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This is the curse of our age, even the strangest aberrations are no cure for boredom.  –  Stendahl

Nearly everything that had ever gone wrong in Ned’s life was due to the fact that he was so easily bored.  He rarely finished a book or continued watching a television series past the third or fourth episode; whenever he went out to eat he preferred to go to different places each time; he never kept a car for more than a year.  Even wives and girlfriends were replaced as soon as Ned began to tire of them, and eventually he couldn’t even be bothered with relationships any more.  So it was perhaps inevitable that he start hiring escorts.

clonemaidensAt first, Ned felt that he’d never grow bored with “the hobby”; he could see as many beautiful women as he liked, as often as he liked, without any major effort at all.  He figured if he never repeated a girl he would find it exciting for many years.  Eventually, though, the women all began to blend together in his mind, and one seemed like another.  For a while he sought out the quirkiest, least-conventional providers he could; the more uneven their reviews, the more the tattoos and piercings, the more outrageous their drama, the more he liked them.  Then they, too, began to fill him with ennui, and he moved on to fetish providers, dominatrices and every other kinky type he could find.  Ned’s sexual orientation was basically vanilla, though, so that couldn’t last long; he just couldn’t justify spending so much money on women who wouldn’t even spread their legs for him.  Then he tried street girls and amateurish-seeming Backpage denizens; they soon became just as blah as all the others.  Aside from the occasional robbery attempt, freakout or other surprise, whores in general simply weren’t interesting to him any longer.

It was the paying that created the boredom, he figured; he knew that as long as he paid her fee, any prostitute he hired would put out.  There just wasn’t any unpredictability in it, and few surprises, and since being able to predict what will happen next is the very essence of boredom, Ned decided paying to play was no longer acceptable to him.  Picking up regular women was a lot more fun; he was never sure what combination of smooth talk, presents, alcohol, drugs, lies or outright coercion would work to get any of them in bed, nor what would happen when he got them there.  And if he was really lucky, something unpredictable or even dangerous night happen, thereby providing the thrills he craved.

So it was that one night, Ned found himself in a crappy dive in a strange city, hunting his usual game; he had become quite practiced at sizing up his quarry, and so he was deeply intrigued when a woman he couldn’t quite read nonetheless succumbed to his charms and invited him back to her place.  On the way there, the conversation turned to the opposite sex, and Ned (who, truth be told, had imbibed more than was strictly prudent) blurted out how bored he was with women in general:  “They’re so damned predictable, all of ’em the same.  Now you, see, you’re different; you’ve clearly got class, yet you were in that low-class place.  You’re too smart to fall for any lines and too beautiful to go for a guy like me, yet here we are together.  Other women rarely surprise me, but you?  You’re full of surprises.”

“So you like surprises?” she asked quietly, her voice almost drowned out by the hiss of the rain and the blop-blop-blop-blop of the windshield wipers.

“Oh, yeah, I mean what’s life without surprises?  I even like the unpleasant ones in a way, because at least they alleviate the same-old same-old.”

“Yes, I understand.  Well, I’m glad you find me surprising; I think I can promise you at least one more big surprise tonight.”

“Now you’ve got me even more curious.  Care to give me a hint?”

“We’re here; I’ll show you in a few minutes.”  The house was another surprise; it wasn’t quite a mansion but it was still fairly large, and situated on a rather expansive piece of property for being so close to town.  The garage was under the house, and she took his wet things before they even went in; when he turned to go up the stairs she stopped him and pointed instead to another door on the same level.  “I want to show you my playroom.”

bourbonNed felt a bit disappointed; her playroom?  Probably a kink dungeon, in other words.  Ah, well, might as well go through with it, he thought; he was already here, and at least it hadn’t cost him anything.  It had been a while since he’d done anything like this, and maybe she had an interesting twist on it.  Besides, she was offering him a glass of high-quality bourbon from what appeared to be a very well-stocked bar, and that made up for at least a little disappointment.

“When you’re ready, we can go in,” she said with a quiet smile.

“No time like the present.”

“Oh, good, I was hoping you’d say that.  Close your eyes and let me lead you in, and don’t open them until I tell you to, OK?”

“Sure, baby, whatever you say.”

He did sneak a peek, but it hardly mattered; the room she had led him into was pitch-black.  But it was only a moment before she said, “Open your eyes,” and flicked on the light.  The place wasn’t quite what Ned expected; it looked less like a sex den and more like an abattoir, replete with stainless-steel surfaces and bloody knives, and a partially-butchered carcass that Ned did not like the look of at all.

The last word he ever heard was, “Surprise!”

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Time travels in divers paces with divers persons.  –  William Shakespeare, As You Like It (III,ii)

The two of them lay as still as a statue in bed, their white limbs entwined so extensively that they seemed to have been carved by a master from a single block of marble.  Nearby lay one of their cats, equally still, another statue placed as an accent beside the larger subject.  Even had their position not advertised their last activity before sleep, the various objects on the nightstand and the cast-aside clothes on the floor would have; not that they would’ve been ashamed of that, even if they had been aware of my presence.  The only motion in the room beside my own was that of the ceiling fan above them, and that was only barely perceptible.

I had to stand for what seemed a long while to me, staring at it in order to be sure it was moving at all.  Observing it was no more the point of my trespass into the room than voyeuristically spying on my housemates was; it’s just that I have not yet had this power long enough to have become jaded with it.  Things like the sight of two beautiful women frozen in embrace, or a fan’s blades moving so slowly that to a casual glance they seem motionless, are still so strange and fascinating to me that I can’t help but stop and take them in.  I also find myself tiptoeing in such situations, despite the fact that it’s completely unnecessary; any sound I made would be so momentary and so highly-pitched it would be a wonder if they heard it at all.

clock closeupCrossing the room took a few seconds to my perception, but how much time was it really?  I can’t be exactly sure, except that I can fit several minutes of activity between two ticks of a clock.  Where the power came from, or where it will lead me, I have no idea; all I know is that a short course of meditation allows me to access this accelerated state, and that I have no trouble maintaining it for as long as I like.  There do seem to be some limits on the power; for example, it’s very difficult to move large objects while I exist between tick and tock.  And that’s why I was passing through the lovers’ room this morning:  I knew their window would be open against the late springtime heat, and their door would be ajar from one or the other of them visiting the bathroom during the night.

Kitty #2 was on the windowsill, glassy eyes fixed on an equally-motionless bird suspended in midair nearby.  She presented no obstacle; I simply slipped past her onto the fire escape and then made my way spider-like down the wall.  There was no other way to get to the ground; I had discovered the hard way that gravity worked no more quickly on me than it did on the bird or any other object, so if I tried to jump down I would simply hang there in space until I decided to move back into normal time.  But the roughness of the brick wall was enough for me to pull myself down with, and I could go up as easily as down for the same reason.

The street below was already busy even at this hour, but that made little difference to me; the cars were as motionless as everything else, so I could move in any direction I liked, right down the middle of the street if I wanted to, without regard for traffic.  My destination was miles away, but I had no choice other than walking it; pedaling a bicycle, as I had discovered earlier, is utterly exhausting when accelerated.  No matter; I’m a strong walker, and to achieve today’s goal I would’ve been willing to walk clear across the city if need be.  Furthermore, I’ve done this every day for several weeks now, except for the days when the rain created a curtain of suspended droplets that’s almost as hard to move through as if I were walking underwater.  I know the route well, and have already discovered several shortcuts unavailable to those who can be seen by others.

Over a high brick wall lay my final destination; it was no harder to climb than the wall outside my own place, despite the spikes on top.  And then down into the courtyard, and into my hiding place in the shed.  I took the time to make myself comfortable, knowing I might have a relatively long wait in real time; my quarry did not visit here every morning, but when he did he always left around the same time.  And less than an hour ago, the remote camera I concealed here earlier this week had already alerted me to his presence.  There’s no way I could have possibly made it here in time moving at normal speed, and no way I could’ve entered the walled garden without attracting attention even if I did; but for one with my talents, both were child’s play.

camera lensComing back into normal time, I set up the digital camera to record the Great Man’s departure from his mistress’ home; it seemed like forever before he left, though it was probably no more than twenty minutes at the outside.  I started recording as soon as I heard the door open, and the champion of Family Values and sworn enemy of whores obligingly made my mission a success by giving his lady friend a passionate kiss on the threshold.  My excitement made it difficult to achieve the meditative state necessary to going back into accelerated time, but I managed it soon enough; I then returned the way I had come, over the wall and across the miles and into the alley behind my own home, scaling the wall in blatant disregard for the feeble efforts of gravity to pull me back down to the pavement.  The cat must have lost interest in the goings-on outside at some point in the last half-hour, because she was no longer on the sill; the lovers, however, were still exactly where I had left them, though one had thrown a proprietary hand over the other’s nipple as if to conceal it from the unconsciously-sensed intruder in the room.

Kissing their still, silent faces was the one deviation I allowed myself from strict propriety before slipping out, unseen and unheard; I then returned to my room, returned to normal time and connected the cable so my computer could download the footage while I returned to bed.  It was still absurdly early for us, and I was tired from both the exertion and the excitement; but more importantly, I wanted my brain to be well-rested when I sat down to draft the blackmail letter.

 

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This is the last part of the loose trilogy which started with “Serpentine” in December and continued with “Left Behind” last month.  As I explained in the latter preface, they are not connected by characters, events or setting, but by shared motifs.  Some of those motifs are closer to the surface in this offering, while others are hidden much more deeply; one of those is the erotic undertone, which most of you probably wouldn’t even have noticed had I not said something.  If the meaning of the title is unfamiliar, you may wish to consult the first paragraph of “Veneralia“; it may also help you to locate that erotic undertone I mentioned. 

Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory
February 12th, 1895

For almost thirty-five years you have been wonderfully patient with me, dear sister; you have respected my wish not to talk about the events of that fateful trip of my youth in which my first husband met his maker.  For all that time I have allowed both you and the authorities to believe that hostile Indians were to blame, and that the nervous shock was so great I was unable to discuss the details.  Now, I don’t give a damn if the law continues to abide in ignorance about it, but a decent respect for my own kin and for the kindness you showed me after my return, going far beyond what I had any right to expect from you, demands that I take this opportunity to break my silence at last and tell you the truth about what happened, why it happened and why I have never said anything about it.  I leave it to your discretion as to how much (if any) you wish to share with Richard and Janice; perhaps it would be better for you to invent something instead.  You always were the imaginative one; I could never come up with tales like you could, which is why I never even tried to make up some fib to cover up the truth.  I ask you to remember that when reading this; I tell it exactly as it happened, and you well know that I could never have dreamed anything like this up.  As to my children…well, Richard is a good, simple man like his father was, and would certainly conclude that his mother was mad and had run off into the hinterlands in some kind of fit.  But Janice is my daughter for sure, and may eventually need to know (as you will see).

CihuacoatlI don’t recall the exact date when we left Shreveport, but it was sometime in the spring of 1860; I want to say April, but it’s so warm down in Louisiana it may have actually been earlier.  We sailed up the Red River until we reached the western part of what was then called the Indian Territory, and is now known as Oklahoma; after we disembarked we were taken by a guide back into the hills.  As you may recall, George was in search of evidence to support his theories about the spread of myth-motifs, and he had received reports that the Indians who had inhabited this area prior to the mass relocations of the thirties had worshipped a goddess similar to the Aztec Cihuacoatl (that means “Snake Woman”).  For two years he had sent letters back and forth to academics, naturalists, explorers, military officers, government officials and anyone else he thought might have some information on the area, and by the autumn of ’59 he had enough to convince his dean to grant him a sabbatical for field research.  The amount of money Miskatonic granted him, however, was not enough to both pay for the trip and hire an assistant; he therefore hit upon the practical solution of marrying a Mount Holyoke graduate who had planned to become a missionary to the Indians anyway, and not bothering to tell her that his mission to the Southwest was to study the heathens rather than converting them.  Don’t think too badly of him, dear sister; though it is true he married a young and naïve girl to gain an unpaid servant and secretary, it is equally true that I married a middle-aged professor to gain financial support and social status.  Does that shock you?  It shouldn’t; after all, in those days even pursuing an education was a rather unconventional choice for a woman.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the time we spent following fruitless leads, interviewing old Indians with the help of translators, investigating sites that were said to have been sacred to now-extinct tribes, and otherwise chasing wild geese.  George grew increasingly desperate (and increasingly irritable) as summer turned to autumn without our having discovered even enough to base an article on.  He began to follow ever-weaker clues to ever-more-distant destinations, and as the money ran low he eschewed the use of guides entirely; it is therefore unsurprising that late in October we found ourselves quite lost in a desolate region that showed no signs of recent habitation by either white men or red, taking shelter from a torrential downpour in a low cave which we had discovered only that very morning.  After we had been there several hours and eaten the last of the provisions we had brought from the nearest trading post several days earlier, George began to fret terribly; had there been room enough I’m sure he would have paced, but in the circumstances he lacked even that meager outlet for his nervous energy.  But as he became ever more agitated, I became correspondingly calmer; somehow I knew we would be all right, because we were being watched over by an angel.  Finally I told George as much, and…well, I can’t repeat the things he shouted at me.  Stung by his mistreatment I retreated more deeply into the cave, where I discovered a heretofore-unnoticed bend that, after a short tunnel that had to be traversed on hands and knees, opened up into a large, high-ceilinged cavern dimly illuminated through some fissure above by what little daylight there was.  And in that space I saw the unmistakable signs of intelligent habitation.

Returning to the front I called my husband, and though he at first ignored my entreaties his curiosity eventually got the better of him.  When he entered the room he visibly brightened a little, then became more excited about the artifacts I had found, which he said resembled none he had seen yet that year.  He also remarked that everything seemed extremely worn, as though it had been used regularly for a very, very long time.  And while he investigated further, handling object after object, I became aware of the distinct feeling of being watched.  George did not seem to notice, and dismissed my impressions until we both heard the soft scraping sound of something heavy being dragged across the bare stone floor.  We then whirled together, and were confronted with the occupant of this hidden abode.

She was a being who had seemingly come forth out of the realm of legend; from the waist up she was a beautiful, ageless woman with a huge mane of thick, somewhat stiff hair, but below the waist she was a gigantic serpent whose skin bore a complex pattern.  I’m sure you think this apparition must have been utterly horrifying, but I assure you she was quite the opposite; in fact, she was absolutely the most magnificent creature I have ever seen, and I felt as safe in her presence as I would have in our mother’s arms.  Do not be afraid, she seemed to say to me, though her mouth never moved; my kind are friends and benefactors to humanity, and have long watched over you.  I know that you and your mate are lost, and I will draw you a map so that you may find your way back to human places tomorrow morning.

But as I listened, I slowly became aware of another sound, that of George’s raised voice.  And I suddenly realized he was pointing a shotgun at our hostess; he probably would have already fired had I not been so close to her.  “For God’s sake, Tillie, step back!” he shouted; “This monster has mesmerized you, like a snake fascinates a bird!”

“What nonsense, George!” I said matter-of-factly; “Don’t you know who this is?  It’s the very goddess you have been looking for all these months!  This is Cihuacoatl, the Snake Woman, and she and her kind have watched over humanity since we were driven out of Eden!”

“Listen to yourself!” he screamed in near-terror; “Is this any way for a seminary graduate to talk?  It’s a devil who has bewitched your mind!”

“A devil?”  I asked, confused.  “She is as beautiful as an angel!”

“Why do you keep calling this monster ‘she’?  Tillie, please come away before it strikes!”

But it was too late.  George had turned his attention to me, and away from the Lady; I have never seen any living thing move so quickly.  In an instant she was upon him; the gun was hurled against the far wall, and in only a few more seconds he was surrounded by her coils.  He struggled for a while, then grew still, and as he expired in her embrace she wept  –  not soft crocodile tears, but great racking sobs of true anguish.  By contrast, I merely stood mutely and watched him die, nor did I feel any but the smallest twinge when she released his lifeless form to collapse on the floor.  I am truly sorry, my daughter.

“I don’t understand why he reacted so; it was as though he couldn’t see or hear you as I do.”

nagainaHe couldn’t.  Her exquisite shoulders slumped, and she sighed audibly.  It has ever been so.  Though we have guided and protected your race since before you had the power of speech, a certain fraction of your people are deaf to the means by which we communicate…and they invariably react to the sight of us with terror.  We talked long into the night, as though the corpse of my husband was not lying in the next room; she explained that hers was an ancient race from a day when the Earth was warmer and wetter; they were extremely long-lived but neither numerous nor fertile, and had long ago adopted humanity as their heirs.  They appeared in the myths of many countries as the nagas of India, the dragons of China, the feathered serpent of Mexico, and other benevolent creatures; but because of those who were blind to their beauty they also inspired legends of fearsome creatures like the lamia of European legend and the serpent of Genesis.  Perhaps you may agree that she was a demon, and that she made me one by association; perhaps you feel as though she could have stopped George without killing him.  But you have neither seen her nor heard her voice, and George was ready and able to murder an ancient, benevolent creature, perhaps the last of her kind, for no reason other than his own animal fear; had she released him, he would have organized a monster hunt within hours.

The next day I followed her directions and returned to the trading post alone; my serenity and lack of concern were interpreted as symptoms of shock, and the traders were so ready to believe that George had been killed by hostile Comanches that I didn’t even have to make up a lie.  I was still quiet and contemplative when I returned to Massachusetts, and everyone (including you) made the same assumption as the traders had.  Eventually I remarried and had children, so everyone assumed I had “recovered”.  But I was never the same; for all these years and across half a continent I have never been out of contact with My Lady, and many a time I have sat in my house in the still of night, hearing her whisper to me across many hundreds of miles.  She has given me advice, comfort and solace as needed, and because of her I have never felt alone.  But now my husband is dead and my children are grown, and I am no longer needed here; and the Great Mother is old and in sore need of my company and assistance, though she will yet survive me by centuries.  So I must go to her, to faithfully serve her as she has served our whole race.  And know this, dear sister:  though you and others may think me mad, I have never been saner or happier.

With All My Love,
I Remain Very Truly Yours,

Tillie

.
(With grateful acknowledgement to the work of H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt).

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After writing December’s story “Serpentine”, I conceived of the notion of making it the first of a loose trilogy, connected not by characters, events or setting, but by shared motifs.  This is the second in that trilogy, and you’ll have a month to ponder which other aspect I plan to explore last.

Jacob Ellis was a nervous young man.  That is, he was habitually nervous; he had trouble sitting still for long unless he occupied his hands with something, and it was often difficult for him to focus on the task before him unless he was very, very interested in it.  It wasn’t that he was stupid; quite the opposite in fact.  His mind was so agile, so filled with curiosity, that he found it difficult to keep it from wandering to things that were more worthy of consideration than the dull matters of clerking.  But since it had been determined long ago that he would follow his father into the legal profession, that was what he had done, despite the fact that he would probably have been more suited to a trade involving more motion and less focus on dry-as-dust wills, deeds, contracts and all the other mundane matters of a family law practice.

But today, he was also situationally nervous, because his father had entrusted him with his first important client:  the estate of Magnolia Machen, the wealthiest woman in the county.  Mr. Machen had been killed in the War, and since many a lost fortune and devastated farm had been left behind in General Sherman’s wake, it had not been difficult for his widow to purchase a grand old house (in need of some repair) and most of the other valuable land in the area, and to build up a considerable income from it.red tape  And since Mrs. Machen was a woman of reclusive and frugal ways, that income had enabled her to invest in the stock market and to acquire other, more valuable properties stretching from coast to coast.

She was so reclusive, in fact, that Jake had not even been aware that she had a daughter until his father told him that he was to meet her at the house today.  And that meeting was the cause of yet a third layer of nervousness:  Miss Machen was stunningly beautiful, with mounds of lustrous hair, dark, piercing eyes and a sinuous grace that more befit a dancer than a debutante.  Being in her presence filled him with powerful feelings he could not clearly define and was not at all comfortable with, and he felt himself perspiring under his seersucker to a degree he felt was profuse, even considering the June heat.  Could she really be almost forty years old?  She didn’t look a day over twenty-two, but if she were that young she’d have been born more than ten years after the late Mr. Machen’s demise.  Best not to think too hard about it.  “You’ll have to forgive me, Miss, but up until today I wasn’t even aware that you existed; I had assumed the estate would go to more distant relatives.”

If she noticed his clumsy handling of the statement, she was far too well-mannered to show it.  “I haven’t lived here since before you were born.  You see, my mother was a singularly cold-blooded woman, and didn’t really want to be burdened with a child.  So I was shipped off at a very young age to be educated in Europe, and have lived with various relatives in various parts of three continents since then.  I have only seen my mother a handful of times since childhood, and the only reason I was here when she died was that she wrote me a letter summoning me here a few weeks ago, once her doctor told her that she only had a little while yet to live.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Jake, mostly because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.  He was a bit surprised that Doc Thompson’s prognosis had been so accurate; he had been largely retired for twenty years, and the only people who still consulted him were those more concerned with his legendary discretion than with his very average level of skill.  Thompson probably knew about the dirty laundry and closet skeletons of most of the best families in the region, and would take that knowledge to the grave in a very few years.  It had been a very profitable specialization for him; people said there was no secret, however dark, that a sufficient sum could not persuade him to keep.

Miss Machen shrugged.  “Hardly a loss, Mr. Ellis; as I just told you, she and I weren’t very close.  The only reason her death affects me more than the death of a business associate is that it stands to be extremely profitable for me.”

Even after hearing about their estrangement, Miss Machen’s coldness in regard to her mother shocked him. I reckon the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, he thought; I won’t be surprised to hear she sends her daughter away, too.  But out loud he said, “Well, um, yes…that is, ah, er, you’re her sole beneficiary.”

“I’m well aware of the contents of the will, Mr. Ellis; my mother did not like surprises, and was therefore not one to inflict them on others.”  Her voice was soft as silk, but her gaze sank into his being like…he preferred not to think about it.  “In fact, if it’s all the same to you we can dispense with the customary formalities; I’d rather just sign what I have to sign and then be on my way.  I’ve a train to New Orleans to catch in only a few hours.”

“Of course; my father has been your mother’s attorney since the early seventies, so it’s the least I can do to, ah, expedite things for you.  There are just, um, a few questions…”

“Oh?”  The brief syllable dripped impatience.

“Um, yes, well, just one really important one, and a minor one.  First, I see we have a copy of the death certificate, but there’s absolutely nothing anywhere about funeral arrangements.”

“My mother didn’t believe in such frivolities, nor do I.  Her remains were cremated.”

“C-c-c-cremated?”

“You find that frightening?” The trace of a smile flickered across the lovely lips, but only for an instant.

“N-no, not exactly, it’s just, um, I’ve never seen that done before.”

cremation urn“There are no local crematories, Mr. Ellis; my mother’s doctor took it to the nearest one.  It’s all in these papers here, and the ashes are in that urn.”  She gestured to a rather plain metal container placed unceremoniously among other boxes on the parlor table.  “Now what was the other matter?”

“Oh, um, it’s just these, um, Arizona ranch holdings; I don’t have all the information I need to deal with them from here, and I’d rather not have to bill you for a trip all the way out there.”

“I believe a telegram to my attorney in Denver would clear that up,” she said, rising from her seat; “I’ll just tell him to respond directly to you.”

Since Miss Machen had pointed it out, Jake had been unable to keep his mind off of the urn; he had never seen the ashes of a human body before, and was consumed with curiosity about what they would be like.  Were they fine, or coarse?  Were the teeth and bones wholly reduced, or were there still shards?  He just had to see, and Miss Machen would be on the telephone with the telegraph office for at least a few minutes.  What would be the harm?  After all, neither the old lady nor her daughter seemed very sentimental about the remains, and neither of them was in a position to see him peeking anyhow.  He turned to the container and lifted the lid, but was startled and confused when he found not ashes, but something white and papery.  He quickly glanced down the hall to be sure his hostess was not yet returning, then reached into the jar and pulled out the contents.  As a boy he had once seen the cast-off skin of a snake, thin and translucent but still retaining the shape of the animal which had left it behind when it became too old and worn to be of use any longer; that’s what the thing in the urn reminded him of, though it was much larger.  And though it had been crumpled and broken in the process of compressing it into the undersized container, it was still quite obvious that the creature which had shed this decrepit husk was possessed of a human shape.

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Every December, I present a different kind of story; they’re usually light, and some contain puzzles.  This one certainly isn’t light, but it’s…well, you’ll see.  It also contains a number of in-jokes and veiled references, and partakes of the ancient holiday custom of reversal:  it treats as serious a topic I spend considerable time ridiculing.  This really isn’t as odd as it may at first appear; one of the defining characteristics of myths and legends is that they are interesting (which is why people tell and retell them).  A dull myth would soon fade, and the human mind has a congenital preference for fascinating nonsense over dull fact…which, of course, explains the persistence of urban legends and moral panics no matter how often and thoroughly their elements are debunked.  And as generations of science fiction and fantasy writers have discovered, this makes stuff like Atlantis, ancient astronauts, the hollow Earth, etc wonderful subjects for stories, even if the author doesn’t actually believe a word of them.  Keep that in mind when you read this tale, which is intentionally ambiguous:  is what appears to be going on herein what is actually going on?  Does our protagonist have a highly overactive imagination?    Or is her antagonist just enjoying a cruel joke at her expense?

buildingThe doorman glowered at her as though he were the personification of the grim building itself, which had been the tallest one in town for over 30 years but was now humbled by the titans which had recently grown up around it.  Jane imagined it must be indignant at this development, and that its frowning façade was silently telling her, “Go away, you have no business here.”  But if she was going to make it as a reporter, she could let neither unfriendly employees nor gloomy old buildings stop her…and besides, her coat was really much too thin for this weather, and it had begun to snow; she went up to the door and tried to ignore the unpleasant expression on its keeper’s face.

Once within, she walked directly to the desk and announced that she was there to see Miss Morelli.  “Do you have an appointment?” asked the attendant, in a tone of voice that seemed to add “I know you don’t.”

“No, but please tell her Miss Louis from the Archdiocese is here to ask for her support in providing Christmas dinners for the poor.”  It was a terrible lie, but Margo Morelli was known to be even more generous with Catholic charities than her late father had been; Jane hoped it would be enough.

The attendant sighed, “You don’t have to talk to Miss Morelli herself about that; just see her personal assistant, Miss Angelo.  Go on up to the eleventh floor,” he said, gesturing toward the elevator with the phone receiver, “and I’ll let her know you’re on the way.”

“God bless you!” said Jane, feeling even more ashamed about her deception.  “Still,” she thought, “a girl has to eat, and jobs are scarce these days.  I’ll just have to go to confession this weekend.”  She involuntarily started at the ornate décor of the elevator doors, which seemed somehow menacing to her.  But she only paused for a moment; it was too late to turn back now, and there was only one more obstacle between her and the interview she wanted.  As she expected, the public elevator did not even go to the twelfth floor, so even if she had somehow been able to bribe the operator he could not have granted her request.  Correction:  she actually was going to the twelfth floor, though the number said eleven; the building was numbered in the European style, so that the first floor was the one above ground level.  But the Italians consider thirteen a lucky number, don’t they?  So it made sense that the boss’s office should be on that floor even if the number said twelve.

Miss Angelo turned out to be a tiny lady in late middle age with the hawk-like demeanor of a strict nun, and Jane felt her heart sink; there was no way she could even lie convincingly to this woman, much less prevail upon her to shirk her duty and let Jane through.  So there was only one choice:  the naked truth.  “Miss Angelo, I feel terribly about having to tell a fib to get in here, but I’m desperate to talk to Miss Morelli.  You see, I haven’t got a job or any family in town, and my rent is long overdue, but I’m a good writer so I just know I can get a job as a reporter if I can get a scoop.  Ever since Miss Morelli’s father passed on she’s been unwilling to talk to any reporters, but I thought maybe because she and I are both women trying to make it in businesses dominated by men, that she’d have pity on me.”  Jane’s tears were real; she was desperate, and lacked even the money to wire her family out West for help.

Miss Angelo regarded her with a penetrating but not-unkind gaze for agonizingly-long moments, then directed her back into the waiting room with, “I’ll see what I can do.”  Jane’s heart was pounding, but the fact that she hadn’t been instantly thrown out on her ear gave her some hope; she obediently returned to the anteroom and tried to calm herself.  It was no use; she got more and more nervous, and when Miss Angelo suddenly appeared in the doorway Jane almost screamed.  “Miss Morelli will see you.  Come this way, and mind your manners.”

She led Jane down a hall to what seemed the back of the building, where they entered an elevator that did indeed go all the way to twelve.  But when the doors opened on the floor above, Jane was taken aback by what met her eyes.  She had expected a well-lit outer office with a secretary who would usher her into the inner sanctum, but instead she found herself in a sort of vestibule opening to a large, luxuriously-appointed space only dimly lit by lamps, as one might illuminate a bedroom.  She heard the doors close behind her, and Miss Angelo was gone; Jane was apparently all alone.  Nervously, she crept forward into the vast office; the huge mahogany desk was topped with some kind of green, patterned stone, the walls behind the desk were lined with books, and the tall windows showed her that the snow flurry had become a storm.  Though it was only mid-afternoon the gloom outside did little to alleviate the shadow within; most of the light was coming from another room to her right, and she gasped as she realized that there was a woman standing in that doorway watching her.  She was breathtakingly beautiful, and the light streaming past her seemed to envelop her in a kind of aura which intensified the effect.  But at the same time Jane was terrified, not just by her reputation but by something less definable.

whiskey“Good afternoon, Miss Louis; I’m Margo Morelli.  May I get you a drink?”

“A…a drink?” she asked stupidly.  Jane’s parents were teetotalers, and even after leaving home she had been too timid to risk breaking the law, even if anyone had invited her to a party (which nobody had anyway).

The older woman smiled warmly.  “Yes.  It’s even legal again now, you know.”

“Um…yes,” stammered Jane.  “Actually, that’s what I came to talk to you about.”

“Oh?” she asked, then “What will you have?”

“Uh, whatever you’re having is fine.”  Jane couldn’t tell Bourbon from Bordeaux or brandy from beer, so it hardly mattered.  She accepted the much-too-large drink, and took a sip; its taste was strange and unpleasant to her, and she couldn’t hide the face she made when she swallowed it.  Her hostess pretended not to notice, and seated herself on the other side of the desk.

“So what can I do for you?”

“Well,” Jane said, “with the passage of the 21st Amendment last week, Prohibition is over; that means it’s legal to sell liquor again, which means your organization won’t be making any money from, ah, irregular imports any more…”

“Well put, and exactly correct.”  If Miss Morelli was annoyed with the topic, she didn’t show it.

“…so even though you have plenty of other business interests, both…ummm…regular and irregular, you stand to lose a lot of income.  You don’t strike me as the kind of woman who will take that lying down.”

“Again, exactly correct.”  Still no sign of anger, but she wasn’t helping either; Jane’s vision had now fully adjusted to the dim lighting, and she could clearly see those deep black eyes fixed upon her in a way she did not like at all.  She took another long sip, and despite the awful taste she had to admit it did seem to calm her nerves somewhat.

“So…what do you plan to do about it?”

Miss Morelli leaned back slightly in her chair and laughed, a genuine laugh in which Jane nonetheless thought she detected considerable menace.  “You are a charmingly naïve little bird, do you realize that?  It’s why I agreed to see you.  That, and the fact that both Miss Angelo and the downstairs attendant told me you were quite fetching.  They were not wrong.”

Jane felt herself blush furiously, and hoped the light was too dim for it to show.  She took a gulp.  “I…that is…um…”

“Listen, little bird.  Surely you didn’t think I’d be fool enough to go on the record answering such a ridiculous question?  Until someone invents a recording device small enough to fit in a purse, nothing I tell you would be admissible in federal court; however, my father taught me never to stir up hornets’ nests without reason.  It’s why our family has run this city since you were in pigtails.  Had you been a professional reporter instead of a little girl playing at it, you’d never have been let through the front door.”

Jane was so totally mortified she couldn’t speak, but the lovely contralto continued.  “Still, it amuses me to humor you, so I’ll answer your question.  Yes, I’m already planning to expand another of my ‘irregular’ businesses, as you so charmingly put it.  Would you like me to tell you which one?”  Perhaps it was because of the bird metaphor, but she now had the distinct mental image of her hostess as a beautiful serpent, holding her fascinated as it moved in for the kill.  Her head was gently spinning from the unfamiliar effect of the liquor, and she felt unable to speak, let alone flee.  “Have you ever heard of white slavery?”

“Oh, no,” Jane said weakly.  “You wouldn’t!”

“Does anyone know where you are right now?”

As if she had no control over it, her own mouth betrayed her.  “No.”  Her equally-traitorous body refused to move as the other woman slid across the green stone desktop and began to stroke her hair, and to her total horror something deep inside her responded to the caress.  Finally, she was able to regain enough self-control to drain the tumbler and ask, “What if I refused to go quietly?  Would you pull a gun on me, or call one of your thugs to manhandle me?”

“Nothing so crude, I assure you.”  The voice was gentle now, almost reassuring, as she took the empty glass from Jane’s trembling fingers.

“What, then?” the girl asked, fighting a wave of drowsiness that was slowly engulfing her.

“I’d simply drug your drink.”

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Man alone knows that he must die; but that very knowledge raises him, in a sense, above mortality, by making him a sharer in the vision of eternal truth.  –  George Santayana

It seemed to Sarah that Conclaves were getting closer and closer together, but she knew that was just an illusion of age; as one grows older it’s inevitable that the years seem to fly by more and more quickly.  All she had to do to remind herself that they were still as far apart as they had always been was to remember contemporary events:  when the last conclave was held the humans were plunging headlong into the madness of their First World War, and the time before that they were congratulating themselves on having got rid of that would-be Caesar from Corsica, unaware that he was about to stage a comeback.  And the time before that…Sarah sighed as she realized that she couldn’t remember.  Though the Elders had far longer lives than the humans they so closely resembled, their brains were no better; a humanoid brain can only hold so much information, and Elders above eight hundred or so began to find that older memories which hadn’t been accessed in a while were often quietly and unceremoniously dumped in order to make room for newer ones.  Of course, that only applied to healthy brains; the very old often went the opposite way, losing the ability to form new memories entirely and existing only in a twilight rooted in the experiences of centuries past.

Still, she wasn’t that old yet, and might never get there; medicines developed by human doctors worked just as well on their Elder cousins, and they were making great strides in the treatment of senile dementia.  By the next Conclave they’d probably have it licked. And Sarah was aging well; a human making a quick appraisal might’ve taken her for 40, and one who took the time to look at her hands and count her grey hairs would’ve called her a young-looking fifty.  Either one would have laughed at someone who told them she had been born at least one human generation before William the Conqueror.  Of course, not all of them aged so well; Aaron, for example, was almost four hundred years younger than she was, yet looked older than she did.  That was because his paternal grandmother had been human; his father aged more quickly still, and had passed away several Conclaves ago.  But what the halfbloods lacked in longevity, they made up for in virility; Aaron had at least seven siblings that Sarah knew of, and had himself sired three besides her daughter Deborah.  By contrast, her own brother Jacob had but one son to his credit, and she had never heard of any pure Elder, male or female, with more than three (and even that many was such a rarity it was occasion for the largest kind of celebration outside of the Conclaves).

Virility wasn’t the only reason halfbloods had no trouble finding partners, though; there was also that incredible human passion that no pureblood could match.  Sarah had often thought that perhaps all humanoids had only one measure of passion, which had to last the Elders for over a millennium but could be spent by humans in mere decades.  When Aaron had first seen her upon arriving at the meeting-place this morning, it was as though they had only parted as lovers three years ago rather than nearly three hundred; she had not been kissed so thoroughly since before his human kin had harnessed the power of steam, and though she knew his insistence that she was still the most beautiful woman he had ever known was a sweet lie intended to get her back into bed, it was more than convincing enough to win her consent.Mercury 7  Enoch had moved out to go over to America after becoming fascinated with their Space Program, and Deborah had been encouraging her to take a new lover for a few years now; wouldn’t she be confused if her father moved back in again, at least for a little while?  Sarah knew that was unlikely, though; Aaron seemed to be making the most of his remaining years, and rarely lived with his women any more.

She decided that after the Conclave, she’d go to visit her own father, whom she hadn’t seen since Deborah’s coming of age; he had never really liked Conclaves, and after the last one had declared them a “waste of time”, resolving never to go to one again.  It appeared he was as good as his word, because he would surely have sought her out if he was at this one.  But Sarah knew the real reason he wasn’t there:  he was a genealogist, and recognized better than most how their people were dwindling.  Every Conclave had smaller attendance than the one before, and every time the attendees were older.  While the ranks of the Younger Race burgeoned, the Elders couldn’t even replace themselves, and increasing numbers of halfbloods were choosing to live among and mate with humans, their bloodlines lost to the Elders forever.  In time, they would cease to exist as a separate race entirely, and they would be remembered only in human legends.  Though most of the Elders never thought about it, their wisest had understood and discussed it since soon after their short-lived kin had begun to build cities.  Since humans could never hope to see the future themselves, they strove all the harder to create things which would outlast them.  Since they could not live long enough to grow tired of life, they never lost their zeal for living.  And since they reproduced and came of age so much more quickly than their longer-lived kin, they had changed the face of the Earth more in the ten Elder generations since they had invented writing than the Elders had managed in all the eons before.  As in so many legends, the younger sibling had received a blessing that had allowed him to usurp the birthright of the elder; no power of Sarah’s people could possibly compare to the humans’ precious gift of mortality.

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Last month’s tale was inspired by the pulp magazines, but this one was inspired by one of their successors:  comic books, specifically the horror comics of the 1970s that I grew up reading.  Those familiar with them will probably see the influence, but I hope even those who don’t will enjoy the tale.  Happy Halloween, dear reader.

“Daniel, unless you agree to see me more regularly, I honestly don’t know how I’m going to help you.  You not only refuse to come in every week, but to make regularly-scheduled appointments at all; I’m sure you realize that as long as you insist on only coming in when someone else has cancelled, our visits are going to be irregular and infrequent.”  The man she was addressing responded by getting up and walking to the window for the seventh time since the beginning of the session.  “And would you please sit down?”

He complied, then looked around for his bottle of water and began to get up to fetch it; Dr. Nolan pre-empted the move by reaching for it herself, then leaning forward to give it to him.  He drained the last of the water, sucking on the bottle for several seconds after it was dry as if to draw more water from the plastic, then replaced the cap and looked around for a wastebasket; the psychologist took the bottle from him so he wouldn’t have the excuse to get up again.  “I’m sorry, Doctor, but it has to be that way because of the nightmares.”

“You mentioned them last time, but didn’t elaborate; do they have anything to do with your inability to stick with a therapist for more than half a dozen visits?”

He nodded nervously, then leaned forward so his elbows rested on his knees and hung his head forward.  “And with my inability to hold down a job, and with my refusal to set regular appointments,” he said to the floor.  “And it’s why I don’t live near my family and have no friends.”

“But surely your family hasn’t abandoned you; our visits are billed to your father’s insurance.”

He continued to avoid eye contact, but responded, “No, it’s not like that; my family loves me and I have plenty of friends who really want me to come home again.  I know you probably don’t believe this, but until these awful dreams started I never had any mental problems in my life.”

“I believe that you believe it, Daniel, but recurring nightmares so disturbing they drive a person away from his family and friends don’t spring out of nowhere.  They come from some pre-existing issue that you’ve been unable or unwilling to acknowledge.”

“I’ll be damned if I know what that might be,” he said, straightening up suddenly in the chair.  “I can’t remember any kind of childhood trauma, always did well in school, got along fine with everybody, graduated not all that far from the top of my class.  The first person I had the dream about was my mother.”

“Go on.”

“I was living in an apartment, but you know how in dreams you’re sometimes still living with your parents.  Well, anyway, I don’t even remember what I was doing in the dream, but my mother was in another room talking to me about something; it was just a regular conversation, nothing I can even recall.  But when she came into the room, she had no face!

“What do you mean, no face?”

“I mean exactly that, no fucking face!  I mean the front of her head was totally smooth, no eyes or nose or mouth.  And she just stood there with her head turned toward me as though she was looking at me, only she had no eyes.  And I woke up screaming.”

She resisted the urge to ask him to sit down again; if pacing helped him unburden himself, so be it.  “So you kept having this nightmare about your mother?”

“Not just about her.  My dad, my little brother, my girlfriend, all of my friends, my boss…everybody I knew.  Every damned night I had them.  Every one was different; I would be doing some mundane thing, then without warning the other person in the dream would come into the room or turn around or whatever and have no face.  And then I wake up.”

“It never goes any further?”

“No, that’s it, I always wake up as soon as I see that horrible faceless head.”

“So why did you leave your home?”

“A few months after the nightmares started, my little brother went off to college.  Then when he came home for a visit, I had the nightmare about him that very night.  Thinking about it later, though, I realized that I hadn’t dreamed of him even once while he was gone.  I quit my job and went to work somewhere else…and my old boss immediately stopped appearing in the nightmares.  It wasn’t long after that I moved away.”

“Did it help?”

Faceless Girl by Varjo66 (2005)“It worked perfectly.  I only have the nightmare about people I know well, and even then if I see them often.  As long as I spend my days with strangers, my nights are peaceful.  But if I get to know anyone too well, the nightmare comes back starring that person, except without a face.”

“So every time you get to know a therapist well…”

“…he or she starts appearing in the nightmare, and I have to stop going.  Same thing with jobs; as soon as faceless versions of my boss or coworkers start haunting me, I quit.  My neighbors probably think I’m a terrorist or something because I totally avoid talking to them, for fear of being forced to move.  I’m hoping that if I see you sporadically, it will at least take longer for me to start having the dream about you.”

“Well, at least I know what we’re up against now.  Please try to make another appointment as soon as you feel comfortable, and we’ll see if we can’t figure out the real reason you’re so afraid to get close to anyone.”

“Do you think that’s what it is, Doctor Nolan?”

“I think it’s very likely.  Until then, try to keep your mind occupied, and try to at least call your family and friends if you can do that without setting off the nightmares.”

After leaving her office, Daniel felt extremely agitated; talking about the problem had only served to churn up the terror in his mind, and despite the doctor’s advice he didn’t feel it wise to call home too often.  A long walk in the park did nothing to clear his mind, nor did dinner and a movie, and he didn’t like to go home between dinner and midnight because a couple of his neighbors often sat out on the steps talking on fine nights like this one.  So he decided to seek some company from one of the girls who frequented the stroll about ten blocks from his place; the only one in sight when he arrived was a slender, 30-ish woman named Lisa he’d been with a few times before.  It occurred to him that even seeing the same hooker too many times was probably not safe, but if he started dreaming about any of them he’d just have to start going to massage parlors instead.

Lisa recognized him, and the deal was quickly made; he followed her to her room, and the two of them got undressed at the same time.  He was still quite nervous from the afternoon’s session, though, so he tried to focus on what she was doing so he’d get excited and forget about all that, at least for a little while.  He watched as she kicked off her shoes, shimmied out of her dress, removed her underwear, and took off her face.

Only this time he didn’t wake up.

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