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Authors: Jeffrey Ford

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BOOK: Crackpot Palace
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“Quit complaining,” she said, “you're already more than halfway through the night.”

he said. “Gracie's gone wild.”

Darene didn't answer, but he heard her running from her room. From a distance he heard her scream, “Dad, Gracie's

Two minutes passed, and while Luke waited for Darene to pick up again, Uncle Sfortunado limped over to a stone bench to the right of the church doors and sat down with a sigh.

“Stay there,” Darene finally said into the phone. “We're coming.”

“Your uncle says to bring guns. Darene, what the hell?”

She hung up. Luke walked over to the bench and sat next to the old man. “This is all wrong,” he said.

Sfortunado smiled. “Only wrong if we don't kill her.”

“Forget we,” said Luke. “I'm done.”

The old man waved a hand as if to dismiss him. “Cowards get no treasure,” he said.

“What treasure?”

“You kill the
cut off the left leg, and there's a diamond, right here,” he said, leaning forward and pointing to the back of his leg. “Inside the calf muscle, a gift from the great spirit for killing the creature.”

“Get out of here,” said Luke.

“This big,” said Sfortunado and made a fist. “You help kill it, you get a share.”

“How hard is it to kill the
?” asked Luke.

“Ehh.” The old man rocked back and forth. “Sometimes not so hard. First you shoot it, shoot it, shoot it, and then you gotta nail the head.”

“What do you nail it with?”

“Brass. This long,” he said and stretched his thumb and forefinger apart six inches. “Right here.” He touched his finger to the middle of his forehead. “With a hammer.” He pantomimed a mighty hammer blow. “Pfft, finished.”

“What if she gets me before I get her?”

likes the organ meat—liver, kidney, heart, you know. Likes the blood.”

“What is it?”

“It's in the blood. People say it's a demon, evil spirit, goblin, but this is the twenty-first century. It's a hereditary germ. It makes
every fifty years or so.”

“If it's a hereditary germ, how does the diamond get in her leg?” said Luke.

Uncle Sfortunado shrugged. “You ask too many questions. Just shut up and kill the

“Was that a twenty-first-century flying coffin?” asked Luke.

said the old man and shook his head.

Five minutes later, Mr. Cabadula's black Mercedes pulled into the parking lot. As soon as it stopped, Darene got out of the passenger side and came running toward the bench. Luke stood up to meet her, but she passed him and went to Uncle Sfortunado. “Are you okay?” she asked, leaning down and putting her arms around him.

“Yeah, yeah, I had
to protect me,” he said, staring at Luke over her shoulder.

Mr. Cabadula walked up and began talking in another language to Sfortunado. Darene went to Luke, took him by the arm, and moved him away from the men, to the other side of the church doors.

“I'm sorry,” she whispered.

“Are you kidding? She's some kind of vampire,” he said.

“Once in fifty years out of all the Cabadula. Why Gracie?”

“So, when do we call the cops and leave?” asked Luke.

“We have to kill it,” said Darene. “It's our family duty.”

“That's crazy.”

“You can go home if you want,” said Darene. “I'll call you a cab.”

“Listen, I've seen Gracie and she's nasty. Come back with me.”

“I can't,” she said.

“So, are we ready?” asked Mr. Cabadula, now standing behind his daughter. He had a wave of graying hair and a mustache. His arms were folded across his chest.

“Luke's going home,” she said to him.

“Going home,” said her father in a flat voice.

“No . . . I'll help,” said Luke.

“Ever shoot a gun?” said Mr. Cabadula.

“Sure,” he said, though he'd never even touched one.

“Come to my car,” said Darene's father.

As they followed him, she put her arm around Luke and kissed his ear.

“If I get killed, my parents are gonna be pissed,” he said to her.

Sfortunado was already at the trunk of the Mercedes. Mr. Cabadula opened it and stepped aside. “Take one,” he said. Luke looked in and saw a row of six pistols lying on a beige woolen blanket. The guns didn't look like anything he'd seen in the movies. They were old, with rounded wooden stocks and silver filigree work on the barrels.

“Three shots,” said Darene's father as Luke reached in and took one in his hand.

“What gun has only three shots?” asked Luke, backing out of the car and lifting the piece to inspect it.

“Three shots,” Mr. Cabadula repeated. “The bullets are made with shards of witch bone.”

Luke held the gun straight down at his side, afraid it might go off from either age or magic. Darene's father then handed both her and Luke flashlights.

Sfortunado left the revolver he'd used in the church and took two pistols, as did his nephew. Darene slid hers into the waist of her jeans.

They stood by the church door and Mr. Cabadula gave instructions. All Luke heard was the first point, that Gracie could be lurking right inside the front door, and after that he was too scared to concentrate. Darene looked over at him and touched his shoulder. “Do you know what you're doing?” she asked. He nodded, and then Uncle Sfortunado, one gun in the pocket of his baggy pants, wrapped his fingers around the handle of the church door. Mr. Cabadula crouched slightly and took aim with his pistols. Darene drew the gun from her waist and nudged Luke back a few steps. “Now,” said her father, and the door swung open.

“Flashlights,” yelled Mr. Cabadula. Luke and Darene aimed their beams into the darkened foyer. “All right,” he said. “Let's go in.” The next thing Luke knew, he was standing in the dark with the old man, and Darene and her father were halfway down the center aisle to the altar. The place stank of death, and the temperature hadn't risen a degree.

said Sfortunado, “sometime before dawn.”

Luke came to his senses and started toward the altar, the flashlight trained ahead. He thought of Gracie floating up by the ceiling or crouched in one of the pews, licking her green lips. He realized his index finger was near to squeezing the trigger of his pistol and tried to relax. The candles on the altar had gone out. The mysterious wind had died.

Sfortunado whispered, “Remember the diamond.”

The skin on the back of Luke's neck tingled. He spun around and shone the flashlight behind them and then into the pews, up at the ceiling, at Sfortunado, who looked like he'd just crawled out of a coffin himself.

The old man laughed and pointed forward with his guns. On their way toward the front row of pews, Luke kept an eye on Darene's flashlight beam. She and her father had moved off to the left of the altar. Sfortunado said, “Go right,” when they reached the front row of pews, Luke passed the beam of his flashlight over the altar, the fallen coffin, and the rubble around it. They moved on into a more profound darkness at the side of the church where thick wooden beams arched toward the dome, like the rib cage of a monster.

At the opposite end of the church, Mr. Cabadula yelled, “There.” Luke turned to see Darene's beam aimed upward. Something flitted through it. There was a sudden flash of orange light and then a bang. Luke called, “Darene,” and started back along the front row of pews.

When he reached the center aisle, before the altar, he heard Sfortunado yell, “Down.” Luke fell to the floor and felt the sweeping breeze of Gracie pass overhead. Two shots went off and he winced and covered his ears. The next thing he knew, Darene was lifting him to his feet. He turned and saw Mr. Cabadula on the altar, setting the candles back up and lighting them. A glow grew around them, and even that meager light was a relief.

Out of the shadows shuffled Sfortunado, grumbling. They gathered on the altar with their backs to the wall, their pistols out. Luke said to Sfortunado, “How did you see her? I had the flashlight.”

“I knew in my head that you were screwing up.”

“You're psychic?”

“Did you duck?” asked the old man.

“I have to go into the back of the church and find the switch for the lights,” said Mr. Cabadula. “It's stupid to challenge her in the dark. If I get the lights on, we'll finish this up in a half hour.”

No one said a word. They listened, trying to hear Gracie move out beyond the candlelight. Luke was standing in front of the crashed coffin, trembling. Darene stood close to him.

“This place stinks,” she said.

“The wind of eternity,” said Sfortunado.

Mr. Cabadula put one of his pistols in his belt, removed the flashlight from Luke's hand, and descended the altar steps. “I'll be back in a minute,” he said over his shoulder. When he passed into the dark, they followed him by the white beam searching above and below. Then he disappeared behind the altar.

Luke could hear Gracie purring, moving among the distant pews near the front door. Then, in the next minute, she seemed to be just out of sight beyond the glow of the candles.

“Stand back,” said Sfortunado as he took a step forward. “I'll call her in.”

“What do you want to do that for?” asked Luke.

“Darene, explain,” said the old man in a whisper over his shoulder.

“Uncle Sfortunado is going to use the
to draw Gracie to us so we can shoot her,” said Darene. “Stand on that side of him, two feet behind, and have your gun ready. I'll cover this side.”

Luke took his position and lifted his pistol, his hand trembling.

Sfortunado half-turned to look at him. “When you pull the trigger, bullets come out,” he said and laughed. A moment later, the old man called out to Gracie in a high-pitched wavering voice. The sound of it startled Luke, and he turned to look at Darene, who smiled.

Sfortunado paused after calling her name five times, and then he made what sounded like bird calls—whistling, gibbering, cawing, singing in an even higher tone than before. Even though the threat of Gracie lunging out of the dark had him sweating, Luke couldn't keep a straight face. His nervous laughter lasted only a second before he saw a white form slowly passing into the grainy light, halfway up the center aisle. The pale blob wavered with the candle flame and then became clearer—Gracie on all fours, crawling obediently toward the altar.

Spit was flying from Sfortunado's lips as he trilled and whooped. He swung his arms for more power and lifted up on his toes. His head darted back and forth, up and down, like a bird's. Luke thought the old man was going to keel over from his efforts. Gracie inched ever closer, purring in such a way that the sound echoed everywhere.

When she reached the foot of the altar, she grunted and slowly rose to her feet. Her wig had come off; she was completely bald. Her white tongue lolled down over her chin and her eyes were closed. She began snoring. Sfortunado quit his bird impersonations, stumbled backward, and fell onto the altar.

“Now,” said Darene and stepped forward with her gun out. Luke froze for a heartbeat, and in that brief space, the lights of the church went on. He blinked and brought his free hand up to block out the sudden glare. From between his fingers, he saw Gracie's eyelids slide open. Then he saw the fangs. She pounced like a flying leopard, arcing upward through the air. A shot rang out and then another, and the next thing Luke knew, Gracie had landed at Sfortunado's feet and sunk her fangs into his left calf muscle. Blood sprayed over the altar and the old man screamed in agony.

Sfortunado's cry brought Luke to his senses. He aimed at Gracie's back and pulled the trigger. The pistol kicked in his hand and the slug went wide and dug into the altar floor. Darene took aim, fired, and hit Gracie in the side, tumbling her off Sfortunado and right at Luke's feet. He jumped back a step and the gun went off, splintering the boards. At the sound of the shot, Gracie sprang up and away from him. She bounded once and in an instant had her hands wrapped around Darene's throat. Darene's arms were between Gracie's and she struggled to hold back that pale, gaping mouth.

Luke sprang into action, but thought, “What am I doing?” as he managed to sling an arm, hand holding the stock of the pistol, around Gracie's neck. With his free hand, he grabbed the end of the barrel of the gun and pulled back, forcing it against her windpipe. Rearing away from Darene, Gracie tried to break his grip with her hands. She bucked and whipped from side to side, turned in circles. He barely held on. Her flesh was the consistency of wet clay, and she stank like rotting meat. She dug her nails into his forearms, and he head-butted her as hard as he could at the base of her skull. She growled and tipped backward, losing her balance at the edge of the altar.

Luke caught a glimpse of Darene, aiming her gun at them as they fell. He didn't know whether to let go or hold on tighter. If Gracie landed on him he was sure he'd lose her, but, though he cringed in anticipation, he never slammed against the church floor. Instead, he opened his eyes as she lifted off the edge of the altar and ascended. Luke looked down and screamed.

“Let go,” Darene yelled.

He held on tighter as they circled upward. In seconds, they'd reached the height of the dome, and Gracie leveled out, now placidly flying, like Superman, with her arms out in front of her. They orbited the inside of the dome, and, amid his panic, Luke noticed the images painted on the curved ceiling—scenes of people with bird heads feasting on platters of insects, a grasshopper with a halo on a throne, trees and mountains, all amid a sky-blue background with white clouds.

BOOK: Crackpot Palace
3.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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