Baltimore Stories: Volume Two, p.1Nik Korpon / Mystery & Detective
Baltimore Stories: Volume Two
Copyright 2011 Nik Korpon
Some of these stories were published long ago (relatively speaking) and some in publications that evaporated into smoke. Some are from very early in my writing, and though I’d approach them differently now, I think it’s important to see progression. I like them all and wanted to give them a chance to be seen, to be read. None have explicit connections to Old Ghosts, but feel like they should. There’s also an excerpt of the upcoming novella that spawned all of these giveaways.
Thank you to all of the editors for believing in them (or letting me dupe them into believing.) Thank you to you, for reading this collection.
‘Cobwebs and Dead Skin’ is an excerpt of the novella By the Nails of the Warpriest (OW Press, September 2011) and was originally published in Dirty Noir.
‘The Reindeer Incident’ originally published on Do Some Damage.
‘List #2’ originally published in Everyday Genius.
‘The Mourning is the Dawn of our Love’ originally published in Gold Dust, Issue #14.
‘Pugs’ originally published in Colored Chalk, Issue #5.
Cobwebs and Dead Skin
The Reindeer Incident
Cobwebs and Dead Skin
When the act of remembering becomes illegal, the artifacts that remain tell the stories our unconscious wants to submerge.
Motes of dust float in the manufactured light. Muted explosions from outside, bombs maybe. I creep along the edge of his tenement hallway. Most people walk down the center and, over time, work some of the nails loose. The easiest way to avoid being caught while stealing someone’s past is to pretend like you don’t have one. Imagine you’re not human and eventually you won’t need to imagine anymore.
Inside his apartment, I take small, soft steps. Clothing scattered around the room, cut to rags and stained with soot water. A mattress and sheet pocked with holes in the corner. Turned sideways in the middle, is a spool that used to house industrial wire, a plate with a few pieces of silverware on top. The wilting dandelion perched in a can is so sad I can feel my heartbeat slow. Two slivers of coal clack together in my pocket. The old man snores in rhythmic waves. This’ll be an easy job.
My fingers hover over faded pictures and yellowed notes stuck to the wall. The man snorts himself half-awake, mutters, then rolls over and resumes snoring. His hand nudges a green-and-white striped mug. I inhale, bite my bottom lip. Hanging alongside a newspaper clipping of two children is a piece of brittle paper, a funeral card, looks like. I remove the photograph tacked beneath it.
A log cabin. Two men stand on either side of the doorway. The photo paper is old, a style I don’t see except in antiquarian bookstores. The men are smiling the way fathers and sons do. My mouth goes dry, a fist in the back of my throat. I blink my eyes a couple times. Their arms rest on a symbol nearly two feet wide in the center of the door, patterned with familiar lines. Some type of Nordic writing along the border, probably telling who’s in the picture, when and where. I wipe dust from their faces, look at the funeral card, hold the two together and feel a phantom blade in my gut when I recognize the boy as one of my old soldiers. James was his name. The old man sleeping behind me is a shriveled, sadder version of James.
I pull a slip of paper from my pocket to check the address, check it again, make sure I’m in the right place. This is deliberate, it’s got to be him fucking with me. The Boss, that motherfucker will answer for this. I take a long breath then resign myself to the job.
Kneeling next to his bed, I lay out my kit on the night-table. Two cloth squares and one pipette of iodine. A needle, an empty vial, a round bandage. And the two slivers of coal.
His hair is thin and the temple is easy to find. A drop of iodine on the tip, the needle slides in without a bite. A little probing till I find the memory cortex. His eyelids flutter like there’s a flurry of ashen moths trying to beat their way out. Fingers claw and twitch. A wire oscillating fan pushes hot air around the room. Slowly, the vial attached to the end of the needle fills with milky liquid. I shift him onto his side to help it flow faster.
Outside the window, The City throbs faint crimson. If a red sky at night is a sailor’s delight, but the red is the flames of the Barrio that never stopped burning and we haven’t seen direct sun in years, then what the fuck do sailors know? This heat is tactile: instead of rain, we get condensation, a languid humidity that chokes the air. Each day we’re convinced it’s the day the smog will break, the day real light will cut through. Each night, we go to bed thinking tomorrow. Tomorrow will be the day.
As the vial passes the 10ml mark, his twitches become more violent and it takes both of my knees to hold him still. I press my thumb against his carotid artery until he falls limp. Memories seep from his temple, drip by drip. Something reminiscent of church bells rings out, but it might only be shots from home-modified weapons. In the distance, in the crack between a factory and its smoke stack, I can see the dull glimmer of Regent Pond, the pagoda next to it where the first congregations of The Struggle against The Party gathered.
‘Who the hell are you?’
I spin around, almost pulling the needle from the old man’s skull. A silhouette in the doorway, clutching a bag in his arm.
‘Get away from him.’ He has the kind of voice that accompanies a face painted with scars. There’s no wavering in it, but the timbre is higher than his bulk would suggest. He takes a step forward. ‘Get that out of him. Now.’
‘Just calm down.’ I realize how obnoxious that sounds. I know a man will kill for family without a second blink. Hand behind my back, I keep the vial level and the memories draining. It feels heavy, almost full. ‘There’s no problem here. Just be calm.’
The bag falls to the floor, spilling a survivalist cornucopia: two oranges, a chunk of bread, half a bottle filled with dirty brown liquor and a sprinkling of jagged metal shards. He takes two quick steps forward, a gash where his left cheek used to be, and fuck me if the genetics in this family aren’t strong: This man is no one if he’s not James’ father, the one pushed James to join The Struggle. I nudge the old man’s head back so the needle won’t snap and let my jaw go slack as the father’s fist kisses my mouth. It’s been some years since I felt something like that, not since the dying days of war, and the fucker might have a glove full of iron rivets. I stagger along the wall to keep the scuffle away from the bed. Rub the white dots from my eyes, and I look up just as he pulls something from his waistband. A flare gun, probably retrofitted.
The trigger clicks and I flinch.
He smacks the handle and I duck then he fires again and a hundred tiny metal bits speckle the wall behind me. He charges, wielding something small in his left hand. I step to the side, sweep his leg and use his own mass to send his shoulder through the wall. Before I can inhale, I find myself with a knee on his throat, ready to turn his weapon against him. The handle of a garden spade, sharpened to a blunt spike and reinforced with rusted metal.
His face is the picture of repentance. Eyes beg for mercy. Nostalgia sloshes around me: a man’s life, adapted weaponry, violence in the air. It’d be so easy to kill him now, it wouldn’t even be sneezing, but my face must project abject horror because the father scrapes a wooden comb across my eyes. I roll away but he’s on me before I can sit, hands wrapped around my neck. His finger placement is wrong, though, and I’m able to swallow, to catch my breath. To say, ‘Be calm,’ before I clap my palms against his ears. He rears back and I pounce, cinching the crook of my elbow against his windpipe.
With one twitch, I could sever his spinal column. With one hard squeeze, I could pop his eyeballs from his skull. With one well-executed yank using the right pressure point, I could remove his skull.
Five seconds and he’s docile as a baby bird. I set a pillow under his head then lower him to the floor, my fragile oath sworn at the end of The Struggle still intact. He’s not on The Boss’ list, not in the usual demographic I hunt either, but I’m sure there’s some sick fucker who wants to see what this man knows. I use my extra vial, fill it before he wakes.
I shove the father’s memories in my pocket with the funeral card and photograph, place the old man’s in the package for The Boss, then gather my kit and remove every trace of being here. Pulling the slivers of coal from my pocket, I stand between the two men, debating which one to anoint. The old man did nothing to deserve this, but I understand the weight the father carries, sacrificing his son by proxy. I lay the coal on the father’s eyes, whisper be well into the old man’s ear, then slink away. The two lie as quiet as an abandoned catacomb, full of cobwebs and dead skin.
The Reindeer Incident