My name is Jace Valchek, and I’m pretty sure I’m going insane.
Either that, or everything I know is wrong. I’m not the woman I think I am, the place I live isn’t what I thought it was, and everyone I know is an imposter. What’s really, truly, crazy, though, is that right now both of those ideas are running neck and neck in the what-do-I-believe race, and the fact that I’m seriously considering option two is really tipping the balance in favor of option one.
Bear with me, okay? Things are going to get really weird before I’m done, so I’m going to start slow, with just the basic facts. Here we go.
I live in a small town: Thropirelem, Kansas. If you live in a small town too, you know what I mean when I say that it manages to be completely mundane and boring and flat-out strange at the same time.
It’s all about the people that live There, of course. The town itself is the definition of ordinary, but some of its residents are a little odd. And yes, I include myself in that category.
I’m thirty mumble mumble years old, single, reasonably attractive, and I work part-time at both the local diner and the hardware store. I briefly flirted with a career in law enforcement when I was younger, but I flunked the psychiatric evaluation. A few years after that, I flunked another psychiatric evaluation—also conducted by the state—but this time my failing grade briefly landed me in a locked ward. I’m much better now.
More or less.
I still have a fascination with the law—and psychology, for that matter—but that’s under control. No, what’s more troubling is my interest in a television show: The Bloodhound Files.
Okay, it’s more like an obsession. I’ve never missed an episode. I own every season that’s been released on DVD and have every comic, toy, and novelization. Or I did, until I had to get rid of it all as a condition of my release. At least I made some money on eBay.
I guess my problem started because of the heroine’s name: Jace Red Dog. Jace (short for Jacinda) isn’t a common name. And we’re both tall brunettes, though she’s got Native American blood and I’m from Spanish-Polish stock. But it wasn’t her name or appearance I really identified with: it was her style. Red Dog kicks ass and speaks her mind, and nobody ever messes with her without regretting it. My kind of woman.
So much so that I kind of forgot who I was, for a while.
But I’m better now, right? All the doctors say so. I have a place of my own, employment, even a dog. I’m doing fine.
“How you doing?” Charlie asks.
“I’ll be doing better with another beer,” I say, and knock back what’s in my glass. He nods and pours me a fresh one.
Charlie’s my best friend, I guess. He owns and runs the local tavern, the Quarry, and spends most of his time behind the bar. He’s a little older than me, ex-military, with the build and haircut to go with it. Green eyes, a square jaw, and a tan so dark you’re not really sure of his ethnic background. Charlie’s about the only person in town who doesn’t seem to care about my stay in the nut hut; I guess that’s why I spend so much time hanging around with him. Although the beer might have something to do with it, too.
“Hey,” I say. I’m at my usual spot at the end of the bar, which always seems to be where the regulars in any given watering hole congregate. “I see you’re keeping the rumors about you fat and healthy.”
Charlie looks up from the book he’s reading, some kind of oversized paperback edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. “Hmm? What, that I raise and breed flying monkeys? I keep telling people, they’re both males.”
“That’s what I mean, Dorothy. The only female anyone sees you with is me, and they’re starting to wonder if I’m a tranny.”
“The only tranny these people have ever been close to was the one bolted to the chassis of their car.”
“Maybe. But people love to talk about what they don’t know.”
“Keeps their opinions from getting all muddled up with facts?”
“Usually. But that also means that the occasional fact tends to stand out, like the fact that the toughest guy in town likes to read about singing munchkins and rainbows.”
“You’re thinking of the musical. This is a book, see? No buttons, no batteries. The only noise it makes is when I roll it up and smack you with it.”
“Ooh, how manly. Did the Wizard give you that courage, Mr. Lion?”
Charlie chuckles. “Nah, I’ve always had plenty of that. And please, let’s not go for the obvious Scarecrow joke.”
“You’re right. That one’s a no-brainer.”
He winces, then shakes it off and goes on. “I’ve always identified with the Tin Woodsman, actually.”
“What, the guy with the funnel on his head and no heart?”
“That’s what he thought, but it turns out—”
“I know the story, okay? Everybody knows the story. I always thought they got that guy all wrong.”
Charlie frowns. “All wrong? What do you mean, all wrong?”
“I mean, he was a guy made out of metal with no heart and an axe to grind—literally. Obvious precursor to the Terminator. Serial killer all the way.”
Charlie sighs. “You do know this is a kid’s book?”
“The Cowardly Lion? Furry fetish. Scarecrow? Anorexic bulimic. And don’t get me started on Toto.”
“I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore. No, wait, we are.” He tosses the book down. “I can see I’m not going to get much reading done with you around.”
“Oh, don’t mind me. I’m not terribly important, just a paying customer.”
“Not so much…”
“Okay, so I’m a paying-sometime-in-the-near-future customer—”
The door opens, spilling late-afternoon sunlight into the bar. I squint and wince, only half joking. Charlie’s place is called the Quarry, but it may as well be named the Cave; he likes things dim and shadowy, and I tend to agree. Bright lights make me think of hospital corridors.
Then I see who it is, and the wince threatens to turn into a grimace. Terrance—never Terry—Adams and his little pack of troublemakers. Every small town has them: people who spend all their time complaining about how much they hate it here, but never seem to get up the nerve to leave. They vent their unhappiness in a variety of mean and petty ways on those around them, and we do our best to grit our teeth and ignore them until they either grow up or wise up. Some never do.
They’re all here, trooping in after him like loyal little soldiers: his wingman, Zev Kitson, a redhead who thinks practical jokes are the height of wit; Sally January, who rides a motorcycle and pretends she’s tough; Neil Maigan, aspiring musician; and Alexis Adams, Terrance’s first cousin and the town’s one and only goth. Or punk. Or alternative-heavy metal-gangsta-rap-hippie, depending on her mood and the day of the week. Sometimes I think she just dresses in whatever’s on top of the pile and applies her makeup in the dark—that being said, she’s actually a halfway decent kid. I wish she’d spend less time with her waste-of-space cousin, though.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Terrance says when he spots me. “Look who’s here! It’s our local celebrity!”
“Well, somebody has to be Chief Loser Detector,” I say. I point at Terrance and say, “Ding! Ding! Ding! Now look what you did—you made me go off.”
Terrance is in his twenties and has the kind of rough good looks that means when he forgets to shave or comb his hair he actually gets better looking, which is win/win for him and an overall loss for standards of hygiene everywhere. His hair is brown and shaggy, his smile devilish, his eyes those of a puppy with a mean streak. I don’t like him.
“Whoops!” he says, putting his hands up in mock horror. “Sure wouldn’t want you to go off, Miss Blood Doggy. You might shoot me or something.”
Zev laughs, a maniacal little giggle I think he does deliberately to get on people’s nerves. “I think she’s already a little off,” he says. “Off her rocker, off her meds, awfully out of her awful little mind.”
“Hey,” Charlie says. “You want a beer?”
“Well,” says Zev, rubbing his hands together, “I am a little dry—”
“Then stop flapping your lips,” Charlie growls. “Or you’ll stay that way.” He doesn’t even waste a glare; he gives Zev Ugly Look Number Two, which on the Charlie Allen scale means a flat glance implying more contempt than anger.
Zev grins back and says, “Mucho cervezas, por favor, garçon,” then sits down on the stool next to me. Terrance plops himself down on the other side. I was hoping they’d head straight for their regular spot in the back by the pool table, but apparently they aren’t done.
“What’s the matter, Doggy?” Terrance says. “You seem a little cranky today. Your collar too tight?”
Both Alexis and Sally stay on their feet. Sally’s dressed in her usual leathers, while Alexis has spiked her black hair straight up and applied enough eyeliner to shame a raccoon. “Come on,” Sally says. “I wanna shoot some stick.”
“So go,” Terrance says. “I’ve got something I need to talk about with our local expert, here.”
“Oh, now I’m an expert?” I say. I don’t bother making eye contact with either of them, looking straight ahead.
“Sure. When it comes to weird, you know your stuff. I mean, that show you watch, it’s all about weird stuff, right?”
I spare him a warning glance. “It’s about a lot of things. The supernatural, serial killers, even parallel universes.”
“Like I said—weird stuff. So I figured you’d be the person to ask about the Gallowsman.”
“The what now?”
“Local spook story,” Charlie says, sounding a little annoyed. “Kind of thing kids use to scare each other on camping trips.”
“Oh, it’s more than that,” Terrance says. “Based on fact—everybody knows that. Edward Jump, his name was. Died right in the middle of the town square in 1799. My father showed me the town records.”
Terrance’s father is the mayor of Thropirelem, so I guess if anyone would have access to that kind of thing, he would. “Eddy Jump, huh? I’m guessing he didn’t kick off from a heart attack.”
Terrance grins. “Well, you got it half right. He did kick off, right through a trapdoor and down to the end of a rope. In fact, I’m told he did a whole lot of kicking—went on and on for a good ten minutes or so. Just wouldn’t die.”
“Doing the Hangman’s Tango,” says Zev, holding up a hand with two fingers dangling down. He twitches them back and forth frantically. “No noose is good noose…”
“So they hanged him,” I say with a shrug. “What did he do, ogle a farmer’s wife?”
Terrance shakes his head. “That’s just it. He didn’t do anything. Well, nothing criminal, anyway. Edward Jump was one of those guys who just couldn’t catch a break; bad luck followed him like a dog chasing a pork chop on a string. First his crops failed. Then three of his kids got sick and died. His house burned down. Then his wife—who was pregnant at the time—got killed by a runaway horse, trampled to death right in the middle of the street. After that, he was pretty much a basket case.”
“Let me guess. He snapped and went on a killing spree with an ax.”
“Good guess, thank you for playing,” says Zev. “But no.”
“I told you, he didn’t do anything,” Terrance says. “He just sat in the town square, right by the spot where his wife died, and wept. Sunup to sundown. Old Edward had never been real popular with the townsfolk—kept to himself, had no friends—but they still tried to do right by him. Brought him food, tried to console him.”
“Didn’t work, though,” says Zev. “Old Eddy bought a full-price ticket on the Boo-Hoo Express, and he wasn’t getting off until the end of the line.”
“It went on and on. Day after day. Started getting on people’s nerves. So they tried to convince him to do it somewhere else. He wasn’t interested. They didn’t know what to do.”
“Kind of like having a giant two-year-old throwing a permanent tantrum,” says Zev. “After a while, you’ll do just about anything to make it stop.”
“They tried locking him up, but the sheriff couldn’t stand the noise. They thought about starving him out, but that was just plain cruel.”
“They were,” says Zev, “at the end of their rope. Bet you saw that one coming.” I don’t bother replying.
“But then something happened,” Terrance continues. “A woman disappeared in the middle of the night. And she just happened to be married to the man whose horse killed Edward Jump’s wife.
“Some said she just ran off. Some said her husband did her in and laid the blame on Edward’s shoulders. But Edward had no alibi—and let’s face it, by that point they were just tired of the noise.”
“Wait,” I say. “Are you trying to tell me they executed him for grieving?”
Terrance takes a long sip of the beer Charlie’s finally put down beside him. “No, they executed him for being a pain in the ass. For not getting with the program. You know what people in this town—hell, in any small town—are like. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down—and Edward Jump was one stubborn, heartbroken nail.”
Zev slams his hand down on the bar. “So down he went! Ka-boom!”
“But before he did,” says Terrance, “he stopped crying long enough to deliver his last words: ‘The gallows is not a punishment. It is a release from pain.’ And then he looked out over the whole town that had come to see him drop, and added, ‘Soon that pain will be yours. And I will release you as you have released me.’”
I shiver involuntarily. Terrance may be a jerk, but he’s a decent storyteller.
“That should have been the end of it,” says Terrance. “But it wasn’t.”
“It was just the beginning,” says Zev softly. I wait for the punchline, but it seems he’s fresh out.
“It started with the man whose wife disappeared,” Terrance continues. “He found his dog dead. Got herself tangled in some barbed wire, wound up with it wrapped around her neck. Strangled.
“Then his oldest son had an accident, fell in the river. When they found him, his face was almost black; he had weeds wound around his throat so tightly the townspeople had to cut them off. Then his daughter’s first child was found dead in her crib with the blanket twisted around her neck…”
“That was when people started calling old Eddy the Gallowsman,” Zev says. “You might wonder why he didn’t just go straight after the man who’d falsely accused him—”
“He wanted him to suffer,” I say. “The same way he’d suffered.”
Terrance nods again, with a smile. “So the Gallowsman took away the guy’s life, bit by bit, until he’d lost everything. Eventually they found the poor bastard hanging from an oak tree in his own backyard.”
My throat’s suddenly dry as an old bone—or rope. I signal Charlie for another beer. “Creepy story. What’s it got to do with me?”
Terrance studies me for a second before answering. “They say the Gallowsman is the patron saint of people who hang themselves—especially those who do it in the woods. When someone’s life gets so hard they just can’t take it anymore, and they trudge out to the forest in the middle of the night with a rope in one hand and a chair in the other—well, that just calls to him. And once that noose tightens, once the body has stopped jerking and twitching and its shoes fall onto the mossy ground with two little thumps … that’s when he comes. His spirit slips into the corpse like a thief putting on someone else’s coat, and no matter how tight the knot was tied it just slithers apart like a snake stretching. And then, trailing the rope behind him, the Gallowsman goes in search of those who did the victim wrong—because when there’s that much pain in someone’s soul, there’s always somebody who put it there.”
Terrance’s voice has gotten slower and quieter as he’s been talking. It’s an old trick to draw the listener’s attention in—but it’s old because it works.
“So here’s where I thought you could settle a little dispute Zev and me been having. See, he thinks the Gallowsman just out-and-out kills people—that he can bring any kind of cable or cord to life and send it out to throttle his victims. Me, I think he’s more subtle.”
“How so?” I ask.
“He doesn’t just kill for the sake of killing. He kills for despair. In his mind, there’s only one victim, one person he’s going after. He kills everyone that person cares about—but that’s just a means to an end. He needs his victim to die by their own hand. To take them down so far they don’t even know what up is. And to do that, he needs to do more than just murder; he needs to get up close and personal with the person he’s targeting, to get right in their head. Whisper in their ear, point out just how bad things are.” His voice is low, hypnotic, almost a whisper itself.
Red Dog’s a profiler, so part of my obsession is—was—studying how people think. Everything Terrance is saying makes sense from a psychological point of view, and he’s very good at focusing a listener’s attention. A politician’s son, for sure.
“Still not hearing a question.”
“My question? I thought that was obvious.” His smile is predatory. “What’s it like, hearing those whispers? Do they sound like they’re coming from inside your head, like you’re just talking to yourself? Or is it an actual hallucination, a voice you can hear coming from a person you can’t see?”
I don’t say anything for a moment.
The strange thing is, I’m not even angry. I should be—it’s what he wants, what he’s trying to provoke—but I’m not, which I suppose is a victory of sorts. No, what I really want to do is answer his question honestly. I want to say, No, that’s not quite it. It’s like hearing voices in another room, a mutter of conversation that suddenly sharpens into something meant for you. It’s like hearing words in the rustle of trees or underneath the static from a radio. It’s like the chaotic, random parts of the universe have suddenly snapped into a new alignment that’s aimed right at you.
What I say is, “I wouldn’t know.” I turn to look at him. “And if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Come on, guys,” Alexis says. “Leave her alone.”
“Good idea,” says Charlie coldly. “Or find someplace else to drink.”
“Hey,” Zev says, grinning like a loon, “take it easy, big guy. We’re just having a little fun—”
Charlie locks eyes with Zev. “Oh, fun. Why didn’t you say so? I like fun. Want to see my idea of fun?”
Zev looks away first. “I’ll pass.”
Charlie turns to Terrance. “How about you?”
Terrance doesn’t spook so easily. He meets Charlie’s gaze calmly. “You know, I just might … but I’m kinda busy at the moment.”
“My schedule’s flexible.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Alexis sighs. “Geez, get a room already. Or an arena, or octamom or whatever.”
Terrance blinks. Charlie frowns. Both of them give Alexis WTF? looks, which breaks the tension.
“I think you mean octagon, sweetie,” I say.
“Whatevs.” She turns and heads for their usual table. Sally follows, and after a second so does Zev.
Terrance drains his beer and sets the glass down in front of Charlie with a smile. “Bring us another round, will you?” he says. “Thanks.” He saunters off.
“Don’t let them get to you,” Charlie says. “Small town bullies, you know? They don’t have anything better to do.”
“Yeah, I know. Nothing breeds mean like boredom and ignorance.” I try to sound casual, but I feel a little lightheaded. I should probably go home and take my medication, but I’m not going to give Terrance and his gang the satisfaction of driving me away.
But then I check my watch and realize what time it is. I finish my beer in a hurry, say, “I gotta go,” and head for the door.
Charlie’s no fool. He knows what’s going on, but he doesn’t try to stop me. “See you later,” he calls after me.
“Count on it,” I say.
I get in the door with plenty of time to spare, ten minutes at least. My dog, Galahad, greets me with lots of happy woofing and ankle licking. He’s a Saint Bernard with a sunny disposition and a drizzly mouth—I don’t need to water my plants, I just get Galahad to stand over them and drool. He’s also extremely bright, so much so that I’ve offered to pay for driving lessons. He just sighs and rolls his eyes.
Eight o’clock, Friday night. Time for the latest episode of The Bloodhound Files.
I’m recording it, of course. I don’t have to watch it live. Except I do.
I take my medication first, an antipsychotic called Erthybon. I’m not supposed to combine it with alcohol, but hey, I’m not supposed to be watching Jace Red Dog hunt down werewolves and vampires, either. You do what you have to.
I turn on the TV and get settled in on the couch, Gally lying beside me with his head on my lap. I used to put a towel over my thighs, but I eventually just gave up and learned to live with damp pants.
I can’t really explain my fascination with the show. Yeah, I identify with the main character, but I was never all that interested in the supernatural before I started watching it. Maybe because it’s really different from all the other occult TV shows out there: It takes place on a world where ninety-nine percent of the population are either vampires, werewolves, or golems. Jace is from a different reality—the normal one, I guess—but gets yanked across the dimensional divide to use her finely-honed profiling skills to hunt psychos with an aversion to sunlight and/or silver. I love the characters, but it’s the world Jace lives in that really interests me—all the little details of an entire planet full of supernatural beings. I especially love the fake commercials, which is how the show usually starts.
“He’s a vampire. She’s a werewolf. Their best friend is a golem with a talent for getting into trouble. Tune in at nine on Thursday for How I Bit Your Mother—on the FANG Network!”
“Would if I could,” I mutter.
It’s pretty good, as episodes go. Jace is hunting some maniac who’s killing werewolves with silver-tipped crossbow bolts. She’s helped by a mysterious masked woman who’s the head of a criminal gang, dresses like a pirate, and has a really cool submarine; she calls herself the Sword of Midnight, and carries a dual-bladed weapon that resembles two overlapping clock hands, one slightly shorter than the other.
For the next hour I’m enthralled. I resist the urge to take notes on the different criminology methods Jace uses, something I used to do compulsively. I don’t touch the TV screen, even once. Overall, I’d say I’m doing well.
Right up until the end.
“I think it’s clear where this is headed,” Jace says. She and the Sword of Midnight are studying a table loaded down with ancient texts and scrolls.
“Yes,” replies the S of M. “There’s no room for doubt.”
“Then there’s only one man we can go to,” says Jace.
“What?” I blurt. I know that name. Old Man Longinus lives in a sprawling, rundown mansion on the edge of town, the kind of place the local kids dare each other to trick-or-treat at on Halloween. It’s not exactly a common surname, either; I must have misheard it.
And then the Sword of Midnight turns and stares directly at the camera.
No—not at the camera. At me.
“That’s who has all the answers, Jace,” the Sword says. “That’s where you have to go. Seek Longinus.”
The screen goes dark.
Copyright © 2012 by DD Barant