In a Hollow Land

 

 

One

 

Even God had fallen out of his reach and he knew it, he could feel it. He had crossed a line, a line not entirely of his own making but his nonetheless, a line only he knew, only he saw, beyond it failure, shame, the not measuring up, the not moving past, the endless purgatory of waiting, wondering. He wished for some sort of miracle, some magic to erase all that had led him to this point, knowing well his folly, seeing no escape but what lay on the table before him.



He stared at the bulging rag then reached for it, unwrapping the gray felt, lifting a small revolver free of the cloth, surprised at the weight, the smoothness of the wood, the cool of the trigger. Light glinted off the black metal. Peering into the dark sheen, he lost himself in the reflection, the cause of his failures in work and love just out of reach, lurking in a place unknowable, beyond understanding.



He took the barrel with one hand, pointing it at his chest, placing his thumb against the trigger. He tried to imagine the blast, the recoil of the gun, the force of the bullet, and could almost feel the peace that lay beyond the moment. Shutting his eyes, he pressed the barrel into his ribs.



A knock sounded at the door. He looked up, again seeing her in his mind’s eye framed by the kitchen doorway, a bag slung over one shoulder, another in her hand. She squinted at him, telling him she must leave, must escape the black despair of his presence, a rolling disgust clear in her dark eyes. He tried to speak but words escaped his mouth without a sound, vanishing into the lightless corners like bluebottle flies. A shadow of emotion crossed her face. For an instant he wondered if she might have feelings for him still, feelings even she failed to see. Taking a breath, he managed to say her name.

 

Justine…

-He paused and spoke again.

Justine, we can work this out. I just need a little time, a little luck. Things will get better.

-She squinted at him.

You should’ve never lured me into having a fling.

I’m not sure who lured who, Justine.

My ex, he knew how to take care of a woman proper, in the right style and all, with money, and things, and… money. I didn’t need to leave just because he hit me some. At least with him I could live decent.

-He rapped his finger against the table as he spoke.

I’ve worked as hard as anyone else to make a living. I lost count of the places I’ve applied since I’ve been out of work. I even gambled on the market with my savings. I did that for you, Justine. There’s no way I could’ve known the economy would tank when it did.

Don’t blame your money problems on me. I didn’t ask you to lose your shirt on bad investments. Besides, I know about your fling with that cute little sales rep.

-He shook his head, a pained look in his eyes.

We had one kiss at a party after I’d had a few too many. We were both embarrassed by it. It was nothing, Justine.

Oh sure, and I guess staying out until four in the morning was just being friendly.

She was upset and I was there to listen. Nothing happened.

No, you’re wrong. Something did happen but you just can’t admit it. One kiss means somewhere deep down you knew we were through. You never could face the facts. You like to live in your little made-up world where the sun always shines and everything turns out fine in the end. Well, that’s not the way the real world works. We were all wrong from the start. You should know that by now.

 

The knock came again, louder, forceful, pulling him from his dark thoughts. He stood, wrapping the cloth around the pistol as he moved through the house, still caught in his dream of her, dazed, uncaring of the moment, of why someone would come to his home at such an hour.



Opening the door, he peered into the still night, the porch landing empty, no sign of the unwanted visitor. He waited, head cocked, listening but hearing no voice, no word of greeting, no sound other than his own breath. In spite of his apathy, a latent fear began to grow in his chest.



An instant later a figure appeared out of the shadows, the side of his face pale, ghost-like, highlighted by the broken light of the doorway. Black hair spilled across his forehead. He paused to survey the house, his face turned aside, his eyes revealing nothing, emotionless, reptilian.



Then the man stepped onto the porch, pulling a switchblade from his pocket and flicking it open. Light from the blade jumped about the ceiling as he scraped black grit from beneath his fingernails. After a moment he spoke, his accent odd, unidentifiable.

 

I am looking for a girl.

You’re looking for a girl? Who is she?

She is a runaway.

And who are you?

What do you mean?

Your name, what is your name?

-The man frowned, flustered by the question.

My name?

You don’t have a name?

I am looking for a girl.

In this country it’s the custom to tell a person your name before you start asking questions.

-The man squinted at him with his sideways stare then held the knife to the light, studying the blade before again looking up.

I am Zoran Jorvic. Your light is on so I thought perhaps you might have seen such a person.

-He glanced at the man, trying to get a better look at his face in the dim light without seeming like it, the fear growing.

I haven’t seen anyone.

She is young and quite attractive.

Why would she come here?

She is beautiful and knows how to use her beauty to get what she desires.

What would she want with me?

-The man looked at him askance, unwilling to face him.

Who can know the ways of such women?

Like I said, I haven’t seen anyone.

She has, as they say, difficulty with the truth. She is a fraud, a liar.

Why are you telling me this?

She might have convinced you she needs help.

-He shook his head, trying not to show his growing irritation with the stranger, the mess of his life again crowding in.

Since I haven’t seen her, how is that possible?

She can be persuasive.

You should check elsewhere.

Where would you suggest?

How would I know?

I believe she is here.

-He felt the anger move up his chest and into his throat, replacing despair with something tangible, something he could act on, and for an instant he felt a surprising sense of gratitude to the stranger in spite of his fear. Then the anger swelled, sweeping him along.

You need to leave.

You deny you have seen her?

You have a hell of a nerve asking me that.

Then you are here alone?

That’s none of your damn business.

You take chances with your denials. I think you hide something.

I won’t say it again. You need to leave.

You are mistaken if…

-The man’s face darkened and he took a step back, staring at him. Following the man’s gaze, he looked down, spotting the pistol resting against his thigh, the felt cover fallen away. An instant later the man disappeared into the night.

 

Lim Specter woke with a start. Sitting up, he looked about the room, realizing he had fallen asleep at his desk. The image of the man with the switchblade flashed through his mind as he recalled the puzzle of their conversation and its effect on him. The pistol still lay before him. He wrapped the gray felt around the gun, placing it in a drawer and locking it.



Behind him a low whine of voices sounded through a half-open window, just out of hearing. Straining to make out the words, he slipped out of the chair, walking to the window and lifting a corner of the blinds with one finger, careful to move them as little as possible.



Across the street stood a bearded man and a woman, her black hair wrapped in a red scarf. They loitered beneath the streetlight, picking through a trash bin and dropping tin cans into a large burlap sack. Unable to understand their words, he watched them as he tried to clear his mind. The woman nodded toward the house before facing her companion.

 

I feel a bad wind coming to this house, Merton. I feel it strong.

You been reading those witchcraft books again, haven’t you, Bruey? I thought you said you were done with that nonsense.

-She waved the air with her hand.

Who says it’s nonsense? You’re just a bum, Merton. What do you know about witches?

Just because we’re poor and live by the railroad tracks doesn’t mean we’re bums.

I wasn’t talking about myself, Merton. You’re the only bum I see around here.

I’m not a bum, Bruey. I’m a pilgrim.

A pilgrim, is it? Then find us some turkey. I’m hungry.

Not that sort of pilgrim, Bru. I’m transitory in the material world, a lost soul in search of meaning.

From what I can see your search mostly leads to a bottle. Anyway, if your soul wasn’t so lost you could see the man in that house has big trouble coming his way. He has been cursed.

-He snorted, raising his head from the trash can.

What do you mean he’s been cursed? You don’t even know the man. How could you know if someone put a curse on him?

-She tapped her finger against his chest.

Ha! I got you on that one, Mert. I could know because I can see it. Some witches cast a spell on him, take my word for it. Now get yourself ready to see their handiwork.

-Merton leaned back into the can, his voice booming from within.

What on earth are you going on about, Bruey? You don’t know a thing about spells or curses or witches neither. Help me get these cans out of here so we can cash them in and get us something to drink.

It’s true, Mert. My grandmother was a brujilda, a Mexican witch, and she taught me everything she knew about the dark arts, as they call them. She was a strong-willed woman and I was her favorite grandchild. She even picked my name. My mother wasn’t too happy about that. So, I come by witching naturally.

Why didn’t you ever say so before now, Bruey? I think all those books of yours have gone to your head. I’m going to stop bringing home what I find. Or maybe you’re just messing with old Mert. I’m too thirsty to be messed with. It’s cruel to mess with a man as thirsty as I am.

-He stared into the distance, licking his lips.

Okay, Mert, be your old stubborn self and don’t believe me. But some witch or witches put a spell on the man. He’s a man of science but he crossed someone and now he’s about to have a taste of the other side of this world, the side of magic and miracles.

Now why would he get a taste of that, Bru?

He probably did his woman wrong somewhere along the line. Or maybe one of his ancestors did and now it’s finally catching up with the family. That’s what spells are used for, to make things right, to get justice. I’d do it if I was asked and there was reason enough.

-He dismissed her with a wave of his hand.

I don’t buy it, Bruey. Even if you did learn about curses, why hex somebody you don’t hardly know? Why not spell someone that deserves it, like that lying Thurman Stiles? He still hasn’t paid me for running those squirrels out of his attic even though he’s said he would more than once.

Thurman is my cousin. I won’t go so low as to put a curse on my own family.

But you’d put one on some feller you don’t even know?

Are you calling me a liar? I don’t tolerate disrespect, Merton, even from you. A man could get a spell put on him for that or even less.

I’m not disrespecting you, Bruey. Besides, I got me enough curses to last a lifetime. I don’t need any more. What’s going to happen to the man, anyway?

He’s about to get bad news in spades, that’s what. And then his past is going to… Wait! There’s somebody coming, Mert.

-She cocked her head to listen.

Put on your sad look, Bruey. Maybe they’ll drop some cash on us if we look real pitiful.

-She frowned at him.

I’m not looking pitiful for you or anyone else. Besides, I don’t want to get run out of here just when this story is about to get good.

But Bruey, last night you put on the best pitiful act I ever did see.

That wasn’t an act, Merton. I was having a bad night. I need to find a spell that gets rid of hot flashes. Anyway, hurry up. Here they come.

-Merton bent over the trash can.

I got just one more can to fish out…

-She grabbed the back of his shirt.

Lordy, Mert, one of them has a badge. We’re not supposed to be out here, remember? The law has warned us twice already.

-A voice called from down the street.

Hey you! What are you doing over there?

Run for it, Bruey!

Head for the alley behind the cursed man’s house, Mert! I know a place we can hide back there.

-Lim watched as the man and woman scurried into the darkness, leaving vacant the pool of light across from his house. A moment later, two men appeared, one in uniform, the other wearing a wrinkled suit. They ambled along the street together, staring at Lim’s house. For a moment he wondered if they knew he knelt behind the blinds watching them. Then the man in uniform pulled a paper from his shirt pocket, studying it for a moment before turning to his companion.

Hold it right there, Run. Now, let’s see here. According to these papers, that house over there is the one we’re looking for.

Of course it is. The bank owns the house and I work for the bank. Don’t you think I’ve been by here before?

There’s not a single light on so I don’t believe anyone is at home. I reckon we’ll just have to wait for him to show.

How long do we have to wait, Constable? I got no time to dillydally while this criminal is off carousing.

The man is no criminal, Run. He just can’t pay his mortgage. Besides, Judge Hackett likes me to serve the papers in person.

-The man in the rumpled suit took a step back.

You mean old Mace in the Face Hackett signed those eviction papers?

He did and I know better than to cross The Hatchet.

I went to grade school with Mace Hackett. If you ask me, he’s just a washed up judge that’s been on the bench too long.

How about if I pass that along to the Judge, Run? I’ll bet he’d like to know what you think of him.

-He took another step back.

What? Don’t even say that! It’s bad luck to even kid about such a thing.

I believe you’re scared of him, Run.

I got my job to think of, Constable. The bank won’t like it if I get on the wrong side of The Hatchet.

If you say so, Run.

Here’s a neighbor coming up the street. Order him over here and find out what you can about this feller.

I can’t order people around like I was their boss.

-Run stepped into the pool of light.

I’ll do it, then. Hey you! Sheriff Cherrybark here needs to see you right away about a crime. You can get yourself thrown into the pen if you don’t cooperate.

-The Constable frowned at him.

I’m no sheriff and there’s been no crime, Run. Don’t be causing any trouble or you’ll be the one that gets locked up.

The man reneged on his loan.

Run, you spend too much time harassing people. Last time I checked there’s no law against being poor.

-Run waved at the man.

Sheriff Cherrybark is a busy man. Snap to it, mister… what’s your name?

-A short, round man, nervous and agitated, stepped beneath the streetlight, looking to each of them in turn.

The name’s Carson Philbank. What’s happened? Was my house robbed?

You sure your name’s not Specter?

Of course I’m sure.

What does the man look like, then?

He’s average height and medium build with brown hair, not short but not long.

That’s real helpful, Mr. Philbank. The man you describe sounds like ten thousand other miscreants walking the streets.

I guess so… except for his eyes. They’re brown almost to black and when he looks at you a certain way, you know to give him your attention, your complete attention. There’s a hardness there, a determination. What’s this all about?

-Run peered at him.

My name’s Run Settles and I work for the bank. Where do you live, Mr. Philbank?

Well, I…

It’s against the law to withhold information from the Sheriff, you know.

-The Constable moved next to Run.

I’m not the Sheriff, Run. Don’t lie to the man.

I live right over… what did you say?

I’m Constable Dub Cherrybark not the Sheriff himself.

-Run waved off the explanation.

You’re still a lawman. Give him the fifth degree, Constable.

It’s the third degree, Run, and this is no interrogation.

Constable, am I in trouble or something?

No sir, Mr. Philbank, you’re not. Run here has got his self a little worked up is all. He gets that way when he’s about to evict somebody.

But I paid last month’s mortgage.

Philbank, if that’s your real name, you live in that house?

-Run pointed at Lim’s house.

Why no, Mr. Settles. I live a few houses down.

What do you know about the man who lives here? I believe he goes by the name of Limerick Specter but that could be an alias. These sorts have usually done this kind of thing before.

What kinds of things are you talking about?

-Constable Cherrybark stepped between Run and the little man.

Run, do you want me to do the asking or not?

Right you are, Constable. Put him on the hot seat. Sweat it out of him.

Ignore him, Mr. Philbank. What can you tell us about your neighbor?

I know he lost his contract job some months back, maybe even a year now, and has been struggling to make ends meet. He had been without a job for a year or two before that. He does something scientific, computers I think. Lots of people are having trouble in these hard times. I didn’t know he was about to be evicted.

I don’t believe the man is aware of the situation either. What else do you know about him?

Well, Lim seems nice enough in a quiet sort of way. He’s not much of a talker but he’s always willing to help out if something comes up. He’s been under a particularly black cloud the last few days.

-The Constable cocked his head.

I don’t catch your meaning, Mr. Philbank.

Well Constable, first it’s the threatening calls, then his truck catches fire and he barely makes it out in time, and to top it off someone breaks into his house.

I didn’t hear anything about a break-in.

He said nothing was taken so he didn’t bother to report it.

-Run squinted at Philbank.

Did he say anything about leaving town, Mr. P.? The bank has had a rash of these types skipping out on their loans.

-Philbank kept his eyes on the Constable.

He’s really going to lose his house, Constable?

Yes sir, it appears so. Does anyone else live in the house?

He had a girlfriend.

Do I take that to mean she no longer lives there?

She left. She said she couldn’t stand living with a loser anymore. I know because after she told him she came over to my place to use the phone.

-The Constable pulled at his ear.

That might drive a man to do something foolish.

-Philbank shook his head.

He believes she’ll come back.

-Run peered into his face.

What makes you think that, Mr. P?

He said so to my face, Mr. Settles. He said he if he can just get some things straightened out, she’ll come back. He said it might take a couple of days and he asked me to keep an eye on the house while he’s gone.

-The Constable grabbed Run by the shoulder, pulling him away.

Are you sure about that, Mr. Philbank?

That’s what he said, Constable.

-Run threw up his hands.

Well, I’m done here. There’s no sense in standing around in the dark if the man won’t be back anytime soon, even if he does plan to return. My money’s on him skipping out. Just the same, go ahead and slap that foreclosure notice on the door, Constable. I’ll call the locksmith to come change the locks.

I don’t need you to tell me how to do my job, Run.

-Philbank held up a hand.

There’s something else. When Lim’s girlfriend came over to my place, she called the Sheriff to come get her.

-Run leaned toward him, squinting.

She called the Sheriff? What the hell for?

It was not official business, I can tell you that. She tried to hide it but I could see clear as day they’re having an affair.

-Run jumped backwards.

She’s cavorting with Catfish Hamm? Well, that puts a kink in the old weeter, don’t it, Constable?

-He nodded.

You got that right, Run. We best tread carefully. You go ahead and call your locksmith. I’m going to do some checking around before I post this notice.

-As Lim watched, the two men turned to leave just as another figure in uniform appeared at the edge of light, waving a handful of papers over his head. Lim’s curiosity finally took control. Leaving the window, he crept through the kitchen and out the back door, hurrying down the alleyway and around the corner. He stopped before a thick hedge, crouching within earshot of the men. Constable Cherrybark and Run pivoted at the sound of the man’s voice.

Stand aside you men. I got me some certificated papers here that I need to serve on a dangerous criminal. Why, hello Constable. What are you doing here?

-Run leaned toward Philbank, whispering to him.

Mr. P., are you going let on you know about the Sheriff and the man’s girlfriend having them a fling? This could get dicey, you know.

Are you crazy? I don’t want to get on the Sheriff’s bad side anymore than you do.

-The man in uniform surveyed the group.

You men forget how to talk? You look like you just saw a ghost.

-Run grinned at him.

Well, if it isn’t Deputy Lindheimer. I knew the law would show up sooner or later. We got us a real crime scene here, Mr. P.

-The Constable held up his papers.

The house across the street is being foreclosed upon, Deputy. I have my own set of papers. What might yours be for?

Well, Constable, I’m looking for a Limerick Specter, last known to be cohabitating with that address directly across the street. His former employer has sworn out a warrant for his arrest. He says the man did some temporary contacting with the firm and transponded with company funds.

-Philbank held up a finger.

I don’t know that I’d believe that. Lim told me the business has been struggling for months and he suspects his boss is doing some funny financing.

We have relatable coronation of the crime from other employees. This man violated the law and will be held equitable, just like it says under the Constitution.

The Constitution doesn’t say anything about absconding company funds.

And who might you be?

Carson Philbank, Lim’s neighbor.

Don’t let yourself be fooled, mister. It’s a short step from fraud to rape and murder. We’ve got ourselves a desperated man here. Beware, gentlemen, these criminal types will confabricate anything to get people’s sympathetics going.

-Philbank shook his head.

I don’t believe he’s done what they say.

Think what you want, mister, but he’s still going to have to make a formal apparition before the judge.

That may take awhile, Deputy. We have it from a reliable source that Mr. Specter won’t be back for a couple of days. Might as well save yourself the trouble and go home.

I don’t know that I trust that testamentation. Who is this reliable source of yours, Constable?

-Philbank raised his hand.

I’m the source, Deputy. Lim told me to my face.

And you believed a known prefabricator of falsies, Mr. Philbank?

What did you say?

The man is not to be trusted.

I’ve known Lim for years and he’s never lied to me before. Why would he start now? You sound like you’ve already decided he’s guilty.

-He tapped the papers with his finger.

I know of the criminal elegants and they’ll lie to save their skins without lamentation. But since I got a whole raft of warrants to serve, I best come back later. I’ll bid you men a salacious night.

-The Deputy turned, disappearing the way he had come. Run threw up his hands.

I’m done wasting my time on this case. I got other fish to fry and the night is young, gentlemen, not to mention salacious. I’ll get the boys out to change the locks in the morning.

-The Constable faced Philbank.

I’d better do that checking around before we have some real trouble on our hands. Mr. Philbank, I thank you for your time. You best not speak about this to anyone. If you see Mr. Specter, call me right away.

-He handed Philbank a card. Run followed by pulling a business card from his shirt pocket.

You won’t forget to call me too, will you Mr. P? You know I can be of assistance if you ever have bank troubles.

-Philbank held up both hands and stepped back.

You mean the way you’re helping Lim?

No need to get testy, Mr. P. I have a job to do just like the Constable here.

-As he returned the card to his pocket, the Constable pointed a finger in his face.

I’d appreciate it if you’d not compare me to yourself, Run. I believe I’d be dogcatcher before I’d do your job.

-Run looked from one to the other.

Well, I can see my expertise is no longer appreciated around here so I’ll be on my way.

-He disappeared into the darkness. The Constable nodded at Philbank.

You take care, Mr. Philbank. You have yourself one touchy situation next door. Goodnight, then.