Thursday, July 25, 2013

No Pity for the Dead: Chapter Six

It was well past midnight when I got back to my office. I do keep a small apartment nearby, but when I'm working a big case, I tend to live out of the office for the most part. In the past forty-eight hours I had seen the inside of my apartment all of once.

There were two messages taped to the phone. Glenda was long gone, so these messages likely were both aged at least a couple of hours. I picked them up and carried them with me to my inner office. I poured a scotch into my tumbler, which was still sticky with the last swigs I'd had earlier, and sat down to read them.

Phil Parkins called. Sounds frantic. Wants to know where his daughter is. This one finished with Phil's number, which I already knew. I had told him I'd call him when I had a lead. I didn't have one yet. In all fairness, I should have called him when the ransom went bad, but I was fairly certain even then that I could have found her by now. I'd have to give him a call tonight.

The other was from Vivian Vanderhoff. Finally, I had a way of getting ahold of her. She also wanted a progress report on her case. Well, I'd give her a report, all right, but not one she'd much care for.

I took another sip of scotch and dialed Phil's number. I knew he'd probably still be awake. You don't sleep much when your little girl is missing.

He answered on the third ring. "Zeddicker?" he whispered.

"Yeah," I said quietly. "It's me."

"Where the christ have you been?!" he practically shouted. "I get no call, no visit! You were supposed to pay the ransom and get my Betty back!"

"Calm down, Phil," I said, uselessly.

"Calm down!?" Phil shouted even louder. "Is it your girl missing, Zeddicker? Is it you who can't sleep for worry of what's happening to her? Is it you who wonders if you'll ever see her alive again?"

He went on for a bit, saying a few things he never would in his daughter's presence. I let him rant. I've never been a dad, that I know of, and situations like this make me a little glad of that. I'm not really the family type; makes you too vulnerable. Phil here was proof enough of that.

His angry, anguished stream of words finally ended and he broke down in tears.

"Phil," I began. "I'm sorry. Sorry I didn't call and sorry that I didn't find Betty. The deal went bad. Three-Fingers didn't show and sent some goons to grease me. Almost worked, too." I sighed, and decided he would never know what really happened that night. "I got a lead," I said. "Somebody told me that Betty wasn't taken because of what you owe; that was just an excuse. Apparently Three-Fingers...has plans for her."

A long silence came from the other end. Phil had stopped crying. I imagined him sitting there in stunned silence.

"You mean," he managed. "Something like...trafficking? Is he trying to turn my daughter into a...a...slattern?"

Of course Phil still had no idea the direction this case had taken, and for a brief moment I considered telling him the truth, at least to put his mind at ease about that. If a virgin was necessary for what Three-Fingers was planning, young Betty Parkins's virtue was likely still on the table. But considering what they really were planning for her, I decided telling him was worse, whether he believed me or not.

"No," I said. "Not as far as I know. I believe she's still alive, Phil. That's all I'm saying. I've had some ugly conversations in the last few hours, and they're all leading me closer. Just remember, I'm doing this pro bono, and cases like this take as long as they take."

"Just find her, Detective Zeddicker," he said, barely audible. "Just please, find her."

"I'm not stopping until I do," I said back. The conversation dwindled on a few more minutes with some anguished pleasantries back and forth. I finally hung up and took a breath. I needed a snipe, but I'd finished my deck on the way back. I took another drink.

Vivian Vanderhoff seemed like the type of dame who kept odd hours. Chances were good that she was still up. The message left on Glenda's stationary was short and simple; V. Vanderhoff expects a call tonight, and the number scribbled at the bottom. I stared at the number a few minutes longer, both eager to call the number and uncomfortable at the thought of what I'd find out.

The possessed may not even realize they're possessed. The thought came unbidden to my mind. Their memories and personalities are left intact, and the being sits behind their consciousness, controlling their every thought and action, never detected, never known. Had I ever mouthed the words of a newspaper article as I read it? Had I ever idly shaken my leg as I sat? I couldn't recall. Nor could I remember if I'd ever seen Louden or Glenda doing either one. Surely not everyone who idly did things like this had one of these...things inside them? Surely not every one. I wanted to tell myself that Elmebrigge was full of it, but I'd sat there, and listened to him tell it, and my gut never spoke up to tell me there was anything wrong with him. He wasn't crazy, and he wasn't lying. And whatever was going on, Vivian Vanderhoff was mixed up with it. Maybe even at the heart of it.

Elmebrigge had seemed afraid of her family. He didn't want to associate with them, but then, he also seemed to know quite a bit about them for someone so eager to disassociate himself from them. I finally picked up the phone and dialed Vivian Vanderhoff's number.

"Is this Zeddicker?" came her sultry voice. It sounded like she may have a couple of drinks in her.

"This is he," I said. "Sorry to call so late."

"Oh, that's quite alright," she purred. "I'm something of a...night owl. So," I could hear her take a drag from a long cigarette. So, she did smoke. "Any progress?"

"Some," I admitted. "You were right. Arnie Probst has the Codex and the Claw."

"So, you know where he is?" she asked. "Have you seen him yet?"

"I saw him," I said. I waited a bit for a reaction, but she apparently expected more. "We need to talk," I finished.

"We're talking now," she breathed. I heard her take another drag.

"In person," I said. "There's things you didn't tell me that I need to know."

"What did you see?" she asked. A tinge of fear in her voice? Hard to tell.

"I'm not saying another word over the phone," I told her. I was about to tell her to get her pleasingly round posterior over to my office, but before I could, she spoke again.

"Very well," she said. "I'll send a car around for you. I expect the journey to take approximately twenty minutes. I know your man left for the day, and likely took the car with him, and walking here would not be possible. Also, this way there would be less...unpleasantness at the gate."

After that, the line went dead. I slowly placed the receiver back on the cradle and ran a hand through my hair in concern. Unpleasantness? And how did she know Louden was gone, or that he took the car? I was liking all this less and less.

A car did show up a short while later. A tall fellow with a natty little mustache in a grey driver's uniform came up the elevator and offered to escort me down. He said little more than he had to, and never looked me in the eye. My detective nose started twitching. The driver looked afraid, and not of me, or at least, not just me.

He led me to a long Rolls that looked like it cost more than a year's rent on my office and apartment combined.

"Take the rear compartment," he intoned in a clipped voice. "The rear and front are separated by a pain of glass. The glass is bulletproof and soundproof. Make no attempt to exit the vehicle until I have opened the door and instructed you to. Make no attempt to speak to me or distract me from the road as I drive. Do you understand?"

I nodded, a glower on my face. This guy was shaping up to be a seriously wrong gee, and to be honest, as classy a dame as Vivian Vanderhoff might be, the company she kept left a great deal to be desired.

Nonetheless, I found myself seated in the back seat, looking out as we left the dark side of town and headed in the opposite direction from the Waterfront. I began to realize that he was about to take me out of town. That didn't feel right. My home turf is where I operate, and taking me out of it always sets me on edge. Even the Waterfront was in town. But as the little creep kept driving, I watched us cross the northeast bridge and head out into the surrounding country side.

The house wasn't that far out of town, but calling it a house would be like calling the Titanic a canoe. Of course, I knew houses like this existed. I'd even driven by a few of them. But I never knew anybody who lived in one. I had known Vivian Vanderhoff was money, but I'd never believed it could be this much. Based on all I knew, this was old money, and she likely had resources well beyond hiring a down-'n-dirty old private dick to find her missing stuff. She must have been desperate to come to me.

Creepy drove the Rolls up to the front gate, and I immediately understood what Vivian had meant by "unpleasantness". Lining the gate were four tall men with Winchester '94's, and looked like they knew how to use them. But when they saw the car, one of them flipped a switch and the gate began to slowly swing open. They kept their heaters lowered, but looked ready to raise them again at the first sign of trouble.

The driveway was longer than some streets in my area of town. It ended in a long round-about that encircled a giant fountain, carved to resemble a Pegasus prancing among some cherubs. The reek of wealth poured from this place like water from the cherubs' wings. 

The creepy driver stopped at the front steps and opened the rear door. "You may enter the residence now," he said that same clipped voice. I decided if I never saw him again it would be too soon.

If there are castles bigger and more opulent than this place was, I've never seen one. I wasn't even sure the White House was this big. I walked up the steps for what felt like an hour before being met at the top by a tall, thin older man with the same sort of expression the driver wore.

"I shall take you to Miss Vanderhoff," he informed me before turning on his heel and stalking off down a long, buttressed sidewalk. He took me through what had to be a servant's entrance, and from there I honestly don't recall much of the journey deep into the house's inner rooms. Ol' Chauncy here led me down so many hallways, up about two flights of steps, and a few times I'm sure he doubled back and led me in the opposite direction he had started taking me in. I gathered that he didn't want me remembering how to get to her parlor again should I ever decide to come here uninvited.

He finally took me into a parlor larger than most public reception halls. Plush couches and chairs were everywhere, as were live plants, including a few trees planted directing in small earthen areas in the floor. About two dozen hearths, a fire burning in less than half of them. Floor lamps, candles, some lit, some not. Two chandeliers, each larger than Louden's Model M, and both lit rather dimly. In fact, despite the lights in the room there was an atmosphere of darkness, of wishing to hide or not be seen clearly.

Chauncy had stopped, and didn't appear to be getting ready to lead me anywhere else, but I didn't see Miss Vanderhoff anywhere.

"She will be with you momentarily," he assured me, and then he quickly stepped away, disappearing through a different door than the one he'd led me through, and leaving me completely alone.

A puff of smoke came through a far doorway, and following it a few seconds later was the shapely silhouette of Vivian Vanderhoff. Her hair was loose, and hanging about her shoulders, which I could tell were bare. As she sauntered a bit more into the light, I saw that she was clad in an evening dress that would make Mae West blush. What wasn't on full display was wrapped in clingy fabric so that its shape was readily evident. Her back and shoulders were completely uncovered, and she threatened to spill out of the front. The evening gown looked satin, and was red. This was not going to end well.

I have this hang-up, you see, and I mentioned it earlier. Female clients and me, we seem to come to a point where...things happen that shouldn't. Like I said, I ain't proud of it, but I can't deny it, either. I wouldn't consider myself the most handsome gee out there. I'm definitely a few rungs below Cary Grant. Hell, I'm probably a few rungs below John Garfield. The girl standing in front of me? Rita Hayworth. Rita Hayworth didn't make eyes like that in front of John Garfield. She didn't slink toward him with that look in her eyes. She certainly didn't invite him into her private parlor and wear that dress for him.

I decided I had to keep it professional. "The book," I said. "What's it for?"

A look of annoyance came into her eyes. "I told you," she said. "There are things you don't need to know."

"I need to know this," I said. "Looking for this book has nearly gotten me killed. I found Probst, but you led me to believe he was a small-time hood that I would have no trouble dealing with. What I got was a voodoo man or something. He's been reading the book, and doing something with it. It's your book, and you can tell me what he was up to."

Her eyes widened. "The fool!" she hissed. She went to a nearby sofa and stabbed her cigarette out in a standing ashtray. "I knew he wanted the book but I never thought he would be idiotic enough to actually try to use it!"

"Why did you think he wanted it?" I asked.

"For money, what else?" she growled. The Hayworth act wasn't quite over, but it was put on pause for a bit of Bette Davis. "That's all the man ever cared about. It's the only reason he married me!"

"We've covered that," I said. "But did you ever consider he might think that reading the book might bring him much more wealth than selling it ever could?"

"If he thought that," she answered. "He has no brain in his head. That is pure, unadulterated power, Detective Zeddicker. Power that you cannot take lightly. I owned the book, and the Claw, yes, but I was never foolish enough to use them. If he's actually done something..."

"He's definitely done something," I said, relating the story that Manny Eyes had told me. "And by the time I met him, he looked like he'd seen the abyss. He talked like the book recognized him as its master, and challenged you to come and try to take it back."

"'Master'?" she laughed. "He honestly thinks he's the book's master? Oh, poor, deluded Arnie. The book has mastered him now. He's a slave to its will. He was right about one thing, though. He will be the doorway. Only not for long. What he's summoned up will destroy him on its way through. This world is too small and helpless for the power he has summoned."

"What's he summoned?" I asked.

"Hargon itself," she answered, barely whispering. "Hargon's minions are already here. May have been here for centuries. You met one of them in that gangster's body, and you likely met another, or several others, in Arnie himself. But Hargon? They're the warm-up act. He's the show."

"And you think he's bringing this Hargon through?"

"He may already have started," she replied. She sauntered back toward me. Her anger was gone and she was looking at me the way a builder might look at a tool. "From what you've said, he tried. If he was successful, Hargon is even now preparing to come through."

"How do I stop him?" I asked. She had moved very near to me now and had run a finger down the lapel of my flogger. There were stirrings going on that were sure to lead to trouble.

She laughed derisively. "Stop him?" she grinned. "You don't. If he's here, he's here. The only thing you can do is close the doorway so that none of his brothers follow."

"There's more like him?" Elmebrigge had referred to Hargon as an "it", but Vivian was personalizing him. I didn't like it.

"Countless more," she said. "Arnie has no clue what he's unleashed. But you must get the book back from him, Zeddicker. It's imperative."

"One step at a time," I said. I realized my hand was on her bare shoulder. I decided to leave it there. "First I want to know what this Hargon needs with the girl."

"What girl?" she asked, pulling slightly away.

"Betty Parkins," I said. "The one I was already looking for. The people who took her, they're...involved in this somehow. I was told that there are plans for her. Apparently a virgin is necessary."

"Well," she said. "Then both of us are safe. As for the girl, I don't know anything about her or who took her, but if a virgin is involved, I now know for a fact that Arnie is trying to bring Hargon through. Her blood will be the key."

"And without her?"

"Hargon will still be able to influence Arnie and others who get close to the barrier," she said, moving closer. Her hips wriggled against my abdomen. "But he'll remain confined on his side."

"So, I find and rescue Betty Parkins," I said. "And I stop this?"

"They won't have harmed her," assured Vivian. "They can't until the ritual begins. The only questions are when and where."

"Oh, I'll find out when and where," I replied. "And I'll get her away from them."

"I'm sure you will," she said, snaking an arm around my neck. "But it won't be tonight. Before you start the fresh search, you should rest."

"And maybe take a load off?" I ventured.

"Yes," she breathed into my ear. "Do something that relaxes you."

"Lots of things relax me," I said, unable to stop myself.

"Such as?" she purred. Her mouth was less than an inch from my own.

"Should I show you?" I asked as my coat fell to the floor, followed seconds later by her dress.

"Yes," she sighed. "Show me..."

Oh, indeed. Trouble had found me.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

No Pity for the Dead: Chapter Five

The alleyway behind Racks was mostly empty. The same drunks paced to and fro or simply sat in their spot, but none of them took notice of Louden and I as we exited the utility room. We searched the alley up and down for a few minutes, but as far as we could tell, if Manny Eyes had come back down here, he had run for it. We couldn't really blame him.

Back in the flivver, we sat in silence for a moment, the key in the ignition, but Louden not starting the car. I lit a Lucky. Louden did the same.

"Zed," he finally said. "This is bigger than you. You've never taken a case bigger than you before."

"Not my typical style," I admitted. "You want I should drop it?"

"I can't tell you what to do," he said. "I just want to make sure you're doing this for the right reasons. What keeps you going, here?"

I sat silent for a moment longer, puffing on my snipe and pondering his question.

"If there are things that move in the dark," I said, slowly. "They usually aren't up to any good. That's usually where I come in. They kill a man, and the police don't care, I come in to find the killers. They snatch a woman, or a little girl, I usually find them faster than the police can. That's just who I am, Louden. I can't stop being that guy. I'm the guy who deals with things that live in the dark. Coppers usually live in the light, but try to fight the dark. I fight the dark because I live there, too. I know it at its best and at its worst. I know how it operates." I took another drag. "Or I thought I did. Something's moving in the dark, now, bo. It's evil, and it's hurting people, and it's not human. But it's in my territory, and I can't lay low and let it take my territory."

Louden turned to look at me. "You talk like you're dealing with just another big player," he said. "That's Zeddicker. No fight too big for him."

"Was that the reason you were looking for?" I asked.

"Naw," he said. "But it's the reason the Zeddicker I've known and respected all these years would give. So. What's the next step?"

"Well," I said. "Clearly just trying to nab the major players like we've always done isn't working. But a few things that Probst was saying make me think that at least on one level, Vivian Vanderhoff was playing me for a sap. I think it's time I talked to her again."

"That our next stop?"

"No," I told him. "I don't know how to get ahold of her. She's not in the phone book, but she did tell me she'll be in touch. I'll wait until she contacts me, and then I'll insist on another face to face meet. It's time she was honest with me."

"So where to now?" Louden acted like he was ready to start the car.

"We've been kept out of the know," I said. "Dealing with stuff we don't know nothing about. We gotta level the playing field."

"I think I may know a guy," said Louden with a small grin.

"Then let's pay him a visit," I said. When Louden "knows a guy", I don't ask questions about him, I just let him take me to him. Another way that Louden is one of my more valuable resources is that he seems to have connections in nearly every field. You dealing with a case of breaking and entering? Louden knows a B and E expert. You dealing with jewel thieves? Louden knows a guy who can tell you which fence they would have used based on nothing but what was taken. I hadn't thought to ask him if he "knew a guy" about this, though. This was, as Louden said, bigger.

We left the urban area of town. Louden was silent as he drove among a set of larger homes with back yards facing the water. Homes like these were known on the street as the Waterfront, which was odd, as their rears faced the water, but they were the first homes you saw if you looked at the hills above the docks. They were large, stately, Victorian in appearance. And they were among the older dwelling places in town. This was not my territory, and I had to wonder how Louden knew a guy who lived in a neighborhood like this.

We pulled up at one of the smaller, much older houses. It wouldn't have surprised me if this house had stood on that spot since the days of Lincoln. Of course, it was still an affluent piece of real estate, one that a guy like me rarely sees the inside of, but that doesn't mean it didn't look dwarfed and shriveled compared to its neighbors.

Louden turned to me after we left the heap. "This guy," he began. "He's a little cagey. He don't like strangers much, so, you might want to make sure you look non-threatening. Maybe undo your coat." I undid the buttons on my flogger and let it hang open. "Try not to loom so much," said Louden.

"I'm not looming," I said.

"You are," he insisted. "You look like you're trying to work a guy down."

"I'm just standing."

"Well...slump your shoulders a bit, or something. And maybe wipe that look off your face."

"What look?"

"The look that says you're getting ready to fill a punk full of daylight. Your brow could beat a door down. Try and relax your facial muscles."

I did my best to do as Louden said, but the little mick just frowned. "Geezaloo, Zed," he said. "You couldn't look non-threatening if you was staring down God Himself."

"I'm not gonna make any sudden moves," I growled, sick of this song and dance. "Let's just go talk to him. You said you know him, so just tell him I'm all right."

"Perception," said Louden. "It's important. Work on it for the future, but for now, just try and be easy."

"Let's go," I grumbled. Louden led us to the door.

We stood for a time, waiting, after Louden knocked. It was clear that someone was home. Lights were on inside, visible through large picture windows covered by gauzy curtains. I was starting to get impatient, but Louden didn't seem bothered.

"This normal?" I asked.

"Yep," he answered. "Elms hates it when people come to visit and he takes a long time to open the door. He's probably peering through his keyhole deciding if it's worth it."

"Elms?" I asked.

"Wortham Elmebrigge," he explained. "Or 'Elms' to his friends. I wouldn't call him that, though."

He knocked again, then called. "Hey, Elms! It's Louden. I just gotta talk to you for a bit. No trouble!"

It may have only been a few more seconds, but I was ready to turn and leave when I finally heard the click and rattle of the door being unlocked. The heavy door creaked open, and in the dim light I saw a short, compactly built man somewhere between fifty and seventy years old. He had an ornately designed cane in his hand, and I noted uncomfortably that it was also carved with a number of runic symbols.

The man himself didn't look too off, though. He had on a smart smoking jacket, wore his white hair closely cropped in a classic part, had a bristly mustache and was puffing on a Gourd Calabash pipe. He didn't look happy.

"Louden," he said sternly. "You know how I feel about visitors at this time of night. And here you come knocking and shouting, and dragging some great lout with you! What is the meaning of this?"

He spoke with a posh-sounding accent, like upper-class Boston or maybe even British. I'm not good with accents that sound like they're from out of town, but I've caught the odd picture show. He sounded a little like Edward G. Robinson.

I bristled a bit at the words "great lout", but then I remembered what Louden had said and slumped my shoulders as much as I could. It didn't help that my flogger made them look bigger than they are.

"We just gotta talk for a moment, Elms," said Louden calmly. "Something big's happening, something you might know a few things about."

A brief look of terror crossed Elmebrigge's round face. He immediately covered it with his stern look. "I know you've never taken me seriously," he said. "But I've warned you before about making light. I cannot believe you two are standing on my doorstep with a serious inquiry. Now if you'll kindly..."

I decided this had gone on far enough. We were on a time limit. "The night before this," I cut him off. "I saw four grown men ripped into small pieces by clawed hands made out of shadow, eyes and mouths. Tonight I've faced a man turning into a mess of tentacles and another who looks like he's seen the devil himself. Now, Louden here tells me you're the man to talk to about this kind of stuff, and that, right now, is what I need."

Elmebrigge gave me a hard, appraising look. I think he wanted to see if I was serious. He must have been satisfied because eventually he looked back to Louden and nodded. "Both of you had better come in," he said.

He seated us in his parlor, which I must say looked just like I would expect it to. Dark chestnut high-backed chairs with velour padding on the seats and backs, and a couple of plush-looking cream-colored couches. Large portraits on the wall depicting stuffy-looking men who all bore a slight resemblance to Elmebrigge. A giant fireplace decorated with a large clock and ornate oil lamps that weren't lit. The giant floor lamps were, however, with electric light bulbs. Elmebrigge may cultivate an air of the classic but apparently was a slight modernist.

He offered us brandy, which I turned down. He didn't have any scotch. He took one of the couches and indicated the chestnut chairs for us.

"Now," he said, once we were seated. "Tell me everything. From the beginning. Leave nothing out."

I recounted the story as I'd told Louden. Louden himself supplied some of the parts he'd been around for. Elmebrigge took it all in with a look that got darker and darker the more we talked. He'd finished his brandy by the time I was finished, and got up to pour himself another.

"Mister...I'm sorry, what is your name?" he began.


"Mister Zeddicker, could you kindly repeat to me the names of the book and staff that you described?"

"Yeah," I said. "The Codex Rusembrae was the book and she called the staff the Claw of Hargon."

"And her name again was?"

"Vivian Vanderhoff."

"I don't know a Vivian," he began. "But the Vanderhoff name is old. Of course it wasn't always spelled or pronounced this way. They changed it when they came here. I never thought they would be fool enough to take those foul things here with them."

"So, you know them?" I asked.

"Know of them, yes," said Elmebrigge, re-lighting his pipe. "Enough that I've stayed away from them. That book is only trouble, and if she has the staff, my. There's little in the book she couldn't read now."

"She doesn't have the book anymore," I reminded him. "Arnie Probst has it now. And apparently he knows both how to read it and what it's for."

"A fool like the man you describe," said Elmebrigge sharply. "is only concerned with how much he can gain for himself. He likely thought he could use the book to provide himself with unending wealth. The audacity. It is simply unbelievable!"

"Okay," I said. "Miss Vanderhoff didn't feel the need to tell me what this book is or what it's used for, but I'm getting to the point where I feel like I have to know. Whatever you know can only help."

Elmebrigge sighed and sat back down on his couch. He took another puff, dipped his bill again.

"You ask a question like a man conducting an investigation into a crime," he began. "And well you should, since that's all you know. But crime is too soft a word for what this Probst has in mind. He, too, has a small mind and can only imagine the small. He probably reasons that if he can unlock the book's secrets, that he will achieve great material wealth. But the book...those behind not measure wealth as we do."

"What is this book?" I demanded.

"I'm attempting to answer!" he snapped. I said nothing; simply watched him. He cast his eyes to the window and continued.

"The Codex Rusembrae," he said. "Has no direct translation into the modern tongue. It's close to Latin, but still far enough that the word when translated would be meaningless. As far as I know, it means 'The Book of Bound Shadows', but even that title is a recent invention. Its rightful name I doubt any living man knows. To speak a name with that sort of would be an abomination! Its very existence!" He paused and took several puffs, filling the air with smoke. "As for the Claw, well, did the name 'Hargon' mean anything to either of you?"

We both shook our heads.

"And it should not," said Elmebrigge. "Again, it is a meaningless word invented so that our mortal tongues would not have to mouth the true name of the being. The true name is probably lost. If anyone is alive who could recite that dread name with their own tongue, well, Heaven forfend! The being is old, ancient beyond any means of our calculating. Most believe it does not exist. Personally, I haven't the foggiest notion of how real or unreal such a being might be. But just because it isn't real, does not mean it is unreal. Follow?"

I didn't, but I nodded anyway. I wanted him to keep going; this was the closest to answers I was likely to receive.

"Treating such things casually," continued Elmebrigge. "Is fool-hardy to say the least. There is much in this world we do not understand, and when we encounter it, it is far too easy to simply pretend it doesn't exist. That poor hotel attendant you encountered has likely gone home by now, spent time with his family, and told himself that the gangster in his building was drunk or had taken ill, or was on a mind-altering drug. You, yourself, Mr. Zeddicker, are an interesting case. You saw these beings, and you saw them as they were. There is nothing in you pretending you must not have seen what you saw."

"I trust my eyes," I told him. "If I didn't, what am I doing in this business?"

"Then you're a rare man, sir," said Elmebrigge. "Yes. Trust your eyes, for in this instance they are leading you true. There are, Mr. Zeddicker, multiple planes of existence. They don't sit beside each other, as many believe. They all occupy the same space, but at different levels of perception. Usually they are prevented from interacting with each other by barriers of complete unreality. Nothing that is unreal can be touched, seen, smelled or perceived in any way by anything that is real, and therefore, these barriers remain unmolested. But there are beings in these other levels, that are not precisely real themselves. They cannot traverse these barriers any more than we can, or at least, not without help. But they can perceive them. Therefore they can be worked with by these beings. They can send their thoughts and ideas to us in such a way that we think it's coming to us on its own. Often, these ideas and thoughts are put down in books. There are times when the scribe understands the weight of the writings he creates, no matter that he has no clue where it comes from. Some go mad. Others learn to encrypt what they catalog so that they never have to read the actual words again, thus being driven mad themselves. This is where items like the Claw come in. After a time, those receiving the thoughts and ideas have entered direct communication with the beings, and learn enough craft to assist in thinning these barriers I referred to, allowing passage, but not to anything we perceive as matter; that we perceive as real."

"So these beings," I broke in. "They get people like Probst to work with them in thinning these barriers...and then, what, they come through?"

"Boiled down to its basics, yes," answered Elmebrigge. "The process is far more complicated, and...messy." His face took on an expression like someone had just shoved a pile of leavings under his nose. "The beings old, and so far from human that this realm of reality cannot perceive them as they are. They take on physical form because they are forced to, but they detest it, and they always get it wrong. Also, the forms they take are rejected by this world, and cannot stay as they are for long, so they...they take people. They take their bodies and make them wholly theirs. It takes practice, and they often get that wrong as well. The being or beings that tried to take this man Cicci...that was an attempt at possession that went badly. They left too much of him, and were forced to take a physical form of their own, which first tried to merge with Cicci, and when it couldn't, broke out of him. Cicci himself is dead by now; I'm certain of that. The beings that inhabited him might have been forced back to their world or they might have found another body, and perhaps got it more right this time. It's hard to tell."

"And the whisperings that we heard in the hallway?" I asked.

"The possibilities abound there," said Elmebrigge. "His body may have been expelling the beings one at a time, and what you heard was their last attempts to remain corporeal on this plane. He could have been infecting other hotel patrons. I certainly hope that wasn't it. There's just so much that could have happened that there's no way to know for sure."

"What I still don't get," I said. "Is what these two cases have to do with each other. They were two completely separate lays for me. The girl that got snatched had nothing to do with these beings. So what's going on?"

"Are you a believer in coincidences, Mr. Zeddicker?" asked the old man.

"Not typically," I answered. "When things get too coincidental I start looking for who's holding the strings."

"As well you should. Only you won't find them this time. Not unless you have the ability to traverse those barriers yourself, which I strongly doubt. There are strings, and they are being held. And the being holding them is likely on the other side of a barrier, sending Vivian Vanderhoff, Arnold Probst, Frankie Three-Fingers and many others ideas and thoughts. These beings, it would appear, have noticed you. I would not wish to be in your position at all, my poor friend."

I nodded. Suddenly I felt like I could use a drink, scotch or no scotch. I voiced this thought and Elmebrigge rose immediately and poured a tumbler of brandy for me. This time Louden took one as well.

"Mind if I smoke, too?" I asked. My deck was nearly empty.

"Not at all," said Elmebrigge, tapping a wad out of his pipe.

"You never will tell me how you know any of this," Louden said. Elmebrigge shrugged.

"Mr. Louden," he said. "You know I've never steered you wrong before. The fact is that I have paid for this knowledge, and paid dearly. I have strong suspicions that the Vanderhoff woman is not to be trusted. If she knew what the Codex was for, then she likely has paid even more dearly for her knowledge. I'm honestly not certain how you can possess the level of knowledge it would take to use the claw and decipher the book, but I cannot believe it would leave one fully human."

"But what does Betty Parkins have to do with it all?" I asked.

"That I cannot say. You've told me that her father got himself in deep with his gambling, but then, he cannot be the only one who owes this Three-Fingers money. Surely he doesn't kidnap in every case, or your office would be rife with such cases. You do the odd consult with the police, do you not?"

"Off and on," I said. "They sometimes come to me when a case starts going bad."

"Well," said Elmebrigge. "Then you must keep tabs on cases that they work, am I correct?" I nodded. "So, unless there have been other such kidnappings, it would seem that such a thing is not the normal modus operandi of Frankie Three-Fingers, right?"

"Generally, yes," I replied. "He cuts off fingers himself. He likes to say he's looking for a match to replace his own. Or sometimes he takes an ear, or takes a valuable you have if you've got one. Most times he just bumps you off. Kidnapping is rare for him, and this was the first time it was a child."

"Exactly," said Elmebrigge. "He needed a child. A young virgin girl would do best, and he went through the long list of everyone in debt to him, finding that one of them had a daughter. And now, that girl is in grave danger."

"They're gonna use her what? A holster? For one of these things?"

"The young have newer bodies, ones that respond to change much more readily," said Elmebrigge. "Get enough practice taking over one's body, and soon you can completely replace them without them ever knowing it. Their conscious minds won't notice the difference. Their memories and personality remain intact. But they are puppets. Their controller knows their past, and can mimic their responses and mannerisms perfectly, and leave just enough of them human as to not even realize that they, as themselves, no longer exist, in the most clinical way of thinking. By the time they are done with young Miss Parkins, she will look, think, act and be just as she was before in all outward and most inward ways. But she will, in a much more actual sense, be gone. Replaced by something that remembers what she used to be, and has plans for what she will become."

"That's too monstrous to even believe," I said. This was starting to sound like a flim-flam, and I don't like being made a fool of. "How in the world could anyone know this? What signs would there be to even know this had happened to someone?"

"Nothing that seems out of place at first," said Elmebrigge. "And that's the true evil of it. Once the being is installed in its host, there are tell-tale signs, but most who see them brush them off."

"What sort of signs?" I asked.

"Are you certain you want to know?" asked Elmebrigge. "Most who learn the answer refuse to believe me, and are certain that I am quite mad."

"I'm certain," I replied. "Tell me."

"Well," Elmebrigge took another drink from his tumbler. "Some have been known to talk in their sleep. Others may shake their leg absent-mindedly whenever they sit for a while. Others, when they read something, say, a book or newspaper, will mouth the words to themselves. Some will have songs they haven't heard in years, or only know a few line of, recur in their heads in a seemingly endless loop."

I sat and stared at the man. He didn't appear to be lying or mad, but he had to be. He simply had to be, didn't he?

"That's impossible," I challenged. "That describes a lot of people."

"Yes, it does," said Elmebrigge quietly. "Quite a lot of people. Millions, perhaps." He took another sip of brandy.

I felt the coldest chill imaginable run down my spine.

Friday, July 12, 2013

No Pity for the Dead: Chapter Four

"What in the name of the blessed Virgin was that?" Louden finally asked. We were headed back to my office. Louden had been quiet up until now, and so had I. What do you say after an encounter like that? I personally had decided to forget what Cicci had looked like, and focus on what he'd said. "She's gone." "She's where no one can reach her now." "Too late for her."

It didn't sound to my ears like Cicci was gloating or happy about the girl's fate. Dare I even say it, I thought he sounded full of regret. Whatever part he'd played in her demise, he wanted to take it back. He hadn't realized the mistake until his body went rogue on him.

"That was a dying mobster," I replied.

"That thing..." Louden trailed off. "What was happening to him?"

I felt a little guilty, I admit, for not sharing fully with Louden what had happened in the alleyway last night. I knew he could be trusted with it, but maybe I was a little concerned that he'd decided I needed to see the inside of a padded cell. But now he'd seen something like that with his own eyes. I decided it was time to tell him. I told him all of it; the alleyway, the shadow thing with hands that had eyes and mouths on them. Vivian Vanderhoff and her strange, urgent demand that I find her book and decorative stick. The whole nine yards.

Louden said not a word until we were both back at the office.

"Jeez-a-loo!" exclaimed Glenda at seeing us. "You two look like you seen a ghost!"

"In that neighborhood," I said, trying to affect a grin. Glenda is not unused to seeing me in an evil mood, if I've just come back from a tougher job, but I doubt she's seen me white as a sheet before. Louden and I went into my back office where I doffed my flogger on one of the sofas and headed for the cabinet I keep at the back. I needed a stiff hooker of scotch, and I was pretty sure Louden wouldn't turn that down, either. I got out the bottle and two glasses, while Louden sat and fished out a smoke. He sat a while longer, puffing on his snipe and dipping his bill occasionally after taking the proffered glass. Finally he spoke.

"So," he said. "We headed to Racks, then?"

"I'm getting a feeling," I replied. "That Racks may help put us on Probst's trail, but I don't think he's there."

"Why's that?"

"It's what Vivian Vanderhoff was saying about his need to have that book," I said. "Maybe this whole Three-Fingers case is changing the way I look at things. At first I was sure he wanted something that was valuable and could get him some decent scratch."

"Not unreasonable," said Louden. "Two-bit flim-flam men like him are always looking for ways to line their pockets."

"Sure," I agreed. "But that book. Where would he fence something like that? What possible street value could it have? No, he wasn't taking it to sell it or make any prophet from it. He wanted the book for himself."

"That's assuming it was even him what took it," Louden reminded me. "This Vanderhoff dame suspects he has it but she has no proof."

"True," I said. "But we know he wanted it. According to Miss Vanderhoff he was desperate for it. If he doesn't have it himself, he must know what it is, and what it's good for. Either way, he's our best lead."

"Oh, I don't doubt that," said Louden. "But I gotta tell you, Zed. This whole thing is giving me the cold creeps. Whatever was happening with Cicci, I don't think we killed him, and that means he can...I don't know. But unless it's my imagination, those whispering things? I think he made those, somehow. We never saw them, but then, we never would have seen him if you hadn't forced your way into his room. After what you saw, and then what we saw, now we're going after some old book that men can get obsessed with. None of this seems square. If I didn't know better, I'd think we were being played for suckers."

"I had that thought, too," I said. "But obviously that ain't it." I polished off my drink and put my feet on my desk. Then I pulled out my deck and lit a Lucky. "Take some time, Louden," I said. "Go see your family. Kiss the wife. Play with your kids. Try and restore some energy. Tonight we're going to Racks, and if Probst isn't there, we're not stopping until we find out where he is."

Evening came. Glenda was gone. The sun was starting to fall, and I was pouring myself another shot of liquid courage. The photos of the book and claw were still on my desk. I'd taken polaroids of them so I could keep them in my coat pocket. Ol' Pappy was in his holster, strapped to my chest. At this point, I was fully prepared to walk into that pool bar and be confronted by a bunch of Dracula's, but whatever the case may be, I wanted to be as prepared as I could be.

I heard Louden walk in, heavy feet tromping through the outer office. His short, stocky silhouette filled the glass of my door. He knocked, which he usually doesn't do.

"Ready to go?" I heard him call. I double-checked Ol' Pappy. He was fully loaded, and I had another clip in a separate pocket, easy to reach. I stood and donned my Fedora, and we headed for the Model A.

Racks looked like every other pool joint I'd ever seen, or at least it did while we were still arriving. Both Louden and I were paying closer attention to the premonitions you can sometimes get in this  business. That itchy feeling that makes you think you've got a gun trained on you from somewhere in the shadows. The sense that someone's watching you. Sometimes you need to pay attention to those feelings. Other times they're just normal paranoia. This time, though, we both felt it. Something wasn't right inside Racks.

The joes were coming and going through the front door, just like they should be. The sign was lit. Smoke and the noise of music poured through the door whenever it opened. Nobody would have looked twice at it on the way by. But when I looked at the front of the building, a sense that something was looking back assailed me. Something that could see me and knew my name, and didn't want me coming in. I told myself that today's encounter with Cicci had me jumpy, but I couldn't convince myself of that.

Louden looked at me. His eyes told me he felt it too. I nodded and patted the spot under my coat where ol' Pappy was holstered. He patted his own, and we started for the door. The smoke smell hit me strong, as did the smell of spilled eel juice and the noises of people shouting and music being played. I heard pool balls smacking against each other, some hitting pockets. The occasional shouting match. And people seated at the bar and high tables all around. There were women there, all dressed in skirts slashed above the knee; the necklines of their blouses going lower than was seemly. All in all, nothing I hadn't expected.

There were a few mustaches among the male patrons, and more than a few hooked noses. None wore a ring matching the one Probst was supposed to wear, at least none who were currently visible. I decided I'd pretend I was just here for a drink, and see if the bartender knew our man.

I moved close to Louden. "Work the room," I said. "See what chatter you can pick up. Maybe join a game. I'm gonna talk to the bartender."

He nodded, and I headed off.

The bartender was a tall, broad man with an unshaven face and a mop of red hair. He was calling back orders in a booming voice. I took a stool and waited.

"What can I get you?" he roared when he got to where I was.

"Scotch, neat. And I'm lookin' for a guy. Hoped you might know him."

The bartender's eyes narrowed. This wasn't the type of establishment where people met for friendly business. Right now he was wondering if I was part of some underground ring, if I was gunning for someone, if I was a dealer, or a customer. After a moment, the bartender decided to take it one step at a time.

"He got a name?" he asked me.

"Probst," I said. "Arnie Probst."

The bartender's face turned white. He backed up a pace. "Get out," he snarled. "Now."

"I don't want trouble," I said calmly.

"Want it or not, you gonna get it if you don't leave," said the bartender. He was reaching under the bar now. "Any friend of Probst is no friend of mine."

"I ain't his friend," I said. "I just need to talk to him."

"Don't bother," said the bartender. "He ain't coming back here. And you ain't, either. Now breeze off." His hand never left beneath the bar.

I decided this wasn't going to be profitable any more, but I already knew more than I did coming in. Probst was apparently a regular at this place, but recently, quite recently, unless I missed my guess, he'd done something to make himself persona non grata at this establishment. That was very interesting.

Louden made his way over to me. He had a pool cue in his hand. "What's the wire?"

"I said the wrong thing," I told him. "Arnie Probst's name. I don't know what happened, but he won't be frequenting this establishment any time soon."

"Psst, pally," came a voice. Louden and I turned, and saw a small, greasy man in a well-worn white suit coming our way. He wore dark glasses, even in this dim light, and hadn't shaved in several days. "This way," he said as he breezed past us. I glanced at Louden and we nodded to each other, then followed the little man.

He led us out the back of the bar into a grimy but well-lit alley. The occasional hop-head meandered by, and a few patrons who'd gone over the edge with the rams were emptying their dinners into garbage bins or street grates.

Our greasy guide turned to us as soon as we were out. "You gunnin' for Arnie?" he asked.

"We just need to talk," I said. I gave him the up and down, relieved that he didn't appear to be changing form before us. He took it differently, though.

"Hey, I'm square," he said, opening his suit jacket so that we could see he didn't have a heater. "They call me Eyes. It's 'cause I see so much that I shouldn't. You can call me Manny, though."

"Manny Eyes?" I said incredulously. "What a handle. You know where we can find Probst?"

"What's he done?" asked Manny. "Who are you?"

"The name's Zeddicker," I said, and watched to see if Manny knew the name. He did.

"You're that flattie, ain't you?" he asked.

"Not a cop, an op," I said. "Strictly private. And as for what Arnie did, not really relevant. I just need to find him. Talk to him, friendly-like."

Manny laughed; a short, dry sound. "Flattie, private dick," he sneered. "All the same, really. You're all Johns to me, and I don't talk to Johns." As he said this, he extended a hand. "But a sawbuck might change my view."

"Why not say what you know, and I'll decide if it's worth a sawbuck," I said, ignoring his hand.

"Aw, why you gotta go and play it like that?" he whined. "Tell you what, buy me a drink?"

"I like what you tell me," I replied. "I may buy you two. But first you spill."

Manny shrugged and looked crestfallen. He shook his head and began.

"Arnie pulled one king of a con a few years back," he said. "Married some society dame. Came back here spending money like it was water."

"We know this part," growled Louden. "And then she got tired of his ploy and dumped him. Left him beat."

"He got nuthin'," said Manny. "So he crawls back here. But now he's a little different. He can't stop talking about this book. I didn't know what he was talking about at first; thought he meant a betting book or something. Then three nights ago, he comes back. Says he got the book, and now he can get started."

"Get started with what?" I asked.

"He didn't say, but Christ, was he glad he glad he got that book," answered Manny. "I never seen nobody so happy without havin' just made whoopee with Jean Harlow. That night..." Here he paused, took off his lid and rand a hand through his greasy hair. "He asked for a room upstairs. He had this old book with him; looked like it was gonna crumble to dust in his hand. And he's got this stick. It's this tall, old wooden thing all carved up and it's got a head made of..."

"We know the stick, too," I broke in. "Just tell us what he did."

Manny swallowed. We knew about the stick, and the way I said that so casually clearly didn't sit well with him.

"He got his room," Manny continued. "A small one right upstairs. Lays that book on the floor and starts chanting. And then that stick started glowing. First the ball on top, then all the carvings on it. I saw this myself because I went up with him. He sounded like there was two of him; one bird chantin', but two voices, one of 'em deep-like. The book...well, I didn't get much of a look at it because the glowing of the stick kept me from seeing much, but it looked like the picture on the page he was lookin' at was...moving. You fellas know anything about that?"

I shook my head. Louden stared at him wide-eyed.

"We ain't involved in whatever he was doing," I said. "We're just after the items he had with him. They don't belong to him."

"Yeah, I know," said Manny. "They belong to that society broad he married. He never made any bones about them bein' hers, and he was gonna get 'em any way he could. But he has 'em now."

"So what happened then?" I asked. "After he set the stick glowing and the book moving?"

"Well, he kept it up," said Manny. "He didn't seem to care who was watching him. He turned the pages a few times. Then he let go of the stick, but it kept standing straight up and then started spinning."

He watched our faces as he spoke. I could tell he was watching to see if we were buying his story. I was, because Manny was getting more nervous the more he talked, and not the kind of nerves one gets when they're afraid the jig is up, more like when they're afraid of what they're talking about. Manny didn't like this story, but he wanted the green, so he was telling it, and hoping we weren't gonna call him crazy.

Our looks must have reassured him, because he kept talking. "It spun so hard it felt like there was wind indoors," he said. "And the glow got so bright I couldn't look at it. And then, just like that, it stopped. No more glowin', no more spinnin', and no more chantin'. He laughed, and it sounded like nuthin' I never heard. I mean, Lionel Barrymore don't know a laugh so evil. And then he closed the book. He said two words; 'It's done'. And then the door to his room shut in our faces. And that's the last of it. I don't know no more."

"You don't know where he is now?" I asked.

"Huh? Where he is now?" asked Manny, clearly confused. "You didn't catch what I just said? Nobody's seen him since the door to his room shut. He's still up there. Been there for three days, and nobody can get that door open. Can't even break it or chop it down."

"So the bartender..." It began to dawn on me. After a display like that, the bartender surely wouldn't want any more of it. Anybody come in my office asking for some cat who started making the mumbo-jumbo, and I'd chase them out with ol' Pappy.

"He won't let anybody up," said Manny. "But if you gotta see him, I can take you another way. There's a back route for the laundry truck. Keppler in there don't know I know about it."

"Yeah," I said. "I gotta see what I can. Lead us on."

Manny took us a few feet away to a little enclave recessed in the wall that looked like a junk room. In fact, it was a junk room but on the far wall was another door, locked and bolted. Manny produced a set of little files and made short work of both. The door swung open.

"Come on," Manny said. "It's a short flight up."

We walked up a spiral stair case that clearly didn't see the right end of a mop very often. Manny moved quickly and quietly, but Louden and I were much larger, and had to move slower in order to keep anyone from hearing.

"Hurry up, you two," he hissed at us. "I can't have you up here for long or someone's gonna notice."

I could feel it as we neared the top step. The floor was vibrating. Very slightly, but it was there. The vibration got stronger as Manny led us down the hall to a room gouged with axe-marks and boot prints. I put my hand on the door. It was like putting it down on a live wire, or at least, I figured this is what it must feel like.

I jerked my hand away and stared at Manny. "It's been like this for three days?"

"That hum got stronger since then," he whispered.

I pulled out o' Pappy and knocked on the door with the butt of his grip. Even through the metal I could feel that pulse. I saw Manny flinch, probably thinking I'd meant to shoot him.

"Arnie," I said, not as loud as I wanted to. "I've got a message from your wife."

The hum stopped and the door opened onto more blackness. This was happening too often to me lately. I jerked to one side, as did Louden. Manny was already standing a few paces away.

"What does that bitch have to say?" snarled the most wicked voice I could imagine. Gun first, I slowly turned into the doorway, and saw standing before me a skeletal, pallid man who I knew immediately had to be Arnie Probst. The purple suit he'd been wearing was stained with sweat and other things I didn't want to think about. His fingernails had been peeled away. He was barefoot, and I saw that the same was true of his toe nails. He'd been scratching at his neck hard enough to leave long, bloody marks behind.

"She just wants her book back," I said. "And the staff."

"She can drag her sorry ass down here if she wants it," he laughed. I nearly slugged him at the sight of that smile. Such an evil look. "That is, if the book even wants her anymore."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked.

"Oh, I think she'll find the book recognizes a new master now," he said. "If she thinks she has the power to take it back, she's welcome to try. But she's too late to stop it. The thinning is begun. And I will be the doorway."

The shadows in the room behind him began to move. "Now, that's enough of that," I said. "We'll be back. Stay there."

"I shall," grinned the gaunt figure. The door slammed in my face.

"Two rooms, two haunted people," I said. "This has got to stop." Louden and I turned to head down the laundry staircase. Manny Eyes was already nowhere to be seen.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

No Pity for the Dead: Chapter Three

I stopped outside the diner and dropped a dime, dialing Louden's number. Three rings later, his gruff voice answered.

"Louden," he said.

"It's Zeddicker. Listen, I don't care what's happening right now. The trail's getting hot again and I need some support."

"You on foot?"

"Yeah. I'm outside the Eat 'n Bounce. Be here in fifteen."

"I'll be there."

Louden's a dependable guy for the most part. Yeah, he's got his fingers in a dozen pies or more, but I keep him around because he's trustworthy, he tells me when he's gonna be out of pocket, but when he's around, he'll drop anything for me. I've taken him away from pitching whoo and he barely complains. He's one of my more valuable assets.

While waiting, I put together what little I knew. My world is not a pretty one. It's violent, it's seedy, and routinely has me viewing the worst part of humanity. This seemed way more than that. I know how dark and ugly the human soul can get. Could it get so bad that it touches...something humans aren't supposed to touch?

History is replete with unexplained mysteries. A socialite in Manhattan buys a book while out for a walk and never comes home; no body is found. A businessman goes on a trip to Santa Barbara and never comes home. His body is never found. An entire cargo ship on its way from Barbados to Bal'mer just vanishes with all hands. Stuff like that may or may not have a reasonable explanation. But ginks disappearing from locked rooms and watched cars, shadows becoming hands...that sort of thing only happened in the picture shows. I was either being played for a sap, or something was happening that all my senses said could not happen.

Ten minutes later I was sitting in the back seat of the Model M, Lucky between my lips, checking to make sure ol' Pappy was fully loaded. Louden was silent behind the wheel as he waited.

"Whatcha heard?" I asked.

"I got a source says there's a shake-up among the big players of this city," said Louden. "Sound right?"

I took a long drag. "Matches what I heard pretty square," I replied.

"How we play this?" he asked.

"Cicci," I said. "He's our meat. He showed up here last night with a roundheel and started waving his heat around. Now he's in the air. Collared a low-rent hood who says Cicci's running Three-Fingers' show now, but he wasn't where he said he'd be."

"Where's he supposed to be?"

"The Chilton. That's where we go next."

"Egg in the coffee," replied Louden.

The Chilton wasn't far; just a bit farther south than the diner. My office is near the center of town, edging the poorer districts. Gangland is the term for all the property in the southeast. Big trouble boys ruled the roost down there. Gambling and prostitution may be illegal, but here nobody put a stop to it. Coppers didn't tend to frequent the area. It was one big sprawl of urban ugliness, ruled over only by warring crime families.

Frankie Three-Fingers ran all the gambling rackets, including off-track betting, and it was that supposed "victimless crime" that roped poor, hapless Phil Parkins into debt with a man who took money owed him seriously. Phil had been a bookie with an addiction; started small with card games, eventually upping his ante to horses. No matter how much he lost, he always came back, determined that this time he'd be able to get square. He was always on his uppers, and Frankie didn't like that at all. He threatened to come after the one thing Phil loved more than gambling; his little girl. Phil hadn't believed him; why would they take an innocent little girl just for some money? He figured they'd kill him first, but Frankie doesn't work that way. His motto is, if you've got problems getting scratch out of a living man, it's impossible to get it from a dead one. Instead, he makes you wish he'd killed you.

Now, I deal with all kinds of rotten in my lay, but to me, it doesn't get much lower than snatching kids. I try not to take cases that have me going up against groups like the mob, but you take a kid, and you've crossed a line. I didn't have much pity for a guy like Phil Parkins, but the idea of that little girl waiting somewhere in the dark for her daddy to come up with scratch he just couldn't get ahold of...well, I had to try.

I had some pull with a few people in town who owed me favors, and within a few days I managed to pull together the rhino on Phil's behalf. I arranged an anonymous meet in the alleyway, and after that...things were going to hell.

The Chilton seemed oddly quiet. Usually when I see a hotel, I see people coming and going out the front door, cars parked in front to pick up or drop off passengers. None of that was happening, however. Louden noticed it too.

"Something queer going on, Zed," he said.

"I pipe that," I said. "We're going in."

Louden parked in front and we checked our guns. I buttoned my flogger and Louden went first. The way he moved felt like a stalking tiger. The man is a total pro.

The lobby seemed empty at first, until we noticed the top of a bald head behind the admissions desk. Somebody was crouched there, possibly waiting to pop us if we looked like we didn't belong, which we didn't.

"I see you there, gee," I called. The head ducked further, and I heard a loud bang followed by a "youch!" Within a few seconds, the owner of the head stood slowly and looked at us. Just an employee here, then. He looked ready to take the run-out, but he was just standing there, hands on the counter, look on his face like he was trying to convince himself nothing was wrong.

"Something I can help you gents with?" he asked. His voice was a bit too high. Something had him nervous, and it wasn't us.

"We came to see Cicci," I said, as if I had an appointment.

"You fellas...his friends?" asked the counter man.

"Not precise," I said. "We just need to talk to him."

"He's not here," the man replied quickly. For just a moment his eyes jerked in the direction of a flight of stairs to his right.

"That's what I was told," I said. "But, see, way I figure it, that can't be. I think he's here, but doesn't want people like me to know about it."

"You ain't a cop," the counter man spat. "Else you would have flashed a buzzer by now. What's this about? Who do you work for?"

Louden was at the counter faster than I could blink. He had the man's shirt collar in his hands and was leaning into his face. "Look, chappy. We know he's here. We just told you that he had to be and you didn't deny it. And don't think for a second I didn't see that look at the stairs. Now, where's he at? What floor? Room?"

There were some dry swallows from the bald man's throat. " don't understand," he croaked. "If you go up there...I don' won't go nice, you see?"

"You just let us worry about that," I assured him. "If it helps, I'll belt you on the pan and you can say I knocked you out. Just tell us where he is."

"Naw, it ain't like that," he continued. His lips were trembling like they wanted to fall off. "He's...something happened last night. Nobody's seen him since he came in. It was...I don' just really don't want to go up there." He was near tears.

"Listen, gee," I said quietly. "I know there's something bad up there. I may know more than you think. But I gotta talk to Cicci, just trust me that none of this is gonna fall on you. If I were you, though, I'd hop the next bus out of town."

"Oh, trust me, I'm gone soon," he said. "Look, fellas, I don't know what to tell you. I've been working in this town for twenty years. I've seen men blipped off in this very room. But when Cicci came in last night...he was wrong. I can't say it any other way. And he's just gotten more wrong since then. He's barricaded himself in Room 1004, and he won't let nobody near him."

"Thanks, pally," I said. Louden let him loose. "We'll take it from here."

"Don't," pleaded the man. "Please, just don't. Leave, and I won't tell nobody you were here."

"We got business with Cicci," said Louden. "We ain't leaving until we talk to him."

Over the sounds of the counter man's tears, Louden and I headed to the elevator. There was no way we were climbing ten flights with time pressing like this.

As soon as I stepped into the elevator I knew the counter man wasn't exaggerating the wrongness in this building. The car smelled like a sewer that someone had pumped industrial waste into. The air was bitter, tangy.

"Jesus..." I heard Louden swear beside me. I only heard him because the light was out. When the door closed, I pressed the button for ten, and we felt the elevator move, slowly and shakily, but the light never came back on. A creeping chill broke out over my back. I could almost feel a cold set of fingers playing on my neck. I turned swiftly, but the feeling departed just as fast.

"Zed," said Louden. "You hear that?"

I listened. There were small scuffling noises coming from above us. "Whispers," hissed Louden. I listened further and realized he was right. I couldn't make out what they were saying, but the scuffling noises were definitely voices, and were forming words.

"This is bad wrong, Zed," said Louden. I didn't disagree.

After what felt like a day and a half, the elevator stopped with a jolt, and the doors opened to a similarly dark hallway. Occasionally a light flickered, and a thin stream of daylight was trying to get in at the far end of the hall. Thanks to this mediocre illumination I could see that the floor was covered in a scrim of wet. It looked sticky, or possibly slippery, but it covered damn near the entire hallway, all the way across and down. "Watch your step," I warned.

We stepped out, guns drawn. This was the kind of environment that might hold someone waiting to grease us, and we looked both ways down the corridor. The doors to all the rooms were closed, and the wet was on the walls on both sides at about waist height. I decided I had no interest in touching it.

We crept down the hall in the direction of Room 1004, our feet sliding with every step. The stench was overpowering. It was like the elevator only more so. And those whispers, whoever was making them, were following us. Louden's body was a picture of poise, his gun raised and his head craning this way and that, ready for anything.

The door to Room 1004 was locked, the handle covered in the slippery wet.

"Zeddicker," whispered Louden. "You notice?"

I had, and nodded to indicate as much. There were no guards. Cicci holed up in a private room, and he hasn't posted any hoods with choppers waiting to pop anybody who tried to get in? That was impossible.

I motioned to Louden, who turned his back to the wall and stood by the door. I knocked, reaching for a spot on the door not covered in thick wet.

"Cicci!" I called. "Open up. Gotta talk to you."

I waited. One minute, two. Silence.

"I'm gonna count to ten, and then I'm gonna open this door," I said. "I know you're in there. May as well open up." I counted as soon as I finished speaking, mouthing the words "sweet patootie" between each number. I heard a choking sound coming from the room.

Carefully I stood back at an angle and blasted the goo-covered door handle away. Louden and I both froze, each of us looking a different direction down the hallway, guns out. No one came.

I pushed the door open and went in. What I found was more of the same goo decorating a sitting room in large splotches. It took me a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sudden daylight pouring in from an open window, but as soon as they were I saw the broad. She was blonde, just like the waitress had said, and buxom, and completely naked, with her stomach ripped open from neck to nethers, and her insides hanging out like slippery ropes. She was covered head to toe in the thick slime, and slime it surely was.

"Cicci!" I called out again. "I'm here with the girl. I know you killed her. Come on out and let's settle this like men." That should have drawn him, but I only heard the choking noise again. It sounded like it was trying to form words. And it came from the back bedroom.

I held my gun before me and walked toward the closed door. The choking noise continued, and slowly began resolving into words. "...stoooop..." Wheezing.

"If that's you in there, Cicci, I'm coming in," I called out. "I don't care if you're pitching whoo to your digits, that door is opening."


He didn't get any farther. I kicked the door down and stared into a pitch-black room. All the shades were drawn, and in the dim gloom I could just barely make out a man shape sitting against the far wall facing the door. Cicci.

There was a large bag of something in front of him. I couldn't make out what exactly it was in the dark. Cicci himself was leaning a little, as if being pushed over by it. I couldn't see a gun at all.

"Cicci?" I said, slowly. "That you?"

"Who...?" he began. He sounded like something was stuck in his throat.

"My name is Zeddicker," I told him.

"Zed...dicker..." It was the first word he said without the rasp, but he still sounded like he was trying to swallow vomit. "Heard...about you. You're...buttons, right?"

"Nah," I said. "Private dick. Listen, I'm not hear about the madame out there. I didn't know about her when I started. I'm looking for Betty Parkins. Your boss snatched her."

A wet chuffling sound came from the man sitting against the wall. He seemed to be kicking the big back, as ripples were going through it.

"So," he said. "You're him. The...chump with"

"Yeah," I replied. "And I had it too. But your boss didn't show and neither did the girl."

"The girl," repeated Cicci. "She's...had it. Too...late for her. Late for me too. Maybe...for you."

"Threats aren't gonna work, Cicci," I said. "Frankie left you in charge, so you must know where the girl is. That's all I'm hear for. The rest is a matter for the elephant ears."

"She's...gone..." wheezed Cicci. "She's one can...reach her...I see...about the meet. Went there. When it was over. 'Spected to find...your body. Frankie...decided not to ransom her. Moved her...some place special. Just"

"Didn't work, though, did it?" I said. "'Cause here I am. And I ain't leaving until you tell me where she is."

"Told you...don't know," he wheezed again. "The boys...sent to kill you...whatever got'em...came back while I was there..."

A slow horror began to dawn on me. Cicci wasn't threatening me, and he wasn't refusing to tell me what I asked. He had no clue what was going on, and he had seen the very thing, whatever it had been, that I had seen.

"Thought I was...okay at first," he continued. "Went...for a bite, even found a girlie. You saw there. I saw his arm point toward the sitting room. There was something wrong with it. It seemed about half again as long as a man's arm ought to be, and it was dripping. "But it...followed me. Came...back here...with me..."

"What did?" I asked. "That shadow thing? It's here?"

The choking sound came again from across the room. I saw the shape of Cicci lean over and cough, hard. Wet.

"" he said. ""

"Where?" I began scanning the room, expecting to see those terrible hands extending toward me out of the darkness.

"Not...there..." Cicci struggled to say. "It inside..."

I suddenly realized that the bag in front of Cicci wasn't a bag. It was a large, blubbery, slippery bulb of sickly white flesh.

"They're here..." he gargled. "They're in me. They're in me!"

The bag wasn't pushing Cicci over. It was him. His entire lower half had been turned into this festering, stinking thing. In the dim light Cicci began coughing again, and a thin, white tendril of flesh with an eyeball on the tip snaked its way out his mouth.

"Louden!" I cried. Within seconds he was at my side, gun drawn.

"Too...late for you..." came the voice of Cicci, now sounding wet and snuffling, like the voices in the hallway. His body, glistening wet and bulging, churning, began sloughing its way toward us. We lifted our guns and squirted lead, backing quickly into the hallway. I fired until my clip emptied, hearing those squelching sounds of slugs hitting that bulbous, pliable body, as Louden and I made a break for the door...