lost ironies

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Month: September, 2014

I fired my ray gun into the sky

the mayor will come to my funeral
and reveal that I was a Martian
where I walked the atmosphere withered
where I walked is now a lie

but celebrate my presence
in this place of physics and hate
blue as the sky will make you
upon the horizon by and by

the lies that I told you were relative
they warped space, they made me cry
knowing truth is not bound by gravity
I fired my ray gun into the sky

Lisbon

The only sound on Saturday night. I can hear my wrist watch. She’s in the next room. Sitting on the floor. Her back against the wall. I can hear her heart beat with my stethoscope. I hold it against the peeling wallpaper.

Is she reading or just sitting? Meditating on darkness. Or listening to neutrinos.

It’s midnight. I take notes. Time is everything. Time is the paint on the wall. The dust in the corner. The weight from above. They told me this at the Conservatory. In the Master Class. Before I received my credentials. The power of deceit.

The hotel room telephone rings. I pick up. The receiver’s filthy. The filth of drifters. There’s a dog barking a block away. I see the window’s open. How did that happen?

“Hello?”

“What do you know?”

It’s a stranger’s voice. But I know he’s calling from Central. Asking him to identify himself would be foolish. Against training. No one else knows I’m here. I can hear the keys of a telex machine striking endlessly in the background. Cyphers. Broken codes. Absences of code. Pleas of innocence. Broken bones in sealed rooms.

“She’s sitting still,” I say. “She has been for hours. Her heart is beating. But there’s no activity.”

“We need more than that.”

“That’s all there is.”

The Central stranger goes silent on the line. An ardent pause. The telex machine continues. Memoranda. Surveillances. Realities obliterated.

“Visit her.”

“That’s not my assignment.”

More silence. Then….

“Perhaps your assignment has changed,” says the voice. “Perhaps now you open her door. Make something happen. Accuse her. Take the initiative. Arrest her on a lie. Truth is a luxury we can’t afford, anyway. It’s a flimsy thing. It takes time to descend from on high. Through the atmospheric resistance. To fall upon someone’s desktop. Only to be ruined by more robust falsehoods.”

Now I’m silent. It’s almost poetic. The textbooks were poetic, too. The poetics of indoctrination. Never deviate from the poetry of State.

“You still there?” the stranger says.

“Yes.”

“Time is everything,” he says.

The mantra. The mandatory salute. Demanding a prompt duplicate reply.

“Time is everything,” I say.

There is a click at the end of the line. Central has disengaged. I am alone again. With her in the next room. I check my weapon. It’s unnecessary. She’s alone, defenseless. That’s why I’m here. Central prefers an easy target. Budgets are best met engaging easy targets.

The hallway has been reduced to a narrow trail through decades of refuse. I shine my torch ahead. There are rats here. Brave as agents. Standing on their haunches. Sniffing. They look away and squabble.

Her room is number 607. I try the doorknob. Locked. I knock. Hold my ear to the door. Nothing. I knock again. Ear to the door. Nothing.

“Open, please. It’s Central.”

Nothing.

“I’ll force the door. Please open up.”

Nothing.

I step back and kick. The bottom of my foot. My heel at the bolt. The wood cracks. I kick again and it gives way. Inside it’s dark. The entire city is blacked out. Only my hotel room has electricity and a functioning telephone. Central has arranged it.

I shine my torch in the area I assume she occupies. She’s there, looking at me. Her face is dark and round. Hair black with grey streaks, tied back. Eyes brown. She sits on the floor. Back against the wall. She’s wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.

“Identify yourself,” I say.

“You’re just a boy,” she says. “I can tell, even in the dark.”

I’m quiet for a moment in the doorway. Then I repeat myself. “Please identify.”

She takes a hero from a pack and lights it, inhales.

“Smoking is forbidden.”

“So shoot me,” she says. Her accent is difficult to place. Pakistani? “I never thought they’d send a boy. Did they tell you who I am?”

I was briefed before I left Central. Subject is Rachel Kalpar. I watched her smoke. She blows a smoke ring.

“You’re a writer,” I say.

“That what they told you?”

“You have to come with me.” I say. “I have a car on the street.”

She smokes on, and says, “On what grounds?”

I stop. There is no warrant. No judicial order. Paperwork is problematic when denying a person’s existence.

“And where will we go in your car on the street?”

“Central.”

“Bullshit.”

She has a venerable air, even sitting on the floor smoking. She makes Bullshit sound like a hypothesis.

“You don’t even know why you’re here,” she says. “But let me tell you. You’re a recent graduate of the Conservatory. This is your first assignment. They told you to observe and report on a female subject in a derelict hotel room.”

“Yes,” I say, almost involuntarily.

“But then you got a phone call in your room, on one of the only functioning telephones in the city.”

She pauses for emphasis. I say nothing.

“An anonymous caller,” she continues, “from Central. He tells you your mission has changed, and tells you what to do next. So, now you’re here asking me to go with you, but you don’t know where.” She taps cigarette ash onto the floor next to her.

“Don’t you see?” she says. “It’s an initiation. Your assignment will change again before the night is out, perhaps several times. But in the end, we’ll be alone together in an abandoned field on the outskirts of the city where you’ll follow an order inconsistent with your textbook training. You’ll fire a bullet into the general area of my cerebellum, causing fatal brain trauma and hemorrhaging. And in order to confirm you’ve completed the assignment, you’ll do as instructed and remove one of my eyes for later biometric verification. And when it’s done, you’ll be one of them. No escaping.”

“Impossible,” I say, but am suddenly unsure.

“Not impossible. Compliance was encoded into your basal ganglia during your training. And there’s a part of your unconscious that knows it. It will surface eventually and may even drive you mad. That’s a quirk in the encoding process that was put there by the developer, like a computer virus.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m the developer.” She lights another hero.

“Then why…?”

“Because they don’t need me anymore. They never liked me much anyway. I started out believing in pure science. Never interested in commerce or politics. But after the purges, I was one of the only people still alive who could do the neuro-programming. Until now.”

I quietly evaluate. Time is everything. I sense an adrenaline reaction, but can’t trace its cause.

“Maybe it’s not such a bad thing,” she says, “to die tonight. This confounding itch to live, in spite of everything, it’s exhausting.”

“You’re not going to die tonight,” I say. I still believe it.

She says, “You’ve heard of Lisbon, of course.”

“Lisbon is a myth.” The word alone makes my belly churn. Scripture could be written, but hasn’t. People have disappeared after saying its name.

“That’s what they’ll have told you. But I assure you it’s real. And I guess that’s why they’ve finally tracked me down and sent you.”

“The State would have never allowed it to exist.”

“Don’t be a fool,” she says, smiling. “It belongs to the State, or it did. It’s the State’s delinquent runaway child. The State sponsored it and chose its victims. I wrote it. With two other programmers. We were just teenagers at the time. It was meant to be set loose on the Pious Eastern Bloc. To scuttle their uranium enrichment programs. But after it did, it got into the wild. It mutates flawlessly. It destroys its targets without being detected. And everything is its target. It’s mutating now and beginning to infiltrate pre-digital analogue systems.”

She looks to her left, out of the window, onto the lightless nighttime city.

“You may be old enough to remember when the city was lit up at night,” she says. “Lisbon ended that. Worldwide. No more electrical grids. No more energy extraction or refinement. No distribution networks. No hospitals. No law enforcement. No mass communications. Technology is dead. Lisbon killed it. The virus is so entrenched, so cryptographically perfect, that they can’t find it to quarantine or kill it. It’s woven into the macrocosm. The leaves of trees. Fish in the sea. The clouds. The air we breathe. Put a finger to your throat. Feel the pulse. There it is. That’s the Lisbon virus. Maybe that’s why they call it a myth.”

“You’re wrong,” I say. She has to be.

The phone rings in the adjacent room. My room. The only working telephone for tens of square miles. She pulls on her cigarette and exhales.

“Change of plans,” she says.

I leave her and go to my room. The phone rings like a toothache. I answer.

“Yes?”

“Report.”

It’s the familiar voice of the stranger, calling from Central. The telex machine rattles in the background.

“She’s in her room smoking,” I say.

“Is she compliant?”

“Compliant? In what way? I haven’t asked her to do anything yet.”

There is silence on the line again. The invincible weapon of absolute authority.

“Take her to your car.”

“And…?”

“There will be instructions in the glove box.”

I hesitate, then say, “Does she die tonight?”

“Time is everything.”

I hesitate again. Fully aware that this much hesitation is lethal. No textbook says so. It is never mentioned in a lecture. It is simply assumed. It is supposed. It is resolutely rumoured. One never returns from so much hesitation, to tell his story.

“Time is everything,” I finally reply, expecting to hear the distant click of a receiver returned to its cradle. But I do not. And I dare not ring-off first. Another unwritten rule.

Silence.

“Complete your assignment as instructed,” says the stranger.

Then there is the click of his receiver. I hang up also. And look out of the window at the black void of the city. The window is no longer open. I look around for someone. I hear a footstep in the hall. I run out. There is no one. I go into 607. My eyes take time adjusting to the darkness. I see the red glow at the end of a hero illuminate the area round Rachel Kalpar. It’s amazing how bright.

“Instructions in the glove box?” she says.

“Yes.”

“But now you’re conflicted. You feel almost defiant.”

She’s reading my mind. If what she says is true, then she’s reading her own book.

“We can drive away,” I say. “In the opposite direction. Away from the abandoned field. I don’t need to read the instructions in the glove box.”

I stop for a moment.

“Is that the quirk in the encoding process talking?” I ask. “Or is it me?”

“I hear only you speaking.”

“I feel sick,” I say.

I run out into the hall and vomit. I fall to the floor. I remember convulsions. My teeth grinding. My body tightening into a ball.

When I come to, the lights are on in the hall. They’re blinding. A man in a black suit crouches next to me, checking my pulse. Another shines a penlight into each of my eyes. I reach for my gun. It’s gone.

“Normal,” one of them says. “He’ll survive.”

“That’s a funny way to put it,” says the other, and they both laugh.

“That’s enough,” says Rachel Kalpar, dismissing the two of them. She stands over me, blocking a ceiling light. “You’re a failed experiment,” she says. “A disappointment.”

“I don’t understand,” Is say.

“Understanding’s a luxury,” Kalpar says, and walks away.

two poems when one would likely suffice

the plums

when I sit in my refrigerator light
I am touched by nothing, no
disconnect no heartache
it’s like the sun
superb in June, a
mistake forgiven

but the purple frosted plums stare back
as though they might mutiny
I’ve seen this before, they
fail to recognise
their inability to self-govern and the
inevitability of their inclusion
in a tenderloin glaze

they remain motionless in their gravity
tonight I’ll dream like a tyrant

*  *  *  *  *

circus in town

I will join the circus
and ripen into rarity
defying death
through foible

I will wave from the parade and
float upon the city
like the shadow of an airplane
over the roofs and circus tents
the car lots and strip malls the
cul-de-sacs and violence the
heroin crack back alleys

who built this bumpy town?
who stole its left shoe and
abandoned its body
to the midtown coyote and
hasty crow?

the monsterly sky

her breath came as faith
the kind one has alone
hearing the names the voices name you
in the hiss of a silent room

breath in her pocket, a
noisy coin
to purchase the violent colours
and amend the monsterly sky

Protected: sunshine coast railway story sampler & synopsis

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Luck

Vancouver, December 1949

“That’s it for him,” she said, and nudged the dead man’s hand with the toe of her high heel shoe. Swing Richie now lay in state beneath a dim yellow lamp, on the oily rain soaked gravel behind the Army and Navy store on West Hastings.

Police Homicide Detective Olaf Brandt looked down at the body, his hands in his overcoat pockets. His right hand warming the cool blue steel of his auxiliary snub-nosed .32.

“Nasty throat wound,” he said. “Sure it wasn’t you that done this, Trudy?”

“Swing was a prick,” said Trudy Parr. “But he wasn’t worth killing.”

“Somebody thought he was. Why you here anyway? It’s 6:00 a.m.”

“I got the call this morning, round 4:30. Anonymous. A desperate sounding woman. Said Swing finally got his. Told me where to find him.”

“Abigale Neistrum?” Brandt said, referring to Swing Richie’s neglected fiancée.

“Maybe.”

Swing Richie was notorious for many petty transgressions. Having affairs behind Abigale Neistrum’s back was just one of them. Of late, his philandering involved a waterfront bar owner named Amelia Tedesco. Brandt thought he might have to have a talk with her about this.

“So, you don’t know the caller? I thought you knew all the crumbs in this part of town.”

“Not the way you do, Oly. I’m not with the constabulary.” She lit a Black Cat with a paper match, blew the match out and placed it in the cigarette package.

“Why’d she call you, then?” said Brandt. “Whoever it was.”

“Who can know, Oly? Life’s a mysterious room.”

Indeed it was, Brandt had to agree. He lit a cigarette of his own with his Zippo and inhale deeply. “The whole damn police force will be here any minute. This might be the biggest thing in this town since the Anglican Church picnic last August. You have anything else to say before they arrive? Like why you got the call at 4:30 a.m. and it took you an hour and a half to get here from the Sylvia Hotel in your Porsche?”

“Caller said he was dead. He wasn’t going anywhere. A girl’s gotta put on her face, Oly. Match her dress with her shoes. Choose the right scarf. It’s important to look good, even for the early morning troubles.”

Olaf Brandt looked closely at Trudy Parr for the first time that morning. He asked himself, not for the first time, why she was a private dick in a shitty little burg like Vancouver and not a fashion model or some rich man’s wife. She could be either. But neither would be right. That was made obvious by the way she stood over the body, calmly smoking, quietly doing the arithmetic of human wrongdoing. Was there any place in mannerly society for a retired spy? She’d just be spying there, too. Taking notes on the fat cats, and holding them in contempt. That was a fact.

“Then, once I got here,” Trudy Parr continued, “I had to find a pay phone to call your office.”

Brandt nodded. It sounded feasible.

Now a black Ford rolled up close to the both of them and stopped. There were two black and white cars behind it. The Ford sat still for a moment, engine running, illuminating the scene with its headlights.

“What heel with a badge did they send this time?” said Trudy Parr.

“Day shift’s still drinking coffee, eating their ham and eggs.” Brandt said. “It’ll be Detective Sergeant Regan. He’s senior officer on the Homicide night shift. We were in the office talking racetrack handicaps when you called in. So, he’ll be your heel.”

“Hmm.” Trudy Parr had dealt with Thomas Regan before. He was bastard, had a bad haircut, didn’t polish his shoes. A hopeful prospect in his youth who’d lost his hotshot gloss by the time he’d turned forty.

The Ford remained unmoving, its engine running.

“Is he getting out?” said Trudy Parr.

“Give him a second,” said Brandt. “He likes to make an entrance. Figures he owes the taxpayer a bit of radio drama.”

“Well, he’s pissing me off,” said Trudy Parr. She began to walk over to the Ford as the headlights went out and the engine stopped. She arrived at the driver side window and tapped on it. The window rolled down.

“You getting out to look at this, Tom,” she said. “Or should we bring the stiff over for you to see.”

“It’s Thomas,” Regan said. “Or you can call me Detective Sergeant Regan; that’s preferable. Only my mother calls me Tom, and she and I aren’t speaking.”

Trudy Parr said nothing in response, only stared at the bad hair. Regan smiled back.

“Alright, then,” he said, opening the Ford’s door and stepping out. “Shall we behold the deceased, and ponder the possibilities?” He proceeded to what was left of Swing Richie, and squatted next to it. “Dead,” he said, after a second of consideration.

Three cops from the marked cars arrived and quietly chuckled at the Sergeant’s observation.

“Police Detective Brandt,” Thomas Regan said, “why is this civilian loitering here? Isn’t it bad enough that it rained overnight and possibly washed away important evidence?”

“Says she was alerted to the crime by an early morning phone call,” Brandt said. “Came down to see, and then called us. You dispatched me ahead of you, and here we are.”

“Why didn’t you just call us from home, Trudy?” Regan said. “You could have gone back to bed and still be in dreamland.”

“I like a murder scene as much as the next guy,” said Trudy Parr.  “I called it in as soon as I knew it was legit.”

“You remove anything?” said Regan.

“You know better, Tom,” she said.

Regan looked up at her. She smiled.

“A private dick license doesn’t make you a cop, Trudy,” Regan said.

“No and thank goodness. I couldn’t live on what you make.”

Regan gave her a self-satisfied wink, as if to say you have no idea what a shady cop makes in this town. Then he said, “Last time I saw a throat cut like this was when you iced a bad guy in Chinatown. That makes you a double suspect, Trudy: you were here first and this is your modus operandi. Maybe we should take you in.”

Regan stood up, trying to look like he meant it.

“Just find the killer, Tom,” she said, and walked over to the red Porsche coupe parked several feet away. “And try to do it before Christmas,” she said at the door of the car.

Brandt and Regan watched her drive away.

“Bitch,” said Thomas Regan. “I want you to get her full account of this, understand? Lean on her a bit. See if her story changes.”

“Lean on her, boss?” Brandt said. He knew it wouldn’t work, even if he was inclined to do it.

*  *  *  *  *

It was 7:00 a.m. Crispin Dench sat in a booth at the Ovaltine Café, reading the morning paper and absently stirring a cup of coffee. Trudy Parr slid in across from him. He didn’t look up. She lit a cigarette.

“I hear Swing Richie’s no longer with us,” Dench said, still looking at his paper.

“Throat cut,” said Trudy Parr. “Out back of a cut-rate department store.”

“Don’t let that happen to me, will you,” Dench said, and turned a page.

“You’re indestructible. We proved that in Paris.”

“A guy’s luck runs out eventually. I hear you were the first one on the scene, after the killer. And that you had to deal with Tom Regan.”

“Bad luck in both cases. Say, you’re well informed for someone who slept in.”

“I’m a private investigator. People pay me to know things. For example, I know the fix is in at X-Park tonight, so I’m laying a yard on October Rocket in the fifth. October Rocket’s fifteen to one at present, odds likely to go up. You want in?”

“Not me,” she said flagging a waitress.

“You think it was Abigale Neistrum that called?” Dench said this as he looked up from his paper for the first time. “I’m right, aren’t I? It was her.”

“Yeah, but I told the cops I didn’t know who the caller was. And I guess she called me because I helped her out of a scrape once. She’s a delicate customer. Swing liked that about her. He could push her round when another woman might have….”

“Might have what?”

“Never mind.”

“She know what involving you means? That the cops might pin this on you?”

“I didn’t have to go down to that alley. I could have called it in.”

“That still would have made you Regan’s number one target. You going to see her?”

“Why should I? I’ve got files open that pay.”

“You know why. Because you’re the only suspect right now. And you intimidate Tom Regan. Don’t depend on him to do the right thing, to investigate thoroughly. He’d love to tag you with something like this.”

The waitress arrived with Trudy Parr’s usual, whole wheat toast and coffee. Trudy thought for a moment, sipping the hot black java.

“Fifteen to one, eh?” she said.

“May go higher,” said Dench.

“I’ve changed my mind. Put me down for fifty on the nose.”

“Done.”

  *  *  *  *  *

Trudy Parr walked with care. The path through the dead December garden, leading up to the decrepit boarding house, was a broken twist of ancient concrete. She climbed the stairs, entered and went to room number three. She knocked and the door opened. Abigale Neistrum wore a housecoat and had her hair up. Her left eye was swollen shut and her lip was cut.

“Did I wake you?” said Trudy Parr. It was afternoon now.

“Naw,” said Abigale Neistrum, taking in Trudy’s understated daytime style. “This is as glamorous as it gets round here.”

“May I come in?”

“It’s a mess.”

“I’ve seen messes before.”

“Fine.” Abigale stepped away and let Trudy in.

The room was shabby, a tattered easy chair near a window, an unmade bed and a hotplate. There were crookedly hung pictures of faded flowers on the wall and clothes flung everywhere.

“I can make coffee,” Abigale said, sounding unsure.

“This won’t take long.”

“They called me about Swing this morning, like they didn’t know I’d called you. Thanks for not saying.”

“What happened, Abigale?”

“He was a bum.”

“That’s understood.”

“He was seeing that Tedesco dame.”

“And?”

“And so I started seeing Verner Wilks, to spite him.”

“Verner Wilks?” said Trudy Parr. Now the story was getting a little too interesting. Wilks was bartender Amelia Tedesco’s bar. “Did Swing find out?”

“Yeah. He found out everything. Anything I did, he always found out. And if he didn’t like it, I got a slapped big time. I never got a break.”

“So you got slapped.”

“Uh-huh. He said people were laughing at him. Said I’d made him a cuckold. I had to look up what a cuckold is. I guess I did make him one. But he had it coming. And beating me up couldn’t make me stop seeing Verner.”

“So how’d he end up dead in an alley?”

“I shouldn’t say.”

“Well goddammit, Abigale. I’m the closest thing to a suspect the cops have right now. You want me to quietly hang for this?”

Abigale looked at the worn carpet.

“I know it wasn’t you, Abby. Was it Wilks?”

“Swing was following us. I guess he wanted a showdown.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It was round 3:00 o’clock in the morning. I’d waited most of the night for Verner in the all night café on Richards Street. Verner came and got me there, and we went for a walk. He said we’d get a cab back here, but first he just wanted to shake the smell of the bar off of his clothes.”

“How’d he end up in the alley?”

“Well, it’s kind of embarrassing.”

“Tell me, Abigale.”

“He wanted to, you know, do it in the alley.” Abigale’s face reddened. “He liked doing it at night out in an alley. It was in public, even though it was dark and late. That made him hot, get it?”

“And that’s when Swing showed up?”

“It had started to rain real heavy. But Verner didn’t care. He had me against the wall. We were just getting warmed up, and I saw Swing come outta nowhere. He had a gun, that crummy little pearl handled .22 he packed. He held it ‘gainst the back of Verner’s head and cocked it. It made this clicking sound, way too loud for such a little thing.”

“There wasn’t any gun there this morning,” said Trudy Parr.

“No.”

“Then what?”

“Then Verner did something. I don’t know what, but he got turned round and belted Swing square in the jaw. Then the fight was on, and Swing was winning. They were on the ground, fighting in the rain. Swing was whipping Verner with the butt of his gun. Verner’s face was getting awful bloody.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothin’,” Abigale said. Her voice had gone soft, and she was wringing her hands.

“Really?” said Trudy Parr.

“Well, I had to do something. Swing was gonna kill Verner.”

“What’d you do?”

“I used my switchblade. The one I always carry.”

“To do what?”

“Ha! You know it’s funny how two fellas forget that a woman’s there when they go at it. Like she wasn’t never there to start. Like she just melts into the brickwork until one of them calls for her.”

“You mean you cut Swing Richie’s throat?”

“Yeah,” Abigale Neistrum said. She held her chin up and looked Trudy Parr in the eye for the first time. “I yanked that knife outta my purse, thinking of all the times Swing had beat the hell outta me. Then I walked behind him, reached round, and cut him wide open. I never knew a man could bleed like that. But the rain took care of it. His life ran down the alley and disappeared down the drain. I remember his hands holding the wound and him looking at me like he wanted me to take it back, the killing of him. But how could I? Why would I? Then he made this strange gargling noise for a few seconds and fell over. That’s when Verner came at me. He clouted the knife outta my hand and beat the hell outta me for buttin’ in.”

“You saved his life and he beat you up for it. That’s where you got the shiner….”

“Yeah.”

There was a loud knock on the door. It rattled and the doorknob twisted without effect. Abigale had locked it.

“You open up,” Verner yelled from the hall. “We gotta talk about what happened. You gotta go to the cops and tell ‘em I didn’t do it. They came by my room today and grilled me.”

The door rattled again, more violently this time.

“Let me in you bitch.”

“Go home, Verner,” Trudy Parr said to the door. “Don’t make this worse.”

“What the fuck’s she doing in there, Abigale? You whore.” The door rattled some more. Then there was a few seconds of quiet.

“Oh shit,” said Trudy Parr, like she knew what was next. And as she pulled the .38 automatic out of her purse, the door came crashing in. Verner Wilks stepped in too fast and punched her in the face. She went down and her gun slid out of reach, near the easy chair.

“Pull a fucking rod on me, eh?” said Verner Wilks. “I’ll kill you for that, you bet.”

Trudy Parr couldn’t get her hand on the .38 from where she lay on the floor. She tried to crawl to it, and Verner Wilks kicked her in the ribs. Then he walked over to the gun and picked it up.

“What’s a bitch like you got a gun for anyway?” Verner Wilks said, as he chambered a shell and aimed. “And you’re next, Abigale,” he said without looking away from his target on the floor. Then there was gunfire, and Trudy Parr felt for a moment like she was headed to wherever it was private detectives go when they finally ran out of luck. She hoped it wouldn’t be too hot.

But instead she looked up and saw Verner Wilks with a strange look on his face.

“They’ll hang you for sure, now,” he said, and fell to the floor where he quietly bled onto the carpet.

Abigale Neistrum stood in a corner of the room holding a pearl handled .22.

*  *  *  *  *

Trudy Parr sat in her office that evening, after being questioned by the police. She sipped a short glass of Glenlivet and smoked a Davidoff panatella. She was appreciating the quiet hiss of the traffic passing on the street below when Crispin Dench knocked and entered. He dropped a thick envelope of cash onto her desk.

“Twenty to one,” he said. “It wasn’t an elegant victory, but October Rocket won. You’re a lucky girl.”

She sipped and took a puff and said, “You have no idea.”

october

here we will build apartments
memory wheels turning
like engines the
windows of small faces
working at tables on
rainy days on
grand things the
work of evidence
a friend come to say she’s
left a hateful lover
here will be built room next to room of
songs written in youth &
wept over when
later they are found by aging eyes
on a day when the sun visits
briefly the planet at a sad angle
here we will build hallways from disaster
to deep sounding melancholy
where the fine wrecks rest and catch the floss of
blindly launched loves
in the currents now lost
like ghosts
here will be built days with
stone & mortar
of loss lined between
memorial & surrender
here will be written names

postcard

this she knew
there was gasoline for Cadillacs &
bowling shoes for a nation
evangelist smoke in the Word &
verbs calm with promises

her thumb was in the air
blonde on the highway a
touch of dimestore red
in the opera off the prairie

another dead Elvis
on an Oldsmobile radio
where had all the Tupelo idols gone?

half of a distant farmhouse
behind the roll of a hill
centuries remained in its nails

if she mailed herself home on a postcard today
she would arrive there ahead of the frost

go tell your moons

once whispered on the road
that ended in the park
swallows & bats like kamikazes
against the blue orange dusk

tell your moons about poetry
there is patience in their orbit
conflicting with horizons
in their asteroid longing
fragile in the grip of burdens
eclipses & our dreams
trading our selves for gravity
now missing in our jeans

as we sleep upon this lumpy verse
there are stanzas collapsing

parenthesis

To be homeless in a land of the housed, or was it homed? It was a common reflection for Rita. To her, not to be housed on her own terms was more than insult; it seemed a ridiculous waste of her energy and talents, spending every conscious moment in pursuit of a place to rest for the time when rest became compulsory, then risking it all fighting to maintain it. No one had mentioned this possibility to her in her youth, when security in her future middle age hadn’t been an unreasonable imagining.

Still, this place was a fortunate discovery. She stood there in the tall brown grass, in her threadbare raincoat and dull rubber boots. It was a wonder, she thought, as she dropped her bags in the wild untended garden, how a place like this could go lost to the city surrounding it, behind its overgrown hedges and hidden gateway. It was sure to be inventory on some realtor’s list. It was a mansion, after all. Even if it had seen better days – shutters hanging by single hinges and windows broken, the front door having been forced. It was a gothic tragedy.

She was standing next to a dormant fountain, a centre piece around which a weedy driveway arced, leading up to and then away from the grand front steps that went up to a splendid, if ramshackle, wraparound porch. The fountain was a little taller than her, made of marble, once alive with showery glistening cherubs and lavishly carved fish standing erect on their tautly coiled tails. The cherubs reaching skyward with their chubby hands, as if to touch the outer membrane of creation to exchange plasmatic sparks with God’s holy outstretched fingers. Now the pool at its base was dry and scattered with dead leaves.

Wasn’t this the very definition of fixer-upper? Where was the young couple, with more of the bank’s money than sense, to buy it and make it a home?

It was a romantic domestic idea. Just one of thousands that streamed into her head hourly. They would not cease.

“It’s a fucking dump,” said Henry. Henry was a new voice, acquired since she abandoned the olanzapine. He was a working class Londoner with a broad uncouth accent. “I’d rather live in a fucking tent.”

“It’s lovely,” Rita replied, dreamily.

“It’s a bad house,” whispered Natalie, the voice of Rita’s shaman. “Don’t go inside,” she warned. “You’ll be courting ghosts.”

“These ghosts scarier than you lot?” Rita said. She meant her collection of voices.

“Careful with that,” said another voice, familiar but without a real name, the voice of The Nun. The one that insisted Rita was possessed by demons, and that only prayer could save her. Rita ignored The Nun, slightly offended by the idea that she was possessed by mere demons and not Satan himself.

“I will go inside,” Rita said.

It was late October, cold overcast and now becoming dark. She hoisted her bags and climbed the stairs. The front door was long gone, leaving a dark open portal. She crossed the threshold and entered what must have been a greeting hall.

“It’s dark,” said Tony, her timid little boy. He needed her. The other voices bullied him. He’d disappeared while Rita was on antipsychotics, missing in some undiscoverable province of her mind, frightened and alone. But now he was back, and in her care.

“Don’t worry, Tony,” she said. “I’m here. We’re all here together.”

The house smelled of mould, though the weather had been dry for two weeks, and something else. She opened a bag and took out a candle, lighting it with a plastic lighter she returned to her pocket. The candlelight illuminated the hall and part of the larger room beyond, the tall ceilings and ornately molded plaster, pale blue paint peeling, walls stained and tagged with graffiti. Rita heard the sound of small animals darting in the dark.

“Malevolence,” Natalie whispered. Her whispers always sounded like the hiss of wind in a darkened alley, setting Rita on edge.

“It’s a bit premature for that, Natalie, you old hag.” It was Samuel, mostly the voice of calm and reason. “This place is shelter. Shelter we need, yes?”

“I need no shelter,” Natalie said. “I am energy. My shelter is the cosmos.”

“Very poetic,” Samuel said.

Rita said, “Please, not now, you two. I want to explore before we settle down.”

Rita knew she must look in every room. There might be other homeless in the house, unwilling to share. Crazed on drugs. Drenched in murder. Demons and ghosts. This was an observation she had shared with Dr. Mazari, the city psychiatrist, nervous when she mentioned it casually during an appointment.

“Why don’t we find you a home, Rita?” he’d said. “A little apartment you can call your own. Somewhere where there’s staff to watch out for you. We could get your psychosis under control. No more taking chances in derelict buildings, exploring empty rooms.” Dr. Mazari loved his metaphors.

But she said she wouldn’t go back to one of those places. Where the youngsters they hired forced pills down her throat and laughed at her behind her back, as if she didn’t know. Where she was placed in the dusty papery continuum of some weary Social Worker’s caseload. Appointments with the last one so tedious that she pitied him. His face and wringing hands exposing his anguish as he evaded the daggers of his various office quandaries and catastrophic relationships. His obvious anxieties powering the orbits of moons round the planets of his cruelly acquired cynicism.

“Tell me who’s the caregiver then, doc?” she’d said.

Dr. Mazari hadn’t answered. He’d only stared at her for a moment and blinked. He’d clearly expected her to passively agree. Perhaps he also wondered at her eloquence, as though she was incapable of having thought such a proposal through ahead of time, based on her own lived experience.

They were always happier when she raved, and she had raved more often than she liked to admit. But not then in Mazari’s office. A parenthesis had hung in the room with them, then. Something subordinate, best placed in brackets and left unsaid.

Mazari scribbled something in Rita’s thin file, and dismissed her. She never returned.

Now she climbed a curving staircase, having crossed the sagging living room. The staircase was something from an old film noir classic, where Bogart might have stood, lighting a cigarette.

The light of the candle preceded her. For the moment, there was nothing else in the world. Or perhaps there was. She thought she could hear sounds beneath the creak of each ruined step. Laughter hiding behind each squeak and scrape.

“Stop laughing,” she said.

“But you’re funny, you are,” said Malcolm. Mischief Malcolm, he’d named himself. He who admonished her for not walking in traffic, cutting herself, shoplifting or spitting on cops. “Tip toeing around,” he said, “like there be monsters here.”

“There are,” Natalie said.

“There aren’t,” said Tony.

“Yes there bloody well are, little boy,” said Henry.

“Stop it,” Rita said, a little too loudly. Adding too much credence to the reasoning behind the conversation.

She reached the top of the stairs and could see a row of doors on both sides of the hallway before her. Bedrooms, she thought. She would be exploring for a half hour, at least. She hoped her candle would last.

The walls of the hallway were stained brown with water that had leaked in through the collapsing roof, and the ceiling sagged.

The first room was large and empty, obscenely spray painted. A window let in dim light. There was a decaying shoe on the floor and putrid blankets. A fuel can, likely empty, next to a broken kerosene lamp. Closet doors opened onto empty space, where whole wardrobes once hung, worn by a warm living breathing thinking person. Where was he or she now? Had there been joy in this room?

The next room was smaller and contained a solitary baby’s crib. The moon was breaking through the clouds outside and shone through the broken window. The abandoned crib seemed all the sadder in the silver light.

“Nursery,” Rita said.

“Baby ghosts,” whispered Natalie, “the most melancholy, robbed of life before life begins.”

“They’re with God,” said The Nun. “If they are baptised, that is. If not, they abide in purgatory forever. God is good.”

“God’s a dick,” said Henry.

“Stop it,” said Rita.

There was a smell in the room, sharing the air with that of mould and the foul dry rot of the building’s timber frame. It was like what she’d encountered when she first entered the house, only stronger now. A disturbing smell, triggering something inside of her. Something prehistoric, a signal to run. But she couldn’t. There was nowhere to go.

She exited the nursery into the hall and walked toward the next room, but stopped at the door. Here the disturbing smell was overwhelming. She felt it on her skin. She heard it in her ears.

“Don’t go in,” whispered Natalie.

“She might be right for once,” Samuel said.

“Enter in prayer,” said The Nun. “You shall fear no evil….”

“Burn the fucking place down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

Rita jerked her head and shoulders, as if to dislodge the voices. They felt like they clung to her.

“Leave me,” she said, and entered the room.

The room was the same as the others, empty but for things made insignificant by neglect and decay. An empty wooden crate, used syringes, a balled-up sleeping bag. Rita tried to hold her breath, extending her arm, holding the candle out in front of her, moving it from one side of the room to the other. Until she saw the eight ball eyes and stopped. The cloudy unseeing cataract eyes, bulging in the head of a dead man. A head with a gaping bloody bullet wound, tilted over onto his shoulder.

“Monsters,” one of the voices said.

“Shut up.” Rita jerked her head and shoulders.

“This is the fucking stink,” said Henry.

“Is he dead?” Tony said.

“Dead and in hell,” said The Nun.

Rita knelt next to the body, holding the candle close for a better view. She felt the molten wax drip across her fingers and hand. Death is so still, she thought. Nothing more silent, unmoving.

She stood abruptly. Suddenly sensing someone in the room with her. She turned and looked behind her.

“It’s him,” Natalie whispered. “Where’s God now? Nun, you bitch.”

“Blasphemer!”

There were undeniable footsteps beyond the candle light, breathing. Rita stepped forward to illuminate more of the darkened room. Nothing. But there, just beyond the candlelight. Movement, a figure dashing to the left.

“Who’s there,” Rita hissed.

“Burn the fucking place down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

“I’m scared,” said Tony.

“Show yourself,” said Rita.

And the glowing figure stepped forward. Silver like the moonlight. Different from the ruined cadaver on the floor, but the same as well. The clothes were a match, but the face was mild young and unmarked by violence. Early twenties, she guessed.

“I’ll cast a spell,” whispered Natalie. “I’ll send him away.”

“Pray,” said The Nun.

“I’ll kick his fucking ass,” shouted Henry.

“What happened?” Rita said.

“I died,” said the ghost.

“But why?”

“I owed money I couldn’t pay. What does it matter now?”

“What was your name?” said Rita.

“Nigel,” said the ghost. Then, “You mustn’t stay here. There are more than me. Predatory. Watching you now.”

He’d been good, Rita thought. Bad choices.

“There is no other place for me tonight.”

“Anywhere is better. The street.”

There was shuffling in the dark. Heavy clumsy feet.

“They’ve been here a long time,” Nigel said.

“Burn it.”

“Malcolm’s right,” Henry shouted.

“Demons,” said The Nun.

“Not demons,” said Nigel.

“Do you hear them?” Rita said, surprised. “The voices?”

“Yes,” said Nigel. “But The Nun is wrong. They’re not demons. They were were human once. Worse than demons.”

A door slammed in the hall. Then all the doors slammed in the hall. Again and again. The remaining unbroken windows in the room shattered inward, spraying Rita with broken glass. She could hear low voices, murmurs and sighs. There was movement behind her. She turned to look. Nigel’s body was shifting. Awkwardly rising of its own accord. Its bulging eyes turning in their sockets.

“It’s not me,” said Nigel.

“Bloody well looks like you,” said Samuel.

“It’s them,” whispered Natalie.

“Who?” Rita said.

“They want you,” said Natalie, loudly now, with urgency. “Eat you alive. This place is hell,” she screamed.

Now Rita remembered the first room. She moved fast, keeping her hand round the flame of the candle so it wouldn’t go out. She ran down the hall and entered. There was the kerosene can. The one she assumed was empty. She picked it up. It felt heavy enough to be full. She removed the cap and sniffed. It was indeed fuel. She grabbed the blankets and ran, but was slammed against the wall by something unseen as she took to the stairs. She stumbled. But grasped the railing and continued down.

Vast patches of plaster had fallen away from the living room walls. Leaving holes, exposing large expanses of narrow pine shiplap, dry and flammable. She put her candle down and dropped the blankets in front of one of the holes, dousing them in kerosene. Then she doused the shiplap, soaking it.

Turning then, she saw her candle extinguished. The air was still. There was unfamiliar laughter, and she was thrown once more against the wall. Something snapped in her arm this time, accompanied by a paralyzing pain that rapidly occupied the full distance from her shoulder to her finger tips. She lay motionless in her agony. More laughter. Then an impact with her stomach. A boot. A kick to the belly. She knew the pain. She’d been kicked there before. Never fall down in a fight, she’d been told by someone more experienced than her. But what could she do now?

The strong smell of kerosene was sickening. Her hand felt for it, and found her plastic lighter in a pocket. She grabbed it with her good hand and heard the house shriek as she lit the blankets. The flames rose and took hold of the expose wood. The living room was immediately brightened by flame. Rita rolled onto her back and watch as the fire worked its way into the wall.

* * * * *

The glow on the north east horizon went mostly unnoticed at first. But slowly, the sirens began. And the city, early into its night, became aware that some unassigned calamity was taking place. Maybe even something that would win an editorial race to top story, to be displayed on the handheld screens of the citizenry.

“Close call,” said Henry.

“It was good to fucking burn it down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

“You’re safe now,” said Nigel.

Rita felt a clean blanket over her. There was an oxygen mask on her face. She was on a gurney. Surrounded by red and blue flashing lights. The flames of the house could be seen over the tops of the overgrown hedges.

“Not a hospital,” she said.

“Your arm’s broken,” Nigel said, smoothing the bangs out of her eyes. “And you’ve inhaled too much smoke. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this lot at bay. No voices while you’re in the Emergency Ward. Tell them that there were others in the house who started the fire. Maybe you’ll get out with just a cast and some pain killers.”

His voice was soothing. And unlike the others, he could actually be seen.