Wednesday, September 30, 2015


© Copyright 1984/2015 Douglas Christian Larsen. Fearsweat. All Rights Reserved by the Author. No part of this book may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited. This book is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental.
by Douglas Christian Larsen

I CRADLED MY HIGH-TECH binoculars as carefully, as maternally as any thirtysomething mother nursing her wet newborn, picking my way molecule by molecule to the crest of the ridge, worming my way into dense brush. I could feel my heart in my wrists and legs — my throat actually moved in rhythm with it — but I was actually taking action and for perhaps the first time in my life I felt something other than cowardice emanating from my heart. It is true, my body displayed all the early symptoms of rigor mortis, but I was truly doing something.
            This setup was exemplary. This hill was directly above Matson’s house. My car, in a grove of trees, was parked about a mile down the road obscured from Matson’s view. And yet, despite my candid security, my limbs trembled violently as I fumbled and trained my binoculars on the house 200 yards away — ah, but it did still my throbbing heart to look through those powerful lenses — Matson’s house leapt forward, seeming five feet removed from me.
            I could see tall weeds around his driveway, paint peeling from the garage door, vines twisting intricately above the front door, dark curtains in windows, and Matson’s new jeep sitting alongside his house.
            I trained my binoculars on the front door, side door, windows that were plain to me, and in a wide circumference about the place — the surrounding trees were stark and gray despite Spring’s arrival.
            I forced my lungs to relax. Better. Practiced resonant breathing technique I usually reserved for calming students in counseling sessions. Fisted my eyes with my knuckles, settled into rubbery-branched brush, and told myself, “Yes, this is a plan,” although I was not at all sure as to the peripheral rules of the strategy.
            I knew I must observe and learn as much about Matson as possible. Watch him and know him. Study what differentiated him from your everyday generic psychopath.
            I had talked to Matson only once before. And I cannot truly say I noticed more than his valley-wide shoulders, comically small head, tree-trunk neck; his close-cropped military haircut. Okay, so I do remember a significant amount concerning the monster, even if we were only standing near in a convenience store. But it was his eyes which come vividly to memory: close-set, a snake’s eyes after its head is squashed beneath your tire; pale blue — but closer to white than blue. And his size was fresh in my memory, mainly because he literally dwarfed me and I am of average height.
            I had checked with the college registrar’s computer and discovered Matson had no business being on campus, but as far as I could tell, the goon was never warned off school grounds. I learned he was an ex-Marine in some special detachment of the services — something secretive enough that no one at the college knew exactly what it was. I also learned, through my casual investigation, that Matson was known for harassing young women — often damaging their male friends.
            But no one seemed desiring of elaboration on any knowledge. They spoke in three- or four-word sentences and usually would not meet my eyes. One kid looked at me in out-and-out fright — as if he was asked about a Satanic rite to be held on campus that night in which his mother was to be sacrificed. At least I learned the location of Matson’s house.
            I looked back to the house. All was dead there. The trees looked the same and the house too. The windows were still dark lidded eyes...
            ...then I was sure I saw a curtain stir slightly. As if moved by a wind, even though the windows were closed. I gripped the binoculars as I watched.
            Probably your imagination, I told myself. But then I do not think I had stopped telling myself how stupid I was since morning, when I had launched this Adventure-Man quest. It had seemed all very intrepid, then. Now, it was stupid, only, because I was sure I had seen that curtain move.
            And I was surely no detective. I was trained to deal with ex-alcoholics and victims of Anorexia Nervosa, not with the type of psychotic I was coming to believe lurked in the guise of Matson.
            Then the door opened and Matson stalked out. I scrunched down in the shrubbery as if a mushroom cloud blossomed on the near horizon. I knew I was safe in my hiding place. But I felt that he might discover me. At any moment. He slammed the door and stood still a moment. There was a small grin sitting spiderlike on his teeth. He wore one of those underwear muscle-shirts, the kind only the sleaziest guys wear, at least out in the open, to display their steroids. His muscles were standing out big in his arms and chest, dark blue-black veins protruding like half-buried worms. I could see a terrific depth in his chest even at this distance.
            He wore tight and faded fatigue greens tucked into polished commando boots. His brute hands hung motionless below his hips — huge paws of some hybrid gorilla-bear.
            My body trembled.
            Matson turned and went around the house from my sight. The binoculars lowered of themselves — breathe deeply — this is dangerous, Tom, I cautioned myself for the millionth time. But also echoing was how important it was for me to do this dangerous thing.
            Because I had to protect Angelica.
            When I put the lenses back to my eyes Matson was just coming back around the corner of the house. He had an enormous punching bag under one arm — carrying it as I might carry a ten-pound sack of potatoes! His left arm looked monstrous under the duress of the bag. His right arm swung in military precision with the pace of his boots. Full in my view, Matson hung the bag from the branch of a tree (how uncomfortingly it looked like a man hanged by the neck until death).
            Then, with bare hands, he began to strike the bag.
            I watched aghast. The violence of this man! His body, the fluid motion of a fanging snake! Over and over — slamming the bag — striking it with enough brute force to make the huge leather bag jig and dance. No. The bag was not dancing. No — it was shrieking and cowering, fleeing those brutal fists!
            I thrust the lenses away and my chin slumped upon my chest There were tears in my eyes. A terrible heat in my breast. I am ashamed to admit that I even wet my pants some.
            Because in reality those monster hands were striking me.
            I put the binoculars back to my eyes; big mistake — but I had no choice any longer — and when the house was leaped back to within five paces I saw that Matson had stopped his fiendish barrage and was standing alongside the bag, arms hanging, bent at the elbows in a bodybuilder’s relaxed stance, sweat on his chest and underarms...
            ...and Matson was looking directly into my eyes.
            Smirking with his pale blue-white eyes. A skeletal grin flashing a joyous death’s head.
            Then Matson, with a crooked hand and tittering fingertips, waved to me.

* * *

            Sitting in the living room, on the comfortable couch my father presented us, a dream had come to me as I dozed upon my familiar and favorite item of furniture, a dream about watching Matson at the heavy bag, very much akin to the actuality. But not exactly as just related. In the dream blood splattered from the seams of the bag and, dripping, thick, it stretched and globbed like heated red-black honey. Then a gaping hole was ripped by the assault. Angelica’s arm reached out through that rent, her fingers writhing like maggots.
            What kind of man dreamt such dreams? The terrible answer: a coward.
            But my whole life, waking and sleeping, had become a septic tank of bad dreams. Sometimes it would have been greatly appreciated if I could have remained in those horrible, but mercifully dim dreams, instead of waking to find myself a helpless man, impotent to act, with more than his own life to protect; where dreams hovered, grinning vultures; where realities circled just above those dream-vultures; however, the realities were bats with ten-foot wingspans, flying rodents mightily thirsty for squirting blood.
            “Tommy?” came Angelica’s voice from our bedroom.
            No answer. My chest was yet rising too drastically for any normal reply; the terror in my voice would alert Angelica to the doubts seething within my heart. She didn’t need such fears, after years of battling anorexia nervosa to a stalemate. She did not warrant this Matson piling on stress and worry. Horror.
            Why would Matson choose Angelica? She isn’t quite a raging beauty, a voluptuous bleach blonde or exotic Eurasian — for although her slim figure and long legs make her very attractive, I think most men find Angelica too sickly, pale and tired. Years of fighting a disease has made her eyes enormous and dark, her mouth thin and worried, light blue veins evident in her skin.
            All of which made her ripe for me; her condition very vulnerable, very romantic, I suppose. Because when I met her a year before in a group counseling session, I fell in love with her as soon as she entered the room.
            I smiled as I remembered that first day. I had just accepted a counseling post at a small clinic which was run in conjunction with the college where Angelica attended school. I think I was perhaps rude to the other members of the group as I honed in on Angelica, asking her questions about her schedule and past, microscoping her specifics, maybe just stopping short of asking for her phone number and the color of her sheets. One little man kept trying to interrupt me with tales of his recent struggles with alcoholism, and I wince now as I recall telling him to quiet down for a while — that we would surely get back to him.
            (I did get back to him, a week later — I think he never forgave me — he refused to relate any tales of his battles with booze. Well, I am human; people imagine counselors sit wisely, listening patiently to problems, never allowing thoughts to wander, personality to enter as a factor.)
            After the meeting I offered to give Angelica a ride back to her apartment and of course she thought of me as nothing more than a counselor — but within three weeks and two dates, she was living in my apartment, and I had found a solution to her disease.
            “Tommy?” said Angelica, standing over me.
            I smiled at her and reached for her hand. She sat next to me and put her head on my chest and I held her. We rocked back and forth slowly.
            “Everything is going to be okay, Angel,” I said, not purposely lying.
            “He sent flowers today.”
            There was no reason to ask whom she meant.
            “What did you do with them?”
            “I put them in the garbage disposal.”
            I had often thought of pushing Matson into the disposal. First his arm, forcing it into the grinding machine, and then smashing him piece by piece until he was gone. If only I was big and strong — all macho like my friend, Harry. But I am built more for peace and thought, quiet and reflection (not that I am weak, though; at the weight machine I am able to bench one hundred and fifty-five pounds, my body weight).
            “Can’t we just leave this place?” she asked, her voice soft, trembling.
            “Yes, soon,” I said.
            I didn’t tell her about the phone call to my father two days ago — my father is a former agent in the International Investigations Agency (IIA, they refer to it as 2A), and has had years of experience dealing with criminals — that I had called my father and told him that Angelica and I would be coming to visit him. My father rejected the idea, still not accepting our living arrangements — indicating we would be more than welcome when we married — but he finally relented when I told him we were in danger.
            Five minutes after my father and I disconnected — my ears were burning with humiliation — the phone rang.
            “You do know that the only two highways out of this town are deserted stretches of road for more than fifty miles in either direction?” said Matson’s leering whisper.
            He had a tap in our phone, then. I hadn’t said anything to Matson; just put down the receiver. But I knew that I couldn’t chance taking Angelica out by car.
            I thought of calling my father back. But what could he do? He is sixty-five and has been retired for ten years after a major heart attack. He would be no match for Matson, and since he retired from the service I did not think he would be able to pull any strings bringing in other agents. It would be a crime to bring my father in any deeper. At this point, it was something I must negotiate.
            Angelica and I drove to the bus station without packing.
            Matson was sitting inside the building, reading a the comics section of the newspaper.
            I tried the police twice. Both times they assured me there was nothing they could do, that prank phone calls and amorous strangers were common enough problems — seldom was there true danger. Unfortunately, the police sounded an awful lot like the college students I interviewed, stunted sentences, crippled vocabularies. Both times I called the police, Matson called me within five minutes to tell me he was deeply wounded by my lack of trust in him, bruised by my blatant tattle-telling.
            “Just invite me over for a drink or something,” he always said. And: “I just want to be friends with you two.”
            When I went to the gun shop and applied for a handgun permit the phone rang and the guy behind the counter asked if I was Thomas Aivlys. I had turned and left, my application half-completed.
            “There’s nothing to be frightened about, Angel,” I said, tearing myself from the dizzying returns to the torture chamber of my mind, pleased that my voice was steady, but sure she could feel the pace of my heart.
            A timer rang in the kitchen.
            “Dinner’s ready,” she said, and we went and got our TV dinners from the oven. She had made me Salisbury steak and herself lasagna.
            “Who first?” she said, smiling beautifully. Her huge eyes were moist and loving.
            “You, honey,” I said.
            I cut off a piece of her lasagna and put it in my mouth. Chewed it slowly, looking at her, feeling incredible affection toward this precious small lady. Then I put my mouth to hers and fed her, which seemed to be the only fashion in which she could keep her meals digesting.
            More psychological than physical, perhaps; it drew us very close and had become an almost religious rite in our year together. I alternated bites, feeding her and then myself. The meals took an especially long while this way, but there was an exquisite sense of fulfillment when we finished. Nearly a post-orgasmic high, it left me sentimental and a trifle melancholy.
            As always, we shared the dish washing and it was not a torture as it had been when I was a boy.
            “Tommy,” she said, pushing a strand of dark hair from her eyes, “I gained two pounds.”
            I looked at her and felt a wave of happiness go through me. I was sure those two pounds she gained came from the two pounds I had lost the last three days.
            I took her into a warm hug and wanted so very badly to ask her to marry me, but was certain things for her had not changed at that point; she still mourned the union of her parents, which resulted in divorce and ultimately suicide.
            She felt so very tiny in my arms, like I held an ethereal spirit which might slip away from me at any moment. I swore and cursed then, in my heart, that I would kill Matson if he persisted in his maniacal pursuit.
            The doorbell rang.
            We locked in our embrace, the warmth of us suddenly snuffed; we were suffused with a terrible chill. My resolve of only moments before seemed to bow and wave, a stalk of wheat in a storm. A great fear came into me and when I looked down into Angelica’s eyes I saw the haunted look of the rabbit fleeing before the wolf.
            “Go to the bedroom,” I whispered.
            The doorbell rang again.
            She clung to me, her embrace painful on my spine. I pulled her arms apart and led her to the bedroom, forced her down on our double bed — she stared at me wildly, as if the house was on fire and I was leaving her there to flee for my own safety.
            I smiled, a weak thing, and kissed her hard on the mouth.
            Then I ran to the front of our apartment, feeling so very faint, and snatched up the heavy baseball bat I kept behind the door.
            The doorbell rang again.
            I swallowed hard, my head light. Sweat was soaking me beneath my arms, rolling down my chest and back. I seized the doorknob and squeezed it, and stood there, breathing very hard, and then abruptly unlocked the door, scrambling at the knob, turned it every which way before managing to disengage the bolt, and then opened it — threw it wide. I stood there, looking silly, I’m sure, Mighty Casey up to bat.
            But there was nobody there. The long concrete walk was empty and the security lights showed me, proved to me, that the lawn was empty.
            My body was seized by a terrible trembling. Tears washed over my eyes and my legs shook as if with palsy. My lungs whistled with my breath.
            “Tommy,” came a whisper behind me.
            I whirled, cried out, and struck the back of my head on the opened door, clumsily lifting the bat as a shield.
            Angelica stood there, hands thrown over her mouth, eyes bulging wildly.
            When I saw her I screamed again, and she screamed through her fingers, her eyes darting past me, and I whirled, dropping the bat — Matson was there! But no, it was only the door. I quickly slammed it. Locked it
            I was sure I heard someone laughing out there in the darkness beyond the security lights.
            I turned back to find Angelica ridding her stomach of our recent meal.

* * *

            Late in the early morning I woke. Found comfort in the warm kiss of Angelica’s breath upon the back of my neck, her warm arms about my chest. It was some disturbing phantom which roused me, something I could not quite bring to consciousness.
            I heard something at the foot of the bed.
            I looked down but could only discern an unnatural blackness in the room, as if I were suddenly blind. No light was in the room, not even illumination from the securities lights outside. My body went rigid. The sensation overwhelmed me that the noise which I heard I had heard before. Multiple times. The noise had gone on and on and it had entered my dreams and finally woke me.
            And it was the sensation of reality and dream melding, of suddenly realizing that the real world has been knocking on the door of your dreams and your dreams have allowed reality to enter and they have become a terrible one, and remained one even after you are awake and living only in the real world.
            It was that noise at the foot of my bed which roused me from sleep. It had gone on and on and finally made me open my eyes. I heard it again. A thud. Like someone marching in place, lifting one boot and then the other.
            Some kind of ghost soldier, ever marching in place.
            I reached my arms back and pulled Angelica tighter to me as the noise came again — she mumbled some sweet dream into the cold flesh of my neck.
            Somehow, someone, something was standing at the foot of my bed.
            Matson was there, right now, looking at me through the blackness of the room, seeing me with his Starvision eyes, even as he had seen me with his telescopic eyes, me, sitting in a clump of bushes two hundred yards away.
            I lay there, a dead man in my lover’s arms. Watching the blackness. Just lying there when maybe I should have climbed out of the warm bed to confront whatever demon plagued me.
            Distantly, and through a stretched-out eternity, light began to seep into the room. And in time I could discern the features of the room. Morning finally came. Angelica and I were alone.
            Sleep came to me, only then.

* * *

            Angelica woke me at nine in the morning. She had no way of knowing the petrified vigil which had robbed me of necessary rest. But she was on her way out to classes and had breakfast on the table for me. She gave me a warm kiss and then was gone. I went and drank the orange juice and ate the buttered toast and vegetarian sausages and fried eggs.
            I tasted nothing. I was thinking of a way I might save Angelica and myself.
            The police were of no use. I believe they were as frightened of Matson as was I.
            But there was someone who could help me, I thought.
            It had been more than five years since Harry and I had seen each other. My third year in college I dropped my music major and picked up one in sociology. It was the secure thing to do. Sure, in my soul, I have always known myself to be an artist. But being depressed all the time because of lack of wealth is something I don’t think I could ever deal with.
            Harrison Dirklan, an excellent artist, had slowly grown away from me at that point in our relationship. He was the rugged individualist. Struggle. Fight. Bite down and do it, because you have a brain, a temper, a will, claws and sinews and hardy muscles.
            And Harry could do anything.
            Our friendship dated back to before high school, in a junior-high band; I played the clarinet, Harry the saxophone. We were inseparable. But when I chose a more logical occupation than Harry’s highly touted Art, my best-ever friend lost interest in me. I was out there, part of him, no longer on the inside. He had his arty friends now, however few they were, and I my vocational.
            When last I saw Harry, he was showing a collection in New York, and his style of impressionism was what many would call an instant success in the art world. Of course, none of those critics knew Harry in the starving, struggling, arrogant-eyed years as had I.
            He swore to me then that he’d not let success change, spoil, alter or manipulate him. I believed him. And as I lifted the receiver of the phone to call my friend, I believed I would be talking to the exact same person I had known and loved before. I wish to God and with all my heart that I never contacted him.
            Harrison’s answering machine did its job. I listened to his casual masculine voice, the rich inflections he put in all his words, and felt an overpowering sense of remorse at the loss of his friendship. “Harry,” I said into the allotted space, “it’s Tommy.”
            There was a moment or two in which I waited. Then the machine clicked off and someone lifted the receiver all those miles away.
            “Tommy!” came Harry’s growly deep voice. “Is it really you?”
            “Hey, Harry!” I said, feeling the tears coming. My best friend, probably the only person in the world other than Angelica I could trust and believe in.
            “Buddy! I didn’t think we’d ever talk again! What a miracle that you’d call now!”
            “It’s good to hear you, Harry” I said, relief and the effervescence of reunion soothing my trembling hands. But why wasn’t I listening to his voice! Why wasn’t I feeling him now on the phone the way he was surely feeling me! If I had been more sensitive then, I would have put down the phone, I would have called him a bastard and told him stay away from me.
            “Tommy, what’s wrong?” Harry said, instantly discerning the trouble which I auraed.
            “I’m in some bad trouble, Harry. Maybe I shouldn’t be getting you involved, but I don’t know who else to call — the police are afraid and my father can’t help me and I don’t…”
            “— whoa, buddy, slow way down. What is it all about?” Harry said in his calming way.
            “It’s a mad man. He’s demonic. I don’t know what to do. I think he was in my bedroom last night watching Angelica and me while we slept!”
            Harry flat-out asked for my address and assured me he could be right up in no more than four hours. I argued feebly, but it felt like Harry was taking a horrible load from my shoulders onto his own strong back.
            Five minutes after we hung up, the phone rang. And rang. I sat and stared at it.

* * *

            It probably seems to you a terrible thing I did; asking Harry to save me — pitting him against something as inhuman as Matson. But then you don’t know Harry. He is something of a giant himself, in his own right. Not in physical stature, though he is an inch over six feet in height and weighs somewhere in the range of two hundred to two-fifteen pounds; but in his spiritual strength.
            He has the mental willpower to go days without eating, walk through a gang of street punks without losing his grin or joke, swim in ice-cold water or swordplay in temperatures that exceed one hundred degrees. His artist’s hands are immensely strong — I have seen him beat guys twice his size in indian wrestling. And he has always been on the other side of the table from the bully.
            That is why I called my friend Harry. My friend was invincible. That and because I knew we both would die for the other.
            I went through four kinds of hell waiting for him. When he was due in half an hour Angelica came home. I told her what I had done. She took it passively. They had never met, Harry and her, and she never saw too much in the paintings he’d presented me, nor in the stories he’d published.
            She did not seem to think anyone could stand up to Matson, and I was chilled that possibly she was accepting the inevitability of our joining him.
            Around three in the afternoon I saw what could only be Harry’s dragon-sized motorcycle coming down the street. I raced myself down the sidewalk and met him in the parking space. Just as I remembered him, he was tall, strong, with the exact slightly longer-than-fashion hair (with some new snow at the temples), tight black leather gloves on big hands, black leather chaps over threadbare jeans, and an old dress-shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
            I stretched out my arm to shake hands and he seized me about the chest, pulling me into a monstrous wolf hug. There were deep lines which had not been there before on his forehead, blue circles beneath his eyes dark, dark eyes. A gray mat showed where his heavy beard struggled to bristle out of his locomotive cow-catcher jaw.
            What could I think, other than Harrison Dirklan was the same tower of invincible strength as I had always envisioned him.
            I introduced my friend to my lover. They were courteous to one another, but it was evident they were beings from separate realities. Angelica said she would make coffee, decaffeinated — Harry said it would be okay — and I laughed behind my hand because I knew it irked him to be drinking wimp-coffee. I noticed a big, black-jeweled ring on the middle finger of his right hand; I asked him about it, knowing he did not wear jewelry.
            “Published a book,” he said, grinning. He took off the ring and tossed it to me. There were five large black stones in it, one larger than the other four. They were crafted into what appeared to be an animal’s paw-print. Four tiny rubies were at the tip of the stones which composed the toes.
            “The wolf drawing blood,” Harry said, chuckling softly in his pirate laugh. “And we were right about my writing — the critics hate it!”
            “Do you still think you’re a better writer than painter?”
            “Of course. I consider the proof to be in the negative opinion of the critics. I’m just glad that I had the time to write it.”
            “Time?” I said. At least I think I said it. If I didn’t, I wish to God I had.
            “I’m kind of sick,” he said, but before I could further question him, he asked about Matson.
            I told him all that I knew of the mad man. About his special classification with the marines, about the probability of his knowing some extensive martial arts, about the uncanny phone calls and the eerie way he had spotted me on the hill the other day, about how Matson had started out by leaving love poems for Angelica, then the calling, breathing, invitations, and finally the lewd suggestions and chuckled profanities.
            Harry sat, sipping coffee, sometimes glancing wonderingly at Angelica, as if he wondered at Matson’s choice, always tilting his head slightly to the side.
            “There’s nothing to be truly afraid of, you two. He’s not the devil or anything, though it might appear that way. What this Matson is, is a sociopath.”
            “Like a psychopath?” Angelica said.
            “Yes,” I said, pulling out my education. “But unlike the psychopath, who kills or does things on impulse, the sociopath plans all his moves and enjoys them. He carefully chooses his victims.”
            “Obviously he has your line bugged,” Harry said explaining what I was sure of myself. “And that day on the hill I don’t think he actually did ever spot you. Probably had one of those feelings, like when someone’s sitting behind you, staring at you and you feel it.
            “And about last night, I don’t think he was really...”
            But I cut him off with a sharp look and covert nod at Angelica. She did not need to know that I thought Matson was in our bedroom last night. I myself had figured that it was probably nothing more than my super-charged imagination putting him at the foot of our bed.
            Angelica wished us a good night and then retired to the bedroom.
            “Don’t worry, Tommy. I can handle this guy. I’ve met up with more than enough of them. They’re physically and mentally tougher than your average punk, and they’re warped beyond any normal man’s imagination. But at heart they are cowards. They stand up to anyone they know they can master (which happens to be a lot), but when someone stronger comes along, they fall to pieces,” Harry said, standing with the cup of coffee pressed to his chin. He strode slowly, with impressive surefootedness and strength, looking out the windows, reassuring me with his smiles.
            “The bad thing is, what can you do about someone like this Matson? He’s too smart to transgress the law. Prison is where he deserves to be, but you can’t put him there yourself. So you have to physically master him.”
            Everything he said was true. I’d done counseling with a few creatures like Matson. But I had never considered mastering one.
            Was Harry stronger than Matson? After a pregnant moment of hesitation I nodded my head. I was sure of it. Harry was stronger than anybody, he was my own private liftetime hero.
            “He probably was a killer in the services,” I said. “He probably knows kung fu and karate.”
            Harry gave me a contemptuous look and snorted.
            “What kind of fighting he knows is his problem,” he said, standing out of the chair and striding before the window. “I can take the creep.”
            I looked at Harry’s strong back and noticed he looked thinner than I remembered. His hand stroked the back of the right side of his head.
            As I have stated, he was a tower of strength. In his artist’s arrogance, he was always prone to pushing his masculinity to its excess. If you told him to keep clear of a certain street because a mugging was assured to anyone foolish enough to pass that way, his eyebrow was certain to cock, and humorous incredulity would flow out of him in waves — mug me? his look implied, since when has an entire army resorted to mugging one man?
            “Do you have any aspirin?” he asked quietly.
            I got him some.
            We said our good nights. Before I made it to the bedroom he said, “I like her, Tommy. She’s one in a million, my friend. You’re lucky. But then again, you deserve someone like her.”
            I beamed. His opinion had always been gold.
            Sometime after midnight I came out quietly into the dining room to check on him. He was sitting at the table, a boot kicked up on the window sill, the right side of his forehead cradled in his left hand, his right hand on the back of his head. He looked like a yogi, or some other weird contortionist.
            He rocked forward and backward very slowly, the chair creaking beneath him. I wondered at the time how sick he was, but there was such a feeling of security about the man I was able to return to bed.
            And I slept very soundly that night.

* * *

            “Isn’t there a better way of doing this?” Angelica asked. She had her fuzzy robe pulled tightly about her shoulders. “Can’t we just leave?”
            “I’m just going to make a little conversation with the guy. See if I can’t persuade him to leave you alone,” Harry said.
            He had already assured me that words would have no effect on a sociopath — that the kiss of his fist would be much more the persuasion. But his words and confident manner had a visibly calming effect on Angelica.
            “But do you have to go?” she asked of me.
            I nodded. There was a horribly sick sensation at the pit of my belly. It felt as if my throat were sinking down toward my stomach. That at any moment I was going to vomit all over the floor and myself. I looked at Harry.
            His face was calm and his manner suggested safety, security, a steadfast rockiness. I had to meet up to his sense of strength, steady myself to his masculine spirit.
            I smiled at my angel, my Angelica, and hugged her and kissed her — made her promise to keep the door locked until we returned in a little while. Then we left.
            We took my VW bug up the winding road to Matson’s house. I was shaking, standing behind Harry as he knocked on the door. It sounded like a million crickets were surrounding the house, and us, moving in for feeding upon flesh. All the lights were out in the place. In those terrible few seconds we waited while Harry pounded on the door my vision flooded white — I believe it was only my skeleton which kept me from sagging into a pile of jellylike flesh.
            I swallowed hard, waited to regain my composure, and suggested a bar where Matson was supposed to hang out. We drove there next. Matson’s jeep was parked outside the western bar.
            “There’s something about this place, Tommy,” Harry said, regarding the building with narrowed eyes. “Almost as if I’ve been here before.”
            I swallowed hard. There was no small talk in me.
            Harry looked at me. Smiled. I returned the smile, but it was a grim parody. We exited my car and entered the bar.
            They were a disreputable lot, the patronage of the bar; construction workers who probably hadn’t bathed in a week, men impersonating cowboys, women impersonating disgusting men, hulking bikers and a few whacked-out college types. For a second I was immensely relieved — Matson wasn’t here! I was about to suggest we leave, when I saw Harry nod, smiling.
            Matson was alone at a small table.
            He had a cowboy hat pushed back on his minuscule head, an underwear muscle shirt straining at his bulging musculature, mandatory khaki fatigues and combat boots — exactly as he appeared through my binoculars; even the perspiration enveloping his demonic torso was the same.
            “Brought Harry,” Matson said, nodding to me, the satisfied mortician’s smirk stretching his pale face.
            “Let’s go outside,” Harry said, easily, the facsimile of imperturbable composure.
            “We can talk fine in here, hero,” Matson said, smiling, showing his teeth, his head tilted arrogantly back.
            Harry glanced to the bartender.
            “Yes, take it outside,” the bartender said.
            “How’s the little red-headed daughter?” Matson said, not looking at the man behind the bar.
            The man behind the bar nearly hid his face as he moved away to the far side of the bar. Harry looked away from the bartender to Matson.
            “Does Tommy know about your head, Harry? Or do you go by Hero?” Matson said, his voice sweet and friendly.
            Harry returned the smile, said just as friendly, “Why don’t you just stand up?”
            “Why, Harry? You’ll have a much better chance if you hit me while I’m sitting down. Like the character in your novel does — what’s his name? Detective Crookers? I like that chapter, where he walks into that western bar and knocks that pimp down! A good book.
            “Too bad the critics don’t like it so much,” Matson said, beaming up into Harry’s eyes.
            Harry’s book had not been mass released yet. Only certain magazines, newspapers and authors had received copies.
            Matson reared from his chair, moved aside the iron table with one hand, stood there in front of Harry. He was a good three inches taller than my friend. A good fifty pounds heavier.
            “Too bad about Cheryl, Harry. But don’t worry, there will be more kids.”
            I wondered. I knew nothing of a Cheryl. But as I saw the obvious tension flood Harry a new fear mutated within me — but not new entirely.
            I had always known that Matson was no sociopath. Not even a maniac. There was nothing common about Matson, not even his abnormalities fit into any human scale of normalcy. He had seen me that day on the hill. He had been in my bedroom that night. He had known everything about me, and now knew everything about Harry.
            “Yes, Cheryl will have more children. Hero. But you won’t be around to see them. And they certainly won’t be your children, Heroic Harry,” Matson snorted, grinning wickedly.
            I did not even see it coming. It came so fast. Harry hit him, very hard. The cowboy hat flew off Matson’s small head. The brute staggered, Harry following right with him, striking the bigger man right and left. My knowledge of martial action is minimal, at best, but in the flurry of violent motion I saw Harry’s right hand flash in, knuckles connecting with Matson’s brow — Harry’s arm rearing back, his elbow trailing, smashing Matson in the jaw.
            The undesirable denizens scrambled hastily out of the war zone. Nobody circled, nobody chanted FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT. In fact, among these ruffians, I swore I perceived a slight glimmer of hope. I stood and watched, my right hand fisted at my heart, nearly screaming with each undulation of the battle.
            Matson took perhaps ten blows, smashed into a table and went over it. Harry kicked the table out of the way.
            Matson kneeled on the floor, blood pumping from his nose and mouth. But he was grinning at Harry.
            “Get me now, Harry, while I’m down. This is like living something you’ve written, think about it, it’s like being something like a god! Like in your book, Harry, the same kind of bar, the hero and his slimy pimp — even the cowboy hat! Get me now, Hero! It’s your only chance,” Matson said.
            Harry dove in on Matson. Lifted his leg doglike, above Matson’s head, and then chopped down hard, kicking him hard in the side of the face with the brutal knife-edge of his boot. Matson catapulted. Harry followed. He bent, his knee crushing into Matson’s ribs, caught my tormentor by the neck and dragged him to his feet — swung him about, actually lifting Matson’s feet from the floor, and smashed him into the bar with shuddering force.
            Matson, flung up his arms, staggered away and faced Harry.
            “Your ideas about fighting, Harry... they’re pretty good... truthfully, I think you might have actually stood a chance against me a year ago — “ he was breathing hard, his eyes swelling up like balloons, but he maintained his bantering patter: “ — not now Harry. You were good, then, a lot like me! Tough, real tough. I have to admit it. If some things had been taken out of your head and some new things put back in, why, I think you could have served with me! But for now, Hero, you’re a walking dead man,” Matson sputtered through the blood which streamed from his eyes and ears and nose and mouth.
            Harry went for him again, threw two or three fast punches, faster than I could ever hope to make.
            Matson blocked them.
            Harry spun around, kicked to Matson’s head, adroitly down to Matson’s belly; both savage blows struck Matson.
            Matson smiled.
            He grabbed Harry by the shoulders and spun him about, manhandled him in a brute force and slammed him into a wall. My Mend ducked down and slammed his elbow full-force, full-strength into Matson’s groin. Matson lifted Harry from the ground and threw him an easy toss him into the wall again. Harry met the solid wood with shuddering impact. He staggered away, was caught by Matson — and they surged upon each other, straining mightily back and forth, a wolf and a bear, their muscles standing forth in iron ridges.
            Things were turning. Swiftly. Terribly. A wild fear pushed me into action. I snatched up a beer bottle and threw myself upon Matson. He took my blows, three of them, without flinching, and then knocked me easily aside with the back of his arm. Harry grunted, smashed his knee into Matson’s groin, and in the same fluent barbaric motion slammed his boot down like a hammer upon Matson’s shin, then downward, apparently demolishing Matson’s foot. Matson grunted. Then he struck Harry three times on the right side of the head.
            Three short chopping rabbit punches. Ping, ping, ping.
            Harry moaned, struggled valiantly, and managed to surge upward, climbing up Matson’s body, to get his hands on Matson’s throat. He howled, his eyes clenched shut, calling up all his great power, and dug his fingers deep into Matson’s throat. His fingers disappeared to the second knuckle.
            Matson grinned. He casually reached up, took Harry wrists in one hand and squeezed.
            I threw my hands over my ears at the sound of the grinding bones, the horrible grating sounds.
            Harry slumped in Matson’s lethal embrace.
            I rushed to where the bartender stood and slapped the man on the face.
            “Call the police! Call the police, you bastard!”
            He just stood there, his face down, looking like he was about to weep.
            I heard Matson chuckle. I turned to face him.
            “Dear Harry never told you about the cluster of little tumors in his brain, did he, Tommy?” he said. “No matter about all of this. With those special grapes in his noodle he was only going to make it another six months, anyhow.”
            Horrible guilt battered at me. I had never asked Harry about himself. About his health, about whomever was his love, about his work — I knew nothing more than that he must save me. That he had to save me. That if he could not save me then nobody could save me.
            Now I looked at his mangled wrists, his feeble attempts to raise himself up on his elbows, the blood coming freely out of his ears and nose.
            “Harry!” I screamed, feeling Death tickle my soul.
            Through his pain handsome Harrison Dirklan looked at me.
            And he smiled. As he lay destroyed, dying, his main concern seemed to be his need to convey an apology for failing me. The brave heart!
            “He wants you to have something,” Matson said. He bent down and brutally tore the ring from Harry’s right middle finger. “A beauty, isn’t she? If you want it, bring Angel to my house. Tonight. We’ll have a little drink together. Gee, just us three.”

* * *

            “I love you, Tommy. I know this is the best thing we can do,” Angelica whispered, arms tight and hugging about my waist. I willed myself, for her sake, to keep my hands steady on her back so she would not feel my trembling.
            We were standing just outside my VW, on Matson’s driveway, absorbing what little courage we might from each other, preparing to knock on his door. I knew I wouldn’t just let Angelica and myself be taken. Something had to be done. I just did not know what that something was (or if I was capable of accomplishing it). Angelica was very trusting of me, almost like I had been of Harry.
            But I wouldn’t fail her.
            We walked to the door and Angelica knocked with her pale fist. Matson opened the door — he had been waiting there behind it. He beamed at us.
            “Come in, children! This is no night for youngsters to be out,” he said, drawing us in. He bent and kissed Angelica on the cheek; she flinched back and I steadied her with my arm. “You’ll see, the both of you. Soon you’ll both come to love me! Willingly. I’ll be the loving father you always wanted!”
            I craved to do something then. Something violent.
            But what could I do? Little me, huge Matson. Staring at him caused my throat to constrict. There was nary a mark upon him — it was as if the battle just short hours before had never occurred.
            He led us through a dark hall into a dimly lit dining room. There was a massive table in the center of the room with many candles on it. I looked about and saw that all in the house was covered with heavy layers of dust.
            Matson gave something to Angelica. I peered at the thing she held and saw with prickling terror it was a new and filmy negligee.
            “Go put that on, my Angel. There’s a nice warm room right through that door,” Matson said, grinning down at her. She did not hesitate to obey.
            “Little man,” he said, looking down at me. “Soon you’ll belong to me. And I know you’ll serve me quite well.
            “Your friend Harry would have been an apt servant — but the poor man was far too close to death. Wasn’t that a brilliant attempt he made at the last?
            “Tommy Francis Aivlys, that was a compassionate thing, staying in the hospital with him that hour — but a waste I gotta tell you. He won’t wake from this coma.”
            I was staring at Matson’s huge hands. Harry’s black ring was on the little digit of his right hand. It filled me with lust to kill to see Harry’s ring on this monster’s finger.
            “Why are you doing this to me?” I asked him, seeking to touch on whatever humanity might yet dwell within his monster skin.
            “Why? Why? Why! People always ask why! But is there ever a reason people do things?” Matson said, shaking his head, grinning. “Do you think there would be a reason why people would take something out of your head and put something new in?”
            A chord was plucked somewhere inside my sociological storage-bank. I saw that Matson was looking into his own head. He wanted to tell me something — possibly I could be his counselor! Perhaps he needed help.
            “People wouldn’t take anything out of your head,” I said, struggling, searching for any key to start an unraveling.
            “Oh?” he said, leering close to me so that I could smell his breath. “Wouldn’t they, good sociologist? Good counselor? Wouldn’t they take things out and put in new things so that you could serve them? Doesn’t everyone want to have a servant? Someone that does things for your own benefit?”
            “And someone wanted you to be a servant?”
            He grabbed me by the backs of my arms — all very gracefully. His strength was enormous. I had no hope of fighting back. Only could I cry out. I felt like a child being manipulated by a cruel father — the antithesis of what my own father was.
            “You’re wrong, Tommy my boy. You’re father was not a gentle man. He was not kind and he did not truly love you. The only reason he does not want you and Angel to be together is because you two share such happiness, such unparalleled love! Something your wretch of a father never had.”
            “Shut up!” I hissed. Everything he said was lies. He was a monster. A monster. I kept repeating that to myself.
            “No, not a monster. No monster me, see! Tee-hee. No, I am not,” he chanted like a naughty little boy. “What I am. Am I what I am what. I am what?”
            He dashed me down in a heavy chair at the table and pranced around the room.
            “I’ll tell you what I am,” he whispered. He came and put his face very close to mine. “What I am is a super man! Yes. They made me so.”
            How could I get Angelica out of here? Why had I made such a huge mistake and brought her here? I had been acting on some impulse, some premonition that the best way to handle Matson was to face him directly with Angelica.
            With Angelica. That was explicit in my head — Angelica was important to our victory.
            “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
            “They wanted me to be their servant!” he said, then laughed, a scornful thing. “They wanted me to be their man, their stinking super man who would serve their cause. So they took some things out of my noggin and crammed some new things in! They found some talents in me that men aren’t supposed to have and they were sure that they’d found their proverbial GOOD MAN! Ha!
            “Well, you know what Tommy, me boy, me bucko lad? They made me too good. Too good. With all their machinery and all their cameras and all their men like yourself, they couldn’t see me. I fooled them. Yes, I fooled them and they thought they’d made a huge mistake and wasted all manner of expenses on me and the simpletons let me out! I’m free. They’ve written me off!
            “Well, now I’ll pay all of you back. Make me a servant? No. You shall serve me. All of you and your kind.
            “If I want your money? I take it. Your love? I take it. You? I take you. Your father? I take him. And I’ll have him soon enough, him with his warm manner and kind eyes — and his cold, frigid wasteland heart. I’ll break the ass-hole like all those he’s broken.”
            And he laughed and laughed. He pulled up a chair and sat opposite me and closed his eyes and laughed.
            Matson wasn’t crazy, I knew it. He was some horrible creation — it had probably been some government agency, I figure, or some other power, through the Marines. They had taken a man named Matson, first name not important, and they had created a physical super being who could strike down their enemies — even my powerful friend Harry, as if he had been a child. They had created a creature that could read minds, feel thoughts and suck life.
            I pitied him.
            Matson stopped laughing. He opened his eyes and looked close at me.
            “Yes, dear Tommy Aivlys. You are already seeing things my way. Feeling for me. It was their fault. Not my fault. I’m not really such a monster, am I? Good little Tommy. You will love me, Aivlys. You have always loved me, Aivlys. You’re like your dad in that way.
            “He pitied me too. Ooh!” he cried, clapping his hands. “I think some minor connection such linked in your little brain. What fun we are gonna have!”
            He stood.
            “Ah yes, you and our little Angel will love me and will be my servants and that will be two more loves that go into paying me back. Ah, love and hate are the sweetest drinks!”
            “No! No!” I screamed. I screamed again and kept screaming. I wanted to yell to Angelica that she should run — ridiculous, she couldn’t get away from the monster, Matson — and so what use was it?
            So I screamed. All that was left of my manhood, I screamed for the unfairness of it all.
            Matson put his hand over my mouth. It cut off all breath. I was very frightened, instinctively, for there was nothing for me to do save but die of suffocation. If I could only maintain some rational thought I might find freedom for Angelica and I.
            “See? You can be a good boy for me, can’t you Tommy? Now, let’s get you out of these horrible clothes! Our Angel shall be returning shortly.”
            My body went rigid as he began to undress me. I felt extremely faint, being at this monster’s whim — a literal servant to him. But the agony that my Angelica would go through kept me conscious.
            A clammy sweat peeped out of my pores, I felt perspiration running down my face and neck in rivulets, soaking my chest and armpits. My breathing began to choke.
            “We have found a precious thing in Angel, dear sweet Tommy. She is special. Meek and gentle. Of course you’ve been with her for a while now, but I’ll catch up with you, my friend — I have a talent for learning secrets.
            “I’ll learn all there is to love of our dear sweet anorectic girl. She is very special to battle such a monster — and win — such an intrinsic monster! A feeder, yes! I have much to learn from her. But to Angel in a few moments. First we should become better acquainted, Tommy. Oh, Tommy, my little pet Thomas Francis Aivlys.
            “Oh, Tommy, this will hurt, but in the end you will plead for it. You’ll see, you and our dear little Angel who is going — “
            There was a loud crash and Matson crumbled forward onto me. I screamed out and struggled away from him and managed to kick back the chair where we both, Matson and I, tumbled to the dusty carpet I looked up to find Angelica standing above me, the wreckage of a heavy music box in her hands.
            “Tommy! I’m sorry! I heard you! I couldn’t stay hidden in that closet! I had to come out!” she wailed, tears pouring down her cheeks.
            I scrambled up and took her in my arms, very confused and faint. I looked down at Matson. He was lying on the carpet, eyes open, only the whites showing, nevertheless squirming about in bizarrely rapid eye movement.
            How could this happen? And what had happened? Was it possible that Matson could not have sensed Angelica behind him? Perhaps there was something about her which could defeat Matson!
But no! My heart constricted. This must only be further games. In my bedraggled mind, Matson had assumed grandiose omnipotence.
            “Quickly!” I said, “we have to tie him up!”
            Scenes of Harry lying broken on the floor were vivid before my eyes as I bound our antagonist with the table cloth he had yanked off the table as he fell. I tied his arms behind him, savagely, and then wound the end of the cloth about his legs.
            The curtains! I dashed over and ripped the heavy curtains from the wall. Within these I rolled Matson; in moments he appeared an ungainly cocoon.
            Lost were thoughts of Angelica as soon as I had begun to bind the unconscious monster, but here she returned lugging behind her the heavy, sloshing gasoline can from Matson’s jeep.
            I was horrified with the implications. But I had to think of us...
            ...and Harry.
            So I doused this brute in his dusty cocoon with approximately five gallons of gasoline, spread much about the room, and then told Angelica to wait for me in the car.
            I lit a match.
            Flames leapt up in a wailing roar. Terror washed over me, as the vast conflagration might overtake me before I was able to exit the room, let alone the sinister lair of Matson.
            I thought for a moment I saw the cocoon writhe, churning, a lethargic slug, but then was sure it was only my imagination. Even so, I stood in the fiery Hell until my skin began to blister.
            It was impossible for Matson to survive. I had to be certain.
            As I turned, I remembered Harry’s publication ring, yet on Matson’s finger.
            Too late. Let it be ashes, with Harry, with Matson.
            I ran from the inferno and joined Angelica in the VW.

* * *

            Angelica and I married six months later and have long since moved from that horrid town and its enslaved denizens. To my knowledge, no major investigation was launched concerning Matson nor the fire which consumed his house and two acres of brush.
            All in that town were ready to forget their master.
            Angelica and I feel free, mostly. But both of us are prone to nightmares; I dreaming a flaming cocoon striking a bleeding heavy bag; Angelica, visions of decaying flowers, a phone which whispers frightening poetry of death, and love, and lust.
            We feel the need to forget. And her eating disorder has vanished — my theory is (my theories are often incorrect) that her disease was a shield against Matson’s insidious power to know our brains (notice I do not say “read our minds,” for what he seemed to accomplish was far more potent). That for some odd reason, her years of worrying about herself and her appetite was something Matson could not deal with.
            Perhaps it was too much like the way he thought, or the ordeal he went through with his supposed tormentors. Possibly it saved us. But there will always be mysteries never solved.
            I felt the need to write this recounting of our ordeal, partly as a catharsis to heal our wounds, partly as a document to survive us in case anything untoward occurs.
            Believe me, I would gladly forget all of Matson, his murder of Harry and his torture of us. But tomorrow Angelica and I plan to move from this our house of two years. Because, you see, last night I was waked about midnight, a pool of fearsweat forming stickily in the hollow where neck meets chest. I had that distinct feeling that Matson was in the room, watching us sleep.
            This time I steeled myself to face the night demons. I turned on the light and discovered Angelica and I were in truth alone.
            You say, put it down to imagination, Thomas. You went through a horrible ordeal. There will always be bad memories, weird feelings and strange impressions. Time will heal all that.
            I tell you no. You see, it’s been two years since I left that flaming house. Two years of feeling that time was making all and everything better.
            Then today.
            Today I received Harry’s big publication ring in the mail. The ring I believed lost in the flames on that lethal night. The ring the monster stole off Harry’s finger.
            Of course the ring was lost, there was no way anything could survive such magnificent heat.
            I stare at the big ring, a glob of jewelry that looks like it might fit my wrist before I’d ever try it on any individual finger. I can’t stop staring at it.

            The rubies spark especially red in the sunlight.

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