Aurora Awards Submissions – Wizards of Huckleberry Finn

THE WIZARDS OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN

D.G. Valdron

 

Franco watched the killer through the one way glass for exactly ten minutes. In that time he smoked three cigarettes, carefully shielding their glow with his hand. He tried to reconcile the savage mutilations he had reviewed, with this passive, almost catatonic, young man.

Finally, he stubbed out his last cigarette and entered the room. There was a subliminal whir as the video camera on the other side of the room recorded the interview.

“Jeff?” Franco prompted. The youth did not look up. He was twenty-five but looked eighteen, with a sallow complexion and corn blond hair that laid flat across his forehead as if wet with sweat.

“Jeff? I’m Doctor Franco, I’m here to assess you.”

“You think I’m a sick bastard,” Jeff mumbled without looking at him.

He’s psychic, Franco thought sourly, and then started when Jeff nodded slightly.

“You are accused of, and have admitted to nine murders,” Franco replied softly, “Particularly gruesome murders. That’s all I know, that’s all I’m going to know, unless you talk to me.”

Jeff finally raised his head to look at him.

“It weren’t nine murders. I killed one person, just nine times is all.”

Franco let a pause slip by, watching for any action or reaction, carefully ticking off seconds. Jeff’s stare shifted from apathetic to almost defiant.

Finally.

“Tell me how that can be,” Franco asked.

Another five seconds ticked past before Jeff spoke.

“You believe in magic, Doctor?” he asked.

“Is that what you believe in?” Franco responded.

“Didn’t figure that you would,” Jeff laughed suddenly, “maybe you believe in psychic powers. A scientific man like you, sure you must believe in those.”

Franco made a cradle of his fingers and rested his chin in them, he looked serious and sober.

“Go on,” he said.

“I got them,” Jeff told him, suddenly serious, “I got them real good. I can read people like books sometimes.”

He laughed, “That’s pretty good ain’t it, seeing as how I can’t read books themselves hardly at all. It’s like there’s all kinds of different gifts.”

Franco felt that Jeff was drifting into grandiose fantasy, time to lead him back.

“You have powers,” he agreed, “how did that lead you to kill those people? How did that lead you to kill Sara Ann Mobley.”

Jeff’s grin faded slowly.

“I didn’t kill Sara Ann Mobley.”

That was correct as far as it went, Franco recalled sourly. Technically, he hadn’t quite killed her. She had died in the hospital of bronchial hemorrhaging, a complication of her condition. He had in fact taken her to the hospital himself in a vain attempt to save her life. That was how the police had caught him.

He hadn’t technically killed her: He had taken an innocent fourteen year old girl, and he had carefully broken her spine, inducing paralysis. Then he had methodically scooped out her eyeballs with a ‘Victorian Edition’ collectors tea spoon, pierced her eardrums with knitting needles, burned out her nose with ammonia, excised her tongue with a red hot Bowie knife and carefully seared the most sensitive areas of her skin, regardless of whether she could feel it or not, and she did feel some of it.

For reasons known only to himself, he had carefully sewn her navel and her vagina shut. Bound her arms and legs securely, even though, paralyzed as she was, she was certainly not going anywhere. At some point, he had even seen fit to deliberately break both her legs.

He had kept her alive in that unspeakable state for four months.

Jeff colored, as if he had tracked all of this through Franco’s mind.

Franco felt the beginnings of harsh nausea.

“I killed Joshua LeBard.” He put a harsh accent on the last name, making it sound like LEE-baR.

Franco wrote down the name.

“Who was he?” he asked softly.

“He was my best friend,” Jeff replied, “but I had to kill him. They were all Joshua, so I had to do every one of them.”

* * *

“See if you can find anything on a Joshua LeBard. Apparently born around the same time as the subject in the same general area. Died around age of fourteen. Negro with piebald coloration. Mother known as Hettie LeBard. Look for anything suspicious about his death,” Franco suggested.

Lieutenant Martins jotted down the notes with crisp efficiency.

“Another possible homicide?”

“Who knows?” Franco answered, he kept trying to light his cigarette, but it wouldn’t catch. Finally he threw it away.

“After all this, who cares?”

He stalked away.

“See you tomorrow, Doc,” the Lieutenant called. Yes, Franco thought, tomorrow was the next appointment.

He hurried down the steps and out to his car. Only when he was driving did he begin to relax. He lit a cigarette.

He drove. He didn’t feel like driving straight home, his wife was on a sabbatical. She wouldn’t be back for another month, the house was too empty without her.

He simply drove, feeling safe and secure in plush comfort and steel frame, clear glass and horsepower giving him as much of the world as he wanted to deal with.

Franco found himself passing through the red light zone, smiling hookers with painted faces and out thrust breasts beckoned to his car.

Inside its shelter he blushed and scurried home.

* * *

“Joshua LeBard was born on the same day you were, just seven miles away from your hospital. Isn’t that right?” Franco didn’t even wait for Jeff’s nod, he went on. “You went to the same integrated schools, lived in the same town.”

Franco looked up from his notes.

“He drowned April 17, 1982.”

“That’s right,” Jeff agreed softly.

“Death by misadventure, it says here,” Franco said, “homicide ruled out. Hell, that’s practically natural causes.”

Jeff didn’t say anything.

“Who was Joshua?” Franco asked. “And why did you have to keep killing him over and over.”

Except you didn’t kill him over and over. He drowned, apparently all by himself, and you went on to kill Tyler Ridgefield, and Elly Soames, and Wayne Washington, and Myles Pirra, and Erma Louise Hampstead, and Sally Finlay, and Jerry Killian, and Dwight Elton, and Sara Ann Mobley.

He found he could recall the names of every victim.

Jeff looked drawn and tired, he took a deep breathe, seemed to gather strength within himself.

“Josh had the power too. I was born with the caul, you know what that is?” Jeff asked.

Franco nodded, it was part of the placental membrane, or the embryonic sack, that sometimes remained on babies heads when they were born, almost like a cap. Old tales said it was a sign of supernatural gifts. Jeff continued.

“So that meant I had it for real. But Josh was piebald, parts of his skin black, parts white. That’s real big power. Way more than mine.”

Franco listened patiently.

“We was friends, you know? Other kids can smell power, like animals, they don’t want to get too near it. Josh was worse off cause he looked funny, everybody always used to say his momma got him off a circus freak, or some show pony. It used to bother him, eat him up inside, I could feel it.”

“Course, I didn’t have many as would talk to me either, and the power didn’t bother neither one of us, as we both had it. So we got to be real good friends.”

Jeff smiled wistfully.

“He was real strong. He could make dead frogs come alive again. Make em croak and jump just like live ones. He could gentle wild beasts and untie knots with a thought, just like that,” Jeff snapped his fingers.

“I remember one time Jimmy Deacon come running after us, we took off like a shot. But I looks over my shoulder and he’s gainin’ like the devil himself. Then suddenly he’s tumbling like a dog in a barrel with his pants around his knees,” Jeff laughed at the memory, “his belt come undone.”

“He liked to call us ‘Batman and Robin.’ Me, I preferred to go by ‘The Wizards of Huckleberry Finn.’ We never told nobody, mind you, we was just together so it seemed good to have a together name.”

“You were ‘Robin’?” Franco asked.

Jeff did a mild ‘aw shucks,’ “the boy wonder, that was me.”

“Why?”

Jeff frowned, “I guess on account of he thought of it, so he got to be ‘Batman’, and his power was bigger.”

Franco jotted some notes down. They didn’t mean anything, they were just illegible doodles. The real notes he kept in his head.

“What about your power?”

“Weren’t as strong,” Jeff replied, “I could make a dead frog croak if I tried hard, and do knots with a bit of practice. I could do some things he couldn’t, like get flashes of the future. I could read people real easy, he had to work at that. Course he was better at making them see or do things.”

He laughed again.

“I remember one time he had Mary Ellen Stuart wallowing naked in a mud pit, just like a pig. There she was, the most stuck up girl in town, showing herself off like anything. I seen into her mind, and she didn’t even know we were standing there watching. Far as she were concerned, she was having a fine bath behind locked doors in her daddy’s big old tub.”

He sobered.

“We didn’t mean no harm with it though. Just fun was all.”

Franco noted the mood shifts, he decided to probe.

“When did you start to mean harm?”

Jeff was startled.

“I never meant harm,” he said.

The hell you didn’t, thought Franco. Erma Louise Hampstead had been kidnapped and tortured for two and a half weeks in some bizarre satanic ritual, finally a heavy candle and brass holder, stolen from a church, had been rammed two and a half feet inside her with such force her heart had exploded. No harm, thought Franco.

“Really,” said Jeff distantly, “we didn’t mean no harm. Cept Joshua had a hard time of it, people had been down on him all his life and he was itching to give it back. But he wasn’t bad, really.”

Jeff paused, sober, remembering.

“Not till the sex thing anyway,” he looked up at Franco. “We were getting older, you see. Getting these feelings. His were all twisted up. It was starting to twist up the rest of him too.”

Abruptly, with a shake of his head, he seemed to change direction.

“Around that time we got us another friend. Sorel Hoke. She didn’t have the power or anything. But nobody talked to her either, on account of her mother, May Hoke. Her mother was the local two bit whore. Drunk all the time, did niggers and trash, and anyone else with whiskey or money who weren’t too particular about what they caught. Decent folk wouldn’t associate with her or her daughter.”

“Nobody wanted anything to do with Sorel, except the older boys who were turning her out just like her mother,” He looked up, “imagine being so shit-out lonely and desperate that you’d let people do that to you.”

“We talked to her. Sure, she smelled the power on us. But so what? She was so eaten out with needing that she was willing to be a hole just so they’d look at her and maybe say something while they was puttin’ it in. Then there was us, who really talked to her, who treated her like a human being for maybe the first time in her life.”

“We could have been Satan and his snake for all it mattered. She didn’t care.”

“For a while it got better. You know. The three of us were together all the time, except for when the two of them went off. She put up with what he did. Like I said, she was desperate, and I could just forget about it.”

“So what happened?” Franco asked. But really, he already knew.

“She got pregnant,” Jeff collected himself and then went on.

“At first Josh was real upset. But then he got to liking the idea. Said he’d make a real freak, to show people what one was. He said he was going to pack all kinds of power in it so it could take care of itself.”

“I still liked him,” Jeff asserted defensively, “but his sex thing was real twisted now, and it twisted up the rest of him. I didn’t like to hang around him anymore.”

“That was all right with him. He was going at Sorel every chance he got. You should have seen it, it weren’t right, there she is, big as a cow, and he goin’ right at her.”

“It was like there was less and less of Sorel too. Used to be with us she talked like there was no tomorrow. Like she’d been saving up for years for someone to talk to,” Jeff laughed, but it was a sour sound. “The bigger she got, the less she had to say. It was like she was being hollowed out from the inside.”

“I didn’t really understand. Probably cause I didn’t want to,” he said quietly, staring into space. “That’s what it was.”

“So what happened?” Franco asked. But it was just a formality, they both knew what happened.

“She died. The baby died,” he said quietly. “Afterwards I came up on Josh at the river. I got him with a rock, he never saw it coming. Then I just held him under until he took a breath. It was simple as that.”

Franco found it hard to breath. The session was over.

* * *

Franco was so edgy he put in too much money at the cigarette machine. It wouldn’t give him change, so he put in more coins and got another pack.

“You all right?” Lieutenant Martins asked, coming up on him.

“Yeah,” he said, he shoved both packs into his pockets.

“He’s a sick one, isn’t he.”

“He killed Joshua LeBard.”

“I’m not surprised, I’ve been going over the file that my agent sent up on it. Accidental death my ass. There’s holes there you could drive a truck through.”

“You think it was covered up for some reason?” Franco asked.

Martins laughed.

“It’s just a regular small town screw up. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred you have to put it down to messing up, not messing around. Never underestimate the power of incompetence.”

“They just weren’t paying attention to that one,” Martins explained, “there’d been a really messy mother and child fatality that really smelled like a cover up, a couple of days before.”

“Sorel Hoke,” Franco said.

The lieutenant looked startled.

“If your man is still there, tell him to take a long hard look at that one.”

“He already is. We are looking at every fatality and accident anywhere this bastard’s ever been.”

The detective leaned back against the wall.

“He has got to be the strangest serial killer anyone has ever seen,” Martins said.

It seemed to Franco that Martins didn’t really need a reply, he just wanted to talk.

“No patterns anywhere. Victims are male or female, white, black, whatever. As young as fourteen with the Mobley girl, or as old as seventy-nine like that guy Killian.”

“The only thing that ties the homicides together is that he did them. Tyler Ridgefield was just a bar room brawl that got out of hand. But then you get Hampstead who’s some weird satanic sacrifice. And what he did to the Mobley girl.”

They both shuddered.

“There is a pattern,” Franco ventured.

“Yeah?”

“He got sicker each time.”

“You know the one that gets me,” Martins pulled a cigarette and lit it, puffing strongly, “it’s the Jerry Killian thing that gets me.”

Smoke got in Franco’s face, he coughed.

Martins dropped the cigarette and ground it out under his foot.

“Sorry Doc.”

Franco waved, “it’s okay, I smoke them, I just don’t breath them.”

“Live longer that way,” Martins laughed, then abruptly sobered, it disturbed Franco, reminded him of Jeffry. “The Killian thing. The one thing we know is that he stalks his victims, or enters into a relationship or something with them. Nobody ever sees them together, but everyone reports the victims personality changes.”

“So he stalks Killian. Right: There’s these night attacks on a seventy-nine year old man. Breaks an arm. Couple of nights later breaks a leg. Just a classic sadistic maniac.”

“A few weeks later he goes for the big one, breaks the spine. So then what happens?”

Martins began to pace. Franco had read the same reports, he knew, but Martins seemed to need to get it off his chest.

“I’ll tell you what happens. The sick bastard drags Killian back to his own home and shacks up with him. He cooks for him, he cleans for him, he changes the frigging bedpans. He even does the frigging laundry.”

“Killian lives two months before dying of accumulated effects of the injuries, and lack of treatment. Two weeks later the smell of rotting flesh overpowers the air fresheners, and the Super finds the body.”

The lieutenant stopped in front of him to stab the air with his finger.

“The apartment was immaculate.”

“I keep thinking about what it must have been like for Killian with this guy. One minute he is chopping him up by inches, the next minute, he’s his goddamned mother.”

“Twisted sex,” Franco said. A moment of insight had dawned on him.

“What?”

“Most serial killers are twisted sex,” Franco explained, “this one operates on twisted love.”

The detective was silent for a few minutes, regarding him.

“And you have to talk to him,” he said finally.

“Yes,” Franco said, and shook his head.

“Jesus, Man,” Martins said, “I’m sorry. I forgot.”

Franco shrugged.

“Are you going to be all right?”

“Sure, I just need to unwind.”

* * *

He went driving again. He didn’t especially want to go home. He thought about writing a letter to his wife, but didn’t feel up to it. He just cruised.

Once again, he found himself driving through the red light district, with all its garish come ons. This time he drove slowly.

He stopped in front of a tall black hooker with braided dreadlocks. He wasn’t sure what either of them were doing as she stepped up and he rolled down the window.

“You a cop?” she asked.

“No,” he laughed involuntarily.

“Uh-huh,” she surveyed him doubtfully. Abruptly she straightened and leaned forward resting her forearms against the top of his door.

She looked down at him.

“I bet if you weren’t a cop, you’d like to touch me…” she looked nonchalantly up, “…somewhere.”

This was a test, he realized. Her cleavage was hanging inches from his face. He reached out to touch the bare flesh, then emboldened by a moments whim, his hand slipped into the cup of her bra, grasped a nipple between thumb and forefinger.

Casually she stepped away from the car and walked around to the passengers side. He barely got the door unlocked before she slid in next to him.

“Only two questions: What ya got and what ya want?”

Franco grinned suddenly, amused by her street accent. On the spur of the moment he decided to do his own black accent.

“I got what it takes,” perhaps a rural accent, deep south rustic, he decided, “and ah got what yo needs.”

She laughed.

The sex was simple animal. He did not care that she was completely uninvolved. All he wanted was her body, he’d had too much of other peoples minds. He wanted to avoid that. He found he liked it that way.

Afterwards he went to use the can. When he came out, she was going through his wallet. She went for her purse. He got there first. He hit her in the face, her head snapped back thumping loudly against the wall.

I didn’t hit her that hard, he thought wildly.

He picked up the purse. She sat there against the wall, watching him as he took the switchblade out. He popped the blade and then folded it. She gave nothing away.

Her nose was starting to bleed.

“Girl’s got to make a living,” she said nasally.

Still holding the purse and the blade, he got her a facecloth from the bathroom.

In front of her, he took fifty dollars in rumpled bills out and slipped them into his wallet.

“I screwed you, that cost me a hundred. You tried to screw me, that costs you fifty,” he paused to see if she got it “Fair?”

It amused him that he was still using his fake rural southern black accent. It made him feel tough.

“You got to learn to tell the players from the marks in this business, honey, or you just ain’t going to last. Now: Fair?”

She seemed to consider it.

“Fair,” she said.

* * *

The vague elation of the encounter was still with him when he returned to the station the next day. Martins was there to greet him.

“Hey bro,” he said, using the accent. He felt like a kid with a shiny new toy.

Martins looked at him strangely for a moment, then shook it off.

“Before you go talk to our little psycho, are you ready for some twilight zone material?”

“Sure,” He pronounced it as ‘sho’.

“Our man up that way is Dietrich. I sent him myself. Very thorough, very methodical, he misses nothing, but he has this habit of only passing on what you want. Sometimes, you have to ask twice.”

“Go on,” Franco encouraged.

“Well anyway, I told you we’d been looking at all the fatalities, and this one was no exception. Dietrich gets interested, but it doesn’t seem to hook into our case, so he just sits on the stuff. Alright?”

“Uh huh.”

“So last night I called up and asked for all of it: Get this: Definitely a cover up. The daughter of the town tramp gets knocked up, either tries to induce an abortion in the seventh month, or goes into premature labor. Doctor rushes over. Loses them both. Coroner exonerates everyone.”

“It happens,” Franco commented.

“The Doctor becomes a chronic alcoholic, or maybe after that he just isn’t hiding it so well. Career lasts another two years then he’s in a sanitarium until he dies.”

“So you think the Doctor had a problem before this happened, on that night his luck ran out, and the loyal townsfolk covered for him?” Franco asked.

“Could be, but it gets better. There was an attending police officer. That night, he discharged his service revolver. Six shots. Inside that house, apparently.”

“You’re kidding.”

“His report says he attended at a medical emergency and wound up emptying his pistol at a rabid raccoon in the back yard. Good story, but he can’t seem to explain how he saw the raccoon in the back yard when there were no lights. Or why he seemed to be shooting from inside the house. Or even whether he fired before, after, or during the medical emergency.”

“Now, listen to this. All rabid animal sightings, and all suspect carcasses go to the state veterinary examiner. The only rabies report they’ve ever received out of that county is thirty years old.”

“So go ask the officer?”

“Can’t. Six years ago he’s sitting at a speed trap, he puts the gun in his mouth and blows the top of his head off. A couple of kids on picnic see it all. No question, suicide.”

“So what do you make of it?”

“The rabies story is crap. He emptied his gun into something, I have no idea what, but it wasn’t a raccoon.”

Martins paused and took a deep breath.

“Dietrich felt to me like he was holding out. So I told him to give it all to me. Here’s where it gets weird: The listed weight of the newborns death certificate was forty-two pounds.”

“Get out of here,” Franco scoffed, “physically impossible. Off by a factor of ten.”

“True,” Martins admitted, “someone scratched out forty-two and wrote in four and a half. But the original number was forty-two.”

“Dietrich kept on,” the Detective told him, “The mother, Sorel Hoke’s weight on the death certificate was less than half what she’d weighed at the six month stage at her last check up.”

“The grandmother, May Hoke, has been institutionalized ever since that night. Catatonic.”

“You couldn’t have gotten this last night, you’re pulling my leg,” Franco scoffed.

“This is straight up, like I said: Dietrich’s been digging on his own. Want to visit the grave? You can’t, none of the churches in town would allow either the mother or the baby into their cemeteries. Instead, they were buried in unconsecrated ground. Get this: In separate locations.”

“Everyone seems to have forgotten where they were buried. Neither of the two mortuaries has any record or recollection of doing the embalming, but one of them must have. There aren’t even records for the pallbearers or the gravedigger.”

“Rural legends,” Franco scoffed, “every small town has a skeleton in its closet and a monster in its grave.”

“Sure they do,” Martins admitted, “most of them evaporate when you start to dig. But not this one. This just gets more solid the harder you go at it.”

“So, what are you saying?” Franco laughed. “Sorel Hoke gave birth to a monster baby? The Officer fired six shots to stop it? Everyone involved is dead or out of it, and everyone else just swept it under a carpet?”

“I’m not saying anything,” Martins answered, “I don’t know enough. All I know is something weird happened, and it seems to tie into your boy somehow. It’s like there is something dangerous and messed up and mindless floating around, maybe it started there and our boy has been carrying it around ever since.”

“Thanks for the insight,” Franco told him.

The Detective paled momentarily. He put his hand out and grasped Franco’s arm.

“I’m sorry Doc. I apologize. I keep forgetting that you have to deal with him. This stuff screws up the rest of us as it is.”

“It’s okay.”

“You take care of yourself in there, alright.”

* * *

Lose the accent, Franco told himself. It’s time to put away the toys. Jeff looked up.

“So why did you kill Joshua that first time?” he asked abruptly.

“I had to. I could see the future,” he responded.

I bet you did, you sick little faggot. Franco thought.

Jeff abruptly blushed and looked down.

“I mean, it was like I told you. I’d get these flashes of the future. Of things that could be. This was just the start. Josh was going to do a lot of stuff. Horrible stuff. I had to stop him.”

Franco felt abruptly tired.

“No more of these cheap dime novel fantasies, Jeff. Neither one of us needs them. You had a thing for Josh. He got a thing for Sorel. End of Batman and Robin. You didn’t like that. So you messed up the pregnancy somehow. Maybe it was as easy as getting the doctor drunk enough to screw it up. But then Josh still doesn’t come back, so you kill him.”

He paused.

“Maybe Josh figured it out, or was going to. Maybe all that bad stuff you could ‘see’ Josh doing in the future: Maybe all that boiled down to Josh putting it all together and coming looking for you. How am I doing so far?”

Jeff was silent, looking at him.

Franco went on.

“So you go away, but you can’t make it work. You keep trying to hook up with different people, as different as you can find. Maybe it works for a while, but then it starts to go wrong. You start losing it. They remind you of Josh. You kill them.”

“Tell me Jeff,” Franco asked, “does this sound like real life? Does it sound like your life?”

Franco was conscious of having said it as much for his own benefit as for Jeff. He felt a need to drag Jeff into the real world before his fantasy world dragged Franco down.

Jeff said nothing. He just looked at Franco. The seconds yawned into minutes, the minutes grew into a bridge of silence.

Finally, Franco gave in.

“All right then, let’s do ‘Return of the Jedi.’ You killed Joshua. How come you have to keep on killing him? And why do you keep…changing the way you kill them?”

Jeff said nothing.

“Tell me about Tyler?” Franco prompted gently.

Jeff licked his lips, almost biting them.

“Josh was real powerful, like I said. Power like that just don’t die. Josh became a ha’nt,” Jeff said.

For a delirious moment Franco thought that he’d said Josh had turned into an ant. The image was so ludicrous. Then he translated it again: Ha’nt, Haunt.

“Haunt. You mean a ghost?” Franco asked.

Jeff seemed to consider the notion.

“Sort of like that, yeah. I didn’t know for two years. I’d feel sumthin from time to time. But with the power, you feel lots of things.”

“I only knew when Tyler came at me when I was shooting pool. I took a real close look at him. Like this:” Jeff gave Franco a brief stare that went right through him, it left him shivering, feeling alone and naked, “Tyler was gone. Josh was inside. He tried to do me, but I done him again instead. Then I ran.”

“Why did you run?” Franco asked softly.

“Ha’nts don’t move about so well in the material world. They can’t find their way easy, especially if you go a ways. I figured I’d leave Josh way behind, he’d settle down without me to stir him up.”

“What about the police?” Franco asked.

Jeff looked at him with wide uncomprehending eyes and shook his head. He had never run from the police. Of course. In spite of himself, Franco was impressed by the strength of the delusional structure.

“I settled down someplace new and started seeing this girl called Elly Soames. She started seeing me actually, but I didn’t figure out what that might mean, until she took me down to the river. She said we’d get it on there. Then she pulled the knife as we were doing it.”

“Joshua again?” Franco asked.

Elly Soames, raped, drowned, stabbed twenty five times, head and parts of her body crushed under thirty pound rocks.

“It was like them frogs I told you about. They’d be dead, but he’d make em get up and sing. I had a real hard time with her. After that, I learned to watch out for him.”

“Tell me, what happened to Tyler? Where was he when Josh was inside him?” Franco inquired.

“Gone,” Jeff said “I wasn’t sure before. But now I think he replaces them bit by bit. Like in a petrified tree, little bits of rock start replacing the wood, until you turn around and look at your forest and it’s all stone. I think now, they just stop existing.”

“You think that now?”

“Yeah.”

“Not before?”

“No.” He looked vaguely haunted, Franco noted with satisfaction, some human guilt was finally starting to show through.

“I thought maybe,” Jeff said softly, “I could drive him out. Let the original persons come back.”

“Erma Louise Hampstead,” Franco whispered. A forty four year old mother of three children who lived in a suburb with her engineer husband and two Irish setters. Erma who had never so much as had a parking ticket. Erma whose heart had exploded when a holy object had been forced so far into her body that her diaphragm had ruptured.

“I tried to exorcise them. I figured I had the power. Maybe I could do it. But it didn’t work.”

Franco nodded. It was a sick joke. Not a satanic ritual. An exorcism. Not that it made much difference to Erma Louise Hampstead.

“So what happened after that?”

“I learned,” Jeff said, “that he couldn’t get out of bodies as easy as he could get into them. He’d have to wait until they died before the flesh would let go its hold on him.”

“So you started crippling them?” Franco said.

“Seemed like the best thing,” Jeff admitted, “of course, dealing with ha’nts, it’s hard to tell where to draw the line. The spirit can make flesh work, even if it’s broken.”

“And they tended to die anyway. It just took longer.” Franco commiserated.

“Yeah, but while it was happening, I was safe. I didn’t need to worry about him coming up behind me. I could talk to him. Try and reason him down.” Jeff said.

“That was good of you,” Franco said dryly, Jeff didn’t notice the sarcasm.

“But it must have been hard to talk to Josh if you were piercing his eardrums?” Franco couldn’t help thinking about what had been done to the Mobley girl.

“Had to,” Jeff explained, “a ha’nt on its own don’t cause too much trouble, no matter how much power it’s got. It can’t see the material world enough to focus properly. But a ha’nt with some flesh wrapped around it is different. If it can see the material world through flesh eyes, or hear through ears, even walk around with a busted body, there’s no telling what it could get up to.”

“So that’s the Mobley girl. You were afraid she was going to get up and walk around after you broke her neck, so you decided to be safe and break her legs. Then you were still afraid, so you tied her up,” Franco said.

Jeff nodded.

“I told you about them frogs.”

“You did,” Franco agreed.

“You don’t believe me,” Jeff said softly.

Franco thought it over before answering.

“I think we both know what really happened,” he said softly. “But for what it’s worth: I believe that you believe what you’ve told me. I believe you need to believe it. I believe it’s how you live with it.”

He stood up and walked to the door.

He turned back, to look at Jeff. The youth raised his face to look at him.

“May God have mercy on your soul,” Franco said, almost compassionately.

* * *

“That sick pathological demented monster,” Lieutenant Martin spoke slowly, without heat or emphasis.

“It’s finished,” Franco said. He felt immense relief.

“Now it’s just tying up loose ends.”

“Not my job,” Franco said.

“You did more than I’d ask any man to do. Are you going to be all right?”

Franco shrugged.

“Sho nuff, need to unwind tha’s all.”

“Yeah, I noticed you quit smoking.”

“Thousands of times,” Franco laughed. He decided to buy a pack, just to demonstrate.

“Where’d you get the Louisiana accent.”

“TV ah guess. Mebbe da five an dime.”

“Helps with the tension?”

“Yeah.”

“I know,” Martins sympathized, “back when I was in high school some kid started doing a British accent. Then someone else caught a Marx Brothers movie and started doing Chico’s Italian accent. Before you knew it, it was all over the place. It would die down, then someone would figure out how to do a new accent, and it would start up again.”

Martins shook his head, “I’ll tell you, just before a dance or an exam, we sounded like the United Nations.”

They both laughed.

“By the way, I think you’re right about the Hoke thing,” the Detective told him, “Our psycho’s dad was the town bootlegger. I figure the kid did runs for the old man.”

“We have an alcoholic doctor who needs to be fairly liquored to work. He gets called to an emergency, he needs booze to cope. The kid delivers. Maybe he just ups the proof a bit, the Doc takes way too much, or maybe he spikes it with acid, who knows?”

“Things start going wrong, the Doctor is freaking out, the grandma is freaking out, the mom is screaming her lungs out, the patrolman panics and shoots up the house. Who knows, maybe he plugged the mom or kid. Maybe it didn’t make a difference by that time.”

“End of the night, you got two dead bodies and some solid reputations about to go down the toilet. Town fathers think to themselves: ‘hey, it’s only the slut and the slut in training.’ End of story.”

“That’s plausible.” Franco agreed.

“Yeah, it’s only closer to home that gets hard. Did you hear: Charles Mobley committed suicide the other day?”

“The last victim’s father. That’s terrible.” Franco said.

“Yeah, tell me about it. Seems the little girl was turning into a shit before the psycho even hit town. Drugs, promiscuity, violence.”

“Violence?” Franco asked.

“Seems she rat-tailed one of her little friends. We’re only just putting it together.”

“Rat-Tailed,” Franco repeated quizzically.

“Sure, you know those cheap plastic combs, the ones with the long narrow handle that comes to a point?”

“Sure. Everyone has one of those.”

“Hold it by the comb part, your handle becomes a stiletto, strike hard enough it’ll go right into a person, there’s your rat-tail.”

“Christ. The things people will do,” Franco murmured in disgust.

“You said it,” Martins affirmed, “the Mobley girl, she comes right up beside this kid in the school washroom. Spears her through the kidney just like that. Walks away.”

“That’s sick.”

“This was a sick girl. Autopsy confirmed all kinds of drugs, crack, coke, heroin, speed, acid, in trace amounts. Apparently she’d been doing real heavy before her encounter. She also had some healthy cases of syphilis and gonorrhea.”

“Lovely,” Franco said, he really didn’t want to hear it. Dealing with Jeff had been enough.

“Want to know the sickest part: It seems her dad had identical strains of syphilis and gonorrhea.”

“Makes sense,” Franco said, “parental sexual abuse is often associated with children acting out like that.”

“Here’s the kicker. They typed the case developments. Turns out that he didn’t give it to her, she gave it to him.

Franco felt an almost physical nausea. Abruptly he stood and started walking away.

“Sick justice that she ran into the psycho,” Martins finished, “but I wouldn’t wish what he did to her on my worst enemy.”

* * *

In the car, a migraine began to cascade. He rubbed his temples.

“Oh lordy, Oh lordy” he murmured. He smiled vaguely, amused that he was still doing the accent.

Beer. He needed a beer.

He stopped at three liquor stores before he found one that sold a decent brand of beer. A half decent beer, he thought, was that too much to ask? While there, as an afterthought he remembered his silent promise and bought another pack of cigarettes.

He got home, slouching into the living room. He threw the pack on the coffee table with the others, popped a beer and flopped onto the couch.

He half sat, half lay there, sipping the beer. Staring at the coffee table.

What’s wrong with this picture? He thought.

Gradually, it came to him.

There were three unopened packs of cigarettes sitting on the coffee table.

I smoke two packs a day, for the last fifteen years.

There were three unopened packs of cigarettes sitting on the coffee table.

When was the last time I had a cigarette?

He felt cold suddenly. Jeff’s words ran through his mind.

“Josh takes over people.”

A rational part of him asserted itself.

“Occupational hazard,” he said out loud, to comfort himself, “Put a psychiatrist in a room with a man who thinks he’s Napoleon for a year. Open the door. Maybe you’ve got two sane rational well-adjusted men. Maybe you have two guys with their hands in their shirts.”

“Ah don need to accept dis dilusion,” he said.

Stopping smoking wasn’t proof of anything. He’d probably had lots of other periods where he’d simply not bothered to smoke and hadn’t noticed because he was busy or distracted. Smoking didn’t mean anything.

Why do I keep talking like a Louisiana Negro?

I’m faithful to my wife.

I just slept with a prostitute.

I beat a woman.

I never did anything like that in my life.

He paused, letting the thought slide into his mind.

So why did it feel like I’d been doing it for years?

I don’t even drink beer.

He held the can up to inspect it carefully for the first time. An Alabama brand. He threw it across the room, spilling beer arced from the can, soaking into the carpet. He hurled the rest of them at the wall.

This is nuts. He thought. Don’t give in to the delusion. If you were being possessed you’d feel it.

Wouldn’t you?

“It happens a piece at a time,” Jeff had said, “Like fossilization, one substance being imperceptibly transformed into another, replaced by another.”

Call my wife. He thought. He was starting to sweat. He could feel panic running under his skin.

He couldn’t remember her phone number.

Don’t panic. Happens to people all the time. Too many digits. Everyone forgets phone numbers. Even if you can’t remember them, they are easy enough to find.

So: What’s her name?

He couldn’t remember.

He stood there, suddenly drenched in his own sweat. What the hell is her name?

He bolted for the mantlepiece. There was the wedding picture. There she is. There’s no names on it. What sort of moron takes wedding pictures and doesn’t put their names on it, he wanted to scream. He hurled the picture away. He tore at the mantelpiece, looking for clues.

The photo albums. At least he remembered where they were. He tore across the room, ripping open the cabinet. There they were. Flip. Flip. Flip. Pictures. Pictures. Didn’t anyone ever bother to sign the damned things? What about future generations, he thought irritably, how were they to know who these people were? How am I supposed to know?

There! The wedding invitation! His hands were shaking so badly he tore the cardboard. It said: Marilyn.

He fell back, leaning against the wall. Marilyn, he thought. Marilyn. Marilyn. He crumpled the invitation, holding it against his sweating chest, feeling his heart pound.

It’s going to be all right, he thought. Marilyn.

It’s just a delusional attack. Occupational hazard.

Marilyn. It was like a holy word. Marilyn. It would keep him safe. Marilyn.

Eats away. Jeff had said. Insidiously. Replacing.

No. Marilyn.

He got to his feet and walked to the bedroom. That’s it. Get closer to her. Marilyn.

He looked into the dresser mirror.

He felt a profound shock. It wasn’t a familiar face. It was the face that looked back at him all his life.

It wasn’t familiar any more.

He clutched the wedding invitation to himself and approached the mirror. Marilyn, he thought, it was a plea.

No.

It was all right. Stubble. He rubbed his chin. Taking comfort in the thick black hairs. Stubble. I haven’t been shaving lately. He watched himself rubbing his chin. I’m not used to looking like this.

This should be white. He thought, while rubbing his chin. The lower jaw should be white, not black and stubble. That’s a white part.

The rest of my face is black, he thought, except for one patch around the right eye, and another high up by the hairline.

He smashed the mirror with his fist.

He backed away slowly. His hand was bleeding.

That was good. The pain helped clear his mind.

“Get out,” he said the words out loud. He was pleased at how articulate and reasonable they sounded.

“GET OUT!” he screamed aloud.

“GET OUT OF ME NOW!” he roared in his mind.

He raced for the bathroom. There was a mirror there. He smashed it. Good.

Shower. Good. Hot water. To the max. All the way. Burn the ghost out.

He waited as long as he dared for the water to get hot. Almost four minutes. He stripped off his clothes and stepped into it.

The agony took his breath away.

“Get out,” he gasped. It became a mantra, he said it over and over again as he moved himself under the shower.

His skin turned red. It scalded. It blistered.

Not enough. He leaped from the shower, staggering blindly, walking across shards of broken mirror. He fell a couple of times. He didn’t care.

What was his name.

Marilyn. He held that to him.

“Get out,” he whispered over and over.

He found the kitchen. Yes. He turned the stove on. All the elements. Yes. That would do it.

All he had to do was wait. He couldn’t wait. He ransacked the cutlery drawer. Knives. Yes. To pass the time. To make it get out.

The floor was getting slippery. The stove was finally ready. The elements were a cheerful friendly red.

“Get out,” he told it aloud. A last warning. No answer.

Fine then. He’d show it that he meant business.

He placed both hands on the two elements. He heard blood sizzling, smelled his own flesh cooking. The pain was unendurable. He bit his lip to keep from screaming. He danced naked in front of the stove as if it was a pagan god, and he writhing in religious ecstasy before it.

It wasn’t enough, he thought, through the thickening smoke.

All right then, he thought, no more Mister Nice Guy.

He began to bend forward, lowering himself towards another element. He could feel it resisting. He would not yield. Inches away from the glowing red element, a tear drop fell and sizzled instantly to oblivion.

This time he really did scream.

* * *

When it was all over, really over, he called Lieutenant Martins.

* * *

Jeff looked up from his cell. He was startled to see Doctor Franco staring down at him, a guard by his side.

Half the Doctors face was swathed in bandages. His hands were similarly wrapped. He moved stiffly.

“You’re being transferred to Fillmore Psychiatric. They have facilities for you there,” Franco gritted.

Jeff didn’t say anything.

“The papers are all in order. Let’s get moving.” He turned and stalked off. Jeff and the guard had to scramble to keep up. Franco stalked through the institution like an angry ghost.

The guard left them at the gate that lead to the parkade. Franco continued to stride forward. Jeff hopped along to keep pace.

“I despise you. You little shit,” Franco snarled.

“You wrecked my life,” he said, he savored the words for a second, and said it again. “You wrecked my life.”

“But I believe now. Do you know that?”

“Yes,” Jeff answered.

“I believe now. In ‘ha’nts’, stinking ghosts that follow you around and possess people,” he gritted.

“It almost took me. Did you know that?” Franco spat.

“No,” Jeff said, hopping desperately to keep up as Franco sped along.

“But I fought it off.”

Franco stopped abruptly. Jeff almost ran into him. He loomed over Jeff.

“I never want to see or hear of you again for as long as I live. Do you understand, you verminous faggot cretin?”

“Yes,” Jeff replied.

Franco turned and was striding again, he seemed to barely contain himself.

“There is no Fillmore Psychiatric,” Franco spat, “you are going to disappear, and you are going to take your ‘ha’nt’ with you. Understand?”

Franco didn’t wait for the reply, they had come to the end of the parkade. There was a car waiting.

“My life will be over. But I will never have to deal with you or your stinking ghost again. Do we understand each other?” he gritted.

“Yes,” Jeff said.

Franco walked him to the car. He opened the back passenger door. Jeff slid in. The driver turned to regard him.

“This is Lieutenant Martins. You’ve wrecked his life too. He’ll take you somewhere, and then you are on your own. Understand.”

“Yes,” Jeff answered, and then ventured, “thank you.”

“Go to hell,” Franco snarled.

He stalked away.

They watched him vanish into the distance of the grey parkade.

Finally Lieutenant Martins turned to regard Jeff for the first time.

“It takes me a while, but I learn from you, Jeff. You don’t need to go straight at things. A push here, a push there, it gets the job done.”

Jeff was startled for a moment, then he looked real hard.

His face broke into a huge sunny grin.

“Joshua!”

 

The end