Story by Jeffery Scott Sims
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
When I received the message from Gregor Tharaspas, I knew I was on to a hot one, or a weird one. My dutiful secretary Angie carried it in to me, plunked down the copy on my office desk and said, “This just arrived in your private box. He doesn’t say how he got the e-mail address. A referral, you think, from a previous happy client?”
“Guess so,” I replied airily, snatching the sheet. “He’ll tell me if it matters.” Sometimes they did, sometimes not, unless I pressed, which wasn’t often. If the job sounded good—if the customer was the real deal, the assignment genuine and lucrative—I tended to minimize the pointless questioning. I concentrated on pleasing my clients, strange folks in the main, who typically desired the acquisition of unusual items they couldn’t get hold of safely and legally without going through me.
I read: “To Sterk Fontaine. Want object in your line. Difficulties involved. Superior fee. Come to my home. Dr. Gregor Tharaspas.” Not much there, yet plenty. Doctor, he called himself. I knew of Tharaspas what everyone did, that he was a long-time big shot and self-promoter in the psychic trade, peddling for big bucks celestial ideas of touchy-feely wellness, cosmic enhancement, esoteric research and so forth. He’d developed quite a racket over the years, earning a fortune and splashing it about lavishly. I knew where he lived and operated, didn’t know if he were a charlatan or pretended, even to himself, to be the genuine article.
“I’m about to find out,” I said aloud. I pushed the paper back to Angie for filing. “How would you like a trip to Sedona?”
Angie, easy to please, or rather ever ready to be pleased, tossed her curly blonde hair and chortled, “That’s great, Sterkie. I’m due for a shopping spree there at Marly’s Boutique.”
“Keep that in bounds,” I cautioned severely, “until after this business. Tharaspas can fund my retirement if he’s straight.”
“He’s another one of your kooks.” She was smart, didn’t miss much. I deal with more than my share of oddballs. How can I avoid it, when I trade in artifacts paranormal and mysterious—the stuff most people won’t admit exists—to be gained ethically or effectively?
“Probably,” I snorted. “A kook with deep pockets. Shoot back a response, tell him I can be up on Thursday.” Thus, commenced a most peculiar adventure.
Arrangements made, two mornings later we pulled into Sedona, Arizona’s capital of the beautiful and the insane, land of scenic wonder beyond compare and nuttiness beyond belief. Folks journeyed to Sedona for two reasons: to soak up the unparalleled glories of nature provided by the world famous Red Rock Country (a rival to the Grand Canyon), and to drown in the concentrated lunacy of imagined psychic awareness that true believing tourists ate out of fancy slop buckets. What they believed, of course, was junk, the pop crap peddled for cash by, among others, the likes of Tharaspas. Oh, I almost forgot the third reason. I dropped Angie off at that blasted shop of hers at opening time, implored her not to land me in the poorhouse before I collected her. She just laughed as she flounced away. I grimaced, knowing her too well. I don’t miss much, either.
Let me tell you about the set-up of Tharaspas in Sedona. He’s got the best digs around, which counts for a lot in that territory. Picture the vast, stark cliffs of the Mogollon Rim, the enormous sandstone buttes and spires like fairy castles, the grandeur of Cathedral Rock all looming above, as I wound my way through a ritzy neighborhood on the east side of town to my destination. There Tharaspas ran out of his home a private foundation, The Institute for Arcane Studies. Farther up, on a big ledge of jutting bedrock, towered his most popular construction, the freakishly designed Chapel of Eternal Truth, an eye-catching edifice of solid unadorned concrete that catered to all the goofy hopefuls. He raked in a fair living just from their frequently requested donations. A curious building that, the chapel, personally designed by its owner according to no principles understood by sane architects. A simple mass of bare slabs and abrupt angles, there were those who claimed it conformed to standards of geometry not native to this planet. Take that kind of guff for what it’s worth. It is a stunning, and tricky, sight to behold.
Only forget that for the nonce, and concentrate on the mansion below, the home of my erstwhile client. Five years in the raising, I hear, and one can see where all the time and reputed millions went. Tharaspas Manor is one for the books. Its architecture isn’t so odd, but it’s astounding, garish, boastful, and unique The latter being the point, I reckon. It comes complete with a spacious walled lawn incorporating a golf course, a waterfall, a pond with big Japanese goldfish, strutting peacocks and a few other exotic birds I didn’t recognize. I was waved in by a flunky at the side gate leading to the four-car garage. The man asked for my keys, directed me to an inner door. Another minute of trekking through wood-paneled halls led me to the vast den or inner sanctum of Doctor Gregor Tharaspas.
He sprang with agile grace from the depths of a massive leather chair to greet me warmly. An impressive fellow, in the flesh; those pictures you’ve seen of him in the tabloids don’t do him justice. Tall, lean, a hard body wrapped in tailored duds of expensive simplicity, his face angular like his crazy chapel, thick mane iron gray, eyes of flint that, I learned, could spark a fire. He spoke with a cultured, unplaceable accent. Extending a firm hand, he said, “Welcome, Mr. Fontaine. I wish to get started at once. I will pour you a drink. Do you require anything else at this time?”
“I’ve breakfasted. I’ll take the drink. Looks like the good stuff.”
His mouth barely stretched a grin, exposing perfect teeth. “It is, Mr. Fontaine. Please sit down. First, I demand definitive clarification. What I have heard of you is true? You deal in the physical manifestations of the legitimate supernatural, in relics of power and purpose beyond the conventional understandings of our narrow age. You produce these for your clients, without regard to societal niceties… or personal risk?”
I chuckled. “I say yes, Tharaspas, but I’ll deny it before third parties.”
He laughed, quite pleasantly. Still standing, he replied, “Excellent. My problem is simple enough, in the bare telling possibly uninteresting to you. Some years ago, I sold something—a swap, really—came out well on the deal, owe much of my ongoing success to the transaction. At the time I thought it a superb bargain. I have come to think otherwise. In short, I want the item back. Unfortunately, I have no valid claim to it.”
I nodded, sipped my drink slowly (snazzy wine!), then: “Which is where I come in.”
“Precisely. I can not reclaim the object myself, am forbidden even to try. I assure you, that option is wholly denied me. Therefore, you must take it, restore it to me.”
“What is this thing?”
Tharaspas stooped at his desk—an incredible, old-fashioned roll-top behemoth, clearly antique yet like brand new—pressed a buzzer. “Let us pause for a moment. I wish you to meet my wife.”
Whatever; a cagey cuss, at brass tacks time. During that free period, my attention wandered about that room. Everywhere I looked I beheld splendor, quality, wealth crystallized in priceless, one of a kind possessions. One piece, about the size of a small clock, particularly fascinated me. I rose to study it. It squatted atop an end table, an intricate conglomeration of gold and silver and platinum and inlaid jewels. It wasn’t an objective anything, rather a pure work of art, likely fashioned special for its owner by a master craftsman, a freaky compound of planes, strands, beads, and curves, each facet meaningless, yet uniting in a totality of amazing, lust-inducing brilliance. For no reason I could consciously explain, I felt like drooling.
“A neat trinket, I grant,” Tharaspas spoke from behind me. His voice continued, in a different tone, “My dear Vanda, meet our guest.”
I turned. This world provides a boatload of girls. I’ve got one—Angie—a great kid, treats me right so long as I hold the leash, and a proper secretary too, but Vanda Tharaspas was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. That wasn’t all of her. Her voice played on a musical instrument (think harp). Old world manners guided her movements, the flexing of her smile, the framing of her innate charm. I automatically envied her husband, had half a mind to kill him.
I don’t describe her. Use your imagination, knowing she exceeded that by light years. She said, “Gregor, is this the man come to help us?” Having confirmed this, he introduced us. Shortly we three sat conversing, engaging solely in conversational banalities, not once again touching upon the reason—whatever it was—for my being there. I studied her long and hard, not because I thought it mattered, but because I chose to do so. Heavenly she was, as my best words would fail to explain, only I detected at length a somber, sobering undercurrent to her persona. I got the impression, after many minutes, of something off-kilter, a disconnect between Vanda and her milieu. I rebelled at the notion; it wasn’t coldness, nor haughtiness, nor putting on of airs. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Idly I thought—yes, this was it—she functioned within, despite her apparent vibrancy, the veil of the sleepwalker.
In time Tharaspas courteously suggested that she return to unstated duties. “Do not let our chit-chat detain you,” he finished. He kissed her; she went away. He and I sat there silently for a spell. I felt something important coming, without the slightest idea what it could be. Tharaspas opened a box of huge cigars, lit one, offered another. I accepted it, another special treat where everything was special. After replenishing drinks, he said, “What do you think?”
Too broad a question, so I exhaled steadily, replied, “You must be a very happy man, Tharaspas.”
He sank back into his chair. “No. I got the worst of the bargain, and a fool I was to believe otherwise. You see, dearest Vanda has always been my right arm, as well as the love of my life. She supported me in all things, from the beginning, when I commenced the building of my esoteric empire. I craved the enlightenment afforded by the magical spheres beyond our stale, circumscribed reality. I sought it and found it, with Vanda’s selfless aid. You see, Fontaine, I am not a fake. I investigate, grasp, manipulate, the actuality of experience. Those who flock to me… well, I give them what they desire, a kindness, for they could neither accept nor tolerate the truth. I settle for nothing less. As a result, my mind and being expands exponentially into realms that dwarf the human cosmos.
“I call her selfless. That takes us back to business. Fontaine, she willingly sacrificed for me, for my gigantic endeavors, sustaining and supporting me to the nth degree. I went along, heedless of private concerns. Younger then, ambitious, unwilling to accept defeat no matter the cost; there I reveal to you the man I was. I shall undo it all now if I must. Be sure of that, man. Should you go the limit for me, where I can not, I will go every other way. The ultimate peril approaches critical mass. I call for immediate action.”
I sighed, stubbed out my cigar in exasperation. “Cut to the chase, Tharaspas. I’m all mixed up. You got a job for me? Tell me what it is. Does it concern your wife? Is that why we discuss her? Okay, I’m a grown-up, you can level. My time is as valuable as yours. Hit me with it.”
He chuckled bitterly. “Just like that, eh? You do talk the right sort of man.” He seemed to brace himself, an intense shudder coursing through his entire body. “I give you, Fontaine, the absolute truth. I sold the soul of my wife. With her consent, I made the exchange, in return for special services granted by… well, by one who could grant them. I received those services, and the accrued knowledge imparted. Now I choose to renege. Your task consists of retrieving Vanda’s soul, that I may restore it to her.”
“Okay,” I replied, endeavoring mightily to suppress a grin. I doubt that I succeeded. “Sure, I just fetch it and hand it over. That’s clear cut. Is it kept somewhere in a box?”
Without reacting to my flippancy, he said, “It is kept somewhere.”
“Will the present owner object?”
“Possibly. If I attempted to take it, I would die, and that if I was lucky. You have a good chance, I think. What can be done by me to prepare your way has already been performed. Once you start out, you would be on your own, naturally.”
“Naturally. How do I get there from here?”
“You don’t. You can get there, however, from my chapel.”
I couldn’t help exclaiming with a laugh, “Tharaspas, are you really paying me for this?”
He bounced briskly from the chair, nervously animated, announced, “One million dollars, Fontaine, for a job which, objectively speaking, should require only a few hours of your time. Do you find that satisfactory? Or perhaps”—he paused, fingered that amazing artwork on the table—”I noticed your fondness for my little ornament. Unique, this, the capture by a great artist, at my behest, of an unearthly mood felt by me during a journey into higher planes of existence. I can not place a price on it. It means almost as much to me as Vanda.” He hefted the thing easily in one hand, smiled at it fondly… and tossed it without warning right at my face. I caught it clumsily with both hands, cursing up a storm.
He said, “Take that if you so desire. It is yours if you save my wife’s soul.”
Understand, if it’s possible, that the legit business of selling souls isn’t anything like what you read in storybooks, but I guess the end result is pretty much the same, and I guess only really wild characters ever get the opportunity, or think to exercise the option. Yes, Tharaspas and his wife were those types, and they did it, with the customary gains and losses. Tharaspas filled me in on some of the backstory while he walked me up to the chapel. Part of it I likely needed to hear, a bunch more I could have lived without. If you don’t work with this stuff regularly, as I do, a lot of it wouldn’t make sense. There are powers beyond—levels of powers—that grant boons and dooms, depending on how you approach them. Every step of the process reeks with danger, and the individuals involved don’t get another break. This being my first dive into those particular waters, I might manage to float long enough to pull off the heist; for such it was.
We crossed the viewing platform where all the ooh and aah tourists chattered loudly and snapped crappy photos at arm’s length with their cheap point and shoots, passed through the vaulted public chamber with its platitude-inscribed walls where they herded to commune in the vortex or whatever they imagined they’d find, entered into a corridor in the rear which spiraled down an iron staircase into a quite different, smaller chamber. This cramped space, once illuminated by a single antique oil lamp, I saw contained a blocky stone dais laid on with papers and various metal and ceramic gew-gaws of sinister design, figurines of bizarre shape that I refrained from asking about. Strange, painted images covered the concrete walls, floor, and ceiling, representations of distorted geometrical forms, starbursts, and many yellow oval daubs that evilly suggested glaring eyes. Tharaspas slammed the massive iron-framed door, triple locked it. He leafed through documents on the dais, lighted stinky candles that burned in weird, varying colors.
My employer assured me that from here I would embark upon my journey into the unknown. He explained enough—barely, and that all he knew—that I ought to be able to locate the object I sought. I accepted on faith what he said, my options (other than cutting out) being limited. He told me to stand in a corner, back to the room, head bowed, eyes closed.
Tharaspas conducted a ceremony. Without another word to me, he got to it. I heard the ruffling of papers, the manipulation of objects, interspersed with his peculiar jabber. He recited the words of an incomprehensible language, syllables so twisted that I couldn’t believe them created for the human tongue to enunciate. One word he spoke repeatedly, with special emphasis and jarring intonation: Xenophor, Xenophor. I’d come across that word before, in association with one of my creepier clients best forgotten. Hearing it now, in this venue, with all its possible logical ramifications, made my scalp crawl.
The lighting altered, as discerned through closed lids, subsided to a dull gray. Did the room shake slightly, accompanied by a low rumbling? I swore it did. The voice of Tharaspas arced to a shriek; before my eyes involuntarily popped open there seemed a dazzling flash of pure white. I spun around. He wasn’t there. The heavy slab of the dais lay empty of paper or artifacts. The chamber had grown very dark, the lamp having failed. No, wait, I could still see dimly, so some juice must remain… only it didn’t. The lamp was dead. I could see, slightly, in pitch darkness.
Given what had passed, I knew something important had occurred, but left to my lonesome it was up to me to find out what. Right, the first item on my agenda: get out of there. I unbolted the door, dragged it open, circled my way up the winding stairs, which now creaked and groaned abominably. I could see enough to guide my feet, without knowing how.
I emerged into similar dimness in the upper, the public, chapel. That big space was vacant of people—I didn’t hear anyone—and its effects, the pews, altar, displays and so forth, looked dingy, dusty, long disused. I called out to Tharaspas. My own voice well nigh terrified me. It sounded weak, faded as if it could scarcely carry across the room. Nobody answered. A horrid idea began to steal upon me.
How could it be so dark up here? The sunlight should stream through those gaudily inlaid windows. Nerving myself, I dashed outside. Darkness, the darkness of impossible night; had I lost time? No, with a moment’s recollection and strained analysis I guessed better. I strode quickly away from the mass of the chapel building, turned to absorb the sweeping view.
I had lost my world. This imitated it, in part. There rose the bulk of the chapel, its formerly pristine surfaces repellently blotched. To the west I looked out on the valley below, to the east to the sandstone bluffs and cliffs above, their rough outlines familiar. Not much else assured me. The signatures of civilization, the houses and streets, had decayed into fallen or collapsing wreckage. Interestingly, the great house of Tharaspas appeared especially brutalized, a hillock of unrecognizable rubble. Nowhere could I spy the gleam of an electric light, nor the movement of living things or vehicles. I had come into a dead land, one which cruelly mocked what I remembered.
I glimpsed dry, leafless shrubs, among the snaky branches of which flitted no birds, nor even a stray lizard as I could tell. Perhaps they hid from the night, but why should there be night? And what kind of night confronted me here? I recalled a moon from the previous evening. It, too, fled from my sight. The stars didn’t, yet after a brief examination, I wished they did. They were dull, unflickering, mostly reddish. Even they, I thought, had decayed.
Okay, I had traveled, begun a journey; the mode of conveyance devised by Tharaspas worked. Despite certain indicators, I had arrived at another place, and somewhere out there lay my goal. Savvy enough to figure that out, I could wonder hopelessly how to proceed. The cautionary statements of Tharaspas ill-prepared me for this job. To tell the truth, I felt put upon, indeed trapped, fleetingly feared a vicious trick. Then, before panic ran wild, I thought better. Tharaspas counted on me. He expected me to achieve his ends, at least to have a fighting chance. Fine, I’d better get moving, then.
Pick a direction, any direction; I marched down the cracked, weedy asphalt drive, past the completely crumbled mess of Tharaspas’ mansion, into lovely Sedona. For obvious reasons, I didn’t carry away favorable impressions this time. The sprawling town, spread across its many hills and dipping into its rocky ravines, appeared abandoned, forsaken a thousand years, bereft of life and of light, save for the weak glow of the desiccated stars or whatever allowed me to see beyond my outstretched hand. At one point I crossed a murky, sullen stream that stank of poisonous dead things. The road bridge out, I had to wade across that liquid filth. Half in delirium, I debated padding my expense account. This wasn’t part of the deal! I smelled vile as I trudged up the other side of a steep declivity, entered the downtown area.
Lurid surprises awaited me. Hitting the main road into town, a jumble of chaotic shapes encroached on my vision shortly after I made my turn. Here, at the entrance to the tourist trap drag, I found all those cars that normally surged into the central madhouse. Cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, now metal and fiberglass debris, tangled askew all over the road, some plowed into others. I had to hunt for a path through the mess.
The once bright, inviting shops were dismal shells, the mausolea of good times had by all in life. I thought that, asked myself what kind of world I had entered. I felt out of life, a wanderer in a dark parody of the real, only this was real too, a compound of shadows or failing reflections mirroring or mimicking the domain of light, glimpsed via false sight that saw what ought to be total darkness.
Standing in the dead heart of Sedona, I noticed a creeping change in part of the landscape. For some time, the view beyond town had returned only blackness, but now I began to perceive the form of gigantic terrain out there. There rose the massive hulk of Wilson Mountain, the outlines of exotic buttes, the deep gash of Oak Creek Canyon. A slightly heightened radiance emanated from the vicinity of what I took for Steamboat Rock, that huge stone lump that overhung the town. Regarding that with special attention, I discerned differences between its present form and that I recalled so well from previous, light-hearted, excursions. Up there brooded something more than the natural, appealing irregularities carved and scoured by rain and wind. Why—yes—Steamboat Rock too had been transformed, had sprouted evidence of morbid artifice.
It wasn’t a big red rock butte anymore. I gazed upon calculated structure, design writ large, an incredible building rammed into the mountainside, vaguely akin to the usual mass. I saw a domed roof, possibly of veined marble, with a columned arcade beneath, an interminable flight of stone steps leading up to that. From widely spaced rectangular windows glimmered the dull red glow that faintly illuminated the surrounding country.
This vista didn’t call for an investigation. It repelled, spoke to my mind a warning, or my instincts did. Unfortunately, I knew with the complete absence of doubt that my true path led into that weird pile. It had come to light, I feared, for my benefit, if that be the word.
Continuing my march through the sad residue of Sedona, I cleared the clutter of ruined shops, stamped along the deteriorating lane through a series of bare earth road cuts, presently rounded a bend to a fallen highway bridge. In its absence, the sheer gorge below was hopelessly impassable, which mattered not, for the stone steps rode up the mountain on this side of the drop. Straight as an arrow that flight rose to the gloomy temple far above.
The Temple, I called it, for it resembled one, somewhat Greek in style, although I’m no expert in such matters; I saw the bold stairway, the columns, the broad dome, thought Greek, while ready to admit that the minutiae of architecture pointed to no recognized tradition. I went up. Step by step I climbed. No disorder or decay here; the stone was marble, white I suppose, veined with a darker color hard to make out, perfect, without cracks or wear, like brand new, laid down especially for my feet. Being in good shape, I made the climb nimbly enough. I mounted hundreds of steps on the way. Maybe it was thousands. I perspired, wearied toward the top. Curiously, I didn’t crave drink or food. Again, this place operated according to its own rules.
Here’s another example of that, a little thing that bugged me a lot, for a spell. Perspective on those stairs fooled me. Due to an unusual angle, or perhaps cosmic hijinks, I couldn’t see that enormous temple as I made my way up to it. I saw steps, going up forever, an infinite progression, until suddenly I set foot on a marble platform and the vast structure gleamed dully facing frontward and stretching out both sides as to engulf me. That startled, but I resisted being shocked. By now my capacity for absorbing weirdness was well honed.
A good thing too, for all that had gone before formed the easy part. The spooky red light flowed from the vacant, widely spaced windows, from the yawning double doors of that same beautiful (and unreal?) stone. I passed through that doorway. I entered a big, low-ceilinged chamber where many torches flickered and sparked a hot crimson in niches along the walls. It might have been a tomb, except that I didn’t find a body there, nor should I have expected such. Instead, I crossed the crazy-flagged floor to a plain pedestal that protruded in the center, atop which stood a large vase or urn of glassy crystal, semi-transparent, with formless shadows or cloudy filaments roiling within. I read the inscription, in flowery letters of gold, on that vase: “Here Resides the Soul of Vanda Tharaspas, to Remain Until Eternity Dies.”
I lifted the vase off the pedestal, first with both hands, then with only one. Light as a feather, it weighed nothing. Call that sad testimony as to the physical value of a soul, or read into it nothing, as you please. I carried it away from and out of there. While re-crossing the portico I felt an encompassing shudder. An earthquake? Rather, I believed the entire universe jittered.
I got down the stairs in record time. They had eerily foreshortened on me, I suspect, which seriously disturbed. So did the flashes in the sky, flashes that weren’t lightning, instantaneous bursts of harsh glare that pained the retina. As I picked my way back into town, with improbable speed, I regretted the way the stars appeared to come to life, to assert themselves into my awareness by dancing about and flitting like meteors or illumined insects. I positively dreaded the immense dark shape that began spreading across the sky, detected as it blotted those stars, the shape of something vast and horribly animated. Then the stars shone through it again, only they were a sickly yellow now, and I imagined them cold and callous eyes.
In wasted Sedona, the natives came out to greet me on my return. A different man would have thrown away the vase and run for it. They were fine specimens, even if I deplored their morbidly pale faces, their silky habiliments of the grave, and their penchant for appearing abruptly, close at hand from the gloom. They expressed considerable interest in my slight burden, quizzed me conversationally, expressed the desire to touch or hold it. I neither replied nor cooperated, brushed past and hewed my path, which I presumed—guessed, speculated—must lead back to the chapel of Tharaspas. And those folks wailed, chanted and mumbled among themselves.
A pretty girl accosted me as I turned down the lane which led to the smelly stream. Of a sudden, she stood before me, not Vanda beautiful, more the Earth Mother type, young and rounded and fabulously enticing. She spread her arms, her gauzy shroud revealing much, in a weird dreamy voice chided me for my actions. She said, “It isn’t fair, you know. He struck a deal, and if he chose to abrogate, he should have come himself. Sending you isn’t proper. That doesn’t please the Master. Do you know, for certain, that you can take it over with you? Of course, you don’t want to stay. Why not hand it to me, for safe-keeping?”
Well, I barked an atrocious phrase at her and plowed right by, questioning my wisdom as I did so. Her points hit home. In that place, among such people, and that shadow deeper than night with its thousand untwinkling eyes spread overhead, the notion of penalties to be faced jellied my knees and made me weak and dizzy. I wanted out, as fast as possible, at any cost; yet, I had come charged to perform a task, and while I could succumb to peril, I would not relinquish willingly the prize.
I no more beheld the relics of humanity who came, or were sent, to accost me. I pressed on rapidly. Down, splash, up, into the streets of the outskirts, a hint of intricate formations looming indistinctly against the skyline, and then the warped obtrusion of the blemished chapel jutted ahead. It seemed a tiresome distance, small and remote until somebody or something played games with that world, or my mind, because with another step I was there, staggering as if tripped, those freakishly conjoined concrete slabs towering.
There the door—a few steps more, so simple now—but I froze, gripped in place. It—He—spoke to me, in a voice without words or language, spoke to me from within my being. That resonant voice of all the ages, in a growling, reverberating roar, said this to me:
“She sought the answer in Me, as did the man Tharaspas, and they agreed, and thereby attained and gained. That fulfillment beckons to you. Cast aside the token—it is nothing to you—turn aside from the door, submit to Me. Lose you little, enrich you much. Once you have done that which you can not undo, you will accept and embrace the Ultimate. Without action or speech, merely think your agreement, and the All lies at your feet. Do this now.”
Amazing, in retrospect, how that ancient and ageless offer allures. Wise men, the clever and the cunning, have crumbled before its force since time immemorial. Maybe I hesitated, but I don’t think so. I possessed a secret weapon that separated me from Tharaspas and his over-reaching kind. I strode resolutely through the door. I descended to the basement chamber, paused within that cramped room. Then from the strange near darkness colored candles, guttering, sprayed their true light. Gregor Tharaspas, suddenly there, came at me eagerly.
“You have it?” At my nod, he wrenched the vase from my hands. I wondered—wrestled with shocked disbelief—that it existed as a material object here. He said, “Come with me to the house.”
On the walk down, under a dazzling sun, I hectored him for involving me in such risk without adequate preparation. He replied, “I told you that no danger existed unless you cracked and accepted a bargain.” I complained about the time spent, of the chancy odyssey that had begun to seem endless. He shrugged. “You left, you returned. It was a moment’s business, as this world keeps time. You lost nothing, not even convenience.”
Vanda Tharaspas awaited us at a side door. Her husband signaled to her, she beamed a joyous smile, withdrew to allow us entry. We crowded into the hall. She hung back expectantly; eyes locked to his. He said, “We dare not delay. So much must remain unsaid but known by us both. Take it, my love.” He delivered to her the receptacle containing her soul.
Vanda cried out and dropped like an empty sack to the floor. In hectic motion Tharaspas snapped commands at me: help him carry her into a nearby room, deposit her on the bed, stand aside and shut up. Eventually, he unbent from his kneel, mopped his brow with a monogrammed handkerchief and declared with peculiar relief, “All is well. Thank you, Mr. Fontaine. With your aid, we have completed the grand design.”
I goggled at him, about to burst with fury and incomprehension. I cried, “Sweet Jesus, Tharaspas, what have we done? What kind of degenerate trick is this? I know those signs. Your wife is dead. We killed her. You made me a party to this! Why, man, why for God’s sake?”
He shook his head, poured drinks, waved a glass at me, his back still turned. “Spare me your ignorant nonsense,” he muttered at last. “During these recent weeks, dear Vanda declined rapidly due to a rare and incurable blood disease. Doctors—the best, teams of them—offered no hope. Terrible, beyond doubt, but I knew the worst beyond that. Should she die with body and soul disconnected, then she perished utterly, erased for all time. It was necessary that her two halves be reunited. That we achieved. Of course, my friend, the devastating shock of restoring linkage could not be survived. We knew that, she and I. It is a triviality.”
Tharaspas fired a fat cigar, smiled inwardly, tuned me out. I sensed dismissal. Shortly thereafter we parted ways. It took me a heck of a long time to track down Angie. She confirmed my fears, having run amok in the shops. I didn’t have the heart to vituperate. Over omelets at the Coffeepot, a popular Sedona hang-out, I recounted to her my experiences. Having heard stuff plenty strange from me before, she took most of my tale in stride.
Angie picked up on one point, though, like a shot. She asked, “But when that thing—that one—offered you a deal right at the end, why didn’t you go for it? You make it sound like everybody does if they get the chance. Why not you, Sterkie?”
I laughed, a little. I fondled the leather camera bag hanging from my shoulder, which contained no camera, but rather the amazing mystical ornament of Gregor Tharaspas, the beauty and wonder of which enthralled me. Now it belonged to me, the conclusion of the bargain I did accept. “Because, my dear, unlike Tharaspas and his ilk, I can’t be tempted by high-faluting offers. I was motivated solely by greed, pure and refreshing. That kept me safe. May it always be so. I hope I never change.” I laughed again, harshly. “You’d better hope so, too.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Read the exciting conclusion of this three-parter. McGraw was fired. No longer an officer-of-the-law, what would he do? One thing was for sure, he wasn’t gonna let corruption get in the way of finding the truth…and dealing with it.