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Spooky Legends day three brings us an original Hessius Mann short story…with zombies. Stefan Petrucha’s new urban fantasy series, Hessius Mann, debuts with the release of DEAD MANN WALKING. Thanks to Stefan, one of you who comment on this post will win a copy of the book! See details below.
Under the Rainbow
A Hessius Mann Story by Stefan Petrucha
Me? Not so much.
Name’s Hessius Mann. I’m a chak, a zombie more or less, restored to something like life when my murder conviction was overturned. No, we don’t eat brains, unless we go feral, and then it’s more like we’ll eat anything. For us, the end of the summer is as close as we get to relief. Heat and humidity, breed all sorts of things, maggots the least of it.
I was sitting in my office, feet on either side of an old electric fan that was whipping the air into my sad-ass face, when Misty came in. She’s a liveblood, former crack addict. We keep each other honest, or try to. She’s tough, used to sewing up body parts, so not much fazes her. Only now her brow was furrowed deep enough to plant crops. It wasn’t fear, more like confusion.
“We… you… got someone who wants to see you.”
Clients are rarer than good days. Chakz can’t afford us, livebloods want nothing to do with us. So why wasn’t she smiling?
“Well, show him or her in.”
“He is… in. He’s standing next to me.”
I pulled my feet off the desk and looked lower. Our visitor was a chak. I could tell from the grey pallor and the fact that his left ear and a chunk of facial skin were gone. Pudgy in life, all the fast-sacks were empty and dangling, making his round face seem melted. He wasn’t dressed badly, but the suit hooked over his arm looked like some kind of clown costume that’d been buried half a century, the colors faded, mold on the shoulder.
“A midget,” I said, not realizing it was out loud.
“Little person,” he corrected. His voice was high-pitched, like an eight year old’s.
“Sorry. Little person. And you’re a chak, too.”
Normally, I’d roll my eyes at that one, but he might have some money.
“My bad again. Living challenged little person. Can I call you LCLP for short? I mean… as an abbreviation?”
“Look, pal, clearly we’re off to a bad start. If you’re not ready to walk out yet, why don’t you sit down and give me half a chance to improve my behavior, Mr….?”
At least he hadn’t said Rumplestiltskin.
I clamped my teeth, hoping to catch the laugh, maybe make it sound like a cough. It’s easier for the dead to keep a straight face, a little, anyway. Misty really looked ready to blow, so I nodded that it was okay for her to leave. She moved quick, closing the door.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Popples?”
He climbed into the chair and tossed the costume onto my desk.
“Know what it is?”
“This a trick question? No offense, but it looks like a clown outfit.”
“None taken. Look closer.”
I lifted the suit. It was mostly felt, primary colors, a cap with bells. It was flat, too, like it’d been in storage a long time. I don’t need to breathe but I sniffed and caught a whiff of mothballs.
“It’s old,” I offered.
“I’ll give you a hint. It was made in 1938.”
“My memory isn’t what it used to be.”
“Try. Like a detective. No offense.”
I fingered the fabric. It did look familiar. Like it was a movie costume. 1938…
“Best guess? Munchkin outfit from Wizard of Oz. Not the mayor, or the Lollipop Guild, though.”
He nodded. “Great-grandpa was an extra. No speaking lines, but good work at the time.”
“Something to be proud of, I’d think.”
“If he hadn’t died on the set. They found him hanging by an electrical cord that had dug a few inches into the skin before they cut him down. Of course they waited until they were done shooting.”
He pulled out an old VHS tape and shoved it in my dollar-store player.
“You can see it, in the background. The studio bastards kept it in to avoid an expensive re-shoot, figuring no one would notice. No one important anyway. We tried suing, but the case was thrown out.”
I furrowed by brow until the skin cracked. “Wait a minute, I’ve heard about this. It’s an old urban legend. I thought it was some kind of exotic bird that got loose.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You calling my great-grandpa an exotic bird?”
“No. Sorry, Mr. Popples.”
His potato-fingers fumbled with the controls. “That’s what the studio said, it’s how they won the case. Take a look yourself.”
The end of the Tin Woodsman sequence played. He, Dorothy and the Scarecrow were off to see the Wizard, because of the wonderful things he does. In the background, by the fake trees, something swung, dangled and hung. What, exactly, I couldn’t tell.
The scene played again, zoomed in, enhanced. What could have been a bird, a sack of laundry or a drunk elephant looked a lot more like a body.
I nodded. “Sure. Yeah. Maybe. But if the case has been decided, what can I do? And if he committed suicide, like the legend says, I don’t see how the studio could be held accountable anyway. Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Man, was hospitalized because of the aluminum in the makeup they used. He didn’t sue, and he had a pretty clear case.”
“A case that would’ve cost him his career,” Popples said. “Me? Like any chak, I’ve got nothing left to lose. Besides, I’m not after the movie company. Life’s always tough for the different, but Charlie Popples was an optimist. He loved making people laugh, kept his spirits up in the worst of times. Here he is, on the set of a major motion picture, and he kills himself? I don’t think so. I think he was murdered and I want to find out who did it.”
“Oh,” I said. I was about to go into a long list of reasons why there was no point in pursuing a case that was a helluva lot colder than we were, when Popples reached into his pocket and tossed four crumpledbills on my desk, all hundreds.
“That’s for trying. Find anything, I’ll give you twice that.”
I leaned back in my broken chair and thought about all the used furniture I could buy. “I wouldn’t know where to start. I don’t even have internet access. Got any leads?”
Five minutes later we in the back of a bus headed for the Fort Hammer suburbs. The livebloods, for a change, weren’t staring nervously at me, they were staring at Popples and trying not to laugh. Hands tightening on the munchkin costume, he glared at them all, even the kids, like he might actually try to eat one.
To distract him, I flicked the edge of the photo he’d given me, an address scrawled on the back. It showed a munchkin bearing a slight resemblance to Popples standing atop a table, next to a wide-eyed beauty who should’ve still been in high school.
“Rachel Chavez. Huh? Worked as an on-set caterer when she was sixteen. That’d make her 88.”
“Great. You can add.” His narrowed eye were burning into a five year old who was laughing so hard he looked like he was about to pee himself.
I snapped my fingers in front of Popple’s face. “Speaking of things adding up, if you’ve got the address, why not visit her yourself?”
The laughs didn’t stop after we exited. People stopped just to point. I admit I was nervous. No chak would be caught dead or otherwise in this neighborhood, full of wide tree-lined streets and older houses with wrap-around porches. Frankly, I was grateful that everyone seemed to be in such a good mood, even if it was at Popples’ expense.
The Chavez’ house was the only Tudor on a street of colonials. I put my finger to the bell and soon enough the door clicked open to reveal a statuesque senior in a house dress with a flowered pattern. It was the face from the photo, more pleasant now, maybe, wrinkled, but in a way that said she’d lived long and well.
She gave me a befuddled smile. When she looked down and to my right and saw Popples, the smile grew wider.
“Oh!” she said, excited. “You two stay right there.”
Before I could say anything, she closed the door, reopening it a few seconds later.
“It’s a little early for Halloween,” she said. “But look what I have for you!”
She thrust a few pieces of candy into our dried hands and, before we could speak, closed the door.
Seeing the problem, I turned to Popples. “How many times you try this alone?”
“Six. I thought maybe if there were two of us. Tried to find a liveblood, but couldn’t.”
“There isn’t one. I wrote. She never answered.”
He sat on the stoop. “If she’d just let me show her the costume, maybe that’d jar her memory, but she’s just like everyone else. I can’t get her to take me seriously.”
“At least she gave you the bubble gum,” I told him. “This chocolate’s older than God.”
I eyed the costume in his hands. “Jar her memory, eh? You look a bit like Charlie, don’t you?”
“That’s what mom always said, but I…” He blinked. His eyes flared. “No. No freaking way. There’s no way that’s happening, Mann.”
But, desperation being a funny thing, a full-fledged munchkin stepped from the privacy of a few bushes. The outfit didn’t look half-bad; red and yellow plaid shirt, boots with curled toes, little bells on the end. One of the bells still worked, so he made a cheery tinkling sound whenever he moved.
The only thing that didn’t look happy about him was, well… him.
“Let’s just do this,” he said.
“Make sure you say her name before she can open her mouth.”
I rang the bell, stepped back. Creak!
Her eyes took in the scene, her eyelids fluttered.
Popples swallowed hard. “Um… Rachel…”
Her eyes went wide and she screamed, long and loud, the way only a really old woman can.
“Poppy-pop! No! You’ve come back to haunt me!”
She was fast, I’ll give her that. Before we could explain, she’d grabbed a potted plant from inside and was smashing Popples in the head.
“Back! Back to the grave with you!”
He fell backwards, dirt and broken ceramic mixing with his colorful duds.
I moved between them, took the next blow in my shoulder. “Lady, don’t!”
She had a mean swing, but after a blow that staggered me, she stopped long enough to listen.
“He’s not Poppy-pop! He’s Poppy-pop junior! Well, junior-junior or whatever….”
She looked at him, at the broken flower pot she held, then at the wrinkles on the back of her hand.
“Of course… of course… how silly…”
It’s tough for a chak to embarrass a liveblood, we’re kind of like dogs that way. LBs will do anything in front of us without blinking. But Ms. Chavez didn’t seem to understand that we were chakz, or even that chakz existed. I sure as hell wasn’t going to explain it. Point being, she blushed and invited us inside. I didn’t have the heart to tell her we couldn’t drink the tea she poured. Popples even pretended to drink his.
His bone-deep anger seemed to lighten a little as she spoke, partly because he was happy to finally speak to her, partly because she glowed so much when she spoke of Charlie.
“Of course I remember Poppy… I mean, your father…”
“Actually, my great-great… never mind.”
“We ate lunch together on the set every day, and every day he told a new joke, just for me. They were like flowers.”
“Or candies. Little presents. He made me laugh so hard. I haven’t laughed as hard since. He was so witty and alive, I just couldn’t imagine there being anything somber or serious about him, until…”
She put her hand to her neck and quieted. She rose, opened a low drawer in a tall breakfront, and withdrew an old cigar box. Inside there was one letter, browned and brittle. She unfolded it like it was the shroud ofTurin, and handed it to Popples.
I read over his shoulder.
It wasn’t a funny letter, not in the least. In it, a man talked about a deep, overpowering love that transformed his simple life so much he no longer understood it. It filled him with “the same ecstacy and torture the world must have felt when it was first dragged from the dark.” He worried he didn’t even have the words to express it, but it read to me like he did.
He also said he could never tell her while he was alive, that they were too different, and that dying would be worth it because only then would she really know how much she was loved.
Chakz don’t cry, but Ms. Chavez shed more than a few tears. “I had no idea, no idea that someone who made me laugh so hard could be so serious…”
I handed her a tissue from a box on the end table, and she buried her face in it.
Popples cleared his throat. “Would it… have mattered if he told you while he was alive? Would you have wanted to… be with him?”
She shook her head. “No, oh, no. I was sixteen. I had a terrible crush on my boss’s son. And Poppy-pop, well… he was a munchkin.”
The studio had paid her off, she explained, to keep quiet about the letter. They kept her insured, too, so that even now she had a nurse visit daily.
She looked around. “The house, the money… well, it really should be half yours, shouldn’t it?”
“No, that’s okay. You keep it,” Popples said. He laid the letter back in the box, patted her hands, thanked her sweetly and completely, and headed for the door.
Neither of us spoke until we were on the bus again.
“People have worse to carry around. You did your job. Costumes all I’ve got really. I’ll put the damn thing up on E-bay, to pay your fee.”
“No,” I said, echoing him. “That’s okay. You keep it.”
I looked around at all the people snickering, louder than they had on our way in. “But you probably should’ve taken it off before we got on the bus.”
He grunted and shrugged. “Let ‘em laugh. Charlie would’ve liked it that way.”
From the author: Many thanks to Angela for having me here. Please follow me on Twitter via @SPetrucha, where I’m tweeting a Dead Mann Quote a Day for a total of sixty day, and do check out the book!
Born in the Bronx, Stefan Petrucha spent his formative years moving between the big city and the suburbs, both of which made him prefer escapism.
A fan of comic books, science fiction and horror since learning to read, in high school and college he added a love for all sorts of literary work, eventually learning that the very best fiction always brings you back to reality, so, really, there’s no way out.
An obsessive compulsion to create his own stories began at age ten and has since taken many forms, including novels, comics and video productions. At times, the need to pay the bills made him a tech writer, an educational writer, a public relations writer and an editor for trade journals, but fiction, in all its forms, has always been his passion. Every year he’s made a living at that, he counts a lucky one. Fortunately, there’ve been many.
Want to read more from Stefan Petrucha?
This giveaway is provided by Stefan Petrucha
One winner will receive a copy of Dead Mann Walking: A Hessius Mann Novel by Stefan Petrucha
Available on October 4, 2011 from Penguin/Roc Books
About the Book:
JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE DEAD DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN’T HAVE A LIFE…
After Hessius Mann was convicted of his wife’s murder, suppressed evidence came to light and the verdict was overturned — too bad he was already executed.
Thanks to the miracles of modern science Hessius was brought back to life. Sort of. Now that he’s joined the ranks of Fort Hammer’s pulse-challenged population, Hessius attempts to make a “living” as a private investigator.
But when a missing persons case leads to a few zombies cut to pieces, Hessius starts thinking that someone’s giving him the run-around — and it’s not like he’s in any condition to make a quick getaway…
Click HERE to read an excerpt
**Don’t forget to visit All Things Urban Fantasy today for her Spooky Legends guest blog with Melinda Metz and Laura Burns and a chance to win SACRIFICE**
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