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Authors: J. Lincoln Fenn

Dead Souls

BOOK: Dead Souls
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Praise for J. Lincoln Fenn and
Poe

“A delightful, bravura piece of gothic pop . . . fans of Neil Gaiman and . . .
Buffy
will be immediately taken, but there's a literate edge to the pyrotechnics that makes for an unlikely and welcome marriage between the spook story and literature of ­altogether less ectoplasmic substance.”

—
Publishers Weekly

“Hitting the high notes of multiple genres, [Fenn's] talent is wicked raw and proudly untamed. [We] can't wait to see what comes next.”

—
Bloody-Disgusting.com

“J. Lincoln Fenn's
Poe
is a shining display of humorous morbid entertainment. With a thrilling mystery, Fenn takes dark themes and gives us a witty novel with ties to history and magic. Suspense and intrigue are the name of the game.”

—Literary Escapism

“Bowled over by
Poe
 . . . The novel jumps into my own top five of my best novels of [the year] and is nipping at the heels of number one. I highly recommend this to anyone who likes great well-paced fiction.”

—The Novel Pursuit

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For my husband

The true horror for me is that overnight suddenly all the people you've known and loved can become monsters, and that people underneath the veneer of civilization or love or any kind of affiliation are kind of monstrous creatures.

—Colson Whitehead

Hell is empty and all the devils are here.

—William Shakespeare,
The Tempest

PROLOGUE

W
E NEVER TALK ABOUT
him at first, and we never say his name. But after an hour or more, after a few drinks or more, when the light in the bar becomes golden and woozy, talk usually drifts to a safe circumference, the sphere around him. We speculate about the news. Which crimes might be a favor he called in. Things like school shootings, downed planes, drone strikes that hit a wedding instead of the terrorists are always likely suspects, our shared paranoia. As for the other, more macabre stories—the mother who drowned her children in the bathtub, the grandmother clubbed by her grandson and then left to rot while he spent out her pension, the man who sliced off the face of his wife before he ate it—we hope—no, we
pray
—that these are just the random acts of random people in a depraved society. It's the TV; no it's the video games; no it's the patriarchal structure and the glorification of violence to sell deodorant and car insurance.

Because the other explanation is far, far worse.

The other explanation is that it will be us one day.

CHAPTER
ONE

S
CRATCH.
He said his name was Scratch.

But no, it starts before that, over a year ago on a dark Friday night in Oakland, California, rain pouring down like it's the next biblical flood and I've just seen the thing I've been afraid I'd see. Justin opening the door of a taxi for a woman with effortless blond hair that almost reaches, but stops short of, her shoulders. She wears a pink coat. I've always despised pink. He holds a newspaper over her head protectively as she gets in, and the taxi driver pops open the trunk for their suitcases.

He said he had a business trip.
Seattle
.

Justin looks gaunt in that way I always found Byronesque: pale shadows under his eyes, a military-ish buzz cut that makes his cheekbones starker. I miss his hair, the feel of it in my hand. Did he cut it for her? There hadn't been much of an explanation—something about a new barber who got carried away.

He doesn't see me standing in the shadow of the apartment building across the street, but then that's always been our inside joke—
the invisible girl
, he calls me. I'm constantly startling the shit out of him. He swears he doesn't hear me when I walk into
a room, and has actually shouted more than once after finding me just behind him, opening a cabinet door when he thought I was asleep. It's a skill that anyone with abusive parents learns, and learns early. How to slip into the kitchen and get a soda and a candy bar for dinner without causing a blip on the radar.

But still, I wish he'd look over this way for once. I long for it, I
will
it—I send a psychic message that if he doesn't look over this way it means he doesn't love me, that he stopped loving me months ago.

He gets into the taxi, closes the door. The cab pulls into the street, causing an arc of water to splash in the gutter. Gone.

It's cold. I should have put on a jacket, but there had been that note in his voice when he said he was going to Seattle, a tinny drop that caused a shudder near the base of my spine, an emotional 5.0 tremor. He'd been strange for months. Distant. I don't remember walking out the door of my apartment. I do remember when I stepped outside and realized it was cold, and I was barefoot. But my car was right there. I'd gotten lucky with a spot right in front of the apartment, no circling the neighborhood for fifteen minutes trying to land within three blocks.

Then I realized I'd left my keys in the apartment. Locked out.

The next steps—finding someone to buzz me back in, let me use their phone to call the super, making up some cheery explanation:
Oh, it's been such a stressful week at work, amazing I remember my head
—was a calculation that seemed unfathomable.

So I started to walk. Not impossible—I'd done it before, although never at night. I pushed aside all the reasons this was a bad idea. Tried not to look at any of the souls folded in alley
ways, huddled under trash bags and newspapers. Ignored the occasional catcall.

The rain hit about ten minutes in, and in fifteen I was completely drenched and my feet were numb, but it felt good somehow. Like I was present, a high-definition version of myself. I began to imagine scenes: Justin opening the door—­looking perplexed in that way that always made him seem about ten—our having a good laugh at my neurosis again. Me taking a warm shower. Justin joining me. A smaller part of me tugged at the thought that I would seem pathetic, that his furrowed brow would really be a sign of his rising discontent, a precursor of the end. There was, or would soon be, someone else. When that thought hit I'd raise my hands to the rain, let it slide through my fingers. Wash it away.

This is how I got through the next twenty minutes, and by the time I reached his street I had convinced myself of the first version, which left me utterly unprepared for the pink coat. Just the sight of it made me dart into the entry of the apartment across from Justin's. Left me breathless.

And then they were in the taxi, and then they were gone. Vanished. The night, and the rain, closing over them like a cloak.

THE FIRST RULE
of marketing is desire. And it's not about making people want a thing; it's making them want a different version of themselves, someone better-looking, more in control of their lives, unique. Everyone wants to think they're living a version of carpe diem when really they're lemmings on a treadmill. I know this because I'm a professional treadmill designer.

People think I'm joking when I say that the third circle of hell is reserved for marketers, but I'm not. It's a truly twisted area of expertise. My specialty is backpacks, specifically backpacks for those who sit behind a desk 365 days a year but like to imagine they're only a travel agent away from scaling Mount Everest. The soccer moms who buy sports utility vehicles so they don't feel like Mrs. Brady. We sell them backpacks that cost us four dollars but will cost them a hundred and fifty because we don't tell them these are nylon sacks with zippers made in Chinese sweatshops. No, we give these backpacks names that are evocative of adventure, of pristine wilderness, of empowerment. For women, SkyTrail in colors like Sonoma grape (purple), poplar (green), and truffle (brown). Octane for the executives who amuse themselves in board meetings by imagining the crushed scent of pine beneath their feet. Things that sound vaguely Swedish are always popular. Stores can't keep the Utrecht 1000 stocked even though you can't fit much more than a map and a sandwich inside it. We estimate that about 90 percent of these backpacks make it to a closet where they will remain, gathering dust, until the eventual yard sale.

To make it in marketing you have to have a good sense of your own fragile, easily manipulable mind. You can't have any illusions. You know that when you're in the grocery store and they're playing music, it's been chosen to fit your demographic. The colors on the cereal boxes make you hungry. The milk is at the back to increase the odds of impulse buys along the way. You know you're a rat in a maze, and even knowing you're a rat in a maze is no protection.

Justin was the one place where I felt I was outside of the maze. Where I was tangibly human.

A thought probably implanted by the marketers who sell dating services.

SCRATCH.
He said his name was Scratch.

I couldn't believe it at first, was sure I heard it wrong, thought maybe he had mistaken me for a bar wench and was trying to order a Scotch. Not that I looked like I worked there, drenched, barefoot, shivering. I was sipping at my second mojito royale in Make Westing that I'd snuck on someone else's tab, having forgotten that my wallet was also in my locked apartment. But it was packed at the bar, and warm, and if my piracy was discovered I could pretend I was heading for the bathroom and make a break for the door instead. I was even thinking about ordering baked Brie and some artisanal pita chips.

Somehow he'd inserted himself next to me, causing the hipster guy on the next stool over to lean uncomfortably left, his sense of space obviously violated.

“Is that any good?” asks the inserter.

Cocky bastard
, I think to myself. I try ignoring him, take a long sip.

He raises a finger to catch the attention of the bartender, who has to lean in to hear him it's so loud. Music pounds from a band in the back with Pearl Jam aspirations.

“I'll take one of whatever she's having,” says the inserter with an accent that sounds English, or Irish—something. “And her tab's on me.”

He knows, but he's not outing me. What's he want?
Still, free is free so I order the foie gras sandwich instead and another mo
jito. The cold has made me hungry. The hipster takes his garden gimlet and pushes his way to the bocce ball lane, then the inserter settles himself down on the vacated stool and I take a look at what I've indentured myself to, at least for the next few hours.

This is where things get hard to explain. I get the impression he's not bad-looking, although his nose seems like it might have been broken and not reset correctly. I feel like he has longer hair, and is olive-skinned like he's Italian, or Arabic. But there's something wavering about these impressions too, like the shimmer of heat over hot asphalt, and not then, nor now, would I ever be able to say exactly what he looked like. No one who's ever seen him can either.

A part of me realizes that my wet shirt is inappropriately clingy, that I might be giving off the wrong signal. I fold my arms over my chest protectively.

The bartender drops off my sandwich and the two mojitos. I've never seen a sandwich look so good in my life.

“I'll take one of those too,” says the inserter, pointing to it. The bartender sighs, as if his life would be simpler if we had just ordered all at once.

I pick up the sandwich and take a bite. Heaven.

“You know how they make foie gras?” he says.

“Not really,” I say with a mouthful. Although a part of me knows it's bad. Veal kind of bad.

He rubs a finger along the bar top. “They stick a gavage, which is a kind of tube, down a duck's or goose's throat and then force-feed it so the liver becomes fatty. Enforced gluttony.” There's a cheerful lilt to his voice as he says this. “Personally I think it's the suffering that gives it flavor. But what you're eat
ing, that's probably not the real thing. They passed a law against it a few years back. No, that must be humanely fattened goose liver. I don't know if the goose appreciated the difference though in the end.”

I look at my foie gras benefactor and get the impression of twinkling eyes. What color, I couldn't say.

“Do you mind if I just enjoy my sandwich?”

The bartender slides a plate with the inserter's sandwich to him. He picks up a half. “Not at all. Bon appétit.”

AN HOUR LATER
and each clunk of the bocce ball with the accompanying cheers or groans makes the bar feel festive, like we're all on vacation, like we're not the working drones we are, released for forty-eight hours before we're back in the cubes, voluntary prisoners for cash and health benefits. I'm nursing my third (fourth?) mojito, he's switched to Guinness; crumbs from the sandwich soak up the water rings on the wood counter. The bread was really good.

“What kind of a name is Scratch?” I say.

He's leaning on the bar now, half turned to me, half turned to the crowd, fingers keeping time with the music. His black denim jacket fits him like a second skin. That level of tailoring is expensive.

“Just a nickname,” he says. “My real name is hard for Americans to pronounce.”

“So say it.” I tuck a strand of clumped wet hair behind my ear.

He does, a tumble of syllables that rise and fall in odd ways. The lights dim briefly. Huh.

“Is that Gaelic?”

“Not exactly,” he says. “But you still haven't told me
your
name yet.”

“Ah, that.” I lick the rim of my glass. “Some call me the invisible girl.”

There's a pang as I say this, a soft betrayal. Justin's inside joke trotted out for a stranger to see.

BOOK: Dead Souls
11.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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