The Mark of the Butterfly Historical Mystery Short Fiction By Marlin Bressi

The Mark of the Butterfly: Historical Mystery Short Fiction By Marlin Bressi

Marlin Bressi, author The Mark of the Butterfly, has written several historical nonfiction books, such as Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America’s Most Colorful Hermits (Sunbury Press, 2015) and Pennsylvania Oddities (Sunbury Press, 2018).

His fiction has appeared in Suspense Magazine, Capsule Stories, Black Petals Magazine, Gallery of Curiosities, and several other horror, suspense and science fiction publications.

*****

Sebring, his pink face made even more so by the sun, shook his head so fiercely that the waiter feared he was choking. The waiter made a beeline across the cafe toward the man with the white beard, ignoring a table of thirsty tourists who had been trying to get his attention. The tourists, obviously American, grumbled their displeasure, but the waiter wasn’t about to allow a celebrity– the first one to visit Del Sol since Ambrose Bierce had passed through a year earlier– die on his watch.

“For the last time, I came to Michoacán for relaxation,” Sebring growled from behind a face that hadn’t seen a shave since leaving San Francisco three months earlier. Across from Sebring sat a beanpole of a man with a dark complexion. “I certainly didn’t come here to write a story.”

“Is everything alright, Señor Sebring?” asked the waiter, who was three strides away from the table when he realized his customer wasn’t choking after all. The agitated journalist upturned his large, leonine head and stared at the waiter.

“Can you believe it, Pedro?” asked Sebring. “I come to Mexico for a well-deserved vacation, and this crazy mook wants me to go to Zamora to have a look at a man-eating tree!” Sebring turned a mocking eye toward the skinny man who had been pestering him. “Even if the legend is true, it’s not up my alley,” declared Sebring with a defiant shake of his head. “I’m a war correspondent, not a yarn teller. You don’t need Walter Sebring, my friend. You need Ambrose Bierce.”

The joke fell flat; everyone within earshot looked down at the ground uneasily. Bierce, the famed writer, had disappeared somewhere in Mexico six months earlier, his whereabouts unknown since December of 1913. The last person to hear from him was a Californian journalist named Blanche Partington, who claimed to have received a letter from Bierce shortly after Christmas, in which the author stated that he was leaving for an unknown destination.

“I come to Mexico for a well-deserved vacation, and this crazy mook wants me to go to Zamora to have a look at a man-eating tree!”

Like many journalists, Sebring was highly skeptical of Partington’s claim; it was murmured in literary circles that Blanche and Ambrose had been lovers, and Sebring wasn’t the only newspaperman who viewed Miss Partington as a publicity-seeking opportunist whose mattress was all too frequently kept warm by visiting writers. He had kept her mattress warm on a couple of occasions himself.

Later that evening, inside his room at a hotel along the beach, Sebring finished his dinner and called down to the lobby for a bottle of mezcal. He had recently developed a fondness for tequila’s lesser-known cousin. The local varietal, made from a species of wild agave that grows only in the state of Michoacán, has a subtle smoky flavor that lingers pleasantly on the tongue like remembrances of young love. If tequila was an obnoxious burlesque chorus girl dancing beneath ten pounds of face paint, thought Sebring, then Michoacán mezcal was the sequined songbird who cooed love songs while perched seductively atop a piano.

“Where’s the worm?” asked Sebring when the mezcal arrived, holding the bottle up to the lamp for inspection. “Ah, there it is,” beamed Sebring. This was something of an inside joke between Sebring and the young bellhop, who had informed his guest that mezcal bottled con gusano— with worm– was for the sweaty American tourists. Worms, the bellhop had pointed out, were only added to inferior quality mezcal as a marketing gimmick designed to appeal to culturally ignorant Americans. Sebring, who also detested culturally ignorant American tourists– primarily out of fear of being mistaken for one– was so charmed by the bellhop’s courtesy that he tipped him fifty centavos for this piece of information. Mezcal had been his drink of choice ever since, even though the hotel only sold cheap mezcal con gusano.

As the bellhop pocketed his tip and turned to leave, Sebring called for him to stop.

“Say, young man, you seem to have a good eye for the local color, haven’t you?” asked Sebring.

“Why shouldn’t I?” replied the bellhop with a laugh. “I have lived my entire life in the village. Never once have I set foot outside of the state of Michoacán.”

Sebring asked the bellhop if he had ever been to the city of Zamora. The youth nodded and replied that, yes, he had been to the city many times. He told Sebring about the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Zamora Theatre, and other sites of general interest.

“I haven’t been to the city since it was taken over by Madero loyalists,” the bellhop said with a sigh. “Ever since the fall of Zamora it has become a den of evil. A haven for thieves and murderers. But, just between you and me, Zamora has always been something of an unsavory place, to tell you the truth.”

As a war correspondent, Sebring had vivid recollections of the siege of the city in 1911. It was one of the earliest victories for the Madero loyalists; Pancho Villa, the great Revolutionary general, didn’t have much of a battle on his hands– the Zamorans gave up with little resistance. Sebring once again found himself thinking about Ambrose Bierce, who had made the fateful decision to travel to Mexico and join Pancho Villa’s army as an observer. While some claimed that Bierce had died in the northern city of Chihuahua, others said that he had been executed by a firing squad in the village cemetery in Sierra Mojada. But the mysterious fate of Ambrose Bierce was not of any particular interest to Walter Sebring.

“Are you familiar with the legend of the man-eating tree?” asked Sebring. “They say that it can still be found at a ranch near Zamora.”

“Si, señor,” nodded the bellhop. “The tree you are referring to is the arbol maldito, but it is not in Zamora proper. It is on a ranch, yes, but the ranch is closer to Tancítaro, near the foot of the volcano.”

“Pico de Tancítaro?” asked Sebring, stroking his short, snowy beard. “That’s not terribly far from here.” This realization suddenly made the myth of the arbol maldito more fascinating, though Sebring wasn’t yet sold on the idea of making a visit.

“It is a two day trip on horseback,” said the bellhop. Sebring poured three fingers of mezcal into a glass and sipped the smoky liquor while the busboy related the story of the man-eating tree.

The tree in question, explained the youth, was planted a century earlier by a rancher from Tancítaro who was rumored to have formed an unholy alliance with Satan. The villagers gave this hombre muy malo a wide berth; for he was never seen at church, was never seen helping a poor soul in need, and those rare few who had been inside his home remarked that the rancher did not adorn his walls with icons of Catholic saints, as was the local custom.

“But, worst of all, this man was said to have been responsible for many gruesome murders in Zamora,” continued the bellhop. Sebring nodded as he poured himself more mezcal. According to the bellhop, the police knew that the rancher was the heartless killer they’d been seeking, but the rancher proved to be as difficult to capture as a wisp of smoke. It was said that, by invoking the devil’s name, the rancher could shrink himself down to the size of an ant, allowing him to escape. “In other versions of the legend,” said the bellhop, “the rancher could shrink into a tiny, venomous snake.”

“But, worst of all, this man was said to have been responsible for many gruesome murders in Zamora…”

“Delightful!” chuckled the journalist, amused by the colorful legend.

“Ah, but there’s more,” added the youth. “The only thing this rancher loved was gardening. He planted on his ranch many trees and flowers, and tended them with the same devotion a mother has for a newborn babe. One Good Friday, many years ago, the villagers of Tancítaro were returning from church when they were frightened by a blood-chilling scream.”

“Finally, now we’re getting to the good part,” Sebring said with a smile.

“They reached the dusty main street just in time to see the evil rancher being swallowed by a crack that had opened up beneath his feet,” the bellhop continued, “and just as suddenly as the chasm gaped open, it snapped close like the jaws of a crocodile! One old woman who had seen the incident with her own eyes swore that, only seconds earlier, the rancher had mockingly placed a lit cigar between the lips of a statue of Jesus that had been erected in the village square in celebration of the holy day.”

“A charming tale, indeed,” replied Sebring, “but what does any of this have to do with the tree?”

“Well, you see, on that very same day, all of the rancher’s beloved trees withered and died– except for one. When Prospero Garcia bought the property some years later he ordered one of his laborers to chop it down. The worker picked us his axe and set out for the tree, but never returned.”

“And so the villagers assumed that the tree had eaten him?” asked Sebring. The bellhop recited the names of several others whose deaths had been blamed on the arbol maldito. One ranch hand had been bitten by a snake while taking a siesta beneath its gnarled limbs and died before help could arrive, but the other victims had simply disappeared.

“The tree is still standing then?” asked Sebring. “What about this Garcia fellow? He still owns the ranch?”

“Si, señor. But Prospero is very reclusive and seldom sees visitors. He has a daughter, but I do not know if she lives with him. But I can take you there if you’d like. It is the Haciendita Ranch, along the road that runs past Pico de Tancítaro.”

“Mañana?” asked the journalist. The boy nodded. “Very well then, it is settled,” smiled Sebring, draining the last of the bottle’s contents into his glass. He fished out the worm that was bobbing in the liquid like the bloated corpse of a Titanic passenger. “The only complaint I have with your local mezcal is that the bottles are too damn small,” said Sebring, staring at the dead slimy thing between his fingers and popping it into his mouth. “But the gusanos are mighty tasty.”

*****

Sebring barely recognized the youth the following morning without his red velvet uniform. After paying the hotel liveryman for the use of two swaybacks, Sebring and his companion embarked on the two day journey to Tancítaro. Three hours into the trip, somewhere in the foothills of the Santa Elenas, it occurred to Sebring that he didn’t know his companion’s name.

“Roberto Perez,” answered the boy. “But everyone calls me Chato, on account of my small nose.”

“Then I, too, shall call you Chato,” laughed the journalist. “Chato Perez , the pug-nosed porter.”

The two travelers continued along the road, the monotony interrupted only Sebring’s occasional recitation of dirty limericks sung to the tune of “Cielito Lindo”, much to Chato’s amusement. “Have you heard of Marie and Monique?” sang the journalist. “They can give birth and conceive the same week. You may say of their habits that they breed like rabbits, but in France this is not so unique.” He implored Chato to join him in the refrain:

Ay, yi, yi, yi! In Zamora, they do it for chili.

Here comes another verse worse than the other verse,

So waltz me around again, Willy!

Along the way, Chato pointed out the sites he remembered from childhood travels– the ornate grottos in Bonifacio Moreno with their brightly-painted statues of the Virgin Mary inside, the roadside graveyards of Pizandaro with their rusty iron crosses. The only attraction that interested Sebring, however, was a dilapidated tavern. He instructed Chato to tether the horses while he went inside.

The barkeeper eyeballed Sebring suspiciously through snake-like slits as he placed three bottles of mezcal atop the bar.

“You’re the second American to come in here in six months,” the portly proprietor said. “The last gentleman also bought out my entire supply of mezcal.”

“Well, there’s no law against it, is there?” queried the journalist. “My money is just as good as anyone’s.”

“That’s just what he said,” retorted the barkeep. “A friend of yours?”

Sebring turned around to see if Chato had entered the tavern, but then realized he had been referring to the other American.

“He was about your age, perhaps a little older,” said the barkeep. “Came in here with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter.”

“You don’t say?” replied Sebring with as much interest as he could muster. The journey had been hot and dusty, and Sebring had left most of his enthusiasm on the trail in salty droplets which evaporated as soon as they hit the ground.

“Of course, that’s why they come from miles around for my mezcal,” laughed the barman. “There is none like it, Señor. Around here, they call it poción de amor.”

“Powerful stuff, is it?”

“You’ve seen the iron crosses along the roadside?” asked the proprietor. Sebring flashed a smile and paid for his mezcal. The bartender continued his story about the previous American visitor, but Sebring was already halfway out the door. However, something the rotund camarero said stopped Sebring cold in his tracks.

“What was that you just said?” demanded Sebring. “Something about a head wound?”

“Si, Señor,” nodded the bartender. “The old man suffered a fainting spell while he was in here. I jokingly told him that usually happens after drinking the mezcal, but he explained it was on account of an old war injury.”

Sebring pressed the camarero for information about the young woman who had accompanied the American, but the proprietor couldn’t recall many details, except that she was a local girl, very beautiful, though there was something strange about her.

“Loco?” inquired the journalist.

“Nothing as extreme as that,” replied the proprietor . “She fancied herself an artist. You know how those types can be, Señor. Moody. Melancholy. Slightly off-kilter. She tried selling me one of her paintings, but, just between you and me, it wasn’t very good.”

“Did you get their names?”

The barkeep shook his head, but then his eyes suddenly lit up like fireworks.

“Mariposa!” he exclaimed, slapping the top of the bar with his palm. “I overheard the man call her by that name. Strange that I should remember such an unusual detail. But, of course, this was a very unusual woman.”

Sebring nodded and expressed his gratitude by plunking fifty centavos onto the bar. He was so excited he practically danced a jig as he stumbled out of the dank hovel and into the setting sun.

“This ought to last us the rest of the trip,” laughed Sebring when he emerged from the tavern, holding three bottles of mezcal between his giant, stubby fingers. “Onward, Chato!”

Sebring and Chato reached the crest of a dusty ridge just before nightfall. The slumbering volcano called Pico de Tancítaro could be seen peeking over the northern horizon. In the valley below lay miles of patchwork farms. After a salt pork dinner they bedded down for the night, and Sebring uncorked one of his bottles. As soon as the liquid touched his lips, he felt an unpleasant tingling. A moment later he cried out to Chato that his mouth was burning. Chato held the mezcal over the campfire and inspected the bottle.

“That is no maguey worm,” declared the youth. “That is the larvae of a blister beetle.”

*****

The burning in his mouth soon subsided, though his heart continued to race. Despite the discomfort, he did feel more youthful and vigorous. Maybe not vigorous enough to gallivant around Michoacán with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, but, then again, he had only ingested a mouthful of the Pizandaro Love Potion.

Cantharidin. That is the chemical that made Spanish Fly famous, recalled Sebring, who had written about the mythical aphrodisiac after a recent tour of Catalonia. Secreted by all blister beetles, including the shiny green insect known as the Spanish fly, cantharidin had been used since ancient times to treat everything from poor libido to warts. If left on the skin long enough, the oily excretion caused painful burns and blistering.

Sebring also recalled that cantharidin had also been used to great effect by the infamous professional poisoners of Paris during the days of Louis XIV to do away with their victims. Some even raised the beetles like veal, feeding the precious larvae a steady diet of rotting wood and decaying plant matter.

Why would an old Civil War veteran feel the need to buy every bottle of mezcal in Pizandaro? To keep pace with his nubile paramour? Or was it she who had induced the American to consume it? Sebring turned to Chato to ask his opinion, but the youth was already asleep. He thought it best to do the same, and he lulled himself to slumber by singing a song:

The lecherous Dutchman, DeGroot

had many big warts on his root.

He put acid on these, and now when he pees

he holds the damn thing like a flute.

Ay, yi, yi, yi!

*****

“What do you think we’ll discover down there?” asked Chato, peering down into the valley at the Haciendita Ranch. “The infamous man-eating tree? Or just a crazy old rancher named Prospero Garcia?” Sebring drew his horse alongside Chato’s and, from the top of the bluff, gazed out upon a field of patchwork farms made resplendent by the morning sun.

“I think we’re about to discover something even more incredible than the arbol maldito,” declared the grizzled journalist. “I think we’re about to discover that Prospero Garcia doesn’t exist.” Chato wrinkled an eyebrow in confusion.

As they rode down the steep trail into the valley, Sebring posited his theory. A man from America had passed through Pizandaro around the same time Ambrose Bierce had fallen off the face of the earth. Bierce, explained the journalist to his companion, had been struck in the left temple by a Confederate sniper’s bullet at Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia during the war, and had suffered sudden fainting spells for the remainder of his life.

“Could it be just a coincidence?”

“Perhaps,” mused Sebring. “But, if you’ve read any of Bierce’s work, you’d realize that the myth of the man-eating tree sounds just like something he would write in one of his spook stories.”

“And the evil man who was swallowed up by the ground after putting a cigar in the mouth of a Jesus statue?”

“Typical Bierce satire,” laughed Sebring. “Ambrose was an atheist, you see. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that he was the one who started the legend in the first place.” He explained that, if Bierce had purchased the Haciendita Ranch, such stories would scare off the superstitious and nosy, thus giving him the privacy he craved. Chato shook his head in disbelief.

“Just one problem,” he said. “I have seen Prospero Garcia before, as well as his daughter.”

“Was she pretty?”

“Si, señor,” laughed the boy. “She is just about the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. The locals of Tancítaro have a name for her. They call her The Butterfly.” At the bottom of the bluff bubbled a clear, crystal spring, and the travelers alighted from their horses to refill their canteens.

“Say, Chato,” said Sebring after he had slaked his parched throat with spring water. “What is the Spanish word for butterfly?”

“Mariposa,” he answered.

“Say, Chato…What is the Spanish word for butterfly?”

*****

“We are close to Prospero’s place,” whispered Chato, as if raising his voice might attract malevolent spirits or venomous snakes. The youth pointed to a rutted trail just beyond a row of lemon trees. As they approached the old farmhouse conversation turned once more to the missing novelist. “How shall we recognize Señor Bierce?”

“He’d be around seventy years old by now,” replied Sebring, “with a disfigured left ear.” Sebring wondered what it was about left ears and creative geniuses who suffered from hallucinogenic episodes, but he surmised that there must be some sort of cosmic reason for this coincidence. “Of course, he may not be at the ranch,” continued Sebring. “A man with Bierce’s wanderlust seldom stays put in any one place for too long.”

When Sebring and Chato hitched their horses to the post by the veranda, they were greeted from the doorway by a middle-aged man in denim workclothes. Sebring squinted and, much to his disappointment, saw that both of his ears seemed perfectly formed.

“Prospero Garcia?” asked the journalist.

“Who wants to know?” the rancher demanded, stepping out onto the veranda. In the bright light of morning it was easy to see the handle of the nickel-plated revolver protruding from his dungarees.

“My name is Walter Sebring. I’m a correspondent for a San Francisco newspaper. I’ve traveled a long way to see Señor Garcia.”

“Ah, yes! Sebring!” replied the rancher, his expression thawing. “Tío Prospero has been expecting you.”

Sebring and Chato exchanged bewildered glances and then followed the rancher’s nephew into the house.

“Please wait here,” said the middle-aged man, gesturing to three upholstered chairs arranged around a small mesquite table. Sebring studied the contents of the room as he waited for Prospero. Several paintings adorned the stucco walls, displayed in simple frames. By no means was Sebring an art critic, but even he could tell that the artist who created these canvases possessed more heart than talent. In the bottom right corner of every painting the artist had signed the canvas, not with a name, but with a stylized butterfly. Several small sculptures adorned the mantel above the fireplace, garishly-painted animals constructed of carton piedra— the famous papier-mache that dries as hard as a rock. He had seen exquisite works of cartonería in the ancient churches of Mexico City, centuries-old statues of paper hardened by a glue made from the maguey plant. Sebring examined one of the amateurish sculptures and, sure enough, discovered a butterfly mark on its underside.

In the bottom right corner of every painting the artist had signed the canvas, not with a name, but with a stylized butterfly.

“Walter Sebring! We meet at last,” smiled the owner of the Haciendita Ranch. “I can see by your expression you are confused. Please, allow me to explain.” Prospero gestured to his nephew and a moment later, as if by magic, a bottle of mezcal appeared on the table. Sebring was relieved to find that it wasn’t a Pizandaro varietal. “My son, Rodrigo, is a guest at the hotel where you are staying. A few days ago, he sent a telegram from Del Sol informing me that an American newspaperman was in town, and I asked him to persuade you to come to Tancítaro.”

“The skinny fellow who told me about the man-eating tree?” asked Sebring. “The arbol maldito?”

“It is a most intriguing tale, no?” laughed Prospero. “The legend is famous throughout Michoacán, though greatly exaggerated. But isn’t that the way of legends, my friend? True, one of my ranch-hands dropped dead when he attempted to chop down the tree, but he died from sunstroke, nothing more.”

“Why did your son tell me the infamous tree was in Zamora?” Sebring wondered aloud.

“That was my instruction,” said Prospero. “Tancítaro is a very small village, you see. I figured that, as a war correspondent, you may have heard of Zamora, which is only a few miles from here. And now I suppose you want to know why I sent for you.”

“That would be most helpful, Señor Garcia,” smiled Sebring, pouring the rancher’s mezcal into a glass tumbler.

“It is my daughter, Mariposa,” sighed the rancher. “I fear she has disappeared.”

“Why did you send for a journalist instead of the police?” asked Sebring, highly skeptical.

“Because I want my daughter found alive!” roared Prospero. The rancher grumbled about the corruption of local officials; a girl as famously fetching as The Butterfly of Tancítaro could command a significant ransom, and the fact that no ransom had been demanded proved that Mariposa was missing by her own choice. Besides, the rancher was in no mood to deal with bribes or blackmail, or other underhanded tactics of the policía. “And there’s another reason,” added Prospero. “My daughter is not well. Mentally, that is. I prefer to keep this a family secret, as the Garcias have a reputation to maintain.”

…a girl as famously fetching as The Butterfly of Tancítaro could command a significant ransom…

“She was seen about six months ago in Pizandaro,” stated Sebring, wisely neglecting to leave out the part about the poción de amor. Much to the journalist’s surprise, Prospero knew all about the mismatched romance.

“It was a stupid thing for her to do, but she could not help herself. Mariposa has always danced to her own song, despite my warnings. Bierce had been tagging along with Pancho Villa’s army, and Mariposa was infatuated by the American’s adventure stories. I’ve never met him, but I’ve seen his picture. A very handsome man for his age, indeed. But after he got what he wanted he discarded her, and told Mariposa that he was going to a place where no one could find him.”

“Ambrose said that?”

“Well, this is what I was told by Mariposa,” shrugged the rancher, adding that Mariposa had been inconsolable after the jilting. Sebring wanted to comfort Prospero by telling him that great art often comes from great pain, and that perhaps this experience would make Mariposa a better artist, but he held his tongue.

*****

Chato insisted that Sebring ought to return to Haciendita Ranch to tell Prospero Garcia what he had discovered, but the grizzled journalist insisted that some mysteries are best left as mysteries, and some family secrets ought to be taken to the grave.

“But did you not find Mariposa?” asked Chato, making a fire atop the same bluff where they had camped two nights before.

Sebring nodded.

Chato could tell that his companion was in no mood for talking, which was entirely out of character for Sebring, who hadn’t sung a bawdy limerick since the pair left the ranch and split up at the fork in the road at Condémbaro. Sebring, insisting they could cover more ground separately, had headed north toward the volcano, while Chato rode south toward the citrus groves of El Tizate.

Sebring’s strategy was simple: He asked the locals where he might find a hospital for the feeble-minded, though he was surprised to learn that mental asylums were practically unheard of in this part of Mexico. Undaunted, he traveled along the base of Pico de Tancítaro, wasting his meager, primitive Spanish on the confused natives, who replied to his queries with the same expression one might use to greet a visitor from Mars. Circling back to the fork of the road, he happened to see a small, but lively, marketplace on the parched main thoroughfare of a village called Zirimbo. Amid the rows of braided straw hats, beaded baskets and other handicrafts stood several carton piedra sculptures just like the ones he’d seen at the ranch. Sure enough, the artist had signed these lopsided creations with a butterfly mark.

“Who made this?” inquired Sebring. The vendor, a toothless woman older than the volcanoes of Michoacán, mumbled a reply that Sebring couldn’t understand, but pointed to a ramshackle stucco structure on the hillside, shaded by weeping junipers.

Amid the rows of braided straw hats…stood several carton piedra sculptures just like the ones he’d seen at the ranch. Sure enough, the artist had signed these lopsided creations with a butterfly mark.

Esa es su casa,” she said.

“That is where she lives?” he asked. The toothless woman nodded.

After waiting for the crowds to disperse, Sebring secured his horse to a hitching post at the village plaza and stealthily made his way on foot up the rocky path. His knock on the door produced no response.

“Mariposa Garcia?” he called out, but his words were greeted by silence.

After sitting beneath one of the junipers for a few hours without a sign of The Butterfly, the journalist worked up enough nerve to try the door. That Walter Sebring should be unnerved at all rankled him to no end; as a war correspondent he’d been to San Juan Hill, he was in Balangiga when the Filipino massacre occurred, he’d seen things no man should ever see. And now, in sleepy Zirimbo, he found himself afraid of a woman young enough to be his granddaughter who made papier-mache sculptures for a living! No, it wasn’t fear at all, he decided; it was his reporter’s intuition– that mysterious sixth sense that turns journalists into bloodhounds.

After sitting beneath one of the junipers for a few hours without a sign of The Butterfly, the journalist worked up enough nerve to try the door.

He nudged the door open and entered the shadowy one-room hovel, and saw, much his utter astonishment, the most incredible work of art he had ever beheld. It was a carton piedra statue that rivaled anything he’d seen in any of the Mexican cathedrals. For a moment he could not believe this cartonería had been created by the same artist who created the misshapen menagerie atop Prospero Garcia’s mantel. It was a perfect replica, an exact likeness, of Ambrose Bierce.

Suddenly, a peculiar noise attracted Sebring’s attention. He thought it must be Mariposa, but then he realized the strange, scraping sound was coming from the statue itself. A moment later, a large, shiny black beetle emerged from a hole it had chewed though the statue’s papier-mache mouth. A dozen more beetles followed, and the insect stampede widening the hole enough for the bewildered journalist to see the secret armature the artist had used to provide structural stability to her masterpiece.

Sebring backed away in horror until his foot collided with a small object. He heard the clinking of glass, and when he looked down at the floor, he saw that it was an empty mezcal bottle.

*****

If you’ve enjoyed The Mark of the Butterfly by Marlin Bressi, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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