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Other titles in the Bloodhound Files series:
Undead to the World: The Bloodhound Files (Bloodhound Files)by Barant
My name is Jace Valchek, and Im pretty sure Im going insane.
Either that, or everything I know is wrong. Im not the woman I think I am, the place I live isnt what I thought it was, and everyone I know is an imposter. Whats really, truly, crazy, though, is that right now both of those ideas are running neck and neck in the what-do-I-believe race, and the fact that Im seriously considering option two is really tipping the balance in favor of option one.
Bear with me, okay? Things are going to get really weird before Im done, so Im going to start slow, with just the basic facts. Here we go.
I live in a small town: Thropirelem, Kansas. If you live in a small town too, you know what I mean when I say that it manages to be completely mundane and boring and flat-out strange at the same time.
Its all about the people that live There, of course. The town itself is the definition of ordinary, but some of its residents are a little odd. And yes, I include myself in that category.
Im thirty mumble mumble years old, single, reasonably attractive, and I work part-time at both the local diner and the hardware store. I briefly flirted with a career in law enforcement when I was younger, but I flunked the psychiatric evaluation. A few years after that, I flunked another psychiatric evaluation—also conducted by the state—but this time my failing grade briefly landed me in a locked ward. Im much better now.
More or less.
I still have a fascination with the law—and psychology, for that matter—but thats under control. No, whats more troubling is my interest in a television show: The Bloodhound Files.
Okay, its more like an obsession. Ive never missed an episode. I own every season thats been released on DVD and have every comic, toy, and novelization. Or I did, until I had to get rid of it all as a condition of my release. At least I made some money on eBay.
I guess my problem started because of the heroines name: Jace Red Dog. Jace (short for Jacinda) isnt a common name. And were both tall brunettes, though shes got Native American blood and Im from Spanish-Polish stock. But it wasnt her name or appearance I really identified with: it was her style. Red Dog kicks ass and speaks her mind, and nobody ever messes with her without regretting it. My kind of woman.
So much so that I kind of forgot who I was, for a while.
But Im better now, right? All the doctors say so. I have a place of my own, employment, even a dog. Im doing fine.
“How you doing?” Charlie asks.
“Ill be doing better with another beer,” I say, and knock back whats in my glass. He nods and pours me a fresh one.
Charlies my best friend, I guess. He owns and runs the local tavern, the Quarry, and spends most of his time behind the bar. Hes a little older than me, ex-military, with the build and haircut to go with it. Green eyes, a square jaw, and a tan so dark youre not really sure of his ethnic background. Charlies about the only person in town who doesnt seem to care about my stay in the nut hut; I guess thats why I spend so much time hanging around with him. Although the beer might have something to do with it, too.
“Hey,” I say. Im at my usual spot at the end of the bar, which always seems to be where the regulars in any given watering hole congregate. “I see youre keeping the rumors about you fat and healthy.”
Charlie looks up from the book hes reading, some kind of oversized paperback edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. “Hmm? What, that I raise and breed flying monkeys? I keep telling people, theyre both males.”
“Thats what I mean, Dorothy. The only female anyone sees you with is me, and theyre starting to wonder if Im a tranny.”
“The only tranny these people have ever been close to was the one bolted to the chassis of their car.”
“Maybe. But people love to talk about what they dont know.”
“Keeps their opinions from getting all muddled up with facts?”
“Usually. But that also means that the occasional fact tends to stand out, like the fact that the toughest guy in town likes to read about singing munchkins and rainbows.”
“Youre thinking of the musical. This is a book, see? No buttons, no batteries. The only noise it makes is when I roll it up and smack you with it.”
“Ooh, how manly. Did the Wizard give you that courage, Mr. Lion?”
Charlie chuckles. “Nah, Ive always had plenty of that. And please, lets not go for the obvious Scarecrow joke.”
“Youre right. That ones a no-brainer.”
He winces, then shakes it off and goes on. “Ive always identified with the Tin Woodsman, actually.”
“What, the guy with the funnel on his head and no heart?”
“Thats what he thought, but it turns out—”
“I know the story, okay? Everybody knows the story. I always thought they got that guy all wrong.”
Charlie frowns. “All wrong? What do you mean, all wrong?”
“I mean, he was a guy made out of metal with no heart and an axe to grind—literally. Obvious precursor to the Terminator. Serial killer all the way.”
Charlie sighs. “You do know this is a kids book?”
“The Cowardly Lion? Furry fetish. Scarecrow? Anorexic bulimic. And dont get me started on Toto.”
“I guess were not in Kansas anymore. No, wait, we are.” He tosses the book down. “I can see Im not going to get much reading done with you around.”
“Oh, dont mind me. Im not terribly important, just a paying customer.”
“Not so much…”
“Okay, so Im a paying-sometime-in-the-near-future customer—”
The door opens, spilling late-afternoon sunlight into the bar. I squint and wince, only half joking. Charlies place is called the Quarry, but it may as well be named the Cave; he likes things dim and shadowy, and I tend to agree. Bright lights make me think of hospital corridors.
Then I see who it is, and the wince threatens to turn into a grimace. Terrance—never Terry—Adams and his little pack of troublemakers. Every small town has them: people who spend all their time complaining about how much they hate it here, but never seem to get up the nerve to leave. They vent their unhappiness in a variety of mean and petty ways on those around them, and we do our best to grit our teeth and ignore them until they either grow up or wise up. Some never do.
Theyre all here, trooping in after him like loyal little soldiers: his wingman, Zev Kitson, a redhead who thinks practical jokes are the height of wit; Sally January, who rides a motorcycle and pretends shes tough; Neil Maigan, aspiring musician; and Alexis Adams, Terrances first cousin and the towns one and only goth. Or punk. Or alternative-heavy metal-gangsta-rap-hippie, depending on her mood and the day of the week. Sometimes I think she just dresses in whatevers on top of the pile and applies her makeup in the dark—that being said, shes actually a halfway decent kid. I wish shed spend less time with her waste-of-space cousin, though.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Terrance says when he spots me. “Look whos here! Its our local celebrity!”
“Well, somebody has to be Chief Loser Detector,” I say. I point at Terrance and say, “Ding! Ding! Ding! Now look what you did—you made me go off.”
Terrance is in his twenties and has the kind of rough good looks that means when he forgets to shave or comb his hair he actually gets better looking, which is win/win for him and an overall loss for standards of hygiene everywhere. His hair is brown and shaggy, his smile devilish, his eyes those of a puppy with a mean streak. I dont like him.
“Whoops!” he says, putting his hands up in mock horror. “Sure wouldnt want you to go off, Miss Blood Doggy. You might shoot me or something.”
Zev laughs, a maniacal little giggle I think he does deliberately to get on peoples nerves. “I think shes already a little off,” he says. “Off her rocker, off her meds, awfully out of her awful little mind.”
“Hey,” Charlie says. “You want a beer?”
“Well,” says Zev, rubbing his hands together, “I am a little dry—”
“Then stop flapping your lips,” Charlie growls. “Or youll stay that way.” He doesnt even waste a glare; he gives Zev Ugly Look Number Two, which on the Charlie Allen scale means a flat glance implying more contempt than anger.
Zev grins back and says, “Mucho cervezas, por favor, garçon,” then sits down on the stool next to me. Terrance plops himself down on the other side. I was hoping theyd head straight for their regular spot in the back by the pool table, but apparently they arent done.
“Whats the matter, Doggy?” Terrance says. “You seem a little cranky today. Your collar too tight?”
Both Alexis and Sally stay on their feet. Sallys dressed in her usual leathers, while Alexis has spiked her black hair straight up and applied enough eyeliner to shame a raccoon. “Come on,” Sally says. “I wanna shoot some stick.”
“So go,” Terrance says. “Ive got something I need to talk about with our local expert, here.”
“Oh, now Im an expert?” I say. I dont bother making eye contact with either of them, looking straight ahead.
“Sure. When it comes to weird, you know your stuff. I mean, that show you watch, its all about weird stuff, right?”
I spare him a warning glance. “Its about a lot of things. The supernatural, serial killers, even parallel universes.”
“Like I said—weird stuff. So I figured youd be the person to ask about the Gallowsman.”
“The what now?”
“Local spook story,” Charlie says, sounding a little annoyed. “Kind of thing kids use to scare each other on camping trips.”
“Oh, its more than that,” Terrance says. “Based on fact—everybody knows that. Edward Jump, his name was. Died right in the middle of the town square in 1799. My father showed me the town records.”
Terrances father is the mayor of Thropirelem, so I guess if anyone would have access to that kind of thing, he would. “Eddy Jump, huh? Im guessing he didnt kick off from a heart attack.”
Terrance grins. “Well, you got it half right. He did kick off, right through a trapdoor and down to the end of a rope. In fact, Im told he did a whole lot of kicking—went on and on for a good ten minutes or so. Just wouldnt die.”
“Doing the Hangmans Tango,” says Zev, holding up a hand with two fingers dangling down. He twitches them back and forth frantically. “No noose is good noose…”
“So they hanged him,” I say with a shrug. “What did he do, ogle a farmers wife?”
Terrance shakes his head. “Thats just it. He didnt do anything. Well, nothing criminal, anyway. Edward Jump was one of those guys who just couldnt catch a break; bad luck followed him like a dog chasing a pork chop on a string. First his crops failed. Then three of his kids got sick and died. His house burned down. Then his wife—who was pregnant at the time—got killed by a runaway horse, trampled to death right in the middle of the street. After that, he was pretty much a basket case.”
“Let me guess. He snapped and went on a killing spree with an ax.”
“Good guess, thank you for playing,” says Zev. “But no.”
“I told you, he didnt do anything,” Terrance says. “He just sat in the town square, right by the spot where his wife died, and wept. Sunup to sundown. Old Edward had never been real popular with the townsfolk—kept to himself, had no friends—but they still tried to do right by him. Brought him food, tried to console him.”
“Didnt work, though,” says Zev. “Old Eddy bought a full-price ticket on the Boo-Hoo Express, and he wasnt getting off until the end of the line.”
“It went on and on. Day after day. Started getting on peoples nerves. So they tried to convince him to do it somewhere else. He wasnt interested. They didnt know what to do.”
“Kind of like having a giant two-year-old throwing a permanent tantrum,” says Zev. “After a while, youll do just about anything to make it stop.”
“They tried locking him up, but the sheriff couldnt stand the noise. They thought about starving him out, but that was just plain cruel.”
“They were,” says Zev, “at the end of their rope. Bet you saw that one coming.” I dont bother replying.
“But then something happened,” Terrance continues. “A woman disappeared in the middle of the night. And she just happened to be married to the man whose horse killed Edward Jumps wife.
“Some said she just ran off. Some said her husband did her in and laid the blame on Edwards shoulders. But Edward had no alibi—and lets face it, by that point they were just tired of the noise.”
“Wait,” I say. “Are you trying to tell me they executed him for grieving?”
Terrance takes a long sip of the beer Charlies finally put down beside him. “No, they executed him for being a pain in the ass. For not getting with the program. You know what people in this town—hell, in any small town—are like. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down—and Edward Jump was one stubborn, heartbroken nail.”
Zev slams his hand down on the bar. “So down he went! Ka-boom!”
“But before he did,” says Terrance, “he stopped crying long enough to deliver his last words: ‘The gallows is not a punishment. It is a release from pain. And then he looked out over the whole town that had come to see him drop, and added, ‘Soon that pain will be yours. And I will release you as you have released me.”
I shiver involuntarily. Terrance may be a jerk, but hes a decent storyteller.
“That should have been the end of it,” says Terrance. “But it wasnt.”
“It was just the beginning,” says Zev softly. I wait for the punchline, but it seems hes fresh out.
“It started with the man whose wife disappeared,” Terrance continues. “He found his dog dead. Got herself tangled in some barbed wire, wound up with it wrapped around her neck. Strangled.
“Then his oldest son had an accident, fell in the river. When they found him, his face was almost black; he had weeds wound around his throat so tightly the townspeople had to cut them off. Then his daughters first child was found dead in her crib with the blanket twisted around her neck…”
“That was when people started calling old Eddy the Gallowsman,” Zev says. “You might wonder why he didnt just go straight after the man whod falsely accused him—”
“He wanted him to suffer,” I say. “The same way hed suffered.”
Terrance nods again, with a smile. “So the Gallowsman took away the guys life, bit by bit, until hed lost everything. Eventually they found the poor bastard hanging from an oak tree in his own backyard.”
My throats suddenly dry as an old bone—or rope. I signal Charlie for another beer. “Creepy story. Whats it got to do with me?”
Terrance studies me for a second before answering. “They say the Gallowsman is the patron saint of people who hang themselves—especially those who do it in the woods. When someones life gets so hard they just cant take it anymore, and they trudge out to the forest in the middle of the night with a rope in one hand and a chair in the other—well, that just calls to him. And once that noose tightens, once the body has stopped jerking and twitching and its shoes fall onto the mossy ground with two little thumps … thats when he comes. His spirit slips into the corpse like a thief putting on someone elses coat, and no matter how tight the knot was tied it just slithers apart like a snake stretching. And then, trailing the rope behind him, the Gallowsman goes in search of those who did the victim wrong—because when theres that much pain in someones soul, theres always somebody who put it there.”
Terrances voice has gotten slower and quieter as hes been talking. Its an old trick to draw the listeners attention in—but its old because it works.
“So heres where I thought you could settle a little dispute Zev and me been having. See, he thinks the Gallowsman just out-and-out kills people—that he can bring any kind of cable or cord to life and send it out to throttle his victims. Me, I think hes more subtle.”
“How so?” I ask.
“He doesnt just kill for the sake of killing. He kills for despair. In his mind, theres only one victim, one person hes going after. He kills everyone that person cares about—but thats just a means to an end. He needs his victim to die by their own hand. To take them down so far they dont even know what up is. And to do that, he needs to do more than just murder; he needs to get up close and personal with the person hes targeting, to get right in their head. Whisper in their ear, point out just how bad things are.” His voice is low, hypnotic, almost a whisper itself.
Red Dogs a profiler, so part of my obsession is—was—studying how people think. Everything Terrance is saying makes sense from a psychological point of view, and hes very good at focusing a listeners attention. A politicians son, for sure.
“Still not hearing a question.”
“My question? I thought that was obvious.” His smile is predatory. “Whats it like, hearing those whispers? Do they sound like theyre coming from inside your head, like youre just talking to yourself? Or is it an actual hallucination, a voice you can hear coming from a person you cant see?”
I dont say anything for a moment.
The strange thing is, Im not even angry. I should be—its what he wants, what hes trying to provoke—but Im not, which I suppose is a victory of sorts. No, what I really want to do is answer his question honestly. I want to say, No, thats not quite it. Its like hearing voices in another room, a mutter of conversation that suddenly sharpens into something meant for you. Its like hearing words in the rustle of trees or underneath the static from a radio. Its like the chaotic, random parts of the universe have suddenly snapped into a new alignment thats aimed right at you.
What I say is, “I wouldnt know.” I turn to look at him. “And if I did, I wouldnt tell you.”
“Come on, guys,” Alexis says. “Leave her alone.”
“Good idea,” says Charlie coldly. “Or find someplace else to drink.”
“Hey,” Zev says, grinning like a loon, “take it easy, big guy. Were just having a little fun—”
Charlie locks eyes with Zev. “Oh, fun. Why didnt you say so? I like fun. Want to see my idea of fun?”
Zev looks away first. “Ill pass.”
Charlie turns to Terrance. “How about you?”
Terrance doesnt spook so easily. He meets Charlies gaze calmly. “You know, I just might … but Im kinda busy at the moment.”
“My schedules flexible.”
“Ill keep that in mind.”
Alexis sighs. “Geez, get a room already. Or an arena, or octamom or whatever.”
Terrance blinks. Charlie frowns. Both of them give Alexis WTF? looks, which breaks the tension.
“I think you mean octagon, sweetie,” I say.
“Whatevs.” She turns and heads for their usual table. Sally follows, and after a second so does Zev.
Terrance drains his beer and sets the glass down in front of Charlie with a smile. “Bring us another round, will you?” he says. “Thanks.” He saunters off.
“Dont let them get to you,” Charlie says. “Small town bullies, you know? They dont have anything better to do.”
“Yeah, I know. Nothing breeds mean like boredom and ignorance.” I try to sound casual, but I feel a little lightheaded. I should probably go home and take my medication, but Im not going to give Terrance and his gang the satisfaction of driving me away.
But then I check my watch and realize what time it is. I finish my beer in a hurry, say, “I gotta go,” and head for the door.
Charlies no fool. He knows whats going on, but he doesnt try to stop me. “See you later,” he calls after me.
“Count on it,” I say.
I get in the door with plenty of time to spare, ten minutes at least. My dog, Galahad, greets me with lots of happy woofing and ankle licking. Hes a Saint Bernard with a sunny disposition and a drizzly mouth—I dont need to water my plants, I just get Galahad to stand over them and drool. Hes also extremely bright, so much so that Ive offered to pay for driving lessons. He just sighs and rolls his eyes.
Eight oclock, Friday night. Time for the latest episode of The Bloodhound Files.
Im recording it, of course. I dont have to watch it live. Except I do.
I take my medication first, an antipsychotic called Erthybon. Im not supposed to combine it with alcohol, but hey, Im not supposed to be watching Jace Red Dog hunt down werewolves and vampires, either. You do what you have to.
I turn on the TV and get settled in on the couch, Gally lying beside me with his head on my lap. I used to put a towel over my thighs, but I eventually just gave up and learned to live with damp pants.
I cant really explain my fascination with the show. Yeah, I identify with the main character, but I was never all that interested in the supernatural before I started watching it. Maybe because its really different from all the other occult TV shows out there: It takes place on a world where ninety-nine percent of the population are either vampires, werewolves, or golems. Jace is from a different reality—the normal one, I guess—but gets yanked across the dimensional divide to use her finely-honed profiling skills to hunt psychos with an aversion to sunlight and/or silver. I love the characters, but its the world Jace lives in that really interests me—all the little details of an entire planet full of supernatural beings. I especially love the fake commercials, which is how the show usually starts.
“Hes a vampire. Shes a werewolf. Their best friend is a golem with a talent for getting into trouble. Tune in at nine on Thursday for How I Bit Your Mother—on the FANG Network!”
“Would if I could,” I mutter.
Its pretty good, as episodes go. Jace is hunting some maniac whos killing werewolves with silver-tipped crossbow bolts. Shes helped by a mysterious masked woman whos the head of a criminal gang, dresses like a pirate, and has a really cool submarine; she calls herself the Sword of Midnight, and carries a dual-bladed weapon that resembles two overlapping clock hands, one slightly shorter than the other.
For the next hour Im enthralled. I resist the urge to take notes on the different criminology methods Jace uses, something I used to do compulsively. I dont touch the TV screen, even once. Overall, Id say Im doing well.
Right up until the end.
“I think its clear where this is headed,” Jace says. She and the Sword of Midnight are studying a table loaded down with ancient texts and scrolls.
“Yes,” replies the S of M. “Theres no room for doubt.”
“Then theres only one man we can go to,” says Jace.
“What?” I blurt. I know that name. Old Man Longinus lives in a sprawling, rundown mansion on the edge of town, the kind of place the local kids dare each other to trick-or-treat at on Halloween. Its not exactly a common surname, either; I must have misheard it.
And then the Sword of Midnight turns and stares directly at the camera.
No—not at the camera. At me.
“Thats who has all the answers, Jace,” the Sword says. “Thats where you have to go. Seek Longinus.”
The screen goes dark.
Copyright © 2012 by DD Barant
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