East Van

There are events that occur so long ago that our failures are forgotten—the failure to achieve a fitting rage the moment someone is torn away. And then the failure to cry.

But when the moment arrives, and is right, we do make our fists. Hold them tight until all the blood is gone, and the remaining white is ivory. And then we do weep. When it makes no sense. Like someone once predicted.

*   *   *   *   *

We were the outcasts. Leaky sneakered, bargain clad by our mothers. Maria Hart and me, Zack Stavros, Vincent Chan. Bookish to faults. A poets’ archipelago, by-and-by. Forever black and white in family photos, unaware that we were the future of art and anarchy. We were the exiles of our neighbourhood, unseen.

And yet, we saw everything.

We were 10 years old in the summer of 1971, and were, on that poplar cotton morning, certain that we saw Maria’s ghost in the high grass, kneeling next to her own body.

And since she lingered there separated from us, Vincent, Zack and me stood alone.

“Maria.” Zack was the first to speak.

Quietly.

Releasing her name into the air. Maria, a water colour suspended in the morning.

The three of us numb as her body was lifted onto a stretcher. The blanket the police had hidden her under falling away. Revealing her hollow cheeks. Her rigidness. Her once perfect auburn hair, tangled with twigs and yellow willow leaves. Fixed still cunning eyes. The wrongness of her left arm, too elbowless and deficient to be real.

The body of our friend.

Thalidomide girl. (Maria’s hated handle, that only the cruel would use.)

Found murdered, having not returned for dinner the evening before, in the vacant lot left behind by old Mrs Mackenzie’s demolished house.

Mrs Mac who had died in her double lot jungle garden 2 years before. Assailed by her own heart at 80 years old.

The garden where now the irises and deep red paeonies grew wild.

Where stones still bordered the deserted pathways and flowerbeds beneath the cherry and apple trees.

Where resided, in their branches, the china dolls that Mrs Mack had enchanted and made barely visible on high, and behind the shrouds of low hanging leaves and in the dense creeping thyme.

“Only a child can find them,” she said, correctly. “Because only a child is as magic.”

Maria, her throat crushed, in a wild garden. Watched over by unmoving eyes on porcelain faces.

And there was something else my mother could only murmur, after she’d heard the story on the radio. A word defined for me then by its lone blunt syllable. A whispered scream. A calamity word that once uttered found space in every fracture of my life. An act of awful dreams. That I associated then and now with the evidence in Maria’s dead milky eyes, the banner of her blood, a host of flies.

Rape.

Cowardly, cruel and stupid.

That night I woke in my bed from nightmares, my distressed father looking down on me.

My father was tall and lean then. Severe sometimes with his unwieldy love. Gentle other times, always made anxious by his children’s fears. Now standing magnificently in the dark room, in the dim streetlamp light coming through my bedroom window.

“You were screaming,” he said. “Like a girl.”

Like a girl.

A nearly wordless man whose words when spoken could sting. Failing, as he sometimes did, to understand the duties and consequences of fatherhood.

My father of the proletariat. Born and raised in East Van. Missing out on high school, but now a union carpenter. A tattoo on his right hammer hard forearm, a dagger through a dark red heart, encircled by flame and wrapped in a banner with my mother’s name, Bridget, forever burnt in to it. A neighborhood legend within his circle of lifelong friends. Proving their confederacy with incontrovertible stories of his savage rebellion and extraordinary courage. Who had a trick of hitting every green in the city. Still street smart and good in a fist fight, he thought the same would be good enough for me. Never able to comprehend my need to understand not only facts, but also the subtleties that cemented them together.

He pulled my small desk chair to my bedside and sat. Just jeans, no shirt no socks. Obviously roused from sleep.

“Your mother’s still in bed,” he said. “I can go get her.”

“No,” I say, reticent. He was  still a stranger to me, eerie yet comforting to have nearby.

He shrugs, “OK,” and lights a cigarette. “It must have been pretty bad, seeing what you saw today.”

Now I shrug, still feeling the nightmare on my skin. Suspicious even of my bedroom’s familiar shadows.

“That poor cripple girl, eh?” he said.

“Cripple’s a bad word.”

“She was your friend, your mother says.”

I said, “Yeah.” And the world went hush.

I’d yet to read even one tragic romance.

I couldn’t explain it to him then, or myself, my fascination. My attraction to her. How vast it was. Her child-wise insights and beauty in spite of what people whispered. Her aura, surrounding her like the Virgin in Catholic tracts. Only I saw it. But I was too young to know, that in the minds of others, my childish crush on a cripple made me a defendant in a crime of the grotesque.

But now, a crime that I could never fully commit.

Then, “Why can’t I cry?” I said. “Shouldn’t I cry?”

“You’re gonna, kid,” he says, tapping a cigarette ash into the palm of his hand, and rubbing it into his jeans. “When it don’t make sense,” he said. “It’ll hit you like a brick. And then you’ll cry, just fine.”

It already made no sense.

“What happened to her was what you were dreaming about, I guess.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Wanna tell me about it?”

An unexpected question.

But how could I explain it to him? I did my best. My exact words are lost, only a vague memory now—

In my dream, I was with Maria in the wild garden. In night’s darkest room, spied on by China dolls. Her face is pale, unwashed. She’s missing buttons. Her fingernails are broken from a fierce fight. She’s post-mortem. Her spirit is imperfect.

I remember a long audible lament from somewhere hidden, nearby.

“I’m dead,” says Maria, “aren’t I.”

Things are running through the puzzle of jungle around us.

“And this place is haunted,” she says, suddenly very afraid of something I cannot see. “I’m scared,” she says. Her milky terrified eyes moving rapidly left to right as suddenly the hands of a multitude reach out from behind, and pull her into the darkest of the dark. Jumping forward, I reach out for her hand. And have it for a moment. But then it’s gone. Leaving only a cold night behind. Grief, silent and complete.

I wake screaming, at that moment, to see my father standing over me.

I remember thinking it was a dream too strange for a simple carpenter to understand.

But—

“Hmmm,” he said. “That’s a good one.” Then draws on his cigarette, nearing its end. The orange ember momentarily lighting up the dark room. “I have dreams like that sometimes, too,” my father says. “Must be hereditary. Don’t forget ‘em, neither. Not like regular dreams. I’ve got a garage-full in my head.”

This is surprising. Like I’d just peeked over a wall at the real man.

A dream itself is but a shadow,” he said, snuffing out the cigarette between a callused finger and thumb. “That’s Shakespeare, Hamlet. You read more than a kid should, that must be hereditary too. So you’ll get to the Bard, eventually. Sooner than most, I’ll bet. Some say he didn’t write any of it, but who gives a damn.”

My opinion of him changed then, and I finally paid attention, discovering that he did read. Had all along. Dog-eared stacks. Hammett, Faulkner, Chandler, Orwell and more. A disheveled easy chair in the basement furnace room. A crooked lamp, recent copies of the New Yorker. Scattered journals on mysterious subjects, like socialism. A few empty beer bottles and an ashtray.

I tried to read his copy of 1984. But at 10 years old, I couldn’t finish it.

When I told him, he said, “That’s a bit heavy, ain’t it?” Then he asked me what I thought of what I’d read.

“People in novels are mean,” I told him.

“It’s called tension, kid,” he grinned. “That’s what all the dames, gats, villains and tough guys are about. Riddles at the start, heartbreak in the middle, redemption in the end. A novel’d just be bad cover art without the tension. But watch out.  Sometimes there ain’t no redemption. Nothing obvious, anyway. Just injustice. Those stories can be the best, I think. You gotta mull ‘em over. Maybe for a long time. Maybe forever.”

“Nothing’s forever.”—everyone said so.

“Maybe,” he said. “But an ending never walked away from the story it belonged to. Good or bad. That’s kinda like forever, isn’t it?”

It made me think of Maria. Her ghost kneeling over her own body in the tall grass, on the morning she was found. The ending she’d never escape.

My father made me a writer. Made me a dissident. And I thank him for it.

*   *   *   *   *

Zack Stavros, Vincent Chan and I were in the garden the next morning. Watching the cops like bees on the scene. They even questioned us. But we didn’t know anything. Except that she was our friend. That she was smart.

I quietly remembered the last time she and I spoke.

A debate, almost an argument, over who was cooler, Barbie or Ken. Barbie was, as it turned out.

If either Vincent or Zack had dreamed a dream like mine, neither would say. That is until hours later. After we’d walked round the neighbourhood. Tried to sneak into the Rio Theatre, and failed. Tried to play a round of street hockey we were all to sad and confused to pull off.

When we returned to the wild garden in the afternoon, and watched the few cops remaining talking in a corner across the property from us, smoking and drinking coffee, laughing at whatever it is cops have to laugh at at the scene of a child’s murder, Zack opened up.

“I dreamed about her last night,” he said.

“How?”I asked. “I mean, what was the dream about?”

He was quiet for a minute, then he said, “She looked like nothing had ever happened. Better, even. Just stood there in a weird light.”

“Where?”

He nodded in a hazy direction. “Kinda off the path.”

“So, what happened?”

“I don’t know.” He look down at his ragged runners. Kicked a stone. “She just kinda smiled and disappeared. It made me feel good, though. I wasn’t sad anymore, ‘til I woke up.”

“You weren’t scared,” I said, without grace.

“I felt like I was falling,” said Zack, “With nowhere to land. Just a lot of light.”

“That’s it?”

“I just woke up,” he said.

They arrested everyone in the Cesare Fiocco gang the week after.

The Fiocco gang were the dropouts. 18 or 19 years old. Each never more than a lunatic glance, an injured laugh away from the other. They bullied. Stole. Shot pool at the Lusitania. Ran errands for the rotten cops and the Capos on the Drive. Each dying too young. Leaving no vacant space behind, my father said, when they did.

And each, in unison, ratting out Dante Bonazzoli as the perpetrator of the crime. Dante Bonazzoli, the oldest of them at 20. Who committed Maria Hart’s rape and murder. Bonazzoli who called her a freak because of her birth defect.

He died in the BC Pen a year after sentencing. Bleeding out in a shower. Stabbed eleven times with a screwdriver. For being a rapist, and refusing the advances of an inmate as monstrous as himself.

I was jealous of Zack’s dream. Resented that what I thought was my last glimpse of Maria was so different from his. But my envy didn’t last long. It only lasted a few days. Until I began to see her again.

Maria over my shoulder. Reflected in storefront windows. Opposite on busy streets. Standing very still on downtown sidewalks. Each time, only for seconds. In nearly every corner of my life. No longer lost in shadows. Her face bright. Her eyes sharp. Was it more dreaming? No. It wasn’t.

Maria clothed in paradise. Whispering in tongues. Wise and just beyond touch. In a room next to me, then vanishing.

Time passed and she faded away, completely. I forgot, and I failed to ever cry.

I grew and learned and worked and got older.

Forgot to cry, that is, until the other day. When it hit me like a brick. Out of nowhere. When it made no sense. And then I cried, just fine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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riggin’

1971

“Hand me the riggin’,” said Paul Vaillancourt.

I looked at the neatly laid out array of engine parts that surrounded us, and chose a likely candidate. I wasn’t mechanical. Didn’t care to be. Didn’t care to be dirty. Didn’t want to play rough. Or exchange juvenile bullshit about auto mechanics.

There was local folklore, in fact, about my avoidance of boyishness. I sensed, though at the time I would not have been able to verbalise it, not having the vocabulary, that family, friends and neighbours were worried that I might never achieve proper boyhood, with all of the future consequences that implied. My brother and others, using words like faggot, helped to expand my personal moving glossary on the topic.

Riggin’, by the way—

Paul often used this kind of word. Old Manitoba words. Fashioned long ago. Allowing a user to never call a thing by its actual name. A tradition brought with him to Vancouver, from the town of Morden, Manitoba. Round-abouts Dead Horse Creek, he’d say. Paul believed calling a thing by its real name was for suckers.

He lived in the house next to my family’s. He was 61. And worked in a mill. A place, I imagined, not really knowing for sure, that was full of riggin’s.

I’d chosen well. The riggin’ he’d asked me to hand him was called a carburetor. For the old Ford inline 6 Paul was working on. I was 9, and had wrapped my small hands round it and hefted it up. Paul grabbed it from me with one big hand without taking his eyes off what he was doing under the hood. The carburetor was oily. I looked for somewhere to wipe my hands.

“Rags’re over there,” he said, without pointing in any direction, as he cranked a ratchet wrench. I did a 360. Saw nothing. Wiped my hands on my tee-shirt.

“Your mother ain’t gonna like that,” said Paul. Again, without looking away from his work. Later in life, I learned the word uncanny. Paul’s Bluetooth telepathy was uncanny.

He produced a rag, pulling himself out from under the hood. And tossed it my way.

He was grey and balding. Close shave. Wearing jeans, work boots and a plaid shirt. Smelling of Vitalis and gasoline.

“A haunted house in a city just ain’t the same as out on a prairie,” he declared, wiping his hands with another mysteriously gotten rag. He was starting again from where we’d left off on our earlier haunted conversation. I came to him occasionally with the big questions.

“On a prairie,” he said, “it’d be an old farm house. Maybe abandoned since the depression—damn those were some hard times. Yup, a prairie haunted house is the loneliest place in the world. Spooks attracting spooks from miles around. Real social. But no place for the livin’. Ghosts the colour of the high grass and prairie flowers in the summer. Movin’ the same in the wind. White like frost in the winter, standing real still like something frozen, but ain’t. Inside, when you get inside and start nosin’ round, they’re the shape of the stairs and the doors and the windowpanes. Standing behind you in a mirror, if there’s still one hanging on the wall. Maybe matching yer step, walking upside down on the ceiling ‘neath the floor yer walking on. Walking up the walls, like on a sidewalk in town. Lookin’ atcha through a window, from inside or out. Gettin’ inta yer soul, if they can. Readin’ you like a poem, one stanza at a time. Yer a poem, boy. You know that? Every man is. Every woman, too. Though a man ain’t as prone to admitting it, as much as a woman. Ghosts get in a man and read him stanza by stanza. Sounds like a whisper when you try to listen.” He looked at his hands as he wiped the grease and oil from them.

I said, “I was only thinking of the big black old place up on 8th Avenue.”

“Been in there?”

“No way.” I lied.

He gave me a sly look. Like he knew a little better.

“Then how you know it’s haunted?”

“Just looks haunted,” I said, though I had a more concrete reason to believe that it was. Secret. I hadn’t shared it. I was already a suspicious neighborhood character. “Everyone says it’s haunted. Joe Farano, Bobby Jensen.” But it was all talk, on their part. They hadn’t seen the little round-faced girl looking out through a window at the back of the house. Younger than me. Maybe 7. I was braver than most. And fewer friends meant more time on my hands. So I ended up there that evening. She smiled when our eyes met. I had a rock in my hand. It was like she was daring me to throw it at her. Through one of the last unbroken windows. (Why else would a boy be in the back yard of an abandoned house, if not to throw rocks through windows?) I didn’t, though. And she came out onto the back porch, gave a little wave and then disappeared. Then there was invisible movement everywhere. It was dusk.

“Ghosts the shape of the front door, then?” Paul continued with the questions. “Shape of the gables, the porch? Leaves of the trees, the dandelions?”

I shrugged. This wasn’t the conversation I was expecting.

“Are there lights at night? In the windows. On the walk up to the steps?”

“I don’t know.” It wasn’t true. The invisible movement around me that dusky evening had turned into a parade of lights.

“Did ya feel yer stanzas bein’ read?” he asked. “Out loud? In whispers? It’s loudest just before you go to sleep at night, mostly. Just before you cross the line into dreamin’. But sometimes it’s louder when they aren’t inside of you, just real nearby.”

“No,” I said. But, maybe, I thought. And wondered if it showed, when a boy’s stanzas had been read.

“Ghosts are tricky,” said Paul Vaillancourt, lighting an Export “A”. “Some even say, artful.”

Artful. I looked the word up later. In the massive Webster’s Dictionary my father placed on the kitchen stool when he cut my and my brother’s hair with the electric razor he’d bought at Simpson Sears one weekend past a payday long ago in my family’s misty past. The big fat book made our little heads high enough for him to do a decent job. (My father, an industrial printer by trade, was a failure as a barber. So, we almost always ended up nearly bald.)

Ghosts could be artful, I decided after reading the word’s definition. They’d evolved into their own peculiar civilization, I came to believe, piecing together this theory without being able to articulate as much. Like Aztecs. Building pyramids. Block by block. Able to read the interior Stanzas of Mankind. And some of them were just up the street. Residing within their very own immeasurable, artifactual tarpaper abode. Each in a shape he or she had chosen for his or her own artful reasons.

Paul retook his place under the hood, asking me to hand him the riggin’ next to the alternator.

The alternator, what the…?

I chose another likely candidate. One as likely as the rest. Wondering at the oddness of the Ford inline 6. Choosing well once more. The engine fan. I hefted it up, into Paul’s waiting hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a Canadian over Hiroshima

In a favourite frequent dream he was Little Boy, released lazily from the fuselage, falling freely over the city with his eyes open wide, toward the topography and civil systems, framed by the compass horizon. This was the elegance of his descent, the landscape static below for that long minute, having been dropped from so high, decent divorcing distance. Then the dense second of his detonation, uranium-235 colliding, as he became the toroidal vortex that defined him forevermore.

He woke at 3:00 a.m., in the heat of that fire over Hiroshima. But he remembered quickly that it was August, and that the heat was merely the swelter over his dull prairie neighbourhood. He sat up in his bed, scanning the dark for ghosts. But until that night, there had been none. The dead had spent no time in his ordinary garden. They hadn’t peeked over its walls, or tried its gate. The dead danced on other planets.

He was a man of many regrets, prone to saying he had none. Alive to the murder/suicide in things, he wrote equations to forget, on his ceilings and walls, papering over the windows and writing over them. Kilometres of binaries, brackets, numbers, functions, powers and variables throughout the house, all in 4B graphite pencil. There were holes in things. He gauged their sizes and pinpointed their locations. Strings of calculus. He dusted carefully the boundaries between objects, a bit of mathematical fibre on a toothpick run along the cracks in things. 3:00 a.m. glowed in the dark. Fictitious, a fraud.

Time is equal to distance over velocity, t = d/v; anguish equal to isolation over remembering, a = i/r.

The Enola Gay, with a crew of 12, 7,000 gallons of fuel, and a 9,000 pound bomb in its belly lifted off from Tinian Airfield at 2:45 a.m. on August 6, 1945. The B-29 Superfortress had four engines and was propeller-driven, a heavy bomber designed by Boeing. It was advanced for its time, with a pressurized cabin, an electronic fire-control system, and remote-controlled machine-guns. The crew dropped the bomb over the city at 8:15 a.m.

A girl on the ground, at that moment, looked up at the silver bead falling in the sky, her head tilted back, her mouth open slightly. Curious at first. Then, “Raijū,” she said, a second before she was blinded.

She wore a blue cotton dress like any Japanese schoolgirl of her time, and now sat on a chair near the bedroom window opened inches to the night. “I saw you in the sky,” she said to him, “that morning. And for all of the enmity and cunning that delivered you there, you were passive and imbecilic, round and ridiculous, a silly tantrum.”

“But you misunderstand,” he said. “I simply have dreams.”

She looked around at the numbers on his walls, and said, “I felt your heat for a second, and then I was ash. A silhouette. A moment scorched onto a wall.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his fists twisting the sheets, and at some point fell back to sleep.

She was gone in the morning, and he wrote a = i/r with a finger in the bathroom mirror’s morning steam. Equations and the dead have their silence, and they stand on stone.

 

 

 

 

 

history talking in tongues

His name was Lester Gwyn, and at some point in his life, he couldn’t remember when or believed it important, he’d begun calling younger men lad. And when he did, he would say it with condescension, and always with a leering glance that would last far longer than necessary.

As for young women, he’d begun around the same time to refer to them as lass. Again with condescension and a leer that differed only slightly from the one he offered male students.

This was, it was hoped by other staff and by his supervisors, nothing more than an eccentricity. Same as the eccentricity that lead him to grow his unclean fingernails too long, use Vaseline to grease down his balding head and sport a pencil thin moustache. But not all shades of a man can be blamed on eccentricities.

For example: Lester’s eyes were ponds of pink and muddy hazel, his breath was sloughy, and his back slightly hunch. He was musty smelling, wore once-white, now yellowing button down shirts, and always the same very thin red tie with a tiny green thread-wild dragon embroidered on it.

It was said of him, by those lacking charity, that he oozed a rank sort of gluiness, like a wound oozes pus. An assessment that would have outraged most, but instead stirred something curious inside of Lester, making him feel, when he heard it, an earthy awakening below his belt, in the region of his tangled manhood.

As a university history librarian, he worked with many a morbidly introverted student, and happily watched the promising ones strand themselves forever in isolation upon unapproachable islands of past events. Occasionally, he’d startle one of these students by placing a thin hand upon his or her shoulder, approaching from behind when least expected. This he did for reasons of his own, but always in a way that alarmed and disconcerted. It might have been considered a gesture of kindness or encouragement if done by another librarian, but Lester inspired a unique sort of loathing no one could describe, so no one bothered trying.

One of the students Lester Gwyn enjoyed accosting in this way was a very shy young woman named Ophelia Flint, with her poorly fitted eyeglasses, awkward wardrobe and difficult hair. She routinely stumbled over the most easily avoidable objects and was inclined to stare down at her slightly tattered red rubber boots, when not looking in a book. Lester thought it odd, however, that he believed he recognised her, as if from another life. He even thought, for the briefest of moments, that this recognition was empathy in disguise—but it was a very brief moment.

In short, Ophelia’s bearing spoke of sullen frailty, which attracted Lester more than any other quality a woman could possess.

Now it is in late October, with its light sickly in the day and its nights approaching absolute, that Lester Gwyn would come into his own. Perhaps because the night is at its most accommodating then, and he could move more freely in the gloom, in fact becoming his own mobile shadow standing very still and watching, or rolling over the topography of things, in the subtle but ever-present light of the stars and moon that adds spice to any fine spell of dark.

And sometimes it will be, as it was in that year, that the occasion of Halloween falls on a lesser day of the week, such as a Tuesday. Which is not to say that the air is any less filled with the smell of fire or the fragrance of spent gunpowder, or that the moon and lurking dead have any less influence over foul mirth. But Tuesday is a more modest and aloof day than any of the rest, and therefore more susceptible to the consequential weight of iniquitous ceremony. In short, the union of Halloween and Tuesday is a pleasing and compelling match for devotees of all that is wicked. Lester’s career as a  cutthroat had begun on a Halloween Tuesday. And that year’s Halloween would be a Tuesday Halloween.

But Halloween, on the surface at least, regardless of what day it fell on, was no longer the bleak chamber of infernal ritual Lester remembered it once was. The candy kisses had lost their molasses, and the mayhem had been suppressed beneath layers of dreary correctness. He yearned for a lost long-ago when the fog half settled over the city, and the spirits banged hard on the door. The Halloween of his youth was now a ghost, its shadowy magic exchanged for a foil wrapped corporate malaise.

Lester was determined to be the change he wished to see in Halloween, and that is why he’d sought out an absolute über victim, one whose demise appealed most to that sadistic spoke in the wheel of his psyche.

He began to stalk Ophelia on the Friday before Halloween, and Lester was pleased to discover how simple she was to track, always walking in the same small circle, between three primary locations: from the library to a coffee shop off the quad called Moe’s and then to what must have been her home, a squat really, a large derelict Victorian pile just off campus. She seemed to be the lone tenant, and only one window would be lighted after dark, a basement window just above ground level.

The library, Moe’s, old Victorian house. His plans were still in development, but Ophelia would be easy to hunt. She was a pigeon to Lester’s predatory mind, walking with her head down, her stringy hair hiding her face. Whatever happened to her would be her own fault. He smirked. She was just asking for it.

On the afternoon of Halloween Tuesday, Lester found Ophelia in the university archives. It was a section, oddly enough, containing only local history, and it presented him with an unexpected opportunity. He could toy with her there, and enjoy an hors d’oeuvre of her vulnerability in anticipation of that evening’s main course. The table where she sat was stacked with files chronicling the university’s past, and its surrounds.

“Local history?” Lester said. “I thought your thesis was on Byzantine sewers.”

“Yes,” said Ophelia, looking up. “It is.”

Lester recognised a picture on the table. It was of the old house she lived in now, taken a hundred years ago.

“That’s the house on University Boulevard,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s condemned now, but several Deans have lived there.”

“Condemned?” he said, playing stupid. “But I see lights on, at night.”

“There are rumours of a haunting.” She struggled to keep her glasses on her nose.

“You think ghosts are the source of light? That’s odd.”

“History speaks in many different tongues,” Ophelia said.

That was insightful, spoken like a true Master’s student, whose study of history hadn’t yet broken her heart. But Lester was struck once more by her blank expression, her inability to make eye contact and the flat tone of her voice. Not for the first time, he suspected autism.

“There’ve been murders there,” she continued, and pulled an aged newspaper clipping out of a folder.

Police investigate Murder of Dean’s Family in Dean’s Residence, said the headline.

Lester pushed the scrap of discoloured newsprint away without reading it. All he cared about was  the possibility of adding one more to house’s body count.

“Perhaps someone lives there now,” he said. “Students are always looking for cheap or free rent.”

“Perhaps.”

“Do you think whoever it is, lives there alone?”

“Maybe, probably. Who can say?” She began nervously shuffling documents about on the table, as if to confirm Lester’s suspicions: she was the lone resident.

“I have to go,” she suddenly said, and began stacking her archival materials.

“Just leave it,” Lester said. “I’ll have an assistant clear it away.”

“Thank you,” she said, standing and stepping back, nearly stumbling over her chair, saved from a fall by a shelf of books. A couple of volumes fell onto her head. “Thank you.”

Lester stepped closer, and now they stood face to face. And in that moment, Ophelia smelled his mustiness and thought she saw something scuttle from one of his sloppy eyes and tuck into the other.

“You’re welcome,” Lester said, tightly grasping a leather blackjack in his pocket. “Happy Halloween.”

Dark seemed early that night, the time change having occurred the weekend before. Lester found himself arriving ahead of time and standing across the street from Moe’s when Ophelia arrived. He watched as she sat in a window seat, sipping tea and reading an out of date romance novel. As he did, he massaged the long heavy leather weapon in his pocket. He was smug. He knew he was undiscoverable. He was shadow itself.

Leaving Moe’s, Ophelia walked up University Boulevard, tripping occasionally over her rubber boots, to where the lampposts became old-fashioned and further apart. The light was dim and yellow, and the houses were those of sororities and fraternities, spread apart on double lots and in various states of repair. One house, however, was like a black hole. It was grander yet more ramshackle than the rest. It sat unlit on an acre of neglected land, with what had once been a grand driveway and surrounded by a high overgrown hedge. Most of its windows were broken or boarded over, and there was a For Sale sign next to the tall wrought iron gate.

Lester gave Ophelia a moment after seeing her disappear off of the street, through a hole in the holly. Then he followed, coming to crouch next to a dormant fountain statuette of a moss cover boy holding a cornucopia, silhouetted against a misty three quarter moon. There was the sound of water dripping into the pool, and things moving in the bushes. Then a basement light came on, and Lester felt a thrill pass through him. In that room was a friendless outcast whose body would never be found.

Stepping round back, Lester tested a basement door. It was locked. Then he climb the stairs to the backdoor, and the knob turned with a rusty yelp. He’d worn lightweight deck shoes for the prowl. Inside the abandoned kitchen, he stepped lightly on what turned out to be a solid uncreaking floor. Many of the old appliances were still in place, in various states of degeneration. Opening a cupboard, he discovered ancient bags of rice, cans of tuna and a jar of Ovaltine.

Then peering through the entryway into the main dining room, he saw a decaying dining table surrounded by chairs and set with dirty china, as though a meal had just been eaten. Astonishing, he thought, that none of this had been pilfered after so many years.

Then, as his eyes adjusted further to the dim silver light, he saw a dilapidated baby grand sitting in a corner, with its lid up. He walked over and tenderly touched middle C, producing a thump as the hammer fell onto empty space. Then he pressed D, thump again. But this time, the blunt sound was accompanied by the sound of something scraping on the floor behind him. Turning quickly, he saw a chair out of place. And was that a moving shadow?

Then just stillness and silence. He was imagining things.

Back in the kitchen he quickly found what he was looking for, a door to a dimly lit cellar. Pulling out his blackjck, he began to tiptoe down the stairs, hearing muffled voices as he did. Then the quiet laughter of two women. This was a happy surprise. Two for one, but he’d have to be careful. His attack would have to be savage and without relent. He’d never killed two at once. Perhaps this would set a new tradition. Perhaps only a double massacre would do on Halloweens to come.

The cellar floor was dirt and very damp, the walls polluted with mildew. There was the sound of things scurrying all around. Wishing he’d brought a flashlight, he lit a match and held it high. A face appeared and vanish behind crates a few feet away. More imaginings. Match shadows, he was certain.

He crept toward a dim light coming from around a corner, surely from Ophelia’s room, and when he found it the door was open a crack. Now, however, there were no longer only two voices. Peeking through the crack, he saw at least ten individuals sitting round a kerosene lamp on a table, the lamp light doing awful shadowy things to their faces. Lester saw that these people were pale, emaciated and dirty. Their clothing was terribly soiled, and some had ghastly open wounds.  .

Looking closer, he saw Ophelia at the head of the table, with a deck of tarot cards laid out in front of her. No longer clumsy and shy, she was now vibrant and laughing, as all those round the table hung on her every word. Looking closer, Lester saw that the strange lamp light made each of the faces strangely familiar.

It was a Halloween trick, a costume party. Lester cursed. This put a crimp in his plans.

Leaning back against the wet wall, he considered his alternatives, feeling his coat pocket for his backup switchblade. But he’d used the switchblade before. The standing tradition held that each year’s victim must die in a new and different way. Poison, gunshot, strangulation; the list was long but not endless. Not only that, in the past twelve years, no Halloween had come to pass without him committing a murder. Cancelling now would ruin his record. It would mean shame. He’d be reduced to a mere dabbler. There was loud burst of communal laughter as he came to this conclusion, as though the revelers in the next room had read his mind. Then there was a call out—

“Oh come in and join the party, Lester.” It was Ophelia, but with a confidence he didn’t recognise, or did he? “Come in and share the joy. We’re all here for you, after all.”

All here for him? What could that mean?

“Come in,” the rabble repeated. “Take your place of honour.”

Lester peeked in again.

“There he is,” said an old woman with what looked like an open wound in the area of her heart. “Come visit us all again. This is your night.”

The faces in the room were becoming unpleasantly familiar. He even began to recognise Ophelia in a different way.  It was all too confounding. Deciding to retreat, Lester spun round and walked into a tall man with the face of a boy, and a garroting scare encircling his throat.

“Forgive me, lad,” Lester said, and tried to go round.

“Lad?” said the young man, blood bubbling out of the open trauma just below his thyroid cartilage. “You’re still fond of the label, I see.”

“Please,” Lester said, and tried to dart around.

“No you don’t,” the young man said, grabbing Lester by the collar and pushing him into the room with the others. “In you go.”

Lester fell onto the ground. Everyone at the table in the ghoulish light, looking down on him. Now he fully recognised each of them. And there were thirteen. Each a victim of his past Halloween exploits. Many of their names he’d forgotten, but there was #4, Imelda Abel: the lass who died by straight razor, and was buried beneath the Clyde Street sidewalk, the concrete poured on the November 1st that followed her death; and #7, Martin Geir: the lad who’d died from an ice pick Lester delivered up his nose; and #9, José San Andreas: a lad Lester had thrown into the inlet with two cinderblocks tied round his ankles.

And the one who was now the most familiar of them all, Natalie Morgenstern, who had been masquerading as Ophelia Flint. Natalie, the lass who was his very first so many years ago, death by switchblade, thrust into the cerebellum and given a twist. He remembered her body floating face down in a suburban drainage ditch. She had been his first, on a Tuesday Halloween.

“We all trusted you,” she said. “You’re a librarian.”

“Who can you trust if you can’t trust a librarian?” said someone else.

“And you were ready to kill me all over again,” said Natalie Morgenstern. “Maybe History doesn’t speak in different tongues, huh.”

A woman with a limp noose round her crocked neck said, “Don’t worry hun, it does and always will. But sometimes it mixes up all the details, sequences and delivery. Then it hands it all back. That’s called karma, Mr Lester Gwyn.”

Lester could hear the piano playing now, the one upstairs without strings. It was a grim execution of something by Saint-Saëns, a pitiless accompaniment to what was unfolding. He remembered a lad named Roger from the Faculty of Music who had played the piece, but it couldn’t be him. Lester had taken a ballpeen hammer to both of the young prodigy’s hands, nailed to a wooden table, just before he sawed off his head with an electric carving knife.

“I really must go,” Lester said, scrambling on the floor.

“But we’ve dug such a comfortable hole for you,” said Natalie Morgenstern.

“And we mustn’t waste time,” said Imelda Abel, to whom time was once an important thing. “This is only one night, and you have thirteen different deaths to die.”

“Thirteen?” Lester looked desperately at each of the gory faces. “W-what does that mean?”

“That’s history talking in tongues again,” someone said, and all thirteen of Lester Gwyn’s victims laughed.

 

 

 

 

 

little ghost twice

A ghost eats opals, and a demon eats ghosts, and late on a Sunday night, as the dreadful music of waking painted frightful gardens in the empty corners of the tramp house, uneasy dreams occupied the underside of his sleep.

He dreamed of his bones made of wax, melting from the strife of walking the bleak, observing an evening horizon confused by its own inconstant line, dimming and dark, and imagining elsewhere, beyond its imperfect circle, places where skies were proud of morning. And as he dreamed of himself melting from inside, the demon became aware of his sudden sentence of death by nature.

When he woke, he found himself sitting up in bed, with the heavy blanket of flame he slept beneath cast aside. He’d smudgy muddy tears to wipe away, and in the room the scent of some intent, while the opal jar next to his bed stood full of rainbow stones, some like pulsing stars (heartbeat, heartbeat) still warm with the residues of outlandish nostalgias and the dearer testaments of the dead.

Then he heard a child’s voice, a dream remnant he was certain, saying—

“You dropped me in the river, like something greasy, served in a box.”

The charge was levelled by a vaguely familiar scribble on the wall, its lips moving not quite in concert with its words. A ghost? But there were none. He’d hunted the hauntings of that house to extinction, a hundred years before. So he laid back down, and rolled over beneath his fire.

He fed on ghosts for sustenance, some demons did, and the ghosts of ghosts did not return. It was true, however, that he recognised this small scribble, and remembered how he’d stalked her, observing for days and from afar her strange delight in being a pale drifter. He recalled the moment he pounced, and how when he was finished, he’d poured her soft remains over the railing of the 10th Avenue Bridge, and watched the peculiar gravity that gripped all invisible things drag her residue down into the dark water, and out of mind. That was only nights ago.

Now she shouted, “Wake up!” and the candle shadows shook.

His eyes opened again, and sitting up in his ancient four-poster bed, he crab-crawled backward to the headboard, and shouted back, “What the hell is it?”

The scribble approached the bed, shaping itself into the full likeness of a small girl, and sat next to him, fondly taking his blue hand, his eyes so dark that they threatened to devour the light of her own.

“Do demons have nightmares?” she asked.

He shook his head, but wasn’t certain, as his belly chose that wrong moment to cough up a small translucent stone. It spit a pastel fire, and he placed it in the jar on his nightstand.

“A trophy?” she said, as it went plop. “Whose precious centre of gravity was that?”

“You aren’t real,” the demon replied.

“What’s wrong, can’t you believe in a ghost made twice?”

“There’s never been one!”

“That’s the same as not believing in a ghost made once,” she grinned. “Wouldn’t you starve, if that were true?”

“You don’t talk like a child.”

“They don’t in the places I’ve been.”

“But I watched what was left of you sink into the water,” he said. “Your flame was absolutely extinguished.”

“The man who killed me the first time watched me wilt in a closet. Then he dumped me into the trunk of an abandoned car. He thought that he’d snuffed me out, too. Now he’s spoon-fed Thorazine, and raves in a tiny locked room with a window in the door.”

“You returned and drove him mad.”

“Yes,” she said.

“You won’t do that to me.”

“Granted,” she said. “A demon’s already insane. There is a word, though—an imperfect one—not even a syllable, really. A demon dies, when he hears it.”

“So you’ve come with vengeance in your pocket.”

“Yes, but you’ll forgive me. It’s imprecise, imperfect like I said. It’s sort of like a bullet, this word. It must be aimed well, and it can only be fired once. So, if the sayer has a target in mind, she must aim very carefully. But she must also be sure of her mark. Because a word once spoken, refuses to be hushed.”

“Then I must do you a favour,” he said—because a demon who has lived ten thousand years is always haughty—“and be very still.”

“And listen very closely, my dear,” said the little ghost, as she reached up and stroked the bony mound of the demon’s blue bloodless cheek, like a daughter or a lover. The demon feeling, strangely, something approaching compassion and regret—because a demon who has lived ten thousand years can be very lonely.

“I will listen,” he said, “and then I’ll tear you to pieces, when the game is over.”

“Yes,” she said, “but first….”

But first, she moved from sitting, up onto her knees and tenderly wrapped his blanket of flame round his shoulders.

“…a kiss between equal enemies,” she whispered, and placed her lips upon his temple, and was repulsed when she saw ages of murder. The demon smiled at what he mistook for her simplicity, and thought the better to destroy her again.

Then with uncanny exactness and speed, she turned his head as if to snap his neck, and uttered softly a sound, scarcely sensible, into his sharp ear, and he violently pulled away.

“You bitch,” he hissed, and sneered revealing his teeth too sharp, and tongue incandescent with the blood of luckless spirits. The jar of opals on the nightstand burst, and stones emerged from every hidden space, orbiting into a galaxy. The demon stood and stumbled, wrapped in his darkening cloak of vanishing flame, and was blinded by a spectral fire, legions returning to take back their foggy marrow and essence.

“You slut!” He felt his bones melting, as he shrank into shadows. “Don’t fool yourself. You’re no worthy enemy.”

“Maybe, but your conceit was.”

the numbers

Asher was anemic, just a kid with dry lips and dark rings round his muddy eyes. He’d been following me around for days, and had finally cornered me on the patio of a coffeehouse on Hornby Street. That was where it all began. And now that I’m in on the joke, I don’t think the punchline could have been any different.

It was hard times when we met. I’d wagered myself into a corner, doing what all high stakes gamblers on a streak do, eventually – I’d crashed. Now there was only enough money in my pocket for a latte and a slice of chocolate cake, with a little left over.

Asher was a ghost, by the way. He told me he’d died when he was twelve, seventy-two years ago, 1943. But he’d never made it to the other side, whatever that meant. He’d been following people round ever since. I was his latest fixation. Sure, I’d tried to shake him, but he was a tenacious little shit.

“First I got sick,” he’d said, sitting across from me at my patio table. “I puked for a week, and my mamma was real worried, and the doctor came into my room and he was worried, too. I was trying real hard to hang on because of the war. Back then everybody was dying. My brother died in the Atlantic. I didn’t want to break my mamma’s heart, but I died all the same. When the moment came, I sort of stepped out of my body, and I saw myself there, on the bed with my eyes half open. The doctor shook his head, and my mamma cried, and I just walked away.”

Asher was pretty convincing as a ghost, being a little less than solid, and a little more than transparent. Bugs flew right through him, and there he sat barefooted in the grimy pajamas he’d died in. What else could he be?

“Who can see you?” I nodded to the surrounding patrons. “Any of them?”

“No,” Asher said. “Just you.”

I spoke to him with my deactivated iPhone to my ear, to keep from looking like I was talking to an imaginary friend.

“Just me, why?”

“Because I like you.”

“But why aren’t you in Heaven, or Valhalla or some shit?”

“Ralph says there ain’t no Heaven.”

“Who’s Ralph?”

Asher pointed across the street, at an unkempt crowd of semitransparent individuals, some with serious body traumas, others just pale and hopeless. I looked way, and took a gulp of coffee and a king size bite of cake.

“That’s very disturbing, Asher,” I said. “Please don’t show me shit like that.”

He shrugged. “Ralph is the one in the fancy suit with a hole in his head,” he said.

I risked another look, and saw a grinning man wearing a tuxedo. He waved. There was a bloody hole in his head. It had to be Ralph.

“What the hell does Ralph know about Heaven?” I said.

“He knows a lot of stuff.”

“Such as?”

“He knows what horses are gonna win, place and show at Ex Park, and he knows the lottery numbers.”

Horses and lottery numbers; the story was taking on a compelling density. I did some desperate arithmetic.

“The lottery numbers,” I said. “Before they’re drawn, you mean? How’s he know that?”

“Just does.”

“Can he come over?”

“He’s kinda scary,” Asher said.

“And you aren’t? C’mon, call him over.”

And then there he was, Ralph. Sitting across from me, dressed to the nines, with several spots of blood on his starched white shirt. His gaze was fixed. Clearly he wasn’t using those decomposed eyes to see with. Asher sat next to him.

“I love this goddamn kid,” Ralph said, ruffling Asher’s hair. “I knew a dame once, named Flo. She had a kid just like him. Flo did a lot of heroin, see? So the little fella was sort of at loose ends. I took him to see hockey games, and he ran a few errands for me.”

“Swell,” I said. We hadn’t even been introduced, and Ralph was telling stories.

“You know,” he said, leaning toward me across the table, pointing at my latte, every word a trashcan stinking exhalation, “I’d love to have one of them Italian coffees again. Somethin’ real strong. Somethin’ to straighten out the ol’ gonads.”

He was up close now, his mouth a slack, post rigor mortis sneer. He had a musty smell, and the blood on his forehead was still a little wet.

“What’s with the glad rags?” I said.

“Pretty sharp, eh?” He pinched the lapels and gave me a toothy yellow grin. His gums had receded considerably. Then he brushed some confetti off of his shoulder and swatted at a bright red streamer. “The Commercial Drive boys got me out back of the Hotel Georgia, New Year’s Eve, 1929. I was out back doin’ a little of the ol’ cocaine, when they came outta nowheres. Caught me flatfooted, and pop, right through the head. Felt like someone’d got me a good one, upside the skull.”

“Nice,” I said. I was starting to get a little queasy. Ralph simply oozed quease.

“Yeah,” Ralph said. “Life is hard, innit? And then you get iced by the wops, out back of the Hotel Georgia with a cocktail straw up yer nose. Ha! Waddaya gonna do?”

“They must have had a reason.”

“Oh that,” Ralph said, sitting back and throwing up his hands. “Let’s just say that some people can’t take a joke. So what if I had a few longshoremen on the payroll, always good for some marketable merchandise here and there. I had a couple of fighters, too, I gotta admit, training outta the Astoria, took the occasional fall. And so what if I was fixing the horses. The suckers lined up for that kinda shit. Vancouver wasn’t much back then, but there was enough to go round – I thought so, anyways.”

I looked across the street again. “What’s with your crowd of followers?”

“Them? That’s just a little pyramid scheme of mine.”

“What does that mean?”

Ralph spat out a short guffaw, and slapped a knee. “Just a little joke, innit Asher?” He gave the boy a none too gentle punch in the shoulder.

“Yeah, Ralph,” Asher smiled, rubbing his arm, “a joke.”

“Yeah, sure it is,” Ralph said. “But seriously….” And here Ralph got a little grim, as something brown dribbled out of the corner of his mouth. “What’s this I hear about you wantin’ to play the numbers?”

Asher leaned over, and Ralph met him halfway. The boy whispered into his ear.

“See?” said Ralph. “This is why I love this kid. He’s right. I meant the lottery. Jeeze, the more things change…, eh? The government takes it over, and the numbers become the lottery. Same goddamn crooks, different name. Now it’s all contractual agreements, church on Sunday and expensive aftershave. I can’t keep up.”

“What about them, then?” I pointed across the street again. “I still wanna know.” The gruesome troop watched us like dogs waiting for a bone.

“We just sorta wander round together, nothin’ better to do. I lead the way. I’m kind of a guide. Hell, they don’t know where they’re goin’. Most of them’re still suffering from the same shit they were suffering from when they were alive – broken hearts, bad decisions, unresolved tribulations, that kinda crap. They brought it all with ‘em to the grave, just can’t let it go.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t, and it don’t matter, neither. Now tell me, do you want help with the numbers, or not?”

The numbers. My foot started tapping. I had debts, I couldn’t pay. Now this spook was offering me a chance to cash-in, maybe big time. It was too implausible. It was a hallucination. But what could it hurt to play along?

Ralph’s musty smell was getting worse.

“Tomorrow’s Lotto Extreme is worth $25 million,” I said.

“That’s a tidy sum,” Ralph said, “a tidy sum. It’d clear up some of those gamblin’ debts. Oh man, it’d clear ‘em up with plenty of change left over.”

“What gambling debts? What do you know about my gambling debts?”

“Detroit versus Montreal, the other day,” Ralph said, suddenly refined and wise, despite the congealing drool. “That was your last bad last call, wasn’t it? Plenty before that. You were hot once, but that don’t ever last. You’ve worked your way down through the legit bookies to the bottom feeders, and the bottom feeders don’t use collection agencies, do they. I bet there’s some boys in town right now, looking to cut off one or two of your fingers.”

“How would you know?”

“Shit, boyo, if I can tell you the lotto numbers, don’t you think I know what’s what with you?”

There was silence now. The street noise had stopped. Ralph and I sat looking at each other like gunfighters. The one who looked away first, lost.

I looked away first.

“You’re a risk taker,” Ralph said, taking a slip of crumpled paper out of his pocket. “I appreciate that in a man.” He slid the slip of paper across the table to me. His fingernails were black. “Takes one to know one. I was a risk taker, too. It didn’t work out so well for me, of course. But maybe now I can do you a favour. Maybe it’ll make up for some of my own bad decisions.”

I stared down at the paper. It was folded in two.

“Go ahead, kid,” Ralph said. “Go buy a ticket. Use them numbers. After tomorrow’s draw, everything changes.”

Ralph was see-through, but the paper was solid. It slid across the table, caught in a breeze. I slapped my hand down, and caught it.

“We’ll talk later,” Ralph said, and vanished.

“Yeah,” said Asher, “later.” He smiled then and faded.

It’s hard to be cool standing in line, when you possess the winning lottery numbers for a $25 million jackpot. I was snapping my fingers like Sinatra to a song that wasn’t there. I’d written the numbers down on the chit in a frenzy. I didn’t even know what they were. The draw was the next day at 7:30pm Pacific Time.

Just ahead of me, in line, two old men were discussing the physics of trading on the stock market. It was the usual old fart drivel of lottery line-ups.

“I still say Gaussian models are the only way to go,” said the bald one. “It’s definitive.”

Definitive? Was that grammatically correct? Who gave a shit?

“And when it doesn’t work,” said the one in the I heart Stephen Harper tee shirt, “you blame chaos theory.”

“Of course. The universe is chaotic.”

“Then nothing’s predictable, nothing’s definitive, and that’s why you’re living off a pension cheque. Take the lottery for instance….”

Yeah, take the lottery. Holly shit. My foot began tapping again, and I checked my pocket for my last $5, the price of $25 million.

At the counter, I handed the five over to a smiling Pakistani man who moved like a machine, inserting my numbers into the slot, then pulling out my ticket.

“Good luck,” he said, handing it to me.

I wondered how many times he said that in a week. Again, who gave a shit? Then he said, “Do not forget to put your name, address and signature on the back – very very important!” This guy was all drama.

Now I was suddenly aware of the potential of a measly piece of paper. The ticket was nonnegotiable. Yet I trembled as I held it.

It was getting dark and cold, but going home was out of the question. Ralph was right, there were likely some of Philbin’s boys in town. ‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin, that is, to whom I owed a little over a hundred grand. He might even be in town himself, for that kind of money. Max was a hands-on kind of guy. So I’d sleep at the bus station, sitting up. If they gave me the bums rush, it would be a back alley. But if all went according to plan, it would be the last time I slept with the rats.

The next morning I woke to a janitor running a mop over my shoes, as he washed the floor.

“Hey, fuck,” I yelped, jumping up. “These shoes are Allen Edmonds.”

“Then you should give them back,” he said.

“Oh, that’s a very funny fucking line for a janitor.”

He smirked as I tried to kick off the slop. Then I saw Asher standing a few feet away.

“What the hell do you want?” I didn’t bother with the iPhone trick. Who cared if a guy sleeping in a bus station talked to himself?

“Golly,” Asher said, as unsuspecting people milled round him, “this sure is a crummy part of town, even worse than when I was alive.”

“Yeah, well that’s 2015 for you.”

“You got the ticket, right?” he said.

“I thought I’d finally gotten rid of you.”

“I got nowheres else to go. What about the ticket?”

“I got the fucking ticket, okay? What’s it to you.”

He shrugged, but was that really a blank expression? What did he know?

It was raining the usual shitty Vancouver rain outside. I checked my watch. 8am, still a whole day to go. I put up my collar, and began to walk. The watch was a limited edition TAG Heuer, purchased after a big win at craps in Vegas. I considered pawning it, but thought any pawnshop unworthy. I found an awning over an abandoned storefront, and sat down. My stomach growled.

“Hungry?” Asher said.

“Bugger off.”

“There’s a soup kitchen round the block.”

“Will you just fuck off?”

“My mamma and me got real hungry sometimes,” said Asher. “She drank a lot of wine, and didn’t wanna do war work. We went to a soup kitchen, the Franciscan Sisters. They gave us food and told us Jesus loves us.”

“Yeah? Well where’s Jesus now?”

“I guess he’s home with the funny papers.”

“Terrific.”

The guy ladling out the soup in the soup kitchen gave me the once over, then a wondering look. My jacket was wet, but it was still an Armani.

“Hard times, brother?”

“Temporary,” I replied.

“Me too,” he said. “But the thing about temporary, I’ve found, is that it can last an awful long time.”

“Can I just have some soup? Gawd, who the hell eats soup before noon anyway?”

“You do, bub.” He filled my bowl and handed me some bread. Then he said, “Do yourself a favour. Do whatever you gotta. Rob a bank if you have to. But don’t come back. You don’t belong here.”

The soup’s main ingredients were water, salt and a piece of carrot, and the bread was only minutes away from sprouting mould. Other patrons avoided sitting with me. Asher watched without blinking, from a far corner. Everyone but me ignored a tall grubby man at another table when he stood up and screamed for several minutes. All-in-all, it was a hideous dining experience.

As I left the building, a woman wearing a Jesus Rocks t-shirt handed me a pair of dry socks. They were red, and I was wearing taupe slacks with brown shell Cordovan loafers. It wasn’t going to work, but I took them anyway.

“Keep the faith, brother,” she said.

I would, absolutely. I felt the ticket in my shirt pocket.

I spent the rest of the day walking, my new socks soaked through. At about 7:25, I walked into the mall and up to the lotto kiosk to watch the numbers come in. It was the first time I’d actually looked at the ticket to see what mine were. 2 3 5 7 11 13 17. What the fuck? The first seven primes. My stomach knotted. What a ridiculous combination. It would never come in, all primes in sequence. It was impossible. I’d been played for a sucker by an apparition.

I was about to tear the ticket up when I heard Asher say, “Don’t do it.”

“But this is stupid,” I said. People began looking at me. I should have put my iPhone to my ear. “In all of the history of the universe, something like this has never happened, and never will. I hope you and your deceased pals had a good laugh.”

“Just shut up and wait,” Asher said.

Shut up? Poltergeist Jr. had just told me to shut up. The situation was worsening by the second.

Then the first numbers started to appear on the screen behind the counter. First came 2. Then the second: 3. The third: 5. Holy shit! The forth: 7. This was sick. Unbelievable. The knot in my belly rapidly changed from one kind to another. The next numbers couldn’t possibly be a match. But they were: 11, 13 and 17.

I checked it again and again.

“Holly hot bloody fucking goddamn shithouse motherfucker,” I said.

A couple of people looked over their shoulders.

“We gotta go,” said Asher.

“I’m stinking rich!”

“Yeah,” he said, “but let’s get outta here. You’re attracting attention. Someone’s gonna follow you out if you make too much noise. I can’t protect you.”

He was right. Some members of the normally zombie-like shopping mall crowd were starting to look at me like they were either going to eat my brains or hoist my ticket. I made for the exit, and walked out onto the sidewalk.

Rain.

“You have to call the lottery office in the morning,” Asher said. He was walking quickly to keep up, his naked feet splashing through puddles.

“What do I do until then?”

“Lay low,” he said, and then vanished.

Lay low. Hell, it’d been hours since my bowl of salty soup, and I was freezing. I was a millionaire without a dime in my pocket, and no one to celebrate with. My smartphone was useless, I’d spent most of the day hiding under a bridge, and I couldn’t go home in case I ran into a homicidal bookie. There was no lower to lay.

I hugged the storefronts, weaving in and out of doorways and under awnings, to stay out of the rain. Then passing Dunn’s Tailors, I noticed that they were having a suit sale. I stopped and looked in the window. High end worsteds, nice lines. Snappy but dignified Italian ties. Dunn’s was my favourite tailor. It would be the first place I stopped after I collected my purse.

A few other guys must have shared my enthusiasm, because I was suddenly in the company of three men.

“Nice,” said one, looking into the window.

“Yeah Max,” said another. “Real nice.”

Max? It couldn’t be. What were the odds of him finding me here, now? But then, what were the chances of a sequence of primes being a winning lotto numbers?

“Fuck,” I said, quiet and resigned.

“How you doing, Lester?”

It was, indeed, ‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin standing next to me. Rain streaming down his pale doughy face, illuminated in the dim store window light. He had boozy garlicky Eau de Vart funk hovering over him.

“I’m just fine,” I said.

“You really look like shit, though.”

“Thanks.”

“You know,” Max said, “there ain’t one goddamn decent restaurant in this whole toilet of a town.”

“You should have called ahead,” I said. “I would have told you as much.”

“You know why I’m here, Lester?” said Max. “Because you owe me money, and you’ve been avoiding me like it’s alimony.”

“You got a cigarette?” I said. He offered me a Camel and a light. It was mighty tasty, my first in over a twenty-four hours. “Give me until tomorrow morning. Things have changed for me.”

“Changed how?”

“I won the lottery.”

“Don’t get smart with us,” Max said, “you deadbeat son of a bitch.”

“Look, just give me until tomorrow. Have one of your boys shadow me. Lock me in a hotel room. Handcuff me to a chair. I tell ya, tomorrow I’ll pay you every dime.”

“You’re a liar, Lester,” Max said. “Which ain’t no business of mine, normally. Shit, I’ve told some real whoppers in my time, eh boys?”

The goons laughed and slapped Max on the back.

“But you owe me over a hundred grand, and lies will not be tolerated. Grab him boys.”

They pulled me round the corner, and into the alley. Then they threw me against a wall between two cars, and Max’s goons started kicking and stomping the hell out of me. They were good, and they were wearing me down. It wouldn’t be long before I received the final crippling wallop, so I struggled to pull the ticket from my pocket, and then held it up for all to see.

“It’s legit,” I spit through the blood. “Check it. Use your fucking phone and check it.”

“All right all right,” Max said to his boys, “lay off.” He snatched the ticket out of my hand.

“You got blood on it,” he said.

The goons snickered.

“Check it,” Max said, handing it to one of them. “It don’t seem impossible, I guess. You’ve been on one of the worst losing streaks I’ve ever seen. It’s gotta turn round sooner or later. Why not now?”

“It’s turned around,” I assured him.

“Holy shit!” said the goon with the Android. “Boss, take a look.”

Max grabbed the phone and the ticket, and there the numbers were, on the Lotto Extreme website.

“Twenty-five million?” he said. “That can’t be right.”

“It is,” I said. “I’ll call them in the morning and get the cheque. Maybe it’ll take a couple of days. I don’t know, but I can pay you then.”

‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin stood there for a moment, flicking the very valuable piece of paper with a finger. There was a machine in his head that could calculate changes in the fabric of circumstance as easily as it did odds and percentages, and this calculation was an easy one. Then he turned the ticket over, and looked.

“Nah!” he said.

“Nah? What does that mean, nah?”

“It means I take the ticket, and we’re square.”

“No way, I only owe you the hundred grand.”

“Call the rest interest.”

“Fuck no!”

“We should whack him, boss,” one of the goons said. “He’ll go to the cops, for sure.”

“And tell ‘em what?” Max said. He held the ticket so his henchmen could see the back of it in the yellow lamplight. “Look, the dumb shit hasn’t put his name or nothin’ on the back. I’ll just fill it in with my particulars, and badda-pow, I got twenty-five mill. If we wax him now, he won’t be able to spend the rest of his life cherishing this little moment.”

My life hadn’t been a bad one, mostly. And if it was a mess now, it was my own fault. But like most fuck-ups, I’d always felt a little like the world was awfully unfair. I figured it had a hate on for me, especially as I bled in the rain. Sure I’d made some bad bets, and taken some lumps, but I’d always lost and taken my lumps from better people than Max.

I guess that’s how the idea came to me. And what could it hurt, now that all I had to look forward to was a life of wondering, what if? So I deciding to follow through, and pulled back my knee until it touch my belly, and then let it go: my foot, heel first into Max’s junk. You could have heard him gasp and howl three blocks away, then he fell onto the ground, screaming like a little girl.

His gorillas were stunned. This was unforeseen.

“Boss?” one of them said. “Wadda we do?”

In a moment, after rolling around in the puddles, Max was able to form the last two words I would ever hear, that side of the eternal curtain –

“!!Shoot him!!”

Then I watched as both of his thugs drew and aimed. There were only a couple of muzzle flashes, that I saw. But I guess they’d kept shooting after that, because a few seconds later, standing over my body, I saw that they’d reduced it to hamburger from the waist up. Forget the open casket. They were going to sop me up and squeeze the sponge out over my open grave; yea, though I walk through the valley…, drip drip fucking drip.

“Glad you could make it, chief.” It was a familiar voice coming from behind me. I turned round and saw Ralph, with Asher at his side.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“What’s to get?” Ralph said. “Like I told ya, it’s a pyramid scheme, the whole death by misadventure racket is. One dead guy enrolls as many other dead guys as he can, and they enroll as many as they can. Along the way a fella’s gotta learn how to recruit participants.”

“Enroll? Participants?”

“Yeah, participants,” Ralph said. He put his hand on Asher’s shoulder and said, “My little man here recruited you. He’s one hell of a recruiter, ain’t ya boy.”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Asher said with a shrug.

“He even arranged for that Max fella to run into you,” Ralph said.

“But why?”

“Hell, I don’t know. It’s a lousy business model. You’re bound to be disappointed. Everyone is. I’m the first to admit that there ain’t no benefit to it. It’s kinda like the leaves falling in October. It just happens.”

“So now I’m dead,” I said. “And you used the lottery ticket as a scam to enroll me. Why didn’t you just have me run over by a bus?”

“Ain’t no fun in that.” Ralph laughed and clapped his hands. “Bein’ dead can get awful dull. A little bit of cabaret is always welcome. We got you a good one, eh?”

“Go to hell.”

“Been there,” he said, his eyes flashing a bright fiery red. “Shit, I even bought goddamn lakefront property.”

* * * * * * * * *

Death is weird. It’s like looking at the living through the bug splat on a windshield.

I swore the moment I heard about it, that I would never participate in The Pyramid Scheme, but Ralph was right, death is boring. So, I’ve caved-in, and I’m about to enroll my first participant. That’s why I’m here in Vegas, standing out front of the MGM.

Oh, hang on. I’ve got to go. Max Philbin just pulled up.

a fine spell of dark

His name was Lester Gwyn, and at some point in his life, he couldn’t remember when or believed it important, he’d begun calling younger men lad. And when he did, he would say it with condescension, and always with a leering glance that would last far longer than necessary.

As for young women, he’d begun around the same time to refer to them as lass. Again with condescension and a leer that differed only slightly from the one he offered male students.

This was, it was hoped by other staff and by his supervisors, nothing more than an eccentricity. Same as the eccentricity that lead him to grow his unclean fingernails too long, use Vaseline to grease down his balding head and sport a pencil thin moustache. But not all shades of a man can be blamed on eccentricities.

For example: Lester’s eyes were ponds of pink and muddy hazel, his breath was sloughy, and his back slightly hunch. He was musty smelling, wore once-white, now yellowing button down shirts, and always the same very thin red tie with a tiny green thread-wild dragon embroidered on it.

It was said of him, by those lacking charity, that he oozed a rank sort of gluiness, like a wound oozes pus. An assessment that would have outraged most, but instead stirred something curious inside of Lester, making him feel, when he heard it, an earthy awakening below his belt, in the region of his tangled manhood.

As a university history librarian, he worked with many a morbidly introverted student, and happily watched the promising ones strand themselves forever in isolation upon unapproachable islands of past events. And sometimes, he’d startle one of these students by placing a thin hand upon his or her shoulder, approaching from behind when least expected. This he did for reasons of his own, but always in a way that alarmed and disconcerted. It might have been considered a gesture of kindness or encouragement if done by another librarian, but Lester inspired a unique sort of loathing no one could describe, so no one bothered trying.

One of the students Lester Gwyn enjoyed accosting in this way was a very shy young woman named Ophelia Flint, with her poorly fitted eyeglasses, awkward wardrobe and difficult hair. She routinely stumbled over the most easily avoidable objects and was inclined to stare down at her slightly tattered red rubber boots, when not looking in a book. In short, Ophelia’s bearing spoke of sullen frailty, which attracted Lester more than any other quality a woman could possess.

Now it is in late October, with its light sickly in the day and its nights approaching absolute, that Lester Gwyn would come into his own. Perhaps because the night is at its most accommodating then, and he could move more freely in the gloom, in fact becoming his own mobile shadow standing very still and watching, or rolling over the topography of things, in the subtle but ever-present light of the stars and moon that adds spice to any fine spell of dark.

And sometimes it will be, as it was in that year, that the occasion of Halloween will fall on a lesser day of the week, such as a Tuesday. Which is not to say that the air is any less filled with the smell of fire or the fragrance of spent gunpowder, or that the moon and lurking dead have any less influence over foul mirth. But Tuesday is a more modest and aloof day than any of the rest, and therefore more susceptible to the consequential weight of iniquitous ceremony. In short, the union of Halloween and Tuesday is a pleasing and compelling match for the devotees of what is wicked. And that year’s Halloween would be a Tuesday Halloween.

But Halloween, on the surface at least, regardless of what day it fell on, was no longer the bleak chamber of infernal ritual Lester remembered it once was. The candy kisses had lost their molasses, and the mayhem had been suppressed beneath layers of dreary correctness. He yearned for a lost long-ago when the fog half settled over the city, and the spirits banged hard on the door. The Halloween of his youth was now a ghost, its shadowy magic exchanged for a foil wrapped corporate malaise.

But that year Lester was determined to be the change he wished to see in Halloween, and that is why he’d sought out the absolute über victim, one whose demise appealed most to that sadistic spoke in the wheel of his psyche.

He began to stalk Ophelia on the Friday before Halloween, and Lester was pleased to discover how simple she was to stalk, always walking in the same small circle, between three primary locations: from the library to a coffee shop off the quad called Moe’s and then to what must have been her home, a squat really, a large derelict Victorian pile just off campus. She seemed to be the lone tenant, and only one window would be lighted after dark, a basement window just above ground level.

The library, Moe’s, old Victorian house. His plans were still in development, but Ophelia would be easy to hunt. She was a pigeon to Lester’s predatory mind, walking with her head down, her stringy hair hiding her face. Whatever happened to her would be her own fault. She was just asking for it.

On the afternoon of Halloween Tuesday, Lester found Ophelia in the university archives. It was a place, oddly enough, containing only local history, and it presented him with an unexpected opportunity. He could toy with her there, and enjoy an hors d’oeuvre of her vulnerability in anticipation of that evening’s main course. The table where she sat was stacked with files chronicling the university’s past, and its surrounds.

“Local history?” Lester said. “I thought your thesis was on Byzantine sewers.”

“Yes,” said Ophelia, looking up. “It is.”

Lester recognised a picture on the table. It was of the old house she lived in now, taken a hundred years ago.

“That’s the house on University Boulevard,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s condemned now, but several Deans have lived there.”

“Condemned?” he said, playing stupid. “But I see lights on, at night.”

“There are rumours of a haunting.” She struggled to keep her glasses on her nose.

“You think ghosts are the source of light? That’s odd.”

“History speaks in many different tongues,” Ophelia said.

That was insightful, spoken like a true Master’s student, whose study of history hadn’t yet broken her heart. But Lester was struck once more by her blank expression, her inability to make eye contact and the flat tone of her voice. Not for the first time, he suspected autism.

“There’ve been murders there,” she continued, and pulled an aged newspaper clipping out of a folder.

Police investigate Murder of Dean’s Family in Dean’s Residence, said the headline.

Lester pushed the scrap of discoloured newsprint away without reading it. All he cared about was  the possibility of adding one more to house’s body count.

“Perhaps someone lives there now,” he said. “Students are always looking for cheap or free rent.”

“Perhaps.”

“Do you think whoever it is, lives there alone?”

“Maybe, probably. Who can say?” She began nervously shuffling documents about on the table, as if to confirm Lester’s suspicions: she was the lone resident.

“I have to go,” she suddenly said, and began stacking her archival materials.

“Just leave it,” Lester said. “I’ll have an assistant clear it away.”

“Thank you,” she said, standing and stepping back, nearly stumbling over her chair, saved from a fall by a shelf of books. A couple of volumes fell onto her head. “Thank you.”

Lester stepped closer, and now they stood face to face. And in that moment, Ophelia smelled his mustiness and thought she saw something scuttle from one of his sloppy eyes and tuck into the other.

“You’re welcome,” Lester said, tightly grasping a leather blackjack in his pocket. “Happy Halloween,” he smirked.

Dark seemed early that night, the time change having occurred the weekend before. Lester found himself arriving ahead of time and standing across the street from Moe’s when Ophelia arrived. He watched as she sat in a window seat, sipping tea and reading an out of date romance novel, as he massaged the heavy long leather weapon in his pocket. He was smug. He knew he was undiscoverable. He was shadow itself.

Leaving Moe’s, Ophelia walked up University Boulevard, tripping occasionally over her rubber boots, to where the lampposts became old-fashioned and further apart. The light was dim and yellow, and the houses were those of sororities and fraternities, spread apart on double lots and in various states of repair. One house, however, was like a black hole. It was grander yet more ramshackle than the rest. It sat unlit on an acre of neglected land, with what had once been a grand driveway and surrounded by a high overgrown hedge. Most of its windows were broken or boarded over, and there was a For Sale sign next to the tall wrought iron gate.

Lester gave Ophelia a moment after seeing her disappear off of the street, through a hole in the holly. Then he followed, coming to crouch next to a dormant fountain statuette of a moss cover boy holding a cornucopia, silhouetted against a misty three quarter moon. There was the sound of water dripping into the pool, and things moving in the bushes. Then a basement came on, and Lester felt a thrill pass through him. In that room was a friendless outcast whose body would never be discovered.

Stepping round back, Lester tested a basement door. It was locked. Then he climb the stairs to the backdoor, and the knob turned with a rusty yelp. He’d worn lightweight deck shoes for the prowl. Inside the abandoned kitchen, he stepped lightly on what turned out to be a solid uncreaking floor.

Many of the old appliances were in still in place, in various states of degeneration. Opening a cupboard, he discovered ancient bags of rice, cans of tuna and a jar of Ovaltine.

Then peering through the entryway into the main dining room, he saw a decaying dining table surrounded by chairs and set with dirty china, as though a meal had just been eaten. Astonishing, he thought, that none of this had been pilfered after so many years.

Then, as his eyes adjusted further to the dim silver light, he saw a dilapidated baby grand sitting in a corner, with its lid up. He walked over and tenderly touched middle C, producing a thump as the hammer fell onto empty space. Then he pressed D, thump again. But this time, the blunt sound was accompanied by the sound of something scraping on the floor behind him. Turning quickly, he saw a chair out of place. And was that a moving shadow?

Then just silence. He was imagining things.

Back in the kitchen he quickly found what he was looking for, a door to a dimly lit cellar. Pulling out his blackjck, he began to tiptoe down the stairs, hearing muffled voices as he did. Then the quiet laughter of two women. This was a happy surprise. Two for one, but he’d have to be careful. His attack would have to be savage and without relent. He’d never killed two at once. Perhaps this would set a new tradition. Perhaps only a double massacre would do on Halloweens to come.

The cellar floor was dirt and very damp, the walls polluted with mildew. There was the sound of things scurrying all around. Wishing he’d brought a flashlight, he lit a match and held it high. A face appeared and vanish behind crates a few feet away. More imaginings, match shadows, he was certain.

He crept toward a dim light coming from around a corner, surely from Ophelia’s room, and when he found it the door was open a crack. Now, however, there were no longer only two voices. Peeking through the crack, he saw at least ten individuals sitting round a kerosene lamp on a table, the lamp light doing awful shadowy things to their faces. Lester saw that these people were pale, emaciated and dirty. Their clothing was terribly soiled, and some had ghastly open wounds.  .

Looking closer, he saw Ophelia at the head of the table, with a deck of tarot cards laid out in front of her. No longer clumsy and shy, she was now vibrant and laughing, as all those round the table hung on her every word. Looking closer, Lester saw that the strange lamp light made each of the faces strangely familiar.

It was a Halloween trick, a costume party. Lester cursed. This put a crimp in his plans.

Leaning back against the wet wall, he considered his alternatives, feeling his coat pocket for his backup switchblade. But he’d used the switchblade before. The standing tradition held that each year’s victim must die in a new and different way. Poison, gunshot, strangulation; the list was long but not endless. Not only that, in the past twelve years, no Halloween had come to pass without him committing a murder. Cancelling now would ruin his record. It would mean shame. He’d be reduced to a mere dabbler. There was loud burst of communal laughter as he came to this conclusion, as though the revelers in the next room could read his mind. Then there was a call out—

“Oh, come in and join the party, Lester.” It was Ophelia, but with a confidence he didn’t recognise. “Come in and share the joy. We’re all here for you, after all.”

All here for him? What could that mean?

“Come in,” the rabble repeated. “Take your place of honour.”

Lester peeked in again.

“There he is,” said an old woman with what looked like an open wound in the area of her heart. “Come visit us all again. This is your night.”

The faces in the room were becoming more unpleasantly familiar. He even began to recognise Ophelia in a different way.  It was all too confounding. Deciding to retreat, Lester spun round and walked into a tall man with the face of a boy, and a garroting scare encircling his throat.

“Forgive me, lad,” Lester said, and tried to go round.

“Lad,” said the young man, blood bubbling out of the open trauma just below his thyroid cartilage. “You’re still fond of the label, I see.”

“Please,” Lester said, and tried to dart around.

“No you don’t,” the young man said, grabbing Lester by the collar and pushing him into the room with the others. “In you go.”

Lester fell onto the ground. Everyone at the table in the ghoulish light, looking down on him. Now he fully recognised each of them. And there weren’t just ten, but thirteen. Each a victim of his past Halloween exploits. Many of their names he’d forgotten, but there was #4, Imelda Abel: the lass who died by straight razor, and was buried beneath the Clyde Street sidewalk, the concrete poured on the November 1st that followed her death; and #7, Martin Geir: the lad who’d died from an ice pick Lester delivered up his nose; and #9, José San Andreas: a lad Lester had thrown into the inlet with two cinderblocks tied round his ankles.

And the one who was now the most familiar of them all, Natalie Morgenstern, who had been masquerading as Ophelia. Natalie, the lass who was his first so many years ago, death by switchblade, thrust into the cerebellum, and given a twist. He remembered her body floating face down in a suburban drainage ditch. She had been his first, on a Tuesday Halloween.

“We all trusted you,” she said. “You’re a librarian.”

“Who can you trust if you can’t trust a librarian?” said someone else.

“And you were ready to kill me all over again,” said Natalie Morgenstern. “Maybe History doesn’t speak in different tongues, huh.”

A woman with a limp noose round her crocked neck said, “Don’t worry hun, it does and always will. But sometimes it mixes up all the details, sequences and delivery. Then it hands it all back, and that’s called karma, Mr Lester Gwyn.”

Lester could hear the piano playing now, the one upstairs without strings. It was a grim execution of something by Saint-Saëns, a pitiless accompaniment to what was unfolding. He remembered a lad named Roger from the Faculty of Music who had played the piece, but it couldn’t be him. Lester had taken a ballpeen hammer to both of the young prodigy’s hands, nailed to a wooden table, just before he sawed off his head with an electric carving knife.

“I really must go,” Lester said, scrambling on the floor.

“But we’ve dug such a comfortable hole for you,” said Natalie Morgenstern.

“And we mustn’t waste time,” said Imelda Abel, to whom time was once an important thing. “This is only one night, and you have thirteen different deaths to die.”

“Thirteen?” Lester looked desperately at each of the gory faces. “W-what does that mean?”

“That’s history talking in tongues again,” someone said, and all thirteen of Lester Gwyn’s victims laughed.