From the author: “Shadow Man” is a reminder that I’m a crime writer trapped in a science fiction author’s career. It’s a little meditation on what might happen if the sordidness of some parts of the internet ever coincides with time travel. It originally ran in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and was reprinted in Pulp Literature.
by Matthew Hughes
For as long as he could remember, Damien Bonnespine knew somebody was there, watching him.
Not all the time. There were long spells between the moments when he would feel the shiver across his shoulders that made his neck hairs stand up. But eventually it would happen again and he'd know they were back. Then for the next few minutes he'd feel them watching him.
He couldn't see them, and he always thought of them as a crowd of shadow men -- no faces, no details, just vague silhouettes with shaded eyes turned his way. When he was little it had creeped him out, but nothing bad ever came of it. He didn't feel threatened, just watched.
When he was nine he told the mom. She gave him the same scared but careful look he already recognized, even back then, as a signal that some of the thoughts that slowly bubbled up to break at the surface of his mind were best kept unsaid. Thoughts about pain and how animals squirmed and yelped when things happened to them. How interesting it would be to know if people squirmed and yelped like that.
When Damien was fifteen, the mom found the cat trap and the stuff he kept in a box way back in the crawl space under the house. She took him to a doctor. There were machines and needles and stupid pictures he had to look at and talk about, but some of the doctor's other pictures were way cool -- dead people, and some who were not dead yet, but were opened up like the cats, showing slick red meat and yellowy bones.
One time, while he was looking at the pictures and talking about them, he felt the familiar chill across his shoulders and the tickle of hairs lifting. The doctor must have seen something in Damien's face because he said, "What are you thinking now?"
Damien told him. The man made notes on his pad and asked a lot more questions. "Were there voices? Do the voices want you to do things?"
Damien said there were no voices but he didn't think the doctor believed him. They made him take pills that filled his head with cold, silent noise. He couldn't think and sometimes when he tried to talk the words got lost for a while. He stopped going to school but the mom got him lessons from the school board to do at home and a computer that connected to a tutor. But one day he was so interested in a picture he had found on the Internet that he didn't hear her come in until she was looking over his shoulder. She took the machine away.
Now, at eighteen, Damien Bonnespine used the public library's computers to look at pictures. His interest had broadened and he read about interesting people: Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez, Frank Spisak. He was living in an abandoned butcher's shop near the cement plant. Some other kids slept in the rooms upstairs but they let Damien have the downstairs all to himself. He had stopped taking the pills and now his head was hot and busy again.
It was morning and Damien was thinking about the new girl who had come back to the squat with the others yesterday. She was only thirteen and her button nose and slanted, almond-shaped eyes reminded him of a cat. He was sitting on the old counter top, the wood scarred with cuts and scratches, letting his thoughts circle the girl when he felt the familiar shivery prickle.
He paid no attention, concentrated on the pictures in his head. Then he caught a flutter of motion to one side. He didn't turn toward it, just let his head drift a little in that direction until, from the corner of his eye, he saw the shadow man.
It was like seeing something on tv when thunderstorms screwed up the reception: a man shape, dark but without detail of features or clothing, speckled with dots that flickered and flashed. Damien turned his head an inch more and saw that the staticky man was not watching him now. He was bent over, poking at something where his waist would be.
The years of catching cats had made Damien very fast. He set himself, inhaled a long, deep breath -- then, as he let it out, he threw himself from the counter top and crossed the room with one long stride and a flying leap.
His outstretched hands sank into the dots and sparks and met cloth-covered flesh beneath. The man squawked and tried to pull free but Damien yanked the shadow man toward him while shooting his head forward like a striking snake so that his forehead connected hard where the watcher's face should be. He felt bone snap and heard a gargly yelp.
The man was not big but Damien was. He lifted the watcher off his feet and slammed him against the door of the long gone butcher's walk-in cooler, did it again and again until the body flopped loose in his grip.
He let it slide to the floor. It was still flickering and winking but that was the only movement. Damien reached into the static and felt around the waist where the man had been poking. He found a belt with a row of studs on it, traced his fingers along its length to a clasp. He undid the fastener and pulled the belt free.
Now his hand was encased in a blur of light and dark. Damien felt for the studs, pressed them singly and in combinations, but the effect didn't change. Then the belt gave a hiss that became a hum that grew louder before it abruptly stopped. The sparks and shadows disappeared and Damien could see his hand again. It was holding a strip of metallic fabric set with a panel of buttons. From the panel came a smell of fire and ozone.
Damien poked at the controls some more but the thing was dead. He turned his attention back to its owner and saw a small man with a sharp-featured face that put Damien in mind of a ferret. He had been pretty bald for someone so young but Damien could tell from the interesting angle of his neck that he wouldn't have to worry about getting any older.
The body was wearing a one-piece jumpsuit with a peculiar fastening system down the front. There were pockets but nothing interesting in them. Tied to one wrist by a looped cord was a small, flat oblong of metal about half the size of a cigarette pack.
Damien freed the object and examined it. He identified what looked to be a lens and next to it a pinpoint microphone. There were controls etched into the side and the upper surface. He touched them. At first nothing happened, then suddenly a screen appeared in the air, crowded with symbols and icons. There was writing, too, but Damien couldn't read it. It looked vaguely Chinese.
Damien reached out a finger to one of the icons. Dozens of thumbnail images flooded the scene, and when he touched one of the miniatures it expanded to fill the viewing space and the figures in it began to move.
Damien recognized the scene: the attic in Gacy's house. He'd seen a tv movie about it but they hadn't shown anything interesting. But now, as he watched, he understood. This wasn't a movie. This was real.
He found how to minimize the image and touched another of the main screen's icons. He watched, fascinated, for a few moments. That was Dahmer's kitchen. There he was at the stove, humming. Another selection and Damien was watching Bundy creeping into a darkened bedroom. Then a man he didn't recognize, in a city where the cars flew, and another in some place where the sky was red.
He ran through the entire menu, sampling, mentally marking the ones he wanted to come back to first. Until an image brought a sharp intake of breath: the cramped space beneath his mother's house, a figure lit by a flashlight kneeling in the back corner, putting on his heavy gloves to lift a spitting, struggling tabby out of the trap.
He watched his juvenile self, reliving the memory. Then he canceled the image and chose another: looking at the pictures in the doctor's office; then the time with the stray mongrel and the propane torch.
But there were pictures he didn't remember, couldn't have remembered. They showed a Damien grown into his twenties, into his thirties, showed him in places he'd never been, with people he hadn't met yet.
He turned his eyes from the screen and regarded the body slumped against the grimy wall. Damien had never known what people meant when they said they regretted things they'd done. Now he almost understood.
He wished he could talk to the man. They had had a lot in common. As he dragged him into the cooler, Damien felt that it had been -- he sought for the right word, then found it -- an unfortunate way to treat his first fan.
He turned back to the images of the future Damien, watched the way he did things, how he controlled the situations. He thought again about the girl with the cat's eyes and began to make some mental notes.
This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.