Wanted! Dead and Alive
He loved the slow sinuous drive up to his castle, with the wine-dark sea on his left, and the rich green foothills of the Sierra Nevada to his right. It made him feel alive, balanced, cocooned in his car between the wood and the water.
He slid the diminutive silver sports car deftly around the taut corners and hairpin bends; its V8 engine growled as he changed gears to accommodate the rise and fall of the road.
But it was on the flats that the two-door Jaguar really excelled he thought. The engine roared exultantly as he punched the accelerator feeling gravity force him backward into the hand-stitched leather seat.
The plangent sound of the wind through his receding hair was interrupted by the banshee wail of a police car that pulled out from behind him with its lights and siren going. Howard slowed the car then slid into the nearest rest area; the engine now meek and purring.
Howard Holmes didn’t bother with his license and registration, his face was identification enough in these parts. He stared in the rear-view mirror as the door of the police cruiser opened slowly, revealing the decal of the Innsmouth Police Department: a bronze five pointed star above their motto, ‘Safe and Secure’.
The officer exited the car and made his way to the side of Howard’s vehicle, with his black leather boots crunching on the gravel. Howard practised looking contrite; it was definitely not something he was used to.
“Going a bit fast there weren’t we, Mr Holmes?” said the policeman, for the fourth time this month. He had recognised the silver sports car and its occupant immediately as it came clawing around the bend.
Howard stared at his dual reflection in the officer’s mirrored sunglasses. He had a thin angular face with a large forehead and thinning hair. A pencil-thin moustache shaded in the area beneath his nose. You had to look hard to see it, but it was there. Howard grew it because he thought it made him look like a bit of a cad, as if he were an ancillary character from ‘The Great Gatsby’, a tale of opulence and loneliness he could relate to.
“I’m sorry officer; I have a ten o’clock meeting that I’m late for, but I guess that’s no excuse though, is it?” Howard said, doing his best to look remorseful. He gave Officer Treadwell a wan smile and waited patiently for the farce to be over. Howard knew he wasn’t going to get a ticket, not today, in fact, not ever. That wasn’t how the game was played around here. He was Innsmouth’s most famous resident, and he would be damned if some pissant trooper was going to fine him. He continued to smile.
“Well, next time you get the urge to let this kitty purr, think twice. Wouldn’t do for us to scrape our resident billionaire off the road now, would it?”
“Guess not, and again, I’m sorry. Won’t happen again.” But they both knew that it would.
He waved at Officer Treadwell as he pulled back on to the tarmac keeping his speed under control. He stayed below thirty until the castle was in sight, then he gunned it through the wrought-iron gates all the way to the front door, skidding to a halt, spraying stones into gigantic cherub encrusted fountain.
Howard had imported the castle from Scotland, rebuilding it on a cliff overlooking the town of Innsmouth and the swell of the mighty Pacific Ocean. He called it home, but the bohemian residents of that bucolic sea-side town called it an abomination.
He loved the view from the top of the castle. He could look out all the way over the silken water, and sometimes, when the wind was still and the water calm, he could see the ruins of an ancient temple in the bay. He had plans to restore it to its former Bacchanalian glory, but he was at loggerheads with the Elders of the Innsmouth Council who were convinced that, what was long since dead, should eternal lie.
In the meantime, he just kept on living the life he loved, that of playboy billionaire, erstwhile philanthropist, and full time misanthropist.
As a young man, Howard tried to overcome the quandary of having too much money and no meaningful way to fill his days; Champagne, caviar and Playboy Bunnies didn’t seem to do it for him anymore. His therapist suggested he needed a hobby, so he went out and got one; he became the apotheosis of a collector.
Howard’s most regurgitated quote in the press was,’ [they] say that money can’t buy love, and that might be true, but it can buy you things, lots of things, and when you are as rich as I am...the stranger the better. Quotidian, I just don’t do.’
“Howard, hey, how’s it going, dude?” said his is ten o’clock appointment. A well-built young man came walking down the solid stone steps toward him. He was tall, blonde, and classically handsome in a vacuous sort of way wearing the obligatory Wayfarers that had seen better days. He had on a dingy Wildcats T-shirt and addressed everyone as dude, whether they liked it or not.
“Skeeter, what’s up? Got the goods?” Howard asked, throwing his car keys to a liveried valet.
Skeeter, a sun-kissed denizen of California’s Venice Beach, was a young surfer who liked to flaunt his good looks and clear blue eyes. He made a living buying antiques and oddities for Howard and was chief among the ‘Irregulars’: a loose-knit posse that Howard employed to scour the length and breadth of the globe for anything out of the ordinary.
“Of course dude, what do you think you pay me for?” Skeeter answered, giving his employer his best sunny So-Cal smile. “I have it all set up in the warehouse. You might think of relocating, it’s getting sort of full down there. You’re coming off more like a hoarder than a collector.
“Nonsense,” Howard bellowed, walking up the steps beside Skeeter entering into the cool of the castle. “If it gets too full, I’ll just build another one. So, what do you have for me today?”
“Dude, I got the strangest little-“
“Actually, let me stop you right there,” Howard said, as they were crossing the echoing lobby. ”I want to enjoy the surprise, so don’t let the cat out of the bag.”
Uniformed cleaners were hard at work, buffing, polishing and wiping down every available surface. The room was flanked by two sweeping staircases that led upwards into the belly of the castle. The tiles beneath their feet were black and white marble, handcrafted in Italy by the Capuchin monks of Figaro. Ahead, beneath a substantial Salvador Dali painting, (depicting a melting elephant being eaten by what appeared to be a floating cloud of protoplasmic flesh and illuminated orbs) was the brushed steel elevator that led down to what Howard referred to as his, Bat-cave.
The doors opened sedately, revealing an area large enough to hold thirty people at a pinch. Inside the lift there was a wet-bar, television, and music station tuned permanently to Classic A.M.
“So how you been, Skeeter? What’s new down Venice way?” Howard asked, as the doors slid closed encasing them in the sweeping sounds of ‘Cat Scratch Fever’, being played by the Prague Symphony. It was piped through slim speakers, mounted discreetly in the corners of the massive elevator.
“Not much, dude,” Skeeter said, smiling, revealing his perfectly white teeth. “Just working on my tan, hitting the water when I can, and sniffing out some pretty interesting shit for you.”
“Yeah, definitely, you’re not going to be disappointed with today’s trove.”
Skeeter was Howard’s favourite employee because when it came to bringing him the goods, Skeeter went out of his way. Thirty seconds later a muted voice told them to watch out for the opening doors. Howard stepped back and ushered Skeeter out of the lift and in to his dark chest of wonders.
“Lead on, Macduff,” Howard said.
The ‘warehouse’- more bunker than anything- was not part of the original building. It had been built to accommodate Howard’s ever expanding collection.
It was the size of a football field, complete with its very own climate control designed by graduate engineers from M.I.T. The warehouse was broken up into four parts.
First was Howard’s music collection, which contained rare vinyl pressings, music scores, concert posters, assorted musical instruments, and atypical photographs of some of the world’s largest entertainers at work or at play. He even had the stool Elvis passed right before he had his heart-attack and died on the bathroom floor with his silk pyjama bottoms around his legs.
Then there was the library.
Row upon row of hermetically sealed book racks behind two-inch thick flexi-glass domes, each dome housed thousands of rare books, comics, scrolls and assorted historical parchments. The domes were set at a constant 15 degrees Celsius to protect the integrity of the paper or parchment. Every dome had its own computer monitored smoke alarm and state of the art Carbon Dioxide fire extinguisher system, which guaranteed no harm would come to Howard’s priceless tomes in the unlikely event of a fire.
Prize among them all, was the original copy of the Necronomicon written by the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred. It sat off-centre to the other bubbles and was protected by more than mere fire extinguishers and safety glass. It was encircled by wards and glyphs of magical protection. Howard only entered the dome with the High Priestess of Geb by his side. One did not trifle with such a powerful grimoire, and failure to follow the correct safety protocols could be... damming.
The remaining two areas were a hodgepodge of the arcane and the bizarre. It was here that things became messy and the genera bled into one. The skeleton of a fully grown T-Rex stared down, gap-jawed and curious, at the mummified body of Alexander the Great, located to the left of Oswald’s rifle and Aleister Crowley’s robes.
In the centre of the warehouse was a long row of felt lined tables running east-west and beneath a bank of flickering lights laid Skeeter’s first haul of the month.
Sitting squarely under an anglepoise, was a Moroccan leather box. A sealed buff envelope lay to its side. Howard reached down and opened the box to reveal an inside lined with purple velvet, the colour of crushed grapes, which contained a glass syringe with a clear liquid trapped inside. He slipped his hand into his trouser pocket and brought out a tortoiseshell magnifying glass to better examine the contents of the wooden box. Tiny chirps of excitement escaped him. “Let me guess...” Howard said, “It’s the original seven-percent-solution, is it not?”
“Dude, well deduced,” Skeeter said, giving his employer the obligatory hi-five. ” In the envelope is the provenance, signed by his official biographer, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. I bought it last week off of Zee-Bay. I had to beat down some cat called, Rasputin666 to get it, but here it is. And let me tell you, that kittens got claws...I think he, or she, is a Russian oligarch or something; mucho cash and a bad attitude, dude. Kept on e-mailing me how they were going to find me and have me beaten, but in broken English.”
Howard had, over time, purchased many interesting items from Sherlock’s estate; the very magnifying glass he was using had once belonged to the owner of 221B Baker Street. He was also in possession of his Meerschaum pipe and iconic deer-stalker hat. He was expecting delivery of DR John Watson’s walking stick that very week; just a little something to round out his collection.
Howard donned a pair of white cotton gloves to examine the next item on the table. It was a comic book, sealed in a Mylar bag and graded an 8.5 by the CGC. It was the famous ‘Red Spiderman’ issue, the one where the colours were reversed on the titular character’s uniform (a limited run of only six before the problem was picked up by the printer), so that Spidey was more red than blue. It was signed by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, making it a one of a kind and extremely rare. Not as rare as the Action Comics #1 Howard had bought last year at auction for $2.1 million dollars (the one with Superman holding a car over his head, preparing to throw it skyward) but rare enough to make it worth six figures to the right collector; Howard, naturally, was that collector.
Then there were three triptych mirrors from the infamous Dark-Wood Circus’s Hall of Illusions, where fifteen bodies (in varying stages of decay) had been unearthed by the police. It was quickly dubbed ‘the Real House of Horrors’. The bodies had been secreted under the floorboards by the lapsed Minister, former Ring-Master, and incarcerated serial killer, Peter Rabbitfoot.
“One mirror makes you bigger,” Skeeter sang, off-key, and in a high child-like voice,” While one mirror makes you small... and the third mirror I give you... doesn’t really do much at all.”
Howard looked at his altered reflections in the three mirrors and asked, “Did you get these from Rabbitfoot himself?”
“I did indeed; just before the trial. We had to wait for the court case to finish though, before they released anything. He taught me the little rhyme that goes with them. He was babbling it continuously when I met him. Sick fucker’s mind’s gone.”
“So what does the third mirror do, if anything?”
“Well, he told me that it he used it to store the souls of the people he murdered. Sort of like the picture of Dorian Grey, (which hung above a fireplace in one of the thirty two guest bedrooms) he would to stare into the mirror at night and summon the spirits to stave of old age and sickness.”
“And? How did he look when you saw him again? Young?”
“Dead,” Skeeter laughed, “the city of Arkham fried his ass. No amount of magic is going to stop them killing you if they have a mind too; ride the lightning, dude.”
Howard reached out and touched the ‘soul’ mirror. His reflection was pale, translucent almost, under the lights and in the wavering darkness. The glass was cool to the touch, and for a split second, he imagined he could hear someone screaming. He drew his hand back and moved on to the next procurement.
“What’s this?” Howard asked.
“I call it, ‘Mint-in-Box’, but I don’t really know what it is; the details were kind of sketchy. It looked kind of weird though, so I bought it.”
Howard leaned forward to look at the last item of the day. It was a metallic silver box, the same shape and size as an army footlocker. It was smooth and appeared to be made of aluminium. There were half-inch wide holes drilled into its four corners, with a thin line of lead solder joining the top half to the bottom. The line was unbroken, meaning that the box had not been opened, yet.
“Go ahead, pick it up. There’s something inside,” Skeeter said.
Howard had handled many strange items in his time as a collector, but this unassuming metal box gave off... something that he couldn’t quite pin down, or put his finger on.
“It gives off some weird vibes, doesn’t it?” Skeeter said, noticing the slight look of distaste on Howard’s face as he pondered the mystery box. “It does indeed. Very curious, I wonder what it is,” Howard mused, stroking his moustache. The box was lighter than it looked and Howard picked it up with ease.
But it was as Skeeter said, there was definitely something inside. He could feel its dead weight move; a not so dead weight if it was moving Howard thought.
Then it stopped. Then it moved again. Slowly, creeping, shifting its mass as the box rocked from side to side. Howard put it back on the table and watched as it stirred ever so slightly on the flat and level surface; he imagined he heard a dry, creaking sound, as it did. Howard found it extremely unpleasant.
“Dude, that’s not something rolling around in there, like some fucking, Mexican jumping bean. That’s something moving under its own steam... that’s something alive.”
Howard shivered and backed away from the mysterious box. It was...creepy.
“What the hell is that thing?” Howard asked,” And where did you get it?”
“Santa Fe. Some old scientist’s estate, whatever’s inside has been there since the box was sealed,” Skeeter said, pointing at the dull lead seal that circumnavigated the receptacle like a rectangular equator. “And I think that was a long time ago,” Skeeter said.
Howard wanted to ask more but was interrupted by his butler’s voice coming from the darkness above.
“Mr Holmes, a Susan Summers is here to see you.”
“Is that the Susan Summers?” Skeeter asked in awe.
“Yes, Miss December in the flesh, as it were.”
Howard grinned; not really feeling it though, the box had rained on his parade. He was left with an overwhelming urge to be out of the vault and in the sun, with a stiff whisky in one hand, and Miss December’s derriere in the other.
“Come on,” Howard said,” Let’s get out of here.”
“Don’t you want to open it first?” Skeeter asked in amazement.
Howard didn’t have to think twice about his answer.
“No. Let it stay mint-in-box, whatever the fuck it is,” Howard said in a manner that brooked all discussion. With a rote gesture, he produced a wad of hundred dollar bills from his pocket and peeled of a sizable chunk for Skeeter. Skeeter smiled and said thanks. “Besides, sometimes the best gift, or mystery, in this case,” said Howard, pointing at the box,” is the one you leave, unopened. That way, you’ll never really know, and let me tell, not knowing, can often be a blessing...”
Howard turned and left the Bat-cave as quickly as he could. The two men agreed to meet again next month.
Howard spent the evening ravishing Miss December on his Yeti skinned rug in front of a roaring fire under the quizzical gaze of a stuffed raven called, ‘Nevermore’. Finally, just as Howard’s Viagra assisted orgasm was about to spill over the finish line, the box wormed its way into his consciousness and withered his erection to half-mast in an instant.
Just what is it about that thing that’s got me so on edge? I mean, you’re talking about the guy who has Adolf fucking Hitler’s smile in a jar by the door... so why some sealed box is creeping me out I don’t know.
Howard feigned la petit mort then rolled his sweating body onto the floor and stood up. He was shaking, and not just from the sex either. He padded over to a mahogany bedside table and ingested a large amount of cocaine in the hope that it would take his mind off today. It worked, at first, but by the end of the evening it was all he could think of; the box, and what it might hold.
It was one month since Howard had met with Skeeter on the broad stone steps of his castle. They were due to rendezvous again in the morning.
Howard was seated comfortably in an over-stuffed leather chair on the upper deck of his castle beneath a crooked tower, watching the bats circle the belfry in search of food. The moon was riding high and had painted a thick strip of luminescence over the roiling waters of the Pacific Ocean. He had his feet up on the battlement and was enjoying a hand-rolled Cuban cigar. A storm was brewing balefully out at sea, whipping the fragrant smoke around his head.
What he wasn’t enjoying however, was the thought of what lay beneath his feet at the centre of his vault; Skeeter’s strange box. He felt like he was in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, with all the mystery flying around.
Should he open it or not, he pondered. There was only one thing for it. He fished his lucky silver dollar out and sent it spinning into the night sky. Heads, the box stayed sealed, tails it didn’t. The coin landed in the palm of his delicate hand. The box would have to open after all.
Best of three he thought, then chided himself for being a coward.
He killed the cigar on the stone wall and marched to his gun room to fetch a weapon. He settled on a .38 calibre revolver, the same one Mark Chapman had used to assassinate John Lennon. You could never be too careful when it came to the contents of strange boxes that moved under their own steam he thought.
He slid the pistol into his pocket and strode downstairs to the elevator. Outside, the wind whipped the flags hanging over the castle’s battlements and it howled plaintively through the windows and cracks in the stone.
He had given the staff the day off, and for the first time in a long time, Howard was alone. He was halfway across the entrance hall when the power went out plunging the castle into total darkness. Howard let out the tiniest of shrieks. The lights came back on momentarily before going dark again.
“Shit,” Howard shouted, the profanity echoed around the large room. He walked carefully toward an eighteenth century armoire, using the periodic flashes of lightning to guide his way. He pulled open the drawers and found what he was looking for; a police issue Maglite.
He thumbed it on and cast the beam around the hallway. With the power out, he would have to take the winding stair down to the warehouse. He trod carefully, cursing that he had not thought to install something as basic as generators. Howard made a mental note to rectify the oversight first thing in the morning.
He entered the warehouse and walked briskly down the middle to the sorting tables nestled in the centre of the room. Everything was just as they had left it four weeks ago; all except the box. It was on the floor, five or six meters from where it had been. Every few seconds it nudged another inch or two.
What’s inside that thing? Howard felt his skin crawl as it moved forward once more.
He heard a faint mewling coming from inside the metallic coffer. How could it be alive he thought? What did it feed on? If anything? And if it wasn’t alive, well, then it had to be dead. But if it was dead, then how was it moving? How could it inhabit both states all at once?
The metaphysical quandary weighed heavy on his mind, until he was struck by a peculiar thought. If it was alive and dead at the same time, would that not make it... un-dead?
“Only one way to find out,” Howard whispered to the darkness. He put the torch under his armpit, lifted the box from the floor and placed it on the table. He put the torch on the table next to the revolver, and fished out a worn clasp knife from his pocket to cut the lead. He discarded the seal on the floor like a snake skin. Howard took a deep breath and pulled off the top.
The emerald light was bright within the inky blackness of the warehouse. Howard raised his hands to shield his eyes from the glare. A tart, antiseptic, hospital type smell filled his nose. When his eyes had finally adjusted to the eldritch glow he leaned forward and peered inside. There was definitely something moving alright, he just couldn’t make out what it was.
One side of the box was lined with curling pipes, tiny gauges, and two small glass boxes. One contained a glowing green substance. The other, a glass vial marked, ‘Poison.’
It’s like some outlandish science experiment, Howard thought. Lying before the attachments, was what looked to have once been a feline of some sort, before...before it had changed? The cat was hairless, naked and purring, and looking rather sorry for itself. There were fleshy lumps growing and wiggling from its scrawny body, pink, writhing, like tiny tentacles or stubby fingers. It rolled onto its back and spread its legs as if it wanted to be tickled. The skin was the hue of new-born flesh but was cracked and leaking a stinking yellowish substance. It turned its bald head to look up at Howard as its purple tongue stabbed the air. Then it let out a mournful meow and rolled on to its feet so that it could lick Howard’s outstretched hand.
Howard recoiled slightly as he felt the rasp of its tongue on his pampered hand. It stung. The cat’s eyes were jet-black and its hairless ears were flat tri-angles on its bony head.
It looked up sorrowfully at Howard before it attacked.
It landed squarely on his face with its claws digging into his ears and the side of his head. Howard screamed as the cat hissed and savaged his face, biting down with needle-sharp teeth, on his nose. Howard grabbed the cat by its naked back and pulled as hard as he could. He lost part of his left ear and most of his nostrils in the process. Its scrabbling claws ripped his cheeks to bloody flaps. The cat twisted from his grip landing on all fours on the warehouse floor and darted off between some unopened packing cases.
Howard dropped to his knees feeling his ruined face. It hurt. It hurt more than anything Howard had ever felt in his pampered life. He was panicked and searched wildly for what was left of his nose in the glow of the opened box; and when he couldn’t find it he stood, grabbed the torch, and ran for the exit; the gun all but forgotten. He took the steps two at a time, screaming all the while.
The cat was waiting for him at the top of the stairs.
It flew at his face again, this time managing to snag its claws into his right eye, which made a sucking noise as the cat ripped it from Howard’s socket. It plopped, wetly, to the floor at his feet.
Howard swung the torch and connected with the cat’s chest. The cat flipped sideways in mid-air and disappeared into the darkened castle. Howard ran for the phone in the lobby but it was dead. Outside lightning crackled and the rain came down in sheets. Howard made it out the front door and onto the stone steps.
He ran for his sports car as fast as he could, falling several times with the rain stinging his open wounds. He fumbled the door open and started the engine before peeling out of the courtyard at top speed toward Innsmouth Medical Centre.
He was almost at the bottom of the hill when his remaining eye caught something peering at him over the back of his leather seat. Howard was terrified; his breath came in hitching sobs. “No,” he groaned, “please... please...no more... just leave me alone.”
He screamed as the cat struck again. Howard tried his best to fend off its manic attack with one hand as the other struggled to control the speeding car.
The cat hissed and spat and took revenge on Howard for its years of captivity. It may have once been considered dead and alive, but now it was just pissed off.
He took the last corner too sharply, the back wheels slid, dug in, then slid again, sending them hurtling over the side of a cliff. Howard Hughes, the playboy Billionaire, was dead.
Skeeter was in shock. One of the serving staff pointed him out to the police. Officer Treadwell made his way through the throng and took the young surfer to one side to ask him a few questions regarding the box. To the best of their knowledge, that was where a blood trail began that ended with a smoking, twisted, car-wreck at the bottom of the cliffs.
“So what is it?” asked Treadwell, pointing at the box. A team of men in white suits and bubble helmets stood waving various gadgets at it. The instruments were clicking. Everyone was a little tense. There was blood everywhere.
“I’m not sure officer,” replied Skeeter, “But I bought it down in Santa Fe about a month ago. It was an estate sale, you know the usual story, relative dies, and the kids don’t want all this old junk, so they sell it. I just happened to be passing by at the time, drove in, but I figured I was too late because all the good stuff was gone. I saw this in the garage next to a heap of old broken science equipment. I asked who it belonged to and they told me his name had been Schrödinger...a scientist or something. Some sort of experiment they said. Anyway, it’s just so sad isn’t? About, Howard I mean.”
“It is indeed, the whole things a catastrophe,” said Officer Treadwell.
“I know, and the strangest thing is... is that he didn’t want to open it at all. Truth be told, it kind of had us both a little freaked out,” said Skeeter.
“Well, you know what they say, don’t you?”
“No, what’s that?”
“Curiosity kills the cat,” intoned Treadwell, leading Skeeter away from the crime scene and out into the light.