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Beast32

Louis and Father Secours spent the day suggesting and dismissing various plans of action while they kept an eye on Sylvie and Martine as they went about their outside chores taking care of the animals, fetching milk and water. Louis led Modestine out into the gravel yard between the buildings and she lay herself down on her side again, soaking up the sun. It was a beautiful day, but that didn’t raise their spirits much.

The two men went back and forth, pacing the yard—Louis with his revolver in his belt—devising a number of possible arrangements, but in the end, each one required having some idea as to the cloaked man’s whereabouts, or even just a concept of his behavior. So far, there had been no conspicuous pattern and this monster just wasn’t the type of foe you took chances with. But as the day wore on and no battle map emerged, they realized that the only plan they had was to take a chance.

“We don’t know where he’ll be,” said Louis. “The fact is that he appears from nowhere, whenever he wants.”

The women returned to their inside duties, and the men now sat beneath the small, rose-covered awning above the front door, Louis smoking a cigarette and Father Secours eating an orange.

“It might be best if we just assumed ourselves bait, all the time, everywhere,” said the priest.

“We make terrible bait.” Louis rejoined. “He knows I’m armed.”

“I don’t know that he cares,” Father Secours said, and Louis nodded.

Just then, a set of wooden shutters clacked open above them.

“Use me,” a voice said. It was Clémence. “I can go. I’m not afraid.”

Father Secours stood and walked a few paces out to look up at his young cousin.

“Don’t you think you’ve been through enough?” he asked.

“What will a little more make?” she said. “I’m already scarred.”

“And we won’t have you any more so,” Louis said, joining Father Secours to look up at his addressee.

She looked down at them both, defiant.

“Look,” said the priest, “all having you join us does is put one more person in harm’s way.”

Clémence made to protest, but Father Secours put his hands up and stopped her.

Non, absolutely not,” he said. “And besides, you are wounded. And you might think you’re well enough to take this on, but I assure you that you are not. You just need to stay here and recuperate. Monsieur Stevenson and I will return to inform you of what takes place.”

She stared at them a moment longer and then huffed and slammed the shutters closed. They moved away from the house and toward the stable to continue their talk. Modestine shifted in the dirt, lazing in the tingling warmth of the sun.

“She has a will,” said Father Secours, “and that is good. But she is still a child.”

Oui,” Louis agreed. “I don’t doubt that she would be brave, but it is too risky.”

Eventually, the shadows grew long, and Gilles and Thierry returned from the fields, filthy, weary, but happy enough. They washed, and by the time everyone had finished another delectable dinner prepared by Sylvie and Martine, it was hard on dusk.

“We should be going,” said Father Secours. Louis nodded, and they both stood from the table. Clémence, who had joined the family for dinner, also stood, but she said nothing, looked at no one, and quietly went upstairs.

“What will you do?” asked Gilles.

“We’re not yet sure,” answered his cousin, “but we feel we should probably not be here. The longer we’re here, the better the chance that we will draw him near, and we don’t want that.”

Aussi,”[1] Louis added, “we think we might be able to convince the authorities in town of the danger he poses. At first, we thought perhaps we wouldn’t be believed, but we don’t seem to have many choices.”

“However,” the priest continued. “We’ll wait until nightfall to head back into Florac because we expect that he’ll be waiting for us, which he wouldn’t be in the daylight. If he is, we won’t have to involve anyone else, and we can hopefully take care of him.”

“Instead of his taking care of us,” Louis added.

Gilles nodded gravely, and then he, Sylvie, and their two children, accompanied the two men out to the stable where Modestine had been re-installed. Louis packed her while the family said their goodbyes. He double-checked that his revolver was fully loaded, and then turned to Father Secours.

“Is there anything that could be spared,” he asked, “for you to employ as a weapon?”

The priest put up his hands.

“I do not need one, Monsieur Stevenson,” he said, and then added, “I have taken a vow to do no harm.”

“The Lord will protect you?”

The priest smiled.

Louis returned to packing his donkey, not overjoyed that the one person he had to watch his back was a pacifist, and he hoped that God’s defense extended to him as well.

When he was ready, he added the priest’s knapsack to the pack, and they waved to the family as they started off. The evening air had grown chill; the sky was rapidly turning azure and would soon shroud the travelers in night.

* * *

The men walked side by side, Louis driving Modestine only slightly ahead, across the valley, along the well-tread cattle path. At about the halfway point, Father Secours stopped them.

“I think I should be off some,” he said.

Louis looked at him for explanation.

“Maybe I could follow alongside you,” the priest continued. “But off road, along the foliage. That way . . .”

“It will look like I left you back at the farm and therefore am more vulnerable.”

“Precisely.”

Louis nodded, and Father Secours strained to scan the meadows to the south of them.

“I don’t even need to go as far as the trees,” Father Secours said. “There is enough brush just there.”

He pointed roughly twenty yards off and again Louis nodded.

“Be vigilant,” Louis reminded the priest before he made his way out of sight.

“I will,” Father Secours replied. “Fear not.”

Louis doubted his ability to quell his fears—walking along a blackened path, in the middle of nowhere, moving to confront a vicious murderer. Even Modestine seemed to realize that something was amiss, that this trek was different from the rest. She shivered occasionally, as if she knew that there was a genuine possibility that harm could come to one or all of them. But she moved when prodded, though she moved slowly.

He walked, his eyes wide, trying to see in the dark, but the gloom was so full, he could only make out shadows nearby. To his right, he could not even tell where Father Secours had gone, though he felt confident through his trepidation that the priest was near and on guard.

They grew closer and closer to Florac. He could make out a very faint glow over the town—the sum total of a few hundred torches and lanterns sending their radiance up to the sky—but only just. Against it, Louis could make out the copse of trees and bushes that concealed the Château de Florac. He began to think that the cloaked man was not abroad this night, and that they would indeed enter the town unscathed. From there, they would locate Yves, the constable known by Colette and Adèle, and hope for the best.

Abruptly, Louis grabbed Modestine’s bridle and yanked her to a halt. Just ahead, he could scarcely make out a shape.

He squinted, unsure of what he was seeing, if he was seeing anything. But then, it moved—the indefinite figure of a man moving along the path in front of them, also toward the town. Louis regretted their decision to leave without lamps, as they rightfully concluded that the light they threw would not go far enough to aid them, but only ruin their night vision and leave them blind if things got serious. They were about to get serious now, and he instinctively wished for light, like a child waking from a nightmare in the dark. He fumbled with his vest, to clear his way to the butt of the pistol.

The cloaked man laughed in the distance. By its quality, Louis could tell it wasn’t for his benefit, but nonetheless, the sound carried unobstructed and clear across the moor to the Scot’s unwelcoming ears. Louis strained to see him, relying more on sound than his sight. The man was moving toward the prison.

Louis pulled Modestine along and followed.

As they approached the imposing structure, light grey in the dark, Louis heard a door screech open and then a moment later slam.

Upon cautiously reaching the door, Louis looked in vain for a place to tie Modestine. He was rapidly losing this opportunity to corner the cloaked man, though the idea of doing so chilled his heart.

“You have to stay here,” he whispered in the donkey’s ear. “Don’t leave. Unless he comes. Then, run.”

It didn’t strike him as odd that he was talking to a pack animal this way. He almost expected that she understood completely and that, if it weren’t so physically awkward, she would enter the prison as well to help find him.

Louis left Modestine beside the door and attempted to open it as quietly as possible. This was out of the question. He started slowly, but upon realizing the futility of the endeavor, he yanked it open as quickly and painlessly as possible. The hinges shrieked and the shouts of a few inmates from the upper floors echoed down to him.

It was dark. Louis stood just inside the door and listened. There must have been a stairwell nearby, to his right, for he doubted there were cells on this ground floor and the movements of wakeful prisoners floated down to him from that direction. This level was more likely left for administrative purposes.

When his eyes adjusted a bit, he was able to discern a light, distant and faint, as if arriving only by way of a few turns and corners. Louis moved in that direction.

Where the cloaked man had gone, he couldn’t tell. Where the guard was, he didn’t know.

Louis held his revolver in one hand and felt his way along the wall with his other, toward the light, which grew brighter the further he went. Finally, he was able to see enough to remove his hand from the wall and soon an open door appeared from around the last corner. He stopped to listen, but heard nothing.

Leaning forward, as if it helped, Louis strained to hear anything. Being further removed from the stairwell to the upstairs cells, the sounds of the prisoners no longer distracted him. But here, the silence was so complete, it assaulted his ears with a fury all its own.

On his guard, he approached the door and gradually peeked his head around and into the room. There was no one. The small room was lighted with two bright lamps. It was, apparently, the guard’s quarters, complete with cot, a crude desk and two chairs, and a few shelves for books and whatnot. Louis inspected everything.

“Now you know, eh?” a man’s voice reached him, sounding about halfway between himself and the creaky entrance.

Louis jumped. He must have been hiding in some darkened side room, as he’d felt a number of closed doors as he passed through the darkness.

“Know what?” Louis stuttered a bit, but fought to keep control. He wondered why Father Secours had not followed and badly wished he’d had.

“That not all men are really just men.”

The more Louis heard his voice, though he was still unable to place it, the more disgusted he grew. The longer the vile man spoke, the more this disgust threatened to overtake his fear, and that made Louis nervous, for he was prone to fits of temper and throwing off caution like a too-hot blanket.

In the distance, Louis thought he heard Modestine bray.

“Not all men were meant to wallow in obscurity,” the cloaked man continued, a smile in his voice. “Some are filthy fiends, cursed and sickening things of the devil, who wreak havoc and then bask in their infamy. Some men were born to be animals,” he continued. “Some men were born to be heroes.”

“You’re no hero,” Louis rejoined, and laughed himself. Despite his nervousness at the unpredictability of the situation, this man revolted him beyond his senses. “You are a pathetic imbecile. You’re hardly a man at all. You are an idiot and a murderer.”

Modestine let forth another cry like a woodwind on fire.

“In any case,” the cloaked man said, seeming amused. “You’ll write about me. You will tell the world of the atrocities perpetuated on the simple people of this stricken city, committed by the wild beasts that have terrorized this region for over a century—allowed to slaughter with a free will—and you will tell all of humanity that I brought the terror to an end, and led the people to destroy every last vestige of that plague upon the land, La Famille de Loups.”

The man had worked himself into a quiet frenzy and Louis could almost hear his slobbering mouth spitting the words into the darkness.

“That will not happen,” Louis called to him. “I will do no such thing.”

The man stood in black silence for a moment, as if Louis refusing had been the last thing in the world he had expected.

“I think,” the man started, “that it would be in your best interest.” And with that, Louis heard the sound of metal against metal. He knew intuitively what it was. The fiend was clanging and scraping his clawed weapons together in an effort to terrify Louis, and the effect was successful.

“You cannot claim that I haven’t given you a choice,” the man continued coldly. “Say yes, and I will be with you every waking instant until the world knows of me, and then, you will never see me nor hear my voice as long as you live. Say no, and you will live only a few moments longer.”

[1] “Also, ”

Table of Contents

25.1

FM(25.1)

Rupert watched Jesus’s Lincoln pull out of the Osprey School’s Visitor Center parking lot—waving as if his parents just dropped him off at camp for the summer—then he turned to the building and headed inside. The day felt like a heavy nuclear conversion and the asphalt pushed the heat up from underneath as the relentless sun beat down.

Why does anyone live in this godforsaken place? he thought as he pulled the door open and felt the anticipated cool blast of AC.

Spanish Point is a historical and environmental conglomerate of 19th– and early 20th-century features, including: an orange-packing house; a pioneer boatyard and cemetery; a footbridge; a house and cottage; a chapel; and a Late Archaic shell midden, which obviously predated the modern settlers. It was left to itself for almost eight centuries, until the Webb family, who named it after a Spanish trader who’d given them the tip on the land, moved down from New York in 1867 to build a homestead and start a business. Sugar cane, citrus, and a plethora of other vegetables—and, apparently, a winter resort—kept them alive, and other settlers bought parcels of the land to live on. A wealthy socialite purchased the Webb homestead in 1910, and thousands of acres surrounding it, for the purpose of commerce.

Rupert skipped through some of the pamphlet that he’d found sitting on the unmanned clerk’s counter situated across from the entrance. He noted that it was possible to make a living here outside the meth industry.

Leenda’s mound, though small, had been constructed over several generations by the prehistoric Native Americans who were also responsible for the midden. It was said to contain sharks’ teeth, pottery shards, some human bones, and other assorted things you might find in an antediluvian funerary mound.

He wanted to see Leenda’s mound, which he felt was a terrible way to put it, even to himself, but the mound didn’t have an official name like everything else at Spanish Point.

Rupert walked a short way down a cool, echo-prone corridor and turned left into the gift shop.

“Good morning,” the man behind the counter said, not too cheerful, but not rude—just the way Rupert liked his strangers.

“Good morning,” Rupert said. He felt strange in this normal environment—an average tourist attraction for normal people who enjoyed history and gardens. The still freshly departed pangs of social unease bristled beneath his skin. “I have a question for you.”

“Yes?”

“There’s a federally-funded work rehabilitation program somewhere nearby. Would you happen to know what direction it’s in, or how close it is?”

The man looked at Rupert, first as if he hadn’t heard what he said, and then like he’d just been told about Crack Planet.

“No, sir, I don’t think any such thing goes on near here. A lot of preservation land around here.”

“I see,” Rupert said, unsurprised. “Well, then. What’s the price of admission?” He smiled. The man smiled back.

The grounds map was simple enough, and he walked down a short gravel road to a much smaller, also gravel, parking area, past a water garden, and down a jungle-like path. Tropical flowers bloomed, insects buzzed, lizards scampered, and still the sun beat down. As he walked, he shielded his forehead from it with the map. Sunglasses—still—would have been helpful. And water.

Past the Pioneer Cemetery, sat “Mary’s” Chapel, named, Rupert had read, after a young woman who had died at the Webb’s winter retreat.

“What a shitty retreat,” he said to himself. Some dogs barked in the distance.

Here the paths were plainly demarcated, but surrounded with thick, high wall of myriad vegetal species, none of which Rupert could identify. He thought of the Plant with No Name and wondered if they knew each other. He chuckled, and then wondered why he hadn’t named the Plant with No Name. He then supposed if the plant had a name, or wanted a name, it would have said or it would have asked.

Why am I thinking about this?

It was beautiful here. He thought Leenda would love it when she arrived and saw it for herself, but then, he didn’t know anything. He didn’t know her. This was inescapable and produced an uncomfortable, foolish feeling in him, so he shook it off and looked at the map, then doubled back and took a narrow off-shoot trail that, according to the map, would lead him straight to the mound.

As Rupert emerged from the dense greenery and saw the mound a little way ahead—it was so much smaller than he’d imagined, but the same size as in his dream—he looked past it and off into the grass, near where two gravel walking paths intersected. Standing under an enormous tree bearing strange, alien pods, the likes of which he’d never seen, was Efunibi. Efunibi. The guy from the dream.

The guy from the dream? It was the guy from Florida Fried Gator. The guy who, Rupert suspected, cooked meth inside the carcasses of . . . and then too much of the dream flooded Rupert’s brain and he started to feel sick. He bent over and braced his hands against his knees, wishing one more time that he wouldn’t have to vomit. But he breathed deep for a moment and he felt better. Rupert straightened and then put his hand up.

“Hey!” he yelled to the guy, who stood looking at him.

Efunibi turned and ran.

“Oh, come on . . . ” Rupert started in pursuit.

He chased Efunibi down tall plant-lined paths, past something called the Guptill House, where a few animal-shaped couples’ paddle boats floated near the shore and a out-of-place-looking speedboat was docked a few yards off. Rupert followed Efunibi across Cock’s Footbridge—named for Daniel Cock, the man who’d built it in the late 1890s—which took them out to the mangrove-fringed peninsula at the northern end, where Cock’s boarding house, Fiddler’s Lodge, used to sit.

Every time he turned a corner, Rupert caught the tan fringe of Efunibi’s jacket, or the heel of his tacky cowboy boot, but was able to keep up enough to stay on his trail, despite the heat. After a while, they skirted the edge of the small cape and circled back around, bypassing the footbridge landbound on the other side of Webb’s Cove, past the cemetery and chapel, and eventually into the parking lot of the visitor center.

Neither ran at this point, just speed walking and covered in sweat.

Dogs barked again, though perhaps closer. Rupert barely registered this and only did because he thought he’d heard a voice, despite that he, Efunibi, and the visitor center employee seemed to be the only human beings for miles, assuming Efunibi was, indeed, human.

They moved past the visitor center—Rupert dodged a large luxury sedan driven by a tiny Jewish lady with amazing hair—and across the Tamiami Trail for a quick, but harrowing game of Frogger. Soon, they stalked across a carpet of wiregrass, past shrubs and Saw Palmetto, where the land presented an occasional stately oak strewn with Spanish moss or a tall, dark pine.

The terrain was changing.

About two miles and three gallons of sweat later, a somewhat delirious Rupert now wondered what a staggerbush even looked like, remembering some of the species weirdly whispered by the Plant with No Name in its eerie Walken-Busey voice. When he looked up, he found he’d lost sight of Efunibi.

The combination of loading up on salty FFG take away prior to arriving and the consequential premature dehydration prompted what Rupert rightly presumed was a case of entropy within a biological system—the biological system, in this case, being himself. He was starting to shut down.

He stopped, panting, dying for some water, bent over, hands on knees, a little lightheaded and wobbly, and then, a blow to the back of his head turned the sun’s light out.

 

Beast31

Dawn broke blue over the trees and gradually illuminated the farmstead. Louis woke as Modestine slept on, and he stumbled outside and stretched, breathing in the clean morning air. He roused himself by walking around the barn, investigating its stone and its climbing vegetation, then standing back to observe its wide red-tile roof. It looked suitable to live in and he envied the cows, sheep, and goats.

As the sky grew lighter and the air began to lose its dewy quality, the door to the cottage opened and out came Father Secours. He’d begun to walk toward the stable, but upon seeing Louis, he stopped and waved him over. Louis, in turn, signed a negative and for the priest to come to him. When Father Secours approached, Louis motioned for him to come into the stable.

Modestine shifted and snorted in her sleep.

“The clawed thing,” Louis said, pointing to his effects. “The cloaked man’s weapon; it’s gone.”

Father Secours nodded and thought.

“It is what it is,” he said.

“No!” Louis exclaimed, kicking his sack of belongings for emphasis. “Not everything simply is, some things canbe!”

“What could this be, Louis?” Father Secours asked, his eyes calm, but searching. “Will you snap your fingers and bring the thing back? Will you speak the magic words and bring this to an end?”

Louis hung his head.

“There is nothing we can do. Come, wash up inside. Sylvie is making breakfast.”

Louis followed the priest back to the house. Inside was warmed cozily by a healthy fire in the hearth.

Bonjours and smiles were exchanged; a breakfast of eggs, potato, onion, and bread was laid out. Coffee was abundant.

“Now is as good a time as any,” Father Secours said before he stuck a forkful of egg into his mouth. He looked at Louis, and Louis—his fork poised to do the same—looked back. The priest chewed and tried to gesture with his eyebrows what Louis should be doing.

It finally occurred to Louis that he needed to tell his story, again. He looked longingly at his breakfast. Gilles laughed and took a bite of his meal.

“Eat and speak, monsieur Stevenson,” he said. “These are special circumstances; we won’t stand on propriety.” He chewed and grinned to make Louis more comfortable.

Louis laughed. Decorum be damned. He stuffed his mouth with egg and followed it with a bite of warm bread. Distracted for a moment at how good it was, he nodded emphatically to Sylvie and pointed at the remaining slice on his plate.

Bien, je vous remercie beaucoup, monsieur Stevenson,” she said, smiling.[1]

“Please,” he said cautiously around his chewing. “Please call me Louis.”

Everyone around the table nodded, including the children as they beamed at the strange Scotsman, amused at his relative discomfort.

Louis began his story, and paused at the most violent elements, looking from the parents to the children, but the couple insisted he go on.

“Violence, in some form, is an ordinary part of our lives,” said Father Secours. “Although the children are not susceptible to the change, it is good they learn what it means. And it gives these good young people the practice of teaching what it takes to raise that one there.” He pointed to Sylvie’s belly and smiled.

No one seemed upset or particularly bothered that this—changing from a man to a wolf-like creature—may or may not be in store for their unborn child. Just weeks ago, Louis wouldn’t have even entertained the idea of werewolves at all, but here this morning, at the table of this fine family, he’d accepted the concept so completely that he had to remind himself to be disconcerted at the strangeness of their reaction. Of course they would have to wait and see, but it made little difference either way. One way meant one thing, and another only meant some extra guidance. They’d been doing this for generations.

As Louis brought his story to a close, and began to focus more on eating—although he’d already cleared half of his plate—they heard footsteps padding unhurriedly down the stairs. He’d forgotten that there was another occupant of the house that he hadn’t yet made the acquaintance of.

The first thing he saw were the yellow corkscrew curls, and then he was gazing onto the countenance of a younger Clarisse, a face of about fifteen years old. Clémence displayed the same fairness of skin, the same ruddy blush of the cheeks, and the same small blue eyes that penetrated one so thoroughly. She was lovely, but for the fire.

One half of her face and head was bandaged, leaving her cyclopsed, and her hair seemed to explode from where the bandage ended, so stark was the contrast between that and the hair clearly lost. It would likely never grow back. The arm on that side was also wrapped and slung with a clean piece of cotton sheeting.

“Victor,” she said quietly, but surprised, to Father Secours as she approached the table.

He stood and rounded the table to embrace her carefully.

“Are you hungry, mon petit oiseau?” Sylvie asked, getting up.[2]

Un peu,” Clémence responded.

“Well, a little is better than not at all,” Sylvie said and moved Clémence into her own chair. She cleared her plate and went to fetch a clean one for her cousin.

Father Secours returned to his place at the table. The girl sat down gently as she was fussed over, and then fixed Louis with her one eye. Louis nodded a greeting to her and shifted uncomfortably.

Gilles sensed his uneasiness.

“Clémence, this is—” he began.

“Monsieur Stevenson,” she finished. “Clarisse mentioned you.”

At the sound of Clarisse’s name from the lips of her poor, disfigured surviving sister, Louis almost burst into tears.

“Please, call me Louis,” he managed, his voice quivering.

It was then that Louis noticed a small lump beneath her blouse, just at the sternum. By the shape, he already knew what it was the foal’s bell. And with that, he fought to keep his emotions in check.

“Please let me extend my deepest condolences, mademoiselle Clémence,” he said. “I met your sister only briefly, though she displayed to me all the strength and honor that reads across your own face.”

“What is left of my face,” she said.

Louis was speechless and ashamed. As he searched vainly for a response, Sylvie placed a plate before Clémence and then shooed the children from the table and sat down herself.

“Monsieur Stevenson was there,” Father Secours said. “He saw what happened.”

“There was nothing I could do,” Louis pleaded to the girl.

She simply looked at him, mildly surprised at his sentiment.

“I know that,” she said, and then began to eat, daintily but evenly.

“Did you hear what we were discussing, cousin?” Gilles asked the girl but looked at Father Secours.

Oui,” she said, and ate.

A collective sigh spread quietly over the table.

“Well, it is probably better,” said Father Secours. “If it was Clarisse, we wouldn’t get away with a single secret. This one is even worse.”

He smiled at Clémence, who didn’t smile back but didn’t seem angry or agitated either. Louis assumed that, on some level, though she was walking, speaking, eating, the girl was still in shock.

“You could,” Father Secours said to her, “maybe be of some assistance, actually.”

Clémence tilted her head up, chewing.

“Your sister rode home that night,” the priest began. “She must have arrived well before the mob, but she was unsuccessful in convincing your parents to flee.”

“Father did not understand,” she said. “Mother even less so.”

“You understood,” Father Secours said.

“I trusted Clarisse.”

She had finished her small breakfast, and she dabbed her mouth with her napkin and pushed her plate forward a little.

“You were right to trust her,” Father Secours said. “Would that your father—”

“I thought he would, but it was just so absurd,” said Clémence. “We both tried to persuade them. But it was too late.”

“Clémence, did Clarisse say anything that you think might help us to . . . deal with this beast?” Louis interjected, only slightly worried of butting in, and very aware of the irony of discussing another human being as a “beast” with a family of werewolves.

Her gaze turned from her cousin to him and he felt chilled by the evidence of the atrocity that he had witnessed just a few days ago. She then looked at the table, thinking. Involuntarily, her hand fetched the foal’s bell from beneath her chemise. Louis winced, for it was now charred black. The remaining loose soot stained her small fingers.

Non,” she said, finally, and everyone around the table slouched a little in defeat. “But, when our parents refused to leave, she entreated me to run myself. To take Voila and ride her as far as I could get. But I could not leave them.”

Heads nodded around the table.

“She told me to ride out and find monsieur Stevenson. She said he would protect me.”

Louis looked at her quick and firm, the tears gathering and threatening to spill. Everyone was silent.

“I could not save you, girl,” he said quietly. “I don’t know that I could have had you run.” And then he cast his eyes down, ashamed to look at this fragile, injured child.

“If Clarisse thought you could,” she replied, “you could have. It wasn’t your fault. I should have listened to her.” She reached across the table to Louis and patted his hand with hers. He took it into his and pressed it, and then let it go, feeling unworthy.

Who was this young woman? And where had she found such stamina? Louis thought of her father, braving the flames and enduring the unthinkable burn, just to attempt to save his wife. He thought of Clarisse’s quick thinking in action, flying out of Pont de Montvert on Voila just to attempt to save her family. This strength was not simply discovered, it was innate. This young woman in front of him might bear these terrible scars for the rest of her days, but Louis took some comfort in that she would never allow them to defeat her. Of that, he felt sure.

“Here, you should rest,” Sylvie said to Clémence, placing her hands on the girl’s shoulders to guide her to a quieter area of the cottage. “Victor and Louis have much to discuss.” She looked to her husband, “and you and Thierry should be in the fields.”

Gilles nodded and pushed himself from the table. Thierry, who had been listening from the open attached family area leapt to his feet.

As Sylvie led her away and toward the stairs, Clémence paused and turned to Louis and Father Secours.

“You will kill him, won’t you?”

There was a spate of silence.

“We don’t know what we will do with him, cousin,” Father Secours finally answered. “If we can get a hold of him, that is.”

“You will,” she said. “You will get him. And he must be killed.” She turned to Louis. “Victor cannot; he is a holy man. But you can. You must.”

Louis thought for an instant, but then nodded to her.

“I will.”

She looked at him a moment longer, then turned slowly to the stairs, and disappeared into the rooms above.

[1] “Well, thank you very much…”

[2] “ . . . my little bird?”

Table of Contents

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.

Table of Contents

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.

Table of Contents

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.

Table of Contents

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.”

Table of Contents

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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