I live just under the radar. I hunt [mostly for money, but . . .]. Rats. They run. I don’t blink. You hurt a woman or a child, I’m the sharp decree coming to cut off the flow of air that keeps you ticking. You get caught you’ll never see your bed again. . . . Hope you’ve got a taste for worms.
Paulie let me in the Bamboo Club. Lights, NO CAMERAS, smoke. Girls and a brass pole. No clock. Not many words. Plenty of dollar bills. I sat at the end of the bar with a cup of coffee. No milk. No sugar. I was searching for a match when Toni came over and sat down.
“Hi, Handsome.” Full moon smile. And that wink. Even yer knees stop breathing. Antonia Zanta; tall, leggy, and curves a snake would die for. And smart. Blond—an Aryan had played backdoor man with one of her ancestors. “You heard about the missing boy on Channel 6?”
“No. I’ve been parked on a ridge in the woods, watching a meth-shack.”
“Katy Cappiello’s fourteen-year-old son is missing. Two days ago.” My eyes didn’t stop, they went right to, “Do or die!”
The name cut fifteen years off my life. I was twenty-two, swinging, mostly with my right. Bleeding. And there were two dead assholes on the floor. In an hour I’d be in Ellis Hospital for a two week stay. The first of many conversations with the cops would happen there too. I don’t think I’d been awake for an hour the first time they started asking me questions I’ve now heard over and over and over. I’m not sayin’ the cops are bad—hell, they try, but they’re limited.
We had a band in high school. The Blind Lovers Blues Band; our logo was a bleeding heart with an eye patch over the spot where the heart would be if the heart had a heart. We played in basements and at the high school three times. Hans played guitar. Paul played organ. Mike pounded on the drums and Dom played bass. I sang; I wasn’t good, but a few girls smiled at me. You take what you can get.
Kathy was at every show. And she smiled. But she was too young and her older sister, Pam, made sure I knew it.
Eight months after we formed, Hans and Dom went off to college, Mike got a welding job and a baby, and Paul headed to California. I went on a tour with a bunch of we-know-nuthin’ kids in Southeast Asia. We learned a lot. Don’t believe me, read Marc Baker’s book, he laid it out straight in ’NAM. Yeah, we learned a lot. Some of us even came home.
Hard. Lean. Gritty and scared, I came back to the World at twenty-two. [They said The War was over, you can lie down now—I told them to kiss my ass.] Drank some beer. Got a job to pay for the one room dump my landlord called an apartment and my bar tab. Four months later I got some new friends. I still have them.
One night I walked by a boarded-up, abandoned two-family that was on the city blocks for back taxes and heard a girl scream. I’ve got a very hard, very mean Thing when it comes to hurting girls. I was in the building pulling five Nazi creeps off Kathy’s older sister. There was beer and smoke. There was a radio (to this I hear “30 Days in the Hole” and the world goes red), and feverish evil. There was a lot of blood. Learned my lessons well In Country. And I’ve got the scars—and a Purple Heart—to prove it.
Pam didn’t get out of there alive. She’s still breathing, but hiding in a dark corner in a sanitarium for the last fifteen years. That ain’t being alive. If you think so, go fuck yourself. Kathy was there too. Locked in a closet; she was to be dessert or the finale. They never got a hand on her. I saw to that. But she’s got scars. You don’t walk through the fields where the plague burns and walk out without dripping with New Truth. You didn’t then, you don’t now.
Kathy and I went out once, but the screams got in the way . . . She got married and had two sons. Her baby was missing . . .
Two days and all the cops had was his bike. You hurt a woman or a child . . .
“You’re her, Lancelot. Unrequited perhaps, but you’ve always been her savior.”
I put my cigarette out in my coffee. “Call, Shade. Tell him to bring, Shadow.”
Toni smiled. We were going hunting.
“Ain’t been strapped all week.” He touched the .38. Touched like it was his girlfriend. “Startin’ ta feel like myself again. Who and What?” Shade asked.
I told him about the boy. And if there was a Who, well, he knew The What.
“Got pictures of the boy, Boss?” Shadow asked.
Toni handed the boys three new pictures of Kathy’s son, Frankie. Shadow, put his finger on the boy’s cheek. Stroked it. I watched his eyes narrow. He’d walked the dark road. We never talked about it, but I knew; Toni knew somebody who knew something and what Toni knows, I know. With Shadow, you touch a child, you paid—full up. Shade leaned the three pictures of Frankie against the cups and glasses sitting on the bar, so the light washed on him like he was an angel. Ever the poet at heart, Our Shade.
“Gone two days. Not good.” His eyes said the same thing. And more . . . Shade was pissy when he was working. Anything that pulled him away from his headphones—always filled with Satie or Eno or spatial drifts of quietude—pissed him off.
I laid out the plan. We parted. Left our coffee to grow cold. Gathering before the hunt. Shadow on the phone to his connection at the police department. Toni over to Kathy’s in search of anything. Shade was on the other phone, calling in favors. The curtains to the underground were open. And we weren’t waiting in any line with forms in our hands . . .
Me. I hit the Street. A thousand eyes. A thousand ears. And many of them know me, owe me. And those that don’t have heard the whisper stream in certain bars. In an hour, they’d know this one was personal and I was doing hard time. The cops—hell, they try, but they’re limited.
Frankie had just gotten into gaming and had a new set of friends. His game of choice, Call of Cthulhu. I hit The Wizard’s Keep in the strip mall on Union Ave. Showed the pictures. Got “Yes, sirs” and “Not this week.” Got a book on the game. Left my number. Called Toni. “Bring the boys home.”
Thirty minutes later we were the back alleys and starlit chambers of la-la-land gone tomb black and dangerous. In a room over the MEN’s restoom of the Bamboo Club we read. Of Those Who Dwell and The Chaos That Crawls. Of Unholy Dimensions and Bitter Black Pits Opened. It looked like young Frankie had left baseball and cartoons behind to go walking in the dark realms of oblivion. We hammered the phones. Coffee and cigarettes were served.
Day 2 of nuthin’. The phone rang. Some of the kids hung around a rotting old bungalow near the old Maqua Company. Might be a kiddie-raper? The kids say no, but . . . he gives them pot and beer. Some kind of Satanist or something . . .
Shadow checked him out with his police connection. Not on the sex offender list. No record. Seems clean. “Fuck that.” I heard him whisper. He could smell corruption two galaxies away. “All fuckin’ fits.” Had his jacket on and his hand on the doorknob before we were out of ours chairs.
Ten-minute drive. Around the block three times. Shade was out of the car and walking by the house. His inner mystic eye was wide open, his antennae up. Half a block down he hit the bushes and skipped out back fer the looky-see. We parked in a convenience store lot two blocks away. Shade went in and bought smokes, a candy bar, and a map. As long as the illusion makes sense it works. Safe for maybe twenty minutes.
“I’d feel a hell of a lot safer in the dark,” Shade said. “I’ve got this deal with darkness.” His smile was thin. “Three open windows. Just cracked for air. Dark curtains. Hard to tell what lies on the inside. Good news is the locks are old junk,” he said, throwing his binoculars to Shadow. “If there’s no bar on the door in in ten seconds tops. A TV’s on—all news by the sound of it.”
Toni skipped the round of hard question we were about to throw around and got out of the car and dialed the number Shade had. “A man answered, said there’s no Helen here. We know he’s home.”
“Fuckin’ all rumor and hearsay. Could just be a weirdo—fuckin’ Michael Jackson complex, or something.”
“Fuck that! This one’s right. Maybe the kid’s not in there, but this assbag ain’t right. Smells like a tuna boat loaded to the gills and parked in the middle of the Sahara.”
I looked in those eyes that never laid down for any savage and knew he was right on this. He was comin’ at it straight on righteous.
Shade, you play backdoor man. Shadow, the window by the bushes on the right. I’ll ring the bell. When I’m in, you come. Not before.”
Toni eyes said fuck.
“Not this time, darlin’. Someone has to be clean on this. If he’s the monster we think he is and we can’t get out clean, we’re gonna need cash and lawyers. You’re the brains, you save our asses if we get bogged down.”
She blew me a kiss. We’d never, but it was there between us. “If you don’t come home, you’re in the deepest shit you’ve ever seen. Under- stand?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I knew she meant it. Just for a second the word home put its arms around me . . . After all these years? Maybe . . . but not now.
She was gone and we were moving. The boys are lean and fast. At any speed they move like the sound of dust. Even that guy on the Rainbow Bridge who can hear the grass grow wouldn’t hear ’em coming. They were gone before my hand was on the rusting chain-link fence. I was dressed causal, black slacks, black shoes, turtleneck and jacket, so I could play salesman. It was dark, but not too late for sales types to ring doorbells. Odds were he’d open the door. I was glad I’d shaved this morning.
I put my friendly face on. Adjusted it. Moved Toni’s black portfolio to my left hand. Shoulder hostler unsnapped. Safety off. Ready. Willing. And Able. If this fuck was wrong, he could bet the farm and everything on this side of Hell on Willing and Able.
I hit the porch slow and even. Dim lights on inside. Candles? No shapes in the windows. But there was flickering. The TV? A bit of color, it seemed right. I pushed the doorbell. Waited. Forty seconds. Reasonable. I pushed it again. On the phone? On the shitter? Just not going to answer? 35 . . . 36 . . . 37 . . . The door didn’t open. Sometimes when you’re doing hard time you do it the hard way. I kicked it in. I could apologize and throw some cash around later if need pressed me.
All the trappings of the Call of Cthulhu game we’d run through earlier hit me. The place was a cavern of dead souls, of life unmade. Not being a big fan of any kind of horror, I didn’t have the words or the experience to translate all the shit that boiled in this unholy mindfuck ripping at my eyes. Demon faces—masks?—on the walls. And what looked like real human skulls. Posters and diagrams printed in the depths of Hell. There was a stone with a painted goat’s skull on it . . .
Four lightning steps in and I saw him in the dining area that opened on what should be, in any normal house, the living room. He turned—whipped around. Black robes with weird markings, like some haywire wizard from an old horror film. A bloody knife in his hand. A dead boy. Frankie. The boy I was here to save. A dead boy on an old door on two sawhorses. Less than twenty feet from the carnage I could see the child’s torso was ripped wide open. There was a fucking candle burning in his belly were his guts should be.
“What?” Was all the monster got out.
I put the first hollow point in his gut to take him down. He was on his knees. He’d dropped the knife. Six steps. Quick. I was too hot to wait for the kill. I pressed the Glock to his forehead. “Think yer goin’ to some kind of heaven you rotten fuck. Think again, ’cause this is where you get flushed.” And right there he knew it. I doubt his mother had ever told him anything plainer. His lips parted. “Fuck you, Asshole.” Before he could beg, or pray.
Shade was coming out of the kitchen. Shadow out if a bedroom. But it was over. Over. Bloody. Their eyes said it all.
I’ve got a fuckin’ $750 watch and I was late again. All these years later and I was going to see another innocent boy go into a bag. If you think The War’s over, then go fuck yourself! Until we stop putting kids in bags, nothing’s over. Not even close!
We dealt with the cops and the prosecutor. We went in on a hunch and things got messy. Got slapped around. Threatened and bruised. But the Assistant D.A. knew where public opinion would drop once word of the horror scene got around (People may be fucked up these days, but when it came to psycho-fuck cannibals ripping the guts out of babies they probably just defiled, well, give ’em what they gave and then some!)—and there were only two shots—mine—and he had a knife; self-defense pure and simple. And the Assistant D.A. knew my best friend was Toni and her sister was the State Attorney General’s wife. In the end they didn’t even put out a hit out on my P.I. license.
Ten steps up to that door. That sad door. Shade and Shadow stood by the car smoking. They had no words. Feelings, but no words. Toni had her arm in mine. I rang the doorbell and tried to breathe . . .
Her face was older, strained. Eyes red, stained by the smoke and searing heat of the fires of Hell. But it was the same eyes and the same face from all those years ago. And between us . . . there were the screams.
I hugged Kathy. She hugged me back as she cried. This was the second time I failed her. More screams between us. Her tears burned my heart. I hadn’t recovered from the tears she shed for her sister yet and . . . That piece of shit was dead, but that wasn’t good enough. Not even close! Anytime The Devil wants me to sign, I won’t even stop to blink.
There weren’t a lot of words. No need for ’em when you share that pain. Brothers, or families, in arms, in ruin, in tragedy, when Truth comes in in its black boots and kicks you awake, means you all carry the load. And it hurts. Deep as any hell.
Toni summed it up for a reporter after it was over. Some horror writer named Lovecraft, sixty years ago, made up this fictional mythology about terrible monster-gods who were waiting to come back from some unnamed hell and clear the Earth. This Lovecraft had a black bible of poisonous sex magic and blood called the Necronomicon. In it lay the directions to set them free. And this wacko-fuck had taken it to heart and was planning to free them to ravage and ruin. Not in My Town, motherfucker! See this Glock? It knows where you live!
Your wanderings lead you to hurt a woman or a child. I don’t blink.
(this one’s for Stan & Jack & the FF! Make Mine MARVEL!!)
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., is the author of the novels, The Orphan Palace and Nightmare’s Disciple, and he has written many short stories that have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including “Weird Fiction Review”, “Crypt of Cthulhu”, and “Lovecraft eZine”, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings (I and III), Book of Cthulhu and Tales of Jack the Ripper, The Starry Wisdom Library, and The Children of Old Leech. His short story collections, Blood Will Have Its Season, SIN & ashes, and Portraits of Ruin, were published by Hippocampus Press.
He edited A Season in Carcosa and The Grimscribe’s Puppets (Miskatonic River Press), and Ann K. Schwader’s The Worms Remember.
He is at work on two new mixed-genre collections of weird fiction, Stained Translations (Hippocampus Press 2014), and The Protocols of Ugliness, both edited by Jeffrey Thomas, and the upcoming anthologies, Cassilda’s Song and The Leaves of a Necronomicon (both Chaosium 2015).
You can find him online at This Yellow Madness.
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Story illustration by Peter Szmer.