Posted on August 16, 2015
I’m going to start calling this Second Friday Free Fiction because I keep missing the day.
Having said that, here are the rules about First Friday Free Fiction:
1) This story (Rosetta) is the intellectual property of and is copyrighted by me Jake MacMillan. You can read it here for free but don’t pass it around (if you want to share it with people send them here to read it) and definitely don’t share it or any part of it without attribution.
2) I’m not going to tell you anything about the story, i.e. – its genre or length or general subject matter, because as a genrista (a loyal follower of the Genrist), you are blind to such trappings and simply want to read a good story.
This month’s free story is called Rosetta. Enjoy.
* The image at the top of this post is a Frank Frazetta. I don’t know which one because I found it on a site that doesn’t do attribution, but you could find a worse way to spend the day than going through Google images looking at Frazetta paintings if you want to find it.
It was the sort of bungalow where the front door led directly into the combination living room/dining room and a small arch at the back opened onto the kitchen. The dining table was dark and large enough to seat ten. There was a sideboard by the window at the head of the table but no hutch or breakfront on the kitchen wall.
The living room furniture was modern without being hipsterish; two low divans and a square coffee table spread with copies of Architectural Digest and Better Homes and Gardens. There was no fireplace but there was a chandelier of sorts over the dining room table.
The homeowner, one Donald Weston, stood in the imaginary divide between the living and dining rooms like a professor at a podium considering his next lecture. He was tall, a little over six feet, mid-fifties, graying a bit but still had all his hair and teeth. He was dressed nicely but not expensively.
The police detective stepped inside from the porch and slipped a notebook from his pocket before offering his hand. “Mr. Weston? I’m Detective Carpenter from Missing Persons.”
Weston shook his hand with a firm but uncompetitive grip. “Nice of you to come.”
“The mayor can be pretty convincing,” Carpenter said.
“Yes, friends in high places. It helps sometimes.”
“You’re a professor at the college? Is that right? What do you teach?”
“Math is my field. My wife teaches art. Do you know what art and mathematics have in common, Detective Carpenter?”
Carpenter, who still had the Dogs Playing Poker prints on the walls of his apartment felt his brain turn stupid and sluggish.
“They are both forms of communication,” Weston said. “That’s all art is. That’s all math is. And as far as I’m concerned, everything is communication. That’s all people do. It’s what we’re made to do: We communicate.”
“Okay, sure, Mr. Weston, but the policy on missing persons…”
“For instance,” Weston interrupted, “take the crime scene here.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Mr. Weston, there is no crime scene. An adult is not considered missing for 72 hours.”
“That is what you are here to communicate to me,” Weston said. “Your sole purpose in coming to my home is to take some notes and then communicate the Department’s policy on missing persons to me. I, on the other hand, am here to communicate to you why that policy – while often perfectly acceptable and rational – is unreasonable in this case.”
“Okay,” Carpenter said, slipping the pencil from his notebook and flipping to a blank page. “Convince me.”
“Alyssa and I have been married for thirty years. Statistically speaking, if you make it through the first five years of marriage, you will remain married for the rest of your lives.”
Carpenter nodded, saying, “And statistics also show that the number one cause of divorce is infidelity. The seven year itch is no myth, Professor. People take on lovers, decide they want to leave, and then, unable to face the confrontation of a breakup, simply run off with their new boyfriend.”
“In the middle of a telephone conversation with her mother? With me in the other room? Without taking a stitch of clothing? Or her shoes?” Weston asked.
Without her shoes? Carpenter’s own wife had left in the middle of a heated argument but had paused long enough to bag up her favorite shoes before splitting. “That would be odd,” he said, “but it does happen.”
“Why don’t we let the crime scene communicate to us for a moment? That might help inform our theories.”
“I don’t see a crime scene, Mr. Weston. I see a dining room.”
“Then you’re not paying attention, Detective Carpenter. Come stand at the head of the table and tell me what you see.”
Carpenter got up slowly and followed Weston to the head of the table. As they got closer, he heard the annoying buzz-buzz-buzz sound of an off-hook phone. It was a wireless handset, an old style with a telescoping chrome antenna, lying on its side under the table.
“I haven’t touched a thing,” Weston said. “I didn’t even hang up the phone.”
“So, I see.”
“And what does this crime scene communicate to you, detective?”
“If it were a crime scene,” Carpenter said, “it would tell me there was very little struggle and whatever went down here happened extraordinarily quickly. I see a dropped phone and what appear to be drag marks in the rug, probably from her heels, but those are only a few feet long…”
“Exactly,” Weston said. “If she had deserted me, she would have said goodbye to her mother, placed the phone on the table, and walked out the front door – having secretly packed her bags and hidden them in the garage beforehand.”
Carpenter rubbed his forehead. His only specific orders were to keep this man happy. Apparently, Weston had been the mayor’s calculus professor or something back in the day. “Okay, let’s call it an abduction – just for the sake of argument – and try to figure out how it worked.”
Weston smiled. “Now we’re getting into the groove, son.”
Carpenter wasn’t sure where to start. “Okay, so, she’s on the phone, ambling around the dining room table, while you’re in the kitchen making dinner.”
“Exactly,” Weston said.
“And she cried out?”
“What did she say? Exactly?”
Weston thought about it, getting it exactly right. “Oh, my God! What the fuck…”
Carpenter raised his eyebrows.
“We’re grownups, for God’s sake, Detective. We are familiar with expletives.”
“It’s just that people who use the word ‘expletive’ don’t usually use the actual words,” Carpenter said.
“You see? That’s precisely the sort of communication I’m talking about. If she had seen a cockroach she might have said, ‘Oh, good Lord!’ but she didn’t. She used the most potent verbal weapon in her arsenal.”
“And her mother will verify this?”
“And you come running…”
“Not running,” Weston said. “I took the pan off the fire and turned down the gas before walking in here to see what the matter was. That’s when I found the phone there and her gone.”
“How much time?”
Weston mulled it over. “I called out to her and she didn’t answer. Then I moved the pan and turned off the fire. Fifteen seconds at most.”
Carpenter looked at the phone and then mentally measured the distance to the front door. “If the front door was open, if there was more than one kidnapper, they could have carried her out the front door in that amount of time. Maybe.” Then, he shook his head. “No. No way.”
“The front door was locked from the inside,” Weston said. “Deadbolt with no outside access.”
Carpenter shrugged. “Okay, you got me. How could it have happened?”
“The crime scene isn’t quite done communicating to us,” Weston said. He turned his back to Carpenter and opened his arms to indicate the wall between the dining room and the kitchen where a hutch or breakfront should have completed the dining room set. “This wallpaper has something to say.”
The wallpaper was the one sour note in the whole place. Carpenter had felt it like tinfoil on a filling the moment he walked through the door. The base, which was a grass matte, was actually quite nice and fit the room perfectly, but the design that had been burned onto it was hideous and overwhelming. It looked as if someone had taken a wood-burning set and marked the entire surface with short horizontal and vertical strokes, some in boxes, others freestanding. It looked like Aztec graffiti.
“Alyssa and I have developed a precise communication over our decades together. We understand that there is our personal space and there is the overlapping space that we share – our union, in mathematical terms – and we don’t do anything in that overlapping space without discussing it.”
“Sounds good. Sounds like it could be the thing that kept you together for so long,” Carpenter said.
“Then why would she change the wallpaper without consulting me? That’s the last bit of information our crime scene has to offer. The wallpaper from Hell. The base is what we agreed on. A simple grass matte to compliment the rug and the furniture, but this design is something completely different. I’m not even sure where she found it.”
“So, the wallpaper is new?” Carpenter asked.
“She put it up yesterday morning. To be honest, I’m not much interested in decorating so I didn’t really notice it until she disappeared.”
“Okay,” Carpenter said, “I’m going to need a current picture of her. I’ll put out an all points, get her picture on the wire state-wide.”
Staring at the wallpaper as if rapt, Weston said, “Of course.”
Carpenter pulled his car to the curb in front of Eden Books and flashed his badge at the uniform guarding the front door. Inside the store, they had Weston trussed to a chair with cable-ties on ankles and wrists.
“Mr. Weston,” he said as he entered, trying to appear unsurprised and unperturbed.
“What seems to be the problem?”
Weston nodded at a heavyset, pale skinned poster boy for acne products standing at an old-style cash register beneath a sign that offered ten percent off any purchase if you cut up your Barnes and Noble card. “He won’t sell me the book I need.”
Carpenter turned to the proprietor and asked tiredly, “What book?”
“The Rosetta,” the clerk said in a nasally whine that sounded as if he might start arguing the exact dimensions of the exhaust port on the Death Star at any moment.
That name landed with a dead cat bounce in Carpenter’s sleep deprived mind but he let it slide. “And why can’t he buy it?”
“Because it’s fucking dangerous, asshole,” the clerk said.
Carpenter turned to the uniform guarding Weston and asked for his Taser. Then, pointing the rough looking device at the clerk, he said, “Call me an asshole one more time. Do it now and or never do it again.”
The pudgy cashier quailed, his jowls quivering a little. “I just meant that the book is in-house only.”
“Because it’s the key to translating the Necronomicon,” he said, sounding a little like a yapping Chihuahua with a nasal condition.
Carpenter turned to Weston for clarification. “What?”
“The Necromonicon is an artificial book created by an early 20th century horror writer. It’s entirely fictitious,” Weston said. “It doesn’t exist in any real form.”
“It does so!” the clerk screamed. “It’s the ultimate evil. It’s the anti-Bible. I have a first edition right here in the store.”
Carpenter ignored the outburst, kept his attention on Weston. “So, why do you want this Rosetta book?”
“Because the Rosetta is the key to deciphering my wallpaper.”
“That’s why we cuffed him,” the uniform said. “He’s a little too excited about his wallpaper.”
Carpenter rubbed his temples, wondering how these migraines seemed to come only when Professor Weston was in the general vicinity. He turned to the cashier and said, “I’m going to have to take that book in as evidence.” Then, raising his hands over the cashier’s remonstrations, “You’ll get a receipt and you’ll get the book back when we’re done with the case.”
“What case?” the clerk demanded. “I’m not pressing any charges!”
“The State is pressing charges against Professor Weston,” Carpenter said. “It’s out of our hands now.”
Driving back to Weston’s house, Carpenter said, “It seems like a really bad idea to give this book to a man in your condition. Convince me.”
Weston, riding in the perp seat in back, said, “The markings on the wallpaper are cuneiform Sumerian. Are you familiar with…”
“Let’s pretend I’m not.”
“Mesopotamia. Iraq. The cradle of civilization that goes back more than 5,000 years. That language, the Ur language, is what’s written in cuneiform on my wallpaper.”
“And you need the Rosetta to translate it?”
“No,” Weston said. “I’ve translated the whole thing. It’s an epic poem about a warrior who travels to the land of the dead to retrieve his lost love. I need the Rosetta because the poem is a code and the Rosetta will tell me what it really says.”
“And this helps you find your wife how?” He pulled the car to a stop in front of Weston’s house and got out to open the back door.
Weston stood out of the car, the Rosetta tucked under his arm. “The story talks about demons called Mulki Telal, half demons, that prowl the places where the wall between our world and the world of the dead is thinnest snatching humans for trophies.”
“Half demons? What’s the other half?”
“Nothing. From what I can gather, they exist from the waist up only. They have long arms and sharp claws they used to pull themselves along the ground.”
“That’s freaky,” Carpenter said. “These Sumerian guys must have had pretty bad nightmares or really good drugs to dream up stuff like that.” He walked Weston to the front door and stopped there to say goodnight. “You look tired, Professor. You should get some sleep.”
“Can’t do that. That’s where they get you,” Weston said, “in your dreams.”
“It’s four in the morning, Professor Weston.” Carpenter rolled over to check the digital clock by the bed just to make sure. “Make that 3:40.”
“Is it?” Weston sounded distracted and not entirely sane. “I need you to come over. I need you to help me.”
“Help you do what?”
“Finish. I’m very close but my mind is wandering. It’s hard to concentrate.”
“Have you slept at all, Professor?”
Carpenter sighed and swung his legs over the side of his bed. No use trying to go back to sleep now anyway. Might as well score major Brownie points with the Mayor and keep this guy from killing himself…
“Bring your gun,” Weston said.
…or someone else.
“Am I going to need my gun, Professor?”
Weston didn’t sound sure. “Possibly.”
Adrenaline swept into Carpenter’s system, waking him to faux jittery alertness. In his grief, Weston was traveling a self destructive path that could lead to suicide and maybe a shooting spree. “Yeah, sure, give me twenty minutes to get showered and dressed and I’ll be right there.”
“Fine. Hurry.” Weston hung up.
Now what? He couldn’t handle a psych situation on his own. He rattled the stones in his sleep-deprived head and made a decision to call the Department’s staff shrink. “Betsy? Hey, it’s Carpenter… Yeah, I know what time it is… Look, I got a situation with a friend of the mayor… Yes, the mayor…”
When he saw through the front windows what Weston had been up to, Carpenter didn’t bother to knock. The wallpaper which had once looked like Aztec graffiti had been drawn over with a thumb-thick black magic marker. The Rosetta book lay open on the dining room table and Weston, who looked as if he hadn’t slept, showered, or shaved in three days, continually referred to it before returning to the wallpaper to mark off some section of symbols and assign the group a new symbol with his black marker.
Weston didn’t bother to look up from his work. “Detective. I see you brought some backup. I can only assume a psychiatrist or hostage negotiator of some kind, yes?”
Betsy was a short, curvy woman with thick red hair pulled back in ponytail. “That’s right, Professor Weston. I’m Betsy. I’m a psychiatrist. Jimmy asked me to come over in case I could help in some way.”
Weston stopped, looked up from the Rosetta to glare at Carpenter. “Your message is clear, Detective Carpenter. You have doubts about my sanity.” He then picked up a garden variety machete and tossed it across the room so it landed at their feet. He had used some sort of engraving tool to make cuneiform marks on the blade. “It’s the only thing that will kill them. God created the universe with words and it’s words that kill demons – and angels, I suppose. Makes you wonder if the war in Heaven was a shouting match, doesn’t it?”
Carpenter stared at the machete and realized, with a dawning sense of horror, that he had screwed the pooch on this one. He had let the mayor’s old buddy go straight to crazy on his watch. This could only end in some sort of exquisite debasement – like a transfer to traffic.
Under her breath, Betsy said, “He’s compulsive but he doesn’t seem particularly self-destructive. Mind if I catch some winks?”
“No, that’s fine. I’ll roust you if things get dicey.”
“Professor Weston?” Betsy called. “Do you have a guest room where I can lie down for a little while?”
“It’s down the hall there but you don’t want to do that.”
“Do what?” she asked.
“Sleep.” He gestured at the wallpaper he had marked up and said, “This breaks down the wall between the realities. When you sleep, they come right out. And it’s getting worse since I started the translation.” He opened his shirt to reveal three strips of a duct tape applied to his skin. One of these he pulled back with great tenderness to reveal a deep gouge still oozing blood and puss. “And this is just their claws. Don’t let ‘em sink their teeth in or you’re done for. They have a sense for where the arteries are.”
“Is that not self-destructive?” Carpenter muttered to her.
Betsy said, “As long as we’re here and he’s able to submerge himself in his obsession, we should let him. I don’t want to jump in on this until I know where it’s going.”
“And you want some sleep.”
“And that, too, yes,” Betsy said and then padded off down the hall in her sweatpants and Rutgers tee shirt for some predawn shuteye.
Carpenter picked up the machete and dropped it on the dining room table. “Why bring my gun?”
“Bullets won’t kill them,” Weston said, studying the wallpaper, an indelible marker in one hand, “but they will hurt them, slow them down, possibly even scare them off. Do you want to know what it says so far?”
“There are worlds within worlds like spheres within spheres. All spinning. In the center is the dark. Where the spheres touch, the darkness seeps through.”
“That sounds more like wishful thinking than a translation,” Carpenter said.
“I’m glad you think so, Detective. You are the only one playing Devil’s advocate which means you are the only one anchoring me to sanity – if, in fact, your version of reality is sane.”
Sleep clawed at Carpenter’s eyes. How many hours of sleep, real sleep, had he enjoyed in the last three days? Maybe two hours a night? He wrapped his rain coat around himself and lay down on the couch where he could keep an eye on Weston while he “translated.”
Betsy lay naked on a bed of white carnations, softer than any mattress she had ever slept on, and leaning over her was the most handsome man she’d ever seen. His skin was soft like those special tissues you could buy during flu season and his touch was artful in the way it knew her body, knew where to touch, where to stroke, where to ever so lightly pinch. She closed her eyes and gave herself to the pleasure.
Carpenter was drunk with delight. The girl who caressed him was both awkward and semi-professional in her approach. She started at his crotch and crawled along his body until her stunningly beautiful face hung over his. He started to say something but she put a finger to her lips to shush him. Then she moved the finger from her lips to his, as if physically transferring a kiss.
The touch of her finger to his lips was ice cold.
The man hovering over Betsy in the field of carnations caressed her face with his long fingers, leaving cold stripes of frozen flesh wherever they traveled. The sexual euphoria was starting to clear and she could feel the pain these traces left behind. She started to say something but he clamped his hand over her mouth in such a way that he could also pinch her nostrils shut between his thumb and forefinger. In effect, cutting off all her oxygen.
He wasn’t such a handsome man then. His skin had taken on the color and sheen of hardened mucus. His eyes were bulging, sightless eggs, and his teeth seemed to have come from a lumberjack’s saw.
And he was trying to kill her.
In the other room, Carpenter found himself in a similar situation. The beautiful dream maiden had turned into the same snot colored demon with one claw dug firmly into his chest, digging for his heart, and had the fingers of the other shoved into his mouth so he could neither breathe nor call out.
All the while he could see over the thing’s shoulder that Weston was so lost in translating the “message” in the wallpaper to notice the struggle going on just a few yards behind him.
He felt the thing’s infected claws dig through the flesh between his ribs and grab at the bone as if to pull it out of the way. The pain was excruciating enough to wake him from the stupor of sleep. He grabbed the thing by the neck with one hand and pushed it away while he worked feverishly to free his Glock from the shoulder holster, flipping at the snap with his thumb just as his vision started to blacken at the edges.
Betsy had come unarmed. As a staff psych, she didn’t normally go around heavy, so her struggle was limited to trying to choke the thing that was smothering her and to gouge its egg-like eyes out with her fingernails. Neither of these tactics – both of which gave her stomach a terrific twist – seemed to have any effect on the demon. She punched it, scratched it, gouged it – all with diminishing force as she threatened to yield to suffocation.
It wasn’t until she heard the quick BANG, BANG, BANG from the other room, followed by shouting in a language she didn’t understand, that the thing relented and darted away, traveling under the covers until it slipped off the bed and scurried across the floor, pulling itself along by its arms as it had no legs, nor any body below the torso.
She leaned over the edge of the bed and vomited.
The force of the three 9mm bullets carried the thing away from Carpenter and sprayed gore on the walls and poked holes in the ceiling, but it wasn’t enough to end the assault. The goddamn thing came right back, seemingly ignoring the three gaping wounds in its body, still clawing its way toward him.
It was Weston who ended it. He called out something that had to be Sumerian and then struck the thing with his magically engraved Walmart machete. The smell of burnt flesh immediately filled the air and the thing, the half-demon or whatever it was, scurried away and disappeared under the dining table.
Carpenter stood and appraised the triplet of deep gouges in his chest. “Got any extra duct tape?”
Betsy came out of the bedroom then looking as wild as the thing that had attacked her and said, “I’m leaving. Drive me home.”
Carpenter accepted the duct tape from Weston and pinched together his wounds before taping them shut. “I can’t go anywhere. Call a cab.”
Betsy watched the macabre ritual of self-healing in stunned silence and then said, “Is this a boy’s club? I’m not running away because I’m a girl. I’m leaving because there is something terribly wrong with this house. A mold infestation causing hallucinations and obsessive behavior patterns. Or maybe a gas leak of some kind. We need to leave. All of us.”
“I’m staying,” Carpenter said. “And I would appreciate it if you would stay, too.”
“Are you crazy? You just fired three rounds, detective. That’s an automatic IAD investigation with civilian oversight. And what did you shoot at? Show me. Explain it to me the way you’re going to explain to Internal Affairs.”
Carpenter crossed the room and traced the gouges on her face and neck with his fingertips. “Half a body? Long arms? Skin like old plastic? Tried to smother you? The same thing happened to me.”
“Shared hallucinations are not uncommon in mold infestations,” she said.
“If the two of you would stop bickering,” Weston said, “I’m almost done with the translation. It will all be over in a minute or two.”
And then the thing that had been bothering Carpenter since he had entered the house became clear in his mind. A scent, lost among the burnt flesh and the overpowering magic marker stink. “I smell kerosene,” Carpenter said. Then he noticed that one of the dining room chairs was missing one of its ample legs. “Why do you need a torch?”
Weston turned back to the wallpaper with his marker in hand and said, “I know where to dig.”
“Excuse me?” Carpenter asked.
“The poem decodes into another poem about a warrior who fears he has no heart. A mystic tells him to cover himself with mud. Where the mud dries first is where the warmth is.”
“And where does the mud dry first?” Betsy asked.
The three of them stood back from the wall which had been heavily marked upon during the translation process in every square inch except for a clear portion that had the dimensions of a small door. There, the cuneiform remained un-defaced.
“Of course,” Weston said. “It’s obvious, when you think about it.”
“How so?” Carpenter asked.
“The drag marks point right at this part of the wall and then stop.” He reached behind him and picked up a hand ax that had been heavily engraved with the same cuneiform symbols as the machete. A few whacks around the perimeter of the untouched area and he was able to pull away the sheetrock.
And there she was. Stuffed into a space that was too dark and too shallow to hold her. An elegant woman in middle age, dressed well in stylish but sullied clothes, who was alive but unconscious.
Weston dragged her out of the wall and handed her over to Carpenter and Betsy.
Carpenter said, “She’s still alive!”
Betsy said, “Mr. Weston, you are under arrest for the attempted murder and unlawful imprisonment of your wife.”
Weston nodded as if he hadn’t heard her and retrieved a Zippo lighter from his pocket. “Get her to a hospital. She’s in a coma.” He then slipped the hand ax into his belt, hefted the machete, and used the Zippo to light the torch he had made from the table leg.
“What the hell are you planning to do?” Carpenter asked.
“That’s her body,” Weston said, and then dragged the torch along the base of the wall where everything it touched immediately burst into flame. “I’m going after her soul.”
Carpenter watched the flame race around the baseboards like a spooked cat, catching everything on fire as it went. Weston had soaked the house in kerosene at some point, preparing for this very moment when he would close the door behind him.
“Professor Weston, listen to me,” he called over the crackling flames. “You’ve got to come out with us. This house is going to go up like a bale of hay.”
Weston smiled at him, waggled the machete and the torch, and said, “Once you’ve been married for a few decades, tell me how you would let your one true love languish in an endless sleep because you were afraid of the dark.” Then he stepped through the opening from which they had pulled his wife and disappeared.
“It’s not deep enough,” Betsy said. “It’s like three inches deep. The kitchen is on the other side of that wall.”
Fighting the flames, curiosity driving him into the jaws of the heat, Carpenter leaned forward and looked into the space between the wall studs. Whatever was beyond those 2×4’s stretched out into infinite darkness. All he could see was Weston’s torch bobbing along some invisible path with great urgency.
Then they had to get the woman out of the house before it collapsed. And having done that and gotten fresh air in their lungs and rested for a moment, they could deal with the paramedics who wanted to know why she was in a coma. Maybe then they would be able to create a story to file for the paperwork. But before all that, Carpenter watched the house burn, watched as Weston’s line of retreat collapsed behind him.
Betsy sidled up next to him while the paramedics dealt with Mrs. Weston and said, “Whatever story we’re going to cook up aside, what do you think happened to him?”
“I think he’s going after her soul.”
“And how will we know if he gets it?”
Carpenter shrugged. “She wakes up, I guess.”
“And then how do we get him back?”
“Jesus Christ,” Carpenter said, “leave that bridge for when we come to it.”
“But, we’ll do it, right?” she asked. “We’ll get him out.”
“Yeah,” Carpenter said. “When he calls, we’ll come.”