This week, Kaysee Renee Robichaud returns to the macabre world of magical tome collection in the newest volume in her Bookworm Brigade series: PAGE TURNER. Today, she will talk to us about how her love for cheesy dark fantasy/horror programming from the eighties made her into the writer she is today.
Take it away, Kaysee Renee!
I never viewed myself as a horror writer. Sure, I sometimes write about horrible things happening to decent people , but I also write goofy, gooey love and sassy erotica. I write mopey slices of life, historical incidents, and sexy science fiction. And I guess, sure, I have written and will continue to write that kind of horror some folks refer to as dark fantasy and others as dark suspense but a lot of folks shelve alongside the Kathryn Ptaceks and the Jessica Amanda Salmonsons and maybe (if I’m lucky) the Melanie Tems. I have a collection of saucy, scary stories and two novels in the Bookworm Brigade, which can be called dark fantasy or urban fantasy or horror, I suppose. Genre labels are pretty fluid where I come from. A fun story is a fun story whether it’s a Joyce Carol Oates gothic or a Poppy Z. Brite tale of cooks in New Orleans or Shirley Jackson’s ghostly tale of two sisters who have always lived in that there castle.
The Bookworm Brigade started out as a dark fantasy series, offering a more bent take on Lovecraft’s tomes than that old gent from Providence would have been interested in writing. I wanted to do something like what Sarah Monette did with THE BONE KEY (available as paperback/eBook), a wonderful collection of antiquarian style tales of dark fantasy that did wonderful things with and to the sorts of fiction Lovecraft and Poe wrote once upon a time . . . A girlfriend of mine shoved a copy into my eager hands some years back, and I was lost for a spell. Or was I darkly enchanted? The descriptive lines for personal excitement, like those of genre, blur.
I can point to the sorts of things I was inspired by to work on these books. Lovecraftiana and the criminally ignored flick The Ninth Gate as well as its novelistic source material THE CLUB DUMAS by Arturo Perez-Reverte.
However, there’s a wholly unexpected thing that I have to acknowledge, and that would be the Saturday night shows I watched with my folks when I was wee. Later, I would get a life apart from the fam and be out and about with my besties, doing stupid things and staying up late and watching goofy movies, but my mom was my introduction to horror. She and my dad would watch all kinds of macabre things, and I can recall bits and snippets from the old NIGHT GALLERY show as well as listening to audiotape recordings of CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER. But the Saturday night pantheon of shows was my first real embracing of the dark and the fantastic.
The pantheon consisted of a trio: MONSTERS, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, and FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES (the last of which had the way cooler name of FRIDAY’S CURSE in the UK). The first two were anthology shows about folks facing off against folks in crazy makeup and rubber suits or weird tales that blurred the real world with (cue spooky voice) “A Dark Siiiiiiide” (respectively), while the third show was a more traditional series about a pair of naïve cousins and their old wizard mentor tracking down cursed artifacts before either the world ended or lots and lots of people bit the big one. I can still clearly recall watching those shows from underneath a blanket fort, huddled and shivering. They seem quaint now, and I’m sure they were viewed as not great at the time by aficionados of scary stories, but they came into my life when I was the right age to appreciate them. A phone ringing in an empty, neighboring apartment accompanied by sounds of someone or something moving over there (thunk, thunk, thunk!). A sick girl whose life hangs in the balance of a greedy fever man who uses mystic “fever crystals” to pull disease into an earthly form and then whoop its butt. And Micki Foster (played by the wonderful Louise Robey) finding herself in trouble up to her neck while dealing with a cursed mirror . . . or a cursed radio . . . or a pretty much unmentioned boyfriend who shows up in season three to replace her cousin . . .
I still have fond recollections of being twelve or thirteen years old and freaked out in wonderful ways but unable to look away. Some of the anthology stories got me looking for the source material, introducing me to Robert Bloch, Dan Simmons, and Harlan Ellison. Others got me seeking out directors. Others got me fantasizing about my own spins on the stories. Changing up the events and thinking about dramatic possibilities.
Some of those fantasies have ended up in the backbone of my stories, including the Bookworm Brigade, as well as yet unreleased works set in a similar (possibly the same) universe. Some of them have percolated and grown in strange, unexpected ways. I was a reading machine as a kid, and then I became a watching machine. These days, I’m back to more reading than watching, but I cannot forget the things that helped shape me into the creative person I am these days. I don’t write Art with a capital-A. I write to entertain. Proust I am not. Nor am I Joyce Carol Oates. Nor am I Shirley Jackson. Kaysee Renee Robichaud is all I am, and if I maybe get someone huddled in a blanket nest shivering and smiling all the while as they turn pages following the darkly fantastic and maybe kinda horrory things I write? Well, more’s the better. Paying things forward is the way to go, they say.
So, as we are cued up for the time of Jack O’Lanterns and kids in costume, as we approach the night when the veil between the living and dead worlds thin to allow folks from either side to cross over, let’s take a moment to remember the first time we allowed ourselves to be scared. The first time we took agency in chasing down the spooky and perhaps silly. For those of you with similar recollection, recite the opening credits monologue of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE with me: “Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality. BUT! There is unseen by most an underworld just as real . . . but not as brightly lit. A DARKSIIIIIIIIDE!”
Happy Halloween, everyone!
Excerpt from PAGE TURNER: A BOOKWORM BRIGADE SUPERNATURAL THRILLER, ©2018 by Kaysee Renee Robichaud.
One: A Ripe Find in the Rare Room
Parnik Venkateswaran yanked hard on the door to Maureen’s Broken Spines: Used and Rare Book Shop. The spring on that door required an unreasonable amount of force to get started and with her hands almost numbed by the April evening’s chilly weather, the task took on a Herculean effort. In the glass door’s reflection, she saw a bundled up woman with southern Indian heritage, dark hair peeking out of a knitted winter cap and curled around her cheek or plastered upon her forehead with the sweat of walking from the T-stop, and haunted eyes. As that reflection gritted her teeth, the Herculean effort was rewarded by a soft scrape of door against jamb, a digital tone ringing in the shop that almost sounded like the opening chimes of “Carol of the Bells,” and a puff of warmth to battle that early Spring chill plaguing the Cambridge streets.
The place was cozy, a bookstore whose wares had managed to sprawl to best effect, filling every inch of the fourteen hundred square feet with the smells of old paper, hardcovers that demanded removal and perusal, and paperbacks that promised unknown pleasures from forgotten golden, silver, and bronze ages of storytelling. Along the lowest shelves, numerous white boxes held old magazines in a haphazard arrangement, the lush-sized Life squeezed between dog-eared copies of Spicy Romantic Stories beside a box dedicated to a host of golden spine National Geographic magazines.
To the left of the door waited the cashier stand manned by a tired looking woman who had been left in the sun sipping Mai Tais too long, personal histories locked inside a head whose brunette hair was almost completely gone to yellow-gray and whose skin was given over to wrinkled leather. She overflowed her stool like an ice cream cone held by a chatterbox who had forgotten about meltage. She glanced up when the chime sounded, and her dour Yankee expression turned to something more welcoming. “Venkat,” she said, relief flavoring her words, “You’ll be looking for Maureen. She’s in back.”
“Thank you Tricia,” Venkat said and maneuvered between the stacks and shelves, passing hundreds of preening volumes and provocative titles, willing herself to remain focused on the far end of the shop’s main floor. Past the romances and the histories, past the biographies and kitchen magic works stood a blue door bearing the sign RARE ROOM, KNOCK FOR ADMITTANCE.
Venkat knocked twice. From within, a soft “One moment,” followed by the clicking of a deadbolt being thrown and then the door opened. Though Venkat had known Maureen Blessing for almost five years, the version on the other side was almost a stranger. Lack of sleep had taken a toll, giving her normally warm honey complexion an unnatural paleness, giving her green eyes some heavy baggage, and her strong shoulders a broken slump. When she registered Venkat’s identity, she perked up fast. Her shoulders rising, her thin lips moving into a hint of a smile. “Thank goodness you’re here,” Maureen said. “It’s been a hellacious three days. Where have you been?”
Venkat did not say The hospital. She did not offer a begrudging Recovering from the betrayal of a partner. Neither did she admit Convalescing from a brush with an otherworldly creature, nor did she confess On a book recovery expedition for a century old secret society dedicated to removing dangerous texts from public and private possession. Instead, she said, “Work sent me south for the last week or so. I only just got your message.”
“Come in, come in. Thank goodness. It’s been all I can do to keep this under wraps. To keep things quiet.”
The Rare Room offered one of those safe places so seldom found in a bustling metropolis. A place of glass doors and cherished old volumes with perhaps outrageous sticker prices. A pair of chairs and a table waited back here for those customers interested in perusing a particular investment before setting down the required cash or personal check outlay. A long time shop patron, Venkat often asked to sit back here on those days when she felt out of equilibrium. So long as there was no customer studying a work, she was granted license to do just that. Fifteen minutes in the right location was better for meditation and restoring balance than a thousand grams of chocolate.
This afternoon, when Venkat entered the Rare Room, she caught a whiff of something unsettling. This had little to do with the smell of old paper, of aged texts. It was a moldy kind of humor, an acidic mess that caused her to wrinkle her nose almost at once. A headache followed after.
Maureen closed the door behind her, carrying on with her story: “I thought an estate sale would be perfect–well, not an estate sale really. More an estate appraisal, I mean he’s only just died and his family is trying to understand the value of his belongings. Benedict Braise was a recluse and a known collector, so when I happened upon a locked trunk in his rear library, I was almost ecstatic. It was the very trunk I had seen him store his Guttenberg edition of Traviolota. I figured there might be plenty of good stuff in, even though his good for nothing sister and her less useful son couldn’t find the key. That’s what locksmiths are for, right? I offered a hundred on the spot, and the skinflints scooped it up, so I had it delivered here. But the damned book trunk wasn’t back here for even a full day before it started . . . started . . .”
“Making that stink?” Venkat suggested.
The shop owner’s face pinched with confusion. “Stink? No. Talking,” Maureen replied. “It has been talking. Not right out loud, though. I know what that look means, and I know how that sounds. It’s been talking in my head. And I know how that sounds, too. But Tricia’s heard it, as well. It uses words and pictures and . . . and what pictures.” She blanched. “I know you’re into those occult books. You buy them up and I know you ask me to keep an eye out for anything . . . unusual. Well.” She turned from Venkat and offered a sweep of her hand to indicate a trunk sitting in the midst of the floor’s multiweave rug, an interconnected series of rings and loops in mostly lavender.
If smell was the first impression, sight offered nothing better.
The container was four feet long half as deep and not quite three feet tall. The wood used in its construction bulged oddly, the grains given odd whorls and incongruities that smacked of heavy water or heat damage endured in halcyon days. Iron bands held those boards in place, and a pair of rusty clasps featured gaping keyholes designed for some gaudy dagger blade sized skeleton key.
“It’s quite an ugly thing,” Venkat said. “But I—”
Maureen muttered something, and Venkat turned away from the chest to look at her. “I’m sorry?”
“For what?” Maureen asked. “It is ugly. The contents were of more interest to me.”
“Didn’t you just say something? I’m afraid I missed most of it.”
Maureen’s lips tightened in a fragile grimace. “That would be the box,” she said. “What I was saying.”
“Oh, I see.” Venkat stopped talking, listening for the sound.
In mere seconds she caught a hint of it again. There was no intermittence to it. This whispering, mumbling, muttering was an ongoing phenomenon, almost distinguishable as individual words–similar to the game children played when they would whisper the phrase peas-and-carrots to one another endlessly to annoy adults.
A talking chest? How fabulous and disturbing. Although Disney’s features and the animated films that followed them posited inanimate object speaking as a thing of joy, in fact they were objects of deepest darkest terror. There was a border of normality that such a phenomenon transgressed. Even more maddening was the proximity to understandability. As though, she should listen a little more closely, she might penetrate the unknown and make sense of the thing.
“Go closer,” Maureen said. “Three steps should do. Closer and you’ll start to get the images.”
“This is close enough, I think.”
The olfactory clues spoke volumes here. She did not want to get close to it. Did not want to touch it. Did not want to have her mind touched in turn by it. Or whatever lurked inside or around the thing.
“Tell me about the owner,” Venkat said. “His name was Benedict something?”
“Braise. Died just recently. Some kind of terrible accident. Found his way into a fireplace or something. Probably drunk, poor old fellow.”
“And he was a book collector?”
“He was. A fine collection. Walls and walls of great little volumes as well as a temperature controlled space in his upstairs attic. Where most men might keep cigars, he kept prized volumes from around the world. Many of which I am unfamiliar with. Some of which you might like.”
“Spells and superstitions and such,” Maureen said.
“Tell me more about him,” Venkat asked.
“Not much to tell, I’m afraid. More money than sense, more loneliness than he knew how to handle too, I suppose. He’s gone and his estate will be ending up on the auction block when everything is appraised.” Maureen paused to consider Venkat with a smirking appraisal. “I wouldn’t hold out too much hope for it happening any time this month. Or next. Even quick cash hungry family like his surviving relatives won’t be seeing any kind of forward motion until May. Possibly June.”
“I see.” Venkat produced her tablet from its red canvas protective sleeve, activated it and typed his name into a note for later reference.
“Well, is this trunk something you’re interested in?” Maureen asked. “I mean, something like this . . . it’s too weird for the world, wouldn’t you say?”
Weird, without doubt. Fascinating, unequivocally. Terrifying, absolutely. “I’d say so.”
The Malleus Librum Society was in the business of removing dangerous books first and foremost. They might be able to do something with this, too. It held books, after all. One of the responsibilities she had as a Field Page, the cutesy name for field agents, was to monitor for items of Society interest and to report them.
“If you want it, I’ll let you have it, contents and all for one hundred. The price I paid.”
When Venkat got a little more experience under her belt, she might be fine with making a decision of this sort on her own. However, having participated in two field actions, she still felt too new to take an authoritative stance on her own. “I will need to make a phone call.”
Suspicion brought a squint to Maureen’s eyes. “Local or long distance?”
“Just tell Tricia,” Maureen said.
Venkat did not bother to ask if Maureen would be leaving the room. Did not ask when the last time the woman had left the trunk alone was. She suspected the answer would be shocking.
She hurried through the door and to the counter. A young woman with a prominent chin, a third trimester belly, and a pair of spidery framed spectacles was looking for correct change in the bottom of her slim purse. Tricia held a copy of an urban fantasy novel whose cover featured a hot little number wreathed by a spiraling dragon shape both writhing to the title Spellbent as though it were a lost Beatles number.
“I need the phone for a local call,” Venkat said, and Tricia nodded to it. Venkat slipped behind the counter as the urban fantasy reader found the nickel and three pennies she needed, and dialed a number she had memorized.
Marquis Trial answered on the second ring. “Hello?”
“It’s Venkat. I need you to come take a look at something.”
“Where’s your cell?”
“Foolishly down to 5% power. All the plugs were taken on the T.”
“Tell me where you are,” Marquis replied. “I’ll be right there.”
Marquis Trial had served as partner and mentor on Venkat’s first job, seeking out a moldering old tome held in the secret library of a publically known and cherished philanthropist. Recovering that book had led to brushes with supernatural danger, resulting in Marquis being sent to hospital for a lengthy recovery. He got out in time to visit her during her own hospital stay after the deadly denouement of her second venture. Also, he was the father of the child she carried, a child she had only found out about after waking up from the comatose slumber her second field action had left her in.
They had been lovers, but were not in love. She still had not yet quite figured out the best course of action for the thing growing inside her. Its creation had come about during a time of. . . complications. The idea of talking to Marquis about it, broaching the subject, left her mute and shaking. She had not yet told anyone. Had yet to treat it seriously, in fact. The deadline for decision making was on a fast approach, however.
She mulled over this train of thought like an insurance investigator at a suspected murder scene. With detachment. Trying to undermine the illusory surface and see the truth just below, as though this might speed her toward an answer.
Marquis arrived at Maureen’s Broken Spines within twenty minutes of her call. She was secretly happy to have his presence as a distraction.
The middle aged black man was unassuming looking. A wiry, athletic fellow in a stylish blue winter coat, a matching mohair scarf, and a pair of stylish black slacks. His winter boots wore a patina of mud and salt. Tricia demanded the backpack on his shoulder as soon as he entered to the digital tones, and when he grudgingly foisted it over, she slid it behind the front counter and handed him a round wooden chit with a comically large 5¢ on one side and a smiley face on the other. “What is this?”
“The wooden nickel for your possessions,” Tricia reported without a wink.
“Cute,” he said. To Venkat he said, “Now show me this . . . this object of interest.”
She led him to the Rare Room and knocked. Maureen opened, waved them both in and closed the door behind them.
“Hell of an odor,” Marquis said even before the latch had clicked shut and the lock was thrown. “You have a nose of steel to stay here with it.”
“I must be used to it,” Maureen replied. “I don’t smell anything.”
Marquis exchanged a knowing glance with Venkat and then said, “So the box talks, huh?”
“If you listen,” Venkat said. “You’ll hear something like talking.”
“And if you get closer, you’ll see—”
Marquis walked right up to the trunk. Unafraid. He crouched down and studied the latches, the boards. He actually reached out and touched it. “Not getting picture talk or audio talk,” he said. “But there’s something seriously screwy in there.” Without glancing back over his shoulder, he said, “You mind if I break it open?”
“Please don’t,” Maureen whispered. “I don’t want it . . . spoiling anything. Not in here. Venkat, is this something you’re interested in? One hundred dollars. I make no money, lose no money, and you can take fire axes to it if you want.”
“What do you say, Marquis? Can . . . can we acquire it?” She did not ask, Should we?
“A hundred bucks for this?” Marquis asked. “A steal at twice the price, I’d say.” He produced a Ben Franklin from his pocket and waved it. “We’ll take it, right now.”
Maureen snaked forward and caught the offered bill. “I can hold on to it while you get a truck or something.”
“No need,” he said, reaching forward and lifting the edge closest to him off the floor. “It looks heavier than it is. You have a back door in this place?”
“I’ll show you,” Maureen said.
“Thank you, Maureen.”
“No, Venkat. Thank you.”
Two: Echoes and Speculation
Marquis set the trunk on the sidewalk and dragged his palm along his neck to wipe away the sweat. He muttered “I hope this isn’t a grave echo.”
“I also hope it isn’t,” Venkat agreed, while she frantically wracked her memory for mention of such a thing. Unfortunately, her time spent in the Society’s Acquisitions and Cataloging departments were no help. In the mental catalog page under the term Grave Echo, she found only blank space. “Pardon me, Marquis. What is that thing you mentioned?”
“A grave echo?”
“It’s sort of an emotional time bomb. They usually come about from a bad death. Or several, depending.” He shuddered and rubbed his hands together. “I ran into one about ten years back. Hell, maybe it was closer to fifteen now. When did I get so old?” He chuckled, but Venkat saw this for the cover it was. It did little to hide the shivers beneath. “You got time for a story?”
“You have the app,” she said.
“Duh.” He glanced down. “Ten minutes out. Plenty of time. So there I was, ended up in California as you do. Started out, oh it must’ve been Topeka. That sounds about right. I was green as all hell. One mission under my belt, and thinking I knew everything under the sun. Until I found out about the tatami mat. Do you know what those are? Tatami?”
“Japanese, right? The woven mats for kneeling on.”
“That’s exactly right. A woven mat for kneeling on. But this one had been used for forced seppuku, and more than blood had leaked into it. There was a real class act, a white dude Japanophile name of Wiesenberger. Jerry Wiesenberger. He was a youth counselor, believe it or not. A real sicko who had a knack for coercing homeless teens, mostly Asian boys, into coming home with him. When they did, he would run them down some serious dark places. You know that dude from The Devil in the White City?”
The cars whizzed by, kicking up cold water onto the sidewalk, splashing alongside the trunk. “I didn’t read that book.”
“Probably for the best. A real nail biter, that one. Anyway, one of the big storylines in that book is about a guy called H. H. Holmes. He had what was dubbed a murder castle in Chicago. Spoiler: he kills folks almost in plain sight of the citizens, and somehow he got away with it. Vat to dissolve bodies, painful yet hidden spike traps . . . I can see that I should be skipping ahead. Anyway, he killed a lot of lot of people. This guy Wiesenberger was sort of similar.”
“He could cast spells?”
“Nah,” Marquis said, “the mat convinced people. Or whatever forces were tied to the mat forced people to take actions. It was haunted, I suppose you could say. And for whatever reason it was thirsty for more blood and pain. You’d think something made from horror might seek purification or peace, but not in this case. Whatever was there held grudges. If you knelt on it, it kind of sort of got in your head. If you were in a bad place already, you’d gouge yourself dead if you had to. And this Wiesenberger would watch them, smiling like some Punch and Judy dolls.”
“Anyway, I didn’t know what the thing was, but that was what I got from my contact, a spiritualist and anthropologist who was working out of UCLA, originally from Tokyo. Nakama-san called it something that translated into a Grudge Impression. Then again, he was big into the J-horror boom so maybe he was feeding me a line from one of those movies.” Marquis chuckled again, and this was a bit warmer than before. “Anyway, a grave echo is what’s left after a horrible crime. In the movies, it’s centered on a house because haunted houses are fun to film.” Before she could protest that they weren’t fun to watch, he kept going. “In reality though, anything can pick up an echo. A glass. A piece of furniture. A tatami mat. The echo keeps running, and if you get too close. If you touch it too long. If you don’t keep your armor up, it will . . . it can work its way on you.”
“Do grave echoes always k-kill?”
“Not always,” he said. “The one I saw did. But I suppose a trapped feeling can do lots of things. Echo chamber it out, and it can kill. It can incite unusual behavior. It can . . . Well, lots of things.”
“To anyone who touched it or got too near?”
“Then Maureen . . .? And Tricia? Ohmygod.”
Marquis said nothing but the press of his lips spoke volumes.
The worry for her friends was suddenly compounded by still another chilling idea: had they been making these grave echoes all along? By getting involved in the Society’s dangerous activities, might the Field Pages also be starting emotional echoes that would have dangerous repercussions over time? “Ohmygod,” Venkat repeated, this time in a hushed whisper.
“Which is why I hope it’s not a grave echo,” Marquis said, indicating the box. “Or any kind of haunt. I don’t know the first thing to do about spectral presences other than leave them the hell alone.” He glanced down at his mobile, and said, “Well that killed five minutes. I hope the Uber’s not stuck at a light.”
Venkat had first suggested a taxi, but Marquis said Uber was the way to go. “You can request a car size,” he said. “We can get something with a big trunk.”
“I’ve heard bad things about Uber. Don’t people get assaulted in those things?”
“They can,” Marquis said. “The folks who drive them are human. And as we all know, human beings have a small percentage of members that are capable of perpetrating the worst kinds of deeds upon one another. But I have to believe the percentage is small. Besides, there are two of us and we are not careless fools who walk into dangerous situations unawares.”
“Don’t we?” A bitter cold breeze swept around them, whistling along on its busy, busy way. Venkat tugged her soft gloves on and still rubbed her hands together.
Marquis asked, “You about ready for winter to piss off? Me, too. It overstays its welcome. At least there’s no snow on the ground. No ice. The thaw we had while you were in the hospital was a tease, but it took away a couple of winter’s worst aspects.”
“When I was in Louisiana, the trees were green. The flowers blooming. It was very strange after having gotten used to this place.”
“What about India?”
“What about it?”
“Aren’t things green and blooming there all the time?”
She bobbled her head side to side, granting him his point. “But I have not seen it since I was little.”
“You’re not that big now,” he teased.
She rolled her eyes and gave him a pained chuckle. “You and your sense of humor.”
He glanced at his mobile and grinned. “It passes the time. Our ride is just about here.”
When the lime green pickup truck–a sporty model, sized more appropriately to maneuver the often narrow and oddly laid out Boston streets than the models Venkat had seen down south–a deeper chill than any April breeze settled in her gut.
The trip down south had ended so badly, and it had ended with a vehicle like this. Charlotte’s contact “Hari” had been driving a sporty little truck. Actually, Harriet Snyder had been driving a truck with an extended cab. Nothing sporty about it other than the shocking yellow paintjob that screamed NASCAR fan. Seeing this truck made the betrayal all the more fresh. Made the shame resurface.
“You ok, V?” Marquis wore an expression of concern masked beneath a calm facade.
Venkat blinked in confusion for a moment, and then realized Marquis had not spoken some strange code consisting of only letters–what was UOKV supposed to stand for?–but had asked after her state of mind. “I . . .” She shook her head to clear out the cobwebs.
The truck tooted its horn as it pulled to the curb alongside them. Not some pert little white girl behind the wheel, this was a round faced and rounder gut fellow with gray goatee and a brown toupee, worn but comfortable looking cargo pants straining around a posterior inflated by one too many trips to Dunkin, a matched set of burgundy coat and knit cap. He offered a typically gruff Bostonian greeting of Heya, as he faced down death by getting out of his truck and helping load the box into his truck bed. “I’ve got straps,” he admitted once it was in place. “I’ll let you tie ‘er down, if you don’t mind. Suddenly getting a migraine.”
“No problem,” Marquis said. “Can we all fit in your cab.”
“I’m big, you’re medium, she’s tiny. No sweat.” The driver introduced himself as Chilly, which might have been Charlie, and read an address off a printout. Once Marquis was satisfied with the secured trunk, the driver offered him a clipboard and the slender Page signed the document without reading too closely. “You people picked a good time to go,” Chilly Charlie said, “traffic’s gonna turn into a bitch in about two hours.”
“Luck is on our side,” Marquis said.
“At least today,” Venkat added.
“Let’s get out of this cold,” the driver replied, making an effort not to look too closely at their box. “My heater’s running nice and hot.”
Venkat sat next to the door, her elbow jammed up against the window crank. Marquis sprawled in the middle of the bench seat, and Chilly Charlie kept both hands on the wheel while he chattered on about the upcoming Sox and Pats seasons. With lights, it took the man twenty minutes to get them to their destination, a non-descript warehouse in sighting distance of the filthy Charles River.
All along the drive, Venkat could sense that trunk behind them. Marquis had fastened it down using the furthest tether points and the box was subsequently as far from the cab as possible, resting snug against the tailgate. Chilly Charlie had said nothing to dissuade his passengers, and Venkat wondered if this was a case of the customer was always right, of the mounting headache, or of an instinctive wariness to the box and its strangeness.
Chilly Charlie helped unload the trunk, and then offered them a “Good day,” before dry swallowing a couple of ibuprofen he kept in a pill bottle on his keychain and rejoining the traffic.”
“What is this place?”
“A Society repository,” Marquis said. “You want to get the door?” He rattled off six digits, and then hefted the trunk, nestling it beneath the crook of one arm like he was carrying a violin case instead of a several foot long, awkwardly wide trunk. It teeter tottered in his hands, but he seemed unperturbed.
On the wall beside a weathered steel door, Venkat lifted the gray plastic lid and found a keypad for entry. The ten single-digit buttons and two special characters (pound sign and star) were illuminated from within, gleaming a dull red in the overcast afternoon, while the enter button below glowed a friendly green.
She punched in the digits, asked, “Do I need to key Pound after?” and was told to just punch enter. A loud clatter of locks disengaging greeted this, and then she took hold of the vertical bar serving as the door’s handle and gave it a tug. Expecting a spring to make the one on Maureen’s Broken Spines seem greased, Venkat soon learned her mistake. As heavy as the door was, it opened easily on a dark room. The building, she realized, had no windows.
She fished around for the light switch, found it at just below sternum level on the right side wall just inside the door and flicked it on. Track lighting buzzed to life revealing an office space. Round luncheon table, plastic chairs, desk off to the left hand side, a ratty looking couch on the right. Doorways leading deeper.
Venkat held the door for her partner, and then Marquis grunted as he hefted his burden inside. He set it down in the middle of the entry room floor, just a foot or so away from the round table. Venkat pulled the door shut, and Marquis said, “Damn this place is cold,” before heading off in search of a thermostat.
Venkat walked over to stand before the trunk. The frantic sounds that Maureen believed to be voices and which she remained unsure grew increasingly frantic as she approached. The promised images, however. Pictures or video flashing inside the mind. That never . . . materialized was the wrong word. Happened with a serviceable one. I wonder what you saw, she thought. This curiosity would not have immediate satisfaction, however. Maureen was now miles away. Twenty minutes in fair traffic.
From some subterranean section, machinery growled as it started up. The vents’ stench told her this unit had been unused for some time. Didn’t the building’s owners care about frozen pipes?
When she was in her first apartment out of college, Venkat had woken on the frigid Saturday morning following a bad Friday night’s freeze to find water cascading down the outer wall in her bathroom and nothing coming from the sink or shower. A pipe in the attic, wrapped in rat- or bird- or squirrel-chewed black insulation, had burst because no one bothered to mention to a newly out-in-the-world college grad that hot water taps needed to drip as well as cold water. Valuable life lesson, that. She had been without water until the landlord could get a plumber out, and had sat around all day feeling scummy and cold–just like the pipes, the windows were brand new but the walls were about as useful against a breeze as cheesecloth.
Marquis returned as the vent’s sour, settled stink eased off to something less obnoxious. He rubbed his hands together like a musician about to kick off the show to end all shows.
“First, I want you to walk with me. I’ll show you the place.” When he had led her into the next room over–an office space of some sort with filing cabinets lining two walls and a barren desk resting between–he closed the door to that initial area, led her to the door across the room and leaned close to whisper, “Personal quiz time.”
Venkat stared at the door, a slab of unstained balsa wood with a cheap brass knob. “Why did you close the door?”
“So whatever’s in that box doesn’t hear us,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “That book you read on our first time out together?”
“I didn’t really read it. I skimmed it.”
“The book you read on our first time out together?”
De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludwig Prinn. One of those terrible repositories of ancient lore and blasphemous knowledge that the Malleus Librum Society was dedicated to removing from the world. The sorcery and grim wisdom it contained could wreak unknowable harm upon the world if used by ill will or accident. The book had been in the hands of a madman who played philanthropist during his daylight activities; in reality, he aided the Shadowshow, a group of mysterious individuals who were tasked or had taken upon themselves the task to bring darkness to the world. The reasons for doing so were unknowable and individually motivated, power for some, the culmination of a lunatic legacy for others, whim for the most depraved . . . those who tied themselves to the Shadowshow had all the rationales they wanted, but ultimately they were the reasons of broken men and women. Inhuman.
“What about it?” Venkat asked. “Sorry if that sounded defensive.”
“No worries,” he said. “Whatever is tied to that box of yours is giving you plenty of reasons to be defensive, which is a good sign. You’ve had two field operations, and this is your first personal find. What I want to know is: what did you retain from that read? That skim. Whatever you want to call it.”
“What did I retain?”
“Even skimming should be enough to have imprinted something on you. I’m less interested in lore details and more interested in useful arcane items. I know you brewed up a thing for our unforeseen ally, but are you a full on wizardess, now?”
The brewing notion cast a new light on the process he had undertaken, paying back that unforeseen ally Marquis was talking about. During the De Vermis Mysteriis‘ recovery, they had encountered an operative for a black ops government agency. That operative had helped them, for a price. The price was the use of one of the recipe spells in the book, a way to make her killing apparatus even more deadly. Even the act of performing that recipe had made Venkat sick to her stomach. A lifelong time pacifist, violence was more than a philosophical anathema, it caused Venkat the same levels of stomach churning illness that her allergies did.
“I’m not a wizard or a wizardess,” she said. “But I recall a few of the incantations and rituals.” One in particular had come in handy on her second outing, a banishment ritual. However, the casting portion had left her weak, ashamed, and mentally savaged. “They might not help much,” she admitted. “These things require time. Great sacrifice.” She had never confessed to anyone how, when she woke in the mornings, she still tasted mouthfuls of ants and wept at having swallowed some and ground others between her teeth. This was especially awful because of her vegetarianism. No amount of toothpaste seemed capable of scrubbing away that memory.
“Did you pick up anything that could be used to defend against the Shadowshow? I’m not talking the human practitioners, but the actual beings of darkness they truck with?”
She went through her recollections of the book and its contents. Some of the woodcuts would never leave her memory, gory things involving almost gleeful sacrifices and monstrous deeds. Also, there was supposed to have been a ritual for constructing nigh-invulnerable armor. There had certainly been a way to charm weapons to penetrate any defenses, of terrestrial origin or otherwise. The idea of such things made her stomach do flip-flops.
“I don’t know any sort of protective circle or anything like that,” she admitted, suddenly recalling part of an old live action Disney movie when Angela Lansbury had made all the suits of armor in a castle come to tottering, robotic life. “There was a banishment for . . . for servants, I suppose would be the best description. Inhuman servants. The cost, however . . .”
“Pretty high, huh? I was afraid of that.” Marquis said, “Hopefully we don’t need anything like that.”
“What are you intending?”
“You’re asking if I want to run right in there and toss that motherfucker open, aren’t you? The answer to that is no thanks. I want to be done with this as quickly as possible, but I really want to do it without getting myself deceased. Hell, without either one of us ending up killed. Tossing the lid aside willy-nilly is our last resort.”
Venkat closed her eyes, not in disbelief because this seemed the only reasonable course of action, but because she needed to find the strength to follow through on that reasonable action. “You believe opening it will do what exactly?”
“It will either dissipate the phenomenon,” Marquis said, “or it will unleash it.”
“And this is a good idea even for a last resort?” she asked.
“These walls are shielded,” he said, indicating the surroundings with a wave of his hand. “Each room from the next, in fact. If something gets out, it will be stuck in whatever room we bring it to.”
“For how long?”
“Well, if my wishes go unanswered . . . then until our relief shows up,” he said.
“A nicer way of saying the next poor bastard who opens the door,” Marquis quipped. “Look. If it gets hairy, we bug out and close the door. Sound like a plan?”
“That sounds terrible,” she said. “Isn’t there someone we can call . . .”
“You mean a highly trained team of magicians who can troop into the room, brandishing high tech weaponry and magickal doo-dads to take care of whatever cursed menace is lurking within the cover and body of this trunk we purchased?”
“Why don’t we have one of those?” she said. “A private legion of safety magicians or something. Curse removers. We need those.”
Marquis laughed, and the sound was almost unburdened by the sick levels of disgust and fear he had been undergoing. “Goes against what we stand for. Against our usual modus operandi, anyway.”
“Why did you buy the trunk then?”
He did not even hesitate before answering, and though she was expecting a shrug and non-committal grunt of some sort, he said, “Because it was causing someone who had zero understanding harm. Someone that seems to know and trust you, and whom you seem to know and trust. We aren’t a private army, but we are not exactly ignorant in the ways of shadows. The Society is about books, and they are about books alone. We’re about more than that.”
“Pages,” she suggested, “are about people?”
“Exactly,” he said. “Exactly. So. What do we have on our side?”
“I know the banishment,” she admitted. “It’s difficult to use, taxing like you would not believe, and it . . . I’d rather not, if we did not have to.”
“Okay, so there is that.”
“Can’t we research this thing? See where it came from and how?”
“I’m game for that, V. Tell me where to start and we will.”
“Really.” He sat down in the secretary chair, set elbows to armrests, and finally rested his chin upon laced fingers. The position looked not at all comfortable.
“Well, it belonged to a dead man,” she said. “We could check his estate.”
“Okay,” Marquis said. “What is the name and the address?”
“I can tell you the name right now,” she said. “And the address in just a jiffy.” She slipped her tablet from the sleeve and activated it with a dance of fingertips.” She frowned at the lack of bars. “No Wi-Fi, right?”
“There’s a Dunkin down the way.”
She smiled when she asked the setup question: “Which way?”
“Every which way,” they answered the setup together. This was New England, and those orange, pink and white themed coffee and donut dispensaries were about as ubiquitous as vending machines in Japan.
“What about the trunk?”
“What about it?”
“How do we keep people from just . . . opening it?”
“We leave a note,” he said.
He grabbed a piece of copy paper, a Sharpie, and scrawled a quick three line message:
CONTENTS MIGHT BE EVIL AND LETHAL.
Venkat read his message and asked, “Really?”
He taped it to the trunk’s lid, and they went out for coffee.
Kaysee Renee’s third volume in her Bookworm Brigade series of field agents (Field Pages) working for a secret society that is interested in taking Lovecraftian books and other tomes of eldritch lore off the streets and out of the hands of dangerous folks is now available in paperback and eBook editions. Grab a copy from Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, or your favorite eBook vendors, today! All the previous books are available as well, check out Kaysee Renee’s earlier Tuesday Tease entries about these: Scary Intel and Potboiler.
Do you have a book coming out, soon? Do you want to write a #TuesdayTease update giving us a little insight into your creative process, an overview of a beloved and inspirational book, movie, or series as well as expose a new audience to your words and work? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s see what we can do to get new eyes on your books.