written and illustrated by Iron Eater
William and Rabbit had been in what they politely called the renovation business for years when William sussed out that Rabbit was very probably cheating on him. Sleeping around wasn’t a big deal—they’d never set out to be exclusive, and the fact they were an item at all had happened more because they couldn’t find a reason not to be one than as any grand emotional gesture—but this wasn’t like how Rabbit sometimes trawled for new “friends” when William was busy with less cooperative work. This was a matter of business. That made it personal.
They’d found a nice old place ripe for some flipping and were busy with the measurements-and-logistics part of the trade when William had first become suspicious. He’d been going through Rabbit’s stack of schematics when he found a blueprint among them that didn’t match any of the properties they’d surveyed, and that might have been fine on its own since Rabbit was always getting into public records to see what hidden gems he could haul out of the garbage. The problem was how there was writing all over it, some in Rabbit’s hand and some in somebody else’s, and the comments were clearly referencing one another. It was a real whopper of a job and William hadn’t heard word one about it for what looked like weeks of secrecy. They sometimes didn’t tell each other things, granted, but there was a world of difference between that and whatever this was.
He wasn’t quite sure how to bring it up. In a trade like theirs you had to have standards, but you also had to remember that what you did for a living was unseemly any way you sliced it, so there wasn’t exactly any moral ground for him to stand on. Decency was a hard card to play when one earned their bread and butter through others’ misfortune, especially when they sometimes helped things along. The people who wanted the quaint little houses with the ultra-modern interior updates didn’t care how you got them their new place so long as you didn’t show your ass about it. He and Rabbit were professionals because they knew all about how to be prompt, polite, and above all discreet. Discretion had always been one of Rabbit’s strong suits, which was probably one of the big reasons it was knitting William’s guts into a kettle cozy thinking about things.
Logically, it shouldn’t really have meant anything, since he and Rabbit had an understanding between themselves: they worked better as a team than as rivals, and whatever it was they got up to on their own didn’t mean a tinker’s damn so long as it didn’t interfere with said teamwork. He could describe Rabbit in a lot of ways (“unsavory” was one, as was “vindictive”) but William had never considered him untrustworthy. You had to trust your fellow renovator if you wanted to keep a partnership afloat. Then again, William had told Rabbit about the River Mills rebuild first thing, even though he could have very easily kept it to himself and pocketed a nice chunk of change without anyone being the wiser, and here Rabbit was spending who knew how many nights and weekends on a grand old house that looked eager to bankrupt them both if things went sour on it, and had William not rummaged through things at the right time he never would have suspected a thing. He hated to admit to himself that his feelings were hurt.
A few hours’ work in the newest location had yet to do anything for his mood, so William waited until they were both doing something nice and calm—in this case, measuring some door frames—before getting anywhere near the conversation they needed to have. He polished his glasses on the tail of his flannel shirt while choosing his words with all the care and strategy of a man drafting an armistice treaty.
“Found some interesting papers in the stack,” he said, eventually.
“Oh aye?” said Rabbit. He’d never so much as vacationed in Scotland but his parents were both born and raised there, and their brogue trickled into his speech in the mildest of ways. William usually found it charming. Today it just made his sour mood curdle even further.
“Yeah. Bunch of collaboration work you’ve been doing that I know fuck-all about. You thinking of finding a different reno partner, then?”
Rabbit scoffed and continued comparing the reported dimensions of a door to what they actually were. “Nah. You could say that’s sort of an experiment I’m trying. If it works, I figure I can bring you on board at the last moment, and we’ll see where things go from there.” He licked the tip of his pencil and jotted down some figures in his notebook. “I’d have brought it up sooner but the circumstances are weird ones.”
William glanced around at the room they were surveying and quirked his mouth. “Moreso than these, even,” said Rabbit before he could reply.
“Well I’ve up and looked at my Christmas presents already,” said William, his voice coming out a little sharper than he meant, “so you might as well give me some details. It’d be a shame to ruin a good partnership over a misunderstanding.” He made sure to make little marks in his notes on everything he wrote down while pissed off so that he could go back later and double-check them; William never trusted anything he recorded while he was angry. Measure twice, cut once, that’s what his ma had always said, and when the cutting you were doing was knocking out interior walls to make an open floorplan there was no room for error no matter how nasty his mood got. You had to ride your own ass like a racehorse jockey if you wanted to get anything done in the business.
“You went and touched them already, did you? That puts us in a bit of a time crunch.”
Ah, so that was it. If Rabbit was dealing with things that cared when you looked at them or got your hands on them, they weren’t ordinary blueprints at all. William found himself immediately much less cross and a lot more concerned. It wasn’t that Rabbit was unskilled in the business they both shared, far from it, but there were certain things Rabbit did well and there were certain things that William did well, and this was shaping up to be more like the latter than the former. William tucked his pen into his breast pocket, put down his clipboard, and ran his hand over the top of his head with a frustrated sigh. “Best you get me up to speed sooner than later, huh?”
Rabbit nodded and put his tools on a coffee table they’d yet to clear out from the property. “Let’s take us a break and I’ll start from the beginning.”
I was wandering through Greenbriar (said Rabbit as they say across from each other in the living room, each of them nursing a mug of tea, the stopped clock on the wall measuring their conversation as one eternally long eleven-fifteen) and you know how that place is now, all vacant lots and closed shopfronts and rotten pumpkin housing that’s just dying for a loving touch, because I was thinking that the next big trend is going to sweep through any minute and my dollar’s on it settling in Greenbriar. So, you know, I was taking a nice little walk to see if anywhere was selling so we can get our foot in that door before it even thinks of closing. I looked around, and sometimes I looked around, and there were a few little places, but those were all crumbs compared to this big layer cake I stumbled across near on accident.
Now, I know you’re not keen on big houses, since it’s hard to get them to sell well to the sorts of clients we get, I get that, I get that, but this one was special. It was like…everything a project could be. It could be our big step into everywhere else in the area, like if we fix this one thing up everything else falls into place like flicking a line of dominoes, aye? I can’t even tell you why I thought that way, I just felt it like a bolt of lightning to the spine. Like I bet that’s how flies feel when they get that fateful whiff of pitcher plant and go yum yum yum, I’ll fly myself right in there. Not that I thought this at the time.
So I go up to investigate this big fuckoff house. First thing I’ll tell you is that it’s a wonder the place wasn’t vandalized to shit by then, because it’s the kind of place you know kids in the neighborhood say is just exquisitely haunted, and that means that it’s the kind of place you’d expect older kids to sneak off to so they can drink and fuck and maybe push a planchette around a Ouija board a bit. I see this house and that’s what I expect, but once I’m past the fencing I see there’s no trash thrown around the overgrown yard, there’s no graffiti on the walls. It’s still a big wreck of a thing but it’s not dirty the way places get dirty when there’s people in them, aye? So I get very careful because that can mean a lot of things.
I go all through the yard, doing my best official-inspector look since you know I always have my clipboard with, and I’m just about to start checking windows when the back door opens up nice and friendly, and I know that door had been locked not a few skinny seconds ago. I look up and who do I see but one of Them just standing there looking at me. Honest to God I wouldn’t make this up. I know it’s one of Them even though I’ve never seen one before, it’s just the way you said it’d be, and that means I know to mind my fucking manners because holy shit I am not intending to become the sad sort of story for anybody.
So I say how do you do and They say I’m doing well, Rabbit and I say this your place and They say yes and I say I’m in the renovations business, would you be interested in getting some work done and They say come inside and we can talk and I say I can do that because even I know you do not turn your back on one of Them ever, especially if you’re being invited.
Inside the place it looks a lot like I thought, real dusty and abandoned but in this weirdly clean way. Like a movie set. There’s a radio in the kitchen that turns on when we pass it and gets a station I know they don’t have in this town. They motion for me to sit at the kitchen table so I do.
We talk some, and it’s as weird as you’d think, but I tell Them about the plans I was cooking up for Greenbriar and then I go over my resume some and I ask if I can see the blueprints to the house so I can draw up some examples. They always have those on hand, aye? And they did, and now you’ve seen ’em too. So look them over and I talk about how once we get this central bit fixed up we can move on to some of the outside buildings and then They’ll have a nice little framework laid for Their end of things. I talk up the combined skills of Knox Property a bunch but I get the feeling They only want to work with one outside contractor at a time. That’s the only reason I didn’t bring it up sooner, aye? I couldn’t get your scent on things too soon, it’d risk scaring Them off.
(“So you’re saying this is Their writing?” asked William. He tapped the scribbles next to Rabbit’s tidy block print. He’d never seen one of Them write in half-cursive before)
I’m getting there, I’m getting there, like I said before this is all from the beginning, aye?
So we write some things up, and They tell me there’s someone I ought to meet, and if They say so then I’m not about to argue, so I hear the ceiling creaking as someone else walks around upstairs and then down the stairs and then there’s this new fella in the kitchen I’ve never seen before. I’m told this is Mr. Fox and he’ll be working with me on the project and he makes some bullshit crack about how foxes and rabbits get along so well in nature and believe me, mate, you know I felt the weight of that knife in my boot so hard for a bit. But this is Their place and I’m going to do things by the book for now so I fake a laugh and we sit down with Them and we work on the notes more. I can tell when working with this guy that he’s a renovator but knows sweet fuck-all about actual renovations. Give him a stud finder and he’d just point it at himself and make a little joke about oho, listen to this, it’s working, that sort of thing. I swear half the time he was total fucking ballast.
It gets dark soon and I say I need to be getting back, and that’s God’s honest truth ’cause I don’t have any friendly couches to sleep on in that part of town until at least Morning Glory, and They request that I come back tomorrow to work more with Fox. I know better than to say anything about that.
This was when you were busy handling the thing with the backsplash tiles in the Westcreek place, so I had time to be out there, so I’d go out there. Sometimes we’d work with Them, sometimes it’d just be me and Fox. Either way we’d make plans, aye? I hated Fox but he was clearly in tight with Them so I kept it to myself even when I wanted to strangle his pencil neck for not knowing baby-blocks shit like how to make a hallway the wrong length and then convince it that’s the right one. I got the feeling They wanted to see what I’d do if I was stuck on a project with a pet of Theirs and having to make nicey-nice for a long period of time. Like, did you ever catch beetles as a kid and put two in a jar to see if they’d fight? From what I’ve seen and what you’ve told me I don’t see any reason Their lot wouldn’t look at us the same way.
Once we started getting more work again, we being you and me, I went over to Them real early with a nice box stuffed full of the nicest takeout I could get and I told Them that I’d have to show up less often. I promised up and down I’d keep things to myself but still show up nice and regular, and that was good enough for Them. That’s where I’ve been going in the evenings instead of the Blackbird. We’ve gotten to the point where I’ve gotten all the utility lines checked out and good to go, so the only thing left is to dot every I and cross every T before demo work can start. That’s why I had those plans out where you could get at them. Not so you’d find ’em, not like that, that’s grade school Nancy Drew shit and you know I’m straightforward with you. I did it so I could just get things ready for the important part. It’s almost time.
(“You think there’s going to be any trouble with Them now that I’ve got my stink on things?”)
Nah, nah, see, I was a smart boy and got a proper contract done up with Them before I said word one to you about it, and I could see it in Their eyes that this was the right thing to do. It says there’s room enough for two consultants on the project, but it doesn’t say they have to be me and Fox. You know what I mean?
(“We risk ending up owned men if we go that way.”)
Well, shit, Will, where’s your spirit of adventure?
William swallowed the last of his second mug of tea. “I think it’s a bad idea,” he said as he studied the omens writ large in the leaves stuck to the bottom of the cup. This sort of thing was why he usually used teabags.
“Oh, I know it is,” said Rabbit. He’d been varying degrees of twitchy throughout his story—he’d come by his nickname honestly—but seemed calm in the grand scheme of things. “It’s a very bad idea, but we’ve very bad men, aye? You can’t get far in the business without proper drive and mindset.” Neither of them bothered to cast a glance over at the bag of heavy pipes and dried henbane, or at the little messes they’d yet to clean up, or at the most recent adjustments they’d made to the current house, because there came a point in any skilled profession you stopped thinking about the paint and more about the finished canvas. Wallpaper simply did not hang itself.
“So, this…Fox, right?” asked William. Rabbit nodded. “Tell me about him. What kind of problem are we dealing with?”
“Medium-sized white guy, blond hair, brown eyes, little bit of stubble you can tell he cuts down just right. Bigger than me, smaller than you. He swaggers. Fuck me running, Will, he’s like a cartoon or something.” Rabbit idly picked at the fuzz pilling at the cuff of his shirt sleeve. “I fooled around with him once to see if he’d be worth my time and the whole way through he kept talking about how ‘naughty’ we were being by fucking in Their house. Christ alive but I hate people who use that word, I’m a fella giving you a blowjob, not a cat that knocked over a plant. He wasn’t good enough to overcome his shitty personality so I started making plans right around then to get rid of him. I mean we still did a little fucking now and again, but I think that’s reasonable enough for a fella who’s taking an unplanned hiatus from his Blackbird buddies. Just thinking about his big stupid face makes me want to go kick a wall.”
It was hard for William to keep from cracking a smile. “You’d murder a man because he was annoying while you sucked him off?”
“If it’s Mr. I’m-too-cool-for-this-but-I’m-also-pretty-desperately-thirsty-and-hope-you-don’t-notice then aye, I’d figure out how to do it twice if you let me.”
“I suppose that’s fair enough.”
“Just meet the man once, Will. You’ll understand.”
The problem with Fox, aside from him existing, was that he didn’t leave Their house. He was a living, breathing man, Rabbit assured William, which meant it’d be possible to stab those personality problems away, but if you were dealing with Them you had to go by Their rules, and by Rabbit’s reckoning the Greenbriar location had been one of Theirs for a pretty long while. Their kind technically owned everything that had been built, and ultimately abandoned, by human hands, but there was a difference between your average under-maintained building and someplace They actively used as a nest. It was why William and Rabbit were always very careful with the measurements: you had to be absolutely sure you didn’t miss one of Their tell-tale fingerprints and end up ripping a hole in everything.
Getting Fox out of the house wasn’t an option because it might not have even been possible, given how Rabbit had never seen him outside beyond the borders of the porch. Rabbit had first noticed this when Fox refused to go outside and talk to the men from the power company about where the gas lines were buried in the event they needed to break ground for renovations: Fox had tried to play it off as coolly as always, but there’d been something in his eyes that yearned for freedom. It was another thing Rabbit kept bringing up about him. Why agree to be a pet if you couldn’t stand the press of the cage?
Of course, if Fox was going to stay inside, that meant working by the ever-protean rules of the place, and there was no way to prepare for whatever those would be save for having the right equipment and an open mind. William had only done this sort of thing once before and it had very nearly gone badly for him at the last minute. The event had taught him some very important lessons about when it was acceptable to rely on others for help. It also gave him much more personal experience than Rabbit had which was why he was going to lead things. William was good at leading. It would be a shame to lose working time on Knox Property Solutions’ current project, really, but ever since his eyes scanned the blueprints with Fox’s handwriting on them the sands in the metaphorical hourglass had started hissing down to nothing. They usually budgeted extra time in their renovations just in case unexpected circumstances like these cropped up.
William did his best to ignore any future portents that tried to get his attention.
Just after sundown a van painted with the Knox logo and contact information pulled up outside a certain abandoned house in Greenbriar, and because William traced his fingers along the X in the company name just so, nobody noticed its presence, nor would they. William was the public face of Knox because he’d always had a knack for figuring out little ways to make people notice things he wanted them to and forget things they didn’t need to know. If he worked at it he could make lots of people forget things. It was why he and Rabbit could spin a yarn about a house’s owners wanting to move out west to retire, or about how they’d acquire the property in an estate sale, or about how the previous owners just didn’t feel the place was right for them and went to live with family, and nobody ever asked questions.
They walked through the front gate and shut it behind them. William closed his eyes and thought about the house, felt the pull of its being and the teeth in its basement. There was an inescapable feeling of doom pressing in around him, but if it was his or someone else’s he couldn’t say. The house stirred as he studied it and he nodded to himself; he’d been expecting this based on what Rabbit had told him. If he went in like this it’d eat him alive. He eased Rabbit behind some bushes and against the ivy growing wild along the fence.
“I need some sympathetics with this place,” he said to Rabbit, his voice quiet and even. He gestured to his crotch. “Are you good for it?”
“Saving up for something?” Rabbit replied. To Rabbit’s credit he was already rubbing his hands together to warm them up.
“I’m going to need all the blood I have if things turn nasty, spit would take too long, and I’m not going to piss on something if the goal is to make it recognize me as friendly. Semen’s the best thing we’ve got for this.”
Rabbit laughed through his nose. “Sure you just didn’t want me to jerk you off one last time before we die horribly, aye?”
“You know as well as I do it’ll be important for later.”
“So you tell me. Get your zip, then, I’ll get this done quick so we can get to the next part.”
Even with William saying saliva wouldn’t help much, he didn’t object to Rabbit kissing him open-mouthed, and Rabbit’s fingers could be very quick if they needed them to be. A leather-soft hand with an immaculate manicure worked William’s shaft as Rabbit ground up against the side of William’s thigh. This was how they’d ended up closer in the first place: Ritual deeds had ritual needs, and while by the time they sussed out one another’s true natures they’d already been fucking because they liked it and they liked each other. It was so much easier collecting potent human juices for things when you enjoyed the company of the person collecting them. William would probably never tire of this old, classic approach even with so much more experience under his belt. He came quickly, his breath hissing through his nostrils even as Rabbit kept kissing back, and Rabbit made sure as much of the stuff got on the ground and fencing as possible.
Having handled William, Rabbit then used his own still-slick hand to finish himself off. He drew the proper sigil in their mixed jism and sat back on his heels, not yet bothering to tuck his cock back in his pants. “Did it take?” he asked.
William leaned against the trunk of a nearby tree and reached out to feel the house again. It was wary, he could tell, but now it knew his scent, and the hunger soaked into its timbers no longer lunged at him. Faces, frightened and crying, flashed across his vision as the leaves overhead caught a passing breeze, lamenting some terrible fate before dissolving back into nothing more than fence and shadow. “About as well as it’s ever going to,” said William.
Rabbit nodded. “If things ever get bad, remember I’ve got my knife on me,” he said, and patted his boot. William quietly hoped it wouldn’t come to that. It was hard not to think about that sort of thing when he’d been dealing with an unrelenting tide of portents and pareidolia since Rabbit had first sat him down to talk earlier that day.
They cleaned themselves up and circled around to the back patio door where Rabbit had first been welcomed inside. It was open.
The kitchen was dark but they could still see inside, the light coming from everywhere and nowhere like sun on a stormy day, and once Rabbit and William crossed the threshold they both took seats at the dustless kitchen table. There was a little plate of shortbread cookies laid out on it, and they each had one as a show of good faith. Proper procedure was to wait to see if anyone was going to greet them in person. Muffled creaks and thumping upstairs became footsteps heading downstairs, and then the footsteps drew nearer, and then Fox was there in the kitchen with them, alone and smug-faced as ever. There was no sign of anyone else save for the house’s own muffled heartbeat rolling and booming in the places most people couldn’t hear.
While Rabbit had described Fox pretty clearly, it was one thing to know a man had a face that begged punching and another to see it in the flesh. William’s forehead creased like a washboard. He’d met other professionals in his own line of work before, most of which weren’t Rabbit, and he’d met people who had dealings with Them before, none of which were Rabbit (at least not until recently), but Fox wasn’t like any of them. He was too slick, the kind of calculatedly disheveled look that required paying top dollar at fashionable boutiques and hours of grooming to get right. It didn’t suit him. William wondered if Fox dressed that way at Their behest or if he was just a natural-born asshole.
“Evening, Rabbit,” said Fox with a grin. “You’re up late. I thought you usually turned into a pumpkin by now.” He sat down on the opposite side of the table from them. “Who’s the big guy in the glasses?”
“Your replacement,” said Rabbit. William kept his hands resting on the table, fingers laced all neat and tidy where Fox could see them. No need to be threatening, not now and not yet. He was going to do this by the book right up until the pages caught fire.
“Contract says it’s just you and me doing this job,” Fox said.
“Aye, the contract says it’s two specialists. Never said they had to be you and me is the thing.”
Fox narrowed his eyes. “I don’t like the way you’re talking,” he said. “They’ve got rules, you know, even out here in the middle of Greenbriar. You trying to make the house mad?”
“I’ve been introduced,” said William, and he was thankful for an ironclad poker face because the way Fox’s expression fell was priceless.
Rabbit opened a manila folder with a photocopy of the contract inside of it. Parts of it were annotated in bright red pen, and an extra page written longhand was paperclipped to it. Fox read through both with a face like a man staring down a speeding truck. William let his eyes scan the kitchen as Rabbit kept talking. “Idea is, Fox my man, we can take care of this however it needs to be taken care of, and while it’d be nice if things went quick and quiet, William and I, well, we’re both pretty resourceful fellas, if there’s going to be a problem it’ll get itself fixed one way or the other. We’re fix-it men. That said, I’d like to properly ask if you’d be fine with signing on that nice little dotted line, there.”
“No.” He ripped the photocopy apart and tossed it aside. “You’re making a big mistake,” continued Fox, his eyes now darting from William to Rabbit and back again. “I’m not just going to give up.”
“Well, then, that’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it? Let no one say we didn’t try to be gentlemen.”
The lights went out. When they came back up again, Fox was gone. The house’s breathing was different, now, like a radio tuner stuck between frequencies and getting fragments of both. William snorted. Trust a man like Fox to make things difficult.
William pushed back from the table and took another shortbread cookie. It was iced like one of those oatmeal wheels his gramma had kept in the pantry, and the shortbread itself tasted like store brand, complete with a slightly stale texture as he chewed. The cookie was otherwise unremarkable. That was enough to let him know he was still half welcome.
“You good?” asked Rabbit.
“How long we got?”
“A few hours, probably. I can’t tell where Fox got to just yet so who knows if it’ll be enough.” William centered his thoughts. This was not part of his usual renovation process; he preferred to work with dead houses, not live ones, and there was a great deal of difference between the places you just had to flush a few bugs out of and a place one of Them had called Their own. At least They weren’t part of the picture just yet.
He felt along the house’s nature in search of things that hadn’t been on Rabbit’s diagrams. “There’s something in the water,” he said. “It’s fuzzing out like an old TV every time I try to focus on it. Near as I can tell that’s all Fox doing it. If you see something like static here, well, it’s probably something he left behind.”
They both glanced over at the sink. A drop of water beaded beneath the facet before falling into the basin proper, and inside it was a hint of whirling monochrome; if he strained his ears William could hear the faintest hiss of static. In spite of everything his mouth felt dry. Whatever had gotten in the pipes probably wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle after all the years in the business he’d accrued. He couldn’t risk it, though, not until he knew what would happen to him if he let Fox’s work twist in his belly like a hagfish.
From the kitchen they made their way into what looked to be one of many sitting rooms; the Greenbriar building was the sort of huge old American Gothic construction that seemed to be encountered haunted more often than not. This one had presumably been where the last residents had spent their evenings: in addition to the bookshelves all along the walls, there was an old TV set hunkered in an aging entertainment center with a wide array of degraded VHS cassettes arranged in the shelving around it and its cord curled up in front of it. William was not surprised when it turned on with a blaring rasp of distortion, like a piece of infinitely-long paper being torn or a crashing wave suffused with audio errors. What was surprising was that Fox failed to appear inside of it. Supernatural themes weren’t supposed to be this sloppy.
William had started heading for the hallway when Rabbit caught his sleeve and gestured towards the television with his chin. “There’s a tape with our names written on it on the coffee table,” he said, and sure enough there was, despite said table having nothing more than some magazines and an ashtray a few moments ago. “You know how things go if we don’t look at what we’re asked to see.”
“Yeah. Guess we’re going to have a movie break during our fox hunt.”
Rabbit cleaned the dust out of the decades-out-of-date VCR, slid the tape in, and pressed the top-loading tape tray back into the body of the player. He and William sat on the couch opposite the set. It was infuriating having to lose what was no doubt quite a lot of time to whatever wobbly shakycam nonsense the house had to show them, but doing things by the book meant following the well-worn ruts of old ideas left in places like this. William sighed, adjusted himself so his leg was touching Rabbit’s, and let the no doubt ironically oracular tape play itself out.
This place is gorgeous, said a young woman wearing clothes that had probably been very fashionable once. A pin shaped like an ibis standing against the sun gleamed on her lapel. She was carrying a handheld video camera and was intent on getting lots of footage of the wainscoting. I could point my lens anywhere and get an amazing shot.
Who’d want to see the inside of a nasty old house? said a man’s voice, and from the way the picture moved and swung it was being recorded either by a second camera strapped to his head or through his own eyes. Given that the woman’s camera was not exactly a GoPro the latter seemed more likely. Whoever he was, he didn’t sound like Fox.
Lots of people. It’s kind of this whole subculture thing people do. It’s a way to remember old architecture in a way that’s too real for the National Geographic crowd to handle. You’d already know all this if you ever read any of the Usenet groups I subscribed you to, you know.
The less I know about the people who buy your tapes the better, Melanie. The nameless man kept glancing around like a nervous cat. Sometimes he’d check his watch. It made the viewing experience more than slightly nauseating. Are you sure the stairs are safe enough to use? Old places like this, if they aren’t full up of squatters, it probably means something’s really wrong.
Melanie swanned past to film a cobwebbed chandelier in the front hall. How many times do I have to tell you I scouted the grounds already? There’s nobody here but some pigeons in the attic. You need to trust me more.
Their back-and-forth continued on like this for a while. Most of it made little sense without knowing the people or places they mentioned, though it did keep the tape from being completely quiet as the pair documented the entire lower floor. The house was in decidedly worse condition then than it was now: there were dead bugs on the windowsills, some of the wallpaper was discolored, and there were heaps of snack packages and forgotten blister packs left in the kitchen from what had to have been a previous occupant. The pictures on the walls were so smeared with dust that they seemed slightly different each time they passed through the man’s field of vision, but since the screen never centered on them he probably hadn’t noticed. It might have just been a trick of the light. Given the house they were exploring it probably wasn’t.
Eventually Melanie headed up the stairs, and while they creaked a bit with each step they didn’t give way beneath her. Her companion followed with reluctance. He had a bad habit of constantly checking behind him while climbing.
The second floor had a landing and balcony that wrapped all along the downstairs foyer, with hallways branching off from it leading to other rooms. Melanie chose one at random and shrilled with joy at its contents, which (after the man ran up to look over her shoulder) were what looked like a study with a carpet of dust graying the floorboards.
We’re the first people to see this in years, she said as she took a long, loving shot of the unblemished dust. There’s not even rat tracks in here. I wonder why it’s so much worse than the downstairs rooms?
Bad circulation, probably. Stuff’s more open on the ground floor, said the man. That didn’t explain where the dust had come from in the first place but neither of them addressed it further. Instead, he asked, Should I be closer to the camera? I’m not miked and I don’t know if that thing’s picking me up at all.
Melanie shook her head. I usually trash all my audio back at the studio unless there’s a scary noise or something in it. Sound quality’s usually garbage on this thing. They paused long enough to get another door open to admire the bedroom beyond, this one nearly as dusty as the study. Besides, people are fine with me doing post-commentary so long as I’m sure to get a few shots of my face in here and there. She turned the handheld to point at herself and grinned into the lens. The camera loves me.
This whole city loves you based on how much time you spent filming every tuna can we drove past, Mel.
She laughed and panned the camera along the still-made bedsheets, pausing to linger on the cross-stitched pillow by the headboard. “A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place,” it read. A leak in the ceiling had left a water-damaged stain on the comforter beneath it. Who knew what Melanie’s fans were like however many years ago the events of the tape had occurred, but a modern urban exploration audience would definitely eat up that sort of detail like so much kibble.
It was when they pulled open the accordion-hinged closet door that Fox inevitably appeared.
He was resting inside with his back against the wall and his hands in his pockets. Old clothes on rusting hangers framed him like Spanish moss. Both Melanie and her unseen assistant made small, startled noises and took a step back, which Fox took as his cue to stride out of his hiding place, his artfully-unkempt look not quite as fashionable then as it was now but his smirk as insufferable as ever. It was a wonder he didn’t produce a comb to fix his hair.
Welcome to my house, he said. Can I get you two something?
Melanie circled back towards the door and jumped when it slammed shut before she could dart through it into the hall. She kept her handheld fixed on Fox. There weren’t any footprints when we came in here, she said, her voice wary. There weren’t any footprints anywhere. How long have you been waiting in there?
Fox’s smirk upgraded to a leer. Long enough, babe, he said. I’m good at waiting. The other man looked down at the floor long enough to show that while he and Melanie were leaving tracks in meandering, half-smeared trails, Fox wasn’t, though he was solid enough to cast his own shadow across the bed. It was as though he was balancing atop the dust like a water strider.
The man tried the doorknob, which rattled but refused to turn. Fox tutted at him. Can’t you accept a bit of hospitality when it’s offered? Looks like you need to learn some fucking manners. He rushed the man and the footage went unwatchable for a bit as they thrashed around; someone in the mix had pulled a knife but it wasn’t clear whose it was. Melanie said something unintelligible in the heat of the moment, there was a crash, and then things went black.
They stayed black for a full minute before briefly showing a flustered Fox bending over the stricken man. Melanie was nowhere to be seen.
If there’s only one of you, this is going to get a lot more complicated, said Fox. His face was slightly flushed. The man, now clearly pinned, glanced over to the bedroom window to reveal it had been kicked out; Melanie had presumably made her exit along the roof. Her lapel pin and a piece of ripped, fashionably patterned fabric lay where they’d tumbled to the floor after having apparently caught on some of the glass around the window. Fox palmed a switchblade, cleaned his nails with it, and then tapped the flat of the blade against the man’s nose. Let’s you and me get to the attic. There’s someone you should meet.
The world went black again. This time it never came back.
The TV shut itself off once the tape finished and refused to power back on again.
William scratched his chin. “You think Fox did this part?” he asked as he and Rabbit checked over the room for anything that might have changed while the tape was playing.
“Nah. I think this bit’s the house letting us in on some secrets since it knows we’re here to raise a stink. Maybe it misses that Melanie person. Once we’re done we ought to see if she’s still around somewhere. Maybe she’s in our field now. Assuming she wasn’t already at the time, aye?”
“Maybe. First we take care of that little shit.” They both glanced at the stairs leading upwards. Fox was almost certainly in the attic, which despite him being an important order of business meant that was the last place they needed to go. Getting impatient meant big problems in the future. Anyone who’d dealt with this sort of house haunting themselves could tell you that much.
Rabbit drew his knife. “You bind the left side and I’ll bind the right? We stay together for both.” William nodded. He held out his left hand and let Rabbit make a few incisions on the undersides of the second joints of his three inner fingers. It barely stung even as the blood started to bead up along each little slice. Rabbit was much better at cutting things than William.
Binding was easy once you knew how to do it. You could do a lot of things with that knowledge, be it encouraging someone to stay where you wanted them or keeping them from sneaking their influence into somewhere you didn’t feel like letting them change. The key part was understanding that Fox was not the house, and the house wasn’t one of Them, and Fox definitely wasn’t among Their numbers, so dealing with someone who was just another mortal man at the end of the day didn’t require a lot of fancy equipment or even jerking anyone off again. All you had to do was ask the house nicely and make sure you weren’t breaking any of Their rules and you could keep someone stuck in a half-bathroom if you wanted to. William and Rabbit had made other plans, but walking through the first floor and marking every room would keep things from getting too complicated if Fox tried to bolt. He’d already gone to ground once; it was reasonable to assume he’d repeat that trick of his if given the chance.
They tidied as they went. Houses liked being cleaned and doing so made them more willing to work with strangers; it looked a lot nicer than it had in the video, so someone (maybe Fox, maybe not) had clearly done some work in there, but there were still cobwebs everywhere and isolated pockets of garbage left here and there. Just flicking a rag over a banister made a world of difference. One of the pictures William handled—a woman in a prom dress that couldn’t have been taken much later than the mid 70s—blurred into a glitchy, nightmarish tableau that churned on the other side of the frame’s cheap glass. William stared her down until she stopped trying to reach through to him, then cleaned away a final few thumbprints and hung her back on the discolored spot on the wall. Her head still turned to follow him as he moved. He ignored it. Some houses would do anything for attention.
They found one of Fox’s nests first. It was in a closet that had appeared blocked to the untrained eye, but William’s eye knew a few tricks; he poked at the wall of boards and boxes and found them as resistant as cling film. They crackled with static at his touch. He let his blood do the dirty work of binding and soon the mirage boxes melted away like spun sugar in the rain. Behind the barrier was a makeshift sepulcher: Fox (and it was definitely Fox, since William recognized the handwriting) had separated out the teeth of many, many people into little labeled jars, with an open-topped box full of sawed-down bones pushed up against the wall and an entire shelving unit dedicated to femurs of varying sizes. There were plenty of other, less organized bits sprinkled throughout the closet. Some of the specimens were dated. Assuming he wasn’t lying to some unknown future reader, Fox had been at this for much longer than just the bygone era captured on VHS.
“Yugh,” said Rabbit.
“You didn’t say your Fox was a messy boy,” said William.
Rabbit rolled his eyes and waved a stick of incense around halfheartedly. “It might surprise you to hear, Will-my-darling, but I tried to learn as little about him as possible while we worked. Bet you his room’s even worse.”
A first floor bedroom caddy-corner to what might have been a dining room and might have been a sitting room that just happened to contain a very big table certainly looked the part. William found more curtains of static hung up all around it, behind which were bits of graffiti that certainly looked spooky but were not, near as he could tell, actually doing anything. He flicked some attar of roses at them anyway. Who knew how many bits in this place were red herrings and which were part of some devious plan? If he was going to end up dead or worse he was determined to meet that fate at the hands of something a little more dignified than a haunted Korn poster.
In a dusty box next to an alarm clock with dead batteries he found a few different personal effects. Most were meaningless jewelry and mementos, but one was familiar: it was the watch that the nameless man on the tape had been wearing. William brushed his fingertips across it and pulled back like he’d been burned. The pads of his fingers briefly sizzled with black and white flecks before his immune system got the better of it, leaving an awkward numbness that took a few minutes to return to a dull and distracting ache. He frowned, mostly at himself. This was the last place in the world he could afford to be careless and here he was making rookie mistakes. Binding the watch extra tightly for good measure, he and Rabbit continued their Fox hunt.
What was probably Fox’s actual room was downstairs in a wood-walled basement. It was mostly a cot, a footlocker, a spare pair of boots, and a small shelf with books, a digital clock, and a laptop loaded onto it. There were no other signs of someone living there. It was a bit disheartening to see.
“For such a peacock you’d think he’d have a hoard of hair gel down here,” said William as they very carefully desecrated the magic circle drawn on the underside of the cot.
Rabbit shrugged. “You’d think. Maybe he keeps them in one of the bathrooms.”
Something whispered to them from the other side of the basement wall. They ignored it. A door where there hadn’t been anything but bare wall before beckoned, but aside from tossing some dried flower petals through it neither of them paid it any mind, either; it was nothing they hadn’t seen before, right up there with a big cardboard box propped up with a stick. Now that the house was sated and they’d flushed out a few of his hidey-holes Fox was clearly starting to run out of ideas. That was a good sign: it meant he’d probably start wearing himself out soon.
The stairs held firmly as they returned above ground, and they were sturdier still as the two climbed to the second floor. Its layout didn’t match what they’d seen in the video. The light-that-wasn’t-really-light was a little dimmer there, too, and even after William flicked at the bulb of one of the wall lamps it remained on the wrong side of murky. Flashlights were gauche when a house was trying to let you see inside itself without using any electricity, but flashlights were what the situation called for, and to be perfectly honest flashlights were big and heavy and useful in the event of unwanted guests. William preferred a good length of pipe, himself, but a Maglite would almost always do in a tight spot.
Motes of dust whirled in their flashlight beams. The layer of dust was thinner than it had been in the video, and hurried footprints left in it disappeared behind a closed door. Fox was a man who didn’t leave prints if he didn’t want to. William and Rabbit opted not to see what was in there and instead bound the hall little by little to their own needs.
What rooms were open were a mess, as it didn’t seem like they were used or cleaned nearly as often as the downstairs rooms, though to William’s trained eye he could see the potential there for what he and Rabbit had discussed earlier that night. In one of them they found another magic circle matching the now ruined one drawn on the cot; it met the same fate as its twin. They might have been directly over the kitchen, then, though with Fox clearly doing his damnedest to make a labyrinth out of such a relatively simple space it was hard to tell. If they both made it to morning William figured they could always check the acoustics then.
A part of the wall shimmered when William turned away from it, immediately catching his attention. This was more subtle than the trail of prints, which probably meant it was safer, and if it was actually halfway hidden that probably meant there was something inside Fox didn’t want them to see, William still tensed up a bit as he cleaned away what turned out to be camouflage over another door. It was placed so closely to other rooms they’d cleared that it should’ve only been a glorified cupboard; what they found instead was a full-sized bedroom shrouded in dust. William concentrated and touched the house’s lingering scars with the corner of his mind. The glass had been replaced and the floor had been swept, but there was no mistaking the accordion-doored closet or the pillow on the bed. They had been shown this place before.
“Let’s clear this place and get going,” said Rabbit after what couldn’t have been more than a few moments. He sounded nervous.
William shook his head. “There’s something here we need to find,” he said. “If Fox doesn’t want us in here it has to be more involved than some disassembled skeletons.” He swept the beam of his flashlight across the wall. There were no blood stains oozing through the paper or water damage in the shape of faces, which was a far cry from some of the other rooms they’d inspected. Nothing was under the bed. It wasn’t until he checked the closet a second time that his flashlight picked out a glimmer of gold.
It was a little lapel pin, shaped like an ibis with the sun behind it, kicked off to the side and left to gather dust however long ago the window had been fixed. There was no reason it would be here if the house didn’t want them to have it. William smiled. “Jackpot.”
“Don’t fucking touch it!” cried Rabbit, but it was too late.
It should have been a very simple clean-and-release procedure that would clear away any lingering nastiness a bit of jewelry could accrue over years of sitting around in a house like this one. Instead William was nearly knocked on his ass by the percussive force of something all rushing out of the pin at once. His hearing blared with the crackling hiss of interference as his vision went black and white. Somewhere underneath it all he thought he heard Fox laughing, which was a truly despicable sound even in the best of circumstances, and he knew deep in the marrow of his bones that he’d been played for a rube. Had he really been so naive as to think Fox couldn’t handle more than one layer of deception at a time? If Fox had wanted the pin gone he’d had years, decades maybe, to toss it in the trash bins out back, so if it was still here it was only at the mercy of Fox’s good graces. William’s hand clenched further around the bit of cast gold as he centered his thoughts. The house did want him to have this, he was sure of it, but Fox did, too. That made things complicated.
The static roar died down just enough for him to hear Rabbit calling his name. William let his eyes unfocus on the swirling nothingness around him. The pin started to heat up in his hand but he refused to drop it, since sucker bait or no he knew tossing it aside would only make things worse. He could feel a little tether connecting it to somewhere else, and an even fainter one connecting it to someone else. That second one would be worth investigating in the future. For now, however, he clung to that connection to a certain place and began plotting the details of hauling himself out.
Fox had set up whatever this was to go off under the assumption that William would be going through all the proper procedures. William had to admit that was a lot more cunning than he’d given Fox credit for at first. What Fox clearly did not know was that William knew a lot more procedures than just the proper ones. He could feel Rabbit somewhere nearby, even though Rabbit’s voice was coming from somewhere else entirely; the latter was almost certainly another trick meant to lead William further into whatever little pocket he’d found. His flashlight was heavy in his hand as he rapped on a wall he found among the static. Hopefully Rabbit would get the right idea.
Something creaked as the static was pulled away, in this case quite literally as Rabbit hauled open the closet’s folding door. William’s feet felt encased in tar as he lurched towards the familiar sight of dust and colors. It was like teeth were growing beneath his skin and between his bones, trying to chew him up from the inside. He tried not to think about how Rabbit’s expression changed as he glanced over William’s shoulder, nor the extra energy Rabbit quickly invested in pulling him out of the closet, and with a sound like shredding fabric William was wrenched forwards. They both fell backwards against the bed as the closet door closed behind him with a clack. There was no more static buzz, no more crawling binary, just two men sprawled on a comforter eyeing a door with great apprehension.
“We should probably double-bind that one,” said William after verifying all his body parts were where they were supposed to be.
“Aye, you think?” Rabbit rolled his shoulder and groaned. “That little bauble better be worth it. I could’ve wrenched my arm out given how big you are.”
William grunted and examined the pin. It was now properly clean of anything Fox might’ve stuck to it and its luster was remarkable for something left to accumulate filth. He pocketed it. He was starting to get some ideas for later. “What all did you see in there, anyway?”
Rabbit winced. “Ask me once we’re done with this and maybe I’ll tell you. Safe to say, I think They’d be pissed at what all Fox has been doing in Their house.”
They both sealed the door and pushed the bed up against it for good measure. William couldn’t quite shake the urge to look for meaning in the swirling dust. It wasn’t like it’d tell him anything he didn’t know. It was getting downright obnoxious, in fact, since he needed a clear head to hunt for any other surprises Fox had left for them on the grounds, and a brain constantly trying to piece together patterns in literally everything it was shown was a brain that wasn’t alert to the threat of one of Their pets going rogue. He set his jaw and cursed at himself for making things more difficult than they needed to be.
Houses like these were always going to be a little difficult, of course, since phenomena were as insistent as silverfish once you let one or two pop up without being tended to, but the back half of the second floor was a veritable ocean of cold spots. Something creaked and dripped in one of the less prominent bedrooms; when William drew closer, he could hear the faint sounds of crying. Another room’s walls seemed to pulse with churning, wormlike shapes beneath its wallpaper. A third looked rusted-out with papery sheets of something fleshy draped across the remaining furniture, though when the flashlight beam lingered anywhere the circle of illumination revealed nothing so much as someone’s old pool table. Each discovery was another thorn in William’s side. He was here to solve a problem, not wander around in a Halloween funhouse, and the more he had to shoo away scurrying shadows or faces staring in through windows at illogical heights the worse his mood became.
Perhaps it was because of said irritation that William would have gone careening into the hole that opened up in the floorboards had Rabbit not been there to haul on the back of his shirt. They aimed their flashlights down into what should have been a brand new shortcut to the dining room and darkness met them. Wherever the hole went, it wasn’t downstairs. William exchanged a wordless glance with Rabbit before they carefully shimmied along the wall around the pit. Once they reached the other side the flooring they’d used to cross fell away into the darkness. They were now properly stranded.
“This better mean we’re close,” said Rabbit as he dusted bits of architecture off his clothes. He blew his hair out of his eyes with a grunt of frustration. “That’s twice I’ve saved your ass today. I’m going to be pissed if we’ve gone and pinned ourselves in a corner.”
William didn’t blame him, since while they both knew their way around a demo job they didn’t have the time or tools to do it right and they couldn’t rely on hoping the house would go along with things. He concentrated. It felt like they’d bound almost everything, but there was one remaining spot upstairs they hadn’t yet gotten. He swung his light around in search of whatever it was that was eluding them: here was a hallway closet, still stuffed with folded linens, there was a bathroom, and there…aha. Rabbit followed his lead and trained his own flashlight on the part of the ceiling William had indicated. There among the cobwebs, shimmering like it was surrounded by incredible heat, was a little hatch with a pull-down cord. It looked to lead to the attic. Things like this tended to end either in the attic or the basement, and they’d already taken care of the basement. William hated to admit he’d started to worry that they’d somehow managed to misplace the way upstairs.
Rabbit was the lighter of the pair—again, he’d come by his nickname honestly—so it was William who knelt down and laced his fingers together to give Rabbit a boost up to grab the large bead that served as the pull’s handle. No sooner had Rabbit’s fingers closed around the pull did he yelp in pain and hop down to the ground to cradle his wounded palm. William spun in place immediately, but nothing was coming down the darkened hallway towards them; still wary, he returned his attention to Rabbit.
“Son of a bitch,” Rabbit hissed. His hand had a white mark in the middle of it about the same size and shape as the bead. It was like someone had bleached him. The outer edge of the mark was already starting to scab up in little fractal patterns that were mirrored around the cuts he’d put there himself when they’d first started their house patrol.
“How bad is it?” asked William.
“Pretty bad, but I can fix it later.” Rabbit flexed his fingers and cringed when they curled in too tightly. “It’s going to be a problem if I need both hands for something, though,” he said around his obvious agony.
William frowned. He’d been planning for them to have two flashlights when they dug Fox out of whatever hole he’d hidden in, but Rabbit was very, very good with a knife. It’d be foolish giving that up in exchange for a spare beam. He tried not to think about what would happen if the spot started spreading. “You think I can get that thing off there without too much trouble?”
“Probably. It’s nothing special, just don’t get your skin right on it, aye?”
For a glorified booby trap the bit of nastiness that had taken Rabbit’s hand out of commission was a vicious piece of work. There were at least three different ways it could cause injuries to whatever poor sap tinkered with it in the wrong way. In a less tense situation William would’ve been impressed, since it’d been woven so carefully that he’d thought its tell-tale danger signs were part of the attic hatch itself. You didn’t really see craftsmanship like that anymore. He was still dead set on mopping the floor with Fox’s smug face, but now he had the feeling that he was dealing with slightly more than a punk kid who lurked in walk-ins and by all accounts was pretty lousy in bed. Maybe They’d claimed Fox for a good reason after all.
Dealing with the detritus of somebody else’s haunting could take a while to clean up. Burning sage could only do so much unless you were trained in traditional methods, which William wasn’t, and a good cleansing required either plentiful elements of purification or unshakable faith, both of which William lacked. What he did have was a pair of work gloves tucked into his belt. He jumped and caught the bead between his gloved fingers; both he and Rabbit stood to the side as the hatch opened and a ladder slid down to touch the floor between them. The surprise on the handle had been the only remaining thing William sensed between them and the attic, but at the rate the evening had been going he wouldn’t have put it past Fox to pull some Looney Tunes shit like balancing a bowling ball at the top of the ladder. William’s profession gave him a different view of death than many people but he still didn’t like the thought of getting his head crushed in by twenty pounds of spherical slapstick.
The ladder held strong as they climbed. Rabbit had wrapped his hand in some spare bandages he had in his kit (Rabbit was always a stickler for medical supplies thanks to his brief stint in a nursing program) and tugged one of William’s gloves on over it for protection; the thing didn’t fit him at all but apparently provided enough of a barrier between his injury and everything else to let him hook his hand around the ladder’s railing while ascending. William still moved carefully and primed himself to reach out to grab Rabbit’s coat if anything went wrong.
The attic itself was bare of everything but an exposed lightbulb and the fluffy pink wool of insulation. Fox wasn’t there. Neither was any dust. The lack of consistency was really starting to stick in William’s craw.
Rabbit swaggered out to stand underneath the lightbulb, which buzzed like a bug zapper as he drew near. For a man with a recent injury he had a surprising amount of bravado. “Fox, my man, we really need to have ourselves a talk between fellas,” he said. He caught William’s eye and they shared the slightest of nods. Just because Rabbit had made a bad decision or two recently didn’t mean they hadn’t been working as partners for longer than anyone gave them credit for. He started pacing in a sloppy oval beneath the bulb.
“We know you’re up here,” continued Rabbit, casually, “and we’ve up and closed off all the little hidey-holes you’ve got downstairs. It’s been a pain coming up to see you. You really ought to have signed the agreement we offered, it would’ve saved everyone so much trouble.”
He palmed a toothpick from a little packet he kept in his pocket and tucked it in his mouth. Even with his hand gloved the motion was a dextrous one. “It’s just business, aye? A better option’s been found and you’re being replaced, just like it said on the paper. There was no need for this to get personal.” Rabbit gestured at the attic around him. “Look at this. You’ve lived on the outside, you know you can do better than this. You just…aren’t, for some reason. You’d think someone with Their attention would be a little smarter about it than being a boogeyman hiding in a wardrobe.”
The toothpick wandered from one side of Rabbit’s mouth to the other like a man doing a trick with a cigarette in hopes of a free drink. “One last little chance, a gift from me to you. You can stop all this right now. If you stop, we stop, and we get your signature, and you go on your merry way without so much as a hair out of place. How’s that sound?”
The light around Rabbit wavered and then flowed upwards like a jellyfish bell, ensnaring him; in the same instant Rabbit had plucked the toothpick from his mouth with his good hand and flung it, its saliva-moistened tip pointing forwards, through the glow’s cellophane film with all the terrible precision of one of Cupid’s own arrows. The attic was awash in a riot of screaming static that crawled over every surface and filled the air with a wall of pure noise and then, just as quickly, it was bare and quiet again, a now-visible Fox kneeling on the ground with a toothpick lodged in his cheek.
“You shithead,” he said with a croak.
Rabbit leaned in and pressed a gloved fingertip against the side of the toothpick, eliciting a cry of pain. “Takes one to know one, my man,” he said as Fox scuttled backwards and struggled to his feet.
For all that Rabbit could talk a good game he wasn’t much in a fight without the proper tools, so it was perhaps inevitable that as soon as his knife came out Fox’s first course of action was to try and kick it away. Fox was clearly used to handling people problems head on, unlike Rabbit’s skill with the element of surprise, and with one of his hands already out of commission Rabbit couldn’t rely on useful tricks like blinding his opponent with the flashlight he no longer had a free hand to carry, so Fox’s size and aggression soon backed Rabbit up against one of the fiberglass-fleeced walls. Rabbit dodged furiously as Fox’s fist plunged into the insulation, each blow only inches away from striking their intended target, and with how thoroughly Fox had him boxed in there was little chance for Rabbit to escape.
Fox struck out with an elbow that hit Rabbit square in the wounded part of his hand, stunning Rabbit long enough for Fox to successfully knock the knife out of his grasp. It spun off into the darkness of the attic well away from the bulb’s buzzing light. Fox’s next few strikes collided with the wall behind Rabbit. If it had been William up against the wall he might’ve relied on his sheer mass to power through Fox’s attacks, but Rabbit was Rabbit, and he’d always been the sort who’d been teased about falling through heating grates if he turned sideways. Every time he seemed to be making progress Fox got another shot at his hand (or, in one instance, right in the crotch) and Rabbit was reduced to flailing around in agony instead of going on the offensive. If something didn’t turn the tide soon he’d tire out enough to be in even more serious trouble.
Which was why William chose that moment to bring his flashlight in, hard, against Fox’s exposed right temple, just shy of the spot that would’ve killed him. Working as a team was all about placement and timing.
By the time Fox came to again they’d tied him to a chair they’d found in a corner that had been empty only a little while before. The toothpick was still stuck in his cheek, a little spike of binding that had been just enough to keep Fox from doing anything too unpredictable. William was so occupied with putting disinfectant on Rabbit’s hand that he almost missed Fox trying to scoot away.
“Oh no you don’t.” He snapped his fingers and the chair rooted itself in place. Prepping the thing while he’d been unconscious had turned out to be a very good idea.
Fox glowered. “You two have no idea the kinds of things I’ve done for this place,” he said. “So many offerings, so many years. I was so close! We’d be done already if it weren’t for that one over there going off-script.” He gestured with his head at Rabbit. “What did he tell you? You know he fucked me, right? More than once? I barely had to ask.”
“Yeah, he mentioned,” said William. “He’s not leaving the company so it’s not my concern.”
“The house showed us that you’ve been wasting time for decades,” said Rabbit. “We have better plans. Time-honored skills, brand new ideas, mixed together into a lucrative little business venture. The building’s going to love our work.”
“You’re just a pair of fucking necromancers,” said Fox.
“Renovators,” corrected William.
“Resurrection men, if you prefer something a little more whimsical,” said Rabbit.
Fox bared his teeth. “Same fucking thing!”
“We’ve flipped more houses than you have tastebuds in that dirt mouth of yours,” said William as he finished tending Rabbit’s hand. “None of which required lurking in a pantry for college students to wander by, I might add. Knox Property Solutions takes dead buildings and makes them alive again. It’s the sort of thing They’re awfully fond of once they notice what you’re doing for Them. Speaking of which….” He produced another photocopied contract that looked nearly identical to the first one. “You can sign, or we can sign for you. Which will it be?”
What happened next was probably meant to be a dramatic act of defiance, but Fox had trouble spitting with the little bit of wood still stuck in his cheek and ended up just drooling on himself with vigor. William shrugged. “Suit yourself. Rabbit, if you’d do the honors?”
In their mutual line of work William and Rabbit had found that sometimes the perfect renovation project still had people who insisted on living in it; sometimes you could get them to cede control of the property by external means, and if you were lucky you could even get them to move back in at a premium once your work was done, but sometimes you had to get a little creative to free up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Creativity meant knowing how to minimize mess. Rabbit could be very creative indeed.
A little bit of blood was all it took to validate the new contract and William could feel the house settling as all the little wards and bindings they’d left behind like breadcrumbs unwound into nothingness again. The slate was clean. This didn’t mean things were done by a long shot, however. William sprinkled some salt in a perfect circle, stripped naked, and stood at the edge of the salt.
“Hello, Greenbriar,” he said to the empty air. “We’re here to discuss the new contract, and offer ourselves for your entertainment. May all the proceedings please you, as we would seek to please any of Their number.” He looked over at Rabbit. “Is the hand thing going to be a problem?”
“No, it’s fine,” said Rabbit, who was disrobing much more slowly. He shot Fox’s remains, still upright in the chair, an uneasy glance. “He might be one, though.”
“What about him?”
“Can you throw a tarp over him or something? I’m not going to judge what you’re into but it’s had for me to get it up when there’s a dead body just sitting out in the open like that.”
William allowed himself half of a smile. “I thought you didn’t have a problem working around live demo scenes,” he said as he rummaged in a cardboard box that, much like the chair, had absolutely not been there before when they’d first climbed into the attic. It was full of floral print linens that matched the sets in the second story closet.
“Aye, working’s no problem, but fucking each other to make the anthropomorphic personification of a city district pop up to watch is a little different from measuring roof angles, isn’t it?”
“Can’t argue with that,” said William. He pushed the chair and its exsanguinated contents backwards, threw an old sheet over the top, and sprinkled a little extra salt around the whole mess just in case. Fresh bodies weren’t always as willing to stay down as older ones. “Better?”
“Much. Greenbriar still on the horn?”
William stepped inside the perfect circle and extended a hand to Rabbit. “Let’s find out.”
Ritual sex was different from for-fun sex because you had to generally be mindful not to muck up any symbols you’d drawn and ensure that people came in the proper way and, if at least one participant could ejaculate, in the proper place. You weren’t going to have any luck calling up entities made by, yet far outstripping, the work of human hands if you kept kicking candles over like an asshole (yet another reason William had long since preferred using salt for this sort of thing). This didn’t necessarily make it less fun, however, since a certain kind of mindset could find a lot to like about screwing someone else’s brains out for the approval of the unknowable lurking somewhere out beyond the borders of perception. When Rabbit, now anointed ’round the anus with very rare and expensive unguents, slid himself in place to rest in William’s lap, the faint feathery tingle of awareness in the back of William’s brain flared to life, and William smiled.
He pressed his mouth hard against Rabbit’s and clawed his fingers against Rabbit’s back. They’d been so busy lately that they hadn’t had time to be together like this, not with each other, and William had found himself missing the familiarity of it. For what had started as a matter of convenience had ended up extremely comfortable. He knew Rabbit. He knew what to do with Rabbit. Sometimes when they did this their positions were switched and sometimes they were in entirely different configurations and either way it was as natural a thing to him as speech. The bare attic flooring was rough on his knees but it didn’t matter. He’d deal with the splinters later.
They ground against each other for a bit with William inside Rabbit all the way to the hilt and Rabbit’s own cock pressed between them, and once William was certain he had Their utmost attention he pushed Rabbit onto his back, legs in the air like a jackknife, and started plowing him in earnest. The light of the bare bulb reflected dully off the sweat that sheened across his shoulders with every thrust. It was a showy position, even for him, but they were there to put on a show and so a show it would be. Between the stress of the day and Rabbit’s little helping hand earlier William didn’t expect any trouble with endurance.
He’d first met Rabbit at some bar or another and they’d ended up going home together; they’d been fucking for months before either tweaked to the fact that they shared a profession, and they went on for quite a while after that before one of them—neither remembered who it was, though William suspected it was his doing, as he was more prone to whims of sentiment when exposed to wine and pillow talk—let the secret slip. That moment of indiscretion had saved William’s life back when he’d ended up making the biggest mistake of his life and needing a friend who knew what to do. Rabbit hadn’t dealt with any of Them directly back then, but he’d known how to hide William long enough for the proper precautions to be taken, and that had been enough. That hadn’t been why they decided to hook up semi-officially, but it certainly hadn’t hurt. A reliable ritual buddy was a rare and precious thing.
Eyes, unseen but intensely felt, swept over William’s body. You never turned your back on Them when They approached you, but when you called Them out you let them see whatever They wanted. Every single one of Them was a voyeur: what they wanted was human passions writ large and sloppy. For not having experience with this exact rite Rabbit was doing great, being sure to arch his back in a theatrical way he decidedly did not do when they were together in private, and while he normally was quiet in bed this time he was whimpering under his breath. The stupid faces he was making were a nice touch. While you could technically get Their attention just by leaving on an anime DVD you had to be willing to cook up your own trashy pornography for the best possible effect.
When the feeling of being watched was at its strongest William switched his grip from Rabbit’s ankles to just beneath his knees and leaned over so he could move faster. William’s hair was in his eyes which meant his hair tie had either loosened or failed completely; this was a good sign, since in his experience They liked it when people were energetic. The way They changed was on such a different scale than the way people did that They were fascinated by the slightest example. He paused just long enough to check up on Rabbit—whose bandaged hand had remained draped against his chest for the majority of things, and whose good hand was busily playing with himself—before tucking the most offending locks behind his ears, adjusting the position of his hands, and doing his best to pound Rabbit through the floor and into what he vaguely remembered was a guest bedroom.
Once William came Rabbit followed a few seconds later; he was careful to stay inside the circle, which had remained undisturbed throughout. They panted together in the quiet of the attic. Someone else was there, now, someone who wasn’t really visible but present in such a way that the eye filled in the blanks to make a picture complete enough for the brain not to slide right off of, and just like that one of Them was in their midst. William and Rabbit nodded politely between heavy breaths.
“Hello, Rabbit,” said the figure.
“Hello, Greenbriar,” said Rabbit.
“Pleased to meet you, Greenbriar,” said William. “As mentioned in the contract, I’m here as Mr. Fox’s replacement.”
“I see you’ve broken him,” said Greenbriar, though They didn’t sound upset.
William sat up, Rabbit still impaled in his lap, and shrugged. “Sometimes a proper upgrade requires a little demolition work, and we at Knox Property Solutions aren’t afraid to get our hands dirty now and then. He won’t be causing problems for you anymore. Don’t worry, it’s all covered in the terms.”
“You talk a big game, William Burkowicz. You say you can resurrect all of me, all of Greenbriar, not just this shell around us. I am dead and I am dying, William. You stand in a cicada’s husk. My people have bled away and my pipes strain with embolisms and my foundations rot helplessly in the rain. I am starving but there is nothing to eat. I would like to know how you plan to change that.”
A grin, the most genuine and satisfied one he’d worn in quite a while, spread across William’s face. “Let’s have us a talk about marketing.”
The video was a proof copy still slathered in timing codes, but the picture was clear and the sound was crisp. A handsome middle-aged woman in a fashionable suit stood on the porch of an American Gothic manor house with a lush green lawn. The afternoon sun reflected brilliantly off the ibis-shaped pin affixed to her lapel. She smiled at the camera.
“Hi, I’m Melanie Yi. Some of you might know me from my early work in the urban exploration scene, but these days I’m all about urban restoration. I’d like to tell you a little bit about how I’m combining both of my loves right here at Greenbriar Manor.”
She walked down the steps and across the lawn, keeping in the shade of the trees. “Recognized by the Tobin Memorial Society as one of the most haunted places in the state, this beautiful building had trouble finding a place on the historical registry and was at risk for being condemned. Thanks to the efforts of some truly dedicated people, it’s been saved from becoming the next parking lot, and now you can live its rich and mysterious history yourself! The Greenbriar Manor Bed and Breakfast is opening for guests this fall….”
Melanie continued her spiel about the history of the house and the area around it, her words woven with the promise of supernatural activity and untouched abandoned buildings to explore. She spoke with the confidence of a long-time carnival barker even as she oozed folksy wholesomeness. Once they tracked her down she’d been surprisingly willing to go along with things, especially once she learned what had ultimately become of Fox. It wasn’t like she was a stranger to the business. Knox Property Solutions worked even better as a three-person team, it turned out.
Hints darted between each narration over pictures of the area, couched in words like “affordable” and “newly renovated.” Some of the most recent Knox projects appeared on screen with conspicuous For Sale signs as Melanie said “opportunity” and “revitalize.” It wasn’t necessary to show the cracked roads, the neglected sidewalks, the way parts of the sewer system would back up when it rained too hard. Those would come with time. What would sell it was the charm.
The camera returned once more to the house, where Melanie sat in the kitchen—now kitted out in gleaming chrome and the swirl-patterned smoothness of polished granite—next to a mug of tea and a little plate of iced shortbread cookies. “Come book a visit with us and see for yourself why, when we talk about Greenbriar, we say this city loves you.” Her tea mug levitated a ways off the table, where she took it and drank from it before flashing the camera a cheesy grin sure to delight the irony fiends in the audience. “After all, isn’t everyone always looking for a new haunt?”
The video ran out and the laptop switched from fullscreen back to the blank wrapper of the media player. Melanie stood off to one side with her hands folded behind her back, William and Rabbit at her sides. “So, what do you think?” she asked.
Greenbriar, who was sitting on the newly upholstered couch, steepled Their fingers. “And this will work?”
“On the people it needs to,” said Rabbit. “We get enough interest in the place to get folks moving in, maybe snagging themselves a Knox house or two since William and Mel and I work so hard, we revitalize the area just enough to get the population booming, and we get your influence snaked through the whole place so it’s easy for people to forget that someone might have gone missing for longer than a week’s vacation. We can then spread the word they’ve moved out, update the property as needed, then start all over again. All this and maybe the occasional refresher ritual performance if you get tired of what’s on the Netflix we got you, aye?”
“People are suspicious animals,” said Greenbriar. “They might not notice anything while they’re here, but their families will.”
“That’s why distribution is important,” said Melanie. “If we bury this deep enough in a place you can’t access without TOR or more, and we set up the right communication channels, and maybe if we aim a little harder than usual at people who won’t be missed too much, we can make it work. We can have a few grandmas and small families here and there to flesh things out, but you and I both know what that hunger of yours needs is young people. Young people with house-buying money vanish all the time. The boys can take care of the physicals and metaphysicals, I’ll handle the digital trail.” Her smile turned a little cold. “It’s amazing how easy it is to do if you know how.”
Greenbriar still didn’t look convinced, as much as They could be said to look like anything. “But to show your faces so openly…?”
“She’s a minor celebrity in certain very specific circles, so we’ll want to milk that for all it’s worth,” said William. “Us two are the charmingly harmless gay couple.” Rabbit scoffed and laughed at this while Melanie hid her mouth behind her hand. “We can pass as the charmingly harmless gay couple,” William corrected, “and if we’re always swanning around like homemaker TV hosts it’s perfect camouflage. Of course we’re going to have our hands all over each other because it’s what people expect from that type of person. Of course we’re going to be all over the place because we’re constantly surveying some civics project or another. Which I promise we’ll really do once the money starts coming in, we know the utilities are shit out here.”
“You really think enough people will take the bait?” asked Greenbriar, though They now sounded more hopeful than incredulous.
William nodded firmly. “Of course they will. We’re dangling this in front of explorers, ghost-hunters, bored horror enthusiasts, and people who think houses are best when they’re tiny. They’re all rubes in their own special way.”
Rabbit slid around the couch to rub at the approximate location of Greenbriar’s shoulders. His fingers more or less hit the mark; it was difficult to gauge exactly where They were, physically. “Come on, you know it’s a good idea,” he said. “We’ve all been around the block a few times, aye? It’s how we know where to cast our nets. We get rich, and you get to feast. I think that’ll work out for all of us nicely.”
Greenbriar leaned into Rabbit’s touch and, presumably, closed Their eyes in contentment. Everyone pretended not to notice the current situation with Rabbit’s valiantly still-massaging fingers or how the remnants of the white spot on his hand reacted. “I suppose I give you my blessing, then, so long as you answer my final question.”
“What might that be?” asked William.
“What do you mean when you say this city loves you?”
William chuckled. “It’s a bit of a bad joke. You know how it’s easier to hide in plain sight, and how people say they ‘love’ a good slice of pie…? Same thing. We’re technically laying our cards on the table at the start. It helps the occlusion work.”
“I suppose that will do,” said Greenbriar, and then They weren’t there anymore.
Melanie threw her arms in the air and whooped. “We’re going to make so much fucking money!”
Rabbit thumped William playfully on the back. “I’ve already started planning where to put my first solid gold toilet, how about you?”
“No ideas yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something,” said William. “I always do.”
He turned away from the laptop to look out through one of the big front windows with its brand new glass. The Greenbriar district outside looked like absolute shit: too much garbage, too much damage, not enough people or money or time to do anything about it. It was at best a shambling husk of itself. William studied it all with a calculating eye. Fox had called him a necromancer and that wasn’t wholly unfair: William had made an entire career out of killing dying houses or digging through the guts of dead ones and bringing them back to life, and that’s what he planned to do on a grander scale than ever now that he had one of Them as a sponsor. No true artist was content to rest on his laurels.
He’d done things involving Them before and it’d gone badly until he’d deigned to ask for help. This time he’d started with two others who knew their stuff, and he was the one approaching Them instead of vice versa, and the difference was like night and day. Nobody could plan for anything in this economy but he got the feeling their little partnership was one that would stand the test of time.
Not five minutes after Melanie had uploaded the finished cut to her chosen servers her phone began to chirp with notifications. She flashed William a thumbs up when he turned to see what the commotion was: For every half-dozen joke messages or matching scams there was a genuine inquiry, and at the rate things were going the Greenbriar Manor Bed and Breakfast would be booked solid through its first month of operation before sundown.
William went back to the window and smiled the smile of a farmer looking at a crop mere days away from harvest time. Doom, doom, murmured some faceless Cassandra hidden in the sound of the heater kicking on, and now that he had the proper context William welcomed it. Soon the new parking lot would have cars in it, and soon he’d be welcoming some of the first new blood Greenbriar had seen in years onto its premises. He couldn’t wait to show them around the place. They’d be just in time for the revival.