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 book...it 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.