Yeah, so I am am so trying to get back to writing (and, interestingly, as soon as I try to post this, I am sneezing as if allergic to writing), and thought I’d post the prologue story to a collection of short stories that I once thought about trying to publish, And am still considering publishing. So, here’s an intro to a future Weird West collection (opinions welcome):
“This isn’t going to work quite like you think it will,” the man in the bowler hat said. This really came as no surprise to Sam Griffon, who was experiencing a very disconcerting sensation while time was apparently frozen at the second the gallows’ trap started to swing free under his feet. It was blurry as if in a photo where something had moved during the exposure of the photographic plate, and Samuel Walker Griffon, Sam to most everyone else, and Griff to his innermost circle (who had, to a man, been the ones that tipped the local law off to the small ranch house he’d been holing up in for the past year), scrambled to keep his feet to either side of the opening. Faces in the crowd stared, locked in place, some leering, some horrified, and many impassive. In the front row, a juicy gob of Rona Miller’s spit hung in mid air, a near foot from his body.
All in all, this was turning out to be a bad day for the Lieutenant. First and foremost, he was supposed to be dead, swinging in the hot desert air with his neck broken and shit filling his boots. Not that he was yearning for that particular fate, mind, but there was little doubt that he deserved it; ask Rona Miller. Now even that certainty had been robbed from him, and things had taken a strange turn, to say the least.
“Bit unsettling, isn’t it,” the voice of the man in the Bowler was right in his ear now, “how it stopped right at the last moment. I always had a flair for the dramatic.”
“What the hell’s goin’ on here?” Griffon managed to choke out the question, even as the hemp rope tied around his throat chafed against his skin.
The man smiled, and Griffon knew in his gut that it was the smile of a man who’d been fooling humanity with false sincerity for a long time. His eyes widened, and he almost slipped and fell through the half open trap, despite the intervention that had, at least temporarily, spared his life.
“Careful,” the man said “I’m giving you a break here. Won’t do you any good if you get yourself killed on your own.”
The man shook his head. “Actually, no, I’m not. Not quite, although you are mostly responsible for this skin.” He looked down at himself, checking out his own appearance, a dapper man in an expensive suit. “For a murderer, thief, and a rapist, you have surprisingly impeccable taste.”
“You’re here ‘cause I asked, ain’t you? Said I’d do ‘bout anything to get out of this, and you’ve come to offer me that anything, ain’t that right?” The man in the hat took a turn around Griffon, soaking in the view from the gallows that had been expertly constructed in the center of the dusty frontier town. Griffon, disturbed by the man’s sudden silence, took it in himself, hoping, perhaps, to find some sort of answers in the crumbling facade of the general store, or the all to familiar batwing doors of the saloon.
“Did you ever notice,” the man finally said, “that the gallows are usually built better than the rest of the buildings in a place like this?”
Griffon, not at all interested in the construction trends of gallows, shook his head anyway, rubbing the rope against his neck again.
“It’s true,” he continued. “The inn, general store, barber shop… all these places are less important to the smooth operation of your standard frontier town than the place where good, honest folks can watch a criminal like yourself die. Says a lot about human nature, Griff. Can I call you ‘Griff?’”
“I didn’t do nothing,” Griffon heard himself automatically. He’d been saying it for so long, now, that he didn’t even think about it until it was out of his mouth and floating away on the still air.
“Yes you did, Griff. I wouldn’t be here if you were an innocent man. It isn’t my providence to make deals with the innocent.” The man took a deep breath. “Anyway, as I was saying before being interrupted, the gallows are like the old Roman coliseums. They’re fantastic buildings, to be sure, constructed lovingly by the heads of the empire, with one singular purpose. Some of those are still around, to this very day, while the rest of Rome lies in ruins.” The man turned to Griffon and smiled that smile again. “In the future, magnificent places like those coliseums will be replaced with football stadiums and Starbucks on every street corner.” The man turned back to Griffon. “It’s about distraction, Griff. If the people are more concerned with whether or not they can see criminals hang, or get their grubby hands on trendy but overpriced goods, they stop worrying about what their leaders are doing. They don’t care who the mayor is fucking, or what business men are raping the land the same way you took that poor girl’s maidenhead. Entertainment is always the first to go when folks start to question the ways of things. A man’ll give up many of his rights, Griff, to stay distracted.”
“Look, mister,” Griffon said “I don’t know what a star buck is, or a coliseum, but it would be real kind of you to get this here rope off my neck and let me be on my way, safe and not at all dead-like.”
“Not yet, Griff. You haven’t made the deal.”
“Your soul for freedom. It’s customary, in cases like this, to-”
“Shit, sure… fine. You can have it.”
The man with the bowler hat was a bit taken aback. “It never happens that fast. Are you so anxious to not die that you won’t even hear the terms?”
“Mister, I don’t want to fucking die here with Rona Miller’s spit dripping down my face, an’ my own shit filling my boots.”
“Fair enough,” the man in the hat said, “but I still have to tell you all of the details. It’s in the rules, as it were.”
Griffon laughed. “Look, Lucifer or whatever you are, this has got to be the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen, and I seen a lot. Hell, I done half of what I seen, and I don’t give two shits what’s in your damned infernal contract, I just don’t want to be stuck here while everyone’s bein’ stock still like they’re in some kind of weird photographic portrait is surely taking a toll on my sensibilities.” The man in the Bowler’s face betrayed, ever so slightly, his growing impatience with the hanged man.
“Do you want to know what I am, Griff?” he asked, the slightest edge working its way into his voice. “Do you really?”
“Mister, if you were President Grant himself, come to piss on this poor, innocent, ex-Confederate soldier, I’d not care one whip so long as it meant I got to get down off this thing.”
“If I showed you what I was, what I truly was, you’d strain against that rope until you strangled yourself to death, and you’d go with a smile on your face knowing that you got away from me, only I’d have you in the end anyway. That’s what I am, Griff; inevitability. Madness given form.” The man in the neatly pressed suit stepped back, an idea having come to him. “I’ll tell you what, Griff. I’m going to give you a peek at what I am, because I think maybe once you see that, you’ll fully grasp the severity of this situation.” The man walked around to the front of the gallows, standing just off to Griffon’s side.
“I am not,” he said, “Lucifer. I appear this way because in your mind, based on what your silly beliefs have told you, this is how this game plays out. You offer your soul to the devil, and he appears. In your case, I’m a dapper, well spoken man apparently hailing from Boston. I offer you a contract, and in exchange for your soul, I grant you your life. Maybe you only have that life for seven years, the length will vary, but eventually, Old Scratch comes a’callin’. Am I right?” Griffon nodded slightly.
“The thing is, Griff, the human race has long been making up explanations to suit their needs. It can be awful scary to hear the skies rumble, and see electricity shoot out from the heavens and fry your fellow caveman. Try to imagine when the first man felt an earthquake, or witnessed a volcanic eruption. They didn’t know what was going on, but it was terrifying to behold. Without an explanation, even a completely manufactured one, early man would have gone insane with terror. So they opted to assign the best meaning they could to things they couldn’t explain. The sky rumbled because gods were angry. The earth opened up because Hell lay beneath the surface and Lucifer occasionally would come to collect his dues. Hell, Griffon, even the first single-celled organisms that your miserable little race came from had their own set of beliefs, gods, and demons. That’s how primal the need for rationality is in your kind.
“For all the good it did those fragile early minds, the explanations were still just made up. Plucked from the air to calm the rest of the herd. Man got, and still gets, most of it wrong.
“Look at me sideways, Griff.” Griffon didn’t understand the request, and, after a moment, cocked his head to the side. The man in the hat, exasperated, shook his head. “No, Griff, that’s not what I mean. Don’t cock your head like a damn fool dog.”
“I don’t-” Griffon started, but the man in the hat cut him off.
“Look ahead, at Rona Miller’s tits, and not at me. You liked them enough to have your way with them, and more than once.” Griffon did, and as he stared, the man in the hat seemed to vanish from his peripheral vision. Griff gasped and looked back, and saw the man standing there.
“Where’d you go?”
“It’s just a blind spot in your vision. It’s the only rational, biological thing to this trick. I’m still here. I could explain it, but I don’t think you’d get it. Look at her again, and forget about me.” Griffon complied, looking down at the woman’s face. She was angry, that was certain, but Griffon had done some pretty terrible things to her. She wasn’t the only one in this town he’d wronged, only maybe he’d wronged her more that most, but Griffon had never been a man to not take what he wanted, and she-
As Giff’s thoughts had wandered, something had crept into his peripheral vision. He hadn’t noticed it at first, but as he did, he slowly started to grasp the gravity of his situation. Because it was not fully in his view, he could not see it in great detail, but as it became clearer, he started to imagine-
Horrible things, terrible fish in the depths of the ocean
-that the man in the suit was attached to something large and hideous. A great, fleshy trunk sprouted from his back and arced almost lazily to the street, where two luminous eyes-
Giant, prehistoric fish, dangling lures before great gaping maws filled with rows of razor sharp teeth-
-watching him, hungrily eyeing him-
little fishy, tasty fishy
-going to eat him, a pathetic little man-
-that swam too close.
For a moment, Griff almost did what the thing (for he could no longer think of him as a man at all) told him he would. His muscles tensed, ready to throw himself forward against the rigid rope, ending his terror before his mind shattered and he could no longer escape from the madness. He would have done so, had he not been absolutely certain that the thing would be waiting for him in death, perhaps an entire abyssal sea of them, and that the only way to avoid that fate would be to make the thing’s deal.
“I told you,” the man said, “that you wouldn’t like what you saw.” The man’s voice pulled him out of his fear, and he instinctively turned his head towards him. The vision vanished abruptly, and it was just him, the man, and the frozen crowd of angry faces.
“What… what the hell…”
“It’s of no concern to you. Like I said, you wouldn’t want to see any more that what I let you see. Got it?” Griffon nodded his head quickly. “Good. Are you ready to hear the specifics?” Another nod. “Fantastic. After we’re done talking, you can make a more informed decision.”
* * * *
The crowd cheered as the trap opened and the Confederate soldier’s neck cracked like dry kindling in the morning heat. Rona Miller’s spit landed on the body and clung there, slowly crawling down the man’s contorted face, her vengeance complete. The town’s sheriff, a man of small stature but great power, bellowed out that the deed was done, and everyone needed to go back to their businesses or homes.
The two men in the back watched impassively. One, a man in a neatly pressed suit and bowler hat, put his arm on the shoulder of the other, a man that, had anyone taken notice, would be quickly picked out of the crowd as a stranger. The two men would be quickly forgotten by anyone that thought about them later, and their thoughts would be followed by an ominous sense of doom, and they would pull their children and spouses closer to them. They didn’t notice, however, and were equally ignorant to how the stranger reacted with revulsion when the man in the bowler touched him.
“You made the right choice, Griff. I would have had you anyway, but a soul given freely is more important to me and mine than a soul that’s taken.”
“Couldn’t I have gone to the other place? Maybe if I’d repented?”
The man in the bowler shook his head. “You’ve got a lot to learn about a lot of things, Griff. We’ll start with your ideas of heaven and hell, and work from there. You’ve got important work to carry out in the meantime.”
“Why me?” he asked. “What was so special about me?”
“Not a damn thing. Could’ve been anyone, but it was you. My kind needs an arm in this world. My… original Lieutenant, if you will, has become a problem and isn’t reliable anymore. You’re a reliable man, though, Griff, and you can help us out. This world’s not ours, yet, though it used to be, and we can’t work in it like we used to. You were as good as anyone else. Consider yourself lucky.” The two turned from town as the body of the soldier was left to swing in the hot desert wind. They left that town, and the man that used to be Sam Griffon would only come back to it once more, at the end.