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24

FM(24)

Rupert pushes his way through a mass of thick-stemmed, dinosaur-vegetation, vines and mega-leaves thrashing and slapping at his face, but he moves swiftly. He has to keep up. Ahead of him—leading him, he thinks—a form moves stealthily through the jungle foliage. All around him, the dark-night avian sounds shriek and whistle, calling to one another. He thinks they’re talking about him. Grass blades slice his fawn flesh, lighter, almost white in this darkness. But he has to keep up.

He moves faster, closing the distance between himself and his guide, and he sees a flash of fringe, the flutter of a feather, a swathe of grey hair, silver in the pale moonlight filtering through the palms above—Efunibi. Efunibi. And then he’s gone.

Rupert stands breathless in a clearing, the scent of long-past brush fires lingering, combining with the stinking decay of animal meat and meth. The birds have flown and it is silent, deafeningly so. Rupert covers his ears to it. Soon, behind him, muted by his hands, comes a grunting and moaning, of someone being eaten and of one eating. Or the sound of lifeless pleasure, a communion with a thing that has ceased. Rupert instinctively denotes the latter, and removes his hands—the sound is obscenely loud, accompanied by a soft, moist pushing and pulling. He turns to see an orgy of repulsion—several small, naked men, their ashen flesh glowing against the charred ground, thrusting themselves into any opening they can find in the animal carcasses strewn around the space of a circle, a depraved sacred rite embracing myriad species. Rupert’s diaphragm heaves a spastic push upward but he doesn’t vomit, nor can he look away.

The sounds of this sickening display grow louder, more intense, closer to all the little deaths threatening to explode over and into this stratum of putrefying dead flesh. Finally, a man in the center begins to whimper, weak at first, though building, coming closer, closer, louder, he is keening now, and then he bursts into flames. They all catch like blazing dominoes, their quarry cooking beneath them, finally free from their filthy assault. The stench of roast flesh and fresh coitus assaults Rupert’s senses, then he sees from his peripheral his guide, standing at the edge of the clearing. Efunibi turns and walks back into the jungle. Rupert runs.

Again, he catches up, almost able to reach out and grab the fringe of Efunibi’s jacket. The flora is not as dense now, more like an overgrown path. Rupert feels safer being on a course that had at least once been tread forward and back from wherever it is he is being lead. He didn’t want to be the first. The vegetation thins a little more with each step, and with that, he can see further into the edges of the path. Suddenly, huge misshapen marionettes, dangling from vines and flailing grotesquely, swinging their foam-flesh limbs at Rupert. He can make out their faces—Fulva, and Bill, and Osceola, and Tommy, and Bucket, and Joe, and Merideth, and even Derek Peterson, though his face is indistinct—all snarling and flapping their arms and legs. Those who make contact create no impact. Rupert feels nothing, and all he hears is a cackle from Efunibi, who has once again disappeared.

Rupert now stands in the middle of a colossal cavern, its bottom flat and damp, its ceiling a roiling, living thing, at the center of which sucks a quivering, puckering anus. Rupert covers his head intuitively, though nothing falls, but there is a sudden and blinding fluorescent blue-white light, and after the flash, the hovering asshole remains, but the cavern is now bright and furnished with numerous items—shining steel countertops, blenders, pails and buckets, gas cans and funnels, glassware and tubing. Immense storage containers line the entire diameter of the area, bubbling and stinking, manned by masked, HazMatted henchmen. Rupert realizes these men work for him. But the anus above still sucks, and sucks, and soon, he feels his feet lift from the ground, and he his heading straight up, squeezing into the now-gaping, living hole. It closes around him, compresses his form, changes him somehow, and in no time, births him above ground, out of the heart of a grass-covered burial mound.

He is clean. He is on his hands and knees, and he looks down into Leenda’s eyes. He moves between her legs, losing himself in an instant, almost crushing her, and she moans, but keeps a steady gaze. It pierces him and runs electric through his brain, zapping rhythmically into his heart. He closes his eyes and he comes closer, and closer, green flashing behind his lids with each thrust, each step nearer to rapture. The green light means go, it says go, and he lets go . . . .

* * *

When Rupert woke up, it was dark. His usual frustrating failure to finish what began as a wet dream came as a blessing this time. He didn’t think these sheets were ever changed.

The green message light on the phone next to the bed blinked on and off, illuminating the entire room. His head was empty, but of what? He had no way to comprehend, but the final image of Leenda stayed, sound and lasting in his mind.

Surely it was her.

He picked up the receiver to retrieve the message, impatiently enduring the motel’s preamble, and then:

“Hey, Mount Macaca.” Pyrdewy.

Motherfucker.

“My people tell me a large, moo-lah-toh guy came sniffing around the D.E.A.T.H. program today. Said it was the first time they’d ever seen you. Not good, my friend. The Spliphsonian has a policy against hiring liars, even to mop shit.”

Rupert sighed, still groggy.

“You’re in a lot of trouble, guy. You’ve got one last chance. You’d better get your ass back down there tomorrow, bring your Methhead posse, if indeed they exist, and do what I told you to do. We need scholarly research. And we need you to play along, get it? Gotta go along to get along and you need to get along if you still wanna keep doing what you’re doing, capisce? And, hey . . . better keep an eye on Marge. Sounded like she took a shine to you.”

The call ended with abruptly-cut laughter. Rupert rubbed his eyes.

“No,” he said out loud to himself. “Nope. Fuck this. I’m not doing this. Fuck him.” And with that, he turned over, pulled a pillow over his head, and sank back to sleep, meditating and synchronizing his deep breathing with that final dream image of Leenda, on the grassy mound.

In the dark, the Plant with No Name smiled.

Beast30

The farm where Father Secours had been raised, and which was now occupied and operated by his cousin with his wife, daughter, and son, consisted of a two-story stone cottage and a one-story low, wide barn and attached stable. Louis did not pay much attention to the layout, as it was dark and late. The priest instructed him to tie Modestine near to the door of the home, which he did, and they both knocked.

It opened slowly to a young, pale face. This was Gilles. He had dark eyes and hair, and his lip bore the determined efforts of cultivation, though the mustache was a little thin. Louis sympathized and pulled at his own painstakingly established facial hair.

“Victor!” shouted Gilles. “Sylvie! It is Victor!” He yelled back into the home while swinging the door wide to let the travelers inside.

His wife, round in belly with what looked like several months of gestation, swept through the room and embraced Father Secours. The priest made the introductions, and the couple brought forth their children—or, Sylvie’s children from a previous marriage—Martine, her twelve-year-old daughter, and Thierry, her nine-year-old son. Louis smiled and greeted them both, who, like all children, regarded him with some naïve suspicion.

Sylvie insisted on making them coffee, so she and Martine disappeared into the kitchen, while Gilles and Thierry excused themselves for a few moments to make sure the barn and stable were secure.

“Thierry can take care of your ass, Monsieur Stevenson,” said Gilles.

Merci, mais non,” Louis replied, then looked at Father Secours.

“We have some things to discuss, cousin,” said the priest. “I’m afraid we need to keep a close eye on the donkey.”

Gilles nodded and smiled, and then hurried with his stepson out into the night.

“It is an uncommon arrangement,” Father Secours explained. “But he loves them like his own, and she is a good woman.”

“There is nothing to explain,” Louis said, thinking of Fanny and realizing that he could have, indeed, told Father Secours of her—their—predicament. “I am charmed.”

The priest smiled gratefully. Soon, the women of the house brought out a pot of coffee and a plate of digestive biscuits. Sylvie glowed with joy.

“Victor, it is so good to see your face,” she said as she served the beverage. “It has been too long, and, as I’m sure you know, in recent days, every good turn is a blessing.”

“I’m afraid that is why we are here,” Father Secours said. “But it is late. When Gilles returns, you will tell me your news, and tomorrow, after we’ve slept, we will tell you why we are here.”

* * *

With Clémence occupying the family’s extra guest bed, Father Secours assembled a cot in the family room, and Louis insisted he sleep in the stable to better watch Modestine. There were some protestations from the couple, but Father Secours saw Louis’s reasoning and asserted that it would likely be best as well.

Gilles accompanied Louis to the barn to stable Modestine, and set down a bale of fresh, clean hay for him to make his bed on. Then, making sure there was nothing else that Louis might need, the farmer disappeared into the house again, and Louis watched the windows go dark.

The barn was constructed of stone and inside contained a number sheep, plus some goats and two cows for milk and cheese making. The stable in which Modestine and Louis lodged was a wooden structure built onto the side of the main stone building. She nibbled on some of Louis’s bed, and he left her to graze and then sleep while he updated his chronicle. He took and lit a small lamp outside the structure, leaning his back against the wood and, placing his inkpot where he could see it, he scribbled with his journal propped against his knees.

Now and then, he would look up and out over the property. The house stood black against a dark, but starry sky. The gravel yard between the house and the barn was a sheet of grey under the small moon, and the shadowy trees beyond—in the direction from whence they came—swayed gently. The only sounds were the soft wind through the distant leaves and the haunting duet of two barn owls murmuring to one another.

Much to his surprise, Louis felt calm. He supposed he should be nervous, perhaps even a little afraid, but despite that things were at last coming to a head, he was rather relaxed. The night was tranquil, and spending the late evening with a family, who could—in another country, with another woman—be his own, gave him hope. The hope was, obviously, for his future with Fanny, but also the potential of being a father to her young son, Lloyd—a prospect he hadn’t fully considered. He and Lloyd had gotten along like mates, but to be a father? The last couple of hours certainly made the idea seem quite welcome.

Gilles and his adopted children interacted as if the same blood flowed through their veins, and although Louis could not picture Fanny being quite the pleasant hostess as Sylvie—she was suspicious of his friends and often too coarse for polite company—he believed there was a sliver of hope that something like this picture could be painted. If she’d let him.

This hope spilled over into his more immediate and dismal situation, not that it had much right to. Logically, Louis knew this, but he let it sweep over him anyway, feeling his spine loosen and his chest relax. He didn’t believe that the cloaked man would come this close to the farm, to their home base. Sleeping out here with Modestine was just a safety precaution, but he fully expected to sleep full and long until dawn.

Louis tossed down his pen and almost upset his inkpot, as he jumped up and threw himself into the stable, startling Modestine as he did. She had lain down in the hay and snorted at Louis while he rummaged through his sleeping sack. Not finding what he was looking for, he dumped everything out onto the dirt stable floor, just beside hay and the quizzical donkey.

After moving everything about and making sure he wasn’t overlooking anything, he sat down hard beside Modestine and sighed deeply. He knew there had to be something to the molestation of the donkey’s pack while they were on the cattle path.

The cloaked man’s weapon was gone.

Louis went back outside, lidded his inkpot, gathered his journal and pen, and put out his lamp. Then, in the dark, he arranged his effects in some reasonable manner and spread his sleeping sack over what remained of the hay. Modestine—lying on her side like a dog—had taken up half of it, so he crawled inside the sack at her back and laid his head upon her neck.

With one ear, he listened to all the muffled, internal donkey noises that muttered up through Modestine’s fur, and with the other ear, he listened to the owls hoot poignantly their hollow, wooden calls. As he drifted into sleep, to the rhythm of the dueling sounds, his thoughts flowed back and forth between the pleasant image of his potential future family and the decidedly unpleasant business closer at hand.

 

Spiritual Girlfriend

Following a physical altercation, Casey Molter smashed his girlfriend’s cellphone and then proceeded to go after her car. He broke off the passenger side mirror, deflated the tires, and bedecked the hood with condoms and messages written in “creams and lotions,” which the police termed “love notes.” What would drive a man to behave in such a manner? Well, let’s face it—probably drugs of some kind, however, there was more to the story. Apparently, Molter’s unnamed girlfriend—whom he described as “spiritual”—rendered unto Casey a prophecy for the ages. She told him that his dead grandmother would visit him in a dream state and there she would “commit an unusual sex act to him involving an adult erotic device.” It was an image he couldn’t scrub from his psyche and he eventually snapped, resulting in the aforementioned incident. Overreaction? Maybe. But, to be fair, in what appears to be the 2013 obituary for Molter’s grandmother, Nada, she is described as an “incredibly nurturing personality,” having gotten a teaching degree after raising six kids, teaching for many years, and promoting drama and music programs. A vegetarian, she was “frequently donating her time and resources” to animal causes, adopting many dogs, cats, birds, and “other animals” over the course of her life. And, of course, in lieu of flowers, it was requested that friends and family donate or volunteer at the Human Society of Indian River County. In light of all that, Casey’s “spiritual” girlfriend can eat it. As for Casey Molter, other than this one episode, he does not appear to have a criminal record.

Kaufman, Scott. “Florida Man Attacks ‘Spiritual’ Girlfriend’s Car Over Dead Granny Sex Toy Dream Prophecy.”Raw Story. Raw Story Media, Inc. January 2, 2015

Read Florida Man: Battle of the Five Meth Labs: A Love Story here.

23

FM27 (21:22)

The AC hit Rupert and his nipples pinged erect as if alarmed. He hated this ritual. The lobby radiated an abnormal serenity and for a moment, he was baffled, until he looked around. Angel was not at the desk. Rupert stopped. At this point, he was convinced he was the only guest here at the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet, and so his first suspicion was that if she wasn’t here, she must be in his room. This made him feel panicky, but he wasn’t sure why—there was nothing there worth stealing. Except maybe the Plant with No Name, who hadn’t spoken to him since that day in Fulva’s bathroom.

Rupert sighed, reflecting on what his inner voice just said.

At that moment, Angel jumped up from behind the clerk’s counter wearing a conical hat she’d fashioned out of outdated perforated printer paper. Though she made no sound, the movement startled Rupert and caused him to squeal.

“I hate you,” he told her when he recovered a moment later.

Angel smiled and said nothing.

In his room, Rupert’s eyes fell first to the phone, on which no green message light blinked back. He was half-relieved, but half-sad. He was trying to accept that he liked the sound of Leenda’s voice and missed it when a day passed without it, of which there were many, because she didn’t call every day and he was too terrified to call her. Every day he’d think she’d lost interest, but then there’d be a message “checking in.” It was an act of consideration that was difficult for him to decipher, as, like a lot of things, it wasn’t a huge part of his emotional vocabulary.

Rupert lay across the bed, like he did every time he entered his room, for the rest of the day. He hadn’t bothered to turn the light on, so there was only the fading orange-pink setting sun through the sheer curtains to illuminate the room, which diffused a calm, settled feeling. He was sure that he had lost his mind and that he wasn’t interpreting everything around him as well as he would be under normal circumstances. But then, his “normal” wasn’t typical, so then he wondered if he ever did.

He’d lived with this crippling anxiety for so long, his inability to relate to others because of it, he had no idea what was and wasn’t normal. What was strange behavior from a person and what wasn’t—what was malicious and what was benevolent, or even scarier, compassion? Concern? Love? He realized that on some level, it all blended together—an incomprehensible, inseparable flood of chemicals, inside him and inside everyone, which no one could interpret with any level of competency—and this made him feel crazy and terrified. Did everyone feel this way? Presumably, one would need a certain level of self-awareness, and Rupert thought perhaps society’s most positive thinkers would say that, yes, everyone felt this way, but the more he interacted with other human beings, the more he doubted. He supposed this was why he made a career in entropy. In spite of all the intellect and consciousness of human beings, there did seem to be a distinct lack of self-awareness. Rupert felt very alone in his crazy and terrified feelings.

He had no business even thinking about something like compassion, because, again, it wasn’t part of his life’s language. He didn’t know how to speak it, let alone understand and process it, so there wasn’t any point in thinking about it. Rupert forced himself to be glad there was no message from Leenda, and though he ultimately failed, he told himself he succeeded anyway. Because that’s how you survive.

The soothing sounds of the passing traffic and the inarticulate yelling of disparate, shirtless Florida Men mollified him as far as was possible. The mute aloe plant squatted against its stem in its glass of water, silhouetted against the waning sunlight.

Rupert took a deliberate in-breath, exhaled slower, and started to self-talk. He’d heard it was helpful. For something. Working things out.

“Although you may or may not being going crazy, Rupert, you did still manage to accomplish something here. Maybe more than you ever have. I mean, you’ve tried harder at other things and still got nowhere, but here, with all this, it’s like you’re not even trying and things are happening. You’re not even trying . . . ”

Rupert became quiet, sluggish thoughts moving through his grey matter and, like leeches, sucking out the relevant information. In this case, Rupert had to face the fact that his social anxiety—above and beyond what would be normal—appeared almost entirely eliminated, and somehow that worried him. The fact was that he wasn’t trying. He hadn’t tried from the day he’d arrived. And, in this period of relative nervous calm, for the first time he had to sincerely examine what his anxiety had done to his life. He worked himself to mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion, and because people around him didn’t understand him, or thought he was weird, it didn’t matter. It got him nowhere.

But here, somehow, and with his anxiety having dissipated, his thinking cleared and his actions proved more efficient. And the people around him—hell, they didn’t even notice that he was strange. Not here. Not in Florida, this magical hell. They even sometimes acknowledged his successes. And, for better or worse, they cared about what he did, even if it was being pissed off at him. People always talk about the difference between good and bad attention, but little has been said about bad attention being better than sheer indifference. Rupert, regretfully, had to admit—it was.

A strange, frightening tranquility washed over Rupert, and soon, he began to doze—

* * *

“What the ding-dong-douche are you talking about?” Shit Pail asks, eyes half-crossed and, maybe, Rupert is afraid, even in his jacked state, taking another dump.

“I have no idea,” he answered, though he does. He knows exactly what he’s talking about.

“Fuck,” she added, head lolling backward.

* * *

—and as he dozed, his mind circled through the accomplishments he’d managed in a stunningly short period of time: he made a decent living selling Golden Tickets to Crack Planet; he’d learned how to market and sell methamphetamines; he’d learned to make Shake n’ Bake; and now knew how to set up his own legitimate lab.

I think Leenda cares about me.

Success, success . . . drifting, drifting . . . dozing, slipping into slumber . . .

Thank you for saving me . . .

Leenda’s face swam beneath his eyelids.

“Thank you . . . ”

Rupert’s eyes flung open and his thoughts stopped, altogether.

“ . . . for saving me.”

He refused to get up. He refused to look at the plant.

“And fuck all those stains.” It was the voice he’d heard in Fulva’s bathroom, no mistake. It sounded a little like Christopher Walken, if you threw in about half-a-cup of Gary Busey. That alone freaked Rupert out. If that voice had a face, Rupert imagined Wilhem Dafoe.

He sat up straight, looking at the Plant with No Name. It didn’t move.

“Stains?” he asked, hoping at this point to not receive an answer.

“Those stains. Fulva. Bill. Osceola. Jesus is alright, but Bananas, Fuckit Bucket, the McEejits, Pyrdewy . . . ”

“How do you know about Pyrdewy?”

“Omniscient, occasionally omnipresent, all that shit. Seriously, fuck ‘em.”

“You’re a plant.”

“I resent that and I’m going to forget you said it. Because I like you, Rupert. You are a perfectly competent human, smart, not terrible looking as far as those things go. I notice you have a rather wry sense of humor . . . ”

“I’m talking to a plant.” Rupert said and lay back down.

“Okay, I suppose I can accept that you can’t accept this. But, you should listen to me. Even if I am a plant.”

Rupert heard the plant heave a resigned sigh.

What the fuck?

“Strike out on your own, man,” it said.

“What? I can’t,” Rupert replied, though he knew he’d been entertaining this idea all along.

“Bullshit. I know you’ve been entertaining this idea all along, so do it,” the Plant with No Name said.

Damn it. “How? Where?”

“You already know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You must go . . . ” The plant began speaking in an exaggerated mystical way.

“Come on,” Rupert pleaded.

The plant sighed again.

“You must go . . . ” It repeated, still mystical but more forceful.

“Fine. Go where?’

“To the land of the Roseate Spoonbill, the Great Blue Heron, the American Alligator, and the lowly, leprous Armadillo.”

Rupert curled his lip is disgust.

“It’s true, they carry it,” the plant informed him.

“I know . . . ”

“Well, don’t look so . . . ” Another sigh. “You must go . . . to the land of the Long Leaf Pine, the Myrtle Oak, the Saw Palmetto . . . ”

“This isn’t helping me know what the he—”

“—the land of the Slash Pine, the Cabbage Palm, and the Camphorweed . . . ”

“Are these friends of yours?” Rupert muttered, half-sarcastic, half-actually wondering.

“Look, shut up. That’s it.”

For a moment, Rupert thought the Plant with No Name had once again forsaken him with silence. A few minutes passed and he began to doze again, but this time, it felt . . . odd. He lifted his head with some effort and looked at the plant. Against the lingering glow of sun, he saw some sort of smoke rising from it, its aloey-tentacle-leaves gesticulating. Rupert felt wrong, but not altogether unpleasant.

“You have to think big, Rupert. You have to go find Efunibi.”

Rupert repeated the name once, twice, and the phone started to ring. He didn’t hear a thing and fell dead asleep.

Beast29

Luckily for Louis, the night had taken on a chill. Not cold enough for a fur hat and muff across his face, but it would have to do, for he did not want to be recognized by the cloaked man as they entered the town. Father Secours, who would not be known to the killer, drove Modestine. They hoped that if they were seen, the cloaked man would not be looking for a priest-driven donkey and a fur-capped stranger.

Florac was the largest town Louis had passed through yet, being like a second capitol next to Alès. It had two churches, dozens of shops, a few inns, a mill, and a functioning, non-ruined chateau, which sat in the southwest part of town, across from the Vibron River, a tributary that ran through the center of Florac and joined with the Tarn to the north.

As they entered the city proper, they spent a little time walking along the esplande. Under other circumstances, Louis would have tied Modestine nearby, as would be socially correct, and enjoyed the company of the interesting, educated French men and women promenading happily back and forth. But tonight, he didn’t want to risk leaving her alone and unguarded. And there would be no happy mingling here tonight. The area was filled, not with well-to-do socialites looking to impress but a smattering of wary-looking townspeople, huddling in groups and talking about the recent murders. It was clear that some of those who stood there in the crisp night air, smoking cigarettes, had been personally affected—their daughters, their uncle, their sister. Someone they knew had died, their cold corpses waiting in the church—of whichever faith they claimed—for absolution and burial.

They walked all round the promenade once, intending to eavesdrop a little and see if anything about the cloaked man could be established, but Father Secours’s face was like the face of every man and woman’s brother, and he was too often greeted with a smile and a handshake or embrace, despite their grief. They had decided, though, not to ask outright about the cloaked man, for they didn’t want to put any more innocents in harm’s way if they could avoid it.

As they came back to where they began, they moved left past a 12th-century tower-house and made another immediate left to head down la rue principal, where they would head southwest again, near an old nunnery. Father Secours’s aunt Adèle and mother Colette lived in a small flat across from the walls of the convent. They tied Modestine in as shadowy a corner outside the flat as they could find and entered the home.

“Victor!” both old women shouted together, and they descended upon the priest, throwing their skinny arms about him and kissing his cheeks. Louis removed his fur cap and muff now, wiping the sweat from his forehead and neck.

Qui est-ce?” Colette asked when the reunion jubilance faded a little.

Maman, tatine,” Father Secours began, “this is my friend, Monsieur Louis Stevenson.”

Bonsoir.” Louis made a curt bow.

“Louis. He is French?” asked Adèle.

“Oh no, Madam,” Louis replied. “Scots.”

She looked slightly disappointed, but rallied.

“Ah, but it is a good French name,” she smiled with crooked teeth.

“Come,” said Colette. “We were just about to sit down to a late repast. Sit, sit.” She motioned for the men, whom were but boys to her, to sit along one of two benches that flanked their modest wooden dining table.

“After my father passed,” Father Secours explained, as his mother crossed herself, “my mother moved here to the city. I did not grow up within the town limits, but just outside on a farm, passed from my mother to my cousin Gilles and his family.

“Gilles.” His mother spoke as she piled food onto plates—beef, potato, and turnips. “They brought that poor girl here first.”

“Clémence?” Father Secours asked.

Oui.”

The priest’s aunt banged the heel of her palm against the table, which made barely a sound, she was so frail. Then she rattled off an angry diatribe in French, so fast Louis only caught every other word, but was impressed with this old woman’s fire.

“How could they, Victor? How could they? There was no more innocent a family in that town.”

“I know, tatine,” Father Secours reached across the table and put a soothing hand over her thin wrist. “An evil man roused the passions of an ignorant mob. It is a simple enough explanation, and sometimes that makes the loss even harder to bear.”

Fine tears fell down Adèle’s wrinkled face and Louis recalled that, not only was Clarisse lost and Clémence injured and orphaned, this poor old woman had lost a brother and a sister-in-law.

“What evil man?” she inquired through her sniffles, dabbing at her nose with a well-worn handkerchief.

At Father Secours’s insistence, Louis retold his tale, from Monastier to this very night, to the rapt, angry old women. When he finished, it was quiet save for the sound of utensils against plates. The men waited for a response and Louis took up his fork, as he had not begun eating yet for it was rude to eat and speak. As he brought the loaded fork to his lips, Adèle erupted.

“So, you killed Alphonse? Did you burn down my brother’s house? Was it you who killed my family?” She was up off the bench and coming around to beat her small fists in a rage against Louis, but Father Secours caught her just as she stood up and she melted into his arms, weeping.

“It wasn’t like that, tatine,” he whispered to her. “It wasn’t like that.” He looked at his mother over Adèle’s grey head, who only looked back at him sadly.

Louis had set his fork down and sat still and silent, his eyes downcast.

Colette went to her son and sister-in-law and gently separated them, taking Adèle by the shoulder and looking her in the eye.

Ma sœur,” she said softly. “We both know Alphonse could not control himself. It has been a long, long time since any of us have had to deal with the heartache of what the change makes of our bébés. We forget that it is ugly and brutal.”

She looked at Louis, who was now watching her and listening.

“Monsieur Stevenson,” she said to Adèle. “Louis. He was only protecting himself and his friends.”

Then she took Adèle into her own thin arms and rocked her to and fro until her sobs subsided.

Eventually, Adèle pulled quietly from Colette, placed a weary hand on Father Secours’s arm for a moment, and then turned to the fire that was burning in the fireplace, keeping the un-served food warm. She took the handle of the pot with a towel, walked it over to Louis, and plopped another serving onto his plate, although he had yet to begin to eat. Before she left, she set her free hand on his shoulder for a moment, and then returned the pot to the fireplace and resumed her place opposite him on the bench.

Louis looked to Father Secours who gestured that he should eat, and so, hungry, he did. There was then a not uncomfortable quiet in the room, as Louis ate and everyone retreated to their private thoughts.

“Clémence,” Adèle began after she’d recovered, “was brought here.”

“But she is not here now,” Father Secours said.

Non,” said Colette, who now sat down beside her sister-in-law. “She was close to the change and behaving unpredictably.”

She wrung her hands on the table, watching her pale, old skin wrinkle and her blue veins roll over the bone beneath. She looked from her son to Louis.

“She is traumatized,” she said. “She’s such a good girl, she would never hurt a living soul. But in this state, we cannot be sure she could . . .” She paused to find the words she needed.

“She might not be able to control herself as well as she could in other circumstances,” Father Secours finished. His mother reached over and patted his hand, nodding gratefully.

“Gilles took her to the farm,” added Adèle.

“That makes sense,” Father Secours said.

Louis had cleaned up the two servings and set his fork across his empty plate, leaning back and feeling bloated, but satiated.

“Good, eh?” Father Secours asked, smiling. “No one can cook like ma maman et ma tatine.”

“Indeed,” Louis managed to wheeze out, smiling. He rubbed his belly, which on his slight frame bulged.

Non!” said Adèle. “You cannot be full.” She stood and brought from the buffet a board covered with a cotton towel. She set it on the table and removed the covering, revealing a stack of cream and berry tarts. Louis moaned.

The tarts were served and Louis took a deep breath before digging in. The four relaxed a little more, moving away from the immediate crisis for just a little bit. Father Secours brought his family up to date with the various goings-on of Cocurès and, when asked, Louis told the women how wonderful his own mother was.

Until, eventually, there came a knock at the door.

Father Secours motioned for Louis to follow him and brought his finger to his lips, a gesture aimed at his mother and aunt, then led Louis to the small room upstairs.

Once they were safely up the steps, Adèle yelled at the door.

Attendez! Nous arrivons!” And she shuffled over to the door, paused a moment, and then opened it a crack.

Bonsoir!” a man’s voice said.

Bonsoir, Madame Secours!” said another.

She opened the door and two men entered, one large, one small.

“Yves! Honoré!” both women cried.

“How nice to see you,” said Colette. “Will you have a tart?”

Louis and Father Secours perched at the top of the stairs trying to angle their view down to see who it was, but could only see feet—one large pair and one small. From the direction of the voices, Louis paired each voice with the feet. The large man was Honoré—a local merchant, Father Secours informed him—and the small man was Yves, a policeman.

“Ah, non, “said Yves. “We have just come from my wife’s table.”

“And she is such a fine cook,” said Colette.

“Indeed,” said Honoré.

Yves stepped forward and brought his voice down to a gentle tenor.

“Mesdames Secours,” he said. “We have stopped by to offer our condolences.”

And now Honoré also stepped forward. Louis imagined they were grasping the small hands of the old women, and he appreciated their effort to console.

Oui,” said Honoré. “And if there is anything—absolutely anything at all—that we can do for you, you will tell us, yes?”

The ladies wept again, not so much for the loss, but at the kindness of their neighbors, and while they insisted there was nothing anyone could do right now, they asserted with equal fervor that they were the most considerate men in all of Florac. The men stepped back to their original places and turned shy, swatting away the praise.

“Please, Mesdames,” said Yves. “You give us too much credit.”

The conversation moved quickly into small talk—the men asked after Father Secours, and Colette repeated to them what her son had just told her over dessert. Soon, they prepared to make their leave.

“But, oh,” said Honoré. “I meant to ask. Whose ass is tied outside?”

There was a moment of silence, and then Adèle spoke up.

“Ah, the ass in mine!” she said and laughed. “It was a gift from my son, Gilles, so I could ride her to the farm and back when I visit.”

“Such a nice gesture,” Honoré said. “She looks like a good one.”

“I hope so!”

With that, Louis and Father Secours watched the feet of the people downstairs—the men’s feet followed by the small feet of the women, as they shepherded them out the door.

They listened to the men’s footsteps and voices retreat from the flat and down the street, and when they were sure they were gone, Louis and Father Secours descended the stairs.

“They are gone,” said Colette, “but they are good men.”

“I have no doubt of that, maman, but we must be careful. Even an accidental slip could give away our whereabouts.”

“This man,” said Adèle, “he is following you.”

“He is in, or just outside of, Florac, Madame,” said Louis. “We fear not so much for ourselves, but for you, your family.” He turned to Father Secours.

“In fact,” Louis continued, “I must say, I feel less confident that Modestine should be tied up out there.”

“Agreed.” Father Secours thought for a moment. “Tatine, would Gilles mind a few more boarders?”

“Of course not,” she replied.

“So then we should be off, to the farm,” he said.

“But it is so dark,” cried Colette.

“We came in under night, maman. It is not ideal, but it is not impossible. We will be alright.”

Both women crossed themselves and fussed about Father Secours, and Louis, to only a slightly lesser degree. They tried to pack them some food, but it was only from a need to be of some comfort and help, for the farm was not very far and they had just eaten to bursting.

Louis made his heartfelt thanks and said his goodbyes, and then moved outside with a chunk of bread to feed Modestine while Father Secours made his longer, more nuanced familial au revoirs.

The donkey stood blinking at Louis as he palmed the bread for her. Her lips grabbed at it and her teeth tore off bits; she chewed indifferently.

“Hurry up,” he said to her. “We’ve got to go, and soon.”

He looked around the street, which was quiet. A few windows glowed with their inhabitants turning down their beds, or perhaps finishing up a late supper, as they did. The convent walls were plain and high, concealing God’s harem behind them completely. Louis stroked Modestine’s ears as she finished up her dinner, listening vaguely to the muffled titters of the old women behind the door. For the first time in a while, his mind was blank, and it was good—a pleasant respite.

Soon, the door opened and closed—out came Father Secours.

“I’m afraid I might have gotten off on the wrong foot there,” Louis said. “I’m sorry.”

Father Secours handed him a small parcel wrapped in a clean, blue handkerchief.

“All must be forgiven,” he said. “They packed you two extra tarts.”

Louis smiled, placed the parcel snuggly into his sack, pulled his fur cap on over his head, and untied Modestine. Then he flipped the reigns back over her head, handed Father Secours the goad, and pulled the fur muff up over his mouth.

“I will follow you,” he said, and Father Secours led them south, back down the street, bearing right and across a stone bridge that spanned the Vibron. Another right and they were heading toward the Château de Florac—a 13th-century castle that had been refurbished in the 17th century. Now, it operated as a prison.

Their path was past and around it, further to the southwest. In the dark and under the thin moon, Louis could make out its wide stone wall and the evenly placed windows, small and barred, that dotted the surface.

“Perhaps,” he said to the priest, “this is where we will eventually find him.”

“God willing,” Father Secours replied, but neither sounded as if they had much faith in the cloaked man’s apprehension by the law.

They rounded a hard bend and the castle disappeared behind a heavy copse of trees and bushes. The road they set out on quickly became a path soon after they reached the city limits, as it was not one of the main trading routes to and from the city. Father Secours explained that it was used mainly by farmers and herders, and so didn’t require the kind of upkeep demanded by the merchants that moved in and out of Florac.

“The tread of a million hooves every year does enough to keep the surface compact,” he added.

They spoke little as they walked, for they were both vigilant of ankle-twisting fissures, and more importantly, anyone else who might be traveling before or after them.

The cattle path wound into a new valley, away from the rivers and the timid activity of Florac. On either side stretched grassy meadow that turned into forest. The trees that covered the sloping hills loomed black in the distance, a menacing, misshapen mass hiding the night’s creatures. Louis wondered if they harbored their cloaked man.

“Don’t you know, messieurs,” a voice spoke crisp and clear from their left, “that it is dangerous to travel abroad at night?”

Louis grabbed Modestine’s bridle and brought her to a halt. Father Secours froze.

“Who is there?” Louis shouted, knowing full well that it was the man they sought, and who, right at this moment, was in a much better position than they. He reached into his waistband and freed his revolver, griping the handle hard.

“Shouldn’t you be holed up at the inn, making your notes, writer?” the voice asked.

Frustrated and angry, Louis exploded.

“Enough!” he shouted and darted off into the night toward the sound of the voice. Father Secours called after Louis, but followed almost immediately.

Off the path, Louis became disoriented. Father Secours found him and grabbed his arm.

“Show yourself!” Louis yelled. “Coward!”

“Louis, this is dangerous,” Father Secours hissed through nervous teeth, and Louis realized that the priest was right. He had lost his head, tired of being too well known to this unknown killer. He could no longer endure the fact that this monster knew who he was, what he did, and probably why he was there, and Louis knew nothing of him except that he was a slaughterer of innocents.

“Come,” said Father Secours. “Let us find our way back.”

Just then, Modestine brayed loudly and they could hear the pounding of her little hooves against the packed clay of the path. They ran in the direction of the sound.

When they came to the donkey she was flustered, her eyes wide, and they could hear the intruder’s footsteps padding against the earth, fading with distance. Louis’s pack lay open and his things scattered on the ground.

“Damn it, straight to the devil,” Louis grumbled, and then turned to the priest, half-agitated, half-ashamed. “Pardon.”

Father Secours just looked at him and then motioned to the sack. Louis gathered his things, bundled them, and rearranged the pack on Modestine’s back while the priest soothed her by scratching her neck and petting her long ears. He kept his eyes in the direction the footsteps had gone, looking for any odd shadow, any moving thing.

When Louis was finished, they continued on their way, frustrated that their cover had been blown and their presence was now known, which put them at a severe disadvantage.

“Never mind,” said Father Secours. “Let us get to the farm. It is not far now.”

21

FM28 (23)

“Finally,” says Shit Pail.

Rupert is starting to feel a little guilty about referring to her as “Shit Pail” in his head, but he doesn’t remember if he’d even caught her name to begin with, and of course, it’s far too late to ask.

“Yes, finally,” he says, shifting his sitting position on the floor. His ass is beginning to ache.

Shit Pail rummages through her bag, which contains everything that’s ever existed in the history of Man. Things falling out include a standard nail file, mints, a protein bar, an airline barf bag, a stale half-slice of white bread, the Shambhala Pocket Classics edition of The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh, a row of eight red raffle tickets, a piece of black Basalt, and a knotted, but deflated long orange balloon. That’s just what fell out.

“That took a while,” she says, still pushing her entire arm around in the big, allegedly-handmade, woven Costa Rican bag.

“Well, I wasn’t really trying, was I?”

She stopped and looked at him.

“Yes, sweetie. Had you been trying, you’d have been in like Flint.”

“Flynn.”

“In like Flint. It’s a Movie. Coburn.”

“The film’s title was a play on ‘in like Flynn,’ which referred to Errol Flynn and possibly his sexual exploits, which I assure you wasn’t, nor would be, the case in this story.”

Shit Pail shifted on her shit pail.

“You’re kind of an asshole.”

“I know.”

“Woolah!” Shit Pail yells, jolting Rupert out of his too-self aware pity party of one.

“What?” Rupert lost the thread.

“Sorry. Woolah.” She pulls a blunt out of her bag.

“Weed?”

“And crack. Better than nothing. I forgot it was in here.”

“Screw it. Light it up.”

“Second time smoking crack.”

“First,” Rupert corrects.

“Sure.” She grins, lights up the Woolah and Rupert continues.

22

The following day, beneath an uncharacteristically grey and brooding sky, Rupert and Joe went to the D.E.A.T.H. program site. All the driving around with Jesus had helped Rupert become pretty familiar with the area, and as they pulled down the muddy road in Joe’s muddy ‘89 Yukon through a plain of Pampas grass and Saw Palmetto, passing big, slow-moving, liquid-carrying tanker trucks, he knew he was somewhere near Spanish Point, where Leenda’s burial mound was located.

As they approached the site, Rupert saw that nothing about this operation appeared legitimate. Joe didn’t appear to notice anything amiss, which made Rupert more suspicious.

The flat plain had a massive pit dug into it, and into the side of the pit was the opening to a drift mine, which looked cartoonish—a big, squared tunnel entrance propped up by large wooden beams. Methheads of all stripes and levels of withdrawal walked into the mine with big, empty blue buckets and shuffled out with them full of brackish-looking water. They then walked unsteadily up a rickety set of wooden steps out of the pit, over to a couple of open tanks, up the aluminum steps to the top of those, and dumped the water in.

If Rupert squinted, the entire enterprise resembled a modern-day depiction of the now-discredited theory of slave labor building of the pyramids—the kind of thing you used to see on the History Channel before it was taken over by “reality” shows such as Possum Hunter and Ancient Alien Plumbers. Hundreds of thin, unhappy, sick people toiling zombie-like, performing the time-honored tradition of monotonous, soul-killing slog on behalf of their betters.

When the open tanks were full, the tanker truck alongside it would drop its industrial hose in, suck up the water, cap off, and move out, replaced by another.

A work trailer stood some distance from the pit. A few Tweakers shook and scratched themselves in a short line outside the door. Some tottered around the back where a few barrels had been placed to throw up in. When he or she was finished, they’d dip a scoop into a bucket of sawdust and throw it into the barrel over the fresh vomit, then either return to work, or to the line outside the trailer.

This is pretty fucked up, Rupert thought.

“Joe, does this look normal to you?” Rupert asked.

Joe looked through the windshield at the scene before them, considering it, and then to Rupert:

“Well, I don’t know what it is yet, so I don’t know.”

Unexpectedly astute. But still.

They got out of the Yukon and walked to the trailer. As they neared, a woman in coveralls came out and adjusted her hard hat. She had a sturdy-looking Maglite holstered at her side. More hard hats and inferior flashlights hung along the railing of the trailer steps, for anyone to use, Rupert supposed, though he didn’t see many workers wearing them. He suspected they didn’t much care if a chunk of mine ceiling crushed their heads to a pulp—in their condition, they might have hoped for it.

The woman stopped as she walked down the steps, ignoring the barrage of comments, questions, and outright pleas of the Tweakers who’d been waiting to speak with her. She watched Rupert and Joe as they approached.

Rupert elbowed Joe, who had thumbed the screen of his phone while he walked. The phone was again reholstered into Joe’s back pocket.

“We’re here for the program,” Rupert said.

She examined them, but less Joe than Rupert.

“You don’t look too strung out,” she said to him.

Rupert looked at Joe—Rupert hadn’t noticed he was sweating a little and he had a slight tremor.

“Not yet,” Rupert said.

“Stocked up, huh?”

Rupert shrugged. “Came prepared.”

“Well, it’s only going to make it worse for you in the end,” she snarled, clearly disgusted with everyone and everything around her.

Rupert noticed an embroidered nametag on her coveralls that read Marge.

“Can I call you Marge?” he asked.

“No,” she answered, curt. “You don’t call me anything. Grab a couple of helmets and lights.”

Rupert did and handed Joe his.

“Follow me,” Marge said, and they proceeded to the pit, down the stairs creaking beneath them, and into the mine opening, dodging working Methheads.

The tunnel was black and crudely dug out with a few support structures spaced too far apart for Rupert’s sense of well being. Marge said nothing, but as they progressed, the tunnel grew wider and taller, eventually opening up to about the width of a two-lane road. The deeper they went, the more the scenery changed.

As he tried to avoid the sloshing buckets carried by the teetering Methheads, Rupert let his flashlight beam wander over the walls and ceiling—small calcium carbonate lumps and bumps ran in haphazard formations along the edges of the tunnel, their sources found leaking above, drip, drip, dripping the measured geologic process that would build them into something more. As the trio moved on, the formations grew larger, drifting in shades of chestnut, ochre, tawny, amber and white, creating stalagmites and stalactites, flowstones and helictites, what they called “soda straws”—hollow, cylindrical mineral tubes—and “bacon strips,” when the flowstones grew down in rippling sheets. Rupert had visited a show cave up in Virginia, so this wasn’t entirely new to him. It looked as if they’d mined their way into a natural cave system.

Marge walked fast and soon there was a little distance between them, enough that Joe felt comfortable enough to have a conversation.

“Hey Rupe,” he starts. “Mom started to get a little suspicious last night after you left.”

“Suspicious of what?”

“Of you.”

“For what?”

Someone, somewhere threw up and its sickening echo traveled throughout the caverns, triggering a vomit domino effect that continued throughout their conversation.

“Something about the possibility that you might share our special recipe with some other operations around here.”

“Joe, why would I do that?” The whole we’re-all-big-time paranoia began to irritate Rupert.

“I dunno,” Joe shrugged. “She heard somewhere that you’ve been dealing with Tommy Bananas. Maybe even Bucket.”

Rupert was torn between the concern he felt at knowing people named “Tommy Bananas” and “Bucket” and the speed at which Merideth could obtain this ridiculous information.

“I’ve known the woman for fewer than twenty-four hours!” Rupert stopped and took a deep breath. “I’ve never heard of them, Joe. But so what if I did?

Joe shook his head. “It’s not how things work, Rupe. You just don’t do that.”

“Know people? You can’t just know people . . . ?”

Joe’s back pocket beeped nine times in various tones, then started ringing.

Rupert’s eyes rolled involuntarily back into his head. “You know, I hear you can keep that from happening . . . I don’t even own one and I know that.”

Joe fumbled with his phone. “I know, but I don’t know how—”

“Hello, The Gorge (Fine Men’s Cloth—”

Joe hung up. “Yeah,” he looked to Rupert. “I need to figure that out.”

“How do you even have any reception in here?”

Finally, Marge stopped for them to catch up.

“Used to be a show cave,” she said. “Till water seeped in from the Gulf.” Another fifteen feet and they rounded a corner, entering a huge, cathedral-sized cavern.

They stood at the edge of what looked like an underground lake.

“Wow,” Joe whispered with the kind of awe that might be inspired by a Close Encounters ship landing. Rupert was pretty amazed, too. He’d seen cavern lakes before, but nothing like the size of this thing. Enormous stalactites pointed down to the water, pocking its surface with a light, eerie rain. Around the edges that were accessible, Methheads came, scooped, and left. Marge pointed her flashlight to a place on the cavern wall across the water where the color lightened considerably about ten feet up.

Must be on an incline, Rupert thought.

“High water mark,” she said. “We’re about halfway there. If you want in on this, you’d better start soon.”

“Why is it being emptied?” Rupert asked, forgetting for a moment why he was there.

“What the hell do you care?”

“Um. I guess I don’t.” Rupert rubbed the back of his head.

“I don’t know,” she answered anyway. “I don’t care either. But I guess it’s cheaper to use these sorry sacks of shi—you guys . . . than to run a length of industrial hose and pump it. Anything to save a buck. Right, let’s go.”

They wove their way back through woozy Tweakers and into the too-bright grey outside.

“Is there paperwork?” Rupert asked as Marge retrieved their helmets and flashlights. She laughed and walked back to the trailer.

“Come back tomorrow, seven a.m.,” she called over her shoulder.

No. Nothing about this was even a little bit legal. Stanley would have had nothing to do with anything like this.

Rupert and Joe walked back to the Yukon and as they passed one of the idling tankers containing a lunch-eating driver, Rupert yelled over the rumbling engine.

“Hey! Spanish Point’s around here, right?”

“Yeah!” the driver yelled back, chewing what looked to be a classic bologna-on-white and jerked his thumb back behind his head. “About half-mile!”

“Thanks!”

They climbed into the Yukon, and Rupert waited until Joe had finished looking at whatever he was looking at on his phone. When he looked up and moved to put the key in the ignition, Rupert asked: “You going back tomorrow?”

“I dunno. Maybe. You?”

“Hell no.”

Table of Contents

Beast28

Cocurès was situated delicately within a stretch of orchards, vineyards, and meadows. The limbs of the fruit trees sagged heavy with shiny red globes. On the road, they had passed the Château de Miral, which stood stately above two rivers—the Tarn and the Runes—that joined frothily together below. The 13th-century castle was built for the family of Malbosc-Miral, the Lords of whom lost their heads during the Revolution, a fact the old man offered to Louis good-humoredly.

The inn was clean and quaint, run by a man—a stonebreaker by trade—and his young sister. As he ate, Louis was pleasantly distracted by conversation with the host and hostess—as he tidied the room and she processed chestnuts for the coming winter—and with a schoolteacher who had heard there was a Scot in the village and wanted to stop in and practice his English. They passed a half-hour amiably and Louis began to relax. Although he was tired from such a restless night, he was happy to have such attention.

Soon, the old man in the brown nightcap returned with the priest, and the schoolteacher politely excused himself after many thanks for the practice.

“This,” the old man said, “is Father Secours. He is the pastor here, but he is from Florac!”

Louis and the priest shook hands. He was a young man, clean shaven, with a mop of light, sandy-colored hair atop a well-shaped head. His skin was pale and unblemished, like that of a child, and his cheeks flashed an innate rosy hue, as if he’d just come in from the cold, or they’d been squeezed recently by an overly-affectionate auntie. His eyes were small and friendly.

“I’m afraid I must take my leave,” the old man said. “My granddaughter is still learning her trade and if I do not keep an eye, I will be less two sheep and one goat.”

Louis thanked him profusely and they wished each other well, then parted.

“A good man,” Louis said to the priest by way of making conversation.

Oui,” said Father Secours. “I am from a family of shepherds, mainly. My father and he would trade between the two towns when I was a boy. He was always very kind to us.”

“I am not surprised.” Louis smiled and motioned for the priest to sit beside him.

“So, I am told you would like to know about Florac,” Father Secours began.

“Indeed,” Louis said, pushing his empty plate away and taking out his tobacco pouch and papers. “Do you mind?”

The priest waved his hand to indicate he did not, and Louis proceeded to roll a cigarette.

“I heard what has happened there,” Louis said. “I hope this has not affected your family.”

“As of yet, no,” Father Secours responded, “but whatever is doing the killing has not seen fit to stop.”

Louis stared at the priest.

“Two more have been murdered. A woman and a child.”

After heaving a deep sigh, Louis placed the cigarette in his mouth, struck a match, and inhaled deeply. He exhaled in the opposite direction of the holy man.

“This has to stop,” Louis finally said. “It must be stopped.”

“You speak as though you know something of it,” said Father Secours.

“I’m afraid I think I do.” He rose and motioned for the priest to follow him.

Louis took another drag from his cigarette outside the inn and then crushed it under his boot before he led Father Secours to Modestine. He had unburdened her of the pack, but had merely set his belongings in a corner behind her on the hay as he was too tired to carry it inside. Rifling through it, he eventually found the cloaked man’s clawed weapon and held it up for the priest to see.

Father Secours took a step back and eyed Louis apprehensively.

“How would I know—?” the priest began.

“I slept last night in an orchard between Pont de Montvert and here, as your old friend can attest as he met me walking the road this morning.” Louis stood and looked at the priest. “It is not I.”

He continued: “This I found on the ground outside Our Lady of the Snows, near to the murder site—slaughter, I should say—of a friar there. The talons matched his wounds. Two nights ago I saw a man holding the brother to this horror raise a mob and burn to death a family.”

“I had heard,” Father Secours said and lowered his eyes.

“There was nothing to be done,” Louis said, “though I wish with all that I have that there was.”

He handed the weapon to the priest, who took it and turned it over in his hands, examining it.

“So, the killings in Florac—” Father Secours began.

“—are not the first,” Louis finished. “And I don’t think they’re going to stop. Not until I can make it to Florac.”

“Are you hunting this killer?”

“I wasn’t,” Louis answered. “I was under the impression he was hunting me, but now I’m not sure. In any case, too much blood has been spilled. Something must be done.”

“You have a plan?”

“I do not,” Louis sighed. “He eludes me. But the killings in Florac lead me to believe he is escalating. I cannot live with what has happened up to this point, surely I cannot allow him to move into the next town and the next town, killing more and more. No. Something must be done.”

They stood in silence for a few minutes, the priest still handling the weapon, both men lost in thought.

“Come,” Father Secours finally said, and handed the thing to Louis, who packed it back amongst his things and followed the priest out into the sun.

The two men meandered about the center of town, near the inn and church. As they spoke, the priest often raised a smile and hand to a passing peasant or merchant who greeted the pair, wishing them a good afternoon.

As requested, Louis explained everything up until this day, to the best of his recollection. When he was finished, Father Secours spent a few minutes in quiet reflection.

“This man is trying to lay blame of these atrocities on Le Famille de la Bête,” he said. “That much seems clear.”

“Florac is not far,” Louis said. “I’d planned to move on today after I’d fed myself.”

“I will accompany you,” the priest said. “Give me a moment to gather a few things. We will stay with my aunt in town.”

“Father, please.” Louis tried to decline the good man’s offer. “I assure you, this man is unhinged, and he has no difficulty killing a man of the cloth.”

“I am not afraid,” Father Secours said. “Or, I should say, I am more afraid of what might happen if something is not done. This,” he said, gesturing around to the village, “is my parish, but those in Florac; those are my people.”

Louis nodded and Father Secours disappeared into the parish house. He emerged ten minutes later with his own knapsack.

“All is ready,” he said. “I said I would return in a few days. Now, let us fetch your ass and be off.”

Louis added Father Secours’s knapsack to Modestine’s pack, so they both walked free from any burden but the one that weighed on their souls. The donkey didn’t seem to mind and walked a brisk pace a few steps ahead of the two men, prodded only occasionally with the goad.

Their route continued along the Tarn, and until they were clear of Cocurès they spoke little. On a bend that cut through the valley, flanked on both sides by a gradual incline of paddock that, at a distance, curved up into the tree-covered hills, Father Secours broke the silence.

“I feel you have been honest with me, Monsieur Stevenson,” he said, watching his feet along the road. “It is only fair that I am the same.”

Louis looked at him. If this information was deliberately being withheld until this point, he grew nervous at what it could be.

“Where I am from,” the priest continued, “the stigma is minimal, but I have travelled, and I have learned that not everyone is quite so accepting.”

He smiled weakly at Louis, who listened intently. The sound of their footsteps mingled with the babble of the river, and the effect of the combination was soothing. Perhaps, otherwise, Louis might have run away.

“I am of that family,” Father Secours finally said. “La Bête. My community knows, and accepts it, but my church is unaware. The council only knows that I am from Florac.”

Louis could only look at the man, noting a passing resemblance to Clarisse, in the eyes and complexion.

“I hope,” the priest continued, “this does not put you off.”

Louis thought of the beast that attacked them at Our Lady of the Snows, but the vision easily transmuted itself into the image of poor Alphonse, dying behind a stone in a wood, pale and naked. Louis stopped walking.

“I owe you an apology,” he said. “I may have killed your cousin.”

Father Secours held out his hand and Louis took it. The priest shook it kindly in both hands.

“There is no blame in that,” he said. “What else could you do? Besides, you tried to help my two other cousins—to whom I am, was, much closer—and that more than erases anything in the past.”

Louis’s chest tightened a little and he patted the priest’s hands on his as a comrade.

Merci,” he said, and they walked on.

Father Secours went on to explain the relations between the families in Florac, and how, over time, the other townspeople had come to grow rather protective of his people.

“It’s truly a wonder of human decency,” he said. “The people of Florac are of a special breed, I think. While religious hatred has ravaged this region for centuries, and its intolerance has lingered like a scar on the landscape, in Florac, we Protestants live in harmony with our Catholic neighbors. It is that sense of acceptance—the true application of Christ’s teachings—that I believe also forms the bonds between my family and the others in the area. I am not saying that all is perfect and that disagreements never occur. They do as in any other place, I presume. But on a deeper level, the people of Florac are . . .”

“Better?” Louis guessed.

“I hate to say that, but in a way, perhaps,” Father Secours smiled. “Suffice to say, the evil that occurred at Pont de Montvert? That would never happen in Florac.”

“I should hope not,” Louis said.

They made their way around the confluence of rivers and continued in a southerly direction along the Tarn. Florac was not far now, and they bandied about various scenarios that may or may not transpire once they reached their destination. Nothing could be nailed down for certain, but the main aspect of their loose and tenuous plan was that they would attempt to keep their presence there a secret for as long as they could manage.

Once they determined at least that much, their conversation turned to other things. Louis told Father Secours about his friends and family, but declined to bring up the subject of Fanny, what with her still being married and the tentative state of their relationship. Father Secours told Louis about his own family—his father and mother made the change, but his brother did not. He failed to say whether or not it was his own affliction, but Louis assumed it was not, for he could not imagine how one might make his way through seminary with such a secret.

“Has there been any word on the condition of your surviving Pont de Montvert cousin?” Louis asked hesitantly.

“I had only heard the news in Cocurès, like everyone else,” Father Secours said. “But I suspect there will be more news in Florac. Their father and my father were brothers; my aunt, our fathers’ sister, also lives there. I am sad to say my father passed a few years ago, which is why we will stay with my aunt, with whom my mother now resides. They will know what is happening with Clémence.”

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20

FM26 (20)

Joe McEejit lived with his mother, Merideth (pronounced, Joe stressed, Merry Death) in a trailer way in the back of the Stately Swamp Mobile Home Commons just off the Tamiami Trail. The trailer park reeked of meth-making, and various colored clouds of smoke puffed from every other trailer. Rupert rode shotgun in Joe’s 1992 Jimmy Yukon down a cracked paved road that wound through the park. They passed a man covered in what looked like tar being handcuffed over the hood of a tan, rusted-out 80s Chevy Cavalier. As they passed, Rupert heard him yell, “If I had some crack, I wouldn’t be out here stealing . . . ” Joe didn’t notice. But Rupert’s attention shifted the instant they drove around a double-decker trailer creation on a turn. Not a trailer designed to be a two-story habitat, but two single-wide trailers stacked and welded together, with a chain ladder going from the bottom to the top. But that wasn’t what impressed Rupert. As they rounded the curve, he could see the back of the makeshift structure, over which was painted as a massive faded rebel flag with the words “The South Will Rise Agian.” The a was a tiny, less-faded later edit a fat Sherpie marker between the i and n.

About thirty seconds later, they pulled up next to what Rupert presumed to be the McEejit household. A broken fiberglass birdbath stood in what passed as a front yard and a red Hodaka Combat Wombat motocross dirt bike leaned up against the side of the trailer. It looked youth-sized and old.

As Rupert followed Joe through the door, he was overcome, not by meth cooking, for once, but the smell of baking cookies. An old woman with auburn-faded-to-rust-colored hair came out from behind the connected counter island that separated the kitchen from the dinning/living room area.

“Who the fuck is this asshole? Is that a purse?”

Joe handed her two Golden Tickets to Crack Planet and Rupert and his man purse were forgotten. She squealed like a non-crack-smoking old woman who’d won a trip to Vegas with an unlimited supply of nickels to play the slots, except she likely smoked crack and the slots in this scenario shilled out free crack.

“Crack Planet, here we come!” Then she stopped. “How’d you get two tickets, Joe? What did you do . . . ?” She looked about to come at him, but Joe threw his hands up and pointed at Rupert, who braced himself for a light pummeling. But she stopped and looked up at him.

“Who the fuck are you? You’re fucking huge.”

Rupert opened his mouth, but Joe spoke.

“Mom, this is Rupert.” He explained the deal they’d made and she contemplated it for a moment.

“I hear Crack Planet’s pretty amazing,” Rupert said, voice low and polite.

Merideth shot him a look, and then Joe, who was occupied with his phone.

“Goddamn it, Joe, put that fucking thing away. We have a guest.”

Joe slid his phone into his back pocket. Merideth said nothing else, but only returned to the kitchen and opened the oven. The fresh cookie smell wafted stronger, warmer. Rupert passed Joe a dubious look, but Merideth returned with a tray stacked with still-steaming cookies and set it on the table. Her shirt neckline was a little low—not embarrassing-cleavage low, but low enough to reveal a tattoo high on her chest that said “Don’t Fuck with Gramma,” embellished with a rose and a leaping manatee, which Rupert doubted they did. It looked old and faded, as if she’d gotten it long before she’d reached the conventional age for grandmotherhood. That was a little unsettling, though not unexpected.

Rupert thought of Bucket jumping onto—into—the deceased, definitely-not-leaping manatee, but was snapped back to the present when Merideth said: “Well, let’s get cookin’ then. But first, have some cookies.”

Rupert picked up a cookie, still warm between his fingers, and looked at it. Chocolate peanut butter, he thought, though he was a little leery. They stood in a meth lab trailer with an old woman who cooked meth and with whom Rupert did not want to fuck. He considered declining like he’d declined Bucket’s offer of post-cook coffee.

Joe grabbed one and took a bite. He had his phone out again and thumbed through something or other, then looked over at Rupert. “Oh, they’re clean. Mom would never put that shit into her cookies, right mom?”

“You’re goddamn right.”

Rupert took a bite and the chocolate-peanut-buttery goodness slid down his gullet.

It was the single best cookie he’d ever eaten in his life.

“Oh my God,” he said through another bite.

Merideth grinned, the gums of her dentures the same color as her hair. And then they all stood there for a moment—Joe eating cookies and thumbing his phone, Rupert eating cookies, his mind blank, and Merideth standing there, enjoying the fruits of her labor. But the quiet filled only with cookie-chewing was too much for Rupert’s still-delicate social composure, and he said: “So, you have grandchildren?”

“Fuck no,” she said, as if she really meant it.

Silence but for the cookie chewing. Then:

“Did you hear about that fella, tried to shoot Trump at a rally in Vegas?” Merideth made small talk.

Rupert eyes lit up. “Did he?”

“No, thank God.”

“Oh.” Rupert wondered what ridiculous, hypothetical garbage the country could have been spared, should the worst happen in November. Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, perhaps. Maybe ending ANWR drilling restrictions or rolling back environmental regulations. Suppose he would increase the likelihood of using nuclear weapons again for the first time since 1945. Or, Rupert thought, possibly he’d oversee the longest government shutdown during a psychotic temper tantrum in order to get billions of dollars for this completely unnecessary wall he’d keep talking about between the United States and Mexico that no one but a handful of heartland bigots would actually want or think we need. Maybe he’d legitimize white supremacy, or use mass shooting victims as photo ops. Perhaps he’d politicize or monetize a deadly global pandemic. All predicated on the inexorable deterioration of the man’s brain, as he’s clearly in the early stages of dementia, in addition to being illiterate and clinically narcissistic.

Rupert snickered to himself—he had a pretty wild imagination sometimes, even in this godforsaken upside-down state.

Merideth waddled down the hall and behind a curtain on the other end of the trailer. Rupert and Joe both grabbed another cookie each and followed her.

There, Rupert was confronted with a massive, immaculate, complex system of tubes and stands and glass beakers. It was awe-inspiring.

“Wow, Meri . . . Merry-Death, you did all this?”

She stood with her fists on her hips, nodding and admiring her own creation. Then:

“Joe’s lucky I let him near it.”

Joe nodded, dispassionately resigned to his complete incompetency.

“But, I like bakin’ better than cookin’, so fuckknuckle there’s gotta do it. He does okay. He only fucks it up now and then.”

A faint ringing issued from Joe’s back pocket, and then a voice: “Holly’s Hush Hush Lingerie, how may I help you?” Joe nonchalantly slipped his hand into his back pocket and hung up the call without removing the phone.

Merideth smacked Joe upside the head. Joe hardly seemed to notice.

Rupert chewed the remainder of his final cookie.

“Well,” she said, clapping her hands together. “Let’s get started.”

Rupert took notes as they worked, and during a quiet moment when Merideth wasn’t instructing, Joe asked Rupert:

“Hey, Rupe, have you heard of this government-funded meth work program?”

Rupert froze.

“No.” He returned to mixing the pseudoephedrine with the red phosphorus and hydriodic acid. He realized he had begun to believe the D.E.A.T.H. program didn’t exist.

“I guess it’s some kind of thing that puts Methheads to work as a form of rehabilitation. Their pay is accumulated and once they get clean, they get a lump sum to go start new lives.”

“With some kind of supervision, of course,” Merideth added.

“Hmm,” Rupert said. “Sounds interesting. Are you thinking about checking it out?”

“Well, Mom wants me to,” Joe said, and Merideth nodded.

“Get clean, get the cash, and then he can have it back.”

“Have it back . . . ” Rupert said.

“His habit.”

“Of course,” Rupert replied. For the first time, this whole scene struck him as a little depressing. Joe seemed like an okay guy.

“Supposed to be a lot of cash,” Joe said. Rupert looked at him—he was thumbing through his phone again.

“I’m going to maybe check it out tomorrow. Wanna come?”

“Sure.” Rupert said impassively, and he prepared to filter out the red phosphorus.

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Beast27

Cocurès, Florac

He moved about the world, through time, from body to body of every age. He was in Edinburgh during his college days giving a paper at The Spec—Two Questions on the Relationship Between Christ’s Teachings and Modern Christianity—only all the faces in the audience were that of his father, looking pained and annoyed. Next, he was but a boy, coughing and coughing, his small frame shaking with every sputter that tore at his lungs, his nursemaid, Cummy, at his bedside, holding his hand, but in fact, it was not Cummy but his mother, who in reality had never been there. She shocked him into a new body and time with the words, “Smoutie, what’s that burning?”

Then, he was as he is now, twenty-eight years old, but naked amongst an eternity of trees. He heard a dog bark and he ran, but as he did he realized that he didn’t just appear there, he’d woken up there. Every part of his body ached and when he looked down, his hands were blood covered. Finally, he was older than he is now, much older, and barefoot on the bowsprit of a schooner. He could smell the ocean and taste the salt on his teeth, the wind yanking at his hair as they traveled full speed ahead, until the wood beneath his feet gave way and he plunged down into the sea.

He came to at Grez, awash in a salty ocean of sweat in his sickbed. Fanny looked to him from a chair across the room and simply shook her head.

*

He awoke exhausted to a melancholy morning and the sound of footsteps. His heart in his throat, he stretched to peer around the tree’s trunk only to find, much nearer than he’d expected, a peasant. The man trudged up a hard footpath that Louis had not noticed the previous day and passed without seeing him. Once the man was gone, Louis leapt from his sleeping sack and readied himself as quickly as possible. The workers were out to harvest and trim back the trees.

As he did, a man and a boy made their way down the incline, heading straight towards his encampment. They called to him, and he tried to respond cheerfully as he rushed around dressing. By the time they’d reached him, he had his boots on and was pulling on his gaiters when the man spoke.

“You have slept here,” the man stated rather than asked. The boy stood a little behind him, looking at Louis suspiciously.

“Yes,” answered Louis. “As you see.”

The man’s eyes scanned Louis’s camp and fell upon the revolver that lay upon the sack, in the open.

“Why?”

“My faith,” Louis sighed. “I was tired.”

“Where are you going?”

Louis pointed down to the road in the direction of Florac.

“What have you eaten?”

Pardon?

The man repeated his question, undeterred. Louis realized he was keeping track of his crop.

“Oh, I ate a meal from my pack.”

C’est bien,” the man said, more to the boy than to Louis. And, without another word or gesture, the pair walked two trees away from where Louis had camped and began to prune.

Louis stowed the revolver into the waist of his trousers and after collecting Modestine and packing up, they were once again on the road. The morning light played prettily across the valley and the road dipped gradually to become level with the river. Here Louis made his toilet and Modestine slurped upstream from Louis’s sudsy ritual. As he shaved, he determined that he would ask every soul he met between here and Florac if they’d seen his cloaked man. Surely, he left the scene at Pont de Montvert before Louis, for he could no longer find him there.

When they were finished at the river, they continued on while Louis snacked on a piece of chocolate with one hand, and fed the donkey bits of black bread with the other. He’d passed several working men and boys heading up the road to where he’d slept the night before, all moving to their day’s work. Louis made his inquiry to each of them, but they’d either never seen such a person, or they’d seen far too many to discern the man he was looking for.

As he came around a bend, Modestine trotting briskly along, Louis stopped cold in his tracks. Ahead along the road, nearest the cliff side, was a hooded figure.

Louis stared at the form, whose head was lowered and whose feet shuffled along the edge of the road. He stuffed the chocolate he’d been carrying into a fold in Modestine’s pack and rested his now-empty hand on the butt of the pistol in his belt.        They started forward again slowly, Louis pulling the donkey to the riverside, giving the stranger—who still didn’t seem to see him—a wide berth. But suddenly, as if operating with an additional sense, the person lurched toward Louis.

He gripped the handle of the gun and was about to pull it when the figure’s hood fell back just enough for him to see that it wasn’t a man at all, but a woman. She was a beggar, her clothes shabby and her hair knotted.

She said nothing, but motioned for alms. Louis let out a heavy breath and unhanded the gun quickly, happy to not have to use it. Then he dug around in a breast pocket and fished out a few coins for the woman. Before he handed them over, he spoke.

“Pardon me,” he began. “Have you seen a man—maybe your age—wearing a cloak of a dark grey color? Heading this way?” He pointed in the direction she was coming from.

The woman shook her head and held out her hand.

“Are you sure? He came this way.”

Still the woman shook her head, her eyes on the coins in his hand.

Then it struck him.

“His cloak was probably stained with blood.”

Her eyes met his and grew wide. Then she pointed back down the road, in the direction Louis was heading.

“Florac?”

The woman nodded and Louis gave her the coins, which sent her shuffling along her way, perhaps a little faster than she had been before.

Had Louis asked every peasant along the way if they’d seen a man in a bloody cloak, he suspected he’d have gotten a few affirmations. He and Modestine moved on, only to be overtaken a few minutes later by an older man, followed by a little girl driving a goat and two sheep. For a few steps, Louis was in line with the girl and feeling a little awkward, but the man slowed his pace a bit and positioned himself beside Louis.

Louis saw that the man’s face betrayed a mature age beyond what he initially thought, and he wore a tea-colored nightcap as a hat.

“You are going to Cocurès?” the man asked, smiling.

“I will get breakfast there, but then I will move on to Florac,” Louis answered, returning the smile. It was good to see a warm, welcoming face.

“Ah,” the man said as his eyes darkened. “There are bad things afoot.”

“Oh?”

“Two nights ago, a family was killed, horribly, by a crazed mob, and last night, from what I’ve heard, mysterious murders have begun at Florac.”

Louis stopped and everyone almost went on without him—Modestine, the man, the girl and her wards. But the man also stopped and came back to him, and so they all stopped.

“What do you mean, in Florac?” Louis asked the man, and they slowly began walking again, eventually regaining their pace.

“A traveler told me early this morning that they had found the bodies of three villagers past the outskirts of the town. All unrelated.”

Louis listened. Somehow, the cloaked man had made it to Florac, perhaps before Louis had even bedded down in the chestnut orchard last night.

“Terrible. People torn limb from limb.”

“Wolves?” Louis asked quietly, not knowing what sort of answer he might get.

“We in this region know wolves. This was no wolf. Nor was it the family of la Bête.”

“But how do you know?” Louis stunned himself by falling so comfortably into this conversation, as if he were a local peasant, as if he believed in werewolves. But he did. He must. He saw what he saw. And this man didn’t lose a breath.

“We know because the people of Florac are different. La Famille de la Bête live peaceably, side by side with their neighbors.”

Louis eyed the man, reluctant to ask what he felt compelled to ask.

“The members of,” he paused, “la Bête family; they manage their condition?”

“The families of this area who are cursed with the change, they raise their children, before they even begin to show the signs, that to kill is wrong. And if they begin to make the change, they get a special education.”

“And you are not of this family.”

Non, I am not, but I have many friends of that family. All good men and women.”

They walked without speaking for a moment, listening to the bleating of the girl’s flock and the tiny tinkling of their little bells.

“I know that, in the north of the mountains, the feelings for this family are very different. And the family also recognizes that not all members have adopted their way of living.” The man shrugged. “It is what it is. There is a priest in Cocurès that I will introduce you to. He knows more about this than anyone.”

Louis winced and nodded. He thought to ask about the cloaked man, but then remembered that this fellow had come from behind, from the direction Louis had come, and so wouldn’t have seen him.

“Tragedy, what happened at Pont de Montvert,” the man thought he was changing the subject, when in fact, he was not.

“I was there.”

This time the old man stopped, but then, catching himself, started up again and trotted to regain his place.

“You were there?”

“A boy was killed. A man riled up the townspeople,” Louis explained. “It didn’t take much and once they were going, there was nothing anyone could do. I know; I tried.”

The old man patted Louis on the back and nodded.

“You were good to try,” he said.

“I’m afraid that does little to console me,” Louis replied. “But tell me, did no one survive?”

The old man sucked on his teeth and watched the ground move under his spritely feet.

“At first, both daughters had somehow made it out. The older was badly burned, and she died later that night.”

“Clarisse,” Louis said softly.

“I am sorry.” The old man’s eyes teared up at the realization that Louis knew the dead girl in some capacity.

“Her sister?”

“Alive.”

Louis nodded. That was, at least, one small saving grace, but his heart still broke when he thought of how she might go on without her mother and father, without the kinship of her sister. And had Louis not passed through? Had he not led the cloaked man straight to them? They would be having breakfast right now.

The group walked on in silence, save the sheep and goat, the rest of the way to Cocurès, where Louis ordered breakfast after stabling Modestine for her own, and the old man went off in search of the priest.

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GrinderFace

Eriks (pronounced “Erik”) Mackus was in prison for grand theft auto and robbery, and while he was in prison, he tattooed himself face using a very special ink blend of melted checkers, grease, toothpaste, and pencil lead, applied with a paperclip—among other things, his 727 Pinellas area code on one cheek and the state of—you guessed it—Florida on his other cheek. When he got out of prison, he made to start over by getting a welding certificate, which was good. He was told he’d have a hard time finding work with the tattoos on his face, so he had a fellow welding student take them off with a wire brush welding grinder, which was bad. He got his certificate and planned to find work with a union, to save money, and move to Texas, or maybe even Alaska, which was good. Five years later in 2019, he was booked on charges in Pinellas County for felony domestic battery, which is bad. I was really pulling for Mackus.

Kuruvilla, Carol. “Florida Man Grinds Off His Jail Tattoos with a Steel Wire Brush.” New York Daily News. Tribune Publishing Company. May 31, 2014.

 

Read Florida Man: Battle of the Five Meth Labs: A Love Story here.