Book: Black Wings III - New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

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Houdini Fish

 

Jonathan Thomas

 

Jonathan Thomas is a native of Providence, R.I., whose story collections include Stories from the Big Black House (Radio Void Press, 1992), Midnight Call and Other Stories (Hippocampus Press, 2008), and Tempting Providence and Other Stories (Hippocampus Press, 2010). Arcane Wisdom has published his novel, The Color Over Occam, and more recent short stories have appeared in Black Wings I and Black Wings II (both from PS Publishing), A Mountain Walked (Centipede Press), and Nameless (Cycatrix Press).

Catch me, find me, see me if you can

I am the guilt of an honest man.

—Robin Williamson

 

 

As a rule I washed up before lunch, especially after handling the luminous machine parts. Departmental men’s room was all mine, aside from the mild funk of previous tenant. Something that swam in circles troubled the surface of pink liquid soap, about due for a refill. I pushed up on the nozzle of clear plastic dispenser. Into my cupped palm dropped a gob of fragrant goo and then a thrashing Houdini fish, of brighter pink than its medium.

It was the length of two knuckles and stick-figure thin, eel-like but for the flaring dorsal fin and tail that folded flat along slippery skin,

virtually disappearing, to let it shimmy through the teeniest circumferences. Hence the allusion to Houdini.

Not so long ago, the discovery of a fish in liquid soap would have qualified as miraculous, but this was the third in two weeks for me. I acted humanely and unscrewed the dispenser’s metal cap and tipped critter back into its habitat, and made a mental note to ask the janitor to please add more soap. Some people would have rinsed squirmy varmints down the drain, but that was callous in my book. Whatever lived and breathed in soap was unlikely to survive in the same squalid conditions as a goldfish. The present specimen just needed an inch more wiggle room to be content, I reckoned.

And why not be nice to the implausible fauna? None of it, on anecdotal evidence, had attempted even trial nibble at human flesh in lavatories across campus. Its proper diet defied speculation, unless soap were food as well as home. The dispensers never used to deplete so soon, to that much I’d testify.

How vagrant exo-species had infiltrated them in the first place was no less mystifying. Custodians swore they poured nothing “foreign” from ponderous feeder jugs into de facto fishbowls, and 24/7 racing round and round never churned up rosy gunk till days after a refill.

A thousand associated questions went begging. But to me, this mere slip of a fish, steeped in a pint of soap and a Sargasso of riddles, was foremost incredible for the lack of inquiry it aroused. I couldn’t be alone among the faculty in wondering about its geographic range, or could I? The news media, university publications, myriad blogs, and the City of Providence website were uniformly mum on the subject of pink anomalies.

Today, moreover, was like any other in the refectory, where I overheard no mention of said anomalies while nudging my tray through stop-and-go lunch line or dining solo at underlit corner table. Not that people were in denial. The Houdini fish met with bland acceptance as if it had always been there, had maybe dropped off our radar awhile, but wasn’t worth fussing over just because it was back.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody debated whether biologic upstarts were the product of genetic tampering or a breach between this world and elsewhere. Outlandish theories, yes, but this was an outlandish animal. Nor had anyone, in earshot or in print, expressed surprise that these creatures rated such meager curiosity, which was as perturbing to me as the creatures themselves.

My own pet theory contended that the fish had always been here, and only our power to perceive them had changed, coupled with the mindset that since normal perception now included them, it was ergo normal to perceive them. In this, I had what we scientists call “parsimony” on my side, i.e., I was positing simply a shift in people, and not in people and nature and/or the laws of physics.

But what had triggered this no less outlandish reboot in our brains? I believed the answer was literally under my nose eight hours each workday, though I had nothing stronger than coincidence and gut instinct to support me. And embarrassingly, weeks went by before it dawned on me that Houdini fish had appeared right after I’d supervised the exhumation of glowing smithereens.

Going into that project, I hadn’t banked on raising more than potsherds, peach pits, and rusty nails, and I’d intended nothing more than teaching the rudiments of excavation to undergrads who’d never touched a trowel. The courtyards of the freshmen dorm complex West Quad were due for a reseeding, and the drainpipes under them needed replacement. With all that dirt slated for upheaval, what harm in letting Anthro 101 delve into it first?

The Quad had gone up in the 1950s at the expense of two historic blocks on Benevolent Street, between Benefit and Brown. With permission from University Hall and Buildings and Grounds, I had a week during spring semester to sink a trench and reclaim anything the Eisenhower-era bulldozers hadn’t pulverized, before modern backhoes wrought their own havoc.

According to the deed in university files, the kids had dug their shovels into the site of the former Crawford Tillinghast house, which a photo at the Historical Society depicted as a plain, snug domicile of bricks and black shutters, a product of the lull between Greek Revival and Victorian pretenses. It had huddled at the end of a narrow cobbled lane, behind a pair of Federal mansions that fronted the sidewalk. How sad that such venerable charm had bitten the dust for the sake of nondescript, hulking barracks, as it had all over College Hill. My wife would have told me yet again to get over it or go work for someone else, but she was too often out of town for Ivy League depredations to weigh on her.

From the tidbits I gleaned about Crawford Tillinghast, his relative seclusion within a crowded neighborhood must have suited him well. City Archives, the Office of Vital Statistics, and tax rolls portrayed him as an unmarried homebody, with servants for company and no conventional employment. Several volumes of the House Directory and Family Address Book list his occupation as “philosopher,” before he vanished from that and all other public annals after 1920. His was one of those founding families of Providence that had fanned out into every stratum of society, from statesman to hit man, and “old money” sustained his proverbial “shabby gentility.”

A modern kinsman characterized him as an “eccentric inventor” but, in keeping with fabled Yankee reticence, demurred from further comment on Crawford’s personality, as if another century’s black sheep were still a family embarrassment. During that phone interview, my request for access to a picture of Crawford was also handily rebuffed with the patrician drawl, “I’ve no idea where such a thing might be.” Dead air followed as I cast about for a seemlier topic. He also pleaded ignorance regarding the balance of Crawford’s life post-1920, and no paperwork or microfiche at City Hall or the Providence Journal enlightened me, as if the records were defective or had been expunged through familial clout.

After Crawford’s departure from the House Directory, his property stood derelict for decades till the Tillinghasts bequeathed it to the university, which apparently didn’t have to ask twice. In their correspondence to the Office of Gifts and Endowments, Crawford’s heirs professed an enthusiasm for new dorm construction that read between the lines as relief at unloading the house and seeing it demolished.

True to New England form, everything of value down to doorknobs and light bulbs had been stripped before the house changed hands. Or so I gathered during the dig down to Crawford’s cellar floor that unearthed little beyond the typical bottlecaps and hambones and shirt buttons. That little, however, was more confounding and compelling than a truckload of the usual detritus.

The shale foundation of the house had caved inward, back when heavy equipment had dumped and graded tons of fill, the blank canvas on which to create the Quad. On top of and among the fieldstones, and therefore previously entombed behind them, were brass and steel fragments of some custom-built machine, neither tarnished nor rusty. And plainly these remnants were all of a piece, based on weak but perturbing purplish glow from each least wringer and rivet divested of dirt. I sent someone to the Geology Department for the nearest Geiger counter, and it picked up nary a roentgen. The scraps moreover gave off no static charge or heat, though to judge by their hue, they might have been the remains of some economy-size violet-ray generator, still shedding wan residuum.

Those gizmos, basically elaborate joy buzzers, had captivated health faddists of a century ago, who bought into claims that tinted currents cured a range of ailments from cancer to frigidity. The fragments that my sophomores bagged and boxed and toted to the anthropology lab, though, were too numerous and miscellaneous to jibe with any online illustrations of patented snake-oil mechanisms. I imagined this debris would add up to some brainchild of the “eccentric inventor,” but hadn’t the foggiest why it had been hidden, and by whom.

Whenever I didn’t have classes to teach or office hours or other obligations of untenured faculty, I’d tinker with my fluorescent jigsaw of a device, premising I could divine what it did and why it glowed if I could reassemble enough of it. A hundred percent restoration was impossible because several baggies contained slivers of glass, sorted by color, of deficient quantity to guess their original shape and dimensions. Nonetheless, undeterred by lack of aptitude, I’d refit roughly ten percent of the coils and baffles and cogwheels in a couple of weeks.

The kids didn’t share my fascination. Unanimously, to varying degrees, they were nervous around the purple light, and I didn’t force them to assist me. That wouldn’t have been nice, any more than washing a Houdini fish down the drain. Admittedly, something was creepy about the ongoing glow, as if the machine, despite its destruction, were still running, performing its function, incapable of being deactivated once it had been turned on.

Yes, I could have brought in expertise from Engineering, and I might easily have lost control over my find, and credit for it as well. I’ve no naïveté about the level of respect a “soft science” like mine is accorded on this campus. Besides, did Tillinghast’s contraption necessarily operate on a principle that a run-of-the-mill technologist would grasp any better than I would? Bottom line: the material culture an archaeologist unearths is artifacts, and artifacts belong in an Anthropology Department for proper handling and conservation.

After locking up the lab come evening, I habitually strolled home and stayed put. Nocturnal crime has been on the rise of late around campus, predictably what with the lousy economy, and my Fox Point neighborhood of students, faculty, and blue-collar Portuguese families hasn’t been immune. My wife and I are blessed with a comfy third floor in a quiet triple-decker, and too bad Phoebe’s not here more to appreciate it. On the other hand, maybe being apart so often has saved us from growing apart, or at least from focusing on any expansive rift. As good a formula for wedded bliss as any?

I was, in upshot, quite used to holding the fort, which boiled down to dumping shrimp flakes into Phoebe’s tank of neon tetras. Last Friday, that and surfing for less guilty viewing than 20/20 had been about the size of my dance card. I hadn’t expected burglary to enter into it, but who does? Larceny, anyhow, was the apparent story on eventually noticing what had happened. After supper I scattered fish food across aquarium surface, only to find no takers. The wife’s lovely tropicals were gone. Stolen, I had to infer, yet nothing else was missing, and no signs of break-in were visible at doors or windows. This wasn’t even the sort of theft I could bother the police with, for all they’d do was doubt my sanity or sincerity. I unplugged the tank’s hood light, filter, and heater. Why waste power?

The hell of it was, as the night wore on, resentment at thievery cooled and ebbed away. The absence of fish in the tank rated the same blasé acceptance as the presence of fish in soap. Someone or something had poached a school of tetras, and so what? Phoebe didn’t often ask about the fish when she phoned, and I’d be foolish volunteering anything. Her initial agitation, I figured, would lapse into apathy as quickly as mine if she got the news here first. Of course, the longer she was out on the road, the longer I could avoid controversy, but that was no way for a devoted husband to think.

As I went out to retrieve the paper Saturday morning, another untoward sight awaited me, and this one too I downplayed, far longer than did me credit. Twin heaps of clothing cluttered the sidewalk. From the porch I stared them down as if reprobates still occupied them, while declining to focus on specific garments. Were these the souvenirs of sex in the bushes, or of sloppy-drunk foray to the 24-hour laundromat? I was young once myself, but good grief!

That evening, as usual, I courted disappointment by tuning in local news for any exposé on pink fish. Instead, I learned that a preppie and four East Side collegiates had gone AWOL in the past few days. Police weren’t ready to assume or rule out foul play. Voiceover appealed to the public for information, as snapshots of the missing scrolled by. Those bundles of clothing out front did spring to mind, but only to the point of pondering whether their owners were still missing in action or had slunk back to reclaim sullied articles. My lukewarm concern didn’t stir me to go check out the window.

I should have put two and two together immediately, yet shied from connecting dots between abducted youth and purloined tetras and unremarked Houdini fish and luminous debris. To fob off human potential for monstrosity on some cosmic agency felt like flawed thinking, a copout, a throwback to blaming the devil and letting moral imperative off the hook. I was too much a man of science, “soft” science or not, to lumber into that pitfall.

I next ventured out of doors for the Sunday paper. The disreputable heaps of apparel lay unmolested. This is, after all, a sleepy side street, and who more than I would want to touch them? Upstairs, I unsheathed the Journal from orange plastic sleeve, and yesterday’s snapshots of kidnapees dominated page 1.

At second glance, the gravity of the situation sank in. One path to peace of mind was open. I grabbed magenta rubber gloves from under kitchen sink and rummaged a sturdy, humerus-length stick from under the boxwoods screening the porch. Struggling into the gloves would have been easier after some coffee. I refrained from poking into the castoffs that contained a bra and tampon. In the other bunch I thumped a wallet and pried it out of Dockers pocket. It held three bucks, a RISD I.D., and a Nordstrom credit card. The name embossed in plastic was not among those in the photo caption, but that didn’t exempt me from step 2 toward a quiet conscience.

I called the cops. The desk officer picked up on the tenth ring. Evidence maybe pertaining to the missing young people, I said, was down on my sidewalk. “What sort of evidence?” he barked.

At his combative tone I drew a momentary blank before rallying to say, “Clothing and personal effects.” Okay, he’d send a car. Begrudgingly, as if appeasing a pest. I sat with my coffee on the front steps to ensure no garments crawled off at the last minute.

During my third cup, two squad cars pulled up, a pair of uniformed cops in one and a pair of suits in the other. They glowered at the abandoned articles as if they’d seen the like before and weren’t happy to see these now. The more rumpled, putty-faced plainclothesman directed the uniforms in their forensic chores. His lean, more debonair partner introduced himself, with a jerky handshake, as Detective Delacroix. He pronounced it “Della Croy.” I presumed he dyed his hair and mustache to get them that exquisitely black. His chestnut eyes were taking continuous stock.

His questions soon acquired the character of hostile catechism. When had I first observed the suspicious items? Yesterday morning? Why didn’t I report them right away?

I’d only heard about the abductions, or whatever they were, this morning, I argued, deciding I could fudge by twelve or fourteen hours if he was going to be such a hardass.

Did I touch any of the materials under investigation? Yes, I’d removed a wallet, and it was upstairs. Why had I tampered with a crime scene? Well, I wouldn’t have considered it a crime scene had I not found the wallet, and to prevent contamination of evidence I’d been wearing gloves, for which not a tad of gratitude was forthcoming.

Would I mind if he came up and got the wallet? I couldn’t very well say no, though inwardly I vowed that henceforth someone else could reprise the thankless role of good citizen.

I couldn’t interest him in any coffee. He proceeded straight to the wallet when I pointed at it, on a corner of the dining room table. From inner jacket pocket he produced white gloves and a Ziploc container. I’d have recommended a user-friendlier brand of bags, based on my own lengthy experience securing artifacts, but with his snippy attitude, the hell with him. I was already sorry for inviting him in.

Once he’d stashed his prize, he quizzed me on my term of occupancy in the apartment, my marital status, and my livelihood. In the meantime he strode around and rubbernecked, with the overbearing air of owning the place. I’ve no idea what keepsakes he’d have deemed proper to an archaeologist, but he ogled Phoenician oil lamps, Gallo-Roman priapic statuettes, and Egyptian faience amulets as if all might be used to hide or smoke illicit substances. Or as if I’d looted them.

He brightened on reaching the aquarium, till he discovered it was empty. “No fish in here?” His tone was accusatory.

“They were stolen. Sometime Friday.” Damn, I’d rather that hadn’t come out, but his zealous tour of inspection was too off-putting for me to ad lib a sensible lie. Thank God he was miles from ferreting out my quarter ounce of stale cannabis.

His brown eyes narrowed dubiously. Was I joking? Trying to throw him off his game? Incredulous or not, he didn’t grill me, thank God, on why I also hadn’t reported that, or how much else was gone. I yearned for him to go jangle someone else’s nerves ASAP, and I doubt he’d have disagreed that vanished youngsters rated more attention than burgled tetras.

Then I had cause to regret that burgled tetras hadn’t distracted him. He approached an uncomfortable inch inside my personal space and demanded, “Where were you for the last six nights?”

“Monday through Friday, I left campus around suppertime and came back here. I didn’t go out again. I stayed in last night, too.” My eyes were fixed on his, with the steadfastness of the innocent.

“Who could verify that?”

“Nobody. I was by myself for the duration.”

He nodded, maintaining eye contact all the while.

“Wait a minute. You’re not implying I had anything to do with these kidnappings, are you?”

He didn’t say. He stared at the threadbare Berber carpet as if embarrassed at my outburst. “So your wife’s been out of town?”

“She’s been away for the month.”

“And when’s she coming back?”

“Next week sometime. She’s not sure yet.”

His line of sight swerved from the carpet back to me. “Do you have any accomplices?” His delivery was casual, as if asking for a glass of water.

“What?” How dare he, after I welcomed him into my home? Offered him coffee? “What the hell kind of trick question is that? Why would I have accomplices?”

“Thank you. That should do it for now.” He cast judgmental parting squint at the desolate aquarium and turned on his heel. Just like that, our interview was over. Except that my agenda found impulsive voice at the last instant. “At the precinct house, do you have pink fish in your liquid soap?” I called after him.

He brusquely about-faced with one foot out the door. “No, they’re white. Like the soap. Why?”

“The ones in my department are pink.” Not exactly a scintillating reply, and it convinced Delacroix that no further exchange with me was necessary. He resumed exiting as if I hadn’t said anything.

He neglected to shut the door behind him. I stared out at the sunny landing while trying to absorb the ugly reality of becoming a “person of interest.” And that, fundamentally, because I’d let my conscience get me “involved.” Plus, dammit, I’d forgotten my cup on porch railing, where it had to be cold by now and perhaps peppered with drowning gnats. I went and retrieved it, tossed contents unseen into the bushes, and noted that the clothes were gone, with a pair of chalk outlines in their place, as if corpora delicti had indeed occupied them.

The cops weren’t admitting yet that criminality was afoot, but that’s how they were operating. And Delacroix, it dawned on me, was likely more on the ball than he realized. No, I hadn’t waylaid people and stripped and disposed of their bodies. Yet if uncovering Tillinghast’s debris had somehow brought Houdini fish into the world, it might also have snatched victims out of it, or brought in additional, man-eating species. In which case, yes, I was at involuntary fault, though in no wise conceivable to hardheaded Delacroix.

All the same, the onus was on me. I had a unique handle, right or wrong, on the wherefore of putative crime spree. I alone might be able to stop it. Since I no longer had tetras to trot home and feed, I burned nightly oil at the department, futzing with outré filaments and pipes till headache set in. Then I washed my hands, bid Houdini fish au revoir, and flagged down University shuttle bus on Hope Street. I had nine measly blocks to ride, but doorstep service these days was preferable to the lurking perils of nocturnal promenade.

My lab work was predicated on the theory that the intact device had projected an insidious radiation in which soap-dwelling fish, and worse, entered human perceptions, and vice versa. That radiation, with its short-range purple blush, had become intrinsic to each part of the device, regardless of breakage. Were I to rebuild enough for a control panel to present itself, pulling a lever might, I prayed, switch off the machine and kill its emanations and send everything alien back where it belonged. Yes, that was my best excuse for a plan.

I wasn’t unmindful that earth had exerted a damping effect all those years on the violet radiance. I could rebury the entire load, and maybe prevent further trespass from elsewhere. But would entities already here be expelled? And had any paired off yet to breed? I had to go with my gut, and it warned of time lost, lives lost, if reinterment accomplished nothing.

I also had to resist temptation to dump fluorescing miscellany on Engineering Department doormat, ring the bell, and run. Possessive pride had earlier kept me from sharing my find, and now engineering types, safe to say, would laugh in my face halfway through my alarmist spiel. This mission of mine was strictly solo, which was just as well if the device actually had no bearing on local felonies.

When Friday rolled around again, I’d reintegrated roughly half the hundred-plus bits, shed some pounds by skipping suppers, and listened to messages on home voicemail too late to return them. Phoebe was due back on the Acela next Wednesday evening. I’d have to insist she ride a cab up the hill. To let her walk would be reckless, and my driver’s license had expired ages ago. Also, Delacroix was intent on a follow-up conversation, and would I stop in at his office tomorrow? Three such communiqués in as many days conveyed mounting impatience. Well, he knew where I lived, and where I worked. Why interrupt my vital efforts to indulge his petty bias against me?

Plus, I had to play catch-up with recent news. Two postdocs, a waitress, and a Whole Foods clerk had dropped into MIA limbo. The pressure was on, and it behooved me to chuck the whole frustrating mélange into cardboard file box and lug it home. Technically, yes, the material was University property and I was stealing it. But stealthy predator was unlikely to ease off for the weekend, and neither should I.

I slapped the lid on the box and exited into pale setting sunlight. Shuttle service wouldn’t start for two hours, forcing me to hoof it with increasingly awkward, ponderous freight. Couldn’t be helped. Purple rays escaping chinks and seams in cardboard container would prompt unwelcome attention on a nighttime bus, whereas spooky emissions shouldn’t loom as garish on daylit sidewalks, when those sidewalks theoretically posed less danger.

But how well can mere theory model reality? I had the better part of my trek to go when the urge to rest aching arms asserted itself. On my left was deconsecrated Baptist church, repurposed as condos in the ‘80s. The square brick belfry’s Gothic windows framed ventilation louvers, ineffectually shielded from nesting bats and pigeons by tattered wire screens. The light had relaxed into that lambent gold unique to this town, and the iron handrails flanking granite steps looked awfully inviting.

I was about to lower my burden onto the rail and balance it against my stomach, when the gilded ambience shifted to a seasick green. Meanwhile the belfry had apparently cast an arresting shadow on me. I shuffled backward without getting out from under it and belatedly grasped the obvious. The sun was setting not behind the church but behind the houses across the street, in the west as usual. I craned my neck toward the greenish heavens, faced with two dismal choices. Either something sizable had me in its oncoming shadow, or this wasn’t a shadow according to Webster.

Too unnerved to govern my actions, I whipped around to confront anything sneaking up on me. Metal components slid and clanked to one side of the box, which would have tumbled from my hands if I hadn’t hastily clutched tighter. As it was, the lid came loose and released a mini-aurora borealis. The shadow, or whatever it was, lifted, and the dusk faded to a more wholesome gray.

I hustled on, resolving to put up with sore arms for another five blocks. If I’d been in the same danger as previous fatalities, it had passed. Too bad that believing so did nothing to calm me. The purple radiance, I conjectured, may have worked as a repellant. Or I was simply keyed up and attaching false importance to atmospheric subtleties. That didn’t, though, invalidate the principle I stored for future reference: we humans might be plainly visible to things from elsewhere that might be quite invisible to us.

Another sort of predator was parked out front in a late-model off-beige Impala. The driver’s head was tilted as he watched my approach through rearview mirror. He retrained his sights on me after he got out and tossed cold dregs from Dunkin’ Donuts travel mug into scraggly grass below the boxwoods. Delacroix bypassed sociable greetings. “Ignoring me’s not such a good idea. You academic types think you’re above it all, don’t you?”

I shook my earnest head. “Sorry. I’ve been tied up with urgent lab work every night.”

He didn’t bother disputing that, as if above such mealy-mouthed excuses himself. He opened passenger-side door, pitched plastic mug to the floor, and slammed the door. He nodded toward the box. “What’s in there?”

“It’s the project I’ve been losing sleep over.” Why volunteer to show him? If he wanted a peek, he wouldn’t be shy about it.

“You’re looking pretty haggard. Okay then, go ahead up. I’ll follow.” Did cops study imposing themselves at the academy, or was Delacroix inherently gifted? “I’d like to see what you’ve been so busy with, if you don’t mind.”

I let brief eye contact serve as acquiescence and trudged forward. Venting my irritation wouldn’t get me anywhere. He spared me further chat till the box perched on the table where the wallet had lain last week. I, at least, was uncomfortable in the lowering silence. Was I supposed to offer him a soft drink? A beer?

“Sometime tonight, please?” Fine, you overbearing bastard, I’ll stop trying to play the gracious host. I’d hit every light switch on the way in, including the dining room overhead, hoping to render the violet emissions less blatant. I unceremoniously flipped the cardboard lid clattering to the floor. Delacroix bent slightly closer to the opening and his eyes widened. His newly mauve complexion made me wince.

“Is this an antique generator you’re rebuilding?”

I brightened in spite of the circumstances. Very impressive! There was a brain behind the jackboot persona. Of course the pieces would add up to a generator, a term I’d never actually resorted to myself. “Why yes, I doubt it could be anything else.”

“How come it’s glowing?”

“That’s what I want to find out. I’ve determined the artifacts aren’t radioactive, if you were worried.”

He shrugged. “You’re the one with your face in it day and night. Anyway,” he waved dismissively at the box as he straightened his spine, “not why I’m here.”

From an inside jacket pocket he pulled and unfolded a sheet of Xerox paper. He watched me the whole while as if I might jump him any second. He thrust the paper under my nose. “Know her?”

I couldn’t immediately tell what, let alone who, was in front of me. Head and shoulders in shaky resolution must have been downloaded, cropped, and blown up from a gallery in Facebook or the like. But yes, I did recognize her, and my heart turned to lead as I guessed where this was going. “She was enrolled in one of my classes.”

“Was?”

“If she hadn’t disappeared, why would you be showing me her picture?”

“You didn’t notice she was absent the last couple of days?”

“It’s a big survey course. Taking roll call wouldn’t leave me time to teach.”

“So you’re denying she was a memorable student. You might be interested to learn you had the opposite effect on her. In fact, right before she vanished, she characterized you as ‘creepy’ and ‘borderline pathological.’ Any idea why?”

“No. I’d never even interacted with her.”

“Are you sure?”

“Did she say I had?” Delacroix had to be quoting out of context, deleting pertinent verbiage just to faze me, and he was succeeding. Some stranger, a literal face in the crowd, had been badmouthing me, and to what end, apart from incriminating me in the eyes of the law? And I couldn’t vent feelings of righteous indignation and betrayal, could I, because she was suddenly a crime statistic. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, right?

Delacroix was hanging on my next words, but he couldn’t have entertained serious prospects of a confession. I inquired, “What did the other missing persons have to say about me?”

“Very funny.” One fraught connection did not an airtight case make, did it? The only excuse for anyone to call me “pathological,” and it was a stretch, would have been my febrile obsession to reconstruct Tillinghast’s generator, and how ironic would it be if a casualty’s catty statement had condemned me for doing my best to prevent further deaths? Especially if the outcome was my arrest as the serial killer? If she had ever focused balefully on me in the lab, I’d been concentrating too hard to feel it.

Delacroix had let up needling me and was resurveying my knickknacks and the vacant fish tank, as if they were new to him. He seemed to approve no more than on the first go-round, but abstained from comment. Confusion and uncertainty clouded his brow as if he’d been afflicted with déjà vu. He blinked at me and cleared his throat. “Anything you’d care to get off your chest?” He was merely going through the motions of harassing me now. Too disoriented, blindsided somehow, for his heart to be in it. I couldn’t account for that, but I wasn’t complaining.

A change of subject might be salutary for both of us. “I’m a little surprised there’s no curfew in effect.”

“Me too.” He plucked the Xerox portrait from my grip, refolded and repocketed it. “You can’t even tell me her name, can you?”

“I’m seldom able to match faces in the classroom with names on test papers. That’s modern education for you.”

“For you, maybe. Pretty sad.” Something about my modest abode was definitely getting under his skin. The purple tinge escaping the box? “I’ve seen enough of you for one evening. Good luck with your doohickey. Stay in town.” Again he neglected to shut the door behind him. Despite faulty manners, in Delacroix I did find encouraging proof that vanishing persons, unlike vanishing tetras, weren’t yet “out of sight, out of mind.” The influence of the “doohickey,” so far anyhow, had its limits.

Nor did Delacroix have to fret about me as a flight risk. Skipping town was hardly an issue, since I was averse to leaving the apartment. And home wasn’t necessarily a sanctuary, as the fishless aquarium reminded me. With a nylon cord I strung one of Tillinghast’s luminous springs for a necklace, a latterday equivalent of my Egyptian faience charms.

Obviously I never disappeared, but impromptu talisman afforded me no help in my project. By Monday morning, my ambition was shot to hell. I’d progressed after 48 hours to the maddening stage of finding that the parts on the table were too interchangeable. Two-thirds of the elements did constitute an abstract, vaguely Art Nouveau sculpture, which left about three dozen loose items that wouldn’t go with one another or with the partial restoration.

I’d wasted the bulk of a precious week after all, and would have to start from scratch and pray I didn’t make a fresh batch of errors. People and their accustomed world were meanwhile in jeopardy, and it was my bungling fault. Plan B resurfaced as a more rational alternative. In hindsight, I’d have learned whether it was effective in much less time than I’d squandered on fruitless tinkering.

Behind the house was a forsaken, rectangular weedlot of a backyard, enclosed on three sides by weathered palisade fence, half of whose pointy tips were broken off. That was where, after breakfast, I carried shovel and a Stop & Shop paper bag stuffed with mechanical jumble. I cheated a bit by retaining the steel spring around my neck. Why not assess first whether burying 99% of the device banished Houdini fish from our dimension, before I disposed of my wearable “health insurance”?

I dug down two feet and some inches into rusty yellow sand. I gave no thought to laboring quietly, to scouting for witnesses in neighboring upper-story windows. Why should inhuming a load of scrap metal, or to an outside view a plain brown sack, rouse suspicions? Most likely and logically I was disposing of dead cat or parrot or hamster. Logic also recommended a backyard grave for convenience’s sake, in case I had to resume cobbling together the “doohickey.”

A leisurely shower and lunch before my one o’clock lecture were still in the cards after completing the job. When I swung by the lab later, no one remarked on the absent artifacts, or on absent classmate for that matter. Noses to the collective grindstone. Except now, paranoia tugged at my sleeve and whispered, How many of these kids were feigning tunnel vision because they found me “creepy”?

More felicitously, no Houdini fish swam in the soap. That guaranteed me nothing, though. Someone might have rinsed it down the drain, but on mulling how to ask if anyone in the lab could remember doing so, my brain stalled out. Or had the device’s output inhibited my wits, as it had inhibited curiosity about the fish?

In the interim till Phoebe’s homecoming, I encountered no Houdini fish, no Delacroix, no malign nimbus hovering behind me. Delacroix, I surmised, must have had other leads to chase besides me, thank God, red herrings though they had to be. Nor did the lack of something stalking me, like the lack of fish in soap, mean that reburial had achieved its goal. The prophylactic magic of my necklace might simply have kept the bogy at bay.

Hence when Phoebe phoned to announce she was at the train station, I firmly reiterated that she hail a taxi, but needn’t have bothered. She was already up to speed about the “East Side Snatcher,” who’d made the LA Times and BBC News.

Would she perceive her fish were gone the second she walked in? After a minute? An hour? On other occasions, her approaching taxi caught my ear. Not tonight. The trunk slammed, and a subjective instant later, the key jingled in the lock downstairs, and the wheels of her suitcase were ka-thunking rapidly against each step as she climbed. I managed to relieve her of luggage when she had a scant flight and a half to go.

On the landing we hugged and kissed and genuinely enjoyed the novelty of each other’s presence. She waltzed in ahead of me while I dragged her luggage the last few yards. At the threshold I stopped short as she shouted while hanging paisley twill blazer in the closet, “What’s that pile of clothing doing out front? That’s not one of your suits, is it?”

I went racing downstairs, had almost made it to the first floor, and voted to plunge on, flinching, when I heard, “Where the hell are the tetras?” Chances were nil, weren’t they, that apathy about the tropicals would take hold of Phoebe before I got back? Was I a heel wishing she’d postponed her return?

The garments were child’s play to locate. Creamy seersucker fabric fairly shone in the dimness between streetlights. New bundle overlapped the smudgy chalk boundaries of old bundles. Even if beige Impala weren’t parked across the street, my knees would have weakened with a queasy certainty of whom the invisible beast had disrobed, or devoured, or disintegrated. Whatever had transpired was, as usual, bloodless, which made it bearable to poke through jacket pockets for confirmatory badge. Brown Oxfords were, for reasons I didn’t dwell on, pointing in opposite directions, and the folds of pinstripe shirt swaddled a bulging letter-size envelope.

Headache began to throb as I gazed on the envelope in my clammy grasp. Of course its contents would relate to me. A search warrant? An arrest warrant? I balked at undoing the flap. I couldn’t picture anything it could be that wouldn’t be too much right now. I dropped the envelope on top of Delacroix’s other earthly remnants.

I turned my beleaguered sights toward third-floor windows, but the wife’s silhouette was in none of them. Phoebe would be fuming, or tearful, or baffled, or reassessing our relationship. She had no inkling, and never would, of how lucky she was, of how she owed ongoing existence to the bare minutes by which Delacroix had arrived first. His demise at least served to suggest that reburying the piecemeal contraption did not get rid of previous intruders. Or did it suggest that my holdout of one measly spring made all the difference? And what if planting that single artifact with the rest made no difference except to render Phoebe and me utterly vulnerable?

Meanwhile, I must have been crazy to loiter this long by the “scene of the crime.” The simple proximity of Delacroix’s effects to my address was bad, and to be placed here by witnesses might circumstantially clinch my guilt. But dealing with this mother lode of incrimination was impossible till I clarified my status with Phoebe.

The apartment was devoid of any sign my wife had returned, apart from bedroom door, formerly open but now, no doubt, bolted against me. “Phoebe? Are you okay?” I called in vain, an inch from varnished paneling. “Can I come in? Can we talk?” In a couple of respects I was glad she didn’t answer. The more she sulked, the more of an opportunity she allowed for detachment toward the fish to overtake her too. She’d also decide it was “just like me” to storm out for an hour, if she ever became aware of my absence.

The less she knew about my program of self-protection, the better. To save myself from wanton criminal prosecution, I elected to engage in flat-out criminal behavior. Rubber gloves were redeployed from under kitchen sink. On the porch I could discern no onlookers on sidewalks or in windows, and I dashed down, scooped up Delacroix’s attire, and scrambled to his car. It was unlocked. His keys were in trouser hip pocket.

I cruised in low gear along the darkest side streets, meandering the quarter-mile to the road skirting the waterfront park. I’d avoided leaving fingerprints, but it was a poor anthropologist who’d downplay the difficulties in erasing all traces of my DNA. I also wanted to work fast and minimize chances of being seen. Or mugged.

The neocolonial Marston Boathouse and its marina surroundings gave way to the alluvial terrain of India Point Park. I pulled over. No one was around, but that could change in a heartbeat. To crank down the windows and just ditch the Impala, and let salt breeze air out my dander and other vestiges, made for much less spectacle than rolling a car down grassy slope into the bay. Plus, if fortune smiled, some foolhardy delinquents might swallow the bait of keys in the ignition, and then where might official vehicle fetch up in the morning?

The loosely knotted wad of Delacroix’s belongings I flung past the outsized pegboard of rotten, stubby pilings into the clutches, if fortune kept smiling, of outbound tide. The afterthought of magenta rubber gloves followed suit.

I slunk homeward, gawking left and right on high alert for passersby to shun, and accompanied by a heckling awareness of my stupidity. Why hadn’t I thought sooner that Delacroix must have logged tonight’s itinerary somehow? Would I have done anything this dumb before the excavation of Tillinghast’s mind-altering debris? Cops would come knocking, possibly before dawn, and though Phoebe might be none the wiser I’d ever gone out, she’d seen Delacroix’s outfit, and her fine eye for detail would have absorbed telltale color and fabric.

I was screwed. I commenced to hyperventilate in anticipation of the third degree. How to protest my innocence? And of capitol offense, I was damn well innocent. No, I’d only taken what rash, cloddish steps I could to prevent entrapment by the legal system, though I’d thereby ensured the system had me hogtied. To my small comfort, the state had the burden of producing a body, and chances of that were negligible.

Suppose I stuffed a week’s essentials into a rucksack, hopped a midnight bus, vacated the state? Then when more East Siders vanished, dozens of witnesses could testify I was in New York or Philly or wherever. Yes, that would be this sinking man’s straw of choice. My feet picked up a more upbeat pace.

They carried me within three blocks of condos-cum-church where I’d almost been reduced to dirty laundry. The budget-minded owners of a nineteenth-century faux palazzo had enclosed their yard with plastic picket fence. Some extra color on a white corner post captured my attention and quashed my optimism. Streetlamps gleamed off a horde of tiny turquoise carapaces. I bent close enough to identify them as mites of freakishly star-shaped outline, a breeding population hundreds of times over, and whatever comprised their original diet, here they were feasting on plastic. The bottom several inches of the post had been ingested, and they were chewing madly on. It sounded like a thousand tiny dental drills.

Whether Tillinghast’s machinery was under the soil had become irrelevant, as had fleeing town or defending my innocence in the long term. I had a gut-level pessimism that rebuilding the generator wouldn’t help either, that enlisting the Engineering Department wouldn’t have altered the consequences. Even if alien bugs didn’t receive the same unnaturally bland reception as Houdini fish, they foreseeably spelled the collapse of modern culture. What the hell was my hurry? It was like racing toward the end of the world.

No squad cars were waiting by the house, a shallow consolation better than none. I should have savored it. I reentered quietly to sustain the illusion I’d never departed. Again, as with my entreaties that Phoebe take a cab, I needn’t have bothered.

The door still stood between us, with no disorder to show for it if she had sallied out. “Phoebe?” No sound or syllable emerged. Was she speechless with wrath, or with the apathy that should have been setting in by now? I dragged in a dining room chair and sat elbows on knees, chin upon fists, studying the glass doorknob. If I twisted it, would the door be locked? If it were or not, would the wife caterwaul blue murder? Or would the silent treatment go on forever because there was nothing of her in the bedroom but a bunch of clothes on the shag scatter rug?

I could have lent her my protective neckwear, or culled another talisman for her from Stop & Shop bag. But I hadn’t, and was I to blame for not thinking of that? Had my unconscious plotted to reinstate permanent bachelor quarters? I never used to agree with Freud that accidents never happened.

My eyes are now aching and bleary from watching the door. My ass has been numb for ages. I ought to pack according to plan or reconsider trying the doorknob. But I can’t conceive of moving, which binds me like a vacuum seal. Human decisions will soon carry no weight in any case, and Houdini fish will inherit the earth. Or actually they won’t, because turquoise mites will have eaten the soap dispensers.

When the cops finally do turn up, they’re welcome to bust their way in. Until then, my wife might simply be incommunicado and nothing worse, and I might not be complicit in her death. And the longer I can dodge that complicity, the longer I can delay facing my role in the grander scheme of voracious chaos.

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