lost ironies

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Tag: Horror

Hamlet, a Halloween Tragedy

shortly before

He wept, looking up from his prison beneath the open air stage on the Thames, through the cracks between the boards where above the actors strode and hammed-it as he lay forever-sleepless in his paralysed and prone position upon the dark and spidery dirt. He’d been there so long that his self-pity had become a script in its own language, written overhead on the stage’s dark underside—an enormous page of words beginning at its centre and radiating out, dense and nearly endless, in all directions. A greedy soliloquy with no one to hear, for muteness was also an infirmity he suffered from the spell that held him in place. He hated her for it, and prayed to demons and angels and archaic realms, if there were any of those, for someone to come to his rescue. But no one had ever come, not for a hundred years.

Until the night he saw the burning red eyes of Cyro, peering at him through the floorboards above.

“Edwardo,” Cyro said. (It was more of a sizzling lisp.) “The stench of self-pity is more repulsive than the grave.”

“Meaning what?” said Edwardo, or thought, since he couldn’t speak.

“Meaning you stink.”

“Bastard. My plight is my own, and I’ll suffer it in my way. And if I stink, it’s because I’ve lain here a century without a bath.”

“Yes, there’s that too.”

“Who are you?” Edwardo said.

“I’ve been called Cyro. Let’s stick with that. I’m a spirit of a kind.”

“You’re the powerful demon, then. The one I’ve beckoned.”

“Not the demon, but a demon. One who once sat at a cross roads and heard a pitiful call, and came.”

“Then you’ve come to set me free from this spell?” Edwardo was delirious.

“Maybe,” Cyro said. “But this spell she’s cast on you is more than just ironic. (A talentless actor imprisoned beneath a stage; that’s rich.) No, a spell like this is like a house with many rooms woven one twig at a time. A clever witch knows how to squeeze time to make it look quick and easy, but in reality, it takes a very long time cast. Stones disappear in the time it takes to cast a powerful spell like the one you’re under. And a house with many rooms, like the one she’s built, takes time to deconstruct.”

“How long, then?”

“A very long time.”

“How long, damn it? How much more do I wait. Maybe I need to conjure a better demon than you.”

“The spell is already broken,” Cyro said. “I foresaw your situation long ago. Before many of your rude, muddy-faced ancestors were even born. Such is the imperceptible unfurling of mischief, as I’m able to see it, but that’s beside the point.”

“So I’m free, then?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well damn it,” Edwardo startled himself by shouting for the first time in too many years, “I can’t move.”

“Try,” Cyro said.

Edwardo lifted a finger. The pain was cruel, but it was a start.

“Now hear the nails,” said Cyro.

Edwardo listened and heard the shriek of nails pushing themselves out of the boards and joists. Then the boards flew away, and suddenly Edwardo saw the light of stars.

“Now, Lazarus, rise up,” Cyro said.

Edwardo did, creakily at first. And as he stood for the first time in a century, he saw Cyro as a whole for the first time. The demon was at once hideous and handsome. A molten monster Adonis, and Edwardo couldn’t help his gaze.

“Don’t fall in love, fool,” Cyro said. “You’ve got a witch to hunt down.”

“Where is she?”

“A city in the New World,” said Cyro. “Look for her there. That’s all I’ll say, until we meet again.”

*   *   *   *   *

She waited for song, walking the streets of dreaming, hovering half haunted above herself in the dark. And she saw its face at her tenement window, its moist poisoned palms on the glass, its eyes of buttons and teeth of stitches. Of all the demons, her lips moved in unconscious summoning prayer, in all of the splendidly lonesome worlds, you are the one. Sing for me again, she said, dreams still thick round her shoulders and endless in the territory behind her eyes. But it didn’t sing, only watched. Night had come, and she woke to the popping of firecrackers and the not too distant booms of larger ordnance.

Having risen, she sat in the light of a computer screen, the grim pixels of war news. She ate thick-skinned grapes and drank coffee in her solitude, sealed in her cherished killing jar of isolation. A man upstairs played his jazz too loud, Monk and Coltrane, others. She listened carefully, and against all rules, lit a cigarette. American forces had been discovered in Niger, inexplicably. The dead marched off a transport plane at Dover Air Force Base. She showered, dressed, and left her rooms. The city was already ablaze. There was the conflicting threat of rain.

Her name was Bridget and she seemed no older than twenty, and she knew that it was her pale absinthe eyes and paper-white complexion that separated her physically from the ordinary. That even now on the burning sidewalks, eyes were on her, and she was glad. She kept the far less ordinary things to herself, however. The things that really mattered¾how she romanced shadow, could conjure and reshape matter, and how she’d survived for so long in her pale, slim body, while so much of what and who she’d known over the millennia had wilted beneath the rays of distance and history.

History and distance, they were nothing without seconds. This she knew. Seconds colliding and fusing. They were the source of everything that appeared and perished, hope and hate. Minutes and hours, atoms and ages, were incidental. Seconds ruled. Almost painfully ignorant, they were monsters, they were chaos. It was pointless to measure them the way men did. Only the dead and the shadows that ate the human heart could measure them.

She could measure them too, and she’d lived too many. She was a crypt of memory, of conflict, much of it thousands of years old, long foxed round the edges. It was the curse of immortality. Memories of torture, lunatic religion, genocides, jungle napalm. Witnessing the history of intentional inhumanity. Witch magic was a blessing; life eternal was damnation.

It was a neighbourhood of dark edges and ebbing angles in an angry, violent city. A left-behind kind of place that excited vandals and the instincts of the unseen. There weren’t even jack-o-lanterns this Allhallows Eve. The first hint of him was an out of place shape, still as a century, silhouetted against vandal-fire across the road. She stopped and said his name out loud, “Cyro.”

“I could never hide from you,” he said to her in his blistering lisp. “Not when so nearby, anyway.” He stood next to her now. “And, by the way,” he said, “I resent that this is how you see me now.” He turned a 360, showing off his filthy voodoo doll-like appearance. No longer robust and six foot tall, but the size of a plump child. “It’s offensive and clearly a slight.”

“It’s how you come to me in dreams,” she said. Seeing him how she liked, after so long was her privilege. “I dreamt you differently when we were lovers, before your many betrayals. When I could still see you beautiful and nearly human.”

“You have to take some responsibility for those betrayals,” he said. “You knew I was a villain when we met, and don’t the girls just love a villain?”

“I was a fool,” said Bridget.

“One of many.”

“Now you must end this curse. That’s why I’ve summoned you.”

“What curse?” Cyro shrugged.

“This curse of endless life; you know what I mean. End it.”

“You called it a blessing once. You begged me for it.”

“I’m begging for something else now,” Bridget said.

“But you’ll die if I do it,” said Cyro with questionable concern. “Besides, I’ll say it again, you were the one who asked for immortality, and it was granted.”

“I was young and ill-informed,” she said, now having a familiar vision, remembering a lantern lit cave in the hills over the sea in what was now Ireland—priests and fellow witches chanting in a circle and in dark passages, drumming, phantoms dancing. It was a memory of them both, the night he granted her wish. Him terrible and handsome, savage and vile. And her, ambitious, a witch too young and guileless to be consorting with a devil, unaware that it wasn’t necessary. She’d seen his cold, warning eyes in that cave, and he’d tricked her by granting her wish of life everlasting. A spell, he knew, that would cause everlasting pain.

After that he used her. He sang so beautifully from afar and in her dreams—a demon’s most powerful lies are told from afar and in dreams, he’d said once—and she was smitten. It was an innocent adolescent smitteness, though, which made it all the more amusing to him.

“I’ll die for certain,” Bridget said, “when you remove this spell. I want that right returned to me, and only you can do it.”

“I saw this coming,” said Cyro.

“Then do something.”

“You should have asked me for wisdom, instead.”

“Just do something,” she hissed.

“Who says that I won’t,” he said, “but you should know that forever doesn’t end with death. Death just changes the scenery.”

“Do it now.” Bridget held her head in her hands. “The suffering is endless. This world is Hell.”

“Immortality requires patience, my dear. Death is an idiot. It lacks discipline. It lacks subtlety and courage. And it routinely fails to follow instructions, even from someone like me. Especially in a case like yours. Immortals scare the life out of death. But don’t worry. Because of this maddening moan of yours, I’ve intervened on your behalf. Watch this night for a man we both know.”

“Who?”

“I’ve granted him certain advantages.”

“Who? Tell me who it is.”

“It’ll be fun for me, entertaining, because he’s only a man.”

“Who, damn it?”

“I think he found you a little while ago, actually, but has waited for tonight to reveal himself—a night of witches and darker things, the moon waxing like an animal chasing itself in orbits. He loves irony. He’s creative that way.”

“Tell me who it is,” she shouted, “or I’ll send you back into the fire.”

“Then I’ll cancel everything.”

She said nothing. Cyro vanished.

There was a massive explosion in a tenement two blocks away, more festive high-explosives. She saw the building’s facade crumble onto the street, as the blast wave nearly knocked Bridget off her feet

“Hey bitch,” someone shouted behind her. “What you doin’ on our street?” It was a neighbourhood gang. They were all wearing devil masks. She thought she recognised the voice of the leader. “Tonight’s some serious shit,” he said. “We’re out huntin’ for some treats, and you’re lookin’ very edible.”

“Don’t hassle her, Elijah,” someone said. It was a gang member heard from the back of the small crowd. “She’s that spooky wench from up the street.”

“Yeah,” said Elijah, “I know it, and I’m sick of lookin’ at her walkin’ round the hood. She don’t sell it; she don’t give it away. Maybe tonight we take care of her.”

“Yeah, yeah Elijah,” came assenting voices. “Take care of her.”

“We’ll cut you up,” Elijah said to Bridget, pulling a knife out of nowhere.

Flames glinted off of the blade, and she wondered if this was it, if somewhere behind a mask was the face of the man Cyro said they both knew. Elijah broke from the group, and walked up to her.

“Take off the mask,” she said, and the man did. Bridget recognised him. He was local. Tall and well built, but a bully and petty criminal. Maybe this was the night he hit the big time. Rape and murder. “You know Cyro, then?” she said.

“Don’t know no Cyro.” Elijah spit out the words, as he held the blade against her throat.

“Then too bad for you,” Bridget said, grinning.

Suddenly there was fear in Elijah’s eyes, as the knife in his grip began to move back, away from her throat and towards his own. He clearly couldn’t stop it. In seconds he was holding the knife against his own throat. Blood began to trickle. Then began to stream.

“See,” she said to dying Elijah, “your homie was right. I’m spooky.” There was horror on Elijah’s face as the blade dug into his throat. He screamed, and Bridget said, “Bye-bye, tough guy.”

Now she heard words like fuck and holy shit coming from the gang, and Bridget set each member afire without warning. There were shrieks of agony and a grotesque dance for several moments, before the scene was reduced to nothing more than smoldering bodies and bones on the pavement.

“Well done,” someone said behind her, slowly clapping his hands.

She turned to see who it was.

“You?” It was Edwardo. “You moldy ham sandwich,” she said, “you’re what Cyro sent me? Last I checked, you were where I put you—under that stage with the bugs. This is very disappointing.”

“Not for me,” he said. “And you had no right casting a spell on me.”

“But you outted me as a witch.”

“But you are a witch.”

“But I was run out of London by the Church, because of you. By a horde of cross-dressing priests with their torches.”

“But I thought you’d enjoy the drama, since you’re such a bloody aesthete.”

“But you only did it to get back at me,” Bridget protested, “for questioning the quality of your acting.”

“But you’re not a drama critic.”

“But you stank,” she said. “Your Clown Hamlet was an apocalypse.”

“It was innovative for 1917.”

“It stank the place up.”

“Besides,” said Edwardo, now dewy-eyed, placing his hand loosely over his heart, “I thought we had something.”

“You’re mad.” She waved him away. “I don’t carry-on with mortals. I’d tear you to pieces in bed.”

“But we attended parties together. Gala dinners. They said we were inseparable. I thought they were right.”

“It was all for show,” Bridget said. “You’re a fool if you think otherwise, and you know it. A witch either hides or takes the town by storm. She doesn’t have a quiet little flat and attend the shops daily. Not when you stand out like I do.”

“A pale goddess. Everyone said so.”

“It would never have worked, Edwardo.” She was sneering now. “Besides, you stole from me.”

“Well, I was willing to try.”

“You lied,” she shouted. “You told the whole of London that we were sleeping together.”

“I did it because I loved you.”

“You were a pickpocket and an embarrassment,” she said.

They both paused and look into each other’s eyes. So many memories for Edwardo. Just a miserable pinprick in time for Bridget.

“I hate you,” she said to him.

“And maybe after all,” said Edwardo, “ I hate you, too. For leaving me in that prison. When was my term to end? When would you have released me?”

“Maybe never,” she said, smiling as a heavy rain began to fall.

“You pig!” he said, grabbing her round the throat and digging in his thumbs. “I hate you more than anything.”

She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t struggle when her time came, but this was Edwardo. Passivity was out of the question. Cyro had made him strong and had seized her immortality. Suddenly she was witnessing her life passing before her eyes, one infinite second at a time. The carnage and injustices of man. In Washington, DC, a fat sociopathic apricot held the nuclear codes in the sweaty palms of his diminutive hands. Things would never change.

If Edwardo succeeded in killing her, he’d be left behind to live out the remainder of his mortal life, to artlessly walk the streets of an unsuspecting world. Perhaps even to take to the stage again. She knew she had a duty to prevent it, and reached up taking his throat in her throttling hands. Now it was Edwardo’s turn to struggle as a small crowd of revelers raced past, and ran into a derelict building across the street, oblivious to these two people violently trying to kill each other.

“You bitch,” Edwardo gagged and gulped. “Cyro said you’d die easy, so die.”

“No,” Bridget wheezed and heaved, “not at the hands of a degenerate, no-talent stage fart like you.”

“I thought this would be more meaningful,” Edwardo choked. “I hoped for some last minute intimacy coming out of my strangling you, but you’re still the cold blank landscape. I thought you’d show some appreciation, some passion in dying so savagely, but I was wrong about you again.”

Now, as the revelers sped out of the derelict building across the street, he reached under his coat and pulled out a revolver.

“I’m going to splatter your brains all over the sidewalk.”

Bridget knew she was in trouble. Suddenly, she wanted her immortality back. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to muster whatever magic she had left to cast a spell. Just a small one would do. As she focussed, she heard the hammer of the snub-nosed revolver against her head drawn back, but no spell seemed forthcoming.

“Say your prayers and good-byes,” said Edwardo, “you little whore.” And he pulled the trigger, somehow missing his target. As it turned out, Bridget did have a speck of magic left inside of her.

The bang, however, was much louder than either of them expected from such a puny weapon, though neither was experienced in such matters. In fact, it was deafening and had caused a shockwave, pushing them both down onto the pavement. And looking up, as they fell, they saw the facade of the derelict building across the street exploding outward, its lethal flame and aggregate soon to snuff them both out as the revelers who’d set their masterwork Allhallows Eve firebomb danced and jumped with joy a block away.

shortly afterward

She was in what was either a small gymnasium or auditorium—Cyro standing in the centre of the room in all of his tall, purple lava-like glory, surrounded by an adoring crowd of geriatric women. He seemed to be signing autograph books. Bridget smirked and made a self-deriding tsk-tsking noise.

“Oh!” said Cyro, looking up and acknowledging her. “There you are.”

“Yes,” Bridget said.

“Well welcome to our little troupe meeting. Ladies, meet our guest.”

The circle of aged women turned its attention on Bridget and applauded.

“And look!” Cyro enthused. “There’s our very famous guest star, Edwardo.”

Edwardo skulked in a far off corner. One or two of the senior women made as though to swoon.

“We’re dead, aren’t we,” Bridget said.

“Why, yes you are,” chirped Cyro. “Isn’t it wonderful? It’s just what you asked for.”

“And this?” Bridget waved her hand, taking in the entire room. “Is this what you meant when you said that death just changes the scenery?”

“Yes it is.”

“Explain.”

“Well,” Cyro said, “this is a ladies dementia ward, and they’re rehearsing their production of Hamlet.”

Hamlet,” Bridget said flatly.

“Yes,” said Cyro, with joyful enthusiasm. “It’s Hell, don’t you see. The ladies are rehearsing for a Shakespeare Festival that will never come. Never ever, ever, ever,” Cyro grinned. “And you’re the director, and our cringing Edwardo in the corner is the star. Isn’t it wonderful?”

The elderly ladies applauded some more.

“So I guess suicide’s out of the question.”

“Don’t be such a Silly-Willy,” Cyro said.

Edwardo now wept and gnashed his teeth, as a bevy of demented old women danced round him in his corner, nakedly waving their diaphanous hospital gowns over their heads.

“I hate you, Cyro,” Bridget said.

“That’s the spirit,” the purple one beamed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Merry Christmas Lucas Quil

1923

Quil was a calm man, though some said cruel in appearance, who watched the world through dark eyes that decrypted all he saw without astonishment or sympathy. And though prone to hatred and a grim violence, he baffled those who knew him by his introspection and apparent pining for a mysterious lost heart. Indeed, he was the conundrum in his own mirror, where, of late, he seemed to have become increasingly transparent.

Having boarded in Toronto, he now disembarked from the CPR Transcontinental at its Vancouver Waterfront terminus, stepping into a steam dragon on the platform. There, he checked his pocket watch, nearly 8pm and cold. Pulling up the collar of his wool coat, and with his suitcase in hand, he climbed the stairs from the platform, and walked through the station. Light snow was falling on Cordova Street, silhouetted against the yellow light of streetlamps, as he exited. It was Christmas Eve. He hailed a cab.

Taking the backseat of the taxi, he felt the butt of the vicious little gun he carried in his belt, against his waist. Trying to ignore it, he said, “Yale Hotel,” to the driver.

“Just got into town, eh?” The cabby was looking at Quil in the rear view mirror, observing a man in an expensive coat and hat. The suitcase, he noticed, was fine leather, a pricy item.

“Good guess,” Quil said, “since you picked me up out front of a train station with a suitcase in my hand.”

“Well,” said the cabby, “I just wanted to worn you, that’s all. The Yale’s a bit of a dump. We got better in this burg.”

“And yet the Yale is where I want to go.”

“Swell,” said the man at the wheel. Then he said, “By the way, mister, this can be a very lonely town. I can get you ladies, or, you know, whatever’s yer fancy.” He turned and offered Quil his card. Quil didn’t take it, and they drove on.

The furniture in the shadowy Yale Hotel lobby consisted of worn velvet and cracked leather sofas and chairs. An elderly man listed to the left as he snored on a once grand chesterfield. A dilapidated piano stood in a corner, and the chandelier had lost many of its crystals.

The clerk behind the counter was an untidy man with yellow teeth and nicotine stained fingers. Quil gave him his name, and the man lazily scratched it into the leger with a fountain pen, writing Quill with two Ls.

“It’s one L,” Quil said.

“That so?” said the clerk, annoyed, scratching out Quill, and saying out loud, “Mr Lucas Quil,” as he wrote with a faux flourish. “Esquire. One. L.” Then, looking up smugly, he noticed a certain change in the quality Quil’s posture, and immediately regretted his little drama. “Sorry,” he said, nervously. “I’m a little tired. My relief hasn’t shown yet. I’m beat, but it means I might be here all night.”

“Just get me the key to my room,” Quil said. “And I’m looking for a Miss Lilith Drakos. I understand that she has a room here.”

Now the clerk grinned a dirty little grin. “If there’s a guest here by that name,” he said, “I can deliver a message.”

“There is no message,” Quil said, conjuring a ten-dollar bill out of the air, as though it were fruit from an invisible tree. “I want to know what room she’s in.” He held the bill under the clerk’s nose, as the shabby little man licked his lips.

“Preserving our guests’ privacy is important to us,” said the clerk. Then he took the bill, and inspected it. “That was a clever trick,” he said.

“I’ve another trick,” Quil said. “One I do with a straight razor, in the dark of night.” There was nothing minacious in his tone. It was a simple statement of fact. The clerk believed it.

“#205,” he said, anxiously pocketing the cash. “The woman you’re looking for’s in #205. I’ll put you in #207, if that’s agreeable.” He held out a battered skeleton key.

“Fine,” Quil said, taking it.

“That’ll be a dollar for the night,” said the clerk.

Quil said nothing. During the transaction, he’d unbuttoned his coat to reveal the revolver in his belt.

“Ah yes,” the clerk said sheepishly, eyeing the butt of the gun. He patted his pocket where the ten dollar bill now nestled. “Shall I’ll take up your suitcase for you.”

“I’ll carry it up myself.”

“A pleasure to have you, sir. Just shout if you need anything.”

Quil climbed the staircase, stopping a moment outside of #207. There was the faint scent of fresh sandalwood from inside, bringing back memories of an unhurried time of jazz, and a passion too dear to last. He lingered and listened, and then moved on.

His room was stale. An exposed electrical wire ran up the wall, and was strung across the ceiling to where it connected to a bare light bulb. The drapes hung loose and dustily from a rod over the window. The bed linen wasn’t fresh, but he didn’t care. He wouldn’t sleep. He sat on a kitchen chair looking out onto the street until shortly after dawn, Christmas morning, then decided to leave for breakfast.

Surprised at seeing the man leave the building from her window, she donned her coat and went to the lobby, stepping out when she was sure that he’d moved on, and following him to the Aristocratic Cafe. There, she waited on the sidewalk until he was seated, then entered unseen, taking a booth in the back.

Lilith Drakos was a pale, slender woman in a bland flower print dress and a second hand coat, purposely drab in hopes of moving through the world unnoticed. A chill ran through her as she watched Quil at his table, drinking his coffee and reading a newspaper. He was exactly as she remembered him, the handsome crime boss with a hard-earned elegance that hid his beginnings and the essential cruelty that had brought him to prominence.

He was a demon, or had been—the delinquent fog that had fallen upon a city, and its underworld. A dark paint of whispers, the lips of others that had moved, but out of fear, confessed nothing. She’d met him in that place of cast shadows, of nights that had rendered the red of her lipstick black. He ate the dark; it had sustained them both. She’d seen it run wet down his chin, and in his in ruthlessness, he ruled the city. For all of that, though, in the end he’d succumbed to his greatest weaknesses, jealousy and greed.

And now he’d stalked down.

She stood, and walked to his table where she took off her coat and hung it over the vacant chair. “So,” she said, sitting down, “you’ve found me. How?”

“Hello Lilith,” he said, trying to sound pleasantly surprised, but sounding sorry for something instead. “Let me buy you breakfast.”

“No.” Quiet rage in her voice. “Answer me. How’d you find me?”

“I’ve always known where you are,” he said, putting down his newspaper. “Here, and the other places you’ve been. I’ve developed a talent for clairvoyance, since our parting. You have too, I’m sure.”

She had, but didn’t say so. “Why have you come?” she said instead.

“To apologise.” He looked at her a moment, poker-faced, before shifting his gaze onto the once vibrant red rose tattoo on her wrist. Its colour was nearly gone. Fading. The thing he’d noticed in himself, when he looked in a mirror.

“Apologise?” Lilith said. It was a broken word when he said it. “That’s rich, all things considered.” She absently placed her hand over her heart.

“Why are you dressed that way?” he said, hoping to change the subject. “You look like a dime store frump.”

“It’s how I prefer to be seen now days. It’s how I looked before you recovered me from the trash, and had me dressed up like your silky little harlot.”

“Those weren’t such bad days, were they?” said Quil. “At least you ate every day. You had money and a warm bed. You had your jewelry box filled with little golden trinkets. And there was romance, wasn’t there?”

“It’s how I chased away the poverty,” Lilith said. “It hurt going hungry, and you rescued me for some reason—a woman running errands for nickels and dimes, and sometimes selling myself for a few dollars to your torpedoes. I still don’t know what you saw in me, I was nearly ruined by the time you salvaged me, but at least you weren’t a pimp. You were mean, though. They weren’t always such happy times for me.”

“You remember it differently than me. I remember that you were young. I saw such beauty in you.”

“That sounds fake.”

“And I loved you,” he said.

She stared at his straight face. Then, “Bastard,” she said, standing and putting on her coat. She left the cafe.

It was a necessary sign of civility, simply knocking on a door to gain entry. One he’d acquired later in his career, to replace more violent or stealthy ways. Lilith’s door didn’t open immediately, though, when later that Christmas evening he knock.

“Please let me in, Lilith,” he said gently. Then quietly waited.

“No,” she replied through the door, moments later.

“I’m not going away,” he said.

“Then you can wait ’til Hell freezes over.”

“That’s just what I’ll do, then.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s Christmas.”

“What’s that have to do with it?”

“It’s a time for forgiveness,” Quil said. “God and sinner reconcile, and all of that. Get it?”

“Which of us is the sinner, in this case? You always thought you were God.”

Quil was quiet again, then said, “It’s a metaphor, Lilith. Maybe God is what passes between us, when we speak to one another. Please let me in.”

That was poetic. The door opened a crack, and she peaked out. “You’re a murderer,” she said.

“Several times over.”

“There is no forgiveness for that.”

“Then let’s just have a drink.” He held up a brown paper bag. “Bourbon,” he said. “The good stuff.”

“You’re getting easier to see through, Lucas.”

“We have that in common, don’t we,” he said.

“I ain’t been drinking lately,” she said, but invited him in.

Her room was immaculate. A small Christmas tree stood on the nightstand. The bedcover was a colourful eiderdown. There were oriental carpets on the floor, and a comfortable chair by the window.

“Please sit,” she said, and taking the bottle from him, she poured them each a drink in glasses she took from a cupboard above a small kitchen table.

Quil sat on the bed. She sat next him, handed him his drink and put the bottle on the floor next to them.

“So.” she said. “Let’s talk forgiveness.”

He gulped back his drink, and for the first time revealed the butt of a gun in his belt.

“You still carry that damn thing?” she said, with disgust.

Quil looked down at the .38 revolver in his belt.

“You brought it for old time’s sake, I guess,” she said. ”Is that it, you bastard? Memory Lane and all that?”

“No” He sighed. “It’s a curse, a small part of Hell. I can’t seem to lose it. I’ve tried. I threw it into the St Lawrence once, but there it was again the next time I looked.”

“That’s some story.” She gulped back her own drink, and poured them each another.

“Do you believe in Hell?” Quil said.

“I guess. Why the hell not?”

“We’re both easier to see-through than ever,” he said. “I guess we’re finally on our way out.”

She placed a hand over her heart, where her fatal wound was now slowly becoming visible.

“Does it still hurt?” he said.

“It never did,” said Lilith. “How could it? It happened too fast. You’re a quick draw.”

“Oh God I’m sorry.” He touched his own gruesome fatal head wound, slowly revealing itself, and then looked at his bloody fingers.

“I’ve suspected it for quite a while,” she said. “This fading of ours. We’re disappearing. It’s a symptom of having finally reached the end. It sure took a long time.”

“I thought I was invincible,” he said, “coming to, after the fact. Somehow, I was still in the world, in spite of what happened. Turns out the dead don’t just fall to the ground, though. We disappear piece by piece, until we ain’t there no more, disappeared to all we loved.”

“And you thought you were bullet-proof, when the next day there wasn’t a hole in your head and your brains were still in the same place. I guess I thought the same thing when my heart seemed to be where it belonged, but it wasn’t long before I noticed a world of the dead, millions fading each at their own pace. Some of us standing still and watching, witnessing what we can while we’re still able. Others sick with wishful thinking, convincing themselves that what they see in the mirror is a lie.

“Which were you, Lucas? I think I know. You’re not the standing still type. You believed you’re such a big man that he could return from the dead.”

“At first, I guess I thought I’d live forever,” he said. “Now I know I’m a vanishing ghost. Best I can hope for is to be a memory.”

She put her hand to her breast again, and felt the deep wound of the heart, manifest once more after so long.

“It’s the final insult,” Quil said, “in the end our wounds appearing again.”

“And you dare bring that gun with you.”

“I can’t get rid of it, I tell you. It’s a kinda Hell.”

“You killed us both, and you expect angels?”

“Forgive me, Lilith,” he said. “Please, before we’re both completely gone. We were in love once, weren’t we? I did it because I couldn’t face it. You were ready to leave.”

“No. You did it because you’re sick, jealous and obsessed with what you can’t have. I was a piece of property. You’ve killed a lot of people who wanted what was yours, and because you wanted what was theirs, and you couldn’t stand losing me to my own freedom.”

He wept in his final earthly misery, and she tenderly stroked his cheek. Their invisibility was now so nearly complete that she could see the vivid colours of the eiderdown through them both.

“It’s hard,” she said, “and I don’t know what good it’ll do either of us, but I do forgive you, because it’s Christmas.”

Quil’s tears were bloody from his suicide wound, and out of a strange sympathy, she said, “Merry Christmas, Lucas Quil.” And as she did, the still solid .38 in Quil’s belt fell to the floor, as they finally disappeared like ghosts.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol

#2 in the accordion suite
see #1 here
see #3 here

Ophelia Vladimirescu was the last of her line to ever make an accordion.

I was a kid when it happened, and now as an old man, when I wake in the night shouting her name, there she’ll be, responding to my call as if she were still alive, hard as stone standing next to my bed in rippling petals of flame.

I’d cut off my legs if it meant I’d never see her again, but cowardice restrains me.

Such a claim requires context to be taken seriously, I know. So allow me to make what happened very plain, for all of those who read this.

The Vladimirescu family had been in the business of making fine European inspired accordions for more than 100 years, and Ophelia had inherited the company along with the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory, located in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in 1910 just after her debutante year. She was an elegant young woman whose demeanor spoke of old money. And though her hereditary wealth was a little mouldy at the edges, it had long ago launched an accordion empire that had cornered markets worldwide.

I won’t go into the swampy genealogy of the Vladimirescu family here, though it may come up later. For now, you’ll have to content yourself in knowing that the family line included a succession of eastern European patriarchs who it was alleged slept in coffins, and played their own accordions by the light of the moon, accompanied by the distant music of howling wolves. There are empty tombs and disturbed graves far away, and secrets that abide in dark corners, but that is all for another time.

Several trademark lines were manufactured by the Vladimirescu factory, including the world renowned Schrammel Extravaganzo and the Concertina Republica. Each instrument was assembled by hand by skilled but hoary Europe craftsmen, whose specific origins and precise ages were impossible to calculate, and whose continued presence in Canada relied upon the procurement of ill-gotten work visas.

The widely held rumor that there was a small unseen army of illiterate orphan slaves, paid in tobacco and candy bars, in the service of Ophelia Vladimirescu, is true. I know, because I was one of them.

We carved the mother of pearl inlays and the perfect onyx buttons, and used our clever little hands to produce the reeds, ranks and switches, as well as the silver and brass accents. We orphans were invisible because we lived in the factory’s unnavigable maze of deep subbasements, in which the Vladimirescu family hid us, and other unforgivable secrets. Hence, there was no proof of our existence. We were only the whispered racket of lunch counter gossip, but mysteriously, the buttons and other accoutrements of manufacture were always in plentiful supply.

Cruelly, when a soldier in our army of orphan slaves grew too old to continue, due to ever growing hands and increasing appetite, he or she was given a midnight bus ticket out of town.

On the night it happened to me, I was dragged from my bed, given a worn out coat, and escorted up to the surface of the planet in a freight elevator. Then I was driven to the city’s Greyhound station, where a ticket and a ten dollar bill was forced into my hand.

I remember watching the deep green Packard sedan that brought me there that night, drive away into the unconditional darkness, as I stood in the parking lot. The mysterious driver of the car, a man wearing sunglasses, in spite of the darkness, and dressed in jodhpurs and high laced boots, told me to get out of town, or else. And that was it.

The ticket was for Moosejaw, and the moon was full.

In the bus station, I noticed a calendar on the wall, as I sat and waited for departure. I’d never seen one before. It was the photograph of a sleek wheeled vehicle with a dog on the side that caught my attention, and I asked a hollow cheeked woman with a gaunt child at her side what it said. April, 1938, she replied. The woman’s coat was ragged, and her shoes were salty and cracked. It was the Great Depression.

I and my fellow passengers that night were a nondescript gaggle of shabby dustbowl drifters, citizens of a prairie commonwealth of midnight, where shadowy farm houses floated like derelicts on tideless black sea. A woman in a faux fur coat and a leghorn straw hat adorned with a flower, sat next to me eating something, and dropping husks onto the floor. The light was very dim; she was nearly a silhouette. She paused when she saw me looking, and then handed over the bag.

“Go ahead kid,” she said. “I’ve had my fill, and you look like you need ‘em more than me.”

“What are they?” I said, taking the bag.

“Peanuts, of course.”

I put a whole one, unshelled, into my mouth, unaware of my error. It was terrible. I began to gag.

“No, no, no,” the woman said. “Spit that out. Here, you open ‘em like this, and you eat what’s inside. See?”

She cracked one open, and popped the contents into her mouth. It made so much sense.

“Where’ve you been, kid?”

“In the subbasement,” I said.

“I’ll say.”

In a moment, I’d eaten my first ever peanuts, crunchy and good. Then I ate more as quickly as I could.

“Slow down or you’ll puke,” said the woman. Then she held out her hand. “Felicity Crenshaw’s the name,” she said. “Pleased to meet you.”

I looked at her hand, as I wiped peanut skins off of my face with my own.

“Shake, pal,” she insisted. “Good to meet cha.”

I shook my shoulders for her, a little confused.

“Na! You tryin’ to be funny? Shake my hand, like this.”

She took my right hand in hers, and moved it rapidly up and down.

“That’s how one compadre greets another, get it?”

Not really, but I kept that to myself. It seemed a very strange thing to do, shaking hands. But I’d never seen a Greyhound before, either. Nor had I known that it was April, 1938.

“Now you tell me your name, see?” Felicity Crenshaw said.

I didn’t want to tell her my name. I wasn’t sure that it was a fair trade for a bag of peanuts.

“Huh,” she said. “You gotta have a name. Where’s your momma?”

I shrugged.

“Maybe someone oughtta hand you over to a church, or something, if you ain’t got no folks.”

I shrugged again.

“Well I’m on the road,” Felicity Crenshaw said. “I’m a travelling saleswoman. My old Model A gave up the ghost in Swift Current, so I’m riding the dog. Maybe I can pick up an old beater next stop. My point is, don’t get too attached to me. I can’t look after no kid.”

“No one asked you to,” I said.

“Then stop making it with the big eyes.”

That was how Felicity was, I found out later. She saw a rotten world, and assumed it wanted to be saved, but she didn’t know how. So she tried to be tough, instead.

I looked away, not knowing why, and stared down at the peanut shells on the floor. It got quiet after that, except for the sound of the wheels on the road and a passenger snoring in the seat behind us. Felicity had the window seat, and watched the stars.

Then, after a while, she said, “You read music, kid?”

“Yeah.”

“’Cause that’s what I sell, quality sheet music and piano rolls to the yokels. Finger snapping hits from the Iglehart Music Company of Chicago, Illinois. I’m a wholesaler, to reputable retail outlets.”

“Sheet music’s stupid,” I said.

“Say, what is your name? I don’t wanna talk to a kid without a name, if he’s gonna call a girl’s bread and butter ‘stupid’.”

“Rufus,” I surrendered.

“Well Rufus, how do you figure sheet music’s stupid?”

“I just do better without it. Too many rules. There usually aren’t enough notes on a sheet of music, anyway.”

“So you improvise. What do you play?”

“Accordion.”

(Learning to play the accordion at the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory wasn’t guaranteed. An orphan needed to show some talent, and even then it was only for those who worked in quality control. I was pretty good at quality control, which was why I was sort of surprised when I got my bus ticket.)

“I never knew a fella could improvise on an accordion,” Felicity said, “without him makin’ a racket, that is. You look a little bit too young for that, anyway. What are you, ten?”

I didn’t know my age then, any more than I know it now. So I ate some more peanuts.

“You got it with you?” said Felicity. “The accordion, I mean.”

“Never had one of my own.”

“Then how…?”

More peanuts.

“Okay, okay,” she said. “So now you got me curious. I’m dropping in on a particular music store in Moosejaw. The proprietor’s a good egg, and he sells musical instruments. If he’s got a squeezebox in stock, you can play it and show me your stuff. Just fer fun. But I gotta drop you after that, understand? You can find a soup kitchen somewhere, and see what happens from there.”

I shrugged yet again. It was fine by me.

We arrived in Moosejaw at 6 in the morning, and Felicity retrieved her luggage from under the bus.

“Samples,” she said to me, kicking the larger of her two suitcases. “Heavy, too. It’s why I gotta get a goddamn car.”

A porter put the suitcases in the trunk of a taxi, and we were off.

“Hotel Wilhelmina,” Felicity told the driver.

“That dump?” the driver said. “You sure, lady?”

“Just get us there alive, fella.”

“Okay (your funeral).”

The Hotel Wilhelmina was, as the cabby had put it, a dump, whose single greatest outward accomplishment was looking lopsided from the street, while the lobby, where I sat in a dusty, threadbare overstuffed chair until she returned from her room, resembled an abandoned funeral parlour, in both sight and smell.

“What a joint, eh?” Felicity said when she arrived back, wearing clean white blouse, and a different hat. “They’ve really done things with the ol’ place, yessiree. The manager says there ain’t been a murder here in five months.”

“It smells,” I said.

“That’s the perfume of antiquity, kid,” she said, taking an unhealthy whiff. “Just savour the pong of time.”

I tried to hold my breath.

“Okay, sunshine. Let’s go.”

We arrived at Barney’s Music Barn after breakfast at a diner called Chinese Joe’s. As it turned out, the proprietor of the Music Barn, Barney himself, did have an accordion in stock, and I recognised it immediately as a Vladimirescu model 1021-Q, also called the Romanian Pearl. I was still just a small kid, but the Pearl was big. So I sat down in a chair to play, after I struggled into the straps.

“Made in Saskatoon, that baby is,” Barney said. Then, “Say Felicity, what’s this all about?”

“A bit of a lark, Barney-boy. I met the kid on the dog. Says he’s so good that he can play without sheet music. I figure that’d be really something for just a pup, and I wanna see if he’s rattlin’ my shackles.”

“How old are you, boy?” Barney said.

“I don’t know.”

“He ain’t no more than ten,” said Felicity. “Just look at him.”

“Alright then,” Barney said to me, “play us something.”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Well shit-niblets,” Felicity said. “I guess I knew it all along.”

“No,” I said. “I mean, I can play. It’s just that I need a cigarette, something awful. I haven’t had one since I got dropped off at the bus station, and I’m getting shaky fingers.”

“A cigarette?” said Barney. “Forget it. What if someone comes into the store, and sees a little squirt like him smoking and playing accordion?”

“Okay.” I began to take off the instrument.

“Wait! Whoa there,” Felicity said, and pulled out a pack of Player’s. “Take one. Here’s a light. I ain’t missing this over a little delinquency.”

My eyes rolled up to heaven as I took my first puff, and I held it in for so long that there was nothing to exhale. It tasted better than breakfast at Chinese Joe’s, which had been pretty good.

Then I said, “Requests?”

“Kid seems a lot older than ten,” Barney said.

“He’s an artist,” said Felicity. “That’s how it is with them.”

“Okay,” Barney snickered. “Flat Foot Floogee,”

“Nah,” said Felicity. “Get serious. What do you wanna play, kid?”

An ash fell onto the carpet as I thought. Then placing the cigarette back between my lips, I began to play one of my favourites, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14. It wasn’t exactly written for the accordion, and the Pearl wasn’t built for it (known to play a little shrill), but I loved making it all work. My body moved with the music as it always did, as the cigarette smoke coiled up past my eyes, shut in the ecstasy. I might have played for six minutes or six years, but when I opened my eyes again, the two of them remained silent.

Until Felicity said, “Ho-ly shit.” It was almost a whisper, as though she’d just witnessed the risen Jesus with a kazoo.

“Ain’t that something,” Barney said. “And isn’t that money I smell over the tobacco smoke?”

Turned out that it was. A switch had been turned in Felicity Crenshaw’s brain, and in that moment, she made the mental transformation from prairie sheet music saleswoman to accordion child prodigy promoter.

“How much for the squeeze box, Barney?” she said.

“It ain’t the best,” I said.

“Too bad, kid. We gotta start somewhere.”

“Twenty bucks,” said Barney.

“Piano rolls and sheet music, in trade?”

“I guess.”

Felicity opened her sample case. “Take what you want,” she said. “I won’t be needin’ it anymore.”

It turned out that he was right. After three auditions, I was on the radio and playing the evangelist circuit, Closer My Lord, to Thee being my trademark tune. Every God fearing dirt farmer, truck driver and lunch counter waitress from Fort St John to Winnipeg was listening in.

It wasn’t long before I was able to replace the Vladimirescu model 1021-Q for a model 1235-B, bigger even than the Pearl, fuller sound and greater range. It was the best instrument ever made by the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory, so far, and they called it the Transylvania Star.

“You ain’t big enough for it,” Felicity said, when she saw it in the Winnipeg showroom.

“Maybe it ain’t big enough for me,” I replied, haughtily. Stardom having already gone to my head.

“We’ll see.”

I played it that night on the Reverend Philip St Philip’s Rival Radio Hour — playing How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace and Closer My Lord, to Thee. Near the end of the program, just after the Jell-O commercial message, reminding us all of the manifesting season of Jell-O salad, the Reverend Philip St Philip, talking to the whole of dirt farmer Christendom through his microphone, had this to say.

“Lord Jesus, you say it is right to rejoice in music, in your name. But music is often of the devil, diverting good men from the road to righteousness. On our stage this evening, however, is sitting a gift that you, Lord Jesus, have bestowed upon us, and Rufus is his name.”

Here the Reverend closed his eyes, and placed a hand redolent of rancid hair oil, on my shoulder, and said —

“Dear Lord, bless this marvelous boy with his ear for your crystal composition. His music is Holy, and inspired by Thee. And I say onto you in the radio audience tonight, rejoice in it. The Bible testifies to the power of music, for all good Christians, in the worship of God. It is a joyful sound, when played by the angelic.”

Then Reverend did a double jointed trick, squeezing my shoulder and running a finger tenderly up and down the back of my neck. After which he tugged gently on my earlobe, and looking down upon me, seated in my chair, pinned beneath the ponderous Transylvania Star, he blew me a silent kiss off the tip of his middle finger.

All of the studio technicians and special guests looked away, all except for Felicity, who after the director said cut, walked up and whispered something into Phillip’s ear. Whatever it was, it was enough to make the Reverend step back with horror in his eyes, and I was spared the predatory temptations of Christian pastors for evermore.

Indeed, I was a celebrity on the Evangelist Circuit. I had money, and all of the tobacco and candy bars I wanted, and I had the protection of my manager, Felicity Crenshaw (who took her 25% off the top).

How could I have known, under such glad circumstances, that Ophelia Vladimirescu was listening? Since my expulsion from the factory basement, she had mysteriously achieved an unexpected, scheming wickedness, and listened to me on her parlour radio whenever a performance of mine was broadcast.

No one could have known, in fact, until the evening I stepped out of the back door of the CFAM radio studios in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for a cigarette. It was during a commercial break on the Pastor Peak Perkins Revival Revolution program, sponsored by Jell-O Gelatin. (Seems the Christians loved their Jell-O.)

There in the alley, as I lit a Player’s plain, appeared the deep green Packard sedan I remembered from another time. It stopped and out stepped the mysterious driver, the man wearing sunglasses, in spite of the darkness, and dressed in jodhpurs and high laced boots.

“Get in the car,” he said, holding open the backdoor.

I hesitated. Where was Felicity?

“Don’t make me put you in the trunk, boy.”

No, not the trunk. Who knew what lurked in there? I complied, and the door closed behind me, locking magically without aid of a human hand.

And so, I was driven against my will, to the Vladimirescu mansion, on the outskirts of the city. It was a cheerless palace, both Gothic and Baroque at once, menacingly placed on a rise on the land at the end of a long private road, guarded by a sinister-looking gate. Silhouettes of massive, looming animals – elephants, bears and lions – trimmed out of boxwood, roamed the front lawn, as a single light burned in a top floor window.

“This is it, boy,” said the mysterious driver. “Get out.”

Now the door unlocked itself, and swung open.

“The front door of the house is unlocked,” said the man. “Go in, take the lighted candle, and climb the staircase to the third floor. You’ll figure it out from there. And don’t do nothing stupid, like run. She’s got a hundred ways to make you suffer, if you do.”

Here he adjusted his sunglasses in the moonlight, as though they caused him some great discomfort, and then he drove away.

The front door of the mansion was huge and carved with the faces of gargoyles, damned it seemed from their expressions of horror. It opened without a sound, and I stepped into the dim and cavernous entry hall, filled with dusty alabaster and thickly carve mahogany. Here skulked the shadows of statuary, bent and smirking.

A lighted candle was on a small table, at the foot of the staircase. I took it and began my ascent, past marble carved dragons, and bitter grinning angels holding swords and severed heads.

Arriving on the third floor, I discovered a vast, glass domed ceiling, allowing whitish moonlight to fix in crystal a once magnificent, but now cobwebbed, ballroom.

“Come in my beautiful orphan,” a voice called out.

Yellow light surrounded a partially open doorway, off on the far side.

I approached, but stopped at the door, dreading what I might see inside. It was Ophelia Vladimirescu’s voice, certainly. I recognised it from her visits to the basement sweatshops. But an animal fear had overcome me.

“Enter, Rufus,” said Ophelia Vladimirescu. “I have something for you. Something I’ve had made especially for you.”

Then I heard a strange plaintive whisper in E flat major. An accordion sigh? Perhaps, but the sound it made was different than any instrument I’d ever heard before. Just a breath, heard through the door, expressing ages of joy and anguish. It was a low exhalation of grief so beautiful that even in my childish mind, I knew that I was being seduced.

I pushed open the door, and there she stood, in the centre of a chamber with a cherub painted ceiling. Ophelia Vladimirescu, pale and lovely, dressed splendidly in purple silks and golden brocade, the room filled with an oddly unwholesome lantern light and the hushed scent of day old roses. The uncanny effect was that her youth remained unbroken, in spite of her age.

And next to her, in a chair resembling a royal throne, sat the instrument I’d heard breathe through the door, gilded and covered in diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.

I stood in wonder, sure that it was now calling me by name.

“It’s exquisite, no?” Ophelia placed a hand upon it. She had the husk of a Eurasian accent, passed on to her in the cloistered company of her eccentric and reclusive parents.

“I heard you on the radio,” she said. “If I’d known of your true talent, I never would have let you go. But happily, I have made it right. Come, look at my gift to you.”

I stepped forward and touched it with my fingers, and heard disembodied weeping. There was no adequate reverence or esteem.

“It drove my father mad,” said Ophelia. “He spent half a lifetime designing it, all the while tormented by the voices of his forefathers, imploring him to carry on, to the unending sound of Thême varié très brillant pour accordéon methode Reisner, performed in the candelabra shadows of a distant Carpathian chateau. It was mere torment until he took up the task, and then it became torture. Though he finished the plans for its design, he died believing it would be impossible to build.

“The finished diagrams were given to me when he passed away, and I worried over them for more than twenty years. I asked darkness for guidance only when the light failed me, and then I found a way. Now it is done, and you are the one chosen to play it. No one else. It needs to feed. Your youth will be its food. And in return, you will prosper beyond your wildest ambitions.”

“I ain’t got no ambitions,” I said.

“Shoulder it, hear it whisper, and you will. Its name is Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol.”

“It’s too big.”

“It will make you strong.”

“Put it on boy.” It was the man in the sunglasses who spoke now, standing like an idol in the shadows, the candlelight mirrored in his dark lenses.

He stepped out into the flickering light, took the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol from its throne, and forced the straps over my shoulders, an action verging on brutality. I wonder to this day if it was necessary. My fascination with the Diavol was increasing rapidly, and it was inevitable that I would shoulder the instrument.

“It’s light as feather,” I said, amazed, when finally I wore it.

“You begin to see its magic,” said Ophelia. “Play it,” she gasped. Her fists were clenched, and her eyes had grown wide.

Without a thought, I found myself playing Mozart’s Requiem – Dies Irae, an epitaphic masterpiece, and the last composition I’d ever have thought would come out of an accordion. There was a choral accompaniment, its source invisible, filling the room, Ophelia swaying in a trance with the dark candle chandeliers above. And when the blood fell from the clouds surrounding the cherubs painted onto the ceiling, we three were coated in a slick shimmering crimson black.

And that is when the unwholesome lantern light exploded into an inferno.

“Yes, my demon!” Ophelia shouted to the man. “Come to me. Our work is finally done. Now is our time.”

The man in the sunglasses then took her in his arms, and forced her to the floor. Falling with her, he and Ophelia embraced and immersed themselves in the pooling blood. And when his dark spectacles fell away, I was stunned to see that he had no eyes at all, only skin stitched tightly across the sockets where they once had been. He took that moment to grin at me, and then turning back to his lover, stuck out a long reptilian tongue, wrapped it round Ophelia Vladimirescu’s throat and snapped her neck, as he entered her in intercourse.

She died in a state of rapture.

I continued to play throughout it all, unable to stop, as the blaze engulfed the chamber, and I surely would have burned alive had not a hand reached in, gripped me by my collar and yanked me out of the room.

“Jeepers, kid!” Felicity hollered over the roaring flames. “You sure do get around. Let’s vamoose before the whole damn place comes down on our heads.”

We ran out onto the lawn, and through the prowling menagerie of looming boxwood creatures, Felicity pulling me along by the hand, while I dragged the bejewelled accordion behind me.

Looking out of the back window as we drove away, I watched the growing conflagration fade into the distance.

“That’s a caper you don’t wanna share with no one, kid,” said Felicity.

“Who’d believe it, anyway?”

“And what about the squeezebox?”

“It’s one of Ophelia Vladimirescu’s suckers, just like me,” I said, aware that, in my boyish way, I was feeling an irrational empathy for what appeared to be an inanimate object. “We got things in common. I figure I’ll keep it close-by, until I know better.”

Felicity’s story was that she’d seen me get into the car as she came out through the studio’s back door with a cup of coffee, too late to intervene, but soon enough to get into her new Plymouth and follow along.

“The biggest problem,” she told me later, “was getting into the goddamn house. It was sealed up tighter than a killing jar. Good thing a city girl like me’s got a little lock-picking savvy, or you’d be a pile of ash same as them two monkeys. Lordy, what a pair. I mean, I like a good rascally romp every now and then, but there’s a limit.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

It lives now in a large safety deposit box in the basement of the Royal Bank at 685 West Hastings St, in Vancouver. That makes the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol just a short drive away.

Felicity Crenshaw was killed on the street during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, where she’d followed a no-good US Amy Sergeant in 1940, who dumped her like a hot rock first chance he got. Zeros were strafing the city, as she sat on the sidewalk comforting a dying sailor. She didn’t even know the guy. I know this because she visited me shortly after, in a dream. She said it was swell on the other side, and I’d get there just fine, as long as I minded my Ps and Qs.

I haven’t willed the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol to anyone, but I’ve left instructions that it be dismantled after my death, the valuable parts sold, and the proceeds donated to orphans’ charities.

I still hear Mozart’s Requiem – Dies Irae, when I wake out of my recurring nightmare, and see her in the dark. I probably always will.

The box containing the Diavol is opened only once a year, on the anniversary of the day I first played it. Then the sound of me sitting in the little safety deposit box guest room, playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, echoes through the halls, and the bank staff are all smiles.

Tibbit Crow Girl and the Queen of Halloween

dedicated to the crows of Vancouver

Anyone will tell you, Halloween past is a far darker neighbourhood than Christmas past. The property values are lower and the sun never shines very brightly through the smoke of burning leaves and spent firecrackers. And it was once in the dimness of Halloween past that the Queen of Halloween cast her spell on the crows. Ever since then, the crows have never flown over a Halloween to serve themselves. Since the casting of that ruinous spell, the crows, on All Hallows’ Eve, have done only as the Queen of Halloween decrees and maraud on her behalf alone.

What is less well known is that the Queen of Halloween lives in a discarded refrigerator in an abandoned warehouse, off Terminal and Main Streets.  She often presents in the guise of an old woman, wondering back alleys by the light of the moon in search of bottles and cans and the occasional human soul. Other times, she’s a black coyote that feeds on children’s pets. Mostly, however, after dark, she will open the door of her discarded refrigerator home and emerge as a pale young woman of unrivalled beauty, dressed in a splendid flowing gown of ravenous cockroaches. And it is this ghastly writhing gown that is the source of her shadowed magic.

* * * * *

The Crow King walked the branches of the castle tree like a sea captain made mad by an unachievable horizon. His eyes, bottomless black, swallowing the dregs of chemical light at dawn. His coveted crown of shiny, found items askew. His fragile mansion on the edge of creation, tilting on the lip of a chasm. The Crow Court watched and pondered disaster.

“Bring me news,” he cawed, “bring me news. Fly out and bring back news. Find the Queen of Halloween and ask of Her demands. It is impossible to do bidding unknown.”

The flock surrounding him cawed loudly, a cacophony of assent. There was much flapping, bobbing of heads and shifting from side to side.

The Crow King’s Wizard sidled near to him with his scaled and talon feet, his taxidermy eyes too deep to be real, his told-you-so voice hissing like a maleficent snake. “Your Grace,” he rattled and cooed, “perhaps there is no bidding to be done this year. Perhaps this year we maraud freely over Halloween and take what we will to line our own nests. We have been Her slaves long enough.”

“Yes we have,” clicked the Crow King thoughtfully. “We have been her slaves too long, surrendering our plunder. But a spell was cast long ago and we still suffer beneath it. What is the remedy?”

“A child, I foretell,” the Wizard cooed. “One to challenge Her on our behalf. One to end the spell that holds us in thrall.”

“Who is this child?” the Crow King crackled.

“She sits in this castles tree, among us now,” clucked the Wizard with a conspiratory voice. “But none can point to her. She must fly as the flock flies and be divided by fortune. Only then can she face the Queen of Halloween.”

“Then let it be so. Morning breaks,” cawed the Crow King looking east. “It is time for us all to fly.”

And with that the inhabitants of the castle tree took to the sky, flying en masse toward the city.

It was a massive flock of thousands that flew into the city, blackening the sky and obscuring the setting moon before scattering to feed. The flock made a terrible noise as it flew, knowing it would wake the city below from its safe and contented sleep.

Tibbit Crow Girl flew among them, still young enough to fly at her mother’s side. And Tibbit’s mother preferred the grounds round the abandoned warehouses off Main and Terminal to feed.

“It be a good day to fly,” Tibbit’s mother cackled. “And I smell nuts and tender bits of carrion on the wind.”

Tibbit Crow Girl liked nuts and carrion just fine but also enjoyed the bread and seeds handed out by elderly humans all over the city. Devouring this free meal involved little effort and the elderly people seemed so pleased by her and the other crows. Of course the pigeons ruined everything with their gluttonous inhalation of the handouts. But occasionally, a pigeon would eat too much to fly away, and made delicious eating.

“Let’s land and see what’s to eat,” Tibbit’s mother cawed, and they banked away from the main flock and whirled and spiralled down toward the ground. They flew low over the busy intersection of Terminal and Main, over the speeding trucks and cars. And Tibbit’s mother cawed, “Be careful. Not too low. Watch the trucks.”

Tibbit had heard this before, however, and thought her mother worried too much. She’d seen other crows fly much lower than she ever did. It was a thrill and a good way to observe what tasty bits of food might be lying round on the ground. Tibbit flew lower that morning than she ever had before. She flew in and out of the traffic, laughing in the faces of the wide-eyed drivers.  Laughing, that is, until she was struck by a passing delivery truck.

The truck knocked Tibbit high in the air and she fell onto the sidewalk. When she hopped to her feet, she felt a sharp pain in her wing. Suddenly she couldn’t fly, and had a paralysing thought of the pigeons that ate too much to fly and what happened to them.

“Fool of a girl,” Tibbit’s mother cawed from overhead. “What will you do now? You be food for the rats.”

These were not the comforting and encouraging words she’d hoped to hear from her mother.  Tibbit saw the road that lead into the old industrial park of abandoned warehouses and began to hop toward it, looking everywhere for rats and humans with their big feet and unpredictable tempers.

After a long while of exhausting hopping, Tibbit was safe among the empty warehouses. There was no traffic there, only the occasional transient with a shopping cart. Tibbit’s mother landed next to her. “I can smell rats here,” she said. “They be watching us now. They be up on their haunches sniffing the air filled with the scent of wounded crow.”

“I will not be eaten by rats,” Tibbit cackled and cooed, hopping up a decaying wooden staircase. The staircase lead to a warehouse door that was opened just a crack. They both entered. It was dark and vacant except for a refrigerator. “I will take a corner here and fight all comers with my claws and beak. I will heal and fly again.”

Tibbit’s mother knew better of the plight of downed crows, how ill at ease a crow is when not in flight, how a crow should choose flight rather than fight. But she said nothing. She sidled about looking for something dead for the both of them to eat, but there was nothing.

The old refrigerator was an unfortunate 1960s shade of sky blue, and had a single door with a large handle of chrome and rust. Frigidaire said a rusting chrome name plate, hanging askew by a single remaining rivet. The refrigerator shook. Then it sat quietly for a moment, and shook once more. Then the chrome and rust handle was pulled out by an invisible force, and the door opened.

Inside, the refrigerator was completely black. It looked like a passageway into a dark incalculable recess. There was a cold wind blowing out of it as though it was still a functioning appliance. But it hadn’t been plugged into an electrical socket for decades. Screams, shrieking and human pleas for help could be heard on the cold wind emanating from within. And the smell was that of an animal so dead and far gone that even a crow wouldn’t eat it.

Tibbit’s mother hopped back from it and Tibbit sidled round for a better view. “What is it, mother?” she cooed.

“It be a human thing,” Tibbit’s mother cawed. “We should go. There be better places than this.”

Then there came a commanding voice from deep inside the blackness of the refrigerator’s interior, an evil, echoing voice. It said, “Who stands before the door to my bottomless pit without my permission? Speak now before I chew your souls in my mouldy mouth and swallow you into the abyss of my belly.”

Tibbit’s mother jumped back but Tibbit only cocked her head. “I’m hurt and in danger of being eaten by rats,” she cawed. “What difference would it make being eaten by a mob of rats or by you? I’ll fight you all and you’ll suffer for your meagre meal.”

Tibbit’s mother looked concerned when no reply came from the refrigerator’s dark interior. Then smoke began to spill from the derelict appliance, onto the floor. The smoke piled up and up into a column, and the column took on the smoky appearance of a woman. Finally the Queen of Halloween in Her grand and magical gown of cockroaches emerged and stood before them.

“Oh,” She said, wrinkling Her nose. “Crows. I’d hoped for something more interesting.”

“It be Her,” Tibbit’s mother reverently cooed. “The Queen.”

The Queen of Halloween walked around Tibbit and her mother, taking in the situation. As she did, her magical cockroach gown made crawling and clicking sounds.

“You’re the one,” Tibbit said. “The one who has placed a spell on the crows.”

“Really?” the Queen of Halloween said. “Am I? You must forgive me for not remembering. I’ve spun so many spells, it’s hard to keep track.”

“We are doomed to fly at your behest every Halloween night and place at your feet all that we find. It is a night of great treasure and we deserve to keep what we steal for ourselves.”

“Rubbish,” snapped the Queen of Halloween. “The rats, the bedbugs and all of the vermin of the world pay tribute to me on Halloween night. Why should crows be any different?”

“We are not vermin,” Tibbit cawed proudly. “We do not scramble about on the ground; we fly above the world and look down upon you.”

Tibbit’s mother felt fear but couldn’t help, at the same time, feeling pride in her daughter.

“I fly, too,” the Queen of Halloween said, and in a flash an ancient corn broom appeared in her hand. “It would appear, however,” She said to Tibbit, “that your flying days are over.”

“But you cannot fly faster than our flock,” Tibbit rattled.

Tibbit’s mother looked at her with a glint of worry in her dark eyes.

“You can try to out fly us,” Tibbit cawed. “You can try to fly faster and out manoeuvre us. You can even attempt to surpass us as marauders. But you will fail.”

“Ha!” the Queen of Halloween yelped. “Even if that were true, how would it help you with your broken wing, surrounded by a warehouse filled with hungry rats?”

“I challenge you,” Tibbit cawed. “Ride your broom tonight and try to beat my flock. And when you fail, you will use your magic to mend my wing and you will remove the spell that enslaves us.”

“And what if your flock does not out fly me,” said the Queen of Halloween. “What will I have?”

“You will have me,” Tibbit said. “To chew in your mouldy mouth and swallow into the abyss of your belly.”

Tibbit’s mother was stunned by this. “No!” she cawed.

“Yes,” cooed Tibbit.

“But I have you already,” said the Queen of Halloween. “I could chew you up and swallow you now, and be done with it.”

Tibbit thought about this and realised the Queen of Halloween was correct. “If the flock cannot out fly you, and you fly past them at dawn,” she cooed, “the crows will be your marauders every night, not just Halloween night, but forever.”

“That is an intriguing offer,” said the Queen of Halloween.

“It’s not an offer,” said Tibbit. “It’s a bet.”

The Queen of Halloween rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue as she pondered the possibilities. The crows did deliver some impressive swag every Halloween. If She out flew them, She could have it every night of the year. Forever. And She could have this impudent little crow girl for dinner. She raised Her broom and brought it down on the ground, with a loud explosion of light.

“It’s a bet,” said the Queen of Halloween. “You are protected from the rats. For now, that is. Until after we fly tonight. Assemble your flock nearby this evening and we will see who will out fly who.”

Tibbit’s mother hopped and sidled out of the crack in the warehouse door and flew away to gather the flock.

And as darkness fell over the city, the magnificent flock of crows gathered and landed round the warehouse, creating a deafening and discordant cacophony of caws. Above them, out of the darkening east, flew the Queen of Halloween on Her ancient and twisted broom, cackling a crazed and demented laugh.

Seeing Her above them, the thousands of crows took off over the city blotting out the stars and the moon as they did, swirling in circles like a vast black tornado, then rocketing forward in an infinite swarm, leaving the Queen of Halloween behind. Then the Queen of Halloween, determined in Her evil cause, raced past the flock, leaving it in Her rancid dust.

The Crow King seeing this cawed and commanded his flock forward, progressing in the night. It traded the lead with the Queen of Halloween again and again. And when She realised that She might not fly faster than the Crow King’s flock, the Queen of Halloween decided to use magic to cheat Her way forward. She created a sudden pulse of blinding light and like a supersonic bullet shot past the crows.

Meanwhile, in the warehouse, Tibbit hopped into a corner and prepared to defend herself. She saw the bright red light in the eyes of the rats around her. They sniffed the air and licked their lips. And she began to fear for the first time that the rats might disobey the Queen of Halloween.

Above the city, the race continued and the Queen of Halloween was winning. She cast spell after spell, placing obstacles before the crows. She pelted them with stones and had Her ghosts fly against them. The Crow King wondered what to do. As the flock flew and manoeuvred as best it could, he consulted with his Wizard.

“How can we beat this evil witch’s magic,” cawed the Crow King.

“She is powerful and has many evil allies,” the Wizard cawed. “But I think I have a plan.”

“What is it?” cawed the Crow King. “Tell me fast or all may be lost.”

“My magic is no match for hers, but I might enchant two or three of our strongest youngsters with the speed to catch up with Her.”

“Will they be able to fly past Her by dawn?” the Crow King cawed.

“No,” rattled the Wizard. “But by now they will be hungry and the cockroaches that make up Her splendid gown, the source of her evil magic, will be tender and tasty.”

“That might be a very good plan, Wizard Crow,” cawed the Crow King. “Do it!”

And so, the Wizard Crow endowed certain of the younger crows with the power to fly as fast as the Queen of Halloween, and sent them in pursuit of Her with instructions to eat heartily. They flew fast and soon saw the Queen of Halloween ahead. Then one of them cawed, “It’s dinner time!”

There were three of them. All that the Wizard Crow could manage with his limited magic, but they were ravenous and fell on the splendid magical gown of cockroaches with gusto. The roaches squirmed and wiggled and scrambled to escape.

“What is this,” the Queen of Halloween shouted. “The impertinence! Get away.”

But the hungry young crows continued to feed. As Her gown and its magic began to disappear, the Queen of Halloween began to slow and the flock caught up. She had cheated with Her magic, so the flock of crows saw no shame in attacking Her gown.

“Stay away,” the Queen of Halloween shouted as she slowed and the flock caught up, falling upon Her in midair. As Her magic waned, spells were being broken all over the world. “Get away, get away,” She yelled as Her unrivalled beauty began to fade, and the pitiful thing that She was under the splendid gown was revealed. Soon Her gown was completely consumed and only a skeleton rode the ancient broom. It fell to earth like a meteor.

The flock cawed and cheered. They were free of the evil spell. But the Crow Wizard was still very concerned.

“All of that evil witch’s spells are broken,” he cawed. “Including the one keeping the warehouse rats away from Tibbit. Fly faster than you ever have before. We must get to Tibbit before that mob of rodents.”

The Crow Wizard was right. In the warehouse, Tibbit was fighting a brave fight but her time was running out. The rats attacked in waves. She used her beak and claws to flight them back, but they lunged and bit. The first crow through the crack in the door was Tibbit’s mother. She attacked with abandon and she and Tibbit fought gallantly together until the flock took down the door and flew in to peck and eat the rats that didn’t escape.

Then the flock lifted Tibbit high into the air and she was taken back to the castle tree to heal and fly again, just as she had predicted. But not before the flock pillaged what it could from Halloween night. And with it, the shiny objects, choice sticks and tender morsels of food, they lined their own nests.

all saints day

Last week of October. The light changes now, lends a translucence to things that never quite achieve transparency. The curtain hung between worlds never really comes down, not even now. But it’s now that the light from beyond shines through the strongest. Silhouettes and snippets of things can been seen if one stands still long enough and waits, watching. Mostly at dusk. Dusk is a room we briefly occupy as the house of the day ends and the abode of night begins. Some see better in the night. And there are others who can see through the curtain, to the other side. They see the invisible surge and manifest as October fragments in the undertow of November.

psych ward #1

At night they turn out almost all of the hall lights. But they leave some on, the ones that no one can ever turn off. The forever lights. They go on shining, no matter what. I close the door to my room when I go to bed. But when the nurses check on me, with their flashlights, they never close the door all the way again. Then the forever light across the hall shines into my room. I close my eyes tight or roll over. But sometimes I can’t close my eyes or roll over because I see something standing there, black because of the glare from behind. Mostly, the thing will disappear if I blink. But occasionally, it will stand there looking into my room until the next nurse comes round on suicide watch. Then it’ll creep away.  A hospital’s like that, I guess. There’re people that don’t make it out alive. They become ghosts like a caterpillar becomes a moth.

I have a ghost in me. The doctors, nurses and police call it suicide, the thing I keep trying. The thing I feel so compelled to do. But I call it letting the ghost out. It’s all I want to do. Not because I’m crazy. But because if I were a ghost trapped inside somewhere, I’d want out too.

The halls never end at night. It’s like they get longer in the dark, with just the forever lights shining. I notice it when I go to the toilet on the other side of the ward. Then the halls start to slope up like hills. It’s exhausting trying to get to the top where the washroom is. It takes hours to walk to the toilet, sometimes. And then it’s hours getting back. The halls are just as long and slope up the same in the opposite direction.

All along the way there’s dead people standing around in their hospital gowns and pajamas. Some with tubes still hanging out and real bad wounds that’ll never close. What’s it matter if a wound closes when you’re dead? They don’t care. They just stare with the bulging bug eyes the dead have. They all look like they’re caught in the headlights. And they’re real still. Like they’re stuck in a moment, maybe their last. But the eyes move. The eyes see. They follow me to and from the toilet at night. And they whisper. Even when they scream, it’s just a whisper. I’m always surprised at how loud a whisper can be. Even though they don’t move when you see them, some of them always find a way of following me from the toilet back to my room. Then they just stand in the door for the rest of the night. Their lips don’t move, but they whisper.

Sometimes I dream the dreams they dreamed when they were alive. They’re in the dreams, that’s how I know. They say, “This is the dream I had once. This dream gave me cancer. This dream caused my emphysema. This was the dream that made my boyfriend stab me five times and then take too much heroin.” They’re not the kind of dreams you forget in the morning. You never forget them. You never forget the screaming, the desperate scratching at the firm yet fleeting elements of life speeding past as the moments disappear into a nearly invisible mist against the empty dark. The dead in the dreams look so calm, like it’s all a matter of going through a simple series of steps toward their individual ends. But underneath it all, behind the fake calm, the acquiescence and beatific smiles, they’re screaming. Like hell.

It’s 5.30 a.m. I awake to a lab tech prepping my arm to draw blood. I hate waking up this way, and I hate it when they try to draw blood in my darkened room. They rarely hit the vein right, first time. They make a show of wrapping the latex strip around my arm and slapping my forearm at the elbow joint to bring up the vein. They leave the lights off because, they say, they don’t want to wake me.

The light coming through the curtained window is dim. Dead people move in to watch. Their eyes really bulge when they see the needle go in.

“No,” I say, still weak and groggy. “Turn on the lights.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.”

“You can’t see what you’re doing. It hurts.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.”

It’s because of the insulin. They give me four injections a day. Then they test and test and test. My life is punctuated by needles.

This morning I see someone standing at the foot of bed. Just her head and shoulders showing over the mattress. A little girl, maybe five. She’s dressed in a tiny stained hospital gown. “Hello,” I say as I look at her between my feet. She doesn’t respond, except to stare. “What’s you’re name?”

“Amanda,” the lab tech says.

“Not you,” I say pointing. “Her.”

Amanda looks over her shoulder and then back at me. “Ain’t nobody there, honey,” she says. She’s smiling the satisfied smile of a person whose most contented moments in life come from knowing that, despite her innate and considerable deficiencies, she is not numbered among the truly deranged. “I’ll let your nurse know you’re seeing little friends,” she says as the vacuum vial fills too slowly with my blood.

“No,” I say, a little too loud.

Amanda feigns mild shock, like she didn’t expect me to protest at her plan to inform on me. “For your own good, buddy boy,” she says. Then she wiggles the needle unnecessarily as she removes it, causing a blunt pain. She tapes a cotton ball onto my arm but intentionally misses the wound. Then she pushes my hand up to my shoulder, using too much force.

The little girl stands impassively, watching. “She’s mean,” she says. “I can push her down the stairs.”

I shake my head, imperceptibly I believe. But no. Amanda sees it. Inhales triumphantly, packs her kit and leaves the room.

“What’s your name,” I ask again.

“Ruby,” the little girl says. Her lips barely move, not enough to really form words.

“That’s a sweet name,” I say. “Don’t hurt Amanda, though. Okay?”

“She hurt you.”

“Not that much,” I say. “Not so bad that she needs to be hurt in return.”

“She’s mean to everyone,” Ruby says. “She was mean to me. She went through my things. She took a dollar and ninety-three cents out of my Hello Kitty purse.”

“That was a mean thing to do,” I concede. “Was that all of your money?”

“Every penny.”

“Were you saving up?”

“Yes.”

“For what?”

“Just saving.”

“Ah, I see.”

“Now I’m like this,” Ruby says.

“Like what?”

“Like a ghost, I guess. I guess I died.”

“Does that make you sad,” I ask. It’s hard to know what else to say.

“It’s scary. I don’t know when to go to bed anymore, and the other dead people just stand there and never say anything I can hear. They just watch me wherever I go. I guess I don’t really need my dollar and ninety-three cents now. They put all my things in a bag.”

“Will someone come for them,” I ask.

“Maybe,” Ruby says. Then, “I have to go.”

“Where?”

“Back. There’s still some of me left. They’re keeping me in the cold. I’ve never been so cold.”

“No,” I say getting up. “Don’t go back there.” But she’s gone.

The early sun is rising. Shining, for a moment, between the two curtains. The light is a narrow, vertical beam revealing particles moving on currents through the air. A lifeless galaxy of abandoned planets swirling.

psych ward #2

This part of the hospital is over a century old. It suffers the dull, monotonous ache of dissolving stone and warping timbers. There are rooms that have been sealed shut and are lost to the world. Inside of these rooms, the oldest ghosts fret and remember. I know these rooms are there when I walk past. The dark inside of them is absolute. But there’s the occasional sound of water dripping, steam pipes banging and, sometimes, there is weeping. A deep melancholic weeping for which there is no comfort. These are the ghosts with the biggest eyes, who see the most. They know Ruby’s death is a recent one, and they cannot condone her innocence. They hate her, but observe her greedily. They’ll feed on her if they can, even though she is little more than mist.

I know this like I know my own name. And I know the name of the oldest ghost, the most ravenous one. Danfort. I can’t make out when he died. Only that it was a long time ago. A century, perhaps more. When the hospital was a single granite building, some of which is still visible against the more modern, sprawling construction. Danfort was an amputee. His leg was smashed as he fell a tree. His stump went septic, then gangrenous. When they finished slicing away to the hip, and there was nothing left to cut, they injected him with ever increasing amounts of morphine. But the infection and pain grew in him like a monster. The monster thrived, and left him raving until the end. The end, when the nurses thanked Jesus that the horror was over and they were no longer required to endure in His name.

When he died, as Danfort’s ghost rose out of his body, it continued to rave and seethe. It was decades before the memories of the physical pain faded. He became a jealous ghost, envious of physical human existence. Unable to impact it, he directed his jealousy onto the newly dead and their fresh memories of tangible life. He became a predator, hunting them down and consuming them. Grinding them down with his blunt, grudging spectral molars, then swallowing them into his interior hell. There they shared his ever-growing anguish, hopelessly and without end.

I have seen Danfort in the halls at night. He chooses the darkest corners of the longest and most remote passages, avoiding the forever lights. He sees me and whispers my name, confident that human frailty will deliver me to him eventually.

I’ve watched him stalk the newly dead. They drag themselves, and the insubstantial remnants of what they left behind, an IV tower, a respirator or catheter, through the depths of the darkest corridors. I know what they’re looking for and know it’s nowhere to be found. They seek welcome and induction into their new world. Their expectations and inclinations remain, for now, the same as those they had while living. But here, there is no spiritual conduit. No hand for them to clasp that will lift them above. Perhaps that’s what Ruby hopes for. But there’s only darkness and isolation. Only immeasurable things.

“So,” Danfort says to me one night. He’s cornered me as I walk the darkness. “You speak with this Ruby.”

“No,” I say. “No Ruby. No talk.”

“Yesss,” Danfort says. “Yes, I think you do. You and Ruby, talking. She’s charming. You want to protect her. How darling. How hopeless.”

“No.”

“Oh, yes….”

psych ward #3

During the day Danfort hunkers down in shadow, gnawing on his discontent like a bone. I, on the other hand, must face those who staff the ward…

“How is your mood today,” a nurse asks. “On a scale of one to ten?”

“One,” I say.

“That’s very low,” she says looking down at my chart as though it’s some newly discovered artifact. “No better than yesterday. Any suicidal thoughts?”

“I’m swimming in them.”

“Thoughts of hurting anyone else?”

Our eyes meet, and I say, “Absolutely.”

“Hmm. That’s not good, is it?”

“Let me out of here,” I say. “My mood will improve vastly.”

“If we let you go, you’ll try to hurt yourself.”

“I didn’t say I’d hurt myself if you let me go.”

“But you just told me that your mood is one out of ten, and you’ve admitted to having suicidal and homicidal ideation.”

“But that’s because I’m here, you see. In these crappy pajamas, answering these ridiculous questions, eating the god-awful food, enduring your loathsome company.”

“The lab tech who took your blood sample this morning reported witnessing you responding to auditory hallucinations. Looks like we’ll have to increase your seroquel.”

“It wasn’t a hallucination,” I say a bit too loud. “This place has ghosts up the wazoo.”

The nurse begins to scribble. “Have you thought about ECT? Dr Myer asked you to consider it.”

“Forget it,” I say and slouch in my chair. Down the hall, Danfort steps out into the middle of the corridor. He’s smiling, displaying his considerable incisors. I sit up. “Look,” I yell, pointing.

The nurse calmly looks over her shoulder, but Danfort is gone. He’d never let her see him. She returns to her scribbling, and sighs the words, “Haloperidol injections….”

“Fuck,” I say. 

Pavilion: Ruby Night #3

It’s night again. They’ve increased my medication. I feel sedated and go to bed believing I’ll sleep straight through. The forever lights are burning when Ruby wakes me up.

“Don’t like it here,” she says.

“Me neither,” I say propping myself up on my elbows. She stands perfectly still at the end of my bed.

“My birthday’s tomorrow,” she says.

“Really? That’s November first. All Saints Day.  In honor of all saints known and unknown. That’s you, sweetheart. Saint Ruby, the unknown.”

“Huh?”

“Forget it. How old?”

“Seven.”

“A noble age.”

“You sick?”

“No,” I say.

“Why you here, then?” she says.

“I contradict conventional philosophy,” I say.

“What’s that mean?”

“Crazy,” I say. “Because I want to let my ghost out.”

“Why?”

“It says it wants out.”

“That’s stupid,” she says. “It’s better inside of you.”

“Oh.”

“You know that thing with the big eyes?”

“They all have big eyes, sweetheart.”

“The biggest eyes – and the teeth.”

“You stay away from him,” I say sitting up.

“I can’t. He finds me where ever I hide.”

“Then stay here.”

She’s quiet for a moment. Then she says, “I want to go back.”

“Where?”

“Inside of me, my body. I don’t think he can get me there.”

“Your body gave you up,” I say. “You can’t go back.”

“I’m still in that cold place. I can hide there, inside of me.”

“No, baby. You can’t. That thing in the fridge, down in the morgue, it ain’t you no more. You’re all that’s left.”

“It’s too scary here. I hate it. When do I get to go home?”

“I don’t know, sweetheart,” I say. There’s something like a tear in the corner of my eye.

She’s fading now. Perfectly still and expressionless, slowly disappearing. When she’s gone, her weeping begins. The sound of it penetrates all that’s substantial within the room, tearing it apart. I’m overwhelmed, powerless. I throw off the blankets and stand on the cold floor, weakened by the meds and staggering. I swing at the empty air like a boxer going down, and I move toward the glare of the forever lights.

* * * *

There’s an obscure logic that dictates the morgue must be in the lowest basement of a hospital’s oldest section, buried completely in the element of our ultimate end. There are tunnels here, nothing as civil as halls or corridors. Above me are dripping pipes and dim yellow bulbs strung on brittle wire. They expose the rough, unfinished century old concrete. The floor is smooth from a hundred years of gurneys conveying the dead. Somebody has written the word farewell on the wall in small cramped letters using a red felt pen. It’s the only graffiti.

I push through the double set of swinging doors at the end. Here there are white florescent tubes emitting an incomplete white light. There’s dripping in a sink, and a chemical smell that fails to mask decades of solemn human decay. Water from some unchecked source has pooled on the floor. On a counter, next to an array of electrical outlets, sits a soiled autoclave, opened with used scalpels and other sharp implements glinting in the light. Ruby stands beneath a square dingy door to a cooler. Her lips are moving rapidly now, as if she is speaking very fast. But I only hear a hiss. Danfort is here also, loitering maliciously in the bricks and concrete.

“You can’t be here, sweetheart,” I say.

“Then where,” she says, sounding strangely adult.

“I don’t know.”

“Mine,” Danfort whispers. “She’s for me.”

“No,” I shout, looking for him everywhere.

“Then intervene, weakling,” Danfort says. “Be her hero. Confront me.”

I look down at my cold bare feet on the wet yellow tiles. The blue veins conspiring to sustain a wasted life.

A bolt disengages and the cooler door swings open on its own. Somewhere a compressor begins to hum as the pallet cradling Ruby’s wasted corpse rolls out. Whatever took her life ravaged her body. It’s jaundice and skeletal; its eyes partially opened and lips parted, dried spittle on its cheek. The little gown it wears makes it seem obscene. The tiny hands are clenched into helpless fist.

“I want to go back,” she says.

Danfort laughs.

“No,” I say. “There nothing left to go back to.”

“Delicious,” Danfort whispers. Now he’s standing on the other side of the room. His huge eyes are moving wildly, back and forth and in exaggerated circles. He grins to reveals his teeth. “Come, my dear. Time for us, now.”

“No,” she says. “I won’t.”

I step in front of her, between her and Danfort. It’s a pointless gesture I know. I can only truly face him on his terms, on the other side. It’s an idea that came to me hours ago, or was it a lifetime ago? Not to end my life for my own selfish reasons, but to come to Ruby’s rescue. To find a way to guide her away from this place and out of the hands of Danfort. He appears before me and begins to walk towards us. Eyes wild but unseeing.

Scalpels in the autoclave shine through the gore. I reach over and take one. I hold it to my forearm and encounter a sudden, unfamiliar conflict. Something inside won’t allow me to apply the blade.

“Weakling,” Danfort whispers. “Yesss. Cut your wrists and take an hour to die. I will have devoured her whole by then. Go ahead.” Then he reaches out as if to take Ruby, and I see the 220 volt outlet next to the autoclave.

“I have a better idea,” I say, pushing the surgical steel knife into the outlet.

the scars of Virginia Wong

It wasn’t a very strange first conversation. Not the kind I prefer to have at 3:30 a.m. after a night of heavy drinking. None of the usual human truths filtered through a crank mesh of deliriousness, booze and embellishment. But how do you measure the strangeness of a conversation in the back doorway of a bar at closing time?

I discovered the dense overlapping network of scars on her wrists and forearms during our chat and found it difficult to take my eyes off of it. She noticed and said, “Oh, I cut myself once. Or maybe I mean, once I cut myself. Or maybe it’s, I used to cut myself. It’s something like that. I did it for a long time. It’s kind of hard to look at now. It’s not the sort of thing a good Chinese girl does.”

“Are you a good Chinese girl?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Mostly. But I guess I was a teenage masochist. The psychiatrist called it self-harm.”

She had me there, no quick come back. I took the easy way out and said, “What was that like?”

“It was like being alone on a hidden continent where hope and doubt both have sharp edges.”

“And what happened to the teenage masochist?”

“She does bit parts in movies now, and works at Starbucks. And she tries to avoid razorblades, pointy objects and bits of broken glass.”

I knew I had it coming, but I’ve never been a fan of conversations in which people portray themselves in the third person. When it’s a woman, I keep waiting for the Audrey Hepburn pout. When it’s a guy, I keep waiting on the commencement of an incoherent personal manifesto. I watched her and waited. She did neither.

“My name’s Virginia Wong,” she said holding her hand and scarred forearm.

“People call me Roscoe,” I said shaking it.

I walked her home from the bar that night, no strings attached. We parted at her door with a tame little kiss and I took the long way back to my place.

And I didn’t see Virginia again for a couple of years.

She found me by accident one night in a bar just outside of Gastown. It was a quiet place with an elderly bartender and no cues for its pool table. The clientele was there to drink and to occasionally offend one another. I was reading a two week old copy of the Georgia Straight.

I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey, you’re the man people call Roscoe.” I looked up at the mirror behind the bar and saw her there.

“Virginia Wong,” I smiled. “Pull up a stool. What’ll it be?”

“Vodka on ice. Nothing Russian.”

The elderly bartender poured.

“How’s show business?” I said.

“It’s slow for a Chinese girl. Movies are for white people.”

“That’s tough.” There were fresh livid cut marks on her wrists poking out from under her sleeves. I looked at them a second too long and she moved her hands down to her side. “You okay?” I said

She looked down at her drink and sighed deeply. “There’s a demon after me,” she said with absolute conviction.

“What?” She’d done it again. Left me without a quick come back. “You’re being metaphorical, right? Is some guy stalking you?”

She shook her head. “No. It isn’t a stalker; it’s a demon. He doesn’t know I’m here. I gave him the slip but he’ll find me. Always does.” She seemed oddly calm and resigned. “He’s an eerie little bastard. Three feet tall. Wears a black tux. Calls himself Mr Stoke. Big eyes that darken a room – all pupils, no iris, no whites.

“It’s funny how easily a demon can get into your life,” she said. “Walk down the wrong back alley at the wrong dark moment and there it is. Grinning and reciting an inventory of your secrets and lies, past and future.”

“Forgive me for asking, but are you normally on some kind of medication?”

“Medication doesn’t work. Neither does liquor, really.” She gulped her vodka. “But at least with alcohol, you can’t remember in the morning.”

I noticed then how fatigued she looked and reached out to touch her cheek.

“Don’t,” she said, pushing my hand away.

“What don’t you want to remember in the morning?”

“It talks backward to me,” she smiled sadly. “It tells me my life story over and over, only backward. Then it says, ‘cut yourself use the vegetable knife the blunt one feel it burn’. It says, ‘now cut your face bitch cut your face cut your face’. That’s the shit I’d rather not remember.” She was getting loud, sounding a little desperate. The bartender gave us a look.

“Look,” I said. “We can get a cab. I can take you to the Emergency. I can stay with you while you wait to see someone.”

“Fuck the hospital,” she said. “People die there and don’t get out. They just stand around dead in their blue gowns staring at you, like they’re recruiting.”

“I really think you need….”

“Another drink,” she said. “I need another drink. But you don’t have to buy me one. I stole tonight’s take at my Starbucks store. Three thousand bucks. I thought I’d go out big.” She pulled a handful of bills out of her purse and dropped them back in. “I just need to find a happier place than this.”

She slipped off of her stool and straightened her jacket and top. More of the fresh red cut marks were visible on her forearms.

“I haven’t cut my face yet,” she said looking into the mirror behind the bar. “He wants me to real bad but I haven’t done it yet. That really pisses him off. Maybe I will, though.”

“Don’t,” I said and pulled out a business card. Handing it to her I said, “Call if you need to.”

She took it smiling. “That’s risky, Roscoe,” she said. “What if I do?” Then she walked out of the bar.

That’s when the bartender came over. “That the sort of woman you normally attract?” he said. “Girl needs electroshock or something.”

I paid up and followed her out. But she was nowhere on the street when I exited the bar. There was a fog rolling in and I couldn’t see half a block.  She might have been nearby but lost in the mist. There were trains coupling nearby. Someone yelled the name Ruby out of a window of the Hotel Europe.

The next morning I awoke to a rapping on my door. It was a couple plain clothes cops. One was a woman. She said, “You know a Virginia Wong?”

“Not well,” I said. It was 8 a.m. Too early for me.

“Found this on her body last night.” She was holding my business card.

“Body?”

“Body,” said the cop.

“What happened?”

“Maybe you can tell us.”

“I talked to her in a bar. Then she left.”

“Why’d she have your card?”

“Because I gave it to her. She was psychotic. I wanted to help.”

“Psychotic? You a doctor?”

“No, a band promoter. What it says on the card. Do I need a lawyer?”

“Nah,” said her partner. “Probably not. She was known to us. You know a Mr Carlyle Stoke, by the way?” The cop was looking at a notepad. “Little guy. Eccentric. Overdresses. Wears sunglasses. Says he’s blind.”

“No. Why?”

“You sure?”

“Yeah I’m sure.”

“Says he knows you.”

“Never heard of him.”