Volume 3 Number 1
"Welcome to the Haunt." Asher bowed with a flourish, and then hung his guest's grey heather overcoat next to a green cape on the coat tree and swung his umbrella from a knob on the paneling.
"I see you've settled into the place." Vyse gestured at the fire.
"I modeled the seating on your own Nefarium. We spent many a late night smoking and talking from those comfortable leather chairs of yours. German war history was, I think, the last topic."
"Was it? I see you stopped short of the imperial flag."
"Yes, well I'm sure you won't be a huge fan of the 'Last Supper' there on the wall, but I like the irony."
Vyse made a sneer. "You mean a Dali, that hack occultist of the lowest order, hanging over the mantle of a debunker of the occult?"
"I don't consider myself a debunker. Merely someone inspired enough by the fictions of superstition to give them a proper fictional treatment."
"Well, I see we still have a healthy difference of opinion." Both men laughed as Vyse took an offered chair and Asher poured two cognacs.
"How goes your writing?"
"My publisher wants less psychological material. He calls it mood fiction. Says it's over the top."
"Well, my book is doing well. Some interesting responses. And I've got a spot on the conference circuit for the new year." Vyse sniffed his cognac and eyed the guest pipes.
"Have one. I put out a calabash just for you."
"I think I will. What do you have for it?"
"There's black Cavendish, of course. There's a nice spicy English blend." Asher pointed to a humidor. "I've also a pouch of custom perique mixture that I order special from New Orleans."
"Hmm. I'll have the Cavendish. I'm still fond of the sweet aromatics." Vyse packed the bowl expertly with his thumb. "I took it I'd be meeting someone new tonight?"
"Yes. If I'm not mistaken, the dogs are telling me that he's here now."
"They don't even notice me anymore." Frost had been sitting in shadow, cross-legged on the floor near the window. She gently licked a cordial of creme de menthe, and smiled up at Vyse.
Asher chuckled and scratched the heads of the two Alsatians, who had started to whine and look anxiously at the door. "It takes awhile for them to get used to my guests."
"You think you have enough dogs?" Vyse cocked his pipe stem at the low howling outside.
Frost said, "This from a man rumored to keep a bat."
"Indeed," Asher laughed. He'd opened the door just as footsteps had sounded on the flagstones.
"Boo Yah!" both men resounded as Asher and the visitor, in black leather trench and Stevie Ray Vaughan hat, pressed fists.
"You've been awaited, sir, so I'll forego the formal introductions."
"Introduction, I think," Vyse answered.
"Why yes, I believe you are known to all here except Vyse."
"Really? That's encouraging." Frost grinned. "Self-knowledge is the sexiest kind. Come in, then, Mister Toede."
The new guest rolled his eyes and took the chair opposite Vyse by the fire.
"And, of course," Frost added, "I should be the one to make introductions, Black Asher."
Asher suppressed a grin, poorly, and poured a cinnamon Schnapps, passed it to Toede, and held open a cigar box. "Hondurans, of course. But smooth ones."
"Oh! Right on." Toede bit the end off of a corona, and spat the tip into the fire.
"So, Asher mentioned that you're an editor." Vyse blew a smoke ring over his head.
"I'm accused of it," Toede winked.
"A room full of literary types," Asher said.
"And smokers," Toede added.
"Hey! I've been told that I burn hot, but I never smoke!" Frost chided.
"Where there's fire," Asher mused, settling into a chair closer to the mantle.
"So what's the topic for tonight?" Vyse was bored.
Asher waited. When no one spoke, he said, "I've recently become interested in the distinction between perception and reality -- or whether there can be a meaningful distinction."
"What do you mean, exactly?" Vyse analyzed.
"Well, given that so much that we take for reality cannot be verified, how can we draw meaningful distinctions between reality and perception. In my own research, for example, I can neither prove nor disprove the existence of the supernatural. I can only suppose and maintain alternate explanations for experience. But I have no proof of these explanations. I suppose that's a good thing for my trade. People wouldn't buy ghost stories if we could disprove, definitively, the existence of ghosts."
"It's like cryptozoology," Toede interrupted. "We think that a particular species doesn't exist, though it's been widely sighted. It stays in the realm of cryptozoology until it washes up on shore and makes it onto the Discovery channel. Then, it's science."
"But was it always real, or did it become real when more people could handle and see it?" Frost looked thoughtful. "I think it depends on what we mean by reality."
"Exactly." Asher looked at Frost, by the window. "Is reality just semantics for some kind of sanctioned perception, or is it individual or situational, or is it something that we can't ever touch, leaving us with perception only."
In that moment, a coin made an arc in the air from Vyse's hand into Asher's.
Frost laughed. "That's one answer."
"Ha! TOAD!" Mister Toede exclaimed, nearly laughing up his refill of Schnapps.
"What?" Vyse asked.
"It's his way of saying, 'Boo Yah!'"
Vyse looked quizzical, lighting another pipe from the tip of a piece of kindling held to the fire.
"In other words, you got me. You hit home."
"Ah. That I did."
"You've been toaded," Toede laughed.
"No, that was a serious toading! Admit it."
"I admit that it's a good point."
Asher was interrupted by glances from Vyse and Toede at a flaring hiss from the fireplace.
Frost's mouth formed a slow, cunning smile as she wiped a drop of mint brandy from her mouth.
"Hmm." Asher blushed. "Well, perhaps even such proofs are matters of perspective."
"Ha!" Vyse got up to pour another cognac.
The evening wore on, with discussion and laughter, until the room was smoky and liquid with spirits, the haze floating from shadow to firelight and escaping in occasional gusts through the flue.
"It's cultural. Much that once passed for sanity is now thought of as an illness. Likewise, we now call sanity what, in another time, would have confirmed us as lunatics." Frost had been responding to a comment made by Vyse. "I don't buy..."
"Asher!" Toede said. "You spacing out?"
"Hm? No. Why?"
"OK, then. I'd better call it a night, anyway." Toede laughed. "I've loved the discussion, though. Especially seeing Asher get toaded."
"Well, I should go too, unless you'd like to continue, Asher."
"I think I'm a little too heady now for intelligent conversation." Asher sipped from his glass. "You're each welcome to the spare rooms, of course. It's a chill night to go home, and the Haunt is pleasantly warm."
"You know I only sleep every couple of days." Vyse smiled. "I think I'll go back to the Nefarium and write."
"I'd stay, but I'm supposed to be at a game tomorrow." Toede staggered a little and laughed as he got up. "Some doofus decided we'd get started in the morning. I almost blew it off, but apparently I'm running the thing."
"Well, you never turn down a dice roll. Good night to you both. I hope these Haunt meetings will be regular."
"Definitely." Toede held the door for Vyse, who added "I'll look forward to it."
When the door was closed, and the dogs quieted, Asher slumped back into the chair by the fire. "You're very bad."
"I know," smiled Frost. "And you're tired. Sleep now."
"I will. Don't go yet?"
"I'm always with you, Asher. I always will be."
Asher stood up in the empty room, took a red wool blanket from a corner cabinet, and looked thoughtfully into the fire.
Then he took from the mantle a small cordial, drained it, and lay down to sleep in front of the crackling flames.
An inaudible voice said, "Good night, Asher."