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21. A Monster or a Man 

The glow emanating from the glass dome hardly touched on the India-inked corner of the cellar. The movements of the Brinikin were muted, and Benjamin saw tracers, dull and long lasting—mostly due to his exhaustion, he figured—as the creature slowly pulled itself into a slack-shouldered crouch. With each move it made, the scent of rancid and rotted things gusted from the piles of muck and bones gathered in the corner, and the stench hit Benjamin hard, punched at him, attempted to drive him back from what he hoped was an escape hatch under the mud at his knees.

      The shotgun in Benjamin’s hands was pointed at the cornered monster, but he would not shoot yet. If it lunged at him, he would pull the trigger, but for the moment it was stationed just beyond defining glow, crouched and observant, maybe as scared of Benjamin as Benjamin was scared of it. He wanted light, wanted high noon to flood this chamber so he could get a good look at his first honest-to-god Brinikin. Or maybe he didn’t want that. He figured he was undecided on that point. He was wavering. To be or not to be a pussy, he queried himself.

      “Don’t want to look at me,” the monster said, its voice ripped and torn, gravelly with years of little use and rot. “Best not to look on Beanstalk Scalabrini.” Along with the statement came the rattle of chains. “Turned ugly, I have.”

      “Beanstalk Scalabrini,” Benjamin said, kneeling in front of the crack he’d discovered in the floor. The name brought to mind the vine stalk that had shot up out of Bingly’s main drag earlier, and Benjamin had a thought that maybe a theme had been established for his pitiful fantasy. He kept the shotgun pointed at the monster, kept his eyes pointed there as well. Where was Jack the Giant Killer, he wondered. Where was the giant? His stomach was trembling in fear, but he spoke up regardless, his throat piping high notes with plenty of vibrato. “Just want you to see what I got in my hands here, Beanstalk Scalabrini.”

      “Oh,” the creature said; then it giggled. Benjamin saw motion lines, like a frame in a comic book, but then its movement died down suddenly, and this action was accompanied by the jingle-jangle of chain links. Sounded like the monster had snagged itself on its own leash.

      Benjamin glared hard at the creature and its movements, trying to define detail masked by shadows. A nice klieg light would clear things up, bring on the clarity he needed. With the rattling of chains from the corner, he’d stumbled upon an assumption that, if true, made this whole situation very workable. In the face of uncertainty, monster hunters had to think on the bright side; otherwise, they’d be a mopey lot, prone to pessimism, and nobody liked a mopey pessimist.

      “What’s your name?” the monster asked, no longer crouched but moving about in an agitated state within the confines of the dim corner. “Do you have a name? Tell me your name.”

      “What sick bastard chained you up down here, Beanstalk?”

      There was  silence, except for the clinking of the chain, as the creature soft stepped deeper into the corner, calming its agitated movements somewhat. Probably not used to people talking to it, Benjamin guessed. He gagged at the stench that attacked his nostrils like bleach, a painful thing, physical. His assumption that the monster was chained up, confined to the corner, had to be true, didn’t it? He’d seen Beanstalk grab that rat and feast on it like the loveliest of edibles, and so it made sense that the stench stirred up was so god-awful. He wondered how big the pile of shit was, and how close he was to it. Or was he already hunkered down in it? He sniffed at the fingers he’d used to scrape at the floor crack.

      “Oh, jeez,” he said, wiping his fingers on his pant leg.

      To ease his disgust, he examined the crack in the floor. It was about five feet long. Two more trenches had appeared at each end of the crack at Benjamin’s knees, trailing off at right angles. Certainly looked like a trapdoor. Ibucus had left him down here to fend for himself, believing there was no way out. Could the Brini’ King not know of the sub-cellar below this one? Or was Ibucus confident in the aggressive, murderous hunger of the beast chained up beside the trapdoor? And how was one to go about opening a trapdoor like this? It was huge, and Benjamin could see no handle.

      Not even sure, he reminded himself, if it’s a damn door.

      He placed his hands on the crack in the floor, the shotgun held haphazardly in the hand closest to the corner, and then he lowered his nose to the muck-covered floorboards, nausea blooming in his gut as he sniffed at the crack. He could smell a hint of something besides the rank sludge covering the floor. A feathery whisper of air, very slight, wafted up through the crack from below. Seemed to Benjamin that it’d definitely be worth the effort and a couple gut-wrenching gag fits to dig through the layer of monster sewage to unearth the trapdoor that he was nearly certain lay underneath.

      He sat up and wiped the muck off the tip of his nose with his forearm. “So,” he said, eyeing the dim corner, “you’re guarding this trapdoor, are you, Beanstalk?”

      “Too many whats and wheres,” the creature mumbled. “Must follow the rules.”

      Benjamin felt his head begin to shake, that annoying unconscious denial of current events, as he counseled himself that this was not one of those situations where the hero had to answer the gatekeeper’s riddle correctly before he was allowed to continue on his quest. That would not be doable right now, not with the fatigue and the aching bones and the whirling thoughts and the dead girlfriend and the imminent failure. But then he remembered the shotgun in his hand, and this put some lead in his pencil, stiffened his spine a bit.

      “What rules?” he asked.

      “The rules,” the monster said, inching forward, “of being nice.”

      Its feet broke into a brighter ring of the atrium’s greenish glow. Beanstalk was still crouched, inching forward out of the shadows feet first. His bare legs, mighty long legs, straightened out, the border of light just touching his knees. The feet were a mess, ripped and covered in sores, and they were twisting and curling as if putting on a show for Benjamin. This was living flesh, however. Not the rotting meat of the walking dead.

      Between the scabbed knees, digging a trench in the filth with his chin, Beanstalk pushed his head into the light. Benjamin’s jaw dropped. He realized he’d harbored the slim hope, at the sight of fleshy legs and feet, that this might be a human imprisoned in the cellar. Some tortured soul. No chance of that now, not with its head being where it shouldn’t be. This was a full-blooded monster.

      Beanstalk’s chin plowed through the filth, moving bones and dead rats aside as it advanced. The eyes, sunken as to make the skull appear a mask, were trained on Benjamin. Except for those sunken eyes, the face was youthful. The frown on the lips was demonic, a snapshot of boundless agony. Children developed frowns like this, a tactic used to get what they wanted when they wanted it. The skin was wrinkle-free, the cheeks blushed with a hint of acne, the peppered first attempt at a mustache on the upper lip.

      “I’ll be,” Benjamin said. “You’re just a kid.”

      The head plowed along the floor, leaving a gelled wake of mucousy muck behind it, and Benjamin now noticed fingers interwoven in the ash-blond hair, long pale fingers with split knuckles and off-kilter joints, the same fingers that had snatched up the rat earlier.

      “I’m no kid,” Beanstalk said, the frown unmoving, the sunken eyes fixed and staring straight ahead. Benjamin knew whose head he was looking on. It was the head of his ex-best friend’s older brother. It was Ross Walker’s head.

      Above Ross’s head, a second face leaned into the light. The face was crowned with a stiff mess of black head hair, with a matching mess covering the cheeks and chin and upper lip. The visible flesh was caked with cellar dirt, dry and cracked. The head hung low between bony shoulders. The arms and legs seemed too long, folded back in on themselves like a spider’s. The eyes were tiny and sunken and lifeless, not with death as Ross’s eyes were, but with blindness, frosted with milky cataracts.

      “Trials and tribulations,” Beanstalk said, the esses whistling through his teeth, teeth that, like his arms and legs, seemed too long. When he opened his mouth to speak, parting the bushel of hair crowding his lower face, it looked to Benjamin like the gut of some poor animal split open to reveal its wet ribs. “All grown up now, I am.”

      He was a wasted thing. Shackles on his scabbed wrists. Skin drawn taut over his bones. Beanstalk released the severed head, and left it to rest in the muck between his feet. “Do you have a name?” he asked again.

      “You’ve eaten the rotten fruit?” Benjamin had to know this. He was having a difficult time deciding whether this was a monster or a man.

      “The good fruit is gone,” Beanstalk said. “I eat the bits and pieces.”

      “The tree got sick.”

      “Dalai Dae was ignored, just like Beanstalk. The both of us trapped down here. And me with nothing to eat except what they toss me. Bits and pieces, flesh not fruit. Used to be these chains allowed me a longer leash, and I could sit under her branches, press my body against her, and she sang to me, calmed my worrisome mind. But then the glass cage was built, and the chains were shortened. This imprisonment was bearable, in retrospect, when I was able to embrace Dalai Dae. Now it’s blindness, butchery, and filth.”

      “Why are you down here?” Benjamin found he was just brimming with questions.

      “Not like the others,” Beanstalk said. “But,” his face twisted with impatience, “you are not following the rules.”

      “What do you mean not like the others? What others?”

      “Not like the women folk.” Beanstalk flapped his long arms about, the chains clanging noisily. “They have no bones, and too many arms. And they’re especially mean.”

      “No bones?”

      “Wormy. They ate the bad fruit, and it turned them into ugly things.”

      “You didn’t turn into a wormy thing.”

      “No. I just turned ugly. Never said I ate the bad fruit, did I? Now,” he said, holding up a long-fingered palm, motioning Benjamin to keep quiet, “it’s my turn. Do you have a name?”

      It was decided, then. This was a man. No bad fruit, no monster. Benjamin felt his arm muscles relax. He hadn’t known he’d been holding the shotgun so tightly.

      “I’m Ben,” he said. The wasted man sat before him, his upper torso bent forward and his head tilted like an inquisitive dog. Looked like he was waiting for more, the “I’m Ben” not quite cutting it. “Benjamin August Weller.”

      Beanstalk lowered his bushy head, gathered his limbs around him, and rocked back and forth. Sounded like he was working himself up to a good cry.

      “All over,” Beanstalk mumbled from his fetal position. “You’ve come.”

      An image of his name carved into dark tree bark, the white meat of the tree glowing like bone, leapt into Benjamin’s mind. You’ve come. Benjamin August Weller has come. He didn’t much like the sound of that. Which kind of surprised him.

      Questions were bubbling up in Benjamin’s brain, one after the other. He wanted to know just who the emaciated giant thought Benjamin was. Wanted to know what it was that, now that he’d come, was over. Wanted answers to a myriad of questions, but what good was it to ask Beanstalk? The man was weeping, rocking his upper body forward and backward, his bushy face hidden away in his long fingers.

      Benjamin decided to forego his questions for the moment. He focused on the edge of what he hoped was a trapdoor in the floor in front of his knees. He slotted the barrel tip of the shotgun into the crack and plowed a ditch along the groove. The barrel tip thudded against the corner, and he pushed it along the next groove, carving a right angle in the muck.

      In his head, he was going over Scalabrini genealogy, trying to pinpoint a Beanstalk Scalabrini. Pointless, he knew. There was no Beanstalk. Who in her right mind would give a child such a ridiculous name? Had to be a nickname. Ibucus had sired quite a few children, all daughters, but information regarding births, not to mention deaths, in the family had to be suspect. Any spurious family tree that Benjamin may have etched in his head was certainly false. He wasn’t trapped in the cellar of a family of wine merchants. This prison he’d found himself in was none other than Frankenstein’s castle. There’d be no pinpointing a time of birth for Beanstalk. It was anybody’s guess how old he was.

      Beanstalk had calmed himself. He sat quietly with his head bowed, his hands resting on his knees, his long fingernails sunk in the sludge covering the floor. Whoever Beanstalk may have once been, Benjamin thought, that person was pretty much history.

      Beanstalk broke his seemingly reverent repose, uncurled his limbs, and, as Benjamin watched in amazement, stood to his full height and looked down on Benjamin. The man barely fit in the cellar, standing at what Benjamin guessed to be eight feet or more. Seemed he’d found the giant.

      “Don’t be afraid,” Beanstalk said. “Ugly as the devil, I know, but nothing to be afraid of. Here.” He reached down with his long arm, searched in the muck with his fingers, and grabbed hold of a metal ring that had been buried. He pulled, and after a few grunts of effort, the massive trapdoor rose, suctioning open with the messy accompaniment of the layered muck. The hinges at the giant’s feet popped and creaked with disuse.

      The suctioning release of the door agitated the filth and pushed a gush of stench up Benjamin’s nose. Benjamin sprang to his feet, slipping a bit before firming up his balance. Just beyond the toe of his boots were the first few rotting steps of a stairwell. It led into blackness, a depth Benjamin couldn’t begin to gauge. An earthy smell rose up, diluting the fog of sewer stench. Benjamin stared down into the black pit, and he wondered if he’d rather commune here with Beanstalk, talk of old times and eat rats, or descend that stairwell into, yes, once again, darkness.

      Ross Walker’s head sat perched on the rim of the pit, taunting Benjamin, double daring him to step down into the depths. Come on, Benny. Don’t be a pussy. Step on down. What? You afraid? Benjamin slammed his boot into Ross’s face. The head skidded and thumped down the stairwell into the yawning black.

      The angle of the sun had shifted, as it’s wont to do from time to time, and that’s what must have lessened the gloom in the cellar. Or maybe it was just that Benjamin’s spirits had risen, having booted his ex-best friend and nemesis’s brother’s severed head in the face, sending it down the dark stairwell. That’s what he’d wanted to do to Macey, the aforementioned nemesis, ever since he’d caught him with Brenda. Face-booting Ross in Macey’s place had felt good. And sometimes, Benjamin told himself, pretty good is all you get. He could see farther down the stairwell now, could see that Ross’s head had come to rest on the fifth stair, the sunken eyes indistinct enough to allow Benjamin’s lurid imagination to paint staring eyes where there were only dead ones.

      “You are such a pussy, Bennie,” Ross said in Benjamin’s head. “My grandma kicks harder than that, you big pansy. What is this? The fifth step? That’s as far as you could kick me?”

      “What’s down there?” Benjamin asked, looking up into Beanstalk’s cataract-sheeted eyes. The giant had the uplifted edge of the trapdoor secured with his hands, his long fingernails sunk in the wood. His bare upper torso rose above the door’s edge, his lower body shielded behind it. The shaggy whiskers on his face were twitching.

      Oh, jeez, Benjamin thought. Don’t let him start crying again.

      “No one’s gone down through this door, Beanstalk. Hasn’t been opened for a long time, all that shit piled on top of it, eh?” Benjamin gazed into the stairwell, listening for movement. “I need to find a lady. Not a tree, a lady. An old lady. Her name is Star Hobbs. She’s supposed to be able to help, but right now she’s, I don’t know, tied up or something. Held captive. I’ve got to find her. No reason for me to go down into that hole, man. No one’s down there.”

      “Trust me. They took her to the bottom of this stair,” Beanstalk said. “It’s been a pleasure bumping into you like this, Benjamin August Weller. Give my regards to Brenda.”

      Benjamin snorted, agitated and then amused by the giant’s dismissal. And then he became confused as to how the hell the giant could possibly know Brenda? Benjamin knew he had to get out of the cellar, and quick, or else he would completely lose his mind. He would have leapt down into the stairwell, but there was the problem with all the pitch blackness piled up on the steps.

      “So,” Benjamin said, “now I’m supposed to do what you tell me? Maybe I don’t want to go down there, Beanstalk. Maybe I’ve developed a phobia, okay?”

      Benjamin recognized the displaced stirring of emotion making Beanstalk tremble as he stood there holding open the trapdoor. It was sorrow. He was sad, his eyes loading up with tears again, just when Benjamin had thought the giant was all finished being a crybaby.

      “Beanstalk,” Benjamin said, pressing what he thought were the obvious facts on the giant. “Nobody went down there. Nobody’s been through this door.”

      Beanstalk grabbed a fistful of chain and shook it over the edge of the uplifted trapdoor so Benjamin could get a good look at it. “Don’t you think I know that?” he said. “Chained here day and night, year after year. I can’t see, but I hear everything. I’d certainly hear someone lift this door and descend, don’t you think?”

      “Yeah. Jeez.”

      “They took the woman you spoke of to the bottom of these stairs. I heard them. I hear them all the time. But now I hear Star Hobbs among them. They brought her there another way. They don’t need trapdoors and stairways. Not underground.”

      Who’s he talking about? Keeps saying they. Benjamin had it in his mind that Ibucus had Hobbs. But now that he thought about it, the Brini’ King had practically admitted that he had no idea where Hobbs might be. And why wouldn’t Ibucus need doors underground? The giant had to be talking about the vines. They’d had themselves wrapped around the old woman when they’d pulled the throne and Ibucus back into the ground beneath Main Street. Maybe Hobbs wasn’t in Scalabrini Hall, hidden away somewhere, in a closet or an attic like Benjamin had imagined. Maybe she was underground with the vines.

      “You talking about those weird vine thingies? Is that what has Hobbs?”

      “Vines,” Beanstalk said, slightly amused. “Only part plant. Mostly wormy flesh.”

      “Those...,” Benjamin began, and then had to stop and start again. “The others you mentioned. The boneless, wormy women.” There were images forming in his head. “Brinikin. The vines are Brinikin.”

      “They ate the bad fruit,” Beanstalk said, as if that would clear up any confusion. “Don’t know what Brinikin are. The vines, as you call them, are the daughters of the head of this broken household.”

      Benjamin imagined the brute ugliness of a single burrowing vine monster. And he remembered the thing he’d seen in the tunnel that he and Gilman had trudged through, the vines that had been racing along the tunnel toward him before he’d fallen through the dirt floor into the roots. He remembered the face he’d seen deep in the vines as they’d neared. He’d wanted to think of the vines as one dumb creature, a central bulb somewhere, a sinewy pod buried beneath the vineyard, mentally coaxed by the Brini’ King to do his will. Now he knew they were individuals who had once been human, once been women, Ibucus’s daughters, and this sickened him. Burrowing things with faces, with eyes—the eyes of the vine monster he’d caught sight of under Bingly had been the size of grapefruits—and mouths, with vines sprouting from every pore on their bodies, tentacles writhing around them, pulling them through the dirt.

      “My God,” Benjamin said, flushing the disturbing mental image from his mind. “Are they crazy? Why are they doing what Ibucus tells them? They’re killing people, Beanstalk.” And then, in an exhausted beaten whisper, “I think they killed everyone, man.”

      “Bad fruit,” Beanstalk said. “Rots the brain, gets in the flesh, and does funny things. Ibucus has used it, experimented with it for years, defiled the Lady with his ugly dealings. However, he is not the one telling his daughters what to do. Something pulls at Ibucus’s strings. He tortured and maimed his guinea pigs at the behest of his foul wife. But this was all after the Lady became diseased. Before that we’d been fair and kind, Benjamin. Long ago.” He paused, his head lowered. A tear dripped to his filth-caked hand at the trapdoor’s edge. “I didn’t know about the killing.” He lifted his blind eyes. “I don’t get out much.”

      The stuff about the Brini’ King’s wife and someone being fair and kind made little sense to Benjamin. He decided to concentrate on what he did know. “Ibucus has more than just those vines,” he told the giant. “There’s these cats, man. Little evil kittens, okay? And he’s raised the dead, I think. Force-fed them fruit, shoved it right into their heads, and they got...” He tried to pantomime the horrific visage of the bonemen, tried to come up with clear descriptives, but his brain wasn’t cooperating. Too tired. And stupid, he realized; he was gesturing to a blind man. “He’s got himself an army now, Beanstalk. They murdered everyone in Bingly...and, Jesus, I just...I don’t see how that’s going to help a sick tree get better.”

      Beanstalk dug a hand into his beard and scratched at his chin. “Back when I was unhindered, free of shackle, the Lady was not ill; she’d been healthy. But we knew things then. We knew how to care for her if she fell to some fungus, some rot. Ibucus is an imbecile, and the caretaker is...well…”

      “Caretaker. Ibucus called himself a caretaker. What is that?”

      “There’s only one caretaker at any given time. We could talk of this,” he shifted his weight, rocking back and forth, and this made Benjamin dizzy to keep his eyes on him, “but we won’t. There’s no time. I appreciate your bullheadedness. Just like your mother. You’ll go down these stairs, and you’ll free Star Hobbs, and you’ll—”

      Benjamin closed his eyes. His head began turning side to side again, denying the unpleasant possibility that this monster of a man, this Scalabrini, knew his mother. All this nonsensical data raining down on Benjamin was drowning him. He had to place some boundaries before his brain exploded.

      “You,” Benjamin said slowly, “do not know my mother.”

      A moment of crackly silence crawled by, and Benjamin knew the giant was just now realizing what had slipped from his whiskered mouth.

      “Never meant to ruin her head,” Beanstalk said. “What we did, we had to do.”

      “Stop it,” Benjamin said. The data storm had flooded his head. He could hear the roar of its turbulent waters, felt it leaking from his eyes, dribbling down his dirty cheeks. “Don’t.”

      “I could have tried to protect her, kept her by my side. But then”—Beanstalk lowered his head—“it wasn’t an option, now was it? Look at me. I can’t protect anyone. She was sent away, she was taken.”

      Benjamin stepped to the edge of the stairwell, brought the shotgun up and placed the tip of its barrel into the mess of hair on Beanstalk’s head, shoving it forcefully against the skull. “What part of stop it don’t you understand?”

      They held that pose for a minute or two, maybe an hour, time lost in Benjamin’s head. He was absorbing the tears that wanted out, reining in the weeping fit that was crawling up his throat.

      As a child he’d heard the rumors. He’d been good at listening at closed doors, eavesdropping where he wasn’t allowed, and he’d caught dropped words, frayed threads of hushed conversations. His mother had been sent over the hill, thrown in the loony bin, after crawling through town one night and hysterically admitting to a pregnancy she’d desperately not wanted. This was, after all, a woman the townspeople knew, and small towns like Bingly tend to take care of their own, right? A lone, young, soon-to-be mother had crumpled at the town’s benevolent feet, asking for what? Forgiveness? Asking for help? And Bingly took care of its own, all right. She’d been sent away, a lanced boil, wiped from the face of Bingly, forgotten, sent over the hill like the rest of the unfortunate matter-thee-nots. What Benjamin hadn’t known was that his mother had come down from Scalabrini Hall that night. Hard to believe. He didn’t want to believe this. But sometimes there’s a ring that accompanies truth, and Benjamin’s head was alive with it.

      One particular facet of the mythology built up around his mother’s exile, the part of the rumor he did know but had kept deep in his head, irretrievable until now, was that she’d fallen into a dementia of horror, recounting over and over to the people she’d crawled past on Main Street that she’d been defiled, she’d been held captive and raped by a monster.

      Benjamin blinked his eyes. He didn’t know how long they’d been standing in the overly dramatic pose of revenging offspring verses defiler. His arm was shaking with the effort of holding the shotgun pressed up against the giant’s lowered head. The tears had dried up. He brought his other hand up to help steady the gun. He felt his finger tightening on the trigger, and he forced himself to relax his kill thoughts. He demanded that his trigger finger not squeeze, and when that didn’t work, he pleaded with it. “You raped my mother,” he said.

      Beanstalk’s head came up, his face twisted in anguish. He didn’t seem to notice the tip of the shotgun hovering just off the tip of his nose. “No,” he said.

      Benjamin knew, a split second before the giant’s denial, that it wasn’t as simple as that, not as horrible as he’d leapt to assume. Can’t trust the gossip of small towns. Kernels of truth get broken up, and shit rushes in and covers each piece. His mother’s rape at the hands of Brinikin was just one of the broken bits of truth, a turd of a rumor that hadn’t flushed away. He thought of the portrait up in the gallery. The painting of his mother. Rape victims don’t pose for portraits, and rapists don’t hang portraits of their victims in their gallery, at least not in the world Benjamin was hoping he lived in.

      “She was part of this household,” Beanstalk said, seething at the filth that had dribbled from Benjamin’s mouth. “Rape? How did that get in your head? Who told you that—?”

      “Let’s not talk about my mother,” Benjamin blurted. One more word, one more revelation about how Benjamin was involved, his relation with this murderous clan, and he’d snap, his spine would break, his skull implode, and he’d be just another layer of muck on the floor of the cellar. He brought the shotgun down to his side and stepped back from the edge of the stairwell.

      “Such a pussy,” Ross said, glaring up at Benjamin from his perch on the fifth stair.

      Beanstalk was breathing heavily, enraged by the accusation that’d been thrown his way, but he was keeping his bushy mouth shut, which Benjamin was thankful for.

      Gazing into the stairwell, past the grimacing—it was grimacing at him, wasn’t it?—head of Ross, into the blackness, Benjamin thought he’d heard something. Something in the depths. A slithering sound.

      “I’ve just remembered something,” Beanstalk announced.

      Benjamin’s eyes sprang up to the blind giant. If he mentioned Benjamin’s mother again, there’d be hard, fast things shot his way.

      “There’s a legend,” Beanstalk went on, “a tale told about the construction of this house. This hill, this exact spot.”

      “Yeah,” Benjamin said. “The lumberjacks’ last camp. I know that story.”

      “Camp?” Beanstalk said. “Wasn’t a camp. An encampment big as this house, more like a small town. A mystery why the Lady chose this spot, but choose it she did.”

      Benjamin rubbed the back of his neck. He was sick of not understanding what anyone was talking about. “I thought,” he said, “the Lady was the tree.”

      “You thought right.”

      “But you just said the Lady chose this spot for the house. Why would a tree decide where to build a house? And if not why, then how? I mean...” He rubbed at his face, then shook his head. “I’m going to snap, man. This all such bullshit.”

      “Dalai Dae was here before Scalabrini Hall was built,” Beanstalk said.

      “What? Who the hell is Dolly Day?”

      “I’m sorry. I don’t know what people know anymore. I thought your—,” he began and then cut himself off smartly. “Thought you’d been told these things by now. You didn’t think we planted the Lady here, did you?”

      Benjamin’s head hadn’t stopped turning from side to side, and he doubted he’d be able to stop it this time. “I don’t know dick about any of this shit, Beanstalk. Okay? Are we clear on that?”

      “Oh.” Beanstalk clenched his hands on the edge of the trapdoor, kneading the wood. “Fine. You see, we go where the Lady goes. When she does go, which isn’t often. Hardly ever.”

      “Skip it,” Benjamin said. Those last mumblings from the giant’s mouth were so dizzying they had nearly made him puke. “Why are you telling me this shit, man? What is your purpose?”

      “You wanted to know how killing all of Bingly could help a sick tree. If the Lady killed those lumberjacks, seems to me that she’d—”

      “Okay.” Benjamin held up a hand. “I didn’t know that either. The tree killed the lumberjacks? I thought they ran off or something.”

      Beanstalk rolled his head, brushing the roof of the cellar with his forehead, clearly agitated with Benjamin’s pushes and tugs at his narrative. He leveled his head somewhat in Benjamin’s direction, his blind eyes hidden behind lowered lids.

      “A long time ago, there was a group of men encamped where we stand right now. They were attacked, pulled into the soil. Then they were fed upon...and the Lady grew. My point is, if the Lady took those lumberjacks to nourish herself, might be that Ibucus is trying to revitalize her poor health with vast quantities of blood.” Beanstalk rubbed at his face with one of his big dirty hands. “All this talking, this thinking. Making my dumb head ache.”

      It all clicked together in Benjamin’s mind as he strung a few observances together: The vines attacking people, digging into the flesh, and sucking up the fluids. The graves in the private cemetery just outside the vineyard, the grave he himself had crawled out of, used as holding tanks for excess blood. He whipped his gaze to the atrium. The heat had made it steamy inside, couldn’t see much of anything beyond the glass, but earlier he’d noticed the soil under the tree was wet, and he’d sworn it was damp with blood.

      “I think you’re right, Beanstalk. They’re feeding the tree blood.” Benjamin’s eyes pivoted slowly back to Beanstalk. “Those vines are sucking up blood, and then coming back here and...and—”

      “Excretion, my guess,” a breathless voice said from behind Benjamin. “Burrow under the tree and dump the blood into the dirt for the roots to soak up.”

      Benjamin spun around, tripped over his feet, and fell toward the deep stairwell. Beanstalk had reached over the edge of the trapdoor and had his hand, a hand the size of a serving platter, under Benjamin’s back, supporting him over the black pit. Benjamin’s trigger finger had apparently gotten happy, and a thunderous blast went off beside his leg, the steel shot just missing his teetering boot heels, taking out the first few steps of the stairwell, splintering them, making them useless things.

      Beanstalk’s huge hand levered Benjamin back to an upright position at the edge of the stairwell. A dark silhouette stood against the atrium wall—a slouching, heavy-breathing, messy-haired executioner. From one hand extended the mutation of bone Benjamin had come to know so well. Benjamin cocked the shotgun, bringing it up before him.

      Having caught his breath, the new arrival twisted the fat end of a walking staff, a staff that Benjamin had mistaken for a bone crutch, and light bloomed up into William’s face. He stood up straight and dusted his filthy flannel shirtfront, and he looked around, the green glow of the algae-plagued glass backlighting his movements, making him look like some vaudevillian clown.

      “Jackal’s ass stew,” William said. “Whose toilet did I fall into?”