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The Shambling Detective 8: Falling Leaves

When Mahoney checked out of the drunk tank in the morning, they gave him back his personal effects. That did not amount to very much.

“Shoelaces. One pair.” the desk cop slid them over. Mahoney accepted them and bent to re-lace himself.

“Belt. Bronze buckle. Necktie. Some vomit. Handkerchief. Some vomit.”

“Thanks a pantload,” Mahoney said drily, sliding them back to himself in a heap.

“Straight razor, European design.”

Mahoney stared down at the Firebird handle. “That’s…that’s not mine.”

The cop shrugged. “They said it was yours. Look, if you don’t want it, I’ll toss it into lost and found.”

Mahoney screwed his eyes shut and turned away. “I don’t care what you do with it.” He heard the scrape as the officer palmed it off the counter and didn’t open his eyes until he was sure the razor was gone.

The cop eyed him suspiciously. “You sure you’re good to go?”

“No,” Mahoney said simply.

They stood silently for an awkward moment.

“Ahhh, hell. Getouttahere.” The cop snapped a thumb at the doors. “I got worse things to deal with. Go change your shirt.”

And just like that Mahoney was a free man again.

He stood before the doors of the station and took a deep breath. The city smells mixed and mingled in a brown morass in his lungs, thick as tar. If he breathed enough of it, perhaps he could patch himself together again.

He took a step. Fought the urge to crawl. Took another step. Yes. He could do this.

Mahoney walked.

His body still felt so fragile, like every step was a knife-edge. He put his whole self into walking, putting one foot down and then the other. He could get away. He would get away.

It was the city, he realized. The city and all it held. All the secrets and double-dealings and blasted mysteries. If he got out of the bay, he could go inland somewhere. The farmlands, maybe. He could blot out what happened to him so much easier if he had different surroundings.

Mahoney needed to forget. It was the only way he could live on, he’d decided. He’d caught the other’s madness for a while, but Gillman had snapped him out of that.

Mahoney realized he’d technically fulfilled his client obligation when he’d watched Gillman slit his own throat and tittered. He slapped himself. No hysteria, not now. He would walk. Just walk and walk until his brains were in his feet. No thinking.

A rumble in the distance nearly made him drop to his knees. Mahoney realized it just a city dumpster being dragged and sobbed out a breath.

The world didn’t make sense anymore. Mahoney watched people passing him by and tried and failed not to see the words writhing behind them, like layers of onion skin. He started to teeter.

A broad-shouldered chap in a suit two sizes too small bumped chests with Mahoney. “Hey watch where you’re—” he wheezed in sudden disgust when saw Mahoney’s state. “Fuggin’ wino.”

He shoved Mahoney backwards, and backwards he went.

Mahoney staggered down an alley, just trying to regain his feet.  He saw a milk crate. It seemed as good a place as any to sit, so he sat.

Opposite him was a refrigerator box. Someone had pinned a tartan blanket over the mouth so it formed a crude privacy curtain. Mahoney stared intentely at the scene. Something was nagging him, something tickled and pinched and prodded at him about the box. It wasn’t until he looked to the side and saw an overturned trash can that he realized—this was the same scene he’d seen in Rousseau’s paintings.

Mahoney started to his feet.

A whistling, unhealthy breath wheezed from the box. “Tha’ you, Jezzy?”

A bum poked his head out of the box. “Hell, you ain’t Jezz’bell.” His mouth collapsed over lost teeth. His beard was white, yellowed by various bodily fluids. He was solid. He was real.

Mahoney’s chest eased, somewhat. He sat down again.

“You don’t mind if I sit, do you?” he asked.

“I don’t mind if you sits, stands, or does a dance.” the bum rolled his grizzled body out of his shelter. He hacked something up then swallowed it back down. “S’your alley just as much as mine.”

“Thanks.” Mahoney stared at his hands. All of the other paintings he’d seen were places he’d visited. And this one was the last he’d seen. He tried not to read to much into that.

The bum scritched his beard and looked at Mahoney. “You alright, feller? Lookin’ poorly.”

Mahoney wet his lips. “I…lost a friend, recently.”

“Happens to us all, ‘ventually. How’d he go?”

“He’s just gone.” Mahoney stared at the ground. “If he were dead it would be one thing—”

“Tell me ‘bout it. I saw a feller vamoose the other day. Broad daylight: vwip! Just like that.”

Mahoney had thought himself incapable of further shock. Apparently he’d been wrong.

“Did this man have red hair? Down by the Memorial Hall?”

“Got it on one.” The bum grinned. His remaining teeth were brown. “I axed the newsmen to talk to me, but they wouldn’t believe me.”

Mahoney leaned closer. “Tell me, did you…did you hear anything? Maybe like the rustle of large wings?”

The bum gave him the eye. “Now I know yer pullin’ my leg. Not nice to fun me around.”

Mahoney screwed his eyes shut and put his head down. “Nothing. Nevermind. Forget it.”

He covered his eyes with his hands to make extra dark. The act of opening his eyes now felt like a greater and greater burden. The more he looked the more he needed to look. Blinking felt like betrayal. He wondered if he’d still feel the same if he skewered himself with the radio antenna lying up against the trash can.

“Mahoney.”

Mahoney snapped his eyes open. Now sitting where the bum had been, upright and prim as if he’d stepped from his personal portrait, was Orroft.

Mahoney fell back, upturning the crate. “No.

Orroft stepped from the box and unfolded himself. It was like someone had clipped him from a magazine and pasted him into the dirty brick of the alleyway. It was unreal how clean and sharp the lines of his body were. Mahoney floundered, trying to push away with his limbs in a clumsy rowing motion. He went nowhere.

Orroft stared down with his hatefully blank face. His glasses were spotless and in them Mahoney could see his own haggard reflection.

“No, oh, no, please, no no no.” Mahoney held up a hand. “I’ll go. I’ll leave and I won’t tell a soul.

Orroft was impassive as a stone idol. “No you won’t, Mahoney. You won’t leave here. I think you know that.”

Mahoney’s mouth began watering and he could taste the beginnings of bile. He swallowed it down in a tremendous feat of strength.

“What did I do?” he asked, “what the hell did I ever do to you people? I didn’t ask for this.” His terror flash-fried into anger. “I never did anything to warrant this! The hell did I do to you bastards?”

“Please understand, detective Mahoney, it’s not what you’ve done. It’s who you are.” Orroft’s voice was soporific, like a shot of morphine.

“Who I am? I’m nobody. Open the phone book, you’ll see plenty of Mahoneys, even more private dicks.”

Orroft tilted his head slightly, peering just above the rim of his spectacles. “Mahoney, I’ve something very important to ask you.”

“Shoot.”

“What’s your first name?”

Mahoney opened and closed his mouth. Nothing came out.

“You can tell me that much, can’t you? Your first name? Your mother’s name, perhaps. A bit of your history.”

“I was in the war,” Mahoney blurted.

“What war?”

Mahoney stammered. Orroft knelt as if addressing a child.

“You were nearly correct in saying that you are nobody—you are very nearly nothing, Mahoney, no more and no less than what is needed.”

“Needed?”

“By the Oculus.”

Mahoney let a little terror-giggle escape. “You’re bananas. All of you.”

“No, really. You are a detective because you needed to seek. You have a name, because people needed something to refer to you by. Only what is essential to moving forward.”

“You’re crazy.”

“You know I’m not. I see. Don’t you see, Mahoney?”

Unbidden, the vision came back
                                                     to
                                                             him
but he blinked it away and clamped hands to his eyes. “Shut up, shut up, I don’t give a damn what you say, it’s all a nasty parlor trick. You’re some kind of fakir posing as a head shrinker, and this is all some dope-dream. I’m laying in an alley with a needle in my arm and piss in my pants.”

Orroft blinked. It was a slow, involved motion. “You are, once again, half correct. This is not ‘real’ by the metric one might measure life.”

“Stop talking in riddles.”

“Alright then, let me ask you this: a woman disappeared from your office. She did not exit via the door or any other method. How is that possible?”

“How did you—” Mahoney blinked. His eyes felt like sandpaper. “It’s not, okay?”

“James Gillman. Vanished from an empty sidewalk in broad daylight, appeared again in a police wagon to cut his throat with a razor he could not have been in possession of. Possible?”

“How the hell did you know that? Did you…” Mahoney could barely breathe. “Did you put him up to that? Make him off himself in front of me?”

“Answer the question. Possible or not?”

“Not,” Mahoney spat.

“Sikorsky’s architecture, Mahoney. Picture it. Is it possible?”

Mahoney thought of the not-pillar and swallowed. “No.”

“You have lived several impossible things, Mahoney. You see the words. Tell me: am I lying?”

Mahoney forced himself to blink. It hurt, made him want to hold his eyes open longer and longer which only made the inevitable blink worse, churning around in a vicious cycle. “No. I know you’re telling the truth. Now tell me how all of this is happening.”

“In service to the Oculus.”

“Shut up!” Mahoney burst out. “Shut up about your stupid cult god and tell the truth!”

“But that is the truth, Mahoney. The Oculus is real. I have it. You have it. The only real things are that which can be seen.”

Mahoney forced himself to blink. ‘The eye? That’s all your damn Oculus is? What the hell does that have to do with anything? Why do you call yourself the brotherhood of leaves, then, huh? What do trees have to do with it?”

Orroft blinked. The action made Mahoney’s eyes wince. “Leaves don’t just come from trees, detective.”

Like a guitar string snapping, the tinnitus started up within Mahoney. It tumbled
end
over
end,
       building      in a    roar,

             foaming, falling,
    like a—
    like a—

like the page of a massive book, a book as big as the universe itself folding and turning and crinkling like a book like a book like a book where he lay pressed between the pages flat as a flower.

Mahoney vomited.

Orroft produced a handkerchief. “You see now? You’ve been retreating from a beast while this whole time you have been in its teeth, Mahoney, and it has been laughing at you. There is no running.”

Mahoney spat at the handkerchief. “I’m real.”

“No.”

“Yes. yes yes yes YESYESYESYES!” Mahoney slapped the hand offering the kerchief. “I’m real, I’m real, I know I am.”

Orroft said quietly, “Mahoney.”

Mahoney slapped himself. It hurt. The pain had to be real, therefore he had to be real.

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 uncovered his eyes. “Oh, no.”

Orroft nodded. “Yes. You see now, don’t you?” His expression seemed to hold pity, although it may have been shadows cast by the tilt of his head.

Mahoney was on hands and knees, as if in supplication. “Why did you do this to me?”

“I did nothing. I am as you are, a prisoner of the system. I merely serve a function different to yourself. I can only do what is allowed of me.”

“End this.”

“It will end. You can see that for yourself.”

Mahoney looked down and puked again.

Orroft knelt, putting a hand to either side of Mahoney’s head. “I am not here to hurt you, Mahoney, I am here to help you down your path.”

“Kill me,” Mahoney begged.

“That will not happen. You will end, yes, but you will begin again. And again. As many times as the Oculus deems it.”

Mahoney folded his hands. “Please. Please? Please god no.”

Orroft drew up tall and stepped away. “Goodbye Mahoney. Until we meet again.”

“Please no, please stop. Stop it. Stop it!

Orroft stood clean and white against the brick of the alleyway.

Mahoney knelt, mouth running with various fluids, eyes watering, hoarse from screaming. “Stop it, I am begging you stop! Stop now! Stop it, stop it, stop reading—

The sidewalk was empty. Where Mahoney had knelt there was only a spot of crumpled paper, and that could have been trod on by any passing foot. Orroft bent down and unraveled it, revealing the marbled end-paper of a book with writing on the blank side. He hummed a moment as he read the scrawl that ate up every bit of space on the paper, then crumpled it up and threw it back down. He straightened his already straight tie and looked out.

“Since you have given me your attention so far,” he said, “I wonder if I might ask you a question. You held the life of our good detective in your hands, and dispensed with him as you wished. Would you now, if you were given the same choice, do it all over again?”

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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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The Shambling Detective 1: The Yellow Veil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Nip?”

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

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

“Met what?” Mahoney asked dryly.

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Le Masque Blanchâtre

The three surviving reels of Le Masque Blanchâtre reside in a vault of the Cinémathèque Française, and with good reason. The film has been lost, found, dropped, stolen, set on fire, eaten, and buried underground. The fact that any of the highly flammable nitrocellulose stock remains is nothing short of a miracle. But why is this film so frequently targeted for demolition?

Because it holds the dubious honor of being the only known film adaptation of The King in Yellow.

The film itself is not the only “lost” element. The director Louis André disappeared in Vichy France in a suspected political assassination. Greta Ors, at one time set to be the European Louise Brooks, made only one other film before dying of a morphine overdose. Jean Fleuret, cinematographer on every single André production, was one of the film’s first detractors when he kidnapped the reels just before the aborted premiere. Similar tales of woe afflict the assorted cast and crew; if a film can indeed be cursed then you could find no better candidate than Le Masque Blanchâtre.

The production itself was no stranger to misfortune. Plagued by setbacks, mishaps, and funding troubles, the fact that the film was even finished is a testament to the sheer doggedness of its director. Even before reading the infamous play, André was a man possessed by his own ambition. Yvette Andréyor called him “a nightmare of a man” after contracting pneumonia on the set of his historical biopic Alexandre. But once he laid hands on the mythic text, he was a man bewitched.

Little remains of the shooting script, but a vague summary can be pieced together from scraps and secondhand references. The film expands the role of a nameless courtier who delivers news to Cassilda towards the end of the first act that causes her to run shrieking into the empty streets. Filmed entirely from his perspective, all the established beats of the first act are there, from the return of Cassio from battle to the preparation for the bal masqué. Other, murkier elements from the second act are hinted at. One screen direction calls for Cassilda being shot “[…] through a kaleidoscope of mirrors, her hollow-eyed image retreating in all directions until there is nothing left but the empty face of the glass.” From costume orders we can infer that the bal masqué took cues from Rococo design with a sleek modernist flair. Of note is a single edict, two words dashed off in André’s increasingly manic handwriting: “no yellow!” Greta complained that her role(which combined elements of Cassilda and Camilla) required hours on end of “lying…beneath a great fish tank as they filmed me through the water.”

These snippets do two things. One: they paint the picture of an ambitious shoot filled with offbeat techniques.

Two: they make almost no mention of the plot at all.

The play itself is quite infamous for its disjointed format; the banality of the first act almost farcically belying its infamous (but never summarized) second half. André took it one step further, eliminating nearly all spoken dialogue from the script save for a single exchange near the end, the famous “mask” dialogue shifted from the first act to the final.

Had it survived its own premiere, it most certainly would have been revered as a masterpiece. But alas, dissent built even as early on as the editing suite. Fleuret wrote in his journal “[the film] has changed him. He is no longer my beloved Louis but a beast with wide, staring eyes and no heart. I fear his ambition may doom us all.” These two cryptic statements are the only clue as to what led Fleuret to kidnap the film and attempt to incinerate it. He succeeded only in destroying the final reel and was taken to jail laughing that he had “lessened that monstrosity’s taint on the world.” Indeed, without its final reel, Le Masque Blanchâtre could never be screened for the general public. André would attempt smaller private screenings, leading to the incidents listed in the opening paragraph.

André was a man broken in the years after. He never attempted to film another movie, but spent his remaining days carting the surviving reels around, screening for whomever he could. It is rumored that this is what led to his disappearance in occupied France, lugging around canisters of “entartete kunst” was practically signing his own death warrant.

The film eventually resurfaced after the war. André did not.

The film was available for private screening up until 1988, when a film critic ate 23 feet of the second reel. Time and wear will diminish the remaining film, as no attempts to preserve it have gotten past the fundraising stage. Le Masque Blanchâtre languishes in the safe, the greatest unseen masterpiece in the world.

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The King’s New Clothes

I was accosted while slumming on subway. Tedward nabbed my collar and whispered sotto voce:

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

“Yield,” I said, “there’s nothing new under the sun. I may not have heard this particular iteration—”

Teddy shook his head. “You with your Schroedinger’s opinions. Keke darling has found a new painter, simply to die for.”

“That’s nothing new.”

“Literally.”

I folded the copy of the Times I had been using to hide my lunch. “Go on,” I said, “you’ve bugged my Watergate.”

The gist of the matter—once you boiled down layers of Teddy’s pith—was some new thing was painting abstract swirls that made certain sensitives collapse, gray matter no doubt leaking out their ears. At the show’s opening, six art reviewers alone were rendered pudding, to small loss.

“Breathtaking,” said I, “what’s the cheese?”

Teddy leaned in close, a conspicuous gesture for a conspicuous man. “They shuttered his show until they figure out how to play off the reaction. Private showing, you dig?”

“Dug. What time?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Teddy said, “don’t be forward. Keke planned a little soirée to show off a new body mod.”

“And to scalp the guests for potential entrance fees,” I said distastefully, “pass.”

“Everyone who is someone will be there!”

“Well,” I said, “seeing as I am someone who may or may not be someone, let’s just stick that in the box and gas it, shall we?”

He was still puzzling that one when I got off. Some people, I tell you. It’s almost not worth having associates, but then again, who else would you show new outfits to? The populi? Please.

 

Keke Cola had returned from yachting Europeward to her ancestral manse, a glass-and-crystal palace that would’ve made C.F. Kane turn green. She’d decorated for the party by garlanding the place with rafflesia; I was given a pink gas mask with Reagan’s visage as a party favor. My fellow raconteurs were pawing through the buffet table like a trove of ravenous beasts. If there’s one thing we love, unconditionally, it’s a meal gratis.

Alabaster was there, along with Verdigris and several other colors. Sister Mister shot me a meaty hoof, dressed in a copper lame top and upsettingly short denim cutoffs. Algonquin Jack was masticating a humorously large beef rib, dentures seesawing in his mouth from the effort.

Keke, as always, stood in the middle of a knot of people. Her dress was slit down the front practically to the floor, showing off the control-top of her pantyhose briefs. She had some large tortoiseshell lenses on her head, stopping every other word to sweep a strand of hair back with a hand holding a cigarette stem. If she wasn’t careful, she’d ignite all the aquanet undoubtedly keeping her wig anchored.

Keke threw her arms open when she saw me. “Mon amour, ma cherie, it’s been a bit of too long.”

She air-kissed both of my cheeks. Up close I could see she had Coco Chanel’d to such a degree even the trenches of her wrinkles were tan.

“So afraid you’d miss this,” she spoke with a gravely rasp prized by blues singers and gargoyles.

“And miss seeing Verdigris fill up on shrimp?” I said, “I think he’s even sown a pocket into the lining of his jacket for the occasion.”

Verdigris gave me the finger. Keke gave me an oh you slap on the wrist.

“Dear, darling,” she said with sudden gravity, “have you heard the news?”

“About our lord and savior?” I said, “ages ago. I hear his squiggles make people squiggly.”

But the mistress of the house shook her head. “No no, darling, not squiggles. The boy paints de la vie.

“That bad, huh?”

Another wrist slap. This was threatening to become threatening.

“I’ve been to his loft,” Keke pontificated, “and he has such a unique vision.” She leaned in close, flooding me with rosewater and old meat. “There are layers one must be au courant to see.”

“Sing it sister,” I said, nabbing a shrimp cocktail before they went extinct.

“He paints in colors only seen on certain parts of the spectrum. Infra-red. Ultra-violet.”

“Don’t forget concussion green.”

Keke whipped off her Diors. Beneath the glasses, her eyes had been bandaged heavily.

“Neat threads,” I said, “so you’ve finally decided to drive blind then? Or do the police pull you over walking, now.”

“I got my lenses removed,” the lady said rapturously, “so that I may see.”

“Now I smell what you’re spraying. What’s this, a new self-destruction fad? Why not try pogo-sticking off the space needle again?”

The lady’s sticky grin rearranged into a frown. “You mightn’t be jealous, Darling?”

“Jealous?” I said, “I? Why, we’ve all evolved beyond such human peccadillos. You might as well accuse me of knapping flint into a knife.”

Metz pointed at me with a half-eaten squid tentacle. “You’re Krushchevving!”

I raised an eyebrow at him.“You’re about two presidents too late for that slang.”

Keke darling had become carried away with mirth. “I never thought I’d see you get green for a grocer.”

“You aren’t seeing at all,” I said testily, “and when you get to the afterlife, phone me and let me know what Satre is wearing.”

Hoots followed me out.

“Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it has no merit!” Keke called after me.

 

“The hell I don’t understand,” I grumped as I got into the car. “I appreciate art. I live art. I breath art. I sweat art. I ma—I consume art.”

“That may well be,” Lady D sniffed, “but if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a flash in the pan masquerading as a claymore.”

Mrs. Dumont had declined to attend the party, natch. There had been bad blood between the two ladies for decades now, something deeply injurious that neither would talk about. My guess? Something to do with shoes.

“What do you think?” I consulted with her. “you think we should crash the showing?”

Dumont gave me Bette Davis eyes. “Crash, gauche. We will destroy it.” She revved the motor.

I changed into black turtleneck and slacks while she drove us, following a map Candy Warhol had inked on a napkin for us the night before. The loft above the Roi en Jaune show was shuttered until further notice. What they hadn’t counted on was decades of Lady D’s espionage against her fellow man. Through a combination of flirting and threatening, she got us a spot in the neighboring parking garage. Four storeys above the cement, I fit together a contraption of her own making, kind of like a crossbow fashioned from old hangers.

“And what happens if it doesn’t work?” I asked.

“You die and leave a beautiful corpse,” she replied.

“Just checking,” I said, and lined up my shot.

Bull’s-eye, though the company who put the billboard up would wonder why their model had gained a single, dark nipple in the morning. I saluted Mrs. Dumont and swung across, barely shitting myself in sheer terror at all. Once I had landed and kissed the surface of the roof a few times, I gave the all-clear signal to Lady D. She nodded and sat back with a thermos of tea, a copy of L’Etranger, and a Kalashnikov.

I slid my slim jim between door and jamb, popped the latch, and I was in.

Getting caught at this point would mean worse than jail time: public excruciation. My ego was in a sling as it was. I shuffled here and there in a crafty fashion, seeing as my dignity had long ago fled to winter in the alps, and looked for something likely.

A light snapped on above my head. Ugh, florescent.

“Who the hell are you?”

The young man spouting this cliché had the remains of a patchy beard and one eyebrow shaved, as if he’d already attempted to disguise himself. His eyes were flat in the middle. So he’d already gone ahead and had the surgery. Yet he wasn’t dead? Curieux.

“I’m the ghost of Potter Stewart,” I said, “I heard there was a breast sighted somewhere in the area and I wanted to check if it was pornography.”

Understanding dawned on the young man’s face. “Oh, you’re one of those.”

I tried not to appear too ruffled. “If by those you mean ‘art appreciator’ then yes, I am.”

He squinted and frowned, I think the light was getting to him. “Look, what do I have to do to get this through your heads? The paintings aren’t supposed to kill people.”

“Did I say I came here to die?” I placed a hand on my breast. “I came here on recommendation of a friend.” Which wasn’t a total lie. “A dear friend.” Which was such a lie. “Who spoke highly of your art.” Truth enough.

The young man sighed and scratched his beard. “You know,” he said ponderously, “when I started out doing this, I had such high hopes.”

“I know,” I said, “developing your style, evolving your technique, and maybe selling a few canvases before you die.”

He shook his head. “No. I wanted to tell everybody the good news. And He came into my arm and showed me the way.”

Ah.

“Who did?”

“The King, man, he…” the young man looked down as if he’d find the words he wanted on the floor, racheting his hand. “it’s too…je ne sais quoi.”

“Ne gaspille pas ta salive.” I said, “show, don’t tell. That’s what artists do, don’t they?”

He gave me a smile that made me a bit wary. “Sure,” he said, and giggled.

Never trust a man who giggles and assents too easily. It’s how I got stuck with my last five cars.

I followed him to the sheeted area of the studio, where lithic rectangles overshadowed cans of linseed oil and mineral solvent. He touched each one reverently and he went, naming them.

Regalia. Cassilda’s Lament. Unmasked. Boiling Hali.”

He stopped before the last.

“This is it. The big one. This is the one that has been taking lives.”

He started forward suddenly, grabbing my lapels. “I never meant for this to happen, you know.”

“Sure,” I said, straining back.

“I mean that.” He breathed like a rabbit in a snare. “But…I’m happy it’s happened. Happy. Do you see? Now everyone will know the King’s message.”

“That’s really okay,” I called, as he ran forward and dragged the sheet from the canvas, “I’m really gone cold on the idea—”

The sheet hit the floor with a sound like a thought ending. I pondered the piece.

The young man wrung his hands. “Well?”

“You’re no Kandinsky.”

He frowned. Obviously that hadn’t been the answer he was expecting.

“I mean it’s good,” I said, turning to him, “but I don’t see it on a postcard anytime soon.”

He felt my forehead.

“Hello to you too.”

He took his hand away. “This is wrong.”

“Funny, my phrenologist said the opposite.”

He looked at the painting, back at me, and then at the painting again. His face got suspicious.

“You’re not colorblind?” he asked.

“Well, that would explain my failed airforce career,” I said.

He nodded, as if I had agreed with him outright. “You’re color—the painting doesn’t fucking work on you!”

“Watch your mouth,” I said, “children are within a five-mile radius.”

“This isn’t funny, there’s an entire section of the spectrum you can’t see! You can’t fully fucking appreciate the King’s fucking portrait.”

“Using that word constantly isn’t going to make its property value go up,” I said, “now listen—”

“Stew,” he said absently, looking up at the painting.

“Stew,” I agreed, “is this the only…masterpiece that has been causing these extra-vulgaris symptoms?”

Stew looked at me, eyes wary. It really wasn’t attractive, the flat look. Maybe he could invest in snake-eye contacts.

“Then I am correct in assuming it’s special effects were an accident?”

He went crafty, like a fifth-grader with a forged parental note. “It fucking won’t be,” he ranted, “when I learn to reverse the process and find what I did.”

“Such language,” I chided, tweaking his nose. “anyway, I’m taking it.”

“You’re what?”

“Actually I’m a Pisces.” I hefted a corner of the sheet and tossed it over the painting. “I have the most darling little alcove at home. This will fit right in. I’ll keep it veiled unless I have guests who merit a private display.”

“You can’t do that,” he said numbly.

I waved the kris that Lady D had loaned me from her extensive collection. “I can’t? Anyway, help me with this corner.”

Sheeted and tied, the painting flopped like a wayward kite to the ground. I waved to Lady D, who flicked a lighter at me. I shook my head sternly.

“I can’t fucking believe this,” Stew said, holding a can of what I hoped wasn’t paint thinner, “my only success is getting stolen by a fucking poseur.”

I slapped him lightly on the wrist. “I know you have a beef, Stew. But simmer down.”

I laughed my way down the stairs. I allow myself time to be corny when I’m alone. It helps me keep shtum in the public eye.

On the street Lady D had donned her battle beret, smoking a black cigarette and sitting on the canvas.

“One word,” she said, “and I can make it look like the Secession gallery.”

“Negatory, good lady,” I said, “I’ve decided to adopt it.”

She snorted. “And invite Keke Darling, I suppose.”

I tied it to the luggage rack. “I had thought of that, yes.”

When we were back in the car, Dumont turned to me and gave life to the utterance that every artist dreads:

“What’s it a picture of?”

“The stuff that dreams are made of, kid,” I said. If I craned my head a long way back I could just make out the forlorn silhouette of Stew the painter. Maybe it really was paint thinner. Maybe it was for the best.

“The stuff that dreams are made of.”

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