Mephistopolis is a literary horror novel with strong fantasy elements, weaving the tale of the city’s leader, The Abandoner, through the stories of people from all walks of life who are mysteriously drawn to the city, unknowingly given a chance to atone for their sins.
Mephistopolis takes us on many personal journeys, poses to the reader the question “What is evil?” (And questions the ideas [and ideals] of religion.)
Another chapter is here!
This story takes place in Mephistopolis in the 1950s. It’s a crime noir tale, one of many genres the book utilizes in telling the city’s story.
Dumé Jones, P.I.
Mephistopolis was a town zooming toward a major growth-spurt. What happened at this time altered much about the city’s future, the city’s control, the city’s life and citizenry.
Who’s to blame for this? Who’s the one who could so powerfully alter the course of the harsh city? Some say it was the devil himself. . .
But they would be laying that blame incorrectly.
Either way, there’s no denying that when the smartly dressed black man—his red running shoes notwithstanding—blew into town on this day, in a decade remembered for rock ‘n’ roll and poodle skirts, Mephistopolis went to Hell in a hand basket.
And that’s saying quite a lot.
Dumé Jones, his tan suit wrinkled from wear, stepped through an opening in the long, worn barbed-wire fence which enclosed the north-east end of Mephistopolis.
Any city that takes to fencing itself in to keep out folks must be a safe city, he thought. His next notion was more on-target: What if it was put there to keep folks in?
Dumé checked his watch, the analog read-out showed nine twenty-eight, and he realized that was the exact time it read just before he spotted the fence into Mephistopolis. He shook his wrist and held his ear to the watch. A moment later the thing was tossed over his shoulder as he made his way through the back of a run-down apartment complex.
With cool orange dawn staring at him, he paused in some shade and tied-up a long white lace on his left shoe. He smiled, but Dumé wasn’t proud of taking the durable red shoes off of a dead man. But when you’ve got to move quick, a brown penny loafer just won’t do—and what did a dead Olympic loser need a running shoe for anyway? It was almost a week since he’d grabbed the shoes, and they felt good on his feet.
Dumé moved briskly amongst the small buildings, this grouping of bi-level apartment structures, made of stucco and sporting highlights of powder blue siding. Each unit held eight small, square dwellings.
He looked around, wondered what industry was in this town, wondered if he could get a kitchen job somewhere, if they’d ask for I.D.—and if it’d matter if he didn’t give it to ’em.
When he heard a scream followed by a loud thump above him, he simply reacted. Movement in a top-floor window caught his eye, and Dumé ran up the two sets of stairs to the second floor. His revolver, a rusty Iver Johnson, was full; his grip on its handle was tight. Dumé was ready for a fight and crashed his way through the door with a hard kick.
But no one was inside—no one alive anyway.
The floor was bloodied, as was the window sill, with speckles of drying blood softly gliding down the glass like heavy tears on porcelain. Dots of crimson speckled every side around the bloody streams, each one sprayed into a still life picture on the see-through canvas leading to nowhere.
On the floor was a beautiful ebony-skinned woman. The blood had finished its slow gurgle from her mouth. Her eyes were open in a stare so distant it went all the way to heaven, Dumé thought. Nobody deserved the painful death she got, clothes torn, throat slashed.
He cautiously moved in, assuming incorrectly that police would arrive any minute.
Morning shadows seemed to suddenly crawl away through the door (Dumé thought he’d heard someone laugh), and the sound of footsteps thumped quickly down the stairs—each step was echoed by a click-clack sound. Thump-click-clack, thump-click-clack!
His heart swelled and felt rock-hard in his chest, and he beat a path to the door and down the outdoor hallway. But escape was too easy. Anyone could effortlessly get lost amongst the maze of short buildings. There would be no catching whoever it was.
Dumé grew up just outside of Chicago. All his life he’d been told to stay out of other people’s business. And he did. Neighbors were supplying drugs—drugs which were much simpler than the stews of death created so many years later. Murderers and mashers came and went. Dumé never said a word.
On one overcast day, he found a detective novel in the trash—one of those hard-boiled-P.I. books—and fancied himself an amateur detective from then on, learning more with each novel he read. However, in spite of all the cases he followed in the paper, the many conclusions he came to, Dumé kept his thoughts to himself and continued to stay out of other people’s business—no matter what city he was living, no matter what the crime, no matter what he found.
But this time? This time he’d do good. This time, whatever creep there was behind all this, he’d get ’im.
Dumé moved back into the apartment, lit a cigarette, and took a heavy drag, breathing the smoke out slowly through his half-open mouth.
When the fog of smoke dissipated, he took a look around.
A few family photos—graduation picture, dance recital, holiday photo with the remaining grandparents. No boyfriend pictures. No kids.
Looked like she was an only child to boot.
This left two things, work and leisure. Whether it was how she earned a paycheck or how she spent it, one of them held the answer to her death.
He checked the window—still no cops nosing around. So Dumé began a deeper search.
In the closet he found several dark skirts and dresses—looked like office clothes. He found her purse in the kitchen, but everything in it, save for some makeup and gum, had been taken, with other contents sprawled out along the countertop. Then something caught Dumé’s eye—on the floor at the end of the counter, a broken compact, the makeup cracked and spread out like a powder. Dumé examined it closer. There was a footstep in it, a shoe-print. And on odd shape at the toe.
“Thump-click-clack?” What goes “Thump-click-clack?” Dumé looked back to the shelf of pictures, the dance recital caught his eye. He moved in for a closer look and was almost certain….
He checked the bottoms of the shoes she wore when she died—nothing significant there. From her closet he pulled out every pair of shoes—nothing.
When he saw it, he almost smacked himself. Right behind the door, a gunny sack. He reached in and, yes, just as he thought—she was a performer, these were tap shoes.
And whoever was here was a dancer too—male from the look of the shoe print. . .
a tapper from the sound of his run.
Dumé grabbed the frame occupied by the graduation photo. Cracked it. The picture should do, it couldn’t be more’n four years old anyway.
He said a prayer and pressed two fingers to his lips then to her cold forehead, closing her eyes as he pulled himself away.
Outside, Dumé tossed his cigarette to the ground by a trashcan. He bit his lip and looked around for a vehicle, one he could access and steal easily. There weren’t many cars in this city. But it looked like a city that was spreading its wings far, the way Kansas City or Los Angeles had been doing the last ten to fifteen years (a man who runs as quickly as Dumé gets around fast).
Along the street, as far as his eye could see, there were but a few cars parked. He could stand there, count them if he had any interest to do so. But Dumé had other things playing on his mind.
He stepped into the middle of the road and looked around. The street had no litter, but the road itself was dirty, muddied. The small buildings around him seemed empty and sad. And while there was newness to everything around him, it all felt somehow false. When someone walked by, they barely looked at him. The store windows were virtually empty, and the stores themselves seemed to have little in the way of a selection—whether it be a clothing store, a grocery market, or shop selling lady’s perfumes.
When he stopped to stare at the dried-out, pathetic meats hanging in the butcher’s window, a reflection of a 1948 Woodie caught his eye. It was beat-up, and the tires clearly needed air, but the windows were open, and a peek inside revealed the tank was full.
The reason the windows were open became clear fast. Something must’ve died in the thing—the seats were stained brown and the stench was something awful. He reached under the steering wheel and fiddled with some wires. Dumé hopped out and toyed with something under the hood. Back in the car, he started ’er up and drove off. Nobody came after him.
Dumé looked around, reading the signs of every shop he passed. Every open store looked closed, every closed store looked almost demolished. The whole thing gave him a chill, but not as much of a chill as when he suddenly realized that, while the sun was still out, his entire car looked like it was swallowed in shade. This in and of itself was disturbing enough to make Dumé stop the car dead, in the middle of the street.
Dumé fell out the door to look the car over, but in a quick blink of his eyes, it seemed the shadow had lifted. He shaded his eyes from the still-rising sun, squinted, and tried to shake off whatever it was causing the feeling—the sight—of darkness.
As he got back into the car, there was a man sitting in the passenger seat. This man placed an enormous hand over Dumé’s mouth. The index finger stretched to the top of his forehead; the thumb pressed firmly behind the hinge if his jaw. Dumé didn’t move, his eyes were wide and suddenly watery.
The man, or whatever it was, wore a coat of brown which matched the smears and stains Dumé had found in the seats. This thing wore no other color. His clothes were indescribable, indiscernible, they blurred in and out of Dumé’s vision along with the rest of him. His voice, at its peak, was no more than a dark whisper, and it never paused for a breath as it told Dumé his future. . .
“No matter what you do no matter what happens you find the killer You find the killer and you do whatever must be done to make certain she is avenged Avenge her if you can and see this to the end so that you may finally get your reward and the inner satisfaction you so crave Will you give me her soul?”
Dumé paused. He had to take a moment to let the slipstream of words settle in. No doubt, this thing was dead serious. Every word it spoke scared the hell out of Dumé. And while he wasn’t exactly sure what it all meant, it sounded like he would come out alright. What was being offered, he thought, sure seemed fair enough.
Through the pocket of space between his thick lips and the hand that held him tight, he announced, “It’s a deal.”
The thing coughed out a terse laugh and smashed Dumé’s head against the door frame, adding another dent to the car and knocking Dumé out cold.
It was only twenty minutes later that Dumé awoke, swallowing back vomit. He blurrily began to see a slow car maneuvering around him in the middle of the street. The driver hadn’t even a glance for Dumé. He or she didn’t want to know why the car was stopped in the middle of the road. He or she moved on, eyes straight ahead.
Dumé straightened his tie. The expression of disgust on his face stayed for a long while.
Driving up and down the roads was quickly tiresome, and Dumé was just on the edge of quitting when he saw the plain yellow sign with the black sans serif writing.
An arrow had been painted on the brick which had been chiseled by time and weather. The arrow pointed to a stairway which led one’s eye below street level. Dumé parked the car, checked his appearance in the sideview, gave his neck a crack, and went in, patting his body for his cigarettes.
Downstairs, through the door, the room was small. A reception desk, a plain wooden rectangle of a table on three legs, and a pile of hardcover books holding it up, stared at Dumé. A heavy lamp with a glass shade and metal stem sat on the desk’s corner—but the room was illuminated from above. The door behind the desk had a small window through which he saw a long hallway. Nobody was coming. Dumé pawed through a registry, and had been flipping through other paperwork when a guy came through a side door Dumé hadn’t taken time to notice.
“What the fuck are you doing?” The guy’s complexion was darker than Dumé’s, and his muscles were at least twice that of the amateur dick’s—and that didn’t go unnoticed.
“Hey, I’m just lookin’ for my sister is all.” His fear reminded him that he had the cigarette pack in his hand; he’d started to squeeze the small box when the circus strong man came in. “Thought she might’ve hung out here.” Dumé offered a friendly smile and, with his free hand, reached into his jacket for the picture he’d taken from the young woman’s place. He showed it.
The dancer held the picture, but only looked at it for half a second. He wasn’t impressed. “And if I said I don’t know her. You’d leave?”
Dumé lit his cigarette, took back the photo. “If I believed you.” The two stood silent. Smoke filled the small room.
“So you don’t believe me.”
“I don’t. I don’t believe anybody who doesn’t wonder, wonder even for a fast moment, why a snappy dresser like myself would come in here and ask about a missing sister. Because that means just a few things. Either he knows what happened to her. Or he knows she ain’t missing.”
The lean black man stepped in toward Dumé. His soles click-clacked on the floor. “You just answered your own question, brother. If you think I know she ain’t missing, then that must mean you know for sure.”
Half-way through Dumé’s smirk, a fist caught him in the gut and sent him to the floor. A knee crashed into his forehead, clearly aimed for his nose, and another fist socked him in the jaw. Dumé went down. The fists came down on him again and again, and the dancer was yelling things about Dumé’s “sister” and that she was a thief and a liar. Dumé was certain he’d found the killer, but would he live to tell about it?
When the punches stopped, the two fists clasped Dumé’s lapels and swung him toward the desk. He was yelling into Dumé’s face, screaming about how his studio barely gets by and that he couldn’t afford all the losses which followed the arrival of Angela. Dumé had heard enough, and he kicked his foot out, toppling the stack of books that held up one corner of the desk. The lamp fell into the dancer, but the impact was only enough to distract him momentarily.
That was all Dumé needed. He reached out for the lamp, grabbing hold just under its burnt-out bulb and crashed the glass shade directly into the dancers face, smashing both upon impact. The dancer screamed wildly and clawed at his face while kicking out with his feet. Dumé grabbed the metal stand of the lamp and forced the dancer down to the floor, the cold metal pressing into his neck. The man screamed gibberish and cried.
“How could you kill her? How?! She was a kid! She was still a kid!” Dumé felt the blood rush into his face.
The dancer still screamed and cried and finally spoke “I didn’t kill her! I didn’t!”
Dumé, now down on his knees, pressed down harder, the metal weight choking the tortured life out of the dancer who shook his head and screamed out “No” more times than Dumé could count. After watching this for ten then fifteen seconds, Dumé threw the lamp aside.
“What the hell happened?”
The dancer told Dumé he didn’t know, truly didn’t know. Dumé left after hearing the story in full, and, stealing the registry book on the way out, he started keeping a journal. . .
The woman, Angela, was dead when he got there. She’d been propped up against the window, wedged against it by a table. Looked like she was working off a high with her forhead pressed to the glass. Twinkel Toes showed up to confront her, saw the blood. Grabbed hold of her. Found that he’d grabbed a dead body. So he threw it away, against the window—which is when I steppd into the picture. Said he done stared at her body for what seemed like minutes when he heard me come in, and he hid behind the door.
Guy just wanted his stuff back. Angela had been coming into his shop, giving him the flirtashus smile, the sexy wink. Took some free dance lessons and anything she could hock for a drug habit.
That’s his story. And as he tore shards of glass out of his face, I was leanin towards believin it.
I went back to her place. Listened to some static-y Bebop on the car radio as I drove.
Gorgeous thing, young. Ruins her life that way.
Back inside her apartment, the place was starting to stink. I took a look aroun and realized cops still hadn’t shown.
The recital picture stood out in my mind, and I start to think what a rank amateur I am.
I realize I never checked the toilet.
In the bathroom, by the vanity, I come upon a watch—the face looks weird. Things are strange in this city. But I see the markings and get the idea. Afternoon to my mind, it says seven twenty-two. . .Daylight. Assuming the thing’s running right.
I slip it on, even if it was made for a wrist holding a purse, and take a gander about the place—second spot I check, on top of the mirror, on a thick ledge—that’s where I find it all. Needles, rubber tube, a banged-up little case to keep the goods.
But what do I do now? Why would Fate take me this way? Where do I go? I don’t know this city, and I don’t know where they sell drugs. Maybe she shot-up with friends, maybe she made a local buy and kept to herself.
The only thing to do at this point was to knock on a few doors. Ask neighbors if they knew anything.
So from door to door I went. Nearly covering every inch of this new cluster of buildings that was beginning to look as dilapidated as the folks inside it. I was just about ready to give up. It was late by this time, and I was a little woozy from not eating. I spied this strange little guy climbing the steps, holding some paper bags of groceries. He took the stairs two steps at a time, but each step seemed to be an effort for his short legs. By the time he got to the landing, I was leaning on the sparse metal rail with a ciggie in one hand and the picture in the other.
“scuse me, friend. . .” I said.
Guy didn’t even look at me. “I’m not your friend.”
I stood up straight and moved behind him as he continued past me. “I just got a question or two for you. Bout a neighbor of yours.”
The little guy took a half-pivot. “They get colored police round here?”
“Tell the truth, I don’t think they got police around here.”
The guy thought about it, almost smiled. “Yeah.” He probably thought my anser sounded just like the kind of thing a cop would say. But he turned and continued on. “What dyou want to ask me?”
“You knew the young bl— colored girl that lived on this floor?”
“She was in that apartment there?” He motioned with his head two doors down from his own, which he was opening and stepping into.
“I seen her, but I don’t know much of anything about what happened.”
I played it casual. “Oh. You see any people come in or out?”
The little guy moved into his place; I hung on just outside the door, busied myself by staring at the ashes of my cigarette flittering away in the wind. “Why don’t you step in; I’ll get you some tea or ice water.”
“That’s appreciated.” I moved through the doorway. His place had a different layout than hers, and I was standing in a short hallway. “You know, you said you didn’t know anything about what happened.” I started to explain I’d never brought up anything that happened, was gonna ask him how he knew since he seemed to have been gone all day. I had a lot of things I was gonna say. But a baseball bat caught me in the chest, then in the arm. I covered my head and curled up into a ball, and the bat slammed down at my wrist, saving my noggin for a blow to come another day.
The wooden bat came down again and again. Some part of my body was pulling me out the door and to the barrier outside keeping us desperate folks from falling two stories. I was screaming and yelling, yeah, I was crying. The little guy was swinging and hitting my thigh my hip bone, one in the kidney, a couple on my arms (which were wrapped tightly over my head). When he felt the bat had done its job, he tossed it back in through the doorway and started punching me with all he had. His small stocky frame put a lot behind each of those punches. There was only one way out for me, so I grabbed hold of the metal and prepared to launch myself over the rail and to the ground—figured a fall to grass from the second floor couldn’t do any more damage than what I was suffering.
But, as I pulled myself over, the little guy panicked—maybe he was unsure what I was doing—and in his effort to grab me. . .he went over too.
Turns out I was right about a secondfloor fall. It ain’t gonna hurt. But it sure ain’t gonna feel good, especially when a moment after you hit, a 185-pound black man lands directly on top o’ you. . .now that musta hurt. I was sure I heard a rib crack and was fairly confident it wasn’t mine.
I sat up next to him, and I told im I wanted ansers. He told me I should “fuck myself,” so I pulled myself up, used a nearby tree to balance, and I kicked him in one thick thigh just a few times. Can’t say how many. Not enough. Thirty’d be my guess. Forty on the outside. Bruise on his leg was probably so big the next day, he the one who looked “colored.” And then I kicked im couple times in the head, just to be sure he ached almost as much as me.
All them kicks knocked sense into him. Couldn’t shut the asshole up after that. . .he spilled it, spilled it all. . .
“Was trying to get her to go to bed with me, offered her some of my stuff. Girl was nice. And I got her curious, she thought she’d try it out. Didn’t know what she was in for and next thing you know, we got another addict in this part of town. I couldn’t keep sharing mine, it was costing too much, and I told her where she could go to score her own, and she was going there like twice a week and getting enough to keep her high for the rest of the time. She took some of my stuff, sold it. Screwed me in all kinds of positions for a few hundred, but I liked her, I liked her a lot, but refused to do it again”
Guy was an angel.
“So, I don’t know, I guess she found other places, other guys, and she kept doing her thing.”
For a few minutes I thought, okay, I got what I need. Then something he said clicked. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, it wasn’t what he said as much as how he said it. I stepped onto the ribs I heard crack and pressed. “What you mean when you say, ‘we got another addict’?”
He winced and then shrugged as best he could. I pressed harder, and he let out a pained little moan. “Nothin, I didn’t mean nothing.”
“See, now, if that were true. You’d just explain it, easy-like. But not anserring—that’s the wrong anser. It means you got something to hide. Were you trying to get her hooked?”
“So you’re using?”
“Been an addict for a few years. Want to kick it but can’t.”
I told the little piece of crap to show me his arms. He refused. That was all I needed—not only was he not an addict, he was finding addicts for someone who scared him, someone he didn’t want to rat on. He was on the job here. And I was about to ruin whatever set-up he had.
So I walked away, more like a limp, and the guy thought he was safe. He probably lay there for two or three minutes, figuring he’d be all right. Until I returned.
It was clear I meant business when I came back—I was coming right at him, fast. I was in the Woodie. Hopped it in the lot, and let her hop up onto the grass and into the courtyard the stocky guy and I had fallen into. Tires dug into the dirt and I moved right toward him, the car coming down on him quick like. Visions of a head going SPLAT under my tires were dancing through both our heads. But I surprised him—Woodie like this stops on a dime. This time, tho, it stopped on a fat man’s jacket. I leaned out the window. “I just gotta nudge her another couple of inches, and she’ll hop onto you the way she hopped the curb. How’s that rib feelin’?”
Information I wanted I got in spades. I was told to head to this place downtown. Something called The Kettle. He told me to ask for Keating.
I found The Kettle. My info told me Sunday nights were busy. Busy with what I wondered? The place was an old, dingy factory. There was nothing there, except for a few tired, old bums sleeping outside. I made my way into what I assumed was an entrance. Rusted machinry and cracked walls surrounded me. Every now and again I’d see movement and wonder if it was someone on a high or just a frightened soul in the dark. My instincts said it was the second one.
Going in further, I kept thinking I should turn back. That this was not a job for me, that this whole thing was beyond me. But I had tempted Fate and found a devil, and I made a promise. A promise to catch her killer, and give myself a future. Would she, her soul, know if I gave up? Would it matter? I promised I would see it to the end. And I’m going to. A promise is meant to be kept.
The dark pressed down on me, and I could no longer see my hand in front of my face. I pushed through and a cold breeze shook the walls, the vibration could be felt along the floor. Where do I go from here, I wondered. I tried to keep my faith, despite that I had a feeling something bad was going to come down on me in here. If I’m attacked, I realized, I would be too weak to defend myself. If I’m killed here, and I don’t finish what I told myself I would do. . .
I didn’t even want to think about that.
I felt the cold wall with my fingertips. Rust and slime nipped at my fingers, and I moved down a stairwell. As hard as I tried to be silent, my footsteps echoed. I heard a chanting. A gravely quiet repetition of words I couldn’t make out. It sounded distant, and I couldn’t pinpoint the direction it came from. I still saw nothing, and I thought there must be some sort of cult down here. Thought I was going into a den of dope fiends and addicts who worship some little-known god who asks his people to question nothing, do whatever he says, pretend wrong is right… that evolution of body and of mind is evil and that the best way to get to utopia is through a drug-induced state of euforia.
Then I saw the light.
It was candles. Maybe thirty of them burning in the distance. I walked to them, and I realized I was right about the cult thing—there was chanting, hymns were being spoken, not sung. These were worshippers of all kinds, following a priest who led the massive congregation and told them to repeat what he said, to believe what he said to believe. And it didn’t matter what it was you followed or believed, but that you had a home with him, there in The Kettle.
It was a Sunday service.
I moved in slowly. I was hesatant, and I can’t explain why. . .until I moved into the hastily thrown-together pews and joined the group.
It wasn’t like the Church I went to at home. Maybe that’s because at home, not every soul—every person—in the congregation was so desperrate and lost. . .like these people. You could see it in their sad eyes.
At my Church we sung, we danced, we clapped our hands, and we asked questions, hoped for forgiveness, and gave back to the preacher what he gave to us—blood, sweat, and tears.
This was blind faith. And there ain’t nothin’ I’ve seen more scary.
The prayer and the hymns over, I milled around the crowd and tried not to draw attention. Hard to do when you’ve been beaten twice in one day, and it shows on your face and in the way you limp and hold your arm.
Eventualy the priest came up to me, placed his hand on my shoulder. I flinched, not knowing I’d been bruised there until the moment I felt his fingers rest on the battered bone.
“Son, y’look like ye’ve been through quite a lot.”
I nodded, continued to look around.
“It’s not much,” he was referring to the dank rooms of The Kettle, “but ’tis the best we can do. We’re happy to have whoever comes, just don’t speak of this place to anyone, lest The Dark Man find out about it. People must find it on their own.”
I nodded again, not a clue what he meant. “D’you know a Keating?”
“Son,” he smiled, “I’m here to help ye’. What exactly is it ya need?”
I pulled out a needle, figured it’d do my talking for me. He firmly pushed my hand back into my coat pocket, afraid someone would see, and bade me to follow. As we walked along, he leaned in and spoke from the corner of his mouth. “If y’ don’t have cash, you’d better take a walk now. I’m not a flea market, I don’t barter.”
Son of a bitch. Is this the guy I’m looking for?
The Priest half-smiled, but he didn’t look amused. “Maybe you should be comin’ along with me then.”
I followed the gaunt man through the dark and cold of this building of metal. The candles grew smaller as we quickly put distance between them and us. I tried to keep an eye on those candles, tried to know where they were after we turned a corner, then another. I lost the trail fast and it occurred to me, that might’ve been the point. We were taking too many turns, up and down too many steps. I was being led further into this “kettle,” and it was making me nervous.
It was almost as dark as pitch, and I wondered how this Priest knew his way around. It didn’t matter. He opened a door and white light hit my eyes, blinding me.
Two sturdy men grabbed my arms and pulled me back to a wall. My spine hit it hard, upper back taking the brunt of punishment. I ached too much to fight it and, since it felt like two tree limbs pressed against my neck and chest, I thought it best not to fight these guys.
“Jones. Dumé Jones.”
“Tell me exac’ly why you’re here, just so we’re clear on it, hm?”
“I was just told to ask for a man named Keating. Tha’s all.”
“And who be the one that tol’ you that, son?”
The tree trunks let my arms go. I paused. Breathed. Needed to think. His question seemed anxious. Almost angry.
I took out a cigarette, too nervous to light it. Didn’t want to reveal how much my hand was shaking. I didn’t like being down here, didn’t like this fella in the collar. I let the ciggie dangle from my lower lip, made like I was searchin for a light.
“Oh, it was this guy. Minute little bastard.” I half-smiled.
“Alright, Mr. Jones. I am Father Keating. What d’ya have and what be your pleasure?” He laughed, like an Irish pirate or somethin.
I couldn’t be certain what the right anser was. Was he askin what I thought? Is he the dealer? Ain’t he a priest?
What kind of sick fucking town is this?
I glanced to my left and to my right, I guess my eyes were wide, and I probably looked frightened. Keating said, “Dinna worry yerself. These men won’t harm ya, they’re just a little insurance for me. Summa the folks who frequent Th’ Kettle tend to get, uhr, a wee bit ornery.”
I nodded. But I had no idea how much cash I had, if any.
“Can I get some room here?”
Keating nodded and the mighty oak on my left took a step back. The other tree-man didn’t budge.
I rifled in my pockets, making a show of it. Eventually I dug out my wallet. All in all, I had about thirty-two dollars. I showed it to Father Keating.
He nodded. Looked at me.
I realized I hadn’t told him what I wanted. “Uh, dope. Whatever this’ll get me.” What else can you deliver through a needle? What was the selection at this pharmacy?
Keating shook his head. He’d seen the needle, knew what I wanted. Guess he just wants his clients to say it. It seemed a cocksure kinda nod—but I misunderstood why.
In response to the nod, took my arm and pulled it up behind my back, swift-like, tight. He didn’t stop pushin it until I screamed and things popped. I bit down as one knee buckled. I tried to swallow as tears and stuff from my nose dripped fast down my face. I couldn’t catch my breath and looked to Keating who nodded at the Oak again. He gave my arm another hard yank that made every tendon in my shoulder snap and blurred my vision into a spectacle of green and blue stars. I couldn’t feel my fingers and a sound came from my mouth I’d never heard before. The trees let me fall. I struggled to keep my eyes open, and I was afraid to blink. Keating bent over me with a perturbed sigh and satisfied smile. He rolled up my right sleave, then—and none to gently—my left. He was looking for marks. . .and found none.
I felt his fingers on my head, wiggling their way into my hair then scrunching up as much of it as he could grab from my tight curls. Without mercy, he slung my head back. “Well, well. Seems yuir not exactly a reg’lar customer, so what is it exactly yuir after?”
I was out of options and, although just a guess, I was sure I was out of time as well. I was also out of breath and could barely spit out the anser to his question while I tried to fight back the pain. “Jus tryin t’ find out who killed m’sister. Picture’s in m’pocket.” I let my head roll toward the pocket I meant.
Father Keating reached in and took out the picture. He looked at it and stared blankly. Then he looked at me and smiled.
“She ain’t yuir sister.”
I pinched out just a whiff of a question, “Wh—” but he cut me off.
“Y’ng man, who’d’ya think it was killed ’er?” He stood up and the tree trunks grabbed hold of me again. “You got yuir anser. Time for you to go. Dan’tcha dare tell a soul what it is y’found. You do, an’ that arm’ll be taken off—at th’ neck.”
The next thing I saw was a giant tree-trunk forearm coming down over my head. I only got a glimpse, from my periphery, and it was all I’d get.
When I woke up, I was in front of a tower. Apparently it was further north and off to the west from where I came in.
While I awoke in front of the tower, it was the dragging that actually nudged me from the land of dreams. Well, not the dragging, but being dragged awoke the pain in my shoulder, it stung me back to life. I screamed.
Again, it was two men dragging me around like a child does its favorite old doll. The guys werent as big as the “trees,” but from my perspective, anybody woulda looked pretty tall. They each held an arm, and as my heels dragged under me, the sky moved above me. The sky was soon blocked out by marble and then blackness. I couldn’t fathom where I was or what I was about to see.
I was made to walk at some point. Told to go down some winding stone stairs. It felt like walking into a icebox. I wanted to run back the other way.
The horror was loud all around me—fearful terror-screams, shouts, yells of pain. There was a young man, a child really but large, gnawing what looked like flesh. The ceiling was low. . .there was a stink of blood and hell knows what else. I saw parts of one person, male or female I didn’t know, that nobody but an embalmer was meant to see.
Some large man was beating the holy heck out this guy who kept confessing sins, begging to be let out of the cage he was throwing himself against. A woman called out, I thought she said my name. Whatever it was she was saying, it kept coming out of her. Kept saying it. Saying it again. Was it my name? Why wouldn’t she stop?
One guy that dragged me, he moved on ahead of me, and the other fella stayed at my back. We moved around corner after decaying
corner. . .until we were met by the tall bearded man, handsomely wearing a long coat with more buttons than I had fingers and toes, and his thick, black leather boots that looked older than he was.
Behind me, that woman called out again. The echo rang chills up my spine.
“You are?” Asked Tall Man as if already impatient with my anser. Although that didn’t stop me from putting him off. . .
“Just a guy who woke up in front of your castle.”
The man laughed. He had such surprise on his face the moment before it came, that I thought he mightn’t have laughed in ’bout a hundred years.
His lanky long arm grabbed something off the wall—it was like a pool cue I thought in my stupor, but it was metal. What something like that was used for was beyond me, and I was hoping I wasn’t about to find out.
He tapped the floor three or four times with the metal rod—the power of it in his hands made him stand even taller.
“Listen, young man,” he moved to my side and gently knocked the side of the pole against my rib—was he seeing how many I could feel? “I know you came in to Mephistopolis via the gap in the north-east fence. I am also aware that you are on a mission for another.” The metal shaft tapped one red tennis shoe, my left. “What I don’t know is how you got here or why you choose not to anser questions when, all around you, people die by my hands.”
Okay, the Tall Man, he had a point. He tapped my red shoe again and made a noise, like he was looking to buy a pair. So I told him. I told him the whole thing, leaving out names and locations. After all, this guy here runs the place, seems to know a lot bout goings on and such, but he ain’t even got one cop up in Angela’s place.
I take him from the apartment to the Woodie to the studio, all in vague descriptions. Every now and again that woman’d bellow out and distract me, throwing off my story.
At the end of it, Tall Man put a bony hand on my shoulder. “Son. You’ve tied my hands. You made an agreement with the. . .one who visited you in your stolen automobile. Would that I could, but I cannot help avenge this woman’s death.”
I was surprised. Guy seemed to actually care. Or know how to make it sound like he did. I asked him why he wouldn’t throw in with me and help out, but he refused to anser. I demanded an anser, and he promised to break my other arm.
That took me over the edge, and I hadda act, or my insides would explode.
I lunged at him and the world went black. When I awoke, I was being tortured. That Dark Man had blood on his face, and I’m almost certain it was mine. He took to slicing tender spots for his amusement—Achilles tendon, the cartilage of an ear, the meaty muscle behind my eyebrow, the tendons behind my knees. I never cried like that before. The Dark Man looked all business. If he was enjoying himself, there was no sign of it.
Darkness was in and out. I was trying not to lose myself, not to die, but I knew. I knew it was a losing battle.
Just before I saw him walk away, wearing familiar red tennis shoes, I thought I felt his lips on my forehead. Yeah, I never cried like that before, and I knew I’d never be crying like that again.
Then came the peace I’d resisted but honestly hoped for.
If I’d fingered the Priest, it meant I’d be damning poor Angela’s soul. I made a deal, sure. But nothing said I had to hold up my end of that bargain with the creepy Dark Whisper guy. Maybe I’d get my vengeance by giving up the goods, but that poor girl—she shouldn’t have to suffer thanks to a shortsighted Chicagoan who fancied himself a private dick.
Angela lived a life that was lost. Constant chaos. Who’m I to make it worse for her in death? A man’s gotta control his own fate; the ones Below musta wanted her somethin awful, so I kept my big mouth shut and let the Priest stay as head of the city’s drug pipeline.
But me, guess I finally did some good. I made the right choice. Least, I sure hope so. Damned to live it over and over in this journal. Written again and again, in stone, with flesh. That’s what happens when you make a deal with a devil I guess.
But I know I finally done somethin right. I learned my lesson ’for it was too late.