The launch of Fifty Feet of Trouble is drawing nigh. To ease readers back into his tongue-in-cheek neo-noir monsterverse, Justin Robinson has written a special companion story to City of Devils and Fifty Feet of Trouble. Fans of Sam Haine and jam connoisseurs, rejoice!
Vengeance is Fine
by Justin Robinson
-a City of Devils/Fifty Feet of Trouble companion story-
Sam Haine dreamed of vengeance and jam.
Six feet below the fertile gingerbread-colored earth of his pumpkin patch, images danced through the empty place where his brain would be if he were still human. Now there was only a candle flame, lighting his jack-o’-lantern features. Whether the candle burned when he was napping was anyone’s guess. It was like the light in a refrigerator: Was it still on when the fridge was closed? No way to know, though it was something monsters pondered in the shower from time to time.
The vengeance floating through Sam’s mind was only vaguely defined in the way that dream-motivations tend to be. Something about murder, probably. That was the best kind. The chocolate of vengeance, where vanilla was more like assault, and strawberry was vehicular theft. He was in his business form. That’s how he thought of it, because he put it on when he meant business. When he was like that, the world felt like it was a lot smaller and lighter, like everything around him was made of wet paper.
The murderer in his dreams was cowering, and Sam knew this was going to be some good vengeance. Spill some guilty blood to wash away the innocent. Just like chocolate. Horrifying, bloody chocolate.
The jam was a classic, too. Strawberry rhubarb, Sam’s favorite. Just enough earthy tang to cut the sweetness. Not so cloying, the way jams sometimes got—though his never did. In his more mundane vocation of making specialty jams and jellies, it was his best seller. He had perfected it. The secret was the strawberries. He got them from a scarecrow a few miles up the road who grew them to the size of baseballs. Muscular flavor in those, enough for the jam to take two gold ribbons home in a row.
In between all the blood spilling, dream-Sam bounced back to his kitchen, mixing up a fresh batch of strawberry rhubarb jam. Spill-spill-spill-mix-mix-mix. Vengeance was a lot like jam, really. Had to keep at it to get anything, and if you did it right, you got a whole lot of sticky red stuff.
He was also wearing a giant sombrero in both halves of the dream, but that had nothing to do with anything. Sometimes a dream is just a dream.
The words woke him up.
He heard them, muddy and soft, through six feet of meaty soil and thready pumpkin roots. They yanked him out of sleep and out of the earth. He couldn’t have resisted if he tried. When those words were spoken in his pumpkin patch, it was time to get up. Time to get down to business.
Sleepin’ in your earthen bed,
A guilty man, he has fled,
Hunt him down and make him dead.
Sam had never believed the old stories of the pumpkinhead in his human days, no matter how solemnly his grandma had told them. Then one grabbed him, knocked him over the head with a shovel, and buried him beneath this very pumpkin patch. Now he believed, even if he had no idea how mere words could have so much power.
He emerged from the ground like he was riding an invisible elevator. He was in his regular form now, that of a slender man in an immaculate suit—another bit of magic, that. His head was a jack-o’-lantern, a flickering light illuminating his triangle eyes and nose and jagged smile. The fridge had been opened; he was out of the ground. No question now about that inner fire for righteous retribution. His skin was green and the consistency of vines.
The words put him on edge, preparing him for what was to come. Thoughts of jam receded in favor of vengeance.
Normally when someone called him, they were alone. A lot of times they’d be crying, too, this being their last resort for any kind of peace. It was usually night, usually under a harvest moon for tradition’s sake. Most often they were monsters, but humans had a right to call him, too. That was a great way to meet new people to introduce to the wonderful world of the pumpkinhead.
What he saw instead was an entire family of ghouls. And ghouls had big families. Sam tried not to count up the number of pumpkins they must have trampled on their way in.
Ghouls looked more or less like people. Their skin was pale and grayish, and all of them had dark circles under their eyes. Their teeth were chipped and ragged, stained with green. A lot of them had grave dirt under their fingernails, but that was more about getting something to eat. They dressed fairly well, usually in form-fitting suits, often showing off a physical oddity like a hunchback, a third arm, a coat of fine hair, and so on.
Sam took a deep breath and straightened his cuffs and collars, doing his best not to feel the stares of the ghoul family crawling all over him. He wasn’t even sure who to address when two in the lead, a man and a woman, stepped forward. He calmed down when he noted that both of them looked distressed. This wasn’t a prank call.
It happened now and again. Summon a pumpkinhead for vengeance and greet him with a flaming paper bag of dog poop. In the old days, knocking over cows was enough for folks, but the Night War opened up a sea of possibilities. Granted, gaslighting a spirit of vengeance had more than a small element of risk, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. Sam noted the genuinely distressed expressions on the ghouls’ faces.
The man had a mighty hump on his back and was dressed in a funereal suit, his black hair lacquered to his head. The woman was tall and lean, wrapped in a form-fitting gown that looked like she’d have to shed it like snakeskin rather than take it off.
“May I help you?” Sam asked. Always paid to be polite.
“Great Pumpkinhead, you’ve heard our plea,” the man said. He sounded just like Peter Lorre. Sam squinted. It might be Peter Lorre.
“Of course! I aim to please. Now, how can I help you? Who’s been wronged, what’s the nature of the blood sin?”
“Oh, it’s Sam. Sam is fine.”
“Sam then. We come to discuss the von Dhampirs.”
“Okay. What about them? What did they do? Murder one of you?” Sam asked hopefully, eyeing the gathered ghouls, searching eagerly for a blank area.
“No. Not exactly.”
“Aha! Manslaughter then? Still worthy of vengeance. A little reckless driving or what have you, that can be done.”
“Oh,” said Sam. “I realize this is a sensitive topic, but I do need to know the nature of the attack. It makes my flames burn with righteous justice, and the perpetrators will have to see their crimes dancing within the fire… it’s really an important part of the whole package.” Then, in response to the blank looks he was getting, he finished with, “Pumpkinhead stuff.”
The ghouls sighed in relief and exchanged nods and murmurs. “Monster stuff,” where “monster” could be any number of different creatures was the easiest way to explain the inexplicable nowadays.
“No, there was no attack,” Peter Lorre said finally.
“Negligence, then? An accidental death—”
The ghouls shook their heads sadly.
“I’m running out of options here,” Sam said.
The lead ghoul, Peter Lorre, exchanged a look with the woman. She nodded solemnly. “Well, Great Pumpk—Sam, it’s like this. The von Dhampirs built a swimming pool within three feet of our property.”
One of the ghouls in the crowd wailed melodramatically and fainted.
“Wait. This is a zoning issue?” Sam demanded.
“A serious zoning issue! A pool that close has the potential to cause serious water damage to our fence, to say nothing of the noise.”
“Why haven’t you talked it over with law enforcement?”
“They said something about how it’s not actually a zoning violation.” The ghouls exchanged a theatrical eyeroll. Somewhere in the back another one swooned.
“I can’t take vengeance for someone building a swimming pool,” Sam said. “Unless a death was involved. Then it would really be more about the death than the swimming pool.”
Peter Lorre nodded, considering the point. The woman whispered in his ear. Lorre brightened immediately. “Brilliant, my dear!” He turned to Sam. “So if we kill one of the von Dhampirs, then you will consent to taking vengeance upon them?”
“No! If you killed one of them, if anything, I’d be taking vengeance on you!”
“That hardly seems fair. They built the pool.”
“In this situation, you are the ones committing murder.”
“Murder lasts for but a moment, but that water damage on our fence could last a lifetime.”
Sam sighed. There was just no reasoning with some people. A nice jelly could get their minds off this foolishness, and he wouldn’t mind making a buck or two to compensate for being woken up so rudely. “Could I interest in you some homemade jam or jelly?”
“Is it poisonous? Could we poison them with it?”
“No, it’s jam and jelly. You put it on toast. You enjoy it.”
Scandalized, Peter Lorre looked to his right and left, and hissed, “Do we look like the kind of family who enjoys toast?” The last word was barely an agonized squeak.
His wife whispered in his ear again, this insight lasting a good long time. Peter Lorre considered it, nodding, shaking his head, muttering in possible agreement, then nearly making a point before returning to the soft vocalizations.
Finally, he said, “What do you have that tastes good on corpses?”