Description: In Oogie Boogie Central, department store detective Milo Tucker discovered he is a Gatherer: a being capable of housing the memories and abilities of the dead. Milo and his six passengers faced the horror of serial killer Theodore Munsch after he gained the talents of a Hunter, a creature of similar-but lesser-power. A year later finds Milo still adjusting to his new status, and things aren’t going well. His wife fears he’s lost his mind and his best friend thinks he’s having an affair. Meanwhile, West Virginia’s mystic community knows there’s a new player on the field, and are anxious to capitalize on Milo’s condition. After all, who doesn’t want to live forever? And in the Appalachian woods, a rogue mage known as Salomé and his terrifying companion, The Baptist, have taken command of a Mountain State militia; the first step in their plans for domination and control. There’s only one thing they need to complete their arsenal: A psychic entity to feed The Baptist’s power. Something like a Gatherer with room for one more passenger.
The first cut is the most important.
Ken Chesterton begins his incision just above the genitals and stops at the sternum. He’s careful to control his cut, only going deep enough to penetrate the stomach muscles. Burying his knife to its hilt and tearing with all his strength might satisfy the deepest recesses of his reptilian brain, but the resulting smell of punctured intestine and ruptured bladder will stay in his nostrils for days.
Arlie Garrison twists his beer can until it rips in two, satisfying his own R-Complex in a less visceral manner. He sends the aluminum halves sailing into the darkness beyond the circle of their lantern, where they clang against the other severed castoffs of the evening. Ken whirls at the sound, fixing Arlie with a ferocious stare.
“Do you have to make so much goddamned noise?” he asks, turning back to his butchery.
“Calm down,” Arlie says, opening another beer. “Who’s gonna hear us out here in the woods?” He sucks foam from the top of the can. He doesn’t mind these late-night excursions with Ken; in fact, he looks forward to anything that takes him away from the missus and their mewling brats. Beer and guns wins over bitch and brood every time. Ken’s a bachelor, so Arlie figures he can’t truly appreciate the joys of escaping hearth and home for a night of drinking and killing.
Ken sheathes his knife in the soft earth and turns the body on its side. As the guts begin to spill out, Ken retrieves his knife and slices at the fat holding the intestines in. After several deft cuts with the large blade, a pile of steaming viscera lies next to the hollowed carcass.
“That’s gonna be some good eaten’,” Arlie says, toasting Ken’s expertise. His eyes shine from reflected lantern light as he wipes his tongue across his lips. Thoughts of fresh meat sizzling in a pan compete with the buzz generated by eight cans of Old Milwaukee.
“Don’t start drooling,” Ken replies. “This one’s not for eating; not by us.”
“How’s that?” Arlie nearly chokes on his beer, struggling to deal with this unexpected case of appetitus interruptus.
“We’re not eatin’ this one.” Ken cleans the blood from his knife. “I got us a buyer for it.”
“That’s what I said.”
“I heard what you said; I just don’t understand it,” Arlie mutters.
“What’s not to understand?” Ken asks. “I found us a feller willing to pay cash money for this. Don’t worry; you’ll still get a full belly out of the deal. You’ll just get to fill it with something different this time.”
“What about Hiram?”
“What about Hiram? What’s any of this got to do with him?”
“You know how he feels about freelancing,” Arlie says, hiding a frown with the aluminum can. “If it don’t benefit the community, it shouldn’t benefit anybody.”
Ken looks up from his cleaning. “Don’t go getting all converted on me Arlie. We were doing this long before we hooked up with the Brotherhood, and we’ll be doing it long after we’re gone.”
“Sure, sure,” Arlie says, avoiding Ken’s stare. “I’m just saying; we don’t want to wind up on Hiram’s bad side.”
“I’m not sure Hiram has a good side,” Ken muses, returning his attention to his blade. “I’m starting to re-think this whole Brotherhood nonsense.”
Arlie nods. “That’s fine. Whatever you think is best. I’m with you Ken. You think we need to get gone, then we’re gone.”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Well, you just let me know.” Arlie drains beer nine without further comment.
Ken wants to quit the Brotherhood? Arlie likes that idea just fine. The missus has been bitching lately about living in the compound, so he’ll go along with anything that’ll shut her up. Ken wants to go back into business for themselves? Well all right then. Wads of cash collected from some city boy lazy or stupid enough to pay for what’s free for the taking? That suits him just fine too, so long as the city boy don’t start asking questions.
Arlie doesn’t like folks asking him about his business.
Neither does Ken, so Arlie isn’t too worried. Ken tends to answer pesky questions with the point of his Spyderco, so if Ken’s buyer gets too curious, Arlie figures they’ll have new merchandise for a new customer.
Dancing dollar signs distract Arlie so much that he throws his empty can into the brush without ripping it in half first. He cringes as the missile flies, knowing Ken’s gonna yell about the noise when it hits the other cans.
But there’s no metallic crash, only a dull thud.
Followed by: “Ouch!”
Ken crosses the clearing to stand beside Arlie, now holding his Colt Peacemaker. Arlie’s not quite as fast with his Remington, but after fumbling a bit, has the rifle trained at the same spot as Ken.
“Who’s gonna hear us out here in the woods?” Ken mocks, sighting down the pistol barrel. “Is that what you asked me?”
“Shut up,” Arlie says, trying to remember if he still has a round chambered.
Ken swivels his head to work out the kinks in his neck and steps forward. “All right whoever you are. Get your ass on out here where we can see you.”
“Yeah,” Arlie chimes in, setting the stock against his shoulder. “Let’s get a look at you.”
The brush in front of them crackles and shudders as one gloved hand pushes through, then another. Ken and Arlie get several seconds to examine the hands as their owner attempts to pry the thicket apart. The lavender cloth offers little protection against the thorns and stickers covering the interlocked branches. Brambles stick to the small straps fastened across the backs of the hands.
These aren’t hunter’s gloves.
Eventually the thick brush parts and arms follow hands. A leg steps through, and in one final convulsion, the thicket gives birth to the intruder.
Ken lowers the Peacemaker and Arlie shoulders the Remington. Whoever the stranger is, he’s not going to cause them a lick of trouble.
“I don’t know where you think you’re headed,” Ken says, tucking his pistol back into its holster, “but I’d say you’re way off.”
“That’s for goddamned sure,” Arlie says.
“Trust me gentlemen,” the intruder says, brushing leaves and twigs from his arms, “I know exactly where I am, and I am exactly where I wish to be.”
“Is that so?” Ken asks. His hand strays back to the butt of his pistol. “Then maybe you’ve got some explaining to do.”
The stranger ignores the challenge, and walks over the lantern, continuing to clean debris from his coat. A cape made of fabric identical to his coat and gloves billows as he passes. His earlier awkwardness vanishes with every stride; he now moves as a violet specter, gliding effortlessly around the clearing.
“A magnificent specimen,” the stranger says as he examines Ken and Arlie’s kill. “Simply magnificent.”
“Hell of a shot too.” Arlie smiles. “Dropped him from a hundred yards. Maybe one-fifty.”
“Really?” The stranger looks up from under the brim of his lavender fedora, his eyes crinkling with the knowledge that Arlie is exaggerating the distance. “That is very impressive marksmanship Mr. Garrison; very impressive indeed.”
Arlie puffs out his chest, and casts a sly glance at Ken. The stranger may be a purple creampuff, but at least he appreciates good shooting. Ken shakes his head, imagining Arlie’s guts decorating the ground alongside the entrails already there.
Ken watches the stranger continue to admire the carcass. Making clucking sounds and appreciative “mmm-hmms” as he circles the kill, the stranger studies it from every angle, even bending down to sniff the carcass at one point. After several circuits, the stranger nods, adjusts his cloak, and walks over to Ken.
“Very good blade work, Mr. Chesterton,” the stranger says. “I can’t tell you when I’ve last seen such precision with a knife. Rivals some of my own actually, and I’ve a fairly steady hand myself.”
“Uh-huh,” Ken says, his fingertips stroking the Peacemaker’s polished grips. “You a knife man then?”
The stranger’s head bobs once. “I am, although I tend to favor a longer blade. Better reach, you understand.”
“I do.” Ken replies and brings the barrel of the Colt up to rest against the stranger’s right nostril. “But this here has the best reach I’ve seen yet, not counting Arlie’s Remington there, assuming he’s not too dreamy-eyed to use it.”
Arlie might not understand everything that’s happening, but he’s smart enough to back Ken’s play. The rifle’s back at his shoulder within a second, its muzzle aimed at a spot just below the brim of the stranger’s hat.
“What’s the deal Ken?” Arlie asks.
“The deal Braniac is that Mr. Fancy Pants here made two mistakes. First, Mr. Fancy Pants isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, are you Mr. Fancy Pants.”
“I think I’ll reserve judgment on that one, if you don’t mind,” the stranger says, his voice betraying no fear. “I’m much more interested in hearing what you think my second mistake was.”
Ken thumbs back the Colt’s hammer and twists the barrel a millimeter into the stranger’s nose. “Your second mistake was letting us know how stupid you are so quickly. Arlie and me have never set eyes on you before, cause trust me, we’d remember if we had. But here you are, prancing around in your Sunday best, calling us by name, which you’ve got no business knowing. How’s that for a second mistake?”
The stranger raises an eyebrow. “Very astute Mr. Chesterton. I’m very pleased that your rustic exterior doesn’t mask an equally rustic interior. I do so enjoy having associates with intelligence.” His eyes risk a glance at Arlie. “Although the other type has their uses as well.”
With a gloved finger, the stranger brushes the Colt away from his nose. From under his cape, he produces a lavender handkerchief and gently wipes it across his nostrils. He then takes the pistol from Ken’s hand and polishes the barrel, removing any trace of himself from the metal.
Ken watches this without comment, as if having his gun taken away is the most natural thing in the world, which it isn’t. The Colt’s been passed down for three generations, with the admonition it would always stay in Chesterton hands. Ken has always interpreted this literally, even denying Hiram a peek during his Brotherhood initiation. Hiram had smiled at Ken’s denial; he understood the demands of family and the burden of honoring an ancestor’s wishes.
This stranger is no Chesterton, nor is he the leader of the Brotherhood, but Ken remains unaffected by his handling of Granddaddy’s Peacemaker. As the stranger continues cleaning, he locks eyes with Ken, who suddenly realizes there are things worse than a stranger knowing his name.
Arlie also knows the history of the Colt, and the promise that accompanies its passing. He sees it disappear from Ken’s hand, only to reappear a second later in the stranger’s, and Arlie’s palms begin to sweat. He pulls the rifle tighter against his shoulder, ready to join in on whatever retribution Ken decides to unleash. His hands grow slick on the trigger and barrel as he fights to keep the stranger’s head atop the red dot on the front sight. “C’mon Ken,” he mutters into the stock, arms starting to shake with tension, “make your play.”
Ken does nothing, and Arlie experiences a revelation similar to Ken’s.
The stranger returns the Colt to Ken’s hand, gently hooking the trigger guard around Ken’s index finger. He snaps the lavender handkerchief like a chamois and returns it to the inner folds of his cape. Ken wraps his hand around the grips and wills his thumb to pull back the hammer. With the Peacemaker returned, his acceptance vanishes, and all he wants is to erase the stranger’s face from his sight, before that superior smile can burrow any deeper into his mind.
Arlie sees the gun vanish from the stranger’s care and rematerialize in Ken’s hand. He notices the tremor in Ken’s thumb and the perspiration beading on Ken’s temples. He wipes his trigger hand across his shirt, but once it’s dry, he can’t get his finger back inside the guard.
The stranger turns to Arlie and smiles. “I see my compatriot has finally arrived.”
The brush surrounding them crackles again, but this isn’t the tentative sound of the stranger’s delicate passage. The foliage erupts with a cacophony of broken limbs and trampled greenery, heralding the arrival of a new player.
“It’s important to watch your partner’s back, isn’t it Mr. Garrison?” the stranger asks, as the noise grows louder. “Here I was, so wrapped up in Mr. Chesterton’s firearm maintenance that I almost forgot about you.”
The clamor in the woods increases. The stranger sighs.
“I also subscribe to the buddy system,” he continues, nonplussed by the rifle aimed at his head, “and it appears that my buddy has demonstrated another example of his flawless timing.”
Ken and Arlie close ranks as the thickets at the edge of the clearing begin to undulate. The stranger steps to the side, a lavender midwife to the impending birth.
The brush doesn’t part, but evaporates as the stranger’s partner appears. Ken and Arlie gasp in unison; their minds, even under the stranger’s influence, are unable to process they are seeing.
The second intruder is half again as tall as the first; his girth roughly that of a mature elm. Massive hands, ending in squared-off fingers, hang from impossibly long arms that descend from shoulders towering two feet above their heads.
“Gentlemen,” the stranger extends his arm in greeting, “it’s time for introductions. My associate and I have had many names over the years, but I’m sure they would mean less to you than they do to me, and I’m quite a linguist by nature. For now, you may call me Salomé. Mr. Chesterton, Mr. Garrison: Meet The Baptist.”
“Oh my sweet Jesus!” Ken exclaims as his eyes roam the figure standing before them. “What is that?”
“That’s no way to talk about one of your new masters,” Salomé warns, chuckling at Ken’s reaction. “Be cautious Mr. Chesterton or you‘ll offend him.”
“How the hell am I going to offend him?” Ken asks. “He doesn’t have any f**king ears!”
“Well of course he doesn’t,” Salomé replies. “A psychic of The Baptist’s magnitude has no need for such primitive appendages, and it’s not like he needs a place to hang his spectacles.”
“He’s…he’s…” Arlie stutters, craning his neck in awe. “He’s got no head!”
Salomé nods. “That puzzled me at first too, but since it doesn’t seem to bother him, I decided not to let it bother me. I’d suggest you adopt a similar attitude.”
The monstrosity moves into the clearing, each footstep deliberately placed, as if every stride is an effort. Ken imagines a grunt with every footfall, enhancing the illusion of great exertion.
“The Baptist is momentarily taxed,” Salomé responds to the motions of the lumbering giant. “It is fortunate we found you when we did; even more fortunate that your evening’s hunt was successful. If not for your kill,” the stranger shrugs, “other steps might have proved necessary.”
The Baptist crosses the clearing and stands before the carcass, its entrails still steaming in the cool, nighttime air. Salomé’s lips move silently as he approaches his partner, head nodding along in a conversation only he can hear. Finally, he speaks aloud. “I’m not sure. I can certainly ask.”
He turns to Ken. “Mr. Chesterton, this buyer you spoke of earlier. Surely your contract wouldn’t suffer too badly if the merchandise was slightly altered.”
Ken stares at the twelve-point buck, calculating the bonus offered by the ignorant city boy for an impressive rack. At one hundred bucks a point, his and Arlie’s payday has nearly doubled, but only if they stay alive to collect it.
“Depends on what you plan to alter,” he manages to say, finding a remnant of his spine in the face of lost dollars.
Salomé winks and draws a long, narrow sword from under his cloak. “Nothing that will be missed, yet something vitally important for the next phase of our endeavor.” He grasps the hilt with both hands, faces the deer and with the blade, traces a line along the deer’s neck.
“Of course, if you object, there are always alternatives, although I’m not sure how Mr. Garrison will react to the proposition.”
Arlie reacts by fainting.