Authors: Brian Martinez
“I can appreciate that.”
“Good, because I take my job very seriously. I hope by now you can see we're not some backwater town. Shallow Creek has won awards for our compost recycling program, and we happen to boast the second most diverse police department in the entire county.” He points across the station-house to Officer Clark, a young, handsome black man holding a cup of coffee. The officer nods at Butcher.
“Impressive,” Butcher says.
Sheriff Green settles into his chair. He lowers his voice. “What Officer Banks out there doesn't know is I'm not making you two partners just so he can keep an eye on you. You have a pair of eyes of your own, don't you?”
“From what I understand.”
“Use them. Banks isn't exactly the shining light of the force, and that bronze is only getting duller. He's your responsibility as much as you're his.”
Butcher nods, says he understands, and turns to leave.
“Hey, Butcher,” the Sheriff says. “I never asked you- what brought you here?”
“The wife and I were having troubles. She got the house and I got the boot.”
Sheriff Green shakes his head. “That's not what I meant. Why here?”
Butcher considers this. “I thought I could be comfortable here. Seems like a quiet enough town.”
“You mean you could coast by until retirement.”
“That’s fine, it really is. I don’t need showboats coming to my town, making a lot of noise and burning the place down. You don’t need to go above and beyond here. Shit, I’m overjoyed every time an officer shows up. But when they do show up, what they need to do is follow orders. Get it?”
“Those are my two favorite words, Butcher. The more you say ‘em, the more I smile.”
Chapter Two: The Day of the Face
There's a smell in the basement.
It's hard to identify, like roadkill mixed with motor oil. To make things worse the source is impossible to pinpoint- just when they narrow down the strongest of it to a particular corner or vent it becomes lost, only to be rediscovered across the room later.
When they've had enough of this odd game, they call a plumber.
The man who shows up at their door is friendly enough, hauling ancient tools from his ancient van, but he's the sort of emotionally exhausting talker that Kevin isn't equipped to deal with. Within thirty minutes he's already explained how his gay son hasn't talked to him in eight months, not because he's gay but because he has a bit of a drug problem, nothing that can't be treated, it just makes him a little edgy. Meanwhile they haven't even made their way downstairs yet, into the disembodied stink of the basement.
He says, “What's the deal with this place, anyways?”
“In reference to?”
“You know, how no one lives here for very long. Maybe it's me but it seems people these days got ants in their pants. Can't even stay married let alone keep one house for more than a year.”
“They told us the last owner lived here six years.”
The plumber shows his dirty palms. “Hey, it's none of my business. Which way to the basement?”
Kevin lets the subject change, mostly because he wants to get on with it and get this loudmouth out of his house. When the job is done, though, he intends to ask the man a few more questions.
He takes the plumber to the basement, where of course the smell has disappeared, as problems do when help arrives. After pretending to listen to the plumber explain the serious issue of excessive pressure from municipal water suppliers, as well as the struggles with septic tanks and seasonably high water tables, Kevin excuses himself and runs back up the creaking stairs, hiding in his office to wait for the man to finish.
The reason Kevin works freelance, according to what he tells people at parties, is it gives him more freedom to work the hours he wants to work. The truth however is that workplaces don't really work out for Kevin because he scares people. He's nice enough, they all agree, and excellent at his job. The problem starts when he becomes focused.
At some point he stops being aware of the room around him. According to people who have witnessed it, he stares not just at the screen but almost through it, while in his throat strange sounds begin to utter. It starts as a mumble, a growl even, and as he works it continues to grow into full, whispered words no one has heard before. His concentration has its own phantom language. Kevin was surprised the first time someone asked him about the phenomenon, as he wasn't aware of it; so lost he is in the work he loses all sense of himself.
People find it funny, until they don't.
Mary tolerates Kevin's behavior when no one else will, in part because his work pays well and they need the money, but also because she loves him, and it's easier to put up with the quirks of a loved one than those of a co-worker.
Right now, Kevin is lost; his eyes swim through lines of code as his fingers move across the keyboard in fluid patterns. His pupils are dilated. His pulse, racing. Ancient, futuristic words fill his mouth.
"Did he find it?"
The sudden question, asked just behind him, jolts Kevin in his seat. He's ripped screaming from that other place and left flailing in this one.
Mary yelps, caught off guard by his reaction. "Jesus, I'm sorry," she pleads.
"Don't do that," he sighs.
"I have to disturb you eventually or you'll sit there all day."
He swallows and takes a breath. "Find what?"
"Who," he asks, then, "oh, right." He looks at the time thinking it's only been half an hour at most. "His van's still here?"
"Because he's been here almost four hours." He stands from the chair, feeling the line of sweat up and down his back.
Kevin leaves his office and heads to the basement door. Standing on the precipice, no sound comes from below except the low, sad drone of the boiler. He calls out but gets no answer, so he descends the stairs, intent on arguing with the man trying to gut him for four hours of labor.
To his confusion, he finds himself alone in the basement.
"Hello?" He rounds the corner to the boiler room, expecting to see the man crouched in the corner, his head buried in an open pipe, ass-crack proudly displayed.
All he finds are the man's tools.
He calls up the stairs to Mary. She appears at the top of the stairs. "Is his van still here," he asks.
"I parked next to it. He's not there?"
"He's not there." By the haunted look on his face Mary knows to come down the stairs without asking another question. She finds the same thing he did- tools, nothing more. The smell isn't gone and is, if anything, stronger.
"Maybe he's smoking a cigarette?"
"I'll check outside." Kevin walks back upstairs and out the front door. He notes the van still parked out front before walking around to the side of the house, then to the back, then around to the other side. In every place he finds only grass and trees, no plumber sneaking a smoke, and as usual no chirping birds or scampering squirrels. He returns to the house, but not before peeking into the plumber's van in hopes of catching the man napping in the back. Other than an old magazine and an empty Styrofoam cup, the van is empty.
Back inside, Mary is in the kitchen dialing the plumber's number. "The reception sucks here," she reminds him. He sits at the table a bit winded from so much running around so soon after waking from his code sleep. After letting the line ring ten, eleven, twelve times, she hangs up. "Where could he have gone?"
"Maybe he had the sudden urge to strip off his clothes and run into the woods."
"Like a werewolf?"
"Except the full sun transforms him. A daywolf."
"It's always a full sun."
"The daywolves lead an inconvenient life."
Mary allows herself a small smile. "Seriously, though, you don't find this weird?"
"Absolutely I do, I just don't know what to do about it except wait."
She puts her phone down, half-expecting it to ring the moment it touches the table. When it doesn't she says, "Alright, then. We wait."
One hour passes.
They try to go about their day as normal, with the occasional call to the plumber's phone, but it's impossible to ignore the elephant in the room- the fact that, at any moment, a sweaty plumber might resurface. Kevin doesn't bother going back to the computer on the chance he might be jerked back to reality again, and twice in one day is too much for that kind of shock.
Mary would like to run to the store to pick up a few things she needs, but she can't risk leaving Kevin alone on the possibility that he may return to his keyboard, which he's prone to do when she's not around. It's a security blanket, a coping mechanism, not an unhealthy one but at the moment not the best distraction when vigilance is needed.
The couple is left to dangle in limbo. They watch television with disinterested eyes that dart from the screen to the doorway and back again, always expecting to see a face come around the corner apologizing, giving a wild excuse before returning to the work at hand or simply leaving, which at this point they would prefer.
They shrug and prepare dinner, eating in silence broken up with the occasional nervous joke. When they're finished eating they clear the table, load the dishwasher and call the police.
"Would you say he was acting despondent," Officer Butcher asks, handsome, rough edges, a little worn out behind the eyes.
"I don't think so," Kevin answers.
"It's not always obvious. Sometimes it's just a slight break from their normal behavior."
"I wouldn't know what his normal behavior was, I'd never met him before."
Officer Butcher raises his eyes from the notepad. "Was?"
"Is. Was. Before this. What I mean is I don't know him from a hole in the floor. We had one conversation before he turned into a puff of dust."
"Was the conversation hostile or aggressive?"
Before Kevin can respond, Mary steps in, her face tight. "Excuse me, I just have to cut in- are you asking my husband if he got into an argument with a plumber, killed him, hid the body and called the cops?"
"Of course not, it's a bizarre situation is all. We have to look at it from every angle." Mary calms down. Then the officer says, "Why did you say 'body?'"
Mary lets out a frustrated laugh as the second officer emerges from the basement. "There's a funky smell down there," Officer Banks notes, pointing behind him.
"Exactly, that's why we called a plumber. Next thing we know we're standing here with you two. Getting nowhere."
"No reason to get hostile, lady," Banks says.
Mary wipes her hands on her jeans. "Alright, I think we've told you everything we know."
"It's not much to go on." Butcher puts away his notepad. "We'll send someone over to get the van, meantime keep an eye out and call us if he shows up."
"You'll be the first to know." Mary shows them to the door, eager to get them out of the house.
Back at their cars, Butcher and Banks stand with their hands on their hips, looking out over the generous property. The half-moon above lights up the treetops, but otherwise the expanse is a pool of darkness, everything hidden, anything possible. The faint sound of wings flapping, bats hunting insects, drifts through the black.
Butcher rubs his head, fighting another headache. He says, "Don't you live somewhere around here?"
“Unfortunately, just over there." Banks points past an outcropping of trees no more than a football field away. "Hell of a way to meet the new neighbors. Hot wife, but there's something wrong with the wiring if she's with a loser like that.”
Butcher looks back to the house. “Strange call.”
“Strange couple. Kids around here think this place is haunted, what with people always moving in and out. But you know what I think?”
Banks spits into the grass. “Kids are shit-dumb.”
“I'll be sure to tell my son that.”
“Anyhow the plumber's a known drunk, he probably got loaded on the job and walked home. I'm sure a few of us have done the same.”
Butcher nods, acknowledging the joke, but under his breath he mumbles, “Asshole.”
Banks chuckles, pleased with himself.
Kevin and Mary try to get back to normal. They focus on their jobs and day-to-day routines and pretend not to notice the strange looks they get at the supermarket. They throw themselves into fixing up their new home; they clean the gutters and power-wash the siding, paint the walls and varnish the railings, reupholster the chairs and replace the missing tiles.