Thursday, August 29, 2013

High Country

Well...headed up to the high country for a few days.

Catch you guys later!

Rowland Creek Falls.

Hurricane Campground. One of our favorites.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

King Kirby!

Today is Jack Kirby's birthday.

Always keep in mind that Jack Kirby created most of what comic book fans call "the Marvel Universe". His editor did not create it. His editor did not write it. His editor deserves none of the credit, nor does that man deserve any of the monetary rewards that were robbed from Jack Kirby.

Jack Kirby: THE creator of Marvel's success.

Jacob Kurtzberg/Jack Kirby.
Ben Grimm, the most personal creation of Jack Kirby.

The Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom, Ant Man: All solely created by Jack Kirby.

A stroke of genius from Jack Kirby: Reinterpret the mythological gods as superheroes!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Most of the time I obey signs and boundaries. Sometimes, I don't.

A few years ago I was hiking in an area where I'd heard there was a waterfall that most people never saw because they wouldn't hike off trail. Also, there are signs near the area warning you to stay on the trail.

Well, I wanted to see the waterfall more than I wanted to obey the signs.

Translation: "Bob, Come Right On Over".

The waterfall I found when I disobeyed the signs.

And this is the main waterfall that everyone goes to visit when in that particular area. There are signs there, too, telling you not to swim in the plunge pool beneath the waterfall. But I almost always go swimming there.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Almost Ready to Go!

The main reason we went to Carole's mom's on Sunday was to prep the trailer for our upcoming trip. As always, I gave it a good bath to scrub off the dust. And I checked all of the systems to make sure everything is in good order. Unfortunately, for some reason the water heater is not working. I couldn't figure out what the problem was. My suspicion is that there's no water making its way to the water heater itself. I tried to troubleshoot the problem, but no luck. We'll be okay for this trip, but when we get back I'm going to take it in to the place where we always leave the Casita for minor repairs. I suspect it has something to do with the water pump.

All nice and clean! Carole vacuumed the interior.

We got the bed ready, too. We hung all of the blankets and sheets out on the line for that great fresh air scent.

Scrubbed out the little bathroom. We won't be using the shower, of course, if the hot water heater's not working. But the National Forest campground we're using has shower facilities.

Our little onboard closet. Extra shirts, jackets, raincoats, etc.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Preparations with Detours to Yellowjackets and Velvet Ants

Carole and I went to our travel trailer to get it ready for our upcoming holiday trip to the mountains of southwestern Virginia. We scrubbed up the Casita, stocked it with groceries, fired up the refrigerator so that it'll already be cold when we head out in a few days. We made sure all of our spare clothes were in the closet in case we run into any cool or rainy weather (jackets, vests, hoodies, raincoats, etc).

While I was dragging out things like power cords and water hoses and brushes and soap, I noticed the local critters. I always have an eye open for the wild things. Didn't see much in the way of birds or little mammals, but I did see some of the little creatures of Mother Nature.

First thing I saw as I was setting up the hoses to wash the trailer was a Velvet ant marching across the parking lot. They're hard to miss. They are a vibrant red that shows up against just about any surface. Now, many small animals want to remain camouflaged and as anonymous as possible. Not the Velvet ant. Its bright colors serve the same purpose as a rattlesnake's rattles: STAY AWAY! I WILL HURT YOU!

The Velvet ant when I first noticed her.

Leave me alone, human!

I'm out of here! Don't follow!
Velvet ants may look like ants and superficially they may act like ants...but they are not ants. They are, in fact, wingless wasps. And they have a potent sting. You do NOT want to be stung by one of these large ladies. I've never been zapped by one, but I have spoken to folk who have, and they measure the wallop right up there with the worst of the big hornets. They're also VERY fast. Extremely fast. They seem to constantly be in a hurry and you don't really want to put one in a position of having to sting you.

I took my photos from a distance.

Next, Carole's mother told me to be careful for the yellowjacket nest near the swing where she goes to relax. She couldn't use it because the last time she sat there she noticed a yellowjacket nest at her feet with an active stream of the little wasps flying in and out of the tunnel opening. So, of course, I went to investigate.

The entrance to the hive. Hard to see.

Sure enough, there is a large colony of yellowjackets there. They were quite active while I was watching and I made sure not to get in the way of the entrance to the hive while I took photographs with the telephoto lens on my camera.

In a few days she's going to have them killed. I tried to talk her out of it, explaining that they'll be gone in a few weeks on their own and there's no real need to destroy them. But she's determined to have them killed. She has lost the use of her swing, so she does have a point. Me...I'd let them run their course and go dormant. But I'm just strange that way.

The hive was very busy. One thing about it was that either arriving or leaving, the jellowjackets did both extremely quickly. They did not tarry at the entrance.

This one was the lookout. She never left that spot the whole time I was there.

Reminds me of the Zanti Misfits.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Last Big Predator

When humans first reached North America, there was a wealth of giant mammals roaming the continent. Our land was home to amazing creatures that we can only imagine today because the Native Americans wiped them all out.

There were all manner of vast mammals wandering the forests, plains, mountains, streams, rivers, and canyons. Among the many things we will never witness are Mammoths, Mastodons, Glyptodonts, Megatherium, Camelops, Smilodon, Homotherium, Miracinonyx, Arctodus, Tapirs, Bison antiqus, Bootherium, Castoroides...I could go on.

But they're all gone. Fled into oblivion. Of the great Pleistocene mammals, few remain in North America today, killed off by the humans who first colonized the New World.

A griz I saw in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone. I was well over a mile away when I photographed him asleep on the banks of the Lamar River. The best way to see a Griz. From a distance.

The last truly great Pleistocene predator still roaming small pockets of North America is the Brown bear. These animals were more than equal to the task of competing with giants like the Short-faced bear and the American lion. Their enormous wild companions all fell before the onslaught of human depredation, but the grizzly bear remains.

I've read accounts of how and why they made it through the great extinction that took their fellows, but I take no sides. Perhaps they were just too damned mean to fade before fire and arrows and superior numbers. Maybe they just toughed it through. One of my guesses is that humans never squeezed them out of the territory they preferred, finding those places too cold, too high, too wet, too inaccessible. The Brown bears that inhabited the deserts and the plains did fall before those early Americans and were too few in number to last out the first wave of gun-toting Europeans who journeyed across the lands killing everything that they perceived as even the slightest of threats.

But the griz held on in some few places. The wildest and most inaccessible lands remained their final redoubt.

I have a healthy respect for Grizzly bears. They are today, as in the past, the biggest and baddest soul in the Valley. They know they're tough. They have to be. I've only hiked and camped in the lands where they live a few times. I saw some of them, at a distance, which is the best and only real way to witness them. I'll go again to roam the same lands of this last of the Pleistocene giant predators, but I will tread lightly in their home, as I always do. I will make noise to let them know I am there, and I will retreat if I find myself too close to them. They are, indeed, awesome creatures.

I'm glad they toughed it out.

My favorite hike in Griz country to date: to the summit of Avalanche Peak. I did see a griz just as I began the hike. He wanted nothing to do with me and quickly moved off into the forest in the other direction.

Here's a good video about hiking around big animals. It doesn't concern Grizzly bears, specifically, but the same general rules apply.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Robert Aickman, Political Strangeness

One of my favorite writers of weird and ghost stories is Robert Aickman. He did not refer to his output of fiction as "weird" or "ghost" stories. He called them strange stories. And, of course, he was right.

Like many of my favorite authors, Aickman had a unique style that is exceedingly difficult to replicate. It's just not done. I discovered his fiction when I was fairly young, through Stuart David Schiff's incomparable Whispers Magazine. And then, later, I located a couple of hardback collections of his work in my parents' bookstore.

His style of writing is rather dense, and some people don't care for it. But the way he wrote was necessary for the effect he wanted to convey to the reader. He needed to construct the lush detail of wandering about in the psyche of Aickman's lost protagonists. It was a unique take on creating weird fiction and no one else did it quite the way he  did.

Early in my reading of his work I figured him for holding right wing political ideas. There were just little things that would appear from time to time to let the reader know where his political sympathies were lodged. And none of those bits of phrases ever reached the level of dogma, and so it wasn't a thing that could interrupt the flow of his stories.

Recently, however, I finally located a copy of one of collections for which I'd been searching for quite some time: THE WINE DARK SEA. The stuff in that volume were new to me (with one exception) and I was very happy to find it. And in that volume is what I assume is his single most overtly political work, a short story entitled: "Growing Boys".

One has to keep in mind that Aickman was completely British in his culture and his outlook. So almost all of his politics are deeply rooted in not just European politics, but that of the UK. While by no means am I that knowledgeable about such topics, I have gleaned enough from reading to appreciate the things he says in his stories (even if I do not agree with his conclusions). "Growing Boys" is a brilliant work. It's a strange story, for sure, but also a horror story in every way.

Aickman often used female protagonists in his fiction and he does so again with this work. We see this lost woman at the mercy of males. The hinge of the story are her two horrible sons, described brilliantly as enormous and insatiable beasts. This pair are genuinely hideous creatures. We meet her uncle, who wishes to protect his niece and we at once recognize in him the archetype of the British Conservative. And then, lastly, comes her husband toddling along, the classic bleeding-heart liberal. With a few paragraphs Aickman creates in her husband one of the single most annoying and insufferable characters I've ever seen in fiction. The result is literary genius.

One would think, after witnessing the ravaging of the UK's Labour Party that he would then lavish nothing but love and admiration on the character standing in as the personification of the Conservative Party. You would be wrong. He, too, is a monster with violent bursts of energy and anger and what is obviously incestuous obsession. Neither side emerges from this work in anything approaching a positive light.

I don't encounter many discussions these days of the work of Robert Aickman. This is a shame, of course. He wrote some of the best strange stories I've ever encountered. I'm hoping that there are still a few pieces of fiction by him that I have yet to read. I'll miss not having anything original to encounter from his pen.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Waterfall Surprise!

Some years back, on one of my first trips to southwestern Virginia, I stopped alongside a lightly traveled road to take photos of this waterfall:

As I was taking photos I looked down at the space between the rocks I was straddling (I was crouched low) and saw this fellow:

Fortunately, I am not frightened of snakes and know enough about them to realize it's a harmless species.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Revolutionary, A Super-Hero Project

I'm always busy. Here's a bit of an introduction I penned a few months ago for a project I've had in mind for a long time. Until I finish THE REZ, it will have to remain in waiting.


By James Robert Smith

And if there's any hope for America, it lies in a revolution, and if there's any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.

Phil Ochs

I look at the face in the dingy mirror. It’s a good face. Different from the others I wear, but a good one all the same.

Simon B. calls it the Hyde-Super-Jekyll Effect. But others don’t call me that. The folk call me The Revolutionary. As if I’m the only one.

And that’s okay. I suppose I’ve been called worse. And it’s not entirely accurate. I didn’t start out wanting any kind of revolution, or much in the way of social change of that sort. All I was after—and all that I’m still after when you get right down to it—is justice. If the result of my efforts is a mass revolution; well, they had it coming.

My Mr. Hyde face is gone. I stand before that grimy mirror in that filthy bathroom and gaze into the water-spotted, rust-pocked surface. If I ever showed this face, none would be likely to forget it. The dark hair, almost black, is not long: barely touches my ears and the back of my neck. The nose is strong and was formerly aquiline; but it’s obviously been broken a few times—three that I can recall. These lips are like thin, darker lines drawn across that square chin, below strong cheekbones that look born of some Navajo chieftain. And the eyes—piercing as any, black like polished jet.

A pity that no one ever sees that face—other than myself and Simon B. and a few who find themselves targeted by me. Everyone else—all everyone else sees is the mask. Not this flesh and blood mask, but the one that I wear made of synthetic cloth, shatterproof plastic, plexiglass lenses.

I’m a sight all dressed up in my outfit of black cloth.

The underground rags say I’m a superhero. The real deal. Fantasy come to life. Kids apparently adore me and draw pictures of me in notebooks. There would probably be posters of me for sale in comic book shops and toy stores if the authorities allowed those images to be marketed. But they don’t think I’m a superhero, or any kind of hero.

The media, and their puppet-masters, call me a terrorist. They say I am, at best, a super-villain made flesh and blood. They say that I am a criminal and they scream for my head. They’re right, too. I want my enemies to think of me that way.

I want them to live in fear, to be terrorized. I want them all to piss their pants every time a board creaks in their Victorian mansions. I want them to shit their britches each time an unexpected movement enters their peripheral vision when they’re in their penthouses.

And then I want to kill them all.

I’m very good at that.


Bernard Sommers had been hearing rumors for some time before he got any actual information from security. It would have to come up during his trip to Costa Rica with Sandy.

Sandy was a worldly 19 years old. Perfectly built, perfectly blonde, and perfectly obedient—everything his wife was not. He had been expecting a couple of weeks of non-stop fun with the girl. Since he’d met her some months before, he’d thought of her as nearly sexually insatiable. They matched that way. Of course it could merely have been that his green-eyed shiksa was acting, but he rather doubted it.

The thing was, he’d been hoping for days and days of being lost in the pleasures of her flesh—and now this.

“You need to listen to this, Mr. Sommers. This is serious.” The man delivering the information was indeed serious. Sommers had rarely seen him crack so much as a hint of a smile. He was, like Sandy, blonde. But where she was perfectly feminine and delightful, Armin Fields was disconcertingly masculine and genuinely menacing.

Sommers nodded his great, bushy head, knitting his dark brows. “I know perfectly well that you mean what you say, Fields.” He made eye contact with his faithful employee. Fields’ hair was buzzed military style, his gaze steely, his gut flat, long of leg, broad in the shoulder, arms bulging with more than an adequate complement of muscle tissue. He probably had a huge cock, but Bernie didn’t want to know. It was enough that his hired blue-eyed Aryan protector was to be physically respected.

“There have been exactly twenty-four attacks, now. Because of the fact that the first six deaths were of men retired from the corporation, and then others were men who were involved in other lines not directly tied to you, we were delayed in making the connection.” He placed his finger on the printout that he’d placed on the disk in his employer’s rented palace.

Sommers had to look at the slim stack of papers again. “Jack Pierce, third Baron of Trentwell,” he said.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Past Photos, Another Visit

We'll be heading up to one of our favorite outdoor adventure areas very soon. Southwest Virginia is packed to sky with great places to see and wonderful activities in which to take part. The highest peaks in the state are there, and the concentration of waterfalls and tributaries are hard to count. We'll ride the Virginia Creeper Trail and camp in a National Forest campground. I hope to bag a few peaks and see some new waterfalls. Plus, if the weather cooperates, we'll go kayaking on the New River.

All of the following photographs were taken in previous trips, and give you just a glimpse of the beauty of that part of Virginia.

Friday, August 16, 2013

True Fate

When I was a kid just out of high school I worked in my dad's used bookstore. Around the time I was attending the local junior college I would come home from classes and then run the shop.

Some of the weirder folk would only drop in for specific items. One crazy old shirtless guy would ride his bike down the street. I could always see him zooming toward the store from a few blocks away. He'd zip along at a pretty good clip. He had a little dog that would blaze beside him, following the bike or running tandem.

The crazy old guy would park the bike, come in and buy the local newspaper. I don't ever recall that he wore anything but a pair of slacks. Not even any shoes. The dog would wait for him at the door. Paper bought, he'd tuck it into his back pocket and off they'd zoom back to wherever the hell it was he lived with his dog.

Another fellow would come in to buy only one item:

FATE Magazine.

I never read it and don't know much about it, except that it focuses on the supernatural and the "true" weird. And that it's still around (at least as an e-mag). But this guy apparently lived for them. He never spoke much and never, apparently, felt the need to talk about the things he read in the pages of Fate. At least not to me.

The fellow was tall--probably at least six feet three. Lanky. At the time I thought he was an older fellow, but probably he was no more than 35 or 40. And he always wore a cloth aviator cap. No matter the weather or the temperature. And this was in south Georgia where a normal summer day is in the mid-90s and it can hit the upper 80s even in winter and no one thinks it's remarkable. But he'd have that horrible aviator cap on even if it was sweltering.

The only time he ever spoke was when he heard me talking about ramps (a kind of wild onion) with one of my friends who had stopped by the store. He came to the counter and explained that he often had trouble with his sinuses and had read that possibly ramps could fix the problem. Since he'd heard me say that I had harvested them when I lived in the mountains he asked if I could get some for him. He needed them intact, with the leaves, so that he could try to grow them in his garden. I explained to him that they were wild and that as far as I had been able to acknowledge, they couldn't be farmed. Also, they flourished in the higher altitudes of the mountains and I didn't think they would thrive in the low country. Still, he wanted to get his hands on some live ramps and I told him I'd see what I could do.

My plan was to get one of my high school pals to harvest a dozen or so and send them to me by post. Alas, each of my old pals were all fled to college and the military. Try as I might, I could find no one to do me the favor. The fellow would ask from time to time about progress on procuring the wild onions when he came in for his copies of Fate Magazine. I explained that I had been unable to to find anyone to grab some of the plants and suggested that he travel to the north Georgia mountains to nab some himself.

Alas, he seemed to be as trapped in that hell-hole of a town as firmly as I was.

Eventually, he exhausted our stock of back issues of Fate Magazine and stopped visiting the store.

No matter the heat.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dusting Off an Old Yarn

I stumbled upon this (very) old story on a floppy disk. It was one of the first stories that I wrote and submitted to magazines. It may have even been submitted to an anthology or two. I was in my 20s when I wrote it and it never sold, of course.

Sometimes I dust these old stories off (when I chance upon them), and figure I'll post them here. For my own educational benefit. To see where I was at that stage of my attempt to become a writer--what I was doing right, and what I was doing wrong.

As I recall, I had in mind to make the protagonist of this story a continuing character. I wanted to write many stories about him and to some day see them gathered into a single collection. Also, I wrote this story so long ago that there was no such thing as a game called 'Simsville'. Thus, the now-awkward name of the small town in the story.

Oh, well.

James Robert Smith

      The dead can be a frightening lot. Mostly, they're as quiet as can be. But sometimes...
      It's not funny how it happens; it's strange. I've been asked how, but I don't really know. It's just something deep inside that cannot be denied. Doo doo doo. Wah.
     I found the house on the first pass through Simville. What was disturbing about this particular calling was that I had been through this quiet little North Carolina town at least seven or eight times. Back at the turn of the century, it had been called Leesburg for about a year before the people voted the old name back in; there really hadn't been that much Confederate sympathy there. Simville was only a few miles past the Virginia border where I lived, just at the edge of the hills that lead way on up to the Blue Ridge. But this was the first time I'd felt that awful tug. That was the way it was, sometimes.
     There was a big, fading for sale sign in front of the place. The red For Sale was streaked with the white underpaint, but I made out the realtor's name and phone number; so I went by their small office and got a key. Then I drove back to the house.
     It was a very nice place. Two stories, 2,950 square ft htd space, 2.5 baths, two car garage, .9 acre lot. The house was situated in a neighborhood of similar homes, Caddies and Saabs and a couple Mercedes parked in concrete drives. Nice. But I wouldn't be taking this place. Not as is, anyway.
     The yard, I had noted, was in surprisingly good shape for a house that had been empty for as long as this one had. "Six years," the pretty little agent had told me. "You just take the keys and go look. I've got an appointment now, so just bring the keys back when you're done." She was lying. She had no appointment. It was just that she was sensitive to certain things; just a little bit of what I suffered with. I wondered what she had seen in that place. There was certainly some fear in her clear green eyes. "Um," she had added as I was leaving, "that small key is for the garage, but it's real dusty, so you probably don't want to go in there. I wouldn't suggest it."
     "Thank you," I said. "Thank you."
     I parked my own sedan in the street in front of the house, beneath a big old chestnut oak that made good shade in this summer sun. The whole street was lined with the oak's sisters: a parade of them standing on either side of the road. What a nice, old neighborhood. There were jays and mockingbirds screeching at one another. Little else disturbed the warm air. A lawn mower some blocks away muttered.
     There were three evenly lain red brick steps leading from the sidewalk to the yard. Whoever cut the grass had done so recently; but no one really cared for the hedges and azalea beds, so those particular plots of green were rather ragged.
     The house had a long, concrete porch. There were rusted hooks set overhead, waiting for hanging baskets. No rocking chair, though; one creaking in the breezeless air would have been a nice touch. Ah, well. I unlocked the white-painted door and opened it.
     Inside, the house smelled...empty. The air was stale, with a tiny hint of latex paint that had been fresh six or seven years before. Someone had liked pastels, eggshell blue and white trim all down the foyer and the wall leading up the staircase. The floors were varnished heart-of-pine. Someone had taken great care to sand and polish each and every section of that floor. The bannister was pine, too, rubbed smoothe and stained a muted orange-yellow that did not quite clash with the wall color.
     I went inside. And someone was with me. Ah, there was no doubt. A powerful someone, biding its awful time and watching me. There was arrogance there. It didn't realize what I was. But, it would, if I hung around too long. Once more, I wondered what the realtor had seen. I'm sure I would find out.
     The quiet was shattered with a plastic clacking as I hit the light switch in the foyer. I went on down the hall, hearing my hard soles on the heart-of-pine. The door was still open. Sunlight was preferable in such places; no protection, really, but soothing, at any rate.
     Slowly, I went round and round the place. That presence went with me, and I did my best to ignore it. They always know, if you acknowledge them, and then things can get nasty. Things would get nasty soon enough, so I didn't give it any satisfaction. I've even trained myself to disallow the hackles on the back of my neck. Takes quite a lot of will power; but I've had quite a lot of practice.
      The kitchen was a source of ill will. The cupboards were original equipment, and when I opened the one closest to the floor, I saw something red and wet. There were little fingers pale and stained amidst the mess. Clenching my jaw, I closed the cupboard, and the door thumped home with the workmanship all good carpenters exhibited eighty years ago.
     Next was the downstairs bath. I ran water in the sink and into the heavy, claw-footed tub. No water could ever remove those black stains. A child whimpered and sighed death. Someone chuckled. It took some courage, even for me, to tour the second floor. By the time I came back down those stairs, closed and locked the door, I was sure that the presence suspected I was more than what I seemed. Too late. Too late for both of us.
     I sat on the stoop of the front porch, drew a cloth out of my shirt, and I mopped my brow. Really, I was getting too old for this sort of thing. Why, I had barely even noticed that the young woman who had given me the keys was so pretty. Oh, and I thought of her as young. Me, oh my.
     A shadow on the street roused me: it was a little girl all dressed in yellow with lace frills. Buckled shoes and white socks; white bows in her hair. She looked fine for an Easter Sunday, if it had been an Easter Sunday. I watched her skip down the street.
     A boy came running after her. Could have been her brother, since he had that same strawberry hair. He was wearing slacks, but his shirt was off and he went racing past. Trying to find little sis for mom, I figured.

     The slope leading up the street produced eight year old boys on a pair of fine bikes. Antiques, really. Bikes like those could fetch a hefty price at an antique show. I watched them go away down the hill, their caps sitting solidly: two buddies going off together. Forever.
     And then the lad on his sled. I heard the runners hissing on the snow and boy and contraption came to rest on the sidewalk in front of the house. I looked at him, lying there all bundled up; his mother had taken great care to make sure he would not catch the Cold. He had his knees bent as he lay on his belly, and his big, dark boots heeled against his butt. His cap had earflaps that hung down over bright cheeks, a kind of hat that was already old-fashioned by the time I had been his age. We stared at one another. His eyes were big. Pale. Dead.
     I sat and looked into those eyes. It was all blank. What can be reflected in the eyes of a loved child whose last moments were of pain, whose last gift was death. I looked at him, surrounded by some snowfall gone in the decades. The street all behind him was covered by the recent storm; a deep one that made the place truly beautiful. Kneeling before him, I asked.
     "It won't let any of you go, will it?" The air was cold. My own cheeks were ruddy, and I was glad for my salt and pepper beard.
     "No." His voice was harsh. Whatever innocense he'd had was killed with him.
     "Does it have a secret? I need a weak spot if I'm going to help you."
     "It was the momma and daddy."
     "What? What do you mean?" Up the street, the snow was fading.
     "They all fooled everyone. All three of them."
     Before I could say another word, the boy was gone, and I was kneeling there on the sidewalk staring at grass reaching up through fissures. I stood and looked to the house. The front door stood open.
      Back at the realtor's, the young green-eyed beauty was there. We were alone: she at her desk, the door to the big man's office solidly shut. I stood there and held out the keys for her. She was staring up at them as she reached to retrieve them.
     "You didn't go in that nasty old garage, did you?" There was a clink as I dropped the two keys into her soft palm.
     "No. I didn't need to."
     She put the keys quickly down and looked up. "You didn't need to?"
     "No. I saw quite enough in the house, itself."
     "It's just an empty house," she said.
     "Oh, no. We both know better than that. What did you see in that garage, Ms. Locke?"
     Her reply was to draw open the top right drawer of her desk and toss the keys inside. "I don't know what you're talking about. It's just an old house with a very dusty garage. Someone needs to go over and clean out that garage." Her green eyes were downcast. I could tell that she didn't enjoy lying, nor was she very adept at it.
     "Who owned that house?"
     "The last owners were a couple named Hampton. Mr. Hampton worked for IBM and you know how they get moved around. They only lived there for a few months before he got transferred. Right after their little girl was born and."
     "They didn't like the place, did they?" I had cut her off. "Especially with an infant in the house, I suppose.
     "Whose house was it, Ms. Locke? I mean, I can go elsewhere for the information, but I think you probably know what I need to know." I waited.
     "What do you want to know about it? Are you a writer? You're not related to those people, are you? Well, I guess you wouldn't be asking me who owned it if you were related to them. What difference does it make?"
     While she sputtered, I pulled a chair up to her desk and had a seat. "Please. As long as there are no other clients about, tell me about the house. It will save me a lot of digging about in dusty records; and as much as I adore libraries, I'd like to spare myself the reference work."
     Ms. Locke pushed her chair back a bit, straightened her posture, and pressed down on her blue dress, adjusting the wrinkles in her lap. "It belonged to a man named Marcus Sim."
     "As in Simville?"
     "Yes. Well, he was a grandson, or great-grandson. I don't exactly know the family tree.
     "Anyway, he and his wife lived there. They both owned stock in Cannon Mills and about all they did was tend their house and raise their son."
     "A son."
     "Yes. His name was Alton James Sim. Apparently, he was sickly, or crippled in some way. They all pretty much just kept to themselves."
     "When was this?"
     "It was in the forties. The late thirties and early forties. Like I said, I don't know all the details."
     "They were well off, I expect."
     "Yes. But they were all dead by--I think it was 1942, or so."
     "Oh, yes. What happened was that there were children vanishing from around town. It didn't all happen at once, of course. But over a three or four year period, seven children disappeared off the streets of Simville. It was really bad for back then. I mean, if something like that were happening even today, it would be big news in Simville. We have a very quiet town here," she added, so accustomed to the hard sell.
     "I'm sure you do," I said.
     "I don't know how it happened, but a police officer kind of put everything together, and he figured that the kids who were missing had all been seen going toward the neighborhood where the Sim house is located. This guy was new to town, and when he tried to ask around, about the Sims, I mean, he got stonewalled. I mean, the elder Mr. Sim was a big shot and everything. They didn't socialize much, but he still kept his hand in at the lodge, if you understand."
     "I understand perfectly."
     "Finally, a kid vanished whose father had a stack of money, and he was ready to hear anything. The officer went to that man on the sly, and since he was about as rich as the Sims, he pushed to have the Sim house searched."
     "And what happened?"
     Ms. Locke glanced at the door, as if expecting her boss to suddenly enter and end the story. "Well, like I said, you have to understand that I don't have all of the details. But, from what I know, the elder Mr. Sim got wind of it, through a crony in city government, and knew the police were about to get a search warrant to go through his house. And he. Well. He killed his wife and his son. And then he shot himself in the head. In the kitchen, I think."
     "You think?"
     She rubbed at her eyes, and drew in a shuddering breath. "Yeah. The kitchen."
     "Where did they find the children?"
     "You didn't go in the garage, did you?"
     I could see that there were tears in her eyes. "The garage has dirt floors. He had buried them in there. Seven graves. Six feet down. He had buried them deep so that there was never a problem of stench. No one knew."
     Before I stood, I reached out and patted Ms. Locke on the hand. "You've seen the children out there, haven't you?"
     "I. I saw something." And then, "Why are you so interested in all this? You don't want to live there, do you?"
     At the door, I turned to her. "Oh, no. No. But I think he's trying to come back. Some of them so hate to leave that they have to come back. And he's coming.
     "In fact, I fear he's already done it."
     Even I wasn't sure exactly what was up. But the evil dead have their ways.
      Simville had a pair of funeral homes, both of them long-standing and well established. There was Jenkins and there was Brown. In the phone book, there was a picture of the elder Mr. Brown, and his skin was, too, so I quickly ruled him out. No white man in 1942 in this part of the country was going to have had a black man as his mortician. So of course I went to visit the Jenkins Funeral Home.
     The building and chapel were located not terribly far from the house where Mr. Sim had committed his crimes. There were only a pair of cars parked in the lot, so I assumed there was nothing awfully busy going on. I left my own car in the designated parking area and went in. The place was carpeted in the requisite red pile, and the walls were appropriately pale and the air comfortably conditioned to a fall-like temperature. They obviously were expecting no one, for the music being piped into the foyer was flavored by the voice of Mick Jagger singing the praises of brown sugar.
     I stepped into the adjoining area, which was large and which was also being used as a showroom. An astounding variety of caskets were on display, all of them yawning wide, revealing their plush interiors. There was part of a vault, too, showing how your dear departed would be kept safe from further harm. Of course, I had seen vaults disinterred, and they were invariably so full of water after a short while, that it would take a large crane and winch to lift one free of the muddy earth. Better tell the buyer to pack a bathing suit.
     "Damn," I heard someone hiss. Mick Jagger immediately shut his enormous lips. "May I help you, sir?"
     I turned to see a man of half my age approaching. This could, at best, be the grandson of the man with whom I needed to speak. I offered him my hand. "Hello," I said.
     "I'm Clark Jenkins." He had much too cheery an attitude for this job. Of course he was probably doing quite well, so he had a lot to be happy about.
     I introduced myself, and when he looked confused, explained that I was from out of town. "I'm really only here to talk to, I would assume, your grandfather. Was your grandfather the mortician here in '42? It wouldn't have been your dad, would it?"
     "You're right. That would be Granddad. But he died five years ago." Died, not passed away; the boy was still learning. "My father might be able to help you out, but he's on vacation. Fishing up in Yellow Knife."
     "Oh. Oh, well." I sighed.
     "Maybe I can help you out. What's it about? Did we take care of a relative? A friend of the family? We keep very tight records here." He smiled. A genuine one.
     "Well. Maybe. Did your grandfather ever talk about Mr. Sim, who committed suicide in the early forties? The man who killed all of those children."
     Young Mr. Jenkins could not hide the look of shock that paled his smiling face. "Granddad never talked to me about it."
     "I was afraid of that."
     "But my dad told me everything. He was there. What do you want to know?" And he was a joker. Nice kid, really. Wrong business for him.
     "You don't mind talking about it? You have the time?"
     "Sure. Come on back to the office and we can have a coffee or a soft drink and I'll tell you what I can."
     In the office, which was as cool and plush as the inside of one of his coffins, we found cold soft drinks in the refrigerator and had them in plastic cups full of cracked ice. We sipped carbonated water while I waited for him to talk.
     "My grandfather was very busy after the killings. All of those children had to be disinterred. Autopsies had to be performed. He did all of the forensic work here at that time, too, you know. Most small town morticians performed that service in those days. It was disturbing, even for him. Bad business."
     "What I need to know are some of the details. How Mr. Sim killed the children. How he killed his wife and son. That sort of thing."
     "Well, first of all, Mr. Sim didn't kill anyone."
     "What?" I leaned toward the younger man.
     "It wasn't Mr. Sim who killed the children, and it wasn't Mr. Sim who killed his family. It was their child."
     "Their child?"
     "Oh, yes. You know, my grandfather had met the child a number of times. Always thought he was a strange boy. Thin. Pale. A weak kind of kid. Especially as a teen, he thought there was something terribly wrong with the boy.
     "Mr. and Mrs. Sim obviously thought so, too, because they pretty much socially retreated after the child was born. They kept it hidden away as much as possible. Brought in tutors, kept it out of school, and out of church. They just lived in that house. Granddad would go by their house, and sometimes see the child in the back garden. That was about it."
     "You keep referring to him as it. Was he deformed?"
     "Well," his eyes got shifty, as if he were about to divulge a great secret. "He wasn't actually a boy, although Mr. and Mrs. Sim dressed it that way, and presented it as a boy."
     "What are you saying?"
     "When my granddad undressed the body, he noticed first that it had breasts. Not large breasts, but very feminine. And there was a general lack of body hair. What you would expect of a young woman, not a young man.
     "And when it was fully nude, he saw a vagina."
     "The child was a girl?"
     "Well, mostly. He did a complete examination, and in the fold on the left side of the labia majora, he found a very tiny, rudimentary penis. There's a term for that, but I can't recall it. My father could tell you. The child was almost hermaphroditic. Just the mildest of surgeries could have taken care of the problem.
     "Out of curiosity, my grandfather performed a total autopsy. He was very curious. And the younger Mr. Sim was a woman. Vagina. Uterus. Ovaries. Fallopian tubes. Everything in order and in place. She just had that vestigal penis and scrotum that a quick snip of a razor blade could have taken care of. They tried to raise that child as a boy. And all along it was female."
     "My God."
     "The official story was that the younger Mr. Sim did away with all of those children and then the family was a murder/suicide. But that wasn't it, at all. The child did it all. My grandfather saw the gunshot wounds, and Mr. Sim could not have self-inflicted his; nor could Mrs. Sim. It was the child. Only the child could have done it. Of course, he just speculates that it killed all of those children, and that Mr. Sim only buried them after they were killed.
     "You can imagine what a person would be like who was raised as Mr. and Mrs. Sim raised that child."
     "Good God. How could they?"
      The day was gone. I had learned all that I could, and I had gathered with that knowledge what weapons I hoped I would need. Ms. Locke could not know it, but I had copied the keys: house and garage, too. The light was fading, but as I said earlier, sunlight really does nothing to protect one from the kind of thing I knew I would have to face. So the falling of night mattered little to me. I parked my car in front of an empty lot a block away from the Sim house, and I walked on down, timing it so that it would be completely dark by the time I arrived. It wouldn't do for a neighbor to see me entering the place at such a late hour.
     A dog barked some distance down the way. But when I stopped at my destination, it shut its trap. The neighbors who lived nearest the Sim house were either away, or had retired for the night. There were no lights on there, either. I decided to use the front door.
     As I went up those three little steps, I thought that I would begin to feel that presence that had made itself so evident that afternoon. But, there was nothing. Just my own breathing in the dark, and the far away barking of that same dog. The night was particularly dark, and the few streetlights on this lane were just hints of bluegreen through the oaks. I inserted my key in the lock and opened the door. A hush met me as I entered.
     Where was the assault that I had expected? Where were the psychic screams? The attempts at insinuation into my own fears? These were things I had encountered many times before, and which I expected now. But there was nothing--just the dark. Those faint creaks and groanings were indeed the natural complaints of such an old house, and only that. I closed the door behind me and peered down the long hallway, up the staircase.
     Nothing. I waited for a moment. Still nothing and nothing. After a minute or two, I went through the house, planting myself in those spots that had most disturbed me that day. In the downstairs bath, where I was certain at least some of the children had been bled, I saw not a thing and felt not the slightest pimpling of gooseflesh. In the kitchen, where Mr. Sim had had his brains blown out, there was only the pitch blackness of a moonless night in a house with no lights. Such a presence as this would surely not have flown.
     There was the garage. If the children had been there, perhaps that was where it most liked to reside. I unlocked the rear exit, peering out and toward the house next door which was hidden by a curtain of hemlocks. No one was there. With the grass hissing wet beneath my feet, I hurried through the remnants of the back garden and went to the garage. It was a large structure, built solidly of red brick and trimmed in white, like the house itself. There was a side entrance, which my key would open.
     The door stood wide, already.
     I quietly made my way to the door. Locks, I knew, were nothing to the kind of thing that resided here. But I took a good look at it, reaching out and examining the lock with my left hand. There was a key lodged there. No ghost used keys. To Hell with it. I spoke.
     "All right. Who's in here? Who is it?"
     I was answered by a muffled whimper. The frightened whimper of a child. I pulled out the penlight from my coat pocket and aimed it. There was a small tractor that the realtor must have used on the big lawn, and beyond it I could see a pair of legs jutting out. It was a child, bound at the knees with some kind of pale cord. The white skin was mottled with the dirt that made the floor of the garage; but they moved. And this was no ancient shade of a child killed in the days of singing cowboys: each foot bore a pair of slippers adorned with cartoon mutant turtles. Another whimper, muffled as by a gag. I stepped in, shining my penlight about the big room, trying to see behind every post and each shadow formed by stacks of wood and odd tools.
     To my left there was a flash of movement, and a familiar blue pattern came out from the shadows. My penlight speared a white face.
     "Ms. Locke! What are you doing?"
     The shovel barely missed my head. There were sparks as the head of it whizzed past my temple and rebounded from the brick wall behind me. I dodged, to defend myself, but she had already dropped the shovel and darted over to the child.
     I shined the light at her again. There was a knife in her hand, and she had it pressed firmly to the boy's neck, lifting him up into her lap, her left arm locked firmly over the child's chest. The boy, four years old or so, struggled to breathe through his cloth gag.
     "Stay away from me," she said. But it wasn't the voice I had heard that afternoon. Ms. Locke was gone. I was sure of it.
     "Stay away from me. Stay away or I swear I will kill this boy. You know I will." The very sharp blade made a small cut that bled.
     "Alton. Let him go. I won't let you kill this child. I won't." I inched forward, but was stopped by new pressure on the child's neck. A small trickle came down his throat.
     "You can't stop me. No one could ever stop me. I never let them go." Alton's girlish voice hissed out at me through the dark. I kept my penlight trained on her eyes.
     "You have Ms. Locke, and you've kidnapped this child. But you won't go any further than this, Alton. I promise you."
     "What are you going to do? Kill me?" Her laugh was quite maddening.
     "Alton. There's no one left to blame you. Listen to me. There's no one left to hate you. Please. Let the child go. Free Ms. Locke. She never did you any harm." Although I pleaded, I stayed where I was.
     "Oh, yes. They all hate me. They're all still here. You. You hate me!"
     "Alton, please. I don't hate you. I swear. And just let the others go. If you let them go, they will not hate you. Your own hatred and fear is what keeps them trapped here with you. Let them go, and you'll see."
     Alton smiled at me with Ms. Locke's mouth. It was truly frightening. "No. You're lying. I'm going to kill the boy, and then I'm going to kill you. I'm young and you're old. I can kill you."
     The others were here. Suddenly, I could feel them all. They were all gathered about, held here by Alton Sim's unquenched hatred. They wanted free of that awful power, but were helpless before it; unable to go until Alton had left. I reached out, grasping for.
     "Alton." I channeled her in, her voice sounding in my throat. "Child."
     "Mother." Alton's face hardened. As did her grip on the knife.
     "Child, please. Let them go. Let us all go."
     "I hate you! I hate you!"
     "I'm sorry, Alton. I'm so very sorry."
     Alton stood, dragging the boy with her. She retreated further into the shadows. We followed.
     "Alton." It was his father, now. His voice rasped up through my own. "We're sorry. We loved you. We thought you would...become a man. We thought you'd be our son. We didn't understand, Alton. Please. We loved you."
     "Damn you, old man! You hated me! No one loved me and no one will forgive me!"
     The children. All of the children were there. I let them use me, let them channel through me. They were speaking.
     "We don't hate you, Alton. We never hated you." They spoke as one, a chorus issuing from my single throat.
     Alton had retreated to the back of the garage. We stood now over what had been the small graves. The tension was going out of the knifehand. The captured boy was edging to the floor, his body slumping to the earth. Alton was losing her grip.
     Still holding the penlight, I stepped quickly forward and took the knife from the slackening grip. The children reached out with my arms and held Alton. "We understand. You were in pain, Alton." For a moment, she made an attempt to struggle. I had dropped the penlight, and I could feel her against me, sobbing.
     "We forgive you." Their voices were in song. And then.
     They were all gone. All of them.
     Ms. Locke collapsed. I suffered a faint moment, but recovered in time to catch her. Carefully, I lowered her to the floor of the garage; and then I turned to the child. He seemed to be okay as I undid the knots that held him. The blindfold fell to the floor. Quickly, I carried him out to the lawn, and then retrieved a reviving Ms. Locke.
     In the night, as we sat there, the two of them confused, not unscarred by the experience, I looked up at the Sim house. It was empty, now. Someday, soon I hoped, I too would be able to go home...