When the Man Comes Around, Chapter 2

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Chapter Two

Houston, Texas.

It’s a lot of things, but chiefly it’s too big, too hot, too humid, and the tap water tastes like the greatest hits of the Periodic Table of Elements. It’s also my home, at least this go around. Specifically, I’ve carved out a little slice of bliss for myself in the Montrose area.

I know. You have some lingering questions about the nature of what I am. What kind of person drops the D word and then just wanders off? I’m getting to that. Let me set the scene, first. Honestly, you drabs and your smartphone attention spans.

Two years ago, my band and I moved from Austin to Houston, and I assumed ownership of my current digs; a nice little apartment once owned by my late Uncle nestled here in the heart of what they call “the strangest neighborhood east of the Pecos.” My band came for the promise of more exposure, and a potential recording contract, and I came to get away from a pesky bit of drama that effectively ruined the capital of Texas for me in perpetuity.

But so far, I think the move was the right one. Having loved the odd atmosphere of Austin, I can tell you that Montrose was definitely my kind of weird. Vivid art, ever-flourishing left-of-center counterculture, live music on tap, historic bars and clubs and weird out-of-the-way stores. Montrose is really a small-scale version of Austin’s inherent eccentricities. It has seen the rise and fall of thousands of insurgent subcultures, all in varying shades of fashion, and all inevitably under the same “damn the man” banner.

We are the Youth. Hear us roar, until we have a mortgage.

It’s just one slice of the pie that makes up the city as it exists inside “The Loop”, which is how the locals refer to the 610 freeway that forms a ring around the city itself. It effectively cuts the sprawl of Houston into two distinct classifications for means of direction: “Inside The Loop”, and “Outer Houston”, which sounds like a fantasy trope, but trust me when I say the distinction runs deeper philosophically than just simple geographical boundaries.

I’ve had two years to soak up all the good and bad of Houston, and over that span at least once a week, every week, had been devoted to shooing out or just killing every single preternatural threat and nuisance in this neighborhood.

Why? Because it’s mine.

You might be looking for some underlying nobility, or perhaps a stint of vigilantism brought on by some tragic past, but honestly I just wanted my area to stay quiet. Let the rest of the world deal with its own problems. Sorry to disillusion you, but I’m a pretty simple man with simple needs, and one of those needs is to not trip over monsters every time I want to go to the store.

I promise you, if they ever invent a Roomba that sweeps up paranormal nasties like a Van Helsing automaton, my evenings will get a lot more pedestrian.

Probably.

Before you ask: no, I don’t wear a cape when I go out to do night-time battle. Don’t think I haven’t considered it, though. Capes don’t lend themselves to fighting as much as you, I, or every comic artist ever would like to believe. I’m afraid I’m just not a spandex uniform kind of guy, either. I’m also pretty sure you need a psychological condition and dead parents to really pull off the look. Don’t get me wrong, I’m crazy, just not that crazy.

And so, fueled mostly by alpha-male territorial sensibilities blended seamlessly with a “does not play well with others” work ethic, I started up my game-hunting expedition. Word had spread pretty quick in the spooky community that Montrose was off-limits, yet now and again something would slink into my borders. Maybe they thought themselves tough enough. Maybe they just wanted to test the fences, so to speak. In all fairness though, they were probably just too stupid to have read and understood the memo. Their limited intelligence notwithstanding, I just couldn’t let that shit slide if I were to enjoy my time here. Hence my weekly housecleaning.

It’s why I was worse for wear that morning after volunteering to go toe to toe with that old Chinese cretin the night before. Granted, most of the things I’ve faced so far had not given me such a rough time of it, but let it not be said that I didn’t pride myself on my win-loss ratio, or sense of order. Then again, I’d even take a whole herd of those one-legged assholes over dealing with a single Bean-Nighe any night of the week. You’d probably know them by their street-name, banshees, and they are a pain in the ass.

I mean, come on. Do you know how embarrassing is it to have to fight a spectral enemy by employing tactical peek-a-boo? It’s insulting. Though, I wouldn’t mind getting a recording of one of their screams for a future album if I could do it without, you know, being killed on the spot by it.

I swear, there are plenty of books on how to kill creatures of the fae, but not a single one on how to mic them properly. Pity, really. Phantasm wailing beats auto-tune any day, and you can quote me on that.

While I don’t do it solely for you drabs—what you lot are commonly referred to by the social circles I run in—that doesn’t mean I’m not keenly aware of the dangers said creatures pose to you. There are over two million folks that call Houston their home. That’s plenty of people to fuck with when the monsters get bored, and plenty of bodies to snack on when they get peckish. It’s not like they have to worry about the cops. The world being what it is, a few missing persons each month in a big urban environment isn’t going to raise that many eyebrows.

To be honest, it doesn’t really blip on my radar, either. Millions of people go missing every damn year across the world. Simply put: it ain’t my problem. But if my activities here have the byproduct of saving a few lives in the process for this one neighborhood, then I guess we can call it a happy bonus.

You’re welcome.

But, how can things out of fairy tales operate anywhere, let alone a huge city, without drawing some serious heat from the gun-toting authorities? Well, first of all, you should probably drop that fairy tale supposition nonsense. It’s rude, and decidedly bad for your health. The supernatural is real; so real in fact, that referring to it as ‘supernatural’ is bordering on elitist. You sound like a snob, frankly.

It’s as natural as the air you breathe, and more paramount to your lives than fretting over what is or is not gluten-free. It doesn’t exist alongside the waking world, it is the waking world. You see it every single day you putter about on this mud-ball, and it’s hardly the fault of the strange if you drabs largely ignore it. Seriously, the only way to make people take notice of something is to give it its own reality show, or to let some cable news network turn it into a twenty-four hour editorial free-for-all.

Even then, you’d forget about it by the next media cycle. Viva la Magpie Syndrome.

But you have seen it, even if you don’t acknowledge it. Oddly enough, what you would call the world of the supernatural has become more brazen recently, and the denial of it has marched in lockstep with the armies of technological and medical advancement. Got a photo of a yeti? Photoshop. Got film of a ghoul bounding through traffic? CG work, and not terribly good at that. There’s people in New Zealand who made six movies chock full of that sort of escapist bullshit, thank you very much.

Spirits? Demons like yours truly? Celestial and ancient terrors with tentacles and modes of speech begging for subtitles? Check your medication dosage, or try this brand new medicine as advertised by this rose-tinted commercial. Side effects include being horribly ordinary, desensitized to the point of complete ambivalence, and mild death. Consult your doctor before trying Real Life.

You see the colors of the greater spectrum everyday, and you just ignore the shades that aren’t appealing to you. Reality is mundane. Reality is ordered and boxed up for rational consumption. The only thing to fear is fear itself, political gaffes, and growing old and not in touch with what’s hip—including knowing better slang words than “hip”. With respect to Mr. Hetfield, there are no monsters lurking beneath your bed, in your closet, or in your brain-case. The real monster is man, yadda yadda yadda.

You’re right about that. It’s just that man’s only one kind of monster, and nowhere as near the top of the food chain as you want to believe. It’s all out there, it’s all real, and like the saying goes: “It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in the Devil. He believes in you.”

I mean, I certainly do. You’re ignorant, sure, but you’re all right in my book.

But that brings me around to what I am. I’m a Demon, the “fallen angel” variety, tried and true and thoroughly misrepresented in all mediums. Really, the way you people depict us is laughably criminal, sometimes. So let me debunk two key points of the ongoing campaign of misinformation:

One, holy water does only one thing well. It makes my clothes wet. Stop it. Seriously, it’s just really annoying when some would-be crusader unloads with a super-soaker of blessed H2O.

Two, we’re not beings of condensed malevolence, like a sinister Three Musketeers bar where the nougat’s been replaced with murder. Like people, we come in all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. The idea that we’re all contract-toting soul-stealing founts of sin comes from the fact that the victors get to write history as they see fit. I think they added the bit about holy water out of spite.

And all of that is just par for the course, isn’t it? There are good Angels and bad, just as there are good and bad Demons. Why the disparity? Well, that’s a tale about ancient history, and a little disagreement that made World War 2 look like an elementary school shoving match. Suffice it to say that what you call Demons lost, and so they got to exist under the stipulations of a celestial version of the Potsdam Declaration.

With it comes the usual maligning of the losing side to shore up the victor’s propaganda. It makes for great copy in the annals. But let me be clear: I don’t, in fact, harvest souls. I’ve about as much use for collecting wayward souls as I do for collecting plastic grocery bags. Sure, someone will find some use for them outside of their primary function, but I’ve got better things to do.

As for dispensing or encouraging sin, well, I’ve got my own baggage to contend with. If others want to hop on the parade float, so be it. At lease they’ll have interesting stories to avoid telling their children until they’ve grown up enough to appreciate a good drunken bonding moment with the folks.

But you get the idea. Not only are the creatures of the old tales real, they walk among you, and the larger portion of information you have on them is about as factually accurate as an amateur news webpage subjected to the editing whims of your average social media bottom feeder. Some of it is legitimate, but there’s a lot of angry libel thrown in for pure juvenile meanness.

For instance, my day job. You wouldn’t expect a Demon behind the counter of a small-time flower shop, yet there I was bright and early after the dust-up with the shanxiao, tending till. While it’s true that it was an arrangement of convenience given that it was my late Uncle’s shop, and that I needed the money since neither band gigs or hunting down creatures paid the bills, the real reason for my day job is way more mundane.

Simply put: I like flowers.

Hell, I worked a stint at a grocery flower arrangement section while in Austin.

What? Have you ever heard of roses in The Pit? Don’t judge me.

It was still a few minutes until the store opened, but there were plenty of small things to address before I flipped the sign on the front door. Exhaustion was making my normal bustle play out in slow motion, but I was dealing. I had managed to get about an hour’s worth of sleep after wolfing down a bowl of not-quite-cooked noodles, bandaging the cuts and abrasions I could reach, and dumping half a bottle of rubbing alcohol on the ones across my back. To seal the deal I had burned a little more spiritual juice last night to speed up the wounds knitting so I didn’t have to worry about looking like a complete horror show today.

It’s a risky prospect to heal like that, but I couldn’t afford what few customers I got to be forced to decide between taking advantage of the two-for-one daffodil sale, or electing to call the paramedics because I looked like a slasher victim. It was bad enough that I still resembled like a freshly discharged emergency room patient. Not exactly what you’d call putting the best customer-service image forward, but it would have to do.

It was getting close to showtime, so I flipped the deadbolt on the entrance, made sure the rotating racks of seeds were all in order, and lumbered over to the register. Sorting through yesterday’s receipts, I did my best to ignore both protesting muscles and the fact that the numbers weren’t adding up to as much as I had hoped. I would need some solid sales in the next week if I hoped to make rent. Heading into summer usually meant an increase in sales, but May was an odd duck when it came to botanical profiteering.

It really could go either way depending on the fickle nature of the consumer. Perhaps it was time for another trip to the pawn shop? There were still a few nick-knacks and DVD’s I could swap for some quick coin.

That line of thinking wasn’t going to get me through the here and now, so I slapped the receipts into their file, turned the sign on the door to the side with the cheerful cartoon sun that announced “We’re good to GROW! C’mon in!”, took up my spot behind the counter, and found my place in the novel I had been reading. I’ve yet to meet the customer that foams at the mouth for the flower shop to open, so I felt comfortable getting in a chapter or two before anyone would come wandering in.

This, apparently, was not going to be my morning for reading about airship battles and fantasy lands. No sooner had I made it halfway down the page I had opened to, when the electronic chime sounded, and the shop door opened. In flooded the unmistakable sound of two painfully familiar voices having an argument.

“This is a complete waste of our time, Brighton,” barked the impatient male.

“And since when is following up on a case a waste of time, Harris?” the woman answered.

Following said bickering voices entered two of my least favorite people. Nathan Harris, and Melodie Brighton, detectives with the HPD. Remember that little bit of drama I mentioned that necessitated my exit from Austin? These two were principle players in it. Particularly Brighton.

Fucking Mondays, am I right?

Harris was the first over the threshold, pushing the door open and shooting a suffering look back at Brighton. He was easily into his forties, but had the stride of a man that kept in shape and was used to getting things done in the shortest amount of time possible. He kept his rust-brown hair cut shot and conservative, right down to a goatee that had to have been shaped using a laser-ruler. His blue eyes looked tired, and had the bags to match, but the crisp and well-cut navy business suit he wore gave him a look of confidence and energy. A confidence and energy, I add, that he was directing at Brighton, sans filter.

“It’s a waste of fucking time when you’re chasing phantoms!” he snapped. “This lead has been played out to conclusion over a dozen times, Sergeant!”

His companion rolled her eyes, and shouldered past him into the shop. Melodie Brighton was a study of browns; cinnamon-colored skin, amber eyes, and deep dark russet hair that would have reached well past her shoulders it not for its natural curl. She had one of those heart-shaped faces that could pass for late twenties as easily as late thirties depending on her expression.

She and Harris were walking opposites today. Harris was a boring wonder-bread Caucasian male in a snappy suit, and Brighton was a dark-skinned head-turner in casual attire. T-shirt, blue jeans, and silver stud earrings. She cleared five foot ten without heels, which she had left behind in favor of sturdy boots, and the only official paraphernalia she wore aside from the badge clipped to her belt was the light windbreaker bearing the HPD shield on the shoulders.

“You didn’t have to ride along then, did you?” Brighton fired back. “Are we going to go through this again, or can you stop playing ‘Who’s cock is bigger’ for five minutes? We’ve got—”

“We? What we? I’ve got a case, Brighton. Me. You’ve got a screw loose, and I’ve got—”

“A receding hairline and a bad poker face, yes,” Brighton finished with a smug smile. “That fire was cleared by CSI two days ago. Another arson. You filed the report, and I saw the evidence. I’m picking up your slack whether you like it or not!”

“Welcome to Montrose Flowers n’ More!” I announced in my most annoyingly cheerful voice. “Are you two looking for some apology arrangements today? We’ve got a special for couple’s therapy! Feel free to look around, or finish your very public spat. I’ll be here if you need me, lovebirds!”

If looks could kill, I would have been dead in stereo. Both officers cut off mid-bickering, and stared daggers at me. I, ever being the upright and respectfully cooperative citizen, pursed my lips and fluttered my eyelashes at the pair.

“Stow it, Mr. Coddaire,” sighed Harris. Brighton settled for continuing to try to kill me with her mind.

I couldn’t blame her, really. I looked like the greatest hits of probable cause, even without the bandages. One could almost see her go down the mental “reprobate” list, checking off boxes as she eyed me. Spiky and unruly short brown hair with long bangs dyed blood red. Check. Left eyebrow ring, Labret spike beneath the lower lip, multiple piercings in each ear. Check. Eyes so orange that they’re obviously contacts. Check. Black t-shirt with white block letters reading “Witty Slogan”. Check.

Trained Law Enforcement Conclusion: Malcom Coddaire. Caucasian male, six feet even, mid twenties, athletic build, attitude problems, malcontent, potential anarchist. Automatic suspect.

“Fine,” I chuckled. I slipped an old folded purchase order into my book to mark my place, and laid it on the counter. “No flowers, then. What can I do for you this time, detectives? New mug shot? Update my fingerprints? Pour out my soul beneath the lamp at the station? I’ve got things to do. Am I under arrest, or is this just a social visit from Houston’s—and I use this word lightly—finest?”

“Not yet. You could change things up and try telling the truth, Coddaire,” Brighton seethed. “It’ll make things easier on you in the long run.”

I was in no mood for the shtick today, good cop, bad cop, or otherwise. I decided to help Brighton check off the no respect for authority figures box with bright red permanent ink.

“I’m sorry, detective,” I said, cupping a hand to my ear, “I couldn’t hear you over the latent sexual tension. Could you speak up without all the ‘come hither’?” I threw in a wink for good measure.

Brighton snarled, and took a threatening step my way. Harris smoothly stepped just in front of her, and gripped her shoulder to keep her in check.

“Woof. She’s got it bad, Harris,” I needled. “I mean, I’m certainly flattered, but isn’t this a conflict of interests? What would the precinct say?”

Harris struggled against Brighton’s angry forward momentum, and there was a minor scuffle between the two. Eventually, Harris managed to get her flailing limbs and grunted obscenities down to a minimum. He turned towards me, flush from exertion and more than a touch annoyed.

“Keep it up, and I’ll nail you for obstruction, asshole,” Harris snapped.

I shrugged, and leaned across the counter. “Feel free, Lieutenant. Between this, the ongoing harassment over the past eight months, the multiple times I’ve been pulled in for questioning, and the dozens of instances I’ve had my life interrupted for that woman’s insanity,” I jabbed a band-aid-wrapped finger at Brighton, “I’ve got more than enough fodder for a solid misconduct suit. Hell, I’ve got an entire contact list of lawyers who’d go pro bono just for the mere chance to turn this whole thing into a media frenzy shit-show for the HPD. I’ll live easy for a couple of decades off the settlement alone. Try me.”

That gave Harris obvious pause, and he seemed to deflate a bit. Brighton, on the other hand, wasn’t cowed by the threat of expensive career-ending embarrassment.

“Then how do you explain the fact that there’s been another church arson, Coddaire? Last night a Methodist building went up in smoke.” she said. “Sixth in the past four months alone. Fifteen total between here and Austin.”

“Fourteen,” corrected Harris.

“Fifteen,” countered Brighton. “All found to be arson with similar methods employed.”

Harris spun back to Brighton, completely forgetting I was there. “Oh, this again?” he yelled. “Listen, enough’s enough! You need to learn your lesson on this one, Brighton. If you want to impress someone with your lunatic story about some shoot-out inside a church, tell it to an academy graduate, or sell it to Hollywood. The rest of us aren’t buying it! Or was one demotion not enough for you?”

Brighton didn’t give any ground. She squared her shoulders, and shouted right up into Harris’ face. “Oh, stabbing me once in the back wasn’t enough for you? Go two for two! I know what I saw! And even discounting that, the symbol was left at every single scene! If you’d finally pull your head out of your ass for one-”

“Oh give it a rest, Brighton! That’s circumstantial evidence at best! Stock pen and paper from any store and gas station that sells it, no prints, no fibers, nothing to scrape half a DNA strand from! You’re fixated on this one person all because-”

“He’s the chief suspect! The only lead any of us have whatsoever-”

“A lead that goes nowhere! I only came along on this little trip of yours to keep you from doing anything stupid, but I’m starting to regret-”

“The only one with any connection to this case and the evidence! Living right under our damn noses!”

“I’m not that short, thank you,” I finally interrupted, which brought the shouting match to an abrupt halt. “I can tell you at the very least that this ‘suspect’ has had just about enough of being one. So, what will it take to get you off of my back, hmm? I’m sick of it. Endless interviews, constantly looking over my shoulder in case she pops up.”

I fixed Brighton with a look, and put on my best Hannibal Lecter impersonation. “People will say we’re in love, Clarice.”

Harris’ tone was full of warning. “Mr. Coddaire …”

“What?” I replied. “At least I didn’t go for the liver-and-Chianti bit. I didn’t think that fit the solemnity and dignity of Detective Brighton’s ongoing psychotic episode.”

Brighton shoved her way past Harris, and reached into her coat. For a horrible moment, I thought that my wiseass had finally gone one quip too far, and that she was about to ventilate me on the spot. Thankfully, instead of a gun, she pulled out a folded piece of paper sealed in one of those tagged official evidence sandwich baggies, and slammed it flat on the counter top before me.

“Explain this one,” she growled.

Though it was singed around the edges, it was unmistakably one of the flyers for an upcoming show at Numbers, a local nightclub and counterculture fixture that had endured the ages. Five indie bands were slated to play, including my own, Hallowpoint. The things had been in circulation for the past few weeks to drum up sales.

“Okay. It’s a flyer for a concert at Numbers,” I said. “Why, were you interested? You’re more than welcome to come. I’m afraid I’m out of free passes, though.”

She twirled her index finger. “Flip it.”

I sighed, and dutifully did as requested. On the reverse side of the flyer, someone had hastily drawn the “gearcross” logo my band used. It depicted one large gear with the flared cross alchemy symbol for “earth” set inside, and that larger gear was butting up against a smaller gear with the alchemy symbol for “lead” contained within it. It was a personal symbol of mine in as much as it was a marketing tool. The teeth of the gears were purposefully misaligned, so they could never function, and both symbols had dual meanings. The cross could easily be taken for religion, and lead could proxy for currency.

The symbol, in essence, meant “Money or violence may seem to rule the world or religion, but it can’t make it turn.”

Beneath the scrawl was a single sentence in the same spidery hand.

“Better to burn. No faith is pure until you savior self,” Brighton recited as I read. “That’s one of your song lyrics, isn’t it? One lyric, along with your band’s logo, was left at each crime scene.”

Harris had the good form to at least look uncomfortable. He had been absolutely right; this was flimsy evidence on the best of days. No court would take it as gospel.

“That’s what you have?” I laughed. “Listen, lady, if I could make my eyes roll any harder, I’d cartwheel out of this shop, and into a lucrative job with Cirque du Soleil. Anyone with a passing interest in our music could have done this.”

Brighton smirked, and folded her arms across her chest. “Fair enough. I’d even agree had I not seen you in Austin, Coddaire. I was there, no matter what you say or others believe. And, sure enough, shortly after you move to Houston the fires hop from the capital to here. You seem pretty banged up for just a normal evening in. Looks like some slipshod first aid on your part. So … you want to tell us where you were last night?”

Gulp.

I had hoped to at least keep her off balance enough with the jabs to keep her too angry to come around to that. Of course I didn’t have an alibi. Who would? The drabs I called friend didn’t know about what I did in my spare time, and I’m only on tense speaking terms with other supernatural beings. Unless money’s involved. Man or monster, a little green goes a long way to spark conversation.

But, this wasn’t my first rodeo either, to use the phrase. Oh sure, there were plenty of plausible denials I could have slung in her face that would have been impossible for them to check, but I figured that if I was going to have to deal with her nonsense, I may as well have some fun with it. So I did the one thing she never expected from me.

I told her the truth.

“I was fighting a goblin from China in a nearby alley. It sent me through a couple of windows before I killed it with a wooden stake. The body was then consumed by green fire. Oh, and a cat got scared off.”

Two sets of silent, incredulous looks greeted me. I counted a full five seconds of stillness before Brighton spoke again.

“Was that another song lyric in progress?” she asked sarcastically.

“I thought that was from that John Carpenter movie. You know, green flame and all that?” offered Harris.

“Neither, but thanks for the idea! It would make a pretty rad song now that I think about it,” I answered. “Hell, play your cards right, and I’ll give you both a writer credit on the next release.”

“So you have no alibi, and you won’t give us a straight answer,” Brighton mused, and she sounded like she had just been handed the keys to the kingdom, and the smug look on her face complimented the image.

I shrugged. “I can’t give you a straight answer if you keep handing me straight lines like that. Or are we not playing comedy duo today?”

“This isn’t a joke, Coddaire!”

“Sure it is. This whole thing is laughable. You don’t have anything on me, because there isn’t anything to be had.”

I slid the paper across the counter toward Brighton, looked right into her judgment-filled eyes, and my voice was threaded through with contempt.

“I don’t have an alibi. Do you always keep one on hand? Can anyone prove where you were last night, Detective? Let’s go for broke. Can you prove where you were back in Austin when I was supposedly the star in some kind of John Woo fantasy bullet-fest in a church? Look at me. Do I even look like the type to attend Mass? No. You can’t prove either of us were there, because—surprise, surprise—it didn’t happen!

“So now, you’re using a non-existent scenario and a flimsy connection to my band to link me to some chapel-torching nutjob who’s decided to take the fire and brimstone gag a bit too far? Sure. Let’s go with that. Let me help you out. How about you round up the rest of my band? Or our groupies? There’s like, twenty, if memory serves. You can pick them up at the upcoming show. I’ll put Brighton plus ten on the guest list. Shouldn’t take long.”

“You’re being-” she began, but I wasn’t nearly done now that I had a good head of steam. I kept on right over her.

“Ooh! Ooh! I know!” I giggled, bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet. “Let’s just go ahead and put out an APB on any idiot that ever drew an anarchy symbol on their school notebook! I admit, that one might take a bit longer for the cops to run down.”

“Oh for f-” she tried. I raised my voice louder, and threw in wild gesticulation for good measure.

“I can see it now, Brighton! The headlines are glorious! ‘Mysterious Serial Arsonist Stopped: HPD Cracks Down on the Rock and Roll! Parents and Parishioners Breathe a Sigh of Relief!’ And there will be your picture right next to the article, detailing your war of justice against the dastardly metal-loving pyromaniac! My God, it will be one hell of a movie when the rights are sold.”

“Go fuck yourself, asshole!” she roared.

Feigning a look of shock, I waggled a finger at her. “Tut tut, Detective. In this house we use our inside voice. For shame.”

Brighton would have completed her leap across the counter at me had it not been for Harris stepping in again and grabbing her mid-leap.

“Stop antagonizing her, Coddaire!” Harris shouted. He hauled her back a couple of feet away from the counter, and kept a hold of her wrists for good measure. “And you!” he screamed at Brighton. “Either calm down, or leave! I’m not about to give this guy a free assault case.”

“Too late for that, Detective.” I pointed at the security camera that was cheerfully humming away in the corner of the shop near the entrance. “I’d say I’ve already recorded enough tasty bits to warrant a viral hit. What do you think?”

Both officers paled. That got their attention. I was done dicking around with these two. I was tired, sore, and had more than enough on my plate to try to stomach without also trying to swallow this bullshit.

I rolled my shoulder slowly, trying to work out the tension. I took my time, and let the impact of what I had just said build a bit before I spoke again. “I need to get to work, officers. So I’m going to make this simple. Detective Harris, am I under arrest?”

“No,” he replied.

“Am I going to be brought in for questioning today?”

Harris huffed, sensing where this was going. “No.”

“Is Detective Brighton, in fact, even primary on this investigation?”

Harris looked a bit green at that, and gave Brighton an uneasy sideways glance. She responded in kind with a glare fit to light kindling with. Harris sighed, and shook his head.

“That’s what I thought.” I settled myself on the stool behind the counter. “Not buying, not selling, not arresting. So, you’ve no reason to be here, then. What do I have to do to dislodge the both of you from my ass?”

“Just cooperate. We just need a handwriting sample. The sooner we get that, the sooner we’re gone,” Harris said evenly.

“That’s it? Hell, I’ll give you that, a blood sample, my bucket list, and a warrant-free tour of the place if it’ll get you out of my hair. Of course, this time I’d like the department to actually replace the beer if any is taken, like last time. Don’t think I didn’t notice, Harris.”

I grabbed one of the store sales sheets from the display, and turned to the blank side. I grabbed up a pen, and read aloud as I wrote.

“Dearest Sherlock rejects, get fucked. Hugs and kisses, Mal. P.S. Seriously consider getting fucked.” I slipped the paper off the counter, and let it fall to the floor before them. I would have thrown the thing in their faces, but I was already pushing the outside of the envelope today. Best to not tempt fate.

Harris stepped forward and recovered the paper. “Yes. That’ll do. I think we’ve taken enough of your time for today. You’re not cleared yet, Mr. Coddaire, so I’d stick around if I were you. You’ll hear from us again once we’ve run this.” He neatly folded the lovingly-crafted writing sample, and turned to Brighton. “Satisfied?”

“You know damn well that I’m not, Harris. But it’s a start.” She eyed me, her nose wrinkling like she had just come across an overflowing port-a-potty. “He’ll slip up. Watch.”

“I do love a good cliché, Brighton,” I replied, “but I love a good exit scene even more. Either get personal with the fun-time cuffs, or get the hell out of my shop.”

The two left without further commentary.

Once I was satisfied that they were driving off in the city-issue sedan, I nearly collapsed from relief. I looked at my discarded novel, but gave up the very thought of trying to get some reading in. That entire fracas had taken too much out of me.

For once, I was truthfully and completely innocent of what I was being accused of. Not the Austin clusterfuck. I was dead guilty about that whole fiasco, but in my defense, I had been pushed into it. Not that I’d admit as much to Brighton. But this recent round of accusations was completely off the mark. I had nothing to do with whomever it was that was putting temples to the flame.

Believe it or not, I happen to admire churches by and large. Not those mega-churches, though. To me those are just monuments to misguided action and overcompensation. Everything’s bigger in Texas, including hypocrisy. I’ve no standing beef otherwise with the houses of worship. Arson’s not in my bag of tricks, either. Too much effort for too little gain, and to be blunt the products I normally used on my hair were flammable enough.

That didn’t change the problem at hand though: someone out there had a hard-on for our music, pyrotechnics, and a serious axe to grind with Christianity. And in Brighton’s worldview, I was guilty beyond any doubt of striking the match. But so long as her colleagues thought she was barking mad, that suited me just fine. It wouldn’t dull her zeal any, but it would at least provide some interference, and I could work with that.

Brighton was obsessed, and I’m partly to blame. That one night in Austin had left her demoted, her engagement dissolved, her job transferred, and had stoked a vengeful fire in her gut for little old me. The chase was several months past exhausting already, but she showed no signs of slowing.

Revelation had that effect on some people. Yeah, that brand of Revelation. Long story.

I couldn’t blame her, but it was making my life more interesting than it should have been. More interesting than I wanted, certainly.

Turning over the handwriting sample wouldn’t be the end of it. As long as places of worship were going the way of the Olympic torch, Detective Brighton would be leading the charge against me in any way she could. Even if she lost her badge, the woman would be picking through my life to find even the tiniest scrap of culpability that would prove her assertions that I was the perpetrator. It was hard enough to do my weekly cleanup of my area without having the hounds nipping at my heels. Harris had all but said that, Brighton’s fantasy aside, I was still being looked at. Hard.

Monsters, Utility Bills, Rent, and the Police. Oh my.

It figured that this would go down on a Monday, really. There’s no power in the Universe that can stave off the latent suckitude of “Moon’s Day”, and I’m hardly a major player on that cosmic stage. Hell, it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet, and Monday was already bowling a near-perfect game.

That’s when Death himself walked into my shop, and Monday hit that last strike.

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“When the Man Comes Around”, “Nine Shot Sonata series”, ©2017 Xero Reynolds. Please do not reproduce without permission.
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