"Flashes of darkness ... moments of the macabre captured like the snapshots of a scream … or an impaling. Short, fast, and deadly moments of discovery!"—John Everson, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Covenant and Sacrificing Virgins
I can be heard reading both "The Ingrate" and "Crossing Lake Serene on a Dare" in episode 7 of The Bare Knuckle Podcast.
I can be heard reading both "The Ingrate" and "Crossing Lake Serene on a Dare" in episode 7 of The Bare Knuckle Podcast.
Sid Barlow’s chest burned with the heat of exertion as he bolted into the alley that connected Guthrie and Hugheston Streets. He paused only briefly in the safety of the unlit passageway to have a look behind him. There was no sign of Featherstone, not even an elongated shadow of the man, who was practically shadow to begin with: always in black from fedora to wingtips, and reedy as an upright snake.
Hope mounting that maybe he’d given his pursuer the slip, Sid pressed ahead, but at a more relaxed pace. Several blocks on he passed through the entrance to Sederbury Park, where he felt more vulnerable again, among the concealing trunks that loomed all around. His arms and legs pumped harder, until at last he reached the little bridge that spanned a bicycle trail below. He stopped at the middle of the bridge and rested both hands on the steel railing. The path below was better lit than the rest of the park, yet it took him a moment to realize that Featherstone stood near one of the lamps, staring up at him, disarming in his nonchalance. Featherstone broke into a trot, headed for a flight of steps that would bring him up to Sid’s level. Sid ran like hell.
Within fifteen minutes he was in sight of his building, sprinting across the empty lot behind it. He sprang for the fire escape, hauled himself to the lowest landing and began an arduous climb to the sixth floor. Outside his kitchen window he braved a downward glance. It was an error, for Featherstone negotiated the fire escape with preternaturally lithe movements that seemed to bring him a floor closer each second.
Sid threw open the window—never locked when he was out—and ducked inside. There was no use locking it from inside, either. Any time that might have been gained by forcing Featherstone to smash his way in would have meant priceless seconds squandered fumbling with the window—seconds that were better put to use locating a decent hiding place in his modest studio apartment. The closet was no good. It was loaded with storage bins. He slept on a futon mattress, so squeezing under the bed was out of the question. By process of elimination his eyes finally rested on the cherry-wood footlocker pushed into a shadowy corner of the room.
His Uncle Reggie had given him the large chest as a gift several years ago. No reason, no explanation. Just a, “Here you go, kid. You deserve it,” and it was his. Uncle Reggie’s soft spot for Sid was hard to figure anyway. Sid couldn’t stand him and made no secret of the fact, but good old Uncle Reg never failed to come back with a quip or a playful slap on the shoulder. Which simply bugged Sid all the more. He supposed that was why he’d never filled the trunk with anything. Somehow keeping it empty proved it was useless, as Sid knew anything from Uncle Reggie to be.
As soon as he’d climbed into the trunk, sealing himself in complete darkness, his thoughts began to race, and he trembled a little as he waited for some indication of Featherstone’s presence. It came as a series of gentle raps on the lid of the box, as if it were the most obvious hiding place in the world and therefore the first place the man should look. The rapping had been meant to convey knowledge, not suspicion, of Sid Barlow’s concealment within the footlocker.
“Little lamb, little lamb, won’t you play with me?” Featherstone whispered, close to the trunk, maybe squatting beside it. “I can tell you want to and there’s something you should see. Timid lamb, timid lamb, don’t you hide from me. Crossing us was all it took to make you history.” The last word was a hiss, and the thin, airy trickle of laughter that followed sent a wave of deep unease through Sid’s body. He’d barked up the wrong tree this time.
The lid crept open, but the three inches of light that spilled in were quickly eclipsed by Featherstone’s head. It took Sid’s eyes a moment to adjust. When they did he could just make out his predator’s malevolent stare. A hairy-knuckled hand swung the lid up the rest of the way, and the moment of truth was upon them both.
Sid was about to lay into a pathetic string of apologies and entreaties when Featherstone frightened all words from his tongue by saying, “All right, Barlow. Where the hell are you?”
And down came the lid.
It was beyond baffling. Was Featherstone playing some kind of game here? Jesus, what kind of madmen had Sid gotten himself involved with? He was a loyal drone. A small time player in a big, big world. And that was okay. It paid the rent. So maybe he skimmed a little off the top from time to time. Maybe just a smidge from the sides and a divot’s worth out of the bottom. Big deal. It’s not like he was in violation of some ethics code of the underworld. That was the stuff of movies and television. Big Ugly Joe and his clobbering boys were only interested in making an example of the Sid Barlows of the world. It had nothing to do with being offended. It was about being at the top and wanting to stay there at all costs.
“I add an hour to your death for every minute it takes to find you, little lamb!” Featherstone’s voice bellowed across the room and back again.
Something was very wrong about how this was playing out. It was as if Featherstone hadn’t seen Sid, had stared right through him. But how could that be? Unless…
He pushed up on the lid of the footlocker and propped himself on one elbow so he could run his eyes along the seam of light. No sign of the executioner. He must have moved around the corner, either to the kitchen area or the short hallway that led to the main door. Sid decided to extricate himself from the trunk, but he almost let the lid fall when he was halfway out and noticed something highly unusual: he could see no part of himself. Arms, legs, torso… all gone. No wonder Featherstone had taken his search elsewhere after looking inside the trunk. It had appeared empty because Sid Barlow was invisible.
Panic would come. It would have to. But some kind of safety valve seemed to be shutting his mind off to the brunt of the fear associated with such a shattering development. To let the reality of his situation all the way in would be tantamount to denying his own certainty about how existence worked at the most mundane level. For twenty-eight years he’d occupied a world in which invisibility was impossible. How could he shrug off that one long-upheld belief and not question all other perceptions he’d carried as gospel truth since childhood? Instead of trying to do either, he forced his focus onto the possibilities such a unique talent presented him with, especially in his line of work. Gently setting the lid back in place he smiled as fantasies of voyeurism and violence—and escape—ran riot through his head.
Leave it to Uncle Reggie to give him an invisibility chest. Maybe the old coot hadn’t been completely worthless after all. Too bad he’d died in a car fire a couple of years back. Sid wouldn’t have minded picking the man’s avuncular brain right about now. But Uncle Reg’s untimely death had been the product of one of those ironies in life that Sid valued above all else. It had been widely reported that Reginald Sanford might have escaped with his life if he hadn’t been wearing a seat belt, whose buckle and catch melted into an inseparable lump as he burned to death. Oh, how Sid had chuckled upon hearing that piece of news.
Featherstone appeared to be giving up. His hand on the doorknob, he scanned the hallway one last time, presumably for some slight movement from somewhere. Or perhaps he was listening for a sound. Either way, the time to act was now.
Sid rushed the man and pinned him against the door. Shock lit up Featherstone’s face and rendered him unequal to the task of defending himself. In fact Sid found it amusing how much easier it was to best a man who couldn’t see a single punch coming or anticipate a knee to the midsection. Sid hoped his seemingly disembodied laughter further drove the would-be assassin out of his mind as he finished strangling the life out of him.
The hard part done, it was a simple matter to drag the body back to the trunk. It was obvious that anything that went inside vanished, and not just organic matter. Sid had been fully clothed, after all, when he stashed himself inside the thing, and now there was nothing to him. So up went the lid and in went the corpse. Sid closed the footlocker. After a few moments, he eased it open again. A faint miasmic outline held Featherstone’s form for a second or two, and then the man was no more.
Hell, this was going to be a piece of cake, and it got Sid thinking about all the scores he had to settle with the world. Here was one kicked dog that was going to start biting back. Without ceremony he scooped Featherstone’s body out of the footlocker—wondering but not caring whether its hat had fallen off in the process—and carried it into the kitchen. The window was wide open, letting in air scented with smoke from a chimney somewhere and conveying such night sounds as a distant siren and the occasional squeal of tires as a band of punks made sure the world knew they were alive.
He stuffed Featherstone through the window and let him fall onto the fire escape landing. Stepping through the window himself, Sid then hauled Featherstone up and over the iron railing, letting him free-fall to the cement below. There would be work involved in this new endeavor of Sid Barlow’s. He’d want to bury his victims in the far corner of the adjacent lot. They’d be invisible, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t trip up a backhoe. The graves would have to be plenty deep.
But Sid’s plans for the future crumbled to dust as he handed himself down the consecutive ladders of the fire escape, a process that took a little getting used to in his new state to begin with. One second his hands were nowhere to be seen. The next he was able to make out the details of his wristwatch. Then his fingernails, and the dark thatch of hair that mantled each arm. He was coming back into the world, bit by bit, and that was scarier than the sudden transition to invisibility had been, because if the effects were temporary with him, they’d be temporary with Featherstone, and that meant he had a problem on his hands.
They were both perfectly visible by the time Sid had managed to drag the body, shakily, to the back end of the empty lot, where a chain-link fence cornered the property. His plan, to the extent that he had one, had been to dump Featherstone and go steal a spade for burying. That wouldn’t be such an easy job now, but what choice did he have? The sun would be up within the hour. Time was of the essence.
Dropping Featherstone onto the crest of a dirt hill, Sid gave him several kicks to send him rolling away into a night-blackened cleft. A watchful Bobcat stood nearby. Sid didn’t remember it from the day before, and the implication of its presence brought him no comfort. Wearily he began the trek toward the street. Invisible he might have broken into a hardware store and taken what he needed, but now he hoped to find a shovel or spade in someone’s backyard. Either way, he had some walking—and some hard work—ahead of him before the night was through.
He stumbled and almost fell. Looking up he saw a figure on the fire escape landing outside his kitchen window, waving a fedora in wide arcs. Featherstone’s fedora. It had to be another one of Big Ugly Joe’s thugs. Sid turned and fled, laughter chasing him around the corner of the building. But in his mind it wasn’t the laughter of the man on the fire escape that he heard. It was Uncle Reggie mocking him from beyond the grave, and he feared it would never stop.