must go up against another Great Old One.
The Titan Foundry had been constructed over eighty years ago and had performed its primary function of smelting iron ore and producing high quality steel. The men who worked there laboured hard and long in the Dante's Inferno of spattering white-hot sparks and bright streams of molten steel pouring forth from vast, slag-caked crucibles. Giant ovens blasted and wailed as incomprehensible heat cooked and coaxed the recalcitrant metal from its ore. Day and night the flames breathed and the steel flowed, the ore-cars dumped and flat cars carried away the slabs, rolls and ingots of the gleamingly refined metal. Money flowed as smoothly as the liquid steel during the wars and the owners' futures were assured along with the loyalty of the sweating, fire-tempered muscle of the workmen.
Fortunes rise and fall, as they always do, and after the debacle of Vietnam, military purchasing of raw steel began to slide and fall. Layoffs became commonplace and stocks lost their value. The once mighty Titan Foundry was teetering and there seemed no way to prevent its ultimate collapse. Ruin finally descended when two hapless workers were immolated in a torrent of white-hot steel as it gushed from a wrongly placed crucible.
The ensuing legal melee brought on by the hideous accident would soon drain the dwindling coffers of the company and the site stood abandoned by September of 1975.
For the next twenty-five years, the building stood, empty and silent. The once well-kept grounds and the orderly, fenced-off property soon sprouted masses of weeds and high grass. Loose boards, lengths of pipe and other flotsam were piled in various places and the building itself, once stout and solid, began to crumble. The towering smokestacks were now corroded and streaked with rust and multitudes of foul bats were said to inhabit the yawning blackness within. It stood alone and untenanted, slowly corrupting to grey dust and housing only shadows, but it was said that some of those shadows moved and creeped and sylphed through the dank mazes of dripping pipe and pitted concrete. Some said the spirits of the two slain workmen still roamed the complex, still going through the throes and contortions of their hideous deaths. There were those who claimed that a mysterious green light sometimes pierced the grime-blackened panes of the high wall of windows that were now pocked with broken shards and empty frames.
The building, however, stood unconcerned.
The blistering sun heliographed jags of light from what was left of the chromed trim on the late-model Pontiac as it pulled into the dry, deserted parking lot behind the abandoned industrial complex. Dust swirled as the big, faded-green auto slid into one of the legions of empty parking stalls that lined the weed-infested lot. Its engine rumbled to a halt and grew silent, roused dust settling upon the car like an affectionate shroud.
The door opened and a big, tired-looking man levered himself out of the sweat-sticky leather seat and stood, a look of resigned loathing fully set in his face as he squinted into the sun.
"Christ Almighty. Why do I have to get these shit jobs on days like this?" The man dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a crumpled, soiled handkerchief already soaked with sweat he had mopped from his balding head and face. Jess Solomon had worked for the State Department of Public Works for twenty years and now that the time of Reward and Promotion had come and gone, passing over him with room to spare, he realized that his loyalty and dedication were not going to get him out of the routine he had silently endured all this time. It was with a sense of betrayed honour that he came to terms with the idea that this was the big prize. No office, no expense account, not even lousy air-conditioning in his lousy company car. He slammed the door with far more force than he needed and walked towards the chain-locked doors of the building. He held a grubby-looking clipboard under his arm and casually propped a battered yellow hard-hat on his moist scalp.
The building that loomed before him bore enormous letters painted high upon its dizzying walls that spelled out Titan Foundry. The letters, now much-faded and chipped, were barely legible and the entire building seemed as faded and decrepit as its once-proud sign. Smokestacks stood at attention in quiet ranks and silent air-conditioning units sat squatly, mechanical sentinels slowly corroding and rusting. The grounds surrounding the complex were littered with old planks, shattered wooden pallets, broken bottles and weeds. Large pieces of rusting, abandoned machinery, half-sunk into the dry, cracked ground were like the buried relics of a lost civilization, slowly eroding away.
He unclipped a massive bunch of tarnished keys that rode on his belt and silently sorted through them until the one that fit the big American Standard padlock was finally found and separated from its kin.
The lock was coated with verdigris, but its mechanism was sound and opened with a smooth click. The chain was loosened and the solid, rust-streaked doors were grudgingly ground open.
The man, mopping his clammy forehead, snapped on a small, battered flashlight and entered the dark maw of the building's unconcerned face. Inside, it was surprisingly cool and the man almost grinned in pleasure at the reprieve. The flat, yellow ellipse of his flashlight beam skated over the dusty, debris-strewn floor and he squinted as his eyes tried to recover from the white steel glare of outside. All around him the carcasses of extinct machinery lay, dust thickly blanketing once-spartan metal.
The man dug a thick, worn notebook out of the pocket of his frayed blue jacket, and began to make notes, his light clamped in his teeth.
"This place is a fucking dump," the man said unsympathetically as his nostrils flared with the tangible combined stench of urine, feces and sexual discharges accumulated over a span of decades. The floor, thickly coated with layers of undisturbed dust, showed signs of occasional intrusion, no doubt local teens, there to vandalize, steal or copulate. Here and there, amidst the vast emptiness of the building were the relics of past incursions; the dried husks of spent condoms, cigarette butts, a 50-cent paperback, various candy wrappers and bottles of bygone vintage and even the remains of a small campfire upon the cracked concrete floor.
The man shook his head as he examined the artifacts of teenage humanity and slipped the notebook back in his pocket. Around him, large blocks of unidentifiable machinery loomed. Overturned wheelbarrows, unruly piles of rusting girders and a derelict forklift with rotted tires were the sights that greeted him as he entered an equally large chamber, this one lit by an entire wall of soot-stained, cracked and missing windows. The blazing sun outside was filtered and bleached until only a pale, anemic light shot its thin rays across the gloomy cavern. Here were rows of massive, rectangular slabs with huge rusty doors hung on hinges as thick as his thigh. Above, he could make out a thick metal track mounted into the high ceiling upon which was suspended a vast, iron crucible.
He withdrew his notebook once more, not needing the flashlight now, and scribbled more notes. "They're gonna have a bitch of a time knocking over this place," he muttered as he wrote. He was already thinking about filling in and posting the 'Condemned' notice; there was no need to finish exploring this crumbling ruin. He once again pocketed the notebook and walked between the dark bulk of the furnaces. Suddenly, a fluttering whir exploded in his face as grey-white shapes blew past him, dust swirling in clouds. He yelped and jumped back, his arms flying up to his face. Feathers twirled as the sound of flapping wings echoed around the chamber to mix in with shouted curses.
"Goddam pigeons! As if I haven't got enough shit to deal with!" His rage burned slowly and he promised himself a greasy chicken dinner that night as an act of revenge.
He straightened out his jacket, scowling at the distant cooing of the grubby birds and completed his circuit of the dormant ovens. He stopped in mid-stride as he saw the bones. On the floor, jacketed with dust, lay a human skeleton. He could make out the flaccid outlines of clothing and the humps that must have been shoes, but the rounded, yellowish bulk of the skull was unmistakable. One arm was outstretched, a cheap watch hanging loosely around the bare bones that jutted out of the shirtsleeve. A tarnished ring gleamed dully on one slender phalange.
He walked gingerly around the remains, his sweating brow wrinkled in a queasy combination of curiosity and disgust. He yelped out as his foot crunched upon something under the dust. Stepping away, he made out the shape of another skeleton on the floor; he knelt to examine it closer. Smaller, more delicate, it seemed to be female, as the short, denim skirt and one high-heeled shoe suggested. A gold bracelet winked out of the dust in the pale, filtered light. He stood again, wondering just how to handle this discovery. This complicated matters to their highest level. The building couldn't be leveled until the authorities made a full investigation of these remains. That would mean delays, lost revenue and more blame to add to his already overflowing load. He pulled a dented hip flask from a different pocket and took a deep pull. He sighed and mulled the situation over for a moment. His eyes brightened as he considered the alternative. His finding of these remains could be the key to solving a stale missing person report or even a murder investigation. His discovery could lead to the dramatic arrest of some smug murderer and it . . . well, there might even be a reward. God, he could sure use some good fortune in his life right now. He might even be finally promoted in return for his good citizenship. He smiled openly now, already spending the bonus money the promotion would earn. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed something else.
He noticed a light.
A pale green light shone out from the heavy grille of the door of one of the huge incinerators. It was faint at first and barely noticeable, but it was there. Could there still be some kind of pilot light still lit on one of these monster ovens, the man thought, frowning.
He approached the glow spilling out from the vertical slits of the grid.
Calvin Beimler took the geek's money and crammed the bundle of comic books into an actinic-yellow plastic bag splashed with the bright red logo of 'The Komix Kave.'
"Hey, man! Watch how you handle that stuff! Those are valuable speculator items, man," the freckled geek harangued as he readjusted the magazines in the garish bag.
"Yeah, right. Twenty copies of Hipshot-girl, number 8 will be worth a cool fortune in about twenty-thousand years," Beimler shot back, resisting an urge to sneer.
"You'll be sorry you mocked me, Beimler." The freckle-geek sniffed as he stalked out the doorway with his treasures clutched under one arm.
The manager, who had watched the exchange with a look of admonishment, turned to Beimler.
"Is it really necessary to torment Willis like that? He's one of my best customers."
"He buys as much as he does to spite me, Darryl. Every time I say a title is shit, Willis has to buy a dozen of them to prove he has better taste than me. Check his file if you don't believe me. He's buying almost everything we order and then some."
"All right. You made your point, Calvin. Anyway, it's five o'clock. Take off and I'll see you tomorrow at ten."
Beimler scooted out from behind the counter and bolted out the door, his black nylon backpack over one shoulder and a backwards-turned Komix-Kave hat jammed on his head.
Willis Frohickey marched down the narrow street, his blemished brow red with fury. He was not a likable lad and even less, a handsome one. Although he was well into his eighteenth year, he was plagued by adolescent pimples that lined his nostrils, clustered under his lower lip and constellated his forehead. He rarely bathed and changed his clothes even less, rewarding him with the designation of a malodorous slob to be particularly avoided. Willis was only dimly aware of his lack of social graces and hygiene. It was easier, however, to pin the blame of his shortcomings and lack of respect on his peers. In school, he had been mocked by classmates both older and younger than he. Girls stared at him and whispered into each other's ears and laughed behind their hands. His parents ignored him and left him to his own company, which might have been the cruelest cut of all.
It is said that many psychopaths believe in only their own existence; that everyone else they perceive are imaginary and, hence, available for his or her pleasure, regardless of what that pleasure may be. Willis Frohickey found a world where he could be King on the day he wandered into the Titan Foundry to kill himself.
He remembered that day as a day of salvation and joy; the first real joy he had ever experienced in his short life. He had initially entered the ruined factory through a jammed-open air vent on the roof to look for something he could pawn for money and instead found that here was a place he could finally be alone with the four-colour, newsprint fantasies that served for the life of a normal being. Then, after a few months, he discovered that others had been using his den of solitude and were despoiling it with booze, drugs and fetid sex. His private domicile had been invaded and sullied. His parents, usually oblivious to him, suddenly demanded that he move out and take a job when school was finished. The horror began in earnest when he was soundly rejected at each interview and at last could only accept the position of late-night janitor at the very school he had been tormented at for so long.
The pay had been minimal and the sordid rooming-house he had been forced to abide in swallowed most of his lean paycheck each month. In the daytime, he had trouble sleeping, and took to drink to ease the building depression and misery that slammed shut every door marked hope. Finally, in a fit of weeping, angry self-pity, he went out into the night in the direction of the foundry to end it all in the one place he had found solace.
He entered the air-vent easily, his diet of Ichiban noodles having long since absorbed his one-time paunch, and sought his favourite place; the place he had named the Hall of Ovens.
He entered softly, his footsteps masked by the pillowing of dust and stood aghast at the sight before him: There, on a tattered blanket spread out on the dusty floor of the long-vacated factory, illuminated by the guttering flame of a candle, a teen-age couple were engaged in torrid, animal sex. The boy, a local tough named Duke that Willis remembered as being particularly antagonistic and the girl, who might have been any one of the legions of girls who wounded him with their eyes and whispered laughs.
The girl screamed her orgasm, her long sleek legs wrapped around the youth's taut middle as he plunged away in wild abandon, finishing the mounting shrieks with his own brutish bellow of pleasure. The echoes of the debauch reverberated throughout the dark, empty building and made Willis shudder at the primordial essence that it generated. He was mortified that here and now, in his sanctuary, at the time he was prepared to take his own life, it was being desecrated by the same creatures that led him to the doorstep of suicide itself. He was enraged with the black anger of those who have nothing to lose. He was clenching his fists and ready to leap out when he heard the girl yelp out something.
"Duke, what's that?"
"What's what, baby?"
"No, look over there. What's that green light? You don't have one of your asshole friends over there with a video camera, do you?"
The one called Duke frowned and rose up onto his knees.
"No, babe, but it sounds like a good idea. Let's do it next time." He got up, fastened his trousers and switched on a flashlight that had lain next to the candle.
Willis hid soundlessly, now more frightened at being found than angry. The beam flashed away from him and Willis watched as the young man vanished behind one of the massive ovens. All was silent for a brief moment and then the boy's voice rang out.
"Hey, Monica. Come over here and take a look at this. This is awesome."
"What is it, Duke? Let me get fixed up here first." The girl rebuttoned the short denim skirt, unable to find her lost panties, and struggled with her glossy pumps.
"What have you found over there?" She walked unsteadily, a result of the uneven floor and the better part of a six-pack and joined the boy where he kneeled, transfixed by the shafts of green light that seeped out of the oven-door grate.
"It's all gone," the boy murmured, "all the juices are gone and it's lonely." His voiced trailed off.
"Duke, what the hell are you talking about? Where's that light coming from?"
The boy continued his droning.
"The precious juices are life and he needs to live because there's sooo much juice for him here and blessed are those who are called to give up their juices for him . . . Ia . . . Ia, Shub . . . Niggurath . . . The three-lobed, burning eyeeee."
At that moment, the pores in the boy's skin opened like a million tiny eyelids and blood and liquid sprayed forth to be sucked up through the vertical slots in the rusted door. The girl screamed, but soon that died down, too, as she began the same droning, monotonous chant. Soon, both figures, their skin, parched, wrinkled wrappings that held now-clattering bones loosely held together in vague scarecrow shapes, sank to the cracked floor. The desiccation of the bodies was so complete that the leathery, withered tissue left behind crumbled into a fine powder that sifted through the still-articulated bones and joined the layered dust on the floor. The light now shone with a great intensity and Willis found that his fear had vanished to be replaced with a powerful curiosity.
Cautiously, he approached the light.
Calvin Beimler jockeyed his Schwinn through dinner-hour traffic and, as he waited out a red light on an intersection, spied Willis Frohickey marching self-importantly down the opposite side of the street. Grinning, he stepped on the pedals, zipping across when the light changed and decided to shadow Willis.
Where could Willis be heading in such a hurry, Calvin thought. I heard that he'd been seen sneaking around the old Titan Foundry building. Maybe that's where he stashes all those shit comics he buys. Beimler smiled at the thought. He idled now, letting Willis stay an ample distance ahead, following carefully. After about fifteen minutes, the dark bulk of the foundry building loomed ahead, the late afternoon sun already beginning to dip behind the shadowy pillars of the smokestacks and peering redly through the sections of broken and streaked windows. Willis never slackened his pace and Calvin began to speed up, relishing the inevitable confrontation between them.
Willis trudged along the parched ground that led to a rusty ladder bolted to the concrete wall hidden behind the building. Yard-high grass and masses of scrap metal heaped up against the wall had kept the ladder hidden throughout the summer months. On the other side of the lot, the dusty auto of Jess Solomon continued to bake in the waning afternoon sun, unseen by either Willis or Calvin.
Willis had neared the corner of the building when he heard a shout. His muscles froze and he cursed silently. He had been found out.
"Hey, Willis! Whatcha' up to around here? Going to a meeting?" Calvin chortled.
"Beimler!" Willis spat. "What are you doing here? What do you want?" Willis felt cold and helpless. How could he get rid of this pest?
"What am I doing here? Following you, buckwheat. Hey, you know a way in here?
"Why are you following me?" Willis' voice was cold as well.
"Hey man, I'll tell you what. You show me how to get in there and I won't tell anyone that you've been here."
Willis frowned. "Not a chance, Beimler. Get lost!"
Calvin sneered and lit a cigarette.
"I know a lot of people, Willis. This place could get as crowded as Deerfoot Mall on a Saturday afternoon. Guys and chicks making out, gamers, paint-ball wars, druggies, the works. If you wanna keep your little secret safe, ya gotta play along with me. Whatta you say, Willis? Are we pals?" Calvin's grin grew greasier as smoke coiled out of his flaring nostrils.
Willis realized that, once again, he was at the mercy of someone else. His refuge was in peril and his secret was . . . still there. Willis thought quickly, his brow furrowing; then he suddenly began to smile. Of course. The answer was so simple.
"All right, Calvin. We have to climb this ladder."
The two carefully clambered upward and stepped onto the gravel roof of the structure. They moved, Willis taking the lead, walking over loose cables and flaking pipes until they reached the air vent Willis had discovered all those months ago. They wormed their way into the battered opening and vanished into the darkness within.
Jess Solomon stared at the slotted grate on the massive oven-door, frowning with disbelief. He could clearly see a bright, sickish-green light pouring out from within the rusting hulk of the huge furnace, but what was causing it? He leaned in closer, bringing his eyes near the grate and looked inside. At first, nothing but formless green light shone out, but as his eyes adjusted to the brilliance, it seemed that there was . . .
The sound was muffled by distance and buried in the blackness of the previously silent tomb of the foundry, but it was enough to rouse Solomon from his fascinated reverie.
He froze, his eyes swiveling to the darkness behind him. He turned quickly and furtively, now inexplicably nervous, and stared into the black hallway from which he had entered.
"Take it easy, pal. It's gotta be some neighborhood kids messing with the door," he muttered to himself, unable to understand the cold feeling of dread that had begun to envelope him. He looked back to the oven door and was startled to see that the eerie green glow had vanished, replaced by a palpable blackness that seemed to ooze from between the teeth of the rusty iron grate.
Without understanding why, or perhaps responding to an ancient part of the brain that understood only too well, Solomon hid himself amidst the shadowy cover of thick, corroded pipes that lay apart from the ovens and the passage he had entered from.
Suddenly, a long shaft of light was thrown on the floor from the direction of the main hallway and distended, spindly shadows danced within. The sounds of echoing footsteps began and grew closer, followed by ghostly voices.
Solomon cowered behind the bulk of a corroded pipe, unable to fathom the building fear that bubbled within him.
He peered out from his place of concealment.
"So this is where you hang out. Nice place, Willis. Lots of character." Calvin looked around, the slight tremor in his voice betraying his false bravado.
"Oh, it's got that, all right. Nice and cool, quiet and solitary. A good place to get away from it all. See up there? That's the crucible where they used to pour the molten steel. And those over there? Giant furnaces for melting the raw ore. I read up on the place in the library. This oven here is the most interesting, though. Come on over and take a look."
Calvin didn't like the way Willis was getting more confident. He thought maybe he'd have to slap him around to make sure he remembered who was boss.
"So what's so special about this hunk of iron, Willis? The boogey man inside?" He was definitely getting uncomfortable in this dark musty tomb and he was beginning to regret going in with Willis. Maybe he should have beaten the snot out of the twerp and left it at that. His foot came down on something that cracked and he let out a yelp of surprise. He looked down into the dust and frowned at the mass of bones strewn there. Willis smiled patiently.
"You remember Duke Tongeren and that uppity girlfriend of his? Everyone thought they left town because she got pregnant. No, that's not how it happened, Calvin, ol' buddy. You just stepped on Duke's arm."
Calvin's eyes widened in disgust and he backed away from the grisly find. At that moment, the sickly green light began to flicker again and Calvin was immediately transfixed. He approached, falling to his knees in front of the grate and gaped in stunned horror at what stared back at him through the rusted bars. He screamed as his fluids were greedily sucked from every orifice in his body.
Willis, his arms crossed in front of him, laughed freely and heartily, the sounds rising and spreading throughout the dark, dead air of the ruin.
Jess Solomon gazed in mute horror at the spectacle. His hand pressed hard against his mouth, as if to keep a scream at bay. The boy kneeling in front of the oven shrieked and shrieked as something seemed to be draining out of his body, funneling into the green glow now blazing out of the openings in the oven door. He gritted his teeth as the ordeal continued, as the boy's body began to shrivel and finally collapse in an untidy heap of powdery bones. The other youth, remained where he had been standing, his laughter trailing away as did the hideous screams. He then moved to the grate and knelt before it. Solomon strained his ears and heard the young man speak.
"Hear me Tsathoggua! I have brought you the life-fluids you crave and will bring more. Let me serve you as did your followers in eons past. Let me be your anointed one, your chosen one. I will prepare the way for you and your kin. The door shall be reopened and those who will not bow down to follow you shall be your food and drink. I swear that I will not fail you, my Master."
Solomon listened to the canticle and felt a chill pass through his soul. He wanted to get out of there, out of the town, out of the damned state; anything to get away from the lethal insanity he had just witnessed. He closed his eyes, his body trembling with fear and cold chills. He prayed that it was only a dream or an illusion, but he knew, deep inside, that it was neither. He had seen what he had seen and there was no going back.
He silently cursed himself, his life before this moment nothing more than a series of dissatisfactions and disappointments, which, although sad, had been borne with stolid resignation. Now, he found himself desperately wishing, begging God that those were still his only concerns. Whatever had happened here, this afternoon, could not go away or be erased. Those piles of bones out there were mute testimony to that. He hid himself deeper within the comforting shadows and closed his eyes, waiting for the still mumbling youth to finally leave.
Willis concluded his prayer and sensed that the god in the machine was sated and satisfied. The green glow faded and vanished, silence filling the chamber.
He picked up his bag of comics and prepared to depart, sparing a glance at the new pile of bones that had been Calvin Beimler.
"Nice doing business with you, Calvin." he chortled as he left, whistling into the darkness.
Several hours passed.
Solomon moaned softly, adrift in a dream of sinking . . . sinking . . . He coughed suddenly and woke himself. For a brief moment he lay there, eyes blinking in the darkness, trying to work out where he was. When it came to him, he choked back a scream. When his eyes adjusted to the gloom he was soon able to discern shapes and details in the vast musty chamber. Moonlight filtered in through the lattice of windows smeared with an emulsion of soot and it was in this cold, eerie illumination he silently stole out, taking one last glance at the spectral chamber behind him.
He made his way out the still-open door of the foundry, locking the chain once more as a matter of habit and staggered to his car. Its familiar, reassuring shape gave him an immediate measure of relief. He started the motor, gunned it and, with a jittery spray of gravel that plinked against the walls of the mute structure, the car sped away into the comforting yet apprehensive night.
Father Carpenter was a broken man. He sat on a worn bar stool that had been rejuvenated with liberal patches of grey duct tape. He nursed a chipped glass of coarse bourbon and stared into the myriad legions of liquor bottles that lined the area where the bartender stood, filling endless glasses of beer. He sipped the acrid liquor and looked ruefully at the nearly empty bottle that stood at his elbow. He also glanced at the untanned band around his left-hand ring finger and smiled sadly. The gold ecclesiastical college ring that his father had bought for him when he had graduated and had been worn through so many times of near disaster was now gone.
It now lay in the dusty glass case of a downtown pawn shop, exchanged for a pittance that was now represented by these last few ounces of whiskey. He stared at the hand that held the tumbler. Rough, scabbed, with chipped nails and fingers stained yellow-black with nicotine. The hand trembled slightly and the knobbed joints were speckled with age spots. He reached to his lips and, after taking one last drag, took the stubby cigarette and mashed it out with the bent corpses of dozens more like it in an overflowing plastic ashtray. He coughed wetly and sloshed a portion of the precious booze from the glass and he cursed.
He had resigned from the holy orders almost five years ago, but everyone who knew him still called him 'Father.' Some people even came to him for absolution and confession, which he performed even though he knew it was heresy to do so. The one or two drinks he was offered for the small chore was more than sufficient to dispel any moral objections he might have had.
Carpenter sighed and tossed back the dregs of his glass and poured the last of the sour booze into the glass. He stared at the drink, the last he was to have until he could dredge up the cash for one to replace it and contemplated the sight through the swirling smoke of another cigarette. When he did think about how he had gotten to this state, which was rare, he thought back to the days when he had served God through his work in the Church's Occult Investigations arm. He and his companions had traveled the world to search for artifacts of power and prepare for the day when that power would be needed to defend the Earth from the armies of Satan. When that day came, it exacted a terrible price. All of Carpenter's companions had been killed and, although his actions had preserved the world, he had been broken by the experience. He drowned his memories in drink and withdrew into himself and was nearly grateful when the Archbishop gave him a leave of absence. He knew he wouldn't be returning. He had no proof of what had happened in that cavern in Petra that fateful day when literally all Hell broke loose and he witnessed a level of damnation even Dante could not have envisioned. The fabled Sword of Archangel Michael had not been found and his entire expedition was wiped out. The Church had to move some mountains before the story had been effectively rewritten and the whole ordeal put conveniently down to a tragic episode of terrorist action. With that, the church moved on, and Carpenter drifted away to immerse his guilt and anger in strong drink, hoping (but not praying) for the merciful blanket of oblivion that was now getting more and more difficult to afford as his personal fortunes dwindled.
He had sold the car, the house and most of his personal belongings, taking up residence in a seedy but cheap apartment and had been able to drown his misery in a regular supply of middling quality liquor. But, as is often the case, his resources began to dry up and he was reduced to selling off his remaining religious artifacts and even his old briefcase that had carried so much of his life and career. He sighed and looked ruefully at the half empty glass that would be his last one of the night
. . . or maybe the week.
He gulped it and it was gone, burning a last trail of sour fire down his weathered throat.
"Yeah, it just doesn't get any better than this," he mused as he already began to concern himself about the source of tomorrow's booze.
Jess Solomon entered the bar, looking about him warily as though he might be guilty of something. He spotted an empty stool and claimed it, hunching over the stained counter as though to keep his distance from would-be pals and companions.
The bartender appeared before him and waited for an order.
"Gimmee a double scotch and water. Oh, a burger and fries, if you got food going here."
"You got it. The burger'll take about five."
"Great. Thanks." Solomon relaxed a little as he lifted the glass to his lips and sucked back some of the restorative drink. God, what a day, he thought. Would he ever get those images out of his head? Or worse, those sounds? He was suddenly aware of a presence near him. Or more specifically, an odor.
"Say, pal. You shouldn't water your whiskey down like that. It ruins the flavour." The old man smiled in an innocently-friendly manner, but he was eyeing Solomon's drink with the intensity of the truly desperate.
"Hey, I like it this way. Wanna give me some elbow room, Mac?" Solomon chastened the old man, but without any real tooth. He wasn't in any form for a fight now. All he wanted was another drink like this one and . . . yes, he had to admit it. He was actually hungry. Despite what he had witnessed that day, he began to salivate at the thought of the impending hamburger. He smiled a little at the thought and turned to the old man.
"So what's your pleasure, fella? Say, barkeep? Give this man a slug of whatever he's having. It's on me."
"The name's Carpenter . . ." The old man looked almost ready to burst into tears at the gesture.
He took in the old man's appearance; worn clothing, probably Salvation Army issue; fingers nearly black from nicotine stains; walrus-moustache, grey with yellowed ends. The red, pouchy eyes of a drunk who has still managed to hold on and keep his head above the brim of the glass, but was losing his grip. He looked like that actor he saw in the movie about the folks in the seniors home and the aliens that had that youth-restoring pool. Cocoon was the name of the film, but what was the man's name? Brinkley? Brimley, that's it; Wilford Brimley. That was the actor. But this version of him looked like he'd done some hard time in a rehab centre instead of the backstroke in a friendly alien's swimming pool.
"Here y' go, Father. Make it last," the bartender admonished.
"Thanks a lot, mister. Thanks an awful lot." He showed great restraint as he sipped the amber liquid, resisting the primal urge to gulp it down in one searing swallow. "Mmmm . . . that's good stuff. Not what I used to be able to afford once, long ago. But very welcome, indeed."
"Father? Hey, are you a priest?" Solomon received his steaming plate of hamburger, fries, gravy and unidentifiable sprig of green weed with relief and gusto. His mood was already lifting in the presence of drink, hot food and modestly-acceptable company.
"Yes . . . a while ago. I guess I lost the calling," the old man said softly, not expecting the question, but always being asked.
"So what calls you now, Carpenter?" Solomon said through a mouthful of meat, bread, onion loops and dripping condiments.
Carpenter said nothing for a moment. Then, he raised the glass and glanced meaningfully at it and at Solomon. He lowered his eyes to avoid Solomon's stare.
"That's too bad, fella." Solomon, now revived with food and drink under his belt, felt he could afford to show a little sympathy to this down-and-outer. After all, this guy's problems couldn't beat what he had just escaped from today.
"Hey, a lot of things can drive a man to drink. Everybody's got something to escape from. The job, a nagging wife and everything in between. What hit you so hard that you had to hit the bottle?" Solomon was actually interested in whatever the old priest was about to say. It made this afternoon's events seem dimmer and, by the late dark hours of the night, he'd definitely need those memories dimmed.
Carpenter looked into Solomon's eyes and Solomon flinched a little. Those eyes had looked upon harder things than the floor of a drunk tank or a festering alley.
"Solomon. Call me Jess."
"Thanks, Jess." Carpenter continued to ration his drink. "What if you did something that was for the benefit of everyone, but no one knew what you did or that you had done it. What if, through no fault of your own, you were made into a scapegoat and were made to take the blame that would end your career and drive you to begging drinks from total strangers every night in a filthy, flyblown bar like this one." Carpenter's voice had lowered to a rasping whisper, as his eyes reddened and watered. He threw caution to the wind and downed the last of his drink.
Solomon looked at Carpenter with a mixture of pity and disgust. Pity at what the ex-priest had become and disgust at what Solomon saw as his own possible future.
"Take it easy, fella. Barkeep, give him another." Solomon tried to soothe. He saw the poisoned look of furious shame and almost lickerish greed on Carpenter's face as the drink was poured for him and Solomon finally had a glimpse of the despair and self-loathing that seethed in the old priest's conscience.
"C'mon. Tell me about it. I got plenty of time." Solomon shuddered at the thought of trying to go to sleep tonight after what he had seen that afternoon. The old man's tale would at least distract him from brooding over it further. He was well prepared to keep the priest in drink for as long as it took to hear out his story.
"That's what I thought, too. All the time in the world. You know you really believe that when you're young. You never think that you're ever going to grow old and decrepit. No wonder we used to laugh at old folks back then. They seemed like another species altogether. Frail, watchful. Scared of us and jealous at the same time. I was a graduate of St. Michael's Seminary and Episcopal College back in 1949. Being a priest meant a lot more back then than it does now, let me tell you. There was respect for a man of the cloth. Now, a priest is almost automatically suspected of sodomy if he's near a child. But I didn't know about any of that back then. I was a fighting young priest and I was going to change the world. If I had known what was up ahead I'd have been happier ringing a bell for the Salvation Army." Carpenter took a long but controlled sip of his drink, now in better control of himself.
"My fate was sealed on the day Bishop Ewing called me into his office to discuss a church matter that was, shall I say, out of the ordinary. He had seen my grades and read my theses concerning the church and its official stand on paranormal matters. The Bishop's offer floored me, to say the least."
"Go on," Solomon encouraged, his curiosity getting the better of him.
Carpenter drained his glass and, unable to help himself, directed a look of piteous avarice towards Solomon. Solomon nodded with a sad smile and directed the bartender to keep Carpenter's tumbler filled. The look of shameless gratitude was almost more than he could bear and he turned away as Carpenter sucked on the lip of the glass like an ardent lover.
"So, what did the Bishop offer you?" Solomon gently prodded.
"The Bishop? Yes, the ever lovin' Bishop. Here's to you, Bishop Ewing, wherever you are; I hope you're having as much fun as I am." And Carpenter raised the glass in a wobbly salute before drinking deeply again. "The Bishop. He wanted me to transfer to the Secular-Occult Investigations Order."
"The what?" Solomon frowned.
"That's what I said, too. It's an arm of the Catholic Church that deals with paranormal and metaphysical phenomenon. At least, that's how the Bishop put it."
"I saw some movies that had something like that in them. The Exorcist and . . .," Solomon thought for a moment. "Oh yeah, Prince of Darkness."
"They stink. The Max von Sydow character was supposed to be me. At least he had some dignity; until Linda Blair threw up all over him. But Donald Pleasance was pathetic. Made me look like an ineffectual loser."
"Are you saying those movies were based on real events?"
"Sure. Badly written and poorly acted. Exorcisms take place on a regular basis and some of them are a lot more terrifying than that schlockey movie. As for Prince of Darkness, I was an unwilling advisor to the whole stupid mess and told the director so. His name was Carpenter, too. Or was it Romero? Anyway, I think that's why he made my character look like such a schmuck in the end. The real event wasn't too different from the movie, I'll have to give them that."
Carpenter swirled his tumbler, lost in thought as Solomon tried to take in what he had just heard.
"But the events were true. Some of the other situations were a lot more serious, though, and we had to keep a tight lid on those; the Christ-clone incident; the Iron-Bishop of Carpathian-Moldavia; the Hob's Lane dwarf . . . all suppressed and probably just as well. Who would believe it, much less learn from it? Even I believe that some of these matters should be suppressed for the good, or at least the mental comfort, of the public. There are things out there . . . forces at work even now, that wish us nothing but harm. We have measures that work against them, but it's a dicey job and one that exacts a heavy cost at times." Carpenter sighed again and drained his glass. He fumbled for a cigarette and Solomon snapped open a worn and scratched Zippo to light it.
"I eventually ran the field operations section and had a good stretch of success until my last mission. It was the Big One. If it had failed you and I wouldn't be having this conversation. Or if we did, it would be a whole lot hotter around here." Carpenter allowed himself a small grin and a whispery chuckle at this remark. "The mission was a success, but my team had been wiped out. The artifact we had died to recover vanished and I got fired. Or, at least, that's what it amounted to. Now I keep this seat warm and absorb alcohol." Carpenter stared away, awash in a rancid sea of remembrance and cigarette smoke, actually managing to forget the fresh drink standing sentinel at his elbow.
Solomon looked at Carpenter with an expression of disbelief. Not disbelief of what he had been told, but disbelief that he could be presented with the one man who might have an answer.
By a thousand-to-one chance and the price of a few drinks he had stumbled upon the one person who might be equipped to believe what he had experienced that afternoon.
"Carpenter . . . I've got something to tell you. I saw something today . . . something I can hardly believe."
Carpenter turned and focused his red eyes on Solomon's earnest but now-haggard face.
"Go ahead. It's time for me to start earning my booze," he said with a wintry smile.
Solomon proceeded to relate his tale, starting with his arrival at the Titan Foundry and ending with his flight from the moon-haunted structure only a few hours ago.
Carpenter sat and frowned. He drummed his fingers lightly on the countertop and absent-mindedly began to finger the pale band of skin where his now-pawned ring had been.
"If you're making this up, I suppose I deserve it. It's the least I can do for a generous fella like yourself."
Solomon nearly grabbed Carpenter by the shirt-collar.
"This is the truth, damn you. Are you saying you don't believe me?"
"I suppose I do believe you. But what of it? I suggest you stay out of the building. That would be the wisest course." Carpenter made moves as though to leave.
"What do you mean, stay out? That kid is sacrificing people to that -- thing in the oven! We have to do something."
Carpenter frowned again, and Solomon saw that the man was nowhere near drunk.
"Bad stuff happens to good people all the time, Jess. It's a law of nature. I know, cause I fought it all the way to this barstool. Thanks for the drinks. I hope my tales earned them fairly."
And with that, Carpenter crossed the floor and passed through the door without looking behind him.
Solomon stared after him, without a clue as to what to do next. He finished his own drink and got up, tossing a few folded bills in the direction of the bartender. He used the washroom and then made his way to the motel he booked for the night.
Carpenter slogged along the darkened street, sucking absentmindedly on his last cigarette, cursing himself.
"Why now?" he muttered between plumes of white smoke. "Why now, when I'm a broken-down relic, begging for cheap-crap liquor at the end of his rope? God DAMN IT ALL!!" He tried to walk as fast as his anger would propel him, but his age and his own poor condition and self-destructive habits soon slowed him down to a puffing, sweating, shuffle. Lining that street were low-rent apartments and closed-down shops.
Carpenter found a set of cracked stone steps leading to the doorway of one such apartment block and gratefully sat down to recover his breath. His breathing gradually slowed and the rasp of exhaustion faded. He rested, trying to collect his wits and make some sense out of the night's strange turn of events. He grimaced when he thought about Solomon's story. Not out of disbelief, but out of exasperation. He was through with chasing demons and searching through hellholes looking for religious artifacts and worm-eaten fragments of parchment. All he wanted was a life. It didn't have to be a great life; just one without the weight of vast responsibility and duty to the higher cause, always the higher cause. What did God want with him? He had done his duty, said his prayers by night and celebrated the joyous ritual of Holy Mass every day, day after day, each time feeling as glad and proud as he did on the very first Mass he had participated in. In return, God had given him a task so great that, in achieving it, he had lost everything and everyone dear to him. What manner of test was this? What Great Sin had he perpetrated to have earned the punishment that he had endured the long years since that fateful quest for the Sword of Archangel Michael? And now, to suddenly be called into service with no resources, no stamina and worst of all, no faith. He sat with his head in his hands, tears finally smarting in his eyes. He had not known such misery could live in a man's heart.
Down the street, a small knot of roughs swaggered towards the stairway that partially concealed Carpenter. They laughed drunkenly, and bragged at each other in the way only nocturnal losers can and stopped when they came upon Carpenter.
"Hey, man? You dead?" One of them poked Carpenter with a grimy finger.
"Hey, man. You got some smokes? I'm all out, man." Another snorted and spat at Carpenter's feet.
"I'm not dead and I don't smoke. Now leave me in peace." Carpenter looked up, rasping an answer. One of the toughs reached in and snatched at Carpenter's sleeve, pulling his hand into the light. His own nicotine-stained fingers were plain to see, even in the low glare of the streetlight.
"Hah! Don't smoke, hah? You got the tattoo, Pops. Now give, or we take. I haven't busted up an old bum in a long time."
Carpenter stood on the steps, almost glad for the confrontation. Now he wouldn't need to make a decision about all of this demon-hunting and world-saving. It was all out of his hands, now. His stabbed and beaten body would be found the next morning and he'd never need another drink again. With that in mind, he grew fearless.
"The day I hand over my smokes to a gang of piss-ant momma's boys is the day I push a peanut down Main Street with my nose."
The leader, a pimply thug with broad shoulders and broad belly to match it blinked stupidly at the remark. His henchmen, who seemed quicker on the uptake, groped in their pockets and withdrew short lengths of heavy chain.
"You're in trouble now, Gramps!" the leader barked as his threadbare dogs of war circled, assuming poses that were meant to be intimidating. At that moment, a wind picked up and blew past the tableaux, dust whipping at the boys' faces and tearing at their clothes. They coughed and clawed at their eyes as the dust whirled around them in increasing gusts. Carpenter looked astonished, realizing that the wind was barely touching him. It was as though a miniature tornado fell upon the gang of boys and wanted only their company.
They coughed and choked and finally one by one they broke away from the circle of tumult and ran down the street blindly, leaving a trail of chains and the occasional knife.
The whirlwind, lessening but not dissipating held its position in front of Carpenter. It approached, but he held his ground and was enveloped, gently this time, and not assaulted by dust. The whirling air caressed him and he suddenly felt a presence there with him. He gasped as something passed through him and at that instant, his mind was cleared and his faith restored. He relaxed and allowed the moment to linger. He whispered one word.
"Matthew . . ."
Created: August 17, 1999; Updated: August 9, 2004