Removing his fingers from the keys, Howard leaned over the typewriter and silently mouthed the words he had struck onto the paper. He shook his head and groaned. Pulling the release lever, he cranked the feeder knob and yanked the page free. Having wadded the paper into a tight paper ball, the young man pitched it into the wastebasket at the far end of the room. It joined twenty other balls that had preceded it.
The scrawny writer leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. “How the hell do you expect me to write this, Ed? I can’t ape Ian’s style to save my life, and this is the god-dammed climax of his story!”
Howard sighed and closed his eyes realizing that the impending deadline and restless week had brought him to ask questions of people who weren’t there. There was no answer from the editor while Howard sat alone in his Flatbush apartment at two in the morning.
Sinking limp in his chair, he opened bloodshot eyes and gazed upwards. “You could write this Mel… You could write this and have Queen Kittala of Atlantis run Caldan through with a sword and the subscribers would still think Ian wrote it!”
More conversations with phantoms, he thought shaking his head. Conversations with phantoms, about phantoms…
Looking at the cracks in the yellowed ceiling, Howard hardened his eyes and pulled himself straight in the wooden office chair. He glared at the silent keys before him. Pushing his horn-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of his nose, he fed a new sheet of paper into the typewriter chewing his lip in thought.
Howard scrutinized the cover illustration Ed had provided for the upcoming issue of Perilous Fantasy Fiction for the hundredth time. Ian’s villain Caldan loomed large in the foreground, looking like Fu-Manchu in a white monks robe. It was an appearance that didn’t match the cult-leader’s depiction in Shadows of the Old Gods at all. A naked curvy blond was splashed hanging bound and screaming above a flaming pit in the middle of the illustration. Strategic wisps of smoke covered just enough of her tantalizing form to pass the censor and yet sell the issue on the stands. Finally, there was the monster from the pit threating the voluptuous woman’s feet. Howard assumed it was the artists take on the “unmentionable, unimagined obscenity” that was Ian’s vague description of the old gods. To the bespectacled writer however, the monster looked suspiciously like a lamprey eating a squid which was itself simultaneously eating a snake.
The whole thing was terribly lurid, but Ed had already cut the check for the art. With no budget to pay for another commission, this was what they had to work around. Howard looked away from the garish print and rolled up his shirt sleeves. After cracking his knuckles he gently placed his fingers on the typewriter keys, and sat there. Sat there looking at a blank page.
Despite the growing popularity of his fiction, few were aware that Ian Phelps was missing. He had last been seen at seven o’clock on a Thursday night three months ago in April, supposedly working late in the magazine’s offices on the final chapter of Shadows with the editor. In actuality, he was working with Melody that night, the Perilous secretary who also pulled uncredited duties as the magazine’s proofreader and assistant editor.
Mel had admitted to Howard that she admired Ian’s formidable writing. But when Ian had referred to Melvin Bush’s Queen Kittala of Atlantis stories as “puerile and nearly illiterate trash,” the mousey woman snapped her blue pencil trying to contain her anger. From then on she restricted her work with Ian’s stories to bare proofreading if at all possible.
Accompanied by a bottle from Howard’s small rum-runner stash of English gin, the spirited editing and story swapping he and Mel engaged in was the polar opposite of her work with Ian. It was her talent that made Howard’s Korr stories earn three cents a word. Personally, he thought Mel’s stoic Queen Kittala a better character than his barbarian warrior. She begged to differ however, except on the point that every one of Korr’s stories ended with him about to bed yet another beautiful woman.
Despite Mel’s desires to avoid Ian when she could, she did accept a side job translating old documents from eighteenth century Greek and French from him. The work was sporadic, and the reading was bizarre occult hogwash from what she told Howard about it; lost gods, forgotten worlds and transcendence. The subject had raised their eyebrows when they realized where Ian farmed his ideas from. Yet Mel still thought the odd work was worth the extra ten dollar bill it provided now and again.
On the Thursday night in April when they disappeared, Howard had been nervous emerging from the elevator at a quarter to eight. Rolling the ring he planned to surprise her with later inside his pocket, he made his way to Mel’s office down the empty halls. The months of saving that had been required to make the reservation at Sardi’s ensured that the evening would be far grander than the dinner at Childs Mel expected.
But the office was empty, her desk bearing warm coffee and Ian’s smoking pipe still lit in the ashtray. Coarse gray pages of arcane script were strewn about the desktop, as if Ian and Mel were pouring over them only minutes before Howard had arrived. In the middle of the papers was the smooth stone paperweight he had given Melody on her birthday. Its singular crack offered a glimpse of the blue, raw beryl within that she found so beautiful.
The subsequent police investigation failed to find any trace of Ian Phelps, Miss Melody Sprague, or foul play. The unsolved mystery had given way to whispers of secret affairs and elopements in the months that followed, rumors that pained Howard deeply. Distraught, his writing suffered. When he was called in for a private meeting with Ed last week, he expected a chewing out from the editor over the lack of a new Korr story.
Instead, Ed virtually broke down and begged Howard for help. He confessed to him that he paid in advance for Shadow of the Old Gods with the work unfinished because Ian had threatened to jump ship and offer the work to rival Eldritch Mysteries Magazine instead. With the disappearance of Melody and the author, not even a draft of the serial’s final chapter could be found anywhere.
The old man was terrified that if the publisher found out they would close the doors of the struggling pulp magazine for good. Without hesitation, Howard agreed to ghostwrite an ending and keep it a secret for the man who gave him his first break. He left the office determined to do all that he could to keep the staff of Perilous from walking straight to the breadlines and Hoovervilles he saw on his way back to Brooklyn.
Shaking off an exhausted daze, Howard lifted the coffee mug at his side still focused on the silent typewriter. Choking on the stale grounds and backwash he forced a swallow. He wouldn’t last another hour without coffee. Swiveling the chair the young man rose stiffly to his feet and grabbed the cane that leaned on the desk.
Shadows swayed against the yellow glow of the naked light bulb above him while the leather and steel of his braces creaked in the night. His crippled gait had been with him since adolescence, and Howard asked for no more sympathy in public than he did limping towards his kitchenette at two in the morning. Lately when asked about it he would answer that if the Governor could run for President with his polio, then he had no excuses.
Even with his resolve, Howard had been amazed when Mel had accepted his half-joking offer of an afternoon date to Ebbets Field shortly after they met. Sharing their first box of Cracker Jack and bluffing their way into the press box was memorable enough, but it was the walk home through Flatbush he would always remember. After apologizing for his gimpy pace she wordlessly tucked her elbow next to his, and with her added strength they strode the rest of the way together.
Halfway past the perpetually unfolded Murphy bed in the middle of the room, Howard stopped his slow walk. There was a noise, a barely audible murmur as he looked at the unkempt bed. It would have been undetectable if the rest of the city had not been sleeping, and he strained to pinpoint the sound. His eyes fell to the wooden orange crate full of papers that Ed had packed from Mel’s desk.
Howard lifted his cane like a broadsword and took a wobbling step closer to the box that sat on the sheets. “If that’s you, Mr. Rat, I’m ready for the rematch.”
The noise grew a degree louder as he prodded the wooden crate with the cane. It became more distinct and he could almost make out a muffled voice. Perplexed, he looked to the old radio at the bedside and made sure it was off. Then at the bottom of the stacks of paper and manila folders, a blue light sputtered to life.
The electric glow reflected off his glasses and fearing a fire, Howard threw his cane down on the bed. Cursing and tossing manuscripts out of the box, he stopped cold when the noise coalesced into words.
“She lives, a soul striving to save worlds.” The voice was prepubescent and aethereal over the sound of falling papers.
The light at the bottom of the papers grew in intensity and Howard’s hand shook as he reached back into the crate. “W-who lives? Mel? Who are—”
“—If you are the hero’s heart, speak Adraxis Alas Asmon and may the Gods save us all.” The voice was less distorted as Howard fell silent. He could now discern that it was a girl’s voice emanating from the glow underneath the papers.
“Can you hear me? Tell me who you are!” he shouted loud enough to wake the neighbors. He yanked an overburdened manila folder out of the crate and its musty contents spilled onto the floor. With a final fistful of pages he reached the bottom of the box and an azure glow illumed him. It was the paperweight.
He reached down and lifted the smooth stone, the exposed beryl within churning with brilliant phosphorescence. The supernatural light painted the room in projections of blue, and the stone vibrated in Howard’s hands as the voice returned.
“She lives, a soul striving to save worlds. If you are the hero’s heart, speak Adraxis Alas Asmon and may the Gods save us all.”
His legs failed him as the message was repeated. Crashing to his knees, the scrawny man buckled over and clutched the stone tightly. The light flared into a blinding intensity and the message began to repeat itself again like a recording.
“How do I find her!?” Howard shouted over the girl’s voice.
“—speak Adraxis Alas Asmon and may the Gods save us all.”
“Adraxis, Alas… Asmon,” he said before the stone whined in his grip. He thought of Mel, her arm locked around his, before a thundering rush washed over him and turned the world electric blue.
Full Story Page (parts one, two and epilogue).
Copyright © 2015 Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.