, desires, motivations, and to simply follow them and record what they do and what they experience in their world.  Only in this way can the writer experience a sense of discovery and convey that sense of discovery, surprise, immediacy, to the reader. 

          The better a writer's craft becomes, the more adept the writer becomes in rendering her vision, what she sees the character doing or experiencing in her imagination.  The less conscious, overt control a writer brings to bear on the characters, the more there is a chance for the chaotic, errant power of the imagination to imbue the story.  And this is where fiction can become truly profound.  Exerting less control, the writer allows a kind of "subconscious wisdom" to infiltrate the story.  I put the term in quotes because I don't really have words to adequately describe the phenomenon.  The writer may not even be conscious of the fact while writing, but it is through this type of process that real symbolism and a true coherence can enter the fiction.  The process is not mechanical but organic.  The writer's efforts are in service to the story, not the other way around. 

          Finding the perfect words to nail the description of a place or character cavorting in the imagination, is, for an author, as profound as it gets.  Releasing conscious control of characters and letting them guide you through their world is profound.  Discovering what happens next in the story instead of dictating it is profound.  If all these things are at play in a writer's fiction, the reader's experience of the story will be profound, and after reading, when analyzing the work, investigating what is at its heart there will be for each different reader an idiosyncratically profound experience.        

          Now I would be disingenuous if I were to tell you that writers never hold in their minds some theme or big idea that they want to guide a story or novel while writing.  In fact something like a big idea is always present, like a vague spirit influencing the imagination but not obviously or consciously taking hold of the reins of the creative process.  It more imbues the imagination with a certain sensibility, but it must remain subservient to the innate drive of the characters and the story they have decided to show the writer.  Sometimes a writer might begin with a vague big idea circling at the periphery of the process, but the characters refuse to have anything to do with it.  The writer, if she's a good one, will bow to their inclination and follow them in a different direction only to discover that the story they are showing her has some different general theme. 

          Fiction writers are always saying things like, "I thought the story was going to be about X, but then I realized as it played out that it was really more about Y."  The writer must be able to work under the auspices of uncertainty, retaining a willingness to flow with the story in any direction at any moment in order to follow the imaginative energy of possibility.   

September 16th, 2012



Companions of Fear 


Part 11

          Gage and Mink hit the drive-thru at Cootcher and parked way at the back of the parking lot where its border met the woods.  They got out of the car, leaving the doors open, each cradling in one arm a black and white checkered cardboard bucket.  Leaning back against Gage's sedan, facing the tree line, they ate chicken. 

          Gage bit into a drumstick and quickly bent forward as a drizzle of yellow liquid fell, nearly staining his jacket.  "This shit's soggy," he said. 

          "They forgot to add the secret Cootcher crunch." 

          "It's like a wad of wet paper towels wrapped around a bone." 

          "I hate the sound of lip smacking." 

          "It's like eating possum or something." 

          Gage dumped his chicken out on the cracked asphalt next to the car and put the empty bucket on the hood.  He wiped his hands off with ten paper napkins and threw them in the empty bucket.  Mink put his full one down next to the empty and took out his cigarettes.  He belched and said, "Kidnapping a cat to snatch a kidnapped cat."

          "I want a black one," said Gage. 

          "It's not gonna be like you get a choice," said Mink.  By the time he flicked the butt away, the cats had appeared at the edge of the woods  At first there were a dozen, but after a minute, so many came that Gage considered reaching for his gun.  His partner was getting ready, stuffing hands into leather driving gloves, pulling them on the last couple of inches with his teeth.   

          "These are ferals," said Mink.  "They'll scratch the crap out of you if they don't want you touching them."

          Gage put on his driving gloves and flexed his fists.  "Grab one by the back of the neck?" he asked.  A herd of wild house cats moved across the parking lot toward them.

          "We wanna lure one into the car.   See, look at how they go for that shit. It's like it was more than bad chicken." 

          "There's a ton of them.  Let's get a black one."  Gage slowly crept toward the feeding frenzy.  The creatures were rubbing themselves in the greasy outer coating that Cootcher advertized as "the slickery" and had a secret patent on.  A cat scream erupted from within the pile.  An orange tabby cat with a pure white left eye, like a pale marble, attacked a smaller, younger, calico.  The sound startled Gage and he took a step backward. 

          "That pile of bird is almost shot.  See them dragging pieces away?  Grisly, man."

          "Well, get the bucket and lead one into the car, like you said." 

          Mink chose a piece of chicken and turned to show it to Gage.  "What part of a chicken is that?" he asked.

          "Looks like an ankle.  Hey, I want a black cat." 

          Mink squatted down over the remaining scavengers still milling about over the meager scraps and bones that were left from Gage's lunch.  He waved the L shaped chicken piece in the air just over their heads and made a purring noise deep in his chest.  The orange cat with the weird eye and unusually large head suddenly noticed him. 

          "Black," said Gage. 

          Mink led the orange cat, chicken only inches from its face, toward the open car.  Gage crept toward the driver's side door, preparing to slam it shut once his partner got the cat in on the passenger side.  He could see Mink through the windshield, leaning into the front seat, his hand holding the chicken, slowly fanning the air with its scent.   The cat came closer and closer, sat still for a moment, staring intently.  It's hair bristled, its muscles gathered for a leap.  Gage thought it had leapt, but it hesitated, head turning one way and the other.  Mink's free hand shot out and pinned the cat to the asphalt by the back of its neck.  The thing struggled and screeched, hissing and hissing , clawing to get free.  Mink dropped the chicken and got his other gloved hand around the cat's throat.  "Shut the door," he yelled. 

          Gage came from a trance and slammed the driver side door. 

          Mink lifted the cat by the neck and swung it. The instant it was in the air it instinctively went for his already wounded face and scratched both his forearms, which he used to protect himself.  Before he could get the passenger door closed it recovered and made a move to get out.  Mink brought his boot up and met the cat's diving face with the sole of it.  It made as if to try another escape but instead leaped over the seat into the back and hid down on the floor, growling in the shadow.  The door slammed shut. 

          "I gotta get these wounds fixed or I'll get the cat fever." 

          "Now we gotta get in there and drive with that thing?" said Gage.   

          "We'll keep it quiet with more chicken." 

          They moved toward the car, and Mink's cell phone went off.  He took it out of his jacket pocket and put it up to his ear.  "Hold on a second," he said. 

          Gage nodded as he lifted the full chicken bucket off the hood. 

          Mink spun away from the car. "It's Darlene." 

          While Mink was on the phone, Gage peered in the back windshield, trying to spot the cat.  He saw the cat box full of gravel, the green collar, the box with the tracking device.   He figured the creature must be hiding down under one of the seats.  "Fucker," he whispered. 

          "OK, let's get in," said Mink. "If he makes a move for it, you gotta keep him in the car no matter what." 

          "1...2...3."  They opened the doors and scooted into the car.  The doors slammed. 

          "Did he get out?" asked Mink, looking down through the side window.    

          "I think he's under the seat back there." 

          Gage put the car in gear and drove out of Cootchers parking lot, the empty bucket and napkins flying off the car hood, bouncing off the windshield, twirling up over the sedan.  Three napkins fluttered down in their wake.  The bucket rolled out into traffic and was flattened by the passing UPS truck Gage had almost hit earlier. 

          "That was Darlene," said Mink. 

          "Yeah?"

          "She went to see the bird professor at the university."

          "She took the feather, right?"

          "Yeah, but it didn't matter because the guy was iced."

          "Come on."

          "Right in his office.  Sitting dead in his chair at his desk, shot in the fuckin eye.  Darlene ran away, never told anybody, and went and taught The Puritans.  She's freakin out, though.  Saying there was a car following hers.  I told her to meet us at the Haberson Warehouse Parking Lot."

          "Did you tell her not to get out of the car?"

          "I told her to drive around the block until we were there.  Just to keep moving." 

          Gage hit the gas and the sedan slipped across town like the dream of a wave.

          Mink spun his pistol in between hits of Sudden Afternoon.  "If somebody's following her, we plug them.  That's why I told her to meet us over in the Crumble.  In case we had to leave some bodies behind." 

          "What else?" said Gage and growling came from beneath his seat. 

          "Was that you or the cat?"

          "I think the thing's pissed, throw it a piece of chicken."

          Mink laid his gun on the dashboard and reached into the bucket, propped on the console between them.  He grabbed a long thin piece, pointed at both ends, and flipped it into the back.  Turning the best his ribs would allow him, he saw an orange and white paw reach out and snag the meat.  He turned back and said, "I was just thinking.  What if because this cat is wild it doesn't know anything about taking a shit in a box full of gravel?"

          "Are you saying this thing's gonna shit in my car?"

          "It could happen." 

          "No way," were the only two words of a longer sentence Gage had intended to speak.  He was interrupted by a shrill screech and the cat landing on his head.  It dug into his crew cut, snarling and spitting.  He could feel its teeth in his forehead. 

          Mink flung himself against the passenger door and lifted his gun.  A shot went off, and a bullet flew past the cat's head and dug into the ceiling over Gage, who yelled,  "What the fuck are you doing?" The car swerved out of its lane and into oncoming traffic. 

          The cat suddenly disengaged and leaped down, back under the seat.  Gage opened the window to try to clear the smoke from the gunshot, and eased the car back onto its side of the road.  A pair of headlights and a blaring horn passed them in a blurr. 

          "He bit my fucking head," said Gage, dabbing his fingers on the wounds where the claws had dug into his scalp.  "After we get Darlene, I'm gonna blow its brains out." 

          "We need it.  Keep your cool." 

          Gage took a deep breath, "Alright.  Alright.  I'll give it one more chance, but if it makes a move for me, I'll shoot myself in the head to kill it."  A moment of silence passed before he added, "What are we gonna call it?" 

          "We have to name it?" 

          "Sure, how's it gonna know us otherwise?"

          "It's got pretty big balls.  We could call it Balzac." 

          "It's got kind of a fat head." 

          "Its head's like a couch pillow.  Seems solid as a rock." 

          "I say, Fat Head." 

          "OK," said Mink, "Balzac can be his last name." 

          When they pulled into the parking lot of the abandoned Haberson warehouse, they saw Darlene sitting in her parked car.  Loud music spilled from her open window.  As Gage pulled up next to her, she lowered the volume.  Mink rolled down his window and said, "I thought I told you to keep moving till we got here?" 

          "I think I lost them," she said.  "They were definitely following me, though." 

          "Did you see them?" asked Gage, leaning forward so he could see her around his partner. 

          "A couple of big guys with hats.  I didn't get a good look at them.  They followed me from my class to the parking lot, keeping a distance, but I could feel their eyes on me."

          "Calm down," said Mink.  "Follow us to the all-night diner on Mulsie.  We'll leave your car parked there and you come with us." 

          "That sounds like a good idea," she said.  "Where are you guys going tonight?" 

          "We're going over by Ms. March's neighborhood.  We got a cat in the back." 

          "No."

          "Yeah.  And a tracking device." 

          "Idiots."   

          Gage called over, "You got any pills on you?" 

          "Yeah," she said. 

          "Gimme a couple of those purple ones, the cat bit me in the head." 

          "After we pick you up at the diner, we'll get more Count and make it a cat tracking party," said Mink. 

          "Fuck, I'll be better off at home than with you two." 

          "Nah.  Take another pill and chill out.  Stay with us.  That's the way the Puritans would have wanted it." 

September 9th, 2012




 Companions of Fear 

Part 10

          Gage cut the wheel and the car pulled into the parking lot at Doodle's.  He put it in park but didn't turn it off.  Instead he looked over at Mink and said, "The one thing I want to know is what happened to that guy I chased into the alley?  Where'd he go?  I had my flashlight." 

          "I don't know," said his partner.  "But if I find him, I'm gonna ventilate him.  His friends did River Dance on me.  There's gonna be plenty of payback." 

          Gage turned the key in the ignition. The engine coughed twice and turned off.  "We'll get them.  Are you going to be OK?" 

          Mink nodded.  "What are we getting?" 

          "What else?  The Count." 

          "Get 3.  I need medication." 

          "Will do," said Gage.  He got out of the car. 

          "Give my best to Doodle," said Mink. 

          The door closed and Gage walked across the parking lot to the liquor store.  A jingle bell sounded over his head as he entered.  The cramped place smelled like cigarettes and there were dusty bottles everywhere.  The grimy windows filtered the daylight.  A short man with a shock of white hair and a face like a ruddy weasel stood up from his seat behind the counter.

          "If it isn't the walking tombstone," he said. 

          "Hey, Doodle," said Gage. 

          "Where's your other half?" 

          "He's out in the car.  Got beat up last night.  He needs to get a bag on." 

          "Don't we all," said the little man.  He came around from behind the counter and approached Gage.  "You two connoisseurs are in for a treat today." 

          "You gonna spot us a bottle cause we're such good customers?" 

          "Forget that shit," said Doodle.  He hacked into the back of his cigarette hand till Gage thought the little guy was headed down for the count.  When he recovered he said, "I got something new in that you guys are gonna go for." 

          "Loose women?" asked Gage, who followed the owner toward the back wall of the store. 

          "Here you go," said Doodle, grabbing a bottle shelved right next to the row of Long Nights.   "The Count's outdone himself this time."  He turned the quart so that Gage could see the label.  "Sudden Afternoons." 

          "A new one," said Gage.  "What's the taste?" 

          "Passion fruit and endive." 

          "What's passion fruit?"

          "Like guavas and shit." 

          "Why is it Sudden Afternoon?" 

          "Well," said Doodle and paused to draw on his cigarette, "they already got the day and night.  Where else are they gonna go?" 

          Gage nodded.  "I take it the sudden part has to do with your need to hit the can after you drink it." 

          "Nah, come on.  All the young people drink this stuff.  It's got 5% more alcohol than the other two and also some kind of chemicals that give you energy."

          "In that case," said Gage, "give us three bottles." 

          As he waited at the counter for Doodle to ring up and bag his purchase, his cell rang.  He answered it. 

          "Gage," said a man's voice. 

          "Chin.  What's up?" 

          "Where's my powerball cat?" 

          "We're working on it.  We've got some leads but we've got a little ways to go." 

          "Get there," said Chinslow.  "I'm tired of entertaining Nostradamus's granny here on my last week alive.  She's a pain in the ass.  Never lets up.  Get back here with the cat before I plug her."

          "Chill, Chin, we're on it.  Do me a favor and ask Ms. March if she can cook us up another clue.  Anything."

          "I'm doomed," said Chinslow. 

          "We got some days left.  We'll get the cat.  You'll get your number.  St. Martin'll get his cash, and we'll get our bonus."

          "I want results," said the boss and hung up. 

          Gage took the bag of bottles from Doodle, wished him a sudden afternoon, and went back out into the parking lot.   Mink had the windows rolled down and the radio blasting.  He rested in his seat, eyes closed, leaning in a twisted position against the door, one arm dangling out of the window with a burning cigarette between two fingers.  The clown trapped in the bottle on the billboard watched over him. 

          Gage got in the car.  "Hey, are you gonna be OK or should I take you back to Darlenes?" 

          Mink's eyes fluttered open and he slowly sat forward, wincing with pain.  "Just open the first bottle and pass it over to me.  I need some relief." 

          "You should have taken some pills from your girl friend." 

          "I took a mouthful before we left this morning.  I just need a chaser." 

          Gage handed his partner one of the bottles.  "Check it out," he said, showing off the label the way Doodle had for him. 

          Mink squinted and read aloud.  "Sudden Afternoons." 

          "Passion Fruit and Endive.  The Count's latest creation." 

          "I can feel my asshole puckering."

          "Higher alcohol percentage and something that gives you energy,"  said Gage as he turned off the radio.

          Mink shrugged.  "Cool."  He unscrewed the cap, lifted the bottle and took a big swig.  "Wow," he cried and wiped his mouth. 

          "Nasty?" 

          "Let me put it this way.  Remember that homeless guy who lived behind the dumpster at the burger joint?" 

          "What burger joint?"

          "The one over by The Crumble.  You know, Burger Witch." 

          "Oh that guy.  Yeah."

          "Well, if you put a handkerchief under his armpit for a week and then came back and got it and rung it out over a glass, that's the taste.  Plus endive, whatever the fuck that is." 

          "It's supposed to taste like guava."

          "You ever taste a guava?" 

          Gage shook his head.  "Oh well," he said.  He lifted a bottle for himself out of the bag and opened it.  He took a long drink.  "Carbonated swamp water," he said.   

          A few moments of silence passed in which the partners drank and stared at the giant clown.  "What's the plan?" Mink finally asked. 

          "I swear, I think we should go with what Darlene came up with.  We get a cat, we rig it with a tracking device, and we use it as bait." 

          "I liked it too," said Mink.  "Sometimes she's smarter than she realizes."

          "This shit's pretty strong." 

          "I know, I'm already half loaded and I got a whole half a bottle left." 

          "Where do we get a cat?" 

          "The first question is what kind of cat do we get?  I've been thinking about this since Darlene mentioned it.  You would think that a guy who's into torturing cats would want a big one, more cat torturing bang for your buck." 

          "Makes sense," said Gage. 

          "Or... is he into the torturing because the cats are helpless, in which case, a kitten would be his ultimate pleasure." 

          "It's creepy.  I'm gonna have to plug this dude, whoever he is." 

          "So we figure that out and get the cat and then we're gonna need a cat box for the back of your car, a collar, the pet tracking device, cat litter and some food to keep the thing alive." 

          "So what, we go to a shelter?" 

          "A shelter'll take too long.  They'll check our ID and shit and we'll have to wait like four or five days."

          "Not a pet store," said Gage. 

          "It's not that hard.  We just have to go back by the drive-thru at Cootcher Fried Chicken.  I see stray cats back there all the time.  We get some chicken, lure its ass over and nab it." 

          "That sounds good enough." 

          "Before we get the cat, we should head over to The People's Warehouse.  We can get all the shit we need there cheap.  They've got two football fields worth of pet supplies."

          "You'll have to go in.  I never go in that place," said Gage. 

          "Why?" 

          "It's gives me a bad vibe.  It's too, uh..., vast to actually be any good.  Man, I'm looped."

          "Must be the fuckin endive," said Mink cause I'm seeing like two of you right now.  Jeez." 

          Gage started the car and was about to put it in gear when his cell rang.  He answered, took a sip, and put it on speaker phone. 

          "You there?" said the boss. 

          The partners looked at each other and laughed silently. 

          "Yeah," said Gage. 

          "Nestis came up with something for you." 

          "You're on a first name basis with her, Chin?" asked Mink.  "Sounds hot."

          "Shut up," said Chinslow.  "She told me to tell you to remember pudgie."

          Gage laughed out loud. 

          "You think it's funny?" yelled Chinslow. 

          "Come on, boss.  Pudgie?  What the fuck?" 

          "That's what she said." 

          "That's a thin lead," said Mink. 

          "Well, that's what she's got so far.  I told her to keep mesmerizing or whatever the hell she does.  She said she's gonna try cause she wants that cat back."

          "Pudgie it is," said Gage.  "Call me if she gives you anything more substantial." 

          "Hurry guys," said Chinslow.  "I can't take much more of her." 

          "We're all over it," said Mink. 

          Gage clicked his phone off and the two broke out laughing.  "This gets crazier by the minute," said Gage. 

          "Who could forget pudgie?" said Mink as leaned forward and poked his finger around in the car ashtray. 

          "What are you doing?" 

          "Looking for this," he said and held up the roach from the joint of Philosopher weed they smoked in front of the museum the night before.  "This'll be the exquisite capper on my high.  The pain has fled."   

          They sat in silence, drinking Sudden Afternoon, toking weed and burning their fingertips.  Gage opened the third bottle and started the car.  He put it in gear and backed up.  Just when he had the car aimed at the parking lot exit and had put it in drive, he said.  "You know, I do remember Pudgie." 

          "Is this a sexual confession?" asked Mink. 

          "There was a display at the museum last night that I saw while killing time.  A set of dentures from this guy who had been the breakfast chef at the White House.  Harl Pudgie.  I think the Philosopher weed helped me remember." 

          "What about him?"

          "I don't know.  He's dead and his cracked old teeth are in the museum."

          "Which president?" asked Mink. 

          "Woodrow Wilson." 

          "The hell with that for now.  Let's go over to Cootchers and get a cat."

          Gage pulled out into traffic, almost got hit by a UPS truck and almost hit a green convertible.  "These chuckle heads don't know how to drive," he said and passed the third bottle of Sudden Afternoon to his partner.   

          "You might be too messed up to drive." 

          "I'm wasted but I have a lot of energy."

           

         

              

September 7th, 2012




 Companions of Fear 



Part 9

          "There was some kind of weird bird singing in the tree outside last night.  Even with a few pills on board and some of that whiskey, it kept waking me up," said Darlene as she checked herself in the mirror.  She wore an orange cardigan embroidered with green vines and leaves that had once belonged to her grandmother.  She picked at a small cigarette burn near its bottom hem. 

          "That's hot," said Mink from the bed.  "You look like an enchanted pumpkin."  His left eye was purple and blue and his lip was swollen and split on the right side.

          "Fuck you," she said. 

          "Miss your first class and come back to bed," he said, bleary eyed.  "I'm beat up." 

          "You're just beat."

          "Cold, cold heart."

          "I can't stiff the class today, I'm gonna lay out the Puritans for them," she said, clipping back her hair.  Using her middle finger, she pushed her glasses higher along the bridge of her nose and stepped back.

          "Lay me out instead," said Mink.   

          "You're totally Zwingly but you're no Hutchinson." 

          She walked over to where he lay and leaned over to give him a kiss. 

          "Class dismissed," he yelled and grabbed her, pulling her toward the bed.  A sharp pain in his ribs interceded, though, that forced him to open his arms and he dropped her.  She slid down the side of the mattress onto the floor. 

          "You're a crazy ass," she said, pulling herself up.  She hoisted her jeans with her belt, straightened the legs, touched the hem of the orange cardigan and backed away from him.  "Later, loser," she said and blew him a kiss. 

          "Take those feathers," he called after her. 

          "I got it," she said as she moved into the living room.

          Gage was sprawled out on the old easy chair that Mink had occupied the previous night.  The first thing Darlene noticed was that his shoes were off and his feet were propped up on the overturned empty bucket from beneath the kitchen sink.        His once white socks were grayer than his complexion, and gave off a scent like expensive cheese.  She grimaced as she approached him.  Flipping back his jacket, she took one of the three feathers, he'd shown her.  As she pulled away from him, his arm shot out and he grabbed the wrist of the hand with the feather.  His eyes weren't even open. 

          "For the bird doctor," she whispered. 

          He grunted and let her go.

          The hallway was filled with the smell of boiling cabbage, but outside it was a cold clear day with a sharp breeze from the north.  In the parking lot next to the apartment building, she got into the gold Rustang and started it up.  The car ran like a charm.  She'd told Mink that even when the body was gone, the engine would run and she'd sit in the driver's seat with nothing between her and the wind.  She turned on the radio, the morning back seat oldies show, and put it in gear. 

          Driving always put Darlene in a daze of deep thinking.  She worried about Mink for a while and then switched gears into an idea she had for one of her classes.  She'd taken Creative Writing as a way to get easy credits, and it was urgent that she write a story, even a shitty story, so she wouldn't lose those credits.  She was reading Cotton Mather for her thesis -- The Wonders of the Invisible World.  She couldn't get over the name "Cotton" and she thought of white puffs and rabbit tails, q-tips, the wad in the top of a just opened bottle of aspirin. "What a weird fucking name," she thought.  Then she remembered, a novel from her undergraduate class in Urban Fiction by Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem

          The idea hit her like three Darvon and two shots of tequila.  What if Cotton Mather goes to the outhouse one night some time back in 1691, while he was working on Wonders, and by some science fiction bullshit he's transported through Time to the Harlem Renaissance?  The idea excited her and she often returned to it.  She'd told a guy in her creative writing class about the idea and asked if he thought it was a good one.  He told her it was a bad idea for so many reasons and left it at that.  He wrote boring stories, though, so she knew it was gold.

          The incessant repetition of a doo-wop song on the radio brought her to her senses just in time for her to take her exit.  From there it was a  quick drive down two city blocks and a straight mile into the country to Craton University.  Halfway there, she crossed over the river on a steel bridge and then out at the edge of her sight she could see the spire of the administration building looming over the tree line.  The place had been built in the mid-1800's -- stone buildings with turrets, columns out front, unpolished waxed mahogany everywhere inside.  The floors creaked.  Things were broken. She daydreamed often that the faculty were ghosts.

          On her walk from the parking lot to the Science building, she passed along a winding walkway lined on both sides by trees, their yellow leaves scattered on the ground.  She went back to thinking about Mink and what a stupid shit he was.  Just five years earlier, she'd been mixed up with Chinslow's crowd, snorting lines and drinking, every day three quarters in the bag, getting groped and poked by whoever.  She let go of all that, but she couldn't let go of Mink.  Or was it that Mink wouldn't let go of her?  The only thing she was certain of was that she wouldn't go back.   "He's got a clear choice," she said aloud to herself as she reached the bottom steps of Goshen Hall.  "Besides," she thought, "he has no idea what a racket academia is."

          Goshen, another stone giant, was not as tall as the administration building, but it was vast, with courtyards and hallways that twisted and turned and came to dead ends while others seemed to lead you in a circle. Her one science class, Astronomy, was held there and during that early semester she learned, to an extent, how to navigate the place.  There were hallways she never went down, yet always wondered where they led.  It had been the residence of Zebedus Goshen, the founder of the school.  He'd lived there with his wife, his mistress, and his eight children.  The most amusing thing about the place to Darlene was that in the vaulted foyer at the entrance there was hung a thirty foot painting of God, surrounded by billowing clouds, enrobed in blue, an angry face and an accusatory finger.  Every time she saw it, she smiled. 

          She was headed for the main office of the Science Department when she spotted her old Astronomy professor gliding down the hallway toward her.  The tails of his white lab coat lifted in the wake of his progress.  He had a full head of gray hair and thick gray sideburns, thick glasses and a bottom lip like a sore thumb.  She'd always thought of him as a goofball, and she wondered now why he always wore a lab coat when he never did any experiments.  All he did was sit in The Hole and stare up at the night sky.  The Hole was the university's observatory, a fifty foot concrete lined pit at the bottom of which was a circular bench that went around the inner cylinder.  The school couldn't afford a planetarium, so The Hole was the answer.  During the class, Darlene and the other students would come to the school at night, descend through the sub-basements of Goshen Hall to a door way, like one to a racquetball court, enter and take their places on the bench.  According to professor Beerbauer, The Hole had some effect on the view of the sky above, the clarity of the stars, but Darlene never got it.  What she got was an A. 

             "Darlene," said the professor, not slowing his gait. 

          "Is there an ornithologist in the Science Department?" she asked. 

          As he swept by, she saw him put his hand  over the pens in his lab coat pocket protector, which she knew meant he was thinking.  She stopped and turned to watch him pass.  He reached the end of the hallway, but just before he turned, he called back, "Dr. Feens, in the fourth sub-basement, one below the entrance to The Hole.  Room X." 

          She hated the sub-basements -- the long, dimly lit wooden stairways, splintered and cracking, the moldy earth smell.  Every time she attended Astronomy, she felt like she was descending into the grave and thought of a line from Emily Dickinson, "The cornice in the ground."  There were always noises off in the dark corners of the levels she passed on her way to The Hole.  "Next time, Gage can check it out for himself," she thought and just then a figure appeared, ascending out of the shadows of the third sub-basement.  A bent old woman, slapping her feet on each step, every breath like it might be her last.  Professor Bushard.  Darlene knew of her, had seen her before.  Supposedly a brilliant theoretical physicist. 

          "Hello, professor," Darlene said as she moved to the side of the stairs to let the old woman pass. 

          Bushard looked up at her, eyes blossoming with gray cataracts.  She smiled, her teeth, yellow pegs.  "Hello, honey," she said.  "How's the weather outside?" 

          "Cool and bright."   

          "I should make it to the parking lot before the sun goes down."

          Darlene moved down into the shadows Bushard had emerged from, contemplating the ancient professor actually driving.   

          Many of the bulbs that lit the fourth sub-basement had burned out, and it was only by the most meager threads of light that she navigated.  There didn't seem to be anything on that level -- no hallways or offices, just a huge expanse of floor, like an empty warehouse.  "Fuck this," she thought and was about to turn around and go back when she saw, about fifty yards away, a rectangle of light in the distance.  She groped forward. 

          Stepping through the lit doorway, she was surprised by the contrast of the emptiness outside and the cozy nature of the small office.  There was a warm light shining from above, revealing wall to wall shelves of books, a small table with a coffee maker, an old braided rug on the floor, a gold upholstered chair with worn arms from which the stuffing peeked.        

          She saw that the room she stood in led to another room further back.  "Dr. Feens," she called.  While she waited for a response, she looked around at the part of the office she was in.  For the first time, she noticed that there was a bird cage in the corner, hanging from a tall shepherd's hook affixed to a base on the floor. The little doorway to the cage was open, swinging on tiny hinges.  There was a nameplate attached to the bottom rim of the cage, in a fancy script, engraved on a thin silver plaque.  It read, MARGY.   She wondered if the bird had recently escaped or died, or if this was one of those mind games professors like to play on students.  Darlene knew what assholes they could be.  She called out his name again but there was no answer. 

          She walked through into the next room, and there she saw a chubby little man with a bald crown and a wreath of white hair sitting in a chair.  His back was to her and he leaned forward as if studying something on the desk or sleeping.  He did not wear the indicative white lab coat, but a red plaid shirt. 

          "Dr. Feens," she said.  He never moved, and she guessed he was sleeping.  She hated to disturb him, but she'd come down four flights of rickety stairs through the dark, lower than the very Hole, and she wasn't going back until he gave her the time of day.  "Dr. Feens," she said, this time leaning closer to his ear.  He didn't budge. 

          "Feens," she said louder.  She lightly pushed his shoulder.  He felt like a wrapped ham at the butcher counter.  "Wake up, Dr. Feens."  Instead of merely prodding him, this time she grabbed his shoulder and shook it.  Somehow his center of gravity shifted and his body leaned backward in the swivel chair.  She leaped away a step.  His face was wide as a pillow and pale as snow.  The right lens of his glasses was shattered, slivers of glass still on his cheeks, and his eye behind that lens was a bloody burst grape of a mess.  A trickle of blood ran from the corner of his gaping mouth.  Darlene grunted and shivered.  She backed up into a stack of books piled on the floor and toppled it, almost falling, herself.  A black bird suddenly flew at her face from the corner of the ceiling, flapping around her eyes, screaming in a human voice, "Repent.  Repent." 

          She was out the office door and across the darkened expanse of the fourth sub-basement in less than twenty seconds.  Bounding up the stairs, she kept looking back over her shoulder to see if someone was following her.  Passing the third sub-basement she never slowed, even though breathing was becoming a near impossibility.  She heaved for air as she pushed on at the same pace.  On the way up to the second sub-basement, she pased Professor Bushard, who called after her, "What's it like outside, honey?"     

September 3rd, 2012

           
 Companions of Fear     


 

Part 8

          Chinslow led Nestis March through the enormous kitchen, and down a dimly lit back hallway carpeted in a design of golden paisley, to a stairway that led up to the second floor.  At the top of the stairs there was a door.  He opened it and waved his arm as a sign for her to enter. 

          "I've had this room prepared for you and had them bring your things," he said. 

          Nestis looked at the heavy furniture, the book cases, the vaulted ceiling and tall windows.  "Gloomy," she said. 

          "It's in some neo-gothic style my wife was fond of." 

          "I can see she went in for the drab," said Nestis, throwing a glance his way. 

          Chinslow forced a smile.  "She said she wanted it to seem as if Frankenstein could have been written in this room." 

          "Good lord, what pretensions." 

          "Cost a fortune," he said. 

          "You've got white curtains around the bed, sheer curtains in the middle of the room -- for what reason, I have no idea.  It makes the place seem like a whore house --  and waterfalls of gauze drapes enshrouding the windows.  The quill in the jar of ink on the writing desk is tacky.  I mean, we get it already.  The Persian carpet is nice.  A room designed for the comfort of shadows."  

          "Yes."  Chinslow nodded in agreement.  "Now, time for bed, I'm afraid."  He reached into the left side pocket of his sagging trousers and brought out a pair of hand cuffs.  He pointed the gun at her. 

          "Where can I change?" she asked. 

          "In the bathroom."  He pointed the muzzle of the gun at a door off to the right.  "Get comfortable, Ms. March, cause once you're in bed, you gotta stay there till morning.  I'm locking you up." 

          "You're not going to touch me." 

          "Perish the thought.  Do you think I'm a masochist?" he said.  "Move it.  I'm exhausted.  I have to sleep." 

          She lifted her travelling bag  and shuffled into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.  The sliding lock on the inside slammed shut.  When he heard that, Chinslow remembered that there was a window in there that opened onto the roof, which, if you were young and athletic enough you might be able to maneuver down to its edge and then leap the ten or eleven feet to the ground.   He stood and stepped up close to the door. 

          "Ms. March?" he called. 

          "Yes," she answered.

          He could hear some movement in there, and tried to listen for the sound of the window opening.  "Don't go near that window, or I'll have to shoot my way in and shoot you in the process.  Trying to get away is a one-way ticket to the Beautician.  Understand?" 

            "You're afraid I'm going to climb out the window?" she called.  "Do I look like an acrobat, Mr. Chinslow?" 

          "Just an old bat," he whispered and walked across the room where there was a wooden bar against the wall.  Atop it was a cut glass decanter of whiskey and two crystal glasses.  "Can I pour you a drink?" he shouted. 

          "Please," he heard her say. 

          He put the pistol in his jacket pocket and poured.  Lifting the two glasses he pushed through a scrim of sheer curtains to the bedside where he set down one of the glasses and then returned to sit in the desk chair positioned so he faced the bathroom door.  He retrieved the gun from his jacket.  Sipping his drink, he crossed his left leg over his right and sighed with weariness.  Some time passed and he was getting concerned that the old lady might have flown the coop.  He meant to call out, but he was so tired that instead his head nodded down and his eyes closed. 

          The bathroom door suddenly burst open and he reared upright, almost pulling the trigger of the pistol in his surprise.  There stood Nestis March dressed in a floor length flannel nightgown with a design of orange and black cats. 

          Chinslow regained his composure and said, "Stunning." 

          "The cats remind me of Igbid." 

          "How touching.  Now climb in the sack and let me chain you up for the night." 

          Nestis was carrying her folded clothes and her bag.  She placed them carefully on the writing desk, away from the open jar or ink. 

          "This way," said Chinslow, took a drink, and waved the gun to indicate that she should push through the veil of sheer curtains hanging in the middle of the room.  As she made her way through them, she laughed.  "This is ridiculous," she said.  "What do all the curtains have to do with whether Frankenstein could have been written here?"

          "I don't know," he said.  "When my wife pictured Frankenstein, she pictured curtains." 

          "Thank heavens, she wasn't interested in Hamlet," said Nestis.  "There might be shag carpet on the ceiling."  She reached the bed, which stood quite high off the floor, and literally climbed into it.  In a moment, she was beneath the covers.

          Chinslow sat at the end of the mattress, a few inches from the outline of her feet beneath the blanket.   "There's your drink," he said, nodding toward it, and lifted his to toast at a distance. 

          Nestis took her drink from the small table beside the bed and had a healthy swig.  Wiping her lips with the arm of her nightgown, she said, "I really don't want to be here.  I want to be in my own home." 

          "If it's any solace to you, I wish you weren't here either.  But we've got a deal now.  A Powerball number for a cat." 

          "Those men you've got looking for poor Igbid..."  She shook her head.  "They don't seem capable of finding their dicks in their trousers, if  you'll forgive my saying so." 

          "Well put, Ms. March," said Chinslow.  "But they're all I've got, and more importantly for you, they're all Igbid's got right now.  So we should really be rooting for them."

          "Agreed," she said and gave a subtle smile. 

          "OK, gimme your wrist," he said, sliding off the bed to stand. 

          She pushed back the right sleeve of her nightgown and held her wrist out to him.  He put his drink down on the bedside table and pulled the handcuffs out of his pocket.  They were already in the open position, so he didn't have to fiddle with the key.  Placing the metal "C" around her boney wrist, he clicked it closed into a bracelet.  He then fastened the other cuff to the middle of the headboard post. 

          "It's tight and hurts my wrist." 

          "A shame," he said.  "Do you want the bed curtains untied and closed over or do you want them open?" he asked. 

          "Leave them open." she said.  "Before you go, Mr. Chinslow.  I want you to tell me one thing." 

          He finished his drink and put the glass down on the table.  "What?"  he said. 

          "How did your wife, Harris, really die if it wasn't hunting the stag?" 

          "I thought you knew," he said.  "You didn't see it?" 

          "I knew you were lying, but I'm not clear on what actually happened." 

          He yawned and stretched, pointing the pistol at the ceiling.  Then putting the gun in his pocket, he sat down again on the end of the bed.  With his thumb and forefinger he cleared his tired eyes. 

          "Harris," he said, "was an unusual woman.  I don't believe she was ever as partial to me as she was to my money.  I had many millions at one point before I started building that contraption to preserve her, to eventually bring her back.  The two I owe St. Martin are the last I needed to complete the cryonic bunker we were in tonight.  To Johnny, a million is the end of the world.  He's a two-bit thug, a savage, and he'll kill me if I don't deliver."

          "I believe we were talking about your wife," said Nestis and crossed her uncuffed arm in front of her to place her glass on the bedside table. 

          "Yes, my wife.  Well..., this house, as you'll notice in the light of the day has a widow's walk at the peak of the place, way up above the front entrance.  She used to go there to be by herself when we were arguing.  We didn't argue often, only when I wouldn't cough up the cash fast enough for her projects, like this droll room or the stag, which was completely her idea.  I'm obviously no hunter."

          "Obviously." 

          "Ms. March, you're a trying woman." 

          "But you loved her.  Am I right?" 

          He nodded, staring at the snow white bed spread, and tears formed in the corners of his eyes. 

          "So, Chinslow, you're actually a human being," said Nestis. 

          "Sort of," he said and laid on his side as if gravity had finally gotten the better of him.  "Harris became involved in the purchase of some rare book or manuscript.  I'm not sure what it was.  I didn't trust the young man selling the thing.  I had some people look into it and it's so easy to fake old writing and paper, so I refused to fund it."

          "And you were jealous of the young man," said Nestis. 

          "I suppose," he said.  "Anyway, she was up on the widow's walk, and I was inside talking business with Gage and Mink and the next thing we know, there's a scream, and she must have hit the lower roof once, because we heard that thud while we were running to see what had happened.  She lay there in the drive, blood oozing from the corner of her mouth." 

          "Still alive?" 

          "Yes.  She was so frightened.  She said 'Chin, save me.  You can't let me die.'  And I did what had to be done.  I have my own doctors and emergency people, and we took care of her body.  Someday I'll have her back."  When these last words left his mouth, Chinslow slowly struggled up off the bed, and stood, his figure weaving back and forth as if he might go over.  Eventually he paced like a somnambulist toward the door, intoned, "Good night, Ms. March," and left the room. 

          "Wait, you left the light on," she called to him, but he didn't return.  She lay in the bed, quite exhausted herself, listening to the wind blowing and thinking of the woman out at the edge of the woods, in a concrete bunker, encased in glass.  Chinslow, she was sure, still had plans to do away with her after she delivered the winning number, but she wanted her cat back.  "Once, Igbid is in my arms, it'll be easy to escape these buffoons," she thought. 

          As her eyes began to close, she caught the sight of something moving on the other side of the sheer curtains that divided the room.  She propped herself up as best she could with only one arm and squinted through the dim light.  There was definitely something moving.  

          "Who's there?" she called out. 

          The temperature in the room dropped suddenly.  She could barely discern the form, more like an outline of a shadow on the other side of the curtain.  "What do you want?" she asked.

          A whispered voice filtered through the thin material, rippling it.  The words were so quiet, they barely reached her ears.  "He lies," it said.  "He lies." 

August 13th, 2012



Companions of Fear           


Part 7


           Gage supported Mink's weight, his partner's arm slung across his shoulders, as they shuffled in tandem down the carpeted hallway of the apartment building.  The light at the opposite end flickered on and off, strobing the pathetic scene. 

          "How come every time I come over here to Darlene's place, somebody's cooking cabbage?" asked Gage. 

          Mink leaned back his swollen head and opened his eyes wider than a squint.  "They cook that shit 24/7," said Mink.  "In the apartment you don't really smell it, but the hallway's a damn gas chamber." 

          "Who's eating all that cabbage?"

          "When I'm feeling better I'm gonna knock on all the doors and find out.  Then there's gonna be trouble." 

          They came to a door in the middle of the hall, apartment 3B.  Gage tapped the lower door panel with the tip of his shoe.  They waited.  Gage tapped again.  A few seconds later there was the sound of the chain being slid out of place and the  knob turned.  The door swept back and a young woman appeared.  She wore a pair of green pajama bottoms and a red T-shirt bearing the Tenniel illustration of the hookah smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.  Her hair was auburn, mid-length, her eyes were green, and she had a pencil tucked behind her right ear.  She shook her head and folded her arms. 

          "If it isn't the tinsel dicks," she said. 

          Gage reached up his free hand and saluted. 

          "What happened to the boy wonder, here?" she asked. 

          "He got beat up by a gang of cat torturers."

          "Bring him in," she said and backed away.  She closed the door once they'd entered the apartment.  

          Mink unhooked his arm from around his partner's shoulders and hobbled to an old upholstered easy chair.  He set himself into it and groaned.  "Baby, I've been rolled," he said and gave a split lipped smile.  

          "Keep it up," she said to him.  "I'm not going with someone who's been made a gimp through their own foolishness.  You better get another job instead of working for that creepy old Chinslow or we're gonna part company."  She stared at him and he closed his eyes to escape her gaze. 

          "Where were you when this was happening?  Some partner," she said turning to Gage. 

          He didn't respond but sat down at a card table in the middle of the room.  Darlene left and came back with a plastic bag of pills, a bottle of whiskey and three glasses.  She poured a glass, and then opened the plastic bag and ran her fingers through the different colored capsules.  "What d'ya say?  Percocet?" 

          "Cool," said Mink. 

          She handed him the drink and the pill and kissed him on the forehead.  Stepping back, she took a seat at the table with Gage.  He'd already poured two more glasses.  He pushed one toward her. 

          "I'd have taken him to my place, but there's this conflict going on between Chinslow and St. Martin," he said.  "I'm a little wary of St. Martin making a move before the time limit is up." 

          "Making a move?" asked Darlene. 

          "Coming after us," said Gage. 

          "Oh, so you brought him here?  Thanks.  Ice picks all around.  Why don't you two get out of that stupid mess and join the real world."  She took the pencil from behind her ear and laid it in the crease of a book that lay open on the table.  She pushed it and a notebook off to the side. 

          "It's all I know," said Gage. 

          "Hey, I lived that life.  You remember?  And right now I'm three months away from my Masters degree in English and I'm teaching college classes." 

          Gage laughed with his eyes closed. 

          "Professor Gage," said Mink.  "Today he will expound on the poetry of Keats."

          "You're already on thin ice," she said to Mink. 

          Darlene reached into her pajama pants and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.  She tapped two out of the pack, took one and held the other toward Gage.  He grabbed it between his fingers.  She lit up and passed him the lighter. 

          "Get that ashtray behind you," she said, nodding to Gage. 

          He reached behind him and lifted a varnished half a coconut shell off the television set. 

          "OK, let's hear it," she said. 

          The partners, going back and forth, and sometimes talking over each other, relayed to her the story of Chinslow and the two million and Nestis March. 

          "Kidnapping old ladies," she said and shook her head with disgust.  "Mink, if you two manage to get out of this in one piece, you better promise me, no more hoodluming or we're seriously through." 

          Mink put his right hand over his heart.  "I promise." 

          "After tonight, the two of you are out of here.  And don't come back till it's over.  I'm not taking one the hard way because old leather face Chinslow is out of cash.  He deserves to be clipped.  Fucking guy is out of his mind.  The powerball...," she said and laughed.  "That's desperate." 

          "Well, the guy in the brown overcoat was actually at the museum," said Mink.  "Maybe the old lady has it in her." 

          "You could help us," said Gage. 

          "Human shield?" asked Darlene. 

          He took the feathers out of his inner jacket pocket and laid them on the table.  "This is what I found under that guy's empty overcoat.  You ever see feathers like that before?" 

          Darlene picked one up and brought it closer to her eyes.  She turned it in her hand and shook her head.  "It looks like they're splattered with fresh blood, but it's actually the pattern of the feather." 

          Gage took a drink and a hit of his second cigarette.  "That's an unusual feather," he said.  "Why don't you take it over to the college and show it to a bird teacher." 

          "A bird teacher?" she said. 

          "You know," he said.  "Somebody who teaches about birds.  They've got classes about birds there, right?" 

          "He means an ornithologist," said Mink. 

          "Yeah."  Gage nodded.  "Find out what kind of bird that's from." 

          Darlene sighed.  "OK.  I'll see what I can do.  I don't know if there's an ornithologist on campus, but there might be." 

          "If you can find out," said Mink.  "And the bird is rare, we might be able to trace who's sold one recently and to who." 

          "To whom," said Darlene. 

          "Pass me another pill," said Mink. 

          She put her thumb to her top teeth and flicked it at him.  "That's your plan?  From the sounds of it, you two are already history." 

          "Got any ideas?" asked Gage. 

          "Look," she said, "the old lady claims that the guy is after cats, right?  So go to the shelter and adopt a cat.  Get a cheap tracking device at Radio Shack and put that on its collar.  Drop the cat off somewhere in Ms. March's neighborhood and hide out.  When someone snatches the cat, follow him, find Ingrid..." 

          "Igbid," said Mink. 

          "Igbid, and your problem's solved.  Except, of course, for the fact that the old lady has to win your boss a 30 million dollar powerball." 

          Gage looked at Mink and smiled. 

          "Baby, you're a genius," said Mink. 

          "Do you think that's a good idea?" she asked. 

          "I like it," said Gage. 

          "Me too," said Mink. 

          "It's fucking stupid," she said.  "You two are finished.  I'm looking at a couple of ghosts.  How can that work?  It's so far- fetched."

          "It could work," said Gage and he sat back in his chair, relaxed. 

          There was silence for a time.  Mink closed his eyes and drifted off.  Darlene smoked.  Gage sipped his whiskey. 

          Eventually she leaned toward Gage, and whispering as if not quite certain Mink was asleep, said, "You've got to help me get him out of the life after this." 

          Gage sat stone still for a long while and then nodded.  "What are you reading?" he asked. 

          She pulled the book back in front of her.  "Emerson."

          "A poet?" he asked. 

          "Not a great one.  A philosopher," she said. 

          "What'd he figure out?" 

          "Everything is connected." 

          "I knew that," said Gage. 

          "When his first wife died, he loved her so much, a few months after she was buried he had her dug up so he could look at her." 

          Gage grimaced.  "Kinky," he said. 

          Darlene lifted her gaze and shook her head.  She reached for the plastic bag of pills and dug through it, coming out with a capsule that was half black and half turquoise.  She popped it in her mouth and took a drink of whiskey.  "You want any?" she asked. 

          "Gimme a pink one," he said. 

August 12th, 2012




Companions of Fear


         
Part 6


         With his shoulders hunched up and his hands shoved into his pants pockets against the cold, Mink moved slowly along the sidewalk.  He kept his head down but his eyes peering up, so that he could track his mark.  The concrete of the walkway had erupted and cracked from the pressure of roots from old oaks that lined the way.  That street, Wirffle, led straight into the heart of the crumble where it was as much the lives of the inhabitants as that of the sidewalks that were  cracked and rotted and coming undone.  The wind had picked up and dry leaves blew down from above.  The street lamps were all out there and under the trees the figure he followed was a darker shadow in the night. 

          The man with the brown overcoat and black hat led him down two long blocks West of the museum, and Mink hoped the guy would hop into a car and drive off so he could simply get the license number and trace it through Gage's friend on the police force.  No such luck, though.  His quarry advanced steadily, crossing Pearl street, which was the definitive boundary between the haves and have-nothings in Craton.  The windows of the houses he passed now were no longer lit.  Instead they were busted out.  There were old cars on what were once lawns and broken appliances gone to rust on busted porches.  He thought about drawing his gun from the shoulder holster, knowing a cat torturer might be the least desperate person he could meet there. 

          Ever since smoking in the car, he'd had a subtle, pleasant buzz, which he figured would wear off in the cold air, but as he followed along, he thought he could feel it increasing.  Count Brown's, a spliff  of tobacco and grass mix were the usual refreshments he took when on the job, and he'd never found them to impede him, but this philosopher weed was suddenly coming on strong, taking his concentration and scattering it in a hundred weird directions.  At one point he found he'd stopped walking and was staring up at a lighted window on the very top floor of an old building that looked like it had been shelled by artillery. 

          He shook his head, peered up the sidewalk and saw the shadow of his mark receding.  Quickening his pace, he tried to focus, but his head was back at the lighted window.  "Who could be living there?" he wondered.  "A man or woman?  What are they like?"  Then he saw a scene in his imagination -- a young woman, standing at a stove, obviously waiting for a tea kettle to boil.  She wore a dingy yellow bathrobe, had her brown hair up, and stood on the cracked linoleum in bare feet.  Wrapping her arms around herself, she shivered and moved side to side.  On the wall behind her was a clock with different birds at each hour of the day.  It was quarter after the cardinal.  A meandering tune sounded from some back room, indistinct new age pabulum, the kind of music that Mink hated.  "She's lonely," he found himself saying aloud.  "Abandoned."  He saw a book on the kitchen table, titled The Works of Pisa Mirlanda.  It had a painting on the cover of a hideous creature -- hairy and snarling with a beak and claws.  There was a quote under the title, a blurb by somebody named Bridget James that read, clear as day, The pride of the proven.  Then the tea whistle blew and he came back to himself. 

          The miasma of philosopher weed that had settled in his head suddenly cleared away and Mink looked up.  In an instant, he realized that his charge must have at some time stopped walking.  He had to bring himself up short so as not to plough right through the fellow.  He knew, also instantly, that he was made and reached for his gun.  The mark never turned around but screeched with a high pitched trill like a tea whistle giving its all.  Mink got his hand on the grip and his finger on the trigger as the shadow before him spun backward, the fellow's arm clocking Mink across the side of the face.  He thought he felt something soft brush against his cheek as he went down, hitting his head on the busted concrete.  Dizzy as he was he lifted the gun. 

          The weapon was kicked away.  He made a move to get up, but then that huge clown shoe, clipped him under the chin and he went down again.  Fighting hard to stay conscious, he heard a car pull up.  There were voices, but they didn't speak English or really any language he'd ever heard before.  The sound was like burbling, like the murmurings of a rusty hinge.  He was groggy and squinting into the headlights, groping around for his pistol on the concrete.  Instead of the gun, his fingers passed over those enormous shoes.  There were three sets of them.  He looked up and saw three shadowed forms looming over him.  He reached down by his ankle, lifted his pant leg and ripped away the switch blade he kept taped to his shin.  Above he heard them gibberishing about him. 

          "Enjoy," he said, flicked the knife open and stabbed it into one of the big shoes.  There was a horrific screech and then the beating commenced. They pummeled his head and kicked him in the ribs.  One of them hit him with something heavy.  He saw stars, tasted blood, and caught a brief glimpse of the young woman in her kitchen drinking a cup of tea before everything went black. Next he knew, he woke, grunting, a light shining in his eyes.  "Shit," he said, thinking they'd not finished with him yet. 

          "Hell of a place to catch a nap," said a voice from behind the light.  It was Gage, kneeling next to him.  "Can you get up?"

          "They fucking worked me over," he whispered, barely able to talk.  His mouth was dry and his head was pounding.  "Get that light out of my eyes." 

          "Come on.  I'm gonna lift you into the car.  You ready?" 

          "OK, OK, give me a second." 

            "Who was it?" 

          "I never saw them.  They stayed in the dark, ducked into those overcoats and under the hats.  Three of them.  They had a car." 

          "Did you catch the number?" 

          He shook his head.  "Let's do this," he said.  Gage reached under his partner's arms and lifted.  Once Mink was able to get his feet beneath him, he found he could stand on his own.  "You can let go of me." 

          "Your eyes are fucked up, dilated, and you got blood on your chin.  Otherwise you look about the same as usual." 

          "I got a lump on the back of my neck.  They sand bagged me, the bastards.  Everyone of these mother fuckers has got an appointment with the Beautician.  I'm not blowing smoke." 

          "We'll get them," said Gage. 

          "Look around with that flashlight and see if you see my piece.  I dropped it when they kicked me in the face." 

          "I already have it in my pocket." 

          "My knife's in one of their feet.  They got big feet." 

          "The guy I followed did too." 

          "How many of these jokers are there?" 

          "It's like a gang or something," said Gage.  "Crazy.  What?  They all get together and kidnap cats and torture them?  Also, what's with the coordinated outfits -- the brown overcoats and hats.  They must be some real douche bags."  He took Mink by the shoulders and led him in the direction of the car. 

          "What happened with your guy?"

          "Get in.  We'll have a pull of Count Brown's, and I'll tell you about it.  You're not gonna believe it. "  They got into the car and Gage started it up and pulled away from the curb.  He took his hands off the wheel momentarily and unscrewed the cap from the bottle.  "Have a hit of this shit.  It's good for what ails you." 

          Mink took the bottle and chugged it.  He shivered and passed it back.  "What happened?"  he asked. 

          "Well," said Gage, "I followed the guy.  He didn't seem to have a car.  He was headed East.  We went about four blocks and were passing these old warehouses that have been refurbished into apartments.  You know where I mean, over on Ten Hill Road?" 

          "Darlene's mother used to live in one of them," said Mink. 

          "So I'm tailing the guy, no problem, when all of a sudden he turns into an alleyway between two of the buildings.  It's dark as shit in there, but I don't wanta take out the flashlight cause then he'll know I'm tailing him.  I thought maybe the alley went all the way through and came out the other side.  I definitely had my gun out, though, in case he tried to jump me."

          "Yeah?" 

          "Eventually I came to a brick wall.  There was no way he could have passed me by.  It wasn't that wide.  I took out the flashlight and turned it on.  On the ground, I see the brown overcoat.  I pick it up.  It's still warm.  And underneath it were these..."  Gage reached for his inside jacket pocket and pulled out three  feathers, each about a foot long.  He glanced briefly away from the road ahead of him and said, "Turn on the light." 

          Mink leaned forward and pushed the switch.

          "You ever see feathers like that before?" asked Gage.  They were white, speckled with a bright red. 

          "Is it blood?" 

          Gage shook his head.  "That's the color of them."

          "From a pretty big bird," said Mink.  "So what happened to the guy?" 

          Gage shrugged.  "He disappeared.  This is one cagey cat torturer." 

          "From the looks of it, he's torturing birds too," said Mink. 

          "Sick fuck.  Forget the million.  I want this guy now." 

          "How'd you find me?" 

          "You must have been out for a while.  I had to get back to the car and then I searched up and down every street West of the museum.  I mean, who knew what came of you.  No answer on the phone, and last thing you told me, you were heading into the Crumble.  I didn't know what to think.  When I first saw you on the sidewalk, I thought you were a dog someone hit." 

          "Listen, next time you come across some of that philosopher weed, keep it the hell away from me.  That shit did me dirty." 

          "It didn't make you smarter?" asked Gage, laughing. 

          "Confusing," said Mink.  "Really vivid but loopy and it comes on like an avalanche." 

          "Yeah," said Gage.  "That's the best part." 

August 10th, 2012



Companions of Fear


Part 5
 

       They sat in Gage's car, parked on a cobblestone street in the old part of town, on the boundary of that destitute area known as the Crumble.  Through the windshield, fifty yards away, they saw facing them a century old red brick building, three floors, with a banner -- blue writing on a white background -- over the front entrance, Museum of Local History.  It was night already and the street was empty.  Two of the four streetlamps between the car and the museum were working, casting a dim glow.  Litter and leaves whirled upward in a momentary twister on the sidewalk and then dispersed.

          "Local is right," said Mink.  "You ever been in this place?" 

          Gage shook his head, sparked his lighter, and lit a joint he held between his lips.

          "Me and Darlene took her nephew there one Saturday."

          Smoke curled out of the corners of Gage's mouth as he tried to speak and hold his hit at the same time.  "Whata they got?" he asked, passing the joint to his partner.

          "Basically nothing.  Three floors of old photos and a couple of  lame objects.  For instance, one of the displays is a beat up old photo of a guy who invented the concrete boat." 

          Gage opened the bottle of Count Brown's and laughed, quietly, briefly.  "There's a brainstorm." 

          "No shit.  Supposedly, officially, the concrete boat was invented by a Frenchman, but the display claims that some old character from town was really first with it back in the 1800's.  Also, in the display, they have a chunk of concrete.  You don't even know if it's from a boat.  Looks like they grabbed a piece of the sidewalk over in the Crumble."

          "A concrete boat?  That's like inventing a shit doughnut." 

          "Supposedly concrete floats." 

          "Nah.  Come on.  Tell that to Qualo.  If you remember, he's at the bottom of the bay.  If what you're saying is true, instead sinking like a stone, he woulda walked on water with that special footwear we put him in."

          "Touche," said Mink.

          "How many entrances does the place have?" 

          "When I was there I wasn't casing the place, but I seem to remember the main one, we're looking at, and one on the side.  The back of the place butts up against an abandoned factory.  The side one lets out onto Herigen Street."

          "The place closes in a half hour.  We go in, each set up at an entrance and wait.  Whichever one of us sees him follows and phones the other.  The second guy gets the car.  You got your set of keys?"

          "Yeah," said Mink.  "Pass the Brown, I gotta wash the taste of this philosopher weed down.  This stuff is nothing like pot.  Kinda tastes like turnips."

          "It's not the best tasting stuff.  The smell too. The car's starting to smell like ... exotic b.o."

          "I thought that was you." 

          "At first it was, but now it's the weed. Chin said he gets it from some island in the Indian Ocean. This stuff supposedly makes you smarter.  " 

          "We should score a pound." 

          "You get high enough, but then things get deep." 

          "Here's something I want to know," said Mink.  "The Chin has always been loaded with dough.  Why is he sweating two million?  To us that's a lot, but I thought he was beyond that." 

          "He was," said Gage.  "But lately, the last year or so, he's got some project going out in the woods he won't tell me about that he spent all his money on.  I was there one day dropping off his dry cleaning, and he was getting a delivery of a couple of crates.  I asked the delivery guy what it was and he said, "'Inert gasses.'"

          "Wow.  The Chin should be in the Museum of Local History."

          "Yeah, in the inert gasses wing of dubious crime bosses."

          "I'm kinda blasted on that stuff," said Mink, smiling. 

          "OK, let's go get this cat torturing mother fucker."

          They left the car and walked down the block to the steps of the museum.  As they ascended toward the entrance, Mink asked, "So if we see the guy do we just follow or do you want to get him in an alley and just sweat him for the location of the cat?"

          "For now, we follow," said Gage.  "One thing that bothers me is we're all the way on the other side of town from where March lives.  She said the guy was in her neighborhood."  Reaching the front door he opened it and held it for his partner. 

          Just inside, there was a reception desk with an older woman sitting behind it.   Her hair was unusually long and pure white, her cardigan was olive green.  She looked up and smiled at them.  "Two dollars," she said.  "But I want to let you know we close in about fifteen minutes."      

          Mink asked Gage if he could borrow two dollars. 

          "Can I get a rake off cause we're only gonna get to look around for fifteen minutes?" asked Gage.  "We came all the way from France to see the concrete boat thing."

          The woman shook her head and her smile became more simpering.  "Four dollars, s'il vous plaît" she said. 

          "The U.N. will hear about this," Gage grumbled and paid for both of them. 

          "When you see the lights go on and off, you must make your way to the exit," she said. 

          They moved past the desk and into the museum proper.  It was a vast area with a floor of wooden beams.  Lamps hung on long poles from the high ceiling, half of them dark and the others casting a weak light, as if it was dusk indoors. The place was sturdy and dingy, once a factory in another century.   Lined up along the walls of the place were the displays.   Some were in glass cases, the tops smeared by children's hand prints.  Some were just large pieces of oak tag hung on the wall with cut out newspaper articles glued to them.  A lot of yellowing paper and odd rusted objects, rejects from some desperate old codger's garage sale.   

          "Two bucks for this?" said Gage.  "It looks like a science fair from the high school for chuckle heads."

          "I told you," said Mink.  

          "OK, I got this door," said Gage.  "You post at the other exit.  If you see the guy, buzz me.  I'll do the same." 

          "One thing," said Mink.  "Give me another look at the cat in case we run across it tonight."

          Gage took the photo out of his inside jacket pocket and showed it to his partner. 

          "God." said Mink, "It's head's as big as a fucking couch pillow." 

          "You see how flat it's face is?  All that crazy hair.  Those are kind of human eyes.  Weird creature.  Cats are bad enough.  I got a strong inclination to punch this one's lights out, and I don't even know it.  Igbid.  Sounds like something out of a grammar book."

          "That's a million dollar face, brother," said Mink as he walked away. 

            "Be careful," whispered Gage, who walked in the opposite direction along the line of displays.  Every few seconds he turned and subtly looked around the exhibition area. There was one young woman, across the way, facing the opposite wall, studying a large quilt.  Every now and then she jotted something in a little notebook.  No brown overcoat or black hat, though, just jeans and sneakers and a t-shirt. 

          Off in the direction Mink had gone, there was a middle-aged couple, probably married, moving slowly along, holding hands, talking and pointing at the displays.  Otherwise, the place was empty.  He checked his watch to see how many minutes before closing, looked over his shoulder again twice and then gave himself up to the exhibit in front of him.  Sitting on a small wooden table was a set of top dentures -- the pink part going brown, the teeth cracked and yellow.  He read the informational card that was taped to the table, hand written in fading ink. 

          Harl Pudgie's Denture -- A native son of Craton City, born 1883 -- died 1940.  Harl Pudgie served for two years as the breakfast chef at the White House, whipping up eggs, pancakes, and waffles, for President Woodrow Wilson and his family.  Wilson was on a friendly basis with the cook, calling him Pudge.  The chef attested to the fact that the Commander and Chief had a weakness for scrapple. This is Harl Pudgie's actual denture. 

          At the bottom of the card, written in somewhat fresher magic marker, in block letters, were the words DO NOT TOUCH.  Gage grimaced and said, "No problem."  As he moved on to the next display, he felt his phone vibrate.  He retrieved it from his jacket pocket and answered, keeping his voice low. 

          "I'm at the other entrance," said Mink.  "Not many people around and none with brown overcoats and black hats." 

          "Yeah," said Gage.  "If he's here, he's upstairs somewhere.  We'll just wait.  Shouldn't be long before they close up shop." 

          "Keep em peeled," said Mink and hung up. 

          Gage still had the phone in his hand when the lights of the museum blinked on and off.  He heard the woman with the long white hair call out, "Closing time.  Please make your way to the exits."  He took one more long look the length and breadth of the place.  When he turned to glance down the way Mink had gone, he heard, off to his right, a door creak open and close.  Knowing it must be to the stairwell, he spun around and caught sight of a figure in a brown full-length overcoat and a wide brimmed black Fedora, moving swiftly toward the front entrance. 

          He waited a few seconds, keeping his quarry in sight, but unable to see a face.  The fellow was tall with incredibly wide shoulders.  Black gloves and strange looking shoes that seemed to flange wider at the toes than the heel, like a clown would wear.  Gage started following as the man passed the woman at the desk and briefly touched the brim of his hat to her, a sign of parting.  "Good night," she said. 

          As Gage passed her, the man was exiting the building.  She called after,  "Did you enjoy the exhibit?"  but he was focused on his prey and didn't answer.  He passed through the doors and was at the top of the stone steps as the man reached the sidewalk and turned left.  Gage gave him a few seconds to get well ahead, so the fellow would have no idea he was being tailed.  In that brief time, he brought the phone up to call Mink.  With his thumb, he flipped to the screen with his partner's number, and just then the phone vibrated.  He brought it to his ear. 

          "I got him," said Mink.  "Trailing him West toward the Crumble." 

          "Wait a second," said Gage.  "I got him, heading East."

August 8th, 2012



Our matinee feature -- Companions of Fear -- will resume Aug. 10th.  
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