Christopher J. Ferguson ~ The Jocular Jugular

Alan Stieger sipped at his freshly squeezed orange juice and tried not to step in any sticky pools of dried blood. Around him hummed a dozen or so local police, crime techs, coroners and the usual characters; Stieger mostly just watched and let them do their work. The lot of them were in some kind of abandoned mansion, abandoned owing to the main rail lines of Providence Station running through what once might have been the back yard. Now it was an elaborate dump, owned by the state and containing one human body, slightly used.

“Hey Stieger,” called one of the local cops, fellow by the name of Springer, “where’s your partner?”

“Got the flu,” Stieger responded with a yawn. Figures the weird cases would come down the pipeline on a week he’d be on his own. “Find the rest of him yet?”

Springer put his hands in his pockets, “Well, the fingers and toes are all on the stairs, one on each step. Go figure there happen to be exactly twenty steps. Head’s upstairs in a toilet. I hate to trample on you state police’s delicate sensibilities and all, but the fellow’s smoking his own cigar in the Freudian sense, if you get my meaning.”

“I was able to follow along, thanks”

“We’re still doing an Easter-egg hunt for all the teeth. Think the perp maybe didn’t like this guy so much?” Springer laughed, enjoying his poke at the obvious.

Stieger allowed a smile, humoring local PD, “Don’t suppose the vic has ID?”

“Nah. Prints could be in the system though. And lookee over here.” Springer pointed over to a column not far from the body. A bloody thumb print sat like a big red button right at eye level. “Ain’t she a beaut? Looks like an easy case to me, buddy. Lucky you. State property, state case; tag you’re it. Probably have it all wrapped up by lunch; get your name in the paper and everything.”

“Yeah, pinch me.”

Stieger looked the body over real carefully. From what he could tell, the fellow looked to be fairly young, not elderly at least. Hard to tell for sure with no head. Suit looked to be of good make, through it was now pretty ripped and bloody. Looked like the guy had been beat down, then pulled apart while still alive, the decapitation likely being what killed him, although the ME would have the last word. Nice piece of work. What the hell was a guy in a suit doing in this dump?

“What did he just wander over from the train station or something?” Stieger searched the guy’s pockets for tickets, or any kind of ID, but there was nothing.

“Dunno,” Springer allowed. “You’re the high-price state detective. Me, I just direct traffic.” The local fuzz snorted, rubbing it in Stieger’s face that he was washing his hands of the case. Quite a tool, this Springer.

“Who found the body?” Not too many folks had reason to be in this building. Anyone poking their head in here would be someone Stieger wanted a look at.

Springer shrugged, “Anonymous call from a payphone around the block. Came right in to the precinct.”

“Alright Springer, I can see you’re anxious to go get a donut. Don’t let me stop you.” Stieger sighed and finished his orange juice. Well, might as well see where the fingerprint evidence led,…oh, and try to finishing finding all the mook’s teeth.

Stieger didn’t have the case wrapped up by lunch, but by the time he was filling his gut with a cholesterol and sodium patty on the banks of the Blackstone River he at least had the meat slab’s name: Charles Kluwer. Young guy with lots of attitude, no brains and a penchant for small-time mayhem. Kind of mook that made his living selling investment scams to half-senile old ladies. Not a big loss for anybody but his mother; still the jerk was dead and it was Steiger’s job to find out why. The sort of fella who’d send a guy off to the eternal hereafter smoking his own meat-pipe wasn’t the sort to leave on the street.

The thumb-print proved to be a particularly interesting twist.

“We’ve got an ID on the thumb,” Heather Blackwell told him over the cell while he ate. “Taylor Francis is the name. No record, but we got a hit off of his military file.”

Stieger smiled without even noticing it. Heather was a real cutie. “So we got an address on dear Mr. Francis?” All wrapped up just after lunch, not too bad after all.

“Sure. The guy’s six feet under at Swan Point.”

“The guy’s dead? How long? And how’d he leave a thumb-print at my crime scene if he’s dead?”

“Dead two years, and I’ll leave the detectiving to the detective if you don’t mind.”
Steiger’s smile was gone. This was going to turn into a headache, he just knew it. “Do you have an address for next of kin?”

That was how Stieger found himself down in Newport at yet another mansion, this one still perfectly inhabitable. Set just on the water, this place was three stories straight out of some Renaissance festival. Nice place if you liked living in a museum. Some stiff in a suit answered the door and ushered Stieger in to a “reading room.” He poked around there, trying to look interested in the dusty books, for about five minutes before the lady of the house could meet him. The lady of the house proved to be well worth waiting for; as tall as Stieger, maybe thirty, with flowing red hair and a body that could cut glass.

“We don’t get too many law enforcement personnel our way,” she positively purred, posturing in the doorway like a well-fed cat.

Stieger, normally pretty good on the self-control, couldn’t help but let his eyes slide up and down her body, an appreciative look that wasn’t lost on her. “Yeah, well it’s time for the policeman’s ball again.”

“You’ve come a long way to look for a date.”

“I’m not even sure I know who I’m taking to,” he observed.

“I’m Madeline Francis, and if it’s really a dance you want you should know I’m not a cheap date.”

Alright, so that was how it was going to be, was it? Stieger flipped a picture of poor Mr. Kluwer’s head out of his pocket and showed it to Madeline. It was a cruel thing to do, although at least the head had been cleaned up a tad. “Recognize this guy?”

She looked at the picture for a moment, and then whistled, “Just as someone who’s having a bad day.”

Stieger hadn’t expected much to come of this visit, but here this lady was playing around with him like a dog with a biscuit. She didn’t look to be the sort to tear apart a guy and stick his head in the toilet, but then again some chicks had rage…and friends. “You don’t seem to be exactly awash with empathy.”

“Neither do you,” she observed. Good point, Stieger acknowledged silently and put the picture back in his coat pocket. “I don’t suppose you’d care to share what this all has to do with me?” she asked, crossing in front of him and sitting in a plush chair.

“Fingerprint found at the scene belonged to your grandfather, Taylor Francis.” He guessed she must have been his granddaughter based on their relative ages. His comment did get a raised eyebrow from her at least.

“Well the old fellow did get around,” she mentioned as if discussing a small bit of trivia. “Of course he finds it a bit more difficult to get around these days.”

“I’m aware he’s breathing challenged,” Stieger said and motioned toward one of the other plush chairs. “May I?”

“Please do,” she offered graciously. “That certainly makes for an odd twist, now doesn’t it?”

She didn’t offer that maybe the print was an old one; maybe he’d been in the house years ago. He didn’t need to tell her that the print had been left in the victim’s blood, did he? Madeline was letting on that she knew more than she was saying, of that much Stieger was sure. Exactly what that meant was entirely open to interpretation. “I don’t suppose you happened to keep one of your grandfather’s hands as a memento?”

“I prefer pearls.”

“I’d like to exhume your grandfather’s body.”

“I’d like to live forever and own more diamonds than any other woman in history.”

“I can get a court order.”

“Then I suggest that is where you should start.”

“I will…get a court order,” Stieger insisted, leaning forward in his chair.

Madeline leaned forward as well, licking her lips, “I’ll make you a deal then, to make both of our lives more pleasant. I’ll consent to the exhumation.”

“And in return?”

“You answer any three questions honestly and to my satisfaction.”

He laughed, but even he had to admit it was an uncertain laugh, “What do you want to know about? How often I masturbate?”

“Why ask about the obvious?” she breathed. “Any three questions of my choosing, answered honestly and to my satisfaction. No forewarnings.”

Stieger sighed. He could get a court order for the exhumation, but it would take time, days maybe. He didn’t like where this was going, yet how hard could her questions be?

“Fine,” he agreed. “Although how do I know you’ll keep your word once I answer your questions?”

“I think you’ll find I never lie. Not even when it would suit me best.” She smiled, an enticing seductive even reassuring smile, “Do we have a deal?”

“Ask your first question.”

Her smile broadened and she clasped her hands in front of her knees, leaning forward expectantly, “Have you ever been married?”

Stieger’s eyes narrowed. It was an innocuous enough question, not much beyond what you might ask a new friend he supposed. She couldn’t possibly know how closely she had come to old wounds with one little question. Cautiously he answered, “I was married once.”

“Mmm…” Madeline purred as if satisfied with the answer but eager to know more. Sure enough she then asked, “How did the marriage end?”

Stieger tensed for real now. This woman had somehow figured him out fast and narrowed right on in for the kill. Otherwise it just didn’t make sense. If she wanted the dirt on him why not ask if he had sent an innocent man to jail, or doctored evidence? He opened his mouth to speak but no words came. He looked down at his hand and saw that it was trembling. So much for questions being harmless.

“Remember,” she purred, “the question must be answered to my satisfaction.”

He looked up at her, their eyes locked. He felt dizzy and almost nauseous looking into her cool blue eyes as if the power of her personality was simply overwhelming his identity.

When he heard his own voice answering he was startled how weak and unsure he sounded, “We had a son together. She…uh…she, uh developed postpartum psychosis.” He coughed, looked down, rubbed his head with one hand. Still, he pressed on, “One day she shot our son with one of my handguns, and then hung herself.”

Madeline didn’t blush, didn’t blink or seem remotely surprised by the revelation. Her eyes flared as if she were aroused more than horrified. Stieger was left reeling, his brain on fire and exhausted at the same time. If Madeline noticed his discomfort, it affected her course of action very little. “There is just one more question. Are you ready for it?”

Stieger wrung his hand nervously. Damn, this bitch had gotten the better of him. He was a fool for letting things get this way. There was no backing down now though; to do so would only be to admit weakness, to give her greater power over him.

She pursed her lips as if thinking although he was beginning to wonder if she hadn’t know exactly what questions to ask before he had even walked through the door. “Last question: Did you do everything that you could have to save them? I mean did you do enough to help your wife when she was becoming ill?”

Stieger sucked in a deep breath. How many times had he asked himself the same question in the months and years after their death? Christ he never could have imagined that this woman could have gone straight for the jugular so quickly. It was like she could smell the blood, metaphorically speaking. “I knew she was sick, but no I didn’t know that it was that bad. I kept working a lot before…before it all happened. So I guess, no, I didn’t do everything I could have to save them.”

She nodded, small motions of her head up and down as if considering his response thoughtfully, savoring it like she would a fine wine.

“Are you happy?” he asked her.

“No,” she told him, the cruel vivaciousness leaving her suddenly, replaced by something dry and bitter. “You have no idea what would make me happy. You’ve kept your end of the bargain to my satisfaction, though. I intend to keep mine. Drive me to the cemetery won’t you? I’d like to be there when you dig old Grandpa Taylor out of Hell.”

It wasn’t as easy as that, of course. There was paperwork to be signed, a digger to be acquired, workmen to be assigned. At her request, he picked her up the next morning. She was warm to him in her subtly vicious way, acting like they were lovers but she didn’t know how to love except through hatred. Given the fierce soul twisting she had given him the day before, and the nightmares he had experienced in the interim, the hours with her were awkward to say the least.

They stood silently, side by side, as the digger clawed the earth out of the grave. Still, silent, they watched as Taylor Francis’ casket was lifted out of the ground. It was only as the workmen bent over it with their crowbars that Madeline leaned over his shoulder and whispered in his ear, her breath hot and moist against his neck.

“I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised,” she cooed.

With a crack, the casket lid was pried open and flew to the side revealing what lay within. Stieger could only gnaw on the inside of his lower lip.

“Oh yes,” Madeline purred, “this has been worth it just for the look on your face.”

II

Just past four, Stieger sat on a bench in the main corridor at state police headquarters in Smithfield. He was calm now, the psychological ache that had coursed through his body since morning having finally subsided to something tolerable. He had spent the last few hours mostly not speaking, for he was afraid of what he might say if he tried. Finally the clouds were parting and he was becoming sure that he was going to be able to make sense of all this somehow.

The chief of detectives, a tall skinny black man improbably named Pryczinski approached Stieger like one might a cottonmouth. “So you feeling any better?” he asked gingerly.

Pryczinski was, at heart, a nice guy. That might not have always made him the best chief of Ds, but his people loved him for it. Stieger was appreciative of it at the moment too.

“I’m good,” Stieger said, inwardly thinking he was emphasizing the positive, but he did indeed feel better.

“The ME was able to confirm the identify of the, eh, body,” Pryczinski said. It wasn’t a surprise and Stieger only nodded. Gently, but being a cop, Pryczinski pressed on, “Any ideas how your wife’s body came to be in the casket of Taylor Francis?”

Stieger shook his head, “Nope. Never met Madeline or her grandfather before in my life. She must have known me though, she was just about tickled pink playing games with me and waiting for me to see inside that casket.”

Pryczinski pursed his lips thinking for a minute, “You know, all common sense tells me it’s time to take you off this case. Your wife’s body suddenly pops up in the middle of all this and you’re starting to drift into the person of interest zone, you understand?”

Stieger nodded. Pryczinski was right; as an objective investigator he was done. Damned if he was going to let it go, but there was no point arguing with Pryczinski over what was obvious to both of them.

“I’m going to assign the case to another detective,” Pryczinski told him. “Given the circumstances you’ve just been through, you’re going to take a week’s leave. I suggest you take some vacation time. Of course what you do on that vacation time is your own business, you understand?”

Stieger looked up. Pryczinski was covering his own ass, while giving Stieger carte blanche. Of course, if Stieger screwed it up, he’d be swinging in the wind with no backup.

“Madeline Francis is in interrogation room B. She refuses to speak to anyone but you and we’ve got nothing to hold her on. As far as I’m concerned your leave can start tomorrow.” Pryczinski walked off without a further word. Silently, Stieger watched him go.

Madeline was like a lioness lazily picking at the bones of her kill, “Did you enjoy your reunion with the dearly departed?”

An hour ago, her words would have torn at him like razors, but he had hardened himself to it by now. “I think you’re smart enough to guess how I feel. Why does it matter to you? I’ve never met you before; I can think of no reason you should take pleasure in my misery.”

“It’s not as simple as that. Things are so much, much more complex,” she purred.

“Why don’t you tell me how?”

She shook her finger in the air back and forth, gently, like she was scolding a young child, “Das ist verboten.”

Stieger sat down across the plain wooden table from her, “Look, I just don’t get it. No way I randomly get called to a crime scene only to find my wife’s body someplace it doesn’t belong. You knew from the second you saw me who I was, and you wanted me to get to that casket. Which means you lied by the way.”

At this she actually looked hurt, deeply and sincerely hurt, “When, I never lied!”

“You said at first you weren’t going to let me exhume that casket and only relented by getting me to answer your questions.”

“That’s not true; I never said I wouldn’t let you exhume the casket.”

“You told me to get a court order.”

“No, you said you were going to get a court order. I can’t help it if you paid for something I would have given you for free.” She sat back in her chair, relaxed again, satisfied she had addressed the issue, “I only told you that I never lie, but the truth is not like figs on a tree to be picked at one’s pleasure, it must be dug out of the ground with bloody hands like gold.”

Stieger leaned back as well, feeling frustrated. He couldn’t remember their conversation all that well, but he felt that, technically speaking, she was right.

She sat forward again, her eyes blazing, “You think I asked you questions to which I already knew the answer, well let me ask you one more.”

“You’re not even offering anything in return.”

“My question is what I’m offering you.”

Stieger sucked in a long uncomfortable breath but said nothing. Madeline took it as acquiescence and leaned forward in the chair like a journalist drilling a reluctant source.

“Why did your wife kill your son?”

Stieger wasn’t going to let her questions get to him anymore. He wasn’t going to give her that power. “She had schizophrenia,” he said simply.

“No that is not an answer!” she banged her fist angrily on the table so hard that he flinched.

“Many women have schizophrenia,” she continued on, “and don’t kill their children.”

“Some do.”

“But why, why them? What makes them so different?”

“This all relates somehow with why my wife ended up in your grandfather’s coffin?”

“Absolutely,” she said in such an exasperated tone that Stieger managed to feel somehow like a fool.

Stieger sighed, “Alright then, well they’re paranoid,…I dunno they usually think their children are possessed or something and they’re saving them. The crazy ones at least.”

“Right,” Madeline said, pointing one slender graceful finger at him like it were a poignard.

“Consider for a minute that maybe they’re not wrong.”

Stieger shook his head, “Listen I’ve seen a couple of these ladies, and frankly they’re always on their way to the mother ship. I can even remember back to the week or two before my wife died and can remember the signs that she was coming apart. I didn’t do enough about it at the time and I know that now, but that’s what happened.”

“Consider what it would be like to be a woman in such close proximity with a being of such ultimate evil, caring for it, trying to love it, letting it suckle at your breast, gradually suspecting that something was wrong. Wouldn’t that begin to take apart someone’s mind, to come to realize that your child has become infected by something straight from Hell?”

This was all becoming too much for Stieger. She was distracting him with all this nutty talk, perhaps already setting the foundation of some kind of insanity plea. She was at the heart of Kluwer’s murder, had to be, whether she had done it or knew who did. “None of this helps me understand how you knew my wife was in that casket.” He looked at her for a moment, an icy stare meant to make a suspect uncomfortable. She didn’t look away though. “Did you kill Charles Kluwer?”

It was her time to sigh, and she suddenly sounded very weary, “I told you already, I know nothing about Charles Kluwer.” There was a momentary pause while she stared at him hard, “I’m disappointed in you, Detective Stieger. Follow the breadcrumbs and you’ll begin to get your answer. Just don’t blame me if you don’t like it.” She stood up, gathering her things, “I assume that I am not under arrest.”

With a twinge of defeat he nodded, “You’re free to go at any time.”

She walked to the door and as she passed by him he caught the scent of her skin and it was like cinnamon. She turned at the door and smiled at him, some of her ironic warmth returning, “We’ll meet again, I’m quite sure of it.”

On his way out of the building, the medical examiner’s office called. The examination of his wife’s body was complete and, aside from it being in the wrong casket, there was no evidence of any wrong doing. They had catalogued everything about the incident that could conceivably be evidence, although technically the whole incident looked more like a mistake at the mortuary home than it did any kind of crime. The connection with Kluwer’s murder was certainly odd, yet unclear. Bottom line, they were ready to release the body and wanted to know what Stieger wanted to do with it, being next of kin.

Good question, Stieger thought and then made a snap decision, “Send it to any mortuary other than the one that screwed up the first burial. Have them cremate her; I’ll pick up the ashes when they’re done.” There was no sense in going through another funeral. As much as anything else, he just as well assumed that his wife’s family never find out about this whole sordid affair. No use in opening up those old wounds. He’d just scatter his wife’s ashes over the original gravesite.

In thinking about that, it begged the question though, didn’t it? If his wife had ended up in the grave of Taylor Francis, where the Hell was Taylor Francis buried? Was he stuck in the grave where his wife should have been? It was time to visit a certain mortuary house and raise a little Hell of his own.

Driving over to the mortuary house that had handled his wife’s burial, Stieger worked himself into a mental frenzy. Either they had made one colossal, lawsuit-worthy FUBAR or they were somehow in cahoots with Madeline Francis, for reasons unknown. Neither option made him very happy. The guy who opened the door at the mortuary, dressed and mannered conservatively was young, not someone Stieger recognized from his wife’s burial. Then again, he was in such a fog those days that who knew. Stieger flashed his badge and explained the circumstances in the starkest and most legal terms and the young fellow had wilted like a flower in the hot Texas sun. The young guy scurried away to find the mortician himself.

Waiting for the mortician, Stieger wandered a bit from room to room, impatient. It was amazing how mortuaries managed to be so elegant and beautiful and yet so hideously ugly at the same time. In one room an elderly woman was laid out in her mahogany casket, ready for a viewing to occur later that evening. Right now they were alone together, Stieger and the deceased, she looking much more tranquil than he. Here, inevitably, everyone ended up, he thought to himself. This brought back memories of his wife’s wake. She’d been in the right casket at the time, so the transfer to Francis’ must have come after, between the wake and the burial. Beside her had been their son, the boy that she had killed. His had been a closed casket. Even a nine-mil, it seemed, could make a child’s skull fly apart when the fontanels weren’t all closed up yet. That, without question, had been the lousiest day of Stieger’s life.

At last the man arrived, a short squat lump of a man in a black suit with a white shirt. He looked like nothing so much as an 8-ball with an impending coronary.

“I’m Detective Stieger, State Police…” he began as the mortician entered.

The man held up a hand, his manner unimpressed, “I know who you are and why you are here.”

With every twist, Stieger felt more and more like he was being drawn into some kind of black hole. There was little he could do for the moment other than to raise his eyebrow and wait.

“It was inevitable that you should return one day,” the man said calmly, almost distractedly as he sat at a desk and rifled through the drawers for some paperwork. “Of course it would have been better for you had you not.”

Stieger watched the man carefully. He remembered the guy’s name, Mr. Haworth, it was. His demeanor now was quite different than during his wife’s funeral. Stieger was on alert, ready in case the fat man reached for a gun. “So then, you put my wife in another man’s casket on purpose?”

The man looked up from the desk, the first time in fact that he had made eye contact, “Oh yes. That was always the intention. Once events had gone awry there was no other easy way to put them back.”

The man was talking sheer nonsense and Stieger could make nothing out of it, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The man had retrieved whatever piece of paper he had been looking for, but made no move as of yet to show it to Stieger, although certainly that was his ultimate intention. “You will understand fully in time. I am but a bit player in this, a mere servant to a higher power, so there is only so much that I can tell you.”

“You were only following orders, is that it?”

“I was following orders, but gladly. It is my greatest joy to serve the dark power of the Lost Gods and Their Son on Earth, just as it is your joy to be his living host.”

The guy really seemed to be daft in the head. Sounded like he was spouting off some kind of cultist nonsense. This was certainly a different direction than he had expected this interview to take. He needed to get this guy into custody, down to the station where he could be interviewed properly. To hell with going on vacation. He could arrest him right here for tampering with a corpse, his wife’s corpse, if nothing else, and see what he might know about the murder of Charles Kluwer.

“Whose orders?” Stieger demanded. “Who told you to put my wife’s body in the casket of Taylor Francis?”

“Why you did,” Haworth the mortician answered evenly, and only now slid the paper he had recovered across the desk for Stieger to see. There it was all typed out, a formal request of all things to bribe Haworth to make the body switch. And there at the bottom of the paper was his signature. It was an excellent forgery of his signature. It had to be; who after all would write down such a conspiracy so nicely for posterity? And yet…and yet…

“It’s not possible…” Stieger stuttered. “Only a fool would commit a conspiracy like this to paper.” There was, however, a flicker of a memory teasing at the corners of his consciousness.

“Neither of us is a fool, Detective Stieger,” Haworth assured him without warmth. “I am but an obedient servant, and you I regret to say, were simply a victim of circumstance. As were your wife and son. It’s finally coming to a close for both of us however. I am to be off to my reward in Hell. I envy what it to come for you, for you will know first hand the blessings of the Lost Gods. What I would have given to be in your place.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Stieger said, his voice shaking, but he was rubbing his head where suddenly it hurt very badly.

Haworth watched Stieger curiously, “It was simply a matter of fortune. Taylor Francis had been the Son’s host for years and years. It was fortune that your son was born as Taylor Francis died; fortune that they would be but mere feet from each other in the Emergency Room.” It was true; his wife had given birth in the Emergency Room, before she could make it to maternity. Had a man died in the ER that same night? Stieger couldn’t remember; he’d had enough to focus on at the time.

“Thus the Son in abandoning Francis’ decrepit body, took your boy to be his new host. Your wife sensed it, and the closeness to such power drove her to madness. She said something was wrong with the boy, but you didn’t listen. Eventually in her madness, she killed her own child, hoping to drive the Son from this world forever,” Haworth’s voice rose as he spoke, becoming enraptured with his own narration. “Surprised and weakened, the Son had no choice but to take her as a host, yet she remained determined, took the rope from the garage. Struggling for control of her own body with the Son, she strung the rope from a rafter and hung herself. Desperate, with no one near to take as a host, the Son looked to have been vanquished. All hope was lost until at last, at the final moment…”

“Stop!” Stieger screamed, driving his fist into the table with such force that it caused even the resolute Haworth to jump back in surprise.

There was a moment of silence until at last Haworth smiled, pure pleasure spreading across his face. “Until at last her husband came home, to find her and to offer himself as host.”

Stieger coughed, staggered, feeling confused and disoriented. “This is just nonsense,” he said, but somehow didn’t believe it himself.

“I’m sorry to do this to you, My Grace,” Haworth said, that smile still plastered on his face.
Stieger looked up, confused as much by the salutation as anything else. As he did, a body pushed against him from behind, tall, strong. Stieger felt his arms pinned to his sides and a rag thrown against his mouth. There were acrid fumes and, confused through he still was, he knew enough not to breathe in the fumes, struggling as best he could against his captor. Haworth just watched on, always smiling. Stieger held his breath, pushing futilely against the powerful arms that encircled him. Of course, eventually, everyone needs to breathe.

III

Stieger awoke to a splitting headache and the distant sound of sirens. His head was still fuzzy but it took him only a minute to look around and guess that he was screwed. He was still at the funeral home, in the very same room in fact. Before him lay the body of Haworth, his head surrounded by a halo of blood that had drained out of a neat little hole in the forehead. Stieger woke to find his 9mm in his right hand. It was not difficult for him to put the two together. Whoever had knocked him out was gone, as was the letter that made Stieger look like he had been in on moving his wife’s body, the letter that tied him to this whole confusing affair. It couldn’t have been the young guy who had met him at the door who had held his arms like that, it was someone stronger. The young guy was gone too though, likely having called the police. An unarmed Haworth, killed by Stieger’s gun, and probably the young guy was going to say that he did it in cold blood. Stieger had been set up well; the only wonder of it that Haworth had gone down so willingly into his own slaughter.

He had been lucky that the ether he had been knocked out with had worn out fast, before the police arrived. So moments later he was off and away, a fugitive now at least until he could figure out what the Hell was going on. The police would be looking for him, thinking he was linked somehow in Kluwer’s murder, and almost certainly in Haworth’s. Even if time would prove him innocent, he felt as if time was not something that was on his side. He went to the only place he could think of.

“Well,” Madeline exclaimed with a raised eyebrow, “this is quite the surprise.”

“Events have gotten away from me. I need your help.”

She turned away and walked back into her house, leaving the door open for him, “I think I see blood droplets on your jacket. I can’t wait for you to tell me.”

And tell her he did, knowing as he did so, how little any of it made sense to him. It all sounded like the senseless ranting of a lunatic, yet he somehow couldn’t dismiss it.

Something was drastically wrong. Madeline listened to it all with rapt attention, displaying not one whit of surprise.

“This is what I’ve been trying to tell you along.”

“Well you haven’t done a very direct job of it,” he observed, irritated.

“As I told you, there are Rules about what I can and what I can’t tell you.”

“Whose rules?”

“They are the rules of antiquity. The Lost Gods, your Christian God, who knows. It’s like asking whose rules govern gravity or the motion of the planets. They are simply the rules and I am bound by them.”

“Whose side are you on?” he asked her, knowing it was both a stupid and desperate question.

She shrugged, “I find you rather entertaining, so I suppose I am rooting for you at the moment. It could change depending upon your behavior.”

It was an honest sounding answer at least. “What can you tell me?”

“Since the man Haworth has told you much, I can try to clarify what he has told you. What I will say will sound improbable, yet you will know it to be true.”

Stieger found a comfortable chair and, thankfully a glass of bourbon found him.

“First,” Madeline began once he was ready, “I would pay little heed to Haworth’s talk of Lost Gods and whatnot. My grandfather created a certain mythology around himself and found converts to his cause. He was of the opinion that religious zealots made for the most loyal of sycophants.”

“Haworth took a bullet for the cause, so he must have been on to something.”

“My grandfather may have been indestructible, but he was far from infallible. He wielded great power during his life, but he also drank heavily and was given to great rage. When he drank he would sometimes talk about having past lives. Being raised from a child in such an environment, I had little reason to be skeptical of his claims, but even now with the resources at my disposal I can say that the people my grandfather claimed to have once inhabited were real, documented people, each of them powerful and angry. Haworth has told you much about the nature of my grandfather as he sees it. The truth is that my grandfather, throughout his lifetime was the host for some kind of parasitic being, a soul with no body of its own, but which steals bodies from others. Taylor Francis was certainly not the first host, and obviously was not the last.”

Stieger drank. It helped. “So that’s what Haworth was saying, that this parasitic soul infected my son, then my wife, then me, trying to keep itself from dying?”

Madeline nodded, “That is the basics of it. The parasite seems to be able to transfer to a new body at the moment of death of the old. It cannot move at will, otherwise it would have left my grandfather long before he died as my grandfather died of a long and painful illness.

He finally died at the same time and in the same hospital when your son was born. The parasite is limited in how far it can travel; to die alone is a death sentence for it. In a crowded hospital though, it’s no problem. The parasite prefers to infect infants, as it can easy eject their own souls and take possession of the body. With adults, it has a much harder time. It may be forced to compete for control of the body, or indeed lie dormant with little control. It’s only hope is to weaken the mind of the host to the point that it can eject the host and take possession. When your wife, perhaps already experiencing post-partum mental illness and sensing the evil that had possessed your son, killed him, the parasite had no choice but to infect her. Though her mind was weakened, certainly, she ultimately hung herself rather than submit to its rule. The parasite must have been quite desperate then, alone, dying. Not all cells in the body die at once, and it’s not clear how long the parasite can survive in a dying body, but things must have seemed quite hopeless until…”

“…until I came home and found the bodies.”

“Discovering the murder suicide must have weakened your psyche considerably, enough that the parasite could nudge your behavior to sign that odd document moving your wife’s corpse. It was the parasite’s loyal minions, however, who have controlled the plot to shock you with your wife’s body, then have you framed for murder so that you would mentally break down and give the parasite the opportunity it needs to control your body. Once that happened, the evidence against you in the murder of Haworth would certainly evaporate; the witness recant, the forensic evidence become lost. The parasite could resume your life as if nothing had ever gone wrong.”

Stieger found himself shaking his head. This was simply the most outlandish thing he had ever heard of. Even if it wasn’t true, all this talk about a parasitic soul, at the very least Taylor Francis had managed to convince a small group of followers of his paranormal nature. In the end it was they who had moved his wife’s body and set him up for the murder of Haworth, all in an effort to supposedly make his mind more malleable for this parasite. If they had done that, then they had murdered Charles Kluwer too. Now it was just a matter of finding out whom they were. It was time to go back to the beginning, investigate the murder of Charles Kluwer. Haworth hadn’t been some random person; he had volunteered to be murdered. Perhaps Kluwer had done the same. It made more sense to think he was up against some nutty cult than to believe there really was some kind of spiritual parasite living in his head.

“The last two days have been the oddest of my life,” Stieger muttered.

“You should stay for the night,” Madeline said.

Stieger raised an eyebrow.

Madeline laughed, “Not like that. It’s becoming late and you must be quite exhausted and still recovering from being drugged. I’ll have the maid turn down a room for you.”

Stieger thought about it for the moment. On the surface, it was simply stupid. Any other investigation and Madeline ought still be a person of interest, if not an outright suspect. It couldn’t be said that she came across as the benevolent type, yet she had been pushing and nudging him at least vaguely in the direction of the truth, at least within the bounds of what she called the rules. The idea intrigued him as well; once in a position as chaotic as tenuous as his own, timidity no longer held any appeal. It was true, too, that he was exhausted and still sick from the ether. Assuming the he was a suspect himself in the death of Haworth, he could not return to his own home. So he agreed and became Madeline’s guest for the night. She was clearly pleased by it, and as they dined later that night, Stieger could sense the change in her, that she had come fully into his camp. In a moment of clarity he realized why.

“You’re lonely here aren’t you?” he asked.

She laughed and blushed, looking down into a glass of wine so red it looked like blood,

“Being descended from Taylor Francis left a taint on our bloodline. My father went mad and killed himself. I had a brother who, at eighteen, left home and has never been heard from again. As for myself, well, I have never worked and played well with the other children. I see the world very differently from most people. It’s like everything is just a game. Even now, I’m playing with your life, you know. If you succeed, then I beat my grandfather.”

It was an answer that wasn’t an answer. He reached out with one hand and touched hers, gently, barely running his fingers along the back of her hand. She didn’t recoil, but watched him uncertainly. It was the first time that he felt as if he actually had the upper hand with her. Her skin was soft and warm, and he enjoyed the feeling against his own fingertips. Her eyes, fiery and intense, watched him like those of a feral cat. Pushing his good fortunes no more, he drew his hand away and said only, “Well, I hope you win.” Tired, and yet intensely exhilarated, he excused himself for bed.

Although it was difficult for him to sleep, the night passed peacefully without event. A part of him wondered if Madeline might have come to him in the night. He hadn’t been with a woman since his wife died and Madeline certainly had a kind of electric interest in him. It was just wishful thinking though and she left him undisturbed. That meant he was left to his own thoughts and he pondered the merits of the supernatural story he had been fed, first by Haworth, then by Madeline. He wasn’t one to naturally believe in hocus pocus, and he certainly didn’t feel like he was sharing his skull with any parasitic spirit. On the other hand, if anything was going to break him, being a police officer sent to prison certainly could do it. What an option there, either get abused in the general population, or spend 24/7 in isolation. Either way he’d go nuts. Parasitic spirit or not, he was in it deep unless he could prove that he’d been set up for Haworth’s murder. Odds were, once an investigation got going, he’d be cleared, but a lot of damage could be done by then.

He got up early and left before Madeline was awake. He drove across the state, a drive of about forty minutes, to the home of Charles Kluwer. There he met Kluwer’s mother, a woman as old as the seas with a sharp mind and a body running on fumes.

“I already answered questions about Charles,” she said after he had introduced himself. “I don’t know what he was doing in that section of town, nor who would want to kill him.” Her voice told the story of grief being ripped open again and again by one set of questions after another. She was tired of talking about her boy, just wanted him in the ground with herself soon to follow.

“Charles has had a few scrapes, hasn’t he? Did he ever mention anyone in particular who might have it out for him?”

“Charles was a good boy,” his mother said, defensively, rocking herself on the porch of her rickety old 18th century house. “He just couldn’t tell a good scheme from a bad one. He was getting himself straight though; ready to turn a new corner.”

“Did he mention anything about getting involved in religion lately?”

The old woman shook her head, “Charles never was one for sitting still much and listening to sermons. Same with school; sitting still was not his thing. Guess they’d diagnose him with that ADD nowadays. He’d be too busy sleeping off his Saturday adventures to go to church on Sunday morning.”

So no overt religious overtones; still getting involved with a cult might have been something that he kept from his mother. “Any change in his behavior lately?”

“Just for the better,” she replied. “Like I said, he was trying to go straight. Got himself a straight job selling cars.” Stieger frowned at that, not sure that selling cars was his definition of a straight job. Going from selling junk to the elderly to selling junk cars to everyone else wasn’t exactly a switch in tool sets. Just as well the old woman hadn’t noticed his frown.

“Did he say what set him on the straight and narrow?” Stieger asked.

“Last time he got himself arrested, this cop saw potential in him and gave him a little helping hand, helped him get a real job. That officer was helping Charles turn things around.”

Stieger had never met Charles Kluwer, at least not intact, but a read of his police file offered little to suggest much by the way of potential. “Did Charles tell you the name of this police officer?”

“Sure,” the old woman said, and a small smile emerged as she seemed to remember the officer fondly, probably for the help he had given her son, “nice Providence officer by the name of Springer.”

Stieger was running off of an adrenaline high, some kind of mixture of anger and excitement. That damn officer Springer had played him right from the beginning. Springer had contacted him directly, and it was Springer who claimed to have gotten the tip about Kluwer’s murder in the first place. The bastard had set the whole thing up, killed Kluwer, and got the ball rolling for Stieger to find his wife’s body. Springer must have planted the fingerprint of Taylor Francis at the scene. How exactly he had done that was still a mystery; maybe he had reconstructed the print somehow from old military records, maybe he even still had Francis’ hand lying around someplace, who knew? Probably Springer was the guy who had got him from behind and ethered him at Haworth’s funeral home too, he was a big enough guy for the job.

A little probing in the Springer’s background and whereabouts at the time of Kluwer’s and Haworth’s deaths would take the heat off himself. With this in mind, he pulled into the parking garage underneath the State Police office in Providence. He was going to have to turn himself in, but he was confident now that it would be only a short time before he could set things right.

With a thrill coursing through his veins, Stieger switched off the ignition and opened the door of his car. When he looked up he was starting down the barrel of a 9mm. The thrill drained out of him like semen from a ruptured condom.

“Get back in the car, Detective,” Chief of Ds Pryczinski commanded from behind the gun, “you and I are going for a drive.”

IV

“This is really a big mistake, Chief,” Stieger said, driving his car through the Providence streets following Pryczinski’s directions. “I can’t understand how you got suckered in to all this Lost Gods stuff. You know it’s just a scam Francis used to rope in some loyal followers.”

Pryczinski sat in the passenger seat, gun on Stieger at all times. Stieger’s own weapon had, of course, been taken from him. Pryczinski said nothing in response to Stieger’s taunts. His was the expression of a man certain in the fortitude of his own faith; no need to reply defensively when all was certain to be soon revealed. Stieger was screwed and he knew it; scam or not, these guys were in it for good. Running for it wasn’t going to help. They’d shoot him, happy as can be, convinced that their precious parasitic soul would just latch onto whoever was nearby.

“So where are we off to this fine afternoon?” Stieger asked, trying a different tact.

Finally Pryczinski responded, his voice pleasant and convivial, “We had been hoping that our efforts in jolting you into letting the Gods’ Son come to the fore of your mind would have been more successful. Unfortunately you’re too stubborn to give up. Somewhat more direct methods will have to be employed now. If only you could see what an honor it is to host the Gods’ Son, it would be so much easier for all involved.”

Stieger rolled his eyes. Eesh, these guys were such saps. No doubt they planned on killing him now. Probably one of them was lined up to be the next willing receptacle. They probably should have offed him while Haworth was willing to be a sacrifice, but probably the Gods’ Son wouldn’t want to be stuck in the fat aging body of a mortician. At least these cultists had some good sense when it came to taste in bodily aesthetics.

At last they came to the Church of Our Lady of Providence. This was an old gilded affair, trying desperately to be like the ostentatious cathedrals of Europe. Stieger had come here sometimes with his wife, who had been Catholic. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding,” Stieger remarked upon seeing their destination, “this is where you cultists hang out? My son was baptized here!”

“Irony, isn’t it?” Pryczinski observed, ordering him out of the car. The door to the church was locked but Pryczinski had a key. Inside the building was dark, although rows upon rows of lit candles made visibility possible. What was it with cultists and candles, Stieger wondered, couldn’t the old gods deal with neon? It was still a Catholic Church with the usual trappings, only now the cultists had set up for their own private ceremony. Besides Pryczinski was the young man from the funeral home and Springer. The young man was strapped down onto a gurney up near the altar. He seemed relaxed, and Stieger guessed that he had volunteered to be the Gods’ Son’s next host. Springer stood next to him, dressed in a black robe and holding a pair of electrodes attached to a car battery. This, somehow, did not bode well.

“You found him,” Springer said, clearly pleased.

“I believe that he was coming to turn you in,” Pryczinski observed quietly.

Springer raised an eyebrow at that, “Yes, well, very clever.” It was then that Stieger noticed that around Springer’s neck hung a chain, at the end of which hung a wrinkled human hand.

Although somewhat desiccated, it wasn’t mummified, and Stieger guessed that it likely spent most of its time in a jar of formaldehyde. Thus solved the mystery of Taylor Francis’ fingerprint. Probably kept the rest of the old coot’s body in a trunk somewhere.

Stieger could only shake his head at the sheer insanity of it all. These people, on the death of their revered cult leader, focused on Stieger’s son and wife as the conduit of this supposed parasitic soul. Sheer coincidence in timing and synchronicity had brought the tragedy of his own family into intersection with this bizarre group. Now it came down to this with them about to electrocute one of their own, and kill Stieger in the bargain. What a stupid way to die.

“Let us proceed,” Springer said simply. The young mortician lay quietly and serenely, welcoming the end of his own life in the belief that he would be the vessel of a god. Springer placed the electrodes against either side of the young man’s head, “First we must make vacant, the receptacle of the God’s Son.”

“I don’t think that’s a real good idea…” Stieger suggested. No one listened though, and a moment later there was a sizzling sound and the body of the young man arched and strained against the restraints holding him down. His body convulsed for a moment like that: his back arching, spasms shooting through—before he came back down onto the gurney.

He began flopping like a fish on a wharf. Springer watched on, looking pleased.

“The receptacle is ready,” Springer finally pronounced, once the young man’s body had relaxed. “Free the God’s Son…”

“Hey wait a minute…” Stieger protested, turning to look at Pryczinski. He had just enough time to duck as Pryczinski fired at him, the bullet grazing his shoulder as he moved. Pain radiated from the wound like it was on fire. Stieger knew that these were likely his last moments.

“Stop!” Springer suddenly shouted. “He’s gone into cardiac arrest…”

Stieger, of course, could have forewarned them that bringing on a seizure with a car battery was not a recipe for success. He wasn’t about to quibble with the timing though. Pryczinski was distracted by Springer’s shout and didn’t see Stieger coming at him. Stieger caught the black man with a tackle about the waist. They went down together, another shot ringing out uselessly in the Church. Pryczinski was strong, and Stieger had one injured arm, but Stieger was also the more desperate of the two given current circumstances. With his good hand he punched Pryczinski repeatedly in the face, feeling his fist crush the stunned man’s nose.

Stieger reached for the 9mm, but Pryczinski was still determined to keep it. Stieger was thankful that Springer was occupied trying to revive the young mortician. Against the two other cops Stieger wouldn’t have a chance on his own. Pryczinski had his hand on Stieger’s face, trying to claw at his eyes. Stieger just kept hitting, pinning down Pryczinski’s gun hand with one arm and bashing in his face with the other. At last Pryczinski swooned and lost consciousness, and Stieger was able to retrieve the 9mm.

He had barely a chance to stand up before he was ducking for cover from new gunshots, now coming from Springer. Stieger found shelter behind one of the wooden pews and took a moment to catch his breath. The obvious good news was that, whatever else might be going on, things were not going well for the cultists. Springer was simultaneously trying to revive the young mortician, while keeping Stieger pinned down. Eventually he knew he had to give up, as he was too exposed and had to abandon the mortician.

“Things aren’t going as planned, eh Springer?” Stieger shouted across the church. He could hear Springer running to take cover, and looked out behind the pew just long enough to see Springer duck behind the altar.

Springer didn’t respond, but Stieger could hear the other man’s heavy breathing.

“You’re really an idiot you know,” Stieger taunted, “this whole story about Lost Gods was just made up to get Francis some willing suckers like you to do his bidding. You just tossed your life away for a myth.”

Still no reply from Springer; at very least these guys weren’t easy to get agitated.

Keeping low and quiet, Stieger moved forward and to the side. He needed to flank Springer, get around the side of the altar so that he could get a descent shot. Springer wasn’t going to give himself up, not after all this. One of them had to go down. What a big mess this all was, with that poor sonofabitch Kluwer the real victim here. At least Haworth and his young assistant had volunteered to be snuffed out for the cause.

Stieger didn’t know how many other cultists there might be. He guessed that there couldn’t be many more; most of the fools would have wanted to be here to watch the parasitic soul transfer around. Still, he couldn’t be sure. Springer might have reinforcements on the way, and Stieger had to act fast in case he might soon find himself outnumbered.

He moved quietly around to the side, fortunate that Springer was lying low and hadn’t spotted him yet. He flanked Springer, until at last he could see Springer’s robed ass poking out from behind the altar. What the Hell, a target was a target and there was no more room to flank further to the side. Holding his breath and taking careful aim, Stieger shot Springer in the hip.

The Providence officer yelled out in pain, yipping like a dog whose paw had been stepped on. Springer stood and, spotting Stieger, fired his weapon but the shot was hasty and went wide. Stieger had a careful bead on the other officer though, and let loose with three clean shots in a row, tapping Springer three times in the chest right around the heart. Springer went over backwards without a sound, his flailing hands bringing down several golden bowls near the tabernacle before his body came to a rest and lay motionless behind the altar.

Above him the statue of Christ on the cross watched him with sadness.

Stieger checked on Springer, mindful that the damn fool could very well be wearing a Kevlar vest under those robes. Apparently he hadn’t come that prepared, though, as Stieger found no pulse when he checked.

Feeling relaxed and triumphant, Stieger stood and turned. He was surprised to find Pryczinski standing behind him; his own 9mm trained on Stieger. Pryczinski’s eyes were wide and maniacal behind his bloody and bashed face. Those eyes were intent on murder. Stieger flinched and tried to duck, but this time Pryczinski’s shot caught him good and square in the shoulder, no grazing shot but a through-and-through. Stieger crashed back against the tabernacle, threatening to send it and him spinning to the ground on top of Springer’s lifeless form.

Pryczinski took careful aim once more and said, “I’ll take the Son’s spirit myself.” He shot Stieger again, and Stieger felt blinding pain tear through his neck. Hot sticky blood began to pour from the wound in his neck like beer from an untended keg. He fell, coming down hard on one knee. Though weakening fast, he used the momentum of his own fall to bring his right hand up, the 9mm facing Pryczinski. He couldn’t speak with the hole in his throat, but he had the energy to pull the trigger and with great satisfaction, sent Pryczinski’s brains scattering across the apse.

Stieger fell to all fours. His left arm was not much good for moving with the shot through the shoulder. He had to roll onto his back so he could put his right hand up against his throat. Oh, it hurt so badly and it was bleeding a ton. He looked at the blood on his hand; it was dark, venous. That bastard Pryczinski had gotten him in the jugular most likely. Even with pressure against it, that gave him what, a minute or two before he’d lose consciousness, then bleed out right here at the altar. He could fish around for his cell phone, but he’d have to take his hand away from his throat to do it. He wouldn’t be able to talk, but maybe 911 could locate him by triangulating the phone’s signal. Stieger lay back against the cold floor as his own blood began to spill around him. Meh, it wasn’t going to matter, an ambulance would never get here in time.

Perhaps, he thought, it was for the best anyway. If Madeline was right, if there was a parasitic soul stuck in his head, then this was it for the damn thing wasn’t it? Everyone else in the building was dead and Stieger was on his own way out. Maybe the thing could live in his body for a bit after Stieger’s brain died, as it had done in his wife’s, but for how long?

Letting himself die, perhaps that was the best way of getting rid of this damn thing. Stieger couldn’t quite bring himself to pull his hand away from his throat, but as he felt himself losing consciousness, he thought that at least he’d have the satisfaction of taking that damn parasitic soul with him. That was something at least.

Stieger had his white-light moment, a dreamy floating feeling that left him looking down at his own body left laying in a pool of blood on the church floor. “Well,” he found himself thinking, “at least this means that there’s some kind of afterlife. Unless my brain’s just low on oxygen and I’m hallucinating. That would suck.”

Unseen but in the vicinity, still stuck in the dying body, Stieger could feel the presence of an Other…something inhuman and cruel and currently panicking like a trapped animal. As Stieger drifted into death with a sense of calm acceptance the thing railed futilely at the dead body that trapped it and suffocated it. There was nowhere for it to go, and time was limited.

For Stieger, drifting away, he was at peace though, content in knowing that, if nothing else, he had done the best that he could and died at the top of his game. When the lights finally winked out it was like going home.

When the lights winked back on, he was decidedly not at home. There was noise and bright white light all around him; chaos rather than serenity, suffering rather than satisfaction. For a moment he thought that he might have been in some kind of dazzling beeping Hell. He opened his mouth to cry out.

“Don’t talk,” a quite female voice said from besides him. Madeline leaning over him, her expression still somehow more amused than concerned. Still, she was stroking his hair and it felt good. “You’re at Rhode Island Hospital and you’ve lost a lot of blood. You’re going to be alright though.”

It was weird to feel both relieved to be alive and saddened. If there was anything to Madeline’s theories about the parasitic soul, and Stieger wasn’t really sure that there wasn’t anymore, then that damn thing was still trapped in his head. He looked down at his own body, found his neck and shoulder covered with thick bandages. Around him nurses and doctors moved, and people were wheeled back and forth on stretchers and in wheelchairs.

He was in the Emergency Room.

“You’re the most interesting thing to come my way in a long time,” Madeline was saying smoothly. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t let you die. It was a near thing though. You lost so much blood that the doctors here had to restart your heart.” She winked at him and a knowing smile creased the corners of her mouth.

Then, as if on cue, Stieger heard the cry of a newborn infant. Turning to look he saw the child, a girl he guessed from the pink blanket keeping her warm, snuggling just a few gurneys down with her exhausted mother. The curtains were drawn back now, but the woman must have given birth in the Emergency Room just moments before. Just like his wife had. Stieger could only watch them from across the room, Madeline still stroking his hair. He felt cold and helpless dismay, knowing that in living, he had failed.

 

Christopher J. Ferguson ~ “I am a professor of psychology at Stetson University in DeLand, FL. I have published previous works in outlets such as Aphelion, Bewildering Stories, Sanitarium Magazine, and Allegory Magazine. I also have a novel, Suicide Kings, published through the Wild Rose Press. I can be reached at my website ChristopherJFerguson.com”

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