This is a flashfiction that I wrote back in March, and never ended up posting. It was in response to the Terribleminds SUPER-ULTRA-MEGA GAME OF ASPECTS challenge.
- Subgenre: Lovecraftian
- Setting: An Opium Den
- Conflict: Political Maneuvering!
- Aspect: A severed hand
- Theme: Chaos always trumps order
The Hand of Doom
“You’ve brought the thing?”
Abraham Marlow threw the brown-paper wrapped package onto the low table next to the hookah. He sank down onto the tasselled, faded cushion and looked around warily. Marlow didn’t belong here. Lithe, blond, tan; he rippled with good health and clean living. The opium smoke, hanging in thick blue clouds around every table, made him flare his nostrils and choke back a cough.
I sucked on the end of my pipe, tasting the bitter-sweet drug. Smiled. I, unlike Marlow, did belong here. Sallow, greasy, small and pot-bellied. This was my territory, not his and I revelled in his discomfort.
Reaching forward, I peeled back a corner of paper from the package. Three fingers, white with death, the nails embedded with crusty blood. A gold signet ring that proclaimed the owner’s identity. I took the prints quickly and checked that they matched.
“You got the money?” Marlow wanted out of this place. He’d done his job – a grim, unpleasant job – and now he wanted to get back to his ordered life. He had a beautiful wife and two small children. If he was discovered here, the scandal could ruin him.
“How did you do it?”
Guilt in his brown eyes. Poor boy. He’d never square this act away with the image he had of himself. Successful, healthy businessmen with families did not commit murder. They did not bring severed hands to dingy opium dens. But he had. Would it eat away at him, this foul deed, until, mad with shame, he ended his life? Or would he push the deed away, to some dark corner of the mind where it would fester and stink, the rotting memory poisoning every aspect of his life?
“When he was swimming, like you said. In the sea. I swam out to him and stabbed him. He drowned quick enough.”
I slid the briefcase across the table. One hundred thousand dollars this Governor’s life had cost me. A bargain.
Marlow opened the case and looked at the notes blankly. He shut it again quickly. His gambling mistakes would be wiped clean with this little fortune. One hundred thousand dollars to settle his ledger and return to his ordered life. I blew a smoke ring. Marlow was haloed in a soft light and left trails of movement behind him that faded softly into the blue air.
“Can you at least tell me why?” Marlow stood up, clutching the briefcase.
“Oh… for fun.” I smiled, enjoying his disquiet. “Take care now.”
I watched him leave. He had killed the Governor, and he went now back to normality. Out of the smoke, to settle his debts and pretend none of this had ever happened.
I picked up the severed hand and stood up. My legs shook a little under me. Opium was a hard drug to take in moderation. It blurred the lines between this world and the next. I saw death, sometimes, standing next to me. His skull wreathed in smoke, drifting through those empty eye sockets like snakes.
I stumbled upstairs to my private room. The air here mercifully cool and clean. I opened a window and tried to let my head clear. The hand was the last ingredient, the hand of an honest man. The Governor had been an honest man. Perhaps the last honest man left in politics.
I went to the table where the book lay. Bound in pale leather, the text writhing unnaturally across it. There were, perhaps, a handful of men in the world that could translate that spidery text. The alphabet, after all, is a system of order – a method by which we take loose, unformed concepts and bind them into named entities. Such binding is the antithesis of the ideas this book contained. So a writing system had to be invented, one that did not bind concepts but let them flow, so that the text became a mirror, a conversation between reader and book that left both of them changed.
I dropped the hand next to the other items. Powdered horn from the last black rhino that had lived. A vial containing H1N1. A fragment of dinosaur bone that I had stolen from a museum. My hands shaking, I began the ritual, words bubbling up from the cavernous place in my soul where He lived.
He lives in all of us, even in Marlow, who runs ten miles three times a week and sticks to a careful ratio of macronutrients in every meal. He took Marlow to Vegas, not often but often enough. And so He makes Himself known.
Marlow is home now, hugging his wife. Sitting down to a lovely dinner. His girls beam at him. He feels relieved, his debts are settled. He resolves never to gamble again. A resolve that may last a day, a week, a decade, but a resolve that will be broken as surely as death.
Not that it matters. Be delivering the hand to me he has settled the fates of every human being on earth. My mouth shapes the guttural words, they twist in my mouth, burning my tongue.
A wind with no origin springs up in my room. It rattles the windows, flings papers to the ground, and slams open the leather-bound book on my desk, rifling through the pages greedily. I see the scattered letters, writhing, changing shape, blurring before my eyes. I hear a sound, like nothing I have ever heard before, the kind of sound that might be produced by giant crickets sawing their legs in a frenetic non-rhythm. There is something hideous in it, a bone-crunching violent undertone that makes me squirm. My chant wavers, losing its sonorous resonance, breaking down into shrill stutterings. I can taste blood. The wind has stopped rifling through the pages of the book, it lays open now. The ink is stretching and reforming before me. Everything else is falling into shadow.
I look at what is written and terror engulfs me. I have made a terrible mistake. The words are stark and fixed, showing me exactly how badly I have misunderstood. The noise surrounds me, fills my ears, I am lost in the roaring, crunching chaos of noise.
The fire that swept through Forty-Second Street on the 27 April, killing twenty three people, was started in an opium den. Investigators say that the speed and strength of the blaze is still unexplained, but that the fire began on the second floor of the drug haven at around 10.20pm when a man known only as Curwen set light to some unidentified objects in his private room. Curwen himself survived the fire, and has been remanded to a mental institution.
Doctor Lucy Miles, who is treating Curwen, was unavailable for comment.
Article from the Sunday Times, 1 March 1987
The death of the late Governor Patham has been ruled an accident, following a three week investigation. Authorities recovered his body, and it was apparent that he had drowned at sea after being pulled out by a strong current. An election has been called for the 10 May. Abraham Marlow, successful businessman and father of two, announced he would be standing as a candidate. “This great city has helped me thrive, and it is my desire to see it thrive in turn.”
Article from the New Herald 10 March 1987