THE DARK SEA WITHIN
Jason V Brock
Jason V Brock is an award-winning writer, editor, filmmaker, composer, and artist, and has been widely published online, in comic books, magazines, and anthologies, such as Butcher Knives & Body Counts, Weird Fiction Review, Fungi, Fangoria, S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings series, and many others. His first collection, Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities (Hippocampus Press, 2013), was widely praised, and his nonfiction book Disorders of Magnitude (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) is a wide-ranging study of weird literature, film, television, and comic books.
David was hard-pressed to remember when the obsession first asserted itself.
Isn’t that always the way it is with such things? he mused. One could never pinpoint the precise day, the exact moment, the split-second when your life stopped being your own and began to be lived, instead, in the servitude of some other aspect of the universe—maybe a person, an object, perhaps even another consciousness.
Regardless, he reckoned it hardly mattered when curiosity had become necessity; all obsession was rooted in perversion of some sort or other, and most, in that dark sea within themselves, had their personal fixations; of that he was certain. Still, he preferred to think of his interests as preoccupations, however unorthodox. And was it really a perverse thing to want to be rich and successful? So it took more energy than most were willing to muster: he could live with that. Let the others be schleppers and also-rans; that was not his way.
Of course, there could be downsides to risk-taking …
“When are we supposed to be there?” Delia asked, looking up from the map book. Her voice was edged, tired. He smiled at her, glancing away from the hypnotic repetition of the road stripe as it stretched to the darkening horizon.
“As long as we arrive by tomorrow afternoon. The owner is holding off selling anything until we get there. Illya, the gallery owner, mentioned that the person selling the pieces would accommodate our travel schedule, since they’d heard of us. Someone named Januuz. I think it’s a last name.”
Delia replied with a subtle nod. “Some Christmas. I’d rather be back in the City than on some wild goose chase. What if they’re fakes?”
He frowned. “I doubt it. I’ve checked and rechecked the information he sent me. Cleared it with some of my connections, too. This guy is on the level, and the price is right. Seems like the owner wants to unload them; probably tired of dealing with all the superstitious claptrap.” He paused, letting the road noise fill in the silence. “Besides, we’ve got no choice. If I don’t secure these now, we might never get the chance, and we’ll be stuck in that brownstone. If we’re lucky; that’s assuming the fucking Greco brothers don’t make good on having me killed.” He glanced at her again, renewing his grip on the steering wheel. The road ahead was empty.
It had been a bad state of affairs for some time with the Grecos. For years, they had been his biggest supporters as art dealers, even through the recessions, the failure of his filmmaking ventures, and the bursting of a few art market bubbles. Until, that is, the bad deal with the Hermitage. At the time, it had rocked the art elite: an undiscovered Jan Vermeer. It was the apogee of David’s career and netted a sizable fortune for everyone involved.
Eventually, however, the tide turned against them. The Vermeer that David had sold to the Hermitage, brokered by the Grecos, was determined to be an elaborate forgery. It had been kept quiet, as it was an embarrassment for everyone involved, but he had been told by the Grecos to return all the monies they had paid him or face their wrath. They had been forced to take the counterfeit piece back and reimburse the museum, or have their fifty-year legacy smeared all over the art world as charlatans. In a high-stakes business centered on expertise, reputation, and trust, this was an intolerable possibility; and they had the money and muscle to ensure that it would not happen.
The problem for David was that they had spent most of the millions over the ten years it took the Hermitage to authenticate the work: traveling, procuring new pieces for speculative sales, investing in the stock market. A few bad investments at that level were all it had taken to erode his finances to the point of being unable to oblige his erstwhile partners once the situation became clear. David explained that it was an honest mistake, but that was not enough for the Brothers Greco: Mistake or not, it had cost them in treasure and stature, and they were not just going to roll over on those points. David was able to land a few quick auction-house deals that helped, but it was insufficient to remedy the hurt feelings and financial angst felt by the Grecos; and in this profession, the possibility of litigation was not up to conjecture. Retribution would come quietly, and it would be as unceremonious as it was final.
Over the past two years, Delia and David had been able to return a large portion of the proceeds, but the Grecos felt they had been patient long enough and informed them that if David failed to return the rest of the money in a time they all agreed upon, he left them with no other choice but to proceed with other plans to rectify the situation. Now, he was staring into the abyss of the end of that timetable: January 1.
“Plus,” David continued, breaking the silence, “we’d have enough left over after I settle up with them that we could finally afford to expand the unit….Maybe buy out that creep next door.”
Delia sighed and turned to face the passenger window. She knew David was right: it was their only real option at the moment. Outside, the frozen ground was covered with a modest dusting of snow, and in the deep black sky a profusion of stars glimmered with cold, primordial fire. “Fine. I’m getting sick of the art world, though. It’s crawling with sleazy characters. I hope this is worth it.”
Christmas Day: 11:43 a.m.
They arrived in Prague at two-thirty in the morning. It was unusually chilly, and the rental car seemed too large for the narrow lanes. After checking into their room in Old Town, they showered and then slept for a few hours.
Delia’s mood had lightened considerably by the time they had eaten some breakfast. She seemed excited at the prospect of spending the New Year in Europe.
“Well, you sure are a changed woman,” David said as they walked toward Jewish Town, his breath trailing behind them. That was where they had arranged to meet the proprietor of the art gallery: He had the paintings at an atelier near the Old Jewish Cemetery.
Delia smiled at him and squeezed his hand as they walked. “Wonderful what a little sleep and a trdelnik pastry can do.” She paused, shivering. “Boy, it’s really cold, though!” They both laughed as she tucked her ears under the multicolored knit cap his mother had given her on their fifth wedding anniversary, then pulled the long black scarf he had given her for her birthday up over her nose and mouth with a gloved hand before looping her arm with his and huddling closer. The day was bright and clear; as they walked the uneven cobbled streets of the medieval city, David was struck by how little had changed since their last visit, more than twelve years ago. Throngs of people crowded the shops and causeways, filling the air with an ethereal wash of noise. He scanned the street ahead, absorbing the blend of foreign languages, engine sounds, and music wafting over from near the waterfront area of the Vltava River.
As they walked closer to the Astrological Clock, the crowds grew thicker, and he detected the strong smells of street vendors preparing sausages with sauerkraut, spicy mulled wine, and fried cheese sandwiches. Rounding a corner, the narrow street opened into a plaza: the Old Town Square. Just as they arrived at the Orloj, the figure of Death was striking the hour; an unkindness of ravens croaked their disapproval from the Old Town City Hall as though answering the ghastly automaton. The frigid wind sliced by, blowing a billow of exhaust from the food carts past them. David, eyes stinging from the smoke, stared at the clock, marveling at the garish colors of the background and the cryptic movements of the Zodiacal ring; it amazed him to think that he might literally be standing in the exact spot once trod by a young Franz Kafka.
“It’s beautiful,” he said to Delia at last, returning to the moment. She hugged his arm to her body.
“Yes,” she said, looking from his face to the Orloj. “And ominous.”
Christmas Day: 1:51 p.m.
“Shit. I’m lost,” David said. Even he was starting to feel his hands getting stiff through his gloves, his feet going numb the farther they walked. Though he was dressed in layers, the intense cold had started to bite through, especially on his cheeks and nose. Delia had been a trouper so far, not saying a word as he referenced the address scribbled on a piece of paper.
The temperature seemed to drop as they got closer to the Jewish Quarter, Josefov. The brightly colored clots of merry-makers and townspeople were thinning out as it got colder, and, to make matters worse, a dense fog was rising from the river to mingle with the smoke of chimneys and the street vendors plying their trade. The overall effect was surreal, as muffled, half-glimpsed figures crept through the chilly cityscape like specters, and the dark shapes of the capital’s disorienting mix of Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau architecture by turns faded and reappeared all around them like passing ships in a sea of grayish white. The sun hung low in the now overcast sky; in the thick mist, it resembled something more like a full moon.
“Maybe we should go back to the hotel, David,” Delia offered at last. “This fog is incredible.” She regarded him with her wide blue eyes; he could see she was worried. Far away, he could make out the distant chime of the centuries-old Orloj.
He nodded, feeling defeated, cold, tired. “Okay. I hate that we’ve come so far for nothing…. I—I’m sorry, Delia, this is all my fault. My fucking need to be number one; that’s what got us in this mess to start with. I didn’t check my sources well enough on the Vermeer buy. I wanted it to be the real thing, so I was too afraid to dig deeper.” He rubbed his face in despair. “And in the end it bit us in the ass. Now this…. I mean, how often does someone claiming to have unknown Hieronymus Bosch paintings come around? I’ll tell you: never.” He stopped, letting the damp vapor fill his aching lungs. “Never,” he softly repeated.
She gently took his hand in hers. “David, it’s not for ‘nothing.’ I mean, we have this beautiful place, and we’re here until after the New Year. Maybe we can visit your brother in Aix-en-Provence after we leave here. I mean, we might not be able to go back to the States. No one knows our itinerary, so we could just start over someplace.” Delia stopped for a moment, as though the import of her words had just occurred to her. “Anyway, we can figure all that out later. Let’s just make the best of it.”
He smiled. “Okay. Can we walk one more block? Maybe I misread the address.”
Delia’s eyes widened and she stamped her foot in mock protest, hands on hips. “David!” She glared into the mist. “All right. One more block. Then back to the room.” Her eyes narrowed mischievously: “I have plans for you, comrade.”
He laughed as the fog shrouded them. That was one thing he had come to understand: When you had a passion—no matter how unusual—it was best to share it with someone who could understand it, good or bad….
And, for better or for worse, not only embrace the obsession, but accept it, as well.
Christmas Day: 5:37 p.m.
“Can you believe how we scored?” David asked, back in their suite. He was kneeling, shirtless in the foyer, looking at the pieces: multiple works in pristine condition, several of which appeared to be part of the same triptych. It was the find of a lifetime.
Delia watched him from the bedroom, wrapped in white linen, his sperm warmly trickling from between her legs. She smiled. “It’s quite something,” she said, her voice thick in her throat. The huge, unadorned window in their room revealed a wispy, completely fog-enrobed Prague.
“This is what we’ve dreamed of, D!” he exclaimed, his voice echoing lightly off the hardwoods. “If I sell this to the Prado or some other collector, we’ll be set for life. I mean, it’s Bosch. The master…” He rubbed his hands together in excitement, then stood, gazing at the artwork. “Too bad Januuz was unable to be there for the deal, but so it goes. Maybe Illya and I can establish a relationship. He might come in handy for future deals, especially since he knows Russian. Lots of rich Russians nowadays. I’ll call the Grecos tomorrow and explain what’s going on, try to get started generating some interest from buyers. I think we’re going to be okay, baby!”
Delia fell over onto her back, relaxed, sleepy. She watched the fog as it flowed outside their window. “We did it, David. I love you!” She felt languid. It was beginning to get dark.
He walked into the room, removing his pajama bottoms, exposing his erection. Climbing into the futon with her, he kneaded her ample breasts, gently whispering in her ear as he eased into her again, helped by the slickness of his own previous ejaculation. She wrapped her legs around his lower body, pulling him greedily in, while he caressed the smoothness of her skin, tasted the saltiness of her neck.
After several minutes of thrusting, he was ready again. She rolled him over, riding hard until he moaned. “Now,” she whispered as his testicles contracted and he spurted hotly into her, “now we can be a real family….Just us, together. Without worries.” Then she kissed him deeply, crushing her body into him; he inhaled the perfume of her hair, and they fell into a peaceful sleep.
But it was not to last.
New Year’s Eve: 11:22 a.m.
Nearly one week later.
After some day-trips outside the city to visit the countryside, and a few other places of interest—such as the site of recent archeological digs from the Middle Ages and the ossuary in nearby Sedlec—they were back in Prague. New Year’s Eve had been a long whirlwind of a day visiting merchants and seeing the sights. At one point, they were accosted by a lunatic claiming to be an angel while they explored St. Vitus Cathedral.
In order to distance themselves from that unsettling experience, they decided to tour the behemoth that was Prague Castle. Built in the ninth century, it was the largest such ancient palace in Europe; seated portentously upon the far hill overlooking the Vltava River like some crenelated headdress, it was a striking and imposing structure. It looked to David like the type of place that held many secrets—a place that might swallow you up and never allow you ingress back into the real world.
By evening, they were both spent, wanting nothing more than to relax in their room, drink wine, snack on cheese, and make love until the New Year arrived.
New Year’s Eve: 11:43 p.m.
A little before midnight, the telephone rang.
“Haló,” David said into the receiver. “Yes, we’re still here. We’re scheduled to leave tomorrow night. What—” He was quiet for a long time. “I understand. Okay. I heard you: midnight. Sbohem.” He returned the handset to its cradle.
Delia looked at him, raising an inquisitive eyebrow as she pulled the sheet over her naked body.
“That was Illya,” he said. “Januuz. Januuz wants a meeting before we leave. Wants to see me face to face. I have to be at the statue of St. John the Baptist on the Charles Bridge in twenty minutes.”
Delia was incredulous: “On New Year’s Eve? Why didn’t Januuz bother to show up at the sale?” She shook her head in disbelief. “I knew this was too easy. Something isn’t right, David—”
He raised his hand to quiet her. “Illya said that Januuz is quite powerful. Said it would be easy to make our lives hard leaving the country if we refused. We don’t need that kind of heat.”
Delia collapsed back onto the bed in exasperation. “Fine. We’ll go together.”
New Year’s Eve: 11:57 p.m.
Bathed in colored light, the skeletal spires of the Castle grasped crookedly into the overcast night sky. A gentle dappling of snow began to cover the ground as the crisp air, scented with the sweet aroma of fried pastries from kiosks along the riverbanks, caused them to pull their lapels closed. The wide avenue of the Charles Bridge was jammed with noisy revelers, and it was difficult to move amidst the drunken knots of people ready to ring in the New Year.
As David led Delia through the festive scene to the statue, he was amused and disturbed by the assemblage of colorful and bizarre disguises that everyone wore: sinister plague-doctor beaks dueled with half-masked monsters; delicate Venetian-style full-faced works of art competed with cheap clear party coverings for attention as the noise and commotion grew louder.
They arrived at the base of the statue as the Orloj chimed in midnight. The entire bridge erupted in an incredible cacophony as fireworks shot into the sky, reflecting plumes of flame off the surface of the Vltava. The display was fantastic, casting dramatic shadows on everyone and silhouetting St. John against colorful streaks and pinwheels in the velvety sky. The harsh smell of black powder wafted over the scene as the whole bridge was illumined by blasts of pink, then red, then blue flashes of explosive light, booming out the arrival of the New Year all over the antique city of Praha. The snow had turned into a light drizzle, but there was no denying the excitement in the air and the enthusiasm of the crowd.
“Thank you for coming, David.”
David looked down from the mesmerizing spectacle at the cloaked figure in costume who was now standing next to Delia. The haunting apparition—someone dressed as a golem—took off their disturbing mask: It was Illya.
“Illya! What’s this all about?” David yelled over the roar of the pyrotechnics and the intoxicated celebrators. “Is Januuz here?”
Illya seemed troubled. He nodded, the black makeup around his eyes a strange contrast to his cropped, light-blond hair. Looking down to the ground, he motioned with a gesture of his arm, saying: “David, this is Januuz. I’ll leave you now. Shem!” With that, he vanished into the mob, grabbing Delia and dragging her with him as her screaming voice enfolded into the noise of the crowd.
“No! Delia! What’s happening!” Before David could follow them, Januuz appeared. He was a hulking figure dressed in black robes, and he blocked David’s way into the horde. Januuz’s mask was particularly gruesome: a twisted countenance with two faces, one fronting forward, though skewed, and the other offset to the rear. It was very convincing.
“We only come here once a year, David.” The voice coming from the mask was guttural, slow. The wide tongue licked the cracked lips on the forward mouth, leaving a silver slick. David stared at the man, his thoughts jumbled. At that moment, the second mouth screamed out: “It’s too late, David! We’ve changed our minds…”
For an instant David felt queasy, and everything appeared to slow down; there was a salty taste in his mouth. Coppery. It was then that he knew two things: first, that the thing in front of him was not wearing a mask, and second, that he was dying.
The second countenance was withered, its expression frantic— eyes rolling in their sockets, nose flaring—as it continued: “You cannot change the past. Every man carries the seeds of his own destruction within him, like a secret….It is too late for you. Sacrifices and changes must be made.”
“You are guilty,” the first aspect muttered matter-of-factly, then grinned, showing rows of sharp teeth. It blinked its heavily lidded eyes as the fireworks flared overhead. “Look around us, David. All these people…They are all guilty of something, just like you. Some haven’t learned what yet, but they will, in due time, whether through their own realization or through our persuasion. When they do, we shall appear to them on our annual visit and lure them with their weaknesses, just as we did you.”
David could feel his sanity prying loose from his intellect. “What…are you? A demon? An alien? A hallucination or a dream?”
“Do we look to be a dream?” the faces replied in unison, then laughed. Unison again: “We are a god. The god of time, and transitions…”
In the distance, a mournful horn blared, adding a top note of sadness to the chaos on the Charles Bridge. In David’s over-worked mind, the din of the crowd seemed to coalesce into a solemn requiem comprised of off-key chants, punctuated by dry drumbeats and the hollow clang of enormous, far-away bells. Crumbling to his knees, the great stone bridge was suddenly dark and barren except for Januuz and himself. Prague had become a vast land of nothingness.
As the New Year began, Januuz turned toward the Castle, and David followed, his past finally colliding with his future, and his time up at last.