Tag Archives: Whistlepig

Spike Africa

Friday, March 25

When Harry collected his money from Dietrich Hoffer at Fiddler’s Green, there was a glitch.

Sitting in his booth, Hoffer removed his antique glasses and cleaned them with intimidating deliberation. In the background, Marlene Dietrich was singing “Und steht sie noch davor …”

“I understand there were certain…irregularities…in your delivery, Mr. Wry.”

Harry wondered how the man managed to make such an ordinary word sharp enough to draw blood.

“There were challenges,” Harry said, squirming in the booth as Hoffer rebalanced his glasses on the bridge of his nose and stared at him. Harry had seen the same look in the eyes of a Komodo dragon. “We improvised. It all worked out.”

“My business succeeds by being unobtrusive. Are you familiar with the word, Mr. Wry?”

“Yeah. You like to stay in the shadows.” Like a Komodo dragon, Harry thought.

“Exactly. Anything that draws attention to my activities is undesirable.” Hoffer picked up his antique fountain pen, examined the nib dispassionately, and then drove the pen into the tabletop with a motion quick as a rattlesnake’s strike. The man’s expression didn’t change.

Harry sat looking at the pen quivering in the wood.

“Do I make myself clear, Mr. Wry?”

“Abundantly,” Harry said.

Hoffer removed an envelope from his jacket pocket and slid it across the table. “Excellent. I want no misunderstanding if this should happen again. I will have another job for you in a week. I will leave word with Herr Lidmann when the details are resolved. And Mr. Wry?”

Harry thought it was a rhetorical question but Hoffer waited for an answer. “Yes,” Harry said.

“Make no changes to your operation, nothing that would evidence your new financial status. Spend nothing more than usual. Do nothing other than usual.”

“I was going to have the boat hauled,” Harry said. “Scrap her bottom, replace some standing rigging. Basic maintenance.”

Hoffer shook his head slowly as if his patience was tried by a dull-witted child. “That would be ill-advised. Your success, and my anonymity depend upon you remaining utterly unremarkable. Hide in plain sight, Mr. Wry.”

Hoffer coughed into his kid glove. This time Harry recognized it as laughter.

Harry rowed back to the schooner riding at anchor and sat in the cockpit. The air was cold but the clouds had distanced themselves enough for the sun to warm his body. Gulls screeched and sea lions barked and the fog horn on Ediz Hook warned of impending bad weather. (Bad weather was always impending on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.) Spike Africa rose and fell gently on a groundswell born deep in the restless heart of the Pacific.

There was nothing Harry loved more than the schooner. She was the only thing in the world he owned, the only thing that made sense of the world. She was a creature of moods, grace, loyalty, stubbornness, joy, and a wicked sense of humor. He had lived with her longer than any woman and he intended to die with her.

He had joked that, when he died, he wanted a Viking ship funeral, his body laid on deck, sails hoisted, wheel lashed, and the old girl steering him to oblivion. It was more likely she would sink beneath his feet and be the cause of his death.

She was named for the President of the Pacific Ocean, a man who once signed proclamations with a flourish in the No Name Bar on the Sausalito waterfront. Spike Africa, the man, had come by his title honestly. He had shipped as crew on the K.V. Kruse, a five-masted lumber schooner built in 1906, wrecked in 1923, and as mate onboard Wanderer when Sterling Hayden, the actor, stole his kids and sailed to Tahiti in defiance of a court order.

Harry remembered a portrait of Spike hanging in a waterfront bar in Alameda. He was pictured standing in a meadow of yellow flowers on the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate in the background, wearing nothing but a Greek fisherman’s cap. His skin was wrinkled and leathery and his pose tastefully concealed the nasty bits.

Bob Sloan, a friend of Spike Africa, the man, built Spike Africa, the boat, in the late 1970s. She was designed as a working schooner, an anomaly even then. Sloan put a big diesel in the boat and made a business of towing plastic yachts back from Baja California at the end of the season. Scuttlebutt had it, Sloan would tow two or three boats at a time, strung one after the other, with a crewmember on each to steer a straight course. It took time so slow the schooner, bring the towed boats alongside, and change the watch, so Sloan kept his crew at the helm for 12 hours at a time, without slowing even to take a piss. The boat owners never suspected their cockpits were awash in urine.

There was no work left in the world for an old wooden schooner and no profit even in hauling a deckload of tourists around the Salish Sea. Both Harry and the schooner had outlived their legitimate usefulness.

He went below to make himself a meal of beans and stale bread when he heard an insistent call.

“Hello, the schooner! Hello, the schooner!”

Harry climbed the companionway ladder, balancing a slice of bread on his bowl of beans. Over the cockpit coaming appeared the head and shoulders of a man with hair the color of winter wheat and the blue eyes of an Arctic wolf. If he was standing flat-footed in a boat, Harry estimated he must have measured well over six feet.

“Hello to you,” Harry said around a mouthful of beans.

“Are you this vessel’s master?” the Norseman said. English didn’t seem his native language.

“Harry Wry, jack of all trades, master of none. If you mean the owner, then yes, I am.”

The Norseman didn’t smile. Harry suspected his expression was chiseled from ice.

“My name is Root Bergson. I am the mate onboard the Retribution. She is…”

“I know her,” Harry interrupted. “And her reputation.”

“You don’t agree with the mission of the Sea Defenders?” Root said.

“I don’t disagree,” Harry said, “and I’ve no love for factory ships killing whales for profit.”

“May I come onboard?” Root said. “I have a proposition.”

Harry carried his beans into the cockpit and looked over the schooner’s gunnel. Root Bergson was standing in a rigid inflatable powered by a massive outboard engine. A crash bar was bolted to the rigid frame and eyebolts fitted to the molded hull. The boat looked military grade. A young man, barely college age, sat at the center console.

“Come aboard,” Harry said, “but leave your weapons behind.”

“I have no weapons,” Root said, looking bewildered.

“A joke,” Harry said. “Beans?”

Standing beside Harry, Root looked at Harry’s bowl of beans. His smile looked more like a grimace. “No, thank you.”

“A tot of rum?” Harry asked, being hospitable.

“May I offer you some Linie?” Root pulled a hip flask from his pocket and offered it to Harry. His smile seemed less pained but still thinned lipped, like a pressure crack in old ice.

Harry knew the history of Linie, aquavit casked in sherry and carried twice across the equator in the hold of ships. The name meant “line” in Norwegian. He accepted the flask, a little too eagerly, almost snatching it from Root’s hand. It tasted of caraway, mustard blossom, and fennel. The 90-proof alcohol cut through the lingering taste of beans like stormwater through a field of ash.

“Damn,” Harry said and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He handed the flask back to Root who drank twice as deep. Harry waved Root to a seat in the cockpit. “This proposition…” Harry began and waited for Root to finish.

“You know the Makah will begin whaling again,” Root said.

Harry nodded. “You’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to miss all the hoopla.”

“Allowing Native Americans to resume whaling will encourage the Japanese and others to expand commercial whaling,” Root said. “Once the door is opened, you can’t close it again. The Sea Defenders are opposed to killing whales, whatever the reason.”

“I gathered that,” Harry said. “Your point?”

Root offered the flask again. It took the edge off Harry’s impatience.

“We are planning a major demonstration in Neah Bay. Retribution will lead a fleet in protest. They are mostly small boats, yachts. What we need is a platform that can be seen from the shore.”

“A platform?” Harry said.

“We would like to hoist a banner between your boat’s masts that could be clearly seen by the camera crews on shore.”

“You want to use Spike Africa as a billboard?” Harry said.

“Yes, exactly. We would like to anchor bow and stern at a right angle to the shore so the banner would always be visible to the cameras. Whenever anyone takes a picture of Neah Bay, our message will be broadcast.”

“And why would I want to lay beam to the swell, rolling the old girl’s guts out, for the Sea Defenders?”

“We would pay you $300 a day, plus expenses,” Root said.

Harry grinned, exposing a chipped front tooth. “That’s my kind of protest.”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Heyoka

Friday, March 25

An angry, restive crowd milled around the parking lot and a temporary bandstand. There were beads and feathers, plaids and overalls, and placards for every side—Native America treaty rights, animal rights, states rights, and every American’s inherent right to make a fool of themselves in public.

The Makah’s decision to go whaling again had become international news. There were photographers and camera crews and reporters interviewing people on the street. Several TV network affiliates had vans with microwave antennas.

The crowd surged and roiled like tide rips in Deception Pass. Someone shouted a racial slur, someone threw a punch. It was a scaled version of the scene he had left in the classroom with added riot police.

A big man climbed onto the stage and thumped the microphone. The sound of electronic feedback made Rathskill cringe.

“This thing on?” the big man said. “You folks hear me?” He was wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a tie loosened around his neck. Nice touch, Rathskill thought. Man of the people. A working man despite the 200-thread count Egyptian cotton shirt and $150 silk tie. Rathskill recognized Big Bob Reingold.

Big Bob raised his hands. “I won’t keep you long.” A groundswell of approval rippled through the crowd. “I know you’ve come to hear Captain Osgood. I’ll introduce him in a moment but I wanted to take the opportunity to remind you. We may have different opinions but we’re a community of civilized people.” He looked at a knot of Klallam and Makah that were standing to one side of the bandstand. “Some more civilized than others.” A few people snickered. The Klallam and Makah remained impassive.

“Sure, we’ve had hard times. Money’s tight, jobs are scarce, but Port Angeles is moving into a future of prosperity. Even if we have to drag some people kicking and screaming.” He looked again at the Klallam and Makah.

“And the future is…tourism.” Big Bob hit the last word hard. The feedback screeched. “That’s right. People who come to see the Olympic National Park and the rain forest and whales. People who pay our salaries, our dentist bills, our kid’s college tuition. Tourists are the perfect resource. Clean, renewable, and they go away once they’ve spent their money. So, I want you to listen to what Captain Osgood has to say not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the profitable thing to do.”

Big Bob left the stage to scattered applause and catcalls.

A man with thick white hair, fashionably mussed, and a white beard took the stage. He was wearing a blue serge jacket with four gold bands on the sleeve, a captain’s rank. He was shorter than Rathskill expected from the Sea Defender’s promotion photos. Osgood was head of the radical conservationist organization accused of sabotage by some countries. He wasn’t legally a captain, he just looked like one. He also looked like he owned the crowd.

“Some of you know me from the years I’ve spent at sea defending the defenseless—whales and dolphin and baby seals. Some of you don’t know me at all. Personally, I’m unimportant. What’s important is creating a world where all species, not just human beings, have rights.”

“Not all people are human,” someone in the crowd shouted. “Just look at the Makah.” There was widespread laughter.

Osgood raised his hand to quiet the crowd. “I know there’s a lot of passionate opposition to Makah whaling but we should remember, passion isn’t hate. Hell, I’ve placed myself in harm’s way more times than I can remember to prevent the Japanese and Norwegians and Portuguese from killing whales but I don’t hate the Japanese or the Norwegians or the Portuguese. And I don’t hate the Makah. I stand with Native Americans. I stood with them at Wounded Knee. I bled with them at Wounded Knee.”

“My father was at Wounded Knee,” a middle-aged man shouted at Osgood. “If you were there, he said you were well hidden.”

Osgood shook his head slowly as if wearied by the pettiness of people who disagreed with him. “I have complete sympathy for the Makah, those members of the tribe who are sincerely looking for a better way for their tribe. The tribe isn’t unified in their opinion of whaling. Many recognize it is the barbaric practice of an earlier age. We’ve evolved since then. Society has evolved. It’s time the Makah evolve.”

“What about the Treaty of Neah Bay?” Rathskill recognized McCarty, one of the tribal police who manned the roadblock when Detective Vanoy drove him to the reservation. McCarty was dressed in mufti. “We are a sovereign nation. The treaty granted us the right to hunt whales where we’ve always hunted. You took our land, then you broke your word.”

Rathskill had heard the arguments before. Each side was deeply entrenched and digging deeper. It never ended well. He began working his way back toward Cock-a-doodle Donuts.

On the edge of the crowd a man danced, his body and face painted white, a band of black across his eyes, wearing only buckskin pants, leather moccasins, and a raven. The stuffed raven sat on his head, looking in the direction he had come, its wings outstretched as if ready to take flight, its tail feathers draped over the man’s face, obscuring his eyes. He was dancing backward in a circle, singing to himself in an incomprehensible language, a tomahawk in one hand, a bone flute in the other. The tomahawk was turned toward the dancer.

“Heyoka,” Rathskill said aloud. The ceremonial fools of the Plains Indians, the contrarians, the holy clowns. Rathskill had read about the Heyoka but never seen one in the wild.

A policeman dressed in riot gear—body armor, helmet, and plastic face guard—pushed through the crowd. He was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun in port arms. “Drop the weapon,” he shouted at the Heyoka.

The Heyoka turned to look at the officer, dropped the bone flute on the ground, and raised the tomahawk above his head.

“Stay where you are and drop the weapon,” the cop shouted louder and lowered the shotgun into firing position. “Do it now.”

The Heyoka were contrarians. Their societal role required them to behave opposite of what was expected, to do the opposite of what was asked. A Heyoka warrior ordered to retreat would charge into battle alone, regardless of the risk.

The Heyoka stepped forward. The cop worked the slide of the shotgun and chambered a round. Rathskill was certain the cop knew nothing about the Heyoka or the culture of the Plains Indians. He stepped between them.

“You don’t understand,” Rathskill said.

“Get the hell out of the way,” the cop shouted.

The space around them widened as the crowd backed away.

Rathskill could see the cop’s jaw clenched even through the protective faceplate. The man’s nametag was covered with black electrician’s tape. “He’s not going to hurt you.”

“How the hell do you know what he’s not going to do?”

The cop shoved the butt of his shotgun into Rathskill’s chest, forcing him backward. He lost his balance and fell into the Heyoka. Together they collapsed in a tangle of limbs.

The cop towered above him, the shotgun still aimed at his chest. “Stay down,” the cop ordered. Rathskill could feel the Heyoka beneath him struggling to get up. “Stand up,” Rathskill told the Heyoka. “Get on your feet.” The Heyoka went limp.

“I told you to stay down,” the cop shouted. He put his boot on Rathskill’s chest. There was spittle flecked across the inside of his faceplate. “You move again and I’ll turn you into a greasy stain on the asphalt.”

The Heyoka began singing a song. Rathskill guessed it was his death song. He thought it was Lakota.

“Shut up and turn over,” the cop shouted. More spittle splashed his faceplate. “Now!”

“Sing,” Rathskill told the Heyoka. “Sing as loud as you can. And don’t turn on your belly. A warrior never turns his back on the enemy.”

“Are you fucking crazy?” the cop shouted.

The Heyoka fell silent. Rathskill felt him rolling over beneath him. “At least one of us is,” Rathskill muttered. “Probably more.”

The cop called for backup. They tied their hands behind their backs with plastic wire ties and shipped them to the Port Angeles Police Station in a black van. He was being processed in the police bullpen when he heard a familiar voice.

“Dr. Simon Rathskill.” Rathskill turned to face Detective Vanoy. “Why am I not surprised?”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Sturm und Drang

Friday, March 25

Rathskill carried a stool onto the lecture hall dais. He felt old and bent as if the accumulating years had a weight that pressed him to the ground. The gravity of old age, he thought bitterly, and braced himself with a foot on the stool’s cross piece.

The old shaman in the deerskin cape was in class again, sitting in the back row looking indistinct like a character not fully realized. Rathskill still had no clue to the old man’s metaphoric meaning. What was the point?

He still had no idea what had happened to him in the two days missing after the Apocalypto Motel. Those two days might as well be a road sign warning “Surrender all hope, ye who enter here.” He had left that sign far behind.

He felt control of his life slipping from cramped fingers. Soon, he suspected, his behavior would become more erratic, more obvious. People would notice. Eventually, he would have difficulty distinguishing what he alone saw or heard or smelled. Eventually, he would be the only rational person in a world no one else inhabited.

They’d lock him up again. For your own good, they’d assure him. Until you’re well, they’d promise, but never let him out again. He could expect to spend the rest of his life in pajamas without buttons.

Rathskill took a deep breath. “Please take your seats. Heads up, phones down.

“The other day we discussed the collapse of the community at Tse-whit-zen. Today we’re talking about cultures in conflict.”

The lights dimmed. The first slide was a monochrome photo taken from the middle of a dugout canoe. In the bow of the canoe the harpooner was poised, his torso naked, his right arm drawn back and tensed, the harpoon raised above his head for the thrust. Behind him, another man tended a line coiled in a wicker basket. The photographer was the third man in the canoe.

The whale’s blowhole was twenty feet ahead. The whale’s head was pushing a bow wave through the water. Foam flecked the surface.

There was a feeling of immediacy about the photo. The wake thrown by the whale, the dappled surface of the water flowing across its back, the men in the canoe, slightly blurred by motion, captured in the moment before the whale felt the wound, before it raised its flukes to dive deep and flee, before the harpoon line began to unreel from the basket. Or the moment before the whale’s flukes crushed the canoe and spilled the men into bitterly cold water they could survive only minutes.

The whale was so close the Makah could reach out and touch it, feel the scars left by orca attacks and the whale lice attached to the skin. They could hear the rush of air from the whale’s blowhole and smell the stink of bottom mud, crustaceans, and krill.

“The photo was taken by Asahel Curtis around 1930,” Rathskill said. “Asahel was the lesser known brother of Edward S. Curtis.

“It’s a remarkable photo. It gives you a sense of the physical intimacy that exists between predator and prey. There were no steel ships or bomb lances. No stockyards or processing plants. These men touched the life they took.

“For the Makah and other Coastal Salish people, the sea was their homeland,” Rathskill said, waving his hand toward the photograph on the screen. “Whaling was their identity. It defined who they were. It anchored their culture. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Makah have the right, guaranteed by treaty, to hunt whales off the coast of Cape Flattery. The Makah tribe is preparing to renew whaling. Their decision has been controversial. Many people now consider whaling barbaric, unconscionable, immoral. Which is right?”

“How can you justify taking the life of an intelligent species?” Avila Torres said. Avila was a bright Latina woman who usually sat at the edge of the class.

“Pigs are intelligent,” Martin Broadcutt said. “Does that mean we can’t eat bacon?” Laughter rippled through the room.

“How can you compare the intelligence of a whale to a pig?” Avila Torres said.

“Exactly,” Rathskill said. “We don’t even know how to measure human intelligence, much less another species. I don’t think intelligence will help us make this moral decision.”

“Even if we don’t know how to measure it, shouldn’t we give whales the benefit of a doubt?” she said. “We don’t need to eat them.”

“But to Mr. Broadcutt’s point, shouldn’t we extend the same benefit to pigs?” Rathskill said.

“When pigs fly,” Martin Broadcutt said. There was more laughter.

“It’s murder,” Avila Torres said.

“Technically,” Rathskill said, “murder is defined as killing another human being. At most, the law might judge it animal cruelty.”

“So, what makes us better than them?” she said.

Rathskill stood up from his stool and leaned forward. “That, Ms. Torres, is a profound question. What makes us better? What makes us different?”

“You’re not suggesting that whales are just as important as humans?” Martin Broadcutt said. “Or pigs?”

“Life feeds upon life, Mr. Broadcutt,” Rathskill said. “That’s a simple, inescapable truth. Life feeds upon life but with each death, a debt is incurred. Eventually, the debt comes due and predator becomes prey. Death makes us all equal. That’s a lesson the Makah knew intimately.”

“God commanded us to be fruitful and multiply,” Lydia Hempton said. “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you. Genesis 9:3.”

There were groans and a few catcalls from the class.

“It’s survival of the fittest,” Martin Broadcutt said. “The strong survive, the rest don’t. If whales are so fit, how come they’re almost extinct?”

Avila Torres got out of her seat and called Martin Broadcutt a chauvinistic creep. Broadcutt called her a tree hugger. The noise rose like storm surf against sea cliffs as everyone shouted their opinions, their passionate beliefs and entrenched prejudice and the hackneyed wisdom passed down from their parents.

In the back of the class, the shaman’s image became grainy and flickered, then faded to electronic snow like an old black and white television screen. Rathskill waited five minutes. The noise didn’t abate. He picked up his stool and walked out of the classroom. No one seemed to notice.

He returned to his office and collected his leather jacket and helmet. He was scheduled for office hours but left without even a note on the door. It was too much effort.

Time was everything. He was running out of it. Was it time to walk out onto the ice and expose himself to the cold mercy like an old Inuit? Wait too long and he’d lose the freedom to decide.

He needed to know what he didn’t. Blavatsky had said his memories might heal. He was sufficiently desperate to try any tomfoolery a second time. He started the Indian Chief and pointed it toward Shantytown.

He ran into traffic on the waterfront near the Black Ball Ferry docks. A cop was directing traffic at the intersection where the lights in every direction were flashing red. “What’s going on?” Rathskill asked him.

“Sea Defenders giving a press conference,” he said, his arms waving. “Indians are protesting.” A car failed to yield. The cop made an angry face and emphatically gestured for them to stop. “It’s a cluster, if you ask me.” He blew his whistle and changed the direction of traffic. “Move along. Light’s green.”

Rathskill parked the Chief behind Cock-a-doodle Donuts’ dumpster and worked his way into the crowd gathered at the ferry parking lot. At the dock in front of Downriggers on the Water, a big banner was draped over the side of a ship: Whaling kills tourism.

Crazy Elmo occupied the corner of Railroad Avenue. He was dressed in an orange Elmo suit and standing on a milk crate beside a cardboard sign. “Crazy Elmo photos—$5, autographs—$3, punch your lights out—free with a release form.”

He was shaking an orange fist at the sky. “You think that’s natural?” he shouted. “Harmless water vapor?” The silver contrails of passenger jets streaked the sky. “That’s climate change, courtesy of the U.S. government. Raise the oceans, turn fields into dust, and plant tornadoes. You never heard of HAARP?”

A Japanese couple laden with shopping bags and selfie sticks stopped to listen, thinking it a photo opportunity, but hurried away when Elmo pointed at them and shouted, “Too many people. Too many mouths to feed. Too many hands grabbing for what little’s left. They’ve weaponized the climate. They’re culling the herd. First the poor bastards in Nigeria and Bangladesh, people so far away you can’t hear them scream, and then it comes to a supermarket near you.”

Rathskill paused to listen to the rant. It was a mistake.

“You think I’m crazy?” Elmo said, pointing at Rathskill with an orange mitt. “You think it can’t be true? No one would kill millions of people to make a buck?” Elmo shook his head and seemed to deflate slightly. “All human suffering is someone’s business model.”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Bawon Samdi

Friday, March 25

It had not been a good week for Sully, attacked by a black hole, nearly digested by a shadow, and now the police wanted to question him about the theft and subsequent scuttling of Qwackers. He blamed it all on Harry Wry.

“Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” Harry said after Sully cornered him at the Eagle Café. “It’s routine. They’re just fishing for answers.”

“They may be fishing,” Sully said, “but I’m on the hook. I told you I can’t do hard time in the slammer.”

“Jesus, Sully. You sound like a Raymond Chandler novel. How do they even know you’re a person of interest?”

“They called the Parks Department. My boss gave me up. I can’t stand up to enhanced interrogation. Sleep deprivation, blaring metal bands, waterboarding. I’ll crack.”

“It isn’t a rendition, Sully,” Harry said. “They just want to know if you saw something last night. You didn’t. Quiet as a graveyard. That’s the end of it.”

“They know,” Sully said and looked aside to see if anyone was watching. “Someone must have spilled their guts. They’ll catch me in a lie.”

“All the cops know is someone took that truck for a joy ride,” Harry said, “and left it on the bottom of the bay. Nothing leads back to you. Quit pissing your pants.” He doused his scrambled eggs with Louisiana Hot Sauce. “In a day or two, you’ll have more money than you know how to spend. A couple of months more and it’ll be warm water, cold beer, and coconuts. Just keep your mouth shut and don’t answer any questions you’re not asked.”

Sully wasn’t entirely convinced. He had a native distrust of the police characteristic of people who lived on the margins. Safety was hiding in plain sight. Visibility was a risk.

Sprout buttonholed Sully on the docks while he was walking home.

“You see what happened?” Sprout seemed excited. He rapidly shifted his weight between feet, almost hopping in place.

“What are you talking about?” Sully said.

Qwackers. Someone sank Qwackers. And Sandy Crab tried to strangle me. What an ass hat.”

“I didn’t see anything,” Sully said.

Sprout’s words rushed with excitement. “I cartwheeled that sucker with a Japanese arm grab, then put him down with a shoulder pinch. Sweet.” He slowed. “Really? Nothing? How could you not? It happened on your doorstep. I thought you were a watchman.”

“Nothing. I saw nothing,” Sully said, sounding vaguely like Sergeant Schultz.

“Nothing? You’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind,” Sprout said. “You know, the police want to talk to you.”

“Yeah, I heard. Listen, I’ve got to get some sleep.” Sully began walking away.

“Something else,” Sprout shouted at his back. “Umber wants to do a séance tonight at Tse-whit-zen.”

Sully pivoted. “What? Is she crazy?”

“I can’t vouch for her sanity,” Sprout said. “Something to do with RAT and the City Council.”

“What the fuck do 300-year-old Klallam ghosts have to do with the City Council?” Sully said, surprised by his own vehemence.

Sprout raised his hands in self-defense. “Hey, I’m just the piano player. Umber thinks Tse-whit-zen is a psychic supercharger. Thinks she can use it to slingshot herself to the etheric plane and read the Akashic records of the Council members. Dig up dirt, I guess.”

“Umber is an idiot,” Sully said. “She’s likely to step in something she can’t get off her shoes.”

“You’ll get no argument from me,” Sprout said, “but the request comes from HP. If you want back on her good side…” Sprout shrugged.

Sully considered. Visions of the consuming void hadn’t returned since that first night at Tse-whit-zen but it might be shrewd to offer it another target as a distraction. He shook his head side-to-side but said “OK, but I’m not taking any responsibility if this shit goes sideways.”

“Oh, and it has to be at midnight,” Sprout said, cringing.

“Of course it does. Are we also expected to sing “Stairway to Heaven” backward?” Sully said.

“She didn’t request a chorus,” Sprout said.

Sully slept for several hours. When he woke, he couldn’t remember his dreams but his bedsheets were wet with sweat. He took a cold shower from rainwater collected in a cistern on the roof, too impatient to heat water on the stove, and caught a bus to the Port Angeles Police Department on 5th Street. He wasn’t risking the Dodge Tradesman anywhere near the place.

He waited in a room with linoleum tile, a man with a hacking cough, and a woman who kept drumming on her purse with fingers stained yellow. A tall man with a face sharp as a hatchet came to claim him.

“Sully Marlybone? My name is Detective Vanoy. Would you follow me?”

Vanoy led him into a large room full of metal desks and noise. People in suits and uniforms were talking on phones, talking to each other, talking to people seated on the opposite side of desks. Some were handcuffed.

Vanoy pointed to an empty chair beside a desk and sat. He deliberately opened a thin folder and read a printed form. Sully suspected the silence was intended to intimidate. It was working.

“What’s this all about, Detective?” Sully said.

“You live on Marine Drive, Mr. Marlybone?” Vanoy said.

“I live on a houseboat at Slee’s Bay Marina,” Sully said. “We don’t have postal service so the mail is delivered to an empty house on Marine Drive. Everyone’s mail.”

Vanoy made a note in the file. “And no phone number?” he said, head down.

“No electricity, no phone,” Sully said.

Vanoy made another note. “Would you like some water, Mr. Marlybone?” Detective Vanoy offered him a bottle of water. “You’re employed by the Parks and Recreation Department as the night watchman at Tse-whit-zen?”

“Yes,” Sully said.

“And you were working the night of Thursday, March 24?” Vanoy asked.

“You mean last night?” Sully said. “Yeah, I was.”

Vanoy laid the file on the desk. For the first time, he looked directly at Sully. “Did you see anything unusual while you were on watch?”

The man’s expression was accusing as if he knew something. Sully drank some of Vanoy’s water. “Besides a couple humping in the back seat of a Ford in the parking lot?” Sully said. “It’s not that unusual.”

“Besides that. Anything between 2 a.m. and dawn?” Vanoy said, leaning into the question.

Sully squirmed. The chair wobbled beneath him as if one leg was shorter than the others. “Nothing much happens at Tse-whit-zen late at night.”

“Last night,” Vanoy said. “Specifically, last night. Nothing happened last night?”

Sully shook his head and grimaced as if the effort to remember was painful. “Nothing.”

Vanoy leaned into Sully’s space. “You saw nothing, heard nothing along the shore last night?” Vanoy said.

“Nothing,” Sully said. His chair wobbled.

Vanoy leaned back and returned his attention to the file. “Mr. Marlybone, do you know a man named Sandy Crab?”

Sully smirked. “The guy that owns Qwackers? I don’t know him. I’ve seen him around. He hauls boatloads of tourists around Shantytown, shows them the freaks.”

“Sounds like you resent him.” Vanoy was leaning forward again.

Sully shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t feel much about him, one way or the other. He’s just another dude trying to make a living.”

“And you didn’t see his boat…his…” Vanoy looked again at the file, “his truck…Qwackers last night?”

“No,” Sully said, rocking his chair.

“Thank you, Sully,” Vanoy said. “May I call you Sully?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Thank you for your cooperation, Sully. That’s all I have.”

Sully was half out of the chair when Vanoy, looking again at the file, said, “One last thing, Sully,” as if a casual afterthought and not a sock full of nickels aimed at Sully’s head. “You have a remarkably clean record. No priors, not even a parking ticket.” He looked up from the file. “In fact, no record at all before last year when you applied for a driver’s license.”

“My family were Mennonites,” Sully tossed over his shoulder, as if that explained everything, and kept moving.

The séance that evening was unimpressive. Sully sat on the picnic table watching Umber and a few unstable supporters huddled around a small fire. He had eaten several magic mushrooms to ease his anxiety and enjoy the show. The firelight was pulsing. It seemed a coherent message, like Morse code, a message from the universe. He regretted never learning Morse code. How often does the universe attempt to communicate in a code no one understood?

Umber was standing over the fire, vibrating. Sully realized she was singing herself onto the etheric plane. He couldn’t identify the tune. At least it wasn’t “Stairway to Heaven.”

A man sat next to him on the picnic table. Sully hadn’t seen him approach. He was simply there. Sully wondered where he had been when he wasn’t there. He dismissed it as another signal he couldn’t decode.

The man seemed overdressed for a séance. He wore a black coat with tails, black slacks, and white, button-down Spats over dress shoes. Sully thought he had come from a masquerade party. The illogic of a masquerade ball in Port Angeles didn’t trouble him.

The man removed a John Bull top hat and sat it on the table between them. His black hair was short and tightly curled, like a black man, but his face was pale, the skin tautly drawn over the bones of his face, lending a skeletal appearance. Sully couldn’t see his eyes behind dark glasses.

The man removed a huge cigar from his mouth and took a swig from a bottle of Barbancourt. He offered the bottle to Sully and grinned.

“Dude!” Sully said. The rum had highlights of smoke and prayers and blood.

“What is she doing?” the Dude asked, pointing toward Umber with his cigar.

“Psychotic espionage,” Sully said. He had meant to say psychic.

“She dances with the dead. I can show her a dance she will wemember.” The man spoke with a lisp or a soft accent. He grinned, thrust his cigar back and forth, and pivoted his hips suggestively.

Sully screwed his face in disgust. “Dude, she’s ancient.”

“You think I can’t make wata flow from the desert?” the Dude said.

“Is that a metaphor?” Sully held his hand up. “Never mind. Dude, who are you?”

“My name is Samdi. You can call me Bawon.”

Even stoned, Sully didn’t feel comfortable giving his name to a man wearing spats to a mass grave. “Bawon? You don’t sound local. What are you doing here?”

“I come where I’m called,” Bawon said. He opened his arms in an embracing gesture. “These are my people.”

Sully didn’t think he was referring to Umber and her helpers.

“I can’t stay,” Bawon said. “I have other engagements tonight. The man in the cave asked me to give you a message. You need to return. You don’t have much time.”

Sully knew only one man who lived in a cave. “Winsome Clapanhoo?”

Bawon stood to leave. “We will meet again,” Bawon said. He began to walk away, then turned. “And Sully, stop hunting wats. They are under my protection.”

Sully didn’t see him leave any more clearly than he saw him arrive.
“Wats?”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Street Fighting Man

Wednesday, March 23

Maud Seward sat in a canvas camp chair, her knitting in her lap, a ball of yarn in a basket beside her, like a French market woman seated beside the guillotine. “No, no, Matches,” she shouted. “At a distance, hold the knife like a hammer. Close in, hold it like an ice pick.” She illustrated the proper technique with her knitting needle.

Matches was a twelve-year-old girl who lit fires when the tension at home became unbearable. She was registered at Roosevelt Middle School as Vala Daunt.

“That’s it, dear,” Maud said. “Chin, either commit or run like hell. Don’t dance around like Mohammed Ali. Cripple or kill, that’s the point of a knife fight.” She chuckled. “No pun intended.”

Chin was Edee Lempert to his parents, an eleven-year-old boy who idolized UFC champ Georges St-Pierre. He dreamed of fighting in the UFC but had a glass jaw.

“Strike first and strike hard. Don’t allow your opponent a second strike,” Maud encouraged. “And Bugsy, keep your left arm up. Use it defend your vital organs. Expect to get hurt. This is a knife fight. It’s dirty and bloody and someone will probably get killed. Make sure it isn’t you.”

Bugsy was one of the oldest members of the Hammertoes, the gang that cribbed in the Old Cannery. He was Hardball’s lieutenant, the son of an immigrant family from Argentina. Christened Tiro Badrian, he claimed to be the grandson of a Waffen SS Standartenführer who fled to Argentina after the war. His family were Jewish tailors. Bugsy clicked his heels which made no sound in sneakers and snapped a straight arm salute.

“And if you ever do that to me again,” Maud said, laying her knitting needles in her lap and leaning forward, her voice thin as a straight-edged razor, “I’ll snap your arm off at the shoulder and shove it so far down your throat your fingers will be cupping your balls.”

The other students in Maud Sleeward’s Street Fighting School for Kids snickered. Bugsy looked at them like he’d just been struck in the gut but when he could straighten upright again, he’d make them all feel his pain. The humor died abruptly.

The Hammertoes weren’t a dangerous gang. Mostly they rode skateboards and tagged old buildings and boxcars and talked tough. They were kids that didn’t belong anywhere else. The gang gave them a sense of self, another skin to replace the one abraded by a rough life. Maud was teaching them to be dangerous.

Sprout Lebowski was sitting on a piece of broken concrete watching the gang practice with knives and fists, sticks and stones and whatever they could find at hand. It was instructive. His own training as a wrestler hadn’t prepared him for the deadly inventiveness of street fighting. He also wondered why Maud Seward hadn’t been locked up for the last 40 years.

Hardball appeared beside him. “You’re very stealthy,” Sprout said.

“Years of practice sneaking out of the house,” Hardball said.

Together they watched the gang practice.

“I heard something,” Hardball said, “from the Bog.” Hardball had no affection for the man schtupping his mother when his father was away from home. He referred to him as Big Bog, sometimes just the Bog. “The bedroom walls are thin. Some of the shit that man says….”

“As much as I’m interested in the peccadillos of Big Bob Reingold, unless it’s something useful…” Sprout shrugged.

“I heard him talking with my mom. The man loves to talk politics after sex. I think it gets his rocks off more than my mother.”

“Again…” Sprout began but Hardball interrupted.

“Said the city’s going to sell the land to developers, build condos.”

“Condos? Aren’t they the least concerned about building on an Indian graveyard? Didn’t they learn anything from Poltergeist?” Sprout said.

“Says it will drive up the price. Increase the mystique, whatever the hell that is,” Hardball said.

“So that’s the reason for cleaning up Shantytown,” Sprout said. “Gentrification. And I’m sure Big Bob will make a hefty profit.”

“Isn’t that the reason for everything?” Hardball said. “Money?”

Sprout looked at Hardball more closely. “Surprising insight from someone so young.”

“Not that young. Almost 16,” Hardball said.

“You’re almost 15.”

“How do you know?”

“Due diligence,” Sprout said.

“You think you’ll be able to take him down?” Hardball said.

“Big Bob?” Sprout said. “We don’t need to take him down, just take a few inches off. This will help. If we know what’s important to him, we know what to deny him.”

“I want to take him down,” Hardball said. “I want to mash his face in the dirt. I want to kick him in the balls.”

“Maybe you should attend Maud’s class more often,” Sprout said. “I think she has an entire lesson plan on kicking people in the balls.” Sprout nodded toward a girl standing alone in the shadow of the far wall, black hair and black clothes and skin pale as a fish belly. “Who’s that girl? The goth?”

“Don’t know. Never saw her,” Hardball said.

Sprout worked his way around the class toward the girl in the shadows. She vanished before he reached her. “That’s a useful skill,” he said to himself. “Invisibility.”

“Fubar,” he heard Maud shout as he left the ruined building. Fubar was another of Hardball’s dispossessed adolescents. “Get your thumb out of your fist. You’ll break it that way.”

Sprout walked back to the beach on his way to Shantytown. A crowd had gathered on the shore surrounding a tow truck with flashing yellow lights. The truck’s winch cable was stretched across the sand and vanished into the water.

“What’s going on?” Sprout asked a fisherman. The man wore a hand knit cabled sweater that had grown thin and stained with hard wear.

“That idiot tour guide lost his truck in 15 feet of water,” the fisherman said.

“What tour guide?”

The fisherman nodded in the direction of Sandy Crab, dressed in blue flowered pajamas, standing at the water’s edge, talking to a uniformed policeman. “Holy shit,” Sprout said. “Qwackers sank?”

“Yeah, that’s what they called it,” the fisherman said. “Stupid name. Stupid idea. Trucks ain’t seaworthy.”

A diver surfaced just offshore. He made a circle with thumb and forefinger held above his head. The tow truck driver began reeling in the cable. The winch groaned and the cable snapped tight, throwing bits of kelp and drops of water into the air.

Sprout worked his way to the front of the crowd so he could watch Qwackers emerge from the bay like a Baptist at a camp meeting. It rose stern first, draped in seaweed and slime, draining water from its scuppers. The headless ducks painted on its side backed out of the water one by one, ass in the air, smallest first.

“And the first shall be last,” Sprout said to himself.

Sandy Crab looked disconsolate. Sprout gloated. “How do you like the view now, asshole?” he shouted.

Crab turned to look. When he saw Sprout his face transformed with rage. “You…you…you.…” He charged across the sand separating them. Crab closed at a dead run, slowed only slightly by the sand. There was just time enough for those standing beside Sprout to distance themselves.

Sprout reflexively adopted the wrestler’s stance, knees bent, feet braced, then Crab was on him, reaching for his throat.

He grabbed Crab’s right arm and fell back onto the sand. It was called a Japanese arm grab, something he learned in the lucha libre. Crab cartwheeled around Sprout’s anchored arm. Carried by his momentum, Crab landed heavily on his back.

Still holding Crab’s arm, Sprout pivoted in the sand like a cartoon character and flipped Crab on his belly, twisting Crab’s arm behind his back. With his free hand, he compressed several points at the top of Crab’s shoulder. Crab struggled for a few moments and then lost consciousness, his face planted in the sand.

“Was that a Vulcan death grip?” the officer said, looking down at Sprout.

“It’s called a shoulder claw,” Sprout said, looking up.

“Maybe you should turn him over before he suffocates.”

Sprout flopped Crab onto his back and stood to the applause of the crowd. He brushed the sand off his clothes.

“You must be the dangerous dwarf,” the officer said.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

RAT

Monday, March 21

“Howdy doody, folks! You don’t see that every day.” The sound of Sandy Crab’s voice, mechanically amplified, drifted across the water.

Sprout pulled up his pants, turned, and silently walked away with all the dignity of a Maori mooning the Queen of England. The members of the Redemptive Action Taskforce were already gathered at Riddlepit.

Sprout had wanted to call it the Radical Action Taskforce. Blavatsky preferred a closer association with liberation theology. It all amounted to RAT in the end.

Umber Schist was trying to find a comfortable position on the couch made of Norwegian wood. There was none. Hurley Hocking also sat on the couch, as far as he could get from Umber. They had a history. Hemp Sessions, the unofficial mayor of Shantytown, was perched on the three-legged stool with the tractor seat. He looked none too steady to Sprout. Maud Seward sat in the austere wooden chair in the corner, her head nodding over her knitting. The chair looked like a piece of modern art disdainful of comfort, much like the rest of Riddlepit. Hattie Malept stood beside the picture window, looking misplaced.

Blavatsky paced the room. The meeting had already started. “…it’s different,” she said. “This is an existential threat. They’ve tightened the noose around our necks and this time they intend to hang us with it.”

“My dear, aren’t you being a bit melodramatic?” Umber said and squirmed on the couch. “We have an agreement with the city council. They ignore us and we police ourselves. Besides, we’re not in the council’s jurisdiction.”

Blavatsky stopped pacing and pivoted. “Something’s changed. The old agreement no longer holds. They’re claiming eminent domain. They’ve plotted streets beneath us. The plan is to fill the bay and build on it. That gives them jurisdiction. And we’re in the way.”

“That’s absurd,” Umber said.

“When did absurdity ever stop bureaucracy?” Blavatsky said.

“If they fill the bay beneath us, then we’ll become houses rather than houseboats,” Hurley Hocking said. Umber looked at him balefully.

“What do they plan to do about it?” Hemp Sessions said.

Blavatsky waved a handful of papers. “This is the proposed amendment to the zoning rules. It states that any inhabited structures floating within city limits that aren’t specifically permitted will be defined as landfill. It’s the city’s charter to dispose of landfill as they see fit.”

“We’ll just have to go somewhere else,” Hemp Sessions said. It seemed to Sprout the mayor didn’t have much loyalty to Shantytown.

“There’s no place left to go,” Blavatsky said. “No place where people can live like they want. The world is being sanitized. It doesn’t include people like us.”

“Then we fight,” Hattie Malept said. Everyone turned to look as if they had forgotten she was there.

“Exactly,” Blavatsky said. “We fight with everything we’ve got.”

“And what do we have?” Hemp said. “A bunch of artists and misfits and panhandlers. People who believe you can control the weather with magic. No offense, Hurley, but really, we couldn’t even organize a bake sale.”

“I agree. We can’t fight them on their own ground,” Blavatsky said, tossing the proposed amendment to the zoning rules on the floor. “We have to change the rules to win the game.”

“Kill them all,” Maud Seward said, raising her head from her knitting. “Let God sort them out.” She seemed to nod off again immediately.

It was rumored Maud had been a member of the Yellow Hand in the early ’60s. The Yellow Hand was a violent revolutionary faction so secretive no one knew their purpose. They were characterized by single-minded viciousness. They claimed to have killed an informant, his parents, his second cousin, and his postman. The postman had simply delivered a letter to the wrong address at the wrong time. The Yellow Hand killed him for incompetence.

“That woman scares me,” Hurley said. “I can’t tell whether she’s serious or not.”

Blavatsky ignored Maud. “We gather information, probe for weakness. People greedy for power are often careless how they get it. They leave skeletons behind. We dig them up.”

“We could ask the spirits for help,” Umber said. “Some of those skeletons might hold grudges.”

“We could reach out to others in the community,” Hattie said. “People like us who feel they have no voice and no place.”

“What, a bake sale?” Hemp said.

Hattie looked at him like he was a misbehaving child. “A rally, maybe. An event. Maybe a concert for the dispossessed.”

“A children’s crusade,” Hemp said, smirking.

“Something theatric,” Hurley said. “Street theater.” He brightened. “I have some ideas for costumes.” Hurley was fond of dressing up. “We would need a figurehead, an icon, something to focus attention.”

Blavatsky turned to Sprout. “Maybe it’s time to resurrect Mascarita Payasito.”

“Yeah, like a maniacal clown sends the right message,” Sprout said.

“Did I miss part of the conversation?” Hurley said.

“Mascarita Payasito was a luchador,” Sprout said. There were expressions of incomprehension around the room. “A Mexican wrestler in the Mini-Estrella. Don’t any of you watch late night TV? He was a dwarf, a mad clown, a trickster. I played the part for several years.”

“And he still has the costume in his closet,” Blavatsky said.

“The things you learn about your neighbors when a crisis threatens,” Hattie said.

“I doubt I could even fit into it anymore,” Sprout said.

“We could always let the costume out…or take you in,” Blavatsky said.

“You’re enjoying this way too much,” Sprout said. “And it’s not a very anonymous costume. The size gives it away.”

“The idea has merit,” Hemp said, warming to it. “We could introduce you as—what was the name? Payasito?—in a few street protests. Work up to a march on city hall. The costume would play to a television audience. Keeping your identity secret doesn’t matter. The mask becomes the character. Or we bill you as ‘The Little Lebowski’.”

“You will not,” Sprout said.

“Hattie’s right,” Blavatsky said. “We need to find allies. Maybe the people closest to politicians are the ones most willing to betray them.”

“Who are you suggesting, dear?” Umber asked.

“Wives, secretaries, hairdressers, house cleaners,” Blavatsky said. “Maybe their children. If politicians are anything like preachers, their children resent them most. I have a half-baked idea.”

The meeting broke up after another was scheduled and everyone left except Maud who remained fast asleep in her chair, her knitting in her lap. Sprout didn’t have the heart to wake her and was afraid of what she might do with her knitting needles if he did.

Blavatsky came down the stairs in a short dress that clung to her hips and breasts and high heels that stretched her calves. “Ready to go?” she said.

“I feel under-dressed,” Sprout said. “Where are we going?”

“The warehouse district,” she said, “to execute my plan.”

They left Maud in her chair and walked to the warehouse district of Port Angeles, less than a mile from Shantytown. Blavatsky’s plan involved a skate park in the old cannery building. It wasn’t a sanctioned park. The kids had built the ramps and halfpipes and quarterpipes from rusted metal they scavenged in the district. Each wipeout risked tetanus.

“Why are we here?” Sprout said.

“This is our foothold in the lives of the city council.”

“A bunch of rebellious kids?”

“One specific rebellious kid. He was in a class I substituted.” Blavatsky was a substitute teacher in the Port Angeles School system. “I hope to leverage his rage.”

“Dude, the bitch brought her own dwarf.” A skater with a shaven head and a missing front tooth rested his foot on his skateboard. He half turned to a ragged group of adolescents behind him. “We won’t have to use our own when we make sweeeeet love.” He kicked his board into his arms and pantomimed a caress.

“Keep it in your pants, snaggle tooth,” Sprout said. He began to understand Blavatsky’s fashion choices.

“Let me introduce you,” Blavatsky said. “Sprout, this is Henry Stowe, known to his friends as Hardball.”

“Sprout?” Hardball’s friends hooted.

“Where’s the Green Giant?”

“Gonna get me some Brussel sprouts.”

“Hardball is the son of Harriet Stowe,” Blavatsky continued, “Councilwoman and ally of Big Bob Reingold, chairman of the city council. Your mother is an intimate ally of Big Bob, isn’t she, Hardball?”

“What do you know about my mother, bitch?”

“Just what they say around town,” Blavatsky said. “But you know what they say. You’ve heard it all. You’re not a fan of Big Bob, are you, Hardball?”

“What’s it to you?”

“I expect you’d like to get Big Bob out of your mother’s bed. And maybe take back some of your self-respect. I’m here to help.”

Hardball bristled at the mention of his mother sleeping with Big Bob. He looked back at his gang. It didn’t seem news to them. “Why should you care what I want?”

“I don’t care really but I’m honest enough to tell you. I think we’re both headed to the same place from different directions. We both want to make Big Bob a little smaller. I can help you. We both get what we want.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“You shouldn’t. At least, not until I deliver.”

“Deliver what?”

“I can teach you and your friends how to kill with your bare hands. Would that be of interest?”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Smuggler’s Blues

Thursday, March 24

“Bulldog, come here.” Harry was standing beside an open crate in Spike Africa’s hold. Wood shavings spilled onto the deck. “What do you make of this?”

“Bones,” Bulldog said.

“Yeah, I gathered that,” Harry said. “What kind of bones? Look at the size of them. You think we’re smuggling elephant bones?”

“Who would pay us this much money to smuggle elephant bones?” Bulldog said.

Harry passed Bulldog the crowbar. “Open another crate but be careful not to damage anything. I don’t want Hoffer knowing.”

Bulldog opened a second crate and cleared the packing material. He sucked in his breath.

“What is it?” Harry asked.

“I’m pretty sure this is the skull of Tyrannosaurus Rex.”

“A dinosaur?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“We’re smuggling dinosaur bones?” Harry said. “How do you know?”

“I was a Paleontology geek as a kid,” Bulldog said. “Especially dinosaurs. I’m pretty sure this is a T. Rex. If not, it’s something equally old.”

“Why?” Harry said.

“I was a kid. I didn’t know better,” Bulldog said.

“Why are we smuggling the bones of extinct animals?” Harry said. “They’re extinct, right? Who cares?”

“The government of the United States, for one,” Bulldog said, caressing the dinosaur skull. “These bones were probably smuggled out of Mongolia. It’s against the law. There are international sanctions. People pay big money to add them to private collections.”

“People collect dinosaur bones?” Harry asked.

“People collect almost anything,” Bulldog said.

“Harry, you need to get up here,” Nit called from the cockpit.

“Seal these crates so they look like they’ve never been opened,” Harry said, then climbed out of the hold onto the deck.

“What’s the problem?” he asked Nit.

“Them,” Nit said and hitched his thumb over his shoulder.

In the moonlight, Harry could see the white hull and orange slash of a Coast Guard cutter on the same course a mile astern.

“Doesn’t mean anything,” Harry said. “We’re in one of the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes on the coast. It’s probably just a coincidence. For Christ’s sake, don’t stare. Act like you’re completely innocent.”

“If I was completely innocent, I’d stare,” Nit said.

When Bulldog stuck his head out of the companionway, the cutter was only a quarter mile astern and closing. “Holy shit,” he said and disappeared back into the cabin. He returned with an ancient AK-47 and chambered a round.

“What the hell is that?” Harry shouted.

“I’m not going down without a fight,” Bulldog said.

“You idiot. That antique will probably blow up in your hands. If they do board us, you’ve just made it worse. They’re too close to throw the damned thing overboard. It will look suspicious as hell. What else did you bring onboard?”

“A machete. Brass knuckles. A Claymore.”

“A Claymore? You thought we’d need an anti-personnel mine? Get back on deck and keep pumping. And leave that crap below.”

When the cutter was alongside, separated by only a few hundred yards of water, a bright spotlight raked the schooner from bow to stern. A few crewmen were on the cutter’s bow near the .50 caliber machine gun, still covered. The crew rested their forearms on the rail.

“Act natural,” Harry hissed between clenched teeth, then turned and waved at the cutter.

A voice boomed over a loudspeaker. “Are you in need of any assistance?”

“No,” Harry shouted between cupped hands. “Batteries are dead. Pumping by hand. We’ll make port.”

There was a long pause and the voice boomed again. “Do you want us to report your position?”

“Not necessary. We’ll be in Port Angeles in a few hours. Thank you.”

There was a longer pause. Harry bit his lip so hard he tasted blood.

“Safe passage,” the cutter broadcast and steered away.

“Hellfire and damnation,” Bulldog whispered between clenched teeth.

“Mind your course,” was all Harry said.

By the time they anchored in Slee’s Bay, they were exhausted. They were on the downhill side of night. The Milky Way spanned the sky. They loaded the first crates into the longboat and pulled for shore, Nit on the oars, Harry in the stern.

Nit stopped rowing and looked around. “What are we doing here?”

“Isn’t that obvious?” Harry said. “We’re offloading crates full of bones.”

“I mean, Tse-whit-zen,” Nit said. “This is Tse-whit-zen.” The big man seemed to shrink. “I’m not going near that place.”

“This is where we’re landing the goods. This is where the trucks are waiting.”

“It’s a graveyard.” Nit shook his head slowly and set his jaw. “I’m not defiling sacred ground.”

“They’re dead,” Harry insisted. “Dead as dinosaur bones. What does it matter? We deliver the crates, we get paid. Everybody’s happy.”

Nit could not be moved. “You don’t mess with the dead without consequences.”

Harry couldn’t budge the bigger man and couldn’t wrest the oars from him without upsetting the heavily laden longboat. They returned to the schooner.

“Get out,” he ordered Nit. He took the oars himself. “Bulldog, get in.” Harry glowered at Nit and spit into the bay.

“You’re late,” Sully said when they finally beached the longboat. “You should have been here hours ago.”

“It’s a sailboat, for Christ’s sake,” Harry said. “Schedules are aspirational.”

“Whatever. Just get the stuff ashore before people wake up. The trucks have been here for hours already.”

By the time they unloaded the longboat, Harry realized they wouldn’t finish the entire cargo in the darkness remaining.

“What are we going to do?” Bulldog asked.

“I have an idea,” Harry said. “Row me to the wharf. I need to make arrangements ashore.”

Bulldog waited for Harry at the wharf 30 minutes before he heard the rumbling of a diesel engine. Out of the darkness, an amphibious truck appeared, shouldering the water aside. Harry stood at the wheel. He drove the truck alongside the longboat.

“Shit, Harry. You stole Qwackers?”

“Borrowed,” Harry said. “I have every intention of returning it when the job is done. Climb onboard. We’ll tow the longboat. Hurry up. We’re burning darkness.”

Qwackers allowed them to offload the entire cargo in a single trip. Nit remained onboard the schooner, carrying crates from the hold and lowering them over the side. It took Harry and Bulldog both to stow them in the boat.

Harry drove Qwackers onto the beach, over the dunes, and to the parking lot where Hoffer’s trucks were parked. When Qwackers returned to the water, Sully used a tree branch to brush away the truck tracks in the sand. “Saw it on an episode of Bonanza,” he said.

Harry and Bulldog were motoring back to the boat ramp, towing the schooner’s longboat astern, when Bulldog noticed his shoes were wet. There was water rising above the floorboards of the Duck.

“Harry, we have a problem. I think we’re sinking.”

“What do you mean, sinking?” Harry said.

“I mean the water level is rising above the floorboards,” Bulldog said. “That’s not normal.”

By the time they got the hatch covers off the engine compartment, the water was above their ankles and rising fast. “No time,” Harry said. “Abandon ship.”

They pulled the longboat alongside and got in just as Qwackers took a headlong dive to the bottom of the harbor. Only a greasy sheen and a few bilious bubbles remained to mark its passage.

“Damn,” Harry said. “We almost got away with it. A few more yards and we would have made the shore.” They returned to the schooner.

In the morning, after sleeping several hours, Harry rowed the crew ashore. He still wasn’t talking to Nit.

A crowd had gathered on the beach. A sheriff’s boat lay just offshore. A diver surfaced and tapped the top of his head with his hand. Harry landed the longboat at the wharf, then joined the crowd.

Sandy Crab, still dressed in blue flowered pajamas, was talking to a Port Angeles policeman. “…those damned squatters,” he said, pointing toward Shantytown. “And that degenerate dwarf. He’s a ringleader. Bolsheviks, the bunch of them.”

“A dwarf,” the policeman said.

“Don’t be fooled by his size,” Sandy said. “He’s dangerous.”

“A dangerous dwarf.” The officer seemed incredulous.

“I want him arrested,” Sandy said. “I want them all arrested. Atheists, radicals, breeding in their filthy nest like rats. They resent my success. You better take me seriously, officer. I have influence with the city council.”

Harry found it hard to take a man in blue flowered pajamas seriously.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Weebles Wobble

Wednesday, March 23

Bulldog Purvis wasn’t a small man. He had the body of a middle weight prize fighter and a face punished by adversity, but he was dwarfed by the man standing beside him on the dock. The man stood six and a half feet by Harry’s reckoning with shoulders so broad he could only fit through a door sideways.

Bulldog introduced him. “This is Walter Charles. Everyone calls him Nit.”

“Why?” Harry asked.

“I don’t know. They just do.”

Harry looked at the new man like livestock at auction. “He’s big enough, I’ll give you that, but can he hand, reef and steer?”

“I can speak for myself,” the man said with a voice like wooden casks rolling across a cellar floor.

“The mountain speaks,” Harry said. “And what does it say for itself?”

“I learned to sail in the junior’s program at the Seattle Yacht Club.”

Harry hoisted an eyebrow. “The yacht club?”

“His mother married into money off the reservation,” Bulldog said. “She believed in cultural enrichment. Yacht clubs, the symphony, the Burke Museum—that kind of shit. Until he began to grow. A giant Indian isn’t as cute as a kid. When he didn’t fit into Seattle society, they sent him back to the rez. He’s Klallam.”

“A dinghy is a far cry from sailing a schooner,” Harry said.

Nit shrugged. “The principle’s the same, just more sails.”

“I can’t argue with that. You know this isn’t a milk run? We get caught, we go to jail. We get across, we make a lot of money. You good with that?”

“How much money?” Nit said.

“Enough to pay your rent for a year and buy a new car. There’s more where that came from if things work out.”

“I’m good with that,” Nit said.

“Welcome onboard. Stow your gear in the boat.”

Nit only had the clothes he stood in but Bulldog carried an old Army duffle bag stuffed full. When he dropped it into the long boat’s bilge there was the sound of clashing metal.

“You never did travel light, Bulldog.”

In less than half an hour the sail covers were removed, halyards rigged, sheets run aft, and the decks cleared. When Harry turned the ignition key the diesel groaned and coughed and stuttered but failed to start. He preheated the ignition chamber longer and tried again and again the engine shuddered and coughed and failed to start. By the third attempt the battery was weakening and the engine turned more slowly but suddenly belched black smoke, stuttered then steadied, rumbling in its dark hole beneath his feet.

“No worries,” Harry called to the crew. “Reliable as a rock. Standby to weigh anchor.” Nit had already hauled the anchor rode hand over hand, pulling the schooner forward until the rode was straight up and down. “Just pull the damn thing up,” Harry conceded.

In the lee of Ediz Hook they hoisted sail—main and fores’l, jib and stays’l. The sails were frayed along luff and leech and patched like a coat of many colors. They sheeted home for a close reach across the Strait to Vancouver Island. Harry let the engine idle to recharge the starting batteries and run the electric bilge pump. They left a thin stain of oily water in their wake.

They made good speed for an old, sodden schooner. Half way across the Strait, as the sun was drowning on the western horizon, the engine choked and gasped and died convulsively. Harry spent 30 minutes trying to revive it, flattening the batteries with the effort.

“How we going to get in and out of port without an engine?” Bulldog asked.

“We’re sailors,” Harry said, rummaging in the cockpit locker for the kerosene running lights. “We sail. Now hang these lights and start pumping. The old girl leaks like a syphilitic whore.”

They arrived later than expected. The breeze held, they rounded Whiffin Spit on a beam reach, then beat up the bay to Sooke Harbor. Their destination was a dilapidated pier on the shore of East Sooke directly downwind. Harry had them lower the main and jib, sailing only on the fore and stays’l. He walked them through the sequence of events. “It will happen quickly. Everyone needs to do their part.” Bulldog looked dubious.

As they approached the dock on starboard tack the stays’l hung limp in the wind shadow of the larger sail. Bulldog rigged a preventer to the boom to keep the fores’l from swinging across the deck when they gybed, carrying the wind across their stern. Nit sheeted the stays’l home to starboard, then stood by the anchor.

Harry steered directly for the pier where several men were loafing around a cargo van. The schooner was still making good speed despite her reduced sail. White water foamed at her bow. A gibbous moon among broken clouds illuminated the schooner ghosting across the dark water of Sooke Sound.

The men on the pier began to fidget. Nit threw nervous looks over his shoulder. Bulldog closed his eyes and swallowed. Harry didn’t falter.

Nit was close enough to see the eyes of the men on the pier widen and their jaws drop. They bolted, abandoning their truck, at the same time Harry put the schooner’s helm hard over. The waterlogged schooner hesitated for a moment and then gybed, rolling onto her side as she turned sharply into the wind. The fores’l, held in place by the preventer, and the stays’l, sheeted to windward, were back winded and acted as huge air brakes. The schooner quickly lost headway. When she was dead in the water Harry shouted for Nit to let go the anchor. It splashed into the water followed by the chain rattling through the hawse pipe.

The schooner began gathering sternway. Harry steered for the wharf. “Let the sheets run,” he shouted. “Luff all.” Nit and Bulldog released the staysail sheet and the preventer. “Set the anchor.” Nit applied the brake to the freewheeling windlass. The stern of the Spike Africa came to a stop within a foot of the pier. Harry stepped onto the pier head with the stern line.

“Gentlemen, we’re here for our cargo.”

His dramatic entrance was wasted. There was no one to welcome him. They were all half way down the pier to the shore. They returned peevishly.

The gang boss was a man with a round body and a round head. Harry had seen his like in a hundred backwater ports. He was a Weeble. Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down, mostly because they were so close to the ground you couldn’t tell the difference.

“You’re late,” the Weeble said.

“We’re here now,” Harry said. “We need to be gone before first light. Can your men start loading?”

“We’re here to offload the crates, not load them onto your boat,” the Weeble said. “That’s your problem.”

Harry paused. “My problem is Dietrich Hoffer’s problem. I don’t think you want to make Dietrich Hoffer your problem.”

“I don’t work for Hoffer. I don’t give a damn for his problems.”

Nit had unobtrusively taken up a position behind the Weeble. He was tapping a crow bar in the palm of his hand. His hands were so large the crow bar looked like a screw driver.

“Maybe so,” Harry said, “but my problem is you and I don’t give a damn how I solve it. A dead whale or a stove boat. Your choice.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“My man here is ready to split your skull like a Halloween pumpkin. Your men might be able to overwhelm us eventually, but you’ll be the first one to hit the deck. And you won’t be getting up. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?”

The Weeble turned and looked at Nit who was standing so close he had to crane his neck to see the whole of him. “Don’t get your dander up. Boys,” he shouted to his crew, “get the crates off the truck and into the boat.”

The crates were stowed in the hold in a few hours. The gang boss departed with an obscene gesture. “A wasted opportunity for a good curse,” was all Harry said.

They hoisted all plain sail while the schooner was still at dock. Nit hauled the anchor rode hand over hand and made fast. They sheeted home the main and fores’l and backwinded the jib. As the bow fell off the wind, the anchor pulled free of the bottom., and Nit hauled it onboard. The schooner began to gain way, close hauled on port tack. They clawed off the lee shore and into deeper water.

Harry broke out a bottle of Pusser’s rum he had saved for some special occasion and poured them all a liberal dose in traditional round-bottomed glasses. The glasses rolled with the schooner’s motion like drunken sailors. He raised his glass in a toast. “’With laughing hearts, waist deep in rum, these times will we remember!’” he toasted. “Now let’s start pumping to keep this petulant bitch afloat.”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

The Green Man

Wednesday, March 23

Tad Marc’s family lived in a two-story house on a dead-end street called Fauna Place. It was just past Flora Place. Rathskill left the Indian halfway down the street. Afterward, it occurred to him that a man dressed in full leathers walking down a residential street was no less suspicious.

It was an unpretentious brown house with split cedar shakes on the roof. There was a tetherball in the front yard in a patch of trampled grass and a sign near the door that read “Secured by ADT.” He suspected the family couldn’t afford more than the sign.

The newspaper reported that Tad Marc had a bedroom on the second floor. Probably in the back of the house. His parents would have the one guarding the street. The forest pressed against the backyard fence. The Marcs had guarded their front door but forgot the threat at their back.

Rathskill wondered what it was like for a mother to lose her child, a life that had grown within her body, shared her emotions, her blood. She didn’t know whether her son was alive or dead. Her guilt must be consuming. Was it something she did? Something she didn’t do? How could she know without knowing? Her son had simply vanished from his room. No clues, no suspects, no reason. The agony of waiting must be excruciating. Could a family survive such pain?

Damn the gag order, damn the secrecy. Eventually, the Marcs would learn what happened to their son, after the grave site above the Sail River was made public, but the waiting might destroy them. Rathskill wasn’t going to contribute further to their pain.

He walked up to the house and knocked on the front door. No one answered. He knocked again. There was no one home. He stepped back from the door and looked at the upper windows.

A woman appeared on a neighboring porch wearing an apron dusted white with baking flour. “Can I help you? The Marcs have gone away for a bit. They recently lost their son.”

Rathskill mumbled an excuse and left hurriedly. He had nowhere left to go, nowhere to pick up the trail of the dead boy. Hallelujah Bill had mentioned that the Green Man visited the graveyard.

Folktales of the Green Man had been told since the middle ages, stories about a mythic creature as much animal as human, a forest creature that walked upright and used crude tools. The stories resurfaced whenever there was a social crisis created by the tension between technology and tradition. Currently, the myth went by the name of Big Foot and Yeti.

There were historical analogies, even a local one, the Wild Man of the Olympics. Rathskill had lectured on the subject.

John Tornow had been born to a respectable, pioneering family from the Wynooche Valley near Grays Harbor. Frederick and Louise Tornow’s child was restless around others and comfortable only in the wilderness. They suspected something was seriously wrong at age 10 when he began to escape to the woods for weeks at a time. He was a deadly shot with a 30-06, having learned to shoot from the hip to keep his sight clear of the black powder cloud. His trademark was a single shot to the heart, precise and deadly.

At age 19 he was already a man, six foot two inches and 200 pounds, when his family committed him to a sanatorium in the Oregon woods. For 12 months Tornow was treated for insanity. He escaped into the forest. Nothing was officially known of him for another year but loggers around Grays Harbor began sighting a wraith among the trees, a big man who moved as silently as a cougar. He was mute, mostly, but he did once warn that no one should follow him. “I’ll kill anyone who comes after me. These are my woods.”

A year after that warning, on September 3, 1911, the bodies of Tornow’s nephews, Will and John Bauer, were found under a pile of brush. Will Bauer had been shot neatly between the eyes, his brother beneath the left eye. Both bodies had been stripped of their weapons; Will was missing his shoes.

The killing may have been justified. Tornow and his nephews had jointly inherited property which couldn’t be sold without the signature of all three. The Bauer brothers had earlier been unsuccessful in persuading Tornow to return to civilization for the sale. His death may have been their alternative.

Posses immediately scoured the woods without finding Tornow but the loggers were spooked. Logging operations around Montesano virtually stopped and hunters shied from the woods.

Then in February 1912 a trapper named Louis Blair and his partner found the carcass of an elk in the Ox Bow country north of Montesano, a carcass left by Tornow, they believed. Deputy Colin McKenzie, a friend of Blair’s, and Game Warden Al V. Elmer began tracking Tornow with a bloodhound. On March 9, the bloodhound wandered into Louis Blair’s Ox Bow camp alone.

Another posse was sent to find the missing deputy. McKenzie and Elmer were found in a shallow ditch beneath a fresh mound of earth. Both bodies had been stripped of their clothing and weapons.

Blair began tracking Tornow in earnest, driven by revenge for his friend’s death and the $3,000 reward on Tornow’s head. He partnered with Charles Lathrop, a childhood friend of Tornow.

The final scene came in April 1913, when Blair, Lathrop, Deputy Sheriff Giles Quimby, and a pair of bloodhounds tracked Tornow to a rough cabin built in a swamp beside a lake west of Matlock. The cabin was approachable only across a small foot log.

Tornow was waiting in ambush. He had been warned of their arrival by the sudden silence of the frogs he had tethered around his cabin. an old Indian trick. Blair was the first to die. Lathrop fell next. Deputy Sheriff Quimby, the furthest from Tornow’s position, rapidly fired seven times, emptying the magazine of his 30-30, and then dove for cover.

In the silence that followed Quimby couldn’t know if he had hit his mark or whether Tornow was playing possum. The frogs resumed their chorus. The night was approaching. Quimby knew he wouldn’t survive the night if Tornow was still alive. He made a precipitous dash through the woods to the nearest logging camp. The only sound he heard behind him was the baying of the dead trapper’s bloodhounds.

It was another day before the posse and pack horses could return to the cabin. They found Tornow’s body propped against a hemlock tree. He was wearing a black hat that had once belonged to Deputy Colin McKenzie. A search of his shack revealed that he had been surviving on a diet of elk meat and bullfrogs.

What Rathskill found especially interesting about the story occurred after Tornow’s death.

When they brought John Tornow’s body to the undertaker’s on April 20, 1913, he had already been dead three days. The streets of the small Washington town of Montesano were filled with jostling crowds. They had come to see the dead man’s face, to touch his burlap clothing, to breathe the scent of decay. They had come to reassure themselves that John Tornow was truly dead and, through some inexplicable communion, to share in the dead man’s power.

The restive crowd surged forward when the Tornow family tried to keep the body from public display. R.F. Hunter, the Chehalis County Coroner, surrendered decorum to good sense. “Fully 650 people passed through the room where the gaunt figure lay within a space of 30 minutes,” reported Portland’s Morning Oregonian. “Thirty Deputy Sheriffs forced the crowd to move in single file and prevented, by force, [their] tearing off bits of the ragged clothing from the corpse, cutting off locks of hair or whiskers or cutting off pieces from the table where the cadaver lay.” There were hundreds more who couldn’t get into the morgue.

The crowd filed past, some like mourners at the funeral of a saint, others like bumpkins at a county fair. The Wild Man lay stretched upon a wooden table, his hair and beard matted, his clothes patched with burlap sacks, insulated with pine nettles, and stained with blood, his hobnailed boots stolen and too small for his feet.

Sometimes myths become real, Rathskill thought.

The Forks Cemetery was a barren plot of land that grew headstones. There was an unpaved road, a few trees, but not even a fence to separate the living from the dead. The forest began just across the road and continued unbroken to the Calawah River.

The graveyard was empty and neglected. Weeds grew among the headstones. A thicket of Himalayan blackberries had overtaken part of the grounds. Rathskill wandered among the graves, reading the epitaphs. It was a professional habit. The few words left on gravestones said more about the culture than the dead. Most of them were recent and uninteresting but in the older section of the cemetery, near the edge of the forest, he stopped abruptly at the grave of Axel Berglund. Axel had died in 1937 at the age of six, about the same age as Tad Marc. On top of the weathered headstone, someone had left the figure of a horse or pony artfully fashioned from bent twigs. The similarity to the figure he had found on a tree stump near the Sail River site was remarkable.

The hair raised on the back of his neck. Rathskill had the uncanny feeling he was being watched.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Hallelujah Bill

Wednesday, March 23

The Indian thundered down Highway 101. The sound of its engine echoed from thick forest entangled in mist on either side of the road. The mist clouded his goggles and dripped from his leathers. At least it wasn’t raining. He was driving through the Olympic Rain Forest, headed for Forks, where it rained 212 days a year. No one rode a motorcycle to Forks this early in the year without a desperate purpose. Rathskill’s purpose was Tad Marcs.

Rathskill had researched the boy’s disappearance. The Peninsula Daily News reported the story. The boy had gone missing from his bed at night. There were no clues, no suspects, no reason, no ransom request. And there was no body. No one knew what had happened to him, at least, no one willing to talk to reporters. The story carried by the Seattle Times was only a paragraph of facts, facts as bare as the bones in the forest. No wire service had picked it up.

The Daily News published a candid photo of the boy probably taken on his mother’s cell phone, looking over his shoulder as he ran carelessly, freckled cheeks and a smile that seemed larger than his face. He was missing one of his front teeth. He probably had found a quarter under his pillow. Maybe a dollar, Rathskill thought, with the price of inflation.

Rathskill couldn’t remember when he was young enough to be visited by the tooth fairy. He felt old, old as dirt, old as the wet sky hanging overhead.

His own mother probably used the tooth fairy as a moral lesson, the moral being that love was contingent, a reward for good behavior. It could also be withheld.

Forks had the unfortunate distinction of appearing in Dave Gilmartin’s book, The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America. Gilmartin called it “a festering wound of a town.”

It was an unremarkable town, hardly the worst, a lumber town that had fallen on hard times, foreign competition, and the northern spotted owl. Rathskill suspected the townspeople largely blamed the crash in the lumber industry on environmentalists and the endangered owl. Industry experts mostly blamed it on Canadians flooding the market.

Then Forks became a spaceport. The Rubicon, an entry in the Ansari X-Prize for civilian space flight, was launched from Forks with a mannequin as a passenger. It exploded spectacularly mid-air and littered the Pacific Ocean with bits of mangled mannequin. The bits later washed up on the beach, puzzling tourists.

After its failure in sub-orbital tourism, Forks returned to a troubled stupor until the local economy resurged because of a fiction, a novel about a young girl who moved from Phoenix to Forks and fell in love with a vampire. The vampires had adapted to the low ambient light of a climate that rained 121 inches annually. They even attended high school. The irony of an immortal attending high school likely escaped the book’s target audience. Rathskill hadn’t read the books.

What had Tad Marcs thought about vampires? Had they become as familiar and cuddly as the Tooth Fairy? Or were they still the apex predator of nature red in tooth and claw? Did the boy have nightmares about being drained of life by a vampire or torn to pieces by a werewolf? Did he ever dream about the evil ordinary men do?

Rathskill stopped at a liquor store on the edge of town to buy a pint and chat with the clerk. Liquor store clerks were often a source of local knowledge, especially when business was slow and they were bored. It was a small shop. Liquor bottles lined two walls and ammunition the third.

“Seems you’ve found a niche market,” Rathskill said, looking at the variety of shotgun shells behind the counter. “Drunken hunters. Surprised you don’t sell wooden stakes. You’d think they’d be popular souvenirs.”

The clerk looked sour. “We sell what you see,” the clerk said. “Booze and ammo. You want souvenirs, go to the Chinook Pharmacy down the street.”

“Just kidding. I was thinking about moving here. What’s the town like?”

“Why would you want to move here? You some kind of vampire groupie?”

Rathskill held up his hand. “Not me. No sir. Just retired and looking for an inexpensive place to live. Somewhere quiet and peaceful.”

“You can’t get more quiet and peaceful than Forks and still be above ground,” the clerk said.

“What about crime?” Rathskill said. “I heard a little boy was kidnapped recently.”

“Nothing much happens around here. People get drunk, punch each other. You don’t want to leave your car unlocked. People are poor. Besides that, nothing much.”

“What about the kid?”

The clerk shook his head. “Never happened before. Town’s always been safe for kids. It’s got people riled up, blaming each other. Kids could pretty much wander where they wanted until it was time for dinner. Great place to grow up, like when I was a kid. Now parents won’t let their kids out of sight. Damned shame.”

He rode the Indian into town and parked behind a screen of trees at Tad Marcs’ school. The elementary school was separated from the high school by an athletic field advertising the Forks Spartans. He didn’t stay long. It wasn’t a good time for a man on a motorcycle wearing leathers to be seen surveilling an elementary school. The school had nothing to tell him. Nothing about Tad Marcs remained.

He pulled into the parking lot of the Forks Coffee Shop, hoping to find someone who would pour his coffee and stay to talk. A man wearing a sandwich board stood on the sidewalk.

A Bible verse was hand-lettered on the sign. “There are those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mankind. Proverbs 30:14.” The board was signed Hallelujah Bill.

“Not a fan of vampires?” Rathskill said.

“Not vampires. Not werewolves. Not any spawn of hell,” Hallelujah Bill said. “Young girls come here, all fluttery, thinking vampires are like the Beatles, ready to faint at their feet. They got no idea what dangerous things walk the streets of Forks. Brother, the demons have been loosed from hell. Hallelujah!”

Hallelujah Bill looked like he hadn’t eaten in several days. His skin was the color of a salamander’s belly, not unexpected in a place where the sun never shined. Rathskill offered to buy him a cup of coffee and a meal.

“Don’t drink coffee,” Hallelujah Bill said. “Don’t drink alcohol, either. Just water. Water I draw from the spring myself. Only way to be sure I’m not being poisoned. God’s own water, that’s all I drink. Hallelujah!” He set down his sandwich boards. “Damn thing gets heavy.”

“You said there are dangerous things on the streets,” Rathskill said. “What did you mean? What kind of things?”

“I’m here, day and night, preaching the word of God, warning the unwary. I see things, things that shouldn’t exist, not in a Christian nation. Signs of the end times. I warn people. No one listens. The tourists chase after demons and the townspeople chase after their money. No one listens.”

“I’ll listen,” Rathskill said.

Hallelujah Bill looked at him suspiciously. “You with the government health services? I told you, folks, I don’t need no nurse to wipe my ass for me. I can take care of myself.”

“I’m not with the health services,” Rathskill said. “I’m interested in a young boy who was taken. Tad Marcs. I’m with the police.” Like any good lie, there was a kernel of truth encompassed by a husk of deception. “A consultant.”

“Like Sherlock Holmes?”

It took Rathskill a moment to make the connection. “Yes, like Sherlock Holmes.”

“I’m a big fan of Conan Doyle.” The man’s face brightened, then clouded again. “I don’t know much about the missing boy. I don’t know who took him. Might have been the Green Man. I’ve seen him on the edge of town. Might have been the government. They…”

“The Green Man?” Rathskill interrupted.

“He’s harmless mostly,” Hallelujah Bill said, “unless he’s boxed in a corner. I’ve seen him most often at the cemetery. He steals some, clothes hung on a line or boots left on the porch. I doubt he’d take a child. But there’s others out there. Witches, Satanists, voodoo.”

“Voodoo? What, like a houngan?”

“Don’t know what you call him. Face like a skull and a big cigar. Dresses like a dandy. Top hat and cane.” Hallelujah Bill’s cheeks puckered like he wanted to spit but his mouth was too dry.

The description—skull, cigar, top hat, cane—sounded surprisingly like Baron Samedi, the Haitian loa of resurrection. In a town that catered to vampire tourism, was it possible someone was impersonating a Haitian loa? Maybe not all the tourists who came to Forks were fluttery young girls.

“I think it was the government took him,” Hallelujah Bill said.

“What?”

“They inject pregnant women to manipulate the genes of their unborn children. Enhances their psychic ability. Then they come for the kids and take them to an underground site at Fort Mead. They drug them, torture them, make them into assassins. Psychic assassins. Never let them see the light of day again, never hear a kind word. They die young, thrown away like a broken tool. There’s no hotter place in hell than the one reserved for child abusers. Hallelujah!”

He left Hallelujah Bill hoisting his sandwich board back on his shoulders and preaching his warning to passing motorists. Rathskill wondered what tragedy or disease had unhinged the man’s mind. Hallelujah Bill was hardly alone. Estimates were over one-quarter of Americans suffered some form of mental illness. The number was rising.

Groucho Marx had quipped that he didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him. Hallelujah Bill and Rathskill both belonged.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.