“Nothing new, Harry.”


“Weeds, rake, plus we have to deadhead the flowers. Nobody’s done that for a while and there’s not enough time for more. It doesn’t have to be spotless, just good enough for showings. Of course if it looks like something needs your help go right ahead. You know your stuff. As long as the beds look prettier by Friday, they’re happy, we’re happy.”

“Okay, Sue.”

“We already ran the mower around the house—or we did until they told us not to. If we kill the moss back here there’s no way to get the lawn in shape, not fast anyway. Such a shame. You can tell it was nice. Somebody used to put in time. There are features you can’t see at first. Look at that statue spying on us. Creepy. We can’t use a blower.”


“The owner’s at home. The caregivers said he doesn’t like noises in the garden. He’s ninety and bad in the head. If the place is still on the market after he’s put wherever they put him, the trust might have us back to landscape.”


“Everything is in the shed. There’s water and snacks, too. You have the code. Make sure the gate’s shut at night. Call me if you need anything else. Oh, and there’s a feature tipped over back there. You can’t see it from the driveway. If you can’t get that standing up, I’ll ask Theresa to come out early to lend a hand. Please, don’t hurt your back.”

“Okay. Bye!”

Off went Sue in her big Chevy truck, oak tree logo on the door. She was nice. Harry went straight to the shed. Inside were spades, shovels, a grape, rakes, a spud bar, a mattock, loppers, a trowel—new tools, mostly, brought in for the job, but some old and rusty and spun up in web. There were also flat packs of water, chips, nuts. He ate a candy. The lot was deep, with cedar fence astride the road and stake wire left and right. The house had a river view, snow caps bright as sun and green valley floor beyond. He could only see the roof above the plants. Birds sang to birds or to what birds could see.

To work, pawing with a rake. He would pretend at times but never go off task. Each bed had stones laid around it, and leaves made a heap alongside. Ants frenzied on the rock. To them a range had risen where none had been before—a second mountain view and much closer up. He began to pluck the wilted blooms and pull the weeds. Where dead weight came off the flowery plants stood taller, all the garden come alert.

Rhododendron, azalea, wild fern in clutches. Moss had spread, crowding out the grass, climbing trees, a good thick sort that let him kneel without the pads. Harry liked mosses best—the deeper green of them, the softness—but other people wanted grass because they could walk through without a trace. Blackberry had overrun some of the beds, the earth between shot with bramble. For those stems he put on thicker gloves. Close to the juniper he wondered why Sue did not like the statue nestled there, a girl of some angelic sort. Half the face had broken off, lichen scaling thick. Spy, Sue had said, but the remaining eye could not see at all and creepers chained it down.

A caregiver’s car came up the long driveway from the house. Harry smiled and raised a hand. The caregiver did not wave or even look. Music inside the car was loud enough to smack on the glass. Once gone the caregiver was no less gone from Harry’s mind.

Begonia, camellia, rays of thistle. Halfway through the work day he came in sight of what Sue had told him about. That part of the garden was hidden among the beds, more a secret. A pedestal birdbath—it had lain aside for long enough to sink partway into the ground. He put down the rake and hunkered down to try the heft. Closer to earth, he saw a bloom in the patch left bare—not a flower but stringy and dead.

Harry looked closer. Undone braid—old rope threaded with a black fiber. At a pinch the hemp came apart like dandelion fluff. Something about the look of it held his eye. When it rained earthworms came up. The rope end reminded him of that—that unhappy push for air. It showed to one side of the barren patch, the side opposite the tilt.

Back with a trowel.

The rope led straight down.

Back with a spade.

Underneath topsoil the mix was mostly sand, easy to shift and shovel, but Harry had to cut roots, layer on layer. The rope came up from below them. After two feet he widened out the hole, rolling sod so he could lay it back on neat. Fill went to the other side. The rope kept going, fraying as it led and blackening. He dragged the birdbath to the side  and broadened the hole again. Past the width of the bowl where the bath had once stood the dirt was full of bone—hollow, fragile, a shallow layer all around. Some skulls were intact but paper thin. Songbirds—and so many—breaking like a dry foam.

The hole grew deep, and the rope took a bend. There were no more roots to cut. At most of a fathom the soil changed all at once—a rich black like the best compost, but it stank. There were no worms in it. Bad for growing, and Harry knew a change of color meant something was close. The dig slowed, spade put aside, fingers in a plow.

 To skin, white and bare.

Harry puzzled at the sight. He touched the surface with a glove. The give was just like the flesh of his own arm. He scraped, found the outline, brushed back the dirt.

Shin. Ankle. A bare and slender foot. Past sight the caregiver’s car returned, popping gravel on the driveway beneath the thump of music. Quiet again. Harry took off a glove.

Cold as the ground around it, but the foot moved.

Someone was in trouble. He chucked soil to clear the hole. A lady, he saw in short time. Her lap took his sun hat so she would not feel stupid. The rope was wound about a leg from underneath, and at that depth the hemp was black all the way through. Harry saw that there were other fibers, too—clothes long in the sour ground, fallen to bits. There were loose buttons, a clasp, glimpsed and thrown. The movements of the foot had been slow, lazy, and now that they were dug free the legs did the same. Not struggle, but like coming out of sleep. Reaching the neck he saw that the rope had been anchored there. On a brush the knot fell away, rotten near to dust, but the skin kept a print of the braid. No bruise, no stain of black nor angry red, only white. He began to clear the face. The lady did not part her lips to speak or breathe. But when the cake fell off, the eyes came open just a crack. Her skin was so pale, white like a mushroom cap, and her eyes were full of grit. She would not be able to see. But Harry saw. The irises were a dull and pale yellow.

“Hi,” he said.

She did not speak but her eyes sought the voice. Her hair was dark with soil and long, unmade from an up-style. Beneath the dirt it was as pale as the rest, white on the outside and at the scalp the same dull yellow as the eyes. Color had bled underground. Harry had seen that before, how things long buried turned white. He freed her arms, pulling one from its pocket of dirt and then the other. She made no try to rise. She did not blink, nor even take a breath. All tired out, Harry saw. He felt bad for her. There was plenty of water in the shed. She would not take a drink, so he used his fingers to clean her mouth and face. A trickle at her eyes flushed out the dirt. She gave a wince.

“Sorry,” he said.

 After that she could see and watched him with a drowsy interest. He put a hand to her shoulder to help her sit up. She was cold and tired so he kept the arm on her, even as her chest began to spasm. Out shot black dirt, a plug as long as her throat. Two gouts came from her nose, and the airway was clear. There was no cough or retch but Harry knew how nasty sour earth like that would taste. Bottle to mouth, she let a little water in. From either corner a thin mud ran. But soon the trickle cleared and there was a swallow, a deep breath. She did not take another for a long time. She did not seem to need the air but to try it—to choose it. After that breaths came steady, in and out with a slow work, each of them the same choice, and she could stay upright by herself. The dirt on her was drying, flaking off. Leaning back against the hole she never said a word. Nor did the stare on him ever quit.

Theresa came in the van. She always gave him rides when he was too far from a bus stop. She was nice, just like Sue. The van had the same tree but bigger than on the Chevy door. Theresa and Sue were best friends and shared a house.

“Harry, did you forget your coat? Want me to go back?”

“No,” Harry said. “I’m okay.”

The next morning she drove him out again. “What’s in the bag?” she asked early on. He showed her: sweat pants, a T-shirt, a hoodie, all clean and folded, plus a blanket. “Change of clothes? That’s good thinking. Sweaty work.” In his lunchbox he had an extra peanut butter sandwich and banana but Theresa had not asked him about that.

“Hi,” he said into the hole. Six bottled waters had been left in reach but none had been taken, nor any of the candy. His chore coat and his hat had been thrown a good distance out of the hole. She did not seem to need them, but neither did Harry. He had brought his ball cap and the morning was warm enough to go without more than his woolen shirt. It was funny that she was naked but Harry did not laugh. She had not looked at him yet and was down on her hands and knees. Her palms were pushing at the dirt, moving it around, fingers sifting. She could move quicker than the day before but was still cold and tired. Harry noticed the smell from the deep black earth. He had grown used to it the day before, crouched so near, but now it was sour in a way that almost hurt his nose. Soon he would have to cover it up again.

The dig had put Harry behind on his chore list. At lunchtime he would check on her, give her the sandwich and banana if she felt hungry. Lavender, dahlia, rafts of nettle. A still morning—no birds sang, and none had come down to browse the leaves he pulled out into the open. No ants, no worms. Harry had never seen that before. The quiet had a weight that made him feel sad. He did not know why. At his back he heard a caregiver’s car go down the drive, speakers pulsing with a tune, and even before it got halfway to the house the plants had drowned the music out.

At noon he took his lunchbox over. Coming close he set it down to stare. Ranks of bone were arrayed beside the hole. Little, so at first Harry thought more birds, but these were from deeper down and not so finely built. As he wondered her white hand came up to set down another shape. Harry saw baby teeth and the grownup row underneath that would never get a chance to sprout. After the jaw came the skull, round and eyeless. She set it down with a love and did not search again. Face to face, a motionless stance.

Harry took off his cap and felt tears well up. He heard a whisper—none of the words, none of the voice, just breath scraping out of her. “Sorry,” he said. When she raised her head she did not look to him. But enough features showed to frighten him. She was not sad. He was glad that face had not met his eye. Maybe she would feel better if he helped. Harry went to fetch a box. In the shed he had seen a wooden apple crate full of rusty paint cans. Not be the best resting place but the best he could give. He folded the blanket brought from home so that it would fit neatly inside, drape the edges—a cradle.

He brought it to the hole. She was not below or nearby. The closest bed had a straight line of broken plants in it, mown down with force and speed. He could see through to the next bed, where the same had happened, in the direction of the house.

Harry arranged the skeleton in the box—skull up top, jaw below it, then the ribs, the arm bones, the legs. He did not know all the right places but he did his best.

At the first shriek he stopped. Muted, but a woman’s voice. He stood up to look toward the house and listen. Another scream, much longer. A squeaking gag cut it short. Scared to move, Harry heard the caregiver’s car and turned to the driveway. There was no music behind the glass now but blood in a smear and on the handle outside the door. The car went fast and struck a gatepost hard enough to leap. The hood crumpled in and the caregiver’s head and shoulder came through the windshield. The gate leaf fell off its hinges. The engine died with a rattle. No more sound, no more movement.

Until the lady came back through the planter beds, knocking down branch and leaf, dragging a weight behind her. At first sight of blood Harry had sat down hard, so he had nowhere left to fall when he saw the old man in her cruel grip. She had him by an ankle and his foot hung wrong. His bedgown had come up around his shoulders to show all his withered body—the catheter, purple spots, bed sores. The dragging had torn up his fragile old skin, old and raw. His bawl twisted up his mouth but made no noise. Harry could not see the lady’s face in the hanging pale hair but knew what look it wore. He could feel it now, an anger unlike anger, an anger without limit. She threw the old man in the hole that Harry had dug out, just where she had lain. The old man had dug there first, long ago, and filled it up again. Harry heard sorrows at the bottom, no word said—a fright too awful for any word, a fright like his own. The lady moved too fast for Harry to see—so strong now. She had already gone to the far side of the fill. With a gust the mound fell back where it belonged—all the dirt thrown at once, to a deep thud—and a dust was settling.

Harry wept. She was already kneeling before him and he saw the anger up close. But it was not for him and had begun to soften. Right beside him was the cradle for the bones. Cold eyes bled of color looked to it, back to him. Her breath carried the reek of deeper ground, sour hell. But a hand touched his cheek.

When he opened his eyes she was gone, and the cradle. He heard brush crack, and again. Looking toward the house he saw that smoke was already coming off the roof. Gone home again, to a fire. Before the sirens came Harry crept back to the bare patch and began to lay on sod, rolling it neat with an expert hand, and even under smoke grown tall and black, birds sang once more, to each other or to what birds could see.


 I work part time as a ghost. There’s no paycheck but room and board is free. Nobody hired me unless you count the last person in the job. We never met. What I found is all I know. But I’m not alone in here, not anymore, this netherworld of wall and floor. Somebody has me on the run. He wears the frock of a priest and has pads on his elbows and knees to give chase through shallow spaces. His face is unseen behind a filter mask to check a century of dust and a beam from a lamp mounted at an ear. He leaves traps and has a sawed-off shotgun. I can’t say how it’s loaded—it hasn’t gone off yet—but I’m not holding out for glitter. Call him an exorcist. He does. And you sent him.

Three years ago I moved into a city apartment for a tilt at the gig market. This was in an old neighborhood. Big Victorians were minced up into one-bedrooms and studio flats. Dead space was easy to miss, especially from the turret and gambrel outsides on mine. The layout to the flat was odd, with split levels off a shrimpy common room. Four steps led up to the bedroom suite, same as for the kitchen and the entryway.

By scooting furniture around I found the uppermost ghost door. A leg had caught a tread. Floor varnish gave a snap and the bottom step popped up a quarter inch. There goes my deposit, I thought. But on reaching down to finger the seam I saw that it would move further up. The whole thing swung with a wrenching creak. The stairs were a hatch, a torsion spring hinge concealed on the bedroom end. Beneath was another short flight, this one leading down. The flashlight app on my phone showed me an unfinished space. It had the same footprint as the bedroom and bath. Unfinished, raw down to joist, lath, and stud. But not without furniture, dimly seen in a shivering fog. Not vapor—the whole volume was sewn up with dirty spider silk, drier than a cough. I had to fetch a broom.

One-liners—that’s what he’s shouting. I can’t weigh them for zing but the noise is a bonus. Even with cams and mikes down they tell me where he is. My laptop is in a bad way on the floor—screen shattered, hinge broken, case cracked on a boot heel. The keys are sown like teeth around a mugging. He poured on water—holy water no doubt. He’s working from a theme. My cell phone is gone from its charging port, which leaves me dark. The hatch is stuck, to a jail rattle. You put on a padlock on the outside—his ask. The exorcist has a method. He might have done this once or twice before.

Soon enough I had a better look, even a bit of light: table lamps stood on retrofuture end tables, and the bulbs were still good for a yellow shine. Between them were a floral print patio chair and matching chaise longue. Bookcases, thigh high, sandbagged every antiwall, loaded up with magazines and paperbacks. A fat analog TV set—dials! rabbit ears!—sat atop a squat device. I had to look it up: RCA SelectaVision, a videodisc playback system, gone down in the wreck of the mid-1980s. A library was at the flank, discs in caddy sleeves stacked up on edge like vinyl. Most titles were science fiction. Anything electrical was wired straight into an old panel which was itself spliced to a main that had no business being there. Aside from my own two squinty eyes nothing down in that spread was a day younger than thirty-five years.

No headroom—the five-foot ceilings. On first glance, shadowy, cobwebbed, quiet as a tomb—I had said, “Hello?” Whoever the subtenant had been—a he, given Penthouses on the shelves—he left no names to go by. In the week ahead I had a better look. Narrow paths led to spaces below my kitchen, my broom closet, the hall outside my entryway. The subkitchenette was itself a kitchenette, with a bar-height fridge put in, a hot plate, and a milk crate stack, tops out, full of cans. Scotch Buy, read the faded labels, above a tam o’ shantered trophy head. A store brand from less enlightened times. Sprays of dirty webbing twitched in the air I had disturbed. Plates and bowls were nested aside a utensil tray, pots and pans. A utility sink had been installed, plumbed into the lines leading to my own, and the drainpipe into the waste leading out. Shelves made for counter space and a drainboard. The subcloset was a berth for a bed, small, nothing but a twin mattress wedged in and blankets under dust. Here a curtain was hung for a door or to block sound, walls finished out, shelves put up, a light mounted to the rear wall. On which there was a Nagel print. It must have been a latecomer. The shelves held keepsakes, all of them noise in the weak signal and nothing to name a tune. A smooth rock in a bird’s nest, an undead chia gnome, empty green bottles with a candle stub behind, a collection of magnifying glasses, a clothbound dictionary, a fat buddha cookie jar. I opened it up. Papers sat atop a gray husk of ditchweed.

Good hauls from any pharaoh’s tomb of the disco era, but the parts past the living quarters struck hardest. The portions below the hall were a crossroads, nothing less—crawlspaces and hatchways. They led throughout the building, and judging from where they stood the gangways were to other rentals. I let these be, mindful of private lives, unmindful yet that entry to those lives was the one true motive in haunting a house.

I creep into the underhall. Junk from the last guy lends cover. I peek out from around the chaise to the far end of the gallery. His beam gropes and grazes and he vanishes into a nook. He’s making his way back to the heart. The old exit point is no good anymore. I’ll have to improvise. The surest bet is the ghost door where the inkblot lady lives. She creeps me out, one of the two lost causes here, even more lost than the arsenal man. But she won’t be home that time of day and it’s closest and I never saw her load for ghost.

Anyone who ever tried to gig a lease in doom times can see where this went. I did have an advantage on the last guy to make the move: IT skills. Likely he had just been a dropout, a hippy. I would be a dropout and a hippy with a data plan.

Scouting runs on the underhall gave up a ladder at the far end. It led both up and down. There was a rooftop hatch with a double bolt, disguised as a vent panel. This gave sun time and vitamin D. Below was access to the second floor underhall, and, farther down, a share of the basement, sealed off with brick. The laundry room was opposite, but there was no door. Here was how the last guy kept clean and took a crap: a working toilet bowl, a rag bath sink. The laundry room was where the standpipe let out into the sewer main. He had piggybacked on this and on the freshwater supply to the machines. Not ideal—I would have to keep a jerry at bedside for late-night tinkles—but smart. He must have been a plumber. I was grateful for a skillset outside my own.

In and out would be tricky. There was no window on the stair hatch. I’d need access to another apartment. There was no roof stairway, only another hatch for maintenance. Fire escapes left off on the third floor. I could tie a rope, but I’d have to come out in the dark to go unseen, and that would make a ruckus when neighbors were at home. Figure it out later. My term was up in a week. Before I sealed myself in I scoured out the homestead with TSP and bought new furniture, flat-pack stuff that I could carry through. Most old decor went into the underhall, stacked aside. Leaving it there brought no risk of questions. I also brought in a Makita cordless drill and a couple of draw latches. The stair hatch would never pop up again, not while I sat my claim.

No window views but three steady bars: signal enough to telecommute. Remote gigs were sparse—coder work—but the overhead of life had bottomed out. My address at the bank was still the same, and for my credit card, but statements were electronic. Once I had a password I’d poach some wifi. Meanwhile I heard you move in. The steps, bangs, and scrapes sounded angry, almost theatrically so. But I took those for the pangs of moving day. Once I had the chance I would bring in spray-on foam.

My first time inside: the ghost door swings out of wainscoting and hits the coat tree. I knew it was there from a spyhole. A push scoots it out enough for me to worm through. The air smells of bad breath and charcoal. Sooty hands pat every wall—print on print, a collage years deep. I make the inkblot lady’s front door. A turn of the bolt, a hand on the knob. Goodbye to the career, but vagrant beats dead. I’ll miss the purpose, and yes, the community, though they never knew me, or that I was near. Except you. You knew.

I open the door. There stands the exorcist. Through the mask comes another one-liner. Diarrhetic terror makes it hard to catch his dad wit. No move from him as I clap the door to—was only showing me he had the scent. Bolt shot, back to the rathole. The bastard must be on my cam system, maybe from my own phone. Crafty—so he’s not stupid, though sprung. Bad news never came worse.

It was on scout for the best daytime exit that I found out what would change everything. At first I had gone out mid-day when people were at work. But I came on something else the last guy had put in: spyholes. There was a vantage on every room. Most holes had been left blind when apartments were patched up and repainted over the years. A drill bit could fix that—narrow bores for webcams, surveillance run from a laptop. I had no voyeur’s itch, but I did need to know when people came and went. I was sad to find out what had driven the last guy. A simple pervert, never caught. Probably gone off to masturbate into the neighbors’ bedpans at a retirement home. Snap of me—unfair.

Soon I found an empty apartment, an older one. The spyhole was open to a living room. Whoever lived there was never at home, not for a week straight. Maybe they were on vacation; maybe they lived abroad. The vantage showed me where the ghost door was hid—a good spot, in wainscoting on the lower third of the wall. A shove cracked a coat of white paint and the leaf swung out. All the ghost doors were like that, I found in time. Three-inch tongue-and-groove hid a jamb well, at least if wallboard was still up. A grandma’s flat, to guess from midcentury decor and from the child armies up in frames between soft-eyed portraiture of Jesus Christ. A bowl by the door held keys. I disturbed nothing else, read no mail, took no stock—done and done. Three hours later I was back inside with bags of tech, acoustic spray foam, canned foodstuffs, fresh dank weed. The supe made no hall appearance, rarely did, but a simple fib would have spackled that ding over. His default mode was piss drunk.

The only places without cams and mikes are the heart and your home, once mine. But he knows that, too. You must have lent him the keys. I’ll have to rig up a weapon. How do you parry a shotgun with a scrolled-up Nagel print?

To celebrate the exit route I fired up the kind and figured out how to work a videodisc. I could stream movies on a laptop or a pad any time I liked, but I was curious about the collection. I had kept these movies, the books, even the softcore glossies. I turned to Channel 3 as the internet instructed and watched Outland and Forbidden Planet. The first was okay—High Noon with bodies yeastily exploding in a vacuum—but the second was great. Hokey, yes, and downright drivel whenever the lone woman had her screen time—her tiger pal unfriended her when she broke a tooth on Leslie Nielsen—but great. At one point a death fence and raygun barrage lit up a phantom Disney beast. As it howled and fought and mauled space soldiers in polyester I heard the thump above me.

The volume was down by more than half. I had no idea sound could carry. Three angry stomps on the floorboards, to silence. Before I caught my breath stomps came again, harder, spread out, to say yes, idiot, I am talking to you. I turned off the TV and held still. In time I saw that you took me for the neighbor downstairs and not for a stowaway. But the close call kept me up all night. Or the glow of anger overhead.

Which brings us to what the spyholes told.

The tenants have gone mad. Not figuratively mad—quirky, rash—but mad in a straightjacket sense. I studied over the next three months, looking in to see when I was free to move about, and what I found time and again only got me low. These were small apartments, so almost every tenant went solo in life. Every last one of them spent home time scowling, pacing, talking to empty rooms. In rest there was no rest, only a pressured shake that built until it threw scalds left and right, back and forth. At bedtime the cycle would reset—work and home, public face, private face. There were worse cases. One guy got home, stripped nude, and sat on his futon couch, staring and inert, wincing at tears, and he did that every day of his life. A woman measured the floor in paces, and that much was the usual—but as her mouth wrung itself out, no curses said aloud, she would turn and act out the other side. Replay, eternal replay—that was what she had to herself, a mirror on the day left behind. Those two were, if sad, harmless, to others anyway. Another guy had a stash of handguns—more than fifty—and every night he took them out to clean and fondle them and listen close. Later on I found a photo album. Each weapon was held up in a duckface selfie you might make with a best friend. Another woman, once home, smeared herself all over with matte black body paint. She became unreflective, her form a mobile cutout. She slept like that, drawing rorschachs in her bed. Come morning she would wash it clean and set off to work. There was a guy who brought in stuffed animals—toys—which he threw into a heap grown ceiling high. Sometimes he would take one down in each fist and monologue—a gripe that rolled and reeled until he threw the audience aside. Stolen, all—the tags gave names of children. There was a woman who burnt the eyes out of headshots. The tip of a blowtorch threw a dull rainbow on a stylus. Smoke would curl, portrait features ashing out in whorls. Under breath she said, someday, someday. She must have worked with actors. Worse, not. Rant or freeze, anger drove it all, the selfsame craze of anger felt in every last human presence.

I know what to do. Not that I like it. There’s one place in here with lethal force. I don’t know whether the arsenal man is home. He works hours shakier than most, whatever he does for bullet cash and Hot Pockets, and I didn’t check the feeds this morning. If he is I’ll plead the Second—be his right-to-carry pal. There’s a rampage underway, I can tell him, a shotgun leveled at his door. Gun on gun: we aim to make a dream come true.

The arsenal man is the only tenant, supe aside, who never had a brush with the invisible. Once that photo album turned up, laying off seemed wisest.

That old dictionary on the bed berth shelf held a note folded double. Whether the last guy had written it, or somebody before him, who could say—no date, no name or signature, just cursive on a page torn from a journal book. But the longhand, the brownish tinge seemed older stuff than hotpant and platform shoe.

Picture me, looking up a word (manticore) while reading myself out for the day and seeing the light. I had spent weeks in a funk. There was nothing special about the building except for the compartments. Madness here must be madness everywhere. I thought back to before the life between lives, and I supposed I could see it—an anger grown with nowhere to direct it. I might even have left, too sad for catching glimpses into the wear and tear of the ordinary. But what I read made me think back to your thumps at the howling monster from the id on oldfangled video.

And to something else. At the time it had been unremarkable. One night the raving lady had quit her march and pantomime. I had been watching by coincidence, making ready for an exit run. But in the feed she turned sharp upon her window and went to look outward. A police car had pulled up on our block, sirens going. The orange-blue strobe showed in her hair. Mundane—a reminder of the larger world. But even as the cruiser pulled away, flashing and squalling, she did not go back to paces. Instead, she sat in thought for a while and watched TV before bed. No miracle—soon enough she was on the boards again, laying charges at the void where she would next play the enemy. But the nudge had brought relief. For one evening the weight of her day had been lifted.

At the time I made nothing of it, aside from the effect. But the note spelled it out so well: Say what you will about a bump in the night—it puts the trouble on the outside. There was a legacy here.

I pull the cams and mikes as I go along. But that just leaves another kind of track—blank marks the spot. Thinking about it I almost hit another of the tripwire snares. The exorcist could have left pungi stakes, grenades, spiky arms, but he wants to face me alive. If it were just a citizen’s arrest I’d roll over and become a minor headline. But those groaner bon mots and pauses for laughs let me know an exorcism is played for keeps.

The ghost door to the arsenal man’s place has only swung out once, but that broke the skin of paint. Anyway here out I’m not after stealth. I know where the cache is. The decor is Ikea. There’s a lot of Ikea in the building—another sameness like the anger, whether the choice of sofa is an Ektorp or a Kivik. Arsenal chose a Svirfneblin in gray, and he’s lying on it, drinking a midday beer straight from the can. No gun is near a hand, but there’s a Mack Bolan paperback—a moment of strong personal development.

He looks at me, I him. The face is hard to read, even as he begins to scream. High, girlish, nonstop. I open my mouth but he throws the beer at me, and the couch.

Scurrying, gasping, I’m back into the crawlspace. He was bigger than he looked on cam. At no time had he thought to go for a weapon. That will frustrate him. He’s going to light up a schoolyard now, isn’t he? Goddam me.

Bumps in the night, that was the scale—ruses played out with noise. Sometimes I’d go in and scoot something out of place, if the breed of mania called for it. Nothing overt—no poltergeist stacking up kitchen chairs or pulling out drawers. Nor with the sounds, and sounds were easy. Windup music boxes were a go-to. I’d take out the motors and screw them into the lath right behind a bedroom wall. The machines ran down fast, slowing to a finish, and the entire wall became a sounding board. Stares drawn, made uneasy, almost every tenant on the cam feed fell out of boil. Not the inkblot lady—no, she would just waltz solo to the eerie music, or with no partner I could see. Encouraging that dance seemed counterproductive. My favorite gag was with the heap of animals. When the tenant was out, I repositioned each toy in the stack so that all eyes fell on the entryway. I missed the money shot, but he got rid of the animals and never brought another. Also, he moved out. I might have gone too far. But a kid out there would be happier.

So was I. It went on for a good two years. Tenant anger came on less and less. Ghost pranks would go from nightly down to once a month. People started reading. They had friends over for a movie or a board game. They went out more often. They brought in prostitutes. Society is not without flaw. People moved out, people moved in. The grandma apartment became a bro den, but by then I had copied other sets of keys. I ramped my game up or down as needed and did just enough remote coding work to keep myself fed and clothed. Churning out code is nowhere near as fun as a hoax.

Lost causes, though—they did bother me. Mostly yours, because I had never laid eyes on you, not once. I made it a point never to read names on mailboxes or junk in the reject pile. Stalking was not the aim. There were no spyholes up there, so likewise no cams. But I could hear the stomp right above my head, even through the foam. You wept at night, and you growled. The inkblot lady would play antimatter danseuse no matter what. But you—whoever you were, maybe I could help.

Girlish screams had brought no breakdown of the arsenal door, no knock, no question. Whoever the exorcist was, he had no dream of playing hero. More like a trophy hunter. Perhaps ghost heads hang above the mantelpiece back at psycho seminary.

I could go down to the cellar toilet, but that would leave me in a corner of hard brick. Most apartments downstairs are empty this time of day, but for security the sash windows don’t open all the way and the casements are wrought-barred. City living.

The rooftop. I’ll have to jump down onto the fire escape. Something will break—ankle, knee—but I’ll survive, and I can always shout for help without drawing fire. Maybe I’m due for a little help myself.

Simple mistake—without vantage there was no way to see for sure if you were home. Once the noises had left off for an hour I swung up the hatch. It was the first time in three years. A scan of the living room gave the OK. You have taste—no Ikea, but proper furniture, with joinery in Mission style. You have money or other resources.

Out I came, and lowered the hatch. I was going to map out the best angle for a spyhole. But when I turned, there you were, bolt upright in bed, surrounded by wads of tissue. Nary a honk—you blow your nose like a head-cold ninja.

I look at you, you me. You seem pleasant enough, if under the weather, even good looking. Maybe we could have wound up friends. But the eyes told it, just as they tell it now—they cook up horror from a distance. Whatever your mask, however comfortable your home life, you were and are maddest of the mad, the angriest tenant of all.

“Who the fuck are you?”

A smirk, a shrug, “A ghost?”

Back down the hatch, I met no blowback right away. The law never showed up. Maybe you had taken me for a vision. You might have been running a fever. Whatever the case, you were not, are not, scared of me. But I had gone back to the old routines, content just to leave you be.

My head tees up on the roof through the phony vent.


The home he keeps is filthy. The standby would be that he’s a family man, an orthodontist, well groomed and unassuming. But mad is mad and it begins indoors. A Coleman lantern makes the only light. His laptop is open on a stack of hoarder’s trash. Brown runes are painted on every wall. Blood, shit, shit and blood—it must smell awful. But no smell gets through. He must have me gagged as well as bound. He is cleaning the barrels of his shotgun with a brush like a chimney sweep. Frock and mask are off but I still can’t see his face. Everything is a blur and the blur is in a reel. I must have been hit pretty hard.

You’re here, too—I can see your eyes, angrier than ever, and not much else in the shadow. Maybe we’re here to negotiate, with him as referee. No—you never saw this coming. Where did you look for an exorcist, anyway? Oh god, the internet. Worse—you used Craigslist. No wonder he brought you here, too, after he was done with me. Whatever fee you paid with all your recluse cash was never his motivation here.

The exorcist has no mind for anything but the scrub of double barrels. The rite grows old, so I try to say a word. There is no gag—nor a mouth. I fight my restraints. There are none. Sending out an arm—sending out what arm—knocks aside a totem built of trash.

His eyes snap up. I still can’t see his face. What I’m seeing isn’t seeing. But he can see, and see mine. In shock he scrambles backward, upsetting more of his junk. He’s breathing hard, eyes wide. I can’t hear. I can’t see. But sight and sound are of my mind.

“How are you here?”

You brought me.

The shotgun comes up, and his hands shake and scatter shells before he can load. You decide you’ve had enough. In a caterwaul like a phantom Disney beast you move, and the move is fast and pitiless. What you do is so much worse than any movie. Might as well join in. I’m furious with him myself now that I understand. My work as a ghost has gone full time. Like yours. Welcome to the job.


Block, throw, take a punch—in the north of that soggy isle knowhow came early, but for those from the urban coast of California late to not at all. And this bar fight was not in Santa Monica, nor even on the Strand, where South Bay hodads kept a prowl, but in Glasgow, Scotland, on a Friday night. The nub of pint was thrown aside, and the short, sprung man in Rangers blue stood his ground. Glass hung in Troy’s face. Even through slickers in his eyes he saw the mistake. For brothers at USC curbside brawls were commonplace. And Troy had been known to represent, even to front, against the other frats. But in none of those turfy bouts had a fist flown true, much less a fist wrapped around a bonus like a pint glass. It seemed against the rules. Shove, shout, slap—such were the disciplines he had down. To save face, what face was left, he had grabbed the Rangers fan by the tops of the arms. Now he could only watch the follow-through play out. “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” Good form there: shove and shout, shove and shout. Doubts read upon the knotted Scottish face. Before the slap went in, a smile, shy of teeth, overwrote the puzzlement. No moves in defense, only a grab to the arms as Troy himself had done. The shove and shout came back, even the war mask Troy had put up. “Fuck ye! Fuck ye!” Beetling, bug-eyed, awful to behold, and it broke to a cackle. “A didnae know it was a dance.” A shot to the liver brought Troy down. The cheat made for the door as the nearest Glaswegians helped him up. Through the burry thickets of their speech Troy made out care, assurances, offers to call for help. Damp with blood except for clean streaks beneath his eyes, he told them, “I’m so angry I’m crying.” They gave him a pat, but not with caution.

NHS sutures did him proud, or lent a proud shape, when he met up with his two Trojan brothers the following noon. Each eye below the seam was a purple pool. “Damn, nigga,” said Vandersnatch, given name Kyle, who came in an even paler shade of ginger jock than Troy’s. “You look like a panda Frankenstein and shit.”

“The other guy will miss those teeth.” Only fact, an carefully worded to that effect.

“It’s monster,” said Howd, given name Evan. “Panda Frankenstein’s monster.” He was the incomplete idiot of their merry bunch. “Frankenstein’s panda monster?”

“Don’t psychology me, motherfucker,” said Vandersnatch. “I’ll kick your fucking ass.”

Next came the tale, and the shmear Troy spread atop. They were in the Sparkle Horse waiting for burgers to tamp down a raft of stout. A favorite spot these past three days, though not near to the hostel. In quest of smash Troy had gone off on his own, and for the Horse and for his Trojans his legend would go untarnished. There were six other patrons and the three took no glances. Only a pet terrier gave an open scold. In Scotland dogs could go to the bar. That was tight.

Honor sewn up like a glassing, Troy said, “Should have gone straight to Amsterdam.” Six Scots and an Ulster barmaid kept a nod in check. “No, not because of this,” finger to face. “I gave what I got. No, because yo, Dutch. A lot of Playmates come from the Netherlands,” to four plays on nethers. The fourth did not land so he said, “Plus they got the hydro kush. We could cut it short. Hit trains to Newcastle and ride the car boat over.” A place where Troy had never been held no misgiving.

Howd said, “Newcastle-upon-Tyne.”

“No, dude,” said Vandersnatch to both and to none. “There’s that thing tonight.” 

“And so many pubs,” said Howd. “There’s one downtown where Robert Louis Stevenson caught syphilis.” True or not, not, there they went. Flip-flops slapped out a tuck to the subway and off. Wood panels, a rail at the foot, stools. A rank of booths stood along the wall to sop the ancient nicotine. It was a British pub all right. A placard gave the date and put its build older than America, but the walls of any local Pizza Hut could brag the same. The soundscape was a burst blister of Europop. Troy’s eye stirred the crowd to size up every man. Height was no indicator. Nor thin, nor happy, nor maudlin drunk. Among Scotsmen there was just no way to know.

The grump grew. To rebuke Troy he switched to whiskey. As he rose for a round Howd and Vandersnatch kept up a seesaw at who might hit what. He pushed against shoulders to the taps. Frightening, but it paid—he heard no gripe save one even-toned “Easy, pal” near the posts. Peripheral vision told him the guy was bald—like a skinhead or some shit. Troy put up a hand to non-apologize.

No blow to status, or to the rest: he had made the counter in one piece. A new barmaid had come on at four, maybe straight from high school, weekend or not. No joke: she had to be seventeen, and she wore braces on her teeth. But she was blond and cute in a pinched sort of way. On meeting his eye she gave a double take, a coy half-smile. Troy had forgotten what his face looked like. He took it the other way.

Scant minutes later his Trojan brothers made note of silence toward the bar. Through the pall came a communal oof and laughter. Troy broke the huddle clutching at his nose. Their booth was on the way to the door. Troy shouted “Bet’s dough” through the nosebleed and the swelling. Down the block he spun afresh. “Skimbhead. Fuck!”

“Give it a yank,” Vandersnatch said, “or it’ll be all janky forever.”

“That’s what your mom said,” from Howd.

Vandersnatch came back rote from a standup who had been dead for twenty-seven years. So said Howd. “Public domain,” Vandersnatch said.

“Dink I shoob?”

“Oh hell yes,” said Howd. “For once I’m with the joke thief.”

“Public domain, jackass!”

The scream drowned out the cartilage pop. “Cunt!” Troy shouted back toward the bar through blocks of ancient stone. “I just said you should smile more!”

“You told a skinhead to smile?” Howd asked.

Grins had broken out. Vandersnatch said, “Sick, dude,” to a fist bump.

“Also,” Howd said, “good use of the local gender-nonspecific. Call it a day?”

“Hells no,” Troy said. “Just spot me some of your Vicodin, bro.”

Did Howd ever, from a fannypack. “A pair for a pair. You’re an animal, Troy. You’re a man of war.” They decided on pancakes to soak it up for the evening rally. Glasgow had a Denny’s. Troy’s Grand Slam tasted like a nosebleed but recruited him.

The manager woke him up. “A’m sorry, pal. There’s nae sleeping rough in here. Here’s a coffee on ra house. An, eh, maybe go wash up?”

Vandersnatch and Howd were giggling in the taxi. Thanks to a fannypack Sharpie meant for tour vandalism a lopsided dog bone had gone to his cheek. Not his forehead. Sutures took up too much billboard space. They showed him the Instagram. “Dude!” Troy laughed—it was funny—but fresh sight of wear and tear, this from a girl with braces, brought him down again.

That thing tonight—Troy had never been clear on just what it was Vandersnatch had them going to. And when the cab let them out he was not super amped to see a velvet rope and a brown doorman. The queue was young and long and armed with glow-sticks. The three took a place at the rear. Vikes had Troy in a state of nonreturn but itching for a nap. Five minutes in, there had been no movement toward the rope, leaving him on playback. The barmaid had warned him, gently at first, and okay, he had gotten loud, and maybe he had said a thing or two, but if there was one immutable law of nature it was that girls never hit, nor so fast, so hard, so very, very well. Scottish kung fu—it sounded cut from a template, like Mexican time machine or Irish toothache. Stupid, Troy said to himself, and reread the word from transcript until he got it right. The segment in front had been joshing with each other, happy enough, even though posh latecomers far, far ahead were let in by the doorman. But forty minutes passed without so much as a glacial creep to victory. They, too, fell quiet—a less surly silence than that among the Trojans, who had come far, fought hard, but tense.

A fidget built, even through the bodhi calm of Vicodin. Troy leaned against the building to bounce in place. The guy right in front of him was tall but spindly and wore chunky glasses. He seemed to be there alone, certainly not with a date. Queer, maybe, thought Troy, who had come with two boys to a dance. The guy turned back to measure the queue, and his eye fell on Troy, to a read of the bruises or the frown he wore under them. On a smirk—simpatico perhaps, certainly not hostile—he said, “Is it time to go?”

Not Scots—that accent was English.

Troy stood up straight, chest first. “Yeah it’s time to go.”

“Oh—hey, pal, I only meant—“

Boarding school twit. Howd had called that accent RP—royal pussy. Troy took a step onto the sidewalk. His brothers watched with interest or surprise—they had said nothing, but he knew they were behind him. The queue had made a turn to watch as well. “Go time,” Troy said to himself, and took off his top to show the rewards.

To a sputter—clampdown on a laugh. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” soft but not so soft as to go unheard. Royal pussy, too, stepped out. To a stance. One foot forward, one back.

Something had gone wrong. Troy regrouped for a thing to say. “Sup?”

And two Scottish lads, thickset, broke off from down the line. Despite a four-century butcher’s bill they stood behind the English. Two more feet forward, two more back, and springy, up on balls. Just like you saw in a ring. Again with the martial arts.

Very wrong. Wadded in a hand, the T-shirt felt damp. On bare nipples Glasgow air fell cold. Flaring out lats, Troy said, “You’re with the redcoat? Wanna see how we do in Hermosa Beach? All that’s gonna happen is my two Trojan brothers here are—”


“Do we know you?”

The voices had come at a distance. Troy dared not look back, even to lay on the stink. Heart dead, knees ailing, he prayed none of it showed through the war mask. But the young Scots began to smile, and they stepped back from the English. “Trojan,” said one.

The other, “Reservoir tip.”

The English had put up two forearms, tight to his face.

Troy found a scoff to put on. Play it through and believe in miracles. “Dork on rye. Hey, where did you go? And why am I in this hospital bed?”

Call it time travel, whatever the ethnicity, but it came with a price. Somebody had shot a pipe up his dickhole. Maybe a nurse, to shrinkage. Or worse, a male nurse, to not enough. On the bedside table there was a penguin in a bow tie and a card that on the outside read GET WELL above a cartoon Jack and fleeing Jill. Inside said more, in Howd’s blocky script: You’re a liability, though dork on rye was pretty good. And Vandersnatch had thrown in another bone, and then a cartoon face with a mouth agape. One arrow pointed there from YOU, and another to the mouth from the lesser knob.

“Assholes,” Troy said, mouth and throat two days dry.

He looked past, to a full ward. Everyone else in bed wore a ventilator. Soon he heard that his mom was flying out and was given the new day of the week. His brothers had moved on to Amsterdam. A nurse had delivered the news, or a lady doctor. He never thought to ask, only wondered if she had seen his dick or maybe touched it when the pipe ran in. What had built before now built again. In the hour before his mother’s bedside cry he stood up. The nearest bay held the last wisp of a man. A glassy squeezebox sent down oxygen. Troy took care with the tube sounding him, squeamish to the core. No fifth play on nethers sprang to mind. At his ambit the line gave a tug and raised his gown and he could go no farther. A stoop brought him close to pale eyes that would not open again, nor turn to any dream of life. He laid hands upon the waste. “I’ll kick your ass,” he whispered. Before a nurse could think to chase him off he gave a nudge—gentle, and no way to wake the dead. “Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.”


Stood up at the brink, mid-piddle, Jean fils first heard the voice. The pit at his feet was long disused and seldom for a privy-hole—older than the gaol tower, older even than the stronghold the tower once had been, a keep looming on Le Marais for five hundred years. Jean fils kept a shorter count, of fifteen, second son, new apprentice. Not yet noontime, so he was in his cups but no peril of a slip. Bottomless, he thought, not to report a splash. Words rang up instead, a whisper made loud in the dungeon throat.

“Keep your gifts.”

A clench cut the stream. No depth showed past a yard or two. For all the fright he doubted his ears. There was enough light from the brackets atop the stair, just, to see the rim where he stood, the curve opposite. Bars had rusted back to rock. A bleed hung from nubs, dry stains of red iron shown inside the well as a deeper thread of black. Air sank with no more pull than a sleeper’s breath. Jean fils chose to leave the trick unheard. But the thought brought him back, sober as Robespierre, early the next day.

“Is someone there?”

“So it seems.” Below, from a void. Much was lost in the echo—register, gender, age.

“Did you fall? Who are you?”

“Bring the torch for a look.” No torches were hung, only lanterns, and had not been for an age. But torch or none Jean fils knew better. He came back two days after, in a thorough souse and underslept. “Find a corner,” said the voice, “when you must.”

“Who are you?”

“What could I say? I’m a prisoner.”

“No one is put to the oubliette, not anymore.”

“Pretty word. But it wants for rhyme. Hole, now that’s easy.”

“You’re trifling with me.” Jean fils sat. “Might I bring you anything?”

“A rope?” Jean fils sought a polite refusal, at least until he could work out the prank, but the voice went on. “Never worry, lad. I don’t have a climb in me, nor an arm or leg. Hunger, thirst, wanton care, it’s all far behind.”

Jean fils found the mind to break away, rush the stair. In turn the sun found him, and he let the cold of those words thaw from his face.

Jean pere, bourreau, had a talk as well, in a warm and cosy cell above. This with his upcoming task, Mme. Orlande. She felt only sympathy—the off-cock of his wig, the aches of his gout, his uses of late. Tremors had left it difficult for him to pour. A tress of white in black hair was her only take from those same times, that murderous sweep, so many of her dears among them. Her face wore not one fraught line and no hint of trouble. “Coffee?” she asked. The gaoler had brought this with viands paid from her allowance.

“By custom I do not visit,” Delongval said. “But most prisoners are men, and men have a need to outshine the circumstance.”

That was tact, Manon knew, though tact at what only a man could say. “There’s another here, is there not? Another woman in the tower?”

“Ah. The Capet widow. Or you might say the enemy.”

“Widow shall do. My husband was the republican, not I.” In public that was—Manon had been no less a schemer, in truth far more of one. That she now faced a turn under a trumped-up charge, committee housekeeping, was only funny. The message sent in gaoling her among Bourbons could be no less clear. “Is she comfortable?”

“No more so than you, or less. Though nobody could take me for a royalist. You should see what their dynasty used to make us wear.” She conceded it: stepping up to lop a head had been to play the buffoon. “I must say,” he said, “it gladdens me to see you so composed.”

“Shouldn’t I be?”

“Brave is the better word.”

Funnier yet. No change to a pleasant face, tone, bearing: “I demand the sword.”

The stare of an old man held no judgment. He only doubted his understanding, she saw. “Sword, Madame?” She met the eye, waited. “Are you suggesting,” to a lapse. He tried a smile. “I think you must be,” to another. No cue came, no reassurance. “Making jest?” A last pause, and she said it to him again in just the same way. “You want me to execute the warrant with—and not the, the device.” She took a sip. “Why would you ask it, in God’s name? It’s mercy. The device is a mercy.”

“Oh yes,” she said. “I’ve seen it up close, the whole affair. The drum, the cheer. The claim shown up from the basket. Little more than a smattering of color at the fall of the blade. No fusses save the crowd. As methods go,” another sip, “it primps up a slaughter.”

He thought on it—an easy read—on why she would make it hard for him. “There are no choices,” he said. “For you, me. You hold a title, or did. The privilege to, er, demand, when other means were worse, much worse—that was history. And that has changed.”

“Of course. Did you know they mean to swap out the calendar as well? This will no longer be a Thursday. Nor September, a year of the Lord. Next it will be for weights and measures. Tens in tens in tens, very neat and tidy, and that’s likely for the best. But days? It’s not yet ratified. I don’t know what the newest terms shall be. Thursday will have to carry us for now.”

“Today is a Wednesday.”

“Time moves so differently in here.”

The frown gave to a shrug as he thought it through. “None of this should surprise me so. The very church is set aside, for—what do they call it—a cult of reason. I know what the committee will allow. I bear no ill wish for you, nor for anyone put in my charge. And I’m sorry to frustrate your aims, but not sorry to thwart my own. These,” hands rising up to sway, the tremor plain, “are not so handsome anymore.” The smile was no less faltering than the pun—again, simple tact.

Manon said, “We shall see. Sugar?”

“Have you come to damn me?”

There was a scrape below the well—a short laugh made inhuman. “You’ve been telling tales, lad, and only to yourself. ‘Come, damn.’ You came. I never asked you here. And I have no reach at all save that you can hear.”

Jean fils had brought a bottle from his father’s store, strong brandy meant for guests. Visits to the Delongval home had fallen off of late. The pilferage would go unnoticed. “How better to explain a voice in the dark?”

“Voice, dark. Done.”

“I can’t say whether you’re man or woman.”

“Nor I. How unnatural. Do fetch us a priest. Too late for the rites, though.”

“You admit to being a ghost.”

“A ghost could never say. But that’s good explanation. Of how it never ends.”

“Do you remember anything?”

“Voice. Dark. Done.” Again the scrape.

“Anything of a life before.”

“I must have learned to speak, for I speak; and I know the outside world or do from other times. No doubt the skin on things has been changed out many times. But no—or rather nothing that follows, nothing that tells, if you take the meaning. I do have one picture, and vivid, but of what, I don’t know. There was a gibbet, not far away from here, I think—a brickwork, and big, some twenty-four feet high in a square twice as broad. Each side had three rows of five arches, better than a fathom tall to display the hanged. Day and night, week after week, there were bodies in it ripening—ever a full house—and black birds came, heckling at each other, and at those who had come to see.”

Jean fils knew at once what this meant, and the thought was curdling. Razed half a century before, after it stood for five—the same frame of time as the gaol tower. His father had told him of the demolition, and of how it marked progress for the headsman’s lot. Jean fils dared not confirm the reality, nor speak at first.

But the voice said, “Why have you come to such a place? Bowls on the grass, chasing petticoats—those are more a young man’s fare.”

Jean fils drained the bottle. “It’s only right I should be at the Temple. I’m apprenticed to the family trade. An apprentice headsman.”

“Oh—family. And headsman. Do tell. Perhaps I’ve met your father.”

“I share his name.”

“First born then?”

“No. But seven generations of Delongvals have served for bourreau.”

“Shouldn’t you be out in the yard, practicing a swing?”

“Thank Heavens no. There’s little more to it now than the pull of a lever. I mean the, the act. The role itself, that has more variety. We’re responsible for the welfare of the convicts and to keep the grounds and staff. We give out unclaimed bodies to hospitals. There is paperwork,” he said wistfully. “The trade is not what it used to be.”

“And how was it?”

“Oh—one hardly wants—it was all so grisly.”

“There’s no offending here. Would I felt a horror—gooseflesh, up in a prickle.”

Jean fils did. “Courts order punishments besides death. And in days past these were severe. The basest of tortures.” He crossed himself. “Even killings came with extras—few but nobles could go gently. It was not so long ago that the wheel was last hoisted up with a victim in the spokes. Breaking and braiding—it outstrips the suffering of Christ. The first Delongval in the role, two hundred years ago, he did that. Broke limbs and passed them through the openings, dead to all the cries and the pleas. Even the last king, dullard he was, had the sense to ban it—the decency. The past is all brutal. Men had their hands cut off right before the noose, against all reason. Drawing, quartering. Women burnt alive. The garrote, the saw, God save us.”

“But now it is easier. Not so brutal. For the headsman.”

“Much so, yes—for all involved. Torture is abolished. Almost.”

“Yet I hear reluctance, lad. You don’t much like it—this novelty, the lever pull.”

“Who would?”

“It’s a strange breed of devil,” said the voice after a pause, “who damns without the heart.”

Now Jean fils lent the pause. “I’m no such thing. Nor my father. Nor his.”

“Just so,” said the voice. “The job took a hire, and hell called for a mason’s trowel. But make no mistake. Some of you do love the part. Maybe your ancestor, with that wheel of his. And those deaf ears.”

“I couldn’t deny it. In its service we stand outside the law. Such disrepute—it’s only fit. The Delongvals were knacker men, and still were until but recently, once the pay got better. Headsmen wore a mask. My father never did, nor any other Delongval. He took care to raise his place in public. They call him the gentleman of the city, and some day they might me. Under the regime he kept a library, a grand botanical collection, curiosities. He was known for a command of history, and he looked to science. There were dinners for luminaries. He knew Voltaire, Rousseau ... not at the same time.”

“I do not. Who were they?”

“Two heroes of the Enlightenment. Though not the best of friends.”

“Luminary, enlighten—that’s little help. What light could help but light? Cunning men, I take it. Like a priesthood, or the druids. Some read planets where others try the gospels. And some can dole out futures from a length of gut. What sort of science is his?”

“My father? Medicine. Anatomy.”

“What is anatomy?”

Jean fils thought, shrugged. “A length of gut.”

“How did your older brother die?”

This was startling. “I never—you—you can see—?”

“Heed is no art, dark or otherwise. You’re apprenticed only of late, and before that you were a scribe. The work is detestable to you. Wine helps you flee it, and whatever places wine might be kept. You came down for a sour cask. It’s a simple leap.”

The repulsion had never let up, speak as the voice might, and at truth. Jean fils stood. “You deceive me.”

“I have no wish to fool you, lad. Nor the need to.”

“Your stories, that, that you looked upon the Gibbet of Montfaucon, it’s all—”

“I never said upon.”

“Only a moment ago—”

“I looked from your gibbet.”

Jean fils was stopped cold. “You were hanged?”

“Many times. Many times.”

Stammer held in check, nonsense was put aside to address nonsense. “How could you have been hanged, if put, put to here?”

“Put. Dear lad—the words you choose. Oubliette, you said before. To forget and be forgotten. No. This outlook—this line on you from deep below—it is but one more. Yours.”


A long moment. Jean fils kept watch on the dark. His breath came back. 

“Whatever it is you want, whatever you would have of me,” leaving off there.

To no answer.

“You deceive,” Jean fils said again, and again leaving off.

Again, to none.

Jean fils stared into the oubliette, or its topmost shallows. A dread overcame him, though at what he could not say. But he went to the top of the stair to snatch up an oil lamp. Trembling, he brought the glow back down and to the edge. Held out at arm’s length the light gave the drop another two fathoms, a worn and leaching brick much like the first. Darkness sank the air, a weakest pull, but never stopping. Within its cage the wick did not gutter. The grip came open, and Jean fils let the flame drop.

Gone deep, a band of light sped along the stones. His breath ran ahead of it. But the shaft broke away—a rough lip of block—and the cast of light found a void underneath. Nothing—no gleam or outline in a black surround. Mantle flame became a star, white and faint, and with no sound of any kind, save his fearful gasp, the star winked out.

Jean pere came back to Manon’s cell one day early, and in a state. He had said he would not, shown out with apologies for the next circumstance of a brief acquaintance. But she had known he would return. The gaoler left them again, the oaken door pulled to. In hand was a leaf of parchment. Beneath the seal and the worrying grip she knew just how it read. “How can this be?”

“Would you like a chair, Citizen Delongval?”


“Please. Do sit. The Montagnards suspected I was a danger to them. And they were right—I am—though not for the right reason, and not by half.” She told the rest.

“You?” Jean pere was not well versed in machineries of change, but he knew this part well enough. “All those tracts were written by a, a housewife?”

“Or a writer kept house, if you please.” Her smile was only genuine. She did not savor revenge and did not care to gloat. “My husband, it was his idea—not to keep his lady-wife safe, but because even now the prejudice abounds. The poor man—an economist, fond of maths. The prosecution never thought it strange, hellfire argument such as that coming from so mild a person, so bookish. But then I never took the interest either. Until the need arose politics were a dullard’s stuff.”

“Monsieur Orlande—he was innocent? And you never came forward?”

“As agreed. Much was at stake. Even Maxim would see it. And Maxim is a foe.”

Jean fils took no notice of the Maxim whom she meant. “I put an innocent to—your husband—a capital charge. Blood is on your hands.”

She laughed, and he stared on, thoroughly appalled. “Killing my husband, sir, was far from your first injustice, part or whole. But never mind that. It’s a year since the massacres—a busy year, and worse to come. The times are awash. On my hands? It’s in my teeth, and yours. We swallow it down, breathe it in, this fog of blood.”

He took a moment. ‘The Gironde were against those killings—and your pamphlets.”

“Not by enough. Thieves, rogues, banknote forgers—none could defend them wholeheartedly. Yet they were no threat to the new body. Political prisoners did stand among them, yes, but in the minority. All were caught up, reckless killing, a heap laid to an altar. In moderation we looked the other way. Moderation,” she said again after a pause, as if alone. “My husband had esteem of Newton. What moves moves more than itself, and unmet a motion never stops. But there’s more here than simple nature. A crowd is a natural force, true, but a force with a thirst, an appetite. A crowd is a single monster.”

He regarded her. “You astonish me. A gentlewoman. Tracts, and so bilious.”

“You prove our point, Citizen.”

“But what has this to do with—how could you make the committee—”

“Through blackmail of course. They never knew whom they had taken into custody. The charge made against me is only false.”

“And given what you saw fit to publish they’d only be glad to learn—”

“Think more, my good fellow, on what I have yet to.”


“Before I became an enemy of the state I was a society woman. And so I am not without friends. What motivates friends is not ideology—far from it. The National Convention read the terms in a letter, terms that await the outcome in the square. The papers I left in safekeeping shall go to press or to blazes.”

“Sedition,” Jean pere said.

“Let the fucking Montagnards drum me out.”

Shocked at her oath, he took a moment. “But you might call off the sentence.” He looked back, the hopes plain—hopes that he might yet be spared a hands-on chore. “You hold advantage. Ransom to be paid—bargains struck.”

Manon let her smile fall away, not for disgust, only weariness. Jean Delongval pere could never be made to see. She could have told him the full truth—that it was only a ploy. No last tract, only a friend in the outside world, a piteous request. Delongval’s report would have made no difference, not in the times. Semblance of threat was threat enough. But unlike the men of the committee, Manon had no bottom left. False hopes—what taunts, what insults, could be more cruel than those.

“Monsieur Delongval,” she said, “I demand the sword.”

Evening drink was morning venom, and two days’ bender a damnation upon the third. Father’s valet had come to rouse Jean fils from his bedchambers, skies yet dark. Without success—whiffs of puke caught up in his velvet clothes—he brought back nothing but regrets. Jean pere and a stick went in person. “Up, wastrel,” with a thwack. “Up, I say, up. You disgrace your name!” Weak under the blankets, the laughter was a surprise. “Damn you, there’s business this morning.” In his father’s rant Jean fils heard the name of a widow spoken—harmless, bereaved—with a note of fright. “All the city shall be in the square today, boy. She’s the last of the Girondes. Take a draught of your dog’s hair, wash your face, and off we go.”

“Dog’s hair?”

“It’s something the English say. Shut up. To work.”

Morning carriage rides often ran tense. This was worse than usual. Jean pere studied the Rue de Bretagne, the open market, vendors setting up in first light. The headsman’s coach and four took uneasy glances, happy as the rabble were for spectacles to come. Even to superstition—thumbs bitten, hails and paternosters said.

Jean fils read the distraction as he often did. But that morning his father’s disappointment was no matter. He swallowed back acid in his mouth. “The Temple will collapse,” he said. “And soon.”


“The Temple, father. The gaol has been undermined—there’s a hollow space. The weight will cave the floors, bring the tower down.”

“What is this prattle? Hollow space?”

“Hear me. Lives are at stake—the gaoler, those on staff, those confined above. Even the innocent. The streets—stones will fall on busy streets.”

In no rush Jean pere turned to face his only son. The voice was almost gentle. “And how came this,” pause, “news? Some dream in a taproom?”

Reluctant as the mention was, the very thought: “I looked into the oubliette.”

Hint of more played but Jean pere only said, “There is no oubliette at the Temple.”

“The cellars—”

“‘Nor anywhere. Oubliette, little oblivion—it’s a wives’ tale. The pit you mean, I know it—a cistern from long ago, for storing winter ice. People make too much of these holes, all for where they’re found—low quarters in the worst of places, and in the very oldest levels. Ice houses, one and all. Empty caches. The reality is simple, humdrum. ‘Worst’—aye, that’s the Temple nowadays. When that pit was dug and bricked the fort was different. The knights kept no prison there. They were bankers, in truth—ledger-scratching issuers of credit. Tedious. And usury aside no banker ever took up the rack. Gaol is an ugly business, set apart, tucked away into a moldy pile. Nobody was ever thrown to the oubliette, as you call it. Nobody is there.”

The last struck an off note. The father had looked away.

“Name it as you like,” said Jean fils. “The bottom has fallen out.”

Neither had another thing to say—not before the scaffold.

Manon Orlande, so fearless with a quill, rode the tumbrel petrified. She did so alone—no other prisoners had been brought out, and two gendarmes kept apace on horseback. She clung to the fore rail as if swept up and borne downstream. But as the gates swung wide her stance was yet upright, her eye unwavering for those who turned to look. Just outside the tower walls the crowd was sparse—bystanders, mostly, and dispassionate—and among them she saw her friend from the salon. Tears on a chin held high, hat to breast, all the dignity he could muster up. With such heart taken at that farewell thought of the committee, of spies, came too late. Her attention had led two plain coats and they closed to seize him. She cried out, said his name—too late, again, seeing that this would be read back in testimony. A knee gave, strength gone, but a stare through the passersby showed that he had broken free. Running quick, faster than the committee men, whose hue and cry went ignored. The sans-culottes and Cordeliers would be at the killing ground—no enthusiasts to lend the state a hand. Her imminent death was her friend’s reprieve. He vanished well ahead, and they held up his hat and coat where he had shed the pair. The outcome let her stand tall again, though with little color in her face.

“Why is the device under wraps?”

So Jean fils had asked on arrival. The crowds, too, were only bemused to see the shroud and cord. Changes to the docket, all names struck off but one, had thwarted those selling programs, and their discontent had spread. In the muttering, attention fell to what had been set up to one side of the scaffold. And so did Jean fils’ eye.

“What is this?”

Where the block had been kept the past year was unknown, but all the use before was scored into the groove atop. To say each notch was a death would be too sure of mortal aim, and the notches were many. Oak had long gone black, the stain deep and tarry. Charles, the older brother, so sure and dextrous with a stroke, had been the last to use it, but not more than twice. Axes had been more commonplace, more so yet the rope. Charles’ mark in the hash stood out clearest.

There were cheers for the Delongvals on stepping from the coach, better said for the show they put on, but not so robust as usual. Since the history lesson Jean pere had not looked to his son, nor had another word to say. The assistants were in place, and two portable tables, one for the executioners, one for the agent of the court. An assistant held Charles’ sword in an oilcloth—his, for he had been the last to swing it true.

“Father, no.”

“Be still.”

Jean pere had not held the sword for many years. Only after Charles’ death had the old man had come back into practice from a role of oversight. By then use of what crowds had named the louisette, and more lately the guillotine, had become standard. The blade came out from the bag for inspection. A headsman’s sword was a heavy tool, but not so long as a weapon of war. The span and haft together were a yard and three, and the haft was built long for a double-hand grip. No point on it, only a rounded end, and no crosspiece save a square bar. To secure a hold the pommel was as fat as a pear-fruit. The crowd was displeased to see the sword come out—this museum piece, legacy of backward times—and those in front began to shout. Jean fils had no ear for what they said, straightforward though it was. He had seen his father’s arm shake at the weight.

Jean pere looked to him. “Wipe off the fat,” he said, “and sharpen it.”

Toppled Throne, they called the square now. Manon had been there in another age, walking on her husband’s arm along toll wall gardens. Say what you might about the revolution, she said to herself—the last joke she would tell—it did hew to a theme.

Until that approach the way had been uneventful. For a slow half hour the city made a lane. But as the tumbrel came into sight of the square a roar went up among the crowd, grown angrier than the usual. Part of the theater of a death sentence was the show of public outrage. Breaking through the cordons, sans-culottes rushed the cart. Sabers high, the escort plowed them down with horse. Comrades helped the wounded back into the mass. The volume was piercing, and Manon looked ahead as refuse began to land. Wadded programs, glancing off the gendarmes more than the victim. Ahead she saw the device wrapped up. Had her friend been caught someone would come out to shuck off the drape. Reassuring thought, but then she saw the team up on the scaffold, and the block, and the basket for her head.

Courage was her intent—this grisly means of protest aside—but her body gave and piss spread beneath the execution frock. May they not see, she prayed. May they not.

Delongval kept his eye from hers, but he glanced her way and saw the state of her, how uneasy she was on her feet. His son stood aside him, a gracile boy in black coat with eyes like a forest doe. She could not hear what Delongval said to the assistants, but his mouth spelled it out—nobody cut her hair? The upbraiding showed her that this was a grievous lapse. Two gendarmes were leading her up the last stair, a hand firm at each arm, and then she was on the stage. She looked to the crowd. To the device. The cloth stayed up. Block, basket. Rage had fallen to a grumbling, here and there a shout.

Delongval was directing his son. With reluctance the boy took up a knife from the tools arrayed on the bourreau’s table. Laid among them, Manon saw, something was covered up with a velvet cloth, and she knew this would be the sword. The boy looked to her as he approached, shy apology. But he was at her back, and she felt her hair taken up, pulled into a sheaf. The weight fell away. Her nape felt cold air. In a last clear voice, Manon told herself the resolve all along: let murder resemble murder. But the time come due and the thought were not the same.

“What are you doing?” The voice was close in the crowd. “Put her in the razor!” Others took up the chant, and soon all the public spoke with a vehemence. Razor, razor, razor—one of the many pet names for the device.

Jean fils looked to the reap in his hand. Hair black, brushed, and long. A single white tress wound through it. No thought came of where to set it down, save where not. A hand had gone up among the catcalls, another, to claim the relic. He stared down the offenders, no check on his disgust—his sole brave act that morning. So distracted he did not see Mme. Orlande led up to the table of the court, to hear charges read out, and the sentence. The writ was shown up with signature and seal. A plume wagged as the secretary put to parchment all that was told. Absently he put the knife into his coat.

Mme. Orlande was asked if she had a thing to say. That was unusual. Proceedings here were quick—no oratories, no chances at martyrdom, only the crisp function of the state. Jean fils looked back to see the last of the exchange. The officer was glancing to the device to lead her eye. An invitation—a plea.

Razor, razor.

Mme. Orlande looked to her feet. At his own, Jean fils saw that he had let the hair fall away. The lock had scatted between his boots, disintegrating to a breeze. She was led to the block with a shuffling foot. Manacles were put to her wrists, cord of hemp fed through an eyelet bolted into the scaffold on either side. His father had stepped close to her, and he spoke into her ear. She gave a curt nod, and he set a hand to her breast, the other to her waist. The assistants took up the slack. Mme. Orlande knelt, gasping for a breath with outstretched arms, eyes wide, and Jean pere gently led her chin to the saddle on the block. His hand went to her shoulder for reassurance. Her breath heaved as she fought tears.

A commotion—three sans-culottes had broken through. Mounting the scaffold, they were at the device, pulling at the shroud. The chant strengthened. Razor, razor. Gendarmes stormed the platform and the trespassers leapt from the bayonets. Reassumed into the crowd, lost. The officer had stood up, hands high. None paid heed.

“Disgrace,” Jean fils heard somebody say. His father looked to him, cue enough, and Jean fils went to take up the sword from the array of tools.

Manon could not see past the basket, the boards underneath it, right before her eyes. She had not seen a drummer on coming up, who would roll before the order. There would be no signal here. A saner mind would have reflected on the chant for the razor. It was not for her or for mercy. The sans-culottes were furious at her special treatment. It was they who had insisted on the persecution of the Gironde, they who had ensured her warrant of death. But no thought led anywhere past the basket and the neck.

Jean pere took a stance—one not taken for fifteen years. He hefted the sword, and once again Jean fils saw how unsteady it was in the grip. An October day, cool but sweltering. He watched his father’s face, the grimace. But as the blade went up, to a waver, the resolve died, and the face went ashen. He looked to his son until his son stepped close.

Beneath jeers, unrest, Jean fils heard what he had feared he might. 

“Son, you must.”

Known or not, the horror was no less. “I’ve never held a weapon.”

“You must,” and again. “Swing true. Never—.” No more.

Jean fils took the hilt.

His father stepped back. He managed to say, “Swift, true. Never let her—.”

The crowd fell quiet to draw one breath, and Manon knew. She shut her eyes. But at a great clap the world broke to agony, and she did not die. Blind, half deaf, lit up like a pyre to the agony, she began

to shriek, the stroke yet rung into his hands. Her skull was broken, the scalp laid to fractured bone, and blood welled up full compass and ran down the block. Her arms hauled against the rope. Her legs writhed and kicked the scaffold. The slippers came free, and her bare feet scrabbled for a hold. She screamed a breath dry to a croak, screamed on the draw of air, screamed with a moaning and retching anguish.

Dead silence in the crowd, all eyes clear. And the public shout changed.

Tears were blinding Jean fils. He looked to his father, who had turned away. The assistants, the gendarmes, representatives of the court—none could bear to watch. He looked back to what he had done. Raising up the sword again, it clattered from his failing grip. His father started at the sound, hands in fists, bowing his head in a cringe.

No, said the crowd. Stop.

Jean fils took up the blade again. The hilt was slick. Her blood had misted his face and clothes. He swung again, desperately, and the hold slipped. A glancing strike, another cut through living skull. The screaming stopped on a choke, then went on and on. In mayhem redoubled he saw brains left naked to the air.

No more. No.

The sword had bounced off the block and come down near the platform edge. Jean fils went after it and glanced to the crowd. They, too, wept, even those who had reached for the trophy, but something built underneath those tears, Jean fils in its sights.

“Son,” his father was saying. “Son, quickly now, for the love of God.”

Jean fils took the hewing stance again. This time he got the blade through her spine and most of her pale neck. The scream quit but a horrendous spitting gargle took its place. The blade was wedged and twisted in the oak. Arteries beat a twin arc, and a froth churned in the wound. Jean fils planted a boot sole to the block. He yanked the sword free, almost fell, took the stance once more, and at last he claimed the head. Into the basket, the blood-sodden lining, without any thump to be heard above the fury.

What came next was seen from a remove. The crowd came up in a tidal surge—the line of gendarmes below the scaffold consumed—and washed onto the platform in a wrack of limbs. The rage was elemental, confined to no one man or woman or child. Jean fils saw the device tilt, fall, hundreds clambering up, and the men on the scaffold opened fire. The officer of the court and the secretary huddled behind them, white with terror, and Jean fils felt a hard shove. Stumbling to the one defended position, he heard his father’s shout—not my boy, the fault is mine—and he turned to see his father seized up from all directions, head and limbs cruelly pulled, clothes torn away, drawn into the teeming body.

How he got back to the gaol tower was uncertain. Once Jean fils, now only Jean, and not even truly that, his coat and breeches torn, a stink of gunpowder in his hair, face, throat, and hands freckled in blood. The red stain was on the collar of his shirt, and the whites of his eyes were no less shot with blood. The gates opened for him, and the escort of three gendarmes broke off once the stagger in left him safe. Smoke was rising to the southeast, a crackle of musket fire. Near streets were vacant, and the marketplace, all goods left heaped up on countertops, undefended from a riot on the crawl. The gate closed behind Jean. For all the quiet in the neighborhood guards were watchful on the rampart. Straight down, into the dark, no hesitation—Jean knew his task.

“Your doing,” he said into the pit.

No reply, no sound at all save the return of his own voice from closer walls. But the other voice had no means to shut him out, no hand to stop an ear, no ear, no mouth. Jean reached into his coat, for the knife that had cut the hair.

“Your doing,” he said again. “Your blame.”

No reply. But neither fear. Jean leapt.

The cellars flew away, and pale lamplight, to whatever lay beneath. Stonework shot past, seen, unseen, his breath an echo on damp brick, and the plummet batted at his hair. Then there was the dark—true dark, fluid and unseeable. No more echoing, no sound of any kind. Jean could not hear his breath, heartbeat, the pulse in his ear. He felt his hair spread afloat, and he was buoyant. There was neither warmth nor a chill. But whatever came forth the knife was ready, and he felt nothing but the haft and the tightness of the grip.

But with nowhere to go, no up, down, inside, out, nothing did come, could come. The voice spoke, and it rose like a thought from and of the dark.

“Poor lad,” it said—now a woman’s voice, one Jean had never had the chance to hear, and kind. “Never throw your lot in here.”

A plummet again. Jean cried out for the speed, the reel, clenching shut his eyes. Until he felt a mild rap along his back. On looking where he lay saw the cellar floors, the selfsame spot where he had stood to leap. At one hand was the rim of the pit. The other was empty—the knife had been taken away, left to the dark below. In years ahead the gaol tower was demolished, each stone struck from the next with chisel and bar. Whether hell or keepsake in man’s design, the pit was choked off with that broken rubble and overlaid with garden dirt. Grasses were sown in time, the functions of the place lost to memory, and the city kept flowers in bloom for those out on a walk.


Old friends took tea at a pub, one bald, one gray, and each a friend of Mick’s. The third hour ran to treachery, as third hours will where tea is a figure and old is only literal.

“A’ve got the keys to Mick’s flat,” said Ya Bas through a slush of Famous Grouse. “He asked me to watch it while he’s away. Let’s go rob the place.”

No firm no, the frown drawn atop a smile. “We’re bosoms, you cunt,” Shane said. “Steal from a friend? Anyway we’re no burglars. We’re ruffians out of Maryhill in semi-retirement. That’s a whole different set of skills.”

“But it’d be funny, aye.”

A sip, a savour. Bottoms up. “Let’s go rob the place.”

No need for fare: a walk saw it done, fifteen minutes up Byres Road and University Avenue with a left just past the crest into the tenements. The flat was top floor in a listed row, each flight of the stairway a jagged chute. The climb took wind that the stroll had not. Doubled on the landing, Shane said, “Bastard,” and again. Ya Bas probed at a mortise lock. It was the right key, but with so fat a bit, silence took a hand that knew the knob. No door came ajar below.

“Neighbours must be off as well.”

“Or stone drunk.”

“Piss deaf.”

“West End wendies.”

Graceless, but done. “A whisky cabinet in the welcome hall,” Shane said. He had never seen inside before. “It’s Mick’s place all right.”

Glass was soon in hand, or two in two, Bunnahabain 18 Year, neat. The peat drew winces but that was the steepest bottle and there was the principle. Tossing the domicile with a right hand committed to the drink slowed the pace a bit. Pulling out a drawer, contents sown on the duvet cover, Shane said, “Nae pornography—aw that’s just bizarre. Maybe he’s a secret poof.”

Ya Bas had put on a Panama hat, Mick’s summertime pomp, weather permitting.  The crown rattled loose on his smooth and tapered head. “Were it so there’d be porn. And you miss the obvious here. Wank is electronic now. Nobody keeps magazines.”

“A keep magazines.”

“You’re gray on top and slow to adapt.”

“A honour tradition. A video streaming platform? Are we a lot of randy cyborgs?”

“Anyway if there’s poofsign in here it’s this straw hat. Fiddle-dee-dee.”

Shane fished the loot. Up between forefinger and thumb came a length of surgical tubing. It had been coiled and tucked among a deck of washcloths. “For a spike?”

Ya Bas said the word back with a happy gleam. “Some older cunts, they have issues. Half mast inhibitions, as Charles Mingus put it. But there’s way to shore up the colours. Seems you loop against the scrotum, aft the testicles, first with the overhand tie—”

The tubing had flown. Shane poured on 18 Year to disinfect. “There’s a dearth of vices. Bevvy, a rig for mince, but no character. As though Mick has no inner self.”

“He may want for our multidimensionality.”

Within an hour they had the place stuffed to the eaves with smut, through a call to a courier at Deliveroo. The filthiest imaginable, they had specified; every human ilk; barnyard animals, if doable, for a gratuity; and fortunately the toss had flushed out a debit card. Into the drawers went the magazines, whether desk or kitchen. Under the bed, over the coffee table, into rehung picture frames. A snap of grandma in WAC uniform had become a duel of charcuterie at an orchid. The intercom rang again.

“That would be the cocaine,” Shane said.

True, a debit card would not front that sort of purchase, not typically, but Shane knew people. He was a people. The intercom rang yet again. Ya Bas saw in the escort.

“What shall it be?”

“Use this gimp mask, for going incognito,” Shane said, “and please, trousers aff.”

“Bents are extra.”

“We’re gentlemen,” Ya Bas said. “This is for posterity.”

“Posterity is extra.” Her joke, not mine. Give a lady credit.

“Debit OK?”

She used a card swipe dongle. Soon the photo was staged: every toothbrush in the cup headfirst up an arse. “That’s from urban legend,” said the escort on the snap.

Ya Bas raised a tumbler. “Confirmation bias.” On picking up his own Shane, otherwise playing photojournalist, lent the clink. There were other defilements—bars of soap, bath towels, doorknobs, the landline headset—each duly logged on phone cam for future bulk e-mails and posting on social media.

“Randy cyborgs,” Shane said, once their model had left. “We’d best call the movers.”

“Movers tell tales,” said Ya Bas. “They take photo ID and a signature. And it’s the weekend coming up. What we need is a team of corner neds.”

“For man’s work? It’s two flights of stairs, mate—the worst flights A’ve ever set eyes on. Just revisiting the climb in thought alone gives me a terrible thirst.”


“Nae mair of that Teuchter bog malt. Naw, A’m in a cold spirit. Grouse, rocks.”

“We could pay the neds out in charles, aye.”

“Bite your tongue.”

Ya Bas went to the freezer for ice but came straight back. “Mick’s got hands in there. A stack of amputated human hands in clear zipper bags.”

This Shane had to see. “That’s diabolical. What’s the purpose?”

“There are dates on in Sharpie, and initials, so A assume it’s a matter of vocation.”

“What fuckin use is a frozen human hand? Is there any ice?”

“They’re all lefts,” said Ya Bas, handing back a tray of cubes as he rifled through.

“Ah. Witchcraft then.”

“That’s a hobby, no a profession.”

“A’d assume any form of clergyman draws a check.”

“We’re letting all the cold air out.”

Ya Bas skated hands into an array atop the counter, one by one.

“Aye,” Shane said. “All lefts.”

“No this last. My mistake.” The hand, a stout right, clattered like a patty out for thaw.

“That’s eleven.”

Ya Bas made a lookup on his phone. “Ah—see? This puts left-handedness at ten percent of the population. That correlates inversely with what we see here.”

“That’d be nine and one, no ten and one.”

“Roughly, should have said, but within a plus or minus for sampling error. Here’s what A think. In each case Mick took inessential hands. That means whoever these lads are—and there’s no misread of hair on a knuckle—they still needed their dominant grip.”

“Aha—for signatures, perhaps.”

“The very thing! So they’re alive yet. It’s no a murder racket. Extortion is my guess. Coercion with a grim spectacle of violence.”

“Or for arrears—long arrears. A chop-off, that’s gone far for a wee shakedown.”

“But settlements won’t account for the inverse correlation. Plus if you want to frighten a cunt to payment, there’s nae advantage in mayhem, much less in singling out a non-dominant hand. Why no just have a fingernail, or a tooth, or smash a knee?”

“That takes me back. But why keep the trim?”

“A rich inner self,” said Ya Bas.

Talk fell to who would make the better amateur sleuth, and then to the best name for a cocktail of whiskey and cocaine, whether shaken or stirred. The Ben Nevis. The Cloud Chamber. The Bog Quaker. The Number One. The Rust Duster. Irish Ching. The Sneezy Pete. The Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Say Hello to My Little Friend. The Strathclyde Comma. The Ripsnort. The Llamashagger. The Irvine Welsh.

“That’s for heroin.”

“The choice is made.”

“A feel as though there’s something we forgot.” The intercom sang out once more. “Did you place another order, Shane?”

“Did you?”

“Pizza would have been nice.”

Ya Bas had buzzed the party in without question. They heard the long trod up the stairs and opened the door before the knock. There stood a dim young man, thick of neck, and his dim young pal likewise thick of neck behind. The first held a clipboard and a deadpan. The other tried to look hard, crossing his arms to make extensors ripple.

“Is either of you Mickey Batts?” The accent was Midlands, the snoot parliamentary.

“Who’s asking?” Ya Bas and Shane said at once.

“We’re case officers for TV Licensing.” On “officers” the two exchanged a glance. “Our inquiries have gone unanswered, so we’ve found it necessary to pay a visit.”

“We’re no the man of the house, neither of us,” Shane said. “We’re burglars, aye.”

Ya Bas gave his forehead a smack. “Rob the place!”

“Sirs. We have been unable to find out what we need to know through correspondence, so of necessity, here we are.” A full rephrase, as if the aging blood-eyed chavs at the door had not understood. “May I ask which of you is Mr. Batts?”

Ya Bas and Shane turned to one another. “Ever seen these cunts actually show up?”

“No in thirty years.”

“And after the fall of darkness. In Glasgow.”

The canvasser jumped in. “We had to be certain—”

No glance, no pause to the sidebar. Shane said, “Do you suppose it has to do with those cut-off hands in the icebox?”

“That’s on the nose, aye? But A take your point. There’s just nae chance. Oh, and we should get those back where they belong. They’ll be going soft by now.”

Mention of hands made the arms in back uncross. The agent’s face sought a camouflage in blandness. The other, no lightning rod, said, “Have a look at my ID, sir. I have the case papers right—”

“And however else,” Shane said to Ya Bas, “there’s the sanctity of a man’s home.”

“Impertinence. Eight-forty five at night. What if we’d been watching our shows?”

“Should we come back another time?” said the agent in back.

Ya Bas, on the turn: “Now’s good.”

Late in the morning the mortise lock came undone without a hitch. Here was Mick, briefcase in one hand, roller bag in the other, winded from the climb. They were all getting older. He happened to look across the hall to a frame of his gran. Without change to his expression he took note of the double dicking. The face was no less staid and affect-free as he saw his living room. Shane was snoring on a couch, Ya Bas on the rug, underneath the Panama hat. Two TV Licensing case officers, or were they, had been bound and gagged with duct tape, yes they were, and held fast to dining chairs with more of the same, four eyes swollen shut. On sound of footfall both had begun to moan, then to plead for help, through clipboard paperwork wadded in their mouths. Mick sniffed. Somebody had shit himself, or somebodies, though who, and whether it was desperate or recreational, was not yet clear. He looked to his pals, each a sleeping wreck, mercifully unaware as yet of a head that would throb, a tongue that would rasp, the cruel counterspin that landing from a flight of whisky would put onto the earth.

No firm no, the frown drawn atop the smile. “You pair of cunts.”

Into the kitchen he went, to fill two glasses at the tap. There would be ibuprofen in a bathroom cabinet, paracetamol, fizzy tablets, pink stuff, Vicodin. But first he thumbed the latches on his briefcase, laid it open, and added one more hand in plastic to the freeze. This one was a right.


Mail told it first—a box at roadside, flag down, not one letter taken out. Carriers on a rural route used to know the people they delivered to, Trish had heard. But she had only got the call when the postal service ran short of room to cram and her newest hire, first on scene, had grown uneasy. “People do take trips,” Jack had said over the radio. “They move away. But something’s not right.” So she took a trip of her own. Views on the drive always gave her heart—deep forest, bold Pacific silvering the air. Cliffs rose and birds kited at fallen pillars in the surf. The through route had moved years back, beach towns left all but empty.

Trish had grown up on that same coastline though much farther south. Thirty years ago she had begun to feel an ache for sparser parts—fewer people, not less life. Now and then a cash-poor climate did visit troubles upon an officer of the law—downright strange ones up here—but as Trish saw it these were fair swap. And years with the badge had lent a story or two, which helped run down clocks with the locals.

The woodlands were full of settlements, unincorporated, twenty or so neighbors to each with maybe a bus bench to share. This was one such, built athwart a creek in long naves of redcedar. Jack’s car would have been hard to miss, the only car there, road or shoulder. Pulling up she saw what her deputy had meant. Roofs showed in the narrow glen below the roadway, and to a one these wore more moss than shingle. Some were bowing to the deadfall, and on one a widowmaker had driven itself plumb.

“Sheriff,” for a hi.

“Deputy.” Trish had a look at the box, one in a cluster aside a driveway. Roofs were hard to make out through the rampart. Redcedar grew wide and tall. “Ring the bell?”

“Knocked, pounded, gave a shout, the whole enchilada. Oh—sorry.”

“Weirder that you notice.” Trish was white but up in the realm of bigfoot and peckerwood a last name like Mendoza carried a whiff. What a nose for otherness they had in rural Oregon. Never mind that Mendoza was a Basque name where folks took Basque for transatlantic Mexican. The mailbox was blank. “Who’s on the letters?”

“I can look?”

“You serve the greater good, pal.”

He opened the box to unstick those topmost. Springing the wedge left several on the ground. Trish saw forwarding labels before Jack picked them up. He looked at two, a third. “Must’ve—” The adjacent mailboxes had names, most faded, many left partial by paint and labels shed to weather. But there was enough to piece it out. “Yeah. Neighbors. But they’re sent ahead. Doesn’t seem necessary. If it’s for vacation—neighbors being neighborly—all the boxes are right here for pickup.” Trish was glad to see she had not put a liability on payroll. Jack sorted envelopes. “Hopper. Alice Hopper.”

“Like she married the rabbit. Doubt we’ll need the name or the knock, but you never know.” Jack was looking a mite green. “I’ll go in,” she said. “I’ve been there.”

“No, no, Sheriff. Best to get unhappy firsts out of the way.”

“You sound like my prom date.”

Chain and padlock kept cars from rolling in but on foot this was an easy skirt. Short walk down, and upbeat considering they were about to find a corpse, and surely one that was plenty ripe. Sunlight was tipping in through the canopy high above—ramps in spectral alignments as far back as Trish could see. The creek narrowed to a riffle and a tune. There would be trout in that water, even chinook and steelhead back from sea.

The house was greening toward oblivion but the roof was still intact. Bungalow style, with an upstairs room instead of attic space and a broad window casement looking on the creek. Trish took this for the master bedroom and felt a shiver pass. The unseen view for the unseeing eye. Judging from the thinness of the duff in front someone had been sweeping and weeding not so long before. The upkeep was about comfort, as Trish saw it, and not the cash draw of the real estate. Jack knocked for her, and she gave the shout. “Ms. Hopper? County sheriff. We’ve come out to check on you.” She gave the door the minute it deserved and tried the nob. Locked, but the condition of the frame told her that a heel would beat the latch cold.

No charnel stenches. That was good. The insides were well ordered if shabby: faded rug on the entryway, coat rack, framed picture opposite, all kept tidy. The rest downstairs was the same, old but functional and clean. All books were on the shelves, every drawer shut. There were a couple of dishes in the sink and scattered crumbs and a jam smear from a piece of toast. Plants on the windowsill had perished of thirst.

“Ms. Hopper? County sheriff.”

In short time they had to take the trip upstairs, and twice on the creaking treads she announced the climb. Dead or not dead, there were courtesies. At the base stood a walker, and the rail of a stair lift. There was carpet underfoot and small pictures on the wall. No kids. A smell built, but not of the worse sort. The lift seat was up top, no second walker close—it would be at bedside, or in the bathroom, maybe overturned.

At first Trish only saw the window scenery—a bright vista. Glass free of dust let one of those beams come down aslant. Forest view, creek music audible though muted. A song—rasping, no less faint—played out slow to match the sound of water. Eyes adjusting, Trish said, “Jack, make the call,” and her voice told the kind.

On the night stand was a tall bottle of water and box of snack bars. Wrappers, three bars eaten, had fallen to the floor, and the drinking glass was upset at the foot of the upstairs walker. Alice Hopper lay in bed at a diagonal on bed linens soiled in one spot but neatly made. Eyelids so thin Trish could see the color underneath, long white hair in a careless fan. But the mouth was agape, a narrow drop, and the drawn features around it seemed on the verge of a slip. Whether or not the old woman could hear a word Trish began to speak, to tell her help was on the way and that she was safe.

EMTs got her stable, on cell with a physician. Jack had cut the chain for the ambulance. Trish told him to search the house for an address book or, given the tenant’s age, a Rolodex, though of course given Jack’s own he had been unclear on the concept of any dataset built on pen and paper. Whether the bag was glucose or saline or a dopy cocktail, the drip brought some pink back. Cardiac beeping on a portable fell from quick and shallow to something like a casual rhythm.

Hopper opened her eyes to a squint. She began to whisper. It was just as well that Jack had not yet found a means to contact next of kin. One of the EMTs had been leaning close, and he waved Trish over. Hopper spoke. Hopper slept.

On the walkie Trish told Jack to stop. She went downstairs. “Don’t touch anything else. Not yet. This might be a crime scene.”

He glanced about. Shopworn tidiness, lace doilies on all the furniture.


“Or the neighbors. But yeah.”

Next door did not mean a romp around the hedge like one took in suburbia, though for country the houses were close. Trish sent Jack one way. She went the other.

Lucky her. Even from the lane she could see something posted on the first door she came to. The yard here was more overgrown than Alice Hopper’s—needles laid deep, faded tan, seed cones sown about, sorrel breaking through—and the house was in worse shape. But not yet a proper ruin—windowpanes were whole, the roof ridge straight, no backbone slouching to visits of rain and snow. Moss was thick atop and creeping up the sides. Boards had warped out at the bottom and ferns were breaking down the foundation slab. No car. Come to think of it there had been none at the Hopper house. Approaching the porch was an intrusion. Trish felt it keenly. Each soft step was the progress of a thief, and the quiet got much quieter.

“Here lies Emily Macdonald,” she made out on the note, and a lengthy span of dates. The sign was written out in blue Bic and fed into a Ziploc bag—poor man’s lamination. But pushpins at the corners had let in damp and the ink had bled to a wash. An epitaph jotted on a cheap pane of sky. “Good friend, wife to Chuck, first to pass. Too used up now to put her with him and the rest. So sorry. Please see to her bones. Alice, one over.”

“Jesus Christ,” Trish said to the sign, and to the radio, “Head back this way.”

“Got a winner?”

“One, for a start.”

A finger too long on transmit gave up the selfsame lord and savior. She waited for Jack—not in fear of tricks, traps, or ambush but for the sake of procedure. In truth she might enjoy the conversation. Once Jack had caught up with a read she tried the door. Shut, but unlocked. Windows inside had been left open, screens taken down, in a repose below the sills. Moss and weeds were growing just inside. She stepped on a rug to a crunch of dry woodlice. On to the living room. There a sharp hiss met them—and a face,  black-eyed, flat, ghostly. A white form reared up. Barn owl—a fatty old timer—swooping out the broadest open window. Trish and Jack caught enough breath to share a laugh but the stink wrecked the mood. Roosts for smaller birds were marked up with their daub. Nests had built atop the wreckage before the owl had jumped the claim. Pellets littered the floor about its spot, commas of bone and fur. Wreckage was inapt—decay, a musty air, but for all that Trish could see another house kept neat right up to the end. Nothing ransacked, everything in place—a bookshelf had fallen over, true, and water damage had drawn reliefs high and low. But a home, and everything had only just begun to fall apart. It would have been some time coming. Three empty years at least. The smell was animal but underneath that was the nastier one, if faint, preaching caution.

“Sorry, Jack. This’ll be memorable.”

A swing clock struck the floor. They both jumped but only Trish’s hand had gone to the sidearm. Chimes and a mainspring ran down from a sour chord. Spooking herself—she would have to watch that. Shifting floorboards, or the bat of a big white wing. Where the clock had hung lath and dry rot showed through the plasterwork.

“Well, the floor’s still good but let’s watch our step.”

“Okay,” Jack said, without hope of a quip.

This house was ranch style, so this time there were no stairs to mount. The bedroom door stood open on the side of the corridor away from the sun. Beneath heavy covers—bedspread, quilts—a long shape lay on the bed. For tribute a yellowed wedding dress had been laid out atop the mound. Meadow flowers, too—bunches gone dry and colorless. Candles had melted down on the night stands. There was a framed picture of a couple from wartime, the man in uniform. A Bible had been left open, a string of beads to tell.

The bedspread was twitching, and before Trish could warn him Jack rushed up. The cover flew to a loud hello as rats fled the skeleton, glancing off their shins and ankles. Flesh had been gnawed clear—every last stitch of it and of the bedclothes—but the mattress held the bygone form like a rough brown die. Torn, sunken, the shape of a human being, still of some profit to scavengers. No reproach as Jack took a corner.

“Sorry,” he said, wiping his mouth.

“For what?” She had already brought her phone out for pictures. Each flash left takes on the room floating in their vision. “There’ll be another. In another house.” Puppy dog eyes, but Jack kept professional. Trish quoted Alice Hopper. “‘Please get the last two in the ground.’”

“And the note on—”

“Yeah. ‘The rest.’ So more than two. It’s just that one or more are buried instead of ... this. The bright side is you’re pretty good at investigative procedure.”

“Even the puking?”

“Mos def. We’ll get the cruiser—look for a second note. No sense in getting too much exercise today.”

“Your car or mine?”

So Trish was not the only one up for company. “I keep Tiger Balm in the glove box. We can draw on little mustaches. Saw it in a movie once. But first the photoshoot.” The coroner would take his own for county records, but you never knew.

Just up the road where a culvert fed the creek was a second chain in need of cutting. But first they exhausted every possibility along the nearer bank. There were two footbridges, one in a bad list and ready to come apart. And it was much the same with the remaining houses. Those with the most neglect—longest vacant—had saplings in their yards. Slumping walls, roof frames, all the lumber gone black and soft, but no note on a door. The oldest ones had broken out in fungus, and that hung on her mind—pale brackets like scale. Ms. Hopper had been taken, the ambulance gone, and Trish had called one of her other three deputies straight down. In short time it would become all hands, but Kelly had the dog. Gordon would sit bedside and Matthew go to fetch the coroner.

Kelly took the briefing at the first driveway mouth. Shemp looked on from inside the SUV, ears high. By eye alone Kelly made the same sort of gesture. “Seriously?”

“We’ve already gone through on this side. Take him on a walk.” Shemp was good for people, live or not, but more often was brought in to find a stash. The coroner pulled up, Matthew behind. “That was quick. Well, I guess first we’ll show Dennis what he’s won.”

Cracking a lot of jokes, she saw—she would have to watch that, too. But Trish could not deny that the errand had got to her. What on first glance had seemed like woodland haven now wore a mask. She and Jack made a slow round on the far side and it was much the same: all houses derelict, some gone to ruin, the forest taking back the lots. “It’s everyone,” Jack said, and Trish felt the selfsame crawl. “It’s every last home.”

They spotted the note near the end, the house second to last. This door was not upright and the house was not safe to enter. From deep in the trees a tall snag had given up and swung down. The frame on one side had been taken out, a thousand pounds of dimensional lumber clouted into deadfall. Trish looked through a broken window while Jack had a look at the note. He tore it off the fallen door leaf and brought it over.

“Jack, you don’t—”

“Can’t make out most,” he said, “but read the last part.”

Again a plastic bag. Words came up through the dirty face of it, and neither the handwriting nor the voice behind the words was like that read before. Part of a name—Fritz—and the opener on a lifespan from deep in the prior century. And again a memorial—praises caught in part, a superlative or two, mention of a fly fishing knack—and then “not strong enough no more to get him to the rest hes due. Sorry. His longtime friends, Alice and Emily. Crost the water near the road.”



On pickup of the call she had him well pictured. Her oldest deputy and most likely replacement, in time, would be sitting in a folding chair on the ICU. She marveled at his ability to doze off in that hinged posture. No less impressive was the way he could snap back awake at the least change in the air—no grogginess, no hesitation. If a nonagenarian was going to lam it Gordon was whom Trish would want on post. 

“Tough old broad,” he said atop ward noise. “Dehydration. She nearly died of thirst in bed. And the med says she still will. Her kidneys aren’t coming back. She’ll pass inside the week.”

“She hasn’t spoken at all?”

“Nor shown a wakeful eye. But it’s sleep for now, not dying. What went on?”

“Hell if I know,” Trish said. “But I’ll debrief in the a.m. so we can all be confused together.” She put her phone in a pocket, switching to walkie. The three deputies on scene were on a circuit to flush out any further weirdness. She was leaning against her car near the Macdonald house, waiting on the coroner. A diesel jenny ran and a cable went through a window frame, but she could not see any glow from the lamps set up. It was the afternoon. They would put up the yellow tape on the driveways  to replace the chain. But not a single civilian vehicle had driven by and she doubted the site would be disturbed. “Kelly, anything?”

“Shemp ate an owl pellet I’ll regret, but it’s just another dog day. If there are more remains out here, they’ll be old ones—no scent aside from the dirt they turned into.”

Dennis walked out. He had brought Jr. along to help set up the lights. They shared a mustache, though the coroner’s was gray and the nose above it red from modest alcoholism. One wore a polo shirt, the other Slayer. “Osteoporosis,” said the Dennis with a collar. “Shrunk bone. That was one old lady. And I only got lady from the note.”


“On what, the box springs? There’s nothing left to poke at.”

“Cause of death?” She weathered a stare. “Give me something to work with.”

“My line. Trish, look, it’s bones. There’s no reason to think the bone owner did anything but die asleep. For theatrics and a whiteboard pass it on up.” The state medical examiner, that meant—a forensic pathologist with a team, a lab, and access to volunteers at the state university. “But then the troopers might swoop down. Steal your thunder.”


“This is never like TV,” said Dennis Jr., switching off the jenny.

Jack’s voice came on channel. “Need Shemp.”

Kelly. “Where.”

The same directions led Trish across the creek as the Dennises drove away. Past the end of the far drive, the remnants of the homes, to where the deep woods began. She left her car at a trailhead aside Jack’s and Kelly’s, and the walk was short. Redcedar was high canopy of course, with a bole too broad for six pairs of arms. But Trish saw foliage towering behind it. She came to a glade circled by trunks. These were not much broader than those behind but had a much redder bark and stood taller by a third. The gap was the bottom of a well, blue sky a ragged hole far above. The base was a depression, yards wide, two deep—a throw from a tree fallen long ago, every last vestige of it gone to soil. This lone stand had grown where dropped as seed cone, the generation that remained. Four hundred feet, three thousand years, and well out of range for their kind.

“Giant sequoia,” she said, and bent a neck. Jack and Kelly did not correct her. They had stepped down into the bowl and were chin deep in understory. Trish heard Shemp running through the lower brush. Twitches at the tops showed her where. He would have been barking at a scent, but scent or no scent something held his interest. The growth should have been higher. Tree throws peeled the humus back to leave a sterile pit. But in time material would fill it up, enough to nourish saplings. Plant food had come late here, and had been spread unevenly. Without conscious knowledge her mind ran the math, found the sum, and the crawl came back.

“Got another,” Jack said.

“Me too,” from Kelly. “Lots of them—looks like roots pushed them out.”

Trish has not stepped down just yet. “Lots of what?”

Shemp ran up, wagging hard. In his mouth was a femur, green on bleachy white and sharp at one end from a break. The fetch set down, he gave a smile and did the forepaw dance. Trish scratched at his jowl and waited for the fear to settle.

Matthew came up behind. “Wha’d I miss?”

None could fault Alice Hopper for impatience. She had no uses for a hospital, not at so late a stage in the lifespan, but that did not make her any less kind. Sight had grown hazy, the vantage narrowing, but everything she had ever been was still in place somewhere up the tunnel.

The cardigan seemed to agree. “You’re sharp for your age,” loud and slow. Answers had grown measured, it was true. Talking was work, as was listening. Alice had to wait for her brain to search a script, find the word, but whatever she truly was aside from a brain and a recombinant alphabet knew the lag for a lag. There had been other progress to rue. As of a week ago she could no longer stand up, not on her lonesome. And in the leadup to that, her ambit had shrunk so fast—rounds like visiting the circle of giants, the beats around the neighborhood, checking the mailbox, sweeping the porch. Her fastest gait a shuffle, she had no longer left the house. Even taking delivery from the general store—her lifeline—was near to ordeal. She had prepared for winding down—stocked up on canned soup, left food and water by the bed, meaning to write a note for herself as she had done for poor Emily Macdonald. No comebacks. Yesterday she had asked for a wheelchair, and a different slow talker had shown up to tell her why bed was a nice to be. This young woman had brochures. Alice knew the subject of those pitches far better than the shill. Poor kid—hard job to do. Alice waited for another question. Instead came the spiel. “It’s comfortable up there. Like a bedroom but with lots of places to sit. Couches, armchairs, a window with lots of sun. Friends can come and visit. Family. Lots of room.”

Lots of lots—a hospice ward. “Told you.” Alice’s voice was a frail scratch.

“People from church?”

“Atheist.” Off the truth, but for keeping it short closest to the point: gods were their own trouble. Bah and humbug.

“No children. No grandchildren. Great grandchildren?”

“How would they have got there?”

It took a minute to state but was worth it for the face. Alice caught her breath. The cardigan made another face, no less awkward, trying for a smile. She did not know what to say or what else to ask—that was clear. Alice had her own thankless task—to make a changing cast of strangers feel okay about her demise.

“Mrs. Hopper—is it missus? I know where you’d rather be. And if it were me I’d want to be home, too. So it’s not that I don’t want to help you get there. We can’t release you to your own care, not alone. We have a home hospice program, visiting nurses, volunteers, but someone has to be near for you around the clock. Somebody has to show you out.” How true—but the cardigan looked away. She had meant from the hospital.

Alice smiled and readied a breath, though she knew what she said would not be taken for a joke. “What was the name of that grocery boy again?”

Home she was never alone. Sometimes friends and neighbors paid a visit of sorts, even her husband, though Brian was the longest gone. Visit—put better there were times when Alice knew they had never been away. Just for instance after her last breakfast, before the final ride upstairs, Alice had looked down on crumbs in the sink and had been with Emily—that flutter of a laugh that could only crack her up. She had thought on it many times, that sly reminder, always catching you off guard. Pattern, like being same. The unseen was not supernatural. Just the opposite—it was more here and now than here and now, and all too close. Crumbs in the sink were planetary, wholes in leasts. She could not name what that was, but it was, and that brought only comfort.

Alice looked up, and the cardigan had become a uniform. No, this was another person—a sheriff. Fiftyish, broad on the beam.

“Hi, I’m Trish Mendoza,” she said. “You’ve met my deputy Gordon.” The man leaning from behind—deep gray mustache, twinkle-eyed—did look a mite familiar. “We’re going to get you home.”

The transfer was in an ambulance, and Mendoza rode along. That would be pricey, Alice knew. She realized she would never pay the bill, and she began to chuckle. Down the years, so much paper in need of answer—county tax assessments, mostly—forwarded to her address. No one had ever noticed who was paying, or who was not, even as the pool of them had dwindled down to one. Tend the machine, the machine ran on. Even that clockwork, that indifference, could be made to serve.

The sheriff leaned in. “Could you help me out, Ms. Hopper?”

“Alice,” behind the oxygen mask.

“Trish. You don’t owe us anything. This isn’t tip for tap. We already figured out you’re no culprit. But it would be good to confirm just how many are in the gap.”

Alice liked that—gap. The open and the shut of it. “Thirty-three.”

“Plus two. Adds up. Funny seeing it from on end instead of from a side. I did the grunt work—went through records. Boring old paper was what told the story. Thirty-five left to return to nature in a place where they usually aren’t. I brought that uneasiness in with me. I put it there. Stare from one angle and life turns into a massacre.”

Alice thought about that and had the best last laugh.

“No laws got broke, or none that matter much to anyone. You all let it wind down, you and your neighbors. You wanted real property to go back to the world—to be too much of a loss to get back on market. None of you had children, or on the books. We’ll never know why you made those decisions, but now we know what the decisions were.”

“Campground,” Alice said, and meant the rule. She did not have the breath for more. Sixty-odd years before, Brian had been stationed in Italy. They had gone to the Venetian lagoon. Striking as that was—the Palace, the Isle of Glass, long rides by slipper boat—what stood out most afterward was the cemetery isle, San Michele. So much wrought marble in it, lovely once but grown unearthly over time. Tombs cracked, mosses grew, and crosses shed their beams. Angels wore down to furies. On mausoleum walls she had seen tintype images, and as pigments faded and verdigris streaked few of those beloved dead had been left with a human face. Instead there was an unmade shape, a hint of eye and mouth, dressed up in early century portrait clothes.

Funerals were for the living. Anything left to mark ground, preserve the body in hopes of a forever, was a terrible mistake. Return delayed, love became a horrorshow.

When the ambulance had pulled up to her house they brought the gurney out. Alice put up a hand, or just the fingers—enough gesture to call for a stop. Her breath was shortening. She had spotted cars across the creek—people in a flock. “Who?”

“Those are graduate students. Archaeologists someday.” Trish patted her wrist. “I’m sorry they can’t leave the bones be. But you know what? That university has a forestry department. Training for careers in both Parks and Agriculture. That stand of big trees is like treasure to them. Coast redwood, they say, oldest on record—and that it doesn’t belong here. Word’s already spread. Even if somebody was keen to snatch up the plots—build here again—they couldn’t. There’ll be protection. Off limits for good and ever.”

Alice had trouble following. The gauge had narrowed.

“What’s that, Alice?” Trish leaned up to the mask.


And now. Trish left a hand on her shoulder. As each breath shortened to a sniff the creek played on the stones. From deeper in the trees a woodpecker preached in call and rattle. Sunlight was beaming through and winking where the thinnest branches shifted to the air. “Pretty,” Alice tried to say, and it would go on being so, told or not.


For magic look to Mxckey Mxxse. You might have thought Gxxfy would be the one holding. But the upright dawg clothed an uptight Latterday Saint from Fullerton, a drama major who had given up. The most psychoactive thing he had to sling would be a stick of gum, bent double for a sober and reflective chew, and sugar free. Dreams break and a onetime duck ought to know the dabblers. Mxckey, Mxnnie, and I—three of the big five—were heads-off in the men’s showers. Where talent got nude there was less chance of a cam—live feed for park security—and vapor in a balloon ran afoul of smoke alarms. We had the technology. And twenty minutes. The usual subterfuge, a quick huck of boo to prop up our morale. Usual, that was, until Txnker Bxll came in.

None of us knew her well. Blonde of course, and quick to rictus, all walks of life a cheerful selfie. So much work put into cute shrieked of Santa Monica. But something had gone bad—mascara ran from each eye. “Gimme,” she said. “Ohana means family.”

Bit rude—also, huh?—but a big-hearted mxxse like Mxckey did not stint to share. “Oh right—that’s from the one in Hawaii,” Mxnnie said. She was a former skater betty who used to play punk guitar. In grid terms she and Txnker Bxll were next-door neighbors. Teamwork came with. Santa Monica and Venice Beach liked to gang up on the Valley.

“Yeah,” said Txnker Bxll, “Hawaii, with the alien and the hijinks.”

I was inland and less partial than a neighbor. “So what’s ailing you, Txnk?”

Bag in hand, rip blown clear, she slid. The gossamer slump threw a leggy V. Heavy hangs the head that wears the thimble. “Call me Bethany. Until it’s Pxriwinkle.”

“Who’s Pxriwinkle?”

“A fairy,” Mxnnie told us. “From the franchise. There are lots of them. It’s a swarm of doe-eyed locusts.” She had a girl not yet six and this made her a kid vid mentat.

“My twin sister,” Txnker Bxll said. “Hers. Whatever.” Another rip, a trumpet face.

“So it’s like a demotion?” Mxckey said. “Damn. Sorry.” Inglewood. Head fairy was a fat gig. But a lipstick smile and a tunic wore easier than a sweltering orb. Risk of heat exhaustion called for lots of breaks. The ones who went au tete naturale did so to flaunt a natural gift and were cast for it. Snxw Whxte, Xriel the Lxttle Mxrmaid, Pxcahontas, Cxnderella, et cetera—most of the women in other words. Pretty women for park éclat.

(I ran this by Mxnnie later. “They get groped, idiot,” she said. “Even I do and I’m a bobblehead in polka dots.” My bad. “Also, what, are you saying I’m not pretty?”)

“Rotator cuff,” said Txnker Bxll. “Ganked it.” Pinking up, going dry—weed was just the formula for no more tears. “On weekends I free climb. They say I can’t fly any more.” Flight being a key element of the role. “And somebody in casting thought they were smart. The sibling resemblance. But Pxriwinkle is bullshit! I suggested Rxpunzel for the zipline, just for a month while I do PT. Her gimmick’s hair, not wings, but she could bust out from her tower, right? I called the local. I didn’t take a pay cut so there wasn’t anything our rep could do about it except commiserate.”

“Wait,” Mxnnie said. “Same pay, less work? What’s the bad?”

“Same base. Each run on the line earns a bonus.” She told us how much. We all had a better hourly than the dwarfs, but still. Wait until Plxto got a load of this.

On exit she said, ‘Giant help. Thanks so much.” And on a quick return, “Xpcot, Xpcot”—our nickname for park security. Xncle Wxlt’s deppity dawgs did not fuck around. Like any peedees of the here and now they had too many toys in the box—riot gear, “compliance weapons”—and were itching for a play date, whether it be a picket line or a turnstile jump or a victimless white collar crime like corporate espionage. The Xpcot backstage were a different ilk. More like Stasi. We knew who they were and they knew we knew. But they did not know we knew they knew we knew. Visine all around. Prep went on elsewhere—no vaporizer on scene—and a limp zeppelin sounded into the mxxse pants. To finish came a trusty squirt of Ozium. The air went as blank as the interstellar void, and in came Jxminy Crxcket.

Head off, somehow the hairstyle was intact. It was almost as if he hadn’t just been out on smothering rounds. Mainstream handsome, like cheekbone and eyebrow trim put up on a Christmas tree. “Hot one,” he said a tick too loud, pure central casting. God forbid a decent stage actor go anthropomorphic for the state. “Hey there, hi there, ho there—Joanne, Bethany! What brings you to the men’s locker room?”

Txnker Bxll had pinned a hornet in her teeth and was grinning it to death. “Men,” said Mxnnie, who thought quicker than anything north of Pico and gave up nada.

“Funny! But you know, it is against cast code. Hey, I don’t mind, but I’d hate for you all to get in dutch.” Finger guns. “Check the employee handbook.”

Deadpan—just the right note—Mxnnie said, “We ran out of water in the women’s. Our union contract stipulates two quart bottles for each cast member daily.”

“Stay hydrated! Here, have one of mine. You should speak to services. Go right to the manager.” Our team conscience—every last directive spoken out as optimism.

Days later Txnker Bxll caught up with me in parking. She was free of costume but neck deep in the merch—a hoodie in lavender with a nonthreatening entity on the front. We got 20% off. “Hey Dxnald,” she said, and said. Which is how we got into the hospitality suite.

To mount the castle for a run Txnker Bxll had strict access. Because traffic up there was so sparse the park had never bothered to update security to something electronic, and it turned out that one old-fashioned key, a simple tarnished brass, worked on several dusty locks. Or so Txnk said. This was not the secret apartment in Nxw Orlxxns Squxre, which everybody and their dentist knew about, but a secret secret apartment. It seemed the nonsecret secret was a ruse to protect the secret secret. How very Dxsneyland. The set and setting of the Cold War echoed down years like a vagrant shouting on a park bench. Apart from kitchenette, head, and vestibule the suite had six rooms in the exact same layout as the Nxw Orlxxns version. But this one was not attended to or let out to cheesy VIPs. Fully furnished, dusty but lush, with chambers themed to each zone of the original park. In terms of decor Txmmorowland, Frxntierland, Advxentureland, Fxntasyland, and Mxin Strxxt X.S.A. read as future, past, foreign, fake, and proud. The sixth room was empty. A doorway in back led only to four blank walls, a ceiling without a lamp, a plain wood floor. The ghost lived there, we liked to say—not Xncle Wxlt but maybe a bosom friend. Xb Xwerks, say, designer of the mxxse. Or some primordial tutelary like Xswald the Lxcky Rxbbit. Had we not been so totally stoked it would have creeped us out rancid. Even my guard came down on the tour. “Txnk, you’re the best.”

“Pxriwinkle,” rueful. I peeked through a curtain at a window. Lattice lights of the typical castle design, but the glass had been soaped out to hide mundane innards. I threw back drapes to a filmy ambiance. “There are no eyes in this part of the castle and for sure none in here,” Txnker Bxll said. “Plus no smoke alarms. And soundproof.”

We stood and listened. Not a peep of crowd—the surly mob below. By then Plxto had come back from vacation with his beau. “You’ll always be Txnk to us,” he said.

The vaporator now had a permanent base, and god love a working fridge. We kept it stocked with fizzy water and fruit juice. We weren’t animals. There was no need to be sly about the rounds. The selfsame entrance led both to the workerbee hells and to the upper castle, thanks to some fire stairs, and the key pad was outside, where it left the only time stamp on our data records. Txnker Bxll had the key copied—just went into a hardware store for five spares and handed them out. Such was the advantage of old guard. Somebody thought to bring a wireless speaker. We checked how loud it could get from the other side of the door and put a red mark on the knob, all tunes mellow. Which was all we wanted anyway. Dressing up as felt-faced demigods was thirsty work.

On the last day of that short golden age Txnk told us a joke. “This Italian dad talks to his three sons. Two are fat, one skinny. ‘Look at you! You both as big-uh as-uh the house! How’d it get-uh so bad? You, my oldest—whaddah you eat the most?’

“‘Papa, I love-uh to eat the pizza pie!’

“‘Mamma mia! The pizza, she is-uh delicious,’ the dad says. ‘Son, son—we gotta eat the pizza, but-uh please, take smaller bites! You, middle son—you even-uh fatter than your brother! Whaddah you eat the most?

“Why are they Italian?” Mxnnie asked.

“‘Papa, I love-uh to eat the spaghetti and meatballs with-uh the Parmesan cheese!’

“‘Santa Lucia! The spaghetti and-uh the meatballs.’” Lips to fingertips. “‘Oh son—she is delicious, but-uh please, take smaller bites! Both of you, look at your brother! So handsome, so trim, the sweet girls in town, they all-uh love him so! Tell me, my boy—’”

“Why are they Italian?”

“‘—whaddah you eat the most?’

“‘Well, Papa,’ the youngest son says, ‘since-uh you ask, I love-uh to eat the pussy.’”

“Dad frowns. ‘But son, the pussy, she taste-uh like shit.’

“‘Oh Papa, Papa—take smaller bites!’”

How it landed. Mxnnie shot bodega-bought guava nectar through her nose. For the mxce breaktime had ended. Off they went over Txnker Bxll’s pleas to stick around “just for five more minutes.” Plxto—no fan of the sticky but very much into quiet downtime and zen practice—was contemplating a wall in the ghost room. Which meant that Txnker Bxll and I had only each other to talk to. We got to origin stories—what had brought us to the life. “I was an athlete,” she said. “Rhythmic gymnastics, routines with streamers, solo and group. I was even at the Olympics ten years back.”

“Really? Did you medal?”

“Shut up. Anyway that’s how the scout found me. You guys, most of you are actors or showbiz types. That’s no surprise. They needed someone fit for the line—someone with core strength and balance. You stick your legs back straight and pump a wand at the yokels. It’s like planking midair.” The fairy gossamer did sculpt her nicely.

“No, I was never an actor,” I said. “Neither was Mxnnie—yeah, okay, showbiz in her case. But four years touring biker bars with the Vomitones never leapt on a resume.”

“So what were you doing?” She had a fingertip on my ear.

“Me? I do what do.”

“I’ll bet.”

“No, really. I’m just a lonely guy from Anaheim. I like a short commute.”

“No—you’re not just some guy. You, baby—you’re the dxck.”

Tongues and a light and humpy wrassle. She must have forgotten Plxto was telling beads because soon I was in her mouth. Through a pair of dxck pants a blowie was no small sleight of hand. “One of the walls is hollow,” Plxto said. “Oh. Shit. Sorry.”

 “Dude,” I said, and we went, if only to get past awkward.

Past zafu and fish drum he rapped with a knuckle. In one narrow patch the sound changed. To trace it out he took the knocking high and low. “A doorframe,” he said.

Rapping on my own, I said, “Every other wall is plaster.” I had not bothered wowing the Olympian with knowhow in construction work. Younger summertimes had been different for me. “But this is stud.”


“I mean like a partition wall. Newer build.” I sniffed. “Really new. This went up not too long ago. There’s space behind.”

Our fairy princess had begun to look uneasy and a wristwatch glance gave her up. “We probably shouldn’t mess with it,” she said.

“Why would we?” Plxto asked.

I was giving her stares when we heard the door slam. We came out to Mxnnie. In a shouty breed of whisper she said, “Xpcot. They got Mxckey.”

The door was thick but we could hear the boots. Several pair, a dozen, and then the hot key chirp of personal radio units. A sting—a goddam sting. Mxnnie put on the chain and shot the bolt. We stared on until we heard a key at the lock. With a tiptoe run we found ourselves cowering in the blank room, become like ghosts ourselves.

“He blocked the fire door,” Mxnnie said. “For me. Told me to run.”

Deathly afraid, Plxto said, “Why be scared? So we’re written up. Docked maybe.”

“They were on the warpath,” I said to Mxnnie, for the nod.

“Full-on riot gear. It freaked my shit out. Poor Mxckey. He was the best of us.”

“Don’t let them in,” Txnker Bxll said.

I lost patience. “Cut the shit. You knew.” Mxnnie and Plxto’s eyes snapped to her. “Oh don’t look so put out. They were coming and you knew it.”

“I did not! Or not—not like that.”

“You’re Xpcot?” Mxnnie said. “You’re chingon verga Xpcot?”

“No! He had me show you here—for breaks—told me I’d be back on line.” I assume on line. Mxnnie was already pulling blond hair and putting in a knee. Venice bloodlust.

“Wait, wait,” Plxto said. He had got between them. “He? Who he—uh—he who?”

“Guys.” It was Jxminy’s voice back in the hall, speaking through the chain. “Guys, guys, guys. Take it easy. You might be experiencing cannabis-induced paranoia. All the beef behind me is just—. Back off, faggots!” To us again, “Not my idea. I know you know I know you know who I am.” So much for cover. “It’s not about the substance use. That’s been decriminalized in the state of California. Although it is a flagrant violation of the employee code. Never mind that. The big five have been infiltrated. One of you is not who he—” I shouted him down with a remark about company men. “Just pop the chain off,” Jxminy said. “Come on. These cowboy idiots can rush the door any time now. And a cutter’d go through the chain like dollar Chinese.”

Plxto made a what face.

“It’s for his reel,” I said. A body slam opened up the drywall. The door leaf behind it padded my fall, and good thing, because the fall would have been a lengthy one. From floor to lintel the shaggy gyprock fell away. Past the door the walls were paneled in classy oak, and there was no floor to stand on. A firepole—brass-wrought and old-timey. Pictures of Xncle Wxlt were hung up in frames above the open shaft, aside shelves, vitrines, leatherbound spines, curios—a decor under thick gypsum dust from fast and recent construction work.

One last what face from the dawg. 

“Just like in the nonsecret secret suite,” I said. “But this one goes deep.”

“Don’t call it a rabbit hole,” Plxto said, looking down. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

From outside we heard Jxminy get through most of “That’s really not” before the other door—good sturdy oak like the hidden decor—rattled to a body slam.

“I do,” said Txnker Bxll in a lunge for the pole.

Mxnnie caught hair again. “No way this Pier skank comes with.” Up till then I had never seen her mad at all. It was curdling. Shrieking catfight outrage from the victim, but nowhere to move and no counter aside from all the noise. I took lead. Cold brass shot my grip and darkness raced. I heard and felt a strike above me. Downward went on so long that I had time to count one more, and another. Rabbit hole was fair and in this specific context Alice in Wonderland was public domain.

“Quit with the hair,” Txnker Bxll said as Mxnnie punched her in the nose.

“I don’t suppose anybody keistered a phone,” Plxto said beneath the one-way brawl. Costumes had no pockets. “If we find a land line we’ll call the local first.” My landing in the narrow dark had snapped on red lights—a pressure plate switch—and a hatch stood open and ready. No detail other than that heavy door, more bank vault than bulkhead. I pulled it to and spun the wheel, though I doubted a forecast of raining men. We stood at the end of a corridor, bare and industrial with steel conduit bolted on. Utility bulbs lit up one after another. None of the fixtures were contemporary. Even the bulbs were shaped funny. It did not look like the employee tunnels. We had gone deeper, older.

To stanch pain and blood Txnker Bxll was clutching at her face but she did not take a knee. Of the two she was the taller, stronger, but ran short on malice. Mxnnie had not been the one to go to Santa Monica High. In Venice she would have known vatos, whiteboys in the Nazi sense, even a Crip or two. Go Gondoliers.

“Stob,” said Txnker Bxll. “I dibm’t hab a joice. I hab car bayments.”

Joke—mistake. This time I got between. Sight of girlblood was making me sick.

“One way to go,” Plxto said. “So we go it.”

The corridor ran a while. Slow turns kept us from seeing to the end. Txnker Bxll had the rear and had decided to power down the quips. There were no other hatches, no doorways, no forks or branches to the path—just a kind of walking chute. The distance we had come became hard to gauge, and there was a downward slope too shallow to notice. Halfway through we began to see water, still but clean. Just above the tide concrete had salt blooms, so it had been wet a while. A footfall splash, then up to ankles, to shins. It got no deeper. On we waded. At last there was a pair of push-bar doors—steel and windowless but not airtight. They sloshed inward like an oar stroke. The space beyond had a liquid echo to it and was pitch black, but air was stirring and so was a wide body of water. Just inside the door was a heavy switch, the kind left for an Igor to throw. Plxto did the honors instead. “Sure hope this doesn’t fry me dickless.” A punch of voltage brought light—a heavy load but no shock or spark. And there we stood—doors held wide to what lay revealed—gaping and dumbfucked to our very cores.

It could have been weirder, grant you. There might have been animatronics. Singing birds or uncanny Dxpper Dxns in a rubbery barbershop quartet. But we were spared that madness, even as our minds fumbled with a small flooded park, white band gazebo in the center. Trees hid columns for a tall ceiling. Sky showed between reefs of foliage—blue paint, white cloud, lit from within—and in the bob of water underneath. No stink of damp because nothing there could rot. Everything before us was of manmade substance—no wood, no leaf, no living thing. Trim and latticework on the gazebo bore the sphery triad—sign of the mxxse. Music cued up over a PA system, warping to tempo, no doubt meant to soothe. Magnetic tape, that meant, the kind spun on a reel. Somewhere an audio console had come on. Fake green lawn in the shallows, and naming the schmaltz of yesteryear took no time at all: “Whxn Yxx Wxsh Xpon x Stxr (inst).”

“This is my hell,” I said.

“Ibz buh bum shubbah,” Txnker Bxll said. Her hands came away from her swollen nose. Careful enunciation: “Bomb shelber. As in abom bomb. Worlb War Free.”

“That’s just one of those stories. Like the one about Xncle Wxlt being froze.”

Arms wide, hands spread—thus did Txkner Bxll pass on the mantle of the idiot.

Centuries later our Dxsney-themed descendants did not emerge to claim the earth. We were not an Adam, a Steve, and two Eves stuck in a postapocalyptic refuge, though I grant that would have been a smokehouse. There was never the least thought paid to moving in, not even to hide from the godawful summertime rush. A phone, our union rep, an exit—these were what we wanted, and a small hurdle like the ferroconcrete shield of a Cold War artifact was not going to keep Xpcot out forever. But searching for a landline did mean we had to search in general. This turned up clothes to replace our soggy pelts. Jumpsuits, of course, left hanging in lockers—it had to be jumpsuits—and of an era where people ran slim and loved polyester. There were dorms, a few bigger apartments for the park elite, and even one further iteration of the secret suite. This must have been meant for Xncle Wxlt. Or Xb Xwerks. (“Nobody go down any firepoles,” Plxto said.) All of it was left in a bath. We found cisterns, only one of which had done the leaking, which meant there was enough fresh water on hand to drown in three times over. There were shelves of rations, military-style, but nobody was that hungry and the stamped and regimented foil went untorn. There was a small library, shelves above the water line. Dry reading. Sorry. There was a movie theater. Of course there was a movie theater. And of course the repertoire was Bxxna Vxsta—film stock in cans, every title up to 1965 (Thxt Dxrn Cxt!, Dxxn Jxnes, Hxyley Mxlls). Rows of seats were tiered and the auditorium went low from the entrance. Call it the deep end. Most of the screen was sunken, too. We were not coming up with a telephone line out—sorely a bummer—but in the control booth we did find sign of someone having landed there more recently than the theatrical run of Mxry Pxppins. A short flight of stairs had kept the booth above water, and inside, in back, was a closet with the cans, up on racks. The door had been left open, and aside a bunch of cardboard boxes and a pile of old garment bags was the can of the movie yet in the projector. Not to mention a bottle of Jack. Empty. Cap off.

On the label read Plxto burst out laughing. “Sxng xf thx Sxxth.” To stares—Mxnnie’s, mine, and Txnk’s alike. “Sxng xf thx Sxxth! You know! ‘Zxp-x-Dxx-Dxx-Dxh.’” More blanks. Here it bears mention that Plxto—like Mxckey, and unlike us—had not come in pink. He sang upbeat and inoffensive lyrics in a baritone apocope and did a little cakewalk. To yet more of our dumb white nothing. “Just like ofay—make a mess and leave it for the help. Tar Baby? Br’er Rabbit? Uncle fucking Remus?”

“Wait, wait,” Mxnnie said. “That minstrel shit from like 1900? And out of copyright?”

“The same! They made a whole cartoon movie out of it.”

“They? You mean the studio? No way!”

“Call it whitewash—and it sure did the trick. Man oh man! Just after World War Two! It was in general release but it never went up on the streaming platform.”

“No way!”

“You can catch the crows in Dxmbo but you’ll never spot a rabbit with a drawl.”

I asked, “Can we watch?” Glances to the silver screen—the front row three fathoms deep—said nope. Txnker Bxll had gone through boxes, scouting a way back into grace. “Costumes,” she said, sounding like herself. Swelling had gone down. “And notes.”

We all got excited. Had a look. Gobsmacked anew. What lay before us were company memos, most typewritten and dating to the 1980s, with comments penciled in the margins. Schematics unfolded: park grounds, survey lines, architect’s drafts. 

“A ride!” Plxto said on a scan-through. “They were planning a ride themed to Sxng xf thx Sxxth, with log flumes and a watercourse, near the Jxmboree in Frxntierland!”

“No way!” This time Mxnnie had to say it twice. We were howling.

“The Zxp-x-Dxx Rxver Rxn! It was this Xmagineer’s baby! Brass axed it two years short of implement. This rant—so bitter! He must have come for a private screening.”

To hide more genuine excitement—the thrill of corporate dirt—I hammed it up. “Are you telling me that we were this close to having a cutesy-critter minstrel show attraction at a high-end amusement park? In the modern-day United States? What kind of klansman clown dystopia would that have been?”

“Win one for the Gipper,” Plxto said. None of us got that. He was still deep in the legends and his beaming would not dim. “They were going to hang sayings from Uncle Remus up in the corridor where guests stood in line!”


“Plantation proverbs!” And he read, spelling out folksiness. “‘Big’—apostrophe—‘’possum clime’—see ell eye em ee—‘clime little tree. Dem’—dee ee em—‘w’at’—double yew apostrophe ay tee—‘Dem w’at eats kin say grace. Pullet can’t roost too high for de owl.’ Dee ee. ‘Better de gravy dan no grease ’tall’—oh God I just pissed myself.”

As might we had Mxnnie not spoke. “Can’t wait to tell—” 

Even before the mention and now utterly without she felt the sting—we felt the sting. Good times had been massacred. Mxnnie started to cry—just a misty streak or two. 

Txnker Bxll burst into sloppy tears. “I’m so sorry,” she said. And they hugged it out. Punk and zipline, anti-Valley allies once again. “I hope your friend is okay.”

“One thing,” I said. “All this stuff. How did it get left here?”

“The Xmagineer brought it,” Plxto said, and I let it sop. Then, “There’s an easy way out!” Then, less cheerful, “There’s an easy way in! Damn. Unless, unless—the pole?”

“With this, and a bottle?” I said. “Then shinny back up? Xmagineers have full clearance. For them it’s backstage everywhere. But that means any minute now Xpcot can get access with a petition to corporate, if they don’t have it already.”

“Okay. Okay. Then we just have to find the front door. This place was built to sleep, feed, what, five hundred refugees? That many people would have to walk in—it couldn’t all be slippy slides. Best get on it.”

He and Mxnnie and Txnker Bxll dashed out, divvying up searches on the fly, splashing in the floodwaters to and fro. I followed soon after. But Txnker Bxll was waiting for me just inside the doors.

“Come on,” I said. “There’s no—” She stepped up close, and closer. Her eyes had mine in a lock. I cradled her waist. “What—now?” She took down the zipper on the front of my postatomic polyester jumpsuit and fished with a hand. Out came the sheaf—the log flume papers, or as many as I could stuff.

“He said he,” Txnker Bxll said—shoving them back as found—“‘who he.’” She took a step back, and from then on she never got within reach of an arm.

“You caught that.” I had hoped to shout down the crxcket in time.

“So this is all about you—this whole mess. They suspected you were here. They only used me to help”—a sigh, a pinch to the nose—“contain you.”

“I do fieldwork for Six F—”

“Six fucks to your fieldwork! Who cares? Shut up—just, just shut up. Don’t tell me any more. This is the silliest day of my life and I play fairy princess for a buck.”

“Fairy fairness, princess—you were playing Mata Hari a little bit, too.”

“Asshole. I blew you because you’re cute. From like one or two angles if there’s soap on the glass. My mistake. All I need to clean up from that error of judgment is a bath bomb and a toothbrush. I’m not the spy here. I’m a criminal informant. Except neither of us is either of those, and this is all ridiculous, and I’ll never duet on tin whistle again.”

Good dig. “You’re going to tell the others?”

“Oh not tonight I’m not. Not tonight. But tomorrow you’ll be gone with the spycraft in your onesie, John le Carrunt, and then anything goes.


“Bad dxck, Dxnald. Bad dxck.”

Behind two entries on the ponded park—all these were of the same double push-bar sort—Plxto and Mxnnie found stairwells. Neither was a fool—they did not climb, not even one flight for a glimpse to upper hells, but in each case stood and listened.

“Radio sounds,” Mxnnie reported back at the gazebo. Txnker Bxll was still away.

“Same,” Plxto said. “Tweet-tweet, mumble-mumble. They’re posted up top waiting for us. They know there’s nowhere for us to go. They’ve been so gung-ho so far—why hold off?”

Not collared yet—still, no likey. I glanced around us—did my own listening. “Whxn Yxx Wxsh Xpon x Stxr (inst.)” had run its course on the P.A. system, so there was  nothing left to mask stirrings of the floodwater and the air filtration system.

“Step on out, Crxcket.”

He did, from a phony tree. He was not in costume unless you count the deep black weeds of an Xpcot stormtrooper. Also, nighttime camo greased his face, a matte in dark stripes. Body armor was festooned with taser, pepper spray, wrist ties, and maybe six flash-bangs. He had a compliance weapon slung to his chest, an FN 303 maybe. Only the strap showed. Pepperball rounds, were that the load, would not be lethal—not on purpose—but still, blunt force trauma, burning eyes, gag reflex, rat-a-tat-tat. He did not draw a bead. “This is amazing!” he said, gesturing all around. “I had no idea. Just wow. Some of the park schematics are redacted, but I thought that was for giggles.”

“You seriously gonna use that shit on us?” Mxnnie asked, motioning to exhibits. Plxto said nothing. By zen or black he already knew the mind that weapons brought.

“You’re not in danger. This is procedural. It’s even for your safety.” The airgun was unslung and came up to an eye—not an FN 303 but sinister and military. Deep contracts. “Stefan, Joanne, step away from the dxck, please. I’m going to light him up.”

Eyes to me, back, Plxto said in tears, “Why pick on Adam?”

“Don’t worry—it’s just shockrounds. But I need to get him limp.”

“Couldn’t get any limper, pal.”

“Once this is all done with, let’s get us a beer, okay? Pro to pro.”

“Wabbit season.”

“Wrong dxck. Wrong studio.”

Too smart, too fast. Here came the electric nap. But Txnker Bxll tore on scene in a dead sprint and, huh, a floor routine. Jxminy had time to turn—only just—into a somersault rip that ended in a snapuswipe and a heel. Back first, legs high, he took to the drink with a panic burst. Pellets chopped the water. The voltage made him dance. Us, too—shouting ow ow ow, one foot up and then the next, a James Brown washerwoman. But the crxcket bore the brunt and was rubbery for long enough for us to get him onto the gazebo floor. There he would not drown. Also, we could strip off the sublethal weapon overkill and bind him tight at ankle and wrist.

Valentines were popping over my head. I could not keep my eyes off her—rhythmic gymnast, and a bronze medal at worst. If she had come down armed with a ribbon or a hoop Jxminy would have been slain outright. “My hero,” I said.

Dxck, man, or friend, to her I was no longer there. To Plxto and Mxnnie, she said, “Cinch these on the bars to shut the doors. Make it good and tight so nothing sharp can get between. They’ll try to cut the plastic otherwise.”

“But those doors are the only way out,” Mxnnie said. “We’ll just trap ourselves.”

Nope. Txnker Bxll laid it out as neatly as she had the crxcket. He was awake by then and of sound mind. His laughter was pure on hearing the plan—even thankful. “This is the best day of my life,” he said, and he meant it, even with a knot purpling his cheek. Dxsneyland really brought out the kid at heart. “Can I watch?”

We sat him up on the gazebo bench. I said, “We need to borrow your phone.”

“Sure, buddy,” he said, chin to a pocket. “No bars down here but go nuts.”

Behind another set of push bar doors—three pairs abreast—there was a concrete ramp and tunnel, broad enough for oldfangled landboat cars. Fluorescent lights ran the distance. We could see the end before we came to it, and it was as Txnker Bxll said: a circular chamber, broad, with three great wedges in the ceiling, hydraulic pistons underneath. “Recognize the shape? This is the roundabout smack in the middle of the park. Those plates are the walkways leading up to the statue, or three of the four.” Statue meaning Xncle Wxlt hand-in-hand with his stepson, the mxxse, dead center to the grounds. “If you listen you can just make out people walking—all the feet. The controls are over there,” meaning a simple booth behind a partition. Inside, she said, was an emergency release with a huge voltage load, red enamel behind safety glass.

I checked the bars on Jxminy’s phone. Nothing yet. There was steel all around us—one of those interminably convenient faraday cages of contemporary science fiction. “Let’s suit up.” We had brought the garment bags from the theater. As Txnk saw it three clueless white people were ten thousand more. Guests would simply take us for lesser-known toons and Xpcot would not make us out for the rogue element we had become. But we would have to get up the gangways as soon as they touched the floor. Merge with the crowd. On park grounds video surveillance was everywhere—eyes on every last man, woman, child, toon. Four bags, four outfits—but here we hit a snag. Not the intellectual property, here in overlap with the public domain—tasteful exes will defuse that iffy bomb—but the cover. There were three B’rxrs and one Xncle Rxmus. The latter meant a sharecropper outfit, a hat, and a beard with eyeglass hooks.

“Trade you,” I said to Stefan. He flagged B’rxr Bxxr in a double grip, shaking out mothball fumes, and Bethany and Joanne had the rxbbit and the fxx—b’rxrs both but good for slender frames. His stop-and-stare had a bite. “I can’t wear this. It won’t work on me. And it definitely won’t work on the girls.”

“Oh and it’s good to land on brown? I ain’t putting that shit on. Sorry to talk all ghetto at you, Charlie.”

“Adam. Oh—okay. I see what you did. I’m not trying to be a dick about it.”

“No, I don’t think you are trying. Sorries later. It’s still a good disguise.”

“But they’ll see my face!”

“A beard and a hat do wonders.”

I had a thought. “Right back.” I came back panting. In hand was a flat canister no bigger than a tin of mints. “We’ll have to hurry now. Jxminy must have missed a radio check. They’re pounding on the doors.” I popped the lid and let it ring on the cement.

“What’s that?” Joanne asked. All three were suited up except for heads.

“Jxminy’s nighttime camo. I asked first.” How he had laughed—a very different sort of laughter from the kind heard before. No teambuilding to it whatsoever.

“Don’t,” Joanne said. Stefan did not. Nor did he need to—and his eyes said ready.

On a shrug and frown—no choice—I took up a thick dab, scraping deep.

“Adam.” This from Bethany. “Put the shoeshine down.”

Her last words to me. She had pull but not the kind you might expect, even with all the paper crammed into my jumpsuit, a secret she could use. No—it was that I could not help but care. The camo can rolled off down the ramp, and the offending dab came off with a snapping fling. The costume beard stank of naphthalene.


Bethany had gone to the booth. We gave ayes. As B’rxr Bxxr and B’rxr Fxx put on heads she smacked through the pane of glass. The result was instant and much louder than the punch of a switch. Yellow lights came on in a spin, and mechanical alarm bells. We all flinched and flinched again. Deafening—as if the world had come to an end. At least the other three had headpieces to dampen noise. The pistons were lowering but not the gangways. The machinery tucked into the floor and the upper world was still out of reach. I looked down the ramp. All the way down, but coming fast, was a party of Xpcot blackguards. But then there was a quick report—explosive bolts firing—and the three gangways swung free and struck with a bang. 

Blue skies. Fresh air. And air raid sirens. A system had been triggered, maybe dating to the Cold War and still wired up. As we ran up to the surface we saw the crowds. Most were frozen by the wailing but some had begun to flee. Nowhere in particular, just a full tilt run and shove—grownups, children. When the first kid hit the tarmac fistfights started up. Holy shit. Xpcot had finally got their wish—the best possible test of riot gear. Park security poured out from their secret nooks, truncheons up.

No time for horror, less for remorse. By plan we split up. I found a quieter spot for a call to the union rep, not for my own sake but for hers. Theirs I mean. The jig was up but I could help, big-hearted corporate spook that I am. As I told—the union rep was raising cain on the other end to mobilize the goons—I noticed that a family was staring at me from deeper in the alleyway. Two girls in shorts, a husband, and a wife, American and black. The man stepped forward, just as bemused as a parkgoer could get in a realm of well-planned fantasy.

“Xncle Rxmus?” was all he said.

I came back for a date though not the one I wanted. Months had passed and the sun was going down on a mid-autumn scorcher. The pass had been left for me at will-call. 



“It’s Chad.”

“Of course it is.”

“My cover got blown, right? No more inside basketball for me.”

“Your cover was always blown. We knew.”

“But you didn’t know we knew you knew we knew.”

“Yeah, okay. They don’t mind that I’m here?”

“Speaking of not knowing.”

In short time this rhetorical ‘they’ did not include the big five, or at least one of them, and better said former. I had run into a dwarf on the way to the meeting. They were a blur to me, them and their nominative peccadilloes, but this one looked put out—none more so than when the actor inside spotted me. The shuffley dance quit. The hands went from waving for children to a quick bird. Roles had been switched—a demotion in all but pay grade but not a firing. The actors had a solid union. I would never know who this one was except that it was not Joanne. No, Joanne would have cut on me.

Chad led me to a higher vantage—a private balcony above the crowds. There we had a good view of the castle. Music was cueing up on the park speakers. Some sort of daily wish fulfillment ballad, regular as vespers. There was a cooler and a pair of patio chairs, brought up in advance. He handed me a tall boy.

“Isn’t this against the handbook?”

“It is. Rank. You know.” We drank. “The leak came to nothing.”

“Of course.” A log flume report had been slipped to the press. And nobody had cared. “Never thought it would myself. I’m not the one who wants numbers to dip. When it comes to family entertainment I’m not a true believer. To me it’s just a gig.” What Dxsneyland lost in attendance also-rans could take up. Such was the theory of upper management at the competition. But prior year attendance at worldwide Dxsney parks had been half the population of the entire United States, and those numbers had gone up every single year since 1955. Whatever Puke Mountain or Creepyland did, honestly or not, could only pale. Measures, countermeasures—it was another realm of make-believe.

“The riot left more of a ding,” Chad said. “But that was nobody’s bright idea.” By edict Xpcot had been relieved of its toys. No more shock rounds, pepper spray, billy clubs, shields. How they must have moped—at least the ones still on payroll after the purge. Lawsuits had become settlements in the wink of a wallet. Life went on.

“Did you call me here to offer a job?”

“Some tricks are beyond me, Adam. Though I did get a promotion myself—for showing good taste when the rest were raring. Why do you ask? Would you take one?”

“Even if the big five never found out who I was, I’ve caused her enough trouble. No.”

“Her?” He fell quiet, looking to the crowds below. “Give it time,” he said at last.


“No! Of course not. Have you ever met a woman? Or a person of any kind? She’ll hate your guts for good. But I’m here to deal out optimism, right?”

“Why did you ask me here tonight?”

Chad motioned to the castle. Peppy vespers had come to a close and some other prefab cut of wonderment took its place on the sound system. As I looked against the dimming skies, so lovely an orange from car exhaust, I noticed the zipline strung right above our heads. And I stood up. So had she, at the top of the castle, in a crisscross of spotlight beams. Too much distance to make out a face but I knew her shape. Wand, wings, and gossamer, piping made of lights sewn in to keep her under wistful gaze.

“Physio ended yesterday,” Chad said. “She’s okay—and she’s back on duty.”

A showy hop and she began to truck. On her approach the cable taut above my head put out an eerie call. People cheered, ten thousand at once, half of those kids. I could finally make out the face and best of all the well-placed grin. Great form—just as she said, a midair plank, arms out in a wye, prop swaying left and right. The leap my heart took had nothing to do with that magic wand. As she came close I could hear the pulley system rasp and squeak. Even in twilight she spotted the two of us—so much closer on our rooftop, and easier to make out than people below us, pixels for a crowd. The form of a smile was brazed on tight and the function lay no deeper. A mask, I realized—one mask in a cast of thousands. Park security and I each raised a tallboy in salute. She threw the magic wand, and hard—at Chad I hope.


Never a cry as it wasted away—so they told Maura of the orphan brought into her home. Off came the swaddling for the cold snap and a ride up the country lane, to a child so thin, so ghastly pale, that she thought it had given up the ghost in the doctor’s carriage.

“It won’t take the bottle,” he told Maura with Cait Brennan at his side. “There might be something wrong that we can’t diagnose—a defect not shown outwardly.” It—for children under a month old such impersonality was to be expected. Seldom was boy or girl heard for what God might yet reclaim. “Miracles are nothing to demand, least of humble womenfolk. But we all know how good you are with little ones.” The infant had gone into the old bassinet aside the glowing hearth, blanket replaced with care. Cait knelt there yet. How the young woman ached to help. The doctor was not a bad sort, just not so good as Cait when it came to love for a fellow creature.

Not Maura’s first waif, by far. Women died in childbirth all the time. There was advantage to be found in a place of one’s own, even a cottage outside the township—and even in being a cripple. Better to house a strange child, put it in the heirloom bed—no longer of much use otherwise—than take a daily ride to town and back.

“Miss Brennan will check in afternoons, every day this week,” he said. “She’ll bring fresh cloth. You needn’t change a diaper. She’ll do that for you.”

“No bother.” A prior morning the vicar had made the discovery outside the church. The very notion—to leave it so, whether for the frosty earth or soil of its own.

“Would you try while we’re here?” the doctor asked.

Maura took up the babe. A sparrow bone brought more heft and color, and it did not move. Breaths were faint, shallow. Offered the nipple, it pursed, took a white drop. 

“Wonderful!” the doctor said, and Cait smiled through tears.

What had taken husband and child had also left the gait. Chores in the yard had gone beyond her. Selling the livestock and leasing out grazing rights had brought enough a competence to keep herself fed, she and the old brood mare, now a buggy horse. Lord knew why, but her milk had never stopped in those three narrowed years. Nursing duty was a good trade—with that bargain she might buy a shawl, or a cake, or know at least that she had the choice. Two pounds sterling on the table, and the medical establishment took leave. The coins went to the poke she kept hidden up the flue. Maura bumped back on her crutch to her stool and found the knitting. Any shawls coming to that frugal household would be crafted there, and any cakes done up from scratch.

She glanced up to see small eyes fast and awake. Catlike, a banded green flecked with gold. Sunken yet—dark in the sockets—but alert. The eyes took inventory. And as she hobbled up they found hers and did not break away.

Maura laid a hand on. “You just say when you’re hangry, dear,” all but a whisper, and she went to the stool again. Under breath she sang a lullaby, leaving out words where words were no use. When she looked up from a purl the eyes were on her eyes. So a tune was no comfort. Deaf perhaps, or some affliction of the ungrown mind. She stood and bumped over once again. Eyes to hers—no movement otherwise. She took it up in the blanket to dandle at her shoulder. Being held was another nourishment—a babe needed that no less than it did milk. No utterances, no stir as the infant rode it out, dead weight in her gentle grip. She heard its breath in her ear, measured and patient. 

The mare nickered in the stall. Maura went to the window to look at the building across from the well. Whitewash and thatch, same as that she slept in, with a broad plank door for the cart. Nobody outside, or none seen. She had an inkling of the mare’s speech, the sounds it made for company drawn close, and those it made for trouble.

The baby’s breath sped but it had nothing yet to say. In truth the horse was easier to understand. Eyes on her eyes. She realized that on looking out she had set the babe to the crook of an arm. Nearness to a breast was what had brought the speed. Maura opened her blouse and gave.


Bitten hard—a cry more for surprise than pain. Marua did not drop the babe nor falter in her stance. The mettle of a parent, even for a child not her own. She looked down. Eyes to hers, it fed with a sucking chew. Strong latch—what an appetite.

“Thank the good Lord you’re toothless,” she said.

Eyes on her eyes—a lock that had grown as unsettling as the bite. She found it difficult to break the gaze. At movement Maura glanced to the window. Somebody was outside, gone behind the well or to the stalls. “Doctor?” she said, and hobbled for the door. “Cait?” The brood mare whinnied—a scream cut short.

Her good foot began to drag, little better than the lame. A drowsiness set in. She turned for the bassinet to lay the child down and instead found herself on her own bed, laid aside. Vision swam. The room was unmoored and had gone into a turn. Rest for a moment. Shadows on the windowpane. Footsteps in the yard.

Nighttime. The hearth had gone dead. In pitch darkness and cold she heard the chew. The babe was yet on her. Thank heaven she had not rolled atop. She had lain through the day in a sweat. Salt burnt the corners of her eyes. No soreness in the breast, not much feeling at all in truth. The babe must have just resumed suck, for hours had gone by.

Outside, a step—the intruder. She listened closely. There was a light wind in the leaves and whispering in the chimney flue. The babe breathed in and out through its nose. A scrape at her door. The turn of a screw into wood, driven fast, squeak by squeak.

In fright she tried to set the babe aside—and so caught a fright much worse. Deep and guttural, a growl spoke into her chest. Through lung and bone she heard it as much as in the ear. Something had come to feed. No—the babe. The blanket was yet on, and she felt the shifting of its four scrawny limbs. Five toes at thumb and finger, grasping back, cold and small. She had never heard a child make such a noise. Trying to rise again—to check the window—she felt a barb. Numbness spread fast.

Dawn light. The room had grown frigid. Maura felt about for a bed blanket. Her arm was weak and stiff. The babe was yet on her, chewing. She looked down and a deadened horror marked the change. The babe’s face had grown long. A skin had formed between them, flush red. No mouth there, not any more, only a single flesh. Eyes on hers—these unchanged, green and gold. The babe’s skin was that same hot shade, and it had begun to grow plump. The crook of that arm would not straighten out and her breast had shrunken. She drew a breath. The dart of its tongue gave her chest a pang.


In time Maura rose. The infant allowed it. She swung her feet off the bed with care. Dizzy. Her free hand found the crutch. The slower hobble took her to the door. She threw the bolt, yet the door would not come open. She pushed at it. The door leaf had been set fast. Maura remembered the driven screw, squeaking at the turn. 

She went to the window. Close as a reflection a face rose up to meet her. A filthy shawl hid the most—the white face of a man, eyes green and flecked. Pitiless.

Reeling backward, she fell onto the floorboards. Another stab—warning again. Eyes on her eyes. She stared at the intruder in the glass—the father. The clothes were ragged—an outlaw, worse—and all below the eyes lay concealed. The deeper cold outside showed her his breath steaming through the mask. He ducked out of sight.

Maura should have felt more fear, she knew. But haziness kept her calm. Like a drug, it had come on with the bite. In time she got back on the bed. There was nothing else to do. A sucking chew. Eyes on her eyes. Cold had her teeth in a chatter. She would have to start a new fire. Hesitant at first, leery of the sting, she rose again. She felt the growl but quieter than before—only a caution. She brought herself before the hearth,  trowel to scut. Lighting a safety match was hard with a single hand, but in time she got it done. So cold. She piled on coal—half her store—and the fire blazed. The exertion left her spent, and she crept back to bed. Nothing to do but lie still, take the warmth, let more hours pass—hours that she wept dry. So afraid. She would no longer look to the small face.

Nothing to do—until she heard the hoofbeat. A rider on approach.

Cait Brennan.

Maura lunged up from the bed. The speed surprised them both. She ignored the stab, the growl. Whatever venom it had in store had been used up to keep her down. 

“Cait,” she was shouting. She beat the door with her crutch. The thing snarled into her chest and she heard the sound in the back of her very teeth. “Cait, run.”

To the window. The top of her crutch broke the glass and she cried out through the shards. “Cait, run. Cait.” She saw the horse, Cait’s puzzlement. Eyes on hers—but these of a worried friend. The man in rags pounced from behind the well. A long knife shone in hand. The horse went down screaming, Cait with it, drenched in the spray of a cut artery. Maura screamed at the attacker—cursed him.

The stabbing into her chest had become a torment, but fear and anger ran ahead. Cait was in a crawl. The horse’s crushing weight had broken a leg. She looked to Maura—horse blood, not her own—as the man came up behind her, knife at the ready. He took Cait by the hair—was dragging her to the stalls. Alive—to where her husband had kept straw for the brood mare.

Fury won. She reached into the broken frame to snap out a shard. Looking down to mark the cut she saw the little face. The strange eyes were no longer on hers but on the glass. A muted cry, high in pitch—a shout into her bones and past her. Maura sawed, gnashing teeth. A crash—the man had left Cait and was ramming the cottage door with a shoulder. Glass parted flesh down to yellow fat, upwelling blood, and a hollow, not a trace of breast milk left. The small face tore away on a gobbet and the ribcage was shown in the wound. Maura screamed with all her wind. Through the slough of a false jaw it screamed back, misting her with the blood, and Maura saw a tongue dart, forked and bladed, from an open pharynx. New teeth in circles, like those of an eel brought up from the deeper stream. A grub, a parasite. Hungry yet—need its only mind.

She pried it from the crook of her dead arm and threw it to the floor. Her legs slid out from under in the blood. Brought up the shard, too slick now to keep a grip.

The father broke through. He rushed up in his dark rags to raise the knife. Maura brought up the good arm. The knife drove through the block and caught her in the shoulder. She felt that newest bite from a distance grown long. He crouched in a straddle above her legs, above the spawn. Pinning her back with the other hand he wrested the blade free. Her batting snatched off the ragged shawl. Another open pharynx, this one full of teeth. The grub was between her legs, screaming with the thwarted hunger. The tongue sought any hold, scoring and splintering the floorboards. The father stood to bring the knife down hard, a double-hand blow.

Taking up the grub she thrust it where he stood—and where closest.


The knife flew away. How he screamed, the pitches inhuman, pushing at his own brood latched on between his legs. Maura was fading but had the will, and the leg, for a kick. The father stumbled backward into the blazing hearth. Live coals flew. The rags caught fire and he stood alight, abandoned to a run. At last he came down on her bed. A billowing thump as the linens caught fire. Smoke poured up and flames leapt, too bright to see through. From within the blaze she heard a second shriek—higher, failing, gone.

No strength left. The raw wound in her chest no longer bled. The burn had spread into the thatching on the roof. From outside she heard a voice. Cait Brennan was beside herself, unable to crawl closer. “Maura,” she cried out, and for aid. How the young woman ached to help—and Maura took heart that she would live on to help again.


Nine feet tall, skin dark blue, and in his home—such was Damon’s first visit from the realms immaterial. “Shit,” Damon said to fierce eyes and snaggleteeth. He had just got back from the investment bank and iced mocha fell from his grip. Voiding into cashmere was almost an afterthought. Lash and sword were at the ready—maim and kill, the respective use—but instead a third hand wrenched him up and a fourth cocked back. Coming to, one eye shut, Damon might have hoped nightmares would pass with nap time. Instead the horror was only waiting for attention. The breath stank of tears.

“You cunt. You little fucking cunt. This is what it takes? This is how you learn?”


Mockery—dumb-dumb faces. “WHAAA? DUUUH? Fuck off with the pleas of ignorance and harken well, shitbird.” Tip-first the sword came down at Damon’s eyes. Broken parquet hardwood, what a racket—perhaps neighbors would hear, that or his girlish screaming. The stammering was not well met. “‘Sorry’? Pray tell, you half stack of banana puke—just what are you sorry for?”

“What did I do? I didn’t do anything!”

“I was there. And you”—a slow growl to spell it out—“you made me watch.”

“You’re—you’re—what are you saying, that you’re my conscience?”

The lash sang. The tailoring was left in ribbons, and Damon bled and cowered. “Mine, he says. You walking, talking cumshot—put a capital C on that conscience if it helps. The only mine here is you, my bottommost bottom punk.”

“Is this because of the tranches? Wait—my ex? No—that thing with my stepbrother? The cab driver? Dine and dash? The living trust? Putting my mother in a home? That dog yesterday outside the barbershop?” Three more with the lash. “I’m sorry!”

“No, you’re scared, and you ought to be. I’ve had it—had it with each sleazy tug paid out to fame and gain. You think you’re so sly, monkey dick—but there’s never a time nobody can see because you can see! Isn’t that a simple premise? Know what’s worse? The second I vanish you’re going to think you’re free to sneak one past again. Even now, with the torn-up clothes and the black eye and the shat britches. But from here out it will be different. Now you’ll have fear to guide you. Once I wink out of material existence go to your balcony. Take a look. It’s still daylight out. You can see for miles. Drink it all in. And know this: if you make me come back, ever, for any reason–whether it’s for subprime mortgages or, yes, the dog you kicked that only wanted to make a friend—I claim your fucking head. Onto the pile it goes. No joke. No test. No game. Out.”

The embodiment of conscience winked out of material existence. Damon finished his cry before taking a stagger up to the sliding glass door. All the city beyond his private rail, all the world, everybody in it, had just met the same—a one-on-one seven billion times over. Each car had been stopped with a downstroke clear through the engine block, the doors thrown wide, drivers and passengers hauled out onto the roadway. Airplanes were regaining altitude except where a few had crashed. Here and there columns of smoke had begun to rise. Car alarms were blaring, and pedestrians had taken a seat to tremble on the concrete. A few grownups, but not many, had been spared rough promises, and they all stopped to lend a hand. Because of course they did.

The first days of the aftermath were indoor ones for most. The human species was too frightened to venture out, even for a snack, and their various employers—white collar or blue or service—would have been too scared to threaten them with pay cuts and firings and other petty tyranny. But sooner than many would have thought the ruck of life did return. Where people had to interact they had grown polite in the extreme. It was only around the time that Damon had his first doubts and speculations—just where the lines were drawn between lies and fibs, the hypocrisy of moral inspiration, and so on—that severed heads began to pile up. These were thrown mid-intersection where none could miss the sight—flyblown heaps of skulls. None dared clean up. Traffic was diverted or went around, and riders tucked their noses into their shirts. Months passed and the trophy piles were left clean to bone. Additions had grown infrequent, and then none further came. Posters had gone up—billboards—depicting the four-armed god. People built shrines and burned candles and scripted prayers. Fair trade for peace, many would have said—no more crime, lies, warfare, incest, and kicking of dogs.

Nine feet tall, skin dark red, and in his home—such was Damon’s second visit from the realms immaterial. He had just come home from volunteering with the Sikhs, washing all the pots and pans they used to cook up meals for the poor.

“I’ve been good! I don’t understand!” The sword was forgone in favor of another slap. Damon woke sore and puzzled—but with a head in place. “Conscience?”

“Reason!” Afterwards came Taste.


“I got this idea for a movie. It’s never been done. Totally original—totally mine. It’s like that one with that little kid and the burglars when he was stuck at home all on his lonesome. I forget the title. But instead of a house in the suburbs it’s this shop up on Hollywood. And instead of a kid it’s this teenage runaway. Hot but no dope.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Girl like I said. And just come into the fruit of womanhood.” Hands became tits. “The burglars, instead of burglars they’re perverts. Or pimps! Pervert pimps. It happens where it does so for traps she has to use sex toys. A guy could take this big dildo to a face, or fall on a big dildo so it goes up his ass, or trip on a dildo on some stairs.”

“How big is the dildo he trips on?”

“Or she could like squirt a bunch of lube on the floor. One of the guys, he’d skate into this big rack of dirty magazines and be all aaaaaah! and they’d pin him down. A fag one could land open before his very eyes and turn him gay.”

“Very eyes. And totally yours.”

No dreams bore fruit in the withering company of Velma Goebbels. Not even those of Garry Brahma, casting agent, producer, enthusiast. But through the stony fence of her Games magazine there was a repartee, and that did help pass the time. Nor was that the sole advantage she brought to the office. Good to keep her around, the witch.

Said office was a converted apartment in a complex on a stretch of DeLongpre where all the palms had died. The grubby courtyard was open to desaturated skies and a waft of brake pad dust, this from Santa Monica Boulevard and Sunset. All other shingles put out along that wrought-iron rail were mail-order and Asiatic. The Bangkok–Manila axis could mind its piece and Garry Brahma, enthusiast, et cetera, could mind his.

A rough shove through the slot filliped the band off the bundled mail. Been there, Garry thought, sleazy to the last. Velma would never rise to gather up deliveries and even Garry might have let it sit. But he saw the trades in the mix. Up and at ’em. Honk.

“Damn! You’ll never guess who died,” he said on the headline scan.

“The ghost of Christmas Past?”

“No! What? Hugh Hefner!”

“How could they tell?”

Dorothy Parker, Garry knew, but no good could come of shaming Velma. The comeback at the table had been better anyway. “He had an erection.”

“That’s a Robert Benchley line.”

What he put up with. Though he supposed for that zinger Calvin Coolidge had been the better patsy. No cord of wood had ever counted short when it came to Hefner, no sir. The man had opened doors left and right and even some mucky crawlspaces.

Speaking of which, a demure rap—their two o’clock. Velma put down a three-star sudoku. Bitch eyebrows, as the arches there tweezed and drawn were known, and makeup so precise it looked stamped to eyes and mouth. The hairdo was from some old noir, a Barbara Stanwyck where indemnities were multiple. Up to the door she went, spiky heels in a click as Garry slid into his desk. For all the venom in the ovipositor Velma did make for a pretty view. Velma was short but taut and worked nights as a dom. The short part was irrelevant. Mouth off to her and she would just shinny up and choke you out. For whatever reason on opening the door she liked to mix in a Southern affect—of the sort heard in a movie plantation house, not down by the crick. “Why hello there! Are you Amber?” Garry was in character now, too, but not without weary reflection on the names that had come through. One more Amber for the heap—so many Ambers and Tiffanys and Amberleys and Pamelas. Variety was the stuff of life and chippy names were such a goddam rut. Honk honk. He would die for just one more Constance. Shown in, the subject took the brief bounce up to his desk. “This is Garry Brahma,” Velma said.

A fresh stick of gum kept the talk moist. “Charmed. Amber, right?”

“That’s me”—best smile and a giggle. The presentation was not remarkable. Collagen lips, dual floatation devices, Valley hair on South Bay clothes, a thirst to be liked—so cookie cutter. Almost all these girls had work done—those bound for soft video and the specialty mags anyway. In recent years standouts in hardcore had begun to pass up knife and silicon even though companies offered to front the tabs. Free agency, healthy attitudes—virtues such as these left men like Garry low on resort. But women on the soft path had bigger hopes—mainstream careers, dignity—so this sort of casting had remained useful for the sidelines. Hope and desperation—where one left off for the other was a question for beardy old Greeks, who were all boy lovers anyway.

“Please, have a seat. Just make yourself comfortable. May Velma bring you a refreshment? A La Croix, maybe, from the minibar? We have apricot, pamplemousse, and pure. Now you do know what we’re doing here today, right? You’ve done a body check for a call sheet? Not your first rodeo. I take it you know what to expect then—what we’re going to do with the backdrop there and the camera set up on the tripod. Did you bring a signed release? All the tees crossed and eyes dotted? True, true—there’s no eye in Amber.” How Garry hated to pass up an easy double. “We’ve put up a shoji for you to disrobe. Screen—it means screen. There’s a bathrobe hung up but you probably won’t need it. Easy peasy. Fifteen minutes, tops. Quick in, quick out.” Base hit.

To scrub shadow lights were shined onto the backdrop. Those for foreground were set up with reflector umbrellas to scatter beams. Velma held a round board no bigger than an Irish drum, one side matte white, the other silver. Sometimes she chose a clipboard instead and then you knew the tactic would be intellect. Either way just when the broom would land, the hex spoken out, was anyone’s guess. Velma needed no cue—would only be standing there on the task while Garry said “Beautiful” or “Thank you” as directions to turn, smile, bend over, were met with ditzy aplomb. An instinct for the throat, for soft underparts—that was Velma. Shutter noises were digital only.

“Excuse me, Garry.”

“Can it wait? We’re just about to wrap.”

“One moment. If I may.” As Velma clacked in, gaze steady on the subject, Garry shuffled back with a frown. Amber grew uneasy. One of Velma’s stabber shoes swiveled on a heel like a javelin on turf. “Amber would you turn to your left, please? Now the right?” A thoughtful hum. “To the left again, please? The right?” A stare. “Straight ahead. Hm. Right? No, the other right. Okay—left, please? Left?” She stroked her chin. “All right then. Straight ahead.”

“What is it,” Amber asked at last, smile up but draining.

“Hm? Oh, never mind that, bless your heart. Straight ahead, please.” The stare was for tits alone and had not wavered by an inch. Garry had seen this sort of play before, and timing was key. He knew to intervene late.

“All right, Velma, I think that’s enough.”

The grin got a little deader. “Something wrong?”

Velma leaned in to Garry. The whisper had just enough volume to project.

“One is bigger than the other.”

Even the carcass of a smile was gone. Garry said, “We’re finished for the day. Velma, give us a minute.” Off she went to the back—back being a walk-in closet with a phony darkroom curtain. Garry came close to Amber once she had put her clothes back. He gave her a card. “Give me a call, okay? That’s a direct line. It doesn’t go through the office,” with a glance toward Velma’s icky games. “We can talk.”

Some models did the crying then and there, and some waited for the curb. Amber went out dry but past vertical blinds shut tight on the courtyard he heard a sob. Getting them alone was not the ploy it once had been. He would find out who she knew, where she lived, how strong a grip she had on the surface world. And, sure, take the blue pill.

“What made Hefner special,” a moment later, back at his desk, “was innovation. Consider it. Because he did what he did a titty rag could come out from below the drugstore counter. No brown wrappers need apply. His magazine, it ran interviews with celebrities, think pieces, top-rate fiction, and it had the cash to afford the best. You got Susan Sontag in there, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut—before Hef came along that would have been unthinkable. Sophistication came to what was known only as sleaze.”

Velma had switched to a crossword. “What’s a three-letter word for masturbation?”

“May Hugh Marston Hefner rest in peace. O Captain my captain. That passing will leave a hole—it will leave so many holes.” Honk. “Somebody will need to step up, put on a nice outfit, bring class back to an industry that needs it. What do youngsters watch now, with their nerd shit—what do you call it, streaming? Weird. Glass-bottom boats. From a hippopotamus. On Arbor Day. My youth, you had the Playboy Channel on scrambled video or you had nothing. You studied it, hoping to catch an areola in the weeds. For years afterward I got hard whenever a bird landed on the aerial.”

Here Velma put down the puzzles. Eyes-on like that could only mean a lesson had come due. “You’re creeping up on another million-dollar idea. Have you ever been up to the mansion, even once? It’s a dump. It’s falling apart. It stinks of dog and mildew and the famous people who go there are the kind you’ve never heard of.”

“You prove my very point, Miss Goebbels! Take James Caan, star of Rollerball. In the Seventies he used to frequent those parties, right? Hell—he practically lived there, on site—not just up in the house but out in the Grotto, night and day. He did more swimming than an Ashkenazi merman! And not exactly rudderless either. So pray tell, Velma, what changed? Was it Jimmy Caan, or the Grotto, or the world at large? Just how does two girls blowing a movie star go out of style?” Velma muttered into her page—something about turning mermen into ships—and had no more to add.

Knock-knock, three-o’-clock.

“Well hello there! Are you Irene?”

This time Velma had gone with boarding school English. Thereby Garry knew that this one was a black even before the crossing of the welcome mat. Dulcet plantation tones did not sit well with that bunch. In she came: no hoe de la Crenshaw but light and pretty, with straightened bob-cut hair and spaghetti straps. “Thanks for your time, Mr. Brahma.” Demure, polite. Santa Monica voice, mild lisp. Still, you never could tell—leave a chad hanging on the beauty card and you found the chic handbag had room for an icepick. Irene—at least that part was new. The name said coastline. It said money. It said mad at Daddy. Well every name said mad at Daddy but this Daddy had money and lived somewhere on the coast. No candidate for the referral to Sodemadze, so no kickback, but she had good length of bone and a natural beauty and maybe, just maybe, some good would come of it—an actual production contract.

“Please, sit down and make yourself comfortable. Velma can get you a drink if you like. A cold can of La Croix brand sparkling water? We have pure, apricot, and, pamplemousse. Have you ever been to one of these, Irene? In the industry it’s called a body check. Think of me as a casting agent. That backdrop behind you, all those lights, the camera, it’s like a short but sweet modeling session. We’re respectful of the talent. Velma here, consider her your chaperone. If you need anything, you just let her know. We want to make you feel comfortable, and if we bring the right attitude to this, it can even be fun, like a goof. Spring Break! Well said. Did you bring a printout? No, not a headshot, a release.” Honk. “Signed and dated, yeah? Great. We’ve set up a screen for you to disrobe, and when you’re ready we can have it all done inside of fifteen minutes.”

Once again he was looking at a naked woman—this one more real and healthy than those from earlier—and once again it could only leave him cold. Never go at it for the money, he might have warned his younger self. Also, maybe buy a lot of Pfizer stock.

“One thing, Irene.” Velma was improvising. “Since this is for a speaking role, we’re going to ask you to read a little from the script.”

“Right now, like this?” Meaning stark in the headlights.

Velma looked to Garry to ask for silence. “Let me fetch the lines. One moment.” Of course there were no lines and Velma made a clumsy show, searching the inbox, a pile atop the filing cabinet, for a script as Irene stood her ground, and nude. “Well, I do apologise,” Velma said at last, and damn if that did not impress Garry, saying the word in such a way as to suggest a British spelling. “I hope you don’t mind my saying so, Irene, but there’s the small matter of your speech impediment.”

“My what?”

“It’s ever so slight, but it might affect the line reading. Perhaps we could resort to a phrase from speech therapy instead. Just to demonstrate that you have the problem mastered well enough. Please, repeat after me: Jimmy Caan is making jellyfish in the pool by the Playboy Grotto.” Garry turned away and he hoped it would play like anger. An in-joke—the toy-with here was plural. What a spectacular bitch Velma was.

Though not without suspicion: Irene was less dumb than average.

“Please, Irene: Jimmy Caan is making jellyfish in the pool by the Playboy Grotto.”

Same as always, hope made a chump of dignity. “Jimmy Caan is making jellyfish in the pool by the Playboy Grotto.”

“Jimmy Caan is making jellyfish in the pool by the Playboy Grotto.”

“Jimmy Caan is,” a swallow, “making jellyfish—”

“Enough,” Garry said at last. “Velma, go check the back stock.”

There was no back stock, whatever the stock might have been, nor much of a back. Velma knew to look nervous, as if for a boom in mid-lower. Irene had already gone behind the screen to pull up the spaghetti. When she came out Garry had a card to lend. “I’m sorry. That’s not how people are in this business. Give me a call. I think I have an idea. I’ll look into it for you.” Irene left with a smile. Maybe she was picturing Velma being fired. Garry had run that scenario himself but only for a desultory rub.

“Cash infusion,” soon after, a cold pamplemousse in hand and both feet up on the desk. “That’s all it would take. Maybe open a little club on the boulevard to start. No mansion at first—hell only knows how you get to a mansion, but you work your way up.”

“It’s a different world, Garry.” Velma put her pencil in the desktop sharpener.

“No, it’s the same world it’s always been. The startup cash is the thing.”

“And how many cookie jars will you be hitting up for that?”

“I know some people.”


“People. You have a client tonight?”

“Explain the part where that’s any of your business.”

“Just making chitchat. We’re friends, aren’t we?”

Garry caught a glimpse of the face beneath the face. Once Velma had been the girl to sort and process in that line of work. And he sought a joke to crack about the faint sadness when the door came open—no knock of any kind, neither hard nor demure.

Another woman, what do you know—though this one was dressed for cleanup, not a tryout. A black hooded sweatshirt, ball cap, dark jeans. She carried a rolled-up yoga mat—the only incongruity. Her hair had been dyed black and her face revealed nothing.

“Quién eres tu?” Garry asked. “Housekeeping?”

Velma had stood up. “You don’t just barge in. This is a place of business. By appointment only.”

“I have one.”

Garry checked his wristwatch. “Bit early—not four yet. And a knock would be nice.”

“Oh, I did. I knocked. But it was a while ago.”

Velma had the call sheet memorized. The southern accent crept in late. “So you’re ... pardon me, but you’re Annoushka?”

“Constance,” the woman said, and Garry felt a thrill even before mention of a second name. “Ioseb Sodemadze sent me your way.” The yoga mat unscrolled.

“Who?” Velma asked. “That’s no producer we know. And whatever are you—”

Shotgun, sawed-off, five-round autoloader. The stink of powder was in its barrel. Velma gave a shriek and sat down hard in her chair. “Sodemadze was a trafficker,” Constance said, “and now he’s a work of art.” Pancake did not sit well on an ashen face. Velma looked like a frightened mime. “Imagine my surprise when I got it out of him—that this is how he’d heard of me. This is where it all started—my world tour—this sad little shop. Hi, Garry.”

“Hi, Constance.” His voice was mild. He had not moved an inch, except for three. “I remember. Three years ago? You came in for a check?” So different then—a nonentity like the rest. He was amazed at the sight of her now—amazed and brought to life. Frumpy clothes, murder weapon, deadpan and plain. The old self had been worn away. He had never seen a woman more beautiful. “Didn’t you have,” and in one last display the hands became tits.

“Jesus Christ, Garry,” Velma said.

“No, he’s right—and it’s fair. I had silicone implants. Big ones. I bought them with my own cash and paid a man to put them into my body. And after I escaped from the Philippine brothel I cut them out myself. A motel bathtub to catch the blood, and a pocket knife. Couldn’t stand seeing them there anymore. Carrying that. The scars are amazing. How does she not know who Sodemadze is?”

“Velma wasn’t in on that,” Garry said. “It’s not her fault.”

Velma’s mascara had run. Wide eyes seemed that much wider atop black alluvial streaks. She looked at him aghast, and in a breaking voice, asked, “People?”


Velma looked to Constance. “He—he did—I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I never would have. I had no idea.”

“So what,” Constance said, and the clap took off Velma’s paint. Garry shut his eyes to the pelt of blood and teeth, and when he opened them again she lay on her side, mostly out of sight. A stiletto had come off, and the foot shivered in its nylon. He could taste what had got in his mouth and smell the pepper of the blast, and he let the stain track even as he began to shake.

Constance seemed in no rush. She was lost in consideration of Velma on the floor.

“You won’t have long. Better finish up here and run for it.”

“These aren’t neighbors who call nine-one-one.” True. “If she wasn’t in on it—if those games weren’t part of a con—then why tear us down like that? Why was she here?”

No answer. None he could say. But he had a vision. “For payback here’s what you could do. Have me strip naked right here, the way I made you and all the rest. March me out. We can go west up Sunset Boulevard clear to the Holmby Hills so that everyone can get a good look at my bald spot and my paunch and my sad, used-up little pecker.” Honk. “The Playboy Mansion is that way, and Hugh Hefner just died.” But Garry did not get to run down a final dream, and the mansion four miles off stood ready for the raze.