Mahoney woke with a headache and a stinging numbness in the shoulder and knee. He winced as he folded the Murphy bed back into the wall. He fetched a chunk of ice for the pain in his body, and a slug of gin for the pain in his head. It was a long minute before he felt strong enough for his morning ablutions.
In pulling the tooth powder from the medicine cabinet, something fluttered to the floor.. He stepped on it and slid it over. The yellow sign stared innocuously up from the edge of his slipper toe.
Mahoney regarded it for a moment, then picked it up and placed it in the toilet. He pulled the chain and closed the lid. Then he went back to brushing his teeth.
Breakfast was english muffins and jam, two cups of irish coffee, and three cigarettes. His third cigarette was oddly bulky and the smoke tasted wrong. Coughing, Mahoney pulled it from his mouth and tore the paper. Partially burned, the yellow sign leered back at him. Mahoney ripped it into bits and then washed it down the sink.
Dressing for the day, he stepped into his shoe. Something stopped him short of the toe. Mahoney knew, before he retrieved it, that the yellow sign would be that crumpled obstruction.
He looked at it front and back. It looked identical to the bit he’d ripped from the contract: same jagged edges, same thick ink lines.
“No,” he said firmly. The balled-up paper bounced soundlessly down the incinerator chute.
It was on the stairs when he left the apartment. His heel slid out from under him and he went down four steps before he caught himself. He looked at the paper, like a ink tick crawling along the floor. This time he didn’t bother ripping it up, just left it where it was and vacated the building.
“—Jeremy’s my brother, you see.” the elderly prospective client pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “He does get off on these benders two, perhaps three times a week. But he’s never gone more than a week without calling me up and asking for money. I’m worried something might be really wrong this time.”
Mahoney nodded, shifting elbows on the desk as he wrote down a series of figures. Perhaps he could sell a full tail for $50, but judging by the state of the old man’s clothes he was unlikely to part with that much without a hefty reassurance.
“I do feel I’m being a worrywart, but—” the old man squinted. “You’ve got—there’s something—”
Mahoney lifted his arm. Like a bad magic trick, there was the yellow sign stuck to his elbow.
Mahoney put his pencil down and sighed.
“Would you excuse me?” he said, “I’m unable to retain you as a client at this time.”
The old man left without much protest, or perhaps he did and Mahoney didn’t hear. He was fixated on the symbol in his hand.
A lady vanishes from an office. Jamie Gillman vanishes in broad daylight. Robin Rousseau entombs himself with his own canvas. The yellow sign acted as his own personal chain letter.
Mahoney retrieved his office bottle and administered a medicinal slug. Either the world was crackers, or he was.
Damn it all.
There was a greasy spoon on 5th and Grace where the reporters drank their breakfast while waiting for the evening edition. He’d been there once before, on business with Dooley. Now, walking in, it could very well have been the same day. The same reporters crouched in their same corners, spitting rapidfire dialog even Louie Mayer would pooh-pooh for being too cliche. There was Dooley, stirring a cup of coffee, palming a cigarette, and eyeing the morning’s paper.
Mahoney sat down. “What do they have in poultry today? I feel like stool pigeon.”
Dooley took a sip from one corner of his mouth and blew smoke out the other. “Not my fault if you don’t know when to cut and run, Mahoney.”
“You could’ve waited more than a hot minute.”
Dooley gave him an odd look. “You were in there for over an hour.”
Mahoney swallowed. “Pull the other one.”
Dooley’s look gained a tinge of concern. “I’m serious. You want a picture of my watch?”
Mahoney poached Dooley’s toast and chewed his panic down. How long had he been in Rousseau’s house? Surely no more than ten minutes. So why had it seemed so—
Mahoney looked down and realized his watch had stopped.
Dooley took the other half of the toast and spread it with marmalade. “What’d you see in there anyway? Drugs? Dirty pictures? You know these artist types, they usually have the really kinky vices.”
Mahoney stole a sip of coffee. Cold, with a layer of dishwater grease on the top. Lovely. He grimaced.
“That depends. I might be willing to share information if you are.”
Dooley sighed. “You’re not going to make this easy, are you?” Straightening up, he bellowed “Chick!” over his shoulder. The man who’d been waiting outside Rousseau’s place with him sidled over, manila envelope in hand.
“Chick, this is Mahoney, I don’t believe you were properly introduced. Mahoney, this is Chick Henshaw.”
Chick did a stage curtsey. “Pleasure.”
“And a half.” Mahoney lit a stick of his own and blew a ring at the envelope. “So what’s that, your divorce papers?”
“If you’re done being funny, I’m trying to help you out,” Dooley said drily. “Show’m what you’ve got, Chick.”
Chick fanned the papers out on the table. It was five photographs of an apartment, or what was left of one. The kitchen was a mess of splintered wood. The bathroom looked like a sledgehammer had been taken to the tile. In the bedroom a coverlet had been clumsily knotted into a noose. The den had unidentifiable smears on the flocked wallpaper, and in the same substance someone had written a screed of gibberish words. Mahoney could pick out one phrase, fhtagn.
A young man lay against a wall mirror spiderwebbed with cracks in the last photo. His neck was a gaping smile of gore, and he sat in an almost ritualistic pose. Crossed legs, arms bent at the crook in an odd manner. No sign of struggle. His face held no fear but a terrible sadness. In the mirror above him, presumably written in blood, were the words “tu fui ego eris.”
Mahoney squinted. “‘Two fooey ego ear-is.’ The heck is that?”
“A phrase. It’s latin.”
“What’s it mean?”
“Something in latin.” Dooley gestured carelessly. “The unfortunate chap there is Milosz Sikorski, architect. You know that art deco palace up on the hill, where the opera singer lives? He designed that. We got the call to look into his death six months ago. Our boy Milosz here was suffering from fatigue of the nerves, checked into a seaside sanitarium some months before he died. Churned out some crazy pieces while he was in there, stuff he was adamant he needed to build. Said it was crucial to prevent the world from collapsing.”
Mahoney shuffled the papers around. Several architecture drafts, drawn on a variety of scrap paper and one napkin, depicted buildings that followed the geometric laws of the Devil’s Pitchfork optical illusion. Pillars turned to pathways, windows became walls. Mahoney put the papers down.
“So he cracked?”
Dooley nodded sagely. “Came out worse than he went in. He was working on this civic project, that went kaputski. All he cared about was these damn crazy buildings. Here’s the really crazy part: who do you think he ran into at the rich, sick people’s club?”
It was almost too cliche to say. “Gillman.”
Dooley shot him a finger-gun. “The man knows! Gillman, no pun intended, drank like a fish. He was there to dry out. I figure while he was there, he introduced Sikorski to his boy’s club.”
“And why were you at Rousseau’s place?”
“Chasing a connection.” Dooley stubbed out a cigarette. “Now it’s your turn to spill a little. Word’s come down the pipe our boy Rousseau had a little ol’ coronary thrombosis.”
“Last I heard it was insulin shock. These valley policemen sure do like their premature diagnoses.” Mahoney put his hand to an ache.
Dooley squinted at him. “You got picked up? By who? Mack? Tereo? Frank? Frank’s the big one, with the carroty hair.”
“No one I recognized. As far as I can figure, the rich folks are employing their own security to throw the scare into hooligans. I guess the regular cops don’t agree with the climate,” Mahoney said.
Dooley was still looking at him oddly. “All right, if you say so.” He lit a fresh cigarette. “Anyway, if you’re still aching to sink your teeth into this case, I’d try Nathan Briggs at the university. Literature department. Old-money chums with Gillman, you see.”
“That was suspiciously helpful.”
Dooley shrugged loosely. “Hey, you’re a magnet for trouble. As long as I let you go in first, I’m in good.”
Mahoney got up. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“You didn’t order any.”
“That’s what I meant.”
The university’s brick edifice recalled the bricklike tendencies of the Jackson memorial hall. Mahoney had to wonder if they were the same architect.
At the door marked “English Department” an owlish young man with platinum blond hair and rounded octagon spectacles struggled with a stack of papers and a doorknob. Mahoney watched for an entertaining minute, then reached over and freed him of his torment.
“Thanks!” the young man blurted out.
“Welcome. You a student?”
The young man looked ruffled. “I’m a professor.”
“Ah.” Mahoney had nothing polite to say to that. “Well, could you point me to one of your colleagues? Professor Briggs?”
“You’re currently looking at him.”
“Of course I am.” Mahoney cleared his throat. “Mind answering some questions about James Gillman?”
Briggs stuttered, paling. “Oh my, am I being detained?”
“What? No, I’m inquiring for an interested party. I’m not on the force.”
Color leached back into Briggs’ baby face. “I guess that’s fine then, follow me to my office.”
Briggs had a marbled glass door that bore the legend “Briggs—Bloom.”
“Bloom is on sabbatical,” Briggs said, closing the door as if it were made of paper. “So it’s just the two of us. I’m sorry, I haven’t asked your name.”
“Name’s not real important, but I’m Mahoney. I’m a private investigator.”
Mahoney waited patiently while Briggs jotted that information down, tongue tucked in the corner of his mouth.
“What can you tell me about James Gillman?”
“Oh, the university attracts all the bohemian types,” Briggs gushed, holstering his fountain pen. “But Jamie was something entirely different. He was from old east coast stock, had more money than Solomon. He really wanted to write. He had come to the university to view some of our more, erm, restricted texts. In the months it took to approve his status, he became an installation in the offices.” Briggs propped his chin on a hand, dreamy smile spreading over his face. “I remember one discussion on the fluid nature of taboo and validity of—”
“Fascinating, I’m sure,” Mahoney cut in, “but is there anything that might have led him down a dangerous path?”
Briggs chuckled. “You should have seen the texts he was interested in. We have a nearly-intact Austrian reprinting of De Vermis Mysteriis, with the full plate illustrations.”
“Oh yes. Jamie loved to dig deep into the strata surrounding mystery. It fueled his works, you see. He’d submitted quite a few short stories to the school magazine, under pseudonym of course. I’ve got a list somewhere—” Briggs rummaged in his desk and came up with a much-creased leaflet. Printed on it were several titles attributed to a Ben Zoma. The Doomed Detective. Architect of Madness. The Labyrinth of Leaves. Mahoney reached the end of the list and stopped cold.
“He really was such a character,” Briggs burbled on, “really breathed life into this old office. We’re lesser for lack of him, I know that much.”
Mahoney’s thumb sat on the title The Lady in the Yellow Veil.
Slowly and carefully, he asked, “do you have any copies of the magazine these were printed in?”
Briggs’ face fell. “No, I’m sorry. I can give you a reference number for the library shelf they’re on. Hang on—” he grabbed another piece of paper.
Mahoney stood on numb legs. The Lady in the Yellow Veil. Had to be coincidence. Based on real life. Something like that. He turned to the door and received another jolt.
Briggs looked up from his desk. “Oh, that. You like it? Jamie got it for me. It’s that new artist, whatshisname, lives up in the canyon.”
The canvas bled with color. The painting consisted of sharp jagged brush strokes as if the artist had been trying to hurt the canvas and the viewer’s eye in turn. It was a portrait of a short, dark-haired little man. His hair was pomaded into little wings on either side of his head, a sharp little batwing mustache stabbed downwards. The subject of the portrait had a look of manic evil that extended beyond the painted surface, as if he ached to break from the picture. The brass plate beneath it read Portrait of A. Vladimirovitch.