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The Macabre Collector

The macabre collector


Estimated reading time — 52 minutes

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,
and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the Unknown.”
—H.P. Lovecraft

I had to save her.

That means I had to kill him. . .

* * * * * * * * *

If you would have seen Libra Wright walking the cobblestone streets of Sanctum, Massachusetts, you’d have passed her by and locked her in your sights at the same time. Your gaze would have swept over her undistinguished frame and face, those of yet another pedestrian, until you met her eyes. Neither fixed nor unfocused, they continually searched her surroundings. When I first met her, she seemed to be on the lookout for mysteries, but in this two-horse town, there were next to none. People came and went, ate, slept; they created and expanded families.

As for our subject: she collected.

I found out that due to her late father’s occupation, she collected books first and foremost. She had even written three volumes, guided or compelled by the esoteric knowledge her father had taught her. Micah Wright, a doctorate professor of Egyptology at Miskatonic University, had hoped she’d follow in his footsteps. However, his daughter had no patience for pupils or lecture halls. The knowledge she craved, she pursued in solitude, feeling no need to share it with the masses. Those she invited to her home, a museum in and of itself, were few and fortunate.

Had she not asked Dr. A., my nemesis and a fellow acquirer of aberrations, to visit her on Hallowe’en, along with myself, none of us would find ourselves lost. My God! At least Miss Wright had collected only things, objects, whilst my enemy –

Forgive me. I’m rambling, not making much sense. I’m also ahead of myself.

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The oddities Miss Wright collected for oddity’s sake, she displayed at home. Those she kept for more personal reasons, she kept upon her person.

I first met her on Sanctum’s streets, as I proposed you might have, last year in 1885. I wasn’t her physician, then or now. I was just out for a brisk walk. As I’ve also posited, dear reader and confessor, I dismissed her as she came toward me, then couldn’t unchain my gaze from hers. When she saw me, her eyes ceased their relentless roaming for one placid second. In that moment, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this complete stranger had found me.

After my eyes met hers, they lit upon her hatpin. Fashioned in the Etruscan style, this gold-filled wonder was cone-shaped with a jade on top, an ancient eye staring upward. Around her neck she wore a black choker with an even blacker cameo. A letter in the center broke its morbid spell: M. I tried to guess her name: Mary? Martha? Maude? None fit. They were common enough, but she was not.

My curiosity deepened when I saw the bodice of her high-collared but otherwise nondescript dress. Its mother-of-pearl buttons were askew in more than one place, showing nothing and everything. Did she know, or care? I wanted to ask her if I could remedy the problem, but my breath caught in my throat when I saw her hands. White-gloved, as befits a lady of our time, with ten ornate rings.

Each ring bore a stone clear as glass, yet speckled with inner imperfections. From the thumb to the little finger of her left hand, they shone in rainbow hues: garnet, honey, golden, forest, azure. On her right, these colors were reversed. She saw me staring and held both hands out, as if in offering, then spoke:

“Insects,” she said. “There are insects inside. Look.” She took off a ring and handed it to me. What I’d perceived as flaws inside the stone, due to geology’s gifts, were the bodies of gnats. Inside the orange gem they glowed red, entombed.

“Remarkable,” I said for lack of what I wished to say. “Amber?” She nodded. “A remarkable find.” Not often do I repeat myself, but in front of her I couldn’t help but sound like one of those newfangled phonograph records when it wears out.

“This one has a fly.” With delighted eyes and a grin to match, she removed another ring with a sun-colored stone. Musca domestica reposed within it, its wings stilled for eternity, its proboscis full of hard resin instead of liquid feces, its legs bent in positions unnatural to its earthly life. No longer would it take flight, but no longer would it carry disease. It should’ve been a husk: hollowed, not mummified.

Before I could express my true opinion of her jewelry, she slid past me, waving her bedecked right hand over her shoulder. I froze, gaped, then ran.

Correction: I didn’t so much run as walk more briskly than I had intended. Before I could catch that strange creature with her strange creatures, she vanished into the crowd on the main thoroughfare. I sighed, knowing I had to get back to the hospital. That’s why I continued my strenuous pace, or so I believed back then.

“There you are, Doctor Vollinger!” N., my exuberant assistant, clapped me on the shoulder once I’d reached Sanctum Asylum. “Why so flushed? Breathe.”

“Who is she?” I cried, ignoring his advice. “The lady with the insect rings.”

I heard a voice I’d come to loathe chuckle smugly. “Of course you wouldn’t know her. You haven’t had an opportunity to meet her since you invaded this state as a larva, wriggling off the boat from Germany when you were twenty-five. Even after twenty years here, Martin, you don’t know this country or this city as well as you should. You’re always sticking your nose in a thick book when you’re not delving into our patients’ thick skulls. Do you think to usurp me someday, being second only to the head of this Asylum? I think not. As for ‘the lady with the insect rings,’ she’s notable around Sanctum: the macabre collector, Miss Libra Wright. I am also fond of curiosa and esoteric oddities, but compared to her, I just dabble.”

Libra? The star sign? I puzzled over this and the M I had seen on her cameo.

“I’m surprised you didn’t knock her over,” continued Dr. A. “When you go on those daily walks of yours, you charge ahead like a madman.”

The insinuation wasn’t lost on me. Unlike N., who worshiped the ground I walked on, Dr. A. knew I had feet of clay. From the start, he’d seen right through me, an elder who viewed his junior as both a rival and a fraud. He’d scoffed at my naïveté, my neophyte’s fear, as soon as I’d strode through the hospital doors. As a young amateur, I’d plied my trade for the love of my fellow man. As a consummate professional, he served Science alone. Every aspect of him demonstrated this.

Dr. A. did not wear his clinical whites like a human being, possessed of flesh and bone. Rather, he seemed an anatomical model with a rubber frame. You could almost say his coat wore him, long and drooping, an ill fit for such a gangly body. Despite his height and ramrod posture, he walked with a grotesque lope, making sure all four of his limbs used as much space as possible. His stethoscope swung on his neck like a grandfather clock’s pendulum, ticking away his life and those of his miserable patients. On my watch, one was human. On his, one was a specimen.

“Tell me, Martin,” said Dr. A., “did she hide her hands upon seeing you?”

“On the contrary.” I straightened my back. “She held them and her rings out to me.”

“Miss Wright likely meant to scare you before your hideous face scared her.”

After my silence was too much for A. to bear, he took out his pocket watch. “Two o’clock. Time for our wards’ daily exercise regimen. Come along, D.,” he told his own assistant. The pair ambled out of the foyer. I realized I hadn’t eaten but wasn’t hungry. Spending an excessive amount of time in the company of one’s enemy can cause a loss of appetite. As I put my charges through their usual paces, the lifting of legs, stretching of arms, marching in place and toe-touching, my skin crawled. Was this what a fly felt like in the moment before amber smothered it?

Over the next few weeks, as September’s warmth succumbed to October’s chill, I increased the length and speed of my walks. I told myself I was doing it for my health. With every quickened step and shortened breath, I perpetuated this lie. The truth? I couldn’t get her out of my head. Her mismatched costume, giving the impression of a lady of means but fraying at the edges. She couldn’t (wouldn’t?) even keep her buttons straight. Her choice of gemstones, not common ones like rubies or sapphires, but resin which had engulfed bugs. Were they metaphors for the fragility of life? God alone knew. Her odd greeting and farewell, her mincing steps. Most of all, her eyes: first searching, then pinning me in place like a butterfly.

Did she collect them, too?

Where was the macabre collector with a zodiac name? From a distance, she looked no different than any other woman. I not only kept my eyes peeled, but shucked to the core. No luck. I knew I could ask about her address but dared not. What gentleman does, especially after hearing a lady’s name secondhand? Trying to pry information from Dr. A. was an even more disagreeable option.

Meanwhile, N.’s concern for me was becoming insufferable. At first he asked a harmless question here and there: “Are you all right?” “Have you been sleeping well?” Then he started delving. “Is anything amiss at home, Doctor?” Beneath his deferential words lay danger. If there’s anything more perilous than our scientific sorcery, it’s an eager apprentice who walks too closely in his master’s footsteps.

“No,” I always replied. “I have no wife or children to worry me. I’m married to my work.” Hoping to dissuade him with a smile and a friendly clap on the shoulder, as he was so eager to give me, I would turn and dart away. He’d follow. Like a dog, he was loyal and quick to learn, but unlike any canine, he could sniff out the inner workings of the human heart. In that way he resembled Dr. A., and I began to hate N., too. I knew I had to stop, to treat him like a colleague if not a comrade, but the more he dug, the more I scolded him. What was wrong with me?

By day I remained calm despite this pressure. By night I tried to release it, but my valves had long since rusted. I tried journaling, yet the more I attempted to put her to paper, the more she eluded my pen. I thought a nocturnal sojourn might do me good, but the ne’er-do-wells of Sanctum often lurked in the shadows. I had my housekeeper, Grace, make me a cup of chamomile tea before bed, but ‘twas not long before I added bourbon on the sly. I’d wake up in a cold sweat, have to use the toilet, then groan in pain. My innards weren’t finding any refreshment.

I didn’t believe in love at first sight. At times I didn’t even believe in love, the primal force that united all men, conquered hate, and protected the human race. In my line of work, love held almost no sway amongst the mad. Whatever this was, it wasn’t the respectable romance that led to marriage and children. It was a dark, all-consuming thing, causing Libra’s eyes to sear my soul, unbidden. Trying not to think of her was like trying not to think of a white elephant. As soon as I’d warn myself not to do so, there she was, skewering me with her stare and spreading out her rings for me to see. In my nightmares, I was each one of her ten ringed insects.

After decades, I finally understood why lust was a deadly sin, but what now?

Desperate, I turned to Grace for help. “Go to church,” she answered with a motherly smile. “Where man fails, God succeeds.” I’d never heard her say that before, but maybe she thought I wouldn’t want to hear it. Although I was less hostile toward matters of faith than Dr. A. – so I presumed – I didn’t pray, read the Scriptures, or exercise spiritual disciplines. At this point, however, I was willing to try anything. If my state continued, I’d end up an inmate at my own institution.

Thus I donned my coat and hat, after another debilitating day at work, and ventured out into the world. The sane world where everything made sense.

As I heeded the toll of a Vespers’ bell, calling one and all to evening prayer, I felt a tingling sensation throughout my body. At first I attributed it to the chill of the season, but I soon noticed a female figure heading in the opposite direction, slowing as she approached me. When she raised a hand to wave, I stopped cold.

“Behold.” Again, a one-word greeting that wasn’t the usual. She pointed at the sky. “The Morning and the Evening Star. I try to see it at each twilight.”

“Are you Libra?” I asked when our eyes met again. “Miss Libra Wright?”

A smile and a raised eyebrow.

“Dr. Martin Vollinger, at your service.” The pinpricks on my skin heightened to goosebumps, as I thought they would, but my face flushed furnace-hot.

She held out her hand. Before I could press my lips to it – and scrutinize her rings again – la collectionneuse macabre handed me a tiny piece of paper. A calling card, so fashionable in this day and age. I had to move to the side of the street to stand underneath a lamp. She followed, but not like N.; like a creeping shadow. Grateful for the gaslight in spite of its glare, I unfolded her card and read it:

COME TO MY HOUSE ON ALL HALLOWS’ EVE. I’LL REVEAL EVERYTHING.

Printed below were the obvious date, the not-so-obvious time of 7:00 PM (though I’m not a superstitious man, I was relieved not to have to come at midnight), and, least obvious of all, her address on the back. Her penmanship, tiny yet elegant, bore the mark of a perfectionist. One who liked things just so, and I suspected her hobby had something to do with it. What did she want? For what or whom was she searching? I yearned to ask her these questions, but found my voice gone. My throat had closed up, as if swollen with infection – the disease of lechery.

“I’ll see you then, Doctor.”

She slipped her hands into her muff, winked, and disappeared once more.

Wait! Please! Don’t go! All these shouts exploded in my brain like blood clots, aneurysms born of fear and loss. I was reduced to catatonia in their aftermath, an open-mouthed imbecile. Curse my soul! I was a psychiatrist, a man of reason, yet with her the opposite held sway. Under her spell, I was little better than one of my patients. Disgusted with myself and the situation, I turned to go back home.

As soon as I slipped my key into the lock, I went rigid. I usually knocked for Grace to let me in. She wouldn’t be in bed – oh, no. At this time of the evening, she’d be in the parlor reading or sewing. Waiting for me if I’d had to work late again.

Like a thief in the night, I stole into my own residence. I snuck to the back entrance Grace used and entered as quietly as I could. I dared not breathe. Only after I’d climbed the service stairs, leaning on the banister and laboring step by step so none would creak, did I exhale. I reached my room and locked the door.

I turned the lantern on my nightstand to its lowest setting, a fingernail of flame, then looked at the other objects on the table. Comb: unnecessary. Hair tonic: same. Bourbon: a crutch I’d lay aside tonight. Inkwell, pen and journal: imperative.

Words poured from my fevered brain as soon as nib touched paper. Dreams, exclamations with no explanations, half-formed images, gibberish in my mother tongue. Thoughts. Theories. Memories. Regrets. Page after page filled with them, my fingers toiling of their own accord. Agony shot through each one, yet I pressed on. Didn’t the brilliant Russian author Dostoyevsky paint suffering as a path to redemption? I raced at breakneck speed, sweating and straining for the finish.

The last thing I remember on that fateful eve was scrawling these words:

Libra, Libra, Libra, Libra, Libra, Libra, Libra…völlig losgelöst!

* * * * * * * * *

“You slept in your clothes last night, sir.”

I picked at my poached egg and mumbled, “I know.”

Grace walked to the opposite side of the table and sat down across from me. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be open unto you.” Silence. “I would have opened the front door. You didn’t attend services.”

“No. I met an acquaintance instead. Libra Wright.”

“Die Hexe?” Grace’s eyes grew wide, alarmed. “She cast a curse on you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” I brought a spoonful of yolk to my lips but couldn’t bear to taste it. Seeing the fulvous slime made my stomach turn. “She’s no more a witch than you are.” I frowned. Why was I trying to defend her to my housekeeper? I owed no apologies or explanations. The company I chose, I chose freely. No rumor would discourage me from anyone.

“Then why does she collect bejeweled snakes? African tribal masks? Russian dolls, one inside another, endlessly? And all those books. . .” Grace was an educated woman despite her occupation, but she wasn’t above her native village’s folklore.

I raised pointed eyebrows at her, upside-down V’s. “Have you seen all this?”

“Not seen, but heard. Doctor Vollinger, you must insist. . .”

“That you pay no attention to whatever babble spews from others’ mouths and rely on evidence from your own eyes.” I paused. “She has asked me to visit.”

“When?”

“The thirty-first of this month, at seven o’clock in the evening.”

“Devil’s Night! I knew it.” She put a hand to her mouth. “Do stay home.”

“I will not. I’ll accept her invitation in good faith, whereas you have only ill.”

Grace bowed her head. “I’m sorry, sir. I should not judge.” She cleared away my uneaten egg and soiled spoon. “Still, mein lieber Gott, have mercy on her.”

* * * * * * * * *

In my opinion, there’s no such thing as being “fashionably late.” One is either on time or not. In the latter case, one looks a fool. Therefore, I remained punctual. On the night in question, I decided to outdo myself. At 6:30 PM, I wished to earn the honor of being the first guest to arrive. Not only would it allow me to meet Miss Wright before everyone else, but to view her various acquisitions. Was Grace right? Were there gem-encrusted serpents on the walls? Before Libra’s front door, I’m ashamed to admit that I made the sign of the cross out of habit.

The clock tower in the center of Sanctum chimed the half-hour. I knocked. An emerging sight wracked me all over: a female corpse in housekeeper’s garb.

“Is. . .is Miss Wright at home?” I stammered. “I’ve been invited tonight.”

“You’re thirty minutes early.” Pronouncing the first word as yer and hissing every other one through the slit of an unbending mouth, the dead-alive woman scowled. “Come in I’ve been washing up after dinner. Don’t mind me.” She jerked her head toward the interior of the house. I suddenly thought of her dangling from a noose: her neck was tilted at such an odd angle. I sighed, then followed, seeing nothing out of the ordinary so far. I soon stood in a dim entrance hall.

“Oh. I forgot to ask for your card. Her card.” The spindly hag leveled her gaze at me, eyes narrowed to slits. “She don’t let no one in without it.” I nodded, slipped my hand into my pocket, and handed it to her with the tips of my gloved fingers. She took it just as gingerly, as if the slip of paper and the hand that bore it were contaminated. After seeing that I’d offered her mistress’ invitation, she gave me one last glare. “You’ll wait in the parlor along with the others. This way, sir.” I couldn’t have been more offended had she spat in my face. She’d spat the last word.

The parlor to which she led me, like the foyer, was no different than any other. Its floorboards bore the marks of a good scrubbing; the lace curtains had been dusted, the gas lamps lit. An oak timepiece on the wall marked seconds with congenial ticking, less stern than a grandfather clock. Other than some fleeting shadows on the ceiling, I saw nothing unusual about the room except for the chairs: five, tall and straight-backed, arranged in the shape of a pentagon.

A coincidence? I noticed that my chair formed one of its two base vertices.

Friend, have you ever sat in a house where you’re meant to be a guest, but you feel like an intruder? So I did on this Hallowe’en night. As the clock ticked on and six-thirty became six-forty, I became increasingly worried. Where was she?

A boisterous noise made me plant myself in my seat to keep from jumping. Why had I been so high-strung lately? I coughed and peered around the corner.

“Eliza! Lovely to see you,” came the cry of a plump woman in a feathered hat.

Eliza. So that was the walking corpse’s name. “Likewise. In here, Mrs. P.” With a rare smile, Miss Wright’s housekeeper led her next visitor into the parlor. “We’ve got a new one,” she said, “but I’m afraid that I didn’t catch his name. Tea?”

I coughed again, louder this time, but received no response.

“That would be splendid,” answered the other guest. “Two sugars, please.”

While Eliza turned and hurried off, stomping back into the entrance hall, the aforementioned Mrs. P. grinned at me. “Who might you be, my good man?”

I stood and introduced myself, then kissed her black-gloved hand. Had I inadvertently been invited to a funeral instead of a party? “Pleased to meet you.”

“I’m Christine P. My husband will be along shortly. George decided to take a hansom cab. I told him I’d rather walk. Such a brisk and starry night!”

“Better than dark and stormy,” I told her, then cursed myself for the cliché.

After a moment, Mrs. P. said, “I don’t suppose you’d…I’d be imposing, but would you kindly take a look at the bunion on my left foot? It’s dreadful sore.”

I smiled and shook my head. “I’m afraid I’m not that kind of doctor.” When her gaze met mine, confused and pleading, I said, “Psychiatric.” In an instant, the windows of her soul sealed themselves shut. I tried not to have this effect on people, but as soon as they heard about my specialty, fear replaced cheer. When Eliza returned with Mrs. P.’s tea, the latter fixed her eyes on her drink.

“Have you known Miss Wright for long?” I asked her. “What’s she like?”

“You haven’t heard?” I shook my head again. Mrs. P. smiled to herself, as if enjoying a most delicious secret. “She prophesies in a rite every Hallows’ Eve, and Wright is always right. Right?” She chortled, making the rim of her teacup tremble and the liquid slosh inside. “Moreover, she does so for every one of us.”

“Does she, now?” I tried to sound skeptical, but had to lower my voice an octave for effect. “She’s no more than a common fortune-teller?”

Mrs. P.’s eyes bulged. “I daresay not.” She plunked her cup down into the saucer with a clink that made my teeth rattle. “Those are charlatans. Dear Libra knows what’s what. Unlike those faux gypsies with their scarf-wrapped heads, she uses no crystal balls. Rather, she pairs one of her delightful possessions with you – hands it to you or pins it upon your person – in order to reveal your utmost.”

My utmost what? I wanted to ask, but at that moment Mr. P. stepped into the parlor. I’d been so intent on his wife’s monologue that I hadn’t heard him enter. “Now, darling,” he said with a large-dentured grin, “don’t talk the man’s ear off.”

Mrs. P.’s shoulders sank. “George, Dr. Vollinger. Dr. Vollinger, George.”

“Doctor. . .?” He trailed off, trying to place me – presumably within the safe, normal walls of a safe, normal hospital – and failing. “A pleasure.” He shook my hand with the too-firm grip common to bankers and salesmen. “My wife and I have visited several doctors between us in the past year, but not you. Haven’t we, dear?”

“Now, George,” she returned. “It’s gauche to speak of one’s illnesses.”

“Right you are!” Mr. P. bared his square yellow dentures and brayed. Their odor hit me full in the face. I kept from cringing by the skin of my own teeth. “I’d much rather boast about the woman of the hour, Miss Wright,” he said when he’d caught his breath and sat down. “Last year she divined I had gallstones.”

I leaned forward, but not too far. “How? Other than always being right?”

“She placed in my hand a tournament,” he explained, then remembered the correct term. “Er, a tourmaline, as green as my offending organ. At the very same second, I felt a sharp pain where that organ would be. I doubled over. Miss Wright warned me to leave her house and go to the hospital immediately. ‘Twas a sign from God, I wager. If I hadn’t had my gallbladder removed, I wouldn’t be here right now.” At this, Mrs. P. took his hand in hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

“As for me,” she said when she let him go, “Libra predicted I had cataracts.” Before she could continue, the door opened again. Footsteps echoed in the foyer.

“Dr. A.,” announced Eliza. “Welcome.”

I blinked. Had the mean-spirited maid brought me a drink as well, I would’ve spilled it. I lowered my hands to my sides and balled them into fists.

“Good. Allerton’s here,” said Mrs. P. “One more guest, and we can get on with it.”

“You don’t ‘get on’ with her,’ dear,” said her husband. “You watch and wait.”

“Well, I’m tired of waiting. Why do so many think it’s en vogue to be late?”

Precisely, I was on the point of interjecting, but my foe kept me from it.

His evening suit didn’t suit him any better than his hospital uniform. With dangling sleeves and encroaching cuffs that covered half his shoes, I hoped he’d either trip and fall or botch his handshake with Mr. P. However, Dr. A. entered with the same tick-tock syncopation as the clock on the wall. When the jolly old codger tried to crush his grip, he evaded the assault and raised his head a bit higher.

“Good to see you, George,” Dr. A. said without inflection. “Christine.” He bent to kiss the lady’s hand, but she shrank back and wiped it on her black damask skirt.

“Isn’t this wonderful?” she blurted. “Only Madeline is missing now.”

I checked the time: six-fifty-five. Whoever Madeline was, she’d better hurry.

Further conversation stopped at the mention of our last guest. We sat inert, the four of us, watching and waiting as we’d been told. The P.’s, two lovebirds, exchanged discreet courting glances. My adversary and I avoided one another’s gaze and personal space. Being so tall and lanky, Dr. A inadvertently scooted his chair away from mine. Mr. P. heard the scrape. “No,” he said. “She won’t like that. Move it back.” Reluctantly, A. did so. He wasn’t used to a higher power’s bidding.

With a premonitory shift of its hands, the clock began a chime of “Westminster Quarters.” With each chime of the hour, my balled hands stiffened.

The carillon faded. The flames of the gas lamps flickered. No one entered.

After ten intolerable seconds, Eliza clomped back into the parlor. “More tea?” We received further hot beverages, even I, but didn’t drink. We shuffled our feet, but didn’t move. We’d been cut adrift. At seven-cursed-twenty, a final knock.

“Miss Madeline.” Was it my imagination, or did the housekeeper sound even more scornful than she had with me? “Was afraid you weren’t coming after all.”

Our last guest gave a warbling laugh. “Oh, Liza, you know me.” Without a word more, and without waiting to be escorted, Madeline waltzed into the parlor. “Sorry I’m late,” she said in an all-but-apologetic tone. “Where’s Libra?” Shrugging, the young damsel pivoted in a half-twirl, earning a smile from Mrs. P. and the usual obeisance from her husband. Dr. A. just stood and glowered. “Delighted to see you all again,” she told them, then, turning to me: “. . .and you for the first time, sir.”

So I was the sole outsider, the only new guest, but seeing this magnificent maiden dispelled my sense of being the odd man out. In a trice, I knew Madeline was a woman I could have married – should have married, truth be told. With playful gaslights twinkling in her eyes, her hair in a twist that would make French mademoiselles envious, and a shop-model figure, she commandeered the room with one flick of her eyelashes. My heart clenched, but my head fought to remain clear. If it clouded, I was lost. With a stiff-backed bow, I cleared my throat and made her acquaintance, but didn’t kiss her hand.

A moue of disappointment curved her mouth, then disappeared. “I’ll sit. . .” she said, looking around, then smiled. “Ah! At the point of the pentacle.” Indeed: If I and the man I hated formed the base of a five-sided figure, and the P.’s two opposite sides of its top half, Madeline’s chair formed the apex. Again I wondered if this was a coincidence, but her sudden chuckle banished the thought. “What fun! I do hope Libra returns the cameo I let her borrow. It’s my favorite.”

M. The letter seared itself into my brain. Why had Miss Wright worn it?

“She said it was for tonight. Odd, but knowing her and here, everything is.”

The others offered nervous grins. Madeline may have been right, but rude.

In our rush to mask her backhanded compliment with chit-chat, we didn’t notice a blue-gray figure enter the room. Only when it took its place at the center of our gathering did we stand: some in apprehension, myself in stark surprise.

* * * * * * * * *

Our hostess looked more like a servant than her servant. Eliza, like many of her sort, wore a black dress with associated white collar and cap. Libra, however, was clad from head to toe in coarse linen, of an indeterminate shade between sea and sky. Only her face and hands were bare, with a wisp of bangs gracing her brow. She resembled a beggar – no. A convict maid at hard labor in the dead of winter.

As she glanced from one guest to another, she lulled us all into silence.

Without speaking, she rummaged through the folds of her garments and brought forth an object: what appeared to be a spool of thread on a wooden spindle.

“I present Ariadne’s thread,” she said. “As it led the hero Theseus past the Minotaur and out of the labyrinth, so it will lead three of you out of entrapment.”

I slid to the edge of my seat, but she ignored me and Dr. A. Turning first to Madeline, Libra unwound a section of thread and gestured for the girl to hold the end. Madeline did so, furrows of puzzlement creasing the bridge of her nose. Miss Wright then walked over to Mrs. P., stretching the crimson string and forming an angled edge. When Libra motioned for Mrs. P. to hold onto a new vertex, she did so, although looking just as confused. I knew all in a flash. Her husband, slack-jawed and foul-dentured, would become the third point of a fateful triangle.

When all three sides were connected, Mr. P. cried, “Now, see here!”

“Two years.” Libra’s words were soft, yet as shocking as an exposed wire.

Mr. P. stared at Madeline, who stared back at him. Mrs. P. wept.

“Oh, George, how could you, how could you. . .”

“Stop it, you blubbering fool!” His sudden shout caused his poor wife to drop her portion of Ariadne’s thread. Madeline held on to hers. As Mr. P. whipped his head back and forth, looking for sympathy and finding none, Dr. A rose. He waited until all eyes were upon him, then announced:

“Miss Wright. During our five-year acquaintance, I’ve never known you to lie, as you do now. You’re bearing false witness against your neighbors. Retract it.”

Libra stood as stalwart as Lachesis, the Fate who measures the thread of life.

“Retract it!”

“It’s true.” Two words landed with dull thuds on the floor of the parlor. “My dear Christine,” continued Madeline, “you are a fool. Your husband has chosen me. Unbeknownst to you, he’s already resigned as manager of the First Bank of Sanctum. In two weeks, we’re running away to Bermuda. We’ll disappear together, as we ought’ve when we first met.” Sniffling from Mrs. P. “You don’t deserve him.”

Just like his wife, I couldn’t believe it. This nymph was taken with a satyr?

“George, you’ve been spending our money, not on our son at university, but on her?” Mrs. P. thrust an accusing finger at Madeline, then sobbed anew.

Disgusted by this scene, I stood and strode outside. The night air cleared my head, but not my stomach all of a sudden. Had I eaten something at dinner that didn’t agree with me? I lurched toward a nearby privet hedge. With my back hunched, I heard but couldn’t see the wreckage: Wails from Mrs. P., keening like a vengeful banshee. Threats from her vile, philandering husband. His mistress in the rear, a rose with a tapeworm inside, tittering in triumph.

God help them all, I thought.

Just then I heard another noise: the click-clack of everyday servants’ boots. Fearing it was Eliza, I bent over double, then felt a soft hand on my spine.

“Doctor,” coaxed Libra, “my collection’s yours and Dr. Allerton’s to see.”

Go home now. So I warned myself right then, trying to retch but expelling air. Grace will be waiting with a soothing digestif. So I wished to believe. Alas for me and for her as well, what we want and what we think we want are different things. I straightened, took a deep breath, and followed Libra back into the house.

Its entrance hall had now taken on a sinister aspect, as if it led not to sitting rooms and kitchens but torture chambers. Would I find a rack and an iron maiden behind the next door? Did she treasure such things as much as she did jewelry?

I tried to catch up to Libra, but her housekeeper blocked me. “Wait here.”

“Oughtn’t I to return to the reception parlor, if that’s where we were?”

“She must prepare again and unlock the doors. Won’t be long.”

“I should hope not – ” Further protest was cut off, not by Eliza, but by Dr. A. barging his way into the passage and shoving me against the wall. “Unhand me!”

“Get out.” With surprising ferocity, A. pressed harder. “Immediately.”

I struggled against him, but the long-limbed lummox proved his strength. “You’ve no business here,” he hissed, “either with her or the treasures she hoards.”

We continued grappling. Somehow I heard Libra’s voice: Deep breath. Now.

A. wrapped his hands around my neck and squeezed. “You. . . don’t. . . know.”

Several clicks and clacks resounded through the foyer, making him release me, his entire body going slack. “She’s ready. Damn you, Vollinger. Go home.”

Words wouldn’t come. I pressed my fingers to my neck, assessing damage. My airway was none the worse for wear. I could breathe again, but I’d have to hide the bruises in the morning. A high collar would do. In regards to Dr. A., with any luck, he’d be wearing a collar of rope once I went to the police.

Eliza, either not knowing or not caring what had just happened, said, “Come.” With raised heads, we obeyed. What we saw once we’d crossed our next threshold, two intricately-carved doors, gave us two different reactions. I staggered back and rubbed my eyes, disbelieving what I was seeing, as if I’d entered a dreamscape. My enemy, on the contrary, stood as calmly as a surgeon in an operating theater.

How could a house this small contain a room this tall? Its vaulted ceiling towered over us in Gothic fashion, a chandelier dangling from the summit. I squinted, adjusting to brightness that lit the whole space, not one part. Six frosted glass bulbs, flaring with gas, provided such illumination. As for the crystals? It took me a moment to realize what was amiss about them: they were black, or at least smoky quartz. That’s why its rainbows, waltzing on the walls, seemed muted. What amazed and disturbed me most, however, was that the light fixture revolved.

Chandeliers didn’t do that unless they were about to fall. Yet I had the feeling this one would keep twirling, quarter-turn by quarter-turn, in an eternal waltz.

A waltz was playing on a pipe organ, or rather, I recalled, on an orchestrion.

‘Twas an instrument that played itself” another newfangled machine that had captured everyone’s attention. Unlike fairground goers, Miss Wright had managed to acquire one. How, I knew not, but could understand why. Novelty was the blessing and curse of this country: America, the New World, not the Old.

“It’s not a waltz,” said Dr. A. I gave a start. “It’s the varsouviana.”

Listening more closely, I gave a grunt of assent. The music bore elements not only of the kind I’d assumed it was, but of the mazurka and polka as well. It had originated in Warsaw, thus its modified name. Another exotic item to hoard. The tune played once, twice, repeating itself as that blasted chandelier danced along.

Once I tore my eyes away with considerable effort, I glanced around the rest of the room. I’d seen the usual array of feminine bric-a-brac: teacups, doilies, vases, dried flowers, dolls. Grace collected these. Her sitting parlor, although a comfortable size, gave me claustrophobia just looking at it. How did she avoid being the proverbial bull in her own china shop? Moreover, how did she clean it?

A glimpse of that unnerving room flashed through my mind as I scrutinized the current one. One vision morphed into another, and my bowels turned to soup.

A bejeweled carousel horse stood before me, open-mouthed and chomping at the bit. Against the far wall was a table with dolls of the nestling variety Grace had described. The orchestrion, bellowing its varsouviana, reigned opposite. In various arrangements were all things glass and crystal that produced light: lamps, lanterns, dangling globes in an Oriental style, Tiffany marvels, and wall sconces. All of them were lit to their highest capacity, but none of them needed to be. On each wall were two African masks – Grace had called them “tribal” – totaling eight.

Eye-holes stared. Teeth in a permanent rictus gnashed each other. Mouths, oval cavities revealing nothing, merely gaped. Colors winked and swirled.

Colors, colors everywhere. I couldn’t focus on any particular hue, whether on the masks or anywhere else. My eyes began to water. I wiped them. What to pinpoint, what to gawk at, what to see? What to keep my vision from blurring? As much as my orbs had gone wet, my mouth had gone dry.

Dear Christ, what was this place?

I heard Dr. A.’s voice from afar. “Dr. Vollinger? Martin? Do you need a drink?”

Bourbon, I thought. A full tumbler. A bottle. Two other words trailed behind these: dolls and safe. Taking care not to fumble into any lanterns or lamps, I made my way over to the table on which her dolls stood. As for a photograph, they posed in a horizontal line in order of size, the father tallest and proudest. I tried and failed to read the place cards on the table, presumably bearing their names:

Ваня, Аня, Таня, Маня, Ганя, Оля, Коля, Поля.

Another voice made me whirl around. “Vanya, Anya, Tanya, Manya, Ganya, Olya, Kolya, Polya.” She smiled. I had to steady myself. “I’m sorry, Dr. Vollinger. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” Gesturing toward the figures, Libra explained, “A father, a mother, four girls and two boys. Originally, all were females – matryoshki, as the Russians call them – but I thought I’d make a family, since I have none of my own. Hence the two males and their patriarch. I painted the modifications myself.”
“Remarkable.” Again, that word. Didn’t I have anything else to say? “How on earth did you find the money for all this?” I felt myself blanch.

Miss Wright answered good-naturedly. “My father was a tenured professor at M. University.” Another M, this one not on a cameo, but just as indelible as the name of Mr. P.’s paramour. The name sounded like a cross between Mississippi and Saskatchewan. I asked her to repeat it, and she did, but I grew none the wiser.

“Miskatonic. Do you know of it?” I shook my head. “‘Tis not a popular school, but a prestigious one. As for the financial means to acquire all this, most of it was his. Father bought the orchestrion, the carousel horse, and the masks. I supplied the chandelier, the various lamps and lanterns, the table and chairs, and my dolls.”

Just as I’d missed Libra entering the parlor right in front of me, I’d missed such ordinary-yet-obvious pieces of furniture. One round table, three chairs. I’d seen hundreds of them, but why did these make me shudder?

“Please, sit down.” She gestured toward them. “You too, Abraham.”

She was on a first-name basis with my enemy. I felt my jaw tighten.

Offering one of her hands to me and the other to him, she escorted us over to the table. She sat at the head, or what would’ve been the head had it been square. We occupied opposite positions from one another, as was fitting. I also believed it apropos that the three of us formed a triangle, as our other departed guests had.

However, I thought with a scoff, Dr. A is no more capable of a dalliance than I. He’s sixty-five and I’m twenty years his junior, but we’re old men just the same. Our work has dried us up, desiccated us like autumn leaves, drained us of our masculine vitality.

Libra called her maid and told her to bring three candles. “I’ll prophesy for you, as I did for the P.’s and Madeline. Fair is fair, yes?” Neither of us dared nod, but A. grinned. “As soon as I looked at you, Dr. Vollinger, I knew I’d reveal something unfit for others’ ears.” My hands tingled. “That’s why I had to get rid of them. You may think me callous for divulging their secret, but I had to free them. I’ve known them all for years, and decided Christine ought to find out. I wanted to expose George and Madeline from the start – as soon as I suspected – but suspicion isn’t proof. Only after I’d walked the proverbial mile with Madeline’s choker choking me was I certain. Mrs. P. deserves better. The other two deserve worse.”

My thoughts exactly, I wished to say, then swallowed. How much worse?

Eliza returned with the candles. “Ah. Thank you,” said Libra. Her housekeeper set one in front of each of us, then shuffled away like a mummy. “She doesn’t like to come in here. Too scared.” With an impish glint in her eyes, Libra continued, “In order to get her to dust and polish everything before tonight, I had to treat her to what she treasured most: an ice cream soda at the emporium.” We laughed. Eliza was human after all, but as for her? She suddenly gazed into the far distance.

“Silence. The spirits. They’re listening, waiting for us to call upon them.”

A medium’s usual warning. As a matter of course, I ignored it. Not only did I not believe in such things, but also wished to avoid their usual fee. Yet. . .

Our candle flames flared brighter. The other flames in the room died.

No one had moved any dials. No one had summoned Eliza to turn down the gas or put out the lanterns, yet they extinguished themselves all the same. Even the wall sconces followed this unheard command. The sweat on my neck beaded and dripped down my back. My collar clung to my neck, as did the cloth covering my armpits. Although I was now sweating like a pig, I felt as cold as an icebox.

As soon as all was dark except for our lights, the orchestrion wheezed to a halt.

“Fear not,” said Libra. “Tonight the veil between the quick and the dead is at its thinnest. The departed see what I cannot, as well as he whom I serve. Close your eyes.” We did so. “Give me your hand, Dr. Vollinger.” I obeyed. All of my flaring reluctance had gone out, as fast as the light fixtures around the room had.

I heard the rustle of her linen garments, then felt her place an object in my palm. A cool metal object. Somehow I knew what it was, and that I’d seen it before.

One of her amber rings. Without looking, I knew it imprisoned a fly.

“Don’t sacrifice your freedom,” she said, “or your life, for anyone else’s sake.”

Another bead of sweat slid down my spine.

With a slight squeeze that made me twitch, she took back her jewelry and let go of my hand. “Your turn, Allerton.” Despite my fear, I still rankled at this. You can’t imagine how much I yearned to force my eyes open and glare at him, but I knew, as I had known about the ring, that such an action would ruin everything. I heard Libra’s garb rustle again, the sigh of her breath, then a shriek from Dr. A. A few more drops of liquid stuck to me, but I’m ashamed to admit what kind.

In my mind’s eye, I saw one particular hatpin jab his palm and slash across one of its lines. As for our medium? She said four words: “It serves you right.”

The candles’ flames, in a gesture of finale, grew ever-smaller before fading to smoke. At least, two of them did. The third, Dr. A’s, winked out with a poof. The many other lights rose like tiny suns, blinding me just as much, although not him. He stared into the empty space between Libra and myself, his face pale as a ghost.

“Watch yourself, Miss!” Dr. A. barked. “I could have you arrested for assault.”

As could I, and more than that, you hypocrite, I thought, but kept my mouth shut. I believed it best to play the good doctor for now, then trap him later.

“Oh, come now,” I interjected, alarmed at his sweating and clammy face. “Let me see your hand.” He slid it over with surprising speed. I inspected it, then chuckled. “It’s a flesh wound. A mere scratch. Do you honestly believe our gracious hostess would do you more harm than that?” Yet a clear vision flashed before me, one of her grabbing harder, jabbing deeper, breaking skin and drawing blood.

She’d given him a stern warning, no more.

“Eliza!” Dr. A. rose, scrutinized his palm, and stormed out of the room.

The remaining two of us stood and stared at one another. At last she said, “My housemaid’s a good nursemaid, too. She’ll take care of Allerton right away.”

“You slashed his life line, didn’t you?” I blinked. “In palmistry, that is?”

Her face remained impassive. “It’ll be drastically shortened by one of us.” Ere I could ask her to explain, she grinned as if nothing had happened. “Ah, well. It seems the party’s over, yes? The bad Doctor will leave, leaving the good one to his own devices.” She stepped closer. “Won’t you stay? ‘Tis only eight-thirty.” On cue, the clock in the reception parlor chimed the half-hour, no “as if” about it.

I thought once again about my dire fortune, then pushed it out of my mind.

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The reek of my sticky clothing reached my nostrils. “I must decline. I’ve had a wonderful time,” I lied, “but I must have a bath, and Grace is waiting for me – er, my housekeeper.” I offered a rueful grin to hide the fact I was cringing. “Like you, I live alone except for her. At this time of night, she offers me cake and a digestive.”

“Bourbon, single malt, no ice.”

Lord, she was perceptive! “Yes, and I need it. Your séance has shaken me.”

“Is that what you believe?” I nodded. She smiled as if I were her son, precocious but nonetheless wrong. “It was a divination, not a séance. No matter. I have many more wonders to show you, for this isn’t even one-quarter of my collection.” Remembering what I’d just said, she added, “Eliza will fetch your drink as well.”

“Thank you.” I also recalled something – someone. “What about Dr. A.?”

We heard murmuring and stamping from the direction of the foyer. “Speak of the devil.” When we swiveled our heads, we saw him being helped into his overlong coat by the old specter. Noticing us, he pointed his index finger.

“Vollinger? I’ll see you at six in the morning, on the dot, no matter how hung over you are. As for you, Miss?” He bared his teeth. “You need a lesson written on your back, ten lines at the hands of our county jailers. I’ll ensure it. Good night.” Slam went the door. Humph went Eliza. Tick-tock went that same parlor timepiece.

“The gall,” I sneered. “Threatening you when you’d let him off easy.”

Libra gave me a long look. “Yes,” she finally said. “Cowards do such things, but let’s not speak of him. Let us go into my father’s study and exhibition room instead.”

I could have refused. In my tired, odiferous condition, I should have, but did not. Christian folk say we’re evil from the day we’re born. We’re drawn to it like moths to a flame, but the Lord will not save us unless we resist. As for me? The entrance into a shrine to another god entirely edged me closer to my tipping point.

* * * * * * * *

The first clue that we were entering another extraordinary space was Miss Wright removing her servants’ boots beforehand. Did she always wear them? I thought not, for they appeared clunky and heavy. My first assumption was that she didn’t want to dirty the floor inside, but then I thought of Exodus 3:5: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” Libra did not motion for me to do the same. She simply lay her footwear aside and gazed at the door with rapt attention. Once she was ready, she reached into the folds of her linens and pulled out a key with not one blade, but five. A brass plate with five oddly-shaped holes corresponded. She slid the bits in simultaneously, then turned each bow to a horizontal position. I’d never seen such an elaborate system of locks.

Why was I surprised when the doorknob yielded to her touch? She gestured for me to enter. I steeled myself for danger, or at least a gruesome sight, but beheld naught but a gentleman’s study. Dimly lit by utilitarian gas lamps, the first thing it revealed was a tall, elongated object, shimmering with gold, against the far wall.

“Don’t approach it,” said Libra, following my gaze and pressing a hand to my chest. “Not yet. I wish to show you Father’s other artifacts and dissertations first.”

“Dissertations? So he was not only a tenured professor, but a doctorate.”

“Indeed.” We proceeded into the room. Unlike in the previous one, Libra had to turn up the lamps by hand. I felt confused as to why, but this mundane question vanished when I saw the treasures resting upon every available surface.

“Ancient Egypt come to life,” I rasped. “I never thought I’d see it. . .”

“. . .Outside of a museum?” She beamed. “Egyptology was Micah Wright’s expertise; some would say his obsession. The latter word has such a dark connotation, doesn’t it? Anyone who tars Father’s life’s work with such a brush ought to remember that genius and madness are two sides of the same coin. It’s a wonder he lived as long as he did, considering. . .” She placed her hands in front of her and gazed at the desk before us. “One hundred and five years old. It happens to be the least common multiple of three, five, and seven, all of which were sacred.”

Libra stepped behind the desk and beckoned for me to approach it. One by one, she explained the recondite objects upon it: several amulets in various stones and metals; three canopic jars I dared not peek into for fear of finding mummified organs; glasswork articles collectively called falence; a necklace deemed a menat; several papyruses, and in the center of the desk, a pyramid’s summit stone.

“Your door has five locks for good reason,” I murmured after marveling at all of this. “If everyone in Sanctum knew about your father’s cache, thieves. . .”
“Would meet their Maker,” she said with the face of a sphinx. “He shot two or three would-be burglars, one of whom was a rival colleague from the University. I was eleven at the time, and asked him if he regretted this. I’ll never forget his response: “Better a grave robber meet his fate at my hands than those of the Black Pharaoh.” I wondered who this Black Pharaoh was, but Father wouldn’t answer. I then asked if he weren’t a grave robber himself.

“Instead of punishing me, as I feared he might, he explained that several of his compatriots were. They sought money, recognition and adventure, in that order. As long as the artifacts they dug up earned them fame and fortune, they didn’t care about blaspheming the dead. Father did. He viewed his expeditions and collections as a way to preserve Old Egypt for future generations.”

“Namely you?”

“Yes, no matter how much Mother objected. Every father wants his son to follow in his footsteps, and every mother wants her daughter to follow in hers. As I was their only child, they fought for not only my love, but my loyalty as well.”

I sighed, aching to take her hand, for she’d struck a nerve. Yet I refrained.

Miss Wright shrugged, winking and smiling as blithely as if she hadn’t said this. “As for these acquisitions, even the pyramidion, the apex stone on the desk, wasn’t Father’s favorite. That honor belongs to the sarcophagus over there.” When I stepped toward it, she restrained me again. “Ah-ah-ah. You know the rules.” She sidled over toward a horizontal bookcase. “I present the published works of Micah Wright, Ph.D. You won’t recognize any of the titles, but a few might intrigue you.”

She was more than right. Mummification: Process and Product immediately drew my eye, as did Gods and Men of Ancient Egypt and Nephren-Ka. “Who was he?”

Libra swallowed hard. “I asked Father about the Black Pharaoh. That’s his name.”

“Why haven’t I heard it? Why isn’t he the peer of Rameses and Tutankhamen?”

“He was, for a time. Then insanity and devotion to a dark god felled him.”

I pulled the tome from the bookcase. Its binding creaked. “Which dark god? Set?”

“Alas, there’s one far darker. Father didn’t mention his name in Gods and Men, because even his mentors at Miskatonic feared it. Pious people don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, but those devoted to Nephren-Ka’s god don’t call upon him unless they’re sure…” She trailed off. “When I questioned Father after he’d shot his rival collector, he drew me close and recited a poem he’d written just for me:

‘No one worships Egypt’s gods,
Osiris, Set, and Ra;
The eye of Horus is now blind.
Who sees all? Jehovah.
The pyramids are empty now,
As are the Pharaohs’ thrones,
And within their sarcophagi,
These kings have turned to bones.

Yet one of them the desert roams:
The Black Man, Faceless God,
The Crawling Chaos, some deem him,
Or else Time’s Chastening Rod.
If you dare say his other name,
The one men dread to call,
Then, beware! From that day henceforth,
You shall become his thrall.’”

When Libra finished reciting, I’m ashamed to admit that I hid a smirk. Even worse, I dismissed her: “A rousing little rhyme to keep you from misbehaving.”

She shuddered. “So I thought at the time. I also believed it a warning to keep out of his study and leave him to his research, but Father was preparing me. He knew one day I’d grow too curious about the name of this strange deity, and that my rational mind would dismiss its consequences. After all, I was sure there was only one God, His Son, and the Holy Ghost. So did Mother.” The corners of her mouth quirked in bitter regret. “A staunch Calvinist from birth. We were both fools and didn’t realize it. We dismissed other gods as fictions at best and demons at worst. Truth be told, Father bought all the objects in the other room for Mother. As I grew, she thought I was becoming too worldly on the one hand, and too drawn to Father’s artifacts on the other. Thus she made a shrine to the world’s artificiality.”

My brows furrowed. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“The dolls? Hollow, though they are the only family I have. I was an only child, and my line shall die with me. The carousel horse? Carved of wood and glass gems for decoration. The masks? Pagan disguises. The orchestrion?”

“A machine tinkling automatic tunes, not for God’s glory, but man’s.”

Libra’s expression brightened. “The chandelier, lamps and lanterns? None can equal the brilliance of the sun, and all they cast are imitations of rainbows.”

I pursed my lips. “Rather a dark view of the world to teach a young lady.”

“It’s true. The colors? The overwhelming hues? They hide darkness. In the tomb there is neither joy nor light. That’s what all those novelties conceal. Mother warned me not to get distracted, to see to my Bible and prayer book. She hoped I’d think Father a heretic, and condemn him to the realm where all heretics go after death. Instead I became one, but not by chance. That’s another tale, however.”

“We have time. It can’t be more than nine o’clock.”

“Doctor Vollinger,” she asked, staring me full in the face, “are you sure?”

They say the Almighty gives us chance after chance to turn back, to repent and mend our ways. Yet at that moment, I wasn’t sure what sin I was committing. All I knew was that when I replied in the affirmative, I stamped a seal on my fate.

* * * * * * * *

“Very well,” said Libra, a trace of doubt lingering in her voice. “Over here.”

I knew what lay ahead, but still asked, “May I borrow this paperweight?”

“Of course. Although it details Nephren-Ka and his mad reign of terror, it’s just a book.” She snickered. “Don’t I sound silly? I meant a historical treatise, hard fact instead of myth.” Biting her lower lip, she darted toward the sarcophagus in the manner of a child caught red-handed in the cookie jar. “Behold.”

I was meant to behold the coffin, as I’d been so eager to do twice before. The closer I drew to it, however, the more I wanted to look away, as from that revolving chandelier. A typical death mask depicted a pharaoh’s stoic face in solid gold. This other sarcophagus had no face, merely the suggestion of one via symbols etched in all-encompassing filigree. No wonder the lights had been extinguished before we’d entered the study. I wanted to beg Libra to do so as soon as I knew what I saw.

A normal human face has two eyes, two ears, a nose, mouth and chin. I counted no less than eight indentations for ocular orbs on the coffin’s death mask, with two occupying the spaces where ears would have been. It looked like a crown with several jewels, all filled with gold-etched hieroglyphs of a sort I’d never seen. As for the nose, it was a flat cavity instead of a three-dimensional proboscis, longer than any, its tip touching the rim of the mouth with – oh, good Lord, the mouth –

Filigree in the manner of surgical sutures, stitched up and down. Hundreds.

“Tea, sir?” Eliza’s bark startled me so that my feet left the floor. I cried out. “Din’t mean to scare you,” she continued, although I surmised she had. “Well?”

“Bourbon, please.” My face burned. “Two fingers.”

“Aye, and you, Miss?”

“Our red currant wine will do. Thank you.” With nary a word, Eliza left. “I’m sorry. She creeps up on me, too, when she thinks I’m not paying attention. ‘Tis her way.”

Trying to regain my good humor, I squinted. “Is this where she sleeps?”

Libra and I guffawed along with the flames in the gas lanterns. I realized that this was the first real merriment I’d enjoyed all evening, and she, it seemed, as well. “No,” she said after wiping her eyes. “Her room is much drearier.” More laughter. “I tried to convince her to move out of the garret just last year, but she says it keeps her humble. It’s also easier to stare at the Scriptures instead of dingy gray walls.” A pause. “Let’s not talk about Eliza. What lies before us is far more fascinating.”

My friend and confessor, as surely as I’m telling you the whole truth now, I knew Libra was telling half the truth back then. She may have exposed George P. and Madeline in an oblique way, but she’d still let his wife know the whole of their affair. Miss Wright was withholding several things, and she knew I realized it.

I flipped my hand toward the coffin, attempting to act flippant. “Like this?”

“Dusted and polished with the utmost care. You’re frightened of its mouth.”

“Not frightened, but. . .” Guess who was telling half the truth at that point? “Repulsed would be a better word. Revolted. Eliza’s the one who frightened me.”

“Mm-hmm.” A beat. “No one betrays the secrets of Nephren-Ka, not even the Black Pharaoh himself in the afterlife. That’s why his mouth is sealed shut.”

As an aside, Eliza returned with our beverages. Libra sipped hers in silence, but I drank my double portion in one gulp. I needed it for what I’d say next. “Do you mean to say that your father hauled his real sarcophagus from Egypt?”

She turned her head, eyes gleaming, almost glowing like a cat’s. “That’s the prize, but what of the price? In this case, the sacrifice of my father’s closest ally, or so he assumed at the time, was required. So he said.” I sensed but didn’t want to ask whom this second he was. “Fortunately for the both of us, Reginald Carter showed his true colors on the same night I’ve told you about. Father committed no murder, but an act of self-defense. It’s a man’s right to protect his home and property.”

I frowned. “That he did, but what about the second burglar? A stranger?”

Miss Wright nodded. “He died by the same principle, in return for another priceless treasure – the pyramidion you admired earlier. Father knew he’d kill for what he brought home from Egypt’s ruins, before he’d even set sight on a single pyramid. It was his earnest wish that he wouldn’t have to spill innocent blood.”

“Yet he realized beforehand that he would spill guilty blood and was willing to do so?” Moreover: “If he killed two for the sake of two artifacts, what about the rest?”

“He and his fellows excavated everything else in here from other tombs of lesser royals. Tombs without a guardian deity or deadly price for their plunder.”

I glanced back toward Nephren-Ka’s coffin. “May I see the mummy inside?”

For a long while Libra said nothing. Then: “There is none. The Black Pharaoh ascended to the stars, body, soul and spirit, as the myths say all god-men do.”

“The point of myths is that they’re not true, except in a metaphorical sense.”

“If you don’t believe them, believe me.” She stepped closer, a hair’s breadth from stepping into my arms. “He ascended because his master favored him.”

I didn’t want to believe that, or her. Therein lay all the difference. “All the same,” I said, “if there’s no mummy, why did your father collect the sarcophagus?”

She flashed an enigmatic grin. “Why do we treasure the bodies of our dearly departed and lay them in state if they’re just empty shells? Besides, it’s proof that a pharaoh stricken from all records and monuments existed. Few others think so. If you prefer to think it’s a fabrication, fair enough, but I assure you it is not.” After another long pause, my hostess continued, “He commandeered a third artifact.”

I stiffened. “Is it in this room?”

“No, upstairs in mine. I have a bedroom, obviously, but also a chapel. Not that it’s big, but it is private. Eliza cannot enter. I wear the key around my waist.”

“Like a belt?” Such an image intrigued me, and not just in my mind.

“Aye. A necklace would be too conspicuous.” Libra gazed at me from beneath half-lowered eyelids. I knew the expression, but it had never piqued me until now.

“I wonder: Has Dr. A seen all that you’re showing me now – not to pry?”

She waggled a finger. “I don’t lie. Neither should you. Yes, he’s seen it, but in the five years I’ve known him, I’ve refused him access to my quarters. They contain Father’s greatest treasure and my own, in addition to the three books I’ve written.”

Three books? “Interesting.” That’s an understatement, but what else can I say without sounding like a sycophant? “Have you submitted them for publication?”

“Only to Father’s alma mater, not the great publishing houses. Also, I’ve had to reduce my name to L. Wright so the uninformed don’t suspect I’m a woman. Have you heard of the poet Anne Bradstreet?” When I nodded, she quoted:

“A Poet’s Pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits. . .”

“If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.”

I harrumphed. “Fools. It’s 1885, not 1600.” Still, I knew Libra was right.

“My father’s surname is famous enough to bolster my work. Miskatonic University currently has the sole copies of my three volumes.”

“Are they popular?”

“The librarians say my books are worn out already.”

“Then I’d say it’s time for another transcription.” Something unsettled me. “If Dr. A has seen everything else in your collection, why not the crown jewels?”

“I don’t trust him.” She hesitated, then elaborated. “I think he’s a poseur.”

“In what way?”

“He appears fascinated with my curios and wondrous objects, but I said appears. His tone is respectful, bordering on awed, when he talks about what I’ve garnered, especially these Egyptian relics. On the other hand, his eyes are blank. They should light up with pleasure if he’s truly pleased, I should think. It’s as if he knows what to say and how to say it in order to flatter me, using the praise of my downstairs collection in order to get me upstairs. Don’t look at me like that.”

“What?” She gave me another sly look. It seemed my face had betrayed me.

“Mind you, I’m not what he wants. He’s not that sort of man. In fact…” She whispered. “I don’t think he’s a man at all. Not a normal one, at least. His face looks forward, at you and me, but he has a hidden face. One that looks back toward the past, while the one we see is in the present.” When I raised an eyebrow, she said, “His outward face sees nothing but science and the forward march of progress. He does not believe in God, or so he says. His backward face gapes, agog at the divine. When he walks down the street or works at the Asylum, he diagnoses and cures. When he’s alone with me, he spreads an inner sickness, a malaise of the spirit.”

I knew the feeling all too well. “Then why do you keep inviting him?”

“To trap him. He collects rarities, as I do, and we’re in a kind of competition. Dr. A. seems only to be the renowned psychiatrist, aloof to all the cares of man except those in man’s diseased imagination. He passes himself off as a materialist. What would he care for the treasures I keep hidden behind five locks and five keys? However, his hidden mouth seeks to devour my books and Father’s third artifact. I won’t let him. I’m afraid of what he may discover, and what he may do. Once I expose him, he’ll be the laughingstock of his profession and be disbarred. With little money to collect aught more, Dr. A. will lose interest in hoarding everything.”

“Including you?” I drew her close. She didn’t flinch or pull away. “Tell me.”

“When we get there.” I knew where there happened to be. “Second floor.” We lay our empty glasses on the writing desk, among the canopic jars and papyruses. I felt as if I were profaning a sacred space, more so than I would have if I’d entered with muddy boots. My companion didn’t seem to mind. She left these vessels alone without a second thought, ushering me to an elegant staircase. When I said her house was small, I meant in terms of grandeur, not mere size. As a physician, I made house calls to wealthy patrons in Sanctum on occasion. No dwelling could hide madness, whether big or small, yet a home environment calmed patients.

“I’ll show you Mother’s reading and sewing room first, for contrast. You can’t have one without the other.” We climbed the stairs and into the turret on the right side of the house: the greatest distance from her father’s study, I intuited.

From downstairs, the clock in the reception parlor chimed half past nine.

“Mother spent most of her time secluded,” continued Libra, “to avoid Father, and me if I were misbehaving or bothering her. She was often bothered.” With that, Miss Wright opened the door – unlocked for a change. Inside was a parlor no different from Grace’s in its white walls and lace curtains. Nevertheless, compared to my housekeeper’s refuge, it was spartan. No china, knick-knacks or dolls to be found, but a rocking chair and sewing basket, small writing desk, and a bookcase.

“‘Tis chillier than the rest of your house,” I said, rubbing my forearms.

“I haven’t had Eliza light the fireplace. It’s been ages since I came in here.” After igniting the gas lamps, she explained, “This was Mother’s prayer room, too.”

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“Her own chapel?”

“The same. See that cross on the wall, fashioned of sticks and dried flowers? She made it herself, and it’s lasted for more than twenty years. Amazing, isn’t it? Ordinarily she didn’t like decoration, considering it vanity, but broke her own rule in this case. Her bookshelf has several worn Bibles and religious texts, including an English edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin.”

“How does your faith differ from other Christian sects and denominations?” After a curious look from Libra, I shrugged. “I don’t recall. I was raised Lutheran.”

“And I was raised with a firm grasp of the Five Points of Calvinism. They spell tulip if you put them into acrostic form.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Some believe the last point to be predestination.”

A hazy memory stirred. “But isn’t that part and parcel of your beliefs?”

“My…former beliefs.” I didn’t want to ask about the pause in between the first word and those that followed. “It’s true that according to Calvinism, God has predestined whom He will save from the foundations of the world, the beginning of time. The other points are as follows: No matter what man does, he cannot save himself from his original sinful, fallen state. That’s total depravity. Unconditional election means that God saves His chosen, no matter what they have done or will do. Limited atonement means Jesus Christ only died for the elect, not for all men. Irresistible grace means just that: God is a force that no man can defy or break free from. As gravity draws an apple irresistibly to the ground if it falls from a tree, God draws the elect to Him through His irresistible favor, as strong as gravity. The last point, perseverance of the saints, means that once saved, you’re always saved.”

I put my fingers to my lips, musing for a long while. At last I said, “Now?”

“Now I’ve seen for myself that the greatest gift is not faith, but knowledge.”

It was my turn to be vague. “Via. . .him?”

Neither in her speech nor in her manner, but her eyes, I had my answer.

Libra sat down in the rocking chair and began to sway to and fro. I stepped to the window and looked outside, upon the front yard and blazing streetlamp. A pervasive melancholy made my bones and heart ache, yet I knew not why. What was I doing here? I should’ve been at home in bed or else keeping Grace company. If my work by day were exhausting, this nightly recreation was far more so. I could no more understand the house and its occupant than – well, the Almighty Himself.

“It’s not true,” Miss Wright finally announced from out of nowhere.

“What isn’t true?”

“That once saved, you are always saved.”

I grunted in agreement. “We’re all born with free will to choose good or evil.”

She rose out of the chair like a sleepwalker, came to me and took my hands in hers. More than any other event thus far, any fright I had endured, the chills that overwhelmed me at that moment made me certain I was making a grave error. In her gaze lay realizations and sorrows that surpassed the normal range of such, that could see her admitted to Sanctum Asylum if she weren’t careful. These were the realizations and sorrows of mythical Pandora, of Sisyphus, of Faust and Eve.

Then make your choice, Martin Vollinger, I heard her say without speaking, as I have.

Libra gave me a gentle tug, leading me out of the shrine where her mother had worshiped. She led and I followed, not as a lamb to the slaughter, but as a king to his throne. Even though I knew next to nothing about the god of the Black Pharaoh, I understood he was not a benevolent deity. Yet I followed just the same, unwilling – not unable – to turn back from whatever would come next. She had to know. I had to see. She’d invited me to view her collection, and I’d view it all.

When we reached her room in the left turret on the second floor, she lit the lamps and let her coarse linen garb slip to the floor. Like Botticelli’s Venus, her pale body lay beneath, and she covered herself with her hair. My mouth fell open. A delicate silver chain lay cinched around her waist, the chapel key dangling from it, the tip of its blade concealed in the swath of black tresses hiding her sex.

“I am pledged to the one you dare not name,” she said, “but I want you. ‘Tis your last chance. If I be defiled, the Crawling Chaos will punish me, but his lash is more merciful than his plan for me. I’ve not yet reached the fifth stage, but the third.” She paused. “I have partaken of the gnosis of our Past, Present and Future – all that was, is, and will be. Such experiential divine knowledge has a high price. People say I’m always right, but they know not whence my power comes.”

I heard my throat rasp and rattle as I tried to draw breath and failed.

“If we become one flesh, the Faceless God shall leave me at my current stage for ten millennia. Perhaps by then, your Jesus will have come again.” She smiled.

After what could have been ten thousand years, I said, “No.”

“No, you won’t have me, or no, you want to have a piece of such dark knowledge yourself? My forbidden fruit will satisfy your body, but his will gorge your spirit until it breaks apart. It’ll fill you to the brim and spill over. If you can’t hold it, you’ll go mad, as I try not to.” Pause. “I fear and crave it more than anything.”

“What, this?” I gestured to her nude form. “Lust? Carnality?”

“No. My completion.” She stroked my cheek. “Take my offering. Renounce his.”

Lord help me, I almost agreed! “No, Libra. I won’t defile you. Remain chaste. I am pledged to the loving and unifying God whom everyone else worships.”

She embraced me, and my heart broke. “You’re a Christian after all, Doctor.”

Instead of praying or some such, I fled her house like the coward I knew I was. I’d had her in my grasp, ready and willing, but at the last moment I faltered. Why? What did I have to prove to anyone? My faith in God was fading. Why didn’t I let it die? In truth, I was still hoping for redemption, yet I knew not from what. I hadn’t yet made up my mind to murder Dr. Allerton, but hoped against all odds that refusing Libra would give me the courage to forgo that even more sinful deed.

Alas, if faith leads to more faith, knowledge leads to more knowledge.

No matter how dark.

* * * * * * * *

“How was it?” asked N. the next Monday, as soon as I reached the Asylum.

“How was what?” I asked my assistant, wiping my burning red eyes.

“Saturday night. Your visit with Miss Wright. How was it? How was she?” A pang of self-loathing and regret struck me, not because of her, but because I’d told N. about my All Hallows’ Eve invitation. I’d assumed it would be ordinary. Benign.

“I would appreciate it,” I warned, “if you kept my private business private.”

“Mum’s the word. I’ll never tell. Besides, you don’t see him around, do you?” My heart leapt into my throat, then slid back down. Of course N. was referring to Dr. A., not the unnamable god of the Black Pharaoh and my hostess. “Well, Martin?”

“I enjoyed a very pleasant evening.”

N. snorted. “Bosh. If she’s as strange as everyone thinks she is, did she do anything strange? Peer into a crystal ball? Reveal your deepest, darkest secrets?” When I did nothing but stare at the floor, he whooped. “Do tell!”

“It wasn’t like that.” I felt a heat like molten metal spread from my toes upward.

“No? Then why’re you staring at the – ” He gulped as I seized his collar.

“From now henceforth,” I said, keeping my voice low while tightening my hold, “you shall address me as Doctor or Sir, never by my given name. Second, you’ll hold your tongue about anyone and anything I discuss, whether here or elsewhere. Third, you will not intrude into personal affairs that don’t concern you in the slightest. As for Miss Wright, you’ll only mention her in the vaguest terms. If you meet her on the street, tell me. If you hear rumors, keep your fool mouth shut. If your mind’s in the gutter regarding her, as now, retrieve it.” I stopped to give his collar one more cinch. “Last but not least, you shall attend to your duties with utmost professionalism. Silence is golden. Understood?”

N. managed to gurgle: “Yes, sir.” I let go of him, and he almost fell backward. When he regained balance, he pointed at an angle. “What are those bruises?”

“Where?”

“On your neck, Doctor.” He stepped closer. I stepped back. “They look like –”

Finger marks. I’d completely forgotten, and my collar didn’t hide their tips.

“Never mind. They’ll heal. I cut myself shaving and grabbed my throat in reflex.”

“Naturally, sir,” said N. I gestured toward the interior of the building, and he followed. I may have given him a manhandling, but that didn’t mean his animal sense of danger had dulled one bit. He knew his master had also been manhandled.

I swore that as soon as the day was over, I’d go to the police. My adversary deserved death for his failed attempt on my life. An official execution to offset an unlawful assault. As God is my witness, if Dr. A. hadn’t then appeared…

“Good morning, Vollinger.” He lowered his spectacles. “Are you well?”

Keeping my gaze level, I answered, “As well as can be expected.”

“Considering your whereabouts on Saturday, I expect you drank all weekend long. ‘Tis not good to arrive at your place of employment in such a condition.”

I ignored this. “Was there any observance for All Souls’ Day on Sunday?”

“A planting of flowers and funereal wreaths on the graves in our cemetery. As you know, several of our patients have friends and loved ones buried there. Frankly, I believe the occasion to be morbid, in evidence of where we are. As physicians, we shouldn’t allow the mad to become more so through fixation on death.”

“Come now. Don’t you remember your dearly departed in such a manner?”

“In a word, no,” said Dr. A. “Such adornments are unnecessary, six feet above the earth in which the lifeless lie. If vanity is a sin, as Scripture clearly states, what greater extravagance can there be than to waste expensive blooms on those who no longer take pleasure in them? ‘Tis a symptom of the frivolity of the living.” Ere he could expound any further on this, his assistant D. dashed into our waiting area.

“Doctor!” His ruddy face and blue eyes blazed. “O.R.’s out of his jacket again.”

This was urgent news indeed. Even though he was my adversary’s patient, the aforementioned O.R. was one of the most violent male inmates at our Asylum. Even with his fingernails cut down to the quick, he still tried to claw and gouge out eyes – his own and everyone else’s. On top of that, he ground his teeth as he slept, paced nonstop, and fancied himself hematophagous: a blood drinker. A vampire.

“Right away,” said Dr. A., bolting after D. once he unbolted the hallway door. I could hear an echo: the sound of the long letter E being screeched at high volume.

Poor man, I thought, shaking my head. Better death than such an existence.

If Descartes’ famous maxim is true; if I think, therefore I am, it follows that what I am is a direct result of what I think. As soon as I had decided that not living at all would be preferable to living in O.R.’s state, I changed. I morphed. I fell.

He’s far from the only man here who’s insane. Even some of the doctors. . .

Some. Whom was I trying to fool? I had one and only one doctor in mind.

You may ask: Why do a frigid manner, a lack of social graces, forgoing flowers for the dead, and sneering at one’s hangover constitute insanity? They don’t. All they suggest is a callous and uncaring personality. In other words, a heel, a rogue, a thoroughly rotten bastard. Such terms described Dr. A. to a T. In and of themselves, they didn’t constitute either madness or a motive for murder. However, coupled with much harder evidence, evidence to do imminent harm –

You need proof, more than the bruises on your neck. It’s your word against his. He could say you choked at dinner and grabbed your throat. Find a way into his mind.

I hesitated. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but the way to a man’s mind is through his journal. Without a doubt, A. kept numerous files and records, but these were professional documents. As far as I knew, he hadn’t done anything criminal or inappropriate with his patients. Even if he had, that wouldn’t reveal the whole of him. Besides, inmate records could be viewed by any and all our senior staff, including the head of Sanctum Asylum. Dr. A. was a foe, but not a fool. He wouldn’t put down anything that would incriminate him. Like me, he’d go home and bare his soul to a book on his nightstand. It wouldn’t reveal its secrets.

Look in his office. Four words, Libra’s voice. He has plans for me, too, she said.

I ran in the opposite direction from the main hall toward that destination.

It appeared I’d overestimated him. His door was unlocked. I snuck it closed behind me like a burglar, because I knew I’d soon become one. Wincing at the glare of sunlight from the window behind his writing desk, I hurried over to it. Most of us at the Asylum had working spaces as messy as the aftermath of a nor’easter. Dr. A.’s office, however, was orderly as a military officer’s. I had no trouble flipping through the papers on his desktop: requisitions for prescriptions, recent reports, memoranda and such. No books, journals or not. I rifled through the drawers, desperate not to be caught. At the bottom of the bottom left enclosure lay a worn tome. Its first page bore chicken scrawl, but I managed to read A. A. ALLERTON.

“I’ve got you, scum,” I hissed and hid the book within my coat.

I set everything to rights, left, and told our reception nurse I had to return home due to illness. She gave a sympathetic nod, not suspecting my contraband.

* * * * * * * *

When I reached my residence, I asked Grace for a cup of tea and toast, but no more. I told her that my escapades on All Hallows’ Eve had left me with veisalgia.

She repeated the scientific name for my present ailment. “What’s that?”

“Never you mind. I’ll be in my room resting and shall ring for you if needed.”

“Quite so, sir.” My housekeeper returned to scrubbing the kitchen floor, and I headed upstairs. With door locked and prize removed from coat, I began reading.

A tired old truism is that people can’t read what doctors write. This was the case regarding the journal of Abraham A. Allerton. Even a rooster or hen couldn’t have scratched out such rubbish. Half of it consisted of squiggles and full stops that didn’t seem to stop anything at all. I could only make out every fifth word or so, but they were enough. Together, they were sufficient to make my case.

“Martin V. . .worm…German vermin. I’m an American American. . .as St. Paul is Jew of Jews. Thirty years. . .expert. My patients. . .cured. . .frontal? Trans-orbital? Latter best.”

My head throbbed with more than a migraine. I needed bourbon.

“Trial. . .new device. . .experiment. . .no admittance. Patient LW, the macabre collector.”

* * * * * * * *

I dropped Dr. A.’s diary, then stared into space for near-eternity.

Her nude image flashed in my mind: alabaster skin, blue-black hair, amber eyes like pinpoints of sunlight through a magnifying glass, burning up ants like myself. Like all of us. Compared to her and the god she served, we were insects.

I thought of the phrase I’d written about her in my own journal, in my native language: völlig losgelöst. Completely detached. What did Libra Wright have to do with our normal, everyday days – with the routines of running a household, with parties and dance cards, even with marriage and childbirth? She’d said she had no family other than her Russian dolls, which were utterly hollow on the inside. What did hello and how do you do matter to her, the niceties others relied upon? Even her All Hallows’ Eve gathering hadn’t been meant for entertainment, but revelation.

I’d never met anyone so removed from this existence and enmeshed in. . .

God! She was a psychiatrist’s dream. No wonder Dr. A. wanted to unravel her mind, and worse. What was this “experiment” he planned to do, and this “device?” Did anyone else know besides the two of us and perhaps D., his hapless assistant?

Did Dr. Allerton want to rid Libra of her affliction – that of not living this life?

Didn’t he realize that in her case, the cure could be worse than the disease?

With a frisson of revulsion, I thought of that awful room, that shrine Mrs. Wright had built to this world’s falseness. No one else had revolving chandeliers with black crystals, bejeweled carousel horses in sitting rooms, voodoo masks on walls, or an orchestrion playing the varsouviana until doomsday or its own death came first. No one else I knew had eight matryoshki in a row, complete with names.

Yet, in our own way, weren’t we all faking? Weren’t we all masquerading?

To and fro we walked down the cobblestone streets of Sanctum, passing by one another like shadows, only waving to those we knew. We went in and out of shops, buying and selling, praising the Lord on Sunday and Mammon the rest of the week. We toiled at our various occupations, day in and day out, trading the labor of our bodies and minds for the money we needed to buy sustenance to keep working. We ate, drank, slept, created and expanded families for the good of all.

We lived, but we were only half-alive. Those like me? More mummies than men.

Libra realized this, and infinitely more. Dr. A. would destroy her for it.

Martin, her voice said in my mind, you’re telling yourself half the truth again.

I could only tell the other half once I’d taken lunch and dismissed Grace:

I wanted to see what Libra saw, hear what she heard, know what she knew. I’d seen quite enough of this world to last multiple lifetimes. Where was hers? If my God lived in heaven, where did the deity of the Black Pharaoh and Miss Wright dwell? What glories did she behold when she dreamed, as well as when she woke?

Most of all, how did she agree to serve him? What was her “other tale?”

My fists clenched. If Dr. A. had his way, she‘d neither care nor remember. Like many of his charges, she’d shuffle up and down the asylum hallway, drool oozing down her chin unnoticed. Would she soil herself? Yes or no, it couldn’t happen.

Libra Wright only collected objects. Dr. Allerton also collected patients.

* * * * * * * *

I had to save her.

That meant I had to kill him.

The police couldn’t know and wouldn’t understand. My bloodlust was mine.

Credit: Tenet

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