From the novel Sacra Obscurum…

Matt stared dully over the shiny black casket where Stanley Dawson lay. He studied the mouth and nose that looked like his, the prominent brow. The resemblance was undeniable, save the thirty-plus years of strain that were etched into Stanley’s brow. And, of course, his expression was serene. Matt’s was not.

“He looks peaceful…at rest, doesn’t he?”

Aunt Joan had joined him at the casket. Matt hadn’t noticed. He forced a smile and showed it to his father’s sister. “Yes, he does.”

She reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. “This is nice with everyone here. A right proper send off.”

Matt looked around the room, surprised at the group that had amassed while his attention was on the casket. How long had he been looking at Stanley? How long had he waited for him to stir and wake, and answer the difficult questions swirling in his head?

Formally dressed mourners and well-wishers filled the room, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the modest space. Matt questioned the sense in holding the viewing in Stanley’s study, but Joan had insisted. “It was his most favorite place in the world,” she had said. “He would want to have it here.” She was right. Stanley spent a great deal of his time in the study among his many books and journals. In fact, most of the conversations Matt ever had with him took place within these four walls.

In his youth, Matt found the room intimidating. The dark-mauve papered walls, the deep mahogany wainscoting, the cases of texts rising overhead. The room always seemed dark, like it held secrets among its many books. He would imagine those thick volumes toppling from the shelves, crushing him with the combined wisdom of the world.

“Can I have your attention, please?”

Matt turned and found Robbie Bentley holding up a glass. He was one of the first guests to arrive that afternoon and had introduced himself to Matt as Mayor Robbie Bentley. “…but call me Bud,” he had said. “Everybody does.”

He seemed like a pleasant sort. His plump, well-fed face wore what looked to be a permanent grin. The only sign of his age came from the deep laugh lines that edged his bright eyes. He had extended Matt his most sincere condolences and added the customary: if there’s anything I can do

“Your attention, please,” Bud continued. The murmur hushed. “We’re here today for our dear friend Stanley. There isn’t a one in this room that isn’t sorry to see him go. There isn’t a one among us, he didn’t touch the life of in some way. He has been both a good friend and good leader to this community. He was among my dearest friends and when I heard news of his passing, well, I got to thinking about the old days.”

Matt looked around the study. Everyone hung on the mayor’s words.

A man who Matt didn’t know from a hole in the ground handed him a tall, frothy glass of beer. It was a little early for such an indulgence, but Matt politely accepted it.

“When we were kids,” Bud went on. “We used to hang around in his father’s boat when it was put-up for the winter. Oh his father didn’t like us using it, but we used to sneak in there all the time and get up to no good. This one evening, we were entertaining the McCaffery sisters on the boat when his father showed up in the yard. ‘Stanley Dawson,’ he says. ‘You get your boney arse down here on the double.’ Well…Stanley near jumped out of his skin and he went to climb down the ladder from the cradle. He was in such a rush, he tripped and down he went—right off the side of the boat.” Bud slapped his thigh to punctuate his words.

Many laughed.

Aunt Joan said, “I never heard that before.”

Matt hadn’t either, but he was less surprised. There were likely many stories about Stanley he would never know.

“It was a good ten foot drop, and Stan laid there in a pile under the ladder and he said, ‘Dad, I’m hurt.’ His father said, ‘Boy…you don’t have time to be hurt.’”

There was more laughter, especially from the men in attendance.

“Well…it seemed like Stanley adopted that motto from that day forward. When his father passed and he had to become the man of the house, he didn’t have time to be hurt. Twenty year ago, when he lost his dear Susan to cancer…”

Matt clenched his jaw.

“…he had his patients to look after and he didn’t have time to be hurt then, either. All these years he spent taking care of others and now it’s finally his turn to rest, isn’t it Stanley?” Bud said to the casket. “That’s right,” he said as though Stanley had answered. “Raise a glass in honor of our dear friend.”

“To Stanley,” some said. All tipped a glass.

“Let’s wake him up,” someone shouted from the back. It was the cue to strike up the band. A fiddle screeched to life accompanied by guitars in a spirited East Coast jig.

Matt looked around for the instruments. The quiet viewing he’d expected had morphed into a lively shindig. Men were handing around more glasses of beer. A few ladies circulated trays of sandwiches and cheese. Raucous laughter erupted from a huddle in the corner.

A woman with a heaping plate of finger foods approached Matt. “Poor Dear,” she said. “You must be hungry. Look, I made a plate for you.”

“Oh, thank you, Mrs.…”

“Finney, Mrs. Finney. I was in the Rotary Club with your father. We’re going to miss him so. He was such an active member…always giving.”

Matt took the plate and set it on his father’s desk. “Actually, I’m not very hungry at the moment.” He set his beer glass down as well.

“Are you going to be in Saint Andrews long?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. I have to oversee Stanley’s practice until I find a new doctor to manage it.”

“Oh, are you a psychiatrist too?”

“Yes, I practice at the D. A. McLaughlin Center in Edmonton.”

Mrs. Finney smiled and nodded. “Oh, that’s nice, dear. Is there a Mrs. Dawson?”

“No, there isn’t.”

“Surely, a young doctor like yourself must have a girlfriend,” she said with a coy smile.

“Umm, no, I’ve been concentrating on work lately.”

“Well maybe you’ll meet a nice girl while you’re home.”

Home? This place hasn’t been home since I was fifteen, he thought, but smiled, nonetheless. Then he looked around the room for help. Where was Aunt Joan when he needed her?

“Here ya go, young sir,” a man said, reaching around Mrs. Finney with another full glass of beer for Matt.

He accepted the cold glassful and said, “If you’ll excuse me Mrs. Finney, I need to check on something.”

Matt made his way through the crowded study. He glanced at Stanley as he passed by the casket and he wondered how he managed to spend so many years among these folks. He must have had another side—one he never showed to his son. These people would not have gathered to mourn the passing of the serious, driven man that raised Matt. Men like that were seldom missed.

When he reached the hall, Matt crossed into the dining room where he found the band. He nodded to the trio who were just starting up a new jig. The floor boards bounced as they stomped their feet in rhythm and Matt felt the sides of his head swell. The flight east had left him exhausted and the entertainment was a little more than he could bear. At the far end of the dining room was a door to the veranda that wrapped around the front of the house. Matt forced himself to smile at a few more unfamiliar faces and handed his beer off to a fellow whose glass was running low, before he reached the exit.

A trace of fog on the soft breeze, tasted faintly of the sea. Down the sloping streets about a half-mile was the Saint Andrews waterfront. The mighty Bay of Fundy skirted the town’s business district and it could be seen from most anywhere in town. Matt had forgotten the feeling the bay brought about. It was an all-powerful presence, a vast abyss that could nourish and provide, but too many times, took away.

There was nothing like it in Edmonton. Their famed North Saskatchewan River was a mere trickle in comparison. When Matt first traveled west to attend university, he was out of sorts and didn’t know why. He had difficulty sleeping and usually felt fatigued. It was another expatriated east-coaster who told him the reason. “You miss the water is all,” he had said. “The air here is dry as a popcorn fart, but you’ll get used to it.” He did.

And now, years later, Matt mused that he would have to get used to the Atlantic air again. It was so damp and thick, it felt more like he was drinking it than breathing it. And that bay—so ominous.

“I’d expect it to warm up tomorrow,” a gravelly voice said.

Matt had thought he was alone on the veranda. “That’s good,” he said to the man who stood further down the deck, looking out to sea.

“That fog is a good sign of it,” the man said, taking a haul off a cigarette.

Matt moved beside him, though he was careful to stay up-wind of his secondhand smoke. “Matthew Dawson,” he said offering a hand.

The man shook it. “I know. I was chums with your dad a way back. Arthur Sullivan.”

Beyond the smell of burnt tobacco, Matt detected another odor emanating from Mister Sullivan. The unmistakable smell of fish. He was not in his Sunday best like the others in attendance. He wore dirty work pants and a matching vest over a wool sweater. Atop his curly gray head sat a ratty cap.

“Different professions, ya know,” Sullivan said. “I didn’t do too good in keepin’ up with your old man.”

You and me both, Matt thought. “Do you fish?”

“Not anymore. Too old for that. I just run the boats now,” Sullivan said, still looking to sea as though he was reading distant messages from it. “You put on a nice wake for ‘im. Lots of folks showed.”

Matt agreed, though he felt like he had of a house full of strangers more than he had a nice anything.

He looked around the sweeping yard surrounding the house. The manicured pitch was outlined with tall cedar hedges that parted only at the entrance of the driveway. Three mature cherry trees grew near the street. Soon, they would blossom. Matt figured he would have to find out who did the grounds-keeping and work out payment. It was yet another detail that needed attention. Who knew that dying could mean so much work for the living?

As his eyes wandered to the hearse parked beside the house, he considered what came next. Stanley’s earthly remains were to be cremated in accordance with his wishes. He would concentrate on that. First things first.

“That fella a friend of yours?” Sullivan asked.

Matt followed his gaze to the mouth of the driveway where a man stood near the hedge, watching the house. He wore a dark coat with the collar turned up. “Do you know him, Mister Sullivan?”

“Nah. I figured you might…”

The man must have seen that the pair on the veranda had noticed him. He moved on, disappearing behind the hedge.

“He ain’t from around here, either.”

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From the novel No Greater Agony…

The trail branched off to Jack’s left. Cabin Five—Frasier’s cabin—was down there, tucked secretly amid the trees. A low hanging branch swayed as though someone had just pushed it aside while running past. That served enough intrigue for Jack, and seconds later, he pushed it aside as well.

Cabin Five came into view a few yards down the trail. It reminded Jack of his own cabin, only more given to shadow from its taller, more oppressive neighboring trees. No one appeared to be home. Jack could see nothing in the windows, but the reflection of the sun dappled day.

He leapt up the porch steps and knocked on the door. It sounded oddly hollow.

“Frasier, you in there?” Jack called.

He prayed his neighbor would come to the door, towel around his neck, perspiration dotting his brow, fresh from a morning jog. Perhaps a pair of headphones would explain why he hadn’t heard Jack’s greeting on the trail. He knocked again.

The door creaked open a few inches under the weight of his knuckles.

A spoiled fruit stench escaped the cabin. Jack recoiled and waved a hand in front of his nose. He called for Frasier through the opening and as he did, caught sight of the blood inside. His jaw went slack. He pushed the door open wide.

All the furniture had been cleared to one side of the cabin—the desk overturned, the bookcase as well, the cot tossed atop it. The furniture seemed to be moved to make room for a solitary wooden chair in the center of the floor. A pool of congealing blood spread around it. Jack covered his mouth and nearly doubled over as the trash can smell of rot assaulted him again. It left a sour film on his tongue.

Despite the flash of nausea, he stepped inside, careful not to set foot in the gore. The buzzing of black flies overpowered him once he was out of the summer breeze. Dozens of flies circled the chair, landing for split seconds at a time before lifting off again. Jack wondered how he hadn’t heard their dizzying drone outside. He felt the promise of vomit bubbling up from his core, but he forced himself to look more closely at the chair. Certainly, he would need to describe this scene to the authorities at some point.

Scraps of rope hung loosely from the chair. Some lay in the blood around its legs. More clung to one of the wooden arms. A ruin of splintered wood was all that remained of the other arm. Jack bent to inspect it. The arm had been shorn in two, the likely result of a heavy blow.

Fresh panic flooded his chest. The image of Jonathan Dunn flashed through Jack’s mind. He pictured him in this very cabin. He saw him swinging an ax downward—blade cleaving flesh and bone and busting through the arm of the chair. Jack staggered backward, too weak to stand. He slammed into the wall behind him and slid to the floor.

No Greater Agony is available now!
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