The campaign had been going for three weeks in earnest when things took a turn for the deeply bizarre for Henry. His dreams had been curious things since his meeting with Ms. Kowen at her gallery, full of crawling, slithering, half-seen monstrosities, nightmares of the sort he had not had since childhood. Some few of these images seemed to stalk him in his waking hours, as well, and he began to wonder if the stress of campaigning again was wearing on his mind. Maybe he wasn’t up for doing this again, he wondered.
But these concerns were secondary on the Monday morning of his campaign’s fourth week in progress; according to the Amelia Chronicle’s daily mail-blast newsletter he opened every morning to read as he had his first cup of coffee, Mary Williams, who had received the DNC’s full backing, had been discovered the previous evening in a ditch just off of County Road 18 outside of North Perry. She had gone missing a couple of days before, presumably taking a break from a swift and early blitz of appearances and stump speeches since officially receiving the Democrats’ endorsement in the race. Relatively new to politics at this level, nobody could have blamed her for wanting to unwind a little.
The newsletter report stated that she was alive but listed as being in critical condition at Amelia Memorial County Hospital in downtown Amelia City. Details about her injuries were scant, and her husband, the well-known car dealership king of the region, was asking for both privacy and any information anyone might have about the person or people who had attacked her.
Henry glanced up from his phone, bringing his coffee cup to his lips and freezing in place- a pair of oversized, bloodshot eyes were staring at him from over the archway that led from his kitchen out into the living room. There was no face, no head, just a pair of hand-sized eyeballs, set into the drywall itself, blinking moistly at him. “What in the shit,” he began muttering to himself. His phone began buzzing, and he looked down to find Sasha’s name on his screen.
When he looked up again, of course, the wall and archway had returned to normal. He clicked the ‘Accept’ without looking down, then quickly glanced at the phone to select his ‘Speakerphone’ option, rising slowly from his chair, pulling his bathrobe tighter shut.
“Councilor, how are you doing this morning,” Sasha asked amiably, though with a notable hint of concern in her tone.
“I’m, I’m fine,” Henry replied, stepping to the archway and reaching one hand up, running fingertips over where the eyes had appeared; the drywall felt colder there, he thought, than it should.
“Good, good. You sound a little distant, councilor, am I on speakerphone?”
“Uh, yeah, I just woke up a few minutes ago, I don’t like holding the phone while I’m having my coffee,” Henry said, making his way back to his little kitchen table and sitting down again. “Did we have something planned for this morning? This seems sort of early for you to be calling.”
“Well, honestly, I wanted to call and check on you; I don’t know if you’re heard or seen anything about it yet, but Mary Williams was found half-dead outside of North Perry last night,” Sasha said. “Between that and what happened to Congressman Lewiston when he came back to town a few days ago, I was worried that maybe somebody was targeting political figures generally, and that you might be next.”
“What happened to Lewiston,” Henry asked sharply, now more awake than a full pot of coffee could make him, nerves jangling.
“You didn’t hear? He got got ambushed and mugged by some kind of thugs over at Gorskut Park back on Monday night when he went for one of those walks he’s always going on about. Apparently you shouldn’t let people know your routines around here if you’re in politics.”
“Not very encouraging for a guy to hear when he literally works for the state and has a pre-set schedule,” Henry quipped. He sipped at his coffee and tried to calm himself down. Whatever was happening around this city, it was no different, he assumed, than it would be in other any other town across the country. “I suppose I didn’t think about that, sorry,” Sasha said. She let out a sigh and continued. “Well, I know I shouldn’t try to find any kind of silver lining here, but this does mean that the three-way debate has been pushed back for the time being. That’s not a bad thing, though; it gives us a little more time to prepare for the debate.”
“When are they rescheduling for? Do we even know if they’re going to set a date for now?”
“Well, I imagine that’ll be determined by whether or not the DNC wants to try and salvage Williams as a candidate after this or if they just want to let the seat fall to you or stay in Lewiston’s stewardship. I mean, I was able to get a little inside information from a friend at the hospital, and he says that Williams should pull through just fine. The first hour or so was touch-and-go mostly from blood loss; she had some kind of wooden weapon impaled right through her midsection.”
“Right? So anyway, I know that it’s probably not the best use of ‘silver linings’ that has ever been available, but we should take this chance to really think over what we want to accomplish in the debate, and maybe pull the ad we were going to start running this Thursday.”
“Yeah, the timing would be pretty bad on that,” Henry agreed. “I won’t be available much this next week, week and a half as it is, too; we’ve got a case right now that needs a little more of my attention than usual.”
“Something your ADAs can’t handle on their own?”
“There’s a degree of nuance on this one that makes me uncomfortable leaving it entirely in their hands,” Henry admitted. “But listen, I do want to have a sit-down with you in the next couple of days to go over some debate prep, get some specifics. Lunch on Thursday work?”
“That should be fine,” said Sasha. “I was already going to Roderick’s place then, we can just meet up there. I’ll text you the address.” Henry hung up, thinking briefly about the knife-wearing cowboy, a now-familiar twist in his gut; of the handful of her patrons/partners whom Henry had met so far, he was perhaps the one he felt the least uneasy about, despite the sense of danger he had caught from Roderick.
Had it been that Marek fellow, he would have cancelled or begged off immediately. Henry put the lunch appointment in his phone’s calendar, and when Sasha sent him the address for Roderick’s place, he quickly looked it up online.
According to the limited real estate information he was able to pull up, Roderick’s home had formerly been a regional office of the U.S. Marshals Service, decommissioned in 1947 and converted into a two-story private residence. Formerly owned by one Jacob Corvis, it had been transferred into the ownership of one Roderick Ferrum in 1996.
“Guy doesn’t look old enough for that,” Henry muttered to himself, thinking back once more on his lone meeting with Roderick. Sure, the man’s features had appeared windburned, as if he had been aged by exposure to travel or the elements, but he didn’t strike Henry as much more than his late 30’s, maybe early-to-mid 40’s. Then again, there was a great deal about Sasha’s patrons that he didn’t know about.
And perhaps, he mused, the less he knew, the better.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Henry said to himself as he brought his car to a halt in front of the modified dwelling. The driveway had been half-hidden in the woodline along 18 just north of the city proper, perhaps a quarter of the way between Amelia City and North Perry, and it had been just long enough to keep the property semi-hidden from the state road. The grounds around the converted station were lush and lively, and set to the side of the building itself was a secondary structure, one Henry hadn’t seen in his online preview of the property-
It was a narrow little manger, in which stood a single black-haired thoroughbred, munching on oats out of a faded yellow bucket clipped to the manger’s wall. No car other than Henry’s own was in evidence, and as he climbed out of his vehicle, Sasha’s zippy little red coupe came shooting up the driveway to settle behind.
“Is this guy for real,” Henry asked incredulously, hooking a thumb over his shoulder as he regarded the peculiar young artist. She was dressed in a loose kind of kimono dress of some sort, looking a tad cartoonish, in his estimation, but still unmistably ‘Sasha’. She smiled wickedly at him and nodded with a soft chuckle.
“You come to appreciate Rod and his eccentricities after a while,” she offered. “Not that I’m in any position to give him shit for his preferences.”
“Sure, but isn’t this kind of, I don’t know, inconvenient?”
“I used to think so,” Sasha said, signaling with one hand for Henry to follow her up toward the residence’s entrance. “But Rod once pointed out to me that other than some feed and the occasional trip to an ag vet up the road a piece, his maintenance cost is a hell of a lot lower than some of us have for our vehicles.”
“Hmm. He makes an oddly good point there, I suppose,” Henry replied. The pair stepped under a concrete overhang and stopped in front a solid set of white double doors, an intercom set next to the right side, which Sasha poked quickly. There came a responding buzz and ‘clack’ as the doors were unlocked, and she pressed her way forward, Henry close behind.
The front entry vestibule of the converted structure appeared to have been cloned from some sort of Victorian Era huntsmen’s lodge, replete with oversized fireplace, drinks cart, and various animal heads mounted on plaques around the walls. Some aged and decrepit hand-drawn maps were hung about the chamber as well, helping to lend to the air of the place.
Seated in a plush armchair by the fireplace, in which a modest fire glowed, was the man they had come to see. Henry took a moment to regard him as Roderick rose from his seat, a small square of plastic in the man’s hand; unlike their previous encounter, Roderick was not wearing his floor-length duster, leaving his arms exposed in the sleeveless deerskin shirt.
There appeared to be a blend of scar tissue and tattoos running the length of shoulder to wrist on both arms as he turned to face them, setting the little remote on a glass tabletop to the side of his chair. Roderick quickly dragged his coat off the chair and donned it, but not before Henry noticed one of those tattoos, on his left bicep- a set of four hooked blue claws, joined along their curved tops by a single black horizontal line.
Looking up and slightly over Roderick’s shoulder, Henry saw a mounted deer’s head crook itself in his direction and wink at him animatedly. “Kind of makes you think, don’t it,” the mounted head asked in a voice similar to Goofy, of Disney fame. Henry felt his chest tighten, and he closed his eyes for a moment.
When he opened them again, the deer head was back to its original position, and Roderick and Sasha were giving him curious looks. “Sorry,” he said with a shake of the head. “I’m just, ah, a little off lately. Stress from the Hanscomb case, I think.”
“We understand that you have a lot to keep track of these days,” Sasha said amiably. “But we’ve got you covered for some of it. Rod here’s been compiling some of Lewiston’s speeches from the House floor, and going over the Congressman’s public statements and interviews, his policy positions.”
“I’ve put together what I think might be a pretty accurate depiction of how he’ll respond to certain questions at any debate you have with him,” the grizzled cowboy-sort said, stepping over toward a waist-high shelving unit on the left side of the room. The shelves hosted several older-looking books, as well as a couple of composition style notebooks, a pair of half-melted white candles, and a curled rosary of dark wooden beads. Roderick took up one of the notebooks and flipped it open, scanning the pages and flipping through to where he wanted to be. “I thought we could have a bite, then run through a couple of practice sets with Sasha acting as the moderator. Sound fair?” Henry nodded, briefly eyeballing that deer head again. “Good. Now, follow me,”
Henry followed Sasha and Roderick out of the room, into a long, narrow hallway off of the main chamber, passing several heavy wooden doors on their right en route to a wide, white linoleum tiled kitchen/dining room combination on the west end of the first floor. A quaint, comforting aroma of some sort of earthy stew filled the room, and Henry took a seat at a long, low table of dark wood with Sasha as Roderick spooned stew from a pot that looked at least as old as Henry up on the stove range into a faded white bowl.
Roderick set his bowl in front of him, along with a spoon, and returned with a diagonally sliced ham and cheddar sandwich on a small saucer plate, setting it down by Henry’s left elbow. “Tuck in, pard,” Roderick said, setting to getting Sasha squared away before himself.
As the trio ate, with Roderick and Sasha making vague small talk about their colleagues Trask, Marek, and Jago, Henry tried to maintain what sense of reason he could. Throughout the lunch, he kept thinking he could hear whispers coming from other parts of the converted station house, snippets of some foreign language; twice he saw something skittering out from under the table to bolt down the hallway out of the corner of his eye, oversized, alien bugs of some sort; and as he set his bowl in the sink, a thin curtain over a window set behind the sink twitched aside, letting him look out on the rear of the property. In that brief glimpse, Henry thought he spotted some kind of giant German Shepherd with a metal-plated cage of armor over its fur and leathery bat wings flapping on its back.
When he physically pushed the curtain aside himself, though, he was just looking out on a grassy pasture and a dusky thoroughbred grazing freely a dozen yards away.
I’m losing my mind, he thought briefly, letting the curtain go. It’s not just her, either; it’s these friends of hers, too, just being around them. Henry recognized the lack of logic in thinking such a thing. People’s personalities, their ‘aura’ alone couldn’t cause delusions.
Or could they?
Anyone with an adversarial mother-in-law might argue that yeah, a person’s presence alone can drive you bat-shit. That’s a whole other thing to discuss, though, and doesn’t belong in this part of the story. Thankfully, it doesn’t apply in my case, either, Dori’s good people.
Don’t worry, Henry wasn’t thinking that last paragraph, that’s totally for you and I, just funsies, yeah? Pay attention. Or the toll. Your choice. Back to the program.
“You okay over there,” Roderick asked as Henry turned back toward the table.
“Yeah, um, I was just admiring your property, and the horse,” Henry replied.
“Rogue,” said Roderick evenly. “He’s a good animal, though pretty far from the fastest I’ve ever ridden, or the smartest. Still, a fella does as he can, and ever did so.” He quickly chugged down the remainder of his drink and let out a sigh, setting his bowl in the sink beside Henry. “I’ll go get my notes and meet you and Sasha over in the old bull pen.”
Sasha guided Henry then through the converted station to a room that had not undergone alterations since this place had served as a gathering and dispatch point for the U.S. Marshals’ Service. Two long tables stood central to the space, with single-piece chairs of highly polished oak set at even spacing at them for the officers to sit and hear their briefings. There was a heavy scent of lacquer in the room, along with astringents that told him that Roderick had taken pains to preserve the appearance of the chamber.
There was even, at the front of the room, an old lectern that unmistakably had been there since the building’s original usage. Henry found himself impressed with the man’s dedication to preserving these bits of history.
With Sasha standing at the lecturn and Roderick and Henry at the front table, they ran through a number of typical debate questions and responses, with the cowboy-looking fellow playing the part of Congressman Lewiston pretty accurately, by Henry’s estimation; he even tried to interrupt Henry a few times, which Lewiston had done during every debate he’d participated in throughout his political career.
When they wrapped up, and Henry was driving home to his condo, he thought about what Roderick had said to him as he saw Henry out to his car: “No going back now, Henry. I’m sorry.”
What was the strange fellow apologizing for?