Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Angry Robot: Free Fiction - Angel of Death by J. Robert King

Here we, go: part two of the extract from Angel of Death by J. Robert King! Enjoy!




Two

Burlington, Wisconsin had not had a murder in five years when the headless, handless body was discovered. Despite spitting sleet, the nighttime cornfield was crowded. Detective McHenry, Investigator Leland, Sergeant Banks, Medical Examiner Schmitt, the volunteer fire department, half the staff of the Gazette, a few dozen farmers, and a handful of police scanner jockeys stood in the carnival glare of the three dispatched squads.

The body had first been found by Daryl Jamison’s dogs, which had gnawed on it awhile before returning to their owner. Jamison, spooked by the sight of dogs with bloody muzzles, had gotten his brother Carl to go with him. Shotguns in hand, they had walked the fields. They’d followed the dogs’ tracks and found the body soon enough. Daryl claimed he had checked for the man’s wallet and, not finding it or any identification, gone straight away to call the police. The crime scene, though, looked as though Daryl and Carl had held a barn dance around the body, boot prints crushing every bit of soil for a twenty-foot radius. The old farmer had paced around the body, trying in vain to obliterate the tracks of his two unlicensed dogs. It hadn’t mattered. The dogs got loose while he was on the phone and were down chewing on the body when Detective McHenry arrived. To prevent further damage to the crime scene, the detective ordered nearly a quarter mile of road and farm field cordoned off.

Investigator Donna Leland volunteered to set up the roadblock and string the police line. She had seen enough of the ghastly scene. Just now, she wielded her ten pound sledge to drive the last rebar rod into the partly frozen field, and then let the muddy mallet rest in a black furrow. As she tied the police line, someone in the crowd shone a flashlight toward her. She raised a hand before her eyes and blinked. Who’s shining that light? The old maxim was true: murderers often returned to the scenes of their crimes, wanting to relive the excitement of the moment. Some even injected themselves into their own investigations, monitoring the facts and providing false information to lead police astray. What if this is the murderer?

Leland gripped the sledge haft tightly in one hand and gestured with the other. At last, the light darted downward, becoming a short column of gray. She finished tying the yellow plastic ribbon to the last crowbar and hoisted the ten pound sledge to her shoulder. It comforted her to carry that sledge. Whatever demon had done this would think twice about coming after her, what with the sledge and her .45.

At five-foot three, Leland was too short to step over the waist-high tape, so she crouched beneath it, making sure to keep the knees of her blues out of the mud. She straightened and tucked her braid into the collar of her jacket. Cops were supposed to be short shorn, like Dobermans, with nothing to grab in a fight. Cops were also supposed to be men, at least in rural Wisconsin, though men had one extremity that begged grabbing during a fight. With a nervous sigh, Leland trudged across the avaricious cornfield, toward the crime scene. It was a man’s world, and this was a man’s crime. The brutality alone made it such: a dog with half its head blown off and a dog walker with grisly stumps where hands and head should be. Even in the dark, before the scene was set up, the vertebrae and severed muscles stood clear. Now, though –

Lights glared down on the body – flashlights moving fitfully in the hands of cops and cop buffs, a couple of spotlights glaring from patrol cars on the road, a kind of miner’s helmet on Francis Schmitt, the county coroner, and even the flashes of the cop photographer. The place looked almost like an operating room instead of a lonely stretch of cornfield.


Leland approached, gut turning even as her eyes grew wider, taking in every detail.

The victim had been big, probably two-hundred-twenty pounds. He wore a pair of canvas pants, a T-shirt, and no jacket, though the last day that had been warm enough for such clothes was November 29, five days ago. A leash was found attached to the collar of the dead dog, and bits of tar were stuck to the dog’s pads. Despite the boot prints of the Jamison brothers, the ditch and trees between the road and the body showed no signs that the man had been dragged, nor did his heels or clothes contain any ground-in mud. It was quite clear that this was no mere dumpsite, but also the scene of the murder.

“Mother of God.”

She was close enough now to see the dog-gnawed leg of the man, and the neck and wrist stumps. Francis was leaning beside the body and checking beneath the shirt hem. Despite what must have been massive blood loss from the severed limbs, there had been enough left in the body to create a brown line of lividity on the man’s back.

Another flash went off. Leland turned away, seeing spots. Someone yelled. There was a scuffle. Her hand fell immediately to her gun before she made out what was happening. Sergeant Banks was wrestling someone – the Burlington Gazette photographer-reporter, Blake Gaines. All she could see was the patrolman’s steel-wool hair and his muscular bulk straining against a scarecrow-thin man.

“Can’t you read? ‘Police Line, Do Not Cross!’ ” Banks growled through gold-capped teeth.

Blake, a gaunt and shaggy young artiste, did not answer, snapping off a couple more shots as he was propelled back toward the road. The investigator reached the pair, slipped one of her own arms into Blake’s and helped to speed him on his way.

“We’re going to confiscate that film,” Banks warned as two more flashes went off.

“You can’t,” Blake yodeled. “Freedom of the press!” “We can and will,” Investigator Leland said, “unless you cooperate.”

“I’m going! I’m going,” the bewhiskered man said, trying to break free.

Leland leaned toward him and whispered, “Not that. I want you to take pictures of the crowd. Get everybody you can – faces – but don’t be obvious about it.”

“What do I want with – ” he began loudly, but she broke in. “Get me the crowd, and we’ll let you print what you’ve got. Otherwise, I’m taking your camera now.”

“All right, all right,” he said as they muscled him to the police line and bundled him over. He regained his balance just beyond the tape but rebelliously lingered against it as he checked his camera rig for damage.

Leland turned to Sergeant Banks, poised there like a wolverine ready to strike. She touched his shoulder, meaning to appease, but got a startled jump from him. “Banks,” she said with quiet urgency, “you’d better get back to the scene. They’ll be wanting you on hand.”

The muscle nodded, not even recognizing the flattery. He trotted back to the scene.

Leland turned to the photographer. “Listen, Blake, we’ve got to work together on this.”

“What are you talking about?” the man asked, coddling his camera as though it were an injured baby. “You’re not going to dictate what the Gazette prints – ”

“It’s a lot easier than that,” responded Leland in a hushed voice. “You need good footage to sell papers. We need good footage to catch this guy. Work with us, and I’ll keep you close, on the inside. Fight us, and all your shots will be through fence holes.”

He seemed ready to make a rebuke but blinked it away in uncertainty. “You get us a shot of the killer, and we’ll tell you. That’s called an exclusive. And a byline.”

Blake nodded, tight-lipped. “And it’s not just that. I’ll have to talk to McHenry, but if he agrees, we can do some proactive strategies with the paper to flush this guy out. I’m sure the Gazette wouldn’t mind being credited with helping to catch this guy.”

Again, he nodded. A small smile crept onto his face. “Good,” she said. “Now get at it.”

He loped away among the crowd.

Men knew so little about working with each other. Or, perhaps, they thought it beneath them to play to bruised egos. Better to bruise them some more until it comes to broken noses and black eyes. No wonder there are no female serial killers, Leland thought.

That was not actually true, but the number of women who committed such crimes was almost statistically insignificant. Of course, this was a serial crime. The last murder in the Burlington area, five years back, was a similar decapitation and amputation in Bohner’s Lake.

* * * * *

After closing down the crime scene, Investigator Leland returned home, showered, dressed in PJs, and leaned back in her favorite chair. It was a worn and low-slung piece of furniture, what she had considered a couch when she was a kid. Her mother had reupholstered it in bristly curtain fabric and set it in front of the upstairs TV. Then, it had room enough for Kerry and herself, a calico cat, and a Tupperware bowl of popcorn. Now, it was not quite even a love seat, and, crowded in a drafty bay window, was only just big enough for Donna and her books. She pulled one of the books from the stack, a true crime expose about criminal profiling. Though modern mythology had made FBI profilers into supermen – divining the state of a killer’s underwear and his taste in movies from the position of a shell casing – the science of profiling was still largely unknown in small-town police work. What Donna knew of it was second-hand, pieced together from books by former members of the Quantico Behavioral Science Unit.

By dismembering victims and burying hands and heads separately, organized offenders can make identification difficult. A victim’s identity is a critical piece of evidence for narrowing the field of suspects, determining motive and opportunity, and rallying community assistance in tracking down the killer. The removal of these parts takes time and effort and produces large quantities of blood. It is a technique used almost exclusively by psychopathic personalities.

Donna paused. The dark bay window behind her breathed coldly and she drew up the tattered afghan she kept on the chair arm. Out of old habit, she crossed herself. How could a person think of heads and hands merely as forms of identification? She glanced up at the crucifix hanging above her twenty-four inch TV and reflexively imagined Christ dismembered. She crossed herself again.

By contrast, psychotic personalities engage in dismemberment not to eliminate clues, but for symbolic reasons and to fulfill personal fantasies. Their mutilations tend to center more on genitalia, viscera, hearts, and eyes.

Sickened, Donna closed the book. Sociopaths did what they did by design. Psychotics did what they did by instinct. One group were humans who thought they were gods. The other were humans who thought they were animals. Both were monsters.

Donna stopped that thought. Her hand strayed to a picture on an unvarnished end table. He was a boy. Only a boy. Her twin, Kerry, at fourteen – bright-eyed, hopeful, and human. In her mind, he would never be older than fourteen. By their fifteenth birthday, Kerry had lost all his friends, dropped out of school, and never came out of his room in the basement. Father John, principal of St. Mary’s, joked about getting an exorcist. By their sixteenth birthday, Kerry was so sedated that he never spoke or even smiled. By their seventeenth birthday, he was institutionalized in Elgin. He didn’t reach his eighteenth, hanged by a noose he had made from his own torn-up shirt. Kerry had not been a monster. A bipolar schizophrenic, they said, with homicidal fantasies. A manic-depressive with multiple personality disorder. A cyclops. A Grendel. A steppenwolf…

No, Kerry was not a monster. He was a sick boy. Sighing sadly, Donna set the picture atop her pile of books and leaned back on the seat. Road to Utopia was on tonight. Kerry had loved the road pictures. Donna got up, turned on the set, and moved the rabbit ears to pick up WGN. Then she went to the kitchen.

“I’ve got a bag of popcorn around here somewhere.”

Assuming after the third ring that the doorbell didn’t work, Investigator Leland knocked. She stood in the lee of a storm door held together by duct tape. The cool gray winds of a December 7th morning breezed past her.

It had been standard police work. Lots of dead-end leads. Lots of waiting for someone to file a missing persons report. Lots of phone conversations assuring cottagers and farmers that everything that could be done was being done. After two days of office work, Leland had at last been asked by Detective McHenry to help him knock on doors and canvas the Bohner’s Lake area to find out the identity of the body.

She looked down at the crime scene photo in her hand. In it, Sergeant Banks squatted gravely beside a dark pine tree and propped up a stiff collie mutt. At the zenith of a washed-out foreground, the dog looked spectral. Its frozen legs were poised in a flat line on tiptoe. The effect made the collie appear to be dashing pell-mell through the picture, past Banks’s stern, down-turned face. The dog’s eye glowed with the flash, as if Banks held a light to the blown-open back of its skull. “I feel like a Goddamned trophy hunter,” Leland murmured to herself.

The door eased back, shuddering a little. Warm wet air came from within, along with the mill-wheel tumble of a stove-sized humidifier. A thin old woman stood there in a faded cotton housedress. A Kleenex jutted out, ready between two buttons. “Yes?”

“Sorry to bother you this morning, ma’am. I’m Investigator Leland of the Burlington Police Department – ”

“If you’re here about the cardboard, I didn’t know it could be recycled until just last week, and I’ve got it ready for the bin this time, if you want to come see – ”

Leland laughed in quiet dismissal. “Actually, ma’am, I’m looking for the owner of this dog.” She held up the photo.

The old woman peered, unblinking, at the picture. “You probably think I should have reading glasses or bifocals to see something like this, but I’ve had the new cataract surgery, which lets me read a book and look out at the sunset without any glasses at all, or see this picture of the dog and see Mr. Koenig walk that dog just about every evening at eight thirty before the gas station stops selling those little flasks of devil water that I’ve signed petition after petition against, always the first or second name…”

“Mr. Koenig?” asked Leland, writing. “And he lives where?”

“Three houses down, on the right, toward town, the one that still has the Christmas lights from three years ago up on the eaves even though he hasn’t plugged them in for two Christmases and he’s not turned them on yet this season if they work at all anymore. I haven’t seen him in a while, but he keeps those irregular hours, a newspaper man for the Gazette, and coming and going at all times and working on that old junker of his in the middle of the night sometimes, trying to keep a twenty-year-old car going with these two-day-old computer car parts they have nowadays, and him without the first bit of mechanical skill but too cheap to buy something better…”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Leland said, tucking the photo into her breast pocket. “You’ve been a great help.”

With no trace of humor on her face – the shape and hue of a garlic clove – she said, “Too bad about that dog of his. Sometimes it would break loose and dig in my petunias. Not that I would have wanted it dead – hit by a car, right? Forty-five’s too fast for a residential block.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Leland said, backing out of the door space and letting the storm door sway inward.

The old woman caught it and held it ajar as Leland backed away. “And if you’re going to get so up in arms about cardboard in the garbage, what about these folks that pile it in with their leaves to burn and we have to be breathing that all day long?”

Leland marched away. Her black boots splashed through the dead oak leaves, brown and gold like muddy water. Behind her, the woman’s voice continued to labor shrilly, a too-small pump struggling in anonymous obsession to empty a too-deep pit.

The oaks were tall and stout here, their crags deep with gray shadows. The sky above was an acrylic blue, and a wintry wind tumbled brown leaves over the rim of the Bohner’s Lake bowl and down toward the water.

Mr. Koenig’s house was on that rim, perched like a ship breaching the head of a standing wave and about to plunge down the trough beyond. The land dropped away behind it, baring a line where clapboards gave way to gray cement block. The white Masonite boards on the main floor were curved with inexpert installation and years of seepage, but they clung to the frame with all the tenacity of a gunwale on a ship. She knocked. In good intention, someone had painted the white door red, and then left it to peel behind a rusting screen. No answer. Again she knocked, and again, nothing. It was a Tuesday. He could well be at work, but a rust-riddled gray ’89 Olds sat on the cement slab beside the chimney. He couldn’t have walked to the Gazette from here, but could have carpooled. It wasn’t enough to warrant a search. Unholstering her walkie-talkie, she switched it on. “This is Investigator Leland. I’m in the fourteen-hundred block of County P. I think I might’ve found our victim. Anybody near a phone? Over?”

The crackle and hiss of static answered at first, and then Banks’s butch voice: “What do you need, Leland?”

“I need somebody to call the Gazette, see if a Mr. Koenig – a newsman – see if he’s there.” “I’ll get back once I know something.”

“Thanks, Bill. Out.”

Leland stowed the walkie-talkie and knocked again. Still, no response. She stepped from the front stoop and strolled slowly around the cottage. It had the decent dirtiness of most middle-class bachelor places, eaves stubbled with dirt, shingles beginning to curl, storms and screens in random assortment, flower beds gone to volunteers and weeds, grass left overlong after the mowing season, sticks lying on the walk. Ah, a dog tether, and no dog on it – and no dog barking inside. Perhaps he and his dog were at the vet, or on vacation. She glanced back at the old woman’s house. The storm door was closed, though the woman still haunted its frame. This man was the same as she. Perhaps this whole block was the same, shipwrecked souls clinging to whatever sargasso they could gain and hold.

Leland descended a set of concrete steps beside the house. She came to a wide window of the walkout basement, a sixties design in aluminum and single pane glass, actually releasing more heat than it held in. In fact, the window where she stood poured dry furnace air out through its open side casement –

He had worn no jacket the night he was killed. On the desk within was a framed photo of a shaggy collie mutt and a similarly hairy man embracing her. His bearded face smiled, and the dog, too, smiled. Leland blinked, and the photo changed – half the dog’s head was gone and its remaining eye was gray with death, the man’s neck was vacant and his embracing arms ended in a pair of stubs. “Leland, come in, over,” crackled the walkie-talkie.

She lifted it. “He’s not been in since the 29th, has he?”

“They’ve already given his job away.”

Three

Death comes in threes; everything comes in threes. It is the mathematics of God’s universe. When Keith McFarland killed the editor in Burlington, I knew two more would die there, two people somehow connected to the rum man. This occurs naturally enough – a heart attack, a suicide, or some other resonation of an individual death. I typically do not have to do any of the arranging but merely approve the results.

I wasn’t surprised, then, when some days later I needed to oversee the death of Detective McHenry of the Burlington Police Department. The man was a stereotypical career policeman: heavyset with a steely bristle of gray hair, blue eyes with yellow edges, a piercing stare that was half command and half reproach, a neck permanently scarred by worn razors and tight collars, a barrel body that could wrestle a mule to the ground, and narrow legs better suited for driving than running. If he were older – say, sixty-three – he would die when the last bit of grease that he had poured down his throat solidified across the web of his coronary arteries and made his heart explode.

But he was fifty-five, and it wasn’t to be a heart attack today. Only an accident. The detective deserved an elaborate death, with its measure of ceremony and civic pride.

Detective John McHenry had been a cop in Racine County for forty-five years and in Burlington for the last twelve. He’d been known as Officer Friendly by two generations of kids before landing the detective job in Burlington; had pushed for D.A.R.E. programs and started anti-graffiti campaigns; had rescued one adult, seven children, four dogs, a cat, and a hamster from various house and apartment fires; had organized the Tornado Task Force for the Union Grove Fire Department after the twister of ’83; and done countless other works for good.

He’d paid for it all with a bullet still in his left lung, a pack-a-day habit for his right lung, a hardened liver from nightly drinking, a few bar-fight scars on knuckles and face, two back-to-back failed marriages, and an addiction to twelve-hour days. He was a stereotypical cop and deserved a death better than what would be scripted for the average cop show.

Here’s what I came up with.

* * * * *

You still look like a cop, John. The faded blue Dockers don’t change what you are or who you are. You tug at your belt as you walk across the hardware store parking lot. You hold the plastic ball cock as if it were a blackjack, and the hardware receipt crouches in your shirt pocket. Nobody uses shirt pockets anymore, John.

Smile and nod, yes, greet your townsfolk, but what about the bright belligerence in your eyes? Always scoping. Level and unapologetic suspicion. Only sunglasses could mask that, but those are still in your squad. In moments, it won’t matter. Then you see her. After all these years, she still has her hooks in you. “Ah, Susan – how are you and Edward?” you ask the once-lithe creature on the sidewalk in front of the store. Her page-boy hair shifts as she turns toward you. A distant train bellows mournfully.

“Ed, please,” she says. “Can’t you call him Ed, after twenty-five years? And he’s fine.” Even you notice the twitch in the corner of your eye, and you wish for those sunglasses. The windshield of a nearby car glares mirror-like, showing fragments of tattered sky. “Good to hear.”

The train’s marching feet clang on the track.

You stare at each other, nodding. A rebel thought reminds you that you were once inside her. You blush and look away.

Something’s going on in the elementary school parking lot across the street. The child’s fingers still show above the hard gray line of the Chevy’s roof when the rumple-faced man slams the door. Her scream is loud even through the glass. He tries the latch. It is locked. He drags keys from his pants and shouts angrily at her, “Shut up! Shut up!”

The ball cock trembles as you run across the parking lot and into traffic.

He has the passenger door open and the screaming girl tries to fight out past him but he throws her back into the front seat. The man’s plaid flannel shirt sticks to him, sweaty, and flaps a warning from his belt line. He rounds the hood and half-runs to the driver’s side door.

At best an abusive dad. At worst, a kidnapper.

“Hold it!” you shout. The cars around seem to hear, bunching back like wildebeests before a predator. The man, too, hears, swinging wide his door and lurching in beside the girl.

“Hold it! Police! What’s going on here?”

You catch the door he’s trying to slam and almost get your own fingers caught. You yank it open and grab thread-worn plaid that tears beneath your grip. He tips half out of his seat.

“Get up!”

The engine roars. As you reach to snatch the keys, you see something. Had you lived longer, you would have sworn it was a knife under her throat, but how can a man start a car and hold a knife under his own daughter’s throat? A reflection in the glass, your friends would have said. A hallucination, a prejudice of a white cop against a Latino father, the prosecution would have said. You’ll be dead before you even recognize his race or his daughter’s.

It is I who hold that phantom knife. I sit in the back seat of the car and hold the blade to her throat so that you will see it – so that what happens happens.

The car lurches. You grab the man’s shirt. Your own weight pinches your arm in the door, but you won’t let go. Tires squeal. Lights flash red. A claxon sounds. You fight to keep your feet, but the blacktop potholes steal your toes. The ball cock only now clatters to the ground. You cling to the man.

The car drags you fifty-eight feet before, at forty-five miles an hour, the undercarriage strikes the tracks and jolts you loose. You tumble, arms flapping like rubber from a stripped tire. You come to rest on the southbound line that hooks up with the Illinois Central.

Susan screams. The horn is louder and nearer, and the brakes, too. You hear nothing, though, and see only sky before your body is struck by the cattle catcher, rolled over twice, and then cleaved by the wheel. It rolls through you like a pizza cutter.

* * * * *

Cops die well. Cops and gang members. Soldiers, doctors, mobsters. They understand death. They face it at least minimally every day, and some are neck-deep in it. They have given death a lot of thought, and know it for what it is, a ubiquitous necessity. It is no less mysterious to these folks than it is to everyone else, but it is more a reality to them. They dwell at the edge of a black and endless ocean that others have only heard about.

Michael, row the boat ashore, alleluia… Slaves face death, too. They know that the river of death is black and chilly and endlessly wide, and that the ferryman must row them safely across. And what of the Jews at Buchenwald and Dachau? Did they not pray to the angel of death for release? Mobsters know their saints and go to their confessions. Midwives go softly. Hookers, addicts, fugitives, and freaks – all those marginalized by the world and therefore pushed to the ragged edge of death, they know.

Only the soft white belly of America dies badly. They know more about Canada than they do about death, and that’s not saying much. They thrash and scream or go dumb in amazement. Most do not even realize they are dying until it is all done. In the face of all religion and science, they believe that if they want to live they will not die. They go about life in ruby slippers that will always fetch them home, wishing upon stars and cars and pensions to keep them alive.

But they will die. Every last one of them. That black sea is insatiable, and it rises. One day, it will lap at the doorstep of anyone, will fill the basement and rise until it swallows the man crouched in the attic and the woman waving from the rooftop.

Everyone dies. Pray to me, and die well.

* * * * *

It’s interesting how one glimpse can change a town. The white majority had called for and gotten the arrest of Manuel DeGarcia on charges of reckless homicide and child abuse.

He, in fact, could not have been telling his daughter to “Shut up!” since he neither spoke nor understood English. Nor could he have known McHenry was a policeman. Rattled from having accidentally slammed his daughter’s fingers in the door, he panicked when a fat man ran up, shouting, tore his shirt off, and tried to take his car keys. Manuel drove off, trying to escape, but the assailant wouldn’t let go. That was the Latino’s story, once an interpreter could be found, and it was the truth. The truth didn’t matter. The police and community wanted someone to pay for the death of the detective, and a non-English-speaking, foreign, apparent child-abuser was without defense.

The death had been very satisfying for me. It was public, involved an ex-wife and a school-aged child, allowed Detective McHenry to play the hero one last time, included a harsh repayment for selfless action, used the trains that daily crisscross Burlington, occupied the staff of the Gazette for months, and divided the community that McHenry’s jurisdiction had done so much to unite.

* * * * *

I had overseen the deaths of one hundred twenty-two others in the Chicago-Milwaukee megalopolis before Keith McFarland went hunting again. This was the third death connected to Burlington – the editor, the cop, and now the priest. This time, I had little to do but observe and prevent things from going awry. Though Keith had no real plan – too psychotic for that – he was heading in a direction almost sure to satisfy us both.

It was Christmas Eve. The ground was white with hoarfrost, all that the Midwest would have of a white Christmas, and a priest from Burlington happened to serve at St. Francis in Woodstock, Illinois.

* * * * *

Keith steps down from the bus and looks around. The town glows beneath a woolen sky. The steeple of the Nazarene church scrapes the belly of the clouds. Behind his gray polyester trench coat, glass doors close. The bus hisses and moves on.

Keith ascends from the road to the curb. On the concrete, the frost has etched tiny stars. His Converse high-top All Stars look very red against the wintry ground. He imagines standing there through the next frost and the first snow and wonders how his shoes would look then. Alone and lonely, that’s how. If I stand here all those days, I’d be alone and lonely for Father.

That last one wasn’t too good. He was not much of a father except to his dog. There were plenty of fathers there who got scared, maybe, which helped. But still, one bad father was bad enough. He would have to be replaced by one very, very good, good father.

The chimes of St. Francis on the hill at the end of the street say it is two o’clock: time for confession. Mass is at six.

Keith doesn’t put his hands in his pockets as he shuffles up the cracked sidewalk. Maybe if he holds them really still they will turn to ice and he can break them off at the wrists and put Father’s hands on in place of his own. He walks. The round-leafed weeds that worked so hard to push through the sidewalk cracks are now bunched and dry, shaded gray by frost. He can probably kick them out and they will be the shape of manhood, long and with a ridge underneath. They are pushing to get down into the ground – the sky is always trying to burrow into the hard, cold earth.

Someone nods to him as he passes. Keith gestures in a way that looks like he is taking a DVD down from the rack. He wonders which DVD it is. Probably a naked one. He thinks of the Manhood of Eddy’s Father. That was a good one. For a while he walks with the scenes playing in skin-colored neon across his mind.

All the store windows have bright fantasies: lights, snowflakes, pictures, statues, TVs, smiling men, pointed toes, metal rods up into the back of the boy’s new pants, deer with targets on their sides, guns with those hard long ridges beneath them, men in white furs that cover their long chastities, a man who crouches and turns a screwdriver in a wall box, a little train that puffs real gray smoke and always swerves away from the dark, round tunnel through the cotton mountain, silvery sausages made out of the dirty parts, amber bottles wearing little red collars around their necks, elves working hard and fast beneath Santa – what a wonderful world.

He stands on the corner and waits for the light to change. It goes to yellow, and a black sedan roars up and dashes through the red. Someone shouts out of the window, “Fuck you!” That is what the rum man had said. What a wonderful world.

Keith crosses the street and takes the sidewalk toward St. Francis. The church is massive. It is built of yellow brick. The cornerstone says A.D. 1953, but it looks older than America. He wonders if there is a cat in the cornerstone. They do that to give a building good luck. It is bad luck for a cat. It is not a good cat they use. It is an alley cat that isn’t fixed and has one eye and half a paw on one foot.

Maybe the luck isn’t in the cat. Maybe it’s just in the fun of killing it.

The windows are tall and colorful and shaped like manhood. The steeple has a wiry cross on top like an unbent coat hanger. It is a bigger church than the Nazarenes have, and higher. It needs lightning rods so that when God blasts out of the sky, He doesn’t burn it all up. It is bigger than the Nazarene church but it is still really small under God and it belongs to God and He can do whatever He wants to it.

There are three big red doors on the front, for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Keith McFarland wants to go through the big Father door, but it is locked, and the Holy Spirit door is, too. The Son door is just right, and he goes in.

It is dark and damp and still cool inside. There is a smooth floor of stone like in a cave, and coats hang on one wall. He hangs his with the others. The big part of the cave is up ahead. It opens up so the colored windows are standing tall and shining on both sides. There are two men sitting in fur coats in the dark pews, their heads down like they’re tired. The Father is in that cabinet with the curtain, behind a little square with a screen like he is about to do a puppet show.

Keith McFarland walks there. “Hey, get in line,” says a man with big yellow hair – no, a woman. She is one of the tired people in the pews. The other one, who also has breasts, looks up, too.

Keith looks from the one man to the other and makes a dotted line in his head. He walks to the end of his dotted line and sits in the pew there. No sooner has he sat than a man comes out of a red curtain and walks slowly toward the hanging coats. “Hey, g-get in line,” Keith shouts to him.

He keeps walking. He is tired, too. He must have been working very hard before he got here.

The man with the big yellow hair is gone, but Keith sees her high heels under the curtain. He listens hard in the buzzing quiet and hears everything. This man talks like a little boy: “That hurts, Father. No, not there. That hurts. That hurts. Don’t.” There is one more man. She goes. Then it is Keith McFarland’s turn. He feels his pistol and his hunting knife.

He goes past the curtain into the cupboard and stands in there, waiting for something to happen. His gun is ready in his pocket.

“Kneel, my son,” says the voice through the screen. “Begin when you are ready.” Keith McFarland kneels on the little velvet cushion on the little wooden ridge. He still has his hand on his pistol.

“What troubles you, my son?” the voice says.

“N-nothing, m-my F-f-father.”

“Have you any sins to confess?”

“I-is killing a s-sin, my F-f-father?”

“Killing what? An animal? A person?”

“A p-person.”

“Oh, yes, my son, that is a very serious sin – unless it was during a war. Did you kill this person during a war?”

“Yes.” “Ah, but it troubles you, still. Are you Catholic, my son?”

“Are you C-Catholic, my F-father?”

“Yes.”

“I am C-Catholic, too, my F-father.”

“Have you confessed about this killing before?”

“Y-yes.”

“Ah, but it still bothers you. Have you spoken to Our Lady of Mercies about it?”

“I d-don’t kn-know.”

“Are you C-Catholic, my son?”

“I don’t kn-know, my F-father.”

“What is troubling you? Speak freely. You have no need to fear.”

“I don’t l-like the w-way you touch m-me.”

There comes a pause. “What do you mean, my son?”

“Th-this way.”

“My son, this is a holy place. You must not do such things.”

“It is when you touch me here, and put your hands in here, my Father.”

There comes another pause. The Father is speaking, but Keith hears another father, a father long dead and gone. “Oh, so you don’t like that? You don’t want me doing this? Or how about this? Well, that’s too bad, Keith. When you’re the father, you can make the rules.”

“I am very angry about this.”

“Go ahead and be angry. Go ahead and go in the back yard, spitting and kicking the cat. The neighbors know what you are, what you’ve been doing. They could care less. The cops know, too. They just say, ‘Well, he’s a retard. At least he’s found something he’s good at.’ ”

“I’m good at shooting you with this.”

“You keep your hands off my guns. How did you get into the rack? Give me that. You want to shoot the thing? Shoot it down your own throat. You ought to be used to that by now, you little fuck.”

The bullet blasts out. It’s loud in the little box, and it echoes in the rest of the cave. There is a hole in the screen and something heavy leaning on the other side. Keith McFarland comes out of the cupboard and sees there is not a line, or anyone in the church at all. He opens the door where his father is and goes in with him.

The gun is hot in his pocket but the knife is very, very cold.

* * * * *

Father Mike could not have asked for a more fitting end. He was a young priest, very caring and sensitive. Such attributes lay a cleric open to charges of homosexuality and misconduct with younger parishioners, but Father Mike had not let suspicions prevent him from his work with the youth of Woodstock and nearby Rockford.

When his superior, Father Clayton, had advised against his volunteer work at the Boys Club of Rockford and in the intramural basketball league of Woodstock, Father Mike had shrugged it off and said, “I cannot and will not abandon these kids to the streets just because gossip mongers want something to talk about. My ministry and message come first. If they want to ruin me, let them take up the matter with God.”

Some had, and others with the parish council, but Father Mike was innocent of any offense, and the conflicting stories’ lack of evidence only served to prove the fact.

Then, two years after the last such rumblings, a youth he had never known not only accused him of a crime he was innocent of, but also executed him for it. Father Mike had been willing to be martyred for his ministry and now, in the way of a true martyr, he had died for his beliefs without anyone but his killer knowing why.

I am convinced that if he had seen Keith coming and known who and what he was, Father Mike would still have patiently counseled him, been similarly misheard, and would have died in much the same way.

It was a rare and beautiful thing to have a serial murder in which victim and killer were so attuned that I had only to sit back and let the music of the spheres well up around me.



Hope you enjoyed that! :-) And that you've ordered your copy! If you haven't, click here and here for the UK, and here for the US. For those in South Africa, please use the Kalahari link at the top-right of the blog. :-)

Also, click here for Angry Robot's Angel of Death page, and here for J. Robert King's page.

Be EPIC!

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