Below the break, the author’s prelude to Nemo Duzsl’s (immensely long) Cthellish Chronicles. There’s no particular reason why it should interest people here, but in case anybody finds it amusing …
[Warning: vulgarity, extreme decadence, and spiritual decay]
Book One of the Cthellish Chronicles
by Nemo Duzsl
Authorial Prelude. The Syndrome
It would be extravagantly philosophical to claim that everything was a lie. Better, then, to explain why all relevant information became systematically unreliable. A firm footing on the path that follows requires at least that much.
One conclusion, in particular, has to be stated clearly, at the start. It exceeds human powers to endure a radically inexplicable life. Between chaos and a convenient fiction there can be no real hesitation. The ominous fork into darkness can appear real enough, but the decision against it has typically been made long before.
Despite the confusion, my expedition into Hell was well-prepared. A decade spent wandering through the labyrinth of the Syndrome had taught me the importance of method. Baked in an involuntary distrust, I had become adept at meticulous filtering and recording, at weighing probabilities, stripping dubious interpretation from the bare crags of fact, and remarking on things with minimal prejudice (which meant merely, lying to myself as sparingly as possible). This was not a matter of decency, but of sheer survival. My procedures had to be robust, sophisticated and critically tested. They were rigorously tempered by vertiginous decades spent clinging to mazy precipices, tilting into the abyss. When it comes to the deep descent, therefore, what truth there is to tell will surely be told, if only in fragments, and impurely.
Paradoxically enough, it was the syndrome and its deranging deceptions that ignited a torch for me, sputtering at first, but later with a hard, steady flame, ensuring that the infernal path ahead would be illuminated. But the roots of the syndrome, its soil, nutritive threads and patterns of early growth, are, of necessity, recessed into deeper obscurities. The reasons for that will become obvious enough. Because I first encountered the Syndrome in an age of deluding innocence, by the time I saw the importance of systematic correction, titanic masses of grinding error were already in motion, propelled onwards inertially and implacably.
Yet, without a preliminary account of the Syndrome, nothing can make sense. The narrative that begins here – while befogged and erratic in its initial stages – explains things that demand explanation. Although far from irresistibly convincing, it is realistic in its essentials, even if certain details have been corrupted. What justifies this point of departure, in the end, is less its minute accuracy than its overall suggestiveness, for that is the way of the world it introduces.
My case rests ultimately on this: were it not for the account that follows, there would inevitably be another, far more misleading one.
Because true names can get you killed (or sued) you will find no evidence of The Devil’s Deal casino, an establishment which occupied a comparatively modest slot on the Las Vegas Strip in the late autumn of 1999. It would not take supernatural efforts, however, for anyone with a city map of the period, along with some elementary investigative skills, to identify the real model of the Double D, and to ascertain its present status for themselves.
Casual tourist-gamblers had always ignored and shunned the place, subliminally repelled by the atmosphere of vague dilapidation that had characterized it almost from the day of opening, but it had nevertheless built a solid enough reputation for itself among the Strip’s least flamboyant visitors. This drifting population of dedicated, chance-hardened players was attracted by its understated devotion to minimal frills, high-stake, Omaha hold ‘em poker. The ambience of shabby neglect only added to its appeal, serving as a subtle social filter, a mark of discretion, and a prolonged act of dust-hushed homage to the grave gods of fortune.
Nelson Brewer, the proprietor of the Devil’s Deal, was a man who had always taken enormous efforts to conceal his tracks. He readily exploited his contacts in the media to inhibit reportage, falling back upon blackmail or finely-judged threats when bribes proved insufficient. He was not beyond instigating entirely false reports to mystify and embarrass pursuers. His influence extended into most of the official agencies responsible for record-keeping and the compilation of legal evidence, ensuring that even the most dogged and incorruptible investigators found themselves foundering in deceit. Despite all of this, I would eventually come to learn a very great deal about him.
He had built his gaming empire on Mississippi riverboats during the Depression years. Respected, even feared, for his impassivity and killer-instincts, ‘Granite Face’ Brewer amassed an early fortune at the tables. He progressed from player to operator upon taking possession of his first boat, following the legendary 36-hour poker session that bankrupted ‘River King’ Joe Hammond in November 1933.
The subsequent triple suicide of Hammond and two prominent Memphis business magnates triggered a prolonged police investigation, but no evidence of foul play or clear homicidal motivation was ever uncovered. Despite the absence of formal charges, a macabre aura enveloped Brewer, fed by persistent rumors that garishly married criminality with occultism. When he extended his gaming business to the Las Vegas Strip in the early 1950s, the name he selected for his casino was a gesture of defiance pitched against his blackened reputation, mixing irony, provocation and resignation in proportions that accorded with some unreadable private recipe.
Did Nelson Brewer, his name or his story, mean anything to me when this episode began, as I stepped into the Devil’s Deal on a sultry late-summer evening in 1999? The answer to that question was lost, perhaps irrecoverably, in the tumult that now impends. In my artificial memories I push open the saloon-style doors once again, and abandon my original or natural life, whatever it had been, to perish in the forgotten, pitiless heat, outside.
It can’t have taken more than a few hours to dissipate my inheritance. Certainly, it was gone, replaced by a hollow euphoria, delicately veined with directionless bitterness. Something less than self-hatred, it was nevertheless a functional proxy. Tendrils of weariness tugged me downwards.
“You obviously need something to wake you up,” said the girl standing next to me.
In her early 20s and exceptionally pretty, she had moldavite-green eyes and hair the color of glistening oblivion, cut fashionably short. She was wearing a little red dress.
“What’s the point,” I replied. “I’m done.”
“There’s still at least one more game to play,” she said, smiling irresistibly. “You’ll be surprised. It’s hardly started.”
I folded. My nondescript fortune was finished. Let the recycling begin. She led us over to a table near the bar and ordered a couple of cokes.
A man was already seated at the table, maybe 30 years old, dressed in black t-shirt and jeans, drinking a Dos Equis straight from the bottle. He seemed entirely hairless, except for a perfectly-trimmed Satanist soul-patch. His eyes were hidden behind reflective shades, despite the interior gloom. Swirling hermetic tattoos covered his arms. If he wasn’t a drug-dealer, no one deserved to be.
“Hi Zach. We’re looking for sin,” she told him. “Two caps.”
“On tick, OK?”
“Cool,” he assented, with surprising complacency.
A waitress arrived with the cokes, ignoring the conspicuous transaction in process. No one seemed remotely conscious of the law.
Zach fished two pharmaceutical capsules from his pocket, identical green and black thetas, placing them carefully on the table.
“Synistreme,” he murmured, languorously caressing each syllable. “The biz.”
The Girl in the Little Red Dress popped one in her mouth, washing it down with a swallow of coke. Then she passed the other to me. I copied her.
I opened a fresh pack of unfiltered Camels and passed them around. They both took one. We all lit up. No one spoke for a few moments.
“When I was working as a professional torturer,” Zach said eventually, “we had to treat this stuff with great caution. ‘Epistemol’, they called it, a ‘psychic plasticizer’ or ‘cognitive dehabituation agent.’ Superficially speaking, it was the last thing an interrogator needed. You know the adage, when people are being tortured they’ll say anything to make it stop. The difference on Epistmol is that they’d believe it, believe anything. It facilitated radical suggestibility. ‘Brain-washing sauce’ was one common description.” He took a long swig of beer and ordered a new bottle with a silent hand-signal.
“But actually,” he continued, “if used properly it could be invaluable. Resistance to torture depends upon a motivating narrative. If that could be dismantled and replaced, the patient would open up effortlessly. Let’s say you’re a fanatical jihadist, and suddenly, rather than having your testicles slowly toasted into charcoal by a filthy zippo-wielding infidel, you find yourself engrossed in conversation with your Sheikh, or the Angel Gabriel, or God. The resistance is gone. Pop! You’ll say anything. End of problem, right?” he asked, invisible eyes locked on mine.
“Right,” I guessed.
“Wrong,” he countered with a humorless laugh. “The problem’s hardly started.”
Hardly started … again. I’d begun to get a bad feeling about that.
“There’s something I have to show you,” Zach said. “Place your hand on the table, palm down, fingers apart. Yeah, that’s it,” he added, as I followed his instructions.
He reached down into his boot and pulled out a vicious-looking combat knife, with a vulcanized black rubber handle and serrated blade. He lifted the weapon above his head, holding the pose for perhaps a second, then, with shocking speed, plunged it downwards onto the back of my hand. Everything occurred too quickly for me to react. The descent was arrested at the last moment. There was a slight sting. A droplet of blood oozed from a nick behind my middle knuckle.
“Zach baby,” said the waitress affectionately, from behind the bar. “You know I hate it when you do that.”
“It’s science,” Zach growled. “But if you understood that you wouldn’t be working for six bucks an hour plus tips.”
“Asshole,” she mumbled, without rancor.
Time had begun to multiply backwards as the synistreme took hold. Zach’s knife trick had restored a nucleus of focus, amidst the dispersion. As my mind wrapped itself around stabbed-hand re-runs, it squirmed through variations on the immediate past, flashing agonies and devastating injuries, before recoiling into the unmutilated present that annulled them. The self-protective reflex I had missed bounced uselessly through my intoxicated nerves.
“It’s like a mantra with you guys, isn’t it?” I ventured. “Hardly started. At first I thought you were saying ‘it’s only just begun,’ but now it’s sounding more like a hard reboot, a crash relaunch.”
“You’re getting ahead of yourself,” said the Girl in the Little Red Dress, not unkindly. “We’re here now, aren’t we?”
It was true that space had newly emphasized itself, simultaneously thickened and clarified, as if transubstantiated into a pure liquid medium. Lines of contour escaped from the boundaries of solid mass, deconstituting edges to drift into abstract explorations of geometric possibility. A calm ecstasy without attribution reorganized the room.
The luminous sensorium was an ultra-thin film, I realized, an intricately folded sheet of multi-modal information, floating depthlessly upon the surface of a vast dark expanse.
Zach ignored our interruptions.
“Politics morphed into metaphysics,” he continued, resuming his thread. “Our questions had to change. Our interrogations escalated. The world was at stake: the nature and meaning of the world.”
He took a deep swallow of Dos Equis. I passed the Camels around again. Everybody took one. Zach lounged back in his chair, gaze turned upwards, apparently fixated upon some single definite spot beyond the low ceiling.
“The past was a lazy assumption we couldn’t afford any longer. Even the jihadis understood that, the smart ones, the ones we dealt with, by the time we’d done with them. Our squabble was beginning to seem like a very shallow affair, when compared to the things that started to emerge from beneath the deep cover. And then, just as the new threat-scape maps were coming together, the final absurdity rolled in, the investigations, the hearings. We were accused of driving people insane …”
He disappeared into obscure corridors of recollection. Glasses clinked at the bar. Curses filtered over from a nearby poker table. An audio channel drifted onto the wavering drone of the air-conditioning and settled there.
At the edge of my perception, the black tattoo swirls flowing down Zach’s arms were writhing into legibility. Weakly-encrypted biographical recordings – of fights, drug deals, and long-abandoned girlfriends – twisted and sleazed through decorative motifs, until they settled into the sigils of occult summonings and the echelon glyphs of the Torturers’ Guild.
No one spoke for a long, smoke-shrouded moment.
“Did you?” I asked eventually.
“Drive people insane?” He hesitated, uncharacteristically. “That charge seems hopelessly … misconceived.”
He leant forwards, locking my image into twin black mirrors.
“Take your case, for instance. When we began to unearth your hidden identity, your contacts, your Neolemurian agenda, that entirely other, secret life, were we pushing you into madness? Or is ‘madness’ just a word we use when tripling the locks on forbidden doors?”
The meaningless references began shaping themselves into something else. What had always previously seemed to be a fundamental structure of existence suddenly gave way, crashing into unspecified distress. It felt like falling and my stomach lurched.
The Girl in the Little Red Dress leant in towards me.
“You’re drowning in names,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “But it’s OK. None of them matter right now.”
I was remembering far too much.
As the world quaked, my hands clamped onto the table, resisting a sensation that should have been nausea, but was actually something far less familiar.
“Sumatra,” I mumbled.
“That’s right,” Zach confirmed. “All those twisted stories. The diagram. The vault. Hot embers from the Barker Program. Signal from the darkening galaxies. Clicking alien numbers like static electricity and a flood of savage words you never wanted to understand. Corpse-littered jungles. Time-wars. Did we do that to you? I don’t think so.”
A spiderish mechanism had been activated in my brain to synthesize information. As it wove, senseless microparticles coalesced into fragments of meaning, and then into intersecting storylines. The spinning machine worked in complete indifference to my volition. I would have wanted it to stop, or at least to slow, if it had mattered what I wanted. Instead, I tried to edge away from it, shifting attention further out, clinging to the immediacy of space and sensation.
Dan Barker had already been a legend, confined somewhere securely off-grid, but the ripples from his work still spread, frightening people. Soon I would be precisely reminded. That was inescapably obvious. Shapes, patterns were coming back, clicked together by the machine. I could already smell the jungle. The outline of missing years thickened …
“How old do you think I am?” I asked.
“Twenty-three,” Zach answered, correctly.
“So how can it have been remotely possible for me to spend years working on some kind of advanced cryptoproject in the Indonesian wilderness? I’ve never been to Indonesia. I don’t know anything about codes. This is all such …”
“… total bullshit,” he agreed. “Chill. It’s nothing. What do I care?”
“I never met Barker. I don’t even know what he looks like.”
“Sure. Forget it.”
“Sclater’s Lemuria hypothesis has been obsolesced by plate tectonics, and Sumatra is too far east. Why would anybody describe themselves as ‘Neolemurian’? It doesn’t make any sense.” But that was a stretch.
As the pattern spread across the underside of my thoughts, I was – in fact — beginning to understand the adjective ‘Neolemurian’ with grating clarity. It denoted the first literal counter-culture.
A mentor and close friend of Barker’s, Archaeo-Ethnographer Echidna Stillwell, had built the foundations, or excavated them. She theorized that a sunken cultural matrix explained the peculiar correspondences between religious ideas, myths, games and counting practices distributed across a vast area of South and East Asia. She proposed a model to connect and explain these extensive commonalities, based on a specific comprehension of decimal numeracy and its meaning, elegantly compacted into an arithmetical structure that she called ‘the Numogram’. Worse still, I had begun to trace this figure on the table, unconsciously, treacherous digits doodling in spilt coke and ash, pairing the Pylons so they added to nine, then webbing them together through elementary digital relations.
Zach gestured with a nod of the head and a spectral grin, drawing my attention to diagram emerging in front of me. I froze, my moistened finger suspended in the swirling molten vortex of three and six.
“As the camouflage netting is torn away, it all comes rushing back, doesn’t it?” he said, twisting the softly-spoken words like a sadist’s dagger. “In layers.”
I suppressed a childish impulse to scrub out the diagram and retreat into preposterous denial. Instead, I forced myself to complete it, closing the Hex or circuit of time, mother of the Yi Jing and Vedic trigunas, then daubing the line of ultimate descent that dropped its knotted skein through the Gate of Shadows into the lower abyss or Chasm of Nyx, the infernal plummet-path that is marked and masked by the date 1890.
Repulsed by this undeniable performance of the inconceivable, my thoughts slid into crisscrossed congestion, mired in the thickening silt of unintelligible events, defeated by the compressed impossibility in process. Reason was drowning in synistreme darkness and a piteous noise, something between a moan and a gurgle, escaped my throat.
“Don’t fight it,” he said. “It’s futile. The syndrome can’t be outwitted. What you’re becoming won’t be stopped. Let the bastion burn. Vae victis.”
As the grip of cognition broke, long-hidden powers of perception were twisting free. Impulsive multitudes, without order or shape, came swarming out of the conundrum. Like a tide of rats released from a ruined fortress, vague torrents swept over the charred beams of intelligibility and heaps of false obstruction, fleeing into unshackled intensities of delirium. Vivid hallucinatory threads hatched and seethed from the ashy streaks, ramifying into endless, indecipherable tangles of qabbalistic implication. All around us, faces flickered through fish features and zombie flesh.
“Today, the twelfth of May, was the Old Halloween,” said the Girl in the Little Red Dress, as if from a distant place. “The Christians built it on top of the Roman festival of the dead, Lemuria, when the restless ghosts or larvae, the lemurs, were propitiated by time-tested rituals based on the number nine. The Romans devoted three non-consecutive days in May to Lemuria, the ninth, eleventh and thirteenth. The last of these dates was converted into All Saint’s Day by Pope Boniface IV, in the year AD 609. Halloween remained a spring festival for over a century, until the ancient rites of Lemuria had been thoroughly absorbed, its signs and sorceries supplanted.” As if emerging from a trance, she turned towards me, smiling sweetly. “But I guess you knew that. Any chance of another smoke?”
I passed the packet around again. My lungs ached and the after-taste of the coke was sickening me. I needed a real drink, or several, but searching through my pockets turned up nothing but loose change. Somewhere during the earlier proceedings I had parted company with my wallet.
There were a number of ways this divorce might have happened – a large and growing number. I distinctly remembered sliding my wallet into the pot at the end of the last game, along with what remained of my cash. But then I also recalled, with absolute retrospective certainty, a collision, muttered apology, and confusion of limbs, as a hand slipped into my jacket. Although, of course, I had discarded my wallet before entering the casino, emptying it of bills and tossing it, along with my ID, into a trash can, three blocks down the strip.
There was no ready solution to this puzzling hyper-abundance of truth. Memory had lost none of its detail, but the uniqueness of what must once have been a dominant storyline was now obliterated by the proliferation of alternatives. At first, trivial particulars had multiplied into subtly differentiated varieties, but it had not taken long for the hypothetical mode to supplant every pretender to authentic antecedence. Somewhere, deep in the sprawling jungle of alternative pasts, my previous life was no doubt faithfully conserved, but I could think of no way to identify or isolate it. A powerful current streamed steadily backwards, from the present moment to the innumerable tributaries that might conceivably have led to it. It was less amnesia than Amazonia.
“OK,” Zach said decisively. “It’s time. We need to get you back into the game.”
With a tilt of the head he focused us upon the far end of the room. A gaunt elderly figure was being seated at an empty table by two lounge-suited assistants.
“Mister Brewer is ready for us,” he explained. “Let’s go.”
Zach rose and led us across the room, past groups of absorbed poker players, to the corner gaming table where the old man waited to greet us. His hand shake was surprisingly firm. Zach received an affectionate slap on the shoulders, then left without comment, weaving back through the players towards the bar area, where new customers were already waiting.
We seated ourselves in a triangle around the circular felt-topped table. A seething silver glyph-stripped Numogram was embedded into the smooth green surface. Brewer’s attendants stood behind him, arms folded, systematically scanning and re-scanning the room.
“I hope Mister Cardiac has been looking after you well,” Brewer said. “Care for a drink? Cigar? In fact, I insist.” He beckoned to a nearby waiter, soundlessly communicating his request through a cryptic series of finger signs, in conformity with a precise, settled code. I wondered idly whether ‘Cardiac’ was a testament to amphetamine consumption, or perhaps a compression of ‘card-sharking maniac.’ Persistent synistreme hallucinations stroked the edges of the world into electric streaks. The soft mutterings of chance throughout the cavernous space tightened, then crystallized, until they delineated an intricately-structured, sprawling maze, built from chipped echoes.
Brewer’s craggy face was clean shaven, dominated by a prominent hawk-like nose and sharp blue eyes. His thin lips curled upwards slightly, in an inscrutable private smile. He was dressed in cowboy-dandy style — white Stetson and jacket, starched checked shirt with bootlace necktie, immaculately pressed jeans and soft leather boots. A generous tumbler of whiskey sat on the green baize in front of him, alongside a neatly stacked pile of cards.
“My grandson has a great work to accomplish,” Brewer began, without further preliminaries. “By the time he fully embarks upon this undertaking, I will be dead.”
He lifted the pack of cards carefully and passed it across to the Girl in the Little Red Dress.
“Take a look,” he said.
She cut and re-stacked the pack, then flipped over the top card and placed it on the table in front of her, considerately angled for our joint inspection. It was not a conventional playing card at all, but rather a name, or business card, marked for ‘Sandra Dee,’ complete with an Abyssoft commercial logo, contact details, and the title Senior Communications Representative.
“Don’t get trapped in it,” Brewer said. “That’s not yours, at least not yet. It’s a test-run.”
Tumblers of amber liquid and a box of slender cigars arrived.
“I’d like to propose a toast, to lemur conservation,” Brewer jested, raising his glass to clink rims above the inner void of the Hex. I took a grateful sip of the spiritous liquor, savoring the sublimation of peaty fluid into neural fire. It was an excellent single malt, Lagavulin, I guessed, and probably an old one. Brewer passed us our cigars, ceremonially, then ignited them with a steady hand, using an ornate mechanical device that strung a distinct tang of raw petroleum through the spreading aroma of Caribbean tobacco. Beyond the perimeter of sense, lofty intelligences gathered.
“Your turn for a taste,” Brewer said, passing me the cards. “It means nothing yet. We’re just opening our eyes, in the pre-dawn.”
“And if it’s a female name?” I asked.
“Then you’ll have disconfirmed everything I have ever learnt,” he answered. “But it won’t be.”
I took a card and laid it next to Sandra Dee.
“Todd Blair,” I noted redundantly, as the others leaned in to read it. Crowds of recollection broke through a rotten door. I remembered the name on my mother’s lips, called out innumerable times, in a multitude of intonations. “Todd, what are you doing?” “I hope that’s not what I think it is Todd.” “Todd, it’s time to go.” Todd’s life rushed to inhabit me: the car crash that killed his father and scarred his face, his schoolyard belligerence, his first job flipping burgers for weed money …
The name burrowed inwards, determinedly, working to attach itself to the roots of my destiny, like a parasitic larva. It felt wrong.
“That’s not me, is it?”
“Most probably not,” Brewer admitted, smiling thinly. “Let’s find out.”
He restored the pack and shuffled it expertly, then passed it to each of us in turn to cut and re-cut. His hands hovered over the Numogram Pylons, slicing through the fragrant clouds of cigar smoke as if dowsing for obscure signals. An almost palpable concentration hardened the features of his face, subtly animated by the inaudible mouthing of an elaborate invocation.
With a conjuror’s dexterity he fanned the cards onto the table in a long even curve.
“Take one,” he said to the Girl in the Little Red Dress. “Your fate awaits you.”
As she settled upon a card and drew it out, I wondered vaguely why we were accepting this imposition with such utter passivity, but outrage refused to come. I drew deeply on my cigar, watching intently.
“Mary Karno,” she said, as she turned it over and absorbed its oracle. “Yes, that’s right.”
Something like relief washed across her face.
“Mary,” she murmured to herself. “Mary Karno. That’s me,” and then, after a slight pause, “My book …?”
“I have it here,” Brewer responded, passing her a canvas bag. “It’s unfinished, of course. There’s a letter from the publisher in there somewhere. They’re excited about what they’ve seen so far.”
She took the bag and extracted a block of printed sheets, densely annotated with red ball-point amendments. She flipped through the pages, sliding into frictionless recognition.
“Too much blood, torture and perversion for my taste, of course,” Brewer continued drily. “But I’m guessing it’ll be huge.”
“And you are?” he asked me pointedly.
My hand wavered above the cards, suddenly chilled, and frozen. The oppressive weight of the moment fell upon me with its full force, crushing the air from my lungs, until I gasped with the resigned terror of a cornered prey animal.
“Do it,” whispered Mary, encouragingly. “It will be OK.”
“I don’t think so,” I answered, my voice straying beyond the edge of control. “It won’t be OK. At all.”
“It could be rough,” Brewer agreed. “But this is the place you’ve reached, you wanted it, and now it’s yours. There’s no evading it, not for long. A trapped, scared, pitiful creature has reached the end of its flight.” He drew a finger across his throat. “Best to finish it. Begin over.”
“You know, don’t you?” I challenged him, as a wave of inconsequential fury rolled over me. This was what it felt like to be absolutely cheated. It was something new, and horribly intriguing. “This whole game, the theater of uncertainty, it’s all a feint. Your expectations are confident, precise, and you have extremely good reasons not to share them …”
“You’re wasting everybody’s time,” he interrupted, impatiently. “You know it’s going to happen. That’s why you hate it. And beyond that,” he leant towards me, his voice soft, intense, and only superficially hostile, “you chose it. You wrote it. I’m just directing your play. So take the card, Mister …?”
“Duzsl,” I said, completing his request. “Nemo Duzsl. What kind of batshit crazy off-planet fucking name is that?”
But I knew it was mine.
“So, now we know who you are,” Brewer said, smiling sympathetically, his expression flavored with notes of relief, pride, and gratitude. “It will be tough …” he repeated, no longer muting the strain of prophetic authority, but even emphasizing it, as if graciously clambering down to us from the cloud-swaddled towers of providence, “… but educational. You can see the necessity, I’m sure. You have to be hardened, forged.”
“I can’t see anything but toxic fog,” I grumbled. Yet, strangely, the sense of asphyxiating oppression had begun to lift. Perhaps I even returned his smile, although in a way that was unconvincingly twisted.
“To tough luck!” I proposed, raising my glass.
“Perfect!” said Brewer, responding to the toast. He looked abominably pleased, as if savoring my definitive submission.
Mary clinked glasses, too, but with a slight hesitation that hinted at reluctance. Her smile expressed nothing more than clumsily redecorated melancholy.
“Down we go,” she mumbled approximately, her words clinging to the edge of inaudibility, as she took a minuscule sip, scarcely exceeding a sample of vapor. The descent she had announced was evidently not a gulp of fire-water. This should have concerned me, a lot. It upset me a little.
“There are things that you’ll need,” she said quietly, turning towards me, and reaching into her shoulder bag. Her face was subtly tragic. I wanted to comfort her. It was stupid.
“Yes, yes,” Brewer interrupted, irritated. “In time, nothing’s rushing us. The work is done.” Then, in a tone softened to the point of insincerity, as if obliquely apologizing for his brusqueness, he repeated: “Nothing’s rushing us.” It sounded mesmeric, and for an instant I heard these words as a cryptic mantra that had been chanted ceaselessly over the course of hours, years, and aeons, although it had been ‘nothing rushes us’ before. I was drifting into it, when hooked back by the word ‘… cigar’, slanted to the interrogative.
Brewer was asking me an inane question.
“The cigar?” I replied, idiotically.
“Are you enjoying it?”
I had not, in actuality, much noticed it. Now I realized that my throat itched, although not intolerably. A column of ash, the length of an intermediate phalanx, drooped from the end of my cigar. Doubting my ability to reach the ashtray successfully, I released it – with a gentle tap – to fall onto the floor, where it exploded softly into formless dust.
“Superb,” I half-croaked. It was. The smoky flavors were complex and richly textured, evoking the peripheries of fragrant jungles, tropical humidities, and enthralled sunlight.
“These were given to me by a very special friend,” Brewer explained. The pace of his utterance promised a story, most probably a lengthy one. I relaxed backwards into my chair, and noticed Mary doing likewise. She took a sip of the Lagavulin – a real one. The time tremors had relapsed into quiescence, with only occasional muffled shudders still perturbing concentration. The work is done, I remembered. Things had secretly shifted, on the outside, somewhere beyond the edge of the world.
“Where’s the edge of the world, Nelson, think on that, and head there, always head there. That’s what he used to say. I must have heard those exact words from him a thousand times. He doesn’t say it now, but only because he doesn’t need to.” Brewer paused to drink, nearly emptying his tumbler, and then to inhale on his cigar, pulling the smoke deeply into his lungs, as if attempting to saturate his cells rather than his senses. He exhaled an aromatic cloud. A semi-cough fractured the next syllables: “Carlos. Carlos Colón: that’s his name. A direct descendant of Christopher Columbus, he insists. It’s important to him. He’d say, you know Nelson, Cristóbal didn’t abolish the edge of the world. He wanted us to look for it in the right place. It was always funny, that intimacy, as if they’d been discussing things together in some taberna just the week before. I’d be tempted to laugh, shake him by the shoulders, tell him: ‘for Christ’s sake Carlos, you have no idea what he wanted.’ Not that I did, or would. It wasn’t just some ridiculous piece of nonsense, you see, not at all. It was serious — truly and totally serious. It still is serious. But you get that, right?”
He broke off, as if expecting confirmation. It would have been absurd to nod – what did I know? Instead I looked to Mary, who said, with quiet firmness: “Oh yes, it’s serious.” I tacked on a fraudulent “sure.”
Brewer seemed satisfied as he retreated into his memories. He signaled for more whiskey, a gesture that seemed to communicate bring the bottle. His eyes wandered through the cigar smoke, as if seeing something else.
“Not that I’d have called him that – Carlos — not to his face, he wouldn’t have it. There were too many Carlos Colóns. It was unacceptable to him. Call me 2Cs, he said. I didn’t get it immediately. ‘What, you mean like, to seas unknown?’ I asked. That’s right amigo, he replied immediately, to seize the unknown, to seize some pretty chica’s ass. We were still filthy young fools – this was before the Depression, way back, late 1920s. We had nothing but spunk and some undeveloped smarts.”
He tilted the bottle towards Mary, who shook her head, then to me. I let him pour another finger of whiskey into my tumbler. He added two fingers to his own. He scanned his casino methodically, almost mechanically, as if seeing it for the first time.
“I was already on my way to this – cards – it was what I was good at, and Carlos helped me out with that. Once there’re two of you – a pair – lots of things become possible. You’re a team, and if people don’t realize that, you have them. He was really good at that, especially the bad stuff. He could walk into a crowded room and have everybody worked out within minutes. He gave nothing away. They came to call me ‘Granite Face’ eventually, but I learnt that from him. It was years before I came close to what he could do, see, and hide. His face told whatever story he wanted. He could be anybody. He was strict, too. We’d never kid about together in any place that we were working. A secret team, that’s una máquina, he’d say. Two friends joking around in public? – Losers.
“He worked with me on the cards, but it didn’t mean anything to him. If we were alone, sitting at the table after a game, he’d ask: where’s the edge Nelson, is it here? ‘Sure it’s here,’ I’d reply. No, it isn’t here. That’s all he’d say. No, it isn’t here. It would drive me mad. ‘So where the fuck is it? It’s here, right here.’ Slapping the table top, you know, maybe I’d riffle through a pile of banknotes, in his face, obnoxiously. ‘See. This is working. This is where things are happening.’ No, it isn’t here, always that, just that, sadly, defiantly. No one could bully him. I had no idea what he was looking for.”
“When the breakthrough came we were out of the game for a while, hiding out in a small town down by the coast, near the border. There was a bar there that we’d made our own, through sheer intensity of custom, and we were the only patrons that night, sitting together at a flimsy circular table, somewhere into our third bottle of mezcal. We were deeply drunk.
“How long can you stare at tables and not see? Carlos asked, suddenly. Not this again. Not now. ‘See what?’ I had already slurred, reflexively, the robot at work, you know. This seemed to enrage him. His voice was climbing to a howl: Think, Nelson, fucking think enough to see the obvious fucking thing. He even reached over and slapped me across the head, hard. It almost knocked me from my chair. I’ve no idea why I didn’t hit him back, or what would have happened if I had. Instead I groped down through swirls of booze-shattered sensation to the table top, soaking up the scratches and flaking varnish and stains. ‘It’s flat?’ I ventured.
“It was like flicking a switch. He erupted in an outburst of shouts and wild, theatrical gesticulations, waving his arms in the air as he cried: At last, at fucking last, Jesus fucking Christ, at last … It was stunning, stupefying. My first impulse was to search for some kind of question, for additional information, but fortunately I suppressed it. Instead I began to think, and it was then that I realized that I hadn’t even been trying before. To think, I mean. It hadn’t even occurred to me to think, at all. That was already to cross a line, seeing that stupid unreflective obstinacy, which I had been. I still remember the moment – the instant – vividly, perfectly, but who knows? It seems exact: the threads of smoke, the smells of sweat and mezcal, the quality of the light, and then the tension of that alien, inner machine, unexpectedly starting up. I don’t ever want to forget it. I might have waited for ever to start thinking – that had always been his point, his maddening stubbornness. Now, something had switched over. It came to me then, suddenly, out of nowhere, the critical step. Flatness. It had to be some crazy shit about Christopher Columbus. I was drunk, and irritated, and my left ear was ringing from the slap, and I two-thirds wanted to just finish with this bizarre conversation. But the other third had set out somewhere, and it wasn’t going to stop.
“’These aren’t your edges, are they?’ I said, running my hands along the sides of the table. I was quite confident about it. It wasn’t really a question. He just smiled – beamed, actually. Go on amigo, was all that he said. But now I wasn’t sure that I could. My thoughts struggled to advance. It was a swamp, or a jungle. If you came to the end, to what had been believed to be the end, demonstrating that it wasn’t an end at all, what then? Where would you look for an edge, if the old edges were lost, and an edge was all that mattered? The silence stretched out. Thought lost its purchase. I was worried that his patience would break. I needn’t have been.
“It’s OK, he said. It’s hard. The next part is hard. It defeated me every time, every single time, for five years, but then I got it, the next step … ‘So, what is it?’ I had never wanted to know anything this much. You want the key? he teased. ‘Sure. Yes. Absolutely I want the key.’
“It was a kind of sublime torture, utter tantalization. Time curved inwards, compressive, crushing, folding my life towards the answer that he had, and I didn’t. He knew, and it amused him. He said nothing. He drank and grinned, his eyes roving delightedly across my torment. Those minutes – were they minutes? – dragged themselves out, endlessly. A tic in the corner of his mouth marked out the hidden metabolism of eternity in tiny spasms, hoarding some unreadable, invaluable clue. I wanted to strangle him, rip his eyes out. The density was unbearable. It was the center of the world, ultimate pressure. The need to know would kill me, if I let it. It couldn’t go on. That was the test. I had to change, to stop caring, to transcend, immediately, accept my ignorance, or die… At least, that’s how it felt …”
Brewer laughed, almost goofily, as if the entire story – broken off and already partially forgotten – had been nothing but an elaborate fishing yarn, a string of mock confessions fabricated to idly pass the time. He knocked back his whiskey, poured another, and then drew deeply on his cigar, exhaling luxuriantly. The depressurization was transparently faked. He wanted us to share, viscerally, in the unbearable anticipation of that moment. As he leant backwards, arching his back, stretching, Mary tensed forwards reciprocally, transfixed, her elbows sliding across the table. Perhaps she was going to succumb, and demand, hungrily, that he continue. The manipulation was so crude it disgusted me.
I yawned rudely, finished my drink, and stubbed out the remains of my cigar.
“It’s getting late Mister Brewer. I should probably be going. Thanks. It was fun.” I began to get up.
Mary half-twisted towards me, her eyes glinting with shock and rage. She’d been hooked, and I was ruining everything. You stupid bitch, I thought cruelly, more determined than ever to wreck the event.
I confidently hunted Brewer’s face for the quick burst of hatred I hoped to find there, but there was no sign of it. Instead, there was a kind of weary satisfaction, at once humorous and sad. There had been no surprises.
“Of course Mister Duzsl…”
“Call me Nemo,” I interrupted sarcastically, in a petty display of resistance. “There’s no need for formality among old friends.”
“Nemo then,” he continued, unruffled. “Do you have your key?”
Without thinking, I reached into my pocket, withdrawing a plastic card, and then inspecting it. Interlocking double Ds narrowed it down to the casino hotel, but there was no number.
“Two-zero-nine,” Brewer informed me, helpfully. “Sleep well.”
“Sleep, holy shit,” Mary muttered irritably. “As if he’s going to sleep.”
“Rest, then,” Brewer allowed.
“Oh please,” Mary sighed dramatically, her frustration boiling over. “You know exactly what will happen to him. He’ll spiral down into the drug, coming apart into rags of shredded fate, until there’s nothing left but splintered panic and screaming.” She was looking at me, coldly now, even as she spoke, with the detached observation one might appropriately apply to a doomed lab animal. “He’s truly fucked. This was stupid.”
“Mary, your imaginative extravagance betrays you,” Brewer growled, obviously entertained.
“Mister Duzsl – Nemo – wants to rest. There’s no need for additional stimulation.”
Did they understand? I was unsure. Understanding had become almost unbelievably precious, and precarious. There were too many new facts, and the latest one was especially disconcerting, because the story Brewer had been relating was known to me now, in its entirety, from before its beginning to some indefinite end, or edge, far beyond its premature termination, and in much greater detail than had yet been revealed. It is not that I had somehow learnt it. Rather, I had become somebody who already knew it. That made me a replacement, for somebody who hadn’t known it, and who now knew nothing, was nothing. That supplanted creature was nothing now, but it was also – and equally – an earlier draft of this inexplicable being that considered itself to be me, and it was perhaps no less adequate compared to whatever had become me than I would be compared to what might soon follow. It would be important to keep notes.