I’m here to say that Mondays are gonna shine again! My health is much improved since January, I’ve been (more or less) keeping up with my writing and my various deadlines. I think it’s time to get back on the horse and get back to my fiction writing for this blog.
Go ahead and do your Dance of Joyous Celebration. I’ll wait here. You’re finished already? Jeez, that didn’t take long; I think I’m insulted…..
Where was I? Oh, right, fiction. So when last we left our intrepid fictioneer, I was doing a space opera short story based around my space opera radio show, Fortuna. Yeah, I kinda lost the thread on that one, sorry about that. It was a struggle anyway, trying to convert to a new medium; in my head, Helen and the gang just work better in audio rather than print. So I think I’m going to lay that one aside for the moment. It’ll definitely get written eventually. I did too much research on the science-y bits, and the story really is fun. But more likely it’ll be a radio show, rather than a short story. Don’t worry; when it becomes a radio show, I’ll link to it here so you can hear it.
However! I did not turn up empty handed, as you can tell by the blog title. May I have the pleasure of introducing you to April Tyree, detective of the weird and wonderful. This is my first attempt at writing a hard-boiled detective story in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and friends. Okay, more smart-mouthed and snarky that properly hard-boiled, and she probably owes more to Robert E. Howard and Jim Butcher than to Dashiell. I’ve long been obsessed with the “occult detective” sub genre of pulp, specifically the detective whose focus is on the weird, spooky and supernatural (not necessarily that he practices magic, a la Dresden Files, but he’s definitely in the know). It’s pretty much my favorite pulp genre, and I’ve read deeply in it; I’ll be saying much more about the genre in the near future.
I’ve tried writing an occult detective before, with little success. But this story worked much better. I like the character voice, I liked the opening line (always important, it sets the tone), I just like it. So I’m sharing with you. Part one today, part two next Monday. That’s fair, right?
Okay, onward to the story!
When the Cat’s Away
An April Tyree short story
If I ever get out of this mess, I need to write a letter to my high school guidance counselor.
“Dear Mr. Hennessy,
“As I lie here in a forbidden temple under a secret pyramid, tied to a table and waiting for a deranged priestess to come and cut my heart out, I realize that you were right: I am not living up to my full potential.
“Yours, April Tyree, class of ’07”
Not much of a plan for the future, I have to admit. But at least it was a goal. First, though, I had to get free of this mess. I tried the ropes holding my limbs out in a spread eagle across the rough stone table. The ropes looked ragged as hell, gray and frayed with age. But they were strong enough to defeat me; everything was tight enough to cut off circulation. I couldn’t feel the fingers on my right hand. Moreover, the rough jute was digging into my flesh like a rasp, peeling back another layer of flesh every time I moved. Ouch.
“I’m not getting paid enough for this!” I muttered.
Two weeks ago, I was hired to find a girl – Charity Rostovitch, fourteen years old, blonde and blue – who had gone missing. A regular detective had traced her to upstate New York, but couldn’t get any further than that the girl had somehow gotten mixed up with a weird New Age cult. That’s where I come in. I get paid very well to deal with the weird. I do not — repeat, do not — get paid enough to play the sacrificial victim in somebody’s H. Ryder Haggard roleplay.
Mental note: add a hazard pay clause to my standard contract.
The room was only dimly lit by torches ranged along the walls. Most of it was stone, probably a naturally occurring cave that had been re-purposed to make home base for the local loonies. Wooden partitions and doorways had been built to finish out the space. The décor was Early American Horror Movie: pentagrams, arcane writing spray-painted onto the floor and walls, cast iron candelabras, and a collection of artifacts and creepy little props were arranged carefully on a heavy wooden altar just beyond the foot of my table. I was starring as the damsel in distress in these nutters’ personal B-movie. Time to get out of here before I was promoted from Damsel in Distress to Victim Number One.
Wait! The loops of rope around my left wrist felt a little looser than the one on the right. Maybe…. I twisted my left arm, trying to get a little leverage. Did I feel the ropes shift? Maybe? I kept twisting, trying to work my hand free. It wasn’t much, but I was running out of options. More skin peeled away, burning like fire. Blood rose to the surface and stained the loops of rope.
Honestly, who the hell builds a pyramid in rural New York state? It’s not like we have an overstock of ancient Egyptian pharaohs in Poughkeepsie or Yonkers. Granted, this pyramid didn’t hold a candle to the Great Pyramid of Giza. This one was made of wood, and nowhere near the four hundred eighty-something feet that the Giza pyramid is (yes, I do my research, thank you; it almost never helps keep me out of trouble, but it seems the prudent thing to do most of the time). Most of it is underground, to boot, which makes sense; even the most clueless hick out here in the boonies would notice, and gossip about, a DIY pyramid in the woods. Not helpful if you’re trying to keep a low profile.
I wasn’t imagining it! The ropes on my left wrist were getting looser! Moisture soaked my wrist and dribbled down across my palm. I didn’t know if it was sweat or blood, but it was acting like a lubricant on the rope, so I wasn’t knocking it. I redoubled my efforts, gritting my teeth against the pain of the rough rope rubbing against the increasingly raw flesh of my arm.
But back to what I was saying: you wanna know who builds a pyramid in rural New York? Crazy-ass cultists, that’s who. Scientologists and Moonies got nothing on these dudes. Think David Koresh, okay? These guys called themselves “Setepen Ra,” The Chosen of Ra. Details on how they got started are hard to come by, but I was able to find out that the founder was a woman named Patricia Blumenthal. She was big in the New Age movement, out of that town, Lily Dale, out in Chautauqua County. Patsy was a channeler, somebody who allows their body to be possessed by the spirits of long dead men and women, who come forth to share their wisdom with the masses. If you believe in that sort of thing, of course.
Do I believe in that sort of thing? No comment. In this case, though, “masses” referred to masses of the gullible. When she was feeling the spirit – yeah, I had to go there, don’t judge me! – Patricia called herself “Hemet Nesu Weret,” an ancient Egyptian phrase that (very) roughly translates to “queen.” Word was, her performances were impressive, and Patsy herself was charismatic as hell. It wasn’t long before she’d gathered a coterie of true believers around her. How they went from groupies to religion is kinda fuzzy on details, but I do know that by the time I got this gig, they’d pulled out of Lily Dale for pegging too high on the Weird-Shit-O-Meter. How weird do you have to be, to give those guys the wiggins? Flakier than Kellogg’s apparently. Anyway, getting the boot gave them the motivation to troop out here into the sticks en masse and built a pyramid and temple.
Mostly I’m a live-and-let-live kinda girl. You wanna trot out into the boonies and dance naked, have sex with goats and worship Kermit the Frog? Whatever pumps your ‘nads, as long as you’re all consenting adults and you don’t insist I join in. But these guys had graduated from casual looniness to kidnapping. The above mentioned Charity Rostovitch.
A grinding of wood against stone, and the soft sound of bare feet marching told me I was running out of time. I stopped pulling against the ropes, and tried to look casual as a columns of red robed, hooded figures trooped in and ranged themselves around the room. Six of them placed themselves around my current perch: two on my left, two on my right, one at my head, and one at my feet.
I couldn’t see faces because of the heavy cowls and hoods; occasionally I could occasionally spot a jaw or a bit of nose, enough to tell me that everybody was human and mostly young. But the woman at the foot of the altar, her I recognized.
“Patricia Blumenthal, I presume,” I said. “You look just like your pictures.”
She hesitated only a moment, before pushing back her hood, revealing a middle-aged woman. Her dark hair was streaked liberally with gray, cut short and finger-combed straight back from her high forehead. Her face was not as heavily aged as I expected a woman of nearly fifty to be; her features were strong, but not particularly handsome. “Striking” was the best way to describe her; she would stand out in a crowd. Her eyes were the most noticeable. They were large, well opened, and the color went back and forth between gray and black. Weird.
“We are Patricia,” she said, her voice a confident contralto. Her eyes went instantly from gray to black. “And we are not.”
Great. “Is that the royal we, or do you have a tapeworm?” I said. Crickets. Nobody gets my jokes. Sigh. “Look, I don’t know if they offer a group rate at the looney bin,” I said. “But you cut me loose, and I’ll call and ask. I know a guy.”
Patricia’s eyes went back to gray again. Man, that was creepy. But you know what was even more creepy? The big knife she pulled from the sleeve of her robe. It was not one of those cheap kris-knives you can pick up on Cultists-R-Us.com, with sparkly gems on the hilt and Pakistani pot metal for the blade. No, this thing had a wooden handle, a narrow lip for a guard, and a mottled gray blade. This was not a toy or a show piece; this bad boy meant business. The edge itself was shiny, freshly sharpened, and looked very dangerous indeed.
“Whoa, hold it, let’s take a minute here!” I said, as she stepped to my right side. “Come on, Patty, I mean, I know I crashed your little orgy, but let’s not get crazy! I’d like my insides to stay inside, if it’s all the same to you!”
Patricia grabbed my right wrist and pressed it firmly to the table. I tried to pull free, to get her off me before she cut me, but I had no leverage. She pressed the tip of the blade to my flesh and slid it under the cuff of my shirt sleeve.
“Don’t do it,” I gasped.
With a fluid flip of her wrist, the blade cut through my cuff, and sliced my sleeve open to the elbow.
I breathed a sigh of relief. It morphed into a scream of pain and surprise as Patricia sliced into the flesh of my forearm. Blood welled from my arm. A hooded figure handed Patricia a bejeweled golden goblet, and she pressed it to the wound. The blood – my blood! – flowed into the goblet.
“What the hell, Patty!” I shouted, trying to jerk free of her grip.
“Be still!” Her voice sounded wrong, deeper, not natural. I looked up at her face and her eyes had gone black again. Now that she was this close to me, I could see something moving in that blackness, something writhing and wrong.
I shivered, suddenly cold. Whatever I was talking to, it wasn’t Patricia. I held still until Patricia had gotten enough blood from my arm to satisfy her. She handed the goblet to her acolyte, and then slid the blade back into her sleeve. She walked back to her position at the foot of the altar. The acolyte placed the goblet on the altar behind Patricia. Three of the acolytes left their positions to cluster around the table. I couldn’t see what they were doing, but I could hear the tinkle of metal objects being moved around.
“So, Patty, now you’re done carving on me–” ‘for the moment’ passed through my mind, but I didn’t say it out loud; I didn’t want to give her any encouragement. “– maybe you’d be willing to tell me what flavor of crazy are you playing with tonight?”
“You should feel honored,” said Patricia. “Not only are you witness to the return of our Hemet Nesu Weret, but, with your sacrifice, you will help her transition back into this world.”
“I thought you were Hemet Nesu Weret, Patty.”
Patricia smiled at me, her black eyes sparkling. “Only part time, my dear. This vessel is too old to maintain my presence for more than a few hours at a time. I need somebody younger, somebody upon whom the soul has not yet left a permanent mark. An innocent.”
Light dawned. “Charity Rostovitch. The girl I came here looking for.”
“You know, normally if you’re going to sub-let like that, you need a contract. And I think it’s probably illegal to cut a contract with a minor in New York State,” I said. “Besides, this is the twenty-first century. Between the Internet and Rule 34, innocence dies at puberty.”
“We’ll take our chances,” said Patricia. She started to turn away.
“Hey, wait!” I shouted. She stopped, turned back to me.
“What about me?” I said. I tugged at the ropes holding me. “I mean, what am I supposed to do while you’re possessing a young girl? I’m not a centerpiece, you know.”
“Silly fool,” Patricia said, smiling down at me. That smile was not one to build confidence. “Blood sacrifice is required for the transfer of Hemet Nesu Weret into our new home.”
I sighed. “Thought so. You know you lack creativity.”
Patricia shrugged. “An oldie but a goodie.” She turned away and raised her arms above her had.
“Soo esta Set!” she cried out.
All the robed figures around the room dropped to their knees and pressed their foreheads to the floor in obeisance.
“Khont a vrongtee!” they called out in answer.
Crap! Double crap! I pulled on the ropes harder, even though more blood poured out of my arm every time I flexed my muscles. I can spare a little blood, but if I didn’t get off this table, and I mean now, I was going to lose a lot more than that. My left wrist was almost free; all I had to do was twist a little harder, just a few seconds more.
But I wasn’t going to get a few seconds more. Just then, Patricia turned back to me, knife raised high, her face twisted with gloating, sanctimonious glee….
Yeah, I’m leaving off there. I’m such a stinker!
I want to hear back from you. Tell me in the comments whether you like this new addition to the ClarksonPunk stable. In the meantime, I’ll be back on Wednesday with some nonfiction. I think I might talk about the history of the occult detective and his/her place in the larger pulp scene. Then again, maybe not. We’ll see how fast I can organize my research. Until then, you know the drill: write, comment, share, tweet. My email addy is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net (take out the dashes, you know this drill right? I’m just trying to ditch the ‘bots).
Be good until we meet again, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!