March 2017


The liveryman’s gentle prodding brought Inspector Bryar out of his daydream. “Oh, excuse me,” he said, drawing up the hood of his white linen Sepulcher robe.

“I apologize if the village children offend your worship,” the liveryman said–Dex was his name, from Pexate originally by the accent. He gestured at the crowd, the eldest no older than five, who were roughhousing near the stables.

“Oh, no offense taken,” said Bryar. “They remind me of my nephew, actually. I had to take responsibility for him after my sister died.”

One of the village children noticed the strange man in his strange clean robes–far different, far cleaner than the local priest–and stared.

“That boy has the most striking blue eyes,” said Bryar. “Not unlike my nephew’s, actually.”

“Well then,” said Dex with an uneasy laugh. “You must be used to children staring at the great and powerful envoy of the Creator himself.”

“Not really, no,” said Bryar. “My nephew is blind. Shall we go now? I hope to make the cloister before nightfall.”

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The Imperial Guard had impressive armor, which they buffed to a fine shine. Ceremony aside, they shouldn’t have been wearing it in this day and age–it clanked and was useless for protection from bullets. Even my short little 9mm wheelgun could punch through it, and I’d be able to pump all six rounds into a Guardsman before he could even draw his sword.

I think they wore the ridiculous stuff because it looked impressive, and because it awed the little child in all of us who remembered seeing them in parades for the old Emperor, the one we actually respected, rather than his idiot son.

“Punctuality is a virtue lost on the common, it seems,” he said.

I took out my pocketwatch and flashed it. “Says I’m early,” I said. “Do me a favor and don’t try to intimidate me. I’ll extend you the same courtesy and we can get down to business without wasting any more time.”

The Guardsman nodded curtly. “Very well,” he said. “Do you have it?”

I produced the long, thin package, wrapped in brown paper, that I’d been hiding beneath my trenchcoat. “As promised,” I said.

Reaching into a deep crevasse in his gilded plates, the Guardsman produced a burlap sack and tossed it on the table. Gold crowns poured from it, bearing mostly the face of the old Emperor. “The agreed-upon price,” he said.

I set the package down. “Then let’s go our seperate ways,” I said. “I never saw this. You were never here. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” said the Guardsman. He took up the package and tore it open. “As promised. There is one additional matter that I am authorized to speak to you about.”

“Oh?” I said. “I’ll listen, though I’ve never seen or had any dealings with you before, stranger.”

The Guardsman might have smirked at that, or it could have been a trick of the light. “The person who acquired this photograph,” he said. “The person who took it. They must be found, and they must be eliminated.”

“I don’t do that sort of thing,” I said.

“Nor do we. But find them, see that they are found by us, and no one will do anything of that sort. The guilty will be eliminated, the Emperor protected, and your reward…tripled.”

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They call it “Thumper.”

You normally can’t hear it, at least not consciously. But when it’s acting up, usually in early spring or late summer, you can feel it. In your teeth, in your bones, and if you’re down at Pleasantwater lake, in the waves and ripples.

Once you hear it, once you start to notice it, you realize that everything in town matches itself to that profound bass thump when it’s at its strongest. Your heartbeat. Your breathing. Everything is synchronized in a way that feels wrong at the basement of your being.

A local guy, Jim Hatcher was his name I think, just like the famous author, used to do an AM radio broadcast about whatever was rattling in his brain. He’d go on and on about “Thumper” and his investigations into it. Kids loved listening to him because he always went wildly between “kindly folksy grandfather” and “raving lunatic” as the mood struck him.

Hatcher used to say that “Thumper” was coming from beneath Pleasantwater Lake, which I guess makes as much sense as anything. He said that there was a “stellar machine” beneath the waters, leftover from a civilization long since perished, slowly exposed by erosion. This “stellar machine” sent out “force signals” as it stirred from its slumber. Hatcher always said that he was researching what the machine was and what its signals did, but he was always coy with specifics.

When he died in his little house on the lake and they didn’t find him for two weeks…that didn’t exactly help things.

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Kidney and Spleen Pie – Chicken spleens have never been cheaper, and this perennial favorite from meat-rationing days is as popular as ever with British boomers.

Lady Jane Grey Sponge Cake – Lady Jane reigned for just 9 days and lends her name to this Victorian favorite which must be ovened for exactly 9 minutes; any less or more and it winds up goo or crisp.

Indigestion Scones – Hard vaguely sweet pastries designed to stuff up the colon to prevent death from dysentery, these are now prized after-school snacks dispensed by mothers who’d rather not clean up after their children.

Baggis Pie – Dressed up in a neat suit of pie crust, haggis finds itself respectable again. You may be smelly, haggis, but you’ll soon be in my belly.

Fish ‘n’ Squid – The classic combo in all its seafood glory. Remember to ask for an all-tentacle basket!

Frog in the Bog – A ranid treat, originally a French import but now thoroughly British. Some prefer their frogs whole, though frog sausage is more popular these days.

Horrormite – Don’t ask.

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Lupine Laboratories
Makers of fine cosmetics and genetically engineered coney, Lupine Labs has put its shady past behind it and is a major player in the local biotech sector. Rumors of a gargantuan were-rabbit in the basement are ridiculous, as the facility HAS no basement.

Stanley’s Cup
Stanley Grabowski is a legend for coaching the Livid Llamas to the 1976 state championship, but a tragic jockstrap accident put his coaching career on ice. Since then, he’s run Stanley’s Cup as a preeminent watering hole for people who like to grab life by the balls.

Watson Miscellany
One man’s trash may be another man’s treasure, but it is definitely this man’s treasure. Part thrift store, part junk mart, Watson Miscellany is a picker’s paradise packed with items scrounged from local dumpsters, the internet, and of course, Goodwill.

Carnegie Library
Unlike may of his eponymous libraries worldwide, this structure was not only financed by the late steel magnate but actually constructed in person. Andrew Carnegie himself supervised the construction and personally installed the bathroom tile and fixtures. When asked why he had made time for this, Carnegie simply said that he needed the exercise and liked the name of the town. A display of how-to and do-it-yourself manuals used by the billionaire are on permanent reserve for local patrons.

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He declined the Nobel Prize in 1951. Pulpy adaptations of his Pulitzer-winning plays littered the Hollywood landscape during the golden age of the silver screen. James Hatcher managed to carve himself a towering place in southern drama during his fifty-three years on the planet, and the devotion that he enjoyed during his lifetime translated into a reliable tourist industry for his home town.

And that’s why people kept on trying to drink from his birdbath.

“This is the birdbath that many people think was the inspiration for Howard’s speech in All Is Mended,” said Madison. She was wearing the James Hatcher tee that they’d forced her to buy, as if people needed any reminder that the person with the nametag at Hatcher House was an official tour guide.

One of the tourists, a man of indeterminate age in a vaguely hipster getups, raised his hand.

“Yes, a question?” said Madison.

“Can we drink from the birdbath?” he said.

Madison sighed. “You’ll note the fence, and the sign saying PLEASE DO NOT DRINK FROM THE BIRDBATH,” she said.

“‘…but the melodious waters pour forth as into a birdbath, liquid made song, song made liquid, to be seen by all of us but tasted only by the best,'” the man said, quoting Howard in Act V of All Is Mended.

Madison had never heard that one before, oddly enough. She’d never heard the line from Hatcher’s most famous play, never seen him quote it at his Pulitzer acceptance speech, and never saw those words on Robert Mitchum’s lips in the 1961 movie.

“That speech is generally regarded as a metaphor,” Madison said with a forced smile. Minimum wage and bragging rights in the creative writing program were not worth the number of times she’d had to say that.

“Birnam Wood was a metaphor,” the generic hipster said. “People still go there to cut branches.”

“Do they also storm the castle and kill Macbeth?” said Madison.

“If they want to. Can I drink from it?”

“People who drink from that bath have gotten sick with everything from salmonella to the cold of the last guy who dunked his face in,” Madison said. “Hatcher House can’t be held liable for that, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying to sue us for their own idiocy.”

The generic hipster douche was unmoved. “I promise not to sue.”

Madison brandished her walkie-talkie. “If you do, I’ll call Gus at the gatehouse to escort you out.”

This seemed to mollify the tourist, who hung his head and muttered something sullen about free speech.

Madison moved the small group on to the next part of the tour was the quarter-mile nature trail, which Hatcher had cut himself to use as inspiration. It was probably responsible, along with his horrid diet, for the day in 1965 when his wife had found him face-down and cold trailside.

An older woman who looked to be wearing her gardening clothes approached Madison as they walked. “Why are people so adamant about drinking from that birdbath?” she said. “Can’t anyone tell fantasy from reality anymore?”

“No, not really,” Madison said. A moment later, realizing her answer sounded a bit flippant, she added: “I think a lot of people see this place as being some mystical fountain that gave Jim Hatcher all his gifts and notoriety. They think that he must have sipped from his own birdbath before he wrote the play that made him millions and got him a Nobel Prize to turn up his nose at.”

“So they think being here and sipping on that, if you’ll pardon my French, shitty birdwater, will help make them successful?”

“Probably they do, somewhere deep,” Madison said with a laugh. “It’s a lot easier to tell yourself that Jim Hatcher got his gifts from a magic house with a magic birdbath than by writing everyday, living in poverty, and treating his wife like, if you’ll pardon my French, utter shit.”

“I guess I can see that,” said the lady. “Everyone wants to be rich and famous but nobody wants to put in the work.”

Upon reaching the midpoint of the trail, Madison turned around and did a headcount before doing her spiel on the place where James Hatcher’s body was found.

They were one short.

“Goddammit.” Madison took up her radio. “Gus?” she said. “We’ve got another drinker. Call the cops and get a mug shot for the wall of shame, will you?”

“Okay,” said Gus, ever-said and unfazed. “Want me to see that he gets toughed up a bit?”

“No,” said Madison, “We’ll let the ipecac I put in there this morning do it for us.”

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And then, the bonnie lass cocked her ear and heard a sound more frightening than a banshee’s wail. She didnae ken where it came from, and ah dinnae quite know meself, but ’twas clear what she heard.

The electric keen o’ the legendary Cyper-Sparrow of Glengarrie Cove! Hewn by a madman, kept alive by scroungin’ electronics! The bonnie lass knew ’twas only a matter ‘o time before the wee beastie was upon her!

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Pitchfork to Plate
Misshapen corn, lightly oozing tomatoes, homemade buttercream, and preserves with the lightest hint of skin-toning botulism. These and more can be yours for a slight premium at the county’s largest farmer’s market! Show frankenfood to the flaming windmill with Pitchfork to Plate!

Bea’s Bee B&B
Bea Cummings is a local apiary enthusiast who rents out this spacious cottage to weekenders in search of a little honey and a place to lay their comb.

The Dungeonmaster’s Rocket
First issues, special issues, and mommy issues are all on display here amid the county’s best collection of collectables. Everything is for sale for the right price, from Llamaman #1 to the rare miscolored “Pink Vader” lunchbox.

Let Them Eat Crepes
Behold, a Bourbon boutique bakery bistro, booming because bread baked best brings broad business!

Disco Tech
The funkiest get-down spot in town. Established 1977, Disco Tech has been giving night classes to people in need of a rhythm infusion for years. Platform shoes available for rental on request.

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Those who accepted the challenge and strode through the gate did, as promised, escape the misery and decay of the old world.

But that’s not to say that the speaking stones’ offer was a perfect one, or without their own inscrutible motives.

A traveler would awaken in a dark place, gloomy and often damp, but lit with bioluminescence that barely illuminated a ceiling perhaps a hundred yards above. Armed only with what they had carried through the gate, they would find themselves in a twisting maze of ancient stone and wood–one too natural to be manmade but too complex to be natural. A winding stair, visible in the distance but only in the same way that a mountain is, led up through the soaring night and through the cool stone roof of the world.

And above? Another level, much the same yet subtly different, with its own stair. And beyond it the same, and the same, and the same.

But the curious thing was that the stair never seemed to be in the same place. And the curiouser thing was that the levels above never seemed to be the same, either. Maps were useless. Only the level of awakening never seemed to change, and even that was vast enough that some considered it infinite.

Many travelers chose to stay on that first level, in that first maze, to carve out a life in the chinks of stone and wood. Crops would grow, after a fashion, and edible mushrooms could be had. But it was a mean existence, and the lure of valuables above–an answer above–constantly drove people upwards.

The most well-equipped expedition had made it to the twenty-first maze above. Only a single man, more a skeleton than anything, had returned. As far as is known, no one who took the speaking stones at their word and crossed over the threshhold gate ever saw the sun again.

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238 – Gordian I and his son Gordian II are proclaimed Roman Emperors. They might just be the most laughable emperors in history as they were killed 20 days later without even getting so far as Rome.

1599 – Anthony Van Dyke is born. He becomes famous as the painter who made Charles I look sort of okay and the inventor of the Supervillain Beard.

1765 – Parliament passes the Stamp Act, requiring the Thirteen Colonies to pay taxes for more or less the first time ever. This leads to the American Revolution for some reason.

1797 – Future German Emperor Wilhelm I is born. His legendary muttonchops-and-handlebar whiskers seal March 22’s reputation for melodramatic facial hair.

1894 – The first Stanley Cup. Then, as now, nobody cares outside of Ontario, and the Upper Midwest.

1916 – Yuan Shikai, the last Emperor of China, abdicates. As he was a pitiful excuse for an emperor–a general who had seized imperial power and held it for only 83 days, we can see that March 22 is a good day for bad emperors.

1930 – Stephen Sondheim, composer of musicals your roommate loved in college, is born.

1931 – William Shatner boldly goes into the world.

1948 – Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of musicals your girlfriend loved in college, is born. Stephen Sondheim has made a mortal enemy, but this will not become clear until The Singening in 2021.

1960 – The laser is patented. Pew pew.

1990 – Gunnery engineer Gerald Bull is assassinated. At the time, he was building Project Babylon, a supergun that would have allowed Saddam Hussein to shoot things into space. The two are definitely not related.

2001 – William Hanna, famous American animator and cofounder of Hanna-Barbera, goes off-model.

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