Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Quintessence

by I. D. Weis


The moon is full and bright over the city, flooding its ancient glow over the empty streets.

I sit by the window, absorbing the cool wind that streams past the narrow alley over bare brick walls. A drunken beggar yells and curses at a cat under a metal staircase and stumbles by the wall until he plummets to the ground, again to become an obscure bundle in the corner, vanished in the shadows of a lost street.

I glance at the door, waiting for the familiar sound -- the soft rustle of paper. As on so many nights before, the muffled thumps of footsteps on the raggedy carpet of the corridor will be heard, the creaks of aged wood, all ceasing at the door. Then, silence. It will be followed by a slight obstruction of the line of light at the slit under the door, as an envelope slips through. The carrier will thump back to the end of the corridor, slipping through the sleeping tenant building into the night. But I'm not asleep. I never am.

I cut open the envelope with a pocketknife, examining the yellow letter inside by the weak light of the window, just strong enough to enable me to read.

It speaks of a target. A human one. The unfamiliar prey is a fellow going by the name of Bartlett Kenning. The letter states he runs card games in the "Leticia Sun Club" on Lund Street, under the pretense of a Jazz club. He has lately sunk into a growing debt to my operator. Rumor has it that he has succumbed to pressure from a group trying to claim its control over that part of the downtown district by paying them protection money.

I am to eliminate the man, sending as a by-product a clear message to all whom it may concern.

I crumple the thin paper, shoving it in the pocket of the coat hanging by the door. I open a drawer on a decaying desk, gently pulling out half a dozen bullets that roll to the front of the drawer compartment as I open it. Then I grab a handkerchief-covered object, placing the pistol within into my coat's inner pocket.

Finally, I put on my hat and stand by the door, turning the doorknob. My lover turns to me on the bed with her eyes closed, whispering to the empty half of the bed.

"Don't go," she whispers, half asleep. But it is too late. I am out of the room, pacing towards the staircase out towards the desolate street.

The engine of my 1929 Model A grumbles and sputters, reluctant to start. I play with the key and the choke lever, sending out a few sharp cries from the engine until it triumphs over the cold air and ignites.

The streets on the way to the club are empty, except for a few characters dragging themselves on the bare sidewalks, staring idly at me as I drive by. Other than a patrolling police car, odd for this time of night, there are very few vehicles on the road.

The club's lights flicker red on the opposite apartment building, allowing me to identify the place without having to drive by. I park the car in a side alley and empty the contents of my coat pocket into my hand, placing six bullets into the cylinder of the revolver one by one, each sliding home with a faint click like the beads of a rosary. To complete the ritual I slip the now-loaded pistol back into my pocket and exit into the street that has begun to glimmer with the splatter of raindrops.

A hefty doorman blinks at me as I pass him towards the short corridor leading inside the club. Blink once, blink twice -- I don't stop. He gets the message and gives way, turning his attention to a more hesitant visitor behind me.

As I open the door at the end of the corridor, the soft murmur coming through the darkly draped walls explodes into a world of music and voices.

A black female singer sits in a blotch of light on a small table-high stage in the middle of the club. Through the screen of smoke and darkness and shadowy faces I can see rows of round, densely crammed tables, most of them occupied. The slow, loud music of a small band reverberates through the dense room as I head for the bar. Just as I manage to squeeze my way to the long bar, the singer walks off the stage to mixed cheers, and a howling trumpet bursts through the hall, its sound soon swallowed by the thick padding of the walls.

Sitting at the bar are two of Kenning's muscles. One of the thugs, a clean-shaven Irish lump of pork, looks somewhat familiar.

"O'Bannon, where's your boss?" I say to him. He turns to me from some pathetic liquor substitute. "I need to see him urgently."

"Hey, chum!" he says after a few moments. His enthusiasm is clearly faked. "How've you been?"

"I'm fine. I need to see him." My right hand nervously fondles the revolver in my coat -- a bad habit, but it's not as if O'Bannon doesn't know I'm armed.

"He's busy," he says calmly, with a smile I would gladly wipe from his fat pale face. When he holds the glass in front of him, I grab its rim just as he is about to lift it.

"Mr. Poe would like to meet me. I would not want to deny his request. Would you?"

His friendliness vanishes, revealing his innate coldness. I can see him weighing the risks -- what would annoy his boss more, an unexpected intrusion -- or finding out that an emissary from Poe had been turned away? After a short silence I let go of the glass but he gives up on drinking it, staring at the beverage in his hand instead.

"He's in the back," he says with a hint of defeat in his voice. "I'll show you the way."

I hold his shoulder before he can move. "I'll find it."

I pass through the crowd -- a smoking rabble of bored bankers not wanting to go back to their indulgent wives just yet. Behind the small stage there is a seemingly meaningless passage with a lavender curtain at the end. Another tower of hired muscle stands at the door, a man with tree-trunk arms and legs. The muzzle of a shotgun peeks out from under his long black coat.

"I'm here to see Mr. Kenning," I tell him. "I'm from Mr. Poe." He passes me through hesitantly, pushing aside the curtain with his other arm. I make a mental note of the position of the gun hanging inside the folds of his coat. Come at him from the opposite side, and all that cloth might slow things down just enough ...

The second room is smaller, the smoke thicker, and the sound of clinking glasses louder -- not coincidentally. The room holds a smaller bar, standing in front of a long liquor cabinet.

However the liquor is real here, as the exuberant atmosphere coming from a round table up front suggests.

I sit at the bar and order a rye whisky, examining the gambling group. About eight men are sitting around the table, throwing fleeting looks at the dealer when he lands an Ace of Spades on the red tablecloth. Some disappointed mutters are exchanged when a few men fold. Two men still hold their cards -- one of them a middle-aged, overweight businessman, his broad brow sweating under the lamp. He puts down his cards, wiping his nervous face with a white napkin. He fidgets with the ring on his fat index finger. Is he the man?

No. He's an amateur looking to make a quick weekend profit. He's not the prey I seek.

The other man sill holding cards is a thin faced, more composed individual. The necktie, the carefully fitted suit, the cigarette, the meticulous hairdo, the assured poise when he adds a thick pack of chips to the pile at the center of the table, the rich pile of chips under his own chin: all of these leave little doubt in my mind.

I turn to the bartender, ordering another round.

"You should ask for a raise in your salary."

He pours a generous swig of scotch into the shot glass. "Why's that?"

"I see your boss is doing quite well tonight." I force myself to smile.

"Oh," He looks at the table at the thin man. "You know Mr. Kenning? He doesn't approve of unsolicited guests lately," he says quietly. His voice rasps as if his next words have barbs, catching in his throat as they emerge. "He's been having some troubles, as I understand." There is another pause in his words. "I hope I haven't said too much."

Oh, but you have. I have received the certification I required, I say to him without words.

"Don't worry," I say as I swill the drink in a single gulp, placing the glass gently on the wooden bar. "I'm a friend."

After the drink I carefully advance to a closer stool on the bar, ordering another drink, this time leaving it in front of me as I study Kenning from the corner of my eye. I get a better look as I let my gaze sweep across the room; it would take better light and less smoky air for anyone to see that my eyes stay fixed on Kenning while my head continues to turn.

Another round of cards has been dealt. The man that I have come to kill sits there, examining his cards. After a while he puts them down idly, and his lips move to shape the word "fold". There is an added substance to his demeanor now. A weakness not projected before. Is it the current loss affecting him?

Or perhaps he knows why I have come?

Yes. His brow twitches ever so slightly. He has noticed me. I hold the revolver in my pocket, waiting for the moment of action.

He sits for a few more minutes, but in his play I can see the change created by his awareness of me -- the certainty replaced by careless decision making. He folds when there are five players left in the game. Some words are exchanged. Then he glances in my direction, pretending to look at a fellow player when he wishes him farewell. The time is now.

He leaves his seat and slips into an open door behind the screen of smoke and people and closes it behind him. I quickly follow him, pushing roughly through the crowd.

I push open the door, pulling the gun out of my pocket. The room is ornately decorated, with a rich velvet décor like a Chinese whorehouse. There is a man and a woman -- a prostitute -- they both stare at me. There are two doors. There could be a back door to this club, I realize. There is also a curtained opening to a third room. My mind is racing.

"Where is he?" I ask.

The man moves his lips in shock, but utters nothing. The woman is still. They both remain silent, staring.

The left door? The right? Both are closed. Time is closing in on me.

I reach for the left door, opening it. I mustn't lose him.

There is a bed in the small room, and an open wardrobe. This room is empty. My heart is racing. Is it empty?

I mustn't lose him. There is a noise behind me. I turn.

The wardrobe falls on me, the corner slamming into my shoulder as I sidestep a second too late. It crashes to the floor with my gun hand under it as a figure races into a small bathroom.

Through a haze of pain and rage I see that the bathroom has no windows and only the one door. I smile. There is no back door to the club. Kenning has buried himself in his own club.

Crouching on the floor, I push off the cabinet and shoot. I shoot once. Twice. A third shot.

There is a silence. Does he have a gun in there, I wonder.

The toilet door that he has flung open creaks on its hinge slowly, until it stops nearly closed. I get up and hear footsteps coming from outside the room - the guard with the shotgun, surely. I wait for the footsteps to get closer, patiently waiting at the corner of the small bedroom. When they stop just behind the door, I shoot twice through the thin wooden wall, and there is a loud thud.

I peek forward, and see the thug lying face down on the carpet. The loaded shotgun lies at his side.

I then turn back to the toilet room. Slowly and carefully, I aim my gun inside and open it with the back of my hand.

The body of Bartlett Kenning lays face up, slumped across the width of an empty bathtub. His eyes are dead, his once meticulous hair has fallen from his bald spot onto his lean, bony face.

There is blood seeping from two fat holes in his chest. A thick film of claret blood oozes down to the bottom of the white tub.

I took three shots. One hole is missing.

I look up at the wall. There it is, among the splatters of blood on the marble-imitation surface of the wall.

I can still hear muffled screams. People are running away from the neighboring rooms, no doubt. But something is wrong.

I look at the hole in the wall again. The wall is made of plaster, and there is a red hue on the other side of the hole, behind crumpled sheets of plaster. The bullet came through.

I rush through the bedroom out to the waiting room where I saw the man and the woman. They are no longer there. I go through the second door, into an empty lounge, and immediately look at the wall at my left. There it is -- a lump of fabric hanging out from the wall -- the other side of the hole. I look at the opposite, red wall. There is a hole there as well at the exact opposite spot. The bullet has gone through the second room also.

The round sofas are empty, but I can hear a faint sound coming through the hole in the wall.

It is laughter. I open the door at the wall where the bullet has exited.

A young woman is sitting with a plate of cocaine on the floor at the foot of a bed, laughing with a high pitched giggle as she points to the bed.

There is another young woman sprawled among smoking vessels on the queen-sized bed, over a sheet of satin. I grab my head as I realize there is a hole in her temple, and blood and brains have gushed out from the other side of her head over another small plate of cocaine. Yet the hole in her head isn't the only thing wrong with her.

She has the snout of a rodent for a nose, I realize, with the rim of its large nostrils white with residues of cocaine powder.

"Who is this?" I ask the woman, revealing the alarm in my voice.

But all she does is laugh. She laughs harder and points, looking at me with red eyes.

"You're in trouble now," she laughs, "you're in trouble now ..."

####

I am back in my small apartment, lying on the bed, trying to sleep. My lover rolls over, wrapped in a blanket like a decaying body in a sarcophagus. I cannot see her face. A sickly pale moon glows on her body and on the bed. I turn to the door. An envelope is slipped under it, as always.

But there are no footsteps at the corridor. I walk to the envelope, reaching to pick it up, when the floor swallows me whole.

I drop to a room beneath the apartment. It is a dark, empty lounge, luxurious and Victorian. All the furniture is black and the walls are red. I take a step and drop through a trap door into another room -- a smaller lounge.

A giant clock bangs midnight on the opposite wall. Its sound is too loud -- it is tearing my ears apart. I take a step backwards and fall into another trap door. The room here is clad in wood, smaller, and has a few aging pieces of furniture scattered on the dusty bare floor, rotting and abandoned. Only the moon shines on them, transforming them into skeletal figures with its white glow.

I fall into a trap door to a smaller room. It is empty. No light here.

I continue to fall through trap doors that open on me, in a limbo of rooms that continue to become smaller and smaller, and darker, closing in on me.

Through tubes filled with haunting laughter, down and down I go.

####

I wake up mid afternoon, alone in the room, and realize I have been dreaming. The sun is shining lazily on the bed. I rub my right hand, which has been aching from quite some time now, for reasons unclear to me, and take look at it. It looks normal, but the pain seems to be have increased lately.

I notice now there is a letter at the door. I reach over to it and open it with my pocketknife.

‘The family is dismayed over the untimely death of Maria McKinley, the ailing daughter of Joseph McKinley.‘-

I reach down through my memory, trying to retrieve the name. McKinley. Yes, I recognize the name. Joseph McKinley manages the bootlegging operation on the east side of town. He uses his connections at the docks to supply liquor to practically every other family-owned establishment; a highly valuable gentleman, and one whom I had hurt dearly. I have contacted a man I know in an attempt to mend the situation that had transpired from the accident, but I doubted if the matter had reached the proper channels in the family. Now, as I read the continuation of the letter, I realize I was wrong. The matter has reached the family, but for all the wrong reasons, leaving me in dire straits.

-‘As a result of this unfortunate mishap, Mr. McKinley has decided to abruptly end his business with us, due to the high toll it has already drawn from him.'-

I force myself to finish reading the letter, knowing the ending cannot be in my favor.

-‘Mr. Poe finds this most unacceptable. We demand you make a visit to the gentleman to persuade him to change his mind, as we are highly dependent on his services.

We are confident of your persuasion abilities. However, in case the situation fails to meet our requirements, you are required to resolve the matter personally.'-

I know what this means. Even as I look at the revolver now, there is a single bullet left cradled inside it. I turn again to the letter, reading the last line as the subtext chills my blood.

-‘In any event, you are being held responsible for this problem. Deal with it well, or our favor of you might very well run out.'

I drive through the city as it empties after a long workday. Masses of black suits and coats pour over the sidewalks, as I find myself rolling slowly towards the east of downtown behind a black Studebaker Sedan.

The streets grow emptier under the dying light as I proceed to the east, driving by closing factories and shops, a barber sending the last of his loyal clients home, cheap apartment blocks. The few people left cast long shadows on the pavement in the dying sun.

As I drive slowly by one an apartment building, I see two young children standing at the edge of the yellow, cracked sidewalk in a puddle of water formed from a leaking fire hydrant. At first I assume they're just playing in the water, but then something peculiar grabs my attention. I notice they are both standing perfectly still. Their attention seems fixed to the hydrant as they ogle with a still expression at a man crouching there with his face to the leaking water.

When I study the man, I realize that he has what appears to be a pair of wings protruding from his body. The two skin-colored bulges protrude from his shirtless torso, uneven in size and shape. The right one seems almost like a large, featherless skin flapped wing, while the left bulge is somewhat smaller - a lumpy ill-defined deformity. As I roll by the man, gazing at his unclothed upper body, he turns his mouth from the water hydrant with a smile, staring through me, with eyes grey and hollow. I immediately push the gas pedal, speeding away from the sight, and it is gone behind me when I make the corner, as if it never existed.

Nevertheless, it did.

As the sun sets, I reach my destination- a large warehouse at the storage district of the docks.

I enter an almost empty storage hall. The last lights pierce a golden shimmer through dusty plaited windows on a single stack of crates at the window. There is a staircase to a manager's office at the corner of the hall, and when I go up to it, I see no one is there. I jiggle the doorknob, expecting to have to break open the window to unlock it, but I am surprised to find it open.

The room contains a modest desk and a few chairs, scattered in disarray. There is a door leading to an overhead steel corridor hung above the hall. No one seems to be here, but my contacts have tipped me off that the man is present this evening, and so I force myself to wait.

As I wait in the office I notice something unusual. Among several shabby reproductions of graying portraits and landscapes hanging dully on the wooden wall, one painting catches my eye with a mixture of colors both rich and alive. The engraving below it reads:

‘"The Last Judgment", by Hieronymus Bosch, (1450-1516)- Awarded to Mr. Joseph McKinley as a token of appreciation from the city port authority.'

The complex oil painting reproduction is separated into three parts with a golden frame that vertically divides an ethereal world of surreal creatures. Descending from a blue sphere of saints and angels, my eyes travel down through the dense illustration into the burning fires of hell -- a pitch-dark smoky landscape of flame-engulfed ruins. Creatures of all sorts inhabit the lower half, twisted nightmares walking on two legs or on all fours, reptiles with the heads of fish, men with the beaks and heads of birds, rodents imitating men and men imitating rodents. The denizens of hell are interwoven in inconceivable mixtures, a giant whirl of grotesque madness. Some appear human, though -- men trying to escape an ill-fated demise at the hands of goblins and monsters of the deep. Alas, their flight is hopeless -- all are drowning in the bizarre nightmare.

The images incite a revolt in my stomach. Stomach turning, I force myself look away and I am surprised to realize that I am not alone in the room.

The owner of the office, Joseph McKinley, stands silent at the door. He hesitates for a moment and then gestures at the chair.

"I see you've found your way in. You might as well take a seat."

"I prefer to stand, thank you." I reply.

He nods and turns to the wide window overlooking the empty warehouse. McKinley looks older than his age would suggest -- no doubt the death of his daughter has drained him of the fire that helped him rise to wealth and power. He wears modest clothes for a manager, almost as plain as those of his workers -- a white cotton shirt and dark pants, of good quality but wrinkled and soiled. His gray hair and gloomy face do not improve his appearance.

"I've been expecting you," he says, standing at the window with his back to me.

I wait for him to turn from the window. He doesn't.

"Mr. Poe wants to continue doing business with you, Mr. McKinley," I venture. When he doesn't reply, I continue. "I offer my condolences over the loss of your daughter, but for your own good -- I suggest that you agree to his request."

He looks at the empty warehouse, now turned dark, and waves a gesture of dismissal.

"My daughter was ... ill. Her death was imminent in any case, and ..." He pauses, tilting his head with a strange shudder. "And perhaps even welcomed."

My surprise at his reaction is great, but I manage to hide it. Surely he doesn't know I am the one responsible for her death. Have my employers not shared with me the entirety of the picture?

"Nevertheless," I tell him, "You must comply." I reach the edge of my coat and fold it slightly, revealing a hint of the revolver stuck under my belt. "You must understand the direct implications of your refusal."

He turns to me now from the window with a sudden severity, eyes burning bright.

"Have you ever wondered about the invisible hand that guides you?"

"I don't understand," I reply.

"The hand that feeds you -- Mr. Poe. The precise nature of his obscurity. The mysteriousness surrounding him. Did it ever cross your mind, while you were running?"

Running? What is this man implying?

"No, I haven't wondered." I answer sharply. "He feeds me -- yes. That's all I need to know."

He snorts. "Is it? Even if your 'invisible hand' is a monster? And I don't mean a 'monster' like the rest of them. I don't mean 'monsters' like Kelly and Capone, I don't mean …" He halts suddenly, rushing to his desk, and starts looking through papers, until he pulls out a shabby photograph, holding it at his arm's length towards me.

"This won't do you any good. I have my orders. Do not refuse Mr. Poe's --"

"Look at it!" He shouts at me.

I grab the picture and study it closely. It shows a man slouching on a sidewalk -- some beggar, his back to the side of a building. Yet through the gray blurriness and the scratches on the photograph I can see the man has a huge head, almost the size of his torso. I throw it in horror on the desk before I can study it further, remembering the man from the fire hydrant. Remembering the dead body of his daughter.

"The city is dying," McKinley says.

I look at the picture again. "When wasn't it dying?" I ask, but I know already that he isn't talking about the decadence of the upper crusts, about the rotting fat of the land. In his eyes I see a man with ideals that have been exchanged for pragmatism. Philosophy pushed away for survival. I see myself in this man. I fidget with the object in the right pocket of my coat. All the harder to pull the trigger when it comes to that.

"They say it was the soldiers." He speaks slowly now. "Coming back home from the front."

"I'm not sure I understand what --"

He snaps before I could finish the question. "The disease. A disease of the mind. It enables the diseased mind to shed the restraints imposed upon it by the body. Physically shed the restraints. It is the devil that is eating away at the core of us."

He is speaking in a fervor now. My mind is racing to meet his.

"Don't you see?" He grabs my arm, frantic. "It must be stopped. You work for one of them. The diseased. You mustn't. You have the responsibility, not the moral one, but the practical one, not to succumb to it. The doctors cannot help us, but we can help ourselves."

He doesn't know what my inevitable obligation is upon his refusal. Sometimes they know. It's the look in their eyes, the hunters turned prey, betraying their façade. But in his eyes there is only grim resolve.

Only when I take out my revolver he understands. He understands that my own survival comes first.

"Don't you understand? You will be next!"

I raise the revolver. McKinley is on his knees now. He starts to laugh. Tears are rolling from his eyes.

"It's too late. It's too late for all of us. It doesn't matter. Pull it." His laugh sends a chill down my spine. "Go ahead - what difference will it make for you?"

I pull the trigger. Again and again and again and again. Emptying the chambers of the revolver into a laughing corpse.

####

I am at my apartment again. It is midnight. There is no moon tonight. I stroke the back of my right hand. A disease of the mind.

My hand feels numb. The pain is replaced occasionally by numbness, only to return. When I look at it by the light of a lighter it appears normal. But I can feel the change. I can feel it changing every time I pull the trigger. Shed the restraints.

I glance at the door, waiting for the familiar sound -- the soft rustle of paper. As on so many nights before, the muffled thumps of footsteps on the raggedy carpet of the corridor are heard, the creaks of aged wood, all ceasing at the door. Then -- a silence. It is followed by slight obstruction of the line of light at the slit under the door, as an envelope slips through. The carrier thumps back to the end of the corridor, slipping through the sleeping tenant building into the night.

The family is dismayed over the untimely death of Joseph McKinley, an honorable business associate and a friend.

Mr. Poe regrets Mr. McKinley's decision to sever his business ties with us. In that respect, we are more than pleased with your services to the family. As a token of approval, you are advised to visit the address below, which belongs to an associate who has turned to the law authorities. Please perform the necessary functions at your discretion.

141 Oswald Street, apartment 3E

By Appointment of Mr. Poe'

No doubt that the necessary functions are disposal.

I find the address at the other side of town, in a street consisting mainly of illegitimate shops and services -- dope houses, brothels, and arms dealers. Lines of laundry hang above the narrow street and the walls are cracked and yellow. The pavement is caked with a film of a gleaming substance. I try to cut some with my knife but the substance is mostly dry. I find a fresh glob of the oily substance dripping from a drainpipe, and follow the pipe with my eyes up the three-story building, up to a rusted folded emergency staircase at the upper floor.

I go up the building's narrow stairwell, going past green painted doors. Some doors are ajar, revealing derelict rooms that smell of urine. Other doors that are barely on their hinges are shut and locked in front of noisy apartments.

I reach the last apartment at the last floor. The substance that coats the sidewalk below is the same that is brimming under the door. The sign on the door is askew and half-broken, but I can still make it out easily. It reads 3E. I open the unlocked door.

Nothing can prepare me for what awaits inside. The apartment comprises a single room with an attached door, apparently to a lavatory. The odor that immediately attacks my nostrils is unearthly -- I can only describe it as a mixture of oil and rot. The walls of the room are covered in a tapestry of newspaper clippings, drawings, and yellowing photographs. Other than a broken chair lying on its back there is no furniture in the room, and the bare floor is littered with garbage and filth, all swimming in a thick layer of that strange ooze which is emanating from the closed bathroom.

When I examine the walls I begin to understand the nature of my assignment. Perform the necessary functions. One clipping from the Tribune, dated the 19th of the last month, speaks about an "opium distillery discovered downtown". Another from the crime section of the times shows a picture of a policeman standing in a room with a similar view to this one -- it is this one. He's smiling awkwardly with crooked teeth, with one hand adjusting his police hat, the other holding on display a bag filled with a white substance. Another clipping says "the operator was never found".

A headline quotes links to organized crime. Another one is about "Soldiers at the Ardennes complaining of mysterious ailment." There are many more.

"Epidemic downtown baffles doctors."

"…Patient at asylum claims bodily alteration done consciously."

"Pathogen suspected to spread via bodily fluids, affecting brain through bloodstream…"

A disease of the mind?

My mind is racing as I read from the scraps of paper covering the walls passages from Philosophy textbooks, quotations from the bible, marked lines from texts on research in the theories of meta-psychology:

"…Believing that vitality and the state of the psyche are directly associated with the four humors in the body, where ailments and disposition were a result of under- or over-concentrations of the humors, Hippocrates would later extend the notion to meet his theories of the fifth element, the Quintessence, or Aether. A fifth humor would be added to the existing bodily four, derived from the parallel Aether, and respectively while Aether would be established as the heavenly substance that consists of the stars, gods and all that is unearthly, the fifth humor would impose capacities that were of the divine…"

"… that the mind-body duality can in fact be separated, and that the artificial limitations of organ growth that are imposed by the natural laws of cell generation in the brain can be bypassed. While in nature the hypothalamus controls and restricts cell duplication, there is no reason to believe it is physically unworkable to suspend the restrictions, enabling the conscious mind to deliberately and undeliberately control cell duplication. While at the conference again in Vienna in late 1872, Vigler had argued…

"…and I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."

My attention is drawn to a torn piece of paper with a hand-written guide to distilling heroin:

"The entire process can be done by biological means. The separation from the Poppy plant and the brewing with the mixture of Thyoxide is known to have been done by Sherpas in the area that is now known as Tibet earlier than 1000 AD. Using abdomens of freshly slaughtered goats they would use the digestive acids along with the Thyoxide to create the substance that would be dried to form heroin. It is believed to be not only a more economical and safer means of extracting heroin than chemical extrapolations by means of a modern laboratory, but also to be capable of producing greater quantities much faster. The byproduct of plant shell oil and liquid Carbon-Thyoxide is a nuisance by its sheer quantities, but manageable."

I look at my feet at the sheet of liquid and my stomach is turning again. I look at a series of hand drawn diagrams blow the passage.

The first is a crude figure of a man with some apparatus attached to him. Next, there is a drawing of a man with his mid section elaborately enlarged and marked with a series of unintelligible explanations.

The final figure appalls me to my core. It is again a crude, almost childish drawing of a man, this time, completely grotesque with an enormous mid-section and drawings of tubes and more unintelligible marks. Only one mark I manage to decipher- an arrow to the face of the man and some writing that says "seed input".

I stumble back form the wall, sick to the pit of my stomach. I grab my right hand with my left. The pain has replaced numbness again. I cannot see the change yet, but it is there.

With my aching hand I pull the revolver, aiming it at the bathroom door. It shakes now when I hold the gun at arm's length. Is it hesitancy? No. I feel none. I mustn't.

I walk closer to the door, still aiming. The distiller has to be there. The distiller and the distillery, one and the same. I must kill them. The ooze is seeping from every crevice around the door. Oozing. Flowing. He is there now. Whatever is left of him. I must open the door and carry out my mission before my resolve fades. I must.

Our patience with you might very well run out.

But my determination has already begun to fade. My own survival comes first. But I cannot open the door.

The invisible hand that guides you.

I can't do it.

The invisible hand is a monster.

I can't do it.

You must not succumb.

Last words of a dying man. Last words of a dying species. My right hand feels like it is about to merge with the gun.

I walk out.

####

I return to my apartment late that evening expecting to find a letter at the door. There isn't any. My lover is already asleep. I hang up my coat, place the revolver quietly in the drawer and take off my shoes. Only then I go towards the bed, and only then I notice the folded letter placed on the sheet.

The letter arrived oddly early. I convince myself she had picked it up and forgot it on the bed, after reading it. A few moments go by before I dare to open it.

There is single line on the bottom of the page, written without ceremony.

‘Mr. Poe would like to see you.'

I refold the paper and place it in the drawer, as if to retain the happy opportunity of looking at it again and finding something different written there. What did she think of it? Strange letters at strange hours. What did she think of me? I stroke her hair.

Only then I notice something is wrong. I cannot see her face but it is flat on the bed. Her arm is contorted unnaturally under her body. Lying there half covered by the sheet, her skin is as pale as the wall. Everything is placed neatly, exactly as it was when I left, including her. So neat and quiet and ordinary. And lifeless.

I stumble to the drawer, retrieve my revolver, and leave the room, unable to breathe.

I can barely make out the shadows on the street as I speed away from my building. In the cold haze and dim light from the lampposts they do not look human to me.

The city is dying.

In their coats and steam of breath they look like devils with folded wings. But when I cut prematurely through the corner and scrape the pavement, the car lights hit the sidewalk and they stare at me innocently like frightened deer. Still humans.

"I'm here to see Mr. Poe," I tell the muscle at the gate to a grim looking office building. I expect trouble but he just says "We've been expecting you", and gestures to me to follow him.

I go after him through the lobby. When we pass through the elevators I say something but he doesn't seem to hear. Instead of taking an elevator we continue to the stairs, and instead of going up we go down -- two stories down into the basement.

"Don't mind the heat, we're close to the radiators here," he says, but my sweat is ignoring him and continues to drip down my neck as we go past the narrow corridor, past thugs and prostitutes and addicts. The walls between them are thick and red and smell of perfume and sweat. "We're nearly there," he says, but in my mind I know we have not gone two stories down, but two thousand, into the bowels of Bosch's netherworld.

When it feel like we have been walking forever he suddenly stops and waves to a large oak door, set at the end of the corridor between two guards. Wordlessly, he goes past me back down the corridor. There is a look on his face that says I'm on my own now.

I open the door slowly and the sight before me makes me instantly sick. I vomit on the heavy rug. Mr. Poe responds by laughter.

"Are you revolted by my appearance?"

I'm swaying on my feet, but manage to lift my head to meet his. The room we are in is not small, and Mr. Poe is the size of the room.

"Dear God." I mumble.

He laughs again. "If you find my appearance so dismaying then do not look at the mirror. I fear you might not like what you see."

Does he know of my right hand? Can he see it? The pain is throbbing through the pocket of my coat. Radiating.

"No more!" I shout to the monstrous mass that occupies the breadth of the room. I have nothing to lose anymore: my love has been taken away from me. Humanity has been seeping away from me through the cracks in the floor.

"The death of your woman was inevitable after your failure to carry out your assignment. Your gut has been interfering with your work."

"It's madness," I shout. It's madness and he's the king of it. And I'm a pawn.

The doctors cannot help us, but we can help ourselves.

"What is madness?" a horrible mouth rumbles. "Madness is how we lived before. Slaves to the decay of the flesh; the mind an innocent hostage in the cosmic joke of rot and oblivion. Not anymore. Don't you see?"

But I don't. The room is spinning around me and I can hardly breathe in the horrible stagnant air. Inside my pocket my hand and my gun are one.

"It's an evolution of the mind. The mind can reshape the body; crack the mortal crust of its own existence. It is the ultimate triumph of mind over matter, and you wish to stop it. You wish to stop what we do."

He's right. I can't really stop what we do -- I've been doing it forever. After all, morals don't play a role. Survival comes first.

"You see, I chose to contract this wonderful ailment. I chose to drink wine from the glass of a dying man." He looks at my horror and laughs again. "I know what you are thinking. I cannot even leave the room. But there is no need for it anymore. I have everything here. In my mind."

My hand and my gun are drawn towards the center of the mass that is Mr. Poe.

"With the growth of my body grows my mind. I have enlarged my brain beyond comprehension; the wonders inside my mind know no boundaries. I am a god within my body, a universe within a universe. You cannot stop what I am. You cannot stop what you are."

He is right. I cannot.

I re-aim the revolver and pull the trigger.

THE END


© 2005 I. D. Weis

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