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Eutopia:  A Novel of Terrible Optimism
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Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism

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Author: David Nickle
Publisher: ChiZine Publications, 2011
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
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Synopsis

The year is 1911.

In Cold Spring Harbour, New York, the newly formed Eugenics Records Office is sending its agents to catalogue the infirm, the insane, and the criminal—with an eye to a cull, for the betterment of all.

Near Cracked Wheel, Montana, a terrible illness leaves Jason Thistledown an orphan, stranded in his dead mother's cabin until the spring thaw shows him the true meaning of devastation—and the barest thread of hope.

At the edge of the utopian mill town of Eliada, Idaho, Doctor Andrew Waggoner faces a Klansman's noose and glimpses wonder in the twisting face of the patient known only as Mister Juke.

And deep in a mountain lake overlooking that town, something stirs, and thinks, in its way: Things are looking up.

Eutopia follows Jason and Andrew as together and alone, they delve into the secrets of Eliada—industrialist Garrison Harper's attempt to incubate a perfect community on the edge of the dark woods and mountains of northern Idaho. What they find reveals the true, terrible cost of perfection—the cruelty of the surgeon's knife—the folly of the cull—and a monstrous pact with beings that use perfection as a weapon, and faith as a trap.


Excerpt

Chapter One

Mister Juke

APRIL, 1911

Not ghosts.

Although their owners might have pretended otherwise, Dr. Andrew Waggoner knew it. The sheets that loitered and whistled and kicked at the mud on this dark hillside in northern Idaho tonight were not ghosts; nor were they devils, nor duppies, nor spectral things of any kind.

When Andrew was a good deal younger, his Uncle Elmer had told him: ghosts were what the Ku Klux Klan originally intended with those sheets they wore. They wanted to make the poor Negroes think they were beset by the implacable spirits of the dead, Devils straight up from Hell—and not merely small-souled white men with lynching on their minds.

Maybe on some other Negro, the evil light of the kerosene flame in the twilight would make a mix with all those flapping sheets, that eerie un-musical whistling noise they were making, and that would be enough. But Andrew Waggoner was not that kind of Negro and he knew.

These were not ghosts.

They'd got Andrew just outside the hospital—done the deed as the last of the sun fell toward the pine-toothed edge of the Selkirk Mountains, west of Eliada. If he'd been paying better heed, not been smoking and brooding and keeping to himself, Andrew might have seen who they were. He didn't think anyone would be caught wearing their mama's bedsheets that close to town.

It didn't really matter much, of course. The truth of his predicament was awful in its simplicity: five men in sheets. One Negro, tied and on his knees. How does something like that end well?

Andrew did not think of himself as a religious man, but as one of those sheets bent down in front of him, he thought about praying.

As matters resolved, however, he didn't have to pray or even make up his mind on the matter. If God was paying any attention at all, He spared Andrew the indignity of supplication by tossing down a bone.

"You are going to watch this, Dr. Nigger."

The man in the sheet spoke in a voice Andrew thought he might recognize.

"It is Waggoner," said Andrew. "Dr. Waggoner."

He said "doctor" slowly, because he wanted to make that part of his name especially clear right now. Andrew Waggoner was a doctor, trained by some of the finest surgeons at Paris Medical School, graduated with honours, Class of 1908; he had been a resident here at Eliada's hospital for nearly a year. He was not some hog-tied vagabond nigger that these men could feel right about killing.

"This isn't right, Robert," he said. "You got to know that."

The sheet rustled like it was in the wind. The two eyes peering out through holes in it narrowed. "You don't know names," said the sheet. "You don't know nothing."

Andrew let himself smile. He was right. Robert Vernon was the man behind that sheet and that gave him something to grasp.

"Robert," Andrew said, "you sweep floors at the hospital. You got a sister in Lewiston with a wedding coming up—it's Harriet, am I right? Harriet Ver—"

Andrew didn't get the last name of "Vernon"out, because at that moment the sheet drove its fist into his gut. He wished he could have stood up to it, but it was a vicious punch and it sent the air whooping out of his lungs and made him bend and fall hard on his behind.

For an instant, looking up at the sheet, he hated himself as much as the rest of them hated him. Getting on a first-name basis with white men in whiter sheets wasn't going to get him anything. He was going to die, die twitching at the end of a rope, and there was nothing he could do about it—and he had it coming, stupid weak nigger that he was.

It was only for an instant. As soon as he heard the whimpering, wheedling sounds coming from behind that sheet, he remembered how Vernon slouched and limped behind his broom and wouldn't meet a man's eye in the light of day. Andrew had a fine idea who the weak idiot was in this conversation. And it sure as hell was not the one with the medical degree from Paris.

"You don't know nothing! You don't know my family name you dirty goddamn nigger!" Vernon hollered.

A foot came out from beneath the sheet and caught him in the side. That hurt worse than the gut punch—it might have cracked a rib—but Andrew held on. He still had a chance. A slim one, but things were not as bad—not yet—as they were for poor little Maryanne Leonard.

#

It had been an awful day for the poor thing, started bad enough and ended up as bad as it could get. She was pregnant, with a child that no man in Eliada owned up to.

There was talk that she'd been raped by one of the bachelors who worked the mill, or maybe by one of the hill folk passing through. Maybe someone nearer.

Her brothers said they'd found her that morning in the privy, bent over herself as she squatted on the hole, just weeping and crying and cursing Jesus who she said had come one night and done this to her. There was blood coming out of her middle parts and they reported an awful smell coming up from the pit. So they brought her to the hospital on Sunday morning, hoping to find Dr. Bergstrom maybe. But when they got there, Dr. Andrew Waggoner, come to Eliada just five months ago from New York City, was the only doctor in the house.

He should have been more wary of the sick girl. Even in New York, a Negro doctor touching a white woman's privates would cause a problem. But in New York, it would never get that far because the doctors wouldn't be so scarce that there was any need for a Negro doctor in the hospital. That was what sent ambitious young Dr. Andrew Waggoner here to this little Idaho mill town of Eliada, improbably blessed with a decently equipped hospital where he might learn and develop his craft.

He should have stopped. But listening to the story they told him, and looking at the girl, he couldn't turn her away.

Doing so would mean leaving Maryanne Leonard in the care of her brothers, one of whom likely as not was complicit in giving the poor girl what Andrew was pretty sure was an outhouse abortion.

So Andrew smiled deferentially, told them: Bring her in. And he got ready to do what he could; which as it turned out was nothing much.

#

"Leave him," said another sheet. "He's got to be awake to see how he's going to die."

This sheet was taller, and wider too. Andrew did not know who this one was by his voice, and as he looked up at it he realized: he had been gone a spell. The boot had come again and again, in the ribs and in the back and the chest, and there had been a forest of pain, and it had hit in his head, and he must have fallen unconscious. Now he was back.

Through swollen lips, Andrew asked the new sheet: "Who are you? You the Grand Dragon or something?"

"Quiet," said the new sheet. He leaned in very close—so close that Andrew could smell his breath (not liquored, but ugly, soured as it was with coffee and seasoned with tobacco) and see the flesh around his eye (it was lined, used to squinting at sun, and tufted with a thick black eyebrow whose hairs poked out through the torn-out eye hole in the sheet) and feel the heat off him.

The stranger in the sheet stood up.

"You are one unlucky nigger," he said, aloud. "Yesterday, we might have just put the scare in you—run you from town. But after what you done to pretty little Maryanne . . ."

Andrew started to protest:

He hadn't done that thing to her abdomen. He hadn't done anything but try and give her some comfort with a shot of morphine; try and find the source of the bleeding and make it stop; look at that opening like a caesarean cut (if the blade that had made it were blunt, and handed to her baby who used it to cut itself out from the inside) and tried to clean it, cover it, stitch it. "Jesus done it to me!" she'd screamed, thrashing on the table in the hospital's operating theatre. "Jeee-Susss!" She said that again and again, even as the morphine took hold, even as the life went out of her.

Andrew had wanted to go out to the brothers after that, and ask: Any of you boys named Jesus?

"It wasn't me. She was gone," Andrew said. "She'd lost too much blood. Her womb was ripped. Somebody did it . . . but nobody could have—"

He stopped before the sheet's raised hand could come down in his face.

"You know," said the sheet, his voice low now, "that's the first true thing that came out of your nigger mouth since we brought you here. It wasn't you that did this to her. We do know that. We ain't fools."

"Then why—?"

The sheet looked over his shoulder, wagged his head. "Get him up. And bring out the freak."

Andrew almost screamed in pain as two of them hoisted him up to his knees. Two others walked around behind him, to the wagon. He tried to look but his head wouldn't quite turn the way it should, so he had to listen to the rustling of the tarpaulin, some grunting, and a sliding sound.

As he listened, he realized:

They're not taking out a picture book here. They've got someone else in there.

The person had been quiet when they'd hauled Andrew along, thrown him in the back—but Andrew didn't have a sense about how he'd have missed him even so.

Andrew turned his head just a little, and watched as he came into his view.

The sheets were hauling a tall man, thin as sticks. White or Negro, Andrew couldn't tell because he was not only tied like Andrew, but had a sack pulled down over his head. His legs moved strangely, like they'd been broken at the calf and had a joint added there. The high whistling noise that Andrew had thought was coming from the Klansmen got louder, and Andrew worked it out—it was not, had never been, coming from one of them. It was coming from under the sack.

"So what," said the sheet, "can you tell us about this fellow here?"

"Will it make a difference?"

"May it might."

The two others pushed the second captive to the ground in front of Andrew, while another brought the kerosene lamp closer. One of the men pulled the hood from him, while another held the lamp up.

Andrew squinted. There was something wrong with the light, or maybe his vision had been fouled by the blow to his head, or maybe he was just losing his sanity in the course of staring down his own death. The man's face didn't seem right. It had an odd bend to it at the forehead, and the mouth seemed too wide, and the eyes . . .

The eyes couldn't have been that black. They seemed like they were all pupil, no iris. Eyes didn't work that way.

That wasn't the end of the strangeness, though. The hair sprang like winter-dead branches from his scalp and he was true, boneyard white. If the Klansmen were looking for their ghost to frighten even an educated Negro, they'd hit near the mark with this one. Andrew had seen queer things in Paris—pictures of hunchbacks and feeble men and women; dwarfs and giants—even photographs of old John Merrick, the Elephant Man of London.

But there had been nothing quite like this face.

Andrew blinked, and looked again, and swallowed hard and painful as he looked.

It must have been the scrambling of his brains, because when he looked again, the face seemed to have changed.

It was suddenly very beautiful, fine-featured; the face of a pale-skinned girl, black hair floating above her head like she was underwater. Her lips were not wide, but puckered into a rosebud aperture, from which the lovely whistling music came. And he blinked again, and when his eyes opened, they pulled the captive away.

"Recognize him?" said Robert Vernon, who by now had pulled his own sheet aside. "You recognize him, nigger. You do. You brung him here. And he did that thing to Maryanne. Fuckin' rapist, and you brung him."

"I—I'm not seeing right," said Andrew. He felt as though he was spilling out of himself; he heard his voice hitch, in that weak, begging way. "You hit me on the head and I can't see right." And he added, hating himself: "I'm sorry."

"You're sorry," said Robert. "That's right, you're sorry."

"Tell us," said the tall man. "No point playing stupid. We know you been keeping this freak under guard. Robert found him a week ago."

Robert nodded. "In the quarantine,"he said. "Livin'like a king. The cause of all our woes an'livin'like a king."

"In quarantine," said Andrew.

The quarantine was a barn-board outbuilding almost as big as the hospital itself, that he had only visited once—the day he'd arrived and Dr. Bergstrom was showing him around the whole compound. He'd never been inside, because there'd never been any need.

"Nobody," Andrew said, "is in quarantine."

"Callin' me a liar, nigger?" said Robert.

Andrew swallowed and took a breath. If he kept himself just so, the pain wasn't too bad. He kept his breathing right, the fear could be pushed away. So he did and he did.

"Look," he said. "I'm telling you what I know. That quarantine's been empty since autumn."

"Before you were here," said Robert.

"Before I was here." Andrew said. "I'm sorry. I've never seen anybody in there. And I've surely never seen—that. You think he raped Maryanne? Or—cut her?"

The tall sheet made a throat-cutting motion to one of the others. "That's enough,"he said. "He doesn't recognize him either. Let's get on."

With that, the hood fell back over the head of the poor fellow and they hauled him back to the tree.

It was a maple, and over one thick branch that extended out and swooped down to nearly touch the ground, someone had slung two lengths of noose-tied rope.

The sheets went to work. Robert wrapped his arms around the man's legs and with a cracking sound from his own bad knees, lifted as another took the poor victim by his shoulders, and a third helped guide his neck to the noose while the last two held the other end of the rope where it crossed the tree branch. Andrew thought there would be more of a fight, but the fellow had an odd calm to him as the rope went over his head, and pushed down over the sack and around his neck. There was a stillness, a terrible quiet, as the men stood there, holding their captive aloft, delicate, like they might be thinking about the right and wrong of what they were doing.

It didn't last long, that moment.

Robert Vernon let go of the legs and the others let go of the arms, and the maple branch bent somewhat as the rope went tight. The two on the rope's other end hauled the rope over the branch, and the lynched man rose in the night.

Andrew didn't know when he'd started work on the rope around his wrists. But he knew as the poor man's legs twitched and shook and bent, and the keening whistling started up again—far louder this time, almost like a tiny scream—he'd managed to loosen a knot. Nothing dramatic—it was just looser, not untied, and there were other knots after this one before he'd be free. But although his fingers were numb and fat with his own blood, they were still a surgeon's, and they knew what to do. They would get those knots, because if they didn't—well, their doctor would end up on that rope. That was not how Dr. Andrew Waggoner was meant to leave this world. Even if he was slow to realize it, his fingers knew.

Luckily, the sheets seemed to have no idea.

Their victim raised high enough—maybe three feet off the ground—they tied off the rope, and came back to watch him die. Behind him, the cart-horse whinnied.

Andrew slipped the knot free. The second was not so tight, and he got that one going much more quickly. What was he going to do when he got them free? None of the men seemed to have guns, at least none outside their sheets. So he might just be able to run for it. Except he was cramped and sore and his rib felt like it could be broken. He could probably still outrun Robert Vernon with his bad knee. But the rest?

Andrew set his teeth. It was hard to think, with that whistling getting as loud as it was, so he just kept at work. How could that whistling be getting louder? The hanged man's airway should be about shut. The noises he could make should have changed, become more strangled and quieter.

The sheets were thinking the same thing. One of them had his hands over his ears, while their leader was shouting something else, something like an instruction. Two of them moved to obey—if, that is, they'd been told to grab the dying man's belt-loops and pull him down to break his neck. They grabbed tight, threw their own knees from under themselves and dangled.

The final knot slid undone and Andrew slid out of the ropes. He closed his eyes tight and gritted his teeth, blinked and pushed himself up. On hands and knees, he turned around, and with the fire in his rib making him want to weep, made for the wagon.

He didn't get far.

Andrew gasped, and his arms slipped from under him, and he thought: I've been shot. Then he found himself rolled over. He was looking into the face of Robert Vernon. The sheet was off him now, and he held a stick—no, a handle for an axe. Instinctively Andrew raised his hand to ward him off. The axe-handle hit him in the elbow with a sickening crack!, and he clutched it, as Robert Vernon raised his club again.

There was another crack!, and Robert stood there for what seemed like a long time, weapon raised. Then Robert fell backwards into the dirt. The axe-handle fell against Andrew's hip. The sky was empty but for early evening stars and a fat yellow moon rising on the horizon.

The high whistling continued, but Andrew thought it might have been joined by another sound: the barking of dogs, and the crack! crack! of gunfire.

That would be good, he thought, if it were true. Then his eyelids slid shut and he let himself rest a moment.

#

Andrew's eyelids flickered as someone bent close. Not a sheet. Not a ghost. It had dark little eyes, though, a face bent the wrong way. It puckered its wide mouth, and leaned forward. It breathed out an awful smell, like formaldehyde, and looked up, started, and moved fast off to the right. Andrew felt the scant weight of it on his chest only then, by its sudden absence.

Someone screamed not far off, and Andrew blinked twice before he just gave up and closed his eyes.

#

"Dr. Waggoner."

Andrew felt a sharp slap on his cheek, and another.

He coughed and blinked and opened his eyes.

This time the light of a kerosene lamp was nearer him, and there was someone else leaning in. Someone he recognized.

"Doctor," said Sam Green. "You hear me?"

"I hear you," said Andrew.

"Good. You know who I am?"

"Sure."

Sam Green was the boss of the Pinkerton crew. He and Andrew went back—to October, when they'd met at the train station in Bonner's Ferry some forty miles to the south of here.

Sam was wearing his bowler hat and what looked like his Sunday best. His normally ruddy face was crimson over the starched collar and tight-wound tie. Normally when he was on duty, Sam would wear something a bit more comfortable. But today was Sunday and unlike Andrew, he was a church-going man.

"That is good," said Sam. "You haven't been entirely addled by those bastards."

"Those—" Andrew tried to sit up but the pain in his back and ribs was too much. "Those bastards," he said slowly, "are Klansmen. They hanged a man."

Sam might have smiled under his thick moustache, or he might have grimaced. "They are piss-poor Klansmen if that is what they even are. Anyone can pull a sheet over their head."

Andrew coughed again, and winced. God, it hurt.

Green stood up. In his right hand, Andrew saw, he was casually dangling his still-smoking Smith and Wesson Russian revolver by the trigger guard.

"They hanged a man, Sam. They were going to do the same to me."

"And we shot and killed three of them," said Sam. "You stay put here a moment. Rest a spell."

As he turned and stepped away, Andrew chanced to lift his head to see what he could see.

Andrew counted three lanterns casting beams here and there among maybe a dozen men and who knew how many dogs working the base of the hanging tree.

Nearer by, Andrew saw the bodies. The nearest belonged to Robert Vernon. There were another two further upslope toward the hanging tree, collapsed on one another, their sheets flowered bloody. Sam stepped over them like they were fallen branches and joined the others.

"He ready to move?" Sam called.

Someone in the crowd answered, "He'll move. None too pleased about it though."

"Would you be?" asked Sam.

And with that, the crowd broke and two men hauled a stretcher out. On the stretcher was a figure bundled in dark cloth, and (Andrew thought) tied down. The stretcher tipped and twisted as the two men carrying it tried to manhandle it away. Andrew leaned his head back and shut his eyes.

They'd hanged a sick man and tried to hang a doctor, and earlier on they'd murdered a young girl and her baby.

Christ in Heaven, there was going to be hell to pay.

#

"Couple of things," said Andrew when Sam came back to him.

"You have gathered your thoughts?"

"Yes," said Andrew. "First. There's been a murder. Not that poor fellow just now hung, either. Another. Maryanne Leonard."

Sam Green raised his eyebrows. "The girl with child? I had been given to understand she died of . . . womanly troubles."

"She did," said Andrew. "But I examined her. I believe her troubles were brought on by an abortionist. An inexpert one."

Sam looked away at that, and Andrew let him be a moment. This was nothing for a good Catholic fellow to hear on a Sunday evening.

"You think," said Sam finally, "that these fellows were hanging you in part to keep you quiet on the subject?"

"The thought had crossed my mind. Yes."

Sam snorted, lowered his head to look at his feet, and said in a low voice: "Fucking animals."Then he looked up, met Andrew's eye. "Pardon my French."

"It is important that they not be allowed to take the body away. It will need to be examined for proof," said Andrew.

"I wouldn't worry about that," said Sam. "Dr. Bergstrom is back at the hospital now. He has not released anything to anyone."

"Bergstrom's back? When—"

"After supper," said Green. "We saw him at the hospital. These bastards left the place in a mess."

"So he sent you after us?"

Sam's moustache twitched. "So we found you,"he said. "That's what's important. And now you've told me about the murder you suspect. Anything else?"

"I think," said Andrew, "I'm going to need some help out of here."

"That so? Can't imagine why. You feel all your fingers and toes, Doc?"

"Yes, I feel them just fine. But I think my back is hurt and I can't get up right now. I think you'd better bring over that stretcher you used to carry off the body."

"Body?"

"Yes," said Andrew. "The hanged man. That other murder. I've got respect for the dead—but I'm going to need that stretcher more than him right now."

Now Sam was grinning. He knelt down and patted Andrew on his shoulder. "Nobody died here tonight," he said, "but some cowardly bastards. Old Mister Juke is fine as ever he was."

"Mister—Juke?"

So the hanged man had a name.

"You, now . . ." Sam sat down on the ground, propping his gun on his knee and looking off over Andrew's head. "You do look like you could use some help. But we got to get Mister Juke back to our own wagon. They'll come back with the stretcher when that's done."

"Sam," said Andrew, "don't go changing the subject. He was hanged. He can't be fine. He—"

"Hush," Sam said. "You are a smart Negro, Dr. Waggoner. I don't believe I have said so before, but I have a great respect for you in that regard. You managed to get yourself into doctoring school in Paris, France, and back out again with a medical degree. And now, you can set a bone and you can cut out a swelled-up appendix with your eyes closed I expect. But even you can't expect to know everything on Heaven and earth."

Andrew frowned and thought about that.

"Tell me something," he finally said. "Did you come up here looking for me, or were you here to get that Mister Juke back?"

"Oh, we're bringing you back," said Sam. "But like I said, boy: ‘There are more things in Heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' See now?" he said, winking again. "You ain't the only one read a book."

"How long," said Andrew, "has Mister Juke been in the quarantine? Why did nobody tell me? And just precisely what—who—is he?"

"No, no," said Sam. "You won't get that from me, old friend. Not more from me. You can ask Dr. Bergstrom when you get back. Not," he added, "that I am recommending it."

Sam Green leaned back. To show the conversation was done for now, he started to whistle.

Copyright © 2011 by David Nickle


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