September 2018

When I was little, maybe eight or nine yers old, I saw an open padlock with no key in the empty field near our house, the one I had to walk by every day to get to school. I guess it had fallen off a truck or something, and it was pretty similar to the one Dad used to lock the garage, so I knew just how it worked.

It was heavy in my hands, worn but not rusted, and by gingerly testing the spring of its clasp, I could see that it would lock readily. But without a key, there’d be no getting it back open again. Bolt cutters and angle grinders weren’t something I even considered at the time, but even if I had known about them, I’m not sure it would have mattered.

I hid that old lock in my backpack and spent the next couple of days in thought about what to affix it to. Like cutting and grinding, the idea of just throwing it away never even crossed my mind. Locks were made to be locked, and this one would have to be locked around something. That’s just how it was.

The old fence, every empty lock-clasp I’d seen around school or round town…I thought about every one of them as a home for my new lock. But I kept coming back to the lack of a key. In my mind, whatever I locked would be locked forever. Whatever I put the lock on, even if it wasn’t a lock, it would be stuck there forever.

Looking back, I think that lock was my first real idea of permenancy, of consequence, regarding my own actions. Whatever I did with that beat-up old lock would be forever, there’d be no undoing it. Was there anything I wanted to lock with that level of permenancy?

In the end, I experimentally hung it a few places but chickened out each time. Instead, I kept the lock with my knickknacks in my room, waiting for a better occasion to use it. As far as I know, it’s still there, in my parents’ house, in some old box. Still waiting to be locked; still waiting for forever.

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All the neighborhood kids knew to stay away from Bill, who could often be seen wandering the parks and public areas quietly nursing a bottle of cough syrup. All the adults knew that he was taking cough syrup to keep the shakes at bay until his next fix, and as a result all the kids knew as well, adept as they were at listening to whispers and picking up on the unsaid.

Though he rarely mumbled anything but terse greetings, the older and more adventurous knew that he would pay cash from his government disability check for cough syrup with codeine in it, open or not. As a result, it wasn’t unknown for the occasional child in need of pocket money to pinch a bottle from someplace and trade it for ten bucks, which bought an awful lot of summer-rate sweets and arcade time.

Naturally there were plenty of darker rumors about him, but $10 from Buffalo Bill Codeine was still an enticing prospect to some.

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Q: Why didn’t the motorcycle go anywhere?

A: It was two tired.

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“What happened?” I asked Lunkwit. “Did you get surprised from behind and behdeaded again?”

“Yes, boss,” he said, holding his severed head up with one hand by the hair. His speech was thick and phlegmy, an unavoidable byproduct of the necromantic wards that bound his departed soul to his cold husk. “Sorry, boss.”

“The contract is for ten years of servitude, to be raised and knit together as appropriate and as the dark arts allow,” I said, “Are you aware that, for those who do not perform, another option is available?”

“What’s that, boss?” Lunkwit said. “Five years’ servitude?”

“Oblivion,” I said,holding out my hand. With the barest flick of my fingers, I was able to loosen Lunkwit’s soul from its fleshy cage. I could see him visibly shudder in horror, fighting to hang on to it.

“No, boss!” he cried. “Not oblivion!”

“You made the choice to accept the bargain,” I said. “Face the unknown and unknowable void, or serve me for ten years at a time and remain safe on this mortal coil, protected by my sorcery. No place exists for your should to flee to now that its time has gone. If you disappoint me again, you will find it snuffed out like a low candle. Am I understood?”

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One day, I met an orc and asked him why he followed the Dark Lord of Mordor.

“The name Sauron has a nice ring to it,” he said with a shrug.

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“We are isolated here, we are vulnerable. Whatever is driving someone to these terrible crimes, there is nothing to stop them but our own vigilance and a few policemen and guards who have not been paid in weeks.”

“And I think,” said Sokolov, ”that is exactly the crux of the matter. I think that, whoever is doing this, they have chosen their target very carefully.”


“Think about it—the pilot on the way in said that the window for easy access was rapidly closing. In a slightly harsher winter, it would have already done so, preventing me from joining you at all. This would have meant the killer would have been all but unopposed, free to run wild for months. And at the end of the season? The workers would have left. The mines would be hurt badly, perhaps even forced to close.”

“You think that’s what the killer wanted?”

“No,” continued Sokolov. “The killer may be the only honest actor in this farce. He or she simply wanted to commune with the spirits through ritual mutilation. Insanity, to be sure, but an insanity that has been carefully nurtured and protected.”

“By whom?”

“By someone who had a vested interest in seeing this madness played out in the most brutal fashion possible—ruining the mines and plunging the area into economic crisis.”

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Kirov, despite his lofty position in the local government, did not exactly live or work in luxury. His office occupied a corner of the largest and best-preserved Khrushchev-era building on the main square, but it was just as drafty as any other, with a rust-stained radiator in one corner and ceiling tiles stained by leakage.

“Please, have a seat,” he said to Sokolov. Rising out of his chair a bit, Kirov poured tea out of an electric kettle into a waiting cup.

The inspector took the seat, wincing a bit as the decades-old coil springs bit into him. “I’ve never been one for hot tea, Supervisor,” he said. “I hope you won’t be offended if I let it cool to lukewarm.”

“Of course not,” Kirov said. “Drink it ice-cold if you like. Now, as to the matter at hand. The murder.”

“Murders,” said Sokolov. He picked up the teacup, letting its warmth fill his hands as he blew on it gently. “There have been three so far that fit the same pattern. One on the road to the mines, discovered in an electrical substation. One in the power plant, found in a maintenance closet. And of course the one your work crew found when they were de-icing.”

“As I’m sure you know,” Kirov said, “workers, good workers, can be hard to come by, and they tend to be a superstitious lot. Now more so than ever, with hard currency so difficult to come by. Since the new government has taken power, it has been difficult to pay, let alone maintain, workers.”

“My sympathies,” said Sokolov. “My pay has been affected as well.”

“Suffice it to say that the…ritual…manner in which mutilated remains may or may not have been found has given rise to some rather wild speculation.” Kirov opened a drawer of his dark and removed an envelope from it. He placed it in front of Sokolov. “Luckily, the inspector sent in as a specialist has confirmed that this death was the result of a lone disturbed individual who is now in custody.”

“Has he now?” Sokolov said. “That is news to him.” He lifted the edge of the envelope, revealing a stack of currency—-US dollars. “Who have I concluded is to blame?”

“We will find someone in our local prison,” Kirov said dismissively. “One of the usual suspects. It doesn’t matter.”

“Oh, Supervisor,” Sokolov said. “I’m afraid you are mistaken. It matters a great deal to me.”

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Kirov covered his nose and mouth with a fine handkerchief. “You see, Inspector? A crime of unparalleled brutality.”

Sokolov’s stomach was not so easily turned, and he began making notes. “Brutality?” he said. “A curious word, Supervisor Kirov. What makes you say that?”

“Look at him!” Kirov cried. “Those deep wounds, almost like they were caused by an axe, and the other cuts and bruises…”

“Very symmetrical, aren’t they?” Sokolov said, nonchalantly. “See how the blows on one side are mirrored by those on the other? Curious about the bruises, as well. You don’t normally see them forming patterns like these, sharp-edged patterns.”

“I’m afraid I don’t take your point, Inspector.”

“This is far too calculated to have been a crime or brutal passion, Supervisor,” the inspector said. “These wounds were carefully inflicted immediately pre- or post-mortem, before the body was moved to the place you found it.”

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“Hang on!” the pilot cried. “Winds are always really bad on approach!” Even with the headphones on, Sokolov could barely hear him over the roar of the prop.

The AN-2 shuddered, groaned, and banked. Sokolov had a brief view out his window of industrial smokestacks, roads, and snow that faded from white to dull brown and red like the edge of a gangrenous wound.

“Is it always this bumpy?” Sokolov shouted.

“Bumpy? Ha! This is the calm season, my friend!” The pilot replied. “In a week, maybe two, the wind off the taiga will be so strong we won’t be able to get any flights in at all!”

“What happens when there’s a crime? Or some other reason to bring someone in?” Sokolov cried.

“They don’t come in! If things are that bad, there’s no shortage of freezers for preservation!”

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Rykovsk, the sparkling heavy metallic queen on the taiga. Reachable only by plane or by barge, and then only during the brief but intense Sakha Republic summer, it nevertheless was lavishly supplied with expensive diesel and even nuclear fuel to support a nearly 100,000-person population. The area’s mines, including the gigantic Kirov complex not far from the city, had been essential to Soviet heavy industry. Even now they provided important hard-currency exports, and there was a waiting list to apply for clearance to work there despite the risks.

People were dying there.

That much was nothing new; Rykovsk was one of the most polluted cities in the country. The Soviets had cared little about the environment, and the robber barons that followed them gave even less of a toss.

The murders, though? Those were bad for business.

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