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CHAPTER FIVE: THE VANISHING CURIO SHOP
Down in the office the next morning, I found Dana standing in front of her desk frowning at an envelope that must have arrived in the early mail. She held it in her hand as though it were an ugly little animal that might bite her if it got a chance.
"How come you're standing there frowning at an envelope?" I asked.
"It's from my cousin Louis," Dana said. "Why is he writing to me?
The whole family avoids him-- myself included. He's been involved in any number of shady things. Last I heard, he was in the vanishing curio shop business."
"Vanishing curio shop?" I repeated. "What the hell is that?"
"Oh, I'm sure you've heard stories about them. Some poor, hapless schmo-- call him the mark-- is walking around in a part of town he's unfamiliar with. He spots a strange-looking little curio shop and feels irresistibly compelled to go inside. The proprietor is some strange old coot who gives the mark the creeps. The mark notices an exotic object of some sort, and expresses an interest. The proprietor spins some yarn about the object and what it can do-- grant wishes, bestow great personal power, whatever. The mark purchases the object-- usually for a ridiculously low price--takes the object home and uses it for whatever purpose he has in mind. Things are fine at first, but the whole deal quickly goes south. Remember that story, 'The Monkey's Paw?'
"So, the mark returns to the curio shop, hoping the proprietor can help him undo whatever he's done. But when he arrives, he finds an empty lot or an abandoned building that looks nothing like the shop he remembers. A quick canvass of the neighborhood reveals that the building or the lot has been vacant for as long as anyone can remember; there is not, and never has been, a curio shop there. The mark returns to the mess the power object has made of his life, and either dies or loses his mind and gets locked up in an asylum for the rest of his life."
"Jesus," I said, "that's messed up. Why the hell would anybody do a thing like that to people?"
"Practitioners of the Dark Arts claim it increases their personal power by a factor of five every time they fleece a mark. Of course, pulling jobs like that is pure hell on the karma, but that's what they want. Dark Arts practitioners have a thing called anti-karma. They rack up so many demerits they could never possibly atone for them, even if they were reincarnated a thousand times. Once you hit that level, the question becomes moot. They never reincarnate because they never die. Death itself won't touch anybody with that much stink on them. And there's really no point in them dying if they can't come back in another form. They've sabotaged their whole cycle of life and death, and so become untouchable. Basically, they're written off the ledger. They can go on for centuries that way. It's actually pretty elegant in its simplicity, but it's an absolutely repugnant practice, and only the lowest of the low go in for it."
"Like your cousin."
She sighed. "I'm afraid so. I guess you could say I was closer to him than anyone else, because I only disliked him intensely; the rest of the family hated him or worse. But what little I had to do with him was years ago, when I was a kid. Why the hell is he writing to me now?"
"People typically answer that kind of question by opening the letter and reading it," I advised her. "It's always worked for me."
"Shut up, Jack," she said absently as she tore the envelope open and extracted a single folded sheet of paper. She unfolded it and read it. Then she read it again. She was going for a hat trick when I snatched it away from her.
"He has nice penmanship for a fiend," I remarked as I glanced over the thing. "Seems very polite, too. Calls you Dearest Dana in the salutation-- you don't see that very often these days. He inquires about your health, expresses the hope that you are well... Ah, here's the punch line. He hates to bother you and would not dream of imposing on your good nature-- oh, that's a hot one!-- but wonders if you could look into a little matter for him. Sounds like a case of retail theft to me. Some mysterious someone swiped some mysterious something from him-- he says what it is, but I can't pronounce that word..."
"It's pronounced exactly the way it's spelled," Dana said. "Cauliodanbannasertopsis."
"Oh yeah," I said. "So, anyhow, a mysterious somebody swiped his supercalifragilisticexpialiwhateverthefuck, and he needs help getting it back. He thought of you immediately because you're one of the smartest people he knows and one of the most adept sorceresses in the world. Boy, he lays it on, doesn't he? And look how he closes it: 'Yours in Christ.' What the heck? I thought he was irredeemably evil!"
"He is. I can only assume that he's had some kind of a scare thrown into him and he's trying to hedge his bets. Sort of like a politician who gets caught committing adultery, or a serial killer with a death sentence. First thing they do is leap blindly at Jesus. Well, he won't help them-- not under those conditions."
"I assume, then," I said, "that this is going straight into the circular file?"
"I don't think so," Dana said. "I'd ignore it if it were anything but a Cauliodanbannasertopsis. I can't explain why, but I think this has something to do with the Little Precious business."
"Refresh my memory," I said. "What is a wopbopaloobalopalopbamboom again?"
"Something that has the potential to be a very, very dangerous thing, if it falls into the wrong hands."
"Okay, so you're just gonna sit there, then," I said, "and not explain it to me, is that the program?"
"No, of course it isn't. But it's difficult to explain a Cauliodanbannasertopsis..."
"Say," I interrupted, "is there, like, an abbreviated version of that word?"
"That is the abbreviated version."
"It has the power," she said, "to blur the lines between what is and what is not. That which exists and that which does not exist. In fact, it can breach those lines, and allow people and things to pass from one state to the other, and back again. There are places that don't exactly exist, as such. The concept is pure magic-- it cannot be expressed mathematically, it cannot even be theorized about in any school of purely scientific thought. And there are also places that have been magically sealed in one way or another. Sometimes the entrances to the non-existent places fall into that category. Dad used to do a lot of that, but I haven't...
"Well, a Cauliodanbannasertopsis is a sort of magical skeleton key-- it can be used to gain access to such places."
I didn't like the sound of that.
Two hours after we read the letter, Dana and I were standing on the sidewalk in front of a seedy vacant lot on one of the dreariest streets in Zenith.
This area of town wasn't far from the brownstone in terms of miles. No more than six blocks away, actually-- Dana and I had walked here-- but it was a world away in terms of ambiance.
"Tell me again why we're standing here like this," I said to Dana.
She consulted her watch. "Because this is where Louis' curio shop will be in five... four... three... two...one."
Suddenly, we were standing in a shadow, rather than the light of the afternoon sun that had been shining through the gap between the buildings. Looking up, I saw that another brick building had manifested itself, neatly filling the slot.
"I'll be damned," I said. "A curio shop. It even says so on the window-- look: CURIO SHOP. How quaint!"
"Let's get this done," Dana said coldly, moving forward and pushing the door open.
We stepped inside. The place was jam-packed with all manner of bizarre objects. There was a long counter at the far end of the room, behind which stood the smiling proprietor of this nightmarish five-and-dime.
Cousin Louis was a surprise. I was prepared to meet a greasy, wormy-looking little specimen, the sort of malicious troll you'd expect to find plying such a loathsome trade. In fact, to be a lot more candid than I'm comfortable being, he was gorgeous. He had an androgynous quality that reminded me of the young David Bowie.
Dana introduced us. Louis offered to shake hands. I declined. Maybe I was imagining things because of what Dana had told me, but I thought I sensed the presence of impossibly concentrated evil.
He moved as though to kiss Dana on the cheek, but she gave him a look that could have capsized a battleship. Louis fumbled and dithered and backed off. He turned his attention to me and asked, "Have you found the Lord Jesus?"
"I didn't know he was lost," I said. "Do you want to hire us for that, too?"
"It isn't a laughing matter," Louis said reproachfully. "He died on the cross for your sins, you know."
"Right. Well, I've been making sure he gets his money's worth."
"You should accept him as your lord and savior," Louis said gravely. "That is what he requires of you."
"Have you accepted him?"
"Well, I've, ah... I've tried. It's not easy for someone with a past like mine. Look, you could really help me out here if you'd accept him. If I can score a lot of souls for him, that's bound to work in my favor, don't you think?"
"You'd have to ask a lawyer," I said. "If you can find one that has a soul."
Dana had watched this exchange with considerable amusement Sometimes she appreciates me. I was just getting warmed up, but she caught my eye and gave me a look that said it was time to get down to business.
"Tell us what happened, Louis," she said evenly. "Tell us why we're here."
"Of course, Dana," Louis said. He cleared his throat and began his gripping tale:
"I had touched down in Cleveland. That's always a good place to find marks. Probably the local economy. I had just arrived there when I suddenly found myself under siege! Someone kicked in the front door and rushed me. I was knocked to the floor! The individual then ransacked the premises."
"What was this individual like?" Dana asked. "Did he say anything to you?"
"Yes, he did. A threat of some kind, the exact wording escapes me. But I remember his voice. He had an accent. Sounded Russian to me."
As he reached this point in his tale, Louis began to tremble. He was lying about the wording of the threat, I was sure. He was scared, and it was because of whatever the intruder had said to him. He wasn't going to give that up, but he was telling the truth about everything else. Probably.
"What got me," he was saying, "was that he was all arrayed in spotless white garments. It could have been one of the Lord's angels. That's what scared me so. It could also be one of the fallen ones. I do know that I need that thing back."
"White garments?" Dana asked.
"Well, more sort of beige, I guess, if I think about it. Very nice. I couldn't identify the fabric."
"What did these garments look like?"
"An overcoat and a hat. The brim of the hat was pulled..."
"... down low enough to hide the intruder's face," I finished.
"Yes," Louis said, nodding, "exactly. It also struck me that he might be wearing something over his face-- a mask of some sort-- but I never got a really close look. The lighting isn't the best, as you can see, and everything happened so fast... It was quite jarring. You know, this is the first time a vanishing curio shop has been robbed in almost a decade! It was old Charlie Fishman the last time. Remember him, Dana? Somebody stole a contraption that Charlie had conned H.G. Wells out of. Something big. One of those Martian war machines, maybe."
"That must have been some con," Dana said.
"Oh, Charlie was a smooth one in his day! But he never caught the guy that robbed him. To this day it's a mystery."
"Uh-huh. Was anything else missing from here, Louis?"
"Funny you should say that. I didn't notice until about an hour ago, but a ritual dagger seems to be missing. It has little or no monetary value, and no inherent magical qualities."
"Do you have a picture of it?"
"Indeed I do. I have a picture of the Cauliodanbannasertopsis, too. I have them ready for you."
He handed Dana two photographs. She looked them over, then passed them to me.
"Hmmm," I said, studying the photos. "This one here, I cannot make heads or tails of. But this one looks like the kind of knife that sometimes gets caught by the hilt in midair at a dead run-- don't you think so, Dana?"
"I believe it does," she said. She took the photos back and put them in her little handbag."I'll see what I can do, Louis. I'm very busy at present, but I'll look into it. "
On that note we said goodbye to Cousin Louis. As we stepped through the doorway onto the sidewalk, I felt a great sense of relief. The inside of that shop had been giving me the creeps.
Turning to look back over my shoulder, I saw that vanishing curio shop had... vanished.
GET IT HERE: http://www.amazon.com/Return-Little-Precious-Moriarty-Vampires-ebook/dp/B01BJDVFPA/