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a Noctiviganti story

by CS Thompson

I stood in the trees at the edge of the interstate, watching the boneyard while I smoked a cigarette. From noon till midnight, that's when her time was. The client hadn't met me yet; I wanted to meet Mercy first. To see what her new home was like before I dropped in on her old one. She was having a little trouble moving on.

I dropped the butt on the ground and snuffed it out. I didn't expect to see her in person. It's not really like that, from what I've seen. When the dead walk, they're always quiet. They move in our memories, and they hide even from starlight.

I walked over to her tombstone. "Mercy Bonham," it read, "We Remember You."

"That's where you went wrong," I said. I walked down the road.

I'd worked this out with Benjamin Roman. My old partner, the hermit, from Nottamun. I couldn't go back there in this lifetime, but we had ways of staying in touch. He would run ads in the back of certain magazines. People who had my kind of trouble would answer them. The info got bounced around a bit, to make it difficult. When I got their money, I got on a Greyhound. Someday it might lead the cops to me, but I wasn't too worried about it. What happened in my life was no longer relevant.

The forest disappeared into blackness on either side of me. I could just barely see the outline of low black hills. Or else I imagined them, and there was nothing.

The Bonham house was a yellow patch of light in a vague world of phantoms.

It didn't look welcoming. It looked weak and sick.

The door opened, and a face peered out. Two days of stubble, red eyes. His breath smelled like cheap beer.

"Mr. Bonham?" I said. He nodded.

"You're him?" he asked me, "You're the ... "

"No, I'm a Mormon," I deadpanned, "Open the door. It's cold out here."

"I didn't know what to expect," he said, "You're a bit ... "

"I'm a bum. Let me in."

I pushed on the door, and he relented. I didn't care to stand outside. His place reminded me of something, but I couldn't place it. The light was dim inside, as if something was draining it. But it was just the old yellow bulbs he used, and the unpainted walls.

"That's Cassandra, over there." He pointed. There was a bedroom in the back, with the door open. I caught a glimpse of a young girl, about twelve. She was wrapped in blankets. The smell of her sickroom was rotten, even from the doorway.

"It's just me and her," he said, "Now that Mercy's gone."

"Their mother ... ?"

"Dead," he said. He didn't want me to push it.

"How old was Mercy?"

"Mercy's fifteen. She used to watch her sister."

His hand was shaking.

"Are you sick too?" I asked him. He nodded, staring at me.

"Maybe we should both sit down."

I didn't wait for him. His kitchen table was right in front of me, and I pulled one of his chairs out and sat down. I pulled out another cigarette, and lit it up. There was no ashtray but an old beer can. That didn't bother me any. He sat down too.

"Could you maybe spare one ... ?" he asked. I shook one out for him.

"I was desperate when I sent that money. But I don't know you." He looked at me as if he expected some kind of reference. I just shrugged.

"I work for cash," I said, "And you knew that. The first half gets me here; that half's done. Now I try to help you, and I get paid if I can."

"What happens if you can't?"

"Call another specialist."

"I've already spent all my money," he said, "There won't be any more doctors."

"Nobody ever calls me if they can help it."

He nodded, slowly. This was the end of the line. I was trying to see deep into him, find out what had happened. His kind of problem isn't exactly common, and it's never an accident. All of us would rather sleep, if we could.

But sometimes nightmares keep us awake.

"Cassandra's crying," I said. He stood up, and went to her.

Who was he scared for, I wondered - his daughter or himself? He'd lost everyone but Cassandra - she might be the last thing holding him together. But he was strange around her, and I couldn't say why. A little too focused, a certain kind of eagerness. Like I knew the dead one would have.

Cassandra moaned. Bad dreams flitted across her face like wary predators.

The house shuddered as wind gathered outside. He brought her a glass of water, and stroked her head. But it still felt wrong somehow.

I remembered Rose. Her blue eyes, shining with her twilight, long gone from me.

"Don't ask me about my parents."

A possibility.

"Mercy died six months ago. This didn't start till a month later."

If he expected me to say something, he was disappointed. I just stared at him and smoked my cigarette. A dog barked somewhere outside, and he licked his lips.

He doesn't sleep much, I thought. I could tell, because I don't.

"Cassandra started having dreams. She said Mercy played with her. I figured it was normal, you know? Grieving process or something."

He waved his hand, as if to dismiss it. I dropped my cigarette butt in the beer can.

"But then Cassandra got sick. She started coughing. A high fever all the time, and always pale. I took her to the doctor, he thought maybe tuberculosis. It wasn't tuberculosis, though. It wasn't anything. They tested her."

"They can't find everything with their tests."

"You're telling me! She said it was Mercy's fault, that Mercy was playing with her too much. She said Mercy made her tired."

"You didn't believe her."

He snorted.

I walked over to his refrigerator, and pulled it open without asking. There were three or four beers, and a carton of eggs. I opened a cabinet.

"I'm going to need this," I said. I held up a large bottle of Jim Beam.

"Yeah. He told me. I don't get it."

"You don't need to. So, you believe her now," I said.

"I guess," he nodded, "Enough to reach out for you. I mean, she's dying."

"But there's something else."

"Yeah. She came to me too."

I sat down and opened the whiskey.

"Tell me all about it. We've got time."

It took several whiskeys to open him up, and by that time I was halfway through the bottle. At first when she came to him, he thought it was normal. He could hold her again, he told me. He could kiss her forehead. Somehow he didn't notice what she was taking from him till he'd been sick for weeks.

"We were always so close, me and Mercy." Teary-eyed. "Ever since her mother died. When it was just us three."

And now it's just the two of you, I thought. Unless she finishes what she started. Maybe I should just let her - no. I'd been paid for the work. My contract was with all of them, now. I'd fix their end, and hers.

"When are you going to start this?" he asked. I glanced up at the clock.

"Just after midnight," I said. "I'll catch her leaving Cassandra."

"She'll be weak then?" he asked.

"She'll be slower then. Gorged."

He got up and stumbled into the bathroom. Couldn't hold his whiskey.

"What do you need me to do?" he asked, as I went into Cassandra's room.

"I'll lay down next to her," I said, "I've got to get close to it. But if you don't want her hurt, you'd better watch. I might get strange on you."

I pulled out the speed pills from my pocket and put a handful in my mouth. The Jim Beam made them go down a little easier. They hit my head like a boxer would.

He wasn't good at this, like Rose. I landed on the headboard with a crack, and it all went black for me.

A child's notion of the grave - not the Reaches, where she should have gone. I was walking through a cemetery in the fog, and everything was beautiful. There were no mere tombstones here, but rows of ancient crypts, crawling with carvings of ivy and gargoyles leering protectively. There were batches of red roses here and there, although the petals seemed to drip and what they dripped stained the ground. I heard someone crying nearby - no, not crying. Weeping.

Poetic melancholy for eternity, fueled by blood and sick sweat. I kicked a yellow skull out of my way and went looking for the dreamer.

"Noctiviganti," she whispered. And at first she was lovely to me. She wasn't really a woman yet, I knew. But she would have reached that place soon.

"You know me, Mercy," I said.

"Father sent for you," she answered.

She had one of those Renaissance dresses on, and her hair was brown. Long curls of dark brown hair, and soft blue eyes. I hadn't reached the truth about her yet. This was still just her dream.

"You aren't like this anymore," I said quietly, "You never were. In another year or two, maybe - except you ran out of time."

She smiled, with a hint of something feral.

"I have all the time in the world."

"No, you don't," I said. "You're changing. You can feel yourself rotting in the ground. Your baby fat feeds the worms."

She started to flicker, then, like a dying fire. The truth was painful. Like always. She wouldn't have showed this picture to her father. For him, a little girl perhaps - or his dead wife. For her sister, a lost friend. Whatever lie she could pull from their dreams, to serve her purpose. But I can watch my own dreams and feel nothing.

"The only reason you can show me this picture is because of the blood. Because of your sister's blood, that you stole from her. But you won't be able to make it for long, and there's no point in trying. I can't be enchanted, Mercy. I don't have what it takes."

She gave up the illusion then, exhausted. I saw what she felt herself to be - a dead child, being eaten. A thing that no longer knew what it was.

Even here, in this space between the worlds, the child's body was bloated beneath the skin. Its eyes were dead, watchful, like mine were. Its face was flushed with fever. It smiled at me hungrily.

"You are trapped between here and the Reaches. You eat the living," I said.

It grinned at me. Its teeth weren't sharp like they tell you. They were chipped and bloody.

I moved my hand down in line with my knife.

"You need to die now," I said, "You need to go to sleep."

The child growled at me, still grinning. Its hair was matted with clumps of dry dirt. Its dress was stained with something wet. A worm fell out of it, writhing. A black bug ran down from her hair. She stepped a little bit closer.

"The reason you need to feed on them is that you're not dead. Something's been keeping you awake. I can help you to end it." It stepped closer again.

It wanted to eat me, I could tell. But it wasn't certain. I wasn't her blood, like the others. I didn't smell as sharp to her. And beyond that was my secret. She couldn't name it, but she could feel it.

"You'll be reborn there. A new life."

Not better, but different. I couldn't promise her better. I couldn't lie. She stared at me.

"There's something else, too," I whispered, throwing down my trump card. "You want to take her away from him. I know. But you can't do it this way."

I didn't know - I was guessing. But she came in at me screeching. Her eyes filled with hatred, a clear syrup, and she looked almost alive. She writhed on the black-handled knife, and I held her. She strained closer, mouth open.

"You weren't dead enough. I was. That's why I was faster."

"Is it done now?" he asked me. His voice was hollow. She would have used him up, next - like he had done with her.

"Not quite yet," I said, "The last step is the hardest."

I threw off the blankets he had dropped on me while I was night wandering. My sweat felt thick on my body - cold and greasy. On the floor beside the bed, the bottle waited for me. I killed all but one swallow, and I fought back the retching.

"Whatever I have to do, I'll do," he said, "If it'll help Cassandra."

I almost gave myself away, when he said that. I almost showed him the sleepwalker.

"Get my coat for me. We're going out. And bring a shovel."

He turned toward the doorway, unquestioning.

"Wait a second."

He paused.

"Do you have a phone here?"

He pointed. I grinned, just like she had.

"Why are we going there?" he asked. His voice was strangled. The mist hung heavily all around us, and the trees danced strangely. I appreciated the atmosphere. It seemed appropriate. I glanced at him as we walked.

"I only hurt her in her dead dreams," I said, "But she'll be back again, for both of you."

"So you're going to dig her up?"

I laughed. "No. You are. There's a way about these things."

"What do we have to do with her?"

"Make sure it's ended. Don't worry. I'll guide you."

"Do we need a stake?" he half-whispered.

"This is real. It's much worse than that."

My malice was coming to the surface. I decided to say nothing until I had to.

I watched him digging for hours. When cars passed, we hid. Six feet of earth is a lot to dig. I smoked most of my pack.

"This would have been harder if she wasn't nearby," I said.

"My whole family's here."

He struck wood, and we were ready.

"Open up the casket," I told him, hopping to my feet.

"It's not as simple as that. I mean, it's not an expensive one, but it won't just ... "

I jumped down into the pit.

"It will open," I said, "Here, I'll help you."

She wasn't like any of her dreams. Not the seductive young woman she'd tried to show me, and not the rotting dead child she'd felt herself to be. They don't rot so quickly anymore - those caskets are airtight. She was just a dead kid in a box.

But her skin was soft, and her lips were red.

"Mercy," he said quietly, "She looks almost alive."

"She is almost alive," I said, "That's the problem. And it's time to solve it."

"What are you going to do?"

"Not me. You. You need to open her up."

He wheeled around suddenly, like an animal.

"Open her?"

"Open up her chest," I whispered, grinning, "Remove her heart."

"What the fuck are you talking about? I won't ... "

"Stop bleating and do it."

He would have done something else, but then he saw the knife. The knife that killed nightmares, and would end him just as easily. It was in my hand now, and his death was in my eyes. I let him see that for a moment. It was too late for regrets.

"Cut open her chest," I repeated, "Remove her heart."

He pulled out a folding knife with trembling hands. He never even thought about trying to use it on me.

I took the dark lump of flesh while he lay back, shaking. I climbed out of the pit and walked over to a tree stump.

"You know, you're lucky," I said.

He didn't say anything. I went on.

"There's more than one way to do this. Some folks want their blood back, you know. So they drink it. But not tonight."

I pinned her heart to the stump with the black-handled knife. It pushed wet blood out, fresh blood. She had stolen it in dreams.

"We'll just burn it to ashes," I said.

"You like this," he accused me.

I stopped to think about it for a second.

"Do I like anything, anymore? I'm not sure that I do. But still, you may have a point. There are some strange tastes out there, aren't there, Mr. Bonham?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

I took out the whiskey bottle. "Suit yourself."

The last swallow of bourbon filled the night with its scent. I took out my matchbook.

"Go to sleep, Mercy."

I sent her there.

On another Greyhound, the next day. The last of his cash was in my pocket, and I was warm with good bourbon and stretched out with a newspaper. A thin rain tapped its knuckles against the window.

Here was the story:

"Man Charged With Abuse of a Corpse - questioned on molestation."

Benjamin had timed the call just like I had told him to. They'd found him by the graveside with a shovel in his hand. I had seen him looking around for me as they came in, lights flashing, but I had faded into the forest while he mourned. Grief is a luxury, and I'm a miser.

They'd be asking him questions now, and Cassandra too. I didn't think he'd get another chance at her, after they found Mercy with her heart gone. So he'd gotten what he paid me for - his little girl was safe.

I drank another long swallow of my whiskey and coke, and leaned back with my eyes closed. I had a long ride ahead of me, and a seat to myself.

© CS Thompson 2003.
This story appears here for the first time.

Noctiviganti features in Thompson's first novel,
A Season of Strange Dreams
(BeWrite, 2003)

A Season of Strange Dreams by CS Thompson

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