…In That Quiet Earth
Shelby held a sprig of holly in her hand, her arm outstretched, pointing it at a bull’s eye target on hung from a door. Her head was down and her eyes forward and squinting. She bit down on her bottom lip and shifted her weight back and forth between her feet.
“This time don’t overthink it,” Sylvia said, straightening Shelby’s arm, “Feel it. Don’t just think about hitting your target, feel yourself hitting the target.”
Shelby crooked her head and jabbed the holly sprig at the target. A green pulse of light fired from the branch and sailed toward the target. The door swung open and Delareux stood in the frame, staring down a blob of faerie fire. He pinched his cigarette between his thumb and middle finger and pitched it with a flick. It stuck the fire and became wrapped in moss and foliage. It hit the ground and tried to crawl away as it screamed.
“Oh, you poor thing,” Sylvia picked up the agonized creature, “I’m so sorry this was how you met life.”
She turned her head, closed her eyes and squeezed until she heard a snap. She dug a small hole in a potted plant and placed the creature within, then covered it back up.
“Holy crap,” Shelby said, eyes wide, “You killed it.”
“The creature would only know agony for however long it lived. It was mercy to return it to the cycle,” Sylvia said.
“Lady Winthrop,” Barclay wheezed.
“Sylvia,” he grumbled.
“Is that so hard?”
“Mr. Delareux is here to see you.”
“Mr. Delareux,” Shelby ran to him, “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, kiddo,” Delareux pulled a five out his pocket and handed it to Shelby, “No hard feelings.”
“A whole fiver? Really?”
“A bit of extravagant gift for child, Mr. Delareux,” Sylvia said.
“Easy come, easy go. I got it from Palazzo’s pocket,” Delareux said, “I got a message you wanted to see me.”
“From a little birdie, no doubt.”
“An enormous crow.”
“Rex,” Sylvia laughed, “Barclay trained him. Mr. Delareux, let’s walk the grounds. It’s almost time.”
Sylvia and Delareux walked through the unspoiled grounds of her home. Delareux’s ears were filled with the normal sounds of life, birds calling, locusts rattling and crickets fiddling, wings flapping and buzzing. She stopped and stood motionless, her eyes wandered aimless as she listened. She appeared to be drifting into a sort of meditation. He stood and swatted gnats and mosquitos.
“You said it was almost time, Sylvia,” Delareux said, “Time for what?”
Sylvia continued to drift. A single deep, golden, chime was heard from the tower of Sylvia’s mansion and her eyes snapped to Delareux’s.
“That,” she held up her finger.
“What? Your clock?”
“Be quiet and listen. What do you hear?”
Delareux took a drag from his cigarette, like a proxy sigh, dropped his head and listened, ‘This lady is pretty loopy,’ he thought, ‘I don’t hear a thing,’ his head popped up.
“I don’t hear a thing,” he said.
“Right. Everyday at one o’clock, for one hour,” Sylvia replied, pointing into the wilderness, “There’s nothing out there. There’s nothing out here.”
“What do mean by nothing?”
“Have you had to swat away any gnats since the clock struck one?”
Delareux considered this as he took a slow drag.
“Even the plants. They look fine, but there’s nothing in them,” she held her hand over a Rhododendron bud, “That should have blossomed, but there is no life in them.”
“And it only lasts an hour? How long has this been going on?”
“I started happening right after we returned the comet eater to space. I thought I could figure this out myself, but I’m not the detective.”
Delareux plucked a leaf from a bush and studied it.
“Not even a peep,” Sylvia said running her hands over the leaves of the bush, “It didn’t even notice you plucked its leaf.”
“Are you sure it’s not sleeping or something?”
“If it were dormant there would still be life. I could have this Rhododendron make us tea, right now. But there’s nothing, like it was drained.”
“And at two it will be fine again?”
“That’s the pattern so far.”
“How far does it spread?”
“A few days ago I noticed there was a clear boundary on the other side of my house, so I started marking the edge. I haven’t gotten very far with that.”
Sylvia took Delareux to see the makeshift markers she had staked out along the boundary. Delareux crouched down and cocked his head and the row of branches and twigs poking from the ground in a line. The stakes that lead into the forest had colorful scarves wrapped around them. Delareux tried to line up the stakes with his eyes, but the row bent out to his right.
“It curves,” Deleareux said through a cloud of cigarette smoke, “Off that way. Like it makes a giant circle.”
Delareux stood up and looked Sylvia as he unfurled a seamstress tape.
“Palazzo would like it if I brought back some measurements,” he said.
“I bet he would,” Sylvia smirked, “But that’s pretty irrelevant, not mention personal.”
Delareux bent down by the first stake and held the end of the tape to it.
“Could you hold this here?” he asked.
He pulled the tape as far as it would go and held against the nearest stake.
“How long is it?” Sylvia called.
“The whole thing,” Delareux replied, winding the tape back up.
“How long is that?”
“32 feet,” Delareux said, looking at the end.
“Who do you plan on measuring with 32 feet of seamstress tape?”
“You never know,” he stuffed the tape into his pocket, “I’m going back to the office to give Palazzo the measurements. He’ll perform some black number magic and come up with the radius we should be looking in. I tend to stay away from the nasty stuff. He communes with dark gods I don’t even want to know the names of.”
“He’ll find the radius from the chord. Simple geometry.”
“The devil you speak, Witch,” Delareux shouted and covered his ears.
“Eight years of botany at Tulane. I’ve had mingle with some dark forces. Like calculus.”
Delareux kept his ears covered.
“Can you guess what my favorite was?”
“Geometry. Gee I’m a tree,” she laughed.
Delareux glared at her through furrowed brow and slitted eyes.
“You can see how I’d find that appealing.”
“I’m leaving,” Delareux said.
The vines that grew up the walls and trellises of Sylvia’s home reached down and picked her up and opened the solarium window.
“Keep in touch, detective,” the vines placed Sylvia inside the solarium and shut the window.
“Weido,” Delareux grumbled, walking back to his car.
Delareux entered his office and found Toli crouched and rummaging through the liquor cabinet. He pulled out an unmarked jug of rum and placed it on the table.
“Not this one,” Delareux said, picking it back up, “Anything else, just not this one. Two people drink from this bottle, me and Baron.”
“I already took a shot,” Toli said.
“Have fun with the dreams.”
“You should really label it.”
“It’s labeled by being the only one unlabeled.”
“While an effective system, it’s not particularly transparent to the uninitiated.”
“Speaking of uninitiated, I’ve never known you to be a before sundown drinker. Is your tie a little too itchy today?”
“Just…business,” Toli took a shot of whatever wasn’t in the unlabeled bottle.
“Well, I just got back from the Winthrop place.”
“Oh? How is Sylvia.”
“The cat’s pajamas. Weird stuff going on over there, but the reason she called me was because everyday at one o’clock sharp all the animals clam up for an hour. She even thinks the plants are off somehow. It only happens in an area. She started staking it out. I measured a 32 foot curve. I was thinking you can perform whatever black mass you do get the area we need to look in.”
“Find the radius from the chord.”
“Ah, ah, ah,” Delareux waved his hands.
“Did you get the height of the chord?”
“Palazzo, I’d be number illiterate if it wasn’t for the telephone and money.”
“How far was the tape from the stakes in the middle?”
“Less that my pinky nail.”
“Good, that gives us a range between 300 feet and 2 miles. Your pinky nail is a wide variation with a chord that long.”
Delareux grabbed the unlabeled bottle of rum and headed of the door, “I have to perform an exorcism.”
Delareux awoke the next day as he did; wondering whether he had even slept at all. He had had his dream again. The one that feels like he’s awake and living weeks of another life. It amused him how they always start with him waking up and wondering if he had even slept at all. His musing on the matter always ended in the same way, ‘I hope I never have to move to Philadelphia.’ He was informed by the bell chiming on the office door, that he had a client and that he had slept on his desk. A small, nervous woman had entered and regarded him with worry, clutching her cloth handbag. He swung his legs around and planted them on the floor. He tried to snap to a standing position, but could only manage a groggy slump against his desk. A slump he hoped the shaking woman didn’t read as lascivious intent, but rather the moribund condition it was.
“You are open, aren’t you?” the woman squeaked.
“Yup,” he smashed his palms into his eyes, rubbing until he saw stars explode. He stumbled around his desk and plopped in the chair, “Please sit,” he gestured to the space in front of his desk that was remarkable for its complete absence of anything to sit on.
She looked askance. Delareux grunted as he stood and opened the door to the toilet. Inside was stacked four wooden chairs. He drug them out and distributed them about the room, the last one before his desk. The woman, eyed him as she sat.
“Damn, poltergeist,” Delareux said, “Sorry about that, miss?”
“Gilbert, Pamela Gilbert.”
“The next question I like asking is, why are you here?”
“I need help.”
“I’m with you so far.”
“My husband disappeared.”
“When did you last see him?”
“Friday morning when he left for work. At first, I worried he might have been up to no good with his old crew, but then the whole weekend came and went. I called his work yesterday and they said he didn’t show.”
“So far I haven’t heard anything that shoots down your bender theory. Were there recently any big changes in your lives.”
“We got married back in May. And I just found out I’m pregnant with our first child.”
Delareux looked at her, scratched his head and sucked air through his teeth, wincing. Pamela leaned forward, awaiting his diagnosis.
“I don’t know, figure he used to run with a wild crowd, probably wasn’t ready to settle down, now junior is on the way and he skipped out on his job. There are a few likely ways I see this playing out; your worry is founded and he ran off with boys and then, is never coming back, got him arrested or got himself killed.”
Pamela’s mouth dropped and she stared at Delareux with wet, red eyes.
“We can eliminate the easy one, have you been to the police?”
Pamela gave a shallow nod.
Pamela shook her head.
“The other two, I can help you with.”
“Yeah, I could use the cash and I’m short on supplies,” he waved an empty, unlabeled bottle.
“Thank you,” she smiled and let out an involuntary giggle.
“Yup,” he put his palm to his face and his head slid down his arm and rested in the crook of his elbow.
“But I have to say Mr. Delareux, your bedside manner is awful.”
“I’ve seen this play out too many times,” he voice was muffled in his jacked sleeve, “I’m not telling you not to hope for the best, but if you walk through my office door, you should prepare for the worst. Otherwise you’d be in some other gumshoe’s office.”
Delareux made a blind selection from his liquor cabinet and poured a glass to the rim.
“Have you been drinking, Detective?” Pamela gasped, “It’s one in the afternoon.”
“I started at two this morning.”