Tuesday, May 11, 2021

THE BLACK CLOUD by James Hadley Griffin

 In Powell’s rearview, a dismal black expanse, like a cancerous fog on a chest x-ray, occupied the space where a sunrise should have been.

Yesterday, the news hit that everything was ending. There was no stopping the storm. Everyone fled indoors, praying for it to be painless: a quiet ending, like a doctor’s whisper as he turns on the gas. Don’t be afraid. There’s nothing more to be done. Just let it happen.

How strange it was to see the end so clearly and reduce the number of tasks he had left to accomplish in this life to just three: drive to Scottville, find Mr. Ben, and kill him. Having a plan made him less afraid.

The gas gauge thumbed the E. He rolled down his window and smelled the air. It was still sweet and cool and reminded him of being a child. He began to cry.      

Ten years earlier, just after Powell’s mother had died, Mr. Ben had come to his town and made everyone feel like they were capable of moving mountains. When you entered the same room as Mr. Ben, you made sure your tie was straight and your hair was combed. When Mr. Ben spoke to you, you held on to his words like they were gold coins. Powell’s father, especially, had wanted Mr. Ben to see in him the promise he felt in his heart he had always had. Mr. Ben had taken Powell’s father into his confidence and then, one night, murdered him, vanishing with everything they owned.

It had taken Powell eight years to find him again, and he wasn’t going to let the end of the world stop him now.

The engine began to fail as he entered Scottville, and he eased to a stop outside the fire station — the place where he had learned Mr. Ben might be. The black cloud, like a bodybag zipping up over the world, was now nearly above him.

As he exited the car, a voice called out: “Son!”

A shrunken, silver-haired woman poked her head out of the fire station doorway.

You alone?” she yelled over the growing wind.

Yeah.”

“Come on in here with us!” Her eyes darted up to the black cloud. “We have supplies in here. We can last for a while, we think.”

“Do you have a man in there with you named Ben? About six-and-a-half feet tall. Shaved-down-to-the-skin bald.”

She considered his words. “You mean Mayor Davis?”

“Does he have a mole right here?” he asked, pointing to his chin.

That’s Mayor Davis. He’s with us.”

“Show me.”

The ache in his heart pounded furiously. This was it.

She touched his shoulder as he approached and then he followed her inside and down the steps to a large, cool, cement basement. There he saw them all.

A rangy woman with long black hair, coarse as lichen, and two small children at her feet. A teenager crouching in the corner clutching a tattered backpack. A young couple sitting cross-legged near the bottom of the steps. An elderly man, probably the old woman's husband, hunched over a card table.

And there, in the center of the room, watching over it all like an idiot god, was Mr. Ben.

The teenager stood up first.

"Who the hell is that?"

"He was wandering through town,” the old woman said. “I told him he could come stay down here with us."

Mr. Ben’s hooded eyes were calculating black pools.

The hell he’s stayin’!” the teenager hissed.

The old man stood up and shuffled over to them.

Dear,” he rasped to his wife, “we really don't have much to offer.”

“Chances are ain't none of us going to make it very long anyway,” she said to him. “So, why not let him stay? Just look at him. Doesn't he remind you of Peter?” She turned away from her husband and toward Powell. “Peter was our youngest. Died six years ago in the first storm.”

“Yes. He reminds me of someone, too,” Mr. Ben said slowly as he stood, head nearly scraping the ceiling. “A boy I once knew long ago. He was unusual. Very smart but very angry.”

Mr. Ben walked toward him.

“Did he have a good reason to be angry?” Powell asked, fixing his gaze on Mr. Ben.

Real good reason.”

From out of the waistband of his pants, Powell pulled a gun and pointed it at Mr. Ben, who continued to walk slowly toward him, unperturbed. The elderly couple backed into the corner with the teenager. The mother grabbed her kids and pulled them close. The young couple crab-walked toward the wall.

We shouldna let him in here,” the teenager muttered, unzipping his backpack and reaching in.

I did you wrong,” Mr. Ben said, continuing to approach. “Nothing can fix that. But what are you doing here at the end of all things? What does it even matter anymore?”

It's the only thing that matters,” Powell replied, cocking the gun and focusing it between Mr. Ben's still-hooded eyes. The ache in Powell’s chest throbbed.

Revenge is a currency that doesn't have a value anymore.” Mr. Ben, continued, soothingly. “You get nothing back for cashing it in. Look, I’m sorry for what I did to your daddy. I was a different man then. But killing me won’t bring him—”

He deserved to die!” Powell said, eyes wet with tears. “Just not cause-a you. He killed my mama. And killing him was my job. Mine! I loved her. And you took away my chance to do right by her!”

A gun’s report. The tang of metal and sulfur.

What’s Mama doing down here? Powell wondered, his eyes focusing on a dark corner. 

Above, the black rain began slithering out of the sky and falling like a eulogy against the roof of the station.

 


James Hadley Griffin is a teacher who has lived, at one time or another, in most of the Southern capitals. Currently, he's in Alabama where he lives with his wife and two hounds. He has been published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Popcorn Fiction. Connect with him on Twitter @JHadleyGriffin.

Monday, May 3, 2021

TROTTER SOUP by Jesse Hilson

"Severed feet cost 500 pesos per foot," said the graverobber.

"I'll take one," said Lazar, handing over the money. "And I'll take one more every two weeks. You can get them for me?"

"There's no shortage of feet on the market, señor. What will you do with this one?" He handed over a cold chunk of meat wrapped in a paper bag.

"That's part of what I'm paying you for, not to ask questions."

In truth, when the chef wasn't looking, Lazar secretly ground the feet into meat for soup at the dining room of the Hotel Palacita, where he was the maître d. He got a thrill out of turning all those high-fliers, politicians, and movie stars into unwitting cannibals. After a few months, he was telling his purveyor to find fresher specimens than the graveyards of Mexico City.

The Hotel Palacita was a place where some stray conversation at the bar might seal you a life-altering deal. Desperate strivers on the make would try to get in for the sole purpose of mingling with the powerful and famous.

Lazar watched them. They all had their refined noses up each other's assholes. The men would respect him only up to a distinct, crucial point, and the women treated him like a repellent dwarf, no matter how he flattered them. An admiring comment on their clothes or jewelry as Lazar led them to their table would earn him not even a nod or the ghost of a smile, but a complete absence of a human reaction, total dismissal.

Now he only fucked the girls on staff; waitresses, housekeepers, the girl at the front desk, and more recently, Clara. Clara was a new hire in the end of ‘36. She wore the same uniform as the other maids, but she carried herself with the easy elegance of a flapper. One day he went looking for her up on the third floor and found her drinking from a flask in one of the linen closets.

He startled her. "Don't tell, sir," she said. “I need this job.”

"I should turn you out into the street, drunken slut," Lazar said, blocking the doorway to escape.

"Don't,” she lurched forward, “I'll do anything."

He smiled. "Anything?"

Clara shrank back. "Well, we’ll see. But not here. Is there someplace downstairs?"

"Yes. My office. Meet me there at midnight.”

She hesitated, and he said, “You wouldn’t want me to go to the head of housekeeping and tell her you were drinking on the job, would you?"

"No, sir."

During that evening’s dinner rush, Lazar served his feet soup to select crowds of Mexico City's glitterati. It was a tiring night. He was in his office smoking a cigar when Clara came in. She had changed out of her uniform for the night and was dressed in poor peasant clothes. In her floor length skirt, she looked like a flower struggling to escape the filth of the city.

"Come in and close the door," Lazar said, putting down the cigar. She walked across the room, a little clumsy. Was she drunk already?

“See this?” Lazar pointed out a photo of himself next to a handsome young man. “You know who this is with his arm around me? That’s Diego Mictlan, the movie star. He was here at the Hotel tonight, with Lupe Vives. Know her?”

“I don’t really go to the movies much,” Clara said. She stood right next to him against the wall of photo trophies, swaying slightly.

“Can’t afford to go? Not on your wages, right?” Lazar said, looking down her flank. “You could make a lot more money coming to work for me.”

Clara smiled up at him, teeth crooked like a jigsaw puzzle. “I’d like that,” she said.

He reached out and did what he did with all the young women at the Hotel. He touched her. He slid his right hand up the curve of her hip, feeling the body tense and then relax under the skirt’s ruffles.

“I’d like being a movie star someday,” Clara said. “Even though I’ve never been.”

“Working for me you’d be closer to that,” Lazar said. “Those high rollers come here to dine. With a little luck, you could meet a producer. You’re certainly beautiful enough, and stranger things have happened. But first,” he seized her arm, sneering and, running out of patience, he said, “I’m going to have you for dessert.”

Lazar pushed Clara over to the chair behind the desk and made her sit down. He got down on his knees in front of her and began searching under the ruffles for her legs to spread them. Then he hiked the skirt up around her waist, and lowered his head to her crotch.

Her thighs clamped around his head, a little too rough for Lazar’s liking. He grunted. Then Clara maneuvered Lazar’s body and spun it, so his head was in her lap, looking up at the ceiling. In a wrestler’s move, Clara’s thighs became locked around Lazar’s head, her right calf was across his throat, and she reached down to take the prosthetic foot off the end of her right leg. It had been hidden away under the skirt, made of wood and iron, a shoe with a high heel on it. Clara brought the fake foot up and stabbed the spike heel into Lazar’s eyes, first one, then the other. Lazar screamed in shock and pain. Clara kept stabbing his now empty sockets with the prosthetic foot, deep into the brain, over and over.

The Hotel Palacita struggled to maintain their high food quality standards after their maître d’s sudden disappearance. The usuals pined for the old days of exquisite soups. But before long, the position was filled and a new starlet with a shiny new foot was dining there among the other movie stars. And even though Clara knew that Lazar was dead, she always made sure to ask about the ingredients in her food.



Jesse Hilson is a freelance newspaper reporter living in the Catskills in New York State. He has had or will have work published at AZURE, Maudlin House, Deracine Literary Magazine, the Daily Drunk, Pink Plastic House, Murderous Ink Press, and Close to the Bone. His crime novel WET UP will be published by Close to the Bone in April 2022. He can be found at both Twitter and Instagram at @Jesse Hilson