I’ve been quiet because the move to the new house and writing deadlines have been occupying all of my time. Sorry about that. I’m hoping to get back up to speed soon.
As penance for my silence, let me at least offer the first scene from One Thousand and One Words, a short story that draws heavily on Lovecraft’s Mythos. It is part of my e-book short story collection, Ephemera (which is now also available through Amazon UK, for readers across the pond). It was originally published in Eldritch Horrors: Dark Tales, but that anthology is now out of print.
Anyway, I’m particularly pleased with Jack Cole’s voice in this story. I hope you enjoy.
One Thousand and One Words.
War kills everyone in it, even if you live. That’s what my sergeant used to say. He stopped saying it when a battery of Gerry 88s turned him to soup.
My time in the Army put shrapnel in my foot and nightmares in my head. Uncle Sam taught me how to shoot an M1 at Germans, a camera at the horrors of war, and pick-up lines at British girls.
At least the photography proved useful when I turned civvie.
But a gig for a former war photographer proved as hard to find as a sober G.I. on V-E day, so in 1944, with the carnage of Omaha still fresh in my head, I moved to a one-room matchbox in Boston and went freelance. It felt good to take pictures of things other than burned out Sherman tanks and the moonscapes left over from artillery bombardments. In time, I woke up screaming less.
By 1946 I shot pictures and wrote accompanying copy for most of the rags in Boston. No one would mistake my words for Faulkner’s, but it was a living.
In 1948 Polaroid sold its first instant camera, a Model 95. Big, clunky thing, but I bought one and fell in love with it.
In 1949 fear of Communism swept the nation. Me and my Model 95 snapped local pols blaming Red cells for everything from poor schools to potholes.
But in 1950 the world started to end, and no one cared about the Commies anymore.
The radio stations and diners filled up with doomsayers, all of them chattering like wind-up monkeys. Me, I went on with life. Or what passed for it in my case. I’d already seen an apocalypse, back on Omaha. Hell, I’d photographed it afterward.
War kills everyone in it. Every soul, at least. Damn right, Sarge.
In the midst of the end times I sank my teeth into the juiciest lead I’d had in…well, ever. So I met the Chronicle’s Editor-in-chief, Edgar Walsh, at our usual watering hole to make my pitch.
I found him alone in the dull light and sharp stink of McSorley’s. Before the pencil-sharpener of life had ground him down to a nub, Edgar had given me – then just out of the Army – the soundest professional advice I’d ever received: ask a question, get out of the way of the answer, and follow the story wherever it goes.
Simple stuff, but wisdom often was.
Edgar, head in his glass, hunched over the table like Lugosi’s Quasimodo. Like all good editors he nursed a gin and tonic; like all good reporters and ex-soldiers I’d filled my hand with a glass of straight bourbon. I brought along a copy of the Chronicle with its announcement of the pending apocalypse.
I pulled back a chair and he looked up. The bags under his eyes could have been gunnysacks.
“Jack,” he said.
“Edgar. Good to see you.”
We made some obligatory small talk, then I laid the paper on the table and jabbed a finger at the headline – Apocalypse Imminent, it read.
“Circulation must be bad to publish that, Edgar.”
Edgar looked at the paper, at his gin.
“People are talking about it, Jack. That means I write about it.” He swirled his drink, tried to rediscover his dignity. “Something’s in the air. Folks are afraid.”
I grunted derision. The war had killed my sense of fear. I’d seen the worst that men could do to one another.
“Forget all that. I got something real for you.”
Edgar polished off his gin and signaled the waitress for another. I took his cue and killed my whiskey in a gulp that sandpapered my throat.
Edgar eyed me from under the thicket of his brows. “Is it good?”
“Really?” His tone suggested disbelief. “I can give you two-thousand words of human interest in Saturday’s early edition. If you get it to me by tomorrow.”
I smiled like a catbird and it piqued his interest. I didn’t smile much. He leaned forward in his chair.
“What do you have, Jack? Spill it.”
“I have Howard Doyle.”
It took a moment for my words to hit him. When they did, I saw his dull eyes try their best to shine. “Howard Doyle? The Howard Doyle?”
“You got a picture?”
I shook my head. “Not yet. But he’s invited me out to his estate and I don’t intend to leave until I have one.”
“He invited you?”
My grin widened. “Yeah. A formal invitation. Believe that? Maybe the world really is coming to an end because if that’s not a sign of the end times, I don’t know what is.”
I had been trying to get a picture of Howard Doyle since the day I bought my Polaroid. He was as rich as God and as mysterious as Lucifer. Everyone wanted to know more about him and wild speculations filled the society pages. Or at least they had before the end of the world had become front page news.
No one had taken a picture of Boston’s first citizen since before the war. When I was first trying to break into the ranks, I tried everything to get one, even resorted once to sneaking around the grounds of his weird mansion. No luck. His security roughed me up a time or time, but that didn’t deter me. I didn’t scare easy.
Edgar took out a cigar, planted it under his moustache, struck a match. Light and shadow turned his face into a landscape of crags and craters.
“Tell you what, Jack,” he said around the stick. “You get a shot of Doyle, write five-thousand words to go with it, and I’ll put the whole thing on the front page.” He nodded at the announcement of the end of the world. “We’ll get rid of that for a week.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear. Dollars?”
He blew a cloud of smoke. “You know what I pay for front page copy.”
“But this is Howard Doyle, Edgar.”
He considered, nodded. “Worth a premium. We’ll discuss the particulars when you have the shots.”
The waitress brought over our second round. Edgar took another slug of gin and stared off into space. After a time, he said, “What do you make of it, Jack? The moon, the storms and earthquakes, the disappearances?”
“Make of it?”
“You think this is it?”
“The end of the world?” I asked.
He raised his bushy eyebrows, nodded.
I pushed back my chair and stood. “I’ll tell you sometime what it’s like to hide in a shallow hole in the dirt while German artillery rains down around you. Then I’ll tell you what it’s like to walk through the aftermath, your ears ringing, shattered bodies half buried in dirt, guts hanging from trees like Christmas garland.” I took my whiskey, slammed it back. “This ain’t it, Edgar. It already happened.”
He chewed the corner of his moustache and buried his nose in his drink.
“Tell you what,” I said to the part in his hair. “If this is the end, I’ll be sure to take a picture. Fair enough?”
He looked up at that, smiled, toasted me with his gin. “That’d get the front page. Last one ever, eh?”
“Last one,” I said.
I wished him well and walked out of the bar into a blistering rainstorm. The air stank like rot, like the war, like bodies that had sat overlong in the sun. A sewer must have overflowed. Thunder rumbled and I tried not to think too hard about it. My combat boots thudded off the slick pavement. Army-issue boots were the only thing that my shot up left foot could tolerate. I wore them even with my slacks.
I kept my eyes from the sky and went back to my flat. The next night I and my boots drove my Chevy to Howard Doyle’s mansion, just as my invitation instructed.
* * * * *
The moon leered through an opening in a smear of black clouds, its face alien, ominous. The talking heads on the radio said Luna was no longer in tidal lock, that its dark side was slowly turning to face the earth. No one seemed to know why. Scientists had their theories; believers had theirs.
Me, I tried not to think about it, but I could not deny that the air felt strange, charged the way it did moments before shells started to fall.
Rain fell and the wipers’ rhythm was a heartbeat across the windshield. Veins of lightning set the sky aglow. I yawned (it was after ten), hummed Como’s Some Enchanted Evening, and drove.
I recited the series of questions I would ask Doyle, an incantation of the mundane. What’s a day like in the life of Howard Doyle? Why’d you settle in Boston? Why so reclusive? How did you earn your fortune? And most importantly – may I take a picture of you, sir?
Cheap stuff. Filler. It was not going to win a Pulitzer but the Chronicle’s readers would eat it up. Take their minds off the strangeness in the air, too.
Doyle’s estate lurked in the darkness of the hills and mounds to the west of the city. When I arrived, I found the wrought iron gates thrown open and the guardhouse empty and dark. I figured it must have lost power in the storm.
Twisted, leafless maples stood sentinel along a serpentine drive that led to the front of the mansion. The structure was as odd as I remembered.
The vaguely pyramidal, asymmetrical structure of gray metal and dark glass rose out of the hillside like a tumor. Protuberances jutted from its sides at odd angles; trapezoidal and ovate windows lurked in odd corners. A dome capped it, which I presumed it to be an observatory. I’d once tried to track down the name of the architect who’d designed the monstrosity, but the building records had been destroyed in a fire.
Light shone behind several of the first story windows but I could tell from the flickering, dim glow that it was candlelight. Power was out in the mansion, too.
I took a moment to confirm I had everything that I would need: my camera, two notebooks, several pens, the invitation from Doyle. Shielding it all under my coat, I jumped out of my Chevy and dashed for the porch. I would have taken a photograph of the mansion’s exterior, but the rain made that impossible.
A stylized Egyptian ankh served as the knocker. I rattled it off the enormous wooden door and waited. In moments I heard locks twist and the door opened inward.
I found myself staring into the chest of one of the largest men I had ever seen. He was an Arab, wore a blue turban that could have covered a pumpkin, and a white caftan that reminded me of a pavilion tent. He wore open sandals on his feet and his hairy toes looked like bratwursts. The man’s sheer size made me uneasy. I’d had one too many beatings at the hands of Doyle’s goons not to be nervous.
He held a candlestick with three burning candles. The wind set the flames to dancing. I held out the invitation from Doyle, as if it were a shield.
“Mister Doyle is expecting me. I’m Cole. Jack Cole.”
The man looked over the top of my head at the rain, or perhaps at the moon. He grinned a mouthful of blackened teeth through his short beard, nodded. Ignoring the invitation I proffered, he swung his girth to the side and gestured me in.
“Uh, thank you,” I said, and walked past him into the marble-floored foyer. As I passed I saw that his eyes were the color of milk. He was blind.
I took off my hat as he pulled the door closed and silenced the rain.
“Heck of a storm, eh?” I said as he turned.
He lost his smile, stepped forward and placed his ham hands on my shoulders. I did not think to resist until he had me good. I’d learned hand-to-hand in the army and could handle myself in a fight, but I might as well have been in a vice.
“What the Hell? If he called me up here just to make a point of—“
The Arab’s hands slid down from my shoulders and he spun me around, clutched the sleeves of my jacket, and started to pull it off. Only then did his intentions register.
“Jesus,” I said, and tried to slip out of my coat. “Jesus, pal.”
He folded my jacket over one huge arm.
“You could have just asked for the jacket.”
He said nothing, just smiled his black teeth. He planted one hand on my shoulder and gestured with his other down the hall.
“Yeah, all right.”
He kept a hand on me as we moved, like a rudder to keep me on course, I guess. Despite his blindness he moved without hesitation. He must’ve had the place memorized, which was quite a feat given its size, peculiar layout and the clutter of furnishings. Hallways appeared unexpectedly, took odd turns, dog legs, or ended at blank walls. Doorways of various sizes opened onto dark side rooms. It was as strange inside as out, a rat’s maze. I felt like I should have been leaving a trail of bread crumbs.
“Mind if I take some pictures?” I asked.
He frowned, shook his head, and I did not argue.
Oil lamps burned here and there in the house, like distress beacons. The dim light from the lamps and the Arab’s candles allowed me to see that Doyle had decorated his mansion in an Egyptian motif. Pharaohs’ death masks hung from walls, sinister in repose. Onyx statues of animal-headed gods stood guard in corners and cul-de-sacs. Gongs of bronze, jars of ivory, and statuettes of jade and dotted every table and desktop. An entire slab of hieroglyphics had been mounted on the wall of one hallway. I stared at them for a moment but the swirl of lines and characters made me nauseous.
Still, I was impressed. On my way back from Europe I’d had a stopover in New York City, so I’d taken in the sights. The Met’s Egyptian collection had nothing on Howard Doyle.
“Mister Doyle likes ancient Egypt, I see.”
No response. The guy’s silence was unnerving.
“I was in Africa in ’42,” I said, just to say something. “The Torch landings. Algeria, though, not Egypt. Still….
He grunted like an impatient boar and shuffled me forward. Eventually we entered a soaring two-story library walled in shelves, books, and wheeled ladders. The vaulted ceiling was painted like a giant face, as black as onyx, with baleful, vaguely Egyptian looking eyes that looked down on the room. A roaring fire burned in a large fireplace with a natural stone hearth. Two leather armchairs sat before it, both showing me their backs.
“Jesus,” I said, staring up at the face.
The Arab gave me a shove forward.
“You know what, pal—“
“Mister Arrad is mute as well as blind,” said a voice from one of the chairs set before the hearth. “Please do not mistake his silence as rudeness.”
Howard Doyle rose from one of the leather armchairs. Tall and skeleton-thin, he nevertheless wore his smoking jacket and suit trousers with a rich-man’s dignity. His thin gray hair lay neatly combed across his age-spotted scalp. The part could have been drawn with a T-square. His deep set eyes, shadowed in the dim light, looked like those of a skull. He held a drink in his left hand. The ice chimed.
“It’s not his silence I find rude,” I said.
Doyle looked past me to the mute. “That will be all, Mister Arrad.”
The Arab bowed and took his leave. I stood there, under the eyes of Doyle and the face on the ceiling. I wasn’t sure which made me more uncomfortable.
“A drink, Mister Cole?”
“Jack, Mister Doyle. And no thanks. I’m used to the cheap stuff. My body won’t know what to do with quality booze. Besides, it’ll put me to sleep on my drive home.”
Doyle smiled distantly. “I doubt that will be a problem.” He gestured at the second armchair set before the hearth, causing the ice in his glass to clink. “Please sit, Jack.”
“Sure thing, Mister Doyle. Say, I wonder if might take some pictures to start us off? Perhaps you in front of the hearth? The paper really wants some photographs.”
“After we talk,” Doyle said, with the finality of a man accustomed to obedience.
“Maybe just the library?” I said, and took up my camera from the strap around my neck. “The books are impressive. And the ceiling! Hell, the whole place is—”
Doyle’s lips barely moved. “After we talk, Jack.”
I took the hint. I walked toward him and offered my hand. “An honor, Mister Doyle. Thank you for doing this.”
He took my hand in a firm, cold grip. “It was long overdue. You’ve harried my steps for some time.”
I chuckled awkwardly. “Harried is not the word I’d use, sir. You’re a celebrity. People are curious about you.”
“Curiosity kills cats.”
I did not know what to say to that. Doyle eyed my camera.
“That is a new Land camera, isn’t it?
I nodded, held it up. Most folks called them Polaroids, not Lands. “A Polaroid, yes. Here.”
I pulled it from around my neck and offered it to him. He took it, turned it in his hands, examined it in the firelight, finally looked through the lens. Throughout he exhibited a small, secret smile that I disliked.
“An interesting device,” he said, and handed it back.
“I like it,” I said, and hung it back around my neck.
“I have an amateur interest in photography.”
“Interesting,” I lied. “Listen, Mister Doyle, I do not want to take up too much of your time. It’s late already. Should we get started?”
“We should. The world is winding down, after all.”
We sat in the arm chairs and for the next hour or so I peppered Doyle with one mundane question after another. He answered them all in a pleasant enough manner and I duly scribed the answers. Arrad returned from time to time to refill Doyle’s scotch. The old man could hold his drink.
Turned out, Doyle’s father was an Irish immigrant and had worked as a policeman to pay for Doyle’s education at Miskatonic University, where Doyle had studied ancient history. The U.S. Army had rejected Doyle during the First World War – Doyle refused to explain why – so he had joined the French Foreign Legion and fought in Africa in ‘17, in something called the Sanusi Revolt. It was there that he’d taken an interest in Egyptian art. He’d picked up some valuable pieces, sold them, bought a few more, sold them, and eventually made his fortune as an art dealer. He spent a few years in Tangiers before returning to the States and building his mansion.
Doyle’s time in the Foreign Legion struck me as the most interesting so I pressed him on it. He swirled his drink, stared into the fire, and talked. I just let him go.
About a half-hour later I realized something: Howard Doyle was at least senile, and possibly insane.
I looked up from my notepad. “I’m sorry, Mister Doyle. What did you say?”
Doyle sipped his drink and looked me in the eye. “I said that was when I met the god.”
I cleared my throat to hide my incredulity. “The god? Like the God of Abraham, God?”
Doyle chuckled. He took out a pipe and searched around for a match. A huge form appeared from nowhere – Arrad – a match in hand.
“Thank you, Mister Arrad.”
The Arab withdrew and Doyle lit his pipe. The smoke smelled exotic, like I imagined a jungle might smell. Doyle exhaled and smiled with satisfaction.
“Not the God of Abraham, no. A much older god….”