IF YOU GOT out your binoculars in the late fall, you could always make out the trash in the gaps between the rusty trees over there on Qaf Mountain: a plum-crazy Dodge Challenger gone a chalky lavender beside an old Chevy on blocks, and the same rusted-out milk delivery box on the porch bearing a long-defunct company’s name in faded olive print. The Victorian manor at the peak was set in a flat knoll just near the summit, each fall revealing itself and each spring taken back behind the oaks and ash. Come waning November, with your binoculars you could once again see the warped porch boarding, the film-darkened windows showing sills lined with long-necked greenglass cola bottles and drawn tanned curtains. Every year the further colonization of nature was apparent: enormous robins’ nests and leaves and twigs dripping from the eaves. Each fall revealed the same decay but for a few minor departures from the human world, a drift to soil and gravity. One side of the house began to sag. An eave crumbled, as did the ridge courses on the saddle. A window went spider-webbed on the upper floor.
But a rusted watering can has changed its position on the porch. And overnight you discern circular wreaths hanging from the porch eaves that weren’t there before, in chromatic continuity with the autumn palette. Day after day (or as often as you pick up the binoculars to look) you think they are the same objects, but notice that sometimes they seem to get larger, or at least have changed their disposition on the eaves….
THIS HAPPENS EVERY autumn. When you see the three strange umbrellas or parasols appear in the tall paling grass before the porch, you know that the time has come for the arrival of the guests when, some night soon, a lightless caravan of six to eight cars enters the valley and crackles up the steep shattered asphalt up to the mansion and parks near the unlit house. With the binoculars—if the wind is right and you’re lucky enough to hear their ascent and grab the binoculars—you can see the drivers, shadows, really, quickly enter the house, one after the other.
You could stay up and wait for the dawn to break and give you some more details of what’s going on over there, but you’re never able to; you have a working life, a job, and by morning the vehicles have gone, and so have the parasols.
YOU’VE ASKED YOUR neighbors about this midnight caravan. They claim it doesn’t happen anymore. They tell you that on a November night back in the early 1980s a few teenagers, after seeing the train of cars wend its way into the valley, ventured to climb the mountain to spy. Returning, they’d reported nothing but silence around the manor, and not even a single candle’s light within. They said that some of the visitors’ cars, which had no license plates, had been unlocked but in the moonlight pouring down it was plain to see there was nothing to steal on their gnarled vinyl upholstery. They did note that none of the cars had been manufactured later than 1965 and all in appalling condition like the dead Challenger and Chevy that sat forever on the property—as if each vehicle had come here from equally forlorn estates across the country.
SO PEOPLE LIVE there, although you have never actually seen them, nor has anyone else in the area around Cough Mountain. It is an unnerving thought.
It went without saying that no one knew their phone numbers; everyone doubted they ever had one.
But there are stories. You have never seen the old man and his daughter who came here from some country in the Middle East. It was said the girl, who was small, had suffered from a rare disease that necessitated her wearing several layers of clothing at all times, covering every inch of her body, that she wore gloves and her kept her head swaddled and wearing sunglasses.
No—she was just a Muslim, in one of those burqa things…
No, she had been burned in a fire when a child…
What is affirmed is that this girl had never appeared outside the house but for a few weeks to attend elementary school in the early 1970s then abruptly disappeared…A neighbor recalled another resident (who’d long since moved) who had supposedly attended a wild party there in the late 1970s, a singular blowout whose legend in Whisper County died with the transplantation of new people into the area. There was talk of the use of mind-bending drugs at the bash, and that the aging Muslim man had shown his collection of the rarest stamps in the world, and that he was making some kind of machine—and that they saw the girl again that night, swaddled in her robes and scarf.
They said she was tiny. She had not grown at all, the size of a five-year-old, and you hear stories thrice removed that someone had thrown acid in her face in some distant barbaric Muslim country, and had been cowed for all these years by her strict father.
Not true, counters another resident. The father is a reclusive writer. He had driven around in the ’56 Chevy collecting books, visiting libraries and filling it until the tires were half-flat from all the weight and he’d wanted to start his own library out of his car.
No, that wasn’t right, says a third: he is a doctor of some kind. A physician.
No, the guy’s just an old acidhead hippie who foundered on the property, owned by his family for generations.
You hear of the Halloweens in those early years, when groups of children with their parents braved the 20-minute hike up the cracked asphalt to the manor and knocked to no answer in the weakened light of the single fly-dirt covered bare bulb on the long porch. That last time, 1977, when the autumn came, even the porch light had gone dark and only the occasional light of a candle could be seen up in the cupola…A neighbor asked the local meter reader if the electricity on Qaf Mountain was active anymore, and he replied with a firm no—it had been cut off in the late summer with no protest (not that the bills could even be delivered any more, seeing as the mailbox had disappeared and no known PO box in town was being used by the residents). This in turn evinced a trip to examine the county plat books, which revealed ownership of the estate by a company called Jabulqa and Jabulsa, based in Switzerland. A sally to the county courthouse yielded more facts: during the first decades the property tax had been paid promptly every year by a disheveled man in a black suit with bills from the 1930s, cash he claimed had once been gold but since the recent abandoning of the gold standard would one day become near worthless. Then the black-garbed man’s visits had ceased, replaced by mailed checks from a bank account owned by that Swiss law firm.
YOU LEARN THAT neighbors in parties of two or three would hike up there every few years when the motivation of another fall-winter overcame them. Simple curiosity. They had to see, up close, the house that loomed up there above their valley. Knocking on the door yielded nothing. No sound stirred within the house, but a buzzing from time to time. Instead, they took photos and called the county health people, who never seemed to show up. A few considered making a 911 fire call, just to have the experience of rushing up there with the firemen, to see them kick in that peeled green white red purple door (which looks like a tiny wafer through your binoculars) and find the inhabitant engaged in some depravity with that sickly Muslim girl, or she long-dead, an embalmed corpse. In the early 1980s, when the interest in the spooky place was at its peak, the neighbors had nightmares occasionally of entering to find some primitive crime beyond the pale of humanity. They came to expect that one day they would read an item in the local paper detailing the arrest of the inhabitants, for something that would shamefully put their venerable county into the history books.
Year after year these expectations were defeated. The decrepit mansion where the girl and her father lived has languished on the mountaintop for some 40 years without the glow of electric light in any window—always the pinpoint flicker of orange candlelight high in the structure at times, near the cupola.
UPON A BLANK slate such as this only bad things could be written. Yes, people lived in that house. They not just kept to themselves and bothered no one, but further they never left the place, not even for groceries, that you’ve ever seen. Such a-sociality always has a price. Thus stories circulated over the years, overelaborated to the point of absurdity and overtaken by alternative explanations no less fantastic. Some involved strange lights and unbelievably fragrant smells. Some involved sounds that came from the mansion, sounds approaching that of music but never quite breaching meter and melody. That the residents were to blame for unusual fluctuations in the neighborhood’s power grid over the years, and the sometime routine freezing of the cable transmissions. Sometimes when the wind was right a strong smell of burnt ozone down came off the mountain, on clear days without a cloud in the sky. Dogs would bark in neighborhood all at once in synchronization with the orb-light up there, at other times all running up to the mansion as if to be fed.
Just to see the inside of it, for God’s sake. Just to cast your eyes upon its residents, the house with no mailbox and no address but Qaf Mountain…Your neighbors have been watching a personal failure take place over there, for decades, and thank God it’s up isolated upon the mountaintop, far away enough and covered with greenery eight months out of the year. Thank God they’re not your next door neighbors, or live down here, on these streets, depressing the home values because of some foreign system of ethics or the isolation or a quirk in genetics which came to fruition in that old man (to think that something which happened in a mother’s womb long ago could ripen to take thousands of dollars off home values!).
You’d normally conjecture that someone had died, or become debilitated over a long period if it weren’t for the candlelight and winter hearth and eave decorations and parasols and perennial visitors in the leafy autumn.
You get the feeling they’re people whispered of for a generation, terrible things will explode on the 6 o’clock news. They kept to themselves.
Why didn’t anyone do something about them?
NOW RECENTLY, DURING a certain period, the neighbors living closest to the old house developed odd beliefs regarding their mailboxes—people on opposite sides of the mountain who had not spoken to each other in years.
One resident, then two, painted their box posts some bright color, polishing or even replacing the box itself, then elaborating the red flag.
But one man had been particularly touched.
The images came to him at night, at the edge of sleep. They were more than the passing neuronal murals and fragmented memories that accompany one’s descent to slumber. They lingered so realistically behind his eyelids that it compelled a throwing-off the covers and a groggy pencil sketch that gradually grew in detail as the night gave way to dawn. What he’d drawn was like a birdhouse, but not exactly—no, it was a mailbox? But why would a mailbox need eleven slots within slots, and at these odd angles? Why would the tripod posts holding it up resemble odd, twisting representations of a flaming column?
The touched man quietly feared for his sanity and didn’t tell his wife but nonetheless knew that if he didn’t buy the five kinds of recommended wood and begin work on it, then he would need to go see someone about his mental state. So he retired to his woodshop amongst nasal saws and their dust and angles and lathes, turning the drawing piece-by-piece and slot-by-slot into a three-dimensional reality.
When finished, it had 27 chambers. As he stared at it, unpainted but finished, he thought: looks like something he’d seen before.
He chuckled to himself, then was filled with alarm.
Without regard to any function it might have as a mailbox or birdhouse or whatever he would christen it with, it had to be a part of his landscape, on his property, it had to have the sunlight on its surface—that was unquestionably necessary, and the final touch: sunlight.
A birdhouse it would be.
He raised it. And as they used it, he became obsessed with the idea that the birds were actually spies in service to a supernatural race of beings who lived invisibly upon this planet—like they were a physical emanation of these beings’ minds, and that in building this house he had somehow appeased them. He had been chosen…Other times he was convinced that many people surely knew that this ancient wise race and their pact with the avian species existed, but had wisely held their tongues about it.
He had simply intuited the truth by building his birdhouse. The dream had done it.
These strange disobedient thoughts were especially difficult for him during the winter months of shortened light and his moods naturally shrank to a numb murmuring presence in his heart. But he did believe them. He stared at the enormous birdhouse in his backyard he’d fashioned from non-existence to reality with his own hands through the spring as the intended creatures found use for it and he thought maybe it would better have—or had meant to all along—be a mailbox after all. And maybe he’d been wrong: maybe mail deliverers were the physical agents of that superhuman yet Terran intelligence invisible somewhere within the fold of the earth’s magnetosphere…
AS THE POOR confused man suffered, three miles to the northwest of Qaf Mountain, a mother of four dreamt of a mailbox for birds or a birdhouse for letters and woke up confused from her nap and began to draw—just as a child to the southwest of the mountain doodled with a ruler and crayons something which astounded his parents and made them demand he reveal who had actually drawn it, for it couldn’t possibly have been the imaginary friend named Why or Yoni who had pushed his ruler at precise angles and guided his Crayolas into this finely stippled…thing which would capture birdsong and translate it if built, and be the method of envois between the people who lived below the earth and the people above, the messengers as he, or she, this imaginary friend Why, had said, and further that a war had been going on between these two races for centuries, unseen and unknown to people, and that the Moon was a spaceship, or more properly a device which had been made to keep human beings from seeing another earth altogether everything that had ever existed in the Universe, not least being the truth that they had been made in the Image of God….
THEN COMES THE night of the three lights.
There is not a cloud in the sky as the area lights up like mid-day, the illuminations hanging for a full double-second each time.
Like God was finishing up a roll of film.
The next morning you hear a commotion going on down there on Flanders Street—screaming and wails. The voice cracks several times, and is repeating the same phrase: “She’s gone. She’s gone.”
You pick up the phone and call the police station.
THE PEACE OFFICERS trudge the shattered driveway to investigate the disturbance. The final stretch of slope that rises to the mansion is difficult, as if the eons of earth, wind and rain pushing one another had leant a maliciousness in sculpting the final passage upward, giving adventurers one last argument to abort their attempt. One of the officers falls behind, gasping with the difficulty of his surplus poundage. He stops, panting. The path levels off into an inclining steppe. The huge decrepit Victorian manor comes into view—and there’s still a wild football field’s length of lawn to go.
Beyond the cars, three strange patio umbrellas have been erected that lean a few yards apart from each other. Their canopies are milky translucence, and their ribbing triply jointed in exquisitely curved white and silver material. The canopy material seems to fade as the officers pass. This draws their attention. They trudge closer, and the dissolve continues. But for a slight distortion to the tree trunks fifty yards away through them, the material with which their canopies are made has gone entirely invisible. One of the officers, then the other, reach out to touch what they know is substantial. Their fingers hope to make it real. What their fingers touch is like a ghostly excrescence of the air itself, taut, air, less than cellophane. They can see a shimmer as their fingers disturb it, like it is refracting the light.
They pace backwards. The canopies gain opacity with each retreating step, like a series of spider webs superimposing upon one another. Three times they repeat the experiment. This is something an expert should take a look at because damned if it isn’t one of the neatest things they’ve ever seen—especially the pearly iridescence of the pole and the runner that rings it where the ribbing and cleats are connected when you’re up close, all of which are rigid to the touch but too warm for the surrounding mountain air—as if they are generating power of some kind.
The officers drift back from the objects and regain their purpose. Their boots send the porch creaking, glancing back at the umbrellas that now stir like sheets of milk in the wind. They pound upon the door. Its steel-reinforced frame presents a line of deadbolt locks. The windows, boarded over from within, show cracked prisms hanging from sun-dyed blinds.
A milk delivery box lays there against the house’s warped boarding. It is decades old and says GREEN SPRING DAIRY. Officer John Adams V had grown up three miles from here and suddenly recalls that his family had an identical box when he was a toddler. He hasn’t thought about milk delivery—the very idea of it—in four decades. Another sensation overtakes the reverie. “Smell that?” he says. “Easter lilies or somethin.”
They continue pounding upon the door. The tall officer Adams puts his hand flat against the firearm at his hip and tells his corpulent partner Benjamin Franklin V he’s going around the back.
An emerald wave of ivy has crashed upon the side of the house and adhered its pattern there. The waist-high grass offers resistance and he resorts to a sort of treading motion with the lower half of his body. The old house is enormous and its surface dappled and spotted, the sun and rain having beaten at least a dozen successive layers of paint off in haphazard descent to its original oak and pine surface, wood whose provenance was in the trees cleared upon from this very slope over a century ago. The ivy that has wended its way up the boards is unlike any he’s ever seen: there’s a purple translucence to it. The effect against the exposed paint-hues beneath is something he might describe as a modern art masterpiece. He makes his way through the green ocean to the rear. Two more rusting hulks come into view, one of them a Model T or A. There are a few outbuildings: a shed near the forest line fifty yards away where Qaf Mountain comes to its peak, and some wrecked trellises and arbor, an attempted pergola around the property’s edge.
The wind tousles the grass.
Most prominent is an enormous, smoke-blackened pagoda. Adams comes closer and sees that it has been constructed around what looks like a pile of dirt or ash, shiny as coal. He raises his sunglasses. Its texture is powdery, and he receives the unsettling impression of looking into something.
He wades back to the house. The rear porch screens have been devastated by an air force of birds. Here has come to rest a cherrywood television seven decades old. Its screen is gone and inside it roosts a smaller TV in identical condition. There is a radio, and an old Victrola.
He folds back the screen and knocks upon the back door. More deadbolts and a steel frame. The windows are as sealed as the front’s and look as brittle as spun sugar.
He loops around the house and retakes the long wraparound porch and again stares at the three bizarre umbrellas. Officer Benjamin Franklin V is examining what could charitably be called ‘wreaths’ that hang from the eaves at yard intervals, great whirling shapes composed of long twigs and dried grass artfully intertwined, with seeming microscopic precision, into circularity. Some are made of intricately looped thread-bows that compose larger looped bows that finally enter the form of the wreath itself—a looped bow. It is similar to itself at any level of inspection. And some of them are not circular in form—some are ovals and ellipses, tapered bottom and top. They rotate in the breeze. The weavings, knitted in uniform inward-spiraling flows, are identical whether you look at them from the front or back. Each individual twig is itself curved and precise duplicated, as if the person who’d made it had spent days—hell, weeks—gathering twigs and separating them into individual gradations of arc and texture, thickness and length, amassing thousands in each the right element before fitting them together to achieve such a blossoming effect.
These latter look vaguely labial, and Officer Franklin is disturbed at the association in his mind: they look for all the world like disembodied vulvas. As his eyes locked upon it he finds blood flowing purposefully into his loins. The longer he stares, the harder he gets. He averts his gaze in confused embarrassment when a voice sounds behind them.
An old man stands on the porch— a man with a hanging tired face and long white beard to his sternum. Officer Adams squints at the door. The old man closes it with his gnarled left fist, and Adams notes a greenish glow that seems to undulate in the final peek of interior as wood meets wood.
“Sir, good morning,” Franklin says, and introduces them. “And your name is?”
The old man tells them, his violet eyes shining beneath tufted brows. Adams says: “First thing.” He points at the umbrellas. “Where did you get those things?”
He curses and lunges unsteadily but Adams halts him with a gentle palm. The man is dressed in beaten dungarees and shoes that are negligible shards of rubber and blackened canvas that once, perhaps, were sneakers. The smell of sweat risen and dried countless times meets their nostrils. A rich, human smell.
“Later,” Adams says, “you can move them later, sir.”
His age-spotted hands spasm upon the frozen waterfall of grey whiskers and pulls on them in agitation. “Yessiqqah, my daughter, made em.”
Franklin asks, “She made the frames, too?”
“They’re paralunas—for stoppin the goddam moon transmissions.”
Franklin and Adams look at each other and let the comment pass. “What kind of fabric is that they’re made of?” Franklin asks.
A filthy green flannel shirt hangs opened to the sternum, the threadbare tee-shirt beneath it showing silver chest hairs and time-bled tattoos gone to shapeless bruises. Franklin replies, “She must be talented, to make something like that…Well, that’s why we’re here. Your daughter. A neighbor spotted a girl wrapped in sheets walking up Flanders Street down here early yesterday morning.”
“Mm-hm.” He whimpers.
“Was that her?
Adams confesses: “Never been up here before. I don’t know anyone who has, ever…Why you got the place boarded up? It’s been like this a long time, hasn’t it.”
“Man’s got his ways. Keeps to hisself.”
Franklin’s right arm crooks upward to the transceiver clipped to his shoulder and reduces the static’s volume. “Neighbors, the Colberts down there, reported seeing you down on Flanders this morning. Heard you yelling about ‘she’s gone.’”
His eyes lower regretfully but is silent.
Franklin adjusts his mirrored aviators. “Sir, we’ll ask you to be straight with us. If you insist on messin around, we can continue this discussion elsewhere. That was you, was it not?”
Adams’s handset too crackles with distortion. It seems to have lost its connection.
“Colberts reported lights flashing up here in the middle of the night, too.”
He waves dismissively.
“How old’s your daughter?”
He jams a cheroot into his moustache and strikes a blue-tip against the wall and lights it and begins to speak rapidly in a voice keyed high: “She’s my Midon, she’s my heart. She prays for us all…Taught me that the dusk is the blessed time. Taught me there’r moments of the day, in the gloamin, mostly, where the door to the Other Side swings wide. We’ll never come back to them moments again, an that’s why we celebrate em…”
He sniffles and shuffles and crosses his arms and clutches at his sides and is sweating in the cool mountain breeze.
Franklin hooks a thumb on his belt. “Let’s talk about it inside your house.”
He shakes his head, his white hair winging outward. “I guess she’s gone in search of him,” he mutters.
Franklin, sharply: “What was that?”
Near-whisper: “She might’ve gone off searchin’ for him. This pen pal of hers.” He chuckles. “She drew her own stamps onna env’lopes, fooled ever’one.”
Adams and Franklin exchange looks. Franklin gets out his pad and pen.
“Who’s this pen pal?”
“Think’s name’s John Priester.”
Franklin writes. Adams asks, “Do you know where does this Priester live?”
Old man shrugs, arms out wide. “California, I think.”
Franklin repeats, “John Priester, you say. Spelled like it sounds?”
“Do you have envelopes or letters she received from him?”
“No, she got em,” he replies, seeming to draw satisfaction from this. “She took em with her. Took the maps he drew, too. Every letter, an every projection.”
“So this Priester drew maps for her?”
“Yeahp. She took em letters, and her holy book.”
“Her Korun-Bible-Dharma-dust. Her holy book. Those tablets we was decipherin—”
Franklin points with his pen. “Wait, sir, just a second. Concentrate. Her pen pal, this John Priester, he drew maps for her? For how to get to his house?”
“Not ‘zactly. S’a map of the Other Place. And how to get there. Through the moments I’s tellin you bout—through the dusk, to the Other World.”
Franklin’s patience is running out. He turns away and paces along the porch with his face down, careful to keep his eyes from those bizarre wreaths, examining the nailed-in windows and lifting old oil cans and foggy beer bottles and shapeless pieces of metal with his boot, going unchallenged. It is a part of his job that he fully inhabits. Franklin has two daughters, and this decrepit house is the kind of squalor and insanity he would give his life protecting his two young angels against—with the help of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. He hears Adams say, “Now, if she’s missing and you don’t report it formally to us, there are things we have to do. Understand? You describe her to us.”
“She’s the most beautiful girl in the world.”
Adams chuckles. “Not helpful…What’s her height? Let’s start with that.”
He thrusts out an arm at chest level, turning his palm upward in deprecation. Franklin writes an arbitrary figure of 4’6” down in his notebook.
“Blue? Blue takes over, when she’s happy.”
“Hair color and type?”
“Hair took a long time.”
“Took her a long time. To grow it. When it come out it was white, silver, fine, fine white hair.”
“She has white hair?” Franklin pops a piece of gum in his mouth. “Distinguishing marks?”
He brightens at this. “She wadn’t in reg’lar school but a month. But she did good.”
Franklin chuckles, wags his head. “I mean ‘marks’ as in ‘marks on her body,’ sir.”
Franklin gently taps his baton against the window as if testing it for the necessary force.
Could be a harmless old fool.
But then again, maybe not. No-one in the entire county knew these two people or had ever even seen them. The more Officer John Adams thinks about it, the more miraculous this seems, what is happening—that this old inhabitant was here talking to them in the flesh. The bizarre things he’d heard, long ago, about this mansion up here. It suddenly feels as if he and Franklin are privileged—like an edict has been lifted to allow them to meet the inhabitant. “Does she have any distinguishing birthmarks or moles or scars or any unusual features?”
“No. Got a kinda big head, though. Bigger’n usual.” The old man squints. His forehead gathers its wrinkles and tears squeeze from his eyes.
Franklin can’t discern what’s depicted on the ancient iron-on decal on the man’s tee shirt and it is beginning to irk him—that and the smell of the lilies, and the stench of sweat radiating the old man’s clothes. He is nearing the end of his tolerance. “What exactly is wrong with your daughter?”
The old man glares at Adams’s nose, then Franklin’s eyebrow. He does not reply but seems to lapse into a trance, wavering on some inner wind, rocking on the balls of his feet.
“Talking to you, sir. Does she need help to dress and feed herself?”
“No, no,” he scowls, eyes shut. “She’d manage…She’s fast. Faster than a bird. It’s the rest of the world’s gotta worry. Mark it. Things could become more different than they’ll ever’ve been. I gotta get her tiara to her.” He pulls a flask from his back pocket and takes a long draught of whiskey.
“What’s her tiara got to do with it?”
“She made it for her weddin day.”
Franklin, disgusted, waves his partner off the porch into the long grass. “You stay right there sir, and don’t go back inside. You understand me?”
The old man remains motionless. They retreat from his earshot into the grass beside the chalky plum Challenger. Adams shakes his head in pity. “Have you ever in your life.”
“Be sad if it weren’t so off—the whole thing’s off.”
“Should we run him in?”
Franklin, adamant: “If he doesn’t file the report then we’ll do it.”
“Did you see inside the house?”
“Looks like he’s got electricity. I saw lights in there.”
They return to the porch and Adams asks brightly, “You got a generator, sir?”
“Hail no. Those things ‘splode.”
“Neighbors, the Colberts, seen lights up here last night, s’why I ask. And you have no electricity, that right?”
He shakes his white head. “No good for her mind or body, that ‘lectromagnetic pollutin. No good for any our minds.”
Adams can smell the cloud of whiskey surrounding him, and with it a sudden memory. He quells it with a quick serenity prayer.
Franklin goes all business again. “What is your exact name? Your name and sosal security number.”
He frowns viciously. “I don’t pick up that Roosevelt thing.”
Franklin snorts. “Every citizen’s got a sosal security number. Hell, even illegals got ‘em now…That’s okay, we can find you in the database. Right. The plat books say —” he consulted his note pad “—a law company named Jabulqa and Jabulsa own this property?”
The old man shrugs.
“So what’s your relation to them?”
Again he tightens his shoulders upward.
“That would make you squatters, wouldn’t it, if you had no relation to them.”
“I ain’t a squatter. The rest of you are. We humans are the latecomers. Yessiqqah’ll show you that.”
Franklin tightens his face. “How long have you lived up here?”
His brow is furrowed as if he is counting. Then again for a third time he ends it with a shrug. Adams is spinning one of the circular sculptures. The old man rises to his feet and points angrily. “Don’t touch that! S’one of her shields.”
The wind picks up for a moment and rushes the mountaintop, scattering the smoke needling from the old man’s dying cheroot. He smiles at them and both cops register mild surprise at the perfectly white, straight set of teeth, or more likely dentures, which present themselves between his whiskers, but for which Adams notices (for Smiler Marno would not smile at them again) a front incisor that glitters with gauzy orange and blue and green, like an opal. Adams says, “How do you live up here, sir? How do you all eat? You’ve got well water. I saw a pump in the back.”
The old man takes another draw at his flask. “Got rivers of water in this mountain—the finest, purest in the world. Unmucked about with fluoride and other contaminitzes. Agartthan water. Pure, non-lunar water.”
Again Adams smells the homemade liquor and it is like a physical blow to him. He clears his throat. He hasn’t smelled whiskey in almost two years and he’s amazed at the warm comfort, the instant familiar blush of memory the scent brings. Evil, to him—pure evil.
The sunlight throws a strange blue iridescence across the grass.
Adams: “What’d you do for a living?”
He lights the dead cheroot again with a trembling hand, the smoking object agitating upon his lips. He replies: “I was a surfer. Then I’s a cartog’pher. Yessiqqah helped me make maps of invisible places we can’t see yet. She can see em, but none of us’ve earned the right to see em yet. The Other World. So she made maps of it for me.”
Again the old man lifts the flask.
“Slow down with that stuff,” Franklin counsels evenly, “or you might end up telling us the truth.”
He puffs, takes another tight swig, wipes at his mouth. “Yessiqqah looked in all the old writin of her peoples, an the typewriters told me stories of those dead places an their postal systems an the stamps an all their sussequent collectors…So my brother out there,” he gestured a hand, “an his family gets the stamps an bring em to me. An I give em the Agartthan water in return for their help.”
At this incoherent outburst Adams recalls something. A legend. A story. “Would this family of yours—would they be the people who come up here to your house in the fall? Like at night?”
He leans back against the wall and the bench squeaks harshly and he makes a perfunctory zippering motion across his lips, then mutters, “They collectin star locations for me, too. I’m astronomerizin. Astrologizin, too. Got a telescope up in the cupola.” He points skyward, a flowing motion of the arms.
Adams chokes down a laugh. Franklin too cannot contain a chuckle and says, “That’s the third time you’ve changed your occupation.”
The whiskers twist into a scowl somewhere beneath. “’Occupation,’” he spits. “Sound like somethin we do to while away the time. Man’s gotta have more’n one occupation to find the truth about the life he livin.” The expression in his eyes takes no part in what he is saying, as if the uncontrollable momentum of the outburst had thrown his mind into a further level of disorientation. He seems confused now. “I…I been takin dictation from her on how to live an how to build this thing to allay the Moonery an get the goods on the future.”
Franklin asks, “Read the future, you mean?”
“No, the typewriters I got do. Comes out in code—from the Moon. Yessiqqah’s got the decipherin key.”
Moon. Lunacy. A lunatic is about right, Franklin thinks—the guy needs subtitles. Franklin’s viscera has edged into nausea at the disintegration of the world that occurred on this hilltop, the normal measures of consciousness and civilization and purpose gone meaningless. He looks with disgust at the old man’s weathered hands, the long grey pitted fingernails and stained with a blue cast and suddenly he remembers that this place was the sort of decayed old houses of which he was mortally afraid as a child, the isolated and desolate islands untouched by society, so terrifying him with their voided windows and peeled exteriors. He feels a tingling across his scalp and at the back of his neck—an old reflex, the prelude to violence which has gotten him in trouble once before—and he knows what it means and needs to control it, because he’s seeing himself cuff the old man to the buckled porch railing and just searching kicking in that door and searching the place straight up.
And pulling down the hideous twig hangings behind him.
Yet he also senses, with even more certainty, that he not only would not enter the manor, but could not enter it. Even with his scattergun, he would not be able surmount that warped doorstep—for there were truths and horrible things behind the grimy windows to which he never wanted to subject his memory.
The things we have to put up with, the nonsense in this job.
Lord Jesus, help me.
His gloved hand finds his hat and lifts it and replaces it. The thought chills him that this seemingly abandoned house has been inhabited all this time by two people on the edge of humanity. He jerks his head and says, “H-hey, John, let’s go…Y-you gotta declare her missing, sir, if your daughter hasn’t returned in forty-eight hours. We’re letting you know that if you do not declare her missing, there are things w-we have to do.”
Adams senses his partner’s impatience and asks him to spell his daughter’s name. The man complies admirably then says, “I don’t know her other name. Her secret name, that one her people gave her.”
Franklin has gingerly taken a few paces back towards the slanting porch steps.
“Tell me something and we’ll go,” Adams asks, “do you know who the current President of the United States is?”
“Don’t care who Pres’dent is. He ain’t my Pres’dent, whoever hell he is.”
Adams is glad to escape the old man’s whiskeyfied orbit. He tries for a paternal note. “Okay, then, that’s fair enough. Can you tell me what year it is, then.”
“You want local, or galactic reckonin?”
Adams chuckles and tightens his mouth. “Oh, give us—local time.”
Franklin is thinking, in spite of himself: Probable cause. Anything. Just to look around you. Probable cause.
The whole house gives probable cause.
“Last galactic moonami was bout twenty-six million years ago.” The old man blows a raspberry and makes an elaborate dismissive wave and says, “Astromauts said the moon reverberatated like a gong when they landed that tin can upon it. You two know that? It went on vibratin for hours. Did you know that? Like a gong. Strue. Goddamn infernal thing’s hollow, ‘s’all. It’s a machine. It’s our prison warder.”
Franklin puts his hand on his Glock and the feel of its plastic comforts him. “That is some weird, wild stuff!” he replies, mocking. “I did not know that!”
Smiler Marno puffs philosophically. “Fillin a tin can up with fuel an sendin men up there’s nothin. Nothin! A real man who conquers one twist in his psyche is ten times a thing to marvel o’er than launchin men up to that goddamn sent’nel up there…The Moon takes our soul energy when we die, an you better believe it! People think they go to heaven when they pass on. Well they don’t. They spirit get taken right up there to it. Without some spir’tual work of yisself down here, while you livin, you done for. Food for it. Tell you nother thing: Nicky Copernicus was a flea who never saw nothin in his life. Hubble, too. An that Sagan son of a bitch might’ve come from star-stuff, but not me. Not me.”
The two officers chuckle. His voice cracks, tears balanced there on the rims, creeping down the crevices of his face. “Oh, she’s gone…I will die.”
“No,” Adams comments, “that smoke and booze’ll kill you, that’s what’ll kill you. Last thing: How old are you, sir?”
He drags elaborately on the cheroot and tilts the last of the flask and pulls another one from his ragged jeans’ back pocket, one that looks made of brass and plain, a hundred years old. He doesn’t answer and Adams refrains from asking again. The two officers step off the porch onto the earth and begin the long slog down. Adams has an idea and turns and shouts, “Hey, mister—any interest in getting those cars off the property?”
“You want to get those cars off the property, sell them?”
“Hail no. Made a baby in that Chevy. And another in the Dodge.”
Adams chuckles and nods at the Challenger. “Boy, that’d be a beaut, fixed up. Tires still look full, too.”
“John—” Franklin breathes. “Look.”
John Adams turns and looks. He is mildly perplexed at what he sees there plainly before him, but not so Officer Ben Franklin, who stills the sudden quivering in his hands by jamming them down into his trouser pockets—the sight of birds upon the porch roof, the birds in the sills, the eaves, hundreds of them. They are silent and motionless, sitting as if at attention, as the old man places his hand on the door handle and shouts in a cracking voice, “Now git the hell off our property, you Ahrimen!” and is gone.
SMILER MARNO’S RUSE has worked.
Later, towards the dusk, he shambles to the front of his house, where the blue shadows have deepened. He pulls each paraluna from the ground, carefully folding them, and returns inside, descending to the sub-basement. The paralunas have been fully charged by the sun the past weeks and gently glow. He ascends, hobbles outside to pray. He prostrates himself before the spectrum-banded horizon, thanking the sun for its latest resurrections in the earth. When he finishes he stands before the pagoda and the black ash pile behind the manor, a cinder hill of burned pages and the aborted coke from a thousand experiments, now gone to Black Earth, that he long ago positioned at the apex of the energy field within the mountain.
He lights a match and tosses it at his feet. In seconds a glow works through the black mound’s edge. Steam rises. Soon the tumulus billows fragrant smoke which will fill the county. Winds will spiral outward from the mountain, alerting dim memories of purpose in his compatriots scattered throughout the land—and triggering in other people of Whisper, he hopes, visions of a future not yet their own. But soon.
In three days, the Moon’s energy will peak. In six, a vortex will appear.
The King was returning from his exile in the Other World—and Yessiqqah is to join with him….She has her duties as the Ambassador, after all, of the Good People.
He reenters the house and unhooks his old three-piece suit from the closet. The cellophane has gone insubstantial. He cradles it upstairs and undresses and puts it on and there’s ample waistband and shoulder room, his mineral body having shrunk somewhat over the past four decades. Its polyester weave wheezes and crackles as he climbs to his cupola observatory and fixes his gaze on the ancient machine that hangs in the dusk sky.
He smiles, his incisor catching a glint off its reflected sunlight.
He says, Challenge accepted.
TWO POLICEMEN NAMED Franklin and Adams—just as she’d prophesied. And he had told them the truth about the Moon, as she’d instructed him to do. It had the intended effect. The big, heavy one, Franklin—oh, he’s the conduit; it’s from him that the future troubles will all come…Franklin been chosen, and he didn’t even know it. What the officers thought was booze he’d been guzzling had been made with Agartthan water, and from its unveiling powers he had been able to visibly discern Franklin’s astral body there trailing just beside him, desiring its freedom from his mineral corpse and limited imagination, straining upon its silver cord, and how the poor man’s thought-forms had constrained the ghost.
A dim memory come to confluence.
“Awf, God!” he cries, pawing at the polyester lapels, diving hands into the suit pockets. The support cabal—it was his duty to roust them. He’d made a promise decades ago. He had written their names and addresses upon a piece of paper or some kind, a receipt or something, and stuck it in this suit?
The wrinkled bit of paper meets his dulled fingertips in his left breast pocket and after ten tries he pulled out a yellowed triple-folded strip of cash register roll, his faded writing in ballpoint chunky upon it and sectioning it off into names and addresses.
RED STAR BOOKS
Theophilus Smith, proprietor
Bleecker Street, New York, New York
Theophilus Smith! Now there was a name he hadn’t thought about in decades—nearly gone neurologically inert. A near-victim of Hoover’s FBI, wasn’t he?
He had to physically visit Smith. It would have to be a mineral-body trip to New York to tell Theophilus—to physically drive himself there. Having lived without any public record of his existence all these decades, he would have a head start on the Moonie Bastards. The Tribe that Marno’s twin had spent decades gathering would hopefully get word through Theophilus that the final time is here—the King is finally returning from the Other World, and Yessiqqah has begun her pilgrimage, her haj, to a marriage prophesied.
After abandoning the house, Yessiqqah had said, Qaf Mountain would disappear and a fountain would take its place. Members of the Tribe had come here once a year, in the fall, to drink from the temple’s subterranean Agartthan river and bring some for the rest of them. They came here to Qaf Mountain to receive their orders but, now that he was leaving, they would no longer have access to the water. Its properties would dissipate in their mineral bodies in thirteen lunar cycles, and once again they would fall prey to the veil of transmissions, regressing to the delusions the human race—with exceptions—had suffered for the past 20,000 years, causing such strife as fear, hatred, and unnecessary death.
HE METICULOUSLY FOLDS Yessiqqah’s tiara and gathers his flasks of water and places them in his burlap gunnysack, then retrieves the Agartthan paraluna she had specially made for him. Lastly, the diamonds and gold he’d spent thirty-three years making: forty-seven pounds of the stuff.
He secures the eleven locks on the front door and totters out with his to the Dodge Challenger. When he’d last driven it, he can’t remember. He forces its door open and places the sack inside, then eases onto the sun-wrinkled vinyl seat. He sits quite a while gathering energy, then sings aloud the vowels she’d taught him.
Frequencies harmonize. He inserts the key and turns.
The engine starts.
He guns it and skids off with a pebble explosion in his wake, navigating with heaves the cracked and overgrown driveway to the smooth paved surface of Flanders Street and is gone.
MIDNIGHT HAS FALLEN over Lafayette Square Park before the White House. It is empty now but for a few benched homeless people and the Secret Service agents, sitting alert in their vehicles and deployed on foot about the area…And here at the edge of the Pennsylvania Avenue asphalt sits Concepcion Picciotto, the lone stalwart protester, lounging in her anti-nuclear peace shrine that faces the ever-lit White House.
Three times Concepcion has seen something—a blur, or a wiping of the light in her line of sight.
It passes with the swiftness of a bird. But it is a small, human shape.
She even felt a breeze as it passed her the last time.
The Secret Service seems to have noticed it, too—and this spooks her. They have gone on a higher alert than usual.
ON A WORN BENCH not far away, a homeless man named Joseph Hubbins stirs uneasily. A hypnagogic fit has locked itself in his limbs. He cannot move; his head feels like a block of lead. It now weighs more than the earth itself.
He strains to lift his neck and gurgles, gasping.
Within his chest, a thick nodule of congealed blood half the size of a pea has finally peeled itself from the aorta in his heart. A cold sensation shocks his torso. Then a sharp pain. His eyelids flutter but he cannot move.
There is a presence whistling over him. A tiny frail being who places a warm hand upon his chest. It brings its long fingers together into a tent shape. It pulls upward and a column of light from its fingertips has extracted something from his chest. The being has taken a little something from his and dissolved it upon the air and he comes sputtering awake as a high voice sounds in his head:
Open your heart wider than your mouth, be quiet, and listen to her…
Then it vanishes. He sleeps.
“WHAT THE HELL is that?”
The two Secret Service operatives keep seeing the signature warmth there on the screens, of a human figure, once here in the park’s southern end, then in seconds at the northern end, then a third time in the center. It winks in and out on the monitor.
The scanners are working properly. They call the foot patrol for a visual confirmation and agents are sent out into the Park.
A technician in a nearby van mutters, “There’s something going on…Two of us have seen it. Looks like a child, a little kid.”
They sample footage of the past minutes from the live streaming video and see a blur that winks in and out.
Then something like a flock of birds has arced over the fence and the motion detectors go crazy.
FIVE HOURS LATER, Joseph Hubbins rouses himself from his bench and casts off the tattered blankets that have kept him warm these weeks. He blinks sluggishly in the silver morning light that edges into the leaves and grass and considers the strange dream that had awoken him last night.
Open that heart of yours wider than your mouth, fool, shut the hell up, and listen to her.
The phrase seems to have been lodged in his mind since the dream. He feels something in his chest and the sensation is one that flows through his blood to his head. It is a wonderful feeling. It is old, it is archaeological, almost—if that’s the right word for it. Something had been exhumed from inside him, his past. He hasn’t felt this sensation in years.
He has no home, yes, but this is a circumstance to which he has become accustomed.
Tears well in his brown eyes.
It was no way for a father to have acted.
He wipes at his bloodshot eyes and picks at the crust upon his eyelids. It seems she had come to him last night, his daughter’s spirit, and touched him somehow. The feeling is not unmixed with fear that something has happened to her. Poor girl. His chest aches with trepidation: that perhaps she has just died.
To do what he has done: An exile from her life. Exiled his dumbass loser life from his own flesh and blood, from his loins.
He moves around slowly in his blankets. Another damn day on a bench, like the preceding hundreds. The urine soaked into his trousers waft up meet his nostrils. A half-dozen other smells. His smells. In a few hours the soup truck would groan into McPherson Square. This bench is practically his, and the Secret Service do not bother him. He sighs and thinks of his daughter Tabitha. He hasn’t spoken with her in six years. She has given up on him. Or he her. He can’t even now rightly recall the terrible chain of events, what exactly happened when. Maybe his mind is confused by this aching hunger in his stomach.
He pulls the blanket tight and something falls to the ground and his eyes follow it. It looks like a purple seed, half the size of a pea. It transfixes him for no reason with its odd shape. He slowly reaches for it, his back straining, and picks it up and squeezes it and some thickened red juice pops from it and stains his fingers like blood.
He can’t shake the thought that it is somehow connected to him.
He has some quarters. The payphone at the McPherson Square subway station, grimy as it is, still works. Today is the day, and a hope arises in his heart.
LATER, HE WOBBLES before the telephone with its gnarled bitten handset and sooty metal cable. He experimentally inserts the edge of the first quarter to see if some idiot hasn’t blocked it with gum or a slug. But it’s clear. Then he waits. He loiters as commuters pour from the escalators before him, on to jobs keeping the machine going for another day.
He waits. Just hearing Tabitha’s voice might be enough for him to just hang up. His hand might do it on its own, just close the connection. And he would be out three precious quarters then.
He cannot do it.
There is the soup truck in the distance.
THE DAY AFTER their encounter on Qaf Mountain, the two police officers alerted Sheriff Thomas Jefferson V and the county judge that, in all likelihood, the senile old man would not report his daughter’s disappearance.
Franklin, thinking back on the exchange, has difficulty believing she even exists. It wouldn’t be impossible, he said, that she’d died long ago and the old man, in his advanced state of mental senescence, had only imagined her living there ever since. Right?
Adams countered that this would require asking himself why old man imagined her gone now, and so thoroughly believed her gone…And two witnesses had reported the veiled figure walking along Route 7.
“The old coot coulda done it,” Franklin tried.
Unlikely, given his permanent state of disorientation. The reports were of a small figure. Tiny. It would be too much of a coincidence.
Franklin could not stop talking about their hour up there; it had thoroughly rattled him, especially the birds roosting on the roof. He’d looked up Jabulqa & Jabulsa on the Internet. The law firm that supposedly owned the property was located in Switzerland, but he found nothing more about them. He’d spoken with Pat Henry over at the county records and Matheson at the comptroller’s and confirmed that they received tax payments every year from Jabulqa & Jabulsa; he’d asked what the checks looked like, but Matheson said he’d get back to him.
Adams then found Franklin at his desk studying satellite pictures on the Net of the area around Qaf Mountain—but the mountain itself was a glitchy, grey blur. He’d seemed particularly spooked by those twig sculptures hanging on the porch, cursing their almost inhuman craftsmanship and supernatural insinuation, and marveled with loathing at the birds as they’d departed in a single sighing surge just as he and Adams made the halfway point down the mountain’s vestigial driveway.
Franklin almost didn’t care if this “Yessica’s” disappearance was reported or not. So what, he’d complained. He muttered about just wanting the old man gone off the property. He couldn’t believe an abomination such as that house was allowed to happen, not in his world, certainly not in Whisper County.
THE NEXT DAY, Cpl. Alexander Hamilton V recalled taking a disjointed call several weeks ago from an employee at Whisper’s Verizon hub station. The rep had gone up with a colleague to Qaf Mountain.
For ten minutes the official had ranted incoherently about encountering a “rogue wind” up there.
Franklin was all over it, and convinced Adams to immediately accompany him to the Verizon office. Adams sighed and went along to humor his partner.
The rep stammered, his eyes widening. “Oh, that…place. We, uh, tried talking to the tenant and, uh…that was that.”
“No go, I take it?”
“No, no go.” The mountain was a sweet spot for a tower, and Verizon had been chosen to take the lead for all the big four cellular carriers and interview the tenants for a generous contract to build on the property, which would have stretched the hexagonal cell a bit but have given sterling reception to all of the northwest section of Whisper County.
“And you talked to the old guy who lived there?”
Ross made an ambiguous motion with his head that could have been a nod.
“Well?” Franklin snapped. “What happened?”
“It was—I gotta say, you know…Jeez.”
Franklin’s gaze bounced between the two employees. “You were there too, right? What happened?”
“It’s…You gotta understand…I’ll be honest. It was the strangest thing’s ever happened to me—personally, you know.”
Adams watched Franklin regain some patience as he waited for the two employees to stop exchanging stricken looks.
“The old guy answers the door. And then—”
Franklin listening in amazement as Ross claimed there had been an interval that would have confounded a hopeless drunk’s most delirious day—a period of missing time, or scrambled experience, or muddled memory.
In seconds, while talking to the old man, in mid-sentence, he was somehow back down on Flanders Street standing next to the company SUV.
“I can’t remember anything either,” the other rep said. “Suddenly I was sitting in the truck and starting the engine.”
Ross’s brows scrunched. “All I remember’s the wind.”
“It felt like a hurricane.” He slapped the desk before him. “Just like that. Heard it in the trees. Across my face. My skin? Then it felt like it was inside me…Wind picked up for about ten seconds, and I’m asking him a question and then I’m down at the bottom of the valley getting in the car.”
“I remember the damn geezer was spinning these like wreaths that were on the porch?”
Franklin’s bulbous blue eyes widened and he shook his head with disgust at Adams.
Ross said, “There had been others before us. A team from AT&T who…Well…That house’d been on their canvassing route that day, certainly…”
FRANKLIN MUTTERED TO himself all the way back to the station, agitated, straightening himself every few seconds and checking his Glock and patting down his shirt. Adams thought he’d heard him murmur as they pulled into the station:
Blow that place up.
THE OLD MAN failed to appear at the police station, nor did he call the station to report his daughter missing. This negligence made Officer John Adams very angry. The missing person report and search warrants weren’t long in being issued. Adams had already been imagining what the big key would feel like in his hands as it cracked that peeled calico door, weakening it with each blow until splinters went flying and he’d perhaps, in venerable law enforcement style, finish their entry with a boot heel.
AND IT HAPPENS just like that a few hours later, after knocks and shouts of warrant and imminent breach at the front door, and no answer this time. Adams and Sheriff Jefferson give it three blows with the ram, the frame giving way.
First they hear the air—then they see it.
They retreat from the porch with thoughts of biohazard. They return to their SUV and retrieve cheap filtration masks. Jefferson calls the hazardous materials unit and they stand on the grass before the porch looking at what’s behind that doorway.
It is insectoid in there.
“Shit,” Adams gasps, “s’what I was talking about, Ben—the light I saw in there the other day? That’s it.”
The four men stand on the threshold debating about how accumulated static electricity might produce such a startling effect, the glowing motes they’re looking at that might have led a rational mind to believe the old man had spent 40 years breeding a hundred million fireflies within his house…Yellow-green galaxies upon galaxies fade before their astonished eyes as the overwhelming smell of lilies pours out as to oversaturate the oxygen.
The interior begins to retake the mundaneness of planking and balusters and woodwork.
“Something’s ripe in there,” Sheriff Jefferson says.
They step forward. First they notice the doorframe: around the cloudy steel reinforcing they see how the veining of the wood has a fine geometrical precision about its graining. Looking closer they see that it has been carved with a stylus or exacto knife into arabesques and paisley shapes. Their flashlights follow it down to the parquetry of the floor and the planking of the wainscot and walls, everywhere this intricate tiny tracery has been carved into everything their four diamond coronas of light fall upon, bringing astonishment—that, and the cabling, the filaments of all sizes, from rubber tubing to string, that run along the ceiling and through holes bashed in the walls, past the two cobwebbed chandeliers—in this, only the foyer.
They call out to the old man. Jefferson commands the party to stay still. “Feel that?” he says.
The place is vibrating. Whether through something in the earth beneath or something inside the house, its frame is quivering in high-oscillation waves. They hear no hum, nothing but occasional tinkling notes off a distant chandelier but can sense it through their legs.
“What are you waitin for, Ben?”
Franklin has taken a step backwards and is shifting his weight from foot to foot like a kid needing a trip to the bathroom as he stands on the threshold.
“Just, just felt woozy a second,” he breathes.
The house seems smaller inside than its exterior would lead one to believe and the buckling of its weakened wood has taken its toll: the right angles and joints are skewed, the dark walls leaning, and there is a sense that the first floor has been compressed by forces both above and below. They look at it and debate their safety. Then they shout again for the old man.
Parlor to passage to kitchen: carvings in the wood on an almost microscopic scale and finely painted, traceried like illuminations from a medieval book.
The kitchen—my God, food is the last thing you’d consider: From ceiling to floor a vast Manhattan of racked crystal beakers and Pyrex-ware and rusty stands from one end to the other. It has murky skyscrapers and dull glassy neighborhoods. They have to limbo sideways and duck and weave to avoid disturbing it for it looks like a single bump could send the whole thing crashing. They are grateful for their masks as they note viscous substances within the cloudy Pyrexware, in a rainbow of hues.
Sheriff Jefferson and Franklin and Cpl. Davis find a path to a basement door on the far side of the glass city, just across from the house’s boarded-up back entrance. The basement passage is steel-reinforced. Davis with a gloved hand tries it and it is locked.
Jefferson says, “This’ll take hazmat a week, easy.”
“Let’s go upstairs.”
They shimmy their way back and creak up the wide staircase. Despite the bizarre carved traceries, there’s no dust collected on any of the surfaces but the carpeting, and no spider webs.
But the bedrooms are for Ripley’s, for the Inquirer: They step from room to room counting and when they’re finished they’ve summed 108 typewriters and adding machines, ancient models on shelves with their casings removed and works exposed, all linked with cabling and wires which come together into bundles the size of an elephant’s trunk in the three rooms’ centers and pass through roughly-cut apertures in the unplastered ceilings. The thinner of the roped bundles pass through holes from one room to the next and into two closets in which they find rusted oil drums—and all the cables connected to a 19th Century velocipede. The antique bike is bolted to the floor and there is a small stool to mount it.
The rusted drums contain a dull greenish substance. It glows, and it is the color of the mist they’d earlier witnessed.
The pages stuck in each typewriter are fresh onionskin.
The vibration is almost undetectable up here.
Here’s a lily growing out of a hole in the wall. Adams digs at the exposed wood around it, careful not to tear his surgical glove. A layer of soil lies jammed behind the walls—and a layer of wood, and metal, alternating. He looks closer at the holes through which the primitive cabling flows and sees the same components: wood, metal, earth, metal, wood.
The old man has spent years placing dirt into the spaces behind the walls. Adams feels an overwhelming pity for him—and how he must have mentally suffered in here.
A bare bedroom contains a creaking spiral staircase that leads to the cupola. They discover three convex dishes of smooth aluminum and a telescope aimed directly at the milky gibbous moon that hangs in the eastern sky over the County. It is attached by way of a jungle of levers and pulleys and springs to a camera that would have been obsolete a century ago. Pictures of the moon are everywhere: Tables and charts showing its phases and moonrise and blown-up pictures four feet wide of the lunar surface and dissections of it with scrawled notes.
The old man’s notes lay in rough stacks and push-pinned to the walls.
He has found and marked cities upon the moon’s surface, devices, transmitters. Weapons.
“Remember how he said the moon was hollow?” Adams says to Franklin.
Franklin grunts. He has been silent, pale the entire time, not a single word, and his hands are unsteady.
They descend the staircase and Adams sees that velocipede again and without a word gets on the old stationery bicycle. He mounts it carefully. The crude speedometer attached to its small handlebars has a tiny deliberate silver nick at its 35mph mark. He pedals and the metal frame creaks beneath him; he weighs a lot more than the frail old man. He compensates. He switches gear up and transitions effortlessly and the old plutonium tip of the needle surges past the silver dot.
A sudden awful clatter and groan sounds throughout the house.
The typewriters are chattering, the adding machines clicking. A surge of energy is passing through the machines by his kinetic energy and amplified somehow from the beaten aluminum dishes, through the cabling to the adding machines and then finally the typewriters.
The sound becomes deafening. He’s hit 41 on the dial and the rattling continues. Jefferson has plugged his ears and is grimacing with a look of wonder. Franklin’s got his ears cupped as he comes charging into the room. He’s yelling and waving. They gesture at him to stop, it’s too much, but Adams wants the thing to finish its cycle—he has leaned back enough to see into the adjoining rooms and can see the near-translucent pages in the typewriters flutter and return very quickly, the pages advancing as he keeps pumping. He locks his fingers together at the back of his head and whistles casually. The two cops look like they’re in pain but the factory-floor racket isn’t bothering him that much when with a great whomp it ceases and sends a shudder through the house. Adams applies the brakes and dismounts.
They walk through the rooms. Each page has been printed with ten single-spaced lines of symbols, like fragments of cuneiform characters. Adams gets out his penlight and pulls forward one of the typebars in a machine, then another, and can see each one had been sawed off and soldered back with one bearing a symbol-stroke, tiny wires lead from each bar and bundle together, twist-tied, to rope off into an adding machine.
“Guy remade each one of these keys…Look at that!”
“Gibberish,” Franklin attests.
Adams rips each out and pages them in the order of the numbers the old man had carved into each machine. There are 95 pages.
AN HOUR LATER, after the team from hazardous materials have arrived, the police officers had still discovered no documentation that anyone has lived here: No bills, deeds, wills—nothing.
And there is no food. No televisions. No amenities.
And now the basement door in the kitchen. A propane torch is brought in to melt the locks and melt the frames and they bash out the back door and there’s enough room to use the battering ram upon it. They lurch down steep creaking steps to where the walls become cement blocks and mortar but are gouged and carved nevertheless in that endless repeated paisley pattern which little varies, the wood rafters embroidered as well. Their gauzy flashlight coronas show that the floor down here is a scatter of worn Persian carpets laid across each other, dozens of them, the sweet smell almost unbearable and requiring a retreat, their eyes watering—it is the smell of death, no doubt. The strange vibration is noticeably more intense. Their lights flit across the space. The chamber has been recently inhabited, as there is another room full of the twig sculptures like those bedecking the eaves outside, these showing countless permutations on a bivalent fork motif, like the letter Y, tied together with string and twine and grass shoots still green.
Jefferson and Adams engage their lithium lamps. Here’s a bed covered with a Mickey Mouse sleeping bag, and a hammock tied between two carved wooden posts about six feet tall. The hammock is intricately woven from stalks, of grass and twigs, like the porch sculptures. One of the pillars depicts flames and scowling faces with distended tongues and violence, the other resplendent with beautiful faces and angelic figures. Adams’s light lingers on the left-sided post. Those flames remind him of something his brother made a few months back—some frippery Mayor Adams spent literally days without sleep making in his woodshop. He cannot bring himself to vocalize the feeling of astonishment that overtakes him. The correspondence is too close. He pulls out his cell phone and tries to switch it over to its photo function but its screen is clouded with distorting rainbows like oily water and its home-screen even looks scrambled. He asks Jefferson and Franklin if their cellphones are working and each note the same interference.
“Shoot. Ben—you remember that birdhouse I told you Mayor made?”
“Yeah, I remember,” Franklin murmurs.
“That column there? Looks just like it. I mean, exactly…Ben, it has the same…You know…He was having dreams…Remember I was telling you—”
“I—I don’t want to hear it,” Franklin snaps. “Okay? Can you do that? Just stop it.”
Adams, taken aback. “Sure, Ben, whatever.”
He looks over at his partner and Franklin is squeezing the silver cross that hangs around his neck and praying.
An open door yawns on the room’s far side, and the wall over there seems provisional. They step into a musty room that stretches off fifteen yards. In the middle of the room sits a large, wide tapering cone, made of what looks like dirtied marble. They circle it in bafflement. Its tip comes to within a few inches of the ceiling rafters. Then Adams notices that its perimeter has been excavated down a yard. Paralleling the ground is a deep straight groove on its surface—as if it is a capstone. Adams steps into this shallow trench and pushes some clay and loose dirt.
It could be the tip of a buried object.
Jefferson’s light rakes the room. Planking, an old pile carpet with a circle worn into it. Paintings depicting impossible geometries, a table full of stamps and what look like coupons, all drawn by hand, a few chairs arranged in a circle, two old guitars, a hammer dulcimer, a pedal harmonium, a pump-organ, a piano that after plucking Cs is found to be in perfect tune. Paintings everywhere, canvasses of equal 10×12 size all showing the same subject: a being whose enormous eyes take up nearly half the upper portion of her face, a chin coming to a point above a rosebud mouth and small nose—profiles, three-quarter depictions all, over a hundred of them, easily.
Jefferson comments, “Looks like that painter—you used to see the paintings in dentists’ offices—Keane, I think it was?”
Franklin’s cottony voice breaks. “Is that—is that her? The daughter?”
A single pile of mildewed newspapers dated 1973.
Adams can sense Franklin’s unease, his reaction to the idealized expression depicted on the faces, representations of the girl’s self-image, denied by the squalor of her actual “life” with the insane old man—for a girl could actually look that way, right?
Against the far wall is yet another carved wood door. Adams opens it and cold air rushes him. It is another, and very steep, staircase. The walls encasing it are rough skeletal frame showing stone in the gaps. Without a word he descends three landings until the staircase becomes a trivial gesture at stability but the stone surroundings are taking over, like it was built over a natural spiral that preceded it. The woodwork around him even more elaborately carved, fractals of paisley on any scale of examination. The sub-basement should be appearing but doesn’t. He stops. The temperature is ten degrees cooler and the air is pushing across his face from below. The lily-like effluvium is stronger. He retreats back up the stairs and stares through the dimness at the dirty cream cone barely visible in the room.
“Hey, something’s up with this,” he says. The two men come close.
“Sub-basement…Look at this.”
“Goes down?” Jefferson says, incredulous. “That makes no sense.”
Franklin now has a look of hatred and disgust on his face as he calls out to old man Marno. His voice echoes far down there.
They descend three, four, five landings and the angle of the whole structure becomes apparent—it is built within a sloping shaft that steadily drifts to one side. It’s getting colder, the carvings upon the curved wall grow thicker in stroke and at once the crude woodwork of stairs ends on bare stone steps which continue down with no break in continuity to the carvings, the markings advance onward in chisel rather than knife. A breeze is palpable and continuous. The mineral scent overtakes the sweet upper air but still no-one considers removing their filters.
Impossible, that sound.
It’s not dripping, nor a trickle. It’s the roar of a waterfall—or a river, down here, inside the mountain. Their three beams swing across walls that are widening out. The air buzzes. Two passages branch off the chamber. The sound of water is crashing from both. A distinct humming sound, which they all at once became aware of. And its source, before them….
Adams had once seen a fantastic movie about the ancient subterranean chambers of Chauvet. He’d marveled over the fact that a bear’s skull could have rested on an altar in a cave for 18,000 years…The spelunker who’d seen it for the first time must have fallen to their knees, overcome with the oceanic feeling, the timeless. The Cosmic. Like meeting an extraterrestrial, or an angel—an effortless dissolving of the membrane of time and self.
Adams feels it now, as it dawns upon him that the humming is emerging from what resembles a glassy bird nest two yards across, a saucer made of spun filament, within which a dull whitish egg rests, cracked into two halves and coated with an iridescent dust.
It is covered with a film of mineral deposits and looks like it is a million years old.
Three sconce-like cones in the wall are emitting a dull greenish light, like that of fireflies.
Jefferson is whispering a continuous stream of epithets and the beam of Franklin’s flashlight bounces as he trembles. Adams steps toward a sconce, and it too is fashioned of the same spun glass and filled with a green brackish liquid that glows.
“That pyramid up there must be the capstone,” Jefferson keeps saying. “I think we’re inside a goddamn pyramid. Mountain’s a goddamn buried pyramid, John.”
Adams pictures the three rivers in Whisper and Chanson counties. None of them could possibly be connected to this wonder.
He’s over here—in this passageway, where he has wandered in a daze. He is compelled to lean a hand on the cool mineral wall to keep his balance but recoils at the inhuman furrows etched there. His skin feels like a detached organ, receiving pure galvanization. The flashlight gives him glimpses of the tunnel ahead—but it seems it is almost raping the darkness not meant for him. He fumbles to turn it off. He feels like an invader. He grasps for the switch. He doesn’t belong here. Then what the light falls upon at that last second has no comfortable mundane dimensions to it; it is a thing that human eyes should never alight upon. The object rushes him and his light beam is visible with mist—but something more than the mist is animating the light beam and this is enough—those great black eyes, and the thinness of the thing’s limbs as it flashes into the dark passage….
ADAMS HAS NEVER heard mangled braying and gasping sounds like this issue from anyone, much less his partner, as Franklin runs up the stone passageway. Adams and Jefferson shout after him. He is gone and they must follow. Franklin’s boots pound up the fragile staircase ahead. They wait for him to clear the old wood planking before following him up—too much force and the whole structure will surely come down.
When they regain the basement proper they find Franklin leaning his ample weight into one of the hammock posts, trying to topple it. He is babbling incoherently. Then he drops to the ground. They are upon him and after a half-minute the man seems to come around. They hustle him up the stairs from the basement and he becomes agitated and picks up speed. They warn him of the kitchen’s crystalline metropolis, but Foster and Shoemaker have thankfully already opened the rear porch door with ram and crowbar. Franklin breaks into a run as they top the stairs. He dashes across the porch into the sunshine and grass. Adams is back to shouting his name as his partner stumbles around the side of the manor. He sees Franklin make the front lawn and start down the shattered driveway and then trips and goes down hard on both knees in a way Adams can feel.
He overtakes his partner and finds him weeping and moaning, his eyelids pinched and strobing as sweat crawls down his brow.
The moment Congress passed the law decriminalizing marijuana in the District of Columbia, Vice-President Joe Biden made a phone call, slipped his Secret Service detail, put on a fedora and trench coat, and slunk out into the cold of Lafayette Square before the White House where he scored, gratis, two grams of sinsemilla.
Later that wintry night, the President, Biden and John “Forbes™” Kerry are kicking back in Oval Office with a one-hitter. The lightning is low, the recording systems deactivated, curtains drawn. Each takes a tight draw in the dusky room. Obama gags. Kerry draws deep, holds, sputters and hacks, copiously clears his throat. “I think the DAESH is going to hook up with the Crimean Front and—”
Obama waves. “Please, John—not now.”
They sit back. After ten minutes, they feel nothing. Biden suspects he may have been burned by that dealer, gratis or no. “More,” he says.
They do a second hit. And a third, and a fourth—to be sure.
Throats raw, they wait.
But these men haven’t been stoned on marijuana in decades, nor do they fathom what has occurred with chemistry in the intervening years. They have no idea what a terrible irrevocable thing they have just done: Joe Biden unknowingly obtained a Mutant batch of a hybrid Sour Diesel and Headdog; it happens to be, at the moment, the strongest cannabis indica in the world.
The world’s most THC-drenched burner would contemplate putting the bong away forever after feeling the effects of a single hit.
The high comes on like a wave of pressure, a thickening of the air. Kerry straightens his back and loosens his tie. Perspiration beads his face. He sighs and before his eyes Obama’s face snaps into a series of broken plains, shards of shadows and sinister asymmetries. Adrenaline spikes in his bloodstream. “Good God,” he mutters, jerking. “This stuff is powerful!”
“Oh, man, Baaaarrry,” Biden drawls, “this is good shit…”
But a moment later the high deepens and widens. A feeling of expectancy comes over them, then the first tingle of fear. Biden discovers that his viscera is suffering a vertigo not at all pleasant. “Whew.”
“Another?” Obama grins.
“I don’t think so…Jesus!” Biden starts, rubs at his eyes: John “Forbes™” Kerry’s chin becomes a putty-like Mount Rushmore—and it is singing the chorus to Can’t Get you Outta My Head in four-part barbershop! Biden growls, “S-stop fucking with me, K-Kerry.”
“W-what?” Kerry rasps.
But now Biden can’t even reply. He rises unsteadily, wavers over to the bar and grabs the bottle of Gran Marnier and gulps thirstily. Returning to his chair, he is now so slick with sweat his toupee falls off. The chin-chorus continues to echo next to him. Obama is also perspiring. Biden notices. “You, y-you okay, man?” he gasps, dabbing his face and neck with a handkerchief.
“No. No, I’m not. Hot in here.” Casually, methodically, the President strips down to his undershirt and boxers, unhooks the flag off the standard behind him and drapes it around his shoulders, fanning his face with the edge.
Kerry rises and paces, does a funny little dance. His arms raise and he finds he can’t keep them down. “B-Biden, are you sure that was j-just marijuana?”
But Biden’s suddenly unnerved by the President’s Resolute desk. There is a translucent boy misting in and out of sight in its planking…The flag-draped man behind the desk now has a mane of impeccably coifed reddish hair, twinkling blue eyes, a strong jawline.
He comes to recognize the child as JFK Jr. playing before the desk. Biden’s knuckles whiten on the armrests, pushing back. His head fills with savage smoky light.
This is just the Mutant’s opening salvo, a teasing foretaste.
“The Ukraine can kiss my black ass,” Kennedy sez.
Kerry sits down with his arms still raised high and twitching. Biden hyperventilates. Something is happening to time, to space. He feels a kindred, a deep love for the man behind the desk. It is his brother there—his big brother. Biden blinks. His heart hammers. Through an iridescent mist he sees the dreaded Red Phone undulating on the Resolute desktop. Uncontrollably he blurts out: “Jack, we gottah call in a nucleah strike on Khrushchev.”
“Da hell you talkin ’bout, Joe?” Kennedy replies. “I just scawed a touchdahn!”
“I’m not Joe,” Biden says mournfully. “You know thaht, Jack.”
John Kerry stares in mute terror at the two of them, the incongruence, his mouth dry as parchment, as his arms uncontrollably go through a semaphore exercise.
“Adlai!” Biden paws at his ears. He has had enough of Kerry’s waving arms and that Kylie Minogue barbershop bullshit and with a quick jab punches the Secretary of State, sending him tumbling backwards to the carpet.
Obama Jack leans forward in mild indignation, his eyes cherry red. “What the hell was that fahwr?”
Biden rises from his seat, sits back down. “Christ, I’m…I’m covered in skin!”
And the damned Rushmore quartet is still singing. Biden covers his ears and hums loudly to drown the sound. This does nothing. “Goddamn it, Jack, this was a mistake!”
Obama giggles, still fanning himself with the edge of Old Glory. “Why you keep calling me ‘Jack’?”
The terrible bouncing song-echo is now visible. Biden follows its silvery tendrils down to the prone Secretary of State, who has now sprouted an Amish beard. “Honest Abe Lincoln!” Biden cries. He leaps to Kerry’s side and tenderly shakes him awake, apologizing.
Obama chuckles, waves dismissively. “Damn, y’all rilly can’t handle this bud. Shee…”
John “Forbes™” Kerry jerks to his feet, spasming, blood threading down his chin. But Biden is now gazing suspiciously at this Lincoln—an imposter, obviously. Obviously. Maybe some automatronic Disney thing…But the caterwauling Mount Rushmore has gratefully fallen silent. Biden sinks back into his chair, rubbing his thighs and rocking in the seat. “Khrushchev got me down, man, he got me down! He givin’ me the Fear!”
Obama Jack chuckles, eyes half-open. “Joe, this shit’s really blown yawh lid…”
The savage light has returned. John Kennedy’s left eye is growing. The twinkling blue mandala quickly encompasses his entire head. Biden screams and falls backward out of his chair and stumbles across the room. He fumbles uncomprehending with the Oval Office doorknob, wailing in terror.
“Jesus!” Obama cries, hides the one-hitter. He is spritzing the air with Axe body spray when he, too, is struck with the Fear, that second-level the Mutant scrambles into the brain’s neurosoup…The room wavers in a glowing fog. A sudden pain erupts in his back. He winces and sits down. He does feel vaguely New Englandish, priapic, heroic. “J-Jackie?” he says. “Is thaht you?”
The elegant First Lady comes slinking through the wall but she has tentacles for arms, wielding subsonic voice manipulation. Terrified, Obama leaps up and tries to shimmy up the flagpole but comes crashing down on the Resolute desk.
“Southern fried chicken, muthafucka!” Jackie hisses and vanishes.
John “Forbes™” Kerry has passed out.
Three bewildered Secret Service agents spring into the room at Biden’s shrieks.
“The Men in Blahck!” Biden swings at the first, connecting; his elbow smashes another’s nose. The agents, uncomprehending such behavior, wrestle him to the floor. “I like Ike, goddamn it!” he shrieks. “It’s a malaise! Amy Carter! Amy Carter!” Biden screams as they restrain him. “Chelsea! Watch out for that Klingon sonofabitch! He’s got lips, Amy!”
A swarm of huge long-legged penguins has come rushing into the Oval Office and pinned Jack’s brother Bobby to the floor. “GAAAAH! Hahd to stahboard!” Obama Jack leaps up and grabs the flagpole, climbing on the desktop, swatting at the penguins. “Jackie, help! Gimme some Bouvier powah! I’m a Kennedy, muthafucka!”
“Slap some o’ dat UFO skin on me, Clyde,” Biden yells, struggling with plastic restraints. He is prone, with a Secret Service agent’s knee in his back. A sudden strength rises in him. He bursts the plasticuffs with ease. “Jack, I’m at warp eight! I’m comin’ to save you, bud! PT-109 the cocksuckers!” He throws the agent into the wall like a ragdoll and leaps up only to confront five fuzzy Nation of Islam thugs around his beloved brother Jack, their bow ties flapping like bats. He scans the table for an implement, finds a china cup and tomahawks one of them with it. He grabs another cup. “Pick up the Red Phone!” he shrieks at his brother, fastballing.
Obama Jack snaps out of his trance, picks up the Red Phone and whacks at the penguins.
Agents pile on the President. Joe leaps.
“Bring back Jimmy Hoffa!” Obama Jack yells, smacking at the writhing Arctic birds. Now they’ve morphed into slimy chrome scarabs. “Jeebus he’p me! Bobby, it’s the Nova Mob!”
Biden is having his own troubles with a seething mass of protoplasm that has engulfed him, its black tentacles flailing around his limbs. “Tell Amy I love her! I’m going down, Jack!”
Kerry has been slowly rising from the floor behind the melee. He vaguely senses comrades in trouble, a horrible commotion in the room. Instinctively he picks up a small serving cart and brings it crashing down on an agent’s head and throat-chops a second one. Then an errant elbow knocks him clean unconscious again.
“He’p me, Obi Wan!” Obama Jack yells. Biden has an ectoplasmic tentacle in a headlock, with preternatural strength slams the thing out cold on the Resolute surface. He picks up the tray of the shattered cart and wings it into another black-suited tentacle, which falls motionless.
Like lightning the two of them pile all the furniture in the room against the two doors. Biden then falls exhausted, voice trembling: “Pappy isn’t gonna like this. I think w-we fandangoed Sahgent Shriver’s army, Jack.”
Obama Jack stumbles over to the coffee machine, opens it and desperately slathers fresh java grounds on his bare chest and face. This will somehow help cleanse his body of the Nova germs.
“I think they’re afta the menstrual blood, Jack,” Biden gasps. “Amy Cahtah’s.” Tears well in his eyes, lip quivering. “Sick bahstards!”
At these words another tsunami of paranoia sweeps through the President. He straightens, mute, in rapt attention to a transmission. The room dissolves and returns. He is receiving information from Elsewhere. “No, Bobby…Someone named ‘Dubya’ got Khruschev to cahll the Nova Mob on us…” He trembles, coffee grounds dripping from his face. “We gotta get outta heeyah, to the Denver ayuhport. That’s the only place we’ll be safe.”
Biden Bobby instinctively understands. “Should we c-call Marine One?”
Obama Jack shakes his head, coffee grounds flying. “Nah, fuck that, we’ll get booglarized! Those Dulce base freaks’ll be all ovah us.”
A banging rattles the barricaded doors and curtained, shatterproof windows. The room swirls into a murky dank aquarium mist as they listen. “It’s the Stasi…”
Biden picks up the Gran Marnier bottle and chugs thirstily. “Ain’t Stasi, Jack—it’s more of those owl-face Muslim bahstahds.”
The room goes neon purple. The pounding intensifies. “Fuck you, Edgah, I got James Bond in heeyah!” Obama Jack yells.
A damaged Secret Service agent stirs on the floor. “Damn black magic cocksucka!” Biden picks up a tax code draft bill from the desk and slams it down, sending the agent back to sleepyland. He grabs his brother’s shoulders and shakes him. “J-Jack, you’ll protect me, right? Right? Tell me you’ll protect me against Nikita? Please?” Obama Jack breathes, eyes penduluming. “Where’s Lurch?” Biden calls out, wildly scanning the room. “He can get Uncle Festuh to burn these sons of bitches outside!”
Kerry groans on the floor. Biden grabs a nearby decanter of water and dumps it on his face. “Lurch! Wake up, we need you!”
Kerry rises muttering from the carpet. “Swift-boat this, you son of a bitch…”
Biden Bobby pleads, “Lurch, we need Uncle Festuh to zap those bastahds out they-ah. You know—the electricity trick Festuh does?”
“I don’t feel so good…” John Kerry wavers and swats at a cloud of iridescent gnats around his head. A horrible smell enters the room. He grimaces. “Do you smell that? Must be a dead body in here somewhere…Where are these damn flies coming from? Barack, was that pot we smoked?”
He pauses to mop his face and inadvertently leans against the bust of Lincoln while pressing down on the beveled southeast corner edge of the Resolute desk. Across the room a bookcase ominously slides open. It reveals a dark space. The three men tense for the worst, then look on in amazement. An electronic fog again descends over the room.
“Goddamn it all!” curses a rasping voice from the darkness, and a whirring sound. A robotic, elaborate exoskeleton wobbles in. The man within it seems a thousand years old, a menacing, reincarnated force down the centuries, now physically immortal. A miniature Hellfire missile unit on his shoulder locks in on them.
It is indeed Dick Cheney.
“Hashtag: fucked,” Kerry sez.
“What is this space crahp?” Obama Jack growls at the robotic nightmare. “Who—what—ahr you?”
“I am your master,” Cheney drones. “The master of you all!”
Biden Bobby squints in horror at the corpse in the machine.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Cheney snarls. “You have done well against the so-called Islamists…But as the Black Zodiac once enlightened you, the real threat is the American people.” He hisses twice, clapping his flipper-hands. “Junior!”
Dubya comes stumbling from the passage, dressed in rags, filthy. “Yes, Lord?”
“Was 9-11 an inside job?”
Dubya snickers. “Depends on the meanin’ of ‘inside,’ don’t it!” He produces a small Chinese gong from his ragged cloak and whacks it in punctuation.
Jack and Bobby eye each other in confusion. What is this 9-11?
“Very good, Junior. Indeed it does. Inside? Outside? Who can clarify what these mean? Who is who, and what is what in the shadows the Black Zodiac has created? Who can—ach! Motherfucker!” he grimaces. “Christ, my ass…Ach! Junior, the lube!”
The trio looks away in embarrassed horror as this Dubya produces a tube of Perianal and goes to work inside the robot-man’s tortured buttocks. The hammering on the doors and windows is increasing in intensity.
“Call off your hounds out there, Palpatine, and we’ll talk,” Kerry shouts, nodding at the door. “I’m a diplomat, you know. That means I’m good with words.”
The cyborg presses a button and in seconds the Agents’ pounding stops.
Kerry says, “If it wasn’t for you and Dubya’s fuck-ups we’d be—”
Cheney stabs another button on his metal wrist and Kerry jerks stiff. His arm swings up into a frozen Nazi salute.
The duo is flummoxed. The robotic man points at Obama Jack. “You have done well. You have kept the system running just as we ordained. Our neuro-melding worked. But the energy grid has gone down just in the past hour. The Solomon beam has unaccountably weakened. Something happened.”
“Neuro-what?” Biden Bobby squeaks. “Energy grid? The wha?”
Cheney sneers. “Pierre L’Enfant’s Virgo grid, fool!” He whirs forward. “The construction boom in DC has compromised the Mer-Ka-Ba channels Grandmaster L’Enfant designed our streets to amplify…This stuff was in the Scottish Rite guidebook, Biden, didn’t you read it when you became a Senator?”
Bobby Kennedy is flummoxed at this statement.
“If the Solomon beam in the Capitol ceases, all our plans three hundred years in the making will be for nought. We will not be able to control anyone. Least of all the beams into Soetoro here.”
“I knew it!” Biden Bobby yells. “Jack, I knew you wouldn’t sign all those executive orduhs without good reason!” He barks at the menacing cyborg. “You’ve been in thaht closet all this time beaming shit into my brother’s mind—”
“No, Biden, you dense Delaware ass, you don’t understand. There was the matter of the birth certificate, and the deal that was made.”
Biden trembles. “The birth certificate…what’s the matter with it, Jack?”
“Erm,” Obama Jack stammers, his mind dissonant with vague memories.
Cheney’s smirk makes a shambles of his skeletal face. “He cut a deal with us to let us, the Black Zodiac, backstop his biography to create doubts about his birthplace in exchange for the big seat.”
“For God’s sake, why, Jack? We’re as Boston Irish as they come! And I thought dad hahd Illinois all sewed up for you!”
Dick Cheney sneers. “It was to create a smokescreen, Biden. Doubts about his birthplace could conveniently whip all those cretinous hick sonsofbitches into a froth. They’ll believe absolutely anything.”
Cheney holds a button on his exoskeleton and Obama’s spine stiffens, arms falling rigid. The President monotones, “…To waste their political activism on lies while the truth went unnoticed.”
Biden shakes his head. “Which was…?”
Obama’s head pivots mechanically. “I am a genetically engineered being, specially made for the Presidency.”
Half of Cheney’s face smiles. He releases the button and Obama sags, the control field gone. He chuckles. “Yes…Bubba Clinton was the first success out of dozens in the Beta test. He did swimmingly. He did very well. But his penis had second thoughts. It was unstoppable. Dubya here was also part of the earliest Black Zodiac program but it was a botch. I mean, look at him…”
The clownish Dubya is giggling to himself.
“41 insisted his spawn only needed a little special help, and could be salvaged. Frankly, we were surprised at the progress the eggheads made with him at Andover and Yale,” he says contemptuously. “They tweaked the code to make him just able enough to tie his shoes and do some basic math. 41’s connections did they rest.”
Biden Bobby is distraught. “Why?”
“There is to be world war. DAESH. Israel. Russia. Saudi Arabia. China. The timetable has been accelerated, but there’ll be a world war. And martial law here.”
The cyborg stares at Obama. “If there is any problem, the Clone will be brought in to replace you, Soetoro. We have two more of you waiting in the wings.”
“Soetoro?” Biden Bobby tears up. “Jack…tell me it ain’t so, Jack.”
Obama Jack is silent. Cheney whirs and buzzes. “But the war will not happen if the Capitol’s Solomon beam fails. You have changed the course of everything with this night of revelation,” he growls. “You know the truth. And for this you must pay the price.” The tiny Hellfire launchpad wheezes, its light blinking.
“The serving plattuh, Jack,” Biden whispers sideways at his trembling brother, nodding at the service table. He picks up a coffee mug behind him. “I’ll aim for thaht missile-looking thing.”
Obama Jack murmurs low: “Whatevah happens, Bobby, meet out on the north side of Lafayette, on K. Got me?”
The cyborg adjusts a knob on his exoskeleton. His voice rises to a Mickey Mouse squeak. “For-me-to-spare-your-lives-you-must-go-to-the-Capitol,” then with adjustment drops to a basso profundo: “Enngaage thee Merr-Kaaa-Baaa booossterr oonn thee Issis sstatuue.” He regains the correct growling frequency. “This will restore the Solomon beam’s power, and reenergize the Virgo grid.” Dubya is picking his nose. The cyborg slaps him to attention. “I’d ask Junior here to do it, but he can’t even wipe his ass without help anymore.” Cheney’s lip curls in disdain.
Behind the chrome monstrosity suddenly appears Donald Rumsfeld in pink wrestler’s tights, man-tits sagging terribly.
“Gollum!” Biden cries.
“So you minor-leaguers busted us at last, eh?” The shriveled wrestler sneers. “Dick, listen: Dubya here swallowed the only flash drive that had all the Virgo codes recorded—every one of them. The only copy.”
Cheney: “Jesus Christ!”
“He thought it was a piece of chocolate,” Rumsfeld whispers. “So I gave him a box of Ex-Lax and told him it was more candy. He made faces but he ate the whole box. The results should be imminent.” He nods at that Dubya, who has in fact been shifting his weight from leg to leg, doubling over, his face a rictus of discomfort. “Tummy hurt! Gotta go!”
Rumsfeld jerks a thumb towards the dark recess in the White House walls from where they emerged. “Junior, go back there and go boom-booms in the toilet like I showed you.”
Dubya adamantly shakes his head.
Rumsfeld tries to drag Dubya into the tunnel, encountering fierce resistance, then gets him in a headlock, twists him down into a classic Boston crab then—POP. “Christ, my hip!” Rumsfeld shouts. “Dick, help me!”
Cheney scowls. “What the hell can I do? I’m like fucking Robocop now. Dubya, help uncle Donald get up! And get the fuck back there and go boom-booms!”
“Don’t wanna! Gotta go bad!” Dubya leaps whining to his feet.
He’s now pulling at his buttocks, sweating.
Rumsfeld gasps, “Do it, Junior, or no more nose candy. Go boom-booms back there in the bowl.”
The former Defense Secretary rolls in agony, clutching his hip. Dubya bends down to help Rumsfeld when there’s an awful wet ripping sound. “Oopsie!” Dubya wiggles, throwing off his ragged cloak and reaching back and plunging his hand down into his pants. “Oopsie-daisy!”
The cyborg slams a fist into the wall, plaster exploding. “Junior, take off those pants! Now!”
Dubya reaches down to grab Rumsfeld’s waistband.
“Not me, you idiot!”
The moron is hopping, his dropped pants at his ankles, exploding brown constellations across the carpet. Obama retches. Joe tsks in disgust.
“Ouch!” The flash drive pops out covered in thick brown gumbo.
“The codes!” Rumsfeld grimaces, reaching for the mass.
“Don, grab it!”
“Now!” Biden Bobby cries.
Obama Jack grabs the silver platter and Frisbees it beautifully, ducking. It catches the man in the metal suit in the throat. Biden rises, fastballs the mug and knocks the mini-Hellfire sideways and dives behind a couch. The small rocket launches straight into the far door and explodes. The shock wave slingshoots Cheney backwards into the closet, a twisted wreck of suet and titanium. Biden leaps and clotheslines that “Rumsfeld” in the face and the wrestler falls, spitting out dentures.
Biden Bob does a Curly, slap-wiping his own face in celebration, “Wuhwuhwuh!”
Half the Oval Office is in flames. Smoke billows into the room. The duo pulls the prone, unconscious, and still entranced Kerry across the space, his arm still stiff in a Sieg Heil!, and cower behind the Resolute desk. Biden Joe slaps his face and he shudders awake. The explosion has sent adrenaline peaking through Obama’s body. THC molecules transmute his synapses; that cyborg’s mind-warp has ceased but the Mutant’s high roars back in, changing his brain chemistry once again. He now feels put-upon, misunderstood. The world is against him…In seconds, he thinks, the Nova Stasi will enter through the wreckage and arrest them all. Kerry snaps from his Nazi catatonia and looks on in amazement at the President: A sudden five o-clock shadow has erupted on Obama’s face, his nose lengthening, jowls hanging, shoulders stooping. The changed man emanates a foul miasma of bad psychic vibrations that overcomes Kerry in an instant: Kerry’s face puffs full, hangs heavy with jowls, his hair waving tight to his scalp: “Zat Palpatine vas right—de grid is veakenink, Mr. Pvesident,” Kerry says, heavy-Teutonic now. “Dat enerchee booster he vass talkingk about, it’s in de Isis statue on top of de Capitol!”
Obama wrings his hands. “But it could reverse the grid’s flow, too, Henry, can’t it? Can’t it?”
“Yes, I zuppose vee kut turn de whole thingk off,” Kerry replies.
“Could it generate good energy?”
“Ja, I belief so.”
“Goddamn Establishment wizards!”
Kerry squints, adjusts invisible glasses. “Vare is Haldeman? Vee vill neet him!”
The black suits again come pouring into the room with fire extinguishers and try to drag them out, to fierce resistance. An errant fist knocks Kerry unconscious a third time. Obama does a violent full-body fish-flop. On the way down he grabs a Taser from a goon’s shoulder holster and fires, planting 10,000 volts into the thing. Two others accidentally touching the suited creep also go down convulsing. The room is a hurricane of wild arcing colors. Obama grabs a Sig Sauer and waves it at the remaining goon. “You’re a part of the Amway Comintern!”
The agent’s voice is five octaves too low for a human. The goon’s head swells into a blue pumpkin. “Presidente, no!”
Obama Dick now backs towards the fireplace and orders the creature out. “You won’t escape alive, cocksucker…I have special agents here to protect me.”
“Mi Excellence, Senor, yo soy uno de ellos!” eyes blazing, ears flapping.
“That’s what they all say!” he screams, firing a warning shot. “Get out!”
The agent bolts. Richard Milhouse Nixon now hears H.R. Haldeman, his loyal Chief of Staff, screaming from the colonnade outside the Office.
JOE STRUGGLES beneath the pile of Agents on the cold marble. “Amy and Chelsea’s menstrual blood! That’s what you’re after, isn’t it! You sick bahstards! Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t a lesbian for nothing!” His left forearm is bent at a right angle but he doesn’t feel a thing.
Bullets rip into the marble column above them. The agents spin around to confront Obama Tricky Dick packing two MP5s slung over his shoulders. “How do ya like me now!!”
Kerry, having awakened, concussed, comes shuffling down the colonnade, his arms extended out, hands dangling limp. “Braaaiiins!” and takes a full tackle from an agent, smashed through the French doors and is gone.
“Abe!” Biden screams.
Obama waves the agents off Biden. He holds the MP5s steady. “Haldeman, come here.” Backing up. “We’re getting the fuck out of Dodge.”
Biden rises and limps over, winded. “What about Abe?”
“Abe? Abe Fortas?”
Biden points down the colonnade. “Honest Abe Lincoln! Those sonsofbitches just dry-gulched him!”
“That’s Kissinger, HR, are you blind? Henry!” He and Biden back up. “Go help Henry.” Turning now to the at-bay agents: “You cocksuckers get outta my sight! Everything I did was within Constitutional bounds. Now scram!” He squeezes off some rounds into the floor, geysering a line of marble dust. The agents run off into the snow. All the cameras in the press tent in the distance are trained on him, flood lights blazing. Obama throws up his arms with the double victory signs and dashes inside.
He enters the wrecked Oval Office where Biden has two Secret Service agents in headlocks. Something superhuman has overcome him. He gives them a simultaneous piledriver to the carpet, knocking them out then punches his way through another group of agents.
Obama grabs a fire extinguisher and blasts three of the suited fascists. They paw at the foam on their faces as he swings the extinguisher wildly, three donks. Biden is continuously dropping atomic guillotines with his elbow on a poor agent, manic, over and over, enjoying himself.
“Haldeman!” Obama barks. “That’s enough.”
Kerry rises groggily. “Tank you, Haldeman, Mr. Pvesident.”
A twisted human-shaped metal wreckage lies spent in the corner beside an open panel in the wall—but the man they dimly remember having caused this chaos is gone from the exoskeleton….
THE MUTANT is still going strong as they exit the Oval Office into the hallway. With its supernatural neurotwisting, born of the exigencies of their plight, some kind of psychokinetic mind-meld occurs between the besieged trio. Their psychic powers amplify and join: Two agents running at them go limp, falling to the floor. Biden kicks a third the groin and the man thanks him in screeching falsetto. Obama Dick bitch-slaps a fourth agent who spins like a top and crashes into the wall.
They find a secretarial office deserted.
“You’re like goddamn Superman out there, H.R.!” Obama Dick says. “We need to get out. Now.”
They throw on dark sunglasses. Biden rips a part of his toupee off and Scotch-tapes it to his upper lip. Kerry puts on his bifocals and quickly teases out his hair to a fright-wig.
They run down the halls towards the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. Biden’s fingers flutter in front of the Marine guard’s face like a Three Stooges routine. The guard’s eyes follow, his mouth going slack in wonderment. Biden traces a triangle in the air then pokes the guard’s eyes and he goes down howling. Kerry Henry knees the second guard in the groin. “Thank you, sir,” the fallen man groans, “may I have another?”
They sprint down the driveway through the open gate and split up, crossing the snows of Lafayette Square.
“That little display back in the Garden wudden no good for a gun control bill, Jack.”
“Stop calling me Jack, Haldeman! You know it’s Richard! I hate that shit! And screw gun control, HR!”
They meet up in front of Sweet Georgia Brown’s, breathing frost and shivering. Kerry Henry squints. “I remember zomethink…Veren’t ve just talkink to Richard Cheney in de Oval Office? Or, or somethingk resembling him?”
Obama Dick gasps. “My God, that’s right!”
“He tolt us about de Solomon beam, Mr. Pvesident. Vee have to shut it off! It’s at de Capitol, in de Columbia-Izis statue, on top.”
Obama Dick pinches his overcoat and pulls it over his head. He runs into the street, hailing a cab, hopping from stocking foot to foot on the icy street. A Diamond cab pulls to the curb. Biden H.R. says anxiously, “Are you a friendly?”
The driver is confused, shrugs. “Yes, sure.”
Haldeman piles in first, helping Nixon. “That’s excellent. Very important. Hope this guy’s a friendly,” he whispers.
The driver grins wide. “President? President Obama?”
“’Obama’? No!” They both shout.
The man gushes. “I must take picture! May I?”
“No!” the trio choruses.
“Just take us to the Capitol, cabbie!” Obama Dick bellows.
The DC streets are a sinister, blurry snow-swept noir. Joe starts a gentle rocking again. He feels an electronic buzzing between his eyes. Haldemanic vibrations from the duo are taking over. “Shit…I-I think the New York Times put something up my nose…with a needle. I remember now! A tracker or some shit.”
Nixon gives a sharp look, jowls flapping. “Then that’s it. Christ, I need a cigarette! Manolo, pull over!”
The driver doesn’t respond. Biden H.R. violently wiggles his nose, probing. “We gotta get to the Capitol!”
Police cars are going full bore around them, sirens everywhere. The streets are quickly gridlocking.
“No, this is no good, Henry,” Obama Dick scowls.
“Let me zink,” Kissinger replies.
Biden H.R. chews his bottom lip. “W-w-what should w-we do? I-I remember reading Abbie Hoffman and he said there’s a way you can-”
“Makes sense you’d listen to that dirty hippie, Haldeman,” Obama growls.
“Bikes!” Kissinger cries.
“Oh, Jesus, no!” Nixon pounds the seat with a fist.
“Pull over, sir. It’s de only vay,” Kissinger replies, throwing a hundred dollar bill at the driver. “Mr. cab driver, keep kviett about dis, ach, please?”
“Bikes, Henry?” Nixon moans.
“Those aliens vuld never zuspect it. It’s only ten blocks, Mr. Pvesident!”
“Freezing out there, Henry,” Obama Dick shivers.
They slide out of the cab in the winter night. Police sirens wail in all directions. The entire city is on high alert. Biden H.R.’s superhuman strength quickly liberates three bikes from a nearby rental rack.
They pedal off towards the white dome in the distance. Thrice Biden fishtails on the slushy Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk and goes down. Kerry pedals with ease, hands knitted behind his head. Obama Dick keeps thinking he’s on a tricycle. “Damn Nazi hippie engineering! Henry! How do you operate this goddamn thing?”
It takes them forty minutes to go ten blocks—forty minutes of sirens and whooshing helicopters and stopping to dive hiding behind planters and cars.
THE ENGINEERED THC in the Mutant has third and even fourth acts, freakish high-intensity longevity. The Capitol looms over Biden H.R. like the old American International Pictures logo. Its surface goes flesh-colored before his eyes, an erect pink nipple at its peak. He stares in awe as it flops and heaves. Then the tip resolves itself into the object of their quest: the Columbia statue. He blows into cupped palms. “H-how are we gonna get in? Those owl bastards on the perimeter look like they’re packing thermonuclear, boss!”
“Henry,” Obama growls, “can you escort us in…like in the old days?”
A shard of reality returns to Biden. He squints. “I-I seem to remember…I’m…I’m President of the Senate or something, aren’t I?”
“I tink dat is corvect,” Kerry Henry says. “But dey must have some kind of All Points Bulletin out for us, after dat clambake ve caust at de Vhite House.”
Nixon wrings his hands behind his back, pacing. “How are we going to do this?”
Kerry Henry pushes up his bifocals. “I remember it now…it vas in de guidebook, vay back ven I first came to DC…”
“What, Henry, what?” Obama Dick paces furiously.
“How de Virgo enerchee system vorks. Ve haff to go all de vay up dere to operate it. Right up to de Isis statue at de top. Under de hem of de Native American shawl is a contrvol pan’l. Vunn has to touch a palm scanner in de thing, vhile touching a tassel at de same time above de olive wreath near her shield…de second tassel on her hem. Und somevun has to touch her index finger while de tassel is skveezed. Dis activates de Solomon beam.”
“This some Dan Brown boosheet,” Biden H.R. curses.
Obama Dick is hopeful. “And we can reverse the cocksucker, right?”
“Ja, vee can manually override de setting and svitch de beam off.”
Obama’s Nixonian jowls quiver as he chews his cheeks. He goes philosophical. “Do you think this could be our atonement, Henry? For all the bullshit we pulled?” He mops his brow with the overcoat. His five o’clock shadow has already become a mild beard.
Kerry shrugs. “I zink bombink Cambodia und Laos und the golt standard and all zat we did is beyond de reach of karmic balance…For dat, ve are scvewed, Dick. Forever.”
Obama-Nixon hangs his head, muttering. But Biden has half-morphed. He is in-between and is gathering confidence. “Why are you down, Jack? Things ah looking up! You’ve been under the Zodiac spell! Once we shut off this Virgo grid thing those bastahds won’t be able to interfere.”
“H.R., shut up with that Boston accent, will you? I’m not goddamn KENNEDY!”
The three of them duck behind a bush-filled planter as a line of helicopters dip over the Mall, their searchlights swinging down. Kerry Henry says, “Bob McNamara vunce mentioned an untergroundt passagevay down ze block here, ach, in ze Metro escalator!”
“Take us to it, by God,” Obama Dick winces.
They run the two icy blocks to the Capitol South entrance.
“If you press ze top here,” Kissinger intones, out of breath, “und vee slide down on ze metal between de escalators, ze passage opens und vee vill kind auf slalom down into ze tunnel.”
“Do it!” Nixon screams.
Here comes a Metro commuter on the ascending track dressed as Paul Revere, complete with tricorn hat, followed by a gaggle of Tea Party protestors bearing placards and posters, sliding up the moving stairs, bound for a Lafayette Square shindig. They gawk in amazement. “Look! It’s the Kenyan! Obummer!”
Kerry Henry pounds out a rhythm on the brushed steel surface and taps a code on the Metro logo. A faint green light appears.
The trio leaps one after the other onto the smooth metal slide between escalators as the protestors begin swinging placards. Butts bumping onto the steel, the three accelerate rapidly downward. Below, part of the metal slides downward revealing a tunnel and they shoot into the darkness, a smoothly-polished track that increases their velocity through the chute. It appears to be made of frictionless material and the tunnel curves obligingly towards the Capitol underground.
One, two, three they go flying into a dim space, slamming onto a concrete floor. Florescent lights on motion-sensors flicker awake.
“Christ, my back!” Nixon grunts. “Helluva ride, Henry.”
“That was fun!” Biden chimes. “Let’s do it again.”
“Down dis hallvay is the lower tunnel beneath ze Senate ving. Ve must hurry!”
They run through the musty Cold War passageway and come to a rusted metal door that Biden dropkicks and sends flying off its hinges with a thunderous clatter. A cobwebbed spiral staircase twists upward into darkness. In a minute they jimmy a concealed door behind the shelves of a janitor’s closet. They enter the hall and run up the stairs, coming to the small Senate rotunda next to the Great rotunda.
“Shhh!” Nixon cautions.
They race through the halls. Ghost trails leak from every light they pass, every sound amplified. A janitor mopping the Rotunda floor looks up stunned.
“Excuse me, do you know how to…how to…” Biden is having a brain fart. He points up at the cupola, does a pantomime with his fingers of walking up steps and gestures.
“Whatsa matter with you?” The janitor chuckles. “You high as a kite, aintchya?”
“We need stair power, man!”
Kerry and Obama stumble into the chamber. Obama still has the overcoat pulled over his head, trembling from the cold.
“Mah God! Presidaint Obama! Sir!”
“We gotta get up the titty-nipple!” Biden points.
Squinting: “You mean the cupola, on top?”
“Follow me.” His walkie-talkie crackles with desperate shouting official voices.
“Turn that thing off!” Obama Dick snarls.
The janitor complies. Kerry musses his wiry hair and adjusts the moustache and Obama adjusts his wig. “President Obama,” the janitor says, offering a hand, “gotta say, I’m a great admirer of you.”
“’Obama’?” Biden H.R. puzzles. “That’s the second time someone’s called you—”
“I’m zorry, President Nixon has a bat coldt,” Kerry interrupts. “How do cleaners get up to de Columbia statue on top, to clean it?”
“Aw, now, well that takes special climbing equipment.”
Biden shadow boxes with an imaginary Man in Black. “We have to get up there, Kissie. Gonna kick us some Reptilian ass!”
The janitor strokes his beard. “Well…there’s a special way up there a few of us know about, in the colonnade just below it…”
They take an elevator, then climb a reinforced ladder. The keys given by the janitor easily open the hatch. Cold air gushes down upon them. The climb into the night, backs pressed against the marble, and make their way around the perimeter.
The wind viciously whips at them. DC sparkles on the horizons. Four helicopters circle the Mall searching for the trio, their spotlights raking the lawns. Drones sing past. The crimson and blue glow of a hundred active police cars lends a spectral haze just at the rooftops.
“It’s beautivul,” Kissinger observes.
“Stay focused, Henry. We’ve only one shot at this.”
Biden hangs on for dear life. Kissinger guides them through the procedure. Biden grabs the statue’s laurel wreath and pulls himself up and squeezes the imprinted tassel. Kerry reaches up the statue’s hem and places his palm into the hand-scanner. Obama, sweating, panting, grips the sword handle and pulls Columbia’s index finger. The wind howls.
A panel slides open before Kerry. He sees the Red button. OFF. He pokes it, jabs wildly at it then holds it down. A humming, ever-present as to be unnoticed, descends in pitch. Kerry eyes the panel. There is a blue button marked CROATAN. He jabs it.
Above them, the Columbia statue’s eyes glow opalescent. The Croatan beam is instant: it hits the capstone of the Washington monument across the Mall which sends out a shimmering green light wave that spreads from horizon to horizon. The trio feels something depart from their bodies, a heaviness, like a dam bursting. In the Virginia distance, the Pentagon begins to glow intense orange, then red, then white.
The ancient Masonic spell is broken—but not the Mutant’s fecund fizzlings.
“What the hell are we doing up here?” Barack Obama at last says, teeth chattering. “I got no fucking clothes on!”
John Kerry is terrified, clinging the iron hem. “I have no idea, Barry…something just happened…”
Joe Biden looks at the glowing Pentagon, as it fades wavering into some semi-to-non-existence. “Oh, man…AIPAC’s not gonna like that.”
“Look!” Obama yells.
A massive black triangular craft is floating silently above the Mall, three diamond lights on each tip, a pulsing red light in its center.
“An Astra!” Joe waves frantically and they all shout.
“Is that thing even real?” Kerry sputters, squinting. “I…I’m high as a fucking kite, Barack. My balls are ice cubes.”
Obama shudders. “Me too…Jesus, what did we smoke?”
The craft silently glides over them and dips down.
“What in hell is that thing?” Kerry yells. “I’m scairt, guys!”
“It’s one of those Air Force black-budget dealios, John,” Biden yells. “I think…I got this friend who told me about a secret space program that’s above top secret…How the fuck did we—”
A rectangle of light slides open and a blue-white tractor beam hits them, sucking the three one by one off the surface of the statue.
The room is circular, with a gentle humming as the door closes. Uniform light with no visible source. But it is cold.
“Hello!” Biden yells. The Mutant waves back.
Music critics have now gushed out their best-of-2013 lists.
Our critics at Nolo Contendere are not impressed, so we’ve compiled our list the year’s overlooked pearls in the oil-slick sea.
2013 was the year our staff of writers missed more real trends than they tried to invent. First, the major perpetrators:
~This was the year pyromaniac and firecracker enthusiast Michael Bay teamed with Baz Lurhmann to remix Shakespeare’s plays into a hip hop invasion-from-space romcom musical bloodfest that was exposionier than last year’s “All’s Well that Ends Dead,” Kenneth Branagh’s reimagining of the Bard’s comedy as a Swedish serial-killer noir. Bay’s choice of foregoing CGI for the wunderkind ammonium nitrate as his director of photography stood him in good stead, despite leaving a gaffer, key grip and two best boys dead—a small price to pay for regressing Shakespeare’s collected works into the nameless hells of the 21st century trainwreck known as A MICHAEL BAY FILM. But Luhrmann’s soundtrack is our concern, and what a strenuous ordeal it was—Elizabethan verse interrupted by jarring freestyles over fresh beats from sampled World War 2 sounds that spawned a dozen way better imitators…who we won’t even try to go into here.
~It was also the year the 8-second “microdrama” debuted on all platforms, from YouTube to Twitter to ITunes—tiny films directed by such legends as Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and that tattooed guy with the big glasses who’s always at the coffeeshop. The shopulation downloaded millions of these “emotional sound bites,” and the music behind them—from such varied artists as Coldplay and Coldplay—did boffo biz at $5.99 a crack. Did we care? Did any of it really happen? Who cares—it may as well have, right?
~Product diversification of mega-millionaire pop-stars came into its own with Beyonce foregoing a second surprise album for another fragrance disaster, the rancid Insulte: Ridge Street & Delancey, which is like having a boot smash your nose into a Manhattan subway station platform fouled by mole people on a 100-degree day. Other pop artists quickly flooded the market with their own scents as well, with Sting leading the pack with his foul Sweat Lodge and Kanye with My Dark Twisted Workout Ambrosia #7.
~The neo-trad old-jazz mix-trend known as the “tar-hiccups” shouldn’t have caught on in the hipper Brooklyn venues, but it did, expanding from Bushwick to capture DJs from coast to coast—only to strangle them on their own credulity, because it never actually existed. Shrouded in legend, the supposed trailblazer Effin Foo was said to have literally mixed his great-grandparents’ collection of turn-of-the-century Edison cylinders with Victrola 78s in a superheated smelting vat and died from the resultant fumes—but not before recording the process, which became the defining ethos of the movement: effects processing of the listener’s mind instead of the music. This might sound like old-hat 1960s mumbo-jumbo, but it wasn’t: The music of the future (Foo said in his only manifesto, written hieroglyphically on a napkin with a pink sharpie) will not be aural but chemical: Take the worst drugs you can find and listen to Mantovani & Percy Faith & Vangelis, or the collected Rick Wakeman. Fuck it. It is far more interesting if you just fuck up your mind on petroleum fumes and listen to crap than attempt to create music yourself. Give up. It’s all already been done, or someone else is doing it right now. Regardless, DJs across the nation attempted to meld King Oliver and vintage Okeh pancakes with electro-chill, garnered middling to homicidal effect. For this “trend,” go to the original—go to the Foo’s gold. But don’t forget to smoke some designer bath salts marinated in ammonia first.
~Spoken word resurged with Make no Mistake: Mistakes will be Made a compilation from Radiohead, Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, and U2 re-enacting famous politician sting operations, bathroom gloryhole busts, and mea culpa press conferences (Bruce left the others in the dust with his spot-on rendering of His Highness Marion Barry’s “Ge-yot Dayum Bitch Set Me Up!”). And let’s not forget Daniel Day-Lewis’s Grammy award for his moving 79-CD reading of Dr. Bronner’s Soap label oeuvre. Metaphysics has never been so…gritty.
~The “Music? Not for you, junior” ethic was a rumor at first, then it turned up in LA, Brooklyn, Nashville, and Austin seemingly overnight to challenge the hegemony of the bearded, flannel-wearing set. Economics played a role: the ripples of the financial crash had forced many of these surly vegan cyclists to sell their prized vintage instruments for another tattoo and thus go without meals for weeks, resulting in many arrests for wearing dangerous, unlicensed cheekbones. Left with nothing but their spoons and washboards (in the more affluent circles), “not for you” ethic stepped into the space in a series of reputed InstaTumblTubeFaceFeed PSAs about the burgeoning craze: You’re a hipster, but music—like those 5-pound glasses on the bridge of your now-bent nose—isn’t cool anymore. Don’t resume that mandolin/banjo/uke/fiddle career. Grow kale instead. Brew at home. Make furniture. Just don’t. Ever. Try. Music. Again…Some say it was a record industry plot to stop the direct-to-public interfaces like Soundcloud. Others claim that “not for you, junior” was a plot by a shadowy black metal mafia to destroy acoustic folk music once and for all. We’ll never know, because again, it never existed except in the minds of critics and pundits—and approximately 1.5 million brain-dead “non-conformist” hipster idiots.
~ Detroit’s ascent into receivership dried up pension funds all across Motor City’s wasted landscape. Escape from New York (1981) started looking less an action flick than an ancient act of precognition 600 miles off-target. But the beleaguered birthplace of Motown suddenly became the focus of lefty angst across the nation. Preecher Casy’s existential heroism spearheaded this gesture at relevance, poking the abyss in both eyes with Left Bank café political agitprop 60 years obsolete. Did he care? Hell no—not when audiences can’t tell Camus from Shamu and his Gainsbourgisms were ringing a giant cash register in the aether. The subsequent appearance of new folk-protest acts like Pyotr, Pavel, and Marya, Hi-Fidel Sound, and Leo DiBronstein lending their assistance to the cause didn’t help the image of socialism or folk music but surely increased membership in libertarian survivalist paramilitary hit squads.
~The Hollywood film trailer’s generic sonic anvil-blow came into its own in 2013: 14 Billboard-topping recordings’ worth of variations on the deafening punctuation to which you can buy a strobe light and imagine scenes from your own Hollywood thriller trailer. Which is a pity, because no-one had an imagination left to put the hammer-blows to.
~2013 saw the continuance of the zombie craze, so it was fitting that most major-label artists threw in the towel on actually recording music and instead released their promo pictures through Instagram, their lyrics through Twitter, and let their PR wings sort out the music with the new Obsolute Software 7, by which the public could mix and match beats, samples, and random melodies, mashing the ingredients for each artist into three separate albums apiece that consumers could then choose from. Freedom and all that, right? Mm-hm…Then, in a devastating series of death blows to the recording industry, Mp3 sales continued to eviscerate the CD just as YouTube downloaders destroyed all the Mp3 profits for good, causing the juggernaut to go into government-bailout-mode. But even the most rabid Democrat had no interest in nationalizing these dinosaurs, and when a small Chinese firm snapped up the entire music business for peanuts in June, no-one batted an eye. So this was the year “straight to Soundcloud” replaced “straight to DVD” as the marketplace’s signature of “you’ll never get these moments of your sordid life back, so close your eyes and poke randomly”
But “new” music was also released and we listened to it. Sigh. Here’s our top 20 albums/singles of 2013, plus 10 also-rans:
- 20. After their stunning 2012 debut Not in My House, Timmy, the SoapEaters took a leave of absence to regroup after a disastrous Canadian tour in which mandolinist Teddy Banks died after inhaling his beard in his sleep. They since pared back their already spare arrangements to just singer Henry R. Block’s screeching falsetto and random fist-bangs on a toy piano, melding angular compositions based on famous lumber industry accidents with a sensitivity unseen since DSM-IX’s 2009 tribute to the Texas PEPCON ammonium perchlorate explosion of 1988. B+ (8.6)
- 19. Duluth’s Black Metal demons Tapewurm returned this year with the devastating Red Tympanumb, an amalgam of Helsinki’s sewerdrop sound bedecked in prime-numbered meters and a dash of the Cape Town Aryan Front micro-thrash scene to produce the year’s most satisfying abdominal distress. You’ll be cleaning your ears with an alcohol-filled WaterPik after this one. For your brain, we recommend a cold barrel between the teeth. Singer Offal Skvenkkellerensbinck’s voice improved dramatically since his total laryngectomy, now a whisper amplified 2,000 times and augmented by kazoo, and Stellan Skarsface’s guitars still have yet to reach the artistry of a drunk three-year old’s slappings. A- (8.9)
- 18. Before their live fisticuffs on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts that led to their public meltdown, Batshit, Texas’s Sasquatch Wolf-Bear Yeti seemed destined to conquer subway trains everywhere. Their canny Lomaxian competence with all things Americana on Tie Tight My Flannel Noose was only outdone by their outsized penchant for brawling with each other— anywhere, anytime, baby. There was nowhere for them to go in 2013 but sideways, then sliding downward, slumped, and bleeding profusely—and all in key, too. The percussive sound of banjoist Deek Slayton’s jaw politely breaking on the downbeat of “Ballad of Flannel Joe” on Tiny Desk will live on forever in freak folk’s misty memory. Or until the drugs wear off. A+ (9.3)
- 17. K-Tel Mart’s “Single-Arity” lasts less than a second, clocking in at .59:09:07:04:0007 but what a .59:09:07:04:0007 it is, a mash-up of post-mash-up-epoch mashing that one can theoretically play anywhere, anytime, and that’s its appeal: part of it is playing presently right where you are, only slowed down by a factor of 1,205,380 times, because “S” consists of every single album released by every label in the past 100 years condensed to a tiny pinpoint of sound. Unfortunately, K-Tel recorded it at 176 decibels in five-dimensional aural-holographic hyper-sound and on its debut day sent tens of thousands of listeners to the hospital with ruptured eardrums. Consequently the recording was cordoned off from the public and K-Tel was renditioned to a government black site to be brought up on charges for creating a WMD. No fret though—we hear K’s been hired by the Pentagon to head DARPA’s sonic warfare research wing, so expect a new single soon, to be released perhaps when the Middle East heats up again. B- (8.5)
- 16. King Tupperwhere’s brand of trailer-park “loserfolk” lends itself more than admirably to meth abuse, a song cycle about a carpet glue-addicted amputee-fetishist blowing his $1 million lottery winnings on a mindless killing spree across the South. Standout track is the gutbucket scratch-blues “New Crocs,” a dirge about the travails of falling in love with a junkie transvestite with a taste for wearing other people’s feet. The rest are a bracingly winning series of tales of marathon turpentine-RedBull-krokodil binges and the poetry of dwindling ice-machine chips. The last track, “Grizzled,” in which veteran producer Bass-o-Matic blenders everything that came before on the album is almost worth the price of admission to King’s carnival of pain. Almost. He’s grown as an artist, true—you’re seeing growth here. Like a polyp. A+ (9.4)
- 15. Bleepniks everywhere raved about Pink Needle’s debut Lie, Sergio, Flaccid! Die, Ethel LaMyde!, praising the Sri Lankan duos’ sophomore effort with even more egregious adjectival bluster. 2013’s Floppy Again lashes the Baltic winter sound into a ghost-landscape of sonic textures so low in frequency that adult diapers are legally required with every purchase. Standout track is “Broken HAARP String,” about having one’s junk fried by a remote energy-particle beam and becoming a better person for it—being victim of a secret government death-ray is supposed to build character, after all, isn’t it? A- (8.7)
- 14. $hit-$ac worked with nu-fuck singer Mercedes Bense on 2009’s Cuz after producing her debut PluZ Sized Muff and continued the collaboration on “Mmff, Ff-mff, Mmmfff!” a single about a kidnapped woman’s romantic trip to Stockholm Syndrome. In April’s Karpet Burnz, Bense’s Tarantinesque meta-commentary on the experiences of women on record executive’s couches everywhere (and what concealed exacto knives can do about it) rips into the listener’s duodenum. References to her offstage bouts with sobriety intrude at odd moments, such as the soaring chorus to “Flanged Pipes” when she manages to rhyme “absquatulated” with “tongue-slapped”. Blended over an S&M session sampled live in the studio, $ac’s kinetic beats on Karpet caused controversy for a couple of slow news cycles before sweeping the Grammies and the Disney Corporation licensed $ac & Bense’s songs for their new animated kids’ feature, “Forever Twerk.” B- (10)
- 13. Brutal punk-funk Loyalists British Evasion were infectious as smallpox and just as poppy. And we mean that: guitarist Snarf was diagnosed with the believed-extinct bug in February, was immediately kidnapped by the CIA, smuggled into Tehran, and released there. But BE’s 7’10’’ frontman Slang not so much sang as intimidated audiences from coast to coast into accepting their blend of Elizabethan imperialist politics and almost put fascist Anglophilia on the map as a cultural force to be reckoned with before his onstage suicide during “GG Allin, Pussy.” “Reunion, Jack” and “Plymouth Rock Trebuchet” nevertheless made a compelling case for capitulation to City of London Masonic hegemony and a return to the British standard meter. A (9.2)
- 12. The hot new bubblegum is gasoline-flavored and this year Thee Homewreckers proved capable of pre-chewing a whole pack of it before shoving it down our microbrew-tanged, hand-rolled-harsh throats. After trading in good taste for a gold lame sound drenched in Californian 8.5 aftershock-induced, butt-clenching angst in 2011’s The Gerhard Richter Scale they retooled and brought their sound into 1983 with Johnny Schlepp, then just kept regressing. Their 2013 homage to 1970s glam hard-rock, Split Beanbag Chair Glitter is more than homage, harder than hard, and more than rock: it’s a black-light Slade poster gone three-dimensional. It has wide appeal and even wider lapels. It is a rummage sale masterpiece of retro meanderings in the key of disobedience. Gilbert Pfoph’s Robitussin-slurred readings of censored rent-boy Craigslist hookup postings on standout “Blue Helvetica” only proves that Pfoph should star in John Waters’s next movie. Arff! B+ (8.75)
- 11. Riller Kiff’s The Baying of Pigs brings radical social change to the table with (shot-in-the-dark color metaphor here). Kiff’s sophomore effort “Y. Candida Bieberosis” was a canny juxtaposition of (mention Coltrane, dubstep, Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, D.F. Wallace’s take on hip-hop, a choice 1968 Situationist aphorism, and Semiotexte all in the same sub-Proustian sentence). This time he collaborated with Mumbai impresario Kimba the Whyte Lyin for an entheogenical take on the Goa ex-pat scene that (insert wholly solipsistic comment). Kimba’s pointillist turntablisms echo the facile palette of (shoehorn in a reference to a unimpeachably hip visual artist whose mention in this context could only possibly exist in a mind pining for a girl who collects 1950s bicycle pumps). Although Riller’s beach-life ethic swaddled in sound is as morally suspect as it is barely sustainable, a living testament to politics-practiced-as-sand-in-one’s shoes, it also (insert another gratuitous, review-padding solipsistic meandering). The sharp pinging swoops of Kimba’s “hologrammophone” sound system are as angular as the planes of a (namedrop impossibly obscure Weimar-era Bavarian sculptor). Still, the negation of those planes shouldn’t equal the deracination of our cultural moment, our zeitgeist, our sittlichkeit, our buttelicke. With infinite meticulous anti-craft, Kiffs’s & Kimba’s aural moirés (insert whopping great mass of neuron-droppings that have nothing possible to do with any reader’s assessment of this album and make you doubt this guy has ever tapped his foot in his life). As Wittgenstein said, “if a lion could speak, he couldn’t order Chinese food.” So (a lapse into total incoherence, irrelevance, unemployment checks) B (0.0)
- 10. Phish and their sleepdrool-on-the-frets jam-band ilk are slagged for their brevity and tight focus in some circles. Those circles know nothing about good music. We do. Gangreenus released their epic Dumpster Lullabyes in March, curtailing nine years’ field experimentation with the sonic potential of slapped meat, ballistics, and the B flat diminished chord for an actual studio recording. 17 minutes into the title track, they noodle their way into a startling 14-second pastiche of every existing Disney song as brutally hammered out by an orchestra of dysenteric Cro-Magnons. It’s worth the wait, as the listener is lulled into somnolence by wash after wash of industrial machines and the occasional controlled demolition before band leader/“inceptualist”/international star chef Bo Tocks drops the hammer on the Magic Kingdom’s musical legacy for that glorious quarter-minute. B+ (8.7)
- 9. Fat Baby Bill started this year’s biggest tweet-war when he dissed Lollypop’s “Do You Wuv Mee?” as weak, pandering chart-fodder that “makes Justn Bieber’s poop look like a Baby Ruth.” Lolly, after breaking down in tears at the HEMMIES for this vicious (but true) slander and requiring immediate medication for his “condition,” (which he called in interviews “being alive”) refused to publicly retort Fat Baby but then returned not only with a redesigned persona but one of the year’s best albums, How Do Ya Likee-a Me Now, Bill? a raging paean to righteous revenge on Fat Baby via Apache helicopter and curare blowgun warfare that had all the moral clarity of a bumpersticker. A- (8.5)
- 8. After last year’s I’m Standard and Poor, I. Irving continued his daily mash-ups of the Billboard chart-toppers on his billion-hits YouTube channel, then gifted the world with NASDIQ, a slightly pandering but mostly gut-felt shout-out to the celebrity crisis management firm that resurrected his career after 2011’s disastrous Here, Taste This. His latest terrorist attack, Here, Wolftone! is a 67-minute garbage dump of honking saxophones, Chinese violin scrapings, harmonicas, bagpipes, and didjeridoo drones with only peeks of melody and song structure, but cogent and thoroughly contemporary in annoyance. Need we say that even Simon Cowell liked it? B+ (8.1)
- 7. New Agers Prolepsed Anuus traded in their soothing synth-based aural wallpaper in 2008 for ringing guitars, then downtuned into a crunching species of black metal in 2009, then an even crunchinger mutated Like, How-Much-More Black-Could-This-Be? metal in 2010 with the drunk text-message concept album FATL SYSTM CRSH, and finally (and crunchingest) with 2013’s The Wrath of Con, a song cycle about Hollywood’s flagging romance with LA’s eponymous annual comics convention that name-checks everyone from Alan Moore to Roger Moore at an imaginary mock memorial service for the very-dead-but-still-quipping-profanely-from-beyond-the-grave Kevin Smith. The ensuing chaos when Smith insults Marvel icon Stan Lee for his Bronx accent is the only kind that matters and that axeman King !Kung can shred so viciously. It hurt us listening to this far more than it hurt them making it. Even Simon Cowell hated it. A- (9.1)
- 6. Berlin’s hot Schicklgruberhaus and London’s DJ Klumsifingaz collaborated with notorious Washington, DC street drunk Chicago Jones for the year’s most infectious single, the gloriously incoherent “Bropely Spropes,” whose lyrics are either the confessional tale of a homeless PTSD vet or are the slurred, read-aloud instructions to the Oreck air purifier (which anyone in Jones’s immediate vicinity would reportedly badly need). B (7.8)
- 5. Ipecackle’s Auntie Gein is the perfect soundtrack for backtalking a group of sucrose-deficient cops just to see what happens. This is music that Tasers your cerebellum, hogties it, and sloppily throws it in the backseat without a watch-your-head. Meticulous, grimy, onanistic, inquisitive, ignorant, deeply shallow, Ipecackle’s July release was hotly anticipated and then barely tolerated on arrival, a glorious document of movie-trailer pap and unreconstructed Krautrock as reimagined by Lemmy Kilmister’s evil twin, Kemmy Lil’mister. (By+-Ax)z=7.8
- 4. Rarely has a record cupped this male listener’s balls so lovingly only to twist them into a resultant shriek of repentant angst for possessing a Y chromosome. Neo post-Riot Grrl octet Knives for Nuts’s Wymanifesto combines a robust rejection of patriarchy with an obsession with the tangled Godelian-mindfuck that was Rolling Stones’s bassist’s potential genealogical relation to his son and wife (for those who forget, Bill Wyman’s son was once engaged to marry Wyman’s18-year old wife’s mother. Would that have made him his own father-in-law? His son his own father-in-law? His wife his own daughter-in-law? Does it make him sick? It makes us sick). B+ (8.1, 9.0, 7.8, 9.8, 8.2. In their bikinis: 10., 10., 9.8, 10., 9.7)
- 3. Whorejay claims to have been on ADHD medication since the age of two and it shows in Whatmastumpikastoopidyo? the year’s most unclassifiable and sticky document of chemical bluster. Measure after measure of no-fi snippets seamlessly blended into a musicologist’s vertiginous nightmare, leavened with early-Seussian wordplay and a catalogue of bodily fluid sounds. Twas the year Whorejay’s verbal tics and espousal of the philosophy of “bladhabuldabadab” (which involves massive quantities of Blakean poesy, Salvia Divinorum, and a defibrillator) stole our cheatin’ hearts. A+ (9.8)
- 2. Spazz rode the EDM craze til it needed back surgery. On 2011’s Make a BIG Mistake with Me, Baby the Spazzter seemed satisfied resting on his Laurels—and all the Tiffanys, Ambers, Kileys etc. he interminably name-checked over the course of the album. Lawsuits were inevitable. This year’s Sex: Its Jus To Eazy for M.E. (sic) plumbed new heights of narcissistic monomania, the celebration of our times. The hit “Suspicious Package” (about the qualities of Spazz’s unquenchable member) broke all record sales as well as several new child pornography laws, so it’s back to court and probably jail for the Jester from Manchester. Mercifully, the Sex Tour ended when Spazz was rushed to a Minneapolis ER for an inguinal hernia suffered during one of his famed attempts to sing and clutch his electrified plasma codpiece at the same time. B- (2)
- 1. DC’s Straight-Edge killjoys Germ Theory were once the kings of impeachable humorless political agitprop: five albums detailing the perils of meat eating, alcohol, drugs & cigarettes, touching fellow human beings, making eye contact with the opposite sex, and labeled clothing in the pursuit of authenticity. It was five albums too many. Then they ran afoul of Austin’s Chemical Enthusiast in 2009, producer, BMX champion, and uber-consumer of Saturnalian compounds. GT’s subsequent transformation into wild-eyed, dirty hippies made them the bane of punk Puritan colonies everywhere, becoming less a rock group than a collection of affectations rendered wholly susceptible to the industry’s image-crafters by all the drugs. Water into wine and all that; the Enthusiast did his work and did it well. But 2011’s “Rock Me, Asmodeus” started weak and then petered to barely a squeak by the last track. How that mouse must have suffered. Then they rocketed back to near-relevance with this year’s “Ariel Pink Floyd the Barbershopgirl Lad’s Strap Fairy-Blue Bongwater” that forced pop-punk apologists to choke on the irony and caused hipsters everywhere to second-guess their choice of eyewear. Think 1967 purple bubble glasses that melt down your face now. A (9.9)
- When Christian rock balladeer Brock Elias came out of the closet earlier this year, then retreated, then the closet forcibly ejected him, observers predicted a new culture war in the offing. It never materialized, except for the short-lived boycott that ended when Westboro Baptist, et al finally discovered that it is impossible to boycott anything in our corporate-synergistic hellhole of a world (it was somehow news to them that the company that makes their kids’ plastic Jesus nightlight is owned by the very same conglomerate that puts out the filth they hate). Our response is fight the real power, you haters. But we digress: Elias’s album Is that Hand-Tooled Leather? overtly signaled his new direction, if not orientation, to a stance that embraced both Christian ethics and Frankie Say Money! He came out swinging with the single “Sweaty Benchpress” a tender paean to a remote control, Vaseline, and Season One DVD of “Oz”. Or “Page Me,” the sad tale of a young Virginia rest-stop hustler who ends up gloryholed by a closeted right-wing Congressman, goes public about it to the FBI, and ends up breathing the Potomac. Sad, sad, sad! B- (11)
- The conceit of releasing 27 live EPs and 11 best-of compilations after playing Rotary Club meetings, knitting bees and Amway klatches across the Midwest before even releasing a straight-up album would seem daring for a band formed only twenty years ago from the ashes of TriBeCa’s short-lived 1992 “blue rentboy” scene, but Baby Putti Tatt pulled it off with Money: Just a Concept, a politically impeccable screed for extremists who think veganism involves murder and slime molds are sentient. This is music for the Breatharian set and losers everywhere dedicated to toppling the Fed and replacing it with goat auctions. B- (generate random number here)
- It was an unusual year for BoHole: miraculously, all nine members failed to violate their probations (drummer Fazer, of course, is in the Angola pokey for attempted Presidential assassination and will languish there until 2,221). But BoHole didn’t tour, either. Neither did they release an album to follow up 2011’s Yes, Sir, Officer. Instead, they individually unleashed a series of 8-track tapes that had to be found by a geocaching game their “mastermind,” producer and ventriloquist Rick “no relation, jerk” Rubin released on CD-ROM for $2.99 from QVC-Ronco. Fuck. When assembled (it took me ten months to find all the goddamn tapes, and in fact I’m finally listening to the completed project only now, December 31st, at a cost of $568.67 for buying 11 vintage 8-track players that actually work, so fuck you Rick Rubin—and the Flaming Lips did “your” concept first, you bitch) and it proves to be a stunning example of what an inflated reputation and borderline personality can do together. Did I say fuck you, Rick Rubin? I’m not even gonna comment on the “music.” Fuck you, Rick Rubin. E- (rated a 10 for everyone else. Reviewer is currently in the Tombs awaiting bail. You got any money you could lend him? Call 212-355-8997)
- Hair Quotes’s splendidly yearning tenor massaged our ears and hearts with 2011’s Pen Cap Chewings. Then the company suits got involved. His PR team branded him our first shoegazing nu-folkie in April then branded him again a few weeks later after his bungee jump accident left him a soprano. Nothing left to do put a ukulele in his hands and hope for the best. C- (0.2—in fact, we paid them to take the freebie back).
- Landover, Maryland’s Cool “Disco” Dante singlehandedly made the argument for Go-Go’s true provenance in the wilds of suburban Suitland with the June single “Rug Tweaker,” an irresistibly bouncy anthem about bank accounts emptied at gunpoint by night for crack sprees during the Marion Barry-era late 1980s. Pummeled out on amplified pickle drums and echoplexed to infinity, Dante proved disco don’t need no damn do-not-resuscitate order, bitch, but lay some adrenochrome on that shit, stat! with the squelchy and thumping rave-up EP “LANE CHANGE Benning Road Crew WORK AHEAD”. Party hard attack. A- (9.0)
- The Grinch struck early this year, but this time he went legit—with a FISA warrant in hand. He planned ahead for his annual Whoville ransacking by using the Patriot Act, PRISM, and a Predator to suss the situation—and Mein Moustache Vax, Hans! was there to make sure the tree-ringing chorus was drowned in a barrage of hellfire guitar riffs to prevent the Nauseous One’s cosmic contact. The ’stache’s November release Die, Democracy, Die! openly welcomed the shadow government totalitarian takeover of America with abrasive bromides against the two-party system, zoning laws, Ralph Nader, conspiracist clown Alex Jones, Yanni, libertarianism, Al Sharpton, and window shades, the whole of it couched in vicious sub-Goebbels rhetoric and set to diminished-fifth buzzsaw guitars. “Die” went over very well at the Justice Department, the Denver International Airport’s subterranean Reptilian city, Buckingham Palace and ever-clueless Kansas. Our hearts shrunk three times that day—and dammit, it felt good. –A (-6.9)
- Classic rock reissues, albums, and Viagra-fueled reunion tours after a 45-year hiatus we can understand…But a nostalgia tour from a band whose career was ended by Federal legal action during the last fiscal quarter? Has our collective attention span grown that short? What else can explain the critical and commercial success of Losing My Cortex by Jerkers’ Thumb, a 30-years-late riposte to REM’s “Losing my Religion” that uses voice samples from Stephen Hawking, Christopher Hitchens, Ron Jeremy, Gallagher, Morrissey, Rick James, Jenna Jamison, Richard Dawkins, Richard Dawson, and Emo Phillips as its rhythm tracks? Losing posits ADHD not as illness but the ultimate spiritual awakening, espousing the ultimate New Agey “Be Here Now” ethic through multitasking yourself into an ultimate convulsing mess. C+ (10)
- Redneck country quartet then hick-hop converts Moan Kick Me Sum Aiss dove headfirst into 2013 and promptly knocked theyselves unconcho on a brick wall with January’s The South Rises Again in My Pants, Baby, a record which, after our one and only listen, survived our intervening 11-month trauma-induced amnesia to somehow turn up staring hungrily in the window and end up on this list at gunpoint. A product of late 2012’s hick-hop revival nestled within a retro-alt-Nashville sound bred with a hall-of-mirrors post-LA neocrunge-craze breakbeats and set to grinding pre-nu-EDM guitars to…what was I saying? Where am I? D- (1.3)
- Not being fans of martial music (except when a platoon of Hueys blast it coming in low out of the rising sun), we’d never thought a compilation of Sousa marches digitized and given the cut and paste treatment would end up anywhere other than as a coaster much less this also-ran list. But it did. S&M enthusiasts Maynard, Zed & the Gimp’s Stars and Straps Forever happily redeemed Independence Day and even started a Sousaphone craze until a few tender young backs were broken (or the New York Times retroactively invented the trend, or both). MZG’s take on the dance floor’s timeless boom-thump meshes seamlessly with the rhythms of Sousa’s Americana gems, and this generates a host of disquieting questions…While those questions will never trouble one’s mind on the dance floor, they would make a good freshman term paper in Cultural Studies 101. Aaaaa yeah! (100bpm)
- Salt Lake City’s Church of Latter Day Saints’s BowWow Movement Reckits produced such acts as Got my Stripes, W.I.P.E.D. and S. Kid Mark seemed determined to end any trace of Mormon pimp earnestness in hip-hop once and for all. And BowWow stalwarts MC Haters’s Steal You in yo Mowf continued the trend. The thing kicks off with a drum n bass meltdown in the key of cluster headache and doesn’t let up for 67 agonizing minutes. Syllablesmith $mall Fry’s autotuned caterwauling and ululated rhymes on Joseph Smith’s legacy make a malfunctioning jackhammer sound like James Earl Jones. The textures are abrasive, the timbres creamy; the rhymes boasty, the basslines toasty (and vice versa, of course). Such juxtapositions can only cause dissociative disorder if taken seriously. This leads us to ask what the current ethics exactly are regarding listener schadenfreude when confronted with such glorious toxicity…and the alarming possibility of emotional osmosis. Should we critics share in $mall Fry’s religious agony? Or just laugh because the alternative is just too grim to even think about? B++/A- (3.14)
- When in 2011 fugitive trickster sound collagist The Severatrix made Manacled by calling in police tips on imaginary mobile meth labs at the Gathering of the Juggalos (only to have the subsequent bust turn up real mobile meth labs on the site) no-one thought it a toppable stunt—much less an indefensible one—but she did top it and then some: She called in a slew of false allegations on 2012’s Burning Man ahead of the event to the FBI, DHS, and INS just so she could video/audio document the resulting police-bust mayhem and use it as a soundtrack for March’s Uncle Fester’s Iboga Trip. While Burners inevitably heralded Severatrix a real-life super-villain, others applauded her critique of Burning Man’s packaged “non-conformity,” its having to view a hundred hairy ass-cracks before breakfast, and the playa salt in one’s armpits. Uncle Fester and Manacled raised telephone terrorism to high art. Her second “album,” November’s Whoooosh was almost worthy of Banksy: it was a MoMA gallery installation that 40 eager Wall Streeters & Yupper East Siders paid $4,000 apiece to sit in and experience for its single performance, only to be pummeled by a Rolls Royce 747 turbine engine filled with huge kazoos as her plasma-screen paintings filled all four walls with her nightmares. Our smuggled-out bootlegged copy of the music, made at that one glorious showing, is a piece of heaven. As Ringo once sang, good night, sleep tight. A- (10 to the 10th power)
Every kid fondly remembers the first time they opened their fresh copy of the Necronomicon and, speaking the ancient words of the Mad Arab, eagerly caught the first whiffs of Sot-Rotgoth the Foul’s sulfurous breath near the bunk bed. I know I did. Heck, my parents (God rest their souls) could hardly keep the dogs downstairs from tearing through the screen doors. The racket was deafening. Of course I kept secret from them and Timmy my purchase of the “accursed” grimoire. All the kids were talking about what Kevin Malone had Rot-Assrugough do to Ms. Brumbaugh, the sixth grade science teacher, and I couldn’t wait to get a hold of Kev’s copy and invoke the baddest ass of them all, ol’ Sotty. But Kevin was jerking spasmodically in Civics and for all my begging he couldn’t say much anymore but a few Akkadian words in a basso profundo voice. He was already halfway over to the Other Side. So I was forced to save three weeks of lawn-cutting money to buy my own copy.
The red flame appeared. That first moment was pregnant with angst. Or was it erwartung?
By the last syllable and flinging the burnt frog there he was! I was so stoked. The lights guttered and went out. I put on my gas mask like Mary Piper had told me to. She said the smell could make you see things that weren’t there. But oh boy was Sot there–an amorphous mass of fanged mouths and nonsensical limbs, nostrils spouting an iridescent haze. My parents were calling out to Timmy and I and getting out the flashlights as I held my arms out, palms up and fingers twisted like shown in the book’s helpful diagram. The beast growled in a subsonic sort of roar.
Kyle Mounch-Handcock had been bullying me for three months. It started with the lunch money, then his little gang’s group obsession with wedgies. I wasn’t the only victim to their casual cruelty. I closed my eyes and spoke the commands while simultaneously imagining Kyle and Brian and the rest of his crew getting the atomic wedgies of a lifetime in a dimensionless oubliette fashioned of flame and fork.
This would turn out an overplay on my part. Sot indeed absorbed my anger, my fear, and worked it. In a flash he retreated back through the Gate and apparently, as I would later find out, right into Kyle’s bedroom first. All five of them would end up at Beth Israel for a week and then in arm casts for three months. It took real work for those surgeons to remove their forearms from their asses.
Now I work in investment banking. My old copy of the Necronomicon is still here, on my desk, dog-eared and yellowed and much in use.
The current war on our privacy is an extension of the physicalists’ and cognitive neuroscientists’ century-long war on subjective experience. If one can be convinced scientifically that one possesses no genuine private experiences, that one’s Imagination is a series of passing neurochemical ghosts without substance or significance, one will be less willing to defend an external invasion on something so insubstantial as the “self.”