If you are new to the SDS Challenge, a little background.
Three writers will each write one story a month going down the list of deadly sins. The stories can be anywhere from 666 words to 6,666 words in length, although those numbers are not set in stone. If ambitious, the writers will provide accompanying graphics. These stories will not be anonymous because some writers may want to use the same characters for each story and write a series — or book — encompassing all seven sins. Finally, interpretation of the titular sin is up to the writer. Meaning, each ‘sin’ can take multiple forms.
The second set of stories cover the sin of Gluttony. This is the offering by Perry Broxson.
Disclaimer: The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories will likely span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Perry is writing a novella linking all of the seven sins, but breaking each sin up into semi-stand-alone offerings. Because of this, he asked that I include this prologue/synopsis to set up the story:
Punishment for Glutton
Copyright 2021 — Perry Broxson
(7,610 words – approx. reading time: about 29 minutes based on 265 WPM)
The empty amulet pulled Ralph down, down, down to the Silver State. He landed in a wooded region right outside of Las Vegas. Retracting his wings, he walked out of a copse of juniper and sagebrush toward the hum of civilization. It was mid-April and the heat was on the cool side of miserable. Gnats hectored him as he took off his pea coat and folded it over his forearm. The sky crackled with throat-clearing thunder. He needed shelter and he needed it quick.
The Nevada desert had a serenity that he appreciated. It reminded him of his home in Mexico, which reminded him of Mirabelle, which saddened him. Soon, the sands gave way to macadam and the chaos of urbanity. He booked a room at an EconoLodge in Summerlin City, using Father Doctor Sean Maloney’s credit card. He bought newspapers: local, regional, state, and national. For several days, he scoured them for clues – any crumbs left by Gluttony. It was a local news station, however, that eventually delivered the goods.
A woman, apparently despondent over gambling losses, leaped to her death from the roof of the Grand Casino off The Strip, reported the anchor of KLAS News.
A photo of the woman, Angela Mooney, appeared on the 14” TV. She was remarkable in that she was truly one of the largest, blackest women Ralph had ever seen. The thought of her leaping, falling, splatting . . . .
Witnesses say they saw her at the hotel buffet but were unsure if she actually gambled. Hotel security has been asked to turn over any video that may aid local authorities in their investigation.
Ralph’s ark amulet jittered, bouncing on his chest.
“We’ve got a nibble,” Ralph said to the warm room.
We’re asking the public to contact Sheriff Birdy’s office in Summerlin if they know anything about Angela Mooney. Next is weather. Lorelei, is this storm system going to ever going to move on?”
“Birdy,” Ralph recalled, “Abner Birdy . . . Sheriff in Summerlin? That good ol’ boy must’ve got fed up with New Mexico and bounced to Nevada . . . well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”
Ralph dialed the front desk and asked to be connected to the Summerlin Police Department. From there, he navigated a dispatcher, deputy, and a detective before reaching Sheriff Abner Birdy.
“Ralph? Ralph Chamberlain,” Sheriff Birdy said. “Dog my cats, thought you was dead, son.”
“Nope,” Ralph lied, “still fogging mirrors. Still chasing Jumpers. Can you help me, ol’ buddy?”
“Meet me at Linda’s Deli in twenty minutes. Bring your wallet, cuz you’re payin’.”
Ralph didn’t immediately recognize his old friend. He’d gained weight – a lot of weight. Ralph worried for his friend’s unlucky chair. “Abner!” he shouted, clapping his back. “Don’t get up.”
Abner didn’t. He did, however, scrub cheese grease from his hands with his napkin and shake. “Want one?” he asked, offering a fried mozzarella cheese stick. “You might as well; you bought ‘em.” Abner laughed, showing the yellow goop in his mouth.
“No, thanks,” Ralph said, suddenly not hungry. “I’d love to shoot the shit, catch up on old times, but I’m on the hunt. There’s a lady” –
“’Member when I helped you with that drug-runner in Las Cruces? Old boy had a kilo of coke squirreled up in his butthole? What was his name?”
Ralph rubbed the scar on his scalp, trying to remember. “Gettin’ old,” he said. “My memory is shit. But here’s the thing, she jumped off the roof of the Grand Casino Hotel.”
Sheriff Abner Birdy flagged the waitress and ordered a pitcher of sweet iced tea, the Number 3 and 7 Combo, with a side of fried pickles and Ranch. “You want somethin’?” he asked Ralph.
“No, really, I’m good,” Ralph said. “I’m in a bit of a time crunch.”
“Rodriquez,” Abner shouted. “Looked like that guy that played Chico on that show in the 70s. What was his name? The actor?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Funny guy. Shot himself in the head,” Abner said, slapping his belly. “Makes ya wonder, what would possess a person to take their life. I know life can be hard but” –
“Abner!” Ralph interrupted, “Her name is Angela Mooney. I need to see her.”
“She’s dead,” Abner said, munching on Number 3. “Whatta mess; whatta a messy-ass mess! Seeing a thing like could make a man lose his appetite.”
“Listen, Ab,” Ralph said, “if you could call the morgue and get me cleared. I only need five minutes. How about it?”
The waitress approached and asked, “Sheriff, Edith Ann made a fresh batch of eclairs – want some?”
Sheriff Abner Birdy looked at Ralph, as if for approval.
“I’m buying,” Ralph said. “Go for it.”
When the meal was complete, Sheriff Birdy called Monica Tilly, Summerlin County’s elected Coroner, and cleared Ralph for five minutes with the corpse of Angela Mooney.
“Miss Tilly,” Ralph said, shaking her hand. “My pleasure.”
“Well it’s certainly not mine,” she replied. “This is highly irregular, Mr. Chamberlain. You are not family, nor are you affiliated with legitimate law enforcement.”
“I am a state-certified bounty hunter,” Ralph said. This was technically a lie. His New Mexico license had expired three years hence.
Her black hair was pulled back, tight, like banjo strings. Her face was powdered and pale, her eyes rimmed with black lacquer. A handsome woman, Ralph thought. If time wasn’t so critical I might just –
“Must have been a grueling two weeks,” she said.
“Pardon?” His train of thought derailed.
“The two-week certification,” she said. “Christ, you don’t even get jokes.”
“Oh, sorry,” he said, catching up the laugh. “It’s a six-week course, but that’s neither here nor there. I just need to see” –
“You have five minutes,” she said. “Miss Mooney is in Drawer Number Nine.” Monica Tilly waved her badge across a sensor pad and punched in a numeric password. The cold storage door unlocked and allowed Ralph access.
“Four forty-five,” she said, then left.
He did take five extra seconds to watch her walk away – for prurient reasons, to be sure, but mostly because he dreaded viewing the woman in Drawer Number Nine.
In sixty years, Ralph had been in approximately two dozen morgues. This one seemed dated – the lighting fixtures buzzed and the refrigeration system gurgled. He walked along the walls, registering the numbers, his fingers not quite touching the handles on the cabinets.
“Nine,” he said, then did it – just did it. He snatched the handle and jerked.
The long drawer did not roll out as smoothly as he anticipated. It occurred to him, when he saw the size of the body bag, it was sheer weight that slowed it. He tugged again, using his foot, planted perpendicular, for leverage. As the slab slid out, the sides of the body bag spilled off, swaying like saddlebags.
“Oh, Angela,” he said, reaching for the zipper. “Do I really want to do this?”
Again, he did it – just did it.
From the opaque body bag, the savage stench pounced out, onto his face, its noxious claws piercing his sinuses. He swooned and coughed and clutched his knees. “Ohhh-eeee-ahhhh,” he groaned.
“Sorry,” a female voice said. Her voice was soft and meek.
“Angela,” Ralph said.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Ralph popped up, banging his head on the underside of the extended drawer.
A laugh, big and bawdy, burst from the bag. “Careful,” the voice said, “you gonna end up in here nex to me.”
Ralph rubbed his head and said, “Nice to meet you.”
“I’d shake your hand but . . .” she said.
Ralph examined her. She was exactly what Sheriff Abner Birdy had said: a messy-ass mess. She seemed more two dimensional than three. Her insides were outside, and her bones were pulverized and her giant body was black and splattered, like an over-baked lasagna. Somehow, though, her pretty oval face was spared from the impact of the twenty-story plunge.
“Mind coverin’ up my titties, Mr. Ralph?” she asked. “I’s raised Baptist. Ladies ain’t s’posed to show theys titties to strangers.”
Ralph adjusted the body bag. “I’m sorry about – well, everything. Tell me, why did you jump, Angela?”
“Ditten,” she said.
“The News – the Sheriff – they all indicated that you did.”
“Well, they’s wrong. I got shoved off. I busted outta that place, runned off, and he chased me.”
“Shoved,” Ralph chewed the word. “You mean you were murdered? What place? Who chased you? Who killed you?”
“I went to the Casino to get a job. One of the Feeders said they was hiring. Instead of a job, I got my black ass murdered.” Having said this, she tried to cry. No tears came.
A voice invaded the chilly room. From the morgue’s speaker, the County Coroner, Monica Tilly said, “You have exactly two minutes, Mr. Chamberlain.”
“I need to know what happened,” Ralph said to Angela, caressing the agitated ark amulet. “I need to know who murdered you.”
She snuffled, and the air recycled out of her open chest. “Anton did this. I wanted out of his . . . his control . . . his cult. I did some bad things but I had to. If I wanted to eat, I had to, Mr. Ralph. Don’t tell my Mama I showed my titties to men on the internets. I was so bad . . . but I was so hungry.”
“Anton,” Ralph echoed. “I need a last name. Please, Angela, concentrate.”
The morgue door beeped as the coroner fingered the outside access pin pad.
“Will God forgive me?” she asked.
“They will,” Ralph said. “Please, give me the last name. Anton who?”
“Will you tell my Mama I didn’t jump? I already brought her so much shame – me, being so damn fat; me, showin’ my titties – I think another batch of shame might just kill her.”
The door swooshed open. “Time’s up, Mr. Chamberlain.”
“The name,” Ralph whispered into the trough of the coffin drawer. “Please, the name.”
“Marjorie,” Angela replied.
Monica Tilly barged in, two white smudges of Neutrolene under her nose. “Are you talking to the cadaver, Mr. Chamberlain? This is highly irregular. Highly irregular. I’m going to call security.”
Ralph raised his voice to Angela: “Anton’s surname is Marjorie?”
“No,” Angela Mooney whispered, “That’s my Mama’s name. Marjorie Mooney. Promise you’ll tell her that her Angie-Baby didn’t jump.”
Despite his frustration, Ralph smiled. “I’ll tell her, Angie. I promise.”
. . . “highly irregular,” Tilly said to her handset. “Get security down here, fast.”
“I’m leaving,” Ralph said, zipping up the bag. “No need to get your knickers in a twist.”
She stamped her black heels and huffed. “Sheriff Birdy will hear about this insolence, Mr. Chamberlain!”
He walked past her toward the exit, then quickly pivoted. “You can call me Ralph,” he said, grinning his lopsided smile. Then, on a whim, he pulled a card from his wallet and said, “Actually, you can call me . . . anytime.”
She crumpled the card, letting it drop to the cold floor. “Not on your life.”
He considered adding, Which one? but let it go. He had enough enemies.
Ralph walked back to the EconoLodge. He showered, rinsing the stench of Angela Mooney’s rotting body from his own. He ordered room service and then called Sheriff Abner Birdy.
“All I’ve got is Anton,” he said. “Might be a prominent religious leader. The victim mentioned a cult.”
“The victim mentioned what?” Sheriff Birdy asked around a fried baloney sandwich. “The victim was as flat as a fritter last time I seen her.”
“Sorry,” Ralph dodged, “I meant to say I got info that from . . . her mother . . . Marjorie.”
“Not sure I want you botherin’ my constituency,” Birdy chided. “Local folk don’t take kindly to bounty hunters – especially in sensitive situations, such as suicide.”
“Copy,” Ralph said. But the tongue-slip had given him an idea. Why not talk to Angela’s mother, Marjory? She would have better insight into the cult, into its leader, Anton. Besides, he’d made a promise.
“You better copy,” Sheriff Birdy punctuated. “I just got an earful from Miss Tilly. She had some choice words for you, Ralph. Words that’d make a sailor blush.”
“Gotta go. Food’s here,” Ralph said, cutting the conversation short. “Thanks for your help, Abner.”
The food was at the door. Ralph opened it and asked the teenage boy to place the tray in front of the TV while he looked for his wallet. He found a ten for the tip and handed it to the young man.
“Thank you, sir,” the boy said, showing a lattice of metal braces.
“Sure thing,” Ralph said, eager to tuck into his Reuben.
“Mind signing here, sir,” the lad asked, presenting a Tablet and stylus. “Shows the boss I didn’t eat your sandwich,” he said, chuffing at his own joke.
The act of engaging with an electronic device gave Ralph an idea. “You good with computers, young fella?”
“Yeah, I’m all right,” the boy said. “I build websites for small businesses when I’m not runnin’ grub.”
“What’s your name?”
“Bradly. Brad Crumbly.”
“Brad,” Ralph said, “do you think you could find a residential street address for me? The lady’s name is Marjory Mooney. I’m pretty sure she’s local.”
Brad pulled his phone from his pocket and began tickling the screen. Within a minute he asked, “Is she black . . . fifty-eight years old . . . kinda chubby?”
“That could be her,” Ralph said. “Got an address?”
Brad read it to him and asked if he wanted her credit card information.
Ralph pushed another ten into his shirt pocket and ushered him out the door. “Thanks, Brad. You did me a solid.”
Thinking of the conversation he would soon be having, Ralph put his Reuben in the mini-fridge and helped himself to three fingers of neat scotch from the minibar.
Ralph knocked and when no one came, he knocked again, louder.
“We in mournin’,” a male voice called. “Go away.”
Ralph leaned into the hinged side of the door and said calmly but commandingly: “It’s about Angela. I have a message for Marjorie.”
The door opened an eighth. A young man jutted his head out and regarded Ralph. “Who you?”
“My name is Ralph Chamberlain. I’ve got some information about Angela. Is her mother, Marjorie, here?”
“Yeah, she lives here,” the man said. “Where else she gonna be?”
Ralph knew the type: argumentative, angry, spoiling for a fight. “Listen, I’d be protective of Miss Marjorie too. She’s grieving. She’s just been told the worst news a mother can hear. But here’s the thing – I’ve got some news that might just allieve some of her pain.”
The man closed one eye and bugged out the other, examining Ralph like a suspicious fifty-dollar bill. Then, he retracted his head and slammed the door. Ralph heard him holler: “Auntie Marjorie, this here man has somethin’ to say to you – somethin’ about Angie.”
After a moment of muffled noises, the door opened and Ralph walked in.
“If you lyin’, you dyin’,” the man said, showing Ralph a glimpse of the .40 cal in his waistband.
Ralph entered the small, dim house, delighted by the sound of Ella Fitzgerald crooning from a vintage turntable. “Bring him on in the kitchen,” a female voice called. It was her, Ralph knew – it was Marjorie Mooney.
The young man moved to escort Ralph, but Ralph waved him away, pointing to his nose. “Buttermilk biscuits, fried chicken, and collard greens. I can find my way, thanks.”
Following his nose, he did find his way. “Miss Marjorie Mooney,” he asked, tipping his head, pressing his hands over his heart. “Please, accept my sincere condolences. I’m Ralph Chamberlain. I’m investigating your daughter’s death.”
The woman did not turn, her attention devoted solely to the stove. “What’s there to investigate?” she asked. “Angie ate her last meal at a fancy buffet and jumped off the roof of the Grand Casino.”
The young man sidled past Ralph and slumped into a dining room chair, hand on the bulge under his shirttail.
“With all due respect, Miss Mooney,” Ralph said, “I don’t think she jumped. I’ve got reason to believe Angela was pushed.”
Marjorie did not react. She continued to shuttle breaded chicken from the trough of hot grease to a platter lined with paper towels.
Ralph moved closer, catching an occasional splatter of grease. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “I need to ask you a few questions. Is that all right?”
She turned to look at him fully, face to face, eye to eye, human to human. “It was Anton, wutton it?”
“That’s what I want to find out,” Ralph said. “What can you tell me about this Anton?”
Marjorie placed the crackling grease pot on a cool burner and turned the knobs to off. She pulled a pitcher of sweet ice tea from the refrigerator and told Eldon to fetch some clean glasses. “Sit down, Mr. Chamberlain,” she said. “I’ve got some things to say.”
“Auntie,” Eldon warned, “you don’t wanna do that. Anton ain’t one to be fooled with.”
“Hush up and bring somma that chicken over here for Mr. Chamberlain,” she replied.
Ralph sat and guided her through the interview. He wanted the basics before launching into speculation and suspicion.
“LaRoche. Anton LaRoche.”
“He’s as tall and thin a man as I’ve ever seen. Must be pushin’ seven feet . . . but if he’s a hundred-and-twenty pounds I’d eat my brassiere.”
“He lives on . . . what do call them things, Eldon?”
“A compound, Auntie.”
“Yes, Mr. Chamberlain. Anton moved a bunch o’ folks out to a compound east of here. It a valley called Ivywild. He said Vegas was corrupt – what with the gamblin’ and all. Said he couldn’t hear God talkin’ for all the jingle-jangle of the slots. Took his congregation and just left.”
“Congregation?” Ralph said. “Anton is a pastor?”
“Of sorts,” Marjorie said, shaking salt onto her fish and dipping it in red-eye gravy. “More like a guru, if you ax me. Told them folks he could shrink their body and expand their consciousness.”
Ralph put down his pen.
“She means,” Eldon clarified, “Anton promised a bunch of fat fucks they’d lose weight if they joined his fuckin’ cult.”
Marjorie flapped a napkin at her nephew. “You wanna watch your mouth. That’s your dead cousin you talkin’ about.”
Ralph gathered himself. “I want to catch this guy. If he harmed your daughter, I want to bring him to justice. Is there anything else you can tell me about Anton LaRoche?”
Marjorie shook her head slowly. “Angie wouldn’t talk about him . . . ‘cept to say he was Godly man. She loved him, Mr. Chamberlain. He put some kinda spell on her . . . on all them folks out at Ivywild.”
As the tears flowed she comforted herself with forkfuls of lemon meringue pie.
“Best you leave now,” Eldon said, getting up and holding the door.
“Very well,” Ralph said. As he stepped through the house and out onto the front porch step, Eldon snatched his arm abruptly.
“They’s one thing I should tell you,” he said. “I got a call from Angie?”
“Two days ago. She said she was at the Grand Casino, huntin’ a job in the kitchen.”
Eldon let go of Ralph’s sleeve. “That meant she was walkin’. That meant she’d lost weight. Last time I’d seen her, she couldn’t even stand. Was in one of them motorized wheelchairs. Musta been seven-fifty.”
“So,” Ralph summarized, “you’re saying Anton LaRoche made good on his promise to help her lose weight?”
Eldon looked left, right, low, and high. “No, sir. What I’m saying is Anton LaRoche killed her because she did lose weight.”
Ralph attempted to re-enter the house, to extend the interrogation, but Eldon slammed the door. Ralph considered using Fidel to slice through the lock but feared he’d already overstayed his welcome.
He caressed the ark amulet under his shirt and said, “Looks like we’re going to Ivywild.” Some twenty steps away from the porch, he heard a mournful voice. It was Marjorie Mooney.
“Mister Chamberlain,” she called, cracking the screen door.
He traveled back, hoping to get more information.
“Take this widja,” she said, handing him something in a table napkin.
“What is it?”
“Call it a gift,” she said, then shook her head. “No, call it what she called it: a talisman.”
“A talisman?” he questioned.
She wiped away a broth of tears and said, “Don’t ax no questions, cuz I ain’t got no answers. All I know is I had a dream about my Angie-Baby. She told me to give you this.”
Ralph unraveled the napkin.
“Salt,” she said flatly. “If you is a man worth your salt, you’ll know what to do with it.”
It was indeed salt – a glass shaker with a silver top, taken from her kitchen table.
Before he could ask follow-up questions, Marjorie Mooney slammed the door and locked it.
So much sand, Ralph observed, flying over the southern-most portion of Nevada. The monotony of the dunes and cacti and sage lulled him into a contemplative state. He thought of Mirabelle. He wondered if she missed him half as much as he missed her.
Then, suddenly, the ark amulet sprung from his collar and tugged like a fish on a line. It wanted him to descend, so descend he did. The lower he flew, the more foul the arising odor. Pigs, he thought. It can only be pigs.
Ralph landed discretely near a lush valley concealed by a canopy of greenery. In an expanse of rock and sand and austerity, the valley was an unexpected oasis. He collapsed his wings and stamped through the prickly flora, seeking the source of the ungodly stench. As he’d followed his nose to the southern fried aromas in Marjorie’s kitchen, he now followed it to reeking sewage. It didn’t take long before he spotted a structure that looked similar to barracks he’d occupied in his military days. The structure was essentially a series of block stalls, row after row, each fitted with a single round window. The building stretched some two hundred yards into the Ivywild overgrowth. Its decor bore the drab imagination of Civil Works project – severe, substantial, and plainly practical.
The one thing that distinguished the building from a WWII barrack was its hodge-podge of communications hardware. The edifice was adorned with wires and cables and dishes and antennas. Someone really loves their Netflix, Ralph thought.
As he approached, the stench increased. He wished he’d filched a tube of Neutrolene from the morgue. The thought of pigs returned. He wondered if Anton LaRoche was operating some kind of illegal abattoir . . . perhaps using his acolytes to slaughter livestock. Then he heard a moan – a moan so forlorn and forsaken that it shook his soul.
There it was again. It was human, he determined, but just barely.
As he plotted to raid the place, the rumble of trucks caused quail to flush. He decided to stand down, observe, and gather intel. He watched as burly men, masked with charcoal respirators, unloaded crate after crate, stacking them in haphazard arrangements. Ralph could barely make out the black, stenciled letters that read: Grand Casino Catering Company.
As the men worked, they were greeted by a man that Ralph immediately recognized from Marjorie Mooney’s description: As tall and thin a man as I’ve ever seen.
Despite the heat, the man he marked as Anton LaRoche wore a hooded wool tunic the color of coal ash, ten inches short of his knobby ankles. From the skin Ralph could see, Anton LaRoche was as white as the feathers of his angelic wings.
Suddenly, a fat black wasp buzzed past Ralph’s ear. Ralph brushed it away. It returned, filling his other ear with its shrill, drilling din. This fly-by got Ralph’s full attention. He concentrated on catching it, crushing it, and flicking its corpse upon an ant bed. He reached, pinching, thinking to pluck it from the air . . . but, remarkably, he missed.
This mistake shocked him. He wasn’t just Ralph Chamberlain, a sixty-year-old grandfather with understandably diminishing reflexes; he was Raphael, Archangel of the Celestial Realm – a creature forged in the foundry of the Gods.
Put a pin in it, he heard his practical, old man self say. Two-of-Seven is your primary mission. Catch the Jumper. Catch Gluttony.
Ralph watched as Anton berated the laborers. He remonstrated, swinging his seemingly elastic arms to convey his fury. The men, chastened, retrieved crowbars and hammers from their trucks and commenced to pry open the slatted crates.
More workers were summoned – these from a shack adjacent to the barrack. Ralph had assumed it was a generator shed and was surprised to see nine men and three women emerge, each clad in gray, woolen robes. In practiced fashion, they formed assembly lines, one lifting a black garbage bag from the crate, handing it to another, who handed it down the line until it reached the end. The persons at the end slashed the bags with box cutters, hoisted them to hinged windows, and dumped the rotten contents inside the concrete barrack.
It’s garbage, Ralph thought, then refined: It’s food. Leftover food. The spoiled scraps . . . from the Grand Casino restaurants.
Anton LaRoche railed against the workers, pushing them to deposit the refuse faster and faster. With little umbrage, the slaves labored in the Nevada heat.
Pigs, Ralph thought, confirming his postulate. They’re feeding pigs. But it didn’t compute. Why would Gluttony trouble itself with running an illicit piggery?
He touched the ark amulet and got a mild shock. This was the right place and Anton LaRoche was Two-of-Seven, Gluttony, his Jumper.
All was confirmed when he heard the chorus of jubilant squeals . . . human squeals.
It dawned on him: Those are people in those stalls, not pigs. People that are being slopped like hogs . . . and loving it!
The clamor from the zoo of humans summoned crows and seagulls and hungry bugs, all hoping to snag scraps from the scraps. Amidst the sound and fury, Anton extended his spindly arms and spun, like Julie Andrews, absorbing the music of rapacious rapture.
He feeds off of this, Ralph thought. Gluttony feeds off . . . off . . . whatever abomination this is.
Breaking the spell, Ralph noticed that the wasp he’d battled – and been bested by – was fixed to his shoulder like a lady’s broach. It seemed harmless. Perhaps, a wild thought arose, even helpful.
Woozy from the heat and the stink and the whole sordid scene, Ralph steeled himself and sprung from his blind. “You there, Anton LaRoche. By the Authority and Warrant of Our Betters, I pronounce you under arrest.”
Anton LaRoche turned to his rival and assumed a cobra pose, arching his pliable spine to strike. “What’s this?” he hissed.
Ralph sensed that his Jumper was more upset about the disruption of his discordant music – the ecstatic cacophony of his morbidly corpulent pets – than of any real threat of apprehension.
“It’s me,” Ralph said, summoning his wings. “Raphael The Hunter.”
Some twenty sweaty laborers and devotees ceased their project, double-gripping their crowbars, hammers, pitchforks, and shovels. Anton LaRoche introduced them to the Archangel. “Ladies and gentlemen, behold the avatar of the late, great Raphael, Archangel of the Celestial Realm, Hunter of the Seven Mortal Sins.”
When Anton tossed back his hooded head and laughed, the crowd took the queue and joined in.
These insults shouldn’t hurt me, Ralph thought. This is a human frailty – vanity and its acute aversion to ridicule.
“He’s as old as my Pa-Paw,” a chubby girl said. “And Pa-Paw’s dead.”
Stanzas of laughter lifted and lilted and crashed, devolving into a low, monotone growl.
Raphael suddenly felt vulnerable. The advanced age of the man he’d chosen arose in his bones, strumming his tendons and shrinking his stout heart. As an angel, he wanted to fly . . . fly, fly away . . . and lose himself in the cloak of clouds.
Then, a fat, flushed face pushed through the portal of the barrack and squealed. It was a woman whose mouth and jowls were stuffed with buffet scraps. Her beady eyes were wild and porcine, her hair slaked with discarded lard.
For the second time, the spell broke. Ralph remembered his mission. “They’re people,” he said, disgusted. “Not pigs . . . people . . . created in the image of Our Betters.”
“Yesss,” Anton cooed. “It’s people. Some two-hundred souls, housed in these quarters. Mostly ladies. The curves, you know – the voluptuous folds, the curvilinear contours, the pendulous, splendiferous, lascivious fleshscapes . . . perfect for internet erotica, don’t you think?”
Ralph, a hoary veteran of the urban underbelly, turned his head and hurled. It was too much. The sounds and the smells and now – now – the anvil of the obvious colliding with his cranium. “Porn,” he spat. “Fat porn.”
“Crude nomenclature,” Anton said. “We like to call it Erotisme de Lacorpulent. Nothing innervates libido like the theater of the absurd, Raphael. Freaks gawking at freaks.”
“These aren’t freaks,” Ralph raged. “They’re people! Human beings! They are the sacred creations of Our Betters . . . creatures of value and dignity and infinite potential!”
Anton, blinking his pink eyes, seemed suddenly dismissive. “Must you spew preachments each Cycle? I weary of your sermons and sanctimony. The one thing that makes this Cycle mildly amusing is that I believe that you believe your polemics this time, Raphael.”
Ralph pointed to his forehead. “I took the Ash of Amnesia, Mortal. For me, it feels like the first time – the only time. Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way . . . you decide.”
Anton looked around at the bristling muscles of his henchmen, then at the beleaguered bald man eroded by six decades of grueling, brutish existence.
“Let’s do it hard. I like my odds,” Anton said.
Ralph did too. If he were back at the Grand Casino, he’d go all-in for Anton LaRoche and his junta. The miasma of fetid food and broken people and shattered dreams had taken its toll. His confidence contracted; his bravery waned.
Anton tipped his needle-nose toward his motley army. Like a jailbreak, the hoard broke ranks and charged Ralph Chamberlain, weapons in their hands, murder in their eyes.
The warrior in Ralph rallied. He clenched his jaw and raised his right palm, summoning the steel of faithful Fidel.
“Fidel,” he said aloud. “Fidel . . . where?”
The fight was on. Ralph slugged the first man and head-butted the second. “Fidel,” he shouted, then bit off the chubby girl’s ring finger. As he beckoned Fidel once again, he recalled the brief handshake he’d shared with Mr. Jordan. The tingle in his palm, he now knew, signaled that Jordan had deactivated Fidel. By Our Betters, he would have to fight unarmed.
As he spat the finger into the slurry of swill, a small man rapped his ribs with rake handle. As Ralph recoiled, a larger man attacked with a crowbar. Ralph ducked it but took a knee to the groin and an elbow to the ear.
He wobbled and then righted himself. Human adrenaline was a wonderful thing. Fight or flight? He chose to fight . . . with or without Fidel, he would fight. Live or die, he would fight.
A woman with a crate stave swung at his head. He defended himself with his left wing – expanding it into a shield, then wielding it like a cambered cudgel. He struck her with the leading edge and was certain he’d killed her.
Death was in the air now, comingled with compost and chaos.
Ralph smelled it all through a suddenly broken nose. The crowd doubled due to his impaired vision. Kill ‘em all, his primal brain thundered. Let Our Betters sort ‘em out.
He shed himself of all angelic etiquette, releasing himself to the raging, apish thing within his human self. He became a Spartan, a Berserker, a Samurai, and a Winged Hussar. He became Death, destroyer of worlds.
He whipped his wings in radical motions, creating micro storms and dwarf tornados. In the confusion, he flung feathers like quills, piercing his enemies’ eyes and soft tissues. Half the field panicked and ran. The other half doubled-down.
A muscular man took his back and choked him. Ralph fell to his knees, mouth open, pate purpling, tongue jutting.
“Pile on,” Anton LaRoche ordered. “This is not a Bruce Lee movie. Attack . . . all at once . . . attack!”
Twelve did. They swarmed him, punishing him with fists and tools and teeth and the crusaders’ righteous rage.
Ralph could have stayed down, could have waited for the Betters to intervene – waited for his deus ex machina – if it was Their will. But his dual natures forbade it. They joined forces, combining to create a singular, indomitable warrior. He leaped into the air, taking flight, taking inventory, taking reconnaissance of the boggy battlefield and its marauding mob. Then, he dove, like a missile, bombarding the assailants one by one with the brute force of his body.
It could have taken two minutes or two millennia, Ralph didn’t know. A montage of his historic battles flickered through his brain and he drove enemies into gravely craters, and halved combatants with the cleaver of his wings.
He fought until all fighters had fled or fallen.
The world swirled and the trees twirled and Ralph crashed into the muck of blood and guts and chewed foods. Exhausted, Ralph lay there, fecklessly flapping his blood-drenched wings – a butterfly trapped in sap.
Anton LaRoche, seven feet tall and razor slim, hovered over the prostrate Ralph Chamberlain. He clapped, slowly, as if the angel had sunk a double-break putt.
“Valiant battle. I expect no less of an Archangel,” Anton said, “despite your hapless choice of avatars.”
“Kicked . . .” Ralph coughed. “Kicked a whole lotta ass.”
“Yes,” Anton condescended, patting the man on his bald head. “Unfortunately for you, your pathetic campaign ends here.”
Ralph tried to stand. When his chin lifted, Anton kicked with his long, whiplash leg, flipping Ralph onto his back, belly up, exposed.
“Of my two-hundred acolytes,” Anton reported, “I have groomed two prize sows to finish you.” The slender minister pushed a button on a remote and a winch engaged. Ralph saw the machine reel in a cable, which in turn lifted a camouflaged cover. The earthen lid raised, revealing an arid hole in the Nevada dirt.
“You’re not going to bury me,” Ralph said, “unless you kill me first.”
“Raphael,” Anton tsked. “Burial? You insult me. I am Two-of-Seven, a major Mortal Sin. I am Gluttony. Why would I throw you in a hole when I can watch Tina and Gina eat you?”
A buzzing sound drowned out Anton’s last two words. “What did you say?”
“Eat you,” Anton repeated, unraveling his hand and arm in the direction of the yawning pit.
Ralph sat up as two quasi-humans slowly emerged from underground lair. With the ascending twins came a new stench, one so noxious that it reminded Ralph of the singular, celestial pit called Hell – the cradle of the Seven Mortal Sins.
The twins shielded their piggy eyes with the sagging sails of flesh from their forearms. Ralph knew at once, they were feral. Their teeth had been honed into flesh-shredding, bone-crushing tools. Their faces were stamped with fear, insanity, and starvation.
“I give you Tina and Gina,” Anton announced, flapping his weedy fingers in their direction. “Not sure which is which, but for our purposes it really doesn’t matter.”
“Purposes?” Ralph questioned.
“Eating is the purpose,” Anton lectured. “This planet is nothing but an oblate banquet table. Life is sustained by bleeding and feeding, killing and consuming. Our Betters have designed an asymmetrical predator-prey relationship, providing the carnivores with a savage array of artillery, as well as an insatiable gullet.”
Ralph tried to trigger Fidel. No luck. He looked up at the willowy figure and asked: “What the fuck does that have to do with you building fat farm?”
As Tina and Gina waddled closer to their meal, Anton explained. “I provided two services, Raphael. My colleague Pride might say that I overachieved. It was simple really. I trolled taboo websites and recruited specific peoples. Empty people – those with open, yawning voids. I fed them, nourished them. Filled their voids. Gave them purpose.”
“By purpose,” Ralph growled, “you mean the anticipation of their next meal.”
Anton smiled, showing white, toothless gums. “I can be quite indulgent. I brought them joy. I sated their appetites. I have trouble saying no to my baby birds.”
It all clicked with Ralph. “You bring them here. Preach your bullshit. Feed them. Overfeed them. Make them dependent on you. No longer ambulatory, they can’t leave – can’t even wash themselves. You imprison them in their own skin. You become their sole provider, their de facto savior.”
Anton nodded. “Raphael, you may have chosen and old avatar, but not a senile one.”
Ralph tried to stand but was pushed over by the two giant girls. He pointed to the cables and dishes and antennas. “You made them do lewd things . . . on the internet.” He thought of the splattered girl, Angela Mooney. He made me show my titties.
Anton bristled. “I take umbrage with your adjective, lewd, but yes, I did entreat my flock to participate in the pursuit of their purpose. I said I overachieved, Raphael. By that I mean: I fed the corporeal flesh of my flock, but also the carnal flesh of my internet audience. I sated two rapacious appetites. And now you’ve come to destroy my work. Shame, angel, shame.”
Tina and Gina wiggled their fingers, as if imagining grabbing handfuls of Ralph’s angelic guts. They made synchronized smacking sounds as they drooled. He could hear their stomach’s growling and their sharp teeth scissoring.
“Tina and Gina are my prize sows,” Anton said. “The immense internet revenue they generate will eventually lead to the franchising of the Farm.”
Ralph tried to lift his wings, but the weight of blood and muck was too much.
“But,” Anton continued, “when I sensed that you were coming for me – hunting me – I thought it would be rude not to invite my old friend to dinner.” The slinky thing laughed, its voice a wet whistle.
“How are you going to do it?” Ralph asked dispassionately. “Gonna kill me with that crowbar over there? That hammer?”
Anton reached into his robe pocket and produced a video camera. “Where’s the fun in blunt force trauma? I’ve planned something much more delectable.” He powered up the camera and pointed it at Ralph.
“I’m going to film you be eaten alive by the sister sows,” Anton said gleefully. “There’s quite an appetite for such bestial, culinary content, Raphael. Take solace in knowing that your death will satiate the cannibalistic cravings of millions of viewers.”
Tina or Gina picked up a pitchfork from the muck. The sisters were naked, and Ralph was entranced with her mutated morphology. He guessed the girls had weighed in the neighborhood of 800 pounds each when their Master had remanded them into the pit. Ralph could see that they’d been starved – their sudden weight loss leaving hanging drapes of sagging skin.
“I didn’t starve them completely. I fed them Gerald,” Anton said, divining Ralph’s thoughts. “Gerald was a Feeder – the Feeder that encouraged Angela Mooney to lose weight and get a job at the Grand Casino. Fitting that the feeder became the food.”
Tina or Gina dropped to her knees beside Ralph, her bulbous body squelching in the mire. She opened her mouth and panted as she ripped buttons off Ralph’s shirt. Saliva pooled on her purple tongue then dripped in silver streams onto his bare stomach. She was waiting, impatiently, for her sister to drive the tines into his abdomen so that she could eat from the hot trough.
“Do it,” Anton ordered, lowering his woolen hood. “Feast on the Hunter!”
One sister raised the pitchfork over Ralph’s torso, while the other closed her eyes and opened her mouth, preparing to catch the first freshets of the kill.
Ralph sighed and laid back. He thought of Mirabelle and Hanna and Olivia. I let them down. All three of them. I’m a failure as a father, grandfather, and husband. Not to mention, I’m a failure as a fucking angel.
A buzzing sound disrupted the serenity of Ralph’s deathbed regrets. It was the wasp, he saw, the one that had attached itself to his pea coat like a lady’s broach. His vision slowed, as it had when his granddaughter had shot him dead. He watched the wasp’s sortie, as it orbited the grinning girl with the pitchfork. He watched it survey the rolling fleshscape of her skin and settle on a target. Then he saw it attack that target with its wicked, rigid stinger.
Tina or Gina dropped the pitchfork as the wasp impaled its stinger into her eye. She yowled and flapped her sagging arms like a giant pink bat. She cupped her face with her fat hands, screaming into her dirty palms.
“Finish it,” Anton shouted, pointing to the kneeling sister. Still managing the video camera, he used his long, languid arm to retrieve a machete from the muck. He tossed it to the un-stung girl. “Cut the cake,” he demanded. “Cut the angel food cake!”
The twin looked to Anton, then to her tortured sister, then to Ralph’s gray-haired gut. As her sister had done, she raised the weapon ceremoniously, savoring the seconds.
Ralph wanted to close his eyes, but the aerial acrobatics of the wasp was too entertaining. With a serum of tears and venom on its stinger, it strafed the machete-wielding twin. The girl flinched, balking her butchery, delaying the sacrifice.
The wasp double-backed, deciding to strike the drooping overhang of the girl’s breast. With fighter pilot precision, the wasp pierced the center of her pie-sized areola. As her sister had done, the girl dropped her weapon and clutched the injured region, yowling and beating at the cunning bug.
“Do I have to do this myself?” Anton barked. One hand on the camera, he picked up the machete. He then turned the camera on himself and spoke to his internet viewers. “Like I always say, Freaks, if you want something done right, do it your freaking self.”
He placed the blade between Ralph’s belt buckle and bellybutton. He turned the camera to the impending violence and commented: “To all my Freaks in the Freak-a-Sphere, here’s your long-awaited money shot!”
Ralph rolled over just as Anton thrusted, avoiding impalement. He felt a knot on his hip – a hard object in his pocket. The saltshaker!
“Prolonging the inevitable,” Anton said to the camera. “Delayed gratification has its charm, but I’m ready to chow-down! Can I get some hungry love from the Freak-a-Sphere?”
As Anton reveled in the pings of positive comments, Ralph uncapped the saltshaker given him by Marjorie Mooney. He knew he had one shot, and one shot only.
With his long, bowed legs, Anton straddled Ralph. He angled the camera to capture the POV of evisceration. With his free hand, he gripped the handle of the machete and pointed the blade downward, intending to plant it like a pennant on a mountaintop.
Ralph summoned all his strength, human and otherwise, lifting his torso out of the sucking clutches of the wallow. Wrenching the silver top from the beveled bottle, he tossed the contents at Anton LaRoche, aka Gluttony.
The white grains peppered the ghoul, sizzling on the surface of his translucent skin.
“What have you done?” Anton asked, examining the quickening blisters that pocked his exposed hands and arms.
“I’m winning,” Ralph declared, watching tendrils of smoke waft from the Mortal’s body.
Anton grimaced and pitched the camera, using both hands to wield the machete. “Zero sum game, Raphael. I lose, you lose.” He leaned onto the haft of the knife, driving it into his nemesis. But there was no force behind the deadly intention. The salt enfeebled the villain, shriveling its tissue into anemic waste.
“No,” the Mortal cried, dissolving into a flaccid vestige of itself.
“Yes,” Ralph replied, watching the Ancient Worm contract, sliding out of the confines of its woolen robe, coiling into an empty steaming sheath. In death, Gluttony revealed its true form – something intestinally parasitic, a feeder within feeders: A tapeworm.
The heroic wasp lit upon Ralph’s knee. The two of them watched Tina and Gina turn blue and bloat – obviously allergic to venom. Ralph’s human side flirted with sympathy until he recalled that he was their intended entree.
He offered his finger to the wasp and let it board. He lifted it to his face and asked: “Is that you, Angela? Did Our Betters send you to even the odds? Only you – you and Our Betters – would have known Tina and Gina would suffer anaphylactic shock.”
The wasp did not respond. It simply regarded the man with it bulbous oil-drop eyes and flew away. Higher and higher . . . Ralph watched it . . . higher, to the heavens and beyond.
Ralph rallied, collecting the essence of his desiccated foe, depositing it in the magically capacious amulet.
“Two down,” he said, clapping the lid shut. “Five to go.”
Here are the links to the other two stories:
Writer: E. J. D’Alise
Word count: 2,010 words – approx. reading time: about 8 minutes based on 265 WPM
The G.O.A.T. <<link
Writer: R. G. Broxson
Word count: 5,682 words – approx. reading time: about 22 minutes based on 265 WPM
If you’ve read all the stories and care to cast a vote, here’s the link to the Poll:
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