Sunday, November 05, 2006

1932: 6. The Laughing Corpse

The jutting ebony spire of the Wormwater Building never failed to inspire a shudder from all who viewed it. It seemed a distressing void in a Chicago skyline of proud white and gray stone. The whole of the building was clad in slabs of midnight granite that absorbed all daylight, but seemed to glow against the night sky. Its angles seemed all slightly wrong, as if the tower, climbing 39 stories to a strange tangle of black metal points that menaced the clouds, was the funhouse reflection of some straighter, more honest building somewhere unseen.

Its history did nothing to help its reputation. It was the last design of Abingdon Crumb, the legendarily eccentric and visionary rival to Adler and Sullivan and their fellow titans of Chicago architecture. It was said that, in the final stages of its design, he had confided to close associates that imps and fairies had clambered in his window nights to consult with him upon its structure. The day construction broke ground in 1928, he mistook his wife for a sinister agent of the Anti-Pope as she sat with him at the breakfast table, and attempted to murder her with a mercifully unloaded revolver. He spent the rest of his days in a sanitarium, wrapped in sturdy burlap restraints and the unspooling narrative of his own mad ramblings.

Five men died in the building’s construction, in falls from great heights and tumbling collpases of steel girders, and once by switchblade knife, in a dispute over a lunchtime hand of cards. One more vanished entirely. Legend had it that he’d fallen into the concrete foundations as they were being poured, and was forever entombed. Nonetheless, Elias Wormwater, tycoon of international trade, would not see his hard-won investment go to waste, and moved into the penthouse offices the week after construction was completed. The lower floors remained empty, though Wormwater remained convinced that tenants would come.

Three months later, in the deep, frozen clutches of a pitiless Chicago winter, Elias Wormwater received word that a typhoon off Toyko had sunk two-thirds of his fleet. The next day, he learned that the shipment of cotton on which he had relied to see him through had burned, by unknown means, along with the ships that carried it, in the docks of New Orleans.

All his accomplished in ash and ruin and rust, Wormater finished his cup of coffee, told his secretary he wished to take the air on his balcony, and promptly leapt over the railing to his death far below.

Hard times fell across the city like a shroud, and the Wormwater building remained vacant, the banner advertising for tenancy slowly growing tattered by winds and rain. And as the life of the city continued all around it, the Wormwater building stood still and silent, and if footfalls echoed in the disconcerting angles of its oddly canted hallways, there was no one to hear them.

No one save Violet Sullivan.

The social columns had long since tired of speculating on her absence from the balls and galas at which she had once held court. Those who had long abandoned the polite pretense of friendship with her clucked their tongues, when they spoke of her at all, and decided that she hadn’t been the same since the police had recovered her from sordid business with the Hatchetman of Moline. At 23, the pretty young heiress to the Sullivan Meats empire had retreated entirely from society. There were even ugly rumors that she was attempting to learn business.

Night after night, the limousine would drop Violet Sullivan off in the vacant, paper-blown streets of the South Loop, where the Wormwater Building loomed over the neat rows of printinghouses, and drive away into the gloom. She walked the streets without fear, head held high, and entered the Wormwater through an alley door, into its dark and cobwebbed basement. And there, passing boilers and generators and things scuttling in the gloom, she would make her way to the steel cage of the secret elevator, open its screeching metal door with the strange brass key she kept around her neck at all times, and enter the four-digit code that would ascend her to the penthouse.

Violet had always been a fearless young woman. Even the hardened officers of Chicago’s finest had been quietly impressed, when they’d led her, barefoot, disheveled, and blanket-wrapped from the Hatchetman’s lair, with her calmness and presence of mind. The play of light and shadows on the vacant floors of the Wormwater enchanted her as the elevator bore her upward each night. She imagined it some fairy-tale castle, suffering under sad and terrible magic, and herself as the knight come to brave its unknown depths.

The dark corners of the empty floors were harsh and jutting, but when at last the elevator reached the penthouse, the night became softer, more sinuous and velvet. The new tenant -- who, indeed, owned the building entire, though he preserved the tattered for-sale banner far below -- had kept much of the original furnishings, the soft art deco cornices aglow with shielded light. Each night Violet would pad in stocking feet, her shoes in hand -- for she loved the feel of the thick rugs laid down against the hardwood floor -- past walls draped in the glinting steel of exotic weapons, and the glimmers of golden threads in Oriental tapestries, past the workship full of things that must never be touched, and the room of eyeless false faces on featureless mannequin busts, to the chamber of her protector and friend.

He had saved her the year before from the cruel bite of the Hatchetman’s blade, striding from the basement shadows with eyes as blazing as the twin pistols in his hands. And when she had faced him without fear over the Hatchetman’s lifeless body, she had seen a curious respect illuminate those eyes, and something painful and more tender besides. The hand he reached out to grasp hers, to lead her up from the killer’s burning abbatoir to the safety of the cold night air, was softly gloved, the grip surprisingly gentle.

Now she served as his eyes and ears in the sunlit world, a messenger to bear him news of injustices great and small, to pore through the musty shadows of libraries and halls of records, and arm him with the knowledge he needed. His girl Friday, she laughingly thought of herself, and only friend -- and sometimes, in the secret depths of her heart, perhaps something more.

He would be asleep by the time she arrived, every night; indeed, she came, to the best of her knowledge, incognito, and left at the dawn’s first light, long before he woke. She would sit in the overstuffed chair by his bed and watch over him, as she liked to think he watched over her. And when he began to scream raggedly in his sleep, as he often did, she would lay a small, cool hand against the scar-puckered skin of his brow, and he would sink back into calm.

She came one night to find the bed empty, and for an instant her heart was clutched with cold fingers. She would often find him bruised or freshly bandaged, but never absent entirely. But from the hallway behind her, she heard him clear his throat, and turned to find him still in the long black coat and fine tuxedo he wore out on his nightly work. He stoked a fire in the fireplace, and pulled two chairs close, for outside the winter winds howled jealously, and the building shivered in its steel bones. Then he bade her sit with him, and long into the night, for the first time, Mister Gaunt told Violet Sullivan the tale of his two deaths.

Michael Gant was practicing his close-in work the night he died for the first time. He sat in the Model T parked in the shadows of the Sullivan Meats plant on the edges of the stockyards, where the muddy ground sloped down to the endless shores of Lake Michigan, and passed a silver dollar loping across the backs of his knuckles. He palmed it with a wave of one hand, made it vanish into the other, produced it from behind his ear. Then he did it again.

This was the same plant in which his father had cracked open his skull on the offal-slick killing floor, and made a widow of Michael’s mother, and left himself and his older brother Ryan as the men of the family. The days were long, the work hard, the factories stinking and loud and jostling, and the paychecks far too small. Lying in bed at night in the tiny attic room he shared with his brother, Michael read secondhand books of magic, and practiced with the coin till his fingers could do the tricks themselves, and dreamed of himself onstage in tuxedo and tails, making ten impossible things happen in an hour to thunderous applause.

Ryan, the elder, had perhaps more practical dreams. America was a thirsty nation in those parched days of Prohibition, and a young man with the right connections and enough ambition could well make his fortune in slaking that thirst. It was Ryan who persuaded Michael to quit his job at the railyard, to come down with him to the back room of Kelly’s Tavern each night, and to toil, well-paid but uneasy, in the employ of jolly, red-faced Rooney Mudd, the boss of Bridgeport.

Tonight, in the shadow of Sullivan Meats, was of a piece with many other nights, some sweltering, some bone-cold, in which Michael and Ryan would drive to some remote spot by the shore and swing a lantern high to welcome the boats making their quiet way with the wind down from Canada. They’d offload small shipments -- a few cases at a time-- and rumble back to Kelly’s, the Model T clinking and jangling with every bump in the road, and call it a night.

This involved a great deal of waiting, which was fine by Michael; it gave him time to practice. He had not cast aside his dreams of illusion, only hidden them away, under the loose board in his room where he kept his pay in tight bundles, saving for proper books and the illusions he’d seen in the magicians’ catalogs -- and perhaps, one day, a tuxedo.

He watched through the frost-speckled windshield as, at the edge of the shore below, his brother held the lantern high, and from the lake the answering lights winked back. And then suddenly, the world got very bright.

Headlights, in startling pairs, switched on, caging Ryan in their beams, and Michael watched in horror as three black cars rumbled in from the night to surround him. Off on the lake, the boat waited at a certain shamed and cowardly distance. Tall men in broad hats climbed out of the cars, the shadows of Tommy guns slung in the crooks of their elbows. Michael saw Ryan make a break for it, swinging a wild fist at the face of one of the oncoming men. He caught a rifle butt to the stomach for his courage, and another to the back of his neck, and went down on his knees in the mud.

Michael heard distant laughter, and in the glow of the headlights, a tall man stepped forward and hefted a fire axe.

As they had so many times with the coin, Michael Gant’s fingers acted of their own accord. Before he knew it, he was roaring down the slope in the Model T, wheel clenched in one hand, the snub-nosed revolver his brother kept under the seat in the other. Michael’s car smashed into one of the intruders’ wagons, and as the men turned in shock and surprise, he fired the gun twice through the windshield.

The glass cracked and starred and the two closest men went down in spurts of blood, tumbling onto their unprepared comrades. Michael rocketed out the driver’s door and dragged his brother stumbling up out of the mud, and when the tall man with the axe snapped out of his shock and came charging toward him, Michael fired blindly. The man howled and went down clutching his bleeding knee.

“We’re leaving,” Michael said, holding the gun trained on the remaining men, their arms raised high, their faces twisted with hate. His teeth chattered. “We’re leaving, and none of you is stopping us.”

“You go ahead and run,” said the tall man slowly, through jaws clenched in pain. The tall man looked up, and in the glow of the headlights, Michael saw the face of Niccolo Salvatore, the grand capo of Chicago, so feared that even among the Irish, his name was but whispered, and then only followed by a hurried prayer. “Run as far, and as fast, as you can, mick,” Salvatore said. “It don’t matter. I remember your face now. You just run, and keep running. I could use the exercise.”

In the cab of the Model T, Ryan silent and wide-eyed beside him, Michael threw the car into reverse, and roared fishtailing backwards up the slope. As he paused to swing the car around, he heard the distant chatter of machine gun fire. The passenger-side windows exploded, canvas tore, the side mirror simply disintegrated. Michael stomped the gas, and the car rattled off into the thickening winter night.

And only when they were two blocks away and counting did Michael look over to Ryan, and see him slumped in the seat, breathing raggedly, wet red wounds steaming from his chest in the cold air.

“Don’t you be dying just yet,” Michael prayed, rounding a corner on two wheels. Ryan gurgled something in response. “We’ll get you to Kelly’s, we’ll call Dr. Flanagan. You just keep breathing.”

Ryan said nothing.

“You hear me?” Michael cried, desperate, and turned to shake his brother. And the world again grew very bright, and somewhere a horn shreiked, and Michael turned back to see the broken windshield filled with roaring light--

The world shuddered and spun itself, and battered Michael Gant from every direction. And when he awoke a minute later, upside down in the crumpled wreckage of his car, his brother was dead beside him.

Michael pulled himself from the twisted wreck and ran on shaking, bruised legs, past the angry shouting of the truck driver who’d hit them, down the street, across the neighborhood, into the railyard. A train was roaring past, to who knows where, and he leapt for it and tumbled inside an empty boxcar. The gun he’d left in the wreck of the Model T, next to his brother. All he had left to his name was two dollar bills, three dimes, a nickel, nine pennies -- and the silver dollar coin.

Michael Gant died that night, for the first time, and then he traveled. He crossed the seas in the holds of rusting freighters, swabbling decks, hauling cargo, speaking to few, befriending fewer still. He went ashore in Shanghai, and the continent swallowed him whole. For five long years, he vanished from written history.

And here Mister Gaunt paused in his telling, the indigo wrappings around his head rustling softly as he leaned his head back against his chair. The wild screeched and rattled at the windows. Violet pulled the soft silk blanket he’d given her closer about her shoulders, and asked, “What did you do?

Mister Gaunt gazed into the fire, as if discerning shapes from the dancing flames. “I learned,” he said at last, in his soft, scraping voice.

In 1925, a bold young magician appeared on the Vienna stage, calling himself Indigo the Magificent. In his midnight blue turban and black tux and tails, he claimed to have mastered the ancient secrets of the Oriental mystics, and the audiences who flocked to see him were not disappointed. He fit himself into a hatbox, only to have it be opened and found empty, and to descend from the catwalks above to rapturous applause. He communed with the head in a great glass ball, plucking answers to his audience’s questions from the denizens of the Lands Beyond. He turned himself into a tiger, just long enough to perform a card trick with the aid of his lovely assistant, and then reappeared as himself, spitting yellow canary feathers and bits of the Ace of Spades from his mouth to the great delight of the assembled spectators. And he concluded every show, not with some spectacular feat, but in a simple wooden chair at the front of the stage, jacket off, gloveless, shirtsleeve rolled up to his elbows, making silver dollars appear in midair, and vanish, and appear in the pockets of his astounded viewers.

Nearly as enchanting as Indigo himself was his assistant, a dark-eyed beauty with long, silken hair and skin the color of coffee and milk. Her name was Zulheika -- Zully, he called her, to her laughing protestations -- and she was his closest friend, and bride. It was said among the finer circles of society, in Vienna and Paris and London and everywhere else he appeared, that she had been the daughter of the Sultan of Shandemar, and that Indigo had won her hand by making the brass tiger statues in the Sultan’s throne room come to life and prowl about the room.

Michael Gant, alias Indigo the Magnificent, would laugh about this sometimes in the dead of night, with Zully soft and warm beside him. It was patently untrue -- they had, in fact, been lion statues, and he’d made them dance. And he’d captured her heart long before her father ever knew to consent. She was kind and courageous, possessed of a preternatural grace, flawed only by the jagged, ugly scar that wound its way around her forearm. It was the only thing of which she would not speak to him -- she told him, once, that it was the cost of saving her father’s life, and that she considered it a bargain. And Michael loved her all the more for the mystery of it.

In early 1926, after a triumphant tour of Europe, they sailed for America, and in the dazzling footlights of Broadway, Indigo the Magnificent unveiled his most remarkable illusion yet: the Flaming Coffin. It was, as expected, a sensation, and bookings appeared for them throughout the nation. When he heard about the planned engagement at the Chicago Theater, Michael wavered, but only for a moment. After all, on stage he wore padding in his cheeks, false lines around his eyes, and enhanced the profile of his nose with putty, to better preserve his mystery and anonymity in private life. And it had been six years, six long and distant years. Surely he was safe.

He had his advance man make discreet inquiries as his company rattled westward by rail. There was a map waiting for him when he arrived at Union Station in Chicago, and he sent Zully ahead to the theater with a kiss, and hailed a cab. It was raining by the time he got to the cemetary, and cold besides, but he bundled up his overcoat and trudged through the grass until he found the headstones of his mother and brother. From each of his sleeves, he produced a red rose, and laid them on the graves, and departed.

But the groundskeeper saw him, and saw the graves he honored, and remembered the instructions he’d been given years before. He went to his shed and picked up the telephone.

Indigo the Magnificent played that night to a packed house, relishing the laughter and cheers of the city of his birth. And as the show drew to a close, he stepped out onto an empty stage in his shimmering blue turban and his jet-black, crisp tuxedo, and Zully by his side in a glimmering white gown.

“I know I may not look it,” he told the crowd confidentially, “but I have been a wicked man.”

At this, his turban twitched, and the audience chuckled. The chuckle grew to open laughter as he reached up, lifted the turban, and produced a fat white rabbit. “This little fellow is a poor judge of character, I assure you,” he said, and the audience laughed harder. He tucked the rabbit into his tuxedo jacket, and it seemed to vanish.

“As I was saying, I have been a wicked man,” Indigo continued. “And if I have been redeemed, it is only through the grace, and the graciousness, of an accompanying angel.” And at this he turned to Zully and bowed, and she smiled back at him, radiant.

His turban twitched again. Indigo sighed theatrically, and plucked it off his head, and inverted it. He stuck his entire arm inside, up to the elbow, and the audience gasped.

“I can tell this fellow will be nothing but trouble,” he said, “so I’d best get him out of the way, lest he stow away for my next trick, and be roasted alive.” He rummaged through the turban, pulling out a handful of doves, a long string of silks that he promptly stuffed back in --”I haven’t the time for that now,” he said, to more laughter -- a deck of carts that slipped from his hands and vanished in bursts of flame, and at last, the offending white rabbit. He handed the fat, twitching animal to Zully to the audience’s applause.

“To my lovely assistants,” he cried, as Zully carried the rabbit offstage, beaming. “Both of them.”

Behind him, his stagehands wheeled out a silk-draped platform. Something solid and upright, taller than a man, stood upon it, covered in a black muslin shroud.

“Disbelieve if you wish, but I have sinned in my time, and the Devil has never ceased in his efforts to claim me,” Indigo said, walking to the platform and gripping the black shroud in both white-gloved hands. “Tonight, he may yet have his chance.”

To a flourish from the orchestra in the pit below, Indigo yanked away the shroud to reveal a massive black coffin of polished mahogany, ringed with bars of steel. The lid was inlaid with the leering face of some Oriental demon, and three thick latches hung from the edge of the lid at intervals on the steel bands.

The stagehands stepped forward to assist, spinning the platform in a slow circle as Indigo opened the lid to reveal the white velvet lining inside. The audience saw all sides of the coffin, and even the keenest eyes could detect no trick, no seam. It was solid wood and sturdy iron.

At last, Indigo stood before the open coffin, and then, to the gasps of women and children in the crowd, stepped backward into it.

“The Devil is a greedy sort, and at some time or another, he comes to claim us all,” Indigo said. “But even the meanest of us may be redeemed. All it takes is a little faith. I have faith, ladies and gentlemen. Do you?”

With that, he swung the lid shut with a thunderous clap of wood. The orchestra struck up the overture to A Night on Bald Mountain, and the stagehands stepped forth with three thick iron locks, and bound him within.

The audience waited, breathlessly, for thirty endless seconds. The coffin began to rattle, wobbling from side to side. One of the locks began to budge, as if of its own accord. The spectators leaned forward in their seats--

In a blinding burst of torrential flame, the coffin caught fire! Diabolical laughter echoed throughout the hall, mingling with the startled screams of onlookers, as the coffin continued to rattle back and forth, more urgently, strange green and violet flames engulfing it. The stagehands rushed forth with buckets of water, hurling them on the blaze, but it only roared all the higher. The iron bands groaned. The locks, wreathed in fire, rattled. The wood began to splinter.

The coffin split open with a mighty crack, and collapsed into a pile of flaming shards of wood and twisted, curling strands of metal. There was no one inside.

A hush fell over the hall as the stagehands finally managed to smother the blaze with the black muslin shroud. No one moved. No one breathed.

From the back of the auditorium, a single person began to clap, loudly. Heads turned. A spotlight lanched down from above the proscenium.

Indigo the Magnificent, unburnt and none the worse for wear, sat far in the back, in the cheapest seat of the house, applauding.

“Nice try, Old Nick!” he shouted, rising to his feet. “Better luck next time.”

Pandemonium. The theater erupted in wild applause, and Indigo the Maginificent dashed down the center aisle amid showers of joyously flung programs and leaped up on stage. As Zully ran out from the wings to take his hand, he bowed deeply, then removed his turban. The white rabbit sat perched, blinking baffled in the spotlight, on his head, and the cheers redoubled. The three of them stood, magician, lady love, and furry, befuddled prop, and tossed silver dollars from thin air into the outstretched hands of the roaring crowd.

Michael and Zully were the last to leave the theater that night. They stayed hours after everyone else had packed up and gone home, chasing each other through the rows of empty seats, playing tag like children, drunk on applause and deeply in love.

And when, at last, they came backstage one last time to call a cab for their hotel, they were unprepared for the two men with guns who stood waiting for them, or the tall man with a cane who sat perched upon the prop coffin used -- before a clever bit of bait-and-switch-- for the opening part of the Flaming Coffin act.

“I’m sorry, gentlemen,” Michael said, moving himself slowly in front of Zully as the elation in him curdled to dread. “I don’t give autographs this late after the show.”

The tall man on the coffin stood slowly, and walked limping toward them, leaning on a cane. He lifted his head, and from the shadows under the brim of his hat, Michael recognized the weathered, vengeful face of Niccolo Salvatore.

“You didn’t run far enough,” the crime boss said, and snapped his fingers.

The two goons fired simultaneously, bullets lancing through each of Michael’s shoulders. He collapsed to his knees, biting his lip to blot out the pain surging through him. Zully screamed, and one of the men tore her off him and slugged her across the face with the butt of his gun.

“I hear you did a very nice trick,” Salvatore said, opening the lid of the coffin. The second goon dragged Michael bleeding across the wooden backstage floor toward the open lid. “I’ve always liked magic myself. Got a reputation for it. I’m good at making people disappear.” The goons chuckled. “Not so good with the reappearing part.”

“My wife,” Michael gasped. “Let her go. She’s not part of this.”

“You worry about yourself first,” Salvatore said, as if he were ordering a drink. The second goon muscled Michael into the coffin. “I wanna see you do that flaming coffin trick myself. Only this time, I’m gonna make it a little more challenging.”

The lid slammed shut, plunging Michael’s world into blackness. He heard sloshing, fluid slapping against the sides of the coffin, and the click of heavy locks. He pushed with weak, agonized arms against the lid, but it didn’t budge.

Salvatore spoke from somewhere outside, distant, muffled. “You tell the Devil I said hello, would you?” Michael heard, clear as a pin drop, the scratch and flare of a match lighting. And then his world was smoke and flame and screaming, some of it his wife’s, and some of it his own.

Michael Gant died for the second time that night, locked in a flaming coffin, in a burning theater, mere helpless feet from the near-unrecognizable body of his wife.

And the thing that emerged from the coffin, too many agonized minutes later, the thing who stumbled grieving and smoldering into the night, was no longer Michael Gant, or Indigo the Magnificent, or perhaps even a human being at all. All extraneous parts of his body and soul had been burnt away in the blaze.

All that remained was a ragged, raw core of terrible wrath.

Nine months later, in the library of his lakefront mansion, Niccolo Salvatore sat up in a smoking jacket, reading Dante in the original Italian late into the night. He had just reached the twenty-fifth canto when he heard something out on the garden. The cry of a night-bird, perhaps. Or a muffled scream.

Elsewhere in the mansion, lights snapped on. Doors opened. Wary men with guns, lean and confident survivors of many a shootout with the Irish, or the Poles, or the Germans, or the cops, made their way out into the night. Salvatore resumed his reading.

Gunshots snapped outside, one, two. Silence. Salvatore walked calmly to his writing desk, opened the side drawer, and pulled out the loaded .44.

There was a crash at the opposite end of the house. Scuffling. Gunfire. Salvatore gripped the pistol tighter and smiled. These were the times when he felt glad to be alive. And then the lights went out.

Salvatore waited until his eyes adjusted to the faint light bleeding in from the windows. He tried the phone; dead. More gunshots, closer now. Joey Wingnut -- Salvatore recognized the voice -- gave a single, agonized screech.

Salvatore cocked the gun and stepped out into the darkened hallway. In slippers, he tread softly across the marble floors, stepping over the bodies of dead friends. His rooms were wrecked, men tossed around like rag dolls, contorted and still in the midst of tables and bookshelves. In the kitchen, an avalanche of plates had spilled from one of the bullet-pocked cabinets. It rested neatly in an unbroken stack, next to Tommy Scarlutti’s head, which was twisted the wrong way around on his neck. The door to the garden swung wide open, and Salvatore peered out into the darkness. It breathed softly, inviting him. Waiting.

He ran all the way back to his study, to the hidden catch in the bookcase where he kept the shotgun. Whatever this was, it was bigger than a pistol. He crossed the moonlit room, flipped the catch, and saw to his horror that the compartment behind was empty.

Behind him, someone lit a match.

Salvatore turned and emptied his pistol until it clicked. He hit nothing but the padding of the back of his reading chair. A single snuffed match wisped smoke, smoldering, on the cover of his copy of the Inferno.

Another match struck, and Salvatore whirled to find himself face to face with a fearfully slender man, garbed in a black wool coat and a smoke-stinking tuxedo, his whole head bandaged in fabric from an iridescent indigo turban.

“Nice try, Old Nick,” the intruder hissed. “Better luck next time.” Bony, gloved hands shoved Salvatore hard, and he stumbled backward against his desk.

“Gant,” Salvatore said at last, fear closing his throat. He knew this fear; he’d last felt it at the age of three, when the men came in the night for his father, and he fought to choke it back down. “You’re a dead man.”

“Yes,” the figure said softly. “We have that in common.”

Salvatore lashed out with his right first, and the intruder caught it effortlessly, squeezing until the bones cracked and Salvatore cried out. The figure let go, and Salvatore stumbled back and sat on the edge of the desk, clutching his hand.

“Perhaps I’ll kill you now,” the intruder said softly, with the same polished rhythm of a magician on the stage. He moved his fingers with a flourish, and suddenly there were gleaming silver pistols in his hands. “But no. Too quick. Too merciful.” Another flourish, and the pistols were gone, replaced by curving daggers. “Disfigurement, perhaps. The clean kind--” another flourish, and the knives became tiny bottles, each labeled DANGER - HYDROCHLORIC ACID. “Or the messy kind.” Flourish. The bottles were gone, and the intruder’s hands were empty once more.

“The Devil take you,” Salvatore said. His fingers groped behind him on the desk, in the dark. They closed around a letter opener.

“He did,” the intruder said. “He chewed me well, and found me not to his liking, and he spat me out again. Not wishing to leave him hungry, I made him a promise. The souls of ten thousand wicked men, singly or in aggregate, delivered to him by my hands.”

Salvatore struck, fast as lightning, plunging the point of the letter opener toward the dark figure’s heart. But he struck only air, and then his wounded hand was twisted behind him, so painfully it blotted out all other sensation, and he was forced down against the wood of his desk. The voice that had once belonged to Michael Gant hissed into his ear, so close that Salvatore could feel its infernal heat.

“Ten thousand evil souls, Salvatore. You’ll be among them.” Distantly, Salvatore felt some sort of wrenching motion against the numbed flesh of his pinned hand. He smelled something burning. “But not tonight. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps next year. Or perhaps, simply, at the time and place of my choosing. Your life is mine, and you draw breath at my amusement. Remember that. And sleep well.”

There was a rustle of cloth, and the wrenching pain subsided, and Salvatore stood up to find himself alone in his darkened library, weeping like a child. And all around him, the echo of a dead man’s mocking, diabolical laughter.

That was where the telling of Mister Gaunt’s tale ended, as dawn glowed softly above the blue line of the lake outside. Violet Sullivan left for her own bed, and troubled dreams, not knowing the one final detail, the part he’d chosen not to tell her. The part that was told and retold every night, in some form or another, to fearful criminals throughout the Chicago underworld. A tale that kept on living, long after Salvatore had died of his own madness in a tiny padded cell.

Mister Gaunt had not told her that Salvatore had put his hands to his head, shaking, only to find one of them missing. The right arm now ended in a pulpy stump, still sizzling where the acid had cauterized it.

And as the nerve endings in his numbed, mutilated arm reawakened, and the agony surged through them to his brain, Salvatore turned to the empty compartment in the bookcase to see his own severed hand sitting inside.


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