Mahoney did not wake. He opened his eyes and the world rushed in. Painfully.
He lay on
just in front of
his office and the
away in either direction
serpentine like a ladder
that curled up a
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
and it formed
as if it too
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
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.
like it was
the last rung
on a ladder
ended in a
up, to the
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?”
“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.”
“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?”
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.”
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
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.