“Little Darling” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by James Hanna

When I saw the ghost sitting on my living room couch, I blindly overreacted. My palms dampened, my breathing grew shallow, my skin crawled as though covered with ants. The ghost, a dark-haired woman in her thirties, did not really merit dramatics. Her stature was small, her skin was parlor pale, and her hair was drawn up in a neat unobtrusive bun. She was pretty, in her black hooped dress, but her sunless demeanor and lack of makeup suggested that she was a lonely spinster. 

For a moment, I wondered if she were really a ghost. She was not transparent, as I imagined ghosts to be, and her face wore a shy intelligence—not the insularity of an earthbound soul. But she clearly was not of this century, so she had to be a phantom. She looked like a governess from Victorian England, a governess with a tale of pathos.

She stared at me and gaped, as though I—not she—were the intruder in my home.  She then covered her mouth with her hand, blocking a silent scream. The sight of me terrified her—why, I wasn’t sure. Was I following in the footsteps of Dorian Gray, that classic rogue whose monsterdom was discernable only on an esoteric plain? The terror in her face suggested this was so. Hiking her dress above her ankles, she scurried from the room. I could hear the soles of her laced boots tap-tapping as she trotted down the hallway.

I chose not to follow her—I had a more pressing concern. What was it about my appearance that had caused her to dash from the room? Had I grown fangs and horns, had my skin become scaly? Given the extent of her terror, this notion did not seem far-fetched.

I stepped into my bathroom, hit the light switch, and studied my reflection in the mirror. It was the face of a sensual man of forty—a face that was rather attractive in a Hugh Hefner sort of way. But, unlike Hugh, I had my limits. I had not built a shrine to hedonism nor did I view women as disposable pleasures. Rather, it was they who disposed of me, citing my self-absorption as sufficient reason to cast me adrift. And I mourned the end of every affair as though I were attending a wake.  

No, I did not have the face of a predator. My eyes were not cruel but exacting, as though straining the world through that rose-colored hue that had roused the romantic scribes. Had I been born in the nineteenth century, I would have surely been a Byronesque poet. The life of Lord Byron would have suited me well: slapdash affairs, mercenary adventures, lavish living on borrowed wealth. “Where the bee sucks, there suck I.” Ponder this quote from Shakespeare before deeming me a rogue.

Were it not for that flowery filter, how cloying the world would be. How crushing the darkness that stalks us, how scentless the poppies and trees. Better to suck like the bee sucks and let it go at that.

*

I live in a midwestern city where I work as a music promoter. And on Saturday, I go to the singles dance at the local Holiday Inn. But the ghost, whom I shall call Little Darling, had distracted me from this sport. I wanted to plead my case to her and wean her from her fears. But, if her terror was any indication, I may never see her again. I thought things over for three entire days. In the end, I decided to go to the dance. When the otherworldly leaks into your life, there is consolation in old habits.

As I entered the ballroom of the Holiday Inn, I drew a consoling breath. Dim lighting, soft rock tunes, and cocktails—these are the things that endure. Even the most draining of unions begins with a honeymoon. And a honeymoon is ever available for the price of a couple of drinks.

I ordered a Tequila Sunrise at the bar then surveyed the half-empty room. Whatever my deficiencies, I did have a remarkable line. “Madam,” I would quip, upon choosing a prospect. “Might you share a dance with this ignoble Caliban?” If she gasped and rolled her eyes, I knew I had saved precious time. A woman with no sense of humor would too soon prove a tiresome commodity. But if she laughed and accepted my offer, my heart would race like a sprinter’s. Only a true adventuress can cope with a Renaissance man.

Perching myself on a barstool, I continued to scan the room. I had picked out my target—a tall leggy blonde—when I spotted Little Darling. She was sitting alone at one of the tables, still wearing that black floor-length dress. She was weeping uncontrollably, her face buried in her hands.

I wanted to keep my distance; I wanted to dash to my car. I have no use for histrionics and hate a woman’s tears. But since we had struck up an acquaintance of sorts, I could not abandon her. An unfamiliar chivalry was stirring within my soul.

She wiped her eyes as I approached her then folded her hands neatly in her lap. What took you so long? her face seemed to say as though I had stood her up. Although she had deemed me a monster, she was not without expectations.

 Hoping that no one would notice, I sat in the chair beside her. “Miss, might I be of assistance?” I offered. She looked at me coolly, shrugged, and touched my cheek with her hand. Stymied by this gesture, I could only revert to form. “Would you spare this ignoble brute a dance?” I muttered charitably.

Her smile was wry and dismissive. Is that the best you can do? it said. Sadly, it was so I said nothing more. I just gave her a plastic grin.  

Although I had tried to be generous, the charity was hers. Had I escorted a specter onto the dance floor, I’d have seemed like a consummate narcissist—a man so self-protective he was content to dance with himself. Thank god, she had not blown my cover. Thank god, she saw fit to be kind.

As she rose from the table, she wrinkled her nose, a gesture both cute and disarming. Had I forgotten to wear my deodorant? Was she trying to stifle a sneeze? Was she perking up like a rabbit about to bolt from a wolf?

She looked at me, her face now flushed, and I felt an untimely arousal. What an ingrate I was—what a barbarous hound. The esoteric was hardly a sheath for the hard-on in my pants.

Hoping to gain her forgiveness, I bowed my head like a servant. But my rod was as tall as a sentinel as I watched her leave the room.

*

There is nothing like a whiff of mortality to give a man pause to reflect. By what designation of karma had this shade come into my world? Was she kin to Jacob Marley—a self-righteous prig contemptuous of all who do not lead sanctimonious lives? Or was she the pariah and was I haunting her? The notion did not seem absurd.

Not eager for a third encounter, I stopped going to the singles dance. I did not wish to seek common ground with her whatever the heavens decreed. But I started to cruise the nightclubs and bars where my charms might yet prove productive. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” had never sounded truer.

I also decided to get some religion. Not a lethal dose but enough to make me repellant to lonely haunts. The Catholic church in my neighborhood seemed perfect for my salvation. I had only to endure a prepackaged sermon, then drop a few bills into a collection plate, to buy myself a spiritual shield that would thwart less hallowed souls. There was even the chance I might qualify for a little divine intervention. Sow your wild oats on Saturday night, I reflected. On Sunday, go to church and pray for crop failure.    

Six months passed and my romp with religion appeared to have done the job. I saw not the slightest sign of her. My line scored plenty of ass. And I felt so elated that one Sunday morning I joined in singing a hymn. “Eternal Father strong to saaave whose arm has bound the restless waaave, who biddeth the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep.” My voice boomed like a foghorn as I belted out these lines.

A woman kneeling in front of me turned around and stared. I had almost given up waiting for you, her expression seemed to say. She was holding a tiny gold cross in her hand and she pressed the cross to her lips. When she hung the cross around her neck, it glowed like a firefly.

I could practically feel the heat from the cross, and I cringed like Count Dracula. But by deigning to become a vampire, I had cleansed her of her fear. Are vampires not the most humane of monsters? Handsome, well-spoken, and vulnerable, don’t they belong in a class of their own? As I looked at Little Darling, I knew I had risen in her esteem.

Her eyes were not fearful but bold. Her mouth had a trace of a smile.  She knew a few drops of holy water would turn me into dust. And so the hymn now mocked me as it thundered throughout the church. “Hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.”

As though rushing back to my coffin, I hurried down the aisle. Behind me, I heard her footsteps tap-tapping like a hammer burying a stake. As I pushed through the chapel doorway, her hand slipped into mine. It was as cold and smooth as a mackerel. “This time remember the wine,” she purred. Her voice was as chilling as frost.

I clutched her hand and looked at her. I now noticed her clear blue eyes, her high sculptured forehead, the hint of blush on her cheeks. I also appraised her long slim neck and the rose tucked in her hair. She looked like a Renoir portrait that had somehow come to life.

What did she mean by Remember the wine? Did she want me to take communion? Did she want to me to sample her blood? Or did she want us to have a picnic lunch beneath a sheltering bough?

Her hand squeezed mine like a reptile as I walked her to my car. Her face was as tense as that of an adulteress about to be placed in the stocks. When I let go of her hand and groped for my car keys, her agitation grew. Her head jerked up like the skull of a marionette, and she closed her eyes tightly.

 “Take it,” she hissed. “Take it now.” With her head held high, she resembled a blackbird drinking from a pond.

*

We drove in silence. My hands clutched the steering wheel as though it were a life preserver. Although not a word passed between us, an intimacy bound us together. It was not the closeness of lovers, but something more elemental, like the bond of a pair of cave dwellers huddling from a storm.

I stopped at a convenience store to buy a bottle of wine. I decided to pick up some Falcon Ridge Chardonnay, a label that suited her aura. Hunched in a corner of the passenger seat, taking ragged breaths, she made me think of a bandit bird that had washed up on a beach. I rolled down a window to give her some air and went into the store for the wine.

When I returned to the car and saw that she was gone, I did not breathe a sigh of relief. There was unfinished business between us, which I had hoped to get out of the way. Now my anticipation would linger like a crow upon a fence. Unless, of course, I could come up with a plan that would turn her off completely.

 I decided on self-parody. Religion had not worked. Compassion had not worked. But if I turned myself into a genuine pig, perhaps that would do the job. After all, it is only the conscience-stricken that specters choose to haunt. If one is content to wallow in muck, the spooks will leave him alone.

I bought myself a dick mobile: a cherry red Mustang convertible with leather bucket seats. I put a license plate on the car that said, Ibrake4ass. And I fitted my bedroom with ceiling mirrors and a well-stocked mini-bar. Since my image was now that of an aging rake, I was unlikely to score much tail. But I was willing to make the sacrifice if it kept Little Darling away.

Was I doing this for her sake? I wondered. If she saw me as the means of her ravagement, was I hoping to spare her the ordeal? I suspected that this was probably so, and I knew she had touched me too deeply. In the stately glacier of my soul, a dangerous spring was bubbling.

But streams that begin in heaven end up in the vilest of swamps. The thought that my valor would soon dissipate curbed my uneasiness. Does she really need a hero? I wondered. Does she really need lofty intentions? Had she not spoken desperately when she told me to take it now? No, I would not be a hero to her—not if she wanted a beast. The cruelest encroachments of all are founded on noble intentions.

Although our coupling seemed imminent, I still wanted to be a pig. I wanted no magnanimous guilt to contaminate the act. So, I continued to drive my dick mobile, I continued to brake for ass, and I started to hit on chicks with lines like, “Oye, baby, your place or mine?”

I think Little Darling must have known that my debasement was not yet complete. A month went by then another, and she failed to reappear.

*

The crux of seduction is timing—finding the perfect moment. But time had no meaning to Little Darling; she was content to leave me bereft. Wasn’t I pig enough for her? Wasn’t I shallow and gross? Hadn’t I rivaled Hugh Hefner in trivializing my lust? I finally grew weary of waiting for her, and I chose to take a vacation. If I could not ravage her, why not outrun her? It would not be that hard. Ghosts are territorial, after all, creatures too earthbound for flight.

I took the most vulgar of holidays: a carnival cruise to the Bahamas. No museums in Paris for me. No Great Wall of China for me. Nothing to cultivate my soul and make me a person of merit. When she came to me—if ever she did—I wanted to be a brute. I wanted to make our coupling so base it would free her from this earth. So, I contented myself with dozing in deckchairs and being force-fed six times a day. And I sat by a poolside so crowded with bodies I could barely draw a breath. For all cultural purposes, I may as well have been a boar on a factory farm.

One evening, when I returned to my stateroom, a woman was lying in my bed. She was wearing a long black nightgown that barely hid her breasts. She looked at me reproachfully, like a heretic tied to a stake. 

Not wishing to break the silence, I did not say a word. I just hung my clothes in the closet then slipped into the bed beside her. Unwilling to stir, I lay like a log; the first move would have to be hers.

She leaned on an elbow and gazed at me, her face a mask of despair. Her hair was undone, and it tickled my chest as she wearily shook her head. “You’re all I have,” she whispered. “You’re all I’ll ever have.”

 I felt a deep pity for her when she kissed me on the mouth. The kiss was not tender but tentative, as though she were sampling a meal. Her breath was cool, musty, and hinted of the grave.    

When she mounted me, she mewed like a kitten. Her eyes were like sinking stones. She clung to me as though fighting a current. She slipped her tongue into my ear.

 We climaxed together. She wept like a child then snuggled into my arms. As though guarding a statue of infinite worth, I held her through the night.

*

Hugh Hefner has nothing on me when it comes to exalting lust. I had actually thought that by sleeping with her I would free her of this world. I had truly believed she might walk among angels when her carnality was spent. Maybe if I had remembered the wine, my scheme would actually have worked.

 She comes to see me regularly now—once or twice a year. And although I instinctually dread her, I ache for her as well. I have never felt such a tenderness, I have never felt so alone. Our couplings are quick, like summer storms, and afterwards she weeps. “You’re all I have,” she tells me each time. “You’re all I will ever have.” 


This story originally appeared Trampset and is also included in James Hanna’s anthology, Shackles and More Gripping Tales.


James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon


“Corn-Fed Baby and Gravy” Horror by Chris Riley

The McClemen’s residence looked like an abscessed tooth jutting out of the earth, three stories high, flaccid and diseased. It was surrounded by a sea of corn—fields of green presently bending lightly to a southwesterly wind. There was an aged sycamore at the end of the driveway chained to a dog and a goat, and Lawrence Shoemaker at last rolled his Cadillac to a stop in the tree’s accompanying shade.

The stink of shit and animal parlayed with a cloud of dust, rising up and through the opened windows of the Cadillac. Lawrence cursed, reached for a handkerchief and covered his nose. When the dust settled, he grabbed his clipboard and stepped outside, shielding his eyes against the rays of a setting sun.

Crossing the driveway to the front porch, Lawrence deftly navigated through piles of dog crap, and more curiously, dozens of cornhusks lying about. Adding to this oddity, he noticed a particular husk hanging cockeyed from an above windowsill. Hillbillies, he thought.

The porch groaned like a bitch in heat as Lawrence pressed his weight onto it. One more step forward, and he swore he’d break through. No need to knock with all this ruckus, but he rapped his knuckles on the door anyhow. He absently flipped pages on his clipboard while he waited. He didn’t read anything, didn’t even recognize what he was staring at for that matter, his mind deep in thought over Happy Hour at the topless bar in town. Last stop, not long now. Lawrence licked his lips, adjusted his crotch; someone was opening the door.

He was greeted with the sweet smell of cornbread, and the fox-like eyes of Delaroy McClemens.

“Yes, sir…what can I do you for?” asked Delaroy, his voice deep as a well.

“Delaroy McClemens?”

“That’s me.”

“My name is Lawrence Shoemaker. I’m an investigator for the Office of Fraud and Accountability. Do you have about ten minutes? I need to ask you some questions about your family.”

Delaroy scrunched his eyebrows. “Questions about my family?”

“Yes, sir—if you don’t mind.”

Hesitating, Delaroy glanced over his shoulder, as if inspecting his house.

“Just a few questions, Mr. McClemens.”

“Alright. Well come on in, then… I’s about to get me some coffee. Would you like some?”

“That’d be nice, thank you.”

The two men passed through the front room, and Lawrence noted a few details: a crotchety old woman to his right, wrapped in a blanket—Mama McClemens he guessed— with her eyes fixed two-feet from the television; and a raggedy clad redhead standing on the staircase to his left, eyes fixed on him. The young woman straddled Lawrence’s attention like a saddle on a horse, with her wild hair, and perky, braless tits, and flimsy tank top cut high above the navel.

“Put some clothes on, Sissy!” barked Delaroy. “Can’t you see we got us some company?”

Lawrence almost mentioned that he didn’t mind, but quickly thought otherwise. He bit his tongue and followed Delaroy into the kitchen.

“Some questions, eh?” said Delaroy, motioning to a table. “Go ahead and take a seat then.”

Lawrence pulled a chair and sat, then rifled through the pages of his clipboard. “Says here that you’ve got six children, Mr. McClemens.”

“Delaroy,” replied the old man, setting two cups on the table. “Call me Delaroy.” He filled the cups with coffee then sat across from Lawrence.

“Sure thing, Delaroy. As I was saying, I’ve got some questions about, well, just one of your kids, actually…” Lawrence glanced at the clipboard. “Arlow McClemens?”

Delaroy’s eyes narrowed with suspicion as he slowly lifted his cup to his lips.

“That wouldn’t be the young woman out there, now would it?” continued Lawrence.

“Ah, hell no.”

“Hmm,” replied Lawrence, flipping a page. “Oh, yes, I see. You’ve got a daughter named Dacey McClemens.”

“That’s Sissy. And Arlow McClemens is my youngest boy. Although we just call him Baby.”

“Baby?”

“Yep. Baby.”

Lawrence shifted in his seat. “Well, you see here, mister Mc—ah, Delaroy—according to my records, Baby should be about twenty-four years old now.”

Delaroy flicked a crumb off the table.

“Does that sound about right to you? That Baby is around twenty-four, or so?”

“Yeah, that sounds about right. I s’pose. What’d you say you do again, mister?”

Dacey McClemens slinked into the kitchen just then, her long naked legs waltzing across the room, ass peeking out from denim shorts, firm as a Georgia peach. She made her way to the fridge, then the stove.

Lawrence bit his lip this time then adjusted his crotch from under the table. “I investigate Fraud for the state, Delaroy. And if Baby McClemens is twenty-four years old, then we’ve got us an issue.”

Delaroy cackled like a hyena. “Fraud? Baby? Shit, mister, that boy can’t wipe his own ass without getting into a terrible fix. How the hell’s he gonna steal anything?”

“Well, actually, apparently he already has. Or somebody representing him, for that matter. He does live here, doesn’t he?”

Presently, Dacey was shucking corn at the sink, but then she paused and turned a shoulder. “You saying that somebody stole from Baby?”

“Hush, Sissy!” cried Delaroy. “And didn’t I say to put some clothes on?”

Dacey turned back to the sink. “Should I fix a little extra?”

“No thanks, ma’am,” replied Lawrence, raising a hand. “Don’t trouble yourself on my account.”

“Oh, it ain’t no trouble,” said Dacey. “All’s we’re having is corn, and we’ve got plenty of it, as you can see.”

Lawrence made a face—corn for dinner?—then coughed. “Ah…that’s okay. I don’t think I’ll be staying long.”

“Suit yourself,” shrugged Dacey.

Lawrence turned his attention back to Delaroy. “Now, getting back to your son; it seems that he’s been collecting general relief from the state for, well, his whole life.”

Delaroy blinked. “General relief? What’s that?”

“Welfare, Delaroy. Your son’s been collecting welfare from the state. And that’s why I’m here.” Lawrence paused, then leaned forward. “Look, Mr. McClemens; the state policy—with the economy being as it is and all—allows for recipients to receive general relief for a maximum of three years.” He sat back, sipping coffee. “Unless of course, there’s good reason otherwise—disabled, or what have you. According to our records, your son has been claiming such a disability. But there’s no proof of that, and there never has been. And that’s what we call a crack in the system.” Lawrence smiled, then stole a glance at the crack between Dacey’s legs.

Suddenly, three loud “thumps” rattled down the walls, coming somewhere from upstairs.

Lawrence looked around, curious. “What was that?”

Dacey peeked over her shoulder.

“Best get that cornbread cooking, Sissy,” Delaroy muttered gravely.

Dacey sighed. “Yeah, yeah, I know.”

“So, let me get this straight, Mr. Shoemaker,” the old man continued. “You’re telling me that Baby now needs a reason for getting his checks in the mail?”

His checks, Lawrence sneered silently. “I’m saying, that unless your son is incapacitated in some way, unless he is unable to work a job like the rest of us folks, then no, he ain’t gonna be getting any more of his checks.”

“I see,” replied Delaroy, rolling his fingers on the table.

Now, the entire house jolted three times, as if a giant were pounding on the roof with an oak tree.

Lawrence sat up with a start. “What the hell is that?”

Delaroy leaned back into his chair. “Mister…that’s Baby. And yes, he does live here. And he’ll be madder than a rattled hornet if he don’t get his dinner soon—so get a moving, Sissy!”

Lawrence chuckled nervously. “Beg your pardon?”

“Oh, yeah, Baby’s got him a fierce appetite.” Delaroy stared proudly at the ceiling. “And that boy takes to corn like his own ma’s teats. Cornbread, corn stew. Fritters and grits. Corn pies with goat cheese. Or just plain, right off the stalk. Boy loves his corn.” The old man’s eyes narrowed once more, predator-like, much to Lawrence’s unease. “But then again, if we add a little gravy, Baby’ll eat damn near anything.”

Lawrence coughed into his elbow. “Okay, then. Well, ah, back to this business of your son and his checks.”

“Mister Shoemaker,” Delaroy interrupted, “I think maybe you just need to meet Baby.”

Dacey dropped an iron skillet on the floor. “Sorry! Jumped right out of my hands, it did.” She bent over, giving Lawrence a bird’s-eye view down her shirt.

“Yeah, let’s ah,” replied Lawrence, eyes fixed on Dacey’s nipples. “Let’s meet your son, shall we?”

With a glare, the old man stood. “Well, come on then.”

Delaroy led Lawrence back through the front room, and up the stairs. There was a sour odor lingering on the third floor, thick and rank as bad cheese, and Lawrence was noticeably bothered, as he covered his nose with his hand. A dark hallway stretched further into the gullet of the house, where light oozed through the cracks of closed doors. Lawrence rubbed knuckles into his watering eyes, trailing behind the old man. At the end of the hall, they stopped in front of a door, and Delaroy snickered quietly.

“What was that fancy word you said? Incapacitated?” Delaroy pushed the door open and stepped to the side.

Lawrence’s first thought was of a beached whale. He dropped his lower jaw and leaned forward, staring. Baby McClemens sat in the middle of the room, encompassing the entirety of it with his six-foot girth, and eight-foot height. He was naked, save for a yellow bed linen used as a diaper, long since needing changed. The corpulent mass of his belly and flanks were strafed with vertical stretch marks, crisscrossing the countless rolls of blubber circling his body. Rounds of fat at his ankles looked like hundred-dollar cheese wheels. And rivulets of slobber trailed down Baby’s chin, chest, and belly, ending in pooled globules on the floor. Topping it all was a hairless head the size of a watermelon, bearing a baby-face if there ever was one.

“Bagabba-goo,” cooed Baby, slapping his heavy foot on the floor, rattling the walls. He gave a stretch and a belch and Lawrence spotted gummy smegma seated between the tot’s layered skin. Then a raspy spray of spittle exuded from Baby’s banana-sized lips, preceding a sudden expulsion of corn-chunked bile, splashing out and onto the monstrosity’s great belly.

Lawrence’s second thought, as he took a step back, was how many beers it would take to cleanse his palate, the odiferous air being so bad, he could taste it. “Sweet mother of Jesus…” he muttered, swallowing the lump in his throat.

“BOOGABBA!” Baby suddenly roared.

And Lawrence’s third thought—his final thought—as he went limp on his way straight to the floor, was Goddammit, I just might miss Happy Hour this evening.

***

“Think I kilt him, Pa?” Dacey hovered over Lawrence’s still body, iron skillet in hand. “I’s about sick and tired of him staring at me like he was. Sick pervert.”

The old man rubbed his chin. “Maybe so,” he said, pushing a boot into Lawrence’s side. “Makes no difference, though.” He looked at Baby then: a quivering mass of blubber staring back with anxious eyes. “And you go on and hush, now! We’ll get you your supper, already.”

Down the hall and at the top of the stairs, Delaroy leaned over the rail. “Get in the kitchen, Ma!” he shouted, glancing over his shoulder at the body of Lawrence Shoemaker. “Looks like Baby’s gonna need some gravy!”


“Corn-Fed Baby and Gravy” was originally published in Bete Noire Magazine.


Chris Riley lives near Sacramento, California, vowing one day to move back to the Pacific Northwest. In the meantime, he teaches special education, writes cool stories, and hides from the blasting heat for six months of the year. He has had over 100 short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and across various genres. His debut novel, one of literary suspense, titled The Sinking of the Angie Piper, was published in 2017; and his debut short story collection is forthcoming, with Mount Abraxas Press. For more information, go to www.chrisrileyauthor.com.  


“Robert, Howard, and the Devil” Fiction by Thomas White

About three months ago, Robert Shivers, the life-long friend of Howard Foker, had unexpectedly gone into the hospital for a few nights for minor surgery. Shivers had given Howard the key to his apartment so that Howard could feed and care for Robert’s hamster, Blinky.  Howard was oblivious, however, to the surveillance cameras, embedded in the apartment’s walls, originally installed by Robert to identify any burglar intent on kidnapping his beloved pet.

Howard had no sooner settled comfortably into Robert’s easy chair to watch the new autumn lineup of reality TV shows, than there was a scratching   noise from Blinky’s cage:  clawing the bars, the little pest was furiously demanding its feed.  Just like its master: always annoying Howard with irritating demands. In fact, the more Howard watched Blinky, the more he wondered if Robert actually had not been turned into this hamster by a wizard’s spell. The random shuffling, followed by sudden bursts of frenetic activity, then the way it greedily slopped its food and water – all very Robert Shivers.

   While poking through the kitchen closets looking for the little monster’s vitamin-enriched meal, Howard discovered a thick envelope. On it, in Shivers’ childish scrawl, were the words: “My Stimulus Package.” Stuffed inside the envelope was a smaller   packet on which Shivers had written: “Boy, this is hot.”  Gently opening it, Howard’s attitude toward Robert was about to change forever.

 Stapled together were advertising glossies featuring images of kitchen appliances, a generic, stock photo of the Statue of Liberty, set against the skyline of New York City, and assorted printouts of objects, such as jugs, for sale online. A sticky note was attached to the documents on which Robert Shivers had scribbled, “Wow, what a turn-on!”

Included with this stash was also a notarized statement which read:

“I, Robert Shivers say, under penalty of perjury, that I have an intense erotic desire for nonhuman objects. I find myself completely unable to lust after any human being no matter their gender…”

In addition, among the papers was a copy of a letter from Robert addressed to the executive producer, Jay James, of the new reality TV cable program, “It’s a Wild, Weird World,” which specializes in presenting to its audience – in its own words – “the unbelievable – uncensored.” The letter read in part:

“Dear Mr. James,

I have watched your show with great interest. I understand you are seeking guests with shocking and completely unique life-stories. I believe I can fulfill your program’s needs as I am just such a potential guest (my appearance being offered at your normal rate). Please see my attached affidavit with attachments. I think that the story of people who have sexual desires for only nonhuman objects would be of considerable interest to your audiences who tune in every week in search of ‘the unbelievable – uncensored…’”

   Stunned, Howard blinked his eyes: one can think he knows a person but actually never really know him. Huge difference between hanging out with this dude at the Big Hit sports bar watching Monday Night Football and getting a peek into his creepy, private world.

Who but a twisted weirdo could get an orgasm from a toaster? And even though the Statue of Liberty was a woman and was made by the French, it seemed really bizarre if not downright unpatriotic to be sexually aroused by America’s iconic symbol –  I mean the Statue of Liberty for god’s sake!

But Howard, his stomach grumbling its complaint against his skimpy breakfast, headed   for the kitchen again but this time more to satisfy his hunger for food than his curiosity about Shivers’ twisted inner life.                                                     

    Rummaging around for a can opener, Howard immediately found yet another clump of documents crammed into a dusty hole in the back of the kitchen’s cupboards’ walls; delicately opening the scruffy plastic-wrapped bundle stinking of mildew, he lightly pawed the shiny but stained upmarket  furniture catalogue advertising the usual items: blonde floor lamps with pale white shades, rainbow-colored, starkly-crafted chairs, smoothly-contoured black coffee tables, slab-like soft floor beds piled with cheery little patterned cushions.

   Then shocked, he looked closer and gasped – or, more to the point, gurgled an explosion of saliva: a glossy image of the pudgy body and face of Robert Shivers, naked except for black socks, was shown on one of the catalogue’s pages, hunched over a blonde floor lamp with a virginal white shade, a lusty, demonic grin on his face.  Had Robert somehow Photoshopped a selfie of his face and body into this catalogue to live out his twisted fantasies among this porno-utopia of upmarket sexually attractive nonhuman objects?

Howard’s conclusion was inescapable: Robert Shivers was not a normal pervert.

                                                    ***

Sideling into his favorite Starbucks a few weeks later, Howard, still unsettled after his discoveries, almost spilled his latte as he absent-mindedly found a table, and fretted over this new information about Robert. Howard knew that he had to calm down, get beyond the shock of it all, and get focused on the business implications. It was a sick, cynical world, but one could find financial health, not to say happiness, in the problems of others. Now he had to just figure the angles.

How would he approach Robert about selling Robert’s bizarre personality to tabloid shows?  With his vast marketing experience in the mass media Howard was sure he could help Robert – for a lucrative commission – to make high-level reality TV executive contacts, who would pay Robert handsomely for his completely unique story of a life spent sexually attracted to upscale furniture, kitchen appliances, and the national icon of America.

 It was a delicate matter though as he did not want Robert to know that he had been rummaging through his personal papers. He needed his flunky friend’s good will, yet at the same time Howard had to figure out how to approach Robert about his weird desires without revealing how Howard discovered them – otherwise Robert could be open to a potential lawsuit for the violation of Robert’s privacy. (Howard, despite these sober concerns, smiled briefly when he thought of Robert being interviewed on TV about how he ‘dates’ a toaster.)

A taunt, sinewy arm with blurred tattoos flipped over Howard’s shoulder like a large stiletto knife. Howard’ s eyes followed the arm up to a face stuffed full of jutting, stained teeth that had not seen a dental cleaning in years – nor a cosmetic surgical makeover: thin wrinkled lips carved into a stony face, wandering unfocused, washed-out bluish eyes, and a small patch of dry grey hair on an otherwise bald, skull-tight head. His ruddy facial skin was littered with large warts. Howard thought vaguely of a diseased tropical plant –  or the face of the 1950s Yul Brynner but with a completely unknown, creeping skin condition.

The odd man suddenly yawned widely, sending waves of swampy bad breath into Howard’s face.  Tearful, and almost gagging, Howard half whispered, half-choked, “Who are you?”

Despite the grotesque appearance, the man’s voice was gentle. “If you know this song then you know who I am.” He began to sing slowly, hypnotically, as if he were crooning a seductive lullaby:

“Pleased to meet you

Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah

But what’s confusing you

Is just the nature of my game…?”

The man’s arm twisted slightly; a business card dropped into Howard’s lap as if it were a magic trick; glossy-lipstick-pink, spotted with little devil masks, the card was inscribed with black, very dramatic script:

“Edmund Lappe’

Therapeutic Wizard

By Appointment Only”

Edmund Lappe’ winked, then began softly crooning again:

“So if you meet me

“Have some courtesy

Have some sympathy, and some taste

Use all your well-learned politesse

Or I’ll lay your soul to waste…”

Lappe’ then pointed his middle finger at Howard’s nose, as if the wizard were making an obscene gesture, and waved it. Howard felt his face drip heavily as if he were sweating a river; it was his flesh sliding off like chunks of melting snow, drenching his shirt cuffs.

“Hell’s bells, I am melting like a goddam wax dummy in an oven!” Howard whined. His Starbucks coffee mug, his laptop, and his too-tight undies then vanished, too. Howard and everything in his world had been vaporized. Edmund Lappe’, his Satanic Majesty, a man of many faces and names, who enjoyed serenading the Damned with the Rolling Stones’ 1968 smash hit, then called Robert Shivers to report the good news: that as per his agreement with Robert for a lucrative commission on Robert’s tabloid TV story profits, Lappe’ had eliminated the slimy Howard – who had inexcusably violated Robert’s privacy and failed to properly feed Blinky as instructed – from the face of the earth.    


Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.


“I Dream of Hitler” Dark, Psychological Fiction by Paul Negri

The call from Hitler is unexpected and more than a little disturbing. Although I’ve known with dread certainty that he is there, in his vast corner office, I’ve never been called directly into his presence before.

   “What should I do?” I ask Stein.

   “Do you have a choice, Manfred?” Stein strokes his Freudian beard and continues scribbling on his yellow legal pad. The screen saver on his PC is a scattering of pinpoint stars ever receding into black space.

   I pace back and forth in the windowless office we share. “Maybe it’s some kind of joke. It was his secretary, Miss Braun, who called.”

   “I think she’s more than his secretary,” says Stein.

   “She doesn’t like me.”

   “What makes you say that?” Stein asks a lot of questions, some of which I avoid answering. I can’t tell him everything, after all.

   “She called me in once before and I sat in her office waiting to see Hitler. I sat for a long time. Then she picked up the phone, even though it hadn’t rung, listened for a minute, hung up, and told me the matter had been resolved and I was not needed after all.”

   “So?”

   “I think there never was a call. She smirked at me. Or smiled. I’m not sure which. But I think it was a smirk. It made me nervous.”

   “Why did it make you nervous?”

   “Oh, for God’s sake, Stein, I don’t know. Not everything has a reason.”

Stein puts a hand to his chest and makes a sour face. He suffers from dyspepsia, I think.  “Just the same you’re better off going than not. Pasquale’s Wager.”

   “Can you refresh me on that, Stein? My Pasquale’s a little thin.” Actually, nonexistent. The only philosopher I ever read and even vaguely remember is Nietzsche. In an abridged edition. Well, actually just quotes. A little paperback called Nietzsche in a Nutshell given to me by my father when I graduated college. 

   “It’s better to bet that God exists than that he doesn’t. If you bet he exists and behave that way and you’re right, you win everything; if you’re wrong, you lose nothing. But if you bet he does not exists and you’re wrong, you lose everything; if you’re right, you gain nothing.”

   “In other words?”

   “Going to see Hitler is a better bet than ignoring him.”

   “I see what you mean,” I say. Sort of.

   “So?” says Stein and folds his hands in his lap.

   “So.” I seem stuck to my chair, frozen into it. I’m unable to move.

***

   My half-sister Ann is sitting at the kitchen table.  She douses her burnt toast with ketchup and spreads it with her finger. She puts the finger in her mouth.

   “I have napkins, you know,” I say.

   “Yes, but I have a tongue.” She sticks it out to show me. Her big brown-black eyes are slightly bloodshot.  Her short red hair is disheveled. A hangover hangs over her.

   I gulp my coffee. Ann has made it and it is bitter, hard to swallow even with milk. And sugar.  She applies another indelible blot of ketchup to her toast. “I have strawberry jam, you know,” I tell her.

   “I need my vegetables. Best thing for a drunk.”

   From Seattle Ann has brought with her a clock imprinted with pictures of various birds in place of numbers: the Blue Jay where the 12 should be; the Northern Cardinal instead of the 1; the tufted Titmouse at 2, and so on in an unbroken avian circle. When the clock strikes the hour, the pictured bird sings or calls. The coo of the Mourning Dove warns me it’s 7 o’clock and I’m running late.

   “Happy Birthday,” says Ann. The folds of her robe part just enough to give me a glimpse of her prepubescent chest, startling on a woman of twenty-five.

   “It was my birthday last month.”

   “So I’m a little late.”

   “I’m a little late myself this morning,” I say, trying to short circuit the conversation. I get up and put my cup in the sink.

   “Thirty-three is a special year, Manfred. It’s the age Jesus died.”

   “I’m thirty-two. And Jesus I’m not.”

   “You have to spoil everything, don’t you?” She stands up and cinches the belt of the robe, which somehow just makes it more revealing.

   “I’ll be late tonight. Just fix yourself something.”

   “Are you seeing Dr. Stein?”

   “Yes.”

   “Did you dream about him again last night? Hitler, I mean.”

   “I’ve got to go, Ann.”

   “When you’ve got to go,” Ann says with that sly smirk of hers, “you’ve got to go.”

***

      After a long and arduous day of working on the Cranwinkle case (Mrs. Cranwinkle accidently killed her invalid husband with an overdose of medication, although the prosecution doesn’t see it that way), I manage to find the only cab driver in New York who stops not only at red lights but every yellow as well. As a result I’m ten minutes late to Dr. Stein, who will scrupulously charge me for the additional time, if we work a whole session, on which he invariably insists.

   On my part I insist on lying down on the couch, my jacket off but shoes on, despite his assurance that it is there merely for show and none of his patients, save me, ever use it.

   The office is austere, though not uninviting, a cube of a room with no windows, quiet gray walls and carpeting, and book-lined shelves on the wall behind the desk, the books so neat and evenly placed I doubt they have ever been read. Also behind the desk is Dr. Stein, sitting in a black leather chair that would better suit a bigger man. The immaculate glass-topped desk is bereft of anything except a laptop PC, a pen and pencil holder in the form of Freud’s head with the top sliced off, yellow legal pads, and a box of tissues.  Nothing adorns the walls, no diplomas or certificates, no awards or acknowledgements, no photos of family (I don’t even know if Stein has a family—he’s never mentioned anyone and I’ve never cared to ask). The only exception to this is a small framed black-and-white print of Edvard Munch’s iconic work “The Scream,” in its less familiar lithograph version, even more effective than the paintings in pulling the viewer into the vortex of the little man with his great O of a mouth. “Doesn’t it disturb patients?” I once asked Stein. “Of course,” he replied.

   “So?” says Stein, and it’s like the starting pistol at the beginning of a race, one that I never seem to stop running. He squints at me through his glasses and strokes his beard.

   “Is that itchy?” I ask. “The beard, I mean.”

   “Does it look itchy?”

   “It looks like a woman’s—you know what.”

   “And you think that would be itchy, Mandrake?”

I’m not going to take the bait. Everything with Stein comes down to sex. Or guilt. Or both. How tedious it all is. How terribly tedious. I sigh.

   “Is Ann still staying with you?” he asks.

   “Yes.”

   “I see.” He makes it sound like I’m harboring a criminal. I wish he would stop stroking that infernal beard.

   “I will tell her to leave, Stein. Just as we discussed. But it’s only been a month. And she has nowhere to go, after all. I think she burned her bridges in Seattle. An incident at a day care center. Something to do with her drinking, no doubt.”

   Stein makes a note on his yellow pad and gives me a long look.

   “All right,” I say. “I admit I like having her there. Well, not like exactly. But, at least she’s someone. She’s better than no one.”

   Stein purses his lips. Now what the hell does that mean?

   “These dreams are—unnerving. I don’t like waking up to an empty house.”

   “Did you dream of Hitler again last night?”

Ah, I have drawn his attention away from Ann to another of my problems. “Yes. I was working for him in some kind of company. He was my boss, as usual. I was called to his office.”

   “Did you see him this time?”

   “No. I woke up before I could make myself go to him. As always.”

   “Was I in the dream, Mandrake?”

   “No,” I lie. I cannot admit to him that he too has invaded my dreams. How then, will I ever get rid of him? “Should you be?”

   Stein scribbles a note.

***

   I don’t know if it was an email or a phone call or exactly when I received it. I know only that I have been summoned to appear before Dr. Hitler and the Ethics Committee of the hospital. I’ve opened the patient on the operating table, a very fat man, a virtual duffel bag of guts, and am slowly unpacking his intestines, pulling them out, inch by inch, like a rubber hose. They trail down the side of the operating table and pile up on the floor. There’s not a drop of blood and the fat man is awake and talking all the time, some drivel about inalienable rights, but I’m not really listening to him. Eva Braun, the nurse, pats my forehead with a tissue from a large box she holds.

   “So you have no idea why Hitler wants to see you?” asks Dr. Stein, who is assisting me.

   “Perhaps it is about my daughter,” I say, “which is very strange.”

   “Why is it strange?”

   “Because I have no daughter.”

Nurse Braun snickers.

   “When was the last time you saw Dr. Hitler?” asks Stein. I get the feeling he is laughing behind his surgical mask. The bastard.

   “I have never seen him, as you well know.” The fat man’s intestines go on and on without end, just like his inane chatter. “Perhaps I just shouldn’t go. What’s the worse they can do?”

   “I’d just go, if I were you,” says Stein. “Get it over with. You’ll have to go eventually. The worst part is the waiting, don’t you agree?”

   “You ask a lot of questions, Stein. You don’t expect me to answer them all, do you?”

   “Don’t you the think the Ethics Committee and Dr. Hitler will expect some answers?” He pulls down his surgical mask. There’s blood in his beard.

   “Isn’t that itchy?” I ask.

   Nurse Braun hands me a cell phone. “It’s for you.”

   “Hello?” I say into the phone. But no one is there.

   “It was Dr. Hitler,” she says. “The Committee wants to see you immediately.”

I hand the ever-unraveling intestinal tract to Stein and rush out of the operating room, down a long corridor, to a frosted glass door marked Ethics Committee.  Through the door I can just make out the nebulous figures of men sitting at a table and one man standing. I wipe my hands on my scrubs, but can’t seem to get them clean, although there’s no discernable sign of anything dirty on them.  I can hear Hitler talking softly to the group behind the door. I grasp the knob and try to turn it, but there’s something slippery on my hands. The door won’t open.

***

   Mancinni is fidgeting with one of the bent oak wood armchairs in my office. The problem is not with the chair. He is a man who does not wear the average chair easily.

   “You’ve got to talk some sense into her, Manfred. She’s putting her head on the block. On the block. The chopping block. And Bloody Betty wields the quickest ax in the D.A’s office. She gets a hard-on when anyone sticks their neck out—particularly on the block.” Mancinni talks in rapid-fire bursts. Often nonstop. It’s why he never presents a case in court. Juries would cower under the barrage and run to the arms of the prosecuting attorney.

   “Women don’t get hard-ons,” I tell him.

   “Shows what you know about women.”

   “Mrs. Cranwinkle is an adult, Mancinni. 70 years beyond the age of consent. It’s entirely up to her.”

   Mancinni laughs and his enormous belly shakes, like the proverbial bowlful of jelly. But there any resemblance to old St. Nick ends. He is hairless—bald, not a trace of a chin whisker, barely even an eyebrow, his face swarthy, puffed and pulpy, like the head of a penis.

   “Nothing is entirely up to anybody,” Mancinni spurts. “Not in a rational society. This case isn’t about the aged Mrs. Cranwinkle and her cancer-laced husband. It’s not about whether she thinks she’s guilty or innocent or none of the above. Mrs. Cranwinkle is, in many respects, superfluous. The case is about a basic human right that we now have an opportunity, a golden opportunity, Manfred, to defend, the right to slit one’s throat, if one determines that is in one’s best interest, and the state has no right, no earthly right, to interfere …”

   I know better than to try to stem the flood of words that issues forth from Mancinni once a favorite subject has been broached—or breached in his case. And the inalienable right to self-extermination, or to assist in such as requested, is indeed one of his very favorite chest-thumpers. He launches into it at the slightest provocation. Yesterday it was suicide over sushi at lunch, on into the elevator when we returned, uninterrupted at adjacent urinals, even after the final shake and zipping up. I have more than once hurried my stream to escape back to my office.

   “…good and great men, Manfred, chose their own exits, Socrates, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Virginia Woolf—”

   “Virginia Woolf was not a great man.”

   “…Hannibal, Mark Antony, Marilyn Monroe…”

   I get up abruptly, go to the closet, and get my coat.

Mancinni comes up for air. “Where are you going?” he asks.

   “To convince Mrs. Cranwinkle of her sacred duty to defend self-slaughter.”

   “Be gentle, Manfred. She’s an old lady. Show a little warmth, make her trust you.”

   “Warm trust. Got it.”

   “Sometimes you don’t quite come across.” Mancinni takes a deep breath.

   “Come across as what?”

   “Sit down a minute. Please.”

I take my seat, but do not remove my coat.

   “You need to talk with Ms. Brown. Candidly. To reassure her. As I’ve told you before.” He actually waits for me to say something, unusual for Mancinni.

   “I will not cater to our distinguished Head’s paranoia. I’ve told you before.”

   “Here’s what I suggest,” says Mancinni, ignoring me. “Tell her you were once a heavy drinker. Or a reckless gambler. But nothing with drugs. Absolutely no drugs. Just make some kind of admission.”

   I laugh to show I’m not amused.

   “She’s convinced you’re harboring some dark secret sin. She prides herself on her uncanny ability to judge character. She needs confirmation of this extraordinary insightfulness of hers. Just make something up, for Christ’s sake, and tell her it was long ago and you’re well past it all and right as rain now.”

   “Perhaps I can admit to having murdered my mother, drunk as I was over my gambling debts, and upset with her selling drugs to school children. But I was acquitted on an insanity defense and found Jesus and my lost mind at about the same time.”

   Mancinni has not heard me. “She’s the boss and needs to know she’s right. Your work here over the past six months has been sterling. You’re a first-rate defense attorney. You could be a partner in four or five years. And everyone’s a sucker for a reformed sinner, Manfred. Even me.”

   “Do you think I’ve sinned, Father Mancinni?”

   He hoists himself up and the chair comes up with him.  He forces it down with a thump. “I don’t give a fig’s ass,” he says, startling me with an impossible metaphor. “You win cases. That’s all I care about.”

   “I’ve got to go,” I say and brush past him.

   “When you’ve got to—” he begins, but I’m out the door before he can finish.

***

   Mancinni hates jailhouse visits for two reasons: one, the chairs are usually even smaller than the ones in my office, which he struggles so to get into; and two, he has a phobia about jails, as unfortunate an affliction for a lawyer as a fear of blood would be for a surgeon.

   I, on the other hand, am not only not bothered by a jail, but feel comfortable in one. I’m not saying that I like them (how on earth could anyone like them?), but simply that for some inexplicable reason I’m often more at ease in a jail than I am elsewhere. I must remember to mention that to Stein. Or maybe not.

   I sit in the conference room in a chair that is quite adequate for a man of normal hip width.  Mrs. Cranwinkle is due to be released on $50,000 bail tomorrow—unless she changes her plea to guilty of voluntary manslaughter, which she is apparently determined to do. Why she’s had this change of heart, which would deprive Mancinni and company the opportunity for championing the right to assisted suicide, is really of no concern to me; I simply must convince her to remain ‘not guilty’ and allow us to mount our multiple soap boxes and save her scrawny neck.

   A guard brings Winnie Cranwinkle in. She’s exactly what you’d expect a Winnie Cranwinkle to look like: little old thing, silver-haired, a bit plump, round glasses, Norman Rockwell’s granny in spades. She’s not in prison garb, nothing so stylish. She wears lose beige slacks and a lemon-yellow top that render her slight person almost invisible in the harsh lights of the room.

   “How are you holding up, Mrs. Cranwinkle?” I ask, as she takes a seat opposite me at the table. The female guard who has deposited her there gives her a smile and leaves the room. Apparently, she is deemed too harmless to keep an eye on.

   “I’m doing better since I made my decision, Manfred.” Three days in the detention center have actually seemed to do her some good. She looked much worse before she was arraigned. “I’m sleeping better, you see.”

   “Mr. Mancinni informed me of your thoughts on the plea. I think you may be a little confused about the whole process. Of pleading guilty to a serious charge, I mean.”

   “Manny is such a nice man.  I was so sorry to hear him upset. He went on and on and on. I’m afraid I finally had to ask him to be quiet.”

   “Did it work?” I ask. That’s something I’ve never tried with him. Worth a shot. “What I mean is, I understand why he’s upset. But do you?”

   “Do you know why I gave Jocko all those pills, Manfred?”

   “Who?”

Mrs. Cranwinkle leans forward on the table and whispers to me, “Jocko is what I called Steven behind his back. It’s kind of an insult. A private joke.” She smiles and shows bad teeth.

   “You gave your husband the overdose because he was in unbearable pain and he asked you to,” I say, more telling than asking her.

   “That’s just what I told you and Manny. But it’s not true. Not entirely. I was in more pain than Jocko and for a much longer time. Jocko was a pain.”

   “I don’t understand.”

   “Oh, I don’t mean he hit me or anything. He never did. But he was not a nice man. Never was, I guess.” Mrs. Cranwinkle sits back and seems to think for a moment. “So many years, it’s hard to recall it all. The past has a way of thinning out after a while.”

   “Mrs. Cranwinkle—”

   “I did not love my husband, Manfred.”

   “Well, that’s probably not so unusual in a long marriage,” I say, trying to be reassuring.

   “I did not even like him.”

   “That’s not a crime, Mrs. Cranwinkle.”

   “I killed him because I did not like him.”

   “Wasn’t he in unbearable pain? Didn’t he ask you to do it? He was terminal, after all.”

   “Yes, he was terminal. And yes, he was in pain because he refused to take the morphine. But he did not ask me to end it. I asked him to end it. And he said no.”

   We’re silent for a moment.

   I fold my hands on the table. “Perhaps you knew more what was best for him than he did himself,” I say in a low voice.

   “I knew what was best for me,” she says and pats my folded hands consolingly. “I’ve been having nightmares, you see.”

   “Nightmares?”

   “I don’t remember them all. But Jocko is always in them. One way or another.”

   “So?”

   “Since I decided to admit what I did, I haven’t had the nightmares anymore. I’m sleeping well, Manfred. I tried to tell that to Manny, but he wouldn’t listen.”

   “Look, Mrs. Cranwinkle, even if your motives weren’t the purest, what you did was the best thing for Mr. Cranwinkle—Jocko—Steven or whoever. He was dead anyway, no matter what. You just helped him along. It would be a crime for a nice lady like you to go to prison at this point in your life.  What good would that do anyone? What good would it do you?”

   “It would let me sleep, Manfred, like I used to. Alone in my dreams.”

   “Won’t you take my advice, Winnie?” I take her hands in mine and put all my warmth into it. “Won’t you trust me?” I look into her tear-filled blue eyes.

   “You’re a nice boy, Manfred,” she says. “But no thank you.”

***

   The altar boys fold our vestments and arrange them in the wide, shallow draws of the cabinet. The boys are in their underwear and are bare-footed. They whisper to each other. The one with red hair looks over his shoulder at me and snickers.

   “Who delivered this summons from Bishop Hitler?” Father Stein asks.

   “That’s the odd thing, Stein. I don’t remember. But I know he’s coming today,” I tell him.

   Stein is fiddling with the gold cross hung around his neck. It nestles in the wiry hair on his chest, which I can see through his unbuttoned cassock.

   “Isn’t that itchy?” I ask.

  “When was the last time you spoke to Bishop Hitler, Manfred?”

   “In my prayers. You know I’ve never met him.”

   “And what were you praying for?”

   “That I would never meet him.”

Somewhere in the distance I hear the swell of an organ. The boys laugh.

   “Maybe you could go in my place, Stein. Make up some excuse for me. He’ll believe you, I’m sure.”

   “Is that what you think Hitler really wants? Excuses?”

   “Can’t you ever just give me an answer, Stein?”

   “Is that what you really want, Manfred? Answers?” Stein gets up and picks up the phone, although I did not hear it ring. He says nothing and hangs up. “The Bishop wants to see you immediately.”

   “Where is he?” I ask.  The cross on Stein’s chest is bloody.

   “You know where he is. Use the stairs.”

I feel like I have no feet.

   “Take one of the boys with you, if it makes it any easier.”

The boys link arms. The red-headed boy sticks his tongue out at me. He is of that tender age, inchoate, as much girl as boy. I run from the sacristy more to get away from him than to go to Hitler.

   I rush through the harshly lit hall to a spiral staircase and descend it rapidly, with the force of something being sucked down a drain. At the bottom of the stairwell is a door. I open it.

   Eva Braun is sitting in the Bishop’s big red chair. She’s smoking a cigar. “He’s been called away,” she says, “to hear a death-bed confession.”

   “Can’t someone else do that?” I shout, feigning outrage, to conceal my relief.

   “It’s his little old grandmother,” says Eva and winks at me.

***

   Ann is late, which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is that she shows up at all. She squeezes past tables, almost knocking over a fat man’s cappuccino, and deposits herself in the small hard chair in front of me. Her face is partially made up, lip gloss, too red, eye shadow, too purple, like bruises.

   “These chairs hurt me,” she says, “because I have no ass.”

   “What can I get you, Ann? They have pumpkin-spice latte—for a limited time only.”

   “Have you noticed that I have no ass, Manfred?”

   “Would you like a raspberry scone with it?”

   “I can’t have anything. It’ll make me sick. No smoking in here, right? No smoking anywhere anymore. Smokers are not welcome, are they? Smoking is verboten.”

   “I have two hours before court this afternoon. And I’ve been wanting to talk with you. About something.”

   “Why couldn’t we talk at home? Or at a bar?”

   “I thought you might like—a scone, perhaps.”

Ann leans across the table. “Oh, how did you know? A big fat raspberry scone—every girl’s fantasy. You have a remarkable insight into the female psyche. I think Dr. Stein is rubbing off on you.”

   I begin to doubt my strategy of having this talk with Ann in a public place. I felt that it might inhibit the hysterics that could well ensue. She has always been self-conscious in public, more in control. Even when she was little.

   “You want me to leave, Manfred?”

   “You just got here, Ann.” I can’t let her walk out of here now.

   “I mean your place. You want me to go away.” She’s scratching at her hands, just like she used to do when she was ten. She’d scratch them raw.

   “Don’t scratch,” I say.

   “They’re itchy.”

   “I just want what’s best for you. I don’t want to be an—enabler. You need to be back on your own. For your self-esteem.”

   “Dr. Stein is rubbing off on you.” Ann is oddly calm. It frightens me.

   “I could lend—give you some money. Maybe you could get established back in Seattle.”

   “I can’t go back there. I’m lucky they let me go.”

   “Denver is nice. Everyone loves Denver. And the air there is—great. Great air, Ann.”

   “I came to your bed last night,” she says. “You were asleep. But I don’t think you were alone.”

   “Of course, I was alone,” I say.

   “He was with you, wasn’t he? Hitler.”

   “I have never seen him. Never.”

   “I’ll be gone before you get home.”

   “For God’s sake, Ann. You don’t have to leave today. Please.”

   “Oh, I do, Manfred. I do have to leave today. You frighten me. Did I ever tell you that?” Her eyes well up with misery. “Did I ever tell you how scared you made me? Always? How afraid I was to go to sleep? How afraid I still am?”

   I sit for a long time and stare at her empty chair.

***

   Judge Hitler wants to see me in his chambers. Stein, the prosecuting attorney, has not been requested to join us.

   “This is ridiculous,” I protest to Stein. “He’s not even the presiding judge in this case. I’ve never argued a case before him. I’ve never even seen him.”

   “Oh, don’t be coy, Manfred. You’ve always argued your cases before him. You’ve been arguing cases before him since—well the age of puberty, wouldn’t you say?”

   Stein is stuffing papers in his briefcase, stacks of them, indictments, briefs, motions, notes, and they’re all about me, I know it. He just shoves them in, more and more. The briefcase bulges and looks like it’s going to burst. He has trouble carrying it to the door.

   “Where are you going, Stein?” I ask.

He puts his hand on his chest and makes a sour face. “You have no idea the shit I have to swallow in my line of work. Fortunately, it doesn’t go on forever.” He waves and bangs through the swinging doors of the courtroom.

   “Stein!” I call after him.

   But he is gone.

   “Manfred, the judge will see you now,” calls the court clerk, Eva Braun.

   “Will he? Will he really?” I laugh. Somehow, I know I’ve done this before. I will get to the door and it will not open. I will walk into the room and Eva will come after me and announce the meeting has been canceled. I will take a seat in a hall and hear a door slam and know that Hitler is gone, gone again, gone like always, if he was ever there at all.

   “He’s waiting,” says Eva. “He doesn’t have all day.” She arcs an eyebrow and for once she does not smile or snicker. She takes me by the hand and walks me behind the judge’s bench to a side door. Then she steps back. I turn the knob and the door opens.

   The room is very large with immense windows and the light coming through them is so bright I can hardly see the desk at the far end.

   “Come here and sit down, Manfred.” The voice is unmistakable.

   I sit in the chair before the desk. I can hardly breath.

   “So?” says Hitler.

   He is in judge’s black robes, his neck scrawny in a white collar, his nose large over the toothbrush mustache, his black hair slightly slicked to the left over his forehead. His eyes are deep and questioning.

      “So?” he says again. “You have something to tell me, no?”

   I know what I must say, but I can’t find my voice. I melt under his gaze and drip with delight. Finally, as if from far, far away, I whisper, “My sister.”

   Hitler smiles, not unkindly. “Yes,” he says softly. “Yes.”


Paul Negri is the former president and publisher of Dover Publications, Inc. He has edited several anthologies of poetry and fiction published by that firm. His stories have appeared in The Penn Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Cabinet of Heed, Ligeia Magazine, and more than 50 other publications. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey.


“Do Not Resuscitate” Dark Fiction by Hayden Sidun

Hospitals are always cold and often bustling outside the confines of each whitewashed room. The rooms are barely soundproof, and one can hear nurses rushing around in the hallways and maybe some conversations next door. It gets quiet at night, the silence occasionally broken by footsteps in the hallway or a spouse’s hysteria if a patient dies in the night. Glee ends at the doorways and laughter is few and far between, even among the staff. Good news is as rare as a comfortable chair for spouses to sleep in.

Charlie hadn’t had the luxury of sleeping in his own bed in three weeks, and the hospital’s distinct smell and gloominess was beginning to feel like home to him. He would sometimes enjoy a walk to the snack cart in the lobby or to the parking lot for a smoke break or a phone call, although the latter became rarer as Ethel’s hospital stay became longer (after all, he didn’t want to end up like her one day). He mostly sat in a chair next to his wife and stroked her hand, watching her slowly wither away with each passing second. He sometimes had to hold his nose or step out into the hallway, for the reek of death was beginning to invade the hospital room’s familiar smell of sterility.

On a Tuesday morning when the air conditioning had become a little bit crisper, Charlie sat beside his sleeping wife and laid a blanket over himself. A rerun of The Price is Right was on television, the volume low enough for him to barely hear it, and he sat in silence, stroking Ethel’s hand as he guessed the prices in his head. It was the first time in three weeks that he stayed seated when the doctor entered the room; the blanket covered his legs, and a weak smile formed across his face.

“Good morning, Mr. Bing,” greeted Dr. Roopa Patel. Charlie and Ethel had only known Dr. Patel for the few days since Ethel had been put on palliative care, and the sorrow in her voice was sharper than before. She looked at him with sad eyes and spoke a tad softer, though not at par with the television, but smiling nonetheless. “How are you doing today?”

“I’m alright,” said Charlie, “but I’m getting too used to sleeping in this damn recliner.”

Charlie watched as Dr. Patel walked across the room and carried a chair to where he was sitting. She stared into his eyes, and he could feel her grazing his soul as a tear formed in the corner of his eye. He leaned forward, a faint breath escaping his nose, ready to listen to the doctor.

“Charlie,” Ethel said, her weak whisper barely competing with the television. He snapped his head toward his wife and squeezed her hand a little tighter. “Charlie, turn down your show. Too loud.”

Charlie grabbed the remote and turned the television off, his faint reflection in the blank screen replacing Drew Carey and the colorful and happening set of The Price is Right. He looked again at Ethel, her eyes barely open and adjusting to the light, and his lips curled into a gentle smile.

“Wake up,” he said. “The doctor’s here.”

“Dr. Richmond?”

“No, Ethel, it’s Dr. Patel today.”

“Good morning, Ethel,” Dr. Patel greeted, glancing at Ethel. Slowly rising from her slumber and her eyes still barely open, Ethel slightly lifted her hand and waved at the doctor. “Dr. Richmond is out for the morning, but if you’d like, I can send him here when he arrives.”

“Please do.” Ethel closed her eyes again and returned to her slumber, her mouth slightly ajar as she let out a faint snore.

Dr. Patel folded her hands in her lap and let out a breath, fixing her gaze at Charlie once again. “She’s going on three weeks in the hospital, Mr. Bing.”

Charlie nodded. “You all said she’d get better.”

“I know.” Dr. Patel grabbed his hands and watched a tear run down his cheek.

“She was going to get better, right?”

Dr. Patel nodded. “Do you have any children, Mr. Bing?”

“None that are still alive. Our only surviving family is a brother of hers who lives in Florida. The plan was to get him here this weekend to say goodbye.”

“Can you get him here tomorrow?”

Charlie shook his head. “Don’t say that,” he said, his voice quavering as he spoke.

“It could be a matter of hours, Mr. Bing. The best-case scenario is two or three days.”

“You said she has three months left.”

“Her condition has worsened at a much faster rate than we anticipated.”

Charlie looked over at his sleeping wife. “Is it too late to revoke the do-not-resuscitate order?”

“No, but it won’t do her any good.”

Charlie nodded and pushed himself up from the chair, his legs shaking as he rose as though an earthquake was striking the building. The blanket fell to the floor as he stood up and bent over to plant a light kiss on Ethel’s forehead, and he stepped on it as he walked past Dr. Patel. Charlie looked back at Ethel and the doctor with red and watery eyes.

“I need to go for a walk,” he declared, and he turned around and stepped into the hallway, stopping only to close the door behind him.

———

When Charlie returned a few hours later, Ethel was alone in the hospital room. She stared at the ceiling and broke her gaze to look at her husband, who smiled when she looked into his eyes. Charlie sat on the edge of her bed and held both of her hands in his. Her eyes, once blue as the water and clear as the sky, were cloudy and unrecognizable, her former self unable to break through the shadow of death. Yet she flashed a faint smile when her husband of six decades sat beside her and held her hands, her conscience rejoicing.

“Where did you go, dear?” she whispered, her voice breaking as she spoke.

“I went to a park nearby and sat on a bench for a little bit.” His voice slightly trembled as he spoke, and tears fogged his vision. “It’s a beautiful day out, Ethel. I wish you could experience it.”

Ethel tilted her head downward, her eyes still locked on her husband. “Do you remember the night we got married?”

Charlie chuckled as he pictured the quaint wedding chapel in Reno they stumbled into all those years ago. “I do.”

“We were drunk and oh so stupid.”

“We were.”

Ethel’s smile grew only slightly, her eyes glimmering like the sun glimmers on water. “I’m a very lucky woman, Charlie. I love you so much.”

“I love you too.”

Charlie leaned in and kissed Ethel. Her lips were chapped, and his nose cringed as he leaned in and smelled the reek of death. As he leaned away and looked at her face again, he felt the room emptying and the air becoming a little warmer. Her hands became colder, and he let go of them and rested them in her lap. Tears ran down his cheeks when he closed her eyes with his fingers and stood up. He whispered goodbye and walked out of the room; when he got to the hallway, he pulled aside the first nurse he saw and told her in a trembling voice that the patient in Room 307 had passed away and that she was not to be resuscitated.

———

The porch light was off when Charlie pulled into his driveway that night. His lawn was more grown out than he usually kept it, and the trash bins were still full and on the side of the house. He walked up to his front door and found the key underneath the welcome mat, and when he stepped foot into his home and kicked off his shoes for the first time in three weeks, he began to cry. The air still smelled like her, and all of her photos and decorations still hung on the walls and sat on the tables. He closed the front door and laid his keys on the table next to where his neighbor—who had been watching over his house—piled all the mail they had received since they left for the hospital. On top was a letter addressed to Ethel from her brother in Florida, and he picked it up, staining the envelope with a tear.

Charlie put the letter down, separating it from the rest of the mail, and walked into his bedroom. He laid down on his bed and threw the blankets on top of himself, still wearing the same clothes he wore when Ethel passed away. It was colder than usual in the bedroom, and the blankets were almost as cold as the air around them. Not even his bubble of body heat could protect him from the cool air. A strange and overwhelming sadness came over him—or perhaps it was the thought of him being a widower that he had always found inconceivable—and not before long was his pillow was soaked with tears. And there Charlie laid, staring up toward his ceiling in the night’s near-total darkness, thinking of a reason to get out of bed the following morning. Sweat soon began to dampen the blankets covering him, and his heart was pounding, and in the corner of his eye, the tiniest bead of a teardrop freed itself. The other side of the bed, for the first time in 62 years, was cold and empty, and even in his bubble of body heat, he could feel hell freezing over beneath the surface.


Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction has appeared in The Dillydoun Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Yard, Button Eye Review, The Chamber Magazine, and Potato Soup Journal. Outside of school and work, he is involved in local politics and often finds himself surfing the Internet in the middle of the night. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.


“Who Are You Talking To?” Psychological Horror by Harold Hoss

Casey-Linn cleans her home, starting in one corner and working her way to the next. She wants to have the place clean when the love of her life, Doctor John-Michael Fern, gets there. She wants to see the look on his face when he walks in, looks around and sees just how clean the place can be. She knows how proud it will make him. How impressed he will be.

“One who maintains cleanliness keeps away diseases,” Doctor Fern likes to say.

He has lots of little sayings like that. His favorite saying is: “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” Doctor Fern talks to Casey-Linn about health a lot, but he’s usually just saying the same thing in different ways. A sound mind in a sound body, he might say. Or mens sana in corpore sano. As if saying it again in a different language will make the message stick.

            Casey-Linn finishes one corner of her home and moves towards the next, only to pause at the nightstand, where a picture of her and Doctor Fern, standing side by side, sits. Doctor Fern’s wearing his white coat and scrubs, of course, but if she squints, she can imagine him in a tuxedo and her in a ballgown, standing on some red carpet or coming out of some fancy charity dinner. She can imagine Doctor Fern complaining – not really complaining, but half complaining and half joking – about having to attend so many fancy events while she listens with an indulgent smile.

            Casey-Linn holds the picture, tenderly, like a baby. She caresses Doctor Fern’s forehead with her thumb and smiles. She puts the picture back in its place on the nightstand when she hears something. The voice of a young boy. Her son. Only he isn’t calling out to her. Instead, he’s whispering, careful to keep his voice low and hushed. As if he’s trying not to be heard.

            Casey-Linn puts the picture back, careful not to make a sound, and takes a deep breath. She listens intently. Her son’s whispers have the ebb and flow of pauses that come with a normal conversation, but she only hears one voice.

            Turning, she wonders who he’s talking to and moves towards the sound of the voice.

            Casey-Linn’s footsteps are light and barely audible but, clinging to some childhood superstition, she holds her breath and closes her eyes, although she knows the latter won’t make her any less visible. Eyes closed, she inches closer and closer to the sound of her son’s voice, until she knows she’s standing close enough that she can reach out and touch him, then she balls her fists and rubs them in her eyes, hard enough that the darkness behind her eyelids flickers and the shadows twist.

            Casey-Linn opens her eyes and there’s her son, crouched on the ground and facing away from her. The blue blazer and red trousers of his schoolboy uniform are wrinkled and the curly brown hair he refuses to comb sticks out at all angles.

            Casey-Linn’s body goes rigid, her jaw clenches, her shoulders tense, and her hands slowly close into fists. She works so hard to keep the home clean. Doctor Fern works so hard to put a roof over their heads. Everyone works so hard because everything is so hard.

            Except for her son. Her son, who has everything. Her son, who can do anything. Who can be anyone. And who instead sits here. Alone.

            “We can’t go outside. It’s against the rules,” he whispers. He waits for an answer only he can hear, then he shakes his head. “I did ask. She said no. I can’t ask again. She’ll get angry.”

            Her nails dig into her palms. She can’t have him acting like this, talking to shadows under the bed or cracks in the floor or whatever it is this week. Doctor Fern will be here soon. She can’t have him embarrassing her. She won’t let him embarrass her. Not again. Not in front of Doctor Fern.

            Before she knows it, Casey-Linn marches across the room, clearing it in a few seconds, barely giving the boy time to turn and look, his eyes wide with fear and surprise. She grabs him by the shoulders and shakes. He squirms at first, then goes limp, like a mouse in a bird’s talons, resigned to its fate.

            “Who are you talking to?” she says. When he won’t answer, she screams, “Who are you talking to?”

            She shakes him like a child would shake a piggy bank, lightly, then, excited by the sound of something rattling inside, harder. When nothing comes out, she shakes harder.

“There’s no one there! So whoare you talking to?”

            She keeps shaking, and she keeps shouting, but nothing changes. She knows what Doctor Fern would say. He would say you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result, but she doesn’t know what else to do, and she has to do something. So, she keeps shaking, and she keeps shouting, and nothing happens.

<><><> 

            “Casey-Linn,” the sound of Doctor Fern’s voice cuts through the air with such force that the lights in the tiny hospital room almost flicker. “Who are you talking to?”

            Doctor Fern stands in the doorway. Knowing his eyes are hidden behind opaque glasses, he lets them scan the small room. It’s mostly barren save for a generic bed and nightstand with a book and an empty picture frame. Nothing, and certainly no one,for Casey-Linn to be speaking to.

            He takes a breath and slowly stretches out one hand towards Casey-Linn. He has his palm out, the same way someone would approach a wild animal.

            “Casey-Linn,” he says again, his voice softer. “Who are you talking to?”

<><><> 


Harold Hoss is a former entertainment attorney who enjoys reading horror, watching horror, and writing horror – always with a cup of coffee in his hands. When he isn’t reading, watching, or writing he can be found running with his dog Margot. 


“The Devil Prefers Darjeeling” Gothic Fiction by T.L. Beeding

It was difficult to see the house numbers through the fog. The grey, musty effluvium had boiled in off the Thames just as Claire Dennings had encouraged herself to set out, before evening began to fall. Though light at first, it quickly became an impediment, reflecting the street lamps’ light in massive halos of diffuse, sickly yellow. If it was a warning, Claire tried her best to ignore it. There was nothing – if anything – that could stop her, now that her heart and mind were in full agreement about her illicit endeavour. 

Her errand took her in the direction of London’s seedy underbelly. Painted ladies of the evening, tucked away in dark alleys and standing on corners more frequently the further she walked, eyed her suspiciously. Hoarse shouts of an undefinable nature became commonplace, both from pubs and establishments that had no markings as to the natures of their business – though Claire could make an educated guess as to what that business was. Yet she kept her head down and walked on with purposeful stride. If she had to place herself in disreputable clutches for a while whilst seeking the answers she was desperate for, then so be it. 

Eventually, a turn down a dimly-lit avenue brought her in the vicinity of the address she was searching for. Claire slowed her pace, peering up at each ramshackle. Now, coming upon the end of the road, her hope slowly began to deflate. That is, until she finally caught a glimpse of the abode she needed: 36 Stepney Way.

Claire checked the curled number written on the sheet of foolscap tightly clutched between gloved fingers, before glancing back up to the dilapidated stoop. A single street lamp with a weak flame was the only source of light, yet the brass numbers tacked to the face of the facade’s chipped wood gleamed brightly. Claire blinked, squinting further. Everything else about the residence was either crumbling or decayed, but the numbers were freshly polished – a testament to catching the attention of passersby. It was most certainly the right place. With a heavy sigh, Claire folded the sheet of paper and slipped it into her reticule, then stepped through the rusted iron gate and onto the rickety wooden steps. She knocked three times, swallowing down a sudden sensation of being watched. 

After several long moments of uncomfortable silence, shuffling footsteps drew Claire’s rapt attention. The door unbolted, slowly creaked open – revealing a handsome woman of middle age with grey eyes. She was dressed modestly, in sharp contrast with the housing and area she called home. A closed-mouth smile stretched across her face, wrinkling only at the corners of her eyes. 

“You must be Claire Dennings.” 

Claire’s heart dropped into her stomach. “How do you—”

“I know of all who seek my assistance, my dear,” the woman crooned softly, opening the door wider. It led into a rather pleasant-looking entry hall. “Please, come in.” 

Claire nervously followed the woman through the house, which was just as deceptive on the inside as its owner. The innards boasted of well-bred aristocracy, entry hall leading into a sizable parlor. An overstuffed damask sofa sat in the far corner, beside a window draped with curtains of black velvet. A circular table sat in the very centre of the room, flanked by two wooden chairs and dressed with sheer fabric that hung nearly to the honeysuckle carpeting. Atop the table, a large, unlit black pillar candle stood beside a black-painted spirit board. Aside from these items of furniture, the room was bare. 

Chills immediately overcame Claire, freezing her to the floor. The woman swept to the table’s opposite side, seemingly as though she were about to take tea with a guest – nothing more. 

“I…” Claire began, losing her words faster than they had come. 

The woman only smiled wider. “Uncertainty is natural, my dear. The unfortunate thing of today’s strict Christian values is that it limits our knowledge of what lies beyond the man-made concept of devotion to one almighty power. The ideology that only one exists is ridiculous.” She tilted her head. “Tell me; when your darling Albert passed, was it not the supposition that God intended for his time to be up?” 

Claire swallowed, pressing her lips together. Asking how the woman knew of Albert would be moot. “Y-Yes….”

“But you do not believe that to be the case?”

“I…do not know what to believe.” 

“Albert was murdered, was he not?” The woman’s eyes seemed to glisten. “Taken not by an act of God, but by an act of Man?” 

Tears stung the backs of Claire’s eyes. “Y-Yes.” 

The woman smiled softly. “Then the Good Lord should not be to whom your prayers are directed.” 

Claire took the lace handkerchief from inside her reticule, wrangling it. Dabbing at her suddenly tear-blurred eyes. It had been an answer she was terrified to hear, yet desperation gave her no alternative. Albert had been her everything. The rock she had laid her foundation upon, the strength that supported her fragility. Without him, life held no meaning. She had prayed countless nights since the news of his death first reached her; since she had been forced to identify his mutilated body drug up from the banks of the river. Prayed for either an end to her own life, or the return of his in some way. Claire had passed it off as hysterics until she had heard of the woman in Whitechapel who could purportedly summon the deceased. Could give those who had lost a loved one a brief time to say their goodbyes. It came with a cost – of what type, the eavesdropped gossip never said – but she no longer cared. One more night with Albert was worth any price to be named.

The woman gestured to the chair before Claire. “Pray, take a seat. I believe I can help you in obtaining what you most desire.” 

Clair slowly dropped into the chair. She set her reticule in her lap, sniffling as the woman struck a lucifer from a pearl matchbox to the side of the black candle. “What must I do?” 

The candle’s wick caught, sputtering somewhat before taking on a steady flame. The woman shook out the lucifer, discarding it into a hidden receptacle on her side of the table. “We shall find out soon enough,” she replied, taking a seat in her own chair. Her hands, slender and manicured, reached across the table. “Take my hands, love.”

Claire laid her trembling hands across the woman’s palms. Her grip was firm – almost reassuring. She closed her eyes, tilting her head toward the vaulted ceiling and taking a deep breath. “Close your eyes. Focus deeply on dear Albert. Focus on what it is that you want most out of an encounter with him.” 

Claire did as instructed, allowing her eyes to fall closed. She drew a deep, shaky breath, filling her lungs with the stale air of the parlor. She brought to focus Albert’s face, youthful and bubbly. The face that had charmed her, even as a young girl. It appeared in the darkness of her mind, smiling brightly – bristling the thin mustache he had proudly grown before his untimely death. She could almost hear his baritone laughter, at some wily joke or another he liked to recant with her from his visitations to the gentlemen’s club. What she wouldn’t give for one more blissful night with him, the chance to speak her goodbyes…and tell him how much she loved him, just one last time. 

The woman across from her chuckled. “I see.” 

Startled out of her reverie, Claire snapped her eyes open. The woman looked forward again, slowly opening her eyes. They sharpened, focusing upon Claire with an almost amused twinkle. She squeezed her hands once. 

“You wish for the chance to spend one last night with your dearly departed husband.” 

Claire licked her lips, nodding. “Yes. Desperately.” 

The woman smiled again. “It is indeed possible, though it may come at a hefty price.” 

“What price?”

The chuckle returned; low, knowing. The woman sat back in her seat, releasing Claire’s hands and stroking her chin. 

“I am unsure; his prices vary, depending on the service requested of him.” 

A chill fingered Claire’s spine, forcing her to sit upright. “Who is ‘he’?” 

“An old friend.” The woman reached once more to her side, coming back up with a piece of paper and an inkwell. She dipped the tip of her pen into the jar, scribbling something across the sheet. When she was finished, she slid the paper across the spirit board. Claire took it, turning it rightside-up; on it appeared to be a list of instructions. At the very bottom, the words ‘loose-leaf Darjeeling’ was underlined twice. She looked back up, trying to swallow down the sinking feeling in her stomach. 

“What is all this?” 

“Instructions, dear Claire. Instructions on how to summon him.” The woman stood, licking the tips of her fingers. “He is able to provide you with what you seek, but just remember the most important instruction of all – the one which I underlined.” Her smile turned crooked, just as she doused the candle flame with her fingertips. It hissed ominously into the dark silence. 

“He prefers Darjeeling.” 

***

Claire read the sheet of instructions over and over when she left the woman’s house. Mouthing them to herself to commit them to memory. Upon returning home, any second thoughts Claire had quickly vanished as she bolted the front door and made her way to the kitchen. Carefully setting the set of instructions on the breakfast table, she lit three tallow candles in a candelabra and set to work digging through cupboards for the ingredients required. Thankfully, she was a lover of Darjeeling herself, and had several sachets of loose-leaf to choose from. She set to work boiling a kettle of water, and setting the breakfast table with a full service tray of milk, sugar, honey, fresh blueberry scones and two cups of the finest china she owned. Once the water was boiled and spilled into the china pot for pouring, she brought it and the candelabra to the table and sat without a word. 

Claire glanced the instructions over yet again, careful to read every word. Biting back the uneasiness that clutched her heart. The last instruction had yet to be completed Once the tea was steeped and she had worked up the confidence, she grasped the handle of the teapot and stood. Beginning to pour – first into the cup set at the empty seat across from hers.

“Lord of the Underworld…I invite thee to tea.”

She repeated this phrase thrice, as the china cup filled nearly to the brim. She was sure to leave enough room for milk and sugar – as the instructions made clear. Then she began to pour herself a cup. 

“Ah – Darjeeling. And a fine quality, at that.” 

The deep voice startled Claire into a scream. She nearly dropped the teapot, whirling on her heel; catching herself before the ceremony – and her fine china – would be ruined. The empty chair was now occupied by a man, angular face cast in attractive shadow from the flickering candles. Golden hair spilled across his shoulders, matching golden eyes as he watched Claire with an amused smile.  

“Dear lady, whyever are you frightened? Did you not mean to summon me on purpose?”

Claire stared at her visitor, quaking with shock. “I-I…I did mean…”

The man rose, gently removing the teapot from her iron-like grasp. Once setting it on the table, he touched her elbow. His skin was pleasantly warm. “Please, do sit down. You look upon the verge of fainting. There we are.”

Claire allowed him to assist her to her seat, into which she sank heavily. Disbelievingly. She couldn’t help but continue to stare in silence as the man reseated himself, pouring milk and honey into the steaming cup before him. Once he had finished, setting his silver spoon to the side of his saucer, he put the cup to his lips. The smile then turned satisfactory. 

“Perfectly brewed.” He sat back in the chair. “Thank you. Darjeeling has always been a favorite of mine.” 

Claire cleared her throat, too nervous to move. To speak. So many thoughts rushed through her head all at once that it caused her world to spin. She squeezed her eyes shut before opening them again; the man still sat across from her, watching her with the same amused twinkle that the woman in Whitechapel had. 

“Does your mind still denounce my existence?” He chuckled humorously. Taking another slow sip of his tea. “A funny thing, the human brain. A finely-tuned machine capable of quite amazing feats, yet malfunctions often due to strong emotion of any kind. I fear I shall never understand it.”

Claire did her best to regain control of her composure. She cleared her throat, straightened her spine. Bit her lower lip to stop it from trembling. 

“Who…who are you?” She finally found the courage to ask. 

The man set his teacup upon its saucer, brushing a hand through his glossy hair. “I have gone by many names, some of which are rather unsavoury. Some of which are completely false, fabricated by men who cannot tell the difference between fallen angels and true elements of evil.” He flashed her a polite smile. “But you may call me Lucifer.” 

Claire’s heart pounded. “L-Lucifer. The Morning Star. God’s favorite son.” 

Lucifer held up one finger. “Former favorite son – but yes, I am the very same.”

“The…the devil himself.”

Her guest frowned, golden eyes glimmering in the candle flame. “That is one of the unsavoury names I mentioned. Also a falsehood. Though I may be devilish at times I am not, in fact, of that species.” After yet another sip of tea, the perturbed expression left his face. “But enough about myself. Let us focus on the present.” He inclined his chin toward her. “Pray, what is your name, dear lady?” 

“Claire Dennings,” she responded softly. 

Lucifer nodded once. “Claire. And you have summoned me because you wish for a sizable favor; one only which I can assist with. Yes?” 

Claire nodded. 

“And what might that favor be?” 

“M-My husband…Albert Crestworth Dennings. He was slain a fortnight ago.” Tears threatened to well in her eyes once again. “During a dispute that he was not involved in, but merely tried to pacify. Slain in cold blood for being a Good Samaritan.” A small whimper escaped her throat; she pressed her fingers to her lips. “Pl-Please, forgive me….”

Lucifer shook his head, voice sympathetic. “You needn’t ask forgiveness for a rational reaction, dear lady. Yet, I find myself asking; since it is apparent that Albert Crestworth Dennings was a soul of purity, whyever seek the services of the Lord of the Underworld?” He shrugged helplessly. “A soul as purebred in nature as his goes directly back to its Creator.” 

Claire frowned. “B-But…the woman in Whitechapel…she told me that only you could offer any sort of hope for me. That only you could give me one more night with Albert, for a price.” 

A knowing look smoothed Lucifer’s expression. “Ah,” he said slowly, deliberately. He stuck a finger through the handle of his teacup. “I should have suspected.” 

“Suspected what?” Claire demanded, voice growing stringent. 

Lucifer shook his head. “Lilith. She always does like to play sinister little games with humans.”

“What does that mean?”

Lucifer’s golden eyes returned to hers, brows folding into a look of genuine guilt. “My sister. It is of her opinion that humans are the dregs of creation – to which, she does have most of a point. But to this end, she cares not of anything else but to bring mankind harm.” Lucifer flipped his wrist. “Humanity is the Lord’s most precious possession, for which his most loyal of children were cast to the wayside. It is, I fear, quite a long story.” Lucifer sipped his tea once again. “Suffice it to say, Lady Dennings, that you were led into a trap. A lamb to the slaughter, as it were.” 

Claire’s heart clenched so hard that it squeezed a gasp from her lungs. “Wh-What do you mean by that? Speak, demon!” 

Lucifer’s eyes glowed, a frown knitting his brows. “I ask that you please watch your language. I am mostly a well-mannered gentleman, but my fury hath no bounds.”

Claire sat back in her chair, appendages abruptly going numb. Her chest and stomach followed suit, effectively drowning her body in pins and needles that kept her bound to her seat by no means of her own. She could only stare helplessly until the glow slowly subsided from Lucifer’s eyes, returning once more to a dull, golden sheen only lit by candle light. 

“Now. What I mean is that Lilith has so cleverly entangled you into a spider’s web, from which there is, unfortunately, no escape.” Lucifer drained the remainder of his tea, then began to refill his cup. He stirred in more milk and sugar. “However, I am far more merciful than what is written of me.” His expression once again turned guilty. “I am unable to provide what Lilith has promised, nor am I able to revoke the price you must pay now that I have been summoned.” He held up one finger, forestalling the torrent of terrified words that began to tumble from Claire’s numbed lips. “Yet, it is within the realm of possibility that noble Albert Crestworth Dennings may be able to visit, provided that you present me with the necessary tools.” 

The numbness paralyzing Claire began to recede, setting her skin to fiery pins and needles. Once she was able to move once more, she rubbed a hand across her forearm. It stung badly. “I…I’m afraid I don’t understand.” 

“It is quite simple, really. A conjuring spell, as old as time itself, is the answer to your conundrum. The required components are easy enough to obtain, through sheer will and some manipulation. Done through my power, summoning the spirit of Mr. Dennings will not be difficult.” Lucifer contemplated her over the rim of his teacup. “And to that end, darling Claire, I would like to present a proposition.”

Claire sniffed, failing against holding back her tears. “You act as though I have a choice in the matter.” 

Lucifer granted her an empathetic dip of the head. “Point taken. However, that does not mean I cannot try to make the deal on even ground. The price is set – and it is quite high. A life of servitude to me, in exchange for the chance to live one more night with Mr. Dennings.” Lucifer took a slow sip. “But as I said, I am merciful. Seeing as you were duped into this contract, I am willing to grant your wish many-fold. As many nights as you require with Mr. Dennings, at any time. So long as you continue to serve me, and obtain fresh ingredients for the spell each and every time.” 

Tears poured down Claire’s cheeks. She had known her venture to be doomed from the start – either by deception or unwillingness to follow through. She had never imagined herself to be in total agreement with all of its aspects, even after being tricked to accept it. Her willingness to persevere into so wretched a life frightened her. But in the end, she would receive what she sought. Many times over. She could only hope now that Albert, once he returned, would not be disappointed in her. 

“I accept.” 

Lucifer pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket, standing and moving to her side. Gently dabbing her tears. He grasped her abandoned teacup and pressed it into her trembling, pale hands; steam began to rise from it in curled tendrils once more. 

“Drink, my dear. Darjeeling is quite good for the constitution.”

***

At first, the conjuring spell was far from simple, as Lucifer had claimed. While most items could be found within the man-made wilderness of London – herbs, animal blood, tallow candles, and of course loose-leaf Darjeeling tea – the most vital ingredient was the hardest of all to obtain. Claire found it easiest with the weakest of society; drunkards splayed unconscious in alleyways, those just stumbling out of opium dens in a brain fog. Foolish and desperate men, easy to enthrall with feminine charm – which always ended on the point of a freshly-sharpened knife. It took all the strength Claire could muster to drag the bodies to secluded areas, quick enough to perform the dark sacrament and gather the blood in a vile before life took its final bow. 

But despite misgivings and guilt, Lucifer upheld his end of the bargain. Each time she finished her ritual slaughters, scampering home to prepare tea with the vile of blood, Albert came with him. Filling her with warmth and light. And each time tea was over, the hunger to host again grew ever stronger. Visceral. It began to consume her, devour her thoughts. She wanted more. Claire soon began to stalk the fog at night, through the slums that first led her to the life she now lived. The more robust and lively the offering, the stronger the conjuring spell worked, keeping Albert with her longer. She became so incensed to her nightly vigilance that she unknowingly gained many reputations and many names – just as Lucifer had before her. Eventually, Lucifer stopped attending tea, leaving Claire to drink the entire pot herself  It was no wonder, then, that she had always preferred Darjeeling tea.


T.L. Beeding is a single mother from Kansas City. She is co-editor of Crow’s Feet Journal and Paramour Ink, and is a featured author for Black Ink Fiction. When she is not writing, T.L. works at a busy orthopedic hospital, mending broken bones. She can be found on Twitter at @tlbeeding.