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16. The Mirror’s Reflection 

The Scalabrini family had saved Bingly from certain death following the collapse of the logging industry, which had been the town’s pulsing lifeblood from the outset. Bingly, at its conception, had been a glorified workers’ camp, isolated in the rolling back hills of this lush, wooded county, and the town had grown from necessity as the gruff workers fetched their families to settle. There’d been no point packing up and moving to greener pastures, this mecca had been green enough to sustain the industry for generations. It’d been paradise.

      It’d been redwood country. Benjamin August Weller had seen pictures—black and white photos—one of which rendered two suspender-wearing lumberjacks standing beside a massive tree trunk, a long, double-manned saw held between them, its jagged teeth biting into the furry brown hide of the tree.

      Once the redwoods had been all but wiped out, Bingly had nearly been abandoned, left to rot in the raped countryside. The only people left in the township had been the diehards, the hangers on, the ones who had owned their houses, owned their land, and couldn’t sell their property without taking a loss, and so had no option, really, but to stay. Or maybe they just hadn’t wanted to move; maybe to them Bingly had epitomized homeland. And so, when the eccentric winemakers came and offered to save their town, not one question was asked, not one concern of the Scalabrini’s agenda was raised. The Scalabrini family had set up their vineyard, and they’d dumped monies into the town, building it up to even grander heights than during the peak of the logging boom. And Bingly had been lifted up once more. But as the adage goes, what goes up… Why’d the Scalabrini dynasty have to pick Bingly of all places? Could have set up in a livelier place, a place more centrally located, that’s for sure. Benjamin bemoaned poor little old Bingly’s fate as he was poked and prodded and steer deeper into the wild growth that surrounded the nest.

      They’d left the lower slope of Hog Hill and hacked their way into the wicker-weave of dead grape vines. This acreage was spiked with support rods, moldering wooden scaffolding that the once fruitful grapevines had climbed. Benjamin had seen the extent of damage the bone crutches were capable of as Elvis or the smaller gimp had preceded the troop and cleared the way, their edged forearms swinging in front of them like a pair of scythes, mulching grapevines and support rods, piling the debris up to either side of the newly wrought pathway.

      As their advance had begun to incline, Benjamin had known they were nearing the dilapidated Scalabrini mansion. He had examined topographical maps of the area, and he knew the mansion sat on a raised shelf of land in the midst of the fetid plantation. It’d made no sense to him that he hadn’t spotted the house from the grassy slope of Hog Hill. It should have been towering up from the odoriferous crop, demanding attention, like a cantankerous street preacher on his soapbox.

      Whatever misdirection had befuddled him back on the slope, he’d known he was bound to see the house of local legend, just as soon as the gimps cleared the dead bramble from his frame of view, and this anticipated sighting had thrilled him. Brinikin inhabited the house like lice, if legend held true, which, of course, it never did. Legends are frail things, Benjamin knew. Not every detail is exactly true to shape or background as told over the campfire or at bedtime. The true form of legend is usually a twist of its grand and gruesome model. These current events were no fairytale, after all, he told himself, and life was never as fantastic as it appeared in his head. Regardless, whatever number of Brinikin still survived, he felt certain the Scalabrini vineyard was where they’d be hiding, clustered inside the nest like larvae in a corpse.

      Dodd had moved to the rear of the foursome, and Benjamin had kept tabs on him, noting the evolution of his mutation, peering over his shoulder from time to time at the monster that Dodd had become. The arm bones had extended, and they’d proved too long for Dodd to walk like a normal man. The skeletal hands had dragged in the mulch left behind by the path-clearing gimps, and Dodd had stepped on the hand bones repeatedly until they snapped loose and were left on the trail behind him. It’d taken Dodd a bit of practice, but eventually he’d begun to use the radius and ulna pairings as crutches, which had slowed him down even more.

      Next, Benjamin had noted the advancement of maneuvering skills as Dodd had learned to lower his body, bend his elbows, and shuffle the bulbous tips of the crutches in front of him as he’d worked his legs furiously, speeding his gait greatly. He’d found that the farther he leaned forward the faster he’d advance, scuttling along the dirt like some oversized spider.

      Dodd’s brow had grown during the hike. It had become the familiar hat brim brow, encircling the skull and pronounced over the eyes. Benjamin had seen the cleaved skullcap scar earlier, so the brim had to be the result of mending bone, like a solder seam on a metal joint that grew thicker and stronger as more beadings were added. Dodd’s charred skin had toughened itself, grown layers until it mimicked the dark, weathered skin coats all the gimps wore. The less crisp flesh beneath the coat was red and raw.

      By the time the troop had come to a halt at the base of the steeper incline that led to the house, Dodd’s transformation was complete, and this made Benjamin’s stomach turn. Not that he much cared for Dodd or was saddened by the man becoming a monster before his eyes, but the burnt face of the man had burst in places, and each fresh wound’s depth was evident now that Dodd had finally caught up with the rest of them. Plus, there was an awful lot of milky pus dribbling about.

      Benjamin turned from the thing that had been Dodd. The vines and poles had been cleared. Their pathway led out onto a gravel driveway that meandered up the slope to the top of the towering landmass. The incline was such that the house was beyond sight, just over the rise.

      It must have been past noon. Benjamin was drenched in sweat, the dirt from the hike pasted to his skin. He certainly was not looking forward to climbing the driveway, even if his reward was the discovery of the nest. Even that Holy Grail was hardly worth hiking up the slope, tired as he was. Not only was Benjamin’s mouth dry; it was as if his entire insides had dried up. He needed water. Food and rest would be nice, but he had to have water soon, or he’d fold in on himself, blow away in the breeze, if only there was a breeze to cool his blistering skin.

      He’d had a plan to try and maneuver himself behind Dodd. The Browning was still slung over Dodd’s shoulder, held to his back by the strap across his chest. Benjamin figured he had an advantage over the gimps. He had hands. If he could yank the rifle from Dodd’s back, he might have a fighting chance against the threesome. He’d seen Dodd load the rifle earlier, when the man’s hands hadn’t been completely useless, so there were more than enough bullets in the gun to take these miserable zombies out. He’d wanted to time the attack for when they were inside the house, however. Didn’t know how he’d get inside the Scalabrini mansion other than by prisoner escort. But now all his plans were scrapped. He needed to concentrate on tramping up the rise, and he knew that once he reached the summit, he’d be far too exhausted to yank anything off anybody. He put one boot in front of the other on the dusty track that led up the slope, following the smaller gimp, its odor nauseating him. Elvis was behind Benjamin, urging him forward. Dodd galloped up the drive. Off to meet his new master, Benjamin figured, and taking the Browning with him.

      Halfway up the drive, Benjamin lifted his gaze from the gravel, and was treated to a blinding glint of light. After a few muttered curses and a couple seconds of blind marching, he cautiously lifted his eyes to squint at the glut of stressed framework, warped siding, peeling paint, and general disarray that were looming atop the upthrust nub of earth. The house was just now peering over the rise, looking down on Benjamin and the troop that dared to approach its perch, and with each aching step of Benjamin’s feet, more of the house came into view. It looked nothing like the empyrean dwelling Benjamin had imagined it to be.

      Years ago, he’d unearthed a newsprint photo, an article written about the family that had swooped down on Bingly and saved it from disgrace and ruin. The photo had been taken a long time ago, and the image was nondescript, grainy and smudged, but Benjamin had filled in the details, imagined the stronghold in grand scale with flawless design and quality workmanship. The Scalabrini family, from the day they’d moved in, according to the article Benjamin had found, had been a reclusive bunch, but during the beginning stages of Bingly’s fiefdom—that’s what it’d been, Benjamin figured, and he’d never come across anything that refuted his romantic medieval twist on Bingly’s history—they’d brought in the best craftsmen, builders and architects. Their castle, not to mention the surrounding acreage, had been plotted to perfection, and those plans had been executed with the utmost precision.

      Scalabrini Hall had been built on the same parcel of land where the last band of lumberjacks had long ago set up their temporary housing. Benjamin had read this factoid in the same article that had presented the photo of the house. Apparently, even as the industry ebbed, the supply of redwood nearly sucked dry, the Bingly lumberjacks would not let it go, would not pack it in, and that last crew of rough and tumble men’s men had built themselves quite a reputation as the ultimate of diehards. They’d worked for some Italian firm over in the city, and from what Benjamin had pieced together, the whole sordid affair had become something rather illegal, black-market timber, something about Japan paying top dollar for the precious wood. Made no sense to Benjamin at the time, and so he’d buried the trivial info, forgotten it pretty much, deciding it was more than likely that some wax-mustachioed, bowler-capped journalist had made up a juicy press release to sell papers. The meat of the story, the part that had interested Benjamin, was that this merry band of renegade axemen had set up their last camp exactly where Scalabrini Hall now stood. After the loggers had disappeared, ran off and dove into more promising avenues of work—or perhaps the same profession somewhere else, where the trees were rife and the liquor bountiful—their camp had remained just as they’d left it. Weeks later, the Scalabrini family had waltzed in and built their home right atop the campsite, entombed it.

      The house they’d built had been immaculate. Perhaps not as much as the house that had formed inside Benjamin’s head over his years of study, but close to it. Of the house in his head, the central structure was simple in design: plantation style, blockish, a brute of a home, perfectly square, one hundred feet to each side. It rose three stories high, its massive roof pitched steeply, with rooms seemingly rising to fourth and fifth levels, jutting dormers at varying heights, growing from the shingled sides of the main roof like mushrooms from rotting deadwood, structures, towers, and obelisks, rising above those. No one had ever been invited inside the mansion, the reclusive Scalabrini clan had never allowed tours, and so Benjamin had dreamed up and sketched many a floor plan for the strange third floor and attic, and the sub- and upper-level attic as well. He’d salivated at the thought of invading the house, climbing to the third floor and beyond, and investigating each nook, each cranny. The roof was a busy, crowded thing, with its dormers at different levels, its chimney pots and vents, its spiking towers, its wrought iron balconies and brass domed exhausts.  It was the roofline of some fantastic village, sliced off at gable height and placed atop Scalabrini Hall.

      At the front of the house, the east side, three huge columns rose from the lawn, supporting the broad portico above the main entry. The double doors were reached via curved steps that began well inside the columns station, leading up to a porch with detailed balustrade. The columns rose beyond the second-floor balcony, and they supported the third-floor porch as well, making the front of the house appear Greek in style. The three tiers of porches with their roomy outthrust balconies, the crafted balusters, and the wisteria trailing off the railings, made Benjamin think of Louisiana, the South and its Victorian/Gothic homes. It was a hybrid design, Benjamin figured, or maybe it wasn’t. What the hell did he know about architecture anyway?

      To each side of the huge central structure, to the south and north, stretched single-story wings. The hipped roofs were pitched shallow, cantilevered, the eaves protruding a few feet beyond the walls. These buildings were straight and narrow, their fronts recessed a good forty or fifty feet from the front of the central structure, but they were long. These were more pedestrian in their design, not as regal as the main hub, but to Benjamin the wings looked more livable. The first-level porch built around the main house wrapped around the outstretched wings, and French doors opened onto this. The north wing had its northern half filled with windows, glass from baseboard to roof beam. One massive chimney sat atop the gentle sloped northern roof, and a set of stairs led from the north end of the wing down to the garden. A cobbled path meandered through the blooms that spread eastward, edging up against the lawn that carpeted the welcoming stretch of land from front stair to cliff edge. And here, at the cliff’s edge, was where the photo had been taken, the shoddy newsprint photo of the house that was the basis for Benjamin’s aggrandizement. As he laboriously stepped up the drive, the entire house came into view, and he looked at it disapprovingly, as it was nothing like the house he’d built in his head.

      For one thing, the central village-like roof was gone. The roof that had mesmerized Benjamin years ago, smudged and blurry in the newsprint photo, with all its angles and chimney pots and peaks, was gone. A bald dome was the first Benjamin saw of the house, and it blinded him when he’d first lifted his gaze from the gravel. The reflective lance of light had attached him, tried to turn him away. The gleaming dome was made of metal or glass, ribbed with a framework of some sort. Benjamin saw the ragged remains of the house’s third story. The walls had been hacked away. The dome rose from within the interior of the main house, its dimensions near that of the house. Benjamin could see the huge dome was indeed made of glass, could see hints of things inside the dome, black and brown things, but nothing inside was clear, not unlike the blurry newsprint photo.

      The once white siding, what remained of it, was green with molds and creepers. The upper porches sagged. One of the columns had fallen over and been left to rot on the unkempt lawn. It looked to have ripped the third-floor balcony from the house when it’d fell. The south single-story wing was gone. The cliff on that side had corroded, fallen away, and it’d taken the south wing with it. The garden was a jungle. The front steps were covered in weed and wild brush. The front double doors were boarded up and unwelcoming. Seemed the framework of the central structure leaned a bit, as if some giant had come along and given it a good twist. Hard to tell what’s twisted and what’s not, Benjamin thought, as he felt a rumble beneath his boots. Felt like the same kind of rumble he’d felt in the tunnel under Bingly.

      Elvis used a crutch tip and pushed Benjamin toward the north wing stairs. A few blue sparks flowered and then sizzled hotly to the dirt. Benjamin was too tired to wince at the sparkling touch of the zombie. Too tired to worry about the things burrowing beneath him. 

Looking on his mother’s youthful, paintbrush-stroked face, Benjamin recalled a conversation he’d had with Nancy Turnkey. They’d been doing what they normally did in the afternoons before Gilman came home from work. And Nancy had struck that pose, the one she hadn’t known made Benjamin’s head spin, or maybe she had known. He’d hung out with her for two months—or had it been three?—and he’d never been able to gauge her complex inner workings. For Brenda, it’d been easy. She’d had Nancy pegged. Must be nice to have someone figured out like Brenda had Nancy figured out. But for Benjamin, Nancy had been a friend, and he certainly had never understood what made her tick. Maybe that’s what made friendship; the unknowing of each other, and the wanting to know.

      Nancy had been fiddling with the Mustang’s 351 Clevland engine in the driveway beside her house, wearing her light blue coveralls, her hair tied back, grease smears on her face, and her hands up on the edge of the open hood. She’d reached an impasse—a rusty sparkplug that’d been resistant to her torques of the wrench, if Benjamin remembered right—and she’d always preferred to talk her way out of these troublesome blocks. Out of the blue, she’d brought up the topic of Benjamin’s motherless upbringing, just as she’d brought up all topics discussed, as if continuing a conversation they’d started days before and hadn’t been able to bring to a close. Benjamin had been leaning in under the hood, his elbows on the upper fender, staring at Nancy. She’d had her arms up over her head, fascinatingly goddess-like.

      “You’ll be looking for her the rest of your life,” she’d said.

      “I know where she is. Don’t have to look for her.”

      “No, man.” Nancy had been staring at the wrench she’d placed on the engine block, imbuing it with some sort of magical goddess power. “She’s gone. Physically, she’s in the sanitarium, sure. Over the hill. But she’s gone, man. Left a hole inside you, you know? And that’s what you’ll be looking for. Looking for that mother figure that will fill your hole.”

      “Fill my hole. There’s a joke in there somewhere.”

      “Shit, no, Ben. Not what I’m saying, anyway. I’m saying you’ll look for her, but you won’t find her. Ever.”

      “Well, isn’t that a bucketful of happy,” and Nancy had busted up laughing. And now he stood staring at a portrait of his mother, completely flummoxed, wondering what the hell this painting was doing hanging on a wall inside Scalabrini Hall.

      “Looks like I found my mother figure,” he said.

      Elvis had shoved Benjamin up the north stairs and in through the open door. Benjamin had stumbled, catching a boot on the curled-up edge of a moldy area rug, into some sort of portrait gallery. Windows were stretched along the wall to his left, and heavy-framed paintings were hung along the wall on his right. A dusty divan, upended, was centered in the narrow hall. Armchairs and end tables sat haphazardly through the room, most of them with at least one broken or missing leg. Elvis had told Benjamin to wait, and then he’d stomped off in search of Ibucus Scalabrini, and that’s when Benjamin had turned and found his paintbrush-stroked mother looking at him.

      At the end of the long hall, opposite the entry, was a fireplace. Despite the day’s heat, logs had been piled up inside the fireplace, and a tremendous blaze was popping. On each side of the fireplace were glass-paned doors, open wide for handless gimp traffic. From the next room, Benjamin could hear the scraping of bone on bone.

      He gazed up at his mother’s face, wiped sweat from his own, and then he wiped his palm on his pant leg. The room was hot and dank, and his pores unleashed more sweat, stinging his eyes. Need water, he thought, staring dumbly at the portrait. He reached out his hand and touched the canvas, wanting to make sure it was real, not some impish trick commissioned by the dead. Seemed real enough. He leaned heavily on the walking staff and felt some altered state of being settling on him, making his eyelids droop, making his mind calm and thoughtless.

      The bones scraped in the next room.

      When his sweaty grip on the staff slipped, he jerked awake, spun around. He’d lost some time, misplaced it in the folds of his exhaustion somewhere. Behind him hulked Elvis, a devilish gleam in his bloodshot eyes, as if perhaps he’d been contemplating some villainous deed. He stepped back once Benjamin turned on him.

      After prying open his crisp, pus-oozing lips, Elvis said, “I was told you have to put the stick down.”

      “My ass I’m putting the stick down,” Benjamin said, trying to shake the fuzziness of sleep from his head.

      “Listen, you little—,” Elvis began, but then a leather-clad arm shot out from behind Benjamin, and a pink fitted glove tore the staff from his sweat-slick grip. Benjamin twirled around, all this spinning bringing on nausea and dizziness. Standing directly in front of him, backlit by the roaring fire at the end of the hall, was Ibucus. He’d discarded the suit of armor, dressing himself in… something else entirely.

      What he was wearing gave Benjamin the impression The Brini’ King was overly confident in his fashion sense, and much too glutinous in a vast, era-sweeping wardrobe. Benjamin couldn’t tell if he was dressed to the nines, or if this was casual, everyday, prance-around-the-house attire. It was a layered ensemble, its base a woman’s wedding dress, clinging to his ragtag body like a second skin. The fabric was silk, Benjamin’s best guess, shiny and smooth, and it’d once been white, evidenced by small unsullied patches here and there, but now it was mostly stained by blood and smeared with dirt. The train was tattered, some of it torn away, leaving separate flaps of fabric trailing every which way, each strip of cloth a different color depending on the amount of blood soaked into it, and this, strangely enough, brought the words “festive” and “flamenco” to the forefront of Benjamin’s addled brain. Under the multihued remains of the dress, Ibucus wore loose-fitting blue sweatpants with red stripes up the sides. The cuffs of the pants were stuffed into the unlaced tops of basketball sneakers. Around the waist was a rodeo belt, hardly notable against the brunt of this fashion nightmare, except for the belt buckle, which was the size of a dinner plate and hanging low. He was wearing a leather jacket, and Benjamin recognized this as Stella’s motorcycle jacket. Stella was a big woman, and the jacket hung heavily on Ibucus’s rotting shoulders. Benjamin noted the Rolling Stones tongue Stella had stitched onto the right shoulder, and the words “Bike or Die” sewn into the breast. The stiff, unzipped cuffs were caked with what Benjamin figured might be Stella’s blood, and sticking out of those cuffs were the monster’s pink-gloved hands, gripping the walking staff greedily.

      Strangest of all the apparel, in Benjamin’s opinion, was the wide-brimmed sombrero Ibucus had pulled tight on his ruined scalp. The straw weave was earthy brown. The hat was jauntily tilted. And just below the broad brim of the sombrero blinked the electronically enhanced eye of Ibucus. The cartoon lips, gaudily painted red, were set in a firm line, denoting agitation with just a tinge of expectancy. Then the lips curled up at either end. Regardless of how they were set, a firm line or a smile, Benjamin wanted to grab those lips and yank them free of their captor.

      “Mechanic,” Ibucus said, directing himself to Elvis, who stood behind Benjamin. The King of the Brinikin pointed a pink finger at Benjamin. “Is this the boy then?” He spoke in his singsong tweeter, and this grated on Benjamin’s nerves.

      “Yep,” Elvis said.

      “You’re sure of the name?” Ibucus said, taking the staff in both hands, delicately tapping its tip against the mildew-sodden rug.

      “Yeah,” Elvis said, stepping up beside Benjamin, glaring down at him. “Little shit used to work for me. Worthless pile of snot. That’s his name, alright. Benjamin goddamn stupid ass Weller.”

      “Uh, yeah, hey,” Benjamin said, and he glanced into Elvis’s face and then quickly turned away. He’d have to learn not to do that. Especially when they were standing so close. “Ease up, El. Jesus.” He looked to the shadowy patchwork of the face under the sombrero’s frayed thatch fringe. “Gotta have some water, pronto. Any chance of that, puppet?”

      “Oh.” Ibucus wedged the staff under his arm. His pink glove dove into the insides of Stella’s jacket. “Anticipated your thirst.” He fumbled a can of tomato juice from an inside pocket, handed it over to Benjamin. “Brought you a bit of robust refreshment. Put a zip in your zag, this should.”

      Benjamin did not take the can, though the thought of the juice did make his mouth water. The label on the juice can was faded and years old. “Water, puppet. I need water.”

      Ibucus shoved the can at Benjamin, his intonation gruff with impatience. “There’s water in it.”

      Benjamin grabbed the can, brought it back over his head, and threw it at the long wall of windows. The can ruptured, splaying red juice, clumpy and odoriferous, across a few panes.

      “See?” Elvis said. “Kid’s an asshole.”

      Benjamin breathed deeply, and then did it again, hoping to bottle up the rage he was experiencing. He had an agenda, didn’t he? He wasn’t some dust mite floating through this corrupted gallery. He was a monster hunter. Hobbs was here somewhere, and he was supposed to rescue her. Plus, there was that thing about him being brought before the lady underground, or something like that. He had plenty on his plate, and there was no time to lose control. Had to keep himself together. Had to avoid being a pussy.

      “I’m here to see some lady that lives underground,” he said. “Just take me to her.”

      Ibucus, a smile on his cartoon lips, lowered his head a bit, looking closely at a glove seam, acting coy. He said, “We’ll talk a bit first, if that’s hunky-dory with you, Mr. Weller.”

      Elvis was chuckling, pus spewing from his nose.

      “Get this son of a bitch outta here,” Benjamin said, nodding toward the zombie mechanic. “Then we’ll talk.”

      Elvis jerked his gaze to Ibucus. Benjamin stepped off, leaving the two monsters to stare each other down. He walked over to the divan, righted it with effort—an antique, he noted, heavy as hell—and then sat on its torn crimson cushion, a brumous dusting of mildew rising up around him.

      Ibucus had shoed the mechanic off, and Benjamin watched as Elvis lumbered along the rotten flooring, his bone blade tips dragging through the wood behind him. He exited through one of the doors beside the fireplace as Ibucus sauntered up and stood before Benjamin, one pink glove on his wedding dress hip, the other clasping the staff near its gnarled crown.

      “So,” Ibucus trilled, a bit higher in pitch than normal, excited for some reason. “You bring this,” he thumped the tip of the staff against the floor, “into my house?”

      Benjamin stared up at Ibucus, no idea how to respond. He decided on an old tactic from his youth, used whenever one of his foster parents had confronted him concerning illicit property: pornography, closeted cases of beer, that sort of thing.

      “It’s not mine,” he told Ibucus.

      “Christ’s balls,” Ibucus said. “I know you’re the boy I saw in town with the witch-whore and,” he lifted the staff and shook it, “William Growling. You’ve got the stitching.” He leaned toward Benjamin and ripped a strip of tattered sleeve from the stitches. “See there? The stitching.” Ibucus backed away. He brought a pink glove up and rubbed at his temple just beneath the brim of the sombrero. Looked to Benjamin as if the monster was thinking. And it looked like it hurt.

      “If you’re the boy that William was protecting,” Ibucus went on, “the boy the witch-whore stitched her magic into, and if you are Benjamin August Weller,” he lifted his face from his pink palm, then went about drawing equations in the air with his pink finger, his electronic eye flashing wildly, “well, then, something’s afoot now, isn’t it, Ben?” He looked down at Benjamin. “Mind if I call you Ben? Or do you prefer Benji? Benwah? Benny?”

      “Christ’s sake, puppet,” Benjamin said. “Just talk and get it done with. I’m here to see the lady underground.”

      “You are so right,” Ibucus said, pacing in front of the divan. “Can’t keep the Lady waiting. It’s just that I get so little time to myself these days, so few ticktocks to do with as I please. It’s always Ibby do this, Ibby do that. Ibby put the kettle on, Ibby bring the linen in, Ibby be a darling and sweep the floor. Is a man’s work ever done, Mr. Weller? Can I ask you that? The arduous work of war? The pillaging? The housekeeping? The raping? And, good lord, who knew dust could accumulate so quickly? I certainly didn’t.”

      Benjamin wanted food and water, wanted to curl up on the cushions and sleep for a day. But he felt far too compromised. His muscles were tense, and his stomach was knotted. Sitting down on the divan had been a bad idea. He stood and walked past the pacing Ibucus, nearly tripping over the bloody train of the wedding dress.

      “Just a few moments of your time then,” Ibucus trilled, eyeing Benjamin, “before we deliver you to the Lady. Need to sort some things out in my tin can head, you know?”

      The room was definitely a gallery, or it had been at one time. On the wall opposite the windows, portraits were displayed side by side. Benjamin stepped past the portrait of his mother. He thought it best not to confuse matters more than they already were. Ibucus seemed to want to know exactly who Benjamin August Weller was, and Benjamin was beginning to feel as if he didn’t know the answer to that. If he were to point to the portrait and whimper, “Mama,” the King of the Brinikin might call on his speed gimps and demand, “Off with his head.” Benjamin stepped up to the portrait that was next in line, the one to the left of his mother’s, a few steps closer to the fireplace, closer to the scraping bones in the next room. He could see, with a quick glance, the dim room through the open glass-paned door. The shifting ambers of hearth fire faintly lit the interior.

      The painting he stood in front of was framed in heavy carved oak, the curly grooves packed with grit. Grime and dust had filmed the canvas. Benjamin plowed a ditch in the dust with his fingertip. This was a painting of a woman, also. Good looking, regal, real pale, not a hint of a smile. Ibucus had moved up behind him. Benjamin could smell him like some unwanted haunting, some long-dead sewage worker with an eye on vengeance.

      “Why’d you kill everyone?” Benjamin asked, keeping his eyes on the portrait.

      “Ah,” Ibucus said, wafting the spoiled scent of his breath over Benjamin’s shoulder. “Secrets, child. People die to ensure secrecy. The major cause of death in the world today. A technique used through history. Nothing new. Question answered. Next question.”

      Benjamin closed his eyes. The birdlike trill of Ibucus’s speech stung his frayed nerves like saltwater dumped in a ripped open gut. “What are you keeping secret?” he asked.

      “Good question.” Ibucus was gazing at the portrait, sinking into some kind of reverie, the brim of the sombrero folded up against Benjamin’s ear. “You gaze upon my grandmother, Samantha Alexandria Scalabrini. Old money. Piles of it. Bitter woman. Last pure blood, before the Despicable One began flipping over peasants like flapjacks. I believe old Sam died in some horrible accident. Nothing ever happens au natural round here. I might recall how she died, given time.”

      Benjamin had cleared most of the grime from the canvas. Tree limbs surrounded Samantha, and it looked as if she’d climbed up into the low branches of a tree for the sitting. Her eyes were the lightest blue, and they shone from the canvas, some trick of the light filtering in from the bank of windows behind Benjamin. In one pale hand she held a dark book, the other hand resting on its cover.

      “The secret?” Benjamin asked.

      “A secret, by definition, child, is known only by a select few.”

      “Who knows the secret?” Turning from the portrait, crossing his arms, Benjamin found he’d become quite determined to crack this nut.

      Ibucus had backed away a step, the upper half of his monstrous face in shadow under the sombrero brim, a foul smile on those cartoon lips that were oh so not his own. He still had the staff secured in one pink fist, the other hand flitting like a torn-winged butterfly beside his hip.

      “This is not how I imagined our conversation progressing, Mr. Weller. I was to get in a few questions of my own. Somewhere. Slip them in.”

      “Tell me the secret.”

      “For me to know and you to die for.”

      “See? You’re going to kill me, puppet. May as well tell me the secret, eh?”

      “Not going to,” Ibucus stumbled over the next word dramatically, “k-k-kill you, child. I don’t do that sort of thing. Below me, the killing. You townspeople think of me as a grape farmer, capable of the basest activities. True enough, I am an enologist five times over, skills and talents, oh my. I could press honey from a dung beetle, if I so chose. But I come from money, Mr. Weller. I am no simpleton, I can assure you that. I’ve monsters to do my killing.”

      “So what’s the secret?”

      “Not telling.”

      Benjamin was focused on that lone arcing socket, sparking blue, blinking red. Looking at Ibucus this way, staring into that mechanical eye, had sunk him into a near-spellbound state. The electronic spark seemed to recede further into the depths of the reinforced skull, and Benjamin was following it in. He shook his head, breaking the stare, losing the battle, and he glared out the wall of windows over Ibucus’s leather-jacketed shoulder.

      William had sent him down into the hole after Hobbs. Benjamin had a job to do. He was on a mission. A short-term goal, as Nancy would call it. He needed to find the old woman. She knew what was going on; Benjamin was willing to bet on that. She knew the secret. If Benjamin could locate her and if she were still alive, she’d be able to tell him what he should do next, give him his next assignment. Standing around talking to this zombie puppet was not helping matters. He had to stay focused. Stop wasting all this time.

      He moved down the gallery, toward the popping fireplace and the scraping bones. Ibucus followed at his heels. Benjamin pushed some dust off the next canvas. An unnervingly thin young man looked out from the portrait, dressed finely in one of those old puffy shirts and boot-tucked breeches. A hawk had its talons clamped on the thin man’s forearm. The man’s floppy forelock wispily covered his left eye, the remainder of the regal hairdo shoved up under the overhead leafy branches of a tree, and a thick tree trunk edged the right side of the painting. To the left of the thin man stood a dark steed, a giant hulk of a horse, bridled and dressed for the hunt.

      “And that,” Ibucus informed Benjamin, “is the Despicable One. Keep meaning to burn this foul painting.”

      Benjamin saw Ibucus was lapsing into a flow of memories, his cartoon lips a pair of salted slugs twisting into a frown. Benjamin moved to the next portrait. He was close to the glass-paned door that opened onto the next room. Inside the room, Benjamin could see the snouts of various animals, which made him feel quite uneasy until he realized these were trophy heads hung on the walls. He could see a door opposite the glass-paned door. It was closed. The fireplace was a throughway hearth, opening out into the trophy room, as well as the gallery. Benjamin could just make out the “long coat and fedora” of one of the gimps standing beside the trophy room hearth, its crutches extended into the blaze, honing an edge as it methodically scrape, scrape, scraped one long arm bone against the other.

      The glass-paned door opened toward the gallery fireplace. Piled between the lower panel of the door and the brickwork of the hearth was a small bed of rumpled blankets. Within the shadowy folds of the blankets, Benjamin saw glinting eyes. Feigning interest in the portrait beside the open door, wiping dust from its canvas, pretending to listen attentively as Ibucus prattled on about his wife, the subject of the canvas of current discussion, Benjamin lowered his chin, twisted his focus to his left, and stared at the mound of dark fur nestled within the folds of blanket and shadow beside the hearth.

      He could see it was a cat, but the light in the corner was dim. Hard to make out exactly what the cat was doing, although, Benjamin was sure, it was up to something dastardly. Some sort of activity. Its body was big, twice the size of any cat Benjamin had ever seen. Its fur was bristling with nerve-twitchings, its eyes half-lidded, the left eye filmed with cataract and oozing a great amount of thick milky tears. It lay with its watermelon belly up, its hind legs stretched out, the right one jerking a bit. The bloated belly was rippling with inner activity. The blankets were soiled with blood and afterbirth, most of it dried to the course wool.

      There was a kitten in the blankets, held under the protective paw of the cat. Benjamin watched as the mother cat twisted its upper body and placed both of its front paws atop the kitten. It glared up at Benjamin, as if he were some sort of threat. The cat applied pressure on the kitten, brutally pushing its head into the blankets. The kitten let loose the tiniest, frailest of mewling protests, almost silent with its head shoved into the blankets. The mother cat, apparently deciding Benjamin wasn’t as much of a threat as she’d supposed, went on about her business. She stretched her neck, brought her bloody muzzle to the backside of the kitten, and ripped into it with her teeth. And now Benjamin could see that the kitten was only half there, its tail, rump, and hind legs already torn away and eaten.

      Good Christ, he thought. Monsters be damned. Right here’s the real horror. He’d turned and watched the mother cat and its kitten, no longer concerned with faking interest in the portrait on the wall. Ibucus noticed this refocusing of attention, and he moved up behind him. A lump the size of a baseball had formed in Benjamin’s throat. He forced back the tears that wanted to flood his eyes, wondering at the effect this gory feasting had on him.

      “That’s what cats do, child,” Ibucus said in singsong at Benjamin’s shoulder. “See there, the little one? That’s a runt,” as if that explained everything.

      Benjamin stepped up to the blankets, toed the mother’s paws away, gently placed his boot heel on the kitten’s head, and, adjusting his weight, crushed it into the blankets until he heard the crack of the skull, felt the lifelessness of it.

      “Ah,” Ibucus said, his lips beside Benjamin’s ear. “Don’t you have the sweetest of hearts. She will eat others, however. She’s eaten scores already.”

      Benjamin turned to Ibucus, too close for his twisting stomach to take. He felt his mouth flood with saliva. Not again, he told himself. A monster hunter does not puke with every spurt of guts, every approach of zombie.

      “What is wrong with that cat?” he said, repeatedly swallowing saliva, fighting against this show of weakness. “Can you at least tell me that, puppet?”

      “Misty,” Ibucus said, acting the drama queen, offended by something said.

      “What?” Benjamin felt the vomit factor decrease. Faking a glance at the blankets, he peeked into the next room. He was standing in the doorway now, and he’d grabbed the doorknob to keep his balance when crushing the kitten’s head. He could see that what he’d thought was a door on the far wall of the trophy room was actually a tall mirror, framed ornately. In the mirror he saw the reflection of a narrow door situated directly beside the open doorway he stood in. The narrow door was closed and, he was hoping, unlocked.

      He also caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He turned and confronted Ibucus once more, not wanting to look at the beaten, bloody, filthy kid he’d caught sight of in the mirror’s reflection.

      “Misty?” he said, batting the sombrero brim out of his face, Ibucus’s patchwork mug inches from his own. “What are you talking about?”

      “Her name is Misty.”

      “The cat?”

      “Yes.”

      “You named the cat Misty?”

      “Yes.”

      “Like I give a rat’s ass what you named your cat? What’s wrong with it, puppet?” Benjamin took a step into the doorway, away from Ibucus. He could hear the stirrings of the gimp beside the trophy room’s hearth.

      “She got into some bad fruit,” Ibucus said, staring pitifully at the cat in the wedge between open door and fireplace. Benjamin could see, through the lower pane of glass in the door, that the mother cat had gone back to ripping its offspring’s guts from the lifeless furry envelope. “Hasn’t been the same since. She’s birthed many litters just lately.”

      “Yeah,” Benjamin said. “I’ve seen those kittens around.”

      “We gave up counting after the first hundred, or was it two?” A tilt of the monster’s head. “Or did we ever count? Anyway, it’s the fruit, you know. It’s turned, spoiled, and it has bad effects when consumed. Or good effects, depending on how one looks at it.”

      “You don’t say.” Benjamin leaned back slightly, and glanced into the trophy room. He could see it was Dodd—or at least he thought it was Dodd; they all looked pretty much the same—warming his bones by the fire. He straightened and turned back to Ibucus.

      “Feed the fruit to the recently dead,” Ibucus went on, “and alakazam, they become my fierce bone men.”

      “Can’t feed a dead man, puppet.” Benjamin tensed his muscles. Had to make this work. It was now or never.

      “No, no.” Ibucus turned his gaze from Misty to Benjamin. “Slice their skulls open, shove the fruit into their dead brain, stuff it in. Stuff, stuff, squish, squish. And then sit back and watch the electricity jump and flow and sizzle. Must burn the skin off first, allows the mutation, a minor, regrettable requirement. And I’d only happened upon this technique in the last year or so. A decade of experimentation preceded my success, the castoffs of which you and your fellow rednecks, if you don’t mind me calling them that, deemed Brinikin. All shapes and sizes they were, my failures. Uncontrollable rabble. Years of drudgery I spent in my laboratory, which, regrettably, is now destroyed, along with the presses and the casks of my other, much more lucrative operation, what with the crumbling of the south wing. No one appreciates the toil and torture that precedes success, don’t you find that true, Mr. Weller?”

      Benjamin couldn’t listen to the monster standing before him. The stuff coming out of his cartoon lips was beyond fantastic, some sick Frankenstein yarn. Maybe, if the Brini’ King hadn’t said “laboratory,” Benjamin wouldn’t have stopped listening to the absurdity battering up against him in flesh-slashing affront. Benjamin had to focus his energies elsewhere. He was on a mission, after all.

      Ibucus continued: “When the fruit got into little miss Misty here,” he turned his gaze back to the cat, “it went to her stomach. Affected her outer physicality little, if any. She’s the same old tough-as-coffin-nails, impervious lioness she’s always been, bless her soul, although no doubt taxed from this gushing of life she’s been experiencing as of late. The bad fruit provided seed and affected what was malleable inside her, and there does not seem to be an end to the output. Poor, dear little Misty-wisty.”

      Benjamin had slowly backed through the doorway during Ibucus’s outrageous dialogue, and he now pulled the door closed behind him. Ibucus turned his attention from the cat and lunged at the door, the sudden movement knocking the sombrero from his messy skull. He attacked the glass pane of the door with his wet face, rebounded an inch, surprised to find this barrier between himself and Benjamin. The electric current in his eye socket arced rapidly, and he smeared the glass with red paste as he opened his cartoon lips to yell, to command and orchestrate his underlings. Benjamin turned from the gross display pushed up against the glass, eager to escape.