My apologies. The blog’s been dormant for a while. A bunch of stuff came up — primarily a new job — and I was obliged to put it on the back burner. But I’d like to start it back up. So how about I begin with a new, original novelette, presented to you for free?
Here’s the deal. I have a young, talented friend named Frank who portrays a character known as “Cuddles McSpanky” at haunted attractions. He knows I’m a writer. At a recent party, we got into a discussion about our mutual love of horror and noir. And we agreed that it might be fun if I tried writing a story featuring his character. I found myself really getting into it. To my surprise, the short story I initially intended to write somehow expanded into a novelette.
I tried including it in my short story collection, “The Devil’s Kazoo Band Don’t Take No Requests,” due out from Codorus Press early in 2016. But my publisher told me we’re a bit late in the process for that.
So I figured, what the heck. I wrote it mainly as a fun project anyway. And I’d like Frank to be able to share it with his friends and followers. So here it is, presented as a freebie. Enjoy. Share it, if you’re so inclined. And if you like it, keep an eye out for “The Devil’s Kazoo Band Don’t Take No Requests.” Or check out my Pushcart-Prize-nominated debut novel, “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report.” You can find Cuddles McSpanky’s page here. And if you’re REALLY brave and/or crazy, you can go see him in person here.
For the record, this is a work of fiction and is not intended maliciously. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any other resemblance to actual events, groups or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
So here goes:
THE LEGEND OF CUDDLES MCSPANKY
By Tom Joyce
Based on a character created by Frank Paul Staff IV
Somewhere in the night-darkened pines to Kevin’s left, chainsaws buzzed like mechanical hornets. Followed by screaming.
Startled, a cluster of girls in Kevin’s group let out screams of their own, giggling at themselves immediately afterward. The Trail of Terror at the BloodShed Farms haunted attraction in Pierce Township, N.J., followed a snaking trajectory, frequently turning back on itself. Intermittent cries from the densely encroaching pines on either side signaling that the group ahead had encountered whatever as-yet-unseen horror would ambush Kevin’s group next, be it zombie, vampire or psychopath.
An unnerving effect, Kevin had to admit, jangling his already jangled nerves.
Kevin trailed behind a dozen or so teens and adults venturing through October darkness punctuated by pale lights on poles set at infrequent intervals along the paved path. Wishing that the night’s errand was already over. He yanked the brim of his baseball cap down lower on his forehead and pulled the hood of his sweatshirt tighter about his face.
Ordinarily, Kevin took pride in his striking appearance. For some reason, people expected funeral directors to be wan and gaunt. Not towering and broad-shouldered, with weightlifter muscles and soap star looks undiminished by encroaching middle age. He enjoyed the occasional double takes that new clients or attendees at business association luncheons would do when he walked into the room, particularly if they were female.
Not tonight, though. Tonight, the last thing he wanted was anyone taking note of his presence.
He followed the group. One of the teenage girls seemed to be hanging back as well, looking from side-to-side with giddy fearfulness. He’d taken note of her from the beginning. With her long, strawberry hair and willowy build, she reminded him of Lauren back in the day. Even carried herself with that touch of inscrutable grace that Kevin had found so captivating about his ex-wife.
Watching her, he felt an ache inside. As deep and familiar as the old high school football injury that still bedeviled him in damp weather.
They walked on a little ways before coming around a bend in the trees to find flickering orange illuminating a small clearing a hundred feet or so ahead.
On either side of the path, bodies sprawled. Kevin checked out one at his feet. A department store mannequin, apparently, seam where plastic hand attached to plastic wrist clearly visible above the cuff of its frayed jacket, well-doused with ketchup or paint or whatever was serving as a stand-in for blood.
More dummies lay scattered around as the group approached the light source, which turned out to be a simulated fire pit, guttering orange electric light tucked away in its recesses doing an almost-convincing approximation of flame. Enhanced with garish orange lights fastened to several of the trees.
Kevin realized that the blood-drenched dummies were all dressed in ragged, old-timey clothes. Battered slouch hats on their heads. Some clutching sticks with wrapped bundles on the ends.
One dummy was posed sitting by the fire, wearing a grotesque rubber mask depicting a flayed face beneath a porkpie hat, sharpened stick with a hotdog on the end dangling from a gloved hand.
Kevin’s heart began going faster when he realized what the setup was supposed to represent. A hobo camp where some kind of appalling massacre had taken place.
This was it. This was …
“Do you know the Legend of Cuddles McSpanky?”
A screeching voice at his Kevin’s back. An answering chorus of screams from the teenage girls fleeing en masse from the voice’s source.
Kevin fought down a surprised shout himself as he spun to find a small, wiry man immediately behind him, seemingly materialized from the darkness.
The man darted forward like a flitting shadow. Circling the periphery of the group. Driving them into an unwitting huddle before the simulated fire.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Interesting guy, Cuddles McSpanky,” the man said. “So I hear. Never met him myself. This is all third-hand, understand. Friend of a friend of a friend. Know what I mean?”
The man’s words came with breathless rapidity. High-pitched with an underlying rasp, like a hacksaw making its way through a pipe. He wore a beat-up top hat and a long, black overcoat over a white shirt buttoned to the neck, decorated with spatters of blood. All too big for the man’s diminutive frame, giving him a child-like aspect.
“This legend?” the man continued. “Goes back to the days when men used to ride the rails looking for work. At the hobo camps, they’d sit around a fire at night, maybe pass around a jug of whiskey, and they’d tell stories about Cuddles McSpanky.”
The man darted to the far side of the group with unnerving quickness, cutting off their access to the trail, prompting another spate of squealing and mass recoiling.
Kevin caught a glimpse of his face, painted a grimy white with black paint on his lips and black circles around his eyes. The effect ghoulish and somehow primitive. A hybrid of mime, Emmett Kelly sad clown and pre-Christian shaman.
“Nobody’d ever see him, but they’d know he was there. Know it cause every once in a while there’d be a real mean sheriff or railroad bull that’d go missing and turn up in a boxcar with his guts tore out or his throat cut ear-to-ear … ”
He lunged at the group, making them draw back, before dashing around to their other side. Moving with an odd, scampering gait.
“… and they’d say, ‘There goes Cuddles McSpanky again.’ Afraid of him, understand. But they also saw him as one of their own. Until … until …”
The man closer now. Kevin got a better look at his face and felt a jitter of panic. No way he could be the right guy. Way too young. Boyish grin stretching his face beneath crazily wide-eyed stare. All manic, puppy-dog enthusiasm. Kevin thought of what his cousin Pete had told him. About Cuddles McSpanky being a title, not an individual. Still … shit. This guy could pass for 17.
Kevin figured he’d ride it out anyway. What choice did he have?
For all he knew, some anonymous assassin in Shane’s employ could be waiting for him right now in the parking lot. One hand tucked in a jacket pocket, finger resting lightly on the trigger of a throw-away handgun with the serial numbers filed off.
“… until one day a couple of kids in upstate New York were walking to the local fishing hole, and they came across a hobo camp. And every man there’s got his throat cut. Big story. Made the papers coast to coast. Never did solve that crime. But everyone knew it was Cuddles McSpanky. From then on, hobos were always looking into the darkness beyond their campfires. Cause they knew Cuddles McSpanky was out there somewhere. And there are those who say …”
The man flicked his wrist, revealing a gleaming straight razor, and his grin widened.
“He still is.”
Cuddles McSpanky advancing on the group now. Weaving. Darting. Waving the straight razor and doing a kind of demented jig, moving all the while with that uncanny speed reminiscent of a stop-motion film.
Teens and adults alike retreated down the trail, shrill yells from the girls trailing behind them.
All except Kevin, who waited behind. Hoping the rest of the group was too distracted to notice his absence.
Cuddles McSpanky turned from the trail, facing Kevin.
Cuddles McSpanky folded the razor and placed it in a coat pocket. Reached inside his coat and came out with a flat object that he tossed to Kevin.
“Congratulations,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “Put this on.”
Kevin looked at the object. A rubber mask that would cover the upper part of his face. A clown with a round, red nose and fiendishly arched eyebrows.
“Anyone comes by, pretend like you’re part of the act,” Cuddles McSpanky said.
“We’re doing it here?” Kevin asked
Cuddles McSpanky smiled.
“You must have been in the gifted classes at school, am I right? Yes, we’re doing it here.”
Kevin sighed. Removed his baseball cap, put on the mask, then put the cap back on. The mask was a poor fit. Made it hard to see.
“Turn around,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “Arms out straight from your shoulders.”
Kevin complied. Cuddles McSpanky gave him a quick pat-down.
“Your turn,” Kevin said, once Cuddles McSpanky was done.
“Nuh uh,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “Not unless you take me out for dinner and a movie first.”
Kevin started to protest, but Cuddles McSpanky cut him off.
“You wanted this meeting,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “My house, my rules. You don’t like them, walk.”
Kevin reached into the pocket of his sweatshirt. Took out a pack of smokes and placed one between his lips.
“No no,” Cuddles McSpanky said, wagging a finger. “No smoking.
Kevin glanced around. Arms held out in a “what the fuck” gesture. Indicating the absence of anyone who might see.
“Bloodshed Farms has a strict no-smoking policy, like every haunted attraction operating in New Jersey,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “It’s a safety issue.”
Kevin merely stared for a moment.
“We’re here setting up a contract hit, and you’re worried about safety issues?”
“My house, my rules,” Cuddles McSpanky said.
Kevin shook his head in disbelief, but also put away the cigarette. Pete had warned him that the guy was insane. Also warned him not to piss Cuddles McSpanky off. Because he was their last shot at survival. And because pissing him off was a generally ill-advised course of action.
If Cuddles McSpanky was to stand toe-to-toe with Kevin, the top of his hat would barely reach Kevin’s chin. Kevin likely outweighed him by more than a hundred pounds. But he still felt an urge to back away.
No. To run back along the trail past the actors in masks and makeup who had enacted macabre scenarios for Kevin’s group on their way to this clearing. Past the Hospital of Horrors. Past the Torture Chamber. Out to his waiting SUV and then back home to a gated suburban housing development in Bedford Township, two counties away.
But that wasn’t an option. Pete had made that clear when he met with Kevin and said he’d arrange the face-to-face with Cuddles McSpanky.
That had been another uncomfortable meeting.
Seemed Kevin had been attending a lot of uncomfortable meetings lately. With unsmiling men sporting dark grey suits and buzzcuts in Trenton office buildings. With furrow-browed lawyers across desks piled with file folders.
And then, two weeks ago, with Pete in a run-down, aluminum-sided rancher tucked away on the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
For a moment, standing in the clearing with Cuddles McSpanky, Kevin replayed that meeting with Pete in his mind.
Just him and Pete in that house. Kevin unclear whether Pete was living there or not. Pete lived a vagabond existence among his various properties. Inhabiting an unstable netherworld of clutter, shabby furniture, stashed guns and pot smoke.
“Shane’s going to kill us, you know,” Pete had said.
“Why?” Kevin had said.
Pete had taken another hit off the joint he’d been smoking. Delivered the next statement with the strangled, unaspirated inflection of a man holding in a toke.
“Knows you’re talking to the feds,” Pete said. “Figures you’re going to roll over on him about the bodies. Guess that would make me too much of a loose end for his tastes, us beings cousins and all. You really fucked us.”
Pete exhaled the hit at Kevin, sitting across the kitchen table from him. Kevin refused to wave the smoke away, knowing that’s what Pete wanted. Not that he had any additional worries about marijuana smell permeating his clothes.
The rancher was part of Pete’s small network of grow houses, the basement a dense jungle of hydroponically cultivated marijuana plants. The whole place smelled like a reggae band’s dressing room.
“What was I supposed to do?” Kevin said. “Take the fall for him? We’re not just talking about the criminal charges. You know there would have been a civil suit, right? I’d be ruined. Wiped out.”
“Far as Shane’s concerned? Yeah. Taking the fall for him is exactly what you should have done.”
“Bullshit!” Kevin said. “All these years, I’ve done exactly what he told me to do! Including buying that property! Now he pays me back by leaving me to twist in the wind?”
“In Shane’s world, big fish eat and little fish get eaten,” Pete said. “You’re a little fish. Do the math.”
Pete took another big drag off the joint. Leaned back in his chair and let it out, all loose-limbed don’t-give-a-fuck attitude.
Pete, with his long hair, beard and biker leather. Ever since they were kids, wanting to play the street-smart hustler to Kevin’s clueless lug. Even back in high school, when Kevin was a straight-A football star, and Pete showed up for the few classes he bothered to attend stoned to the gills. Even when Shane promoted Kevin from rank-and-file thumb breaker to the legitimate business wing of his operation, while Pete continued growing weed and cooking meth in the Pine Barrens.
Kevin annoyed at himself for how much it still got under his skin. Especially in this case, since Pete happened to be right.
Shane O’Hara had been tied in with the Philly Mob a while back. Not a made member. “The ‘o’ was on the wrong side of my name,” he liked to joke. But useful to them. A profitable asset.
Following a sweeping federal investigation and series of indictments, Shane had dutifully kept his mouth shut and done time. As a reward, set up afterward in the relative backwater of Bedford County where he’d done pretty well for himself running his various business interests, legal and otherwise. Doing the occasional service for “The Boys From Philly.”
Not a made member, but still connected. A dangerous man to cross.
“And some guy named ‘Cuddles McSpanky’ is going to get us out of this?” Kevin said. “What kind of name is that? Wasn’t that a movie or something?”
Pete took another hit off the now diminished joint, then devoted irritating deliberation to extracting a roach clip from his jeans pocket and attaching it to the butt-end.
“They made a movie about Cuddles McSpanky a while back,” Pete said. “Cheap-ass horror movie. Inspired by a bunch of scary dime novels from the 1800s. But the stories about Cuddles McSpanky go back a lot longer. Folklore experts disagree on just how far. Some say they’re based on European folktales that immigrants brought over. Some say ‘Cuddles McSpanky’ is a mispronunciation of the name the Cherokee had for him. Kind of a dangerous trickster spirit. Some say he was an actual person once upon a time.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. Especially when he was baked, Pete liked doing his scholarly outlaw routine.
“Can you get to the damn point?” Kevin said.
Pete leaned forward. Looked Kevin in the eye.
“This is the point,” Pete said. “When it comes to Cuddles McSpanky, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. What I’m about to tell you is closest to the truth, near as anybody’s ever been able to put together.”
It went back to a time when wars raged within the borders of any sufficiently sized American town, Pete said. Violent factions fighting for control of rackets. Bootleg liquor. Gambling. Prostitution. Staking their claims with brass knuckles and blade. Truncheon and Tommy gun.
And among it all, wending like a poisonous snake through a corpse-strewn battlefield, was an assassin-for-hire who went by the name of Cuddles McSpanky. The name inspired by the already-long-extant legends, presumably.
He never gave his real name, unknown to this day. He worked in a sideshow for a traveling carnival, giving him both cover and mobility. Within certain circles, would-be employers knew how to contact him and bid for his services.
Even men whose livelihood consisted of reckless and violent acts approached him with hesitancy, as one might an undetonated explosive. But approach him they did, for a simple reason. If Cuddles McSpanky undertook to kill any man – no matter how dangerous, no matter how powerful – that man’s death was a foregone conclusion.
“You’re telling me this Cuddles McSpanky who’s going to save our asses is the same guy?” Kevin said. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t that make him about a hundred years old?”
Pete shook his head.
“Ever since then, there’s been a hitman on the circuit who goes by the same name,” Pete said. “Same deal. Plays the character. Travels with carnivals, freak shows and Halloween spook houses. Seems ‘Cuddles McSpanky’ is a title that the original guy passed on. Or maybe a brand, you could call it.”
“What, like a family thing?” Kevin said. “Father to son?”
Pete took a hit off the roach. Held it. Let it out.
“Nobody knows,” Pete said. “He’s not telling anyone his life story. He’s just out there.”
“And he just happens to operate in New Jersey?”
“He’s a contract killer,” Pete said, stubbing out the roach in an ashtray. “He was a ski instructor, I’m guessing he’d work in states with lots of mountains. Remember a few years back, when Mikey the Greek died before he testified against Cueball Joe?”
“I thought that was suicide,” Kevin said.
“Exactly,” Pete said. “The guy’s crazy, but he’s good. And I can arrange a meeting. I know people who know people.”
Kevin sighed. Looked away from Pete. Brushed at some of the grime that seemed to permeate the place, which had ended up on his jacket sleeve. He was wearing one of his business suits from the funeral home. A tastefully tailored and appropriately black wool ensemble that Kevin had once regarded as a kind of armor. It betokened prosperity. Position. Factors that in the end had failed to offer him the least protection from his past.
“Alright,” Kevin said. “If you arrange for the hit, I’ll pay half. Depending on how much it comes to. But that’s the end of my involvement. We keep things discreet. And if there’s any trouble, we never had this conversation.”
Pete leaned back in his chair.
“Nuh uh,” Pete said. “Guess you don’t understand the situation. I set up the meet and that’s the end of my involvement. You arrange the hit. You pay for it. The whole shebang.”
Kevin felt cold, like he’d just fallen into an icy lake.
“You might want to start liquidating assets,” Pete said. “He won’t come cheap.”
“What the hell are you …”
“And be careful,” Pete said. “The crazy routine is probably an act, but he’s still dangerous and unpredictable. Thing is, at this point he’s our only option. He operates independently. We tried to go to anyone else, Cueball Joe would find out and then we’d be …”
Kevin slammed his palm down on the table. Stood with such violence that he knocked his chair over backward.
“Why do I arrange the hit and pay for it?” Kevin yelled. “You’re in this, too!”
“It’s very simple,” Pete said. “You have a lot more to lose than me. I’ve got offshore accounts. I can disappear. You? Mister respectable businessman? Not so easy. Even if you started the process now, they’d find out. Track you down.”
“I got into this in the first place because of you!” Kevin yelled.
“As I recall, I didn’t exactly have to drag you kicking and screaming,” Pete said. “In fact, I seem to remember you being pretty happy to …”
Kevin grabbed the table, a flimsy construct of plastic and aluminum, and tossed it aside. Before Pete could react, Kevin had him by the lapels of his leather jacket and hauled him to his feet. Slammed him hard against the dirty tiles of a nearby wall.
Pete wasn’t a little guy, but Kevin had a few inches and at least 20 pounds of muscle-hardened bulk on him. Pete’s struggles feckless as Kevin clamped a hand on his neck and pinned his head to the wall.
“I should break your goddamn neck,” Kevin said. Spittle flying from his clenched teeth.
“Do … that … you’re dead,” Pete said. Choked, breathless voice sounding much the same as it did when he was holding in a toke.
Kevin let go and Pete leaned forward, gasping. One hand holding the wall for support. The other massaging his neck where Kevin’s fingers had left red patches. At length he straightened.
“Let me spell it out,” Pete said. “Cuddles McSpanky is the only one who can get rid of Shane for you …”
No longer “us,” Kevin noted. “You.”
“… and I’m the only one who can put you in touch with him. Which means I call the shots. Understand?”
“Good,” Pete said. “So are you done with your little fucking temper tantrum?”
“Almost,” Kevin said.
Pete let out a “whoof” sound as Kevin punched him high in the stomach, then he crumpled to the floor.
“Call in this psycho,” Kevin had said as he walked away.
And Pete had. And now here stood Kevin. Wearing a clown mask. Face-to-face with a grinning little man amid pines and October chill, surrounded by slain department store dummies.
“So,” Cuddles McSpanky said, looking up at Kevin. Smile still in place. A crescent edged in black that occupied a disconcertingly large portion of his lower face. “Tell me your story. What led you to this?”
“There’s somebody I need killed,” Kevin said. “His name is …”
“His name is Shane O’Hara,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “61 years old. Local businessman and political broker with extensive real estate holdings in the area. Your cousin went through all of this with my intermediaries. I want your story.”
“You know the target,” Kevin said. “That’s all you need to know. Just tell me what it’s going to cost me, and how I make the payment. Then we’re done.”
Cuddles McSpanky turned away from Kevin. He began walking around the staged hobo campsite. Picked up a discarded gum wrapper. Turned over one of the slain hobo mannequins, then experimentally draped one of its arms across its expressionless face.
“What do you think?” Cuddles McSpanky said. “Does this look natural?”
“Huh?” Kevin said.
“I think I liked it better the other way,” Cuddles McSpanky said, and pushed the dummy back over so it was face down. “And I’m not mowing your lawn.”
“You’re not … what?”
“I’m not mowing your lawn.”
Cuddles McSpanky walked back to the fire pit and took the hotdog-on-a-stick from the hand of the dummy sitting there.
“This doesn’t really make sense, does it?” Cuddles McSpanky said, regarding the stick with a disapproving expression. “Somebody comes along and carves him up, and he’s still cooking his dinner? Nah. Might as well ditch it. Waste of a perfectly good hotdog. Damn shame.”
Cuddles McSpanky took a few steps back along a dirt trail that ran into the thick cluster of pines and brush at the back of the clearing near the fire pit, and pitched the hotdog-and-stick into the woods.
“It’s biodegradable,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “That makes it compost, not littering.”
Kevin pressed his palms to his forehead through the mask, and fought a momentary, bone-deep urge to snap. To tear off his clown mask, then vent all of his anxiety and frustration on this deranged little man. Slam his fists into that painted face until it was a bloody mass of gristle and bone. Walk out of that open-air madhouse. Drive away. Find Pete and repeat the procedure. Then Shane. Then a lifetime’s worth of people who had pissed him off. Maybe even dig up his father’s corpse and beat the shit out of it.
He felt a shudder run through his body. Spoke in slow, enunciated tones, voice tight and trembling with repressed rage.
“What … does … mowing my lawn … have to do with anything?”
Cuddles McSpanky left the trail leading into the woods and stepped into the clearing once more. Approached Kevin. No longer grinning.
“If you wanted me to mow your lawn, it would be simple,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “You say, ‘There’s the lawn. Go mow it.’ I do it. You pay me. I’m not mowing your lawn. I’m killing a man for you. That’s a complicated job. There’s a million things that can go wrong. And if things go wrong, the consequences are considerable.”
He adjusted his top hat, settling it down lower on his forehead.
“I know the target?” Cuddles McSpanky continued. “That’s all I need to know? No. That’s not how this works. I need a full understanding of what I’m getting into. So when I ask you for information, you give me that information. Is that clear?”
Kevin took a deep breath. Let it out again.
“What do you need to know?” Kevin said.
“That’s better,” Cuddles McSpanky said. His voice had changed, too. Still high-pitched and raspy, but without the underlying, child-like glee. His toned was controlled now. Icy.
“My intermediaries spoke at length with your cousin, Pete, about what led to this,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “They pressed him for detail. They took meticulous notes and I memorized them. Now you are going to tell me your version of the story. You are going to go into great detail. And if a single one of those details differs from what your cousin told me, I will assume that one of you isn’t being straight with me. In which case I can’t trust this situation. In which case we’re done here. Is that clear?”
“Good,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “Now tell me your story.”
So Kevin told him. In detail. But he excluded the most salient detail of all.
Because he knew Pete wouldn’t be aware of it. It was none of Pete’s business. None of this psycho’s business either. In fact, it would seem like a profanation in these circumstances to even mention that detail. That word. That name.
Smart. Kind. Not the prettiest girl in his school, but he’d found something hypnotic in her playful yet somber air. Her quiet elegance.
They’d started dating when they were 16. When people in his town, if they paid attention to him at all, regarded him as the son of a mean local drunk. Part of an extended family of low-lifes and criminals. Not worthy of a girl like her.
They were wrong. He’d believed that once.
Believed it when he held her body, warm and fragrant against his, in the backseat of his car. Trembling all over in sheer wonderment at what he’d just experienced.
When she reached up, caressed his face and said “I love you.”
Her sheer earnestness made those three words sound like a benediction. A promise that he could be more than the violent, drunken progeny of a violent, drunken man. That he could step off the path that everyone in his town seemed convinced he would walk.
In the interests of proving them wrong, he’d thrown himself into his studies and his football training. Thought he’d proven it once and for all when he became a staple of the local newspaper’s sports section, and even made the leap to the front page. When he’d been hailed as a hero after playing on an injured knee to bring home a state title.
A hometown hero. Her champion.
That injured knee killed his chances of a football scholarship.
Not a crippling injury. Just a throbbing ache that gradually subsided over the first years of their marriage as he gobbled aspirin through double shifts at a soul-killing succession of shit jobs. His status as a hometown hero forgotten overnight. Downgraded to minimum-wage ghost by those for whom he’d sacrificed his future.
Lauren hadn’t complained. Kevin never knew for sure whether the disappointment he’d seen in her eyes was actually there, or a projection of his own growing bitterness. An academic distinction perhaps. Because it tore into him whenever he came back to their Spartan studio apartment with his clothes stinking of rancid grease from restaurant kitchens. Of garbage from exhausting mornings clinging to the back of a township sanitation truck.
It was what drove him to approach Pete and ask if Pete’s boss, Shane, might have a job for him somewhere in his small yet lucrative operation.
Kevin started out small himself. Paid by the job. Such jobs usually consisting of visits to local homes. Apprising the occupants of their delinquent status on debts owed to Shane. Perhaps underscoring that message with a reminder that left bruises on his knuckles or an errant spray of blood on his T-shirt.
The assignments increased. His finances improved. His lies to Lauren – bolstered by his on-the-books employment as a bouncer at a bar Shane owned – emerged from his mouth with greater fluidity and less remorse.
And then, the meeting that changed his life.
Just him and Shane. In the back room of the bar. Big-screen TV on one wall broadcasting a boxing match. Rapidly depleting bottle of Jameson on the table between them.
Shane white-haired even back then. Ruddy-cheeked. Barrel-chested. Dressed in a white dress shirt unbuttoned at his beefy neck. Looked like a barkeep slinging pints of Guinness in a Dublin Board of Tourism ad.
“You know what my most profitable line of business is?” Shane asked, hoisting his glass of whiskey and taking a sip.
“Potential,” Shane continued, setting down the glass and answering his own question. “I got my hand in lots of businesses. But the way I see it, my main line of business is recognizing potential. And I see potential in you, kid. You got brains. You got ambition. You don’t go looking for trouble, but you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty. I could see a bigger role for you in my operation. If you’re interested. If not? You can walk. No hard feelings. What do you say?”
Kevin said yes. At every stage. Not always immediately. Not always enthusiastically. But always yes.
Including yes to his first new assignment, which Shane framed as a show of good faith on Kevin’s part. Albeit a profitable one for everyone involved.
Kevin bought a parcel of land in Indian Creek – a sparsely populated rural municipality in the pine-choked southern end of the county, consisting mainly of broken-down homes and trailer parks whose scruffy inhabitants gave you hard-eyed looks should you happen to drive by.
The purchase funded by nonexistent investors. Phantasms of paper and printer ink, camouflaging Shane’s financial backing. All for the ostensible purpose of establishing a family campground that would never be built. On the books, a business venture that failed when the financing fell through. Off the books, a highly successful enterprise.
As Shane explained it, he needed someone else to buy the property. Someone not under surveillance by a half-dozen law enforcement agencies ranging from the local to the federal level. A fresh-faced former high school football hero would fit the bill nicely.
The only work that ever took place on the site was some landscaping. Credible cover for Pete, whose on-the-books legit job was running a small construction company, to bring in a bulldozer and a backhoe.
Later, when the trucks arrived, Kevin and Pete had been among the crew who did the gruntwork. Donning hazmat suits and spending a long day unloading steel drums and standing them side-by-side in the swimming-pool-sized hole Pete had dug.
Shane had stopped by to lend a hand. Even Shane’s boss drove down from Philadelphia to stand at a safe remove and inquire about the progress of the operation.
Kevin saw him from a distance, standing next to Shane and smoking a cigarette. Recognizable from the slick bald pate that gave him his nickname. Cueball Joe. Industrialist. Political player. Impetus behind the steel drums being unloaded into the hole.
Kevin was a little hazy on the details. Something about the purchase of a large quantity of illegal, psychoactive powders. Funds for that purchase coming from redirected money, which on paper was being used to pay the considerable hazardous waste disposal fees from several of Cueball Joe’s manufacturing concerns.
A minor part of the plan, a mere logistical afterthought, was the actual disposal of that hazardous waste in a never-to-be-built family campground out in the ass end of South Jersey. Once the barrels were unloaded, Pete had covered them up and everyone walked away richer.
Cuddles McSpanky held up a finger, interrupting Kevin’s narrative. Cocked his head to one side.
“What?” Kevin said.
“I’ve got the timing down,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “That group you were with is due to run into the Cannibal Rednecks. And they’re about to strike up the band. A one and a two and a …”
Cuddles McSpanky began waving his arms like a conductor as the sound of chainsaws and screams erupted from the woods. Then he folded his arms and waited for them to stop, which they did after about a minute.
“Like clockwork,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “Not my cup of tea personally. Chasing people with chainsaws? Gets a reaction out of the crowd, but lacks a certain … subtlety.”
Cuddles McSpanky then scampered onto the paved path, peering into the darkness.
“The next group is coming soon,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “Get back by the campfire. Look scary.”
“I … I don’t want anyone to …”
“Do it! I’m trying to make a living here!”
Kevin adjusted his clown mask, then crept back along the treeline behind the simulated campfire. Standing alongside the trail that led into the woods. Its implied promise of escape comforting somehow.
He looked around and realized that he couldn’t see Cuddles McSpanky.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey!” he said again, louder this time.
“Shut up! They’ll hear you!”
Kevin couldn’t identify the source, even the direction, of Cuddles McSpanky’s annoyed whisper. It seemed to emanate from the very air.
“What should I do?” Kevin said.
“Just go with it. Now stay quiet! They’re coming.”
In the ensuing silence, Kevin could hear them. Footsteps along the trail. Muted feminine giggling. An adolescent boy’s voice, loud and arrogant.
“Booga booga! Scary!”
They came around the trail and approached Kevin’s spot. About a dozen in all. This group made up almost entirely of teenagers. Girls mostly, with a few boys in the mix. Including a tall, husky boy with close-cropped hair. The latter pointed at Kevin.
“I see you back there!” the boy called. “Some retard in a clown mask. Like, I’m reeeeeally scared!”
Kevin stood still, unsure what to do.
“Do you know the Legend of Cuddles McSpanky?”
The group gave a collective jump, and a number of the girls let out shrieks as Cuddles McSpanky burst out of the undergrowth on the other side of the path.
Kevin gave a startled yelp himself, then stared in disbelief. Unable to figure out how Cuddles McSpanky had managed to cross the distance to the opposite side of the path and creep into the woods, unseen and unheard, so soon after whispering to Kevin close by in the dark.
“Interesting guy, that Cuddles McSpanky,” Cuddles McSpanky said. Gesticulating in the midst of the group like a crazed preacher and waving his straight razor around. “Never met him myself, but I’ve heard stories. They say he was a clown with a circus that traveled around in the years after the Civil War. One day, the circus was in this little town down South, and the mayor turned up dead.”
Cuddles McSpanky shook his head and laughed, as though at the memory of a childhood prank.
“Left that mayor’s blood and guts sprayed all over his bedroom. They formed a posse, but Cuddles McSpanky was long gone by then. Riding the rails. Moving in the shadows. Some say he’s still out there.”
“Nice makeup, faggot,” the husky teenage boy said. Underlying quaver in his voice belying his show of bravado.
Cuddles McSpanky approached the boy, razor extended.
“You really like it?” Cuddles McSpanky said. “Are you flirting with me? Awww, ain’t you a sweetie-pie?”
He circled the boy now. Still grinning. Still moving with twitchy hyperactivity. But with a malicious intensity now. Eyes wider. Weight forward on the balls of his feet. Serpentine hiss underlying his words.
The boy slowly backing away.
“Bet you’d look pretty with makeup yourself,” Cuddles McSpanky said, then let out a breathy giggle. “Maybe a splash of red at your eyeballs. Or your throat.”
Cuddles McSpanky yelled, a mix of braying laugh and war whoop, and jumped in the boy’s direction. The boy made a squeaking sound and fled, all signs of tough-guy posturing gone.
Cuddles McSpanky dancing around the rest of the group now like a border collie gone rabid. Herding them, screaming and squealing, down the path away from his clearing.
He turned toward Kevin, still lurking near the trail into the woods.
“Weren’t you going to do anything?” Cuddles McSpanky said.
“What did you want me to …”
“I don’t know,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “Anything! Wave your arms or make scary noises or … Ah, never mind. You suck at this. Tell me the rest. We don’t have all night.”
There wasn’t much more to tell. Plenty had happened in the intervening years, but little of it relevant.
Shane arranged for the loan that bankrolled Kevin’s training as a mortician and funeral director, and the business loan that let him set up shop. Kevin not initially crazy about the idea. Handling corpses for a living. Who wants to do that?
But it worked out well. Profitable, respectable work. Work that gave him the funds to invest in other business enterprises around town, mostly at Shane’s guidance. Swelling his bank account. Eventually elevating Kevin to the ranks of the local important people. His father’s legacy long forgotten.
A few times a year, Kevin would get the call. Sometimes during the day. More often in the dark hours between midnight and dawn.
Once in a while, Shane himself required the service. More often, it was The Boys From Philly. One of their number making a pilgrimage to South Jersey. Leaking, tarp-wrapped body jammed in the trunk of his car. Ready to be loaded into Kevin’s crematorium and disappear forever.
Lauren was no dummy. She caught on eventually. Asked him about it.
He loved her enough not to lie. And when she cried for hours, he loved her enough not to tell her another lie. That it would stop. He was in too deep by then.
Loved her enough not to ask her to stay when she left for the Midwest. Remarried now, he’d heard.
In time, his crushing sorrow at her departure gave way to pervasive numbness.
There’d been other women. Many others. None that he’d loved.
Otherwise, by any objective standards, he’d done good for himself. Did his jobs – on-the-books and off. Made lots of money. Got laid regularly. Lived his life. Didn’t seem much point to it sometimes. But as empty existences go, it was a pretty comfortable one.
Then came the two-word alliterative phrase that would herald his undoing. First glimpsed on the county newspaper’s front page.
A small number of people, really. But proportionately, as a percentage of the overall population of Indian Creek, New Jersey, a public health crisis of disastrous magnitude.
Traceable, so investigators from a handful of acronymed regulatory and law enforcement agencies alleged, to a buried stash of toxic chemicals discovered on a parcel of land still in Kevin’s name. Leaching out into the groundwater, in that region of backyard wells.
The only reason Kevin’s ass wasn’t already hung out to dry? Because word was, he was a small fish who could deliver the goods on bigger fish. Bigger fish capable of swallowing him whole.
“So that’s it,” Kevin said, fiddling with the elastic band that held his clown mask in place. “Do you understand now? And can I just take this damn thing off until the next group comes by?”
He looked up and down the trail. Traceries of distant sound drifted through the air. Sharp mechanical buzzing. Piercing screams. Shrieks of laughter. A fever dream’s soundtrack.
“No, you can’t take it off,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “And yes, I do understand. You think you want me to kill Shane O’Hara. But right now, that’s the last thing you want.”
“Because you have more incentive to kill him than anybody. He turns up dead, The Boys From Philly aren’t gonna be happy about it, and people aren’t gonna be lining up to sell you any life insurance. You need something with a little more finesse.”
“What do you have in mind?”
Cuddles McSpanky moved closer to Kevin. Crossing the distance with that weird quickness of his.
“Did you know O’Hara’s a gun collector?” Cuddles McSpanky asked.
“He’s mentioned it.”
Cuddles McSpanky opened his coat to reveal the grip of a handgun protruding from an inside pocket. Big, silvery colored, blocky and ornate. Like a hybrid of something the star of a Wild West show might use to shatter bottles at a distance, and a space alien’s raygun from a 1950s science fiction movie.
“From O’Hara’s personal collection,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “A Weaver Ferguson. Very rare collector’s piece that leaves a distinct ballistic signature. One of three on the Eastern Seaboard. The other two are in New York and Florida.”
“How did you …”
“Let’s just say O’Hara’s gun safe isn’t as secure as he thinks. Neither is his home, for that matter. He doesn’t know it’s missing. Yet. A body turns up dead from shots fired by this gun? Hard for O’Hara to claim he had nothing to do with it. And he becomes a liability to The Boys From Philly. He’s vulnerable”
“How do you get to him in prison?”
“I have my ways. But first we talk payment.”
“Look,” Kevin said. “I’m no Howard Hughes. I made a list of my assets, including stocks and bonds. But I figure that if I liquidate too much, that will get the attention of …”
Cuddles McSpanky held up a hand.
“All I want is for you to provide any supplies I need for the job. Other than that, I do it for free.”
Kevin blinked several times behind the mask.
“Uh … free?”
“Free. As in, it will cost you no money. You were in the gifted classes, weren’t you? Can I call ’em or what?”
“Can I ask why?”
Cuddles McSpanky gestured around him. Taking in the gore-spattered dummies on the ground. The woods, echoing with sounds of mirth and fear.
“See this?” Cuddles McSpanky said. “This is a pretty good set-up. Around the Halloween season, I work for haunted attractions. In the summer months, I work for carnivals. In the winter, I can usually find an avant garde freak show. Big with the facial-piercings-and-black-lipstick crowd. They give me cover to travel from place-to-place. I get to wear makeup, so nobody sees my real face.”
“What does that have to do with …”
Cuddles McSpanky turned toward Kevin.
“Between the carnivals and the haunted attractions, 65 percent of the clientele is below the age of 18,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “I need kids to make this gig work. Kids are my bread and butter. When somebody harms a kid, I see that as a direct threat to my business. I take it personally.”
Somewhere in the distance, heavy metal guitars blared over the sound system from Bloodshed Farms’ common area, where the food and T-shirt concessions were located. Closer, the voices of kids. Laughing. Shouting. Calling to each other. Old enough to deal with the grotesque vistas around them, but young enough to find them terrifying and wondrous.
“Five kids in Indian Creek have leukemia,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “That offends me. I want O’Hara to pay. You want O’Hara dead. We can help each other. I take care of O’Hara. You get me the supplies I need to make it happen. Do we have a deal?”
Kevin gave it a few seconds. Ended up asking himself the same question he’d been coming back to a lot lately.
What choice did he have?
“Deal,” Kevin said.
Cuddles McSpanky spit on his hand and held it out for Kevin to shake.
“It’s how I seal deals,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “I insist.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Kevin spit on his own hand and clasped Cuddles McSpanky’s. For just a second, he felt as if an electric current was running along his arm. Then he let go.
“What supplies do you need?” Kevin said.
“A body,” Cuddles McSpanky said.
“A … dead body?”
“Hard to frame O’Hara for murder with a live one. You’re a funeral director. You know what they look like, right?”
“It’s not that easy,” Kevin said. “I don’t know when The Boys From Philly are going to make a delivery. And I can’t just use a body from one of my funerals. There’s a paper trail. If police identified it …”
Cuddles McSpanky said nothing. The flickering orange light played over him, lending him an insubstantial, wavery quality. A small figure in black top hat and coat. Black eye circles against white paint making his face resemble a skull.
“I have a contract with the county,” Kevin continued. “When a homeless person turns up dead, I handle the disposal. But again, there’s no way of predicting when it will happen. And there’s a time element.”
Cuddles McSpanky waited a long moment before speaking.
“I think it would be better if it was somebody O’Hara knew,” Cuddles McSpanky said at last. “Somebody he had an incentive to kill.”
“Who would …”
Cuddles McSpanky withdrew the gun and pointed it at Kevin’s chest.
“I wanted to hear you tell your story first,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “You’ve convinced yourself that you’re blameless. You haven’t convinced me.”
Kevin backed up a couple of steps, toward the path leading into the woods.
“Wait!” Kevin said. “I … I can give you Pete!”
Cuddles McSpanky lowered the gun. Stepped over to the dummy sitting by the fire, which he’d recently divested of its hotdog-on-a-stick.
“I don’t need Pete,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “I’ve already got him.”
He knocked the dummy’s hat off its head, and then tore off its mask. Pete’s dead face stared wide-eyed with an almost comically dumbfounded expression. A trickle of blood, resembling chocolate syrup in the dim illumination, glistened at the side of Pete’s mouth.
Kevin didn’t consciously decide to run, let alone choose the direction of his flight. Just found himself careening along the trail that led into the woods behind the clearing. Tearing off his clown mask and flinging it aside as he went.
Opaque darkness among the trees. Kevin’s eyes just able to make out the trail, demarcated in white Pine Barrens sand. He considered diving into the underbrush and trying to hide. But something in his lower brain drove him onward. A primal need to put as much distance as possible between himself and the danger behind him.
The trail swung to the right and he followed it. Feet pounding on hard-packed sand. Chilly air rasping in his lungs. Moving fast despite his size. Despite the remote twinge of pain in his dicey knee.
Something rustled in the trees to the side of the trail. Not human. Too fleet among the dense forest vegetation. Moving too close to the ground. A dog? A fox?
It moved ahead of him. Kevin gave it no notice. Discerning light ahead now and running frantically toward it.
To his left, the trees gave way to a chest-high wall of thickly clustered bushes. Beyond them, a light pole set along a stretch of the main path that ran parallel to his trail, a few yards ahead of him.
A group of teenage girls came into view. Huddled together, heads swiveling nervously side-to-side.
They squealed when Kevin blundered into the bushes. Trying to reach the path. His words emerging hoarse and ragged.
“Help!” he shouted. “Get help, please! He’s trying to kill me!”
Suddenly, a figure popped out of the bushes between Kevin and the girls. A small man in a top hat and long coat.
“Keep moving folks!” Cuddles McSpanky screeched. “Nothing to see here!”
The girls screamed and laughed, scattering away from him, then continued down the trail.
“Oh my God!” Kevin heard one of them say. “For a second, I thought that was real!”
Cuddles McSpanky turned to face Kevin. Visible only as a silhouette.
“I take back what I said earlier,” Cuddles McSpanky said. “You’re pretty good at this.”
Kevin turned. Began running again, in the same direction he’d been going. Blind in his frenzied need to escape. Building up to full speed.
Panicked disorientation as his feet failed to find purchase. Hard-packed sand giving way to empty space, then an unstable surface that painfully wrenched Kevin’s ankle. An impact that knocked the breath out of him when he slammed face-down on something that wasn’t hard, but wasn’t soft either.
In the midst of adrenaline-stoked fear so acute that it almost registered as dispassion, Kevin noted that he was in a shallow, rectangular depression dug into the ground. And the object beneath him was a body.
Kevin pushed himself up onto his arms. Just enough light filtering through for Kevin to recognize the man beneath him. Shane O’Hara. Dead face expressionless and slack-jawed. Blood still glistening around the holes blown in his meaty torso.
Kevin was trying to scramble to his knees when Cuddles McSpanky dropped on him. Full weight of his body landing knees-first between Kevin’s shoulder blades. Hitting like a sledgehammer. Knocking Kevin flat again.
Cuddles McSpanky now astride his back, Kevin made one last attempt to lift himself onto his arms. Cuddles McSpanky slammed the gun against the side of Kevin’s head.
Through a painful, semiconscious fog, Kevin was aware of Cuddles McSpanky climbing off his back. Repositioning him in the hole. With surprising strength, Cuddles McSpanky grabbed a fistful of sleeve at Kevin’s shoulder and flipped him over on his side. Now Kevin was face-to-face with O’Hara. Looking into his former boss and would-be killer’s lifeless eyes.
Cuddles McSpanky holding the gun in O’Hara’s hand. Touching the barrel against Kevin’s chest.
Cuddles McSpanky cocked his head. Listening. Then lowered his face near Kevin’s. Spoke in a whisper.
“A one and a two and a … “
The chainsaws started. Followed by screaming. The cacophony drowning out the gunshots that Cuddles McSpanky fired in rapid succession into Kevin’s chest.
A cold, numbing ache suffused Kevin’s body, which would never have time to coalesce into agony. Kevin spoke … not his last word, so much as his last attempt at a word.
A minute curl of his tongue. A flutter of his lips. A soft, inaudible exhalation.
Cuddles McSpanky stood. Returned the gun to his inside coat pocket. Surveyed the fresh splashes of blood on his shirt and his overcoat. A little extra adornment for his costume.
He climbed out of the hole and looked down at O’Hara and Kevin. He had his work cut out for him tonight.
The tableau he planned to arrange on the front lawn of O’Hara’s hunting lodge later would be far from pristine, forensically speaking. Still, there’d be enough circumstantial evidence to the effect that O’Hara’s gun went off at close range between him and Kevin, inflicting mortal chest wounds on both.
The result of a struggle for the gun after one of them shot Pete, whose body would be found close by.
By Cuddles McSpanky’s estimation, it would be days before anyone discovered the bodies. Forecasters predicted rain, which would help further degrade any forensic evidence at the scene.
Not that police investigators would be likely to collect much — dutiful wielders of Occam’s razor that they tended to be. They had limited budgets. Limited resources. Absent compelling evidence of a more complex story than what the crime scene immediately suggested, they rarely went looking for one.
Cuddles McSpanky headed back through the darkened and now silent trees toward his clearing. His performance space.
Truth be told, he missed the days when he didn’t have to cover his tracks. When the murders he left behind would feed his own legend. When people believed he skulked through the darkness on the periphery of their settlements – city, village or campsite – and he could feel their fear. Registering on his psyche like a thunderous round of applause.
He no longer had that luxury. Not in these days of electronic communication. Of national databases. Of connectable dots.
These days, it was more practical to keep the Legend of Cuddles McSpanky as it stood. A collection of half-remembered tall tales for the public. A truncated resumé for a select group of clients.
None of them would ever know the whole story.
That the mayor of that small, Southern town led a mob that lynched a 13-year-old boy, whose transgression had been casting a lingering glance at a white woman. That the mayor pleaded and wept like a child before Cuddles McSpanky gutted him like a fish.
That the hobos at that camp in upstate New York had been holding a 15-year-old girl against her will, with the intent of prostituting her out and pocketing the money for themselves. That she’d run off into the night after Cuddles McSpanky cut her captors’ throats.
And it was likely for the best, that people didn’t know the whole story of Cuddles McSpanky.
Because if they knew what he’d seen? What he’d done? What he was?
That would blow their minds. Upend their conception of the universe and how it worked. Maybe even push a few sensitive souls over the brink into terror-stricken insanity.
But Cuddles McSpanky was the only one who knew the real story behind the legend. And he wasn’t telling.
Cuddles McSpanky arrived at his clearing, but didn’t yet emerge from the trees. Peered at the latest group of visitors, just approaching along the trail.
Kids mostly. A few adults. Including one man who hung near the back, glancing around furtively. Dim light revealing his slick bald scalp.
Cuddles McSpanky grinned, slow and wide.
Like the story? If so, check out Tom Joyce’s Pushcart-Prize-nominated novel “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report” from Codorus Press, available on Amazon. And keep an eye out for Tom’s short story collection, “The Devil’s Kazoo Band Don’t Take No Requests,” due out from Codorus Press in early 2016.
In the meantime, check out Tom’s blog at: chamberofthebizarre.com, and his Facebook page at facebook.com/tomjoyceauthor.
Also, rumor has it that there’s really a Cuddles McSpanky out there. You can check out his Facebook page at facebook.com/CuddlesTheHauntedClown, or go see him in person at BloodShed Farms Fear Fest : bloodshedfarmsfearfest.com