Today’s selection of unfinished fiction is the last stop for my troubled detective novel, I Vanish. In it, we learn a bit more about Mr. Biswell and his troubles with the supernatural, then Ethan heads off on the job before the whole thing comes to an abrupt stop.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
I Vanish — Chapter 3
I came back the way I always do: buck naked, shouting gibberish and covered in a thin layer of frost. My heart was racing and my whole body felt like I’d just run a marathon. It’s like waking from a nightmare I can’t ever remember.
By the time I got my head on straight, the frost had melted and was gone. My clothes were in a heap on the floor beside me. Jeans the color of an October sky, long-sleeve shirt, most of a black parka, combat boots on their last legs, knuckle-gloves and socks made of wool. I sorted through them and dressed while panting and shivering. As usual, I tried not to pay attention to the gridwork of scars drawn all over my body, but I never could manage to ignore them.
I hadn’t traveled far this time. I found myself in the hallway just outside Biswell’s bathroom. Dull grey daylight filtered throughout the place, meaning I’d been gone seven or eight hours at the least. Maybe more. No way to tell.
I got to my feet and stalked out into the front of the shop, whatever it was. The place smelled of Lemon Pledge and lavender, with an undercurrent of mildew. Shelves and glass display cases covered the walls, crammed full of dusty old knickknacks and tarnished brass gizmos. Here a sextant, there a compass, and elsewhere small figures of men in tortured poses. I thought the place might be an antiques shop at first, but nothing looked inviting. Nothing said, “Buy me.”
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was an order to how his exhibits were arrayed. I was sure some kind of system governed their placement, more Feng Shui than Better Homes and Gardens. I just couldn’t see it yet.
Clive Biswell was seated in a leather chair that’d seen more years than both of us combined. He was a small man, fine boned with the sort of exaggerated features that would mean noble-blood a couple centuries back. He had a large forehead and nose, thin lips, and a pronounced chin with a deep cleft. His straw-colored hair had been painstakingly sculpted, and he wore a poorly fitted charcoal suit, like a little boy caught rummaging through his grandfather’s suitcase.
An unopened book sat in Biswell’s lap, and he stared longingly out the window into the falling rain. “Welcome back, Mr. Helik,” he said. His voice had an oddly stilted quality, like an actor from the earliest talking pictures. “Please, have a seat.”
I pulled out the chair opposite him and plopped down into it. The well worn leather didn’t make a sound. I scanned the room, still struggling to determine the hidden logic behind his decor, and he continued to watch the street. “How do you know my name?” I asked.
“I know a great many things, the vast bulk of which I rightfully shouldn’t.” That sounded like a heaping scoop of diversion garnished with self-loathing.
“That’s not much of an answer, Biswell.”
He finally looked away from the window, and I could see the exhaustion in his eyes. They were bloodshot and bone dry, and his tear ducts were bright as blisters. “No, not much of an answer at all. You could say I’m a listener, Mr. Helik. I hear what others don’t.”
That was intriguing at least. “Like what?”
“Thoughts, emotions, memories. Sometimes more.”
“You’re some kind of psychic?”
“By conventional standards, yes. That would be an apt description.”
My face apparently betrayed skepticism.
His voice dancing with sarcasm, he said, “Surely you’ve encountered mysteries which science would struggle to explain.”
“Totally,” I replied with a laugh. “Bellybutton lint, socks disappearing in the wash… the fact that grey t-shirts are more comfortable than other colors.”
His big dark eyes tightened, and the slight curve of a smile brushed his upper lip. “I was thinking of other, less laundry related phenomena. Tell me, Mr. Helik… was it a freak accident with fabric softener that chased you away from polite society?”
“Something like that,” I said. “More like a pen exploding in the dryer.”
Images I would’ve preferred not to remember flickered behind my eyes. Dim recollections of that night and a handful of crime scene photos, the sort of crap you can’t wash away no matter how many bottles you pour over them.
Biswell’s face lit up with recognition, with sadness. “That night… was that when you learned your little disappearing trick?”
“And it’s continued on ever since, without rhyme or reason. How obscenely enigmatic. Where do you go?”
“No clue,” I said, and wondered whether it was because I couldn’t remember, or because I refused to.
“Probably a bit of both,” Biswell said after a breath. “The mind can be utterly mysterious that way.”
That was the precise moment I began to find his talent unsettling.
“Most do. You seem to have a knack for dealing with the unsettling, though.”
Another nod. “Still, I’d consider it a kindness if you’d let me speak. My sanity’s taken a hell of a beating these last few years, and this ain’t helping.”
“Of course. My apologies. Sometimes I lose track of myself in this place. My hearing is perhaps a bit too acute here.”
My gaze wandered around the room, and I finally recognized the hidden order. It was a spiral. All his many little statuettes and assorted relics of bygone eras were curled around and focused on the chairs at the parlor’s center. It was the swelling curve of a human ear, an echo chamber to enhance Biswell’s abilities.
“You’ve a sharp eye,” he said. “It took ages to get everything just right.”
I thought back to his immaculately organized bathroom. “The sort of work you’re cut out for. So… how about you clue me in on a few things, like what in hell that thing was last night?”
“Two nights ago. It’s known as an Unhound.”
“Doesn’t mean a thing to me,” I said.
He tapped the weathered book in his lap. “According to this, it’s a variety of photospectre. A semi-corporeal entity composed of light. That’s why our friend last night studiously avoided the street lamps.”
It’s a testament to how fucked my life was that his response didn’t bother me. Didn’t even put a hitch in my stride. “Shouldn’t the streetlights make it stronger or something?”
“Just the opposite. These entities have trouble maintaining coherence in a steady stream of light, like a drop of dye in a river. Anything brighter than the moon threatens to wash them away.”
“Good to know. I don’t understand how it followed us through midtown, though.”
“They’re able to enter one reflection and exit another… all photospectres can. As you can imagine, the average city block provides ample pathways for such a creature.”
Ample indeed. A city is a shimmering sculpture of glass held together with stone, and ours was dripping wet on any given day. I didn’t want one of those monsters on my trail ever again. Not if I could help it.
“That’s why I need your help, Mr. Helik.”
Biswell set the unopened book aside and looked me earnestly in the eye. “You were a private investigator once. I’d like to hire you. I can offer you food, lodgings and a meager per diem in exchange for your services.”
I looked away, out into the rain-soaked street where legions of the oblivious marched by in breakstep. They walked and watched and waited at the curb for lights to change, smoking their slim cigarettes in dainty puffs and murmuring into glowing cell phones, their umbrellas in primary colors bobbing about like mainsails in a peaceful bay. “I’m afraid you’re confused, Biswell. I’m not that guy. He’s dead, and these are just the parts that were too stupid to stop moving.”
Biswell’s dark eyes never faltered. “There’s no confusion. You see those poor people out there, Ethan? The ones you so envy? They stumble about with their eyes closed, blind to the darkness and the festering rot it contains. Their blindness makes them weak. They’re ignorant and fragile and useless to me, but not you.”
I still had a few faint memories of being vulnerable once, but I kept them safely locked away. Even acknowledging their existence made me shudder. They belonged to another lifetime, one which ended when some kind soul ripped me apart and slapped me back together with junkyard scraps. All the fragile parts—the ones that made me human—had been neglected, and I was better off without them.
Biswell’s voice came quieter than before. “A locked door can be a dangerous thing, Mr. Helik. The longer you keep it closed, the harder it is to open. Someday, you may decide that you want one last moment with whatever it is you’ve hidden, only to discover you can no longer find the key.”
I turned back to him and saw the worry hanging all over his face. He was a real altruist and I could respect that, but I didn’t care for the way his eyes stared into me, searching for somewhere solid to drop anchor. “That day won’t ever come.”
“If you say so.” He hardly sounded convinced.
I reached down and gently fingered the scars on my left forearm. My fingertips skimmed across their surface, tracing out yet another pattern I couldn’t make sense of, a strange hybrid of map and circuit board. Each line was a deep groove carved with unerring accuracy, like the work of a wood router. “What does the job entail?”
“Nothing at all to which you’re unaccustomed. I was given something very peculiar and an as yet unknown party wants it very badly. Enough to summon an Unhound to do their dirty work, which is no small feat, I assure you. I would like nothing more than to be rid of it, but my instinct is to deny such wanton cupidity.”
This guy must’ve kept a thesaurus under his pillow. “Good instinct,” I replied.
“I need to find out why it was given to me, and more importantly, how I can safely divest myself of it. Posthaste. Your assistance in both matters would be invaluable, as would your safe-guarding of my person.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “but I can’t help notice the way you’re dancing around the subject. What do you have exactly, and who gave it to you?”
All he said was, “A memory,” and his face paled.
I should’ve guessed that it’d be something I could never guess. Despite that, it only took me a second to make my decision. What the hell else was I doing? Staring into storm drains and fantasizing about oblivion. I’m no psychiatrist, but I somehow doubt that’s healthy behavior. “You’ve got a deal,” I said, “on one condition.”
I cleared my throat. “You have some kinda handle on strange shit… stuff science would struggle to explain, as you put it. This thing that happens to me…” then I fell quiet. Falling rain thrummed sullenly against the building’s tired wood.
He pursed his razor thin lips then spoke. “I can’t make any promises, but I’ll do what I can. I may know someone who can help you understand it.”
I shook that off. “I don’t want to understand it, Biswell. I don’t want to know a damned thing about it. I just want it to stop.”
“As you wish.”
He reached out a skeletal hand and I took it in my own. My fingerless wool glove scraped against his parchment skin, and beneath it I could feel the mad rhythm of his pulse. He was terrified.
We shook, and I was on the case.
I faced an immediate problem. How the hell did a walking corpse like myself investigate something?
The process, I decided, would have to be like it is for the living, but with a few marked differences. Most of them had to do with money.
Despite appearances to the contrary, the modern private investigator is flush with assets. He has an arsenal collected throughout his years in the business, including an SLR camera with a big ol’ telephoto lens, audio recorders in a variety of sizes and disguises, a computer hooked into a half-dozen legal and less-than-legal databases, an unmemorable car with enough room to comfortably sleep in, and (more often than not) a handgun. Even the most ragged, gin-pickled PI also keeps a few hundred dollars squirreled away for emergencies.
As I stepped out of Clive Biswell’s parlor and into the mid-day drizzle, I had the clothes on my back and 45 bucks. It wasn’t exactly an embarrassment of riches, but if the previous three years had taught me anything, it was how to make due. I could make an awful lot of due out of that much cash.
Clothes would come first. My tattered rags were a cloak of poverty that deflected wandering eyes. The civilized can’t bear to think of men living like animals so they hurry their pace and look the other way, while you live a half-formed phantom existence on the blurred edges of their peripheral vision, where their conscience can’t reach you.
Camouflaged like that, I could pass unnoticed through downtown, along crowded streets and shaded alleyways, and wander alone through the labyrinth of subway tunnels beneath. I could fade into the dirt and litter and vivid twisting graffiti, just another uncleaned mess waiting to be swept away.
However, I couldn’t set foot inside a building without security swarming me like flies on an overripe banana. I couldn’t strike up a conversation without making someone fear for their personal safety. I couldn’t participate in society in any meaningful way.
I needed to go from invisible to perfectly forgettable.
If your ultimate goal is to fade into the woodwork, you can clothe yourself for a shockingly low price, just as long as you know where to shop and what you’re looking for. The color of choice is middle-grey, preferably dull and mottled like a concrete block. As long as you can stand the feel of it, wool is a sound investment; it’s warm, durable and naturally water repellent.
For 12 dollars and change, I transformed myself from untouchable to unremarkable, a ghost in a clever shade of why-would-you-bother-looking grey. For another 15, I bought a new pair of work boots at a third rate sports shop. They were the sort marketed to EMTs and the like; strong and comfortable with a non-slip tread. I had a sneaking suspicion I’d be pounding a lot of pavement, so I splurged a little. You have to take care of your feet, or your feet won’t take care of you.
It’s hard to say precisely why I stopped there. The story seemed to have a decent amount of momentum, and the investigation aspect was really what had excited me about the project to begin with, but no matter how many times I went back, I just couldn’t manage to forge ahead. After banging my head against the next paragraph for a few months, I gave in and the story languished on the hard-drive.
The rest of the novel was planned out in very general terms. The memory that Clive Biswell received was from a graduate student named Hector Cardenas, a brilliant mathematician who’d made a major discovery which put his life in peril. Rather than allow it to be taken, he destroyed his notes and gave the last memory to Biswell, then was murdered.
As Ethan begins to investigate Hector’s murder, he comes back into contact with a local police captain who also needs his help. Seems the captain’s daughter has joined a cult, and he wants Ethan to get her back by any means necessary. Eventually, these two cases intertwine and Ethan is forced to face some of the dark powers that seethe within the city. Does he find an answer to his vanishing problem? That’d be telling.
My notes also contain a number of strange creatures and dark gods, which should probably surprise no one at this point. In addition to the Unhound, Ethan would come across such diverse oddities as Photovores (small simian-like animal with a single large eye for its head, that feeds on and can regurgitate visual information), Hemogoblins (nasty, blood soaked creatures that hunt in packs), and Ragmen (animated bundles of clothing who are sent to retrieve stolen objects).
And that’s all for I Vanish. Next week, we’ll take a quick look at a fantasy western called Vermilion, before delving back into longer unfinished pieces.
Until next time,