Jeffery Scott Sims
Now I’ll tell you how I just about got myself killed, or worse, when all I wanted to do was turn an honest dollar.
Lockenberg sent me this e-mail: “To Mr. Fontaine. Believe new-found Bisbee artifact to be Rhexellite Key. Must acquire. 20,000 cash. I ask no questions.” I received it in my office in the trashy part of downtown Phoenix, so without comment I immediately passed it on to my secretary Angie. She’s a good kid, good looking too, but among her many charms she excels at ferreting info from the enormous haphazard pile of files I maintain on curiosities, oddities, and just plain weird stuff. I trade in that junk, therefore I try to keep abreast of relevant data. Angie keeps threatening to feed all those books and documents into a computer. I encourage her, but it sounds like lifetime’s work to me. I won’t touch it.
What she came up with (with her usual alacrity) I basically already knew. Lounging on the corner of my desk, she announced through her wad of bubble gum, “Conrad Lockenberg is the real deal, Sterkie. He’s got buckets of bucks he never had to earn, important connections in Arizona and a dozen other states, and an abiding interest in the occult. That makes him a dream client, if he’s on to something, and he pays off.”
I flicked a hand dismissively, leaned back in my comfy chair. “Yeah, I’ve got Lockenberg down pat. He’s mixed up with the freakiest organizations, been kicked out of a couple because he went too far even for them. A while back one of those supermarket rags ran a piece on him, placed him at a gathering of too much time on their hands, high society devil worshipers on the Riviera. They caused such a stink that the fancy resort evicted them.”
Angie snorted, tossed a wrinkled tabloid onto the desk. “I got that one here. This folder”— she slapped it down on top—“contains newspaper clippings about bizarre rites, midnight meetings, a couple of unexplained deaths. In one case Lockenberg spent the night under police questioning. They didn’t get anything on him.”
“They never do,” I replied flippantly, “not on these guys. A sweetheart, this one. Could be an underhanded customer… but twenty thousand would take my mind off a lot of dirt. What’s the Bisbee angle?”
“Give me time.” I rose, lifted her from the desk, spun her around, smacked her perfectly rounded rump and gave her until evening. She delivered the goods by mid-afternoon, which allowed me to contact Lockenberg that day, arrange an interview for the following morning, and come across as knowing what I was talking about.
He said, “Mr. Sterk Fontaine? Certain associates of mine have dealt with you in the past. They praise your discretion and your cunning.”
I said, “Mr. Lockenberg, I specialize in matters unusual, in items of peculiar interest to uncommon connoisseurs. If there is something you need, and the price is right, I can get it for you.”
“I presented to you a figure.”
“It’s right.” He sat across from me amidst the cramped, untidy clutter of that very same office, impeccably dressed in a tailored suit, sporting a fine felt hat and impatiently grasping a silver-headed cane, none of which dispelled the essential greasiness of the man. A big man, tall, but run to sloppy fat, his pallid face broad and jowly, his eyes inexpressive, little black beads lost in that expanse of moist dough. I caught a chill from his blank, icy gaze.
Following the standard sparring, I gave it to him like this: “You want me to steal that problematic silver ingot currently displayed in the Bisbee museum. Are we straight on that?”
Lockenberg smirked, shrugged. “I care not how you acquire it, so long as it subsequently enters into my possession.”
He frowned, a repellent sight. “I told you that I asked no questions. Colleagues inform me, Fontaine, that you operate on the same plane.”
I nodded. “You can keep your business to yourself. It doesn’t matter a damn to me what you plan to do with the gew-gaw. On the other hand, I’d better know what I’m getting into. That’s
Lockenberg growled an irritated noise. “The subject of discussion—this extremely off the record conversation—is not an ingot, nor entirely silver, as claimed by initial reports, but an alloy of unknown manufacture. Yes, the object is clearly of artificial derivation, despite having been uncovered at the lowest level of a defunct open pit mine. It bears worn traces of inscription and design. The best brains crack while failing to explain its geological provenience. I, however, know precisely what it is. I consider the object priceless. It must form the centerpiece of my collection.”
“This it?” I handed him a photograph printed off the Internet. Lockenberg nodded curtly. He licked his lips at the image of a shiny, white-gray, lopsided cube—I guess it’s called a rhombus—chased with meaningless scratches and an array of inset ovals resembling staring eyes.
“No doubt,” he hissed. “One can not estimate its value. The most ancient writings of our race describe this thing. Illuminated manuscripts of elder times depict it. That is what I seek.”
I let it go at that. We shook on the deal, my fee to be paid on delivery. The next morning, a Saturday, saw me racing south, then, east, then south again for Bisbee, Arizona, that I might filch the bauble, increase my bank account, make Conrad Lockenberg jolly. You see, that’s how I turn my honest dollar. With an early start, I made it in four smooth hours.
Bisbee, one of the state’s crown jewels, was a place I knew from sight-seeing excursions. The old mining town began at the bottom of a narrow valley, then grew up the mountain slopes with increased prosperity. The boom days lent Bisbee an aura of glamor, with beautiful public buildings, ornate hotels, big gaudy houses, and exotic—if occasionally violent—frontier history. All the great lawmen and desperadoes of yesteryear knew the taverns and cat-houses of Bisbee. Eventually came the crash. The mine went bust, the town died; no, not quite, it lingered on its sick bed until the tourists and the artsy-fartsy crowd discovered it, and then Bisbee flourished once more. Bisbee booms again, especially on weekends when the hordes swarm with their tinker-toy digital cameras.
I didn’t come as a tourist this time, although I played the role. I just meant to confiscate the Rhexellite Key. Oh, did I leave out something Lockenberg said to me? Not by half I didn’t; he did the leaving out. Fortunately Angie had prepared me prior to the meeting. “This must be it,” she said the previous evening, as we relaxed cozily in my upscale Scottsdale apartment after dinner, with her moldy books and scanned papers scattered all over the coffee table before my mammoth sofa. Angie snuggled closer as she brightly recounted the arcane lore she’d imbibed. “The best stuff comes from this chapter out of Bleek’s book. It’s way old, but every dabbler in spooky craziness has read it or heard of it. He—Jacob Bleek—calls it the Rhexellite Key. It’s supposed to be magic, or super magic, more powerful than the Holy Grail, only nasty.”
“What’s it doing at the bottom of a Bisbee mine?”
“Who knows? Through the ages it’s turned up in every part of the world. This thing gets around.”
“Strange, my dear, very strange. It must be valuable. So what do you do with it, wish for gold?”
“I don’t do anything with it,” she snapped. “Neither should you. It isn’t nice, it’s naughty. Bleek claims its the key to the gates of Hell.”
Too often, in my gloomy, under the radar racket, it turns out to be something like that. I purvey special services, dimly ethical, to special clientele, many of them rotten to the core: the stellar delvers into the darkest recesses of the occult, those who seek for their own greedy or hateful ends the morbid reality underlying the stupidly grinning optimism of the everyday world. It’s there, that reality, ever lurking, yet by most shunned, ignored, or despised because they can’t bear to face that brand of truth. I latched onto it back when because I learned it pays, but I never developed a taste for it. Maybe a certain nose-wrinkled curiosity; yes, that, and it was like to be my undoing this time.
Well, Angie gave me the low-down, and I memorized a bunch, kept copies of more, and when ready headed out. Thus I came to Bisbee, to grab the Rhexellite Key for a scummy man who undoubtedly intended with it an act despicable. Of course Lockenberg didn’t tell me that either. For his collection indeed! I’d read too much about him. Power and spite drove the guy.
I arrived. I strolled about with a cheapie camera, snapping the multi-colored houses, the striking architecture of the grand halls, the quaintly storied structures of Wyatt Earp’s and John Slaughter’s day. I stopped off for a cup of hot cocoa at my favorite chocolate shop. I appeared to marvel at the surrounding mountains, especially that one crowned with the patch of white from which sprouted, miniaturized by distance, a tiny cross. An elderly native, naturally loquacious or angling for a hand-out, once regaled me about that. He termed it a shrine, built by “who knows,” planted in that ridiculously inaccessible location to obliterate the traces of a heathen Indian temple that once stood there. One more of Bisbee’s attractive oddities. Oh, and I visited the Bisbee Mining Museum.
What I did was case the joint. I’m not going to tell you anything about my methods. Technique must remain a trade secret. I fathomed what I needed to learn concerning matters of lay-out, watchful eyes, protective measures. Necessarily I glanced at the inaccurately styled ingot. It didn’t look like much, nor did its guardians treat it as such. It lay there inside a glass case, smaller than I expected, along with other prettier minerals dredged up from the open pit that yawned like a vast meteor crater south of town.
To cut to the chase, then I stole it. I came back that night, after hours, did it. Never mind how. I majored in purloining long before I went ostensibly legit. The thing wasn’t defended like the Hope Diamond after all, gave me no problems. Within an hour of the commencement of my excursion I had returned to my plush digs at the Copper Queen Hotel, the Rhexellite Key in my pocket. I planned a quick scoot back to Phoenix.
From this point, let’s forget about my plans.
I started, exclaimed, “How did you get in here?” Conrad Lockenberg awaited me within my locked room, heaped in the straight-backed chair by the dinky bed table. “What are you doing here?” I closed the door behind me, an error as it transpired. “You were to stand by, with the money, for my call.”
Lockenberg hoisted himself to his feet. “Do you have it?” Instinctively I patted my pocket. “Let me see.”
“Got the money?”
“Of course. Give it to me.” I chuckled, made another boo-boo—took him at his word—threw him the prize. From his reaction you’d think I’d hurled him a rattlesnake. He caught it nevertheless. “Careful, you fool.”
“The money, Lockenberg.”
“Yes, yes.” He scarcely remembered my presence. While greedily fondling his pride and joy he contrived to fish out a slip of paper from his jacket, pass it to me without comment. I felt many words bubbling up inside me, several of them unprintable. He’d handed me a check. It contained the requisite number of zeros, but it was still only a check. I never use them, not even for toilet paper.
“Unsatisfactory, Lockenberg, not the deal. No deal.”
With a brief sidewise glance he huffed, “It’s good. Or will be, soon enough.”
“Where’s the cash?”
“I don’t have it,” he blurted angrily, glaring evilly now. “Times are tight. My mystical hobbies have consumed my fortune. I shall recoup in good time. Until then, don’t bother me.”
I’ve dealt with big-shot bums before. “I’ll take back the treasure, welsher,” I sneered, reaching into my jacket’s inside pocket. I showed him the pistol.
Lockenberg laughed. Before I could take aim he raised the Rhexellite Key in both hands, uttered three really weird words. I froze, lost control of my body. Nothing functioned any more, not by so much as a twitch. He laughed again.
“It work’s that well,” he crowed. “The book of Azamodias told true. The Key grants power over the basely material. I’ll find that handy. While I’m at it, why don’t we—you and I—test its properties to the limit?” He commenced a longer, equally incomprehensible incantation.
The scene went dark. Did the electric lights fail? No, there simply wasn’t light, of any kind; the darkness of the cave, of the abandoned mine perhaps, encompassed me. Then illumination returned, of a sort. There spread about me an eerie reddish radiance, dull and drab, against which I nevertheless blinked in irritation. My eyes smarted as from too much sun, despite the gloom. I rubbed them, realizing on the instant that I had regained mobility. I hefted the gun.
I stood alone in that room. Somehow Lockenberg had evaded me and absconded in those short dark moments. That bugged me. So did something else. The hotel room had changed; apparently I’d been downgraded, for the place was now a dump. The moody lighting didn’t come from the electrical fixtures, which were off, nor responding to the wall switch. The furniture, the walls, ceiling, floor and carpeting: all rotten, desiccated, corroded. My few belongings had vanished. I inarticulately yelped and got out of there. My voice sounded thin and distant.
The corridors: mysteriously lighted, dusty, empty, too quiet. Soft, brittle boards creaked underfoot. The elevator ignored me. The stairs formed a challenging obstacle course. I survived them, reached the silent, unattended lobby, cringed at the appearance of squalor, of aged decay. I dashed outside.
And then I woke up? No sir, the situation merely deteriorated further. I stood there in the narrow street fronting the entrance, bathed in morbid dark crimson stemming from no discernible source, under an appallingly bleak, soul-chilling sky of unbroken, starless black, with the recognizable shapes of Bisbee pressing down around… but insidiously altered. The great historic structures nearby—the hotel, the quaint church, the big museum and more—sagged, gaped with jagged holes where masses had collapsed. I cried out wordlessly again, pattered rapidly into the more open terrain at the bottom of the lane which offered an extended view west toward the highway. As I hurried I stumbled over jumbled pavement where clutches of weeds had burst through.
Halting, I gazed about me in a daze. This was still Bisbee—I recognized too much—only a Bisbee dead, abandoned, forlorn and forgotten. An evil mockery of Bisbee, perhaps, or the shadow of Bisbee as cast in Hell.
Okay, I was in for it. As my brain started to churn again I began, dimly, to appreciate my unwelcome position. Piecing together the disparate elements of knowledge available to me, I guessed that Lockenberg, a man most knowledgeable in such matters, had utilized the Rhexellite Key to cast me into this horrible faux version of Bisbee or the world, had—following the logic of legend—hurled me living into Hell. At least I supposed it was living. I breathed, sweated, pounded (my heart did that one); I lived, here, where it seemed, from casual analysis, that no other human being lived.
The baleful red glow continued, that I could see what I wouldn’t, a glow that didn’t filter down from that loathsome night above. No clouds obscured the stars; they weren’t there, period. I couldn’t see my van in the scrubby, uneven space that I remembered as a public parking lot, nor any other cars for that matter. Nobody, nothing, except the dead shell of Bisbee, as conceived by devils.
I felt like throwing up. Shortly that moment seemed relative joy as I spotted something really weird approaching me down Oak Street. Just the sight of motion in that place attracted and repelled. Craving it, feared its meaning. It neared, a greenish ball suspended in air; no, a circle, an image in two dimensions, like a photograph framed in the round. Making straight for me, I picked out detail in that image, shuddered, for the first time since the happening manufactured an utterance in English. “Lockenberg!”
The circle hung in space in the lane by the toppled ruins of the old jail. At this remove I seemed to look into it, as through the wrong end of a telescope, see way through there that pudgy face I despised flattened as if pressed to glass, glaring at me with vicious mirth and insane malice. The features contorted loathsomely. They belched forth a crazy cackle that billowed about me like the stinking smoke of a crematorium.
Conrad Lockenberg said, “I trust I find you well, Mr. Fontaine, none the worse for your transition? Seek contentment as you can, good sir, for your sojourn in your new abode must necessarily be of infinite duration. Thrash and dash as you will, there is no escape from the Hell of the ancient ones save through the power of the Key, which henceforth exists under my control. Forgive me if I choose not to employ it for your benefit.”
“Where am I?” I screamed at the repulsive, mocking face. “What is this place, Lockenberg?”
“I was never one for technicalism,” mused the face, with a hint of shrug. “Call it Hell. Why not? It’s all the same to you. I rationalize it as another plane of existence roughly corresponding to our own, one into which the fundamental human essence never enters alive. A mystic gateway, impervious to mundane matter, normally divides the twain. Unlike its other denizens, you have crossed over, due solely to my generosity, with your physical being intact. Great fun, eh?”
“But you’re here,” I pointed out. “You’ve crossed over, somehow, in a different way. What about that?”
I hated his laughs. After another one he replied, “Not at all. Several hours have passed in real time since we fruitlessly negotiated in your room there. I talk to you from beyond the gate which the Key unlocks. I’m sitting comfortably in my study, with the Key in hand, gazing into a polyhedral crystal, projecting myself for your benefit. I stand, so to speak, without the door, casting my voice and image. I see and hear you, comprehend your milieu. An alter-Bisbee, I deduce. Most interesting. Where you cross counts. You passed the gate in Bisbee, and you enter a Bisbee of the dead. It is time that I introduce you to your new companions.”
The image of his face flexed—in the green circle I saw an ear with hair—then came round again with intensely staring eyes. The lips moved, rhythmically muttering a quiet chant. I demanded to know what he was doing. I got the answer directly.
Sounds not from the glowing circle, sounds on my side of the Bisbee gate, of creaking timber, of feet shuffling in dirt, bizarre sounds of animate movement. I whirled, peering into the red gloom, detected lurching shapes separating themselves from the slabs of structure. Human forms I spied, shambling toward me. Closer, I doubted their humanity; nearer still, I entirely repudiated it. Horrors in crude semblance of man—gaunt, rotten, bony things—walking cadavers in tatters of clothing, modern or wildly unfashionable; the forgotten essences of the dead, stirred by Lockenberg’s evil magic into vile activity, coming for me!
I groaned, dumbed by fear and disgust. My frightfully visible tormentor screeched, “Automata, servitors in my charge, sent forth to greet you, to take you unto themselves, to make you one of them. Nothing personal, Fontaine; I no longer needed you, and I simply had to investigate the boundaries of my abilities utilizing the Key. On with the game!”
One of the monstrosities swiped at me with a skinny arm ending in stubs of fingers. I screamed, backed away, almost stumbled into another reaching corpse, dived under the groping arms and fled up into a dead version of the historic complex styled Brewery Gulch. In the sane world tourists infested this romantic, storied place. Here, in my new world, it crawled with mindless, skeletal creatures unclean and obviously hostile.
They staggered at me from all sides, popping out of black doorways and shadowed corners. I dodged and danced to avoid them. Glancing backward, I noticed that awful green ball of Lockenberg’s face floating merrily along, following me that he might enjoy the sordid spectacle. In my fury and dread I spat choice terms at him, then dashed away from another gang of nasties creeping over a ruined heap of fallen wall. My hand closed on something hard in my pocket. I pulled forth the pistol. Against all odds I’d kept it! I squeezed off three shots into the shaky masses of dry flesh lunging at me from the front. They didn’t so much as flinch. I turned again, fired repeatedly at the green circle until I exhausted the bullets. I threw the gun away and ran. My efforts had no effect. Lockenberg chuckled at my useless antics.
I had no chance in dead Bisbee’s tangle of narrow lanes and uneven, claustrophobic alleys. I must seek space and high ground—that’s the ticket—get away from walls, give myself elbow room to avoid ambushes. I panted up dizzying stairs to Oak Street, barely evading one of the things that came at me at the top of the flight. Just one—I could have knocked it aside—I didn’t, not daring to touch it. I dropped, rolled under and past, leaped up and ran on up the steep lane, desperate to put the houses and buildings behind me, lose myself in the higher scrub of the slopes overlooking this city of nightmares.
The cracked, weedy, upheaved pavement gave out at the last collapsing house. Below me glowered the ruddy ruin of the dead city, amidst which dark shapes flitted. Nearer at hand lurched my immediate pursuers, grimly intent on their common task, about the specifics of which I dared not speculate. With them, gliding easily in air, came that detestable, invulnerable face of Conrad Lockenberg.
And something more I saw. Before me rose steeply a rugged slope choked with desert brush and tangled undergrowth, and far atop that forbidding pile of dry vegetation and heaped rocks I spied a sight startling and puzzling. A lovely white light blazed from that peak, wholly unlike the weird sourceless illumination radiating from nowhere. This light bathed and spotlighted a single definite point: the shrine of the mountain, a holy site. Holy? Here, amidst this foulness, bloomed holiness? Could that be? Could it matter?
An awful mess of bony fingers locked on my wrist. I howled, tore myself away, crashed to my knees at the last tilted slab of asphalt, sprang to my feet and without looking back commenced crazily scrambling up that slope. I craved the white light, desired to embrace it, to cloak myself in its… protection?
Lockenberg’s voice bellowed hysterically behind me, commanding his ghastly wards to drag me down. He knew! Knew something, maybe more than I, but I took it as hopeful confirmation and didn’t tarry. Two steps forward, one back as I slid on the crumbly surface, hideously slow progress, but I climbed faster than could those rickety undead things. Lockenberg kept up, though. The green glow fell across my shoulder, his reptile voice hissed in my ear, “Stop, Fontaine. Surrender to your fate. No salvation awaits you in this realm. Lie down and submit!”
He lied. I knew it, it had to be. I approached my goal. Above me on that ledge the white-washed cross, the devoutly painted stones, the offerings of the pious scattered in nooks as in life, and something more as well. The entire mass of angular bedrock upon which the shrine perched glimmered with pure radiance, revealing archaic designs of spirals and star-bursts on the stones. Traces, in my world invisible or effaced, of the forgotten Indian worship once practiced there. A place of age-old holiness at that, intensified or supplemented by what the late-comers of my race had added. It had to mean something!
I hauled myself onto the wide ledge, ignoring the cruel scrapes of the jagged stones. Lockenberg shrieked at me, “No escape! My power reigns here. So it must be!” His circle zoomed at me. I flung myself onto the relics strewn there, rubbed my face into the naked rock, felt grit in my teeth as I prayed.
Fast it happened: I heard Lockenberg’s voice for an instant, screaming mindlessly like an animal; an intense burst of light dazzled my eyes despite tightly closed lids; I felt a sudden breeze ruffling my damp hair. Opening my eyes, I stared due east into a borning dawn. Above me I beheld a normal sky with a gibbous moon. Slowly I turned. Below me sprawled Bisbee, quaintly old-fashioned, just stirring with everyday sounds and movement. I had returned to my world.
I lacked answers then, lack many now. I can speculate much, to little purpose, conceive explanations which satisfy despite lack of objective confirmation. Certainly I can record data. This I did: made my way down the mountain, regaining my room at the Copper Queen, where I found my belongings as I left them. No Rhexellite Key of course, nor any sign of Lockenberg. In fact, I never saw either of them again.
Media made much of the curious theft, to date unresolved. I’d tell them a thing or two, only there’s nothing in it for me. Lockenberg’s check bounced, naturally, and my attempts to recover costs fell through as expected. His estate had hit rock bottom, mortgaged to the hilt. I accept it a total write-off.
I’ve written off Conrad Lockenberg as well. Nobody ever saw him again. I truly believe he opened the gate to Hell down there in good old Bisbee, and got himself stuck on the wrong side, or perhaps I should say something pulled him through there at the last. That makes a kind of sense.
He took the Key to enhance his power over man and nature, grabbed for power over super-nature too. I think that last grab came round to bite him. I think he ran smack dab into somebody bigger than he, somebody who understood the rules of that game better than he; maybe the somebody who wrote the rules. That’s the way I see it, and I haven’t bumped into anybody who can tell me different.
That’s it. I told the whole story to Angie. I don’t keep secrets from her. She takes what I say in stride. She says I’m a dope to deal with bums like Lockenberg. Sometimes I see her point, like this time, needless to say. Still, now and then, it’s a living. That’s okay by me, so long as I keep living to enjoy it.