The Black Hand, vol. 5

Spite Houses

What do you do if you’ve got a tiny piece of land, and want to piss someone off? You build a spite house, of course! A spite house is a building constructed or modified to irritate the neighbours, or anyone who has a land stake, as this Wikipedia page explains. They’re often extremely weird-looking, and highly impractical to live in – but who cares, when the whole point of having a spite house is to annoy the crap out of your relatives or defeat town ordinances, right?

Prime examples of Spite Houses include the ones pictured above. On the left is the Skinny House in Massachusetts, which was built by a man whose brother left him only a tiny parcel of land, and so he built the house to block his brother’s view. Other Spite Houses have been built to foil city road-building plans, or block a rival’s plans – in China they are referred to as Nail Houses, and are houses left in place despite retail developers’ pressures to sell. Some are just normal houses that have been decorated in obnoxiously garish ways to tick off the neighbours, like Equality House, which was built right across the road from Westboro Baptist Church and painted in Pride colours, in protest against Westboro’s homophobia.

There’s a certain vicious ingenuity involved in creating a Spite House which I find amusing – although they don’t look incredibly comfortable to live in, I wouldn’t mind a tour.

Currently reading

I just finished Hangman by Jack Heath, and it was a lot of gory, grisly fun – if cannibal detectives are your jam (and quite clearly they are mine), I encourage you to give it a try.

But I’m also re-reading Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, which is her first adult book, and boy, the writing is just gorgeous. It’s a dark fantasy and a clever mystery and a chilly supernatural thriller, all in one – the story of Galaxy (Alex) Stern, recruited as a kind of magician’s apprentice to keep an eye on the Ancient Houses of Yale University, which deal in magic and other-worldly business. If you have a hankering for dark academia, secret societies, necromancy and forbidden powers, then this book will feed your hunger.

#LoveOzYAbookclub

My website is currently being renovated, which means that bookclub is on hiatus for July – sorry! But hey, it’s a chance for everyone to catch up on their reading (if your TBR is anything like mine, you’ll appreciate a breather).

Events

I just spent an evening interviewing Candice Fox about her new book The Chase, which was fantastic fun (both the book and the interview!), and my next event will be another online self-publishing workshop for Whitehorse Manningham Libraries called “Publishing Your Book” - you can find tix here.

Writing/creating spaces

People often ask about my ‘writing office’, and honestly, I don’t really have one, which is something I think I’ve talked about before (we have a very tiny house, and very terrible internet, so the little partitioned shed I usually occupy in summer is both inconvenient and freezing in winter – I’m currently writing in an easy chair near the dining table).

But the writing spaces pictured in this article in Buzzfeed certainly demonstrate significant variety. The standout, for me, is EB White, who has the most uncomfortable chair I’ve ever seen – but look at that view!

None Shall Sleep - deleted scene

This is a scene I had to delete from the final manuscript of None Shall Sleep.

It wasn’t deleted for any nefarious reason – my editor just thought it slowed the pace of the story down, and she was right. But it’s still a scene that I love, and now I’m sharing it with you.

CW: If you’ve read the book, you’ll be aware that there’s some swearing and references to sexual assault in the book, and therefore also this excerpt. Also, as this section never made it into print, it hasn’t been corrected from Australian English spellings.

It fits into the story at the start of Chapter 13, and some of the lines were re-used in the published book – I hope you like it :)

Kristin Gutmunsson lives thirty minutes south of Richmond. Emma wasn’t sure whether to call the clinic at which Kristin is a resident. In the end she contacted Kristin’s lawyer, who called the facility and obtained permission for them to visit. Emma’s taking the fact they’ve been sent to Petersburg as a good omen. They’re practically passing right by.

Rosanna is playing softly on the car radio. Emma digs the Gesak paperwork out of her backpack and sets it on her knee. ‘You’ve read this file?’

‘Yep.’ Bell glances at her as they drive off the 95, heading towards the Appomattox. ‘You sure you’re okay coming in on this one?’

‘Hey, if I can handle Gutmunsson, I can handle Gesak.’

‘Gutmunsson’s a lot of things, but he was never a rapist.’

Bell can’t keep the distaste off his face. Emma hopes he can maintain neutrality in the interview, or this isn’t going to work. It’s interesting to her that his scale of sin rates sexual assault perpetrators lower down, and therefore closer to hell, than garden-variety murderers.

‘And this guy isn’t like McMurtry,’ Bell continues. ‘He doesn’t talk.’

‘Not at all?’

‘Nada.’

She consults the summary. ‘It says here Gesak buried his victims in State Game Lands near Bloomsburg.’

Buried – that’s generous. He piled leaves and branches over the bodies.’

The detail snags on her. ‘He covered them. Why did he take them all the way out to the forest and then cover them?’

‘Because he was too stupid or couldn’t be bothered to dig graves?’

‘I don’t think he was trying to conceal them from the police. It’s important, though. That he covered them.’

‘If you say so,’ Bell says, and takes the turn to Hopewell.

Petersburg is damned inconveniently situated; they have to drive through Hopewell and backtrack to get to Magnolia Road. But the facility is close to the river – Emma can smell the damp in the air. She wonders if it’s a kind of torture for the inmates stuck in humid mould-plagued cells to know that the river is there, just beyond reach.

Checking in at Petersburg is a little different from the process at Beckley; despite the uniformity of government facilities, there seem to be differences at every federal correctional institution in the country. Or maybe it’s just that staff at each facility react differently to them. This time, for instance, they’re assigned an escort. Once their identities are confirmed and they’re signed in, they’re met by Officer George Dunleavy, a barrel-chested man in his mid-fifties with cropped grey hair above a blunt granite cliff of a face.

‘Now I know y’all are expecting to interview the prisoner, but I don’t think you should expect much.’ Dunleavy’s voice is kindly but he speaks only to Bell as they pass through a series of barred gates, walk down concrete corridors. ‘That ain’t a personal thing, y’understand. Gesak don’t talk much to anybody.’

‘I guess we’ll play it by ear,’ Bell says.

‘He’s not badly behaved in cells, mainly keeps to himself. I’m just saying don’t get your hopes up, yeah?’

Another room with a mirrored wall; this time, they’re on the other side of the mirror. Emma stands in the narrow, darkened observation area, looking through the glass into the interview room, while Dunleavy makes final suggestions.

‘I understand you like to do this without the cuffs, but I don’t think that’s wise.’

Bell pushes a little. ‘We try to see these guys in as relaxed an environment as possible.’

‘I hear you, son. But Gesak can be unpredictable. It’s hard to get a read on him until he’s moving, and once he’s moving he’s hard to slow down. You’ll see what I mean when they bring him in.’

All Emma’s senses focus now on the interview room door as it opens. She takes a breath as the boy they’re here to talk to is escorted in. Michael Gesak is a massively-built Pole. Nineteen years old and six-foot-four, he has dirty-blonde buzzed hair and a neck like an ox. Dunleavy explains that Gesak lifts weights regularly. He’s been in jail for nine and a half months. Emma reads his expression as completely blank – zero affect.

Bell winces. ‘Okay, now I understand about him being maybe hard to stop.’

‘Yep, he’s big. You want I should leave the cuffs?’

While the handcuff negotiations take place, Emma has an idea. It’s a pretty way-out idea. ‘Officer Dunleavy, does Gesak go to chapel?’

Dunleavy seems genuinely surprised to remember she’s there. ‘Uh, yes ma’am. He’s listed as Roman Catholic and he gets permission to go to service.’

It’s a crazy idea. Crazy and ballsy. Bell will hate it, but there’s no time or privacy for discussion. Dammit.

It might not work. But it can’t hurt to try.

When Bell indicates they should open the observation area door and step into the interview room, she clutches at his sleeve. ‘Go without me.’

‘What?’

‘I want to try something.’

Dunleavy seems pleased she’s chosen to stay behind. ‘That’s a solid decision there, Miss, uh, Lewis. This kinda prisoner, he needs to be dealt with by another male –‘

‘I’ll be there,’ Emma reassures Bell. ‘But I want to see if I can get a reaction out of him first.’

Bell eyes her, eyes the prisoner through the glass. ‘Aren’t we supposed to be avoiding getting him to react?’

‘No. The complete opposite.’ Emma bites her lip. ‘Bell, he covered them up. Okay, I know you don’t understand. Just trust me.’

Bell gives her an assessing stare, then nods. She steps back as he straightens his shoulders, opens the door and walks inside the interview room. While he makes introductions with Gesak, she does a quick inventory – what can she use? She’s wearing a white men’s shirt and jeans, no jacket. Her scarf is in her back pocket, though. She toes off her shoes, stuffs her socks inside. Ties her scarf over her head, village-fashion. What else? She rolls down her cuffs, shakes her shirt loose and undoes one button.

Dunleavy is watching Bell and Gesak. She hears Bell say, Will you talk to me, Michael? There’s one more thing she could do. Does she dare? If she’s going to play this out, she might as well commit.

Her shirt is long, and a little too big for her, so when she pulls her jeans down and off, she’s still covered to mid-thigh. She feels exposed, though, and her skin rises in goose bumps. That’s okay. It’s okay. The more pale and vulnerable she looks, the better.

Dunleavy glances back, does a double take. ‘Jesus. Uh, Miss Lewis, you can’t –‘

‘Mr Dunleavy, please be quiet,’ she says, and although her voice is soft, he complies, dumbfounded.

Barefoot and bare-legged, she steps over to the door. Takes a deep breath and concentrates her mind. Four girls, covered in bracken, assaulted and murdered in a green-smelling wood. Their faces cold and dead, eyes open, filling with rain. She feels for them, feels how easily she could have become one of their number. Every woman in the world carries this awareness: It could be me. It could be me, lying there.

Emma lets the cold spin out its tendrils to every place inside her, until the chill leaches the colour from her lips and face and fingertips. Then she reaches out and opens the door slowly…

Just wide enough to let Gesak see her standing there, in shadow.

*

‘I have honest-to-God never seen anything like it,’ Dunleavy says.

Bell bundles up the questionnaire pages, his tie loosened a little at the neck. He looks back at Emma, realises she’s still putting on her jeans, looks away fast.

‘Thank you for your time, sir,’ Bell says. ‘We mighty appreciate the cooperation.’

‘The men inside these walls, they’re hard men. They don’t break easy. I ain’t never heard Gesak speak more than a dozen words his whole tenure at this institution. That was a first. That was a goddern first. Does she, uh, use that strategy at every interview?’

‘That was a one-off,’ Bell concedes. ‘Luckily, it worked.’

Emma, dressed and shod and tidy, her scarf tucked away, steps up on Bell’s right. ‘Thank you again, Mr Dunleavy. I’m afraid we have to get to another appointment.’

Bell holds firm through final handshakes with Dunleavy, through the checkout process with administration. It’s not until they’re walking across the carpark that he finally loses his shit.

‘What the actual fuck, Lewis?’

Emma doesn’t look at him. ‘Let’s have this conversation in the truck.’

In the cab, he squeezes the steering wheel. ‘You nearly gave me a fucking heart attack. I thought Gesak was having a seizure. And then I looked over my shoulder and saw you –‘

‘It was theatre, Bell. That’s all.’ She seems unconcerned.

What if it hadn’t gone the way it did?’ He’s almost shaking, his voice loud. ‘What if he’d got crazy? He had cuffs but no shackles. He could’ve charged you. He could’ve charged me.’

‘He didn’t.’

‘Is that all you’re gonna say?’

‘Calm down.’

‘You scared me.’ Bell exhales hard, rubs his mouth at the honesty. ‘You fucking scared me, Emma.’

‘I’m sorry. But we needed to rattle his cage to get him to talk.’

‘Jesus.’

Emma turns sideways in the cab to face him. ‘Gesak was ashamed. That’s why he covered them. He’s religious, he knew what he did was wrong. He was ashamed of it, when it was over. In spite of his shame, he couldn’t resist the compulsion to do it again. To do it four times.’

Bell stares out the windshield, feeling lost. ‘Why are some guys so fucked up?’

‘It’s a kind of sickness, I think. Or a defect of the soul.’ Emma follows the line of Bell’s eyes, but there’s nothing for them to see out there except a few wind-blown trees on the perimeter of the compound. ‘I’m sorry I scared you.’

A full-body shudder goes through him. ‘Just…give me some warning next time.’

‘Okay.’

How does she do this? How does she know? He doesn’t believe in witchcraft and she’s said it’s not ESP. His mother would say Emma understands the evil in men’s hearts. It makes him furious, how she got that understanding.

That she trusts him enough to bare that part of herself, to explain the process and work with him, is some consolation.

‘Okay.’ He scrubs a hand through his hair. Takes off his tie and lays it on the seat, starting to feel more normal. ‘All right. Let’s go to Chesterfield.’

And there you have it! I hope you enjoyed that excised snippet from None Shall Sleep – until next time, wear a mask, get vaccinated, and have a good week!

xxEllie