Publication date: August 31st, 2021 Links:  Amazon  |  Goodreads In a quest to set himself right with the universe, Marcel travels cross-cou...

Feature Fiction || The Chapel St. Perilous by Michael Rands

Publication date: August 31st, 2021

In a quest to set himself right with the universe, Marcel travels cross-country, finding himself in a small town in Alabama, rife with political tension surrounding a mysterious cult and a sheriff's election that may very well decide the fate of the country. Marcel struggles to uncover the secrets of the cult, the town, and the world itself—all while facing criminal charges for a murder he can't remember committing.

Part Southern Gothic, part metaphysical noir, with a touch of magic realism and a dash of dark comedy, the Chapel St. Perilous dares the reader to take a chance with fate.

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    Chapter 1

I don’t remember coming home. I recall the morning clearly, but the rest of the day comprises flashes, and then a long darkness that starts around midday. When I woke this morning to the sound of heavy knocking on the door, I was completely naked. 

Antoinette and I had not been lovers. She was my housemate, or more accurately, my landlady. The tension had been there from the outset. Good sense had prevailed for the first few weeks, but a pair of clowns can only walk along a tightrope for so long. And as I lay in bed, listening to the sound of beating fists on the front door, I assumed that in a state of blackout drunkenness we’d crossed the great divide. 

I pulled on my pants, put on a t-shirt, and looked out the window onto the small street next to our house to see two, three, four police cars. Even though everything else in Chickasaw is old, the police cars are brand-new. I washed my hands, splashed my face, went down the stairs, and opened the door. Two large male officers stood there. 

“Marcel Swart?”

“Uh… yes, sir.”

They’d found Antoinette’s car, they said, down by the swamp, and clothes, or pieces of clothes, and blood. 

“Do we have your permission to search the house?”

They moved into the doorway with such authority I felt incapable of resistance. I stepped aside, mumbled yes, certainly, come in. 

With gloved hands they invaded every corner of the kitchen. As I watched them rifle through drawers, I kept wondering if I should stop them, demand they leave. But I was a tenant, after all, and my only thought at the time was—do not get yourself into any trouble; make them believe you’re a good person, then they will like you, and they won’t harm you. 

Upstairs a young officer dug through my underwear drawer. He found a packet of unopened condoms, held it up, turned it about—to make sure, I assume, that none had been used. If you’ve ever been singled out for a bag search at customs you know what it feels like to suddenly doubt everything about yourself, to wonder, if just for a second, Am I carrying drugs? 

Only here the fear ran deeper. There was something in my drawers, something beneath my bed, or in the bags I had not yet fully unpacked, that marked me not as a drug user, but as a murderer. There was something about a murderer’s socks, or his underwear, or the stain on his shirt pocket, invisible to most, but to the trained eye as clear as surveillance tape footage and a signed confession.

“Would you be willing to come to the station, to talk to us?” the young officer asked me. He looked to be in his early thirties, neatly shaven, hair trimmed. I could see beneath his jacket he had the kind of body that comes only through daily workouts, through a disciplined lifestyle. “Sir?” 

“Umm. Why do you want me to come down to the station?”

“Like to ask you a few questions. You’d drive yourself down there.”

I agreed  

I wished I’d asked for time to shower, eat breakfast, change into something that made me look less destitute. As I brushed my teeth I noticed all our toiletries had been unpacked, left lying on the bathroom counter, and spread across the table next to the window. 

A Northern Cardinal landed on the branch just a few feet from me, separated only by a thin pane of glass. I wished to be that bright red bird. Then I remembered for the first time since I’d woken that morning—I am a wealthy man. I have money. But the thought brought me no comfort as I walked down the stairs, into the living room, out the front door. 

It was cool outside, the road damp. It must have rained the night before. Droplets lined the dark windows of my 1970 Ford Torino. The leather seats were cold this morning, and as I started the engine, that awful smell of burnt flesh filled the car. He was warning me of danger; I hadn’t heard from him like this in a while. My chest tightened; my arms and fingers were cold. 

I followed the police cars down Grant Street, past the public swimming pool, the library, the white, wooden Episcopal church, the park, the rows of wooden houses, some well-kept, others falling into ruin, past the old trucks parked on the lawns, past the cats, always the cats, everywhere, and the park, and the trees that reach across the street, leaves touching in the middle. There was a sign: Re-elect Sheriff Jones. Directly across the road, in front of one of the better preserved houses in the neighborhood, stood a campaign poster for his rival: Jefferson Lee III, whose eyes stared out from beneath his black hat and clawed into my soul. The smell of burning flesh was so strong I almost retched. 

I followed the cops right onto Route 43 and up to the humble station, faded redbrick, like an old schoolhouse, better suited to this time-forgotten neighborhood than the shiny cars now parked in front of it. 

Inside the station I was asked to sit on a wooden bench. 

“Do you want a coke?” Sergeant Alexis, the younger officer, asked me. 

“Sure.” I tapped my pockets to show I was up for it. 

“Don’t worry.” 

He paid close attention to how I pulled back the tab, my hand trembling slightly. I looked into his light blue eyes, smiled. 

The interview room was tiny, more like a cubicle. A single surveillance camera in the top right-hand corner peered down at me. When the door opened, a different, older man—with gray hair, a gray goatee, a silver cross around his neck, podgy in the way men over sixty often are—came into the room, I saw the road that lay between me and the needle. Alabama’s black soil would be my rest.  

“Detective Drew Franklin,” the older man said, as he sat down. “You’ve met Detective Alexis.”

“Yes, sir.” 

“You don’t come from ‘round here,” Franklin said.

He had a deep Alabama accent, and there was something awful about the man’s eyes, as if they’d been whisked up from hell, burned by the fires. 

“No, sir.” 

I didn’t feel obliged to give him more than that.  

He put his fist beneath his chin. 

“You live with Antoinette Dubois?”

“I do. She’s my housemate. Landlady.” 

I took a sip of coke and watched his eyes as they watched my hands. 

“Just a landlady?”

“How do you mean?” I took another sip. Something shifted in both of them, like dogs who smell fear. 

“Did you two ever get intimate?” Alexis asked me.

“Did you have sex with Antoinette Dubois?” Franklin leaned in closer.

I saw my fingers as these two men saw them, fumbling, playing with themselves, fidgeting. 

“We wanted to be together… sometimes…” I stammered. I heard myself as they heard me, a guilty man, caught in his lies. 

“You wanted to be with her?” Alexis asked. 

Then Franklin: “But she didn’t want to be with you.”

“It drove you crazy.”

“No, no, no.” I tapped the desk with my knuckles, a sudden rush of anger fueling me. “You don’t know anything.”

“Then tell us.”

“Educate us.”

“You don’t even know that she was… that she is dead.”

“Nobody said she was dead.”

“You’re treating it like a murder. You’re treating me…”

“We’re treatin’ you like what?”  

“Nothing.” I looked down. 

“Her car,” Franklin continued, “was found down by the Chickasaw creek. Blood. Pieces of torn clothing. Her panties were found in the car. All been sent to the crime lab. Soon, we’ll have DNA. We’ll know everything we need to know. But by then it’s gonna be too late. So you got somethin’ to tell us, tell us now. Then we can help you.”

“I would never.” I partially crushed the coke can. “I could not do, whatever you’re thinking. You haven’t found a body.”

“Are you concerned about us finding that body?” the younger man asked.  

“Does that worry you, son?”

“No, it doesn’t worry me.”

“You don’t care if she’s alive or dead?”

“Of course I care. I hope you find her alive.” I looked up from the can, stared into the older eyes, the younger eyes, back. I could not outstare them; I looked down. 

“Would you be willing to submit to a DNA sample?” Alexis asked. 

“Yes, I would. I want to help you.”

“Good,” Alexis said. 

He exited, leaving Franklin and me alone. The older man wrapped his right hand around his clenched, left fist, and squeezed.

“If Antoinette Dubois is alive, we want to find her. And we need to find her soon. If she’s dead, we gotta find the son of a bitch that done this.”

“Yes, sir. I want to help you.”

“What kind of animal does somethin’ like this? Murder a young woman, and throw away her body like a piece a trash?”

“Why do you keep talking about her body, like it’s already been found?”

He twisted the thick gold ring on his finger, moved it up and down. 

“Clock’s tickin’.” He placed his hand on my wrist. “If she’s alive, we need to find her now. Sometimes these sickos hold onto their victims for a while. Or, she may just have had an altercation, but managed to escape. If you know somethin’, you need to talk.” He pointed his finger at the space between my eyes, leaning so close to me I could feel his breath. “What you not tellin’ us?”

“There’s nothing… sir.” I felt the back of my head shake. 

“You know what’s going on here at the moment?”


“Sheriff’s election one week today. I know I shouldn’t be talkin’ about this. But the stakes are too high. The soul of our town’s at stake.”

“I understand, sir.”

“And you know the politics here, what’s going on here now, extends way beyond this little town.”

“Yes, I know, sir.” 

“You part of that cult, son?”

“It’s not a cult.”

He grabbed my wrist and slammed my arm against the table.

“Goddammit. You know Maggie?”

“Never met her.”

“You know what these folk think of her, don’t you?”

I looked up at the camera. What kind of game was this old man playing? Was he trying to create a faux-intimacy with me, to trick me into giving him what he wanted to hear? Or was he really on the side of re-electing Sheriff Jones? 

“They can’t hear us.” He glanced up at the camera. “They can only see. Now you need to speak and you need to speak quick before my partner gets back in here. I’m the only pro-Jones man in this building. You understand?”

“I hear you, sir. But what do you want me to tell you?”

“You know how they gonna make this look. Media gonna be all over this, like flies ‘round shit. They gonna say you done this ‘cuz you part of that cult. You know how things work round here, huh? Folks don’t take kindly to nothin’ that smells like… voodoo or black magic.”

“I didn’t come here to be a part of that…” 

“What else would some outta towner like yourself be doin’ here?” He stared at me for a long time, and I did my best to hold his gaze, certain now that this was all an act. He was no more for Jones than was anyone else in this building. He wanted to drive Maggie and all her followers out of town. “Well, did you do it?”

“Did I do what?”

“Kill her?” My hand shook as I reached for the coke can we both knew was empty. “If you killed her you need to tell me, so we can protect Maggie. And cut you a deal.”

“I didn’t…” My voice trembled.

“You looking at the needle, son. If you fess up, we can save you from that.”

“I didn’t do it.”

Alexis reentered. He wore blue plastic gloves and held a long cotton-tipped swab, which he inserted into my mouth. The tip brushed against the soft wall. 

“You drinkin’ last night?” Franklin asked as Alexis left the room. 

Telling the detective I couldn’t remember what had happened since sometime around midday would be as good as signing my own death warrant. I knew I had to start talking, but the longer I waited the colder my mind grew. I had to invent. If I’d woken up at home, in my bed, then I must have been at home in the evening. And we may very well have done what we often did.

“We drank in the lounge. After dinner. That was common.”

“You drank in the lounge?”

“Talking; listening to music. That was very normal for us. That was how I, how we, often spent our evenings.”

“How much you drink?”

The back of my neck tingled hot; spots of sweat pierced the skin. 

“A few glasses.”

“And then?”

“We finished up. We went to bed.” 

“You went to your bed, and she went to her bed?” 

“We didn’t have that kind of relationship, sir. We were friends.”

“It ain’t no crime sleepin’ with your landlady. ‘Specially not if she’s young, and you’s young. I don’t see no ring on your finger.” 

I held up my hand to show him he was correct.

“Means you were sleeping with her?”

“No, sir. I didn’t say that.”

“Mr. Swart, last night, you and Antoinette Dubois, by your own admission, were alone in the house you shared, drinkin’ into the night. Next mornin’ she’s missin’, and her car’s found down at the Chickasaw Creek, bloodstained clothes. You understand how this looks, son?”

“Of course I understand, how it looks. But I didn’t do anything wrong.”

I looked up at the camera in the corner and pictured the other room full of cops, watching me, trying to decide if I sat like a killer, drank coke like a killer, spoke, breathed, moved like a killer.  

“I’m the most senior detective in this station. If I tell ‘em I want time alone with you, cameras off, you better know they gonna listen.” 

I looked up at the ceiling. Closing my eyes, I tried to recall the events of yesterday, but the last images I could access were on Maggie’s island. 

“You want me to turn off the cameras? We can talk alone, if you got something to say.”

He dragged his chair across the room, climbed onto it, and fiddled with the wires at the back of the video camera. For all I knew, this was just another trick, another attempt at creating intimacy. But as his hand rested on my shoulder, I felt genuine comfort for the first time since I’d woken up that morning. Sitting opposite me again, he asked: “Cigarette?” He took a pack from his pocket and held it toward me. He had thick fingers. 

“I wouldn’t mind one, thank you.” 

“I love these things.” He lit one and handed it to me; lit his own. “I don’t care what they say. I’ll go to an early grave a happy man ‘fore I give these up.”

I wanted to say something clever, but nothing came to mind. 

“Maybe you want to back up a little bit. Tell me about yourself. How you come to be in this part of the world?”

“How far back do you want me to go, sir?”

He took a drag of his cigarette, resting his elbows up on the table. 

“I want to help that girl. I want to find her. You want to find her too, don’t you?” He pointed at me with his cigarette finger.

“Of course. I haven’t lied to you.”

“I ain’t here to call you no liar. But if you won’t tell me what happened last night, then maybe you can tell me what happened to bring you to this little town of Chickasaw. Outsiders like you, they come here for one reason.” He raised his index finger. “And that reason is Maggie. And anyone who comes to be with Maggie, well, they had something go wrong in their life.”

“Ha.” I laughed involuntarily, put my cigarette on the edge of the table, wiped my sweaty hands on my pants. “That’s a bit presumptuous, isn’t it?”

“Tell me I’m wrong.”

I sat back, crossing my arms over my chest. 

“How do I know that camera’s not filming us? How do I know you really side with Sheriff Jones?”

“We can go someplace else, where there ain’t a camera. We can take a drive, if you like. My colleagues here, they know I got some… how d’ya say? Unconventional methods.”

I didn’t know what to make of that. Had he just confessed to me that this was all an act, a way of getting me to drop my guard?

“I’m the only Jones man in this station. I want to keep Chickasaw unique. I know some folk say Maggie does weird things, but she does good work. She helped me.” From his wallet he took out a lottery ticket, which he placed on the table in front of me. “Won a hundred fifty thousand dollars on this one.” 

“Things went bad for you after that?” 

“Didn’t understand why.”

“And she helped you?”

He nodded slowly, pursing his lips into an inverted smile. 

“How much time you got?” I asked him.

“As I told you, son, time is tight. But you our best hope at this moment of figuring out what’s going on. Now, I know I was pushin’ you earlier. That’s my job. But I trust my gut. And my gut says you ain’t harmed that girl.” He took my arm and held it tight. “But I’m the only one on your side. And I tell you for certain, I’m the only one who want to help keep Maggie safe. That election’s in one week.” He got up and walked to the door. “Come on. I’ll tell ‘em we’re takin’ a ride, just you and me.”

“Okay. Let’s go.” 

“1970 Ford Torino,” he said, running his hand over my car. “A true classic.”

“Sure is.” 

“But we gonna take a ride in my car,” Franklin said, pointing at an unmarked black truck. “We can smoke in here. We’ll take a drive down to the water, to where they found her car this mornin’.”

“Sounds good to me.” 

We pulled out onto Route 43.  

I took a deep drag on my cigarette and looked out the window at a white house rotting in the ground, a dog chained to a tree, barking at us as we went by. Calm settled over me as I exhaled. I was an innocent man, and soon enough I’d be able to prove it.

Michael Rands is the author of the satirical, dark comedy, Praise Routine Number Four, co-author of the economic satire The Yamaguchi Manuscripts, and Kamikaze Economics (a story of modern Japan). He’s co-author of the humorous dictionary Stay Away from Mthatha. He co-created the audio drama The Crystal Set, and is one of the hosts on the podcast Detours Ahead. In South Africa he worked in television as a writer, director and producer. He taught English in Japan. He holds an MFA from Louisiana State University, and currently teaches English and Creative Writing at the college level. He lives with his wife and toddler in Alabama, not too far from a bayou. The Chapel St. Perilous is his second published novel.