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The Shambling Detective 7: The Smiling Corpse

Mahoney crawled, hand over hand, elbow over elbow, for hours. Every so often he would hear the tinnitus that preceded the deafening noise, and he would put his head down and clench his whole body until it receded. He had no concept of the time, he only knew it was night by the street lamps. The smell of the vomit dried onto his suit had become mere background whisper, as had the pain from the injuries he’d sustained over the past few days. Mahoney crawled.

“Mahoney?” A pair of leather loafers stepped into his narrow field of vision. “Mother of god, what are you doing on the pavement? I called hours ago, I thought they got you!” Dooley knelt until his face was near-level with Mahoney’s. Disgust and fear were writ large on his face.

“Jesum Crow, you’re worse than I thought. What the hell did they do to you, man?”

Mahoney felt arms encircle his midsection, lifting him. He screamed “NO!” and pressed his body to the pavement. They dropped him.

“What the hell is the matter with you?”

Mahoney pressed his face to the sidewalk. It felt so solid, and yet insubstantial as smoke.

“There’s something wrong with the world,” he said. His throat felt like fire but he had to talk. “It’s a cage and we’re in here with the beast. They all knew. That’s why they hid in death. It’s following me Dooley, it’s everywhere. I’m in a web. Every step I take shakes a strand. No hiding for me.”

“Mahoney…Christ.” Dooley’s disgust turned consoling. “It’s all right now. We’ll get you help. Just after this.”

Mahoney lifted his head. There was a knot of policemen gathered on the sidewalk in front of him, and a few newsmen. Chick was carrying on an animated conversation with a beat cop, with lots of gesturing. Mahoney ran a tongue over sharkskin-rough lips and croaked, “what’s going on?”

“We got him, Mahoney. With your help.” Dooley produced a handkerchief and wet it with a flask. He dabbed at the front of Mahoney’s suit. “I tracked the bastard all the way to this house, and we’ve got enough dirt on him to put him away for a long time.”

“Who?”

“Who do you think? Orroft.”

Mahoney looked over at the building the policemen were gathered around. It had gables and towers and angles all arranged in the artful disarray of Milosz Sikorski.

Mahoney grabbed onto Dooley’s forearms. “No,” he said in a dry whisper.

Dooley, bemused, tried to wrench away. Across the lawn, the cops had produced a battering ram and were going after the door with evenly timed thuds.

“We’ll get you to a hospital, pal, just be patient.”

“No.” Mahoney was clawing at his suit jacket now. “Tell them not to go in there—not there!”

The door fell in. The cop at the end of the line threw his forearm over his nose.

Man, what the hell is that smell?”

Dooley was trying unsuccessfully to dislodge Mahoney’s hands. “It’s just a house, and they’re armed. Relax.”

“Not it’s not—that’s wrong! Everything is wrong.” No matter how he tried, Mahoney could not force sense into his words. He could not push the truth through fast enough to stop the policemen that now stepped over the threshold.

Chick walked over, suit jacket flung over one arm. “Lieutenant says we’re good to follow. Needs a translator for some of the stuff in there.”

Dooley tried to stand, but was stymied by the full weight of Mahoney hanging from his lapels.

“Don’t go in,” Mahoney begged, “the house is wrong—you’ll never come out!”

Dooley frowned thoughtfully. “How is it wrong? I need to know.”

“Sikorski. Sikorski did it. He folded it wrong so time runs every which way in there. He could see like I can. Dooley, please, you have to listen!”

Dooley, staring gravely at Mahoney’s face, nodded. Mahoney relaxed his grip as Dooley rose. He turned back to some of the cops that had chosen to stay with the vehicles.

“Hey,” he said, “could one of you watch him for me? Just ‘til I get back?”

A sudden terror flared within Mahoney. He would have leapt for Dooley to cling to him and drag him back, trip him, anything, anything to keep him from going in that house,
but       the     tinnitus
      flared         up again
           and   he    fell
to the sidewalk
                       screaming,
                 clamping his hands       to
his head,

                    screaming,
  clenching                           his whole body,
                screaming
         at     the thunder
               like                great wings—

He came to when someone splashed a lukewarm cup of coffee on his face. Mahoney leaned upright against the police car. His whole body ached as if he’d been clenching it for hours. He must have—dawn was showing pink in the east.

One of the cops sat on his haunches before Mahoney, his partner stood with truncheon tucked in elbow as he gazed back at the house.

“They still ain’t back,” the standing cop said, “we have to radio the chief.”

The crouching cop nodded, setting his empty cup down. “What do you think we should do with his little friend here?”

“Who him? Toss him in the paddy wagon, he’s just some drunk bum.”

Mahoney heaved froward, making the sitting cop fall back with a shout.

“No! Nobody goes in there, nobody else!” he grabbed and squeezed the policeman’s arms. “It’s a trap! The whole thing is a trap!”

There was the startlingly crisp sound of a truncheon hitting something, and compared to the solidity of that sound everything felt less real. It took Mahoney too much time to realize he’d been hit on the head, and by the time he processed it he was being thrown bodily into the paddy wagon.

There was hardly any room in the wagon. The seat nearest Mahoney was occupied by a young man with a dazed expression and track marks on his arms. When he turned Mahoney could see blood streaming from his temple. In the corner nearest to the cab, between two men who looked like they’d been in the same bar fight, was a red haired fellow who gibbered unceasingly  as the doors closed. Mahoney had to strain to hear what the policemen said over his stream-of-consciousness rant.

“…where you want them? Just dump them off in the drunk tank?”

—yellow, yellow, he’d never even used the color yellow before that day, how’d he get so many tubes—”

“Why not? Most of ‘em are stinko anyway.”

—there was a crooked man who built a crooked house, he drew up all the plans, that crooked little louse—”

“That feller by the door’s nodding off. We could wind up with a stiff if we don’t get him treatment.”

“—burn the roof off? You might as well saw the branch you’re sitting on, it all comes to the same end—”

“He dies in jail, he dies on the street. Same difference.”

“—My prison is a ladder that climbs endlessly upward, rung by rung by rung by rung—”

The wagon started to move. Mahoney fit his head into the corner where the body of the truck and back door met. The pain was refreshingly clarifying. He could think without the intrusion of fear.

“—thin as paper, all of you, all you bit players full of sound and fury signifying nothing—”

The intrusion of that, on the other hand….

Mahoney shifted in his seat and closed his eyes. Dooley was gone. He knew that with a certainty he could not ascribe to anything. Dooley simply would not be coming back out of that house. None of them would.

What was left to do? There was no way to throw light on it all now, now that he had lost Dooley. And furthermore, did he want to throw light on it?

Mahoney swallowed and it felt like a knife going down his throat.

He had been better before knowing. He had been able to live quite content, if cluelessly. And now he knew he was winding down a sentence without any hope of pardon. The minutes passed nearly visibly before his eyes.

He couldn’t inflict this on anyone else. Perhaps that was what the others had done as well. They had known they couldn’t go back, and the only thing left was to cut the infection off at the source. Perhaps not the maestro, but Rousseau and Sikorski, certainly. They had kicked and fought against the bars of their cage, but ultimately surrendered rather than be overtaken.

Mahoney did not want to be overtaken. Not at all.

He knew he didn’t have the strength within himself to stop the institute from claiming another victim, and if he couldn’t do that—

“—then what use is there in living on?” came a voice from across the paddy wagon.

Mahoney opened his eyes. The red haired fellow across the way was staring right at him. He smiled familiarly. Mahoney did not return it.

“I got a joke. Wanna hear it?” the fellow said.

Mahoney made no response.

“Two fish are swimming upstream. They see a duck coming down the other way, and the duck turns to them and says ‘hey,’ he says, ‘hey, how’s the water today, fellas?’ and the one fish turns to the other and says, ‘what the hell is water?’”

The red haired fellow grinned. Mahoney didn’t react.

“Wanna see a neat trick?”

Mahoney shook his head.

The red haired fellow pulled both of his sleeves open to show that there was nothing up them. He made a fiddling motion in the air with his hands and suddenly there was a small oblong shape in them. He thumbed the blade open and now Mahoney could see it was a straight razor. But not just any straight razor, the handle had a bird worked in fire-red enamels with a tail that plumed like smoke. Vladimirovitch’s razor.

“Presto,” the red haired man said, and slit his own throat.

The other drunks shouted and pulled away from the spectacle. The junky at Mahoney’s left was the only one who didn’t react, he lay against the wall stiff as a rake.

The wagon stopped, jarring them into their seats once more.

The cop who opened the back door whistled. His partner called something unintelligible from the front of the van.

“Yeah,” the cop called back, “looks like Gillman just slit his own throat.”

Something jolted through Mahoney’s whole body.

A garbled reply came from the front.

“Nah, we’ll just close the doors and let the desk sort it out when we get there.”

The cop boarded the wagon and snagged the straight razor from the dead man’s hands. He held it up.

“Anyone see how he got this?”

The drunks stared at him. Mahoney stared at Gillman’s corpse.

The cop let the silence linger for another minute and then shook his head, tsking. He hopped out of the wagon and slammed the doors, leaving them alone with the copper-smell of death.

“Forget this for a game of soldiers,” the drunk to Gillman’s left said, getting up to squash between Mahoney and the junky.

“You said it brother.” the drunk to Gillman’s right merely slid down the bench, compacting the others sitting next to him.

Gillman lay back against the wall, body jostling with every movement of the wagon. The smile on his face seemed triumphant, somehow. The rest of the ride to the station was silent. When the cop opened the doors again, he called for two stretchers. The junky had nodded off permanently sometime during the ride, so he was loaded next to Gillman’s smiling corpse.

One of the drunks caught Mahoney staring and nudged him. “Helluva day, huh?”

Mahoney watched the stretcher bear Gillman away. “…yeah.”

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The Shambling Detective 6: Ben Zoma

Mahoney did not wake. He opened his eyes and the world rushed in. Painfully.

He lay on
 the concrete
   just in front of
      his office and the
         sidewalk stretched
           away in either direction
         serpentine like a ladder
       that curled up a
      mountainside,
   spinning dizzily
until he closed his eyes once more and found meager refuge. The sound of everyday foot traffic was too sharp for his ears, and the sidewalk seemed to pitch beneath him, but with his eyes closed it was almost bearable.

There was the memory of a deafening noise in his ears, something that crackled like the roll of infinitely large wings. His eardrums felt tender.

He had been at the Oculus Institute, yes. That was the why of it. But the where of it had happened in the darkness between then and now, the yawning gulf where he could find no stable footing.

Against his better judgement, Mahoney
                                                            opened
                                                                his eyes
                                                              Again
                                                           and found
                                                         The
                                                      situation
                                                   unchanged.
                                                 He vomited
                                              and it formed
                                                little runnels
                                                   in every
                                                      direction
                                                       as if it too
                                                         was confused
                                                            about which
                                                              way was
                                                                  up.
A man stopped and bent down,
forming a U shape with his body
as he looked          Mahoney up
and down,             frowning. “You
okay, mac?           late night at
the club?”             Mahoney
waved him
away and
thankfully he just left, shaking his head. Mahoney coughed. The back of his throat felt like it was on fire, and it paired nicely with the rest of his aches and pains. A stolen glance up at the building made it seem insurmountable as Everest in his state. He couldn’t imagine standing with his head like this, although he could guess it would end with him on the sidewalk again in short order.

Mahoney grabbed a partition in the sidewalk and d r a g g e d his body s l o w l y across the s i d e w a l k, stopping every other pull to breathe. A secretary with her boss’s dry cleaning slung over one arm leapt his body like a show pony, made-up face arranging into a disgusted frown. Mahoney had dragged himself through the mess on the sidewalk. He took a deep breath of mostly fresh air and continued to p u l l himself up the p a v e m e n t until he lay before the front door of the building.

His keys were in his pocket. Rather, they were in the pocket of the suit he normally wore. Mahoney worked his way up the side of the building on his belly like a snake and pressed several bells. One rewarded him and the door unlatched. Mahoney set his body inside the entryway and just breathed for a few minutes.

He took
           each step
                           like it was
                                            the last rung
                                                                 on a ladder
                                             whose legs
                           ended in a
            bottomless pit.
Up and
           up, to the
                           fourth floor,

where he finally collapsed in relief. He pressed his face to the battleship linoleum floor and just breathed and breathed the welcoming smell of linseed and cork. There was the click of a door unlatching, then the startled exclamation: “oh my!”

Mahoney rolled his head to the side, and found the optometrist in coat and cap, on the verge of locking up his office. He peered down at Mahoney with a mixture of disgust and pity.

“Son, you’ve had a rough ride,” he said at length.

Mahoney croaked, “you ain’t just whistling Dixie.” Talking hurt. Hell, breathing hurt. And now that he was out of the public eye, something else pained him. An anxious paranoia that nipped at his body like a flock of angry gulls. He wanted nothing more than to curl into himself and simply lay there, unmoving, invisible.

A strange look came over the optometrist. He crouched on his heels and peered into Mahoney’s face. “Could you open your eyes for me? Just a bit?”

Mahoney managed one. The optometrist gently manipulated his eyelid, tsking quietly.

“Would you mind having a seat in my chair? There’s something I just want to see.”

Mahoney clamped his eyes shut. “I’ll need a shoulder.”

Between the two of them, they managed to get Mahoney on his feet and in motion. He kept his eyes tightly shut and leaned heavily on the old man. The chair, when it hit the back of his knees, gave him a jolt of panic. But the soft naugahyde gently welcomed his sore body and he collapsed into it.

A small spot of heat hit his face.

“Open your eyes again for me?” The doc had his equipment out, giving Mahoney another urge to bolt. The fact that he would have fallen on his face the second he left the chair kept him in. He was put through all the paces, and a look of increasing wonder spread across the optometrist’s face.

“Say, you haven’t had some kind of…procedure recently, have you?”

Mahoney swallowed down some bile. “Actually, I just got out of the Oculus Institute.”

“Really? What quack runs that place, and why go there when you’ve got a perfectly good eye doctor just down the hall?” the optometrist joked.

Mahoney gave him a long look. “You’ve never heard of that place?”

“Nope.”

“Thurgood Orroft?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell, and I know every other optometrist in town.”

“He’s not a…anyway, it wasn’t like that.” Mahoney squeezed his eyes shut. “I can see things now. Things I couldn’t before. It makes me dizzy.”

“Things like what?” the optometrist adjusted his lamp.

“Words. They…they jump out at me, they make shapes.” Mahoney cleared his throat. “They made me look into some kind of glass and now the world is wrong. I was strapped into a chair and made to look.”

The optometrist gazed at him with concern. “Now why would you go to a place like that?”

Mahoney said honestly, “I don’t know.”

The optometrist swept the skin under an eye with his thumb. “What kind of words do you see?”

Mahoney closed his eyes. “For the calamity will be visited thricefold on their heads, and they shall sup the marrow of their despair.”

“What?”

“From The Book of Eibon.”

The optometrist smiled gently and shook his head. “I don’t read fashion magazines, kid.” He walked over to a counter and clicked on a small lamp that gave off a deep red glare. “Can you see that?”

“Yeah.”

He clicked the lamp off. “You can see infra-red. That’s the lamp I use to set my molds.” He pulled a chair over and sat, fingers gripping his chin thoughtfully. “Your eyes are different, but I can’t say exactly how without better equipment. Like something out of those pulp magazines my Cheryl always gets.”

Mahoney laughed bitterly. “Yeah, written by Ben Zoma.”

“You Jewish?”

Mahoney stared. “What?”

The optometrist shrugged. “You said that name, I just thought—”

“What does that name mean to you?”

“Ah. Well, it’s been a while since my bar mitzvah but…” the optometrist returned several tools to a drawer. “Four rabbis were called to visit the garden of eden. Ben Zoma looked upon it and went mad. Ben Azzai looked upon it and died. Archer tried to destroy the garden. Only Rabbi Akiva departed unharmed.”

Mahoney realized he’d let his mouth fall open and shut it, quickly. The optometrist was straightening up the office, putting his instruments away.

“Where does a gentile like you hear the name Ben Zoma, anyway?”

“Oh you know…around.”

The optometrist chuckled. “Well, I’ve probably pried into your personal life enough for one day. Get yourself home and into a change of clothes.”

“After a spell.” Mahoney managed to stand on his own. “I have some things to attend to before I can walk out of here.”

The optometrist gave him a not-unkind look. “Take care of yourself now.”

Mahoney watched him go down the hall, listening until his footsteps faded on the stairwell  before turning away. His office door was locked, but with the right combination of shoves and jiggling, it sprang open anyway.

The familiar sight of his rooms should have been a comfort, but it wasn’t. It was tainted by association now. There was the table where he’d done the deal with the veiled woman, there was the wall safe where he stored the money, the desk where he’d written it all down. Even the scotch in his desk drawer tasted like dirty air. Mahoney leaned his hands into his eyes. Anxiety rattled up and down his spine, poisoned his blood. The world felt like a spiderweb now, insubstantial and infinitely fragile. A spiderweb that serviced something dark and unnamable. He could understand now why Robin Rousseau ate his paints, why Sikorski had opened his throat. His body didn’t want to move. It wanted to lay where it was and just let the inevitable roll over it, if only to be done with it.

Mahoney made himself dial Dooley’s extension instead. Ten rings, no pickup. He tried again. Fifteen rings this time. He dialed 0 and had the operator buzz every line in the news office. A very irate style columnist picked up. She icily informed Mahoney that she wasn’t anyone’s secretary before stalking off to grab Dooley. He panted as he jumped on the line, like he’d run from across the office.

“Mahoney, thank god. I thought they got rid of you, we’ve been combing the morgues around town looking for you.”

Mahoney tried to chuckle, it sounded rusty. “A little soon to be making funeral plans, isn’t it?”

There was a long moment of silence. “Mahoney, you’ve been gone for nine days,” Dooley said flatly.

Mahoney set the receiver down, then pressed his face into the cool surface of the desk.

“Mahoney?” the phone gained a tinny reverb from the wood. “You still there?”

Mahoney made a muffled cry of anguish against the blotter before scooting the receiver to his ear. “Yeah. Still here. Still kicking.”

“Good, because I’ve got news. They’ve arrested the soprano.”

“Miss Bianchi?” Mahoney blinked. “For what?”

“The murder of Vladimirovitch. She cut his throat with his own razor, a custom job with a Firebird on the handle.”

Mahoney caught a whiff of his own sick smell and buried his nose in scotch. “She said disappointment killed him.”

“I’ll say. Listen, we need to talk about what happened to you. What you remember. This case is going to pop like a boil, and soon. Can you get down here?”

Mahoney laughed. “I couldn’t tie my shoes at the moment. I’m at my office. I’ll spend the night here, start home in the morning.”

“They torture you?”

“Not…exactly.” It was coming on again. Mahoney put his head down and breathed hard.

“Well, what’s wrong?”

“I’m seeing words in my head. It’s like I can see through everything, like it’s a map folded in on itself.” Here it came, the terrible vertiginous pain. Mahoney squeezed his eyes shut. “Like everything’s happening or going to happen right next to each other. I can’t put it more clearly than that. And no, they didn’t dose me.”

“Did they dose you?” Dooley cleared his throat. “How’d you know I was going to ask that?”

“The same way I know anything, I just see it. And no, I didn’t find any trace of Gillman.”

“Do you think Gillman—” Dooley stopped short, irritated. “That’s getting old.”

“If I could stop, I would.”

“Listen, this can’t wait. I’ll meet you down at your office, maybe take you to a hotel afterwards. We have to assume that nowhere is safe.”

“Assume? From where I’m standing that’s just the plain truth.”

“Don’t joke about this. I’ve found some things out about our friend Orroft, really sick stuff. Also, Gillman might be alive.” Dooley was breathing hard. Despite it all, his journalist nose was twitching. “Just sit tight and I’ll be there in a few.”

“Like I got a choice.” Mahoney let the receiver fall to the side and listened to the repetitive disconnect signal. The world

       started                    to

                  scatter

          again

                                        but

he squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his whole body until the feeling went away. He wet two fingers with scotch and scrubbed the fuzz from his teeth. He just had to maintain until Dooley got here.

The sound started.

It began small, the whispery sweep like a thousand pieces of paper jostling into one another, building until it became a deafening rumble that sounded both within his ears and without. Mahoney did not know if it showed any signs of stopping, just that the world went mercifully black after a while, and he fell in darkness.

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The Shambling Detective 5: The Oculus Institute

Mahoney lay on the murphy bed with a wet washcloth over his eyes. Operating entirely by touch, he fumbled for the glass at his bedside table and brought it to his lips, sloshing bourbon on his unfastened collar in the process.

“So the pillar turned into a recess?” Chick Henshaw said. He sat at the card table Mahoney used in the dining room/den, ashing into a juice glass. “Sounds simple enough. A guy makes somethin’ round, halfway through he dents it in. Nothing to lose your lunch over.”

“No, it wasn’t like that. It was…it was just both at the same time. In and out. If you could have seen it—”

“Yeah, yeah.” The studio chair creaked as Chick rearranged himself. He had helped himself to some of the deli chicken in the ice box, the smack of him chewing made Mahoney nauseous. “I getcha. I was at one of those sideshows a while back with my girl, Gertie. We see one of those human knots, you know, and the way he was all pretzeled up didn’t seem possible.”

The door slammed and Dooley stalked in. “Chick, quit boring the detective with your love life. Mahoney? I’ve got the paper.”

Mahoney eased his feet off the bed and slowly sat up, keeping the washcloth to his eyes until the very last minute. As the wet cloth fell from his eyes it disclosed Dooley, shirtsleeves rolled up past the elbow and tie askew. He held an accordion-fold pamphlet printed on sickly green paper.

Mahoney gestured. “That it?”

Dooley pulled back a little. “You shouldn’t go there.”

“But I’m going.”

Dooley sighed. “Stubborn ass.”

“I got no choice, Dooley.”

“Yeah, if he don’t go, who will look after the kids?” Chick said through a mouthful.

Dooley glanced back. “Hush.”  To Mahoney he said, “look, I’ve got guys for this. Gimme a day or two to arrange something. This place is bad news. Why you need in there so badly anyway?”

Mahoney glanced beyond him to Chick. “Hey, check the drawer there for me, the one second from the right?”

Chick opened it with a rattle of silverware.

“What’s in there?”

Chick took out a small slip of paper. “The yellow sign.”

Mahoney looked back at Dooley. “I’m going in. I can’t quit because it won’t quit me.”

Dooley hissed air over his teeth. “Hell. Take this, I’m on a union break.”

He thrust the pamphlet at Mahoney and stalked over to the window, lighting up one of his hat-band cigarettes.

The pamphlet read “THE OCULUS INSTITUTE” in lettering only slightly more welcoming than barbed wire. A crown of laurel leaves  graced the front page. Mahoney sniffed. Laurel wreath. Brotherhood of leaves. Ha. So much for academic wit.

The pamphlet spoke as if singling him out as a misunderstood genius. The institute knew how society had failed him, how the disorder he struggled with was the fault not of him but the people around him. He needed to swim with like-minded individuals to recover. He needed the Oculus Institute.

Mahoney lowered the pamphlet. “Guys, I think I might be the second coming of Isaac Newton.”

Chick snort-chuckled. Dooley smoked irritably, not bothering to make sure the smoke successfully reached the slit of the kitchen’s hopper window.

Mahoney sped through the rest. It was rote, offering tennis courts and Olympic-sized swimming pools in the same breath as operating rooms and shock therapy. Basically a cush hamper to dump your unsightly relatives in until such time as they were ready again for polite society. The pamphlet was signed by one Thurgood Orroft, MD.

“And what do we know about the good Dr. Orroft?”

“Well, for starters he isn’t an MD.” Dooley flicked the ash off his cig with a pinky. “He isn’t M-anything. He’s what you might call a guru. They let him put that on the pamphlet because he’s got rich friends in the right places. I looked into this guy, Mahoney. He’s scary. You remember that senator’s daughter, the one who tried to stop a trolley with her mind and ended up smeared down seventh street?”

Mahoney nodded. The throb in his head was dulling, but it was being replaced with a general tension all over his body. He took another slug.

“He was her ‘therapeutic consultant’. Same with that Olympic diver who aerated his wife with buckshot. Or that chessmaster who took a knife to his handlers to see if they were real people or life-sized chess pieces. All graduates of the same laughing academy.” Dooley drifted over to the bed. “Look, whatever I can say to convince you this is a bad idea, I’ll use it. Religion, money, anything. I’ve been in the same room as killers and dictators and this guy scares white into my hair. Say you’ll wait. Say you won’t go in. What fare are you getting that’s worth all the trouble?”

Mahoney squeezed his eyes shut. “Nothing you’d understand. I just…I have to. It has to be me, and it has to be there.”

Dooley growled through his nose, stamping the life out of his latest cigarette. “All right, Mahoney. All right.”

 

Like all good supervillain lairs, the Oculus Institute sat atop a seaside cliff. Mahoney, his hair slicked to the side with borrowed pomade and wearing a suit he’d only worn once before, to a funeral, drove a dummy car up the front drive. There was no gate, an oddity in such a place. Mahoney tried to contain his sense of foreboding as he drove past thick cypress hedges and up to the front of the white stone building.

A female attendant was waiting for him. The uniform for the place was the same green as the pamphlet. The girl’s set came with a headdress that brought to mind Red Cross nurses from the war. Her eyes were at half-mast, her unsmiling face held no makeup.

“Mr. French?” Her voice was flat.

Mahoney tried to smile like someone else and ended up thrusting his chin out awkwardly. “That’s me, Harold French. Friends call me Harry.”

The girl said nothing. Mahoney realized she was waiting for him to get out of the car, so he scrambled.

“You are here of your own free will, yes?” Her diction was stilted, as if English wasn’t her first language and she had memorized her script by rote.

“Committing myself? Boy howdy. The office tells me—”

“You will be apprised of our going rates,” the girl continued smoothly as they crossed the threshold and into a very spartan hallway. It was as if someone had put a hotel front on a prison. The hall was unglamorous and identical to any number of buildings in the city, save for a series of canvases that hung the length of the hall. Mahoney tried to contain a rapidly blooming sense of unease as he walked past them. Even before he saw the cursive dash of “R.Rousseau” in the corner, he knew they were the late artist’s product by the sheer anarchy of the brushwork. These were cruder, possibly done early in his manic period. One canvas depicted an empty sidewalk that looked very much like the front of the Jackson Memorial hall. Another showed a bungalow crouched among weeds and creepers like a fleeing crab. Another showed a lonely house on a hill, Miss Bianchi’s mansion. Mahoney realized with a jolt that they were all places he had visited. He swung around to look at the others, got a glimpse of a lonely alley populated by an overturned trash can and an empty refrigerator turned on its side and used as a makeshift house, before the buzzer for the interior door sounded. The girl was through and gone before  Mahoney realized he’d lagged, and skipped to catch up.

The girl strode down the hallway as if she ran on a greased track, smoothly and efficiently so her green smock didn’t so much as crease. There was art on the hallway walls in here, too, every three doors or so. All the same portrait. Unlike the front hall, this painting was done by an artist who seemed afraid of its subject, and not without reason. The subject of the painting, a man with thick-rim glasses and a glowing bald pate, seemed to stare through the canvas. His face was empty of human emotion in a way that made the air around the painting seem a few degrees colder. It was the kind of face that could watch an opera or an execution and be equally unmoved. A brass plate below the frame read: “our founder.”

“The pamphlet listed our facilities,” the girl spoke monotonously, indicating the doors that lined the hallway with a hand. None of them were marked. “We have much more than what is available at the surface level, of course. All will be revealed in time. But not before your test.”

Mahoney spoke up. “Ah yes, I brought the results of my last physical, three months ago. No need.”

The girl looked at him, and the look knew things. Mahoney slowed his pace. A sudden bolt back down the hallway was only stymied by the automatic door, which had closed on his heels.

“You will be tested,” she said flatly.

Mahoney hunkered down and tried to breathe calmly. When the hall t-boned, the girl went left. Mahoney ran right.

Of course, escape was all but impossible. The windows he had seen from the outside didn’t seem capable of opening, and he doubted the place had a laundry chute handy for sliding down. He jogged around another right turn and met with an identical stretch of hallway. Thurgood Orroft glared down at him. Maybe this was why the grounds were unfenced, the place was practically a fortress. Each patient suite a cloistered cell accessible only from the outside, soundproofed, with a drain in the floor for easy cleaning. He rounded another right turn at a slightly quicker pace. If he could only get his hands on something sharp, maybe he could take a prisoner and negotiate his way out.

Mahoney slowed, stopping in the middle of the immaculate hallway.

He had turned right three times. Jogged about the same distance the every time. By all rights, he should be back where he started.

Mahoney started to perspire.

Easing into a light jog, he vowed to turn left at the next junction. That never came. Instead, he was stuck jogging down a series of identical right turns. When he finally ran back into the girl, flanked by burly young men in green scrubs, it was almost a relief.

Mahoney crouched and put his hands on his knees, winded. “Mulligan?”

The girl blinked. The men surged from around her like a green river and converged on Mahoney. He was seized in several places and carted bodily off down the hall.

“Your test lies this way, Mr. Mahoney,” the girl said flatly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Mahoney tried not to show shock. “Why are you calling me that?”

“We were told to expect you.” The girl stopped at a door identical to the ones around it and took out a large ring of keys. “Your vision test will be in this room.”

What lay behind the door was not a sterile white examination room as he’d expected, but a cold bare-stone interior about as homey as the face of the moon. Something he couldn’t call anything besides an altar sat in the middle of the room. A lens of thick, mottled green glass sat in a fork of carved soapstone, a strange sort of cradle just in front of it. Mahoney was given one blissful second of ignorance at its function before he was thrown, bodily, over it.

The girl watched with hooded eyes as they shackled his limbs beneath the cradle, leaving him lying prone on his stomach with his chin in a leather sling. The lens gleamed just before his face. The girl gave the glass a slight tilt, making all the shadows on the other side of it reverse. And suddenly he knew. He knew.

Mahoney fought. One of the wrist restraints pulled out of the stone after a few wrenches. This earned him a haymaker to the shoulder and a dizzying moment of pain. An orderly sat on his arm.

“We usually save the seeing glass for brothers of the leaves,” the girl continued, “they must graduate through several levels of mindfulness and discussion. Their minds widened before the glass helps them to truly see. You are the exception.”

Mahoney clenched his eyes shut and turned his head. A thick, muscular hand forced him to face forward. Two sets of fingers pried his eyelids open.

Above him, emotionless, pitiless, the girl stared down. Mahoney realized he hadn’t seen her blink the whole time he’d been here. His own eyes burned.

“Look into the glass Mahoney. It’s what you’re here for.”

Mahoney looked.

Mahoney screamed.

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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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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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Tender Resignation

Dear Michael,

I am writing to tell you I’ve decided to cease being your copywriter. Our relationship has spanned four years and three continents, but with this last batch of writing I must say enough is enough. I truly regret this step, but feel it necessary in light of your recent personal changes. Please do not take this resignation as an end to our friendship or a cessation of my warm feelings for you. I very much do care for your well being still. It is this concern that leads me to end our professional relationship.

I feel I must explain the change in my disposition, because it must seem very abrupt and frivolous from your end. Certainly, it is abrupt. Abrupt as the recent change in your writings, Michael. I was never given very much work in the way of simple errors. You have minded your grammar like a Latin scholar, and for that I was always grateful. But the sudden downturn in your language is quite frightening, Michael. It feels as though your mind has begun fraying at the seams. You must tell me, in all confidence as your friend, whether this is related to some foreign substance you’re abusing. When you go from writing phrases like this:

Purple grow the lilacs on the sweet down-wind of the river banks.

To

Yattering madly like a spindle(?) piercing the chattering brook[…] ripped, ripped apart from time and surface and all knowledge accrued by man…

You understand my concern, don’t you? It’s barely a sentence, much less a coherent thought. You did not detail your adventures in full, but I fear you may have run afoul of some less-than-savory types in your travels.

My concern lies also with your personal safety. I know it sounds ridiculous coming from a homebody such as myself, but trawling the Arabian desert for a nameless city that may never have existed seems too much risk for too little gain. You tell me of Iram of the pillars and lost Sarnath, but what I see is baseless superstition. Star charts and scraps of myth are no replacement for sturdy boots and a good company of men. I have no wish to scold you like a mother, but you do give me reason for grief. I believe your risk also bleeds over to me. You were the one who had me fetch that blasted Din of Cicadas or whatever they call it from the academic library. You had me translate passages and send them out to you. You were the one who got me removed from the dean’s list at the school library after decades of loyal service. You had to have known, Michael, the dreadful reputation of that book even if I did not.

And on the subject of dreadful, I must say my stomach can no longer take any of your bloody descriptions. The sacrifice and befoulment of a dog, the fate of your camel, the pilloried thief, all these are just too much. Your readers are interested in the grit and dust of the trail, do you think they need to hear how your guide’s feet split open with black cankers after walking unshod on the “parched ground”? Do you think men at their gentlemen’s clubs want to hear the bloodcurdling history of reptilian ur-men over their morning coffee? Why such focus on the ailment of your friend Mahmoud, who swole and split like a puff-ball in punishment for showing you a certain trail? They are truly terrible events, and my heart bleeds for you, but they are entirely inappropriate for your usual format and far more suited to the pulps.

And on that note, I must ask whether there is any truth to what you write. You tell me:

The blasted thing curled above Price’s men, yawning through so many wretched mouths like an abomination dredged up from the deepest depths of the sea. The men slept on unaware as the monster unfurled in the night wind, sending so many tendrils to tap and sup from their unconscious bodies until the men were drained into sacklike ruins. Oh but the true terror comes not from that night, but the next morning when Price returned to see his men and one by one the husks called out to him by name

Michael, I must ask this as your friend and editor—how do you know this if you were not there? You claim Price destroyed by the wraiths of his own men, how did you learn of this scene, then? And how can you so clearly envision the activity of the nameless city-dwellers, those reptilian beasts of such unkind intellect, how can you see them crawling about the city when they have been dead for eons? I worry for your health, my friend. Either you have become a prodigious liar in your travels or the heat has addled your brain. I do not believe a facetless ruby can show you such visions, that mystic humbug is something a fakir would sell for the price of a watch.

I really request that you entertain my concerns, Michael, even if only for a moment. Your mental state worries me, when you produce such scenes as this:

Corpse-down, gathered through many wretched midnight excursions, padded the altar made of brass feathers and noxious amber ornaments. The priest passed the lamp flame over his hand once, twice, and it was then I realized that his flesh was not bandaged but that his very flesh was swaddled. Nimbly as a factory girl, he reached out and plucked Burrows’ eyes from their sockets, replacing them with a shiny serpentine stone each.

And this:

The moonlight took on an infections quality. I could feel my skin roil beneath it, as if the very touch of the light itself were changing me. The hole in the sky seemed to laugh at my eye’s feeble attempts to make sense of the where and how of it. Now that the priest had shed his robes I could see his true form was that of the hideous things that crawled endlessly from low doorways and stairs at impossible angles. From my bound position I could only watch as Price’s life fluid formed a river that flowed upwards from the basin, up into the Stygian depths of that hole which was no longer a hole but a kind of un-moon…

I worry as your friend and as a fellow professional. Such graphic scenes flow from only the most perverse of imagination. You, from a good family and solid education, should not be penning these scenes. I do not need to hear about the flensing of your left foot, the removal of your ears, nor the grueling attempt at tattooing your back. I do not appreciate being told you are at death’s door, saying you leave these pages as your last will and testament as you are too weak to hike back to the nearest outpost. It is a cruel fiction to spin, Michael, as you must have survived long enough to post these pages to me. A note is all I ask, an inclusion in your thoughts however dark they may be, telling me you are well.

I must close with a complaint that seems minor in the face of other worries, and it is this: the figure you had shipped to me is disturbing. I set it on the piano and now the cat refuses to go near it. I have looked the figure up in Makepiece’s Guide to Egyptology, and no such creature exists in their pantheon. The green stone it is fashioned from must be some lead derivative, for being too near it gives me dreadful headaches.

Please return, Michael, to civilization and me. Cease these fancies and collect your artifact. I will no longer entertain your follies, but I will provide a bed and a hot cup of tea should you ever be in my city.

Yrs,

Terrence Q. Chase

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Mister Seahorse

He hadn’t wanted to return to the beach

the memory swilled inside him like a poison, never far, ready to clench his body in remembrance of pain, lash its tongue across his life to let him know:

it happened

he hadn’t wanted to go back to work

but they would notice. weeks of gastric upset, of furtive glances and hiding his oozing nipples, but absence was the one thing he could not, would not be able to explain to his coworkers. to avoid clenching when asked the old saw: what did you do for vacation? to lie as he ran his tongue over his teeth, still tasting iron and salt, tasting her, and smiling blandly: went to the beach.

he hadn’t wanted to get out of the car.

he could see from the road the distance he had swum, and now the image made acid back up in his throat. so far, so foolish. there were signs warning of riptide, but that hadn’t been the danger. the danger had been his own misplaced heroism, his idiot impulse to save and be seen. to look up and see what looked like a woman out on the rocks.

he hadn’t wanted to go on living

but something made him do it. he considered taking his own life, before he even considered a doctor, but both trains of thought were abandoned. if he forgot about it, it was like it never happened

except it did

he hadn’t wanted to set foot on the sand

he supposed the first mermaid must’ve been Venus, arising from the foam of Uranus’s severed head to set one virgin white foot on the shore. born of sea-foam, like the later daughters of Neptune, immutable, intractable,

fecund

he hadn’t wanted to swim out

too far at first because he feared the riptide. now he missed the world where the worst thing he had to worry about was getting dragged out to sea. a world where the mass he saw on the rocks, far from shore, looked a bit like a woman lounging on her side. where he, caught up in a playfully mythic spirit, called out to her. a world that ended shortly before “she” shifted, and he saw that the figure was only the top of something very, very, very big

he hadn’t wanted to come back

but there was nothing left. it was harder and harder to hide his growing bulk from his coworkers, excuse away the frequent abdominal pain, the vivid red slashes that decorated his back and buttocks as if something had grasped him to stop him thrashing—

he hadn’t wanted to get back in the water

but he did. he shed his shirt and shorts, kicking off his shoes in the tide. he half-hoped there was someone around to see him, someone who would call the police and arrest this indecent exposer, but he was alone. as he began to tread water, alone. as he fell into a simple breast stroke, alone. as the rip tide pulled him not out to sea, but to a familiar gathering of rocks, alone. as the pain became unbearable, alone.

and, as he gave birth in a tide of red foam, he wondered if they would call it Venus.

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Excerpt from a Romance novel that would never be published in a million years

Redmond knelt by Eutricia, burying his face in the mohair shawl she had draped over her knees against the oncoming twilight chill. Trisha had dressed for the warm of the day; a violet silk dress with an empire waist, the bustle removed for convenience. Her cane wheelchair had been parked in the middle of the parapet, silk cushions arranged decorously around her fine waist. He stared off to the nuclear orange of the setting sun, manly parti pris preventing him from shedding tears, yet he was weeping inside.

“But why,” he whispered, “why, Trisha? Why will you not assent to our engagement?”

His warm Memphis drawl trickled through his schooled diction like butter over a piece of fine sourdough toast.

Trisha sighed, tears prickling the corners of her almond-shaped eyes like fine diamonds. The lady opened her eyes to regard him, auburn eyelashes fanning out over her fine creamy skin. Her eyes were fine amethyst marbles, protruding and glistening with sorrow. Her fine fiery mane had been arranged in a waterfall over her left shoulder, it too gleamed in the light. Suddenly Redmond was in awe of how beautiful she was, how fine and delicate, her hands perched upon her knee like two fine porcelain squids.

“Redmond,” she sighed, “I am not disinclined to you, in any way, but…” she worried one ruby lip between pearly white teeth.

Redmond felt his southern blood boil and seethe.

“But what? What is left that could keep us apart?”

He stuck one calloused cowherd’s hand beneath her chin, but she turned her head and kept her violet gaze averted.

“You may be a yank,” he said, “and a Marsh at that, but you’re a woman first and foremost, and blood as red as mine could use a few drops of blue.”

Trisha snuffled into her fine linen handkerchief. Her bosom rose and fell like the eternal sea which lay below their feet, a scant thirty feet beneath the parapet. If Trisha so wished, he would hurl himself into the raging surf, let his bones co-mingle with the cry of the seabirds and the sand of the deep.

“Redmond!” she cried, “oh Redmond, I do love you! I can say that now without any reservation of my heart. But you and I…are a different kind.” Fine teardrops like purified seawater caressed their way down her cheeks.

Redmond felt the bristling that arose whenever a man caused grief to a woman, the heat that meant he was wiling to fight any man for a lady’s honor, even himself.

Redmond clenched his muscular neck and stood. He ran his hands through his raven hair, tossing it wilder than even the sea beneath them.

“My gawd,” he bellowed, “what could it be? Your family? That withered old crone of a matriarch? Passion such as ours cannot be contained by rules Trisha!”

Trisha gave a small cry. Color rose in her cheeks. The sight of her man in such a state often inflamed her into a passion, Redmond imagine he could already smell the gentle musk of her femininity.

He knelt again, bringing himself eye to eye with her. He covered her fine porcelain hand with his own.

“Trisha,” he drawled, “say the word and we shall flee this estate, right now. Let nothing restrain our love! We shall roam through the wildernesses, making passionate love like doe and buck.”

Trisha sought refuge behind her hands. “But…what about my chair? I could burden upon you to bundle it up and down stairs!”

“I’ll carry you!” he bellowed. Trisha let out a little gasp. Warmth flushed her neck, fine rose dusting her porcelain skin. “I’ll carry you slung upon my back like a bow, over endless terrain without tire. I shall worship your body every night, making you a bed of soft beaver pelts and rubbing tallow into your feet to keep them supple! I’ll make obsidian knives and hunt elk with my bare hands, all to bring you sustenance! We’ll live off the land, rutting like beasts with only the wind for company and the sky for shelter.”

“O, Redmond,” Trisha swooned.

Redmond could no longer deny the effect the lady was having on him, even in his riding breeches. His ladyfriends back in Memphis had reassured him that he was quite impressive, now he allowed his full girth to expand within the confines of his stiff cotton breeches. The lady gasped demurely, shading her blush with one hand. Redmond took her hand in his and held it emphatically.

“There must be no more secrets between our bodies,” he told her, before capturing her rosebud mouth beneath his own.

Trisha swelled and heaved beneath him like a tiny sea. Her breasts were confined within her silk corset, his calloused hands made quick work of the lacing. Redmond’s injury from riding earlier in the day wasn’t the only thing that was throbbing. He scooped Trisha up with a squeal of protest or delight, he cared not which, and brought her to the carved stone bench that anointed the parapet. He strew Trisha out like straw, delighting in her windswept beauty.

“O, Redmond!” she gasped again. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkled like fine violet wine, even her flawless mane had been knocked askance. Redmond was wearing a simple white pullover shirt whose collar was bound by three shell buttons, he unbuttoned them and then ripped the rest of it open, eliciting a gasp of delight from his lady. His physique would put some of the Greek statuary in her father’ study to shame, he mused for a moment on whether she had educated herself on the finer mysteries of malehood by their marble gaze.

He took her in, ruffled and lovely, a sculpture of creamy porcelain and auburn silk, of amethyst and sparkling white pearls. The smell of her femininity was overwhelming, for a moment he mistook it for a seaborne breeze.

“What?” she gasped, “oh, what is it Redmond? Why do you stare so?”

“I’m looking at the purdiest sight a man ever did see.” Redmond told her.

“Oh Redmond,” she gasped, “you’ve made me so happy!”

Something slippery twined around one leg. He looked down.

Her bottom limbs, once concealed by the skirt, now writhed free in her passion. The lady had sixteen tentacles of finest jade green, they pulsed with rugose passion as she bit her full lips.

“Oh Redmond!” she cried, “Redmond, you make me feel like a woman!”

 

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Boman

The shaman of the hill people prodded a pot with one finger. The hill people called themselves “All-in-one” because the founder had been enlightened from his body by the very sight of god. The shaman’s name was Boman, because he was born in the fifth month. He had started a fire of twigs in an earthen pot and laced with semi-lethal herbs and bits of shell in order to create a call point. He put his mouth slightly into the pot.

“Can you hear me?” he called, “I was saying…hello?”

Contact with god had been sketchy as of late. Boman scratched his privates, scrotal piercing clacking against his fingernails, and plotted what to do next.

God did not live very far away, but was hard of hearing.  Boman prodded the fire with his finger one more time and then gave up on it, leaving it to burn itself out. He had been participating in what he found a lively discussion, over the new widow in the village and how many years she had left before becoming pendulous.
Several warriors passed him on the path and nodded out of deference. They squeezed to the side as he passed, so as not to step on his shadow and become poisoned. When Klee the messenger came winging to his hut, Boman was relaxing with a mug of hot root water prepared by his youngest girl-wife.

“Father,” Klee gasped, “visitors from another place.”

Boman motioned him to sit. It was not polite to be seen in too much of a hurry when addressing a shaman.

“Perhaps this was a dream,” he offered, “or some kind of sunspell. You may be tired from overwork.”

Klee thrust forward his wrist. “Is that a dream, father?”

Around his wrist was a string of beads, much like the traders from China had brought in Boman’s father’s generation. They were cherry-red rocailles, poorly manufactured. They still had razor edged mold-lines . He clucked his tongue. “Traders?”
“No.”

Boman grunted. “I should think not, with material quality like this. Do they require photographs?”

Klee dug into his chin as a sign of disagreement.

“Well,” Boman said, “what did we do to warrant attention?”

“They were headed for god’s hill, father. I saw them.”

Boman swept up a handful of bones from his last meal, cracked them in hand, and threw them into the lamp beside himself. The flames turned red, and he nodded in satisfaction.

Boman stood and patted Klee. “You are good to tell me this. Go home and worry not.”

Klee fled again along the messenger’s path and Boman was served dinner by Boul, his man-wife.

The next morning he lounged beside the chicken coop, scratching the flies from his skin and pondering philosophical questions, such as whether a man who imagined up children could be held accountable for not providing adequate lands for his dream-brood. He wondered whether god would side with the man, or his dream-wives.

A boom reverberated throughout the jungle, felt more than heard, displacing birds from the trees. Boman did not stir.

Later that afternoon, he tried summoning god again. He caught a primate from the trees and strangled its screaming throat with his bare hands. He slit the abdomen and in it he crammed squash seeds, sulfur, and a human tooth. The corpse kicked for a while, and the sacred words he had written on the ground beneath it glowed faint blue in the sun, but nothing else was forthcoming. Boman wiped a quantity of snot from his nose with his forearm and dawdled his heels in the heat. The new widow crossed his yard on her way to the well, still dressed in purple mourning clothes. He grinned and offered her his maleness. Good things lay in the future.

That night his wives went to the community hut to weave their festival skirts. Boman lured a bright jungle fowl from the trees with sweet words and then cooked it with his breath. The supper was good, but could have used salt. As he sucked the last drippings from his fingers, a man whiter than flint stone burst into the clearing.
He was tall, with hair of bright yellow and eyes like the summer sky. He was dressed inappropriately for the region, in a tan suit of short sleeves and pants that only exposed his skin to the insects. His white flesh had been bitten to pinkness already.

The man spotted Boman and stumbled toward him. “g’d,” he gasped, “gee-zus, g’d. Halp.”

He tripped and fell prone before the shaman, a dreadful social faux pas, but Boman supposed outsiders weren’t used to the niceties of civilized company.

“May I be of assistance?” he asked politely.

The man babbled nonsense syllables. “Anth-row-pollo-jist, dock-tor. Eydol. Ecks-sped-isshun. Kawl halp.”
Boman wondered if he understood the people’s language. Maybe he didn’t even speak a language, and tossed out imitative chirps like a monkey. The white man suddenly sat up unnaturally straight, eyes and mouth drawn open to the spilling point. Boman watched with mild interest as the man suddenly jackknifed into a series of convulsions, spitting froth and sounds that sounded very much like words but weren’t. the man sprawled out full length and was suddenly still. Boman passed gas and scratched himself again.

The man sat up again, body oddly limp as if hanging from something invisible. Blue aether spilled from his orifices, and his movements were jerky, unnatural.

“Now,” he said, “what is this about a widow?”

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