Lathe

This story was originally published by Dominion House Lit on August 26, 2015. Since Dominion House Lit now (sadly) only exists in the servers of the Internet Wayback Machine, I figured it wouldn’t hurt anything to go ahead and share it here on my very own blog. All the thanks in the world to Marisa and Katie for being brave enough to publish it in the first place. I hope you enjoy it!

Cassie Evans was dying.

She was in an alley behind a bar, sprawled on the concrete, her blood pooling around her. She was staring at the stars over a town called Lathe, her breath crystallizing in the Oklahoma winter.

Cassie tried to take a deep breath and stopped abruptly when one of the stab wounds in her belly tore further. She chuckled voicelessly at the agony until it passed.

Once Cassie had stopped seeing colors from the pain, she regarded the clear, cloudless sky again. “Always thought it would be raining when I died.”

“You always were melodramatic, that way,” came a voice from near the bar’s back door.

Cassie had her suspicions, but she turned her head to see who was speaking anyway. “Hey Charlie. I guess seeing you is pretty bad fucking news.”

Special Agent Charlie King smiled. She was smoking a cigarette, leaning against the ancient brickwork of the bar. Everything in this ratty little town was made of brick. It made the place feel like a municipal museum piece. “Well,” the older, taller woman said, breathing smoke, “I wouldn’t say as it’s a good thing, you seeing me.”

“The redhead, she said she killed you.” Cassie tried to clamp down on the coughing fit that seized her. Blood spattered from her lips on to her face and clothing anyway. Colors danced before her eyes.

“Yup,” Charlie said. “That she did.” The cherry at the tip of her cigarette flared brightly, but her eyes went dark. “You shouldn’t have ever come here, Cass.”

“You’re right,” Cassie said, artery-red lips stretching into a thin smile. “This place is a two-bit shithole. Bad roads, lousy food, hundred-year-old buildings settling all around you while you’re trying to sleep. Never gonna vacation here again.”

“You shouldn’t have come looking for me,” Charlie said.

“What else was I gonna do, sit and wonder? ‘Gee, maybe my partner will be at work tomorrow’?” Cassie rolled her eyes. “Not fucking likely.”

“It’s what the boss wanted you to do. You should’ve listened.”

Cassie spat blood on to the pavement. “You were always the listener, Charlie, not me.”

The tip of the cigarette crackled as Charlie took another drag off it. “And look where it got you.”

Cassie chose to ignore Charlie’s point. “Who was the redhead?”

“Dunno,” Charlie said, shrugging. “Could’ve been anybody.” She closed her eyes, drew a breath in through her nose. “I wish I could’ve told you before. Warned you about this town.”

“It’s just a half-assed tourist trap knockoff,” Cassie said. “Like somebody tried to manage downtown Guthrie on half the budget and none of the charm. What’s to be warned about?”

A sigh from Charlie. “You know those stories you always talked about? The ones with the town that was ‘witch-haunted,’ or whatever?”

“Yeah.”

“They ain’t got witches here in Lathe, Cass,” Charlie said. Her eyes were aimed at Cassie, but they were looking through her, past her, at something only Charlie could see. “They’ve got devils.”

“Now who’s being melodramatic?”

“I’m not gonna tell you what that bitch did to me before she killed me,” Charlie said. “I’m just glad she didn’t do it to you. Your rest is gonna be a lot more peaceful than mine.”

Cassie grimaced. “So she’s just gonna get away with it then?”

A slow, mechanical nod from Charlie. “And the whole town will make sure. It was never us against a single serial psycho. The damn task force never stood a chance. The Adam’s Rib Killer, the trail of bodies from Kay to Caddo County? All our profilers and forensic scientists and agents on the ground and there’s nothing we can do against a town drowning in its own secrets.” Charlie flicked her cigarette away and slid down the crumbling wall until she was sitting on the alley’s dusty concrete. “Even if I’d lived, it wouldn’t have mattered. The way she cut me up didn’t jive with the ARK’s MO.”

Cassie’s fingertips had gone cold, with numbness quickly following. She swallowed painfully. “Then why kill you? If the whole town was gonna keep her secret, why kill you?”

“Secrets take effort,” Charlie said. “Especially big ones. And this one… We’ve stumbled into something we can’t hope to understand.” Lines of pained effort on Charlie’s face stood out stark in the moonlight.

Cassie’s brow wrinkled with concern. For a moment, she forgot the creeping cold in her feet. “Charlie…”

“Yeah, I know,” the other agent said. “Doesn’t sound like me, does it? I used to think every lock had a key, every riddle had an answer.” A wan smile. “Then she broke me. Now it’s ravens and writing-desks from hell to breakfast. The world doesn’t make sense, and we can’t force it to. Learned that the hard way.”

The numbness was climbing up Cassie’s arms and legs. It took her a moment to realize that there were tears streaming from her eyes. She tried to wipe them away, found her arms wouldn’t move, and blinked to clear her vision. “You gonna stay here with me, until it’s over?”

“Sure,” Charlie said, one corner of her mouth pulling up. “Least I can do.”

Cassie looked back to the sky, feeling oddly peaceful. “Thanks.” Her vision was starting to narrow. She could still feel Charlie, knew she was there, even though she couldn’t see her.

What Cassie could see was the night, glittering with stars. She tried to find Orion among them, and couldn’t.

How odd, she thought. Orion should be out this time of year.

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