Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and twelve.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by the Pendragon Variety Podcast.
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, Will Coffin, urban shaman, and his drunken roommate, Bunny, undertake a journey at the side of a carrion-masked attorney.
Flash Pulp 211 – Cast Off: a Blackhall Tale, Part 2 of 2
The riddle of the dead-face box had paid for the rental car, a hotel room with dirty carpets, and gas, but Coffin had little confidence he’d see any further payment for his efforts – he, in fact, believed that things would end rather abruptly.
He’d spent fourteen hours the day previous, and three since dawn, avoiding the rear-view mirror. Despite the fact that Burt Steward, his client, was largely covered by a hat and upturned jacket collar, there was no getting used to the decaying muscle-work exposed at his cheeks, nor the milky puss he constantly wiped away from his nostrils.
While Will had been quiet regarding the situation, Bunny, his soggy roommate, was less so.
“Zombies are big money these days, maybe you can get a movie role or something,” she said from the passenger seat, as she sipped from a Gatorade bottle filled with a bright red liquid of questionable composition. “Hell, you can be the Lon Chaney of our age – but, instead of the man of a thousand faces, I guess you’d just be the man of one really ####ing ugly face.”
“She’s not serious, right?” replied Steward, his gaze never leaving his furiously-thumbed phone. He’d busied himself for the majority of the ride with prodding the piece of electronics, but was now becoming increasingly distracted by Bunny’s endless prattle.
“I was straight with you when I took on the work,” said Coffin, “I know someone who might be able to help, but this is a matter I personally don’t have a fix for. Perhaps she will, but I’m just playing driver and advisor on this expedition.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d carried out work for Steward. On a previous occasion the lawyer had asked for assistance after being assaulted, on a chill October evening, by dime-sized ice spiders. The beasts had formed upon the surface of his above-ground pool, as he lounged in his nearby hot-tub and enjoyed one last weekend dip before covering the pair for the cold season. It was Will’s opinion that he had was largely saved by the steaming froth of the Jacuzzi – otherwise, he’d likely have been found dead the next morning, with his body covered in a red and black rash of frostbite.
Coffin was at hand to watch the attack repeat itself the following night, and his solution – draining the pool entirely of its cursed contents – had prevented recurrence. It was only once he’d tracked down the grandmother who’d issued the curse that Will had began to understand his client’s day job, but he’d manage to talk the woman into cessation of hostilities over tea. She’d insisted, however, that it was for him, and not because she had any forgiveness for the shyster lawyer she saw as having stolen her life via litigation.
As he’d departed, Will had ensured the promise by removing the small offering bowl she’d used to conduct the ritual – it was a family heirloom, and he rather suspected she’d never seriously considered that the legend attached to it could be true.
It had been Coffin’s theory that holding off on some portion of his questioning, till they’d become better acquainted as traveling companions, might make the rotting man more open to honesty, but it was increasingly obvious that Bunny’s humour was doing little to bring on a sense of camaraderie, and they were running out of highway.
Clearing his throat, Will asked, “Burt, if we’re going to get this thing resolved, you’ve got to be honest with me. How did you get hold of the box in the first place?”
“I told you already, another client-”
“Bull####,” said Bunny. “I’ve seen that god damn thing in the trunk. It’s heavy, it smells, and there’s crazy writing on the side that looks like something out of Indiana Jones versus the Cannibals of Mars. I ####ing hate lawyers, but I never met one stupid enough to shove their face in something like that. ”
“I bought it, from a, uh, private dealer. After the spiders – after watching those sharp little crystal legs melt into droplets while crawling over the side of the tub, I realized there was a lot more to the world than helping part debtors from their bungalows. I started looking, but everything on the Internet seemed a sham, and you, Will, weren’t willing to help me out. One day, this guy in a tweed suit shows up at my door. Bald with a broad smile. He had the cube in tow, and said he’d heard about my search and thought it might be of interest.
“You can feel it when you touch it, your belly gets tight and your palms tingle. I knew it was genuine. I paid less than I’d expected for the piece but finding someone who could translate the writing cost me nearly twice as much. It took me a few months – I had other things going on, you know how it is – but finally I found a professor in Calcutta who could manage it.”
“‘He who places his visage within the box will witness the true face of eternity.’
“That was enough for me – I thought I might see God if I looked inside.”
Coffin bit at the inside of his cheek as he mulled over this new story, then nodded.
“Fine,” he said, “but the artifact isn’t without some history – didn’t you do some research to try and find it’s intent?”
“I tried the local library and online, but came up empty.”
“Oh ####, don’t even,” slurred Bunny. “I ####in’ know a dabbler when I see one. You’re that guy with a broken down mustang he talks a lot about, but never spends any time trying to get running. You’re the guy who buys a piano and never learns to play. You had a toy handed to you, took the first opinion you got on the thing, then immediately shoved your head into the meat grinder. Your a ####in’ dabbler.”
The car was silent until they reached the abandoned hotel. The Scandinavia Inn had once existed as a twenty-room establishment, but now stood in ruin, its interior having been thrashed by the constant wear of nature and squatters. Both floors of the structure looked out over a small lake, but its allure – its promise of isolation – had also caused its financial downfall.
“You sure she’s going to be here?” asked Bunny, as the trio stretched alongside their rented Ford.
“No,” replied Coffin, “unfortunately ancient ladies of the great woods don’t carry cells. That said, she holds all of her meetings here, on the day of the full moon. Frankly, I’m pleased we’re the only ones who appear to have shown up this time around. I say we probably have greater than even odds that she hasn’t found something better to do.”
Shuffling his still-stiff legs over the disintegrating pavement, Will ignored the stoutly locked front entrance, and instead directed the group towards the slope that lead to the shore.
“Stop answering work emails and pay attention,” Bunny told Steward, “or you’ll trip and get a used needle in the eye.”
Burt tucked the device away.
The rear revealed easy access, as a dirt path littered with discarded beer cans and condom wrappers ran directly into the darkened patio of the nearest room.
Stepping through the jagged-edged frame of a sliding door, they entered.
Threading her way past upturned televisions and splintered nightstands, Bunny was forced to remove a lighter from her pocket to fight the gloom.
“Just gotta remember which hand holds the fire, and which one holds my drink,” she muttered to herself.
As he mounted the stairs to the second floor hallway, Coffin announced his presence.
“Hello, madam, we’ve come to enjoy your sparkling conversation.”
He was unsure if he would receive a reply, but, after a moment, a nappy voice called from the third opening on the right.
“A hello to you then, charmer Coffin, and to your delicious smelling friends as well. Come, come.”
The lady of the woods had skewed the window coverings to allow some light to be shed upon her gathered nest of molding pillows, and the den had been carefully tidied, so that the constant trash underfoot ceased abruptly at the threshold.
“Not to shabby,” remarked Bunny, pushing the now unsure Steward onward.
“You’ve done well,” Coffin said, bowing slightly to the hulking wolverine who rested amongst the cushions.
“Bah,” said Sour Thistle, “I haven’t done well since the great collapse. Hooligans run amok in this shelter on those days when I am not on hand – or worse, they stumble across my conferences, and call in brutes who attempt to shove me in a cage. People had more respect before the magic went out of the world.”
Despite her complaints, her snout had turned up a toothy grin at the compliment.
“Perhaps,” responded Will, “that has something to do with the fact that, at the time, you could easily command a furred army to consume their village.”
“They don’t refer to them as ‘the good old days’ without reason,” said the beast, allowing a pleased rumble to enter her voice. “If you’ve come to venerate me, however, you seem to have brought excellent sacrifices. I know not what you carry in yonder sack, but, even fleshless, I can smell the occult upon it, and would gladly consume its potency – and this man, what a gift, he seems to satisfy both my need for power AND my taste for meat. You certainly know how to spoil me.”
The scene was too much for Steward’s frayed nerves, and he collapsed to the ground, tears in his atrophying eyes.
“Please, I’ve come a very long way, I want simply to be fixed – I want my face back.”
“Oooh,” responded Sour Thistle, who was now taking a closer look at the man’s ripe condition. “So it’s the dead-face box I can taste on the air. Well enough, give it here.”
Despite the extreme rarity of such a piece, Coffin was relieved to have the responsibility handed off.
“You’ve read the inscription?” the wolverine asked the shaking man, who nodded. “Blackhall had some trouble in translating, and it was actually in while having it decoded that the curio was lost – although he did find some history, and the phrasings meaning. You took it as a riddle – an invitation. It is not.
“‘He who places his visage within the box will witness the true face of eternity.’
“When it was built, it was as a punishment, and its creators never thought that a day might come when the nature of the relic might be forgotten. I’ve noticed that human empires are rarely capable of acknowledging their own horizons. It was intended as an ultimate exile – to be cast out of human society as an abomination, and usually to die amongst the din of the jungle insects. It’s simply an illusion, however, his own flesh remains unchanged.”
“So,” said Steward, “it must be reversible then?”
“No.” Sour Thistle replied, “You do not invest the effort to create an item such as this with the intention of providing an easy remedy. This was a penalty only for the most irredeemable.”
“I’d rather die than go on like this.”
“Then perhaps I could eat your head? Once exposed to the occult, it is like a glue – the energy remains with you, and emanates until it is dissipated or consumed. All too often, in the olden days, human graves were disturbed to feed the belly of some wandering glutton – and such pilfering often lead to a hunt for the perpetrator, and unnecessary violence. I am hungry, and it is not our way to waste good flesh, any more than you would let a pig rot after slaughter, so come, Sir Suicide, and place your seemingly rotten flesh within my maw. We will correct your lament, and my empty stomach, with a single motion.”
“There aren’t too many who personally slaughter their pigs anymore,” said Coffin, “but, to be fair, I’ve had plenty of roommates leave overripe deli in the fridge. I’m thinking, though, that perhaps it isn’t a meal you need, but a regular partner for conversation? Your tongue seems rough.”
“Ahh, a roommate. A companion,” said Sour Thistle, chuckling at the admonishment. “Perhaps you are right. Whatever the case, Burt Steward dies today – consider this the birth of a homely child. What shall I call you, my grotesque babe?”
“Dabbler,” interjected Bunny, from the corner of a mouthful of liquor.
The beast nodded her agreement. “Sit, Dabbler, and we’ll parlay as to why I should not eat such an ugly babe.”
She then removed the antiquity from its carrying bag, and began gnawing at its corners, rolling the shape over in her nimble paws. Soon freshly exposed metal caught the sun at every seam.
Seeing his opportunity, Will made his move, and plucked the phone from the stunned lawyer’s pocket. It was only then that the man who’d hired him realized that he’d been evicted from his former life.
“You wanted into the magic kingdom,” said Bunny, as she stumbled through the exit, “well, welcome to Disney Land.”
As he exited, Coffin shivered at the scraping sound of unyielding tooth on metal, and the pitiful weeping beneath it.
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