Story by Jeffery Scott Sims / Illustration by Jihane Mossalim
Ernst Klinghofer—that’s right, him, Hollywood’s latest unstoppable hotshot—got in touch with me, wanted to contract for my services. His brief letter read:
A forthcoming project of mine requires unique skills. A former client of yours brought to my attention the name and reputation of Sterk Fontaine. I may be able to use you. Contact me immediately at the appended telephone number. If I am satisfied, expect ample remuneration. Be prepared to come to me ready to work.
My blonde bimbo secretary Angie carried the message into my dingy office, leaned over the battered desk to comment as I read, “He knows more about you, Sterkie, than he lets on. He didn’t look up your address in the phone book. This guy does his homework.”
I brushed her off with a curt remark, sent her back to her receiving room, but she got me thinking, as she will at times. Maybe I don’t always give Angie enough credit—what would I do without her research skills?—but if I gave her too much, I might have to pay her more. Besides, on top of everything else, she’s my girl, right? So why shouldn’t I hang onto the cash, too much of which I spend on her as it is.
Anyway, I’d task her with investigating this bozo before I met him. Already I knew about Ernst Klinghofer what anybody did: German expatriate, director of a couple of murky artsy-fartsy foreign films of a gloomy bent that nobody watched, drew critical raves and some dopey awards. Then Hollywood sucked him in by throwing money at him, and he churned out a different kind of movie, one the critics loathed but audiences devoured.
Of course he was that Klinghofer, the perpetrator of those God awful “Psycho Revenge” flicks about the anonymous masked lunatic who stalks the twenty-something teenagers who did him wrong and slaughters them in weird ways. Naturally I’d never watched that populist junk (give me the old stuff, now, forever, and always), but I was aware of the film-maker’s fresh conceit, that of making the murderer the hero, the character the viewers rooted for while he entertainingly destroyed his snobby or puerile victims. This “bold new approach” proved a gold mine in thousands of theaters across the country, and Klinghofer continued to milk it through a dozen stamped out sequels.
I didn’t know much about him personally, short of recalling tales of his reclusiveness and haughty disdain for fellow cinematic artists. What did he know about me? I had a hard time guessing what he could possibly want.
I buzzed Angie, called through the intercom, “Okay, sweetie, get in touch. You know how to make me sound good. Arrange it.” I added, “Then go gangbusters digging up his dirt. Keep your fingers crossed that it’s pay dirt.” She squeaked her pleasure at that. Angie loves showing off her innate skills.
What did Klinghofer want with me? My card proclaims “Sterk Fontaine: Connoisseur of Arcane Archeology.” I maintain a crummy office on the wrong side of downtown, under the radar screen, where I don’t draw the wrong kind of attention. That’s my base for the buying and selling of unusual artifacts. I don’t always buy—don’t care how I acquire the stuff—but I always sell high. It’s a nifty racket, one that works well, when everything comes together.
See, I don’t peddle ordinary garbage like clay pots or petroglyphs chopped off of rocks. I leave the small stuff to the goons. I cater to an entirely different clientele. They’re a remarkable lot. This ho-hum, mundane, material world of ours contains a zany assortment of over-educated, obsessive oddballs who crave wisdom and power beyond the norm, the professional and amateur occultists who dedicate their lives to lore supernatural and paranormal. I’m not talking about the rubbish that turns up on dumb-headed video documentaries on cable TV or inside the garish covers of cheap paperbacks. If you hear about it that way, it’s guaranteed phoney. I mean the real stuff, that which the great minds of our planet have sought since before the first stones of the pyramids were laid.
For there is real stuff of that kind. I know. I don’t dabble myself—too tricky—but casting about once upon a time for a lucrative racket, I discovered that big scores were available to the man willing to supply the big boys, those self-styled scholars with shining eyes and over-heated brains. My system functions admirably. They get what they want, for whatever reason. I seldom ask. I get what I want, which is, now and then, a bloated wallet. That’s all I’m in it for.
And now Ernst Klinghofer desired to “use” me. Had he crossed his wires, or was he one of those?
The initial machinations went down easily. Angie dialed the provided number, apparently spoke with the great man himself. He set the date, offered his personal jet as a taxi into a small private airport outside Los Angeles, insisted I stay as guest at his Beverly Hills estate. Angie escorted me to the launching pad on our end. As I drove that morning down to Sky Harbor she indulged in a fulsome presentation of her fact finding.
“He’s a strange one,” she announced. “Nobody likes Klinghofer. He’s aloof, secretive, self divorced from the Hollywood crowd.”
“Then I give him high marks for good taste,” I observed.
“Don’t be so nice yet. I take he’s too much even for them. They consider him extreme. And it all has to do with loopy stuff.” That’s what she calls anything involving my trade, sweet girl. “He’s been kicked out of two organizations devoted to nutty and sinister ideas. They wouldn’t take him seriously, or took him too seriously, I can’t make out which. It sounds like devil worship to me. This guy could be really rotten.”
“Give me data,” I snapped.
“Okay,” she huffed, tossing her blonde curls. “You know he’s rich as a king, right?”
“Wrong. Seven months ago Klinghofer cleaned out his bank accounts. He didn’t transfer the money, he drew it out in hard currency: gold, silver, negotiable bonds. He’s scarcely a dime left to his name now. Nobody knows where the moola went.”
“Not even you?”
Angie sniffed. “He managed it without a trace. Shady business, Sterkie.”
Then none of mine, I hoped. What do I care if he blew his fortune on the horses? Angie rewarded me with a hug and a lingering kiss before she saw me off at the airport. I boarded Klinghofer’s jet—snazzy, well appointed, with a private pilot, and a temp stewardess doling out drinks and sandwiches—shot off for L.A.
The plane and I arrived precisely on time. Ernst Klinghofer met me there. I hadn’t counted on that sort of royal treatment. “Mr. Fontaine, delighted to meet you,” he declared, in a heavy low voice, European yet unaccented, if you get that. “I think you are the answer to a special prayer.” Interesting; prayer to whom?
He entirely resembled his rare tabloid photographs, maybe a tad taller than expected. Thin, the right side of middle age, casually and expensively dressed, a high forehead crowned with a shock of unruly black hair. He had a hard face composed of lines and angles, a nose that knifed the air, lips that sneered a grin, unfriendly dark eyes that seldom fully blinked. Gaudy jewelry glittered and tinkled on the wrist he extended when he absently shook my hand.
“My car awaits,” he announced, indicating a sporty, low-slung Italian model, one of those hand-made jobs designed for globe-trotting nobility. “I will drive you myself.”
“You surprise me,” I replied. “Doesn’t that beauty come with a built-in chauffeur?”
He laughed lightly, with a shrug. “I retain few servants, keep only a single man permanently at home. He attends presently to errands. This way, please.”
So he drove me, engaging only in small talk, to his house, or should I call it a mansion, or a castle? I’d seen its picture, too. The Hollywood wags called it Klinghofer’s Folly, that wacky edifice composed of clashing Old World styles mixed in with some bizarre architectural form that was maybe out of this world. Rumor had it he designed it himself. It looked both unprofessional and prohibitively costly, a conglomeration of turrets, towers, and sweeping balconies, with oddly shaped, multi-colored windows set into a massive three-storied framework of gray granite. I thought it an exhibitionist stunt rather than a dwelling, ponderously impressive though it might be. The grounds appealed more, remarkably spacious, green lawns speckled with fountains and marble statues, hidden inside a rectangle of high, densely placed trees within a forbidding masonry wall, the entrance defended by a complicated electrically driven gate. That slid open at the touch of a dashboard button; we slipped in, and the gate rolled back into place behind us. I saw no human guards, but several hounds of fierce demeanor roamed that enclosed landscape. Well trained, I presumed, they kept their distance as we passed around to the side and pulled into the four car garage, the door of which automatically rose to reveal a deep space crammed with fancy vehicles.
Klinghofer shepherded me into the house proper, led me through gaudy halls past garish rooms to the inner sanctum of his den, a regal chamber that dwarfed my apartment, cluttered with massy furniture and festooned with improbable art. Among these latter works were repulsive posters proclaiming the rancid delights of his killer flicks. As my host offered drinks from a truly grand bar I noticed an especially choice piece.
She whined, “I’ve been waiting, Ernst, so long. When do we eat? I’m starved.” None other than Alicia Harploy, third rate actress with a first rate bod who spent most of her public time prancing and screaming through Klinghofer’s cinematic trash. I guessed what the great director used her for in private. This famous personality, a tabloid queen, lounged now on a sofa, a sloshing drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, tramp-dressed in a dirty nightgown over soiled jeans.
He said, “I sent Wallace to fetch a quick lunch, yet I understand he may be delayed. We do not stand on ceremony today. I brought Mr. Fontaine here strictly for business.”
“Oh, yeah. This the guy who’s getting the goods for you?”
Klinghofer grinned tightly. “Mr. Fontaine and I will discuss arrangements. Alicia, for the time being, go play elsewhere.”
“I thought we could–”
“Beat it!” he growled. She huffed a hurt noise, tossed her popular blonde braids, flounced and bounced out of the room. After I’d enjoyed watching her move Klinghofer sighed, muttered to me, “I take them as I find them. Even the lesser ones may justify their existence. Fontaine, what will you have?”
Over drinks he introduced matters in sluggish, indirect stages. I excerpt from his rambling, initially wary conversation:
“Mr. Fontaine, I approach the culmination of a critical project. Into this I have poured my own money. My latest work shall constitute my masterpiece…”
“Alicia stars, plays a role most choice. In time, I judge, her fame will rest on this part…”
“Yes, Mr. Fontaine, it is another of what you style my ‘creep shows’, though with, I dare assert, a brand new, interesting, and amazing twist. This film, which I tentatively entitle ‘Dwellers From the Pit’, climaxes with a full scale, intensely authentic re-enactment of an ancient rite practiced by civilizations lost to history. Production proceeds apace. Only the conclusion awaits. I intend to capture on celluloid—for the entertainment of my audience—the raising of dark forces from the inner chambers of time and space…”
“Keep your opinions to yourself, Fontaine. I hire you not as critic, but as procurer. For the prime scene I require the legitimate, the original Cross of Xenophor…”
“I know all that, man. I know of its real and extraordinary power, and aught else. That which I desire resides in the private, guarded, utterly secure collection of Farnsworth. A matter of no consequence to me; I want it, shall have it. Get it for me, Fontaine: buy it, borrow it, or…”
Long he took to get to the point. Night had descended by the time I grasped the task he deigned. Of course I pointed out the ridiculousness of his request. The Cross of Xenophor—the ultimate treasure of the occultists—the fabled font of cosmic power, sought and murdered for from time immemorial, had attained supposedly safe haven in a loony but harmless rich man’s mansion cum compound by the bay on the outskirts of San Francisco. From what I’d heard of the thing, if one per cent were true, then best it stay with its silly collector. Based on my information, Farnsworth kept it better protected than the equally fabulous gold in Fort Knox. I said as much, casually, but dismissively.
Klinghofer’s cell phone, for the second time in a half hour, chirped a low, depressing Teutonic tune. This time he responded. “Yes, Wallace, come here at once, and bring her.” He tucked away his device, rose and said, “I feared such an answer, Fontaine. Even with your sort, I guessed that greed might not suffice. I present to you a fresh inducement. Behold! Enter, Wallace.”
Enter Wallace, a short, squat lump of muscle wrapped in ill-fitting suit and waving a chunky black Luger. Moist eyes gleamed in a pale, flabby face. He crowed in a stupid, sloppy voice, “I got the goods, Mr. Klinghofer, just like you told me. I did great, huh?”
“Shut up, Wallace, and bring her here,” snapped his boss. To me: “From your frozen stare, Fontaine, I gather you and the young lady have met.”
Not Alicia, as I’d figured, but Angie, my girl, driven at thug’s gunpoint. She dashed to me, held on tight, announced, “This jerk was waiting at the office when I returned. What’s it all about, Sterkie?”
I growled, “Klinghofer, don’t act the moron, although I’m sure you could take lessons from this ape. You can’t pull it off.”
“Who you calling an ape? Mr. Klinghofer, he can’t get away with–”
“Silence, fool,” he hissed. “Swallow your drivel and cover them without idiotic speech. Now, Fontaine, you know the score. I want the Cross of Xenophor. I demand it. You will get it, deliver it to me.” He grinned. “For what it’s worth now, I still guarantee payment. You shall not lose on the deal, nor this girl, if you cooperate fully. I keep her, and you upon your return, until I finish recording the final scene of ‘Dwellers From the Pit’. Do we shake on it?”
I didn’t shake, but snapped my head slightly forward. The bastard laughed. Wallace laughed too, until his master sneered.
Okay, I’ll cut to the chase on this next part. They took Angie off to a fancy room, sealed her up for the duration. I commenced plans. I work fast when needful, faster this time, without cutting corners on care for detail. I allowed two days intensive research and formulation. Klinghofer, of course, wasn’t sending me forth with a purchase order. I went to steal, to purloin a priceless item locked in a steel vault, the door watched by electric eyes and video cameras, on isolated property heavily patrolled, forever closed to visitors of any kind. No way that any one man could break through that shield to the Cross.
I got it. It’s a fun story, but I don’t have time for it now. When ready I journeyed, infiltrated, reached point zero, absconded with the goods, without anyone there or in the wide world the wiser, until I showed up next night at Klinghofer’s Folly with a burlap-wrapped package tucked under my arm. Wallace welcomed me with brutish cheer, marched me into the house and into the presence of the big man. Klinghofer gave me a warmer welcome, faking for an instant like we were old buddies. Then he ripped the package from my hands and tore into it with a letter knife.
“Is that it, Mr. Klinghofer?” cried Wallace, waddling forward. “Is that what’s going to make you more richer?”
Klinghofer’s back hand lashed out at his bully boy’s face like a cobra, his tone as venomous. “Not now, Wallace, not you, not at this time. This occasion screams for quality, not squalor. Remove your carcass from my sight, do you here? I order you to leave this room. Go make a sandwich, or wash under your arms, or shoot yourself in the head, but go!”
I smiled. “He’s got you dead to rights, Wallace. Leave this to the grown-ups, or anybody who passed third grade.”
Wallace made to come for me, but Klinghofer’s madly furious glare checked him, so he edged away and out, muttering to me, “Ah, he’s such a kidder, it don’t mean nothing, never does. I can’t wait to hurt you, pal. I’m really good at that.”
Klinghofer frantically tore off the inner wrapping, exposed his prize. He cradled it in his arms, the Cross of Xenophor, gold with peculiar inlaid designs of silver, the legendary seven eyes of vivid emerald. This treasured relic he’d wanted; as a stage prop? Not yet did I fully get the guy. He now breathed, “All is ready. The moment arrives. While the camera rolls, the gate shall open. A new age dawns!”
Whatever; I attempted to broach the subject of my position in all this, my concerns for Angie. He coldly interrupted. “Wallace will fetch your girl. I go to collect Alicia. We meet at the studio. When all is done, you go free.”
I contemplated jumping him then, but he briskly rang for Wallace, who reappeared like a shot, received caustic orders. The creep and his gun marched me upstairs to Angie’s cozy prison, released her. She threw herself at me again, more angry than frightened this time. “Cooped up in there, with nothing to occupy myself except gruesome DVDs of beheadings and exploding guts. What now, Sterkie?”
“Klinghofer films his great scene, then we split.”
I didn’t sound wholly confident, and I think she caught that. “Don’t be too sure,” she cautioned. “Remember, he’s a real nut case. You’ve dealt with wackos before. What if it’s more than a movie?”
Wallace advised greater respect, saying, “I’ll kill you if you don’t shut up. Mr. Klinghofer is a wonderful guy.”
“He despises you,” I pointed out. “Can’t you tell? He’s just about through with you.”
“One more word, brother, and your sweetheart drinks Drano.”
Wallace forced us downstairs, then surprised me by taking us still farther down, into a hitherto unperceived cellar. My skin crawled, I tensed for desperate action. He pushed open a door, giving onto a brightly lighted chamber.
“Welcome,” called our host, “to the private studio of Ernst Klinghofer.” He and Alicia Harploy, she dressed in gaudy old-fashioned robes, stood amidst movie lights, big cameras, other tools of the trade. “Nothing public about this shot, you understand,” he went on. “I keep my grandest secret until I present the final version to the world.”
Alicia snorted, whined, “I need make-up, handlers, light checks. Ernst, honey, why this rinky-dink stuff? Let’s wait until morning, bring in the crew.”
“No. I have what I need. Here the shooting script—take it—the Cross, the ancient words in this parchment. I laid out the set with my own hands. I shall run this show myself, to its fated climax.”
Alicia whined again about what a flip through the pages revealed, her death scene. “Always I get it in the neck.”
“In the soul this time, my dear. Wallace, move back, guard the door. Fontaine, you and that one, over in that far corner. Do not interfere, not so much as cough.”
A glimpse of that parchment chilled me. It looked authentically antique too, and in association with the Cross stirred wild surmises. Angie looked at me with big eyes, whispered, “What, if it is more than a movie?”
“I don’t know, babe. Stand by for strenuous measures, and if the time comes, don’t hold back.”
The set consisted of a backdrop of black curtains framing on three sides a rectangular cement slab of a dais. Candles of blood-red wax stood at the corners. Klinghofer lighted them, one by one, with solemn motions. They burned, oddly, with a steady greenish flame. He directed his ragged at the edges star (she could use make-up) to mount the dais, lay herself out death-bed fashion. He peeled back her robes, exposing white nakedness. That was nothing new for her, and she took it in stride—I reacted more, to Angie’s slight sniff of disgust—until he laid upon her bosom the Cross.
“It’s cold,” she whined.
“Absolute stillness,” he commanded. Klinghofer stepped back, maneuvered a rolling camera. Having captured a few seconds of film, he shut off the machine, unrolled his old, crumbly scroll. Shaking it my way, he said, “I acquired this from Egypt, Fontaine, from the temple of Azamodias. Mean anything to you?”
“You disappoint me, sir. Pay attention, and learn.”
Angie whispered, “I recall something about that, when I checked up on him. It’s naughty.”
Klinghofer directed Alicia to grasp the Cross. Switching on the camera, he pulled toward him a microphone, intoned a lunatic chant from behind the lens. It went on and on ad nauseum, gradually gaining in decibels and velocity. After several truly weird stanzas he practically bellowed, “Unleash, I beseech you, O Azamodias, thy devil dogs, thy instruments that pant and slaver beyond the gate. Throw back the doors, that they may run wild with hungry abandon amongst the hovels and palaces of men. Task them to me, thy acolyte, that in thy name I may rule.”
A voice responded, emanating, I reckoned, from behind the curtains, presumably a prepared recording, as all the candles flared and flickered. I’m not keen to recall that voice. It enunciated the syllables accurately but clumsily, slurring them, as if the words burst from a throat and mouth not accustomed to normal speech. It spoke only the once, only to ask: “Does the offering submit willingly?”
Klinghofer nodded curtly to Alicia who, perhaps exhibiting mild puzzlement, nevertheless delivered her prepared line. Face up, body motionless, her lips gave vent to: “This life belongs to thee.”
In a frenzy of sudden mobility Klinghofer clicked off his devices, turned to his henchman. “Come here, Wallace. Don’t waste a second.” That vermin approached the brilliant scene, his ugly face beaming with the joy of being needed. “Now, Wallace, take this dagger and plunge it straight into Miss Harploy’s heart.”
Master produced an ornamental blade, thrust it into servant’s gunless paw. Alicia squeaked, Wallace hesitated, until Klinghofer urged him on, snapping, “It’s a prop, cretin, a fake. Do it, as if you meant it. Do it immediately!”
Wallace dashed forward with a stupid grin as the movie man re-activated his gear. Wallace raised high the dagger, plunged it down hard. Alicia shrieked, writhed. Blood gushed from her breast. Klinghofer roared with laughter.
Wallace gasped, backed away from the impaled woman, whose spasms quickly stopped. He whirled, pistol held high, faced Klinghofer, who continued to cackle. “Boss, what did I do? What’s going on? It’s some kind of trick, right? Is that it?”
By way of answer Klinghofer took a long stride, plucked the weapon from his hand and shot him twice through the torso. “Good riddance!” I heard. “No more use for this animalistic dolt, when my master sends better servants to act at my beck.”
“But boss,” wailed the sagging Wallace, “what did I do wrong? Tell me–” Klinghofer fired point blank into his skull.
While this drama unfolded I didn’t stand around gawking. In the space of a heart beat I pushed Angie toward the door, through which she dashed from sight, then closed myself to grapple with that insane fellow. I lunged as he spun, grabbing for the gun, but in my blind haste clutched at the wrong hand, tore away the majority of that blasted parchment. He stumbled backward, mouth agape, plunked down hard on his butt, rolled too far away from me. Tossing the flapping rubbish of scroll, I dived for the nearest heavy object in view, scooped up the Cross of Xenophor and hefted it like a club. Before I could swing it he rose to a kneel, gun aimed squarely at my eyes. Klinghofer sneered, “The cutting room floor for you, Fontaine.”
The lights dimmed. Darkness flowed across the ghastly corpse of Alicia. I got one last look at her features, frozen in dead shock. Shapes crawled out of that darkness, shapes hideous, unimaginable, impossible compounds of yellow eyes, teeth and claws, coming at me. I forgot about Klinghofer and his ridiculous gun. I regret to admit that I bowed my head and screamed.
And that screaming continued, relentless bursts of mindless horror, redolent of searing agony, only it wasn’t my pain, and it wasn’t my gagging cries. Fighting off terror I raised my head, gazed upon a nightmare tableau. Things hovered about the thrashing form of Ernst Klinghofer, things that bit and tore, gnawed and rent. I choked back another scream; how could he still live, in that incomplete state? He should have been worm food ten times over, yet his fiendish assailants prolonged his torment beyond the capacities of human flesh. When he stopped kicking, it was fragments that ceased unholy motion. Then the creatures crouched and faced me.
The vile voice that had previously spoken uttered from the air, “What now would you have?”
My brain shifted into overdrive. I still held the Cross of Xenophor. A kind of logic filtered into my mind. I took hold a firmer grasp, replied, “Nothing. It is done. Take them away, I beg of you, shut and seal the gate.”
Did I hear a rumbling, as of an earthquake, or a low chuckle? “So be it.” The crouching horrors vanished into the dark. The gloom receded. Blazing lights dazzled me. It felt hot in there. Sweat dripped from my chin.
I stood amidst the carnage, the wreckage of three human bodies, Cross in hand, alone with my disordered thoughts in that pitiful scene. Came again a suggestion of rumbling, but this time it increased, a nervous shaking. I fled. Floor and walls rocked around me. Good Lord, I’d mislaid Angie—had to get her out of there—found her in the den, telephone in hand.
“I was just about to call the cops,” she hotly declared. I yanked it away, threw it down, hustled her out. The ceiling creaked atrociously. We got out via the garage, where I operated the gate controls, made it into the yard. Fortunately the hounds, of any sort, didn’t molest us. Klinghofer’s guard dogs howled somewhere in the night, antagonized by the on cue quaking. We never saw them.
Passing the gate, we arrested flight long enough to observe the denouement of the night’s festivities. Klinghofer’s most notable folly crashed down onto its foundations, as if squashed flat by a gigantic foot. Dust and debris geysered; flames licked against the blackness.
Thus endeth the tale. The news reports told us all about the explosion and fire, cause unknown, that leveled Klinghofer’s place, killing all within and terminating a dreamy Hollywood career. I heard—this through the grapevine—about how Mr. Farnsworth recovered his precious property, returned to him by post in a well-padded parcel. In other circumstances I might have sold the Cross back to him, but I decided to avoid the chance of unintended consequences. The free recovery restored, one may presume, Farnsworth’s happiness. What about mine?
Angie, practical as always, concluded, “A lot of trouble, nothing to show for it except heat,” by which she alluded to the subsequent visit paid to my office by agents of the legal authorities. I left no traces, they hadn’t a clue, but they aren’t fools, I’m necessarily on their short list when it comes to capers involving priceless and peculiar objects d’art. Anyway, I fobbed them off with my standard show of incredulous innocence.
I pulled Angie close, sighed and replied, “Yes, darling, economy measures are in order, unless I cook up a fast deal fast. Pity I didn’t hang on to that scroll; I could have cadged some dimes from that. Sooner, soonest, you get cracking, check out the next possibilities. However, give me a break. This time, honey—maybe just this once—find me something simple, easy, and most of all safe. I’ll work for peanuts, for a spell, if my nerves require it.”
The Curse of Arroya’s Ghost by Paul Lorello / Illustration by Toe Keen
The name is Blaze…Calibus Blaze! And he’s as smooth of a spy as they come. Someone had the audacity to kidnap the beautiful Señora Arroya right out of a presidential banquet filled with the who’s who of the diplomatic scene. Now it’s up to Blaze to solve the mystery of her kidnapping before an international firestorm erupts. Luckily, he’s just the man to pull it off.