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16. The Mirror’s
The Scalabrini family had saved
Bingly from certain death following the collapse of the logging industry,
which had been the town’s pulsing lifeblood from the outset. Bingly,
at its conception, had been a glorified workers’ camp, isolated in
the rolling back hills of this lush, wooded county, and the town had
grown from necessity as the gruff workers fetched their families to
settle. There’d been no point packing up and moving to greener pastures,
this mecca had been green enough to sustain the industry for generations.
It’d been paradise.
been redwood country. Benjamin August Weller had seen pictures—black
and white photos—one of which rendered two suspender-wearing lumberjacks
standing beside a massive tree trunk, a long, double-manned saw held
between them, its jagged teeth biting into the furry brown hide of the
the redwoods had been all but wiped out, Bingly had nearly been abandoned,
left to rot in the raped countryside. The only people left in the township
had been the diehards, the hangers on, the ones who had owned their
houses, owned their land, and couldn’t sell their property without
taking a loss, and so had no option, really, but to stay. Or maybe they
just hadn’t wanted to move; maybe to them Bingly had epitomized homeland.
And so, when the eccentric winemakers came and offered to save their
town, not one question was asked, not one concern of the Scalabrini’s
agenda was raised. The Scalabrini family had set up their vineyard,
and they’d dumped monies into the town, building it up to even grander
heights than during the peak of the logging boom. And Bingly had been
lifted up once more. But as the adage goes, what goes up… Why’d
the Scalabrini dynasty have to pick Bingly of all places? Could have
set up in a livelier place, a place more centrally located, that’s
for sure. Benjamin bemoaned poor little old Bingly’s fate as he was
poked and prodded and steer deeper into the wild growth that surrounded
left the lower slope of Hog Hill and hacked their way into the wicker-weave
of dead grape vines. This acreage was spiked with support rods, moldering
wooden scaffolding that the once fruitful grapevines had climbed. Benjamin
had seen the extent of damage the bone crutches were capable of as Elvis
or the smaller gimp had preceded the troop and cleared the way, their
edged forearms swinging in front of them like a pair of scythes, mulching
grapevines and support rods, piling the debris up to either side of
the newly wrought pathway.
their advance had begun to incline, Benjamin had known they were nearing
the dilapidated Scalabrini mansion. He had examined topographical maps
of the area, and he knew the mansion sat on a raised shelf of land in
the midst of the fetid plantation. It’d made no sense to him that
he hadn’t spotted the house from the grassy slope of Hog Hill. It
should have been towering up from the odoriferous crop, demanding attention,
like a cantankerous street preacher on his soapbox.
misdirection had befuddled him back on the slope, he’d known he was
bound to see the house of local legend, just as soon as the gimps cleared
the dead bramble from his frame of view, and this anticipated sighting
had thrilled him. Brinikin inhabited the house like lice, if legend
held true, which, of course, it never did. Legends are frail things,
Benjamin knew. Not every detail is exactly true to shape or background
as told over the campfire or at bedtime. The true form of legend is
usually a twist of its grand and gruesome model. These current events
were no fairytale, after all, he told himself, and life was never as
fantastic as it appeared in his head. Regardless, whatever number of
Brinikin still survived, he felt certain the Scalabrini vineyard was
where they’d be hiding, clustered inside the nest like larvae in a
had moved to the rear of the foursome, and Benjamin had kept tabs on
him, noting the evolution of his mutation, peering over his shoulder
from time to time at the monster that Dodd had become. The arm bones
had extended, and they’d proved too long for Dodd to walk like a normal
man. The skeletal hands had dragged in the mulch left behind by the
path-clearing gimps, and Dodd had stepped on the hand bones repeatedly
until they snapped loose and were left on the trail behind him. It’d
taken Dodd a bit of practice, but eventually he’d begun to use the
radius and ulna pairings as crutches, which had slowed him down even
Benjamin had noted the advancement of maneuvering skills as Dodd had
learned to lower his body, bend his elbows, and shuffle the bulbous
tips of the crutches in front of him as he’d worked his legs furiously,
speeding his gait greatly. He’d found that the farther he leaned forward
the faster he’d advance, scuttling along the dirt like some oversized
brow had grown during the hike. It had become the familiar hat brim
brow, encircling the skull and pronounced over the eyes. Benjamin had
seen the cleaved skullcap scar earlier, so the brim had to be the result
of mending bone, like a solder seam on a metal joint that grew thicker
and stronger as more beadings were added. Dodd’s charred skin had
toughened itself, grown layers until it mimicked the dark, weathered
skin coats all the gimps wore. The less crisp flesh beneath the coat
was red and raw.
the time the troop had come to a halt at the base of the steeper incline
that led to the house, Dodd’s transformation was complete, and this
made Benjamin’s stomach turn. Not that he much cared for Dodd or was
saddened by the man becoming a monster before his eyes, but the burnt
face of the man had burst in places, and each fresh wound’s depth
was evident now that Dodd had finally caught up with the rest of them.
Plus, there was an awful lot of milky pus dribbling about.
turned from the thing that had been Dodd. The vines and poles had been
cleared. Their pathway led out onto a gravel driveway that meandered
up the slope to the top of the towering landmass. The incline was such
that the house was beyond sight, just over the rise.
must have been past noon. Benjamin was drenched in sweat, the dirt from
the hike pasted to his skin. He certainly was not looking forward to
climbing the driveway, even if his reward was the discovery of the nest.
Even that Holy Grail was hardly worth hiking up the slope, tired as
he was. Not only was Benjamin’s mouth dry; it was as if his entire
insides had dried up. He needed water. Food and rest would be nice,
but he had to have water soon, or he’d fold in on himself, blow away
in the breeze, if only there was a breeze to cool his blistering skin.
had a plan to try and maneuver himself behind Dodd. The Browning was
still slung over Dodd’s shoulder, held to his back by the strap across
his chest. Benjamin figured he had an advantage over the gimps. He had
hands. If he could yank the rifle from Dodd’s back, he might have
a fighting chance against the threesome. He’d seen Dodd load the rifle
earlier, when the man’s hands hadn’t been completely useless, so
there were more than enough bullets in the gun to take these miserable
zombies out. He’d wanted to time the attack for when they were inside
the house, however. Didn’t know how he’d get inside the Scalabrini
mansion other than by prisoner escort. But now all his plans were scrapped.
He needed to concentrate on tramping up the rise, and he knew that once
he reached the summit, he’d be far too exhausted to yank anything
off anybody. He put one boot in front of the other on the dusty track
that led up the slope, following the smaller gimp, its odor nauseating
him. Elvis was behind Benjamin, urging him forward. Dodd galloped up
the drive. Off to meet his new master, Benjamin figured, and taking
the Browning with him.
up the drive, Benjamin lifted his gaze from the gravel, and was treated
to a blinding glint of light. After a few muttered curses and a couple
seconds of blind marching, he cautiously lifted his eyes to squint at
the glut of stressed framework, warped siding, peeling paint, and general
disarray that were looming atop the upthrust nub of earth. The house
was just now peering over the rise, looking down on Benjamin and the
troop that dared to approach its perch, and with each aching step of
Benjamin’s feet, more of the house came into view. It looked nothing
like the empyrean dwelling Benjamin had imagined it to be.
ago, he’d unearthed a newsprint photo, an article written about the
family that had swooped down on Bingly and saved it from disgrace and
ruin. The photo had been taken a long time ago, and the image was nondescript,
grainy and smudged, but Benjamin had filled in the details, imagined
the stronghold in grand scale with flawless design and quality workmanship.
The Scalabrini family, from the day they’d moved in, according to
the article Benjamin had found, had been a reclusive bunch, but during
the beginning stages of Bingly’s fiefdom—that’s what it’d been,
Benjamin figured, and he’d never come across anything that refuted
his romantic medieval twist on Bingly’s history—they’d brought
in the best craftsmen, builders and architects. Their castle, not to
mention the surrounding acreage, had been plotted to perfection, and
those plans had been executed with the utmost precision.
Hall had been built on the same parcel of land where the last band of
lumberjacks had long ago set up their temporary housing. Benjamin had
read this factoid in the same article that had presented the photo of
the house. Apparently, even as the industry ebbed, the supply of redwood
nearly sucked dry, the Bingly lumberjacks would not let it go, would
not pack it in, and that last crew of rough and tumble men’s men had
built themselves quite a reputation as the ultimate of diehards. They’d
worked for some Italian firm over in the city, and from what Benjamin
had pieced together, the whole sordid affair had become something rather
illegal, black-market timber, something about Japan paying top dollar
for the precious wood. Made no sense to Benjamin at the time, and so
he’d buried the trivial info, forgotten it pretty much, deciding it
was more than likely that some wax-mustachioed, bowler-capped journalist
had made up a juicy press release to sell papers. The meat of the story,
the part that had interested Benjamin, was that this merry band of renegade
axemen had set up their last camp exactly where Scalabrini Hall now
stood. After the loggers had disappeared, ran off and dove into more
promising avenues of work—or perhaps the same profession somewhere
else, where the trees were rife and the liquor bountiful—their camp
had remained just as they’d left it. Weeks later, the Scalabrini family
had waltzed in and built their home right atop the campsite, entombed
house they’d built had been immaculate. Perhaps not as much as the
house that had formed inside Benjamin’s head over his years of study,
but close to it. Of the house in his head, the central structure was
simple in design: plantation style, blockish, a brute of a home, perfectly
square, one hundred feet to each side. It rose three stories high, its
massive roof pitched steeply, with rooms seemingly rising to fourth
and fifth levels, jutting dormers at varying heights, growing from the
shingled sides of the main roof like mushrooms from rotting deadwood,
structures, towers, and obelisks, rising above those. No one had ever
been invited inside the mansion, the reclusive Scalabrini clan had never
allowed tours, and so Benjamin had dreamed up and sketched many a floor
plan for the strange third floor and attic, and the sub- and upper-level
attic as well. He’d salivated at the thought of invading the house,
climbing to the third floor and beyond, and investigating each nook,
each cranny. The roof was a busy, crowded thing, with its dormers at
different levels, its chimney pots and vents, its spiking towers, its
wrought iron balconies and brass domed exhausts. It was the roofline
of some fantastic village, sliced off at gable height and placed atop
the front of the house, the east side, three huge columns rose from
the lawn, supporting the broad portico above the main entry. The double
doors were reached via curved steps that began well inside the columns
station, leading up to a porch with detailed balustrade. The columns
rose beyond the second-floor balcony, and they supported the third-floor
porch as well, making the front of the house appear Greek in style.
The three tiers of porches with their roomy outthrust balconies, the
crafted balusters, and the wisteria trailing off the railings, made
Benjamin think of Louisiana, the South and its Victorian/Gothic homes.
It was a hybrid design, Benjamin figured, or maybe it wasn’t. What
the hell did he know about architecture anyway?
each side of the huge central structure, to the south and north, stretched
single-story wings. The hipped roofs were pitched shallow, cantilevered,
the eaves protruding a few feet beyond the walls. These buildings were
straight and narrow, their fronts recessed a good forty or fifty feet
from the front of the central structure, but they were long. These were
more pedestrian in their design, not as regal as the main hub, but to
Benjamin the wings looked more livable. The first-level porch built
around the main house wrapped around the outstretched wings, and French
doors opened onto this. The north wing had its northern half filled
with windows, glass from baseboard to roof beam. One massive chimney
sat atop the gentle sloped northern roof, and a set of stairs led from
the north end of the wing down to the garden. A cobbled path meandered
through the blooms that spread eastward, edging up against the lawn
that carpeted the welcoming stretch of land from front stair to cliff
edge. And here, at the cliff’s edge, was where the photo had been
taken, the shoddy newsprint photo of the house that was the basis for
Benjamin’s aggrandizement. As he laboriously stepped up the drive,
the entire house came into view, and he looked at it disapprovingly,
as it was nothing like the house he’d built in his head.
one thing, the central village-like roof was gone. The roof that had
mesmerized Benjamin years ago, smudged and blurry in the newsprint photo,
with all its angles and chimney pots and peaks, was gone. A bald dome
was the first Benjamin saw of the house, and it blinded him when he’d
first lifted his gaze from the gravel. The reflective lance of light
had attached him, tried to turn him away. The gleaming dome was made
of metal or glass, ribbed with a framework of some sort. Benjamin saw
the ragged remains of the house’s third story. The walls had been
hacked away. The dome rose from within the interior of the main house,
its dimensions near that of the house. Benjamin could see the huge dome
was indeed made of glass, could see hints of things inside the dome,
black and brown things, but nothing inside was clear, not unlike the
blurry newsprint photo.
once white siding, what remained of it, was green with molds and creepers.
The upper porches sagged. One of the columns had fallen over and been
left to rot on the unkempt lawn. It looked to have ripped the third-floor
balcony from the house when it’d fell. The south single-story wing
was gone. The cliff on that side had corroded, fallen away, and it’d
taken the south wing with it. The garden was a jungle. The front steps
were covered in weed and wild brush. The front double doors were boarded
up and unwelcoming. Seemed the framework of the central structure leaned
a bit, as if some giant had come along and given it a good twist. Hard
to tell what’s twisted and what’s not, Benjamin thought, as he felt
a rumble beneath his boots. Felt like the same kind of rumble he’d
felt in the tunnel under Bingly.
used a crutch tip and pushed Benjamin toward the north wing stairs.
A few blue sparks flowered and then sizzled hotly to the dirt. Benjamin
was too tired to wince at the sparkling touch of the zombie. Too tired
to worry about the things burrowing beneath him.
Looking on his mother’s youthful,
paintbrush-stroked face, Benjamin recalled a conversation he’d had
with Nancy Turnkey. They’d been doing what they normally did in the
afternoons before Gilman came home from work. And Nancy had struck that
pose, the one she hadn’t known made Benjamin’s head spin, or maybe
she had known. He’d hung out with her for two months—or had it been
three?—and he’d never been able to gauge her complex inner workings.
For Brenda, it’d been easy. She’d had Nancy pegged. Must be nice
to have someone figured out like Brenda had Nancy figured out. But for
Benjamin, Nancy had been a friend, and he certainly had never understood
what made her tick. Maybe that’s what made friendship; the unknowing
of each other, and the wanting to know.
had been fiddling with the Mustang’s 351 Clevland engine in the driveway
beside her house, wearing her light blue coveralls, her hair tied back,
grease smears on her face, and her hands up on the edge of the open
hood. She’d reached an impasse—a rusty sparkplug that’d been resistant
to her torques of the wrench, if Benjamin remembered right—and she’d
always preferred to talk her way out of these troublesome blocks. Out
of the blue, she’d brought up the topic of Benjamin’s motherless
upbringing, just as she’d brought up all topics discussed, as if continuing
a conversation they’d started days before and hadn’t been able to
bring to a close. Benjamin had been leaning in under the hood, his elbows
on the upper fender, staring at Nancy. She’d had her arms up over
her head, fascinatingly goddess-like.
be looking for her the rest of your life,” she’d said.
know where she is. Don’t have to look for her.”
man.” Nancy had been staring at the wrench she’d placed on the engine
block, imbuing it with some sort of magical goddess power. “She’s
gone. Physically, she’s in the sanitarium, sure. Over the hill. But
she’s gone, man. Left a hole inside you, you know? And that’s what
you’ll be looking for. Looking for that mother figure that will fill
my hole. There’s a joke in there somewhere.”
no, Ben. Not what I’m saying, anyway. I’m saying you’ll look for
her, but you won’t find her. Ever.”
isn’t that a bucketful of happy,” and Nancy had busted up laughing.
And now he stood staring at a portrait of his mother, completely flummoxed,
wondering what the hell this painting was doing hanging on a wall inside
like I found my mother figure,” he said.
had shoved Benjamin up the north stairs and in through the open door.
Benjamin had stumbled, catching a boot on the curled-up edge of a moldy
area rug, into some sort of portrait gallery. Windows were stretched
along the wall to his left, and heavy-framed paintings were hung along
the wall on his right. A dusty divan, upended, was centered in the narrow
hall. Armchairs and end tables sat haphazardly through the room, most
of them with at least one broken or missing leg. Elvis had told Benjamin
to wait, and then he’d stomped off in search of Ibucus Scalabrini,
and that’s when Benjamin had turned and found his paintbrush-stroked
mother looking at him.
the end of the long hall, opposite the entry, was a fireplace. Despite
the day’s heat, logs had been piled up inside the fireplace, and a
tremendous blaze was popping. On each side of the fireplace were glass-paned
doors, open wide for handless gimp traffic. From the next room, Benjamin
could hear the scraping of bone on bone.
gazed up at his mother’s face, wiped sweat from his own, and then
he wiped his palm on his pant leg. The room was hot and dank, and his
pores unleashed more sweat, stinging his eyes. Need water, he thought,
staring dumbly at the portrait. He reached out his hand and touched
the canvas, wanting to make sure it was real, not some impish trick
commissioned by the dead. Seemed real enough. He leaned heavily on the
walking staff and felt some altered state of being settling on him,
making his eyelids droop, making his mind calm and thoughtless.
bones scraped in the next room.
his sweaty grip on the staff slipped, he jerked awake, spun around.
He’d lost some time, misplaced it in the folds of his exhaustion somewhere.
Behind him hulked Elvis, a devilish gleam in his bloodshot eyes, as
if perhaps he’d been contemplating some villainous deed. He stepped
back once Benjamin turned on him.
prying open his crisp, pus-oozing lips, Elvis said, “I was told you
have to put the stick down.”
ass I’m putting the stick down,” Benjamin said, trying to shake
the fuzziness of sleep from his head.
you little—,” Elvis began, but then a leather-clad arm shot out
from behind Benjamin, and a pink fitted glove tore the staff from his
sweat-slick grip. Benjamin twirled around, all this spinning bringing
on nausea and dizziness. Standing directly in front of him, backlit
by the roaring fire at the end of the hall, was Ibucus. He’d discarded
the suit of armor, dressing himself in… something else entirely.
he was wearing gave Benjamin the impression The Brini’ King was overly
confident in his fashion sense, and much too glutinous in a vast, era-sweeping
wardrobe. Benjamin couldn’t tell if he was dressed to the nines, or
if this was casual, everyday, prance-around-the-house attire. It was
a layered ensemble, its base a woman’s wedding dress, clinging to
his ragtag body like a second skin. The fabric was silk, Benjamin’s
best guess, shiny and smooth, and it’d once been white, evidenced
by small unsullied patches here and there, but now it was mostly stained
by blood and smeared with dirt. The train was tattered, some of it torn
away, leaving separate flaps of fabric trailing every which way, each
strip of cloth a different color depending on the amount of blood soaked
into it, and this, strangely enough, brought the words “festive”
and “flamenco” to the forefront of Benjamin’s addled brain. Under
the multihued remains of the dress, Ibucus wore loose-fitting blue sweatpants
with red stripes up the sides. The cuffs of the pants were stuffed into
the unlaced tops of basketball sneakers. Around the waist was a rodeo
belt, hardly notable against the brunt of this fashion nightmare, except
for the belt buckle, which was the size of a dinner plate and hanging
low. He was wearing a leather jacket, and Benjamin recognized this as
Stella’s motorcycle jacket. Stella was a big woman, and the jacket
hung heavily on Ibucus’s rotting shoulders. Benjamin noted the Rolling
Stones tongue Stella had stitched onto the right shoulder, and the words
“Bike or Die” sewn into the breast. The stiff, unzipped cuffs were
caked with what Benjamin figured might be Stella’s blood, and sticking
out of those cuffs were the monster’s pink-gloved hands, gripping
the walking staff greedily.
of all the apparel, in Benjamin’s opinion, was the wide-brimmed sombrero
Ibucus had pulled tight on his ruined scalp. The straw weave was earthy
brown. The hat was jauntily tilted. And just below the broad brim of
the sombrero blinked the electronically enhanced eye of Ibucus. The
cartoon lips, gaudily painted red, were set in a firm line, denoting
agitation with just a tinge of expectancy. Then the lips curled up at
either end. Regardless of how they were set, a firm line or a smile,
Benjamin wanted to grab those lips and yank them free of their captor.
Ibucus said, directing himself to Elvis, who stood behind Benjamin.
The King of the Brinikin pointed a pink finger at Benjamin. “Is this
the boy then?” He spoke in his singsong tweeter, and this grated on
sure of the name?” Ibucus said, taking the staff in both hands, delicately
tapping its tip against the mildew-sodden rug.
Elvis said, stepping up beside Benjamin, glaring down at him. “Little
shit used to work for me. Worthless pile of snot. That’s his name,
alright. Benjamin goddamn stupid ass Weller.”
yeah, hey,” Benjamin said, and he glanced into Elvis’s face and
then quickly turned away. He’d have to learn not to do that. Especially
when they were standing so close. “Ease up, El. Jesus.” He looked
to the shadowy patchwork of the face under the sombrero’s frayed thatch
fringe. “Gotta have some water, pronto. Any chance of that, puppet?”
Ibucus wedged the staff under his arm. His pink glove dove into the
insides of Stella’s jacket. “Anticipated your thirst.” He fumbled
a can of tomato juice from an inside pocket, handed it over to Benjamin.
“Brought you a bit of robust refreshment. Put a zip in your zag, this
did not take the can, though the thought of the juice did make his mouth
water. The label on the juice can was faded and years old. “Water,
puppet. I need water.”
shoved the can at Benjamin, his intonation gruff with impatience. “There’s
water in it.”
grabbed the can, brought it back over his head, and threw it at the
long wall of windows. The can ruptured, splaying red juice, clumpy and
odoriferous, across a few panes.
Elvis said. “Kid’s an asshole.”
breathed deeply, and then did it again, hoping to bottle up the rage
he was experiencing. He had an agenda, didn’t he? He wasn’t some
dust mite floating through this corrupted gallery. He was a monster
hunter. Hobbs was here somewhere, and he was supposed to rescue her.
Plus, there was that thing about him being brought before the lady underground,
or something like that. He had plenty on his plate, and there was no
time to lose control. Had to keep himself together. Had to avoid being
here to see some lady that lives underground,” he said. “Just take
me to her.”
a smile on his cartoon lips, lowered his head a bit, looking closely
at a glove seam, acting coy. He said, “We’ll talk a bit first, if
that’s hunky-dory with you, Mr. Weller.”
was chuckling, pus spewing from his nose.
this son of a bitch outta here,” Benjamin said, nodding toward the
zombie mechanic. “Then we’ll talk.”
jerked his gaze to Ibucus. Benjamin stepped off, leaving the two monsters
to stare each other down. He walked over to the divan, righted it with
effort—an antique, he noted, heavy as hell—and then sat on its torn
crimson cushion, a brumous dusting of mildew rising up around him.
had shoed the mechanic off, and Benjamin watched as Elvis lumbered along
the rotten flooring, his bone blade tips dragging through the wood behind
him. He exited through one of the doors beside the fireplace as Ibucus
sauntered up and stood before Benjamin, one pink glove on his wedding
dress hip, the other clasping the staff near its gnarled crown.
Ibucus trilled, a bit higher in pitch than normal, excited for some
reason. “You bring this,” he thumped the tip of the staff against
the floor, “into my house?”
stared up at Ibucus, no idea how to respond. He decided on an old tactic
from his youth, used whenever one of his foster parents had confronted
him concerning illicit property: pornography, closeted cases of beer,
that sort of thing.
not mine,” he told Ibucus.
balls,” Ibucus said. “I know you’re the boy I saw in town with
the witch-whore and,” he lifted the staff and shook it, “William
Growling. You’ve got the stitching.” He leaned toward Benjamin and
ripped a strip of tattered sleeve from the stitches. “See there? The
stitching.” Ibucus backed away. He brought a pink glove up and rubbed
at his temple just beneath the brim of the sombrero. Looked to Benjamin
as if the monster was thinking. And it looked like it hurt.
you’re the boy that William was protecting,” Ibucus went on, “the
boy the witch-whore stitched her magic into, and if you are Benjamin
August Weller,” he lifted his face from his pink palm, then went about
drawing equations in the air with his pink finger, his electronic eye
flashing wildly, “well, then, something’s afoot now, isn’t it,
Ben?” He looked down at Benjamin. “Mind if I call you Ben? Or do
you prefer Benji? Benwah? Benny?”
sake, puppet,” Benjamin said. “Just talk and get it done with. I’m
here to see the lady underground.”
are so right,” Ibucus said, pacing in front of the divan. “Can’t
keep the Lady waiting. It’s just that I get so little time to myself
these days, so few ticktocks to do with as I please. It’s always Ibby
do this, Ibby do that. Ibby put the kettle on, Ibby bring the linen
in, Ibby be a darling and sweep the floor. Is a man’s work ever done,
Mr. Weller? Can I ask you that? The arduous work of war? The pillaging?
The housekeeping? The raping? And, good lord, who knew dust could accumulate
so quickly? I certainly didn’t.”
wanted food and water, wanted to curl up on the cushions and sleep for
a day. But he felt far too compromised. His muscles were tense, and
his stomach was knotted. Sitting down on the divan had been a bad idea.
He stood and walked past the pacing Ibucus, nearly tripping over the
bloody train of the wedding dress.
a few moments of your time then,” Ibucus trilled, eyeing Benjamin,
“before we deliver you to the Lady. Need to sort some things out in
my tin can head, you know?”
room was definitely a gallery, or it had been at one time. On the wall
opposite the windows, portraits were displayed side by side. Benjamin
stepped past the portrait of his mother. He thought it best not to confuse
matters more than they already were. Ibucus seemed to want to know exactly
who Benjamin August Weller was, and Benjamin was beginning to feel as
if he didn’t know the answer to that. If he were to point to the portrait
and whimper, “Mama,” the King of the Brinikin might call on his
speed gimps and demand, “Off with his head.” Benjamin stepped up
to the portrait that was next in line, the one to the left of his mother’s,
a few steps closer to the fireplace, closer to the scraping bones in
the next room. He could see, with a quick glance, the dim room through
the open glass-paned door. The shifting ambers of hearth fire faintly
lit the interior.
painting he stood in front of was framed in heavy carved oak, the curly
grooves packed with grit. Grime and dust had filmed the canvas. Benjamin
plowed a ditch in the dust with his fingertip. This was a painting of
a woman, also. Good looking, regal, real pale, not a hint of a smile.
Ibucus had moved up behind him. Benjamin could smell him like some unwanted
haunting, some long-dead sewage worker with an eye on vengeance.
you kill everyone?” Benjamin asked, keeping his eyes on the portrait.
Ibucus said, wafting the spoiled scent of his breath over Benjamin’s
shoulder. “Secrets, child. People die to ensure secrecy. The major
cause of death in the world today. A technique used through history.
Nothing new. Question answered. Next question.”
closed his eyes. The birdlike trill of Ibucus’s speech stung his frayed
nerves like saltwater dumped in a ripped open gut. “What are you keeping
secret?” he asked.
question.” Ibucus was gazing at the portrait, sinking into some kind
of reverie, the brim of the sombrero folded up against Benjamin’s
ear. “You gaze upon my grandmother, Samantha Alexandria Scalabrini.
Old money. Piles of it. Bitter woman. Last pure blood, before the Despicable
One began flipping over peasants like flapjacks. I believe old Sam died
in some horrible accident. Nothing ever happens au natural round here.
I might recall how she died, given time.”
had cleared most of the grime from the canvas. Tree limbs surrounded
Samantha, and it looked as if she’d climbed up into the low branches
of a tree for the sitting. Her eyes were the lightest blue, and they
shone from the canvas, some trick of the light filtering in from the
bank of windows behind Benjamin. In one pale hand she held a dark book,
the other hand resting on its cover.
secret?” Benjamin asked.
secret, by definition, child, is known only by a select few.”
knows the secret?” Turning from the portrait, crossing his arms, Benjamin
found he’d become quite determined to crack this nut.
had backed away a step, the upper half of his monstrous face in shadow
under the sombrero brim, a foul smile on those cartoon lips that were
oh so not his own. He still had the staff secured in one pink fist,
the other hand flitting like a torn-winged butterfly beside his hip.
is not how I imagined our conversation progressing, Mr. Weller. I was
to get in a few questions of my own. Somewhere. Slip them in.”
me the secret.”
me to know and you to die for.”
You’re going to kill me, puppet. May as well tell me the secret, eh?”
going to,” Ibucus stumbled over the next word dramatically, “k-k-kill
you, child. I don’t do that sort of thing. Below me, the killing.
You townspeople think of me as a grape farmer, capable of the basest
activities. True enough, I am an enologist five times over, skills and
talents, oh my. I could press honey from a dung beetle, if I so chose.
But I come from money, Mr. Weller. I am no simpleton, I can assure you
that. I’ve monsters to do my killing.”
what’s the secret?”
was focused on that lone arcing socket, sparking blue, blinking red.
Looking at Ibucus this way, staring into that mechanical eye, had sunk
him into a near-spellbound state. The electronic spark seemed to recede
further into the depths of the reinforced skull, and Benjamin was following
it in. He shook his head, breaking the stare, losing the battle, and
he glared out the wall of windows over Ibucus’s leather-jacketed shoulder.
had sent him down into the hole after Hobbs. Benjamin had a job to do.
He was on a mission. A short-term goal, as Nancy would call it. He needed
to find the old woman. She knew what was going on; Benjamin was willing
to bet on that. She knew the secret. If Benjamin could locate her and
if she were still alive, she’d be able to tell him what he should
do next, give him his next assignment. Standing around talking to this
zombie puppet was not helping matters. He had to stay focused. Stop
wasting all this time.
moved down the gallery, toward the popping fireplace and the scraping
bones. Ibucus followed at his heels. Benjamin pushed some dust off the
next canvas. An unnervingly thin young man looked out from the portrait,
dressed finely in one of those old puffy shirts and boot-tucked breeches.
A hawk had its talons clamped on the thin man’s forearm. The man’s
floppy forelock wispily covered his left eye, the remainder of the regal
hairdo shoved up under the overhead leafy branches of a tree, and a
thick tree trunk edged the right side of the painting. To the left of
the thin man stood a dark steed, a giant hulk of a horse, bridled and
dressed for the hunt.
that,” Ibucus informed Benjamin, “is the Despicable One. Keep meaning
to burn this foul painting.”
saw Ibucus was lapsing into a flow of memories, his cartoon lips a pair
of salted slugs twisting into a frown. Benjamin moved to the next portrait.
He was close to the glass-paned door that opened onto the next room.
Inside the room, Benjamin could see the snouts of various animals, which
made him feel quite uneasy until he realized these were trophy heads
hung on the walls. He could see a door opposite the glass-paned door.
It was closed. The fireplace was a throughway hearth, opening out into
the trophy room, as well as the gallery. Benjamin could just make out
the “long coat and fedora” of one of the gimps standing beside the
trophy room hearth, its crutches extended into the blaze, honing an
edge as it methodically scrape, scrape, scraped one long arm bone against
glass-paned door opened toward the gallery fireplace. Piled between
the lower panel of the door and the brickwork of the hearth was a small
bed of rumpled blankets. Within the shadowy folds of the blankets, Benjamin
saw glinting eyes. Feigning interest in the portrait beside the open
door, wiping dust from its canvas, pretending to listen attentively
as Ibucus prattled on about his wife, the subject of the canvas of current
discussion, Benjamin lowered his chin, twisted his focus to his left,
and stared at the mound of dark fur nestled within the folds of blanket
and shadow beside the hearth.
could see it was a cat, but the light in the corner was dim. Hard to
make out exactly what the cat was doing, although, Benjamin was sure,
it was up to something dastardly. Some sort of activity. Its body was
big, twice the size of any cat Benjamin had ever seen. Its fur was bristling
with nerve-twitchings, its eyes half-lidded, the left eye filmed with
cataract and oozing a great amount of thick milky tears. It lay with
its watermelon belly up, its hind legs stretched out, the right one
jerking a bit. The bloated belly was rippling with inner activity. The
blankets were soiled with blood and afterbirth, most of it dried to
the course wool.
was a kitten in the blankets, held under the protective paw of the cat.
Benjamin watched as the mother cat twisted its upper body and placed
both of its front paws atop the kitten. It glared up at Benjamin, as
if he were some sort of threat. The cat applied pressure on the kitten,
brutally pushing its head into the blankets. The kitten let loose the
tiniest, frailest of mewling protests, almost silent with its head shoved
into the blankets. The mother cat, apparently deciding Benjamin wasn’t
as much of a threat as she’d supposed, went on about her business.
She stretched her neck, brought her bloody muzzle to the backside of
the kitten, and ripped into it with her teeth. And now Benjamin could
see that the kitten was only half there, its tail, rump, and hind legs
already torn away and eaten.
Christ, he thought. Monsters be damned. Right here’s the real horror.
He’d turned and watched the mother cat and its kitten, no longer concerned
with faking interest in the portrait on the wall. Ibucus noticed this
refocusing of attention, and he moved up behind him. A lump the size
of a baseball had formed in Benjamin’s throat. He forced back the
tears that wanted to flood his eyes, wondering at the effect this gory
feasting had on him.
what cats do, child,” Ibucus said in singsong at Benjamin’s shoulder.
“See there, the little one? That’s a runt,” as if that explained
stepped up to the blankets, toed the mother’s paws away, gently placed
his boot heel on the kitten’s head, and, adjusting his weight, crushed
it into the blankets until he heard the crack of the skull, felt the
lifelessness of it.
Ibucus said, his lips beside Benjamin’s ear. “Don’t you have the
sweetest of hearts. She will eat others, however. She’s eaten scores
turned to Ibucus, too close for his twisting stomach to take. He felt
his mouth flood with saliva. Not again, he told himself. A monster hunter
does not puke with every spurt of guts, every approach of zombie.
is wrong with that cat?” he said, repeatedly swallowing saliva, fighting
against this show of weakness. “Can you at least tell me that, puppet?”
Ibucus said, acting the drama queen, offended by something said.
Benjamin felt the vomit factor decrease. Faking a glance at the blankets,
he peeked into the next room. He was standing in the doorway now, and
he’d grabbed the doorknob to keep his balance when crushing the kitten’s
head. He could see that what he’d thought was a door on the far wall
of the trophy room was actually a tall mirror, framed ornately. In the
mirror he saw the reflection of a narrow door situated directly beside
the open doorway he stood in. The narrow door was closed and, he was
also caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He turned and confronted
Ibucus once more, not wanting to look at the beaten, bloody, filthy
kid he’d caught sight of in the mirror’s reflection.
he said, batting the sombrero brim out of his face, Ibucus’s patchwork
mug inches from his own. “What are you talking about?”
name is Misty.”
named the cat Misty?”
I give a rat’s ass what you named your cat? What’s wrong with it,
puppet?” Benjamin took a step into the doorway, away from Ibucus.
He could hear the stirrings of the gimp beside the trophy room’s hearth.
got into some bad fruit,” Ibucus said, staring pitifully at the cat
in the wedge between open door and fireplace. Benjamin could see, through
the lower pane of glass in the door, that the mother cat had gone back
to ripping its offspring’s guts from the lifeless furry envelope.
“Hasn’t been the same since. She’s birthed many litters just lately.”
Benjamin said. “I’ve seen those kittens around.”
gave up counting after the first hundred, or was it two?” A tilt of
the monster’s head. “Or did we ever count? Anyway, it’s the fruit,
you know. It’s turned, spoiled, and it has bad effects when consumed.
Or good effects, depending on how one looks at it.”
don’t say.” Benjamin leaned back slightly, and glanced into the
trophy room. He could see it was Dodd—or at least he thought it was
Dodd; they all looked pretty much the same—warming his bones by the
fire. He straightened and turned back to Ibucus.
the fruit to the recently dead,” Ibucus went on, “and alakazam,
they become my fierce bone men.”
feed a dead man, puppet.” Benjamin tensed his muscles. Had to make
this work. It was now or never.
no.” Ibucus turned his gaze from Misty to Benjamin. “Slice their
skulls open, shove the fruit into their dead brain, stuff it in. Stuff,
stuff, squish, squish. And then sit back and watch the electricity jump
and flow and sizzle. Must burn the skin off first, allows the mutation,
a minor, regrettable requirement. And I’d only happened upon this
technique in the last year or so. A decade of experimentation preceded
my success, the castoffs of which you and your fellow rednecks, if you
don’t mind me calling them that, deemed Brinikin. All shapes and sizes
they were, my failures. Uncontrollable rabble. Years of drudgery I spent
in my laboratory, which, regrettably, is now destroyed, along with the
presses and the casks of my other, much more lucrative operation, what
with the crumbling of the south wing. No one appreciates the toil and
torture that precedes success, don’t you find that true, Mr. Weller?”
couldn’t listen to the monster standing before him. The stuff coming
out of his cartoon lips was beyond fantastic, some sick Frankenstein
yarn. Maybe, if the Brini’ King hadn’t said “laboratory,” Benjamin
wouldn’t have stopped listening to the absurdity battering up against
him in flesh-slashing affront. Benjamin had to focus his energies elsewhere.
He was on a mission, after all.
continued: “When the fruit got into little miss Misty here,” he
turned his gaze back to the cat, “it went to her stomach. Affected
her outer physicality little, if any. She’s the same old tough-as-coffin-nails,
impervious lioness she’s always been, bless her soul, although no
doubt taxed from this gushing of life she’s been experiencing as of
late. The bad fruit provided seed and affected what was malleable inside
her, and there does not seem to be an end to the output. Poor, dear
had slowly backed through the doorway during Ibucus’s outrageous dialogue,
and he now pulled the door closed behind him. Ibucus turned his attention
from the cat and lunged at the door, the sudden movement knocking the
sombrero from his messy skull. He attacked the glass pane of the door
with his wet face, rebounded an inch, surprised to find this barrier
between himself and Benjamin. The electric current in his eye socket
arced rapidly, and he smeared the glass with red paste as he opened
his cartoon lips to yell, to command and orchestrate his underlings.
Benjamin turned from the gross display pushed up against the glass,
eager to escape.