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The Agency Man (next) ->

 

"O then, why go through again
The Fatigue of re-making the fabulous shell
Of an ideal world, upon ancient runes?
(Distant voices from the sea)
Ola-eh, Ola-oh! Let us destroy, destroy!"
-- from "Against The Hope of Reconstruction" by F.T. Marinetti

 

The rains came very hard to Cedar Hill that fall and brought with them screams. A few were heard, many were not.

Some were human.

The first child, an eight-year-old boy, was found half-buried in a ditch along Route 33, his stomach and groin ripped apart, his testicles severed. The county coroner, after his nausea ebbed ("I hoped to God I'd seen the last of this," he said to the sheriff), made the morbid speculation that -- judging from the way the child's intestines had been pulled outward -- the boy had been killed by an upward swing of something sharp and curved. Like a sickle.

Every person on the scene had nightmares about it later.

The storms raged with an occasional lull but never left, spreading small disasters -- people bleeding from wrecks caused by the downpours, deserted barns split apart and set afire by lightning, mudslides that destroyed backroads, and homes damaged by the overpowering winds.

The storms raged ... the second boy was found.

The storms lulled ... the third boy was found.

Cedar Hill began looking over its shoulder after sunset; it kept a loaded shotgun in its living room; it kept its children in at night, children who would hide under the covers, fearfully peeking past the edge of the blankets expecting to see a howling monster leap from the space between the flash of lightning and explosion of thunder. The slap of footsteps on wet pavement became the sound of flesh torn from screaming children;

The silence which followed seemed to breathe;

The storm clouds multiplied like cancer cells;

And the rains came very hard to Cedar Hill, Ohio that fall.

 

The road shimmered and blurred as if seen through tears. Cletus Johnson squinted as the wipers whipped heavy streams of water across the windshield. He shook his head and blinked. Four years and it was happening again. Three boys this time. His hands were shaking. He was starting to see double. He took a deep breath to steady himself, thinking, It could be a mistake. But he hoped not. He slowed the car, rounded a curve, and glanced down at the thick file on the seat next to him.

Photographs, coroner's reports, newspaper articles, sworn statements. He spat out a derisive laugh, then fumbled a cigarette into his mouth. His hands no longer shook. He pressed down on the accelerator, ran a red light, and cast another quick glance at the file.

It contained documentation of a monster's killing spree, that much was easy to discern, but hidden in every shred of evidence were echoes of Cletus's greatest failure in life, one that had haunted him for nearly four years. He'd never found the killer, even with the small army of outside help the governor had called in.

That failure had cost him everything -- the election, his wife, his happiness, and a good portion of his self-respect.

The rain eased as he turned onto Cedar Hill's main street and drove toward the sheriff's office. He remembered the nightmares he'd had about the two little boys. Thought about the drinking that he'd hoped would make them go away. Recalled in vivid detail the night Esther had packed up her things and walked out of the house.

"The only thing you got left inside you, Cletus, is blame. Blame for yourself. I've tried to make it better but you don't want to forgive yourself. So don't. I hope you and your blame will be very happy."

He parked the car in front of the station, picked up the file, and climbed out. After four years the place felt no different to him than when he'd been sheriff.

Joe McGuire was waiting for him outside, as promised.

"Cletus," he said, smiling. Cletus couldn't help but smile in return. Joe cut a dashing figure with that smile, a feature that had helped him to win the election. Cletus was glad that Joe had been the man to step in; he'd been Cletus's best deputy.

"Helluva night."

"I know. We got guys out all over town helping the state police. Accidents, vandalism, you know the routine."

"Backward and forward," replied Cletus. He came up next to McGuire and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Is it him?"

That smile again. "It's him."

"Positive?"

"Enough that I called you. I figure you'll remember more of the specifics from last time than I do." He cast a glance at the file Cletus was holding. "Well, lookee there. I've had guys looking all over Hell's Half Acre for that thing."

"Must've fallen in a box the day I cleaned out my office."

McGuire laughed as they went inside, then pointed toward the conference room. "After you, sheriff."

"Still honing that snappy wit of yours, I see."

"Mayor just hates it."

"So did I."

The two men marched into the room, closed the door behind them--

--and locked it.

 

Helen Winston never knew a day without a physical pain, never knew a night that didn't bring a trip to the medicine chest for pills, never knew what it felt like to glance in a mirror and not wince at the sight of the misshapen thing that stared back at her.

Not that she didn't like herself, far from it; there were many qualities about herself that she admired.

But there were four things she hated.

One hung from her left shoulder where an arm was supposed to be, twisting down toward her ribcage and ending in a mass of mummified worms that looked more like a claw than five fingers;

Another was attached to the left side below her waist, coming up three inches short of a normal leg's length with a foot that pointed in the wrong direction, making it necessary for her to wear a special platform held in place by a metal brace;

The third was strapped to her back in the form of an ugly, off-center hump that made her stoop to the right and put the majority of her weight on her good leg, causing it to cramp at least three times a day;

But the worst of them, the thing she despised most about herself, was her face.

Helen Winston's face was remarkably lovely. Whenever she found herself sitting in a bar or restaurant alone (which was often), she would inevitably attract the eyes of some man who would smile at her, perhaps nod, and eventually come over to join her. Then they'd catch sight of that arm and its claw, that leg and its brace, that back and its hump, blink a few times, stumble over their words, and quickly fabricate an excuse to leave her. "Sorry, I thought you were someone else" was rapidly becoming the most popular.

Then with a click, a shuffle, and a thump, Helen would totter off into her own special world of night's loneliness, going through the same tired motions of grading test papers, watching some television programs, and climbing into an empty bed -- but sometimes there was a number she would call, a very special number, that would help take care of this last.

A day in the life.

Helen Winston: woman, grade school teacher.

Helen Winston: fate-ordained human monstrosity.

Helen Winston: lonely.

She was just waking from a brief nap. She had no idea that she had been chosen.

Carefully.

A few of them had crawled up from their hiding place and marked the spot where she lay. Their blood grew hot and excited as each wondered if theirs would be the seed her fertile womb would receive.

Her perfect, fertile womb.

In the darkness, as she stirred, they shuddered.

 

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