Kevin L. O'Brien

The Arkham Advertiser called them the valentine murders, not because they had anything to do with love -- at least so far as anyone knew -- but because in each case the victim's heart had been ripped out of his or her chest, and in a most gruesome fashion. Whoever the killer was, he or she had not used a knife or other sharp instrument, but had apparently clawed the chest open. Nor was there any blood to speak of, except for what was left pooling in the chest cavity. But perhaps the most grotesque aspect was the look of almost sexual ecstasy frozen on the victims' faces. During the past week there had been six murders, three men and three women, and few doubted whether there would be any more.

Arthur Templeton became involved one afternoon while playing euchre with several friends at the meeting hall of the Pythagorean Society. Among them was detective sergeant Matthew Cardigan, who was in charge of the investigation. Though far too professional to discuss a case, it was nonetheless obvious to Arthur and the other players that his mind was not on the game; he had lost the last dozen hands. Fortunately, Arthur was his partner for that game, so it was with concern rather than anger that he suggested the two of them retire before they lost too much.

Matt and Art as they were called, and called each other, could not have been more different; Mutt and Jeff would probably have been the best way to describe them, except that Arthur was more dowdy than dumpy, being as his favorite mode of dress was a formal black frock suit with a black vest, a plain white silk shirt, and a black bow tie with a stiff white shirt collar. He was, however, definitely the short one, mousy and nondescript, though with the rather distinguished features of a full head of immaculate, short-cropped iron gray hair (with just a hint of white at the temples), steel-blue eyes, and an aquiline nose. In contrast, Matt was taller than average, lean and muscular, and devilishly handsome, with sandstone-colored hair, sparkling hazel eyes, and the chiseled good looks of a classical Grecian statue. He was also quite the natty dresser and wore only the latest style of sack suit, dress shirt, necktie, and homberg hat. Matt was also younger than Arthur by about a decade.

There was one other way in which they differed. Matt was a perceptive and clever man, adept at solving criminal puzzles, but even he admitted that his friend had the greater intelligence. After all, the little man was a professor at Miskatonic University, specializing in archaeology and antiquarian studies, as well as folklore, the occult, and metaphysical philosophy. Besides, he was also highly knowledgeable in certain esoteric and obscure fields of study, that often seemed to have a bearing on the cases Matt investigated. As such, he did not hesitate to consult the smaller man whenever he felt he needed his expertise.

The two men retired to a secluded corner of the common room for some privacy, and sat down in a couple of stuffed chairs. An attendant came over and they ordered drinks: a scotch and soda for Matt and a cognac for Arthur. Matt then lit a cigarette and Arthur stuffed his pipe as they waited. Only after the glasses had been set on the small round table between them did they begin their conversation.

"So," said Arthur as he puffed his pipe alight and casually tossed the match into the ashtray between the glasses, "would you like to tell me about it?" His voice was surprisingly stentorian, and it had a distinct Midwest twang though colored with an acquired New England accent.

Matt took a drag and expelled the smoke before speaking. "I suppose you've been following the news." His voice was unusually gruff considering his appearance.

It wasn't a question, but Arthur nodded anyway. He was not particularly drawn to lurid reports, but the details of the murders had piqued his interest. "Do you have any leads?"

"No," Matt replied, with a mixture of frustration and discouragement. "I haven't been able to find any kind of connection between the victims, or anyone who would want to see all of them dead. Yet the nature of the killings makes it obvious that they were all killed by the same person or persons."

Arthur nodded again. The first victim was a businessman, who certainly would have had rivals and perhaps even enemies. The next three were society types, from the cream of Arkham's social register, and while not as cutthroat as the business world, high society could nonetheless be just as competitive, especially over marriages and inheritances. Victim number five had been a city councilman, and politicians always had enemies as well as rivals. But the latest victim was a prostitute, a fin-a-trick streetwalker to be precise. Arthur could not imagine what possible link she could have with the others.

Nibbling on his pipe stem, Arthur mused, "Did the first five have any ties?"

"As a matter of fact, yes. Both the businessman and the councilman had connections to each other through an Arab antiquities dealer named Ibrahim Malik Allawi. Allawi is also well known in Arkham's social circles, and is reported to be a friend of the families of the other three victims. But I can't find any connection between him and the hooker."

"He seems to be your favorite suspect. Perhaps he patronized her," Arthur suggested, but Matt shrugged his frustration. "If he did, he kept it a really good secret. I can't find anyone who can put them together."

Arthur chewed on his pipe thoughtfully. "What do you know about him?"

"Not much," Matt admitted. "He came from Baghdad a few years ago and set up a small shop here in Arkham on Curwen Street. He expanded to Salem, then Boston, and finally New York, where he has a number of expensive galleries selling Middle Eastern artifacts. He's suspected by the New York and Boston police of smuggling antiquities and counterfeiting artifacts, but so far they haven't been able to prove anything. He keeps his main offices and warehouse here in Arkham, and as far as we can discern he is legitimate. I wired the American consulate in Baghdad for any information on him there, but all they could find out was that he was a workman at the ruins of Nimrud."

Arthur froze when he heard that last. Slowly he reached up and removed his pipe from his mouth. Without looking at Matt he asked, "How long ago was this?"

"According to the records the embassy sent, that was back in 1877, over forty years ago. That fits, though, because he looks to be in his sixties now." Suddenly Matt stared at his friend with narrowed eyes. "Why the interest? Do you know something?"

Arthur sat very still for a few moments, deep in thought as he cradled his pipe in his hands. "Know? Not yet," he finally replied. "Suspect, yes." Suddenly he turned towards Matt very quickly and downed the rest of his brandy in a single gulp. As he pounded out the pipe in the ashtray he added, "Before I can say for sure, I need to check out a couple of things. I need you to show me the latest body and where the murder took place. Can you do that?"

Matt grinned happily. "Whatever you say Art," he said as he crushed out his cigarette, "I'm just glad you've got an idea." And he then swallowed his own drink.

The city morgue was located in the basement of the same building that housed the sanitarium. Matt and Arthur were waiting in the autopsy room as the attendant wheeled the body in. Matt instructed him to leave, then removed the sheet. On the gurney lay a white female, mid to late thirties, with medium-length dirty blond hair. She was in such poor condition, however, that she appeared to be ten to fifteen years older. Between her pendulant breasts a ragged wound ran from the base of her throat down to just above her diaphragm. On her face was an expression that displayed one part panic, one part pain, and two or three parts passion.

Arthur set his walking stick on a nearby table, then removed his black calfskin gloves and put them inside his top hat, which he placed beside the stick. Finally he removed his frock coat and handed it to Matt before he bent over the body. He examined the wound carefully, even going so far as to insert one hand into it and feel around. When he finally finished, he walked over to a sink to wash his hands.

"Well?" Matt demanded impatiently. Arthur came back to the body as he dried his hands off.

"This is very interesting. The wound shows every evidence that the assailant tore open the chest to get at the heart. You can see what look like claw marks on the skin and the underlying muscle and bone, and where the hands or paws gripped either side of the sternum to pull it apart." Arthur emphasized his point by pantomiming the speculated action over the victim's chest.

"That much the coroner told me, Art," Matt replied testily, as he handed Arthur his frock coat. He then threw the sheet back over the body.

Arthur slipped on the coat, then started putting on his gloves. "My point," he continued evenly, "is that this is not the work of an unintelligent creature, such as an animal. A surgeon who had to operate on the heart would cut through the sternum and spread the halves apart; an animal would tear into the abdomen and reach up through the diaphragm into the chest cavity." He then put on his hat and picked up his stick.

"Well," Matt mused as he and Arthur walked out of the room and headed for the stairs, "whoever did it probably wasn't sane, but I agree it was a man --"

"No," Arthur objected emphatically. "No man made that wound, and no man is strong enough to spread open a sternum with his bare hands. Even if he could manage it, he would need both hands to hold it open, so he couldn't reach in and remove the heart."

"Maybe he had some kind of device --," Matt ventured, but he stopped as Arthur shook his head. "The marks on the bone were not made by a mechanical device, they were made by clawed hands, of that I am sure."

As they entered the lobby of the building and headed for the front doors, Matt concluded, "Then either the murderer had help or --"

"He wasn't human." Arthur's statement was not a completion of Matt's thought, though the detective was about to say the same thing. Rather, it was simply an independent statement of obvious fact.

The two men proceeded immediately to the prostitute's room in a boarding house on Lich Street. As they walked, Matt explained that the murder had been reported by her client of that evening. He was a college kid and he had picked her up in a seedy bar on French Hill Street; he offered her ten dollars to spend the whole night with him. As such, she took him back to her room, where they completed their transaction. Afterwards they had fallen asleep, but the boy woke up sometime after midnight to relieve himself. When he got back he found her lying naked on top of the bed with something lying on top of her. She was struggling, but at first the kid thought she was being raped. Before he could intervene, though, he heard something heavy, like a blanket, being ripped apart, and then he heard bone cracking. As he watched the woman arched her back in agony and then fell back, completely still. Next he heard what sounded like tubes being pulled off a sack, followed by a meaty chewing sound, and then a sucking sound. Finally, whatever it was rose as if sitting up; two huge patches of shadow opened up on either side of it, and the thing flew up and out an open window with a sound like the beating of gigantic wings.

Arthur paused in front of the rundown boarding house. "So he didn't get a good look at the killer."

"He says all he saw was something like a man shrouded in a black blanket, like a giant shadow. The kid was obviously drunk, as well as scared out of his mind; who knows what he really saw, or thought he saw?"

"If I'm right," Arthur replied, opening the front door, "your witness saw more than he realized."

Matt lead Arthur up to the first door off the second floor landing. The prostitute's room looked more like a monk's cell than the business place of a doxy. It was tiny and Spartan, with bare walls and floor, and only three pieces of furniture: a bed, chair, and dresser, all unfinished, the wood dried and cracking. Attached to the flaking plaster wall above the dresser was a dingy cracked mirror; a chipped cheap porcelain wash basin sat just below it. There were no lamps of any kind, electric or otherwise, but enough light came through the open curtainless window to see by, and the stumps of a number of candles littered the top of the dresser.

"The room's been tidied up since the night of the murder," Matt explained, "but nothing's been removed or changed."

Yet Arthur did not seem overly concerned about that, as he looked casually around the room. Occasionally he stopped to look intently at one spot or another for a few moments, but then he would move on. Finally, he focused on the bed. He stared at it for some time, as if trying to divine secrets from it. Unexpectedly, he rushed forward and took hold of the side of the simple wooden frame. Despite his small stature, he pulled the bed off the floor with seemingly little effort, and pushed it up to lean against the wall. He then looked at the floor beneath it, gesturing for Matt to do the same.

There, drawn in white chalk on the yellowed varnished floor boards, was a complex symbol within a circle.

Matt scratched the back of his head as Arthur took a pencil and a pad of paper out of a vest pocket and quickly sketched the design. "What is it?" he finally asked, as Arthur replace the pencil and pad.

The smaller man smiled cryptically. "The key to the solution of your case, Matt. It's all I need to identify the killer and determine how he did it."

Arthur's office at Miskatonic University was not what Matt believed a professor's office should look like. For one thing, it was in the basement of the library building, so there were no windows. For another, it had originally been a storeroom. All someone did was put in a rather plain desk, a couple of chairs, and a side table, on which Arthur had placed a hotplate for making coffee. He also had the entire rear of the room behind the desk filled with metal utility shelves in which he stored his books, papers, collected artifacts, and other bric-a-brac.

Matt made a fresh pot of coffee while Arthur studied a book. He was pouring some of the coffee into a couple of mugs when he asked, "So, how is that squiggle going to solve my murders?" He set one mug down within the professor's reach.

Arthur absently picked it up and took a sip from it. "First of all, it confirms what I suspected from reading the newspapers."

"And that is?" Matt asked as he sat down in the other chair.

"That the murders were caused by a being summoned from the outré spheres."

Matt knew better than to scoff. He and Arthur had been friends for seven years, ever since they first met during the student riot of 1912. After that time he had experienced many things that had challenged his common-sense view of reality.

But that didn't mean Arthur was always right.

"What makes you think that's the case?"

"The unusualness of the modus operandi, the very strength needed to accomplish it, and the fact that not a trace of cardiac tissue and very little blood was left. It would not be impossible for a human to reproduce that form of death, but it would require a great deal of time and a large amount of heavy equipment, plus at least one accomplice. There are easier and quicker ways for a sane person to kill, and a madman wouldn't have the presence of mind to properly prepare all he would need."

Matt was not yet convinced, but he had to admit that Arthur's reasoning made sense. Even as he formulated another question, however, Arthur made an excited exclamation. Whipping the book around, he pushed it towards the opposite end of the desk and tapped one of the open pages. Matt leaned forward to see what Arthur indicated, and there on the right page was a diagram that looked exactly like the symbol they found under the bed.

"What is it?" he asked.

Taking back the book, Arthur answered, "It's the sigil for summoning one of the utukku, specifically an alu."

"Okay, Art, you've got my attention; spill it."

Arthur leaned back into his chair, cradling his mug with both hands, as he went into lecture mode. "The utukku are the angels of the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian religion, and like Christian angels there are both good and evil ones. The most powerful among them is the great Katu-alu, known to the pre-Islamic Arabs as Khadhulu and to the Greeks and Romans as Cthulhu. The most numerous and least powerful of the utukku are the shedu and the alu, which are mortal enemies. The shedu are depicted as winged bulls with human heads, and are considered to be protective spirits, though they are exceeding dangerous to call upon nonetheless. The alu are described as shadowy winged humanoids, who could only be dimly discerned. They are vampiric, feasting on the heart and the blood, and their mode of attack is to spread themselves over a sleeping victim and tear open the chest. At the same time the alu would stimulate the victim sexually, so that the man or woman would die in an ecstasy of pain and pleasure."

"Alright, the method of death seems right, but what evidence do you have that one of these 'ahloo' are involved?"

"Your witness to the last murder."

Matt nodded. "Okay, it fits. But how do we find out who's summoning this thing?"

"While there are a number of sources that discuss the alu, as far as I know there is only one that explains how to summon them, and that is the Utnapishtim Chronicle. They were a set of clay tablets, inscribed in Assyrian cuneiform, discovered in the library complex at the ruins of Nineveh sometime in the middle of the last century, and they contain the secrets of the universe as imparted to and recorded by the Akkadian Noah, Utnapishtim, from the god Enlil. I was at Nineveh in 1902, as part of the translation and transcription team, and the Chronicle was assigned to me. The original tablets are now in the Oriental Antiquities department of the British Museum, but this --" and he tapped the book for emphasis "-- is one of only a half-dozen copies of the translation. The only other copy of the Chronicle known to have been found was a fragmentary set discovered at Nimrud at roughly the same time. Those fragments disappeared in 1877 and were presumed stolen by a workman, though no one could prove who did it or even that they were stolen. I suspect now that Allawi stole the fragments and managed to translate them, and has used them to fulfill his ambitions of financial, social, and political success, in part by summoning alu and other utukku to remove his rivals and opponents, as well as other obstacles."

Matt nodded. "It shouldn't be too difficult to find out if that's true. All we have to do is search his home for the fragments."

But Arthur shook his head. "That may be easier said than done. Besides, even if we find the fragments we cannot prove he stole them, and no one will believe our theory of the crime. Also, once we make ourselves known to Mr. Allawi, we become a target. No, we need to force his hand, to make him use the knowledge in the Chronicle in such a way that we can turn the tables on him."

"You mean we need to somehow euchre him," Matt said, grinning.

Arthur nodded. "There is a way, but it will be dangerous. I would require your help, but I would understand if you would prefer to sit this one out."

"I haven't backed out of any of our adventures yet, have I?" he challenged. "Well, I don't plan to start now. I'm game for whatever you have in mind, Art."

"Good, because I believe it's time we paid Mr. Allawi a visit."

The home of Ibrahim Malik Allawi was a palatial mansion off Apple Lane built within the last decade. They were met at the door by a butler who resembled a gorilla in a tuxedo, except for his complete lack of scalp and facial hair. He showed the two men into a small study and bade them wait. While they waited they looked around the room. Arthur lifted the Persian rug that covered the otherwise bare stone floor and found a duplicate of the chalk sigil inlaid into the floor in gold leaf. Smiling, he showed it to Matt, who nodded, before he carefully replaced the rug.

A few minutes later they were joined by a thin gentleman of medium height with swarthy skin, black hair and moustache, and black eyes, wearing a custom-made, cream-colored, silk sack suit.

"Good day, gentlemen, I am Ibrahim Malik Allawi," he introduced himself, shaking their hands in turn. "How may I be of assistance?" His accent, though pronounced, was not so thick that he was not understandable.

Matt allowed Arthur to take the lead, since this was his game. Besides, he came along more to provide a presence of law and order, and of muscle if needed. For his part, Arthur took a step forward, to put himself between his friend and Allawi. "We request that you confess to the valentine murders," he stated matter-of-factly.

For a brief moment, Allawi stared at the two men in stunned silence. Then he relaxed and grinned maliciously. "Gentlemen, I have been living in your country for almost thirty years, but I must confess I am still mystified by your humor."

"There's no point in pretending, Mr. Allawi. We know that you are guilty and we know how you did it. All we do not know is why."

Allawi tried to feign bored indifference as he said, "My apologies, gentlemen, but I am afraid I am too busy to participate in your facetious exchange at this time. My servants will show you out." And as if on cue, three men identical to the butler entered the room.

Matt turned to face them as they advanced on him and Arthur. At the same time, Arthur replied to Allawi, "'In his temple in drowned R'lyeh, dead Katualu lies dreaming.' Surely you recognize that verse, Mr. Allawi; it is a translation from the Utnapishtim Chronicle. You used one of the rituals therein to summon an alu into this sphere to kill six people. There is no doubt about that."

Even as one of the servants reached Matt, Allawi raised one hand quickly, which stopped them in their tracks. His expression lost all pretense of friendliness, not that there had been much to begin with. "Ordinarily I would have little patience for such outlandish statements, but pray tell me, what proof do you have?"

"Nothing that would hold up in a court of law," Arthur confessed, "but that matters little here and now. You knew the victims, you were in the right place and time to acquire a copy of the Chronicle, and the handiwork of a feeding alu is unmistakable."

"It is certainly true that I knew five of the victims, but what possible link could I have to a common whore?"

In response, Arthur took out the pad of paper and showed it to Allawi. "This sign provides the link; no doubt a search of the other victims' bedrooms would reveal its presence in those locations as well."

His face growing dark with anger, Allawi inquired, "And how could this possibly be connected to me?"

As he put away the pad, Arthur explained, "The Chronicle is the only source that details the required summoning ritual. If a search of your home turned up either the missing Nimrud fragments or a translation, that would be sufficient proof to hang you."

Allawi managed a grim smile. "As you have previously observed, such 'proof' would never hold up in court."

"True, but my friend and I are unconcerned with such formalities. We are here to seek justice on our own."

At that statement, Allawi threw back his head and laughed. "Justice? You fool. Of what significance is justice compared to the knowledge you and I share?"

But Arthur was adamant. "Nonetheless, we give you this choice: confess and turn yourself over to the police, or we shall exact justice ourselves."

Matt expected Allawi to continue his denials, or order his men to attack. He was unprepared for what actually happened. "Very well," Allawi said, grinned maliciously, "you are correct; I am guilty."

Matt was startled by the confession, but Arthur was unperturbed. "Why did you do it?"

"It is of no importance, but since you value it so . . . I have certain political aspirations, which I expected the councilman to fulfill. Unfortunately, he suffered from two vices, gambling and women. He had run up a debt of several thousand dollars in establishments run by the businessman, who then threatened to expose his affliction to the public unless he voted his way. So I had the businessman eliminated. He had a partner, a social matriarch who maintained her family's fortune and social standing through various criminal enterprises. She had financed his gambling enterprise and tried to collect on the councilman's debt. So I liquidated her. She had tried to protect herself by placing the promissory notes in the keeping of one of her society friends. He in turn tried to blackmail the councilman, so I terminated him. The councilman lost his nerve in the end and tried to go public with what he knew, so I had him done away with. The whore was his latest paramour. He confided in her and she tried to blackmail me. She was the last to be killed."

"What of the second victim, the daughter of the banker?"

"Ah, she was my fiancée, but I discovered she was being unfaithful, so I cancelled the engagement. And now, if that is all you require, I insist that you leave; immediately."

As if on cue, the three servants surged forward. For all their size and strength, however, they were little better than street brawlers and were no match for Matt and Arthur, both of whom were experts at unarmed combat. A champion boxer from his army days, Matt was too quick for his opponent and took him down in seconds with a few swift blows to the solar plexus and kidneys. Arthur had acquired various martial arts skills during the years he spent traveling abroad in his youth, and he subdued his man just as quickly. The third servant bolted from the room when Matt pulled out a cannon of a revolver.

The real threat, however, came from the master rather than the servants. During the melee Allawi had retreated to a corner of the room, where he began chanting and gesturing. Even as Matt and Arthur turned to confront him, he finished his incantation by spreading his arms and calling out a single word. In that same instant, a roar of wind filled the room, even though there were no windows, and a black column of shadow appeared in the air above the hidden sigil. It coalesced into a shrouded humanoid shape with wings, and, in what would have been the face, two green-glowing orbs opened. Below them, a larger green orifice gaped, and as a piercing scream filled the air, the alu leapt toward Arthur, its shadowy arms raised to embrace him.

Matt leveled his pistol, not at the outré being but at Allawi, and pulled the trigger. In the same moment, Arthur took a small object from his frock coat pocket and threw it towards the being. It was a charm in the shape of a winged bull with the head of a bearded man, and it burgeoned as it flew forward. Before it reach the alu it had grown to the size of an elephant and it crashed into the malignant being, dissipating it like a car passing through a column of smoke. It did not stop, however, but hurtled itself on towards Allawi, who was clutching at his chest and beginning to collapse. The shedu reached him as he hit the floor and trampled him under foot as it smashed through the wall and continued on. Matt and Arthur rushed forward, and as Matt knelt beside the mangled body of the Arab, Arthur shouted out a word after the juggernaut. The shedu vanished as it broke through the outer wall of the house, and on a roaring wind fled back to the stars from whence it came.

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© 2006 Edward P. Berglund
"Eucred": © 2006 Kevin L. O'Brien. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1998-2006 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: October 28, 2006