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."
"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?"
"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 too...my, 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 it...do 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 power...it 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 are...so 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 as...as 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.