Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ashen Scraps

(in the ashes on the terrace, in German)

(in the ashes on the terrace, in German)

(in the ashes on the terrace, in English)

(in the ashes on the terrace, in English)

(in front of the dresser, in English)

(in the doorway, in English)

(Click on images for larger versions.)

Poor Things

Henri turned the knob and drew a long tense breath. He gave the door a little push and stepped to the side, almost hopping away. The door rattled as something clumsily bumped into its backside. It rattled once again as the poor creature – a dark-colored tabby cat – bolted past them and down the steps. It was immediately gone, without a wail or a scratch. Both men exhaled and looked at one another, as the cat crashed down the stairs, sliding into one landing after another.

There had been nothing dangerous or frightening at all.
Perhaps it had been missing its sand box. One could only hope.

From the vantage of the hallway, Henri could see a dresser. The mirror was set in a frame of ornate woodwork, from which hung an array of trinkets and charms. Rabbits' feet, pentagrams, horsehoes, crosses, and others adorned the frame; still more lay scattered about the counter, mixed with personal effects. Beyond this, opposite Henri and Thelonius' position in the hallway, was the open door to the third floor terrace. The city's evening-time sounds wafted in on the wind. Horns, children yelling, a dog barked. The soft coos of pigeons. Over the doorway hung an amulet depicting Santur, the multi-armed black sun.

In the light cast from the hallway, Henri and Thel could see that something more had been blown in from outside. On the floor near the far doorway, there were ashes. Closer to the dresser, a piece of paper, mostly burnt, lifted on the remnant breeze. Not entirely reassured by the quiet urban noise, Henri stepped into the bedroom and laid his hand on the light switch.

Cati, no calmer for her smoke break, pushed the kitchen door open and stepped back inside. She stood at the sink for a moment and wondered if she might water the bunny. Dominikus hadn't done it; that was sure.

She heard a sound from the stairwell, a thump. And then another, and another, a whole chorus of bangs and thumps and scampering feet coming down the stairs. Cati quickly recognized it as some frightened animal and, forgetting to close the kitchen door behind her, stepped into the back parlor.

It was a panicked cat. It leaped down the last flight and hit the wooden floor hard, skidding into the wall. Its feet kept grasping for the ground before it even as it fell on its side, and in a flash the cat had regained its traction. It darted right at Cati, who dodged to the side. The cat continued on through the kitchen, out into the backyard. From the parlor, Cati saw it pounce on the fence as though it were attacking prey. Digging its claws into the wooden slats, it threw itself up and over.

Its ears had been pressed back; its mouth had been open. Its eyes had been wide and wild.

Dominikus Gerloch was in bed, laying on top of the sheets. He was clothed in his bathrobe and socks, and his hair had dried into a nest. Gerloch's left arm was folded on his chest, and the other was stretched out onto the bed. In his hand there was a hypodermic needle. The plunger was depressed.

Gerloch's eyes were both reddened from dryness. His right eye was bloodied and stretched painfully around a speculum, but the other was also gaping. It quivered slightly in its socket. Though this eye lacked any apparent injuries, it seemed that it had been pried open by something more terrible than a tool of medical torture - by something it had seen. Gerloch stared ahead, but the rest of his slack face showed no terror or anguish.

Thelonius stepped to the bedside. On the nightstand there was a tiny bottle, just like the one that Delaney had shown him. It was empty and its cap was off, but the sign of the black sun was there. He put his ear to the insensible man's mouth, which was slightly open. "He's alive," Thelonius said.

Behind Thel, the man's closet door was slightly ajar. Inside, Henri could see a row of yellow robes hung on hooks. On the front side of the nearest one, there was embroidered a design. Despite his lack of familiarity with the occult, Henri could immediately decipher the five-pointed star in the embroidery as the mark of something having to do with magic, with witches, and with Satan.

The wind picked up again and drew a slight chill into the room. More ashes and another piece of burnt paper rolled into the bedroom from outside.

(Eye from Squished Frog.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Number 17

Cati had taken photographs of her party dress. They were developed now, and she had them with her. "Art pieces," she said disappointedly, as she handed them over to Thelonius and Henri. They captured the interplay of light and dark across the textured surfaces of the dress rather nicely. This much, Thelonius admitted. (Who'd have thought that the bird had an eye for photos like that?) But there was nothing more interesting to be seen in them – no faces – at least not now, not without time to study them. And so, having nothing very interesting to report on her own behalf, Cati offered to pay for a cab to 79th Street.

She tried to listen carefully to the narrative offered by her gentleman companions of their trip to Spider's shop. But the whole thing – the servant boy and the air of staged mysticism – seemed simply silly to Cati, especially when coupled with the sea of mumbo-jumbo terms, which only Thelonius appeared to really understand. Silly, compared to Mags – her poor sister Jacquie – Henri's friend – and, chances were, compared to the situation of the swami. On the ride to 79th Street, Cati's thoughts drifted to these somber topics.

When they arrived, the streetlights were already on, but there was yet enough natural light left to cloak their yellow, artificial luminance. The taxi coasted down the tree-lined boulevard. Henri recognized the street – a wealthy residential neighborhood, and he, of course, had clients here. Last time he had been here, it was on a house-call to the dressing room of the ever distressed, but perpetually generous, Sadie L. The street was unusually cluttered with parked cars, he thought: Cadillac 7-seaters, Buick 6-44s, several Nashes, a Bearcat. Perhaps there was a wedding at one of the adjoining homes, or maybe one of the budding societies that were constantly moving into these old townhouses – the New York Historical Society, the Manhattan Library Society, the Abstinence Society, the Society for Animal Welfare – was hosting a function.

The cab pulled into an opening in the chain of automobiles directly in front of number 17. A young couple hurried by, walking their schnauzer. Watching them, Cati stepped out of the passenger side front seat. As she alighted to the sideway, a thought crossed her mind. She marked it with an "Oh!" and Thelonius, getting out behind her, responded with a "Hm?"
"I need to pay." She bent over and leaned into the car, and handed the cabby a handful of bills. "And," she continued, "if Ramanuja" – she noted to herself that she had gotten the man's name right – "was picked up by a fake ambulance, then how did they know to come just when he was sick?"
From across the roof of the cab, Henri interpreted Cati's suggestion. "So there was a co-auteur – an accomplice?"
"- at the Audubon."
Thelonius threw his door shut and the cab pulled out. "A conspiracy against the swami? That, or a conspiracy with the swami."

The three of them stood in a row on the curb, facing the townhouse, backs to the empty parking spot. Behind the buildings, the sunlight was still just bright enough to stave off the deep blue of the nighttime city sky, to stain the skyline pink. Number 17 was castle-like, pointed, a hybrid of American Victorian and neo-Gothic elements. Henri fantasized, oh-so-briefly, that the setting sun and its train of pink folds might get stuck from the house's peak. There would be no sunrise, and in the dark morning, the police would find the sun hanging from the back porch, strangled in a loop of one of its own beams.

Enough of that. Henri's imaginative faculties were getting bored and looking for an outlet. Thelonius hadn't bothered to – or probably didn't have the time to – explain all the connections that he and Spider had made, and Henri's natural response had been to, well, just go along, to follow Thelonius as he traced the characters in this occult web. But now he was growing wary of the increasingly shadiness of the personages he was encountering. For all he knew, Dominik was a murderer. Really, he thought, Thelonius and the police were much better suited for this kind of thing.

But Cati's realization had cemented it – there was, in fact, some kind of connection between Ramanuja and the ambulance and this Gerloch and Mags and the ectoplasm, as Thelonius called it. Moreover, the missing piece of the puzzle was, for Henri, exactly the one piece that did not seem to be connected to the rest of it: Millie.

Poor Millie! – but what could she have possibly had to do with any of this? It was on a whim that she had even invited him to the show. No, Henri couldn't demonstrate the connection, but surely there was one. Maybe knowing that was good enough. And how! The intuition of the connection between this psychic and Millie's death was the lure that dragged Henri along. "Very well," he said, "We are here. Shall we see if M. Gerloch is around?" He looked up and down the street. A few drivers were leaning against the fancier cars. "There are people about, the police are not far."

Thelonius lead the way to the door. Things were clearer for him now, too. The mundane angle was right around the corner – just ask Gerloch the right question in the right way, and the love triangle or the shady accounting would be laid bare. The motive would come out, and the disappointing banality of it all would once again be reconfirmed.

Thelonius rang the doorbell anyway.
A car drove by, turned on its headlights as it passed the house, and disappeared around a corner.

Cati's fingers twitched and she called out, not too loudly. "Hello? Is there anybody home?" Impatient, she tried the knob, turned it, and pushed the door open before she knew it. Pausing only long enough to glance at her escorts' faces – but not long enough to register any disapproving or surprised expressions – Cati again called out. "Hello?"

From the vantage on the front porch, only the foyer could be seen. The wallpaper inside was slightly out of style, and beginning to peel a little at the edges closest to the front door. There were coat hangers, but no coats, and a little table adorned with knickknacks: a Bible, a candle holder for three sticks, and a paperweight cast in the shape of the compass-and-angle motif of the Masons. The rest of the house was dark. There was a light coming from a staircase towards the back of the first floor, at the end of the foyer hall. "Lights are on," Cati observed. "And, nobody's home," she decided.

(The map below is provided assuming that someone will go inside. Of course, no one is obligated to do so. Turning back and going to the police are perfectly reasonable things to do. Feel free to freely dictate the characters' movements and actions in the home. Each of the characters have been in a house like this before, and are generally acquainted with its layout. It is four stories tall, plus a basement. Descriptions of the rooms, also below, are not in-game until a character moves into those spaces. Don't forget to turn the lights on!

(I will intervene when someone moves past a red line as shown on the map, someone does something that requires a roll (i.e. reading a foreign language, riding a horse, etc.), or when a character's actions call for a deeper description, as when searching an area. 

(To avoid confusion, the marked areas are the garden, the basement, and the second floor.)

First Floor
The front parlor is furnished with two chairs, one of which matches a plush footstool. Beside this, there is a little table and a lamp. Next, there is a painting on a display easel. The painting is of a battle – robed and armored men clash in a wooded battlefield, with one figure on horseback rising above the rest. A vase with a few wilting flowers is on a stand near the window. There is a fireplace as well, and resting on the mantle is a white rabbit, mounted in a sitting position with a ticking stopwatch in its forepaws.

The centerpiece of the back parlor is a round table. A crystal ball rests in its center. There is a fireplace and a couch on opposite walls. There are no windows, but a pretty little electric chandelier hangs from the ceiling. A short stack of books on astrology and the tarot rest on a table in the corner, near the couch. Behind the couch there are several folded wooden chairs. Candlesticks rest lengthwise on the fireplace mantle.

The bathroom is clean and little used.

The pantry is stocked with staples, some canned vegetables, and a rack of wine. (Henri and Cati will realize that the basement would be a better place to keep this vintage.)

Clean and tidy, everything in the kitchen seems to be in its place. The cabinets are filled with spices, dishes, staples, utensils . . . all the things one would expect to find in a functional kitchen.

The courtyard contains only a coiled length of hose loosely attached to a dripping, rusted spigot, and a folding wooden chair. There is a set of steps that lead to the basement. There is a lock and a chain on the door to the basement.

Second Floor
Instead of a front bedroom, there is a library. There is a bay window, but the curtains are pulled. In the center of the room is another little round table like the one in the back parlor downstairs. On it is an empty cherry wood pipe, and what looks like a massive single volume encyclopedia, titled The Complete Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Clothe strips hang from its pages, marking important entries. Near this, a cushioned chair, very comfy looking. The walls are lined with shelves, which are in turn filled with books and various trinkets. The books cover a range of topics, but mostly seem to be about: Christianity, mythology, animal husbandry, education, German literature, English grammar, linguistics, and various occult topics (Thelonius recognizes works on Ariosophy, psychic phenomena, and Theosophy). There are stacks of well-worn composition notebooks stored in the lower shelves.

The back bedroom has been used, but is also empty of people. The bed is unmade, and the floor has been tracked with muddy shoeprints. The decoration here is plain, with only sparse use of color or embellishment, and nothing to offend most persons' tastes - Henri might guess that it is meant to be used as a guest bedroom, and it reminds Thel of a tidier version of home. From the rear window here, one can easily pull the curtains, look down into the courtyard, down the basement steps, and, in the light cast from the back parlor window, see the locked-and-chained basement door.Beyond the bedroom is a bathroom and a terrace. The bathroom is much the same as the one downstairs, but with the addition of a bathtub. The tub's feet - for it is a freestanding piece - are four iron claws, and, in case of emergency, the tub looks like it's ready to make its own way out of the house. Gathered around its drain is a film of grunge and dirt. There are toothpaste stains in the sink, shaved whiskers on the counter top, and - in the toilet, which has been left open - shorn locks of dark hair.

The terrace is empty except for a dusty, sun-bleached wicker table, an ashtray, and about two dozen extinguished cigarette butts (mostly in the ashtray). There are no chairs, and it seems like an uncomfortable spot to have a smoke. Looking down from the terrace into the backyard, one can see in the nearly extinguished sunlight that a tarp has been spread across the back righthand corner of the garden. Beneath it, there seems to be a cage for small animals.

The door to the closet is locked on the bedroom side, but open on the library side. The closet on the right is completely empty. The closet on the left is packed with boxes and piles of old, folded clothes.

Third Floor
The front bedroom is decorated similarly to the second floor bedroom: unfrilled, whites and pastel greens. The bed has apparently been moved, and there is a space on the floor where someone has lain out a comforter, some sheets, and a pillow. The curtains are pulled on the front window.

There are two closets near the front bedroom, which are standing open. The larger is a broom-closet, and the smaller is being used to store linens. In the broom-closet two unmatched suitcases, one red plaid and one brown, stick out and prevent the door from shutting all the way. There is also what looks like a doctor's satchel, and, resting on that, a . . . hat? It's been made from three or four strips of what might be stiffened animal hide.

To the left of the hallway closets, the bathroom door is cracked open, and the light is on. The door to the backroom is shut. The stairs continue upwards into the darkened penthouse.

(Layout and facade are from Manhattan Homes Inc. Parlor photo is from Photo Album and Biographical Sketch of Caroline Dunning Jones Woods (2003) by MJP Grundy. Bathtub photo is from "Choosing the Right Bathtub in Your Remodel" at Ritual hat is from the collection of the International Dunhuang Project, and is featured in "The Silk Road Project" by Valerie Hansen.)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Psychic and Businessman

(Image of crystal ball owned by Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King (1921-current) from Library and Archives Canada. "The Battle in the Teutonburg Forest, 9 AD" (1890) by H. Knackfuss, at theVarusschlacht Museum.)