I think this thing's going to end up as a novella, so I had the idea of bundling it with In the Depths of the Valley, for which I've never found a publisher. Here are chapters one, two, and three.
A man in a cheap suit sits alone in a diner, intermittently sipping his coffee while viewing documents on his tablet computer. The diner isn't busy; it's never busy, really, not in this town, with its aging population. The man passed many miles of corn fields as he drove here, each mile identical to the next except for the rollercoaster slope of the hills. There is a casino down by the river, with a buffet and a couple chain restaurants, but the man prefers small establishments, finding them to be closer to the heart of a town, and it is the heart, after all, that he is after, the rhythmic pulse that is either pounding in cardiac arrest or lulling itself to a sleepy death. After a few minutes in the diner, he guesses that the latter is the case. The waitress comes by and refills his coffee; he gives her a quick look, dismissive, judging her with a glance. She is fat and saggy-jowled, her hair defying gravity with the aid of a liter of cheap hairspray, the odor of cigarettes wafting from her bosom like a natural, cancerous perfume. “What can I get ya?” she asks, her notepad rising from her apron. He looks back at the menu lying untouched on the table and then at the waitress. Her lipstick is a purplish shade like bruised flesh.
“Eggs,” he says.
“Scrambled, hard, or over easy?” asks the waitress.
“Over easy,” says the man.
“It comes with toast too. You want any jam?”
“Sure,” says the man.
“You work for the government?” she asks, suddenly, putting down her notepad.
“Sort of,” says the man. “I'm a contractor.”
“You ain't here about taxes, are ya?”
“Nope,” says the man.
“It's them murders by the school and over in that burb, ain't it?” she asks.
“I'm not at liberty to say,” replies the man. “But if you have any information, then I'd be happy to hear it.”
“You ain't a reporter? The cops don't want anyone to talk to reporters. You got a card?”
The man reaches inside his jacket and pulls out a business card. The waitress takes it in her hand.
“How you say that? Kar-wah-skee?”
“That's my number there, if you have anything you'd like to tell me.”
“They couldn't cover it up, you know, not with those photos being put on the internet. It looked like somebody put those people through a combine. I wouldn't have thought it was real, but I know the coroner, and I knew Linda, and she ain't around no more, that's the truth. She was a beautiful woman, Mr. If I knew anything but rumors, I'd tell ya.” The waitress puts the card in her apron pocket.
“I'll listen to rumors,” says the man. “What the most outrageous one?”
“That it ain't a man but an animal that's killing people. The corn might be acid-proof, but I've seen stray dogs running round, and they don't last too long. They don't even hand out hunting permits for the deer no more, 'cause the birth rate's so low, and the ones that live are so sickly-looking.”
“You don't think an animal could adapt to the ash, to the acid?” asks the man. “There's evidence that several species are evolving in order to survive inexplicable atmospheric phenomena.”
“I don't know nothing 'bout that,” says the waitress. “You want me to put this in?”
“Please,” says the man.
He watches her walk to the counter, the smell of cigarette lingering behind like an unwanted guest. Outside, two men are taking a chainsaw to an old oak tree full of rotten limbs. A courthouse lies across the street, a red-brick, white columned edifice that has extensive acid rain damage. A dead town, he thinks. According to his report, the casino is nearing bankruptcy, having been displaced by rival businesses closer to high density population centers. No one wants to drive out to the boonies to gamble, not since the golf course closed due to the difficulties of golfing in hazmat suits. He pulls out a photograph printed off the internet. It shows the ragged corpse of a woman, her chest cavity torn out, her organs devoured, her head held on to her body by a few thins strands of flesh. The heart, of course, was consumed first; none of his information tells him this, but he has dealt with this sort of case often enough to recognize the signs. Note the muddied ground and large dog-like tracks. A clump of black fur lies near the body, greasy, with thick, long hairs. A witness reports seeing a tall figure lurking in the vicinity of the body; it fled on all fours when a light was shined in its direction. The question is not what but who. The school where the second murder took place is close to the burb enclave. It would be logical to assume that the murder lives in the burb or near it. Cameras would have to be installed immediately without alerting any of the residents. It cannot know; whether or not it is cognizant of what it is, the instinct of self-preservation is always present. He'd made that mistake before, treating it like an animal, and after four deaths and a mauling, he'd learned his lesson.
His eggs arrive, delivered by the waitress, who refills his coffee and vanishes silently, already gossiping, he thinks, with her colleagues behind the bar. He digs in; he is a hearty eater, though not quite a glutton. The coffee is bland but hot. He looks back at the woman suddenly; she is whispering something to an overweight blonde with bright blue eyelids. It could be her, of course. That's the difficulty with these sort of cases—anybody is a suspect. The last time he had to deal with a 509, the perpetrator turned out to be an eighty-year-old woman. That was in Wyoming, and the circumstance of her infection was still not understood, but it may have been a family tradition. He made a note to check out the older families in the region.
The man gets up, puts his tablet in a suitcase, leaves a decent tip (twenty-five percent), and exits the diner. He holds the door open for an elderly man with an enormous mole growing on his pale face. The old man says nothing, just looks at him briefly as though he were the doorman and shuffles inside. Very friendly, the man thinks, walking to his car, a cheap, black sedan. He sits in it with the motor running for a while, looking blankly down the street. The smell of cloves comes to him, rushing his nostrils, summoning a bitter taste in the back of his throat. He looks down at his hands and sees the scars, the lines that mark where the flesh was torn ragged. His shoulder pops as he buckles his seat belt, blinking back memories. Why do I do this? he thinks. He remembers the process, nothing more, machine-like, a cold, hard eater of data. In his trunk are handcuffs, a knife, a bottle of flunitrazepam, and a ring-bound copy of a book entitled Al-Azif. A forty-ounce can of beer sits in a brown sack on the floor of the passenger's side. The man shakes his head, puts the car in gear, and heads toward the burb enclave.
This town looks like any other. Empty streets, dilapidated buildings. Smoke oozing from the river, creating a noxious cloud. He watches as a teenage girl pushes a baby in a stroller down the sidewalk, sans mask, the infant unshielded. What can you do, though? It's likely that her tenement lacks the necessary filtration system to protect her and her child. A bill requiring air recyclers in all dwellings failed to pass Congress again, despite heavy public support, because the funding simply wasn't there. People want their air breathable, but they don't want to increase taxes. He hates politics with a passion. The worst people are politicians. Sometimes, he thought that anyone with an opinion was a politician. Why can't we all be dead and glass-eyed? He shakes his head again, trying to keep focus.
The burb is a nice homogenous community. All the houses specially designed to prevent the penetration of ultraviolent rays and corrosive particles. Dome-shaped roofs, great fans swirling in the center, silently slicing through the air. Window shades drawn, the glass unbreakable. A security guard checking people in an out, opening the ten-foot-tall gates. He pulls his car up to the booth, rolls down his window, and hands the guard his badge.
“What is the reason for your visit?” he asks, handing the man back his badge. He's a tall fella, close-cropped hair, a little thick around the waist. A physique built with donuts and cheeseburgers. Pale, big-teethed, a slight twang to his query. Doesn't like people he doesn't know. Might not like anyone. Might not like himself.
“You always ask cops questions?” the man replies, looking the guard in the eyes.
“Just need something to write down in the log book,” says the guard. “FBI, huh? That oughta reassure some of the residents.”
“I'm just going to ask some questions,” says the man. The gates swing open; he enters the forbidden city. It is tiring, always asking questions. All he ever does is look people in the eyes and ask them goddamn questions. The fake badge sits in his wallet, waiting to be shown to a pair of questioning eyes. One of these days it's going to fall apart, he thinks. He'll just have to make another.
He does a sweep of the community, observing the homes. Hard to tell one from another. The lawns are manicured, pumped full of nitrates, the grass a GMO resistant to inexplicable atmospheric phenomena. Evergreen even when the sun doesn't shine. Comes with the property, cared for by the crack maintenance crew of illegal immigrants. He stops suddenly, picking a random house, parking on the street. Out he goes, straightening his tie, a mask placed over his mouth, an umbrella over his head. He knocks on the door, three quick taps. A small dog yips inside, something cross and probably spoiled to fatness. The door cracks open. Eyes peer out.
“Yeah?” asks the homeowner.
“Kurt Karwoski, Federal Bureau of Investigation,” he says, extending his badge. “I'd like to ask you a few questions.”
“About what?” says the man.
“Could I come in?” he asks.
“Yeah, just let me put the damn dog up.” The door opens seconds later, and the man walks into the house. It's a nice place, of course, like any one of these burb homes. Programmable walls and furnishings that change color according to the owner's preference. Rectangular shard chandeliers hanging from the ceiling like ornaments suspended from heaven. The omnipresent televisions, flickering on the living room wall and in the kitchen. He spots the dog, an obese pug, glowering at him from behind a baby gate. It makes rumbling sounds like a little volcano, but its owner shushes it and motions toward the couch. They both sit on it.
“Ron Hernandez,” says the home owner, offering his hand. The man shakes it. Ron is a stocky middle-aged man of Latino descent dressed in sweatpants and a baggy hooded sweatshirt that says Ball State across the chest.
“What's one of these babies cost you a month? I'm thinking of moving out of my apartment and into a burb,” says the man.
“I arranged a sixty-year mortgage,” says Ron. “So my rate's half the usual. But the kicker's that the debt transfers to my kids. They'll be able to pay it, though. And if they can't, hell, I'd rather they grow up with healthy lungs than get cancer in their twenties. You know how it is.” He gesticulates, his hands moving through the air in graceful motions. The man thinks of paper airplanes. Fragile. Dying toward the earth.
“You got anything to drink?” asks the man.
“This is about the murders, isn't it?” asks Ron.
“I'll have a beer if you got one. Unless it's light beer. I can't drink light beer,” explains the man.
“I don't take Charles out to piss with out my prod,” says Ron, motioning to an electric shock prod lying on the coffee table. “That thing could bring a horse to cardiac arrest.”
“Heard any strange noises? Moaning, shouting, growls, howls, even?” asks the man.
“Where?” asks Ron.
“Under the bed. In the closet. Outside.”
“These walls are sound-proof. I can't hear a car pull up. That might be part of the problem, you know. You don't know if a maniac is waiting outside unless he knocks on the door.”
“Has a maniac knocked on your door?” asks the man.
“Charles would tell me if one did. He knows people, the little shit. He's judge and jury all in one. Look at him there, eyeing us. Look at that little black pushed-in face. Try to lie to that face. You can't. It's impossible.”
“Where are your wife and kids?” asks the man.
“Work and school. We try to spend as much time apart as we can. You don't need to talk to them, do you?”
The man gets up, looks the place over again, and walks into the kitchen. Ron sits on the couch, watching him, nervous. The man opens his refrigerator and grabs an orange bottle covered in Chinese hieroglyphics.
“Can I have this?” he asks, opening the lid and taking a drink.
“Yeah, I guess,” says Ron.
“You pay your taxes?” he asks, after draining half the bottle.
“You work for the IRS too?”
“I moonlight. I'm a jack-of-all trades. Listen, you have anything to report, give me a call. Here's my card.” He places it on the coffee table.
“This is a nice community,” says Ron, as though uttering the statement will make it true. “I sacrificed a lot to live here.”
“Don't be a stranger,” says the man, letting himself out. Little Charles watches him go, his round face placid, contemplating hidden truths.
The man comes back at night. He brings a small collapsible step ladder with him which he positions behind a hedge row. The problem with this approach is that he'll have to improvise once he's inside; he can't bring the ladder with him. He's dressed in dark blue, carrying a heavily-loaded backpack. I'm too goddamn loud, he thinks as he vaults over the fence, landing poorly on his ankle, straining it. On his hip is the knife, the gun in the backpack, for what good it'll do him. Silver particle-plated polyester underclothes should keep him odorless, but this isn't a hunting mission. He's just gathering intel like a good little automaton, performing his routine, mindlessly adhering to the plan. What happens when it all goes to hell? he thinks. Defeatism, or more accurately, fatalism, hung around his neck like a heavy chain. He moves along the fence line, shunning the sodium lights brightening the street, heading toward the park, crouched and slinking, a thief, he thinks, but really just an actor. Briefly he stops to watch a tumorous raccoon waddle toward a trash bin. A nice night for a snack, he thinks, sucking the air through his mask. Maybe one day people would walk down the street like this raccoon, carrying their protuberances in their hands or on carts, the great irony of man's destructive nature made explicit. Is that irony? he wonders, looking up into the night's sky. A few dim stars sparkle, leaving faint evidence of their existence. “I am a fatalist,” he whispers, his legs moving independent of his unthinking mind. No one tears their door down as he passes. No howling is heard. He soon reaches the park trail and crawls into the bush on his belly, sliding like a snake, the smell of the earth rich and fertile with disease. Lying on his guts, he sees the tree, a great pine rising above the tree line, facing the burb enclave. It's probably watching me right now, he thinks, feeling gooseflesh prickle his skin. Still, he doesn't move, nor does his heart rate rise substantially. Either it is here, watching, waiting, or it is not. The moon is not full, but that doesn't mean a lot, he's fairly certain of this. Crawl, he mouths, and he does, slithering slowly, making tiny progress. It would wait by the road, he assumes, or travel on it, wanting the woods but unwilling to abandon its human pathways, its human routine. When he is close to the tree, he leaps up and grabs the nearest branch and swings himself up, climbing fast, trying to gain height as quickly as possible. Nothing beats at the bark or snaps at his feet. Goddamn he hates the waiting.
At the top he can see the whole burb enclave, lying asleep like a dead city, nothing moving, all cars parked securely in their garages. It appears to be a model city, identical, he knows, to countless others spread across the country. He puts his hand in a bird's nest accidentally and nearly loses his footing. In the past he would've waiting up here all night, a silent sentry, immune to the effects of weariness and discomfort. The camera comes out and attaches to a top branch. It's a sophisticated piece of equipment, capable of streaming a week's worth of live video to his computer, if its battery lasts that long. He'll have to climb back up here to get it, which is a pain, but hopefully by then he won't have to worry about being eaten alive or disemboweled. If that's what's supposed to happen, then so be it. Christ, why not just a heart attack? Something quiet and relatively painless. Does a death say something about a life? Who gives a flying fuck. Beneath him something crashes through the bushes, grunting, snorting, churning up dead earth. An aneurism sounds nice, kind of like a holiday. His uncle died of an aneurism. Maybe it is genetic. It is digging a hole right under him, its fingers flinging dirt up into the air, giggling, growling, gnashing teeth. What do you got there, doggy, a nice bone? This is a living memory and sometimes those are hard to separate from the others. He could try to shoot it from here, put a bullet in its brain, but he can't see anything, it could be a dog or a hobo or a goddamn leprechaun, and he would be just another madman firing blindly into the darkness. He hears tongue clicks and then a whistle followed by a long, deep moan. A familiar sound, unfortunately. Iowa, four years ago, trapped in a tree just like this, with a monster prowling around the base, waiting, waiting, sniffing and growling and complaining that he wouldn't come down and become food. It started to climb the tree when it realized he wasn't coming down, its great yellow eyes glowing in the darkness, hugging the trunk and pulling itself up like a bear. He let it get very close, the beast, close enough for him to see the ivory gleam of its teeth, and then he lashed out with a machete, severing its fingers and sending it plummeting to its death. That was a long night, though, wanting it crawl up the tree, listening to its utterances, fight the terror that grew in his stomach and spread into his limbs. When he lashed out with the weapon he was surprised. It wasn't a premeditated event. It just happened, independent of thought.
Now there's nothing under the tree. He's sure of it. Quickly, he climbs down, the knife in-between his teeth, his hands moving like an ape's. There no hole on the ground, no evidence of the beast, no confirmation that what he heard actually occurred. This is somehow worse; it means that he's losing it, fading into the past, or maybe even the future. He creeps out of the woods and back to the subdivision, stealing a solid metal trashcan from the street to use as a stand. He overcomes the fence, jumping from the trashcan, barely pulling himself over. On the other side he returns to his car and sits in it awhile, drinking a beer in paper sack, images dancing on the windshield, ugly shapes, distorted, vague and full of dark promise. After maybe an hour he turns the key and puts it into gear. What do I have that he does not? he thinks. He doesn't know what he means or what he's talking about.