With a flick of my wrist, I flipped the cigarette up and caught it in my mouth. It was a cheap trick that I had learned as a kid from watching Robert Mitchum or James Dean or one of those pseudo-badasses from film noir who always seemed to have a lit smoke dangling off of their lower lip. After two weeks of abstinence, I figured that just champing a fresh-out-of-the-pack Marlboro red without putting a lighter to it was satisfying enough in its own right and wouldn’t merit such a great damn deal of concern from any of my “supportive” friends if one of them did manage to catch me with it. Not just yet, anyway. In fact, at that particular moment of the evening, the barrel of the .38 caliber that was digging its way into the back of my neck and the excited, pervert-sounding breath of the guy who was holding it there was starting to seem like a much bigger threat in the grand scheme of my personal priorities. Someone obviously wanted my attention, that was clear enough; but judging from the fact that my brains hadn’t already taken a permanent sabbatical from my skull, there was always the chance that whatever was about to go down might not be the end of the world… Not just yet, anyway.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” the calm voice behind me said. “Two damn weeks, Smokey. It’s been two weeks since you smelled like the ashtray in a Saint James cathouse and now you can’t even make it through one Halloween night without sucking off one of those nasty little tumor sticks in the stairwell of the Rouge? I’ll tell you a secret you might not want to hear, Johnny Boy: Half of your patients don’t even need anesthesia. Your degenerate-ass smoker’s breath could knock ‘em out.”
Raising my left hand in the air, I grabbed the cigarette off of my lip with my right hand.
“Well, hell, Denny. If I had known how concerned you were about my health, I’d have quit years ago.”
I thumped my chest, “That kind of gets me right here.”
Dr. Denny Sixman laughed and took the .38 from the back of my neck to just above my occipital bun.
“Oh, I’m gonna get you right there, Johnny,” he said, “and then put two in the back of your head for good measure. Now, as the poet wrote, ‘the hour groweth late.’ Time to start walking. We’ve gotta make it down four flights of stairs before the ICU knows that our Johns Hopkins-educated asses are missing.”
Gun in the back of my head, I stayed put. Goddamn cheap boondocks hospital. No security cameras in any of the stairwells. Nice call, Saint Flambe Rouge.
“You don’t mean..?” I asked.
“That’s right,” Denny said. “The Meat Locker. Final destination.”
“You don’t think that the ER or the Intensive Care Unit are gonna notice that their head of Internal Medicine is missing?” I asked.
“Not in enough time,” Dr. Sixman laughed. “Jesus Christ, look at the ego on you! Happy Halloween, Dr. Deckman. The Intensive Care Unit is the typical fucking spookshow that it always is this time of year and the ER can’t even keep up with the line of party boys and girls coming through the doors right now. It looks like the line at the damn Louvre.
Apparently, the kids’ve got nothing better to do on the Festival of Samhain than find new and exotic ways to kill themselves. They’ve got a thing this year called, ‘Vodka Eyeballing.’”
“Ah hell, Denny, do I even want to know?” I asked.
“Probably not,” he said. “At least, no more than I did. Let’s just say that it involves drinking twice as much vodka as you usually do, but all that you need for go-time are two healthy tear ducts.”
“Jesus feathery Christ,” I groaned. “What in the hell’s the matter with these kids?”
“I blame the emos,” Denny said, sounding real Honest-John. “These Slipknot-listening little dimwads can come up with eighteen different ways to get wasted and can’t one of them figure out a way to get laid. I ask you, where is their value system? Frankly, I can’t believe how much things have changed since you and I were kids sometimes, Johnny.”
“How did things go so far off the rails?” I asked. “Speaking of which, where the hell’d you get a gun?”
“Took it off of a banger that we treated here last week,” he said. “I let him vamoose without it before the cops arrived. Poor kid was all broken up. Said that his little girl had given it to him for Father’s Day. Anyway, enough yacking, Doctor. This ain’t a tea party and we’ve got too short of a distance to go before you reach your end game. We’ve got to make what little time that we have count.”
Dr. Sixman shoved me behind the ear with the gun, “Get your ass moving, Deckman; and on your way, talk to me… Tell me about the Jane Doe that they found in the cemetery of the La Laureaux estate last week.”
I opened the door to the next flight of stairs. Four flights and counting.
“What… uh… What do you want to know, Denny?” I stammered, descending the first few steps.
“As much as you can tell me, Dr. Deckman,” Sixman replied. “Go on.”
“Jane Doe was found in the cemetery behind the La Laureaux estate and brought to the Emergency Room of the Saint Flambe Rouge at just past midnight on Wednesday morning,” I began. “Though she was barely coherent, when asked her name, we believe that she was trying to tell us it was, ‘Ophelia Delacroix.’ We’ve already run a statewide search on that moniker in all spellings and, so far, we’ve been coming up snake eyes on an Ophelia Delacroix fitting her description. We’ve expanded our search nationwide. Jane Doe is a white female, presumably of Cajun descent, approximately between sixty-nine and seventy-five years of age. When she was found in the cemetery, she was beating her head and fists against the headstone of Gaston La Laureaux, screaming that she had ‘lost her notes.’ The police officer responding, a rookie by the name of Francis Delmarrone, said that she had turned to him and said, quote, ‘The Great Rusher of Fools! The Rusher of Fools has my notes! My precious, only notes!’ This was right before she bit her tongue nearly in half. The patient was bleeding from both eyelids and missing the orbital in her right socket. The bruises and contusions on her head were consistent as evidence of her having given herself a concussion, and she was initially diagnosed as having such. It was her condition the following day, however, that began throwing everyone for a loop.”
Dr. Sixman froze where he was and I stopped as well, turning to face him.
“What was her condition?” he asked.
“You know damn well what her condition was, Denny,” I said. “She began to… well… she began to rot. There’s no other way to say it. The blood pouring from her eyes progressively increased and darkened, and new sources began to flow from the beds of her fingernails. He hair began to fall out in clumps and her skin began to bloat, discolor and… I guess the best word for it is fester. Accurate fingerprints couldn’t be obtained. We had to send DNA samples and dental records upstate to even attempt a positive identification on her. And… God help me… it’s mighty easy to submit dental records when most of the teeth that you’re trying to take prints of are falling out anyway.”
Dr. Sixman lowered the gun to half-mast and flashed an overly-theatrical “I-know-something-you-don’t-know” smile.
“That’s all well and good, Dr. Deckman. Very clinical. You had an elderly lady, presumably dying of some yet undetermined ailment, possibly viral, and wounds that hold consistent with a severe concussion. What sort of follow-up have you done, so far?”
“Well,” I said, “Besides trying to identify her and examine her for evidence of a yet unknown virus, her symptoms seem to match those of the secondary stages of leprosy…”
Dr. Sixman raised the gun back up to my face and snarled, “I guess what I’m asking, Dr. Johnny, is did you even bother to get off of your chain-smoking ass and put that Johns Hopkins’ mind to work investigating the background of this poor lady at all? Did you do any detective work? Was there any personal interest in her history whatsoever? And did you happen to notice that Jane Doe was deader than fucking disco this morning? Bagged, tagged and tossed into the freezer for safe-keeping?”
My hands shot back up.
“Whoa! Denny!” I said, “I know you cared. You’ve always had that above-and-beyond compassionate streak for your patients that I tend to lack. You’ve always gone that emotional extra mile. After all of these years, I still admire you for it. I’m not saying that I don’t… and she’s dead? She actually passed since yesterday, huh?”
“The incident didn’t pique your curiosity?” he asked, ignoring the question. “Her babbling had been getting worse and worse and then the incident… it didn’t tempt you to do a little more digging, Johnny?”
Jane Doe had been babbling incoherently for two days straight. She had been asking the same things over and over again. “Where’s the Healer? What happened to the Healer?” For those undergoing severe shock trauma, the obsessive-compulsive repetition of phrases and ideas is not uncommon. Throw in a high fever and extreme delirium and it’s almost a certainty.
“‘The Healer’,” I said to Dr. Sixman, “‘My notes’, ‘The Brute man’, ‘The Poor Soul’… No! No. ‘The Pure Soul.’ ‘That Poor, Pure Soul.’ ‘Imbeciles’, ‘The Healer’s Notes’, ‘The Great Rusher of Fools’… She kept saying those things over and over again with what tongue she had left. It was like a goddamn mantra. Actually, it was more like a fucking filibuster. Until…”
Denny nodded at me, seeming to approve that my mind had gone where his line of questioning was supposed to have led me.
“The incident,” Denny said. “Tell me about the incident, Dr. Deckman, in which the patient performed a little elective surgery on herself, in a manner of speaking.”
“For Christ’s sake, Denny, you were there!” I said. “Why in the hell..?”
He leveled the gun at my face, “Maybe my little friend here is just curious. Tell me about the incident. Omit nothing… as if your life depended on it.”
“We were all in the room,” I began. I swallowed hard. “You were there… Angela, Dr. Hodgins, myself. We’d given the patient an extremely mild sedative. Enough to put her ailments at bay and possibly get something intelligible out of her.”
“Call her Ophelia,” Dr. Sixman snarled.
“What?” I asked.
He waved the .38 back and forth in my face, “My little friend here loves first names. Unlike you, he’s a bit of a softy and he likes to know who we’re talking about on a personal level, Jonathan. Call her Ophelia.”
I continued, “We asked Ophelia to tell us who she was talking about. Who were the imbeciles and the Brute Man and the Pure Soul? Jane Doe… I mean, Ophelia… Just smiled and began blinking her remaining eye. When we asked her to tell us about the Great Rusher of Fools, that’s when the lid flew off of Hell. You remember. For no apparent reason, she grabbed your left forearm and a handful of your jacket and began to shake you, screaming, ‘Put it back! Put it back, goddamn you! Put it back!’ In the midst of her violent episode, her tongue, already beginning to decompose in its oral socket detached and fell out of her mouth. The gush of blood that followed was pure black, as if it was decomposed or at least highly oxidized.”
Dr. Sixman smiled the sick grin of a sadist, getting his fix.
“What did Ophelia do then?” he asked.
I stared at Dr. Sixman. “She began to laugh,” I said. “Cackle, actually. Cackle… like a person who’s last shred of sanity had finally slipped away. Then she released you and turned to Dr. Hodgins, saying as clearly as anyone can without a tongue, ‘Guess I won’t be needing this anymore.’ The cackling rose to a fever pitch and she proceeded to claw her own eye out. We tried getting her into restraints, but she had already dug through the cornea and was clinically blind by the time that she tapped out.”
“Had you wondered why, of all places, they had found her in the cemetery of the La Laureaux estate?” Dr. Sixman asked.
I had been lost in my head; Descended into the abyss of a bad dream that I had been made to relive. But that question… the randomness of it… snapped me back to the reality of the situation.
“I ain’t taking another step,” I told Denny.
“Excuse me?” he asked.
“I said that unless you can force me to ride your ass piggyback at gunpoint, I ain’t lifting a fucking foot, Denny. Go ahead and paint the stairwell with my brains. Hell. They’ve been needing to redo these walls for a while, now.”
Dr. Sixman put the barrel of the gun to my forehead and leaned into my face.
“Now, Dr. Deckman,” he smiled, “Why do I get the sneaking suspicion that you think that you’re calling me on a bluff right now? That you think I might be pulling one of my usual All Hallows Eve pranks and that I’m gonna break character any second and start laughing and we’re gonna be puffing that fucking cancer rod in your pocket in the Pavilion in a few minutes? The fact is that I’ve been pretty patient with your smug, arrogant attitude up until now, but my little buddy here…” He tipped the gun at me, “Well, he’s starting to lose his cool with your lack of respect. He really wants to give you a piece of his mind, Johnny, but the problem is that, once you get him talking; he tends to start shooting his mouth off. Know what I’m saying? So, you just pick up that $300.00 loafer and carry your ass over to the next flight of stairs before I forget that we went to med school together and I lose that sweet, compassionate streak that you tend to accuse me of having.”
I turned and opened the door to the next stairwell. Three flights and counting.
“I’ll tell you what,” Denny said with a laugh, “how about I do a little bit of the talking for a while? We can pause when we get to the next landing.”
We made our way to the bottom of the third floor stairwell and stopped in front of the door.
“I started wondering why Ophelia Delacroix would wander into the cemetery of the old, locked La Laureaux estate of all places. How would she even gain access? Dr. Tiburna La Laureaux had locked that place up tighter than a librarian’s cervix when she left to do her latest research project. So why, out of all the godforsaken, flyblown swamps in Louisiana, did Ophelia Delacroix want into that particular cemetery so badly?”
“Wetland,” I bemused.
“What?” Dr. Sixman asked, clearly annoyed.
“We don’t call them swamps anymore, Denny,” I said, “Louisiana has wetlands, now.”
Dr. Sixman raised his pistol and thrust it into my face, snarling, “That really bugs you, doesn’t it? Your privileged, entitled ass can’t just be the head of Internal Medicine at some hodunk, podunk, catfish-loving, fortune-telling, Saint Swamp Rat Boonies General can you? No! You have to be the Chief Thoracic Surgeon at the teaching hospital of Wetland U in the distinguished backwoods acres owned by philanthropist, Nobel Laureate, Sir Muskrat Tongue-Fucker the third. Well, guess what, Chief? Your highbrow ass is the Head of a makeshift IM Department at Dragonfly Balls Central Care in the armpit of the dirty, ex-Confederate south, so fucking there!
“Now! As I was saying! There is a history behind the Manor La Laureaux that most of the locals are aware of. I’ve only heard bits and pieces, but it was enough to seduce me into doing some research. In the dark and, shall we say, “colorful” legacy of the La Laureaux estate, the term “estate” is an undeservedly sweet euphemism for plantation. It was built on the flayed, scarred backs of the African slaves who built and carried it, as far back as the original Gaston La Laureaux who came to America with what was already a tidy sum from the relations that had swindled and cheated a fortune in their own right from their fellow slave traders in Normandy and Burkina Faso. The La Laureaux legacy was built on a foundation of human misery and oiled with the blood of the unfortunate souls who crossed in its path. Eighteen generations of La Laureaux called that plantation their home and almost ten generations of slaves gave way to four generations of indentured servants that gave way to the “freed” generation of African-now-Americans who survived segregation only to never know a home away from the manor or where to find a pot to piss in if they had. From 1620 to 2020, the La Laureaux clan spread their hereditary shit stain across this fair state of ours and Gaston La Laureaux the seventeenth lived up to every second of its reputation with the cruel, ignorant life that he was all-too fucking happy to lead. He had taken the hand of one of the locals in marriage and, according to the rumor mill at the time, this lady had one foot in the looney bin and the other on some mighty slippery ground. If she hadn’t been crazy before she met him, she was damn near certifiable by the time that she gave birth to their firstborn daughter, Tiburna.
“I’m the first to admit that most rumors are just junk food for the local town drama queens who have never learned the difference between grounded fact and tabloid pornography until a guest on the Jerry Springer show flubs his lines and blows the whole charade for everyone. But in this case, Johnny Boy… I honestly believe that the rumor mill might have had something.”
“What rumor are we talking about?” I asked.
He flashed a bravado smile at me, “That Gaston La Laureaux’s wife was a hand-to-Jesus, bonafide black magic witch. A Bokor, as they’re known in the swamps… oh, excuse me… the ‘wetlands.’ La Laureaux had taken her out of the back of her mama’s hoodoo shop where she had sold spells and juju and gris-gris bags to the local believers. Except that Mrs. La Laureaux didn’t practice just any old run-of-the-mill juju… She was a herald of the black arts. A tortured soul, born into the practice of the dark crafts, and used to manipulate one’s mojo for the worldly sins of the flesh.
“By the time that Mrs. La Laureaux had left Tiburna to be raised by her questionable betrothed, they had discovered an absolute chamber of horrors in the store room beneath her quarters. Volumes and volumes of books outlining the Dark Faith. Bound manuals notating spells and summoning incantations… some said to be bound in human flesh. There were pentagrams and pagan symbols scratched into the floors and walls. The fingers and teeth of slaves being kept in crude cuneiform jars. One jar, God help me, even contained part of a woman’s afterbirth. Worse than that were the cages of animals that had been left to starve to death in the dark. Racoons and possums, snakes and rodents, and nearly-airtight chests that had contained piles of maggots… and bones that had been stripped clean. They say that there were skeletons of kittens and stray dogs whose flesh had been devoured away completely by the maggots as if…”
“As if she had locked kittens and stray dogs inside of nearly-airtight chests to die and the maggots had still managed to find their happy way in?” I interrupted.
“No,” Dr. Sixman said with a look of nauseated horror, “As if she had been locking kittens and stray dogs inside of nearly-airtight chests that had already been filled with waiting piles of hungry maggots.”
Not wanting to pause to even consider that possibility, I interrupted again, “What do you mean Mrs. La Laureaux left Tiburna with her husband? You mean she abandoned them?”
“Not-entirely-sad, but true, Johnny Boy,” Dr. Sixman responded. “Mrs. La Laureaux was already stark-raving mad by the time that she had given birth to Tiburna. At some point, all the money that Gaston could throw at her wasn’t enough to make her keep her position as the matriarch in that fascinating clan that they had created. Gaston, himself, was a dumb-as-dog-shit, booze-swilling yokel and a hothead to boot, who couldn’t give less of a rip about his swamp-witch wife or innocent baby girl. So, as far as Tiburna was concerned, Gaston viewed her as just another unfortunate mess for the maids to clean up. Like a lot of kids born into wealth, she found her nannies and butlers to be more of mom and dad material than her own parents. Gaston took a second wife, never even bothering to annul his marriage to the first one. This Mrs. La Laureaux was an even bigger boozehound than her husband had been. They had a son, Maurice, who was born with every single impairment that you can imagine could come from fetal alcohol syndrome. Mysteriously, he was found drowned in a bathtub on the same night that the second Mrs. La Laureaux had hung herself from a ceiling beam in her bedroom. No one was implemented in his death and the word “murder” was never even dared to be uttered. Gaston and his good pal, Sheriff Granfoti Jr. of the Metaraide County Parrish, saw to it that the boy’s death was ruled an accidental death due to the neglect of an unbalanced and suicidal woman. Everything was wrapped up in a neat little package. Later that year, however, the package that would follow was not so neat. Gaston had made a few embarrassing investments that hadn’t turned out well at all, and he wound up wrapping his GTO around a 100-year-old oak tree by the coast highway. In the battle between oak tree versus auto that day, let’s just say that oak tree was never in any danger of losing its title. Gaston’s remains were interred in the manor’s boneyard next to the bodies of his second wife and infant son. His headstone was the very same that Ophelia Delacroix had been found raving and beating herself against on the night that they brought her in to the Flambe Rouge.”
“What a feel-good family story,” I said.
Dr. Sixman laughed.
“Those are just the bodies that we know about. Obviously, a number of slaves must have perished during the harsh plantation days. You think that they were given large, distinguished headstones and rendered heartstring-tugging eulogies? Good fucking luck, buddy. The only people getting grave markers on that land were the many generations of La Laureauxs and the few outside souls that they had taken pity on. One of Tiburna’s playmates died during the eighties of pancreatic cancer. As a kindness to her mother, the proprietor of the estate allowed her daughter a decent burial amongst the family plots. Another, less heart-warming story was that of Ernie Tribeaullox. A caretaker for fifty years, Ernie’s real passion was throwing dog fights for the locals. He earned a pretty penny raising man’s best friend to be Marmaduke’s worst enemy. He used to get good and loaded on Friday nights and go charging into the kennels with a quart of Wild Turkey and an electric cattle prod. One of the housekeepers asked him one night, ‘You ain’t gonna hurt them dogs is you, Mr. Tribeaullox?’ He just took a belt of that Wild Turkey and said to her, ‘Ma’am, I’m gonna put so many volts of electricity up those dogs’ asses that they’re gonna be doing that Snoopy Dance from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special before I’m done.’ On his sixty-ninth birthday, Ernie and his Wild Turkey made their weekly trip to the dog kennels to make his mutts do their regular Friday night performance; but you know what, Johnny? Damned if one of those dogs didn’t grow to the size of a maid or even a butler and somehow unlock the kennel doors before he got there. As soon as old Ernie got close enough, those hounds came tearing ass through the gates and did the Snoopy Dance all over Tribeaullox and his cattle prod. You could tell by the expression on what was left of his face that he never knew what had hit him or how a gang full of mutts who were supposed to freeze at the very sight of him had ever gotten the upper hand. He got a closed casket funeral and was lowered into the La Laureaux family cemetery three days later… and there they lay… The Brute Man, Ernie Tribeaullox; The Pure Soul, Tiburna’s friend, Christa Stevens; The Imbecile, Maurice La Laureaux; and the Great Rusher of Fools, himself: Gaston La Laureaux the seventeenth.”
I asked him, “What are you getting at, Denny?”
Dr. Sixman’s face took on a dark seriousness.
“Have you ever heard of the prophecy of Le Fin Absolut Daemon..?” he asked. “We have two flights to go, Dr. Deckman. Keep it moving.”
I opened the door to the second floor stairwell. The air inside was thick and musty. All of a sudden, I flashed back to the fifth grade and having to read “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Alan Poe. I remember the nauseatingly stale air of the catacombs and Fortunato screaming desperately, “For the love of God, Montresor!” as the vengeance-obsessed madman began to wall Fortunato up alive. “For the love of God, Dr. Denny!”… It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, now does it?
“Stop when you get to the bottom of the stairwell,” Dr. Sixman said. “We’ll finish the denouement of our conversation when we get there.”
I turned around when I reached the door at the bottom of the landing. There we were. One flight down and we would be at the door of the Saint Flambe Rouge’s Meat Locker, as it was so sensitively called. Not quite a person’s final destination, but the first stop on the way there. Drawer to ditch or freezer to oven, there weren’t many more stations until the dearly departed reached their final reward.
“That’s good enough,” Dr. Sixman said. “You know, Johnny, I almost wish that I’d have let you have that last smoke when I met you upstairs. It’s a shame that this stale, nasty shit is the last air that you’re ever gonna breathe.”
I reached into my coat pocket for my Marlboro red and said, “Not too late, Denny.”
Denny raised his gun as if to say “nice try” and I pulled my hand back out of my pocket.
“This ‘Le Fin Absolut Daemon’,” I said, “tell me about it.”
Dr. Sixman settled back against the guard rail and took a sigh as he went back into storyteller mode.
“Le Fin Absolut Daemon,” he said. “The translation can go one of two ways. Either, ‘The Absolute End of the World’, or, ‘Hell Will Absolutely Swallow the Living.’ The original prophecy was crude and written in a code of the uneducated to stay hidden from slave masters and ‘upper class’ bigoted murderers. You see, this isn’t a recent prophecy. This goes back to the time when the first La Laureaux had set foot on American soil and Haitian Santeria and African Voodoo had come into full-swing. The prophecy, foretold by the elder seers of the tribes, states that in several generations; the evil of the La Laureaux bloodline would meet the likes of a bonafide black magic Bokor and the two would bring about the end of existence. The how and the when were left cryptically blank. However, it was said that in the bloody wake of her reign of black hoodoo, the first Mrs. La Laureaux had obtained several copies of the ancient incantation spell to summon the Daemon Profane… one of the baddest and most sadistic destroyers of the ancient world who dreamt of opening the portal to Hell and dragging our living souls through the gateway to meet the horrors that lie within. Real Lovecraftian shit. The incantation would require the remains of the five sacrifices… The Child, Born Lame… The Ogre… The Eye of Innocence… The Death Eater… and the one that hasn’t changed a word… The Great Rusher of Fools. That’s when I started making connections: The Child, Born Lame… The Imbecile? The Ogre, or The Brute Man? The Eye of Innocence… perhaps, The Pure Soul? Maybe The Death Eater is The Healer, and The Great Rusher of Fools, well?
“I asked myself, what if? Just what if? The first Mrs. La Laureaux was only ever known as simply that? Just Mrs. Gaston La Laureaux? Who was she before? Before she got married and before she left? Maybe… before she vowed to return? Could Mrs. La Laureaux have been named… Ms. Ophelia Delacroix? Maybe, just maybe, she came back. The age range fits. So does the physical description. Maybe Ms. Delacroix came back to fulfill her destiny and raise the Daemon Profane. All of the other sacrifices are already on the estate; right there in the cemetery. Maybe all that she needed was the final sacrifice. The Healer. Maybe… her daughter? Dr. Tiburna La Laureaux?”
My blood ran cold.
“And after doing my homework and pulling a little Magnum P.I. shit of my own, I found myself in the cemetery, face-to-face with the headstone of Gaston La Laureaux the seventeenth. I used a small rock-collecting hammer to take a chip out of the stone. I brought it with me to the hospital that night to show Ophelia and see how she would react to it. However, I never even got to take it out of my pocket before she grabbed my arm and…”
“‘Put it back,’” I said, mesmerized. “‘Put it back, goddamn you.’ But how could she have known?”
“She couldn’t have,” Denny asserted. “There was no way for it. Not even the luckiest coincidence in the world could explain that one. And then… the final tumbler fell into place. Saturday morning, at 3:03am, I had a dream. I was standing outside of the Meat Locker, when the naked silhouette of Ophelia Delacroix appeared as a shadow on the wall in front of me and began to whisper, ‘My Healer,’ she said. ‘I’ve finally found my Healer.’ And, all at once, I knew who she was talking about.”
Dr. Sixman smirked, raised the gun at me, eye level, and cocked the hammer.
“Whoa! Whoa!” I yelled. “Now, I could only imagine what sick, bizarre fucking reason that old bag might have for wanting to bring about the Apocalypse; but you’re a physician for Christ’s leaping fucking sake, Denny! What the hell possible rationale could you have for wanting to help her?”
“I have my reasons,” Denny said. “Call it faith. Call it karmic destiny. Call it, maybe, just time to throw in the towel… Or, maybe, you can ask the little girl who just died of AIDS because an unknown assailant with HIV kidnapped her from her front porch and raped her repeatedly before tossing her behind a dumpster when he was done. Maybe you could ask the wives in the Middle East whose noses were carved off by jealous, abusive husbands who suspected them groundlessly of infidelity. Maybe you could ask the priest who was forced to amputate his own eyes at gunpoint when Satan worshippers high on angel dust broke into the church over on Elmwood. Call it what you want. I look at the evil and the hatred that has consumed this world and I call us God’s little failed experiment. A half-assed attempt to bring beauty and good intentions into an existence that never had a place for them. Believe me: This life is gonna be much better off without us.”
“I’m glad that you’re not a fertility doctor, Denny,” I said. “If our first few attempts to have children didn’t pan out, we’d all be hacksawing our nuts off, wouldn’t we?”
Sixman nudged me with the gun, “Keep it moving, Funny Man,” he said. “Maybe you can laugh yourself to death.”
Down we went and, finally, there it was. The door to the Saint Flambe Rouge Morgue. Cold, grey and final.
“Open it,” Dr. Sixman said.
“Here’s a thought,” I replied. “Hell no.”
Dr. Sixman pressed the .38 directly to my forehead and asked, “In what world does it make sense where a fucker who doesn’t want to die argues with a psychopath who’s got a gun to his head?”
I reached deep inside of my lab coat, pulled out the Dirty Harry Special from its holster, and aimed it straight at Dr. Denny Sixman’s crotch.
“A world where the fucker who doesn’t want to die has a loaded .357 Magnum pointed right at the psychopath’s balls,” I said.
“Jesus fucked a monkey!” Dr. Sixman screamed. “Deckman! Hold fire! I’ve got a confession!”
Denny let the .38 go limp in his hand and tossed it to the ground.
“It was just a joke!” he screamed. “I swear to God, it was only a joke! Albeit, not one of my funnier ones, right now, but it was my All Hallows Eve prank! The first one that was finally gonna work in years! Angela was in on the whole thing.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I said in a tell-me-another-one-asshole tone and it was finally my turn to level a gun in his face.
“Deckman!” he cried, “my .38 wasn’t even loaded!”
“Well, that’s just bad planning, Dr. Sixman,” I said, and cocked the hammer.
Denny tried to compose himself and said, “The prophecy, the ‘Absolute End of the World’? Hell, man, that’s been around longer than before any of us were even kids. And the notes on the Daemon Profane? That was just a lucky coincidence. Every year, Deckman! Every year, I try to prank you on Halloween and every year, you see through it. If there’s an actual Bokor around here, it’s you, you son of a bitch. I don’t know how you do it! So, this year, when the old lady was found muttering gibberish at the site of what’s supposed to be the birthplace of the Apocalypse, I got the idea. And her non-sensical ravings about the five players matching up with the five players of the summoning spell for the Daemon Profane? It was so fucking perfect, how could I resist? She grabbed my coat and started screaming about “putting it back” and no one knows what in the hell she was talking about. Probably, she didn’t either! Just some old lady in the worst delirium of her life spouting crazy shit!”
Dr. Sixman caught his breath and ran his hand through his hair as he struggled to collect himself.
“Was this a good idea?” he asked. “Probably not. Was it in good taste? Gotta go with a hard no on that one. But, Johnny… I just wanted to make my best friend in the world shit his pants on Halloween night. Is there something really so evil about that?”
Gun in my right hand, I shrugged.
“Let me tell you what you’re gonna see when you open that door, Deckman,” Denny said.
“Angela is already inside the Meat Locker, waiting for us. She beat us down here, sat Ophelia Delacroix up on her slab, stuck her arms out and made her give us both middle fingers. Angie’s going to shout ‘Happy Halloween, Dr. Dick-man!’ the second you open that door. Honest to God!”
“She will?” I asked. “You mean this Angela?”
I flung open the door and there, in a rolling chair by the cold-ass drawers, was the pale body of Angela Sixman with a .357 magnum hole in her forehead. Her eyes were rolled back in her pallid face in an expression of surprised disbelief turned to complete and total vacancy. Dr. Sixman screamed the word “Shit!” so loud and high-pitched that it would have been comical under any other circumstance.
“Deckman!” Sixman screamed. “What the fuck did you do?”
“Gee, Denny,” I said with mock sincerity, “I guess someone forgot that here in the armpit of the dirty, ex-Confederate south, you still have to check the phone lines to make sure that no one else is on them. We’re a little behind the times at Dragonfly Balls Central Care, you know? I heard you and that murdering bitch over there plotting to kill me in this godforsaken pit yesterday morning. That’s when I decided to bring a little friend of my own to work with me. Get them before they get you, right, Dr. Sixman? It’s the way of the world, sad but true.”
“You miserable motherfucker!” Denny screamed through tears. “You batshit, cock-sucking, looney rat bastard!”
“Now, now, Denny,” I laughed, “you kiss that stiff, room-temperature bitch with that filthy mouth of yours? Go to Ophelia Delacroix’s locker and pull it open it. Do it now.”
In that moment, Dr. Sixman seemed to snap back to reality. He made his way to Ophelia’s drawer and pulled the cabinet door open. Her overpowering stench immediately filled the room. He stifled a gag in the crook of his elbow. Even after having been embalmed, Delacroix’s sightless corpse had begun to discolor and putrefy. I felt a dry heave hitch in my throat.
“Johnny,” Dr. Sixman began, “you’ve done a terrible thing, but this is as much my fault as it is yours. More! Way more! You killed an innocent woman, but I will testify on a stack of Bibles that you were made to believe that it was in self-defense. You didn’t create this situation; I put you there. And I’m not about to skate on this either. It’s called the Felony Murder Rule. I’m on the hook for about thirty years-to-life, myself. I’ll be right there with you and we’ll fight this thing together. I just lost my beloved wife, don’t make me lose my best friend, too.”
“Well, ain’t you just an angel right here on Earth?” I asked and raised my magnum to his face, “Get on top.”
He looked like he’d just been splashed in the face with a pail of ice water.
“Wha-What?” he stammered with glassy eyes.
“Back when she was still breathing, I could swear that our Ms. Delacroix was sweet on you, Denny. Now I’m gonna do you a favor and help you rebound,” I said, and motioned the pistol towards her limp body. “So, get on top. You two are going to spend your last few hours together.”
“This is madness,” Dr. Sixman said, incredulously. “You’re finally off your tree, Johnny.”
Looking at the decaying remains of Ophelia Delacroix with a face of desperate hesitance, Dr. Sixman climbed gingerly onto her corpse. Losing his balance momentarily, his elbow sunk into her abdomen, causing a noxious burst of flatulence to explode from her rectum.
Sixman clenched his eyes shut and cried, “Fuck me!”
“Well,” I said, “you two are gonna have enough time alone together. That may be a very real possibility.”
Dr. Sixman looked up at me from his missionary position on top of Ophelia’s bloated corpse.
“Johnny,” he said, “listen to me. At some point, you’re going to realize what a horrible mistake you’ve made. When that happens, you need to know that I understand and I forgive you. You’re my best friend, Johnny. You’re gonna realize what you did and it won’t be too late! Come back here and get me, Johnny! We’ll get through this together! I made a horrible miscalculation, but it doesn’t have to be the end of everything. We can get through this!”
The smile left my face.
“For the love of God, Montresor,” I said.
Denny looked at me frantically as I slid the drawer holding him and Ophelia into the wall.
“Come back and get me, Johnny!” he cried. “Don’t you leave me in here!”
I slammed the cabinet door shut on him.
Angela’s blank eyes stared up at me from where she lay slouched in her chair. I walked over to her and, using my thumb, I began to scrape the fake bullet wound off of her forehead. Instead of coming off entirely, it began to break off in clumps and smear the pale makeup beneath it. Hand to God, I don’t know how these Hollywood makeup artists do it. It had taken Angela and me over an hour to put even a halfway-decent-looking wound on and, if Denny had looked too closely, the jig would have been up. Angela’s corpse-looking face broke into a smile and I burst into a chuckle, despite myself.
Doing my best Danny Glover impression, I told her, “I’m getting too old for this shit, Riggs.”
Doing her best Mel Gibson, Angela replied, “Like hell you are, Sugar Tits.”
“So, here’s the question of the hour,” I began. “How long do we leave Happy Boy in there before letting him know that the joke was on him?”
“That’s not the question of the hour,” she said. “The question of the hour is, once he finds out; is he gonna kiss you right on the mouth or bust you straight in the balls?”
I laughed, “Maybe he’ll surprise us both and kiss me straight on the balls. Here’s another question: Is he gonna have a sense of humor about you turning traitor and switching sides or are you going to be spending the better part of November at the Four Seasons after this?”
“I may end up earning a few extra BNB points on my account next month,” Angela said thoughtfully, “but maybe he can spend some of that alone time remembering how funny the live sewer rat in my toilet was and then ask himself why I would ever switch sides in the first place. You want to play, then welcome to the fucking game. Besides, the man had to learn that you don’t fuck…”
“With the King of Halloween!” we both said together and laughed.
“Tell you what,” I said, popping the Marlboro red back in my mouth, “how about we have a smoke together and then let the poor horse’s ass out? It was smelling none too pleasant in there when the drawer was open. I mean, a joke’s a joke and all, but then there’s just plain cruelty.”
Angela took the cigarette out of my mouth, “Two weeks, Johnny. Seriously? Two whole weeks. You really wanna F that up?”
Out of nowhere, my cell phone rang in my pocket.
“Unbelievable,” I said. “I can’t get a signal on the roof to save my life, but someone can reach me three stories below street level. Hold that thought.”
I answered my phone, “This is Dr. Deckman.”
“Johnny, it’s Ted,” his voice sounded a little distant, but otherwise clear as a bell on my cell phone in the sub-sub-basement. “Oh man, have we stumbled upon the granddaddy of all clusterfucks! I mean, this is bad, Johnny. So bad! What I’m about to tell you is beyond anything that we’ve ever encountered before. Don’t interrupt. Don’t ask me how I came about my information. Just know that I did come about it and I wished to hell that I hadn’t. Homeland Security and the CDC are officially calling this need-to-know information and, right now, you’ve never needed to know anything more in your life… You are going to need to shut down the entire hospital on a quarantine status. No one enters and no one leaves. The only exception is going to be any ambulance drivers who have made drop-offs since Wednesday or afterwards. They have to be recalled and brought back to the hospital for containment immediately!”
“Ted, what in the hell are you talking about?” I asked.
“It’s your patient,” he said. “The Jane Doe that you sent the DNA sample and the dental records for. You asked me to get a positive identification on her.”
“We already know who she is, Ted,” I told him. “Her name was Ophelia Delacroix. She was sixty-nine to seventy-five years old, and she died of a disease, not yet determined.”
“Wrong!” Ted hollered. “Wrong. Wrong. Couldn’t be wronger. Her name was not Ophelia Delacroix and the disease has been very much determined. Johnny, this is going to sound like some Twilight Zone shit, but you’re going to have to believe me and then you’re going to have to get on the stick and shut down that hospital post haste! You have to! Promise me! Swear it!”
“I promise you, Ted,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, and I could hear him steeling himself to continue. “This is straight from the Feds and their field liaisons at the CDC. They are still gathering intel, but what they’ve come up with is this: The patient’s name… Patient Zero, if you will… is Dr. Tiburna La Laureaux. She is thirty-seven years old. She and a team of doctors, microbiologists and scientists were working on a highly-classified project in the Ophelia-Dumont Wetland Laboratories called “The Delacroix Initiative.” Using bacterial life from the Wetlands, they were trying to create a catch-all vaccine for just about every virus, infection or carcinogen known to man. Wishful thinking? They didn’t think so. However, the best laid plans of mice and men… Something went horribly wrong. What seemed like the miracle vaccine… the serum… it took on a life of its own. Somehow, it mutated into a type of safe haven for viral entities to adapt and strengthen themselves… the anti-virus became an uber-disease that evolves and progresses faster than the human body can fight it off. Tiburna saw the warning signs of this and begged her crew to stop working immediately. She pleaded with them to neutralize the serum and abandon the experiment before they could no longer contain what they had created. The Director, Dr. Harvey Profane, however, would go behind his own mother’s back if he thought that it would win him the Nobel Prize for Medicine. He sent samples of their initial concoction everywhere and to every agency that would fund its patenting. Tiburna begged him to put it back. To recall the samples and bring them back to containment for immediate emulation before it was too late. Nevertheless, Profane has never been a man to be swayed when he thinks that he has found something of great value to put his name on. Three members of Dr. La Laureaux’s crew died rapidly of extreme blood loss, anemia, cellular degeneration and compromised immune systems. In her own words, her colleagues began “rotting away” right in front of her. Dr. Lawrence Bruteman, Dr. Ian Becile and Dr. Bruteman’s daughter, Janey. Tiburna was quite fond of Janey and mourned her loss as one of the ‘purest souls’ that she had ever known. It soon became clear that there was no way of un-ringing the bell that the Delacroix Initiative had rung and Tiburna fled to her childhood home to collect some notes that she had created previously on eradication techniques of entire viral and bacterial strains deemed to be threats. Unfortunately for her… Unfortunately for all of us… Dr. La Laureaux was unaware that she had already contracted Profane’s uber-disease and had now become a carrier of it… Define “irony”: Dr. Profane had always wanted to be known for making his mark on the world of medicine. I guess in the end, he got his wish.”
I stuttered into the phone, “H-How… How bad is it?”
Ted paused and then replied, “Forget smallpox. Forget Ebola. Forget COVID-fucking-19… Think more the end of existence as we know it. Think more… the four horsemen are coming. Think… the end of days has finally come to the party, and it brought everything with it but the lubricant.”
My blood ran cold.
“Air strikes have been called in over the Ophelia-Dumont Wetland region with both hydrogen and sarin agents to try to neutralize anything that may have survived. But, Johnny… that still leaves everyone in the Saint Flambe Rouge… and the neighboring town… and the responding police force… and ambulances and the ambulance drivers who passed in and out of the danger zone… and… God help us! The samples! Those fucking samples! Lord only knows how many of them were sent out!”
Ted paused, not intentionally trying for dramatic effect, “I’m not a religious man, Johnny. Not by any means. But, somehow… Somehow I think that I’ll find it in myself to make it to church tomorrow. I believe that I finally have something that deserves serious prayer for the first time in years. I only hope that there’s still a God who’s listen…”
As if the universe was trying to send a darkly poetic message, the cell phone went dead. Angela must have seen the look of shocked detachment on my face as she asked, “Johnny, what is it? You look as though you’ve just been handed down a death sentence. Johnny, I… I think that we should let Denny out of that drawer right now. I’m starting to get…”
“Leave him!” I barked violently. “Leave him in there! It’s the kindest thing that we can do for him, now, outside of…”
I looked at the .357 magnum in my hand. Suddenly, an unexpected chuckle resonated inside of me and I could contain it no longer. I put the back of the hand holding the gun against my temple.
“Two weeks,” I said. “Two fucking weeks. Ain’t that just about always the way? Forty years, and I make it a whole two weeks… just in time for the fucking horsemen to show up.”
Shaking my head, I grabbed the cigarette out of my pocket, flipped it up and caught it in my mouth.
“I think that it’s time for that cigarette now, my dear,” I said. “I can’t say for sure what comes next… but for right now… I think that it’s finally just about time for that Marlboro red.”
Credit: James Hunt
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