It was a nice enough cabin, if Zanna ignored the dead wasps. Their bodies were in the bedroom, all over the quilt and the floor, so she’d sleep in the living room until they ascertained whether there was a live wasp problem as well as a dead one. If she ignored the wasps, it was lovely.
She’d have to ignore the tiny dead mouse in the ominously large trap in the kitchen, too. If they swept mouse and trap into one of the black trash bags she found under the sink, and ignored the bulk package of rat traps, and ignored the bulk rat poison, and celebrated the wasp spray, everything was good.
The bucket in the main room’s corner held a few inches of brackish water. The discolored spot above it was shaped like a long-tailed comet, and probably wouldn’t present a problem unless it rained. An astringent lemon-scented cleaner just about covered the delicate undertones of mildew that permeated the walls.
“This place sucks,” said Shar.
Shar, her childhood friend, her assistant of who knew how many years, who had always been impervious to magical thinking. Shar, who was right.
“Um, you booked it,” Zanna pointed out.
“These aren’t usually the things they list under ‘amenities.’ You said to find someplace cheap and remote, with no Wi-Fi.”
True enough. Cheap, because Zanna was between royalty checks. Remote, because she couldn’t have any distractions if she was going to finish this book on deadline. No Wi-Fi, ditto. All she needed was power, since her laptop battery no longer held a charge.
She smiled. “It’s perfect. I’ll push that little table under the window. The view is what counts, anyway.”
Shar returned her smile. “Whew. Okay. You get settled, and I’ll see what I can do about the wildlife.”
That worked. Zanna went out to the car for her bag. It didn’t roll well in the dirt, and she let it bang on the three steps to the porch, rather than bothering to lift it. She paused to appreciate the view: below her, the mountainside spread in a dappled blanket of red and gold. There were other houses along the road—they’d stopped at the owner’s on the way past to get the keys—but none were visible from here. Perfect.
She parked her bag inside the door. No point in moving it further until she knew which room she’d be sleeping in. The couch was more of a daybed, so she’d be fine with that option. The small writing table—she already thought of it as a writing table—looked solid, old. She felt the years in it. The chair looked a little hard for her taste, but she’d brought a cushion and a lumbar support for that contingency. This wasn’t her first rodeo or her first cabin, and these weren’t her first wasps or her first mice. If she’d wanted something less rustic, she would have said so, and Shar would have booked Posh Retreat rather than Wasp Hotel. This was what she needed: no distractions, no comforts, just a desk and a chair and a window.
Out and back again for the milkcrate of research books. Shar had found a broom to sweep away the dead wasps; she’d already disappeared the mouse. Zanna didn’t know what she’d done to deserve an assistant who disposed of dead things for her.
The fridge smelled okay, a small blessing. There was nothing in it but an open box of baking soda.
“Make me a list and I’ll go shopping for you while you write this afternoon.” Shar stood in the doorway, tying off a trash bag.
“Is there a microwave?”
“I saw one somewhere. Hang on.”
Zanna stood aside and let Shar rummage in the cabinets. She pulled out a drip coffee maker from a drawer, and a pack of filters. “Hmm…”
Shar left the kitchen and returned a minute later with a small microwave. “It was in the broom closet.”
They both had to stand sideways for Shar to put the microwave on the counter. She smelled like cumin, never Zanna’s favorite scent. Zanna rummaged in the drawers until she found a torn envelope. She wrote a list on the back, all the easy meals she could make without taking too much time away from her writing. Microwave dinners, mac n cheese, salad kits, eggs, cereal.
“Back in a few hours,” Shar said.
They could have stopped at the grocery store on the way in, but Zanna knew this was Shar’s way of giving her a head start on her work.
There was nothing for her to do here but write. Okay, or hike, or read, but those were reward activities. More importantly, there was no cell service, no internet, no television. The rental car spit gravel as it backed onto the road. She was alone.
She turned the milkcrate of books on its side on the table, so the spines faced outward. Birds of West Virginia, Trees of West Virginia, West Virginia Wildlife, Railroad Towns, Coal Country. She’d done all her research at home in New York, all her character-building, all her outlining, but when Shar suggested that she actually come here to do the drafting, it had felt perfect, like something she should have thought of her herself. She plugged her computer in and sat down to write.
Shar returned with four grocery bags just as Zanna started to get hungry. “You didn’t put coffee or tea on the list, but I figured they were both givens.”
“Bless you,” said Zanna, standing to stretch and help with the bags. The kitchen wasn’t big enough for them both to be in there, but if Zanna didn’t unpack, she wouldn’t know what had been purchased or where to find it. Shar still smelled like cumin, overwhelming in the tight quarters. Inspiration to put everything away quickly.
“How’s it going?” Shar knew her well enough to never ask in terms of word count. Instead, a generic “how’s it going” that Zanna could answer specifically if she’d written or vaguely if she’d gotten stuck.
“Got through the first chapter,” Zanna said. No need to hide behind euphemisms today. Chapter one was always easiest anyway. Reintroduce Jean Diener, reluctant detective. Find an excuse to get her to where she needed to be.
“Nice! Do you want me to make you some dinner before I leave you alone?”
“Nah. I’m going to have a snack now and write a little more. I’ll probably just graze tonight.” Zanna held up a pre-mixed chef salad in a plastic clamshell. “You can go check in to wherever you’re staying. Where are you staying?”
“Motel at the foot of the mountain. It’s dirt cheap this late in the fall, and this isn’t exactly a tourist town.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay here? You can have the bedroom, I’ll take the couch.”
“Like you were going to sleep in a bedroom full of wasps. Nah, I’m good. I don’t want to disturb you.”
“Fine, then. How can I reach you? I don’t have a single bar of reception up here.”
“I’ll check on you first thing in the morning. Or I can check if there’s a landline phone hidden here somewhere?”
“Nah. It’ll be okay. Maybe not first thing, though? If I get on a roll tonight I’m sleeping late tomorrow.”
“Check. How’s ten?”
“Anything else I can do for you? Or should I get out so you and Jean can get reacquainted?”
Zanna grinned in appreciation.
The cabin had a good writing feel. She actually made it halfway through chapter two before stopping to eat the salad. After that, she put her sheets on the couch and pulled a moth-eaten blanket from the bedroom closet, and curled up to read Railroad Towns. It was full of useful information, but the combination of long drive and writing had exhausted her, and she fell asleep before ten. She woke once for no reason at all, and then again to a scuttling sound that probably meant the dead mouse had friends.
She woke at 6 a.m. without an alarm. The electric baseboard heater under the window had kept the couch warm enough, but she could tell that outside her blanket, the mountain morning held a chill. She’d make coffee and breakfast, then get working. She flicked on the lamp.
Her throat felt scratchy, her chest sore like she’d been coughing, and the floorboards shot cold through her socks as she padded into the kitchen. Shar had left the coffee and filters next to the coffee machine, so she didn’t have to search for anything before she’d had coffee.
She didn’t know what she’d done to deserve Shar. She hadn’t even known she’d needed an assistant until her childhood friend had suggested it, and now she couldn’t imagine life without her. It wasn’t that she was unable to do the stuff Shar did, other than driving, just that having someone else shop and correspond and plan travel freed her to concentrate on her books. Shar had always been there for her, but formalizing the relationship had actually helped it.
She’d written forty-something novels now and they’d all been dreams to write, almost literally. Research was still a present-brain puzzle, outlining a necessary torture, but the books themselves had gotten so much easier over the years. A quiet cabin, a desk in front of a window, no distractions.
She plugged in the coffeemaker. While it gurgled, she dumped an instant oatmeal packet into a bowl from the cabinet, added some water, and stuck it in the microwave. When she hit start, there was a pop, and the power went out. The fridge still hummed, but the cabin had otherwise gone dark and quiet. Was the whole place wired on one circuit except the fridge? That meant no power for her computer, either, and no power for the baseboard heater.
Why did this kind of thing always happen before coffee? She checked all the closets and cabinets for a breaker box, but couldn’t find one, which meant it was outside. Two shoes and a jacket later, she stood behind the cabin, swearing to herself. Crawlspace. She didn’t quite remember what had freaked her out in a crawlspace when she was a kid, but she still hated them. Anything might be in there.
A baseball bat stood propped against the wall beside the tiny door. It had “Snake Stick” written on it in blue Sharpie. Whoever had labelled it had also drawn a crude cartoon demonstrating its utility. Swing them away, don’t kill them. No bloodstains on the bat.
She could wait for Shar, but she’d lose hours, and her head was already complaining about the lack of caffeine. Better to do it herself.
The half-sized door creaked when she squeezed the latch and swung it open. She waved the Snake Stick in front of her to clear cobwebs and wake any snakes snoozing inside. When nothing moved, she dug in her jacket pocket and pulled out her phone. It was useless for calls out here, but the flashlight still came in handy. She swept it around the space, which looked mostly empty. No use delaying.
She crouched and stepped in. The ceiling was a little higher than she expected, the floor a little lower; she could stand if she stooped. Something crunched like paper under her foot, and she swung the light down to find a snakeskin, at least three feet long. She shuddered.
The electrical box was beside the door, but it turned out to use fuses, not breakers. Another pan of the space showed a pile of two-by-fours, but nothing else useful. Mystery writer brain declared it a good enough place to hide bodies, but a little obvious. You’d want to dig up the dirt floor and bury them, or the odor would rise through the floorboards. Pile the lumber back over the spot you’d disturbed.
Back to the cabin, wishing she’d worn a hat, dusting cobwebs from her hair. She went through all the drawers and closets, this time looking for a fuse. A hammer and a box of nails, more rat traps, mouse poison cubes, wasp spray, garbage bags, dish soap, sponges. No fuses. Also no matches or candles, which would also have been useful. In the top kitchen drawer, a yellowed paper brochure for “RusticMountainCabins.biz,” complete with grainy picture and phone number. Not that the phone number did any good here.
How far had the owner’s house been? Maybe a mile or two. She could hike down and knock on his door. It would still be early, but not unreasonable, given the inconvenience of no power. There should have been a warning not to use multiple appliances at once. Or maybe that explained the microwave stashed in the broom closet. Shit.
She stuffed her hair under a hat, wrote a note explaining where she’d gone in case Shar arrived before Zanna got back, put her computer in her backpack since she didn’t trust the flimsy lock on the door, and headed down the mountain. Down was steep, made trickier by the loose gravel, which skittered out from under her feet. She fell once, windmilling all her limbs to prevent the inevitable, twisting to keep from landing on her computer or her tailbone. She wound up on her left hip and elbow. The elbow got the worst of it, skinned and begraveled.
After that, she took it even slower, picking pebbles from her arm as she went. If she walked with small steps, the slope from one foot to the other was negligible. If she put her full weight on each foot, penguin-style, she exerted sideways motion instead of downward. Jean Diener would appreciate it; the character was a retired physics professor, living in an RV which she parked in any given town just long enough to help solve whatever murder transpired, through physics and common sense.
When Zanna reached the first driveway, she realized she didn’t know the house number. What had she noticed about the house, waiting for Shar to collect the keys? She closed her eyes. The owner’s house was larger than her cabin, larger than this one. A steep driveway featuring a rock Shar had been afraid to drive over with a rental car. Navy blue SUV with West Virginia plates and one of those WV stickers that looked like the Wonder Woman logo. A windchime with wooden—what did you call them? Wooden knocker things. She’d have to look up the word.
Not this driveway, nor the next, but the third one had the right look. Blue SUV, windchime. Less rental-cabin-like, more home-like. Where did the difference lie? Something to do with the decor. Baskets of orange mums hanging from hooks on either side of the porch steps. The porch ran the entire front of the house, with dormant rose beds below it, trimmed low for winter. The soil was weeded and neat except for some animal tracks.
She glanced at her phone for the time: 7:33. Probably still too early to knock on a door under normal circumstances, but she wouldn’t have thought twice about phoning a rental office to make this complaint. No coffee, no heat, no electricity. Possibly no shower, depending on the type of water heater. A landlord should expect tenants to come knocking under those conditions.
The front door stood open, as did the screen, which hopefully meant the owner was awake. Zanna stepped onto the porch and knocked on the doorframe. The mat was turquoise with a picture of a llama on it.
“Hello?” She realized she didn’t know the owner’s name.
“Hello!” she called again when nobody answered.
She stuck her head in the door. There was a grid of keyrings on hooks to the right, all neatly labelled with the cabin addresses, which mystery-writer brain pointed out was an invitation to robbery. Below the grid, a mat with two muddy boots. Beside it, four coat hooks, all holding jackets in hunter’s camo; the owner had been wearing one of those when Shar had knocked the day before. That was the only glimpse of him she’d had from the car.
She yelled one more time, then turned to look where someone might have wandered to with their door open. This was far enough off the beaten path that people might leave their doors unlocked, but for someone with such a fastidious entrance to leave the screen open too struck her as odd.
It was only when she walked a few steps left along the porch that she saw the foot. A bare foot, toes up, just visible on the SUV’s far side.
“Hello?” she said again, walking around the vehicle’s massive front grill.
He wasn’t going to hello back. A middle-aged white guy lay face up, one knee crooked, like he had tripped backing away from someone or something. His head rested on a rock, though rested was an odd word; the rock was drenched in blood. His expression was the worst part: he looked terrified. Eyes and mouth open, corners of his mouth cracked.
She stooped to press two fingers to his wrist. No pulse. His skin was cooler than hers. There was gravel on his right hand, but no blood; he’d never even touched the back of his head, so he must have died instantly.
He wore sweatpants with a bloody tear at the crooked knee and another smaller hole in the seam by the crotch. No shirt, no socks, no shoes. The tattoo above his right nipple said “BREATHE” in reverse, mirror-script; a tattoo for his benefit, not others’. The knee exposed by the rip was pitted with driveway gravel, as were the soles of his feet; they were soft-looking feet for what she imagined was an outdoorsy guy. That detail made her own elbow sting, which reminded her this was real. Not a book.
A body. A real body, until recently a real person. A real person wearing pants nobody would want to die in. What did you do when you found a real body? What did Jean Diener and the people around her do when murder came calling?
She dug her phone from her pocket and was relieved to see one bar of reception. It disappeared when she lifted phone to ear, then reappeared when she peeked to see why the call wasn’t going through. She walked a few feet onto the driveway rock and was rewarded with a more stable signal.
The woman who answered had clearly been sleeping; a yawn came through before her “911—is this a medical, fire, or police emergency?”
“I found a dead body.”
The woman swore and the line faded. Zanna shifted to the left, and the voice came back. “—Sorry, that was unprofessional. Are you sure they’re dead?”
“Yes. No pulse. I checked.”
“And are you safe yourself?”
“I think so? I have no idea, actually.” She looked around. What could have scared him badly enough to send him running from his house without putting on shoes? She hadn’t even considered that she might be in danger. She felt oddly calm.
“He looks like he hit his head.”
The woman on the line said something unintelligible, and Zanna moved closer to the SUV trying to find the signal. There were animal tracks across the hood. She stared at them as she triangulated reception.
The operator returned. “Ma’am, I asked what your name is?”
“Susan Ke—ah, Suzanna Gregory.” Calm, but flustered enough to have almost given her pen name.
“And where are you?”
That one was tricky, too. “Ah, I hate to say it, but I have no idea what road this is, and there’s no house number. I’m staying at a cabin, and I just arrived yesterday, and my assistant drove and made the arrangements… can you use my cell phone location if I turn it on?”
“That’ll take a few minutes, and it’ll only tell me which cell tower your call is routed through. Is the body at your cabin?”
“No, I took a walk. I think it’s the guy who rents the cabins, if that helps. Outside his house.”
“RusticMountainCabins.Biz, by any chance?”
“Does the deceased have grey-brown hair, wavy, longish?”
She leaned over to look at him again. “Yeah.”
“Gary Carpenter. You’re on McKearney Road. Do you feel safe staying there until I send someone?”
“Great. Don’t touch anything and somebody’ll be up there in thirty or forty minutes. Can I get your phone number?”
Zanna recited her number and promised to call back if the situation changed. While she still had one bar, she rang Shar. Unlike the 911 lady, Shar was instantly awake.
“I thought you didn’t have reception!”
“I didn’t. Or power. The whole cabin shorted out this morning when I tried to make coffee, so I tried flipping the breaker, only it was a blown fuse, and there were no spares, so I walked down the mountain.”
“I did. I can be resourceful, you know. I didn’t always have you in my life. But listen, that’s not why I’m calling. I’m calling because I got to the guy’s house where you got the keys, and he’s, uh, here, but he’s dead. I didn’t want you to get nervous if you got to the cabin and I wasn’t there. I left a note, but…”
Zanna probably should have stopped at ‘dead’ longer. “Yeah.”
“It looks like he hit his head. There’s a lot of blood.”
“It looks like.”
“Good. Well, not good, but you know what I mean. Better than some of the other options. Listen, I’m going to come get you.”
“911 lady said for me to wait here.”
“That’s fine. I’ll come wait with you. No need for you to walk all the way back up.”
She really was a great assistant. Zanna thanked her and disconnected.
In her books, Jean Diener would start investigating further. Walk into the foyer, poke around the house now, while emergency services were still far away. In real life, that seemed stupid. She didn’t want her footprints added to whatever was in the house. No sense making it harder for the real detectives.
She sat on the porch and leaned her head against the railing. She would have said she’d slept well, but tiredness overtook her. Still too early; no caffeine in her system. She closed her eyes. Opened them again when she heard a vehicle on the road. The rental pulled in far to the left to skirt the driveway rock, and Shar emerged with a paper bag and a coffee.
“Bless you,” Zanna said.
“I don’t need blessings. Give me your backpack to toss in the car, so they don’t start thinking it’s evidence. Eat the muffin over the bag so you don’t get crumbs on their crime scene. It’s blueberry—they didn’t have chocolate chip. Also, I need you to stay put when you say you’re going to stay put.”
“There was no power. Or coffee. You wanted me to sit there for four hours doing nothing?”
Shar sighed. “No… I… it’s just now you’re going to get stuck giving a statement, and maybe be considered a suspect, and you don’t need things distracting from your deadline.”
Shar nodded in the direction of the body. “You found him. You write detective books. Isn’t the person who found a dead body usually one of the people who has to be ruled out? You had opportunity.”
“But no motive. Well, except lack of coffee, but that hardly seems worth killing someone over.”
“You’re not going to joke about it when they ask you questions, right?”
“And you haven’t gone poking around by the body? Or inside that open door?”
“I’d never!” Zanna said, like the thought hadn’t occurred to her. “Okay, maybe not ‘I’d never,’ but I swear I didn’t. I went to the door, that’s all.”
Shar raised one eyebrow. “I believe you, just… when you watch them do their job, try not to make your interest look too prurient, alright?”
They sat on the porch steps, Zanna sipping a coffee made the way she liked it, two sugars, one cream. A little cool, maybe, from the twenty minute drive up the mountain, but still welcome and drinkable.
A blue-and-gold Taurus with an enormous antenna pulled into the drive, blocking Shar’s rental car in. Two cops got out, both white men, young. The tall blonde one had stubble dusting his cheeks, and his uniform looked slept in. The dark-haired one’s uniform was impeccably pressed, his shave straight-razor close.
“I’m Officer Dixon, and this is Officer Fischer. And you are?”
Zanna gave her name without stumbling over it this time, and let Shar introduce herself.
“And which of you found the body?”
“I did, Officer. Shar just arrived a couple of minutes ago to give me a ride back up the mountain when we’re done talking.” Zanna pointed in the direction of the vehicle. The two policemen—state, they must be beyond the bounds of the town at the bottom of the mountain—walked over to take a look, taking the long way around the SUV before disappearing behind it, to her annoyance.
She thought about the SUV. It faced the cabin, and he was on the passenger side. She hadn’t seen any keys in his hands, and his pants didn’t have pockets, so he hadn’t been trying to drive away. Maybe to get something from the car? She looked over to see it was unlocked, or the driver’s side was, anyway. This might be country enough that people didn’t bother to lock, but if that was the case, why not go in through the near side?
She was back to him being frightened of something and trying to put the car between himself and—who or what? An animal? Whatever ran across the hood? A nightmare? Maybe he was a sleepwalker, or a vivid dreamer. Maybe some medication had messed him up. Or a less legal drug, like meth or some hallucinogen.
One of the policemen—Dixon—went back to the car, where she could see him on the radio, but frustratingly couldn’t hear the call. Fischer had a camera out and was taking pictures of the body. Zanna sipped her coffee and tried not to look too interested, as ordered. What was the proper amount of interest? Concern with a dash of ‘when can I get back to my work’ seemed about right.
Dixon walked back over to the house. “Okay, obviously you were right that he’s dead, so I called it in. We’ll have to wait for the examiner to make it official, but I can get your statement and send you on your way. How did you come to find the body?”
Zanna explained about the coffee and the microwave and the fuse, and walking down the mountain.
“That’s what, two miles?”
“I think so.”
Shar interrupted. “The directions he gave me said 1.8 miles past his house, if that helps.”
“Thank you,” said Officer Dixon. “And what time did you arrive here?”
“7:33. I remember looking at my phone and debating if it was too early.”
“Then I walked to the door, and it was open, door and screen, and I knocked on the frame and called inside, but nobody answered.”
“—And you didn’t go inside?”
“No, I didn’t.” Zanna gave Shar a pointed look.
“Did you touch anything?”
“Only the body, to feel for a pulse.”
“Oh, sorry. Let me get this in order again. You knocked and called inside, and nobody answered, and…?”
“And I turned around and then I saw his foot sticking out beside the car.”
“And you walked directly over?”
“Yes. Do you need my shoe print?”
He laughed. “I don’t think so. That loose gravel isn’t going to tell much.”
“What about to prove I wasn’t in the house?”
“Which you weren’t?”
“Nah. You can tell me your shoe size or something if you want, but I don’t think footprints are going to tell us much. He slipped in the dark. Nothing else to tell.”
“Other than the one spot, right?” She couldn’t resist. Shar glared at her.
She pointed a few feet in front of the body. “There’s a spot where the gravel’s dug away, like he was running and slipped, which makes sense with the torn knee, but then the more, uh, chaotic patch is where he fell, like he spun around and his feet slipped out from under him, but he fell backward when he died, not forward. He had to have fallen twice.”
“Uh, right. Other than that. I guess you had time to look around a little while you waited for us.”
“I guess.” She bit her tongue to keep from making any other observations.
“Anything else you noticed, then?”
Shar shifted on the stair, a slight movement that allowed her to dig an elbow into Zanna’s arm. “Nothing else, Officer.”
“Okay, then. I’ll take your phone number and the address where you’re staying, and you can be on your way.”
“Why don’t you take my number instead?” Shar said. “You won’t be able to reach her up the road, and I can always go find her.”
Dixon took both numbers, then walked them to their car.
“’Other than the one spot, right?’” Shar mimicked as they waited for the officer to move his car out of their way. “You couldn’t resist.”
“He wasn’t doing his job. He thinks the guy slipped and hit his head.”
“Firstly, he’s highway patrol, not a detective. Secondly, he doesn’t need to tell you, random lady who found the body, everything that he’s noticed. Thirdly, the guy slipped and hit his head. There are no other footprints. Case closed.”
“Case closed? How can the case be closed before somebody looks inside to see whether there’s any hint of what scared him?”
Shar started to reverse, then slammed on the brakes. “Shit. I forgot about that giant rock. If I back over it, we’ll leave the tailpipe behind.”
“Pull forward. You can’t turn around here.”
“How would you know? You can’t drive.”
“I’m familiar with the spatial laws of the universe. You’re going to have to do a ninety-point turn if you do it here. Just pull into the clearing so you have more space.” Zanna licked a drop of coffee off her hand.
“…spatial laws of the universe…” Shar muttered, commencing a ninety-point turn.
“…And why are you so sure he was scared, anyhow?” she continued as if there hadn’t been a pause in the conversation. “Maybe he needed something from his car, but he slipped?”
Zanna considered. “Still kind of weird to need something in such a hurry you don’t bother to put shoes on. Or a shirt, on a night that chilly. And to leave the screen swinging open. He looked like a fastidious guy.”
“A nightmare, then. Or some personal demon. A guy with a backward ‘BREATHE’ tattoo has something dark he’s getting past.”
“Sure. A nightmare. Except…” Zanna turned her coffee cup in her hands.
“I don’t think they noticed the other print either.”
“What other print?”
“On the hood, the one you elbowed me before I could say. He must’ve just washed his car, because it was otherwise spotless—which is impressive given these roads—but there were tracks across the hood.”
“Tracks? Like footprints?”
“Animal tracks. Something ran through the flower beds and then across the hood of the car.”
She dug a marker from her backpack and drew on her coffee cup. “Like two lines of feet with a tail dragging between them. Across the hood, driver’s side near the headlight, to the passenger-side mirror.”
Shar glanced over. “Okay, so a lizard or a raccoon or something ran over the car. Big deal.”
“And trampled grass on his other side.”
“Zanna, you didn’t know this guy, you are not a real detective, you have a very real deadline, and you’ve lost hours of your day already. Let the police do their job.”
“Hours—Shar, turn around. We still need to get a fucking fuse.”
Shar reached into her purse and fished out a plastic bag without looking down. “Voila. Stopped at the hardware store on my way to you.”
“How did you know which size to get?”
“I didn’t. I got a whole bunch of different ones, and I can return the ones that are wrong.”
“‘Thank you, Best Assistant Ever. You think of everything. You deserve a bonus.’”
“Thank you, Best Assistant Ever. You think of everything. If I actually finish this book and I get paid, you’re totally getting a bonus.”
They arrived back at the cabin. Shar, the Best Assistant Ever, unplugged the coffeemaker and the microwave, brandished a small flashlight with a price tag still on the base, and headed into the bowels of the cabin to replace the fuse.
Zanna sat at her writing table. She heard the crawlspace door creak, then the shudder of the fridge when the main power cut off. She went to the kitchen and rummaged through the knife drawer until she found one that looked sharper than the others, then returned with it to her workspace, not for any reason she could fully express, even to herself.
She looked out the window, the up-mountain window, with its Prismacolor trees. She pulled West Virginia Wildlife from her research crate, its cheesy 70s cover portraying a cougar, a bear, a coyote, a buck, and something that might have been an otter in the same riverside tableaux, and opened to the reptile chapter.
“Aha!” came from under the floorboards. A minute later, the lamp came back on, and the fridge gurgled. “Did that work?”
“Yeah,” Zanna called down.
Shar returned a moment later, running a hand through her hair for invisible cobwebs. “Maybe stick to coffee or microwave tomorrow. Do you want me to make you lunch?”
“Nah, I want to get some writing done first. Only…”
“Only there are four skinks and two lizards native to this area, and none of their tracks match the tracks I saw.”
Shar looked over at Zanna’s reading material. “Maybe they’ve discovered another since 1975.”
“Any other mysteries I can solve so you can get back to writing yours?”
Zanna hesitated. She wasn’t sure if she really wanted the answer to this one. “You—you mentioned the guy’s tattoo.”
“When did you see it? You got out of the car, came straight over to me with coffee. You couldn’t ever have seen more than his foot from where we were.”
“The day before, when we stopped for the keys.”
“He was wearing a zipped jacket when he opened the door.”
Shar crossed the room and settled on the couch. “So, what? You think I’m a suspect? Or your lizard is?”
“I have no idea what to think. These are things I noticed. They don’t make sense.”
“That’s the problem with real life. It’s too messy for fiction. Too weird. All those mysteries solved by a single hair found in a drain in fiction, or a single tire track. You’d go out of your mind trying to solve a real mystery. Not that there’s a mystery here. Just drop it. Unless there’s something else?”
“You never asked,” whispered Zanna.
“What did you say?”
“You never asked where the body was. You came and sat next to me. It would have made sense for you to assume the body was inside the house, but you never asked and you nodded in his direction even though he wasn’t visible from that side.”
“You must’ve said it on the phone.”
“I didn’t. I know I didn’t. You had to have been there earlier, seen the body or something. What the fuck, Shar?”
They stared at each other. How long had Shar been her assistant now? She couldn’t even remember, which was weird in itself, actually. “Maybe I should take a walk down the mountain again. I’ll bet those cops are still there. I can tell them what I’ve found…”
“A lizard that doesn’t exist?”
“An assistant who is lying to me.” Zanna stood. She held the kitchen knife by her side, not knowing what to do with it.
“What if I told you that you really, truly, don’t want to know the answers to your questions? That I’ve taken care of everything you’ve needed for twenty-two years, and I think I’ve earned the right to ask you to trust me.”
Twenty-two years. Zanna chewed on her lip, thinking. “I’d say I trust you if you flat-out say you didn’t murder him, but either way, you know what happened, and you’re lying to me. You’ve earned the right to ask me to trust you, but I don’t know if I can when I can see you’re not being completely honest.”
Shar lay back on the couch and put the pillow over her head. “Just once, in all these years, I’d like you to say ‘I trust you completely.’”
“What are you talking about? I’ve always trusted you. You know my bank accounts, you have my credit card, you…”
The pillow lifted. “You say that every time too, but when it comes to it, if I say ‘don’t poke at the body’ you always do. And can we skip the knife thing? You aren’t going to use it.”
Zanna looked down. The knife looked oddly familiar in her hand, like she had written this scene. She had a thousand questions and didn’t even know which one to ask.
She tried to keep the panic out of her voice. “How are ‘always’ and ‘don’t poke at the body’ in the same sentence? When has this ever happened before?”
Shar propped herself on her elbow. “Tell me about writing your last book.”
“The Mosquitoland Murders? We flew into Minneapolis and rented an old house in the woods a few hours away.”
“The actual writing. Do you remember anything of the time we spent there?”
Zanna considered, then shook her head. “No. I never remember the big drafting binges. It’s a shame. We pick these beautiful places, and then it all passes by in a blur.”
“Okay. How about your first book? Do you remember your first book?”
“Of course. Campsite 49.”
“Not the first book you sold—the first book you wrote.”
“It was horror, I guess. Dark fantasy, something like that. The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye. There was a creature.”
“Do you remember anything else?”
“God, I was only a teen. The creature laid eggs in people.”
“And why did it get rejected?”
“They said it didn’t ring true as fiction. Too messy and weird. Derivative. I never figured out how to fix it, and then I wrote Campsite 49, and now I’m a mystery writer instead of a horror writer. What are all these questions?”
“One more: what did you eat for dinner last night?”
“I ate—um… I don’t know. I guess I was caught up in writing, but I’m pretty sure I ate something.”
“Salad. You had a salad. How far did you get on the book yesterday?”
That seemed to Zanna like something she should remember, but she didn’t. “Fine. Shar, what’s the point of all this?”
“I’m going to tell you something, and you’re not going to believe me.”
“I thought we did that already at the start of this conversation.”
“We did, but this is something else.” Shar paused, sighed. “There’s this… thing. Like in The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye, okay?”
“A creature. Let’s say those prints you found belong to something, only it isn’t in your book because it isn’t native to this area. It hitches a ride.”
“Hitches a ride?”
“Yeah. Can you stop repeating me for a sec? You’ll get it, I promise. So there’s this thing, and like you said, it lays eggs. It does it while the person is asleep, and then the eggs incubate, and the first one that hatches eats the other eggs.”
“And then it eats through the person and runs away into the world. I know. I wrote this book, remember?”
“No! You wrote it wrong. It doesn’t eat through the person. It hides in their body, dormant, until it has to lay its own eggs.”
“How could I write my own book wrong?”
“I don’t know. You forgot. You always forget.”
“I still don’t get what you want me to do with this story. I don’t write horror anymore. Why don’t you write it?”
“It’s not a story, Zanna. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Did you wake up with a sore throat this morning? Your lungs sore, though you don’t remember coughing?”
Zanna shrugged. It had only been a few hours, but it felt like ages ago.
“I hate when you make me do this the hard way,” Shar muttered. “You always make me do it the hard way.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out a baggie of brown powder. “Here, put a pinch of this on your tongue.”
Zanna turned her head away.
“Come on, smell it. It’s cumin.”
“I hate cumin.”
“You two have that in common. Come on, I need you to do this. A small pinch.”
Zanna didn’t see a way out of it, since she was stuck in a room with someone whose reasonable tone belied the deeply weird things she was saying. She swallowed a pinch of cumin, then coughed. A second later, the coughing grew deeper, like the powder had gotten into her lungs. Then something stranger, like claws inside her chest. She gagged, and heaved something up. It helped itself along the way, tearing at her teeth and gums even as she opened her mouth.
The thing that skittered out of her was not a lizard or a skink. It had too many legs, and the middle track hadn’t been a tail, it was a long face with a proboscis that touched the ground and it had no eyes and too much skin, slimy, black, loose, and it was so fast, just a blur. It skittered under the couch, and Zanna remembered the sound from the middle of the night. Her mind started to lose both that memory and the memory of what the thing looked like even as it disappeared from her view.
“What. The. Fuck.” The words hurt.
“You never believe me until I show you.”
She held the knife out to Shar. “Kill it!”
Shar waved her off. “Oh, trust me, we’ve both tried. Burning, shooting, stabbing, drowning. It has a very strong will to live.”
“What was it doing inside me?”
“It lives there. You’re its host. I don’t think it actually does you any harm.”
Zanna ran her tongue around her sore mouth, and Shar amended, “Well, it doesn’t normally do you any harm. I think it anesthetizes you when it’s not in a hurry. When you don’t swallow a mouthful of cumin.”
“Yeah, so you relax, and you don’t remember it leaving or coming back. You never remember these trips at all. When you read your drafts back home you always say ‘I must have been in the zone. I don’t remember writing any of this.’”
Zanna nodded. She knew she had to ask the hard question, too. “So what’s your part in this?”
“I do what I’ve always done, since we were kids and we got stuck in the crawlspace under my dad’s house and it chose you. It got way easier when I convinced you to hire me. Find someplace remote for you to write a couple of times a year when you start showing signs. Powder myself with cumin. Try to make the closest person someone who won’t be too missed if something goes wrong, like this time. Try to keep you away from the body, which is sometimes easy and sometimes a disaster, like today.”
Zanna again had more questions than she could possibly voice. It was true, she did have lapses, but only when she was writing. Her process had always been weird like that, and two books a year had never felt difficult. She remembered everything in between books, or at least she thought she did. She again fixated on Shar’s language instead of the harder questions. “What do you mean by ‘if something goes wrong’?”
“That same secretion… they’re dozy when I get to them. I can usually scrape the eggs out of their mouths, and they never even know anything happened. Only, sometimes, something goes wrong. It gives some of them nightmares, or maybe they see it, I don’t know, and they fall down the stairs, or they attack it, or they attack someone else, or like this guy, they run out of the house and hit their head, and I still have to scrape the eggs out so the medical examiner doesn’t find anything.”
“Why don’t you just let them discover the eggs? Or tell someone—a doctor, a biologist?”
Shar looked horrified. “They’d never let you go. They’d have to lock you up to keep it from getting to anyone, and they’d figure out the same thing I have about it surviving everything we try to do to it. You’ve got contracts. Books to write. Or they’d keep me for having covered it up, and you wouldn’t have me to protect you anymore.”
That all made a certain amount of sense, even if it was horrible. Shar could be wrong, of course, but she was usually right. “How often does it go wrong?”
“Maybe one in five? They never connect you. Or me.”
“But that’s why we never go back to the same place twice?”
“Yeah. Somebody would get suspicious sooner or later. But—you believe me now?”
“Yes, I believe you. Are you sure you shouldn’t kill me?”
Shar looked horrified. “I wouldn’t!”
“But you’ve let all those other people die. One in five?”
“The eggs have never once survived. The one in you is the only one, as far as I know. Well, and whichever one laid an egg in you to begin with; I guess there must be others. I didn’t mean to let anyone die, but it’s better than the alternative.”
“Letting any of the eggs live, or letting you kill yourself. You’ve suggested that a few times, but what if it survived? How would I find it again to try to keep people safe? You can’t do it.”
The thought had crossed Zanna’s mind. “Then what happens now? I’m not going to let that thing claw its way back down my throat.”
“You will. You’ll fall asleep tonight and it’ll find its way back. It always does. Then you’ll wake up in the morning, and you won’t remember any of this, and you’ll draft your book, and we’ll go back to the city, and you’ll read your draft and tell me you must’ve been in the zone, and then when you come up with your next book, the plot’ll hinge on a guy who ran out of his house with no shoes, and you’ll research it and I’ll find someplace remote for you to write it. Rinse and repeat.”
They were both silent a moment.
Zanna had a question she didn’t want to ask, but asked anyway. “Does it help me somehow? Is this a deal like I can’t write without it? That it helps my creativity?”
“Not as far as I know,” Shar said. “It might inspire some of your plots—okay, most of them—but I can’t see any reason for the rest. Your work ethic and prose are all yours, I’m sure.”
“That’s something at least,” Zanna said. “That would be one ugly muse.”
They were silent again. After a minute, Zanna spoke again, the only thing left to say. “Fuck.”
“You really are the best assistant. You deserve a raise.”
“You say that every time, too.”
“What if I write it down? ‘Note to self: give Shar a raise’?”
Shar cocked her head. “Y’know, I don’t think you’ve ever done that before. It’s worth a shot, if you mean it.”
“I really and sincerely mean it.” Zanna opened her computer and created a reminder for herself. A reminder that would chime at her in one month’s time, and which she’d open and look at in total surprise and have no memory of writing. Then she’d nod in agreement, even if she couldn’t remember what exactly had prompted her to set the alert (or why the second line said “believe her”) and she’d make it happen, because she would hate to lose an assistant as good as Shar.
(Editors’ Note: “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” is read by Erika Ensign and Sarah Pinsker is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 29A.)
© © 2019 Sarah Pinsker