05 OCT 10:45
The derelict house near the reservoir wasn’t only a puzzle box and likely murder scene, it was also a carcass. The ceiling and walls were caked in rot. It stank so bad that Hammond and I didn’t get past the foyer.
“Jesus, what was that?” he asked on his way back to the trunk of the car. “It’s like the walls were sweating mucus.”
I looked up at the gabling under the eaves. I hadn’t noticed before, but one of the cutout images was a devil taking a woman from behind. His tail waved proudly. It certainly seemed like my initial impression was correct; the house predated the post-war neighborhood around it. There was no telling how old it was. There was no record of it prior to a deed transfer dated 1936. According to the city, the current owner was a kind of slumlord, a private property speculator who didn’t much care about the state of his properties, as long as they made him money. For the last twelve years, the house had been rented to one Lafcadio Pernod, which had to be the most laughably fake name I’d ever heard. Transactions were conducted digitally. Funds were paid in advance—five years in advance—on condition that the house never be entered without permission.
I caught sight of something on the gravel drive, near my toe. I picked up a tiny blood-covered rock with my gloved hand and dropped it into an evidence bag from my jacket pocket.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t have forensics out here?” he asked as he slammed the trunk shut. A pair of light blue filter masks dangled from his hand.
“We will. I wanna take a look first.”
“Uh huh,” he said skeptically. “And why am I participating in this particular breach of procedure?” He handed me a flashlight and a mask. It smelled strongly of plastic.
“I want you to take a look with me.”
“Right.” He pulled his mask over his face. “Let’s just get this over with.”
The windows of the house were boarded and the interior dim. Either the previous occupant hadn’t paid the power bill or the wiring was so old that it no longer functioned. Hammond flicked the switch back and forth to no effect. We clicked on our flashlights and a handful of roaches dove under the floorboards.
“Jesus . . .” Hammond shined his flashlight up to the ceiling of the hall. “Look at that.”
It was crisscrossed in faint hand- and footprints, as if someone had been scurrying back and forth across it on all fours.
“You sure this place is empty?” he asked.
“Pretty sure.” I started in. “But keep an eye on the ceiling just in case.”
Odd masses, like inverted volcanoes, or maybe the pillars of paper wasps, hung in the living room. They looked granular, as if someone had been chewing bits of brown paper into a mash and then spitting upward. They were large enough to hold a small child. I shined a light in. Empty.
Hammond shook his masked head and wandered toward the small dining room. I continued into the kitchen, which looked like it dated from the ’60s. I’m not sure what had been on the lone plate in the fridge, but whatever it was had since turned to rot and sprouted various colorful molds and fungi. Tendrils of the stuff grew out and along the walls of the appliance, which I shut quickly. The insects had found their way in there as well.
“Gonna check upstairs,” I said through my mask. Hammond nodded.
The steps creaked. Luckily, there were only three rooms at the top: two square bedrooms and an old-style tiled bathroom no larger than a walk-in closet. The reservoir for the toilet was mounted near the ceiling and was emptied via a dangling brass chain with a heavy oblong handle. The first bedroom had a sloped ceiling and was empty, save for a wire cot with no mattress. The second held a padded chair, ancient and worn. The leather was dark green and studded in brass. It sat empty, facing a wall of equally ancient televisions. Big cathode-ray monsters. A couple were as large as cabinets. They were stacked on top of each other—some sideways, others upside down—in a kind of lopsided triangle. I ran my flashlight across the stack. A heavy black wire emerged from the back of each. The wires rose and gathered into a single twisted mass before fanning across the ceiling like a web and disappearing into a gap between the wall and ceiling, like a spider’s nest, just over my head. The wires seemed to be separate from the rest of the electrical system. A sole deserter left the mass. It was pinned to the wall and hung to a heavy round switch near the door. I flipped it. Nothing happened at first. Then, slowly, the televisions warmed, as if roused from deep slumber. There was only a blizzard of static on the screens, but a voice emerged. A woman with some kind of German or Nordic accent read a series of words and numbers very carefully, one at a time.
“Eleven. Crater. Cold. Seven. Nineteen. Yellow. Pilfer. Cramped. Four. Eleven. Eleven. Eleven. Annul. Fifteen. Dust. Perspicacity.”
She intoned each word calmly and deliberately, and I was mesmerized. There seemed to be no end, as if she were reading from a Bible-print tome of cyphers.
“Danger. Nine. Calumny. Red. Marriage. Seven. Seven. Tyrant. Seven.”
The voice stopped. At first I thought the signal had gone dead, but I heard faint background static. I waited, thinking she might’ve simply reached the end of a sequence, but after several more moments, nothing happened. I got the distinct sense then that I’d been spotted somehow, that she’d been reading and hadn’t noticed the stranger standing in the doorway. I wondered how many rooms like that were out there. And who else was listening.
A horn blew, deep and long—like something you’d hear in a fog or echoing off a mountain peak. It was loud but also very distant. Then the background static stopped. The line was dead.
“Har?” Hammond called from below.
“You gotta see this.”
I flipped the switch again. As I stepped away, the screens faded. I glanced into the room again through the railing as I descended the steps. Two of the screens were still live, one on each side of the stack. They watched me, like eyes.
I couldn’t find Hammond downstairs.
“Basement,” he called again.
There was a door at the back of the staircase. Homemade wood-frame steps dropped to an unfinished basement, which was even darker than the rest of the house.
“Look at this,” he said. He was kneeling before a five-foot-square cage. “This make any sense to you?”
In the middle of the single open room was a gurney, or maybe an operating table of some kind, with four metal restraints. But no straps. The restraints were metal cylinders with a gap on one side. The gap was covered by a spring-loaded latch. All anyone had to do was lie on the table and drop their hands and feet into the braces. The table stood at the center of a set of three evenly nested circles etched into the aged concrete floor. Between the circles were two sets of binding runes of a type I’d never seen before. A second set of nested circles overlapped the first, like a Venn diagram, but whoever carved it ran out of floor and had to finish at 90 degrees on the wall. Hammond squatted at the edge looking at the cage.
“Here.” He pointed.
I walked over.
“Is it just me, or is the only way to open it from the inside?”
I knelt next to him and pulled on the grid bars. The cage was bolted to the concrete inside the center circle—completely immovable. A combination dial had been built into the floor. Hammond was right. The only way you could reach it was from the inside.
“Why would someone make something like this?” he asked in a whisper.
I shook my head as I examined the runes on the floor with my flashlight. They were of two different styles. I had never seen either.
“Jesus . . .” He sighed as his eyes followed my beam. “Look at this place.”
“Are those clothes?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He stood. “Check it out.”
In a corner, several wheeled racks, like something you’d find at the dry cleaner, were stuffed with clothes.
“Look.” He pointed from one to the next. “Men’s. Women’s.” Under each were shoes and socks to match. “Then women’s again, but in a different size.”
“Juniors,” I said.
He pointed to the last. Kid’s clothes.
I ran my hand along the waist of a pair of jeans. The style was recent, within the last five years at least.
“What are we dealing with here, Har?”
Craig was spooked. I could tell from his voice.
“What the hell was that crap on the ceiling in the living room?”
I shook my head.
He mumbled a curse and reached up to rub his mouth, but his hand hit the filter mask. He pulled it off. “I need some air. I’ll case the neighborhood, see if anyone saw anything.”
“You?” he asked, as if surprised I would remain alone in the house.
“I wanna see if this is as deep as it goes.”
He paused, like he genuinely hadn’t considered that. “You gonna be okay? You need . . .”
“Place is cold, man. Not getting any heebie-jeebies. But if I get into trouble, I’ll give you a call.”
“Right,” he said, looking at the floor. “Right,” he said again and started up the stairs. I heard them creak under his weight.
I shined my light around the open space, which surrounded the staircase at the center, and looked for anything that hinted at a door or passage. I moved boxes. I felt along the seams in the cold concrete. I tapped the slat windows, painted black. I lifted chests full of clinking glass. But there was nothing—that is, until I got to the far corner, where I found a heavy metal grate covering a rectangular opening just large enough for a human adult to squeeze through. I dropped into a small room that had been hand-carved from the earth.
Black magic is one of those things, like snuff films, that you can live your whole life without ever encountering. You know it’s probably out there, but there’s a general suspicion that most of what claims to be real is actually fake, a con, and that whatever of the real stuff exists is thankfully so rare that you’d probably never find it even if you were stupid enough to go looking. From what I’d heard, black magic wasn’t witches with cauldrons and ritual orgies and chanting in dark robes. But then, I was never sure anyone really knew. Most of the rumors stretched to the unbelievable: spells that required the flesh of newborns, vivisection, liquid pain drip-distilled from the prolonged torture of animals—stories designed to shock more than anything, and I never put much faith in any of it. I never needed to.
What I found under the basement of that house made my hands sweat and my spine drip cold. It wasn’t that it was despicable, or even that it was so utterly alien. It was the depth of that alienness. The runes and markings that covered the walls weren’t simply indecipherable, they were numerous and diverse. I noted at least six distinct systems, some clearly quite a bit older than the others. Then there were the tools that hung ready-to-hand. They were oddly specific and clearly machined for some precise purpose I couldn’t fathom. If there was such a thing as surgical equipment for removing souls—or stitching them together—I surely found it in that place.
But nothing in that room was crude. It wasn’t barbaric. It was exact. Developed. And it was like nothing I’d ever seen. It spoke to an entire species of magic, an entire history, about which I knew nothing—not least, how to counter it.
I realized then that I’d been feeling very smug, that Hammond’s reaction to his first legitimate glimpse of the occult—the fear and doubt that follows an attack on your core sense of the real—had me recalling my own first forays, those initial incomprehensible adventures that had turned me into what I am, and how far I’d come since. But under that basement, I felt like I had tumbled back to the beginning of the game, that I knew nothing of the deep currents of the world, that they carried me still, just as they always had, and I clung to sanity by a single truth: whatever else happened, no one could find what was under that house. It couldn’t exist. I couldn’t let it.
Hammond didn’t run toward me when he saw. He simply walked down the street and stood next to me on the lawn and watched the fire grow.
“Got a lead,” he said.
The flames broke from the windows and curled around the roof. We could feel the heat.
“One of the neighbors saw someone leave the house. Few weeks back. Bald. Carrying something heavy. They remembered because it was warm that day, and he was wearing a funny coat.”