A graphic novel featuring Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday! A locked room murder mystery! Full color! Buy it now!
A graphic novel featuring Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday! A locked room murder mystery! Full color! Buy it now!
Another from Weaponizer. A familiarity with the Rolling Stones may help in understanding this one.
“Did you sleep the sleep of the just?” The well-dressed man asked.
I looked around the little room and took in its bare walls and simple furnishings. There wasn’t even a window. I sat on the edge of a neatly kept cot. He sat on a wooden chair.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“Ah,” he replied. “So that’s how it’s going to be. You are in your room.”
I looked around again. The statement was absurd. I didn’t recognize the room, how could it be mine? Yet, I couldn’t recall what my own room should look like. How could that be the case?
The well-dressed man was smiling. “Do you remember anything? Do you remember your name? Or mine?”
I didn’t. The realization startled me, but I remembered absolutely nothing before waking just minutes ago. I said, “No,” then waited anxiously for him to tell me, to pierce the dark cloud that hung over my memory.
“Let’s take a different tact,” he said. “How do you feel?”
I thought about it. “I feel fine,” I answered. “I am tired, like the night was long and full of strenuous work, but physically my body feels strong. I have no particular aches or pains of which to complain.”
He nodded and continued to smile. “Look at your hands. Examine them.”
I found I didn’t want to do as he said. Something about his smile was bringing dread to my heart. I had to force myself to look down at my hands. They were thin and pale and etched with lines.
“Your fingernails,” he whispered. “Look closely.”
There were dark stains under the edges of my nails. I examined them closely, the dread creeping up on me. “Blood?” I asked.
“Yes, very good. And how do you feel, now?”
I felt like my nerves would surely tear me apart. The fear and the dread had a firm grip on me. They would do their work and they would do it well.
“Fine,” I answered. “I feel fine.”
“Of course you do.” The well-dressed man stood from his chair and stepped closer to me for just a moment. I thought he was going to touch me and the very thought chilled me to the bone. He was so close that I felt sure that I would feel his breath upon my cheek but I felt nothing.
“When do you think it is,” he whispered.
“When?” I replied, puzzled by the question.
“What year do you believe it to be?”
“I don’t know.”
“I… I don’t know.”
“What century is it, do you think?”
I shook my head violently. “I don’t know. Please, stop.”
“Oh that’s ironic,” he said. He was back in his chair now, sitting comfortably. Watching. “She used those same words. Remarkable.”
“I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll get there, don’t you worry.”
I found myself shivering and realized that the temperature in the room felt like it had dropped by several degrees in the last few moments. I looked at the well-dressed man, but he showed no sign of discomfort.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I really have no idea. Are you a doctor?” I looked about the room once more. “Am I in a hospital? Or an asylum?”
“Not this time.”
“This time?” I asked, growing frustrated.
“We have danced this dance before, you and I. So many times. But the result is always the same. You seek to cleanse your hands but you can never cleanse your soul.”
I looked right at him, but I did not see him. Instead, I saw my hands again, covered in blood, certain that the blame was not mine to bear.
“You are no priest,” I said.
“No,” he agreed. “I am far from that.”
“I have done nothing wrong,” I said.
“You’re sure of that? With no memory of what happened, this time or the times before, you are still sure that the blood on your hands is not of your doing? Remarkable.”
The room felt even colder. I could feel his indignation like a tangible presence in the room. Even worse, I could feel my mind beginning to open, and I knew that whatever it held in its dark recesses, I wanted no part of it.
“You were there,” I whispered. “You urged me to turn away. You said it was not my concern.”
“Of course I did,” he replied. “That’s what I do. That’s what I’ve always done.”
“Then why do you torment me now?”
“Because you feel no guilt,” he said, and for the first time I heard the anger in his voice.
“I did nothing wrong.” The memories were flooding back. Not just from this time, but from all the times before.
“You let them hang an innocent man. You knew that he had done nothing wrong and you let them take him anyway. Even as his wife pleaded for you to stop them.”
“There was nothing I could have done. They would have taken him regardless of my decision.” I felt the weight behind my words.
“You’ve used that same argument in your defense for centuries. You used it in Germany. You used it in Russia. You used it in the court of Kings. And you used it in Judaea.”
“It was not my fault.”
“How do you bear this burden, Pontius? I tire of playing this eternal game with you, I want your guilt and I want your damned soul. The blame is yours.”
“I wash my hands of this,” I said.
“Of course you do,” he replied. “You always wash your hands of it. That is the reason that we keep ending up in this room, you and I. You take no responsibility.”
“I WASH MY HANDS OF THIS!” I shouted.
And the well-dressed man was gone. I looked down at my hands. They were clean, even under the edges of my nails.
I stood and walked from the room, out into the brightness of a new day. A new beginning.
Originally published at Weaponizer.
No one could explain to Cleveland Harris why it was always raining. When they put the dome up, about five years ago, the engineers said it would be able to control the weather, not just protect them from the UV rays that were leaking through the remains of the ozone layer.
That was before some strange combination of the moisture in the soil, the water in the bay and the heating and cooling systems that crisscrossed the entire dome produced an unforeseen side effect: constant, drizzling rain. Committees were formed, studies were commissioned and budgets were examined. The result was predictable.
Nothing could be done. Since there were no actual storms, it was deemed an irritant, not a problem and the cost of redoing the heating grid would bankrupt the city and since there were no more federal funds to draw on, well, that was that. The net effect of this, also predictable, was that everyone wore raincoats, everyone wore hats and everyone walked around pissed off and miserable most of the time.
Which made them not only more likely to kill each other, but harder to identify because they all looked alike. A situation that made Harris even more miserable than the rest of them, because he was a detective for the city’s homicide division and it was his job to sort it all out when people did knock each other off.
“At least this one’s indoors,” he muttered, as he climbed from his car and started for the old office building on Saratoga. Squad cars already surrounded the building, their lights flashing red and blue on the dimly lit street. Harris wore his badge on a chain around his neck, but no one would have stopped him anyway, they all knew the detective. Tall and broad, he was an imposing figure and at just over thirty his hair was completely white.
The crime scene itself was even more dismal and dreary than the street outside. At one time the ground floor of the office building had housed an upscale gym, but now it was just a large, gutted space. The electricity had been shut off long ago and the room was lit by several portable lanterns brought in by the crime lab. In the center of the former gym, amidst the trash and clutter left behind by years of homeless derelicts, was a body, dressed in black, laying face down on the floor.
“What have we got, Ben?” Harris asked.
“Two small caliber gun shot wounds to the back of the head,” the crime lab tech answered. “Execution style.”
Harris stared down at the corpse. “M.E. been here yet?”
“So we can’t move the body. Any evidence around?”
Ben Stafford grinned. “Tons. Probably all meaningless. This place hasn’t been cleaned in twenty years and it looks like a favorite stopover spot for vagrants.”
“Which will give us a whole flood of latent prints, all worthless. Terrific.”
“Also, very little blood, so the guy probably wasn’t killed here, just dumped.”
Harris nodded, still looking at the body. Blonde, average build, average height. The M.E. would be more precise when he got him back to the morgue. Dressed in black, head to toe. “He’s not wet.”
The lab tech nodded. “Noticed that, huh? No coat, either. My people are looking for one, but I don’t think they’ll have any luck.”
Harris kneeled down to get a closer look. Something caught his eye and he got down even closer, peering under the victim’s chin. “Take a look at this.”
Ben bent down and shined a pen light under the body. “Huh.”
“What is that?”
“Looks like a priest’s collar.”
“A priest?” Harris asked.
“Yep. I didn’t think there were any priests left in the city.”
“There’s not supposed to be. The Archdiocese pulled them out years ago. Claimed we had turned into a modern day Gomorrah. Turns out it was really about the taxes the city started leveling on the church’s land holdings.”
“So what’s a priest doing here?”
Harris grunted. “Damned if I know.” His scowl deepened as he stared at the body. This was starting to look like a mystery and Harris hated mysteries. He preferred clean cut, easy to close cases that wouldn’t keep him awake at night. Harris was the type of cop that let little details nag at him if they didn’t make sense. Little details that didn’t stop nagging until he had a satisfactory answer for them.
Little details like what a priest was doing in his city.
“Who was first on the scene?”
“Dillon. He’s taping the scene off out front.”
Harris trudged outside, looked around, and spotted Pete Dillon leaning up against the fender of an old Ford. “How ya doing, Pete?”
“Not bad. Where’s your partner?”
“Court. How’d you find the body?” Straight to business, Harris didn’t much like Dillon and he didn’t want to prolong the conversation.
“Anonymous call in. Said there’d be something interesting for us here.”
“Something interesting? Those exact words?”
Dillon grinned. “Close enough. Weird, huh? The call was to 911, so it’ll be on tape downtown, you can take a listen yourself.”
Harris nodded. “What happened when you got here?”
“Pulled in about 2:15. Did a quick check of the outside perimeter, put on some gloves and went inside. Took a few steps, saw the body, stepped back out and called it in.”
“Anybody nearby, any potential witnesses?”
“Not when I arrived. There were already a few milling around when I came back out, though. Probably saw the car, wondered what was up.”
Harris looked up the street, then down the other direction. Nothing but rotted out stores, offices and warehouses. Nothing residential. “All right,” he said, “round up some more uniforms. Work in teams, take flashlights, start poking around in all these closed stores, look for fresh puddles. Question anybody you find, these places are probably full of homeless people. See if anybody heard or saw anything. Anybody’s story sounds odd, haul them downtown, we’ll talk to them there.”
Dillon stopped grinning. “That’ll take all fucking night.”
“Then you better get started.”
Without waiting for an answer, Harris turned away and walked back to his own car. He reached through the open window, grabbed the radio handset and switched it on. “Dispatch, come in.”
“This is detective Harris, badge 784395, working a homicide on Saratoga.”
“What can I do for you, detective?”
“Pete Dillon caught the call on a 911 dispatch. I need to hear the tape of that call.”
Harris leaned against the car while he waited and watched the chaos across the street. Dillon was trying to organize the other officers into teams, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to him. Harris smiled and was about to shout over some encouragement when dispatch finally came back on the line.
“I’ve got your call cued, detective. Should I play it now?”
There was an audible click, then a brief pause followed by “911, state the nature of your emergency.”
A gravelly male voice responded, “I have a message for the police department.”
“Is this an emergency, sir?”
“Not anymore. Just send a unit down to the old health club at the corner of Saratoga and Grand. They’ll find something of interest inside.” There was the sound of a phone hanging up and a moment later the recording clicked off. The voice seemed familiar to Harris.
“Is that what you needed, detective?” asked dispatch.
“Yeah. Now I need you to burn that to a couple of discs. Messenger one to me at the 38th Precinct, send the other one to voice analysis.”
Harris put the handset down and frowned. He hated mysteries.
Neil Merchant hated court.
It wasn’t the testifying. He’d been a cop so long that testifying had become simple. Nice, relaxing, just the facts, no problems. It was the sitting around waiting to testify that pissed him off. Long wooden benches that made his ass hurt. Unpleasant people waiting alongside him for their chance to testify. Most of them were nervous, many of them smelled bad.
He hated people who smelled bad.
So he was already in a foul mood before the judge dismissed the case. Illegal entry, no probable cause, all evidence deemed fruit of the poisoned tree. It made him scowl and the scowl made his youthful face look cracked and old.
By the time he got back to the precinct, his scowl had deepened and he was beginning to analyze the situation. Unlike his partner, Merchant actually liked mysteries and he thought he could see the corner of one sticking out from under the crushed remains of his case.
Harris was already back at his desk, diligently typing up the initial report on the priest’s murder, a task made all the more difficult for Harris because he could only type with two fingers.
“Hey, Cleve,” Merchant said. “What have we got?”
“Dead priest in an abandoned building,” he muttered without looking up. “How’d court go?”
Merchant dropped into his chair. “Lousy. Judge threw out the case.”
That got Harris’ attention. “Threw it out? What for?”
“Said we didn’t have probable cause.”
“What about the scream?”
Two weeks earlier, Harris and Merchant had gone to an apartment building on Bleeker Street to question one Devon Mulrooney about his possible involvement in selling a .45 caliber handgun to a gentleman who had used said gun to kill his boss. Before knocking, they heard a scream from inside the apartment, drew their guns and kicked in the door. Turns out Mulrooney was alone inside, but the vidserver volume was maxed out and they figured the scream must have come from there. Inside, in plain sight, were nearly a hundred guns in various shapes and sizes, so they arrested Mulrooney for illegal possession of firearms.
“The defense said there was no scream on the vidserver. They did their research, Cleve. They went to every damn channel and verified what they were running at that time. Nobody was airing anything that had someone screaming, not even during a commercial.”
Harris stared at him blankly. “We heard a scream. Both of us heard it, plain as day.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve been thinking about that.”
“We missed something. Someone else in the building in trouble, maybe. Sound came from another apartment.”
“Seems like the most likely explanation.”
“We have to go back, don’t we?”
“Shit.” Harris stood up, clipped on his gun and slipped into his coat. “May as well get it over with, I’m still waiting on an M.E. report and voice analysis.”
“Yeah, come on, I’ll fill you in on the way.”
The apartment building on Bleeker Street was a slum, of course. Old, dilapidated, filthy and it smelled of urine and cigarettes. Harris and Merchant moved carefully up the steps until they reached the third floor landing, where Mulrooney lived. They stood in front of his door and frowned.
“Does it ever bother you that all these places look alike?” Harris asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind. So, where do we start?”
“Not a clue.” Merchant looked up and down the hall. “Could have come from the next floor up, I suppose. Or the one below.”
“What do we do, knock on their doors and say, ‘hey, did you happen to scream really loud on the 14th, about 8:30 at night?”
Merchant shook his head. “No, I guess not. I don’t suppose we could get a warrant to search the whole building.”
“Hey, you guys! You here about the smell?”
They both turned and looked down the hall in the direction of the shout. It was a scruffy looking old man, gray of hair and beard, dressed in a pair of dirty old long johns.
“Excuse me?” Merchant said.
“The smell! The smell! What are you, God damned deaf? Are you here about the smell?”
Before Merchant could say anything, Harris interrupted. “Yeah, we’re here about the smell, but dispatch didn’t give us the apartment number of the complainant. We were just trying to decide how to proceed.”
The old man got more agitated. “Well, I’m the God damned complainer, I guess, and you can start by getting rid of that smell.”
They walked down the hall and joined the old man at his apartment. “Where’s it coming from?” Merchant asked.
“How the hell should I know, you’re the damned experts. Come inside and smell for your damn selves.”
They entered the old man’s apartment and stopped in their tracks. They had both been cops long enough that they instantly recognized the smell of death. “Where’s it coming from?” Merchant asked again, but this time the question was directed at Harris. The old man started to say something, but saw the seriousness of their expressions and opted against it.
“It’s not in here,” Harris answered. “It’s distinct, but not strong enough. Through the ventilation system?” He walked over to the air vents in the wall and sure enough, the smell was stronger. He pulled a Swiss army knife from his pocket and undid the screws on the vent cover.
“Well?” Merchant asked.
Harris stuck his face into the vent and sniffed up and down. “Upstairs, I think. Hard to be sure.”
Out the door they went, leaving the confused old man behind and hurried up the steps to the next landing. Finding the apartment above the old man’s, which happened to be just above and to the right of Mulrooney’s place, they stood outside the door. The odor was stronger up here. With a vague sense of déjà vu, they unholstered their guns and kicked the door in unison. It flew open and the smell was suddenly over whelming.
Holding his breath, Merchant peered inside.
There was blood everywhere.
And in the center of the living room, exactly what they knew would be there.
For the second time that day, Harris was sitting around waiting for the M.E.
After they had called it in, Merchant and Harris had done a quick once over of the apartment. The tenant, a young woman, probably in her mid-twenties, had been stabbed repeatedly. The knife was left lying on the floor near the body and of course the whole place was drenched in blood.
They found no identification in the apartment, nothing to indicate who she might be. Harris asked dispatch to try to reach the landlord, find out whose name was on the lease.
“In the old days,” Merchant said, “the forensic boys would have been all over this place, telling us everything we needed to know about the perp.”
“Yeah, but in the old days we actually had a budget. We’re lucky to get a single real lab guy down here to process the room and then it’s only a once over.”
“Think there’ll be any DNA?”
“That we can use?” Harris muttered. “Maybe, maybe not. If they can get something off the body, maybe under the nails or something, if she fought back, then we might have a shot. Not the room in general, though, probably been too many people in here over the years and it doesn’t look like she was much of a housekeeper.”
The lab guy came and went without saying much, so Harris had no idea if he was going to get anything useful from that. Merchant was off questioning tenants in the rest of the building on the off chance that someone might have seen or heard something. Unfortunately, at the same time the young woman was being murdered, they were busting down Mulrooney’s door and anyone likely to be paying attention to the comings and goings in the building was probably distracted by the action on the third floor.
Hell, the killer could have walked right by them that night and no one would have noticed. Except…
“There’s a convenience store across the street,” Harris muttered. He stuck his head in the room and told the uniform guarding the scene that he’d be right back if anyone asked, then took off down the steps and out the front door.
The clerk at the store looked at him blankly when he flashed his badge. He was a young guy, maybe eighteen, with no hair, a lot of tattoos and some basic body mods, horns and a ridge down the center of his skull.
“I don’t know what you want, Mr. Suit, and I don’t give a shit. I’m over here minding my own bidness, ain’t got nothing to do wit you.”
“Uh-huh.” Harris considered his choices for a moment, weighing tact and discretion against brute force and anger. Maybe a blend of the two. He leaned on the counter and smiled. “Listen, you little shit, I don’t have the patience to play games with you.” His voice was calm and measured but his eyes told a very different story. “A woman over in that building is dead. She died two weeks ago, on the fourteenth, between eight and nine pm. Now, you have a security camera here that points at your front door. See it? It should also see that door across the street because the line of sight is perfect through this glass door. So I want the discs from the fourteenth or I’m going to rip those horns right off your fucking head. Are we clear?”
The young man stammered and stuttered for a minute, but he went to the back and pulled the discs and that was all that mattered. Harris took them from him and went down to his car to grab the netpad from the trunk. Just as he sat down on the curb, Merchant came out looking for him.
“Hey, there you are.”
Harris nodded. “How’d it go inside?’
“About what we expected. Not a damn thing. M.E. finally got here, he’s inside now. What’ve you got?”
“Discs from the security camera across the street. Let’s see if we got lucky.” Harris was often lucky. It was something he had begun to rely on, probably more than he should.
The terminal allowed them to zoom through the glass door and focus on the front door of the apartment building. The problem was, when they were going into the building, people had their backs to the camera. They couldn’t identify anyone but themselves when they entered around 8:30. Shortly after that the traffic increased, becoming almost a mob of people going in and out of the house.
“We’re going to have to get this to the lab and see if they can get printouts of each face coming out of the building. At least the ones that aren’t shrouded by their damn hats. Then we can compare them against the people who should be there and see if we end up with any strangers.”
Merchant was looking at the screen, absorbing everything. “Wait a minute, Cleve, back it up a few frames.”
Harris rolled the image back. “What did you see?”
“The guy on the far right coming down the stairs, is he wearing what I think he’s wearing?”
Harris looked at the image again.
“Shit. How did I miss that? That’s him.”
He brought the image in tighter on the man’s face.
And on the white priest’s collar around his neck.
Two hours later Harris and Merchant were sitting in an empty interrogation chamber, sorting through the reports on both cases. The medical reports had started filtering in on the priest, but the details weren’t very helpful so far. Tox screens had turned up a heavy concentration of barbiturates in his system along with some alcohol. Not enough to kill him, but he wouldn’t be very active, either.
They found nothing in the city print or DNA databanks to match him and they probably couldn’t get approval to do a national search, not a high enough profile case, the chief would never authorize the expense. Besides nobody ever came to the city. It wasn’t exactly a tourist attraction. The autopsy confirmed that cause of death was two gunshots to the back of the head. Recovered bullet fragments showed the gun to be of a .380 caliber.
There was no identification or personal effects on the body. A canvas of the neighborhood turned up exactly what Harris expected to turn up. Nothing. Nobody had seen anything suspicious, nobody had seen a priest or anyone else near the old health club. He had uniforms questioning the neighbors at Bleeker Street armed with photographs of the priest, but that would take time.
Merchant stared at one of the photographs for a minute and asked, “Can we place him in the girl’s apartment?”
Harris shrugged. “Who knows? Deitrich pulled seventy some separate prints from that place and it’s going to take awhile to process them. If we’re lucky, we’ll put the priest inside. Then what?”
Merchant shuffled through some papers. “Landlord said the place was rented out to a Derek Roth. No mention of a wife or girlfriend living there.”
“And no sign of a man living there when we went through the apartment. Only her things in the closets. Only one toothbrush in the bathroom. You think this Derek Roth is the priest?”
“It’s possible. Let me run him through the computer, we got a social security number on the lease.” Merchant switched on the wireless terminal and typed the number into the city databank. A few seconds later he had an answer. “Zip. No one using that number has ever been arrested or employed in the city.”
“Why am I not surprised? Everything about this case makes my head hurt.”
“Want me to make it hurt more?” This came not from Merchant, but from the doorway. They both turned to see Sam Kreiger, the aging tech from the video analysis section. He stood in the doorway, broad as a wall and hairy as a bear, not a trace of gray even though department rumors put him at almost seventy years old.
Harris just frowned, but Merchant took the bait. “What have you got, Sam?”
Kreiger strode into the room and laid a bunch of photos down on the table. They were still images of the priest coming out of the apartment building with the rest of the crowd. “Okay, take a close look at his nose.”
“His nose?” Harris asked.
“Yeah, his nose. Notice anything?”
“Looks like a normal nose to me,” Merchant muttered.
“There’s a shadow along the right hand side of it, which would place the light source to the left. Now look at everyone else’s noses.”
“Shadows are on the other side,” Harris said.
“How it that possible?”
Krieger grinned. “It’s not. These images have been doctored. That man shouldn’t be there. It’s an extraordinary job, I’ll give you that. No pixilization, seamless edging. And this was in full motion video, not just still images. Very impressive.”
Harris and Merchant looked at each other, then back at Krieger.
“That film came from a security camera at a convenience store. Who would mess with a security camera?”
The old man’s grin widened as he headed for the door. “Not my problem boys, you’re the detectives.”
They sat at the table, flipping back and forth through the photos. After a few minutes, Merchant said, “Why didn’t we notice that?”
“Cause it’s a fucking security camera. When’s the last time you had a doctored security cam disc? I’ll tell you when. Fucking never, that’s when.” Harris stood up and started pacing the room. “It doesn’t make any damn sense, Neil. We got a dead priest who shouldn’t even be in the city, we can’t identify him, he shows up in the security footage on a completely unrelated case and now the footage is doctored.”
Merchant watched as his partner paced about the room. Harris’ behavior at times like these always fascinated him. He knew Harris hated mysteries, but he was actually very good at solving them, much better than Merchant himself would ever be. Right before a breakthrough he would start pacing like this, muttering to himself, then he’d pull a plan out of thin air and it almost always led them in the right direction. Merchant considered himself very lucky to be partnered up with Cleveland Harris.
Almost as suddenly as it started, the pacing stopped. Harris crossed to the phone and dialed the number for the morgue. He said something about coming down to see the priest’s body, then scowled as he listed to the reply. “How,” he asked and then listened some more. The expression on his face grew darker and darker and he hurled the phone across he room.
Almost afraid to ask, Merchant stood up and said, “What is it, Cleve?”
“The priest’s body, it’s gone.”
Harris didn’t sleep that night. He spent his time walking the streets, listening to the cold, still rain and thinking.
He never slept when he had a case like this, where things didn’t fit together logically. He’d turn them over and over in his mind and try to make the pieces fit together.
There was obviously something big he wasn’t seeing. The problem was he just didn’t know anything, yet. He didn’t even know who the victims were, so how could he possibly tie them together? Maybe some more information would filter in from the apartment murder. Maybe the girl’s prints would be in the databanks.
By morning, he had run through every piece of evidence he had hundreds of times and was still drawing a blank. He gave up on the idea of sleep and headed back to the precinct. Maybe some of the reports had come in overnight.
The squad room was quiet.
Merchant wasn’t due for another two hours. Neither were the rest of the day shift detectives. The night shift guys were probably out at a crime scene. Only the log officer was at his desk and he seemed almost asleep.
Harris sat down at his desk and reached for the case folder for the priest. He paused. It was labeled now, with a name. Martin Holloway. Had they identified the priest while he was out? Why hadn’t someone called him?
He looked at the outside of the folder and for some reason, it made him nervous. He didn’t want to open it.
He looked at the name written in the black marker, neat and precise. It looked like his own writing. Hands unsteady, he flipped open the cover. Inside were crime scene photos, but not the ones that had been there before. He closed the cover and looked at the address again. It was the right file, the old gym.
The photos showed the same scene, but the body was different. This man was blonde and dressed in light colored clothing. He flipped through the reports. All the same, except there was no mention of the priest’s collar. And his fingerprints had been on file, that’s how a positive ID had been made.
Harris scowled at the reports.
They all had his signature on them. Even the fingerprint search request.
He picked up the phone and dialed the forensics lab. “Is Stafford in yet?” he asked. They put him on hold. He sat there, stomach reeling, unable to comprehend. When the lab tech finally came on the phone, he could hardly speak. “That case we caught yesterday,” he mumbled, “on Saratoga Street?”
“At the old gym, yeah, what about it?”
“Do you remember what he was wearing?”
Stafford paused. “Don’t you have pictures, Cleve?”
“Humor me, tell me what he was wearing.”
“Okay. Khaki pants, pale blue oxford, dark brown shoes. He didn’t have a coat and he wasn’t wet, is that what you’re looking for?”
“You remember anything about a collar?”
“His collar? Normal collar for an Oxford, why?”
“Never mind.” Harris hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair. A joke? It seemed impossible. Could he be losing it, could the whole thing have been in his mind? He didn’t think so, but would he know if he was going crazy?
He sat there, just thinking it through, until Merchant arrived.
“Solve the case yet, Cleve?” he asked.
Harris just stared at him.
After a minute, Merchant said, “something wrong?”
“Just wondering if you’re in on it.”
Harris shook his head. “Nothing, never mind. Do you remember that priest yesterday?”
“Priest?” Merchant shook his head. “No, I don’t remember any priest. We don’t have priests in the city anymore, do we?”
“No, I guess we don’t.” He stood up and started for the exit.
“Hey, Cleve, where ya going?”
“To get my head examined,” Harris muttered and walked out the door.
Harris thought it was a joke at the time.
But after a visit to both crime scenes, he found himself more confused than ever, so he headed for the department’s medical infirmary. It took some doing to convince the doctors to run tests on him without an explanation why, but eventually they agreed.
They did a basic physical exam, took x-rays and ran an EEG test. They all came back fine. As a final check they ran a Brainwave Sensory Impulse test. That wasn’t fine.
Harris was pacing the examination room when Dr. Phillips came back with the results. “Well,” he asked. “What is it?”
The doctor shook his head. “I don’t know. Let me show you something.” He spread out a long piece of paper that showed numerous lines in various colors, crisscrossing in intricate patterns. “These represent the various electrical impulses in your brain. We’re still learning what all of them do. It’s not an exact science, yet, by any means. However, we do know one thing. Do you see this gray line here?
“You shouldn’t. I’ve never seen it on another BSI test. Ever. There should be thirty-two separate and distinct lines. You have thirty-three.”
“What does that mean?”
Dr. Phillips frowned. “I’m not sure how to answer that. Like I said, I’ve never seen anything like it before. I pulled your file and compared it to your old test, that one was normal. So whatever happened to you, happened since your last mandatory physical evaluation. That would lead me to believe that it’s artificial, rather than some sort of natural mutation.”
“Artificial? As in someone fucking with my brain?”
“That would be my first thought, yes, but it brings up another question that I can’t answer. How? I did a careful examination of your skull, there’s no recent wounds of any kind, no injection marks. Your toxicology report shows no foreign chemicals in your bloodstream. It’s a physiological change, so it can’t be accounted for by something like hypnotism. I just don’t know how it could have been done.”
Harris thought about it for a minute. “Could this affect my memory? Or cause hallucinations?”
“There’s no real way to tell. Have you been having problems with either?”
“I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.”
“Shit. You’re right.” Harris resumed his pacing as he went back over the previous day’s events with the doctor, step by step. When he was finished, he sat down on the examination table and waited while the doctor thought it over.
“So, if it was an altered reality, it’s been corrected today. You haven’t seen the priest at all today, just things as they really should be, correct?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I can’t find any reference to the priest in anything, even my own reports.”
“Detective, I hate to say this, but that presents a new problem.”
Harris grimaced. “Why doesn’t that surprise me? Okay, doc, unload. What is it?”
“Well, if your mind was tampered with yesterday, somehow, then it could have added that thirty-third wave to the BSI test. But if the alteration was undone, the wave shouldn’t still be there. So there’s the possibility that what you’re experiencing today is the alteration.”
“But…” He sat silent for a minute then said, “What about everybody else? They don’t remember the priest at all.”
“Two possibilities. Either your perceptions of what they tell you are being altered or their memories of yesterday are altered as well.”
“Then why would I have memories of the priest, when they don’t?”
“You said you didn’t sleep last night, you were too caught up in the case. Maybe you need to be inactive for the change to take effect.”
“So, when I do get to sleep, I could forget everything about the priest?”
“Yes, It’s possible. Probable, even.”
Harris considered it for a moment. “All right, doc, I’m going to try to get my partner to come in for a BSI test. Don’t explain anything to him, just run the test. I need to know if others are really being affected by this.”
“Okay, I can do that.”
“In the meantime, I think you better give me some stim packs. I can’t afford to sleep until I figure this mess out.”
As Harris left the med building and started down the large, ornate steps, he stopped dead in his tracks. Across the street, on a bench in front of the park, sat the priest, reading a newspaper. He made his way down the rest of the steps and across the street without taking his eyes from his quarry.
Two steps away, he stopped and said, “You’re under arrest.”
“For what, detective? With what crime can you possible charge me? Being alive?” His voice had a strange lilt to it, almost European, but not quite.
“Tampering with evidence. Interfering with a murder investigation.”
“Really?” The priest neatly folded the paper and laid it on the bench beside him. “And how do you expect to make that stick, detective? Nobody else even believes I exist.”
“Being taken care of as we speak. An oversight on my part, I never expected you to go that route. But then, that’s what these things are all about, isn’t it? The unpredictability?”
Harris stared at him and frowned. “You ever have one of those days where you feel really dense? Like the answers are all in front of you and you just can’t see them clearly?”
“Happens to the best of us, detective.” There was a slight tinge of sarcasm every time the priest used the word ‘detective’.
“You know what’s going on, don’t you?”
“Do you have any siblings, detective?”
Harris thought about it. “That’s weird. I can’t remember.”
“Of course you can’t.”
“Who are you?”
The priest smiled. “You can call me Gary, how’s that?”
“If you like, yes. In fact, I rather like that.”
“What are you after, Father? What do you want?”
“Inconsistency. Mistakes. I want you to see the flaws in the design. Like the newspaper lying at my side. You can’t quite read it, can you? Even though the banner is right on top, it’s just out of focus.”
Harris shook his head. “The words are English, but I don’t understand a damn thing you say.”
“I think you do, son. Deep down inside, I think I’m starting to get through. The puzzle isn’t making sense anymore, you keep turning it over and over and it doesn’t make any sense at all. You can keep twisting it, trying to fit the facts into your preconceived notions or you can step back and look at the larger picture. Think outside the box, as they used to say in those silly TV adds.”
The scowl of Harris’ face deepened. “There’s a pattern here and I’ll find it. And I’ll nail you with it.”
“Such hostility. Tell me detective, what is your mother’s maiden name? Was she a good cook? Could she make an apple pie? You can’t remember, can you? Do you feel a slight itching sensation on the back of your head? Down at the base of your neck? I can tell you why. I can even make it go away, if you let me.”
Unconsciously, Harris began to scratch at his neck.
“Don’t let him fool you, Cleve.” It was Merchant, suddenly standing there, as if he’d been there all along. His gun was drawn and aimed at the priest.
Father Gary smiled. “Now there’s a development I didn’t expect.”
Harris looked back and forth between them. Merchant looked frightened, but the priest did not. An odd reversal, considering their positions.
“I don’t think he’s armed, Neil,” Harris said.
“He’s already killed two officers, Cleve.”
The priest stopped smiling. “Oh my. It’s not only gained some form of sentience, it’s writing its own scenario. That shouldn’t be possible. Although it does explain a few things. His consciousness was probably fighting with yours, each filling in details of an impossible crime.”
Harris looked even more confused. Ideas were starting to break through, but he could feel his mind pushing them away. He looked at Merchant and frowned. “He hasn’t killed anyone, Neil. He’s the vic, remember?”
“The vic? What’s wrong with you, Cleve? He’s standing right there. He’s not dead.
“No,” said Father Gary. “I’m not, am I?”
Then Harris started to hear voices.
They were faint at first, but then they started to get just a little louder. They seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once and they were directed at the priest.
“I don’t understand why you don’t just pull the plug,” one of the voices muttered. It sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
“Too dangerous,” answered another voice, one that sounded like the 911 dispatch officer. “He has to do it himself.”
“It’s leaking in, isn’t it?” The priest asked.
“What’s leaking in?”
Harris turned from him and started to walk away. Away from the priest and from his partner. I’ll go back to my apartment, he decided. I’ll lie down a bit, think things through. It would all fall into place. It always did.
He walked several blocks down to First Avenue and stopped. Which way was his home? He knew it was off First Avenue, but what direction? Why didn’t he know?
“You don’t know where your apartment is, do you? You’ve never had a reason to know.” It was the priest again, right behind him. “The action of the story never necessitated it.”
“Don’t listen to him, Cleve.” His partner was there, too, behind the priest. “He’s trying to confuse you.”
Harris ignored him and focused on Father Gary. “The story?” He tried to regain his composure so he could think. “You’re not really a priest, are you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Then why the get up?”
“You’re a lapsed catholic, Cleveland. This is the face you assign to authority that you don’t understand.”
“I assign. Like I gave you that appearance?”
“You’re name isn’t really Gary, is it?”
“No, it’s not.”
Harris sat down on the curb, feeling defeated. Merchant was gone now and the street seemed different, out of focus. “So why do I call you that?” he asked.
“Another clue from your sub-conscious, I believe.”
“From my…” His voice trailed off as he thought about it. “Gary Gygax,” he whispered. “Of course.” The pieces finally started to fall into place. “How long have I been in here?” he asked.
“Wow. Where was the scenario supposed to end?”
“With the Mulrooney case. But you got too caught up in the program and just kept right on playing.”
The world seemed to implode around him, the city shrunk away into his eyes and became a blinding white light that gradually faded into the slightly dimmer light of a science lab. He tried to sit up from the fitted bed he rested in, but his muscles wouldn’t cooperate.
“Don’t try to push it, Cleve, you’ve been there for weeks.” The voice was that of the priest from the scenario, but the face belonged to Professor Daniel Hampton, the inventor of the virtual gaming system that had been his prison.
“My head hurts like hell.”
“That plug is designed for two weeks, maximum. You doubled that time. I was afraid you were never going to come out. What finally got through to you?”
“Father Gary, Gary Gygax, father of the role-playing game. Once that clicked it all came together. I think the game needs a few more safeguards before you put it on the market, Professor.”
Hampton shook his head in agreement. “I know, I know. I’m already working on it. What about texturally? Anything it lacks?”
“Wind. Thunder and wind. If you’re going to have that much rain, you’ve got to have thunder and wind.”
Originally published on the website Weaponizer.
Memory is not a continuous stream or a single tapestry. It’s a series of individual moments and events, stitched together like scenes in a movie. Imagine trying to make sense of your life if those scenes were shuffled like a deck of cards. Over and over again.
It’s morning. I’m in a disgusting hotel room that looks like it hasn’t seen maid service in a year or two. The furniture is stained and I’m trying not to think about what made the stains. Everything is dark, the light bulbs are covered in a thick coat of nicotine. The blinds block out most of the sunlight, except where they’ve cracked and crumbled with age.
I remember checking in here. It was the night my wife threw me out. I want to say that it was fifteen years ago, by now. I can’t. My mind no longer works that way. I have to piece things together like a puzzle. Separate events from their perceived order and build them into a logical timeline.
All the while, wondering if any of the pieces to the puzzle are missing. There’s just no way to tell.
This can’t be the night after my wife threw me out. That’s impossible. I still remember her murder, whenever it happened. A week ago, a year ago. It doesn’t matter. She couldn’t have thrown me out after she was murdered. No way to make that work on the timeline.
So I’m here again. Back in the same shitty hotel room. Have they even changed the sheets? Why would I come back here? Isn’t this where…?
I’m in the hospital. They’ve got me hooked up to all sorts of machines. They all make faint little beeping noises. I’m strapped to the bed. Can’t have me getting up and walking away. I feel like I’m floating. Probably the morphine. I think I was shot in the head.
Molly is in a chair in the corner. She’s been crying for a long time. Somehow, that makes me feel a little better. She always looks so damn perfect. It’s nice to see her makeup run. I don’t think she’s crying for me, anyway.
This can’t be now. I remember getting better from this. I remember healing. I remember fighting with Molly and her going away.
I remember the hotel room.
Knock, Knock. Pound! Pound!
“Open up in there, Mr. Devlin.”
Yeah, this hotel room. This disgusting hole of a room. I think it might be my home. I wonder about the man outside. His voice doesn’t sound familiar. I start to reach for the door and notice the bruises on my hands. I’ve hit someone recently.
Blood on my sleeve. What have I done, now? Do I remember it? Some violent event shuffled into my past? He knocks again, but I stay very quiet. I hope he’ll go away. I hope I haven’t done anything too awful.
There’s a long pause, then a huge thud and a cracking noise as the wood splinters. I go… Elsewhen.
I’m in a bar in East Lansing. It’s full of college students. Most of them are pretty. One of them is stunning. A tall redhead, with perfect legs. She’s wearing a mini skirt and I can’t take my eyes off of her.
She buys me a drink. Tells me she has a thing for older guys. Especially married ones. I shake my head. “Separated,” I tell her.
“Even better.” Her name is Molly. She’s wearing a wedding ring, too. I don’t ask about it. That was probably a mistake. I make a lot of those.
The phone is ringing.
I’m in another hotel room, but this one is much nicer. Clean sheets, room service cart against the wall. There’s an empty bottle of champagne on top of the cart, along with two glasses. There’s a naked woman in bed, her head resting against my shoulder as she sleeps.
I can’t see who she is. The angle is wrong.
I answer the phone. It’s Molly.
“Jamie, what have you done?” She screams. “What have you done?”
My hands are battered and bruised. The woman feels cold beside me.
I’m in prison. It’s rare for me to be able to connect cause and effect. But in prison, they tell you why you’re here. They do it to shame you, although some prisoners seem to wear that knowledge like a badge of honor.
I’m here because I killed Molly’s husband. I remember doing it, although it seems like it was a long time ago, long before I met Molly. Impossible, I know. I have to keep thinking about the timeline.
It was an accident, I didn’t mean to hurt him. Not like…
They called it accidental manslaughter. I was defending myself. Neither of us saw the stairway. Either of us could have died in the fall. It just turned out to be him.
I’m standing in the atrium of Molly’s building. I’m on parole.
She never visited while I was inside. She said it was over, that she couldn’t handle anymore of the craziness. Of my craziness.
I’m pleading with her to give me another chance. I tell her that I love her more than anything.
Then there’s a cracking noise. It startles us both. I can feel something warm and sticky running down the side of my face. I go to wipe it away and I see the look of abject terror in Molly’s eyes.
She starts to scream.
It’s my first day outside of the hospital. Molly is explaining the damage the bullet did to my brain. The doctors have explained it to me before, but I can never remember it right.
Molly tells me that it was just bad luck. A drive-by shooting.
I don’t believe her. But I smile and nod in all the right places. She kisses me and tells me that everything is going to be okay.
I think she knows better.
I’ve just run into my wife in the hotel bar. She has a suite upstairs. She’s back in town for a meeting with a client.
I already knew all of that.
She’s drunk and she keeps apologizing to me. She won’t say what she’s apologizing for, but I know.
It’s not enough.
She asks me if I’d like to come back to her room with her. For old time’s sake. She puts her hand over mine and smiles.
Molly’s voice, on the phone. “What did you do? My god, Jamie, what did you do?”
The cold woman at my side, she’s not breathing. I think that’s my fault. And I think I know who she is.
The sound of splintering wood.
Two men burst through the door and into the squalid room. They have guns pointed at me.
“You’re very young,” I say. “You look nervous.”
“Don’t you fucking move,” says the one in front. I don’t. I let them cuff me and lead me from the room.
They say things. Lots of things. Most of them slip away so fast. One echoes in my head, over and over.
“You’re under arrest for the murder of Jennifer Devlin.”
Did I do it? I can’t remember.
But I think it fits the timeline.
This piece was originally published on the Weaponizer blog. The important thing to know, before diving in, is that Harlan isn’t and wasn’t dying. This all came about from a new story that misquoted (or rather misunderstood a quote) from Harlan. Following the article, Harlan himself got in touch with me, both to clear up the misunderstanding and to thank me for the kind words. It was probably the most enjoyable hour I’ve ever spent on the phone, and I’ll tell you about it someday. But for now, here’s the original piece about what Harlan has meant to me.
The salient fact, the piece of information that is crucial to all that follows, no matter how much I wish otherwise: Harlan Ellison has announced that he is dying.
Let that stand alone, for a moment.
How do you begin to write a piece about something that horrifies you? Something that just makes you want to shake your head in denial and hide somewhere, perhaps in a corner, amidst a collection of favorite old books. Books like The Glass Teat, Shatterday, The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart of The World, Stalking The Nightmare and Strange Wine. What do you do when all those favorite books just remind you of the horrifying news that sent you scurrying for the corner in the first place?
Perhaps you go back, to the origins of it all. The point of discovery, the spark of inspiration, or, as we often say in mystery fiction, the precipitating incident. As such:
I was eighteen years old and spending a great deal of time hanging out in a local comic book store. Partially because I was a huge comic fan, but also because the people that hung there and worked there were very much my sort of people. It was one of the first places I had ever felt a true sense of belonging. The year was 1986.
This comic store, back in those days before the slick, chain like stores took over the business, was really a small house and it carried not just comics but gaming supplies and tons and tons of old books. I loved getting lost in the stacks of books. Science fiction novels, fantasy novels, men’s adventure books with ridiculous titles like The Executioner and The Penetrator. They all fascinated me.
On one particular day, I discovered a book called An Edge In My Voice by a writer named Harlan Ellison. It was an oversized paperback, thick and heavy, put out by a company called Starblaze Graphics. Starblaze I recognized, I had several graphic novels that they had published in my collection along with some books by Robert Asprin.
Harlan, however, was new to me. Still, the book looked intriguing and different so I picked it up and started to read segments at random. It was non-fiction, which surprised me, I think I was expecting science fiction (probably because of the section in which the store had it shelved). It was also incredibly engrossing. Harlan’s voice hit me like a freight train and I think my brain started going through evolutionary changes on the spot.
I had been toying with the idea of writing stories for several years. Even written a few, very, very bad ones. But it was holding that book in my hand, reading Harlan talk about what it takes to be a writer, about being truthful (which doesn’t always mean factual), about being fearless and about the craft itself that really sealed the deal for me. For the first time in my life, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I have no idea how long I really stood there reading that book, but I do recall the shop owner coming in to tell me he was closing up. I asked him to find me anything else he had by Harlan and he pulled out several paperbacks, a couple hardcovers and a small stack of science fiction magazines that all had Harlan’s name on the cover.
I took it all and went home and spent the next several days devouring all of it, some pieces over and over. His fiction was every bit as amazing as his non-fiction and even more important, it felt daring and new.
I read Repent Harlequin, Said The Ticktockman! In a paperback called All The Sounds of Fear. Actually, I read it through about four times in a single sitting. The first time laughing my ass off at the sparkling wit, the second time really appreciating the non linear structure, the third time studying the way he built a world so subtly and so completely and finally, the fourth time, when I took all the elements in together and really absorbed what has become my all time favorite piece of short form fiction.
Another piece that had a similar impact on me was found in one of the magazines, an issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that featured Harlan on the cover for a story called All The Lies That Are My Life. At this point, having read through a couple of the books already, I was expecting speculative fiction (Harlan’s preferred term for what he does). Again, Harlan surprised. All The Lies is as much a piece of literary fiction as anything written by Hemmingway or Salinger. It may (or may not) contain some autobiographical detail. If it doesn’t, you feel like it does anyway because the characters are so painstakingly real and believable.
I could spend days reminiscing about various stories, unfortunately, that’s not why we’re here, you and I.
We’re here to talk of the man.
Harlan has his fair share of detractors. You’ll find no shortage of people online who will call him all manner of unpleasant things, most of which I imagine bring a smile to the man’s face. Likewise, there’s no shortage of us that consider the man a genuine hero, a role model and just an all around incredible human being. Harlan’s probably less comfortable with that adulation then he is with the bile from the other side, but the hell with it, let him be uncomfortable.
He has been known to be a difficult man to work with, especially in Hollywood circles. (Harlan spent plenty of time in the trenches, writing both film and television and winning several awards for his work.) He has been known as a litigious man, instigating more lawsuits than one can easily imagine.
And yet, both that difficult nature and that tendency towards litigation come from an overwhelming desire for fairness and justice. He has fought, over and over, to preserve creators’ rights, tilting furiously against the giant windmills of the huge, entertainment machine. To this day, whenever I hear of a particularly obnoxious money man trying to force creative decisions on a writer, I picture Harlan sneaking up behind him, garlic and wooden stake in hand, ready to do battle for the writer and the story.
In fact, that’s how I’ll always picture Harlan, ready to do battle against the unjust and the unfair, with a smile on his lips and a story in his heart. It’s an example we should all learn from and emulate. We should all spend some time tilting at windmills.
Perhaps my strongest regret is never meeting Harlan. There were opportunities in the past. I could have made it to a convention appearance or a lecture. I let my ego get in the way of that. I wanted to wait until I was established as a writer. I wanted to speak to him, not as an equal, no, my hubris doesn’t stretch that far, but at least as a fellow professional. The new kid on the block, so to speak. It’s a chance I’ll never have, now, and it is something I will regret for a very long time indeed.
Before I go, I want to leave you with a suggestion. Harlan may be dying, but he’s not gone yet. There may be some wonderful things yet to come from the man. Or he may spend his final days enjoying a well earned rest. In either case, I would urge you, don’t send him presents. He’s a happy man, he has said so on many an occasion and he has all that he needs or desires.
Instead, if you feel compelled to do something for Harlan, perhaps a contribution to the CBLDF (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund). It’s an organization that fights against censorship and for the rights of comic creators. Harlan has strongly supported the CBLDF over the years (as have I) and he would, I am sure, be delighted to see an upswing in support in his name.
(Originally published in the first issue of Weaponizer Magazine)
It was hot and dry and dusty that day.
It was hot and dry and dusty every day in Epitaph. There was a general consensus that the little border town lived up to its name, at least in spirit. It felt like the summation of our lives, the final word on an existence so barren of love and decency that it led us here to die.
It had been years since I had fought in the war between the north and the south. It was a war that changed everything and, in many ways, a war that changed nothing. The divide that had split our country still existed. We just didn’t talk about it much anymore.
The horrors of that war had done something to those of us who survived them. Something undefinable, something that led us away from the civilized towns and cities of the booming west and to places like Epitaph.
Would I have come to Epitaph if I had known what would happen on that day? If I could somehow have glimpsed into the future and seen the cloud of death and despair? I think, even knowing the price I would pay, that I would have.
But there was no hint on that hot summer day of what was to come. No foreshadowing. That was the stuff of fiction, of dusty dime novels full of melodrama and gun smoke. Real life didn’t work that way, at least not in my experience.
I had spent the day working on a fence for Lloyd Bennett and had worked up a mighty hunger, otherwise I would have gone home that night. As it was, I found myself at the Standing Horse, drinking whiskey and devouring a thick slab of steak.
Andrea, who ran the saloon, took special care with my supper each night, and it was cooked just the way I liked it. She made sure my glass was always full and often forgot to charge me for the exact number of glasses that I consumed. She was a slender girl with sharp features, but the softest eyes I had ever seen. I had sometimes thought of courting her. One more in a long line of regrets.
When I finished my supper, I sat by the back wall, drinking my whiskey and listening to the murmurs of drunken conversation that drifted from the other tables. The Standing Horse was a quiet little place, with an air of desperation that hung about like a cloud of smoke.
Nobody really wanted to be there. Nobody really wanted to be in Epitaph. Yet we had all ended up there and we were all trying, in our own weak ways, to make the best of the situation.
I don’t know what it was that drew my attention to the opening door, but I wasn’t the only one who stopped to look. The room, already quiet, fell completely silent as we saw the stranger standing in the doorway. He was a tall man and his visage was frightening. Time and hardship had taken its toll on him. It was impossible to tell his age.
He looked around the saloon, taking everything and everyone in, no emotion betraying his thoughts. It felt, to those of us in that room, like judgment was at hand. His gaze settled on a young cow hand who sat by himself, near the piano.
“What’s your name, son?” The stranger’s voice was like broken glass in the silent room. It carried a weight with it, as if it was tangible. A sound you could reach out and touch, if you dared.
“Charlie. Charlie Richards.”
The stranger nodded. “Stand up, Mr. Richards.”
The young man was frightened, but doing his best not to show it. “Why?” he asked.
“I aim to kill you. Best to do it with you standing and prepared.” The stranger spoke deliberately and his words seemed devoid of inflection or emotion.
Charlie broke into a sweat and his own voice pitched a bit higher. “Mister, I don’t even know you.”
“Don’t matter. Die sitting or die standing, choice is yours.” Then the stranger did something that made him seem even more frightening. He smiled.
Andrea came out from behind the bar, furious. “Mister, you leave that boy alone or I’m going to get the Sheriff.”
“Sheriff’s dead.” He turned his frightening gaze upon her. “You’ll get your turn, little lady. No need to be in such a hurry to die.”
Andrea stepped back, her face contorted in shock, as if she had been physically slapped. The stranger turned back to poor Charlie Richards. “Well, boy, what’s it going to be? You going down like a man?”
Charlie pushed his chair back and slowly got to his feet. “I don’t see why we’ve got to do this,” he whispered.
“You don’t have to understand. You’re only concern now is putting a bullet in me before I put one in you.”
Charlie was fast, I had seen him draw down before, but he was nowhere near fast enough to beat this man. He had barely cleared his holster when we heard the thunder erupt from the stranger’s gun.
Charlie rocked back as the bullet struck him and his gun dropped to the floor. Then the pain washed over him and he clamped his hands over the spurting hole in his gut. He tried to speak, but only a gurgling noise came out.
We all watched as he tried to stagger forward and then collapsed to the floor. He lay there, not yet dead, but dying, his body convulsing. Andrea started to go to him, but the stranger shook his head.
“Leave him where he lies. It’ll be over soon enough.”
Nobody said a word. Most of the room watched Charlie as he bled out on the old wooden floor. I kept my eyes on the stranger, knowing that the night was far from over. I could already feel the guilt building inside me. The feeling that I should have done something.
Yet I had seen the stranger draw and I knew I couldn’t beat him. I would just be another body on the floor. That’s all any of us would be, there were no real gunfighters in the room. If the Sheriff was really dead, what chance did we have?
“Bring me a bottle of whiskey.” The stranger’s voice echoed across the room. He was looking around, searching faces for someone to challenge him. I never thought it would be Andrea.
“You can go to hell,” she yelled, and threw a bottle at his head. He caught it smoothly with his left hand and as Andrea brought up a shotgun from beneath the bar, he fired with his right.
Andrea’s face exploded in a mist of blood and flesh and bone and I felt a part of me die with her. I turned my head to the door, hoping the deafening gunshots had drawn some attention from outside.
The stranger looked at me and grinned. “You can stop looking at that door. No one’s coming. There’s no one left to help. I’ve killed them all.”
“The whole town?” I asked, incredulous.
“Well, it’s not like there was a lot of them. Barely took an hour or so.” He holstered his gun and pulled the cork from the whiskey bottle. I watched him take a long pull from it then set the bottle aside, instantly forgotten.
“But, the whole town?” I couldn’t get my head around the thought.
“Yes, the whole town. There’s nothing outside that door but devils and dust.” Hand resting on his gun, he slowly walked around the room, taking the measure of each of my fellow patrons. There were eight men left, beside myself, and not a one of them could or would hold his gaze.
He laughed in contempt at them and finally stood before my table. I looked into his eyes and saw nothing there save death, but I didn’t look away. He nodded his approval.
“So,” he asked, “are you the hero?”
“No, I’m just a man.”
He looked me over as if he was unsure of what he had found. “There’s something in your countenance. A soldier?”
I nodded. “Once upon a time.”
“Union or Confederate?”
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not. Are you armed?”
“I wear a revolver on my right thigh.”
“Are you any good with it?” he asked.
“I usually hit what I’m aiming at.”
“Think you could outdraw me?”
“Why don’t you unhook that revolver and lay it on the table in front of you? Slowly, of course.”
“Of course.” I did as he asked, but lay the gun close to me, the barrel pointed in his direction. He took no notice of my precaution and I knew then that he didn’t consider me a true threat.
“Colt Peacemaker,” he proclaimed. “That’s a lawman’s piece. You a lawman?”
He studied me now, unsure if he believed my words. “Where did you get the gun?”
“Off the body of a man I killed, during the war. Seemed a shame to let it go to waste.”
“Ah. A pragmatist. I like that. What’s your name?”
“No last name, Henry?”
“I see. A man running from his past. Is that what brought you to Epitaph?”
“No. I’m not afraid of the past.”
He laughed, a hideous little laugh that made my skin crawl. “Then what are you afraid of, Henry?”
“Well, let me put you at ease, my friend. You don’t have a future. Nobody in Epitaph does.”
“Because I’m going to kill every last one of you.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I understood that. I meant why are you doing this? Killing a man is one thing. But this. This is something else altogether. Why are you doing it?”
“Would it be easier for you if I had a reason? Something you could comprehend?”
“No, but it might make it easier for you.”
He thought about that for a moment and I could actually see a flicker of something in his eyes. Around us, most of the other men sat unmoving at their tables, as if they had been mesmerized in some way. All except a young farmer named Kabe, who was waving his hand at us.
The stranger saw my puzzled look and glanced back over his shoulder. Kabe stop waving and cleared his throat. “Something I can do for you, son?” the stranger asked.
Kabe pointed at his empty glass. “I’m just really scared, sir, and that makes me thirsty. Can I get some more whiskey?”
I thought the stranger was going to shoot him on the spot, but he seemed more amused than angry. “Help yourself, son, no need to go into the next life sober. Just stay away from the door.”
I watched the young man as he dashed behind the bar, but the stranger turned his attention back to me.
“My dog died,” he said.
“Pardon?” The oddness of the statement caught me completely off my guard.
“My dog died. I know it don’t seem like much, but it was sort of the last straw, if you know what I mean.” He took a deep breath as he turned things over in his mind. “A long time ago, I did some bad things.”
“We all did.”
“I’m not talking about the war. I used to be a terrible man. I took what I wanted and I killed anyone who tried to tell me otherwise. I had no regard for civilization.”
I nodded, encouraging him. “What changed?”
“Everything. There was a woman, but it wasn’t just her. At some point, something inside me turned and I decided I wanted a simpler life. Didn’t want to be looking over my shoulder as I grew old. I spent some time in church. That’s where I met her.
“Her father had just passed away, left her a piece of land, some crops. Turning farmer seemed like a good idea. So I hung up my gun. We married and I started tending the crops. We had a son.”
“I’m getting the idea that this doesn’t end well.”
“If it did, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”
“I guess not.”
“I wasn’t much of a farmer. Never had the know how. Crops eventually faltered. They didn’t fail altogether, mind, they just weren’t producing enough. Made it tough. Boy got hurt when he was ten. Fell off a horse. Wasn’t nothing they could do for him.”
“Yeah, I heard that a lot. Wife couldn’t handle the loss. Took to drink. A couple years went by and one morning she just didn’t wake up. Then it was just me and the dog. You going to say sorry again?”
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
“Good. Hate that fucking word. Anyway, I was still trying. The gun was still hanging in the closet. I had lost damn near everything, but it seemed I still favored living a good life. And I still had that dog. He was a good dog, made my life bearable. That dog loved me like I was the greatest man that ever walked the earth.”
“Coyotes. I couldn’t help him, my gun was still hanging in the closet. Hadn’t worn it for almost twenty years. They tore him to pieces.”
“That’s a shame. I can see how that might be the last straw for a man. I can even see how you might want to take your own life. Just not sure I understand where killing everyone else comes into play.”
“Way I see it, I made myself a deal with God all them years ago. I’d go straight, lead a good life, and he’d provide for me and mine. Make it a life worth living. That was his side of the deal, what he was paying me to cease my life of violence and mayhem. Well, he didn’t live up to his side of the deal.”
“So you’re making up for lost time? Causing all the destruction that would have been, had you not made your deal with Him?”
“It’s a little bit more complicated that that in my head, but that’s about the size of it.”
“You realize that you’re insane?”
He shook his head. “I think we’re about done here, Henry.” His eyes turned dark and his hand twitched just a little over the butt of his gun.
When you’ve been to war, or you’ve led a life of violence, you learn to recognize the important moments. The moments that keep you alive. It has nothing to do with bravery or heroism. It’s entirely a thing of opportunity. A moment seized.
Kabe must have been listening intently to our conversation and the note of finality in the stranger’s voice must have been more than his nerves could handle. The bottle he had been pouring from slipped from his fingers and shattered on the wooden floor.
It was just enough. The stranger couldn’t help himself. His head snapped around toward the offending noise.
I seized the moment.
In a single motion I snapped my pistol from the table and fired, hitting him high in the back, penetrating his right shoulder. The impact spun him around and he was once again facing me, a look of profound disbelief upon his face. He drew his gun like lightning, but before he could fire I shot him again, square in the chest.
Blood burst from his back like a fountain as he hung there for a brief piece of eternity, then he collapsed to the floor.
I stood up from my chair and walked over to his body, kicking the gun away from his hand. He laughed again, that horrible laugh, now punctuated with a horrible pain.
“You don’t look happy, Henry,” he gasped. “You should. You beat the devil.”
“I made a promise, after the war, never to take another human life.”
“Human? Do I still look human to you? I’m a monster, Henry.”
“No. You’re just a man.” I pointed my Colt one final time and blew a hole right between his eyes. Then I lay my gun on the table and walked out of that saloon. Outside, in the distance, I could hear a coyote howl.
I took a deep breath and began walking out of Epitaph.