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Shousetsu Bang*Bang

Issue 69: Bad Moon Rising



Edited by Shousetsu Bang*Bang

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Shousetsu Bang*Bang



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Shousetsu Bang*Bang issue 69 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS



This City Loves You, written and illustrated by Iron Eater

Mirrored, by Tamari Erin (玉里えりん)

Run For Your Life, by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)

In the Name of Love, by A.S. Mara; illustrated by beili

Hunted House, by Yuriko Toru (百合子 亨)

A Voice Once Swallowed, by Okō (織工)

Man Seeking, by shukyou (主教); illustrated by cloven





Front cover by cerine

Edited and published by the Shousetsu Bang*Bang editorial staff







This City Loves You

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

William and Rabbit had been in what they politely called the renovation business for years when William sussed out that Rabbit was very probably cheating on him. Sleeping around wasn’t a big deal—they’d never set out to be exclusive, and the fact they were an item at all had happened more because they couldn’t find a reason not to be one than as any grand emotional gesture—but this wasn’t like how Rabbit sometimes trawled for new “friends” when William was busy with less cooperative work. This was a matter of business. That made it personal.

They’d found a nice old place ripe for some flipping and were busy with the measurements-and-logistics part of the trade when William had first become suspicious. He’d been going through Rabbit’s stack of schematics when he found a blueprint among them that didn’t match any of the properties they’d surveyed, and that might have been fine on its own since Rabbit was always getting into public records to see what hidden gems he could haul out of the garbage. The problem was how there was writing all over it, some in Rabbit’s hand and some in somebody else’s, and the comments were clearly referencing one another. It was a real whopper of a job and William hadn’t heard word one about it for what looked like weeks of secrecy. They sometimes didn’t tell each other things, granted, but there was a world of difference between that and whatever this was.

He wasn’t quite sure how to bring it up. In a trade like theirs you had to have standards, but you also had to remember that what you did for a living was unseemly any way you sliced it, so there wasn’t exactly any moral ground for him to stand on. Decency was a hard card to play when one earned their bread and butter through others’ misfortune, especially when they sometimes helped things along. The people who wanted the quaint little houses with the ultra-modern interior updates didn’t care how you got them their new place so long as you didn’t show your ass about it. He and Rabbit were professionals because they knew all about how to be prompt, polite, and above all discreet. Discretion had always been one of Rabbit’s strong suits, which was probably one of the big reasons it was knitting William’s guts into a kettle cozy thinking about things.

Logically, it shouldn’t really have meant anything, since he and Rabbit had an understanding between themselves: they worked better as a team than as rivals, and whatever it was they got up to on their own didn’t mean a tinker’s damn so long as it didn’t interfere with said teamwork. He could describe Rabbit in a lot of ways (“unsavory” was one, as was “vindictive”) but William had never considered him untrustworthy. You had to trust your fellow renovator if you wanted to keep a partnership afloat. Then again, William had told Rabbit about the River Mills rebuild first thing, even though he could have very easily kept it to himself and pocketed a nice chunk of change without anyone being the wiser, and here Rabbit was spending who knew how many nights and weekends on a grand old house that looked eager to bankrupt them both if things went sour on it, and had William not rummaged through things at the right time he never would have suspected a thing. He hated to admit to himself that his feelings were hurt.

A few hours’ work in the newest location had yet to do anything for his mood, so William waited until they were both doing something nice and calm—in this case, measuring some door frames—before getting anywhere near the conversation they needed to have. He polished his glasses on the tail of his flannel shirt while choosing his words with all the care and strategy of a man drafting an armistice treaty.

“Found some interesting papers in the stack,” he said, eventually.

“Oh aye?” said Rabbit. He’d never so much as vacationed in Scotland but his parents were both born and raised there, and their brogue trickled into his speech in the mildest of ways. William usually found it charming. Today it just made his sour mood curdle even further.

“Yeah. Bunch of collaboration work you’ve been doing that I know fuck-all about. You thinking of finding a different reno partner, then?”

Rabbit scoffed and continued comparing the reported dimensions of a door to what they actually were. “Nah. You could say that’s sort of an experiment I’m trying. If it works, I figure I can bring you on board at the last moment, and we’ll see where things go from there.” He licked the tip of his pencil and jotted down some figures in his notebook. “I’d have brought it up sooner but the circumstances are weird ones.”

William glanced around at the room they were surveying and quirked his mouth. “Moreso than these, even,” said Rabbit before he could reply.

“Well I’ve up and looked at my Christmas presents already,” said William, his voice coming out a little sharper than he meant, “so you might as well give me some details. It’d be a shame to ruin a good partnership over a misunderstanding.” He made sure to make little marks in his notes on everything he wrote down while pissed off so that he could go back later and double-check them; William never trusted anything he recorded while he was angry. Measure twice, cut once, that’s what his ma had always said, and when the cutting you were doing was knocking out interior walls to make an open floorplan there was no room for error no matter how nasty his mood got. You had to ride your own ass like a racehorse jockey if you wanted to get anything done in the business.

“You went and touched them already, did you? That puts us in a bit of a time crunch.”

Ah, so that was it. If Rabbit was dealing with things that cared when you looked at them or got your hands on them, they weren’t ordinary blueprints at all. William found himself immediately much less cross and a lot more concerned. It wasn’t that Rabbit was unskilled in the business they both shared, far from it, but there were certain things Rabbit did well and there were certain things that William did well, and this was shaping up to be more like the latter than the former. William tucked his pen into his breast pocket, put down his clipboard, and ran his hand over the top of his head with a frustrated sigh. “Best you get me up to speed sooner than later, huh?”

Rabbit nodded and put his tools on a coffee table they’d yet to clear out from the property. “Let’s take us a break and I’ll start from the beginning.”

I was wandering through Greenbriar (said Rabbit as they say across from each other in the living room, each of them nursing a mug of tea, the stopped clock on the wall measuring their conversation as one eternally long eleven-fifteen) and you know how that place is now, all vacant lots and closed shopfronts and rotten pumpkin housing that’s just dying for a loving touch, because I was thinking that the next big trend is going to sweep through any minute and my dollar’s on it settling in Greenbriar. So, you know, I was taking a nice little walk to see if anywhere was selling so we can get our foot in that door before it even thinks of closing. I looked around, and sometimes I looked around, and there were a few little places, but those were all crumbs compared to this big layer cake I stumbled across near on accident.

Now, I know you’re not keen on big houses, since it’s hard to get them to sell well to the sorts of clients we get, I get that, I get that, but this one was special. It was like…everything a project could be. It could be our big step into everywhere else in the area, like if we fix this one thing up everything else falls into place like flicking a line of dominoes, aye? I can’t even tell you why I thought that way, I just felt it like a bolt of lightning to the spine. Like I bet that’s how flies feel when they get that fateful whiff of pitcher plant and go yum yum yum, I’ll fly myself right in there. Not that I thought this at the time.

So I go up to investigate this big fuckoff house. First thing I’ll tell you is that it’s a wonder the place wasn’t vandalized to shit by then, because it’s the kind of place you know kids in the neighborhood say is just exquisitely haunted, and that means that it’s the kind of place you’d expect older kids to sneak off to so they can drink and fuck and maybe push a planchette around a Ouija board a bit. I see this house and that’s what I expect, but once I’m past the fencing I see there’s no trash thrown around the overgrown yard, there’s no graffiti on the walls. It’s still a big wreck of a thing but it’s not dirty the way places get dirty when there’s people in them, aye? So I get very careful because that can mean a lot of things.

I go all through the yard, doing my best official-inspector look since you know I always have my clipboard with, and I’m just about to start checking windows when the back door opens up nice and friendly, and I know that door had been locked not a few skinny seconds ago. I look up and who do I see but one of Them just standing there looking at me. Honest to God I wouldn’t make this up. I know it’s one of Them even though I’ve never seen one before, it’s just the way you said it’d be, and that means I know to mind my fucking manners because holy shit I am not intending to become the sad sort of story for anybody.

So I say how do you do and They say I’m doing well, Rabbit and I say this your place and They say yes and I say I’m in the renovations business, would you be interested in getting some work done and They say come inside and we can talk and I say I can do that because even I know you do not turn your back on one of Them ever, especially if you’re being invited.

Inside the place it looks a lot like I thought, real dusty and abandoned but in this weirdly clean way. Like a movie set. There’s a radio in the kitchen that turns on when we pass it and gets a station I know they don’t have in this town. They motion for me to sit at the kitchen table so I do.

We talk some, and it’s as weird as you’d think, but I tell Them about the plans I was cooking up for Greenbriar and then I go over my resume some and I ask if I can see the blueprints to the house so I can draw up some examples. They always have those on hand, aye? And they did, and now you’ve seen ’em too. So look them over and I talk about how once we get this central bit fixed up we can move on to some of the outside buildings and then They’ll have a nice little framework laid for Their end of things. I talk up the combined skills of Knox Property a bunch but I get the feeling They only want to work with one outside contractor at a time. That’s the only reason I didn’t bring it up sooner, aye? I couldn’t get your scent on things too soon, it’d risk scaring Them off.

(“So you’re saying this is Their writing?” asked William. He tapped the scribbles next to Rabbit’s tidy block print. He’d never seen one of Them write in half-cursive before)

I’m getting there, I’m getting there, like I said before this is all from the beginning, aye?

So we write some things up, and They tell me there’s someone I ought to meet, and if They say so then I’m not about to argue, so I hear the ceiling creaking as someone else walks around upstairs and then down the stairs and then there’s this new fella in the kitchen I’ve never seen before. I’m told this is Mr. Fox and he’ll be working with me on the project and he makes some bullshit crack about how foxes and rabbits get along so well in nature and believe me, mate, you know I felt the weight of that knife in my boot so hard for a bit. But this is Their place and I’m going to do things by the book for now so I fake a laugh and we sit down with Them and we work on the notes more. I can tell when working with this guy that he’s a renovator but knows sweet fuck-all about actual renovations. Give him a stud finder and he’d just point it at himself and make a little joke about oho, listen to this, it’s working, that sort of thing. I swear half the time he was total fucking ballast.

It gets dark soon and I say I need to be getting back, and that’s God’s honest truth ’cause I don’t have any friendly couches to sleep on in that part of town until at least Morning Glory, and They request that I come back tomorrow to work more with Fox. I know better than to say anything about that.

This was when you were busy handling the thing with the backsplash tiles in the Westcreek place, so I had time to be out there, so I’d go out there. Sometimes we’d work with Them, sometimes it’d just be me and Fox. Either way we’d make plans, aye? I hated Fox but he was clearly in tight with Them so I kept it to myself even when I wanted to strangle his pencil neck for not knowing baby-blocks shit like how to make a hallway the wrong length and then convince it that’s the right one. I got the feeling They wanted to see what I’d do if I was stuck on a project with a pet of Theirs and having to make nicey-nice for a long period of time. Like, did you ever catch beetles as a kid and put two in a jar to see if they’d fight? From what I’ve seen and what you’ve told me I don’t see any reason Their lot wouldn’t look at us the same way.

Once we started getting more work again, we being you and me, I went over to Them real early with a nice box stuffed full of the nicest takeout I could get and I told Them that I’d have to show up less often. I promised up and down I’d keep things to myself but still show up nice and regular, and that was good enough for Them. That’s where I’ve been going in the evenings instead of the Blackbird. We’ve gotten to the point where I’ve gotten all the utility lines checked out and good to go, so the only thing left is to dot every I and cross every T before demo work can start. That’s why I had those plans out where you could get at them. Not so you’d find ’em, not like that, that’s grade school Nancy Drew shit and you know I’m straightforward with you. I did it so I could just get things ready for the important part. It’s almost time.

(“You think there’s going to be any trouble with Them now that I’ve got my stink on things?”)

Nah, nah, see, I was a smart boy and got a proper contract done up with Them before I said word one to you about it, and I could see it in Their eyes that this was the right thing to do. It says there’s room enough for two consultants on the project, but it doesn’t say they have to be me and Fox. You know what I mean?

(“We risk ending up owned men if we go that way.”)

Well, shit, Will, where’s your spirit of adventure?

William swallowed the last of his second mug of tea. “I think it’s a bad idea,” he said as he studied the omens writ large in the leaves stuck to the bottom of the cup. This sort of thing was why he usually used teabags.

“Oh, I know it is,” said Rabbit. He’d been varying degrees of twitchy throughout his story—he’d come by his nickname honestly—but seemed calm in the grand scheme of things. “It’s a very bad idea, but we’ve very bad men, aye? You can’t get far in the business without proper drive and mindset.” Neither of them bothered to cast a glance over at the bag of heavy pipes and dried henbane, or at the little messes they’d yet to clean up, or at the most recent adjustments they’d made to the current house, because there came a point in any skilled profession you stopped thinking about the paint and more about the finished canvas. Wallpaper simply did not hang itself.

“So, this…Fox, right?” asked William. Rabbit nodded. “Tell me about him. What kind of problem are we dealing with?”

“Medium-sized white guy, blond hair, brown eyes, little bit of stubble you can tell he cuts down just right. Bigger than me, smaller than you. He swaggers. Fuck me running, Will, he’s like a cartoon or something.” Rabbit idly picked at the fuzz pilling at the cuff of his shirt sleeve. “I fooled around with him once to see if he’d be worth my time and the whole way through he kept talking about how ‘naughty’ we were being by fucking in Their house. Christ alive but I hate people who use that word, I’m a fella giving you a blowjob, not a cat that knocked over a plant. He wasn’t good enough to overcome his shitty personality so I started making plans right around then to get rid of him. I mean we still did a little fucking now and again, but I think that’s reasonable enough for a fella who’s taking an unplanned hiatus from his Blackbird buddies. Just thinking about his big stupid face makes me want to go kick a wall.”

It was hard for William to keep from cracking a smile. “You’d murder a man because he was annoying while you sucked him off?”

“If it’s Mr. I’m-too-cool-for-this-but-I’m-also-pretty-desperately-thirsty-and-hope-you-don’t-notice then aye, I’d figure out how to do it twice if you let me.”

“I suppose that’s fair enough.”

“Just meet the man once, Will. You’ll understand.”

The problem with Fox, aside from him existing, was that he didn’t leave Their house. He was a living, breathing man, Rabbit assured William, which meant it’d be possible to stab those personality problems away, but if you were dealing with Them you had to go by Their rules, and by Rabbit’s reckoning the Greenbriar location had been one of Theirs for a pretty long while. Their kind technically owned everything that had been built, and ultimately abandoned, by human hands, but there was a difference between your average under-maintained building and someplace They actively used as a nest. It was why William and Rabbit were always very careful with the measurements: you had to be absolutely sure you didn’t miss one of Their tell-tale fingerprints and end up ripping a hole in everything.

Getting Fox out of the house wasn’t an option because it might not have even been possible, given how Rabbit had never seen him outside beyond the borders of the porch. Rabbit had first noticed this when Fox refused to go outside and talk to the men from the power company about where the gas lines were buried in the event they needed to break ground for renovations: Fox had tried to play it off as coolly as always, but there’d been something in his eyes that yearned for freedom. It was another thing Rabbit kept bringing up about him. Why agree to be a pet if you couldn’t stand the press of the cage?

Of course, if Fox was going to stay inside, that meant working by the ever-protean rules of the place, and there was no way to prepare for whatever those would be save for having the right equipment and an open mind. William had only done this sort of thing once before and it had very nearly gone badly for him at the last minute. The event had taught him some very important lessons about when it was acceptable to rely on others for help. It also gave him much more personal experience than Rabbit had which was why he was going to lead things. William was good at leading. It would be a shame to lose working time on Knox Property Solutions’ current project, really, but ever since his eyes scanned the blueprints with Fox’s handwriting on them the sands in the metaphorical hourglass had started hissing down to nothing. They usually budgeted extra time in their renovations just in case unexpected circumstances like these cropped up.

William did his best to ignore any future portents that tried to get his attention.

Just after sundown a van painted with the Knox logo and contact information pulled up outside a certain abandoned house in Greenbriar, and because William traced his fingers along the X in the company name just so, nobody noticed its presence, nor would they. William was the public face of Knox because he’d always had a knack for figuring out little ways to make people notice things he wanted them to and forget things they didn’t need to know. If he worked at it he could make lots of people forget things. It was why he and Rabbit could spin a yarn about a house’s owners wanting to move out west to retire, or about how they’d acquire the property in an estate sale, or about how the previous owners just didn’t feel the place was right for them and went to live with family, and nobody ever asked questions.



They walked through the front gate and shut it behind them. William closed his eyes and thought about the house, felt the pull of its being and the teeth in its basement. There was an inescapable feeling of doom pressing in around him, but if it was his or someone else’s he couldn’t say. The house stirred as he studied it and he nodded to himself; he’d been expecting this based on what Rabbit had told him. If he went in like this it’d eat him alive. He eased Rabbit behind some bushes and against the ivy growing wild along the fence.

“I need some sympathetics with this place,” he said to Rabbit, his voice quiet and even. He gestured to his crotch. “Are you good for it?”

“Saving up for something?” Rabbit replied. To Rabbit’s credit he was already rubbing his hands together to warm them up.

“I’m going to need all the blood I have if things turn nasty, spit would take too long, and I’m not going to piss on something if the goal is to make it recognize me as friendly. Semen’s the best thing we’ve got for this.”

Rabbit laughed through his nose. “Sure you just didn’t want me to jerk you off one last time before we die horribly, aye?”

“You know as well as I do it’ll be important for later.”

“So you tell me. Get your zip, then, I’ll get this done quick so we can get to the next part.”

Even with William saying saliva wouldn’t help much, he didn’t object to Rabbit kissing him open-mouthed, and Rabbit’s fingers could be very quick if they needed them to be. A leather-soft hand with an immaculate manicure worked William’s shaft as Rabbit ground up against the side of William’s thigh. This was how they’d ended up closer in the first place: Ritual deeds had ritual needs, and while by the time they sussed out one another’s true natures they’d already been fucking because they liked it and they liked each other. It was so much easier collecting potent human juices for things when you enjoyed the company of the person collecting them. William would probably never tire of this old, classic approach even with so much more experience under his belt. He came quickly, his breath hissing through his nostrils even as Rabbit kept kissing back, and Rabbit made sure as much of the stuff got on the ground and fencing as possible.

Having handled William, Rabbit then used his own still-slick hand to finish himself off. He drew the proper sigil in their mixed jism and sat back on his heels, not yet bothering to tuck his cock back in his pants. “Did it take?” he asked.

William leaned against the trunk of a nearby tree and reached out to feel the house again. It was wary, he could tell, but now it knew his scent, and the hunger soaked into its timbers no longer lunged at him. Faces, frightened and crying, flashed across his vision as the leaves overhead caught a passing breeze, lamenting some terrible fate before dissolving back into nothing more than fence and shadow. “About as well as it’s ever going to,” said William.

Rabbit nodded. “If things ever get bad, remember I’ve got my knife on me,” he said, and patted his boot. William quietly hoped it wouldn’t come to that. It was hard not to think about that sort of thing when he’d been dealing with an unrelenting tide of portents and pareidolia since Rabbit had first sat him down to talk earlier that day.

They cleaned themselves up and circled around to the back patio door where Rabbit had first been welcomed inside. It was open.

The kitchen was dark but they could still see inside, the light coming from everywhere and nowhere like sun on a stormy day, and once Rabbit and William crossed the threshold they both took seats at the dustless kitchen table. There was a little plate of shortbread cookies laid out on it, and they each had one as a show of good faith. Proper procedure was to wait to see if anyone was going to greet them in person. Muffled creaks and thumping upstairs became footsteps heading downstairs, and then the footsteps drew nearer, and then Fox was there in the kitchen with them, alone and smug-faced as ever. There was no sign of anyone else save for the house’s own muffled heartbeat rolling and booming in the places most people couldn’t hear.

While Rabbit had described Fox pretty clearly, it was one thing to know a man had a face that begged punching and another to see it in the flesh. William’s forehead creased like a washboard. He’d met other professionals in his own line of work before, most of which weren’t Rabbit, and he’d met people who had dealings with Them before, none of which were Rabbit (at least not until recently), but Fox wasn’t like any of them. He was too slick, the kind of calculatedly disheveled look that required paying top dollar at fashionable boutiques and hours of grooming to get right. It didn’t suit him. William wondered if Fox dressed that way at Their behest or if he was just a natural-born asshole.

“Evening, Rabbit,” said Fox with a grin. “You’re up late. I thought you usually turned into a pumpkin by now.” He sat down on the opposite side of the table from them. “Who’s the big guy in the glasses?”

“Your replacement,” said Rabbit. William kept his hands resting on the table, fingers laced all neat and tidy where Fox could see them. No need to be threatening, not now and not yet. He was going to do this by the book right up until the pages caught fire.

“Contract says it’s just you and me doing this job,” Fox said.

“Aye, the contract says it’s two specialists. Never said they had to be you and me is the thing.”

Fox narrowed his eyes. “I don’t like the way you’re talking,” he said. “They’ve got rules, you know, even out here in the middle of Greenbriar. You trying to make the house mad?”

“I’ve been introduced,” said William, and he was thankful for an ironclad poker face because the way Fox’s expression fell was priceless.

Rabbit opened a manila folder with a photocopy of the contract inside of it. Parts of it were annotated in bright red pen, and an extra page written longhand was paperclipped to it. Fox read through both with a face like a man staring down a speeding truck. William let his eyes scan the kitchen as Rabbit kept talking. “Idea is, Fox my man, we can take care of this however it needs to be taken care of, and while it’d be nice if things went quick and quiet, William and I, well, we’re both pretty resourceful fellas, if there’s going to be a problem it’ll get itself fixed one way or the other. We’re fix-it men. That said, I’d like to properly ask if you’d be fine with signing on that nice little dotted line, there.”

“No.” He ripped the photocopy apart and tossed it aside. “You’re making a big mistake,” continued Fox, his eyes now darting from William to Rabbit and back again. “I’m not just going to give up.”

“Well, then, that’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it? Let no one say we didn’t try to be gentlemen.”

The lights went out. When they came back up again, Fox was gone. The house’s breathing was different, now, like a radio tuner stuck between frequencies and getting fragments of both. William snorted. Trust a man like Fox to make things difficult.

William pushed back from the table and took another shortbread cookie. It was iced like one of those oatmeal wheels his gramma had kept in the pantry, and the shortbread itself tasted like store brand, complete with a slightly stale texture as he chewed. The cookie was otherwise unremarkable. That was enough to let him know he was still half welcome.

“You good?” asked Rabbit.

“Yeah.”

“How long we got?”

“A few hours, probably. I can’t tell where Fox got to just yet so who knows if it’ll be enough.” William centered his thoughts. This was not part of his usual renovation process; he preferred to work with dead houses, not live ones, and there was a great deal of difference between the places you just had to flush a few bugs out of and a place one of Them had called Their own. At least They weren’t part of the picture just yet.

He felt along the house’s nature in search of things that hadn’t been on Rabbit’s diagrams. “There’s something in the water,” he said. “It’s fuzzing out like an old TV every time I try to focus on it. Near as I can tell that’s all Fox doing it. If you see something like static here, well, it’s probably something he left behind.”

They both glanced over at the sink. A drop of water beaded beneath the facet before falling into the basin proper, and inside it was a hint of whirling monochrome; if he strained his ears William could hear the faintest hiss of static. In spite of everything his mouth felt dry. Whatever had gotten in the pipes probably wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle after all the years in the business he’d accrued. He couldn’t risk it, though, not until he knew what would happen to him if he let Fox’s work twist in his belly like a hagfish.

From the kitchen they made their way into what looked to be one of many sitting rooms; the Greenbriar building was the sort of huge old American Gothic construction that seemed to be encountered haunted more often than not. This one had presumably been where the last residents had spent their evenings: in addition to the bookshelves all along the walls, there was an old TV set hunkered in an aging entertainment center with a wide array of degraded VHS cassettes arranged in the shelving around it and its cord curled up in front of it. William was not surprised when it turned on with a blaring rasp of distortion, like a piece of infinitely-long paper being torn or a crashing wave suffused with audio errors. What was surprising was that Fox failed to appear inside of it. Supernatural themes weren’t supposed to be this sloppy.

William had started heading for the hallway when Rabbit caught his sleeve and gestured towards the television with his chin. “There’s a tape with our names written on it on the coffee table,” he said, and sure enough there was, despite said table having nothing more than some magazines and an ashtray a few moments ago. “You know how things go if we don’t look at what we’re asked to see.”

“Yeah. Guess we’re going to have a movie break during our fox hunt.”

Rabbit cleaned the dust out of the decades-out-of-date VCR, slid the tape in, and pressed the top-loading tape tray back into the body of the player. He and William sat on the couch opposite the set. It was infuriating having to lose what was no doubt quite a lot of time to whatever wobbly shakycam nonsense the house had to show them, but doing things by the book meant following the well-worn ruts of old ideas left in places like this. William sighed, adjusted himself so his leg was touching Rabbit’s, and let the no doubt ironically oracular tape play itself out.

This place is gorgeous, said a young woman wearing clothes that had probably been very fashionable once. A pin shaped like an ibis standing against the sun gleamed on her lapel. She was carrying a handheld video camera and was intent on getting lots of footage of the wainscoting. I could point my lens anywhere and get an amazing shot.

Who’d want to see the inside of a nasty old house? said a man’s voice, and from the way the picture moved and swung it was being recorded either by a second camera strapped to his head or through his own eyes. Given that the woman’s camera was not exactly a GoPro the latter seemed more likely. Whoever he was, he didn’t sound like Fox.

Lots of people. It’s kind of this whole subculture thing people do. It’s a way to remember old architecture in a way that’s too real for the National Geographic crowd to handle. You’d already know all this if you ever read any of the Usenet groups I subscribed you to, you know.

The less I know about the people who buy your tapes the better, Melanie. The nameless man kept glancing around like a nervous cat. Sometimes he’d check his watch. It made the viewing experience more than slightly nauseating. Are you sure the stairs are safe enough to use? Old places like this, if they aren’t full up of squatters, it probably means something’s really wrong.

Melanie swanned past to film a cobwebbed chandelier in the front hall. How many times do I have to tell you I scouted the grounds already? There’s nobody here but some pigeons in the attic. You need to trust me more.

Their back-and-forth continued on like this for a while. Most of it made little sense without knowing the people or places they mentioned, though it did keep the tape from being completely quiet as the pair documented the entire lower floor. The house was in decidedly worse condition then than it was now: there were dead bugs on the windowsills, some of the wallpaper was discolored, and there were heaps of snack packages and forgotten blister packs left in the kitchen from what had to have been a previous occupant. The pictures on the walls were so smeared with dust that they seemed slightly different each time they passed through the man’s field of vision, but since the screen never centered on them he probably hadn’t noticed. It might have just been a trick of the light. Given the house they were exploring it probably wasn’t.

Eventually Melanie headed up the stairs, and while they creaked a bit with each step they didn’t give way beneath her. Her companion followed with reluctance. He had a bad habit of constantly checking behind him while climbing.

The second floor had a landing and balcony that wrapped all along the downstairs foyer, with hallways branching off from it leading to other rooms. Melanie chose one at random and shrilled with joy at its contents, which (after the man ran up to look over her shoulder) were what looked like a study with a carpet of dust graying the floorboards.

We’re the first people to see this in years, she said as she took a long, loving shot of the unblemished dust. There’s not even rat tracks in here. I wonder why it’s so much worse than the downstairs rooms?

Bad circulation, probably. Stuff’s more open on the ground floor, said the man. That didn’t explain where the dust had come from in the first place but neither of them addressed it further. Instead, he asked, Should I be closer to the camera? I’m not miked and I don’t know if that thing’s picking me up at all.

Melanie shook her head. I usually trash all my audio back at the studio unless there’s a scary noise or something in it. Sound quality’s usually garbage on this thing. They paused long enough to get another door open to admire the bedroom beyond, this one nearly as dusty as the study. Besides, people are fine with me doing post-commentary so long as I’m sure to get a few shots of my face in here and there. She turned the handheld to point at herself and grinned into the lens. The camera loves me.

This whole city loves you based on how much time you spent filming every tuna can we drove past, Mel.

She laughed and panned the camera along the still-made bedsheets, pausing to linger on the cross-stitched pillow by the headboard. “A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place,” it read. A leak in the ceiling had left a water-damaged stain on the comforter beneath it. Who knew what Melanie’s fans were like however many years ago the events of the tape had occurred, but a modern urban exploration audience would definitely eat up that sort of detail like so much kibble.

It was when they pulled open the accordion-hinged closet door that Fox inevitably appeared.

He was resting inside with his back against the wall and his hands in his pockets. Old clothes on rusting hangers framed him like Spanish moss. Both Melanie and her unseen assistant made small, startled noises and took a step back, which Fox took as his cue to stride out of his hiding place, his artfully-unkempt look not quite as fashionable then as it was now but his smirk as insufferable as ever. It was a wonder he didn’t produce a comb to fix his hair.

Welcome to my house, he said. Can I get you two something?

Melanie circled back towards the door and jumped when it slammed shut before she could dart through it into the hall. She kept her handheld fixed on Fox. There weren’t any footprints when we came in here, she said, her voice wary. There weren’t any footprints anywhere. How long have you been waiting in there?

Fox’s smirk upgraded to a leer. Long enough, babe, he said. I’m good at waiting. The other man looked down at the floor long enough to show that while he and Melanie were leaving tracks in meandering, half-smeared trails, Fox wasn’t, though he was solid enough to cast his own shadow across the bed. It was as though he was balancing atop the dust like a water strider.

The man tried the doorknob, which rattled but refused to turn. Fox tutted at him. Can’t you accept a bit of hospitality when it’s offered? Looks like you need to learn some fucking manners. He rushed the man and the footage went unwatchable for a bit as they thrashed around; someone in the mix had pulled a knife but it wasn’t clear whose it was. Melanie said something unintelligible in the heat of the moment, there was a crash, and then things went black.

They stayed black for a full minute before briefly showing a flustered Fox bending over the stricken man. Melanie was nowhere to be seen.

If there’s only one of you, this is going to get a lot more complicated, said Fox. His face was slightly flushed. The man, now clearly pinned, glanced over to the bedroom window to reveal it had been kicked out; Melanie had presumably made her exit along the roof. Her lapel pin and a piece of ripped, fashionably patterned fabric lay where they’d tumbled to the floor after having apparently caught on some of the glass around the window. Fox palmed a switchblade, cleaned his nails with it, and then tapped the flat of the blade against the man’s nose. Let’s you and me get to the attic. There’s someone you should meet.

The world went black again. This time it never came back.

The TV shut itself off once the tape finished and refused to power back on again.

William scratched his chin. “You think Fox did this part?” he asked as he and Rabbit checked over the room for anything that might have changed while the tape was playing.

“Nah. I think this bit’s the house letting us in on some secrets since it knows we’re here to raise a stink. Maybe it misses that Melanie person. Once we’re done we ought to see if she’s still around somewhere. Maybe she’s in our field now. Assuming she wasn’t already at the time, aye?”

“Maybe. First we take care of that little shit.” They both glanced at the stairs leading upwards. Fox was almost certainly in the attic, which despite him being an important order of business meant that was the last place they needed to go. Getting impatient meant big problems in the future. Anyone who’d dealt with this sort of house haunting themselves could tell you that much.

Rabbit drew his knife. “You bind the left side and I’ll bind the right? We stay together for both.” William nodded. He held out his left hand and let Rabbit make a few incisions on the undersides of the second joints of his three inner fingers. It barely stung even as the blood started to bead up along each little slice. Rabbit was much better at cutting things than William.

Binding was easy once you knew how to do it. You could do a lot of things with that knowledge, be it encouraging someone to stay where you wanted them or keeping them from sneaking their influence into somewhere you didn’t feel like letting them change. The key part was understanding that Fox was not the house, and the house wasn’t one of Them, and Fox definitely wasn’t among Their numbers, so dealing with someone who was just another mortal man at the end of the day didn’t require a lot of fancy equipment or even jerking anyone off again. All you had to do was ask the house nicely and make sure you weren’t breaking any of Their rules and you could keep someone stuck in a half-bathroom if you wanted to. William and Rabbit had made other plans, but walking through the first floor and marking every room would keep things from getting too complicated if Fox tried to bolt. He’d already gone to ground once; it was reasonable to assume he’d repeat that trick of his if given the chance.

They tidied as they went. Houses liked being cleaned and doing so made them more willing to work with strangers; it looked a lot nicer than it had in the video, so someone (maybe Fox, maybe not) had clearly done some work in there, but there were still cobwebs everywhere and isolated pockets of garbage left here and there. Just flicking a rag over a banister made a world of difference. One of the pictures William handled—a woman in a prom dress that couldn’t have been taken much later than the mid 70s—blurred into a glitchy, nightmarish tableau that churned on the other side of the frame’s cheap glass. William stared her down until she stopped trying to reach through to him, then cleaned away a final few thumbprints and hung her back on the discolored spot on the wall. Her head still turned to follow him as he moved. He ignored it. Some houses would do anything for attention.

They found one of Fox’s nests first. It was in a closet that had appeared blocked to the untrained eye, but William’s eye knew a few tricks; he poked at the wall of boards and boxes and found them as resistant as cling film. They crackled with static at his touch. He let his blood do the dirty work of binding and soon the mirage boxes melted away like spun sugar in the rain. Behind the barrier was a makeshift sepulcher: Fox (and it was definitely Fox, since William recognized the handwriting) had separated out the teeth of many, many people into little labeled jars, with an open-topped box full of sawed-down bones pushed up against the wall and an entire shelving unit dedicated to femurs of varying sizes. There were plenty of other, less organized bits sprinkled throughout the closet. Some of the specimens were dated. Assuming he wasn’t lying to some unknown future reader, Fox had been at this for much longer than just the bygone era captured on VHS.

“Yugh,” said Rabbit.

“You didn’t say your Fox was a messy boy,” said William.

Rabbit rolled his eyes and waved a stick of incense around halfheartedly. “It might surprise you to hear, Will-my-darling, but I tried to learn as little about him as possible while we worked. Bet you his room’s even worse.”

A first floor bedroom caddy-corner to what might have been a dining room and might have been a sitting room that just happened to contain a very big table certainly looked the part. William found more curtains of static hung up all around it, behind which were bits of graffiti that certainly looked spooky but were not, near as he could tell, actually doing anything. He flicked some attar of roses at them anyway. Who knew how many bits in this place were red herrings and which were part of some devious plan? If he was going to end up dead or worse he was determined to meet that fate at the hands of something a little more dignified than a haunted Korn poster.

In a dusty box next to an alarm clock with dead batteries he found a few different personal effects. Most were meaningless jewelry and mementos, but one was familiar: it was the watch that the nameless man on the tape had been wearing. William brushed his fingertips across it and pulled back like he’d been burned. The pads of his fingers briefly sizzled with black and white flecks before his immune system got the better of it, leaving an awkward numbness that took a few minutes to return to a dull and distracting ache. He frowned, mostly at himself. This was the last place in the world he could afford to be careless and here he was making rookie mistakes. Binding the watch extra tightly for good measure, he and Rabbit continued their Fox hunt.

What was probably Fox’s actual room was downstairs in a wood-walled basement. It was mostly a cot, a footlocker, a spare pair of boots, and a small shelf with books, a digital clock, and a laptop loaded onto it. There were no other signs of someone living there. It was a bit disheartening to see.

“For such a peacock you’d think he’d have a hoard of hair gel down here,” said William as they very carefully desecrated the magic circle drawn on the underside of the cot.

Rabbit shrugged. “You’d think. Maybe he keeps them in one of the bathrooms.”

Something whispered to them from the other side of the basement wall. They ignored it. A door where there hadn’t been anything but bare wall before beckoned, but aside from tossing some dried flower petals through it neither of them paid it any mind, either; it was nothing they hadn’t seen before, right up there with a big cardboard box propped up with a stick. Now that the house was sated and they’d flushed out a few of his hidey-holes Fox was clearly starting to run out of ideas. That was a good sign: it meant he’d probably start wearing himself out soon.

The stairs held firmly as they returned above ground, and they were sturdier still as the two climbed to the second floor. Its layout didn’t match what they’d seen in the video. The light-that-wasn’t-really-light was a little dimmer there, too, and even after William flicked at the bulb of one of the wall lamps it remained on the wrong side of murky. Flashlights were gauche when a house was trying to let you see inside itself without using any electricity, but flashlights were what the situation called for, and to be perfectly honest flashlights were big and heavy and useful in the event of unwanted guests. William preferred a good length of pipe, himself, but a Maglite would almost always do in a tight spot.

Motes of dust whirled in their flashlight beams. The layer of dust was thinner than it had been in the video, and hurried footprints left in it disappeared behind a closed door. Fox was a man who didn’t leave prints if he didn’t want to. William and Rabbit opted not to see what was in there and instead bound the hall little by little to their own needs.

What rooms were open were a mess, as it didn’t seem like they were used or cleaned nearly as often as the downstairs rooms, though to William’s trained eye he could see the potential there for what he and Rabbit had discussed earlier that night. In one of them they found another magic circle matching the now ruined one drawn on the cot; it met the same fate as its twin. They might have been directly over the kitchen, then, though with Fox clearly doing his damnedest to make a labyrinth out of such a relatively simple space it was hard to tell. If they both made it to morning William figured they could always check the acoustics then.

A part of the wall shimmered when William turned away from it, immediately catching his attention. This was more subtle than the trail of prints, which probably meant it was safer, and if it was actually halfway hidden that probably meant there was something inside Fox didn’t want them to see, William still tensed up a bit as he cleaned away what turned out to be camouflage over another door. It was placed so closely to other rooms they’d cleared that it should’ve only been a glorified cupboard; what they found instead was a full-sized bedroom shrouded in dust. William concentrated and touched the house’s lingering scars with the corner of his mind. The glass had been replaced and the floor had been swept, but there was no mistaking the accordion-doored closet or the pillow on the bed. They had been shown this place before.

“Let’s clear this place and get going,” said Rabbit after what couldn’t have been more than a few moments. He sounded nervous.

William shook his head. “There’s something here we need to find,” he said. “If Fox doesn’t want us in here it has to be more involved than some disassembled skeletons.” He swept the beam of his flashlight across the wall. There were no blood stains oozing through the paper or water damage in the shape of faces, which was a far cry from some of the other rooms they’d inspected. Nothing was under the bed. It wasn’t until he checked the closet a second time that his flashlight picked out a glimmer of gold.

It was a little lapel pin, shaped like an ibis with the sun behind it, kicked off to the side and left to gather dust however long ago the window had been fixed. There was no reason it would be here if the house didn’t want them to have it. William smiled. “Jackpot.”

“Don’t fucking touch it!” cried Rabbit, but it was too late.

It should have been a very simple clean-and-release procedure that would clear away any lingering nastiness a bit of jewelry could accrue over years of sitting around in a house like this one. Instead William was nearly knocked on his ass by the percussive force of something all rushing out of the pin at once. His hearing blared with the crackling hiss of interference as his vision went black and white. Somewhere underneath it all he thought he heard Fox laughing, which was a truly despicable sound even in the best of circumstances, and he knew deep in the marrow of his bones that he’d been played for a rube. Had he really been so naive as to think Fox couldn’t handle more than one layer of deception at a time? If Fox had wanted the pin gone he’d had years, decades maybe, to toss it in the trash bins out back, so if it was still here it was only at the mercy of Fox’s good graces. William’s hand clenched further around the bit of cast gold as he centered his thoughts. The house did want him to have this, he was sure of it, but Fox did, too. That made things complicated.

The static roar died down just enough for him to hear Rabbit calling his name. William let his eyes unfocus on the swirling nothingness around him. The pin started to heat up in his hand but he refused to drop it, since sucker bait or no he knew tossing it aside would only make things worse. He could feel a little tether connecting it to somewhere else, and an even fainter one connecting it to someone else. That second one would be worth investigating in the future. For now, however, he clung to that connection to a certain place and began plotting the details of hauling himself out.

Fox had set up whatever this was to go off under the assumption that William would be going through all the proper procedures. William had to admit that was a lot more cunning than he’d given Fox credit for at first. What Fox clearly did not know was that William knew a lot more procedures than just the proper ones. He could feel Rabbit somewhere nearby, even though Rabbit’s voice was coming from somewhere else entirely; the latter was almost certainly another trick meant to lead William further into whatever little pocket he’d found. His flashlight was heavy in his hand as he rapped on a wall he found among the static. Hopefully Rabbit would get the right idea.


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