3LBE #1
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The Belly of the Night

by John Craig

 

A woman stalked Horn as he sat outside The Croissant Place. His feet were propped up on a chair, as he read the paper and sipped coffee.

Columbus Day at the Harborside Mall. Crowded. Noisy. Sales everywhere. Retailers were sweating. The summer had been bad. A lot of people, like Joe Horn, had next to no money.

Unlike those to whom appearance was all, he looked like it. Surplus fatigue pants and a field jacket, both well worn. Which is to say, ragged. Good quality running shoes, though. Major budget item.

A family went by. Mom with shades perched on frosted hair, Dad looking comfortably rumpled in dockers and deck shoes. Two kids, girl in a stroller, boy toddling.

Mom was intent on bargains. Dad sighed. Toddler had to go to the baffroom. Made the elusive th into ff and then ffff, a spray of spittle. Giggled at his own rapier wit.

Mom pointed, issuing directives to Dad, who did the sigh thing again. Mom and the stroller arced into Ms. Professional.

Dad picked up the toddler and headed for the baffroom. Had a bit more lift in his step, maybe thinking of a detour to Sears, spend a few minutes ogling a voluptuous bandsaw.

• • •

The Woman was cruising like a mako along the storefronts: Periwinkle's. The Old Bag. The Short Shop. Successfully evaded the Mrs. Fields gill net, intent on her prey.

Horn turned to the sports section: Atlanta came from behind, beat the Pirates in the tenth, evened the playoffs.

Found him yesterday. The Woman. Sarah Fenton, reporter doing a story on the homeless. Nice hair, short and thick. Moved like a dancer. His puerile mind invented means of disrobing her. But he had other things to do.

People were dying.

And who are you, Horn, the Great Avenger?

Yeah, well, somebody’s gotta do it.

But he didn’t need a reporter getting into this. So he mumbled about God’s Wrath On Heathen Puppies, and she grimaced and made a few notes and went away.

Kind of a shame. Nice body.

• • •

Mom emerged, staggering under captured treasures. Went looking for the troops. Somebody’s gotta carry all this stuff.

Sarah dodged right and left through the crowd, Gayle Sayers in his prime. Sato would have liked the way she moved. He had always valued fluidity over power.

Good old Sato. Had run a little dojo in the mountains, in Japan. Very pristine. Very beautiful. Very rugged. Very fucking cold at night.

Horn had spent a few nights outside, up there at eight thousand feet, watching for the furtive movement, listening for the delicate step. Screaming obscenities as Sato inevitably caught him napping, and beat the shit out of him with The Stick.

One night, a long time ago, in a scummy bog in Vietnam, a hideous stick figure rose out of the black water and ate seven men. Their screams still haunted him, twenty years after the fact. Even though they had been about to kill him.

Sato taught Horn how to control his fear. Mostly fear of Sato, hiding behind trees and bushes, waiting with The Stick.

Horn hated The Fucking Stick.

• • •

He snapped open the metro section: Man strangled his wife because she served his oatmeal cold. Human interest stories were his favorite.

Sarah swooped in, took the seat across from him. Let out a sigh. Pulled out her notebook. Brushed a bang out of her big green eyes. Clicked the pen. “I talked to a man who says you blew up a bar in Texas.”

What an opening. “Really.” Turning the page.

She nodded briskly, checking items off. “Yep. Then there was the truck stop in Nevada. And…” pause as she confirmed careful research, “…a warehouse in Seattle.”

He grimaced inwardly. The grapevine was unreal. “Well, you know, some architecture is an affront to good taste.”

“Crap.”

“That’s what I just said.”

She tried a different tack. “I also found out you’re a vet — ”

He shook his head. “Don’t know a thing about animals.”

She ignored that. “Interesting record. Silver star and a dishonorable discharge. Care to elaborate?”

“It was Monday. I hate Mondays. So I killed a bunch of people.”

“It got you shit-canned. Court martialed.”

“Wrong again. They gave me the medal for that. They kicked me out because I saved a man’s life. What’s it to you?”

“It’s my job to ask questions.”

“It’s your job to get your facts right, too.”

“I want to talk to you about these places — ”

“There’s a travel agent down at the other end.”

“Quit being so goddamn glib,” she said with a slightly disgusted air. “And I note you’re not giving me the street corner weirdo routine this time. I think you’re a scam artist.”

Hoping to get a rise out of him, he supposed. “Why? Looking to buy a bridge?”

“Looking for answers.”

“I'm a busy man. Places to go, people to meet. Make an appointment with my secretary.” He dropped the paper on the table, got up and headed for the Wherehouse.

She tried to follow, obnoxious didn’t describe it, but some group named Smashing Onions or something like that had a new album out and he lost her in the frantic crowd.

• • •

Two in the morning. Wandering down Broadway, thinking about that man and his kid. Why? Because he was getting that certain feeling again, and he knew when that happened it meant someone was about to die, or maybe already had. What a gift. I can’t pick a stock, but I can tell you when you’re going to croak.

Golden arches. Bought a pile of hamburgers. Stopped at KFC, picked up a bucket of chicken.

Harbor Drive. The warehouse district, still resisting the wrecking ball.

Booger, Cruiser, Fat Freddy and some others were huddled around a barrel in the railyard, burning garbage to keep away the dampness.

Horn would have been welcome without the food, but it pays to look out for your friends.

They lived in the shadows, shuffling along Main Street by day, curling up on oily gravel at night. Dying by the knife, gun, drugs, booze, and rain. And once in a while, something else.

Fat Freddy scarfed down a drumstick and biscuit, spat a piece of gristle into the oily yellow flames. “Lady’s been askin' 'bout you, Joe.”

“Yeah, I met her.” Chewing thoughtfully on a Big Mac. “You give her my name?”

Freddy laughed loud. “Shit, man, you think I'd give a white boy’s name to a woman with tits like that?”

The others laughed too, a big, bad sound.

Joe smiled. But he didn’t want anyone messing in his life. The world was fucked up. He was fucked up. Leave it alone.

Nobody else spoke for a while, except old Elmore, who muttered under his breath and shuffled his feet and wouldn’t eat.

Fire crackled in the barrel, throwing gloomy shadows, defining the limit of their existence.

Joe listened while they talked, of places seen, jobs held, then lost, the old lady kicked me out, assholes in government who let people live this way, best dumpster to scrounge this week (Italian restaurant on Sixth).

Elmore sneezed and pulled at his ragged coat.

Joe thought the morning paper might have something. He had a sense about these things. Sato said it was ki.You get a bad feeling and don’t get on the plane that crashes and kills everyone, it’s your ki working.

So how come I haven’t won the lotto?

• • •

At dawn he walked up Fifth toward Broadway. Bought a paper off Louie at the kiosk on D Street.

Metro: Man and his two year-old son, missing since yesterday, from the Harborside Mall.

He stood there for a couple of minutes, just holding the paper, and saying Shit, very softly under his breath, about a hundred times.

• • •

Horn watched people go into the Baffroom. Watched them come out. There was a sign under his coat, a bomb in his pocket. A song in his heart.

A two year-old kid, with his dad. The biggest, strongest, smartest, best person in the whole world. Should have been a car on the street. Disease of the week.

Something normal, understandable. Not a spider-thing in the corner.

Maybe it wasn’t the spider thing, the muck drippy thing that he'd been running from for a long, long time, the thing that occasionally came out of the corner, dropped in for a bite to eat. Maybe dad had a girlfriend. Maybe he decided to take the kid and split, go meet the sweet young thing in the parking lot, pile into her Firebird and lay a patch toward Houston.

Maybe. But probably not.

So how did he know? Sato once told him, when you go with your gut, it takes you to the refrigerator; when you go with your ki, it takes you to the answer.

And then, wouldn’t you know, Sarah suddenly appeared. Like the Cheshire Cat, grinning. “Hi.”

He sighed.

“There’s a pattern,” she said. “People died in those places. Badly. Then you blew them up. Like that warehouse. Turns out to be old government storage. Supposedly it was office furniture. I’ll bet. What was it, really? Were they storing nerve gas that leaked? Nuclear waste? I smell political cover-up.”

“You smell Pulitzer. Jesus, I could be an ax murderer. Don’t they teach you any common sense?” He shook his head, then had a sudden inspiration. “It was Muck Drippy Thing.” This might be better than the Heathen Puppies line.

She blinked.

Horn explained. “A monster I know. Or maybe one of his friends. Slimy guys who eat people. Slavering fangs in the dark. Kind of like right wing male chauvinist war mongering industrialist pigs. They’re not politically correct, so they tend to keep a low profile.”

She blinked again. “No kidding.”

“I never kid about politics.” He left her there, and went down the corridor, attempting simultaneously to ignore her obtuseness and the cold ball in his gut.
Looking around, he felt like a fool. Don’t mind me, I'm the building inspector.

A woman came out, looked askance. There’s your monster, officer. Probably cut up that man and his little boy right here, flushed them down the john.

Fuck it. Went in. Had to piss anyway.

Toilet paper spilled out beneath a stall. Dirty water pooled around the floor drain.

Nobody here. But a guy in jeans and a sweater, one running shoe down by the heel, had come in here, about twenty minutes ago. He hadn’t come out. There were no other exits. So where did he go?

Horn looked around, disgusted. Then he got that feeling again. Jesus, why me?

He looked around. The running shoe was in the trash can. It was bloody. Like the water in the drain.

That was all. Well, it was enough.

The cold shivers went up and down his spine. His gut rolled over. And he felt the Big Silence.

Like in the movies, when the viewer figures out what’s about to happen, just before the character who’s about to get eaten. About now the creepy music would start.

The feeling changed a little. Now it was a little more intense, a little more urgent.

GET OUT.

Not subtle, either.

GET OUT.

He thought he heard something. Maybe a slight, very slight, gurgling sound. Like water way down in a drain pipe.

The water on the floor, the bloody water, had drained away. As though it had been sucked down.

He hung the “Out Of Order” sign on the door, armed the bomb, and got lost.

• • •

She found him three nights later. Midnight on Broadway. Occasional cars slipped through the stark-lit canyon.

She dogged him up Fifth to Ash, slogging uphill past the massive high rises and sweating in spite of the chill off the bay. Fog obscured the tops of the buildings.

“Where the hell have you been?” She sounded exasperated. When Horn got lost, he got lost.

“Miss me?” Sipping on a Diet Coke With Caffeine.

“You did it again.”

“Did what?”

“Blew up the bathroom.”

Took another long pull. Belched grossly, but she ignored it. “Messing up your facts again. I never did a bathroom before. And I didn’t blow it up. There was no explosion. It’s a small thermite charge and homemade napalm. Kind of poofs and then burns real hot.”

She wasn’t taking notes this time. “I ought to turn you in.”

He stuffed the empty can in a large pocket. Remember to recycle. “Read your own paper? Man missing since Monday. Third case in a month.”

“It was a little half paragraph filler on page four of the Metro section. Big deal. So?”

“I saw him go into that bathroom. He didn’t come out. Same with that other guy, with his kid. Now no one else can go in and not come out.” His voice hid something angry and sad, as his eyes roamed the dark. “And I suspect that the families of those people might think it was a pretty big deal, in spite of what you say.”

She was silent for three paces. In memoriam, he supposed.

“So how does blowing up the bathroom solve the problem, assuming you aren’t just destroying evidence of your own guilt?”

“I found out that it messes something up, somehow, even if the structure is repaired. Like putting a garden hose down a gopher hole. You don’t always get the gopher, but he doesn’t want to live there anymore.” He glanced at her. “Why the interest? You’ve already heard enough from other people to think I'm a loon, which is the usual opinion about the so-called disenfranchised. And it doesn’t have a lot to do with your story.”

She hesitated. “You don’t know what the story’s about. Maybe it’s changed. What are you doing out here?”

Still scanning. “Talking to a nosy reporter. Sorry, that’s redundant.” Looked at her again. Spoke slowly and clearly. “Read my lips: Homeless.”

“Where do you sleep?”

“Outside. Is that an offer?” Saw two men on the other side of the street. One waved. He waved back, one hand in his pocket.

“In your dreams. That crazy old guy, Elmore, says you don’t sleep, you just walk the streets like 'the ghost o' lonely'.” She sounded skeptical.

He shook his head. “Good old Elmore.” Always watching the shadows.

Turned left on Laurel. Passed stately Gothic restorations, offices for doctors and lawyers. Their windows were dark eyes. No healing there, no defense against death.

She was catching his mood. “What are you afraid of, Joe?”

“Dark stairs,” he said, skirting an alley. “Dying in my sleep.” Turned right at Twelfth. “Haven’t you got it yet? I'm paranoid. Delusional.”

She persevered. “When you came out of there your face was white. Like you'd just seen Death.”

“Padres blew the playoffs. What can I say?”

She stuck with him, apparently unable to plumb the depths of his wit.

He stopped at Wong’s All Night Chinese Take-out. It was crowded at one in the morning. “Try the Kung Pau Chicken.” He bought.

She stood in front of him, turned to speak. The sweater was v-necked, presenting nice cleavage. “You act pretty flush for a derelict.”

He leered salaciously. “Low overhead.”

She graciously admitted the food was good. A man peeled off from the crowd and joined them. He looked like a trash collector.

Joe smiled. “One of my legitimate friends. Mac, meet Sarah the Newshound. This is Mac. He does dirty work at night.”

Mac was forty-five, bulky and balding, with dirt under his fingernails and grease on his pants. “City Maintenance,” he said, like Joe Friday would say his beat was Homicide. Grimaced as he spread blueprints on the table, forcing Sarah to rescue her chicken.

He talked about plumbing in the Harborside Mall, and turned the pages with elaborate care. His thick fingers mangled the paper. He traced pipes and drains, from the top to the street, rumbling like a 45 on 33 1/3.

Sarah looked bored, like she was trying to figure the human angle on this refugee from the dusty back room of life.

Joe was absorbed. Things were starting to make sense. In a hideous way. He bought a round of coffee, and studied the prints.

Mac held his styrofoam cup in both hands, slurping noisily, and tried not to appear to examine Sarah’s chest.

Joe thanked him, passed a couple of bills over the table. Mac grunted, but looked pleased. A professional doing what he did best. He gathered up his pile of paper and left, moving deliberately into the night.

Sarah grimaced. “That’s what you call a legitimate friend?”

Joe watched him go. “Mac doesn’t live like you. He works the night shift. Gets drunk on Thunderbird about once a week. Somebody finds him in an alley, takes him home. A room in the State Hotel. That’s his life. He doesn’t get to meet cute chicks very often.”

“Oh.” Then, “So, what was that about?”

“Basic research.” He stared out the window, not liking the feeling he was getting.
She snorted with exasperation. Her eyes narrowed. “This strong, silent macho crap is starting to get on my nerves. Are you for real? You sound like a whacked out Clint Eastwood. You’re so drawn and ragged, you kind of look like Clint Eastwood. On a very bad day.”

No answer.

Mac stopped at an alley and looked in. The fog hung low and still, and partly obscured the view. And just like that, he disappeared. Papers scattered in the damp air.

Joe could have said he wasn’t sure, maybe Mac stepped in there to take a piss, that would be his style.

Sure.

He was out the door, digging into his pocket. He ran past the X-rated bookstore, the dusty appliance repair place, the Mexican restaurant smelling of chili and refried beans. Stopped short of the alley, flattened against the wall, soda can in one hand, hoping like hell a black-and-white didn’t pick this moment to cruise by, with him standing there waving a piece of illegal ordnance. Hoping it would.

He listened.

Nothing.

So he went in there.

Brick wall on one hand, eight-foot wooden fence on the other. Garbage cans and crates and no lights. Darkness was total. He went quietly, like Sato taught him. A drifting shadow in a trough of ink.

He heard a wet, slithering sound, and froze, terror clawing at his throat. Without conscious thought, he sank into his hara, the center of his soul. In his mind he plunged into a pool, like a spear, shot down into the cool depths, water lying placid above. He felt nothing, he was nothing. Less than a shadow, than the thought of death. He was not there at all.

Silence.

Plop The sound of gravel, crunched. Something oozing.

Terrible eyes, searching.

It reached out.

Closer.

Horn sat quietly within himself.

Groping. Testing. Hesitating. Then it receded.

Silence.

Horn came back, a step at a time.

Silence.

He moved forward, quieter than before, nerves humming like banjo strings, run into a fly and he'd be in the next county, what the Hell was he doing here?

He sensed the copper smell of death. Alarms started going off, GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT —

“Joe, what the hel — “ Fifty feet behind him, but it was like someone banging a pot in his ear.

He took off like a shot, heard It coming, pulled the tab and dropped the soda can, caught her with his shoulder below the ribcage. She whuffed in terror and surprise.

The can went off behind him, intense heat and a very bright flash, big WHUMP. Carried her out of there at a dead run, across the street, collapsed on the sidewalk.

She tried to scream at him, probably obscenities, but it came out a tortured groan. She was bent and wheezing, blinking from the flash. If looks could kill he'd have been a pile of cinders.

He got out a flashlight.

They waited.

He was not keen on going back. No, not at all. But he had to. For Mac.

No fire. The alley was dank, and the detonation hadn’t been complete. Have to be more careful about the mix.

One minute. A car went by.

Sarah decided silence was golden, or less painful. She wheezed quietly.

Another minute.

He went back.

Sarah followed, huffing.

Terror rose like bile. Sato said that’s one reason we have ki, gives us strength to carry on. Sato got on his nerves sometimes.

Scraps of bloody clothing.

Sarah backed up, eyes wide, hand to mouth as though that would stop the rising sound.

Horn expected a shriek, but it was worse somehow, for being a low moan.

The flashlight hung limp in Horn’s hand, illuminating a storm grate. A bubble of gas belched out of it, rotten smell, putrescent images of green-black slime and crawling things.

They got out of there, fast.

• • •

Nothing to do. Tell the police your friend got eaten, Look, here’s a scrap of bloody cloth, they make a discreet call, large pleasant fellows come and take you away.

They caught a bus downtown. Neither spoke.

The bus shuddered and lurched down Sixth, along the park, growling like a huge bear. An old man slumped against a window, wheeze-snore, sleeping something off.

Sarah rocked against Horn, nodding. Terror does that. The body survived, now it had to rest, get ready for the next time. He put his arm around her.

At Broadway, she woke with a start.

Horn unwrapped himself.

She sat up and rubbed her eyes, groggy. Then she remembered, and moved close, shivering.

• • •

Walking with death sharpens life. She was forthright, and hungry. They watched the moon rise from her bed.

• • •

“I wasn’t always a cute chick.”

Raised eyebrow, Belmondo style, archly skeptical. Lost on her; too young to remember Belmondo.

She sensed it anyway. “Really. I was fat, with bad teeth and stringy hair. The only party I ever went to at college, I found out it was a dog party. Bring the ugliest girl you can find. The story of my life.”

“Looks like you got even.”

Shook her head. “Nobody gets even. I just changed. Lost weight, got my teeth straightened. Cut my hair. And got mean.”

“You seem like a nice person.”

Snort. “When pigs fly.”

Pause.

“So, why don’t you have a home?”

Hard to explain. Being over there. Seeing the little shacks, the hopeless stares, the children who carried guns and grenades. The smell of napalmed flesh.

The attitude when he came back.

The things he thought he'd left behind. But hadn't.

“I kept breaking the windows.”

• • •

Freddy rolled along Broadway.

Horn couldn’t figure how he could weigh three hundred pounds on what he ate.

“Helluva woman, Joe.”

Horn nodded, strolling with his hands in his pockets, fingers wrapped around a soda can, from habit.

“You been lookin' for somethin' a long time, boy. Maybe you foun' it.” Freddy, who had an MBA from Stanford, let his Alabama roots show when he was thinking deeply.

Horn listened. Sato had taught him respect for wise men.

“Sometimes, you think you fin' it, like you do that thing in Sea-tall. But nobody lay it on wit' Death like that, an' call it a livin'. Mebbe time to come in from th' col'.”

Horn was silent for a block. He wasn’t surprised that Freddy knew about Seattle.

Booger panhandled the corner at State, looking bent and awkward. Wore the frayed Padre jacket, like always. Having an okay day. Seven bucks and change.

Saw Cruiser in the square, leaning on his shopping cart, petting his little mutt, Jake.

Somebody they didn’t know was preaching on the corner.

Late morning crowds swirled around them. Freddy breached the waves. Horn trailed in the eddy of his passage.

Helluva woman.

• • •

Spent the night in the railyard. Fog packed the dark with cotton, but he felt safe. His ki was strong. If Muck Drippy Thing was anywhere around, he'd know. They had a connection, he and MD.

He perched on a siding and sipped warm beer.

Elmore wandered by. Sat. Hawked and spat. Reeked like nothing Horn knew.

Horn offered him the beer.

Elmore drew back. “Fish don’t sleep.”

Horn nodded, finished the beer.

• • •

She answered the door in an old robe. “Jesus, it’s two in the morning, you’re filthy, you smell, you need a shave.”

He tore the robe off her.

She dragged him down.

• • •

They showered together. She was sleek, urgent, demanding. Like she had to get it now, before he had a chance to say no.

Later, he watched her sleep. Stroked her damp hair. He liked the feel of it, damp and silky. Made her seem vulnerable. He was a sucker for that.

Thought about staying.

• • •

She woke to find him shrugging into his jacket. “You’re leaving,” she said in a chilly voice.

He stood by the door, still needing a shave. Yes, he supposed that was what he was doing.

Her eyes were flinty. “Come when you please, go when you please. Pretty cavalier with your relationships.” She sat up, and the covers pooled around her waist. Her hair was nicely tousled. He could smell her musk. The strength of his reaction to it frightened him.

He wanted to say something stupid. Like, I love you. That was what scared him most, he realized. He wanted to stay, and he knew better than that. Never stay, Horn. Never.

And there was an air about her, just a little, of artifice. The alluring image of the nymph, bed-ready, clashed with the hard eyes.
But he had a feeling she really didn’t want him to stay. She'd been left before. Her eyes said it, the tone of her voice. Somewhere, sometime, she'd learned to like being treated like a whore. And part of the pleasure was giving back some of the pain.

“I don’t sleep very well anymore,” he said.

“Apparently not. And a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” Her voice was flat.

But it was a simple truth. He didn’t sleep well anymore. He didn’t sleep at all. And he did have something to do. “Stay away from storm drains,” he said, opening the door.

“Go get 'em, Clint.” Her eyes seemed old as he left.

• • •

Dawn. Weak light slanted into the railyard. It was empty and cold.

Like my heart, thought Horn, feeling a touch melodramatic.

Elmore stood in shadow, scratching himself. He mumbled something about Fat

Freddy in the belly of the night. Something about the way he said it sent a chill up Horn’s back.

• • •

Freddy wasn’t around.

Horn cruised Broadway. Booger wasn’t there. Or Cruiser.

Checked in at the downtown clinic, the plasma center, the soup kitchen. Zip.

Alleys, dumpsters, empty lots. Nothing.

Squad car slowed, gave him a once over. They knew him, he was clean, never pissed in doorways, slept at bus stops, or lurched down the middle of Union mumbling obscenities. So they went their way.

He thought about the blueprints, and Mac.

It knew. It didn’t look over his shoulder and read the arcane plumber’s language, or eavesdrop on the meandering conversation. But it knew.

Like Horn sometimes knew things. Sato’s training had been hard and relentless, and very effective. Primal instinct, honed by primal fear. Horn let it guide him now, like a divining rod.

• • •

At dusk he found a shoe, run down at the heel, evidence of Freddy’s splayed stride.

Bloodstained. Next to a storm drain.

Cruiser’s shopping cart at Market and Fifth. Covered with scum, flies swarming in the long shadows.

Booger’s baseball jacket. Crawling with maggots. One ragged arm trailing from a half open manhole.

• • •

Fog rolled. Water lapped the pilings.

Horn smelled the damp, rank air off the bay. The pier was empty, except for a dumpster.

Storm drain dumped out here.

He waited, hand in pocket, soda can warm and heavy. K-Bar strapped to his forearm. He'd had experience with these things.

It knew he was here. It was waiting. It ate all the big bad laughter. It left a trail to follow, mocking.

He waited.

• • •

Footsteps. He stood in the shadow of the dumpster.
Silence. A splash, then more silence. Maybe it was a fish. Fish don’t sleep.

• • •

She stepped into view. He managed to stop himself from heaving the can.

“Joe!” Breathless, husky voice.

He had an instant tactile memory of her on the floor under him. Made him hard in a second. A woman like that, walking the waterfront at four in the morning, must have balls the size of cantaloupes. He sighed. “What are you doing here?”

She tossed her head, to get a bang out of her big green eyes. “I can read plans, too, smart ass.”

That wasn’t what he meant, and she knew it.

He looked around, force of habit, and sensed movement again. Pulled her close and they flattened themselves against the dumpster.

Came a shuffling step, irregular, alien, but somehow familiar. A shape materialized.

Bent figure, oblivious to the night and the fog. Elmore.

Horn stared, speechless. Then said, “What the hell — ”

Elmore stopped and turned and looked at him with that ungodly Elmore stare.

Didn’t say anything, just tugged at the edges of the ragged, greasy raincoat, eyes bulging like he was suddenly frightened.

Terrible eyes.

At the best of times, Elmore was not all there. This was not the best of times.

Terrible eyes. Holding Horn, beckoning him, pulling him down into black, turgid depths. Arms reaching, slow, sinuous, snake like, mouth opening, opening, opening, until it was the universe turned inside out, the underside of everything exposed, a black hole sucking in the world, shockingly soft tentacles wrapping him up, tenderly, dragging him into the warm embrace of a dark and slimy ending…

Her voice brought him back, screaming like a goddammned banshee, what a pair of lungs, and he moved, automatically shifting into the high gear of controlled terror, it had always impressed the hell out of Sato, the k-bar jumping into his hand, slashing, pulling free, groping for the can, finding it, losing it as the tentacles came back, he was a goddamn hydra, they went for Sarah and he threw himself between them, and they got him again and pulled him in and he glimpsed her, eyes wide and empty, as cold as the bottom of a grave.

She threw the soda can as he was dragged into Elmore’s scummy mouth.

• • •

Colored lights swept the fog in the false dawn. Voices muttered. A couple of strobes flashed.

On the pier, a few pieces of something still popped and sizzled, like burgers on a griddle. A uniformed cop stood by with a Purple K bottle. An empty one lay at his feet.

The dumpster was a ragged mess, blackened, torn metal and smoldering garbage.

A plain clothes man straightened from inspecting blackened concrete, blew out a sigh. Forensics might make something out of the scraps, but unless they found a skull, with a few teeth that had been drilled, there was no way they could ID this one. He shook his head, waved at the man with the extinguisher. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

• • •

She helped him into her car.

He groaned.

She muttered an epithet. “Jesus, you stink. You’re dripping scum all over my car. And you still need a bath.” She didn’t look a lot better. Her clothes were torn, and she had cuts and abrasions, but she hadn’t taken a thermite bomb in the gut.

The jacket was a mess. The cloth was gone, only a few charred pieces still attached to the kevlar lining, which was what had saved him.

She made him get out of it, and threw it in a dumpster.

Horn said nothing, laying back and breathing through clenched teeth while she strapped him in. The soda can was supposed to be mainly heat, not much bang, but he'd mixed it wrong again, and the explosion had thrown him into the bay. He was alive, but it felt regrettable.

She drove to Mercy General. Talked along the way, calm and rational, holding something down. Her hands barely shook on the wheel. “I had to know. That’s all. I just wanted to know. I was tired of not knowing.”

Reporters, he thought, saying nothing. Thinking.

• • •

Horn knew the head nurse in the ER, and so there weren’t any questions. As she worked, Horn smiled benignly, feeling the numbness of shock beginning to float him away. He fought it, and his bright eyed glare made Sarah flinch. She went outside.

They sewed him up, patched the worst holes, and let him go. Nothing they could do about it. Four ribs broken. Separated shoulder (hit the edge of the pier going in). Flash burns on his face. God-awful hole in his leg where Elmore had clamped on with a sucker or something.

The duty doc called it in, but by the time the cops came by Horn would be long gone.

Sarah waited on the street. “Well?”

He winced. The ribs were a problem. He took short breaths. “You see how it is.”

Her eyes wavered, momentarily limpid, yearning. Then the flint was shoveled into place. “Yes.”

He hopped a bus downtown. She followed. They rode in silence.

He got off and started walking. Limping. Headed west, then stopped at the entrance to an alley he knew.

Thought he saw something move, in the shadowed recesses in the back. Just an impression. Something anyone else would have dismissed, if they had even noticed.

Sensitive, Horn was. Very sensitive.

He limped on. Checked another alley. Looked okay. Went in. Still thinking.

Sarah followed, ever inquisitive.

“I didn’t figure out Elmore,” he said half to himself, “because Elmore wasn’t MD.”

Sarah was looking at him like he was crazy, in a sad way.

“I'm kind of sensitive to MD and his type, the real bad-ass monsters. Elmore was just one of the store-bought, Campbell’s Soup variety. MD would have eaten him for breakfast.”

Sarah rolled her eyes, then shrugged.

Horn looked at her for a moment, and his face was serious and thoughtful. “Enterprising reporter,” he said, as though thinking out loud. “Always in the right place at the right time.” He didn’t like what he was thinking.

She shrugged again. “Not really. I — ”

“Yes, really.” He stopped and reached behind a battered trashcan, hauled out a filthy but otherwise serviceable fatigue jacket. At her look, he said, “I got these things stashed all over town.” He shrugged into it, carefully. Checked the pockets. Two soda cans.

She stepped back, waving her hand in front of her face. “Christ, Joe.”

Cryptically, Horn said, “Everybody thinks They Walk By Night, but the truth is They walk whenever They damn well please, because They know how to stay outside the edge of your vision, hiding in the blindspot.”

She looked at him like she thought he was truly crazy.

He shrugged. I am, he thought. Only the truly insane can deal with reality. He smiled a thin smile, flicked a bug off his collar. “You were there the day Elmore got the kid and his dad. The day he got the guy in the sweater. The night he got Mac. This morning, when he almost got me.

“You interviewed my friends. Fat Freddy. Booger. Cruiser. All of them. And they all died. Vienna sausage for Elmore.”

She stared hard at him. “What are you saying?”

The smile got thinner. “I made a call while you were waiting outside. Fellow I know at the paper. Says you must keep a pretty low profile, because he never heard of you. And he would have, if you were real. But you’re not real, are you?”

She was silent. Blinked. Looked away. Looked back. The flint was still there.

“You’ve suspected for a while, haven’t you? Why wait ’til now to check me out?”

He tilted his head to one side. His own eyes got fairly flinty. “I'm like Mac. I don’t get to meet cute chicks very often.”

She hesitated, then said. “I'm a scientist. A type of genetics research.”

He grimaced. “This is going to sound like a bad movie, isn’t it?”

She forged on. “Elmore was a scientist at… a lab. Something went wrong. He contaminated himself.” She looked away, remembering. “Two other scientists were contaminated. Some of the stuff we do is very sensitive. And very strange. The operating rules are pretty harsh — ”

“The other guys were killed, weren’t they?”

She started. “Yes.” She didn’t seem too upset. “How — ”

“Lucky guess.” Then, “You’re not a scientist.”

She shook her head. “What — ?”

“You’re security. First class, too. You effectively masqueraded as a reporter. You found me in the first place. You kept finding me. There aren’t a lot of people who can do that.”

She snorted. “Hey, man, wake up. You’re a weird guy who walks the streets looking over his shoulder all the time. You look like a bum on speed. You stick out — ”

Horn was calm. “You found me, because you heard, somehow, somewhere, about what happened in Seattle. You joked about secret government storage. But it was really something related to what happened to Elmore, right? As a matter of fact, the thing I met in that Seattle warehouse could have been Elmore’s cousin. And I heard that a couple of people who used to hang around there ended up dead. It happens to the homeless, nobody pays much mind. But of course you were careful.”

“You aren’t making much sense, Joe.”

He stopped smiling altogether. It was starting to hurt his face. “You move well. Very athletic. We martial artists can see these things. I’ll bet you’re ranked about fourth or fifth dan in something interestingly lethal.”

“And I think you’re paranoid — ”

“Walk a mile in these shoes, Babe, and you'd be paranoid, too. It’s pretty hard to believe that even the government would send a top grade scientist on an assignment like this. Not exactly in the job description. You killed those two guys yourself, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, sure. That was it. And Elmore got away and I stalked him for six months and watched while he ate a bunch of innocent people — ”

“Field test, to see if the genetic makeover worked.”

“I was being sarcastic — “ She stopped, seeing the look in his eyes.

“You killed the other two because they were failures. Elmore was a success, wasn’t he? And so was the one I got in Seattle. I bet you were plenty pissed about that. Since I'm being paranoid, it’s probably not too far fetched to believe that you sent Elmore down here just to get me.”

She started to say something. Maybe a denial, but it caught in her throat. “I — look, it was my job — ”

“But you blew up Elmore when you were supposed to let him get me. Why?”

“You’re a really good lay,” she said without hesitation.

Her quiet voice was like a punch in the stomach.

In a softer voice he said, “So what are you going to tell the suits back home?

They’re not going to like it much when they find out what happened to Elmore.”

“That’s my problem,” she said. She hesitated, like she was waiting for him to give her the answer.

He looked at her, said nothing, feeling his gut turn over. “Freddy was my friend.”

She nodded, looking down. Then she slowly walked away, rounded the corner onto Broadway, and disappeared.

He stared after her for a long time. After a while, he turned and limped back down the alley, into the cool shadows.

 

 

John Craig cites Clint Eastwood as having always said his movies were intended for the guy who comes home from a hard day on the job and just wants to crack a beer and relax — “and that’s the way I write,” says John. He had a story in Spellbound magazine which he believes folded after three issues, but swears it “wasn’t his fault.” John lives in southern CA with his wife (“who won’t read my “scary stories” — just like dessert: more for us then — ed.) and daughter. His future plans include becoming a best selling author and living in a villa in France.


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ISSUE #1

April 1999

FICTION

ART