GhostGum Creek: I’m going back to June 2014 for this one, which surprised me as I’ve never rerun it before (I checked). It is a venue that I integrated into the end of the Perihelix (and has stood the test of time) and also gets mentioned in Curved Space to Corsair. So to get me in the mood for my editing marathon at Camp NaNo , which starts tomorrow:
It’s a Subgenre Mash-up this week – my favourite! Chuck Wendig gave us a list of 20 genres, we throw a 20 sided die twice. I got 18 & 1 = Noir Haunted House! Sounds fun… and at least I understand what they both are!
This week’s is longer than usual – 2000 words. I hope you enjoy them.
You’d think being a simple bartender on Paradisio would be enough excitement, but being the owner of Rick’s was Trouble, and it always found me.
Norma walked in one morning at 3 p.m. The breakfasters had retired to the back rooms and the lunchers flown off in their superyachts. It was quiet enough for me to listen. I was good at listening. Especially to a dame like Norma, who I knew first as Jean.
You didn’t argue with Norma. Not a shy retiring person, nor the dainty “I need rescuing” type. Norma was a big girl, well able to take care of herself. Big in height, weight, nose, feet and other assets. Big heart too, but not an earth-mother. Would help you out in a crisis, that’s all I’m saying.
She hoiked herself onto a bar stool in front of me and asked for a sundowner.
“Bit early for that, don’t you think?” It was a witticism that earned me a withering look. I poured her the drink and an orange spritzer for myself, since we’d had a delivery of fresh oranges that weren’t fresh enough to serve to paying customers.
She muttered something in return, but I didn’t catch it over the hum of the air-conditioner. Hum is a euphemism. I must get it fixed before someone sues me for deafening them. We sipped our drinks in companionable silence. I knew which customers liked me to make small talk and Norma wasn’t one of them.
“It’s cold out,” she said, finally.
“Cold?” I echoed, since nobody here ever used “cold” in relation to Paradisio’s ambient temperature. A Venusian might, but that’s about it.
She nodded and gazed at her glass, plumbing the depths of the amalgam of angostura, O, V and orange flavouring. I’d kept the real stuff to myself.
“Rick, can you keep a secret?”
Dumb question. I was renowned for keeping secrets. Everyone knew that.
“I need a friend. I need a friend like I’ve never needed one before. And not for that, in case you’re thinking dirty thoughts.”
I assured her I wasn’t. I was mainly thinking that Norma didn’t usually need friends, which was why she didn’t have any, but I wasn’t going to tell her that.
“What’s up?” It seemed she needed prompting.
“I’m scared to sleep at night.”
I know a few planets where being scared to sleep at night is the sanest thing in the world. Paradisio isn’t one of them. On Paradisio, fear of sleeping usually follows treachery, connivance or picking the wrong side. None of those were Jean’s style.
“Tell me more.”
“There are things following me. Ever since I got back from my brother’s funeral. I see them out of the corner of my eye, but when I look straight at them, there’s nothing there.”
“Have you tried ignoring them?”
“Do they do anything?”
“Not during the day.”
“So… at night, you don’t sleep, in case they do something?”
I waited. If Jean didn’t want to tell me more, I sure as heck didn’t want to hear more.
She emptied her glass. I filled it up. I sipped some more of my drink; she swigged some of hers.
“My brother, before he died…”
She tailed off and I felt a shiver cross my skin.
Her brother was murdered. The cops investigated for six months before the case was closed – with an open verdict. Nobody knew who or what could have flayed him alive then left him for dead, all alone in his place over at Ghostgum Creek. He’d been alive, just, when the mailman found him, but the larval stages of various of the local fauna had found him long before that. Death was a blessing that came on the copter ride to the hospital.
I guess Jean had been the one who identified the body, although maybe the mailman had done so. I wondered… we all did, since there had been a press blackout on pictures of his body. The local press boys had had a field day with their descriptions, though. “Bloated purple excrescences” — I remembered that one. Another was the size of the emerging worm from the stennato scorpion’s egg buried in his flesh. Other orifices had succoured other baby insects. And an ant colony.
“These things are real, Rick,” she said, clutching my hand so suddenly I spilled my drink.
I extracted the hand, mopped the spillage and got myself a coffee. She shook her head when I offered her one. “On the house?” Still no.
“But thank you.”
“Why tell me?”
“I thought you could help me. Check it out or something.”
“Check out your house, or his house, or whether something is following you?”
“Yes,” she said. “Whatever you think is best. My doc says it’s imagination, but I know it’s not. He suggested seeing an optician, and he said my eyesight was fine, although…”
“… he knew of crazy people who saw things out of the corners of their eyes. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t real to them, he said.”
I sipped my coffee to remove the bile that had risen in my mouth. If Norma was imagining that at night, she’d be a nervous wreck. I looked at her more closely. The nails, usually so well manicured, showed signs of flaking and two or three were shorter than usual. She had more make-up on too – concealer round the eyes was doing a poor job on the bags and worry lines. Yes, maybe she was a wreck.
“These things you see,” I started.
“I do see them,” she cut in.
I sighed inwardly. Dames. “Here’s a vague problem, solve it for me.” No thought for the outcome.
“So – where do you think I should start?” I asked her.
“How about at my brother’s place. Can you start today? I’ll go over with you, it’s not obvious.”
“How about tomorrow, about 11 a.m. Meet me here, ok?”
“OK, thank you, Rick!” She enveloped me in a smile as warm as her heart, handing me all the responsibility for her future happiness. She got to her feet. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
Why, oh why, do I fall for these things?
Nothing important happened that night.
Nothing important happened in the morning either, except that Norma didn’t show up at 11. I considered going over to Ghostgum Creek by myself, but two of my breakfast guys called in sick. They’d been helping a customer celebrate his multi-billion credit win on the Lottery so I knew what sickness they were suffering from.
I was just leaving to go to Ghostgum that afternoon when the new Imperium sheriffs came in.
“When did you last see Norma Rossiter?”
“Yesterday. She talked to me about some trouble she was having with stalkers. Supposed to go and check her brother’s house this morning, but she didn’t show.”
“Not surprising. She was found first thing by her housekeeper. Flayed like her brother. Died of shock though. Nothing gorier.”
My gut sank so far I reckon hell would have booked it in as a newcomer.
“What can you tell us about her problems?”
“Just that she kept seeing things out of the corner of her eye. She’d seen her doctor and the optician. They seemed to think she was imagining things. I was going to go with her and see what I could see.”
“What kind of things?”
I thought hard, but I couldn’t remember anything more specific, and said so.
“Two unexplained violent deaths mean we need to fix this, and fix it soon before it ruins our economy,” said the older of the pair. “You need to help us. What were you going to do at the brother’s place?”
“Just check it out, see if I could see anything – out of the corner of my eye or following her.” I wondered just how I came to need to help them. They wouldn’t pay me, that was for sure.
“Were you on your way out there now?” asked the short skinny one, noting I’d got my desert boots on, no doubt.
“We’ll come with you.”
I hate working with cops. But it seemed I hadn’t got much choice.
Ghostgum Creek was about thirty clicks out of town, a dry dusty place in the middle of nowhere. The creek was a dirty patch of mud pooling among smooth red rocks. Sandstone was the best I could do for identification, geology not being my strong point.
The shack was up a tributary, dry now, marked by a row of ghost gums standing sentinel along the ridge, like a line of soldiers or maybe native warriors about to attack.
There were unexplained skitterings on the bare rock, echoes of a long-dead vole, perhaps, and creaks and groans that could have come from crossing branches of trees blowing in the wind, if it were not for the dead still afternoon air.
I longed for the hurly-burly of Paradisio City.
“Is this where he lived?” asked Short&skinny.
“I guess so,” I replied. “Didn’t you visit when you did the investigation last year?”
“Not us,” said Oldie. “We’ve been assigned recently.”
“Why didn’t they use the original team?”
“Sure. They were reassigned to a different planet. Or just left on a shuttle soon after the case was closed.”
“Didn’t anyone ask why?”
The pair exchange looks. “The new team were given a strong indication that it was better not to uncover old ground.”
“How did you two draw this detail, then?”
“He specialises in the unexplained,” said Oldie with a nod to his companion.
“He’s my partner,” said Short&skinny.
Had all our official law enforcement been run off this planet; were we left with the dregs of the universe? Well, we had our own methods round here that didn’t require the law.
We squeezed between boulders up the path to the shack.
A rough wooden door hung off its hinges and creaked ominously. Where were all these wind-driven noises coming from? I pushed it aside and waited, just in case something wanted to come out, like smell or flies.
Short&skinny stuck his head in, and yanked it out quickly with a retching sound.
“I remember the body was in there for some time before it was found,” I commented. I was glad I’d been cautious.
The shack was in cool shadows; my skin felt clammy. Clammy is not a usual state of skin on Paradisio unless you’re from Malthus, in which case you’re made that way. I shuddered as I touched the door again, and judged it safe to look inside, even through a growing reluctance to do so.
“Do not enter!” said Oldie suddenly in an unnaturally deep voice. We turned to him, noting his stiff stance, staring eyes and spittle on his lips.
“Why not?” asked Short&skinny
“It is forbidden.”
“Who forbade it?”
“The old ones do not forgive the intrusion.”
It was weird watching these two converse. Like a partnership with a third eye.
Shortl&skinny said nothing, so I tried.
“Who are the people following Norma Jean?”
“They are the old ones. Do not disturb them.”
“Did she disturb them?”
“Her brother disturbed them. Now all who knew him are suspect.”
“Knew him or knew her?”
Oh, crikes. I can cope with talking to a zombie in disguise, but when the zombie tells me that I may be the next in line, I don’t feel I want to prolong the conversation.
“Well, that’s fine, I’ll be running along now,” I said. “Sorry to have disturbed you.”
“You will be.”
I didn’t like the sound of that.
I turned and walked sedately down the trail, listening to sounds behind me, and noting that I was not being followed.
I wasn’t followed all the way back to the flier. I got in and told the pilot to head home, then come back and wait for the other two till dusk.
He told me later he did just that. They didn’t appear.
So far I haven’t seen anything out of the corner of my eye. But I’m on the lookout, just in case.
(c) J M Pett 2014