Urban Fantasy Mystery

Rw’n bwyta eich camweddau, ac yn eich rhyddhau o’r drwg hwn.”

For one brief moment, Thomas Skillruud entertained the possibility he was experiencing a stroke. Ischemic, he assumed, owing to sporadic family history. Aside from the general dyspepsia of an evening ill-spent at the A-OK Corral, he felt nothing that he could imagine to be a brain bleed, assuming one might at least feel something snap or pop before the cerebellum burst like a Mylar party balloon. Of course, Thomas’ doctorates were in the fine arts, and Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes comprised his entire knowledge of matters of the brain or brain matter, for that matter.

“Excuse me,” he called gently to a waitress in cowgirl drag. “Might I have a refill on my coffee?”

Annie Oakley nodded curtly.

“Hold up,” Thomas added. “I did just ask you for another cup of coffee, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, just gimme a moment, OK?” she sighed aggrievedly. As Thomas willed the young server toward the beverage station near the soft serve spigots, he spotted a more familiar face across the dining room, long and acned and nestled into a white hoodie above what appeared to be a rather overstimulated anime bunny.

Chad, Thomas registered. Chad Something -- a sophomore in his sparsely attended The Plebeian POV in the French Impressionist Era. A reasonably bright specimen, though in Thomas’ view, the quest for answers from Thomas Skillruud alone was a hallmark of intellectual acuity.

Thomas eyed the pair seated across from Just Chad. Parents, he initially concluded. As the sophomore assaulted a heaped platter of thighs and pie, the couple sipped soda and seemed simply to study Chad. Their placemats were pristine. Chad no doubt had selected this trough as the venue, and Mom and “Pop” simply possessed a finer palate.

But as Chad’s “mother” turned to scan the restaurant (sic), the professor could see she was at best merely a decade the boy’s senior. As the attractive millennial locked on the inquisitive middle-aged scholar, he abruptly refocused on his dogeared The Thefts of The Mona Lisa. He leapt as Buffalo Gal towered above, bearing a steaming pot.

“Coffee, right?” she deadpanned, glancing with an arched brow at the young woman Thomas had been ogling. “Figured you could use some decaf.”

Children are now tyrants, Aristophanes had lamented.


“Yeah, thought about coming over, but it didn’t look like you wanted to be bothered,” Chad Durning nodded as his colleagues gathered pads and taurine-laced beverages and filtered out of the tiered classroom.

“Visiting family?” Thomas inquired innocently. “Your companions looked a bit young to be your parents.”

“Oh, shit, no,” the sophomore snorted. “So you didn’t recognize--? No, man -- they’re just some people.”

“That much I surmised. I take it the, ah, the Corral was not to their liking. Neither seemed to consume so much as a crumb. You, on the other hand, appeared to enjoy your repast.” 

“Well, I dunno enjoy,” Chad considered. “To tell you the truth, the Wilmores are kinda like clients. They picked the place.”

“Wilmore. The Wilmore Cosmetic Surgery Center Wilmores?”

“I guess.”

Thomas blinked. “So this dinner was…transactional in nature?”

“If you mean I got paid, then yeah.”

“I’d think they could do better than to take you to a, well, a hillbilly buffet.”

“Oh, no – the food is part of the gig. They wanted their money’s worth.”

Thomas frowned. “Were these people paying you to…eat? Mr. Durning. Chad. Were these people paying you to…to do more than eat?”


“I believe it’s 40 SHADES of Grey, not ‘shadings,’” Saanvi Deshpande suggested, “and even so, what leads you to believe this young man is engaged in carnal enterprise?”

The Arts Department chairman did not euphemize lightly, and Skillruud frowned at the taunt. “Durning strongly implied he was being compensated to, well, eat. Copiously, it would seem. While his partners, clients, whatever, merely watched. At a chain buffet.”

“My,” Saanvi said, sipping her lavender oatmilk latte. “And you were trapped in this den of gastronomic fetishism for what reason?”

Apollo rejected my piece on Midwest primitivism, and, of course, you’re aware we lost the Richard Schmid exhibition to Loyola. I suppose I was eating my emotions, and Panera lacked the Neanderthal gratification I sought.”

“A purely gustatory gratification, then,” Prof. Deshpande deadpanned. “I’m sorry, Tom. You have heard of gastronomic voyeurism? ‘Broadcast eating,’ or meok-bang, has become wildly popular in South Korea – solo diners livestreaming meals for thousands of viewers, accepting donations to make a living. Single-person households purportedly account for a quarter of South Korea’s population, and even a virtual dinner with a stranger might help fill an emotional hole.”

“Why do I suspect you’re still double entendre-ing me?” Skillruud growled. “This was no ‘virtual’ meal, so whatever banging may have been involved, I seriously question it was meok-bang-ing.”

“My,” Saanvi breathed.

“Oh, please, just shut up.”


“Mr. Durning?”

Chad nudged a huge black muzzle back inside the door as he glanced at the small woman on the damp walk below. The young man descended the faux-“townhouse” steps as the muzzle owner thumped and growled behind him.

“Oh, yeah,” he finally nodded. “I had you for Multicultural Multimedia Arts last fall. Professor…?”

“Deshpande. I I won’t keep you. One of my faculty, Dr. Skillruud, has voiced a minor concern. He’s very pleased with your work. Dr. Skillruud simply wants to know that you are all right. In extracurricular terms.”

Chad dropped to the bottom step, now at the professor’s eye level. “Huh. That’s nice, I guess. You guys always take such a personal interest?”

Saanvi smiled. “Perhaps not ordinarily. Mr. Durning, I’m aware of the financial pressures of college. On occasion, a student is tempted to meet expenses through, well, dubious means. Prof. Skillruud said you were dining Tuesday evening with clients – in point of fact, a fairly prominent local couple. If you are facing economic hardship, I thought I might see how the University might assist you.”

“Just what the hell does Prof. Skillruud think I’m doing?”

“He found your dinner, ah, meeting unconventional, to say the least. For one thing, your ‘clients’ were not dining. Dr. Skillruud believes they were instead rather absorbed in your appetite. I hope you won’t find this a breach of personal privacy, but I perused the social media, and am aware of your skills. Bar Roma in Chicago, Big Mama’s Bar-B-Q in Belleville, Tonini’s Italian Market in Berwyn -- a pound of ham, salami, mortadella, capicola, and provolone?”

“A pound each, on a one-pound bun,” Chad grinned. “That one got me some Youtube sponsorships, that and the Carlinville Haystack Breakfast Challenge. I wanted to do the Great Steak Challenge at Shiraz, up in Bloomingdale, but you had to wash the 60-ounce steak down with wine, and they weren’t bending. I was going to take a stab at it next fall. Of course, I took a shot at the Nathan’s contest at Coney Island last summer, but those guys are hardcore.”

Saanvi shook her head. “Competitive eating. How do you do this and remain so, ah, svelte?”

Chad slapped his flat gut. “You gotta have elasticity – the big boys got nowhere for everything to go. I think I have superhuman metabolism – I got banned from the Chinese buffet back home in junior high, and I thought, shit, I could make some righteous tuition on YouTube.”

“Are the doctors Wilmore sponsors?”

He rose. “Nah. I got something better that makes use of my talents and helps people.”

“This is the crux of Dr. Skillruud’s concern. Have you heard, perhaps, of gastronomic voyeurism? The sensual pleasure of food, of observing that pleasure in others?”

Chad processed that, then howled. “Omigod. No. I mean, they’re like…old. Millennials. Shit, man – did he think I was like doing them? God. Tell him thanks, but not to worry. Wait.” He dug in his jeans, and extended a business card toward the professor. “There’s no sex, and I’m not doing any drugs. And I’ve got protection.”

“Reassuring,” Saanvi murmured.


“FEEL BETTER. EAT LESS. CLEAR YOUR TOXINS.” Skillruud studied the sans serif type. “Sounds like some sort of holistic homeopathic diet guru. Sounds like a scam,” Thomas grunted, sawing the tip from a chocolate croissant as Saanvi stirred turbinado into her green tea.

The Campus Coffee Commune was packed with faculty and vegans fueling for the day on tempeh sausage and cruelty-free scones and rigorous abstract debate, and Prof. Deshpande had selected an isolated two-top by the alley window.

“It does beg several questions,” Saanvi admitted. “Not the least of which concern Mr. Durning’s use of semantics. If this is a diet pitch, note that ‘feel better’ is the lead, followed by ‘eat less.’ Not eat better. As if, perhaps, eating less is merely a secondary benefit of his actual service. Which seems to involve ingesting outsized portions in front of clients. Purportedly to clear their ‘toxins.’

“Then, we consider his assurance that no sex is involved, and that he is drug-free. And ‘protection’? If sex is off the table, and he and his clients meet in a public venue, what need is there for self-preservation? You mentioned Chad uttering some odd statement at the cowboy buffet.”

“Ah, yes, nearly forgot,” Skillruud nodded. “It didn’t seem to belong to any of the Romance languages, or any Cyrillic/Slavic or Asian tongues, and then I recalled reading a monograph on the 18th Century agrarian painter Thomas Barker and attempting to follow up on his family’s artistic pedigree with a gallery owner from South Wales. He had some impossible Welsh name with too many vowels in the wrong places and I believe an apostrophe somewhere in the mess. Young Durning’s recitation reminded me of it.”

Saanvi grew contemplative. “You said Durning’s ‘recitation.’ Do you recall what he said, specifically?”

Skillruud shrugged. “At the time, I was convinced I was suffering an auditory illusion. But yes, I suppose recitation is the proper term – it had a rather melodramatic tone. Like some bit of business, though what business it might have been…”

“I might have an idea,” Saanvi said. “Have you read the news this morning, the funeral notices? A local physician died yesterday in the St. Mark’s Hospital ICU. One Max Wilmore. Mr. Durning’s recitation -- might it instead have been an incantation? It would explain what I sensed during our visit.”


“It’s not illegal,” Tori Wilmore declared, drawing Saanvi away from the “celebrants.” The Wilmores had been generous University donors, and Prof. Deshpandi had piggybacked on The President’s invitation to the celebration of life at the couple’s Beltway surgicenter.

“I cannot see how it could be,” Saanvi told the widow, staring up at a mural of an uplifted, lifted woman of a certain age. “Sin eating was an ancient funerary custom unique to Welsh culture, later incorporated into Christianity, and it persisted into the 19th century. A relative of the troubled deceased would bake a cake and place it on the corpse at sunset as if to absorb the decedent’s sins. This is a something of a new twist. Whatever drew you into such an odd ritual?”

The surviving Wilmore sighed. “Well, you’ll probably hear about it soon, anyway. The state attorney general’s investigating allegations against us – unnecessary procedures, billing overcharges, ah, maybe some insurance fraud. We’ve been on the bubble since COVID and the economic dip, and as the state dug in, Max grew depressive and consumed with guilt. He wouldn’t see a therapist – someone in the local community he didn’t trust to keep a confidence. Then one of your grad students came in for some cool-sculpting, and told me about his unique ‘therapy,’ and I thought, what could hurt? Even if it had only a placebo effect, maybe it could draw Max out of his funk.

“I figured Chad had to be running a game, and I felt a little creeped out when he began to chant about consuming our trespasses and relieving us of evil. No pun intended, but Max seemed to eat it up. And you know what, after Chad quit gorging, we actually felt, well, relieved. Unburdened. I can’t explain it.”

Saanvi looked back to the blissfully enhanced creature above the reception counter. “I suspect I can.”


Thomas raised a fist for the fifth time, and finally rapped on the red door. “Son? Chadwick?”

The man from University Manor Townhomes frowned as something bumped and rustled inside. “Probably the fu--, um, the therapy animal. We have some pretty strict rules about size, but your kid had a note from a shrink, and threatened us with an Americans With Disabilities Act complaint.”

“Sensitive child,” Thomas explained. “Could you, please? His mother and I are worried half to death.”

The rental agent sighed and jammed a dupe key into the deadbolt lock. Saanvi had urged Thomas to forestall any confrontation until she had liaised with the Widow Wilmore, but his colleague’s theory had been so tantalizing.

“If you could just wait out here?” Thomas implored. “I don’t want to embarrass the boy if this is simply one of his pensive episodes.”

“Mm,” the agent murmured, already poking at his iPhone. The professor nodded graciously, and slipped inside.

Thomas’ delicate nostrils were assaulted by what he could only describe – or more accurately, imagine -- as eau de livestock barn. The arts aficionado Marco Polo-ed the scent through a corridor opening into a sparse, Target-furnished living room replete with gaming paraphernalia and a titanic flat screen and a kitchenette piled high with doggie boxes, pizza flats, and depleted Ziploc bags, toward a closed bedroom door. He jumped as the door reverberated with a sharp thump and a plaintive, inhuman cry.

“Hello?” Prof. Skillruud quavered inanely. “Mr. Durning? Chad? Are you all right? I’m, ah, I guess I’m coming in.”

Thomas’ plantar fasciitis and what he denied as gout rendered forced entry a perilous proposition. The musky, organic funk grew stronger as he grasped the tarnished brass knob and twisted. As the lock disengaged, Chad or whoever, whatever, snuffled and rumbled.

The door swung inward and he was greeted by the room’s inhabitant. Pan and Cthulhu appeared to merge in the huge black creature, which stared at him with soulless cephalopodan eyes as its thick, furred haunches tightened. Thomas was frozen on the threadbare hallway carpet as the beast considered whether to feast on or simply disembowel the Midwest’s shortlist premier authority on the Impressionist School.

“Maaaaaaaaaaaaa!!” the bloated creature bellowed before plopping back on its fat matted ass.

“The fuck is that?” the UMT site manager squeaked behind Thomas’ shoulder.


“I saw it in the eyes, but at the time, I didn’t know what to make of it,” Saanvi suggested, as her rattled vice chair held an umbrella over her head. At the non-collegial urgings of the Millington PD, Millington Animal Control had subdued Chad’s “familiar,” as Dr. Skillruud had dubbed it in an effort to cloak his deception and trespass in faux-mysticism.

“When Mr. Durning nudged what I had assumed to be his Baskervillean hound back into the apartment, I caught the merest glance at one of what you called its ‘Lovecraftian’ eyes. You have never really experienced agrarian culture, have you?”

“I taught that unit on husbandry motifs in the Hague School. Gerald Bilders’ Cows at a Pond evokes a particularly anthropomorphic perspective on—”

“Thank you. In the summers, my father would send my brothers and I to visit his uncle in the Palakkad district. He was a herder, and supplied local and regional markets. I became quite familiar – almost familial – with his Attappadi Blacks. Poor milkers but highly resistant to disease, and like all the caprine and uvine species, it shares with octopi and toads rectangular pupils that provide a nearly panoramic view.”

Thomas blinked away a rivulet of precipitation. “How in the world did Durning ever get that thing certified as a therapy animal?”

“No doubt one of his clients. Even mental health professionals dabble in unconventional practices from time-to-time. And in a manner, Chad’s claim was not entirely fraudulent. Goats can spur the release of endorphins and oxytocin, which reduces stress and stimulates socialization. Goat therapy has proven invaluable for seniors with dementia, those on the autistic spectrum, depression patients, and even in prison rehabilitation. I once experimented with goat yoga, and it was like a reunion with old friends.”

“I felt no sense of camaraderie,” Prof. Skillruud said stiffly.

“Mr. Durning’s companion provided a far different form of therapy. The young man already has conceded to Det. Mead that his ‘service’ is a sham, that neurotic and psychologically burdened millennials appear to be ‘suckers’ for fringe treatments that sidestep the need for lifestyle change or ethical contemplation. But even a cynical opportunist can harbor doubts and superstition. Mr. Durning assured you he had ‘protection’ against the risks of his enterprise. He’d perform his gastronomic ritual, then slip some mood enhancer like serotonin or benzodiazapine into the client’s water or coffee to temporarily lift their guilt or anxiety. Unfortunately, knowing nothing about the client’s potential drug sensitivities. The city prosecutor is considering a felony homicide charge in Mr. Wilmore’s death.

“Chad was a huckster, certainly. But there remained that doubt. Consuming such excessive quantities, playing with occult practices, toying with the ‘sins’ of others, likely fueled his own anxieties. So Chad sought a way to offload any psychic guilt that might have seeped in with the fats and carbohydrates. You saw the discarded take-home containers, the remains of several ritual meals. The tragic condition of this unwitting creature. The only three-way here the ostensible transfer of psychic toxins.”

“Idiot,” Thomas muttered, shaking his gray mop like a Labrador. The townhouse door opened and the animal control team wrestled an obese, snorting, coal-black ram of an unnaturally equine scale down the concrete steps.

“Incidentally,” Saanvi murmured innocently, “Mr. Durning asked Det. Mead to tell you that after he makes bail, he’d like to take you to lunch. No hard feelings, I assume.”

May 12, 2024 04:39

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Helen A Smith
12:02 May 19, 2024

Highly entertaining and seems a product (excuse the pun) of the wackiness of modern life. This is certainly an absorbing story. Hilarious characters - how do you come up with them? Or shouldn’t I ask? The Campus Coffee Commune - says it all! Goat therapy may have its uses, but what about getting a dog or cat?


Martin Ross
13:20 May 19, 2024

Thanks for reading, and for the kind thoughts! I have a community friend, Archana, a brilliant graphic arts prof at the local college, who is as cool, calm, and wryly witty as Saanvi. I thought it would be fun to make her the art department head and have her solve a mystery involving each of her colleagues. I think I listed seven in the original Deshpande story, and I may go with a seven deadly sins thing (I counted, and I have wrath, envy, and, da, gluttony in the bag). Young Durning’s curious enterprise is a mix of an old Rod Serling’s Ni...


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Martin Ross
13:21 May 19, 2024

Oh, and I didn’t have the heart to have Durning offload his sins into a labradoodle. Plus, I’m enthralled by those creepy goat eyes, brrrr…


Helen A Smith
19:57 May 19, 2024



Martin Ross
20:53 May 19, 2024



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21:46 May 18, 2024

Fascinating story, Martin. Never sure what Chad was really up to. It wasn't ever what others thought. Until they went into his apartment. Freaked out with that . . . turned out to be a ram!!! Creepy. Hooked me, until the end.


Martin Ross
01:37 May 19, 2024

Thanks! Goats are kinda lovable and very creepy at the same time.🤣


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Jim LaFleur
16:14 May 15, 2024

Martin, your storytelling continues to be as captivating as ever! The fusion of mystery and urban fantasy is incredibly absorbing. Eagerly anticipating your next story! 😊📚


Martin Ross
17:41 May 15, 2024

Thanks so much for reading and for the kindness. I dealt with the cable TV guys today, so I welcomed the affirmation ;).


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Mary Bendickson
05:57 May 13, 2024

A remake from a previous prompt?


Martin Ross
19:09 May 13, 2024

I was so grateful the new prompt worked. I hadn’t finished the previous version when I posted it to make deadline, and there wasn’t time then to trim 1400 wds. The “book” version is much better, but I hate to just flush a Reedsy story. I want to do a Saanvi story featuring each of her Arts Department faculty.


Mary Bendickson
20:03 May 13, 2024

One must do what one must do to make it work. Your work always enjoyable.


Martin Ross
20:15 May 13, 2024



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