Orlov the Conjuror dreams he is a ghost. He floats in the corner of a strangely ornate room, a tiny cathedral of Moorish arches and aquarium-glass windows, beyond which are only sea grass and barnacles and a host of fish of various species, all of them aloof and indifferent to the screams and the bloody perversions occurring in that peculiar chamber of horrors.
The ghostly Orlov weeps tears of anguish and futility, for he can do nothing to help the woman splayed grotesquely on the yellow marble altar, its surface cut through with runnels to capture her blood and other fluids. They pour into a pair of downspouts at the lower edges of the altar and run down into a small hole in the dark, and somehow the Conjuror knows that the blood and offal and birthing fluids are sluicing down into the floor to feed something hungry.
The woman has been chained ankle and wrist with rusted iron—incongruous against the clean Numidian marble. The chains are secured to iron rings set into the floor around the altar. An impotent specter, Orlov can only watch as her body betrays itself, jerking and shuddering. The chains bind her not to keep her from escaping but to prevent the eruptions occurring in her flesh from jerking her off of the altar. Her distended belly undulates with movement from within, as three crimson-robed figures hover around her, poking and prodding her flesh and her orifices with clinical interest. They have daubed her skin with ochre paint, inscribing her with sigils whose meanings Orlov cannot deduce. As she bucks against the altar, the ochre paint begins a slow, acidic burn, branding the sigils deeply into her flesh.
Orlov hates them. He clenches his phantom fists as rage fills him, but it is a hopeless, useless fury. Here in this dream, he is nothing. Less than nothing. He can neither move to aid her nor shout curses down upon her tormentors.
Nor can he curse the capering madman orchestrating it all. The occultist’s filthy hair is tied back with a rusted metal ring, and two others bind the twin braids of his beard. While his servants work the woman’s flesh with calm detachment, his prancing enthusiasm combines childlike glee with almost sexual arousal. As he circles the altar he darts in between the three crimson-robed figures to utter a string of guttural chants, all the while passing a strange object over the woman, inches above her flesh.
Somehow, Orlov knows this object. He wonders if he is dreaming the madman’s dream, or if he is merely haunting it, a ghost lingering in the house of the lunatic occultist’s unconscious mind. Regardless, the artifact is familiar to him.
It is Lector’s Pentajulum, a knot of tubes and small chambers reminiscent of a human heart but made of a colorful, unknown substance with properties akin to both amber and sea glass. The Pentajulum appears inert, and yet a tiny shift in position seems to alter its design—a trick of the light or of the eye, or some queer geometry the human mind cannot perceive.
The occultist gazes into the Pentajulum as if it is his life’s only hope, and Orlov understands that it is precisely that. The occultist’s wife is dead, crumbling to dust in her tomb, and the madman believes that the Pentajulum is capable of resurrecting her, of allowing them to live a hundred lifetimes together, if only he can make it work. The Pentajulum’s arcane science requires something to ignite it. The occultist believes that death is the key, that the agony and pain and surrender as the candle of human life is snuffed out can be channeled into the Pentajulum through the sigils branded on the woman’s flesh.
Straining against her chains, the woman screams. The occultist smiles in anticipation. His moment has arrived. He holds the Pentajulum above the center of her chest. But then his brow furrows and he shakes his head. Stubborn, he refuses to retreat, but Orlov can see that his plan has gone awry.
In the shadowy eaves of the room, something stirs. The woman and her tormentors have been joined by some unseen observer, but not a dream-ghost—not a visitor like Orlov himself. The others in the room take no notice. Even the occultist seems not to be aware of the arrival of this presence, and Orlov cannot understand how the massive weight of its attention can go unnoticed. But the occultist’s focus remains on the pregnant woman, and his expression turns to panic as his efforts unravel.
Her belly splits. Orlov the Conjuror stares in horror so profound that it makes him wish for the ignorance of the abyss and the darkness of eternity. Her distended flesh has not torn, nor has she pushed forth some monstrous issue. Orlov can think only of flowers blooming as her abdomen unfurls into petals of ridged, purple-veined flesh.
The occultist screams in fury, his anguish echoing off the vaulted ceiling, caught in the arches, ignored by the fish swimming past the windows.
The woman’s body continues to blossom, opening up until there is almost nothing recognizably human about her. Then, just as the flower bloomed, it begins to wilt and turn brown. Deteriorating, the woman cries out weakly. Shaken, the ghost of Orlov the Conjuror screams for her, but he makes no sound.
Orlov is certain that he smells something burning.
And he wakes …
* * *
Stiff and aching, Felix Orlov shifted in his bed and rolled over. He opened his eyes to narrow slits and stared at the dusty gloom of his room, hating the weight of his age-diminished frame and the demanding pressure of his bladder. On another morning he might have sought a more comfortable position and tried to fool his bladder into giving him another hour’s sleep, but today sleep held no sanctuary. His dreams were no haven from the mundane, shuffling boredom that his life had become.
Not these dreams.
Unsettled, he lay waiting for the horrible images to crumble and sift out of his mind, the way dreams were meant to in the moments after waking. His eyes widened and a strange panic began to set in. Felix did not want these things inside his head. They were meant to linger as cobwebs and then be dashed away as the morning progressed, yet as he lay there they became, if anything, more vivid.
“Get out,” Felix whispered as he rapped his arthritis-swollen knuckles against his forehead, as if somehow that might reset some mental switch.
With a dry, humorless laugh, he peeled back the bedclothes and swung his legs over the edge, sitting up. He pressed his hands against the small of his back and rotated his head, stretching his neck. Pops and clicks reminded him of past injuries and the onset of age. He rose and shuffled toward the bathroom door.
Felix never looked at the details of his bedroom anymore. He chose not to let his gaze linger upon the faded scarlet curtains from Thailand or the posters hanging on the walls in their cracked frames—posters that boasted astonishing feats of magic by Orlov the Conjuror, as well as the astounding performances of those who had inspired him as a boy, Thurston and Fezzini, Blackstone and Houdini. Though Felix no longer liked to look at the posters, or the many mementoes displayed around the room, he could still see them in his mind’s eye. He knew that after all this time they were cloaked in a veil of dust, as obscured as his memories of that long ago time when audiences had cheered him, women had bought him drinks, and he could travel from his bed to the toilet without pain.
This morning, however, Felix’s only wish was a gauzy veil of dust to obscure the vividness of the dream still lingering in his head. How could he possibly have known the motivations of the man he had thought of as the occultist? The dream had felt like a memory, but he knew it was not his memory. Not at all.
Dreams or memories. The distinction wasn’t really important. Felix had some small facility for being able to peer into the dark corners of the human mind, and a certain spiritual sensitivity as well, but nothing like this had ever happened to him before. It felt like he had been sleepwalking in another man’s mind.
With a sigh, he stood at the toilet and relieved himself, massaging the small of his back and hating the way even his eyes felt heavy and gritty. As a young man, Felix had taken to repairing clocks almost as a sort of hobby. It kept his fingers limber, an absolute must for a stage magician. How many times had he dismantled clockwork, cleaning and oiling the parts and rebuilding a clock so that it worked smoothly, so that its innards snicked together properly, tight and strong and accurate?
Felix would have given anything to be a clock that some enterprising young man with nimble fingers could dismantle, oil, and rebuild, good as new.
“Damn,” he sighed, careful not to fall as he reached down and flushed the toilet.
Normally Felix avoided the mirror, and had done so for years. This morning he shook his head as though he could dislodge his bad dreams and bent over the sink, splashing water on his face. And then he looked at his reflection.
To his surprise, he was not entirely horrified. His nose had grown larger and his cheeks were more sunken, but there were still wisps of white hair on his head, and the corners of his mouth were turned up in a rueful sort of amusement.
Not a cadaver after all, he thought. And sure as hell not a ghost.
Stretching again, Felix felt somewhat better, and he managed to walk back into the bedroom without shuffling. Eighty-two years on this earth and he was still able to take care of himself, more or less. It made him stubborn and it made him proud, but not so proud that he wouldn’t have admitted that it also made him lonely … if there had been anyone who would listen, and give a damn.
There’s Molly, he reminded himself. But Molly was a kid, and he wasn’t about to dump his old man’s woes on her.
Felix took the worn gray trousers off the footboard of the bed, where he had draped them after taking them off the night before, and put them to his nose, inhaling deeply. Not bad. The strangest part of living in this drowning city was that clean clothes tended to carry more of the moldy smell in them than things you’d worn once or twice.
Felix dressed quickly, donning the gray pants and a bone white, starched shirt from his closet. His fingers were still nimble enough to do the buttons without difficulty. He finished with a gray coat that matched the trousers, and a bow tie of deepest red.
He was no longer the dapper man who watched him from the old theatrical posters, but Felix did his best to look sharp. His clothes might be secondhand, frayed, and threadbare, but he took care of them, and he managed to greet each day with a modicum of dignity. In a place steeped in poverty, abandoned by those with more sense and less stubbornness than Felix had, dignity was difficult to come by, and hard-won. If his clothes hung a little loosely on his thinning frame, no matter. He doubted he had many years left to wear them.
As Felix slipped on his shoes, once again perched on the edge of his bed, the dreams at last began to dim a little. That was good. He feared that such nightmares would interfere with his concentration, and he would need to be able to focus later. Though the small notoriety he had gained as Orlov the Conjuror had been as a magician, he had not started out onstage that way. Felix had been a spiritualist, a medium, capable of reading the minds of members of his audience and of communicating with their dead loved ones.
His abilities were real. As a child he had been in a terrible accident that had taken his mother’s life and left him with months of painful healing … and an unwanted gift. The dead whispered to him. Sometimes they gathered around him in clusters, but such events were rare. Mostly it was only the occasional whisper, a pleading from beyond, a message to be given to someone still living. And every time he made contact, every stage performance or private séance, he had felt the grief of his mother’s death ever more keenly, for in what he felt was the cruelest of ironies, she seemed to be the only ghost with whom he could never communicate. In his darkest hours, Felix wondered if she could hear him but refused to answer. He preferred to think that she had passed so fully into the next life that she was out of the reach of his voice. But some nights, the question haunted him still.
For better or worse, Orlov the Conjuror had never been truly famous. He had always struggled, and when he began to travel, he discovered that whenever he was away from New York for more than a few days, he grew ill. Without the ability to play the great theaters of Chicago and Philadelphia and those even farther abroad, in places that had not been so devastated by the rising waters of the early twentieth century, he had never really had any chance at fame. He had settled in the remains of the Crown Theater on Twenty-ninth Street in drowned and sunken New York, like just another prop forgotten backstage, collecting more dust with every passing day. It was like living inside the ghost of his onetime ambitions.
In the years preceding the devastation, the heart of New York City theater had moved slowly north, from the class warfare of the Astor Place Theater in 1849 to Union Square in the 1870s, and on to Madison Square by the turn of the century. Broadway theater had showcased everything from Shakespeare to burlesque, and always there had been magicians, illusionists, and mediums. By the time of the cataclysm in 1925, theaters had proliferated in Times Square, and the curtains were falling permanently on the stages of Lower Manhattan. And then the quakes and the floods came, and there was no longer any such thing as class warfare in that part of the city.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, New York had begun to transform itself into the crossroads of the world, an unmatched center of business, finance, and entertainment. Then plague and superstition had cast a dark curtain across the European continent, ending the First World War before America had sacrificed too many of her own young men, and New York had seemed poised to become the jewel in the nation’s newly forged crown. For a handful of years, the city had become a dream of prosperity.
The first tremors struck in the summer of 1922, but those were mere flirtations with catastrophe, cracking glass and raising dust. The real quakes did not hit until the city had begun to emerge from the winter chill in early 1925. Snow melted, the rains came, and the rivers began to rise, cresting their banks. Years later, Admiral Benjamin Wheeler and his polar expedition would discover changes in the Antarctic ice shelf that led to much speculation about the sea’s rise, but in 1925, the people of New York perceived themselves to be victims of God’s wrath. They talked of Sodom and Gomorrah, of the sufferings of Job, as buildings fell and the water swept in.
New York became divided between wealthy, glittering Uptown and the struggling poor who remained in the drowning Downtown because they had nowhere else to go. Instead of abandoning their homes, they adapted, closing off the flooded lower floors of structures that were otherwise still habitable and starting a strange, scavenger society in what remained. Most of the people who were left behind fended for themselves, but there were makeshift shops and restaurants and bars, places where those determined to stay—or unable to leave—could pretend that they still lived in America. That they still knew something of civilization.
Years passed. The sunken portion of Manhattan Island evolved. People Downtown tended to ignore the northern view, just as those Uptown liked to pretend the Drowning City did not exist just beyond their reach. Uptown continued to thrive, to flower with new business and gleaming, modern architecture, while Lower Manhattan cannibalized itself, cobbling together a community of canals and bridges, of dangerous shadows and rebellious minds. The Drowning City, some of its older denizens called it. To Felix, it was still New York … still home.
There was still theater in Lower Manhattan, but of a crude, makeshift sort, performed in front of audiences who desired distraction from the thinness of their lives, and who often did not understand the meaning of what they saw. Felix had not performed on a stage—had not truly been Orlov the Conjuror—for more than forty years, and he told himself he did not miss it.
Now he donned his spectacles and picked up his pocket watch from the bureau, clicking it open. A quarter to nine. He had slept later than usual, caught in the grip of his awful dream, but he still had time for a bite to eat before this morning’s appointment arrived.
Wondering about the weather, he went to the window and pushed aside the scarlet curtains, letting in a flood of gray light. A storm of dust motes swirled before him as Felix bent to look outside. A light rain speckled the glass, but the waves on Twenty-ninth Street were only a light surface ripple. A steam taxi clanked loudly as it ferried its passengers through the canals of the sunken city. Chinese gondoliers often plied the waters in this neighborhood, but Felix could see none of them today.
He glanced in the other direction, bending farther to peer past the ruin of the marquee that had once announced his building in glorious neon as the Crown Theater. Of course the theater itself rotted now under thirty feet of ocean water, the salt eroding stage, sets, and seats and peeling the paper from the walls. Forty years before, Murray Feinberg had closed off the stairwells that led to the theater, blocking them with concrete, which kept the mold and the scavengers from getting in through the theater’s remains, but the smell of mold lingered in the walls of most of the sunken city’s old buildings. Most days, open windows didn’t help much. The ocean breeze was too often fouled by the greasy oil smoke and coal smog given off by the motors that ran the boats, gave the Drowning City electricity, and powered the factories that employed so many of those whose parents and grandparents had refused to evacuate, all those years ago.
New Yorkers. The thought made Felix smile.
Below, he saw the black smoke–belching taxi chugging toward the front of the theater. A bell rope hung there. If Felix had visitors he wanted to see, he could turn a crank that lowered the iron ladder that led up to a well-built wooden catwalk, which in turn ran around to the narrow gap between the theater and its nearest neighbor, where the century-old fire escape still held strong. Felix never worried about scavengers coming at him from that side. Whatever building had been there had only been three stories high, and in this part of the city that was enough for it to have vanished almost completely beneath the water. At low tide, he could see the barnacle-covered roof, half collapsed, and the long, silvery things that swam down there in the dark.
Felix glanced once more along Twenty-ninth Street, at the ladders and rickety walkways that crisscrossed that view, at planks spanning rooftops and hastily constructed bridges of wood, iron, ropes, and cables—the only footpaths the people of Lower Manhattan had known for nearly half a century. Other places had been rebuilt after the devastation of 1925, when one catastrophe after another had razed cities in quakes, eruptions, and tsunamis. Uptown, New York wasn’t much different, with its gleaming, modern wealth. But in Lower Manhattan and much of Brooklyn, people had been recovering for all of those years, forging a new, grim, society. To Hell with Uptown had been a popular slogan when Felix had been a young man. But even then, he had known it was a joke. The drowning city, that was Hell. The trick was figuring out how to live there.
An urgent knock shook him from his reverie. He had lost sight of the rattling water taxi beneath the catwalk on the front of the building, below the old marquee, but he knew its destination.
Felix smoothed his threadbare coat and went out into the corridor. There were two floors of rooms above the blocked-off, flooded theater, with a set of stairs and a door between them. He lived on the uppermost floor. Once upon a time he had rented out the floor beneath him, but he no longer accepted money from the tenant there.
The rap on the door came again, soft yet urgent.
“I’m coming,” he said with a sigh.
He unlocked the door and opened it. On the threshold, fourteen-year-old Molly McHugh beamed at him, all freckles and red hair and youthful vigor that always made him feel more alive.
“Felix—” she began.
“Enough with the knocking,” he said. “At what point are you going to realize I’m too old to move as fast as you’d like?”
“Someone’s gotta keep you hopping!” Molly said, cocking a hip as if she were the one to keep him in line. And more often than not, she did. “I just wanted to tell you that your breakfast is ready, but I just spotted a taxi outside. Looks like your nine-thirty is here early.”
Felix nodded slowly. Molly took so much pride in her role as his assistant—she worked for him in exchange for room and board, taking up the floor beneath him and feeding him breakfast down there each morning—that he didn’t want her to know he had also noticed the taxi arriving.
“Nothing to be done about it, I suppose,” he said. “Breakfast will have to wait.”
Before Molly could reply, bells began to ring throughout the building. Someone had pulled the rope, down by the water. Felix’s appointment had arrived.
He could practically hear the ghosts rustling in the eaves already.
Copyright © 2012 by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden