Monday, November 9, 2009

Chapter Four

When Luke got home, the coyote was back. This time, he was waiting by the front door. After throwing the coyote a resigned glare, he opened the apartment door, and followed him in. “What now?” He asked as he walked into the bathroom. He left the door open.

“You sent them to the priest? That's an interesting choice.” The coyote called out. It's tone suggested that in this case, 'interesting choice' meant 'staggeringly moronic choice'.

Luke finished, flushed. “What else should I have done?” He asked. He walked over to his couch and threw himself down on it. The coyote shuffled over and sat nearby. Looking him over, Luke thought that he seemed to be in much worse shape than he had been in the morning. The coyote looked about ready to die. The exertion of crossing the living room had left it panting.

He noticed Luke noticing. “I'm not meant to stay in one animal this long. This one is wearing down.”

“So leave it. There's a backyard full of feral cats down the street.” Luke said. “Where'd you even find a coyote? And why?”

He got a reproachful look at that. “You must be the dumbest shaman the world has ever seen.”

“I'm not a shaman, and that wasn't an answer.”

“Whatever you say, Luke. You're talking to a spirit manifesting itself in a coyote, without batting an eye. This afternoon, you spoke with the ancestor voice, and sent two young women in peril on a quest. Sounds pretty shaman-y to me, but what do I know?”

“The ancestor voice? Is that what that is?” Luke shrugged. “Doesn't matter. You're still not answering me. Why the coyote?”

“It's a symbolism thing. Coyotes are supposed to be sources of wisdom, spirits of mischief, totemic guides.”

“Okay, be that as it may, it's just symbolism. You could tell me the same think in a cat's body. It's only a shape you wear, anyways.”

The coyote leaned back, looking as baffled as an animal can. “It's just symbolism?” He repeated, incredulous. “The shape you wear determines your nature. Why would it be any different for me?”

Luke let that thought settle in his mind. It implied something, though he wasn't sure what yet. “So you'd have a different nature if you were in another body? In what way?”

He growled. It turned into a hacking cough midway, and then a series of wheezing gasps for air. “I'm not sure. I would have another perspective, and it would influence me. But at the moment, this perspective seems to be the total of myself, though I know it isn't. I'm not the same now as I am in my world, but while I'm here, the way I act and think seems natural.” He lay down, curled up in a ball. “I don't exactly pick and choose my form in your world. This one was needed. Soon, I'll need another.”

Luke blinked. “You're going to die, then? Tough break. Could you do it outside?”

The coyote laughed at him. “I'll try.” He stood, then, and gave Luke's hand a lick.

Luke started. “What was that for?”

The coyote stared at the floorboards intensely. “I'm sorry, Luke.” He sounded sincere. “The fortune-teller is dying.”

Luke sprung to his feet. “What? How?”

“Non-men, with steel teeth. I can feel their fury.”

Luke grabbed the coyote by the scruff of the neck, gave a hard yank that raised a yelp, and glared into his eyes. “You bastard,” he hissed out. “Why didn't you warn me?” He felt, from a distance, tears building in his eyes, but his grief was lost in the wild storm of his anger. With manic strength, he flung the coyote halfway across the room, then fell back onto the couch, hands shaking.

The coyote lay where it had landed. “I don't see the future. And I had no idea this was coming. Any of this. The dreamers, the fortune teller... It's all confusing. I can see by the moves our opponent makes that there is a master plan, but I can't unravel it.”

“Our opponent? How many times do I have to say I'm not interested?”

“Your friend is dead. Doesn't that anger you? Don't you want revenge?”

Luke's face went stony, and when he spoke again, his voice was winter. “I want you out of my life. You and all you stupid fucking egregores, you dreams and nightmares, you vomited up little pieces of subconscious, I want all of you to go back to Pandora's box, and die in it. I am not,” he continued, voice raising to a shout, “interested in your war. I don't care if you break the barrier, or if you fade out of existence. Find someone else to peddle your crap to, because the witch doctor is out!”

The coyote dragged himself to standing again. “You can try telling that to them, then. I can feel them coming this way. I'm sorry, Luke,” he said, and then fell to the floor. Luke watched the coyote breathe out a last few gasps, and then grow still.

“God damn it,” Luke spat. Fight or flight?, he asked himself, both sounding pretty appealing. They'll keep following, if I run. Fight it was, then. He began to prepare, not noticing when a grim smile began to spread across his face.

Susan didn't stop fuming until long after they'd left Luke Conley behind at the bar. “What an ass,” she finally muttered, and Mary surprised her by breaking into a laugh. “What's so funny?”

Mary laughed even harder. “It's just, it's all so crazy. I can hardly believe it, and I'm the one that's supposed to be killed. That guy not wanting any part of this is the only thing that makes sense. I can't even figure out why you do, Suze.”

Susan stopped cold. “Because you're my best friend, you silly bitch. Nobody's allowed to kill you but me,” she smirked. “I can't believe any of this either, but I don't know. At the theater, I believed him. I think you're in trouble.”

Mary nodded. They kept walking for a few minutes, and finally found St. Andrew's, home to one Father Daniel Lawson. The church, like most of Trenton, had seen better days. It was a tiny chapel, obviously never the home of a large congregation, and some particularly rebellious teenager had thrown his tag across the front door in bold, black spray-paint. The windows were new, but the shards of colorful glass around the frames hinted that somebody, probably the youth with the illegible tag, had shattered the stained glass, and the church had to make do with colorless replacements.

They walked in, and while the interior showed its age in a lot of ways, it was much better maintained. The benches were clearly ancient, and the paintings of the stations of the cross were fading with age, but it was clean, warm, and inviting.

“Hello?” Mary called out. The echo of it seemed to carry on, and Susan marveled (not for the first time) over the acoustics of churches, even small ones.

“Just a minute!” Someone shouted back, from the room behind the altar. It took two, actually, before the man came out, and when he did, neither woman responded with anything more than stunned silence.

Father Daniel Lawson did not look like a priest. Not that there is a template for priests, but Daniel Lawson had the look of an old soldier. His face was angular, lined, and hard. He moved purposefully, crossing the church in long, sweeping steps. Well over six feet, he towered over Mary and Susan. He greeted them both with a handshake and Susan noted that he had the knuckles of brawler and the calluses of a ditch-digger. “Sorry I'm not in uniform,” he said, with a wide, engaging smile. “I don't get much of a crowd on Wednesday nights.” He was wearing, of all things, a T-shirt from a Buzzcocks tour, and blue jeans that had seen a lot of years, most of them hard.

Mary jumped right into it. “A guy named Luke Conley gave us your address. He said that you might be able to help us.”

Daniel jumped at the name. “Luke sent you? I'm guessing that you aren't here for confession, then.”

“Not exactly.”

“Come on, I've got a pot of coffee on, it's probably not completely poisonous yet.” He ushered them back behind the altar, and the three sat around a hardwood table as the girls, talking over one another, managed to relay to him the gist of Luke's warning.

“Holy shit,” the priest said when they'd run out of words, and then gave an embarrassed laugh when he realized what he'd said. “That's a lot of bad news coming down on you. On a scale of one to ten, ten being absolutely, how much do you believe all of that?”

Mary said “Six”, while Susan could only go with “Five”.

He leaned back in his chair. “That'll have to do. Let me guess, Luke gave you a whole song and dance about how he was 'out', yeah?”

Susan's blood boiled again. “The guy was a major dick.”

“He's young, it's in his nature,” he said, and then gave a deep, rumbling laugh at the look of skepticism on her face. “He's terrified of responsibility. If he helps you, he runs the risk of failing you, getting you both killed. As long as he refuses to do what he's supposed to, and tells himself it's not his job, then he can't screw it up.”

“Are you?” Mary asked, frowning anxiously. “Afraid of helping us, I mean.”

“Nope. My days of hiding my light under a bushel are long over now. Besides,” he added with a deep chuckle. “I believe in Heaven, so even if I get you killed, it doesn't necessarily mean I failed you.”

“How reassuring,” Susan said, dryly.

“Don't worry, I'm not giving you the last rites yet. I'll keep you ladies safe, I promise.”

“How?” Mary asked, voice starting to shake. “I don't even know who is trying to kill me!”

He stood up from the table. “That's as good a place to start as any. Let's find out.”

His house, attached to the back of the church, was unexpectedly cluttered. Bookshelves dominated the walls, the books on them arranged in haphazard order. Dozens more lay on every flat surface, most dog-eared or left open and spine-up, like birds in flight. The table was piled high with records, circulars, and coffee cups. The sink overflowed with dishes, the floors with laundry. “Ah,” he said, chagrined, “it's a little bit bachelor in here, I'll admit.”

He took a few minutes clearing the table, then spread a wide map of the town over it. He stood above it with a permanent marker, and his eyes seemed to go out of focus. “Let's see,” he said, his voice strangely muffled. “here's something.” He made a mark on the far right side of the map. “Just a ghoul, never mind. What else have we got?” His hands jerked back and forth above the map, dotting it here and there. “Nothing, nada, nope. Oh, what's this?”

He made two X-s on the map. “Heavy hitters,” he muttered, then looked at the location. “Oh crap. Hope you're ready for them, Luke. Guess you're wearing your dance shoes tonight after all.”

“What are you doing?” Mary asked, perplexed.

Hands still moving almost of their own accord, he looked up at her, though the faraway look never left his eyes. “For lack of a better word, magic. I'm pinpointing all the supernatural entities in Trenton, looking for whatever might be after you.”

“Magic.” She said, voice flat. “You can do magic.”

“You sound skeptical, and rightly so. But yes, I guess I can do magic.”

“Does that mean that you're like them? I mean, from the dream world, or something? Fuck, I don't know. Yesterday, I was pretty damned sure that magic wasn't real.”

“You've accepted that there is an esoteric world along with our world, right?”

“Grudgingly, I suppose.”

He laughed. “That's a common first reaction. Luke believes that we created the esoteric world. I think that the two were created together, but that debate isn't exactly pertinent right now. Either way, there was initially a lot of interaction between the two worlds, because we were sort of co-existing in the same space. Then they started to diverge. But that didn't happen quickly, and there was a lot of resistance to it. Even many of the benign manifestations weren't happy about being isolated.

“It got pretty messy. But at that point, some of the esoterica were halfway between our world and what we're calling the dream world. Even if you wanted to, you couldn't open up a dialog, or try and end hostilities, or when necessary, take some heads off of some necks.

“That's when people like me started being born, people with one foot in each world. We can talk to and interact with the supernatural in both worlds. We're meant to bridge the gap between the worlds. There are others, from their side, who can do the same. I call them Enkidus, after the wild man from the epic of Gilgamesh. They can take the forms of animals in our world.

“Between us and the Enkidus, we can kind of mediate between the two realms, and keep the status quo intact. When something from their world crosses over to ours, inadvertently or not, we need to keep an eye on them. Sometimes they're harmless, in which case we help them if we can. Sometimes they're dangerous, and we try to send them back or neutralize them.

“We've picked up more than a few tricks over the years. This is one of them.” He marked another X on the map. “Here's another major player. I can't get a focus on it, though. This could be the one after you.”

Susan jumped in. “Where is it?”

He frowned down at the map. “The movie theater on Main.” The girls gave each other an Oh shit look. “Let me guess – your place of work?”

“Yeah,” Susan said. “You're making not believing all of this pretty hard, here.” Mary stood, and started to pace. “So now that you know where it is, what now?”

“Now, we wait.” He scratched out the two X-s he'd placed on the map earlier.

“Wait for what? For whatever it is to come get us?” Mary asked. “Great plan.”

“No, for Luke Conley.”

Susan laughed. “I don't think he's coming, Father. He made that pretty clear.”

“He's just killed two esoterica, in his apartment. His blood's up, now. I imagine he'll be by once he's finished cursing.”

Chapter Three

A little fucked up, I know, but I realized that the first person narrative I was trying for just wasn't going to work. For one thing, there've already been several deaths in the story, but they were all taking place off-screen, so to speak. If I weren't trying to hit a fucking insane deadline, I'd rework the earlier chapters. Instead, I'll make the switch to third-person now, and correct the earlier stuff either in December or if/when I hit the 50, 000 word mark.

Some bars are for socializing in, and other bars are for drinking in. The Barrel was the latter. The radio never left the classic rock station, and the regulars never left the video poker machines. Aside from a poker game on Friday nights, the back room was almost constantly deserted.

If someone was looking for an overweight, blue-collar, alcoholic divorcee, they would check The Barrel, but in the hunt for two college-age, attractive women, it wasn't likely to make the list, so Luke figured it was an ideal place to lay low. To be safe, he sat himself where with a lean forward, he could see the front door, but would be otherwise out of sight.

He and Susan were drinking from a pitcher of draft, but Mary had opted for a glass of wine, in spite of Luke's derisive snort. It hadn't come out of a box, but from the twist of her mouth after her first sip, it might as well have, and after that she set it aside and eyed it with distrust.

Luke's paranoia had been contagious, and the trip to the bar had been largely silent. The building tension, though, was palpable. His performance at the theater had earned him a very slight measure of trust, but that was fading, and had taken a sharp blow when it turned out that his cunning plan was to bring them to a dive bar.

He took a long swallow of beer, and began with a sigh. "Okay, so thousands of years ago, some guy sees a tree in the dark, and thinks it's a monster. Or maybe he had a bad dream, or ate a strange mushroom, or licked a passing toad. However it happened, he thinks that he saw a vampire, or a goblin, a werewolf, whatever. Then he goes back to his tribe, and he's like, 'hey everyone, you won't believe this shit'."

"But then everyone *does* believe that shit. And the word spreads about this monster that Ogg saw in the woods. And then the children are told to be careful when they're in the woods, because there's a god-damned monster in them, and they believe it, and eventually it's common knowledge that the monster exists. And over time, the story gets embellished, and more people think they see the monster.

"That's pretty much folklore in a nutshell. Here's where my story might get a little hard to swallow. Are you familiar with the concept of consensual reality?" The women shook their heads. "Shit. Basically, the idea is that the world is the way it is, largely because we believe it to be so. Like, the sky is blue because everyone believes that the sky is blue."

Mary looked skeptical, and Susan blurted: "That's retarded."

"Maybe, but for the sake of argument, let's say that it's true. So we've got this monster story, right? And over time, the growing consensus is that it's true, that the monster is real. That it exists, not in theory, not in a Jungian analysis sense, not as a dream or a manifestation of our fear of death, but as flesh and blood and talons, and ripping people open like a fat guy tears into a bag of chips."

"So if everyone, or at least most people, believe that the monster is real, then one day, there is a real monster. And the next tribe over have a legend about a giant, and the guys across the river believe in a murderous shadow, and the ones who live ear the caves believe in some shit too terrible to describe, and all that is real too. And so it goes, until the world is overflowing with ghosts and goblins."

Luke looked back and forth at the women, trying to gauge their mood. Neither had run off screaming about the crazy man, which seemed like a good start, but it didn't look like he had made any converts yet.

"Uh, if all that is true, why aren't there monsters anymore?" Mary asked. "Not to mention elves, angels, and greek gods?"

"Good question. First of all, we developed the capacity to tell the difference between the things we've dreamed and the things that actually happened to us. That probably cut down on a lot of it. And from there, we started writing off all the weird old stories as dreams and flights of fancy.

"We created a division between the waking world - our plain old vanilla reality, and the dream world. And we put all the shit that we didn't want to deal with into that other world."

"Problem solved," Susan said, with a mocking sneer.

"Nope," Luke countered. "Because of Jewish golems. Ever heard that old story? A Jewish mystic builds a golem and sets him to doing certain tasks, but eventually the golem strays, develops a will of his own, becomes rebellious. It's a common theme - Mickey brings the brooms to life but can't control them, or Skynet becomes self-aware and tries to destroy humanity. In this case, in all cases, maybe, we dreamed our gods and monsters into existence, but couldn't dream them out. You can start an avalanche with a yell, but once it's coming down the mountain, you can't stop it with one."

Mary slammed her hand down on the table. "What does any of this bullshit have to do with me?"

Luke heard the front door of the bar open, glanced over his shoulder, and whipped his head back, terror in his eyes. “There. That guy that just came in.” They leaned over the table. “Look at him carefully.” He spoke in a strangled whisper. “He's wrong. Can't you see it? The angles of his face, the way his clothes drape over him, the look in his eyes. That is not a man. Do you see it?”

It took a couple seconds. The atmosphere around the table changed, the air felt crisp and electric, like being outside just before a summer storm. He watched Mary go pale, and Susan hissed “Holy fuck, what is he?”

Luke laughed. “He's just an ugly guy.” Mary blinked, and the charge in the air vanished. “You,” he said, wagging a finger at Mary, “are the girl that sees the monster in the woods.”

She glared at him. “What did you just do?”

“I just used the power of suggestion. You did the rest. You're what's called a dreamer. That consensus reality I mentioned before? It's more of a republic than it is a democracy, and you're an elected official.”

“I don't get it.”

“Back to that tribe I was talking about. At one time or another, all of them probably saw something that spooked them. Living in the woods, at night, everyone's imaginations must have played tricks on them. But they either dismissed them, or when they talked about them, nobody was convinced. You, and people like you, your thoughts sway people.”

She rolled her eyes at Luke. “I'm, what, a telepath?”

“In a way, I guess. You can't read minds, and you can't directly control them. It's just that your imagination, your dreams, are contagious. People take their cues from you. When you thought that the guy at the door was something else, Susan did too. I might have too, if I didn't know I was messing with you.” Luke paused for a minute, then continued in a subdued voice. “Three people, who a pretty reliable source told me were also dreamers, are already dead. You might be next.”

“Why?” She asked. “Even if I believe all this, or any of it, what does it mean for me? Even if I'm supposed to be some kind of dreamer, why would anyone kill me for that?”

“I don't know,” Luke admitted. “I can't figure out the motivation either. Killing all the dreamers in town is a stupid move, it'd make Trenton a dead zone.”

Susan interrupted. “What does that mean?”

“Well, I mentioned how we sort of divided things into the real world and the unreal world? Yeah, well, not everyone is a fan of that idea, especially on the other side of the line. There have been attempts to reconcile the two worlds before. My instinct says that the killings are another, but I can't figure out how.

“People like Mary are the first domino in a chain. Make them believe something, like that all the monsters and whatnot are real again, or that there isn't a barrier between our world and theirs, and it will spread, like herpes in a free love commune. Kill them, though, and you make that impossible. Then you've got to change hearts and minds directly, one at a time. It's taking an already gargantuan task, and amping up the difficulty to eleven.”

Mary took a deep breath. “I don't know if I believe any of this. But... I don't want to die. I'm not sure why I trust you at all, but I do, about that at least. If I'm in danger, what do I do?”

Luke shrugged. “I don't know. I'm just the messenger in all this.”

“So you're just abandoning her – us?” Susan asked, harshly. “Thanks a fucking ton for that.”

Luke stared down at the table, a sheepish look on his face. He tried to meet their eyes, but couldn't. “Fine,” he said, defeated. “I know a guy. He might be able to help you. Daniel Lawson. Father Daniel, actually.”

“You want us to find Jesus? Great plan.”

“Daniel's more than just a priest. He's a part of all this, the esoteric stuff. He should be able to help.”

“And what about you?” Mary asked. “You're a part of all this 'esoteric stuff' too, right? Are you another dreamer?”

Luke shook his head. “More like, I'm another dream. Kind of.”

Susan gave a derisive laugh. “Could you be any more vague?” She stood up from the table. “Come on, Mary, fuck this noise. The guy's useless.” She gave Luke a hard look. “Give us your priest's address, maybe he won't be a huge asshole.” She dug a pen and an envelope out of her purse, and handed them to Luke. He wrote the directions to Father Daniel's church on the back, trying to ignore the hostile stares directed at him, and the gnawing guilt in his stomach.

He stayed mute, eyes downcast, until they started to leave. “Uh, be careful.” He said, lamely. They both gave him a scornful look. “The barrier I was talking about. Some things can get through. Little stuff, mostly, but one of them could be murdering people. If you see something that looks or feels wrong, if you get the sense that something is unbelievable, or doesn't belong, trust the feeling. And run.”

Mary nodded, curtly, and Susan answered, venomously: “Yeah. The only unbelievable thing so far is how much of a douche bag you are.”

They walked out of the bar, and Luke poured himself a beer, angry with himself for agreeing with her.


Across town, Aaron Cole was closing up his booth, Luke's visit nagging at him. I shouldn't have pushed about the reading, he thought to himself. I know how much he hates anything that smacks of fate and destiny.

The front door opened and shut behind him. He sighed, looking at his watch. So much for clearing out early. He turned around, trying to look wise and mystical, rather than tired and annoyed. “I've been expect- Oh, fuck!”

The thing at the door was not a man, though it wore the look of one, and not very well at that. It looked like a poor artist's drawing of a man – overlong limbs, an uneven, left-skewing face, eyes like black holes. It wore a crumpled, filthy suit, several sizes too small. It grinned at him, displaying a wicked jaw of rusted steel teeth.

“You know,” Aaron said, mustering his courage. “Killing me is just going to piss him off.” He noted, with savage pride, that he managed to sound calm, even bored, as if hideous things accosting him at work was an everyday occurrence. When the thing didn't lunge at him immediately, he could almost believe he was going to survive. He sat back at his desk, and reached under it. His hand found the knife taped to the bottom, and dropped he placed it in his lap, and then pulled out his cards.

“Care to have your fortune read?”

The thing sat across from him. “No cards,” it said, with a voice like a knife on violin strings. “Toss bones.”

Aaron shrugged. “I can't. I don't have any.”

The thing reached into its breast pocket, and threw finger bones onto the table. They were red-stained, and clumps of flesh still stuck to them. Aaron gagged, and made to stand up, but the thing grabbed and held his forearms. Aaron could see his pale, shaking reflection in the thing's eyes. He could also see his death, if he was not very, very lucky.

The thing held him until he stopped struggling, and then released him. “Toss bones,” it repeated.

He took them in his hands, and thought that he was only imagining that they were still warm. “I saw a bone guy at work, once. His had runes carved into them.” The thing bared its vile teeth at him. “Fine,” he said, sharply. “I'm just saying, I probably won't get any readings from this.” He tossed down the bones.

It was almost true. For a few seconds, they were just bones sitting on the table, and then he saw the pattern emerge. With a scream, he jumped back from the table, clutching the knife as the thing vaulted towards him, roaring. He slashed outwards with the knife, and it left a deep slit in one of the thing's palms. It reeled back, black blood spilling out onto the carpet. That cost sixty bucks, Aaron thought, hysterically.

The pool of blood smoked. The knife in his hands was growing hot, and the blood that had splashed onto his hand felt like acid. Aaron lunged towards the thing, knife pointed at its heart, but it writhed out of the way, and bit down into his shoulder, tearing off a wide chunk of flesh. Aaron screamed and tried to swing the knife back, into the thing, but it moved like a snake, and then it was behind him.

Fingernails like razor-blades tore long furrows down his back. He fell forward, collapsing onto the desk, and scrambled over it, dropping the knife.

He kicked backwards, connecting with the desk, and heard it smash into the thing. His hand flew to the door, and wrenched it open.

Another of them stood there. The two could have been twins. They laughed in unison, and Aaron let out a broken sob. Just as I saw it, he thought sadly. Stupid fate.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Chapter 2: Hello, Mary Gleeson

It was mid-afternoon when I left Aaron's, which in July meant it was hot enough to grill steaks on the sidewalks. I rifled through my pockets, hoping in vain that some reverse-pickpocket had given me bus fare on the sly. Sadly, I was just as broke as I'd been when I left my apartment.

It takes about half an hour to walk to the movie theater, which was built under the mistaken assumption that the reason why the old theater had been struggling for decades was because it wasn't big and gaudy enough for people today. Whoever paid for the new one made sure that that wouldn't be the case this time around, by building a looming monstrosity, slapping two searchlights in front of the lobby (Or am I thinking of some other kind of light? The kind of light that points into the sky, and that Commissioner Gordon uses to call Batman) It was also built opposite a strip mall that only had three stores, and right on the edge of a residential area. It stood out, in other words.

Surprising absolutely nobody except its new, proud owner, the new theater tanked disastrously. There was a bustle of traffic to it for a few weeks, for novelty's sake, and then after that it limped along. It didn't even have the benefit of being the closer theater to the high school, which at least would have resulted in a steady supply of stoned teenagers skipping their afternoon classes to dry-hump in the back row. The place stayed open though, maybe just out of contrariness, and made just enough money to keep the lights on and the corn popped.

As I walked towards the theater, sweat gushing from my pours, I thought about Aaron's bad feeling. It wasn't surprising that he'd sensed trouble on the horizon, but why hadn't I? Three dreamers died in Trenton over two days had to equal some seriously twisted mojo all over town. I should have been reeling in it.

What I am, and what I do, I thought to myself. Is it a use it or lose it kind of thing? I didn't have a clue. I should have been given an instruction manual. I found myself growing irritated at that, and then at myself for caring. I wanted nothing to do with any of this, I reminded myself. I just had to give a girl a warning, and move on with my life. I could wrap it up in ten minutes. Mary Gleeson would probably be so grateful for the heroic effort I'd put into walking half an hour across town that she'd let me catch a free matinée, and I'd still have enough time to take a nap before I had to be at work. Aaron's bad feeling could be damned, for all I cared.

Even after I'd resolved that though, I kept my eyes open for anything that didn't belong. There's a knack to it that can't really be taught, though it's not unlike looking at those pictures that seem abstract until you focus in a certain way and see the hidden picture. The brain tends to gloss over things from outside our reality. People look right through them, half the time, and the other half they dismiss them as momentary daydreams. Which makes some sense, since they are technically dreams, but it's a good thing that the barrier isn't weak enough to let anything really dangerous through.

I saw nothing out of the ordinary, though. Well, okay, I was walking through the welfare section of town on a hot summer day, so I saw enough that most people would call abnormal, but it's not nice to talk shit about your neighbors. Everything I saw belonged, then.

When I got to the theater, I searched even harder though, for threats natural or supernatural. I've never scoped out a place before, I thought with a laugh. Go figure, just this morning I was pointing out that I wasn't a detective. Give me five more minutes and I'll be tailing suspects and calling women dames.

I gave up the search with a sheepish laugh, and walked into the theater to meet the dame – woman, the woman – that I was supposed to warn.

Why didn't I rehearse this? I asked myself frantically, as an avalanche of cool, conditioned air came crashing into me. Hey Mary, I experimented, so how about that weather? How's the family? Oh yeah, somebody, or possibly some thing, is maybe going to kill you, for reasons I can't explain because they're too retarded to say out loud. A coyote told me so. Yeah, this was going to go well.

The girl at the ticket booth was good-looking, though I've been told I'm a terrible judge of that sort of thing. I like a girl who looks at the world like it owes her money, and she's had just about enough of its excuses. This girl had that, not to mention a nice, tall figure, long black hair, and striking blue eyes. I approached, and if anything, the disdain in her eyes deepened. I liked her immediately.

“Can I help you?” She asked, and all the apathy in the world rested in those words. There was nothing in the world she'd rather do less than help me. She'd obviously been working the theater for a long time, or had a previous job in retail. It takes time to build that kind of monumental loathing for a customer.

“Uh,” I said, smoothly. “Is there a Mary Gleeson working here today?”

I got a slow blink, and the suggestions of a frown at that. “Maybe. Who wants to know?” Aha!, I thought to myself. Hello, Mary Gleeson.

I weighed my options carefully, and decided to just jump right in. “This is going to sound weird, probably crazy. I think you're in danger. Like, a lot of danger.” Nothing so far. “You, ah, visited a psychic recently, right? At the flea market?” I felt unaccountably warm, and hoped I wasn't flushing.

She glared at me, and reached for the telephone. I had a feeling that she wasn't calling for pizza.

“Wait, please, just hear me out,” I said. “I'm not crazy,” I added, and even I thought that made me sound nuts.

“Hey, Susan!” A cheerful voice distracted us both. A petite girl with a shaved head entered the ticket booth.

“Mary, do you know this guy?” The girl I'd assumed was Mary, evidently Susan, pointed at me. “He came in looking for you, and saying all this weird stuff.” I stood there dumbfounded. “I was just about to call the cops on him.”

I sighed. It was time to bring out the big guns. I probably should have done so from the start, but you know what they say about hindsight.

I don't have many tricks. Perhaps if I hadn't spent my life shirking my responsibilities, I might have picked up a few. I do have one interesting talent, though. “Wait,” I said again, shifting my voice into a peculiar cadence. They waited.

It's not hypnotism, but you could think of them as kissing cousins. I can speak the truth, and make it heard. This is old, old talent, stone age juju. It gives me terrible migraines afterwards, which is why I don't bust it out very often.

I caught the real Mary Gleeson's eyes. “Every night, you have vivid, incredible dreams. And you don't understand how some people don't remember their dreams, or how the details fade away after they wake up. You remember your dreams like you remember family trips and birthday parties. Am I right?”

Still dazed by my words, she just nodded in reply.

“You get a song stuck in your head,” I continued, picking up the pace a little, “and later you hear someone else humming or singing it. Or you learn a new word, and then you hear it all the time. When you're in a good mood, everyone around you is smiling, and when you're miserable people bicker around you all day.

“Your daydreams aren't like other people's, either. Most people daydream about being a superhero, or about someone they're attracted to, or about being a movie star, whatever. Your daydreams are like regular dreams. You forget where you are, what you're doing. You have no control over them. Sometimes they're nightmares, so vivid you scream. They can last for hours.”

Another nod, and Mary was starting to look scared. “You can trust me, Mary. I'm a friend, and I mean you no harm, but you are in danger, and you have to listen to me.” For the last sentence, I let the cadence fade from my voice, and they came back to themselves.

They were both still staring at me, twins in shock. Susan went to put the phone receiver back in its cradle, without looking away from me. It hit the desk instead, and she just let it lie there. Did I do it properly? I asked myself. The migraine like an icicle in my brain suggested yes, but I was out of practice.

“Wh-what,” Mary stammered. She coughed twice to clear her throat, and the glassy look left her eyes. “What kind of danger am I in?”

“Well,” I began. “The, uh, mortal peril kind.” She swallowed, hard. “People are already dead.” I realized this was probably the best chance I would ever have to use that line from Terminator, but I gave up the idea with only a little hesitation. No sense alienating her seconds after winning her trust, especially since that trust was ephemeral at best. “This is going to take some explaining,” I went with instead. “And not here. I know a safe place where we can talk.”

She thought about it for an agonizingly long time before nodding.

“I'm coming too,” Susan added in. I'd all but forgotten her. I turned to dissuade her, but the diamond hard look was back in her eyes, and I knew I wouldn't stand a chance. “She's my best friend,” she said.

“Okay, fine. You might regret this later, though.”

She laughed, bitterly. “I already do.” I liked her even more. The two women walked into the back to gather their things, and I walked to the window, focusing my vision again. Now that I was in this (temporarily, I reminded myself), my paranoia had ratcheted up, but as far as I could tell, everything outside was as it should be. Just a hot summer day, taking a walk with some new friends, one of whom is possibly wanted dead by person or persons unknown. I began to sweat again, which did not bode well for when I got back outside.

The door into the Employees Only area opened, then shut again. I turned to face them, tried to put on a look of fierce resolve. “All set?” I asked. They were. “Alright. Come on then. I'll explain everything.”

We walked out into the July sun. “Er, does anybody have bus fare?”

Monday, November 2, 2009

Chapter One: Old Friends

I brewed an instant coffee one morning, carried it into my living room, and found a coyote curled up on my couch. He was a decrepit looking beast, all skin and ribs. “Christ,” I said. “You better not have fleas.” He lolled its tongue at me in what was clearly laughter. Those teeth looked sharp, I noted. “What the hell is this? I'm not an Indian.”

“So what? I like Indians.” The coyote told me. “And I don't have fleas.” The talking was expected, because it's the kind of stupid nonsense that happens to me with alarming frequency, but that didn't make it any less unsettling. His mouth moved, but the movements it was making didn't match the words. Like in an old kung-fu movie, his lips kept flapping long after he'd finished speaking.

“You've got mange.”

“You've got nerve.” He slunk off of the couch and walked into my kitchen. He had an awkward, like big dogs get when their hips are starting to fail. It obviously hurt the coyote to move like that, and just as obviously the thing that was wearing it didn't care. “You have any meat? I'm starving.”

I went to the front door, and swung it wide open. “Find some roadkill while you're fucking off, hound dog. You ain't no friend of mine.” In a flash, the coyote bounded across the room and took my shin in its jaws. It wasn't a real bite - not hard enough to draw blood, but it was meant to get my attention, and did. It's teeth felt as sharp as they'd looked. I threw up my hands in a placating gesture, and it released me, then squatted at my feet like a beloved pet.

“Daniel Berlin died today,” the coyote said. “Edward Fagen did too, and Louise Canton died yesterday.”

I didn't recognize any of the names. “People die,” I suggested. Without too much attitude, and watching his jaws warily. “The lady downstairs in fourteen has a bad heart. If she saw you coming in, she's probably dead too.”

He gave another tongue-loll laugh. “The lady downstairs is fine. She saw a puppy in the hallway, looked just like the one her father got her for her eighth birthday. Rex, she called him, because that's the sort of name an eight year old gives a dog.” I stared at him for a long minute, wondering just how full of shit he was, on average. “The lady downstairs is not the issue, Luke Conley. The lady downstairs is not a murdered dreamer. On your territory. On your watch.” The last words practically spat at me.

“Okay,” I said, feeling a migraine start to blossom in my mind. “But what do you want from me? I'm not a detective. And I'm out. You know that.”

“You don't get to be out. I will humor you up to a point, Luke, but no further. You're a piece in this game, and sooner than you think you will be put into play. Whether that's as a willing partner, or as an abject lesson in terminal stupidity is entirely up to me.” He walked out the open door. “Find Mary Gleeson. Ask the fortune-teller, he knows her. Warn her, and if you're not too much of a coward, keep her alive.”

“Hey,” I said, as he turned away again. “Can I scratch you behind the ears a little?” His growl was louder than I expected it to be. “Bad dog!” I taunted.

He looked like he was about to lunge at me again, but I gave the door a slam that I hoped looked very disdainful. “What a dick.” Walking back into the living room, I felt a flea bite my leg. “Huge dick.”


The fortune teller is Aaron Cole. Aaron's one of the few fringe types that I genuinely get along with. I like him because he's managed the balancing act that so many people on the fringe fail at. Most of these guys and girls get a look at the monsters under the bed, and then they forget that there's still a real world, with jobs, friends, families, and most importantly, showers.

Aaron gives readings at a flea market on the seedy end of Trenton. Not genuine readings, most of the time. He gives most people safe, stale futures, because that's what most people go to fortune-tellers to hear. He's got some talent, though – enough that I don't let him near my palm, drink his tea, or touch his Tarot cards.

He was staring into his crystal ball as I entered his booth. Aaron doesn't look like a fortune teller. I guess. I don't know that I've ever met another, but if I did, I'd expect a certain style. Hoop earrings and a Romany accent, at the very least. Aaron wears button-up short sleeve shirts and skinny ties, a mop of dyed neon green hair, and thick Buddy Holly glasses.

“I've been expecting you,” he said, looking up from the crystal ball dramatically. Not many people can pull that off, and he isn't one of them.

“I bet you use that line on all the boys,” I said with a laugh.

“Only the pretty ones. Oh, and you, too.” He picked up the crystal ball and tossed it carelessly under his table, where it landed with a thunk that betrayed its true, plastic nature. “So, have you finally decided to let me work my magic on you, Lucky? Or are you looking to get wasted? My cousin brought me back a couple bottles of tequila that he swears will leave you blind after the second shot. I haven't dared to try them yet, but you're the perfect guinea pig.”

“Trying to get me wasted so you can take advantage, huh? You're such a man.” I was forcing the levity a little bit, and I think he could sense it. He sighed to himself, and pulled out a pack of smokes, lit two, handed me one. It was already at my lips when I remembered that I didn't smoke anymore. “Thanks,” I said. Then, to get it over with already, I added: “I was told you could find a woman named Mary Gleeson.”

He closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair. “Oh fuck me. Just when you thought you were out, right?”

“Yeah.” I took a long drag. “I am out. Just delivering a warning, is all.” I got a dubious look at that, but no argument. He was pissed, though, and more than a little frightened, and that raised my hackles. “What am I in for, here?”

“It's... Well... Fuck, Luke.” He broke off, agitated, and pulled out his ashtray, stubbed the butt out with a shaking hand. A couple deep breaths, to steady himself. “Mary came in maybe a week ago. I took one look at her and knew her for one of ours, you know? Bad, bad energy around that girl.” That wasn't all of it, from the look in his eyes.

“You gave her a reading?” I asked, incredulous. “You read a fucking dreamer?”

His hang-dog expression was all the answer I needed. “She insisted. I didn't see the harm.”

I burst into that helpless kind of laughter that leaves you wiping tears from your eyes when it finally subsides. “A psychic, even a crappy one like you, opening his mind to a dreamer. If she'd had a nightmare the night before, people in China could have woken up shitting their pants this morning.” The chagrin on his face almost set me off again, but I managed to keep it to a small chuckle. “What'd you see?”

“Just blood. That girl's future is full of blood.”

That was not what I'd been hoping to hear. Guys and girls like Aaron can't see the exact future. The future's a very flexible thing, and a lot of it is determined by chance. For example, Mary Gleeson could have been hit by a garbage truck walking out of Aaron's little cubicle of fate, and he wouldn't have seen it coming. The odds of getting hit by a garbage truck are pretty low, after all. What Aaron sees, what any clairvoyant sees, is what's likely to happen, barring random garbage trucks. He explained it once as having to do with intuition about the nature of the person, the nature of their surroundings, and a lot of pseudo-babble I'm convinced he was making up on the spot. In summary, though, if he has a vision of someone's future, it's a little more accurate than the weather report, a little less accurate than a guess that the sun will rise tomorrow.

A future full of blood was bad, then.

“Great,” I said, the word spilling over with sarcasm. “How do I find her?”

His jaw dropped a little at that. “You're still going to find her? Lucky, I think you should sit this one out.” He flung his fingers up like he was looking for a gesture, but couldn't find one. “This isn't a reading, exactly, but I've got a bad feeling these days. Something is in the air.”

I dug out another of his cigarettes. “I know it. I'm getting pressured about this, though.”

He gave me a long, unreadable look, then without a word, placed his deck of Tarot cards on the table. “Let me read you, Lucky. My bad feeling just got a lot worse.” He licked his lips, nervously. “Please.”

I shied back from the table like a cat from running water. “No thanks.” A sad nod from Aaron at that, and then he wouldn't meet my eyes.

“She was wearing a uniform,” he said, almost inaudibly. “From the movie theater.”

He still wouldn't look at me, not even as I stood up to leave. He just stared down at the deck of cards, desolately. “Shit man,” I said, surprised at the lump in my throat. “I know my fortune already. Bad luck, trouble, death.” Nothing. “See you when I see you, Aaron.”

“Yeah,” he said, quietly. Then, quieter, as the door was closing behind me, “Maybe.”

Sunday, November 1, 2009


This one is for Mr. Talbot.

Mr. Talbot was the vice-principal when I was in high school. For almost the entire time I knew him, he was a rational man, a former science teacher. He seemed like a pretty moral guy, too. There was a tremendous turnout at his funeral, and nobody seemed that satisfied to see him go, so I'd guess there couldn't have been that many skeletons in his closet.

For all that, for all that he was a decent, upright man, when I was twenty-two, Mr. Talbot died of a gunshot wound to the head. He'd taken Susan Mills, a school cheerleader hostage, and tried to give her an exorcism. I guess that when he heard the police breaking down his front door he realized he was out of time, because the first cop to make it into the living room saw poor Mr. Talbot standing over Heather Mills about to put a knife in her heart, and he blew Talbot away. Goodnight Mr. Family Man.

The really horrible part, other than, you know, all of it, was the jokes. Once the story gestated a little in the town's consciousness, everybody had a pithy bon-mot to throw out, usually about whether Talbot was exorcising that demon, or exercising it, haw haw. With his penis. Haw haw haw.

Why's that so horrible to me? Two reasons. The first might sound a little strange: Talbot believed he was confronting elemental, ultimate evil, on his own. I wonder if the guy cracking wise at the bar after the fact would have been able or willing to try that, if he'd been in Talbot's shoes.

Crazy people can be like that, though. I think it might be another symptom of their delusions: the idea that they can be stopped. That crazy Internet ranting about the secret Reptilian overlords can actually get them overthrown, or that if you can just wave a big enough End is Nigh sign and scream at enough people outside the strip clubs downtown, the Apocalypse can be averted. Maybe they're nuts, and maybe the threat doesn't exist at all, but still – these guys think they've caught a glimpse of a secret, esoteric war, the old-fashioned fight of Good and Evil, and they volunteered to fight on the side of the angels, even when the angels don't appear to be in the fight at all. They volunteered to be the angels, then.

That reassures me, a little bit. The world might be a dark and terrible place, but the junkies, winos, vagrants, lunatics, crackpots, are armed with their incomprehensible pamphlets and tin foil hats, ready and willing to fight all the bogeymen, the aliens, the Illuminati, and the forces of Hell in the battle for our souls.

I saw Heather Mills, about a week after Mr. Talbot's funeral. I'd been walking by the graveyard, and impulsively decided to pay my respects, and there she was. A couple rows over, sitting with her feet dangling in a dug-up grave, tearing into a human arm with her teeth.

“Not going to eat him?” I asked her, pointing to Talbot's headstone.

She shook her head and gave a little snorting laugh. “No way. He was kind of fun. Do you think he learned all that Latin just for me?” She spat fragments of bone into the grave. “I was gonna start convulsing and swearing and all, to make him feel better. He seemed so frustrated, you know?”

I sighed. “Why did you show yourself to him, Suze? For fun?”

“It wasn't like that, Luke. A couple days before, he was walking by me in the hall, and his eyes just bugged out. He saw me. Saw the real me.” She waved a talon at me, for emphasis. “Just like you.”
The first part might have been true. Sometimes the sight does just open up in people, for no apparent reason. But Mr. Talbot wasn't like me. He got a peek at the real Heather Mills, and even though he had no real clue what she was, he could see that she had no part in his ordered, rational world. He could feel the way that she was offensive, the way her presence was an affront, the way she was a tumor of the world, radiating disease and death. Like I could see and sense her. But Mr. Talbot, being an upright, decent sort of man, opposed her. Like I was saying before, on the side of the angels, even if he couldn't tell a ghoul from a demon.

I knew the difference. I knew what she was, and more than that, I did know how to make an end of her. Instead, when she was finished with her meal, I helped her fill in the grave. And then I went home, tossed and turned for a while, and fell asleep.

Two days after that, I heard someone telling a Mr. Talbot joke. Something about him getting a hard-on every time he had pea soup, ever since he'd seen the Exorcist. Haw haw haw. That's when I realized the second reason the mockery seemed so horrible to me: If they'd laugh at the guy brave enough to fight the esoteric war, what would they think about the guy who refused to?

I didn't want to find out. Best case scenario, they'd loathe me. Worst case, they'd think I was a kindred spirit.