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Hush! . . . its story time.

Contributors to feoamante.com are going places!
See below!

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Long time feoamante.com contributor Mike Oliveri, busts out with his first hardcover novel.

"The horror genre has a new name to watch."

"Rife with action, sex, and carefully-crafted characters . . . a strong new voice in the horror genre,"

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feoamante.com contributor David Whitman and Weston Ochse have created a series of new legends in a book that has become one of the best selling small press Horror Collections of the century.

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feoamante.com contributor Brian Keene first short story collection is getting hot reviews:

"Brian Keene is one of the brightest young writers around. He crafts top-notch, horrifying thrillers."

"Diabolical doorways to other dimensions are opened in Brian Keene's 'The Burn Barrel' . . . a true gem."

"Keene's 'Hell At S-MART' stands out . . . Every-man horror doesn't get much more every-man than this."

"Amazing stuff . . . That Which Lingers" is simply the creepiest story I've
ever read."


Mason Winfield

Copyright 2000 Mason Winfield


It had started with one of those cards:


8:30 MAY 5, 1995



After ten years! For the first half of the 80’s this was the way Lang used to get in touch with me, always with one of the cryptic postal cards typed in capitals, announcing a mid-evening meeting weeks off in a pub in some backwoods town I’d I have to get the big state map to locate. Never a return address or signature, but I always knew who was behind it.

I can still see them.
“The Lacona Hotel, Lacona, NY. April 12, 1981. Two whiskeys at 8:30.”
Another went,
“Big Moose Inn. Little Valley, NY. 6:00 September 30, 1983. A two-scotch wait.”
You get the picture. That gave me, knowing Lang, a window of half an hour. Once I got there fifteen minutes past it and the bartender described what happened: “A big guy. Sandy hair. Looked like he had something on his mind. Sipped two bourbons, checked his watch, and left without a look around.”

There was never a way to confirm or change the time; that seemed part of the plan, too. The night on the card was the night. Lang would show up and one way or another learn something that contented him, as if it made a point about life or the world that only he could understand. It was a ceremonial gesture, like that of the mysterious character who drinks the toast at Poe’s Baltimore grave on every dawn of his birthday. It doesn’t matter if its object never knows of it. That was another point with Lang: you did the right thing because it was right. They talk about old souls; his was hard.

Something different this time, though, besides the envelope and the halfscore gap. None of the old cards had recycled the seventh-grade sillyspeak I thought we’d both forgotten. That alone should have been a sign. My school chum must have figured that something extra was needed to identify him after all the years. I thought back on them the two hours on I-90 East that May twilight, the sky all yellow on my left.

We’d had a lingo all our own, Lang and I. Our friends were exposed to it and some even participated, but none escalated it like we did. It wasn’t really a language, even a dialect, just a series of the goofiest possible words, phrases, and tones recruited for the situations of school, summer, and suburban adolescence.

It would be useless to revive it for you, but to explain the card: Hojo could be a personal pronoun like “somebody,” but it was most often a generic vocative, sort of a “Hey, you.” Topaz, I guess, was an interjection, akin to a “Behold!” or “Check it out.” Doubled, and accompanied by an antic gesture like a karate block or a wave of the cape before the bull, it was an absurd third option to the “fight or flight” instinct, something one might woof like Curly at a startling situation - a sprinkle from a malfunctioning faucet, or a scare from a porched poodle. (Once along the railroad tracks he’d called it at a pale beagle-cheeked kid dashing by us on a bike who seemed to take up the game spontaneously with an expressionless little squeal that sent Lang into hysterics: “Meee-eeep!” That probably inspired the bit about the munchkins, one of those non-sentences I can’t remember all the way.) The jabber on that 1995 card could mean no one but Lang, and no one but its intended reader would know it. Perfect.

Once in college we were sitting around high and I remember asking him about the dingbat-lingo, then only a few years behind us. I’d been studying literature and begun to admire a pair of adolescents who could come up with a system so much their own, as if it were part of some subliminal Jungian-Surrealist code. I’d hoped the two twenty-year-olds they became might bring enough of it back for me to write it a single time. A little could have brought it all. He disowned it like Peter did Jesus. Its repertoire was so rhythmic, idiotic, and once so grooved that it was hard to believe we could both forget every part. I jogged him a little, got a back-off signal, and didn’t push.

The sun that drove with me that May twilight had turned apricot, driving its ruddy gild onto every fixture of the interstate. I left it, dropping south between the lakes, enveloped in green. Each bend through the little towns seemed treed and lush, promising spring at its full and summer to come, reminding me of every April night as it seems in my recollection of those junior high years. It must have taken me farther back.

I couldn’t remember how we’d met, but Lang and I had started hanging out in seventh grade and were constant companions for the next two years. We weren’t the “alpha” males in our environment; there was always at least one echelon before us, at everything coolworthy a year or two ahead of schedule. Their pursuits looked somehow valorous, challenging, even sinister. Lang, though, had a spirit. He didn’t buy into his second-rank status, and the first-stringers learned quickly that pushing him could get embarrassing.

Maybe that was another key to Lang’s character; you dissed him, you paid.

We lost track of each other when my family moved at the start of tenth grade, but a wedding - his - can be a great re-introducer, and by the middle of our college stints we were pals again. For a few more years I used to visit Lang and his wife when they lived upstate. He’d studied journalism and may have had visions of the Washington Post, but half of his twenties he worked hundred-hour weeks for tiny upstate papers - because he believed in them, in the press. Towns with names like Speculator, Pulaski, Camillus, North Field. Mega-work and mini-money. He edited, wrote, interviewed, took photos and sold advertising. That was his bout with idealism. After the divorce he was hard to find and I gave up trying, but the cards had made their appearance, and thus I’d hear from him for the next five years.

When we did meet in one of those out-of-the-way bars, we’d laugh, catch up, speculate... it was always fascinating. I wouldn’t call Lang a philosopher, and he wasn’t a scholar, but he was bright, thoughtful, and widely-employed - boat-sales in the Caribbean, archaeology in Madagascar, seaplane mail delivery in the Philippines. He knew an old Czech - I think Lang had lived with his daughter - who’d been in STASI during the Cold War and told Lang enough about World War Two to blow my mind completely. Another time he’d fallen in with an anthropologist in New Guinea and had remarkable insights about life, religion, and folk belief in the South Seas.

We’d talk two hours without a lull. Then Lang would figure he’d said what he’d come to say, make his goodbyes, and walk out. Sometimes (till I learned better) I’d ask him what brought him upstate and where he was off to next. I sensed the answer was the truth, but it was hardly ever enlightening and always hard to get. Those details simply bored him. He was never staying anywhere near the place we met. I was welcome to follow him if I wanted a free sleeping-floor, but it would usually make more sense to head home or start for some destination of my own. At a school reunion his sister told me that Lang and his ex-wife had joined the Peace Corps together at a relatively old 30, and that was the last I’d heard of him.

As I entered the town of Sandy Shore, I realized that at every one of our eighties meetings the sunniness had been longer gone. Clearly something Lang had never discussed had affected him. He traveled so much that I suspected he was with the CIA, or on the lam from something. I know he was gambling at one point, and actually wondered if it could be dangerous to be with him except at the times and places prescribed. The free-range Lang remembered everything you would expect about the boy, the college kid, the young journalist and husband I’d known, and sometimes could be charmed into sharing a laugh; but when I compared them all, I conceded that there were two Langs. As I pulled into the lot of the intended inn, I wondered if there would be a third.

The Sandy Shore Hotel was a white Italian Renaissance building that stood out in its small block of duller bricks. Inside, it was typical of our rendezvous. It had a fine red wood bar and might once have been a bank, but sticky floors and tacky decor bespoke a high-school hangout. Leftover Easter-themed beer posters - bunny nests with beer cans and Technicolor eggs - never did it for me. An old-timer had a drink backing up his first. A grey gal down by the TV whispered to the bartender, a tall fellow - white shirt, bow tie, white mustache, sleek hair - who looked and sounded too distinguished to be running an upstate Animal House. I couldn’t figure the place out. Maybe these sorts of pubs in which we were possibly the only college graduates were good for Lang to hide from something he resented. People weren’t going to distract you with too many airs about themselves.

I sat at the brass rail and looked at my watch. 8:28. Actually early. Two minutes. A lovely touch fell on my shoulder, and an angel-voice sang, “Mr. Watson?” I looked. A killer blonde whose nametag read “Danielle.” Danielle. Wow. She made great eye contact. Her eyes were a smoky shade of blue that was almost... purple. She was used to stunning men, I could see that. Her elegant hand extended toward me, pink nails bunched downward as she put something cool in my palm and lingered. “Your room key. Up the stairs and to the right.” Her accent was East coast, educated. I wondered how she’d look wearing nothing but candlelight.

I had the impulse to ask (since I wondered it, too) what she was doing in a place like this, but thank God something kept me from the idiot line. I was so stunned I never acted on my second impulse, which was to stumble, forget my friend’s little game (“Holmes and Watson,” as in “Sherlock,” and “Doctor...”), and start blurting out something like the truth - that my name wasn’t Watson, that I didn’t have a room, that I was waiting for a friend... This was probably good. The scenario had to be something Lang had arranged, and keeping my cool was half the play. She parted with a sultry wink.

Through the open porch the lilacs came on so strong that the room smelled lavender. Someone in a hat in a swivel-rocker gazed out into the second-story green. He spun around and looked at me - Lang, dressed like one of the heavies from Miami Vice: Hawaiian shirt, pastel suit, Hemingway hat. A gold Fu Manchu draped his jaw, and curls clipped his collar. He was tanned and a little heavier than I’d remembered, but it made him look rugged. He gave the air of succeeding at a between-the-lines occupation, and the impression down to the dress of having flown in for the hour from a tropical environment. I suspected that he was selling drugs.

“Lang!” I said, hand out, happy to see him but still foggy. I’d thought I was ready for anything but found myself wondering about his dress and the room under the made-up name. He’d never been a hat-guy. Little objects like fishing lures were pinned to the band of this one, but a closer look showed them to be trinkets, beads, sprigs of vegetation, and carvings like third-world totems. He always had a surprise. Then I saw the bottle and glasses beside him. “Hope they keep the coffee on. This has the look of a rough one.”

His big boned hand took my own. “How’s the bar?”

I looked at him curiously. “A little odd. Country inn-slash-college frat house.”

“Make any new friends?”

“What? No, but I wish. Knockout hostess. Blonde. Knockout.”

“Ah,” he said. “Got a date?”

“Didn’t talk to her,” I smiled. “Just gawked and took the key... Holmes.”

He pointed into the greenery outside the open doors. “Go out that porch, down the fire escape, and take your car back onto the road. Pull around to the left through the second drive and park in the lot right under us. Come back up the fire escape and we’ll talk.”

I did as he said, hoping for an explanation for the espionage. “So how you doing? Where you living? What you up to? How’s Shelly?”

“Sherri,” he said, rummaging in a locker bag, taking a wooden case from it, and opening it under the table beside him. “She’s gone, now,” he said with a steeliness that seemed to put sentiment behind him.

“She was a sweetheart,” I said, hoping to get it over.

“That she was,” he said. “Always the adventurer, too. Always curious. Couldn’t stay put. Finding a life we could share that was adventurous enough for her was an adventure in itself. That was part of the Peace Corps thing. That was part of the... the woman thing. I shouldn’t talk about it, though that’s what got us. She was curious about you, too,” he said, looking up with no trace of accusation. Small and blue, his eyes looked odd against his tan.

I may have stumbled at her name, but I remembered Sherri, a curvy redhead I’d dreamed about once and woke up with a major bone. During one of the separations he’d initiated he’d offered me her phone number, but... Too many complications. He clearly wanted her to be with someone who’d be good to her, who’d be serious. Quite an honor, but misplaced, at least the assessment of my seriousness. I do have a sense of honor, though. I’d always thought of her
and Lang as a couple, and horning in on that would have seemed... sacrilegious. Besides, she’d been a great friend, one that would have been a shame to risk for an affair. I was going to ask him about her when up came the pistol, a beautiful old flintlock whose wood looked new. He set it on the table before him, then brought up other pieces and tools and started the business of loading it, which became a solemn, familiar process like a Japanese tea ceremony or an aging priest’s loving commemoration of the Mass. It was fascinating. I’d never seen those rangy hands at such a task and had no idea such pains were in them, the broad flat pads of whose thumb and index I last recalled noticing in their younger forms, near-three decades back, mauling like putty an indigo Dot, their habit with the rubbery otter-nosed confections were popping them in the chops. My eyes must have glazed over following the image.

He held the pistol up admiringly and addressed it. “We should think about predators.” After my double-take, I did.

“Most people think of predators as monstrous critters who kill their prey with muscle and weaponry. The tiger, the T-Rex - ‘Nature red in tooth and claw,’ and all that. To some extent it’s true. Most predators can whip most prey even-up. But one of the first things you notice when you really study them is that predators are careful on the stalk. Their prey is more numerous, often physically bigger, and sometimes even dangerous. Some prey are predators themselves. A predator that needs to eat once a week won’t last many weeks against prey that have a good chance of inflicting injury, especially one that might make it impossible to hunt. No, predators always attack with an edge - surprise, tactics, disguise, whatever.”

I couldn’t imagine what this had to do with either his ex-wife or a flintlock pistol, but he continued. “You notice another curiosity, though, that can seem quite contradictory. Many predators have a small menu, sometimes even a single species to whose capture and consumption they are tailor-made. They may be so specialized that they can’t catch or eat anything else. Take their prey away and they starve. They may prefer only certain individuals among the prey species, maybe feeding on only small parts and needing to feed often. Whatever. So in many cases you get this odd combination of danger for both species, predator and prey. Even when the situation is dangerous, the predator can have no choice but to pursue. There’s a sense of fate about it that even naturalists have noticed; the predator and the prey seem to recognize each other at the moment of truth. But we’re imagining animals here, jungle predators,” he said. “I’m talking about humans.

“We humans presume we have no predator. Of course all kinds of animals can knock individuals off, but we don’t know any that actually make a living off us, at least for long. But would we know? We’re a social species. You have to compare us to other social species. I think insects are the best. Let’s take ants. They wage war, they form communities.

“A type of beetle lives in the nest of a certain ant and knocks one off when it’s hungry. It doesn’t look like an ant, but the ants don’t know it’s there. Ants are blind. Scent controls their communication. The beetle makes itself smell like an ant. Sometimes the ants even get a ‘help’ signal from its victim and start to attack the beetle, but it gives off more of its own ‘OK’ smell and they back off. It lives right with them and they’ll never get it. It’s one step ahead of them. That one step is proportional to their level.

“Suppose we had a predator living with us, picking us off one by one. Seems preposterous, I know, but would we know it any more than those ants know about the beetle? Think about that: perception. All you have to do is fool the front-line sense.

“We humans think we’re so smart. We are pretty good when we get something into a lab and study it, but we’re limited, too. We’re visual critters, big-time. If something just looked like a human being for hours at a time it could go its way among us. Totally different habits, thought-patterns, even biology. It would need to pick up just a few superficial signals proportional to our level to lull us into accepting it, lure individuals into private situations, and zap. No survivors. The only ones that get it are the ones that get hit, but they never talk. Makes sense. Nature’s faithful to its own rules, when they’re understood, but they can be so hard to understand that they seem contradictory. Sometimes the joke is on us.” He laughed to himself.

“Let’s talk weapons,” he said, nodding after a sip. “A cayman - a mini-crocodile - has an armored body and a big weapon - its teeth. It should be lethal against a snake, which has a long vulnerable body and tiny jaws. But the python gets a surprise shot in, loops a couple of coils, and there’s not much the cayman can do about it. That’s one where string beats scissors. The important thing to remember is that the weapons of the predator hit the chinks in the armor of the prey. No matter what weapons the prey species has, they’re the wrong ones.

“Stay with that. What’s a human’s first impulse when threatened? Grab a blunt object, an edged weapon, a gun; hit, stab, or, recently, shoot. If we had a predator, those tactics would never work, and the true defenses against it would seem crazy to us. Why? How would I know? Ask a cayman why it can’t whip a python. Ask an ant to explain that beetle. Either one of them needs something beyond the logic of its species.” As he said that, he took something from a small felt bag of what looked like pearls, popped it down the barrel of the flintlock, and tamped it with a rod.

“Silver bullets,” I said, beginning to get a picture, wondering if he could be serious. “You called me here for a vampire-hunt?”

He looked up at me quickly, almost merrily. “Can’t tell you why these work, or how anybody figured it out. How did an archer fish learn to make its mouth into a squirt gun and shoot bugs off a branch? They’ve got that one seemingly imaginative gesture, but where did they learn it? Think of the generations that would have starved without breeding before they developed that move. But there we have evolution telling us it can explain everything.”

“My question is less with Darwin than with your plans for that weapon,” I said.

He went on. “You have any idea how tough it is to shoot silver bullets? Unless you know the Lone Ranger... You have to go low-tech, you have to go back to an earlier time when the individual did more of the labor. You have to make your own bullets.”

“You are planning to shoot that,” I said. I hear the old-timers could just about see the musket-bead arc to its target the way Lang and I used to track BB’s through light and shade. Despite the fact that we’d just talked about his evidently ex-wife in connection with a potential tryst between us, I had no suspicion that Lang was about to propose a duel, but the thought of him missing some other target nearby and pumping even slow metal into my soft areas was remarkably creepy near at hand.

“Think of the beetle that lives with the ants,” he continued, as if hitting the high points of a speech. “Do you think the beetle makes sense to the ants? It gives off just enough signals to fool them. It shorts their circuits. There would be ways to return the favor, if the ants only figured it out. But we can short their circuits, too. Just have to know how. Their perception is limited just like ours.”

As he said that, the sight of Lang at one with the Panama made me think of Mad Bear’s “medicine hat,” allegedly doctored to make the Western New York medicine man and activist unrecognizable underneath it. A writer felt different donning it, and this black, broad-brimmed special was widely attributed with getting the famous Tuscarora back and forth into Canada even though the border people were on the lookout. There’s a story about one of them stopping a car, holding up a photograph of Mad Bear, staring right at him under the hat, and waving him through. Could Lang have meant that crazy hat?

Done with the pistol, he set it beside him near the bottle with a contented expression. On a smaller table at the other hand he set a big dirk, a virtual claymore with Celtic motifs on blade and pommel. It, too, may have had some silver in it, and its carvings looked religious and runic. “An old Scot gave me this in New Zealand,” he said, nodding to the semi-sword. “Always best to be prepared. Course you hope this works,” he said, lifting the pistol. “You never want to close with one.”

“One... what?” I said with a suspicious smile, beginning not to believe we were on the same wavelength. “We’re on a werewolf-hunt?”

Even if he believed the answer was Yes, I knew Lang would ignore it. He repacked his tools in the case that held compartments for each of them and placed it in the locker bag. Then he seemed to realize how rude it would be to leave even a flippant question dangling.

“Even there are the signs that we haven’t got them right. The fact that the lore surrounding the vampire and the werewolf... the rakshasa, the chindi, the berbalang... is so cloudily similar is a sign that we’re talking about the same critter, at least in respect to its aversions - salt, garlic, crosses - and its mortality - silver weapons, stakes through the heart. I’m not sure about the daylight. That one loses me, too, though it is interesting to reflect that we humans have that instinctive fear of the dark, as if we were conditioned to know that that’s our predator’s domain. It’s the same critter, interpreted by different cultures.”

“Sort of a Discovery Channel vampire,” I said, amused.

“I hope you’re listening to me, though, because I’m proud of myself for figuring this out. It’s really heady on the cutting edge. So few of us ever encounter new problems.” He cocked the flintlock, mighty cool for someone who believed he was about to use it.

A light tap came at the door. “Mr. Watson?” said a woman’s voice through it. Her tone was bright and expectant.

I looked at Lang. “You stud,” he mouthed. I had about five seconds with that on my way to the door.

It was Danielle. She put her arms on my shoulders, turned her back to the bed as if she wouldn’t mind being pushed to it, and backed into the main room. I’ll always associate her breath with those lilacs. I was about to introduce her to my friend and ask if we could move this to another night when I looked over her shoulder and saw Lang coolly pointing the pistol at us through her back. It seemed like an ugly way to tell her she was interrupting. I waited for her to notice him.

“Topaz, Topaz!” called Lang, and the hammer fell. In the space between the click and the pop she seemed to get a picture she didn’t like, and I didn’t like the look in her slitted eyes, but everything happened so fast. Then she was hit, went stiff with a distinctly unfeminine sound, and fell. I’d jumped as if I’d been shot. Her arms had felt like guard rails.

“That’s for Sherri,” Lang said, as much to the form below him as to me. Something human in outline writhed on the floor at our feet, but with all sorts of changes - colors, patterns, vibrations - almost as if its skin-surface was more electrical than material, like a TV screen or computer-generated images. I thought of a chameleon; of Proteus from Homer’s Odyssey; of the dying beauty in Arthur Machen’s novella “The Great God Pan.” In a minute the form was still and looked like a human that a spider had webbed and drained, like a mummy with frayed wrappings. It began to steam and powder away as if every bit of its water was being released.

Lang talked the whole time. “Another great thing about the flintlock. The ball goes in and sticks, doesn’t hit anything outside the target. A little pop and a whiff of smoke is all that tells anyone there was a shot.

“In a few hours there won’t be anything left but a couple tablespoons of grit. They have their own version of spontaneous human combustion, in this case I think I’d say ‘humanoid.’ Kicks in once the lights go out. I bet that superspeed decay is a survival advantage. If their deaths left any proof they gave away their relatives. Whole clans would have been exterminated. Some regions in the world have tradition about these things, but it’s always mixed in with folklore. It’s a whole new ball game now. Maybe they aren’t even terrestrial in origin and none of this would ever have made sense to us. Always amazes me to watch it, though. Just once I’d like to know what they really look like.”

We studied the morphing form, a human-like sand-sculpture becoming a mound of dirt under invisible rain. If it had bones, they were going as fast as the rest of it. “Did we just commit murder?”

“Murder is killing your own species,” said Lang, “but things will be so much simpler if we avoid questions. They may have heard the shot. They may have heard it fall.”

“What do we do?”

“What you mean we, White man?” he said, recycling the old Tonto joke. “I make sure nobody left anything, like fingerprints. You go out that fire escape now, get into your car, and get out of here. If you go home, don’t go back the way you came. Half an hour out you’ll have nothing to worry about.”

“That’s it?” I said.

He looked at me straight, the hat off. For the first time all night I could see my friend in this stranger, could see the shiny-haired stripling across the net from me the morning we’d met. “It’s best for you not to know anything about me anymore. As far as this goes...” He nodded to the shuddering pile on the floor. “I’m sorry to have to scare you. Think about everything I’ve said tonight and it may be easier. It will take time. But Sherri will be happy it was the two of us. It means so much more that way. I’ll see you both in the next life. I wish you well in this one. Now get out of here. Hojo.”

I heard what might have been some commotion in the inn as I spun down the fire escape, but maybe I imagined it. I hopped in my car and shot south - the wrong way to get where I was headed - then, miles from the hotel and in sight of no moving lights, took a turn right, hopping hilly black country roads steadily west and north. No one who hadn’t seen that first move and known my destination could have trailed me. Scared sleepless, it took me forty minutes too long to get back to the 20A, never daring to stop, turn, or think about asking directions, even had there been the chance. Nothing was open. Thank God the tank was full. I hated stop signs. Every roadside shadow seemed to rush at me.

Relief swept me when the sign named my town fourteen miles away and it seemed certain that I would make it. That three-hour trek through the moonshadowed countryside was beginning to seem the most meaningful journey of my life, a sublime epic to which I owed full adulthood. A new dread came over me, though, and I wondered if something would be waiting, or someday coming. I sat minutes in my shaded driveway before daring to get out. My hands shook on the wheel, and the blood in my forearms seemed cold and white.

I feel like I’m a century old, like I’ve been to the moon and back, like I’ve had enough adventure for a lifetime. I’m almost sick to believe that the world could hold such a horrible, alien thing that might come at us from anywhere, any night of our lives. I’m comforted by the sense that my friend and powers aligned to him exist somewhere, perhaps to intervene. Life can no longer have the blissfulness of certainty, but maybe it can be just.


THE HUNTERS Copyright 2000 Mason Winfield and is published at feoamante.com and Feo Amante's Story Time with the author's permission.

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