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The Shadows of Port Tarquin

By Daniel Powell

Twenty-four hours had passed since Bates had last felt like anything even remotely resembling himself.

Something dark, something…well, something sinister had dogged him from the second he first heard the news about his boss.

“Look, Batesy, it’s got to be you.  You’re our top guy around here and you know it.  He’d have my ass if I sent anybody else and, until he wakes up, I’m calling the shots.  Suck it up, now.  We need you.”

Bates had been editing motions at his desk when Leo Carvestall’s knock echoed against the heavy mahogany door.  His secretary had warned him that the man was coming, but having him in his office never felt quite right.

He and Leo didn’t get along well at all (all that Batesy crap sure didn’t help), but Leo had been right about one thing—Bates was the firm’s top gun.  He could litigate a set of fake knockers off a Hollywood starlet if the divorce got nasty.  And lately, nasty was just about all that seemed to cross his desk.  He was in the middle of a custody case in which he was on the wrong side of placing truly sweet twin girls with their abusive, lecherous father.

That the father was a wealthy and marginally acclaimed literary agent shouldn’t have excused the fact that he was taking the girls away from a mother who loved them very much.  It shouldn’t have excused the fact that the girls were actually afraid of the old man—that they understood, even at the tender age of six, that they were simply objects to be won in this final, venomous battle between their parents.

It shouldn’t have excused the fact, but it seemed to have all the same.  He looked a final time at the pile of paperwork and sighed as he closed the folder.  The firm needed him and he knew he had to go, but he had to put up a token fight all the same.  It wouldn’t do to just roll over.

“Look, Leo, travel is not an option for me right now.  I’ve got plans.  Family plans.  You can’t just…you can’t just drop this on me at the last minute,” he’d complained.  It wasn’t exactly a lie.  His daughter did have a dance recital over in Georgetown, where she lived with her mother and brother.  He’d even made a half-hearted promise that he’d be there.

“Plans, schmans, Batesy.  You know the job.  I don’t hear you complaining when the bank draft goes through every Friday afternoon.  Now, I recommend that you get your ass home and grab a nap and get your shit packed, because your butt is going to be parked up there in first class when that jet blasts out of Dulles.  Are we clear?”

Bates swallowed thickly.  Plans, schmans.  Had the old coot actually said that?  It was just one of the reasons he didn’t like Leo Carvestall—his corny speech, always delivered in that thick New York accent.  That, and his long, wattle neck, his liver-spotted skin, his yellow, smiling teeth.

Bates offered a terse smile.  “Okay, Leo.  You win.  What happened?”

Carvestall grinned.  “There you go, Batesy!  Glad to have you on the job!”  He scampered across the room and took a seat in front of the desk.

The grin quickly vanished, replaced by an expression of grave concern.  “The boss is sick, Alan.  Sick with a capital ‘S.’ He, uh…well, he got some kind of package in the mail today and then he had some sort of episode; poor fellow hasn’t regained consciousness since.  It was all very sudden.”

“Jesus, Leo.  Are we talking terrorism here?”

Carvestall shrugged.  “We don’t think so.  I mean, we handed the tape over to our security people and it came back clean.  There was nothing but some oddball music on it—nothing more.  No trace of chemical compounds or bacteria or anything like that in the packaging.”

“The tape?”

“Yeah, an old cassette tape, if you can believe that.  What the boss wanted with it is beyond me, but he’d been expecting it all the same.  Sheila said his eyes lit up like a tyke on Christmas when it came through the mail service.  She said he’d cancelled the rest of the morning’s calls—had completely nuked his calendar for the day.

“You know, he was going to take the Lear across the pond this afternoon.  Kick the tires on the foreign accounts in the morning, then play eighteen holes at Ballybunion before grabbing an evening flight home.  It was all supposed to be routine, Batesy.  He just wanted to show his face and keep those Mick bastards honest.” Carvestall shrugged.  “But now?”

“C’mon, do you really expect me to believe this?  There’s got to be more to it.  Was it a heart attack?  A stroke?”

“I’m telling you, no.  It was nothing like that.  The man’s resting comfortably, Bates.  He’s just—well, just not conscious.  But the show must go on, as they say, so you’ll be taking his place.”  Carvestall stood, offering his hand.

Bates shook it.  “Don’t suppose I can take the Lear?”

Carvestall’s grin returned.  “Sorry, Batesy.  We might need it if the boss has to make a sudden move.  We’ve got Mayo on standby if things take a turn for the worse.  Okay, that’s it.  Safe travels and have fun.  The Irish are a mystical bunch, those ones.”

Bates ruminated on those words as he glanced around the public house.  The Irish are a mystical bunch.  Sure, Leo.  Whatever you say.

The innkeeper set his beer down roughly on the scarred and pitted bar, a little bit of foam slopping over the rim.

“Gee, thanks,” Bates said.

The tall man wore a neatly trimmed beard.  He had thick, wavy hair and clear blue eyes, and he shot Bates a derisive look and quickly turned his back on him.

“Christ,” Bates muttered.  His treatment had been about the same everywhere he went in this bizarre little hamlet.  He sipped his beer and made a face; they sure liked it bitter over here.

But the stuff worked, warming his gut immediately.  The wind howled outside, pelting the pub’s filmy windows with intermittent salvos of frigid rain.

Bates sighed, watching the storm.  The lane out front was deserted, the last of the dusky light giving way to the night.  A pair of sallow streetlights fought a losing battle against the darkness, casting impotent yellow circles over the sodden cobblestones.

What was it Roenicke had told him before offering that dead-fish handshake and slamming the door in his face?

Best not to get caught out in the gloaming, Mr. Bates.  Twilight can be a swinging door, and it’s best just to grab a pint and a warm fire rather than find yourself out in the elements.

Bates drained off half of his beer and contemplated his bizarre day.  These people!  Carvestall had called them mystics, but caustic seemed the more appropriate “ic.”

The flight out of D.C. had been rough, with violent storms and lurching bouts of turbulence.  Even in his plush seat, he’d only managed about four hours of troubled rest.  They’d touched down in Ireland shortly after 9:00 a.m., where he’d hopped on a Cessna in Dublin, taking not even a moment’s respite in that cosmopolitan oasis.  Instead, he’d flown over seemingly endless stretches of sheep pasture and dormant farmland until landing at the tiny airstrip on the outskirts of Port Tarquin.

Port Tarquin was strange.  He’d been treated with disdain and, in the case of an old woman who had actually forked the mark of the evil eye at him, outright scorn.  Except for Roenicke, that was.  Roenicke had been raised in the United States and, although he now had a bit of a lilt to his speech, had seemed at least indifferent to Bates’ presence in Port Tarquin.

Bates glanced about the pub.  There were maybe a dozen other patrons, lost either in their drinks or their discussions.  A football match played on a tiny television above the bar, and the innkeeper (the place appeared to be a one-man show) studied the proceedings while he dried pint glasses and coffee cups.  He had been given the silent treatment by the fellow since checking in.

Bates was about to open the menu when he noticed the man at the far end of the bar.  Tall and exceedingly thin, with a wispy moustache and intense, unblinking eyes, he was muttering something beneath his breath and staring nakedly at Bates.

Bates looked away, embarrassed.  He took a few moments to finish his pint, then looked up.

The man still stared, his lips moving rapidly.

“Excuse me,” Bates said, and the frowning innkeeper ambled over.

“Yeah?”

“Can I get another pint, please?”

The man took his glass, refilled it without a word, and slammed it down on the bar.  This time, it sloshed onto Bates’ hand and wrist, dappling his Mikimoto cufflinks with suds.  “Hey!  Jesus, is it because I’m American?”

The innkeeper studied him, setting his jaw while he silently fumed, then his face softened a bit.  “Sorry.  Look, you’re the surrogate, am I right?”

“The what?  The…surrogate?”

Anger flashed in the innkeeper’s eyes.  “You’re here instead of the old man, am I right?”

“Oh, I see.  Well, yes.  I am, in fact.  Please…just call me Alan,” he offered his hand, and the innkeeper just looked at it.  “Christ, man—see what I mean?  Not much for tourism around here in Port Tarquin, are you?”

The innkeeper smirked.  “Tourism?  Is that what you want to call it?  Look here, Mr. Bates.  He poked around out here, and now you see where it got him.  You’d do well to finish your pint there and then just head upstairs and catch up on your beauty sleep.  Do your thing with the bank and the accountants tomorrow morning, and then hop on that big ol’ bird and get your ass back to the States.  That’s a fair warning, Mr. Bates, and kinder than most around here would give you.  You remember what they said about curiosity and the cat and all of that, don’t you?”

Bates shot a hand through his hair.  It was a practiced gesture, one he used on juries to indicate frustration—to show that the defense wasn’t operating on the level.  The innkeeper didn’t flinch, so Bates shifted gears.  “So who is that fellow?” he said, nodding toward the mumbling man at the end of the barn.  “And why won’t he stop looking at me?”

The innkeeper turned; he sighed, his mouth set in a frown.  “That’s just Billy.  He’s…there was an accident.  Poor bloke lost his hearing.  Don’t mind him, Mr. Bates.  He’s apt to chat you up at some point, but it almost never makes much sense.”

The innkeeper put his elbows on the bar, leaning forward.  “Can I ask you a question?”

“Go ahead,” Bates said.

“Why are you still here?  Didn’t you get what you needed over at the bank?”

Bates’ eyes narrowed.  “What do you know of my business?”

“Look, it’s no secret that the Irish have grown into the field of international banking in the last twenty years, Mr. Bates.  Funny, isn’t it?  We didn’t have a pot to piss in for centuries, and now we’re giving the Swiss a run for their money.  And it’s also no secret that you work for the firm, and that the head man has a soft spot in his heart for his beloved Irish roots.  Your firm’s earnings, along with a couple of other wealthy outfits back in the States and Canada, are big business for our little town here.  So yeah, we know.  We all know why you’re here, Mr. Bates.”

Bates’ mouth fell open in shock.  “Is that why I get the cold shoulder?  Shit, man, folks look at me like something they had to wipe off their shoe.  And I just don’t get it.  If our deposits are so important to the local economy, why all this animosity?”

“It’s not your deposits that we hate, Mr. Bates.  It’s your fucking meddling.  His meddling.  You see, we all know that the head man has been…”

They were interrupted by Billy, who had slunk across the room, un-noticed, to stand directly behind Bates.  “T-t-t-t-t-t-t…” he stuttered.  “Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh…”

Bates started, almost upsetting the dregs of his pint.  “Hello,” he said, spinning on his barstool.  He glanced from the poor deaf man to the innkeeper, who wore an expression of purple anger.

The innkeeper signaled something to Billy, who winced and turned and made a hasty exit, the pub door slamming shut in a blast of wind and rain.

“Sorry,” the innkeeper said.  A bit of his animosity had lifted, and Bates wasn’t even sure if they could pick up the thread of the conversation they’d been having.  “So…you taking your dinner here?”

Bates looked around the room.  The soccer match buzzed in the corner, but all other discussion had stopped.  The room was quiet.  All eyes were on him—waiting.

The flesh at the nape of his neck gathered, and he felt a chill trickle down his spine.  He glanced outside at the storm, then turned to the innkeeper.  “I suppose I’ll have to.  No sense going out in that.  What’s on special?”

The innkeeper smiled.  “Shepherd’s pie.  Can’t get any more Irish than that, now can it Mr. Bates?”

Bates looked down at his pint.  It was almost empty, and he couldn’t remember how it got that way.  “Not very,” he absently replied.  He was light-headed—a result of the beer and the lack of sleep and the hours he and Roenicke had already put in staring at balance statements.  “That sounds fine.  I’d like that, thank you.”

“Okay,” the innkeeper replied.  He snatched the pint glass.  “Another?”

“Yes, please,” Bates replied.  “One more won’t hurt.  Hey?  What was that you were about to say back there?  Something about meddling?”

The innkeeper waved a dismissive hand.  “Ah, it’s nothing.  P’raps I misspoke, Mr. Bates.”  He put the beer down gently in front of the American.  “Back shortly with the food.”

“Thanks,” Bates said.  He sipped his beer, turned his attention to the football match, and proceeded to get very drunk indeed.

Things moved rapidly from there.

~

Three sharp raps rousted Bates from his stupor.  He rolled over, staring at the ceiling while his stomach churned.

Jesus, how late had he kept at it down in the pub?

Three more knocks.  “Mr. Bates?  Hello!  Are you there, Mr. Bates?”

It was Roenicke.

Bates swallowed thickly.  He pushed himself into a sitting position.  He’d slept on top of the covers, managing at least to kick his shoes off and shrug out of his dress shirt before collapsing on the bed.  His slacks were wrinkled and there was a dark stain in the center of his undershirt.

Shit,” he muttered standing and stumbling to the bathroom.

Not good.  He’d really tied one on, and he was already sweating, his eyes red and glassy.

Three more knocks, now more insistent.  “Hello?  Mr. Bates?”

“Coming!” he barked, the volume putting a spike through his skull.  He blinked his eyes shut and had a momentary vision of hands touching him—of incredibly long fingers (damp?) against his exposed skin, clamping down hard on his arms and wrists and pulling him in different directions.  He opened his eyes and found himself short of breath and surprised to find a tear on his cheek.

Criminy!  What exactly had happened?

He rinsed his mouth, then gulped down a couple swallows of water.  He splashed water into his hair, toweled it off quickly and brushed his teeth before stripping out of his tee-shirt and tossing it in the garbage can beneath the writing desk.  He pulled on a clean tee-shirt, covered it with a cashmere sweater and opened the door.

Roenicke grinned back at him, leaning against the doorjamb.  “Quite the popular chap about town, Mr. Bates.  I heard you were…well, festive last night.”

Bates winced.  “Come in, Dave.  I’m ready as is, but would you mind waiting a moment while I grab a quick shower?  I…I really would like to clean up.”

Roenicke laughed at that.  “Fine.  Have at it.  Glad to see that the old stout still gets the job done.  Or, did you get into the whiskey?”

Roenicke winced.  He remembered finishing the shepherd’s pie.  He’d had a few more pints, some of the locals crowding onto the stools around him as the football match ended, replaced immediately by another.  Before long he’d been hooting and hollering at the second match right along with them, never understanding why the clock kept going after the final whistle had sounded.

And after that?  The rain had battered the inn and the fire had died down in the hearth, the little public room becoming a cavern.

Darkness and dread.

“Might have been both, I guess.  I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not quite sure.  I’ll be,” he swallowed, fighting nausea, “I’ll be right back.”

“Take your time.  We’ll grab a late breakfast and then get on with the quarterly dividends.  Titillating stuff, that.  You’ll need your coffee for it.”

Bates nodded, grateful for the man’s nonchalance.  He stepped into the bathroom and turned on the shower before stripping out of his clothes, stepping inside and letting the hot jets chip away at his hangover.

It didn’t work.  He was covered in suds when he lost it—three violent bouts of vomiting that plugged the drain.  Bits of partially digested food clung to his pale ankles as he cleared it, finished his shower and toweled off, actually feeling the first pangs of hunger after the purge.

He brushed his teeth again and swallowed four Tylenol capsules, closing his eyes while he choked them down dry.  Horrible visions ambushed him in the darkness.  He saw people, their eyes too big, their teeth too sharp, closing in all around him.  In his mind he began to scream, and when he opened his eyes he was met with a comforting sight in the mirror—Alan Bates, divorced and middle-aged, but still the best damned litigator in D.C.

He pulled on boxer shorts, socks and a white tee-shirt, chastising himself for the horrible visions his mind had conjured.

“Just a hangover,” he said, licking his lips.  He popped a piece of gum.  “Just a freaking hangover, you old man.  Quit being such ababy.”

Roenicke was watching the news when he emerged.  Bates selected slacks and a polo shirt, then slipped the sweater back on over the top.  He pulled on his shoes, apparently none the worse for wear, and they went for bacon and eggs at a little café in the heart of Port Tarquin.  The coffee was scalding and strong, and Bates drank four cups of the stuff, feeling his vitality returning in stages.

He and Roenicke reviewed the balance sheets until the early afternoon, comparing the figures against the spreadsheets Carvestall had packed into his briefcase.  It was shortly after 1:00 when they had concluded their business.

“Are you satisfied?” Roenicke asked.  They were standing on the granite steps of the Old Tarquin Trust, perhaps the village’s most impressive building.  It took up most of a block, and stretched to a height of three stories.  “Will we get a good report?”

“Our financial department will be pleased,” Bates replied.  “As for Mr. McGirt?  Who knows when I’ll be able to speak with him.  As far as I know, he’s still under the weather.”

“Yes, well,” Roenicke looked away, “let’s hope it’s just a momentary illness, and nothing serious.”

Bates nodded.  The man’s furtive response piqued his interest.  “What was he looking into up here, Dave?  I’m just curious.  I mean, I’ve had a bit of a chilly reception around these parts.  I can’t imagine it was any better for the head man.  Do the people here—do they resent him?”

Roenicke took a deep breath and let it go in a sigh.  “’Resent’ is probably not the right word.  But…”

Thirty seconds passed between them.  “But what, Dave?”

“Well, it seems that McGirt once had kin from around here.  Old farming clan—lived out in the burrows.  He…he tried to reconnect with his past out there, I guess.  Trace his roots.  It’s just that...”

“Just what?  What happened to him?”

The stooped expatriate studied his watch, then clutched his overcoat shut across his chest.  “Pint?  We’ve actually cleared the lunch bell.”

“Sure.  But…perhaps not back at my inn?”

Roenicke grinned, and they ducked into a tavern called The Wheel.  An old man drew pints of stout and they retreated to a corner booth.

“Port Tarquin’s a superstitious place,” Roenicke began.  “The people here—they believe.”

“In what?  Ghosts?  Fairies?”

Roenicke nodded.  “Among other things.”

Bates smirked, then his smile faded.  Roenicke was dead serious.  “Does this have anything to do with McGirt’s illness?  There was an audio tape…”

Roenicke’s wince was all the answer he needed.  “He listened to it, did he?”

Bates shrugged.  “I suppose.  What else would he do with it?  For God’s sake, what was on it?”

Roenicke took down half of his beer.  He locked eyes with Bates.  “There’s a cave out there in the burrows.  The locals believe there’s a powerful spirit inside that place.  They keep a wide berth of it.  They’re…they’re deathly afraid of riling her up.”

“But McGirt wasn’t, was he?”

“Well, he never went inside.  At least, that’s what Billy said.  I suppose it was that daft kid that sent him the tape.  Anyway, he and Billy…they kind of scouted the place out, but they left out of there when the heard the death wail.  At least, that’s what I thought.”

Bates’ eyebrows posed the question.

“They heard the call, Alan,” Roenicke said, his voice little more than a whisper.  “When she speaks, the living listen.  At least, around these parts they still do.  Maybe not in Dublin, but certainly out here in Port Tarquin.”

“When who speaks?”

“The Banshee, Alan.  The keening woman.”

Bates finished his drink.  He expelled a deep breath, stood without another word and fetched two more pints from the bar.

“Thanks all the same, but I can’t have any more than this,” Roenicke said.

“Yeah?  More work to do?”

Roenicke nodded, distracted, and returned to the story.  “The cave in the burrows?  It’s not related directly to the keening woman.  Those are two things, Alan—altogether separate.  But the stories claim there’s a faery inside—a beautiful woman, or a dreadfully coarse hag.  Depends on who sees her, you see.  Her singing, in whichever form she takes, is said to be transcendent.”

“And what does any of this have to do with Willie McGirt?  My boss built that firm back in the states from the ground up.  Hell, Dave, he almost single-handedly won the U.S.  tobacco settlement!”

“Oh, I know his background, Alan.  His ancestors—they tempted fate.  I think…I think he tried to do the same the last time he was over her.”

The pub’s door creaked open and Roenicke looked away.  “Shit,” he said.

“What is it?” Bates said, craning to see around the booth.

Billy, the nervous, mumbling, deaf boy, made a line straight for them.  He pulled a chair up to the booth, placed a piece of paper down on the table and began to write.

I can show you.  Maybe it will be different for you.

“Go on!” Roenicke said, waving a dismissive hand at their intruder.  “We’re about business here, lad!”

But the boy would not leave.  Instead, he studied Bates with intense brown eyes.  Bates closed his, experiencing a momentary shock flash of a woman in the corner of the pub at the inn where he’d been drunk the night before.  Her shoulders were stooped, but she seemed to be expanding—rising from the dusty floor clear up to the thick-beamed ceiling.

It was a witch—a faery witch; he knew it as surely as he knew that he was the firm’s best litigator.  He opened his eyes, sweat glistening on his upper lip.

“I need to see it,” he whispered.  Billy read his lips, and a smile spread on his face.  His teeth were rotting in his mouth, but that smile said it all.

“Don’t,” Roenicke said.  He put his hand on Bates’ arm.  “Listen, Alan.  Get back on that plane, and go home.  You have a family, don’t you?”

“You don’t understand, Roenicke.  The firm sent me over here to check on things.  If this has anything to do with the boss, I haveto know about it.”  But it was more than that, wasn’t it?  He needed answers—something had happened to him the night before…

Roenicke looked away.  He pushed the second pint away, untouched, before standing and straightening his tie.  “Don’t go, Alan.  If you value your life—if you care about your family…don’t go.”

“I don’t put any stock in kids’ stories,” Bates said.  He looked at Billy.  “How much?”

The boy just shook his head, and Roenicke sighed.  It had been settled.

“Goodbye, Alan.  It was pleasant working with you.”

They shook hands.  “Perhaps we’ll do it again later in the year.  Who’s to say when the boss will wake up?” Bates replied.

Roenicke flashed a rueful smile and shook his head.  Without another word, he slipped out of the pub and into the cold afternoon air.

~

Billy drove a beat-to-hell Toyota pickup truck.  Bates could feel every stone in the road.  It had been a long drive—probably twenty miles or so outside of town—but the trip had been pleasant enough.

The sun finally peeked through the clouds.  It did nothing to warm the air, but it cheered Bates’ spirits in the wake of the previous evening’s blackout.  From time to time, Billy took a nip of whiskey from a plastic flask, and Bates fortified himself when it was offered.

The road terminated at the boundary of an old country farm.  The roof had fallen in on the stone house, and the outbuildings were in shambles.  Billy left the truck in neutral while he opened the gates, and then they were inside; they skirted the periphery of the buildings and drove through a stony meadow toward a distant bluff.

After a few miles, Billy switched off the ignition and stepped out into the pasture.

There, some fifty yards in the distance, stood the opening of a cave.  It was black—a horrible, perfect darkness that sent another chill down Bates’ spine.

Billy pointed at the opening.  He mimed putting his fingers in his ears.

“Plug my ears?” Bates shouted, exaggerating the words.  Billy nodded.

“Okay,” Bates muttered.  He took a step, his Italian shoes squelching into a sluice of cold mud.  He put the tips of his fingers in his ears and hiked toward the opening, feeling utterly ridiculous.  He half expected Leo Carvestall to pop out of a hole in the ground with a video camera—Smile, Batesy, you’re on Carvestall Camera!

After about thirty steps, it occurred to him that he didn’t really know what he was looking for.  What had Roenicke said?  Something about a woman?

He turned.  “Billy, I’m not sure…”

Billy was gone.  The truck was there but the boy had vanished.

“Christ!” he muttered.  The wind picked up, and he suddenly felt very cold and very isolated.  Images of his children—of his little boy and his little girl as newborns, pink and covered with downy fuzz—flashed in his mind, and he was filled with a sudden, crushing sorrow.  What was he doing, chasing ghosts in Ireland while his children needed him back home in D.C.?

You’re doing your job, he said, chastened.  You’re doing what the boss asked you to doand you’re the only man for it.  The best…

He trudged toward the opening of the cave, the tips of his fingers still jammed into his ears.

He was twenty feet from the mouth when he heard it—a piercing wail that cut him to the core.  He slammed his palms over his ears, doubling over in pain.

When the banshee’s cry ceased, he straightened up and there she was.

She stepped out of the cave, her hand open to him, and he saw that she was very beautiful and very tall.

She had thick, black hair and shining green eyes.  Her smile was devilish, her features enchanting.

“I lost…I, uh…I need,” Bates started, but he couldn’t speak.  He couldn’t form the words.

Her features shifted.  The smile became a snarl.  Folds of flesh formed beneath her chin; wrinkles crowded her smile and her suddenly cataract-filmed eyes.

A witch.  The same witch he’d imagined earlier.  The same witch he now knew had reached out to him in the pub, even if it had only been in a nightmarish haze.

She had summoned him, and now she opened her mouth.

Bates turn and ran.  He clamped his hands hard over his ears, sure in that moment that her song meant his very death.  He sprinted for the truck, and Billy was already inside.  Exhaust vapor showed he’d keyed the ignition.

“Wait!” Bates screamed.  “Wait for me!  Don’t leave, Billy!”

His summoned images of his children.  His ears he filled with the sound of his own screaming.  He sprinted down the hill and back to the truck and Billy pushed the door open and Bates slid in, slamming it shut.

“Drive, damn it!  Drive, drive, drive!”

But he didn’t have to tell the boy.  They fishtailed over the damp soil and shot like an arrow down the road beyond the toppled farmhouse.

Billy finally spoke on the way back to Port Tarquin.  His enunciation showed that he’d been without his hearing for maybe only a year or two—just long enough for the words to begin to grow a little bit fuzzy at the edges.

“I thought it might be different with you,” he’d remarked, his eyes trained on the road.  “I thought she might be different with you, but she wasn’t.  Oh well.”

The boy had pressed a book into his hands before dropping him, a little rumpled, but otherwise none the worse for wear, at the foot of the inn’s front stairs.

Bates had checked out of the inn and left Port Tarquin without another word.  It wasn’t until he’d passed the halfway mark of the Atlantic Ocean before he felt safe enough to crack the text open.

The book was nondescript.  It bore no illustrated cover; it had a simple cloth binding, the purple ink faded with time.

He opened it to find a table of contents filled with children’s faery tales.  He read the first three, then put the book down.

“Fairy tales my ass,” he said.  He tried to sleep, but the book called out to him.  With a sigh, he picked it up.

…is a powerful faery, a shape shifter whose home is in the burrows.  She exists in dark places, her countenance a test for those who dare look upon her.  If yer heart is full, she’ll appear as a goodly maiden, and fortune will smile on all the people of the land.  If not, she’ll appear as a vengeful hag, and her spite will rain ill luck on all within her domain.  Her song is said to drive men insane…

Bates finished the tale, then stowed the book in his carry-on.  He ordered a double Beefeater and finally fell asleep a few hundred miles east of Nova Scotia.

~

Bates was alone in the room with McGirt.  Carvestall sat outside in the waiting area, having already put in his time at the head man’s bedside.  A monitor beeped from time to time.  Otherwise, it simply appeared that McGirt was sleeping peacefully.

“I saw the place,” Bates whispered to his sleeping boss.  “I saw…I saw her patrons.  They…Christ, Willie, they touched me!”

McGirt’s eyes flew open.  Unfocused—unseeing—they were open nonetheless.

“Mr. McGirt?” Bates said.  He was unshaven.  His hair was a mess.  His dreams had been troubled.  “Can you hear me, Willie?  Listen, Willie, I went to the cave!”  His voice cracked on the last word, becoming almost a sob.

The old man’s fingers clamped down hard on Bates’ wrist.  He tried to twist away, but the old man had him.

A hag’s grin—strange in framing his perfectly capped teeth, but utterly familiar nonetheless—stretched his mouth impossibly wide.  Those eyes—previously unseeing—now developed a peculiar light.  The pupils trained on Bates.

“What are you…?  Christ, what’s happening?  Leo?  Leo!”

Bates looked to the door.  He saw the handle moving, heard the man’s fists pounding against the hardwood.

But nobody came to his aid, and when Willie McGirt began to sing, none of it mattered anymore.

The old man pushed his head back in the pillow.  He opened his mouth, and the lilting ballad filled the room.

About the Author

Daniel teaches a variety of writing classes at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He has published numerous short stories and critical essays in journals, anthologies, and magazines, and his most recent published novel is the post-apocalyptic thriller The Reset. He is working on his doctoral degree in the Texts and Technology program at the University of Central Florida. You can learn more about Daniel’s work at The Byproduct, his Web journal on speculative storytelling. 

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