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  • H.K. Slade

A New Evil

Note: This story was originally published in Black Cat Weekly #61 in October of 2022


Back in 2020, I started working on a science fiction novel about two detectives trying to solve a murder in the year 2068. The idea was to paint a world where the police only respond to calls for service instead of trying to stop crime before people get hurt. No traffic tickets, no search warrants, no patrol. Halfway through the book, it got too depressing to finish.


However... that next summer, I read a few stories in Occult Detective Magazine that I really liked, and I decided to try my hand at a bit of horror. Not slasher fiction or suspense, but good old fashion Lovecraftian cosmic horror. I've always liked a bit of spooky, and one of the members of my critique group was very encouraging. Since I was trying something new, I took one of my detectives from the sci-fi story, changed the names to protect the innocent, and put her in harm's way. I liked the outcome so much that I started a new novel with her facing off against the eldritch horrors of the south in the year 2080.


This is also one of the very few stories I've ever written in first person.

The street reeked of garbage and unwashed bodies, the byproduct of a calcified metropolis that no longer rose up or spread out, but simply grew more dense. Anything new in the city happened in the spaces in-between buildings. New life, new ideas, new evils.

I wouldn’t have noticed the stink normally, city born and raised as I was. I’d made the mistake of buying an air freshener for my unmarked car though, and the contrast only brought out the worst the city had to offer. There I was, Tamara Richardson, twenty-three years a municipal cop, the first female homicide detective the city had seen since the Police Reduction Act of 2050, and I had to cover my face with my scarf like a dilettante from the suburbs.

I hustled down the alley before anyone saw me. Behind me, the sun sank beneath the crest of the shortest of the downtown buildings. The alley, which twisted to fit around a parking deck’s aftermarket reclamation housing, descended into the darkest shades of gray.

Ten feet from the housing, I took a short flight of steps to a small landing and an honest-to-god timber door. A paper lantern’s red glow reflected in the alley’s puddles, the hideaway’s only designation. I slipped inside and pulled the door closed to keep the stench out. I dropped the scarf, drew a deep breath, and the tension slid from my neck.

“Mara!”

Mr. Hayashi waved me to a seat in front of the grill, a prime spot that he had to have saved for me since the other nine seats in the tiny room were occupied. I couldn’t prove it, but I always suspected my old partner had asked the ancient cook to look after me. Kendal had been the one to show me Hayashi’s little place years ago. It had been his sanctuary from the foulness of the city, and he had shared it with me.

Mr. Hayashi poured us both nigorizake from a cracked porcelain bottle. We raised our cups and bowed our heads in memory of Kendal, as was our custom every night I made it there. The cloudy, earthy-sweet sake burned away the bitter memories and rinsed the stink of the city from the back of my throat. I felt like a person again.

“I have crab tonight,” Mr. Hayashi said, returning to his tiny charcoal grill. “Real meat. Not the lab-grown stuff they push out there.” He waved a steel spatula at the ceiling to indicate the city as a whole. We both shared a disdain for Binthetics, the pervasive, algae-based nutrition media that had all but replaced real food. I don’t know where the old man got authentic crab, nor did I care to look too deeply into it.

“That’s great,” I told him and poured myself another cup. “I haven’t eaten a thing since this morning.”

“A busy night for the big shot detective?”

“Spinning my wheels, Mr. Hayashi. Spinning my wheels and marking the days until retirement.”

He fished a pair of blue crabs from an ice chest and popped them into a steamer that looked like something from a Jules Verne story. He wiped his thin, wrinkled hands on the towel he wore tucked into his apron string. It wasn’t an uncommon gesture for the cook, but tonight, he continued scrubbing his fingers, his gaze distant. Even after two cups of sake and a twelve-hour shift spent sifting through raw com-net feeds, my investigator’s mind couldn’t overlook the discrepancy.

When Mr. Hayashi plated the crab and set it before me with a saucer of melted butter and a bowl of his delicious red rice, I gave him the opportunity to share.

“Looks like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders,” I said and swallowed a bit of tender, butter-drenched crab. “That’s my job.”

The old cook blinked in surprise, then smiled. He looked around the tightly packed room, but everyone there was a friend. Strangers didn’t find their way into Hayashi’s. He licked his lips and asked in a voice creaking with trepidation, “You’re the great detective, right? If I asked, you could help me with a little matter, couldn’t you?”

I forced a smile, but even I knew how sad it must have looked. I was not a great detective. I was barely a competent one. These times weren’t meant for great detectives, and the last one the city had seen had died saving my life ten years ago.

“How can I help?”

Mr. Hayashi poured us both another cup of sake. His hand shook ever so slightly, and while he usually drank wine with a mildly annoying but otherwise harmless slurp, this time he gulped it down.

“I have a place that I rent to a few families,” he explained, his voice low. “It’s nothing fancy, but it keeps them warm and out of the rain. I went to check on the building last night after I closed the grill and they are gone. All of them.”

I should have suspected. Everybody wants their friend the cop to do them a free favor. Can you get me out of this ticket? Can you make my neighbor’s dog stop barking? Can you find out if my daughter’s boyfriend is dealing shine? I’d seen it enough back when I was on patrol to know how to talk my way out of it.

“Are you certain they didn’t just skip out on you? That’s really more of a job for civil authorities, or you can hire private contractors. They don’t have as many hoops to jump through as a municipal detective like me.” Plus, they wouldn’t be required to look into any code violations or non-statused residents like I would. “I can put you in touch with a good one.”

He didn’t take my out. “No,” he assured me, as earnest as an Arborite priest, “I have my tenants pay in advance. Two months. And they left all of their belongings behind. I am afraid something happened to them. Something terrible. Can you come to the building at least? Look around for clues?”

Clues. He actually said “clues.” Cops did personal work all the time, mostly for off-grid currency transfers, but that wasn’t my style. Besides, the last thing I wanted to do after the day I’d had was tramp though some rickety rooming house looking for “clues.”

But Mr. Hayashi was an old friend. We had a decade of history. That had to count for something.

“Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”

To my utter astonishment, Mr. Hayashi immediately began to shut down the kitchen, leaving the patrons to lock up. I’d never seen him do that, and if nothing else did, that should have told me this was a serious matter. He waited, hopping from one foot to the other while I finished my meal. I hate being rushed. By the time I shoveled down the last of my red rice, he was halfway out the door.

I followed the old man down the maze of alleys that threaded through, around, and under the massive skyscrapers of downtown. One alley descended into a low, unlit tunnel, and the stream of run-off from a brief but intense rainstorm threatened to swamp my sensible shoes. I was about to call off the whole expedition when Mr. Hayashi stooped, retrieving a hooked pole from a pile of refuse near the tunnel’s mouth. He used it to catch a hidden latch in the roof of the tunnel and unfolded one of the cheap, laser-cut, origami steps people used for attic accesses.

That’s when it dawned on me what I was looking at. The tunnel wasn’t part of the structure of either of the buildings that formed its walls. Someone had wedged a four-story rooming house between two buildings. Extension cords ran from antique vinyl windows and along the walls of the alley, stealing power from businesses so big that they might never notice the drain. The whole thing had been covered in plywood and polycrete spray, but the building’s best camouflage was simply that the type of people who would care about it weren’t the type of people who would go this far into the alleys. Just me.

“This is why you didn’t call the patrol cops,” I said. Mr. Hayashi didn’t reply. He didn’t need to. His bowed head and lowered eyes said he knew any city official but me wouldn’t put up with this. A single electrical short or a tipped candle, and the crazy rooming house would go up like a pyre. Anyone unlucky enough to be inside would bake.

“Please, Mara,” he said, his hands clasped in front of his chest. He’d been old when I’d first met him, but I’d never seen the cook look so frail. “Just look around,” he pled. “My gut tells something awful has happened. The regular police wouldn’t understand, they wouldn’t look. They’d file reports and pin me with a citation and fine. I don’t care about that, but I am worried. These people have no one else to look out for them.”

That did it. Damn it. Maybe I caught a conscience from Kendal all those years ago. “We help those everyone else has forgotten about,” he used to say. It was just as annoying now as it had been back then.

“I’ll look, but then we’re going to have a serious conversation about your building practices, Mr. Hayashi.”

“I understand.” He nodded vigorously, already turning towards the steps.

“No,” I told him and put a hand on his shoulder. An extra body crawling around in that constricted deathtrap wasn’t going to help anything. “Stay out here. If something happens, call for patrol and go meet them at the street. They’ll never find this place on their own.” Reluctantly, he stepped away from the strange building’s entrance.

They’d just replaced our old ClearCast rigs with second-gen Elistar bracers. The sleek new system had an audio feed that linked directly into our cochlear implants, but the screen on the wrist unit wasn’t worth a damn as a light. The lamp on my gun would have to do.

I drew my sidearm and shone the light up the hatch. “Municipal PD,” I called into the hole. “Make yourself known.” No answer.

Then came one of those moments where I realized I was doing something stupid and did it anyway. I climbed the steps sideways, neck craned up as I entered the unknown.

A dozen sets of coats and boots lined one wall, crowding the already narrow thirty-foot run of the first floor. A string of utility lights looped across the opposite wall. Each bulb’s safety cage cast a grid pattern of shadows on the bare wooden floors and gave me just enough light to see that not one shoe was missing, not a single coat hook vacant. Mr. Hayashi’s claim that his tenants hadn’t simply bolted seemed to hold water.

One end of the hall housed a chemical toilet, the other a ladder leading to the next story. No signs of violence or any sort of medical emergency. The toilet hadn’t even started to stink, which reassured me they at least kept up with basic maintenance. Nothing else stood out. I holstered my sidearm before starting up the ladder. I didn’t like having that thing out anyway. Too much paperwork.

The second floor had a leaky window, and I could see through it that the rain had begun again. Some clever soul had built a little dam out of duraplast to funnel the water back outside, and enough of the rain was hitting it to burble and splash like an underfilled fountain. A kitchen-pantry took up the rest of the level. Rows and rows of built-in shelves held cans and packages of food-stuffs, each section organized and labeled. Pots and pans hung on hooks by the ladder to the next floor. They even had a pair of cheap convection hotplates and a scarred, butcherblock counter used to prepare meals.

Everything was normal, for a given value. It wasn’t the first rooming house I’d been in, but it might have been the nicest. Hell, I’d lived in worse places growing up. I ran a finger over one of the shelves and it came away clean. Jesus. Someone even dusted regularly.

That all changed on the third floor.

I cleared the hatch almost casually, lulled by the lower levels. The lights here burned low, nothing more than a string of three or four glowing embers in the darkness. I drew my sidearm, flicked on the lamp, and nearly fell back down the ladder.

Nests of roaches undulated on the ceiling and walls. The crab and rice wine rose back up in my throat. Hundreds, no, thousands of bugs, their shiny dark shells layered one on top of another, twitching, vibrating. They didn’t react to my light at all. While I was grateful they hadn’t scurried at me, this unusual behavior tightened the skin on my spine.

I sidled across the floor, creeping low to put as much space between me and the cockroaches as I could. My best guess was that it had been some sort of bedroom, but all of the flimsy foam mattresses were piled against the far corner. I bumped one of the dim utility lights, and the bulb flared and went out. That brief flash left me with an afterimage of the room that sent my hands shaking.

Rows of eye bolts had been driven into the walls, each one threaded with one end of a set of ang-weave cuffs, the kind we used to restrain criminals on the rare occasions that we arrested any. They’d constrict on a person’s hands, unbreakable and inescapable until you sent the proper key-frequency to release the weave. I used my weapon light to confirm what I’d seen. Twelve sets. Enough to restrain a dozen people. Or three families.

“Dispatch,” I said to my Elistar.

The reply came back inside my head, the telecommunicator’s voice a dry monotone. “Receiving you Detective Richardson. ETU has you currently off-duty.”

“Copy. Put me back on the clock and show me out on a suspicious event. Requesting patrol units to my location. Advise them to look for a guy named Takahiko Hayashi. He’ll take them the rest of the way. I am in-building.”

“Copy, detective. Advise as to nature and response level?”

“Urgent, dispatch. Something’s not right out here.”

I swiped the wrist unit to disconnect. I was breaking a score of procedures and protocols, and dispatch was going to keep asking questions I didn’t want to answer. I’d save my explanations until we figured out what had happened in this strange, strange building.

Having made a minimal nod to prudence by calling in, I resumed my climb.

If what I found on the third floor scared me, the fourth and final floor confused me. There was another window like on the second story, this one completely blacked out. The room was empty. No beds, no bugs, no strings of utility lights. Instead, the entire space was lit from an opening in a side wall the rooming house shared with one of the towering commercial buildings that dominated the city’s downtown. The opening omitted a flickering, gangrenous light that made more shadows than it eliminated.

The rain drummed on the roof, but below that, there was a low hum that I felt in my jaw. It seemed to be coming from the opening, but the odd way it echoed made it hard to tell. The room was too narrow for me to get enough of an angle to see what was inside. The obvious solution was to move forward, but that was the last thing I wanted to do.

We help those everyone else has forgotten about. Some of those coats and boots on the first floor had been children’s clothes. Damn you Kendal, you sanctimonious bastard.

I dialed down my weapon light to almost nothing and walked forward, rolling heel-to-toe to hide my footsteps. The floor creaked anyway. It may have been my imagination, but the humming sound seemed to drop an octave.

The opening was a rough-cut oval in the neighboring building’s speckled polycrete cladding, as if someone patiently had chiseled the hole bit by bit, day after day. On the other side of the foot-thick wall, a damp cavern spread out for a hundred feet in all directions.

Seven massive columns of milky green crystal connected the cavern’s floor and ceiling, like stalagmites and stalactites that had grown together over the centuries. These columns were the source of the unsettling light, pulsing at various strengths but with the unity of a shared heartbeat.

“Elistar,” I whispered into my wrist unit, “What building is located adjacent to my current location?”

“To the east of your position is the Cozart/Bitterman Building at 312 South Harrington Street,” the pleasant, gender-neutral voice said though my implant. “To the west is Garner Bank and Trust at 410 West Davie Street.”

I looked through the opening. I could almost make out shadowy forms floating in the green crystal. This close, the buzzing rattled my molars.

I was not looking at the inside of an office building.

Unwilling to enter without backup, I studied the edges of the hole, hoping to glean some insight into what exactly I’d stumbled across. The opening was encircled by a series of twisting symbols and patterns painted onto the wall. I dialed up my weapon light a little. The paint, or whatever had been used to make the black markings, glistened as though still wet. I tabbed an examiner’s glove from my pocket, squished the bead between my fingers, and worked the gel over my hand. When it had dried into a film, I reached to touch the markings.

“Mara, no!”

I spun, weapon up. Mr. Hayashi was leveraging himself up the hatch from the third floor. The old cook looked almost done-in by the effort. He reached a hand towards me, either for help or as a warning, I couldn’t tell which. I grabbed it anyway and pulled him up the ladder.

“What’s going on here?” I asked in a harsh whisper. “This shit is not normal.”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Hayashi wheezed. “You were gone so long, I got worried. I felt like a coward hiding outside.”

Great. So much for the patrol units having a guide into the building. Hopefully the Elistar had a better vertical response beacon than the ClearCasts did. I swung my lamp back to the walls around the opening.

“What is this stuff? Why didn’t you want me to touch it?”

“I don’t know,” the old cook repeated. His eyes went wide as he took in the scene. His lips parted as his jaw went slack. He stumbled forward until he stood just outside the opening, the pulsing green light making the already thin man look positively emaciated. He raised a trembling figure to point at the cavern and asked, “Is that where they went? Did they go on their own, or did something take them?”

Something? I didn’t like the sound of that. “I don’t know, but we’re going to get a patrol squad up here and find out.”

Mr. Hayashi shook his head and drew the small, triangular kitchen knife he habitually wore on a sheath at his hip. “No time,” he murmured distantly, his eyes transfixed on the cavern. “We have to try to find them. Minutes could matter.”

“I’m not going in there alone,” I assured him, and I meant it.

He stepped through the opening, careful not to touch the edges. “You’re not alone,” he said over his shoulder.

Oh damn. This wasn’t something cops did anymore. We took reports. We collected data. We created perimeters and waited for situations to resolve themselves. We did not rush in.

I stepped through the opening, following Mr. Hayashi’s example and avoiding the symbols and markings. The cavern was notably warmer than the rooming house and as humid as a sauna despite being massive. Up close, the crystal columns looked thicker than three people could fit their arms around, jutting thirty feet or more to the dripping roof of the cave. The dark shapes in the crystal resembled smoky clouds, changing as I walked around, always slightly different while remaining disturbingly familiar. Almost imperceptibly, one of the columns began to pulse slightly out of time with the others. Then another fell out of sync, and another, and then another until the dissonance threatened to drive me mad.

I looked around, searching for Mr. Hayashi or his missing tenants and found neither. I dialed the lamp on my sidearm to maximum, but the strobing green glow swamped its weak white light. “Mr. Hayashi!” I called, but inside the cavern, the buzzing was so loud I couldn’t be sure I’d made a sound.

It was time to go. Past time. Once I was clear of this eerie place, I’d gather my people and come back in force to get Mr. Hayashi and anyone else we could rescue.

I turned to leave… and could not find the opening.

My stomach sank like I’d swallowed a pound of iron. I was lost. The omnidirectional light of the cavern still somehow managed to leave pockets of shadow, and the nooks and crannies of the cavern made for landmarks that changed whenever I moved.

I picked one large boulder near the center of the cavern and fixed on its shadowy outline. I intended to use it as my reference point and work the room in a grid until I found my way out. As I got within twenty feet of it, though, the big rock began to… unravel.

Bulbus, misshapen tentacles extruded from the silhouette, unlimbering. A crack formed in the middle of the thing and gradually resolved into a gaping maw so full of needle-thin teeth that they spilled out as if the abomination were vomiting glass spikes.

I was already backing away when its eyes opened. Not a single pair. If it had only been a single set of eyes, I might have held it together. The eyes grew like blisters of oily darkness, like the shiny black carapace of the clustered roaches in the rooming houses.

I ran, blindly.

Behind me, the thing’s tentacles whipped the ground, latching onto the cave’s rough outcroppings and dragging the nightmarish thing forward.

In spite of its many eyes, it didn’t seem to have a particular focus. I cut an angle and it didn’t follow. I ducked behind a glowing column, my heart pounding in my throat. I pressed my back tight to the green crystal, willing myself to sink into the shadows. Run, hide. Run, hide. Twenty years a cop, two decades experience with the worst humanity has to offer, and all I could think was to run and hide.

I sucked in a big breath and held it, willing myself to stillness. Then the column at my back pulsed. This time, I didn’t just see it or hear it—I felt it in the very core of my being. It rang there like a bell, and it felt like raw despair.

I staggered away, unable to bear contact with the column. The shadows in the crystal flowed and seemed to look down on me. The floor rumbled beneath my feet.

I ran, clockwise, stumbling over the uneven and unsteady floor. I couldn’t tell for how long or how far. I was burning pure fear for fuel.

Time slipped away until the opening appeared before me, winking into existence where there had been nothing but rock and shadows. The plywood floors and duracrete walls of the rooming house looked like a disturbing painting seen through the oval hole in the cavern wall. I didn’t care. Anywhere was better than this. I ran with a purpose.

As I passed the last column on my way out, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I expected to find the monster bearing down on me but had my first welcome surprised of the night.

“Mr. Hayashi!” I shouted at the old cook. Frantically, I waved for him to follow me to the opening. He stared in my direction but didn’t take a step. The poor man. If I was coming unraveled, I could only imagine what he was going through. It was no wonder he was petrified. I went to collect him. If I couldn’t get the children, I could at least save him.

Stumbling towards the old cook, I scanned left and right as much as I could, afraid if I looked away from Mr. Hayashi for too long I would lose him. I hadn’t forgotten about the tentacled nightmare, though. It wasn’t until I got within arm’s reach that I looked, really looked, in Mr. Hayashi’s face. Something was wrong.

He was talking, or at least muttering. He wasn’t frightened. The look in his sweaty wrinkled features was one of eagerness, though tinged with the slightest hint of regret. I focused on his lips and asked, “What’s happening?”

Even with the deafening buzz drowning out all the noise in the space, I saw enough of his expression to get the gist of his reply.

“I’m sorry, Mara. I have to keep feeding it. I’m so sorry.” The old cook lifted his knife.

I took a step back and raised my sidearm, bracing for the attack. He didn’t stab me, though. Mr. Hayashi dragged the razor-sharp knife down his own palm. Blood instantly welled from between his fingers, looking black in the weird green light. He raised his bloody, trembling hand above his head, a grimace stretching his wrinkled features into a grotesque mask, and he brought his palm down on the green crystal column.

The buzzing died instantly. There was a brief moment of absolute quiet, and then the silence was filled by the wet roar of the tentacled monster. It was on me in a flash, the stench of its breath filling my lungs before I had a chance to even scream. I panic-fired a volley, not bothering to aim. The rounds that hit the monster sparked orange on its blubbery hide but did little else. The one that missed, however…that’s where I got my money’s worth.

The errant round struck one of the giant crystal columns. It rang like a gong, and a wave of unseen force washed over the cavern. It hit me flat on, and my stomach turned inside out. I fell to my knees, forcefully spewing watery bile everywhere.

It hit Mr. Hayashi too, but I was back on my feet before the old man. I ran, grabbing him by the collar of his jacket and dragging him towards the opening. His knife clattered to the floor. Behind us, the monster thrashed about, enraged.

I was almost out when the old cook’s dead weight suddenly became active resistance. I looked down to find him clutching a jagged rock with his uncut hand.

“It must… be… fed,” he said through gritted teeth. “They will turn on me! They have been searching for a way in for ages untold. You cannot stop them.”

The monster lunged towards me with inhuman speed. I dove for the opening, but Mr. Hayashi clutched at my leg and I tumbled flat on my face, just short of escape.

It was directly on top of me now, its bristling mouth dripping black ichor. I screamed—I couldn’t help myself—but I didn’t freeze. I clawed to the opening with one hand, my nails ripping on the rough rock, and fired every last round I had into the nearest crystal column.

Pain. My head filled with pure, undiluted pain. I retched, my stomach cramping into knots, but nothing came out. My vision went down to a pinpoint. In training, they taught me tunnel vision was a bad thing, but in this case, it saved me. It allowed me to focus on getting through the hole in the wall with maniacal intensity.

Once through, I collapsed into the plywood floor of the rooming house. Maybe I passed out. I only had the pain to tell me if I was conscious as the rooming house was now utterly dark. It took me a long minute to get my head together enough to realize that meant the green glow was gone. I fumbled for the control on my weapon light. The lamp was completely spent.

“Elistar, light to max.”

Weak as it was, I was grateful for the wrist unit’s light. I was alone. No monster. No Mr. Hayashi.

What had that old man been thinking?

I stood up and searched the wall. The opening was gone. Not closed, but simply missing.

My brain tried to convince me I had imagined it all. That would have been nice. The black markings, however, the spirals and symbols, were still there just as they had been before. No, not just as they had been. I looked closer, squinting in the dim light. The pattern was broken, smeared where I had crawled my way out.

Black goo dripped from my gloved hand. I tore the glove away and flung it as far from me as I could.

* * * *

I sat in my big, empty house, exhausted but unable to sleep. It had been Kendal’s house, long ago. One of the many things he’d left me. God, I wish I could talk to him about all this.

The big monitor in the living room was split into quadrants. In three sections, I had the images I’d ripped from my Elistar before the IA ghouls had confiscated it. The low-rez pictures of the symbols from around the opening were good enough to find an image match after a few hours of searching. The final quarter of the screen held the fruits of my labors.

What little I found was in an article on a site for some group who called themselves The Kinston Collective. I stared at it dumbly. A twelve-hour shift, another hour in whatever-the-hell that rooming house held, and four more hours being alternately grilled and ignored by my department…my brain was mush. It didn’t help that the academic article was so dry that I sometimes lost the point of a sentence before I got to the end of it. As far as I could tell in that diminished state, the symbols I’d found had been used since the time of Babylon by groups who believed they had the power to warp the fabric of reality.

Great. Fantasy.

I dropped into a chair and buried my head in my hands. I had just destroyed my career. Every damn round in my sidearm was gone, and I had no plausible explanation for where they went or why. I’d seen cops go to prison for less. I leaned back in my chair and had a good cry. If I was being completely honest with myself, my career was over long before tonight. I was never going to be a great detective. I had thought, just maybe, I could be a good one.

I was wrong.

You’d think the tentacled monster or the giant columns of green crystal would be the memories I’d relive over and over. But the image I couldn’t shake was of those children’s shoes. The ones whose owners I’d failed to find.

The monitor chimed. Incoming message, audio only. Probably my lawyer. I wiped my eyes and keyed up.

“Ms. Richardson?” an unfamiliar voice asked, a man with an educated, Australian accent. “I’m Dr. Malcom Whitlock. I belong to a group known as the Kinston Collective. You have come to our attention. It’s my understanding you had a very interesting experience last night. We are a group who can give you answers to some to the questions you have. More importantly, we can give you better questions to ask. Will you meet with me?”

I thought about the shoes again. So many of them. So very small.

“Yes,” I said before I even knew that I’d opened my mouth.

Old as I was, I’d live long enough to regret it.

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