Last time on The Witch-Doctor….
“There’s no fucking way he’s a witch-doctor,” Chet rubbed his temples. Artemis sat across from him at his kitchen table. A single candle lit the room. The two of them spoke in hushed tones. His granddaughters were sleeping, along with their mother, in the adjacent room.
Artemis sipped at a cup of water. “I don’t buy it either, but if he’s telling the truth, we can’t kill him.”
“‘Spose not,” Chet grumbled. “But what are the odds it isn’t him? I mean, it’s awful coincidental. Him showing up, Isaac going missing. I’d bet my trigger finger it’s him. It has to be.”
“Which is why I need you to go to his squat.”
“No, first thing tomorrow. One way or the other, we need someone to check it out. You know the woods, and the ruins. Hell you might know them better than me, in some places. But you need to sleep. Head out first thing tomorrow and-”
Chet laid his hands on the table, “Sheriff, stop. Listen. You and me? We’re not friends.”
“What’s your point?” Artemis snapped.
“Why are you here?”
“I have to watch the prisoner. I bribed Red to keep an eye on him but I’m taking a chance even coming out here. The townsfolk want his blood. I just thought-”
“Because we saw what was in those woods, right?” There was no guile behind Chet’s eyes. “Because we’ve been through, what do you call it, an ordeal. So you thought, ‘hey, better go knock on Chet’s door, better wake him up’. Because you’ve got a hunch that man sitting in the town hall isn’t the right one. Well let me tell you something, Artemis. You might pin that badge to your hat, and break up a fight every now and then, but you ain’t a sheriff. You aren’t the law.”
Artemis’s face flushed red, and she clenched her hands into fists, “I never claimed I was! It was you all who started calling me that. Thought it was funny. You all think you’re so witty. Well fuck you.”
“And fuck you too. I never said you were claiming anything. I’m just laying out the facts. You’re not the law. I’m not your deputy. You’ve been ordering me around all night like I owe you something. I don’t. I don’t know where you got that badge and these ideas in your head. You think anyone will listen to you? Hell…” Chet stood up, his own face belying anger. “We tolerate you. You know that don’t you? You come into town one day, and suddenly you’re living here. We tolerate you. You’re the best hunter and trapper this town’s got. But outside of that, people think you’re a kook. Delusional. They say you’re crazy.”
“I am not crazy!” Artemis screamed, swiping the clay cup she’d been drinking from off the table and against the wall, where it shattered.
“Grandpa?” a little voice called out, from inside the bedroom. Chet couldn’t tell which of his granddaughters it was, so hushed was the voice hidden behind the curtain.
“Go back to bed sweetie, everything’s fine,” He said, lowering his voice. Chet looked back at Artemis. “Listen. I know what motel he’s talking about. I think. I’ll check it out. But only because I think that’s where the… bodies are.”
“What about the kid in the box?” Artemis hissed, “Aren’t you curious at all about what the fuck is exactly going on in this town? Why the fuck was there-”
“You didn’t seem so goddamned curious about it when we were out there,” Chet interrupted, “Not curious enough to hold off on smashing that guys head in with a fucking rock. Try questioning him now. ‘Hey, pile of meat that used to be some guys face, why’ve you got a corpse in a box?’”
Artemis opened her mouth to speak, but bit off the words. She took a breath in, slow and steady. When she let the air out of her lungs, she looked down at the floor. “There’s something going on in Nowell, you’ve got to see that.”
“I sure as hell do. But I’ve got three granddaughters to take care of. You know as well as I do that bootlegging runs this town. I don’t get involved, and I don’t let them involve me in it. I don’t inquire as to what it is they’re smuggling across the river. I keep my head down, and scrounge whatever I can from those godforsaken ruins out there.” He was pointing towards the Wilder.
“You’re talking about a child. You’re talking about children.”
“Dead children,” Chet corrected her, “I’m sorry to say it but those kids aren’t coming back.”
He pointed to the bedroom, “Those children are alive. Those are the children I care about. But fine, I’ll check out this motel. Then I’ll find where that sonofabitch hid the bodies, and I’ll come back and let everyone know.”
“And if he’s a witch-doctor?”
“Don’t make a lick of difference to me.”
“If he’s a witch-doctor, tell me. Please Chet,” She begged him.
“Fine,” he replied, “I’ll let you know.”
“I’ll be at town hall. I’m not letting him out of my sight any longer than I need to. I’ll be with him all night.”
“Great. Perfect.” Chet said sarcastically, then hearing himself, toned it down. “Artemis, I’m not trying to be an asshole here. But you’ve got to realize you’re messing with shit outside your skillset. We’ve got a platoon of dagger-men in town, bootleggers. Shit, I can probably tell you why that kid was in the box. Or my best guess anyway. Some pervert down south’s got a hankering for wilder flesh. I’ve even heard they ship ‘em down to the Domus and put them in zoos. Side-show freaks. You know, ‘come see the wild-child’ and all that.”
“They came from the south,” Artemis countered, “They’ve only just arrived. When do you suppose they got the time to nab an Essil? What was an Essil even doing this close to Nowell? Think about it. Did that body look like one that’d just been caught? They brought the kid up here with ‘em. I’m sure of it. Something weird is going on.”
Chet scowled in concentration, brow furrowed, and he stood there like that for a silent minute, “You’re right. Hrm.”
“But you still think it’s unrelated to all this, what’s been going on?” Artemis asked him.
“I don’t see how they could be related,” Chet said, lowering his shoulders, resigned. “I know I said we ain’t friends, but I want to be honest with you. I’m shaken. I don’t want that man to be innocent. I want to believe he was the one whos been taking the kids. Because that means it’s been put to an end.”
He put his face in his hands, words muffled beneath his palms, “If I want it to be true, you can bet everyone else in town wants it to be true. If this guy is innocent, and I don’t think he is, you’d better keep a close eye on him until I get back. I’ll head out first thing tomorrow morning.”
The Witch-Doctor: Episode One (Season Two)
Written & read by Equanimous Rex
Edited by James Curcio
Logo by Amun Disalvatron
Nothing they said made any sense before, and nothing they said made any sense now. People who hadn’t talked to him in months except to take his money suddenly saw fit to speak. Consolations as empty as a clear winter sky, barbed words intended to soothe. But they weren’t the ones who were missing a son. They didn’t understand. The other parents who lost their own children weren’t the ones coming around to talk. It was the rest. The insufferable and small. Abram knew this, and after the first few, stopped answering the knocks at his door. Even his step-daughters avoided him, blamed him… probably. He could envision their eyes, so much like their mother’s, and didn’t bemoan their absence. They hated him, and he hated himself, and there was nothing that was ever going to change that, ever again. Not now. Not with Isaac missing.
“My sweet boy,” Abram said reverently, alone in his room, as though it was a magic incantation that would bring Isaac back. He sat up on the side of his cot, bare feet pressed against the floor, feeling the grit of sand and dirt tracked in and never swept out. He clutched a bottle of vodka in his hand, and it felt cool, and reassuring. Tipping the bottle forward and back, he made the liquid slosh, pondered its weight. He raised the bottle to his nose, then lowered it to his lips, and took a long pull. He repeated this three times as if completing his magic ritual, then sat in the silence of his son’s absence, and began to cry. Silently at first, slowly, then it grew and enveloped his entire body.
Isaac wasn’t even supposed to be with him, the night he was taken. The boy didn’t live with his father. Not since Connie had died and Abram had gone back to the bottle, and Abram understood why. The one room shack he lived in was no place for a boy. But that night, Abram had wanted to see his son. Isaac — unlike his older sisters, children born to Connie before Abram had arrived in Nowell— hadn’t yet realized the simple truth: Abram was a loser. It was how he saw himself, how others saw him. He was a drunk, only managed to eke a living from occasional hard labor, and charity. Nowellites didn’t let you die, unless there was nothing to be done. Nobody starved in Nowell, though plenty went hungry in their turn. Abram wasn’t sure that compassion guided the townsfolk’s kindness. Instead, he thought it a kind of grim obstinance, a form of quiet rebellion against the Territories, against death itself.
Strangers assimilated poorly into Nowell —not always the stranger’s fault— but the townsfolk had liked him, once upon a time, or had at least acted the part. It helped that Connie had fallen head over heels for him, married him in the only way they could, and carried his child. That she had died in childbirth seemed to extinguish the small warmth the townsfolk had kindled towards him. His step-daughters despised him now. Their tolerance for his alcoholism had evaporated the moment their mother had been buried. Who was it, exactly, that had been passed-out drunk while their mother suffocated on her own vomit? They didn’t acknowledge Abram’s place as step-father, partially because he’d never properly married Connie —their marriage had never been consecrated by the Devout. Back when they had all lived together, before the person that united them was put in the ground, Abram thought his step-daughters had loved him. But now? He was not so sure.
Abram’s sobs quieted, the well suddenly dry. Connie had been the only one who believed in him, then Isaac, and now, who was there? No one. Abram set the bottle down atop a wobbling end table, and rose a little shakily himself. He moved towards the solitary windowed wall, leaned on the sill, and stared off into the darkness. That window was meant for Connie’s house, but she died before he could install it. They’d scraped for months, putting aside hemp scrip, looking for odd-jobs, cutting corners. Connie never got to look through it, as Abram looked through it now.
A brooding darkness obscured the overgrown weeds and half-dead trees that surrounded his shack, but a few lights could be seen from the center of the resettlement. Everyone was on high-alert. Chester Vilkenson’s home —his closest neighbor, and “Chet” to most everyone— sat unilluminated somewhere through the foliage. Abram felt alone despite the proximity.
The searches had gone on for maybe two hours before the resettlement’s citizens decided there was nothing more to be done. Each child lost degraded the townsfolk’s impetus further, each search was shorter than the last. They’d hunted for days when Corey went missing. Now, in a matter of hours they’d abandoned Isaac altogether.
“Just for the night, just for the night,” Administrator Plourde had told Abram, before they parted ways. Abram was assured the search would pick up after the first light. Everyone crowded on the street where he had fallen, and were told to meet at town hall in the morning. But what was to be done? Nothing had ever been found in the other children’s cases.
Had he been with his sisters, would the boy have been taken at all? This thought penetrated the layers of indolent misery. His own words echoed back to him.
“Not another drop, I swear,” Abram had said.“A boy needs his father.” They’d relented, though given how often they refused him, he wasn’t sure why. But he kept to his promise, and remained completely sober while Isaac spent the night. They played games. Abram told rare stories —always careful to edit them for small ears— about living in the south, deep in the heartlands of the Domus. Only Connie knew the truth, about what had brought Abram to Nowell all those years ago. It had taken time, but time was one thing they thought they had, and the years he’d spent with her and their little family had worn him down, dissolved his barriers, until eventually he had spilled it all. Isaac only got an approximation of these stories, embellished specters of the truth, meant to excite and amuse. Abram’s time in the Domus hadn’t been entirely terrible. These memories were tinged with a tinge of wonder, of adventure. The atrocities came later. The two of them, father and son, had stayed up far past the boy’s usual bedtime. Abram ultimately drifted off with the lad in his lap, stroking his hair. Then, for no reason he could figure out, Abram awoke in the middle of the night, his arms empty.
Isaac’s disappearance didn’t even seem odd, at first. He was prone to sleepwalking, had been for as long as he’d been able to walk. But he was not in that room, nor outside the shack. A few blurry minutes later, it dawned on Abram that Isaac had not simply wandered off. A dream-like quality infused those moments, a sense that nothing was quite real. Reality came later, and hadn’t left since. His boy was gone, and his absence grew to encompass Abram’s world. Maybe it only revealed how empty it always was.
Abram turned away from the window, and moved back towards the cot. He squatted down on his knees, pressed up against the trailing blankets, and pulled a box from beneath his bed. It was deep, wide, crafted from panels of wood discolored by the damp that clung perpetually to his shack’s floor. Abram placed the box atop his cot, sat beside it, and stared at it as if it could stare right back.
“I should have thrown you in the river,” Abram said. But he knew the reason he had kept it, knew that one day the need might arise again. He pulled off the lid and looked inside.
Abram lifted a bundle wrapped in plastic and oiled cloth, feeling the weight of it. He unraveled a semi-automatic handgun. Its grip was etched with the monogram of the Devout, a symbol all recognized but few understood the significance of, angular and runic, a corruption of an older symbol taken from the religion’s progenitors, only the slightest suggestion of the Yeshuite sacrificial cross. He held the gun as it was meant to be held, letting the oilcloths fall away. The gun looked almost as new as it had when he’d been issued it, long years ago. Abram ejected the magazine, not completely sure whether he’d ever unloaded the thing, and saw that he had. He rifled through the box, and pulled out a box of ammunition, checked the cartridges for signs of corruption and, finding none, set the box and gun aside.
Abram stared at the remaining contents of the box, his heart racing, sweat beading on his forehead. He pulled away the remaining plastic, and looked at the face that lay in the box. The mask, eyes empty and dead, so similar and yet so different from those worn by the zealots, by the thugs called dagger-men. White instead of black, pointed chin jutting outward, cracks from its last use still visible across the left cheek. His initiation into the Devout elect flashed in his mind, along with scenes of brimstone and ash, but he shook his head and banished them. He looked at what remained in the box. A stack of clothes, as black as the mask was white, and atop them, a folded, wide-brimmed capotain hat.
The vestments of a witchfinder.
“Well, I don’t think he’s a witch-doctor,” Artemis crossed her arms. “I mean, just look at him. He looks…” she waved her hand in the general direction of their captive.
“Destitute?” Plourde offered.
“Like shit,” Artemis finished. “He looks like a vagrant.”
Plourde seemed to consider this, his face scrunched up as though he had just swallowed a fly, “Well, then, what do witch-doctors look like exactly?”
He stared at Artemis, his earnest gaze reminded her of a mutt she used to know. The same desperate zeal to please. Seeing it from a puppy had been endearing, but with Plourde, she felt only vague unease. As though she was perpetually embarrassed not of the man but for him. It was friendly, benign, unctuous. She’d rather be elsewhere. Talking to anyone else. Doing anything other than entertaining this poor wreck of a man.
Artemis took a breath, let it out, “I don’t know. I’ve only ever seen one, and it was back when I was a kid.”
“What did he look like?”
“She,” Artemis corrected, “I don’t remember much. She was old. Older than anyone I’d ever seen before. Mostly I remember all the stuff she was lugging around. Big old case, leather bound. Real beauty. I remember thinking it looked like magic,” she glanced in the direction of the unconscious captive, “he looks like he’d stick you for your boots.”
“I can’t imagine for the life of me why he thought claiming to be a witch-doctor would get him out of this mess. We may be on the edge of the empire, but that doesn’t mean we don’t obey the Proclamations,” Plourde said.
A snort escaped Artemis, “Yeah, we’re the epitome of law and order around these parts.” Her badge seemed to glint in its own sort of mirth.
“Well, we do the best we can, anyway.”
“Don’t take it personally Plourde,” Artemis said, seeing the administrator’s lips purse, “This ain’t the place for law and order. If we did everything the Party told us to, we’d be dead before the week was out.”
Plourde’s face reddened, and he took a deep breath before speaking, the words escaping as though he was being pressed like a grape, as though his truths could only be extricated under the most enormous of pressures, “You might find this hard to believe Ms. Kokinos, but I know exactly what it takes to keep this resettlement going. Nowell was here long before you arrived, and Lord Father be willing, it will exist long after the two of us are subsumed by the earth,” he pointed a finger at the door to his office. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a few things to take care of before I retire.”
Artemis sat motionless , looking Plourde in the eyes, saying nothing. His finger curled, wilted like the crops in the fields, and for a moment she thought she saw fear in his eyes. It was unlike the administrator to be so blunt, to be anything other that cordial, and Artemis thought she might even prefer him this way. She decided not to push it.
“Have a good night administrator,” she said, tipping her campaign hat, “I’m going to keep an eye on the prisoner. Territory justice has a way of sneaking in during the dark hours.”
Artemis left the office, closed the door slowly behind herself, and made her way back to the room adjacent to the prisoner’s makeshift cell. She’d dragged a chair in there earlier, set a few feet in front of the door. The room was quiet, the only noise the prisoner’s sleeping breaths sliding out from under the door. She got comfortable —as comfortable as was possible in such a hard-backed chair— and waited for sunrise.
Despite herself, the wear and effort of the day started to creep over her. Her eyelids oscillated, grew heavy, started to droop, forced open, only to droop again. The door to the closet was locked, bound shut by a sturdy —if rusted— chain. There’d be no way for the man to escape.
Jack, she corrected herself, and felt a stab of something, not guilt but a certain discomfort at the prospect of the kidnapper having a name. Of course he must and yet, knowing it unsettled her. Jack. A common name, shared by at least a half-a-dozen or more Nowellites. A name that happened to mean “nothing”, in the sense of “jack shit”. That’s about as much as they knew about the man, jack shit.
Artemis began to replay the events of the last months, and then without recognition, drifted seamlessly into a deep sleep from her maintained illusion of wakefulness. She dreamed in frightful fits and starts, of a time and place before Nowell. Of her father and his mountainous body, always so reassuring against the living nights of the Wilder, his bulk the cornerstone of guardianship throughout her adolescence. She remembered a time before she was Artemis at all, before she had been given the name against her wishes. That name bore a terrible and exacting price, and she had paid it without fully realizing what she had given up. A title and an office, a throwback to an earlier time. Artemis remembered her life before, and then the sudden change. No more father, no more cottage in the ‘lovely nook’. Her dreams bled into nightmares, colored by fire and blood, and then whether through loss or avoidance, they faded into nothingness.
Time passed in the waking world, but Artemis had no conception. Her sleep was marred by the sounds of something scraping, something stomping. She jerked awake, unsure of what or why, her eyes suddenly open and slowly scanning the room. It was still dark.
She heard footsteps outside the room, coming from the meeting hall. Hushed voices, as hesitant as their footfalls.
She uncoiled from the chair and came fully awake in that moment, suddenly silent and lithe, a hand upon her knife hilt. She crept towards the outside door that led away from the side rooms and into the main hall. Closer now, she could hear the whispered words from the other side.
“Quickly, now, c’mon.”
Grimacing, Artemis grabbed the doorknob and yanked the door open. A small group of Nowellites, six in total, huddled by the entrance. Their faces seemed cut from the same cloth, each mouth opened and eyes wide at the sight of the so-called-sheriff. Artemis leaned back nonchalantly against the door frame, arm above her head, her skinning knife dangling from her fingers. A steel falcon ready to swoop down and taste blood.
“Red,” she said, recognizing one of them instantly, “how’re you doing?”
He had watched the prisoner a few hours — no doubt riling the townsfolk up with his stories of the child-thief who, for unknown reasons, still drew breath in the town hall. Now he stammered in response, unable to form any real sentence in reply. Her pose unnerved and placated, as though they had wandered in on her morning stretches instead of being caught sneaking around.
“We’re here for the killer,” said another man, Henry-something.
“Well, you’re shit out of luck,” Artemis replied, pushing off the wall gracefully, lowering her eyes with casual indifference, rather than submission. Although her expression was pleasant, the silent threat of violence lingered in her eyes. “Any of you come in here without the administrator’s say, and you’re liable to take a trip to Kathryn.” She sheathed the blade without looking down, but kept her hand on its hilt.
They left without another word, though their eyes, squinted and hateful, communicated enough. The resettlement’s general distrust was distilled in that moment. Fear, not just of the prisoner in the closet, but of everything tainted by the outside world. Life within the palisades might be difficult, but life outside of it was unthinkable. As such, all beings who existed outside the resettlement were abominations, an impossibility made flesh. Even the traders, sailing up on their convoys, were widely regarded with awe ang gossiped about. They brought goods from New Plymouth, which led to stories of gunpowder and blood from the badlands. Soon enough, they wound up in the folklore and myths of the Territories. But if, God forbid, those traders and convoymen stayed —such was known to happen, though infrequently—they were soiled, stripped of their mythical status, and treated as a subtler kind of invader. Nowellites were suspicious of anyone who chose to live among them, at the foot of the Wilder. On blighted land. Why would anyone would choose to live as they did? It was never discussed, there was no law, but if you lived there long enough, Artemis knew, you’d see even the friendliest Nowellite’s friendly mask slip in the presence of outsiders. The resettlement was dying. She could smell it in the air. Nowell was dying, and the resettlement was deciding — each citizen one part of a larger animal, thinking together — whether killing the prisoner would restore it. Whether it would deliver them all from the Wilder and it’s cloying, festering darkness, from the forest’s living death.
As Artemis saw it, Chet was right about folks wanting to end the kidnappings. The prisoner’s otherness, his sudden appearance, the timing of it all, was sufficient evidence. A place largely run off of traditions barely a generation old, cobbled together out of the carcass of the past. Theories and arguments about the disappearance of their children would be put on hold, rumors would slacken and coagulate, stitching themselves around the form of this hapless prisoner, until there would be nothing that could stop the townsfolk from taking him.
If he was guilty, which she believed likely, then justice would work itself out. There were three missing children, and you got strung up for a lot less in the Territories. A gulp of air for a drowning resettlement. Artemis had not really known the missing children, nor had she been friends with their parents, and yet, she felt something in her echo the thorny attitudes of the Nowellites. A trick, that simplicity, like a lurefish goading its food with ghost lights.
If he isn’t guilty, Artemis thought, its going to get worse. It alarmed her to realize that the more she thought about it, the less sure she was. It wasn’t the way he cut himself loose — the shiv was hardly a threat — nor the stories he spun about being a witch-doctor. It was something else. Jack was dangerous, she had no doubt. But there was something about his pallor, underneath the wild tangle of beard and hair, that suggested illness, perhaps mortal. He had been easy to run down, easy to catch.
The hairs on the back of her neck rose, ears perked up, and nostrils flared. As though picking up a scent, excited by the hunt, her pupils widened until her eyes were almost onyx. Her mind reeled, calculating and comparing notes, and she realized that each house, each location of the missing children, had windows. The bedroom windows had been the children’s most likely route of egress in each disappearance. The fact they had each been glass paned seemed trivial in the past. She had made note of it, but it led nowhere, and fell into the background of her mind. Most folks figured other ways to deal with a lack of glass, but sometimes you got lucky with the traders, or in the ruins. A few glass windows on a large house wasn’t uncommon, especially if the householders were prosperous.
But each of their rooms had glass windows, Artemis remembered specifically. The missing children made no sounds, made no apparent struggle. She imagined the prisoner looming out from the darkness at them, offering them sweets or toys to climb through.
Never in a million years would they have left willingly with that man.
Chet couldn’t sleep. So he lied there, staring up at the ceiling, watching the darkness watching him. It did not share its knowledge, however. He breathed in deep, rhythmic patterns. He scratched at a bug bite on his arm, turned over, but found no relief. Making a noise somewhere between a groan and a sigh, he got up and put on his clothes, laced his boots, grabbed his rifle and without making another sound —each creaking step in the house an old friend, easily avoided— he made for the Ratskeller.
The moon illuminated his nighttime trek, reflecting off the yellow grass. The sky had remained clear, and Chet thought it looked like it might just stay that way. The dirt crunched beneath his feet, the telltale crackle of dirt bereft moisture. He could smell the dust it kicked up, amazed to some small extent that he even noticed it anymore. Nowell dust had a way of sticking in your throat, it was what drove folks to drink, or so it went. Chet didn’t partake much, alcohol always made a ruckus in his guts. Back in the first days of resettlement, being drunk would have been a liability, though plenty of them had been, had figured out crude methods of brewing bread beer, even fermented the pulp of strange Wilder fruit if the occasion arose.
We were braver then, Chet thought to himself, or dumber. Probably dumber. The first resettlers had made frequent trips to the Wilder, foraged for berries and other morsels, before they’d realized the folly of such actions. But they had learned. People had died. Flora and fauna that resembled their smaller southern cousins were toxic instead of nutritious. Methods of food preparation unique to the Northern Territories had yet to be developed, and many people fell ill with a wide variety of allergies, illnesses, and cancers. What was more, besides the diseased local ecosystem were the creatures that defied any taxonomical niche at all. Plants that moved like predators, and ate like predators. Mushrooms whose spores would burn and melt your bare flesh down to the bone. Mammals descended from unknown sources, toothy and far too intelligent. It was a blessing that the human inhabitants of the Wilder, the so-called Essil, had left them largely alone, barring extreme exception. The Wilder was special, but it was not kind, it did not forgive, and Chet thought it probably didn’t forget, either. The original population of resettlers had been cut in half by the first winter, then cut in half again by its end, and only after that, had the wolves come.
The Ratskeller was still open —was always open, this was to be expected— but Chet was surprised to hear raucous noise from within. He had not been the only one with insomnia. As he drew closer he found that the sounds he had mistaken for possible merriment —though this was in poor taste, to his mind— were in fact the tones of conflict. Hand on the swinging doors, Chet heard voices rising over one another, only to become hushed, and start again. Pushing in, the Ratskeller fell silent, folks turned to look at the intruder, and saw it was Chet and resumed their conversations. The bar was abandoned, the bartender nowhere to be seen. His night replacement —a youth named Buck— was shoulder to shoulder with the small crowd of men, standing to attention around him, like loyal dogs.
“They’ve got the sonofabitch at town hall,” said one of the men. Chet squinted, and recognized the voice as belonging to Red.
“That fuckin’ woman wouldn’t let us in,” said another, “thought she was gonna slice us.”
“Why’s she protecting him? What’s she got to hide?” asked a third.
“If Plourde ain’t gonna handle this,” Red said, “we ought to take it to the dags.”
“But Old Carl-”
Chet ignored the conversations, walked over to the bar, and sat down. Buck removed himself from the group of men, came around the counter, and looked him over.
“What’ll it be?” Buck said. The youth’s eyes flicked from Chet’s face to the other men, as though he had a tic.
Chet pointed behind the counter at a jug, practically covered in dust, “That’ll do. Two fingers.”
Buck nodded and grabbed the jug, scraping a path through the dust, and poured Chet a drink in a cracked wooden cup. Chet nodded in thanks and looked down into the thin red liquid, and knocked it back. He inhaled a little of the drink, unpracticed. He coughed, head tilted sideways, mouth buried in the crook of his arm.
“Didn’t take you for a drinker,” Buck said, aware of the situation, “what’s got you up tonight?”
Chet looked at him, pulled a thin-lipped smile, “What do you think has got me up tonight.”
“It’s a damn shame what happened.”
“Yeah,” Chet said, “I know. Everyone knows. Get back to your little meeting.”
Buck nodded, turned to leave, and stopped, “How you paying for that?”
“You don’t have a tab.”
“Well,” Chet pushed the cup back towards the youth, “now I do.”
Chet walked home, leaving the murmur of late night patrons behind him. He felt the warmth of the booze, and it loosened up his limbs, powerful drink on empty stomach, for a moment it let him forget the pains in his back and legs, the pains of aging and forgotten impacts. He wasn’t drunk, but he was feeling good.
On second thought… his stomach roiled slightly, and he knew with a cold certainty that he’d be running for the outhouse before the sun rose. But maybe, just maybe, he’d get some damned sleep beforehand. First, before the rest of the town awoke, he’d head to the Wilder, to the rotting motel Artemis had asked him to check out.
The motel itself was real enough, but he hadn’t seen it in years, hadn’t wandered that far beyond the Plaza for some time. Did the other scavvers know of its existence? Chet didn’t think so. The fatality rate went up dramatically the deeper you went, the Plaza marking the outer limits of where most of them had dared tread. Most of the buildings in the area were collapsed, more anthill than building, grave markers for a world that didn’t exist anymore. Why some of them lasted so long, Chet didn’t know. He asked Plourde about it once, but hadn’t understood the answers, something about “ polymers”. Chet watched the moon as he walked. It was nearly ripe, and seemed to sway with his gait.
Artemis surveyed the shack on the edge of town, moonbeams soaked into the dirt below. It barely lit her way, but it was enough. She scanned for any signs of disturbance, found nothing.
It wasn’t raining, like it had been the other nights she’d set out looking for lost children, but the air had a dewy quality, and a sense of dire expectancy. Moisture clung to the windows of the shack, visible in thick droplets. The dewcatchers would be yielding tonight.
She walked around the outside of the dismal structure, but again found no leads. When she entered, she knocked softly, out of habit, or reverence. She knew it was empty. Her fingers itched for her skinning knife, for something tangible and real. Not much to see at all. Grimy floors, unwashed clothes. An old stinking bowl of lentil and bean soup, vibrant green and blue mold standing out against the cavelike darkness inside the shack. Her eyes drank it all in. Other folks might need lanterns, torches, but the reflecting light of the moon off the sole window glass was more than enough for Artemis to see everything clearly, and yet see nothing at all.
Jack’s head hurt. An indeterminate time later, a realization cut through his delirium: the heads of dead men don’t throb, don’t ache. He had not been lynched in his sleep.
Oh well, he thought, the game always continues. Until it doesn’t.
He knew he should perhaps be more grateful for making it this long without death or dismemberment. But gratitude was a racket. Who exactly should he be grateful to? The answers always depended, always varied with the person responding.
“The Lord Father,” was an oft-cited example, but he’d gotten other, stranger answers over the years. He had been told that he should thank his birth stars, his mother, other people’s mercy, his father, the Domus, various animal effigies, transtemporal forces, ghosts, Yeshua the Hanged-Man, ancient primeval deities whose names were all but half-forgoten, and of course, plain old dumb luck.
Jack didn’t consider himself lucky at the moment, locked inside an old closet in the most far back of backwaters, head ready to burst. He noted that his hands and feet had been re-bound, likely by that woman, the one with the sheriff’s badge. The one who’d kicked the shit out of him. The memory of how quickly she’d moved, how easily she’d seen him, made him feel like a mouse caught in a trap. He tested the bonds, cutting off the circulation to his extremities almost immediately, while the rope around his throat started to strangle him. Jack relented. She was good with a rope, apparently, and there would be no “lucky” snapping, or access to a razor like before. He’d given away his one shot in a feign of goodwill.
He deflated, then shrugged to himself. Might just sit there, waiting patiently for the sheriff to return, just to give her a grin and a wink. Patience, he thought, reminded of his encounter not long ago with an intelligence far more loathsome than a lone, mortal woman, no matter how nimble with a knife. He would figure a way out. He had to.
More Season Two To Come!