Volume 3 Number 2
"It's some kind of cult. No one else would do a thing like this. I could believe it was some useless kids, except for the ritualism of it."
"Not every cult is one of ritual, and plenty of rituals don't require a cult. I hesitate to jump to conclusions."
"Well, I'm no animal rights pansy, but this is demonic. I know you don't believe ..."
"What I believe is that everything knowable has a cause, or at least a source. And usually, there's more than one cause."
"Well, I plan to find the punks that did this. I shouldn't let you touch that, but it's not like I want to go taking it down, either."
Asher pulled the long pins from each paw and gently lifted the tattered body from the door, shaking his head at the flies. The carcass had been splayed out in the form of a Saint Andrew's Cross, a small frail X of exposed tissue and bone.
"Save it. Store it, rather." He quickly wiped his hands on his socks. The day's warmth had already made his hands sticky.
"We were going to do that. We may not be big city, but we're not all uneducated hicks from the sticks. We're professionals."
"I'd have the medical examiner look over the wounds."
"For Christ's sake! It's a cat, Asher."
"Don't you want to know if your perpetrator has any medical or veterinary expertise?"
"Dammit. Yeah, all right. What else?"
Asher looked down. "You want me in this thing?"
"As a consultant." The chief of police had enough years on his force to see his town grow to the point of calling it a city. He wasn't looking for the wrong kind of help.
"Consultants get paid. My price is access to any records this investigation generates and to be kept in the loop completely."
"I'd say you come cheap, but you've already cost me a bit of pride," he grinned.
Asher looked down and tasted bile. "Take it to the local vets and try to get an identification."
"I need something by the end of the quarter. Thing about being a writer, Asher ... they're people who write!"
"I hear you, boss."
"What are you, depressed or something?"
"No .... Yes. Well ... let's just say my attentions have been diverted. My thoughts have been running too deep to surface, but this part of me is better now. One way or another, you'll get your piece."
"Some action, this time, Asher. The psychological stuff is brilliant, but you need to pay off. It can't all be prologue."
"Understood. Now to pray for rain..."
"Huh? Oh ... yeah."
Asher's editor was an understanding despot, but business and something in hand would always beat talent and potential. Asher drained a gin and tonic with tart limes and checked his fingers to see if they still shook.
"There appears to be a high level of detail and precision."
"Crux decussata." Vyse said.
Or it could just be an X.
"You said they found evidence of medical knowledge?"
"It wasn't kids, but none of the vets claimed to recognize the animal, and the doctors here are all too busy playing golf; there's no hospital." Asher put the phone on speaker and reclined with his pipe, letting the tendrils of aromatic smoke climb to the ceiling.
"I don't know what to tell you. Had it been a cow, I know an expert. Was there blood?"
"In cattle mutilations, there's never any blood. And the incisions are always burned."
"This was done with an ordinary razor, but it was done precisely. And the pins were inserted so as to hold the animal securely -- so it couldn't tear free."
"Hmm. Nothing I can add, at this point."
"All right. Thanks."
"Be careful, Asher."
"Always," he grinned, voice lilted around the bit of a large briar pipe.
Vyse had always been of a somewhat fatherly disposition.
"Sacrificing animals -- this I've heard of. My cousin back East even busted a cult, once. But trees? People around here are superstitious, but this would take a lunatic." The chief swallowed a mouthful of hot coffee and cursed as it burned his lip.
"Another premature conclusion, I'd say." Asher had received his call at almost the exact same time as on the previous day.
"Well, smart guy, I've got just as many people saying it's some kind of witch's sign. So what do you make of it, then?"
Asher glanced at the officers leaning against the blue and white car on the curb some hundred yards away.
"I'd say that what we have on our hands is ... consistency. Same cross or X-pattern, obviously, but something more ..."
"What is it?" The chief seemed to be gaining a morbid fascination at this point, but he would also just as soon have been munching pastry on an uneventful summer's morning.
"Same precise detail. The limbs are removed, stripped, and neatly crossed in the same manner as the trunk. The symbol is important, but our perpetrator is also multi-talented, fastidious, and clearly making a point. I did half a tobacco's pouch of research last night, and there are no religious traditions, mainstream or otherwise, that conduct such rituals. The point is philosophical. Our man, or woman, is intelligent, self-educated, and isn't finished."
"Seems like you're making assumptions, now."
"Half the people around here think it's some cult group, but you've already got it pinned on an individual. Any particular reason?" The chief kicked at the limbs, disturbing their otherwise symmetrical formations.
"Well, no one is an island. I'm not saying he's alone in any absolute sense -- let's call it a 'he' for now. I merely suggest that both of these acts fit the profile of someone who is alone, psychologically. Driven by ideas, by purpose, but adhering to no tradition, and demanding perfection of his actions. The frailties of others would be intolerable to such a person. Merely by his singular mind, we could assume that he's alone. I don't say 'safely assume' because this makes him all the more dangerous. Others would fail him, would slip up, so he acts in the single most unpredictable way -- on his own initiative. If I were to write him as a character, he would be ... delightfully dangerous."
"So you think he's dangerous."
"As I say, he isn't finished yet." The odor of green wood was almost pleasant, but the moment did not allow much enjoyment.
"Look, cats and trees we can get over. If you're suggesting that it's people who are in danger, I need to know."
"His next victim will be human. I don't mean to alarm you, but our man is making a statement about life in general. It's as though he's saying it's pointless, and the only thing left at the end of it is how we arrange the corpses -- so to speak. He's building up to something. He'll need to kill a person to make that clear."
"If he's as smart as you say, why doesn't he just write a book?"
Asher winced. "How many people read books, anymore, let alone serious ones? This is a serious author, and his book is ... us ... the world. He's making his mark."
The Chief shuddered and quickly glanced back at the cruiser. "What the hell do I do?"
"I don't know, Chief."
"Are you sure he'll actually go that far?"
"He's building a pattern. A pattern takes at least three. So far, life is the commonality. Life that has been literally X-ed out. Animal, plant ... you see where this is going."
"Damn. The wife and I have been praying that it's nothing so awful. We're going to pray now that no one gets hurt, that we catch him first."
"Yes. Do pray."
"But I thought ..."
"It harms nothing and calms the mind to see clearly."
Asher relaxed his neck and stared through smoke rings at the ceiling. He had pulled his muffler snug, not so much because of the cellar-like coolness of the Haunt's hearth room, but as if to sink more deeply into the warmth of thought. He had lain aside the red-bound volume of The Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, dog-eared at "The Red-Headed League." "A three-pipe problem if there ever was one, my dear Watson."
"And what would Holmes do at a time like this?" Asher asked himself.
"He'd shit his pants! That's what he'd do."
It was six o'clock in the morning when the call came. "You were right. You'd better come down here. Warehouse on 4th and Main."
"Chief, you don't sound yourself."
"I'm coming. Don't move anything."
"Just get here. And ... let's keep this quiet, for now."
Asher threw on his black trench and dusted a spot of grey ash from the shoulder. He stopped long enough to pet the Dobermans as he went around to the pickup.
He was already pulling out of the drive when he felt the hairs on the back of his neck and stopped.
"Vorbeck! Rommel!" But the dogs were already panting at the wheels. "Come on." Asher left them in the cab of the truck as he dashed in to make a quick call.
He left the house lit, like a friendly beacon, and drove just shy of dangerously down the dark road toward town.
The dark was spacious and smelled of dust and old grease. Asher woke nodding from a sore ache at the base of his neck, just above his spine. He was upright and swaying, but somehow couldn't stand. His arms and legs were stretched and cramped, pulled back behind him, and his wrists felt hot.
The crisp flare of a wooden match sent multiple tiny blurs of light right past his eyes to a growing headache.
"You're exactly right for this, you know."
Asher didn't speak, but felt carefully at the wire and the chain with the tips of his fingers. The low hum and grind of the motorized hoist didn't let him hear the pop of his wrists as he ascended another ten links above the invisible concrete floor.
"It takes a long time to find someone with enough intelligence."
"Apparently not enough. Is this the worthy-adversary speech?"
"Your accent has changed."
"Don't interrupt." A stinging slap to the face set Asher rocking like a human pendulum.
"It wouldn't do to make use of just the ordinary mass of human cattle. In fact, they're the audience. It has to be someone sharp enough and creative enough to ... make the point, as you put it."
Asher's lips made a long, low whistle.
"Don't bother. They're right where you left them. Can't exactly let themselves out without opposable thumbs, can they?"
"Well, you're going to have to take me down from here, anyway."
"Really? Why do you say that?"
"Well, I'm not exactly spread into an X, am I?"
"Ha! You see? This is why you're perfect." The MagLite clicked on, sending a focused beam of halogen blindness into Asher's face. "I'll kill you first, of course."
"I suppose I could call you a coward, but then a coward has to have fear. You have no reason for fear."
"No, but I'll take the sentiment." Asher heard the crack and saw the dance of light reveal the shape of the warehouse interior before he felt the flashlight blow on his temple. He swayed for several minutes, in silence except for the creak of chain.
"You struck me with that, before."
"So I did. You know, I rather like the dark." The MagLite clicked off. "I've read your work, of course. I understand you prefer it, too."
"For different reasons, no doubt." Asher could find no weakness in the binding of his wrists.
"Yes. You find it full of life. I find it full of nothing, like life itself. Darkness is the perpetual state of the living ... pointless ... amounting to nothing. All of the purposes of life are refuted, revealed as manufactured answers, by the night that falls on all things."
"Yes, yes, I know. There are no answers to ultimate questions. All is futile. There's no purpose to existence. It's all a cosmic X. Don't you have anything original to say? I mean, you're just the logical conclusion of Nietzsche."
The laughter was chilling for its absence of chill, its absence of any feeling at all. "But like you said, that's just books, and who reads books anymore? You're my tablet -- a man who searches with all his intelligence for something beyond, something to lend meaning to perfect absence of meaning. Nietzsche chose the wrong instrument. He tried to tell the truth with a pen. This is my stylus ..."
The blade went easily through Asher's coat and let warm liquid fill the cool of his sweat-soaked shirt. "I suppose," the voice said, "that you find even the pulse of that red life-force comforting. But it will be gone soon. And your solace will be on the floor with your twisted body. People will seek reasons, explanations ... they'll ask why, and there will be no more reason for your death than for anything else that we think or do."
Asher felt his consciousness start to slip again.
"I want to introduce you to my favorite tool." Asher barely recognized the distinct sound of an air compressor warming up. His captor spoke louder. "Took me months to find the right jeweler's blades. They're not meant to attach to a bone saw, but then I'm patient. I made the modifications myself, which is appropriate to its use, you see."
Asher nodded, but struggled still to writhe free.
At the end of a flame that now lit a kerosene lantern was a steady hand. Asher saw no emotion in the shadowed face of the man retrieving his instrument from a steel utility cart.
The hoist jerked, making him spin away from the light.
"I'm always with you, Asher." The voice was firm and grim, drowning out the whirring and the noise of the compressor. Its very cadence and tone spoke meaning into Asher's blurred mind.
Then light shined on Asher's face, so brightly that he could not see what took the last moment of consciousness in a shock of noise and screaming.
The last of sunset settled into dusk. The open window let twilight air suck away the smoke as it toyed with chimes just out of sight on the porch. The kerosene lamp threw no shadows yet, but waited for that middle degree between light and dark, that imperfect obscurity that settles on the world nightly, renewing it with curiosity and the dim reflection of objects on the wall.
"I've never seen someone type so quickly with one hand," Mister Toede mused.
"Where we are frail, we compensate. We don't surrender our purposes to our imperfections."
"You know, I wish you had waited for me before going into that place. For one thing, those ... very nice Dobermans of yours ... nearly ate me alive when I let them out of the truck. I had to convince them I didn't have you in my pockets."
"At least that conversation was brief; it always is with them."
"Heh! True. They make excellent cavalry."
"So do you, my friend."
"You realize, of course, that I'm not going anywhere."
"Really, the Haunt is quite impregnable with both the Dobermans and the Alsatians on the loose."
"I don't care. I've made some calls, too, whether you like it or not. A couple of us are taking up residence here, for a while. If I have to, I'll stay in the cellar, but I'm not leaving until bone saw man is a piece of meat on my boot."
"Well, I don't mind the company. The place has too many empty rooms, anyway. But I suspect my ... adversary ... is long gone. He'll begin his search again, but he's patient. It may be quite a while before we catch any scent of him again."
"Write your piece. I want to read it before you send it off to your normal editor."
"You always get first read, Toede, when you're around. Besides, I'm almost finished."
"I'll be around. Stop avoiding ... write while it's fresh."
Asher pecked deftly on the laptop until, shoulders drooping in release, he lay his head back on the chair and breathed slowly, half-lidded and serene.
The computer auto-saved the last lines:
We live in search of something beyond ourselves. We cannot survive without some sense of 'other', some certainty that even in uncertainty we are connected to a larger theme. Some who live among us deny this, but then each living thing is the point of contact, the mystery of meaning to which every hand stretches forth in friendship or in opposition. It is the quest for purpose, for some point to it all, that unites us. This can never be crossed out. It is the mark inscribed in every existence, the refutation of futility that every breath and life affirms. Around us and within us are the words, "I am always with you. I will never leave or forsake you." And all stories tell this tale.
-- 'Black' Asher
The other Black Asher stories can be read in our serial archives.
Asher's Haunt can be visited virtually, by going to asherblack.com and clicking on "The Haunt".