East Van

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

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

*   *   *   *   *

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

And yet, we saw everything.

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

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

“Maria.” Zack was the first to speak.

Quietly.

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

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

The body of our friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rape.

Cowardly, cruel and stupid.

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

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

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

Like a girl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cripple’s a bad word.”

“She was your friend, your mother says.”

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

I’d yet to read even one tragic romance.

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

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

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

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

It already made no sense.

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

“Yeah,” I said.

“Wanna tell me about it?”

An unexpected question.

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

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

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

“I’m dead,” says Maria, “aren’t I.”

Things are running through the puzzle of jungle around us.

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

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

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

But—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *   *   *

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

I quietly remembered the last time she and I spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

“So, what happened?”

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

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

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

“That’s it?”

“I just woke up,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grew and learned and worked and got older.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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the revised Rosetta

The psychiatrist is Dr Slim, turning pages slowly in a folder open on his lap. The woman, sitting across from him in restraints, is Rosetta. Medium in stature, her body is densely draped in narrow streams of blue braiding Code, tattooed in crisp nine point Andalé Mono font, from the top of her shaven head, covering her face, and flowing downward to where the code disappears past the neckline of her hospital gown, appearing again on her arms where they emerge from short sleeves, cascading to her fingertips. It has been reported by nurses that the vertical lines of Code cover her entire body. Only the green pupils and whites of her eyes stand out in contrast; even her lips are inked. Her stare is steady.

Slim is reading Rosetta’s case file voyeuristically. His eyebrows raised when he discovers juicy slivers of clinical gossip, something ironic or hostile placed there by another doctor or disgruntled staff. Then frowning and making a too-too-too sound with his tongue, whenever he encounters more relevant clinical notes. He has a lunch date in forty-five minutes, and thinks he’ll have the grilled chicken bruschetta.

“You haven’t slept for a very long time,” he says, about to bite his thumbnail, then changing his mind. Then turning the pages back to a place near the beginning, he says, “Ah, here we are: No sleep since admission, three days ago. Patient spends the night sitting cross-legged on bed, claims she hasn’t slept since 2010.

“No sleep for three days,” says Slim. “That’s easy to fix. But you say you haven’t slept since 2010? That’s very interesting.”

“Is it?”

“Do you want to say more about that?”

“No.”

Slim shifts in his chair.

“Are you hearing things?” he asks. “Voices?”

“I hear your voice.”

“Auditory hallucinations are a common effect of sleep disorders. And in your paperwork…,” he turns more pages to be certain, “…there is the diagnosis of schizophrenia. You’ve had bouts of psychosis, and now you’ve committed a very serious crime. Were you commanded to do so?”

Next he’ll ask me if I smell shit, she thinks. He’ll without the apostrophe is Hell. He’s Hell. This prison is Hell. The handcuffs and florescent light. The walls too white. The isolation rooms too small.

“And the tattoos,” he says, “I understand from staff that you’re covered with them, nearly every centimetre of your body.” He considered the alphanumeric chains, and her frank expression behind them. “Done with such precision, too. Do you know what I mean when I say self-harm?”

Rosetta’s eyes narrowed.

“Are you aware of seeing things,” says Slim, “people for instance, you’ve been told others don’t?”

“Of course.”

“How do you know others can’t see what you see?”

“Because I can’t see what they see. Makes sense, right?”

“Can you give me an example of what you see, that others can’t?”

“Why?”

Eight years, sleepless.

“Because this is a clinical assessment.” He says this smiling without rapport, reveling uneven teeth. “I assess, prognosticate and recommend therapy. Not necessarily in that order. And at some point, I make a recommendation as to whether you stay here or return to court for criminal sentencing. To achieve all of that, I ask you questions and, ideally, you answer them honestly.”

There were no answers to such ordinary questions.

Three days awake. The fool had no idea.

She began practicing wakefulness, and forsaking dreams, as a child, out of  a fear of sleep, slowly and carefully at first, counting breaths and heartbeats silently. Clearing her mind of everything else—the sickening touch of hands. Beginning when she was five. One touch, two, three…. The slow impossible wrongness. Ghosts sitting on her bed, stroking her cheek in the nightstand lamplight, speaking musically, slow and backward, saying they loved her. Each time taking on their spider-likeness, because that’s how some ghosts attack.

Her wholly wakeful life began much later, when she was fifteen years old, after escaping the haunted house and running to the slum side of the city. It was there, in a skid-row hotel room, that she first floated over the lawless atoms of night, her fear of sleep eclipsed by a splendid new twenty-four hour consciousness.

And there she began her journal, in pencil at first on the walls of her room, and then the corridors of the decaying hotel, refusing to correct errors as she wrote. Correction was the slaughter of blameless fractions of thought that were becoming the Code. She’d never understand it, she thought at first. But then came the moment of discovery, when she became aware that in order to understand the Code, it must be inked upon her skin.

Awkwardly at first, she used sewing needles and razor blades, and a potion of India ink and cigarette ash, later finding expert and trustworthy artists, who wouldn’t look beneath her surface at the perfect swirling binary as they marked her.

“Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about the things you see and hear,” Dr Slim says.

“You wouldn’t get it.”

She translated ghosts into humans using the Code. Human thirsts were easier to decipher. Slim was with the ghosts.

“We’re also concerned about cognitive impairment,” says Dr Slim—“Your possible premature decline. We’d like to do tests. Untreated psychosis causes neurodegeneration. Left untreated, you may even be left unable to recognise the passage of time.”

“Time or times, Doc?” Rosetta says, finally relaxing in her chair. “Epochs and eras? Or just ticks fucking tocks, spawning hours.” She grins. “Clock guts. The 6am news you wake up to every morning. I know Time. I recognise him just fine. I’ve got his phone number. I call him and laugh whenever he’s late. Time crosses the street when he sees me coming, runs and hides like a coward behind the eyes of old women.”

“That’s very poetic,” Slim says, looking again at his thumbnail.

“Fuck you.”

“Look,” says the doctor, “you’re not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity. So, this isn’t prison, but it is confinement and refusing therapy, drug or otherwise, isn’t an option.”

“I’m going to escape,” she says.

“No, you’re not. No one ever has. This place is more secure than a penitentiary, in its own way.” He paused and then said, “We’ve a long list of neuroleptics at hand, each with its own charming set of side-effects. And we always over prescribe. The drug addled never wonder far.”

“I’ll escape. I’ll sleep. It’s finally time, I figure. Just try to catch me then. I’ll sleep where there aren’t any ghosts.”

“There are no ghosts,” Slim says. “There never were.”

“You’re one, you know? I didn’t think so a minute ago, but now it’s obvious.”

“No, Rosetta. I’m not a ghost.”

“You’re challenging me?”

“Yes.”

Ghost facts

  1. Ghosts exist.
  2. Ghosts are of the dead, but not the dead. This is obvious to anyone who has seen one.
  3. Rosetta has lived surrounded by ghosts since childhood.
  4. There are castes of ghost.
  5. Rosetta knows each caste by its name—killer, lost, screamers, etc.

Rosetta encountered her first ghosts when she was orphaned at age five, after one parent died of a mysterious violence in the house on 8th Avenue, and the other went to prison.

These first ghosts were named mister and missus shade. They were wanting-ghosts, posing as foster parents. They wanted Rosetta—wanting the things she’d no idea breathed inside of her. And they hated her for it.

Wanting-ghost facts

  1. Wanting-ghosts want.
  2. Wanting-ghosts take.
  3. Wanting-ghosts prefer to remain visible, though they often pass through walls and ceilings when no one is watching.
  4. They’re clever.
  5. Few see them for what they are.
  6. They sulk.
  7. They worry, shout and show their teeth.
  8. Their hands are quick and fierce.
  9. They’re selfish and violent.
  10. Wanting-ghosts hate what they want.

Wanting-ghosts have mural faces—gasoline fire eyes, a cloud of planet gravity discordant orbit phases wheeling round each of them. And when Rosetta refused their raw touch, when she turned her head and cried out, or hid in closets or under her bad, their faces blistered and their fierce hands became claws. And when they failed against her defiance, when they knew she’d never be meek and surrender, they chose loneliness for her instead, locking Rosetta in a basement.

At first she fed herself from the cellar shelves, peaches from mason jars hard to open with small hands. She ate them as she looked out of a small square reinforced window onto the resting winter garden. When the peaches ran out, she starved for a week before a bowl of something began to be left each evening on the uppermost step of the stairs to the kitchen.

Other ghosts came to her in the basement, and Rosetta began to know each kind. The sad, the shining, the watchers who sat very darkly in the corners, the ones that screamed loudly but were never heard, the ghosts of children quietly unable to understand the fact of their own deaths.

Once during an uncounted spring, a little boy, who might have been a ghost, snuck into the garden, hunching down to looked at her through the wire mesh window. He’d a round face and brown eyes, and wore a clean striped tee-shirt. After staring at each other for a minute, the boy ran away and vanished through a hole in a fence, returning later and placing a candy bar and a fistful of caramels on the windowsill. An offering she’d never touch. Then he ran away again, and never came back.

A bath came once a month, the day before the lady from the Foster Agency arrived. After each bath, Rosetta was placed in a room with a warm bed and picture books. And that’s where missus shade would leave her. Each time, before she left, twisting Rosetta’s ear very hard and instructing her to tell the Agency lady that she loved her foster parents. Then missus shade locked the door behind her.

Eventually the lady from the Foster Agency stopped coming. The shades told Rosetta she’d been adopted, and left her in the basement watching from the window as the garden bowed to each season, again and again. She wanted to count each cycle, but hadn’t learned numbers. Time, a thing she discovered later was passing. More ghosts arrived, surrounding her on and on, until one showed her how to escape.

“I’ve already prescribed a new combination of medications,” says Slim. “And you will take them. The staff will make sure. The meds will help you to sleep, among other necessary things. You’ve said you want to sleep. I want you to follow the nurse’s instructions. Is that clear?”

Slim released Rosetta onto the ward, where the ghosts were slouched and long fingered, where the hospital staff cast spells. She took to a corner in a threadbare easy chair, yawning for the first time since childhood, and wondering if dreams were all they were cracked up to be. A grinning posse would arrive soon, with injections and pills.

How to kill a wanting-ghost

  1. Wanting-ghosts aren’t hard to kill.
  2. Most wanting-ghosts choose suicide.
  3. Want-ghosts must sleep, unlike other ghosts.
  4. Most sleep at night, as they did in life. Some, however, sleep during the day and haunt the night.
  5. The shades slept at night, and haunted the day.
  6. Wanting-ghosts fear sleep.
  7. The best time to kill a wanting-ghost is when it sleeps.
  8. They sleep deeply, rarely waking before their time. This makes them vulnerable.
  9. The most effective way to kill a wanting-ghost is by knife and fire.

Her vengeance against mister and missus shade came on a night when the moon was a hung high thin bit of scrap. She’d become mist for the visit. Entering the house by passing through fissures in the outer walls. Coming to float above them as they slept.

Her accomplice was a knife that had found her, where it lay one night in an alley she often walked before dawn. The knife was handsome, with a pearl handle, and she knew its history when she took it into her hand. She knew why it had been dropped there. There was murder in it. It smiled when she held it. It would kill for her, even if she hesitated.

Coming out of the mist, she sat on the edge of the bed, stroking mister shade’s cheek as she ran the knife’s blade lightly across his throat, watching as his eyes moved swiftly to and fro beneath their lids. And when those eyes opened with a start, he saw her silhouette, her posture still familiar after years, and then her face in the dim light of the slice of moon through the window. Her face behind the torrent of Code; the grownup face of the child he’d harmed so completely. She’d a strange expression of sympathy as she held the sharp edge firmly under his chin.

“Oh look,” she whispered, “you’re bleeding.”

A thin current of blood trickled down his neck as his pupils dilated, igniting the orange inferno of his eyes. The room glowed.

“Please,” said mister shade. “Take anything you want.”

“Anything? Then I’ll have grace and vengeance. And those eyes,” she said. “They’re what I came for.” The handsome knife moved quickly and in a second shade’s eyes were in her hand, still burning and too hot to hold. So she threw them against the wall, mister shade screaming as they exploded into flame. The knife moved faster again when it drew the line, deep and true across shade’s throat.

The fire caused by his eyes exploding against the wall was spreading throughout the room, and Rosetta saw missus shade, with her own napalm eyes, sitting up in the bed.

“You?” the missus said.

“Me,” said Rosetta. The knife went in deep, and missus shade’s eyes faded.

Now the fire would finish the job, as the shades lay in their bed.

Knife and fire.

Neighbours in bedclothes gathered on the street to watch the house burn.

Rosetta turned to mist and escaped.

Grace and vengeance.

Days later, the police knocked on her door.

*

Now she sits silently in the hospital ward common room, surrounded by the staff come to cast spells.

“Non-responsive,” a doctor says. “Has she been given anything yet?”

“No.”

“Weak pulse,” says a nurse, “almost none at all. Get a BP cuff.”

“Forget that,” the doctor says, listening through a stethoscope. “Get the crash cart, room 3.”

“I can’t find a pulse at all now.”

“Get a damn gurney.”

She dreamed as her heart gently failed. A good one, as dreams go. She was a girl and she was a woman, sitting on the veranda of a happily aging house in the country. Shade-trees, birdsong and crickets. Blue skies as a bright red roadster motored by on the quiet road beyond the gate, someone waving out the window. The ink was gone, the characters of the Code having flown heavenward like a swarm of blue bees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 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, jazz and a passion. 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 dusty 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 almost hid his beginnings and the essential cruelty that had brought him to prominence.

He was a demon, or had been—a 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 her 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. Instead she said, “Why have you come?”

“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. Your jewelry box was full. 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.”

“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? Memory Lane and all?”

“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.”

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

“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.”

He touched his own wounds, slowly revealing themselves, and then looked at his bloody fingers. “Oh God I’m sorry.”

“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. I guess the dead don’t just fall to the ground. We just get disappeared to all we loved.”

“You thought you were bullet-proof. I guess I thought the same when my heart seemed to be where it belonged, but it wasn’t long before I noticed a world vanishing .”

“I thought I’d live forever,” he said.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Retired Private Eye

It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things. It’s what all writers know, what they must know, and why I knew he’d tell me his side of the story.

Ethan Packard was the sort of mess a man can become at ninety—contentedly unkempt, tattoos collapsing, yellowing round the edges. He sat with me at a cafe table, as he took the first bite of his second piece of amaretto cheesecake. Ethan was an earnest eater, and I resisted the temptation to reach across with a napkin and wipe away a cheesy smudge at the corner of his mouth.

“That’s some deadly shit,” I told him, instead, “the cheesecake, I mean. I understand that the doctors are saying your heart’s about to blow?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what they’re saying,” he said, his wet mouth half-full, his eyes burning moistly. “But this morning I woke up seeing the same big brown stain on my ceiling, hearin’ the same bitch down the hall screamin’ at her cuck husband, and smellin’ the same diesel exhaust comin’ up from the back alley where the drivers idle their garbage trucks while they get a bit of head from the local working girls, and I knew, as I always do, in that moment, that I was still alive—just in that moment, buster, a moment same as this one. And like yer average Buddhist’ll tell you, it’s the moment that counts. Everything else is a distraction.”

“You’re not a Buddhist, Ethan.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do. There’s nothing my research that mentions it.”

“Well, maybe I’m just pointing out somethin’,” he said, shifting in his chair, his hand going unconsciously to his hip and touching something there under his jacket, comforted by its ever-presence.

It was the gun on his belt, a .38, a chunky lump of iron full of lead. An artefact, nearly a fossil. Everyone knew it was there. A gun that had only been fired once.

“Besides,” he said. “I’m already too damn old. Too many fuckin’ doctors. I’m getting real homesick for the time back when they left a man alone to die in his own shoes. And, say whatever you like about these old arteries of mine, but it was awful delicious clogging  ‘em up.”

“Swell.” I stirred my Americano. “But look, two pieces of cheesecake in a joint like this don’t come cheap. It reciprocation time. Time to answer some questions.”

“Fine, ask away.” He slurped his coffee. “Waddaya wanna know? Everything’s for sale. Nothing too lurid or confidential. It’s liquidation time.”

I was quiet for a moment, suspicious of that, until he looked at me over his glasses, and said, “What!” Not a shout, just a bark. But some of the cafe patrons looked startled.

“Thelma,” I said.

He waited a second, then quietly repeated the woman’s name, “Thelma.” Then putting his fork down, he said, “Is that why we’re here, why you tracked me down, why we’re here in this crummy joint, for that?”

“Yes.”

“You could’ve at least brought me to the bar, if it’s that.”

“But, you’re a drunk.”

“Only my friends call me that, mister.”

“The fact remains,” I said, “I didn’t want this to turn into some maudlin, drunken rehashing of the sixties. I want clear recollections of what happened.”

He wanted a drink now, it was obvious, more than just the puddle of amaretto his cheesecake was swimming in, and a cigarette. I could see it in his face, the way his shoulders had gone slack, the way his eyes had lost their burn and were just red.

Suddenly, he was longing for a once long black American automobile he used to step out of with style, straightening his tie, a segment of the world watching and taking note. He was romancing his own select version of the past. If he could only gather it up, without all of the loss and common brokenheartedness, he might make it his moment forever. It was the moment that counted, but this moment was the distraction.

I started taking notes.

“Why do you want to know about that?” Ethan said. “What’s there to know that isn’t already long and justly forgotten?”

“I’m writing a story,” I said. “I’m missing details, ones only you’ll have to offer. It was a long time ago. Nearly everyone has passed away.”

“It’s not that long ago.” Ethan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Thelma,” I said again.

“Thelma.” He sighed deeply, but it seemed he was ready now. Sooner than I’d hoped, knowing what little I did. “What the hell kinda name is Thelma, anyway?” More distraction. “What kinda mother names her kid Thelma?”

I shrugged.

“She was gorgeous, though, even on the slab. She still looked like Anita Ekberg, even though she’d spent some time in the drink.”

“And, so to clear this up for me, you were together? Lovers?”

“Fuck no.”

This was disappointing. “Then how’d you know her?”

“Her body washed up on the beach,” he said. “Like I said, she’d been in the drink a while.”

“What?”

“Yeah. I thought that was accepted. It was in the papers. It’s 2017, isn’t it? I thought there was the internet.”

“But I mean before she washed up on the beach. Did you know her then?”

“Nah, but she was beautiful all the same. I’d’ve really gone for her when she was alive. It was some kinda painful meeting her for the first time slid out of a morgue drawer.”

“So, it’s true. You got to see her in the morgue?”

“Sure. That was simple. I had an in with the cops.” He gave an easy wave of a hand. “I was a Private Investigator, get it? I had a good reputation.”

“Okay so, if I’ve got the story straight, you fell in love with a dead woman named Thelma?”

Ethan changed the subject again: “Coroner said the killer used a razor, which was obvious just looking at her.”

“But, in the end, the killer got shot.”

“Sure, that’s justice ain’t it?”

“A sort of unconventional justice, don’t you agree? He never went before a judge.”

“No he didn’t.”

“And he, the murderer himself,” I said, “he wasn’t what you’d call a conventional killer, either.”

“Nah, he was some poet.” Ethan began to eat cheesecake again, with mild gusto. “Some fuckin’ poet with a razor,” he said, with his mouth full. “Someone she’d hooked onto ’cause he had the dreamy eyes. I guess everything he said was like a Happy Valentine’s Day card. Can you believe it? Dames really go for that shit. Some hippie poet with a razor.” He shook his head.

“It all ended with the hippies,” said Ethan. “That was the sixties for you. It was all gone after that. The dark beauty and the menace of the city, I mean. Even the beatniks didn’t have a chance. Suddenly, it was all race riots and political assassinations. Irony took a header, replaced by counterfeit enthusiasm. Irony finally died with a needle in its arm in a back alley somewhere. The movies tried to maintain, but even Noir Hollywood had died. What sixties movie star wanted to compete with shadow for centre stage?

“The sixties were all about the Beatles—peace, love and understanding, and half-baked revolution.

“The age of the real Private Eye was over. I hung on, though. Chased down a lot of cheatin’ husbands and wives. Found a lot of missing persons. Served a lot of summonses. Then I hung it all up in the late eighties.  Whew, the eighties, what a toilet.”

The cheesecake was gone now, and he began using his coffee spoon, attempting to salvage the amaretto on his plate. Finally, he picked the plate up and licked it clean. Patrons around us looked, and then looked away.

“I ain’t proud,” he said.

“But the poet,” I said, “he got shot. They said it was done execution style. Some suspected you.”

“Sure,” said Ethan. “I was a suspect. The cops thought so at first, then the papers. Some smart ass reporter did a thing on it, but it never took off. It never went anyway, neither. You suspect me, right now. I can see it in the way you’re looking at me. You made up your mind about me before we ever sat down here. That’s what this is all about, ain’t it? This little cheesecake interview? ”

It was. I hadn’t realised it until that moment, but it was. The legend of the gun under his cheap, shabby Harris Tweed. The gun fired only once. But there was more than that.

“If it’s true, if you really did kill him, then you killed a man for a woman you never met while she was alive, who you only met post-mortem. It’s such an odd thing to do, you’d have to agree.”

Now without concurring, Ethan remembered Thelma’s pale eyes, her red hair awry, her dimming lips, his sense of the injustice, the rumors of a suspect. The morgue attendant had walked away, out of a strangely felt sense of respect, as Ethan beheld her. Did Thelma, he’d wondered so many times since, represent to him every murdered woman he’d encountered in his work, every woman beaten or scarred by a man?

“I caught up with him,” he said, “in a cold room over a storefront on East Hastings. I still remember the bugs in the sink. Turns out he was a weakling, a coward. He just blubbered when he realised what was about happen.

“I told him to get down on his knees, and he did without a word, just his blub blubbing. I’d expected more of fight, but there wasn’t none.”

“Then?” I said.

“Then I wrapped a pillow round the gun, and shot him once in the back of the neck. The gunshot was loud, though, pillow or no. Too loud, and I expected a knock on the door. But it never came. So, I walked out into the hall and down the stairs, and out the door onto the street, leaving the body of another dead poet behind, bleeding on the floor of his upper room. And I got off free. No one ever proved a thing, and you know what?”

“What?” I said.

“You may be a writer, but you’re not writing no story. You’ve even stopped taking notes. You got something up yer sleeve. So, what’s this really about?”

I tried to imagine the look in my eyes, and looked down at my blue veined, sixty year old hands that had turned so many pages looking for answers, and realised that there was only the truth to convey.

“She was my mother,” I said, “Thelma Brogan. I’m Frederick, of course.”

We sat there a moment looking at each other across the table. Then, “Isn’t that somethin’. You’re her orphan,” Ethan said. “I’m real sorry for that.”

“No need. You did her a kind of justice. I never knew her, but I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

“And here I am, lickin’ my plate clean.”

“I guess I should thank you.”

“Ain’t no need for that nether,” he said. “I guess killing that poet was a strange thing to do, after all. Maybe the strangest in a lifetime of strange things. His name was Francis Kool, by the way. But I guess you know that. Wasn’t so cool layin’ there, though.”

A waitress appeared out of the fog surrounding our table, laid down our bill, and vanished again.

“Well here’s hopin’ I never see you again, Frederick,” Ethan Packard said. “I’m supposin’ you’re feelin’ the same way about me.”

“Yeah,” I said, nearly sad. “I suppose I do.”

It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noah Bones, chapter 1: the moment

The time of day?

It was a thing to ponder as he waited. The ever-changing curfews and the random rotation of Commonwealth clock dials had done their work. Personal time pieces were forbidden. Time-Knowing was crime. He stood on a cold corner with the slow world nearly deserted, in what might have once been a 10am light filtering through the fog and coal smoke.

Waiting had been the greater part of the job, since the beginning. He waited and saw. Waited for the right moments to attack and retreat, always being careful. A moment wasn’t a minute. A minute was mutiny.

But he dreamed in moments like these, the dead immense moments before a kill, of doors opening into the Greater Plan. Of being offered a place within it, from which he’d emerge and be magnificent. But first, this. Always this first. This, wrapped in limitless moments.

Now his right fist clenched the smoky snub-nosed revolver in his coat pocket. Small and of indeterminate calibre. He hadn’t bothered to look, but knew it had the blunt blue character of a weapon that had killed before. A hand-me-down loaded by a stranger and slid to him across a tabletop, with an envelope of dirty currency. It was made of iron. It could kill forever. Been lost ten thousand years, like something precious, and found once more to kill again. A cheap ouroboros, an unwelcome eternal return.

There were a few ageing black automobiles parked at the curb, and the occasional pedestrian walking quickly past the dingy storefronts. Civil servants. There’d be permits in their pockets, allowing them to be out. They had that privilege, and the consequential dread held tightly somewhere inside. In the gut or wrapped tightly round the heart. Privilege was sedition, when one’s moment finally arrived.

He checked the action of the revolver’s hammer by pulling it back with his thumb, then gently easing it forward with his finger on the trigger. Stiff, gritty.

Then a man stepped out of a café across the street. Ugly but well dressed, familiar from a photograph. Suddenly the revolver felt unmanageable in Noah’s hand. He thought of running, as he always did at moments like these, but crossed the street instead, and met the man at the door of his car. And in a fluid movement, he drew the gun and squeezed the trigger—the sound of it surprising them both. Snap! it said. He cocked and squeezed the trigger again. Snap! Empty chambers? Impossible. Why hadn’t he checked? He was no amateur. A gun slid across a tabletop for an assignment was always loaded.

His target sneered. In seconds it might have been a grin.

Noah looked down at the revolver in his hand rather into the ugly man’s face. Then, desperately and without aim, he squeezed the trigger once more. “Bam!” it said this time, and the ugly man stepped back, eyes wide, hands grasping at the now bloody, empty space where his genitals had been seconds before.

“Oh shit,” Noah said, “I…. I didn’t mean….” …to shoot you there, he wanted to say. But then took more careful aim and, “Bam!” put a hole in the ugly man’s head, over the left eye, causing the eyeball to pop out at speed, and hang gluey from the socket by its optic nerve. Smoke swirled in the mist as the ugly man staggered against the car, falling dead onto the sidewalk. Right eye still open. The left looking away.

Privilege was sedition.

*   *   *

“The first two chambers were empty,” he said over the telephone in his room. “Was that some kind of fucking joke?”

“Are you laughing?” It was a woman’s voice. Familiar from nightmares and previous phone calls.

“No.”

“Not much of a joke then, eh?” she said.

“Yeah, well fuck you.”

He nearly hung-up, but then heard the woman say, “You want into the Greater Plan, I hear. Your Assigned Intermediary says that he sees it in you.”

“The fat fuck who gave me the gun, you mean?”

“And the money, dear,” the woman said. “The filthy filthy money. The Fat One thinks that you might make a sound candidate. You’re just bustin’ to move up, according to him.”

It was true. He was.

“When?” he said.

“When your moment comes.”

“Well when the hell’s that, a week, a month?”

There was a pause, a hush. He heard the very faint sound of a man shouting on a separate, very distant connection.

Then the woman said, “Don’t push yer luck, boyo.”

___________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

fez

—from a couple of years ago—

The guy upstairs has a swollen prostrate. I know because it takes him ten minutes to piss. He starts out okay, a steady stream, then it becomes short bursts. Bang, long pause, bang, long pause, bang…. The sound comes through my ceiling, in a dim sort of high fidelity. The sticky darkness adhering to it, giving it weight. It’s the curse of whiskey and the gift of insomnia. I hear everything in the dark, and I’m blessed with empty hours to interpret.

The guy upstairs wears a fez, red with a black silk tassel. He reads E.E. Cummings and Aleister Crowley all night, and drinks absinthe. He listens to opera on his Victrola, too. Then, round 5:00 a.m., I hear him fall into his mattress. Like a meteor hitting a desert mesa, obliterating everything.

I’m guessing at some of this, of course. But some of it I know to be fact. I broke into his place a few weeks after he moved in, while he was out doing whatever a guy like that does. There were the Cummings and Crowley books stacked on a side table next to an overstuffed chair, the fez and the absinthe. That and several decks of Fatima Turkish cigarettes. The ashtray was full. I found $83.76 in his sock drawer. I ate okay that week.

The other night he had a fight with some broad up there. It was 2:00 a.m. when it started. I was awake, working on a second quart of Seagram’s, smoking Export plains, playing solitaire on the floor.

“You bitch!” he yelled. That’s how it started out. “You have no talent.” He has a German sort of accent.

“But you promised me that I did,” said the broad. I placed a red nine onto a black ten.

“You must understand that the voice is not a percussion instrument. You’re no soprano, after all. You wouldn’t survive on stage. They’d eat you alive.”

“You’re cruel,” she said. And I kind of had to agree. Black jack onto red queen.

“We must end the partnership,” he hollered, and then there was a loud thump on the floor above. I guess he stamped his foot to emphasise. I’m drinking from the bottle now. Drinking from a glass at this point is sort of insincere. Red five onto black six.

“I won’t go,” she shouted. “I have nowhere to go.”

“Then sleep in an alley, you artless whore.”

Jesus, that was some kind of painful shit. I placed an ace of diamonds up top.

Something glass shattered, a face was slapped. Then the broad started to cry. Or maybe she wept. I never knew the difference. Red seven onto a black eight.

“I’m sorry I disappointed you,” she said, weeping. “You showed such enthusiasm, once. Maybe you lied. Men always lie.”

“And women always pursue the lie, like it was gold. And they believe it whenever they hear it. No matter how ridiculous or what form it takes. Even though they know better. And then you always blame another for your self-inflicted grief. That is woman’s greatest flaw. Is it my fault?”

Now he was the one kind of making sense. A real can of worms, though. I wouldn’t have even suggested it. But then, I didn’t wear a fez. Red three onto black four. Ace of spades goes up top. Two, three, four of spades onto that.

“Leave me in peace,” he shouts. Another slap, hard this time. And the sound of a body stumbling to the floor.

“I’ll kill you.”

“Ha!”

Red ten onto black jack. I’m starting to run out of plays. This might not be a winning hand.

Then kapow! It’s a gun. Something small, like a .22, .32 tops. Something a gal would carry in her purse. Another body hits the floor.

It’s the woman’s voice now. Not so loud this time. “You should have seen that coming. Not so tough now, are you? Did you think I would take your abuse forever?”

I need another ace. But its hidden somewhere under a queen or a nine. The game’s over.

Footsteps across the floor, small feet, high heels. The door upstairs slams shut.

I reassemble the deck and shuffle.

In an hour there was a dark reddish stain forming in the middle of my ceiling. I guessed the fez guy was bleeding out on his snazzy Persian rug. His swollen prostrate wouldn’t be such a big issue no more. I went up and checked his door. The dame hadn’t locked it. I went in and there he was, cold and dead. On his back, looking up at the light fixtures. A single small bullet hole in his forehead. She was a crack shot.

I took the absinthe, the Fatimas and the fez. I’m wearing it now. 3:00 a.m. and the steam pipes are banging something awful. Red three onto black four.