Kage Baker was a firm proponent of setting her writing area up properly. That included drinks she liked (Coca Cola) in a ritually correct vessel (red glass), with assorted writing fetishes (Mr. Crabs, beach glass, several small lighthouses …) scattered around. And background music, which in Kage’s habit was whatever albums she had picked as the sound track for her latest novel, with the REPEAT set to INFINITE.
My props are different, but I do ascribe to the same philosophy. My big oaken desk is lousy with spiritually endowed mini figs and bottles of sacred earth and water. However, at the moment I am set up in my sister’s living room, in the recliner where I also sleep, with my traveling icons instead. That includes my writing hat, which was only located for me today by my ever-obliging nephew Michael. My teddy bear had annexed it …
Anyway, Michael returned it to me, and it has facilitated my writing frenzy no end today. I am flitting – with deliberation and purpose, I assure you, Dear Readers – between 5 different stories at the moment, and this really seems to be adding momentum to my current mood. Maybe I’ve slipped into a manic state? I do not care at all.
Tonight, I offer the first thousand words or so of “The Misses Take and Treat”. It’s like nothing I have ever done before. Feels weird – but right.
The Misses Take and Treat
This is the way I always see them, whenever I remember my childhood: two little, little girls playing in a walled garden, derelict but green and madly alive with Spring, under a low grey sky.
One is white-blonde and one is dark. Both are so pale they almost glow. They are wearing cut-down women’s blouses as dress-up gowns: a sequined T-shirt that sheds sparkles in the dim air, belted with a scarlet silk scarf; a white lace peignoir over a black velvet tunic that falls to skinny ankles. The girl in rhinestones is draped with strands and strands of donkey beads and translucent Bakelite. The one in black velvet is wound around and around her arms and legs with brightly coloured telephone wires, and there are bells and spoons and anything that will rattle or ring wired to them.
They are playing with ribbon wands. They dance wildly, the sort of frenetic hopping and skipping that only kittens and small girls dance, leaping among one anothers’ arching ribbons like fish in nets.
To be honest, I don’t know any more if they ever really danced like that, dressed like that, in a green feral garden. But it’s what I always see, when I remember them.
One of them had pointed teeth. And one of them was human.
The mist was hanging low as I came up the road. It ran narrowly through the trees here, and among the trees there was nothing to see but curtains of fog. The tree tops were invisible. It was like walking through an enormous soap bubble, a ballroom made of tissue-thin nacre. No matter where I looked, the walls were never more than 50 feet away; and as I walked, it looked like the trees were moving through them while I stood still.
My name is Natalie Osborne, and I’m a private detective. I track, and hopefully find, missing people. I’m a particular kind of specialist. There’s more money in specialization in any field – there’s pet detectives, credit detectives, wandering spouse detectives; even a few of those black leather and tattoo weirdos you see on reality shows, who claim they track down parole violators. Personally, I think they’re fake. But my standards of reality are a little more eccentric than most people. What I hunt are cryptids.
I guess that’s a little melodramatic. Actually, I hunt their victims. Not all cryptids prey on humans, but enough do that it pays well to be one of the few people who will believe an hysterical wife claiming that her husband was dragged off by a monster. Look at Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton – she said a dingo, a real actual feral dog that everyone knew existed, took her infant daughter, and she ended up charged with murder. Took years for that poor woman to be vindicated and declared innocent, and she still had to deal with the loss of her child.
I was hunting another missing little girl. I meant to see her mother didn’t end up in jail, with a dead daughter. Which is why I was hiking into the Los Padres National Forest (“Land of Many Uses” had warned the sign down on Highway 1, in search of a convent of ghouls.
Ghouls do exist, of course. Humans even know it, although they think that ghouls are just evil people with skeezy eating habits. That makes human “ghouls” cannibals; and frankly, I don’t care about them. They tend to kill their victims far too quickly for a hunter like me to affect a rescue. Also, they are crazy in a specifically horrible way, and I don’t like to deal with crazy.
Real ghouls aren’t cannibals – they eat other species, which happen to include humans. They have always been a suburban species, living as quietly as possible in the edges of human cities. That’s one of the reasons they were associated with graveyards. And one of the ways they stay under the radar now, when human cities damn near cover the Earth, is that they live in wilderness areas: which is perfectly legal, in America, as long as you pay your taxes and got in before the Forestry Service and BLM took over.
In these modern days, most ghouls don’t subsist solely on humans anyway. But they do steal them, and they keep some of them long enough to rescue. In fact, if all goes well, a stolen baby girl will live out her whole life in a ghoul convent, probably fairly content. They are loved, they are cherished, and many of them never figure out that they are not, in fact, ghouls themselves. In many ways, that is a Fate worse than death – if they ever figure it out.
That was one of the reasons I was going to save little Bree Millard before that happened, if I could.
It was complicated, though. It would bother me if I had to kill the ghouls in the convent. I should explain that female ghouls can pass easily for human, though they tend to be lean and usually have teeth that look … peculiar. They live in segregated communities. Ghouls call them convents. Humans tend to call them “that weird commune over by the campground; you know, they sell macrame and fruitcakes.” Humans are suckers for religious camouflage.
The males are few and solitary, and only visit the convents to deliver meat – most of it poached – and, very rarely, to breed.
I should further explain that I was born and grew up in such a convent. I know why they steal girl children, like my mother; and raise them as one their own. And when my mother figured it out, when I was 6, she stole both of us and ran as far and as fast as she could.
But I remember.
A couple of miles hiking, and I found where a graveled road branched off of the decaying asphalt of the Park road. The entry was closed off with a chain between two tidy bollards, from which hung a sign:
PROPERTY OF RAHIBE ORGANIZATION
“Rahibe” is Turkish for “nun”. Or “Priestess”. Like I said, religious camouflage.
Under that was a number to call for entrance, or information, or something. There were no directions and the sign didn’t say NO TRESPASSING, so I ducked under the chain and continued up the road.
The fog got thicker as I walked on, but the forest on either side began to look better groomed. Female ghouls are wonderful gardeners; they don’t care much for symmetry and tidy beds, but plants grow enthusiastically in their gardens. Clearly, they had been training this forest to a better sensibility. Even the gooseberry and blackberry bushes between the oak trees, although definitely thorny and a barrier to careless exploration, were lush and heavy with fruit.
The fog ahead of me began to coalesce into low white walls. I had come to the convent.