Story by C.M. Saunders
Illustration by Tim Soekkha
Mike Malone was sitting in his office, eyes flicking between the clock on the wall and the telephone as the fan on the desk circulated warm, used air around him. The hands of the clock seemed to move in slow motion, and the telephone stubbornly refused to ring. Well, that wasn’t strictly true, it had rung precisely three times in the last two weeks; one was a wrong number, another was a vacuum cleaner salesman, and the third was the telephone company reminding him that his quarterly payment was overdue. If his phone line was cut off, he would be royally screwed. His budget didn’t extend to a marketing department and you didn’t get many walk-in clients on the 8th floor. 1962 wasn’t a good time to be a working man in Houston, Texas, and it wasn’t a good time to be a private investigator anywhere.
Outside, storm clouds gathered in the afternoon sky and a cold cup of coffee was perched precariously on the edge of his desk next to an ashtray overflowing with burned-out Marlboros. He’d recently switched to filter tips. He wasn’t stupid. As shitty as this life was, he still wanted to prolong it as long as he could. There was also a bottle of bourbon in his desk drawer, and it wouldn’t be long before the cold coffee turned into a cold Irish coffee. There was nothing else to do except sit and wait.
He got up out of his chair and went to the window again. Outside, the city carried on as usual. People hurried past on foot and in vehicles, all on their way somewhere else.
The office was too small. There was just enough room for his desk and chair, two easy chairs for clients, a filing cabinet and another, much smaller desk shoved in the corner. Since he’d had to lay off his part-time secretary, Valerie, things had been awful quiet. When he had taken out the lease he’d been full of big ideas, and even paid extra to have an en suite shower room. He didn’t foresee how much the thing would stink in the summer months. It was typical of the way his life was going.
So, what the hell was he doing here?
He was waiting for that big case, that’s what. The kind of high-earning case that only came around a couple of times a year. That was what he needed. But he’d take a plain-old messy divorce. Hell, right now, he’d take anything.
Or so he thought. All that changed at precisely 3.17 pm, when Big John Maplin entered his life. Malone saw the hulking shape through the frosted glass door long before the visitor built up enough courage to knock. When he did it was tentative, like the actions of a child.
“Come in,” Malone called, trying not to let his excitement show.
The door opened to reveal a huge mountain of a man. Six-feet-six at least. The red plaid shirt he wore was pulled tight around broad shoulders his torso bulged with muscle. His movements were slow and jerky.
“Good afternoon, sir. Mike Malone, Private Investigator at your service. Would you like a seat?” Malone swept a hand invitingly toward the two easy chairs.
The guy could hardly speak. He tried to get some words out, his mouth opening and closing but issuing nothing but throaty clicks. His brow creased and little beads of sweat formed on the patch of deep brown skin below his close-cropped hair. Wordlessly, he tried to fit his burly frame in one of the chairs, the upholstery letting out a wheezing exclamation as he slumped down.
Something smelled like farts and not just his en-suite shower room.
No, not farts. This was more earthy, organic. Like stagnant water in a festering swamp. Not only was the guy probably at least partially disabled, or at the very least extremely socially awkward, he needed a bath, too. Malone would have laughed out loud at this graceless entrance. But things being what they were, he wasn’t going to laugh at any potential client. Instead, he waited for the big guy to settle, wrinkling his nose a little at the fetid stench that accompanied him, then thrust out a hand.
Evidently, Malone was a little too enthusiastic, because his visitor recoiled, eyes widening as if Malone had just pulled a switch-blade. After a moment’s consideration, the visitor took up the offer of a welcoming handshake, and then it was Malone’s turn to recoil. The hand was rough, calloused from untold years of physical labor. Yet despite the furnace-like temperature, the skin was cool to the touch, damp, and slightly slimy. It was like picking up a handful of raw sausage meat from the refrigerator.
If the unexpected visitor picked up on Malone’s distaste, he didn’t show it. With great effort, he said, “Name’s Maplin. John M-Maplin. I would like to hire you…”
These were the words every down-on-his-luck P.I. loved to hear, but there was always room for showmanship. “Actually, I have a lot of cases at the moment. But for, say, thirty bucks a day plus expenses, I could try to fit you in. For forty, I’ll make your case a priority.”
The huge frame of John Maplin visibly stiffened. It was clear this was a lot of money to him. It was a lot of money to most folks, seeing the average salary was $4,000 a year. Mike’s normal rate was twenty a day. But he was banking on the notion that if this guy was desperate enough to seek him out, he was desperate enough to pay a premium.
For the longest time, Maplin just stared. Malone stared back, trying to work out what was going on behind those big black eyes. He was beginning to consider reverting to his standard rate when his visitor slipped a hand into his pants pocket and pulled out a thick handful of bills. Ever-so-slowly, he counted out $130 in crumpled notes onto the desk and put the remainder of the wad, now considerably smaller, back in his pocket.
“That keep ya goin’ for a coupla days?”
“Sure,” Mike said, sweeping up the stack of notes and greedily stuffing them into his own pocket. “Congratulations. You’ve just hired the best P.I. in town.”
Maplin looked relieved. “Good to know.”
“So, tell me, Mr. Maplin, where do you come from? I detect an accent.”
Again, the man’s mouth moved, but it was a few moments before any actual words came out. “F-From New Orleans. Just arrived in Houston this morning.”
“I figured. Now, why don’t you just relax and tell me what the problem is? Then we’ll see how to go about fixing it.”
“Problem is, Mr. Malone, that I been dead a while.”
That got Mike’s attention. He opened this desk drawer and retrieved his bottle of bourbon. “Want a slug?”
“No sir, not for me.”
“Up to you.” Malone unscrewed the cap and took a large gulp straight from the bottle.
“Sorry, Mr. Malone. Don’t be scared of me, please. I don’t mean you no harm.”
“I’m not scared,” said Mike. And he wasn’t. He’d seen enough to render himself immune to fear. He’d heard the stories about voodoo and black magic coming out of New Orleans. He didn’t believe it himself, but plenty of people did, and sometimes belief is all you need to make something real. “I’m just a little surprised. I never talked to a dead guy before.”
“We is all just dead men walking, Mr. Malone.”
“Yeah, you got that right. So… when did you die?” Malone was pretty sure that in all his years, he’d never uttered that particular combination of words before.
“I dunno, sir.”
“Okay… So how did you die?”
Maplin shifted uneasily in the chair. “I don’t know that, either. Can’t remember.”
“Stand up,” Mike asked.
“I mean if you don’t mind, would you humor me?”
The visitor did as he was asked. At his full height, the man’s bulk almost filled the entire room. He stood self-consciously, shoulders hunched, and eyes cast downward.
Malone looked the man up and down. There were no obvious signs of trauma. No knife or gunshot wounds. No blood or bruises. Yet something wasn’t right. Malone leaned closer and reached out a hand. “Can I?”
“Be my guest, sir.”
Malone rested his palm on the man’s chest. Just like the hand, it was cold and clammy. The moment contact was made, an instinctive wave of revulsion swept over him and he had to fight the compulsion to gag.
There was no heartbeat.
None at all.
— ♦♦♦ —
The next morning, Mike Malone was on a Greyhound bus to New Orleans. He had no idea what might be waiting for him there, all he knew was that he wouldn’t be able to crack the case sitting at his desk in Houston. It was a seven-hour-plus journey, but he intended to use the time to come up with a plan.
The case of John Maplin was certainly a strange one. Probably the strangest he’d had to date, which was saying something. This even beat spending three weeks shadowing a sideshow dwarf who was having a homosexual affair with a strongman. When they got up close and personal, the Bearded Lady liked to watch and masturbate with a flute. The dwarf’s wife who hired him (she was normal sized, in case you’re wondering) found that detail most shocking of all.
“With a flute!”
John Maplin was dead. That much was certain. The guy had no heartbeat. How he was still walking around was a mystery. He needed Malone because he didn’t know how or why he’d ended up in that state. His memory was a complete blank. The only reason he knew his own name was because he’d found it written on the label of his shirt. He’d come around in the middle of the night on the muddy bank of the Mississippi some five weeks earlier, with nothing but the clothes he wore and an overwhelming urge to get away. So, he started walking, working his way from town to town, picking up odd jobs and sleeping in doorways and derelict buildings. He hitched rides when the mood took him until he found himself in Houston, Texas. There, by chance, he’d seen the note Malone had pinned on the downstairs door of his building offering his services, the only advertising he could afford.
The $130 Maplin had handed over was pretty much everything he had. He explained that he was able to save so much from painting fences and mowing lawns because he didn’t need to eat or drink. He didn’t feel the heat or the cold so had no use for hotels and being the size he was, nobody was likely to try to rob him. The only things he’d had to buy were a change of clothes.
“A black man can’t be walkin’ ’round nekkid.”
Malone could have argued that NO man should be walking around minus his clothes, regardless of race, but he saw Maplin’s point.
One thing he hadn’t factored in was the heat. It was searing. Despite what passed for air conditioning on the bus, his sodden shirt clung to his body and droplets of sweat trickled down his forehead. He wiped them away with a handkerchief as the increasingly lush scenery rushed past the window.
As the bus trundled down through Beaumont and into Louisiana, he turned things over in his mind, scribbled in his notepad, and pretty soon, began to formulate a theory. Maplin’s condition was surely the doing of one of the voodoo practitioners the Deep South was famous for. It was too much to be a coincidence.
He’d been hired by a zombie.
He’d heard rumblings about them before. The suspicion was that the witch doctors murdered the young and fit, and later used some kind of spell to bring them back to life. Then they were put to work in the fields as cheap labor. The community used intimidation tactics and fostered a culture of fear, so people wouldn’t ask too many questions.
There was just one problem with that theory. Maplin didn’t fit the demographic. He was neither young nor fit. Malone had an idea there was a lot more to the story. He just didn’t know what. He had three days to find out before the client was scheduled to return to his office in Houston to hear his findings.
Maplin had given Malone directions to the spot where he’d woken up, even going so far as to draw a crude map, which was safely tucked in Malone’s suitcase, right next to his .38 Special. He hoped he wouldn’t need to use the gun. But if he did, one of those slugs would drop anybody and anything. Zombies included.
A short time later, the Greyhound came to a halt. This was it. New Orleans. The first thing Malone did on getting off the bus was light a Marlboro, then with the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, retrieved the map and directions from his case. He had no idea where he was in relation to the markings on the map, and no reference point, rendering it practically useless. But the directions were of more use. Written in reverse order, they explained Maplin’s movements after he’d woken up next to the river. He’d walked along the bank for a while, passing a building with a sign saying ‘Church of the Rising’ outside, before following ‘the noise’ that led him to what later proved to be a place called Canal Street. From there, he walked straight out of town.
It was mid-afternoon, and a nearby street sign told Malone he was on Fulton Avenue. Having skipped lunch he was hungry, and his attention was drawn to a diner across the road. The lunch rush being over, the place was near-empty. He took a booth at the window, and moments later a smiling waitress with curly blonde hair appeared. “Hey there! Name’s Minty. Would you like me to tell you about today’s specials?”
“No need,” Malone replied. “I’ll take a cheeseburger with fries, a glass of cold lemonade, and coffee with cream.”
“Comin’ right up, hon.”
Minutes later, his order arrived. The cheeseburger, a huge patty of charred meat dripping fat and slathered with half an inch of melted blue cheese, was wonderful. As was the lemonade. He also put away three cups of coffee before finally deciding it was time to get to work. And what better place to start.
“Excuse me, miss? Could I have the bill, please?”
“Sure thing!” Minty the smiley waitress made her way over to his booth and lay the bill on the table. Malone paid up, leaving a generous tip. It felt good to have money in his pocket again. “Thank you, sir!” Minty beamed. “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
“Actually, there may just be.”
“Well, fire away!”
“Thing is, I’m a reporter,” Malone lied. He often adopted the newspaper man persona when working a case as it enabled him to ask questions without drawing too much suspicion to himself. “I’m writing a story about some place I believe is around here somewhere called Church of the Rising. Do you know it?”
The waitress frowned. “Can’t say’s I do, mister.”
“What about Canal Street?”
“Oh, I can help you there. You’ll find that just three blocks over.”
“Thank you, Minty,” smiled Malone. “You’ve been a great help.” As the waitress was turning to leave, something else occurred to him. “Just one more thing.”
“Have you ever heard the name John Maplin?”
Right then, Minty’s bright, toothy smile melted away revealing something darker beneath. “No, sir. Never.”
“You sure about that?”
“Yessir, I am. Will you be needing anythin’ else?”
“Well, I bid you a good day, sir.”
She collected his dirty plate and cutlery and then she was gone, leaving Malone sitting in his booth with his half-empty cup of coffee. Minty the waitress was lying about not knowing John Maplin. The question was, why?
Canal Street was exactly where she said it would be. He’d imagined a quaint, riverside walk lined with gift shops and ice cream parlors, but it turned out to be a major thoroughfare. Tall, elegant buildings lined each side of the wide road, most with shop fronts on the ground floor and apartments above, while cars and buses trundled past.
So, this was the road Maplin had walked. There was no way of knowing his exact route, so Malone opted to just walk around for a while to get a sense of the place. At the very end of the street, where the tall buildings gave way to more modest two or three-story dwellings, was a small guest house called Bishop’s Greeting. The blue and yellow facade was typical of the area, yet at the same time striking. Malone stopped. Before he could raise a fist to knock, the door swung open, almost as if someone had been there, waiting. “Well, good afternoon!” said a short, stocky middle-aged woman. “I’m Dolores. You after a room, I s’pose?”
“I guess so,” Malone replied. “One night. What’s the price?”
“Twelve dollars. In advance.”
“I’ll give you ten.”
“You’ll give me twelve or find somewhere else to stay. Price ain’t negotiable.”
“Fair enough,” Malone sighed. “Show me.”
After putting down the money and signing his name in the visitor book, Malone was led up a creaking flight of stairs to a room at the top. It was sparse but functional, featuring only a single bed and a rickety wooden desk with a single folding chair underneath. On the desk was a framed picture of a little girl.
“Pretty,” Malone noted, nodding at the photograph.
“Indeed, she was,” Delores said sharply. “Name was Abigail.” Then she turned and walked out of the room.
The window overlooked a picturesque back garden, with a tiny ornamental pond and several rows of neatly-trimmed rose bushes. Malone lay his case on the bed and opened it. His .38 was there, safely tucked into its holster. He thought about taking it out, then decided against it. This was certainly a unique case, but nothing so far suggested he was in any danger. Plus, he was a firm believer that guys who carried pieces spent an inordinate amount of time looking for excuses to use them. Instead, he took out a fresh folded shirt. That was one thing he definitely needed.
Suitably refreshed, Malone locked his case inside his room and turned to find Delores polishing the banister at the top of the stairs. Something dark and ominous reared up in the back of his mind, the part populated by ideas he preferred not to address.
She’d been listening at the door.
He knew it.
“Yes, dear?” Dolores asked through a mouthful of teeth that suddenly seemed too large for her mouth.
“Actually, I’m looking for somewhere called Church of the Rising. Do you know it?”
Malone fully expected another stonewall like he’d received from Minty at the diner, but to his surprise, Dolores was not only familiar with the place, but only too happy to tell him where he could find it. He held back on asking whether she knew John Maplin, his fail-safe being he knew where she would be should his lead hit a dead end.
The Church of the Rising was a small, one-storey white-washed building surrounded by a low picket fence built virtually on the banks of the Mississippi. Malone stood outside for a while, next to the sign that bore the church’s name. The very sign John Maplin had told him about. This at least proved his client was telling the truth. Not that it made any difference if he hadn’t been. Malone still would have taken his money, and then asked for more when his inquiries came to nothing.
Taking a deep breath, Malone walked up the little path and knocked on the front door. There were sounds of movement, then the door opened inward with a loud creek. People down this way sure were prompt when it came to answering doors. A tall, painfully-thin man dressed all in black stood before him, an over-sized silver crucifix hanging on a chain around his neck. His deep-brown, lined skin was like old parchment, yet a pair of deep-set eyes danced with vitality. “Help you?”
“I sure hope so,” Malone replied. “I’m a reporter, writing a piece about a man called John Maplin. I hear you had dealings with him.” That last part was a lie, of course. As was the first part.
The man frowned. “What kind of story?”
Malone wasn’t prepared for that question and paused for a moment before saying, “I’m not at liberty to discuss details, I’m afraid. Editorial policy, you understand.”
“So, can I come inside?”
“Sure ye can.”
As with many such buildings, the church looked bigger on the inside than the outside. There was an altar and a small stage the far end, and enough room to seat perhaps thirty people. The man of God lay his emancipated frame on one of the pews near the door and motioned for Malone to join him.
Malone pulled out his notepad and flipped it open. “What’s your name, please sir?”
“Pastor Eli Williams.”
“And this is your… establishment?”
“How long have you been practicing here?”
“It’ll be twenty-two years this fall. My father was the pastor here before me, God rest his soul. Built the place with his bare hands. I do my best to carry on his traditions, and keep Church of the Rising in good condition, both inside and out.”
Malone was savvy enough to understand that the preacher was talking about the influence of the church in the wider sense. “So, what can you tell me about John Maplin?” he pressed.
“What do you already know?”
“Nothing at all. His name came up in an investigation.”
“What kind of investigation?”
Malone feigned an embarrassed smile, “As I said, its editorial policy not to discuss details of stories in progress.”
“Right, right.” For the first time, Pastor Williams looked dubious. “What would be the name of your newspaper? Does your editorial policy allow you to divulge that much?”
“Why, sure. It’s the Houston Chronicle. Best newspaper in the state.”
“Ah, I see. Who’s the captain of that ship now?”
“The editor? Fella by the name of William Stevens.” Malone had learned long ago that the most convincing way to lie was to weave in some truth and being a regular reader of said publication he at least knew the names of some key players. Of course, his cover would be blown if the Pastor decided to call up the Houston Chronicle’s offices and check his story. But by the time he did that, Malone would be long gone.
“And you thought John Maplin’s involvement in your investigation was worthy of such a long trip?”
“Maybe,” Malone shrugged. “The boss said to come and check it out, and here I am. So, would you mind telling me what you know of him?”
The pastor’s lively eyes darkened. “He got what he deserved. Put that in your newspaper. The world should know what kind of man he was, and perhaps his fate will make others think about the consequences of their actions.”
“I’m afraid I need a little more than that.”
“Maplin got himself killed, and it’s no great loss.”
“Isn’t it a bit rich for a man of God to sit in judgement?” Malone said. This was a tactic on his part. People were generally more forthcoming if you pushed certain buttons. Anger loosened tongues. “Shouldn’t you be preaching forgiveness?”
“Forgiveness? This congregation believes in an eye for an eye. The Bible is very particular about that. The man should’ve died six times. At least. Despite what you may assume, he was no victim.”
Now Malone was beginning to understand. This wasn’t a normal church. It was one of those fundamentalist outposts that splintered off from mainstream religion and focused on some tiny aspect of it. Who knew what twisted beliefs these people fostered. “Okay, I’ll bite,” he said. “Tell me the story.”
“Very well. For some time, John Maplin was a laborer on a farm not far from here. A sound worker, so they say. Kept to himself. But nobody knew the devil inside. Not at first, anyway. Not until they found the little dead girl down by the river.”
“Who was she?”
“Local girl by the name of Abigail Marsh. In fact, I’m surprised a man in your line of work didn’t hear of it.”
Abigail? Wasn’t the picture in his room back at Bishop’s Greeting of a little girl called Abigail? “, the name rings a bell,” Malone said as he swallowed hard. “Refresh my memory?”
Pastor Williams threw back his head and laughed as if that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. “There are no such things as accidents. And especially not in this case. Your friend John Maplin murdered her.”
“How can you be sure?”
“The three fellas he roomed with all said how he came home that afternoon soaking wet like he’d been swimming with his clothes on. When they asked him about it, he got all tetchy. None of them wanted to press the matter because Maplin was known to have a wicked temper. Instead, they told their boss who made some inquiries of his own. Turns out, another little girl was found dead in the same circumstances two years before over in Harlow, about thirty miles east of here. That crime was never solved. Maplin was working on a nearby farm at the time. But that’s not the rub. After the locals grouped together and did some digging, they found another four cases over the past six or seven years. Each time, Malone was in the area, and each time he moved on shortly after. Fact is, there are probably a lot more.”
Despite the humidity of the evening, Malone felt a cold shiver run through him.
We believe in an eye for an eye. He should have died six times. At least.
“What happened next?”
“Well, you could say that after the Abigail Marsh murder, the jig was up. Maplin tried to skip town, but the townspeople caught up with him before he could leave.” Pastor Williams paused as if to compose himself.
“They took him to the river.”
“Eye for an eye?”
“You got that right.”
“So, what did they do to him?”
“Drowned his murdering ass in the same water he’d seen off the girl. As he died, he confessed his sins and begged forgiveness.”
“What did they do with the body?”
“They brought him back to life, that’s what they did. And then killed him again.”
“How did they revive him?”
“Do you really have to ask that question, Mr. Malone? This is New Orleans. Voodoo country. If you want to know the ins and outs, maybe you should ask Dolores at the Bishop’s Greeting. I’ve said far too much already.”
“Okay,” Malone said. “How’s he still walking around?”
“So I hear.”
“After the fifth drowning and before the sixth, he disappeared. They left him at the waterside, in the same spot he’d left that poor little girl. When the townspeople went back the next day to finish him once and for all, he was gone. The consensus was that he wasn’t quite dead that last time. He was either play acting or just unconscious.”
Suddenly, Malone felt his heartbeat gather pace. “Pastor Williams?”
“How did you know where I was staying? And my name. You didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell you.”
The pastor stiffened in his seat. “You have what you came here for, Mr. Malone. It’s time you left.” With that, he got up and walked away, leaving Malone wondering whether he should leave the building or the city. Right then, both appealed.
— ♦♦♦ —
On the way back to his room, Malone passed a bar. Smoke, conversation, and live jazz music spilled out of the open double doors. He paused, then entered. It was a small place. The three-piece band playing in one corner took up a quarter of the room, and the dance floor another quarter. He strode confidently to the bar, where he was greeted by a smiling young bartender. “What’ll it be, Sir?”
“Comin’ right up.”
Malone drained the tumbler in one swig, then took a bar stool and asked for another. This one he nursed while a Marlboro burned between his fingers. In hindsight, it was obvious how Pastor Williams had known his name and where he was staying. There was only one way he could know those things. Dolores must have telephoned ahead to give the pastor a head’s up.
But why would she do that?
Why wouldn’t she?
Looking at the bigger picture, the inter-connected mysteries of who John Maplin was, what he had done, and how he had died were all-but solved. He was a child killer but had paid the price for his crimes. Five times.
Only he hadn’t. Not really. He was still walking around. The six little girls weren’t.
He’d seemed harmless. But that was when he couldn’t remember who he really was. What if those psychotic tendencies come back?
Pastor Williams had told him to go see Dolores if he wanted to find out about whatever witchery was at work. And maybe he should. But even if she told him what potions or spells were in play, it wouldn’t change anything. In fact, that very knowledge might put him in danger. The voodoo community wouldn’t care for a white boy from the city knowing their secrets. No, he planned to leave that aspect of this whole sorry mess well enough alone.
There was something else bothering him. Something that made his stomach tense up every time he thought about it. How had he wound up at Bishop’s Rest?
Of all the hotels, motels and guest houses in town, why had he felt drawn to that one? It was almost as if some supernatural force had pulled him right into the heart of things.
Or delivered him to those that mattered.
The bourbon was making everything fuzzy around the edges. Just the way he liked them. He lit another smoke and lay his elbows on the bar. Letting his eyes roam over the room, they came to rest on a tall, thin man standing against the far wall wearing a pinstripe waistcoat and a white trilby tilted to one side. Malone was instantly filled with a sense of unease. Something about the way the guy looked. First impressions were nature’s early warning system.
Malone finished his drink, settled his bill, and walked out of the door into the balmy night. He pretended not to notice, but as he passed he was aware of the man in the pinstripe waistcoat and white trilby slipping out after him.
The only consolation was that he must be an amateur. A pro would be subtler about following a mark. So subtle Malone might not even realize he was being followed. Odds were that he was a local hoodlum who spotted an out-of-towner, an easy target. He probably intended to keep pace for a while and see if Malone’s route took him through any secluded spots or dark alleys where he could roll him over.
The alternative was more sinister. Maybe this was an intimidation tactic. That would explain his carelessness. Heck, maybe he wanted Malone to know he was being followed.
Bishop’s Greeting was close. Malone tried to act naturally but try as he might he couldn’t prevent his pace quickening. All he could think about was getting to the 38 Special.
Unless Dolores had let herself into his room and took it.
Stopping outside a bookstore, he leaned into the glass as if particularly taken by something in the window display. Before moving off again, he glanced behind him.
The street was empty. Malone looked up and down, but White Trilby had disappeared.
Back at Bishop’s Greeting, he let himself in. Still on edge, he rushed up the stairs and to his room to check his case. The gun was still there. He snatched it up and checked it was still loaded. It was. Cradling it in his hands, he sat on the edge of the bed, willing himself to relax.
The more he thought about White Trilby, the more he thought the move was orchestrated to send a message. What could be the point of having him followed, if not to put the fear of God into him?
Malone decided on an early night. He would sleep with his clothes on and his gun under the pillow and be gone at first light. Fuck New Orleans. His bill was already paid, and he had enough information to justify his fee to Maplin. He would close the case and move on with his life. There was no point sticking around if the locals were going to be dicks.
He used the bathroom, locked his bedroom door, and climbed under the cool sheets. Closing his eyes, he listened to the muffled sounds of the city and tried to clear his mind, the combination of bourbon and a darkened room blunting the sharp edges of his thoughts.
But sleep wouldn’t come. He tossed and turned as images and half-formed ideas tumbled through his head. John Maplin with his heart that wasn’t beating, Pastor Williams and his tale of murder and small-town retribution, White Trilby, a pile of dead children, their bodies all puffy and bloated, eyes wide and staring accusingly.
Malone couldn’t stand it any longer. He needed some air. Going to the window, he opened the curtains and felt around for the clasp that would open it. In doing so he looked down into the garden. there, standing next to the ornamental pond and looking up at the window as if he’d been waiting all night for Malone to show his face, was White Trilby.
This couldn’t be happening. It had to be a dream. But the experience was too vivid, too intense, to be anything but real. Malone suddenly felt very exposed. White Trilby was looking directly at him, unmoving, the pupils of his eyes clear against his black skin. Then, as Malone watched, the stranger lifted his right hand, extended two fingers into the shape of a gun and put them to his temple, thumb pointing straight up in the air. Then, he brought the thumb down.
That was enough for Malone. He backed away from the window until he felt the backs of his legs hit the bed, then turned and snatched up his piece. If the guy wanted to make threats, let’s see how he handled staring down the barrel of a real gun. He raced back to his spot at the window and looked down into the garden. White Trilby was gone.
Malone stayed awake the rest of the night, and in the morning got on the first Greyhound bus back to Houston. He wasn’t sorry to be leaving.
— ♦♦♦ —
Two days later was the pre-arranged meeting with John Maplin. Malone half expected him not to show. If he had any sense, he would get as far away from this part of the world as he could. But just before 2 pm, he heard the distinctive, lumbering footsteps, and saw the large hulking figure beyond the frosted glass.
Malone was seated in his usual position behind his desk and was suddenly very glad there was a barrier of oak between him and his client. The moment Maplin walked in, Malone knew something had changed. The man seemed different. More alert, less confused. Now, something ominous and mischievous danced in his eyes. “Afternoon,” he said. Even his voice had changed. Now it was deeper and more assertive.
“Afternoon,” Malone replied. “Take a seat.”
Maplin sat, his giant frame swamping the easy chair. “So, what did my money buy?” The tone was almost a taunt.
“Well, I went to New Orleans. Found the place you mentioned. The Church of the Rising.”
At the mention of the name, Maplin flinched a little. “And?”
“And I solved your little mystery. Why you’re walking around with no heartbeat.”
“Indeed. But I don’t think you need me to go into it, do you?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Malone paused, and considered his options. Then, he lowered his voice and said, “Shall we stop beating around the bush here, Mr. Maplin?”
“Why, yes please sir.” And instantly, the frightened little boy was back. Only now it was a veneer, an act, and Malone could see right through it.
“It all came back to you, didn’t it?”
“I ain’t followin’…”
“I think you’re following just fine. You remember the townspeople drowning you in the river, time after time, and you know why they did it. You remember killing those kids.”
There was no exaltation of surprise, no ‘Hey, wait a minute!’ which to Malone’s mind was as damning as an admission of guilt. Maplin simply sat, regarding Malone with those unnerving, cold eyes, almost as if he were sizing him up. Malone’s skin prickled. He was aware that by admitting he’d uncovered Maplin’s secrets he was painting a target on his back. He was twice his size and could probably squeeze the life out of him with one hand. But he’d wanted to see the man’s reaction.
“Do I get any change from that hunnert n’ thirty?”
Malone opened the drawer of his desk, looked down and saw the half-empty bottle of bourbon. Next to it was his 38 special. For a moment his hand wavered between the two, then closed around the cold steel of the gun. He brought it up, aimed, and shot John Maplin through the left eye. He wasn’t aiming for the eye, it was a lucky shot. Though not so lucky for Maplin. His head jerked back, and a chunk of skull flew off the back of it, then he slumped forward hitting his face on the desk.
The first thing Malone did was pick up the phone and ring reception downstairs. He shared the building with a bunch of other small businesses, and a gunshot wouldn’t go unnoticed. “Hi, yeah, this is Mike Malone up on nine. I’m just calling down to report an accidental gun discharge. I was cleaning it, and it went off. Nobody was hurt. The damn bullet lodged in the wall. I’ll arrange to have the damage taken care of, and pay the bill, of course. No, I won’t be needing the police, thank you. You have a good day, too. Bye.”
He didn’t feel the least bit bad about shooting Maplin in the face. What would be the point when the man had already been killed five times? His mind flashed back to White Trilby, standing beneath his hotel window in New Orleans pointing his fingers at his head to signify blowing his brains out. At the time, Malone took it as a warning. But on reflection, he realized it wasn’t a warning at all. It was an instruction. White Trilby and everyone else in the Deep South wanted Maplin dead for good. And with some justification.
There was no doubt in Malone’s mind that if he hadn’t pulled the trigger, the New Orleans folk would have made other arrangements. And probably for him, too.
The biggest problem he faced now was disposing of the body. Damn thing was too big and heavy to carry downstairs in one go. But he had a plan. He would drag the bastard into the shower room, chop him up into pieces with the hatchet he’d bought at the hardware store just that morning, then get rid of the body parts in dumpsters around the city. It would take the cops an age just to put all the pieces back together again. Chances were they wouldn’t find all of it, and even if they did there would be nothing to tie the body to Malone.
Something was coming out of the hole in Maplin’s face. Not blood. Dead men don’t bleed. It was more like black mucus. That would be a bitch to clean up.
Malone picked up last night’s copy of the Houston Chronicle from his desk, shook it out, and used it to mop up the mess. As he did so, his eyes were drawn again to the article he’d read fifty times or more. It was buried in the bottom left corner of page 12, while some crooked politician getting busted for tax evasion hogged the front page.
MISSING EIGHT-YEAR-OLD FOUND DROWNED IN BUFFALO BAYOU.
Malone had been too late to save little Millie Parker. But at least John Maplin wouldn’t be killing any more kids, in Houston or anywhere else.
— ♦♦♦ —
His name didn’t matter; it never had. But hers did. Amelia LeMaire; that was her name. There was a tightening; like she’d shot a boa constrictor into him, instead of a bullet. Suddenly there was blood seeping from somewhere high in his chest. And that damn radio was still playing: “…ain’t that a shame…” Obviously, the man with no name had made a bad choice in falling for her. If he survived, he would seek her out, as well as those that had double-crossed him. And they would never see him coming.