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Soundings in the Dark

     Edgerton put one hand on the top of the Ford as if to steady himself and leaned in close. Most of his anger had drained away, but his eyes retained an anxious wistfulness. “She makes me think of angels,” he said. He swallowed hard to fight back a sob. “Like when I was a little kid waking up in the middle of the night, scared after having some dream or hearing some noise.  Since my parents didn’t believe in God, my sister and I didn’t have angels watching over us like other kids. There was just Mom and Dad.”

     He drummed his fingers lightly on the car. “I’d lie there telling myself that I was safe. That my parents were there for me. That they were enough. But I couldn’t help thinking that it would be better if there were angels.” He paused. “Having Ava...Taking care of her...I’m supposed to be the one watching over her. But instead, here I am. Still scared. Still wishing for angels.”

He turned to gaze out to the horizon. Wisps of clouds were stretching warily out toward the sun, spreading out like the feathers of ghostly wings about to take flight.

     “We’ll get her back, Stephen,” I told him. “I promise.”

     Mom had a roast in the oven and the aroma suffused the house, nearly masking another, more familiar bouquet. If a family lives in a house long enough, the place takes on a smell—a permanent fragrance that is peculiar to that family. Cooking odors compete, yet never quite conquer. Fresh flowers and Lysol augment yet are powerless to eliminate. It’s the smell of a marriage. Of a family. It’s as though as the years go by and all the joys, all the hurts, all the arguments, all the dull nights spent in silence settle about the house, giving off a particular scent—not altogether pleasant, but warmly familiar. The scent of home.

     I checked every room but didn’t find any more bad guys in the house. I couldn’t go back upstairs. Instead, I called the cops, dimmed the lights, then crouched down in the darkness of the empty living room. The air was suffused with the smell of the dead. I trained my father’s gun on the front door against intruders, guarding as much against phantoms as flesh and blood belligerents. Voices from the bedroom drifted down to me. First Megan’s voice, then her father’s, mingling with Sully’s sobs. The minutes slunk by like sullen zombies. I stared down the barrel of the gun, waiting for the cops, careful to avoid the shadows. Greg, Janet, even Prude Johnson, were in the shadows, casting glances, blaming me. And the voices from above—hollow yet filled with mourning and awful realization—were accusatory soundings in the dark.

The Cough of Birds

     Edgerton closed his eyes and shook his head as though trying to shake loose a thought. “That sound,” he said.

     “ Sound?”

     “Yeah. That sound. The sound of that arrow striking the wall.” He paused, then looked up at me. “That sound. There’s this Old English verse fragment. Most scholars call it The Fight at Finnsburg. You know it?”

     “No.”

     “There’s this line. Gathered in the hall, a group of warriors are waiting for dawn and a battle to come. One of them, a young man anticipating how at sunrise their position will be attacked first with a volley of arrows, says, ‘Soon shall be the cough of birds, hoar wolf’s howl, hard wood-talk, shield’s answer to shaft.’ That’s the sound. The whistle of the arrow flying past. The knock of the arrow against the wood as it pierced Jason’s neck. That ‘cough of birds.’ I'll be hearing that cough for the rest of my life.”

     I hate hot, humid weather in the fall. I’m not real fond of it in the summer either, but at least it’s supposed to be hot in the summer. By fall, heat and humidity are simply no longer welcome. Like the morning breath of a lover that you picked up in a bar the night before—heavy, stale, and oppressive, but still wanting to snuggle.

     LeGrand rushed toward me swinging the bat over his head as he ran, his face contorted with hate. I tried to sidestep the blow but wasn’t quite quick enough. But I got mostly out of the way and the barrel of the bat glanced off my helmet. A bell went off inside my skull, but I was otherwise unhurt. LeGrand’s momentum pulled him off balance, and the bat hit the hard-packed ground with a sharp crack. LeGrand tried to stay on his feet by leaning against the bat like a crutch. As he tried to steady himself, I moved behind him, punching him hard in the kidney. I really got my weight into the blow, spinning him around to face me. The sound that issued from him was beyond pain. It was the sound of anguished legions roaring full-throated from within the yawning pit of hell.

      I looked into his senseless, bulging, blackened eyes and gently took the bat from his hands. “Let’s go,” I said to Wiseman.

      All eyes were on us for a couple hundred feet or so as we left LeGrand and Eckels behind us, but soon we found ourselves once again anonymous amongst the crowd. I removed the helmet and found only a small dent where LeGrand had hit me with the bat.

      “That guy don’t like you,” Wiseman said.

      I nodded. “He likes me even less now.”

     He ate. I watched him eat. A fly buzzed around the room, finally perching on the back of the booth behind my left ear, and the fly watched him eat. I wondered if this fly was related to the one I’d killed back in the office. Perhaps he was. Perhaps he was the other fly’s little brother and here he was unknowingly perched inches away from his brother’s murderer watching someone eat. I wondered if flies felt anything when other flies died. I wondered if they looked into windowsills with horror when they spotted their dead brethren lying with their legs in the air, their delicate, parchment wings stilled. It was September. Winter would be here soon. Soon all the flies would disappear.

     I tried to think of some way to escape. Maybe I should just charge him. He’d probably just shoot me in the gut. Christ! Any way it goes down, this was gonna hurt. Then I was gonna be dead. Everything gone. Everyone. My mind flashed on Naomi. Still missing. Missing, but not dead in these woods. Maybe okay, I thought. She’d miss me. She’d be broke up when they told her I was dead. I didn’t know if we’d have stayed together. Probably not. It would probably have been over with the end of the festival. This way it would never be over. I’d be the one for her. The one great love lost. Her feeling would never grow cold. I’d always be as I was...even better than I was. Taken away too soon. Like Elvis, I thought.

     Hess was frozen, his arms at his sides, his face drawn and lifeless. And the look in his eyes. They were glazed, like the smooth, marble eyes of a bust in a graveyard, focused on something far away. Something beyond the corpse, beyond the death, beyond the loss. Something that we all hope we will never gaze upon, but something that waits for us all.

The Shiver in Her Eyes

Nostalgia is too often more than just the fond recollection of things past; it’s also the force that prompts unquiet spirits to linger at the sites of their suicides.

Hers was a voice of silk and sandpaper—low and steady, yet somehow breathless, with a catch like the tiny growl of woman on the brink of ecstasy. It was a voice that demanded attention.

She looked at me as though I were the remains of a bug that had been squashed against the windshield of her car on the interstate—not with pity, nor disgust, but with a kind of fascination that so much goo can come out of something so small.

     I had to wonder just how far Mulligan would go to protect Lorraine Rovig. I wondered if he were partnering with me to help get at the truth or to make certain that I’d be no threat to her. What if I found out something that could harm her? Would he play Watson to my Holmes, or would he elect to play Myron Floren with my neck again?

      I’d have to trust him, I decided. But trust, even the hard-won kind, is often a slippery thing. And this was slipperier than a bag of eels.

     A grin slowly forced its way across his face—a macabre grin like the smile of a dead man that comes by inches as his lips rot and fall away. “You’ll help me, won’t you, Lyle?” he asked.

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