“Bête Noir” (excerpt)

The firewatch tower stood on spindly legs, a skeletal silhouette against the late afternoon sky, high atop a narrow peak overlooking the fir-blanketed Coastal Range.  Reaching it entailed three hours’ driving in a battered four-wheel-drive along narrowing state roads, dirt tracks and mountain switchbacks.  

The stairs to the top creaked unnervingly.  The rusty lock stubbornly fought against its key.  

But when the door finally admitted Manfred Chase to his home for the next two weeks, he surveyed its dusty interior and smiled.

It’s perfect.

With a sigh, he let his bags fall to the warped wooden floor.

A perfect place to kill that motherfucker once and for all.

As he settled in, Chase reflected on the long journey to this place and moment.  As a child, horror stories had always thrilled him; early attempts at fiction in high school revealed a fondness for gritty descriptions and an aptitude for building suspense.  His works from that era were clumsy but bold, horror born of the bloodiest, grand guignol tradition.

A few short stories sold early to cult magazines, spurring the decision to forgo the opportunity to attend college for a chance at fame as a pulp novelist.  His 20s had been hard-scrabble and hungry—he called them his “ramen and rejection” years—but the occasional sale relit the dying fire.  He cranked out three novels: two of them found a publisher; neither sold.  After reading the reviews for the second, he graduated from drinking to loosen his tongue to drinking to dull his emotions.

He’d been 33, late with his rent, alone and semi-comatose when the idea for a twisted new villain popped into his bourbon-pickled brain.  Abandoning the novel he’d been trying for two years to finish, he poured himself another drink, opened a new file on his battered IBM and named it Skrimshander.

Five days later, he held a finished first draft.  All these years later, Chase had no memory of writing it.

His agent thought the story of a shadowy monster that dismembered its victims and carved coded messages on their bones was nasty, gruesome, and over-the-top.  

But it sold like crazy.

Fans begged for a follow-up, so he wrote one.  As the sales went higher, the advances got bigger.  After three Skrimshander books, royalty checks paid his bills.  After seven, they bought him a second house in Tahoe.

He went on talk shows and did interviews with GQ and Vanity Fair.  There were movies and games and talk of crossovers and reboots, even a streaming series.  The gorier he made the story, the more his fans loved it.  His detractors—an unlikely coalition of literati and the religious right—called him a hack and a corruptor and a devil worshipper, but Chase had already learned by then what a good insulator money could be.

Yet, despite all this success, one terrible problem nagged him more each passing year: he’d come to despise Skrimshander.

And not just the character, diabolically charismatic though he was.  Chase also hated the fans who adored—nay, idolized—his greatest creation.  Whenever, during writing, he tried to introduce diverting side plots into the overarching story, or add intriguing new characters, or insert subtle digs at his own fanbase, the blood-hungry masses ignored his inventiveness and howled for more blood.

They even stood outside his house and took photos, which both annoyed and creeped him out.

So, when the time came to write the last book in his massive contract, he immediately began searching for somewhere he could disappear.  His mission, he’d jokingly told his agent, was to “kill Skrimshander or die trying.”

It took a week to stumble across the listing for the firewatch tower, but the moment he he saw it, he booked it.

He’d paid to have the tower stocked with water and canned food, the kind he could heat on its single propane burner.  This left him free to pack only the bare minimum for two weeks of writing: an extra set of clothes, copies of his previous manuscripts, the Bible his mother had given him, three bottles of good whiskey, a ream of paper, and his trusty Selectric typewriter.

Electricity was supplied by what the renting agent had called “the bank”: an array of car batteries, essentially, wired in series inside a steel enclosure at the base of the tower.  It didn’t put out enough juice to run a computer or anything quite so electron-thirsty, but it would run the radio and lights and his Selectric.  In an emergency, he could charge it from his Chevy.

After heating some water for tea, he cleared the old forestry maps from the table and set up his typewriter facing west. The fading sun painted a glorious tableau over the pine-crested mountains; he took it as a sign that the universe wanted him to end his saga once and for all.

After toasting the sunset, he inserted a fresh piece of paper into the Selectric and typed:


* * *

“Find your voice,” his friend and mentor Harrison Black had told him.  “But before you open your mouth, be sure you’ve got something worthwhile to say.”

In the days approaching his retreat, Chase had worried that—after nine novels and almost 700,000 words—he’d run out of things to say.  His outline for the new book was spare.  No interesting twists had yet presented themselves.

And yet, now, as he sat before the typewriter, words began to flow out of him in a cathartic release.

It became quickly evident to him that this would be the meta-textual magnum opus of the series: the book in which he’d lay bare all hidden grievances and exercise his own opinions on morality, greed, honor and sacrifice.  For every Lannice Sharpe—his gutsy journalist-on-a-crusade (based on a childhood friend)—there was a Archbishop McKint (his grandfather), Detective Brody (his first boss), or copycat killer Delivan X (his editor), each of whom needed to meet a poetic and richly-deserved end.

The mechanical drumbeat of the keys carried weight, like the sound of troops marching into battle.  Something about typebars striking paper gave a reality—and a finality—to words that the tepid click-and-clack of a computer keyboard did not.  Like blows landed by a prize fighter, the marks left were indelible.

While most working writers valued efficiency, Chase’s stuffed bank account afforded him the privilege of working slower and on antiquated technology.  Harrison Black—himself a best-selling author—had famously written his books longhand with a fountain pen.  Money also bought time away from phone calls, emails, annoying neighbors and stalking fans.  Space to breathe and let imagination take flight.

When the words ran dry, Chase made a pot of coffee and stepped outside onto the balcony that encircled the tower’s single windowed room.  It was past midnight, and the summer heat had given way to a high-altitude chill.  A waning moon hid coyly behind a distank bank of cloud, giving the myriad stars room to shine.

Letting his mind drift, he tried to imagine how a fire would look, lighting the distant mountainsides with an angry glow.  In the days before watchful satellites, solitary scouts working for the forestry service would keep vigil in these towers, calling in any sighting of smoke via shortwave radio.  Until such a time, Chase assumed, there would have been ample time to read, reflect, or perhaps even write.

Mine might not even be the first book written here, he mused.

He was about to return to his work when a sound from below caught his attention.  Leaning over the railing, he found himself unable see the ground forty feet below; in the filtered moonlight, the tower’s struts were faint outlines, and his car an indistinct blob.  But from somewhere down there came a distinct scratching.

What lives in these mountains?  Raccoons … bears … mountain lions?

He went inside and searched the tower for a flashlight.  Finding none, he cursed himself for not bringing the one he kept in the Chevy.

I’ll check for damage in the morning.

He locked the door, poured himself a glass of bourbon, and returned to his writing.

Jason Clor, 2023