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“I’m telling you, I had nothing to do with it. That’s all I’m saying until my lawyer gets here.” Josh McCurdy folded his arms and locked eyes with Police Chief Dan Sutton.

“Sure, kid, you can drag this out and piss off as many people as you like. Not the smartest strategy, considering.”

“Considering what? I didn’t do it.”

Sutton pushed a crime scene photo toward Josh. “What do you see?”

Josh studied the glassy female eyes, the model’s cheekbones, and the ragged limbs blown to bits by the blast. What the hell had she been doing, standing in the quiet room – and wearing granny briefs he wouldn’t be caught dead in?

“Not a corpse, like you seem bent on treating it. It’s just a mannequin.”

“Is it yours?”

Josh said nothing.

“What did you use it for, son?”

Josh chewed the inside of his cheek. He’d named her Francesca, and had spent many hours dressing her in some of the most beautiful lingerie before feeling it against his own skin. But the rifle they said she’d been holding, that wasn’t his. Josh hated guns -- even if he recognized their usefulness in teaching tough lessons to people who deserved them. He preferred beautiful things. Things for which the Internet had become his wonderland.

He’d gotten Francesca on eBay. She was an easy acquisition; there’d been no rush with her of discovering a treasure and indulging his more eyebrow-raising appetites. But she’d certainly modeled some of the plunder he’d won through bold bidding. He’d done it in blissful privacy, never hurting anyone.

 “Josh? What do you know about remote control hunting?”

“You mean, like, pushing a battery pack or something to fire a gun?”

“I mean, like, clicking your computer mouse to fire a gun.”

“Nothing,” Josh declared. “I barely know how to work a computer.”

* * * * *

Rev. Tom Pratt was desperate for a little oblivion. Doc Mueller had said his head was fine, but Tom hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since Asa and Mary’s debacle of a wedding. When he wasn’t lying awake, replaying the chaos like a slow-motion documentary he couldn’t stop watching, horrifying dreams robbed him of rest.

How much sleep deprivation did it take before a person started making mistakes, using poor judgment, failing at his job . . . hallucinating?

The preacher rolled over and squinted at his bedside clock. It was five minutes to the alarm – why let it go off to mock his misery? He reached for the button, and watched as a hand not his own beat him to it.

Losing it.

“Tom.”

The hand drifted toward him, stroked his face.

A woman.
 
He started to protest as she slid beside him under the covers, but she pressed her fingers to his lips, covered his mouth with hers. She was warm and soft, smelled of . . . gardenia? Was that it, was that the correct flower? Ever since he’d bashed his head, he was having trouble calling up details from the mind he’d spent a lifetime enriching with information, perceptions, ideas.

“How did you . . .?”

Without his glasses, he strained to see her face in the foggy predawn light. But she wore a scrap of silk over her eyes, with slits so narrow she looked more like an eyeless mannequin than a --

Oh, my God. Mannequin. The wedding again. I’m dreaming.

Or hallucinating.

His body responded to the figure, real or not, as clothing slipped off womanly curves and hot skin invited him to touch. Gardenia, yes. Dabbed, he discovered, in the most arresting places.

“That’s right, that’s it,” she murmured. “I know you’ve missed  me.” She tore at the modest tee shirt and boxers he slept in, straddling him with sinewy thighs while her lips freed his mind of reason. “Give in, Tom.”

I’ll pay for this, he thought. Even if it is just a fantasy. Her tongue and breasts tasted of honey, heated with foreboding. He couldn’t blame this on post-traumatic shock. The wedding had nothing to do with all the times he’d imagined giving in. How many women in his congregation could guess, as they shook his hand and complimented him on his sermon, that they were consigning him to hours of penance for the raw pornography running in his head?

It’s not real. It’s not real.

He’d never acted on those urges, and, God willing, would somehow find forgiveness in himself for them. He was human; it was normal. Maybe even a healthy outlet. Wasn’t it?

Lord, he missed Veronica. They’d been so perfect together, so content. Since she died, his guilt-ridden mind had scorned complacency with ravenous hungers. No one guessed. No one must. He had to remain the sensitive preacher with the baby face and the endless supply of commonsense advice.

“Tell me,” the woman in his bed whispered in his ear. “The usual, or something more . . . exotic?”

His head was splitting again. “I . . . don’t think I --”

She chuckled. “You’re so funny, pretending like you don’t remember.” Her long fingernails skimmed down his belly. “So let’s not waste time on refresher courses. I have some new, delicious, absolutely filthy things to teach you.”

In the morning he awoke naked, his right wrist tied to his bedpost with a red silk scarf. Quickly undoing the knot, he pulled the covers up, and reeled as he breathed in the scent of gardenia. Comfort, he thought, reaching for his Bible. Control. The book wasn’t in its usual place on his nightstand. Opening the drawer, he drew out the only object in it, and wondered when and why on earth he’d stashed a hubcap next to his bed.

Losing my mind.

Hunger Shadoe Lake
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