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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.

19

FM25 (19)

Rupert and Jesus stood outside a FloridoMart, watching Tweakers come and go with their Slurpits, and trying to wrangle up some Crack Planet customers. Today, Rupert did better selling Tommy’s Tropical Supreme than either of them did with the tickets.

“Delayed gratification, Jesus,” Rupert said as an FFG meal bag blew up against his shin, then escaped back into the wild. “People want the smaller reward now, instantly, rather than have to wait for a larger reward later. That is, assuming there is a reward later at all in this case.”

Jesus rolled his eyes and then looked at Rupert.

“Yes, gringo. It isn’t just not wanting to delay the reward. People tend to perceive the delayed reward as less valuable depending on how long they have to wait for it. The longer they have to wait, the less they value what is in actuality an equal reward. Exponential discounting, Rupert.”

Rupert smiled. “I like you. You’re a reader.”

Jesus laughed. “You’re tolerable.”

Rupert hissed through his teeth.

“That’s right,” Jesus said. “You oughta put some Vapor Rub on that.”

“That was not a burn.”

“Was.”

“I am making more meth sales than you are tickets sales.”

“Truth,” Jesus conceded. “If Fulva finds out, she gonna be pissed.

“So, you keep up with the news . . . what’s new?” Rupert changed the subject. “I haven’t really heard much since I’ve been down here.”

Jesus glared at him. “Well. Just in the last week, some stalker guy shot that one singer on The Croon.”

“Shit. I don’t watch The Croon.”

“You didn’t seem like the type. Happened right here—”

“Here?”

“Well, in Florida. Orlando. And another guy shot up a gay club. Killed forty-nine—”

“Shit.”

“—wounded fifty-three.”

“Shit.”

“Also in Orlando.”

“ . . . the fuck?”

Jesus paused to think. “A two year old was attacked, mangled, and drowned by an alligator at a tourist resort—”

“Orlando?”

“Nope. Golden Oak.”

“Where’s that?”

“Near Orlando.”

Rupert sighed. “All in Florida. What about the rest of the country?”

“Have you not noticed that the longer you’re in-country, the less relevant the rest of the country becomes?”

“I’m still interested—”

“No you’re not. You just don’t want to talk about how Fulva’s gonna ream you out with MeeMaw’s Whackin’ Dick—”

“Not true.”

“You’re really interested?”

“Not really.” Rupert acquiesced.

“Don’t feel bad. Your interest, or lack thereof, is also irrelevant. Shit just ceases to matter here.”

“Unless you’re getting shot or eaten by alligators.”

“Yeah, but to be fair . . . we eat an awful lot of gator down here.”

Rupert shrugged his capitulation. “Fair, indeed.”

“Could be.”

“Where is Orlando?” Rupert wanted to know exactly how close death loomed.

“About 130 miles, north-ish.”

“Too close.”

Bróder, it’s all the same. You’ve seen it.”

“I have.” Rupert slumped.

“Anyway, Fulva’s gonna go through the roof. And Tommy, for that matter. Maybe not through the roof, but . . . ”

“Through the roof of his car.”

They both laughed. Though Rupert kept selling his supply of Tropical Supreme, he had been avoiding Tommy Bananas since the prospect of a cooking lesson fell through, though he’d heard things.

“Did I tell you what happened to Bananas?” Rupert asked. Jesus shook his head.

“So, Tommy likes to have these long, excruciating meetings in his car—”

“How are the Ebonics lessons coming along?”

“Fuck you. Anyway, after I left the last one—when I asked him about cooking—I guess that precariously mounted whatever-the-hell-it-is I told you about fell over into the front and impaled Tommy, pinning him to the seat.”

“What?” Jesus snorted a laugh that sounded painful. “Is he okay?”

“Well, as you know, the cops didn’t show up when he called, because the last time Tommy called the fuzz, he tried to barter with the dispatcher—three bucks and a chicken dinner for sex.”

Jesus doubled over, laughing. “Chalé! Stop . . . ”

“He spent twenty-seven hours trying to break the antler off the head and work himself up over the end. Said it went right through.”

“I can’t breathe.”

“And, of course, he can’t leave his car, so he can’t go into a hospital, so he plugged both ends with a couple of socks he dug out from the back and said he was fine.”

Jesus stopped laughing, “Oh man, he’s not fine.”

“Fuck no he’s not.”

“Who told you this?”

“Guy working at the Gorge (Fine Men’s Clothing), store #7.”

Jesus shook his head. “Serious talk now, it’s a good thing he’s, um, incapacitated. I’ve heard things. I had notheard what happened to him, but I have heard things.”

“That’s not at all cryptic. Heard things? What things? Who are you even talking to?” Sometimes, this place—these people—irritated Rupert. Little did he know, this general gossipy activity was not exclusive to Floridians.

“You might find this hard to believe, but when I’m not slumming with you selling Crack Planet tickets to Piperos, I actually have a very fulfilling social life involving a broad variety of reasonably stable people.”

“One of these reasonably stable friends of yours has news about Tommy Bananas?”

Jesus considered Rupert for a moment. “I don’t even have to tell you.”

Rupert looked at Jesus for an equal space of time, expressionless, then Jesus gave in.

“Bananas is under the impression that you are secretly making and selling his dead father’s recipe.”

“You said he was still alive.”

“Depends on one’s perspective, eh?”

“I’m selling Cancer Nanners.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“He never told me the recipe.”

“Doesn’t matter. He’s convinced that—get ready—at some point during one of your car meetings, you hypnotized him with—no joke, get ready—your Ebonics talk, and got the formula out of him.”

Rupert was silent for a long time, watching myriad bits of trash swirl around their feet in the hot, lazy breeze.

“I’m just . . . ” he began. “I’m not going to . . . I am choosing to recognize that as . . . I am choosing not to respond to that.”

“Good choice.” Jesus’s eyes scanned the horizon for potential customers. “Ironically, like I’ve said, Papa Bananas is alive and well, making and selling his formula, but only to the lowest, most desperate Geekers. Shit’s no good . . . ”

“But Tommy thinks I’m making bank on it . . . ”

“Yep,” Jesus replied and grinned, still scanning for clients. “Must be your hypnojive powers, ese.”

“Jesus, I am trying . . . no, I am choosing not to react—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, look, all I’m saying is that you should consider yourself fortunate that your man, Bananas, is incapacitated.”

“Impaled or not, the dude can’t leave his car. I’m not sure how less capacitated he actually is.”

“Never underestimate a tweaking Dollaboy. Getting run through with an antler’s not going to slow him down . . . more . . . ” Jesus stopped and addressed an especially desperate looking Jibby, about to ease into his Crack Planet pitch. The guy looked through Jesus and floated away. “Dang. That guy is spun like a bun on the run . . . ”

“Yeah, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be working for Tommy anyway,” Rupert said.

“I don’t know how much longer Tommy’s going to be around,” Jesus said. “You know that shit’s infected.”

“Yeah.” Rupert squinted down the street at nothing in particular. “Well, since Bucket taught me how to—”

“Seriously hermano, you don’t want to get into that. Sell some tickets, make some easy money, do a good deed, and that’s that.”

Rupert sighed. He realized his drive to become big time here grew stronger than his desire to get the hell out and go back to DC, burning him up like a lab fire ignited by an unvented, lithium-filled bottle. Rupert sighed again, bothered by this involuntary use of simile.

“Well, Bucket wants to get together again to further discuss the New Thought Movement,” Rupert said, still undecided as to whether he wanted to interact with Bucket anymore. That one’s Nutbag Level was indeed exceptional.

“So,” Rupert continued. “You know Bucket. You said everyone knew about Bucket. That guy—”

“Did Bucket tell you about Bucket?”

Rupert stared at Jesus. What now?

“Well, I guess it’s not a thing a person is much willing to bring up. Remember back in the 80s, that kid that got stuck in the well? It was on all the news channels.”

“Yeah,” Rupert said, thinking. “I remember that. In the end it turned out to be as simple as dropping the well bucket down there and pulling him out, but they’d made it more complicated than that and the kid almost starved to death.”

Take a simple situation, add a group of people with their egos and their individual subjectivity, and watch it devolve into a state of complete chaos—social entropy, and Bucket’s story is only a microcosm of what we do all over the world, every day, and not just the shit that makes the news. In our lives, in big and small ways, all rippling out in the form of a billion devastating repercussions. Rupert considered the Butterfly Effect of just that one, particular fuck-up.

“Really? The kid in the well—that was Bucket?”

Jesus nodded.

“Well, that explains a lot.”

“You know that little bridge over the inlet that the kayakers like to go under. You go over it to get to Van Weasel?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Kids have been selling for him for years. They start at around eight and age out around twelve, but the firstgroup, years ago, they thought he was a troll—the troll living under the bridge. Then they got a little older and found the well story out somehow. They’re the ones that started calling him Bucket and it just got passed down through the generations.”

“Thought forms.”

“What?”

“Those kids, man. What a bunch of little—”

“He’s pretty stoic about it, though, right? I don’t think he remembers his real name.”

He deliberately forgot it. Rupert stared ahead, thinking.

Jesus looked at Rupert. “That dude is in rough shape. I wouldn’t mess with any of that.”

“Well, he’s happy enough,” Rupert said. “But no joke, Jesus. I gotta.”

“What?”

“I gotta get in on this game.”

“What the hell for? Tickets, man. It’s the way up.”

“Man, these things are going nowhere. They’re a scam.”

Jesus eyerolled again and Rupert matched him. They eyeroll-battled for a full minute.

“Jesus, if I could get some production going, I could make all these small-time operators disappear. My shit would be the best shit. And you’d be my right-hand man.”

Jesus looked appalled.

At that moment, a guy came around the corner, not looking like he wanted to go into the store, but went directly to Jesus. He didn’t look like a Geeker, but he was a little twitchy. He cast a wary glance to Rupert.

He looked like a pretty regular guy. A little thin, unshaven in defiance of his receding hairline, and maybe a bit dirty, but not on-the-street dirty. More like shops-at-the-Homeware-Wearhouse dirty. He had his cell phone out, but shoved it into his back pocket before addressing Jesus.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey Joe,” Jesus said. “What’s cookin?” Jesus laughed, but Joe didn’t, not because he didn’t think it was funny, Rupert thought, but because he didn’t get the joke. Rupert now knew this guy cooked.

“Hey,” Joe said to Rupert.

“Joe, this is Rupert.” Jesus introduced them. “Rupert, Joe.”

They exchanged nods.

“Jesus, Mom’s been buggin’ me about getting one of those damn tickets,” Joe said, finally getting down to it.

“She’d have the time of her life,” Jesus replied.

“Yeah, that’s what she says.” Joe digs into his front pocket and pulls out a fold of bills—it looks like a hundred dollars worth of singles.

“Let’s do this then,” said Jesus, as he dug around in his shorts pockets for a ticket, but pointed to Rupert. “He’s the money man.”

Joe paid Rupert, who counted it with swift expertise—ninety-nine one-dollar bills and ninety-nine cents in change. Joe—or his mother—was exact.

“Thanks, Jesus,” Joe said, examining the ticket, and about to turn. At this moment, Joe’s ass spoke. Or, more precisely, his cell phone did—it was an FFG joint he’d accidentally butt-dialed. The tinny voice announced its business and location, then asked how they could help Joe. Joe took out his phone and put it to his ear. “Sorry,” he said, to the FFG employee, and Rupert and Jesus, then hung up without waiting for a response. This seemed routine.

Rupert stopped him—noticing again that his social anxiety seemed to have vanished.

“You wouldn’t be interested in—?” he started, but Jesus interrupted.

“He don’t want it. He and his mama make it at home.”

“Oh yeah?” Rupert said like he didn’t know. “Like a real lab, all set up?”

Joe put both the ticket and phone back into his pocket and faced them again, then crossed his arms in front of him, suddenly affable. “Oh yeah. You should see it. Mom is a master at constructing clean and efficient labs. People around here’ll tell you, hers is the best, you know, as far as quality and how it goes down. Best cookies, too.”

“You don’t say,” Rupert said. “I’d love to see it. I mean, it sounds impressive. I don’t know much about how it works, but—”

Jesus glared at Rupert and Rupert ignored him.

“Yeah, it can be fascinating,” Joe said, fiddling with his back pocket again. He pulled out the ticket and looked at it. “Jesus, be straight with me, right? Does Crack Planet exist?”

“Real as you and me, son.”

Joe offered a feeble nod and was about to turn once more when Rupert stopped him again.

“Joe, would you like to go to Crack Planet with your mom?”

Jesus looked at Rupert like he’d dropped his pants and took a dump right there in front of the FloridoMart. Rupert wondered just how shocking that would really be. Not very, he suspected.

Joe thought for a moment. “Well, yeah, I guess. Sure. But I gotta save up again and she’ll want to go soon . . . ”

“No need,” Rupert said. “Jesus, hand me one of those Golden Tickets.”

“You know Fulva counts these.”

Rupert made a grabby hand gesture and Jesus threw the ticket at him. It bounced off his elbow and clacked to the ground.

“Nice catch, noir niño,” Jesus said.

“God, shut up,” Rupert replied, picking up the ticket and handing it to Joe. “On the house. One condition.”

Table of Contents

Beast26

The night sky was clear and Louis was able to trace a discernible path as the roads were new and the moon, though small, was assisted by the stars. They walked until the sun appeared grudgingly from the horizon, Louis’s pace as slow as Modestine’s when their journey had first begun; so slow, in fact, that the donkey sometimes stopped, as she loved to do, to munch on some patches of grass.

For the first few hours, his brain played the night’s events over and over—the shouting, the screams. As much as he didn’t want to, so long as he could smell the smoke from the burning house, he couldn’t help it. The stink followed him to Pont de Montvert and beyond—it poisoned the air. Even after he was out of the deathly miasma, the stench clung to his clothes and to Modestine’s mousy fur. It was more time still before the wind had cleared the odor from them. Only then was he able to distract himself.

The sun was up and they were well into morning proper. Louis walked, eyes to the ground, tapping his leg with the goad.

He had expected to arrive in London—his next stop after this trip before heading home to Edinburgh—a new man, a changed man. In this, he was not wrong. A new and changed man he would be. He shuddered to think of the impact all of this would have. He was not built for this sort of death. A kind of death, certainly. His periods of illness had conditioned him to believe that—of his friends—he would be the one to lead them to the grave, many, many years before their time. It was something he’d come closer and closer to accepting, to the extent that the prospect didn’t incite the fear it once did.

But outright murder? The killing of innocents? This was not something he’d ever become accustomed to, surely not if he could help it. But it had been done now. He could not reverse it. Its effects were already being felt in the way his mind reeled when he thought of Clarisse and their conversation in the inn’s kitchen at Pont de Montvert, in the way his stomach lurched when he thought, not of the live, burning figures on the ground, but of the very acts of the mob. It wasn’t the visceral verity of the flesh, but the sickening debasement of the crowd; people he had so recently dined with and enjoyed the company of. Louis did not know if he could ever trust the character of anyone ever again.

How on earth could he ever explain any of this to his people? How would he describe this to Fanny? Because if he couldn’t, how could he give himself to her completely, of which he had—still had—every intention of doing. Fanny had seen so much more of life than he had. Married, had children, lived and survived along the American frontier. She rolled her own cigarettes and was a better shot with a pistol than himself. He had thought, just a short time ago, that they could go a lifetime together and he would never catch up to her in terms of experience. But he doubted that she’d seen a family burned to death in their own home. And while she might have taken the odd pot shot at some dubious native in the West, he doubted she’d ever taken aim at such an unholy beast, a werewolf. This morning, walking along a dusty French road in the Highlands, he wondered how he might explain what had happened to him in a way that would allow her to catch up to him.

But perhaps there would be nothing to catch up to, for she may just laugh and send him on his way. And he wondered if that might be a better blessing to her. For him, though, it might just be the blow that did him in.

Louis was abruptly stopped by Modestine’s ass—he’d walked right into her. She snorted and he looked up. The road they traveled was sandy and ran about halfway up from the Tarn twisting in the valley below. Above there were cliffs edged in ash trees with its lower gradients covered in Spanish chestnuts. It was a beautiful day, and the river called up to him with its rugged, throaty roar. On the breeze floated the trees’ scent as autumn worked its way around the perimeters of their green leaves, dappling everything in russet.

According to his map, they would be in the valley for some time still, and his reverie had cost them daylight and kilometers. Although it would be some time before the sun set, it was already making its way out of the gorge, leaving them in the tall shadows that grew like the trees themselves.

As they walked along, it dawned on Louis that the terrain was not changing—a road: on one side straight down, and on the other, straight up. There would be no making the next town by nightfall, and his only condolence was that he’d neither seen nor heard another human intonation or footstep for most of the day.

He scanned the cliff wall to his right, looking for more gentle inclines, which would still prevent his sleeping on them, or else he might roll down to the road, or worse, over the road and down to the river. Eventually, his eyes fell on what looked to be not one ledge, but three—the first about sixty feet up, the next about the same distance from the first, and the third still further up.

Louis goaded and pushed Modestine up to the first ledge, picking their way around the chestnuts and occasionally leaning on them for a rest. Once they reached the plateau, it was barely big enough for the both of them, so Louis unloaded Modestine and pushed her further up to the second ledge, that had just enough room for her to lie down, should she want to. He then left her with an early dinner of black bread.

He stumbled and half-slid back down to his own ledge and made his camp behind the shelter of a reasonably wide tree, sweeping as many fallen chestnuts from the path of his sleeping sack as possible. So long as Modestine stayed quiet—as she generally was prone to do—they should stay all but invisible up here. Louis arranged everything he might need nearby and resolved to be in his sack and ready to fall asleep by the time the sun went down. He would not light a lamp, or fire. He would only strike a match to light a cigarette. Until then, he had a few hours to update his journal with the latest goings on, as much as he hated to revisit them.

Before he knew it, he was straining to see his words on the paper before him. The day was making a hasty retreat far beyond the cliffs, he imagined, over fields and meadows, over cities and towns, over warm inns and burnt-out homes. Over the living and the dead.

The valley was still warm and would stay that way for most of the night. Soon, the trill of frogs from the Tarn below rose up to sing Louis to sleep, and then a wind picked up, swaying the boughs above him and reminding him, uncomfortably, of the nightmares he suffered as a child. Storms upon storms, the wind howling at every eave of the family home, blowing and blowing. He closed his eyes and without much more of a thought, he was asleep.

The night was a seemingly endless succession of waking and dreaming. First, there was a scrambling in the leaves near his head, once, twice, then three times, before he sprang up to find nothing but suspected rats. Then there was the biting and tickling of the ants crawling about his person. After that, the buzzing of mosquitoes investigating the orifices of his ears and the flapping of bats swooping down from the trees.

Between these episodes—and Louis thought likely caused by the ongoing actions of these pesky creatures as he slept—his unconscious was awash with images, voices, colors, shapes, and faces.

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18

FM24 (18)

New Pullers jerseys were in at a shop a few blocks down from the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet, so Rupert and Jesus parted ways there and Rupert walked through a few parking lots, cross-body bag bouncing against his hip, aware that a living plant—a potentially talking plant—bounced around inside, so he slowed down to not jostle it so much. He needed to get it into some water.

At that moment, he was narrowly missed by a man who’d run out of a Holly’s Hush-Hush lingerie store with two armloads of women’s underwear. Thongs and open-crotched panties fluttered to the blacktop around Rupert. A managerial-looking woman in a smart suit and a phone in her hand ran a little way behind the man, stopping next to Rupert, who’d also stopped to watch. They saw the man navigate the main road traffic, leaving a trail of frilled undergarments in his wake. Behind this set piece, the sun shone its brightest as it prepared to retire for the day. Rupert wondered how many times he needed to burn out his retinas before he remembered to buy sunglasses.

“He does this about once every three or four months,” she said to Rupert as her inventory ran away.

Rupert nodded.

Then, police cars screeched and squealed from all directions and the next thing the thong thief knew, he was knocked sideways, his booty scattered to the sky. He landed on his hip, but it was hard to tell through the streaming cars.

“He never lands the same way,” the woman said, sighed, and walked towards the scene.

Rupert moved on, remembering the Plant with No Name.

Back at the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet—after ignoring Angel and wondering if anyone else worked or was even staying there—Rupert sat at the small, square table in his room. The plant now sat safely in a glass of water on the other side of the table, as if they were about to share a meal together. He stared at it, waiting.

The plant said nothing.

Rupert inspected it—the black ridges, the strangeness of its twisted limbs fascinated him. It had incurred an injury in his cross-body bag during the escape, and it oozed now, not the clear, slippery sunburn-soothing liquid of normal aloe, but something translucent and blue. He wasn’t quite up to putting his fingertip in it to see if it at least shared the same consistency.

Finally, after much deliberation with his solitary pride, he brought himself to address the plant.

“So . . . ” he began in almost a whisper.

The phone rang. Rupert resisted the urge to slam his head onto the table.

“Yes,” he said as the receiver reached his ear.

“Where’s everything at, Rupe?”

Pyrdewy’s uncharacteristic calm sounded strange to his ear. Rupert tensed up, waiting for the shiny, well-maintained business shoe to drop.

“Well.” Rupert stalled. He really needed to spend more time during the day thinking up lies to tell this man. “It’s . . . good.”

“Oh, it’s good?” Pyrdewy cooed. “Good.”

Silence.

“What the fuck are you telling me, you fuckin’ weed?”

Rupert relaxed once the screaming started.

“I’m in the program. I’ve . . . gotten in, and I’m observing, and . . . ”

Fuck. He didn’t even know where the D.E.A.T.H. program was. Pyrdewy had already warned him that it was so top secret that finding it without an introduction from already-matriculated Methheads would be next to impossible, and yet he’d given him no hint.

“Well,” Pyrdewy said and then a pause. “None of our operatives have mentioned seeing you.”

“I suppose they haven’t noticed. I haven’t seen any of them either.” Rupert cringed.

“You’re a six-foot-ten inch black man,” Pyrdewy said.

“I prefer ‘multi-ethnic’—”

“Shut up.”

“Yes.”

Pause.

“They treating you alright down there, Rupe? I mean, everyone being nice?” Pyrdewy’s voice became calm again, as if speaking to a child.

“Um, sure. Fine.”

“Good, good,” Pyrdewy said in a soft, soothing manner that made Rupert a bit nauseous. “Sarasotans aren’t so much known for their hospitality for your . . . type, Rupe.”

“My . . . ?” Rupert got it. And Pyrdewy was right. There were some racist motherfuckers down here. But there were obviously some racist motherfuckers in DC, so what difference did it make?

“The swarthy type, Rupe.”

I get it. Rupert said nothing.

“The melanin-friendly type, Rupe.”

Yep, got it. Rupert still said nothing. He wished Pyrdewy—and everyone—would stop calling him “Rupe.” He also thought it better not to respond to this particular line of conversation.

“Get back to work, Rupe,” Pyrdewy said, then hung up.

Rupert replaced the receiver and then glared at the plant sitting oblivious on the table.

The phone rang again and he let it. A moment later, the green message light flashed. Rupert listened; it was Leenda. “Just checking in.” His chest filled with sparks, but they dissipated into a dull ache and he returned the receiver to its cradle again. Rupert thought about the last time he saw her, which felt like forever ago. The elevator door sliding shut, and a dinner proposal that hinged on the re-appearance of Stanley. Rupert hoped even more fervently that they found him, though by now it seemed improbable. But Leenda would be here soon, and there would be a meeting regardless. He felt both eager and terrified.

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Beast25

The woman alternately hugged the boy close to her chest and then shook him feverishly, wailing all the while. Her clothes, like his, were soaked with blood. The crowd formed around her, but Clarisse hung back. So did Louis.

“Where did he come from?” Louis asked. “The boy. I saw him in the fields today. Who brought his body in?”

Clarisse stood on her toes to look over the crowd.

“If you’re looking for your cloaked man,” she said, “he’ll be hard to find.”

It was night and the air was chilled—many members of the crowd wore hooded cloaks. Louis stood on his toes as well.

“Blasted!” he said, and the mourning mother’s cries seemed to take on a new life, hoarse as they were.

“What’s happened?” The mustachioed Norman was at his side, still in his day clothes. Louis assumed he’d meant to sleep in them.

“Boy’s dead,” Louis answered.

“Oh dear, that’s horrible,” the man said. “How?”

But Louis’s mind was elsewhere. He turned to ask Clarisse what the cloaked man’s name was, but she was gone. He craned his neck around, trying to see behind him, and then in front of him, amongst the assembly of gawkers. There were a number of lanterns carried, and even a few torches, but the light they threw only carried a few feet from the source and Clarisse didn’t seem to be near any of them.

The people mumbled to each other in hushed tones, the mother still wept, and a few women pulled close to her, wrapping their arms around her in the solidarity of grief.

“This boy is dead!” a cry went up.

The crowd’s murmurs fell silent and everyone looked around to see where the voice had come from, to see to whom they were supposed to be listening.

“Nothing can bring him back!” the call went again.

On the other side of the throng—which was at least thirty-to-forty head by now—someone had jumped upon the edge of the community well. Louis stood again on his toes, but so did everyone else, and it helped little.

“And I know who perpetrated this terrible crime!” the voice rang again. The entire crowd had turned toward the man clinging to the well. Louis tried to position himself better to see, first left, then right, and finally, his eyes locked on the cloaked man. Many of the peasants had now pushed back their hoods to better see within such close quarters, but this man—who perched with one foot along the edge of the well and clutched the beam that held aloft the roped bucket with one hand, while the other waved in the air above him—this man wore his hood and wore it low, and still Louis could not see his face. His cloak was bloody, for it was he who had brought the boy in from the field.

“And I believe that you also know who perpetrated this unthinkable crime!” he yelled.

Louis attempted to push his way through the crowd to the front, but it was locked tight, and his shame would not allow him to too roughly jostle the women therein. There was no going around, as the mass filled the narrow street.

La Famille de Loups!

And with that, fists flew into the air and yells erupted all around Louis. Lanterns waved and torches were swung about above the heads of the people as the cloaked man continued to stir their frenzy.

Then, to their left, the stable door flung open and the chestnut mare came bolting out, Clarisse astride and whipping the horse into a firm gallop past the mob and out of the village. All heads turned and watched while the cloaked man’s waving hand pointed to her and he yelled.

“And she is one of them! This must be stopped, tonight!”

As he signaled after the escaping Clarisse, his cloak opened at the breast, and though his face was still hidden in his cavernous hood, Louis glimpsed—for but a brief moment—a wooden handle protruding from his peasant’s belt. From this handle sprung four steel claws. And just like that, the cloak closed and it was gone.

Louis had been right; it had been a pair.

Suddenly, the crowd lurched forward and Louis could hear the yells of the people, crying out for blood and for vengeance. The cloaked man had come down from his position on the well and Louis could see the stricken mother close to him, cradling her small boy, whose limbs sagged like wilted flowers. She had stopped crying, stopped wailing, and now her face set grimly, her eyes filled with crimson murder.

The mustachioed Norman beside him moved ahead to join the rabble, and Louis grabbed at his sleeve.

“What on earth are you doing, man?”

“They say they know who the murderer is,” the man said. “There is justice to be had tonight.” And he shook free of Louis’s grasp and disappeared into the mass of fury.

“For God’s sake,” Louis said out loud, but only to himself. “It’s a damned mob.” Being a Scot and a historian from that bloody city of Edinburgh, Louis knew well the ravages of an angry mob. He watched the crowd as it moved away, and in it, he recognized the hairstyles of the two literature-loving sisters, and nearby, their cousin, all raging against something they had no idea of. This he half-expected. But when he located the good face of his modest luncheon neighbor, her neat hair covered in a simple nightcap, her once mousey voice raised against a foe she could not name, Louis wept.

He sat on the stoop of the inn with his face in his hands, knowing there was nothing he could do. Once the mob had disappeared, though their yells could still be heard, he went upstairs and grabbed his fur cap. In the stable, Modestine slept, and he woke her with the saddle on her back. He was glad they both had rested that afternoon, for tonight they wouldn’t.

Once she was ready, he led her out and down the street, toward the faint sound of the bloodthirsty horde. He knew there was no measure he could take to prevent what was going to happen, whatever that tragedy would be. He only hoped that Clarisse had convinced her family to run, flee the region for their very lives.

The night was dark, but Louis could see a faint path, recently tread by dozens of angry feet, by the slim light of a crescent moon. Ahead, he could see the glow of the lanterns and torches, and he nudged Modestine forward, if only to be a witness.

When Louis found the mob, they were closing in on and surrounding a two-story farmhouse about a mile out of the village. Some people were already busying themselves letting the livestock loose. Their faces twisted with their shouting, made all the more grotesque by the light and shadow thrown about their features by the wavering flames of the torches.

Louis tied Modestine far back from the house and small outbuildings, to avoid some mob member mistaking her as belonging to this family and making off with her and his effects. He walked slowly around the jeering bodies, as close to the house as he could safely get. People yelled terrible things to the occupants—for much to Louis’s horror, there wereoccupants. Clarisse, perhaps, had come too late, or maybe could not convince them of the danger. They were a good family; they didn’t kill their fellow citizens. Why, he could almost hear her old mother ask, would they want to harm us?

A faint light glowed in the upstairs windows, where he presumed the family had retreated. A group of men attempted to batter down the front door with a fence rail they’d pulled from the ground, and with every slam of wood on wood, there came the screams of two women from upstairs. Louis imagined them to be Clarisse’s mother and sister. Clarisse, he suspected, was holding her own, as she’d struck him as rather sturdy for her age.

Finally, a window upstairs opened and a man stuck his head out—he was an older man, perhaps the father of the family.

Qu’avons-nous fait?” he yelled down. He repeated this question—What had they done?—but there was no way for his voice to break through the cacophony of the bloodthirsty people below. They pelted him with stones until he pulled the shutters back over the window and withdrew with his family.

Louis caught site of the mustachioed Norman at the edge of the crowd, and he went to him.

“Sir, please,” Louis tried to yell above the din. He pulled at the man’s sleeve, but it was yanked out of his grip and he was duly ignored as the man put up his own shouts.

“You don’t even know these people,” Louis tried again. “They are strangers to you, all of them!”

The man turned to Louis with a withering glare and Louis took a step back. The man’s eyes blazed with murder. Again, Louis was horrified—not just for this poor, innocent family, but for all of humanity. If all it took was one life and the instigation of a madman to rouse peoples’ blood to killing, then the species itself was rotten from the core.

Louis turned away and headed towards Modestine, when he heard another voice—this one sailing above the noise of the people, or, more precisely, the people quieted enough to hear the voice speak. He looked back to see the cloaked man standing on the front stoop of the house, elevated slightly over the mass of maniacs he’d produced.

“Children of God,” he cried, “hold your hands. Let us burn this house and its wild dogs!”

With that, a clamor of approval rose up into the night joined by a single panicked scream from the house. The people moved as one, parting to allow torchbearers access to the corners of the house. In no time, it was on fire, burning from the bottom up. A few people managed to get inside the first floor, but made no attempt to climb to the second, for their only mission now was to help the house burn faster. They set fire to the things inside and then ran out victoriously to the cheers of their accomplices.

Louis could not seem to move. As much as he dreaded watching what was unfolding before him, he could not tear his eyes away.

The flames licked ever higher, eating away at the planks and beams. The autumn blooms that hung in pretty baskets from above the windows wilted and curled. The terrified whinnies of the now-loose horses combined with the whine of the inferno peeled in Louis’s ears, and still he could not move. And then, another scream.

From a side window of the second floor, someone leapt. A woman, the mother or sister, perhaps even Clarisse. The screaming continued and Louis realized she was injured. Adrenaline finally pushed him to run toward the sound, but he was too late. The crowd had, upon seeing the woman fall and hearing her scream, shifted to engulf her and were now in the process of beating her. Another scream from the open window—the young sister. Louis saw Clarisse pull her back, and so it must have been the mother this mob was now beating to death.

Louis considered for a moment his pistol, though he knew it would be next to useless with a mad crowd such as this and would likely only end with his own murder. He wanted merely to end her searing misery.

Now, a man burst from the front door, his limbs all in flames. He managed to rush around the side where his wife had fallen, and the crowd parted easily for him. They either recoiled in horror or for self-preservation; Louis guessed the latter. As the man reached his wife he was a ball of flame, but the anguish of his cries were those of grief and not pain. He fell to his knees beside the unmoving woman and then toppled to her side, wrapping his burning arms around her. Then, he stopped moving. They both did.

A cheer rose up in the crowd.

Louis paced back and forth, tears streaming, wiping his eyes, and looking to the house, trying to craft some sort of saving plan, but there was nothing. The first story was engulfed, as the poor father had proven in his effort to get through it to save his wife. There couldn’t have been another access from the second floor, or the woman would not have felt compelled to jump. And now, all there was to do was watch these two women—girls, really—die an agonizing, terrible death.

Knowing there was nothing he could do, he suddenly remembered the cloaked man and looked desperately for him amongst the swarm of fanatics, but he was nowhere to be found. Gone, again.

Louis turned and staggered back to Modestine, untied her, and pulled her back along the faint path, back to Pont de Montvert. When he got to town, he spared no time looking about; he stopped for nothing but just walked through to the other side and away.

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17

FM23 (17)

Rupert and Jesus drove to another Gorge (Fine Men’s Clothing) location to drop off Golden Ticket monies with Bill—the branch store in which they met changed from day to day in rotation, so Rupert didn’t always have to worry about running into Tommy Bananas, who was pretty obvious and easily avoidable regardless.

“We spend a lot of time in this car, Jesus,” Rupert said as they drove past a small gas station where a few emergency responders pulled another shirtless man out of a vending machine. The man ate a candy bar with his free hand while a uniformed woman with a sour look beneath her protective face gear used some sort of industrial saw to free him. He didn’t look too put out.

“Name of the game,” Jesus said, stopping at a light. “Hey, Fulva’s been asking about you. She wants to know where you are and why she never sees you. And she’s not asking in a way like she misses you. I think she’s onto you.”

“Come on,” Rupert said and shuddered a little at the thought of this woman and her demon lover. “So, I’m moonlighting a little. It’s not like we have an exclusive contract or anything.” He was both perplexed and pleased with his new-found nonchalance in the face of potential otherworldly retribution.

The light turned green and the Lincoln lurched forward.

“Besides, why would they care? They’re making more money on Golden Tickets than they ever have.”

“Yeah, and that’s good, but you have to understand these people, pana,” Jesus said, eyeing Rupert sideways.

“They can be understood?” Rupert laughed, but Jesus didn’t. They pulled into the plaza, which housed The Gorge (Fine Men’s Clothing) #3 in their scheduled rotation, and parked. Jesus turned off the engine and looked at Rupert.

“Every one of these crooks thinks they’re big time. So, they like to act big time. If you’re not careful, big time might fuck you up.”

“But they’re buffoons, Jesus,” Rupert argued, creeping doubt notwithstanding. Fulva was menacing even if you didn’t know she fucked Derek Peterson. The Peterson fucking only changed the quality—like splatter movies are gross and scary, but body horror is gross, scary, and deeply unsettling.

“That, mi hermano, is what makes them more threatening—the buffoonility,” Jesus said, satisfied with his coinage. He got out of the car.

This did make a certain amount of sense to Rupert and he followed Jesus into the Florida heat.

As they prepared to go in, Bill walked out, followed by Osceola. No one said anything as Bill and Osceola climbed into the back of Jesus’s car. Jesus shrugged at Rupert and they got back in.

“Drive,” Osceola said, sliding down into the seat to assume a super-relaxed position.

Jesus picked at his thumbnail, then chewed it a little. Rupert stared at a window mannequin wearing a sharp suit that no one in their right mind would wear in this heat.

“Drive,” Osceola said again, this time agitated by Jesus’s insubordinance.

“Where are we going, Bill?” Jesus asked, looking at Bill in the rearview. Bill had simply been distracted by some routine MeeMaw’s Whackin’ Dick maintenance.

“Oh, Fulva’s,” he said, looking up. He then returned to his massaging.

Jesus turned the engine over and soon they were on their way to Segue-La. Rupert reached a long arm back past Osceola and handed Bill a wad of cash, which Bill took without moving any attention from his massive pink dildo.

None of this struck Rupert as weird anymore.

* * *

When they arrived at Segue-La, Fulva sat cross-legged on her mat-throne reading a book by Derek Peterson called Bareback Militia. Steve Perry sat on the raised platform beside her—sporting a cowhide vest and a small cowboy hat—carefully pulling part his own old, desiccated feces, picking undigested seeds out of it, and popping them into his disgusting little monkey mouth. As soon as he saw Rupert, he ran, climbed up Rupert’s body, perched on his shoulder, and sniffed the side of his head. Rupert grimaced. He disliked this monkey.

As they approached, Fulva looked up from her book and smiled at Rupert, ignoring Jesus, which Jesus was used to and preferred.

“You read Peterson, Rupie?” she asked as if she referred to John Stuart Mill.

Until he came to Florida, Rupert had never heard of him. He wasn’t sure Peterson existed outside of Florida.

“I don’t think I have, no.” He knew absolutely that he’d have known if he had.

“Do. He’s incredible. Hands down, the best erotic/horror-young-adult-self-help writer of the genre.”

“She just wants to fuck him,” Bill spat as he and Osceola walked in. He slid down into the beanbag chair in front of his VMS4. Rupert wondered if Bill had made his weekly 911 call yet, or maybe the VMS4 system is back up and running to Bill’s satisfaction. Then, a little late to the game, his thought was interrupted by a vision of Peterson’s rubbery, distorted face laboring exhaustively over Fulva as she grunted her old man moans of greasy-gross pleasure, perhaps opening a pestilential rift in the Universal Source.

Fulva eeked out a wispy, revolted noise, much milder than Rupert wanted to express.

“Bildo’s just jealous.”

Rupert said nothing. Fulva flipped the book aside and looked at Rupert.

“Where’ve ya been, Rupie?”

“Oh, around. Selling tickets. Seeing the sights. Never been to Florida before.”

“Yeah? Where’ve you been?”

You know . . . around,” Rupert hadn’t been anywhere that he could point to as a “sight.”

“Yeah, but where?”

“I’ve been,” Rupert began slowly, “down to the marina.”

“Which one?”

Shit.

“Hey, you know, before we continue this conversation, and speaking of water, would you mind if I, um . . . ?” Rupert indicated his need to urinate by loosely grabbing his junk and plonking his knees together.

Fulva, annoyed, waved him away. Jesus pointed over his shoulder to a large pink door with gold trim.

Rupert really did have to go, though he hoped he could buy enough time to think of the marina’s name. Any marina’s name.

The bathroom is, of course, pink. Persian Rose, to be exact. Rupert did not recall ever having taken a color-theory class. It was clear Fulva preferred unnatural colors, but this was one of the more toned-down pinks. And everything matched. Whoever put this together nailed it. The floor, walls, toilet, shower and curtain, sink, counter, soap dish, soap, everything was the exact same shade of Persian Rose. Furthermore, it was immaculate, as opposed to the rest of Segue-La. Rupert was impressed, despite that it gave him vertigo.

The only thing here not Persian Rose was a massive, bigger-than-Rupert-sized aloe plant gone biologically haywire. Its leaves didn’t just grow up from the container in a single inflorescence, but branched off to create countless little aloe plantlets, like a spider plant, which was strange for an aloe. It sat in a pink pot atop a Persian Rose wardrobe with slatted doors, and branched off in all directions, twisting and turning, hanging down to the floor. He wasn’t even sure it was an aloe plant, though its leaves were aloe-shaped and fleshy, green with pointed ridges along the sides. More like tentacles, really. The ridges were black, though, and he’d never seen an aloe plant like that. Perhaps some special species of Aloe. Florida did contain some prehistoric monster-looking vegetation. Fucking Florida.

As Rupert drained his bladder, he heard a faint whisper from behind: “Help me.”

He figured it was just the sound of his whiz hitting the water and echoing around the Persian Rose walls and tiles. Or maybe Bill and Fulva were fighting out there. Whatever.

But as he finished up, shook off, and had his hand on the handle to flush, it came again.

“Help me.”

Nope, he thought. I gotta get some kind of ventilation mask when I’m around the cooking fumes. This is some bullshit.

He flushed, pivoted to the sink and washed his hands, which turned pink from the soap. Rupert wondered what the soap was made of to get that kind of toxic-looking lather. He rinsed and as the filling toilet and running faucet stopped at the same time, it came again, distinct.

“Help me.”

Rupert swung around to his left, toward the wardrobe, and opened the doors. It was full of Derek Peterson Little Girl brand yoga pants—Rupert’s throat constricted. Did he feel a presence in the room? Please don’t be Peterson. As he shut the doors, his eyes fell on the freakazoid aloe plant, and then he heard: “Yessss . . . ”

It was the plant.

A knock at the door almost made Rupert scream.

“You fall in?” Osceola’s voice came muted through the door. Rupert found this ironic; he was too large to ever “fall in,” whereas Osceola was small enough to do that very thing.

Without thinking, Rupert snapped a plantlet off its stem and threw it into his cross-body bag. Osceola banged on the door and started to rap, Rupert supposed, to pass the time during the three seconds between now and the evacuation of the bathroom. Rupert opened the door and walked around Osceola without a word.

Once more before the court of Fulva, Rupert looked at his watch.

“Whoa, Jesus, the time,” he said. “We gotta go to the place to do that thing with the selling.”

Jesus looked up, startled as he had been ignoring the proceedings, but he caught on quickly and said: “Ah, yeah, the thing. Tickets. Over to the place. We’re gonna be late.” He fished his keys out of his pocket. “Gotta sell them tickets. They’re knocking the door down for them.”

Rupert nodded.

“Rupie,” Fulva called.

He turned and looked at her.

“Don’t be a stranger.” Fulva smiled.

Rupert nodded again, smiled, and gave a weak wave. Christ, stranger than what?

“And hey,” she added. “You should stop by Mote Marine. They have manatees.”

Rupert thought of the floating manatee meth lab of putrefaction.

“I will. Thanks for the tip.” Does she know something?

Rupert and Jesus left and walked to the car more hurried than usual.

“Do you think she knows?” Rupert asked Jesus.

“What, now you’re worried?”

“She is kind of menacing.”

“I tried to tell you.”

They got into the car and Rupert erupted into a nervous sweat.

“So, where are we going?” Jesus asked.

“Anywhere.”

As they drove, Rupert looked around for whatever bizarre, drug-addled event might be taking place around him, but for once found nothing. He relaxed a little. Then he remembered the aloe plantlet in his cross-body bag.

“Can you drop me off at the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet?”

“Sure.”

“Hey Jesus,” Rupert started. “That plant in the bathroom.”

Jesus’s face got serious.

“The Plant with No Name,” he replied, cryptic.

“Seriously?”

Jesus looked at Rupert like, what do you expect at this point?

Rupert silently conceded, then: “What do you know about it? Like, what kind of plant is it?” He could identify every possible shade of pink that ever existed, natural or manmade, but he couldn’t identify a houseplant.

“Ever heard of something called ‘Wet’?” Jesus asked.

Rupert shook his head.

“Fry? Illy?”

Still no. “Wait, is that Ebonics? I told you, I’m not fluent . . . ”

“No. Okay. Pharmaceutical pop culture lesson. A handful of years ago, this was all the rage on the street. Basically, it’s marijuana soaked in PCP, or you just dip a joint in it. That’s all well and good, but the trouble came because, in fact, a nickname for PCP in the community is—

* * *

“Oh, I remember Wet,” Shit Pail chimes in, again ruining Rupert’s storytelling groove.

“You seem like you might. Fond memories, I presume.”

“If by ‘fond memories’ you mean no memories—”

“That doesn’t sound like you remember it.” Rupert, irritated by another interruption, bated Shit Pail with no luck, then was relieved when she didn’t notice.

“I remember it as a thing that existed in the world—whether I existed when I used it is a matter of debate.” She seemed to pick something out of a tooth hole.

“I guess that’s what you get from smoking something called—”

* * *

“—Embalming Fluid.”

“Hmm.”

“Real original, I know. So, Fulva and Bill, in all their glorious wisdom, wanted in on the act ‘cause it was makin’ bank. So, they sent Osceola off to get them some ‘embalming fluid.’ And you’ve met Osceola.”

“This can’t be good.”

Pendejo comes back, not with PCP, but actual embalming fluid. Now, evidently, that can get you high—you can dip a cigarette, marijuana or otherwise, into some PCP-laced actual embalming fluid, and folks call that Fry, but we’re getting into some complicated substance sub-genres here . . . anyway, it can get you high, though it can also give you seizures and put your ass in a coma. So, when that all went south, Fulva told Bill to get rid of it, and he poured it into her plant in the bathroom.”

“Is that an aloe plant?”

“Um, yeah, I think it is. That shit you break off and put on burns?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Hmm.”

“Shit yes, and it got wild. Keeps trying to escape. But she can’t part with it. Gift from Derek Peterson.”

“Thee Derek Peterson?”

“The very one.”

“Where’d he get it?”

“Regular ol’ aloe plant—I dunno. Plant shop.”

After a moment of silence: “That’s, uh . . . that’s a crazy story.” Rupert gazed down at his cross-body bag lying across his lap.

“You expected something more plausible?”

“Yes,” Rupert admitted. “Yes, I did. I hoped . . .”

“Okay, how about this? It’s not a plant at all. It’s an alien from Crack Planet.”

“Embalming fluid it is, then.”

“Hey,” Jesus said, looking between Rupert and the road. “You leave that plant alone.”

They eyed each other, suspicious. Rupert thought Jesus knew something more about the Plant with No Name, but he himself was reluctant to tell the only half-sane person he knew here that he’d heard a plant request his assistance.

“Okay.” Rupert went back to scanning the plazas for crazy, shirtless Florida men.

Table of Contents

Beast24

After lunch, Louis claimed a bed upstairs by tossing his fur cap upon it. He’d waited until Clarisse made to serve one of his fellow travelers and took the opportunity to run up. Similarly, he waited until he couldn’t see her golden corkscrew ringlets below before making his getaway. He took his sack out to the stable where he hunkered down beside Modestine with his journal. She was paired with a chestnut mare, who chewed oats in a sack. He was only passing the time, but he might as well keep an eye on his companion, as he was feeling more vigilant than usual here in Pont de Montvert, despite nothing seeming particularly out of the ordinary.

The donkey chomped on some hay and gazed languidly at her driver as he scribbled away, catching up on his entries in as much detail as memory would allow. Then, Louis lidded his inkpot and stowed his materials. From his vantage point, he could see the comings and goings of the inn, and now he watched the two sisters and their cousin exit laughing and make their way into the street, going off to see whatever sights the village offered. He thought he should be doing the same, but felt that if he made one wrong move, it would result in some horrific, irreversible tragedy, and so he opted to make a few moves as possible.

Soon after, his modest neighbor from the table also left the inn; she walked directly over to the church, and Louis smiled. Then, to fill the space of time, he produced his sketchpad and proceeded to make a study of Modestine.

Throughout the afternoon, Louis lay in the hay beside his donkey, drowsing, as the inn occupants came and went. Eventually, he fell asleep, and when he came to, it was coming on twilight. He woke with a start, unsure of where he was, and only aware that he was supposed to be on guard. It took a few moments to return fully to the present but when he did, he put his things back into his sack and scratched Modestine’s ears.

“You were supposed to wake me,” he said.

She looked at him.

“Go to sleep.” He left the stable and returned to the inn, just in time for yet another meal.

It was almost an exact repeat of the mid-day meal, with the noted difference of the absence of his modest neighbor. That seat was now filled with a mustachioed Norman, who spent the duration charming the sisters and annoying the cousin. Though Louis was glad to have the attention taken away from his book writing, he found it difficult to eat being situated as such, in the middle of a raucous conversation that often bordered on sizzling debate. He was still full from lunch, and he ate little, but drank more wine than he knew he should. And the sisters still fussed about him, though a little more tamely—perhaps their cousin had had words with them. All the while, Clarisse hustled around the diners, replacing this and that, refilling that and this. She was particularly attentive to Louis’s glass and kept it full at all times.

The more Louis drank, the more he talked. The more he drank and talked, the easier it was to lose track of time. Soon, it was late and most of the diners had gone to bed, save the two sisters, who seemed about as drunk as Louis, the cousin, the Norman, and a few more additions to the boisterous group. They laughed and talked loudly, occasionally hushing themselves so as not to keep awake the other patrons, only to then laugh themselves louder, until . . . there was no more wine. And Clarisse had gone.

“Allow me,” Louis said, dramatically pushing his chair out and rising, which prompted a smattering of applause, presumably for not falling over. And he disappeared into the kitchen to see if he could find either another bottle of wine, or Clarisse, whichever came first.

The kitchen was confined, compared to the dining area, and it didn’t seem like the amount of food that came out of it could have fit in the first place. There was a stove, a basin, a table, and a large wooden cupboard. Louis looked around, but the place seemed bare. As he was about to open the cupboard and investigate, he heard a noise behind him.

Vous êtes ivre,” said a woman’s voice.

“I am not drunk,” Louis said as he turned around.

It was Clarisse. She had not gone to bed like he’d suspected, and was in fact still wholly dressed.

“You are,” she argued, and then walked around him and stood in front of the cupboard. Though she looked nothing like Fanny—she was taller, her hair yellow, her eyes blue—her plumpness reminded Louis of his American love, and all of a sudden, he found this girl attractive. Or, it might have been the wine, but he was in no condition to make such a call.

Clarisse crossed her arms and leaned against the cupboard. It took Louis a moment to understand he was being blocked from the last of the wine, so crossed his own arms and half-sat on the edge of the table.

“Come,” he said. “Just one more.” The sound of laughter spilled in from the dining area, and he motioned to the door, as if to say, see?

Non,” she said. “And shouldn’t you be more careful?”

“Careful? Careful of what?” He was seized with an almost uncontrollable urge to wind a finger through one of her curls.

“Aren’t you hunted, as we are?”

“Hunted?” His hip slipped from the table and he barely caught himself, reseating once again on the table’s edge.

Clarisse made a claw of her hand and thrust it at him.

Hunted,” she said again.

The blood washed from Louis’s face.

“My cousin is dead,” she said and looked at her feet.

“What? I’m sorry, how?” Though his body wasn’t necessarily following, his mind was sobering rather quickly.

“You shot him; you killed him.”

Louis stared at the girl in disbelief as she reached into the collar of her blouse and pulled from it a small bell. She clinked it once or twice and looked at Louis knowingly.

It was the slaughtered foal’s bell.

Louis gasped and was about to back away when Clarisse swiftly moved around him and now blocked the door to the dining area. Another wave of laughter came from the next room.

“Maybe you didn’t,” she said. “But you surely did not help.”

Louis struggled with a response. The drunken attraction had dissipated quickly and he now wanted to be anywhere than alone with this girl.

“Fouzilhac,” he stuttered. “The man from Fouzilhac.”

“His name was Alphonse.”

“He was a beast when I made the shot.”

Clarisse sighed.

“I know.” She continued to toy with the bell and its clapper ticked dully against its sides. “He gave this to me.”

“He may well have murdered the wearer of that bell,” Louis said.

“He may well have, if you can call killing a horse murder.”

“Some might.”

“It doesn’t matter. He didn’t do that either. And by ‘either’ I mean, he didn’t kill your priest.”

“I know,” Louis said. “I found the weapon wielded for that definite case of murder.”

As if confident he wouldn’t now go running from the room, Clarisse walked to the table he leaned against and poured a glass of water from a pitcher. She handed it to him and he drank.

“You can’t say, though,” he continued, “that your family hasn’t killed.”

“I won’t say that then,” she rejoined. She leaned against the table next to him and crossed her arms. “Oui, my family has killed. But not all of us. We are not all loup-garou.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Some are, and some are not. Alphonse was; I am not.”

“But the killing is wrong,” he said.

“I didn’t say it was right.” Clarisse fidgeted with her sleeve. “But it is not . . .” She searched for the right words. “It is not always in one’s control. Not when the change happens.”

“Some,” she went on, “with much practice have trained themselves. They’ve mastered their animal time, like becoming conscious while inside a dream. And they’ve satisfied the hunger with deer, or other animals. But others, like poor Alphonse, could never manage it.”

“But you are not one,” Louis said.

“I am not.” She shook her head and her curls bounced. “My father is. And he does not kill. Nor does my sister. We have been taught right from wrong. Still, we mourn our poor cousin.”

“I am sorry,” Louis offered, for he truly felt it, and he felt his fear of her retreating slowly into the seemingly bottomless well of sympathy he carried inside himself. Again, she shrugged.

The laughter had died down in the next room and the sound of chairs sliding indicated that the party was breaking up, probably leaving Louis for drunk on the kitchen floor.

“How do you know about the cloaked man? ” he asked.

“Is that what you call him? We know him. We know his family. Do you know the story of la Bête du Gévaudan?” she asked.

Louis nodded and she continued.

The cloaked man, she said, was a descendent of the first hired hunters of la Bête, just as she, and Alphonse, were the descendants of la Bête himself. Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François had been hired to hunt the monster, to stop the killing, but they had only turned their hounds loose in the wood, and fired their guns at anything with a pelt. Many wolves were killed, but no beast was caught.

“They were being paid by the day,” Clarisse said. “They had no incentive whatsoever to actually do what the villagers hoped. And, of course, my ancestors could not stop the killing. The change was new to us then.”

In the end, the father and son were replaced by the King’s man who took down one beast, and then another local hunter took down the second. Then the politicians became embarrassed, everything was hushed, and Clarisse’s ancestors continued to kill.

“But don’t think we did so without conscience,” she said sternly. “Our curse has many faces, guilt not being the least.”

Louis nodded and tried to understand.

“All this time,” she continued, “we have tried to be good members of our communities. And while not all of us have been successful, many of us have been. That does not, though, stop this family from hunting us.”

“Why?”

“This man that follows you—he’s not the first. His father hunted us, and his father’s father, but there seems to be a difference with this generation. While the men before him seemed to hunt us because they wanted to stop the killing, this man doesn’t seem to care. This man also kills. And unlike my cousin—who had his faults, I will not argue—this man has no conscience.”

“But if he didn’t want to stop the killing, what does he want?”

“Are you asking me?” She asked him, as if doubting her own opinion on the matter.

“I am,” he said.

“You are a writer?”

Oui.”

“You are famous.”

“Oh, well, non,” he said, and found himself blushing and a little flustered as to how to respond. “No. I have a book. I’ve written some articles and essays, some histories, but really . . .”

“It is only my opinion,” she said. “Kill a peasant and no one cares but the peasant’s family and friends, however, kill a famous writer—”

“But, really,” Louis held up his hands. “I am not a famous writer.”

Louis wanted very much to be a famous writer, but he was glad, at this moment, that he was not one.

This time Clarisse waved her hand.

“Whatever the case,” she said. “You should truly stay your guard.” She tipped the glass of water he was holding to his mouth. “And don’t get drunk.”

Louis laughed and took several long gulps.

“Is there more bread?”

With that, Clarisse disappeared into the dining room for a moment and returned with a small basket of rolls. Louis grabbed one and piece by piece swallowed it. As he worked to soak away what wine was left sloshing around in his belly, and Clarisse went to clear the dining table, he thought.

This man—the cloaked man—could not possibly want to use Louis’s fame as a writer, for he had none. But he was killing: first the poor foal and then poor Father Apollinaris. But were they the first? The man had fashioned himself a specialized weapon, in the form of a massive wolf’s claw. Louis thought about the carnage wreaked upon the friar’s body and tried to imagine a man inflicting that level of damage. Indeed, Louis thought, he may have fashioned at least two, one for each hand—all the more to imitate that of a wolf-man. He only lacked teeth, and for that he made up in tenacity.

Louis tried to form an image of the man—in those glimpses he’d had of him—and he could not remember him being exceptionally large. Average, at best. Even a little stooped. In trying to understand and fully command the facts Clarisse had given him through the drunken haze that was already dissipating, it hadn’t occurred until now to ask the girl what the man’s name was.

He slapped his forehead and made to leave the kitchen and join Clarisse in the dining room, when there came from the street a blood-chilling scream. It was a woman’s scream, throaty and anguished, and it repeated itself over and over, with hardly a pause for breath.

Louis ran through the kitchen door. Clarisse was already moving through the front door of the inn and some of the male patrons were making their sleepy way down the stairs. He ran ahead of them, behind Clarisse. On the street, people gathered slowly about a young woman, in whose lap laid the limp body of a small boy. Louis recognized him as the boy who waved at him this morning from the fields before the village.

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SpiderFace

Simply put, Eric Rico Ortiz got a tattoo of a black widow spider on the side of his face because he was afraid of spiders. Let me quote the article: “’Everybody fears spiders,’ Ortiz told the Daytona Beach News-Journal, while standing at the Volusia County Courthouse to handle felony charges against him for habitually driving with a revoked license.” His rap sheet on the day of this hearing included burglary, narcotic possession, retail theft, prowling, and domestic battery. The crime saga doesn’t end there. A few days later, after an altercation with his girlfriend involving a box cutter and an attempted rape, Ortiz was being sought by police for kidnapping, battery, false imprisonment, attempted sexual battery without force, tampering with a witness, robbery by sudden snatching, and preventing someone from calling 911. According to HireExFelon.com, Ortiz was later sentenced for “willful child abuse” and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He also has the following tattoos as described by the Florida State Prison West Unit, where he is being held as of this writing: “Cross Cards 8Ball Rosary Banner Dragon Gun Eric Yariel Angel NY” on his left arm, “Clouds Star Prayer Hands Sun Mi Orguello Flag Clouds Boricua” on his right arm, “Heart Roses Banner” on his left chest, “Skull” on his right chest, “Love Eye” on his right hand, oh, and a “Spiders Web” on his face, opposite the giant spider that captured the media’s hearts. His release date is April 4, 2020, if you happen to live in the area.

McCoy, Terrence. “Florida Man Terrified of Spiders So He Tattooed A Giant One on His Face.” Miami New Times. New Times. February 21, 2014.

Joseph, Chris. “Florida Man with Spider Tattoo on His Face Is Now Wanted By Police.”March 4, 2014. Broward Palm Beach New Times. New Times.

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

16.2

FM22 (16.2)

They went back into the tarp-tent and Bucket removed the lighter tarp hanging from the branch.

On a length of two-by-ten nailed to a relatively horizontal mangrove branch, sat the following items: Two 2-liter bottles, one 1-liter bottle, one 20-ounce bottle, aquarium tubing, needle-nose pliers, a pair of wire snips, a set of measuring cups, a funnel, a lidded plastic container, some baggies, a razorblade, and a packet of coffee filters. There were also several B-Line cold packs, some Drainü, campfire fuel, a 3D ViewLooker, a handful of AA lithium batteries, a 3.78-liter can of Xylene, a shoebox full of 12-hour Sudafeed, iodized salt, sulfuric acid, Isopropyl alcohol, and a gallon of distilled water. All astonishingly clean.

Four hours—and a surprisingly detailed overview of New Thought philosophy—later, methamphetamine lay drying on the coffee filters, and Rupert was mentally exhausted, but rather impressed.

“Did you know . . . ” Bucket began as he peered through the ViewLooker. Rupert noted that it had no reel. “ . . . That Nagai Nagayoshi synthesized methamphetamine from ephedrine in 1893?”

“You don’t say . . . ”

Bucket clicked the lever on the ViewLooker and nothing happened.

At that moment a stone hit the outside of Vailima, the Home of Truth.

“Bastards,” Bucket mumbled. He bent down to the sleeping bag and pulled the box out from under the chair cushion. From the box, he pulled a handful of small, knotted baggies that Rupert knew to be “Dominican knots,” as Bill had once informed him. He was learning so much.

Outside, the sound of kids pierced Rupert’s ears like an ice pick. They chanted:

“Buh-ket! Buh-ket! Buh-ket!”

“Bucket, you wax-face motherfucker!” One exceptionally charming little boy split off from the rest. They all laughed.

Holy shit, Rupert thought. Another stone hit the tarp-tent and he was almost afraid to leave it. But he followed Bucket through the flap and ducked a few more stones. There were six of them, all on bikes, and none could have been much older than ten. One of them leapt from his bike, dropping it, and with a can of Lysol and a disposable lighter ran up to Bucket and lit a massive plume of flame much closer to Bucket’s face than Rupert thought very safe, but he also noticed that Bucket didn’t have much head or facial hair left to lose.

“Get ‘im, Donny! Get ‘im with fire!” one little psychopath egged on.

Perhaps most disturbing was that Bucket didn’t recoil. But little Donny ran back to his bike, and as he picked it up and mounted it, he threatened: “Next time, Bucket. Next time we’ll have a Bucket barbeque!” More laughter.

“You’ll wish you still lived at the bottom of that well,” another kid chimed in.

From one of them another stone flew, cracking Bucket in the back of the head. Again, no response. Bucket then threw the handful of baggies toward the gaggle of heathens and they scrambled off their bikes, each grabbing at whatever he could. When the knots were gathered, they remounted their bikes and took off. One lagged behind and dug into his bulky front pocket, pulled out a crinkled liter-sized plastic bag, and threw it on the ground. Then he pointedly flipped off both Bucket and Rupert before pushing his bike up the bank.

Rupert looked at Bucket, who acted as though nothing had happened.

“What the fuck was that? And,” Rupert paused, “did you just give meth to a bunch of ten year olds?”

“Them? They don’t imbibe. Least I don’t think so. They sell for me.”

Rupert couldn’t respond.

Bucket bent over and picked up the bag the last kid had tossed. He continued:

“Those, my friend, are thought forms. I created them on a bad trip—could have done a much better job, and I regret not doing so, but there they are, and they serve their purpose.” He opened the bag and peered in. “When the way is clear and I’m maintaining my oath diligently, they come. They know to come. They take my enlightening substance and distribute it amongst the unenlightened. They also test my resolve to stay true to the Movement, as you may have noticed.”

“The rock throwing and almost re-setting your face on fire. . . ”

“I never bend.”

Rupert hoped there would be no more yogic feats of dexterity.

“Bucket, how much do you make from these kids?”

“Make?” Bucket asked, confused. “Oh! Money! Oh, I never see the money. I have no idea what they sell it for.”

Bucket put his fingers inside the bag and felt around. It was clear plastic, but Rupert couldn’t figure out what was in it.

“They do bring me these,” Bucket said.

“And . . . what are those?”

“Weaves.” Bucket smiled. “Hair weaves. These I do sell on the black market.”

“There’s a black market for weaves?”

“Remy hair—real hair—from India. Best quality. I don’t know how they get it, and I don’t want to know. But it goes for big bucks. Or, it did.”

Freeze! and Hands Up! came tearing down the bank path, zipped around them, then tore back up.

“Freeze! Hands Up!” Bucket yelled. “They’re good dogs, but they’re full of beans. Yes, the weave market has slowed down quite a bit since the natural hair movement took hold.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Rupert said.

“I was thinking of trying to sell them to one of those cancer things—Malignancy Manes, Tumor Tresses . . . ”

“Caring Curls for Cancer,” Rupert added. “Hmm. I don’t think they buy hair, though. I think they rely on donations.”

“Well, I’ll have to find another way to sell it. It’s how I buy my supplies. Gotta do it before the damn dogs eat all the inventory. I may take up wig making again.”

“Hmm.” Again? Obviously.

Bucket took the new baggie of hair, sealed it back up, and lifted the lid off of a large plastic container behind the tarp-tent Rupert hadn’t noticed. It was packed full of hair weaves.

“You want a coffee?” Bucket offered, which sounded surreal here.

Rupert declined, thinking of the meth drying on the filters in the tarp-tent. As he did, he glanced at the water and saw a duck float by with some tubing and a bottle top sticking out of it. The duck’s bill was half-open, its head flopped to one side.

Alarmed, he scanned across the inlet, around in the bushes, up on the bank path, and across the water again. He caught a glimpse of the man with the fringe jacket and feathers, silently paddling his fluorescent yellow rented kayak out of the inlet and back out into the Gulf, feathers and fringe flapping in the breeze.

“Suit yourself,” said Bucket before he disappeared into his Home of Truth.

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Beast23

When Louis woke again, it was still dark, but the whisper of dawn played upon the horizon. The sky was deep blue, anticipating morning proper, but the woods that sheltered the two travelers was still heavy with night. The stars had diminished considerably and the moon hung far over, ready to begin its journey to the other side of the globe.

Louis rose and noted the wind had picked up, passing cold over his weary limbs. The branches above and around him swayed as he fetched water from the natural faucet nearby. He shielded his lamp and boiled a sufficient quantity for a thin chocolate drink. While not rich, it was comforting.

Modestine stood chewing on some grass. Louis gave her a hunk of bread for breakfast but declined more for himself than the chocolate. He listened but heard only the growing sounds of daybreak—birds shrilled wakeful, flitting through the still-dark forest. Soon, he would hear the ox-carts moving uphill to fetch their quarry of wood for the winter, and wanting to avoid them, he hurriedly packed his things and the two continued their upward trek.

Though the path would sometimes reward their diligence with a respite of level ground, it never lasted very long and up, up they were again sent. Eventually, the path beneath their feet disappeared and they tread upon a simple terrain marked only, again, by the standing stones for winter travel. Small birds hopped from stone to stone, and it seemed to Louis that they were the same birds for miles, following him along, his destination theirs. It was warm and Louis had removed his coat, walking in only his knitted vest, his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows.

Finally, they reached a summit that distinguished itself from the smaller peaks they’d rolled over. Even if one closed one’s eyes as they breached it, one would sense its majesty. Le Pic de Finiels, about which Louis had heard so much, stood 5,600 feet above sea level. From here, through the hazy afternoon, Louis could make out lower Languedoc all the way to the Mediterranean.

It was spectacular, but Louis was tired. And he did not relish that his next stop, probably for the night, was the dreaded Pont de Montvert.

He goaded Modestine, who had stopped, assumed he’d want to spend more time, and made for the nearest grassy spot for a snack. She huffed a disappointed sigh and shuffled on, down this time. A little while later, the standing stones they’d been following disappeared and Louis stopped to look around.

Not far down, he could see a trail begin—it looked very steep and seemed to spiral down the slope.

“Are you ready for that?” he asked Modestine, who only blinked her answer in return.

Down they went. The path turned so tightly and so vertically that Louis insisted Modestine go first, for if she started to roll, she’d surely crush him despite her tiny frame. She took the lead happily enough, almost trotting, and while it had looked like a rather long drop from above, it was only a matter of a few minutes before they spilled from the corkscrew onto a straight, flat plain. First Modestine, and then Louis, separately and in opposite directions, jogged to a dizzy stop before halting to collect their balance and rejoin one another on the path.

Oddly, or so Louis thought, the path continued along the trickle of a brook, with the waterway flowing zigzagged back and forth over the walkway, so that as they progressed, Modestine refreshed her tired hooves in the water while Louis sure-footedly stepped over. They found themselves in a green valley dotted abundantly with rocks. In due course, the path grew into a road and the trickle grew into a stream, which diverted to the side. Their course advanced over a slight, but regular rise and fall through the vale, flanked by a forest of oak on either side.

With each step, the watercourse they raced grew bigger and bigger, soon a foaming tributary eager to throw its contents against stones, the banks, and itself. Rapids formed as its width expanded to eventually become the strong-flowing Tarn River.

Just under the raging, babbling current, Louis heard a sound, and looking up and forward to a break in the valley walls that spread meadows left and right, he saw a little boy, who waved enthusiastically to Louis. This was the first sign of le Pont de Montvert.

* * *

As they came into the town—over a stone hump-backed bridge that took them across the Tarn and ended on the other side with a medieval tower—it struck Louis that it had been exactly a week since he’d left Monastier. Pont de Montvert was all bustling with the Sabbath post-church activities—people buying a day’s or a week’s worth of necessities at the vendors that gathered loosely along the main thoroughfare, lined with one- and two-story stone houses.

Louis peered about them suspiciously, looking for a familiar face, listening for the singing voice that harassed him in the night amongst the trees of Mont Lozère, but there was nothing. Citizens moved about, jostling him, Modestine, and each other, an undulating sea of ruddy faces and muted color, though the eyes and mouths smiled at a day’s rest.

They made their way to the nearest public house, where Louis planned to hole up for the day and night, until events either played themselves out or enough nothing happened to warrant a feeling of safe passage. But Louis did not expect his stay to be without incident, and so he left Modestine in the stable with strict instructions to the stable boy to watch her carefully, then headed into the inn to wait it out.

There was a considerable crowd at the table for the mid-day meal, at least a dozen, including himself. The server called herself Clarisse—she was a buxom young woman: her hips and bosom ample, her face round, her eyes and nose small. She had curly yellow hair that spiraled over her shoulders, her cheeks were naturally rosy. Clarisse moved about the crowded dining area deftly, despite her size and the speed at which she went.

Louis took an empty space between a middle-aged, well-dressed man and a dowdy, timid woman of roughly the same age as his other neighbor. Across from him sat two women who chatted animatedly to each other. They were both handsome, which Louis counted as a special treat as he swore he had not seen a beautiful woman since leaving Monastier, and even then, he could remember no female face from that village aside from the pamphleteer’s ancient mother he’d endlessly sketched. The remaining travelers beyond this immediate group held no interest for him.

The two lovely women, as it turned out, were sisters—both married—traveling with the man to Louis’s right, a cousin. They were meeting their husbands—railroad surveyors currently in Chasseradès—in a few days, before moving on to another town to spend a few weeks with their widowed mother.

“I know them!” Louis exclaimed. “Well, that is to say, I passed a magnificent evening with them just two days ago.”

“They are well, then?” one of the sisters asked.

“Oh, indeed,” Louis said, “very well.”

Stoneware plates were filled with stewed vegetables, beef, and bread. Cutlery clicked together and against teeth. Clarisse moved about the room, plate to plate, and rested by the stairwell in the corner until her service was again required.

“Are you familiar with the village, sir?” the man to his right inquired.

“This village? No, I am not. Though I mean to be. I am writing a book.”

And the conversation followed as such. The sisters fawned over Louis—having discovered a writer in their midst—and they all asked for the details of his travels so far. Louis did his best to leave out anything grisly—anything related to wolves or murder—and largely succeeded. This pleasant exercise gave him hope that his journal notes weren’t all for naught and that he might—if he made it to Alès alive and back into the arms of his friends and family— still have a book from all this mess.

Clarisse suddenly appeared beside him, heaping a second helping of beef upon his plate before he’d even half-finished the first, and she was gone again in a flash. Louis hadn’t had this much sensory excitement in weeks. Perhaps months.

“And, so the brothers of Our Lady of the Snows,” a sister began, “there is no vow of silence?”

“Ah, no, see,” Louis explained, piling the beef onto itself. “It is merely an economy of words. Nothing unnecessary nor impractical.”

He saw his shy neighbor to the left had drained her cup and he neatly refilled it without losing his thought.

She tried weakly to refuse, but then acquiesced for the sake of good manners and presented Louis with a wan smile. She styled her dark hair parted concisely down the middle and combed back in a low bun; she wore a small, modest cameo taut on a humble ribbon around her neck. It had a look about it that spoke of something handed down, possessing significant personal value. She was clearly not of the party immediately surrounding them.

“Where are you going to, Mademoiselle? Where are your people?” he asked warmly, trying to help her feel included.

Her face reddened with the attention. She smiled and tried to wave it away, but he persisted.

“Florac,” she finally answered. “To see my sister.” Louis had to lean close to hear her, as she spoke barely above a whisper, and this caused her to blush further.

“If your sister is half as lovely as you, Mademoiselle . . .” he began.

Clarisse now appeared to his other side, laying down another roll, though his sat yet untouched. And, again, gone.

“Have you published other books?” one of the sisters across the table interrupted, and the little mouse to his left looked more relieved than spurned, so Louis turned his attention back to the beautiful women.

“I have had a book out this past spring,” he answered, and then opined appropriately on An Inland Voyage, which had met mixed reviews.

The sisters gushed, and Louis noted that they wore fairly low-cut chemises, with hanging necklaces that drew attention to their busts, quite unlike his easily embarrassed neighbor. He took an opportunity to offer her more bread, which she declined. He got a closer look at her.

Her eyes were almond shaped and her brows neat and even; her face was the shape of her eyes and beginning to show just the first faint lines of age. Her mouth was not overly cheery, nor was it too firm. Louis judged her to be about as old as Fanny, about ten years his senior. In fact, once one tallied the merits of this woman’s features as a whole, she was actually rather pretty.

He again turned to the laughter of the sisters in front of him and joined them in their joviality, but also reexamined their virtues. Their hair—tawny and blond, respectively—was curled and set with pins. Their cheeks blossomed with what he believed to be a powder of some sort. Their lips were also tinted.

They tittered on about the novels they were currently reading, which Louis should have been keen to hear about but was instead lost in a reverie of his own conclusions. He thought perhaps his modest neighbor could just as easily be as bland as the women before him, in character and in taste, that is, but she didn’t open her mouth enough for that judgment. The sisters, however, exhibited a veneer that promised interest, when, in fact, they overflowed with tediousness in every breath. They were also both closer to his age, and if Louis had learned nothing else of his own inclinations in his short life, he learned that it was a mature voice that held his attention.

He was about to turn his mind back to his modest neighbor when the sisters’ cousin started up.

“I’m in the quarry business,” he said. And while the man talked of the astonishing difference in stone and their application, the woman to his left presently finished her meal and quietly excused herself from the table to no one in particular.

Louis pretended to hear the man, nodding when it seemed necessary, and focused most of his attention on his plate, systematically filling his thin frame with the stuff. When he ate as much as he could and pulled his napkin from his lap, he excused himself. As he looked up, his eyes happened to fall across the room to Clarisse, standing beside the stairwell, hand on her hip. She was staring at him.

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