New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample chapter from Rabid Child by Pete Risley

Chapter 1

The dress shop window gleamed brightly against the dark downtown street. Desmond stopped and studied it. He’d passed several such shops on this block and others nearby, but this was the first to catch his attention. Everything had been closed for hours, and the street was empty. It was raining a little, misting, but it wasn’t only mist that was making his face damp.

Behind the glass, among a lighted display of female mannequins—slender, stiff and staring long-lashed—was one that captured his fancy. It was a redhead with a small orange plastic shovel in one hand and a matching bucket in the other, wearing an orange sunbonnet, a purple bikini, and a sheer white blouse with purple flowers on it. Its back was to the window, its sculpted ass positioned rather fetchingly, and its head twisted back so that it seemed to glance, with an unreadable expression, over its shoulder at its observer. Unlike the others, it seemed almost alive.

He remembered to be cautious and looked around. Nope, nobody but him. Safe, but not too safe. Sucking his cheeks, he gathered saliva into his mouth, raised his palm, and spat into it.

He leaned close, breathing deeply through his nostrils. The plate glass became clouded with his breath as his hand fumbled in the front of his pants. The fumbling became a strenuous pumping.

He thought he heard a car, was hurrying, ready to run, but struggling to get finished first.

“Desmond! Desmond Eugene Cray!”

He would have scurried off, but this was his name. His whole name, even. The voice was familiar, too. With dread, he turned around.

The old, light blue Chevy wagon, dilapidated now. The round, pasty, spectacled face at the window. Good Lord, it was Mrs. Honnecker.

“Desmond!” she called again, scolding. “Come over here this minute before you catch your death of cold!”

Sheepishly, he straightened the front of his pants and stepped over to the station wagon in the rain. Yes, it was her, his foster mother from long ago. How long had it been? Ten, twelve years, maybe more. Her hair was much grayer, her face more saggy and wide. Her mouth, as before, was as shapeless as a flat tire and painted the same bright red. She was even wearing that same old beige overcoat.

She cranked down the window. Her large glowering eyes, behind thick glass in butterfly frames, gave an impression of blindness. But she wasn’t blind; couldn’t be driving a car if she was.

“Desmond, where is your coat?”

He shrugged. “I don’t, uh, know.”

“Desmond, stop that foolishness. You must know where your coat is. Now, where is it?”

“I . . . I’m afraid I don’t have one, Mrs. Honnecker.” He watched her warily. “I’m sorry,” he added.

“You don’t even own a coat,” she said, her voice heavy with disapproval. “You get into this automobile this instant.”

Reluctantly, he opened one of the rear doors and climbed in. There were three grocery bags spread across the back seat. The bags were stuffed very full, and one of them was splitting open. He had to move them aside to make room for himself. He wore a weathered knapsack, which wasn’t very full, but something in it poked him when he leaned back.

The old engine rumbled to life, and the station wagon lurched forward. The windshield wipers squeaked furiously. He sat quietly, thinking of the redhead. He might have taken a departing look, but he couldn’t stand to. It was miserable not to finish.

As they drove along, he stared out the window at the few people on the streets. He saw, in succession, an ancient wino in rags sitting in a pawn shop’s doorway, a tall and sleek black man in a suit and tie and dark shades walking fast with his hands in his pockets, a pair of teenagers with down-syndrome faces laughing and jumping and punching each other like boxers, and most interesting by far, a slim girl in a tight red dress and net stockings leaning near the entrance of a tavern under the orange light of a neon sign, cigarette in her hand. She glared back at him, but he kept watching. She turned her head to keep glaring after the car passed her by. His balls began to ache.

Throughout the ride, Mrs. Honnecker lectured him, but distracted as he was, he heard only fragments.

“Daydreamer. Always such a. Heaven knows. Thank heaven I came along. No coat. Why, past midnight! Head in the. Why, who. Dead of. Pneumonia and what. Just thank your lucky stars.”

“I’m very sorry to trouble you, Mrs. Honnecker.”

“Sorry? Sorry won’t save you from pneumonia, now will it, Desmond?” She clucked and shook her head. “Always such a daydreamer. Heavens! Comes a time to get your head out of the clouds and to pay some attention to God’s green Earth!”

The car jounced, and a few grapefruits rolled out of the splitting grocery sack. Desmond picked one up and examined it. It was nearly rotten, covered with damp grey spots. He checked the others and found that they were all the same.

The station wagon pulled up before the old weathered house, its carved shutters and diamond-shaped door window so familiar to Desmond after all this time. A yellow porch light shone upon the concrete steps. The engine sputtered and died.

“Now if you’ll just help me with these bags, Desmond—”

“Mrs. Honnecker, please. I don’t really want to go in there,” he said.

“Why heavens, Desmond! What nonsense! Now, take a bag!”

“But seriously, Mrs. Honnecker. I don’t think Mr. Honnecker is going to be happy to see me.”

“Desmond, I would appreciate some help with these bags. It’s raining and it is very cold out here.” She got out of the car and opened the door that Desmond sat by. “Please hand me one, Desmond.”

He handed her one of the bags, and gathered the other two up in his arms. Awkwardly, he followed her up to the porch.

She opened the door and they stepped into the living room, dark except for the blue-grey light of a television set.

“Well, we’re home!” said Mrs. Honnecker happily. She turned on a lamp.

He was startled at what he saw. There was debris scattered everywhere: potato chip bags, pizza boxes, newspapers, candy wrappers, trampled magazines, and piles of clothing. Half-filled pop bottles with mold growing in them sat on end-tables. A cockroach was hanging from the shade of the turned-on lamp, casting a shadow beneath him for the moment before he fell to the floor. Two more scurried up the wall from behind the sofa.

The old furniture, once kept so nicely, was ripped and stained. Wasn’t some of it missing? Now there was just the sofa and one armchair. There had been at least one more armchair before. Most disturbing of all were the old framed family photographs on the mantelpiece, for the glass over each one was smashed.

There was an acrid odor in the place. Oddly, he hadn’t noticed it until the light was on.

“Turn that damnedable light out!”

Desmond’s eyes had just fixed on the large, cabinet-style TV set in the middle of the room when the shout came. He turned and saw that what he had taken for a pile of clothes on the sofa was, in fact, an old man wrapped in a blanket. The old man was wild-eyed, had a long, scraggly beard, the color of pus, and was watching Desmond intently.

“Now, Mr. Wince,” said Mrs. Honnecker soothingly, “it’s a three-way bulb.” She clicked it twice, and the light dulled. “You see? It’s nicer now.”

“Turn it down before it blinds me,” crabbed the old man, though it was already done. He pulled the blanket about him more tightly, looking away from Desmond and back at the TV.

Mrs. Honnecker set her grocery bag down and gestured toward the sofa, twisting her face into an unpleasant smile. “Desmond, I’d like to introduce you to our boarder, Mr. Wince.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Desmond.

The old man ignored this greeting, but Desmond didn’t mind. For a few scary moments, he’d thought the man in the blanket might be Mr. Honnecker, glaring at him in unabated hatred.

“Heavens, Desmond! Set those bags down! I’ll take them into the kitchen. Sit down and try to get warmed up.”

Mrs. Honnecker carried the bags one at a time out of the room, while Desmond slumped into an armchair across from the sofa. He gazed wonderingly at the new and expensive-looking TV set. It looked very out of place in that room. Some kind of drama was on, looked like, men in suits speaking sharply, arching their eyebrows.

He was uncomfortably aware of the old man on the sofa. Mr. Wince, she’d said? Their boarder? He avoided looking at him.

Mrs. Honnecker came back into the room, rubbing her hands industriously.

“There! Now let’s go upstairs and get your bed ready, young man!”

He obediently followed her up the flight of stairs at the side of the living room. It too was cluttered with discarded clothes and trash. The bad smell grew stronger as they climbed the stairs. The wall by the staircase, near its top, was soiled and spotted as if diseased.

He considered running down the stairs and out the door before it was too late. He knew that he really should. But whether it was fear or inertia that held him back, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Mrs. Honnecker reminisced contentedly. “You always did enjoy sleeping in the attic. Used to go up there all the time, to draw pictures. Always drawing pictures.” She hummed to herself. “I thought Mr. Wince would like to sleep up here, but he prefers the basement.”

When they reached the top of the stairs, she seemed to get a bit vexed. Oh, dear! Dear! I’ll have to go into Henry’s closet now.” She turned and looked at him meaningfully, as if expecting him to understand. “Well, I don’t feel right about it, but you simply have got to have a coat!”

Actually, I could use a coat, he thought.

“I have to go in by myself,” said Mrs. Honnecker. She opened the bedroom door with a key, entered quickly, and shut the door fast and hard.

For the brief moment that the door was open, an almost overpowering stench was cast from the room, as of something deeply rotten.

He stood some distance from the door in the darkened hallway and waited, apprehensively. He knew that he should take advantage of the moment and run.

Right now. Down the stairs. Out the door. Now.

But he didn’t. Mrs. Honnecker came out again as abruptly as she’d entered, carrying a red plaid jacket. The door thumped when she shut and locked it behind her.

“Here it is! Isn’t it handsome? It’s Henry’s hunting jacket! That’s what he calls it!” Her eyes seemed to focus on Desmond then, and she grinned like a delighted infant.

“Not that Henry ever really goes hunting. Henry was so gentle, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Would he?” She went on quickly, before he could respond, not that he wished to. “But he always wore it on cold nights when he went out. Fires. Try it on!”

He did so. Mrs. Honnecker exclaimed with pleasure over the wonderful fit, and he pretended to agree, though the coat was at least one size too big, yet short in the arms.

“Well, I’m glad that’s worked out so well!” said Mrs. Honnecker, beaming. “Let’s go back downstairs now.”

On the way down the staircase it occurred to him that they had not fixed up his bed. He decided not to mention it. There were larger questions looming in his mind as well, but he didn’t feel like mentioning those either.

He followed Mrs. Honnecker through the living room and past Mr. Wince, who was still staring fiercely at the oversized TV. The old man didn’t seem to notice them passing between him and his object of study.

They went into the kitchen. It was quite a bit cleaner, if not more pleasant, than the rest of the house. Mrs. Honnecker scooted a chair from the kitchen table.

“Now you sit right here and I’ll fix you a nice hot meal. Heaven knows you must need one!”

He was very hungry, though he hadn’t realized it until now. He watched Mrs. Honnecker open the refrigerator and bend to get something from a lower shelf. He decided to venture a question.

“Will anyone be joining us, Mrs. Honnecker?”

“Oh, I don’t think so, Desmond,” she replied. “Tracy would have already eaten, and poor Mr. Wince, you know, can’t follow an ordinary diet.” She spoke this last in a lowered voice.

Tracy! It hadn’t even occurred to him that she would be around; he’d been so worried about confronting Mr. Honnecker. Little Tracy. Sweet, innocent, beautiful little Tracy. She must be, what, a teenager by now. God.

“Where is Tracy now?”

Mrs. Honnecker turned, grinning, and wagged a finger at him. “Ah, ha! You’re anxious to see her, aren’t you?”

“No, no,” he said quickly, “it’s just that—”

“Well, I’m not the least bit surprised,” she declared. She took a frying pan out of a cabinet, put it on the stove and turned on a burner. “I’m sure Tracy will be delighted to see you, too. Why, heavens! She used to just climb all over you, didn’t she? You certainly were her hero.”

He chose not to reply to this. He sat silently waiting for his food, while Mrs. Honnecker polished her kitchen counter with a rag, humming contentedly.

“It’s ready!” she called out. She took a plate from the cabinet and dumped the contents of the frying pan onto it. She turned with the plate in her hand, looked at Desmond, and gasped.

“Oh my goodness! You’re still wearing Henry’s hunting jacket! Give me that!”

Desmond hurriedly took off the jacket and handed it to her. She folded it neatly, opened the refrigerator, and placed the coat on its bottom shelf. “Wearing a coat to dinner!” she exclaimed, shaking her head as she closed the refrigerator door.

She picked up the plate again and set it before him. “There you are, dear. Now, eat up.”

He studied what was on his plate, his expression guarded. It was an unidentifiable piece of meat, coated with a thick greenish fuzz. Looking up, he saw that Mrs. Honnecker had turned again to her counter, polishing and humming.

It’s a trick, he thought. An act. She knew, she kept hinting about it, taunting him. They might even have been lying in wait for him, planning this—

From the living room came a loud, sharp retort, followed by a shriek:


“Mr. Wince,” Mrs. Honnecker called out, “please don’t bang your stick on the furniture!” She looked over her shoulder at Desmond. “It’s something on the television. Poor old soul. Why, Desmond! What’s wrong? You haven’t touched your food.”

Desmond, who had nearly jumped from his seat when Mr. Wince shrieked, tried to appear calm. “Oh no, it’s fine, Mrs. Honnecker.” His hands trembled slightly as he cut off a small portion of the meat that didn’t have so much of the green stuff on it. Wondering incredulously why he was doing so, he gingerly put it in his mouth. It tasted awful.

He swallowed quickly to get the taste out of his mouth. He could hear Mr. Wince in the living room, muttering darkly against the TV’s drone. Mrs. Honnecker started reminiscing again.

“Brings back memories, doesn’t it? You and Tracy, always together.” She laughed happily. “You know, Henry was so concerned about it, at first. Why should a big twelve year old want to play with a six year old all the time? He didn’t want her annoying you. Thought you should play with other boys. Weren’t any other boys around, though.” She hummed and polished on.

Staring at his food again, he began to get the feeling that someone was watching him. He looked up.

In the entryway to the kitchen stood a very striking and shapely girl, slouching with her hands on her hips. Her thick blonde hair fell in unkempt tangles past her shoulders, and one lock hung across her left eye. The other eye was green, wide and caked with mascara. Her pink-lipsticked mouth was fixed in a defiant pout. She wore tight, faded jeans and a short, ripped black T-shirt that exposed one of her shoulders and her slim, sensuous midriff. She and Desmond stared at each other for a frozen moment.

“What is it, mother?” she said finally, her voice low and dramatic. She didn’t smile, and didn’t take her eyes off him.

Mrs. Honnecker glanced over her shoulder. “Oh, there she is!” She whirled around, twisted her gnarled hands together and grinned. “Here’s our little Tracy. You remember Desmond, don’t you dear?”

Tracy continued staring. Her eyes, or rather her eye, smoldered with something beyond contempt.

“No,” she said coldly.

“Oh, certainly you do, dear! Desmond lived with us when you were just a tiny thing! You must remember Desmond.”

“I’ve never seen him before in my life,” said Tracy slowly and vehemently, brushing her stray lock of hair aside.

“Well, dear,” said Mrs. Honnecker, sounding a bit nervous, “that’s all right, it was a long, long time ago. Maybe you were too little. But maybe you’ll remember better once you two get reacquainted.”

“What are you talking about?” For the first time, Tracy looked away from him, turning her wild gaze upon her mother.

Mrs. Honnecker’s smile twitched and became harder. “I said, dear, that maybe you’ll remember better—”

Tracy turned, ran from the room and stamped loudly up the staircase. A moment later came the sound of a door upstairs slamming violently.

He sat mesmerized, as impressed by her anger as by her beauty.

Mrs. Honnecker turned back to the counter, and gave no sign of being disturbed by her daughter’s behavior. She took the frying pan from the stove and put it into the sink. The faucet shrieked when she turned it.

“Tracy is such a shy little thing. She has a little trouble fitting in sometimes. Why, don’t we all.” She was silent for a few moments, then resumed. “That’s what it was at school. The other children picked on her. You know how children are. They tell stories. She’s pretty, so that draws attention. She likes pretty clothes, but all girls do. The teacher picked on her too. I told the principal. Better not to go to school than get mistreated. Not supposed to have feelings. Well, that was that.”

He barely heard a word that Mrs. Honnecker said. He sat staring at the entryway where Tracy had been standing, replaying her image in his mind.

Her fierce green eyes. Her angry little mouth. Her ripe, firm breasts under that ripped shirt. Her taunt, lightly muscled waist with the round navel, her marvelously curved hips and long, captivating legs. And when she turned and ran out, her heartbreaking ass, the rim of her off-white panties showing just slightly above her worn jeans. Little Tracy, all grown up. He could hardly believe it.

Without glancing at his plate, he carved off another piece of meat, put it in his mouth and chewed it slowly, lost in his revelry.

Mrs. Honnecker picked up his plate from in front of him and took it away. “Well, if you’re finished eating, Desmond, I have some work to do here in the kitchen. Perhaps you’d like to watch television with Mr. Wince.”

He nodded his head, still distracted. His mental image of Tracy began to fade, and his mouth filled with bitter juices. He realized that he’d eaten some more of that awful meat.

Mrs. Honnecker glanced at him. “My! You look thirsty, Desmond. Would you like a drink of water?”

He nodded again, more vigorously. Mrs. Honnecker filled a large smeared glass at the tap.

He greedily drank it down. “Thank you,” he gasped.

“Why, you’re very welcome, Desmond. Now go keep Mr. Wince company while I clean up.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, and with that he rose and exited the kitchen. What little willpower he’d had evaporated and dread was pooling into the place where it had been.

He went into the living room and sat down in the armchair at the opposite end of the room from Mr. Wince. The old man kept his gaze fixed upon the TV screen and didn’t even glance at Desmond. The detective drama rolled on, deep into its complications to judge from the tense soundtrack music. The screen showed a handsome young man with a gun, running down an alleyway, looking around him frantically.

Uninterested in the show, he cast furtive glances at Mr. Wince instead. Since Mr. Wince never looked back at him, after awhile Desmond stared openly at the face of the wizened, thin, unwell-looking old man. And after some minutes, he noticed, with a start, that Mr. Wince didn’t have a left arm.

That is, he didn’t have an arm below where his elbow should have been. Attached to what remained of his left arm was a long, polished wooden stick, secured with a metal band. This was what Mr. Wince had banged on the table with.

He was so appalled at Mr. Wince’s condition that he had to suppress a gasp, and his chest tightened with a dark sensation. He thought immediately of the frightening lectures that Mr. Honnecker had subjected him to, some of them in this very room. These often dealt with what he’d called “the physical consequences of sin.” Though Mr. Honnecker had never mentioned the loss of an arm, somehow Desmond had conceived of that as an eventuality, following hair on the palms, blindness, and a general wasting away. None of these horrors had yet befallen him, but he still found himself worrying about them at times.

Mr. Wince interrupted his thoughts with a sudden exclamation. “Bah! Temptation, born of the flesh of woman.”

He glanced at the TV screen, across which a line of only mildly risqué showgirls danced, behind rolling credits. The movie was over.

“Excuse me?” Desmond said, belatedly.

The old man spoke louder, rasping. “Aye, temptation that drags a man down, down to the ground, where he wallows with the lowest of the low, yea, the snakes and the slugs and the snails and the most repugnant dregs of creation.” He made a gurgling sound, and his mouth and throat pulsed.

“Temptation, in the tainted flesh,” he cawed. He turned his head, and his eyes bore into Desmond’s. “The flesh of woman!”

“Oh,” said Desmond. He looked back at the TV, hoping the conversation was over. A commercial for aspirin was on.

“Yea, all fall victim, and only the wise escape with their souls—those with the spine and innards of wisdom. Few are the wise, and many, many, oh so many are the fools! Damned fools!”

“I see,” said Desmond. He was trying to place Mr. Wince’s odd accent, drawling here, lilting there.

“No, ye don’t see! No, ye do not!” Mr. Wince smirked. “Do ye see her change?”


“Do ye see her change, damn ye! From the slut to the mother. Eh?”

“I’m not sure—”

“In whorish lust comes motherhood,” said Mr. Wince, intoning the last word with great disgust. “In the luring of man! She feeds on man’s weakness, and sucks out his strength! Begotten with child, Bam!” He swatted the coffee table hard with his stick, making a sound like cracking glass. “The trap is sprung. She’s got that man by his hairy, bestial balls! And then, oh-ho, does she give them a twist. Then, only then—the change!”

The old man paused, as though waiting for a reply, but Desmond only watched him warily, leaning back in his seat.

“Merciful angels, how they change! Your pretty little slut will bloat like the whale! Know ye the tale of Jonah?” Desmond nodded, but Mr. Wince didn’t seem to notice. He ranted on. “Out of the belly of Hell I cried, and thou—”

He coughed hard, gurgled again. “The woman, the woman is without mercy. She bleeds the man she’s captured. Sinks her poison into him. Rules his life like the very Pharaoh. Spends his money before it’s earned. Makes him uncomfortable in his own house, paid for by the sweat of his brow!” Again, the old man fixed his gaze on Desmond. “Do ye know how?”

“How?” asked Desmond, humoring him.

“How?” Mr. Wince was incredulous. “How, ye ask. Look about ye! By mopping, sweeping, dusting! Always cleaning, and all for the sake of bedeviling, so the man daren’t move in his own house! Clean, say they, the lying whores! They are unclean!”

“I see,” said Desmond, forgetting that he’d said that before, with a bad result.

“No, ye don’t see! I see that ye don’t see! Ye see two different creatures, don’t ye?”

“You mean, umm—”

“The slut and the mother,” said Mr. Wince, with great emphasis. “Two, not one, that’s your folly! Yea, many are the fools who cannot see what lies before their very eyes.”

“I guess I never thought about it.”

“Ye never thought,” barked out Mr. Wince. “Ye never thought. Lad, that could make a horse laugh! Ha!” He leered at Desmond, his face twisted, not by laughter, but into a horrified grimace. “Too busy, you were. Busy in your head.”


Mr. Wince cleared his throat, with a sickening sound that might have been a death rattle. “Too busy sniffin’ their nether parts, you were—and all in your head!” He snorted, with contempt and phlegm. “Damnedable fool.”

Desmond didn’t know what to say to this, and said nothing. But Mr. Wince wasn’t finished.

“Over and over and over ye fall to temptation! Fornication, all is fornication! An ocean of spilled seed to drown in.” The old man gurgled again.

“But you don’t even know me.”

Mr. Wince banged his stick on the coffee table again, making shards of glass jump. “You don’t know what the Almighty Lord intended of ye, ye demon-driven billy goat! He intended ye to be a man! Not your mama’s precious darlin’, nor a drooling fool for a slut! The Lord made ye—” he pointed at Desmond with his stick— “the Lord, and not a woman’s whorish flesh! A man is what the Lord demands, on pain of hellfire—so rise up to it, before your righteous doom takes ye! Rise up from your slimy swill of corruption and be a man as He intended! Ye can hold no secrets from the Lord! Repent, atone, for the wages of Sin are death!” Mr. Wince’s blanket slipped away and another stump emerged, flapping up and down like a broken wing.

He didn’t have a right arm either.

At this point Mrs. Honnecker stepped through the doorway from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.

“Excuse me,” she sang out. “I’m glad the two of you are getting acquainted, but I’m going to bed now. Desmond, I don’t want you staying up late watching TV. I just know you have a cold coming on, out in the freezing rain without your coat! Here, let me feel your forehead.” She stepped over and put a clammy palm over his eyebrows.

“Just as I thought, you’re warm.” She clucked and shook her head. “You can stay up just a little longer and chat with Mr. Wince, but I don’t want any late shows. You need your sleep, and tomorrow’s a big day.”

Desmond wondered what she meant by that, but didn’t ask. “Yes, Mrs. Honnecker,” he said.

“Be sure to wear your PJs and cover up with the big blue blanket upstairs in your room. It’s going to be very cold tonight. Good night, Desmond.”

She bent down and gave Desmond a wet smooch where her palm had been, then walked across the room to the staircase. Halfway up the stairs, she called out, “Good night, Mr. Wince.”

“Good night to you, madam,” said Mr. Wince blandly. He was staring at the TV again.

Desmond listened to Mrs. Honnecker’s footsteps as she reached the top of the stairs, and after a pause he heard a door close. She must, he thought, sleep in that awful room up there.

He thought of the attic room that he was supposed to sleep in. In the old days, there was a framed photograph on the wall of two ancient children with superimposed angel’s wings, their eyes rolled heavenward. It had always frightened him, in the old days. He used to avoid looking at it when he entered the room at bedtime, and then jump into bed and throw the covers over his head, feeling its dread presence.

He became lost in his musings, until he noticed that The Star-Spangled Banner, the sign-off for the day’s broadcast, was playing on TV. It was accompanied, as always, by images of flags fluttering in the breeze, soldiers charging up beaches, Mt. Rushmore, and finally a view of the Statue of Liberty, sweeping slowly around her crowned head and zeroing in on her coldly blank face. He watched without interest, not wanting to look over at Mr. Wince, for fear that the old man would start talking again.

The national anthem was followed by a brief, rapidly-spoken technical announcement, and the broadcast snapped off. The TV set buzzed with churning static.

After a couple of minutes, he chanced a glance at Mr. Wince. His eyes were closed, and except for a repeating wheeze that made his thin lips tremble, he might have been a decaying corpse.