W. Fraser Sandercombe is a Canadian who has written for a number of small press magazines, including Weirdbook and Haunts, and an assortment of webzines. He's had two books published: Nothing Gold Can Stay (a wildlife history) and The Man Who Stole the Colours of Life (a children's fantasy). Most of his published work has been non-fiction for outdoor magazines and newspapers.
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Hearing the Raven Cough
by W. Fraser Sandercombe
Roger Thomas was going to die soon. I knew that the moment he introduced himself, the moment we made eye contact.
The insight, like an epileptic telepathic fist, hit hard enough to drop me to my knees. I heard a harsh sound in my head. Then I was looking at myself through Thomas' eyes. I watched the muscles and tendons in my neck stretch and pulsate, watched my jaw-muscles clench and unclench as my teeth grated together. A large vein bulged, then writhed, across my forehead. My eyes squeezed shut and forced tears from their outer corners while the images of his death ground through my brain.
It was a slaughterhouse-scented vision of winged, fanged and taloned rage, rage all out of proportion even for the act being committed. Whatever was killing him liked to kill, lived to kill. It savoured the terror and the violence.
Heavy wings thumped the air. Thomas screamed and screamed again. Bones broke and flesh shredded as the creature ripped, tore and splashed through his body. Blood spattered and dripped, poured and flowed as pieces of Sergeant Roger Thomas were strewn about a place overgrown with weeds and vines, a place of rotting boats and wildflowers.
Then it was over.
Recovery from the seizure was gradual. My mouth was dry. I had a foul taste like sour milk on the back of my tongue.
During the aftershock, I thought I could sense the collective mind of the crowd that had gathered around us in the Duke Street Gallery. It was a hydro-line hum that made your skin crawl and your scalp itch.
I was on my hands and knees. My legs were trembling, the muscles twitching. They felt soft and squishy. I needed help to get up.
"You okay?" Roger Thomas asked, a large hand around my arm as he guided me to a chair.
"Yeah," I lied, voice harsh and rasping. I was remote, disconnected, as if part of me was still somewhere else, as if I hadn't just imagined seeing myself through Thomas' eyes but had actually been behind them, watching, and some part of me still hadn't returned. I'd had seizures before, bad ones, all too often. They would hit, knock me down and knock me out. Sometime later, I would wake up wondering what the hell had happened and there would be a blank place in my memory. I'd never experienced anything like that vision, a man dismembered and disembowelled.
"Huh? Oh, yeah, I'm fine," I said, accepting a glass of wine from Thomas' partner, gulping it down.
Thomas' partner asked, "Do you always react that way when a police officer says he'd like to talk to you?"
"Don't know. Never been told that before."
"Are you well enough to talk to us?" Thomas asked.
I nodded my head, not certain that was true. The vision of his death replayed itself. It had felt so real, so threatening. It had come with a sense of overwhelming dread. That returned. Beads of cold sweat formed on my temples and in my armpits, trickling. In the vision, the terror had belonged to Thomas. Now, it was mine. I wasn't afraid for myself but for him, for what I knew was going to happen to him. Which was nuts. I wasn't some kind of epileptic fortune teller. I was just an artist, given to occasional blackouts.
My body began to shake, as if another attack was imminent.
"You don't look so well," Thomas told me.
"I'm okay," I lied. "What'd you want to talk to me about?"
"Have you ever heard of a fella who calls himself Jack Black?"
"Just like that? No? You're sure?"
"Yeah. Positive. Why?"
I was having a hard time relating to this, still vague and unfocused, stunned by his death scene. Then it occurred to me that he'd introduced himself as Sergeant Thomas, not Roger, and I asked, "Is your first name Roger?"
He confirmed it, saying, "You must've got my name out of today's paper, did you?."
I shrugged my shoulders, not answering. I hadn't read today's paper.
"Mr. Breck," the partner said. He pointed at one of my paintings. It was of a hand holding a gun, aimed at a rock singer on the stage of a nightclub. The gun was smoking and the singer was crumpling.
"What can you tell me about that painting?"
"What do you mean?"
"First of all, when did you paint it?"
"About a month ago."
"Is it any place in particular?"
"The club, you mean? No, I just painted it."
"What do you mean, why? I painted it, that's all. I mean, I thought of the scene so I painted it. It doesn't have any secret meaning. It just is what it is."
"Uh-huh," he said, glancing around the gallery. "And what about that one?"
He pointed to one of a young girl lying under the bumper of a police car, a pool of blood drying around her head.
"Same thing. I mean, I imagined the scene and painted it. That's all. There isn't anything to tell."
By raising his eyebrows, he conveyed a silent message to his partner.
"Okay," Roger Thomas said. "Maybe you could explain why Jack Black had a notice about your show in his pocket when we picked him up today?"
"Was the showing well advertised?"
"Not really. We had announcements printed up and posted on a few bulletin boards, handed out at the shops where I've sold a few paintings in the past. The budget was a bit tight so we didn't do a mailing."
"Maybe you could tell us what bulletin boards and what shops?"
"I kept a record on my computer. When do you need it?"
"Getting back to your paintings for a moment," the partner interrupted. "What do you do? Read about these things in the paper or hear about them in the news, then paint them?"
"I'm not sure what you're talking about, Officer ...."
"McBain," he said. "Are you going to tell me my first name too?"
"I don't know it."
He nodded his head and looked around the room again.
This was the first gallery showing of my work. No one had ever seen so much of it hung in one place before. The effect was stunning, shocking, an ominous display of bleak tragedy. Violence and death were the themes. The colours were rich and deep. There were no brush strokes. The paint was smooth and thin, the style realistic. The shadows were dark but full of menacing detail, which the gallery lighting revealed perfectly. You couldn't look at the show without feeling moved. Stalkers in the bushes, killers on the streets, bodies on the sidewalks. The violence was intimidating. The pain was grim.
I hated it, hated all my work.
Ever since my first seizure, a million years ago when I was thirteen, these images had been coming to me. I would be daydreaming, doodling on a sketch pad when an idea would hit. There would be an internal coughing sound, like the croak of a raven. Then the pencil would seem to develop a life of its own. The rough for my next painting would emerge.
Morbid was one of the kinder adjectives that had been used to describe my paintings. Hideous, obscene abominations. That had been used once or twice.
Even I wondered about it, sometimes. Briefly, I'd tried painting pretty landscapes. They were awful.
For nearly a year, I'd thought I was crazy and tried not to paint at all. That had been a rough year. The images fought to get out. I had to paint. I had no choice.
Eventually, I surrendered to the urge, the need, the passion, whatever you want to call it. No matter how grim the subject was, no matter how stark the reality, when I thought of it, I had to paint it. The act of painting wasn't pleasant.
"Mr. Breck," McBain said. "I'd like to discuss your work further. Perhaps we could get together tomorrow, at my office?"
"If you like," I said, glancing from him to Roger Thomas. When I saw Thomas die, it had reminded me of the way I get the images I paint, only stronger. I wanted to tell him what I'd seen. I didn't because he'd think I was deranged. Hell, I was wondering that myself. It was one thing to paint this stuff. But to have wide-awake dreams of winged things committing murder ... maybe not even murder. Maybe it figured Thomas was part of the food chain ....
"Say about nine o'clock," McBain said. "You could also bring that list of all the places where you left announcements about the show."
He gave me a business card and they left.
It wasn't much of a surprise that the opening was a flop. Thirty or so people came in for a look but nobody bought anything. One woman actually asked me why I had the gall to think anyone would want to live with one of my paintings in their home. She said that every time she looked at one, she wanted to have a shower. Another woman said that if she had thoughts and fantasies like mine, she wouldn't be showing them to the world, she'd be hiding them in shame.
Maybe she had a point.
Most of my teenage life had been spent in and out of hospitals while the doctors tried to discover what was wrong with me. After the first seizure, which hit with the onset of puberty, they put me through a battery of tests and announced that I wasn't epileptic. My parents demanded to know what I was. The doctors had me in for more tests and failed to find anything physically wrong with me.
The shrinks came next. My parents demanded to know why my artwork was so morbid. The shrinks said it was because the seizures were affecting my outlook on life. My parents demanded to know why I was having the seizures. They said I should try this new drug...
At eighteen, I refused to see any more doctors. I put up with the attacks, which hit seven or eight times a year, and carried on painting, struggling along for the next twenty years, working odd jobs, getting better and better with the paint. No galleries would show my stuff but I found a few shops that would, shops that catered to unusual tastes. People hardly ever bought my work. I'd never displayed more than one or two pieces at a time until I became involved with this co-op gallery. They had to let me have a show. I owned part of the gallery.
Some of the other artists were already complaining about my work being on the walls.
Alone in the gallery after the people were gone, I looked around and couldn't blame them.
The stuff was hard to like.
I'd always felt driven to show it. I fought the compulsion, not understanding it, but it usually won.
Maybe I should have fought harder. Then I wouldn't have been standing alone in that gallery, feeling all down and crappy while I replayed the dream of Roger Thomas and pondered some of the nasty comments people had made.
On the way home, walking through the wet, ocean scented Halifax streets, I picked up a paper. There was a brief story about a brutal murder. A man named Jack Black had been picked up at a downtown tavern. Officer Roger Thomas had said charges were pending.
That night, I sketched the creature I'd seen killing Roger Thomas, deciding that no matter how absurd he thought I was, I would show it to him. I didn't want to, I had to. Something kept telling me this was for real, this was going to happen. Thomas had to be warned.
The next morning, I called the bookstore where I worked and told them I wouldn't be in. When I went to the police station, McBain was by himself. He told me that some of my paintings, perhaps all of them, were of things that had really happened.
At first, I didn't believe him.
He showed me a photograph of the club he'd asked about, the dead singer on the stage. He showed me another shot of the little girl and the police car, then one of a woman who'd been beaten, her face all bloody, most of her clothes torn away as she lay sprawled out on the sidewalk. In my painting, she'd been lying on a sidewalk half in shadow, half in light, face streaked with blood. My original sketch of her had shown her mostly naked but it hadn't seemed decent to paint her that way. I wrapped her in shadows.
Stunned, I looked up from the photo of the beaten woman.
"Yeah," McBain said. "Now you know how I felt last night when I saw your art show."
"It would easy to assume you had something to do with these incidents."
"But that's too easy. I don't believe you did."
"I know. And I gotta tell you, I'm damned uneasy with what I do think."
He waved a hand to silence me. He had a certain poise, a certain presence that made you pay attention to him. If he wanted you to listen, you listened.
He said, "I'm thinking we should have all your paintings seized. If every one of them is of an actual crime, and some of those crimes are unsolved ... I mean, you actually show the perpetrators in some of them. It would be a lot easier if you co-operated with me on this and handed them over voluntarily."
I thought about that. Surprised, I realised the idea didn't distress me. I didn't quite believe it all yet but I said, "If you think it'll help, you can have them as long as you need them. It isn't like you'll be depriving me of my livelihood or anything."
"Thanks," he said, nodding his head. "Anyway, Jack Black told us he got the announcement of your show at the Arcane Shop down on Grenville Street. Do you know it?"
"Yeah. They actually sold a painting for me once."
"I know. Black bought it. It's hanging in his flat."
"The woman on the altar."
"Right. Black goes to this Arcane Shop a lot. He tells us he's a magician. The shop supplies what he needs for performing ritual magic."
Stunned, I flipped open my sketchpad to the page before the sketch I'd done last night.
A woman was lying on a glossy hardwood floor, inside a pentagram. She was naked. The hilt of a dagger protruded from her chest. It was a disturbing picture. The thing that disturbed me about it was the feeling of familiarity I'd had when I drew it. Like I'd been there before.
McBain swore, "That's what we arrested him for. He stabbed her twice. The autopsy showed that he'd sedated her. But the first stab wound must've shocked her out of it. She screamed and a neighbour called us. Your sketch here is almost identical to the pictures our photographer made."
He pulled a stack of black and white photographs from a file. I only looked at the top one. Seeing an image in my head, sketching it and then painting the sketch is a whole lot different than looking at the real thing. I couldn't look at the real thing without gagging.
"Black wasn't home when we got there," McBain explained. "We found out that he frequents this basement bar called the Seahorse, down on Argyle. We found him there and arrested him. When did you do this sketch?"
"Two days ago."
"Susan Kent was killed yesterday. You knew about it in advance."
"Are you implying I had something to do with it?"
"No, but that would certainly make all this easier, wouldn't it?" Casually, he flipped to the next page in my book. "What the hell is that?"
I told him, explaining how I'd seen it tear Thomas apart in some place where old beached boats had been abandoned.
"And you saw this during the fit you threw in the gallery? You saw it killing Roger?"
"Killing's a mild word for it."
"Is any of your work symbolic?"
"Until five minutes ago, I thought all of it was. You just showed me that some of it is literal. Exact. What if all of it is? And if all of it is, why would it suddenly become metaphorical ... well, hell, I never had a reaction like the one I had yesterday. I mean, meeting someone and then seeing their death. That never happened before ...."
"But you never met any of your subjects before, did you? Who knows what would've happened if you had?"
"Where does that leave us?"
"With the conclusion that you see violent events before they happen and interpret them with paint. And that you're next prediction concerns Roger. We'll keep an open mind about what you actually drew."
He stared at the sketch of the creature while he spoke.
"Where's Officer Thomas?" I asked.
"You're serious about all this, aren't you? You think I'm some sort of psychic or something, don't you?"
"If you aren't, then you must've had something to do with the events you've painted."
I leaned back in the chair, shaking my head, thinking about the past and all the crap I'd gone through with the doctors and the shrinks, all the torture I'd put myself through over the subject matter in my paintings. I mean, I wasn't some flake who got his rocks off on pain and violence. The images I painted had always disturbed me. They'd always seemed so ugly, so pointless yet so necessary.
As McBain pointed out their reality to me, I knew he was right. The understanding went way beyond a simple intellectual comprehension. I knew, I felt, how right he was. No wonder the doctors and the shrinks hadn't been able to figure out what was wrong with me. They hadn't known what to look for.
Five years of hell with their tests, questions and drugs, then twenty years of misery while I painted tortured images and wondered if I was out of my mind.
I'd better be careful or I'd start feeling sorry for myself.
"I think it would help if you met this Jack Black guy, Mr. Breck. Maybe you'd get some sort of insight that would help us wrap him up and get a conviction."
"I'm not really sure I want to do that. It's bad enough having to paint these things, Officer. I don't think I want to actually meet them. I mean, how would you feel having to meet all your nightmares?"
McBain thought about that and said, "I guess I see your point. I can't force you to meet him if you don't want to."
He left it like that and pretended to read something on his desk while he waited for me to change my mind.
"Yeah, okay, what the hell," I said. "I don't suppose it'll hurt anything to see him."
"Great. Let's go," he snapped, rolling his chair away from the desk.
He led me beyond a common room to the interrogation room where Thomas was supposed to be. The room was empty and McBain asked an officer at one of the desks outside, "Seen Roger?"
"He left with the prisoner about twenty minutes ago."
"He left. Where the hell'd he go?"
"I don't know."
Raising his voice, McBain asked, "Hey, did anybody see where Roger went?"
Someone pointed to the front door. "He went out."
"No. There was a guy with him."
"Tall guy, black hair?"
"That's the one."
McBain swore and led me back to his office, where he grabbed his coat and my sketchpad and started out.
I hung back.
"What for?" I asked.
"Damn it, McBain," I told him.
As we left the building, he said, "You mentioned something about boats?"
"Yeah, useless ones. The metal was all rusting and the wood was all rotting. There were long weeds and tangled vines and wildflowers. That's about all I saw."
As we got into his car, he said, "What time of day was it?"
I closed my eyes and thought about the colour of the light. It had an orange tint. That would make it early morning or evening. Then I thought about the direction. If the boat-place was here in Halifax... Remembering it, keeping my eyes closed, I smelled the sea and imagined the sound of gulls squawking, then saw them racing around inside my eyelids, hundreds of gulls shrieking and screaming, wheeling and diving to the ground amongst the boat hulks, leaping back into the air with shreds of wet red meat in their beaks. As one gull rose up, I followed the line of his flight and saw a city across the bay, Dartmouth. The boats were definitely in Halifax. The light was from the west.
"Early evening," I said, opening my eyes. McBain was staring at me. "Somewhere along the waterfront."
"You're sure about that?"
"Yeah." And I told him what I'd seen, then asked him why he was so willing to accept all this. Hell, parts of me were having a hard time accepting it. I could feel myself standing back and observing myself and wondering if this was just one more touch of lunacy. I had a total stranger telling me I was psychic. And he was a cop. Wasn't he supposed to be more practical, mundane, flat feet firmly rooted in the asphalt?
At first, all he would say was, he'd seen it before, not the way I did it, through paintings, but he'd seen it and knew it was possible.
We went to Jack Black's apartment up on Agricola Street. It had been ribboned off but the ribbon was torn from the door, the door open. Inside, I had no doubt that this was where the woman in my sketch had been killed. The perfect pentagram was still on the floor. Within was a chalk outline of the woman, Susan Kent. The room smelled of dust and blood.
On the wall was that painting of the other woman, the one on the altar. A dark-haired man was standing over her, holding a knife, his back to the viewer.
"That's Black, isn't it?"
"Yeah," McBain told me. "We found the body when it washed up on George's Island."
"Black killed her."
"I imagine he did, yeah."
"And he killed Susan Kent."
"Looks that way."
"No wonder Kent seemed so familiar."
McBain stood in the middle of the room, scratching his ear as he looked around the room. "Why the hell would Roger bring him here?"
"How do you know he did? What if Black was in charge?"
"Roger's a helluva a cop, Mr. Breck. There's no way some clown like Jack Black is gonna get the drop on him, especially right there in the station. He's too good a cop to be caught off guard like that."
"Why did Black sacrifice the woman?"
McBain stared into the pentagram, then opened my sketchbook, looking first at the dead woman, then at the creature.
"That's too crazy," he said. "Maybe I'm willing to believe your paintings are for real, you know, but this goes too far. Now I'm supposed to believe that Black is some kind of magician? A successful one? And that he conjured up this thing here? I wouldn't doubt for a minute that he was trying to conjure this thing, but that he actually did it? No, forget it."
"I don't know about conjuring or anything, but the dead woman was definitely part of some kind of ritual. So was the one in that painting there."
"And Roger's probably next."
"One way or another," I said.
"You want to help me find him?"
"Not really. What help could I be?"
"You'll recognise the place, won't you, the one with the boats, if we happen to find it?"
I swore, "Damn it, man, if I'd wanted to be a cop, I'd have been one."
He waited some more.
"Doesn't this seem a bit exploitative to you?" I asked.
"Get used to it. If you can do what I think you can do, we'll be seeing a lot of each other, Dennis."
"Just call me Breck, okay?"
We left the apartment and began the search along the waterfront, starting at the eastern end of the city, in Point Pleasant Park. Halifax isn't large but searching the waterfront was a long, tedious job. There were parks and warehouses and Naval properties, piers and wharves and small coves that were impossible to reach by car. Up one road, down another, along yet another, under a walkway, through the container parks, through the trainyards, out of the car, back in the car, go here, go there, did we miss anything, should we go back ....
For hours, we searched. The longer we were out there, the more urgent it seemed. We had to find the place, had to find Thomas, had to prevent what we both knew was going to happen.
Morning disappeared. We considered having a quick lunch, settled for a beer in the Split Crow on Duke Street. Over the beer, McBain talked a bit about his background, how he'd been born in Scotland and spent the first twelve years of his life living alone in the Highlands with his mother. When she died, he was sent over here to live with relatives.
He told me his mother had been into all that "flaky, metaphysical stuff." She'd been able to predict the future, he said. She'd even predicted her own death. Wryly, he added, "She committed suicide rather than face a long lingering illness. She hadn't known she had cancer, though, when she made her prediction."
We resumed the hunt.
Access to the shore became easier. We no longer had to go up and down the roads, winding around, backtracking. Beyond downtown Halifax, we got onto Barrington Street, which ran continuously along the waterfront. Then I saw the view of Dartmouth that I'd imagined.
"Here," I said. "Somewhere around here."
McBain pulled off to the side of the road. We were at the end of an abandoned stretch of Navy land, near another park.
I nodded my head, trying to get used to this.
McBain pulled into the park-driveway which ran towards the water before swinging left into the main park. At the turn, a car had gone right, recently, leaving the grass flattened.
McBain followed the twin tire tracks. They went around some thick shrubbery. A car was hidden in the bushes.
"That's Roger's," McBain said.
"This is the place," I told him. There was a rusting chain-link fence beyond the bushes. We followed it down to the water, where it had collapsed amongst slabs and blocks of broken concrete. Beyond, in the bright sunshine, we saw the writhing vines and wildflowers, the decaying fishing boats.
And Jack Black.
I knew him instantly. The man in the painting.
He was tall and thin, long black hair blowing wildly in the wind. Eyes closed, he had his head tilted back and his arms raised, a dagger in one hand, identical to the one he'd used to kill the woman. His lips were moving.
We scrambled over the rubble and into the hidden meadow.
McBain yelled, drawing his gun.
Black turned and pointed the silver dagger at us.
McBain gasped. He dropped his weapon and crumpled, falling to the ground in an unconscious heap.
Something smashed into my head, stunning me, driving me to my knees. Dazed, head aching, I struggled against it, watching Jack Black.
Since McBain and me were down, he ignored us, carving patterns on the air with his dagger.
For one brief moment, I was tuned into his mind. It was powerful, even magical in its strength. I knew what he was doing, what he was summoning. It had a name: Brammanae. The woman in the painting (I wondered what Black felt when he saw it in the Arcane Shop.) had been sacrificed to conjure this thing but the ritual had failed. Susan Kent had been killed for the same reason. This time, the sacrifice had worked but not totally. Black needed another offering. A living offering. Roger Thomas was it. I couldn't read why Black wanted this creature but there was immense self-satisfaction in his attitude. He was overjoyed that he had realised -- finally -- the power to do this, to perform this rite successfully.
The air beyond him shimmered, melted.
The creature from my vision was there, all seven feet of it, leathery wings spread, flapping lazily as it hovered near Black. It clenched and unclenched its fists, long talons glistening in the light. Chunks of muscle squirmed beneath its dark, iridescent skin. It smelled like dead fish and old cheese.
It landed with a thump, threw back its maned head and laughed, a harsh, grating sound. Then it leaned down and picked up Roger Thomas, who'd been hidden from our view by the long weeds.
The talons of its left hand were embedded in Thomas' shoulder.
Thomas screamed, a tormented raggedy noise. I'd never imagined a human being could make a sound like that.
The creature held its right hand rigid, the fingers straight. It punched a hole in Thomas' chest.
The cop screamed again as Brammanae reached inside him and pulled out his heart. It popped that into its huge mouth, like a candy, then proceeded to tear Thomas apart, arms, legs, shredding him, splashing him around the ground.
Jack Black stood there grinning as the creature played.
I fought to regain control on my body, stretching hard, reaching for McBain's gun. I heard that raven-cough in my head again. Something popped and I was free of whatever had been holding me. I got the gun, aimed it at Black and tried to pull the trigger.
The safety was on.
Black yelled something and pointed at me.
Raining blood, the beast started towards me, rushing, hooves brushing the ground as it flapped its wings.
I flicked off the safety and pulled the trigger again. The first bullet missed. The second one hit Black in the shoulder.
When the creature was less than ten feet away, my third shot hit Black in the head. As he died, Brammanae disappeared.
I passed out.
When I awoke, McBain was shaking my shoulder. It was early evening and the gulls were loud as they fed.