The Case of the Man of Ash: Chapter 6

A Detective Booth Mystery by B.T. Wallace (Rated G)

–Friday–

–Tuesday–

Two days prior I returned to Portland, and I had been unable to sleep long enough to feel rested in the morning. Coffee by the pot was hardly able to keep my eyes open, and my thoughts ran around in circles over the preceding events in Warrenton. I read over my own notes and looked at the evidence taken from Giuseppe’s house. I had a broken tablet of volcanic glass, a cylinder of smoke, a journal and a wicked sharp knife of unknown origin. Honestly, nothing here is of known origin, I thought. I pulled the stopper off a bottle of scotch and poured a splash into my coffee. After a long gulp, a wave of inspiration struck me. Standing up, I took the journal of the deceased in one hand, flipped to the pages that seemed out of place, and tugged gently at them. Some pages came free, the ones that held a charcoal rubbing with some unknown language upon them. 

Unfolding the page a couple of times revealed it to be about half the size of my small desk—no, the size of the desk in the upstairs room at the uncles house, the bill paying desk. 

In my best Orson Wells, I spoke a solitary word. “Eureka!” 

This would explain why there was charcoal dust on the desk itself, along with deep scratches in the wood. If he was making a rubbing of the tablets, the obsidian glass would have cut into the desk as he laid them upon it. The paper held not merely a rubbing of the broken tablets of obsidian, but a column along one side that was clearly some kind of decipher in a transliteration. There was only one person in town that I knew who could possibly read this, and he currently is a professor teaching Biblical languages at the University of Portland. 

After a taxi ride, I stood before the office door of the professor, two voices were in conversation, one male and another female. The door with the name Dr. Scott on a placard stifled their words enough to make them mere sounds. I reached for the knob and opened the door. 

They both looked in my direction, the professor in a nice, high-backed leather chair wearing a rather expensive suit and my client Miss Curwen had her hair done up and delicately arranged under a hat. Today she was wearing a blue four-piece ensemble. They both stood up as I entered the room, and I was directed to sit in another chair opposite Miss Curwen. 

“Greetings, Detective. We have been anticipating your arrival.” The Professor folded his hands and set them upon the desk. 

“I was unaware that today would be when I was going to visit. How, then, could you be expecting me?” I felt taken aback. 

“We understand you returned with some artifacts after your visit at Mr. Miller’s house.” 

“Yes, I have them here in this briefcase. I figured you would be able to tell me what they say.”

“Absolutely. We are looking forward to seeing what you have found.”

I opened the suitcase and carefully drew out the knife, the jar of dust and the journal, but I left the broken pieces of the obsidian tablet in the case. I had protected it under layers of towels, and when I uncovered them, Miss Curwen let out a sigh. I noticed her eyes again, similar in appearance when I had held the cylinder in her presence—the blackness that was not merely her pupils, but the entirety of her eyes. Once I focused on the blackness, she blinked and, once again, those green eyes were piercing my soul. 

“Well,” she began, “since you were so kind to bring these to us, we might as well tell you what is happening.” 

She began by lifting up the journal and holding it in her hands delicately. “This journal was written by Giuseppe Miller, who, by ancestry, is technically my uncle, but it would have been through many generations past that would lead him to be family. If we look at it, he is actually my great-great-great-great-great uncle. Born in Prague in 1592. Little is known of his childhood years. We do know he escaped to Munich sometime during the Bohemian Revolt and continued to escape the Protestant Rebellion until he found a home in Cologne, Germany. We know he studied and made friends with the Jesuits, learning astronomy, higher mathematics, and even archeological science through them. He continued his journey filled with escapes from the rising reformation, until he found himself in Rome, Italy. There, he was hired to work as an assistant of a man named Kircher. They uncovered the ruins of a church built by Constantine the Great, in which my uncle found that cylinder.”

“This same cylinder?” I asked. “It came from some church built by Constantine?”

“Oh, yes. That is what his other journals have spoken about—no, not that one. I have the others, since he is my uncle after all. Now where was I? Oh yes, by this time he had been married and had several children prior to the discovery. However, afterwards—after the cylinder—Miller was never the same. He was persecuted by the Catholic Church itself for stealing archeological artifacts, so he fled. Not much is known about him until 1846, when he was assigned a dig with an Englishman, one Austen Henry Layard. 

“How is that possible? Giuseppe Miller was born in 1592. How are we getting events of his life nearly two hundred and fifty years later?” I was having a hard time believing this story that Emily was weaving for me. 

“Yes, it was this cylinder, or so we believe. It seems that as long as he kept it on him, he would not perish.” 

“Somehow, you are saying it made this man immortal?”

“Yes, I did, but there is more about the other things you have here if you want me to continue.”

“Please do. I believe this cannot get any more ridiculous.”

“Alright, so, um, Layard, Miller and their assistant Hormuzd Rassam began their project to dig out a buried palace near the home of Rassam in Mosul. This journal notes one of the greatest things he found in that palace, in a deep room within a library belonging to Shalmaneser the Third. Layard discovered a stele which now resides in London. However, Miller was able to discover a cypher on the stele that led him to another chamber in the library. This tablet of obsidian lay covered and buried for millennia in a secret chamber belonging to Shalmaneser’s wise man, the sage known as Nagaz.”

The professor had been examining the knife; he set it down and slid the briefcase closer to himself. He looked into the case and spoke, “Ah, yes, one of the tablets of the Abgal.”

“One?” I asked. All of this felt out of place. Why would a Catholic University Professor and Miss Emily Curwen be talking to me about artifacts? 

“Yes,” Professor Scott continued, “there are reportedly seven of these tablets. Each one was given to a city. You’ve heard of the great flood, right? You learned about Noah and the Ark? Well, when civilization was destroyed from that deluge, a new city was founded and given one of these tablets. Each time there was an event in which the power was removed from a city, it was given to a new city.”

“These are some kind of notice of sovereign authority?” 

“More like this is the power of that authority, power to control by right of ownership.”

“Detective Booth,” Emily interrupted, “if we can continue, there is more you will need to know before we can address these tablets. The knife you found is merely a relic of a foreign land, used to kill a sacrifice which then would be bled onto the stone. We are unsure as to what animal has to be used for this sacrifice, but we believe the reason why it was in the cavern you found it in was because whatever animal had to be killed was aquatic in nature.”

“Alright, let me get this straight. I happen to show up today, and both of you are already here, ready to give me an explanation of what I had been looking into this past week—never mind that I never figured out where your uncle had disappeared to.”

“Ah, Detective, but you did,” Dr. Scott now held the cylinder in his hands. “This right here used to keep him in what we could call life. More like, stasis within time. He never aged, but the world around him got older. That dust you put in the jar—that is all that remains of a man brought out of stasis and into regular time. It did not take but mere seconds for Mr. Miller to go from a vibrant middle-aged man to dust, not when three hundred years suddenly catches up with you.”

“That means those ashes are the remains of someone who should have died in the 1600s?” I was stunned. “That Giuseppe himself was a man centuries old?” 

“My uncle was key in finding this tablet, and we didn’t know if he had it in his possession,” Miss Curwen said. “But we needed to hire a detective who would not have been exposed to any preconceived notions regarding our work.”

“Why are you speaking in the plural? Do you mean the professor here and yourself, or is there someone else?” 

“You might as well enter,” Emily spoke loud enough anyone outside in the hall would have heard her.

The door opened and standing there in the gateway was the agent from Warrenton. The silence in the room screamed like a banshee in a winter wind storm, and the tiniest pin drop would have crafted an echo that the Grand Canyon could never duplicate. I could not believe my eyes. 

The flashback happened: “Keep investigating it. We believe that this is a result of who is doing the investigations. Nothing strange has happened to you?” The conversation flashed quickly in my mind’s eye. He had spoken of “we” also back then, and I believed it meant those in his office. Now I found that it meant Emily Curwen, Professor Scott, and Agent Philips. These three and the two I met outside of church a couple of Sundays ago. 

“Agent Philips?” I addressed him in more of a question than a statement of fact. “Can someone illuminate the situation for me?”

“Yes, sir,” Agent Philips began, “My colleagues— Doctor Scott, the two agents, Brown and White, and Miss Curwen—here are all part of a coterie of investigators. We believe that you would be a welcome addition.”

“An addition to what?” I could not believe this. After all I experienced and witnessed, this was the beginning of some kind of test, or was the test? “I am retired from organized law enforcement and work as a sole detective finding missing persons, and as a civilian assistant to the local police department.” 

“We are aware of that, and you may continue in your primary function. We would like you to be a paid consultant and assistant to our investigations. You would have no boss, you would have no superior. You would investigate assignments we give you during the time you find works for you. We will give you the support you need and the knowledge of our independent abilities, and you would be paid quite well for all the help you offer.”

“That’s it? You simply would like to have a private detective on retainer?”

“No,” Miss Curwen interrupted. “We want an individual who has shown an exemplary set of skills when faced with certain unknowns. The things you experienced, and will continue to experience, have been enough to tell us of your resolve and fortitude. There are more cases and we are looking into finding the other tablets. We believe people have gone missing as a result of having them.”

“Here, in Portland, Oregon?” 

“Here in the Pacific Northwest. We believe there are other areas that require investigation and we believe you would be a great help for us.”

“What’s the catch?” I mulled it over in my mind. The last job had paid well enough that there wouldn’t be any financial issues in the foreseeable future.

“Your sanity, Detective.” Emily smirked. 

When I had entered the office of Dr. Scott, I was simply a private detective stuck with an enigma. When I left and was returning to my apartment in the new Ford black sedan, I realized it wasn’t a puzzle so much as a box—specifically, I had unwittingly opened Pandora’s. More like, shattered it upon the ground as if the shards scattered to the winds. Now, there was another role to play: a detective on retainer for an organization built and designed to search for and catalog events and items of unique importance. There was a lot on my mind, and the largest issue was: how much more crazy am I going to deal with? From nearly drowning, to barely escaping a house before it exploded. 

Parking the car in a designated spot, I got out and shut the door then walked into the building and up the stairs towards my office next to my apartment. Out of habit and distraction, the key unlocked the door, and the familiar smell of whiskey and cigar smoke filled my nostrils. 

I sat down at the desk and moved the typewriter to begin to put these words upon paper when I noticed sitting on my couch, looking rather smug—maybe slightly amused with himself—a man in the most god-awful and disturbing bright yellow suit. His jacket, pants, and shoes were all this bright, garish yellow, as if a florist company hired a tailor to make clothes inspired by the bright summery yellow of a dandelion. I reached for my side arm, then stood up and, mimicking my movements, the man stood up. He was tall, maybe about six feet even, and that smile never shifted from his face. It was the dumbest grin anyone could pull off. 

“I don’t know who you are, but you better start talking,” I declared with a stern voice.

Two simple words were all that came out of the unknown mans’ mouth. He said them like they were his name, or maybe an honorific title such as sir or madam. He spoke them in a deep voice, somehow never shifting from that grin to moving his jaw, as though the motion was singular and the same thing. 

“Indrid Cold.” 

He turned, then seemed befuddled with the door knob. I moved to the door and opened it for him. He moved past me with such grace that I had barely turned when he stepped out my office door and was gone to the stairwell faster than anyone could naturally run. I looked back at the seat he had occupied and to a lone clipping of newspaper and a key laying on the cushion. I could not determine the newspaper it had been removed from, however, from the picture, I could make out an image of a field and a caption that read

“House burns down on Union Avenue under unexplainable circumstances”

The key on the couch appeared to be made of iron. The teeth looked like an old skeleton key, and the handle was flat, yet twisted in some kind of Celtic Knot. It did feel heavier than it should, and in my hands it felt cold to the touch, as if it had been buried in the snow. I am certain that it would not take a lot of information to determine that this key goes to the burned down house, which did not answer all the questions, but left me with more problems instead. 

My first inclination was to contact the police, yet something inside my mind felt that doing so would be counterintuitive to my job. Somehow, this mysterious, grinning man has not so much as asked me to solve a case, but perhaps given me an idea as to clues and answers. 

Sitting back down, I took the article and the key and placed them on the desk next to the typewriter. Soon, the hours would pass into night before the click-clacking of the keys would come to an end. Then, only because the whiskey which I drank gluttonously dripped its last drop, I passed out on the couch. 

The words would be over soon, and the case has ended, but did I truly find a man, or did I find myself? For certain, before I would begin again, I would need more whiskey, or, perhaps, something a little more refined: a sweet burning fire of charred oak smoke scotch. 

Perhaps it was time to return to the Father for reconciliation, but how can I begin? Forgive me, Father, for I have unleashed Pandora’s Box on the world, and released a dark horror that no mere mortal would ever be able to contain? Time will tell, and it will find me insane. 

Epilogue 

The dreams started again. Not dreams of light and prisms. Dreams of fire and smoke. Dreams that haze into this world like pavement radiating the heat of the sun. Dreams that turn joy and happiness into dust and ash. No, not dreams, nightmares of things that do not belong in our waking reality. Nightmares of dread and pain that scream into our lives, grabbing us and stealing our minds taking away from us those fleeting desires of peace. Nightmares that have come fully into our world, and have taken part of  our lives, stealing from us all that makes the sun shine and the sky blue. I did not wake up from that nightmare two weeks ago. I entered into it and now live everyday hunting and searching for the things which nightmares are made of. 

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