Authors: Walter Greatshell
Tags: #Comics & Graphic Novels, #Horror, #Fiction
Ruby sets up the tripod again. “Did anything weird like that happen when you lived here before?” she prompts.
“Not like that, no.”
“Yes, something happened.”
* * *
I hate her
, he thought.
I hate her I hate her I hate her
Once again, the countdown had begun—they were out of money. It always happened this way, just as he was starting to relax.
We’re not leaving for good,
his mother had said, attempting to console him.
Just for a little while, until we get back on our feet. Then we’ll come back here the right way.
In a blur of futile rage, Henry stalked from one end of the town to the other, browsing the curio shop windows as if the weird artifacts on display were figments of a bizarre waking dream. He wished it was a dream. He knew that if they left, they were never coming back here again.
At the south end of town, as he was taking out his anger on the swings of the empty children’s playground, Henry heard a commotion nearby. It sounded like a fight or someone being attacked: First there was a woman’s shriek, then a violent scuffle…then silence.
He went up the path to the ferry landing. This was a high platform built out on a stone jetty, the Cabrillo Mole. The ticket office was closed and there was no one in sight. Going around back, he walked onto the steel-grated deck overhanging the sea. The water was very deep to accommodate the keels of cargo ships. Now, as he approached the ledge, he saw something there that made him stop in his tracks:
A woman’s purse.
Henry looked around—there was no one in sight. Peering over the steel lip of the quay, he could see nothing in the shimmering water below. It was clear all the way to the bottom.
The purse was an expensive-looking black alligator bag with a gold clasp, very new. The clasp was open—Henry could see a wallet inside.
. He hovered around for a minute to be sure no one was coming, then fished the fat billfold out of the bag and opened it up. If anyone asked him what he was doing, he could say he was just looking for identification.
There was a thick wad of bills inside—some small stuff, but also tens and twenties. A fortune!
Henry had never been much of a thief. His one experience with crime was the previous summer, when he had tried to pocket a die cast Batmobile from the toy department at Buffum’s. A burly, brown-suited store detective had collared him from behind as he was leaving and frog-marched him down the basement. There the security people gave Henry a stern talking-to and threatened to phone the police. The detective held Henry’s hand all the time they were doing this, and after a few minutes the boy’s hand began to sweat. As unobtrusively as possible, he tried to squirm loose.
Where do you think you’re going?
the detective asked.
My hand is getting hot
, Henry replied.
Oh, you’ve got hot hands all right
, the fat detective had said, relishing the quip.
You’ve got hot little hands
Henry was touching the money when he heard a faint shout:
“Hey! You there! Hey, kid!”
Henry jumped in raw terror, nerves whipcracking as he searched for the source of the voice.
“Yes, you! Over here! I’m out here! Out
Now Henry saw that the voice was coming from a boat. It was a man on a sleek white sailboat anchored offshore.
Henry dropped the purse. “What?” he called.
“Stay there!” the man shouted. “Please wait there until the police arrive!”
Henry’s heart shrank with dread. “I didn’t do anything!” he cried.
“No,” the man said, waving his arms dismissively. “Not you!
” He pointed vaguely under the platform. “They did it! They got her! I saw everything!”
Henry was at a loss, paralyzed with confusion. “Got who?” he said.
“Just stay there! Please!”
Henry wavered, wanting to do nothing except run for his life, but the man sounded so anxious he said, “Okay…I guess so!”
“Good! Good boy! I have to go below right now, but don’t move, okay? I’ll just be gone for a second!”
“Okay!” Henry said.
The man disappeared from view.
Feeling trapped, Henry waited. At first he tried to look nonchalant, just an innocent bystander, but as the minutes passed and the man didn’t reappear, he began to fidget. Panic set in. What was taking so long?
I’m just a kid!
Whatever might have happened, it was stupid for him to stand there waiting to be tangled up in it. He couldn’t afford to get into trouble. It would destroy his mother.
The man was still out of sight below deck. Was he on the phone to the cops or what? Henry looked longingly at that open purse, some rich person’s purse, its fat leather billfold in plain sight. They probably wouldn’t even notice if part of that money was missing. Just a little, not all of it.
He thought of his mother, probably packing their things right now. Unless a miracle happened he would never see a place as nice as this again. By tomorrow they would be back in the land of welfare motels with hourly rates.
This was it…now or never.
Clumsy with terror, Henry turned his back on the boat and clutched the purse to his stomach, awkwardly removing the wallet and stuffing cash into his pocket.
As he was hurriedly returning the billfold to the purse, Henry saw that someone was coming: a red-haired and red-faced man in gloves and a dirty butcher’s apron. He looked as if he had been interrupted in the middle of work and was furious about it. Henry suddenly felt like a worm exposed to the harsh light of day. There was nowhere to run.
Trapped, holding up the handbag as the man descended on him, he said, “Here.”
The Butcher snatched it from him. “I’ll take that!” Grabbing Henry by the shoulders, he shouted into his face,
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Hot alcoholic breath flecked with spittle blasted Henry’s hair back; his entire field of vision was filled with the Butcher’s alarming features: curled-back lips white with rage; nostrils flared and flushed bright red; enormous bloodshot eyeballs almost bugging out of their sockets; cigarette-stained teeth like uneven pickets, bared to the gums. Henry thought the man looked totally insane, and thus capable of anything.
“Nothing!” Henry said, nearly peeing his pants with fright. “I just found it laying here! That guy out there said he called the police. He said he saw everything.”
Saw what? What guy?
“On that boat right there.”
“That one?” The Butcher’s maniacal glare fell on the sailboat. Henry noticed with dismay that there were smears of blood on his own shirt from the man’s disgusting apron.
“Yeah. He went inside.”
Letting go of Henry, the Butcher started feverishly digging through the contents of the purse. At once he seemed to find what he was looking for: a white figurine shaped like a chubby infant, with two hornlike nubs on its head. It glowed translucently in the sun. With obvious relief, he held it up as if handling something very fragile. His hands were trembling.
Henry seized the opportunity to slip away, saying, “Well, I better go before my mom gets worried…”
The Butcher’s bulging eyes settled on Henry as if seeing him for the first time.
“Kalos ho pais,
he leered. He had a look of such cold appraisal that Henry felt like a cut of meat on the scale.
Henry moved as quickly as he could without seeming to flee, but as soon as he got off the platform he started running. The Butcher was liable to check for the money any second, and Henry didn’t want to be around when he did. Any adult who would terrorize a little kid like that was obviously a dangerous nut, but it was more than that: the man’s look had been desperate, tormented, as if the parchment-thin skin of his face might split down the middle and something awful would emerge. Henry sensed that if not for that boat, the Butcher might have wrung his neck like a chicken…and still might.
Not taking any chances, the first thing Henry did was get off the waterfront, running randomly up and down the back streets and alleyways to shake off any rational pursuit. If anyone reported seeing him, he wanted the search to go in circles, well away from his home base. He succeeded so well at this that he confused himself.
The afternoon streets were quiet and mostly deserted, but he kept imagining he could hear the sound of running footsteps, or distant shouts. He felt pointing fingers and eyes peering at him from behind the curtains of second-story windows. Just in case he was caught and asked to empty his pockets, he took a brief moment to stow the money in his socks.
Making a great circuit of the tourist district, he came near to the Formosa Hotel, but instead of going straight there he cut inland, facing the setting sun as he climbed back roads into the hills. He didn’t go far—this was part of his clever misdirection, the final trick: From up here, he could see all the way down the brushy slope to the rear of the hotel.
Taking care that no one was looking, he ducked into the roadside weeds. Quickly, quickly now, he skidded downhill, picking up foxtails and spiny thistleheads on every part of his clothing, choking on dust and pollen. Sweat poured down his face—it had been quite a run.
But it was almost over. There was the Formosa, dead ahead. The last part was the most difficult; the area behind the hotel was an unfamiliar maze of dirt alleyways and sheds and fenced plots which Henry now had to cross, avoiding barking dogs and climbing through bushes to reach the street. After a few dead ends, he finally emerged in the open, weary and disheveled as a fugitive from the wilderness.
Feeling home free, he brushed off and composed himself, calmly climbing the wooden porch of the hotel. It was dim and cool in the lobby. There was someone standing at the front desk, and as Henry approached him his eyes adjusted to the dark. He faltered, almost swooning.
It was the Butcher.
he Butcher didn’t seem to recognize Henry. He barely even glanced at him, conferring intently with the woman behind the desk. The purse was on the counter between them.
Could it be possible that he had already forgotten who Henry was? Or just didn’t care? But if he wasn’t looking for Henry, what was he doing here? The man had traded his dirty apron for a plaid jacket, and seemed preoccupied with other matters. “My own flesh and blood,” he said in wonder.
“I know,” the woman commiserated. “I know.”
My own flesh and blood
, can you believe that? And they thought they could come
?” He laughed sharply.
No one was looking at Henry. Was it a trick? Were the cops waiting for him? Or was it simply that the man couldn’t see him very well because he was silhouetted by the bright light of the entranceway? Henry wanted to cry, to fling himself on the ground and die, but instead he held his breath and started moving. He had to pass right under the man’s nose to get to the stairs, but it looked like he was going to make it. Suddenly a hand came down on his shoulder.
“I think you forgot something,” the Butcher said.
Henry couldn’t speak, couldn’t even scream—the only sound that issued from his constricted throat was a dry squeak. The man shoved something into his pants and let go of him. Unaccountably free, Henry bolted upstairs two steps at a time. Nobody followed. At the top landing he stopped for a second to see what the man had stuffed in his pants. It was money—the rest of the money from the purse. He found his mother sitting on the bed reading a gossip magazine.
“Hi, sweetie,” she said, peering at him over the tops of her lenses. “Well, well, well: Dr. Livingston, I presume.”
“Hi, Mom,” Henry said. He handed her the wad of cash from his pants, then wearily sat on the edge of the bed and took off his sneakers and socks. Standing up, he emptied the socks onto the bedspread, money tumbling out like damp leaves.
“What in the
Henry spoke the line he had rehearsed in his mind all the way across town: “Look what I found.” It wasn’t nearly as satisfying as he had hoped.
His mother looked more worried than pleased. “You found this?”
“Yeah. Just blowing around the beach. Pretty incredible, huh?”
“Wow.” Something about the way she was looking at the money made Henry think she knew the truth. He almost wished she did—one word of doubt and he was ready to spill the whole thing. But all she said was, “It never rains but it pours.”
“What do you mean?”
“I got a job.”
She was going to waitress in the evenings—a bit of a comedown from the office work she was used to, but one with the advantage of a free hot supper every night for both of them. Going in that night, she showed Henry the place.
It was an unassuming diner specializing in burgers, steaks, and chops—all of Henry’s favorites. It even had the homey, broken-in look of all the places they were so fond of back in L.A.: the faded leatherette upholstery and Formica countertops, the big plastic tumblers and crushed-ice machine. Henry was introduced to the head chef and manager of the place, Mr. Ragmont—Nick Ragmont—who looked as if he had been born with a greasy spoon in his mouth.
“Hey, Henry, how ya doin’?” Nick said as they shook hands. His grip was crushing.
“I’m okay, sir.”
“Sir! I like that.”
Henry’s mother said, “Mr. Ragmont told me he has a daughter your age.”
Winking at them, Nick said, “I sure do! And if you’re not careful, Henry, she’ll have you jumping at her every whim. Beware! That’s what these women do!”
Mr. Ragmont was like a corny character out of an old TV show: the funny, savvy, slightly sleazy short-order cook, with a chewed stub of a pencil tucked behind one ear. He looked like an aging Elvis. Henry knew at once why his mother wanted to work here.
“Your mom tells me you like to fish, Henry,” the man said.
“Catch any whoppers?”
“Not really…maybe a few.”
“Get that: ‘A few,’ he says! Oh, we got us a real cool customer here! Your mom tells me you’re almost ten years old—practically a grown man. I hope you’re not giving her any grief.”