“Mr. Topic, will you come with me, please?” The square officer looming in the doorway looked at Tom Topic. At this hour the sun was beginning to set in the horizon behind the quiet, peaceful suburban community, blazing the world in a red-orange hue, so that his dark silhouette was even more intimidating.
“Er…yes. Yes, of course, officer,” the tiny man answered. He took his favorite coat and walked out, straight on the heels of the officer. He hoped against hope that no one would notice the police. He knew Anna, his wife, would die of shame if she got home only to hear from the ever-gossiping neighborhood housewives that the Law had taken her husband away.
When they drove away with blue lights blinking, he doubted he would have such luck.
The sun had set and twilight was waning when they stopped outside the police station. Here Tom Topic was ushered inside the large, dark building. None of the police officers had been very talkative—in fact, not talkative at all—so he’d had plenty of time in the car to ponder nervously what was going on, fidgeting with the corner of his light grey, well-worn coat. Why had they come for him, and why now? Surely it couldn’t be about that ten bucks he found on the street two months ago, which he hadn’t handed in at the station. If that was the case they would have contacted him a long time ago. Besides, it was really a minor offense. More likely they would have simply mailed him a fine, not bothering to spend expensive manpower apprehending him at his house.
It couldn’t be a question of taxes either; his were paid to the cent, he knew that for sure. After all, he was an accountant. A good and honest one, at that.
Unless he had unknowingly broken the law in some other way, that only left one case open—which he sure hoped wasn’t ‘a case’: his secret night of infidelity half a year ago with a young Mexican woman. He and his wife had been on a much-needed vacation, and although it had started off well it soon hit an all-time low, with the standard arsenal of accusations and bickering entering what was supposed to be a ‘new beginning.’ It had ended in a heated argument resulting in her going someplace she just had to see, and him…well, going pub crawling.
At this thought he almost laughed (something which would have startled the silent men around him in the car)—the idea of him going pub crawling, at his age. Ridiculous. It was—what?—twenty years ago he’d last gone pub crawling. Even then he hadn’t been very good at it. But of course it was destined to go wrong.
That’s not how it started out, however. Not only did it feel good to get his mind off the problems with Anna, he also had the luck to meet a woman, a very beautiful woman. He had been flattered and much appreciative of the dark-haired woman’s company and interest in him. What sane man wouldn’t be? Such womanly beauty and passion! It looked to be a night he would remember for the rest of his life. But as it was, he only remembered snippets.
Not surprisingly, the next day’s hangovers were not merely physical. Far from. But he and his wife made up the same afternoon, agreeing it had been a stupid argument. He never told her what he’d done. She never asked.
He hoped this wasn’t the reason for the cops’ social call this evening. The moral aspect of it aside (bad enough in itself), the repercussions from the State would be severe. Infidelity was a crime calling for strict penances these days.
He involuntarily shuddered, huddled in his coat, and fumbled with his glasses. No, he sure hoped not…He had sworn he would never do anything like that again. He had learned his lesson. And his marriage had improved since.
But that still left the question: Why now?
With a troubled mind, he stepped out of the vehicle and ascended the stairs to the building, a fragile figure surrounded by ominous policemen.
After a long walk up and down winding corridors, he was ordered to take a seat on a small bench outside a massive oak door.
This particular corridor was poorly lit. The single light bulb hanging from the ceiling frequently winked out. As far as he could tell there wasn’t even a camera around. He sighed and pushed the glasses up from the tip of the nose. Tom Topic understood why the officers had left him here without anyone keeping an eye on him. Even if he had wanted to, he couldn’t find his way back.
After an unnervingly long duration without light from the bulb, he was about to raise his arm and take a look at the clock when the door opened.
“Please enter, Mr. Topic,” said a pleasant male voice.
Straightening his coat and clearing his throat, he stood and did as requested.
An antique chandelier gave friendly light to a large office that looked like it was taken straight out of one of those old English movies—exquisite oak panels lined with rows upon rows of books giving the place the air of an ancient library; a large, carved desk with a few, neat piles of paper. If not for the state of the art computer screen facing the just-as-modern desk chair and the oversized flatscreen TV on the wall, the illusion of having travelled back in time would have been complete. Even the thick carpet fit perfectly.
The door closed behind him.
“Please take a seat, Mr. Topic.”
The medium-height man walked past and sat in the desk chair. About forty years old, he was impeccably dressed in an expensive grey suit with matching tie.
When he saw that Topic hadn’t moved, he signaled him to come and sit. “Please.”
Not thinking of removing his coat, he sat down in the more plain chair.
“Well, Mr. Topic. You are perhaps wondering why we have brought you in?”
Topic cleared his throat, but couldn’t utter a sound. Instead he made a feeble attempt at nodding.
“I’ll be frank with you, Mr. Topic,” the man stated gravely. “It’s a serious case, and probably more serious than you realised when you got involved.”
The TV screen flashed with a large close-up picture. Topic gasped.
“I believe you know Miss Salma Cortez?”
There she was, face filling the screen—the Mexican woman he met that night six months ago. But rather than a seductive, mischievous look in her eyes, she looked pale and empty.
It was the photo of a dead woman.
“She was found dead almost twelve hours ago,” the man said, checking the time on the PC screen. “Of course, we went through her things to see if we could find any clues—you know: if it really was a natural death, or if some kind of foul play had occurred, who she’d had contact with lately etc., etc… Standard procedure.”
Topic was sure it was, but he had no idea how that related to him being here.
“All of this went down rather smoothly. Finding her notebook helped us a great deal in giving a clearer picture about her whereabouts.”
He looked long at Topic, calculating his reaction to the image on the screen, then chose his next words carefully.
“Imagine my surprise when I learned that not only are the amazingly few people she has been in contact with during the last year dead, no, your name also popped up, Mr. Topic. The only one encircled in red, as if something important. Not only that, no, no…Next to the circle was a word.”
The picture changed, showing a clear photo of a page in a used, smeared notebook. Next to the circle was written, in a female hand, ‘Quishar!’
The man behind the desk leaned forward, scrutinizing Topic’s perplexed expression. “Tell me, Mr. Topic, why did you join the Cabale? Why does she say you are a Symboligician?”
Topic was at a loss. He sweated and fumbled with his coat, trying to force speech from his dry mouth. What was the man talking about? What was all this? He took off his glasses, put them on again. Raised his hands, waved in confusion.
“I don’t know, sir,” he managed finally. “I am just an accountant.”
The man’s eyebrows shot up, and an involuntary, short laugh escaped him.
“‘Just an accountant,’ you say? I’d say…” A smirk crossed his lips.
The picture changed again—back to the dead woman. It was horrible, but even in death she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
“You see, Mr. Topic, Miss Cortez testifies that you are a Symboligician, and that somehow doesn’t ring true with being ‘just an accountant.’ ”
Topic shook his head. “No, no, sir. I honestly don’t know what you are talking about. I have no idea…None whatsoever. Honestly, I don’t—”
The man raised his hand, cutting him off. “Spare me, will you?” He leaned forward and pointed at the PC screen. (Topic realized that he didn’t know the man’s name yet; there wasn’t even a nameplate on the desk.) “I have looked at your file quite thoroughly, Mr. Topic, and until the death of Miss Cortez twelve hours ago I did not think you were anything more than a minor incident—a harmless night of sex, as so many before—but I no longer believe that to be the case.”
He slowly ran his fingers through his hair, showing puzzlement for the first time.
“But, as I said, I will be frank with you.” He gave Topic a sharp look. “Even if you won’t be frank with me.”
A raised finger stopped Topic’s protest.
“You see, I am a firm believer in telling the truth. That’s the only way to earn people’s trust. Always has, always will be. Even in our line of work. And if we’re ever to gain the trust of people like you, that, more than anything, is the way to go.
“Mr. Topic, I hope you realise you are lucky that it is us who know about your one-night stand, and not some other organ. Your luck lies in the fact that, although infidelity is a serious crime, we prefer not to include other parties in our work, and so we simply ignored it, back then, finding it of no importance. Others would not have been so kind to your misbehavior. Now, please look again, Mr. Topic.”
The picture zoomed out from her face, revealing more of her frame—face and neck; face, neck and shoulders; face, neck, shoulder and breasts…Until in the end her whole body was up there, magnified, all naked.
Her torso and legs all covered in strange symbols.
(“Do you like my tattoos, Tom?”
Her mischievous face looked at his staring eyes as she stepped out of her flowing dress.
“It has taken me years to complete them…”)
A strangled gasp escaped him.
“Something wrong, Mr. Topic?”
“Er…No, nothing. I don’t think so…”
What was that image? It had faded again. Was it ever really there?
He couldn’t remember. Now it was gone.
He shook his head, took off his glasses, fidgeted with them, and, having donned them again, looked back at the TV screen.
One of the man’s eyes squinted a little, wondering, but then he continued. “As you can see, there are no marks on her—other than these, well, these mysterious tattoos. Nothing to indicate that she has been murdered, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Topic?”
“Well, er…Sounds plausible, yes, sir. But I wouldn’t know. I’m just an accountant…”
A brief smile on the other side of the table.
“Ah, yes. I forgot. However, there are a few things that don’t add up—”
Away from Topic’s sight, the man typed on a keyboard and looked at whatever the monitor showed him.
“—First there is the obvious fact that no one from a true Cabale ever just dies. Normal people die all the time, sure, and very naturally, but members of Cabales don’t. If they die it is always under mysterious circumstances. That alone requires further investigation.
“Then there is the fact that those Miss Cortez has been in contact with over the last year have all died horrible deaths. All except you, of course. Makes one wonder, doesn’t it?”
Clearly a hypothetical question; Topic didn’t answer.
“Last, but most certainly not least, there is the matter of the tattoos.”
The screen zoomed in on her torso and moved up and down her body to showcase the actual symbols and drawings.
“There is one very odd aspect about them that demands further attention. One that the camera just doesn’t reveal. Something I suspect you already know.”
The eyes staring at him from the other side of the desk felt penetrating. A feeling of unease crept around Topic’s body.
Uncomfortable moments of silence followed, the only movement in the room the picture on the magnified screen as it surveyed the strange symbols on the body.
“There is only one way to prove to you what I say, Mr. Topic, and that is to show you exactly what the camera can’t show. Then you will understand why you can trust me and why there is something amiss.”
He stood up and walked to the wall, motioning Topic to come with him. As if in a trance the accountant followed. He trembled. Something was wrong; he could feel it in the air around them. Very wrong.
He held the coat closer.
An almost invisible motion from a hand, and the panels before them moved aside without a sound, revealing a starkly-lit room.
Squinting his eyes against the sharp light, Topic followed the man in the suit. In the middle of the white, otherwise empty room was a single hospital bed. Above it a state of the art camera, floating gently, moving back and forth over the body, recording the tattoos.
On the bed lay the nude body of the dead Mexican beauty.
The man turned around to look at him. “Now do you understand my trepidation, Mr. Topic?”
Swirling about her—strange, mystical symbols in layers of colors moving inside and outside each other—were yet more tattoos.
(“Huh? Did you say something?”
She looked up at him, a curious frown on her brow; her face an amazing map of beauty.
“Er…No…Just thought I saw something…The lights outside, I guess.” He waved at the blinking neon lights outside the hotel room’s windows, wanting her to continue what she was doing. He was quite drunk, he knew that, and the world had a way of tilting from time to time, but the sensations in his pelvis were very much present and steady.
She seemed to consider what he said for a few seconds, then shrugged. “Okay.”
Licking her lush lips, she returned down there.
For a second he had imagined he saw strange colors rippling above her scalp…Surely it was just some trick of the lights and liquors.
A low moan of pleasure escaped his lips. He raised his hips to meet her orchestrations once more…)
A hand steadied him.
“Are you all right, Mr. Topic?”
“Yes…I’m all right, thank you…Just…dizzy…”
Satisfied with that answer – at least for the moment – the man guided Topic closer to the body. They stopped only a few feet from the table. Mystical colors kept swirling lazily; some resembling drawings, some reminding Topic of letters or suchlike…
“You may be wondering why these…peculiar tattoos…do not show on the screen? The truth is, Mr. Topic, that we don’t know. We have theories, yes, but no solid evidence; no true knowledge. You see, we’ve actually never seen this before. If you’re a normal human being, you can’t. All we know for a fact is that they don’t show on any screen or recording device—and that they are a sort of magical field around her.
“We suspect that it’s some kind of warding magic. It has that—for lack of a better word—air about it.”
He looked at the accountant sweating heavily, his gaze more penetrating than ever.
“What do you think, Mr. Topic?”
“I…I…I don’t know…I…I really don’t know…I am just…just an accountant…”
The world swayed…The colors sped up their dance…So confusing…
(“What…?” At first sounding dazed, far away, as if his working of tongue between her legs hazed the comprehension faculties of her mind; then—“What did you just say?” then some realisation finally hitting home—“What did you just say?”
Her voice almost a scream now, she kicked and squirmed away from him, and in one quick motion she sat up against the wall, her eyes two dangerous slits. Confused, he bumped unceremoniously and naked to the cold floor.
He was about to say that he had no idea what she was talking about—that while tasting her, he had only spoken some words that inexplicably came to mind, caught in the heat of the sacred moment, nothing to get all upset about—when he looked up again, seeing her in all her sweating beauty—
A gasp escaped his lips and he almost reeled back, hands up front defensively. Around her he saw colors of the most fantastic creation: some of wonder and beauty, some of horror and reeking of foulness only suppressed by the other colors binding them. All of them marking words and meaning in his mind—all of them incomprehensible to his intellect trying to make sense of the scenery before him.)
His body moving as if of its own accord, approaching her dead body, her aura, and he wondered, as if in a dream…What happened then?…
Something about almost fighting, and almost losing the battle with her, when he somehow managed to…
Managed to what?
His brow furrowed in close concentration, probing the labyrinthine darkness of his own mind, he didn’t even register the question from the man right behind him asking if he was all right; didn’t register that sweat had broken out all over him…Managed to…managed to…
Managed to convince her. That was it! He had managed to convince her that he knew nothing about what she was talking about—nor anything about those odd colors constantly moving about her. For some reason she finally believed him, at least enough for peace to settle between them. That this…experience…had happened to him in that moment of closeness seemed to make some curious sense to her.
In the end she had accepted his excuse, his feeble explanation. And she hadn’t retracted again when he reached out to stroke her leg, to soothe her.
Lost in his thoughts, his eyes focused slits of concentration, he wasn’t aware that he was now standing very close to the dead body. The colors were twinkling and rippling. He reached out a hand—touching the floating signs—
The world expanded in the flash of a second.
With a roar numbing his mind the mystical tattoos crawled up his arm, tingling every inch of his skin. Crying out in pain, Topic felt a sensation like never before; a sensation very unlike, but whose only relative resemblance was, that of a serious skin burn. A skin burn advancing up his fingers, enveloping the hand, speeding up the arm—
The smell of burned flesh and searing, melting metal (my watch! he dimly noticed) in his nostrils, he was jerked back:
Tumbling dazed to the floor, his arm still flickering and wild tendrils reaching down for him, he stared wide-eyed and disbelieving at the almost lazy snaps of the colorful bonds around the dead woman’s body. As if someone was beginning to free himself…As if something was beginning to free itself…
A mumbling noise reached his ears, so low he hadn’t noticed it before. It sounded like some sort of…chanting…a chanting that emerged from the display before him, danced with it.
A mumbling noise that increased in volume and speed; the tendrils sang along—some in unison, some in crazy disharmony—all of them along with…with…
This knowledge almost knocked him flat.
A strong slap across his face, and he could hear again.
“For God’s sake, man—snap out of it! You’re releasing it!”
Before them, a grotesque form was taking shape above the table.
(She looked him squarely in the eye. So unbelievably beautiful, so unbelievably firm and commanding.
“Tom, I hope you realise that if it wasn’t for your natural skills I wouldn’t have asked you this favour. Not in a million years. But seeing what I saw—hearing what you told me—it would have been stupid of me not to.”
The first smile since their melee touched her lips. “You truly are a Quishar. A rare one.”
That she considered that…term…something special, something to be proud of, was evident. Despite a few feeble attempts to understand her brief explanations he hadn’t grasped what it meant. But a warm feeling of pride hammered in his chest. If she was proud of him, then he certainly was proud of himself.
Maybe it was the heavy drinking, but he already found it hard to remember much of what they had been doing the last couple of hours. Probably it was the heavy drinking. She had told him strange things, that much he dimly remembered; she had told him something about how she was more than a human—she was a kind of guardian. A guardian destined to walk the earth lonesome and ever alert.
Longing and sadness had draped her words with this revelation. He had wanted to hold her close, to comfort her. “In a minute,” she had said, a tear falling. “This is even more important. Please trust me.”
Of course he trusted her. He would die for her.
She and others walked the earth and, apparently, other planes of existence as well. His foggy mind had a hard time wrestling with the things she had said. So thin the veil of reality suddenly appeared to be. ‘Guardian’ was really too simple a term for what she was. It was her body that guarded…imprisoned…well, the Thing that it was holding. What more precisely she meant by this, she didn’t say, but “some of us are trying to protect the world from dark creatures that most people don’t even know exist, Tom. We do it with body and mind.”
Then there were her tattoos, more than mere tattoos, far more. In essence they were, she said, Ancient Scripts of Warding. The symbols of Power that helped lock the trapped creature inside her.
To normal human eyes and perceptions all that showed were weird engravings on her skin.
Obviously Tom Topic was no normal human. He had suddenly seen beyond the standard perceptions, and seen the tattoo-symbols swirling about her…more than that: had seen them in color, and had been able to decipher and read them. Something which was closely connected to being a ‘Quishar,’ it seemed.
“Most remarkable,” she whispered.
A shudder ran through him. Half in pride, half in horror.
Apparently he had an ability to see through the veil of common reality when in a highly emotional state, when he was excited and succumbed unconditionally to the feeling. Evidently, that was what he had been doing when engaging in their physical act.
She had stroked his hair, a gentle look on her face.
“I’d like you to do me a favour, Tom Topic. A big one.”
He smiled and bent forward to kiss her. The kiss had turned ravenous and passionate.
Then they engaged in a renewed physical act of connecting. And he had helped. With something he could no longer quite remember…But it had drained him immensely…)
A sharp pain singed through his left shoulder. A hiss from the scowling lips of the man tumbling ahead of him told Topic that he was not the only one landing awkwardly. Behind them weird lights swam about, and a screeching sound cut through the air. Shadows cast about like play dolls in a mad girl’s pantomime. It was gnawing and screeching its way to freedom.
The frantic horror of the man’s face next to him—and the pain—shook Topic back to the present reality.
“What—what—what…?” he managed to breathe.
“First we get the hell out of here!”
As the shadows moved forward, almost touching their backs, the two men lunged ahead. The man in the now ruffled suit pressed a button, and an opening appeared soundlessly before them.
A sudden gush of wind and colors burst behind them, forcing them onward at uncontrollable speed. They crashed into the opposite, panelled wall. Topic’s face hit it at an odd angle; he accidently bit his tongue and blood flooded his mouth with the taste of iron.
Topic heard the man’s hoarse cry of “Close!” Immediately a swooshing sound blocked out the high-pitched windy cries and odd colors. Tom began crawling around, feeling his way to and fro.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for my glasses. I can’t see anything without them.”
“Why don’t you use contact lenses?”
He paused his search, and looked up at the blurred man. “Because I hate poking fingers in my eyes.”
They exchanged nervous laughter. Then the man spotted the glasses, and handed them to Tom.
“What the hell were you doing in there?”
The accountant fumbled the glasses on, and wiping a tiny drop of blood away from his lips, he stood up against the wall.
“I honestly don’t know. I—”
A roar of thunder from the other side bumped against the wall where they had escaped. Cracks of darkness were spreading there. The screeching got louder.
“Can’t—can’t you do something about that? Aren’t you guys supposed to deal with this? It’s your office, right?”
“These rooms are normally quite safe. This is not supposed to happen, Mr. Topic.”
The man hurriedly looked around the room; the state-of-the-art TV still showed the beautiful, tattooed Mexican woman, as if nothing was happening in there. His glance continued, stopping at the wall behind Topic. His eyes widened.
“Get away! Now!” he gasped, pulling him away so roughly that Tom Topic tripped over his own feet, landing on the floor, almost losing his glasses again. He bit down on his tongue, sharp pain searing into his brain and eyes.
“Oh, no. We’re trapped.”
The barely controlled horror in the voice turned Topic’s attention back to the situation. Where he stood only seconds ago, tendrils of lazy, curling colors oozed from newly arrived dark cracks in the wall. The door to the corridor was webbed with these cracks, as were the rest of the walls. Looking up he saw that the ceiling was also shrouded in this cacaphonial madness. And the screeching cry from beyond was getting closer, and the entrance into the room where Salma Cortez lay was now breaking down with each crack’s march. It was coming.
A pained cursing from his companion in this dire room had Topic turn his gaze around. He had desperately tried to reach his desk, but now a hissing sound could be heard from there, and tiny electrical sparks from the shadowy wood clearly showed that no electrical installation worked properly any longer.
Holding his hand in the air, the man’s limb was now a sizzling blob of tissue and bones somehow connecting with the evilness around them in web-like strands.
Only the TV screen with the naked, dead woman seemed untouched by this unholy smearing of the world; the white room and her beauty a stark contrast to the darkness now permeating everything.
“For God’s sake, Topic—do something!”
He was bewildered. His heart throbbed in his chest, in his ears.
“What? Me? I’m just an acc—” Blood spilled from Topic’s mouth.
“You’re a fucking Quishar, for God’s sake!”
From the other room a final cry now roared above the darkness and broke into the office. Seeping in was an unthinkable Being. Topic couldn’t see it clearly, but he instinctually knew that somewhere, somehow, inside that insane and dancing shroud of colors, symbols, and swirling wards (that were close to evaporating for good now; he knew this!) a Creature of Darkness was feeling its way into this world—wanting to feed its way in; feed in ways unimaginable, ways never meant for this world.
As It descended upon the man standing before Topic, the accountant coughed another splash of blood and tried to wipe some of it off his coat…
(If ever you face such a dangerous situation, just remember to do that, okay?)
He blinked, confused, then looked at the coat, and then up at the pure screen displaying her in her dead purity. Oh God, she was beautiful.
The tendrils were now wrapped around the muffled and futile fight of the disappearing figure in the suit. An opening resembling a mouth of a thousand flickering electrical teeth, formed by incorporeal matter more foul than any hellish nightmare could conjure, came into existence. The last wards of light almost gone now—
(She stood in the doorway, gently handing him his coat.
“I will give you this final kiss, dear Tom, and then you won’t remember anymore.” A tear ran down her chin. “It’s for your own good, my dear.”
He donned the coat, smiling at her stupidly, and couldn’t say anything more clever than “Beautiful Salma,” after which she gave him that dazzling smile he knew he would always love.
“But should the worst happen—just remember that you’re wearing the answer, okay?”
And then she kissed him, as if their lives depended on it.
And when she closed the door, he had forgotten everything…)
A triumphant, chaotic screech filled his ears. In a rush he felt around his coat; outside, in every pocket. Nothing. Inside, in every pocket…Goddammit, how could there be so many tiny compartments inside a coat? Why—
A triumphant cry erupted from his red lips, and ignoring the pain from the throbbing tongue and the ear-shattering wailing of bleakness everywhere advancing on him, Tom Topic tore out a piece of parchment whereupon writhed strange, mystical symbols. Symbols written by her nails; symbols written in their mixed blood.
Symbols writhing to ward off the Evil that was within her. The Evil that she had trapped inside her, and which she willingly kept there to protect the world; an entrapment he had helped strengthen that mysterious, magical night. His passion had unleashed powers he never dreamed he possessed; and with passion and wisdom she had showed him a cosmos more amazing than he had ever imagined possible.
But now she was dead, and he had accidentally loosened the bonds ensuring the captivity of this nightmare Creature. He had been taught things, yes, but he was still untrained. It had only been one night, after all, a limited time to truly learn; he was still prone to suddenly becoming caught in his passions…And that could result in the most unfortunate of events—such as the release of this horror now almost sucking in both men (pain. Pain! PAIN!)—or—
Holding up the parchment, he read aloud. First mumbling incomprehensibly; then, as the symbols of the parchment and from his mouth reverberated with the now hesitating darkness, louder and with confidence. The weird colors began taking on meaning for him; he saw what were part of Its abhorrence, what were part of the Ward’s protective force, and what were natural elements to this world—and, he discovered with a secret shiver, the tiniest suggestions here and there of impossible colors naturally crossing this sphere of existence from and to other spheres.
For a moment the Thing and Topic stood still in the consumed office; wills, words and desecrated magic trapped in a barrier where time didn’t move, awaiting the outcome. Then the world began moving again, in slow motion; and as the Quishar’s blood merged with the words and the symbols with more force and conviction, the Thing retreated. It lashed out tentacles of dread and perversion, but Topic flicked them aside with a sureness that denied Its existence in the world. Soon he also managed to create a protective force around the other man—it was just a matter of combining mystical threads in the right way—who began breathing easier, his claw turning into a functional hand. Awe was in his eyes following the blinding signs and flashes of light around the Quishar, who backed It into the white room, screeches of denial echoing from its dark depths.
Like a priest fighting back the hordes of Hell, Tom Topic pressed on relentlessly, designing intricate sounds and mystical energies forcing the creature back into the body that was its prison: the dead body of the Mexican woman once known as Salma Cortez.
As the ground and walls shook with unbelievable violence in reaction to the powers at play, the passionately-focused Quishar shouted a final incantation; it tore through the bleached parchment and drove the unnameable horror back to its prison. All light and dark disappeared. The electrical light turned back on.
Then it was over. Just like that. Before him, in dreadful beauty, lay the woman he had only met once, with whom he had had an amazing night. And she wore those strange tattoos, but he couldn’t see any swirling symbols about her. It was just a dead body. Above, the camera hummed back to life, a neutral eye documenting every inch of cold flesh.
No cracks or tentacled evilness adorned the walls. Everything was as smooth as ever.
He felt drained, exhausted.
Behind him, the accountant heard thumping steps, and he quickly turned.
The man in the expensive grey suit was approaching, warily massaging his one hand, which looked fine now.
The world started spinning. Then Tom Topic fainted.
When he opened his eyes again, he looked up at the ceiling and was greeted by an antique chandelier that gave a friendly light to a large office, looking like it was taken straight out of an old English movie. He hurt. Instinctively looking at his watch, he saw it was twisted, that his wrist was scarred. He groaned; he remembered. As he sat up, he noted that everything was still in perfect order.
At the large, carved desk with a few neat piles of paper, sat the man whose name he still didn’t know. He had just put the phone down and pressed a key on the computer, the oversized flatscreen TV on the wall behind him dark now.
“Ah. You’re back. Good.” He paused, contemplating his next words. “I cannot thank you enough, Mr. Topic. You saved my life. And, strange as it seems, it is clear you really didn’t knew what was going on until that final moment.” He stood and thoughtfully walked to the accountant, absentmindedly massaging his hand. “I appreciate that. I really do. You didn’t lie. You didn’t try to play games with us.”
With a brief nod to the wall that hid the white room, he continued, “I am no expert on how Symboligicians are supposed to behave when they work their…magic…but what I witnessed was clearly an untrained man pulling every strength of intuitive power he had to fight a being he didn’t comprehend.” He sighed, a small smile gracing his serious face. “Luckily for us, Mr. Topic, it worked. Thank you.”
“Heh. That’s a humble stance if ever there was one. A rare trait in a Quishar.
“Now, I can’t promise that we’re done with you—in fact, I can say for certain that we are not—but I have arranged that, for now, we will leave you alone.” He looked solemnly at Tom Topic. “Consider it my gift of thanks. A very sincere gift, I can assure you.”
Before the accountant could utter his fumbling thanks, a hand was presented. “Now, let me help you out of here. Two of the officers you have already met are waiting outside. They will take you home. They don’t know exactly what has transpired within these walls. And they don’t want to.”
He helped Topic stand. Topic still felt rather exhausted, and his legs had to readjust to his weight before he could walk. Before opening the door, they looked at each other. Respect and silent gratitude resonated in their eyes. They shook hands.
“Oh, and don’t worry. We have taken steps to ensure that your wife won’t begrudge your absence too much.”
With this cryptic salute he opened the door, where the two stout officers were waiting.
They silently followed Topic out of the corridor with the blinking light bulb, and as they ascended the stairs, the officers readily helped him up each step. Only when they finally returned to the surface and the outside did his gait resume something like his normal walk.
The police car entered the suburban street in silence. The sun was well on its way down behind the horizon; the world was graced with its red-orange wonder.
Tom Topic was quiet on the ride home. Everything had been like a surreal dream. Now his eyes focused on his surroundings more clearly. Much to his chagrin, though, he saw that in every house on the street curious neighbors were looking out. So much for returning in secrecy. He sighed.
When the car stopped in their driveway, the house’s front door opened and the silhouette of Anna appeared. Seconds later she ran to meet her husband, who nervously nodded his thanks to the broad officer helping him out the car.
“Tom! Oh, Tom! You’re home again!”
She had tried to wipe away the worst of the smearing, but he could see that she had been crying. She hugged him and bestowed him with kisses. “Why didn’t you leave a note, Tom? I’ve been so worried. So worried.”
“Well, I…” he started, embarrassed by all this attention and show of affection.
“What’s that with your glasses, dear?” She took them off and gave them a closer look. There was a small crack in one of the lenses.
“Oh.” He quickly took them out of her hands and placed them back on. “I accidentally dropped them, that’s all. Gonna have them fixed first thing in the morning.”
She smiled at him with relief on her face. A warm feeling washed over him.
“Oh, if it wasn’t for the news I wouldn’t have known what was going on. Why didn’t you tell me, Tom?”
He stopped short.
The officer broke in. “Yes, once again I will extend the City’s thanks for your invaluable help, Mr. Topic.”
“Er…Thanks. I guess,” Tom mumbled, the confusion on his face only hidden because of his wife’s renewed kissing attack.
The officer saluted him, and soon after the car drove away.
“Oh, Tom. To think that you helped put a dangerous criminal behind bars. And to think that no one but you could help them. A modern gangster boss, they said. And now, thanks to your financial expertise, they busted him, putting him behind bars for good!”
Anna beamed with pride, taking in all the not-so-secret onlookers.
“Well, er…As you know, Anna, I am just an accountant, and…”
The sun set as they walked up the driveway. Soon, twilight was gone too.
Henrik Sandbeck Harksen’s short publication list: “Metaphysics in ‘The Music of Erich Zann'” (Lovecraft Studies 45, Spring 2005), “A Spectre Is Haunting Chicago: The Lovecraft-Leiberian Connection” (Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays, 2008), “Some Thoughts on The Ninth Configuration” (American Exorcist: Critical Essays on William Peter Blatty, 2008). One Lovecraftian short story, “The Bibliophile” (Eldritch Horrors: Dark Tales, 2008, an anthology published through his own small press, H. Harksen Productions). He is a member of the Lovecraft APA, The Esoteric Order of Dagon Amateur Press Association, under the “leadership” of S. T. Joshi. His blog is updated on a weekly basis: http://hharksenproductions.wordpress.com/
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Illustration by Mike Dominic.