From the author: In 1950's Phoenix, Occult investigator Byron Flay struggles to solve a series of grisly murders that have a macabre connection to ancient evil and the battlefields of WWII.
C. L. Werner
The blades of a steel fan ticked away with electric monotony as they struggled to bring some measure of relief to the stuffy little office just off Phoenix’s Central Avenue. Outside, the temperature had entered triple digits, driving even the lizards to seek the cool darkness of whatever shade they could find. Inside, the office wasn’t quite so bad. The swamp cooler on the roof was fighting the good fight. If someone stood just under the vent, they might manage some degree of comfort.
Byron Flay loosened his tie and shifted around so that the full blast coming from his fan would hit his face and neck. He frowned when he saw the artificial breeze flipping the pages of the book he’d been perusing, a Portuguese treatise on the practices of Inca medicine men. Irritably, he moved a Hopi kachina doll across the desk and used the wooden ogre to hold his place for him. The image grinned back at him with a maw of carved fangs, conjuring up memories he’d tried his best to forget. Then again, that was the whole purpose of the kachina doll. So that he wouldn’t forget.
Byron closed his hand around his shoulder. Even through his clothes, he could feel the puckered scar tissue from that long ago brush with the occult world, that moment when he’d stepped irrevocably from the mundane world of the natural into the nightmare realm of the supernatural. The many times he’d tried to tell himself it was all coincidence, that the immense wolf had been nothing more than an out of place animal, a lingering relic of frontier days. Drew Blackshirt had been nothing but a charlatan, a bully who preyed upon the superstitions of his tribe to extort tribute from them. He hadn’t been a skinwalker, a sorcerer. It was only coincidence that the Navajo was found dead in the desert the morning after Byron’s fight with the wolf. It was only coincidence that the wolf had never been seen again after Blackshirt died.
He matched the kachina’s ugly grin. Blackshirt had died in 1935, almost twenty years ago. Byron had been a much younger man then, more robust physically but without the knowledge and experience he now had. At forty two, his body was beginning to decline. It was an effort to keep fat off his bones and he found his limbs not so limber as they once had been. Part of that, he knew, was due to his years of convalescence after being wounded by a mine in the Huertgen Forest during the War. Still, he knew age was eating away at him. Every day there seemed a few more grey strands in his once coal-black hair.
Sometimes he felt like a man out of place, out of step with the world. This was the era of the atom and the jet plane. The light of science was burning away the old darkness, bringing with it new discoveries every day. In this bright new dawn, this atomic age, the ancient fears that had dogged mankind throughout his history – and even before – seemed absurd, relics of old foolishness and nothing more. To devote one’s life to the study of such antiquated folklore and legend was to be as ridiculous as the myths themselves.
Byron ran his fingers along the scar and smiled. The myths weren’t ridiculous. The reality behind them might be more complex and weird than even legend claimed, but they were real just the same. Science could work wonders, but it was itself blind to anything that refused to step into the light of inquiry and scrutiny. There were things and forces that kept to the darkness, and the brighter the light of knowledge shone, the deeper that darkness grew. The occult didn’t bow to the preconceptions of any researcher. To find the supernatural it had to be sought out and under its own terms.
Except in those ghastly moments when light and darkness collided and the supernatural had no more shadows in which to hide. Byron Flay had made a career investigating those collisions, those accidents when the paranormal intruded upon the mundane world.
The sound of the office door swinging open roused Byron from his thoughts. Inwardly, he castigated himself for his inattention. Before the War, before his convalescence, he’d had the ears of a fox and the eyes of a hawk. His senses had been keyed to a degree where he’d have sensed Beverley Tanner leaving her desk in the outer office long before she reached his door.
Outwardly, Byron adopted a warm smile and greeted his secretary with an equally warm hello. “Lunch already?” he asked. It was an old joke, a dig at Beverley’s obstinate work ethic. In the two years she’d been working for him, he couldn’t remember a time when she broke off early for anything. More often than not, he was forced to chase her out of the office at the end of the day, assuring her that her work would wait until the next day.
It was peculiar, really, to find someone as young and vital as Beverley who could find such curious work as Byron set her fulfilling. Every day, dozens of newspapers and magazines from across the globe would arrive at the office. Beverley’s job was to sort through them, hunting down any articles or reports that might involve some preternatural element. Flying saucers had come to dominate much of his secretary’s time of late, with strange lights being sighted all over the nation. Byron wasn’t sure what might be behind the phenomenon, but he didn’t want to be too dismissive, recalling some of the weird occult experiments the Nazis had conducted during the War with an arcane substance they called vril. It was just possible that the flap of flying saucer incidents meant someone was continuing the Nazi experiments.
Beverley returned Byron’s smile, but it was too worried to carry much sincerity. Her milky complexion seemed a touch paler as she extended her hand towards him. “The mail came,” she said. Her dark eyes glanced down at the single letter she held out to him. “This was in there.”
As though he were reaching for a rattlesnake, Byron drew the letter from Beverley’s fingers. He hesitated before bringing it across the desk to where he sat. Grimly, he set it down beside the telephone and looked back up at Beverley. “You’d better call Detective Caffran. Let him know another letter is over here. When you have him on the line, connect me with him.”
“Maybe… maybe it doesn’t mean.” Beverley was shivering, hugging herself as a chill that had nothing to do with temperature crawled down her lean body.
“Maybe,” Byron said, trying to invest some kind of conviction in his voice. When he saw Beverley flick a wayward strand of her dark hair back behind her ear, he knew neither of them believed it. She had a nervous habit of doing that whenever she felt ‘out of sorts’ as she put it. All in all, it was an admirably restrained reaction to something they both knew meant that somewhere in Phoenix someone had been brutally murdered.
Byron waited until Beverley withdrew into the outer office before he allowed himself to look at the letter beside his phone. It was innocuous enough; his name and the address of his office scribbled on a simple envelope such as could be bought in any dime store. But there had been three others like this one, and each of them had told the same hideous tale. A tale of blood and murder.
There was no mystery about why the letters were sent to him. Over the years, Byron’s name had appeared in the papers more than a few times, helping the police break up crooked séances and assisting university researchers in exposing phoney psychic phenomenon. An exorcism he’d participated in down in Kingman had been picked up by the radio and for a few weeks garnered him a bit of national exposure until the news services found some other story to distract the public. No, why the letters came to him was the only thing Byron didn’t find mysterious.
A string of grisly murders stretching back almost a month, the victims butchered in a fashion that would have had the city coming unglued if the details ever got out. That was what gave the letters their veracity. The writer, whoever he was, knew those details, knew them to a degree that only the police and the killer could know.
This time, the letter described a room in some seedy downtown dive. There was a man lying across the floor, or at least what had once been a man. His body had been cleaved in two, split from right shoulder to left hip. There were nauseous details about what that wound looked like. That was one difference between the letters and the actual crime scenes. In this heat, there’d be no trace of the ‘frost’ the author depicted clinging to the edges of the cut, though the police coroner would find tissue damage caused by some extreme cold. Frostbite in the middle of an Arizona summer.
The writer named the killer, or at least described him. That was where Detective Caffran stopped listening to Byron. He was too pragmatic to even entertain the idea that a murdering ghost was behind these atrocities.
The phone rang beside him. When he picked up the receiver, Byron found an exasperated Caffran at the other end of the line.
“I’m told you’ve gotten another of these damn letters,” Caffran growled into the line.
“Hello to you too, detective,” Byron greeted him in the calm, modulated tone he knew always grated on Caffran’s nerves. “Yes, another letter has arrived. That would make three.”
“I can count,” Caffran snarled back in annoyance. “Where does this nut say the stiff is this time?”
Byron hesitated a moment. When he’d brought the first letter to the attention of the police he’d had the distinction of being suspected of the murder. The second letter – and the second murder – had left him with an airtight alibi, however. He’d had a cop shadowing him when the second murder was committed. Caffran had been one of the loudest voices insisting Byron was still somehow responsible. When the detective spoke of a , he was making a thinly veiled jab at Byron.
“Detective, I’ve tried to impress on you that whoever is writing these letters,” Byron let that thought linger on the line for a moment, “whoever is writing these letters is more than just some ‘nut’. Consider the exactness of detail, the precision of location and nature of the wounds. And consider, detective, that each letter was mailed the day before each murder.”
“We’ve gone over that before,” Caffran said. “Which goes to show that the nut writing these letters is our killer. These sort of sickos do that, write letters so they can brag about their murders. There was that torso killer out in Cleveland who used to taunt Eliot Ness in the papers…”
Byron sighed. He wasn’t about to get into his own perspective, that it would be impossible for any killer, however clever, to accurately predict the exact details the writer depicted in his letters. Caffran had no use for the ‘prescience’ theories Byron had put forward. All he wanted were the letters in hopes he could use them to find his murderer.
“I won’t get into a debate about your theories and mine,” Byron said. “But before I tell you about this letter, I want to request a slight consideration from the homicide bureau.”
“Which is?” Caffran asked, suspicion fairly dripping from the phone.
“I want to be admitted to the crime scene when you locate it,” Byron said.
A bark of laughter rose from Caffran. “Might do you some good at that, ghost-chaser! It’ll give you a new take on things when you see for yourself what this pen-pal of yours has been writing about!”
The room was exactly as the letter had described it, right down to the peeling wallpaper and the mottled green carpet. The more interesting detail, of course, was now covered discretely by a pair of blankets, two chunks of meat that had only recently been a man.
Byron looked away from the covered body and turned towards the wall. Detective Caffran, a short but broad-shouldered man with a pug-nose and a right ear that looked like it had been a Gila monster’s chew-toy, disengaged himself from a discussion with the county coroner to saunter over and jeer at Byron’s apparent squeamishness.
“Not so pretty in real life, is it?” Caffran scoffed. “You might have a little pull with the chief, but that don’t rate with me. I’ve seen plenty of eggheads like you, all stuffed with letters from universities but not a lick of experience to make it mean anything. Put a guy like you out in the field and you go to pieces like that.” He leaned in and snapped his fingers beside Byron’s head.
Byron turned slowly, feigning surprise at finding Caffran beside him, as though the snap of his fingers was the first notice he’d taken of the detective. “I must apologize. I was studying the pattern the blood has made along the wall. I didn’t know you needed me.”
The detective grimaced, annoyed by Byron’s impertinence. “You were studying the blood stains, were you?”
“Quite interesting, wouldn’t you agree?” Byron said. He waved his hand at the wall, indicating the splash of crimson. “Look at the way…”
“An axe will do that,” Caffran interrupted. “The murderer severed a mess of arteries when he chopped his victim.”
Byron turned and shook his head. “An axe? That is what you think did this damage?”
Caffran smiled and nodded. “An axe,” he repeated. “Not some ghost. In the hands of a maniac, an axe can do a lot of damage.”
“Like cutting a man in half?” Byron pointed again at the wall. “Can an axe throw blood across the wall in exactly the same pattern written about in a letter mailed the day before the murder? Notice that landscape hanging there, how the blood stains only the lower corner, leaving the mountains and the cacti untouched. Exactly as described in the letter.”
Byron turned away and began examining the rest of the room, studying the contents of the old pinewood dresser beside the steel-frame bed, inspecting the few books and bric-a-brac on the set of shelves standing in one corner. Caffran watched him for a time, an expression of contemptuous amusement on his face.
“Think you’ll find a spook hiding with the socks?” the detective laughed.
“Just looking,” Byron said. “Trying to find some connection between these murders. Some shared link.”
Whether the murderer was a ghost or a maniac, Byron knew there had to be some connection between the victims. If it was simply a mortal madman as Caffran insisted, then there had to be some common thread that made him choose his victims. Something had to have made these people the targets of the man’s psychosis.
If it really was a ghost, then the link would have to be even more substantial. There were certain rules that governed the manifestation of spirits, unseen laws that controlled the intrusion of the supernatural into the mundane. Byron had devoted many years to studying these nebulous phenomenon and invariably he’d found that a spirit required an anchor to manifest itself in the mortal world. That anchor was usually a specific place. With the murders scattered across the city, location couldn’t be the answer. That left only two options. The spirit could be attached to a living person and using them as the focus of its manifestations. Such instances were recorded across the globe as demonic possession. If so, then wherever the spirit’s host went, it would go as well.
The third possibility was that the ghost had attached itself to some specific object. Byron had read of many instances of such incidents. Just as a house could be deemed haunted by a ghost, so could an object acquire the reputation of being cursed for similar reasons. There were the famed examples of the Hope Diamond and the Black Orlov, both of which were credited with malefic emanations. It was just possible that some object rather than some person linked the victims. In searching through the possessions of the dead man, he hoped to find anything that formed a bond between them.
“I don’t suppose there is any connection between this victim and the last one?” Byron asked.
“I don’t think there could be,” Caffran said. He jabbed a thumb at the covered remains. “That used to be Peter Bradley. Worked as a soda jerk at Garcia’s Pharmacy, at least since his last stint in jail. He’s been a guest of the state on burglary charges four times. Not much reason to think he gave up the old profession because of the lucrative wage he was getting to pour drinks for bobby-soxers. Can you think of any reason why he might know a sixty-five year old lady halfway across town?”
Byron considered that question, running it over in his mind. “There’s one thing you might look into,” he said. “Has anyone taken possession of the last victim’s home?”
Caffran scratched at his disfigured ear, something the burly detective often resorted to when trying to recall some tiny detail from his memory. “Far as I’m aware, her only living relative is somewhere in Illinois. I can’t say if they’ve come out to attend to her effects or not.”
“Look into it,” Byron advised. The idea that had started to form in his mind was speeding ahead now, sending a shiver of excitement through his veins. It was the thrill of the hunt, that moment when he felt that he’d taken his first step towards a solution to a problem. The destination might be murky, but at least he’d found the trail. “Check the contents of the home with the inventory you made during your investigation.”
“Say,” Caffran almost gasped, catching Byron’s suggestion, “you don’t mean Pete might have nicked some stuff from the old lady’s home?”
“That would be one way of connecting the two,” Byron said. He held up his hand, ticking off each victim on his fingers. “First we have a railyard guard, then we have a foreman at a slaughterhouse. They are linked by some mutual acquaintances, but nothing direct. Next is an old widow woman, but she has a direct connection to our foreman as his landlady. Now, you have a petty burglar.”
“I still don’t see what you’re shooting for,” Caffran said. “I know you’ve done the department a few good turns breaking up these séance rackets, but this is murder and all your hocus pocus is really out of its element.”
“Just check your inventory,” Byron asked. “Humour me that far at least. See if it’s possible that this man stole something from that house.”
“Something that was handed around from one victim to the next?” Caffran scoffed. “I’ll look into it, but I think it’s a waste of time. Anything else you want while I’m at it?”
Byron matched Caffran’s condescending smile. “Only a photo of the dead man.”
“Going to hold your own séance and ask him who done it?” Caffran laughed.
The look Byron gave the detective was as hot as the desert sun. “I was going to take it to the pawn shops. See if your victim had sold anything recently. I should think that would be standard procedure in a situation like this. The man was, after all, a known thief.”
The detective lost much of his bluster at having something so obvious pointed out to him. “I… I have men already looking into that,” he said after a pause.
Byron just smiled and walked away. “Do let me know what they find.”
The pawn shop on Van Buren Avenue was packed to the ceiling with the wreckage of broken lives. Byron could feel the despair rising up from the selection of wedding rings arranged inside a rotating display case. There was a piteous quality about the set of china nestled between some old records and a big mahogany grandfather clock, causing Byron to wonder what the story might be behind those bowls and plates. He didn’t profess to be psychic, not to any real degree, but there were times he could pick up on the ‘mood’ of a place or an object. Nothing tangible or definite, just a general impression.
As he approached the counter where the pawnbroker was inspecting an ivory broach his latest patron had brought him, Byron’s attention was immediately drawn to something hanging on the wall behind the counter. The feeling that object provoked was far stronger than a mere impression. He felt his breath catch in his chest as he stared up at the thing.
Byron shook his head, wondering if he wasn’t letting imagination run away with him. The object evoked the one nagging omission in the letters. Not for an instant had Byron accepted Caffran’s idea that an axe had been used to deal such horrible wounds, but at the same time he’d been unable to present an alternative. The mysterious writer had never mentioned how his ghost killed, only saying that it did kill and what sort of scene it left behind. Now he found himself looking at just the sort of weapon that could cut a man in two.
The thing hanging on the wall as a katana, vulgarly called a samurai sword. It was beautiful, in its own sinister way, with a sharkskin grip and pearl-inlaid guard. The blade itself was curved, almost two feet in length. Looking at it Byron felt his pulse quicken. He drew the picture of Peter Bradley from his coat, listening with steadily increasing irritation as he waited for the pawnbroker to finish haggling. After a small eternity, the broach was finally sold and the man shuffled along behind his counter to where Byron stood.
“See something you like?” the pawnbroker asked.
“Maybe,” Byron said. He slid the photo across the counter. “Did this man sell you anything in the last few days?”
The pawnbroker didn’t so much as glance at the photo, but kept a wise grin on his face as he shrugged his shoulders. “Nobody sells me anything. They bring me collateral and I give them a loan. Nothing becomes mine until they welch on their payments. Then whatever they have in hock is forfeit. All perfectly legitimate. You see something you think is stolen, we’ll just have to check on whoever brought it to me. Allowing I can remember.”
Byron tapped the photo with his thumb. “I’m asking about this man. Did he bring you anything? That sword on the wall, for instance?” He could tell his supposition was too close for the pawnbroker’s liking by the way the man flinched when he heard the question.
“I ain’t no fence,” the man insisted. “You think something was stolen, we’ll just have to dig through the register and see who it was that hocked it.”
“I’m not with the police,” Byron explained. “I’m just trying to establish if this man Bradley left some items with you… before he died.”
Sweat began to drip from the pawnbroker’s forehead. Byron had gauged the man’s anxiety rightly enough, but he hadn’t reckoned on what the result would be. Instead of divulging what he knew, he clammed up completely. “I know my rights. You want to search this place, you go get a warrant. Just because you’ve got a badge doesn’t make you the KGB.”
“I’m not with the police,” Byron repeated. “And this could be a matter of life and death. I’m trying to establish a connection between Bradley and three other murders.”
“Tell it to my lawyer,” the pawnbroker declared, folding his arms across his chest and glowering at Byron. “I’ve said all I’m going to say.”
Byron sighed and replaced the photo in his coat. He set a business card down on the counter instead. “If you change your mind, you can reach me at that number. I cannot emphasize how important talking to me is. It really could mean someone’s life.” He looked back at the katana, feeling a sensation of lurking menace hanging about the sword. “It might even be your own life that is at risk.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” the pawnbroker said. “Now if you’d care to leave, I was about to close up for my lunch hour.”
Byron studied the katana as he was ushered out of the shop. It was a curious thing to find such an exotic weapon in a dusty Phoenix pawnshop. There was a story there, if he could just find the key to unlocking it. Instead, he found himself on the sidewalk as a different key closed the door behind him.
Through the glass in the door, Byron watched the pawnbroker shuffle off into some backroom. He wondered if the man would have much appetite if he told him about the threat he believed was hanging over his head.
“A visitor to see you.” The words were barely out of Beverly’s mouth before Detective Caffran was pushing his way past her and into Byron’s office. From the look on his face, it seemed the cop was deeply conflicted, unable to decide between anger or smug superiority as he confronted the occult investigator.
“We got the warrant and turned Daimler’s shop inside out,” Caffran snarled. “No fancy Nip sword in the entire place.”
Byron leaned back in his chair. “There was such an item missing from the old lady’s house. I tell you it was in that pawnshop. Bradley went there to fence the goods he stole from your crime scene.”
Caffran scowled. “Daimler’s been run in before for receiving stolen goods,” he admitted. “But that doesn’t mean I believe any of this spook-stuff you’re trying to sell.” The detective’s tirade fell short as Byron handed him a slip of paper. Caffran had seen identical letters before, and always under gruesome circumstances.
“That came this morning,” Byron said as Caffran read the letter.
“This sounds like he’s describing Daimler,” Caffran observed after a quick read. “I’ll get some men to guard him. This nut just overplayed his hand! Now we know where he’ll strike. We can be ready for him.”
Byron turned and looked over at the kachina doll. “I don’t think your men can help,” he stated. “Besides, if you read that letter, it sounds like Daimler slips your guards. Unless for some reason they decide a back alley is the best place to hide him.”
“Don’t give me that ghost stuff again,” Caffran grumbled. “The man we’re after is some kind of maniac. Now that we know who his next target is, we’ll catch him.”
Standing away from his desk, Byron walked over to one of the bookshelves lining the walls of his office. He removed one of the volumes, turning it open to a spot he had marked. “There have been many recorded instances of objects acquiring supernatural qualities throughout history. When they exhibit a positive influence, they are revered as holy relics. When their effects are malignant, we call them cursed.”
“Bunk,” Caffran said.
Byron shut the book and glowered at the detective. “I did some investigating of my own,” he told Caffran. “Once I knew what to look for, the questions I should be asking. We know that Ms. Franco had possession of the sword and that it is no longer in her home. A sword matching that description was in Daimler’s shop, and now a man sounding very much like him is described as the next victim in this newest letter. We can logically assume that Peter Bradley was the facilitator of removing the sword from Ms. Franco’s house and into the pawnshop. Bradley, who was also murdered.”
“If the sword was there,” Caffran said. “So far, the only person who saw it there was you. I’d hardly say that corroborates your theory.”
“Then maybe you could explain what I found out when I interviewed some of the foreman Martin’s friends,” Byron challenged. “When I asked them about whether Martin had ever owned a Japanese sword, they recalled a curious incident. He’d been in a poker game with Ernie Saunderson, the first victim. Saunderson lost heavily – more heavily than the men I interviewed had ever seen him loose – and he offered up this sword he had in his truck to cover a five dollar wager. The incident stuck in the other players’ minds because it seemed to them that Saunderson was actually eager to lose the hand to Martin.”
Caffran started tugged at his ear as he digested Byron’s statement. “You’re actually telling me both of those men owned this same sword?”
“No,” Byron corrected him. “I’m telling you that all four victims – and now Daimler – have had possession of this sword. Surely that strains the word ‘coincidence’ to the breaking point.”
The detective looked around Byron’s office, as though seeing it for the first time, his gaze lingering on the Zuni fetish mask hanging on the wall and the Maori lion-spear standing in one corner. “Okay,” he conceded, a note of uneasiness in his tone, “I’ll admit that all of these people potentially having ownership of this sword of yours is unusual. I’ll put a few men looking into it, asking around. We’ll make another check of Daimler’s too.”
“I don’t think that’ll do any good,” Byron sighed. “I think I made a mistake confronting Daimler. I think I scared him. I think he’s already gotten rid of the sword.”
Caffran nodded slowly. “Then, according to this theory of yours, whoever got the sword from Daimler is going to be murdered too.”
Byron sat back in his chair, trying to hide the shiver that passed through him. “Yes,” he said. “And it’s all my fault.”
The Phoenix Police Department was headquartered in the city-council building on 2nd Avenue. Byron had been there several times before, always stunned by the bustle of activity that invariably surrounded the place. An officer escorted him through the confusion, hurrying him to Detective Caffran’s desk.
“Well, we have him,” Caffran beamed from his chair as Byron was led to him. “Have him right upstairs in a cell. Thomas William Stark, former security guard for the Copperhead Mining Company. The county sheriff was already looking for him in connection with his wife’s stabbing a few months back.”
“I believe I recall that crime,” Byron said, remembering the details he’d read in the paper at the time. “She was stabbed once in the heart. Rather neat and tidy compared to these other crimes.”
Caffran grinned at the investigator. “That’s what set him off,” he declared. “He planned out the murder of his wife, but after he killed her he wasn’t able to deal with the guilt and his brain went screwy. He became like a mad dog.”
“A mad dog that deliberately targeted specific victims?” Byron wondered.
“I’ll have to admit you helped us there,” Caffran said. “It was getting us looking for that sword which helped us track down Stark. He’d been close friends with Saunderson – they served in the Marines together – and was hiding out at a property owned by his old buddy. We never did find the weapon Stark used to kill his wife, but now it seems clear it was this sword. After the crime he went to Saunderson and his friend helped him get rid of the murder weapon by losing it in a poker game.
“But Stark can’t relax,” Caffran stated. “His mind is still brooding on what he did and the fear he’ll get caught. So, in his sick way, he tries to cover his tracks by killing anybody who has that sword.”
“Why wouldn’t he just take it back and dispose of it?” Byron asked.
“Because he’s a nut!” Caffran swore. The detective slid a piece of paper across the desk to Byron. “We took down a statement when we booked him. Does that handwriting look familiar? Stark is the guy who’s been writing these letters to you.”
“I’d like to see him,” Byron said.
Caffran nodded. “Thought you might.” The detective smiled as he rose from his chair. “Cheaper than the zoo, anyway.”
Byron followed Caffran through the busy police station. A guard admitted them into the locked stairway leading up to the cells. The top two floors of the building had been fitted to serve as the local jail, holding minor offenders and more serious criminals until they had been processed and transferred to a more secure prison. The grey walls and steel cages lining the corridor had that sanitized, lifeless quality Byron associated with all modern institutions. Utility had become the byword of progress, leaving no room for pride and craftsmanship. He thought about the grand public structures he’d seen in France, where even the prisons had a certain grim vitality about them. This place had all the soul of a combustion engine or a vacuum tube. It was an atmosphere of such sterility that never failed to discomfit his heightened senses.
They passed more guards, cheerless men in cold blue uniforms and ugly truncheons hanging from their belts. Some of the cells they passed held equally cheerless men, their hair plastered to their dour faces by the sweat streaming from their bodies. There was small comfort in the upper floors of the council building, and little more than a few fans to keep the air circulating and combat the Arizona summer.
“Have to hand it to you,” Caffran grudgingly confessed as they walked down the corridor. “That bit about the sword was a real bit of deduction. How’d you figure that one out?”
“You might call it intuition,” Byron said, not really listening to the detective. Something about the atmosphere in the jail had changed, some quality that was asserting itself beyond the sterile climate. He couldn’t quite describe the sensation, but it was definitely making itself felt.
Caffran shrugged. “Sometimes we all get hunches. Even cops. Not anything you can make stand in court of course, not unless you get some facts to back your hunch up.” He turned and gave a suspicious glance at Byron. “You sure Stark didn’t write you about that sword? Maybe in another letter you forgot to show me?”
Byron barely heard the accusation. His senses were keyed to that intrusive quality in the atmosphere. He felt like a hare that senses the fox nearby, but only now recognizes the cause of its agitation. He knew what that eerie change in the climate meant now. That intrusive vibration was death.
“Stark’s cell, it’s the third from the end of the hall, isn’t it,” Byron declared suddenly.
Caffran stared at him in shock. “How’d you…” Before he could articulate his surprise, Byron was rushing down the corridor. Biting down on a curse, the detective hurried after him.
When he reached the cell, Byron knew he was too late. A body was lying facedown on the floor, the body of a big, powerfully built man. A pool of blood was slowing spreading from the head, breaking the grey monotony of the jail. Byron didn’t need to be told that the body was that of Stark. As Caffran ran up to the cell, the detective took one look at the body and shouted for the guards.
It was only a minute before a guard raced over and unlocked the cell. Hurriedly, Caffran dashed in and turned Stark over. Even the detective was horrified by what he saw. Suicide in the jail was rare, but it did happen. When it did, the death was typically the result of hanging or a slashed wrist. Stark had given the Phoenix police something new for their records.
The ex-Marine had bitten off his tongue and choked on his own blood.
It was almost midnight before Byron returned to his office. Dealing with Stark’s suicide had been only partly to blame. Even as Caffran was taking down his statement about what they’d found in the cell, a still more serious incident was reported to the detective. Daimler, the pawnbroker, had slipped the men assigned to watch him. More, the man had been found in an alleyway, slashed and mutilated. Exactly as Stark had described it in his last letter.
Only there was no way Stark could have killed Daimler. He’d been securely locked away in jail when the murder took place. Caffran’s theory about the crimes had been discredited in the most savage way imaginable.
Byron took no joy at seeing the arrogant detective humbled. There was still a force at large, something Stark had unwittingly unleashed. Something that would kill again if it wasn’t stopped. Caffran’s failure didn’t change that gruesome fact.
As he opened the door to his office, Byron was surprised to find Beverly lying on the couch, an old Navajo rug drawn over her as a blanket. It was one of the most frustrating things about the desert that it could be so hellishly hot during the day and then try to do its best to freeze the marrow in a person’s bones at night. He shook his head in silent appreciation of his secretary’s devotion, though he wondered what could have been so important as to compel her to stay so late.
Creeping through the outer office so as not to wake Beverly, Byron noticed the newspaper lying on his secretary’s desk. It was opened to the classifieds. Byron had placed an ad after leaving Daimler’s the other day, hoping to attract the notice of whoever had purchased the katana from the pawnshop. He hadn’t mentioned any specifics and certainly nothing about ghosts and curses. Mention of a reward for a personal possession that had been misplaced would go much further to accomplish his purpose.
While he was looking over the paper, he heard a low groan and the sound of the blanket sliding to the floor. Even with her hair tussled and her clothes rumpled, Beverly managed to affect a certain degree of poise as she stirred from her sleep.
“I was trying not to wake you,” Byron apologized.
Beverly slipped off the couch and stretched her cramped body. “Just be sure to sign off on my overtime,” she said, not quite managing to stifle a yawn. She glanced at the clock on the wall and frowned. “I overslept. I was going to call your lawyer at ten. Caffran kept you away so long I thought for certain he’d arrested you.”
“Nothing like that,” Byron said. “Caffran brought me down to gloat at cracking the case. He wasn’t happy when things took a turn he didn’t expect.”
“Did he find the sword?” Beverly asked. She looked around for her shoes then shrugged and walked across the office in her stockings. A wave of her hand moved Byron away from her desk. She opened the top drawer and removed a slip of paper. “I ask because you had an answer to your ad. A Mr. Delmar called inquiring about the reward. He sounded authentic on the phone, but if Caffran found the sword…”
Byron took the paper from his secretary and glanced at the phone number she’d written. “Caffran didn’t find the katana,” he told Beverly. “He found the man it originally belonged to. Then lost him again.” His expression darkened as he met the questioning look in her eyes. “His suspect killed himself in his cell.”
Beverly’s eyes widened with surprise. “How awful,” she said. A sudden thought came to her as she recollected something she’d read in a recent article from a European journal that she’d clipped out for Byron’s archives. “That means it’s over? These murders, I mean. If this psychokinesis theory is right, then this man who killed himself could have been the source of whatever force has been doing the killing.”
Byron tapped the paper with Delmar’s number on it. “There may be something to psychokinesis,” he told Beverly, “but we have conclusive proof that whatever power this man Stark unleashed, it persists even after his death.”
“Then Delmar is in danger of being killed,” Beverly said.
“Anyone who takes possession of that katana is in danger,” Byron told her. He quickly averted his eyes, but not before Beverly noted his expression.
“Oh, Byron, you can’t mean to…” she stopped and sat down, her body shivering at the fright that had come upon her. “Do you even know what this force is? Do you even have any idea how to stop it? Because if you don’t, you’ll just be throwing your life away for nothing!”
Byron took her hand in his, pangs of guilt stabbing through him as he felt the tremble still quivering through her. “I have an idea of what it might be. Stark’s letters, his description of the murdering ghost. He said it wore a long toga and had no feet with a face like marble and eyes like coal. That suggests something to me, and if I’m right, I know a way that has traditionally always worked to exorcise such a malignant spirit.”
“And if you’re wrong?” Beverly demanded.
Reaching into his pocket, Byron drew out a tiny silver case embossed with a Maltese cross and a pair of swords. He shook the little box so that Beverly could hear the contents rattling inside. “If I’m wrong, at least I have the knowledge and the tools to make a fight of it. That’s more advantage than most people.”
Acres of flowers gently swayed in the crisp desert wind just south of Baseline Road. The Japanese flower gardens weren’t as extensive as they had been before the war. Like the rest of the Japanese-Americans living in the western part of the United States, those dwelling in Arizona had been removed to internment camps for the duration. On their release, many of them found they’d lost their affection for their old homes and moved away. Others found that their property had been foreclosed upon or otherwise stripped away from them during their incarceration. A rugged core, however, remained and stubbornly continued to grow flowers under the baking desert sun.
Byron stared out across the fields, appreciating both the beauty of the flowers and the tranquillity of the setting. The distant presence of palm trees and saguaro cactus provided an incongruous note of discord, and the bleak brown mass of Camelback Mountain on the horizon left no illusion about where he was. This was the image of the Orient, nothing more.
Byron tried to keep that in mind as he passed through the round gate and stepped into the walled yard of Frank Hashimoto. A cherry tree spread its branches over much of the yard, providing shade to a little pond filled with koi. Stone lanterns and carved temple dogs rose from intricately patterned beds of flowers. The house standing at the centre of the yard looked as though it might have been lifted from the middle of Kyoto. Sloped tile roof, the raised wooden foundation, paper partitions – everything echoed a Japan that had been fading away even in its native land.
Just as he was crossing the red wooden bridge that spanned the koi pond, Byron saw the door of the house slide open. A bald, middle-aged Japanese emerged. He wore the robes of a Buddhist monk, a string of prayer beads hanging around his neck. As he stepped down from his house, the man put on a pair of sandals. He folded his hands together and bowed his head for a moment, then came scrambling across the yard towards his visitor.
“You are Mr. Byron Flay?” the Japanese asked, his English betraying only the slightest element of accent behind it. “Yoshi said that I should expect you this afternoon.”
Byron bowed to the monk. “I am honoured that you are willing to receive me, Master Hashimoto. I know it must be a burden to invite a gaijin to your home.”
Hashimoto smiled and a brief laugh rumbled through his chest. “We are not in Japan, Mr. Flay. I am Nisei, just like your friend Yoshi. When my parents left Japan, they took only the good things with them. They, and the Buddha, taught me that all men are the same under the skin. It is the quality in their hearts that defines their value.”
The smile flickered and Hashimoto’s eyes fell to the box Byron held under one arm. “Yoshi told me about your problem. That is the sword?”
Holding the box out to him, Byron let the monk open it. “I met Yoshi during the war. He always spoke very highly of you and, should we say, your abilities.”
Hashimoto stared down at the katana, the last of his bucolic attitude fading from him. His expression grew steadily more grave as his eyes studied the weapon, inspecting the guard and the sharkskin hilt. “There is no mystery about my ability to identify this sword. Any student of the history of swordmaking in Japan could tell you about this blade. In English, you would call it ‘Moonkiller’. It was forged in the 15th century for a samurai named Nakadai Oneda. The sword is the soul of a samurai, it is his very essence. They become one, as integral to one another as flesh and bone. A good soul will make a good sword. An evil soul creates an evil sword. Nakadai was the most notorious villain of his time, a fiendish warrior without mercy or scruple. No man could stand against him in battle or match his swordsmanship. His evil ended only when his enemies caught him in the house of his favourite mistress and set it aflame with him inside.” Hashimoto lifted his eyes and gave Byron a stern look. “I can understand how such a blade could cause such misery, but how is it that this infamous sword is so far from where it belongs?”
“I can offer only speculation on that point,” Byron said. “We know it was owned by a man who served with the Marines in the Pacific. From that, I speculate that he captured it from a Japanese officer and brought it home as a memento.”
Hashimoto nodded his head. “A memento mori, of sorts. The Imperialists were very fond of evoking the samurai legacy to incite the passions and pride of Japan. All of the nation’s officers were presented with a sword before being sent to fight. Most bore nothing more than a shin-gunto, a factory-made facsimile of a samurai’s blade. Some, however, the descendants of the samurai, carried with them a true katana, family heirlooms passed down through generations. Your Marine must have captured this weapon from a descendent of Nakadai himself. When he took that sword, he took more than he sword. He took the soul of Nakadai.”
“Why, if it is such an evil blade, did its evil remain passive for so long?” Byron wondered. “Stark owned this sword for at least ten years and it never manifested any sinister powers. It wasn’t until he killed his wife with the blade that the spirit was unleashed.”
“You answer your own question,” Hashimoto declared. He strode towards his house, beckoning Byron to follow. “Evil isn’t something that announces itself in thunder and lightning. It is subtle, asserting itself with dark whispers and malignant thoughts. It is the thief in the night who steals into a home and bides its time so that it can take whatever it wants. Only when it is too late is evil revealed. All these years, the spirit of Nakadai has been whispering to the man who captured the sword, poisoning his mind. It is significant that this Marine killed his wife with the sword. That is doubtless the moment that freed Nakadai’s ghost. It is said that Moonkiller’s first victim was Nakadai’s wife, a woman he had come to find an obstacle to his ambitions but one whom he couldn’t divorce for fear of offending her father. His solution, according to legend, was to kill her himself and leave her body where the blame would fall upon Edo’s Eta community.”
Byron followed Hashimoto into his house. The room he was lead into was something of a shrine, a great hall with a pinewood floor and paper walls. Light came from a few electric lanterns strung from the beams overhead, but that was the only thing that smacked of modernity within the chamber. At the far end of the room, a great bronze statue of the Buddha reposed on a stone pedestal, an urn of joss sticks smouldering on the floor before it.
The shrine drew Byron’s attention only until he noticed the pattern that had been drawn on the floor at the centre of the room. It was a strange octagonal shape, with the characters representing the mystical elements drawn into the convergence points of each angle. At first glance, he thought the shape had been drawn with chalk, but as he noted its gritty texture he realized it had been made from salt.
“Nakadai has become an onryo, a vengeful ghost,” Hashimoto explained as he walked to the shrine and bowed before the Buddha. “Such an old and malignant spirit will not submit easily.”
Byron followed Hashimoto. “Then perhaps all we can do is pray for success,” he said, taking a joss stick and lighting it from the tip of one already smouldering in the urn. “When Stark freed the onryo, I believe he established a connection with Nakadai. That is how he could foresee the murders before the ghost attacked.”
“An interesting idea,” Hashimoto agreed. “But as you yourself have observed, the Marine’s death doesn’t put an end to Nakadai’s bloodlust. The connection has been made already. His katana has been used for a ruthless murder. It is that profanation that gives the onryo its power.”
“How long before we can expect the ghost to manifest again?” Byron asked. From his own researches, the spectre of Nakadai was behaving with far more viciousness and frequency than most apparitions. “I am worried that if we can’t stop the onryo quickly, it will kill the last man who owned its sword.”
The monk gave Byron a grave look. “There is no saying how quickly Nakadai will demand more blood. You have, of course, realized that after the last owner, you are the next he would have as his victim?”
“I chose to accept that danger,” Byron said.
“There are things we can do to try to stop Nakadai,” Hashimoto said. “But if we do, it is a certainty that the onryo will become enraged. It will forget this Delmar and come for you.”
Byron felt his heart go cold as he imagined the havoc Nakadai could wreck upon his body. He could see in his mind his body lying slashed and mangled in Hashimoto’s garden. Just the same, he also knew he had to try to put the murdering ghost to rest. “If we have a real chance to exorcise Nakadai’s spirit, then I cannot let fear sway me.”
Hashimoto nodded and walked towards the octagon. “I prepared this circle when your problem was described to me.” He held the box towards Byron. “Remove Moonkiller. Place the katana within the octagon. The blade must point to the character for steel, the hilt must rest above the symbol for water. Doing so will bind the sword, fixing not only its substance but its essence within the octagon.”
Carefully, Byron removed the katana and arranged it as Hashimoto requested. He noted with some dismay the caution the monk exhibited, never allowing himself to come into direct contact with any part of the sword. It didn’t bode well for Hashimoto’s confidence that the onryo could be subdued that he was so wary about the blade.
Once the sword was in place, Hashimoto anointed it with a tiny brass censer, tapping beads of water all along the blade and clear down to the butt of the sharkskin hilt. He repeated the process, tapping away until he reached the tip of the blade once more. Setting aside the censer, he sat down on the floor and clapped his hands together with such force that the sound seemed to rumble through the whole house. As the echoes faded away, the monk began to chant.
Immediately, Byron felt the atmosphere within the hall become thick and oppressive. The lamps seemed to loose their vibrancy, as though the light from their bulbs had to fight its way through some obscuring fog. A chill crept into the room, the temperature dropping with such speed that Hashimoto’s breath was visible as the monk prayed.
Byron knew the sound he heard wasn’t anything truly audible, but rather something that reverberated inside his own mind. Yet it felt more real to him than anything else. It was the boom of war drums, the ancient taiko of Japan, a rolling thunder of violence that crashed and roared all around him. He recited fragments from the Key of Solomon, abjurations against the demons of air and wind, hoping the eldritch spell would diminish the pounding drums. He was relieved when the sound began to lessen, but soon wondered if he could take any credit for the diminishment of the cacophonous thunder.
Slowly, something was taking shape just beyond the octagon. Like a mist gradually forming against glass, a figure began to manifest. Byron likened it to the way a picture took shape within the confines of a photographer’s darkroom. Only this was a three-dimensional image, a thing with at least the illusions of solidity and substance.
The ‘long toga’ Stark had tried to describe in his letters was revealed as a white kimono, the cobweb mon of Nakadai’s daimyo etched in black over the heart. A black sash circled the waist beneath which were thrust the scabbards of a katana and the shorter wakizashi. The face was colourless, all life and vitality drained from it to leave the skin pallid and drawn. Nakadai’s features lacked the stamp of cruelty and malice that Byron had expected, instead they were cold and rigid, possessed of a hideous serenity. The onryo’s face was that of a man who felt neither joy or guilt when he killed but rather the icy detachment of someone simply doing what he felt was necessary.
The ghost’s eyes were hollow pits in that colourless face, completely black like those of some ghastly doll. As the spirit took shape, the empty eyes focused on Byron. He could read the murderous determination within those eyes.
Hashimoto continued to chant and pray, but the onryo took no notice of the monk. Instead, its bony hand closed about the hilt of the katana sheathed beneath its sash – the spectral double of the sword lying inside the octagon. The ghost advanced towards Byron, moving with slow deliberate steps despite the fact it had no visible feet to propel it across the floor.
Byron retreated before the approaching ghost. He had seen the carnage it could work with its sword. Ghostly or not, the blade could cleave through flesh and bone. As he was forced back by the onryo, Nakadai’s face betrayed the slightest hint of emotion, a curling of the mouth that bespoke a withering disdain. Faced with the inevitability of death, a samurai expected to die with dignity. The onryo expected its victims to show the same decorum.
The ghost expressed its disgust in a burst of motion that hurled it towards Byron. The spectral katana sprang from its sheath, flickering towards the investigator in a ghoulish flash. The blade swept towards him, cutting so close that Byron could feel its arctic chill across his skin.
Before the blow could land, just as Nakadai was drawing the blade, Byron drew the silver reliquary from his pocket and hurled its contents full into the face of his attacker. A cloud of dust flew at the onryo, shimmering as it came into contact with the ghost. Gold sparks crackled around the phantom samurai. Nakadai recoiled, thrown back as though dragged by a team of horses. Patches of emptiness, holes in the onryo’s ectoplasmic essence showed where the powder had struck it. As Byron watched, the holes grew, creating larger gaps in Nakadai’s apparition. Part of the onryo’s cheek faded away, one shoulder vanished entirely, half of an eye disappeared.
The powder represented a contribution to man’s arsenal against occult forces by no less a personage than the infamous French sorcerer Cagliostro. The materials and rites required to fabricate it were both noxious and repulsive, but its efficacy was unmatched against spirits and demons of the lower orders.
Byron expected Nakadai to fade away completely as the onryo’s substance fractured, but he had underestimated the awful sense of duty that had ruled the samurai in life and which now drove his ghost in death. Even with its essence broken by Cagliostro’s powder, the ghost came rushing back to the attack. Its body didn’t need cohesion to obey the demands of its murderous will. Even without a shoulder to support it, Nakadai’s arm raised the katana, ready to cut down the mortal who had dared defy it.
Byron crossed his arms before himself, twisting his fingers into the almost boneless gestures of the Fifth Canticle of the Templars, wondering if a samurai would acknowledge the wrathful authority of Baphomet over its diseased spirit. Before the question could be put to the test, however, the onryo’s form became rigid. The terrible, detached malignance in Nakadai’s eyes faded, leaving them truly empty. What was left of the ghost’s face slackened, slipping into a terrible lethargy. The sword arm fell, dropping away from the spectre to flop against the floor.
Beyond the apparition, Byron could see Hashimoto at his prayers. Moonkiller remained within the octagon, but now a strange brilliance shone across it. While he watched, he saw the light rising from the sword grow still brighter.
No, Byron corrected himself, the light wasn’t rising from the katana. It was seeping down into it, drawn from some higher plane and funnelled down into the cursed blade by Hashimoto’s chanting. As more and more of the light was drawn into the katana, a more profound dissolution claimed the onryo. Where the powder had simply picked away at the ghost’s essence, now a more complete evaporation took place. Wisps of dark smoke boiled away from the frozen samurai, rising upwards towards the roof before disintegrating utterly. First the trunk and torso, then the head and remaining shoulder. Finally even the disembodied arm and the spectral katana faded away, vanquished back beyond the Kimon Gate and the lands of the dead.
Uncurling his fingers, Byron slumped to the floor. Confronting Nakadai’s ghost had taxed both his courage and his strength. His old war wounds throbbed painfully, his heart hammered against his ribs as though trying to push its way free of his body. He felt sickness bubbling in his belly and what pulsed through his veins seemed more like ice than blood. But he was alive, and for the moment that was enough.
Hashimoto rose from the floor, his prayers at an end. The monk stood over the octagon and this time did not hesitate to take the katana in his hand. He walked to where Byron lay and proffered the sword to him.
“Buddha be praised, my ritual has cleansed the sword,” Hashimoto said. “Nakadai’s spirit will no longer disturb the land of the living. He has gone on to such rewards as may await one as unenlightened as he.”
The monk smiled at the relief that came upon Byron’s features. “You should take Moonkiller. Keep it as a reminder that good can triumph against even the most persistent evil.”
Taking the sword from Hashimoto, Byron tried to match the monk’s smile. “A memento,” he said.
“Indeed,” Hashimoto agreed. “A memento morbid.”
An anthology of occult detective yarns across different eras and styles. My story is 'Memento Morbid' which sees a series of vicious murders plaguing 1950s Phoenix, killings that can be traced to a particular souvenir brought back from the bloody battlefields of WWII.
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