For the four assembled about the crackling fire, the tone was more anxious. As the warm firelight played over their faces, Former Coroner Ron let his mind drift. He closed his eyes, and like looking through a rearview mirror, surveyed the translucent figure of the Razor Baby on the far side of the street. It’s rallying, he thought, we’ve only succeeded in enraging it–it’ll be back any second.
As Former Coroner Ron watched from the viewscreen in his head, the slouching creature took a hesitant step toward the curb and cocked its head to the sky.
“Dr. Goltry,” said Carri, “where is the creature now?”
“Still on just the other side of the street. It’s listening,” said Former Coroner Ron.
“Good,” said Carri. “Keep it in your sights.”
Raising her hands over the fire, Carri flattened her palms and began making circling motions, each hand turning counterclockwise to the other.
Rusty and Former Coroner Ron watched enrapt as Carri opened her mouth and let free the most haunting song they’d ever heard. The words were strange, forged from a foreign tongue that held not one iota of familiarity to the men’s ears. Not one phrase bore the trace of a sound they’d ever heard. Former Coroner Ron struggled to decipher even one consonant linked to a known language, but could not. Even unintelligible, the words surpassed beauty. It was as if they were drawn from a tongue that only ever uttered music, like that of a songbird or a cetacean–a tongue not once sullied by something so dry and stale as a plainly uttered word.
Closing his eyes once more, Former Coroner Ron scanned the Razor Baby where it lingered on the far side of the street. Shifting back and forth on its trunk-like legs the Razor Baby shuddered and faded in and out, from solidity to translucence, with each agitated twitch of its shoulders. Suddenly there was a blur of motion and a shape blocked the view of Former Coroner Ron’s mental spy camera. It startled him and his eyes snapped open.
Before Former Coroner Ron could raise the alarm, a rapping from the far side of the house broke the backyard’s stillness like a gunshot, making everyone jump in tandem. Then something akin to the cry of a confused and bedeviled loon issued from within the bungalow.
“Hellooo?” came the cry, just loud enough to drown out Carri’s incantation. “Helloooo?”
“Oh no,” Rusty moaned.
The wail grew nearer and nearer until the backdoor flew wide and light from the kitchen spread over the aging wooden deck.
And there stood Rusty’s mother, Amanda, clad in her stiff London Fog overcoat and clutching an old and battered guitar.
“Oh my goodness, Rusty,” she chirruped, “I do apologize, I didn’t know you had…guests?” Amanda had a way of affecting the lilt of Southern aristocracy when caught in awkward social situations, but the coquettish trill stalled halfway up her throat when she spied Carri with her hands methodically motioning over the fire accompanied by the arcane sounds rising from her lips.
Anyone else would pause and perhaps retreat, but when it came to social niceties Amanda Bainbridge was more of a bludgeon than a feather duster. Taking in the oddly assembled group, Amanda theatrically cleared her throat and boldly regrouped. “I do apologize, Rusty. I didn’t meant to interrupt.”
Amanda paused, fully expecting a round of introductions from her slightly obtuse son. When none came, she thought it best not to milk the silence. “I found this while I was cleaning the loft over the garage this afternoon,” she said and held up the guitar.
“Granny’s guitar,” said Rusty, and there was a joyful reverence in his tone. Turning from the fire, Rusty walked toward his mother, reaching out for the instrument. He hadn’t laid eyes on the old guitar since he was 12 or 13. Even in the faint glow of the porch light he could see the thing’s dull varnish, its surface covered with pick marks and pock marks from a lifetime in his Granny’s care and a few years as the companion of a wily young boy.
For that brief moment, the whole of Rusty’s world was that guitar.
The Razor Baby was weary and the Razor Baby was hungry and when it heard the ancient, ancient song trilled by the owl woman, it became enraged. The owl women, the fat man and the minstrel boy, they’d all sat inside their little hovel singing their songs and laughing their laughter, all the while jeering at the Razor Baby. Boils and blisters be damned, the Razor Baby would kill them all before they had a chance to even sniff and cry and piss themselves.
Spitting like grease on a griddle, the Razor Baby leapt into the night sky.
Extending both arms toward the guitar, Rusty barely acknowledged his mother. His eyes were all over the old instrument and he grinned fit to split his head wide open.
It was at that moment all heard a thump from high above, followed by the scrabble of great horny claws upon the bungalow roof. Looking up, Rusty had less than a second to register the bunched outline of the Razor Baby on the rooftop before it dropped on top of them.
Fear froze Rusty where he stood, and the world, in turn, froze around him. He saw his mother’s mouth hanging slack, her eyes just beginning to register her great confusion. He saw the beast airborne, it’s talons outspread like the wings of a giant bird of prey. And he saw Dr. Goltry charging forward like a great lumbering bear.
Former Coroner Ron moved on impulse as soon as he saw the creature appear on the shallow peak of the roof. He charged without a second thought. He’d get his hands on that damn thing before it had a chance to even consider touching these people. Through his adrenaline-fueled rage the world sped up like a film in fast-forward and when the Razor Baby took to the air, Former Coroner Ron threw up both hands, as though intent on catching it. As he lifted his arms, Former Coroner Ron found himself seeing the world once more through the eyes of the Razor Baby.
And then Former Coroner Ron reached out with his mind and snatched the monster from the air.
The sudden stop so jarred the Razor Baby, its oblong arms flung forward, flailing about like those of a rag doll. Former Coroner Ron didn’t simply hold the Razor Baby aloft, he wore the thing like a glove upon a giant invisible hand and squeezed. As the thing shuddered and keened, a sweet and vengeful smile stretched across the former ME’s face. He was going to savor this moment for as long as the universe would allow.
It was at that moment Carri stopped her strange and ancient aria. Lowering her hands she stepped behind her daughter and drew Dawn back from the fire.
“Doctor Goltry, put the creature in the fire,” Carri cried.
“Gladly!” said Former Coroner Ron, and like a pole-vaulter pivoting on an invisible lance, the Razor Baby soared out of the air and into the fire pit. The creature’s impact threw hot orange embers and chunks of burning timber across the yard. Moving forward, his eyes fixed on the paralyzed beast, Former Coroner Ron watched as Carri retrieved the tiny Ziploc bag from her pants pocket and dropped it into the flames. In seconds the baggy, withered corpse of the tiny shrew was nothing but a mass of molten fur, flesh and plastic.
“Rusty, I need you,” said Carri.
Treading cautiously to the fire, Rusty watched as Carri’s eyes dropped to the old guitar in his grip. “Your mother brought it here for a purpose, Rusty. You know what you need to do.”
“Oh no,” Rusty whispered and felt the words catch in the back of his throat. He had the guitar back in his hands for the first time in years, a thing he’d assumed lost forever. It was one of the last links he had to his Granny. He wanted nothing more than to savor a few more moments with it, delicately touching the strings and turning it over in his hands again and again.
Once that thing sizzling in the pit had filled Rusty with an undreamt of fear, now he felt only anger and loathing. It wanted to take everything from him he loved, and he wanted to damn the thing to the deepest pits of hell.
Holding the Razor Baby down in the flames filled Former Coroner Ron with no uncertain joy, but an unfamiliar strain began rise behind his eyes. It had been so easy to pluck the thing out of the air and hurdle it light as a badminton birdie into the fire pit, but now that the thing had commenced to sizzle, he could feel it resist and he could feel its pain.
Former Coroner Ron’s nerve endings began to register the searing sensation of flames eating his flesh, the screaming agony of blisters rising over his skin. Sweat beading over his face, Former Coroner Ron bit down hard, refusing to relent. “Taste my hate, you motherfucker!” he bellowed.
“Rusty, you need to do it now!” Carri cried. Closing his eyes and looking away, Rusty inhaled a hitched breath and threw his Granny’s old guitar onto the fire. The pyre was so hot the flames instantly inhaled the instrument. He heard each string succumb to the fire and each twang was the cry of a wounded angel. Opening his eyes upon the final string’s retort, Rusty saw a great column of flames spiral upon and into the sky.
Rounding the corner from Main onto West Clay Street, Castro stabbed the brakes of the old Itasca as the gloomy night sky over the Little Gray Town became bright as midday. Their faces illuminated through the windshield, Paulus gave Castro a grin and a knowing nod as his brother hit the gas.
The agony of being burned alive was all Former Coroner Ron knew and the pain drove him to his knees. A scream escaped his lips as all air left him like a bellows and he toppled over into the grass.
Dawn ran to the great man’s side and laid a hand upon his matted forehead. Carri appeared beside them and attempted to lift the big man upright. Eyes rolling back in his skull, his head lolling about on his meaty shoulders, Former Coroner Ron fought to stay conscious. He shook his head, feeling the searing pain lift from his skin. Gasping for air, Former Coroner Ron knew instantly the creature was no longer in his grasp. Looking up, he could see the sizzling beast right itself from within the pyre, a silhouette of molten red against flickering waves of yellow and hot gold. Weakly lifting his right arm as he struggled to focus on the creature Former Coroner Ron felt an explosion of air from either side as his ears filled with the sound of great beating wings.
The giant owls covered the distance between Former Coroner Ron and the Razor Baby in a single beat of their immense wings. Neither Rusty nor Goltry could tell one bird from the other; they could only marvel at the great span of their great silver-gray wings. Before the Razor Baby could extract itself from the flames, the great owl to the Razor Baby’s right dove and dragged its talons over the creature’s blistered back. As the Razor Baby swiveled and lashed out with its charred claw, the other bird dropped and slashed from the opposite side. A brief and bloody dance evolved from the flames, the creature twisting and slashing, the birds dropping and raking, while three hapless humans could only stare helplessly and gape — that is, until the two demigods brandishing sword and spear burst through the open back door.
Screaming like berserkers, Paulus and Castro wasted no time on greetings, but charged for the broiling creature. Rocking back on his heels, Paulus hurdled the polished silver point of his spear at the Razor Baby and was shocked to see the creature deftly bat the weapon away.
Wheeling down from overhead, one of the owls dropped at Former Coroner Ron’s feet and instantly became Carri. “Doctor, we are missing the final catalyst,” she panted. “That must come from you.” The phantom pain had all but faded from Former Coroner Ron’s limbs and though his lucidity was quickly returning, Carri’s words were meaningless to him thanks to the distraction of the giant birds, the hacking and the slashing on the part of the demigods and the creature engulfed in flames—not to mention the fact the woman before him was utterly devoid of clothing.
“With the help of Dioscuri we can keep the Thelema Child distracted only momentarily,” Carri cried.
“I don’t understand,” he muttered. Glancing over Carri’s bare shoulder, he watched as Castro thrust his long blade at the Razor Baby only to have it batted away with such gusto that it threw the demigod into the rickety old fence. The aged row of slats bowed and rattled on impact, but did not break.
“I’ve spoken the words, the song has been sung. I’d hoped we could keep the creature at bay just a little longer, but time has not been on our side!”
Former Coroner Ron shook his head, bewildered. “It’s simple, Doctor, you must give up something—something that you hold dear!”
“I have nothing!” he screamed.
“Yes, you do, Doctor, you have your pain.”
In that instant Former Coroner Ron knew precisely of that which she spoke. Rising with aching difficulty, Former Coroner Ron turned and broke for the kitchen door. As he fled, he passed Rusty, his mother’s face now a sallow mask of shocked resignation like something swiped from a Munch painting.
Pounding through the empty house, Former Coroner Ron burst through the bungalow front door and down the path. Standing at the curb, its headlights ablaze and motor still running was the old and dilapidated Itasca.
Flying down the bungalow steps, Former Coroner Ron hit the motor home’s gantry at full speed and set the whole vehicle rocking. Stumbling inside, he cast frantically about until his eyes lit on his objective, just where he’d left it on the scarred dinette table. Taking hold of the tattered accordion file packed with the Cromwell case notes, forensic reports, morgue shots and toxicology screens, he spun about in the narrow confines of the old motor home and ran for the door.
The Razor Baby was trapped in the fire and could only squeal in consternation. The agony rippling over its hide was a thousand times more exquisite than the puckering boils brought on by the boy’s singing. Harried from above by the owl women it was just about to leap free of the blaze when the godlings came charging onto the scene. Now it had no hope of concentrating on an escape; the pain was too severe and the talons of the owl women and the sword and spear of the demigods too near. Lashing out, the Razor Baby batted the smaller of the two warriors aside and an opening appeared in their phalanx. As the Razor Baby flexed to leap from the little pit, the great fat man appeared and hurled a pile of papers into its face.
Sprinting over the deck, Former Coroner Ron charged forward and flung the ragged file folder into the crowded flames. Flying open mid-flight, Former Coroner Ron could only watch as the black and white glossies of a dead woman and her daughter, their flesh washed out and glossy, their hair matted with gray blood, drifted down into the fire, becoming bright orange feathers of flame.
Former Coroner Ron dropped to his knees and let free a bellow that would leave him hoarse for days. “Burn you bastard, burn!” And one had to wonder: was he urging the demise of the Razor Baby, or the file folder, his one constant companion for over a decade?
“What foolishness is this?” the Razor Baby cried to itself, as the papers fluttered and caught fire. Through the corral of flames, the Razor Baby saw the owl women widen their circle overhead and the demigods step back. Now was the time to jump, it thought. Striding for the edge of the pit, the Razor Baby could feel the cool caress of unheated air drift over the crown of its head.
Before the Razor Baby’s clubbed foot could breach the pyre’s ring of bricks, its rush to freedom was halted by a sudden, body-rending jolt. A screaming agony sprouted from the center of the Razor Baby’s chest. Looking down, it saw four immense talons, perfect duplicates to its own extending from the sizzling, blood-smeared peak of its rib cage.
Rolling its head about, the Razor Baby looked over its shoulder and its eyes met a pair of obsidian orbs, perfect matches to its own. A duplicate, the Razor Baby thought to itself, they’ve made of me a duplicate.
In that instant, the Razor Baby’s doppelganger jerked its talons free and watched as its opposite pitched forward into the growing flames. An instant later and the Razor Baby’s double leapt from the fire onto the trampled grass. As its own blisters began to recede and heal, it slowly took in the assembled crowd. Holding up its bloodied talons, it dipped its tapered snout toward the blood and took a casual sniff.
“Oh my god…” said Rusty under his breath, “What did we do?”
The new Razor Baby looked up at the sound of Rusty’s voice and once more cocked its head. It cautiously scanned the yard, then the back of the house, and then tilted its head up to the darkening night sky. It’s like a newborn thing, thought Former Coroner Ron. It’s curious.
Inching away from the fire, the duplicate lowered its head and it shuffled toward Rusty, Amanda and Former Coroner Ron. Paulus gripped the length of his spear and lowered it toward the creature; his brother did the same with his long katana. Dropping from overhead, Dawn and Carri came to light beside Rusty. At the sight of the naked woman and her little girl, Amanda’s pupils dilated, turning her eyes into black buttons as she pitched forward into her son’s unready arms.
A hush settled over the backyard. Then a distant siren’s wail rose up and over the rooftops of the Little Gray Town.
With all eyes on the duplicate Razor Baby, none were prepared when the original leapt from the flames, landing the flat of its stubby feet in the center of the other’s back, and knocking its assailant to the ground.
What erupted was a bloody melee between two perfectly matched creatures. Their movements so fast, their gestures so sure, all action was a complete blur. As the original’s burns healed, distinguishing one creature from the other became more and more difficult.
Simply tracking the lightning fast movements of the creatures was impossible. The duplicate would make a mighty slash, tearing up a yard of sod and hurling it into the air. The original would lash out and connect its terrible claws to the other, leaving three deep crimson streaks across the beast’s chest, its wounds oozing blood for all of a second before healing over. With each connected blow, the other would let loose a blood-curdling shriek. The sound of body blows and shrieking began to escalate until the little yard sounded like a monkey house in hell.
Grappling one another in a lacerated mess of maggot-gray skin and yard-long talons, the Razor Babies tumbled across the yard. Colliding with the northern wall of the woodshed, the entire side of the little building caved in and its little roof dropped down upon the roiling creatures. Springing free of the debris, a Razor Baby leapt back into the center of the yard, screeching in defiance.
“They are too evenly matched,” cried Paulus. “The ploy was brilliant, but they will destroy this town before one overcomes the other.”
Crouching down where Rusty knelt, warming his mother’s hand in his own, Carri wrapped her hands about the young man’s upper arm. “I’ve done all I can, Rusty, but the godling is right. The creatures will fight and fight and never stop.”
“What are we going to do?” Rusty cried. His mind raced. What could be done? Carri had uttered her incantation, his mother had arrived as though planned with his Granny’s guitar and Doctor Goltry had dumped that medical file full of all the old, dead pictures of Carri and Dawn. Had they come to this point, ending with a crazy alchemy that was never meant to work?
With the sound of crashing and screaming creatures of nightmare filling his ears, Rusty raked his brain. What more could he do? His mind spun back to the night he and Carri lay huddled close in bed, her vague inference; the need for a catalyst, the dream of his Granny, Granny’s guitar, the magic words, the fire, the singing, his singing, his playing and the dead shrew.
That shrew, it looked like the Razor Baby. The monster was frantic and voracious like the ugly little rodent. What was it, what had Granny said about them? They were voracious and venomous and…
“No more than a mouse is a rat,” said Granny. “Shrews are venomous, like a rattlesnake. Well, maybe not as poisonous as one, but nasty enough to turn a cat’s stomach nearly inside out.”
“I’ve never heard of a poison mouse.”
“It’s not a mouse, kiddo. It’s something different. More vicious, more hungry—they’re like the hummingbirds of the rodent family. They’re so bad that way I’ve heard stories about putting two shrews in a pickle jar over night and come morning there’ll be only one.”
“But if one ate the other, that would bring us right back to the beginning,” Rusty screamed to himself.
“They are too evenly matched,” the guy with the spear had said.
And a circuit connected in that tiny part of Rusty’s brain not already blown by the events of the last twenty minutes.
“Put two shrews in a pickle jar,” Rusty grinned.
Gently resting his mother’s hand on her chest, Rusty swung his guitar from his back and squatted back on his heels. It was silly and absurd and might very well be the last thing he did on this Earth, but Rusty applied the fingers of his left hand to the frets, his right to the strings and started to play that silly little song. The one he’d been struggling over for months, the song that unknowingly soothed the lonely and terrified spirit of a little dead girl, the song that brought her back to this world, the song that kept the first of those two things out there at bay, the song that was so sentimental and sublime at once.
The song that would open the door onto the red plain.
Rusty began to play, and he didn’t worry over the words, the notes, he just let it be—he just let it rise up from deep within him, that place he kept his memories of Granny: the time he first strummed a clean and solid chord and she clapped and laughed out loud; that day when he was 14 and he learned to replace an oil filter all by himself; that moment he first sat down behind the wheel of his very own pick-up truck; that first evening he spent with Carri, lovely Carri—all the moments of simple magic that comprised his deeply-drilled well of joy. He let the song arise from that place and he set it free.
A great wind came up and with it the air just over the fire pit took on a shimmer greater than any heat ripple. A womblike opening gaped in space inhaling the smoke and flames from the pyre. Framed by this tear in space, the great red plain with its eternal expanse of crimson dunes flickered into view. Above the sea of red sand, a sward of stars winked, more crisp and bright that those immediately hanging over the Little Gray Town.
The Razor Baby and its opposite paused in their clashing. As Rusty’s voice rose up and into the air, Paulus, Castro, Carri, Dawn and Former Coroner Ron watched as the creatures took a momentary quarter, staring as the creatures’ skin began to bubble. There was a beat where both creatures paused to look upon Rusty where he crouched on the deck. If they were going to join forces and attack Rusty, they hesitated too long, for in that moment a wave of boils sprouted, grape-like and pustulant, and raced over their respective hides.
Squealing in pain, the Razor Baby closest to the battered fence lashed out at its opponent who looked back just in time to dodge the blow. The former swung again, this time letting the forward momentum carry it forward in a loping gate toward the open duct in space.
Fast on its heels, the first creature tore after the second. Leaping over the guttering fire, the first Razor Baby landed hard on the sandy surface beyond and without a backward glance scrambled for the distant dunes.
The second creature paused at the edge of the pit, and turning about, took a half second to survey the other players in the scene before leaping into the sands.
Rusty slowed his playing as he watched the hump-backed creatures lope and scrabble after one another until they were lost in the rolling crimson dunes. Without a second glance, Rusty played the most difficult notes to his song: the delicate harmonics, freeing them like a virtuoso. As the notes slid from his fingers and resonated through the body of his guitar, a humanoid form rose out of the sand just beyond the rift opening. The Viceroy of Sand glanced at the battered ensemble, nodded, and without pause drew the seam in space closed like a curtain.
On his knees, Former Coroner Ron let his bulk rock back onto his calves and his knuckles flop onto the damp grass. He stared at the span of air above the quietly dying fire and felt his shoulders lift and his chest rise as though he’d been freed from the combined weight of ash and cinder that smothered Pompeii. His eyes started to sting, his vision to blur, and tears welled from behind his thick lower lids and cascaded over the rise of his cheeks.
At some point Dawn had retreated into the house found and Rusty’s sweats and a t-shirt. Sprinting back into the yard with Rusty’s bedspread and Granny’s old lime-green afghan from the couch, she slung the bedspread around her mother’s shoulders and then ran to Former Coroner Ron.
Resting the soft fabric over the big man’s shoulders, Dawn wrapped her arms about his bull-like neck.
“It’s okay, Dr. Goltry. You don’t have to feel sad anymore. We made the monster go away and I don’t think it’s ever going to come back. It won’t hurt anyone any more.”
“Yes, dear, I think you’re right,” Former Coroner Ron whispered.
“And you don’t need to feel bad. You don’t have to hurt any more,” she smiled.
“There’s going to be much less hurt in this world isn’t there?” Goltry asked.
“Yes, Doctor,” said Castor where he stood beside his brother Pollux at the fire. “You and that boy and these were-women have changed the mix for the better, forever.”