Rafe Clarke was dreaming.
He knew he was dreaming, because he was on a case, and it hadn't resulted in him being punched in the face, electrocuted, or set on fire.
Those events were all par for the course in the waking world. The cases, crises, problems and investigations that came his way were rarely as innocuous as cheating spouses or missing cats.
Even when a potential infidelity or lost pet came his way, it often turned out that the partner had been indoctrinated by a cult that worshipped a deity of rabbit-fellatio, who proved their dedication by licking and sucking on one another's eyeballs―or they had been possessed by a painting. And the missing cat would turn out to have been eaten by a magickian who believed that feline bone marrow gave him heightened reflexes and eight additional lives―or it too had became possessed by a painting. . .
There were too many possessed paintings out there. If anything, they were the cause of ninety percent of the jobs that fell on his desk.
The desk itself was figurative, for he had no office, let alone a desk. He had a coffee table, but cases never went anywhere near it. He tried his best not to bring his work home with him. . . apart from when he needed somewhere to store all those haunted paintings, which were locked in his vault.
His 'vault' is what he called his closet.
Truth be told, Rafe Clarke was not a great detective. But he was never meant to be a detective. . . And that was the very conversation he was having with a mysterious woman in his dream, after successfully reuniting her with her hair, which had become sentient and wandered off in the night to commit arson.
It wasn't the most challenging of cases, he had simply followed logic to lead him to the place that hair always seems to end up―the plughole of the bath.
She was overjoyed, to the point of offering herself to him in way of thanks. He, of course, turned her down. Not only because of his innate gentlemanly status, but because he was all too aware that this was a dream, and he'd rather not have to change the sheets when he woke.
The client insisted that there had to be some way she could reward him, and offered him a vast fortune, which he also declined.
“Just the fee for my time is fine, ma'am,' he told her. His own voice sounded strange to him, words coming out a hell of a lot more British than his mongrel tongue, that still retained a fair amount of its native Australian twang.
“But there most be something else I can offer you. . .” the woman said, with a bat of her lashes that felt to Rafe as though it had moved past flirtatious into being coyly pornographic.
As he made to respond, a ringing punctuated the air. He looked around for a phone, and realised there was no phone. And then there was no woman. No hair. No case. He recalled once again that he had not been stabbed, thrown out a window, nor had his face grated in the slightest. . . that it was all too perfect. . . and that as soon as he woke and answered the call, he was just setting himself up for injury of one kind or another.
But even his house had vanished at that point. He was in the darkness of the Dream Realm, with the ringing now vibrating through his skull, and there was nothing he could do but face the day ahead―and hope, with every fibre of his being, that he wouldn't end up sewing his body parts back together by the time the sun set.
Rafe opened his eyes reluctantly and found himself back in his bedroom, and the ringing far less intrusive than it had in the dream, just a light tring-a-ling in his periphery. He considered ignoring it, going back to sleep, but his hands seemed to be working of their own volition, answering the call before he had a chance to object.
“Got a job for you, Rafe old chap.”
The face of the caller appeared in Rafe's sleepy mind's eye. Sharp features, eyes like black marbles, and shock of white hair. Beryn Comstock, Director of The Circle, and his former employer.
“Good morning Rafe,” Rafe muttered, his words drenched with sarcasm. “How you doing, long time since we kicked you to the curb. . .”
“Pleasantries are for pleasant peasants, Mister Clarke. Do you want the job or not?”
Rafe thought for a moment. Comstock had legions of his own people that could be sent on whatever the hell case he was trying to recruit him for. The only reason he'd keep it off the Circle's books was if it were sensitive in nature. . . or if it was essentially a suicide mission.
“It is rather a sensitive matter,” Comstock sighed, answering at least that much of Rafe's quandary.
“Go on then,” he grumbled, all too aware that he needed to refill the coffers if he was planning to eat any time soon.
“There's been a murder.”
“You know I'm not a cop, right?”
“At the Raven's Lodge.”
“The gentleman's club? Why the hell are you bugging me about it, they got way more juice than I ever had. . .”
“That may well be, but they can't exactly investigate themselves. Hence outsourcing to an impartial third party.”
“Via you, a member, who's innately connected to that third party. . .”
A growl rumbled around Rafe's periphery. “Do you truly imagine I have any interest in your smart talking?”
“Compared to, y'know, apes or whatever, any talking is technically smart.”
“Have I mentioned how glad I am that you no longer work for me?”
“He says, whilst trying to get me to work for him. . .”
“Do you want the bloody job or not?!”
“Send a door. I'll head over as soon as I remember which pile of my clothes is closer to being clean.”
Comstock agreed, and Rafe's head was once again clear of peripheral voices. He glanced around the room, and realised that the statement laden with wry intent, about not knowing which pile of clothes was clean was actually far too accurate. He dug around at random, until he found a shirt that looked clean, but smelled like something had died in it. With a quick enchantment, the stench was vanquished, and he began the arduous process of investigating where he left his shoes.
It was a full hour later when he actually walked through the door Comstock had sent. As he stepped across the threshold and glanced up at the building, Rafe realised that as much as he had heard stories of the famed Raven's Lodge, he had never seen it with his own eyes. It looked as though the architect had been inspired in one part by gothic design, two parts generic castle, with a sprinkling of McMansion.
Of course the building being of such import, it was warded from translocation straight into its inner sanctum, and thus Rafe found himself standing on the doorstep, directly behind two massive pale men that he instantly recognised as homunculi―magically created humanoids with a single purpose to their lives, and once that purpose was complete, or their short lifespan was over, they ceased to be and exploded into a cloud of dust. In this instance, their purpose was security. And much to Rafe's chagrin, they did not look as though they were going to be done with that purpose any time soon.
He knocked on the door to the Lodge, which garnered the attention of the creatures on guard.
“What are you doing here?” the one on the left asked, in a deep monotone.
“Here to investigate the murder. . .”
“Do you have the word of passage?” asked the one on the right, who sounded identical to the one on the left.
“Word of. . . no, I'm here to work, not sip whisky and laugh maniacally about how wealthy and powerful I am. . .”
A large, grey hand grabbed hold of Rafe's collar and dragged him from the doorstep. “No word of passage, no entrance,” the homunculus grunted, as he took hold of the back of Rafe's coat and lifted him into the air in a bid to throw him as far as his massive arms could heave.
“Khare'shak!” shouted a voice from the door.
“Khare'shak?” Rafe repeated, with more than a little 'what the hell' in his tone,.
The gargantuan monochromite delicately placed him back down on the ground. “Thank you, enjoy your evening sir.”
Rafe glanced at the two magicaklly made men, and decided it was best not to question it. He walked to the door, which was being held open by the man who had shouted the pass-phrase at him. He was short and stout, with the whitest hair Rafe had ever seen on a man, whiter than Comstock's. Even his eyelashes were white, looking as though he had fallen asleep in a model village whilst the curator was painting the zebra crossings.
“Is it too early for a preliminary accusation?” Rafe inquired.
“Excuse me?” asked the man.
“The butler did it.”
“We don't have a butler. . .”
“It's always the butler on TV murders in big stately homes.”
“Are you sure you're a detective?”
Rafe shrugged. “Detective is a stretch. . . 'Investigator' might be more accurate.”
The man glanced over his shoulder to a collective of old white men who were observing the exchange. “Is it too late to call in a real detective?”
“How about you let me look at the scene, and save your insults for when my back's turned. . .”
The white haired man gestured to a door across the entranceway, which led to a thin wood-lined passageway, that seemed as though it went on for close to a quarter of a mile. At the far end, the corridor opened out into a glass-walled conservatory, with parquet flooring and a Persian rug, atop which stood a massive mahogany table. There were sixteen chairs around the table, and every single one of them, along with the table, the rug, the flooring and the windows, were covered in blood.
Rafe looked around for signs of a body, or congealing parts of organs, let alone fragments or shards of bone, but found nothing―not even flayed skin.
He glanced back over his shoulder to the man that had followed him, who was now flanked by the rest of his cadre, each waiting anxiously in the doorway to hear the deductions.
“Can I ask you something?” Rafe asked.
“This might be a stupid question.”
“Frankly, I'd expect nothing less, given your manner thusfar.”
“Did your man have bones and organs before he exploded?”
The men exchanged glances, each of them almost certain that Comstock's man was the worst possible choice for the investigation at hand.
“Yes,” the white haired man said, coldly.
“Well, then there's a mystery, isn't there.”
“Of where his bones and organs went. . .”
“That would, one assumes, be solved as and when the murder itself is solved.”
“You'd think so, wouldn't you?” Rafe muttered, as he circled around the table, leaving footprints in the blood, that was thick and sticky on the parquet flooring.
He glanced around the room. The windows and walls were stained red, but it did not seem to be dripping downwards. He raised a finger to the window and ran it through the blood, making a clear channel to the glass that ever so slowly healed up from the left side of the clear gap he had made. Rafe inspected the tip of his finger, and discovered that none of the blood had come away, and a closer look to the blood, it appeared as though particles of dirt or dust were travelling along the surface to the right.
“Interesting,” he mumbled, as he glanced back to his footprints on the floor, each of which had vanished.
Rafe glanced to the door. “That was more a statement of confoundment, than it was the start of a conversation.”
“You should be clearer about such things.”
“You have no idea how often I hear that. . .” Rafe said under his breath, as he turned back around and looked at the walls. Something wasn't right about them.
The assembled men stared at Rafe as he dug into his pocket and fished around until he found what he was looking for, and tugged it out. The slightest of snaps sounded as he pulled his hand from the pocket and placed the contents against the blood on the window, and took a step back to watch what would happen next.
The men continued to stare with confusion, and each found themselves stepping closer to see what mystical item had been placed in the blood, trying to work out what magick had been performed upon the surface. But as they got closer, they discovered there was no magick. All that had been placed on the blood that coated the window was a single torn thread from the inside of Rafe's pocket.
“What on earth are you expecting that to do?” The white haired man asked.
A smile came to Rafe's lips, as the thread reacted exactly as expected: slowly shifting to the right, floating on the ever-so-slow tide of the blood.
“Lets us where the blood is going. . .”
He looked around the room, and grabbed hold of a blood covered chair. With a wipe of his hand along the surface, he confirmed that the sanguine fluids reacted just as those covering the rest of the room, and sat down on it. He reclined as he watched the thread climb up from the window to the frame, then back down to the next window along. It was going to take a while for the thread to get to its destination―wherever that might be―and he sure as hell wasn't going to stand for the entire duration of its trip around the room.
“What are the chances of getting a coffee while we wait?” he asked.
The growls and murmurs from the men behind him seemed to indicate that no matter how long it would take for the stray thread to get to the source of the mysterious murder, he was not going to be treated as a welcomed guest.
Three hours later, all of the men that had gathered to watch the investigation had grown tired of waiting, and either sat themselves on the blood covered chairs, or retired to other rooms in which Rafe assumed they supped whisky and smoked cigars, and did whatever else obscenely wealthy and powerful old men did. Checkers. He figured they'd play checkers. Perhaps they'd play bridge too, which was a game he couldn't even begin to understand. Or whist, it seemed like the type of establishment that had regular games of whist―tournaments, if whist was a tournamenting game. Rafe wasn't convinced that tournament could be a verb, but decided it worked well as one.
Meanwhile, the thread had made its way from the windows, and was climbing its way across the wood-lined wall that connected the conservatory to the Raven's Lodge itself. Rafe rolled his eyes and let out an almighty huff as he rose to his feet. He could tell where the thread was headed, and now that he thought about it, its destination was so obvious, he could have probably picked it out just by having a proper look around the room.
He walked over to the thread and picked it up, taking it over to a painting at the centre of the wood-lined wall, and placed it just on the edge of the frame.
The thread followed the tide once more, climbing up the frame and settling on the canvas. Once its entire mass was on the surface of the painting, it stopped moving. It had reached the source of the tide's motion.
Rafe could feel the men's stares on his back, but chose to ignore them. He leaned in, placing his ear close to the painting, and closed his eyes. There was a sound coming from the surface. Ever so soft, but it was most certainly there. A subtle, quiet sucking sound. The painting was drinking the blood down. Slowly, so very slowly, but it was definitely imbibing.
A sigh rumbled from Rafe's lips. The murder weapon was―much to his aggravation―yet another haunted painting.
He turned to the men that were left in the room, and glared at each of them in turn.
“Who bought this?”
The men looked at one another.
“Bought what?” said their white haired spokesperson.
Rafe shot a thumb at the painting, which caused more looks back and forth.
“I would imagine that the Lodge bought it.”
“Well, it is rather covered in blood. . . Hard to tell which painting it might be.”
Rafe growled to himself, and reached to the surface of the painting. He took hold of the sleeve of his coat and wiped the canvas. The blood came away, and did not return as it had done on the floor, window and chair. He scowled at his coat sleeve, which was dripping with thick, sticky blood.
“You're paying for the dry cleaning. . .” he muttered. “Does that look familiar?”
The painting was of a young man with a monocle and a frightfully delighted grin on his lips.
“Ah,” the man uttered, his face taking on a pallor that was almost as pale as his hair.
“That sounds like you got a story to tell. . .”
“Not a story, exactly.”
“A tale? A fable? I'll take a nursery rhyme if that's what you got, but I'm pretty sure it's going to have answers. . .”
The pale man glanced again at his colleagues, inhaled deeply and let out a long, deep exhalation.
Rafe continued to stare at him, in the hope that his unblinking eye contact would make the point that he was waiting for him to start to tell his story.
The white haired man couldn't seem to meet Rafe's eyes, his gaze skirted the floor as his dry lips parted to tell what he knew.
“The painting was imparted to the Lodge, a gift in the will of Theodore Starlight, a former member that I believe. . . died in mysterious circumstances.”
“These 'mysterious circumstances' of Teddy's didn't happen to involve a room full of blood, did they?”
The man nodded, still avoiding Rafe's eyes.
“And he died in the room with his own painting?”
“And you thought it was a good idea to stick it up on the walls here?”
The men looked at one another, but none of them nodded.
“It was Jerry's idea,” their spokesperson muttered.
“Is Jerry the dead guy?”
“And did he hang it himself?”
A shake of the head. “Of course not, that's what we have homunculi for. . .”
Rafe let a smile come to his lips.
“That would have been the homunculus's purpose, right? To hang the painting?”
“Yes, of course. Can't have a security homunculi do such things. . . they can just about cope with one task at a time.”
“The homunculus exploded first.”
“There's dust in the blood. I'm betting as soon as your painting here was set right, it blew the him apart before he could go find himself somewhere tidier to die. Painting was trying to get fed on some tasty blood. . . and when it got was a face full of dust, it went for ol' Jerry next.”
“But why hasn't it tried to kill us? We've been here for hours!”
“Still got a lot of blood to chow down on. . . and it sips pretty slowly.”
“Wait a moment,” another of the men piped up. “What about his bones? His organs? His skin?”
Rafe glanced around the room again. “Dust,” he muttered. “Dust is skin cells, you have a high enough heat―or magickal influence―and bones can turn to dust, organs can get squished or puréed to be close in colour and texture to blood. . .”
“Oh my!” the white haired man shrieked. His cadre expelled similar exclamations of shock.
“Question is,” Rafe said, with the sly smile of a man who had proven himself less useless than even he assumed himself to be. “Why did this painting end up at the Lodge in the first place?”
The men looked puzzled.
“Was it sent as a gift with the most innocent of intentions―or sent with the express purpose of cursing this place too?”
“Ahh. . .” The spokesperson went pale all over again, and dropped Rafe's eye contact once more.
“By your reaction, I'm guessing the latter?”
“Yes. . . Well. . . We, well, you see, there were some rather unfortunate circumstances in which we had to. . . revoke Theodore's membership, after we discovered some. . . impropriety with the sentient grandfather clock. . .“
“Impropriety?” Rafe felt the word leave his lips, and instantly wished he hadn't asked.
“He. . . Well. . . Bored holes in the sides.”
“No need to go on.”
“Inserted himself into said holes.”
“And encouraged the sentient clock to. . . massage him with its internal mechanics.”
“Seriously, I get what you're saying,” Rafe pleaded.
“It was a frightful mess.”
“And now I'm scarred for life―or at least scarred until the next job replaces it with something equal or greater in disturbing imagery.”
“Anyway, that's probably why he sought revenge after his death. . . Actually fairly open and shut, now there's some context. We'll have someone dispose of it forthwith.”
The other men nodded in agreement, and the white haired man led the way back through the corridor to the entrance. “Well, thank you for stopping by, Mister Clarke. I'll be sure to send payment upon receipt of your invoice.” He gestured to the door.
“I don't usually send invoices.”
“And of course, we count on your discretion in this matter.”
“Sure, but I mostly run a cash business, off the books.”
“Thank you again,” the white haired man said, as the homunculi came through the door and lifted Rafe clean off his feet, and proceeded to deposit him on the gravel drive outside the Raven's Lodge.
“Can you at least send me a door back home?!” Rafe shouted.
But the residents of the Raven's Lodge did not respond. The door had been slammed shut, and they no longer had need for him on their property.
“Dammit,” Rafe grunted, as he looked back at the massive building that towered over him. He reached to the ground, picked up a handful of gravel, and threw it sharply at the Lodge.
Each of the pebbles bounced harmlessly off the bricks and windows and homunculi, the latter of which did not take kindly to being assaulted, and began to stomp towards Rafe with angry glowers on their brows.
Given that he was neither going to get paid then and there, nor be offered a door back home, Rafe felt that running as fast as his legs could carry him was the only option that remained. Assuming he did not want his face to be transformed into a bloody mush of skin, muscle and pulverised bone.
It was a full three weeks later when Rafe next heard from Comstock, and was sent a door to a bar somewhere south of the equator.
“Well done on the Lodge case.”
“Still waiting on payment. . .”
“They'll get around to it, chaps are rather busy.”
“Busy doing what? Being rich and powerful doesn't feel like it takes up a lot of the day.”
“Do you want another job or not?”
“Will this job actually pay?”
“I am personally hiring you, and my word is my bond.”
“Gonna want half up front.”
“If you so wish. Whatever it takes to get the item in question back.”
“The item in question being. . .”
“A spirit box.”
“Well that's about as vague as you could possibly be. What kind of spirit?”
Comstock's eyes dropped to the floor. “A dybbuk,” he muttered.
“Dybbuk? Like, sexually assaulting, crawl into your insides, blow your organs out your back, dybbuk? How do you lose a dybbuk box?”
“Regardless of its proclivities,” Comstock sighed. “This will all be rather straightforward, I'm hoping,” the old man barked, his tone gravelly and sharp.
“Glad to hear it. Hate the messy gigs.”
“I didn't say it wasn't going to be messy. . . The box has already claimed a life.”
“Thought this thing was under lock and key?”
“As did I. But, as you know, we've had an issue with artefacts being. . . repatriated in the past.”
“Yeah. You think this is him?”
“Perhaps, but it seems unlikely. Whoever has the box is likely using it for some selfish endeavour.”
“Any leads to go on, other than the obvious corpse?”
“None at all, I'm afraid.”
“No worries, I'll make it work. Do I have the greenlight to destroy the thing if I have to?”
“I'd rather you wouldn't, as much as it contains a violent, sexually depraved creature, it is still a mystical artefact that might be of. . . some use, along the line.”
“Really don't see how that's likely.”
“Yes, well, it's not your place to see anything. Take the job, find the box, and take your pay like a good near-mundy.”
“You're very rude. Ruder than when I actually worked for you.”
“Yes, well I am rather pressed for time, and you are asking rather inane questions.”
“One man's inane question is another man's. . . ane question.”
“Tali! Door!” Comstock grunted, standing to his feet and walking to the door his employee had sent for him.
“Very, very rude. . .”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish