The Red Oleander Murders
by Sean Patrick Hazlett
I’ll bet dollars to donuts this guy, whose broken and bloated body was nailed to the redwood tree, had never imagined this is how it’d all end. By the way he was dressed in his fancy navy suit, he was probably some big muckety-muck. A real pillar of the community. Important enough for some sicko to have played Pontius Pilate and crucified him in Redwood Park. The Transamerica building towered above the crime scene—a silent witness to an unspeakable crime.
A chill wind swept in from the Pacific, stirring up a hard-to-miss trail of scarlet petals that stretched from the park entrance to the murder scene. The sky was overcast like ya’d expect on any run-of-the-mill October day in San Francisco, except during Fleet Week when the flyboys mess with the weather. The earthly aroma in the air hinted at an approaching storm. The forensics team was snapping photos of this sorry mook like a paparazzi mob on meth.
I took a deep breath. Today was gonna be one of them days. I pulled out my notepad and a cheap, ballpoint pen, and started scribbling notes.
First thing I noticed was the horned man carved into the vic’s chest. The wound reminded me of the stories the old timers used to tell when I was a rookie. Back in the late sixties, they’d investigated a series of ritualistic murders—strange knotted symbols carved into bodies. Real grim shit. They never did find the murderers, but every autumn, they’d brace themselves for the prospect of more killings that thankfully had never come—until now.
Two cops led a rail-thin middle-aged redhead under the police line. She stopped ten feet from the hanging body. The police pointed up at the bloated corpse. She nodded and supplied a name: Elias McDougal.
The next morning, I propped my legs on my desk and reached for a beer stein filled with steaming coffee. My ringing office phone jolted me out of my morning routine.
“What?” I grumbled.
“How’s the McDougal case going, Joseph?” Lieutenant Carmichael said in a voice reminding me of that passive-aggressive prick, Lumbergh, from Office Space. I hated it when he called me by my first name. Only my mother called me Joseph. To everyone else, I was D’Alessio.
“Christ, L-T, I just caught the damn case yesterday. I’ll let you know as soon as there’s a major development. Right now, I got nothing.”
“Well, I’m going to need something to share at the press conference.”
“How ‘bout: ‘no comment’?”
“Not good enough…”
I hung up and rolled my eyes. I didn’t have time for this shit. I grabbed my coffee and took a sip. Man. Ain’t nothing better for the nerves than the day’s first cup.
When I glanced at my copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, the headline, “Notorious Media Mogul Found Crucified”, dominated the front page.
The press had ID’d our vic before we’d had a chance to do an autopsy. Plus, I needed a high-profile case like I needed a root canal.
Based on yesterday’s work, I’d learned McDougal had been some rich douchebag who’d waltzed around town like he’d owned the joint. I’d never heard of him, but I knew his type: a real asshole, this one.
Taking another swig of coffee, I read some of the quotes.
From a former business partner: “Now hell is more miserable.”
His ex-wife: “I’d call him a wretched human being, but calling him a human being would be a compliment.”
The mayor: “He won’t be missed.”
On and on they went. Virtually everyone in the article had a motive to take an ax to the bastard. And they all knew it. Yet they’d hated him so much, the fear of becoming a suspect hadn’t deterred them from speaking their minds. Hell, after reading the piece, I almost wished I’d done it myself.
Now that I had a roster of potential suspects, I grabbed my jacket. I had one arm up a sleeve when my phone rang.
“This better be good,” I answered.
“Detective D’Alessio?” a voice whispered. “You’re the detective on the McDougal case, right?”
“I have information pertaining to your case.”
“Well, spit it out then, chief.”
“Not here. Not over this medium. They hear everything.”
“Who hears everything?”
“If you want to know more, meet me at the Denny’s on Mission Street tomorrow at noon.”
The line went dead.
Promptly at ten o’clock, I showed up at the Office of the Medical Examiner. A male attendant at the front desk led me to the examination room. When I entered, Doctor Hyun Park and his technician, Sam Rao, were already masked up and standing over McDougal’s naked corpse.
Doctor Park nodded at me and then activated his voice recorder. “Elias McDougal. Age seventy-two. White male. Doctor Hyun Park, attending physician.”
Park looked up. “Cause of death: suffocation from crucifixion.”
Rao snapped a picture with his iPhone.
“How long did he last, Doc?” I said.
“Someone nailed his hands directly above his head, so no more than ten minutes for a man of his age. Fifteen max. His body weight pulling down on his arms would have made breathing extremely taxing.”
I asked, “What about the carving on his chest? Was it post mortem?”
The doctor traced his hands along the wounds, then shook his head. “The incisions, while precise, are not clean. The victim was alive and squirming when these were carved into his skin. Also, the way the blood is pooling and the red hue near the edges of the cuts are indicative of antemortem injuries.”
I could think of nothing better to say than, “Christ.”
Rao’s iPhone flashed again. Then he said, “Any leads on a suspect, detective?”
“Besides every swinging dick in San Francisco? Nope.”
Over the next hour, Park and Rao ticked through the standard autopsy checklist from cutting a Y-incision chest to nuts, to examining and weighing McDougal’s organs. At no point did Park note anything out of the ordinary.
Until he removed the skullcap.
For several seconds Park stared into McDougal’s brain cavity. The blood drained from Park’s face. He shook his head. “No, can’t be. It makes no sense.”
“What is it?” I said.
“There’s something very wrong with this brain. I don’t understand.” Park’s eyes shifted toward Rao. “Did anyone have access to this cadaver before the autopsy?”
“Doctor Park, you know that’s impossible. We brought it straight from the crime scene. You and I were with it every step of the way.”
Park motioned for me to step forward and stand directly behind McDougal’s head. “You see that? Does that look like a human brain to you?”
When I looked down, I expected to see a pink wrinkly thing. Instead, something purplish overflowed from McDougal’s skull. “That brain’s wronger than a football bat. That’s for damn sure. He have mad cow or something?”
Park shrugged. “Not any neurological disorder I’ve ever seen.” Using his scalpel, he gestured toward the folds in McDougal’s purple mass. “See that? By my rough estimate, this has at least twice as many folds as a normal human brain. If I weren’t concerned about my reputation, I’d testify in court that this brain isn’t human.”
I shuddered. “You’re shitting me. What do you mean it ain’t human? What the hell is it then?”
“I…I have no idea. I need to take some samples to learn more.”
So I left and interviewed some potential suspects, but all of them had airtight alibis. After several hours, I returned to the Office of the Medical Examiner to check on Park’s progress, but his results were inconclusive, so he sent his report to the CDC.
I went home late that night none the wiser with more questions than clues.
Lieutenant Carmichael was waiting at my desk the next morning. “I hope you’re working hard on the McDougal case, Joseph, because the department’s getting a lot of pressure from the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to close it quickly. I need a detailed report from you by noon.”
I just grunted. He walked away in his usual passive-aggressive Californian huff. It was too damn early to do anything else, especially before my daily caffeine fix. I took a swig from my beer stein, savoring the fresh brew. Just when I started to settle into my daily rhythm, my phone rang.
“Detective D’Alessio,” I answered. “Who’s this?”
“My name’s Doctor Eli Rosen. I work at PEARL, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab. We study various parapsychological phenomena. One of my CDC contacts sent me an intriguing report I’d love to investigate”
“Doctor Rosen, I don’t know you, and the report you’re referring to is associated with an active criminal investigation, so I can’t comment on it.”
“I hold a top secret clearance, Detective. I’m authorized to access the McDougal case files.”
“You’re full of shit,” I said. “I’m hanging up.”
“Wait! Hear me out. I can tell you something about McDougal’s inhuman brain.”
Now he had my attention. How on earth could this whack job come up with something so outrageous, but true? I played dumb. “What the hell are you smoking?”
“Look,” Rosen said. “I’ve examined Dr. Park’s autopsy report. This case you’re working on, it’s a hell of a lot bigger than a run-of-the-mill ritual killing.”
I checked my watch. Shit. Eleven thirty. My meeting with the informant was in thirty minutes. “Doctor Rosen, I’m gonna have to cut this short. You got a number where I can reach you?”
“That won’t be necessary. I’m already in San Francisco. I’m certain we’ll cross paths soon. In fact, I’m counting on it.” He hung up.
My informant sat in the back left corner of the Denny’s next to the window. The customers around him chattered in Spanish. Normally, it would’ve been obvious to any white guy with a crew cut that he was more conspicuous than an elephant on a hamster wheel, but this fellow was as clueless as an unsolved murder from 1862.
When I sat down across the table from him, he acknowledged my presence with a grunt. From behind an odd assortment of beverages—a Diet Coke, a coffee, and a glass of milk—he reached for utensils that he just seemed to notice weren’t there. Without skipping a beat, he lifted the straw from his soda, licked it clean, then dipped it into his coffee mug, stirring. The average American would’ve bitched about not having a spoon. This guy, he made do.
“How’d you know I was the one who called you?” he said.
“Son, you stick out like a ninety-year-old nun in a Bangkok whorehouse.”
Nodding again, he extended his hand. “I’m Vance Jacobson.” He cast furtive glances to his left and right. “We don’t have much time. The pale people are coming.”
“I don’t have time to bullshit. Bottom line this for me, son: what do you got on the McDougal murder?”
“Have you seen the white stag?”
“The what? You’re not making any damn sense, chief.”
“So you haven’t then. You will.”
This guy was really starting to chap my ass. “Quit speaking in riddles, son. I ain’t got time for this.”
He held up his hand. “Please. Hear me out.”
I rolled my eyes. “You have thirty seconds.”
“The veil between worlds is weakening. When you see the white stag, you’ll know you’re close to the threshold.” He reached beneath the table and placed an object wrapped in an olive drab cloth onto the table. He lifted one of the cloth’s corners, revealing a glint of silver. “Take this. You’ll need it at the gloaming. During the liminal time.”
“I’m outta here.” I stood up. The man grabbed my arm with a firm grip.
“Please,” he said. “Before you go, take it.” He jutted his head toward the item.
I ripped his hand off my arm. “Do that again and I’ll arrest you for assault.”
The way the hope died in his sullen eyes was something I’d never forget. A tear rolled down his cheek. He stumbled out of the booth and onto his knees. “Please, detective,” he pleaded. “Don’t leave. I need to pass this on. They killed McDougal for it, and if I don’t get rid of it, they’ll kill me too.”
All eyes in the restaurant were on me. I tapped Jacobson on the shoulder. “Get up and quit making a scene, will ya? I’ll take the goddamn thing. But you gotta tell me who killed McDougal.”
“Thank you!” he said as he stood up, wiping his tear-filled eyes.
A deafening pop-pop-pop killed our conversation. The window shattered, spraying shards of glass everywhere. Three red holes peppered Jacobson’s chest. I dove to the floor, reaching for my SIG Sauer pistol. A woman screamed. Jacobson was spurting blood like a water fountain. For a moment, I was torn. Should I try to stop the bleeding and maybe save Jacobson or neutralize the threat to prevent more people from getting killed? My training demanded the latter, but when the guy next to you is bleeding out, it ain’t so easy.
I charged my service weapon, then crawled across broken glass toward the smashed window. I popped my head up to get a quick look. Three gunmen wearing white ski masks and coveralls fled from the storefront. In contrast with their pure white garb, necklaces made of familiar-looking red flowers dangled from their necks like Hawaiian leis.
Aiming at a trailing gunman, I squeezed off two shots, hitting him in the ass. His comrades grabbed him and ushered him around a corner before I could begin pursuit.
I issued an APB, then I tried to staunch Jacobson’s bleeding. But it was too late; he had no pulse.
While waiting for backup, I returned to the table. I removed the cloth covering the silver item to take a closer look. It was a knife, a knife that’d make a Marine KA-BAR look like a twig. Etched into the blade was the same image of the horned man carved on McDougal’s chest. The puzzle pieces clicked into place: the white stag.
Late in the afternoon, a bearded, bald guy wearing a beige trench coat and munching on a Boston cream donut flashed his badge, crossed the police line outside the Denny’s, and then entered the restaurant. Everyone stopped and stared at the chunky stranger. His patchy mustache and beard looked like a cat had coughed up a carpet of brown hairballs and pasted them on his face with superglue. Beneath his trench coat, he wore a plaid suit straight out of the seventies that was so wrinkled it could’ve been laundered in a dishwasher.
He waddled directly over to me, shifted the donut from his right hand to his left, and then extended his sticky fingers toward me. “Detective D’Alessio, I’m Doctor Eli Rosen.”
I ignored his hand. “You’re the cat who called me earlier today. You study psychology or something. What the hell does psychology got to do with a murder case?”
Rosen held up his index finger. “Quantum Parapsychology.”
“Whatever.” Earlier, I’d been looking forward to meeting this guy, but he really knew how to piss a detective off.
“Are you familiar with the Celtic festival of Samhain?” he said, before stuffing another donut quarter in his mouth with his sausage fingers.
Jesus Christ, was everyone gonna speak in riddles today? I shrugged. “No, but I’m guessing you’re about to school me on the subject.”
Rosen smiled, seemingly oblivious to the blood spatter on the back wall and shards of glass on the floor. “For the Celts, Samhain marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the darker half of the year. During the festival, they lit bonfires to ward off entities from beyond our reality. The Celts also slaughtered their livestock to prepare for the long winter. During Samhain, the veil between worlds was weakest and those entities could more easily cross the threshold from their realm into ours, and vice versa.”
I was half a heartbeat away from giving Rosen a knuckle sandwich, but his repeating the same weird crap as Jacobson gave me pause. “Get to the point, Doc. You telling me McDougal’s an alien or something?”
“Not exactly. He may still have been human. It’s just his brain that wasn’t.” He shoved the last donut quarter into his pie hole and continued talking with his mouth full. “In the coming days, you’ll start seeing apparitions. As we approach Samhain, these visitations will become more anchored to our reality, and you’ll become more tethered to theirs.”
Cameras flashed as investigators gathered evidence. I winced. “How the hell you know all that, Doc?”
He grinned. “I’m sorry, but that’s classified.”
I don’t think he meant to irritate me with his self-satisfied smirk or his smug response, but he sure as hell did. I changed my mind right then and there. I didn’t want to work with this clown. He was nuts. I stuck my finger in his face. “Look, Doc, stay out of my way. Capisce?”
He shut his mouth. A chill wind began blowing through the broken window. My insult appeared to have taken root. But it didn’t last long. He handed me his card. “If you change your mind, call me immediately.”
The guy had more persistence than the Energizer Bunny, and if I didn’t get away from him now, the urge to knock his ass out would’ve overpowered me. “All right. I’m done. I’ve had enough cray-cray for one day. You have a real nice day, Doc.” I turned and marched out of the Denny’s, stomping on broken glass all the way to the exit.
I did some digging on Jacobson. A quick search of his wallet revealed he was an employee at the Demeter Corporation, and a quick call to Demeter led to his emergency contact: his mother. And it just so happened Mrs. Jacobson was a local living down in Foster City.
So that afternoon, I took my beaten up Ford Taurus for a road trip down Highway 101. I stopped at a condo with a red-tiled roof and a sixty-seven stamped on its sandstone wall. When I knocked on the door, an elderly woman answered, regarding my badge with sad eyes. “Something happened to Vance, didn’t it?” she said.
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, ma’am, but your son passed this morning.”
Mrs. Jacobson didn’t even flinch. “Doesn’t surprise me given the crowd he was running with.”
“That’s actually why I’m here. What do you know about Elias McDougal?”
“Real cruel man, that one. Evil to the core. Vance used to do contract work for him. Over time, my son became obsessed with that twisted old psycho. Said McDougal was a genius. I believed it too. Said the man’s mind wasn’t natural. I think Vance and McDougal were involved with some sort of cult.”
“What do you mean?”
“Vance belonged to a club, like the Knights of Columbus or some such. Called it the Order of the Red Oleander.”
Now I was onto something. “Other than McDougal, did he have any associates who also belonged to this group?”
She shook her head. “Nah. Only McDougal. I never saw Vance all that much. He’d only visit once in a while.”
“Did your son ever say anything about the pale people?”
“Now that you mention it, he did. His face would glow when he spoke of them. It was real creepy. But he never told me who the pale people actually were.”
This interview was starting to go off the rails, so I changed the subject. “Did anyone have reason to harm your son?”
“Not really. Only McDougal. I got the sense the two had some sort of falling out.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Within the past month or so?”
Since my interview seemed to be yielding more questions than answers, I pulled out my card and handed it to Mrs. Jacobson. “If you hear of anything that might help with our investigation, call me at this number any time, day or night.”
On my way back to San Francisco, I stopped to get some grub at the Palm Dream, a dive bar along the 101. It was getting dark, and I needed some quiet time to wrap my head around the investigation. I grabbed a small table in some back corner hole to take a closer look at the knife. Removing the olive drab cloth, I was immediately struck by the knife’s craftsmanship. The etching of the white stag was so intricate, it mesmerized me, drawing me into its web.
The bar’s flickering lights woke me from my daze. The colors in the room began to dull.
A hand gripped my arm. Startled, I spun around only to come face to face with a hideous white thing. I’d say “man”, but it was something different. Something that shook me to the core. It grinned with rotten teeth and regarded me with pure black eyes. Long, black antlers twisted from its hairless skull.
The white stag.
And just as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished. The color returned to the diner.
I surveyed the room. The bar’s patrons carried on as if nothing had happened. Disoriented, I felt a dull throbbing where the white stag had touched my arm. I rolled up my sleeve to find a blackened handprint. The skin was charred, but cold to the touch. I was worried. Terrified even.
So I wrapped up the knife, paid my tab, and left.
“That’s him!” a man’s voice shouted from the opposite end of the parking lot.
Three men clad in white coveralls opened fire. I dove to the asphalt and low-crawled behind a cherry Toyota 4Runner.
My first instinct was to let these idiots exhaust their ammo on the 4Runner, but the longer they kept shooting, the more likely some poor bastard would eat a stray bullet. So I took a deep breath, pulled out my SIG, and unwrapped the knife. I rolled over to the rear wheel and leaned my back against it.
I extended the knife just far enough beyond the rear of the 4Runner to see the reflections of the gunmen. Two were holed up behind an off-white Ford Escort. The third was creeping toward me.
Placing the knife on the ground, I crawled to the front of the 4Runner and picked up a small stone. I counted to three. I threw the rock to my left. Then I popped up on the right and fired three shots at the creeper. I took cover before I had a chance to see him drop.
“Casey’s down,” another goon yelled. “Let’s end this bastard!”
Interspersed with sporadic gunfire, their footfalls betrayed shaky tactics. These chumps thought they were gonna bull rush me. Amateur hour.
I rolled toward the rear of the 4Runner and waited. As soon as they stopped firing, I counted to three and popped up. I aimed at the first man I saw and squeezed off two shots. Then I took cover.
I heard two empty clicks. Out of ammo. I jumped up and rushed twenty feet toward the remaining gunman. He fumbled with an AK-47, frantically trying to switch magazines.
I tackled him, put him in a chokehold, then cuffed him. I assessed the situation. “Casey” was unconscious or dead. The other attacker had a gaping chest wound and would probably bleed out. I reported the incident on my handheld and requested backup. Then I grabbed the handcuffed assailant and shoved him into the back of my Taurus.
“I ain’t done with you yet,” I warned, then locked the door.
I tried to render whatever first aid I could to the wounded men, but Casey was already dead. The other was unresponsive and had a weak pulse. He was losing so much blood there was nothing I could do for him. He’d be dead in minutes.
After retrieving the knife, I returned to the driver’s seat of my car and began my interrogation. Reaching into the backseat, I ripped off the suspect’s ski mask. The guy couldn’t have been a day older than nineteen. His curly brown hair was disheveled. Dark rings bordered pale blue eyes. Brandishing the knife, I said, “You’re after this, ain’t ya?”
He sneered at me. “Your stupidity’s gonna kill you.”
“Do tell,” I said.
“I’m not saying shit till I see a lawyer.”
I nodded. “Okay. I got it, chief. You don’t wanna cooperate.” Then I punched him real hard in the face. “You know, I wish you hadn’t resisted arrest and forced me to do that.” I punched him again. “Or that. You know, juries are real understanding when cops man-handle attempted murderers.”
The kid’s nose started bleeding.
“Look,” I said. “This here’s between you and me. If you won’t tell me why you’re after this knife, at least tell me why I saw the white stag.”
His eyes lit up. “You…you saw the Pale King?”
“So it’s true. It really does work.”
“What do ya mean?”
He seemed surprised. “You mean, you don’t know?”
“It unlocks the doorway to their world.”
“Beings of great power who lie in wait in the dead lands beyond the veil.”
“And why the hell would you wanna open that door?”
“The Pale King bestows great power to those who serve.”
When the blood drained from the man’s face, I knew I was onto to something, and it wasn’t good.
I rolled up my sleeve to show the suspect the black handprint. “This mean anything to you?”
His worried face curled into a snarl. “The Pale King touched you, didn’t he? Everything he touches dies.”
I shut my mouth then and there. The last thing I wanted to do was show this kook I was scared. Real scared. Then I noticed him clinging to the red-flower garland around his neck.
I grabbed it. “What’s this?”
He blushed, but said nothing.
“I guess you won’t be needing it then.” I took it and put it around my neck.
After that, he clammed up nice and tight.
I glanced down at the festering wound. I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted to get to a doctor, but I couldn’t just leave the suspect in my car. So I waited in agony until backup arrived.
“It’s necrotic,” Rosen said, examining the skin on my arm. He’d arrived on the scene before any of the police. So fast I was pretty sure he’d been following me. “See how the tissue surrounding it is inflamed? You need to see a doctor ASAP to remove all the necrotic tissue. Otherwise, you’re gonna have some real issues.”
“Could I die?”
“If the infection spreads, yes.”
I sighed. “All right. You mind driving me to the hospital?”
“Not at all.”
So I gave my report to the officers on the scene, they took my suspect into custody, and Rosen drove me to the hospital in his white Toyota Corolla rental.
Initially, I’d been reluctant to trust Rosen. I’d been cocky enough to think I could handle the investigation on my own. Hell, after “Asshole”, my second most common nickname at the department was “The Closer” ‘cause closing cases is what I did. Any case that had baffled the department’s brass went straight to me. And I always delivered.
But this case was so batshit crazy, I was beginning to question my own sanity. Hell, another reason I’d written Rosen off was I’d doubted his mental stability. But now, the only thing I was sure of was either both of us were quacks or what we’d experienced had been real.
Traffic on 101 was a nightmare. By now, the sun had long since set, and the bright lights of San Francisco illuminated the city’s skyline. I squirmed in my seat while my arm throbbed. Rosen distracted me with shoptalk. “The man you have in custody, he told you things corroborating what I said earlier, didn’t he? Things no one in your department will believe.”
I reluctantly nodded.
His eyes wandered down to the knife on my lap. “That’s the tuning knife, isn’t it?”
“Wait, my suspect said something about the knife being the key to unlocking the doorway between worlds.”
He grew increasingly animated, taking his eyes off the road for several uncomfortable seconds. “Exactly! You see, brane theory suggests there’s a multiverse of an infinite number of universes.”
The blaring horn of an eighteen-wheeler forced Rosen to swerve back into his lane.
“What the hell do brains and universes have to do with a knife?” I forced the question through a wave of nausea. And Rosen’s rickety driving only made it worse. The man had a unique talent for handling a car like a drunk on a unicycle.
“B-R-A-N-E,” Rosen said, the car lurching with his shift in attention. “Short for membrane. Our universe exists in one such brane that passes through hyperdimensional space. Some branes resonate at the same frequency as ours but are slightly out of phase. One of them briefly shifts into phase with ours between the autumn equinox and winter solstice, during Samhain.” Rosen pointed at the knife with his right finger while his left hand barely maintained control of the steering wheel. “And that knife you’re carrying is some sort of hyperdimensional tuning fork that creates a bubble where these two worlds can intersect. Unfortunately, it also draws the pale people toward you like iron to a loadstone.”
Rosen now had my full attention, especially as I watched the infection slowly advance up my arm through the side-view mirror. “How do you know all this, Doc?”
Rosen glanced up at the rear-view mirror, switched on his turn signal, then changed lanes. He shrugged. “The Pentagon put me on this case because, over the past few years, satellites had detected an unprecedented increase in tachyon emissions originating from San Francisco.”
Frustrated at Rosen’s technobabble, I threw up my arms, then instantly regretted it as a surge of pain rippled through my infected limb. I gritted my teeth, waiting for the pain to subside, then said, “What the hell are tachyons and what do they have to do with all this shit?”
The Corolla vibrated as it crossed the rumble strip on the road. I nearly threw up. Rosen grumbled, then righted the car in the middle lane. “Tachyons are subatomic particles that travel faster than light. They’re a telltale sign of dimensional intersection. My working theory is that tachyons are leaking from the other dimension into ours, and vice versa. Time is passing slower on the other side of the veil. We see tachyons because the timing differences are adjusting to one consistent temporal frame of reference.”
“Not sure I follow, Doc, but I got that tachyons led you here. What’s on the other side?”
“The Fomorians: an ancient race that plagued the Celts millennia ago. They always come bearing gifts in exchange for allegiance to their kind.”
“Gifts like higher intelligence?” I asked.
“Precisely. Now you know how McDougal got his enlarged brain.”
I checked my arm and winced. It hurt like hell. Sweat rolled down my face. I was burning up. “What do they want?”
“Detective D’Alessio, what does every species want? To be fruitful and to multiply. To expand their territory. To conquer and to subjugate.”
“How do we stop them?” I asked before shouting, “Watch out!”
“Oops!” Rosen jerked the Corolla back into its lane, then said, “You can start by defending that knife with your life. So long as the Fomorians don’t control it, they can’t keep the portal between our worlds open.”
If I didn’t get to a doctor soon, I wouldn’t be defending anything. “Does the government have any intel on the crew that was trying to kill me?”
“They call themselves the Order of the Red Oleander, and they serve the Pale King. McDougal was their leader.”
“Let me guess: there was a power struggle?”
“We think so,” he said. “Our working theory is that Jacobson and his co-conspirators had had a falling out with McDougal and then plotted to kill him. After that, Jacobson stole the knife for himself, with entirely predictable consequences.”
“So why didn’t they just shoot McDougal?”
“Because sacrificing McDougal would likely appease
the Fomorians. They seem to feed on life energy. Were it expedient, the crew
would’ve done the same to Jacobson.”
I grabbed the garland around my neck. “Why red oleander?”
“Don’t know. Members dress in white to honor the Pale King, but also wear garlands of red oleander. There’s something special about the flower. Besides being poisonous, it’s also extremely hardy. Did you know oleander was the first flower to bloom in Hiroshima after that city was destroyed? My guess is it somehow protects members of the Order from the Fomorians. The Order may bargain with them, but the pale people can be unpredictable.”
“I had no idea.” I clutched the garland. “Looks like I better keep this puppy on for good luck.”
Rosen nodded. “I also think you and I need to stick together for the next few days until after All Hallow’s Eve. You may need me.”
At this stage, I hardly needed convincing.
By the time we pulled into the parking lot at the UCSF Medical Center, I was puking like a champ, and Rosen almost had to carry me to the emergency room where I passed out.
When I came to, Rosen had set up a cot next to my bed.
“What happened?” I asked.
Rosen shook his head. “You had a real nasty case of necrotizing fasciitis—a flesh-eating bacteria. Good thing we got here when we did. If we’d waited any longer, you’d have been toast.”
I tried to get up, but Rosen stopped me. “Easy there, Detective. Doctor wants you to stay put so he can monitor your progress. You’re on a heavy regimen of antibiotics as it is. The doctors had to give you a skin graft.”
“What day is it, Doc?”
“Halloween. You were in intensive care for a few days, but you’re gonna be all right. You’ll probably be released tomorrow morning.”
“So we’re not out of the woods yet, are we, Doc?”
He shook his head.
I reached for my service weapon. “Where the hell’s my SIG?” I felt naked without it.
Rosen grinned. “Even a detective can’t get away with stowing a loaded pistol in a hospital, especially since Lieutenant Carmichael is investigating you for killing the men who tried to murder you.”
My eyes widened.
“But don’t worry, I insisted on keeping the oleander around your neck and the cloth-covered knife at your side. And in regard to the investigation, I’ll make sure Uncle Sam has your back.”
Soon, I drifted back to sleep.
I woke to flickering fluorescent lights. I staggered to my feet, grabbed the knife, yanked out the IV line from my good arm, then roused Rosen.
“What is it?” he asked.
“No clue, but it’s a hell of a lot like what happened at the diner.”
The room’s colors faded to shades of gray. “You seeing this?”
“The dying colors.”
“You’re about to cross into their realm, aren’t you? Quick, grab my arm. If you don’t, you’ll transition there alone.”
I clutched Rosen seconds before three men with milky-white skin and coal-black eyes emerged from a wall that rippled like a pond’s surface under a light breeze.
I instinctively reached for my SIG only to grasp at my useless hospital gown. The pale men bared their needle-sharp teeth.
The Pale King emerged from behind them, his black antlers glistening in the dull gray light. He pointed a long, black-taloned finger at me.
Rosen’s quaking hand gripped my arm. He yelled, “Run!”
We ran through the hospital until we reached the entrance. I was tired and sick. It took effort not to lose my lunch. When we left the building, we weren’t in San Francisco anymore, but somewhere else entirely.
We passed into a silver mist. The crooked branches of gray-barked trees twisted upward into the gloom. Knee-high misshapen things skittered in the shadows singing dark songs, cicada-like in their eerie whistle-hums.
My arm ached. I turned to Rosen. “What now?”
His eyes darted back and forth. “I’m not sure. This is their domain, their dimension.”
“How much time do we have?”
“In our world, it would’ve been until the end of All Hallow’s Eve. Here, I’m not so sure. I suspect it’ll be longer. They’ll have more time to take the knife.”
Flying dart-shaped insects as big as seagulls buzzed overhead. A wet, milky residue infested everything.
I froze, uncertain what to do.
The Fomorians emerged from the hospital that was a dark echo of our own. My gut kicked in. “Hide!”
Rosen and I stumbled through the alien world, desperate to evade our hunters.
Rosen wheezed, struggling to keep up. He tripped, then collapsed. “Go on without me. I’m just slowing you down.”
I admired him for risking his life to follow me here, so I owed it to him to help him get through the night. “C’mon, Rosen! They’re almost here.”
When I looked up, shapes converged all around us.
The joke was on me. The pale men had herded us like cattle from our world into theirs. Now we were surrounded and out of options.
The Pale King strode out of the mist, sneering with those terrible razor-sharp fangs. His servants kneeled as he stepped forward into the center of the circle.
He motioned for me to surrender my knife. Yet, he kept his distance. He almost seemed wary. I glanced at Rosen. He shivered, offering no answers.
And then, it hit me. I removed the garland from my neck. That seemed to do the trick. The Pale King inched closer. Once he was in reach, I wrapped the garland of red oleander around the knife and lunged forward.
The instant the oleander touched his skin, it bubbled and burned. He collapsed, thrashing and wailing with the most disturbing shriek I’d ever heard.
In seconds, he was a pile of silver ash. I spun toward his followers, brandishing the oleander-enmeshed knife. Rather than face me, they fled into the alien forest.
Rosen and I spent the rest of the night in the strange mirror hospital. By the time the sun rose, we had shifted back into our world. Rosen sat up on his cot, wiping his face and arms with a washcloth. After last night’s incident, we’d both had to remove a ton of dirt and grime. I lay in my hospital bed, trying to make sense of what had happened that night.
“For the time being, it looks like we averted a major catastrophe. I’d appreciate it if you’d give me that knife so the Pentagon can put it away for safekeeping,” said Rosen.
I laughed. “You kidding me? I don’t wanna be anywhere near that thing. Which begs the next question: what the hell am I gonna put in the official report?”
A matronly nurse walked into the room. When she saw me, her face contorted into a rictus. “Who on earth said you could take that out?” Her eyes shifted to the IV, then back at me. “You had a life-threatening infection. Just because you’ve been stabilized doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet. You still need all the fluids you can get.”
I held up my hands in mock surrender. “You got me. I’m sorry.”
She harrumphed, fussed with the IV equipment, put on some latex gloves, and then shoved the catheter back into my arm.
On her way out of the room, Rosen shut the door, then pulled the privacy curtain closed. “Don’t worry,” he whispered, “I’ll take care of everything, though I’ll need some writing samples so we get your style right.”
“You mean, your people at the Pentagon will cook up a cover story?”
Rosen beamed. “Of course. But you’ll have to memorize it. We’ll also provide you with all the other ‘details’ not in the report in case anyone starts asking questions.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Rosen tapped me on the shoulder. “If you ever wanna make a few extra bucks on the side and work on other ‘interesting’ cases, call me.” He handed me his card. “We make a great team.”
Life can be grim, but sometimes there are folks who shine light in the darkness. Rosen is one of ‘em. I’d take a bullet for that chubby S-O-B any day.
Sean Patrick Hazlett is an Army veteran originally from Wilmington, Delaware, but now makes Northern California his home. His short stories have appeared in Abyss & Apex, The Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF: Volume 4, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 4, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 3,Terraform, Galaxy’s Edge, Writers of the Future, and Grimdark Magazine, among others.