13th Hour

Tales from Light to Midnight

13th hour, short story, tammie painter

From light tales of legends and love to dark stories of ancient beasts and a desperate chef’s secrets, 13th Hour will delight you, mystify you and make you cringe.

13th Hour’s seventeen tales tick through questions such as….Can you dream forever? What is it really like working for the gods? What would you do for love? Or for revenge? Do ancient creatures still stalk the earth? What lurks in paradise? What is your family’s darkest secret? …and many more.

So sit down and unwind your clocks because it’s time for the 13th Hour.

What Readers Are Saying
  • I usually don’t read fiction but this I really liked. The stories were varied in the type of suspense/horror. To me these stories seem like a cross between Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock.
  • I’m a huge fan of supernatural short stories, and this book was perfect. My favorite story, ‘Island Ways’ creeped me out in the way I only thought Stephen King could. Loved it!
  • This is a great collection of short stories! So well written, each story totally unique, a really great read! I will be recommending this book to all of my friends!

READY TO PURCHASE?

Learn about your many shopping options for both paperbacks and e-books of 13th Hour on my Where to Buy page.

READY TO SAMPLE?

Transcription of Taxi 6473

“This conversation is over, Anderson.”

“Sergeant, I really think we need to look into this.”

The sounds, the screams still echoed in my head.

“Anderson,” The Sarg glared at me across the desk with those dark eyes – the eyes I knew the front desk girls dreamed of.  All I dreamed of lately was the shrieking and the wet slash of skin and muscle slicing open. “Never bring this up again, got it?”

“But sir, this is big.  We need to go to the —”

“Go to the what?  Who do you go to with this?  Look,” his voice lowered to a soothing tone, but I could still sense the irritation behind it, “what you heard, what you think you heard on that tape is nothing.  A murder.  One of many that the NYPD are unlikely to solve.”

“The matter is being classified as a suicide, sir.”

“Well, there you have it,” he threw up his hands.  “No other explanation for it.”

“Sir,” I shook my head trying to rattle everything into place, “how could a man with no weapons in the car make four parallel slices from neck to groin?” I stabbed at the report in front of us with my index finger. “Slices so deep his intestines were found on the floor mat.”

“Desperate people can do desperate things.  You haven’t been here long enough to understand.”

“Maybe not, but I sure as hell know a cover up,” I regretted that the second it blundered out, but I didn’t appreciate his condescension.  I was only trying to make my point that the sounds on the tape were real, and no one would listen.  The Sarg, whose face had transformed from warm bronze to weary gray since the start of the investigation, was tired of me pestering him.

“Look Anderson, the guy was stuck in traffic.  He should have known the construction would hold him up, but no, he obviously wanted to make a grand exit.  Once the traffic started up again,” he flicked the report open to the witness statements and shoved it back toward me, “your cabby stayed put.”

I knew what the report said.  I’d memorized it along with my transcription of the tape.  One angry driver came up to pound on the driver side window, but stopped when he saw the blood throughout the inside of the vehicle.  911 was called, but for what?  The gaping abdomen with intestines spilled across the front seat and onto the floor should have signaled the futility of an ambulance.  Witnesses did hang around, people who were in the traffic jam beside and behind the cab.  They report seeing nothing.

“Someone had to see something,” I muttered.

“Who sees anything in this city?  New Yorkers are too full of themselves and their own troubles to bother looking elsewhere.  The only thing they notice are people like me.  They pretend to be tolerant,” his contempt filled my office, “but I can see the wariness in their faces as they try to figure out if I’m one of the dangerous ‘Ay-rabs’ and wonder if I’m hiding a bomb under my jacket.  They aren’t scared out of concern for the community, just fear for themselves and whether they’ll make it home to show off their newest Prada accessory.  Crimes happen all the time in broad daylight in this city and, despite the population density, no one sees a thing.”

“But you haven’t listened to the tape,” I persisted.

Was I seriously suggesting The Sarg listen to it?  I hadn’t let anyone listen to the tape.  The whole recording is like a nightmare, but the sudden terror in the cabby’s voice at the end and those sounds – sounds you don’t hear in any nature film whether the antelope escapes or not – stick with you.   I refused to let anyone else listen to it.  Those who need the info read my transcript because I don’t want anyone else to have to live with the haunting of those sounds.

But The Sarg was being stubborn.  He slipped up and called it a murder when he was the one who declared it a suicide when time came for classification.  The tape is real, the victim’s story is true and The Sarg won’t listen to me.  There’s something more than what anyone might be willing to admit.

If only he heard the tape.

“If you’d just listen to the tape,” his eyes narrowed at my insubordination.  I continued in a meeker voice, “surely the cabby’s story would convince you.”

“Your cabby was an aspiring writer.  Every Arab has a little Ali Baba in him,” I knew he meant Sheherazade, the teller of the tale of Ali Baba, but I kept quiet.  I had other points to push.  “We’re worse than the Irish for telling superstitious tales.  The tape will be held for evidence if anything comes up, but for now just drop it.  Go back to your other work,” he cast his eyes over my scattering of papers, recorders, and tapes.  “I don’t want to hear any more of this.  You bring it up again and you’re out of here.  You want to try to find a job in this economy?”

“No sir,” I muffled.

“Good then what did I say about this?” he stood and, leaning with both hands on my desk, hovered over me.

“Never bring it up again.”

“Never, ever.  You do good work, Anderson.  Don’t let one silly tape get to you.  He made it up.  Get over it.”

“Yes sir.”

He turned to leave, but stopped halfway through the turn of the knob.

“If you go to anyone with this,” he paused as if hesitating over the next card to play in a hand of poker, “I’ll tell them you had to leave for mental recuperation.”

He finished the turn, yanked open the door, and strode out with an exhausted sigh.

The Sarg tried to hush the investigation since I transcribed the tape.  I wish I never had.  I wish I could do as The Sarg said and never bring it up again, but whenever I’m not listening to something else that scream – scream doesn’t convey the horror of the sound – plagues me.  It’s seeped into my skin and became a part of me like the ink of my tattoos.

The tape recorder, along with the remains of its owner, was found in City Cab 6473.  The contents of that cab nauseated even Chief Tipps, the guy who proclaims he’s seen it all.  Two dread-filled lines –

“It’s coming for me.  Forgive me.”

are preceded by the crinkling sound of safety glass being shattered.

Then the screaming begins.

Blending with the cabby’s incessant shriek is a snarling – the snarl of a dog protecting a pork bone at the same time he’s trying to eat it.  Seconds later comes a final swish like swift blades cutting through the air.  The cabby’s squeals of terror don’t drown out the slopping fall of parts that were meant to be internal.  And then silence.

But in your mind you still hear the screams

The Sarg needed to hear the tape.

I don’t know why I felt so adamant about this.  Normally I’ll accept authority’s demands and settle into my daily tasks.  Plus, I liked The Sarg.  Why did I want to battle him with such a stubborn head about this?  I liked my job and didn’t want to lose it.  The only problem I ever had at the force was the mistake of asking one of the front desk girls out – little did I know then they all had crushes on The Sarg.  She rejected me without hesitation citing the excuse that she didn’t fish off the company dock and I believed her.  Until the next day, and every day for six weeks, whenever I walked past her and the other two.  The trio of them watched me with faces tight from holding back silly grins. Once I was to the elevator their repressed giggles would burst out.  Eventually I gave up being embarrassed and instead greeted their stares with a charming smile – The Sarg’s smile – and a “Hello, ladies” then walked on like I could care less.  Two weeks later the girl asked me out and I told her I’d think about it.

What was it about this tape that would make me jeopardize my job, my relationship with The Sarg, and getting to tease that girl?

It’s just too real.

The sounds aren’t conjured by a foley sitting in the back seat, and the cabby wanted to be a writer, not an actor.  He couldn’t fake such pure terror.  No one could.  I’m not superstitious, but something that needs to be understood is on that tape.

If only The Sarg would listen.

I wasted several minutes staring at the report and walking the tape mindlessly across the desk from my phone to my lamp and back to the phone.

The phone.

I smiled at my own cleverness.  I looked up The Sarg’s home number.  I knew his old one, but since his wife left him he’d gotten a new one after taking an apartment.  Before dialing I checked my bank account – enough in savings for a few months of unemployment.  My heart thudded so hard I could feel it in my fingertips and with each digit entered I told myself I was crazy.

I paused on the last number.  I could hang up now and be done.  Do like he said and forget the tape.  Weird shit happens all the time in this city.  What would I accomplish by pressing that last digit?  Who cares if some cab jockey goes down as a suicide?

I did.

Because I knew with more conviction than the knowledge that my left nut hung lower than my right that it was murder.  Inexplicable murder, but murder nonetheless.  A murder that demanded an explanation.  And I would force The Sarg to it.

I pressed the tenth number.

When the voice mail came on, I started the recording and switched to speakerphone to make sure I didn’t get cut off.

It begins mundane enough.  The voice is American, but with the slight accent of someone who spoke a different language at home as a child.  Between fares our taxi driver was dictating a novel, and not a very good one.  In mid-hyperbole he stops.  The pause is filled by a call like an eagle’s screech mixed with the hoarse laughing of a hyena and, just faintly, the clicking sound of dog’s claws on pavement.  Cabby 6473, forgetting his novel, begins again in a whisper:

“He’s here.  Dear Allah.  I was drunk- Allah forgive me – that first night he came for me and I thought, I hoped, I imagined the thing, but it hasn’t left me since.  Always in my head I hear those clicking claws stalking me that night.  I thought…I don’t know what I thought.  A dog, a loose mongrel following me for a handout, not this.  Not what I saw.  Not what’s out there.”

His voice is shaking as if he’s on the verge of crying.  The car is idle.  Stuck.  Construction other cabs knew to avoid held him up.  You hear the cabby inhale then exhale heavily to gain composure.  He begins again in the murder-mystery tone from his earlier dictation, but underneath you can hear – especially if it’s your job to listen – the slight tremble of fear:

“When I turned that night, my head spun with the liquor and I looked down to the level where I expected the dog to be.  What would I have done if it were a dog?  Shooed it away?  Maybe kicked it just to get back at the world?   But where a dog’s back should have been were knees – dark knees, but not so black as to disappear into the night.  The color of my father’s knees.  I prepared to be mugged and hopefully not beaten.

“If I was tense at the sight of a man’s knees following me in the dark I was taut as a harp string when my eyes cast down and then, in an attempt to be bold, into his eyes.  How I didn’t scream I don’t know.  Perhaps too scared or too drunk to think it was anything more than vodka-inspired imagination.  Allah knows I’ve sought inspiration for my stories in the bottom of a bottle more than once – Allah forgive me.  I thought maybe this time it worked.  I wasn’t so lucky.

“My eyes flicked downward to the feet.  It was only a brief flash, but I knew what I saw and I knew why it sounded like a dog following.  The feet were long thin things and he stood on the ends, the paws.  The claws, like a dog’s, weren’t retractable.

“I see those claws now, just outside my window – why does he just circle the car like that?  I’ve seen them every night in my sleep.  The gleam makes it clear they are metal, sharpened to deadly points.  The tapering edge on one side is surely a razor sharp blade.”

The clicking continues outside the cab and, now that the cabby has put the concept in your mind, you can hear it isn’t the dull tick of keratin, but a metallic clink, clink, clink.

“The face, what should have been a face, was a dog’s head, the head of a Doberman and my stomach jolted as if hit with a lightning bolt.”

The first time I listened I laughed at his cliché descriptions.  The second time I shuddered.  Now, I just listen with the hairs on my neck standing erect and wonder what The Sarg’s reaction will be.

For the next few minutes our cabby seems to have talked himself out of his fear.  He continues on in a swaggering tone punctuated now and then with a sarcastic snort

“The body was of a man, a well-muscled man wearing only a skirt of fabric over his loins.  I wondered how he could stand it; it’s January for Mohammad’s sake.  Then it clicked in my inebriated mind: Anubis, the guide to the underworld.  Suddenly sober, I stopped.  ‘I won’t go with you,’ I stated boldly.  ‘It’s time,’ he said in his thick accent, the accent of my father, but with a throaty ancient quality.  I turned to stagger off and he let me, but I could feel his black eyes watching.  Just as he watches me now, but that is all he does.  Just watches.  Some god.

“It couldn’t be my time.  I paid the gypsy woman for protection when I felt it coming.  The lump in my belly, the inability to eat much.  I knew these signs.  I’d seen them in my father.  He wouldn’t go to the gypsies even though my mother urged him, and of course he wouldn’t go to the American doctors who, in his words, ‘Were more deadly than any cancer.  Their exorbitant fees killed you by taking food from your mouth.  What’s the point of being cured if you can’t eat?’  And the gypsies, he wouldn’t trust them.  ‘Only an Egyptian can cure an Egyptian,’ he claimed.  But I don’t fall for that old nonsense.  I can’t afford the American doctors, but I can afford the gypsy woman’s incantations and potions.  I’ve paid her dutifully each week since feeling the lump, so Anubis cannot be coming to take me.  Surely even gods can make mistakes.

“Besides, he only follows me.  He never attacks because I bet he knows the gypsy woman is protecting me.  Still, his presence, his asking me to go with him and telling me that it’s time gives me the feeling of mice scurrying up my back.  I pretend not to listen and he continues to follow.  He chases beside the cab every day barking at me that it will be worse if I don’t go willingly with him.  I won’t.  I saw him stalking me this morning.  He’ll never take me and to flaunt my assurance I went to the gypsy woman and paid her double.

“Now I sit here stuck in this traffic jam.  I don’t go this way normally.”

His voice loses its bravado on the last sentence and the quavering shimmy of fear resumes.  I can picture his chin trembling as he tries to keep talking:

“Why did I go this way?  He’s stalking the car now, circling it, the clicking of those claws grating in my ears as it has every time I’ve tried to sleep since I first saw him.  Why does he look at me like that?  He’s crouching as if–”

At this point there’s a thud.  The cabby screams, not a fearful scream yet, but angry yelling at whatever it is to get off his cab.  He curses at his demon.  Our linguist, who I allowed to listen to only that portion of the tape, says it’s Egyptian for calling the thing a son of a whore and telling it to go back to its world alone.  Then the crinkling of the safety glass caving in and, blended with that savage snarling you hear in your spine, is the cabby’s scream.  The tone – so full of terror – would be enough to feed my nightmares, but there are those last two lines spoken with an unimaginably painful fear although nothing has happened to him yet:

“It’s coming for me.  Forgive me.”

More screams, flesh being ripped, a wet slosh of intestines hitting the floor, and then silence.  The hairs on my arms still rise at the sounds.

I shut the tape off.  There’s little more, just honking and people yelling to get out of the way, then the tape runs its course.

“Sarg,” I say into the microphone, “you have to believe this is more than suicide.”

At two a.m. I’m wakened by grating noise.  I can’t place it until some portion of my mind tells me it’s the phone.  I pick up and, for whatever reason people do, try to sound like I wasn’t sleeping.

“Hello?”

“Anderson?  Did I wake you?”

The voice is The Sarg, but it’s no tone I’ve ever heard from him.  He’s commanding, angry, cocky, but now—

He’s been crying.

“No, Sarg, I’m awake.”  I was dying to ask if he got the voice mail, buy why else would he be calling me?  “What’s up?”

“You didn’t have to do that.  I believed you all along.”

“Sir?”

“Look, Anderson,” he sounded less tearful, but still low, hopeless even.  “Legends of the old world aren’t just legends.  Some are true.  Egyptians are bound to them almost genetically.  The old gods didn’t go away simply because so many decided to follow Mohammad.  They wait their turn and do their job just as always.”

He paused and then pushed out a rattling breath.  I didn’t interrupt with the thousand questions bombarding my mind.  I let him talk it out.

“Anubis, you know Anubis?  Most Westerners know him even if they aren’t haunted by him.  He used to oversee funeral rites and then guided the dead to the underworld.  Now we have no rights like the old ones for him to attend, but that damn dog headed man still insists on haunting the dying anyway.  Even if we try to avoid it.”

This time I couldn’t hold back.

“We?”

“Those of us with terminal cancer.  I never told you why Rita left, did I?”

“No sir.”

“I got diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.  Thought I gave up smoking in time, but apparently not.  She said she couldn’t go through watching me die and I didn’t want her to.  So we split.  We’re still married so she’ll get my pension and all that.  She knows what’s coming for me and wants to stay out of his way.  Our cabby is right, Anderson, sometimes even gods make mistakes and if she’s around when he comes for me, he might take her too.  Although, I hope he’ll let me take my cat to the underworld.”

“He who?”

“Anubis, you idiot.  When it’s my time he will come to guide me to the underworld.  I’m scared a bit, but it’s like having someone hold your hand through a scary movie.  The cabby fought it, tried to outwit a god and that’s why Anubis did what he did.”

“So in a way it was suicide?”

“I tried to tell you.”

“I’m sorry, Sarg.  I shouldn’t have played the tape.  I didn’t mean to dredge up bad feelings.”

“No, Anderson, thank you.”

“For what?”

“I’m scared to die.  Most people are I’m sure.  And I’m not ready.  I’m only fifty-seven.  I want to do more, see more, be with Rita more.  So I thought of trying to avoid Anubis.  I thought maybe it was just a legend.  Why would anyone believe a man with a jackal’s head was wandering around taking Egyptians to their death?  I certainly didn’t.  When this case came in though and I saw your transcription I thought maybe the legends were true and I wanted to run to escape my fate.  But the tape, you’re right the sounds are terrible.  I don’t want to face that.  I’ll let Anubis guide me when the time comes.  It’s the better way.  I know that now.  Thank you.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I was on the verge of tears myself.

“You still there, Anderson?”

“Yes sir,” my voice choked.

“You remember what I said?”

“About what?”

“Never bring this up again.  We don’t like our secrets to get out and don’t want people investigating this or turning it into some cult.  If you talk, if you spread this around he will come for you too.  Got it?”

“Yes sir.”

The next day The Sarg didn’t show up.  He was declared dead of natural causes with death likely occurring between three and five in the morning.  Forensics went to the apartment out of formality and I tagged along.  Near The Sarg’s bed I noticed the marks as if four knives had been scooted across the wood floor.  I didn’t point this out.

We never could find The Sarg’s cat.