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Grand Guginol

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My curiosity is piqued - Editor

Grand Guginol

by J. Keith Haney

The second I saw the bobbie cart, I knew that I wasn’t gonna get paid. When ya’re a private detective who’s worked more than a few murder cases, ya kin almost smell death on the wind. Seein’ as the steam cart was parked in front a’ Tony Phillips’ house an’ he lived alone, it weren’t hard to figure who died.

Mind ya, it’s a bit a’ a stretch calling Phillips’ place a house. It was more like a rundown ol’ tar shack squeezed twixt a couple a’ tenements. I’m surprised that it held up longer than he did.

Inspector Bart was standin’ outside when I walked up, watchin’ the crushers take out the body. He glanced down from his six foot frame to me five foot one and asked, “Friend of yours?”

“Client,” I said while the body carriers passed us by.

“Paid his bill?”

“Said he’d have it today.”

“Bad break, then,” Bart said, that damned upper crust sneer curlin’ his lip. “Bobbie on the beat caught wind of a rotting smell an hour ago. Found the man inside with his throat cut.”

I frowned a little. “He weren’t nothing special, he sure weren’t rich, so who’d want to kill ‘im?”

“Maybe he did it himself, seeing as we found the dagger in his hand.”

“That all you find?”

Bart frowned at me as if he weren’t sure whether or not to tell me. Then he shrugged and said, “Found a couple of leaves of sheet music. Dated back fifty years.”

He saw me eyes light up and asked, “Mean something to you?”

“Might be part of a job I’s on. Can I see ‘em?”

Bart pulled out the yellow brittle sheets from his inside coat, brown splatters mixin’ wit’ the notes. I gave ‘em a quick look and asked, “Any problem if I keep these?”

“Not until after the inquest,” Bart said firmly.

“Well, if it’s an open and shut case a’ suicide, what’s it matter?”

“Maybe nothing, maybe everything,” Bart said, holding out his hand. “That duty belongs to the magistrate. I’ll have those sheets back now, Mr. Grimstone.”

I’m only Mr. Grimstone to Bart when I’m on the verge a’ bein’ arrested. I handed the sheets back. Bart’s sneer broadened a bit as he walked over to the steam cart.

#

The inquest was four days later and, as expected, Phillips was declared a suicide. It was still like pullin’ teeth to get those sheets back from Bart. This, mind, in spite a’ the fact that Phillips didna have any living relatives.

In all honesty, I shouldna been wastin’ me time. Me rent came due on the third a’ those four days ‘fore the inquest an’ I had to dip inta me ever shrinkin’ savings to keep me landlord happy. Me flat’s a ground level flop that ants infest every summer, had barely hot water from the plumbin’, and painted walls that peeled like snakeskin. But it was the cheapest flat in the city, so I stayed. It weren’t the same as cheap, though, and there weren’t enough a’ me savings to pay fer the next month. I needed to find another client who could pay, preferably in advance.

But Phillips’ suicide bugged me. What kind a’ man kills himself the day he promises to pay you? Maybe it went back to those music sheets. I had been tryin’ to track down the story on some music for ‘im a week ago. The notes on the music sheets Phillips had given me then were an almost perfect match for the ones Bart had found in his shack. The older sheets from Bart had something the other sheets didna: words. It’d been rendered phonetically inta Common, but what they were sayin’, I couldna guess.

After lookin’ ‘em over for an hour, I put ‘em away. It’d have to wait ‘til I had next month’s rent.

#

Hierophant Rhames looked over the daguerreotypes calmly, one by one. I didna see how he stayed as calm as he did, like watchin’ his wife get cozy wit’ another man was something he did every day. He swallowed hard and gave me a pouch a’ gold.

“There is a little more in the pouch than what we agreed upon, Mr. Grimstone,” he said, his voice choked in his throat.

“I’ll not say no,” I said, takin’ the pouch. It meant that I could buy some food AND pay for next month’s rent.

While Rhames was puttin’ away the daguerreotypes, his eye happened to catch the music sheets on me desk.

“You have an interest in music, Mr. Grimstone?” Rhames asked.

Seein’ where he was looking at, I said, “Jes’ professional. Client who wanted me to look inta that died ‘fore he could pay. Been meanin’ to get back to it, but non-payin’ curiosity don’ keep a roof o’er me head.”

Rhames walked over to the ol’ yella sheets and spoke the lyrics out loud. Still sounded like gibberish to me.

“This is phoneticized Qanya, unspoken for over five hundred years,” Rhames said. “What would that be doing on a music sheet only half a century old?”

“No idea,” I admitted while I walked over and picked up the newer sheets that Phillips had gave me. “These newer ones are what the client gave me when he hired me. He was conductor a’ a Grand Guginol couple of blocks from here. He was rootin’ through the theater basement for some unused music and found this. No composer on the sheets. He got enough curiosity to hire me and I had a lead right when he died.”

“What sort of lead?”

“I was able to trace the publisher a’ the newer sheets to Fillmore and Sons Sheet Music Company. They let me go through their records an’ the original fella that had ‘em printed was listed as a Mr. Ferrarei.”

“Is that where you got these older sheets? Why have you have not pursued this any further?”

“The older sheets were found at the client’s flop when he died an’ seein’ as the money died wit’ him…well, me landlord’s not a forgivin’ sort.”

Rhames pursed his lips slightly an’ said, “What would you say if I hired you to finish following this trail?”

I was a little surprised. “Ya sure, sir?”

“I must admit that my curiosity is piqued and I am quite willing to pay in advance so that you see this through.”

“Ya’ll excuse me sayin’ so, Hierophant, but that almos’ sounds like ya’re makin’ out a last will an’ testament.”

Rhames smiled an’ said, “Your dead client was Mr. Anthony Phillips, composer of the Elysium Playhouse and declared suicide, correct?”

“How’d ya know that, sir?”

“He was a frequent guest of our temple’s soup kitchen. I got to know him well enough to know that suicide would never have been an option. Should the same fate befall me…”

I started getting cold chills. But I had to admit that I wanted a bit more coin.

“Soon as ya drop off the gold, sir, I’ll get to work,” I promised.

#

The next week was spent tryin’ to hunt down details on Ferrarei. Fillmore and Sons had burned to the ground the same week Phillips supposedly committed suicide, taking any extra information wit’ it. I slipped a gnome in the birth registry some a’ me extra gold for a birth certificate on Ferrarei. I wasted me money. I wasted some more on the death registry. I bought enough rounds in every bar in the city to float a galleon and not one ol’ man, elf, ogre, gnome, or dwarf had e’en heard a’ Ferrarei.

The Elysium Theater manager had some more clues when I gave up the coin for it. That piece a’ music wasn’ the only one Ferrarei had printed up. The ol’ elf, seein’ how that music was affectin’ the audience, had suggested that Phillips look inta it a bit more to see if there were any other pieces by the same composer. The manager did the same an’ come up wit’ the older sheets that Phillip had the night he died. After Phillips got sliced, the manager couldna get it outta his head so did a bit more pryin’, findin’ two more pieces in the same basement. Looked like the lyrics were in the same tongue as the first ‘un. From the Common writin‘ on the new sheets , looked like there was one more set out there.

He was even able to do one better than me in locating Ferrarei. Turns out Ferrerai had showed up thirty years ago at the Elysium Theater where one a’ these new pieces were used, back when this was a playground fer the rich. The registry included an address that was in a mansion ‘bout three blocks from me flat. The place had been made into a tenement once the family died out ten year ago, but the manager tol’ me that it was still standin’. Whether or not I’d find anything…

#

I found a lot more than I bargained for. I had just walked in the once-grand front door when I heard some stern questioning on the third floor.

“You had no knowledge of this?”

“No, Sir Inquisitor, none, I swear by Mithras,” an aged woman’s voice whimpered.

“If you are lying, woman, we will return,” the stern voice said.

I slipped under the stairwell’s shadows. I donna see eye to eye much wit’ me clan, but we both hate the Mithraic Inquisition. Nobody was safe from ‘em in this city, from the lord mayor on down. Ya didna know who they were unless they was on official business. Then they’d have black robes an’ hoods, gold sun amulets, and the most revoltin’ self-rightousness a’ anybody I e’er dealt wit’. I’d just missed bein’ disappeared by ‘em a couple a’ times.

The really bad thing ‘bout ‘em was that they ran in packs when on the hunt. No sense getting hauled away when staying outta sight made more sense.

“Brother Lemur, take this to the carriage,” Stern Voice said.

“Forgive me, Father, but I think--” a boy began.

“You’re supposed to obey, not think!” the Father said. “We need these music sheets to find the rest of the set and that damned lich. Now go!”

Me stomach started tying itself inta knots. If that last piece a’ music was the same one the manager hadn’t found, then Phillips had been swimming wit’ bigger fish than he knew. Maybe enough to get him killed. Brother Lemur was gonna have to give up the goods for me to be sure.

I creeped up to the side of the stairs an’ gave Brother Lemur’s ankle a good yank on the fourth step from the bottom. He hit the floor wit’ a thud an’ I knocked him out wit’ a couple a’ punches. The Father shouted something down while I grabbed the valise Lemur dropped. I ran as fast as me stubby legs could carry me.

I knew that they wouldna carry me far enough. No goin’ back to the apartment, no horse or steam carriages this time a’ night…the only choice was to hide. There was a horse stable right next to the tenement wit’ a good sized manure pile used for heatin’. I dove right into it and kept it out a’ me eyes so I could see out. The Inquisitors didna give it a second glance, but I stayed in there for a couple a’ hours after they left. Then and only then did I dig me way out and go home.

#

I spent the rest a’ the night cleaning meself and me clothes. Just when I thought I had every last spot a’ the manure off me body, I’d find another clump stickin’ to me elbow, twixt me toes, over me eyebrows. It was e’en worse for me hair and beard, long an’ thick as they are. There was a couple a’ times that I seriously thought a’ dunkin’ me head inta the bleach me clothes were soakin’ up in the bathtub. I settled for soap and shampoo once I drained out the bleach an’ got the clothes out. I didna bother cleanin’ the valise. Once I got the sheets out, I dumped it in the sewers.

It was nearly dawn when I got me first look at the sheet. Like before, I recognized the music scales as the same, but couldna make heads or tails a’ the language a’ the lyrics. Probably that Qanya, I thought as I felt me eyes begin to droop. I put all the music sheets together and slipped ‘em into an oversize envelope that I kept under the mattress. Me head barely hit the pillow ‘fore I was out.

#

A knocking at the door brought me back from the land a’ dreams. I moaned as me head did a pretty good imitation a’ a poundin’ anvil.

“Just a minute,” I groaned as I got out of bed. Me clothes were fairly dry now, so I put ‘em back. The sun was just a few minutes away from being gone for the day. Lightin’ a candle at the desk, I walked up to the door and opened it. Rhames looked at me with a frown while he sniffed the air.

“Sorry ‘bout the smell…an’ makin’ ya wait, a’ course,” I said as I let him in.

“I realize that these flats can get filthy, but I don’t recall the distinctive musk of manure from my last visit,” the Hierophant said, wrinklin’ his nose.

I spent the next five minutes explaining how the smell got there and how the Inquisitors were lookin’ for the music too. I showed him the Qanya sheets to him and he looked them over, nodding every once in a while.

“Mr. Grimstone, you have accidentally stumbled onto one of the greatest archeological finds of our time,” he finally said. “The Harmonicum Versivum.”

“How’s that?” I asked while I looked at the sheets over the Hierophant’s shoulder.

“Their authors, the Qanya, were a sect of mountain elves who believed in balance with the world around them.”

“Not unusual for elves.”

“Yes, but what made the Qanya unique were the extremes that they took that particular creed to. They were driven to the mountains by my tribe because they refused to shed blood over their forest territory when there were other places to live.”

“Pacifists?”

“No, they understood the need to defend themselves and hunt game, but I think that they hit upon a truth that eludes modern Mithraism. Most bloodshed is unnecessary. That did not sit well with the Mithraic missionaries who came for the sole purpose of converting them to my faith.”

“This before or after they tried that same trick wit’ me kin?”

The Hierophant gave me a frosty look ‘fore he said, “The missionaries were not known for their diplomacy. Their disappointment in the Qanya’s resistance was deepened by this particular set of songs. Their magic was bound into the notes and lyrics of this music.”

The Hierophant traced his finger along the Qanya lyric sheet and said, “The music governed aspects of light and dark, life and death. Their words for each concept were linked by spelling. Each aspect was its opposite spelled backward.”

I pulled out the nearest music sheet and found a particular word repeated over and over again.

“Baas,” I read aloud.

“Meaning life,” Rhames confirmed. “Death therefore would be Saab.”

“This still doesn’t explain why the Inquisiton wiped ‘em out or why Phillip would have gotten killed for getting curious.”

“If I’m reading these lyrics correctly, each song heightens the singer’s awareness of the song’s subject. One thing nature does not do is lie, which would have offended the missionaries even more. But you have a valid point. This song would have allowed Mr. Phillips and his audience see life in all its splendor.”

The coldness crept back to my spine. “Or maybe let him and everyone else see something that acted like it was alive, but wouldn’t?”

The ol’ elf had absolute terror in his eyes but still managed to say, “Like, say, a vampire?”

“When it comes to the undead, there’s more than just ‘em. Me Grandda used to make a pretty good livin’ huntin’ ‘em down. That Inquisitor said somthin’… ”

That made me think a’ Grandda’s journal. I pulled it out from a pile a’ papers on the desk. The journal had leather tabs sewn into the tops a’ the pages to separate the different critters, each marked wit’ a rune. I picked one towards the back, an angry slit a’ an eye wreathed in lightning.

“Here we are,” I said. “Lichs, intelligent aftergangers who need to feed on souls, wears a mask glamour to hide as a man. They canna learn any new skills. Considerin’ most a’ these bastards are sorcerers, probably don’ think they need to.”

“I’m surprised that you have such a handy occult resource at your disposal,” Rhames said.

“Well, it was me Grandda’s and, besides that, things like that are more likely to hunt ‘round here than anywhere’s else.”

“Feeding regularly from, say, a Grand Guginol theater patron?”

I nodded. “Makes sense. All sorts wind up there, includin’ the type what won’t be missed. So how does Ferrarrei fit into this picture? I wouldna think he’d be the lich.”

“He could have been a Mithraic Inquisitor on the lich’s track. If he was any student of history, he would probably know about the song cycle and try to get it translated to a more readable copy.”

“But the lich doesn’t like bein’ hunted, so Ferrarei gets the dirt nap treatment. Inquisition finds out ‘bout his translation work an’ lock down as much of the music as they can. Ferrarei was probably his Inquisitor name, seein’ as I couldna find hide nor hair a’ it at the birth an’ death registries.”

Nodding, Rhames said, “The theory makes sense…as far as it goes. But there are still a lot of  unknowns to account for, not the least of which whether we are actually dealing with a lich and not someone or something else.”

“Just thought a’ something,” I said. “If this music’s so powerful, why’d our alleged killer leave it wit’ Phillips? Nobody’d have missed it, including me.”

“Perhaps he was trying to flush out anyone else Phillips was in contact with who might have had the missing sheets,” the Hierophant said, tapping his chin wit’ his pointer. “The strategy runs the risk of losing the one set, but the possible outcome could be at least one more set would be located.”

“Looks like Mr. Ferrarei is a dead end to getting closer to Phillips’ killer,” I said. Then it hit me.

“Say, what if we were to have one little piece of this music we’ve got played, lyrics included, at the Elysium tonight? If he’s there, might flush him out.”

“And if he’s not?”

I shrugged. It was the best idea I had, but it could easily be a will a’ the wisp as a lead.

Rhames sighed and said, “Well, a little gold goes a long way.”

#

More than a little gold found its way into the new human conductor’s pocket that night. He swore by Mithras, Lady Luna, and half a dozen constellations that the music would play at exactly 10 postmeridian during the intermission. He even brought out his sister (what he called her, but I didna see the resemblance) who took the time to pronounce the words to Rhames’ satisfaction.

We went to the upper balcony, a not-so-nice little box where all the chairs had been smashed to toothpicks. Upside was there weren’t no place to hide either. No one ‘round ‘cept us and the manager, who was operating the spotlight.

Even wit’out the chairs, the balcony was still the best seat in the house. You could see every last piece a’ garbage, every last street bum what came to sleep off their liquor, an’ the orchestra and stage just ahead a’ that. Best a’ all, nobody looked up.

The crowd started shuffling in ‘bout 8 o’clock, the street tramps rubbing shoulders wit’ the visiting bourgeois. I wondered how many of the more well-heeled folk would walk out a’ here wit’ their money, life, or both. The stage lights came up. The play itself weren’t a bad ‘un, a retelling a’ the Garm Saga wit’ all the blood. Garm had just bitten off Tyr’s hand wit’ his iron jaws when the intermission curtain came down. I braced meself.

The conductor’s “sister” sang out the age-old words while the orchestra played. Slow but sure, it changed the whole feel a’ the room, like opening me eyes for the first time. I could feel the cockroaches skitter, the women getting hot flashes, the rats squeaking, the men getting excited. Where’er life was in that theater, I felt connected to it.

When the final notes were winding down, I realized that there was one person I hadn’t felt: the manager. I whirled around just in time to see Hierophant Rhames get sapped by a blackjack and a gun press against me face.

“Show’s over, Mr. Grimstone,” Inspector Bart said, his skull face offset by a pair a’ red eyes in the sockets. “Let’s go.”

He cocked the hammer while the audience gave the first standing ovation to the theater since it stopped bein’ legitimate. We left.

#

Bart must ha’ thought he was bein’ clever leadin’ me back to the manure pile. His skull face weren’t something I wanted to see again, but it beat the smug look on his face when his glamour came back out on the street. He kept his revolver in his pocket while we walked, pushing at me back through the fabric.

Manure is the perfect people repellant, so the alley was just as deserted as last night. When we stopped, Bart said, “Turn around.”

When I did as I was told, he said, “I either over or underestimated you, Mr. Grimstone. I thought that you were just a gold hustling snoop whose primary motive was survival and yet you couldn’t just let the case your dead client brought you go. Why?”

“I want to know why gold promised didna wind up in me pocket,” I said. “So why did you kill Phillips?”

“I didn’t.”

I blinked.

“No, Mr. Grimstone,” Bart said. “I am a good many things, as you have seen, but I don’t take credit for someone else’s kill. He was quite dead by the time I visited his shanty. It was no suicide, of course, so I had to make the necessary arrangements to make it ruled as such.”

“So why’s the gun pointed at me head?”

“Because you had the stupidity to not let the matter go. Phillips showed similar stubbornness in his inquiries into the Qanya music. Because he wasn’t a direct threat to me, I thought that I could persuade him to hand over the music the now-deceased manager found as part of an ongoing investigation. I wasn’t lying, but I neglected to mention that it was a private search for the Harmonicum Versisum.”

“How do ya know that was what he had?”

“Informants are useful for street level knowledge, particularly when you’re being pursued by the Mithraic Inquisition and are having a hard time acquiring the pieces of an ancient song cycle that said Inquisition would like back. One particular informant told me about a wife of a high-ranking Mithraic priest who had a lover on the side, a composer. He also mentioned that they both happened to have printings of music sheets made by an Inquisitor I buried in a potter’s field thirty years ago.”

“So Phillips had the new copy an’ the mistress the one in Qanya?”

“In one,” Bart said. “My guess, judging from the three hundred gold I pocketed at the shanty, was that Phillips was able to secure the Qanya sheets and a loan from his mistress and that both were to be delivered to you that night.”

“How come you want this Harmona-whatever-it-is so bad?”

“Power, the chance to become human after one hundred and ten years of lichdom, the removal of a means to detect my true nature…all good reasons, Grimstone. Figure out which one was the most important in the afterlife.”

Pulling his still-cocked revolver from his pocket and aiming at me head, he asked, “Any last words?”

“Just three,” I said with a smile. “Elohim transe met!”

Bart’s legs collapsed underneath him an’ the glamour collapsed wit’ it. The bones and tendons started rotting like lime’d been poured on ‘im. Bart’s trigger finger tried to flex, but couldna do more than twitch. When the red lights went out a’ his eye sockets, I thanked Alberich that Grandda had got o’er enough a’ his revulsion for magic to write down those three precious words.

I stripped the skeleton, dumping the clothes in the sewer and the bones in the manure. I kept the revolver, though. I still had some unfinished business.

#

Rhames came ‘round slow, groaning while the last a’ the crowd walked out for the night. I’d slipped in during the last act, nearly tripping o’er the dead manager. An orc had taken his place at the spotlight, but outside a’ a hard stare, didna ask me ‘bout me business or the body. In this neighborhood, it weren’t smart to ask too many questions ‘less you’s getting paid. He’d cleared out by the time the Hierophant woke up.

“Damned lich,” he muttered. “When I get my hands on him--”

“Took care a’ him already,” I told him, keeping me right hand behind me. “Lucky he didna suck your life out ‘stead a’ trying to cave yer skull.”

“How…did you handle it?” Rhames asked, rubbing his sore head.

“Grandda had one other thing ‘sides the lich’s habits and features in his journal, a handy exorcism incantation that I memorized a few hours ago.”

“Then it’s over,” Rhames said, sighing with relief.

“Not quite,” I said, bringing my right hand ‘round to show him the gun. “Why did you kill Phillips?”

That completely terrified flash I saw in his eyes told me I’d guessed right.

“What are you talking about?” he finally asked. “The lich killed Phillips for the music.”

“Bart was anything but modest,” I said. “He tol’ me flat out that he didna kill Phillips. Also mentioned a mistress, high clergyman’s wife.”

I shouldna stood so close. His palm smashed me nose bloody and the other hand caught the revolver when I dropped it. By the time I shook me head clear, Rhames had backed up enough to make sure I couldna pull the same trick.

“Phillips had touched my wife…the way I do,” he said, his calm voice making me think a’ when I showed him the daguerreotypes. “At the time, I blamed him, but I didn’t realize how much until the night I came by his hovel. I had just wanted to frighten him out of the idea of coming near my wife ever again. Considering how pathetic he and his tar house was, it wouldn’t have been difficult. What was difficult…to the point of tearing its way through my brain was how this…peon had managed to bed my wife. The next thing I know, I’ve slit his throat from ear to ear and I’m still holding the knife. I dropped it and run away. I thought that would put an end to my wife’s infidelity.”

“But it wouldn’t,” I said, feeling around for something with me foot.

“You of all people should know,” the Hierophant said, slowly rising to his knees. “Who was he this time? Another composer? A sculptor? An insipid poet?”

“All I’ll say is that you’re probably wishing he’s where I am now,” I said, finding what I was looking for.

“True,” Rhames said, cocking the hammer. “Even with everything you’ve figured out, I don’t want to kill you.”

“Then just pay me what Phillips owed me and we’ll call it even,” I said, standing up and making a point to keep me right leg a little back.

“Blackmail is a possibility for as long as you are still breathing,” Rhames said, shaking his head.

“Isn’t murder against Mithras’ teachings?”

“This is self-defense.”

“So’s this.”

I kicked the rotted chair leg right into Rhames’ face. It turned into a dust cloud the second it hit, making the Hierophant gag, choke, and drop the gun. I dove for it and gave him all six slugs, working from the chest up. I left the gun and walked out.

#

Bart’s disappearance and Rhames’ death were front page headlines for a couple a’ weeks. Neither case was ever connected to me or each other. Neither were ever solved.

Rhames’ widow married the fella I’d seen her with. I never got to tell Rhames that the man was Richard James, one a’ the wealthiest industrialists in the city wit‘ a taste for fine art. Probably wouldna made any difference.

I sent the Qanya songs by anonymous donation to the Oberum Museum of Elven Culture. I still go into look at ‘em every once in a while, tryin’ not to think about how much blood they’d caused, then and now.

©2011

 

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