Saturday, October 24, 2015

AARON SMITH: To Break the November Sky

by Aaron Smith ©2015
I thought it was over. As I walked across the lot, I breathed deeply of the cool air. It hadn’t gone badly at all. I’d kept my nerves under control, hadn’t sweated too much, held my voice at an even level, maintained eye contact with the subject despite the nightmares I’d had after reading the files they’d given me to prepare for the interview.
          It was over. My talk with Arthur Pennington Reese, the man who’d convinced sixteen people to kill, the fiend who’d spilled gallons of innocent blood without ever raising a weapon himself. My hands hadn’t shaken in his presence. I felt good, couldn’t wait to hand in my report. I was a real agent now. I felt complete.
          I drove out of the lot of the Hamilton County Center for the Mentally Ill—a politically correct name for a place that held, in tight security, some of the most vicious murderers, deviants, and madmen of the modern age—and looked forward to the drive back to the Albany field office.
          The long winding roads were pleasant in the late morning, with few cars to pass or be passed by, fall foliage decorating both sides of the highway, and the hum of tires on smooth tar a fine accompaniment to my mood. As I drove, I replayed the experience in my thoughts. My verdict was what I’d expected: yes, Arthur Pennington Reese truly was insane and belonged, without a shred of doubt, in exactly the sort of facility that now housed him. I still didn’t have a clear picture of how he’d driven all those people to insanity and homicide, but at least I’d seen what motivated him. My glimpse into Reese’s dark mind had been disturbing—I’ll never deny that. It was over now, but the words lingered in my mind.
          I sat across from Reese at a steel table that had been bolted to the floor. Reese’s hands were cuffed, though no record existed of him ever having been physically violent. All his crimes were of influence, foul deeds done by others who then credited Reese’s inspiration.
          He was clean and calm, his thick reddish hair neatly combed. The polish of his appearance was a far cry from the looks of the disheveled, sometimes drooling troubled souls I’d seen on the way to the interview room. The guard locked us in together, but kept watch through the room’s single window. They hadn’t taken my weapon away—one of the privileges of my badge—and that fact comforted me. 
          “Mr. Reese,” I began, “I’d like to ask you about the things you supposedly did, the crimes for which you’ve been convicted.”
          No response.
          “No further charges are to be filed,” I assured him. “This interview is simply to assess your current situation.”
          Again, he said nothing. He stared at me for minute after minute, as if he was the one who was there to analyze me. Finally, his silent cycle of diagnostics complete, a cordial smile spread across his wide face and he spoke in a polite Southern drawl.
          “Tell me, Agent whatever-your-name-is, are you a Christian?”
          “I’m asking the questions,” I said in my best FBI tough guy voice.
          “And I,” Reese said, “will answer yours if you answer mine, just that one.”
          “All right, I’ll play, but if you’re trying to push my buttons you’ll be disappointed.”
          “Yes, I’m sure you’ve been thoroughly trained in how to deal with the sort of man you think I am. So, are you a Christian?”
          “No. I was raised Catholic, but grew up to be an atheist.”
          “Excellent,” Reese said. “That greatly increases your chance of understanding my motivations.”  
          “What do you mean by that?”
          “Only a man without religion,” Reese continued, “can have any hope of truly understanding the gods.”
          “But there are no gods.”
          “You are so wrong, young friend. It is not that there are no gods, but that there are no beings resembling the silly ideas man has made up to explain the universe. My father was a Baptist minister, but you knew that, of course, from my case file. When I was a young man, I realized it was no true god Daddy urged his flock to worship, but a cartoon character created to make people feel better, to give them some sort of hope that this dirty, brutal world we live in is not the be all and end all our existence.
          “Only when he has discarded all illusions can one begin to truly perceive the forces that form the universe in which we live. Gods are not good or evil. They simply are. They are old, far older than any piece of poetry or art weak-minded humans have devised to try to explain them. And, I think, they rarely interfere in our mortal affairs. But when they do, when one of these indescribable old ones allows a human mind to perceive its existence, there can be no doubt in that mind.
          “This is a world of illusions, a plane of mirage, for we see what we expect to see, and so thick is this fog of unreality that it takes a key to open the door, to let the great ancient powers enter again and shift our perceptions. Now is the time they wish to come back into our sight. I know this because they have told me so, and I recognize the material of which the key must be formed. That material is life, that material is blood.”
          “So,” I asked Reese, whose words sounded insane, but whose demeanor was calm, like that of a professor confidently lecturing, “you claim theological reasons for instigating those homicides?”
          “If you must use that term,” he answered, “I suppose it’s as good as any. Blood has to be spilled, at certain times, in certain places. The pattern forms a gate.”
          “But why convince others to do the killing?”
          “I am far too squeamish to do such a thing myself. Do these look like the hands of a butcher?”
          As Reese held up his clean, soft hands, I felt rage well up inside me. Gruesome images from the photos in his file flashed through my mind.
          “No!” I shouted. “But the people who physically committed those atrocities weren’t supposed to be killers either! A construction worker with no criminal record goes home and presses a chainsaw into his wife’s skull, doesn’t stop until he’s split her in half. A third-grader sneaks into his parents’ bedroom late at night and pokes pencils into their eyes, with upward strokes to pierce the brains. Should I keep the list going, Reese? There were others that were worse! Those people weren’t meant for those acts!”
          “It was necessary,” Reese said. “Trust me, boy, if you’d seen what I’ve seen, known what I’ve known, you’d understand. When they call for blood, you give them blood. There can be no hesitation.” 
          “Enough about your reasons,” I said. I’d had it with his talk of gods and blood. “How did you do it? You worked as a real estate agent, and twenty-nine people were killed by your clients. How do you talk normal, responsible people into doing things like that?”
          “Didn’t they explain it to you?”
          “They can’t, you animal! Some of them committed suicide, either while awaiting trial or after being sentenced. Two were killed by police. And the rest are in mental hospitals, most of them drugged out of the ability to talk rationally at all. What the hell did you say to them?”
          “I said exactly what they most wanted to hear, and while they listened to that I told them other things as well.”
          “What’s that supposed to mean, Reese?”
          “I don’t think I wish to talk to you any longer. Have a pleasant afternoon. Soon, the world will change.”
          I stayed another ten minutes, tried to coax more words from Reese, but he sat silently, smiling at me. I finally gave up. He’d given me enough for a thorough report. I hoped it would result in him being left in that hospital to rot for the rest of his life. I thanked the guards and the director, and stepped out into the brisk autumn morning. It was the first day of November. I had always loved this time of year.
          As I drove away, I was struck by the strange dual focus of my thoughts. The deeds inspired by Arthur Pennington Reese flashed through my mind like a splatterpunk highlight reel. But at the same time, the sensory delights of November gradually displaced the horror of the case. I made a choice then, to focus on the season and its delights, the coolness of the air and the colors of the trees, bursts of joy that pulled up the sentimental side of my soul, making me smile. There was no reason to dwell on Reese. All that could wait until I sat to write my report. Why not enjoy what was left of my day? 
          Hamilton is one of the most sparsely populated counties on the east coast, with only three people per square mile, which leads to little crime. But knowing the geography of New York State quite well was a requirement of my job, so I was familiar with many of the towns and hamlets I passed. There was Indian Lake, Hope, Morehouse, and Spectator.
          One sign, however, caught my attention, for I couldn’t recall ever having heard of Cider Haven. It was a wonderful name, I thought, and fitting for the way the appeal of autumn had inched its way into my mind to supplant the darkness I’d felt during the Reese interview. I had a craving for coffee and turned right at the road that was indicated as leading to what I assumed had to be a very small village.  
          My assumption was wrong. Cider Haven was no tiny settlement. Instead, to my shock and delight, I found a small but thriving town, one main avenue with a series of blocks sprouting off to the sides like the legs of a spider. It looked old-fashioned, peaceful, and even quaint. I smiled. If I was going to stumble upon a previously unknown village on a glorious autumn morning, this was the place I wanted to find. 
          I let the last shreds of thoughts about the Reese case slip from my mind. I parked along a narrow side street, got out of the car, and strolled onto the wider central avenue. The air was slightly cooler than when I’d left the scene of the interview. Even better, I thought, as I pulled my coat shut and buttoned it.
          On both sides of the street were a mix of residential houses and shops and other businesses. On lawns, piles of leaves, recently gathered by rakes and consisting of myriad colors, stood watch. A few stray leaves crunched under my shoes as I walked.
          I paused for a moment, stared up at the sky. It was gray. That was fine. The first day of November should never be too sunny. When I lowered my eyes and took a step forward, I saw a gang of children rushing toward me. I almost jumped aside onto the grass by the curb to keep from being bowled over, but the wave parted down the middle as it reached me, and some passed on the left, the others on the right. I could hear their laughter echoing as they sped into the distance behind me. I envied them. What a weekend! To have Halloween on a Friday so it’s followed by two days off from school is one of those perfect circumstances of the calendar that kids don’t consider, but embrace without realization.
          I walked further down the street. My stomach rumbled a bit as I remembered my coffee craving and decided a bite to eat would be in order too. And it hit me then, that aroma. As if the town of Cedar Haven could read my mind, the scent of bacon tickled my nostrils, seducing me, urging me to walk faster, follow my nose.    
          I sped up, the cool wind whipping my ears as I passed homes with pumpkins on their porches. The town was almost unbelievable, too much like something out of a Rockwell painting. I passed a whistling mailman, heard a train in the distance, watched an elderly couple stop to stare in the window of a small bookstore, looking just as in love as they must have been fifty years ago.
          And then, as I reached the next intersection, I found the treasure I’d smelled minutes earlier. A small diner stood on the corner. Through the window, I could see a few booths along the wall and stools at the counter. The scent was stronger now, the olfactory magnet of bacon drawing me in.
          I entered and saw I was the only customer. I went to the counter, took a seat, and waited a moment. I could hear water running and plates clanking in the kitchen.
          The waitress appeared, walking slowly out of the kitchen. I was amazed. She was beautiful. I felt my jaw drop open, my eyes widen. I was immediately embarrassed, reined it in. I had fallen so deeply into the spell cast by Cider Haven that I’d forgotten the calm, even demeanor I’d so carefully cultivated for daily work with the bureau.
          Control yourself! I mentally scolded.
           She came closer, stood behind the counter, smiled at me.
          Her hair was dark brown, almost black, tied in a ponytail. She was somewhere between twenty-five and thirty, close enough to my age that I wondered if I had a chance. Instinctively, I glanced down at her left hand. No ring. I raised my attention back to her face, pausing on the way up for a look at the pocket of her blue uniform top, on which was stitched, “Andrea.” Her smile was pleasant, her eyes deep, and her voice musical.
          “Let me guess,” she said, “you’re passing through on business?”
          “You don’t get many strangers in here, do you?” I replied.
          “Government employee,” I told her.
          “Not a health inspector, I hope,” she said, followed by a sly giggle. “Not that we have anything to hide.”
          “Well, if I was with the Board of Health, which I’m not, so relax, I’d give you a passing grade just for the smell of that bacon.”
          “All right, then,” Andrea said as she flashed that magnificent smile again, “so what’ll you have with your heap of bacon?”
          I ordered scrambled eggs and toast, to be preceded by coffee. Andrea shouted the order through the kitchen door, and then turned her attention to a customer who was just entering, a middle-aged woman in an overcoat.
          Between her chatting with the new arrival, who I heard her call Mrs. Clayton, Andrea poured my coffee. The first sip proved I’d chosen the right place. This was true old-fashioned working class American coffee, not the standardized Starbucks stuff or Dunkin Donuts’ watered-down brown juice, but strong, freshly brewed, kick-me-in-the-ass java, the perfect thing to send my ecstasy at discovering Cider Haven into full sentimental overdrive. 
          As I sipped slowly and waited for my bacon and eggs, I watched Andrea while trying not to be too obvious. The phrase “love at first sight” even occurred to me.
          I had my food soon enough, and it was delicious. As I ate, Andrea brought Mrs. Clayton’s food out too, in bags; it was take out, which excited me even more, as it meant I’d have the waitress to myself again.
          When I was the only patron once more, Andrea refilled my mug.
          “How long are you in Cider Haven for?” she asked.
          I knew what I should have said. That I’d have to leave as soon as I’d finished eating, that I had an assignment to complete, that my work was important. But that’s not what came out.
          “I’m not exactly sure yet.”
          Andrea lit the diner up with that smile again.
          “Well if you’re still here at about six, maybe we can have a drink.”
          “I think I can stick around for that,” I said without hesitation.
          “Good,” Andrea said. “Just stop by. I’ll be ready.” She put the check down, her hand lightly brushing against mine as she deposited the slip of paper next to my fork.
          I left the money on the counter, with an embarrassingly big tip.
          When I stepped back out onto the street, it struck me how odd my behavior had been. I didn’t normally just leap into plans like that, and I certainly wouldn’t shrug off work, FBI work no less, for a drink with a waitress. But Andrea’s eyes, and her voice …
          I walked faster now than I had before. My senses were jumping all over the place. I was greedy for the sights and sounds of Cider Haven. I felt like I’d found a perfect place, a nexus of autumn, safety, beauty.
          Most of all, Cider Haven filled me with hope. That was what autumn had always done for me. The cooling of the weather seemed to wash away the grimy tiredness of summer. The start of a new school year seemed to bring a chance for new friendships and the abandonment of the embarrassments of the past. Halloween made the gruesome aspects of life seem fun. And the comfortable traditions of Thanksgiving were just around the corner, to be followed by the excitement of Christmas.
          I trotted through Cider Haven, feeling like a kid coming home, and, at the same time, a man tingling with the potential excitement of an evening with Andrea. I didn’t even think about calling the Albany field office to ask for more time to file my report. I wasn’t an FBI agent anymore, just a man on an adrenaline surge of nostalgia and hope.
          I went a few more blocks, realized I was panting. A bench conveniently appeared to give me a chance to catch my breath. I sat.
          I closed my eyes, let the breeze caress my face. It was cold and sharp, stinging like aftershave, but not unpleasant. I wondered what my night would be like. I imagined the streets of Cider Haven after dusk, the storefronts lit, and a few cars with their headlights on passing us as we walked. Andrea’s hand was in mine and her flesh felt warm and soft in contrast to the harshness of the wind.
          We strolled together until the town’s small cemetery came into view. The stretch of grass, with its old-fashioned gravestones sticking up like unevenly spaced teeth, looked eerie but inviting in the darkness. I felt as if just an ounce of Halloween was left in the atmosphere and the dead could still sing us their lullaby of invitation.
          I tugged lightly on Andrea’s arm, urging her in that direction. We passed from the sidewalk to the grass that covered the beds of the lifeless. The names on the stones were shrouded by shadows. We stopped in the middle of the cemetery, turned to face each other.
          “Nobody can see us now,” Andrea said. She reached up and put her hands on my face, pulling me toward her.
          No! My mind screamed. Too good! Too good! Too good!
          I opened my eyes. I was still on the bench, still surrounded by Cedar Haven, with its clean streets, pumpkin-porched Colonial houses, laughing children, and flawless coffee, but it didn’t feel the same.
          It couldn’t be true, I now knew. It had to be a dream.
          But if it was only a vision, the sort of scenario I’d want to stumble into, what was really going on? Had I had an accident after leaving the interview? Was Cedar Haven a concussion-induced hallucination? Or was I dead and swimming through some sort of limbo where thoughts manifest as virtual reality?
          Had I driven at all, gone down those winding, tree-lined roads?
          The voice of Arthur Pennington Reese came crashing back into my mind, a memory of words dipped in slime.
          “I said exactly what they most wanted to hear, and while they listened to that, I told them other things as well.” That was what he’d told me.
          Now I understood.
          I pushed the autumn beauty out of my mind. I rejected Cedar Haven as if it was poison. I resisted, with all my will, the attraction of nostalgia and the lure of lust.
          I looked up at the gray November sky above the bench where I still perceived myself sitting, and I saw it split apart, the clouds shoved aside to reveal a deep, starless darkness.
          The infinite night vanished, replaced by ceiling tiles. I looked down and straight ahead to find the face of Arthur Pennington Reese still staring at me from across the table.
          “Welcome back,” he said. 
          “Now I understand,” I said. I was seething. “What was that? Some kind of hypnosis, a speech-induced trance? You lull people into submission by making them imagine some wonderful scenario, trick them into thinking they’re getting everything they want, and simultaneously put other ideas in their heads, dark ideas of murder?”
          “Something of the sort,” Reese said. “Your simplified explanation will do.”
          “But it didn’t work on me.”
          “That doesn’t matter. It will work on the next person.”
          “I’ll make sure it doesn’t. Now I know …” 
          “And how will you make sure? This place can’t drug me into a coma. That would be considered cruel and unusual and would never be allowed. And, FBI or not, you can’t get them to cut out my tongue either. Freedom of speech is an essential American right, my boy, even for prisoners, even for mental patients. Someone will listen to me. Someone always does.”
          As Reese boasted, I could see them: the next deaths. Reese would talk to a guard, who would then go home and put bullets in his children’s brains. Or he’d whisper to one of his doctors and the mind-bent physician would operate on his own wife, slicing and amputating and mutilating until the bed was drenched with blood and he was married to a carved-up corpse. Reese would say exactly what his victims needed to hear to be convinced to turn others into their victims.
          I couldn’t allow that.
          I stood, pulled my gun from its shoulder holster, and fired. The shot hit Reese in the chest. His chair rocked back and forth but didn’t fall over. Blood welled up from the wound, soaked his shirt.
          I could hear the guard calling for backup, then fumbling with his keys, unnerved just enough to have trouble getting in.
          I kept my eyes on Reese, watched him bleed. I wouldn’t spend another bullet on him. He didn’t deserve the mercy of a quick death.
          He started laughing. Blood trickled from his mouth, but he managed to form words.
          “Thank you.”
          “What?” Was he so insane he’d be grateful to his executioner?
          “Don’t you understand? You didn’t break free,” he said. “You followed the path I set for you. Certain blood at certain times; it was all about the pattern. The last of the necessary blood is that which flows in my veins. You have just turned the key.”
          Arthur Pennington Reese died then. He slumped to his right as life left his body. His weight pulled the chair over.
          The door opened. I put my gun on the table, held my hands up, wondering if I’d end up in prison or soon be a resident in the very place I’d come to close the Reese case. Either way, my FBI days were over.
          I expected them to come for me quickly, either the state police or my fellow agents. They’d haul me off to await trial. But they never came. I sat locked in a small room at the mental hospital for hours. They just left me there.
          It was quiet. The walls were padded, which kept out the noise. But I could swear there was something there, some weird sound in the background, like distant screams, and maybe a hint of thunder.
          Finally, when I had almost dozed off, the door opened. A lone doctor stood there.
          “We need your help,” he said. He took his hand from his pocket, offered me my gun back.
          “What’s going on?” I asked.
          “Some kind of weird storm … I think,” the doctor said. His voice was shaking. “The sky’s gone all different colors, the power’s gone out and we’re running on generator now, and something’s seriously spooked the patients. I’m worried they may try to break out of here all at once. They’re screaming, all at the same time, all in the same words, about the end of the world and old gods rising from the sea and crashing down from the stars.”
THREE SIGNED PRINT COPIES of Aaron Smith’s SEASON OF MADNESS!!! Because these are print copies, winners are limited to U.S. and Canada!
To win: go to the Official FB Event Page; find the post announcing  today’s giveaway; and comment, “I WANT TO WIN” in that post and you just might!!!

Aaron Smith was born in New Jersey in 1977. After years of trying to figure out what to do with his creative energy and trying everything from acting to visual arts to music, he finally settled on writing and hasn't looked back. He was extremely fortunate to have an opportunity for his first published work to feature his all-time favorite fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. Since then, he's written six more Holmes mysteries and a novel (Season of Madness) starring Holmes' friend Dr. John Watson.
Aaron's other work includes many short stories for the Airship 27 line of pulp anthologies, including stories featuring characters like the Black Bat, Dan Fowler:G-Man, Ki-Gor, and others. His two original pulp characters, Hound-Dog Harker and the Red Veil also debuted in Airship 27 books.
Outside the world of new pulp, Aaron has written stories for comic books, science fiction anthologies, detective magazines, flash fiction websites, and young adult anthologies
Smith's vampire novel 100,000 MIDNIGHTS, was released as an e-book by Musa Publishing in 2012, and the sequel, ACROSS THE MIDNIGHT SEA, in August of 2013.
In July of 2013, Smith's lifelong dream of writing a spy novel was realized with the release of NOBODY DIES FOR FREE.
Smith's series of Lovecraftian horror/fantasy short stories, SHADOWS OVER AMERICA, began publication in March of 2015 with its first installment, AN EXODUS OF WORMS.
He can be followed on Twitter as @AaronSmith377

A Doctor Watson Adventure
When a group of men and women throughout London begin exhibiting strange psychotic behavior, Dr. John Seward, from the Dracula affair, is brought into the case. Faced with a mystery beyond his realm of experiences, he turns to Sherlock Holmes' trusted companion, Dr. Watson, for help. Together these two men of science must uncover the riddle behind a white powder drug with the ability to drive people mad before the entire population is infected. Also includes a special bonus story, "The Electric Shark", starring Her Majesty's Secret Agent, Quincy Harker. Illustrations by Pedro Cruz, cover by Rob Davis and Shane Evans.               

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