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“Homelands” excerpt from The Book of Final Flesh anthology

Shanghai burned, God’s judgment against the Asian Sodom rendered….

A gaily painted river of umbrellas and parasols drifted down Bubbling Well Road in a slow, lethargic ballet. Beneath the cloth canopy were bustling yellow palanquins, leather sedan chairs and bamboo rickshaws. British and American colonists streamed past, heading for the already crammed docks along “The Bund,” a picturesque stretch of road bordering Whangpu River. Most maintained an air of refined panic, fleeing as fast as propriety allowed. Such was the price of “civilizing” China… the facade of control. Others moved swiftly, gentility be damned.

Cedric Halston watched the molasses-slow crowd squeeze past white European-style colonial villas, a few of which coughed a steady pillar of black smoke from soot-blasted windows. A lanky six-footer and topped with an original tan Stetson, Halston held a commanding view over people’s crowns, and he didn’t much like the scene. He wanted to fire a gun, if only to move this torpid herd faster, though admittedly, he was an impatient man. Instead, he kept one hand flexed tight on his holstered Army Revolver and used the other hand to brush aside locks of black hair that had stuck to his sweating face. His hands, rough and callused, bore the brunt of his days in the Union’s Dead Walker unit. Still, no Nevada heat prepared him for the Shanghai humidity that made walls perspire and plagued civilized folk with “unmentionables” like ringworm. The burning houses didn’t help settle the heat either, and instead sent a frantic twinkle in his grey eyes.

A scream broke Halston’s reverie. The skittish crowd moved and swelled, carrying the first cry with their own panicked shrieks.

“Move!” Halston shouted, gun drawn.

Two Sikh policemen, the red-turbaned Bulwan and Sohan, immediately fell in at Halston’s elbows, helping him push through the crowd, their shag beards and waxed mustaches framing grave faces. The crowd surged forward, but Halston and his two escorts straight-armed their way through. Bulwan fired his rifle skyward once, splitting the herd like frightened sheep.

The trio burst into a narrow adjoining alley where a Brit spun and shrieked like a wild Moroccan dervish; a dead body, bloodied, laid at his feet. Halston pulled his revolver and aimed; Bulwan and Sohan followed his lead with their rifles, hoping he’d venture the first shot - and responsibility - for killing the Britisher. Halston paused, his breath suspended in the raucous, naked moment, waiting.

Finally, a rip appeared across the man’s stomach. The clothing and flesh beneath simply parted open as though by the will of God. Blood sprayed out in a fan of crimson, painting something in the air; a lengthy red cord of internal organ unraveled from the Brit’s wound. The man shrieked before his throat puckered inward and a fistful of flesh vanished in a ragged bite, betraying a floating set of red teeth.

Halston fired, his bullet cracking something hard before it reached the Brit. Bulwan and Sohan followed suit, their shots thudding into solid air that bled black ichor.

The victim collapsed. The “something” fell atop him a second later, creasing his clothes beneath its flour-sack bulk. “It” bled from punch-hole wounds. The dark-skinned and impassive Sohan walked over and emptied a bullet into the skull of each victim, punctuating both reports by reloading his single-shot carbine. Dismayed outcry moved through the crowd, but Halston swept his gun across the mob, some of whom lurched backwards.

“Don’t you folks have somewhere to be?”

Reluctantly, the onlookers moved down the street, but a few shot Halston poisoned looks.

“Well, sahib,” Bulwan said. “Things aren’t very tip-top.”

“Not tip-top indeed,” Halston said.

The crowd drifted past, their contempt for Halston unspoken and naked in their stares. Halston knew their thoughts: Bloody indolent Americans… Damn Yank refugees. That’s what they thought of all Americans these days…

…now that America was no more.

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