Ashes and Entropy

Nightscape Press is running a Kickstarter to support their forthcoming anthology Ashes and Entropy. You can back their campaign until noon on Friday, August 31st. The book will contain cosmic horror and noir/neo-noir stories by Laird Barron, Damien Angelica Walters, John Langan, Kristi DeMeester, Jon Padgett, Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, Tim Waggoner, Jessica McHugh, Paul Michael Anderson, Max Booth III, Lynne Jamneck, Greg Sisco, Lisa Mannetti, Nate Southard, Erinn Kemper, Matthew M. Bartlett, and Autumn Christian. The anthology is set for release in December of 2018.

In addition to pre-ordering copies of Ashes and Entropy, you can get manuscript critiques and limited editions of contributors’ other books through the Kickstarter.

My new story “The Kind Detective” will appear in the book.  It’s based on a nightmare I had a couple of years ago, and if the ending captures even a small fraction of the cosmic horror I felt in the dream, then I’ve done my job as a writer. Artist Luke Spooner did a great illustration for my tale; I’ve used a section of it as a page header. If you’re an artist, Nightscape Press is holding a contest for cover art for the anthology (you can find details on their submission page).

Here’s the first part of my story:

One Sunday at exactly 4pm, Detective Craig McGill was nursing an Irish coffee and poring over the cold-case murder photos spread across his cigarette-pocked kitchen table. His eyes ached. There had to be some small but crucial details he missed the first twenty times he studied these black-and-white snapshots of death and misery. He was certain, sure as a priest about the truth of a loving God, that if he just looked at things the right way, he’d solve these grisly puzzles. Justice would be served. And if a horror could be met with no meaningful justice, at least grieving families could finally gain some closure.

A loud bang! made him reflexively dive to the worn yellow linoleum floor. His ears popped as if he were on a jet that had taken a sudden 20,000-foot plunge. Vertigo surged bile into his throat as he rolled sideways to draw the .38 revolver he kept in a holster bolted beneath the table.

He crouched in the shadow of the table, waiting for another bang! None came. It hadn’t been gunfire. Too loud, too low. But it had come from the street in front of his house. Maybe closer. A bomb? His mind flashed on the pressure cooker IEDs the narc squad had recovered from a backwoods meth lab. Who would have tossed a bomb into his yard? The local Klan, angry that he’d sent one of their boys to Angola for murder? Gangbangers? A random lunatic?

After a ten count, he crouch-ran to the living room window and peeked through mini-blinds. The only thing that registered at first was that something was terribly wrong with his yard. But for a couple of seconds his brain rejected the missives from his eyes because what he beheld was an impossibility.

The massive pecan tree that shaded the front yard of the shotgun bungalow since his grandfather built it in 1930 was gone. Not exploded, not burned down – gone. It had a canopy as wide as the house and a trunk he couldn’t get his arms around and there wasn’t a stick or leaf left of it. Not even the main roots remained. A wide, perfectly hemispherical scoop of dirt and concrete sidewalk was gone, too. McGill was relieved that the water and gas mains hadn’t been broken.

Nobody was visible on his street except for his catty-corner neighbor, Mrs. Fontenot. He gave her all his pecans every fall, and the pies she made from them were one of the purest joys in his life. Before he tasted one, he’d scoffed at people who declared that this or that food was a religious experience. Mrs. Fontenot made him a believer. His first bite made him declare that she should be a pastry chef, and she laughed and replied that it would be the ruination of a fine hobby.

Mrs. Fontenot was dressed in her gardening hat and matching lavender gloves and rubber boots and sat beside a scooped crater in her front yard. Her magnolia was gone. She was hunched over, listing to the side in the way that people do when they are in profound shock.

McGill shoved his pistol in the back waistband of his cargo pants and hurried out to see if she needed help. The heavy smells of tree root sap and fresh overturned soil were thick in the humid air. He glanced down at his missing tree’s crater as he hurried past it. The remaining roots were cleanly severed at the margin of the hemisphere. What kind of machine could have done such a thing? And why?

“Miz Fontenot, are you okay?” he called as he scanned the street for strange vehicles. His snap judgement that this was the work of criminals he’d crossed seemed ridiculous now. Someone who could take a pair of big old trees like this could have taken his whole house with him inside it. But someone did do this strange, powerful thing, so maybe the perpetrator was watching? The hand of God hadn’t just scooped out their trees. The universe didn’t work that way. Did it?

Mrs. Fontenot made no reply to his call, did not move, so he ran over and knelt beside her.

“Miz Fontenot?” He gently touched her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

She slowly turned to face him. Her dark face was wet with tears, and her brown eyes stared wide. He’d once seen that same expression on a small boy who’d watched his father cut up his mother with a hatchet.

“Oh … Detective. So fine of you to visit.” Her voice was as flat as a salt marsh.

“Did you see what happened?”

“I saw … I saw ….” She started to weep. Deep, wracking, soul-wrenching sobs.

People her age who got this upset sometimes had heart attacks or strokes. McGill wondered if he should call for a squad, but he wasn’t sure if she had health insurance. If she didn’t, the ambulance and ER bills might break her. She didn’t seem to be in immediate danger. Maybe she just needed a chance to rest and gather herself.

“Can you stand up? Let’s get you inside. I’ll make you some tea.” He gently helped her up and escorted her back into her house.

She stopped crying, but her whole body shook as if she were walking through snow. Shock, definitely. He got her settled in her easy chair, pulled off her boots, and tucked a crocheted afghan over her legs so she’d stay warm.

“Thank you, Detective.” Her eyes seemed to be focused on something in a far invisible distance. “You’re a kind man. Don’t let nothing tell you otherwise.”

McGill smiled at her and went into her kitchen to put the kettle on.

When he returned with a steaming mug of chamomile tea, Mrs. Fontenot was dead.

The purely practical part of McGill’s mind told him that a squad wouldn’t have arrived in time to save her. They just wouldn’t bust the speed limit for a black lady with vague symptoms, not even if a white off-duty cop was calling on her behalf. And that renewed realization – the system he served was horribly flawed – made the mess of sadness, anger and guilt stewing in his skull almost boil over.

He hadn’t shed a single tear at any of the terrible murder scenes he’d investigated. Nobody wanted an emotional cop. It was not professional, it was not manly, and he would not weep now for this sweet old lady slumped in her favorite chair, even if nobody could possibly see him.

He would not cry. He would do his job: find out who did this to her. This wasn’t technically murder, but he was sure to his core that whoever took her tree took her life just the same. He would work this like any other case, and he would solve it, and there would be justice.

Please consider backing the Ashes and Entropy Kickstarter!



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