By J. Marshall Morgan
I hate missing flights, even when I do it on purpose. My stomach still churns. My hands still sweat. And my leg still bounces. But at 1:42 p.m., I watched my flight take off from my rental car, and then I called my wife.
“Hi honey. No, I’m not on the plane. My meeting ran late, and I got to the gate just as they were closing the door.” I did my best to sound frustrated. The lie came naturally; it might have even solicited some sympathy. “Not sure when I’ll be able to get home. Thunderstorms are rolling in and flights are delayed. I’m going to try to get on standby. … Yeah, I know. Sucks. That’s flying for you. … I’m going to grab something to eat and see what I can do here. … Yeah, sure, I’ll text you when I have an update. Kiss the boys for me. Love you too. Bye.”
My eyes judged me from the rear-view mirror. I had been lying to my wife for so long that you’d think I would have gotten used to it. Tara would be pissed if she knew what I was doing. But what she didn’t know couldn’t hurt her. And it’s not like I was cheating on her.
The unremarkable sales call that probably won’t result in new revenue was an excuse to fly to Dallas. Yes, sir, this trip was an all-expenses-paid, corporate-sponsored rare book hunt. My prey? The Village Thrift, a brick and mortar storefront from which I bought some of my most treasured works, online of course. I had never actually been there, but I had plans–big plans–to lose myself within the labyrinth of shelves in hopes of finding one of the out-of-print (or never officially “printed”) books on my short list. I tapped the navigation app and searched for the Village Thrift.
A couple of hours later, I pulled into the deserted parking lot of a burned-out strip mall. I took a swig of the day-old coffee that had burrowed a home in the car’s cup holder and scanned the area. Randomly placed plastic trash cans had melted into screaming faces under the oppressive Texas sun. Dark shadows filled bottomless potholes. I was disappointed that I didn’t see an honest-to-God tumbleweed. The Village Thrift was sandwiched between two abandoned storefronts.
The old-timey bell installed above the door added to the decrepit charm of the place. Racks of musty clothes cluttered the store. Glass display cases lovingly held useless knick-knacks and oodles of chipped, poorly made pottery. Doubt nagged at me as I made my way deeper into the store. It didn’t feel like the store that was home to some of the world’s rarest books.
But then I saw it.
A makeshift bookshelf of cinder blocks and untreated wood stood in a lonely corner of the store. I swept away the shelf’s cobwebs and smiled as I caressed the well-worn spines resting there. What the Village Thrift lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality. I pulled “Nar’gom’s Guide to Otherworldly Realms” off of the shelf. It had been my first love; the first weird tale of cosmic power and unexplained phenomena that launched me into a faraway world when this one was disappointing, painful or simply mundane. Now, my collection of Nar’gom’s books were the only part of me that didn’t cater to work’s obligations or home’s expectations. That was something that Tara could never understand.
Running my hand across the book’s worn leather cover and breathing in the stale, browned pages reminded me of how much I missed the hunt. I flipped through the pages to inspect the book’s quality and found the inscription on the inside front cover. Of course it was there–the name that I had become so accustomed to seeing.
Donovan W. Deegan
Deegan haunted the majority of the books in my extensive collection, and he was always a step ahead of me. When I’d research a new-to-me rare tome, I’d pay whatever gouging price was necessary to add it to my shelves only to find his name was already there. Shadow of the Dwellers–-Property of Donovan W. Deegan. Red Light Rising—This Book Belongs to Donovan W. Deegan. Nar’gom’s Lost Chants and Forgotten Rites–Donovan W. Deegan. Sacrifices and Mutilation: Collected Works–Deegan.
I tapped the hardback against my hand in thought and then took it to the front desk. I called several times for an attendant until an old man stumbled out of the backroom.
“A customer!” he gasped as if I were a ghost. Grey tangles of thin hair hung like moth-eaten curtains that framed his weathered face. A pair of glasses that broke at the bridge hung from a leash around his neck, and he wore a stained V-neck t-shirt the color of his sickly skin under a too-tight cardigan.
“I’m sorry,” I said without quite knowing why. “You … Well, I just wanted to buy this book.”
“Of course!” he resounded as if coming to understand the situation. He silently went about the task out of routine habit.
“Interesting shop you have here,” I said to get him talking, but his only answer was glance up from the ancient metal register. I decided to get down to business.
“You wouldn’t happen to be Donovan Deegan, would you?”
“Oh, of course, my name is Hal. Halford James.” His eyes stayed trained on me. “You probably recognize the name from your online orders?”
“Online?” The register drawer clanged shut.
“You know, the Internet? I’ve bought plenty of books from you over the past years. Village Thrift. Denton, Texas. You have an online storefront.”
I glanced around the store that time had forgotten and realized this man had probably never even seen a computer.
“Name’s Eugene,” he said curtly as if it were an answer and handed me my book–a clear attempt to end the conversation.
“Well it’s nice to meet you, Eugene,” I said using my most cordial salesman tone. “You see, the reason I asked was–” I flipped the book open “–see there? Donovan W. Deegan. The name’s in every book I have purchased. I was just hoping to meet him and thought that perhaps you were him.”
“It ain’t me.”
Eugene was a tough customer, but he hadn’t met me yet. I wasn’t the highest grossing salesman in my company for nothing.
“Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a record of book donations would you?”
If his eyebrow could have arched any further it would have jumped right off his forehead like a cartoon character in utter disbelief.
“I’m sure your customer’s privacy is of the utmost concern to you, but–”
I had a dozen lies ready to go, but somehow knew he wouldn’t fall for it.
“To be honest,” I said with effort, “I want to meet this Donovan Deegan because I was hoping that I might finally meet someone who shares my passion for these types of books.”
It was the kind of bleedingly honest truth you can only tell a stranger. The old man relaxed. Without a word he snapped his glasses together, perched them on his nose and pulled out a drawer that looked like it was from an old library card catalog. He thumbed through the records as he mumbled to himself.
“Ah ha!” He pulled a card from the drawer and handed it to me.
Donovan W. Deegan
555 Vision Way
Denton, Texas 75065
I had always pictured Donovan Deegan living in a crooked Cape Cod. Inside, piles of rare books would be littered across the countertops; notable editions would be strewn along the floor next to a well-worn recliner that had a permanent impression from Donovan falling asleep while reading a hefty tome.
Instead, I pulled into the parking lot of a corporate headquarters of a company called Vis.ion Corp. The building was a cyclopean monolith of dark glass and black steel that reflected a gloomy image of the otherwise bright Texas sky.
My phone buzzed angrily in my pocket–a stream of texts from my wife at her wits’ end. The boys had discovered the joy of putting toilet paper into the toilet and then flushing to watch it unspool, which sounds hilarious when you’re not the one dealing with it. I knew I should have turned around right then, but I had come this far and was so close to meeting Deegan face to face. I knew I wouldn’t have another chance. That’s what I told myself at least. So I shot her a quick commiserating text and then silenced the phone.
I approached the office building where I assumed the entrance would be and waited for unseen automatic doors to pull apart the obsidian walls. When the glass wall stood firm, I worried that the entrance was on the other side of the building. Then a voice spoke to me.
“Hello, may I help you?”
It came from a speaker set within a small security post that mirrored the corporate building’s construction. There was no button to push in response, and so I spoke assuming the receptionist could hear me.
“Yes, hello.” I put aside my fear and summoned my salesman’s voice. “I’m here to see Donovan Deegan.”
“James Henry,” I lied.
“And you have an appointment?”
“Just a moment please.”
I went through all the stages you usually go through when you start a lie–stomach-fluttering excitement mixed with conscience-nagging guilt–and then paranoia crept in as I waited. I paced uncharacteristically. I was on the edge of opening myself up to someone after having kept this part of myself closed for so long. I should have been excited, but all I wanted to do was breathe into a brown paper bag.
Then the voice returned.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the woman said firmly, “Mr. Deegan doesn’t have any appointments this afternoon.”
“Well now, I’m sure Mr. Deegan just likely forgot,” I said cheerily despite my misgivings. You see, when you start a lie, you have to commit to it or else it was pointless to start in the first place. “We did set this appointment some time ago. At the last conference in fact. You know how those things are–lots of people to meet, deals to strike. No wonder it must have slipped his mind. I did come all the way down here from Ohio to meet with him. If I could just speak with him a moment.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
When a lie goes south, it’s best to inject a bit of truth.
“Well if you could please mention that him and I are mutual friends of a Mr. Nar’gom. That might help jog his memory. I would so appreciate it. Plight of a salesman and all.”
I flashed my deal-closing smile, the one that says, “Sure, you can trust me,” and willed it through the speaker box. An eerie silence crept over the conversation as dark clouds snuffed out the Texas sun. A cold bead of sweat cut a channel down back, but I stood my ground. After all, the worst that could happen was that she’d turn me away.
“Yes, I’m still here,” I said far too eagerly.
“Mr. Deegan will see you now.”
The building opened up in an unnerving fashion–the black glass panels parted horizontally forming a gaping maw of an entrance. Inside it looked like any other spartan Silicon Valley inspired office with modular furniture peculiarly arranged in the white-washed lobby. A glass reception desk rose from the floor like a cresting wave, and I approached it confidently.
Salesmanship 101: If you don’t believe in yourself, no one will.
“I do appreciate you giving me the time, ma’am,” I said to the receptionist who wasn’t old, but wasn’t young. At first glance, I would have put her in her early thirties, but I saw a depth of experience in her eyes that betrayed her smooth, firm cheeks and thin glossy lips. She wore a name tag that I aimed to put to good use.
“Petra. That’s a pretty name.”
She smiled curtly, handed me a visitor’s badge, and then told me to follow her.
The office lacked the openness of most contemporary business spaces. There were no cubicles, only small offices with doors built into the glossy black walls that were constructed from some sort of veinless black marble. The receptionist glanced over her shoulder to ensure that I hadn’t gotten lost. Given the strange twists and turns we took, I would not have been surprised if I had. I felt like a rat in a maze experiment and wondered if the rat ever asked itself if the cheese was worth it.
She ushered me into an office, explained that Deegan was in another meeting and told me to wait for him here. I thanked her and asked if I could trouble her for a glass of water. She answered by pulling the door closed.
The office couldn’t have been any more different than the rest of the building. The walls were the color of bone and the furnishings were antiques carved from a strange dark wood with grain that looked like scorch marks. An inkwell and quill sat on the desk next to scattered piles of parchment paper. A bronze globe with nails driven into various locations sat in the corner. A pair of bookshelves anchored the far wall. Lavishly bound books lined the shelf, but their spines were titleless. I checked my phone out of habit but found that I had no reception. The bookshelf called to me, but I resisted. After what felt like an eternity, however, I couldn’t deny my curiosity any longer.
I slipped the largest book off of the shelf. Its leather binding was cracked, and it opened easily. Its well-preserved pages were stiff and smelled of formaldehyde. The words scrawled across the page looked as if they were hand written, but I didn’t recognize the language. The numbers, however, I could understand. Entries were dated as if it were some sort of journal. If the numbers were to be believed, this book dated back several thousand years.
“Find something interesting?” a voice croaked. I nearly dropped the book.
A man stood in the doorway. His face displayed the same ageless qualities as the receptionist, but his frame was bent and twisted; brittle as if a stiff wind would turn him to dust. His dark pupils swirled into his smokey irises behind black rimmed glasses.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” His voice was smooth and genuine, though I sensed a practiced tone.
I opened my mouth to respond but couldn’t find the words. An uneasiness swept over me. My business was creating conversations, controlling them even, but in the presence of this old man with a young face, I was powerless.
“Come now, Mister … Henry, was it?” It wasn’t so much a question as an accusation. “Please have a seat.”
He motioned toward a chair and I followed his command. He took the book from me and laid it on the desk.
“As you have no doubt guessed,” he began confidently, “I’m Donovan Deegan.”
“It’s a pleasure to–”
He raised his hand and my mouth clamped shut. Then he picked up the book and turned toward his bookcase.
“Used books,” he mused. “They have a life of their own, you know? Isn’t it interesting that their shelves change, but they’re stories stay the same? Do you ever wonder where they’ve been? Who else has held them? I wonder, Mr. Henry. I wonder….”
“I never really thought about it,” I said, surprised to hear my own voice again. Deegan placed the book back on the shelf and then took a seat behind the imposing desk. It was an age-old posturing move, but he executed it well. He stared at me in a way that made me feel like one of his books, splayed open, pages naked to his eyes.
“Would you like for me to continue referring to you as Mr. Henry? Or should I call you Mr. James? Or maybe just Hal?”
“You got me.” I said. A question crawled up the back of my neck: How did he know? The books, of course, but it didn’t add up, and more importantly it felt … wrong, like watching a child scrape the skin off a snail with table salt and a stick.
“Mr. Deegan,” I began, taking the conversational offensive. “Donovan. Can I call you Donovan?”
“Donovan, I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me–”
“The least I could do for a fellow disciple of Nar’gom,” he interrupted.
I laughed. Disciple of Nar’gom. I thought he was joking, but his lineless face was unmoved.
“Well … It’s great to finally meet you,” I recovered. “Some of my favorite books came from your collection. So many, in fact, that I once thought that maybe they had come from an estate sale.”
Deegan scoffed as if the thought of death insulted him. The awkwardness of it halted the conversation.
“Continue Mr. James,” he commanded. “Ask the question that you’re burning to ask.”
It was as if he could read my mind.
“Why did you give all your books away?” I found myself asking.
He eyed me for a moment then said: “To find you, of course.”
My bones turned to ice; my muscles froze. Deegan rose with effort, joints cracking with complaints, and hobbled around his desk to stand in front of me.
“I had hoped that you had come to discuss a trade,” Deegan continued. “My love for Nar’gom’s writings has taken me all over the world from the Accursed Cave in Algeria to the Black Spine Mountains of Bolivia. The journeys I have taken; the sacrifices I have made–”
“Sacrifices?” I coughed.
“Mostly monetary,” Deegan said without missing a beat. “Traveling the world chasing Nar’gom is not cheap, as you must know, Hal.”
“I’ve bought all of my editions online.”
“Technology has made things much easier for collectors,” he said as he hunched forward and whispered, “though it cheapens the hunt, if I may say.”
“Mr. Deegan, I do appreciate you taking the time to meet with me,” I said as I moved to stand. This meeting had taken too strange of a turn and years of sales experience told me it was time to ditch. “I’m afraid I must be going. I have a flight to catch.”
“Mr. James, you’ve come all this way. Don’t you want to hear my offer?”
“Uh…” I fumbled. Deegan had completely knocked me off my game, and I was at his mercy. “Sure, I guess.”
“I’m looking for the original printing of Nar’gom’s Manipulations of Necrotic Flesh, which I suspect you have.”
“I do,” I admitted, or bragged. It felt like both.
“Excellent,” he hissed. “You give me the book, and I’ll give you back your family.”
“Yes. Your wife, Tara. She is quite beautiful. And your two boys, Charles and Theodore, oh, but you call him, Teddy, don’t you? They’re whip smart. They would serve Nar’gom well.”
The threat was absurd, and after years of navigating sales negotiations, I knew bullshit when I smelled it. Deegan knew details that were unnerving but nothing that a two-second Internet search couldn’t turn up. I should have figured that someone obsessed with the occult would have issues. Clearly, Deegan was a goddamn looney toon. I was about to tell him my “go-fuck-yourself” counter offer, but that’s when he leaped at me.
His movements were spider-like. He clutched my face with skeletal fingers, cold, sharp and strong, then scampered across the office floor on all fours dragging me along with him. He began a guttural chant of words that none have before spoken. I recognized it from the pages of Nar’gom’s Lost Chants. His voice grew to chatter as if the room was filled with faceless masses all jabbering in an unholy cacophony of cries for help and pleads for mercy. The reality of the office was washed away like blood on a mortician’s table, and in its place was a vast emptiness filled only by the sound of those voices. A tentacled hand reached toward me from the void and offered a chalice from which I drank something dark in color that tasted like vomited iron as the voices came together in a demonic chant:
Ka’Co Dorbrol Stradeesh
Equi’ch Sedi Pena’Valla.
I swallowed the last drop of Nar’gom’s words, understanding that my life was forfeit, a sacrifice to some deep, eternal power that lurks beyond the cosmos. Tears ran down my cheeks, and I was certain that the taste of salt would be my last earthly experience.
Then, suddenly, the horrific scene was sucked away as if in a vacuum and a scream awakened me. My scream. I was alone in my rental car sitting outside of Vis.ion Corp. I laid in the reclined driver seat. The car was running. The A/C wheezed on full blast. I wiped the sweat from my face and picked at dried drool on my chin. The copy of Nar’gom’s Guide to Otherworldly RealmsI had purchased from the Village Thrift rested open on my chest.
How long had I been asleep? Was it all a dream? It had felt so real. I tossed the book onto the passenger seat. It must have been a dream, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that my family was somehow in danger.
I called Tara, but she didn’t answer. She never answered. To be fair, no one answered their phones anymore. I shot her a flurry of text messages.
Are you okay?
Where are the boys? Are they safe?
Answer me please!
The time stamp of our last exchange was only ten minutes ago. I could have sworn that I had been inside Vis.ion Corp for at least an hour. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief when her picture appeared, and the icon showed that she was typing.
Everything is fine.
The boys are napping. I dozed off.
Are YOU okay?
I’m on my way home.
I slid my key into my garage door deadbolt and pressed my ear against the door. No screaming children. No scolding wife. That was a good sign, but it left me uneasy. Silence was such a rarity in our house that a small part of me feared the worst–that Deegan’s threat was far from empty. I dismissed the thought. Deegan was nothing but an old crazy man, and I couldn’t wait to forget the whole thing like a bad dream. I turned the key and stepped inside.
“Hi family,” I said in the cheeriest voice possible after spending twenty hours in the car only pulling over for gas, coffee or to take a piss. I could have flown standby and probably even gotten home earlier, but the idea of waiting at the airport felt like being sentenced to purgatory. I felt better being on the move.
“Dad’s home!” I called.
I put my luggage down quietly and pulled the book I had bought at the Village Thrift from the front pocket hoping to tuck it away, unnoticed, in my bedside table drawer until I had an opportune moment to spirit it away to my collection.
I was making my way through the kitchen when I heard Tara whispering. She said something like, “I think he’s here now.”
I caught a glimpse of a man’s crooked silhouette against the dying daylight that spilled in from our living room picture window. My blood ran cold and my chest constricted as if a serpent had me in its coils. Deegan was here.
“Hi hon,” Tara said with a huge, honest smile that dissolved as she rounded the corner into the kitchen. “My God, are you okay? You look terrible.”
She pulled me into her arms and held me tight. I caught my reflection in a mirror and was horrified to see just how right she was. My blue polo shirt, pock-marked with coffee stains, was poorly tucked into my ill-fitting black pants. The black circles under my eyes made me look like an unlit jack o’lantern. I felt ashamed standing in front of Tara. She was radiant. Her dark curls cascaded over her smooth shoulders and prominent collar bones. A white tank top without a hint of a child’s tears, drool, food, filth or, God forbid, blood, hugged the curves that I loved but that she blamed on the children. Her sandy brown eyes looked rested and relieved to see me. I would have melted into here arms and told her everything right then and there, but that’s when Deegan stepped into the kitchen.
I heard the slap of the hardcover book hitting the kitchen floor before I realized that it had slipped from my fingers. Tara took a step back to pick it up for me. Her face twisted as she read the title embossed in gold foil on the book’s black cover.
“What is this?” she demanded.
“I … I can explain,” I stammered.
“Yes, I’m sure you can,” Deegan said. “I’m glad you’re home too, Hal.”
“Where are the boys?” I barked. “Are they okay? Are you okay?”
“They’re fine. We’re all fine,” Tara said annoyed. The way she held herself in Deegan’s presence was unnerving. It was as if they were old friends. Deegan wasn’t half the salesman that I was, and I was certain he couldn’t have established a rapport with her so quickly. I recalled the dream that suggested more sinister influences.
“Your friend was just asking me about your book collection,” Tara continued, “but I told him you got rid of it years ago.”
Her eyes drilled into me with a look she used to intimidate our boys. It worked on me too.
“You did get rid of it, didn’t you?”
My gut-reaction was to build upon my lies to keep the ball rolling.
“I think it’s about time you told Tara the truth, Hal,” Deegan said.
The books were an unhealthy obsession that I knew had to end if I wanted to save my marriage. Eventually … after I took care of Deegan. I got in his face and started thumping on his withered, boney chest with my finger. “I don’t know who you think you are–”
“Hal, that’s enough!” Tara wedged herself in between me and Deegan and shoved the book into my chest, pushing me back. “You tell me what the Hell this is all about or so help me God, I’m taking the boys and going to my parents’ house.”
I looked over her shoulder at Deegan, who nodded. I don’t know if the dam of lies finally broke or if Deegan was imposing some sort of control over me, but it all came spilling out. I like to think it was my decision to come clean.
“Tara, I haven’t always been honest with you. I didn’t mean to lie to you, I just … I covered it up or didn’t tell you things. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just didn’t want to fight.”
“Like what?” Her eyes darted about as she churned through her memories.
“Well, to start, I lied about missing the plane. I had plenty of time to make it, but I didn’t get on it. I didn’t even try.”
Her face shifted through questions that I quickly tried to answer.
“I was looking for a book.”
“You told me you were done with books,” she growled.
“I know,” I said sheepishly. I forced myself to look at her as I confessed. “I kept my collection. Actually, it’s even larger than before.”
“Hal, you promised me!”
“I couldn’t give them up,” I said. “They are important to me.”
“More important than your family?”
The question knocked the wind out of me.
“You wouldn’t understand,” I said. “You never understood.”
My throat twisted and my mouth clamped shut.
“Understood what, Hal?”
“It’s just that … you were always so dismissive of them,” I said. Each word was like ripping off a fingernail, but once I started telling the truth, I couldn’t stop. “You called them silly and childish. You’d tell me to stop wasting my time reading them. But they were mine, Tara. And I need them.”
“We need you, Hal,” she said. “You spent so much time with those books and not enough time with us. When Charlie and Teddy pulled over that shelf, you were more concerned with your precious books than your children.”
When our two sons were about four and three, they had climbed up my bookshelf to look through “Dada’s books.” We heard a gut-twisting crash and darted into the study. I’ve never exhaled as deeply as when we found them sitting unharmed beside the bookshelf they had pulled over. Charles, our four-year-old, was sounding out one of the incantations from Lost Chants and Forgotten Rites:
Klatha’ry theighethi Equ’uchi
Dobro’dan Chaco ci Yedu
Theodore, our three-year-old, was flipping through the pages of Nar’gom’s Manipulations of Necrotic Flesh, the crown jewel of my collection. It was said to be Nar’gom’s original text, bound in animal flesh, though not any animal that I could ever identify, and written by Nar’gom’s own hand.
Tara and I were mortified. Her because Charles was able to say the spine-chilling words (his pronunciation was impressive for a child) and Theodore lingered on hand-drawn images of mutilations that I don’t have the stomach to describe. I, on the other hand, was terrified that they might have the destroyed spines and covers of my books when they pulled the shelf down or that they had ripped pages as they flipped through them … once I realized they weren’t hurt of course.
After that, Tara demanded that I donate my collection to the local second-hand store, but I interpreted our agreement as: Get the books away from the children. So I signed a long-term lease on a temperature-controlled storage unit and created a cozy collection room with a reading nook where I could enjoy my books in peace and not have to worry about the boys. Of course, I had told Tara I donated them to avoid a fight.
“And where are they now?” Deegan interjected.
Tara planted her hands on her hips, annoyed that Deegan interrupted her, and I pounced on the opportunity to redirect her anger.
“Where are Charlie and Teddy?” I asked.
“They’re in bed,” she said.
“Are they?” My question was aimed at Deegan.
“Your wife wouldn’t lie to you as you would to her, now would she, Hal?”
He was deflecting.
“Then you wouldn’t mind if we checked on them ourselves?”
He hesitated just for a moment.
“You’ve already taken them, have you?”
He answered with a smile.
“Taken them where?” Tara demanded.
Deegan responded with a crooked smile. There was only one way for me to keep my family safe, and that was to give Deegan what he wanted. Or at least lie to him to make him think he would get it.
“I want your word,” I said calmly, “that if I give you what you want and do what you say, you’ll leave my family alone.”
“Hal, what are you talking about?” Tara pleaded, but my eyes stayed locked with Deegan’s in an unspoken battle of wills.
“And don’t bother lying,” I chided. “I can tell. Call it liar’s intuition. You tell me the truth and I’ll give you what you want. Lie, and you might as well end us all here.”
Panic took hold of Tara.
“What have you done with my boys!” she yelled as she turned on Deegan, her hands held like claws, fingernails hungry for his flesh.
“Zamrzni!” Deegan chanted.
Tara froze instantly, unnaturally. Her clenched fist was in mid-swing and her eyes darted wildly as she tried, but failed, to turn her head. She was completely aware of the unnatural curse that held her. Deegan didn’t bother to glance in Tara’s direction to see if his spell had taken hold. He had simply continued to stare at me, hoping to see weakness. I stood firm, undeterred by his show of power.
“Promise me!” I demanded.
He watched me, looking for a tell, but if I could lie convincingly to my wife for years, then this old fool was no challenge.
“Okay, Hal. I give you my word,” he said.
“Swear it,” I said. “Swear it on Nar’gom.”
He nodded as if he expected no less.
“Sinee theighethi stradeesh, Nar’gom.”
I returned his nod as if I understood what the Hell he had said. He seemed to accept it.
“What do I have to do?” I asked him.
The black SUV rolled along the empty suburban streets as the sun bled an unsettling shade of red across the horizon. Tara sat beside me in the middle row of the SUV pinned between Petra, the receptionists I had encountered at Vis.ion Corp., in the front seat and Deegan lurking in the row behind us. I squeezed her hand in quick succession to get her attention, but she stared straight ahead, unmoved. I chose to believe that Deegan’s spell still held her firmly, but it was more likely that she was pissed at me.
I had to think of some way to not only break free from Deegan and his crony, but to end them so that they couldn’t bring any more harm to me, my family or the world. I thought about the resources hidden amongst the shelves in my storage unit. I had a ceremonial dagger–an artifact of Nar’gom that I purchased from a demented street merchant when I was on a business trip in San Jose. Though its blade was dull and rusty, I thought that if I could maim Petra and wrestle away the gun that I was certain was tucked within her black suit jacket, then maybe we’d have a chance. But I was going to need Tara’s help.
We pulled up to the storage facility before I could formulate a solid plan. The car passed the dark rows of storage units until I nodded, and the SUV stopped sharply. A tumor of guilt grew in my throat as we stood in front of the storage unit that I had kept from Tara all these years. I looked at her as if to say that I was sorry, but she didn’t return the look. I twisted the key into the unit’s padlock and heaved the door up. Petra pushed me into the unit with uncanny strength.
“Hal,” Deegan whispered in amazement as he stepped into my sanctuary, “You clearly underestimated your collection.” He spun as he took in the sight of my shelves. I felt the sting of jealousy as his fingertips ran across several spines. He cooed at the sight of Friedrich von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, The Book of Eibon, and De Vermis Mysteriis, as well as one of the seven known editions of the Necronomicon, if you could call the various incarnations it took “editions.” Tara, too, looked spellbound. My collection had more than tripled in size since she had last seen it.
When Deegan and Petra turned their attention toward the glass case atop an ivory pedestal that basked in the glow of a perfectly positioned spotlight, I took a slow step toward Tara.
“I have a plan,” I whispered.
“I’m not talking to you,” she hissed.
“Don’t ‘Honey’ me!” she nearly yelled. I looked over at Deegan, who was still bewitched by my collection’s crown jewel.
“Nar’gom’s Manipulations of Necrotic Flesh,” he mused. “Long I have waited for this moment. Can you feel it? The will to bend worlds. Soon Nar’gom’s power will be mine!”
I grasped Tara’s arm and said, “You have every right to be mad at me; to hate me–I deserve it–but I need your help to get us out of here. Our boys, do it for our boys. They need us.”
She gave me a look that showed a willingness to listen.
“I have a plan. Just wait for my signal.”
I could see her working through her anger, but before she could say anything, Deegan snapped his fingers and yelled at Petra to bring his case from the car. The ageless woman passed between us and then returned with an iron-banded wooden crate that must have weighed hundreds of pounds, though you couldn’t tell from the way she carried it like a common piece of luggage. She slammed it down on the ground in front of Deegan.
Deegan’s demon-like hand latched onto her throat and he brought her to her knees.
“Be careful with that, you fucking idiot, or you’ll share Mr. James’s fate!”
It was time to make my move.
“Now!” I yelled to Tara.
I bounded toward the pedestal and pulled open the secret compartment that held the ceremonial dagger. I snatched it without looking, feeling its bone-carved pommel in my hand, and lunged at Deegan.
I felt the bullet carve its way through my thigh and shatter just about every bone in my leg before I heard the gunshot. I dropped to the ground and howled.
“Hal!” Tara screamed and ran toward my side. I whimpered as she applied pressure to the wound.
“That was your plan?” she said without sympathy.
“I’m so sorry, love,” I replied through a steady stream of tears. What hurt more than the pain, however, were the memories. Life didn’t flash before my eyes–it played in slow motion as I relived all the times I lied to my wife. And for what? To avoid inconvenient truths? Mask small transgressions that would have been forgiven? Instead, I created a life of small lies that, when taken as a whole, could not be forgiven.
Petra hoisted Tara up by the shoulders and pressed the gun into her stomach.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Deegan hissed in my ear, “business man to business man. You help me with the incantation and perhaps your family will be spared. I can’t be certain that will be the will of Nar’gom, but I’ll at least put in a good word.”
I shook my head in agreement, mostly because I figured it would buy me more time. Atop the chest, Deegan had laid out Nar’gom’s collected works–glorious first editions that I would have once salivated over now filled me with an indescribable dread. Next to my Manipulation of Necrotic Flesh, a tome, which was said to be able to unravel sinew and bone, was Sacrifices and Mutilations: The Collected Works. It detailed the secret procession of Nar’gom’s most unspeakable rituals. The original Lost Chants and Forgotten Rites, penned in blood on pages of pressed bone, laid open on the chest to provide the unspeakable chants necessary to navigate the star charts in Nar’gom’s Guide to Otherworldly Realms, which Deegan held in his scarred arms.
I placed my hands atop the chest to steady myself and felt two new jolts of pain. Deegan had rammed my ceremonial dagger, which I had dropped, through my right hand and had produced a sister dagger from the folds of his suit and drove it into my left. I recognized the new dagger with its rigid shaft made from small vertebrae and its gold-forged blade. It was the fabled Spine of Nar’gom. I would have admired it had it not be lodged in one of my extremities.
Deegan began a chant unlike any I had ever heard. The world and then the cosmos spun around us. I looked down at the open pages of Nar’gom’s greatest works. Deegan was selecting certain words to chant from each text, but only he was able to see the correct combinations by referring to the Guide. He spoke words that I recalled so well in a peculiar order that somehow made complete sense to me. That’s when I understood the truth.
The words, the ritual, the promise of power that Deegan assumed he could seize for himself was a lie. It was Nar’gom’s failsafe; a plot that would lure the power hungry–those desperate and deranged enough to risk life and limb in the world’s most dangerous places to seek out ancient forms of power–and destroy them when they tried to obtain it. As the truth dawned on me, Deegan twisted the Spine of Nar’gom to motivate me to join the rites. I didn’t need the pain to help me hide the smile that would have given me away. I was, after all, a professional liar. I promised myself that this would be my final lie, and then I joined the chant:
Klatha’ry theighethi Equ’uchi
Dobro’dan Chaco ci Yedu
Our words echoed through time and space, passed eternity, and into the unknowable void–that black hole at the center of everything that swallowed every answer. We called upon its power, evoking the name of Nar’gom and calling for his will to be done. Our horrific cadence galloped as the pages turned themselves. Chanting and turning faster and faster.
In the final moment just before we said his name–not Nar’gom, mind you, but his true name, the name that is never said–I pulled my hands up the daggers’ blades. They splayed my hands like tenderized cuts of meat. Then I threw myself toward Tara, shielding her with my body as we crashed onto the floor. Black flames rippled from the pages and shot toward Deegan and Petra, leaping from chest to chest like chain lightning. Petra melted, filling the room with the stench of burnt flesh and hair. Deegan’s demonic laughter turned to a tortured scream as he realized the truth of Nar’gom’s power. Then he exploded. Bits of bone and flesh flew onto the shelves. I watched my collection–my life’s work–catch flame. The withered pages dried by decades of careful preservation burned brighter than any kindling.
Jagged, shattered bones shifted in my legs and my mutilated hands bob like lifeless, meaty lobster claws as Tara dragged me from the storage unit. She fell to the ground once we were safely away from the fire and held me. Together we watched my collection go up in flames. I felt a strange sense of relief. My secret life of escapism–the reason that I had told so many lies–was gone.
We found our boys unharmed and asleep in their beds. They had no memory of the incident, and I suspected that Deegan had used some sort of charm on them to keep them sound asleep in their rooms. As for me and Tara … we’re separated now, but I’m trying to earn back her trust. I have told her the truth of almost every lie I had ever uttered. Every truth except one that I have yet to share.
The final truth that I share with you, and you alone, is this: A single book that had been tossed aside in the chaos landed not far from the storage unit. As Tara dragged me out of the flames, I was able to hook the book with my good leg and secretly tuck it away in my clothes. I couldn’t help myself. A lifetime spent in pursuit of the unattainable is not easily sacrificed. Just please don’t ask me which book I saved nor where I may have hidden it, for if you do, I’d have no choice but to tell you the truth.
Bio: J. Marshall Morgan writes genre fiction and business-to-business content. Both require imagination, creativity and suspension of disbelief. When he’s not sitting in an airport hoping his flight isn’t delayed, he lives in Medina, Ohio, with his wife and two kids.
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