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August 8th, 2012

Art Ref Image Stag Lascaux.jpg

Companions of Fear


Part 4


          "Come, Ms. March, take a walk with me."  Chinslow rose and stepped from behind his desk, still holding the 45.  He offered his guest a hand and she accepted it as help getting out of the rocker. 

          "You can leave your bag here, it'll be safe." 

          "I'm not sure I want to go for a walk," she said. 

          "If I meant you harm, you'd know it already."

          She nodded. 

          "Follow me.  I want to show you something." 

          They left the den and walked in silence through the halls of the huge house.  Chinslow's somnolent gait gave Nestis time to take in the chandeliers and painted family portraits, the teak furniture and flowered carpets..  They passed through the stainless steel kitchen, through a room decorated with hunting trophies, the heads of beasts with shiny glass eyes.  At the very back of the house, Chinslow stopped at a glass door that led out onto a stone porch.  "Wait here for a second," he said and left the door slightly open behind him.  Nestis felt the chill of the night creep in around her and closed it over.  She watched his darker shadow against the dark stop at a table and lean over it.  A spark and the flame of a cigarette lighter materialized.  Moments later, she could make out his form from the light of an old storm lantern.  He turned and waved to her to follow.  She did. 

          "It's getting cold as shit out here tonight," he said. 

          "Spare me your crude language," she told him. 

          Chinslow laughed.  "Why not?" 

          They crossed the patio, descended a set of steps and headed out across an enormous lawn.  Nestis stayed close to him.  "I'm getting tired," she said.  "It's been a big day of abduction and threats.  Do you have a room for me?"

          "Yeah," he said. 

          "Where are we going?"

          "Just back in the woods at the end of the lawn.  I'm gonna show you something." 

          "Show me what?" 

          "I'm disappointed," Ms. March.  "Shouldn't you know that?"

          "Some things are murky," she said. 

          "Guess," he said. 

          "I'd do better if you put that gun away."

          "I wouldn't."

          The wind picked up and leaves blew all around them.  Nestis's dress lifted to her thighs.  Chinslow hunkered into his blue jacket.  The flame in the lantern wavered between life and death and then came back strong. 

          They reached the edge of the woods.  The boss held the lantern high for her to catch a glimpse of the path ahead through the trees.  Outside their limited bubble of glow the night was pitch black.  Off to the West came the sound of breaking branches, the snort of some creature.

          "What was that?" she said and grabbed his arm.

          "Relax," he said, moving forward.  "That's just the old hart, watching us."

          "Your heart?" she asked. 

          "No, h-a-r-t, a red stag.  I had this one, Furfur, imported from the UK."

          "You've surprised me," she said. 

          "Sometimes, not often, I surprise myself."

          Fifty yards in and the dark path opened onto a clearing.   By the light of the lantern she could see a cylindrical concrete structure rising about three feet out of a small hill a few yards in front of them.  The wind shook the trees.  She turned and saw something moving at the tree line just beyond the glow of the lantern.  

          "Once we get inside, we can warm up," said Chinslow, who led onward up the short hill.  At the top, he set the lantern down on the lip of the concrete cylinder.  Nestis could now make out that there was a steel, portal door just inside the opening of the structure. 

          "What is it?" she said.  "An old fallout shelter?  A tomb?"

          "Sort of," he told her and reached down the front of his shirt to retrieve a chain with a key on it. 

          "I don't want to go down there."

          He found the keyhole and inserted the key.  A sound of machinery came from the cylinder and the steel door lifted automatically up and back on two sturdy hinges.  Chinslow grabbed the lantern before the movement of the door could knock it over.  He handed it to Nestis and said,  "Over the top with you.  There's a metal ladder just inside the opening."

          "I think not," she said. 

          Chinslow sighed.  "Lady, I can only take so much of your bullshit.  Get in."

          "I want to know I'm going to be coming out." 

          He closed his eyes.  His face looked ancient in the lantern light.  "Read my mind," he said. 

          "I'm cold and scared," she said.  "That doesn't help."

          "I'll wait," he said and leaned against the concrete. 

          Nestis closed her eyes, stopped breathing and made her left hand into a fist.  In the quiet that followed, just beneath the wind, she heard the hart again, another snort.  A half- minute passed, and she said, "OK, I'll go in."

          Chinslow stood straight.  He took her hand and helped her up onto the edge of the concrete circle.  "When you get down there, don't touch anything," he said.  "I'll be right behind you." 

          She held on tight to the ladder rails with her left hand and the wrist of her right, which held the lantern.   Slowly, she backed down the steps, through the gloom of the cylinder, breathing rapidly and trembling.  There was an echo, the sound of Chinslow climbing onto the ladder.  Just as she heard the mechanics of the steel portal door whir to life, her foot touched down onto a smooth floor. 

          She turned and the lantern revealed an underground room with comfortable furniture, and posters on the smooth concrete walls that were fake four paned  windows, showing, in one, the scene of a snow capped mountain, the forested slope leading to it, and in the other, a palm tree on a beach, crystal clear water to the blue horizon.  In the center of the room, still partially in shadow, there lay, raised on a platform to knee-level, what appeared to be by its shape and size, a coffin.

          "Have a seat, Ms. March.  Would you care for a cocktail?"

          Electric lights came on in the room. 

          "You can douse that lantern," he said. 

          It was a coffin made of glass, and she could see a body lying in it.  She sat back on the couch and stared at the staring eyes. 

          "I have Count Brown's," he called from a small bar across the room. 

          "Not the lemon one," Nestis said as if in a trance.  The body before her was perfectly preserved, perfectly naked. 

          "Only the Long Nights for me," he said.  "When he carried the drinks over to join her, he said, "I see you've met my wife."

          "Lovely," she said, took the Count from him and drank deeply. 

          He sat next to her on the couch.  "This is what I spent that two million on," he said, pointing to the coffin.  "It's got inert gasses."

          "To preserve her?" asked Nestis. 

          "I had her in one of those deep freeze deals back when that's what the best of the technology was.  But, you know, it's all about the inert gasses now." 

          "What are you saving her for?" 

          "In the future, when they have a cure for her."

          "Was she sick?"

          "Hunting accident," he said.  "When I brought Furfur over, it was to hunt him on the estate like in olden times, on horseback.  My wife, Harris, loved to ride and shoot.  If only she was as accurate with a gun as she was good looking," he said and waved his hand in the corpse's direction. 

          Nestis studied the dead woman's face -- the bottom lip pulled slightly down to the left as if by an invisible fish hook, the creasing around the nose, the furrowing of the brow combined to make it look as if she'd perished on the verge of a complaint. 

          "She'd chased the stag down, cornered it in a gully with steep sides.  I was far behind her, riding hard to catch up.  I was determined to put at least one bullet in the beast I'd paid for.  It all happened before I got there.  I think the stag attacked her horse.  She aimed the sawed off shot gun at it, but the horse lurched away from a thrust of Furfur's antlers.  The thing has giant antlers.  Anyway, her shot went off and nailed her mount right in the back of the head.  The horse went over like a stone with her underneath it."

          The pale body floating  in the glass coffin was slightly twisted. 

          "So in the future I revive her, and we hunt the hart again," he said, took a long drink of the Long Nights and made a face. 

          "You mean you'll go through it again?" 

          "When it first happened, I sent Mink and Gage out into the forest of the estate with the express purpose of killing that fucking Furfur.  But they never found it.  The only time they ever failed me.  The creature never shows himself to me.  I only hear him in the dark." 

          "This explains how you came up with the powerball plan," she said. 

          "This is all out of love," he said, nodding to the coffin, a tear in his eye.  "Top of the line.  Inert gasses out the asshole.  I knew that was something you didn't know about me, and I wanted you to."

          Nestis remained silent but shook her head and finished off the rest of her drink.  A few minutes passed, and then she said, "The dampness in the concrete is getting to my joints.  If my arthritis acts up, I'll never be able to climb the ladder."

          "Don't  you want another drink?" he said.  "Harris could use the company." 

          "She seems very nice, but I don't want to get stuck down here."

          Later, as they walked back across the lawn, wrapped in lantern glow against the night, she shouted to him above the wind, "Your wife didn't die under a horse."

          He stopped walking and turned to her, putting his mouth closer to her ear.  "Very good," he said, "and what else?"

          "She wasn't dead when you froze her." 

          He nodded and put the 45 in his jacket pocket.  "You pass the test," he said.  "Next stop, 30 million."  

August 7th, 2012

   

 

Companions of Fear


Part 3

        Nestis March sat in the rocking chair, facing Chinslow, who averted his gaze.

          "So, the Beautician," she said and rocked slowly. 

          "Yes, well...," said Chinslow and lit a cigarette. 

          Gage, in the folding chair, put his elbows on his knees and stared at the floor.  Mink, sitting on the carpet with his back against a book case, closed his eyes. 

          "You recall," she said, "an enormous bald man wearing denim overalls and working in bare feet, feeding your victims into an infernal machine?" 

          "He calls it the Universal Grinder," said the boss.  "You can throw anything in there and mulch it.  He invented it.  Diamond tooth gears."

          "That's lovely," she said. 

          "I see you know something about me," said Chinslow

          "You're an ignorant man and you lead a squalid life."

          Mink casually brought his hand up to cover his mouth.  The boss looked over at him and stared for a moment before speaking.  "Be that as it may, by next Thursday, if I don't come across two million dollars, I'm a dead man.  If you help me, you'll save my life.  Isn't saving a life as important as catching a killer, tracking a lost kid?"

          "Sanctimonious," said Nestis and adjusted her glasses.  "I see it as you getting what you deserve." 

          "If I get what I deserve, everybody in this room is gonna get what I deserve, if you follow my drift."

          "Let me tell you about the hour of your death," she said.  "All you need do is ask me."

          Gage looked up, said "Chin," and when he got the boss's attention shook his head. 

          "That's not what I want.  I want the powerball number for Thursday's drawing.  Five numbers from 1-59.  And one number from 1-39."

          Nestis laughed.  "Pathetic," she said. 

          "Let's not make this unpleasant, Ms. March."

          "You're going to kill me one way or the other."

          "I've decided not to kill you if I get what I want.  You'll save my life, keep your mouth shut, and I'll even throw you a million if all goes smoothly.  Can you do it?"

          "Oh, I can do it.  Picking numbers like that is one of my strongest attributes.  Other things are sometimes very murky, but winning numbers are never a problem."

          "That's how you get by, isn't it?"

          "I only win what I need.  There's a limit I allow myself to win each month."

          "The lottery, the track?" asked the boss.

          "I have a bookie," she said. 

          "Larry or Nathan Pints?"

          "Pints.  Blind Larry is unreliable."

          "Yeah, I know them both," said Chinslow.  "You're right about the blind man, he's shifty."          

          "Of course, I'm right, just like I'm right about you.  You're a leech. I have no intention of helping you.  Now, have one of your crime slaves drive me back to my house." 

          The boss opened his desk drawer and pulled out a blackjack.  "OK, lady, this is where the rubber hits the road, literally."  He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray and stepped around the desk.   Waggling the short, stitched leather club in her face, he yelled "I want fucking numbers, and I want them now." 

          She cowered back into the rocker, bringing her hands up to protect her face as Chinslow raised the weapon over his head.  She began to sob.  He stopped in mid-swing, the blackjack hand dropping to his side, the other smoothing his comb-over.  "Get her out of here," he said as he headed back to his chair behind the desk.  "Get her the fuck out of here." 

          "Home?" asked Mink.

          "Yeah, her new home, over at the Beautician's." 

          Gage stood up, and stepped over to Nestis, who was trembling. tears ran down from beneath her glasses.  "I'm scared," she said to him. 

          "Look," he said.  "I get it.  But all you have to do is cough up a set of numbers, and we take you home.  How easy it could be."  He turned to Chinslow, and said, "Home, right?" 

          The boss nodded. 

          Mink looked over at Chin and then back to the old lady, and in that instant her tears seemed to have dried.  She sat upright at the edge of the rocker.  There was a vague smile on her lips.  "I'll tell you what I'll do," she said to Gage.  "I'll make him a deal." 

          "I hope it's not too impossible.  You're gonna want to avoid that Universal Grinder.  Last thing I'll say about it," he said and sat down on the folding chair. 

          "Speak," said Chinslow.  He put the blackjack back into the drawer of the desk, but before closing it,pulled out a 45.  "When you get to the part I don't like, I'll let you know."  He pointed the gun directly at her.

          Nestis March stared down the barrel, and said, "I'll give you your numbers if you'll do something for me." 

          The boss moved the gun in little circles.  "Get on with it."

          "Recently my Blue Persian was taken from me."

          "I can't keep track of your boyfriends," said the Chin. 

          "My cat, Igbid, was kidnapped from my backyard."

          "You know it didn't run away?"

          "I saw it in my imagination, where dreams meet reality.  There's a guy in town who's taking people's cats and torturing them.  I know he has Igbid, but the dear is still alive." 

          "Jesus Christ," said the boss.  "What the fuck do you want?"

          "I want you to send these two gentlemen to rescue Igbid." 

          Chinslow laughed wearily. 

          "Come on, boss," said Gage.  "I don't do pet service."

          "Is that it?" asked the boss. 

          "I want the fellow punished," she said. 

          "What, like have him write five hundred times, I will not kidnap and torture people's cats?" 

          "I'll leave it up to this young man as to what that means," she said and pointed at Mink. 

          "In that case," said Gage, "the Beautician will have work after all."

          "This cat dude  might be the first guy to actually deserve it," said Mink. 

          "Well, give us an address," said Chinslow. 

          "I can't," she said.  "It's almost as if he's blocking me somehow on a psychic level."

          "Anything..." said the boss and sighed.  Cigarette smoke leaked out his nostrils. 

          "He's dangerous," she said.  "You'll find him this evening at closing time at the Museum of Local History over by the waterfront.  All I see is that he'll be wearing a long brown raincoat and wearing a black hat.  You've got to follow him to where he's keeping the cats."

          The Chin shrugged. "What the hell," he said, "you guys can do this."

          "I'll do it this time to save your ass," said Gage, "But I don't even like cats."

          "Yeah, yeah," said Mink. 

          "And when you catch up to the guy," said Chinslow, "ice him.  Whoever heard of such a thing..., torturing cats.  That's fucked up."

          Nestis lifted her bag onto her lap and opened it.  She dug through it for a minute and said, "Hold on, I've got a photo of Igbid.  You'll need it."  She produced the photo and handed it to Gage, who now stood next to her. 

          He took it from her and looked.  "Scary lookin'," he said. 
            Mink joined them and took a look at the cat.  "Look at the size of the head on that thing."
         Gage slipped the picture into his jacket pocket, and the two of them started toward the door. 

          "Wait," said Nestis.  "There's one more thing I feel responsible to tell you."

          Mink and Gage returned. 

          "I've seen that one of you will be killed rescuing Igbid.  It's unclear which."

          It got quiet.

          "In that case, I'll be going home now," said Gage. 

          "Those odds are a little tight for me too," said Mink. 

          "Hold on," said Chinslow, still waving the gun around.  "I can make it worth your while if you go.  First off, who knows what she can really predict?"

          "Things do change sometimes," said Nestis.  "Rarely, but it happens."

          "And I'll give you a million dollar bonus each if you get this done and the old lady's numbers comes in."

          "How many cases of  the Count can you buy with that?" asked Mink.

          "Tempting," said Gage.  "We bring back the cat, we get a million apiece?"  He looked over at his partner.

          Mink nodded.

          We're in," said Gage. 

          "All set then," said Chinslow.  "They bring the cat, you'll give me the numbers.  Right?"

          Nestis March said, "Yes.  You'll have done a good deed and I'll reward you."

          The boss relaxed for the first time in days.  "Johnny St. Martin can suck it," he said.  He smiled, stretched his arms, clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back. 

          "We'll see," said Nestis. 

          Out in the driveway, Gage said, "It's a couple weeks early for it but it smells like it's gonna snow."

          The two of them looked up at the dark sky.  The barest smudge of light shone to the West.  Night was minutes away.  They got in the car. 

          "What do you think of what she said?" asked Mink. 

          "She said a lot."

          "One of us will be killed."

          "That's just bullshit," said Gage. 


            "But the fact that we're going to the Museum of Local History to track a guy, wearing a brown raincoat and black hat isn't?" 

          "Do yourself a favor.  Don't complicate it.  Just concentrate on the million.  We'll get through this in one piece." 

          "A quick stop at Doodles," said Mink.  "We've got an hour before the museum closes."

          "I scarfed a joint of the Chin's philosopher weed," said Gage. 

          "The tools of the trade."

          They passed down Chinslow's lane, the yellow leaves in the headlights airborne on a strong wind. 

           Mink took out his cell phone.  "I gotta call Darlene and cancel our date.  She's gonna be pissed."

          "Tell her you're making a million dollars tonight.  That'll soothe her savage breasts."

          "Savage," said Mink and smiled.  He brought the phone to his ear.  "Baby," he said.  "Yeah, I gotta work late.  I'll take you tomorrow night."

          Gage could hear Darlene, her voice tinny and tiny. 

          "What do you mean the movie closes tonight?" said Mink.  "So what, we'll catch it on the tube next year. Come on."  He listened for a long time and then said, "A cinematic masterpiece?"  He looked over at Gage, closed his eyes and shook his head.  "Yeah, OK, love you.  Yeah, goodbye." 

          "Disappointed?" asked Gage. 

          "It's got Myrtle Grotz in it," said Mink. 

          "You just lucked out," said Gage. " That Grotz is a  bucket of lime jell-o."

          "Darlene's gotta see everything she's in." 

          "I tell you, life's an awful lot of coming up with ways to fill the time between birth and the Universal Grinder." 

          "How's your love-life going?" asked Mink. 

          "Non-existent.  I'm down with Count Brown."   

          "They say that for everyone in the world there's at least one soul mate.  Meet that person and your life is complete."

          "How do I find her?" 

          "Darlene explained this to me," said Mink.  "She saw it on that show Image Crisis with Dr.  Felicity.  The secret is you have to always try to be yourself."

          "I'll get on it," said Gage.   "I never saw that show or heard of it, but I'll bet a half million that Dr. Felicity's a piece of ass."

          "What else?" said Mink. 

to be continued ...

August 6th, 2012


Companions of Fear  


Part 2      

             Gage pulled up to the sidewalk in front of  539 Gardenia Street -- a modest brick house on a little piece of property.  There were dying chrysanthemums in the hanging baskets,  and just outside the front door, a Halloween flag with a silhouette witch flying across an orange moon.  On the garage side of the house a weeping willow swayed in the wind.  Mink flipped open his sunglasses and put them on.  Gage pulled on his leather gloves.

          They got out of the car and walked a concrete path to concrete steps that led to a concrete porch.  The day was sliding into late afternoon.  The temperature had dropped considerably. 

          "You got the skeleton?" asked Gage. 

          Mink took out a key ring, sized up the lock and singled out a key.  He reached down and took the doorknob in his hand, but as he was bringing the key up to insert it, he twisted the knob and the door opened.  He took a quick step back and drew his revolver.  Gage already had his gun out. 

          Mink was the first one into the house.  He went forward in a crouch and quickly turned to the right and the left to check for an ambush.  The place was quiet and smelled like boiled cabbage.  "Funky," he whispered.  Gage followed directly, and, once in, held his gun with both hands, pointed at the ceiling.  He stood still for a moment and looked around.  In the room to the right off the entrance, he saw green velvet furniture with white doilies and wooden wall shelves, holding displays of bones, the skulls of small animals, large glass jars of what looked to be peach jam. As he moved sideways through the parlor, his partner headed along a dark hallway leading to the back of the house.  Gage made his way quickly to a closed in porch off the main room and checked it.  Then he slipped back past the stairway to look in the kitchen and a couple of bathrooms. 

          At the end of the hall, Mink found three closed doors.  The first was to a linen closet full of towels and sheets.  An herb scent in there was overwhelming.  He shut it up quickly, without a sound.  He stepped across the hallway as carefully as possible.  His boot creaked a floor board and he waited and listened.   When he heard nothing but Gage's heavy breathing from the kitchen, he went to the closed door and opened it and then took cover just outside against the wall.  He reached in and found the light switch.  In that room there was a long table and a chair on wheels.  There were four computers on the table and three other pieces of hardware he'd never seen before.  Otherwise, the room was empty.  When he stepped back out into the hallway, he saw that Gage had already entered the last of the rooms.  The light was on inside.  A moment later, he joined his partner. 

          "She must be upstairs," Mink whispered.

          "You think she's hiding?" 

          "Well, if she's here, she's being awfully quiet, unless she's asleep." 

          Gage took the lead. They went to the stairs and slowly ascended.  The second floor had only two rooms, one to the left and one to the right.  Since it was closer, Gage chose the room to the left.  They approached it and Mink tried the doorknob.  "It's locked," he said, and started fishing again for the key ring. 

          "Fuck that," said Gage and aimed his gun at the lock. 

          Before he could pull the trigger, they heard from the other end of the upstairs hall a woman's voice.  She said, "I'm in here, fellas." 

          They turned and took aim at the door on the other side of the stairs. 

          "It's a trap," said Gage. 

          "Come on out," said Mink. 

          There was no reply. 

          "Ms. March, we just want you to take a little ride with us.  We don't mean you any harm," called Gage. 

          Total silence.  Mink turned and looked at his partner.  "Now what?"

          "We'll wait her out."

          "I'll give you fifty bucks if you bum rush the room," said Mink. 

          "I'll give you fifty if you do it."

          "I'm broke.  You're on."  Mink strode forward his gun at arm's length, aimed directly in front of him.  He grabbed the knob and pushed the door in.  He sensed a figure to his right, turned quickly and almost fired. 

          Nestis March, looking small as a lawn statue, sat atop her bed on a white quilt with a blue and gold star pattern.  Her legs folded Indian style beneath her long green dress, she smiled up at Mink, and adjusted her eyeglasses with her middle finger.   Next to her was a little travelling bag.  She wore an embroidered jacket, a floral design on suede, a green hat that could have been Robin Hood's, and a pair of olive, velvet gloves. She wore her white hair in two pig tails.  Seeing she was unarmed, Mink put away his gun.  Gage didn't.     

           "I've been waiting for you," she said.  She nodded to Mink.  "You take my bag,"  She pointed at his partner. "This one looks unwell." 

           "OK, Grandma, let's go," said Gage. 

          She hopped onto the floor and led the way. 

          "I guess I don't have to tell you where we're taking you," said Gage. 

          "To visit a desperate man," she said.  

          "If all goes smoothly nothing's gonna happen to you." 

          "Tell it to the Beautician," she said. 

          Mink laughed and Gage lightly slapped him in the back of the head. 

          They descended the stairs and Mink told her to hold up at the front door.  "Listen, when we get outside, you need to be quiet or we'll have to knock you out." 

          "Do you think I'll need an umbrella?" she said. 

          "If you don't know that how should I?" he said. 

          "Alright, let's move," said Gage and holstered his gun.  Mink went first, followed by Nestis March.  Gage closed the front door behind them and scanned the street to see if anyone was watching.  He didn't see a soul.  "Put her in the back and get in with her," he said to Mink, and then went around the car to get behind the wheel.

          When the doors were closed, and he was pulling away from the curb, he looked at her in the rearview mirror and said, "Smart.  Just keep it that way and all will be smooth."

          "You two are the sorriest thugs I've ever seen," said Nestis.  She had a very clear and precise manner of speech. 

          "Me?" said Mink.

          "Especially you," she said.  "Really, sun glasses on an overcast day?"

          "That's my disguise." 

          "Your friend behind the wheel is about to tell me to "clam up," she said. 

          "Did you read his mind?"

          "No, I just know dimwits when I meet them."

          "You don't have to make it to see Mr. Chinslow, " said Gage.  "We wouldn't mind a bit."

          "Threatening an old woman?"

          "Just drive," said Mink.  "I'll take care of her."                             

          "I'll fuckin take care of her," said Gage. 

          "Your threats are as weak as your knees," she said. 

          "That's a good one," said Mink. 

          "Shut up," she said.  "Your hair's a disgrace." 

          Gage laughed and drove hunched over the wheel. 

          Mink reached into the front seat, and retrieved the bottle of  Count Brown's.  He held it out in front of Nestis and sloshed the contents around.  "Do you want a hit?" 

          "I wouldn't drink that swill if I was dying of thirst," she said. 

          "It tastes like lemon," said Mink. 

          "But only for a while," Gage called over his shoulder. 

          "Count Brown's Short Days," said Mink.  "Have a taste."  He unscrewed the bottle. 

          "I smell the lemon," she said. 

          "What does it make you think of?"

          "Someone's piss in a paper cup."

          "Ms. March, you're a Romantic."

          "I have friends in law enforcement," she said.  "Friends in the FBI." 

          "Well, it's good to have friends," said Gage. 

          She took the bottle from Mink, closed her eyes and took a short swig.  As it passed down her throat, she shivered.  "Skanky," she said. 

          "What did it remind you of?" asked Mink. 

          "A drunken, sweaty encounter in the dark back room of a bowling alley."

          "Beautiful," said Mink. 

          "That was a good one," said Gage.  "What's it like when you see the future?"

          "I could tell you the day each of you is going to die.  I see the dates on the pages of a desk calendar, clear as day, right now.  But you have to ask me to tell you.  If you do, I will."

          "Get the fuck outa here with that," said Gage.  "Now you can just shut up for the rest of the trip."

          "I wasn't gonna ask her," said Mink. 

          "It wasn't you I was worried about," said Gage. 

          Nestis March laughed briefly, high pitched.

            They drove a few blocks in total silence, until Mink said, "How'd you find that kid that was buried last year?" 

          "The parents gave me a shirt the boy had worn but that hadn't been washed. I can still smell it.  Large red and white, horizontal stripes.  I kept that with me night and day.  Three days later, while I was sitting in the Jiffy Lube, waiting on my car, I saw the whole thing, relived every horrifying moment of it."

          "You smelled it?" asked Mink.

          "I smelled it in my imagination and then found the spot where its scent connected the dream world and the physical world."

          "Did you get that, Gage?" asked Mink. 

          "Yeah, I smelled it in my imagination."

          Gage turned into Chinslow's long driveway and they passed down a tree-lined lane covered with yellow leaves. 

          "This is his place," she said.  "He's never going to let me go.  Which one of you is going to put a bullet in me?"

          "Not me," said Mink. 

          "Me either," said Gage and glanced in the rearview mirror.  Ms. March was beginning to sweat.  He smiled. 

          They got out of the car and headed for the house.  Again, Mink first with Nestis in the middle.  Gage had his gun in hand. 

          "Beautiful gardens," said the old lady. 

          "The Chin likes his gardens," said Mink. 

          Just outside Chinslow's den , Gage held up the parade, and told Nestis to have a seat on a bench in the hallway.  "Keep an eye on her," he said to Mink, and then opened the door and slipped in. 

          Chinslow was asleep, his arms sprawled across his desk top, his face flat on one side, softly snoring.  Gage read the evidence -- a half bottle of Count Brown's Long Nights and scattered shreds of the philosopher weed.  There was a freshly rolled joint on the desk, and he swept it up and put it in his jacket pocket with the extra clip.  He stepped around the desk and pushed Chinslow to an upright position.  Tapping him on the cheeks, he said, "Come on, Chinny, that psychic broad is here to make you a millionaire."

          Chinslow spluttered to consciousness like a man lost at sea clawing his way to shore. 

          "Sipping the Brown?" said Gage. 

          The boss shook his head.  He stuck his tongue out, gagged, and swallowed hard.  "That raisin taste really stays with you," he said. 

          "It's pomegranate."

          "It's liquid shit is what it is," said Chinslow.  "You have Nestis March?"  He patted down his failing hair, tugged at the rumpled blue jacket, and then rubbed his face with both hands.

          "She's right outside.  Mink's keeping an eye on her."

          "Did she make any trouble?" 

          "She was waiting for us."

          "That's great," said Chinslow.  "What's she like?"

          "She's got this feisty shtick going, but I can see it's starting to fall apart.  She already knows about the Beautician.  She's seen it or so she claims."

          "That's gonna put a crimp in the negotiations," said the boss, "I should have considered it."

          "Then just decide to let her live," said Gage.  "She gives you the number, you win 30 million.  Let her go.  With that much dough you can buy your way out of any trouble you get in."

          "We'll see," said Chinslow.  He lit a cigarette and told Gage to bring her in. 

          "If she offers to tell you the day you're gonna die, don't take her up on it," Gage said over his shoulder as he headed for the door. 

          "Do I look like I just fell off the turnip truck?" said Chinslow.  He swept the pile of ashes off the desktop onto the carpet and made a point of aiming for the ashtray. 



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.

August 4th, 2012


  
Companions of Fear
 

Part 1

"I want you two to seriously consider this," said Chinslow.  "By next Thursday either I pay Johnny St. Martin two million or I'm a dead man.  That means if I'm a dead man, then you two are dead men.  Understand?"  He flicked his cigarette over a small pile of ash on the desktop next to the ashtray. 
            Gage, a gray man in his early fifties, crew cut and a twice broken nose, shook his head and whistled low.  He sat in a rocking chair too small for him, his arms hanging straight, one leg crossed over the other.  His gaze was fixed on the toe of his wingtip while Chinslow glared.

          "Two million in a week or I'm finished."

          "Johnny would have us killed too if you don't deliver?" asked  Mink, who sat in a folding chair to Gage's right, also facing the boss, also averting his gaze.   

          "Forget Johnny, I'll kill you both myself if you blow this job.  You won't make it till next Thursday."

          Gage sat forward and looked up to meet Chinslow's stare.  "Relax, we'll take care of it." 

          Mink nodded and said, "No sweat." 

          Chinslow stubbed out his cigarette in the pile of ash.  He waved his hand to clear the smoke and sat back.  "You're right," he said.  "I do trust you two, which'll show you how fucked I am." 

          "What do you want?  You want us to lighten some wallets?" asked Mink. 

          "No, I want you to go to this address I'm gonna give you and pick a woman up and bring her here without calling attention to yourselves." His tanned face was a loose sac and the rings beneath his eyes nearly shiners.  The white pants and blue blazer looked slept in. His comb-over had erupted into a tiny storm. 

          "What do you mean by pick her up?" asked Gage, getting to his feet.  The boss held out the slip of paper with the address on it.   

          "She may take some persuading, but she lives alone, no husband, no kids.  I doubt anyone'll miss her for a few days," said  Chinslow. 

          Gage folded the piece of paper and slid it into the interior pocket of his gray blazer.  "We've got this covered," he said.     

          "What's her name?" asked Mink. 

          "Nestis March," said the boss. 

          "That's a crazy name, Nestis, but I've heard it before," said Gage, squatting back into the rocker. 

          "Was she on the television?" said Mink.  "I think I might remember that too." 

          Chinslow lit another cigarette.  His eyes were half-closed. "Do you remember last year when that kid went missing?  The boy from up on 10th street?  After he didn't turn up for a few days, they figured he'd been abducted.  They searched for him everywhere, cadaver dogs, Amber alert, helicopters, road blocks, volunteers, crying jags on the tube.  Nothing."

          "That's right," said Mink.  "The cops brought in that psychic and she showed them where the body was.  The guy had buried the kid alive in a box."

          "Scumbag," said Gage.  "Did they get to him in time?"

          Chinslow shook his head.  "The kid was history, but the old lady also helped the cops find the killer.  When they finally caught up with him in the basement of a boarded deli over in the Crumble, he'd already put a bullet in his head. " 

          "So you want Ms. March to locate some buried treasure for you?" asked Mink.         

          "Sort of," said the boss.  "Guess what's happening Tuesday?" 

          "We're getting a raise?" said Gage. 

          Even the boss laughed.

          "Actually, you might," said Chinslow.  "But what's happening is the drawing of the powerball.  It's up to 30 million."

          "You've got to be shitting me," said Mink.  "You're gonna get the old lady to pick you a winner?"

          "Look," said Chinslow, "I'm desperate.  St. Martin's guys'll go to work with the ice picks and then make me eat my own dick before they cut my throat.   Besides, this woman is touted as the real deal.  She doesn't advertise, she works solely with the cops, and she takes no fee.  She's a fuckin saint." 

          "You don't think she ever gets the urge to hit the track?" asked Gage.  

          " I had her tailed.  She doesn't work, she has no relatives we could find and yet she lives in her own house in a pretty nice neighborhood on the east side of town.  She shops, she drives a car.  All that costs money.  Where's it coming from?"

          "That plan's pretty thin," said Gage. "A lot of ifs." 

          "Thin or not, I'm gonna squeeze a winner out of her if I have to choke her till I get a hernia." 

          "What makes you think she won't tell the cops afterward?" asked Mink.

          "The cops?..., either way, whether I win the powerball or not, we're gonna ice her.  We'll ship her corpse over to the Beautician and he'll shred her in that machine he's got.  Then you guys can take my boat out and disperse Nestis March chum all over the ocean.  She can't be traced without a crab net."

          "Cool," said Gage, "but if this fails do you have a plan B?" 

          "This is plans A,B,C,D,E, and F for fucked.  She's gotta come through for me.  We'll make it happen."  Chinslow's tired eyes were wide, and he was sweating.     

          "If you don't mind my asking," said Mink, "what'd you blow the two million on?"

          "I do mind you asking.  Now get the hell out of here.  Treat that woman like she was your mother." 

          Mink stood, tall and lanky.  He wore a baggy black suit, white shirt, and a string tie.  He had a crew cut and a two inch scar on his left temple .  "Later, Chin," he said and headed for the door of the boss's den.  The instant he turned away, his face broke into a smile. 

          Chinslow closed his eyes and rested back in his swivel chair.  Gage stood and hesitated a second, taking in the sight of the boss.  As he passed down the hall to the front foyer, he shook his head and whispered, "This could be it."    

          Out in the enormous driveway, Mink stood, arms folded, leaning ass to trunk against Gage's ancient, sea foam green sedan.  As soon as he noticed his partner approaching, he laughed.  Gage tried to hold it back but couldn't.  Eventually he dried his eyes, and said, "This shit is serious, though.  If the Chin goes, we go.  And if you ask me, he's already gone a long way." 

          "Just get him a psychic and the powerball and he'll do the rest," said Mink and laughed again.  "But I get what you mean.  He used the term, "desperate."  That really sums it up."

          "Listen brother, as this thing goes down, we're gonna have to stick together," said Gage.  "If worse comes to worse, I'm pretty sure, if we play our cards right, we could wipe out St. Martin and his grunts in a couple of nights."

          "Brave talk from an old man."  

          "True, what it'll probably come to is us having to run away and hide."

          "Of course, I'm in," Mink said and pushed off the car.  He held his hand out to his partner and they shook on it. 

          Gage drove slowly across town, hunched over the steering wheel. 

          "When are you gonna let me drive?" asked Mink. 

          "Never," said Gage.  "You know what I was thinking?"

          "What?"

          "Say this psychic woman gives him a winner.  If he hits, it's two to Johnny, which leaves him with 28 pounds of flesh.  I'm betting he'll give us a retirement bonus of, shit, I'm thinking big." 

          "$500,000 a piece?" asked Mink. 

          "That's what I'm hoping."

          "Let's stop on the way and get a bottle of  Count Brown's."

          "Agreed," said Gage. 

          "Man, I don't want to be there when he watches that power ball drawing slide like a wet deuce into the crapper," said Mink.  "That's gonna be a one-legged dog of a situation." 

          "After you left the room, he fell asleep.  I was looking at him for a minute, thinking about all the shit he pulled for money and power and here's where he winds up.  Death's at his backdoor and his response is to kidnap an old lady."

          "No one wins," said Mink.  "I knew that when I was ten."

          "It's come as a surprise to me," said Gage. 

          "It won't be the last, I'm sure." 

          Gage slammed the breaks.  "This mother fucker in the black CRV.  He drives like he's inventing it.  I should send him to the Beautician and push his car off a cliff."

          "The next left for Doodle's," said Mink. 

          "I could find it with my eyes closed." 

          "I thought they were ." 

          Gage turned the wheel .  The car had four bullet holes in its trunk, rusted fenders, and a passenger side door that sometimes popped open going around sharp turns.  It sailed into the lot of the liquor store and parked beneath the huge Doodle's sign, which depicted an empty Scotch bottle with a pathetic clown trapped inside.  Gage took out his wallet and removed eight singles.  He handed them over to Mink, who opened the door and got out.  He said, "I know Count Brown's, but which one do you want -- the Short Days or the Long Nights?"

          "What's the one with the lemon in it?"

          "Short Days.  The Night shit has pomegranate.  Good choice."  Mink shut the door and Gage watched him cross the parking lot.  Once his partner was in the store, he adjusted the rear view mirror so that he could survey the action on the street behind him.  While glancing every now and then into the glass, he removed the semi-automatic from his shoulder holster.  He popped out the clip, checked it, loaded it again, and returned it to the holster.  Then he searched his left jacket pocket to ensure the extra clip was there.  Satisfied, he loosened his tie, turned on the radio and leaned back, keeping his gaze on the mirror.  A girl group sang and he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel.  The wind picked up and blew litter and dead leaves.   Dark clouds moved across the blue. 

              Back in the car, Mink unscrewed the plastic cap on the Count Brown's and took a long drink.  He handed it to Gage. 

          "Every time I taste it, for a second, I picture a girl in a hula dress under a palm tree," said Mink.

          Gage wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.  "Exotic in a cheap-ass way." 

          "We should save some for Ms. March, she's probably an old lush," said Mink. 

          Gage started the car and backed out of the parking space.  "Say she's really psychic, she could know what you just said about her."

          Mink looked upward and said, "Nestis, are you there?" 

          "It's just dawning on me that she could have a gun, which could get sticky, especially if you consider she knows we're coming."

          "If she can see the future then she can see we'd plug her if she pulled a gun on us, and so she knows already it's smarter just to come along quietly and meet the Chin."

          "So she'll be all packed up and waiting for us when we get there?"

          "She'll have her travelling gloves on," said Mink and passed the bottle.  At a red light, Gage took two quick pulls.  He belched and said, "That lemon is good at first, but after a while it turns to medicine." 

          "Pass it back.  I want to see if I can catch another glimpse of the hula girl."       

        "There's only one thing to consider here," said Gage.  "Is Nestis March a fraud with a gun or a fraud without one?  Everything else is bad breath."

...to be continued...


 

March 28th, 2012

ICFA Readings

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ICFA Readings    

Last week and weekend, I attended the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando.  Like last year, when I wasn't at the bar, hanging out with friends, I primarily attended readings.  There were some really fine ones this year.  Here's a list of what I saw and the heads up on some books and stories that look good.  In some cases I missed the title of the piece, but I'll give enough of a description so you can probably track it down if you want to. There were plenty more readings at the conference that I wanted to get to but didn't.  I approach these events with a head toward getting something out of each reading experience.  I'm not particularly interested in being critical of the content, but instead just trying to figure out where the writers are coming from and noticing the idiosyncracies each brings to the fiction.  I get a boost in my own writing from witnessing them this way.  The more eclectic line-up the better as far as I'm concerned and this year, like last, ICFA delivered.  

Theodora Goss read her story "Beautiful Boys," which will appear in Asimov's very soon.  The reading was excellent, a kind of performance of the story, and the story is definitely worth seeking out. 

Kit Reed read a story about a lost Girl Scout Troop that goes feral -- "Legend of Troop 13."  Great writing and lots of real laughs in this one.  I think it will also be out in Asimov's within the next month or so. 

Andy Duncan read the previously unpublished story, "Close Encounters," from his new PS collection -- The Pottawatomie Giant  & Other Stories.  It's a great looking book and one I wanted badly to pick up a copy of but they were sold out pretty quickly.  Will have to get one online.  No doubt, one of the best collections of the year. 

Karen Lord read an interesting piece of a YA novel that was science fiction but involved an alien culture based on Celtic Mythology.  I think I have that right.  Cool concept.  Sorry to say I don't remember the title or as to when it will appear. 

Jeff VanderMeer read from his novel in progress -- Borne -- a kind of monster story.  Really wonderful writing here, capturing the characters and the city and its culture with no loss of full-on weirdness.  Looking forward to this one. 

Jim Morrow read a great scene from a novel in progress that had to do with Darwinian evolution and had Gregor Mendel as a character.  The set up and characters were outlandish and Morrow read it using accents -- a kind of Artie Johnson German accent for his Mendel, who is a pot smoking geneticist obsessed with wrinkled and round peas.  A very entertaining and funny piece. 

Nalo Hopkinson read from her new YA novel, The Chaos.  Really wild imagery in the section she read -- Baba Yaga and chicken-houses dropping giant eggs, cops shooting fruit from their guns. 

Rebecca Rowe read from her new novel from Edge Publishers, Circle Tide --  virtual reality, killer fungus, cognitive enhancements -- well done with a sense of humor.  This science fiction novel is available now. 

Tenea Johnson read from her new mosaic science fiction novel -- R/Evolution.  The history of racial injustice collides with advances in bio-technology.  Read this one before and very much liked it. 

Dennis Danvers read a previously unpublished story that takes place at a bar in a chain restaurant, involving a man on the edge with a gun caught between Life and Death, An Angel and the Devil, the personifications of Good and Evil.  Sounds allegorical but Danvers makes this one really live.  Great writing and perfect timing.  Wish I could remember the damn title.   Some smart editor is going to snatch this one up fast. 

Peter Straub read from a novel in progress -- this piece was at once one of the grimmest and at the same time funniest things I've heard in a long time.  The section I heard had to do with a woman who plots to murder her dying husband.  Trust me -- it's funny.  Can't remember the title of this one either, but I think Straub gave the indication that the title for it was still shifting. 

Steve Erikson read from the first book of a new trilogy of his that is a prequel of sorts to the Malzan series.  My first exposure to his work -- the writing flows marvelously and the story, one about a painter who captures the image of a child killed in war, is engrossing.  I think I'm gonna have to check this trilogy out.  Great stuff!

Will Ludwigsen read a terrific story that skated on the line between reality and the fantastic about a psych patient and her doctor.  Very effective piece.  Ludwigsen's got a really great reading voice.  I know he's due to have a collection out before too long.   

March 10th, 2012

Moebius

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I was very sorry to read this morning that Moebius had passed away.  As much as the work of any writer of novels or short stories, his comics had a profound influence on my fiction.  I first really got to know his art and stories through the Dark Horse reprints.  Over a period of years I bought them as they came out -- The Airtight Garage, Pharagonesia, The Goddess, Arzak, etc.  The beauty, clarity and imagination of the art and the sense of freedom with which the stories were told, plots sprouting branches that grew away from the main tale and then back.  In a Mobeius story you could have characters change sex, change the way they are depicted, change their identity or simply step through a forgotten door on a subway platform and enter another world.  Mind blowing stuff.  And there was usually a sense of the mystical as well as a definite sense of humor about the work.  His universe was vast and filled with stories.  I had the chance to meet him once at a convention, but I didn't seize the opportunity because the thought of it made me too nervous.  My wife, Lynn, went over to him and introduced herself and talked to him for quite a while.  She said he was a very nice person.  He was an artist whose work made my life better and more interesting, and I have a feeling he did the same for millions of others. 


February 17th, 2012

Here's the cover and TOC for the new collection, Crackpot Palace, which will be out from Morrow/Harper Collins on August 14th.  Derek did the cover.  There were 21 stories, but I dropped it to 20 because that one story just didn't fit right anywhere.  Saving it for the next one, if another comes along.  There's a brief intro by me and a note after each story, describing where the idea came from or something about it's writing or publication.  Hope you like it if you get a chance to read it. 


 Table of Contents

Introduction 

Polka dots and Moonbeams                                                   

Down Atsion Road                                                                

Sit the Dead

The Seventh Expression of the Robot General                       

86 Deathdick Road                                                                 

After Moreau                                                                          

The Hag's Peak Affair                                                            

The Coral Heart                                                                     

The Double of My Double Is Not My Double                        

Daltharee                                                                                

Ganesha                                                                                 

Every Richie There Is                                                             

The Dream of Reason                                                             

The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper                      

Relic                                                                                       

Glass Eels                                                                               

The Wish Head                                                                       

Weiroot                                                                                  

Dr. Lash Remembers

Daddy Long Legs of the Evening          
                                                   

January 30th, 2012

      

New Stuff --

My fourth collection, Crackpot Palace, will be available from Morrow/Harper Collins on August 14th.  It will have 21 stories (one new one "The Wish Head") and each will have a brief afterword.  In a couple of weeks, I should be able to post the cover and table of contents.

"Blood Drive" will appear in After, an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling for Hyperion.  YA apocalyptic and dystopian fiction.  It'll be out in October. 

"The Pittsburgh Technology" will appear in The Mad Scientist's Guide To World Domination, an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams for TOR.  Don't know the date for this one. 

"A Natural History of Autumn" will appear in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Gordon Van Gelder.  Not sure when this one will come out.  I'm thinking some time this year but maybe not till next. 

There will be at least one other new one this year that I'm sure of.  More on that in the coming weeks. 


Reprints --

"Relic" will appear in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year volume 6, edited by Jonathan Strahan for Night Shade.  March

"The Last Triangle" will appear in The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2012, edited by Paula Guran for Prime.  Not sure of the date on this one.

"The Coral Heart" will appear in The Sword and Sorcery Anthology, edited by David Hartwell and Jacob Weisman for Tachyon.  June

"The Drowned Life" will appear in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories 2nd edition, edited by Joyce Carol Oates for Oxford University Press.  Not sure of the date on this.

"Dr. Lash Remembers" will appear in The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, edited by Sean Wallace for Running Press.  June

The Cosmology of the Wider World -- The entirety of this short novel will be serialized by Lightspeed as a bonus for its e-reader edition in either two or three installments.  Editor John Joseph Adams isn't sure when it will run yet but definitely this year. 


Introductions --   I wrote introductions for two really excellent short story collections appearing in 2012.

Technicolor And Other Revelations by John Langan from Chizine Books

Moscow But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia from Prime

Also, I'll be doing an intro for Michael Cisco's novel, The Traitor, for Centipede Press's glorious omnibus edition of his works. 

There will be one other intro, I believe, for a new collection from Lethe Press.  More on that in the coming weeks.   

 

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