The Shambling Detective 4: The Mad Maestro

It would have fit the list of horror cliches if the shelf in the school library had been empty. But no, in the 805 section, there was the entire run of the literary magazine. It took some trial and error to find the edition with The Lady in the Yellow Veil, but he eventually found it. Mahoney wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but the text still came as an unpleasant jolt:

She wore a saffron-colored bolt of opaque silk that completely covered her face. The dress she wore was aubergine, her jewelry was tastefully dark. A pigeon’s blood ruby winked from one hand, a black opal—

Mahoney let the volume drop in an exhale. Felt like he’d been hit in the solar plexus. The business with the yellow sign he could almost write off. More of an annoyance than anything else. But this…

This…

Mahoney speed-read through the piece. The woman in the yellow veil was an unannounced visitor in the nameless narrator’s parlor. Decorum prevented him from asking her name, or if they were even acquaintances, and they spent the evening in cryptic conversation. The narrator awoke the next morning not sure if the encounter was a dream or not, only to find the yellow veil balled tightly in his fist.

Mahoney rummaged around and found another edition with a Ben Zoma story: The Doomed Detective. As he flicked through pages, something fell out. He opened the magazine to the obstruction and found himself in the last pages of the story:

He ground fists into his eyes in denial of what could not, must not be. He was a man, solid and real, with a past and present and future. If he thought very hard, perhaps, perhaps—

Mahoney picked out the loose piece of paper that had marked the page. It was an end-leaf from a book, one side was fancy marbled pattern. The other held a crazed scrawl that scrabbled at every bit of space it could. The end comes, it read, and I am powerless to stop anything. I have lived not a life but a trick done cunningly out of sight. It follows with every step, like the flap of wings from a great bird. Death would be a pardon. Arty was wrong, it cannot be put asunder, it cannot be stopped. With each blink I am drawn closer and closer to the end. My prison is a ladder that climbs endlessly upward, rung by rung by rung by rung—

Mahoney blinked heavy and put down the paper to rub his eyes. A sudden vertigo had overtaken him. He’d once been sent a beautifully lacquered straight razor in an enamel case, the edge tinged with just the barest rouge of blood. This seemed like a far more oblique and looming threat.

Mahoney turned over the list of title that Briggs had given him. On the reverse side was a series of names he struggled to make sense of until one clicked for him: De Vermis Mysteriis. It was a secret catalog, listing the school’s unmentionable books.

The scowling librarian pointed him to a discreet telephone booth with accordian doors that very nearly didn’t allow him to close them. He prayed Dooley was at his desk and in a listening mood.

Three rings. Dooley picked up with a bored, “hullo?”

“Dooley, does this sound familiar to you: Al Azif?”

There was a long moment of dead air. He was almost sure Dooley had hung up, but then his voice sounded again:

“Where’d you hear that name?”

“What about De Vermis Mysteriis? The Book of Eibon? They seem like light reading?”

“Mahoney?” Deep breath on the line. “I think you’re out of your depth.”

“That’s what the rent-a-cops told me.”

“Mahoney, I’ve checked, that neighborhood doesn’t retain a private security force. Half those houses aren’t even rented out. I need you to quit, for your own damn sake.”

“I can’t.”

“For god’s sake, why?”

“Couldn’t tell you.”

“Is it money? Drugs? Tell me and I can help.”

“Nothing like that.” Mahoney looked over his shoulder at the reference desk, where the librarian was working the date stamp like an executioner’s sword. “The case found me, and now it won’t let me go. I wish I could explain it better—”

“Roger that.” Dooley sucked air over his teeth. “I’ve been calling around. One of SikorskI’s last projects was an opera stage for his friend Vladimirovitch.”

“I heard. A lot of fancy noise.”

“Not half of it, my friend. Vladimirovitch was working on a masterpiece too. A concerto that doubled as some kind of apocalyptic ritual: dancing maidens, chanting, all that jazz. My source said it was intended to bring about the end by burning the roof of the world. He wanted Sikorski to build him a retreat in the mountains where it could be held properly. Sikoski’s self-surgery put paid to that. Vladimirovitch was forced to air parts of the concerto to backers as an attempt to get another builder. They rioted. That’s when he applied the razor to his throat”

Mahoney swallowed. The air seemed very stale in the booth, but he had gained a sudden agoraphobia.

“I’ll need a source on that, if you please.”

“His lead soprano, Sophia Bianchi. Get this, she wants to talk to you.”

Mahoney shivered. Sweat had started up on his neck and forehead. “Why? How does she know who I am?”

“I don’t know, I just mentioned someone was investigating the deaths, and she asked to meet with you. Her place is up in the hills, I’m sure you know it. The big fancy cake box Sikorski designed. I’ll give you directions.”

 

The people that lived in the canyon liked to think they were monied and idle. The people who lived in the hills knew they were. Mahoney drove a single-lane road that bit into the hills like a sheep trail but functioned like an overlong driveway to several residences. The landscape was a dusty shag carpet, with the odd broccoli stalk of an oak dropped to gather pet dander. It could very well be mistaken for state land until you ran across a mansion that pretended to be something it wasn’t. He passed by english estates, a Sri Lankan palace, some ultra-modern place that looked like a crumpled bit of foil, before arriving at the Bianchi house.

Braking, Mahoney climbed from his car to goggle. Sikorski had skill, no doubt about it. The place had the fairytale scrolling of a european palace, it stood out unreal against the countryside.

There was no gate. Mahoney drove carefully up to the main house, eye out for errant security men. The ground was empty, save for peacocks that roamed the pathetic attempt at a lawn. Mahoney parked and climbed out. The front door looked as heavy as a siege gate, no doorbell. Before his fist could make contact with the wood, it pulled open. An older man in a butler’s uniform blinked at Mahoney with watery eyes.

“She is expecting you,” he said.

Mahoney flop-sweated. “Okay. Ah. My car, should I pull around—”

“No need, sir. You won’t be here that long.”

Mahoney didn’t know that he liked the sound of that. He was guided along a hallway with chintz drapes and heavily embossed wallpaper. Every surface seemed to crawl when his eye wasn’t on it, not a very comforting sensation.

Sophia was sat at a piano, staring out a massive bay window. The piano was shuttered and she was sidesaddle on the bench.

“Madam, detective Mahoney.”

Sophia turned, bringing the rest of her face with her. Mahoney clamped down on every muscle, trying very hard not to show shock.

A generous portion of her face was scar. Her left eye had melted into a cigarette paper-burn, the skin there was shiny and pink.

“Mister Mahoney?” Her voice was smokey, with jewel tones. Suddenly he could distract himself from her appearance.

He proffered his hand. She slid hers in and accepted a kiss to the back.

“I’m not sure how much my associate told you,” he said haltingly.

Sophia waved, a superbly graceful gesture. “I have heard things about you. Some true. Some not. That is not the purpose of this visit. You wish me to enlighten you about the maestro?”

“Artyom Vladimirovitch? Please. Anything you could.”

Sophia looked out the window. If you saw only the right half of her face, you saw a work of art. Dramatic arching eyebrows, dignified nose, and a pout like a Venus statue. Mahoney’s mind wandered at what possibly could have damaged this lovely creature. How she even went out in the daytime. A niggling, nagging thought burrowed to the surface.

“Miss Bianchi,” he said, “do you perhaps own a yellow veil?”

She looked at him, bemused. She played innocent well. Besides, her voice had a european tint to it that she never fully escaped, not at all like the east coast inflections of his mysterious visitor.

“Never mind,” he said, “proceed at your own pace.”

Sophia sighed. Even that was musical. “Artyom was genius unmatched. Many great men pursue vices in search of their goal, he was no different. He pursued many unlawful avenues of creative inspiration in the past.”

“You mean…things like illicit substances?” Mahoney asked delicately.

“Powders and pills. He never slept more than a few hours a night. He could be beastly, violent with anyone regardless of their station,. And yet those who worked under him would have died for him.” Sophia touched her breastbone. The bosom of her dress held a brooch made from the shell of a nautilus sliced laterally, revealing many pearly chambers. “When he joined the brotherhood, we thought he’d found recourse from his vices. Wisdom instead of chemical highs. And for a time, it was all true. He began creation of the great work, his magnum opus.”

“And it was an opera, correct?”

Sophia smiled, sphinxlike. “Part opera. Part concerto. Part ballet. An event. Dear Robin was contracted to paint backgrounds. Milo was to construct the venue. But Artyom could not find anyone to write the book…”

“…until James Gillman?” Mahoney ventured.

Sophia’s mouth gathered into a frown. “Gillman was not as cooperative as the others. He dragged his feet endlessly, setting the production back months. He was still undecided when Milosz and Artyom had their…disagreement.”

“Those two?”

“It’s the old cliche: artistic differences. Milosz thought the world should be saved. Artyom wanted the world ruined. They fell out so drastically, Milosz’s delicate constitution was wrecked. I spoke to him before he died, you know. He was quite fond of me, because I was the only person to truly appreciate his architecture while inhabiting it. He rang me one night, begged me to confirm that he was real. I invited him over, of course, but he declined. What happened after that I’m sure you know.”

Mahoney tapped his pencil on the tangled mess he’d already written. Why couldn’t anyone in this town die like a regular person?

“How did the maestro take it?”

“Oh, quite hard. Milosz had not begun construction on the venue, Artyom was convinced he was the only one who could do it. And he was right.”

“I see.” Mahoney scribbled that down. “And when he had to screen his music to financial backers, that was when he killed himself?”

Sophia frowned prettily again. “I’m not sure where you got that innuendo, but it is entirely false, detective. Artyom’s killer was disappointment. After a public screening that garnered a very visceral reaction, he realized that his music would never be understood by anyone, not the common masses, not by his peers. His concerto worked on the power of belief. And if no one can believe you, well…”

Mahoney cleared his throat. “I was told that James Gillman and Milosz Sikorski met at a certain sanitarium. Would I be wrong in assuming—”

“Artyom went there, yes. For his substance problem. That was where he found something much greater than any pill. He came back brimming with ideas.” Sophia turned and pulled a cord that disappeared into the wall. “My butler will give you the address.”

Mahoney stood. “Thank you so much, Miss Bianchi….if you don’t mind my asking, was the public screening when…?” he gestured at her.

She pet the hair away from the ruined half of her face. “Artyom was unsatisfied with my performance. Again and again, he chastised me for being unable to reach the heights he needed. He decided I was too distracted by the physical to reach the ethereal realm, if only I could be cut free from my vanity. He took up a small quantity of oil of vitriol…”

Mahoney tried not to stare. “He did this to you on purpose?”

Sophia nodded. “They were only just able to save the sight in my right eye. If he had gotten his way I would be fully blind.”

Mahoney’s mouth worked, trying to construct words. “You don’t sound entirely broken up about it, Miss Bianchi.”

She looked mildly surprised. “Oh, but he was right. Once I emerged from the bandages, my voice could soar to heights it had previously refused.” She tilted her head back and let loose.

Gooseflesh formed on Mahoney’s arms. It was like whale song, or the magnetic whine of the Aurora Borealis. Dark and deep, not something that should come from a human throat. Sophia’s lips met in a cupid’s bow, but the air remained pregnant with reverb of her last, haunting note.

She stared at Mahoney. “True art can only be achieved by shedding what is accepted to be reality. This is something all artists must come to terms with. Here—” she beckoned him over to a corner of the room where a curtain hung, servicing no window.

“My house was built early in Milosz’s career,” she said, pulling the sash, “but even still, his brilliance shone through. Here.” she took Mahoney’s hand and put it to the surface.

It was a column. Exactly round, stood in the corner as more of an aesthetic touch than a structural necessity. Mahoney’s eyes followed it to the ceiling—

—where a plant in a raffia swing hung in the middle of it. Mahoney slid his eyes up and down, up and down, but could find no seam, no place of transition from convex to concave. It was a pillar until it suddenly wasn’t. He was sick again.

“Please excuse me,” he said to Sophia.

He just barely made it outside before heaving the contents of his stomach out near an upset peacock.

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