Friday, August 19, 2011

The Scent Of Rotting Leaves by Chris Rhatigan


That only three people were in the audience was testament to Jansen’s skill as chairman. Over the years he took pains to ensure the city council’s meetings were so opaque and meaningless that even the community activists and reporters quit attending.
He put on his glasses, glanced at the night’s agenda and spoke the only name on the list.
“Calvin Motts.”
Dressed in a gray wool suit with a plaid bow tie and hush puppies worn without irony, Motts approached the podium.
As he passed them, the council members murmured to themselves.
Was that dreadful sound his joints creaking? And that odor -- like leaves plastered to the bottom of a pool filter -- was that coming from him?
“Good evening.” He paused as if he were catching his breath. “Myself and the two other senior members of the reanimated community have urgent matters to discuss with this council.”

The murmuring from the council grew louder verging on cat calls and jeers – everyone knew they were out there, but to reveal themselves in public like this? Jansen brought down the gavel. “Silence, silence, silence! Please continue, Mr. Motts.”

“As you may be aware, a fully functioning reanimated community has been established about ten miles outside of city limits.” Motts blinked very, very slowly, eyelids like parchment paper. “We do not, contrary to popular opinion, sustain ourselves on human flesh. We are respectful of all others. Yet we have not been treated with respect. Our members have been murdered, tortured, kidnapped, harassed, even raped.”
The council rose as one, their voices strident.
Councilwoman Lambert said, “To listen to this, this thing is absurd. I know for a fact that we don’t have necrophiliacs here in Pine Valley.”
Councilman Bukis said, “And the accusation of murder? That isn’t even possible. Aren’t they already dead?”
Laughter and shouting erupted from the council. What do these corpses want? We give into them and soon enough they’ll take over the town!
The council was unsettlingly energized by this new development. Jansen gaveled repeatedly.
The Mayor chimed in, soothing Jansen’s irritation, “Might I remind the council that there is no action item on tonight’s agenda regarding the, uh, reanimated community. All the council need do is listen to Mr. Motts.”
“All we want,” Motts said before taking another eerie pause, “is for you to leave the reanimated community alone. To this end, we implore you to consider rewriting the laws so that they respect our fundamental rights.”

The rest of the meeting went by in a fog, Jansen’s mind exploring each permutation of where this new information might lead.

Many of these permutations were dissatisfactory.

Often the best strategy, Jansen found, was acquiescence. Make a series of meaningless concessions until the opponent grew weary.
But this case posed unique problems. If the council even placed such laws on its agenda, it would be a public admission that zombies were among them. The effect on property values alone would be catastrophic. Not to mention the inevitable demand for more police and firefighters and the hundreds of angry, stupid residents who would show up at every council meeting.
For more than a decade, Jansen and the Mayor had, with the utmost care and skill, constructed a machine that, above all else, was silent. The machine’s lubricated gears spun and locked and distributed its product without so much as a whir or a clink. Fifty years into the future – perhaps a hundred! – the machine would reign supreme. Pine Valley would be the same community it had always been, without crime or chain stores, without traffic or undesirable persons. The machine’s power, Jansen and the Mayor understood, was beyond mere legacy.

But now it was in jeopardy.

So immediately after Jansen said “Meeting adjourned,” he rushed to the Mayor’s office.

The Mayor closed the door and pulled the chain on a desk lamp. He spoke first. “Who can we trust?”

Jansen had discovered that the Mayor’s political instincts were stronger than his own. While Jansen fretted about the potential results of this calamity, the Mayor was already searching for allies. “Police Chief Myerson?”

The Mayor steepled his fingers. “This problem is too complex for him.”

“State Senator Mooney?”

“The incentives are inadequate. Pine Valley is less than a third of his district.”

Jansen smiled for the first and last time that evening. The one man with connections, discretion, and no official title restraining him. “Robert Ford.”

The Mayor said nothing. Picked up the phone and dialed.

Early the next morning, Jansen stood on a ridge ten miles outside of Pine Valley. He watched state workers in protective yellow suits use driptorches to set the woods and fields ablaze. Ford had called this a “controlled burn.” Other towns had this zombie problem in the past, and this was the method Ford (and, for that matter, the state) considered the most efficient solution.
Crude mud huts and structures made of trash and scrap plywood crackled, flickers of the intense heat nipping at Jansen’s cuffs. He looked left and then right, half expecting to see them swarming, sharp teeth posed to tear apart flesh.
But he saw nothing, just the flames in the distance. He tugged at his sport coat, shook away the sudden wave of emotion. The reanimated community apparently didn’t even want to live – or whatever it was they did – none of them bothered trying to escape the blaze.
Satisfied that things were under control, Jansen walked the trail back to his car. The sun was pushing away wisps of clouds, but darkness still reigned in the forest.
Jansen called the Mayor.
“It’s done.”

“You’ve seen it for yourself?”

Somewhere, a twig snapped. Jansen accelerated his pace. “Yes. Exactly as Mr. Ford described.”

“Good. Meet me in my office.”

Jansen reached a clearing. Bent over, rested with his hands on his knees, chest expanding, contracting, expanding, contracting. Not a young man anymore. Should see Dr. Phillips more often, like his wife told him to.

He pressed the button to unlock his Buick when an icy hand reached out, clamped over his bony wrist, blood in his veins screaming like a child locked in a closet.

Calvin Motts said, “We tried to be civil, Mr. Chairman. But that’s not the game we’re playing, is it?”
Behind Motts, in the growing dark, hundreds of translucent eyelids blinked slowly. Very, very slowly. And the scent of rotting leaves.


  1. Special thanks to AJ Hayes for his thorough, excellent critique of this piece.

  2. I haven't seen as astute an analysis of how -- and why -- small town politics works since Heinlein's juvenile novels(which were anything but juvenile)Podkayne of Mars and Citizen Of The Galaxy. With the added bonus of that chilling last paragraph, there is no way this story can be called anything but Way Cool!

  3. Great eye for detail which works superbly here. Love your take Chris.

  4. And after Motts and his friends are finished in Pine Valley, it's on to DC. Absolutely believable and totally chilling. (The councilwoman needs to meet the President of Iran if she thinks there are no necrophiliacs in town.)