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26

FM(26:27)

Rupert remembered the message light had been flashing when he’d come in the day before, but it wasn’t flashing now. Perhaps he’d been mistaken. That was plausible. He dismissed it, got dressed, grabbed the tablet of lab schematics, and joined Jesus behind the FFG.

After retrieving his shorts he spent the next hour explaining the entire plan to his friend, who was resistant, but by the end expressed a level of enthusiasm that surprised Rupert. Jesus voiced his apprehension regarding Efunibi’s clear instability, and still stressed the growing paranoia over at SIKildo Industries—and not only that, he’d said, everyone that Rupert had been dealing with was doubtless suspicious and on the defense. They had to be careful.

This time, Rupert took Jesus’s counsel seriously and agreed, they’d play it as safe as possible. They talked a little longer—even sold a few Golden Tickets—and then Rupert returned to his room, ignoring Angel. He didn’t even notice her.

Now, the green message light flashed.

He felt no panic at the thought of another confrontation with Pyrdewy. But his heart fluttered at the thought of hearing Leenda’s voice. He even considered calling her back this time, and talking and talking, talking for the rest of the day if he could—about her work, what she’d been up to, what were her hobbies, how was the planning for the mound work coming, her favorite color, her favorite food, her first pet, her family, her dreams—he wanted to know everything. And tell her everything. He wanted her to be his first—the first person who ever really knew him.

He picked up the receiver and retrieved the message. It was Leenda.

“Screw you, Rupert. Honestly, what the hell were you thinking? What have I done to you to deserve that? You know, Stanley and I talked about you a lot, and I know I didn’t really know you . . . I mean, to talk to you . . . but he painted a very different picture. I mean . . . ”

She paused, and sighed.

“You sounded great. A little weird, maybe, but I didn’t care. I don’t care about that. So, you get nervous, big deal. I liked you, Rupert, and I wanted to get to know you better. Boy, was that stupid. I think I know all I need to know now. Don’t call me again.”

Rupert sat on the bed, stunned.

He called her. He called her?

Last night. Fuck. He didn’t just call 911; he had called Leenda. Jesus Christ. What did he say? What the hell did I say to her?

He tapped the receiver of the phone for a dial tone, panicked—he had to call her. He had to talk to her. He had to explain . . . Oh my God, what did I say? And worse, how on earth could he explain? He’d been under a kind of spell—a psychotic episode—he hadn’t been himself. It hadn’t been him, not really. It was my inner Florida Man, escaped.

“Holy Fucking Christ, what the fuck did I say to her?” he shouted at a pillow.

He went to press the buttons on the phone and realized he’d never written down her number from any of her previous messages. But he’d called her. He must have gotten the number and written it down somewhere. It had to be somewhere.

He tore the room apart—the bed, the trashcan, his duffle bag, his cross-body bag—nothing. He interrogated the Plant with No Name, but the plant was no stool pigeon. He raged, he wept, he hated himself, though he knew he’d had no control over it. Emotionally spent, he curled his considerable frame up on the bed, trying to think of a way to contact her, and eventually fell asleep.

She’ll call again, she’ll call again, she’ll call again, she liked me . . . .

27

Over the next couple of weeks, Rupert, with the senseless and impractical spiritual guidance of Efunibi and the sane, practical help of Jesus, made the necessary preparations. Jesus infiltrated the D.E.A.T.H. program, emptied a few buckets of water, and cased the interior of the tunnel from the pit entrance to the cavern they were emptying—the near-future site of RupeLee Industries. Efunibi showed them the alternate entrance into that main cavern, which was located among the old tombstones in the Pioneer Cemetery next to Mary’s Chapel. It was, indeed, a tight fit, as Efunibi had forewarned, but Rupert was able to get through it, and with a few alterations here and there, he could get in and out, not so much with ease, but without injuring himself. His spiritual mentor—as Rupert referred to him to keep him reasonably lucid and happy—also showed him where he kept a rather disturbing stockpile of explosives, for which Efunibi gave no explanation, but Rupert surmised it had something to do with the Necropoachers—who may or may not have existed—and that Myakka State park should be thankful they were being used for this purpose instead.

For his part, Rupert fine-tuned his already-perfect plan and gathered all the materials that it required. Needless to say, this took up a tremendous amount of time and energy, which meant he dropped off the radars of the four meth operations he’d been dealing with. Jesus warned him against this, but there was nothing to be done. This was a huge undertaking and it needed to be done right—Rupert couldn’t afford the time wasted trying to keep a small group of lunatics off his back. As for Pyrdewy, Rupert didn’t think of him. He deleted messages without listening; he didn’t think of calling him. As far as Rupert was concerned, Pyrdewy was a non-entity, and Rupert himself was an ex-entropologist. Professionally, at least.

The cavern—now empty, if not completely dry—was approximately the size of a whopping-great cathedral, and Rupert’s design utilized every square foot in a way that made economic sense. The operation itself would include aspects of a super lab, with barrels and components bought by weight when possible, in order to make large batches with speed—these would take up three-quarters of the room’s perimeter. Further into the room would be table after table of regular lab set-ups for the express purpose of experimentation in color, scent, flavor, and even particular effect. They would be designing cheap street drugs meant to become trendy and possibly even make the news. This would be an area for the true meth artisans to express their distinctive creative visions. In the quarter perimeter area not taken up with super lab barrel supplies, there would be a few tables for training and demonstrations, plus a small supplies station, and an area where mobile lab experts would train manufacturers to cook anywhere. Floridian meth makers were internationally known for their uncanny ability to make meth in the most unthought-of, outlandish places. This would be the least expensive of Rupert’s product line, but the point of operating all three methods was to ladder the cost for consumers according to their income, and also ensure that product was always available. RupeLee Industries would never run dry.

After all of this, the next step was to gather an army of talented, moderately sane manufacturers to unite under the RupeLee banner of unique, reasonably clean, and almost-but-not-quite safe methamphetamine. That couldn’t be too hard, right?

The most immediate catch in the plan was Efunibi’s erratic behavior, which, though not surprising, was diverse and distressing in its manifestations. He became morose. Sometimes his Native American feel-good, we-are-all-One shtick faltered and he’d be downright pissy. This caused some trepidation with both Rupert and Jesus, but was more irritating to Jesus because he worked with Efunibi more closely.

“I’m telling you, ese, one more mood swing from that cracker and those feathers are going up his ass,” Jesus warned Rupert.

“I understand,” Rupert said. “I’m thinking, once this prep period is over, he’s going to have to go. He’s too unstable.”

“There’s something about him, too, man. Something not right. I wanna say sneaky, but it’s not just that. Something ain’t right with that cabrón.”

“Agreed.”

But there was one other catch. Leenda.

She never did call back, and when Rupert wasn’t obsessively occupying his mind with this project, he was ruminating, heartbroken, over what could have been.

So, he did what any sane, self-respecting person would do in desperation and he used the internet to find her address like a complete psycho. He sent her a post card, telling her he could explain if she would only listen. He knew she would soon be arriving to work on the Spanish Point mound, so he asked her to humor him—this one time—and meet him on the mound, at a certain time, on a certain day—the evening the lab would be in operating order and RupeLee Industries would open for business.

She’ll understand, Rupert told himself. She’ll know it was a misunderstanding, and she’ll forgive everything, and she’ll not only like me again, she’ll love me.

Table of Contents

Attention: Florida Man’s publishing schedule is changing! Instead of Tues, Thurs, Sat, it will be Mon, Wed, Fri starting this Friday, November 6th!

Beast1

Louis had led Modestine a little way down the cattle path towards Florac, waiting for Father Secours to appear, but he never did. They waited as long as Louis felt reasonable, and with consideration to the heroic donkey’s wounds, he decided it was best to get her attended to as quickly as possible.

At the flat of Adèle and Colette, Louis tied her outside where they had just a day ago. Colette fretted over the absence of her son, but Adèle was galvanized and made to the convent to inquire into some assistance with the donkey. Two sisters—much younger than Adèle—emerged from behind the wall, spoke briefly with the aunt, and then walked quickly down the street.

Soon they returned with the man employed by the convent to act as daytime hostler in the stable. When he heard that Louis and Modestine had a brush with the maniac that had been terrorizing the town, he hurried immediately and refused to accept payment. He dressed the donkey’s wounds, which he judged superficial, and then provided the extra service of running to fetch Yves, the police constable, for Louis was too unfamiliar with the town.

It was not long before a group of citizens gathered in front of the home of Adèle and Colette. Louis sat inside, at the bench where they had dined previously, drinking a cup of wine to calm his nerves. The voices outside buzzed low as the inspector knocked and then entered the flat. His friend, Honoré, followed him in, both their faces awash in concern and utter solemnity. Louis managed to convince the old women to stay where they were and watch over Modestine, as the crowd gathering outside had taken to inspecting her. She had become an object of curiosity, having come so close to the fate that had taken so many of the town’s beloved.

All went outside and the crowd parted. The two women went to Modestine and stood beside her protectively. Yves addressed the people in his official capacity.

Tout le monde, écoutez-moi!” he began, looking slyly at les madames Secours. “We will need volunteers to accompany us to the scene.”

All hands went up.

“Very well,” the constable said, and he gave the old women a wink, then motioned for Louis to lead the way.

Louis gave Modestine a reassuring pet across the snout and then left to guide the policeman and the crowd out along the cattle path to the body of Surrel, the pamphleteer of Monastier.

Once there, Constable Yves gasped, the quality of which betrayed familiarity. Louis shot him a questioning glance.

“My cousin,” the lawman said.

Louis’s eyes grew wide. Was there no one throughout this region that was not related over miles of mountain, valley, and rough terrain?

Yves knelt beside the riven corpse.

“He arrived on my doorstep last night complaining that his mother had turned him out once more,” he sighed. Standing again, he continued. “You would think, at his age—but no. So he arrived, and given the cool feelings between himself and my wife, I allowed the guard to have the night off and gave Surrel the keys to the prison.”

Louis looked at him.

Très stupide. I thought, a roof over his head for a night’s work.”

Louis set an understanding hand on the policeman’s shoulder.

“I don’t know how I will tell Claudine,” Yves finished and shook his head.

Claudine, Louis thought. The old woman at Monastier. He realized, although he’d sketched her a hundred times over and laughed with her at her own audacity, he’d never thought to ask her name.

No one would know what had really happened. Louis chose instead to lie, thoroughly and thoughtfully. As far as the town would ever know, Louis and Modestine happened upon the eviscerated corpse of Surrel—who would prove to be the killer’s last victim before the monster disappeared mysteriously—and upon their horror-stricken flight, the donkey lost her footing and injured herself in the fall. He had seen no trace of the person responsible for the murders. Yves would deal with the pamphleteer’s body as he saw fit, and the fiend would never be known as anything more than a brute, a peddler, and a victim of unholy murder by the beasts he so detested.

The following morning, after checking Modestine’s wounds and deciding she could withstand the weight, Louis helped the two old women onto her back—together they weighed about the same as the pack—and he led the donkey with her load out of Florac and to the farm. Judging where the previous night’s horror took place, he steered Modestine from the path and returned to it only when he felt they were safely past any residual gore. The authorities had collected Surrel’s tattered remains and installed them in the morgue until Yves could send word to Claudine.

When they arrived at the farm, they met Gilles and Thierry, who were just turning their horse-pulled cart around in the yard to position it in the direction of Florac. They were about to run and fetch Louis.

“Good man!” Gilles said, smiling and shaking Louis by the hand emphatically.

Louis wasn’t exactly sure how to respond, for although the murderer was brought to a kind of justice, he still had no idea what had happened to Father Secours. Since first laying eyes on the worried face of Colette, Louis had feared the worst. Perhaps Surrel had managed somehow to dispatch the priest without him hearing. It had certainly been dark enough for it to occur without the slightest knowledge on Louis’s part.

But Gilles slapped him on the back and then moved to the donkey to help his maman Adèle and his tatine Colette down. He squeezed them both. Louis could only look after them without a word, puzzled as to the man’s elated mood, for as far as he could tell, no word had reached this far from town. At least, not yet.

Then a hand fell to his shoulder from behind and Louis spun around to find himself face-to-face with Father Secours, whose given name he shouted in astonishment and joy.

Louis embraced the priest, who winced but smiled.

“You, now,” he said, laughing, “may certainly call me Victor.”

Louis drew back and his face fell, for the priest was shirtless and bandaged about the shoulder, arms, and side.

The heavy truth of what had happened hit Louis fully in the chest, and he brought his hands to his mouth in horror, like a child. His eyes trailed down to the ground, trying to absorb the facts. Father Secours—Victor—had inherited the curse of the change, and last night, after Modestine, he had probably saved Louis’s life.

His eyes darted to Victor’s.

“I shot,” he said, worried.

“And it was true enough,” the priest responded with a grin, gently tapping his side.

Louis was mortified and began spilling over with apologies and remorse, but Victor shook his head and did his best to assuage the poor man’s guilt.

“You know as well as I do that it was unavoidable,” he said, “so enough of this.”

At that moment, Colette must have looked from Gilles and saw her son, for she squealed with delight and barreled toward him. Victor braced himself and winced again as she fell into him weeping.

Louis caught Victor’s eye.

“Clémence?” he inquired.

Victor nodded, and then motioned with his head that she was inside.

They all entered the house, and after a round of heartfelt greetings and concern with Sylvie and the children, Louis asked if he could see Clémence.

“Of course,” said Sylvie. “She is upstairs. She might be sleeping.” And then she pointed to the steps and flicked her hand to indicate that Louis should go up.

Louis took the stairs softly, just in case she was slumbering, but as he reached the landing and placed a hand at the edge of the curtain that separated the bedroom from the short hallway, he heard her voice.

“Come in,” she said clearly. “I am awake.”

He moved the yellow and brown flower-printed partition, entered, and let it fall behind him. For a moment, he only looked at her in wonder.

She sat up, propped with a few thick white pillows, and basked in the warm sun that filtered in through the open window. Simple drapes blew gently with a slight breeze, which stirred her golden curls.

There was something different about her that he could not place. He looked and looked, while she looked right back at him without saying a word. Finally, he smiled awkwardly and shook his head. He moved closer, inquiring with his eyes if he could take a seat.

She nodded and smiled, and when she smiled, that’s when it occurred to him. He lowered himself slowly onto the foot of the bed and continued his embarrassed inspection.

“Forgive me,” he said. “But, have you . . .?”

“Yes,” she answered.

And he was correct. Although bandaged anew from the previous night’s struggle, her older bandages from the fire—the ones he’d seen so recently—were lighter, and covered less of her. While her one eye and her arm were still wrapped, the gauze was thinner, and in the places it no longer covered, the flesh was pink, but not twisted and poreless like the scars of the victim of such serious burns.

Louis shook his head again.

“I’m sorry,” he began, and then his mouth opened and closed a few times without saying another word, for he could not find one.

Clémence giggled, which surprised Louis, for he presumed—and rightly—that it had been the first time the girl had laughed since losing her family.

“Apparently,” she said. “The change heals.”

Louis only looked at her in joyous astonishment.

“Cousin Victor knew. I did not. But I do now. And this,” she said and curled a ringlet around her finger, “will grow back.”

“Victor says?” Louis asked.

“Victor says.”

They smiled with one another for a moment, and then Louis grew more serious.

“Clémence,” he said. “I am sorry for everything. It is impossible for me to not feel somehow responsible. I know many things were out of my hands, but even providence feels cumbersome to me.”

The girl looked at Louis sympathetically, and then she reached out and set her hand atop his.

“Perhaps,” she said, “a change can heal you, too.”

Louis looked at her thoughtfully, and he smiled.

“Perhaps so,” he said, and then stood. “Get your rest.”

“Please pet Modestine for me,” Clémence requested as he made to leave.

“I will,” he replied. “But not so much that it spoils the wicked thing.” And with a wink, he descended the stairs.

* * *

The following morning—after much laughing and crying, and deeply-felt well wishes—Louis took Modestine back to Florac to retrieve his pack. Next, he deposited the remainder of his foul-tasting brandy into the Vibron and replaced it with a light, aromatic Volnay. Finally he departed Florac, the place where his story had ended.

As they walked, he realized that, indeed, everything that he’d been keeping track of alongside his usual, pedestrian travel notes, was over. Finished, to be forgotten.

From Cassagnas to St. Germain de Calberte, he had tied a line around his waist and attached the other end to Modestine who led him along a clear path without trouble. As he let her take the reins, so to speak, he read back through his journal, as upon thinking on it, he had been seized with concern that the salient sum of his writing consisted of monks and werewolves, intrigue and murder.

Now, only a day removed from events, it was already starting to fade into a sort of questionable dream. He worried that his notes wouldn’t be sufficient to provide him with enough material to churn out a perfectly boring, but respectable travel book though, as he read, he was relieved to see that, throughout, he’d kept the presence of mind to write of other things—the landscape, the people, how they looked, how they spoke. And Modestine, the stubbornly loveable little animal.

He looked up and watched her for a moment. Her mouse-colored rump bumped left, then right, and back again; her tiny hooves dug into the path and kicked up tiny clumps of dirt with each step. Beyond her hindquarters, her long, furry ears stood upright, flicking at the occasional insect or stray breeze.

Louis wondered what life would be like back in Edinburgh, back at 17 Heriot Row, his parents’ stone-faced house overlooking the Queen Street Gardens. He pictured himself, his mother and father, and Modestine—the little donkey’s brays echoing down the street and across the green field of grass and flowers, across the upscale homes of New Town, and uniting with the rumble and squeal of the locomotives of Waverley Station.

No, he could not take her with him. But neither could he bear to part with her.

At St. Germain, he stabled Modestine without fear, he took his meal without concern, and he slept neither tossing nor dreaming. He recorded the details of his encounters in his journal, which he judged mundane, and found his mind to be blank.

When he’d left Monastier, he had never expected that his thoughts—so full of emotional turmoil, so hurt and so bewildered—could be vacant. He had longed for some peace from his raging thoughts and hoped that his journey would provide that distraction, or preferably, a soothing meditation. Instead, he received an overload of experience, outright panic and fear, and a violent severance from his treasured logical mindset. His brain, at this point, felt sapped of all function except those that were most simple—eat, sleep, walk, smile, write. In fact, he was ending this journey richer in understanding, and yet no closer to solving the problems that lie in wait for him at Alès.

Alès! His mail!

Fanny could have written; Fanny had to have written. After everything he’d been through, after all that he’d witnessed and endured, she simply must have written. Obviously, there was no possible way for her to know all that had happened, but surely fate would not allow such a defeat. And, aside from that, his domestic troubles—that he’d come on this journey to escape—provided the only immediate relief from the numb and empty aftermath of his trials. At least they would be a diversion!

At St. Jean du Gard, Modestine was declared unfit for any further travel. Though her legs were weary and they were out of salve, she seemed in good spirits.

Louis pulled the hostler out of hearing range of the tired little donkey.

Pardon,” he began. “How much to take this donkey back to Florac?”

Quoi?

Louis repeated his question. The young man wiped his rough hands on his leather apron and then pushed up his already-rolled sleeves, thinking.

“Perhaps thirty-five francs,” he answered, doubtfully, as if he might be asking too much.

“Done,” Louis said, and he shook the man’s hand.

“She must rest, though,” the hostler added quickly and sincerely. “Two days, at least.”

“At least two days, then. Make it three,” Louis said. He trustingly paid the man his thirty-five francs, an additional thirty-five francs for three days of stabling and feed, and then an additional twenty francs for his coach ride back to St. Jean du Gard and his meals along the way.

The man stared at the money in his hand.

“Monsieur,” he said, “how do you know I will take the donkey at all?” By his tone, he was not asking as though he might just take the money and sell Modestine to the highest bidder, but as if he was truly perplexed that anyone could be so naïve.

“I’ll know,” Louis answered and grinned at the man, who then took the Scotsman’s hand again and gave it another reassuring shake.

Louis went to the stall where Modestine lay on her side on a clean-smelling patch of straw. Her weary legs splayed out beside her, her head lolled lazily up when he arrived, then she pushed her lips out and like little fingers, they took up some of the straw and she pulled it in, munching as it disappeared into her mouth.

He sat down beside her, wrapped his arms around his knees, and looked at her. It had not occurred to him that he would become attached to this little pack animal, but then, he hadn’t expected to go through an event of such a bonding nature with her. But he did, and he knew now that he would miss her terribly.

Draping himself across her furry little body, he stroked her ears and neck and explained to her, as eloquently as a crying man could, that she was the best damned ass in the world, and that he would never forget her. Modestine raised her head and nodded a few times, snorting, then she drew in one long slow breath and a nearly gentle bray swept through her insides like a bellows. With that, he hugged her neck and his reluctance to leave eventually led to his falling asleep against her tear-wet fur. He was awakened by the hostler, who, upon seeing this man’s deep attachment to this little beast, offered to take him to the nearest café so that he might drown his sadness, if only just a little.

Louis took him up on his offer with no shame. He kissed Modestine’s nose one last time, dried his face, and then left her in the stable.

Modestine was taken back to Florac and gifted to the Secours family, who heaped upon her a heroine’s welcome. For the rest of her days, the only pack carrying she did were two old ladies to and from the farm, and even then only on occasion. She was unofficially adopted by Clémence, who was also unofficially adopted by Gilles and Sylvie. Their little family grew and when their son was born, he was named Louis, pronounced in the English manner.

Table of Contents

Florida Man: 25.3

25.3

FM(25.3)

Osceola reluctantly agreed to drive Rupert from Myakka back to the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet, but after they got into his teal 1988 Mazda Tracer and Rupert belted himself in, Osceola looked at him and said: “Got some Cristy, man, you wanna horn this shit?”

And with that, Osceola pulled a pipe from his front pocket along with a piece of balled up aluminum foil.

For a split second, Rupert didn’t think his usual first thought whenever he was exposed to a pipe, but it was only a second—progress!—and then he descended into a choking, red-faced spasm, twisting under the seatbelt, trying to get air. The interior of the Tracer turned pistachio, cream, and plaid—the worst was the plaid—the air smelled of Bacardi and cheese fondu. Every nerve in Rupert’s body screamed at him to run, to escape, but at the very least, for fuck’s sake, breathe.

“Oh yeah, Bill told me you could bust some moves,” Osceola said and lit up. Dogs barked nearby.

Rupert made a stalwart effort to turn his body to the right and look out the window. In a minute, his throat opened enough to pull in some air, and he reached forward and rolled down the window.

“Man, you’re gonna put up a flag,” Osceola said.

“Fuck you,” Rupert wheezed and watched the Spanish moss’s languid waving in the hot, late-afternoon breeze.

“Freeze! Hands Up!” A voice yelled behind a stand of Fiddlewood and Osceola froze, squeezing his eyes shut as if he believed that if he couldn’t see the cops, they couldn’t see him. He waited for the danger to pass. As Rupert looked out the window, half-gasping for air, half-dazed, two black labs ran by and his gaze settled on a pair of lashless eyes peering through the Fiddlewood, glaring intensely, but looking exhausted. Bucket. He’d followed them all the way from Spanish Point.

One foot was planted on the ground beneath the Fiddlewood, but the other was about four feet in the air, a little to the left, and upside down. Rupert instinctively knew exactly what was going on—Bakabass yogic telepathic molestation. Bucket was trying to get into his head. Simply assuming this almost made it real. This jolted Rupert’s system and he pulled in a massive dose of oxygen through his constricted throat. At that moment, the Tracer sped backward spraying gravel into the Fiddlewood stand, breaking Bucket’s trance and causing him to fall backwards and out of sight. Rupert had managed to squirm his shoulder out from under the belt strap during his trauma-induced seizure and now thunked his forehead against the dashboard.

Freeze! and Hands Up! came out of nowhere as Osceola did the fastest six-point turn Rupert had ever witnessed or experienced, then they were zipping through the labyrinth of park roadway, eventually getting on Route 41 heading north. Despite Osceola’s obvious drug use and accompanying paranoia, Rupert was surprised that this white boy would be alarmed at the prospect of possible interaction with law enforcement—especially in Florida—but then, he did identify as “Indian.”

What felt like an hour later, they were heading toward the motel, and Osceola had calmed down enough to tell Rupert the story of the ostrich.

“Everyone local knows about it,” he said, his seat leaned so far back he was almost lying down and Rupert doubted he could see over the steering wheel.

“Oh?”

“Word is that it escaped from a tourist petting zoo over a decade ago, and since then it’s become like a . . . ”

Osceola struggled for the right word. His high caused him to pitch his gaze from one side to the other as if watching an invisible tennis match, always seeing something in his peripheral. This disconcerted Rupert as Osceola was driving.

“A legend?”

“Yeah, like a legend.”

“Kind of like the . . . what is it?” Rupert said. “The Florida Skunk Ape.” And then: “Sixty-five, dude.” His spracked companion kept losing speed the further they went, overcompensating and hoping not to be pulled over for speeding, so when Osceola got down too slow, Rupert reminded him of the speed limit.

Osceola looked at Rupert and huffed a half-laugh. “Skunk Ape? Nah, man, that’s stupid.”

* * *

It was dark by the time Rupert got back to his room, exhausted. Between the heat, the dehydration, having to deal with both Efunibi and Osceola, then the unexpected panic attack accompanied by Bucket and his dogs, Rupert could hardly put one foot in front of the other.

The freezing AC of the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet didn’t even affect him.

“Fuck yourself,” he said to Angel without looking at her as he walked past and into the darkened hallway. Once he got inside, he saw the flashing message light on the phone and ignored it. He stood wavering in front of an until-now ignored full-length mirror on the wall and stared at himself in the imminent gloaming. He looked like shit. He felt like shit – pretty sure between Efunibi’s clubbing and cracking his head on Osceola’s dash, he was concussed. He wasn’t going to listen to that message because it was Pyrdewy and not Leenda, because what the hell would someone like Leenda want with someone like the monstrosity looking back at him?

He moved from the mirror, pulled his cross-body bag over his head, and dropped it on the floor. He then glowered at the innocuous-looking aloe plant on the table and said: “Way to go, genius.”

The Plant with No Name—a surprise to no one—said nothing.

Rupert spent the next hour drinking a gallon of water in small increments until he felt almost normal, and vowed never to eat at the FFG again, despite being ravenous.

Then he fell asleep, still fully dressed in his sweat-stiff shirt and shorts.

There was a dream, he thought. It felt like he had dreamed, but whatever it was had disappeared when he woke, immediately forgotten.

Rupert looked at his watch. It had only been twenty minutes, but he felt like he’d experienced a deep and profound, hours-long sleep. Whatever the dream had been, it must not have been anything like that other one—the one he didn’t like so much to think about. Except for the ending. Generally speaking, despite his enthusiasm for the concept of entropy, Rupert liked happy endings.

He got up and turned on a few lights. Looked around. He looked for something, but wasn’t sure what it was. He felt very awake, very clear headed. This was odd.

Rupert stripped and took a shower. He ran the water cool and it felt good to slough off all the chaos and filth from the day, which already seemed like yesterday. Or last week. As the soapsuds ran down the drain and disappeared, Rupert felt reborn. It was the most lucid he’d felt in, well, ever.

He toweled off, put on a clean pair of shorts, but didn’t bother with a shirt. He wasn’t going anywhere. Then he went straight to his cross-body bag, gathered his laptop, tablets, folders, and other things he typically carried with him, and he pushed the Plant with No Name, who still said nothing, to the side and set up a workstation. He wasn’t sure what he would be working on, but there was an idea in his head. It had yet to reveal itself to him, not even a vague idea of its subject. But it was complete; he knew that. It contained every step required and steps for each step. It was so detailed; there would be no way to screw it up.

Rupert sat before his open laptop, a blank document staring back at him, cursor blinking like the message button on the phone, which he’d forgotten about. A tablet full of blank pages to his right. His favorite, most reliable pen. And his clear but still-empty brain. The plant waited. Rupert ignored it. He felt no pressure. And then . . . .

There began an all-night attack of pure genius and insanity. Rupert typed, each word perfect, each letter expertly tapped without a single mistake—every movement in the design, every step. Everything bulleted and numbered, lettered, graphed, and charted. Every few pages he would slide the laptop aside and pick up the pen, sketching feverishly every angle and placement, listing each element, every ingredient. It got so that it wasn’t like he thought at all, as if he were a man possessed. As if he’d tapped into the part of his brain that dealt not with the physical, but linked his psyche to the nameless Universe, through it and into the bright soul-light of his Will and Intellect, which fired electric impulses back through his body and generated a wheel of unquenchable desire in his heart.

His heart . . .

* * *

 “Whoa-ho, dude, sounds like you were all lit up on Casper . . . ” Shit Pail interrupts again. Her ass seems to have sunk deeper into the bucket and Rupert hopes she’ll notice before she hits the bottom.

“What?” Rupert feels like he should have this drug lingo down pat by now, but it really is like learning a whole new language.

“Scrabble . . . ”

Rupert shakes his head.

“Rocky II.”

He just looks at her, helpless.

“Pony . . . Kryptonite . . . Hubba . . . Grit . . . Fries . . . Egg . . . Dip . . . Croak . . . Twinkie . . . ”

Rupert continues to shake his head.

“ . . . Squaretime Bob . . . Quill . . . Onion . . . Nuggets . . . Kokomo . . . Jelly Beans . . . How-Do-You-Like-Me-Now? . . . Golfball . . . Eastside Player . . . Double Yoke . . . Crunch n’ Munch . . . Cookies . . . Beamers . . . Yimyom . . . ”

“I have no idea what you’re saying.”

“Crack! Cocaine! Crack cocaine.”

“I had never done a single illicit drug . . . ”

“Well, I hope we get out of here soon so we can call the fuckin’ Queen and tell her.”

“You are awfully tetchy,” Rupert said after a long pause.

Shit Pail kicks her feet, then stops, defeated, and sighs. “Just . . . continue.”

* * *

As Rupert’s fingers typed away and his Id dictated the blueprint of his aspirations, he drew back into a quiet corner of his mind.

This is perfect. Yes. The lab. The location. Everything. And when it’s finished, and when it’s ready, and when it’s up and running, and it’s out on the street, and people are throwing themselves off buildings for it, she’ll come and she’ll see how amazing it is. We’ll never have to go back to the museum, or Pyrdewy, and everything will be amazing. And she’ll love me like I love her.

He wondered where he could get a dozen frozen baby alligators, and then he wondered if Leenda would marry him.

Of course she would—he’d be a wildly successful, sexy entrepreneur. He would be the head of RupeLee Industries.

He would need a live alligator if she would marry him, which she would, and he would tie the ring onto the end if its tail and they’d ride it into the swamps of Myakka, and he’d tell her all about how the world was formed, his world, and how many days it took him to create it, and that he would never rest, could never rest.

Rupert would be the self-assured, brilliant, benevolent King, and Leenda—lovely Leenda—would be his intellectual, beautiful electric Queen, and if there was a bone in her body that didn’t feel perfect in her own mind, he would break it, pull it out, and let it grow again—it would be pure gold, like the rest of her. They would rule over a wilderness populated by enlightened citizens who sincerely didn’t give a fuck about anything.

Florida Men.

And it will be perfect.

Suddenly, Rupert stood straight up, almost toppling the table, spilling some of the plant’s water, and he shouted: “I never received my goddamn tax return!”

He proceeded to dial 911.

*

The next morning, Rupert awoke still shirtless, disheveled—somehow he’d even lost his shorts, which he hoped were at least still in the same room as him. He felt hung over, which he dismissed as the unfortunate side effect of yesterday’s physically and mentally taxing excursion to and from Myakka, and he got up, popped a couple of aspirin, and made a pot of coffee.

On the table sat his laptop, screen blank in sleep mode, and a tablet full of impeccable super meth lab schematics and comprehensive lists of various items. The last page that had anything on it was full of doodles—the largest of which was Leenda naked, riding an alligator with a big diamond ring tied to the end of its tail. Her mouth was a perfect O. Then, the next few pages were ripped out.

He set the tablet down and looked at the Plant with No Name, who, again, provided no answers.

“You suck,” he said to it.

He wandered around the room, still looking for clues as to last night’s potential debacle (and his shorts). On the nightstand sat evidence of a foiled attempt at sexual gratification—a partially disassembled alarm clock, wires inexpertly stripped too far. He experienced his usual red-flush burst of shame any time he was faced with his own kink, but it was quickly replaced with relief. Whatever had happened last night—however out of his gourd he’d been—he hadn’t been so far gone as to electrocute himself into the Sarasota morgue, in flagrante delicto.

He now noticed that he’d been lying, sleeping, on the torn-out pages of the tablet. He also noticed the phone receiver was out of its cradle and stuffed into a pillowcase with the pillow.

Rupert sat on the bed, replaced the receiver, and picked up the sheets of paper, which were wrinkled, the ink of the writing smeared here and there. It was somewhat illegible, but he was able to make out something about his tax returns, something about the possibility of getting arrested and what looked to be the phone number of the closest bail bond service. Something about the IRS and a phone number with too many digits. He thought of Bill and how he’d become the weekly amusement of the local 911 dispatch. There were also clearly fake, lewd names: Officer Jack Mehoff, Dispatcher Anita Blackman, Sergeant Barry McCaulkiner. The list went on, and some were scribbled out and rewritten, as if he’d spelled them wrong and had been coached to get it right. Presumably fake badge numbers accompanied each name.

Rupert wondered how long this had gone on. Horrified, he turned to the Plant with No Name, which sat innocent on the table.

“Did I call 911?”

The plant said nothing.

Rupert got up and tossed the crumpled police notes near the trashcan, then took several measured, traumatized steps to the window before which the table sat. He looked out over the parking lot, toward the Florida Fried Gator. It was already sweltering, the heat shimmering above the pavement. Rupert stood there, shirtless, shortless, sweaty and emotional—something had happened. He had changed. Something in him was broken.

Or not.

He tilted his head askance to the sound of his own inner voice.

Perhaps . . . he’d been healed.

The Plant with No Name let out a satisfied sigh that Rupert didn’t register.

Across the lot, behind the FFG, Jesus stood looking at Rupert through the window, waving. Rupert slowly raised his hand and gave a weak wave in return. Jesus held up Rupert’s shorts and gave him a what the fuck? look.

Rupert was suddenly struck with the full realization that he had called 911 about his tax return. He was one of them now—a Florida Man. There was no going back.

Table of Contents

Beast33

Louis thought to call his bluff, thinking somewhat gallantly that his life was secure so long as he and he alone could write this maniac’s story. This man needed him to provide his ultimate ambition—to be a famous killer of monsters, slayer of beasts. But the wavering passion in his voice betrayed his insanity, and with that, Louis knew the state of affairs was truly volatile.

Louis pulled his pistol slowly from his belt. He was damned no matter his answer.

“I will write not one single word of you and your exploits. You will die, as you have lived, in insignificance.”

The man stood still for a fraction of an instant.

C’est la vie,” he said, and Louis heard the man’s footsteps hurry toward him. He readied his pistol, hands shaking, horrified at what evil sort of monster was but moments away from lunging into the room, this small pocket of light.

At that moment, louder than he had expected, the hinge of the entrance screamed through the passageway, and the cloaked man’s footsteps stopped.

The door slammed shut.

“Is that your priest?” the man asked and sighed as if he just couldn’t be bothered.

Louis said nothing, but listened, closing his eyes the better to hear. He thought he could detect a faint padding sound, and then a low growl. It sounded one or two times, deep and indistinct, but then grew in intensity.

The cloaked man said nothing, but Louis knew he had him. If the other side was occupied by what he suspected, he guessed the man would prefer to run towards himself.

“If you approach,” Louis called. “I will shoot.”

He leveled the barrel at the door once more and thought he could hear some muttering, swearing under breath. And then, quite suddenly, there was a struggle.

Louis ran to the door and looked blindly down the corridor, but the thrashing occurred around a corner and it was too dark to see anyway. A door opened, but did not shut, and the man started screaming.

The sound froze Louis to the spot. His mind urged him forward, unsure as to whether he intended to assist the man or the beast, but his instinct for self-preservation grounded him firmly. He cursed and fought to free himself from his fear.

The noise shifted—the screaming and the growling, the scraping of shoe soles and the metallic clank of those vicious metal claws—sounding as if it was moving. And then, running footsteps.

Louis readied his aim once more, but the sound moved away instead of toward him. The distant door bawled and slammed shut, and then again almost immediately. Upon that second exit, Louis most certainly heard Modestine wail.

Without thinking, Louis ran into the darkness. He slammed against every wall that leapt before him, sliding into the corners and swiftly, if awkwardly, followed the passage’s shifting directions. Finally, he crashed into the entry, felt desperately for the handle, and was almost deafened by the door’s squeal.

He hadn’t been aware of how oppressive the prison cellar was until now, as the fresh night air rushed into his lungs and brought him closer to his senses.

From the lighted guards’ room to the exterior of the prison, the black corridor between helped him adjust his sight so that here, now, he was able to discern the arrangement. Modestine blocked the cloaked man’s escape and compelled him to evade the violent abuse of her small, but sharp hooves.

“Damnable beast!” the man yelled, but there was panic in his voice.

In chorus with the donkey’s cries and the man’s angry, frightened yelling, Louis could distinguish another sound—the low growl he’d heard from the prison passageway. And to his left, Louis saw it—it was a beast, of Le Famille de la Bête.

Louis raised his revolver to the man, but in the dark he could not make a true aim. If he fired, he risked shooting the poor, terrified animal whom he had grown to consider a stubborn, but endearing friend.

Finally, the frenzied donkey let forth an agonizing screech and lurched sideways. The fiend had managed to get close enough to use his weapon. Louis’s throat constricted at the sound of her distress, and as the man made his way around her still bucking form, Louis aimed and fired.

The whole picture played out over an age. As Louis heard the refrain of the shot, and the field before him lit up with the blast, the beast flew, a mass of coarse fur and teeth.

Louis’s brain either conflated this with his experience at Our Lady of the Snows, or in reality, this creature looked almost identical to the one whom he had wounded, the one they called Alphonse, the man from Fouzilhac. Its back bristled auburn and black stripes; its yellow eyes flashed and rolled in their strange, otherworldly hollows.

Modestine reared again, and then came down and braced herself to kick. When she did, she clipped the man’s shoulder, enough to send him stumbling backwards, into the clutches of the creature.

It snarled at the brutal connection with its foe, taking the man to the ground with little effort.

The cloaked man screamed, and by the anemic moonlight Louis could scarcely make out their struggle, though he was more relieved at this than not. Modestine stood nearby, panting and grunting from her efforts. He was glad to see her upright and hoped her wound wasn’t severe enough that she might not stay that way. In the dark, he made his way to her cautiously for fear of startling her, then he laid his hand on her neck gently.

“Now, now, my little heroine,” he said softly to her. She must have recognized his smell, or his voice, for she leaned into him and calmed almost immediately.

Meanwhile, the cloaked man kicked and flailed in his attempt to free himself from the grip of the thing that pinned him. Louis led Modestine a little further away, leaving the animal to do its work when from the darkness emerged yet another Beast of Gévaudan!

“My God . . .” he breathed, but no one and nothing heard him but the donkey, who had calmed at Louis’s touch, and breathed deeply and evenly.

The second beast swiftly approached the combating enemies and pushed the first beast from the man. As the two creatures sized each other up, the man labored to his feet, his balance unsure.

“Shoot them!” he yelled to Louis. The absurdity of the man’s request struck him so that he actually tore his eyes from the confrontation he was able to detect in the dark and look to him.

“Shoot them, you fool!” the man shouted again.

Impulsively, confused, Louis raised his revolver, but aimed nowhere in particular and lowered it again. Then, coming near to his senses, he raised it once more, aiming it at the cloaked man, though he was hesitant as to the man’s precise location. He watched the unsteady shadow of a figure and tried to draw as sure a bead as possible. Before he could pull the trigger, the man turned and ran toward the path, in an attempt, Louis assumed, to make it to the light of Florac.

Without pause, the second beast to arrive on the scene broke into a run for the man and a moment later Louis heard the man scream, the sound of which ended with an abrupt jolt as he presumably hit the ground. The first beast—the one which chased the man from the prison—limped casually over to Louis, where it sat back on its haunches just a few feet away. Louis lowered his pistol and looked to the beast, who blinked matter-of-factly at him.

Louis was stunned.

He maintained eye contact with the monster, acutely aware of the thing’s size, its proximity, until it looked away, licking its lips, like a dog having filched scraps from the table.

As he tightened his grip on Modestine’s bridle—who seemed to care not that this hideous brute sat so close to them—Louis looked out into the darkness. He could tell by the quality and nature of his screams that the man was trying to crawl away, but was too grievously wounded to make it very far.

Pour l’amour de Dieu! Shoot! Shoot!” His cries erupted desperately and with the ensuing cacophony of horror, Louis’s knees went weak and he sank beside Modestine, his fingers still hooked into her bridle. He leaned his forehead against her front leg. He could feel moisture there, probably where she was wounded, but she made no indication that it was tender to her, and so he stayed there. He tried to think of other things—anything—to block out the torturous, terrified shrieks of the cloaked man, and the pained yelps of the beast that tore him to shreds. It seemed to last for an eternity and the man’s screams occasionally rippled and bellowed out somewhat broken as the beast worked at his chest. He could hear the man’s cloak tearing and the wetness of his now mutilated form giving way to the claws of the creature. Louis thought he heard one of the clawed weapons bounce some distance from the struggle, and he thought only, and there goes half of your defenses. He thought this without pity.

Louis squeezed his eyes closed and tried to focus on the sound of Modestine’s breath, but he could only retract so far as the pant of the large beast that sat so close to him. Instead, he pictured the faces of his friends, one after another, in as much detail as he could manage. Then, he formed the faces of his parents, and then Cummy, his childhood nanny. Finally, he saw Fanny, looking as she did at Grez, tired and troubled, and she had never seemed so inviting as right now.

Had she ever said or done any of those things at Grez, or did she only at night, only when he slept, when he dreamed?

Just as he seemed to leave this place, if not in body but in mind, he became aware of what proved to be the cloaked man’s final, gurgling wail. Then, as suddenly as it had attacked, the beast had turned from the prone body of the man and walked back to its companion, snout sopping with gore. The two beasts seemed to confer, sniffing each other’s faces and blinking their alien eyes, and then the bloody muzzle turned toward Louis and exhaled what he could only interpret as some sort of acknowledgement.

Their eyes met, and Louis saw that this beast’s were not yellow like the first, nor like the one they called Alphonse, but they were a light blue, like an English teacup. He nodded to the creature and then both beasts up and trotted off into the night.

As they did, it struck Louis that, through the duration of the attack, he’d heard something, but he failed to realize it fully through the shock of it all. Though he heard it now, and it faded in the distance with the retreating werewolves—the soft tinkling of the foal’s bell.

Louis sat for a moment, one hand tangled in Modestine’s bridle, the other reaching up and petting her cheek. The revolver now lay at his knees on the ground. His mind raced over what had just occurred, and then he stretched a little and kissed the donkey’s nose.

Next, faintly, he heard a wheeze coming from the direction of the man. Louis’s blood froze. Then a gurgle and a halting gasp. The cloaked man, astonishingly, still lived.

Louis located his smoking matches, released Modestine’s bridle, and cautiously made his way to the man lying in the middle of the cattle path. Indeed, the man was alive, but only one limb—an arm—moved, slowly but spastically. Louis kept his distance to at least that arm’s length, as a precaution. He pulled a match from its little box, and after a moment’s hesitation, he struck it.

In the revealing, horrific flash, Louis saw a sight he could never unsee, one that he regretted instantly and, just as the flame flared and settled, he shook it out and moaned. He stood, night-blind from the burst of light, his mind reeling at the awful vision.

At his feet, in the darkest dark, the voice of the man rasped, clearly falling into an abyss from which he would never return.

“Tell me,” he struggled. “Did she break your heart, Monsieur Steams?”

And finally, Louis placed the voice—the voice he’d last knowingly heard in a billiard room on an early morning in Monastier. He’d bought this man a brandy.

Surrel.

Louis listened to the man’s labored breathing, and the simple image of the bully beating the poor donkey—let alone all the truly ghastly tragedies he’d authored since—dissolved whatever remaining trace of compassion he’d felt for the man.

He leaned down to the dying fiend, who twisted on the ground like a worm out of dirt, close enough for him to hear.

Non,” Louis answered. “She saved me.”

He then stalked back to Modestine, leaving Surrel, the pamphleteer—the murderer, the monster—to die alone in the dark, on his back like an insect, and staring up at the heavens that would never accept his putrid soul.

Table of Contents

The usual political clusterfuckery we’ve come to expect here in the 21st century. Southern Baptist minister Charles Van Zant served as State Representative for Florida’s 21st District for four years and then the 19th District for six. In reference to the American Institute for Reasearch—an organization the state paid $220 million to design a standardized test—Van Zant is quoted as saying: “They will promote double-mindedness in state education and attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can.” To be honest, I do expect this flavor of far-right Christian conservative to express their lunatic concern about tests turning kids gay, but I don’t think anyone’s expressed concern about the level of gayness prior to this. Unsurprisingly—what with their moral compasses with machine precision—he, his wife, and his son (Charlies Van Zant, Jr, former Clay County School Superintendent—have been embroiled in various ethical investigations. If only they’d had standardized tests growing up that turned them into decent, principled citizens.

Elias, Dave. “FL State Rep: School Tests Designed To Turn Students Gay.” NBC2. Waterman Broadcasting of Florida, LLC. May 20, 2014.

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

25.2

FM(25.2)

Rupert woke up with a headache and a dry mouth next to a dead alligator with tubes and plastic bottlenecks sticking out of its back. His sight was still a bit blurry from the blow, but he heard chanting nearby, and soon, he saw the man he’d been following. Efunibi was performing some sort of ritual over the gator lab carcass.

Please don’t fuck it, Rupert thought, unwanted dream images floating fuzzy somewhere in the muddle of his mind.

He tried to stand, using a tall palm for support. He didn’t feel in any condition to run away. Efunibi finished his prayer and, without looking at Rupert, adjusted the tubing, loosened and tightened bottle caps, then finally acknowledged Rupert’s presence and gestured gently for him to sit down. Rupert didn’t feel like he had much choice. With the headache compounded by the dehydration, he plopped back down to the ground.

Efunibi slid a plastic gallon jug full of water over to Rupert, who drank from it like Geddy Lee drank the Milk of Paradise. This, however, was not Xanadu. At least, he hoped not, or his image of Rush was completely blown.

After a moment of reflection on the timeless lyrics of a young Neil Peart—presumably an aftereffect to getting cracked in the head, but, let’s face it, probably not—Rupert wiped his mouth and looked at his host.

“Who the fuck are you?”

Efunibi put a finger to his own lips and his other hand cupped his ear, as if to say, Listen, can you hear that?

Rupert listened. He heard nothing. Nothing new, at least.

He shook his head no, but Efunibi nodded yes and smiled as if Rupert had heard whatever is was, then he closed his eyes and inhaled deep and loud through his nostrils.

This guy’s a crackpot. Thanks, plant.

The gator lab wasn’t exactly the most pleasant smell in the immediate vicinity. Finally, Efunibi opened his eyes and looked at Rupert in that forceful, yet comical way cartoon hypnotists look at you when they say, “You are now under my command.”

Rupert wiped his forehead and took another drink of water.

Finally, the guy spoke.

“I am Efunibi.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Efunibi was unfazed.

“What the hell happened?” Rupert continued. “How did I get here, and where the hell am I?”

Efunibi ignored Rupert and launched into a mystical sermon.

“You here to learn of Great Gift from Nature, Methamphetamine.”

“There is nothing natural about meth,” Rupert said, still replenishing his fluids and a little bothered that Efunibi spoke like Tonto, the 1930s radio sidekick to the Lone Ranger. This was a significant step down from Osceola and his dream catcher tattoo.

Efunibi frowned and looked at Rupert.

“Holy Nagai Nagayoshi isolate ephedrine compound in crystallized form from ancient Asian medicine plant, evergreen ma huang.” He pronounced ma huang with an exaggerated Japanese accent, which Rupert couldn’t tell if it was offensive or actually attempted cultural sensitivity, apart from what was already flagrant racism. This man was deeply triggering.

Rupert said nothing. Efunibi’s smile returned.

“When we enter nature, into Body of Holy Nagai Nagayoshi, who permeate All, something miraculous happen. We given heap big gift, we humble to accept.”

Rupert only thought of getting his system in order so that he could start walking out of wherever he was and getting away from this guy. What was he thinking, following him because of an idiot plant-gas-induced dream?

“Spirit of Holy Nagai Nagayoshi,” Efunibi continued, “live in body of animal.”

“Not plants?” Rupert interrupted. It threw Efunibi off a little.

“No, not so much plant. Plant something else.”

“Oh.”

“Each creature must be honored in traditional way,” Efunibi went on.

Somehow, Rupert didn’t think the traditional Japanese way of honoring a late-19th-early 20thth-century chemist was to build small meth labs into every animal that kicked it.

“Not like atrocity at marina, poor Holy manatee. Manatee heap Holy in Nagai Nagayoshi tradition.”

“Is that right?’ Rupert asked.

“That right, Kemo Sabe.”

Rupert closed his eyes and pretended he didn’t hear that. Rupert suffered from such a complete overdose of outrage, he didn’t think he could take much more, and this was impressive, considering he’d been in Florida for some time now. Not only was he shaking off the still-nauseating memory of the Bucket-exploded manatee lab, not only was he haunted by necro-bestiality dream fragments, not only was this guy calling him Kemo Sabe and talking like Tonto, but Rupert saw, now that he was up close, that Efunibi, like Osceola, was without a shred of doubt a white guy. A very tanned and leathery white man.

Rupert stared hard at Efunibi, whose real name he suspected was something like Paul, or Steve. Rupert bet he was a Steve. He opened his mouth to speak a few times, but stopped, trying to keep the angry shitstorm in his brain from spilling out onto the ground, next to the dead gator.

At FFG, they’d be deep-fryin’ this fucker, he thought, then squinted his eyes to keep the stray thoughts from wriggling their way into his cortex. How many gater sandwiches have I eaten since I got here? The dead gator stench assaulted him.

“So,” he said to get the ball rolling. “You seem to have meth labs all over the—”

“Honored Ones,” Efunibi corrected.

“Honored Ones . . . all over the city, or the county. That’s a lot of meth. Where do you sell it? How?”

Efunibi laughed longer than warranted.

“No sell, Kemo Sabe.”

He’s going to keep doing that. “Well then, what do you do with it?”

“Efunibi feed back into system, into soil, plant grow, animal eat. Circle of Life.”

Should have seen “Circle of Life” coming. Rupert didn’t want to keep talking about this, but moreover, he didn’t want to sit in an uncomfortable silence with this person. Though, he doubted Efunibi could abide by silence, since he had a somewhat captive audience. Where the hell am I?

Efunibi went on.

“Great Blue Herring—”

“Heron.”

“—eat Holy swamp grass, have heap big Holy experience. Die. Become Honored One.”

He was poisoning and killing the wildlife with meth. Fuck me.

Then, Efunibi’s offensive and remarkably screwed up discourse stopped on a dime. He looked around apprehensively and Rupert felt unsafe.

Rupert couldn’t hydrate as rapidly as needed, no matter how much he drank. He zoned out from the heat and fluid loss. Perhaps also from the stupidity overload, but then he believed he heard a buzzing sound. Then again.

Efunibi pulled out his cell phone from an inside jacket pocket to answer. The buzzing stopped.

“Hello . . . ?”

Rupert heard Joe’s small voice say “sorry,” and hang up.

Efunibi, confused, also hung up and looked at Rupert as he returned his cell from whence it came. “Wrong number.”

Rupert concluded he had hallucinated it. Maybe everything. He hoped he wasn’t in another plant-fart-induced dream state.

Efunibi had his hand cupped to his ear again. This time, Rupert thought maybe he did hear something. Something moving, maybe coming their way.

“Necropoachers,” Efunibi said, inscrutable and annoying at once.

“What?” Rupert perked up a little. “What the fuck is that?”

“Heap big wildlife in Myakka State Park,” Efunibi explained.

At least Rupert now knew where he was, narrowed down to almost sixty square miles of environmental and wildlife preservation. He also realized he was about twenty-five miles from Spanish Point.

“Fuck.”

Assuming it was this crazy Caucasian turd that knocked him out and dragged him here, that’s a little much. Rupert weighed 235 pounds. This guy was absolutely hopped up on something. As if he should wonder.

Efunibi responded to Rupert’s poignant expletive and continued.

“Yes. Necropoacher think they have true way to worship Honored One. Necropoacher wander land, search for fallen animal, defile—how you say, fuck—divine holy creature before Efunibi can honor in true way.”

Rupert was speechless.

“When Efunibi not honor fallen one, Efunibi spend day hunting Necropoacher.”

“Hunting?” He didn’t even want to know what that meant, but couldn’t help himself. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

Efunibi picked up a wooden cudgel—a piece of tree root—but then put it down again, looking to have regretted exposing Rupert to his propensity for knocking people over the head.

Rupert glared at Efunibi.

“You son of a bitch,” he said. “You thought I was going to fuck this alligator, didn’t you . . . ?”

Efunibi looked away and changed the subject.

The barking of dogs again—Rupert wondered if they were still somewhere near Spanish Point, or were these different dogs? And why didn’t Efunibi hear that? Perhaps because the dogs were still living, what with his preoccupation with carcasses.

“So, Kemo Sabe,” he said predictably. “You want be Big Chief. You want modern Nagai Nagayoshi Honor tradition, heap big.”

“How do you know about that?”

Efunibi smiled, which began to irritate Rupert.

“Plant tell Efunibi,” he said.

The Plant with No Name. That bastard.

“Yeah, so, I was supposed to come here and meet you. What great words of wisdom do you have to tell me about all that?” Rupert wanted to get out of here, sit in some air conditioning, and drink Superades for the rest of the day.

“Beneath love mound,” Efunibi said.

“What?” Rupert said, exasperated. His thoughts went to Leenda and his face grew redder, hotter. He couldn’t tell if he felt affronted by Efunibi referring to her mound, or if he was embarrassed that anyone knew how he felt about her or his aborted wet dream.

“Cave,” Efunibi went on.

“Look, pal . . . ” Rupert had had about enough of the euphemisms.

Even Efunibi was getting flustered at Rupert’s lack of understanding. He sighed.

“Cave. Beneath mound. Spanish Point.”

Rupert finally got it—it was obvious—and nodded. Efunibi stood.

“Come. Walk.”

Rupert rose shaky and unsteady on his feet. His head pounded for a moment before subsiding a little. He carried the water jug, the little that was left in it, and was glad to at least get away from the rotting, meth-producing, unfucked, Holy dead alligator.

As they meandered around the immediate area, Efunibi, in his exasperating manner of speaking, explained that D.E.A.T.H. program caverns extended all the way to Spanish Point, and that he knew of an alternative entrance there, though it was small and Rupert was “heap big.” Once the D.E.A.T.H. program workers cleared the chamber of water, which would be soon, Efunibi proposed a plan to close off the main entrance and then Rupert could begin to construct the greatest super lab the world, or at least Florida, had ever seen.

Rupert’s entire attitude changed, despite the fact that he was talking to and concocting a scheme with an absolute nutter—perhaps the most far-gone he’d come across thus far. His desire to hit it big here amongst the Florida People overrode his reason, or what remained of it.

“Power!” Efunibi said. “Heap big aphrodisiac.”

“That right, Tonto.” Rupert rubbed his hands together.

“Who Tonto? Also, meant to say, nice purse.”

Before Rupert could react, there was Osceola.

Without having noticed, they had meandered onto a well-maintained hiking trail, and Osceola looked embarrassed to be caught with a field guide and applying sunscreen.

“Osceola,” Rupert almost shouted, suddenly remembering he’d been trying to get away from this guy for—he had no idea how much time had passed.

“Rupie,” Osceola said, self-conscious and slipping the guide and sunblock into what looked to Rupert to actually be a man purse. “What are you doing out here? Didn’t think this was your bag.”

“It’s not. Mine’s a cross-body bag . . . ” Rupert began.

“Who this?” asked Efunibi.

“What?” Osceola looked to the other white, red man.

“Efunibi think he see you before.”

“Rupie, what the fuck?”

“Osceola, how do I—?” Rupert started.

“Yes. This Osceola heap big familiar.”

“Whoa, dude,” Osceola said, then to Rupert. “Is he for real? Is he Injun talkin’ me?”

“Yes, he is, both.” Rupert answered. “Now, if I take this trail—”

“Hey, asshole,” Osceola said to Efunibi. “You have any idea how fucking offensive that is to me and my People . . . ?”

Rupert stopped. He realized he was about to watch two white guys argue over what was and was not offensive to Native Americans while both claimed to be Native American, and that thought overrode other, more important things, like hydration and avoiding heat stroke. He half-expected Elizabeth Warren to come out and settle this once and for all.

“Actually, Efu,” Rupert said, “it is pretty offensive. Not that I know, not being Native American and all.”

“Efu?” Osceola sounded both amused and infuriated.

Efunibi sensed that this wouldn’t end well, so he put his hands out and shhhhh’d everyone. He cupped his ear.

Rupert rolled his eyes.

Just as the mystery dogs started barking up a storm, a mammoth ostrich crashed out from the surrounding foliage and onto the trail, its long legs stepping high and its neck gesticulating, moving like a snake’s body. Rupert thought he saw a furrowed brow, but he didn’t know if ostriches had that capability. He also didn’t realize they got this big.

It made straight for Efunibi.

For the next minute and a half, an awkward and hilarious struggle ensued. Rupert and Osceola, realizing they were not the targets and feeling safe by comparison, could do nothing but watch. Perhaps they could have helped, but it was a rather large, threatening bird. Finally, the marauding creature took a few steps back, inflated its neck, and then let out a low, but loud booming sound that perplexed everyone, and then it turned and was gone as unexpectedly as it had come.

Osceola looked as if he’d just had a Bigfoot encounter. Efunibi was shaken, but angry. Rupert recalled an Attenborough program from which he’d learned that male ostriches made that sound for mating purposes, and then he eyed Efunibi with suspicion.

When Efunibi caught his breath and put one of his feathers back into place, he shook a clenched fist, livid, and shouted: “Devil bird!” Then he turned, ran from the trail in the opposite direction of his assailant, and leapt out of sight into the thick of the jungle.

Rupert and Osceola watched him do this, saying nothing, and as Efunibi’s not-nearly-so nimble escaping sounds became fainter, Osceola turned to Rupert and said: “Man, that guy’s a fuckin’ dick.”

Table of Contents

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?”

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24

FM(24)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Surely it was her.

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

“Hey, Mount Macaca.” Pyrdewy.

Motherfucker.

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

Rupert sighed, still groggy.

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

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

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

In the dark, the Plant with No Name smiled.

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