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The Shambling Detective 3: Tu Fui, Ego Eris

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.”

“So…occult, then.”

“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.

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The Shambling Detective 2: The Art of Dying

Jamie Gillman’s last known address was a motel out by the highway, bare of all personal effects besides an empty bottle. The reference address for that room was a bungalow up in the heights, a forest-green box with a violet roof and an overgrown yard full of odd sculpture. Mahoney was not alone when he got out of the car. Across the street was a newsman’s outfit, with one man standing hip cocked against the rear passenger door.

Mahoney lifted his hat. “Howdy.”

The wordnik looked up from his pad and pencil and sniffed. “Blow.”

A second figure came creeping through the ivy and meadowsweet on the side of the house, holding his camera above it all. It was Dooley, someone Mahoney had put in footwork for once or twice. Dooley spotted Mahoney and frowned.

“Blow.”

“Now aren’t you fellows nice? I come all the way out here because I’ve got a lead in something I know my friend Dooley will love, and this is the thanks I get?”

“You’ve got nothing peeper, we both know that.” Dooley made it to the safety of the sidewalk and picked burrs from his socks.

“Well, let’s trade then. I’ve got a couple hundred in retainer and a mid-day disappearance. What’ve you got?”

The newsmen exchanged looks. “You’re not here for Robin Rousseau?”

Mahoney crossed his arms and tried to look sphinxlike. “Maybe. I’m pursuing someone who gave this as their address. Jamie Gillman.”

Dooley’s face fell. “I told you we’d get bottom-feeders,” he muttered to his companion.

To Mahoney he said only, “we don’t care about your dime-a-day winos, we’re on a serious story here.”

“Why don’t you share, then? Might link up.”

Dooley sighed. “Well…you did come through on the McCormack case. Rousseau’s a lauded painter around these parts.”

“Any good?”

“Like Kandinsky at a slaughterhouse. I look at one of his pictures and get woozy. Anyway, Rousseau’s latest client commissioned a painting from him months ago, but Rousseau hasn’t sent word one back. The dopers and drunks that call themselves an entourage say Rousseau went hermit a few weeks ago, hasn’t seen daylight since getting a distressing telegram he wouldn’t show anyone else. He was working on a big canvas before he vanished, friends say he wanted to call it ‘a mirror to the world’ or something like that. My consensus? Took too much of the good stuff, now he’s lying in a ditch somewhere.”

Mahoney frowned. He took the bit of paper he’d torn from the contract and showed them. “See anything like this?”

Dooley’s pal whistled. “You a leafer too?”

“That’s the society isn’t it? Their little secret club.” Mahoney handed the paper to Dooley, who studied it. “My man has some of the same stretch marks on his case: mysterious disappearance, secret club, concerned citizens coming after his last effects.”

The other newsman growled “watch it,” as Dooley handed the scrap back.

“Yeah, except this isn’t your daddy’s masonic order. This is the Brotherhood of Leaves, my friend, and if your guy was involved he was in something deep.”

“Hey.” The other newsman snapped his fingers. “Wasn’t whatshisname part too? The conductor, gave himself a Chicago necktie.”

“Vladimirovitch.” Mahoney felt cold again. “You boys mind if I stretch my legs around the back? I’ve just sat in that car so long, see, and I’d like to do it in privacy.”

Dooley took out a battered cigarette from his hat band. “Gee, Mahoney, wish we could but we have to stand out here on public property, see, so we won’t be able to inform you if some ruffian decides to break in.”

Mahoney smiled. “You’re solid boys.”

Behind the bungalow was a gardener’s nightmare. Thorny bushes and more modern sculpture that looked to be pieced together from other sculptures. A Grecian leg found new life as an antennae. Half an anchor was now a smile. Even more unnerving, they seemed to change shape more than strictly necessary as he walked past. Mahoney tried the knob with a handkerchief over his hand and found it unlocked. The bungalow reeked like death, and Mahoney had to douse his hankerchief in cologne and use it like a mask to press further.

The walls had been painted with slashes of paint that formed things that almost made sense with their jagged edges. Something like a lopsided lion glowered from the den wall, two lime droplets formed eyes that peered from the murk. The paint made judging distance a chore; Mahoney scraped a few elbows before he figured out how to navigate the place.

The bungalow was effectively one long hall that took a few twists and turns before opening up into a big room with a skylight. The wall was taken up by a large canvas covered in black gesso. The half-formed image in the center was a screaming face made piecemeal out of indecipherable text. The death-stench was strongest here, tempered only slightly with the reek of linseed oil and turpentine. Mahoney nudged a few of the things littering the floor. Brushes, bits of wood, objects he could only assume were still life fodder. No dramatic note that trailed off at the end, no bloody dagger, not even a glass that smelled of bitter almonds.

Mahoney looked up at the canvas.

He sighed.

Moving the thing was difficult, because it was as big as the room itself, so even a slight angle would jam it against the ceiling. How had Rousseau gotten it in here in the first place? Better yet, how had he planned to get it out the door?

Mahoney got enough of a gap to pop his head in behind it. Ah. Perhaps he hadn’t.

Robin Rousseau had been a thin man in life, in death he was nearly a matchstick. He looked out on the world with death-greyed eyes and a yellowed grimace. His hair was so blond it was almost invisible against his scalp. He had a strange, ruddy flush to the right side of his neck, but whatever that had been hadn’t killed him.

Multiple tubes of cadmium yellow littered the ground behind the canvas. His yellow grin was not down to coffee and cigarettes, but paint ingestion. Grim way to die. But then how had he pushed the canvas back on himself?

A door slamming made Mahoney jump out of his thoughts. The house was a hallway, so he had nowhere to hide, really, he could only arrange himself so that the intruder stomping down the hall couldn’t get the jump on him.

Mahoney was only just moving to act when a cop, pointing a gun and a skull-smashing flashlight, appeared in the doorway.

“Howdy, cousin,” he crowed.

 

Dooley and the other newsie had fled, probably after asking the nice policeman for directions back to town, Mahoney thought bitterly. The squad car that sat outside Rousseau’s place was unmarked. The backseat had several bloodstains.

“I’d like to let it be known that I’m cooperating with the law,” Mahoney said.

“Great,” the cop said, and threw Mahoney in the back seat with a hand on his spine.

Once Mahoney regained his equilibrium, he found a black cloth sack being drawn over his head.

“Hey, hey, hey, I didn’t realize the Stasi were in charge of the PD.”

“New policy. Want to give you a measure of privacy on the way to the station. No point in letting your neighbors see you in a squad car.” The cop chuckled as he cranked the motor.

The cop took the twists and and turns of the canyon road at a breakneck pace, like he was personally trying to eject the contents oF Mahoney’s stomach. A sudden stop imprinted the dividing screen on his face. Mahoney was pulled, colt-legged, from the car and gulped all the fresh air he could. After a long journey of being propelled by shoves Mahoney’s backside found a chair and the bag was yanked off his head.

The room he found himself in was dark except for the thousand-watt lamp directly in his face. If Mahoney squinted, he could just make out a mirror dominating the wall, and a man seated just behind the lamp.

“Mahoney,” the man said in an almost-gentle voice. “Operating out of a room at 312 Topeka drive. Four years in business.”

“I’m all paid up on my license, you can check it.” Mahoney’s neck weaved as he tried to get some details out of his interrogator. He could just barely see a glint of light on a bald head, and perhaps the twinkle of glasses.

The man didn’t respond to that. There was the quiet rustle as they went through his personal effects.

“I would like to know if I’m being charged, sir.”

“Sir, how respectful,” the interrogator said drily, “you a military man?”

“I was in the war.”

“And this is how you make your living now, spying on nice respectable folks?”

“I wanted to be a florist, but I didn’t have the constitution for it.” Mahoney squinted harder tilting his head back and forth. He hadn’t been fingerprinted, mirandized, anything he’d been through in his other misunderstandings with the force.

Was he in police custody?

Mahoney tried to take in more details of the room. It had a big two-way mirror and sheer white walls, all the hallmarks of a PD interrogation room, but enough money could buy that. Maybe it was some security company maintained by the rich canyon-dwellers, something to throw a good scare into the townie.

“Do you recognize this?” The man’s hand encroached on the lamplight, holding the scrap of paper with the yellow sign. Mahoney frowned.

“A little scrap paper, in case I need to jot down a license plate.”

The hand remained in place, paper hanging like the cast-off skin of some reptile. “We know things, Mahoney. About you. About your friend. About the thing you’re after. I don’t think your britches are big enough for the job.”

“That’s why I got suspenders,” Mahoney said. A few steps tapped up behind him, and suddenly a cosh hit him just above the right ear. Mahoney gasped, reeling, as stars burst in his vision.

“That’s enough,” he could hear his interrogator say, “his head’s probably clear now.”

Mahoney clamped a hand in front of his mouth and took deep breaths.

“What do you know about Robin Rousseau?”

“He likes the taste of his paints, I know that much.”

“Mr. Rousseau died of insulin shock,” the man said evenly, “now, what else do you know about him?”

“Paints carry insulin now?” That remark earned him another cosh, and he fell to his knees on the concrete floor. The light became elliptical as his vision wobbled. A pair of arms around his midsection righted him and threw him back into the chair.

“Who hired you?”

Mahoney spat a little. “A woman, I don’t know. She declined to give me details.”

The cosh hit him on the shoulder, which thankfully only threw him forward in the chair.

“Who hired you?”

“I just told you.” The cosh fell on his knee, sending pain needling all the way up his body. Mahoney yelped.

“One final time: who hired you?”

Mahoney braced himself for the inevitable meeting with the floor. It never came.

Instead the lamp snapped off, leaving a violet afterimage that would not go away no matter how he blinked.

“Get Mr. Mahoney back to his offices, he has some paperwork to do.” The interrogator stood with a creak. “And in the future, Mahoney, you might want to appraise yourself a little higher. A couple hundred is a bit lean, wouldn’t you say?”

Mahoney said, “what—” as the black cloth sack was thrown over his head again.

The roads in town were mercifully square, but the driver made up for it by taking steep corners and sudden stops. When the bag was yanked from Mahoney’s head, he found the building where he kept office and fell to the sidewalk, kissing it.

“By the way, I figured you might be hungry after that long talk, so I saved you some leftovers.”

A greasy bag of fish and chips was shoved beneath his nose, and Mahoney finally did vomit.

The cop chuckled at his retching frame. “See you on some sunny afternoon, brother Mahoney.”

The car screeched away. Mahoney hadn’t recovered enough to catch the plates in-between heaves. Somehow he managed to crawl his way up to the third floor and let himself in his office.

Someone had been in. He could smell it somehow, the air was just different. Things were awry, just enough that he couldn’t quite be sure what had been moved. The bag with everything taken from his pockets was in the middle of the desk, paper with the yellow sign placed on top.

Mahoney crinkled the paper and used it as a taper to light a cigarette. He dropped it into the ashtray and watched it curl as the fire ate it alive.

His britches weren’t big enough? Fine. No job was worth getting killed over. Let them take their secret societies and yellow signs back to the funny papers, where they belonged.

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The Shambling Detective 1: The Yellow Veil

It started with a woman. It always did, didn’t it? Some skirt throwing herself on your mercies, begging you to find her husband or father, pulling the puppy dog eyes on you as she pushed the family’s last dubloon into your hot little hands.

Only the puppy dog eyes didn’t figure in with this one. This one wore a veil. Not the lacy kind favored by pillbox-wearers these days but a bolt of saffron-colored silk as opaque as a lead sheet. The rest of her ensemble was nothing far off what you’d see in Sears catalogues: eggplant-colored coat dress with airplane shoulders, kitten heels, hair hot-combed into a Barbara Stanwyck wig. A pigeon’s blood ruby winked from the fingers of one hand, a black opal the other. She even smelled rich, a scent like old paper layered over the decades just barely covered by a wisp of something floral.

“James,” she said, “his name is James Gillman. Jamie.”

She had the crisp diction and the slight English affect of finishing school. Mahoney jotted her words down on a sheet of newsprint, eyes dancing from her to the paper. Could she see out of that thing? She had to, or else how could she get around? He decided to put off the nasal itch until decorum allowed.

“Eight and some months old, red-haired, birthmark here.” she tapped the back of a slender wrist. “Disappeared from the steps of the Jackson Memorial Hall. He was wearing a seersucker suit when I last saw him, brown leather shoes. He might have been carrying a book.”

“I see. Was he in anyone else’s company, Miss—”

“Gillman.” Was it imagination, or did her voice flutter along with the yellow veil? “I don’t know. He had a habit of wandering off, forming friends with the riff raff around town. Many times I’ve tried to warn him away from it, but…”

Mahoney jotted more words down. “Have you tried the police, Miss Gillman?”

“No. I suspect this is a ransom situation. Your discretion is heavily encouraged, in this case.”

Mahoney sighed. He scratched under the headband of his hat. “I understand your hesitation, ma’am, but the bay city coppers don’t look to kindly on interference with the law. If this turned into a shoot-out—”

“It won’t.” She leaned forward, breath stirring the yellow cloth excitedly. “Please say you will. I have great faith in you, as if—as if you were meant for this.”

Mahoney frowned. “To be honest, ma’am, I’m not the best detective around. Have you tried a Pinkerton—”

“No!” For a moment, the fancy wrapping fell away from the woman’s voice, rendering it guttural. “It must be you. I have your retainer.” She fanned out a sheath of bills, crisp as if hot off the mint.

Mahoney frowned. He felt a little more than the normal level of trepidation that came with accepting a new client. Each new job, he had to look in the mirror and wonder if this wasn’t it, if this was the one that would leave him shot and floating face down in the bay. Unlike the other low-rent shamuses in town, he’d never been on the force. He had no die-hard buddy on the DA to pull strings when he got in a pinch. As a rule, he only accepted things that would just barely cover the bills. Philandering husbands. Adopted children. The odd peeping job for a reporter.

He slid a contract across the table to her. “Standard fees apply. Daily expenses will come as an itemized list. I can’t promise I’ll do anything better than find him.”

The cloth on the woman’s face went perfectly still. She laid the money out on the visitor’s table, ruby catching the light and winking evilly back at him.

“You have no idea how much this means,” she said.

Mahoney grabbed the money from the table, turning to shove it inside an envelope.

“Trust me,” he said, turning back around, “I haven’t—”

The office was empty. Mahoney blinked, rubbed one eye and then the other, but she never reappeared. His door, heavy on the pneumatic hinge, was shut and still. On the table, the contract lay pristine except for a crooked “X” on the signature line. Funny, a girl of her monied appearance should do better than a whaleman’s signature.

“Miss Gillman?” he called. The acoustics of the office gave a little reverb to his voice. “Miss Gillman?” What had her first name been?

He poked his head out into the hall. The optometrist two doors down was herding a short elderly woman with bandaged eyes to the stairwell.

“You haven’t seen a woman come by, have you?”

The optometrist (Thurgood? Thurmond? Thur-something) shook his head, guiding his elderly patient’s steps.

“Heard someone come down the hall? Catch a whiff of eau de toilette?”

The doctor looked up, irritable. “No, I haven’t seen your latest companion. Do the rest of the building a favor and keep your affairs more discreet, I’m trying to run a business.”

The woman spoke with a voice like cracked leather. “Good heavens, is that the Amway man whose door I saw on the way in? Tell him that men like him should be shot.”

Mahoney shot their backs the one-finger salute and went back inside.

The contract lay innocuously flat on the table; that strange, crooked, 3-armed X staring back at him.

 

The memorial hall was a brick made up of many smaller bricks, with windows small enough not to detract from the brick-ness of it all. It was a wonder of modern architecture. Mahoney paced the steps, noting down dimensions. There were few places an interloper could wait unseen by the general public, even fewer where they could depart with a strange child in tow un-remarked.

A fellow bearing a stack of books stopped on the steps and eyed Mahoney curiously.

“Fine day to play invisible hopscotch,” he said.

Mahoney straightened with a start. “Mahoney,” he grunted. “I had some questions about Jamie Gillman?”

The fellow snorted and shook his head. “Better let alone. Wherever James is, he’s done it to himself.”

This struck Mahoney as callous, even by midtown standards. “What can you tell me about him, Mr.…?”

“Duvall. Charles. If you want, we can talk in my office.” He went up a step. “But if you want my opinion, I’ll lay it out here: Jamie stuck his nose in the wrong place. That he vanished wasn’t a surprise to anyone, not even him.”

Mahoney frowned. “What could he have possibly gotten into at his age?”

“Oh, plenty.” Duvall eyed him up and down. “Say, what business of yours is it if Jamie Gillman drops off the face of the earth?”

“Well, maybe it’s just my soft heart,” Mahoney said, “but when an eight-year-old boy gets snatched in broad daylight, I tend to be a little worried.”

Duvall snorted back a chuckle. “Eight? Try thirty-eight.” He glanced charitably at Mahoney’s confused squint. “Follow me to my office. I’ll put the percolator on.”

 

The office was a glorified closet decorated with stacks of paper, machinery gears, and one plane propeller that had been mounted to the wall next to the single window. Duvall set a percolator down on a hotplate and produced a bottle of amber liquid from a hidden drawer.

“Nip?”

Mahoney shook his head. Duvall doused a single mug with alcohol and then sat on a chair that was propped up by the stacks of machine parts behind it.

“Jamie was down from the university,” Duvall said, “wanted to pull some old city papers. Then he started hanging around to talk about the old families in the area. Some of us have memories that date back into the ice age, and those are the youngsters. Was doing research for a book. Said he wanted to write the great meta-novel.”

“Met what?” Mahoney asked dryly.

Duvall chuckled and shook his head. “That’s what we said. As far as I can gather, he wanted to write a book that changed from the act of someone reading it. Don’t ask me how, he talked a big game but never showed a stitch of paper. Of course, as he got deeper and deeper into it, he started getting a little funny in the head. If you ask me, people who get too passionate about a thing are already toes-to-the-cliff at the start. Like that Vladimirovitch fellow.”

“Who?”

“Composer, avant-garde. He was writing some ultimate concerto that sounded like rocks in a wash-mangle. He opened his throat with a razor when the first reviews came in.” Duvall took a break to serve coffee. “Anyway, I think Gillman got in touch with one of those hush-hush clubs downtown. A bring-your-own-cloak-and-dagger kind of deal. Found that getting out was much harder than getting in, fell into drink. The last time I laid eyes on him, the man smelled like a gin still and was raving about leaves.” Duvall paused a moment. “If you don’t mind my asking, for whom are you asking these questions?”

“A goddamn liar.” Mahoney tasted the coffee and suppressed a grimace. Maybe he should have accepted the sterilizing shot of rotgut. “A woman came in, implied she was his mother. I don’t know what her agenda was, or what her relation to Gillman even is. To tell you the truth I’m about ready to deposit the retainer and forget about this whole mess.”

“Well, if you continue to pull at it, it’s an interesting knot to be sure.” Duvall sipped from his mug. “The bit about disappearing in broad daylight? That’s all true.”

Mahoney stopped, mug halfway to his mouth “Really?”

“Yup. Clarence, he’s down in records, he was there the day Gillman vanished. Said he didn’t see a soul besides Jamie and some bum way far off…” Duvall furrowed his brows. “Hang on, he did say he heard something funny.”

“Funny, like something muffled? Perhaps a gunshot?”

Duvall shook his head. “Fluttering. As if from a massive pair of stiff wings. Crackled, almost.”

Mahoney felt a sense of lingering dread descend like an inky hangover. Duvall looked at him with some concern.

“Might not be too late to give the retainer back, old chap.”

“Wouldn’t know where. She didn’t give me a first name, just signed an X to the contract. Strange one, too, only three legs.”

Duvall got a gleam in his eye. “Show me.”

Handed a pencil and a legal pad, Mahoney attempted to recreate the symbol. Duvall’s eyes grew wide.

“That’s the yellow sign you’ve got, my man. And if you ask me, you’re in for bigger troubles than a delinquent client.”

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Ascension

“Daddy, is grandma in heaven?”

Megan had the window seat. The blue glow of the sky outside the plane sucked the warmth from her skin. Her eyes looked too big in her face.

“Of course.” Just one of many uncomfortable exchanges Dwight had fielded during their journey. He had expected and prepared for it.

“Because mommy said she’s down below.”

In the ground or in hell? Dwight stopped his tongue short from asking that. He’d have words with Susan when they got back. “Grandma’s in heaven, right next to grandpa. We’re just going to see them put her earthly body in the ground.”

“Oh. But then her ghost flew up?” Megan explored her nose with an index finger.

Dwight captured it and pulled it away. “Her spirit. Honey, did mommy say anything scary to you?”

The girl’s eyes strayed to the window outside. “No.”

“Because sometimes mommy says things without thinking, and I want you to tell me when that happens.”

Megan continued looking out the window. Petulance or fear of her father, he couldn’t fathom which.

“Do you remember your cousins,” he said, hoping the change of subjects would distract her. “Clyde and Emmy and Robert?”

The girl was looking deep into the clouds. “When people die in plane crashes, what do their ghosts do?”

Dwight bit his lip thoughtfully. “Did mommy say we were going to crash? Did she talk about plane crashes with you?”

“No. Just wondering.”

Dwight sighed. She’d never implicate her mother, not ever. “Well, sweetie, planes hardly ever crash. Do you know we’re safer up here than we would be in a car down there? Cars crash all the time.”

“Yeah, but you can live through a car crash.” Megan hadn’t moved her eyes. “Anyway, you didn’t answer me. Where does your ghost go when you die on a plane?”

Christ, how morbid. But she wasn’t wrong. For a moment Dwight couldn’t stop his brain from exploring that scenario, what the black box would say when it was found. If it was found. He forced himself back to the moment.

Spirit, Megan, ghosts aren’t real. Your spirit goes to heaven just the same as if you…on the ground.”

“I don’t think so.”

Dwight growled, then caught himself. “Mommy is very mean, sometimes, Megan, and she’s very sneaky about it. If she talks about sad things while you’re in the room—”

“Mommy doesn’t talk about spirits. I’m talking about it.” Megan seemed more estranged to him the longer she gazed out the window and the blue sky gazed back at her, the light and unnatural  stillness making her look like the pupa of something alien to him.

“So all spirits go right up to heaven?”

“Abso-tutely.”

“Are we in heaven?”

Dwight jumped slightly. “No, baby, why do you say that?”

“‘Cause there’s a spirit out there.”

Megan’s blunt little finger pointed out the plexiglass window to the clouds that surrounded the plane. The sun was beginning to descend; by the time they reached the airport it would be night. Right now the sky was a play of light and shadow, and Dwight almost said to his daughter that she had seen a cloud shaped like something and spun that off into an anecdote about finding shapes in clouds to coax her away from her morbid turn of mind when a small swirl of activity caught his eye.

For a moment something had curled, ribbonlike, in the corner of his vision. For a moment something had moved not like a bird or a cloud or another plane but something that hunted underwater, something fast and fluid.

Dwight craned his head at the window, over Megan’s protests that he was squishing her, and panned the limited view the porthole afforded.

Nothing. Nothing and nothing and nothing.

Dwight shifted back into his seat. “Baby, that’s not funny.”

“It wasn’t a joke. I saw a spirit.” Megan was puzzled. “Why aren’t they shaped like people?”

“How was it shaped?”

She drew a descending curlique with her finger. Dwight gulped.

“The gulf stream—sometimes clouds—” he looked out the window again. “Almost nothing flies at this height, honey.”

“I know. Just spirits.” Megan turned to the window again. She scrunched her face up. “I wonder if it’s angry. It was moving fast.”

Dwight realized his finger was hovering over the call button and pulled back. “Honey, your imagination—”

“There’s another one!” The girl jumped up in her seat, excited. A passing attendant gave them a benign smile. Dwight returned it, sliding down slightly in his seat.

“Megan, honey, lower your voice.”

Megan’s face pressed hard on the window. “Two. Three! Dad, there’s a bunch.”

Other people were looking over at them, a mix of irritation and exhaustion. Dwight turned to yank the window shade down and caught movement. Something cloud colored and textured but moving like a leech swimming through a muddy stream. Dwight pressed his face so hard against the window he cracked his forehead.

“Daddy!” Megan shifted against the pressure from his shoulder. Dwight was aware she was talking, aware of her discomfort, but could not spare space in his head at the moment.

The clouds boiled and burst in small increments as a smokelike wraiths seesawed through their particulate mass. They were too quick to take in details: no faces, no limbs, just white blurs.

They were no longer the sole witnesses to this miracle. A woman 12 seats up the aisle burst into a scream. A man behind them pounded on the glass as his wife snored on his shoulder. Through the eddys of panic, the attendant waded, making motions of appeasement with her hands.

The plane began to rock. The ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign lit up.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot,” the intercom burbled. Dwight’s hands were shaking as he tried and failed to fasten his daughter’s buckle. “We seem to have hit a minor patch of turbulence, nothing to worry about, but you will need to buckle up.

At the head of the aisle, an attendant demonstrated proper fastening etiquette. It was ignored in the anarchy. People were screaming, vomiting, seething with all the angst of a mob that had nowhere to go. Dwight found it harder and harder to breathe with every successive lurch. He chanced a look out the window and then fumbled for his airsickness bag. The plane’s wing was circled with serpentine bands the same color as the clouds. Most of the passengers stopped screaming as the plane’s flight evened out, some gasping thanks to various gods. Dwight felt no relief. He watched the clouds sink beneath them further without fully comprehending what was happening. They had stopped shaking, didn’t that mean the pilot had regained control? Senselessly, he put his hand to the glass and tried to wipe the tendrils from the plane wing.

“—can’t, I mean, we won’t stop climbing.” the intercom screeched to life, probably from the pilot having bumped up against it. “Don’t touch the comms until we can figure out what’s wrong.

Some people mumbled prayer. Some screamed theirs out loud. Dwight looked over them, deaf and blind from panic.

“What’s going on?” he asked no one in particular. “Where are they taking us?”

“That’s easy.” Megan sat stoic, blue light deepening on her face and making her eyes look black. “Heaven.” In the window beyond her face, stars began winking into view.

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Spores in the Wind

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

These are the words that came to Fabrizi Bello on a balmy day in May, roughly 1567, as he sat at his writing table. He produced almanacs for farmers and the like. Halfway through a paragraph on rye, Fabrizi had put his pen down and stood up. Stretching a little, he walked but a short ways from the table when he paused. Returning to his papers, he penned that sentence and the deluge of others that followed. He did not stop for another 15 hours. His wife Rina discovered him on her way to build the morning cooking fire. Vellum sheets bearing his minute cursive littered the table and surrounding floor. Fabrizi’s ink had run dry at some point and, rather than get up and walk the few steps to the supply cabinet, he elected to stab into his palm instead and use his own vital fluids. Attempts to drag him away ended only in Rina Bello’s head striking the table edge until she moved no longer. Fabrizi wrote until blood loss stilled his hand as well. The Bello household lay dormant until a cousin of Rina’s dropped by to borrow thread. By the time the city guard stumbled upon the scene, Rina’s cousin had absconded with the manuscript beneath her skirt.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Pietro D’abo was sorting through a lot his firm had made a winning bid upon. He was looking for sturdy, little-used paper that would be bleached and made into palimpsests. Beneath two contracts and a recipe for cinnabar, he found Bello’s manuscript.  Pietro’s limited Italian carried him through the first paragraph, fascination through the rest. Only a third of the total piece had survived to grace Pietro’s hands, and he dedicated the remainder of his life looking for the rest. Over the next thirty years he would bargain, steal, barter, and trade for any information on the remainder. Once the Catholic authorities of the day caught up with him, the manuscript (minus a few pages) was burned beneath his nose. When given opportunity to renounce his ways just steps from the executioner, Pietro said only: “I am but a spot on the back of a jungle cat. Who the hell are all of you?”

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Konrad Dehmel worked as a typesetter for a print press. His eldest son worked as a punch-cutter, his wife as a woodcut artist when not caring for their younger children. All lived in a single room above the print workshop. Among a single month’s orders and contracts, he found a small sheaf of paper. He knew no Italian, he could barely read his own language. And yet, when his wife came into the workshop to fetch a chisel, she found him in a pile of discarded work orders with the papers in hand. He would say nothing but that he must be the one to set type for the book, fixating his whole attention on the pages. He forewent sleep, bathing, even food. The thing that finally stopped him was the sleeting bullets of melted lead type when the town grew paranoid about his leanings and set torch to the workshop.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

A single page turned up in London. The artist who found it painted a massive mural incorporating the words “jaguar”, “spots”, “stars”, and “beyond”. The mural languished in a country that had yet to even embrace the Art Nouveau movement, and the artist died of a laudanum overdose some weeks later.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

A newsboy to a Manhattan office found a photograph taken of the ill-fated mural, along with a single piece of paper bearing a single sentence in archaic Italian. Both were in his pocket when he leapt from the empire state building later that year. Examination of his apartment found endless stacks of paper, a vast treatise on jaguars, astronomy, pareidolia, and language.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Victor Aguilar rose in the early hours of the morning, making himself a french press coffee. His flat overlooked the Plaza de Mayo, which served as a continual source of inspiration for him. Victor had been struggling with an idea, a short story of a man going through his late father’s belongings for auction. A chance glimpse at the muddy blue sky with its few remaining stars made the story sputter and die. Now he thought as he looked over the the plaza, a peculiar twisting thought that came to him as complete as if it had been written into his genes at conception.

He sat at his table and clicked his mechanical pencil until the lead came.

There is a jaguar, he wrote, in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky. Like spores borne unto the wind, no idea is truly dead when one finds its echo across the universe.

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Fungisland Part 3

Entry 10

It has been some weeks since I’ve written. I thought I laid my supply of ink-mold in a safe place, yet it vanished perhaps creeping away under its own steam while laughing at me. I was forced to harvest several specimens of Bêche-de-mer to make this entry, hence the change in color.

Where to begin:

I began my raft-making process. While the jungle had tolerated my attempts to fell stipes for firewood, when I moved on to clear-cutting it struck back. A powerful mist of some unpleasant liquid stung and blinded me for hours. I was finally able to navigate my way to a freshet and wash my face with the aid of some nearby sponge-caps, only to find my rescuers to be my spore-riddled neighbors, gathering the caps and placing them within arm’s reach. The message is clear, I shall be a well-treated guest so long as I do not try to escape I reconcentrated my efforts in material-gathering, felling only one tree a day and using the ends for firewood, stashing the rest in a sheltered cove. I found a mold that produced a thick, oily salve that I used for waterproofing. Finally, I was forced to use some of my own scientific equipment for an anchor, for there was nothing so sturdy on the island. It took a passage of time too humiliating to tell to construct that raft. Perhaps one of the sailors might have been able to do so more quickly, but more than likely he would have fallen under the influence of the fungus before he could make use of it.

I remember the day I cast off, using a stipe to pole myself out to the reef. Once, I looked back to shore. The fungal people stood abreast and watched me silently from the beach. I kept my eyes to the horizon after that.

I was barely able to moor myself at the seabird’s rocks without crashing, but rather than safety they simply present another host of problems. The birds have long been hostile to any sign of fungi; they dive-bomb my deck if I drop my guard for a second. By gathering their eggs I might have enough for a month’s journey, but I have no means to bring fresh water with me and no compass to navigate by. I am simply choosing the method of my death at this point, and neither seems preferable.

The cinder cone glows at night. I fear an eruption.

Entry 11

This is not a happy update. I was able to rough it for a week offshore, then a storm blew up. Perhaps it is lucky I’ve survived. Perhaps it isn’t luck at all but the will of some malign presence. I give nothing over to chance now.

I washed up on the far shore of the island, after being beaten black and blue by the rocks. Thankfully I had already learned of a mold with curative properties and was able to tend my wounds. I made landfall in a small, barren cove with no way around to the jungle. I decided to attempt the cinder cone and made probably my most alarming yet in retrospect least surprising discovery upon setting foot on the surface.

The rock was soft.

The thing I have taken for a volcanic formation is another fungus, larger than anything else on the island! What’s more, I think it perhaps may be a genius loci, the one that compels the other fungi and fauna to do its bidding.

I was able to mount the monolith, even with my injuries, and upon summiting I found another shock: the “village” of the poor souls I call my neighbors. The indentation that would be the caldera in a volcano was instead a cottony nest of mycelia. As I watched, gatherers returned from the jungle and stood stationary as the mycelium grew up to cover their bodies. There they rested, or perhaps exchanged chemical information. I have resigned myself to never knowing. Among the gathered people I could spot several members of the crew I had been on speaking terms with. McKinnon. Bradley. Phillips, who had made a big to-do about giving me the lower berth owing to my seasickness. All once boorish examples of manhood. All mindless shells. What I feel is no victory. I feel a great gaping rift in my soul. Irrationally, the thought comes to me that my wish for solitude did this. I know logically that it can’t be true, yet…

I have found a ravine that bears small fruiting fungi and a trickle of fresh water. I have holed up here for the time being. I don’t know that I can trust anything set before me anymore, but it is either this or starvation.

I will not send the journal yet. I feel a great plan set in forward motion, but I have not seen all the cogs.

Entry 12

The fungal cone glows at night like a signal-fire. It wants more ships. It sends its blasted scouts to all corners of the compass, hoping to lure in more ships.

I see the crew of the Molly Haggard and hide from them. They are not men, they are corpse-puppets. I must remember the loss of their humanity for I ache to talk to something, anything sometimes.

My chest burns, every breath is a labor. It is almost time.

Entree numburrr 13

hurts to writ. focuss. i am finnees elmyr rutlend. i am mycolojist.

i am on top of mushroom. i can see ships in the distence. the fungus wanted it all along. the iceburg wasn’t tryng to escape. it was trying to bring us hear. every breath i took full of spores.

thout i was safe. food and water. woke up and myc mic fungus threads stuck me to the ground. peeple found me. fillips not fillips. pickd me up. brot me here.

focus.

it’s all the same. it’s all the fungus. i can feel my body dying as it replaces me. thinking geting hard. they brot me up to the top of the mountain. everyone here. spores make look like fire-signal smoke. they wave their hands. the ships turn. i don’t wave my hands but it’s hard. urge burns. i write this jurnal and then i throw it out to see. mayby find it in time.

it funny. all i ever think is i hate being with other, want alone with mushroom. and now with mushroom less alone than ever.

ships com goodby

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Fungisland Part 2

Entry 5

I have reached the far end of the island. It is far less welcoming than my home encampment, though this may just be due to the melancholy that dogs my steps. I have not yet laid eyes on my neighbors, though I suppose it is inevitable. For now I have been seeking out new varieties of fungi that aren’t present on my half. One slime mold I have named Felicitus atramenti, for its tannin-rich blood provided me with the ink in which I pen these words (my inkwell ran dry despite my thrifty efforts.) That there are animals present on this side of the island should be no surprise, for I have often heard the call of seabirds with no visible source. That they should be in some way burdened with infection should come as even lesser shock. One mighty specimen I have dubbed the webbed albatross, for mycelia coats it so. The bird’s eyes are blind and white, how they navigate I can only guess. I see them kiting higher and higher on air drafts like a hawk, gaining altitude enough that they can fly out to sea. They never make it to the horizon. I was unable to see the means of their extinction until I fashioned a clear jelly-like slime mold and a dry hollow stipe into a spyglass.

Far off shore there is a scattering of shoal, and on that shoal other seabirds nest. Once a webbed albatross crosses their threshold, the birds attack the intruder and send it into the sea. While I am overjoyed to find a potential source of food (the nutritious value of those eggs might well make the perilous journey worthwhile) I am alarmed at the scope of the island’s infection. I had heard of fungi affecting behavior, certainly, but only in already mindless insects. If the spores are strong enough to infect the braid of an avian, how does that bode for greater animals?

I must show more caution in what I eat and drink from now on.

Entry 6

I have found my neighbors. My worries of the fungal spores were too slight, it seems. For they have already found humanity.

I must wonder after the people on this island. What were they, Polynesian, Oceanian, some southern form of Esquimaux? Were they here before the fungi dominated? Alas, they put forth no answer.

The people infected by the fungi are covered with webs of mycelium. Like the birds, their eyes are sightless. They operate by touch, and by some internal compass they navigate the terrain. This place and all that live in it are like the clockwork wonders I saw in Munich as a boy, each piece appearing to operate independently while driven by the same infernal internal engine. I have made a grave miscalculation. I am leaving the far side of the island.

Entry 7

After stopping to gather enough atramenti to fill my inkwell several times over, I am home. In such a short time most of the markers of my presence had been absorbed into the jungle. My trunk remains untouched (thank god) and I yearned for a drop or two of manmade chemicals. I have doubts even a shipful of carbolic acid could clear this jungle, though.

I cannot banish the implications of the far side of the island from my mind. Everything in my home camp that brought me joy is recast in a sinister light. Perhaps it was only appealing to me in the first place because the fungus willed it so. No, Phineas. Down that path lies madness and despair.

Now that I am quit of it, I feel more comfortable describing the far end and its inhabitants. Whereas the “trees” near my base are like that of a small copse, the growth on the far end is outsize, with a canopy that blocks out the sunlight. All molds grow to a greater size in those environs; I found a slime mold that normally grew to six centimeters that I could barely span with both arms wide open. Also present in that jungle are membranes throttling the gaps between fungal trees which serve a purpose unclear to me. They dilate only to let the poor fungi-people pass.

My neighbors…I cannot imagine their passage a painless one, yet they look out at the world with placid faces. I cannot ascribe their facial features to any one ethnic group, and their skin is so powdered with spore-dust that skin tone is impossible to place. Perhaps they are not a native tribe but other castaways like myself, trapped here by the fungus I will not give myself over to idle speculation. I must weather these conditions and then when I have reached my apex, I will bind this journal in oilskins and set it adrift. Even if I do not live on, my knowledge will.

Entry 8

I found a slime mold that tastes like chocolate pudding the other day. While in my early days it might have brought me cheer, I am only sickened now. It was like a port Molly painting herself up in an approximation of your own mother’s face to entice you.

Whether I was always the subject of visits and only noticed now or that the fungus has been made aware of me I see the fungi-people on my side of the island with increasing frequency. They are completely silent, communicating in some nonverbal manner that leaves me out in the cold. No different than normal society, then. Their errands are as murky as their vision. Sometimes I see them move a fruiting mold a few feet, only to move it back a short time later. It is my pet theory that their actions are a cover, and they act only to observe me. I will begin caching the journal in a seaside cave, since the saltwater gives them pause.

Entry 9

It cannot be. Yet it is.

I have found the Bosun’s red cap. The crew are among the fungi-people.

I will begin constructing a raft. I must get off this island.

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Fungisland Part 1

Entry 1

The Molly Haggard has crashed, all hands down to the deep save for me. I, Phineas Elmer Rutland, am alive. More importantly, I am free. FREE. No more petty decrees to gather bird feathers and droppings, no more deckhands roughing up my scientific equipment, no more jabs about my sea-sickness, I AM FREE. I have destroyed the preceding journal pages as a symbol of my emancipation, so let me mark down a summary of how and when this came to be, lest I forget:

It was three days prior; the ship was on glass-calm waters when suddenly we hove to port (or starboard, I can never remember.) The ship was caught in a tumult as if a maelstrom was upon us, yet the sky and surrounding sea remained clear. I admit I remember little of this; the boat pitched and yawed so, I spent most of my time emptying the contents of my stomach overboard. I remember one confused soul screamed the dreaded “iceberg” but knew we were too close to the equator for such a thing to be.

I looked up and feared the man right: there was a large, white specter to the fore of the ship, nearly as tall as the mizzenmast. The crew flew into motion to turn us, all too late, when the looming white thing burst like a pig’s bladder. All that was left was a cloud of white dust and confusion among the men. This turned into chaos as those close to the dust cloud began choking and clawing at their faces. All the while we still churned in place, caught by some unseen menace.

I’ll remember the crack of the ship breaking as long as I live. Men fell into the sea without life-vest or buoy. I ran to grab the chest of my instruments. Thank god I waterproofed it by impregnating the wood with bitumen; the chest made a handy floating device when I fell through the burst hull. All night I could hear the other men calling each other, trying to keep within range. Folly, if you ask me. By lumping together, they probably damned themselves. I could have tried to share my floatation device and probably would have wound up back in the sea. But by excluding myself, I was saved. I was so comfortable I even dozed off, only to awake when the reef of this island jarred my chest.

I’ll admit to some trepidation when I made landfall. I had not grabbed any tack or fresh water, I had no idea the condition of my instruments, and I had a mild case of windburn. But all this melted away when I spotted a small brown protrusion at the end of the beach. I took it for some kind of root runner and tried to follow it back to the source, accidentally striking it with my foot in passing. The “root” sent up a brown cloud, and instantly I knew I was home.

I was not the captain’s first choice to man the ship’s science offices. He wanted to replicate the blasted Beagle’s tour of the tropics, wanted some jack-of-all trades with a chest of coarse hair who no doubt guzzled rum as he took specimens. Specializing in fungi was folly, he said. Well, here I am, whole and hale and surrounded by my area of expertise. Who is the fool, I ask?

Entry 2

It has been some weeks since I washed ashore. My early melancholy was tempered by the discovery of my first fungi, now I miss humanity less than I miss trough water in January. I have named that first specimen Phinea elmeri after myself, more of a sentimental gesture than anything. I have discovered dozens of fungi since then, and every day brings new specimens.

I have made steps to map out the island, though some areas remain impassable for the time being. The island is no coral atoll, as I thought when I first arrived, but a volcanic isle dominated by a cinder cone at the extreme end of the island. It has a source of fresh water, which I have yet to locate due to the nature of the jungle.

Ah, the jungle. If I could wax poetic for a moment, such a marvel has until now existed only in my dreams. What I took for tropical hardwood became the stipe of yet another fungal variety. Yes, my new home had mushrooms larger than anything recorded elsewhere. I must admit to hugging one in my fervor. The stipe gave off a slightly malty smell I found delightful. The “vines” that I’ve seen hanging from the canopy are simply above-ground mycelia, strong enough to be made into rope (a property I’ve used to my advantage in attempting more difficult areas)

I will not be so brash as to say all aspects of fungal life are so joyful. The fish that swim in the freshets are covered with a mold that makes them appear furred. While the mold makes them sluggish and easier to catch, it gives them a most unpleasant taste. I take my risks fishing off the reef, though I find more success prying bivalves from the rocks as the sea life prefers to give the island a healthy berth. I assume the fungi itself is stopped by the barrier of the seawater, hence why you don’t see giant mushrooms anywhere else.

Entry 3

Had some interesting run-ins with the local fungi in the preceding weeks. The first was a batch of what I took for ripe fruit on the sole plant on the island: a bush situated ⅓ the height of a seaside cliff. I thought the height and the surrounding stone gave it separation enough that it would be safe from fungal interference, forgetting of course that spores rise. I plucked the fruit while hanging from a woven mycelia cradle and performed the tests for vetting edibility. I found them not only edible, but quite alluring. After consuming three or so, I found my balance off and my temper uneven. What happened is something I have only been able to surmise after the fact: the ripe fruit were in fact infected by fungi that fermented the juices within the fruit. A benign enough lesson, with a steep cost the next morning (such a headache I have never had.) A regrettable loss, for although I enjoy the flesh of a roasted tree-stipe, I do miss the taste of fresh fruit(to say nothing of the dangers of scurvy.)

I observed a faction of the local fauna who makes use of the fungi as well as I do: a small violet octopus who reached out of the water to grasp a patch of mushrooms that hung over the water. They gave off not spore dust but an inky liquid that hit the water and quickly dissipated. Within moments the nearby shellfish yawned open, leaving a feast for the conniving cephalopod. How it avoids the effects of the liquid itself is a mystery, but one I have all the time in the world to solve.

It was near the seashore that I also found the solution to another mystery. There was a circular formation of globular fungi that abutted the shore. They did not burst but simply swelled larger and larger until the wind unseated them from the ground. I had the good luck to be there on an occasion when one flew out to sea: the bulb hit the seawater and swelled many times its size while remaining buoyant. Here, finally, was the “iceberg” that the crew so desperately fought to avoid. I suppose this is the manner which the fungus attempts to spread, yet it is stymied by the saltwater that hems it in at all quarters. No other island is close enough, I suppose. Then my thoughts turned to the wreck of the Molly Haggard, and whether its flotsam was impregnated with the spores.

….I do not know that I care for the notion.

Entry 4

I have found footprints. Blast! I only wanted for a single year alone in this place before humanity invaded. Why can’t a man be left to his own devices?!

They start at one of the freshets and lead inland. The jungle is impenetrable that way, not even fire will thin their fungal ranks.

I have made up my mind. I will form a canoe from a tree-stipe and go around seaways.

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Creepypasta Cookoff 2017

It’s that time of year again! Behold, my entries to the creepypasta cookoff:

The Hoard

Espiritu

Sweethearts

While you’re at it, take a gander at the entire friggin’ archive

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Gilly, Or A Boy and His Tadpole

The tadpole was the size of a man’s thumbnail and colored a blue so dark it was almost black. The other tadpoles were all yellow-green and many times its size, American Bullfrog larvae. Ethan had paged through his junior nature guide three times and still hadn’t found anything remotely resembling the newcomer.

He dipped a sycamore twig into the water, disturbing the surface. The bullfrogs fled, but the blue tadpole curled curiously up to it. Ethan lifted the stick from the water. The tadpole came with it, flattening to the rough surface. Out of the water its blue shone iridescent. Tilting the stick this way and that, Ethan studied the little passenger. The tadpole had no visible eyes and its fins were transparent, bordering on invisible. He had never seen anything like it, and it woke some protective instinct in him. What if one of the bigger tadpoles ate it?

Ethan decided to run home and fetch a jelly jar. The tadpole would live on his windowsill, fed with lunch meat until it had grown. This plan lasted to the point when Ethan opened his front door. Bombarded with homework, chores, do this, do that, Ethan’s world ceased to include the pond. He remembered only a little bit, just before drifting off that night.

It may have been the next day, it may have been three days later when he got back out to the pond. Too little time, surely, for all the bullfrog tadpoles to mature and hop away. Yet the little pond was empty.

No, not empty.

As Ethan dipped a stick into the water, the strange tadpole swam up via a series of curlicues. Ethan smiled. The tadpole seemed to be thriving with the lack of competition. Now it was the span of Ethan’s hand and a brighter blue. Ethan squatted. The extra sandwich he made was shredded into the water, where the bread soaked and sank. The tadpole touched nothing. What did it want? Ethan regretted not hedging his bets with PB&J.

A lone bullfrog tadpole ascended to mouth the surface of the pond, dimpling it. Like a shot, the blue tadpole was upon it, circling it. The bullfrog tadpole seemed to disintegrate. Ethan’s eyes popped wide. That was the best thing he’d seen in his entire life. He watched the strange tadpole swim somewhat forlornly around the now-empty pond. What would it eat now?

Ethan had an idea. Uncle Henry had a feeder pond in his cattle field. In an afternoon’s work of splashing and coaxing, he got the tadpole into one of his larger sand buckets. With many careful steps Ethan brought the tadpole to its new home, upending the bucket and disturbing the minnows.

Ethan was not able to visit every single day, but was pleased with the progress nonetheless. The tadpole grew larger, features became more distinct. Unlike the poor bullfrog larvae, the strange tadpole had visible gills. Not behind its head, like a fish, but all along its body. Ethan decided to dub it “Gilly.”  Gilly still did not have even vestigial eyespots but bore a mouthful of sharp needle teeth.

A week after introducing Gilly to the pond, Ethan ran into his uncle on the worn cattle trail. Uncle Henry had on his fishing waders and elbow-length rubber gloves.

“Whatcha doing uncle Henry?”

Henry grunted. “Some kinda Snakehead got in the feeder pond.”

“Uh-oh. Is it dangerous?”

“Well, I wouldn’t go sticking fingers in there any time soon.”

“I won’t, sir,” Ethan said. He turned right back around and went home. He grabbed a 3-gallon bucket and the aquarium net. Gilly took much less coaxing this time, perhaps he had learned that buckets meant good things in his future.

Ethan’s mother never allowed him to swim in Redtail pond on account of all the scrap metal lying on the bottom, but she let him fish up the shiny silver sticklebacks (provided he let them go afterwards.) Plenty of room, plenty of food, and water so clear you could see all the way to the bottom. For a moment after being dumped out, Gilly hung on the surface of the cold water before wriggling away as if burrowing through the liquid.

It was not even a week later when Ethan, bearing his lunch bag to another session by the water, stumbled upon a teen girl kneeling beside the pond and sobbing. A woman had a hand on her shoulder, other hand pressed to her mouth as if to hold in an ugly sob. At their feet was a bloody and torn dog’s leash.

“…I don’t understand,” the girl was saying, “he just went under.”

Ethan crossed to the far end of the pond to eat his sandwich.

The pond was no longer a haven. Ethan saw a man sitting by the dock with his jeans rolled up to the knee, everything below his right ankle bloody and raw. Missing pet signs bloomed from every telephone pole.

Ethan found his father in the workshop.

“Pop,” he said,” could you fix my wagon so the sides come up?”

His father tapped his knee. “How far?”

“Half again.” Ethan held his hands out to indicate height.

“Sure. Hey, what for? You havin’ a teddy bear parade?” his father needled. Ethan said nothing.

They were able to build a sort of crude extension from boards fitted and nailed to one another. Ethan waterproofed it with a block of his mother’s canning paraffin. Crude, but it held.

Redtail pond had sprouted a shiny new “no swimming” sign on its shore. Ethan rolled his wagon to the water’s edge. He found a good-sized stick and slapped the pond surface.

A bit of moving debris caught his eye. Gilly surfaced, shedding the colors that had led Ethan to mistake it for a clump of weeds and a rock. Gilly was now the size of a duck. Black cilia frothed from his gills. His mouth opened up half the length of his body, disclosing myriad white fences of teeth.

Ethan knelt. “Hey Gilly.” Did the tadpole understand speech? He seemed to grin knowingly as he tread water. “This little pond is getting too dangerous for you. But don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.”

He rolled the wagon down into the water. Gilly cooperatively swam over the lip of the wagon, which by some miracle held on its rough passage back to shore. Water sloshed over the edge, so Ethan covered it with his rain slicker.

On the road from the pond, he ran into two Fish and Game wardens bearing dip nets.

“Go home, son,” one of them admonished. Ethan nodded.

Rolling the wagon over grass and gravel, it took what seemed like forever to arrive at his destination.

“Here we are,” he said, pulling off the slicker, “the lake might have bad fish in it, but there’s plenty more places to hide.”

Gilly eagerly butted the walls of the wagon. Ethan knelt, feeling silly about how wet his eyes were.

“Sorry I can’t see what kind of frog you turn into, buddy. Make lots of little tadpoles, okay?”

He rolled the wagon into the lake.

Gilly swam out fluidly, working his entire body like a paddle. He hung blue against the sandy bottom of the lake before shifting color and vanishing. Ethan remained kneeling, cuffs sodden and cold. He was sad, but it was a satisfying sad. It felt like the end of some kid’s book: A Boy and His Tadpole.

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