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.
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 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.”
“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.
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.”
“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 know I’m not. I see. Don’t you see, Mahoney?”
Unbidden, the vision came back
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
building in a roar,
—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.
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.”
“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.”
“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?”