“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity,
and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” —H.P. Lovecraft
Why did I slay one Abraham Andrew Allerton, Doctor of Psychiatry?
It wasn’t a case of an eye for an eye or a life for a life, but a mind for a mind.
If you keep reading these words after such frightful confessions, you are a dearer friend than I deserve. You haven’t flinched from what constitutes eternal damnation. You’ve stared it in the face. Moreover, you’ve sought to understand it, if not absolve it. You wish to plumb the depths of a murderer, and plumb you shall. Once you know why I killed, it will no longer surprise you that I killed at all.
My motive consists of three parts: God, a woman, and the Allerton Device.
* * * * * * * * *
According to one of the Five Points of Calvinism, Perseverance of the Saints, nothing can sever one’s soul from God – even what I aim to accomplish. The Lord is not only almighty, but sovereign. He has chosen His elect from the beginning of time. Nothing we do can change it. He chose Adam and Eve over Lucifer, Abel over Cain, and Jesus Christ over Pontius Pilate. He consigned them to heaven and hell by His design, not our own free will.
I knew such truths to be false, and proved them false at gunpoint.
* * * * * * * *
The woman hadn’t suspected my intentions at first. Cherchez la femme, said all the detectives in all the cheap mystery novels, but this particular femme, even when found, didn’t implicate me. She didn’t need to. My confession was enough. Besides, she had lain in a state of deep sedation when I murdered my worst enemy: my colleague and her psychiatrist. From our previous encounters, she’d known I disliked Dr. A., but knew not the depth of my hatred, cultivated over twenty years. She didn’t see the expression on my superior’s face when he first heard my name:
Dr. Martin Vollinger.
German vermin. So he’d called me in his journal, but that’s not why I killed him. Even then, I was a reasonable man. I’d had to be in order to practice at the Asylum in Sanctum, Massachusetts, up until the end of 1885. I’d had my patients; Dr. A. had had his, and she had been one of the latter. He’d put her in grave danger for the sake of his ego and the success of one of his inventions: the Allerton Device.
I’d first read about it in reference to L.W. – the woman of whom I speak and the newest charge for whom he was responsible – and what he meant to do to her.
In his hand-penned scrawl: Trial. . .new device. . .experiment. . .no admittance. Beyond the obvious meanings of the first four words, the last two had implied something worse. Sanctum Asylum was bound by the Hippocratic oath, and by law. Whether conventional or experimental, any psychiatric treatment by any of our doctors had to lie within such parameters. “No admittance” implied that whatever Dr. A.’s “new device” happened to be, it wasn’t to be applied or operated within the Asylum. Moreover, L.W. wasn’t to be confined as an inmate. Rarely, if ever, was this good news. She’d likely end up dead, not cured. My nemesis would likely be hanged. As much as that thought had cheered me, the former had not. As my God or hers was my witness, Miss Libra Wright would not die by his hand.
He’d die by mine.
* * * * * * * *
Preachers and laymen alike claim the Almighty grants us every opportunity not only to repent, but to flee from iniquity in the first place. Sin is a choice, not a state or condition. Nonetheless, each of us is predisposed to sin because of Man’s fall. It’s akin to playing with unlucky dice, weighted on the low digits instead of the high. As soon as I saw Dr. A.’s plans in black and white, I knew what numbers I’d rolled. Or, as we Arminians would have it, what numbers I’d chosen to roll.
On that All Saints’ Day, November first – a week ago – the die had been cast.
* * * * * * * *
One shouldn’t believe everything one reads, even written in a doctor’s hand. I’d tried everything I could not to believe Dr. A’s script, even inspecting his fateful words with a magnifying glass. I’d also surmised that, since English wasn’t my mother tongue, something had gotten lost in translation. Surely Abraham Andrew Allerton hadn’t been meaning to do something against the laws of God and Man.
I had reread his journal entry. That was exactly what he had intended.
“No,” I’d blurted to myself, shuttered in my bedroom, attempting to deny it. A renowned physician, second only to the head of the Asylum and his counselors, would never have bet his reputation, license, and freedom on such a gambit. He’d been arrogant and presumptuous, yes, but not foolhardy. On the other hand, if his experiment had worked, his prestige would have ballooned. Even here in my jail cell, I saw Dr. A.’s name on article after article, monopolizing the psychiatric journals throughout Massachusetts and all of New England. If he’d succeeded in his endeavor, he would’ve been famous throughout the country, even the world.
Ah, Martin, came a chiding thought. Is that all this was? Professional jealousy?
In the darkness that enshrouds my body, the possibility haunts my mind.
I must recall my steps, or I truly will go mad in this cramped enclosure. Let me retrace my path, the winding thread of Ariadne, to when I first unspooled it.
* * * * * * * *
One week ago, I placed two fingers to the bridge of my nose and pressed hard, to fend off a splitting headache. The clock on the bureau increased my agony with every tick. After a few minutes, I reached for the bourbon and glass I kept in my nightstand drawer. Pouring myself a full tumbler, I stared into it before giving a toast to nothing and no one. I wasn’t so far gone as to drain it in one gulp, but I was close. Fire coursed through my veins, making me sweaty and relaxed, ready for sleep. The resulting nightmare, brought on by drink and delusion, still plagues me.
I stood bound and gagged in the center of that room, that horrid shrine to the world’s falseness Libra had shown me on All Hallows’ Eve. My suit and dinner jacket had transmogrified into a patient’s trousers and straitjacket, looking like a gentleman’s garb yet confining me all the same. Although I could neither move nor speak, I rotated like the chandelier above me, round and round, to the piping of a huge orchestrion. Off to my left, an ornate carousel horse pitched wildly, neighing and chomping at the bit as if its life depended on it. Perhaps it did. On a far display shelf, a family of Russian dolls laughed in the scornful manner of the schoolyard.
Even these were not as terrifying as the African ritual masks. Instead of hanging on separate walls, all eight of them hung upon the same one. Worse, from where I stood, that wall was slowly closing in, intending to crush me.
I struggled to free myself from the elegant straitjacket, to no avail. I bit down on my gag so hard I thought I’d lose a few teeth, but couldn’t tear the cloth. All I could do was drool like an imbecile or a patient with too severe of a lobotomy. My body turned and turned, as if glued to a phonograph record on its slowest speed. The orchestrion played on, and in the meantime, the masks gaped ever wider:
Empty eyes and empty faces, hungry in all times and places.
That rhyme echoed in Libra’s voice as I stared at them, and they stared back. The wall edged closer. I found myself trying and failing to scream. Sweat beaded on my forehead and dripped down into my brows, making them itch like the devil. In an instant, I realized this place meant to drive me insane and would soon do so.
The masks began to vocalize in unison, making the sound of the letter V. To my horror, they progressed to voll: the first syllable of my last name. Nevertheless, they got no further. Instead they intoned something slightly different: vuuaall –
I awoke drenched in perspiration, my sheets and body reeking.
* * * * * * * *
‘Twas three more days, November fourth, before I found out what one piece of my dream meant. I hadn’t been looking to find it out, but life had its own plans.
Few outsiders dared to venture past the gates of Sanctum Asylum. Patients’ friends and loved ones would visit, but not often, chiefly for Christmas and Easter. Those holidays may not have meant much to the poor souls confined here, but the sight of familiar faces – however pained – lifted their spirits. The tragedy, as they and their families knew well, was that not everyone got to go home at the end of the day. Mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, and bosom friends would find a warm bed and a lit fireplace waiting for them; our residents a cold, empty cot.
Anyone else who came to us had good reason: an ounce of prevention.
They also had good reason to hide their identities, as she did on her visits.
On her first appointment after that portentous gathering, I thought her a grieving widow, come to inform a patient about their mutual loss. She looked the part: ebony dress, funeral veil concealing her face, thick wool shawl and fur muff to combat November’s frost. I watched her arrive from a vantage point in the front office where we received visitors. Officially, I was taking a break from my rounds. Unofficially, I was keeping tabs on the also-present Dr. A.
“Who could that be?” asked my enemy. “I wonder who’s passed away.”
“God rest their soul.” I said nothing more as the woman entered. She kept her lace in place as she stepped to the reception desk, giving her name to the nurse.
“Beg your pardon, ma’am,” the nurse said, “but I couldn’t quite hear. . .”
I recognized her hands at once – delicate with long fingers, each one bearing an amber ring in a certain color of the rainbow. From our first meeting, I knew each stone contained an insect, as entombed and mummified as an Egyptian pharaoh.
“Libra Amalia Wright,” the woman repeated, having entered safe haven. She lifted her veil, taking care not to have the lace snag on her ten pieces of jewelry. Upon spotting the two of us, she gave a start – or pretended to. “Oh! How nice to see you again, Doctors Allerton and Vollinger. I’ve come to consult the elder one.”
“This way, Miss Wright.” Dr. A. took her arm and began leading her toward the administrative wing of the Asylum, flashing a smirk back over his shoulder. The scoundrel! Before, on Hallowe’en, Libra had said that she didn’t trust him –
“Doctor?” The reception nurse glanced my way. “Are you all right?”
“Quite.” Without another word, I headed to my office and bolted the door. For a long while all I did was pace, hands balled into fists at my sides. I wanted to punch the wall, shatter my desk lamp, and scatter papers everywhere. Who did he think he was, and what kind of game was Libra playing? At the party she’d hosted on All Hallows’ Eve, I’d learned Miss Wright and Dr. A. had known each other for five years. Yet, on that same night, I had almost known her in the Biblical sense.
Why hadn’t she told me that my enemy was her physician? Why had she offered herself to me, a total stranger, in the face of what and whom she knew?
I would have gone on fuming and pacing had it not been for a five-rap knock: my faithful associate, N. I could always count on him to lighten my mood. As I unlocked the door, the edges of a plan formed in my mind, like those of a puzzle.
“Well, Doctor,” N. chirped, not noticing my scowl, “anything unusual today?”
The corners of my mouth turned up. “‘Tis a madhouse. Notwithstanding, I am conducting an…unofficial investigation…of one of my colleagues, suspecting foul play but lacking proof. I’d like you to conduct reconnaissance and requisition.”
N.’s eyebrows rose, and he lowered his voice. “Snooping and stealing, sir?”
“Indeed.” I motioned for him to sit in the chair opposite my desk. He obeyed. “Whatever we say in here remains in here. Understand?” My companion nodded. “Water?” N. shook his head, but I poured myself a glass from the pitcher cooling on one of the windowsills. This I drained in a single long draught, unlike the liquor I so often favored. Refilling it, I continued, “You are familiar with the subject of my inquest, I presume?” The young man opposite me gave a wry grin. “Good. As I’ve said, I have no evidence of possible misdeeds, but I’ve come into possession of a personal effect of his that – sod it!” I hissed. “I swiped his journal from his office.”
“A-ha!” cried N., a bit too loudly. Realizing this, he murmured, “Well?”
“He’s working on some kind of device and intends to use one of his patients as its subject.” I paused for dramatic effect. “A patient he and I both know: L.W.” Another pause. “A few inmates here at the Asylum have those initials, but the one I speak of has not yet been admitted. He refers to her as ‘the macabre collector.’”
“Her?” N. straightened in his chair, disbelieving. “Doctor, you can’t mean –”
“I do, and I can prove it.” I beckoned him around to my side of the desk, slid Dr. A.’s diary out of my own valise, and flipped to the last page. “Look here.”
N. snickered. “That’s nothing but a bunch of chicken scratches – wait.” His brows furrowed to a point. I could tell that he saw what I’d seen. “I’ll be damned.”
“As will I.” I turned to my sole confidant. “If true, he’ll pay with his life.”
Until this point, I thought nothing could startle N. “Why not go to the police with this? He’s already tried to kill – ” I waved the rest of his protest away like a fly.
“If I involve the law, many complications will ensue. First: I’ll have to inform them about our subject’s intent to strangle me on October thirty-first. That I will not do, now that I’ve learned about this most recent development. I want to find out what the ‘new device’ is – the what, when, where and why as well as the who. I’m a psychiatrist, and whatever my colleague is planning, it has to do with matters in which we’re both experts. The police won’t know anything about the methods we use to treat patients, within these walls or not. It takes years to master them.”
N. asked for a glass of water, his face gone pale. I gave him one.
“Second,” I continued, “I won’t have lawmen judging the patient in question to be insane and in need of commitment. Not all who seek answers here are mad. As far as I know, she’ll be returning home after her session, as she should be. Third: Since she is ‘the macabre collector’ referred to in these journal notes, and since I’ve seen certain rare and macabre items in her collection, it follows that I can’t have bumble-footed bobbies seizing those items as evidence. They’re museum-quality, but it is she and her father who have acquired them, not bloody museums. Yes?”
“Quite so,” said N., his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down.
“Fourth: How could I have failed to remember, before now, that L.W. is far more perceptive than I gave her credit for? She could be working to turn the tables.”
“I like that idea. Fifth…” My assistant toasted me. “You hate his guts.”
“That’s beside the point.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s a motive for murder, and it’ll make you a prime suspect.”
“I don’t care.” I leaned into N.’s face. “I’ll kill him if he experiments on her.”
“If. All of this depends on one word. You could be completely mistaken.”
“I hope to God I am. That’s where you come in. I’d like you to take his journal and replace it in the bottom left drawer of his desk, beneath everything else. He’ll be looking for it if he isn’t already. He left his office door unlocked, the imbecile.”
“If he didn’t now, don’t worry,” said N. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
A jolt of apprehension made me shudder. “In the meantime, look for anything and everything else that mentions a ‘device’ or ‘new device’ – not just papers or more entries of this sort, but blueprints, sketches, schematics. They may not be in his office. They may not even exist, but I cannot blink what I saw.”
“Nor can I.” My ally finished his glass and stood up. “I’ll do what I can, sir.”
“Make haste. I don’t know how far he’s gotten in his plans, if there are any.” After handing N. the diary of one Abraham Andrew Allerton and having him hide it in his jacket, I unlocked the door and followed him out of my office. What I heard from the direction of the waiting area made me all the surer of my designs: three voices, two male, one female. The third made me want to run to her, to warn her.
“Do you know what a factotum is?” thundered the baritone of Dr. A.
“Er…” Both N. and I recognized D., our foe’s hapless flunky.
“It literally means ‘do everything,’ so go and do as I say, you dolt!”
“Yes, Doctor.” We heard the latter’s footsteps scurry down the hallway that led to our patients’ wing. More than likely, D. had been assigned some disgusting task involving bodily fluids. As squeamish as he was, he remained a decent lad.
A decent lad, prompted the devil’s voice in my head, who might be useful.
“Do you always shout at your assistants that way?” asked the female.
“When they don’t heed me, of course I do,” replied her psychiatrist. “As for our next appointment, I have Friday or next Monday free. See the reception nurse.”
With care, I strode forward but simultaneously gestured for N. to widen the distance between us, to return down the corridor and see if Dr. A.’s office was open.
“I wish you good day until – ahem. Vollinger. I was about to seek you out.”
Keeping my face stone and my spine steel, I ignored him and stepped toward her. “Greetings, Miss Wright,” I said. “How lovely to see you on this fine afternoon.”
“Likewise.” She appeared on the brink of telling me something, then withdrew her comment as she withdrew her hand from my approaching lips. “I enjoyed meeting you at my soiree last Saturday.” She flashed a grin. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes.
A question flew from my mouth like a bullet: “What does ‘vual’ mean?”
Her eyes widened so far I thought they’d pop out of their sockets.
“Vual’,” she pronounced like the French word ‘voile.’ “It’s Russian for veil.”
Something far more horrific than my inquiry threatened to burst forth: The masks told me to look for you, for your veil. That was all they said before I awoke.
“Farewell, Doctors,” she said after a beat. “I’ll see you both soon.” With all my heart, I wished to ask how soon, but sensed she’d find me before I next found her. As she lifted the thick black lace over her face again, I thought what a pity it was she had to conceal it. If the sick of body could visit their physicians with uncovered faces, the sick of mind shouldn’t be afraid to do the same. Yet the stigma remained.
After Libra departed down the path up to our gates, Dr. A. seized me:
“Where is it?”
My insides lurched. “Aren’t you going to ask me what that was about?”
“You’re a strange man, Martin, but I never once believed you were a thief.”
I clenched my jaw and tried to pull free from his grasp. “You slander me.”
“Then you have no idea what became of my private journal?”
“Not a one. Let me go.”
“Oh?” He yanked me closer and once again emerged the stronger. “First you steal, then you lie. Confess and return my personal property, and all will be forgiven. If not, I’ll summon the police. Well? What’ll it be? Think quickly.”
Bless his soul! D. returned at that moment and saw us, his mouth an O.
“I suspect it’s in your office,” I replied, “where you usually keep it.”
“No.” From his vantage point, Dr. A. couldn’t see N. coming back toward us.
“Yes. Somehow you’ve misplaced it, or are experiencing incipient paranoia.”
“Sir?” interrupted D. “I’ve cleaned up the mess in a particular patient’s cell.”
“Come!” Dr. A. gave neither thanks nor an acknowledgment of a job well done, just another order. Such was his manner with equals and subordinates alike. “We’re searching my office, top to bottom. Dr. Vollinger has pilfered my journal.” D. didn’t say another word. He ran down the administrative hall after his master. When they were both out of earshot, N. stepped up to me and winked his left eye.
“Pardon us,” I told the reception nurse as we headed to the empty physicians’ lounge. Once inside, I whispered, “Excellent work. Anything else yet?” N. shook his head. “Why should I have expected there to be? Was his door locked?” A bow, an inclination of the neck, told me what I needed to know. I didn’t want to know all. The fewer details I were privy to in regards to my factotum’s tricks, the better.
I leaned in close. “Her next appointment is on Friday or next Monday. Work on D. Take him out for drinks. I know you two are compatriots, if not chums.”
N. backed up a step, assessing me. “I like the way you think, Doctor.”
Despite the crackling fireplace in the lounge, another chill convulsed me.
* * * * * * * *
That Thursday evening, I knew from N., who’d known from sneaking a peek at our reception nurse’s appointment book, that Monday was Libra’s next session.
I also knew Grace was on to me – not my plans, Lord, no – but my anxiety.
“What’s been ailing you lately, sir?” she asked, wringing her hands. “All this week, I’ve made your favorites: rouladen, sauerbraten, potato pancakes and even rote grütze: red fruit pudding to settle your stomach. Just the same, you pick at it instead of cleaning your plate as usual.” She sighed. “Tell me.”
“A particular patient has been giving me trouble.”
“Hah! That’s like saying, ‘It’s raining outside, and my hands ache.’” Bad weather irritated my housekeeper’s joints, although not to the point of crippling arthritis. Vigorous health had favored Grace from childhood into middle age, or so she said. “The truth is, it’s almost always raining this time of year, and particular patients are almost always giving you trouble. They don’t make you eat next to nothing. Why is this one so bad? Is he so violent that you’re thinking of doing a lobot – ”
“No.” I sliced the last three letters of that word off, as if with a scalpel.
“Then what?” Grace sat next to me, taking my hands in hers. “You can’t help anyone else if you make yourself sick in the process. Physician, heal thyself.”
“You quote Christ,” I replied, “though you can’t perform miracles. Howbeit, I may need your help and His in this matter.” After swallowing a mouthful of tea that had turned lukewarm, I continued, “I’m not afraid for one of my own patients, but someone else’s. Her life may be in danger.”
“Ah.” A long silence. “Have you told Dr. Allerton or the Asylum head of this?”
“Not yet. I have suspicions but no proof. I’m working on gathering it.”
“Detectives work better on full stomachs. I’ll rewarm your dinner dish.”
“Don’t bother. Just bring a digestive to my chamber, if you would.”
Grace frowned. “In my opinion, you’ve been digesting too much as of late. Eat. Then perhaps I’ll reconsider. For now, if you’re going to bed early, you’re also going to bed hungry.” She took my bowl of eintopf, one-pot stew, to the stove. Like a son to his mother, I yielded, realizing that I hadn’t had a full meal in over a week. I even wanted my uneaten dessert from last night, kept cold in our new icebox.
Still, with my belly full, I ached for the familiar burning of liquor within.
The next night, I could hardly contain myself. N. had informed me he’d be taking D. to the tavern for more than a few rounds. I’d grinned at our scheming. N. hadn’t been able to bring me any documentation I’d sought regarding the Allerton Device. Apparently there were no such documents, at least not in Dr. A’s. office. As for my abettor not being able to sneak in and out, or for long-enough periods of time to do serious digging, I preferred not to think about it. Plausible deniability. That left one of two possibilities: I’d misread A.’s journal, or he had it at home.
Memory is a funny, faulty thing. It can deceive you when you need it most. In the parlor I used for reading and reviewing cases, I opened and closed my eyes, trying to picture my enemy’s words, but not getting past German vermin.
Had hatred blinded me? Was I groping in the dark for a nonexistent plot?
Shaking my head, I opened my valise and removed a stack of patient files. It set me to thinking of Libra. What psychic malaise did she have? Hysteria? Possibly. In a rational sense, what else could make her bare and offer herself to a man she’d known for a few hours? I then thought she might harbor delusions of grandeur. In contrast to colorfully-dressed women who appeared around Hallowe’en time and told fortunes for money, Miss Wright truly believed she could do so – for free. She had been right about Mr. and Mrs. P., and Madeline’s relationship with the former. On the contrary, anyone who’d known those three might have guessed. As for Dr. A. and her slashing his palm with her hatpin, she could have done so for dramatic effect. Allerton had overreacted, but Libra may have also laid it on too thickly.
More thoughts came unbidden: What about her father’s artifacts? Her chapel?
I pushed them away. More delusions, brought on by her obsessive interest.
Taking up paper and pen, I listed hysteria, delusions of grandeur, obsession with Egyptology and Egyptian relics, neurosis. However, what kind of neurosis? The term was so vague it might as well have been useless. When I’d met Libra, she had not seemed unduly anxious or perturbed. In fact, I’d been astounded at her calm as she’d revealed the dirty secret that bound the two P.’s and Madeline in a web of lies.
Web. I began drawing one. A sudden insight made me add split mind.
“She’s torn between two worlds,” I muttered to myself, “this one and the one she imagines: the world of her god. Ancient Egypt, dead to us but quite alive to her. What keeps her alive are the mundane things we all must do in order to survive, but these tasks mean nothing compared to her inner life. In her outer life, she must be a normal, sane person, or behave like one at the very least. She must look, dress and act as any other woman of our day would, but she’s having trouble with the part. The script is foreign to her, as are the stage directions.” I stood up and started pacing. “She’s lost but can’t admit it, and must be found.”
Rain lashed the windows outside. The gas lamp on my table dimmed.
“How to find her? More importantly, how does Dr. A. mean to find her?” That second question repulsed me, made me recoil as if from a nest of worms. I knew I had to unearth it if I were to get anywhere. “If there is an Allerton Device,” I asked the cool, empty air, “what is it and what does it do? How dangerous is it? Is it mechanical? Electrical? It must be some kind of machine, not a drug or pill. It may refer to a therapy none of us at the Asylum has heard of yet, but if so, why not call it the Allerton Method or Allerton Treatment? How big is it? Can it be transported?”
I sat back down, nearly knocking my chair over, and began writing my new list. Before, when I’d been listing diagnoses, I’d felt that welcoming sense of professional distance that greeted me whenever I analyzed other cases. Now a buzz of frantic energy suffused me. I scribbled as I had on the cold and ominous night when I’d first met Libra, deeming her completely detached. So she was, but how was my adversary planning to reconnect her to the here and now? No admittance? Sanctum Asylum was a refuge from outside influences, yet influenced by them, like Jesus upon the earth. A Scripture verse struck me like a bolt of lightning:
“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…” Romans 12:2. The Allerton Device was meant to accomplish it. How?
I had none of the blueprints, diagrams, or schematics I’d demanded from N. Therefore, I was required to make my own. Hypothesis or not, delusion or not, if A.’s journal entry were correct, I had to try and guess that to which it referred.
Laying aside the instruments of my profession, I drafted sketches, reaching into the uncharted territory of madness. People had thought Columbus insane when he’d declared the world round, but Pythagoras had said this ages earlier. Who was Dr. A.? A visionary mathematician and scientist or an opportunist? I had my own theory, but it lacked evidence. Thus I kept drawing.
When I finally went to bed, my clock’s small hand rested right on the three.
I didn’t need any bourbon in order to fall into dreamless sleep.
* * * * * * * *
Grace’s frenzied knocking woke me. “Doctor Vollinger? You have a visitor!”
I peeled my gummy eyes open, thrashed about in my sheets and thumped to the floor. Standing up, I realized I had all the symptoms of a hangover with none of the headache. I also realized I was dressed in the same clothes from the night before. Begging for Grace to stall, I splashed water on my face and hands from the pitcher on my nightstand. No one could see me in such a state, least of all Libra.
“You slept through breakfast,” said Grace. “You’re coming down for lunch.”
Horrors! “Is she, as well?”
“He, not she. He’s eating, too. I daresay you two know each other familiarly.”
My shame deepened. Who presents himself bedraggled for mortal combat? “I’ll be right there. Show him your sitting room or some-such. Please buy me time.” Bumbling like a drunkard, I changed my shirt, then wet my hair and combed it. If I’d been in my right mind, I would’ve armed myself with something more than a pen, but the dregs of slumber hadn’t pumped themselves out of my body. Speaking of which, I dashed to the lavatory before righting myself and arriving downstairs.
What to say: Hello? I know your plans? Not so fast? Perhaps En garde?
“Doctor,” said an indeed-familiar voice. “I didn’t intend to impose on you.”
My bowels turned to liquid. Luckily for me, nothing dripped out. “Hello, N.”
“Your housemaid says she makes a scrumptious beefsteak. Shall we dine?”
While doing so, we kept to small talk: sports, local rumors, the goings-on and hangers-on of Sanctum’s hallowed leaders. It wouldn’t do to discuss business with other ears around, even those in the walls. Only when we reached my disheveled parlor were he and I in safe-enough environs to bring what we knew into the open.
“I’m afraid I’m a mite drunk,” N. began, “but you’re a mite tired. Aye?”
“You have the right of it.” I noticed that he carried a portfolio. “Now. . .”
“Understand two things. First, this isn’t my folder, but that of a delightfully dim-witted dolt. Second, me getting D. soused didn’t quite convince him to fork it over. We also had to visit the reputable residence of Regina Devon.” I sighed. Pious women in Sanctum counted Mrs. Devon as the number-one thorn in their side.
“Mind you, I paid but didn’t indulge, except in wine and spirits. Too much risk of disease if I partook of the other luxury. Besides, I already have a steady girl.”
“Congratulations.” I leaned in like a dog about to receive a treat, switching places with N. for once in my career. “On to the matter at hand. What did you –”
My jack-of-all trades clicked his tongue. “Come, Doctor. You congratulated me just now, but you shouldn’t have. I suspect she’s being unfaithful.” I frowned, but my expression didn’t carry enough weight for the occasion. “What say you?”
“Gather some evidence,” I answered. “Speaking of which. . .”
“You don’t think I should teach her a lesson? Show her who’s master around here?”
“Do as you will, my boy.” With a searing glare, N. surveyed me. Why was he telling me this? It had nothing to do with what I’d ordered him to do. Master indeed!
In retrospect, after all these secluded and silent days, I should have known.
* * * * * * * *
“Dr. Abraham Allerton believes that he can reconstruct the human mind.”
N.’s blasé statement shouldn’t have surprised or alarmed me, but it did. “We all believe we can do that in our line of work. If we didn’t, why go into the practice?”
“You seek mental reconstruction through therapy, from the subtlest to the most obvious forms. That’s not at all what my superior thinks he and his gadget can do.” He formed his lengthy fingertips into a pyramid. “If it works, it’ll render our methods not only irrelevant, but primitive. We’d be as cavemen. He’d be a god.”
“So there is a device. Reveal everything, and start with the portfolio.”
N. laughed. “That moron D. had kept it right under my nose in Dr. A’s office, in a cubbyhole I had checked several times before. I’d figured it was just an old file for a patient long dead. Looks ancient, doesn’t it? All the better as a disguise.” He pulled out its contents, shuffled a few sheets, then found the actual first page.
Like the pop of a flashbulb, three words exploded in my consciousness: voile, vual’, veil. The document being unveiled made me clench my teeth to stifle a cry.
THE ALLERTON DEVICE: RATIONALE, MECHANICS, SCHEMATA
A Treatise by Abraham Andrew Allerton, Doctor of Psychiatry
I: Rationale, pp. 1-10
II: Mechanics, pp. 11-21
III: Schemata, pp. 22-32
IV: Appendix A, pp. 33-36
V: Appendix B, pp. 37-40
Here at last was the mother lode, the gold vein I had nearly sought in vain. I’d thought it a figment of my imagination, and a dangerous one at that. Now, in N.’s hands lay the proof I needed to send my elder to a padded cell, if not the gallows.
Here was my rationale for the worst crime against man that another can commit.
The trouble was, other than the title page, I couldn’t understand any of it.
“The truth? It seems to be an electric lobotomy gewgaw, and something more.”
Apoplectic, I spluttered, stuttered and finally snapped. “Explain. Now.”
N. rifled through several pages until he reached the first of the schemata. “This device, the Allerton Device, is a metal cap that fits snugly over the skull. This means that the patient’s head, whether male or female, must be shaved. One can’t have the subject’s hair catching fire, eh?” I couldn’t nod. I couldn’t move. When N. flipped to another sheet, terror petrified me all the more. The skull without the device was sectioned into different parts with different labels: a phrenology sketch. Arrows pointed to several of these spaces, but the writing explaining the arrows was so minuscule I had to ask my assistant to read it. He had younger eyes.
“Graphite paste,” N. revealed, “on some areas of the skull but not others. It gets worse. This drawing is a general example, not one of a particular patient. Ergo, every case is different. Ergo, the subject of Allerton’s trial run isn’t depicted here.”
“Ergo,” I said, “he must have a drawing of her phrenology somewhere else.”
“Correct. Now, as simple as the skullcap appears to be,” continued N., going back to the first schematic, “it’s immensely complicated. The metal bars that make up the cap’s skeleton aren’t its main components. See these nodules? One attaches wires to them, of course, but not all of them.” He pointed to certain nodules with the tip of his finger, gestured to the writing denoting them, then gazed at me with a mixture of fear and awe. “What’s an organophonic resonator? Several of them lie upon the top curved bars. What are bioelectrical feedback modulators? Limbic tubes? Worst of all, lumae cytophagy stations? What are lumae, anyway?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know about them, or any of those components.”
“No matter how bizarre these sketches are, I’d like to direct your attention to the first page of the Mechanics section. As you know, the word means not only the inner workings of machines, but the how of a given situation. The mechanics of eating involve our jaws, teeth, and parts of our mouths, but the mechanics of eating are also the intake and processing of food in general.”
What I saw on the leading page titled Mechanics made my eyes bulge:
Stage One: Lumatic and Organophonic Assessment of the Brain
Stage Two: Deconstruction
Stage Three: Reconstruction
“Mein Gott!” I shrieked, lapsing into German and startling myself.
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain, Doctor, but that applies to ordinary circumstances. These are not, so your blasphemy is forgiven.”
Something else in my fevered mind stirred, a buried memory burbling to the surface like a gas bubble in a swamp. “This all sounds a little like the conjectures some of my fellows posed about so-called ‘electroconvulsive therapy’. When they mentioned it in passing, in the physicians’ lounge, their consensus was that it was a fringe theory, impractical to use in treatment. The technology’s not there.”
N. gestured toward the sketches. “Ta-da! There it is, according to him.”
“How. . .how and why does he think he can do this, can use this?”
“For the good of his patients, science, humanity and all that rot. Our current frontal and trans-orbital techniques are so crude. You go in through the eye with an icepick and/or sever the frontal lobes of the brain, for Christ’s sake. What you get after such procedures, more often than not, isn’t a cured patient but a grown child, indifferent to the opinions of others, unable to make future plans, and void of emotion – cold and even like the sea after a winter storm, but far less beautiful. Dr. Allerton is in charge of them, but he’d like to do something different.”
“Hence his device, but how would electricity and whatever else be better?”
“According to this treatise, they wouldn’t damage the brain as much, only dull and refigure – that’s his hope – the areas causing a person to suffer madness.”
“Refigure.” The term sounded as exotic to me as Chinese or Hindi.
“Rewire, if you will. Imagine a house with faulty wiring. He says he’ll fix it.”
“Right, right.” Wright. “Do you know if he’ll test this contraption soon, or if he has even constructed it? Has Dr. Allerton selected any patients for a test run?”
“Yes on all three counts.” A beat. “I think you even know the subject.”
Poets and peasants alike spoke of their blood running cold, but in practically all cases, they used figurative language. I had to stop my teeth from chattering.
“I have to see her, warn her.” I snatched most of the pages and the folder from N., scattering an appendix – A or B, I knew not which – onto the floor. “Goodbye.”
As I darted from my home and headed for the street in a dead sprint, my loyal aide called after me. I didn’t understand his shout until I’d reached her house:
* * * * * * * *
A gentleman knocks on a lady’s door. I pounded like a brute.
“Open up.” Five more bashes. “Open this door at once! It’s Dr. Martin Vollinger!”
The entranceway gave a slow, elderly creak, and Eliza glowered.
“You weren’t invited. Can’t come in.”
“It’s all right,” called a voice from inside. “I know why he’s here. Enter.” Eliza opened the door just enough for me to slide through, but no further, making me drop more pages of Dr. Allerton’s thesis. I cursed her and myself, but Libra came to my aid. After collecting the dusty sheets of paper and handing them to me, she lay a bejeweled hand upon my arm. “Come, Doctor. We have much to discuss. Eliza? Don’t bother putting the kettle on. We do not wish to be disturbed in any way.”
“Aye, Miss.” Plainly the mummy disagreed, but who was she to argue?
My blood and marrow knew where we were headed: not the parlor, nor that garish temple to the world’s lies, nor her mother’s sitting room either. When we reached her bedchamber, Libra locked the door behind us and bade me sit at her reading table. So she deemed it; ‘twas bare at the moment. I spread the scattered pages of my adversary’s work out on it. When she came and sat, she turned up the oil lantern, then took a sheet and showed it to me: Rationale, the very beginning.
“Don’t rely on what he says here,” Miss Wright began. “Not a word of it.”
“He wants to cure me. Not for my own sake, nor for the good of humanity.”
“His own – and his lord’s. Dr. Allerton wants to be renowned throughout the world, but more than that, he wishes for his master’s cause to be advanced.”
I didn’t understand. “What lord or master? What cause?”
Libra offered me Mona Lisa’s smile. “The same as mine, dear Vollinger.”
Thunderstruck, I swept the pages off the table. “Allerton worships HIM?! The deity of the Black Pharaoh? The Crawling Chaos? The Faceless God? Your god?” Her head dipped in assent. “No. I’ve known that talking anatomical model for twenty years. He advocates nothing but science, progress and profit, no matter how much he keeps quiet about the last. You are mistaken.”
“Am I? I told you he has two faces. He’s about to reveal his hidden one.”
“That’s why he wants your father’s artifacts,” I realized, “but what about you?”
Her smile widened. “I collect, and I’m to be the crown jewel in Dr. A.’s collection.”
I didn’t know if I could bear any more, but I plowed on, hands trembling.
“Libra, listen to me. He doesn’t want to cure you, but lobotomize you –”
She chuckled softly, making the flame of the oil lantern flicker. “Is that what you think? Is that what you believe he wrote?” she asked, motioning to the treatise on the floor. “You either didn’t read the whole thing or couldn’t read it at all.”
“I’ve read enough. He wants to deconstruct and reconstruct your brain.”
“Using organophonic resonators, bioelectrical feedback modulators, limbic tubes, electricity and of course, lumae. Lumae are the most important parts.”
“What in Jesus’ name are they?”
“Creatures so infinitesimal they can’t be seen with the naked eye, like bacteria, only lumae are not. As their name suggests, they give off light. Their purpose is to illuminate the inner parts of my brain, and also to consume damaged and overused tissue before regenerating it, incorporating their own forms into my new matter.”
“So these things are going to eat you and rebuild you? Ghastly nonsense!”
“To you. To me as well, before Dr. Allerton urged that we transcend therapy. You don’t know what I’ve seen with my physical and spiritual eyes. I have traveled to the stars and the spaces between the stars. That’s where lumae come from. You don’t know how lonely it is to know what I know, having chosen knowledge over faith from the time I was thirteen. Originally, I came to the Asylum for a treatment for melancholia of the deep and suicidal sort, not for my current cure.”
“Oh, Libra. . .” My quivering body couldn’t take her in my arms. “My dear. . .”
“You think me imbalanced? Naturally. Who else but a madwoman would speak of such weird imaginings? Such disgusting and disturbed fantasies? I’m not a liar. If I were, I would have written that paper instead of Dr. Allerton, in order to give proof for my delusions. Therefore, it follows that what I say must be the truth.”
“Not at all. Who infected whom with this absolute insanity? Tell me!”
“I ‘infected him’,” she replied, tone flat, face expressionless. “With the idea that there must be other realities beyond this concrete, physical one. He came to expose me as a false medium five years ago, when I first made his acquaintance. Allerton had heard rumors about me and arrived at my house on Halloween night.”
“But instead of exposing you, you converted him to your own dark faith?”
“My own dark gnosis, Doctor: direct experiential knowledge of the divine. As lumae illuminate one’s flesh, knowledge illuminates one’s spirit, eating all of one’s blind beliefs and superstitions, rules and prohibitions, covenants and admonitions. Our mutual enemy –” here she paused – “went too far. A man, being a descendant of fallen Adam, wishes to break the chains of servitude and stake his own claim on the world. A woman, being as Eve, balances her own ambition with humility. After all, what is ascent? If you can’t climb any higher, if you are a deity, what then?”
“I understand Allerton wants to play God, but to be a god? How on earth?”
“Not on this earth – not initially – but in the other worlds we have seen. If Abraham has his way, he will make many sacrifices, make an Isaac of many a man, in order to gain favor with the Crawling Chaos. However, for every lamb he brings to the slaughter, the more power he himself gains. Our lord doesn’t allow rivals.”
“So Allerton must tread a fine line,” I sneered, “between godhood and slavery.”
“As must I.” Libra placed her hand on mine, but I pulled it away in revulsion.
“Why should I believe you? Why should I even speak with you? Go to hell!” In a self-damning flash, I’d done what I’d sworn not to: condemn her. “I. . .”
“Understand.” The glow in those eyes, full of infinite love and infinite sorrow, died.
When their light vanished, extinguished itself outright, I wept. “Why you? Why not perpetrate this crime against nature upon poor O.R., a patient at the Asylum who’s so violent he must be kept in a straitjacket at all times? Even while asleep? Why did that worm choose you above any of his other miserable souls?”
“Because,” replied the macabre collector, “I volunteered. You believe in your God, and I believe in mine. At this moment, I’m at war with Doctor Allerton as to whom the greatest servant of the Crawling Chaos is. ‘Tis imperative I win.”
“Again, why? Why, all of it?”
“I don’t want to sacrifice others to my god’s cause without their knowledge. A slave is made, not born, either as a babe or as a lobotomized automaton. Allerton is focused on mass quantity, not unique quality. The more minds he can remold to be useful to the Outer One we serve, the better. He believes that giving people, however mad, a choice in the matter is useless and counterproductive. I do not. When I brought him upstairs, I initiated him into the mysteries of the Faceless God without showing him my chapel. The artifact within it, my father’s third and most priceless possession, removes all agency from those who seek its secrets, for as long as the two are in one another’s presence. I let Allerton exert his own free will.”
“So he bent the knee, as you did. Unlike you, he seeks to become lord over all.”
“Yes. That’s why I offered myself to you – so you wouldn’t be tempted to follow the same path we do. It’s too perilous to your body, soul and spirit, three in one.” She lifted her eyes to mine. Two voids in the lamplight, empty of any sort of stars. “People are obsessed with love every day of their lives. They speak of it, write about it, sing about it, carve it into statues and monuments, immortalize it. Yet what is it? ‘Tis this: to yearn to bring someone to you, yet set them free to do as they will.”
Silence between us. The soundlessness of space. “He’ll kill you,” I replied.
“Nephren-Ka’s god? Yes. In the sense of using me to my fullest potential. As for Allerton? My appointment to be reconstructed is on Monday morning, beginning at the stroke of midnight. That’s when the Devil’s work is done, or so they say.”
“Where? Here? It’s not going to be at the Asylum. I’ve learned that much.”
“In the room I know you hate, even without having seen your expression. I paid Eliza double her normal wages, besides giving her the week off, in order to let me alone so the good Doctor can perform his procedure. She also cleared out all but the chandelier and the orchestrion. Everything else is in storage in other rooms.” I suddenly wondered how Eliza could have moved the carousel horse, but Libra gave a tinkling laugh. “She had a laborer she knows come and haul it to a shed outside.”
I managed to smile. “What do you think undergoing all this will achieve?”
“Stage four of my completion.” I took her hands this time. “The Chaos swears it.”
“And you can believe ‘the Chaos,’ as opposed to Dr. Abraham Slaughterton?”
Libra stepped around the table, leaned in and whispered:
“Don’t kill him.”
She dismissed me then, from bedchamber and house all at once. I begged her not to do as she had planned and submit to the procedure, but she insisted. With a shrug of derision to hide my fear for her, I slammed the door behind me as I left, back to Grace and home. Back to familiar confines and familiar revelations. I spent the rest of the day preparing for the morrow: Sunday and church. I’d go. In the meantime, I prayed and read Scripture, forgoing both food and liquor.
* * * * * * * *
The morning dawned bright and clear, a chill sea breeze ruffling my hair as I hurried to St. Paul’s Lutheran. Sanctum had two sanctums of my faith, but St. Paul’s was more welcoming to immigrants than the First Lutheran Church, which remained adamant on conducting services only in English. Plus, our pastor had German grandparents. My mother tongue wasn’t foreign to him in the slightest.
His sermon, however, became more alien the more I listened.
“We know Jesus Christ was without sin,” he said by way of introduction. “He was the Son of God and Son of Man, both perfect and perfectly human at the same time. In no way, shape, or form did he disobey or grieve his Heavenly Father. As St. Paul tells us in Philippians 2:8, ‘And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ Sinless as He was, Christ was willing to take the sins of the world upon Himself and die for our sake. That was His final sacrifice and supreme act of bending to God’s will.
“However, was Jesus without temptation? By no means! In the course of his life and ministry on earth, while He fasted and prayed for forty days and nights in the desert, Satan came to Him and presented Him with three gargantuan trials. They were not meant for any mortal man, but for Christ, all things were possible. Let us discuss these temptations one by one, for we face them just as He did.
“The first lure the devil dangled in front of our Lord and Savior was simple. The Book of St. Matthew, chapter four, begins: ‘Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.’
“Our Lord knows we’re ravenous. We hunger and thirst each day, but does this permit us to indulge the needs and pleasures of our bodies at our own whim? No! We should respond as the Savior did to the tempter: ‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.’ Jesus knew it wasn’t worth betraying his Father to satisfy his hunger, to yield not only to the weakness of his frame, but the foul designs of the adversary.
“In a word, the first temptation He faced was hedonism: lust of the flesh.”
I nodded as I’d always done in sermons, assessing and agreeing, yet felt strange.
“Let us now discuss the second trial, more perilous than the first. Matthew’s gospel continues: ‘Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.’
“In short, Satan was asking God’s only begotten Son how much He believed in his Father, and Himself. Consider these last three words well: the devil ordered Christ to prove His own strength and might. By casting himself from the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus would have boasted, not just in His faith but in His command over the angels of the Lord. ‘Behold,’ He might have shouted to the multitudes as he fell! Instead, he reprimanded his enemy. ‘It is written again: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ We should scold ourselves in shame when we are tempted to boast.
“Why? Christ’s second temptation was egotism: pride in one’s own self and power. We should remember that Jesus is not only Savior, but Lord and Master. ‘Tis solely in Him and through Him that we are saved from sin and hell’s torment.”
In my ears, I heard the shrieks of one particular woman in torment.
“As for Jesus’ third and final trial, it’s the most dangerous of all. Hedonism can be suppressed by fasting. Egotism can be banished by humble prayer and humble, menial work. However, what can conquer the last temptation? Let us see.
“‘Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.’ Can you imagine? All the kingdoms of the world! All the glory of an emperor that would last for all time, unlike Julius Caesar and Caligula.
“Jesus could have been a king on earth as well as in heaven, not having to sit and wait until His Second Coming. He could have made all of us His eternal slaves. Rather than accept the devil’s terms, what does He tell His foe? ‘Get thee hence.’ When we are tempted by materialism, when the world presents us with its lures of money and power, we should reject them. We should flee if necessary. We should not abase ourselves before the Prince of this Earth, the Prince of Darkness!”
Another Prince, not with horns and a pitchfork but a sarcophagus of ancient Egypt, appeared to me in my mind’s eye, his mouth sealed shut with gold sutures.
“We are but men,” the pastor said, “yet we can be as God’s Son in shunning these poisoned delicacies Satan offers. Brethren, let us pray for Christ’s strength.” I bowed my head and closed my eyes. Within the silence came new wisdom.
When I opened them, I thought: Miss Wright, you’ve failed all three trials.
Emerging from church, I found myself reassured, renewed, and revitalized. A seagull’s screech greeted me, bidding me good afternoon. Not a cloud marred the sky’s piercing blue, fitting for November because it harbored death as well as life. The stiff Atlantic breeze continued to ruffle my hair, making my scalp tingle. With every step I took, my limbs sang. I shook off the gloom of the past week. Who was I to deny the Lord’s sovereignty? Who was I to shutter myself in dreary rooms day after day, ignorant of the beauty of His creation? Who was I, a forty-five-year-old fumbler, to try and discover what humanity was never meant to?
I started singing my favorite hymn, letting my voice carry on the wind:
“All creatures of our God and King,
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam!
O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”
What had I to do with the wicked god of Nephren-Ka, or with Libra Wright, either?
Arriving home, I found Grace had fixed my favorite dinner: roast and potatoes. Being an Anabaptist, a member of the Schwarzenau Brethren, she’d always stayed home from all the regular church services in town. Despite this, she was the most devout Christian I had ever known. I also knew she’d spent each hour since the break of dawn in prayer. Now she opened her arms wide.
“Martin!” she cried, then remembered herself. “You look well today, sir.”
“Indeed I am.” Embracing her, I said, “Every Sunday I anticipate your feasts.”
“Good. You need them. Life’s been taking its toll on you this past month, and your patients, too.” She gave me a knowing look. “Sit. Everything’s ready.” With a happy sigh, I prayed a blessing over our meal. I was on earth; God was in His heaven, and all was right with the world. Nothing more needed I say or do. After we finished eating, I retired to my quarters for a short after-lunch nap.
It turned out not to be so short after all.
* * * * * * * *
Cold. Cold surpassing the ocean in the depth of winter, cold that froze one’s marrow right through the bone, enveloped me. A stinging whiteness. The curtain of a blizzard nearly robbing me of sight. I could discern three posts. Bound fast to them were three tall figures in rags, sacks of burlap bound over their heads.
Behind them, everything they’d learned of life. Before them, a firing squad.
Another figure, female, wearing linen garb in a nondescript shade between sea and sky, came to me through the blinding snow. It pointed to a certain post.
“Do you see the one on the right?” she asked. I lacked the strength to nod. “His name? Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Your pastor thinks he knows the truth of Christ’s temptations, but this man understands what Jesus faced. He is about to die for his beliefs as a member of the Petrashevsky Circle. A bullet will soon pierce his brain.”
The apparition turned. Underneath its hood I saw no face: only emptiness.
“I’ve met him. I’ve known him and have read his greatest work, in his native tongue, before he ever wrote a word. I’ve come to know the three secrets of what Satan offered, and what the Savior refused. Shall I tell you, little man?”
The wind picked up. I wrapped my arms around me, but no warmth came.
“You think me hedonistic,” said the figure, “because I want you. I bared my flesh before you, still fair if not young, but you would not partake. I lusted for your arms around me, your loins inside of mine, which would have taken the place of a greater pact you might have made. You also think me egotistical,” it continued. “I sought power at an exacting price. Too high for a man of faith such as yourself. Yes, I serve, but I am not a full-fledged thrall. My will is not yet fulfilled in his.”
“Words, words, words,” I snapped like a fool. “Tell me your secrets.”
In the meantime, the firing squad loaded their rifles with resounding clicks.
“Above all, you think me materialistic due to my wealth and the treasures I collect. You live a frugal life. What you saw at my house disgusts you. All that crystal. All those glittering light fixtures. The plunder of Egypt at my disposal. You believe me a slave of the world, when I’ve fought to free myself from it. Write what you will in your journal about my being ‘completely detached’. You’re right, but your mind doesn’t agree with your heart. You condemn me, and rightly, but hear!”
A harsh Russian command echoed across the landscape, meaning ready.
“The first temptation given to Jesus Christ was to enslave man through a miracle.”
The firing squad prepared themselves to shoot, but did not yet aim.
“The second was to ensnare man’s conscience via an unsolvable mystery.”
Their commander called out the word aim. The squad obeyed.
“The third and the greatest was to bend man to the will of eternal authority.”
A thundering of hooves instead of rifles. A rider with a white flag.
The faceless figure smiled. How, I knew not, but smile it did.
“Fyodor Mikhailovich shall be spared the grave, but not the lash. Four long years of toil under the watchful eye of his new masters in Siberia await him. As for you?”
The blizzard cleared in an instant, but the cold increased tenfold. I froze solid.
“You’ll remain that way,” the figure said, “perhaps forevermore. If you come to understand my words, you’ll understand me, and the first piece of the puzzle as to why I follow whom I do. Farewell, physician. I remain yours until midnight.”
When I awoke, paralyzed in a fetal position, it was nearly six o’clock.
Let me go, Libra. Let me go.
* * * * * * * *
After the banquet I’d had at noon, a light meal was all I could handle. Grace made soup and buttered bread, which more than satisfied me. Hesitantly, I asked: “If someone you knew, but not well, walked the broad path of destruction, would you not try to save him before he knocked on the gates of Hell?”
Grace’s eyes narrowed. “Your patient again?” I didn’t answer. “The Bible says that if one will not forsake his sins, a believer must take drastic action: ‘to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.’ In other words, sir, let him be, and let him be destroyed.”
Appalled, I banged my fist on the table. “Where does Scripture say that?”
“In Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, if I remember.” Wiping her hands on her apron, she whirled around and stared me square in the face. “Look at you. A poor wretched soul, not knowing which way’s up and which way’s down. You can’t eat or sleep properly, taking too much at a turn and too little at another. Die Hexe, the witch and the devil’s whore, has you in her grasp. Turn back to God, sir!”
“What if she’s in mortal danger? What if she could die tonight?”
“If that’s what it takes for her to face the Lord’s justice,” Grace said, “so be it.”
For a long moment, I found myself at a loss to do anything but stare into space.
“Who’s the doctor here, sir? Eat your supper. You have other inmates to tend.”
I ate. I wiped my mouth. I washed my hands at the pump and dried them. I told Grace I was going for a walk, and she warned me of the cold weather. I stayed in. I needed all my strength for what I knew I’d do come the stroke of midnight.
I also needed something I hadn’t used or touched in years: my father’s revolver. Locked in a cabinet in my study, it waited for me. A relic, a memento of my early days in this country, when I’d been a young and green sapling, a transplant from Germany. Father had known I could count on getting into trouble from rowdy Massachusetts locals, namely those who preyed upon foreigners and fools.
“Martin,” he’d told me, “in that treacherous land, you’ll have to go to war.”
Notwithstanding, I discovered that all I had to do was point, not shoot. The threat of such was enough to make drunkards and thieves shrink at my aim.
I wondered if I still had it.
“Murder is sin,” I reminded myself. “Murder is damnation for all eternity.”
Raising the revolver, I sighted a moth on the wall, then squeezed the trigger. Click. Unloaded, but it would have been a perfect shot. Again: sight, squeeze, click.
“Get the police. Let them handle this. They’ll arrest Dr. Allerton and hang him.”
Sight, squeeze, click. Sight, squeeze, click.
“What if I miss my target? What if, God forbid, I hit Libra instead?”
Sight, squeeze, click. The moth flew away, upward and into the chandelier. A jet of gas caught it unawares. It flared and burnt – just as I would after I died.
“You won’t be alone in the fires of Hell, Miss Wright,” I said, resolved.
For several hours, unbeknownst to Grace, who’d retired to her parlor, I kept practicing. I sighted anything and everything I could within the crosshairs of the weapon I’d not fired even once. When the time arrived, at a quarter past eleven, my sole box of ammunition found itself six bullets short. Concealing the revolver in the heavy winter coat I wore when I went walking, I sojourned into the night.
When I reached the house and the point of no return, I found the door locked.
“Damn!” I jiggled the knob, then knocked hard. “Game over, Allerton! Open up!”
With a forced-sounding turn of the mechanism, Libra’s entrance gave way.
The man behind it, his bald head glowing as green as a firefly, emerged with a revolver of his own. I could see the wrinkles of his brain teem with streams of life.
“Hands up. . .Vollinger.” Dr. A’s lackey, D., aimed the gun between my eyes.
Hearing Father’s legacy clatter to the cobblestones, I obeyed.
* * * * * * * *
“He’s here. . .Doctor.” Why was D. talking like a phonograph record on one-quarter speed? Were the lumae rewiring him, too? “What. . .should I do with him?”
“I told you,” said Dr. A., the longsuffering psychiatrist speaking to one of his lobotomized patients. “Bring him in here. Tie him to the chair against the wall, but put him in a straitjacket first. ” These instructions, however simple, horrified me.
“Jacket. . .tie. . .chair. . .wall.” D. leveled his revolver at me once more. “Come.”
Do it for her, I told myself, and do it now. If you end up dead, she’ll die, too.
Like any good resident of Sanctum Asylum, I followed every order. The dream I’d had about being bound in such a way, in this exact room, surged to the forefront of my mind. The main differences were that I’d been standing and revolving in the nightmare, and wearing a gentleman’s dinner jacket functioning as a restraint. Now, here I was in reality, trussed up as any bad resident of our Asylum could be.
“Good,” said Dr. A. “I want him to witness history before you kill him.”
“Where is she?” I shouted. “I can’t see a thing in here. It’s too damned dark!”
“Don’t make me gag you. Your vision hasn’t adjusted yet.”
When they did, I spotted another bald head and glowing brain, dear to me. The contours of her body, under a crisp white sheet, were also illuminated. Upon the subject’s head rested a metal skullcap, wired into a box with lighted dials.
As for the apparatus, it appeared as the original sketches had shown, possessing several nodules. Some lit, some not, but each necessary. A. explained:
“I present the Allerton Device. Miraculous, no? A wonder in this modern age, when signs and wonders are dismissed and forgotten. People bow to Science instead of the Creator who preceded it, but no matter. They are merged in my new invention. Its most important parts are now flowing through my subject’s cerebrum and shall soon reach the cerebellum and the lower portions of her brain. We have reached the end of our assessment period, which you might have read about. Yes?” He didn’t let me answer. “Now we prepare for the second stage: deconstruction.”
Was it possible to kill a man by will alone? My single, fatal thought: DIE!
As if he’d heard me – and perhaps he had – D. shoved his gun to my temple.
Doctor Allerton did not die. Instead he stepped toward his supine subject.
“Can you hear me? Say yes if so.” She responded in the affirmative. “Good. What are your full name, your address, and the alphabet forward and backward?”
“Libra Amalia Wright; 1000 Providence Street; A, B, C, D, E, F, G. . .” When she said the alphabet backward without a single mistake, I was more than impressed.
“Excellent. Now, then. What is the name of the god you serve, not his title?”
I wished I could’ve covered my ears before I heard her say: “Nyarlathotep.” That word evoked worlds without name, secrets without number, chaos without form. It was the sum of all the evils of this rotten earth. Original sin. Prime disobedience.
Two hot drops of blood oozed their way out of my ears and down my neck.
“You are fortunate, Vollinger. Most go deaf when they hear his name, but I have use for you as a spectator. You need to hear me before you hear no more.” Turning back to Libra, he said, “Yes. Why did the Crawling Chaos call you to him?”
“To maintain a great balance, or right a great imbalance, as my name implies.”
“What balance?” I couldn’t help crying. D.’s revolver dug into my head again.
“Silence. You’ll never know. What you will know before my assistant shoots you is what I intend to do with both you and our subject. Before that, however, I wish to inform you of my future plans.
“After my trials are over, I intend to produce and market the Allerton Device to asylums throughout the United States, then the world. A revolution in psychiatric treatment will occur. No more primitive lobotomies, but electricity, organophonic resonation, limbic support, and lumae. They come from outer space.”
I couldn’t have been more shocked had he said they came from dreams.
“Everyone will hail me as a genius above Newton, above Galileo, above Jehovah. The name of Abraham Allerton shall be second only to that of his deity.” He addressed Libra again. “Your name? It’ll be thrown into the dustbin of history.”
Wait, what?! My whole body jerked.
Dr. A. cranked a few of the illuminated dials on the box. Her skullcap emitted a monstrous humming and a palpable vibration as unbearable as the Name.
Your deconstruction has now begun. In the course of five minutes, these lumae will devour all brain tissue that is either unusable, irreparable or unneeded. You seek completion, the mental reconstruction of Stage Four and its associated gnosis? The Revelation of your master’s own master? I know you do, but you won’t achieve it. You’re a rival to me, Libra Wright, but ‘tis I who shall conquer. . .”
My mortal enemy turned to me. His rictus glowed in the light of her brain.
“What keeps lumae from eating everything, since they’re so hungry? They have traveled lightyears upon lightyears to wind up in my petri dishes, which I’ve been cultivating at home. The answer? Simple: electricity and resonation. The petri dishes are made out of metal. I keep them wired just as I would a lamp. Regarding our subject, I’m going to turn her skullcap all the way off in a moment.”
“Ah-ah, Vollinger. Name-calling is rather puerile, don’t you think?” Dr. A. laughed. “I’ll leave her to the lumae, eating and eating, and won’t reconstruct her at all.”
“Because,” he said, “worldly fame is only the beginning. I seek to be the best and greatest servant of the Faceless God who ever lived, and then replace him.”
I wet myself when I realized these last two words were spoken in her voice.
Through Allerton’s cursed mouth.
“Goodness me,” s/he said. “No more testosterone to befuddle my thoughts.”
Screaming and screaming, I couldn’t stop the shrieks from my own mouth.
“Vollinger! Stay with me.” My jaws remained at the brink of unhinging, but at least the howling stopped. “My mind is in his body, and his mind is in my body. D.? Release Vollinger, please.” Without a word, without any sort of protest, he did so. “Give him your gun.” He shoved it into my hand. “Now count to ten, my lad.”
D. began counting at that horrendous speed from earlier: “One. . .two. . .”
“Now: I began our mental reversal, through all the energies and the lumae, as soon as Dr. Allerton touched the control box. You may think it cruel, but it was the only way to save myself. It took a while for the process to finish, but – ”
“It has. That’s obvious.” Was I actually speaking? “What now, Libra?”
“Two vital things. First, take the skullcap off of her and put it on me. It’s the fulfillment of the procedure that matters now.” A pause. “I must enter Stage Four.”
Tears coursed down my cheeks. I understood, accepted, and obeyed. As the helmet had not yet been turned off, it continued to hum and vibrate as before. “Yes. I can feel the resonation, but there’s one more step. D.? Please fill a syringe with lumae.”
The assistant came over to where Libra’s phosphorescent head lay exposed, took a needle from the pocket of his lab coat, and inserted it straight into her skull.
“Please inject me. Luckily, I’m already bald and don’t have to be shaved.” She gestured to a network of bulging veins, and D. knew exactly which to target. My most precious ally, in the frame of my most hated enemy, said: “Now we wait.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“Ten minutes. Reconstruction takes twice as long as deconstruction.” Pause. “In the meantime, go over to my body and see how he’s doing, would you, Martin?”
I rushed to her form, warm and lively even after its ordeals. “Can you hear me, Doctor Allerton?” I took her hand, waiting to hear his voice with bated breath.
“Yuh.” A lone syllable issued in the rasp of a feeble old man.
“Do you know who I am, or who you are?”
Complete amnesia, coupled with senility. I should have expected as much.
“Praise the Faceless God!” cried Libra. “His intact mind didn’t fully transfer.” To make matters worse, D. threw up his arms and gave a cry resembling a cheer.
“Don’t. . .gloat when your enemy falls.” I took a deep breath. “Have pity.”
“Why should I?” asked Miss Wright in Doctor Allerton’s self-important tone. “What he didn’t get a chance to tell you was that he would’ve made slaves of us all. He’d start with mental patients like me, then put his Device on the market. If he’d had his way, every household would have owned one in the near future. Then the real work would have begun. Even though the gadget doesn’t function without lumae, he would’ve included ‘graphite powder packets’ with them, along with the skullcap, wires, and control box. These creatures survive under any conditions.”
“Even if they don’t eat right away?” On the word eat, bile rose in my throat.
“They’ve waited hundreds of thousands of years. Millions. Tens of millions. Even billions. Who’s to say they can’t wait a few decades more? Once you get them dehydrated and wriggling, however, in great masses, only the Device stops them.”
I shook my head. “How do they know to deconstruct versus reconstruct?”
Libra smiled. “While I’m reconstructing, I believe D. can answer.”
Dr. A.’s assistant stepped forward and turned me to face him, not by force, but as a friend would turn a friend to look him in the eye. His speech stunned me:
“We are. . .lumae. Hive mind. Col-lec-tive. We. . .tear down, then build. We eat old, make new. We serve. . .him. You do not, sir, but you. . .have done. . .well.”
I crumpled to the floor. “Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, help me!”
“He. . .not here. We are. We know. . .the balance. She keeps. . .the balance.”
Again I cried, “What balance? In MY God’s name, tell me.”
“I believe that’s too hard for D. to explain,” said Libra, “even if lumae speak through him. He’s fading fast. See how his glow diminishes?” Ever so carefully, she got down on Dr. A.’s knees. “Dear friends, release him. Let him rest.”
I looked up to see D. and his burned-out noggin curl up into a fetal ball.
“His autopsy will reveal,” Libra said slowly, “that his brain has been liquefied.”
Nothing in the world is more useful than pretending not to hear the truth.
“Allerton never meant for him to survive. He injected D. by force; by force this unfortunate young man died. As for the good doctor himself, he’ll stay alive.”
“Alive? As a vegetable confined to bed for the rest of his natural days – which, in your body, could number a great many? If you won’t have mercy on him, allow me.”
“Very well. The Eternal Scales tip for no one, but for your sake, do as you will once my procedure’s finished.” During its final minutes, our eyes locked. I knew that I would rather die than shy away from my own cross, my Golgotha. When Libra’s gaze faltered, the otherworldly microbes announced through him/her:
“Reconstruction. . .complete. Stage Four of Five. . .achieved. Transferring.”
What do you do when you’re in the midst of something you can’t face? Shut your eyes. Plug your ears. Close your mouth. Stop your nose. Stop thinking. Do nothing but deny and keep denying, until either the problem goes away or you do.
What jerked me out of my denial was a soft, familiar hand. “Martin. ‘Tis I.”
Libra, naked in all senses of the word – she had no hair – helped me to stand.
We both saw a long-limbed figure, that of Dr. A., writhe toward us, drooling.
I couldn’t hesitate. Grabbing D’s revolver, I fired all six shots into Allerton’s brain.
* * * * * * * *
After that, Libra fainted – or so I heard in my holding cell. Thankfully, when she said she wished to testify in court on my behalf, and I dissuaded her, she listened. I wouldn’t have her dragged to the gallows with me as an accomplice.
And I? Before the bench, I confessed in seven words:
“I killed him because I hated him.”
* * * * * * * *
Mercy, whether our God’s or another’s, is a double-edged sword. It sustains and kills, like a god. It grants salvation to some and damnation to others. It allows some to heal, others to be further wounded. It grants life in death, and death in life.
The day before my sentencing, a message in Libra’s handwriting found me:
Time’s Chastening Rod grants you Its mercy, for now and always.
Rejoice: its time is near at hand.
Tell all to N. He’ll find you, wherever you are.
So will I.
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