Spoiler warning – here’s where we start to get into territory that will eventually be reused in a Seven Heroes novel. And I gotta tell you, I’m kid of excited about it.
Apart from that, eagle-eyed readers will notice some slight discrepancies between this and the first chapter’s opening. There’s also a point in this chapter when Garrett is sorta kinda speaking to one man and inside a building and maybe bumps into him on the steps. I can’t honestly remember if this is the same guy, but it’s definitely coming across as a glaring error. Again, edits would have ironed this out. You’ll start to see that a lot. My writing is a bizarre mix of editing on the fly and “screw it, leave it for edits.” Some nights I can’t sleep without fixing a scene or even just a sentence. Other times I sleep like a baby. Weird, I know.
Irisville is one of the only places in this novel apart from Rankin Flats that’s fictional. I didn’t want to make anywhere real seem as dreary as this place necessitated.
Anyways, enjoy. You’re about to brush shoulders with the Not-Right Man.
By the time they finished in Vulcan, they decided to stop for the night somewhere outside of Calgary and visit the city fresh in the morning. With a little searching, they found a cute bed and breakfast in a small town named Irisville, not too far from Calgary, but with enough mileage that they could get a peaceable night’s sleep without the bustle of the city.
The town was roughly the size of Vulcan, maybe a little larger, but it lacked any of that city’s flair and looked pretty farming-centric. More wheat and barley fields greeted them on the way in, but this time, the earth smelled more like rot to Garrett. Brianna didn’t smell it, but she suspected the freshly-cut wheat was screwing with her sinuses.
A few cars rolled up and down the streets, mostly hovering around a few bars and restaurants. A gas station’s bright orange neon sign reminded Garrett uneasily of Hamber, and he wasn’t shocked in the slightest when his hallucinations popped up in the backseat.
Their bed and breakfast was located a few blocks from the main thoroughfare. The two-story home looked out of place among its brethren on the street, not because the other houses were cheaply constructed, but because the landscaping was so meticulous and well-cared for. The shrubs outside the bed and breakfast had been well-pruned, the lawn was done in a pleasant diamond formation, and despite the late June dry heat, cheery flowers leaned over leafy greenery in flower beds scattered tastefully throughout the yard.
The building itself could have used a coat of paint and the garage was pockmarked with dings, but by and large, it was a beautiful place. As they pulled up, their host, a stout man wearing a flower-print Hawaiian shirt and slacks, limped outside to greet them. Nick insisted on helping them with their luggage up to the second floor, and once he heard they were on their honeymoon, he bubbled over with congratulations.
“And you came to my bed and breakfast,” Nick gushed. “That’s perfect!”
The interior was split up into four distinct suites. They were the only guests for the night apart from a surly long-term renter they saw only once the next morning, and so they were given the master suite without any extra charge – “Because it’s your special time!” Nick exclaimed. The walls were covered in a light pinstripe pattern that made Garrett’s eyes hurt, but the bed looked plenty big, the light quilt and comforter soft and inviting, and the rest of the room’s furnishings pleasant in a generic sort of way.
“I owe you both an apology, though,” Nick said, wringing his hands together. “I won’t be able to provide breakfast tomorrow. I know, it’s in the business name, but we had a tragedy here a few days ago.”
“Oh, what happened?” Brianna asked, genuine concern in her voice. She’d already decided she liked this garish man.
“One of our own passed away,” Nick said, his eyes flickering away for just a second. “It was a terrible thing, an unexpected tragedy.”
“We’re very sorry to hear that,” Garrett said.
Nick’s smile was tight-lipped and didn’t touch his eyes. “Thank you. I’ll call ahead to the restaurants in town, let them know you’ll be coming by. They’ll charge your meal to me.”
“That’s very thoughtful,” Brianna said, giving Garrett a meaningful look.
“Yes, it is,” he murmured. “Thank you.”
Nick excused himself shortly after showing them around the common room downstairs and the patio out back. Both just needing a moment to relax, they settled into their room early. Brianna laid down on her stomach, chin resting on her hands as she watched her husband pick through a magazine rack on an end table. A scribbled note had been left on the rack – “Take a book, leave a book.” She’d maybe leave her copy of an R. S. Belcher novel she’d finished up on the road to Vulcan. As much as she’d liked it, it deserved to find another reader.
“Thank you,” Brianna said quietly. “For today. The golfing and… everything.”
Garrett dropped a magazine back into the rack and smiled over at her. “Of course.” He picked up another one and thumbed through it.
His skin held the soft dark glow of a sunburn, and Brianna examined her own hand. Damn cheap sunblock, she thought to herself. They’d need to pick up something more effective before Calgary tomorrow. They didn’t have any firm plans for there yet, but someone at the barbeque mentioned how much they liked the Calgary zoo, and she thought that sounded like fun. That’d mean more sun, though. The forecasters were practically bemoaning the death of rain for all time, or so you’d think listening to them.
It was still early and the stores were open. They could head down there, get some sunblock, some personal items, and maybe come back and make some noise. Brianna felt… alive. Crackling with energy. Maybe they could go dancing, work some of it off, but this didn’t look like the sort of town where people danced at bars. Maybe they’d just run, get what they needed, and she’d come back here and tear Garrett’s clothes off, the way he liked to do with her. Yes, she was feeling alive and sexy and…
There was something she’d never done before, something she’d talked to Garrett about before their wedding. Now, Brianna thought. Now’s the time. She had everything she’d need, but she wanted a while to shower, to prepare.
Garrett sat on the edge of the bed, absorbed in his magazine. Brianna reached out and pawed at it, forcing him to glance over at her. She gave him her best innocent smile, both sides of her face turned up. “Hey,” he grumbled. “I’m reading…” He checked the magazine cover and frowned. “May… mason… Masson… Something arty.”
“I need you to do me one last favor for the evening,” she said calmly, nervousness and excitement fighting to bubble over into her voice. Brianna was shocked at how well the words were traveling out of her mouth. A little caravan of fibs, she thought, amused.
He set aside the magazine. “What’s up?”
“We need sunblock with a higher SPF. Mind running to the store?”
“We can get it tomorrow morning before we head out. Hey, that reminds me-”
“Garrett,” Brianna said sweetly. “Darling. Hush now.”
“I…” He sighed. “Okay. Sunblock. Want anything else?”
Was there anything Brianna didn’t have that she hadn’t prepared for? No, she didn’t think so. Thank God the Canadian border guards hadn’t given her too much shit about the little bag of personal items she’d brought with, or she might have chucked the whole idea out the window. No… no, she wouldn’t have, Brianna thought, blushing hard. She’d wanted to try this for a while, “Beer, maybe.”
“It’s early. We could hit a bar. Hey, I’ll tell you the next part of the cross story.”
Inside, Brianna was cackling maniacally, but she let her smile slip just a hair, hoping the twinkle in her eyes wasn’t giving too much away. “I think I’d like a night in. And I’m gonna need some personal time while you’re out.”
“I… what?” Garrett was finally starting to catch on to something, but he had no damned clue what his crazy wife was up to.
“Forty minutes.” A devilish idea crossed her mind. If Garrett was any other man, she wouldn’t do it, but her trust in him was complete. Electric warmth spread from her neck down through her spine and lower still, and she parted her lips involuntarily. Brianna wanted to pull him inside her, right there and now. Patience. This was going to be good. “No. I’ll text you when I’m ready.”
“Ready for what?”
* * *
After grabbing his wallet and his phone, Garrett headed downstairs. At first, he’d though to bullshit with Nick for a while about Calgary and what to visit there, but a note on the common area table mentioned he’d be out for a while, along with a phone number he could be reached at.
Garrett wandered outside and down the street towards the highway. Brianna. She could be such a mystifyingly goofy woman sometimes. It was why he loved her, but damned if he could understand her half the time. Oh well. Whatever made her happy, he supposed.
On the main road, he turned this way and that, glancing at the rows of businesses. Most everything had the look of hard times in Irisville – the stone foundations of several of the buildings were badly cracked, graffiti on one wall shouted “KARDINALL.” Garrett had no idea what the hell that meant. He picked a direction at random and started heading that way. Hardware store, a real estate office, a grocery store that looked to be sagging into the earth. He grimaced. Probably could have researched this place a little better, he thought.
On his way back up the other side of the street, a sign in the distance caught his attention – “Roadkill Museum and Gifts,” with an arrow pointing down a residential street. Garrett mentally shrugged and headed that way. Only ten minutes into his walk, he had plenty of time to spare. Maybe he could pick up some brochures or something there.
The rot stench from earlier grew worse, pickling Garrett’s eyes with its not-quite-rightness. Only as he approached a ramshackle old square building, its paint long ago having given up the fight to the sun and the elements, did he think just how much the almost-tangible scent reminded him of the investigation into the shapeshifter a year prior. With Murphy and Brianna, he’d looked at the murder site of a Rankin Flats cop, and there he’d discovered a feeling in the air, a scent like this one. This was nowhere near that intense, more like an unpleasant bit of gas that just won’t clear a room.
An old wooden sign beside the place’s front door proclaimed “Roadkill Museum – Irisville’s Number #1 Attraction!” The sign kept Garrett’s gaze for a while. Everything about the place felt wrong, felt off, and it wasn’t just because of the redundant number sign. Before the front door was a stoop, and he climbed the two steps up to it reluctantly, his hand reaching for the door before he could catch himself.
The cramped interior was lined with glass display cases, poorly lit by a couple of dim white bulbs. Thinking at first of Fort Whoop-Up and the furs on display there, Garrett thought the items inside might have been smaller examples of those. No. These were dead animals, stuffed and given little outfits. Here was a mouse, wearing a top hat and leaning on a tiny glossy cane. There a guinea pig in tiny Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, complete with a pair of ultra-tiny sunglasses. There a pair of skunks, her in tiny lingerie, him in a pair of heart-spotted boxers.
From a backroom, someone yelled, “Out in a minute!”
If Garrett responded, he didn’t realize it. In one corner was a dog, a mutt, sitting on its butt with its paw raised like it was eternally waiting for a high five. Though it looked nothing at all like Brown Dog, his and Brianna’s lovably bedraggled pet for several months, Garrett felt his gorge rise and had to leave. Ignoring the man coming out of the back, Garrett backed out the door and headed towards the center of town.
“Weird fuckin’ place,” he muttered to himself, and turned. There, on the front steps, was a pale-haired weathered man, smiling a little wolfishly at his discomfort. And beside him, standing on the steps, was a girl in a long brown dress, its sleeves too short for her arms. Her shoulders were wide, her head too big for her neck, and her hair was long and gnarled in spots.
None of that was what unsettled Garrett, what made him believe he was hallucinating.
Children did not have the same kind of life-ribbons of their adult counterparts when they died. If they were younger than about sixteen, give or take a year, they didn’t even stick around in the afterlife – they ascended, usually in a swirl of colors far beyond what was normal to adults, a rainbow of joy and beauty. It was always a sobering sight, but heartbreakingly beautiful too.
This child then should not exist, he told himself. She was a hallucination. Because at her feet were a pair of ephemera, darting and playing.
Garrett blinked, and she was gone.
* * *
It didn’t make much sense to buy Brianna’s requested purchases and then just sit around, so Garrett found a bar a block beyond a convenience store. He could have a drink or two and get out of the hot sun, then hit the store before he headed back to the bed and breakfast.
The Taswell was a curious blend of cheery, neon-colored lighting and cockroach hotel austerity, as though the budget had run out after they’d bought the fancy color-shifting tubes behind the liquor bottles. A few barflies hovered near the rough-hewn bar, most of whom gave him a hello. That was one thing he’d noticed pretty much universally about Canada – people were mostly polite.
The bartender, a harried collegiate-looking kid with an unfortunate bleach-blond hairdo that reminded him of Guy Fieri, came down the bar as Garrett settled onto a stool. “What can I get you, buddy?”
Garrett glanced at the list of beer, and ordered a cream ale, something he’d never heard of. It was light, and pretty good. When the rest of the room heard his accent, they plied him with questions, mostly about what he was doing in the area and why he wasn’t back at the bed and breakfast with his wife, something he had no good damn answer to.
He was just starting in on his second beer, this one a darker brown that tasted vaguely fruity, when Nick walked in the door. He looked around, spotted Garrett, and for a heart-stopping moment, he thought something had happened to Brianna. But their host broke into a grin and beelined straight for him. “Hey, buddy!”
That was twice in less than five minutes Garrett had been called that. He grinned and shook Nick’s hand. “Hey, buy you a beer?”
“I should be the one buying you a round.” The man leaned over the bar and plucked a glass from the clean ones.
As Nick poured himself a beer from the taps, the bartender muttered, “Just help yourself, dickhead.”
“Will do, cheers,” Nick said, and raised the mug at the bartender. Turning his attention back to Garrett, he sipped the head of foam and said, “Just out for a rip?
“I… sorry what?”
“Out for a little walk?”
“Yeah.” He fell back on the excuse he’d been telling the others. “Brianna wasn’t feeling so well and wanted to have a minute to herself.”
Nick nodded sagely as if this made perfect sense to him. “One of my pals spotted you comin’ in here. Thought I’d make sure you two were settling in okay.”
“Oh, yeah, no, everything’s great.” Garrett tried not to think about the little girl he’d seen. Just his mind working overtime. Had to be.
“Sorry to be in and out so much, but that’s the business of death, I guess. Gotta all try to do our part,” Nick said, suddenly going glum.
“I’m sorry again for your loss. For the whole town’s.”
From down the bar, an elderly man snorted, choked on the snort, and coughed out a spray of phlegm. The guy beside him whacked him on the back until the old man raised an unsteady hand. “Jacob was a shitpump and you know it, Nick. Cousin or not.”
Garrett frowned. “Oh hell, your cousin? Now I’m really sorry.”
Nick raised a hand off the bar in a “it’s nothing” gesture. “Distant, but I think we’re all distant cousins here.” There was a general chorus of agreeable grunts and snickers. “Jacob was a… complicated guy.”
The same old timer shook his head in disgust. “For fuck’s sake, Nick, he was as complicated as a rock.” To Garrett, he said, “Jacob thought with his prick, and that’s about it. Royal asshole.”
“Crazy how he died,” the bartender said, coming over to refill Nick’s quickly emptying mug.
“How’s that?” Garrett asked.
The bartender looked at Nick uncomfortably, who sighed and gave him a go-ahead roll of his fingers. “Heart attack,” the bartender said, his voice full of disbelief.
The old-timer’s back-patting companion nodded agreeably. “I saw it. Helped haul the body away. White as a sheet. And Edie kept babblin’ about how he was shouting nonsense at the end. How he was apologizin’ to her about goin’ there to… well, guess what a man waitin’ in the bushes for a woman to come home would want.”
Nick started to say something, but Garrett’s cell phone buzzed. He apologized and turned away to check his message. Brianna.
She’d sent a picture. It didn’t entirely register what he was seeing at first, what she was dressed in, or the way the camera was angled at her butt, but once he figured it out, he stared stupidly at the photo for a whole ten seconds, unable to think beyond a primal, howling need rising in him. The girl and Nick’s cousin weren’t forgotten, but they were shoved to the back of his mind in a heartbeat. Even his own name was a suddenly foreign concept. His wallet was in his hand in a flash, a bill being dropped on the counter. “Gotta go,” he mumbled, and headed for the door, trying very hard not to sprint and failing miserably.
The bartender snickered as the door slammed shut. “Somebody’s about to have some fun.”