The Case of the Wrongs Darker than Death or Night
Scarsdale, New York, USA
29th December, 2022
The sun is clear up in a pale blue sky, but winter has made her shine something less bright and altogether more sickly. Cold air bristles hairs on the back of the neck that stand proud of a faded and over starched collar, making the man in the hat pull the thick lapels of his greatcoat tightly in about himself as he drops down the short distance to the bench below. Breath billows out in a swirling clouds as he buries his hands in his pockets, looking out on the row of stone and marble-carved memorials.
“Thought it was about time we met,” Fexxfield says out loud, without turning to look at the man already sitting on the bench to his right. “Could spend the next year trying to learn through sleuthing what might well come easier just by asking.”
He pulls the fedora free from his slick-parted hair, marred only by the pencil-thin line of a scar that runs neatly around the top of his temple and hairline. The rim is threadbare where he circles it around and between his fingers. “Man like you only leaves information out there he wants to be found,” Terryl continued, adding a nod slightly off centre and over towards the cityscape and high-rises. “Hear you’ve got a big choice to make.”
Glancing down at the worn fabric, he frowns. “Caught between a Hurricane and the Rapture. That’s the word out between the tall buildings and back-alleys, anyway.”
“Caught is an interesting turn of phrase.” Replied Gabriel, never taking his eyes off the small marble stone embedded into the ground. “One would infer that being caught is a suggestion of being without choice. And whilst that appears to be the chaotic order of things, I can assure you - my place is no accident.”
Gabriel paused and slowly turned his head to face the visitor and offered him a smile before extending his hand.
“Doctor Gabriel Baal.” He said, matter of factly.
“Caught more to the mind that you haven’t decided which one is the lesser of two mighty terrible things.” He glanced over and took the proffered hand. “Name’s Fexxfield. Terryl, if we’re on first name terms.”
Silence squeezed back into the narrow space between them for a few moments. “Or greater of two terrible things, depends on your angle.”
He settled back on the row of immaculately carved memorials set into the cold, damp ground. “She used to say there was no such thing as monsters. Just monstrous people, but she was wrong.”
Fexxfield leaned back against the wind-bleached wood of the bench. “Abigayle is a monster, made by other people like any number of fairytales make-believe, but one all the same. Find it hard to believe a man like you really holds her up as one side of a perfectly-balanced scale of choice. Feels more like leverage, or hedging …”
Puffing his cheeks out, Terryl pulled in the folds of his greatcoat and set his hat down on his lap. “Then again, ran into a few men like you. Lucky to walk away from them, all things considered … Something I didn’t do enough to avoid such unpleasant situations in the first place.”
“Like you,” the gumshoe reiterated, “ … But different. None of the rest of them had children, to my knowledge. Always thought that gave someone a new perspective on an old situation. And yet …”
A frown creased his stubbled face. Eventually, Fexxfield looked over – again – at Baal. “Don’t really understand why this is still dressed up as a choice. Is it just to throw folk off? Keep them guessing? Amber’s like a poor attitude to fire safety in some leafy, countryside nursing home; a tragedy waiting for a chance to get going. But Abigayle’s a monster. Plain, if anything but simple.”
“I have experience with monsters. Created them, moulded them, stood side by side with them.” Gabriel said, almost wistfully. “I’ve also stood opposed to them as well - though, my wife has even greater experience than even I.”
Gabriel paused, his eyes focused on the memorial in front of him.
“But it’s not always the monsters that do the most terrible things.” He said, a slight quiver in his voice. “This memorial is for my brother - Quentin. He was murdered by a man… just a man. Afraid of those who held onto the chain around his neck. I forgave Uriel for his transgression as it was one he would never have chosen but for fear.”
Gabriel’s mind wandered, thinking back to that time, four years earlier.
“My son is named for two men killed in a war that they had no part of. My brother and Eden’s father - both lives wasted needlessly in an effort to turn those that I loved and cared about against me. And yet, the men who set those events into motion were no monsters. They were just men, afraid of what I could do to them.” Gabriel paused for a second. “Their lofty stations no longer exist - their titles and their wealth was stripped away. They were left as little more than the terrified children that tried to play games with my life.”
Gabriel turned his head slowly towards Terryl and paused.
“So tell me, Mr. Fexxfield….” Gabriel added quietly. “Do you honestly believe that I don’t understand the complexity of this situation?”
“Not lack of understanding that has me on edge,” He replied. “Got me feeling the tips of my loafers biting into nothing but thin air. Not that, Doc …”
A thick smear of cloud drags itself across the pale, flat disc of the winter sun and dims it a touch, giving the wind a new and harder edge as it bites. “What worries me is you know exactly what you’re doing, even though you can’t know someone who doesn’t even know themselves–”
He grimaces, jaw twisting with the thought and a hasty correction. “Something. Abigayle, Masque – a monster by any other name but still – doesn’t even know what she is. Flips through motivations, reasonings and feelings as effortlessly as you diagnose the ailments of the spirit and prescribe some chicken soup for the soul. Say what you like about a certain Painted Hurricane but for all her faults and flaws, and I’d be right in line with a dozen others to list them off if it came down to it, even she operates within the boundaries of a behavioural model. Yeah, constraints. Imagine it.”
Fexxfield chuckles, shrugging his shoulders. “She wouldn’t take kindly to the notion, but it’s true. That She-Witch on the other hand … If she has any sort of coherent playbook, the pages get jumbled up and rewritten on a near-daily basis.”
The laughter gets whipped away on the cold wind. “You’re a far smarter man than me, Doc. I just walk these streets a spell, but you run them, or at least the people who do. That doesn’t square with what I know about Abigayle …”
His eyes pass over Quentin’s marker., and he nods at it. “ … And the only person who knows her better than I do has one of those and isn’t talking. Never will again.”
“Know you’ve met her,” Fexxfield adds. “Know you’ve talked, so you can’t lay any claim to ignorance. Question is given you know … Why take the risk at all? Why not back the red horse less likely to buck your head clean free of your shoulders even if you give it everything it ever wanted?”
“I’m not one for the easy path, Mr. Fexxfield.” Gabriel said quietly. “It’s too easy - it’s what other people do. That being said, there is every chance that I could do precisely what you’ve suggested. It could be Amber. It could be Abigayle. There is a lesser considered third option where it’s neither… but in this, chaos will decide.”
Gabriel said picking lint from his trousers.
“Let me tell you a story.” Gabriel said, clearing his throat and leaning back just a little more. “I once had a patient that came to me to tell me about his friends. They were the only friends he had in the world, and yet… they didn’t get along with one another. Little by little, they were tearing him apart making him choose. They’d force him to pick, and when he couldn’t choose, they’d both arrive and then he’d be torn apart in person. Watching them cut one another with their sharp tongues.”
Gabriel shifted slightly.
“He was depressed. Severely. And the only thing worse than the idea of watching them both rip one another to shreds, was having to choose between the two. As the weeks went on, no matter what advice I gave it was getting worse and worse. It was as though they were listening, and everytime I had an answer they’d change the rules. He was so close to losing everything. And then I realised… It took me much longer than it should have taken me considering… ” Gabriel shook his head and chuckled. “Well that’s a story for another time. I realised that he didn’t have… any friends. They were both in his head. Visualisations. Spectors. Figments of the very worst parts of his imagination. So when he made a change, they knew how to counter. It was clinically beautiful.”
Gabriel reached up and scratched his forehead.
“But I was able to make him see that, in reality, he was in control. Knowing that fact was the real power… because where they had once been a step ahead, just like that…” He clicked his fingers. “He was the one with the choices. They were bound to the limits he set, and suddenly, choosing wasn’t painful anymore - it was a gift.”
Gabriel looked at Terryl.
“Amber and Abigayle… they play these games, but one of them is always in control. Add in someone like me and the game changes. Add someone like me who sees the game for what it is, and like it or not, neither one of them knows who steers the direction. This creates uncertainty - and whilst uncertainty to a women like Abigayle creates danger, for someone like Amber it creates opportunity. And suddenly, this game is… Tantalisingly dangerous. And they say, a little chaos never hurt anyone.” Said Gabriel with a smirk, turning his head back to the memorial. “Is that why we’re having this conversation? Is that what you’re concerned about?”
“Concerned about the war in Ukraine,” Fexxfield ventured with a click of his tongue. “Concerned about rising crime in inner cities and whether I can justify investing in an electric car now given how well Elon’s tanking his own business …”
“Beyond concerned,” He added with a shake of his head. “Am tied to both of them with chains and ribbon, and the jerking from side-to-side is beginning to bruise me purple. No longer an active participant; not like you or Amber or … Her … Just swept up in something too powerful to face down.”
Interlocking his fingers together, Terryl rested them on his lap. “As for the reasoning behind our conversation … Wanted to see whether it was megalomania, delusion, or something more dangerous that makes you think you can just insert yourself into this whole thing with some semblance of control.”
“Dangerous like you might actually be able to do it,” He mused, tipping his head back to look up at the storm-tossed sky. “Dangerous like you, Doc, unlike all the others, might somehow have something about you that makes it possible to steer the path of a hurricane or see in a rapture. God – or if he’s dead and we killed him, random fate – knows I can’t. Never could. Reason why Abigayle and Amber have both been competing to see who could kill me slower. Only difference is one doesn’t mean to do it even while she squeezes my heart flat.”
Terryl sighed. “But then again, me, the lady and the eldritch horror masquerading literally as one, we’ve been doing this for what feels like forever. Almost ten years, with no sign of stopping. Maybe you’re the means to an end we’re all begging for, even if it’s for wildly differing reasons.”
“Maybe you’re supposed to be getting involved,” He ventured.”Maybe you should never have come here. All I know is, you’ve got the look of a man who knows loss. Knows how that hurts like a splinter deep in the soul that keeps opening up old psychosomatic wounds. Knowing that, suppose I still don’t really see why with everything you’ve got to lose, you’re willing to gamble.”
“If you’d ever met my wife, you’d understand. She was the most fantastic gamble I ever took. We hated one another once upon a time. She helped to destroy everything I’d ever manage to build. She tore out my heart and crushed it time and again. And then she collected the pieces and managed to put them back together again, in a way that was wholly better than it had been before.” Said Gabriel, with a musing smile. “Sometimes, the greatest risk begets the greatest reward. Sometimes your final throw of the dice is the one that changes your life.”
Gabriel took a deep breath, and it turned into a heady sigh.
“But it does need to end, Terryl. One way or another - for Amber. For Abigayle. For you and for all of the other collateral damage. It has to stop. Because you’re right - they’ve danced this same dance for far too long. Someone needs to step in to change the tune.” Gabriel considered, before turning his head to face his visitor. “What does your heart desire? What is the ideal end for Terryl Fexxfield?”
Sitting up, the gumshoe’s eyes linger on the ordered row of memorials across neatly-trimmed plots – all resplendent with fresh flowers. Their letters are embossed and clear; entropy hasn’t worn away their intricately carved facades, or left their bright tributes to wilt and rot.
“You’re right about that, Doc,” He nodded, turning the hat in his hands over. “It’s got to end. Tried once or twice, but just ended up becoming part of the carnival. Couldn’t get out of the twirling colours and flashing lights. Everything turned into a blur and now I can’t think straight. Not when it comes to Amber. She fuzzes everything up. Makes even the binary choices into logic trees with deadends. Always has. And as for that She-Witch …”
For a few moments, Fexxfield balls his fists tight until the skin pops pink in the cool air. Eventually, he lets them relax with a long puff of condensed breath that floats up and out of sight. “Turns me into something I’m not. Never have been. Thing is, I don’t even think she knows what her endgame is …”
Abruptly, he looks over at Gabriel. “She’s a twin, you know. Identical. Spent most of her life locked away – rightly, in my book, given how she’s turned out – for problems in the meat of her head. Got it in there that she was her sister. Annabelle …”
Fexxfield turned his head back towards the memorials. “My wife, until she passed a few years ago. But then, feel like you already knew that.”
Gabriel lowered his eyes in respect of the memory of Terryl's wife. A confirmation that he did, indeed, know.
“I did.” He said quietly. “I can’t imagine–”
But Terryl continued, not allowing Gabriel to finish that sentence.
“Don’t know what I want, Doc,” Terryl added as he set the hat back on his head and tugged the brim down. “Heart’s been cut up and put back together so many times it doesn’t know what to feel about anything, anymore.”
He climbed up to his feet, brushed some imagined dust from the folds of his greatcoat and stepped away. “Congratulations by the way – not easy to make a life, something new. Everyone else around here is an expert in ruining them.”
“Terryl.” Gabriel called as Fexxfield started to walk away. He was pleased to see his visitor pause. He turned slowly to face Gabriel who climbed to his feet and fastened his jacket. “I don’t know you well, but I pride myself on being a rather good judge of character. I know the life you have isn’t the life you want.”
Gabriel reached into his pocket, and for a second he saw Fexxfield’s guard spring up. But when he withdrew his hand, there was nothing untoward.
“I can help you. And if it’s something you’re open to, I will help you.” Gabriel said, holding out his hand to show a business card - two numbers. Business and personal. “I have room within my organisation for smart people who can find things. And with that offer comes hope for a new life - one that breaks you away from everything you’re tied to now.”
Gabriel allowed the since to hang between them for a moment or two.
“I’m not arrogant enough to tell you that you need my protection. But I’m intelligent enough to know that my resources and my network can change your future.” He said quietly. “Those who I work with… they’re treated fairly. That’s the promise I make.”
The silence hangs a little longer, turning from passing acquaintance to unwanted lodger and eventually, wary bedfellows. After a few long, drawn-out moments, Fexxfield takes the proffered card and scans either side.
“Might sound needlessly hyperbolic, Doc, but can’t be on the side of anything dark. Appreciate this world and everything – and everyone – on it doesn’t always fit neatly into either scale in-between the moral pivot point, but have to be clear. Won’t do wicked work …”
He hesitates, letting that silence come around for a second chance. “ … But willing to work, if the circumstances make me feel less like I’m waist-deep in the mud, trying to push other folks around me down by their heads.”
“Not all of my work is nefarious, Mr. Fexxfield. And despite notions created by your recent associations, most people aren’t wholly good or wholly bad. You would have the freedom to work as you see fit.” Said Gabriel, extending his hand. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Terryl.”
Reaching out, Fexxfield meets it with his own. “Hope it turns out to be, Doc,” He nods as he takes his leave, turning to pick a path back towards the lattice of burnished iron railings which pick out the cemetery’s perimeter.
“ … Hope it turns out to be.”