Planet in Theory: Funeral March to Gothic Rock (part three)

(back to part one)

(reading time: 1 hour, 1 minute)

Popette at the Door

Ra-da-dang-dong. Ra-da-dang-dong. It was a surprisingly cheerful doorbell, not at all like the welcome she remembered. Of course, that was more than a lifetime ago. That said, the exterior of the Billity Catholicish School for Girls hadn’t changed all that much. The giant stable nearby, nearly three times the size of the house, was a new addition, but the school itself was still that drab green and white monolith under its four cardinal direction willows.

Now as I’ve said, Poppy and Suzette were in an odd state, with the latter being largely in control, but operating within the template of the mischievous child. They couldn’t converse with each other, talk over what was a good idea and what was bad.

The end result of a vindictive ghost with the rashness of a child was this visit to the place that still kept Suzette’s most negative memories under lock and key. All she wanted was to get in, to see if it was still going on, and to stop it if it was with tools she hadn’t yet figured out.

She rang the bell again, and was prepared to spend a full 20 minutes of her very limited time doing so before moving on. It was finally answered on the 7th attempt. He didn’t look like a Billity as far as she could tell. He was too big, possibly even the namesake of Mountainblood. His chest and stomach were a wall, his laughably small vest never even hoping to button again. The leather at the toe of his cowboy boots was aged and cracked, almost making them look like a pair of draft horse hooves.

At some point he had hit crazy8, a much tougher feat of depravity on 3to1 Antichthon than it was on 5to1 Pluto. An emergency mask had bonded to his face, and he’d further recovered from his crash back to 5to1 all the way to 3. The mask resembled the stern of a dingy fishing trawler, miniature netting and float curtains taking the place of eyebrows. His eyes were faded orange and white life preservers. A tiny decorative anchor hung off one temple like a monocle chain.

What is it you want kid? It’s too early for trick-or-treating,” he snarled.

Ith thith thtill the Billity Catholicish Thcool for Girlth?” Popette asked, wincing slightly when her speech impediment surprised her.

That shut down years ago. It’s just the Billity estate now. We work with horses.” A shout came from somewhere inside, causing the large man to turn his head. Popette tried to slip under him, but his leathery hand caught her by the scruff and flung her back onto the porch.

Are you thtill torturing girlth in there!?” she asked and accused. “Do you have any idea how much of mythelf I needed to thcrape off after leaving thith place!?”

Cool your kindling lady. I don’t know who you are, but you march that kid you’re helming right off this property, you hear me? You’re trespassing, and not just in the land of the living.”

Jumbo get back here! Help me with them!” the voice inside yelled.

Help you with who!?” he shouted back. “Is Sauer drunk already?”

No goddamn it! Get your deck and help me! They’re everywhere!” Jumbo Shrimptail unbuttoned the card holster on his side and turned back to give Popette one final warning, but the dual creature was gone from the front step, officially making her no concern of his any longer. He slammed the door, heavy footsteps fading as he went deeper into the mansion.

Popette wasn’t done trespassing though. She walked along the side of the house, crouched, listening to Jumbo’s movement. It was difficult to tell at first, thanks to the resting cicadas all over the exterior.

Thtop your thcreeching!” she hissed at them, surprised that they obeyed. The insects showed deference to the whipping spiritual winds of the season, leading her to believe something supernatural was going on inside those off-white walls.

Once their sounds died down she heard grunting, shoving, barking, from no more than 10 people. There were more voices, lots more, but nothing to accompany them. No footsteps. No jostling against furniture. Popette recoiled when a ghostly hand passed through the wall and disappeared again.

Get the holy water!”

Mixer, the basement! It’s in the basement!”

A revolt?” Popette wondered. “Good for them.” It was also good for her, as the distraction provided the perfect opportunity to check the back. The garden behind the homestead had a few rows of gemstone corn, each kernel and color a different likelihood, a few white pumpkins, and enough thorns to open a blood bank.

Between them all, if she remembered correctly, hidden by the stalks, was a door. Every time Suzette had asked what was behind that gateway, pressed deep into an earthen mound, she got a different answer from the Billity nuns. A root cellar. A wine cellar. A smokehouse. A mushroom farm. That was how she knew it was none of those things.

Voices had leaked out of it at night, especially in autumn. She had laid awake under threadbare sheets and listened to them, not quite understanding. Suzette’s young mind thought they might belong to her parents, calling to her from beyond the grave. There were too many of them intertwined for it to just be a man and a woman though. They could still be, she had thought. They could all be. There were no faces or voices in her youngest and oldest memories, not even a particular way of being cradled.

The foolishness of childhood hope suggested she couldn’t remember because there had been too many of those things, and each one completely unique. The people of South Reap themselves were her parentage, and as such she was both one of them and all of them. That was why she had to leave the Billity school, even against the orders of the state that claimed her as its ward.

When she was old enough to sway folks to her causes she did so en masse. They had just forgotten what was good for them, as parents do when they become brittle and senile. Suzette needed to take them by the hand, sometimes sternly, and guide them this way and that, show them photos and films so they could remember how intensely things were felt in the prime of life.

Popette plowed a path through the corn with her little hands, an opportunity to see what the voices actually were just in front of her. When she pushed the last stalk out of the way and stepped over a line of boundary stones she saw the mound.

It was far less bare than it used to be, now covered in grass, vines climbing leaned wooden trellises, and wild shrubs. All of the growth was likely due to the half-empty sacks of fertilizer laying around, several of which must have been stacked against the door but were now spilled darkly all over the garden path.

The door was flung open, hanging on by one bent rusted hinge. In years Suzette had never once seen it opened, only heard breathing from under its crack when she walked by. Across so many Halloweens, the secret inside just had to bust out and run off when she finally had an opportunity. Popette crept inside.

So it had been a cellar after all, of sorts. Its contents appeared random: barrels, sacks, broken tools, piles of bug-eaten blankets… The most notable decoration was a pitted iron cross hanging from the ceiling. Catholicish crosses never had the body of Jesus strung up on them, that was for Catholics who thought they would actually have a chance to speak with the man, but the aura of death was still about the object.

The dirt walls were covered in claw marks, and she could smell that some of them were fresh. There was no seeing them, but when she swiped a little finger through the dirt of the floor she realized it was the result of millions of compressed bare footprints. There was an oily quality to it, fearful sweat and nervous exhalations of the skin.

There were tho many in here,” she muttered, but the one that remained heard her and stepped out from behind a stack of barrels. “Hi. Who are you?”

My name’s Keepsake,” the child said, her small voice as ethereal as mist. She could’ve stepped straight through the barrels rather than around them; it was clear she was 9to1. Popette looked through her and saw tiny claw marks that could have been hers. Her fingernails did have dark stripes under them.

Being half ghost, Popette also understood that this was not a girl on her last legs. Those had been cut out from under her a long time ago. She was just another spirit conjured by the season, but there must have been something off about that cellar. Most didn’t get bodies for the day, only a chance to inhabit a mask, and only if donned.

Those with bodies needed them to feel traumas that lasted longer than natural life. They were ships adrift on seas of pain, dissolving into relief only at the exact moment they ran aground. There was no land in sight for little Keepsake.

I have two nameth,” Popette told her. She remembered Keepsake would be seeing a friend, not an adult, though she might find the older charcoal nose bridge and eyes disturbing. “I’m real because it’th Halloween.”

Me too… I think.”

Do you know what happened to you?”

I died in here.” Tears fell, but faded to nothing before they hit the ground. “They took me from my mommy.”

Ith she inthide the thchool right now? Maybe I can take you to her.”

I don’t know.” Popette couldn’t take her by the hand, not with their odds so different, but she was determined to do so. Soil, being made of countless tiny particles, often contained material at a variety of odds, but usually not as low as 9to1 on Antichthon. Still, it must have in that mound, or been treated to have plenty, because its occupants had busted down the door to get out rather than drifted out the sides and top.

The masked girl rubbed her hands in it, compacted it with clapping, until she had a healthy coat of brown. Then she reached out to Keepsake and they were able to join hands. She led her out into the daylight, which made the ghost wince. From then on each step was difficult for her and she had to keep her head down. Only with her transparent hair over her eyes was there enough of a filter for her to look at the land of the living without pain.

How many otherth were in there with you?” Popette asked to take her mind off the slow progress toward the back of the Billity house.

Lots.”

Why did the Billity family put them in there?”

They said we were bad. Not being bad. Just bad. We’re mistakes.”

You’re not a mithtake,” Popette insisted. They were back out of the corn. “There are two kindth of people in thith world: people who get away and people who put away. Get-awayerth don’t want to hurt anybody; they jutht want to be free. Put-awayerth are too attached to thomething. They won’t move even if it could make them happy. They jutht grab everything they don’t like and lock it away, no matter how much hurt it createth. That’th who the Billity family ith.”

The backdoor was forced open as well, the flanking windows broken inward. The two girls had a clear view inside, but it was utter chaos. The space was stuffed with people of all odds, shouting and fighting. Cards flew through the air, occasionally drawing blood when they didn’t pass through anyone 9to1.

Popette was both immediately and immensely proud. It was her hope that with her one day mortally abroad she could foment something just like this at the Billity school for girls. Back then it looked to her like a school for the infirm, given how lacking in spine all her peers were, but apparently being buried in Aunty’s earth for an age could change a person.

With the school closed, and the delayed revolution happening all on its own, she was pathless. Poor Poppy had her hopes set on some righteous violence, but to participate in the riot jammed inside the plantation house would be disingenuous. They didn’t earn that mess.

She’s not in there either,” Keepsake said morosely, of her mother. “I think she’s far away.”

Then we’ll get away. Let’th go find her. I want you to have a happy Halloween.” Together the girls scampered off, though for a time the commotion in the Billity house only got louder.

Hoods at the Door

The story goes like this. When we were kids there were horses everywhere. Mountainblood to this day acts allergic to pavement, so the horses were the preferred way of travel for a lot of folks. Some of them were even communal, folks passing their reigns back and forth like trays of homemade lemon squares.

Anyway I was 7 and Nathan was 12 and our horse Sun Sue was barely out of ponyhood. She was one of the communal animals, but the 2 of us rode her so much that she got stubborn and refused to take anybody else. She was unofficially gifted to us.

This was around the time the computer boom really hit and the electroglass started showing up everywhere. All the cars got GPS systems even though they don’t work for shit in these parts, so suddenly everyone needed the horses even more. Only the animals were getting scarce too, and that is entirely the fault of the god damn Billity family.

They saw an opportunity to get all of us under their boot heels rather than keeping on with our dirty work and laundry like they had been up to that point. They closed their Catholicish school and built a stable bigger than any school in the county. And it was not allowed to sit empty for long.

One of them owns the race track. Another bought several breeding lines. Another started lobbying, getting it so people needed permits for horses in town. In just a couple years they had a lock on every hoof around that wasn’t attached to a deer, cow, or goat.

Everybody was getting their animal confiscated, and only returned when they’d properly registered it and paid a regular fee to the Billity stable, which masquerades as a public service. They say they track lost animals, check them for the right shots and shoes, and other such lies.

Still Neighbor and I thought we were safe. Sun Sue had no paperwork in the first place and we kept her deep in the woods. No adult Billity knew about her, but plenty of the young ones like to get started early.

Just 2 grades above me was Bill Billity. Now Billity and Hood have been at each other’s throats from time to time, but there isn’t a family feud in this nest of vipers that can stay that focused. Everybody’s got fang holes from everybody else. They’re just Mountainblood freckles far as we’re concerned.

Bill started all this by taking it personal. He’s got problems like that, always takes everything so earnestly personal. Who knows what his folks did to screw him up, but he decided to take it out on us. He went and deputized himself after hearing from some of the other kids that Neighbor and I had a horse.

I don’t know how he found her, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he spent weeks walking the area around our property looking for any sign of her. When he did he tied her up behind his horse and waited there for us. He could’ve just taken her and left a note or something, but he insisted on us seeing him ride away, dragging her as she pulled against him.

We went to the stable to file a grievance and they sneered at us, telling us we had no recourse because Sun Sue was never technically ours in the first place. We never even got to see her again. They sold her to some out-of-towners.

War was what Bill wanted, a war to distract him from whatever blazing collapsing mess was going on inside his own brain, and I freely admit that we took the bait. The details of who went further and got more done in our little war aren’t important. All that matters is how it ended, which it did when we were all adults.

Another bite of info I do not currently know is where, on this smeared reflection of Earth, Neighbor got his hands on so much horse manure. We never got another animal, so he probably broke into their racetrack. With a small tractor, a lot of those didn’t get computers, he pulled a wagon full of the stuff out to Bill’s office, which is downtown enough that they’ve got roads and cars and traffic lights.

I wasn’t there to smell it myself, but I know horses were the source. Neighbor is poetic like that. It would not have mattered how much easier getting his hands on cow pies and pig splatter would’ve been.

After sundown, when all the businesses were closed and the streets empty, he rolled around behind that office building and found his target: Bill’s caramel colored convertible. It was an expensive car, but Neighbor thought it was worth shit thanks to the man driving it.

Now the top was up and the doors locked; an alarm probably would have sounded if he broke the window. My brother had prepared thoroughly though. The car was 2to1. Lots of luxury goods are. It’s a snooty thing; they don’t want people as low as 4 even touching their belongings. Neighbor’s hardworking shovel was 4.

The manure was mostly at 3 I imagine, but I think he treated it with Fade-Away. Oh that’s right, you 2 aren’t from the tighter part of the asteroid belt. Fade-Away is a poor man’s method of reducing something’s odds. It breaks up unlikely clogs in pipes by making them even less likely.

Stuff that ain’t solid is good at holding together even if its little pieces have conflicting odds, so I think Neighbor bought a store out of Fade-Away and dumped it on half the manure before mixing it in. That way he could shovel it and some of it would go into the car.

Little bits of manure would’ve been changing each other’s state back and forth, so even with some going in most of it would fall straight through the bottom again. He had to keep shoveling, scraping it out from under, over and over again until a solid layer same as the car built up inside.

It… it very much makes me laugh picturing him, working harder than he ever worked on anything else in his life, sundown to sunup, only getting a 10th of a shovelful in there each time, but every one of those pictures that make up that film definitely occurred. When Billity went to go for a pleasant Sunday drive he found his convertible still sealed, but filled with shit the way a can is full of beans.

The fact that I had to get all these details 2ndhand irks me something fierce, but I did know that 2nd hand personally. She was a deputy with the police, but when she was a teenager she worked agave harvesting with me. She told me, hand over her heart, that Neighbor had made it the perfect assault.

He had even wiped the residue of his efforts off the spot on the car window he’d been shoveling into. He’d washed and polished the whole dang car afterward just to maximize the juxtaposition. It should be sitting in an art gallery right now, I’ll tell you that.

Anyway, he left no sign at all that he was the guilty party, but all of us knew from moment one that wouldn’t make any difference. He was still arrested, tried in less than 2 weeks too. With some minor offenses mounted on his wall already they had what they needed to send him upriver for a long time.

Bill pulled a heart string and got him sent up the dry river. All the way to Gothic Rock. They permanently misplace more people than they release. Nathan’s in there right now. Even if they’ve shredded all the calendars, even if they’ve locked out every last cicada, even if they soundproofed the walls so he can’t hear their screech, he knows it’s Halloween. He knows it’s the 13th year since they last flew.

Say, you 2 didn’t happen to see any sign of him did you? He’s tall, looks a little like me, has one ear that sticks out more than the other.”

The Hoods’ zonked companions couldn’t remember seeing such a person, but they really couldn’t remember much of anything. Complete names eluded them as well, but each of them did manage to snag a scrap and give the Hoods something to call them by. Long Odd Silver remembered the Silver part, and Roman thought his name might be Prince.

These temporary identities got some equally flimsy clothes as well, mostly to cover the unmistakable flowing stripes of their Gothic Rock jumpsuits. Cowboy hats. Fire pit stomping boots. Vests. Pants that looked like potato sacks divided into legs. Roman tore the sleeves off his jumpsuit and let his piston arms bask in the intense sun of Halloween day.

The wardrobe change didn’t require a detour, as Likely had supplies at the ready before he even reached the mausoleum. The family history was full of stories about the kinds of ghosts that could stroll out of that shadow and the necessity of providing for them. Sometimes they were drunk, though on what nobody knew. Sometimes they were in their birthday suits. In one instance a family dog even came through, so Likely had some rawhide chew toys mixed in just in case.

From that stockpile he was able to supply Silver and Prince with a few decks of cards. Silver couldn’t remember why tears were always rolling down their face, but the muscle memory in their hands hadn’t lost a step. At first touch they were able to flick cards into rotating around their torso at any angle, but only once since they weren’t electroglass and thus didn’t contain any stabilizing programs.

Prince was a lot less impressive, but he could throw, switch hands, and make a corner stick in tree bark from 50 feet, which was far better than nothing. He took 2 decks while Silver took the remaining 4, tucking them away in the pockets of their vest.

Then they rode for the Billity house. Clouds rolled in, trapped humidity in the air. The mechanical bull saddles became slick, but rather than cause the Hoods to fall off it just seemed to speed up their procession, almost like they were flying down a log flume. There wasn’t much chance for the new recruits to ask what the exact plan was, not until they dismounted behind the Billity stable and crouch-walked along its side.

So why aren’t we headed for the prison?” Prince asked in a whisper. His torn state had his head wobbling, and crouching only made it worse. Background irritability poked his brain with every thought, like the crunchy clicks of a Geiger counter. He wasn’t supposed to be there, and wasn’t supposed to be in that other place he was stuck in either.

You 2 are out of sorts, so I’ll keep it as simple as I can for you,” Likely whispered back, leading their creeping centipede. “We need chaos if we’re going to get Neighbor out. I don’t exactly have a platoon on standby, so we’re going to borrow Bill’s. We sneak in, we piss him off, and we get him to chase us… and he has to be pissed enough to chase us a long way.”

Don’t kill him, got it,” Riri said. She already had her cards out, single tricks held between her knuckles like extended cat claws.

Don’t kill anybody!” Likely shot back. He stopped and waddled around. “Wait… have you killed anybody?”

Nobody important,” she said, her vibrant compound eyes spinning in their fixtures rather than rolling.

Well then treat everybody you meet today as important. If anybody dies we’ll get chased for it across county lines. Then Neighbor and I won’t be able to get out of here permanently.”

We’re going to have to make somebody bleed darlin’,” Vicki said gently. “They need a trail to follow, so to speak.” Ouzo nodded behind her even though nobody could see his head at that moment.

I know that, but we’ve got to strike a fine balance. If we just beat the tar out of somebody it won’t be good enough. That’s the kind of vengeance that can be put off a week or 2, like an oil change. We’ve got to hit him in the delicates.”

Well where does the man keep his delicates!?” Riri asked.

All the horses are insured, so something inside,” Likely theorized. “We can bust an heirloom or something, open a few veins on the way out.” He peeked around the edge of the stable, saw that there were no guards posted out front, not even a geezer rocking on the porch. “Luck’s kicking in already. Looks like we can just knock.”

Everyone readied their knocking implements, drawing hands of cards from their holsters and pockets. Across the front lawn they flew, up the steps on the tips of their toes. Victim and Ouzo put their backs on either side of the door, ready to swivel inward. Riri crouched low, ready to attack any answering ankles. Silver and Roman watched their 6 o’clock from the bottom step while Likely delivered a swift knock.

There was no answer, but he heard rumblings from inside. Kssh! A window broke on the 2nd floor, shards of glass tinkling down the roof and bouncing off the gutter. They were headed straight for Silver, but the skilled cardist flicked a 7 and 8 of wheels upward. The cards spun and crossed each other’s paths, like a strand of climbing DNA, catching the stream of glass and deflecting it.

Likely tried the knob; it was open. The 6 of them poured into the foyer, and with them came a small cloud of cicadas. Their screeching couldn’t hold a candle to the pandemonium inside. Someone had already started a riot, and somehow kept it bottled up inside the Billity house.

People, mostly women, were packed shoulder to shoulder, jumping up and down, demanding all sorts of things. Several of them flew through the air, trying to find the right combination of objects to allow their 9to1 hands to break the little flame-shaped bulbs off the 3to1 chandeliers.

Spectral children hid in closets and behind coat trees, sticking their heads through to see if the dead were dying down once more. Most of the crowd was terribly gaunt, eyes empty but for the swirling mists of rage. Those eyes turned toward the newest intruders.

Errh, morning ladies,” Likely said nervously. Ouzo tipped his hat. “You having a Halloween party?” Rather than answer they went back to wailing and trashing the place. All but one anyway; a woman a little older than most of them waded through them.

You! You’re alive aren’t you?” she demanded to know.

At least somewhat,” Silver answered for the group.

Good. Come with me.” She turned, but didn’t get far before realizing they weren’t following. “Now!” Riri was the first to obey, snorting and cackling, thrilled that the plan was already off its rails and sinking in a bog. They couldn’t split up. Likely was the linchpin of their manifestation, and they would fade back to nothing if any of them were separated from him for too long. So to keep Riri he, and the others, had to follow as well.

Raised with plenty of manners when it came to women, he apologized profusely to every phantom he had to walk through in order to get to what looked like a basement door. The ghostly woman stopped in front of it and peeked her head through, recoiling quickly as if she’d seen striking vipers inside.

They are eager to get out of there,” she said, sighing through her nose. “Your job is to keep them down there, since we can’t do much about it.”

I’m sorry, who are you?” Likely snapped.

Café Chalke.”

And… who’s down there?”

I don’t know all their names, but I know 2. There’s a Jumbo Shrimptail and a Mixer Ales down there.” Likely knew the names even more than she did. Those boys are Bill’s right and left hand. When the trick-or-treaters come he makes them give out the candy apples. They probably have to make them too. “They’re trying to get some cards to their boss upstairs. We managed to split them up.”

You’ve got Bill trapped upstairs!?” Likely blurted. Perhaps this would be much easier than anticipated.

Not for long if the ones in the basement work up the nerve to come out here,” Café explained. “They’re down there soaking their cards in Catholicish holy water.” Vicki leaned backward and explained to Silver and Roman that blessed waters, as long as they were earnestly made in religious sentiment, had the power to banish ghosts back to their resting place.

Getting their hands on the stuff back when they ran a Catholicish school was easy enough, as they were in very good standing. Probable space religions had no priests because there were no gods for them to represent, so water could only be blessed by a genuinely good person who ascribed their goodness to their faith.

There were plenty in Mountainblood who barreled it up and donated it to what they thought were good causes, like the school. Now that the only thing they ran was a chokehold on the town’s horses, the supply had largely dried up. But they rarely needed it now, the only baptisms performed on horses to see if it made them better at racing. Jumbo and Mixer had more than enough to soak several decks of cards. While the extra weight would make them worse at flying the metal edges would be no less sharp.

What are all you haunters doing here?” Riri asked the less corporeal ghost. “Shouldn’t you be driving a mask right about now?” Café’s face was suddenly dour; she looked at her transparent hands like they were clumsy, like she needed to chastise them fro dropping her pulse. Some of the other women who overheard began to weep. One retreated through a wall and didn’t return.

We’ve been here,” Café answered with gelatinous sorrow and vibrating rage. “Year in and year out we’ve been here. Not me so much… but a lot of them from the beginning of the school. There’s no rest for them.

There’s a mass grave… out in the back. Girls nobody cared about who stepped out of line. Children that needed to disappear to save less adorable face. Some of the Billity people are the most vile-”

Whumf! The basement door flew open, right through her while she was speaking. 7 people poured out, screaming, a couple shouting Catholicish prayers in Latin. The wall-like Mr. Shrimptail was first, his rusty fishing boat visage worse than anything the unearthed spirits had to offer.

Behind him was the man named Mixer, another crazy8, his mask fashioned from a shredded tire. He smelled of burned and then rained-on rubber, and at the moment he was shirtless. Well, it wasn’t on his back, but it was coiled in his arms like a whip, soaked dark and heavy with holy water.

He snapped it like he was the weakest boy in the locker room forced to use the nuclear option. Cafe dodged the strike, but another girl took it. It was a lamenting scream that came out of her as she shrank and disappeared into a foggy ball that rocketed through the house, the garden, and into the busted open door of the mass grave.

Ha!” Mixer squawked, voice like a rusty carnival game crane successfully snagging a stuffed doe. “It works! I told you it would work Jumbo! What did I say?” His partner in general sliminess couldn’t respond, as the Hoods were just up to speed enough to step into action.

The specifics of this rebellion didn’t matter so much as keeping Bill on the back foot, so it was important he didn’t get the soaked cards. Likely’s corded deck shot out, sliced Mixer’s shirt clean in half, which happened to be the cleanest it had ever been. After the element of surprise was gone Linus didn’t really have the room to swing the thing around, so he retreated behind Victim and Ouzo while he separated cards from the cord.

Wet cards started flying, some of them intentionally put into the walls to force back the 9to1. They were essentially rebuilding the corridor as ghost-proof, since the apparitions couldn’t risk drifting through a wall and contacting the water. The phantoms screamed bloody murder at them, getting louder even as they were forced to retreat.

Don’t yell at us!” one of Bill’s lackeys shot back. “It’s not like we killed you!” She didn’t have any qualms about changing that however, tossing tricks at the ceiling to force peering eyes back.

Who the hell are you!?” Jumbo barked at Roman and Silver as they stepped forward to take their turns.

Good question,” the prince offered, alongside a thrown fan of 3. The larger man already had his strategy though. He wasn’t the greatest cardist himself, so he threw up his arms defensively, covering his vulnerable face and neck, and charged forward to plow the way for the others.

Cards that aren’t electroglass don’t slice as deeply, so as long as you keep them away from eyes and major arteries you can take a few hits with little harm. Under Jumbo’s sleeves were countless tally mark scars from other successful uses of the strategy. By the time he reached Riri all 4 suits, drinks, wheels, lights, and kisses, were already in his flesh, but they hadn’t slowed him at all.

He barreled into the small woman, forcing her into the others, and all of them back the way they’d come. Silver, the tallest of the raiding party, felt obligated to push back. This put the 3 dead Hoods in the difficult position of being the buffer that allowed Silver to test their strength against Jumbo, a test they failed.

Likely was furthest back, and was about to be crushed against the wall. There was only time to curse and try a terrible idea.

Shit!” The young Hood jumped, put his feet on the wall behind him, and sprung forward over the shoulders of his cohorts. He only had 20 cards left on his cord, but that needed to be enough, which it certainly could be on a 13th Halloween. The midair throw wrapped around Jumbo’s locked forearms, and Likely was able to pull it tight just as his aunt and uncle took his weight on their shoulders. “Pull me back!” he ordered them.

There was no more back, which he should’ve known since he’d relied on that for his momentum in the first place, but there was a set of stairs if they curved. Vicki and Ouzo climbed the first few as their nephew pulled down on the cord. It was fed over the banister, creating upward force. Cards sliced into Jumbo’s flesh like a goose’s neck caught in barbed wire.

Jumbo’s right foot reacted immediately, slamming into the stairs to brace the rest of his body and keep from having the band around his arm tightened enough to slice all the flesh off. He growled, which seemed to constitute an order, as the other lackeys either grabbed onto him or tried to cut through Likely’s cord.

Their focus was split by by Silver’s cards, spinning horizontally around their heads like buzzards. One lodged right in Mixer’s earlobe; he made a louder racket than all the others combined.

Prince, back pocket!” Likely snarled at Roman, flicking his head back toward the seat of his pants. The Plutonian hopped up, reached over the trio of Hoods, and slipped the deck from Likely’s pocket. It nearly fell out of his hands. All the 5s and 6s were very low odds, making cutting and shuffling difficult, but it only took him a second to understand the plan.

Come on, damn bread stick fingers.” Roman fumbled as he tried to split the deck into useful fans: 4to1, 5to1, 6to1, 7to1, 8to1, 7to1, 6to1, 5to1, 4to1. Each pile, in that order, he could safely toss to the undead ladies of the school. As long as they were paying attention they could catch it by the 8to1 card, let one half fall to the floor, and balance the other half as a knife fully capable of cutting any throat in the place.

He gently tossed one to Café, then 3 more to 3 other girls. They’d thought of little else in their time underground, and put edges to skin within moments. The lackeys threw up their hands, let themselves be corralled up against the wall. Silver came up behind Jumbo and made the same threat. The mountain of a man brought his foot down and stopped resisting.

We’ve got them,” Café said to those on the stairs. “Go pay Billity a visit and tell him no help is coming. Time for him to negotiate.” Likely reclaimed his cord, leaving what would become Jumbo’s most impressive scar behind. All 4 Hoods raced up the steps, angry and sullen specters making way even though they could’ve just passed through.

The greatest concentration of them indicated the room where William Billity was holed up, probably the master bedroom. There was a 9t1 man leaning against the door, which meant the inside must have been insulated against hardluck beings. It’s not uncommon to see such a lining in houses of the wealthy; they keep out eavesdroppers and nightmares alike.

The ghostly fellow was the only adult man who had come out of the grave as far as the Hoods could tell. He was dressed in some kind of jumpsuit, like he’d just casually stepped off a cargo plane. He didn’t wear it quite as well as he wore his smile, also the only one in the bunch. It faltered when he saw the Hoods arrive at his post.

And just where did you people come from?”

The great beyond,” Ouzo grumbled in a rare display of irritation.

At the moment we’re allied with all you lovely dead folk,” Likely offered, saluting with a card in his fingers. “Somebody named Café sent us up here.” The man’s smile came back.

That would be my wife. Well… common law, never officially married. We met after she died you see. The name’s Wordy Slurd.” He extended his hand to shake Likely’s, only to remember their differing odds and laugh at himself. “Sorry, even after all this time I’m not used to this death thing either. It’s probably because we’ve been stuck in that hole so long.”

None of you have had any rest?” Vicki asked.

Not a wink. Café and I are among the freshest. We just kind of stumbled into the whole situation, if you can call tens of thousands of feet in the air stumbling distance. We’ve been helping the girls come up with a plan, keep their heads. We’ve been ready for so long, but, I don’t know how, we only had the strength today.”

It’s a cicada year,” Vicki offered. “When they come up they aerate the ground, make dirt snorkels for rising spirits.”

That’s it then,” Wordy said with a nod. “When they get in there… they’re going to kill him.”

The hell ya are!” a voice roared from behind the bedroom door. Recognizing the perpetual growl of Bill, Likely stepped forward, leaned on the door as well.

Billy boy?” he chuckled. “What are you doing in there? Did you sleep in?”

L-Linus Hood? That ya?” He got a smug affirmative answer. “Yer trespassing.”

Is that any way to treat a concerned citizen who, upon strolling casually by, noticed an awful supernatural commotion happening at the historic Billity family estate? I had to do my civic duty and investigate the well being of my neighbor.”

None of this here is any of yer damn business Hood.” His voice dropped. “It’s not even any of mine…” Some of the ghosts bristled at that, clawing at the walls, moaning and hissing. Now that he finally had a moment to observe, Likely saw many of them had 2 faces, one just under the surface of the one they wore in life, one that looked like the moment of their death.

Most of these 2nd faces were gaunt, hollowed out like tents blown away and draped, soaking in the storm, over a gnarled branch. Dark bottomless eye sockets showed through like raccoon masks. Sometimes their jawbones hung below their spectral chins, pried open by endless hunger and agony, like pearly white necklaces. These aren’t tourist ghosts. None of them are here to watch or march in the Halloween parade. Hot damn I’m an idiot. Of course Neighbor ain’t the first time they’ve done something like this. They’re the vampires of Mountainblood.

The Catholicish school,” Wordy started, speaking for the women and girls who couldn’t compose their anguish enough to speak for themselves, “was just the lid of the trashcan. Any time somebody misbehaved they would lock them in a cellar out behind the garden. No food, no water, and no light. A lot of the time they didn’t come back out.”

One hardluck ghost, a girl of 9 and 9to1 alike, stepped out of the legs of another. Her face was drawn, pulled by permanent stress in her neck, which was full of rigid tendons and throbbing veins the color of pale dead crayfish. She shared with the Hoods the only word she could remember: forgot.

Her whole story was in that single word, those 2 syllables. Like so many of the wards at the school she was there just because she was born out of wedlock. One day one of the sisters was teaching them how to sign their names properly in cursive, but not their original names. These were the new names they were given, to make sure nobody knew which supposedly well-behaved loins they actually sprang from.

She couldn’t bring herself to do it. She signed her old last name. All 10 times on her paper. Then she turned it in and stood there, waiting for something to happen. It did happen, but it unfolded silently, quieter than her assignment as it was crumpled in the sister’s fist. They both knew what was happening, and why it was happening, start to finish.

The Billity family was the whetstone, and as other families sharpened themselves the shreds were sloughed off the side to be well and truly forgotten. Like her. She was taken out back on a hot day, thrown through the door, locked away. The punishment was probably only supposed to last a few hours. She could sweat out her bad attitude and then hand scrub the shame out of her uniform. Except she couldn’t, because the sister forgot about her. Not a word was devoted to her from the time she signed her name so insistently, so sure.

By the time any Billity opened that door again, for another punishment, she was dead on the floor from dehydration. The closest thing she got to another word in her defense was the chafing sound of a shovel breaking packed dirt.

Likely had to cover his mouth to stifle his crying. The dead Hoods merely nodded in resigned understanding while he struggled to control his breath. Though it was crass to pull out the smug mocking tone again, he needed that weapon. Nothing else would get Bill as steamed as he needed to be. There was a bigger problem of course, as the Hoods needed the man to stay alive, at least for the day.

Listen Bill,” he said, testing his voice for quivering, “that holy water you ordered isn’t making it up here.” Bill was silent on the other side, but he was listening. “Why don’t you tell me, in your own words, what exactly is happening here?”

It’s not whatever they’re saying,” the man eventually offered. “They must’ve died nearby, gotten confused. I grew up here and I sure as hell never saw anything as downright macabre as them.”

Thank you for your testimony Bill; now if you’ll give me a minute to deliberate.” Likely dropped his voice to a whisper, aimed it in Wordy’s ear. “Listen… we need him alive until midnight tonight.”

They won’t wait,” Wordy whispered back, not a scrap of doubt visible in the jellyfish translucence of his head.

I also need them to let him and his thugs leave.”

Are you listening mister? Some of them have been waiting close to 100 years for a taste of Billity blood. They won’t care who gets in the way of that.”

What if I told them I could deliver a fate worse than death? Bill’s the head honcho of the whole family empire now. He’s riding high as a legitimate businessman. We can fell the whole family tree with one thwack though, and we can do it tonight.”

What exactly are you proposing?”

We’re going to embroil him in a prison riot for one. After that, I’ll use these living lungs of mine to holler your story from every peak and dune in Mountainblood. I’ll tell the papers and I’ll tell the fancy folks who get their news on the radio and on their cards. They’ll be ruined, disgraced, and all because Bill couldn’t figure out how to shut my mouth.”

I don’t know. Let me talk it over with Café.” Wordy was quick about it, leaping through the banister and down to the first floor. The Hoods overheard him congratulate his wife, apparently believing she had no trouble subduing every crony in the place single-handed. Rather than listen in further, Likely stoked Bill’s furnace some more.

You must be awful embarrassed Billy boy. I know you like to spend your Halloweens nice and quiet-like. No masked history lessons for you. Lights turned out so you don’t get many trick-or-treaters.”

The richest man in town doesn’t need to take lessons from anybody,” he answered. “Ya Hoods never mask up either.”

Oh we’ve been known to, but certainly not on a cicada year. We’ve got to be as close to our true selves as possible on nights such as this. Got to speak to what’s in our hearts. The night can make it happen if we speak loud enough, so I’m telling everybody I come across exactly what I want. And I want my brother back.”

His debt to society ain’t my fault. A horse is a horse-”

Of course, of course.”

-and there are no exceptions when it comes to licensing. I didn’t write the law.”

No it was just written on Billity paper with Billity ink while a few Billity boys stood by and witnessed the signing… Now if I can’t get Nathan back by tonight, I’ll just have to settle for making sure your life is about as rewarding as his.”

Soon as I get out of this room I’m g-”

-oing straight to jail for covering up a mass grave full of your family’s victims. Murder charges! Desecration charges! All across Reap they’re going to know your name: Bill the butcher.”

Nobody’s going to believe a word out of yer mouth!”

They don’t need to Billy boy!” These poor girls have to stay close to their graves, same as my posse if they didn’t have me anchoring them. I can’t take one to go and bring her to the news station, but there are plenty of other ways. “All I have to do is show them this human skull I found out back.” He stifled a snicker as he held up nothing at all reverently. Riri’s eyes spun mischievously. Even some of the specters smiled.

Wordy returned and offered a clear nod. They were go. All he had to do now was make sure that Bill would follow.

Alright Billy it’s been a blast catching up with you, but I’ve got an appointment under a Gothic Rock to keep. Don’t you worry; soon as that’s done I’m heading straight to the newspapers. This time tomorrow you won’t have to worry about being stuck in that fancy bed ever again.”

Linus ya bastard, don’t leave! We’ll settle this here! Linus!”

Give us a 20 minute head start, then let him out,” Likely whispered to Wordy. “If you can, make sure he follows us with as many people as possible.” Many of the ghosts nodded, including the little forgotten girl who crossed her heart as an oath. “Alright Hoods, saddle up. We ride for the desert!”

The 4some descended the stairs and pulled Silver and Roman away from their captives, letting more of the girls take over. They collected as many stray cards as they could to refill their decks and then left the front door open behind them. After mounting their mechanical bulls once again they made for Collapse Trail: the most direct line into Drymouth from the mountains.

Likely forced his steed to buck every 100 feet or so, blasting a chunk of dirt out of the ground so there would be a trail for that blazing Billity rage to follow.

Ocks at the Door

Whisker Ocks, driving the body of his son Onther, never actually entered through the door. He did look inside since it was ajar, and saw exactly what he hoped not to see. Somebody had already busted open the hornet’s nest.

He turned around and took a deck out of his jacket pocket. The suit he wore was ill-fitting, which didn’t bode well for what he had to do. Junior hadn’t been taking care of himself. There was only glad-handing muscle on his arms, enough to firmly shake hands and pat himself on the back, but that was all.

Whisker also produced a flask of holy water, which he very carefully opened. If a single drop got on the mask connecting him to the mortal world he would be banished for the next year. One by one he cycled through the cards, letting a few drops from the flask hit each one and leave a dark spot on the center. When he was done he poured more over the metal edges just to make sure he had saturation.

His glance inside included a look at several people held against the floor and walls, sharp edges to their necks. Strolling inside would no doubt net him the same result, so he once again sought the highest office in the land, which was on the 3rd floor this time. The lifespan of creeping vines was not part of his general knowledge, but he banked on the metal trellis still being on the east side of the plantation house and still going all the way up.

Just before he passed away, Whisker hadn’t set foot on the estate in decades. It was best to avoid the place altogether, since you wanted the Billity people on your payroll but never at the company picnic, but it couldn’t have been avoided the last time. Several on the town council had insisted on seeing it for themselves.

At the top of the trellis, out of his son’s breath, Whisker used a card to slice out the glass of an attic window. The panel fell inward, sliding down a sheet covering an office chair and landing intact on the dusty red carpet, the color of a tongue after bobbing for apples in a vacuum cleaner bag.

Whisker was careful with each step, not wanting a single board to creak before he made it to the center of the room. Some of the furniture he remembered was still there, but all of it was covered with sheets that must have been regularly replaced, given there wasn’t a spot of mold or a moth hole on any of them.

It was where they used to keep all the gambling books for the horse races, including the occasional list of acceptable winners and losers. There was a framed painting on the wall, the only uncovered thing in the room, that he also remembered, but his memory was far more complete than it was.

When intact it had depicted a great many horses, all galloping alongside a river, rivaling the coursing waters themselves. Now many of the animals were missing, but still not eaten away by moths. Individuals had been cut out by exacting knives and scissors, one by one until the majority of the animals were gone and their silhouettes filled by the dull color of the wall.

A Billity child wanted one for a school art project. A Billity teenager needed a couple to stick to the wall so they could play pin-the-tail at a birthday party. A drunken adult Billity didn’t like the way a stallion was looking at them. It had probably been a tradition for a while to extract one, slowly hollowing it out over the course of their stewardship.

Whisker bent down and tested one of his cards on the floor. The 5to1 jack of lights passed through. Good. Now all he had to do was perform the trick properly. Odds didn’t matter at this point since the holy water had an aura, something like a phosphorescent glow or a magnetic field. Any ghosts in range would fall to it.

The former mayor was mostly a showy cardist, knowing some tricks to impress children and maybe enough to win a throwing contest at a bar if his competitors had all had at least 2 beers and he was stone sober. Add to that Onther not knowing the difference between a throwing card and a greeting card and you had a recipe for failure.

He swore under his breath several times trying to remember exactly how to stand and where to position his hands. The trick was called the fountain top, and had 2 possible uses. Properly performed, he would spin and spray his cards at a constant rate, with them quickly dropping like the flow of a sprinkler.

If it was just for show, people would see cards raining out of the ceiling above, taking the place of confetti during surprise parties and new year bashes. Used aggressively, with sharpened cards, it was air superiority.

Once he was sure he was in the exact middle of the house’s floor plan, and he had just enough force stored up for some of the cards to reach the outer wall, he went for it. The fountain top was a 52 pickup trick, meaning that it required every card in a full deck to be expended by the end of it. As he spun and tossed he looked a bit like an umbrella, but a malevolent one actually working with the nefarious precipitation.

His bomb distribution turned out quite even, each room getting hit by several in 2 waves. Even specters within the walls were not safe, with some of them never seeing what hit them. Whisker was only halfway through the deck when he heard the wailing and shrieking. Beneath him the struck ghosts were balled up in fog, launched back to their restless place underground.

Getting them all was highly unlikely, but he probably succeeded in freeing any Billity boys present and their cohorts. Hopefully they had some water of their own left and could take care of the dregs. Whisker got down on his knees, put his ear to the carpet, and listened. There was some banging, shouting. Excellent. The house was getting itself in order.

The pair of mayors waited several minutes, until they didn’t hear a single echo of a ghostly snivel. After that they descended out the window and returned to the front door, which was now closed, knocking with polite but insistent force.

What stain in the long johns of Nemesis is knocking on the blasted door this shit-slipping time!?” A furious William Billity, back arched in preparation for a pounce, ripped the door open, but he stood tall and composed himself as soon as he recognized Onther. Of course he had to squint a moment later, trying to recognize the slightly different eyes and eyebrows.

Young William,” Whisker said to jog his memory. “Don’t you remember me? You interned with my campaign in ‘91.”

Mayor Whisker? Yer son’s wearing ya this afternoon?” Bill looked away, grabbed a henchman’s sleeve and wiped his sweaty forehead on it.

That’s correct. We need to speak.” He tried to let himself in, but Bill narrowed the doorway.

Now’s not a good time. We’ve just had… a bit of a fire.”

I know; I was the extinguisher.” Whisker pushed his way in, found people scattered around the foyer treating cuts and scrapes with peroxide and bandages. “Your grave accident is the whole reason I’m here. When did they put you in charge William? What happened to Flexy?”

Died. His liver was Swiss cheese when they took it out of him. Shouldn’t ya know that? Don’t ya dead people talk to each other down there?”

What do you think being dead is?” Whisker snapped at him. He stalked through the hall with his hands on his hips, sharing his obvious disgust with all the bleeding going on around him. “You don’t talk to anybody if you’re at rest. You’re the first being I’ve talked to since I keeled over.”

Then how did ya know what was happening here?”

Because I was expecting it.” Bill grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him around.

How? I didn’t know shit about all those dead girls, and I lived here my whole life.”

Then your mother and her mother did a better job than I thought,” Whisker snarled. “The town council found out about that little hole in your backyard back in the 90s. Even came to see it for themselves. Some of them wanted to dig it up, give everyone a proper burial, file some criminal charges.

It was me who convinced them it was better to just ignore it and move on. Me who helped your family pass it off as the general cruelty of a bygone era! Some of those idiots didn’t even know they would’ve rung their own bells if they actually managed to identify all the bones back there.”

Yer lying. We’re not killers. I’ve never killed anybody in my life.”

William… You fix more races than you do horses. Your cousin was once arrested because he stuffed 5 jockeys in a trunk.”

None of those jockeys were dead, and that had nothing to do with me. I didn’t say I was on the up, the other up, or the up and up; I said I’m no killer. Momma didn’t raise me that way, just the adjacent way. I know she didn’t kill anybody neither.” Whisker scoffed at that as he started making his way toward the back.

Now Bill was definitely a pussyfoot compared to the rest of his line, but petulant anger still got the best of him often enough that he belonged there. It was that anger Linus Hood had built his entire plan on, years out from his ability to execute any of it. It was as reliable as the cicadas, and just like the insects it was astir.

He told Jumbo and Mixer to get ready to ride. Get the decks. Get the horses. Get the fan saddles. Mount up and bring his horse Saint Shepard around. Linus wasn’t going to blab. None of his dead relatives could either, as long as they took out the one living man among them. Bill tapped his 2nd biggest employee on the shoulder, wordlessly urged him to come along rather than go with the others. The 2 of them followed Whisker out the back, into the garden.

The once and future mayor was standing at the threshold of the mass grave, where he had kicked aside some splinters from its hangnail door. There was no longer any sign of the ghosts within, just a dry darkness, the kind you destroy every time you open a knitting drawer. They were still there though, stewing.

Whisker pulled out another deck, electroglass this time. There was no signal that far from an urban computing center, and each card lacked the memory to run complex programs individually, but if all 52 put their brains together they could usually download and operate one tool.

He ran his finger across all their edges to turn them on, ripping the 4 of lights off the top to act as his interface. Holding it out in front of him, from the corner like it was a photograph he didn’t want to smudge, he moved it over the doorway in slow horizontal lines. Bill and his underling came up behind the man quietly, peeking over his shoulder to look at the card’s screen.

The device saw the grave’s blackness as a light electric blue. White specters stood everywhere within it, overlapping each other several times, all staring back. Some of them pointed at Whisker and then drew their fingers across their throats. The girls were still home, even though Halloween was over for them.

With a fingertip Whisker sorted through them, outlining each one in black, searching for one ghost in particular. Bill watched, breathing through his nose, trying to rope the blazing beast inside that was confident they should’ve already been kicking up dust. The old mayor kept his fingertip below the card’s top half, beneath the shoulders of many of the spirits. He was looking for a child.

What is that?” Bill asked, glancing away to count the intact bags of fertilizer that used to block the door.

Newfangled thing,” Whisker growled. He’d never adjusted well to the electroglass, but with so few times left to his name they were all desperate times, and called for desperate measures. “It’s called Spookshot. Sees ghostly odds that are invisible to the naked eye.”

I assume it has something to do with why yer here in the first place.”

You weren’t asking questions up until now, and it’s not a good time to start,” Whisker warned him, but after perusing more than a dozen children he had to admit he had a question of his own. “Where is she?”

Who?”

There’s supposed to be a little girl here named Keepsake.” Bill’s fingers tingled as he swallowed a thumbtack of a breath. It didn’t take half a Billity mind to figure out the broad strokes. If Keepsake was supposed to be in there she was supposed to be dead. Memories dumped on his conscious mind like a bucket of cold water.

Keepsake was a shy girl. The others sometimes took food off her plate because they knew she wouldn’t complain about it. Little Billy didn’t like girls, but he couldn’t just watch her get robbed like that, and besides, he always had plenty, dessert too. Sometimes he took her a cookie and told her to be brave so he could stop wasting them.

She never was though. Instead she would go and find him, pal around even when he was busy playing with other boys. She would sit and watch, never ask for a turn or when they would be finished or anything of the sort. If one of the others said something rude Bill had to speak up on her behalf.

He became her bravery, until that strange day her mother showed up, trapping him in his tire swing. She wanted to know where her child was, and Bill only remembered the bravery he’d used to speak for her draining out of him, every last drop of it. He had nothing to say. Why was that? Any other day and he would’ve hopped off and marched straight to her.

That was why he never saw her again. His well of courage had run dry, and even as an adult he didn’t know why.

What are ya after her for?” Bill asked with a mouth drier than a mummy’s.

Kicker’s not here either…” That growl was Whisker’s only response as he identified several of the adults with his card. Bill realized he didn’t need the answer. Girls came to the Billity Catholicish school to disappear, and only now did he see how much. He’d never once tried to open the cellar, he’d been warned not to, but he figured any and all human remains present had been the result of embarrassing misadventure.

But the top wouldn’t have blown off like a shaken soda if that was all it contained. Only resentment could provide such mounting pressure. If Whisker thought they were in there then he thought they’d been disposed of. Since it concerned the man, Bill went ahead and made the educated guess that Kicker’s last name was Ocks.

Keepy was born out of wedlock,” he muttered, finally catching Whisker’s attention. He stuffed the electroglass card back in with the others, cleared the data with a loud flourish.

You knew her?” His darkening expression made it clear that he did. “Listen William, and listen good. Nobody without the last name Ocks is even supposed to know this. My line has a destiny. We’re a through-line. We’re the ones who really are about the destination, and not the journey. Do you understand?”

Keepy needed me.”

She needed everyone, because she didn’t have the strength to do anything herself. She never had any because she was never meant to exist. She was drag… but if people find out about her she can still screw with our trajectory.”

What’s this destiny of yers that she wasn’t invited to?”

Mephitis.”

What’s that? A plague?”

In the 1to1 it’s the past and here it’s the future. The Ocks will be on the first instrument headed there when it arrives. There won’t be any wait for them to crawl across space like there was with pathetic little Pluto. But… every toe out of our line might keep us from boarding. That’s why my son and I are here tonight. We need to find the girl and make sure she can’t talk, not this Halloween or any other.”

Whisker stepped into the dry darkness of the cellar in search of clues to the child’s whereabouts. His back was turned to Bill, which was when Bill did his absolute clearest thinking. He hated having eyes on him: the withering judgment that always diminished him at every turn. Eyes of crooked nuns with daggers in their garters. Eyes of greasy gladhands. And now, without the door on that cellar, the eyes of all those ghosts asking how he could be so damn foolish.

One of the Hoods was just here,” he told Whisker. “Saw all this. Said he was going to tell everybody. He might’ve taken Keepy as proof.”

If that’s the best lead you’ve got we’d better follow it.”

I’ll follow it.” Whisker turned around, clucked with his son’s tongue, put more words in the boy’s mouth.

Excuse me?”

I said I’ll follow it. Yer little scandal burial ground will be safe. As a Billity I guarantee I’ll keep this place quiet as a church.”

And I’m coming with you to see that you do.” He took a step forward, but one of Bill’s cards went much further, sticking in the dirt back wall, tasting some skin and blood from Onther’s forearm on the way there. The mayor hissed and grabbed at the wound like he was afraid his soul would screech out in a jet of colored steam.

What in the pope’s assless pajamas do you think you’re doing!?” Rather than answer Bill flicked his head at his underling, who started grabbing fertilizer bags and stacking them in the doorway. Whisker rushed forward again, but a card stuck in the shin put him back in his place, with the rest of the dead.

Linus isn’t going to tell a soul about this place… and neither is yer boy Onther.”

You can’t leave me in here!”

Yer already dead. After tonight it won’t matter where ya are, although it might make a difference to some of these girls. Their business is their business as long as it doesn’t get in mine.”

My boy’s under this mask!” Whisker bellowed. “He’s the mayor of this whole damn town and you want to suffocate him underground?” He was spitting with every word, frothing; it had to be the work of 2 people desperately working the same jaw. Bill knew it wasn’t anger, but fear.

Your boy is just as much of a loose end as Linus. I know he witnessed all this just now, and I don’t know what makes him tick. Better safe than sorry.” A fertilizer bag covered his belt. His bottom button. The middle. The cellar was getting darker; the shadows unfurled and crept.

That’s tantamount to turning himself in you idiot! He’s not going to talk. He moves his mouth when his ancestors say so. He’s a sock puppet, but he needs to stay on a living hand! Or-”

Yeah, yeah. Mephitis. Yer going to Mephitis. Tell it to the ages.”

You’ll stop my line dead if you kill him! You’re just an employee Will! You’re here to take my orders!”

I’m here to tell people to keep walking, to tell them they didn’t see anything, to tell them they were imagining it all along. Besides, he won’t suffocate.” Bill slapped the top of the bags, which a second later became the middle. “These babies aren’t airtight. He’ll die of thirst, if your friends in there don’t find a way to get him first.”

You said you weren’t a killer!”

I never knew what happened to her before.”

Onther didn’t even know about this place until today! He’s not responsible!”

This is Mountainblood. Nobody’s responsible for anything. It’s all just a raw deal, but shit does flow downhill.” The last bag was slotted in, pounded until it fit tightly. Bill dismissed the stacker, told him to saddle up with the others and wait for him out front.

Then Bill stood there, nose practically touching the wall of bags, waiting silently for Ocks and son to think themselves alone and try charging the stack. It only took a minute. Quicker than he’d ever moved in his life, Bill stepped back and flicked a 9 of kisses so fast that his holster’s flap swung up and down like a cat door.

It didn’t cut through any of the bags, instead sliding into one of the crevices, traveling between them without losing any speed. Getting electroglass to do that was one thing, but making stock do it was on a different order of skill magnitude. Hitting a seam perfectly was a lesser known trick within the Express Mail style, and it was his favorite by far. He could hit whoever he wanted through the crack in a door, without them even getting to look.

He heard the mayors stumble back and fall down. Struck. From the way they were wheezing he probably punctured a lung, which meant no matter who held the reins there was no way they were pushing the bags over now.

Bill put his elbows on a protruding bag and crossed his arms, burying his head in them. His breath bunched up in his throat like a run in a stocking. He sniveled and cried, wetting his sleeves, snot dripping and rolling down the bag into the fertile dirt underneath. It was boy crying. This-isn’t-fair crying. If-I-was-really-in-charge-none-of-this-would-ever-have-happened crying.

For years he dammed up those particular tears for Keepsake. Billity kids had that kind of crying whipped out of them at an early age. You keep it quiet. You keep everything quiet.

Not this time,” Bill promised the earthy-smelling edge of the bag. “This time we make some noise.”

(Continued in Part Four)

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